As of today I read 162 books during 2020, the large number partly because of the enforced seclusion brought on by the pandemic. A few were re-reads but most crossed my path for the first time. Following are the titles of the books I initially read during 2020 and liked the most. Each of them was the subject of a review written by me and published either on Kevin’s Corner, a blog published by Kevin Tipple, or on my own blog. Links to the reviews are provided for more in-depth consideration.
Death at the Medical Board by Josephine Bell (Longmans, Green & Co, 1944)
An elaborately constructed plot set in wartime England.
Jill McGown (1947-2007) is most remembered for her tightly plotted and nuanced books about Chief Inspector Lloyd, whose first name is a running gag throughout the series, and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill, co-workers and lovers in East Anglia. In addition to the complexities of their relationship, McGown invariably delivers a layered mystery full of misdirection, credible characters, and realistic motives. Redemption is the second in the series of 13 books about the pair. It was published by Macmillan in London in 1988. St. Martin’s Press published it in the United States under the name Murder at the Old Vicarage in 1989.
Christmas Eve starts normally enough in the village where George Wheeler is vicar. Snow is falling, complicating residents’ efforts to run errands for Christmas and Boxing Day. His wife Marian is preparing for the series of services that will begin that afternoon while he is supposed to be finishing his sermons. Their daughter Joanna, home after a stay in hospital, is part of the shopping crowd. By the end of the day, when everyone’s thoughts should be turned toward Christmas carols and gifts, Joanna’s estranged husband lies in one of the upstairs bedrooms in the vicarage, bludgeoned to death by a poker, and the entire family is under suspicion.
Judy Hill is relieved to be called away from home to the murder site. She has nothing in common with her husband’s visiting parents, and her mother-in-law is hinting a little too broadly about grandchildren. Lloyd is wanting more of her time than she feels she can give without jeopardizing her marriage, and their relationship seems to be at a crossroads.
She and Lloyd view the Wheelers’ insistence on a wandering tramp with skepticism. Once they learn that Joanna was in hospital because of a beating administered by the victim, they are sure they have the answers in front of them. It’s just a question of which Wheeler got tired of the husband/son-in-law first. Unfortunately, all three of them have alibis.
The story flips back and forth between the domestic crisis in the Wheeler household and the crisis in the Lloyd/Hill relationship. Both get sorted, more or less, by the end. An homage to Agatha Christie and the first appearance of Miss Marple, this story is one of the best in a very good series.
Marian Babson was the pseudonym of American mystery writer Ruth Marian Stenstreem (1929-2017). She lived most her life in London, England, where she held a variety of jobs including librarian and editor of a knitting magazine. She received the Crime Writers’ Association “Dagger in the Library” award in 1996. The Dagger in the Library is a prize for a body of work by an established crime writer that has long been popular with borrowers from libraries. She received the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2004. She published some 45 mysteries, some with series detectives but most stand alone.
The Twelve Deaths of Christmas (Walker, 1980) was her eleventh non-series book. So it seems there’s a serial killer on the loose in London, and right at Christmas too. There is no apparent pattern to the killings. The police are doing their best but without a trend or some kind of identification, they haven’t much to work with. Alongside their investigative attempts the reader has a view into the serial killer’s mind, which in another author’s hands would be quite grim. The third point of view focuses on an ordinary boarding house full of people going about their ordinary lives. As the story progresses, it becomes clear the killer has an association with the boarding house but not exactly in what way.
A sort of cozy mystery, something of a psychological thriller, and a kind of police procedural, this story is an amalgam of all three. The identity of the killer came as a complete surprise to me, although in retrospect there were a few clues that should have caught my attention. A fast absorbing read, just right to pick up between baking cookies and trips to the post office during the run-up to the holidays.
Q. Patrick was the pseudonym of Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987) and Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966), who also published under the names Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge. Webb wrote with Martha Mott Kelly under the name Q. Patrick for a few years before Webb teamed up with Wheeler. Webb also worked with Mary Louise White Aswell on a couple of early novels. Wheeler and Webb are the authors of Death for Dear Clara (Simon and Schuster, 1937), which is the first appearance of Timothy Trant, a police lieutenant in New York City.
Clara Van Heuten was much admired for her initiative in setting herself up in business after she was widowed. She ran what she called a literary advice bureau, not an agent as such, but an editorial service that read manuscripts of all kinds and recommended improvements. From the lush furnishings in her office and her Park Avenue apartment, apparently it was quite successful.
On the afternoon that she died, a number of clients visited her in rapid succession. When her secretary entered her office with letters to be signed at the end of the day, she found Clara slumped across her desk with a knife in her back. After the police were called in, Detective Timothy Trant was assigned to the case, considering the victim’s place in society. A Princeton graduate, he was believed to have an understanding of the upper social circles that escaped lesser police officers and was deployed as a sort of supplemental secret weapon. His choice of clothing was unorthodox for a policeman. When he first comes in to the action, he is wearing a gray suit with a maroon shirt and a black tie. He tells someone he wears all colors except violet and pastels. (I don’t know what he has against pastels.)
Despite his sartorial peculiarities Trant is quite workmanlike in his investigation and the story that follows is classic Golden Age in style, down to the big reveal at the end in front of all of the suspects. A compelling case could be made against several of them, as Clara was not as nice as everyone thought she was.
The writing is gently sardonic throughout; one character’s wild youth is described as being “the New York débutante to end all débutantes. Her wild escapades had run neck and neck on the front pages with the downward careening of stock prices….But flaming youth had palled. … Patricia had abandoned her capitalistic pranks to become the democrat to end all democrats. She had deflected her money and her boundless energy into soup for soup kitchens and butter for breadlines. She had become at once the champion and the terror of Manhattan’s unemployed.”
Solid plot, smoothly paced story, proficient writing. A good read!
S. S. Van Dine is the pseudonym used by Willard Huntington Wright (1888 – 1939) when he wrote detective fiction. Originally a literary and art critic, Wright read dozens of mysteries and crime novels during a lengthy illness, after which he wrote an essay on the history and conventions of detective novels that was published in 1926. He also wrote an article, Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, in 1928 that has been often reprinted and compared to Ronald Knox’s commandments. After his research into the origins of the detective story, he wrote a dozen contemporary mysteries featuring amateur detective Philo Vance, a well-to-do member of New York’s upper crust. He later developed the scenarios for a number of detective short films produced in Hollywood.
The Canary Murder Case (Macmillan, 1927) was the second adventure for Vance. In the introduction Van Dine describes himself as the personal attorney and close friend of Vance, who accompanied him on his investigations and became his eventual scribe. Vance was well-acquainted with the New York District Attorney John Markham who invited him to assist in the investigation of the murder of Margaret Odell, a Broadway singer and dancer known as the Canary after one of her most famous roles. Odell, notorious for her flamboyance and her love affairs, was found strangled in her apartment one morning by her maid. The apartment was ransacked and her jewelry was missing. Based on the evidence of the switchboard operators and the janitor, the building was secured such that no one could have entered her apartment near the time of the murder, thereby setting up a nice locked room puzzle.
Philo Vance is the classic gentleman detective, wealthy and well-educated with a strong interest in the arts. His foppish mannerisms conceal significant intelligence and creative problem-solving skills. Think Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion transported to Jazz Age New York City. The district attorney and police detectives who can’t keep up with Vance’s out-of-the-box approach to the investigation serve as his foils. The mystery offers an apartment that no one could have entered to commit the crime and suspects with apparently unassailable alibis. In addition, the setting, the social context surrounding the murder, and the dialog are very much of the time and place, making this an intriguing period piece of crime fiction.