Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Country-House Burglar by Michael Gilbert

This week’s review is a fine English village mystery by Michael Gilbert, set in the 1950s when the memories of the war had receded but not gone, and the country had recovered economic stability. The stand-alone story was published in the United States as The Country-House Burglar (Harper, 1955) and issued as Sky High in England by Hodder & Stoughton in the same year. My rant against the aggravating practice of giving multiple titles to the same book can be taken for granted.

Brimberley is a quiet country village somewhere south of London but well within commuting range, we’re told, as Tim Artside takes the train up to London every day for a job he doesn’t discuss with his mother Liz. After the excitement of service during the war Liz is a little afraid her son has had trouble settling into a routine. Other than her worries about Tim, Liz is quite content to manage the choir of the local parish and to visit with her friends, many of them retired military officers who knew her husband.

Trouble arises when the vicar reports that the church poor box has been rifled, to the tune of about two pounds (about 53 pounds in 2020). Liz is alarmed when one of her choir members is accused on what she considers the thinnest of evidence. Then a series of country house burglaries spreads into territory closer to Brimberley, giving the local police a lot to think about. Worst of all, a house down the street explodes, killing the sole resident, a Major Macmorris who settled there after the war. After the police learn that Tim’s combat specialty was explosives, they were most interested in the fact he’d argued with Macmorris shortly before the explosion.

Lots of misdirection, a romance, and questions about identity, something that seems to be common in post-war mysteries. A comfortable and satisfying Golden Age read.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Dead Folks’ Blues by Steve Womack

Dead Folks’ Blues (Fawcett, 1992) is the first book in the Harry James Denton private investigator series by Steve Womack, published between 1992 and 2000. All six titles in the series were shortlisted for at least one major award and twice won it. This first book won an Edgar for Best Paperback in 1993. The fifth won the Shamus Award for Best Paperback in 1999, as well as being shortlisted for both an Anthony and an Edgar in the same year. That level of consistency in a series is rare.

Harry James Denton is an ex-reporter. ‘Ex’ because he engaged in a battle with his newspaper employer and, as is generally the case, lost. He decided to become a private investigator, figuring his researching skills were easily transferable. While he waits for PI work to materialize, he helps his friend repo vehicles. Not coincidentally, his friend also has great access to financial databases that are usually closely held, databases that turn out to be really useful to Denton.

His first paying customer is Rachel Fletcher, his old college flame, who asks him to help her surgeon husband find his way out of the morass of gambling debts that are rapidly sinking him. She officially knows nothing about them but has intercepted some threats meant for her husband. Denton asks around and learns Dr. Fletcher not only is deep in debt to his neighborhood bookie but he also has few fans and fewer friends. When he turns up dead in his own hospital, most of his students are quietly delighted. Many of them attend his funeral just to be sure he is in fact gone.

The police do not welcome the “help” of a private investigator, much less an inexperienced one like Denton. He persists in his inquiries, however, not making noticeable headway but realizes he has rattled a cage or two when there’s another murder. Fortunately, he has a cast-iron alibi for this one because the police would love to arrest him just to get him out of the way.

Denton as a character does not especially stand out from dozens of other fictional PIs in his first outing. I assume that he becomes more fully realized as the series progresses. However, the secondary characters are wonderful. The country songwriting team with an office down the hall from Denton, the gambling kingpin who owns the action in that part of town, and Marsha, the medical examiner, all are fresh and well drawn. And the description of Nashville is spot on. Anyone who knows Nashville will understand the references to the traffic, the smog, and the tourists with heartfelt sympathy.

Recommended for devotees of private investigator mysteries and for those who try to read all of the nominees for important awards. I look at those chosen titles as a reading list, although I’ve never managed to keep up with all of them. A good read!

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Dead or Alive by Patricia Wentworth

Patricia Wentworth is turning out to be one of my pandemic comfort reads. There’s a certain predictability in the plots, and her writing style is soothing. Plot twists exist of course but none of them are shocking. Fortunately she was a prolific writer so I have a lot to work with. I’ve read nearly all of the Miss Silver stories and have begun to branch out into her other books.

In Dead or Alive (Lippincott, 1936) Bill Coverdale has returned to England after spending a year in South America for his engineering firm. He is looking forward to seeing Meg O’Hara, his long-time secret love who declined his offer of marriage for marriage to Robin O’Hara. The marriage was not a success and Meg had decided to leave when Robin, who worked for an unnamed covert agency, disappeared, presumably on a mission gone wrong. A body was later identified as being unquestionably his. Bill is elated that Meg is free again and hopes that she will see her way to marrying him now.

