Last Update 2/17/20

Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson, Penzler, 2018 (originally published in 1942)

This is a great mystery whose detective is a stage magician, and most of the characters are mediums, illusionists, escape artists, etc. It contain two separate locked room murders, a man disappearing from a moving taxi, a seance, impersonations, diagrams and lists, some very detailed drawings of the murder sites, and a sprinkling of very effective humor. There are multiple solutions offered for some of the puzzles. I managed to guess a few details, but for the most part I was in the dark. This was another of those books that I decided to start while going to bed and ended up finishing at two in the morning. I am amazed that it has been out or print for twenty years. I have three more Rawsons and they've moved near the top of the stack. 2/17/20

The Man Who Fell Through the Earth by Carolyn Wells, Doran, 1919   

This is possibly the worst novel Wells ever wrote. The protagonist sees the shadows of a fight through an office window, hears a gunshot, but finds no one inside. The body turns up in a secret elevator. Two separate people leave the office and run to the elevator, right past the protagonist, but he doesn’t see them. Two men who are different heights and weights turn out to be the same person, and there is no reason why he would have been disguised. There is an espionage group but the way they handle information is completely nonsensical. The characters are constantly forgetting what they know or believe. The last several chapters are an appalling mess. 2/16/20

Honky in the Woodpile by John Brunner, Sphere, 1971 

The third and final Max Curfew novel. Also the least interesting, marred by didactic speeches and contrived incidents in the first half, and with a second half that is so slow moving that I had to set it aside and read something else for a while. Curfew is sent to a fictional Caribbean country that is clearly modeled on Haiti to find out who is the traitor among a group of revolutionaries. He gets in trouble with the CIA as well as the government and a voodoo based cult, but mostly they just talk at each other. His escape from jail is some of Brunner’s least effective writing. 2/12/20

The Judge Sums Up by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 1942

I am not a fan of courtroom drama, but this one kept me up late. Most of the book consists of the summing up by a judge in a murder trial, interspersed with transcripts of the testimony, and it sounds very dull. It is actually quite lively. A frustrated lover may or may not have thrown a rival over a cliff. His story is unsatisfactory and he is clearly lying, as are at least two of the other witnesses. There's some mild cheating at the end - a character is introduced who is crucial to the solution - but there was a pretty obvious hint early on that I am embarrassed to say I missed completely. And it's one of the specific clues I look for - a reversed name that is significant. Farjeon is one of the most unjustly forgotten mystery writers from the Golden Age. 2/11/20

Secret Agent X Volume 3, Altus, 2009   

Four more novels about the career of an unnamed vigilante who battles mysterious criminals, all originally published in the magazine of the same name in 1934 and 1935. 

Servants of the Skull by Emile C. Tepperman, 1934 

The Skull is a typical master criminal with a weird costume. X goes undercover to try to infiltrate the gang, which kidnaps prominent men and leaves them with broken minds. His romantic interest, Betty Dale, gets kidnapped and has to be rescued, and X himself is caught more than once. The Skull turns out to be one of his supposed victims, which is a gimmick used more than once in this series. 

The Murder Monster by Emile C. Tepperman, 1934 

The gangster this time dresses his minions up to look like robots after removing their tongues so that they cannot talk. Secret Agent X does his usual bit of impersonating criminals, getting caught by both the bad guys and the police, and escaping from both. The leader of the gang turnbs out to be the supposed kidnapping victim, which was pretty obvious since he was the only non-recurring character other than the gang members.

 The Sinister Scourge by Paul Chadwick, 1935

 Secret Agent X makes use of his friends in the Chinese tongs in order to break up a gang that is contaminating innocent products with a new addictive drug. The Chinese are rather favorably depicted, unusual for the time. The drug isa synthetic, so it doesn't need to be smuggled into the country. The usual tricks and traps - disguises, clever tools disguised as every day objects, and the beautiful girlfriend in jeopardy. The formula was pretty well established by the time this one was published. 

Curse of the Waiting Death by Paul Chadwick, 1935

One of the dullest entries in the series, although we do discover that Secret Agent X has a James Bondish kind of car that can lay down smokescreens, etc. He is puzzled this time because the police refrain from interfering in any crime whose perpetrators display a distinctive light. It turns out that a new explosive has been concealed in various locations around the city and the mayor has been warned that if the police interfere, entire blocks will be leveled. Despitea mildly interesting side trip to an island, this was pretty tame. 2/10/20

The Glade Manor Murder by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Walker, 1988    

