Epitaph for a Nurse (1958) by Anne Hocking

Epitaph for a Nurse by Anne Hocking

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“It’s a terrible thought. To murder anyone. You must have to hate them intensely, and there’s someone going round hating like that. It frightens me.

Nurse Jessica Biggs is the backbone of the small rural hospital where she works. Her colleagues value her skill and efficiency as a nurse, yet her harsh manner has won her no friends either inside or outside the hospital. Plain, poorly educated, and aging, Sister Biggs knows that she cannot rely on anyone else to secure her future. Her position offers her access to sensitive information, things that her patients would not want anyone else to know. Sister Biggs knows how to keep a secret…for a price.

Epitaph for a Nurse is a straightforwardly pleasing story of blackmail and murder, built around a perfectly realized antiheroine. Ostensibly the reader is meant to dislike Nurse Biggs, but her plight is real and her hamfisted forays into crime have a fascination all their own. Soon, however, she finds that the events she has set into motion are no longer within her control. The murder investigation that results is unfortunately less intriguing than the long buildup to it; only a twist in the solution keeps the second half of the book from being completely predictable.

A Victim Must Be Found by Anne HockingIt is the first half of the story, spent with Sister Biggs, that is the most compelling. Anne Hocking is willing to spend as much time as necessary in setting up a volatile situation, and it’s hard to imagine a more dangerous combination than nursing and blackmail. Though the forbidding Sister Biggs’ “scanty ginger hair” has never attracted any admirers, she has started to dream that her professional rapport with Dr. Dominick Scott may lead to something more. When she discovers Dr. Scott is actually falling for his beautiful and troubled patient Catherine, Sister Biggs realizes that a lifetime of playing by the rules has left her with nothing. Her one faint hope of marriage has vanished. With no advanced degrees, she cannot move forward in her profession. She’s on the wrong side of forty, with nothing to show for years of struggle.

Unbeknownst to her colleagues, “Jessie Biggs, in fact, lived a secret life. Outwardly, she was the hard, ultra-efficient, not too amiable woman who did her duty rigidly in the hospital. In her own room, she indulged all the longing for luxury which conditioned her private outlook.” Her room is where she indulges in fantasies of a different kind of life, a life of beauty and romance (though her definition of beauty includes such things as a bedside lamp shaped like a Scottie dog, “which emitted what light was able to emerge through its transparent eyes”). It is her quest for security that leads her to blackmail, and her desire to luxury that leads to murder.

Hocking gets some laughs from the specific details of Sister Biggs’ awful taste, but her desires for marriage, leisure, and a pleasant home of her own are certainly relatable, even if her methods for obtaining them are slightly unorthodox. Her illegal enterprises bring Sister Biggs a newfound confidence that help her to land a boyfriend (who may have ulterior motives of his own) and a new flat, which she can almost afford.

The ironing board folded into the wall and looked like a cupboard, bookcases turned into tables, a fitted dresser looked like a bookcase, beds let down from walls, practically nothing betrayed its proper purpose […] Sister considered that though there was a high price to pay for all these luxuries, they were worth it to her. She must and would have them.

In her desperation to secure the flat, Sister Biggs takes some big risks, which include approaching Catherine Jerrold, the unhappily married former patient that Dr. Scott has been so attentive to. Now Catherine’s husband is the one who is ill, bedridden with a mysterious complaint that Dr. Scott claims he is unable to identify. With her professional and criminal lives dangerously intermingled, Sister Biggs has created an explosive situation. There is no telling how far matters will go.

It is not too surprising that murder results, though not until the reader has had time to consider many intriguing possibilities. Unfortunately, however, the murder removes most of the suspense from the story. Inspector William Austen is perfectly amiable, but has only a handful of suspects to sort through. Even the blackmail victims are either colorless or outright unpleasant; it’s hard to feel very sorry for them.

Based on the titles of her other books, Anne Hocking would appear to be a big fan of poison. Though a different method is employed here, Hocking still finds room for a strange non sequitur that finds Catherine making a strong argument in favor of murder by poison.