He finds that Meg is nearly destitute and is being tormented by messages that say her husband is still alive. She is in a state of indecision, not knowing what her status is and distraught over the messages. Her wealthy uncle, who raised her, has retired to the country to finish his latest book and his new secretary is afraid to let Meg disturb him so an obvious source of money seems to be closed. Bill sees his job as to obtain enough proof that Meg will be convinced her husband is dead and to find out who is pestering her.

People who are thought to be dead but come back home after all are a recurring theme in Wentworth’s plots. It crops up more than once in the Miss Silver stories, although not as often as amnesia does. This particular book doesn’t exploit the trope as completely as it could have been. Meg comes off as wimpish and I had to wonder about Bill’s wisdom in fixating on her. While finding someone has been in a locked home is enough to upset anyone, locks can be changed easily enough and I wondered why she didn’t. The perpetrator was a bit of a surprise and there’s some good action toward the end as Bill and Meg seek to extricate themselves from what appears to be certain death, so the book isn’t a complete waste of time. I don’t expect to want to re-read it any time soon, however. For readers who want to consume every single Wentworth.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Youth Hostel Murders by Glyn Carr

Frank Showell Styles (1908-2005) was a multi-talented writer and expert mountain climber. He published a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, including children’s books, books on mountains, historical adventure, humorous articles, and mysteries, more than 160 books in all. Most of the detective fiction used the pseudonym Glyn Carr.

Carr wrote 18 mysteries with Abercrombie Lewker, stage actor/manager, serving as the gifted amateur detective. Each story takes place near a mountain or mountain range and the location is a prominent part of the story. In The Youth Hostel Murders (Geoffrey Bles, 1952) Abercrombie Lewker and his wife Georgina are traveling in the northwest corner of England in Cumberland after the completion of a successful three-month run of Richard III with Lewker in the title role. They have been invited to stay with the Deputy Chief Constable but stop on their way to the DCC’s farm to investigate the village pub’s wares.

There they hear about a young climber who fell off a nearby mountain three months earlier and was killed. The ancient local shepherd is holding forth about the accident when a couple of students from the nearby hostel arrive, seeking help to look for another student who has been missing for nearly two days. Gay Johnson had gone off alone on a solitary ramble among the hills and her friends were not overly concerned that she had not returned the previous night, thinking she had stayed at another nearby hostel. But when she didn’t appear by the afternoon of the second day, and inquiries revealed she had not stayed at the second hostel, the group became alarmed and set out to find her.

Abercrombie volunteered to join the search party and he in fact found Gay’s body, apparently another victim of a climbing accident. He is puzzled about the lack of trauma to the body, expecting to find a good deal of damage after a plunge down a craggy mountainside. Instead, there’s only a significant cranial injury. His concern grows when he learns that the student who fell to his death three months earlier was found in the same condition. The local police are uneasy as well. Abercrombie climbs the mountain from which they were believed to have fallen and leaves with more questions than answers.

Styles has created a locked room mystery in the open air, as the introduction to the Rue Morgue reprints say; its investigation and resolution make entertaining reading. The descriptions of the mountains and the landscape are striking. They are worth reading for themselves alone. I didn’t need to be told that the author loved the outdoors.

The original editions of the Abercrombie series are too expensive for the casual reader to obtain but the late lamented Rue Morgue Press reprinted a number of the earlier titles and they seem widely available in used book outlets. The later titles have not been so fortunate. A lonely copy of Fat Man’s Agony, last book in the series, is available on abebooks.com for $535. No copies on eBay or on ThriftBooks, my go-to for used books. Perhaps some kind GAD publisher will see his way to reprinting them. They would have an appreciative audience!

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Death in the Dentist’s Chair by Molly Thynne

Death in the Dentist’s Chair is one of only six mysteries written by Molly Thynne and the second of three with the intriguing Dr. Constantine, a socialite and chess master. Originally published in 1932 by Hutchinson & Co, this Golden Age classic was re-issued by Dean Street Press in 2016 with an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

The opening finds one person after another congregating in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, including the enigmatic Dr. Constantine. They all move in the same social circles and find a lot to chat about but after awhile begin to wonder what is taking the dentist so long. The dentist has taken a plate to the lab to modify and finds his procedure room locked upon his return. After taking the door off the hinges, he finds his patient, whom he left well and alive, in the treatment chair with her throat cut. Everyone in the waiting room can mostly vouch for the others, turning this story into a nice locked room puzzle.

