The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain (1934)

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

Love, when you get fear in it, it’s not love any more. It’s hate.”

Frank Chambers has always been a drifter. He’s never found anything worth staying in one place for, until the day he stumbles into a roadside diner and sees Cora Papadakis working the grill. Though their chemistry is undeniable, so is her husband, Nick. There seems to be one easy way to solve their problem, but for Frank and Cora, murder is just the beginning.

For those who find elaborate locked-room mysteries unrealistic, James M. Cain poses the opposite question: What happens when two idiots try to commit the stupidest murder imaginable? The Postman Always Rings Twice is really two books in one. It starts out dumb and sleazy, before turning into a surprisingly ingenious trap that only squeezes tighter the more Frank and Cora struggle to escape it. That second part is worth the price of admission on its own, but the lead-up is a little too sordid for me.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain In a book this terse, there’s no time to waste. No sooner has Frank gotten an eyeful of Cora than he accepts a job at the diner, where he is so overcome by lust that he can’t even keep his food down. “Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” The fact that he works for her husband Nick, and likes him, does not bother Frank at all. Indeed, the kind and innocent Nick is the only likable character in the book. The only person who doesn’t love him is his wife, who finds his Greek heritage distasteful. Early on, she blows up at Frank for suggesting she might be Mexican. Frank knows why she is so offended at the thought—“It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.” Charming. Soon, the two acknowledge their attraction (i.e., Frank mashes Cora’s lips in for her) and start to dimly consider how Nick might be gotten out of the way.

However, the same lack of impulse control that draws Cora and Frank into an affair to begin with also threatens to derail their murder plot. This luckless pair plunges into a comedy of errors they are ill-equipped to handle. When they attempt to plot a locked-room murder in the best detective story tradition, it feels all wrong. If you or I tried to pull off a John Dickson Carr-style impossible crime in real life, it would probably play out exactly like this, with a victim who doesn’t cooperate with the timetable, unreliable technology, nosy neighbors, and a cat that won’t leave the evidence alone.

The early part of Postman isn’t always much fun because it involves stupid people doing stupid things. It becomes much more entertaining when Frank and Cora start having to deal with people who are actually intelligent; to their indignation, they are in danger of becoming pawns in other people’s games. And game is the right word. Everyone else seems to be having a lot fun with Frank and Cora’s situation. Their crisis becomes someone else’s puzzle, or even just a bad joke, triggering a domino effect of fear and betrayal in the easily confused couple.

The relationship between Frank and Cora also grows more thoughtful as they must convince themselves they share a deep enough bond to justify the sins they’ve committed. After all, Cora points out, she’s no “hell cat.” She’s really a good person. And a good person like her would only consider murder in the service of a great love. Even Frank, who has fewer illusions, spends a long time trying to sort out his feelings about Cora.

What did she have that makes me feel that way about her? I don’t know. She wanted something, and she tried to get it. She tried all the wrong ways, but she tried. I don’t know what made her feel that way about me, because she knew me. She called it on me plenty of times, that I wasn’t any good. I never really wanted anything, but her. But that’s a lot. I guess it’s not often that a woman even has that.

However much Frank and Cora speak of love, though, it’s clear from the start that, for them, sex and violence are intermingled. Their moments of passion are frenzied and brutal, the wounds they inflict upon each other foreshadowing the savagery to come. Murder seems like a natural extension of their brutal sexuality, an ecstatic peak that can never again be reached. The reason it’s so difficult to convince themselves that they are killing for love is because it is actually the other way around—the murder is not a means to an end, but an end in itself, a perverse consummation of their affair.

“We’re chained to each other, Cora,” Frank tells her. “We thought we were on top of a mountain. That wasn’t it. It’s on top of us, and that’s where it’s been ever since that night.” The Postman Always Rings Twice begins as the unpleasant tale of a seamy affair before ending up in some unexpected places. Its two illicit lovers learn that there’s no such thing as getting away with murder—it’s only a question of how and when it catches up with you.

Second Opinions

Crime Fiction Lover

This classic novel by James Cain is full of flawed people, violence, lurid sex, bad choices and doomed people. It’s one of the earliest examples of noir and a book that was both successful and notorious when it was published in 1934. Despite its age, The Postman Always Rings Twice still holds up and is something that any fan of this edgier type of crime fiction should read.

Library of Congress Blog

How The Postman Always Rings Twice got its “sort of crazy” name.

Availability

The Postman Always Rings Twice is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.

The 1946 film version is available for streaming rental. It’s very effective, though, as befits a glossy MGM production starring Lana Turner, it scrubs away much of the book’s grime.

A more recent film adaptation was made in 1981, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, also available for streaming rental. I haven’t seen this one, but it is reportedly more faithful to the book.

The Ha-Ha Case (1934) by J.J. Connington

The Ha-Ha Case by J J Connington

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Nothing like a little shooting to blow away the cobwebs.”

Johnnie Brandon has a lot to celebrate on his twenty-first birthday. Even though he is the youngest son, an obscure law has made Johnnie heir to what remains of the family estate. Now that he has attained his majority, he can begin carrying out grand plans for the inheritance, guided by his tutor Thomas Laxford.

His older brother, Jim, is determined not to let that happen. He doesn’t trust Laxford, who has inserted himself so neatly into Johnnie’s life. Before Jim has a chance to talk his brother out of his plan, however, the weekend’s shooting party goes terribly wrong. Sir Clinton Driffield has a cunning killer in his sights, but, as any hunter knows, it’s one thing to spot your quarry, and quite another to bring it in.

The Ha-Ha Case is a solid country house detective novel with an intriguing setup and a solution that genuinely surprised me. The mystery itself, though detailed, is clearly explained and rarely dry. It also features an unusual structure, but this serves the book less well. This is my first experience with J. J. Connington, so I’m not sure whether it is typical for Driffield to enter the story at the last minute as he does here. Most of the investigation is handled by Inspector Hinton before his boss, Chief Constable Driffield, brings the spark of genius needed to the solve the case. In theory it’s an interesting idea, showing that even if you can spot all the evidence, it takes a special gift to be able to put it together. In practice, however, it just means going back over the same ground again and again.

The Brandon Case (The Ha-Ha Case) by J J ConningtonThe opening is nice and mysterious, as Jim Brandon arrives at his brother’s country home, Edgehill, without knowing whether he will be welcome there. For that matter, he isn’t sure how Johnnie can afford to live at Edgehill at all, given that he has no money of his own and their father cannot even pay Laxford’s tutoring bills. Jim has no idea who or what he will find in his brother’s house.

Nothing about the setup makes any sense. Johnnie is distant and evasive about both his finances and his relationship with Laxford. He seems far too close to Laxford’s wife Diana, who has “good looks of a rather hectic type and curiously disturbing hot eyes.” Johnnie is quite naive even for his age. When Jim tries to press him for details of his life, he closes off, especially after Jim blunders by criticizing Johnnie’s idealistic plan to turn their father’s estate into housing for the poor (“Think of the slums, Jim”). Jim senses Laxford’s fingerprints all over this scheme; the only thing he can’t figure out is what Laxford might be getting out of it.

It’s a small party this weekend. The only others present are the Laxfords’ governess, Una Mentieth, and a mysterious character named Hay. There is something about Hay that bothers Jim, though he can’t put his finger on exactly what.

