Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Hallowe'en

The Tuesday Night Bloggers have been getting ready for Halloween. So for October we have chosen "Crime in Costume" as our month-long topic. All mysteries that feature costume/disguise/appearance misdirection EXCEPT theatrical mysteries (we're saving that for another time) are fair game. If you'd like to join us for discussion of the use of costumes, masks, masquerades, costume parties and the like in the mystery genre--particularly Golden Age dangerous dress-up, but all are welcome--then please stop in every Tuesday as we gather at Kate's place over at crossexamingcrime. Pull up a chair and have a scone or two...

One certainly can't leave our October TNB sessions without examining at least one novel set at Halloween. Two years ago, I read Leo Bruce's Death on Allhallowe'en--which finds Carolus Deene, that intrepid amateur detective who uses the same techniques to unravel mysteries as he uses to unravel history for the schoolboys at Queen's School, Newminster, asked to investigate the odd "goings on" at a small Kentish village. His friend, John Stainer, the rector of Clibburn is disturbed by the atmosphere in the village. The air of superstition and the locals' belief in witchcraft. And the inexplicable feeling of evil that hangs over the area ever since the death of a young boy a year ago at Halloween.

If it weren't for his long-standing friendship with Stainer, Deene would never credit the tales of eerie atmosphere, local witchcraft, and undefinable evil. He wouldn't believe that grown men would dress up with animal masks to practice strange rites in the woods. But when Stainer says, "I'll tell you candidly--I'm frightened" he believes him. And he understands when Stainer goes on to say
Listen Carolus, I'm not a fool, and I'm not superstitious. Obviously I don't believe in black magic or witchcraft or anything of the sort. That's to say I don't believe in what they represent. But I do believe that there are people who practise the rites, and I think such people are dangerous.
Carolus also takes seriously that death of the small boy who may have seen or actually been forced to participate in one of these rites. So, he agrees to come and put his amateur detective talents to work on discovering the true source of evil in Clibburn.

He could believe that people led stealthy lives, obeying strange impulses and beliefs. Though mystery could belong as much to brightly lighted streets and conventional citizens, there was something in an atmosphere like this, the chilly river mist and the desolate landscape. 

His task isn't an easy one. Stainer has lived in Clibburn for three years and still hasn't truly been accepted as the new rector. The residents, as often seems to be the case--especially in fiction, don't take well to "foreigners" and Carolus finds it difficult to get the villagers to give him much in the way of information. Fortunately, he's adept at reading between the lines and often what they aren't telling him is just as instructive as what they do. 

He know he's getting close when the local "witch" tries to scare him off and then someone arranges for a telegram regarding the hospitalization of Mrs. Stick, his long-time housekeeper, to be delivered in a further effort to get him out of the way. Despite the trick, he manages to be present when a local figure is shot to death in a room full of people on the stroke of midnight. Once Carolus discovers how and by whom, he has the answers to both the boy's death and that of another, yet unsuspected, murder.

While I always enjoy Leo Bruce's detective fiction, Death on Allhawe'en (1970) is to be noted for its difference from the majority of the Carolus Deene books. It removes Carolus from the influence of both his domestic couple and the headmaster of Queen's School--each of whom constantly cast a disapproving eye on his detective antics while secretly loving every minute of the delicious tale when Carolus holds forth in the wrap-up scenes. We are also spared the frequently annoying presence of his schoolboy tag-along. What we get is straight Carolus on the track of village nastiness hidden by masks--both the actual animal masks of the ritual participants and the masks which the villagers present to any foreigners who come to their town.