Poison is generally supposed to be the worst of all the methods of murder, but why? The poisoner plans, true, but so do other deliberate murderers, and death by poison is rarely cruel. The victim dies swiftly as a rule, often in sleep, without fear, without pain, and the poisoner isn’t often there to watch him die.

Is Catherine hinting that her husband’s illness may not be entirely natural, or is the author simply defending her favorite murder method?

Epitaph for a Nurse is good fun as long as it stays with Sister Biggs and the bleakly comic rise of her criminal empire. The murder mystery plot is more lackluster. Sister Biggs may not be appreciated by her coworkers, but here she is the star of the show—the book loses its interest whenever she is out of the spotlight.

Second Opinion

Saturday Review, April 11, 1959

Pleasant semipuzzler, told in words of one syllable.

Availability

Epitaph for a Nurse (also published as A Victim Must Be Found) is out of print, with one used copy in English available.

Fer-de-Lance (1934) by Rex Stout

Fer de Lance by Rex Stout

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Be seated,” Wolfe said. “You must pardon me; for engineering reasons I arise only for emergencies.”

“This is an emergency,” she said.

Maria Maffei is worried about her brother Carlo, who has vanished after accepting a mysterious new job. When police don’t take her concerns seriously, Maria turns to the famed private detective Nero Wolfe, who is larger than life in more ways than one.

Wolfe discovers that Carlo Maffei was taking an unusual interest in the death of university president Peter Oliver Barstow. What is the connection between the seemingly natural death of a blue-blooded academic and the disappearance of an immigrant metalworker? Wolfe and his legman Archie Goodwin are about to learn that the two men are bound by a secret more sinister than they could have imagined.

Fer de Lance by Rex StoutFer-de-Lance is a pitch-perfect introduction to the world of Nero Wolfe, the gourmet and orchid fancier who solves the most complex crimes without ever leaving his Manhattan brownstone. Every member of his eccentric crew is fully formed right from the start. The fast, breezy tone and unusual characters set the right tone for the series to come, despite a slightly underwhelming ending.

Though this is the debut of a new series, Stout doesn’t waste any time on backstory. (Archie airily promises to reveal someday what brought him into Wolfe’s orbit seven years ago, but “it’s a long story.”) Instead, the reader is plunged straight into the Maffei case. The only clue to Carlo Maffei’s disappearance is a curious collection of newspaper clippings found in his room. The clippings all concern the death of Barstow, who collapsed on a golf course while playing a round with his son Lawrence, Lawrence’s friend Manuel Kimball, and his father E. D. Kimball. Wolfe becomes convinced that Bartstow was murdered, using a particularly ingenious method.

Life in the Barstow family has not always been harmonious. Barstow and his son disagreed over how much financial support Lawrence should receive for the airplane business he runs with Manuel Kimball. Ellen Barstow, though devoted to her husband, has long suffered from emotional disturbances. Her daughter Sarah tries to hire Wolfe in order to bury the case—is she trying to protect her brother and mother, or could she be involved herself?

Fer de Lance by Rex Stout 3Wolfe and Goodwin soon zero in on a particular suspect. Much of the narrative is devoted to proving their suspicions. The investigation is clever and often amusing, particularly their efforts to extract evidence from Anna, the downtrodden maid at Carlo Maffei’s boarding house. “She looked like she’d been scared in the cradle and never got over it,” but Anna proves unexpectedly tough for Wolfe to crack. Still, one can’t help wishing for a little more suspense along the way.

Rex Stout skillfully introduces the routines of Wolfe’s unusual household, even as he makes it clear that a certain amount of Wolfe’s eccentric behavior is pure showmanship. Archie and a staff of investigators put in a great deal of work to provide their boss with the information that allows him to appear omniscient to clients. At one point, Archie suggests that Wolfe actually leave the house to deal with an issue directly, but Wolfe demurs. “I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.”

At the same time, however, it is always obvious that Wolfe’s talent for detection is real and unique. Even Archie, his longtime associate, remains awed by Wolfe’s gifts.