[Jim] himself moved now among people to whom dressing for dinner was an event, and he knew the symptoms. They fumbled in the wrong pockets for their cigarettes or their pince-nez, they groped after diaries or papers they had left at home, or in extreme cases they grew embarrassed in the search for pocket-handkerchiefs. In a dozen different little ways they betrayed that they were clothed in unaccustomed garments. But Hay had none of these troubles. His hand went automatically to his cigar-case when he wanted it. He carried his dinner-jacket as though it were part of his habitual wear. And yet in some subtle way the coat and the man inside it failed to harmonize.

Una seems to be on Jim’s side, as the two share many snobbish laughs together making fun of the lower classes. In fact, she appears to have a lot more money than most governesses. And right from the start, Una seems to be steering Jim in a particular direction, with unclear motives.

As the sun rises on Johnnie’s twenty-first birthday, the four men head out on a hunting expedition that will end in tragedy. This chapter is marvelously titled “The Ha-Ha of Death,” and Johnnie will indeed meet his demise at that ironically named location. (“The junction of high and low ground was demarcated by a ha-ha,” Connington helpfully shares, “a four-foot stone wall forming a tiny cliff, its top flush with the slope and its base resting on the horizontal stretch below.”)

Police must determined whether Johnnie’s death was an accident, suicide, or murder. This task falls to Inspector Hinton, an ambitious detective who has been waiting for this kind of big chance, though “it never crossed his mind that he might not be equal to the emergency when it came.” As an investigator, Hinton certainly has feet of clay. Though competent and thorough, he seems to lack the imagination needed for such a complex case. His arrogance and unwillingness to collaborate makes him unpopular with colleagues.

In his rare moments of expansion, Inspector Hinton would impress upon his subordinates that a member of the police force should function like a perfect machine, smoothly, efficiently, and without emotion of any sort. “Like me, you understand?” he would add modestly, to make the matter perfectly clear.

Hinton is dogged in pursuit of evidence, but takes a narrow view of what information might be relevant to the case. While The Ha-Ha Case would never be mistaken for a character-driven mystery, there are a few vividly drawn characters, including Hinton. He’s a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, yet he’s not a bad detective, so there is some suspense in wondering just how close he is getting to the truth.

Another entertaining character is the Laxfords’ maid, Miss Tugby. This rather downtrodden figure, sneeringly nicknamed “Beauty” by Inspector Hinton, devotes herself to gossip with the intellectual fervor of a Marie Curie.

It cannot be denied that she habitually listened at doors, and that no letter escaped her perusal if its owner left it within her reach. But these practices were not dictated by any hope of personal advantage. Indeed, much that she overheard through the keyhole of the servants’ hall was greatly to her disadvantage, for the cook had decided views about her efficiency.

Miss Tugby, in fact, like many a distinguished scientist, “wanted to know about things.” The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, without ulterior design, was her object…In most scientists the thirst of knowledge is accompanied by a desire to publish to the world the results which they have acquired…Here the orthodox scientist had a decided advantage over Miss Tugby, who had no Journal or Transactions in which to record her discoveries. But Nature ever finds a way. In addition to her sharp nose and receptive ears, Miss Tugby had a mouth and a mother.

Driffield’s willingness to listen patiently to anyone, to seek help on topics he is unfamiliar with, and to think outside the box serve him well in this case. He is at pains to point out that Hinton actually has gathered all the evidence needed to solve the crime. This is technically true, but it would take an expert to know some of the obscure information required to interpret these facts.

If Driffield had entered the case a bit sooner, The Ha-Ha Case would be tighter and less repetitive. Even so, however, Connington keeps things fairly lively—this is not the first time I’ve been surprised at how nimbly a “humdrum” mystery author is able to introduce and explain highly detailed information while keeping the reader’s attention. The situation brings some unusual legal elements into play, setting the stage for an excellent solution.

Second Opinions

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

So, a decent read, and I wish I’d been in a better state of mind to concentrate on the fiddlier aspects (although it’s all explained clearly enough at the end). Another example of why Connington shouldn’t be overlooked, as this book certainly isn’t Humdrum. Well Worth A Look.

Martin Edwards

The snag is that here (as compared, for instance, to the superior The Sweepstake Murders) Connington allowed plot contrivance to dominate the book. As a result it is rather awkward in construction, and the trickery used to disguised the surprise solution is not entirely satisfying. These are significant criticisms, yet the flaws did not destroy my enjoyment, because I find Connington’s ambitious and sometimes unorthodox approach to be rather admirable. He was trying to do something different, yet play fair with the reader, and these are excellent aims for a writer of traditional mysteries.

The Grandest Game in the World

Although not a sensational SURPRISE! story, this is thoroughly satisfying, and highly recommended to all who enjoy old-fashioned detective stories.

Availability

The Ha-Ha Case is available in paperback from Coachwhip under its American title, The Brandon Case.

Mr Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard (1934) by David Frome

Mr Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard by David Frome

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Guilty knowledge is something that human beings cannot successfully cope with, and the more intelligent they are, the more it betrays them.”

The sun is shining on this August bank holiday. Mr. Pinkerton is surrounded by happy crowds. He should be happy himself, but he can’t help worrying about a foolish wager he made with his friend Inspector Bull. The Inspector is certain Scotland Yard could never mistake a murder for natural death. Mr. Pinkerton suspects otherwise. Now he is near the end of the betting period, however, without a single case of murder to show for himself.

The last thing Mr. Pinkerton expects is for a murder case to sit down right beside him on a park bench, but that is just what happens. Old Mrs. Ripley is dying. Local gossips suspect poison. Mr. Pinkerton isn’t sure what to think, but he knows one thing for sure: unless he discovers the truth, innocent lives will be destroyed.

Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard is an amusing light mystery, revealing dark secrets hidden behind closed doors. It takes place in Richmond which, in spite of its proximity to London, is portrayed as a bucolic small town, where everyone knows everything about everyone else…until murder shows just how little they really know.

The story opens with a vivid portrait of the bank holiday festivities, with Mr. Pinkerton feeling lonely amidst the crowd.

Mr. Pinkerton stood in the middle of the terrace, looking wretchedly down on the bright holiday crowd. It seemed to him that some venomous foul thing was waiting above them, poised, ready to strike and blot out all the laughter and color and innocence…and it seemed to him that it was up to him to stop it.

Despite his comic eccentricities, Mr. Pinkerton is at times a poignant character, leading a small and isolated life. Ironically, it takes the suspicion of murder to make him feel he has a place within this happy throng.

A family poisoning is an intimate crime, so the investigation focuses on Mrs. Ripley’s nearest, who are not necessarily her dearest. A miserly chronic “invalid,” Mrs. Ripley used her imaginary ailments and her money to control her three children, threatening to cut them off financially if they marry. “The people who stood to gain the most by Mrs. Ripley’s death each needed money,” says Inspector Bull. “They each needed freedom.”

Evelyn is the dutiful daughter who prepares all of her mother’s food. She is in love with (but unable to marry) Portus Ladysmith, vicar of a slum church that always needs money. Charlotte actually did elope, with tragic results. Now a penniless widow, she has only recently started reconciling with her mother—by sending her a gift of food. Hugh is in love with Linda, the girl next door, but will not risk his mother’s wrath by marrying her. As a result, Linda is now engaged to Monty Paget, “pots of money and no brains. Delightful fellow, complete jackass.” Monty says things like, “Oh, I say, Inspector! You’re not tryin’ to say we put arsenic in the cocktails? Oh, I say, that is jolly!”

Mr Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard by David FromeMr. Pinkerton manages to track down this family on the basis of his overheard conversation. He warns her physician, Dr. Freebody, that his patient may be in danger. Unfortunately, it is already too late. Mrs. Ripley dies that very day, and Mr. Pinkerton’s best friend, Inspector Bull, is on the case.

