Friday’s Forgotten Book: Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer

How I love Georgette Heyer! Her historical romances have an honored place on my bookshelves. I read some of them so often I can quote entire sections from memory. While Heyer wrote more than 40 romances, she only wrote about a dozen mysteries, although some of her romances have a mystery running through them, see The Reluctant Widow for instance. Eight of her pure mysteries were published before the beginning of World War Two during the Golden Age. There were three stand-alones, then four with Superintendent Hannasyde. Chief Inspector Hemingway appeared in one pre-war mystery, one released during the war, and two published during the early 1950s. The fourth stand-alone was also released during the war.

Her last mystery is the fourth Chief Inspector Hemingway, Detection Unlimited (Heineman, 1953). Set in the village of Thornden, which Heyer lovingly and meticulously describes, the town sounds positively idyllic. On a hot afternoon in June, everyone who is anyone in the village is at the Cedars, where the Haswells are hosting a tennis party. The sole absentee who might have been expected to attend is the newcomer Sampson Warrenby, an upstart who is gradually edging out the long-time village solicitor and who is doing his best to work his way into the rigid village social structure. He’s managed to annoy just about all of the locals so no one misses him. The party is slowly breaking up when Warrenby’s niece runs in to announce her uncle is dead. The death is clearly not natural, and the local police lose no time in calling in Scotland Yard.

Hemingway realizes quickly that the case is awash with suspects. There’s Warrenby’s niece, whom he treated like an unpaid servant. The resident solicitor was losing his practice through Warrenby’s conniving. The squire was introducing Warrenby to village society instead of crushing his pretentious ways, most unusual behavior. The mystery author was but one of many victims of Warrenby’s verbal jabs. A couple who recently moved into the area and who has declined to enter into the district social life has aroused everyone’s suspicions.  And on and on. The late lamented did not lack enemies. Moreover, most of the suspects insist on making cases against the other suspects, to which Hemingway is forced to listen.

The leisurely told story is as much about the village as it is about a mysterious death. Heyer portrays the village in such exquisite detail that a map, often seen in Golden Age mysteries, could easily be created from it. Hemingway and his assistant Inspector Harbottle have found housing in the village inn with which Hemingway is greatly pleased, the inn’s owner having, as he says, clearly not read the Rationing Orders. The culprit was gratifyingly hard to identify, and the arrest was a result of a last-minute surprise query from Hemingway. And many scenes are enlivened by the presence of a horde of rambunctious Pekinese dogs, raised by one of the residents who cannot control them. As always with a book by Heyer, highly recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes

The crime fiction output of Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993) was only 14 novels but their influence was profound. Her work continues to be read, reprinted, and analyzed nearly 60 years after the publication of the last book in 1963, when she turned to full-time literary criticism. These two articles describe her work and its impact in some detail: The Deeply Unsettling Noir of Dorothy B. Hughes by Dwyer Murphy, https://crimereads.com/the-unsettling-existential-noir-of-dorothy-b-hughes/, and On the World’s Finest Female Nor Writer, Dorothy B. Hughes by Sarah Weinman, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/on-the-worlds-finest-female-noir-writer-dorothy-b-hughes/.

Hughes won the Outstanding Mystery Criticism Edgar Award in 1951 for her reviews published in the Albuquerque Tribune and the Los Angeles Daily News. Her last crime novel The Expendable Man was shortlisted for Best Novel in 1964, and her biography/literary analysis of Erle Stanley Gardner was shortlisted for Best Critical/Biographical Work in 1979. Hughes was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1978. 

Dread Journey (Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1945) was the eighth crime story by Hughes. In some ways it is firmly set in its place and time, and in others it might have been based on a story ripped from last year’s headlines. Its setting is nothing new, a passenger train on the three-day trip from Los Angeles to Chicago. Other mystery writers have used trains to good effect, the much-filmed Murder on the Orient Express springs immediately to mind. There’s The Mystery of the Blue Train from Christie, another Poirot story. Christie also set the beginning of one of my favorite mysteries from her on a train, 4:50 from Paddington, alternatively titled What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! More currently, Janet Dawson is writing a wonderful historical mystery series set on the California Zephyr, a passenger train that ran from Oakland, California, to Chicago from 1949 to 1970. A leisurely trip with nothing to do but snack and look at the scenery has always sounded like a great adventure to me. But in Hughes’ hands, the train trip becomes the height of trepidation.

