Last Update 9/21/17

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume, Dover, 1982 (originally published in 1886)  

This was the first novel of a New Zealander who produced about a hundred books in his lifetime. A man is found dead in a cab – murdered by chloroform – and it appears that the killer was his romantic rival. But the detective investigating, despite his conviction that he knows the truth, is puzzled by why the murder would be committed given that the killer had just won the hand of the woman they both were courting. The prose is a bit thick at times, particularly the dialogue, but it's a well constructed and interesting puzzle. 9/21/17

Desert Remains by Stephen Cooper, Seventh Street, 2017, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-353-6

The killer in this potentially interesting suspense novel appears to be a madman. He murders his victims, leaves their bodies in caves, and leaves information about the killings carved into stone. The protagonist is a police detective troubled by the usual problem when there is no sane motive. There are no physical clues and investigation of the backgrounds of the victims seems like a waste of time. He finally consults a medium who has some bizarre and not very useful visions when he visits the crime scene, but he is apparently a real psychic so this is marginally fantasy as well as a mystery. The dialogue is quite good and the case winds its way to a reasonably satisfactory ending, but I have to repeat my caveat about present tense narration. I personally don't care for it in almost any novel length context because it is distracting and artificial. But in suspense novels, it is absolute poison and by halfway through I was anxious for it to end, and not because I was interested in the solution. 9/20/17

Gallowglass by Ruth Rendell, Onyx, 1990 

Published as by Barbara Vine. A man obsessed with a married woman draws two people into his plot to kidnap her. She has a bodyguard who is uncooperative when they try to bribe him, so they kidnap his daughter and demand an exchange. He refuses but the woman finds out about it and insists on making the trade. But she isn’t afraid of her chief captor, because she knows something about him that even his hirelings do not. This is more a novel of obsessive love than a mystery, and most of the “action” is psychological rather than physical. I thought the ending was very predictable, almost inevitable. 9/17/17

Serpents in Eden edited by Martin Edwards, Poisoned Pen, 2016 

This is a collection of vintage mysteries set in the British countryside. It includes a few rarities including a nice tale by the adopted daughter of P.G. Wodehouse, a non-Father Brown story by G.K. Chesterton, a non-Holmes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and others by R. Austin Freeman, H.C. Bailey, Margery Allingham – the only one I didn't like, Leo Bruce, E.C. Bently, and others. Some involve murders, some lesser crimes like fraud or anonymous letter writing. It's an excellent selection and for some perhaps an introduction to some of the lesser known masters of the detective genre. 9/16/17

The Picture from the Past by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2014 (from the 1995 French edition)

There is an interesting idea in this one, but I don’t think the execution was good enough. We alternate between two mysteries that are strikingly similar. In each case an older woman is attacked and killed by three men, though under different circumstances. The son of one of them has flashbacks under hypnosis following his reaction to an old photograph. There is also a killer who disposes of his victims in acid baths. Spoiler follows. It turns out that one of the characters in one thread is writing a novel, which is the other thread. But it just ends up being confusing and unengaging. 9/15/17

The Bridesmaid by Ruth Rendell, Mysterious Press, 1989 

Philip Hartman becomes romantically involved with a young woman he meets at his sister’s wedding. She tells him that they must each kill someone to prove their love for one another. He decides that it is a game and claims credit for a random murder reported in the news, and he thinks she subsequently does the same thing. But then he discovers that she really did kill the man. The mad woman is very well drawn, but otherwise the plot fails to hold up. Hartman would certainly have bolted long before he actually does. 9/13/17

The Night of the Wolf by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2006

This is a collection of short mystery stories, several of which are quite good. A few of them involve Dr. Twist, who is featured in some of the author's novels. Several of them hint at the supernatural, but this is almost always rationalized. "The Abominable Snowman," however, is a genuine ghost story with a murder mystery mixed into it. A couple of the solutions are somewhat implausible, but that's part of the fun with a writer who specializes in impossible crimes. A slightly different selection of stories was previously published by Wildside Press. 9/11/17

Enigma by Catherine Coulter, Gallery, 2017, $27.99, ISBN 978-1-5011-3806-5

I've only read one previous book in this long series of thrillers involving the FBI but I've liked both and am considering picking up some of the earlier ones. A man caught assaulting a woman falls into a coma and cannot be roused. A mysterious drug is found in his system and a wristband suggests he was a patient somewhere. The victim's baby is subsequently kidnapped, which suggests that this was not a random assault. This quite interesting puzzle is alternated with a second involving an escaped convict, although the second thread is less interesting. I don't want to give away too much but there is a theme straight from SF in this one. It might be possible to extend human lifetimes far beyond what is presently possible. Fast paced, complex, and with a puzzle that is nicely unraveled.

