Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Silent Witness: Review

The young Dr. Humphrey Jardine is making his way home after a long night of studying for his final qualifying exam. He takes his favorite path, a pretty winding lane that meanders from Lower Highgate to the heights of Hampstead and pauses in the lamplight to draw out his pipe. He notices what he takes to be a tree root jutting out from a corner that looks quite like a human foot. When he can't recall ever noticing such a thing before he steps closer to inspect this curiosity--only to discover that it really is a human foot...attached to a very dead body.

He hastens off to find a constable, but when they get back to the spot, the dead man has disappeared. Jardine gives a detailed description of the man and the circumstances and the police promise to investigate. Jardine knows full well that they think he's been exaggerating and that the man recovered and walked off under his own power. He also knows that the man wasn't going anywhere all by himself. But Jardine gets wrapped up in starting as a newly-minted doctor at the hospital and forgets about his experience in the lane. 

Until he has another odd experience. This time he is covering the practice of an older doctor and is summoned to attend an emergency case at a local factory. When he gets there, he is greeted by a man whom he never really sees properly, guided into a room, has the door locked on him, and carbonic acid "snow" starts pumping through a vent in the wall. He has a multi-tool pocket knife on him and manages to gouge out a breathing hole in the door which allows him to survive until help can arrive. Fortunately for him, his mentor Dr. Thorndyke does arrive on the scene and gets him out just in time. Two more attempts are made on Jardine's life...but he has no known enemies and can think of no reason why anyone should wish to harm him. Once Dr. Thorndyke hears Jardine's full story of the last several weeks, he begins to see a pattern and a trail that leads to the laboratory and an examination of the ashes of dead man.

The Silent Witness (1914) is the fourth book in R. Austin Freeman's series starring Dr. Thorndyke. Thorndyke is a medical/legal forensic investigator in the Holmes model. He keeps his observations close to his chest--telling Jardine and his own assistant Jervis that they have all the facts and should be able to reason out the solution themselves, but I don't see how they can in the detail that he does. Yes, they did have the rudimentary clues--but Thorndyke follows up on these rudiments and doesn't share those results. However, this doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the story any more than Homes's secretive behavior would detract from his adventures (which is to say--not at all for me). I do enjoy Thorndyke and his interactions with both Jardine and Jervis. Jardine is a little bit exasperating, though. When it comes to walking blindly into danger, the ladies in gothic suspense have nothing on Jardine. Even when warned explicitly by Thorndyke NOT to go wandering around all by his lonesome with an unknown enemy dogging his heels, he still insists on loitering around a deserted bridge oblivious to his surroundings--which is mighty convenient for attempt number two on his life.

Overall, this is an interesting mystery with just a hint of romance. The complete plot is somewhat intricate, but it's not so complex that readers won't be able to work out the solution even if they don't know every detail that Thorndyke does. Some of the narrative carries on a little longer than necessary, but the story comes at the tail-end of a more verbose age. An intriguing and very enjoyable read. ★★

This fulfills the "Doctor" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card. That is Jardine lighting his pipe there on the cover....

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Review

One of the game changing novels of the spy and thriller genre, John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) portrays the espionage methods of both the East and the West as equally amoral--willing to sacrifice anyone in the name of national security and willing to use their own people as pawns on the chess board of spy and counterspy. His murky world with the worn-out and jaded Alec Leamas contrasts with the glossy, shaken martini world of James Bond.

The story begins in East Germany where the final link in Leamas's chain of informants is gunned down as he tries to escape to the West. Leamas is waiting for him on the other side and watches as his last man is taken. The intelligence agent is tired and ready to "come in from the cold"--give up the intelligence game altogether when he is made an offer that he can't refuse. To play the game one more time and take out a senior East German operative named Mundt. Leamas can't resist the chance to eliminate the man most likely responsible for the loss of his agents. In order to get Leamas where he can do the most damage, the Circus (British Intelligence Service) begin laying the groundwork for him to become a defector. Leamas is booted out, given a pension that is substantially less than a intelligence man of his experience might expect, and reduced to drifting from one odd job to another. He drinks heavily and grumbles often of his treatment by his former employers.