Katherine Agnew, the film actress of the moment, is traveling cross-country via train to her movie premiere in New York. Traveling with her is her director Vivien Spender, one of the top names in Hollywood. Agnew is Spender’s latest discovery. A few years ago he scooped her out of oblivion and made her into a household name. But now, as is Spender’s habit, he has found another beautiful face that intrigues him and Agnew is to be discarded. Only she doesn’t intend to go. Shrewder than the women who preceded her, Agnew gathered enough evidence early in their relationship to ensure that Spender would go to jail if she revealed it. It is safe with her lawyer, who has a personal grudge against Spender and would be only too happy to use the information.

Spender’s enormous ego will not allow anyone to cross him. Agnew has no intention of giving up her career. The battle of nerves between the two creates nail-biting tension that infects the entire passenger car.

Only 192 pages, this book packs a visceral punch in its ability to convey anxiety and fear. It easily holds its own with contemporary novels of psychological suspense. Publishers Weekly gave the 2019 reprint of this book a starred review.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Case of the Leaning Man by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush (1885-1973) is another prolific writer of the Golden Age who faded from view in the past 50 years. Why his books have not been reprinted while his contemporaries have been is a mystery in itself. Through the assiduous efforts of Dean Street Press, his entire catalog of 63 mysteries featuring writer and amateur sleuth Ludovic Travers, published between 1926 and 1968, is becoming available again. Numbers 41 through 50 were released on 4 May 2020.

In the nineteenth entry in the series The Case of the Leaning Man (Cassell & Co., 1938; reissued by Dean Street Press in 2018) Travers juggles multiple requests for his help. A theatrical agent is desperate to resolve a dispute between two sisters who comprise one of his top acts. He has a lucrative contract for the two, but they are suddenly declining to speak to each other, much less perform together. The loss of the contract means a great financial setback for the agent. Travers has some acquaintance with both sisters, so he agrees to sort out what he is sure is a trifling misunderstanding.

Then a visiting Maharajah is killed in an exclusive hotel, and no one saw anything or anyone at the relevant time. Superintendent George Wharton calls Travers in to help with the potential political implications and the interviews of the victim’s staff and hotel personnel. They advise Wharton and Travers, despite his royal birth and his wealth, the victim ran with a sketchy crowd and exhibited less than well-bred behavior. As the interviews are ending, the local division inspector calls Wharton to tell him that a man who had been picked up as drunk had just died in hospital and that he had the Maharajah’s wallet. Wharton and Travers tear off to the hospital to find out what they can there.

Some classic Golden Age investigative details here, such as a thorough analysis of timing and schedules and assessment of how long the trip from the hotel lobby to the Maharajah’s room might take via elevator versus the stairs. The action seemed to lag here and there because of all this, yet I found the characters appealing and the plot solid enough, if lacking in surprise. I will look for more in the series when my current TBR stack clears a bit.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Murder of Lydia by Joan A. Cowdroy

Joan A. Cowdroy (1884-1946) was an early 20th century English author who started writing general fiction and then discovered her talents for developing mysteries. Her first series detective was Chief Inspector John Gorham of Scotland Yard and then she created Li Moh, a retired detective from the San Francisco police force. The two often worked together to solve crimes.

Murder of Lydia (Hutchison, 1933; reprint Dean Street Press, 2019) opens with Mr. Moh enjoying the peace of a quiet beach in the early morning at Whitesands, an oceanside tourist haven somewhere in the south of England. He’s escaped the intolerable breakfast offered by his wife’s cousin, with whom his family is staying, and the even more painful company of the aforesaid relatives. He’s watching James Bond, a member of the local police force with whom Mr. Moh has become acquainted, take his morning swim. When Bond emerges from the ocean, he sees a neighbor’s dog absconding with his clothes. Moh kindly offers to retrieve them and makes the acquaintance of Rosalind Torrington, an ill-tempered young lady whose sullen personality makes a strong contrast with that of her older sister Lydia. Lydia is known for her stylish clothes and her charm.