The House of Stairs by Ruth Rendell, Onyx, 1990

Published as by Barbara Vine. This is more of a character study than anything else. Cosette is a rich widow who gathers various people to her immense mansion, including the narrator – a writer named Elizabeth Vetch, and Bell Sanger, an obviously amoral person who values everyone only by how they can be of benefit to her. It is not clear how she is accepted by the others because her inhuman qualities are pretty obvious. She hopes to inherit Cosette’s money by marrying her husband after she dies of cancer, but Cosette doesn’t have cancer after all and the lover – who was formerly involved with Bell – is in love with her. This is another of Rendell’s novels where we know the identity of the killer from the outset and have to figure out who it was that she killed. 9/8/17

The Library of Death by Ronald S.L. Harding, Dancing Tuatara, 2011 (originally published in 1938)

Harding was a minor British mystery writer who often included the suggestion of supernatural events into his fiction, although it was usually rationalized. This one starts as a rather predictable tale. Evil Sir Charles is murdered after threatening to disinherit his ward. Did she do it, or her lover, or the jilted mistress, or one of the servants? And what about the lawyer's insistence that the family is under a curse of vampirism? Light weight but readable. 9/7/17

Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate, British Library, 2017 (originally published in 1940) 

The author of this classic mystery novel used a very different approach. The first third of the book consists of character profiles of the twelve jurors. We don't even find out what the case is about until the middle third, which shows us a cruel woman dominating her young nephew/ward, at the end of which he dies of poisoning. The final third is the trial and jury deliberations, which eventually find her innocent because of a lack of evidence and other factors. At the end, she tells her lawyers that she is indeed guilty at least technically, although she doesn't believe so. Quite intriguing. 9/5/17

The Veiled One by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1988 

Although there is some mild cheating in the solution – which hinges upon a character we’ve never seen and have barely heard of – this is a very entertaining Inspector Wexford mystery. A woman is garroted in the parking lot of a mall, and the prime suspect is mentally disturbed. Wexford gets sidelined for a while when a bomb explodes under his daughter’s car, and his assistant Mike Burden pursues things a bit obsessively, eventually caused considerable friction when Wexford returns to work. There’s some withheld information as well, but not enough to dramatically spoil the story. 9/5/17

Golden Prey by John Sandford, Putnam, 2017, $29, ISBN 978-0-399-18457-5 

Lucas Davenport returns to track down a murderous thief who killed a six year old girl. But it's a race against time because the thief stole from a drug cartel and they have two psychopaths on the trail as well. Fast paced and exciting, but I've found Sandford's novels to be increasingly thin of content and style in recent years and only keep reading them out of habit. The half dozen bad guys in this one are so interchangeable that I had trouble remembering which was which. 9/2/17

Surrender, New York by Caleb Carr, Random House, 2017, $30, ISBN 978-0-679-45569-1 

Several years ago I read two very long mysteries by Caleb Carr set in 19th Century America. Although I don't generally care for historical mysteries, they impressed me enormously. After a long interval of unrelated novels, Carr has given us a contemporary mystery that refers to events in the earlier ones but with different protagonists. As one might expect, the plot is intricate, the background detail is sometimes more interesting than the story itself, and everything moves logically forward. Unwanted children are being murdered in horrible ways and an unpopular criminal expert is called upon to help solve the case. Although all the ingredients were there, I found this very difficult to get through and could only read about fifty pages at a sitting before the prose began to bother me. It's hard to describe what was off about it, but every tenth sentence or so felt awkwardly constructed.  The story is worth it, but the going may be slow. 9/2/17

The Bloody Black Flag by Steve Goble, 7th Street, 2017, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-63388-359-8  