It isn't long before he's approached by the other side and after playing a bit hard to get, he gives in and goes East. But the game is more difficult than he expected and he didn't plan on falling for a girl along the way. He also finds that someone has rigged the dice...but is it the opposition or his own side? It's hard to tell when everyone seems to be playing two hands instead of one.

I'm known for saying that the spy/thriller book just isn't for me. But when someone like le CarrĂ© writes it, it winds up that it is for me. This is an absolute first-rate spy novel that keeps the reader on the edge of her seat waiting to see if Leamas is going to pull it off--and if what he pulls off is really what he thinks he's set out to do. This has everything--love and loyalty, betrayal, secrets, and a "trial" scene that reveals the chilling fiendishness of the plot within the plot within the plot. The finale is a wrenching and horrifying surprise. Well done. ★★★★

This fulfills the "One Person" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Unhallowed Murder: Review

Unhallowed Murder (1966) is the final in a series of academically inclined detective novels by Simon Nash.  Nash is the pen name, formed from the maiden names of his two grandmothers, used by Raymond Chapman, Emeritus Professor of English at London University and an Anglican priest, for five mystery novels published in the 1960s. Professor Chapman worked as a non-stipendiary priest in Southwark, and was on the staff at St Mary's Barnes in Southwest London. His police detectives are Inspector Montero and Sergeant Jack Springer, unofficially aided by the gifted amateur and lecturer at North London College, Adam Ludlow. For more information on Nash/Chapman check out gadetection.  I owe Jon (author of the post) a great debt--previously when I went searching for information on Nash, there was pretty much nothing to be found.  Jon  did his own bit of detective work and tracked Chapman to his post at St. Mary's in 2012.

Unlike the previous three mysteries by Nash (I have yet to get my hands on Dead Woman's Ditch), Unhallowed Murder begins with Inspector Montero rather than Adam Ludlow. Montero and Jack Springer are called upon to investigate a series of acts of vandalism perpetrated in a local London church. It looks very much like a bunch of Satanists have taken the place over for nightly Black Magic rituals. But before they can even interview the aged Vicar he is found shot to death in his parish office. There are several likely candidates for chief murderer--from the young curate who resented having to wait for his parish home to parish council members who thought perhaps the Vicar's personal fortune might be better left to the church sooner than later to the woman on the council who distrusted his "Romish ways" to the nephew who also could use his piece of uncle's legacy pie. Or is it possible that someone killed the Vicar to get their hands on the rare books that he claims to have bought over the years?

This book also relies less on Ludlow's academic connections and esoteric knowledge than previous novels. It's true that he does spot the clue that reveals the hiding place of the Vicar's bookish treasures and discovers the culprit before the good Inspector, but he isn't nearly as central to the investigation as before. You'd think that since I have such a fondness for academic connections in my mysteries I would be disappointed, but this isn't the case. It was interesting to see the focus shift to Montero and Springer and to have a better look at their working relationship. If Nash/Chapman had continued his mysterious writing career, he could well have plunged into a series featuring Montero and Springer (without Ludlow) and been quite successful. It was good to see a mystery series end on such a strong note--many writers continue putting out work long after their best pieces have been published. Nash/Chapman's final novel is just as strong as his previous work. A lively and entertaining ★★★★ mystery.

This fulfills the "Book/Library" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.


Design for Murder: Review

Tracy Yorke didn't realize what a womanizer her boss Oliver Medway was. And how many enemies he had made. Until the day she stumbled across his body on the floor of the studio where they worked, she just though of him as a brilliant and talented interior designer. But somebody didn't appreciate his talents...and showed it by bashing him over the head with his rather naughty fetish statue.  Unthinking, she picks up the statue from where it's fallen and then drops it when Tim Baxter arrives at the scene of the crime right on her heels. But when he wipes her fingerprints from the murder weapon is he really just protecting her? Or was there other evidence on the statue that he's conveniently erased?

Detective Inspector Neil Grant seems awfully suspicious of her story and it doesn't help that an anonymous note arrives at the police station which says:

Whatever she says, Tracy Yorke drove through the village just after half past eleven that day. I ought to know because I saw her with my own eyes. And if she makes out there was nothing between her and Oliver Medway, that's a laugh.