Bruce effectively describes the claustrophobic atmosphere of a village that keeps itself too much to itself while appearing to take local traditions and witchcraft much too seriously. Full marks for the mise-en-scène. Two things keep this mystery from being a full-fledged four-star read for me: 1. Lack of fair play. Carolus gives a fair impression of Holmes in the final scenes. He discovers vital evidence in a bank strong box, but keeps the clues close to his chest. There isn't any real way for the reader to guess what he's found and be able to fully understand the mystery. 2. The death of the young boy. While what really happened to the boy is not fully described (thankfully), I still get very squeamish when young children are involved. But that's a personal qualm--not necessarily a fault in the story-telling.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Metropolitan Opera Murders: Review

The Metropolitan Opera Murders (1951) is Helen Traubel's venture into detective fiction. Her intimate knowledge of the wheels within wheels that make New York's Opera House run gives the mystery its very authentic flavor. She takes the reader behind the scenes to reveal the jealousies, temperaments, and talents that can be blended to produce several motives for murder. The book opens with the Wagner's Die Walküre in mid-performance. Elsa Vaughn, the diva singing Brünnehilde, watches in horror as the prompter, one time a singer himself, dies in the prompter's box--hidden from the audience.

When Lieutenant Quentin begins investigating, it is revealed that Rudolf Salz was killed by his drinking poisoned liquor which he lifted from Vaughn's dressing room. And she tells him that this isn't the first incident--someone had put ground glass in her cold cream and, fortunately, it had been noticed before any damage was done. As the case continues, another woman who had aspired to Vaughn's role is shot while sitting where the star was thought to be and several attempts on Vaughn's life are foiled. But, now that her rival is dead, who exactly would benefit from Vaughn's death? Quentin will have to work his way through blackmail, professional jealousy, and misleading evidence to spot the killer and real motive before it's too late.

This is a fair example of a mystery by a first-time author who is trying to use her real-world experiences as a backdrop for murder and mayhem. Traubel does a decent job--she has tried valiantly to provide red herrings, false clues, and fair play. She is at best providing the atmosphere and authentic setting and characters--and she even gives a good portrayal of the lead detective. The mystery itself is not terribly intricate and old hands at the detective novel game will spot the killer and motive, but Traubel is entertaining and this makes for a nice, comfortable, quick read.  ★★--just.

This fulfills the "Performer" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Semi-Charmed Winter 2016 Book Challenge

photo via Instagram

It's almost time for the next installment of the Semi-Charmed Book Challenge series! Click on the link to see the full rules and to sign up.

General Guidelines:
  • The challenge will run from November 1, 2016, to January 31, 2017. No books started before 12 a.m. on November 1 or finished after 11:59 p.m. on January 31 will count.
  • Each book must be at least 150 pages long. Audiobooks and large-print books are fine, as long as the regular print version meets the length requirement.
  • A book can only be used for one category, and each category can only be completed once.
  • The highest possible total is 200 points, and the first five people who finish the challenge will be invited to contribute a category for the summer 2017 challenge.
  • Have fun! Read some books you might not have read otherwise. Discover new authors and make new bookworm friends. (Yes, these are the most important rules!)

Challenge Categories (with my proposed books--will confirm and link reviews as I go):
5 points: Freebie! Read any book that is at least 150 pages long. {TBD}
10 points: Read a 2016 finalist (longlist or shortlist) for one of the following literary prizes: National Book Award, Man Booker or Man Booker International.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae
10 points: Read a brand-new release (something published between November 1, 2016, and January 31, 2017). {TBD}
15 points: Read a book by an author of a different race or religion than you.
Heart of a Woman by Maya Allingham
15 points: Read a book featuring a main character who is of a different race or religion than you.
The Black Count by Tom Reiss
20 points: Read a modern retelling of a classic (e.g. an Austen Project novel, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, etc.) — Submitted by SCSBC16 winner Kaity.
Grendel by John Gardner
25 points: Read a book with an alcoholic beverage (neat or cocktail) in the title. — Submitted by SCSBC16 winner Kerry. (And she was nice enough to come up with a long list of suggestions for you!) 
Cocktails & the Killer by Peter Cheyney
30 points: Read a book with a character that shares your first or last name. (Alternate spellings are okay, e.g. Megan and Meghan or Smith and Smyth.) — Submitted by SCSBC16 winner Ericka.
Beverly Gray's Mystery by Clair Blanck
30 points: Read two books: a nonfiction book and a fiction book with which it connects. For example: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie and one of Christie's mystery novels that features poison, or The Monuments Men and All the Light We Cannot See. The possibilities are endless, so have fun with this one! — Submitted by SCSBC16 winner Bev. (And remember you must finish both books to get the 30 points! No partial points will be awarded.)
Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street by William S. Baring-Gould (bio of the detective) AND Murder by the Book by Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe Mystery
40 points: Read two books: one by an author whose first name is the same as the last name of the author of the other book. For example: You may read a book by Martin Cruz Smith and a book by George R.R. Martin, or a book by James Joyce and a book by Joyce Carol Oates. The shared name must be spelled exactly the same, no variations. — Submitted by SCSBC16 winner Jamie. (And remember you must finish both books to get the 40 points! No partial points will be awarded.)
The Unconscious Witness by R. Austin Freeman AND The Passenger from Scotland Yard by Freeman H. Wood