Neither sister is particularly well liked by the local residents. Rosalind is believed to be deeply jealous of Lydia, partly because of Lydia’s inheritance of £500 (a little over £36,000 in 2020) and partly because of Lydia’s habit of poaching Rosalind’s admirers. So when James Bond and Li Moh discover the drowned body of Lydia later during one of Bond’s early morning swims and the death is determined to be homicide, suspicion turns immediately to Rosalind, who is arrested for murder.

The local Chief Constable calls in Scotland Yard, which brings Chief Inspector Gorham to Whitesands and a reunion with Mr. Moh, with whom he had worked before. His reconstruction of the scene, with measuring distances from the shore and the speed of the current and water depth, reminded me of mysteries that rely on careful analysis of train schedules. But he and Mr. Moh, with the assistance of James Bond, compile enough information to bring the crime home to its perpetrator and to obtain Rosalind’s release.

It is odd that this book is labelled a Mr. Moh mystery, when it’s Inspector Gorham who leads the investigation and who is front and center throughout the story. Hopefully Dean Street Press will see its way clear to reprint some of the books in which Inspector Gorham is supposed to be featured to allow a comparison.

Here’s what The Armchair Reviewer had to say about this book in February 2019:

https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2019/02/01/murder-of-lydia-1933-by-joan-a-cowdroy/

Cover shown here is from the Dean Street Press 2019 re-issue.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Minute for Murder by Nicholas Blake

First, I have to say this is not really a forgotten book. It’s been in print one way or another ever since it was published more than 70 years ago.

I read Minute for Murder by Nicholas Blake (Collins, 1947) over the weekend. It is the eighth Nigel Strangeways and the first one Blake released after a hiatus during World War II. In this particular book, which takes place in the last months of the war, Strangeways leads the editorial unit of the fictional Ministry of Morale, much like Blake himself did during the war. I have to wonder just how much of this story is true. He pokes great fun at the Permanent Civil Servants. The bureaucracy is no match for the creative minds assembled for the war effort. My favorites are the writer who dates all of his internal correspondence using the liturgical calendar of the Church of England. Thus, a memo is dated “Tuesday before the Feast Day of St. Petronella, Virgin and Martyr.” This failure to follow the standard caused no end of consternation among the long-term civil servants.

The other most wonderful temporary civil servant is the one who got tired of the false incoming bomb alarms, which sent the staff hurtling down the stairs into the basement every other hour, only to come back 15 minutes later when no bombing occurred. His solution was to climb through a window onto a two-foot ledge jutting out from the building several stories above the ground and sit with his binoculars watching for German air planes. When he shouted, staff knew the alert was valid. HR became most unhappy with his activities, pointed out that this self-appointed duty was not what he was hired for, and threatened to track the time spent in this unsanctioned task and dock his pay. He responded by calculating the time wasted by all staff in leaving their desks for false bombing alerts to trundle downstairs and back again, then demanding to be paid for the money the Government saved through his efforts. The resulting interoffice correspondence was a source of great frustration to the Permanent Civil Servants and makes for hilarious reading.

At some point of course Blake had to get down to business and create a mystery. Here he offers one in which the secretary to the division head is poisoned in front of about a dozen people. She had been more or less engaged to someone in the department before he left for the Front, where after a time he was declared missing, presumed dead. As the war wound down, he returned home, quite alive and in fine fettle. During his absence, she became involved with the married division head, who could not make up his mind to leave his wife for his secretary. The approaching dissolution of the ministry meant that nearly everyone would lose their jobs, and their present living arrangements would no longer be tenable, thereby forcing the division head to make a choice.

Suspects included the returning ex-fiance, who was assumed to be wildly jealous, and the division head’s wife, who also was assumed to be consumed with bitterness. Strangeways is reluctant to participate in an investigation of the people he had been working with for years, some of whom had become his friends. An involved, layered tale ensues, demonstrating Blake’s time away from mystery writing in no way impaired his story-telling ability.

