Saturday, December 20, 2014

The US in the Thirties: The Thin Man, and The Devil To Pay


The stock-market crash of October 1929 destroyed economies all over the world. Hunger, poverty, and unemployment rose and heralded in what is called The Great Depression. I recently read two mysteries written by American authors in the thirties and it was interesting to see how they reflected the tenor of the times.

Cover Image: Photo of Hammett by Azarnick


Former detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora are in New York for Christmas when a young girl approaches Nick. She is the daughter of a former client of Nick, Clyde Wynant (the eponymous 'thin man') and wants to know whether Nick has heard from her father. Her mother having remarried, she has little contact with her father. From that time onward and much against his wishes, Nick becomes involved in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Wynant. Julia Wolf, Wynant's secretary and mistress, is murdered, Wynant goes missing, communicating only through his lawyer, the much-harassed Herbert Macaulay. Besides the police, Wynant's ex-wife Mimi, also wants to talk to him badly as she wants more money otherwise she might very well lose her new husband. There are lies, falsehoods, and weirdness galore and one never does know about what really is going on. In between, Nick and Nora banter and (despite it being the prohibition era) drink copious amount of alcohol.

The novel is great and entertaining and added a new word to my vocabulary: Speakeasy.



The other novel, Ellery Queen's The Devil to Pay is set in Hollywood and deals with a financial crash engineered by an industrial shark Solly Spaeth. His mechanisation not only crushes a number of people, who had bought stocks of his company but also ruin his business partner, Rhys Jardin. Solly's son, Walter, who has no truck with his father, is shocked by this bare-faced greed. It doesn't help that he is engaged to Valerie, Jardin's daughter. He goes to the extent of threatening his father who promptly disowns him. When Solly is found dead, there is hardly anybody to shed tears for him but the needle of suspicion keeps on shifting from one person to another and it takes Ellery Queen (ostensibly writing a screenplay but basically twiddling his thumbs) to reveal the murderer.

An interesting mystery but Queen's buffoonery repeatedly destroys the tension.

*


First Line: I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-Second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me.


Title: The Thin Man
Author: Dashiell Hammett
NY: Vintage Books, 1972
First Published:1934
Pages: 198
Source: Open Library
Other books read of the same author: The Maltese Falcon





*

First Line: HOLLYWOOD, like the land of Oz, possesses a quaint and fruity flavor: it is the place where the Christmas trees suddenly sprout round lamp-posts in December under a Ninety degree sun, where restaurants take the shape of lighthouses and hats, ladies on Saturday nights stroll the boulevards in trousers and mink coats leading baby leopards on a leash, where morning newspapers cost 5 cents and evening newspapers two, and people wait in queues for unexhausting hours to witness other people pressing their hands into juicy cement.

Title: The Devil to Pay
Author: Ellery Queen
Publication Details: NY: Pocket Books, 1958
First Published: 1938
Pages: 180
Source: H.M Library [F.Q 20]
Other books read of the same author: (Among others) Cat of Many Tails

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Three Recommendations

You will all agree that one of the best things about blogging is discovering new authors and books. This year, I read quite a few books that were recommended by fellow bloggers. Here are brief sketches of three such books.

FEAR by L. Ron Hubbard (1940)



I knew of L. Ron Hubbard as the founder of Scientology and as writer of sci-fi books. The movie version of these books had (Hubbard's most famous disciple) John Travolta in them. I had no idea that Hubbard had written mysteries till I read this fine review @ Tipping My Fedora.

Professor James Lowry is having a lousy day. He is dismissed by the college authorities because of an essay that he had written, then when he meets his friend and fellow-professor Tommy he becomes convinced that he can do little against the decision, then he wakes up to find that four hours of his life are gone, he has absolutely no idea about what happened in the interval he left Tommy's home and then found himself lying on a side-walk. Also missing is his hat. And somehow if he finds what happened to his hat, he will know about those missing hours.

The novel was engaging but unfortunately I did not enjoy it as much as Sergio did.


ROPE'S END, ROGUE'S END by E.C.R Lorac (1942)



I hadn't heard of Lorac till I started blogging and read this fine piece reviewing this very book @ Bev's My Reader's Block. Subsequently, I did read Lorac but was overjoyed when I found this book available for free download as I love English country-house mysteries.