Detective-Inspector Arkwright and Constantine team up once more to sort it out. They learn with little difficulty the victim was hard up for money, despite being married to a well-off jeweler. She had recently attempted to blackmail someone she had known years ago. Then there was the patient who left just before the victim went into the treatment room, whom the police could not locate. He seemed simply to vanish into thin air. The victim’s husband was worried about something and he was known to have friends on the wrong side of the law, so he definitely interested the investigators. We get to watch Arkwright work through the police processes for homicides while Constantine does a little looking around on his own.

Thynne has an effortless and flowing writing style that is a pleasure to read. The plot got a little fuzzy midway, although I enjoyed the story anyway. I wish she had written more.

Just why so many Golden Age writers wrote a few mysteries and then moved on would make an interesting essay. Thynne wrote six, Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three, Ellen Wilkinson wrote one, and of course Dorothy Sayers wrote eleven novels and some short stories. I expect there are others. It seems as if writing a mystery was a bucket list item, once achieved, there was no reason to write another. Perhaps one of our crime historians will give the subject some consideration for a future article.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Silver Horseshoe by Gerald Verner

Gerald Verner was one of the many pen names used by John Robert Stuart Pringle (1897-1980). Other pseudonyms were Thane Leslie, Derwent Steele, Donald Stuart, and Nigel Vane. Donald Stuart was the name he used initially, writing 44 stories for the Sexton Blake Library under that identity. Verner wrote more than 120 novels, mostly mysteries and thrillers, that were translated into over 35 languages. He also wrote stage plays, radio serial programs, and movie scripts.

His most enduring series character was Superintendent Robert Budd of Scotland Yard, a large and sleepy detective who seems slow but manages to identify culprits in a more or less timely manner. The Silver Horseshoe (Wright & Brown, 1938; Lume Books, 2018) is Budd’s third appearance. It opens with John Arbinger, a well-known horseracing bookie, reading a letter demanding £5000 for protection from various unnamed racing gangs. That’s £339,077 in present-day pounds, or $427,985 US. The letter, signed only with the stamp of a silver horseshoe, expressly forbids contact with the authorities. Arbinger takes the letter to Budd in express defiance. Budd sends the letter to Finger Prints and promises an investigation. That night as Arbinger enters his study, a blast from a machine gun outside the French windows kills Arbinger and demolishes the room and its contents.

Budd was not expecting direct action of any sort and was completely taken aback. Confirmation that he was dealing with an unusual criminal came with the arrival of Peter Ashton of the Morning Mail, who had a copy of the original extorting letter sent to Arbinger as well as a letter to the newspaper, saying that Arbinger had been killed for failing to heed the warning not to contact Scotland Yard. There was no hope of keeping the newspaper from printing such a scoop and all Budd could do was try to make use of Ashton’s eagerness to investigate. In the meantime, other bookies who received letters demanding money were quick to pay up and keep still for fear of suffering the same fate. One bookie though was an ex-boxer and had no intention of being pushed around by a bunch of thugs…….

I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. It immediately drew me into the story and held my attention as one action sequence flowed easily into the next. Budd is an out-of-the-way fictional police detective, neither too good to be true nor a rogue cop. The writing style is not particularly dated, even though it’s more than 80 years old. I did notice some conventions that were popular at the time: There’s a master criminal who directs the activities of minions, keeping all but a few ignorant of the overall plan. The newspaper reporter becomes part of the investigative staff and the police share information with him. The kidnapping victims are held on a boat, which happens often in this time period. I do not know why. There had to have been garages, attics, and basements galore in London. Or maybe a nice deserted cottage on the outskirts of town. Perhaps boats are necessary so the kidnappers can leave victims to drown, creating a suspenseful scene while they find a way to escape. At any rate, this is a smoothly paced book with enough plot twists to hold a jaded mystery reader’s attention. Fans of Dick Francis and horseracing mysteries or journalist investigators will especially be interested in this story.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: A Wreath for the Bride by Maria Lang

Kate Jackson drew my attention to Maria Lang (1914-1991) a few weeks ago in her review of No More Murders!, one of three Lang books translated into English. See https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2020/06/16/swedens-agatha-christie-no-more-murders-1951-by-maria-lang-trans-by-joan-tate/. Lang was one of the original members of the Swedish crime writers association Svenska Deckarakademin and helped popularize the detective novel in Sweden. See more about her in this translated entry from the Swedish Women’s Biographical Dictionary https://skbl.se/en/article/DagmarLangeMariaLang.