In Neil Nyren’s essay for CrimeReads, he cites this book as one of Blake’s three best. https://crimereads.com/nicholas-blake-a-crime-readers-guide-to-the-classics/?fbclid=IwAR0KStFdkXc1kMiSGDFfhFpU7DTr0N7WahIT65W_WDNL2jwNIcREriQwyak

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Laughing Dog by Francis Vivian

The Laughing Dog by Arthur Ernest Ashley writing as Francis Vivian (Hodder & Stoughton, 1949) is the fifth mystery from Ashley/Vivian that features Inspector Gordon Knollis of New Scotland Yard. Here is another series being rescued from undeserved oblivion by Dean Street Press, to whom the mystery-reading world owes a debt of thanks. This particular volume has a helpful introduction from crime historian Curtis Evans, who tells us that Knollis appears in 10 of the 18 mysteries written by Vivian.

The story opens with Dr. Hugh Challoner vacationing in Algiers and visiting a quick sketch caricaturist/artist named Aubrey Highton, who draws the doctor as a laughing fox terrier. The doctor did not care for the finished portrait but agreed to help Highton find work when he visits England later in the year. Only days after Highton arrives in Sturton Lacey, Dr. Challoner is found dead in his home, where he saw patients. The last patient of the day, Mrs. Madeleine Burke, insists that the doctor was perfectly healthy, if somewhat distracted, when she left the consulting room close to 7:30 P.M. Dr. Challoner’s daughter and her fiancé were in another part of the house and did not hear anything worrying, due to the soundproofing between the doctor’s surgery and his living quarters. Highton had left just before Mrs. Burke, locking the door to the doctor’s office on his way out.

Inspector Knollis and his sergeant George Ellis undertake a lengthy investigation, including repeated interviews of and research on the only possible suspects: Highton, Mrs. Burke, the daughter, and the fiancée.

The first detail I noticed in this locked room mystery is that it offers maps of Dr. Challoner’s house and of the relevant section of the town in which the house is situated. Locations and the distances from the house to other destinations in the town play a significant role in the solution, so I was happy to see them. I also love maps for themselves, as they add a careful touch of realism to a wholly fictional universe.

I liked the main characters; the interplay between Knollis and Ellis is nicely done. The plot is carefully worked out, although I thought the story was protracted near the end for no useful purpose. The plot hinges on a point that another GA mystery I read recently used so perhaps I am a little biased because of it. At any rate, this book is a competent but not particularly exciting read. I like the characters enough to try another title in the series at some point.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Middle Temple Murder by J. S. Fletcher

Joseph Smith Fletcher (7 February 1863 – 30 January 1935) was an English journalist and author. He is known for his prodigious literary output. He wrote more than 230 books on a wide variety of subjects, both fiction and non-fiction (Source: Wikipedia). The Golden Age of Detection wiki credits him with 98 mysteries and 25 collections of short mystery fiction. The first was published in 1889 and the last was completed and released posthumously in 1937. The quality of his plots and his writing are not considered outstanding; I’ve seen the word “hack” used more than once when Fletcher is under discussion. For more on Fletcher, see Mike Grost’s thoughtful analysis on the GAD wiki page: http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930591/Fletcher%2C%20JS

The Middle Temple Murder (Ward Lock, 1919) was Fletcher’s breakthrough novel; it is considered one of his best works. Grost states the plot expands on the one used in an earlier short story, which he believes was more successfully executed. The story opens with a young reporter named Spargo walking home from work and coming upon a police constable who’s just been advised of a murder in a nearby street in the Temple, the area of London largely given over to the practice of law. Spargo accompanies the police in hopes of a good story and he’s not disappointed. A man lies dead in front of one of the buildings; he has been stripped of all money, papers and identification. Spargo, with his newspaper’s blessing, involves himself with the police in first learning who the dead man is and then searching for his killer, all the while providing front-page stories for the paper.