A murder mystery mixed with pirates! What's not to like? Spider John Rush has been forced by circumstances to become a pirate, but he has become resigned to his lot and at least he has made one good friend. But when the friend is murdered aboard ship, it changes his attitude. Since everyone aboard is a killer, he has no shortage of suspects but he vows to identify the culprit and exact revenge. And if he is too obvious about his investigation, he might find a knife in his own back. There is a nice balance here between adventure and detection. I would not mind seeing more of Spider John. 9/1/17

A Betrayal in Blood by Mark A. Latham, Titan, 2017, $14.95, ISBN 978-1783298662 

Sherlock Holmes looks into the facts surrounding the death of Count Dracula, Lucy Westenra, and others in this new pastiche. The author never explains why the authorities would have accepted the supernatural explanation, but Holmes is convinced it is a fantasy and that Van Helsing is a criminal mastermind like Dr. Moriarty. He sets out to prove that there was an elaborate conspiracy to cover up the truth of the deaths of half a dozen people. Although not badly written, I found the construction of the plot faulty. By declaring from the outset that Van Helsing is guilty, we not only have Holmes acting out of character - he has no evidence when he makes this decision - but it also deprives the story of any element of suspense of mystery. 8/31/17

Heartstones by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1987 

Another story of psychological disorders, this time a novella. Two sisters are distressed by the death of their mother, who had cancer. The older, Elvira, is obsessed with her father and has mixed feelings about the loss. The younger, Spinny, seems to retreat into fantasy, claiming to see ghosts. When their father eventually announces that he will remarry, Elvira vows to prevent it from happening, and there is eventually a fatal “accident” that claims the woman’s life. Elvira can’t remember whether she contributed to the accident, but she will eventually discover that this is not the only flaw in her memory. Quite well done. 8/30/17

The Moonstone's Curse by Sam Siciliano, Titan, 2017, $12.95, ISBN 978-1785652523  

A sequel to the Wilkie Collins novel. The precious gem has a new owner, a woman who is terrified of the curse and whose overly solicitous husband is only making things worse. Holmes is supposed to ensure that the jewel is safely handled until it can be placed in a bank vault, but it gets stolen anyway, and it appears to be an inside job. Although I thought that most of the solution was obvious quite early, Siciliano tells a very good story and I had read most of the novel before I realized it. One of the better Holmes pastiches. 8/28/17

On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys Bowen, Berkley, 2017, $26, ISBN 978-0-425-28350-9   

Lady Georgiana is back, this time off to a villa in Italy as part of a house party that includes pretty much all of the recurring characters, following the usual pattern. There is a blackmailer among the guests, and Nazi agents, and when the blackmailer is murdered, she is the first to realize that it is not suicide despite appearances. An incompetent Italian policeman seems unlikely to clear things up, so Georgiana has to take up the slack. I guessed the identity of the killer very quickly, but the plot plays out nicely and it's a good quality, light historical mystery. 8/26/17

A Promise to Kill by Clyde Barr, Scribner, 2017, $26, ISBN 978-1-5011-2418-1

The protagonist of this somewhat unusual thriller is a drifter whose travels have lately changed to horseback. He visits a Ute reservation town where romance comes his way, along with a gang of violent bikers. He tries to stay neutral but there wouldn't be much of a story if he succeeded and eventually this all leads to a deadly and quite violent climax. The prose is fine and the plot is okay, although it was hard to throw off a sense of déjà vu. Clyde Barr is an interesting character – this is the second of his adventures I believe – but this style of story does not generally appeal to me. It relies more on action than intelligence. 8/23/17

The Sign of Fear by Robert Ryan, Simon & Schuster, 2016

This is the fourth in a series of adventures of Dr. John Watson during World War I (Sherlock Holmes has a couple of cameos). His latest case involves a man who appears to have come from the dead, a sunken hospital ship that may not have sunk after all, and the kidnapping of five members of a commission working on compensation for disabled soldiers. His old nemesis Miss Pillbody returns as well. I've enjoyed all four of these books a great deal, although I thought this one the weakest in the series. 8/22/17

A Fatal Inversion by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1987

This is one of Rendell’s best novels, mixing elements of the detective story with her own preoccupations with psychological quirks. The bones of a woman and a child are dug up in a pet cemetery. The former owner of the property and four companions are involved with the deaths – we know this from the outset – and have avoided each other’s company for the ten years since they occurred. But we don’t know how they died, who they are, or why it all happened. This is revealed mostly through a series of flashbacks. It’s reminiscent of A Dark-Adapted Eye, but less confusing. 8/20/17