This was the author’s last book. The housekeeper of a wealthy family is found murdered. There is some circumstantial evidence pointing to a family member but he’s part of the romantic interest, so readers are unlikely to suspect him. That leaves only the neighbor whom we have good reason to believe was planning to blackmail the family with information that fell into his hands. There’s not much mystery to this one, but the story is reasonably well done barring a couple of fortuitous strokes of luck at the end. 2/8/20

The Hellcat by Carter Brown, Signet, 1962

This is probably the best Al Wheeler novel I’ve read to date. He’s looking into a cold case – a disembodied head found years earlier. A dying woman claims to have seen the man at the house where she worked as a cook. The house belongs to a powerful family and something is clearly going on behind the scenes. Then a gangster arrives in town, claiming that the dead man is his brother, and the situation moves rapidly to a boil as he demands revenge. More serious than usual, although there’s a bizarre scene when the morgue technician goes crazy. 2/7/20

A Three-Pipe Problem by Julian Symons, Harper & Row, 1975 

This is another novel about Sheridan Haynes, an actor who plays and identifies with Sherlock Holmes. A series of murders has puzzled the police, who believe a karate expert may be involved and who are looking into the rivalry between two sophisticated gangs of criminals. That’s all a red herring, of course, and when Haynes decides to apply Sherlockian techniques, he eventually finds the killer – although more by happenstance than deduction. The killer is pretty obvious once we are told that the first three victims were all in traffic accidents. One of the author’s better books despite the telegraphed ending. 2/6/20

The Casebook of Sexton Blake, edited anonymously, Wordsworth, 2009   

I had never read Sexton Blake before and was expecting something between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. The first of the seven novellas in this collection gave me Allan Quatermain. Blake and his friend Tinker go to Africa to foil a band of Arab slave traders. I thought the depiction of the African characters rather enlightened for 1907, when Cecil Hayter wrote this -” The Slave Market.”. It is a surprisingly good adventure story and I was disappointed to find nothing else similar by Hayter available through Amazon. The second story, “A Football Mystery” by W.J. Lomax, from the same year, is entirely different. An upstart soccer team overwhelms every British team it plays against. Blake investigates and after various adventures discovers that they have mechanically augmented shoes that allow them to run faster and kick harder. The third – “The Man from Scotland Yard” by Ernest Sempill - is more Sherlockian, pitting Blake against a brilliant Scotland Yard detective who has turned to the dark side, and who apparently became one of the major menaces for years to come. “The Law of the Sea” by William Murray Graydon opens with a Titanic style disaster, after which Blake must clear the name of a man accused of cowardice. “The Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle” by G.H. Teed is essentially a Fu Manchu story with a shrewd Chinese mastermind and a secret society. Wu Ling also became a recurring character. “A Case of Arson” by Robert Murray Graydon pits Blake against another recurring villain, the Bat, a gentleman thief.  “The Black Eagle” by G.H. Teed involves a man seeking revenge for his unjust imprisonment. They range from entertaining to quite good. I'll look for more. 1/30/20

Light Through Glass by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Walker,  1984

This was the author’s penultimate book. A miserable man is murdered and his van driven off a cliff. There are two people with possible motives but they each have what appears to be an unbreakable alibi. There are so many hints about the solution that I had it figured out well before halfway – it was obviously the two working together. There are no other suspects, almost no other characters, and we are constantly told that no one actually saw the face of the man driving the van. Very disappointing. 1/29/20

Who Goes Home? by Elizabeth Lemarchand,  Walker, 1986

The solution to the major crime is rather telegraphed this time and Inspector Pollard only guesses it because of a fortuitous bit of happenstance. A remote farmhouse that is rarely used is burned by an arsonist. Inside is clear evidence that the building was being used to store illegal drugs. There is also a twenty year old skeleton bricked up in a chimney. Throw in an impersonation, an illegitimate child adopted under another name. and a couple of minor red herrings. Easy to figure out but a pleasant read. 1/29/20

Good Men Do Nothing by John Brunner, Pyramid, 1970 

The second  and far and away the best of the three Max Curfew novels. Curfew is a Jamaican who works for the British Secret Service from time to time, although in his second outing it is all personal. While on vacation, he accidentally attracts the attention of a CIA torturer working for the Greek dictatorship and is nearly killed - a companion does die, and he takes affront. He is, however, not particularly competent at planning his revenge though he eventually succeeds. He is fooled and benefits from luck on more than one occasion.  1/27/20

Blacklash by John Brunner, Pyramid. 1970 

Max Curfew, a black Jamaican who sometimes acts as a freelance secret agent, is introduced in this story. A fictional African country is in danger of becoming a white dictatorship following the probably assassination of its most prominent African politician. Curfew is sent undercover to find out the facts of the case. He becomes a fugitive, outwits his enemies, is captured and escapes a couple of times, and eventually helps train an army when civil war breaks out. Not as good as the sequel. Also published as A Plague on Both Your Causes. 1/27/20