The search takes him to a small market town a day’s train journey away from London, where he learns about an old trial for embezzlement and a couple of con artists who dealt in large-scale financial fraud. It proves to be the key to unraveling the true identity of the victim. Spargo returns to London to learn that someone else has been arrested for the murder, putting pressure on Spargo to save the defendant, whom he knows to be innocent.

I enjoyed this story. The plot is complicated enough to hold my attention, with plenty of twists and turns, perhaps more than one a little too coincidental. Mike Grost points out that Fletcher was fascinated by monetary chicanery and there’s a lot of it here. Much of it depended on the ability at the time to move two or three hundred miles away, change one’s name, and start over, which has been largely impossible for 40 or 50 years. No character development and no brilliant detective, instead a budding journalist who confers with the police and makes up his approach to investigation as he goes along. A nicely devious yarn firmly set in its time and place.

This review is based on a digitized version created from a physical book by a community of volunteers. The unusual cover is from another edition.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Case of Alan Copeland by Moray Dalton

Dean Street Press has decided beneficently to rescue Golden Age author Moray Dalton from undeserved obscurity and reprinted 10 of her books. We who are unfamiliar with this author have much to look forward to.

Katherine Mary Deville Dalton (1881-1963) fell into a life of crime, so to speak, after publishing women’s fiction. Her first mystery was released in 1924 and it was succeeded by 28 more, the last one in 1951. Most of them featured Scotland Yard Inspector Hugh Collier or private detective Hermann Glide.

The Case of Alan Copeland (Sampson Low, 1937; Dean Street Press, 2019) was one of her stand-alone stories, set in a village with all manner of sharply defined characters, many of them unlikeable. Alan Copeland is married to a woman some 15 years his senior, who bullies him relentlessly. The vicar’s niece Lydia comes to visit for a few days and the two fall hopelessly in love. They correspond after her return to London until Alan’s wife dies suddenly. They marry immediately and travel for months, then move back to the village. Anonymous letters to the police prompt an investigation that results in an exhumation order. An autopsy shows Alan’s wife died of arsenic poisoning, and some 18 months after her death, Alan is arrested for her murder. Both Alan’s solicitor and the private investigator the solicitor hired exert considerable effort on his behalf and uncover significant ammunition for his barrister, resulting in a lively courtroom drama.

The DSP reprint opens with an informative preface by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans, who compares Dalton, especially her later books, to Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. The Case of Alan Copeland has long sections of text that I could easily have mistaken for bits from an Agatha Christie mystery. Of course the village settings are similar. Dalton’s characterization differs from Christie’s, though, in that unpleasantness in Christie’s characters is generally suggested or implied. There might be a raised eyebrow or a look askance among the village ladies when they want to convey disagreement or disapproval. Dalton’s characters, on the other hand, do not hesitate to let fly verbally as their inclinations take them. They are seriously nasty people and seem to take pride in their offensiveness.

The other difference, as Evans points out, is in Dalton’s willingness to incorporate relationships that fall outside societal norms into her tales. Both an extramarital affair and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy take place in this story. Neither generate the repercussions that might have been expected, as Evans observes. Christie dealt with these behavioral anomalies mostly by ignoring them. She might mention a servant “in trouble” but these things did not occur in the other classes. I can’t remember an instance of an extramarital fling in a Christie. Even the servants who went astray were single.

Evans mentions one of the reasons that Dalton fell into obscurity as possibly her failure to capture the U.S. readership. I am wondering if Dalton’s acknowledgement of atypical relationships may have contributed to that failure. The United States is the country of The Scarlet Letter and the Hays Code, after all, and the 1940s and 1950s were particularly strict about behavioral expectations. Individuals who conducted themselves outside established parameters were shunned or otherwise faced consequences that at least in this book did not occur. Fortunately in 2020 people are more tolerant.

I found this book well-written and soundly plotted with some nice surprises. The characters are clearly delineated and are entirely credible. I now understand the enthusiasm of Curtis Evans for this author and can only echo it in my recommendation of this author to readers of classic mysteries.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen

The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen (Frederick A. Stokes, 1933) is the sixth mystery written by cousins Manfred Bennington Lee and Frederic Dannay. The series began in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and ended in 1971 with A Fine and Private Place. A collection of short stories was released posthumously in 1999.