I knew what was going on, something was happening so fast inside of him and so much ground was being covered, the whole world a flash, that no one else could ever really understand it even if he had tried his best to explain, which I never did. Sometimes, when he felt patient, he explained to me and it seemed to make sense, but I realized afterward that that was only because the proof had come and so I could accept it. I said to Saul Panzer once that it was like being with him in a dark room which neither of you has ever seen before, as he describes all of its contents to you, and then when the light is turned on his explanation of how he did seems sensible because you see everything before you just as he described it.

Wolfe is utterly ruthless in pursuit of a killer, and here he faces a formidable opponent. Once the gloves come off between the detective and his quarry, their showdown should be mesmerizing. Instead, Stout takes a different direction that undercuts the drama of the situation. The ending, while spectacular in one sense, is unsatisfying in other ways.

Fer-de-Lance, while delightful, is not one of Rex Stout’s strongest mysteries, or maybe I’ve just read too many howdunnits lately that focus on one suspect at an early point. As usual, however, there is plenty of wit and personality to carry the reader happily along. It’s always a pleasure to visit the world of Nero Wolfe, and especially to find that world so perfectly realized at such an early point in the series.

Second Opinion

Vintage Pop Fictions

Plotting isn’t really this novel’s great strength. The character of Nero Wolfe himself is the main interest of the book, and luckily he’s more than sufficiently interesting to carry the novel. The sparkling and witty style of Stout’s writing is also a considerable help.

Availability

Fer-de-Lance is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from Bantam.

Crossed Skis (1952) by Carol Carnac

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“We all set out feeling supremely confident. Everybody liked everybody else. We didn’t all know one another, but everybody was vouched for by somebody. So and so’s friend, he’s O.K. Now we feel we’ve got a snake in the grass and we don’t know who the snake is.”

As assorted Londoners stumble through a dark and cloudy New Year’s Day, some of them have reason to be grateful they are about to depart on a ski holiday to Austria. Sunny skies and bright, clean snow await them. Others are not so fortunate. Inspector Rivers and Sergeant Lancing are stuck back in London, investigating a fatal house fire. The cheerful skiing party seems a thousand miles away from a murder in London, but as the investigation progresses, Rivers wonders just how far murder can reach.

Crossed Skis is an enjoyable light mystery that juggles two storylines with ease, though the reader may wish Carol Carnac had seen fit to bring them together a little sooner. Both storylines have their charms. Rivers comes up with some clever ways of tracing the crime back to its origin, while the ski story gives modern readers a glimpse of what international travel was like during the postwar years. Although it seems apparent that there must be some link between the crime and the skiers, lending an atmosphere of tension to an otherwise unremarkable holiday, it takes an awfully long time for the characters to connect the dots.

After spending the New Year with her sister, Mabel Stein arrives home to find her house in flames and one of her lodgers dead inside. Inspector Rivers is suspicious of the fire, especially with Mrs. Stein’s ne’er-do-well son Syd skulking about. (Mrs. Stein’s efforts to protect her erring boy are a reliable source of comic relief.) The more he pokes around the crime scene, the more he begins to question the identity of the dead man. Early on, Rivers and Lancing come to believe that the culprit in this case is the same suspect who committed another daring crime. They learn a great deal about this person, yet they still have no idea who the suspect really is.

Crossed Skis by Carol CarnacMeanwhile, a group of sixteen skiers, eight men and eight women, make their way across Europe. This is really too many. Only a few of these characters stand out at all, notably Kate, the oldest and most level-headed member of the company, and Bridget, who has the thankless task of organizing the whole trip. The practical details of their journey are fascinating from a distance of seventy years.

There are also plenty of clues amidst the chaos, even if the reader isn’t yet certain of what they should be watching for. It is pointed out more than once that most of the group are strangers to one another, as members of the original party dropped out and suggested others to take their place. Practical jokes, last-minute changes in sleeping arrangements, and unflattering passport photos are all normal aspects of travel. In this case, however, they take on a more sinister meaning. “Nobody fusses when it’s a party of English skiers,” one of the men notes. “They’re too used to us. Not one of us has even been asked to open a suitcase or rucksack and the passport examination is only perfunctory.” There could be no better cover for someone who wants to travel unnoticed.