Sunday: Review

Georges Simenon was an expert at setting and atmosphere. In Sunday (1958), he provides a perfect set-up for the isolated and trapped husband to a woman whose family has owned a popular inn on the Riveria. Initially, Emile is ready to be "bought" in order to be his own boss and run the inn and the kitchen the way he wants. If marriage to Berthe is what it takes then he doesn't mind. He even has a bit of affection at first. But he rapidly becomes disenchanted with her and begins an affair with one of the staff. When Berthe becomes very ill with a gastrointestinal malady, he starts planning how he might dispose of his wife without suspicion falling on him. He sets his due date as a Sunday in May and he's very pleased with how calm and cool he's been--how Berthe couldn't possibly know what's coming. But Berthe has a few surprises of her own.

Granted, this is very atmospheric and exhibits Simenon's skill with claustrophobic relationships. But, to be honest, Simenon's style just doesn't do a whole lot for me. The stories are so character- and atmosphere-drive that there is very little mystery and detection going on--which is what I'm looking for in a crime novel. Not that I don't want the characters to have depth; I do, but I don't want the investigation of their motivations and personalities to overwhelm the mystery aspect. I have tried Simenon several times and I have been unable to give him more than 3.5 stars. I think perhaps his style is better suited to others (obviously--because Sunday has a whole slew of 4 and 5 stars on Goodreads). I'm afraid can't give this one more than ★★.

This fulfills the "Weirdest Item" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Death Wears a Mask

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are getting ready for Halloween. So for October we have chosen "Crime in Costume" as our month-long topic. All mysteries that feature costume/disguise/appearance misdirection EXCEPT theatrical mysteries (we're saving that for another time) are fair game. If you'd like to join us for discussion of the use of costumes, masks, masquerades, costume parties and the like in the mystery genre--particularly Golden Age dangerous dress-up, but all are welcome--then please stop in every Tuesday as we gather at Kate's place over at crossexamingcrime. Pull up a chair and have a scone or two...

This week I am taking a peek at the book featured in our October TNB logo: Death Wears a Mask (1935) by Therese Benson. When I went hunting for a suitable Golden Age cover to modify in the name of TNB fun, I found the delightful cover to the left. I was so intrigued by it that I decided that, if I could find a reasonably priced copy, then I must have it. I did--unfortunately sans dust jacket (may have to remedy that at some point through Facsimile Dust Jackets, LLC where I found the cover). The question--was it worth it? And how do costumes figure in?

As the title might indicate, the occasion of the murder in this mystery is a costume party. It is scheduled to take place in the penthouse apartment in the building where the newly minted Commissioner of Police, Samuel Mellon, makes his home. Mellon has just taken the job with aims to clean up New York--get rid of the racketeering, dope peddling, and graft. No more corruption on his watch. No more covering up crime. He has no idea what's in store for him in the first week on the job.