There have been some big changes in the lives of these characters since their first appearance in The Hammersmith Murders. Inspector Bull, who was once the star boarder in the Pinkertons’ rooming house, is now married and living in a home of his own, though he and his former landlord remain close. Mr. Pinkerton still lives in the big house in Golders Green, but under very different terms. His emotionally abusive wife has died, leaving Mr. Pinkerton a small fortune that she had secretly stashed away over the years.

The shy and self-effacing Mr. Pinkerton still hardly knows what to do with his new freedom. After so many years of harsh treatment, he finds it difficult to spend a few shillings on the little luxuries that mean so much to him without imagining some kind of reprisal from his wife. The late Mrs. Pinkerton remains very much on her husband’s mind, controlling his life from beyond the grave. Mr. Pinkerton’s attempts to shake off the effects of his oppressive marriage, as well as his own natural anxieties, can be rather sad. He is afraid of nearly everything, castigating himself for spending sixpence on an ice and panicking as he tries to decide where to sit in a large tearoom. Mr. Pinkerton can only forget his inhibitions when he is investigating a case. He will do anything, suffer any affront to his dignity, in pursuit of a suspect. As silly as his adventures can be, they are important for his emotional development.

Here, he is thrilled to be asked to join the official investigation for the first time; his other efforts have all been undertaken purely on his own. All this ends up meaning, however, is that Mr. Pinkerton gets to be in the room when some of the suspects are questioned. He is too self-conscious to do much else. The book is therefore split into two halves: first, Mr. Pinkerton’s mildly zany amateur sleuthing, then Inspector Bull and the vast machinery of Scotland Yard take over.

I will admit to finding Mr. Pinkerton’s inquiries more entertaining than Inspector Bull’s, but both suffer from the same problem—they are so focused on a particular suspect that the investigation becomes lopsided. Most of the story deals with this single suspect, only to sort of cram in the others quickly near the end. Though the culprit is not too surprising, the denouement is expertly done. The pleasures of the book come less from the mystery itself than from the details of ordinary life and striking characters, like the Ripleys’ neighbor Mrs. Coburn-Smith, whose eyes “contracted wickedly, like an old parrot’s preparing to swear dreadfully in front of the parson.”

Overall, Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard is a droll, easygoing detective story. Like the endearing Mr. Pinkerton himself, the book has modest ambitions and achieves them all, providing a perceptive, humorous look at life and death among the middle class.

Second Opinions

In so many words

I enjoy whodunits and this is a pretty good one even if the reasoning in the end is a bit faulty.

Availability

Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard (also published as Arsenic in Richmond) is out of print, with a few used copies available. It was reprinted as part of the omnibus Mr. Pinkerton and Inspector Bull, which can be viewed at

 

Criss-Cross (1934) by Don Tracy

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“What a succession of double-crosses had led up to all this […] Double-cross on double-cross. So many of them piled on top of each other. Double-cross on double-cross until the jumble became a big crisscross.”

It’s been said that there are only three motives for murder: love, money, or revenge. Some crimes are caused by all three. Johnny Thompson is a down-on-his-luck former boxer, trying to support his mother and brother by working as an armored car driver. Since they were kids, Johnny has loved Anna. Anna likes Johnny, but what she really loves is money. So she marries Slim, who always has plenty of dough and isn’t too particular about where he gets it.

Then Johnny sees a chance of getting everything he’s ever dreamed of. It’s not moral, and it’s not legal, but a smart guy like him could get away with it. Johnny thinks he knows all the angles. By the time he realizes what kind of game he’s really playing, he’s already in way over his head.

Criss-Cross by Don TracyBe careful what you wish for, because you may get it. Criss-Cross is the hardboiled tale of boxers, prostitutes, and petty criminals trying to get by in a working-class area of Baltimore. At the center of this tough story, however, is a raw, bleeding heart. Johnny’s yearning for Anna colors every aspect of his life, eventually leading him down a very dark road. In a world of crime and violence, love may be the deadliest weapon of all.

From the beginning, Johnny knows that Anna is no good. She’s happy to go out with him when he has the money to show her a good time, but during the Depression, those moments are few and far between. When Johnny can’t afford to take her out and asks if they can simply spend an evening at home together, she laughs in his face. “I must have had it bad, you see, knowing she was only playing me for a good thing and still letting her get away with it.” Even as he becomes more disillusioned with Anna, Johnny’s love for her never wavers. It’s like an addiction. He spends most of his time trying not to think about her, trying to keep away from her, only to be drawn back into her orbit by forces beyond his control.

I put on my blue suit and began walking around town, trying to find something to do that would keep me away from Anna. I walked around in a circle that kept getting narrower and narrower until it was just around the block in which Anna’s apartment was. And then I began to tremble and I walked fast and straight to the doorway of her place.

It soon becomes clear to Johnny that Anna will never feel the same way about him as he does for her. By then, it no longer matters. His obsession has taken over. He is determined to win Anna by any means necessary, though “it isn’t easy to accept a bum imitation of something you’ve wanted a long time. But I was going to have everything she could give anybody. I was going to pay for it, but I was going to have it.”

Johnny’s chance comes from an ironic source: Anna’s husband, Slim Dundee. Slim is planning to rob an armored car, and he needs an inside man. Johnny is reluctant to work with a man he can’t trust, unsure of what Slim knows about his relationship with Anna.

I was afraid of him. I knew it and I knew he was the first man in my life I’d ever been afraid of. When you’re afraid of a man, he doesn’t have to be a better fighter than you. You beat yourself.

Despite his misgivings, Johnny decides it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. However, what should be a straightforward crime becomes tangled in a series of betrayals and misunderstandings, with shocking results.

The Cheat by Don TracyCriss-Cross is the terse story of a man who thinks he understands the worst about human nature (his own and others), only to learn that he still isn’t aiming low enough. Though he’s still very young, Johnny has been knocking around for a long time. One of the book’s pleasures is its matter-of-fact portrayal of a rough neighborhood in which the “respectable” poor like Johnny’s family are brought into constant contact with criminals, slowly eroding their values. (You know your protagonist is living in a noir world when the nice girl who really loves him is a prostitute.) In such an environment, it’s difficult to know who’s straight and who’s crooked. Johnny thinks he knows the score, but, as he gets in deeper and deeper, his story takes some unexpected turns. The deceptively simple first-person narration sounds objective, lulling the reader into accepting Johnny’s version of events. Only later does it become clear that there’s more to Johnny than he’s letting on—perhaps even more than he’s aware of himself.

The simplicity of the prose makes Johnny’s naked longing all the more powerful by forcing him to express the most profound feelings in the starkest possible terms, boiling them down to their basic essence. Sometimes there is nothing more tragic than a simple statement of fact.

She was always saying “I love you” now. When we were together, she’d say it over and over again. It would have been fine, if I hadn’t always the idea that she was trying to convince me of something that wasn’t true. Like a kid repeating a lie over and over again, hoping that if it was repeated enough times it would be true. I knew Anna didn’t love me, and the sound of her voice saying “I love you” all the time got to be almost as bad as the times she had laughed at me when I asked her to love me.

The characters all remain a little sketchy, leaving the reader to fill in the details. We are as much in the dark as Johnny is, unsure who can be trusted—if anyone.

Criss-Cross opens with a dossier, Johnny’s employee file from the armored car company.  Here are the facts, Don Tracy seems to be saying, and now here’s the truth, the real story of Johnny Thompson. It’s a short and brutal one that sometimes goes in a very different direction than he (or the reader) expects. In the end, the tragedy of Johnny is that he may be the person least capable of understanding his own story.