Of course, he's got other suspects in his sights as well. There's Baxter who was suspiciously on the spot. And there's Medways's step-brother who stands to inherit now that Oliver is out of the way. His father and stepmother are also acting most peculiarly. As are a few of his clients. And then there are the mysterious deposits in Medway's bank account which look quite a bit like blackmail payments. All-in-all a lovely set of circumstances for Grant to investigate--and he's not going to let any clues slip past him. When a second death occurs, he's worried that what Tracy doesn't know about her former boss just might make her the third victim.

Design for Murder (1981) by Erica Quest* is a pleasant English village mystery. Tracy is our main character and most of the detective work done by Grant is done off-stage with clues revealed through his interactions with Tracy more than through our following him around as in a police procedural. Not a very intricate puzzle, but good, solid characterization and view of interpersonal relationships. Tracy is a very likeable character who the reader is rooting for throughout. A good book for a rain day (which just happens to be when I read this). ★★

This counts for the "Yellow Object' category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

*Erica Quest is one of the pseudonyms used by the husband and wife writing team of Nancy Buckingham and John Sawyer. Under the Quest name they published four stand-alone novels, including this one, as well as three books in a series featuring sleuth Kate Maddox.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Death for a Darling: Review

A Death for a Darling (1985) by E. X. Giroux finds young barrister Robert Forsythe and his loyal secretary Miss Sanderson finally taking a long-overdue vacation. Miss Sanderson is off to pay a duty call to a childhood friend before spending a bit of time on her own and Forsythe plans to spend four wonderful weeks fishing for trout in Scotland. But before he can finish packing, he is summoned by Miss Sanderson to join her at the home of Honoria Farquson for splendid surprise. She won't give him any hints as to the nature of the surprise, but she promises that he will "never regret this weekend." Sandy has an uncanny way of being right, but this particular weekend will be the exception to prove the rule.

It starts out pleasant enough. The surprise waiting for Forsythe in Norfolk is his favorite movie star Erika Von Farr who is playing in a remake of Wuthering Heights using the Farquson house in the film. The story has been updated to include a leather-clad Heathcliff on a motorcycle played by Von Farr's lover, Mickey Darling, who is anything but. His fans adore him, but everyone connected with the film (except Von Farr) detests the arrogant actor. But does anyone hate him enough to try and kill him? When someone is poisoned and it looks like the poison was meant for Mickey. Forsythe is compelled to try and get to the bottom of things. But when he comes up with the answer is it really the right one? Who was really the intended victim...and will the right person be arrested for the crime?

Perhaps it is because Forsythe is a little bit star-struck in this one and it seems to cloud his judgment, but I didn't enjoy this one quite as much Death for a Dancer. The interactions between Forsythe and his secretary--one of the highlights of Dancer--were not nearly as entertaining, and Forsythe doesn't shine quite as brightly as an amateur sleuth. Mickey Darling is a pretty loathsome character and few of the others are well-drawn enough to appreciate their contributions to the story. Honoria Farquson is the exception and the story was most interesting when she was on stage, as it were. The mystery plot itself is well done with a clever motive. It's a shame that the detective work wasn't as well done. A near ★★ effort--near enough that I'll go ahead and award three.

This counts for the "Broken Object" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Parade of Cockeyed Creatures: Review

George Baxt is at his weirdly fantastic best in A Parade of Cockeyed Creatures OR Did Someone Murder Our Wandering Boy? (1967) He introduces us to an eclectic cast of characters, some really quite odd, whose lives have mingled with the "wandering boy." The investigation brings the reader in contact with several social concerns of the 1960s--including the peace movement, drugs, organized crime, and a touch of the occult. Not quite as far out as some of his other work, Parade also introduces a very human element to his carnival of the absurd in the person of investigating officer. 

The story opens with Marcus and Wilma Blaney in the Missing Persons office of the police department. Max Van Larsen is the cop there to help them. Van Larsen has just returned from compassionate leave after the death of his wife and son in an automobile accident. He isn't very grief-stricken--in fact, he feels a bit empty because he never really felt much at all for these two people who shared his life. His investigation into Henry Thorpe "Tippy" Blaney's disappearance will help him understand his own son and himself as he learns and begins to care about a boy he's never met.