His old flame, Consuela Thorne--a mature actress, shows up at his door fully disguised on her way to the costume party. Consuela has always had a way of leaving broken hearts in her wake and hurting even her best friends when she didn't mean to. Mellon's niece Louise is also at his apartment, also dressed for the party. Consuela tries to make nice with her former beau and Louise--even though she plans on arriving at the party dressed in complementary costumes with Louise's husband. Consuela demands cocktails, which after a protest Sam goes into the kitchen to make, but when he returns to his front room both ladies are gone. He prepares to go out and makes a startling discovery...Consuela is dead in the vestibule leading to his apartment, stabbed at the base of her head with a dagger. A dagger that he gave her as a present several years ago. He can just see the headlines screaming: MURDER AT THE POLICE COMMISSIONER'S. But he's determined to do his duty...and then he sees the white satin mask  lying near the body. It is exactly like the one his niece was wearing.

So much for doing one's duty. He knows Louise can't have done it, but he must protect her at all costs. He decides to deposit the body in the vestibule of a highly respectable older lady one floor below him--someone sure to report the body and who couldn't possibly be considered a suspect even by the most dense policeman. He then takes off to find his niece and find out what happened while he was mixing drinks. Very little, as it happens--except Louise decided she wasn't up to the party and went home with a headache. And, by the way, she still has her own mask. So whose mask is it?

When Sam gets back to his building, he winds up at the penthouse in search of Ed (Louise's husband). He finds Ed determined to hold up the costume contest until his partner Connie arrives--just as the party go-ers have about given up on her, the elevator arrives one more time and someone shouts, "Connie's here!" And she is...apparently seated against the wall of the elevator. Sam is even convinced for a moment that he was wrong about her death--but Ed soon makes the second discovery of Consuela's death.

From there on out, Sam is playing a dangerous game. Doing his best to give Inspector Dolan of the Homicide Squad every bit of assistance he can without revealing that the murder actually happened in his own vestibule. A lot depends on Connie costume, a missing piece of jewelry, and who owns the white mask. There is also another piece of masquerading going on--Sam's houseman, a Chinese student by the name of Sing, isn't everything he appears to be. And his disguise will help lead Sam and Inspector Dolan to criminal. 

The costumes in this story provide a fair amount of camouflage and aid to the plot. Twice, Consuela's outfit keeps her death from being immediately recognized. Then, a part of her costume provides her killer with the method dispatch her. And, as mentioned, the white mask is a clue that keeps cropping up to puzzle Sam. I was a bit disappointed that the costume party itself didn't play a bigger part in the story and I would say that was one of my biggest quibbles. The costume party seemed to exist purely to provide the plot points above--but it wasn't crucial to the story in any other way. I'm not even entirely certain who was hosting the party or why. The other quibble, of course, is that our newly-minted Commissioner is going out of his way to muddy the waters of justice. Fortunately, justice is served in the end anyway.

Overall, a decent vintage mystery. There are plenty of clues and false leads and opportunity for the reader to puzzle it out on their own. Sam is a likeable character--even if he is a bit exasperating in his efforts to sweep certain things under the rug. Inspector Dolan makes a nice counterpart for him. I would be interested to see if they show up in any other stories by Benson.  ★★

This counts for the "Mask" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Avon Ghost Reader: Review

The Avon Ghost Reader (1946) is another collection of short stories in digest form. I'm afraid that I found this one less satisfying than the Avon Mystery Story Teller. Long ago and far away, I enjoyed H. P. Lovecraft very much--but I felt that his famous short story fell a bit flat. My favorites in this collection are "The Panelled Room," "The Fireplace," and "The Squaw"--each carry an element of horror and shock that one looks for in a "ghost" story collection that most of the others do not. A close runner-up is the "Naked Lady." The twist on the revenge is nicely done--even if the husband doesn't get to enjoy the revenge taken. Overall, a solid collection of stories. ★★

Synopses of the stories:

"The Dunwich Horror" by H. P. Lovecraft: In the backwater town of Dunwich, Wilbur Whately, a most unusual child, is born. He grows at an unnatural pace to an unsettling height and it becomes apparent that there is something alien about his parentage. But he isn't the worst that Dunwhich will see--for there will be another horror: one of the Old Ones...a strange, unseen force that rampages through the village at night and leaves destruction in its wake.