Second Opinions

Bill Crider

This is a neat little noir, told in the flat, objective style that was coming on strong in the ’30s. If you’ve only seen the movie, you might want to check it out.

Criminal Element

Tracy may not have been James M. Cain, but judging by this novel, he wasn’t all that terribly far behind. Honestly, if someone new to the world of classic hardboiled fiction asked me for a good example of such a book, I would be perfectly comfortable pointing them in the direction of Criss-Cross. 

Vintage Hardboiled Reads

Well written and sharp. I really enjoyed the novel and it’s atmosphere of the struggling times of 1930s Baltimore.

Availability

Criss-Cross (also published as The Cheat) is out of print, with used copies available. The 1949 film version, starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo, is highly recommended.

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart (1934)

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart

6 stars (6/10 stars)

So this was murder. This was murder, and it happened to people one knew, and it did indescribable and horrible things to them. Frightened them first, perhaps. Fear of murder itself came first—simple, primitive fear of the unleashing of the beast. And then on its heels came more civilized fear, and that was fear of the law, and a scramble for safety.”

The Cases of Susan Dare collects the adventures of a young author who writes “murders…lovely, grisly ones with sensible solutions,” but doesn’t see why her fictional sleuths should have all the fun. Aside from her series detective, Nurse Sarah Keate, Mignon G. Eberhart’s work usually focuses more on romantic suspense than crime-solving, so it’s a nice change of pace to see both elements combined in these stories.

Over the course of the stories, Susan develops from a reluctant amateur, to an aspiring detective learning confidence in her skills, to a serious professional investigator. It is a clear through-line, yet Eberhart seems uncomfortable presenting a young woman as a competent detective.

Susan has a gift for spotting things that don’t quite fit and looking for connections between them. Her methods are supremely logical—even if she instinctively suspects a particular individual, she will not act in the absence of physical evidence. At the same time, she is quick to downplay her own abilities. It’s frustrating because no matter how intelligent she is and how skilled at crime-solving, there is always some little moment that undercuts her success, trying to make her smaller and softer. Her boyfriend Jim compares one of her solutions to an algebra problem, for example, only for a horrified Susan to interject that it’s actually like a patchwork quilt: not intellectual work, but domestic and unthreatening. The moment a case heats up, Susan runs off to make tremulous phone calls begging Jim for help, and at the conclusion of a successful investigation, it is happily noted that “the woman was home where she belonged.” It’s especially irritating because Susan doesn’t need Jim’s help to solve her cases. He only provides moral support, but she acts as if she can’t do anything without him. The stories themselves are otherwise enjoyable, and several are even quite superior, so it’s a bit depressing to see a smart, independent career woman being undermined in this way.

Introducing Susan Dare (6/10)

Susan has been enjoying her visit with Christabel Frame, until Christabel’s brother Randy turns up. Randy is spending far too much time with fellow houseguest Michela Bromfel, and her husband Joe is taking notice. Everyone can see that Randy and Michela are asking for trouble. But when trouble comes, it is more horrible than anyone could have expected. Susan feels helpless, until newspaper reporter Jim Byrne makes a fateful suggestion: “Now, here’s your chance to try a real murder mystery.”

After a long time Susan moved to the writing table and drew a sheet of yellow manuscript paper toward her, and a pencil, and wrote: Characters; possible motives; clues; queries.

It was strange, she thought, not how different real life was to its written imitation, but how like. How terribly like!

Lots of unusual clues and a good introduction to Susan and Jim, but the solution is not exactly fair play unless you have expertise in a certain field.

Spider (8/10)

“You can’t just be afraid,” insists Susan. “You’ve got to be afraid of something.” But that’s what Caroline Wray is. She’s just afraid. At Jim Byrne’s suggestion, Caroline invites Susan to the Wrays’ gloomy Chicago residence to get to the bottom of it. Susan soon learns what Caroline is afraid of: her forbidding cousin Jessica, her nephew David, and, most of all, her sister Marie.

It must be Marie Wray—the older sister; the adopted Wray who was more like old Ephineas Wray than any of them. Her face was in shadow with the light beyond it, so Susan could see only a blunt, fleshy white profile and a tight knot of shining black hair above a massive black silk bosom. She did not, apparently, know of Susan’s presence, for she did not turn. There was a kind of patience about that massive, relaxed figure; a waiting. An enormous black female spider waiting in a web of shadows. But waiting for what?

A wonderfully sinister tale of family menace in a creepy Victorian mansion—and there’s a monkey.

Easter Devil (5/10)

Susan Dare is in search of devils as she investigates the murder of a servant at the country estate of Gladstone Denisty. Working undercover, “Nurse Dare” finds many strange clues, like her patient Felicia’s obsession with broken glass, and the ominous Easter Island statue that is believed to be a harbinger of death. There’s plenty of spooky atmosphere here also, but the mystery doesn’t come together as well. This is one where Susan holds back for a long time due to lack of evidence, and the evidence never really does coalesce.

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart 2The Claret Stick (6/10)

They say a bad dress rehearsal means a good opening night. If that’s the case, than the Kittiwake community theater’s next show should be a smash hit, as leading man Brock Cholster is bludgeoned to death during the rehearsal. With the theater doors locked, the only people who could have killed him are his fellow cast members. They include his wife Jane, his sister Adelaide, and their next-door neighbor Tom Remy, not to mention the show’s director Dickenson. An intricate closed-circle mystery with a well portrayed theatrical setting.

The Man Who Was Missing (5/10)

It’s news to Susan that Chicago has a French Quarter, but that is where her latest case has taken her. School friend Mariette Berne, a French immigrant who has fallen on hard times, needs Susan’s help. Her boyfriend André vanished from his locked room during the night. The moment Susan arrives at Madame Tousea’s boarding house, she knows that Mariette’s suspicions are correct—there is something wrong about this house. But does the sense of unease come from Madame herself, or one of the other boarders? As usual, Eberhart nails the atmosphere, in this case the hot, stifling feel of a run-down boarding house in the dead of summer. The solution is less convincing, however; in fact, it’s completely ridiculous.

The Calico Dog (8/10)

Twenty years ago, little Derek Lasher was kidnapped. His mother Idabelle has never given up hope that her son was alive, and her prayers have been answered twice over—two men have come forward claiming to be Derek. Both claimants, Dixon and Duane, seem like such nice young men, but they have a great incentive to lie: the real Derek is heir to a thirty-million-dollar fortune. The bewildered Idabelle turns to Susan Dare for help in determining which one is her missing son.

Until their identities are confirmed, both men are living in the Lasher mansion. Susan thinks this is “an invitation to murder,” and she’s right. One family’s private tragedy results in a public murder, right in the middle of a crowded charity ball. Despite dozens of witnesses, no one can identify the killer. An irresistible premise and good clueing make up for Susan holding back a significant fact from the reader.

Second Opinion

A Penguin a Week

Susan Dare is not an unappealing character, and taken one at a time these stories are probably fine, if a little unlikely, but grouped together like this it is impossible to miss their formulaic quality.

Availability

The Cases of Susan Dare is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press.

The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“I mean to say, bygones are bygones and all that and one hates digging anything up, what? But when it comes to dead bodies in other people’s graves and so on, well, sometimes one gets wondering about them and all that sort of thing, don’t you know.”

