Corpse Diplomatique (1950) by Delano Ames

Delano Ames - Corpse Diplomatique

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“As an account like the present one unfolds I am aware that the persons involved in it should become increasingly suspect. My trouble, as I again returned to the struggle the following day, was that as I went along everyone was getting less suspect.”

The sunny streets of Nice seem very far away from revolution-torn Santa Rica. That is, until an assassin’s bullet narrowly misses the Santa Rican consul, killing a passerby. Jane and Dagobert Brown wind up with a front-row seat to murder; in fact, the fatal bullet may have been fired from their hotel. Several of their fellow guests have ties to Santa Rica, and none of them are very upset over the death of Major Hugh Arkwright. Is one of them the killer—and which man was the intended victim?

Unlike the other guests at the Pension Victoria, Major Arkwright was a long-time resident, eking out a small pension by teaching French, along with other sources of income. The owner, Mrs. Andrioli, seems to have been quite cozy with the Major. Iris  Makepeace is having a splendid time in Nice with her lover Pierre. Their time together is limited, however, since Iris’s husband Harry is on his way back from Santa Rica. Unless, of course, he’s already arrived. Elinor Duffield spent an epic summer on the Riviera in 1927. Now widowed, she hopes to relive those glory days through her daughter Sophie, who couldn’t be less interested.  In fact, Sophie has only two interests. One is black marketer Joe Orsini, whose bar is within shooting distance of the Pension. Sophie’s other hobby is her daily French lesson with Major Arkwright, until she abruptly quits. Surely it’s just a coincidence that Joe gives the Major a black eye that same day. And that the Major ends up dead just a short time later.

Hotel Negresco Nice

The conceit behind this series is that Jane, a mystery novelist, is writing up their adventures more or less as they happen (probably the very book we’re reading, omg!) So the plot is necessarily slapdash, mostly comprising Jane’s humorous observations of the characters and situations she encounters. The actual investigation, such as it is, is mostly performed by Dagobert on his own and therefore hidden from the reader. Impulsive, dramatic, and supremely confident, Dagobert never lets the facts interfere with a good theory. He is delighted by the idea of himself as a detective but seems more surprised than anyone when he actually solves the crime. Jane’s occasional baffling glimpses of her husband at work are probably funnier than following him in the narrative would be, as when she briefly spots him at a café disguised as an Arab rug merchant.

delano-ames-corpse-diplomatique-2.jpgCorpse Diplomatique is not for the impatient. The mystery takes too long to get underway, and would probably be impossible for the reader to solve. (The solution is based on information we were not given—but then again, neither was Dagobert. His scientific method consists largely of lucky guesses.) If you find the Browns funny and charming, as I do, you will forgive them all that.

The appeal of Jane and Dagobert is their humor and pleasure in each other’s foibles.  Jane’s tolerance, in particular, is amazing. If I were married to Dagobert, he would have been murdered about a hundred times over, and there wouldn’t be any mystery about it, either. He is just as supportive of his wife as she is of him, however. The Browns just take things as they come. Here, their accepting nature even extends to the killer, whose fate was surprising.

And occasionally Ames shares some true wisdom for the ages:

Brightly I had worn that new pair of suède sandals which had looked so smart yet practical in Raoul’s window in the Avenue de la Victoire. Dagobert had congratulated me on their purchase, but wondered if it might have been wiser to have bought them in my own size. With a further mile and a half to hobble before I reached home I began to think how depressingly right he had been.

Cars whizzed past unfeelingly, not one of them, of course, a taxi, and I wistfully eyed the wicker chairs of a pavement café, but remembered how fatal it is on these occasions to falter. Walking in shoes too small for you is like fighting against the temptation to sleep when you’re snowbound and in danger of freezing to death. You must go on. If you pause you are lost.

It’s rather wonderful to find a passage like this reaching across the decades. I recently had this exact experience,* minus the murder, and seventy years from now, people will still be taking ill-advised walks in uncomfortable shoes.

As the French would say (probably), plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

*If my sister is reading this, they were not the shoes you got me for my birthday. Those shoes are perfect and I should have worn them instead.

Second Opinions:

In So Many Words:

I’m having trouble containing my enthusiasm for this book, so I won’t. I only merely LOVED IT!