"The Panelled Room" by August Derleth: Mrs. Lydia Grant moves into the house on Main St. against all advice. And she elects to stay in the house despite earnest warnings from a neighbor Seventeen years earlier, there was a horrible murder suicide in the paneled room and everyone who lives there have reported seeing ghosts. Then Lydia sees them and her sister, Irma, is delighted--she's Lydia's heir. But--finally listening to a little advice--Lydia rewrites her will so that if anything happens to her in the paneled room, then Irma may only inherit if she spends the rest of her life in that house.

"The Fireplace" by Henry S. Whitehead: The ghost of a murdered man appears to a guest in a Southern hotel. He tells the man, an up-and-coming lawyer, his story and makes him promise to avenge his death. The man agrees, but has revenge exacted upon himself when he fails to follow through.

"The Haunted Doll's House": -which tells about a Gothic doll's house where a deadly drama is enacted each night at 1 am.  The newest owner believe he's gotten a bargain when he buys the house at a bottom dollar (bottom pound?) price.  But he soon finds out his mistake.

"The Squaw" by Bram Stoker: A honeymooning couple make the acquaintance of an American and begin to visit the sites with him. They visit a torture museum at Nuernberg where an iron maiden (the squaw of the title) is on display. The American has killed a kitten--by accident--and is stalked by the crazed mother cat--who manages to exact her revenge in the torture room.

"Wingless Victory" by H. F. Heard: Not really a horror story--a science fiction fantasy which tells of an intelligent race of giant emperor penguins who rescue a man who was part of an Antarctic expedition. They show him the wonders of their hidden realm and offer him the chance to live among them. He refuses and asks why they would let him go when he might return with hordes of men...they assure him they have nothing to fear from the race of men. Who would believe a story of giant, intelligent penguins?

"Through the Dragon Glass" by A. Merritt: A man named Herndon raids the Forbidden City and comes home with an exquisite treasure, decorated with exotic gems and embedded with dragons. He disappears from his apartment and returns just as mysteriously--with strange, deep scars on his chest. He tells his friend an odd story of entering a strange world through the glass and finding a beautiful woman...as well as a monstrous dragon. He wants to return and rescue the woman and bring her back to his world. But will he survive another trip?
"Naked Lady" by Mindret Lord: A jealous, vengeful estranged husband commissions a painting of his erring wife--ordering the artist to mix materials into the paint that will allow him to perform voo-doo rites upon his wife's image to punish her. He won't live to see his revenge...and it won't be the precise revenge that he imagined.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by F. Scott Fitzgerald: a fantasy story in which a man is born old and grows younger every year. And Benjamin Button doesn't just have the body of an eldrerly man, but the tastes and attitudes to go along with it as well. As he "ages" his body, tastes, and attitudes align with his body's appeared age rather than his actual years on earth. And interesting look at how age affects identity.

"The Bottle Party" by John Collier: A man buys a genie in a bottle and finds that having your every wish fulfilled isn't all it's cracked up to be--especially if you aren't specific in some of your requests.

"The Waters of Babylon" by Stephen Vincent Benet: A post-apocalyptic tale in which
a young man gets initiated into the priesthood of the Hill People. After becoming convinced that he should seek out knowledge, he crosses the water into the forbidden Dead Lands, where he discovers the ruins of New York City and has visions of the forces that destroyed the "gods."

"The Salamander" by William H. Seabrook: A writer wants to conjure up a salamander in fire--a creature that can appear as a lizard-like creature or as a most beautiful woman. All he really wants is a spark of inspiration...but he may get more than he bargained for.