Old ways still endure in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. Sir Henry Thorpe presides over his estate, the harvest festival is always observed, and the church bells—the nine tailors—are rung to announce a death in the community. Between New Year’s Eve and Easter, the nine tailors will ring out three times as fresh graves reveal old sins. In order to stop the deaths, Lord Peter Wimsey must discover what long-ago secret is hidden within the peals of the bells.

The Nine Tailors has the reputation of being half mystery, half bell-ringing. That’s not entirely accurate. It’s more like forty percent mystery, forty percent bell-ringing, ten percent rural dialect, and ten percent drainage. For most readers (including me), that will still be far too much specialized bell discussion for their taste. It’s especially unfortunate that so much of it is concentrated in the first section of the book—I’ve tried reading The Nine Tailors before and never even made it to the murder because my mind was so dazed by passages like: “The ninth lead should bring Queen’s change–let me see, let me see–51732468, 15734286–that’s the first thirds and fourths all right–51372468, 15374286–and that’s the first fourths and thirds–13547826…” It turns out there’s an interesting mystery buried in here somewhere; it’s just that Sayers makes it awfully difficult to find.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L SayersThat long prologue finds Lord Peter Wimsey and his man, Bunter, stranded in Fenchurch St. Paul when their car breaks down during a New Year’s Eve snowstorm. They seek shelter with the local vicar, a bell-ringing enthusiast whose plans to ring a complicated sequence for the new year are threatened by the illness of one of his ringers. Wouldn’t you know, Wimsey once swung a mean bell himself. He happily steps in, endearing himself to the villagers. One would think the opposite, since if he had not offered his services, they would not have had to listen to nine hours of church bells in the middle of the night.

Sadly, the bell-ringers are back in the church tower sooner than anticipated. Lady Thorpe, the squire’s wife, has died. It’s an unexpected death, but, everyone believes at the time, a natural one. A few months later, however, a headless, handless corpse is found buried in Lady Thorpe’s grave. Wimsey learns that nearly twenty years ago, on the eve of Sir Henry and Lady Thorpe’s wedding, one of their guests was robbed of a priceless emerald necklace. Reimbursing the cost of the necklace ruined the Thorpes financially, and the stones have never been located. Wimsey becomes convinced that the new murder is connected to this long-ago crime. Over the course of the year, he sort of pokes around at both mysteries in a leisurely fashion.

He is especially intrigued to learn that the dead man had been asking around the village for a Paul Taylor, since “Tailor Paul” is the name of one of the church bells. On the basis of this rather flimsy evidence, Wimsey begins haunting the church, much to the confusion of Superintendent Blundell, who can never keep track of whether he’s talking about a bell or a person. (Join the club!) While Sayers wrings quite a bit of menacing atmosphere from the bells, which at times seem to come alive with malevolent—and even murderous—intent, it’s just an awful lot about bells.

He passed up through the great, bare clock-chamber, released the counterpoise and climbed again till he came out beneath the bells. There he stood for a moment, gazing up into their black mouths while his eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness. Presently their hooded silence oppressed him. A vague vertigo seized him. He felt as though they were slowly collapsing together and coming down upon him. Spell-bound, he spoke their names: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul. A soft and whispering echo seemed to start from the walls and die stealthily among the beams. Suddenly he shouted in a great voice: “Tailor Paul!” and he must somehow have hit upon a harmonic of the scale, for a faint brazen note answered him, remote and menacing, from overhead.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L SayersThe investigation itself is intriguing, as the threads of both the murder and the jewel theft extend across great expanses of time and place. The more Wimsey finds out, the more confusing the situation becomes. There is a lot of information that is not properly straightened out until the end, resulting in a mysterious but somewhat frustrating atmosphere. Suspicious people and circumstances keep piling up, as no one can be definitively ruled in or ruled out. Along the way, Wimsey meets many suspects and witnesses whose lives have been torn apart by these crimes; their positions are tragic, yet ambiguous. It’s worth noting, given Sayers’ soft spot for the aristocracy, that the only entirely innocent victims here are the landed gentry. The poor must make compromises that lead them into dangerous positions, and perhaps even murder.

Although she is hard-up by the standards of her class, the one character who never has to compromise is the appealing Hilary Thorpe. Fifteen-year-old Hilary doesn’t mind the loss of her inheritance because she intends to earn her own living as a best-selling author. “You’ll want a bit of experience before you can write novels, old girl,” her father cautions. “Rot, Daddy,” she replies. “You don’t want experience for writing novels. People write them at Oxford and they sell like billy-ho. All about how awful everything was at school.” At first, it seems Hilary is being set up as a girl sleuth and sidekick to Wimsey. He is certainly impressed by the clues she spots, and gives her some advice that may come from the author’s own hard-won experience.

“If that’s the way your mind works, you’ll be a writer one day […] Because you have the creative imagination, which works outwards, till finally you will be able to stand outside your own experience and see it as something you have made, existing independently of yourself. You’re lucky.”

“Do you really think so?” Hilary looked excited.

“Yes—but your luck will come more at the end of life than at the beginning, because the other sort of people won’t understand the way your mind works. They will start by thinking you dreamy and romantic, and then they’ll be surprised to discover that you are really hard and heartless. They’ll be quite wrong both times—but they won’t ever know it, and you won’t know it at first, and it’ll worry you.”

Far too soon, however, Hilary vanishes from the story. Just as she has planned, she is off to boarding school, with Oxford in the future. Despite the hand-wringing over how the theft of the emeralds ruined the Thorpes’ lives, they’re not really poor. There’s enough money for Hilary to live her dream. She gets to rise above the messiness of crime, while other characters have no choice but to keep living in that dirt, however much they may want to leave it behind.

The Nine Tailors is a strange mixture. A crime of the past reaching into the present is a classic premise that always works. When Sayers sticks to this, the book is at its most effective. Though the circumstances of the crime are complicated, the solution has a wonderful simplicity. The portrayal of the bells is also fascinating: far from being the background noise of daily life, in this village they have a dangerous physicality that must be respected, even appeased. The bells are ominous and omnipresent, ready to turn on anyone who enters their lair. Little of that research about bell-ringing that drags down the book so much is actually needed. The bells are frightening enough on their own, but their horror is muted by the sheer weight of all the technical details. The Nine Tailors is an ambitious effort, and certainly something different in the mystery genre. Unfortunately, it is trying to do so many other things that it sometimes forgets to be a mystery at all.

Second Opinions

A Crime Is Afoot

It’s beautifully written and is a very fine literary mystery; the plot is extremely interesting and the story is well-developed; the characters are properly drawn and interact credibly; the resolution is flawless and it has a good sense of time and place.

The Grandest Game in the World

One of Sayers’ best novels. The Fen country village, with its church, is magnificently drawn, and the church services show as much feeling and power as the powerful bells, at once beautiful and menacing.

Availability

The Nine Tailors is available in the US as an ebook from Open Road Media and in the UK as a paperback or ebook from Hodder & Stoughton.

The Death Wish (1934) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

The Death Wish by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“He hates his wife. He’s not just irritated or bored with her. He hates her. That’s a damned ugly thing.”

Every morning, Shawe Delancey drives to the station, commutes to the office, then comes home again for dinner with his wife. On the surface, his life seems ordinary. The truth is quite different, however. His wife Josephine flies into miserable rages, demanding that he account for every moment of his day. Delancey is driven to the station by a chauffeured limousine paid for by his wife. All day, he sits alone in an office also financed by Josephine, waiting for business that never comes. And every evening, he returns, at the last possible moment, to a lonely house. It’s always just him and Josephine because she has quarreled with all the neighbors.

