20 Books of Summer 2020

20 Books of Summer 2019

As much as I love making New Year’s resolutions, I feel much more capable of actually keeping resolutions when the sun is shining, which is why 20 Books of Summer is one of my favorite reading challenges. And this year, a little structure is even more welcome than usual. For no very good reason, all of the books on my list this year are classic mysteries published during the same year, 1934.

Vintage Travel Poster

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

As murder stalks the corridors of a snowbound train, Hercule Poirot faces his most formidable opponent yet. An all-time classic.

The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

For one miserly uncle, the first airplane flight of his life will be his last. This inverted mystery follows the would-be killer as they craft their plan. But even the best-laid plans can go astray, especially with Inspector French on the case.

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian by Stuart Palmer

Schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers is looking forward to starting her summer vacation by unwinding on a transatlantic ocean liner. The crossing soon becomes rocky, however, when one of her fellow passengers winds up dead in a lifeboat.

The Lesser Antilles Case by Rufus King

After the sinking of a luxurious yacht, the survivors insist it wasn’t just a shipwreck—it was murder. Only Lieutenant Valcour can solve this Caribbean mystery.

Noir 2

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

A drifter and a dissatisfied wife begin an affair so scorching that it threatens to destroy everything in its path…including the two lovers.

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy

To win back his former love, and revenge himself on the man who stole her, Johnny agrees to take part in an audacious double-cross. But who’s playing who?

Classic Detection (UK)

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham

Albert Campion hopes to paint a portrait of a murderer as he goes head-to-head with a cunning killer in London’s art world.

The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson

Hundreds of years ago, a hangman built Plague Court. Now some of his ancestors fear that his spirit has returned. As they gather for a seance, one of their party is murdered, in a crime so impossible that it could only have been committed by a ghost.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

A picturesque English village is plagued by mysterious deaths, and Lord Peter Wimsey is sure they have something to do with the bells of the local church. He must discover for whom the bell tolls, before it tolls for him.

The Ha-Ha Case by J. J. Connington

Johnnie Brandon is the life of the party on the eve of his twenty-first birthday, and why not? He will finally have full control of his inheritance. But someone wants the estate for themselves, and soon rabbits aren’t the only things being hunted at this weekend shoot.

For the Defense: Dr. Thorndyke by R. Austin Freeman

How does an innocent man become the prime suspect in two separate murders—including his own? Dr. Thorndyke must unravel a baffling question of identity.

Comic Crime

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

Most fathers and sons would be dismayed to have their evening at the theater disrupted by murder, but not when the father is a Scotland Yard inspector and the son an ambitious reporter. This pair soon learns that the drama unfolding onstage is nothing compared to what’s going on behind the curtain.

Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard by David Frome

Though little Mr. Pinkerton always minds his own business, murder just seems to find him. Today, for example, he was simply sitting on a park bench when the women next to him began talking about poison. Even if Scotland Yard is skeptical, Mr. Pinkerton is determined to crack the case in this gentle comic mystery.

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

Edward just wants to be left alone with his books, but his aunt is always interfering. Wouldn’t it be nice if he could have the money without the aunt? A hilariously dark inverted mystery.

Classic Detection (US) 2

The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

Perry Mason is used to dealing with strange requests from clients, but he’s never been asked to deal with a noisy dog. As it turns out, this seemingly mundane request is only the first stop on the way to murder.

Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

The first Nero Wolfe novel finds the orchid-loving gourmet and his wisecracking assistant Archie Goodwin looking for possible connections between the disappearance of an Italian laborer, the sudden demise of a college president, and a poisonous snake delivered to Wolfe’s brownstone.

The Line-Up by Helen Reilly

Inspector McKee investigates the mysterious death of an elderly recluse whose blueblooded family wants the incident hushed up. Are they simply trying to avoid scandal, or are they hiding something more sinister?

The Casino Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

As members of a wealthy family start dropping dead one by one, Philo Vance wonders if the crimes could have something to do with the casino they own. He soon learns that this family is hiding some very unusual secrets.

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G. Eberhart

Not only does Susan Dare write mysteries, she solves them as well, in a series of short stories that follow her path from reluctant amateur sleuth to accomplished investigator.

The Death Wish by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Mr. Whitestone and Mr. Delancey are neighbors. They have something else in common as well: they both wish their wives were dead. This psychological suspense novel explores what happens when that wish becomes an obsession.

 

 

A Year in Books 2019

Stork Club postcard illustration by Albert Dorne

2019 has been an amazing year, with so many great reads that it’s created the best possible problem: my top ten list for 2019 actually has fifteen books on it, and cutting it down even that far was a struggle. But why hold back, when New Year’s celebrations are all about glorious excess?

Best of 2019: Honorable Mentions

Lady-Killer by Anthony Gilbert (1951)

A wonderfully acerbic inverted mystery about a modern Bluebeard, his victims, and their efforts to fight back.