Clothes in Books:

I found the beginning of the book very confusing, and wondered if I’d missed a chapter or two out at one point, as there appeared to have been all kinds of people and events that I had no recollection of. I didn’t really get to the bottom of this, because the narrative picked up and I just carried on, enjoying the weird collection of people assembled in the boarding-house. 

Availability:

Corpse Diplomatique is available as an ebook.

This title has also been reprinted several times, most recently by the late lamented Rue Morgue Press, so there are quite a few physical copies floating around as well.

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The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“I think they go their separate and slightly divergent roads to perdition. Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart, and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull the wings off flies. Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever has.”

General Sternwood’s daughters are going to hell in a handbasket, and they can’t get there fast enough. When young Carmen is blackmailed by a pornographer, her father hires Philip Marlowe. The older daughter Vivian believes that Marlowe has been hired to search for her missing husband, a former bootlegger named Rusty Regan. A lot of other people seem to think so, too. And that’s even before the family chauffeur takes a long drive off a short pier in the Sternwoods’ car. As one character notes, “They seem to be a family things happen to.”

The plot of The Big Sleep is famously complicated. One of the great legends of classic Hollywood involves Howard Hawks combing through the screenplay for The Big Sleep, trying to determine who murdered the chauffeur. Finally, defeated, he reached out to Raymond Chandler—“and dammit I didn’t know either.” It’s typical of Chandler to create an impossible crime worthy of John Dickson Carr and then forget it ever happened. His plots can be hard to follow not because they are complex, but because they are careless.

The Big Sleep filmHe gets away with it in part because the Marlowe novels are among the mysteries most commonly read by people who don’t otherwise read mysteries. Due to Chandler’s status as capital-L-Literature, his works will always be read by those who have never heard of Carr and like it that way. He is one of a handful of authors who epitomize mystery fiction to the general public. It can be frustrating to see him continually singled out for “inventing the modern detective novel” or “transcending the genre” as though everyone was scratching around in the dirt until Chandler came along.

But he could write. You can open up The Big Sleep to any page, close your eyes and point, and hit a quotable line:

“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

“You have to keep your teeth clamped in Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes.”

“He was a very small man, not more than five foot three and would hardly weigh as much as a butcher’s thumb. He had tight brilliant eyes that wanted to look hard, and looked as hard as oysters on the half shell.”

“I walked to the windows and pulled the shades up and opened the windows wide. The night air came drifting in with a kind of stale sweetness that still remembered automobile exhausts and the streets of the city. I reached for my drink and drank it slowly. The apartment house door closed itself down below me. Steps tinkled on the quiet sidewalk. A car started up not far away. It rushed off into the night with a rough clashing of gears. I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets.”

“Thanks, lady. You’re no English muffin yourself.”

Okay, they can’t all be winners.

Chandler lovingly describes every building, every object, every person that Marlowe encounters. Most of all he describes Los Angeles, as I hope it really was. All of these descriptions, as witty or lyrical as they may be individually, do slow down the action. And some of them are offensive to modern readers who do not share Marlowe’s disdain for “pansies.” But these little setpieces, which seem incidental to the story, actually are the story. The mystery plot is just an excuse for them to take place.

Chandler’s plotting is messy because he doesn’t really care about the plot. He’s interested in Marlowe’s wanderings through the dark heart of the city and the people he meets along the way. However world-weary Marlowe becomes, The Big Sleep never loses the exhilaration that comes from not knowing who or what is around the next corner.

Second Opinion:

Isaac Anderson, “New Mystery Stories,” New York Times, February 12, 1939

Most of the characters in this story are tough, many of them are nasty and some of them are both…The language used in this book is often vile, at times so filthy that the publishers have been compelled to resort to the dash, a device seldom employed in these unsqueamish days. As a study in depravity, the story is excellent, with Marlowe standing out as almost the only fundamentally decent person in it.

Availability:

The Big Sleep is available in both paperback and ebook versions. Used copies are easily obtained.

Sudden Fear (1948) by Edna Sherry

Edna Sherry Sudden Fear Cover 01

9 Stars

So you’re planning a murder? For love, hate, revenge, or money. Let’s go.

It’s an old story. Playwright Myra Hudson has money, fame, intelligence—everything except youth and beauty. Everything except love. But that’s no problem if you’re willing to pay.