Wulfstane Manor is the family home of the Mallowoods bequeathed to the daughter of the family Veronica and the youngest son, Martin, by their father, much to the chagrin of the elder sons of the family, especially the eldest, Paul, who loves the manor and can't see it going to seed. As Paul is leaving for foreign shores, a family reunion takes place and ends in death. But is it murder or suicide?

An interesting mystery but I disliked virtually all the characters.



THE FOURTH DOOR by Paul Halter (1987)



It was while blogging that I first heard of Paul Halter who was supposed to be carrying forward the tradition of John Dickson Carr. On Rishi's Classic Mystery Hunt, I read a review of Halter's The Fourth Door and was so intrigued by it that when I won a reading challenge hosted @ Musings of a Bookish Kitty, I asked for this book as a prize.

The Darnley house is supposed to have a haunted room. A person, eager to know the secrets of it, volunteers to spend a night in it. The room is sealed and a night-long vigil is kept. However, the next day when the room is opened, a person lies dead in it. What is the secret of the room?

I am eager to read more of the author.

*

First Line: Lurking, that lovely spring day, in the office of Dr. Chalmers, Atworthy College Medical Clinic, there might have been two small spirits of the air, pressed back into the dark shadows behind the door, avoiding as far as possible the warm sunlight which fell gently upon the ring.

Title: Fear
Author: L. Ron Hubbard
Publication Details: LA: Bridge Publications, 1995
First Published: 1940
Pages: 206
Source: Open Library
Other books read of the same author: None

*

First Line: THE October sunlight was streaming across the hall at Wulfstane Manor, drawing tawny lights from the dark oak panelling and the worn floor, gleaming on brass and copper and pewter, enriching the golden beech leaves which stood in ancient earthenware pots.

Title: Rope's End, Rogue's End
Author: E.C.R Lorac
Publication Details: London: Collins, 1942 (The Crime Club)
First Published: 1942
Pages: n.pag.
Source: Black Mask Online
Other books read of the same author: Murder of a Martinet, Slippery Staircase

*

First Line: I had gone to my room early that night, thinking I might have a pleasant evening with a book.

Title: The Fourth Door
Original Title: La Quatrieme Porte



Original Language: French
Author: Paul Halter
Translator: John Pugmire
Publication Details: Locked Room International
First Published: 1987
Pages: 162
Source: Won in a challenge
Other books read of the same author: None


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum...

What is the world coming to? Is nothing sacred anymore? If children can be killed in cold blood, if schools become battlegrounds, if teachers are burnt to death, if parents are left holding bloody bodies and charred remains...then what hope do we have?

What a horrific end to 2014. In this season of hope and good will and good cheer, what inhumanity.

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore said that the birth of every child proves that God has not given up on the human race. But today can we call ourselves humans?



My heart and prayers go out to all those who have suffered.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Forgotten Book: The Schirmer Inheritance by Eric Ambler (1953)

The Schirmer Inheritance was the second novel written by Eric Ambler after the second world war and it reflects the tragedies and triumphs of its times.



During the Russo-Prussian-Napoleonic Wars, a Sergeant in the Dragoons of Ansbach, Franz Schirmer, deserts his unit, and eventually marries, becomes a prosperous business man, and raises a large family. The town that he is settled in falls again into the Prussian kingdom and so afraid of detection, he changes his family name from Schirmer to Schneider. However. his elder son retains the name of Schirmer as he has already been conscripted in the Prussian army.

Move forward a hundred years and a Schneider leaves a huge fortune in the US. A young lawyer, George Carey is deputed to find if there is any heir otherwise the State of Pennsylvania will claim the fortune. George's quest takes him to the still smouldering post-war Europe: Paris, Germany, and Greece. The wounds of the war are still raw and in the scarred lands, battles still rage between different factions. Especially evocative is the description of internecine Greece. I had no idea about the retreat of the German army from Greece or the civil-war that tore it apart so it was fascinating to read about it.



A most satisfying read. Much recommended.

*

First Line: In 1806, Napoleon set out to chastise the king of Prussia.