After  listening to the Blaneys' description of Tippy and the events leading up to his disappearance, his first question is "Why'd you wait five days before reporting your son missing?" Their feeble excuses don't convince him and when he meets those who knew Tippy best--his schoolteacher, Sylvia Plotkin (one of the most normal characters in the book); his friend Ashley Tybor, who is obsessed with death and goes by the name "Prince of Darkness"; an art dealer who smuggles drugs amongst the art pieces; an artist addicted to heroin; an "aunt" with ties to mob; and a girlfriend who refused to marry him--he discovers that there is more to Tippy's last few days than his parents have told. There are several car accidents involved in the plot and Baxt plays a bit of sleight-of-hand on who died in which accident. The swirling colors and mixed messages of his carnival of clues keeps the reader on his toes and it will be a canny reader indeed who figures out what happened to Tippy before the final reveal.

This is one of Baxt's better novels--well-written and it does a good job mixing the absurd with the serious. It was nice to watch the growth of Van Larsen even while laughing at some of the situations he found himself in. My primary complaint is with the lack of fair-play clueing--but Baxt isn't exactly well-known for that. Overall, an entertaining read and well worth the time. ★★ and a half.

This counts for the "Weirdest Item(s)" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card--that's quite a cover....

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Murder Every Monday

Clifford Flush is a founding member of the Asterisk Club--a club specifically for people who have been wrongfully acquitted of at least one murder. That's right: sedate little Mrs. Barratt has disposed of two husbands; Colonel Quincey is an expert "hunter;" The Creaker has done such horrible deeds that even his fellow club members won't let him "talk shop;" Miss Dina Parrish, club secretary, managed to lose her fiance off the edge of a cliff; and Clifford himself was once known as the Balliol Butcher. They have all managed to curb their murderous inclinations for quite some time...that is until Clifford finds himself giving into the urge to try and shove his bridge partner Armitage under a bus. He's unsuccessful (for the first time in his life) and Armitage blackmails him into leaving London.

After discussing the situation with his fellow club members, they all decide to head to the country and start a school for prospective murderers. For quite some time their pupils are are well-behaved little assassins and pass their courses (Grips, Knots, Electricity, Court Etiquette, Alibis, etc) with flying colors--going out into the world to rid themselves of various annoying family members, business associates, and what-have-you. 

Until the latest crop of would-be-murderers come along. And someone has the effrontery to work ahead of schedule and commit a murder on the school premises before the diplomas are handed out. Flush had a feeling that this particular group was going to be troublesome from the moment they arrived and the beastly heat didn't do anything to improve the atmosphere. Will they be able to solve their own home-grown murder without the cops getting wise?

Murder Every Monday (1954) by Pamela Branch was a disappointing read. The blurb on the back promised much more than the book delivered: "Original plots like this are why Carolyn Hart called Branch's humor 'incomparable' and why Dean James of Houston's Murder by the Book described Branch's book as 'British farce at its best.'" I've heard that Branch's earlier books are better--I certainly hope so because this one just didn't do much for me. If "incomparable humor" means that all of the characters speak in apparent non sequiturs, then, yeah, Branch has that covered. If it also means that there's a lot of scenes with one of the female pupils screeching at her supposed lover, then, yeah, we've got that too. 

But, honestly, I have a preference for British mysteries and British humor and I just can't say that I found this funny at all. the premise was interesting (and would be the main reason I picked this reprint up),--after all a murderous school for scoundrels sounded like a nifty idea and some of the descriptions at the beginning did make me think that this might be a funny book. But it didn't deliver. I actually finished this book three days ago and I honestly couldn't tell you many details about it. I've got my bottom line reaction and that's it. [I guess I better start taking more notes as I read....] and a half--all for premise, setting, and situation. Oh...and for one character--Paget, the butler, who isn't all that keen on his employers' occupation.

This fulfills the "Rope/Noose" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card and is my third entry in the 1954 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1954 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!

Invitation to Murder: Review

Leslie Ford's Invitation to Murder (1954) is set against the rarefied air surrounding the rich inhabitants of Newport, Rhode Island. It has as its main ingredients: a well-endowed trust fund, a necklace of star rubies, the disappearance of the patriarch, and four murders.

Fish (James Fisher) Finlay comes back from the Korean War minus a portion of his leg and missing a chunk of his self-esteem. He goes to work for the Merchants & Mechanics Bank and Deposit Company and earns enough respect from Caxson Reeves, Vice President, to be given a watching brief on the James V. Maloney Trust. As soon as he gets involved, he suspects that Nikki de Gradoff, fourth husband of Dodo Maloney, was scheming to gain possession of Dodo's fortune. There are rumors that de Gradoff helped his previous wife to shuffle off this mortal coil.