Her strange romance with Lester Blaine begins when she fires him from her play for being too handsome. Despite her cynicism, Myra falls deeply in love for the first time, blinded by her new husband’s beauty. If Lester doesn’t feel the same way about her, at least he plays his role to perfection. Myra seems to have found her happy ending at last, until an intriguing young woman enters their lives.

Irma is beautiful, and hard as nails. Myra is fascinated and keeps her close, using her as inspiration for a new play. It doesn’t occur to her that Lester may be fascinated as well. Myra thinks she knows the score:

Myra watched them together with a smug gusto. Her ego took credit for their looks. Others might surround themselves with charming men and pretty women, but she attracted the cream. Nothing less was Myra Hudson’s due. She looked on them almost as creations of her own hand. It never occurred to her that if they had not been outwardly superlative she would never have given either a second thought. Lester’s radiance covered a weak, greedy inanity, and Irma’s a cheap, cold calculation. But Myra’s voracious love of beauty blinded her to their intrinsic worthlessness.

Then, on the Fourth of July, her Dictaphone accidentally records Lester and Irma plotting to murder her. Divorce would be utterly humiliating—and it wouldn’t satisfy her rage. No, Myra will kill or be killed.

Over the course of a very long holiday weekend, she tries to stay alive without knowing when or how the killers may strike. “Murder is a tough chore,” but clever Myra plans to execute the perfect crime or die trying.

Edna Sherry Sudden Fear Cover 02Sudden Fear is a mean, tough little thriller. As monsters, Lester and Irma have nothing on their “victim,” Myra. We are told throughout the novel that Myra is too cool and calculating, too convinced of her own superior intelligence. A spoiled rich girl, she demands only the best, and will smash her human toys when they (inevitably) disappoint her. It’s no surprise that she would literally rather die than swallow her pride and admit she made a mistake. There is no hesitation at all about killing Lester and Irma; quite apart from their murder plot, they are witnesses to her fallibility, and they must be destroyed. “The annihilation of Lester and Irma was hardly more important to her than the necessity for saving face,” Myra acknowledges to herself. “No matter how smoothly her plan went, it would be as dust and ashes to her, if the truth got out.”

The two lovers are so painfully dumb and smug that it’s a pleasure to watch the various elements of Myra’s plan click into place, one by one. But her scheme may be too complicated for its own good. In this cage match between three would-be killers, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll come out alive.

Second Opinion:

https://swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/sudden-fear-by-edna-sherry/

In many ways, Myra and Irma are a lot alike: they both see people as objects, the disposable means to an end. Both Irma and Myra will go as far as necessary to get what they want, and they both lack some key element to their emotions. Irma is cold and reptilian, bent on clawing her way to the top while Myra uses her money and power to destroy people. Are they very different? Myra has so much power and money that she doesn’t need to use people to get ahead, but she does use people to feed her ego. Remove Myra’s money and privilege, and toss looks her way– it’s not that hard to see Myra acting a lot like Irma to get ahead.

Availability:

All of Edna Sherry’s books are out of print. Sudden Fear is rather expensive on the resale market, perhaps due to the sexy cover of the Dell paperback. (The scene on that cover actually does happen in the book, by the way. Then Irma sits around in the nude with Myra, just like I always do when meeting someone for the first time. It’s only polite.)

Sudden Fear was filmed in 1951, starring Joan Crawford as Myra and femme fatale extraordinaire Gloria Grahame as Irma. Handsome Lester, he of the “Greek puss” is inexplicably played by Jack Palance. Palance effectively portrays Lester’s menace, but one wonders what Myra saw in him in the first place. It’s a highly enjoyable film noir, equally campy and tense.

I See You (1956) by Charlotte Armstrong

I See You - Charlotte Armstrong cover

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

There was a little story. I knew there had to be.

Charlotte Armstrong’s most distinctive quality as an author is her clear-eyed but unshakable faith in humanity—certainly a rare perspective in crime fiction. Though she was capable of terrible darkness, the quintessential Armstrong plot involves the prevention of wrongdoing rather than its investigation and ends with the characters learning that they can be better people with just a little effort.

Here, she mostly sidesteps evil altogether. The only crime stories in this collection are “The Enemy” and “Miss Murphy.” The latter is also the only truly bleak story on display.