Cat of Many Tails by Ellery Queen (1949)

During a hot New York City summer, Ellery Queen hunts a serial killer while coming to terms with the emotional burdens of a life spent fighting crime. It’s a cliche to say that the city is a character…but the city is totally a character here.

Sleep with Strangers by Dolores Hitchens (1955)

Tough yet elegaic private-eye novel in which the search for a missing woman leads a middle-aged detective to confront his own memories and mortality.

The Evil Wish by Jean Potts (1962)

Two sisters struggle with the consequences of a murder not committed in this intense psychological crime novel.

A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong (1956)

Combines nail-biting suspense with a wonderfully humane worldview, as a group of strangers come together to help a suicidal man find a missing bottle of poison. This is the rare mystery that focuses not on death, but on how to live a life.

Top 10 of 2019

10)  Mr. Splitfoot by Helen McCloy (1968)

Come for the impossible murder in a haunted room, stay for the touchingly realistic portrait of adolescence.

9)  The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes (1943)

Visceral noir of murder and espionage among refugees from Nazi Germany, featuring a fiercely complex female protagonist.

8)  The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin (1975)

Poignant, often hilarious tale of a widow’s efforts to mourn a husband whose grave is far from quiet.

7)  Uncle Paul by Celia Fremlin (1959)

An ominous exploration of family and marriage is sparked when shadows of violence from the past threaten a beach holiday; equal parts comic and profound.

6)  Wax by Ethel Lina White (1935)

Dripping with atmosphere and suspense as a feisty girl reporter must expose the dark underbelly of a seemingly idyllic town. The climax, in which Sonia must survive a night in the town’s decrepit old wax museum, is a masterpiece of suspense.

5)  Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie (1941)

A summertime read that’s perfect year-round, with audacious crimes unfolding at a resort hotel. The killer is truly despicable and the crime plot is one for the ages.

4)  The Hollow by Agatha Christie (1946)

Something very different for Christie, who skillfully explores the psyches of suspects and victims in depth before plunging them into a murder that may not be what it seems.

3)  In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes (1947)

Chilling portrait of a man who is possibly a serial killer, but is definitely a misogynistic psychopath. Despite the strong flavor of postwar Los Angeles, it sadly remains just as relevant today.

2)  Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr (1944)

A tour-de-force of impossible crime that simply cannot be put down as Gideon Fell spins one ingenious solution after another.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

1)  Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (1937)

An old favorite, and still the champ! One of Christie’s masterpieces, Death on the Nile has everything: murder beneath the pyramids, a deadly love triangle, a bold shipboard crime, and a solution that is both fiendishly clever and emotionally affecting.

Happy reading, and here’s hoping that 2020 will be the best year yet!

20 Books of Summer 2019

20 Books of Summer 2019

I had a lot of fun doing 20 Books of Summer last year, so I’m excited to tackle it again for 2019. There’s nothing better than spending a lazy summer day with a pile of books, taking vicarious vacations around the world. Here are some of the literary destinations I’ll be visiting this summer.

Britain in Summer Travel Poster

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

A village fête turns violent when a shot rings out in the fortune-teller’s tent. Is Lesley an innocent victim, or a brazen killer?

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

High Eldersham looks like a sleepy, picture-perfect English village. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Uncle Paul by Celia Fremlin

A  family’s seaside holiday is shadowed by the return of one sister’s former husband, fifteen years after her testimony sent him to prison for murder.

Die in the Dark by Anthony Gilbert

A wealthy widow looking for a new home gets more than she bargained for.

Loire Valley France

The House above the River by Josephine Bell

A group of holidaymakers are forced to take shelter in a French chateau that may prove more deadly than the fog outside.

The Crime Coast by Elizabeth Gill

A young Englishman hunts for a missing man among the artists’ colony of the French Riviera, with the aid of an eccentric new friend.

Egypt and the Nile

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot must investigate a boatload of suspects when murder unexpectedly joins a cruise down the Nile.

Mexico Travel Poster

Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing

It’s death in the tunnel when a passenger dies mysteriously on the train to Mexico City. Customs agent Hugh Rennert must solve the crime before the killer strikes again.

Wings of Fear by Mignon G. Eberhart

A young woman’s efforts to help her friend lead to a dead body in her apartment and a frantic flight to Mexico.

Natchez Mississippi Postcard

Murder with Southern Hospitality by Leslie Ford

The gardening club’s trip to Natchez, Mississippi, is more eventful than expected, as a romance between star-crossed lovers ends in murder.

Catalina Island Vintage Postcard

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree by Stuart Palmer

On a trip to Catalina, irascible spinster Hildegarde Withers finds there’s no holiday from murder when one of her fellow airplane passengers dies in mid-air.

New York City Vintage Travel Poster

Cat of Many Tails by Ellery Queen

If the heat doesn’t kill you, the Cat might, as Ellery and his father stalk a serial killer through the dark streets of New York City.