Charter to Danger by Eliot Reed, Stratus, 1954 

The protagonist is frustrated when criminals hijack his yacht in order to abduct a very rich man, and the police are convinced that he was involved. Some low key investigating and blundering follows, along with a couple of murders, before the kidnapped man is rescued. This one felt like the authors – Eric Ambler and Charles Rodda – were going through the motions and were not really interested in their story. This edition regularly misspells Rodda’s name.  1/25/20

Passport to Panic by Eliot Reed, Stratus, 2010 (originally published in 1958) 

This was the final collaboration between Eric Ambler and Charles Rodda. A plantation owner in a fictional South American country is kept comatose and his brother is taken captive as part of a plan to use the plantation to support a coup by an exiled dictator. Nothing much happens until the story is almost over and it felt as though the authors were just going through the motions and had no real commitment to the story.  1/25/20

Vicky Van by Carolyn Wells, Burt, 1918 

A wealthy man is murdered shortly after arriving at a party in the home of a woman he has never met. She promptly disappears and the supposition is that she was the killer. This is one of the author’s most outrageously plotted novels. The house is back to back with the home of the murdered man and his widow is actually the missing hostess, leading a secret life by means of a secret passage through the walls. This one is a bit unusual in that there are really no suspects until quite late in the novel. 1/24/20

The Wheel Turns by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Walker, 1983 

A politician accidentally kills a child with his car and hides the body. He discovers that he has an illegitimate half sister, which is unsettling enough, but also that she saw him moving the child’s body. A short time later, she is asphyxiated in his garage under mysterious circumstances. The chief suspect is – or should be - obvious to the reader, but the author has some surprises hidden away. I thought the politician's decision to hide the body at a church excavation was a bit riskier than many other choices, but it does make for a very ironic scene. One of her better mysteries. 1/22/20

The Temptress by Carter Brown, Signet, 1960 

A runaway heiress, a pedophile, a brothel owner and his not too bright brother, a sexy lawyer, and a dead private eye combine to make things complicated for Al Wheeler. In this slightly more serious than usual addition to his career, Wheeler spends less time bedding the female cast and more time actually investigating the crime, so this one is above average for the series. 1/18/2-

The Maras Affair by Eliot Reed, Perma, 1953 

An unfortunately rather boring collaboration between Eric Ambler and Charles Rodda. A journalist in an Iron Curtain country is trying to smuggle the woman he loves out of the country when an abortive rebellion stirs the pot. There is also a mild murder mystery involved, but the story is strangely unengaging and the characters flat and uninteresting. 1/18/20

Inheritance Tracks by Catherine Aird, Severn House, 2019 

Five mostly strangers discover that they are jointly heirs to a substantial fortune, pending the location of another distant relative. Then one of them dies under mysterious circumstances and the police begin to note connections among the group suggesting that one of them is responsible. Sloan & Crosby are on the base, slow but steady, and a second murder eventually leads to a startling revelation. I had thought the author had retired from writing and was pleasantly surprised to discover two new titles published in the UK. The other one should be here soon.1/16/20

Wear the Butcher’s Medal by John Brunner, Pocket, 1965   

An American tourist hitches a ride and is almost killed when the car is attacked. After recovering he decides to find out what happened. This leads him into a mixture of arms smuggling, neo-Nazis, death camp survivors, and amoral businessmen. He meets a girl – and ends up with her – but only after foiling a plan to introduce modern weapons into the hands of rebels in East Germany, a development that might well have set off World War III. Reasonably entertaining thriller, although the protagonist’s characterization is inconsistent and not always believable. Filmed as How I Spent My Summer Vacation, although the plot is very different. He is not credited in the IMDB. 1/14/20

The Whispering Death by Roy Vickers, 1947 

The Whisperer is a kidnapper who has outwitted the police on numerous occasions. He returns his victims if the ransom is paid, but kills them otherwise. The protagonist is forced to steal some valuable jewels to save the life of the woman he loves, after which he is coerced into joining the Whisperer’s organization. He actually hopes to identify the criminal mastermind, and does so, but the reader will probably guess way in advance. This feels more like a pulp crime novel than a conventional mystery. 1/14/20

Let Him Lie by Ianthe Jerrold, Dean Street, 2016 (originally published in 1940)