But...the fortune doesn't actually belong to Dodo. It is being held in trust for Jennifer Linton, Dodo's daughter by her first marriage.  Dodo holds the purse strings and an interest in the trust until Jennifer's 22nd birthday. Dodo, her husband, her husband's cousin, and the cousin's cousin all gather at Enniskerry, the family's enormous Rhode Island estate. Under the glitter of the parties and the social hours, there are tensions, but things really heat up when Polly Randolph, a reporter with information for Fish, is pushed to her death on the rocks below. Dodo has never told her husband that all that pretty money isn't really hers forever and Fish worries about what might happen to Dodo if he remains in the dark--or to Jennifer if de Gradoff has a sudden revelation. Then a funny little French waiter disappears and an attempt is made on Fish's life. These and various other apparently unrelated incidents all add up to a deep-laid plot that will end in another death.

This Ford book makes for pleasant reading. It's not a knock-out book by any standard, but Ford does what she does so well--provides interesting characters in a country house setting. There is plenty of underlying currents and hidden motives, but the seasoned mystery reader won't be fooled for long on who's behind it all (which prevents this from soaring past the three-star mark). If you're looking settle down for an evening's enjoyment with an interesting cast and a good setting, then this is just the ticket. ★★

With a phone on the cover that obviously isn't going to be making any calls [I missed that if it's in the book...], the counts for the "Broken Object" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card. This is also my second entry in the 1954 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1954 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Murder on Trial: Review

Murder on Trial (1954) is Michael Underwood's debut novel and the first of thirteen novels featuring Inspector Simon Manton (later, Superintendent). Underwood wrote these police procedurals from the mid-1950s through 1965. My previous experience with Underwood's work was primarily with his later series focusing on Rosa Upton, a London solicitor. I was delighted to discover this earlier series--especially since it begins so strongly.

Inspector Manton is sitting in the Old Bailey, watching with interest as the prosecution its case against William Edgar Tarrant for the murder of a young police constable. Many of the officers familiar with Tarrant are surprised that the charming conman had turned to violence--he'd never even been caught with a firearm on his person before. And, just maybe he hadn't done so this time. For as the prosecution wraps up their case and the court is dismissed until the defense can begin on the morrow, Tarrant makes a declaration before exiting the dock:

I'd like to say, my lord, that when I give my evidence tomorrow, I shall be forced to make certain disclosures.

Manton is curious to hear what Tarrant has on his mind. So are a few other people. But one person in the court room wants to make sure they never find out. And in a daring move  manages to shoot Tarrant in the middle of the Old Bailey before he can take the stand in his own defense. You'd think that someone would have seen who did it. But just before the shot, a young woman lets out a dreadful scream which draws the attention of the court. Apparently no one, including Inspector Manton, saw who shot Tarrant through the heart as he was making his way to the witness box. Why did Maisie Jenks scream out seconds before the gun went off? And why did a juror run out of the courtroom seconds after the victim lay dead on the floor? Who threw the gun down beside the lifeless body? Inspector Manton's investigation of these very baffling circumstances provides a new and ingenious mystery that unfolds at a fast pace.  

This really was a surprise delight--the courtroom scenes are well done and it was a very ingenious twist to have a murder occur right in the middle of a trial--in the Old Bailey of all places and right under the nose of a Scotland Yard inspector, the judge, and the jury. I don't know if this is the first time it's happened in crime fiction, but it certainly is the first time I've encountered this plot device. I had a sneaking suspicion on the who but, being unable to figure out precisely how, discarded my initial suspect and hoped that my second choice would pan out. No such luck. My one small quibble with the book is that Manton seems a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to two of the witnesses, but Underwood did need to build up a bit of suspense somewhere. Overall, this short novel (122 pages) was such a promising introduction to Inspector Manton and Underwood's crime fiction that I will definitely be looking for more of the series. ★★★★

This counts for the "Blunt Instrument" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card as well as my first entry in the 1954 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1954 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!

I actually finished this book on 8/2/16, but I've gotten a bit behind on my reviews....