The other stories very much live up to the title of the collection. They show flawed but relatable characters making the conscious choice to recognize the humanity of others, choosing to truly see another person and to reveal themselves in return. Someone holds out a hand and someone else takes it. This sounds like Sunday-school stuff, but Armstrong makes it seem not only reasonable, but achievable.

“At the Circus”

Very short story about a baby’s first visit to the circus, with a twist at the end.

“The World Turned Upside Down”

In a too-low-key coming of age story, 12-year-old Deedee develops her first crush on an adult family friend, only to learn that his affections lie elsewhere (thank goodness!)

“The Enemy”

When young Freddy’s dog is poisoned, he knows exactly who to blame: his arch-nemesis Mr. Matlin. He rallies a mob of neighborhood children to exact justice on the killer. Disturbed by his violent behavior, the adults in Freddy’s life encourage him to seek out the truth and follow the course of the law rather than striking out in blind hatred. Everyone bears a responsibility to the next generation; if the children’s parents aren’t providing moral guidance, their teachers and neighbors must step in for the sake of society. If not, as the next story shows, it will soon be too late!

The plot and writing are not complex enough to justify its length; despite the grown-up philosophizing about kids these days, “The Enemy” feels like it could be intended for younger readers. This story was filmed in 1952 as Talk About a Stranger. As I recall, the movie has the same awkward tone of being just a little too mature for children but too juvenile for adults.

“Miss Murphy”

High-school administrator Miss Murphy should be working to discipline a gang of teenage bullies. Instead, she is fascinated by them.

“They show,” said Miss Murphy, “a certain courage. Courage in itself should be worth something.”

 “Many criminals have courage,” said Mr. Madden, “and often they have power and power is often glamorous.”

It was a fair hit and Miss Murphy knew she was flushing. “And these four have achieved a certain amount of power and glamour, pretty young and pretty cheap,” he went on. “Tell me how to jolt them out of that. And make them substitute the kind of power and glamour that you can work for for fifty years…”

Miss Murphy found herself thinking, Yes, you can work for it and hard for fifty years or for a hundred years, and never get it. And she thought, Just the same, just the same, there is something strong and bold and magnificent—about taking it. Now.

When the teens are suspected of a crime, Miss Murphy holds their fate in her hands, but the situation doesn’t play out as anyone anticipated.

“Motto Day”

Four friends decide that, for one day, they will live by an inspirational motto selected at random. When the mottoes are mistakenly switched with random phrases from a typing test, will they still be able to carry out the experiment?

The idea here is that you can change your life simply by deciding to do so and following through on the decision. The mottoes themselves don’t matter, it’s the action that counts. “Three nonsensical words. How strange that, when applied, they had turned out not to be nonsense.”

“The Weight of the Word”

The whole town is shocked when Mark Huston slaps his estranged wife in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Divorce seems inevitable—what normal man could be so enraged by a single word? But Teresa wants the judge to understand what this word has meant to them through the years, and how its significance has changed over the course of their marriage.

Luckily, she manages to convince the men that domestic violence is really the wife’s fault. A happy ending!

“The Conformers”

On the surface, they look like the perfect 1950s family. The husband commutes from

I See You cover 02
Pity the poor Gothic fan who ended up with this book!

the suburbs to his job in the city each day. The son hasn’t a care in the world, as long as his school wins the big game. And the wife has been putting off her appointment at the beauty parlor for far too long.

Each member of the family has hidden depths, however, which are revealed over the course of the day. For just a moment one evening they come together to share their secret selves, reminding the reader that every suburban tract house contains individual people, each with their own hopes, dreams, and fears.

“How They Met”

All of their friends agree, the Hartes are the most attractive couple they know. No longer young, never very good-looking, they nonetheless bring out the best in each other.. The only question is, how did two such different people meet in the first place? Sweet without being sickly, but not much to it.

“I See You”

An intense but not entirely depressing meditation on the helplessness of old age. Janet Brown is bored and frustrated in her new nursing home. However, she is about to tell her daughter-in-law that she wants to stay there, because she has no other options. As she waits outside with a minder, watching children play, the rest of her life unfolds in miniature: a long stretch of peaceful tedium interspersed with unexpected pleasures.