If only he could be more like his friend Bob Whitestone, with a loving wife like Rosalind. Whitestone seems to have everything a man could want—until the night he shocks Delancey with words that will change both of their lives forever: “I wish to God I could kill her.”

The Death Wish is a powerful work of psychological suspense that hinges on the danger of words, the way a wish, once spoken aloud, becomes real, regardless of whether it is ever acted upon. In a single, horrifying moment, Delancey finds himself bound to Whitestone forever by their shared desire to kill their wives. Whether either murder actually takes place is not the point. What Elisabeth Sanxay Holding so brilliantly explores is what happens to an ordinary person as they discover the evil that lies hidden within themselves.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Delancey would find Josephine difficult to deal with. Her jealousy and bad temper are exhausting; at the moment, the only friends she has left are the ones she’s bought, which include her husband. The shy, insignificant Delancey is an unlikely subject for Josephine’s passion, but it is precisely his milquetoast nature that makes it possible to withstand these explosions.

He felt no anger against her, only an immense boredom. These scenes had happened before; she made herself ill by them, by her wild unreasonable jealousy. He had never been unfaithful to her, or even contemplated such a thing, but he could not convince her of that. The only way to end these miserable episodes was by making love to her, flattering her, letting her “forgive” him—for what he had not done.

Whitestone’s predicament is less obvious. Rosalind is everything Josephine is not: young, cheerful, and unfailingly supportive of her husband’s artistic career. She never complains about their financial struggles. According to Whitestone, however, Rosalind subtly undermines his confidence at every turn, convincing all of their friends that his failure as a husband is wearing her down to the bone. She is determined to portray herself as his victim, plastering on “that brave, bright smile.”

Into the lives of these two men comes Elsie Sackett, the young houseguest of their neighbor. Is Elsie a nice girl, a ministering angel, a femme fatale, or simply a stubborn fool? She is all of these things and more. The male characters see Elsie as a puzzle to be solved. What they fail to realize is that she isn’t very interested in being figured out. She remains defiantly, perhaps ruinously, independent, determined to follow her own star no matter where it may lead her. “Whatever else you might say about her, she’s certainly no coquette,” one character observes. “But she’s a troublemaker…”

Over the course of the novel, Elsie will develop quite different relationships with Whitestone, Delancey, and fellow guest Hugh Acheson. Hugh is a wealthy sportsman with little interest in women; he is used to having eligible young ladies dangled in front of him and equally accustomed to politely brushing them off. He’s never met anyone quite like Elsie, though it’s less her personality that attracts him than the strange predicament she finds herself in. For the man who has everything, there is nothing more enticing than a real-life hunt, with murder as the stakes.

Hugh’s forays into amateur detection do not make him popular with the other characters, who label him a “prig” and “hard.” The Death Wish is explicit about the hazards of trying to solve a crime among people you know, aware all the while that the truth will hurt some of them greatly. Here, the police are nothing more than distant enemies. Holding keeps all interactions with law enforcement off screen—visits to the police station and jail are not important for what evidence they might disclose, but for what they reveal about the characters and their emotions. In fact, the reader forgets for long stretches of time that the police are even involved, allowing for some big surprises at the end. For this group, the police are merely a technicality. The one they really fear is Hugh, whose unrelenting pursuit of justice gives him the power of life or death over his friends.

I don’t enjoy hunting down the poor devil. I’m sorry for him…But it’s morbid—it’s dangerous—to keep all your pity for the people who break the laws, and have none for the victims. There’s no one who gets through life without any temptations. Most people are able to resist them, and they’re the ones to be considered, not the others.

It is Hugh, just as much as Delancey and Whitestone, who must confront an evil wish in his own heart. What right does he have to set himself up as an avenging angel, knowing that his quest must end in someone else’s death?

All of these characters are wonderfully complex. Delancey, who views himself as an indulgent and long-suffering husband, is also a spoiled gold-digger. Elsie is fiercely loyal, but to all the wrong people, unrepentant at the havoc she wreaks in the process. Even Josephine’s antics come from a pure love for her husband. There are no simple archetypes here. Everyone is a real person with both good and bad impulses, loves and hatreds that don’t always make sense. They mostly mean well, and that’s exactly what gets them into trouble.

Like Jean Potts’ 1962 novel The Evil WishThe Death Wish is not too interested in the literal truth of whether its characters have committed murder. The guilt is in the wishing. The moment Whitestone and Delancey admit, even just in their own minds, that they long for the death of another human being, they are lost. This guilty knowledge will shape the rest of their lives—everything that happens from this point on springs from that original sin. The Death Wish shows just how much rotten fruit can grow from a single poisoned tree.

Second Opinion

Pretty Sinister

I think [Holding] is one of the unsung pioneers in American crime fiction and she deserves to be noticed for her accomplishments.

Availability

The Death Wish is available in a double volume with Net of Cobwebs from Stark House.

The Lesser Antilles Case (1934) by Rufus King

The Lesser Antilles Case by Rufus King

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

Murder is not like lightning. It’s an established fact that until its source is checked it has an aptitude for striking again, Helen, and again.”

What begins as a leisurely Caribbean cruise ends in terror as the S.S. Helsinor is shipwrecked on a coral reef. The worst is yet to come, however. After several days on a deserted island, Lawrence Thacker, the owner of the yacht, insists they try sailing the lifeboat to safety. Ten passengers board the lifeboat. Only eight will live to tell the tale, and the events they recount are shocking. Lieutenant Valcour must navigate rough waters in this story of murder on the high seas.

Murder Challenges Valcour (The Lesser Antilles Case) by Rufus KingThe Lesser Antilles Case is every bit as clever and sophisticated as one might expected from Rufus King, with Valcour facing a particularly difficult case. There are no bodies, no crime scene, and no real evidence. It’s not even clear whether the New York City police have jurisdiction. And the further their ordeal recedes into the past, the more reluctant the witnesses become. Now that they are back in their comfortable lives, “crime seemed so incompatible with a well-appointed apartment in New York.” The case comes down to an enthralling battle of wills between two formidable women, waged beneath the Caribbean sun.

One of them is Lillian Ash, a numerologist with a penchant for drama. Miss Ash insists that Lawrence Thacker and Third Mate Leighton Klein were poisoned and thrown overboard from the lifeboat while the rest of the passengers were drugged. In doing so, she makes a powerful enemy. Thacker’s aunt Helen Whitestone has always been the gentlest of maiden ladies. When her family’s reputation is threatened, however, she is inspired to stand up for herself, declaring, “I’ve no intention of joining the prevalent fashionable mode of wintering in a jail.” After all, what does anyone know of this Miss Ash, except that she stands to inherit a hefty sum from Lawrence Thacker’s estate? Then again, so does Miss Whitestone, her niece Erika Land, and various other relatives who were all on board the lifeboat. Miss Whitestone initially rouses a protective instinct in Valcour.

When Valcour was shown into the living room he found Miss Whitestone asleep. He stood for a moment looking down at her tired face which was set in old, grim lines. All the trappings and attributes of crime filled him with a faint disgust at moments such as this one. Her years alone had given this woman the right to peace, and yet here she was (because somebody for some private reason had thrown a couple of men overboard into the Caribbean Sea) sunk in a haggard sleep, with all her features hardened in the ugly mask of nervous worry. And here he was, the physical representation of an avenging law, all set, when she woke up, to be evasively tricky and smart and to worry her still further. He wished for the smugly moronic level of mind which could say, without the slightest effect upon the stomach at all, life was like that.