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Servant's Problem: Review

"My daddy says you're the smartest man there is with a mystery, so I just had to turn you."
"A mystery?" The fire horse smelled smoke.

Servant's Problem (1958) by Veronica Parker Johns is the second (and last novel) to feature Webster Flagg, African American, sixtyish, ex-actor and houseman, as well as a current property owner in one of the nicer sections of town, thanks to a legacy from his employer in the previous book, Murder by Day. He's prepared to settle down to a landlord's life, with "the house chores being done by an able janitor, the financial details managed bey a renting agent, only the joys of landlordship to be his." Then he gets a phone call from the daughter of an old friend. Stella is working as a maid in an elegant East side brownstone. The woman who owns the building has gone on an European trip, subletted the apartments, and odd things are happening. The latest? The subletting residents have changed the locks and she can't get in to do her work. Flagg can't resist a mystery.

He arranges to meet her so they can go to the brownstone together and find out what is going on, but somebody clobbers her just before he arrives. When a shiny new key shows up, Flagg takes Stella's place as "maid" and tries to get the low-down on the mysterious Mr. Atterbury, who has never been seen by his employees and stashes a cowboy suit and out-o-date clothes in a closet, and his three beautiful nieces. There's Julie who seems to be the family's go-fer and who is in love with an ex-convict. And Michelle who owns a cute little tearoom--but is it a front for something a little less respectable. And, of course, there's Pearl who drinks....and talks...too much for her own good.

Between top-secret deliveries and attacks on Michelle's gangster friends--one gets a bullet in the arm and another is roped and tied by a truck-driving cowboy, Flagg knows that anything, even murder, could happen in this "respectable" household. By the way, is there anything buried in the backyard besides the shrubs that Michelle keeps sending the owner's brother to the country to collect and plant? Flagg suspects there just might be....and if he's not careful he might wind up under a bush himself.

There is a lot to like about this one. We have one of the few, if not only, butlers (houseman/etc.) turned amateur detective--turning the whole "the butler did it" motif on its head. We also have one of the earliest African American detectives. And Webster Flagg is a marvelous character--well-defined, intelligent, and interesting and making his way through the white, upper-class world with dignity and charm. There are enough other quirky characters to really make things interesting. The writing is engaging and the plot keeps the reader entertained and turning pages. My only quibble is the mystery--there isn't much of one. It's pretty obvious from the beginning what the nieces (or at least two of the three) are up to. The only real question is if someone did get murdered and, if so, who--but that is treated almost as an after thought and it isn't easily solved by the reader because of a lack of clues. ★★ and 3/4 for a lively, interesting, and engaging story.

If you'd like to read more about Veronica Parker Johns and her mysteries, please stop by John's post from 2014 over at Pretty Sinister Books

This counts for the "Revolver" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

July Wrap-Up & P.O.M. Award

It's time to put together my wrap-up post for July. I also have a contribution for Kerrie's Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. I got a fair amount of reading done--though it does look like I need to reevaluate the number of pages I'm going to get read per year. I used to average over 40,000 pages. I'm going to be lucky to hit 30,000 this year. But..let's focus on July. Here's what happened here on the Block last month....

Total Books Read: 14
Total Pages:  3,137

Average Rating: 3.43 stars   Top Rating: 5 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 36%

Percentage by US Authors: 57%

Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  7%
Percentage Mystery:  100% 
Percentage Fiction: 100%
Percentage written 2000+: 29%
Percentage of Rereads: 14%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% {It's eas
y to have every book count for a challenge when you sign up for as many as I do.}    
Number of Challenges fulfilled so far: 19 (59%)

AND, as mentioned above,
Kerrie had us all set up for another year of Crime Fiction Favorites. What she was looking for is our Top Mystery Read for each month. July was a hugemonth for mysteries with 100% coming from that field--for a total of  fourteen crime novels. Here are the books read:

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (4 stars)
 A Pinch of Poison by Frances & Richard Lockridge (5 stars) 
All Fall Down by L. A. G. Strong (3 stars) 
The Ticking Clock by Frances & Richard Lockridge (2 stars) 
Checkmate to Murder by E. C. R. Lorac (4 stars) 
The Poet's Funeral by John M. Daniel (2 stars) 
The Devil in Bellminster by David Holland (3 stars) 
The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne (4 stars) 
The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler (4 stars) 
Too Good to Be True by J. F. Hutton (3 stars) 
A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow (3 stars) 
A Dead Man in Athens by Michael Pearce (3 stars) 
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers (5 stars) 
The Mirabilis Diamond by Jerome Odlum (3 stars)

As we can see, two books came away with 5 stars--A Pinch of Poison by Frances & Richard Lockridge and The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. However, both of these are rereads and the authors have already walked away with the P.O.M. award in previous years. I like to spread the wealth here at the Block. In the next tier (4 stars), we have The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, Checkmate to Murder by E. C. R. Lorac, The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne, and The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler. 

