Last Update 7/22/17

Murder Gives a Lovely Light by John Stephen Strange, Collier, 1941 

A seriously ill man dies in his bed, apparently of a stroke. But why did the maid who drank some of his hot chocolate also become violently ill? Does it have something to do with the sleazy Russian who has been pursuing his daughter? Did the business rival who embezzled money decide to prevent him from going to the police? Did the one time but now lapses friend recently returned to the country have a secret grudge? All of the separate strains are worked out by the end. I thought the real killer was pretty obvious, but I had fun watching the author reach the same conclusion. 7/22/17

Speaker of Mandarin by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1983  

Inspector Wexford returns from a visit to China during which he experienced odd hallucinations, only to find himself assigned to investigate the murder of one of the other tourists he met while he was there. The case take a number of twists and turns as one suspect after another appears to be the obvious solution, only to turn out to be a red herring. This was my favorite of Rendellís mysteries to date, although I still have a long way to go to the end of them. 7/22/17

Murder in the Melody by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005, originally published in 1940 

During the final moments of a radio broadcast, a gunshot is clearly audible. The protagonist happens to be with the detective assigned to the case when the report comes in, so he gets pulled into the story right from the start. The victim is an executive at the station, found in another manís office with a pile of cash. But everyone seems to have a perfect alibi, though obviously one of them does not. More murders follow, each demolishing the then most popular theory of who committed the crime. This one had a few too many irrelevant conversations for me, but the basic puzzle is well done. 7/20/17

Words Have Wings by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1946)  

Berrow wrote four novels about a husband and wife amateur detective team who solve murders, of which this is the longest. It opens with the discovery that a dead body has been hidden underneath their car and continues through a series of adventures in which they are menaced for spies from the Axis powers. This would have been much better if about twenty percent of it had been pruned away. There is too much about the details of the store where the wife works, and the medical center where the husband is sergeant-major. The banter is fun at times, but gets quite wearing after a while. Words may have wings, but some of them this time never get off the ground. 7/19/17

Master of the Moor by Ruth Rendell, Pantheon, 1982  

Although this was a fair suspense thriller and more atmospheric than most of Rendellís previous novels, I thought the ending was too explicitly telegraphed and came as no surprise at all. The murder of two women on the moors leads a local man who has a host of psychological problems to commit his own murder and try to blame it on the serial killer. Except that he hallucinates while in the process of killing his victim, who is not the person he thought he was killing. I didnít find the abnormal psychology particularly convincing in this one and I knew who the killer was almost from the moment he appears in the story. The film version of this is quite dull. 7/18/17

The Mummy Case Mystery by Dermot Morrah, Coachwhip, 2014 (originally published in 1933)

Morrah wrote only this single mystery, set mostly at Oxford University. Two professors of Egyptology who have feuded for years apparently reconcile their differences, but one of them appears to have been burned to death in his chambers. He had recently purchased a mummy from the other, but the mummy appears to be missing. Or was it the mummy who was found among the ruins? And what happened to the other professor? And who stole the mummy case Ė twice? A somewhat lighthearted puzzle solved by two members of the faculty, the solution of which I figured out in advance although it was probably clever in 1933. 7/16/17

The Middle Temple Murder by J.S. Fletcher, Dover, 1980 (originally published in 1918)

Although there is some clunkiness in this century old murder mystery, it remains entertaining, though it cheats rather outrageously. An unknown man is found murdered in an alcove. He is eventually identified by an enterprising journalist as a former embezzler who has spent many years in Australia. The embezzler had a young son who supposedly died but who turns out to be one of the other characters in the story. His partner in crime, also supposedly dead, faked his demise and is another of the characters. The police are unrealistically obtuse and some of the other interactions are awkwardly posed, but otherwise this was surprisingly good. 7/12/17

The Smokers of Hashish by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1934)

The recurring hero travels from Gibraltar to Tangier to see the woman he is currently wooing. Shortly after arriving, she is abducted from a night club and he spends the rest of the book tracking her down. The people behind the abduction Ė and two others Ė are also tied to the hashish trade. Berrow accepted the common misconceptions about marijuana at the time so parts of this are not very credible. Itís also not one of his better stories. The characters talk too much to no purpose, the mystery element is insubstantial, and it was a relief to finally reach the end. 7/11/17

The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1980

An accountant wins a big football pool and decides to give the money to needy people. Unfortunately that brings him into the orbit of a handyman who freelances as a killer. This is fairly short and readable enough, but I had a pretty good idea where it was going, and most of the interesting events take place toward the end so it was rather slow going. I can see why Rendell later adopted a penname for her psychological stuff, to differentiate it from the more conventional mysteries. Clever but slightly inconclusive ending. 7/10/17

Death Notes by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1981

A famous retired musician dies, apparently the result of an accident, but Wexford begins to believe that the woman claiming to be his estranged daughter and main heir is actually an imposter. He is pursuing that investigation when the woman ends up dead in her own storage locker, and his attention turns to the people he believes were helping her with the impersonation. Some nice twists in this one and an interesting puzzle. 7/10/17

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville, Poisoned Pen, 2015 (originally published in 1934)

This is a spoof of the live theater as well as of the detective story. The star of a musical comedy is shot by a real gun during the opening night performance, and the man who fired it is found hanged in his trailer a short time later. But was it really the prop gun that fired the fatal round. A detective notices that the trajectory does not seem to agree with the decision of the inquest and he makes further inquiries on his own. The humorous elements work quite well, which is not always the case with mystery/comedy combinations. 7/7/17

The Vampire Tree by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2016 (from the 1996 French edition)

A fairly good plot is mortally wounded this time by bad writing, and I don't mean the prose, which could be the fault of the translation. There are just too many instances where sections of dialogue are logically untenable. For example, we are told that a boy is suspected of committing thefts but no one can prove it, but we are also told that everyone knows he has a secret cache of stolen items hidden in a woodlot. It can't be both. Sometimes characters know things they could not possibly know, and sometimes their reaction to a line of dialogue seems to bear no relation to it. Occasionally their behavior makes no sense and frequently it is just too naÔve to be plausible. A newlywed woman becomes obsessed with the legend of a vampire witch who was executed nearby and begins to identify with her. Her husband is gaslighting her. 7/4/17

Fingers for Ransom by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1939)

When a violent storm causes two vacationers to take refuge at a small inn, they have no idea that the morning will start with a dead man found in a bathtub and the disappearance of his cousin. The police are sure that it was murder and kidnapping, but they cannot determine who was responsible and there is no ransom note. So the tourists continue their tour. But then one of them disappears as well and her husband is frantic to get her back. About average for Berrrow. The puzzle itself isn't that interesting but the plot carries the load. 7/2/17

A Sleeping Life by Ruth Rendell, Doubleday, 1978 

Inspector Wexford has a puzzling case this time. A woman is murdered, but while everyone locally says that she lives in London, no one has her address and no record of her existence turns up. Even with her picture in the newspaper, none of her friends identify her. A couple of promising leads end up as dead ends and the case isnít helped when some of the people involved tell elaborate lies. I guessed most of the solution to this one, at least in terms of identifying the dead woman. I didnít guess the killer, however, although there seemed to be only two candidates, one of whom turns out to be guilty. This was one of the better Rendells from this period. 7/1/17

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