World War II, only a few years in the past, also plays a role. At first, the English travelers are excited by the freedom of travel, leaving behind the rationing of home. Soon enough, however, they find themselves hemmed in by currency restrictions and border crossings: Austria was still, in the early 1950s, divided into zones administered by various Allied powers. Most of the group members are careful in their interactions, as “Austria is technically an ex-enemy country, and it’s up to us to be particularly scrupulous in our behavior to the Austrians.” Over the course of the trip, however, Kate has reason to recall that her traveling companions, who seem so young and carefree, are actually war veterans who have experienced things she cannot even imagine. Is it possible that one of them might have been warped by these traumas?

All of these concerns are forgotten when they arrive at the enchanting village of Lech am Arlberg.

It was lovely: even on the railway track and on the long low platform they were conscious of the snow peaks rising gloriously into the soft blue of the afternoon sky, of the powdery dryness of snow which had a totally different quality from the squalid soiled snow of the London streets. In the intense light, reflected back from white ground and roofs and slopes, everybody looked different: dark was darker, fair was fairer, color was brighter. Clearly defined, sharp cut, brilliantly lit, everything had a quality of vividness and vitality which was exciting, so that fatigue was forgotten and laughter bubbled up in a world which was as lovely as a fairy tale.

The attractiveness of the setting makes it easy to forget how deadly it can be, how easily snow can hide dangers. “There’s such a small margin between being safe and not being safe,” Kate worries, only for Bridget to point out, “That’s part of the attraction.” Still, Kate cannot help noticing the terror that lurks behind the mountain’s beauty:

It could submerge all of us in tons of purest snow, smooth as a cloud drift, and never show any humps where our bodies lie buried.

The skiers experience several close calls, one of them observing that there is something hypnotic about the snow that seems to prompt them to greater and greater recklessness. That is exactly what Rivers is hoping for as he closes in on the killer. After all, there is also a small margin between being bold and being careless. The atmosphere of a murder investigation can be as unforgiving as the harshest mountain range. All it takes is one slip.

Crossed Skis is an interesting twist on the whodunnit, as the reader must determine which member of the skiing party has something to hide. Rivers’ investigation provides a frisson of suspense to the ski plot, especially as the two stories begin to overlap more. While the mystery is not terribly complicated, the ski holiday setting is pleasant, Rivers is always a likable presence, and Carnac makes the most of the book’s unusual structure.

Second Opinions

The Bedford Bookshelf

This is one that, unless the reader is clever enough to pick up on some subtle clues, will keep most guessing. A solid mystery, a very entertaining storyline. I highly recommend this one—and here’s hoping to see more Carnac in the future.

Crossexamining Crime

When it comes to identifying the murderer I think the reader will be able to narrow it down and then select the right person. Some of Carnac’s clues make this quite an easy job to do, but I enjoyed having other clues brought to my attention at the end of the book which I had not picked up on. So all in all a good read.

Martin Edwards

This is an enjoyable book, even for someone like me, who would rather do almost anything than ski!

The Grandest Game in the World

It’s a model of police efficiency – but I don’t feel Lorac took full advantage of her setting.

Mysteries Ahoy!

While Crossed Skis did not cause me to significantly rethink my feelings about Lorac as a writer, I did find it to be an entertaining read. It boasts a solid, if relatively simple, mystery plot elevated by the unusual story structure and choice of setting.

Availability

Crossed Skis is available from British Library Crime Classics and from Poisoned Pen Press in the US.

The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen

The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“The case,” he said slowly, “far from being solved, has just begun.”

Racing up Arrow Mountain in a desperate attempt to escape the forest fire that has cut off the road behind them, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery are relieved to discover a house at the top of the mountain. Their refuge is short-lived, however. Something strange is going on at the Xavier mansion, a situation that can only end in murder. As the flames creep higher and higher up the mountain, the entire group is facing certain death. What they don’t know is how that death will come—from the fire, or at the hands of a human killer. Continue reading “The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen”

Common or Garden Crime (1945) by Sheila Pim

Common or Garden Crime by Sheila Pim

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Whatever might be said against gossip on general principles, if Lucy Bex had not taken an interest in her neighbors, the wrong person might have been hanged when a murder was committed in Clonmeen.”