Once he’s heard Lillian Ash’s story, however, he’s no longer so sure. One thing is certain—neither of these ladies will go down without a fight.

In investigating the allegations, Valcour faces a unique challenge: the vast majority of his witnesses are dead. Of the thirty-two passengers and crew members who originally boarded the Helsinor, twenty-two were killed in the shipwreck, not counting the two alleged murder victims. The eight survivors are highly aware that they hold the power to shape the story of what happened in the days leading up to the deaths of Thacker and Klein. It is notable that only three of the eight actually report their suspicions of murder to police; the other five seem willing to let the matter go. Valcour must question traumatized survivors, who, even if they are not being intentionally manipulative, were exhausted, starving, and possibly drugged at the time of the murders. And, of course, one of them may be a killer, hiding behind the mask of a victim.

The Lesser Antilles Case MapbackJust when the inquiry seems permanently stalled, Miss Whitestone has an idea: she will buy a new yacht, the Helsinor II, and recreate the fatal voyage. Even with armed police officers serving as crew, it isn’t long before Miss Whitestone begins wondering whether she’s made a dreadful mistake.

There’s a good puzzle here, but the book’s most appealing quality is its subtly acid-tinged portrait of old money New Yorkers, their lives untouched by the shadow of the Depression. While Miss Whitestone is portrayed rather sympathetically, serving as the viewpoint character among the suspects, there are little touches of ambiguity in her character. She is a perfect lady of the old school, but not all of her old-fashioned qualities are positive. Miss Whitestone frankly admits that if her niece Erika does not get married, she will consider the effort of raising her a complete failure. She never lounges while wearing a hat, thinks sunken bathtubs are not quite nice, and it never crosses her mind to buy a car that would provide protection from the elements to the chauffeur as well as the passengers.

As entertaining as the New York scenes are, it is the interactions on the yacht that further deepen the characters and their relationships. Miss Whitestone grows alarmed by the prospect of a love triangle between Erika and her cousins Roy and Phillip. The murder investigation causes her to examine her nephews with a more critical eye, and she’s no longer so sure that either of them would be a suitable husband for Erika. Lillian Ash reveals herself to be smarter, but also more vulnerable, than her theatrical mannerisms would suggest. Even side characters are sharply drawn, especially the diver who is hired to explore the wreck of the original Helsinor and woos Miss Ash in his own unorthodox fashion.

Mr. Stumpf had had no previous experience on yachts, but he was a widely-read man and knew, from more novels than he could tell of, that young women of wealth—and all young women aboard yachts fell into that class—were only too apt to tire of it all and to yearn for the solider and meatier contact of he-men, in contrast to the Reginalds and members of the foreign aristocracy with whom life’s whim threw them into daily shoulder-rubbing contact […]

He told her about the bends and the diver’s palsy. He moved about with a complete frankness of detail among the intimacies of his interior anatomy, and she had a confused impression, after he had concluded, that Mr. Stumpf was little better than a walking corpse.

Miss Whitestone and her nephew Roy share a telling moment while gazing upon the island where she was shipwrecked. Roy is awestruck by the beauty of the island. Miss Whitestone can only remember the discomfort, the fear, and the boa constrictors. These are wealthy people. Their lives are beautiful. But right now, they can see only death.

The Lesser Antilles Case is a superb shipboard mystery, highlighted by its nuanced characters and prose. Though the solution contains a few improbabilities, this is compensated for by the cleverness of the clues, including a deceptively simple murder method. Above all, this sharp and witty detective story is a wonderful escapism, a pleasure from beginning to end.

Second Opinions

The Passing Tramp

This part of the book recovers some of the high tension of the earlier pair of maritime mysteries, particularly during the nail-biting diving expedition.  However, the first half of the book is compelling as well, a fast-paced, smoothly-written investigation in New York City locales both high and low of events in the near past.

Vintage Pop Fictions

It has to be said that there is one key plot point that may stretch credibility a little. King’s attempt to make it plausible is certainly ingenious and interesting and he just about gets away with it. That’s really the only major reservation I had about this book. Other than that it’s a well-executed example of the golden age detective tale. There are clues in abundance but King knows how to keep the reader guessing.

Availability

The Lesser Antilles Case (also published as Murder Challenges Valcour) is available as an ebook from Wildside Press.

The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson (1934)

The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

They say that a soul on the lower plane, a malevolent one, is always watchful and always cunning. That this one mass of dead evil is always waiting for the opportunity to take possession of a living body, and change the weak brain for its own, just as it infests a house. Do you think, then, that the clot could take possession …?”

The house on Plague Court has been in the Halliday family for centuries, quietly falling into ruin. Lately, however, things have not been so quiet. Lady Anne Benning believes her nephew Dean Halliday is possessed by the spirit of a sixteenth-century hangman. Under the influence of an enigmatic “psychical researcher” named Roger Darworth, she and Dean’s fiancée, Marion Latimer, are drawn to Plague Court, obsessed by the thought of evil spirits. When the hangman’s dagger vanishes from a London museum, even the skeptical Halliday starts to wonder whether they might be correct. Could he really be possessed by his ancestor’s ghost?

The Plague Court Murders by Carter DicksonThe Plague Court Murders is a master class in terror, a horrifying yet utterly plausible locked-room mystery. Though John Dickson Carr, a.k.a. Carter Dickson, is still only a few years into his writing career at this point, he produces a perfect balance of supernatural chills, sly wit, and relentlessly logical detection, all of it buoyed along by a delight at showing the reader what marvelous toys he has to play with. Sir Henry Merrivale digs into his first case with all the vigor one might expect, building to a chilling denouement.

Determined to learn the truth about his demonic possession (and only with Carr do you get to start a sentence that way), Halliday invites his friend Ken Blake and Scotland Yard “ghost-hunter” Inspector Masters to spend the night at Plague Court. Masters knows all the tricks of fraudulent mediums—if Darworth is staging a haunting, he can surely unmask the fraud. Arriving at the house, “we all moved softly; I don’t know why. Possibly because there seemed such an absolute hush in the desolation of the house before us. Something seemed to be impelling us to move faster; to get inside those high brick walls; something drawing us on and playing with us.” After a series of spooky events, they learn that Darworth is holed up in a small house on the grounds, securely locked away behind stone walls. It turns out that something evil does walk at Plague Court—but it’s after Darworth, not Halliday.

The existence of a real murder would seem to settle the issue of whether the house is haunted. Paradoxically, as Masters points out,

This bogus ghost has definitely destroyed his ghostliness by killing Darworth. So long as it only prowled and rattled windows, it could alarm us. But here’s the funny thing: the moment it takes an extremely ordinary lethal weapon and punches holes in somebody, we get skeptical. Maybe if it had only come in and slashed at Darworth a couple of times, then killed him with fright, it would have been effective. A stabbing ghost may be good spiritualism, but it isn’t good sense. It’s absurd. It’s as though the ghost of Nelson had stalked up from the crypt of St. Paul’s, only to bean a tourist with its telescope.

The subsequent investigation only makes matters more complicated, however. Somehow, a malevolent spirit, human or otherwise, managed to enter a locked house with iron grates on the windows without disturbing the fresh mud that fills the yard. During the murder, six suspects were in the main house, waiting in darkness for their master’s return: Halliday, Lady Benning, Marion, her impressionable brother Ted (“when he was fifteen he got hold of one of the wrong kind of Conan Doyle books”), Major Featherston, and Darworth’s confederate, the drug-addled medium Joseph. But anything can happen in the dark.