“All the Janets she used to be” are present as other characters in the story—the child, the young bride, the middle-aged matron—alongside the elderly woman she has now become. “She seemed to be seeing the whole pageant of her woman’s life and she thought. It was beautiful and it was cruel. It is still a little beautiful and very cruel. But that is the law. The best she could do, from now on out, was to peer at the world’s magnificence through whatever chinks she could find in a day. And be as little trouble as possible. A challenging life, if you like, she thought.”

“I See You” and “Miss Murphy” are the standouts of the collection. The only two stories that I found to be lacking were “The Enemy” and “The Weight of the Word.” The rest are well-written light fiction, but those in the mood for crime should look elsewhere.

Availability:

I See You is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press

The Blue Santo Murder Mystery (1941) by Margaret Armstrong

Margaret Armstrong - Blue Santo Murder Mystery cover 01

3-stars.jpg(3/10 stars)

Love. Money. Revenge Three good reasons for killing. But revenge is the best.

Tecos (a.k.a. Taos), New Mexico, is a beautiful place with a bloody past. Decades ago, the governor was killed by a group of Pueblo Indians whose land he stole. Six men were hanged for the crime, at least one of whom was known to be innocent.

Now the murder house is a tourist attraction. For only a dime, visitors can enjoy shuddering at the bloodstains on the floor, before moving on to more cheerful thoughts. But heiress Louisa Kearny-Pine remains disturbed by this proximity to violent death. She doesn’t yet realize that murder is even closer than she thinks.

The structure of the book is unusual, first introducing one short-lived cast of characters in Long Island, only to then reveal the shocking news that Mrs. Kearny-Pine has disappeared in Tecos. The next chapter flashes back to the previous day, so we can follow Louisa through what may be the last day of her life.

Louisa Kearny-Pine was a rich woman with high moral standards, and her entourage reflects the end result. Her husband Stephen wants to marry another woman. Cousin Rosalie is a poor relation whose duties leave her no time for romance. Either she or her love interest may have decided to hasten her inheritance. Speaking of inheritances, Louisa’s artistic nephew Algernon is on the verge of losing his thanks to his acquaintance with a certain young lady. Nurse Janet Gryce has a big secret in her past. And what about the local Pueblo Indians like James Rio, whose great-grandfather was unjustly hanged by General Kearny? Mrs. Kearny-Pine is no relation to the general, but a stranger would have no way of knowing that.

The family attorney sends socially-connected private investigator Hubert Pierce to search for Louisa. (Strangely, the police show no interest in the disappearance of the world’s richest woman. A hick sheriff does eventually appear so he can say things like, “Alibis is scarier than hen’s teeth at this hotel.”) Pierce is really a terrible detective. He eliminates suspects because they are “nice girls” or went to college with his brother. Although he’s sure Janet Gryce is innocent, he threatens to frame her if one of his high-society pals comes under suspicion. And the less said about the solution the better.

So characters and plot leave something to be desired, but the book does have some unique qualities. When a dead body is discovered, the scene is gruesome. Just when you think Golden Age mysteries are too bloodless, someone hits you with a graphic description of a corpse that is both stomach-turning and terribly sad.

Blue Santo is also unexpectedly progressive for the time in its treatment of Native American characters (emphasis on “for the time”). While absent from most of the story, it is clear that the Pueblo characters have their own lives and concerns; the problems of white tourists are simply not very interesting to them. Janet visits the pueblo twice after helping an injured child. Each time, she is uncomfortably aware that they view her as an outsider come to gawk at their quaint ways—which is exactly what she is. And far from scapegoating an American Indian for the crime, the sheriff is uncomfortable with the possibility that someone from the pueblo might be guilty. They are a powerful demographic in Tecos, and James Rio is universally respected. The sheriff and district attorney worry that their projects will stall without the support of the Pueblo. James Rio and the waitress Bella are very positive characters, if a bit one-note, but nobody is especially deep here.

Margaret Armstrong - Blue Santo Murder Mystery cover 02

The blue santo of the title refers to the Blue Santo Hotel where most of our victims and suspects are staying. Early scenes at the hotel are hilarious, as it has recently opened and the proprietress is eager to set the correct tone. Part of that tone comes from the unusual blue figurine of a saint, which Mrs. Kearny-Pine covets instantly. The statue cannot be sold for six months, and we watch as Mrs. Kearny-Pine squanders what might be her final hours on a very telling quest. Upon seeing something beautiful and special, she is not content to simply enjoy it for itself. She must own it—and not six months from now, but today. She refuses to believe that a blue santo cannot be had for any amount.