New faces always cause a stir in the Irish village of Clonmeen, so the arrival of Lady Madeleine Osmund and her family is even more exciting than the annual garden show.

It turns out there’s a bigger surprise in store. Lucy Bex is shocked when her new neighbor Lady Madeleine dies by eating poisonous aconite, the monkshood plant. The coroner declares it a regrettable accident—someone in the kitchen simply confused aconite with horseradish. But Lucy is an avid gardener. She knows that only one garden in Clonmeen contains monkshood. She knows that vandals have been stealing plants from that garden. And ever since the thefts, Lucy has been spotting monkshood all over the village. This can mean only one thing: murder. Continue reading “Common or Garden Crime (1945) by Sheila Pim”

The Port of London Murders (1938) by Josephine Bell

The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“There were a lot of dangers on this river; that was the fascination of it.”

A drug addict commits suicide by drinking Lysol in her bleak tenement room. A barge full of cargo goes missing in a storm. An old lady holes up in an empty building scheduled for demolition, determined to stay in her home until the last possible moment. These are all typical scenes from London’s Docklands. Sergeant Chandler comes to suspect that these incidents are all related, but he may be out of his depth. Continue reading “The Port of London Murders (1938) by Josephine Bell”

The Fifth Caller (1959) by Helen Nielsen

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“We have a crime of violence and a study in a shambles, and we have a woman who attempted to kill herself a few hours after the murder. What more do you want for an arrest?”

At 5:22 p.m., Dr. Lillian Whitehall was beaten to death in her office. There were four appointments on her calendar that day, along with one final, unscheduled visit—from her killer. Police believe that fifth caller was her office nurse, Hungarian refugee Anna Bardossy. The two women fought earlier that day, and shortly after the murder, Anna was found lying on the beach with her wrists slashed. She says she remembers nothing about the day of the crime.

Continue reading “The Fifth Caller (1959) by Helen Nielsen”

Drury Lane’s Last Case (1933) by Ellery Queen

Drury Lane's Last Case by Ellery Queen

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Fact of the matter is, Lane, we’re in something crazy, I’m not getting any money out of it, it’s the nuttiest yarn you ever heard, and I’ve got to do something about it.”

Since leaving the police force to set up shop as a private detective with his daughter Patience, Inspector Thumm has encountered some strange propositions. This one has to be the oddest, however. A man with a blue and green beard hires him to guard an envelope, which he promises contains “a secret worth millions.” What seems like easy money proves to be anything but. As one crime follows another, Patience, the Inspector, and their friend Drury Lane are drawn into a literary scandal that will change their lives forever. Continue reading “Drury Lane’s Last Case (1933) by Ellery Queen”

Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie (1934)

Mr Parker Pyne Detective by Agatha Christie

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne.”

This eye-catching advertisement brings countless troubles, both large and small, to Parker Pyne’s doorstep. The retired statistician claims to have a scientific solution to any kind of unhappiness. The cases collected in this volume certainly run the gamut, from simple boredom all the way to murder. The first six stories are more lightweight and do not typically involve crime, though it is interesting over the course of the stories to learn more about Pyne’s methods and his unorthodox office procedures. The rest are more unified, following Pyne as he journeys throughout Europe and the Middle East, encountering serious crimes as he goes. These last six stories are uniformly high in quality and double as a fascinating vintage travelogue. Continue reading “Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie (1934)”

Final Proof (1898) by Rodrigues Ottolengui

Final Proof by Rodrigues Ottolengui

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I am afraid this is a serious case. What has been done has been so thoroughly well accomplished that I believe we have no fool to deal with. His is a master hand.”

Final Proof is a group of linked novellas and short stories that seem to show the fair-play mystery developing before the reader’s eyes. These tales pit two detectives against one another in friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) rivalry. John Barnes is a professional private detective, while his friend Robert Leroy Mitchel is a gifted amateur with Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction. Mr. Mitchel will stop at absolutely nothing in pursuit of a case, and even tries to prevent crimes before they happen, often leaving Mr. Barnes gently bewildered in his wake. Continue reading “Final Proof (1898) by Rodrigues Ottolengui”