Buck Horne was a star of the silent Western movies for years but eventually the casting calls stopped. His foster daughter had learned all of his shooting, roping, and riding skills and became a cinema star in his place. Buck yearned for the spotlight again and, in a bid for a comeback, enlisted the assistance of his old friend Wild Bill Grant, a former U.S. Marshal, who cast him as a star in his traveling rodeo. The massive indoor sports arena in New York was rented for a week’s worth of shows, and Grant moved his performers, their horses and caretakers, and all of the supporting staff and gear needed across the country to New York.

Ellery Queen and his father Inspector Queen were given tickets to the opening night and were on the spot when Buck falls off his horse during an early gallop around the stadium floor in front of a crowd of some 20,000 people. A bullet hole is discovered in the body and Inspector Queen takes over what is obviously a homicide scene. Inspector Queen focuses on the search for the murder weapon, while Ellery Queen focuses on the people closest to the dead man.

I thought this was a clever idea for a story setting. The juxtaposition of the Old West and that quintessential city of cities New York is incongruous, as no doubt it was meant to be. The idea of cowpunchers on the loose in the city that never sleeps evokes visions that are hard to forget. The attempt to reproduce Western dialect was strained but I got the point.

The mystery itself was convoluted and the solution was a surprise. Despite Ellery Queen’s statement midway through that he knew who had committed the murder, I didn’t feel as if all the clues were present from which to reach the final answer. Inspector Queen was remarkably patient with his son when he made these pronouncements. The writing was florid and could have been tightened up to good effect. Probably not the best choice for a first Queen read. Still, an entertaining story with some original characters.

Cover image is from a mass paperback reprint.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Murder Jigsaw by Edwin and Mona Radford

Murder Jigsaw by Edwin and Mona Radford (Andrew Melrose, 1944) was the second title in their series that featured Dr. Harry Manson, who was a Chief Detective-Inspector of Scotland Yard as well as the lead scientist in Scotland Yard’s Crime Research Laboratory. It was published the same year as the first one, Inspector Manson’s Success. Dean Street Press has re-released six of the Radford mysteries. Murder Jigsaw has an informative introduction by crime fiction historian Nigel Moss. In this early story, Manson’s scientific and deductive skills are described in detail, laying the ground for future books. Moss states that the Radfords modelled him after Dr. John Thorndyke, R. Austin Freeman’s series detective and that they wanted a police representative to move away from the prevalent amateur detective.

The site of action is Tremarden Arms, a picturesque hotel in Cornwall known for its access to fine fishing waters. A curmudgeon of a retired Army colonel is found drowned in a river with his fishing tackle on the bank nearby. The death is assumed by everyone to be an accident. Dr. Manson, however, at the hotel for a short vacation, visits the scene out of curiosity and sees enough to know that the death was not accidental. The ensuing investigation maximizes the use of forensic procedures and tools as they were known at the time. At a couple of points in the story, the Radfords pause the narrative and invite the reader to assess the clues and decide who the culprit is.

Dr. Manson learns that the colonel was almost universally disliked, and suspects abound. He finds it particularly awkward that some of the hotel guests he has known for years through their mutual fishing interests are among the most likely perpetrators. The colonel defrauded two of the hotel guests, one of whom lost his home because of it, and he appeared to be blackmailing another hotel guest. All in all, not a loss but Dr. Manson is sworn to uphold the law and goes full out to collect and analyze evidence and to identify the murderer.

The Radfords via Dr. Manson were up to date on current knowledge in regards to fingerprinting; one of the last chapters of the book gave a thorough explanation of the science as it was understood at that time. Emphasis is definitely on scientific methods and logical thinking in the solution, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes.  Completely unrelated, just the mention of Cornwall invokes images of seaside villages and picturesque scenery in my mind, and the description of the countryside around the hotel was especially appealing. An interesting, cerebral read.