The Labyrinth of Death by James Lovegrove, Titan, 2017, $14.95, ISBN 978-1785653377

A new  Sherlock Holmes adventure, although a good deal of the detecting this time is conducted by a new character. Holmes is employed to look into the disappearance of a young woman. It does not take him long to determine that she is using a false name to infiltrate a secretive society known as the Elysians, among whom a friend of hers disappeared a few months earlier. Holmes decides that she is smart enough to be left on her own to investigate, and much of the subsequent progress of the plot is revealed in a series of letters to Holmes. Watson is scandalized by the idea of allowing a woman to put herself in jeopardy, and when a new letter arrives suggesting that all is well after all, he correctly assumes that it was written under duress. He incorrectly believes that he can singlehandedly bring about a rescue and rushes off without Holmes. The rest of the story I will leave to your imagination. A good deal less melodramatic than some recent Holmes pastiches, and Holmes spends a great deal of time on the sidelines, but the mystery is engaging if not particularly mysterious. 8/19/17

The Demon of Dartmoor by Paul Halter, Locked Room International, 2012 (from the 1993 French edition) 

A newly married woman hears rumors of a vampire witch who was executed and possibly buried in the grounds of the house. Although she does not believe in the supernatural, she becomes enmeshed in the legend and its consequences and finds her own life in peril. This one is a bit slow moving and I pretty much guessed the ending quite early, but it's one of Halter's better novels. 8/15/17

Talking to Strange Men by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1987 

The premise for this suspense novel is promising but I don’t think the author developed it enough. A group of high school boys are engaged in an elaborate game of espionage which includes leaving coded messages about. A man depressed by the collapse of his marriage thinks they are real spies and begins decoding their cryptic communications. His sister was murdered a few years earlier, but this is incidental to the plot. Both groups go through various adventures before their stories collide more solidly. A child molester is accidentally killed and that’s pretty much the climax. Entertaining enough but I think that was a missed opportunity. 8/15/17

Little God Ben by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 2016 (originally published in 1935)

This is a comic adventure rather than a mystery. Ben, the tramp who solves crimes, is shipwrecked with several other people on an island of cannibals. Through chance, Ben is mistaken for one of their gods. This leads to a great deal of frivolous activity. As a plot element, Ben's strong accent and peculiar personality is entertaining. As the centerpiece of the story, these are wearing, repetitive, and occasionally annoying. 8/14/17

The Secret Dancer by Norman Berrow, Ramble House, 2005 (originally published in 1936)  

One of this author’s lesser works. A rather chaotic live theater group becomes even more so when murder rears its ugly head. Fortunately, perhaps, there is a Scotland Yard detective in the audience. Berrow tries too hard to be witty and humorous, and the result is silly and sometimes verges on being incoherent. The mystery itself is not that interesting and the characters are too grotesquely distorted to be interesting.  8/12/17

Death of a Commuter by Leo Bruce, Academy Chicago, 1988 (originally published in 1967)

Carolus Deene is a teacher who uses his free time to investigate murders in this rather tongue in cheek detective series. This time he is looking into a commuter who is found dead of his car, apparently having committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. But the circumstances are peculiar and Deene spends some time investigating the dead man’s family and neighbors, turning up some interesting tidbits while trying to keep a young and obstreperous student placed in his care under control. The lack of a more serious tone generally is a minus for me, but Bruce manages to carry this one off pretty well. 8/11/17

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell, Bantam, 1986

The first novel Rendell wrote as by Barbara Vine is a complex family saga. We know from the outset that there was a murder thirty some years earlier, and we know who the murderer was. But we aren’t actually told the name of the victim until quite late. There are family secrets to be unraveled – children born out of wedlock, possible mental instability, the death of a child and the disappearance of another. Not all of the questions are answered. The opening chapters are quite difficult to follow – Rendell doesn’t tell us many crucial bits of information until later and there is a quite large cast of characters. It’s worth persevering to the end, but it may be a struggle for some readers. 8/11/17

The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay, Poisoned Pen, 2015 (originally published in 1936)

The patriarch of a large family has planned for one of the guests at a holiday party to dress as Santa Claus for the children. He does not, however, expect to be murdered by a costumed enemy. As it happens, there was a duplicate costume that only the killer knew to exist, and he uses it to cast suspicion on an innocent man. This was a quite good detective story by an author who only wrote, alas, three of them. Above average characterization and a nice puzzle. 8/9/17