Mrs. Kearny-Pine is used to being able to buy anything she wants. Over the course of the day, however, she finds that what she really wants cannot be bought for any price. She bought a husband, but could not buy his love and fidelity. She bought a companion, but could not buy friendship. She gave to charity, but could not buy a kind heart. She has wasted the precious hours of her life chasing something that, in the end, was never real at all.

Second Opinion:

Kirkus Reviews, October 14, 1941:

“Everyone seems to have a motive — nobody has an alibi — plenty of red herrings and skeletons rattling in closets… Not up to its predecessors; dialogue artificial; too much leniency taken for granted down the line.”

Availability:

In print from Lost Crime Classics. There used to be an ebook as well, but that no longer seems to be available. The company’s website is also down, so this print edition may not be available forever.

 

#20BooksofSummer

Summer

Okay, so technically I already have a summer reading list, of books I need to either keep or toss before moving in the fall. But that’s no fun. Where are the exotic settings…murderous tourists…Humphrey Bogart?

1)      The Blue Santo Murder Mystery by Margaret Armstrong—Danger awaits an heiress vacationing in New Mexico.

2)      I See You by Charlotte Armstrong—Just felt like reading something by Armstrong, chose this volume of short stories at random.

3)      The Upfold Witch by Josephine Bell—Doctor and his wife retire to the country, start to wonder what happened to the previous inhabitant of their home. The English village setting is very appealing to me right now.

4)      High Sierra by W.R. Burnett—An old-school gangster who has outlived his era tries for one last score. Bogart film? Yes.

5)      Laura by Vera Caspary—Love the movie but, shamefully, have never read my namesake book. It strikes me as such a summer book, with passions roiling beneath the languid surface of penthouse life.

6)      The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler—I always want to read Chandler when it’s hot outside. Bogart film? Yes.

7)      A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie—Miss Marple hits the beach. A sentimental favorite I haven’t read in many years; hopefully it still stands up!

8)      The Balcony by Dorothy Cameron Disney—Unusual golden-age mystery examining the legacy of slavery in the South.

9)      The Cat Screams by Todd Downing—Second title in the Hugh Rennert series, investigating the residents of a very strange house in Mexico.

10)   The Pattern by Mignon G. Eberhart—A shrewish wife meets a nasty end at an upscale Lake Michigan resort.

11)   The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein—A mad killer wanders the steamy streets of the city, and the tabloid press is there to help.

12)   The Sign of the Ram by Margaret Ferguson—Outwardly sweet matriarch dominates her family. Can they break free of her influence? Love this kind of story and another great location on the cliffs of Cornwall.

13)   The Road to Folly by Leslie Ford—Fear comes to visit a plantation outside Charleston. I’m interested to contrast this with The Balcony: conventional magnolias in the moonlight versus what sounds like an unflinching examination of race relations.

14)   Dark Passage by David Goodis—A convicted murderer escapes from prison and gets plastic surgery. A beautiful stranger helps him, for reasons of her own. Bogart film? YES.

15)   The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith—A drifter and a pair of American tourists travel through Greece. Each thinks they’re taking advantage of the other, but who will win this dangerous game?

16)   Nile Green by Anne Hocking—Femme fatale incites skirmishes of her own in wartime Cairo.

17)   The Unforeseen by Dorothy Macardle—An Irish woman is troubled by psychic visions. Macardle is best known for her ghost story The Uninvited, but that one’s better for autumn.

18)   Compartment K by Helen Reilly—Luxurious train trip through the Canadian Rockies. Probably a murder happens? I really only care about the train.

19)   Sudden Fear by Edna Sherry—A playwright learns that her husband and friend are plotting to kill her. Can she use her talent to save her own life? Basis for a Joan Crawford film, which is better than Bogart.

20)   The Devil’s Caress by June Wright—A young doctor tries to clear her mentor of murder, by a witty and thought-provoking author.