The Lorac book is another excellent fog-shrouded police procedural starring Inspector MacDonald with delightful characterization. But Lorac has won before, so out she goes. The Red House Mystery is Milne's only adult detective novel. And it is a very nice Golden Age offering with lots of fun banter between the amateur detective, Antony Gillingham, and his "Watson," Bill Beverley, but not quite a P.O.M. winner. And then there were two. Which provides a suitable intro to the first of our finalists. Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders is a daring homage to the Golden Age detective novel and, most particularly, to Agatha Christie's classic impossible crime novel, And Then There Were None. This is a highly enjoyable puzzle-plot mystery. Since it is focused on the puzzle aspect, the characterization suffers a bit, but not enough to keep mystery fans from enjoying themselves. The solution to the mystery is quite audacious and, while I kept wondering if perhaps X might be the killer, I couldn't figure out how it would be possible. The clues are there if you just know how to interpret them. Our other finalist, The Warsaw Anagrams (2009) by Richard Zimler, is a heartbreaking historical thriller set in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. It centers on the murders and disfigurement of Jewish children--and specifically on the murder of Erik Cohen's nephew. Erik sets out to discover who is killing so specifically in the shadow of the Nazi regime's extermination camps.

But we can't have two winners, so our July P.O.M. Award goes to The Warsaw Anagrams by Zimler.

Zimler creates a very moving and intriguing story in the midst of the overall horror of the Nazis' atrocities. He also creates a sense of hope in the midst of hopelessness by focusing on the simple, everyday activities of the Jewish people within the Ghetto--from the children going secretly to school and forming a choir to the small kindnesses that neighbors extend to one another to the few Polish Christians who risk punishment by providing what they can for the Jews they know behind the barbed wire. It is an absorbing and heart-breaking story and well worth your time whether you are looking for a World War II setting or a mystery thriller.

The Mirabilis Diamond: Review

John Steele is just your average private eye. He's got a run-down office and a secretary who often threatens to walk out, but who is loyal to a fault and can't help thinking that this time he'll actually earn a fee (and she'll finally get paid). In The Mirabilis Diamond (1945 by Jerome Odlum) he's got a mysterious client with two tough-guy body guards who doesn't want Steele to know where he lives, but does want him to track down an archaeologist who has just dug up a diamond worth a million bucks. There will be several attacks on his life. He will be framed for a couple of murders. And a gorgeous little dame will cling to him, call him "Johnny" (which he hates), and insist that all she wants is to find her father (the archaeologist) and doesn't have any interest in any silly old diamond (insert eyelash-batting here). 

When Steele arrives in Baja California, the last known locale of the archaeologist and his diamond, he finds that he's not the only one looking for the man and the gem. In fact, people hot on the trail keep popping in and out like regular little jacks-in-the-boxes. Or like something I've seen before...maybe...The Maltese Falcon. Yeah. Like that. Only not as good.

That's the verdict I'm left with on this one. It strikes me as a knock-off of Hammett's terrific novel. You've got your fabulous, legendary treasure, your tough good guy, your not-so-on-the-level clients, your itchy-trigger-finger sidekick to the chief treasure hunter (or in this case, itchy-knife-throwing-hand), and the dubious gorgeous dame making eyes at our hero. Does the story play out exactly like Falcon? Well, no. But it's definitely crafted in that pattern and unfortunately it pales in comparison. It's got a decent plot line and Steele is actually a little more three-dimensional than a lot of hard-boiled private eyes. This brings it in at a solid ★★, which--had the plot line not been so well-worn--might have ranked higher. I'd definitely be interested in giving Odlum another try--particularly if any of his other novels feature John Steele.

This counts for the "Skull" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.