The Dead Shall Be Raised & The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs, British Library, 2016

Two novels featuring Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard. In the first, it has been long believed that two former friends quarreled, that one killed the other, and that the killer vanished. But many years later, the body of the missing man is found and he died the same night as his supposed victim. It's not long before the killer strikes again to protect his secret, but Littlejohn ferrets out the truth. In the second, a highly respected but uncertified doctor is found murdered in his treatment room. There is also evidence suggesting that he might have once helped a fugitive to change his appearance. These are both solid if undistinguished mystery novels, with reasonably interesting puzzles and a nicely methodical unraveling.  8/4/17

Live Flesh by Ruth Rendell, Ballantine, 1986 

Ten years after he shot and permanently crippled a police officer, Victor is out on parole. Although he was never convicted of any other crime, he has committed violent rape in the past and is not certain he can resist doing it again in the future. On a whim, he looks up his victim and he and the police officer, paralyzed from the waist down, and the invalid’s girlfriend form an uneasy kind of friendship which cannot, however, last for long. The climax is disappointing but the buildup is very well done indeed. 8/4/17

The Killing Doll by Ruth Rendell, Pantheon, 1984 

Another story of a fatally dysfunctional family. Pup is a young man who has played with magic all his life, although he is in the process of growing out of it. His sister Dolly is mentally disturbed. She believes implicitly in the magic, and when their father remarries and she creates an effigy of the wife, who subsequently dies, Dolly is convinced that her brother’s magic was responsible. She then tries to use it to help a friend by killing her husband’s lover, and has to keep making excuses when the magic doesn’t work. Her grasp on reality steadily declines until she commits murder herself. But justice triumphs, after a fashion, as she stumbles into the lair of another crazed killer. One of Rendell’s better novels along these lines, although not much mystery is involved.  8/1/17

The Tree of Hands by Ruth Rendell, Pantheon, 1984 

Although I enjoyed the first half of this one, the characterization of the main character seemed inconsistent after that. A woman loses her toddler son to a rare condition during surgery. Her mother, who is not mentally sound, kidnaps another boy and tells her she is babysitting. Even though she barely interacts with the boy during the next few days, she is oddly reluctant to return him when she realizes the truth. She sends her mother out of the country so that she won’t be committed and then finds one excuse after another not to go to the police. The real mother is a pretty awful person, and she eventually gets killed so the protagonist decides to keep the boy. This was in some ways the weakest book I’ve yet read by Rendell. 8/1/17

An Unkindness of Ravens by Ruth Rendell, Pantheon, 1985 

A bigamist is murdered, stabbed to death, but neither of his families claims to know anything about the matter. The dead man was a bit too fond of very young girls, which poses one possible motive. At the same time, a young woman stabs two other men for no apparent reason, and the bigamist was also stabbed to death. Are they connected? Inspector Wexler threads his way through one of the best of his cases. 8/1/17

Ben Sees It Through by J. Jefferson Farjeon, Collins, 2016 (originally published in 1932)

Ben the Tramp is just back in England after his adventures in Spain. A man he meets on the trip offers to put him in the way of a job and provides him with an address in London, but his benefactor is stabbed to death a short time later and the police seem to believe that Ben is responsible. He is in and out of trouble as everyone seems suspicious of him – the man he was sent to see, the killers, and the police. Fortunately his friend Molly is around to lend him a hand. Weakest of the first four Ben adventures. 7/26/17

Family Matters by Anthony Rolls, British Library, 2017 (originally published in 1933)

The premise for this murder comedy is delightful. A woman whose husband has become increasingly intolerable decides to use slow poison to kill him. The victim's doctor is a psychopath who decides to use a different poison to slowly murder his patient. The man himself is fond of dosing himself with odd chemicals. To the dismay of his two would-be murderers, the two poisons counteract each other, so they begin increasing the dosage, keeping the same balance. I thought this went on a bit longer than it should have but it is genuinely funny much of the time. 7/25/17

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 Rendell’s 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 man’s 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 Rendell’s 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 didn’t 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 – 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 – and two others – 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. It’s 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 naïve 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 isn’t 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 didn’t 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

MORE REVIEWS