Title: The Schirmer Inheritance
Author: Eric Ambler
Publication Details: London: Four Square
First Published: 1953
Pages: 190
Source: H.M. Library [F.A. 205]
Other books read of the same author: (Among Others) Journey Into Fear

*

Entry for FFB @ Pattinase

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Scene of the Crime: Watson's Choice

The commonest refrain that I heard about Gladys Mitchell in the blogosphere was that "She was an acquired taste." Now, I don't know what "acquired taste" means but there is something off-putting about the phrase, so it was with trepidation that I picked up my first Mitchell: Watson's Choice.



I needn't have worried though because the novel turned out to be fairly interesting. Rich, eccentric Sir Bohun Chantrey throws up a party, Being a Sherlock Holmes aficionado, he asks all his guests to turn up as characters from the Holmes canon. Among the guests are Dame Beatrice Bradley, her loyal secretary Laura Menzies, and Laura's beau Inspector Robert Gavin who go dressed up as Miss Farintosh, Mrs. Grant Munro, and Inspector Lestrade respectively. However, not all guests at the party are that well-disposed towards Sir Chantrey. There is first, his son Manoel Lupez who quite hates his father, estranged couple Brenda and Toby Dance, grudging actor Charlie Mildern who thinks his career would have progressed much better had Sir Bohn offered him a role when he was young and his long-suffering wife Ethel Mildren. Add to this a few relatives, a harassed secretary, a neurotic tutor, and a hard as nails governess and you have a recipe for disaster.

Sir Bohun first shocks his guest by announcing his engagement to the governess who is much younger in years and then suddenly from the fog springs the Hound (of Baskervilles), then the governess Linda Campbell disappears and then returns with a cock-and -bull story about being kidnapped. Even as Sir Bohun fears for his life, the murderer strikes...


The edition that I read was a Scene of the Crime edition.



























This is what the penultimate page had to say:

Scene of the crime is the renowned bookshop located in Sherman oaks, California. complete with turn-of-the-century decor. it specializes in literature of crime, detection, intrigue, and mystery. Watson's Choice has been selected by Mrs. Ruth Windfeldt, proprietor of Scene of the Crime and editorial consultant for the Dell Scene of the Crime mystery series.

Intrigued by this, I searched the net about Scene of the Crime - both the shop and the series. The shop, I found, has now unfortunately closed down (though there are efforts to reopen it) and regrading the series, I found this illuminating post @ Killer Covers.

For those interested in such things, here is a list given in the book containing a few of the titles.

Murder Ink mysteries:

1. Death in the Morning, Sheila Radley
3. The Brandenburg Hotel, Pauline Glen Winslow
5. McGarr and the Sienese Conspiracy, Bartholomew Gill
7. The Red House mystery A.A. Milne
9. The Minuteman Murder, Jane Langton
11. My Foe Outstretch'd Beneath the Tree, V.C. Clinton-Baddeley

Scene of the Crime mysteries:

2. A Medium for Murder, Mignon Warner
4. Death of a Mystery Writer, Robert Barnard
6. Death After Breakfast, Hugh Pentecost
8. The Poisoned Chocolate Case, Anthony Berkeley
10. A Sprig of Sea Lavender, J.R.L. Anderson
12. Watson's Choice, Gladys Mitchell


*

First Line: 'So it is the Great Anniversary,' remarked Mrs Bradley one dingy autumn morning.

Title: Watson's Choice
Author: Gladys Mitchell
Publication Details: NY: Dell, 1981
First Published: 1955
Pages: 256
Source: H.M. Library [F.M.E. 55]
Other books read of the same author: None

Friday, December 5, 2014

Forgotten Book: The Third Bullet and Other Stories by J.D. Carr

Since my new-found admiration for John Dickson Carr, I have been trying to read as many of his books as possible. Unfortunately, the library that I frequent has only a few of his books. Recently, I borrowed Carr's short story collection The Third Bullet and Other Stories.