This is a fairly standard detective story with an amateur helping the police. Someone shoots the protagonist’s kitten, and a short while later fatally shoots one of her neighbors. Was it a hunting accident? Was it because he was threatening to dig up a controversial burial mound? Did he know something that put another in danger? Why is his widow acting so strangely? What about the woman who supposedly moved away and has never been seen or heard from again? Is she living with the famous artist who also frequented the neighborhood? All these questions get resolved of course in a quite readable if not particularly distinguished mystery.1/13/20

Troubled Waters by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Walker, 1982 

An American tourist dies in what appears to be a tragic accident, but anonymous letters lead the police to reopen the case several weeks later. There is a mysterious legend regarding a standing stone, a case of bigamy, exchanged passports and assumed identities, jealousy, and two separate criminals. The ending is very disappointing this time. Not only does the detective make an unsupported leap of intuition but the chief criminal goes crazy and confesses everything because she knows they suspect her. 1/12/20

Sweet Adelaide by Julian Symons, Ulversoft, 1980  

This is one of those mysteries in which the author provides a possible solution to an unsolved crime from the past, in this case a poisoning during the Victorian era. The first half of the novel, in which we see a young woman grow from childhood to maturity under very trying circumstances, is quite good, but I actually started to lose interest once we moved into the crime itself. His solution is plausible enough to be true, but we will likely never know.  Below part for Symons. 1/11/20

The Adventures of Creighton Holmes by Ned Hubbell, Popular Library, 1979  

This is a collection of seven short mysteries all of which are solved by the grandson of Sherlock Holmes. They are very much in the same style including being narrated by a Dr. Watson equivalent, but are set in the 1930s. Most involve murder. The copyright is by Lois Hubbell, but I don’t know if that was the real writer’s name or his widow. Only one other book appeared under this byline and it was nonfiction. They are as competently done as most other Holmes pastiches. 1/9/20

Tender to Danger by Eliot Reed, Doubleday, 1951 

The second Eric Ambler collaboration with Charles Rodda involves the abduction and murder of a man whom the protagonist has just met while traveling back to London. His curiosity gets the best of him and soon he and an heiress are trying to track down a small sailboat that disappeared during the war. They are competing with a pair of ruthless men because there is something very valuable aboard the boat. The ending is particularly exciting and involves a windmill and a gun fight. 1/9/20

The Room with the Tassels by Carolyn Wells, Grosset, 1918

This was the first Pennington Wise novel – apparently Wells was tired of Fleming Stone. It’s also atypical in that the first murder (two of them in fact) happens only a third of the way into the book instead of in the opening chapters. A group of friends visit a supposedly haunted house and two of them drop dead inexplicably and with no warning. Everyone including the police runs around in circles and prove completely incapable of solving the crime until Wise is hired and clears things up in a matter of hours and without having done any detecting at all. 1/7/20

Nothing to Do with the Case by Elizabeth Lemarchand, Walker, 1981 

A young woman inherits a valuable house from a relative who dies suddenly. This gains her the animosity of another relative, who later blackmails her into becoming involved with the theft and sale of stolen property. When a strangled woman is found in the ruins of a house destroyed by arson, there are strong connections to the theft, but it turns out that the two cases are almost completely unrelated. Better than average, although the detectives seem to possess extraordinarily powerful psychic abilities to tell who is telling the truth and who is lying. 1/7/20

Skytip by Eliot Reed, Doubleday, 1950  

Eliot Reed was Eric Ambler collaboration with Charles Rodda. The protagonist is ordered by his doctor to take a vacation and ends up at a remote farm in Cornwall. He gets involved with a man who is holding an incriminating letter that would prove that a prominent politician was a Nazi collaborator during the war. The man disappears after a pair of unsavory characters arrive in town. They suspect, incorrectly, that the protagonist knows where the incriminating document is hidden. Suspense ensues as they finally kidnap him. Two of the characters seem profoundly slow to realize the truth, but otherwise this was a good thriller. 1/5/20

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas, Penguin, 2013 (translated from the 2011 French version) 

This was my first sampling of a short series by a French archaeologist. Adamsberg is a police detective who often uses unorthodox methods. In this case, he arranges the “escape” of a prisoner he knows is innocent in order to gain time to investigate two wealthy brothers. The picture the author provides of France’s system of justice is somewhat offputting – the innocent man gets a two year sentence for escaping, even though he was innocent of the original charge and was ordered by Adamsberg to “escape.” This is actually a subsidiary plot. The main one is a series of murders in a more remote part of the country where many of the local people believe in the ghost riders, a kind of zombie version of the Wild Hunt. I guessed the killer quite early although more by luck than deduction. He just felt wrong. Adamsberg did not strike me as particularly competent – three murders take place AFTER he is put in charge. It was agreeable enough that I will pick up more in the series when I see them, but not enough that I would go out of my way to find them. 1/2/20

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