 

Murder on Tour (1933) by Todd Downing

Todd Downing Murder on Tour Cover

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

Their last day in Mexico City. Day after tomorrow they would cross the border. Inspector Miles would be there waiting for them, with handcuffs. He must then point to one of these people with whom he had been associated for the past few days and say: ‘This person is guilty.’ There must be no doubt, no lack of proof.

And who was this person?

The life of a U.S. Customs agent can be hazardous, but John Payne never expected to be strangled to death with a silk stocking in his hotel room. Payne was on the trail of a smuggler believed to be traveling between Mexico and the United States as a member of an ordinary tour group. Now, Agent Hugh Rennert must join the tour undercover to solve the crime.

There’s nothing very earth-shaking about this setup. Nonetheless, I find myself looking back on the book fondly. Hugh Rennert is not a flashy character; he’s a quiet professional in the Inspector French mode.  He comes across as a real, rather introverted, person who doesn’t let his emotions distract him from the job at hand, despite enormous pressure to solve the crime quickly. He knows that when the tour ends, the suspects will disperse, taking with them any hope of arresting Payne’s killer.

Todd Downing Murder on Tour CoverMost of the cluing is fairly subtle—the reader is left to observe Rennert’s findings and draw their own conclusions. Unfortunately, the key information leading to the solution is so heavy-handed that it actually seemed more like a red herring. Then it was sprung as a surprise revelation at the end. I was shocked, all right, but not in the way the author intended!

Agent Rennert’s greatest passion is for Mexico, and even without Curtis Evans’ useful introduction in the Coachwhip reprint, it would be obvious that Todd Downing shared that passion. Unlike many mysteries with “exotic” settings, Murder on Tour genuinely conveys the unique atmosphere of Mexico, along with respect for its Mexican Rail Travel Posterpeople and traditions. It’s ironic that Rennert, one of the impostors of the tour group, is the one of the few who appreciates their destination. His fellow travelers have come to Mexico for profit, for nostalgia, for romance, but not necessarily for the country itself.

With thirteen tourists and the guide, it’s a large cast to keep track of, and I must admit I didn’t always manage it. Some characters barely appear and are quickly forgotten. Others are more vivid, like boisterous young schoolteacher Miss Dean, who eventually reveals a more thoughtful side.

Another character emerges briefly to create a beautiful and poignant interlude. On the Day of the Dead, Rennert shares a cab with one of the forgotten characters, an elderly widow whose mysterious appointment intrigues him.

“He had lived long here in Mexico,” Mrs. Rankin’s straight back did not relax its rigid poise, “and knew and loved her people. He used to say that here the veil between the living and the dead is thinner than in other places. He believed many of the strange old stories one hears down here. I used to listen to him without voicing my disbelief. In time, I began to wonder—about things. These people are so calm in their confidence. Once he said that if one of us died before the other, we would have a tryst in this house on the Night of the Dead. Where we had lived together. I thought at the time that he was joking. Now I do not know…

“Once a year, on the Night of the Dead, I come back here, sleep in his bed. He has not yet come back, but I feel somehow,” a street lamp shone on her tightly clenched, black-gloved hands, “that each time he is nearer to me. Each year I hope that he will come. Perhaps, I tell myself, it will be tonight.”

One might expect a detective story to take advantage of the morbid aspects of Día de Los Muertos, letting suspects menace each other in a spooky setting. Instead, Downing illuminates the true nature of the holiday through the contrast between Mrs. Rankin, wistfully remembering a loved one, and Hugh Rennert, haunted by the violent death of a stranger. This lovely moment between two people has nothing to do with the mystery, but I will remember it for a long time.

Second Opinion:

https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/a-mexican-delight-in-todd-downings-murder-on-tour-1933/

The revelation scene at the end of the story, where a trick is employed to reveal to the reader and confirm to other characters the truth concerning Payne’s murder, reminded me of Christie again, especially of course Murder on the Orient Express, where there is a train revelation scene. The choice of killer is a really good one, as even when the clues started flowing in (many of which are red herrings), I still didn’t expect it. However, this is probably because it was not a fair play mystery…as the contents of packages and telegrams are withheld from the reader. Normally this would really annoy me but I didn’t mind this time round as the narrative style is really good and the fast pace and short chapters make it a quick read…

 Availability:

Long out of print, Todd Downing’s complete mystery novels are now available from Coachwhip Publications