The title story is actually a novella. Justice Mortlake is murdered in the pavillion of his house by a man whom he had handed what many felt was a harsh sentence. The man is immediately nabbed by policemen who happen to be on the spot. But then it is revealed that the bullet which killed the judge did not come from the gun that the (apparent) murderer was brandishing. More confusion follows when a revolver is picked up from the room. One of the chambers is empty. Perhaps that is the murder weapon. No. it is not! The bullet that killed the judge was from another gun altogether. But in a locked room, in the sight of policemen where did the weapon disappear and more importantly whose is the hand that pressed the trigger as there was nobody else in the room except the two? I did not find the resolution too convincing and I have a sneaky suspicion that it was basically written for the last lines uttered by Colonel Marquis.



Thankfully, the other stories are better. Dr. Fell solves three cases: The Proverbial Murder; The Locked Room; and the eerie The Wrong Problem where a man narrates the deaths (by almost supernatural agency) of his step-father and step-sister.

Carr's other detective Sir Henry Merrivale solves one of the most interesting cases: The House in Goblin Wood. The lovers Eve Drayton and Dr. William Sage invite Sir Merrivale to a picnic. Accompanying them is Eve's cousin Vicky Adams. Some twenty years back, Vicky Adams had disappeared from her house. The police had been informed of it and a nation-wide hunt had ensued for the kidnappers but the hitch was that all the windows and doors of her house were locked from the inside! A few days later, Vicky was found in her bed by her astounded father. From then on, Vicky claims to have the power of disappearing and entering another realm. Eve feels that her cousin is nothing but a sham and invites Merrivale to solve the mystery. They arrive at the house and sure enough Vicky does her disappearing trick. The doors and windows of the house are bolted, yet a young woman disappears almost in front of three people and only her voice is heard in a darkened room. Does she really have such powers or is there something far more sinister? This is the first time I read Henry Merrivale and found it an utterly absorbing story with a chilling climax.

The Clue of the Red Wig has one of the most memorable characters in the reporter Jacqueline Dubois. The mystery is good but it is Dubois who is unforgettable.

But the one that I liked the most was the last story: The Gentleman from Paris. Armand Lafayette (nephew of American hero Marquis de Lafayette) travels from Paris to New York in search of an old lady who charmed by a young woman (called Jezebel by Lafayette) has disowned her own daughter and willed everything to her instead. The daughter is dying of consumption and needs medical aid which however she is too poor to afford. Armand wants to convince the old woman to give some of her money to her daughter. He arrives and finds that the old lady is dying and in fact has made a new will but surprisingly the will has disappeared from her room. Nobody entered the room and the old woman has had a stroke which has paralyzed her and she is thus unable to speak anything. Armand is at his wit's end but he is helped by a particular gentleman in solving the case. And it is this gentleman who really is the surprise of the story.



J. D. Carr has a huge and enthusiastic following among bloggers. Recently Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora conducted a poll on Carr's Top Ten Books. You can read more about it here and here.

*

First Line: On the edge of the Assistant Commisioner’s desk, a folded newspaper lay so as to expose a part of a headline: Mr Justice Mortlake Murdered...

Title: The Third Bullet and Other Stories
Author: J.D. Carr
Publication Details: NY: Bantam Books, 1965
First Published: 1954
Pages: 191
Source: H.M. Library [FCA 192]
Other books read of the same author: The Three Coffins, Black Spectacles, The Burning Court, The Eight of Sword, He Who Whispers.

*

Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books @ Pattinase

2015 Reading Challenge: Cloak and Dagger

Amy @ A Bookish Girl is hosting the 2015's Cloak and Dagger Mystery Reading Challenge.



Here are the rules for the challenge:

1.) The challenge starts January 1, 2015 and ends  December 31, 2015.
2.) You can read any novel, short story or author just so that the genre is mystery/crime/thriller.
3.) 1 novel counts as 1 novel( 1 novel is anything over 100 pages) of course but you will have to read 5 short stories to count as 1 novel.
4.) There will be a monthly post for you to add a link or links to your post showing the progress that you have made so far. There will be two link-ups on each reading challenge post, one is a text link-up for those of you who are participating without a blog/through Goodreads/or through another way and then a thumbnail link-up for those of you that are participating from a blog.
5.) There will be a book giveaway each month and for initially signing up.


My favourite genre, of course, is mystery so I am aiming for the top-most level. i.e., 40+books, that would make me Sherlock Holmes.