Anyone described as the equal of Agatha Christie has my immediate attention so I found an appallingly worn and stained copy of another title on ThriftBooks and dove into it upon its arrival. A Wreath for the Bride (Regnery, 1968), translated by Joan Tate from the Swedish original published in 1960, was also made into a film in 1961 and in 2013. It is one episode of the Swedish television drama series Crimes of Passion, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04gv3yq. It is the ninth of some 40 novels Lang wrote, mostly detective novels featuring Puck Bure and Christer Wijk.

The town of Skoga is atwitter with excitement on a June Friday as Anneli Hammar is to marry Joakim Cruse tomorrow. Anneli is a well-known resident who grew up in the town and Cruse is a wealthy bachelor who moved to the area a few months earlier. It’s considered by everyone an excellent match. Anneli visits the florist to see her bridal bouquet with her best friend Dina waiting for her outside. When Anneli does not emerge in a few minutes, Dina enters the shop to learn what is keeping her. The store owner denies that Anneli was ever there. Bewildered, Dina notifies Anneli’s mother that her daughter has disappeared. The town’s rumor mill explodes.

Christer Wijk is home for the wedding, as his mother is Anneli’s godmother. He is promptly pulled into the search, working with the local police. Anneli’s body appears on a beach near her home on Sunday morning. Instead of attending the town’s social event of the season, Christer goes back to work at his usual job as a State police detective, trying to figure out where Anneli was between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning and how she left the shop with no one seeing her.

Lang indeed has similarities to Christie. Her Skoga is the Swedish equivalent of St. Mary Mead, where everyone knows everyone else. Many of the characters are instantly recognizable as ordinary small town denizens. And the scene at the end where all of the suspects are gathered while the detective reveals the murderer is pure Christie.

However, Christie would never have deployed gender politics in her plots as brazenly as Lang does. Without giving it away, I can say that relationships are the major plot driver, which is quite unlike Christie. Contemporary reviewers criticized Lang for her focus on romance instead of logic and I can see their point. This interest seems to be an ingrained part of Lang’s character: Her doctoral thesis outed a Swedish philosopher and her first novel was nearly not published because of the lesbian relationship it depicted.

The bride’s wreath is also quite important to the plot. It is unusually made up of lilies of the valley, a beautiful flower but one I always thought too fragile to use in formal arrangements. There’s a long poem about lilies of the valley in the book. I have been unable to determine if Lang wrote it for the story or it is quoted from some other author.

Overall, an intriguing story with a surprisingly dark theme. I am sorry so few of Lang’s books have been translated into English. Print copies are hard to find and expensive but the ebook versions are quite affordable.

Friday’s Forgotten Books: Edwin of the Iron Shoes by Marcia Muller

Marcia Muller released her 35th book about Sharon McCone in 2018. Sharon is one of the earliest contemporary female private investigators I could find. Of course there was Miss Silver who first appeared in the late 1920s and Honey West, who was a caricature of a PI in the 1960s. But as far as modern realistic attempts to portray a woman earning a living as a private detective, the first seems to have been Cordelia Gray, introduced by P.D. James in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in 1972. Then came Sharon’s appearance five years later in 1977, followed by Delilah West in 1980 and Maggie Elliot in 1981. The iconic V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone both saw the light of day in 1982. Shortly afterwards the floodgates opened and readers had any number of women PIs to choose from, including taxi-driving Carlotta Carlyle and bartending Kat Colorado. Sadly enough, of the early arrivals only V.I. and Sharon are still around.

Sharon’s first case was Edwin of the Iron Shoes (David McKay, 1977). We learn right away that Sharon is the investigator for All Souls Cooperative, a legal plan for lower incomes in San Francisco, and her boss has called her to come to a small commercial strip that had been consulting with the cooperative over a series of vandalism events. This time one of the shop owners has been murdered. The police detective in charge does not want Sharon getting in his way so she uses the firm’s need to inventory the store for the owner’s estate as a reason for her to be on-site and to ask questions.

There are a number of things that don’t add up, such as how this particular shop appeared to be prosperous when the other stores on the street are barely getting by. A couple of break-ins while Sharon is in the store alone at night are frightening and tell her that there’s something valuable still there. Sharon doesn’t know enough about antiques to be able to tell what it is and she doesn’t trust the other dealers in the neighborhood enough to consult with them.

A story that is very much of its time and place. The partners in All Souls are the protestors of the 1960s grown up but still determined to make the world a better place. Computers had yet to commandeer the world. Apple meant the fruit in a lunch box and windows were holes in walls. Telephones stayed in one place, tethered by a cord. In many ways this book is historical fiction. Technology aside, the mystery is solidly plotted and solved. Along the way, key characters in this long-running series are introduced and their personalities begin to take shape, foreshadowing later stories. A good reminder of how this enduring series started. 