The Chinese Chop by Juanita Sheridan

Chinese-American sleuth Lily Wu solves a baffling murder in postwar Greenwich Village.

The Swimming Pool by Mary Roberts Rinehart

An upper-crust family doesn’t have much patience for the antics of their drama-queen sister—until a corpse turns up in the swimming pool of their country house.

Minnesota

The Chuckling Fingers by Mabel Seeley

After a wealthy widower marries a younger bride, strange things start happening at the family’s isolated lakefront mansion.

New Orleans Mardi Gras Vintage Travel Poster

Waltz into Darkness by Cornell Woolrich

A mail-order bride brings danger into the life of her new husband, as sinister events seem to follow them wherever they go.

Hawaii Vintage Travel Poster

The House without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers

Charlie Chan is on the case as the murder of a longtime resident rocks 1920s Honolulu (as well as the victim’s very proper Bostonian family).

New Mexico Vintage Postcard

Murder Begins at Home by Delano Ames

Hijinks ensue when Jane and Dagobert Brown meet murder on a New Mexico ranch.

The Forbidden Garden by Ursula Curtiss

Mrs. Marrable is protective of her property…with very good reason, as lethal secrets flourish even in the desert.

The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes

A French refugee travels to Santa Fe to evade a murder and help her cousin escape from a Nazi prison camp. Then things get really complicated…

A Year in Books 2018

Woman celebrating New Year's Eve

2018 has obviously been a big year for this blog, because starting it was my New Year’s resolution at this time last year! Obviously, things can only get better in 2019, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reads.

Best of 2018

10)          The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle

The touching story of a house haunted by a grieving mother. Will the ghostly mother and her living daughter be able to find peace, or will a vengeful spirit destroy them both?

9)            Hasty Wedding by Mignon G. Eberhart

Bad enough that Dorcas’ ex is murdered the night before her wedding, but everyone thinks she killed him, including her new husband. This is just peak Eberhart, pairing florid romantic suspense with a puzzling mystery.

8)            The Iron Cobweb by Ursula Curtiss

Top-notch domestic suspense that makes a woman’s conflict between home and career terrifyingly literal. A series of strange events threaten to destroy Elizabeth’s marriage and children even as they drive her further into her home.

7)            Too Late for Tears by Roy Huggins

A seemingly harmless housewife is actually a cold-blooded psychopath, willing to do anything to achieve her version of the American dream. A rare noir that seriously considers women and their aspirations, conventional and otherwise.

6)            The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein

A group of journalists vie for promotion by capturing a serial killer. This blistering, yet darkly funny, satire of the “modern” media of the 1950s is just as apt today. It’s also a bit of an inverted crime story, as we are privy to the thoughts of the killer, but the book is at its strongest in exploring how the lives of other characters are affected by his crimes, some in unexpected ways.

5)            The Woman on the Roof by Helen Nielsen

An unusual and affecting protagonist, Wilma finds herself accused of murder due to a history of mental illness and must struggle with both police and her own demons to help unmask the real killer. Her journey is all the more meaningful because it is presented so unsentimentally.

4)            Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy

Psychiatrist Basil Willing faces the baffling case of a young woman with a ghostly double. One of them may have committed murder, but which one, and how? A wonderfully ominous and atmospheric tale of supernatural mystery.

3)            Sudden Fear by Edna Sherry

A rich wife learns that her husband and his lover are planning to murder her. What to do? Kill them first, of course. One of the darkest and most impeccably plotted crime novels I’ve encountered.

2)            The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr

A typical American businessman tries to solve the impossible murder of his neighbor while struggling with the possibility that his wife might be a reincarnated witch. (I expect this gritty reboot of Bewitched any day now.) All is sorted out very nicely in the end, but Carr has one last surprise in store…

Vera Caspary Laura 2

1)            Laura by Vera Caspary

A detective falls in love with a murder victim, a woman who comes to life for both him and the reader as he investigates her death. Laura and her world are compellingly portrayed by a variety of narrators before a killer twist changes everything you thought you knew about the mystery.

Worst of 2018

Where there are highs, there must also be lows; while I’ve been very fortunate in my reading this year, one title does stand out as a major disappointment:

Book Cover of The Red Lamp by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Red Lamp by Mary Roberts Rinehart, a book I did not even manage to finish (and therefore did not review). Rinehart is one of my favorite authors, so this was a real letdown. The Red Lamp is structured as the diary of a fussy Harvard professor whose wife begins experiencing psychic phenomenon. When they spend the summer at the home of their recently deceased uncle, a house that is already rumored to be haunted, the stage seems to be set for a spooky mystery.

Unfortunately, the diary format sucks any possible suspense from the scary events, which are usually reported at second or third hand anyway. It’s also a challenging structure because something has to happen every day, without time for much resolution. There are over ninety chapters (daily entries for three months!), and I made it through forty before bailing. Rinehart’s facility with language is certainly present, and the narrator shows some dry wit, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to keep me interested.

Best wishes to all for the year to come!