A bewildered Blake reaches out to Sir Henry Merrivale, his old boss from the War Office, who comes roaring into the case with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. Old H. M. is a lot to take, bellowing and leering at all who cross his path.

H. M. on a Scotland Yard case. … I thought again of that room high over Whitehall, which I had not seen since 1922. I thought of the extremely lazy, extremely garrulous and slipshod figure who sat grinning with sleepy eyes; his hands folded over his big stomach and his feet propped up on the desk. His chief taste was for lurid reading-matter; his chief complaint that people would not treat him seriously. He was a qualified barrister and a qualified physician, and he spoke atrocious grammar. He was Sir Henry Merrivale, Baronet, and had been a fighting Socialist all his life. He was vastly conceited, and had an inexhaustible fund of bawdy stories…

However, his whimsical approach is exactly what’s needed to cut through all the layers of hocus-pocus that entangle this crime. There are the murders, and there is the haunting; each creates enough confusion to obscure the other. Just how much these two matters overlap is what Merrivale must discover.

Merrivale’s summing-up scene is one of the most nerve-wracking moments imaginable, as he conjures up a midnight reenactment of the crime, complete with corpse. “Don’t look at me,” he commands, as the fire blazes hypnotically and footsteps echo in the night, “keep your eyes straight ahead, because the murderer’s nearly here…” Though the atmosphere of the ending is perfect, the solution itself has a few weak spots, including one violation of fair play that is all the more egregious because Merrivale rails against this very practice earlier in the book. While it’s true the offending element is at least mentioned, no ordinary reader could expect it to reappear in the quite the fashion that it does.

Aside from this misstep, The Plague Court Murders is a fascinating locked-room puzzle bubbling over with dread. Its supernatural trappings are all the more frightening for being relatively grounded in real life. Whether Halliday is truly possessed by a ghost, or whether all of his friends and relatives have been drawn into a shared delusion, all of the possibilities are horrifying. When it comes to staging a haunting, Darworth and his friends have nothing on John Dickson Carr.

Second Opinion

ahsweetmysteryblog

Yet, even though it is the first Sir Henry Merrivale mystery, Plague Court shows us a  master of the form ascending toward the top of his game. His later works might pour on the atmosphere less thickly, but Carr knows how to imbue his tales with elements of horror, to leaven them with humor, and to juggle enough tricks to mystify his readers throughout! The Plague Court Murders does just that! It’s a gem!

The Grandest Game in the World

It is certain that no reader will ever get the murderer’s identity, very cleverly hidden from the reader; yet the clues are all there, as they are to the method, which, like the identity of the murderer, is thoroughly unexpected.

The Green Capsule

If I could wrap up everything that I’m looking for in a Carr work perfectly, it would be The Plague Court Murders.  No, it’s not his absolute masterpiece – that designation is better bestowed on works such as The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, or even a short story like The House in Goblin Wood.  Yet, in many ways, The Plague Court Murders excels in dimensions that each of those titles doesn’t quite reach.  To that effect, this title – the first Merrivale tale – is the purest representation of what I search for in the author.

Availability

The Plague Court Murders is out of print, with used copies available.

 

For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke by R. Austin Freeman (1934)

For the Defense Dr Thorndyke by R Austin Freeman

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“It is rather an alarming thing to see one’s description outside a police station and to learn that one is wanted for murder.”

Artist Andrew Barton has two problems. One is his nose, which was smashed beyond recognition in an accident. The other is his cousin Ronald, whose sponging ways have been lightening Andrew’s pocketbook for years. Since the accident, Andrew is even more afraid of Ronald—the two cousins used to resemble one another, and he worries that his wife Molly might now prefer Ronald’s appearance to his own. When Ronald needs to borrow money yet again, Andrew concocts a white lie so that he can keep Ronald and Molly from meeting. Little does he realize that this harmless fib will make him the prime suspect in not one, but two separate murders.

For the Defense Dr Thorndyke by R Austin FreemanFor the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is an unusual and effective story that takes the form of an inverted mystery. The reader is privy to Andrew Barton’s deepest thoughts as he plots and executes his “crimes,” which at first amount to nothing more than lying to his wife. Over the course of one eventful twenty-four hours, however, Andrew finds himself implicated in a staggering number of incidents. R. Austin Freeman coolly recounts Andrew’s activities in detail, while keeping the reader in the dark about what might be happening behind the scenes. Even the smallest decision has fateful consequences, crafting a relentlessly logical chain of events.

Andrew’s first trouble comes through no fault of his own. He is simply walking down a country lane one evening, when masked robbers attack a passing vehicle. Though he plans to report the crime to police the following day (no hurry there!), Andrew has more pressing matters on his mind. Determined to prevent Ronald from coming into contact with Molly, he tells his wife that he has business in London. In reality, he is meeting his cousin in a nearby town. A swim with Ronald on a deserted beach ends in tragedy, but when Andrew arrives at the police station seeking aid, he is greeted by a nasty surprise: he is wanted for the roadside murder of the previous night. There seems to be only one option. In order to keep his freedom, he must become Ronald.

Thanks to a bit of impromptu plastic surgery, Andrew has regained his handsome appearance. Like Narcissus, he is entranced by his own reflection.

His mind was still in a whirl of confusion from the crowding events and the repeated shocks that he had sustained, and, above all, from the glimpse of his cousin’s face looking out at him from the mirror. He had still the feeling of being in a dream or under some sort of spell of enchantment, of moving in a world of unrealities. The change that had been wrought in him had been too sudden and profound for complete realization. In the space of less than an hour he had become a different person. It was no mere matter of disguise. He was actually a different person. The Andrew Barton who had set forth from Fairfield that morning, had ceased to exist. In his place had been born an entirely new individual; and that individual was himself.

There is one thing he has failed to consider, however. “In slipping out of his own personality, he had slipped into that of another person; and thereby had taken over the reversion of that other person’s crop of wild oats. And it seemed that those wild oats were now ripe for the harvest.” Cousin Ronald’s activities have always been slightly murky to Andrew. By assuming his cousin’s identity, is he trading one bad name for another? He certainly has to wonder after a hostile encounter with a strange woman in a railway compartment.

She flung herself back on her seat and for the short remainder of the journey sat silent, crimson-faced and scowling, perfectly still, but with a stillness suggestive of violence repressed to bursting-point. Andrew felt as if he were travelling with a Mills bomb.

After further complications, Dr. John Thorndyke becomes involved in the case. Since he is both a medical doctor and a barrister, Dr. Thorndyke is admirably suited for criminal investigation. Like Perry Mason, he represents only innocent clients. Unlike Mason, however, he does not take that innocence on faith, believing nothing until science has proven it true. As a result, Thorndyke’s personality can come across as cold, even a little sinister, at one point regarding his client “with an expression that made his flesh creep.”  Though Dr. Thorndyke is most famous as a scientific detective, that expertise doesn’t get much of a workout here. In fact, Thorndyke doesn’t do much detection at all. For this case, it’s his legal acumen that’s needed—unfortunately, as the legal scenes add an unwelcome tedium at a crucial point in the story.

Still, For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is a generally lively read that considers the implications of trying to become someone else. While not a true inverted mystery (since Andrew is not guilty), it is very much in the spirit of one as he tries to get away with a variety of crimes he has not actually committed. Although I have read some short stories by Freeman, this is my first encounter with one of his novels. If For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is typical of his work, it will be the first of many.

Availability

For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke is out of print in the US. Paperback and ebooks editions are available in the UK from House of Stratus. This title is in the public domain in Australia; a free ebook is available to Australian readers at Project Gutenberg Australia.