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Murders in Volume 2 by Elizabeth Daly

Elizabeth Daly (1879-1967) published her first mystery in 1940 and released 15 more in quick succession, the last one in 1951. Mystery Writers of America referred to her as “the grande dame of women mystery writers” when awarding her a “Special Edgar” in 1961.   The Golden Age of Detection Wiki states: “Daly works in the footsteps of Jane Austen, offering an extraordinarily clear picture of society in her time through the interactions of a few characters. In that tradition, if you knew a person’s family history, general type, and a few personal quirks, you could be said to know everything worth knowing about that person.” All 16 of her books feature Henry Gamadge, a bibliophile and expert on rare books and manuscripts.

In Murders in Volume 2 (Farrar & Rinehart, 1941) Henry Gamadge is invited to solve a mystery within an old, exclusive but now largely insolvent New York family. It seems in 1840 a governess to the family took a volume of Byron’s poems into the garden one afternoon and never returned. Both she and the book vanished forever. The family legend suggested the gazebo in the garden is haunted. Now the patriarch of the family, 80-year-old Imbrie Vauregard, known for his interest in the occult, is convinced that she has returned via the fourth dimension, looking just as she did a hundred years ago, and with the missing book as proof. The rest of the family is understandably skeptical and believes the so-called governess means to swindle the old gentleman out of what is supposed to be their inheritance. They hire Gamadge to identify the newcomer and the source of the book, which is the volume missing from a set of Byron in the Vauregard library.

Gamadge conducts a set of interviews and realizes he must have a photo of the upstart to properly identify her and arrives at the Vauregard mansion with a small camera to secretly photograph her. Instead he finds she has disappeared and Mr. Vauregard has been poisoned.

The family is full of recriminations for each other and Gamadge, although they are still relieved that their uncle did not have time to change his will. Gamadge finds he has to identify the killer to settle everyone else’s mind and to stop more bloodshed.

A smooth, evenly paced read. The milieu is old New York society, even though most of them have lost their money. Gamadge makes an interesting protagonist and the information about the old set of Byron is fascinating to bibliophiles. This is the story in which Gamadge meets his wife. Daly’s niece Eleanor Boylan wrote five mysteries featuring Henry’s widow Clara from 1989 to 1996. They don’t quite capture the feeling that these books have but they are also quite readable.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Number Seventeen by Louis Tracy

Louis Tracy (1863-1928) was an inventive and versatile English author. From the Golden Age Detection Wiki: “….journalist and author of science fiction, adventure, crime and some supernatural fiction. His best-known detectives are the Scotland Yard team of Superintendent Winter and Inspector Furneaux. Other books feature Reginald Brett, a barrister. Tracy also collaborated with fantasist MP Shiel on eight novels under the pseudonym Gordon Holmes.” See a partial bibliography here: http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7932357/Tracy%2C%20Louis. Fantastic Fiction states that he also used the pseudonym Robert Fraser, although I could not determine which books or stories were published under that name. https://www.fantasticfiction.com/t/louis-tracy/

Number Seventeen (Edward J. Clode, 1915) is one of the Superintendent Winter and Inspector Furneaux investigations, although the main character is a freelance writer named Francis Berrold Theydon. Theydon is leaving the theatre one rainy night when he finds himself near a young lady whom he had admired earlier. She is entering a vehicle while her father assures her he will be home soon after a quick stop at his club. Theydon’s taxi appears and he goes home, surprised upon his arrival at seeing the same gentleman in front of his building, nowhere near the club mentioned.

Theydon hears a visitor enter the flat across the landing from his shortly afterwards and assumes it is the same individual. When he is approached by Superintendent Winter and Inspector Furneaux about 24 hours later who tell him the reserved lady who lived in that flat has been murdered, he can only think of the dignified gentleman. Coincidence enters the picture yet again when the millionaire James Forbes whose interest in airflight has captured public attention and with whom Theydon has an interview as background for an article he is writing turns out to be the man he saw outside the theatre and then outside his apartment building.

Theydon is so smitten with the millionaire’s daughter Evelyn that he is reluctant to mention seeing her father outside the victim’s apartment at the critical time. Much of the story deals with his attempts to be honest with the police while protecting the Forbes family. This book is very much of its time with a romance that motivates the lead character and international intrigue that contributes to the plot. Suspicion of individuals born in the East is evident. I found the book more readable than I expected it to be. Tracy’s work appears to be well worth a closer inspection.