Vintage Mysteries 2012 Challenge Completed!

Today I completed the 2012 Vintage Mystery Challenge hosted by My Reader’s Block!

The challenge was to read eight vintage mysteries (published before 1960) that fit within a particular theme. I chose the “Golden Age Girls” theme, which required me to read eight vintage mysteries written by women. Here’s what I read:

  1. M.M. Kaye, Death in Kenya
  2. Georgette Heyer, Why Shoot a Butler?
  3. Josephine Bell, Death at Half-Term
  4. Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar
  5. Georgette Heyer, The Unfinished Clue
  6. M.M. Kaye, Death in Zanzibar
  7. Josephine Tey, The Man in the Queue
  8. Anna Katharine Green, The Leavenworth Case

Strangely enough, my favorite and least favorite books from this challenge were both by Josephine Tey! I really liked Brat Farrar, but The Man in the Queue did nothing for me. I enjoyed this challenge overall, though, and I look forward to starting the 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in a few short weeks!

Review: The Leavenworth Case

The Leavenworth Case: A Lawyer's Story by…Anna Katharine Green, The Leavenworth Case

In this early American detective novel, young lawyer Everett Raymond is shocked to discover that a longtime client of his firm, Horatio Leavenworth, has been shot dead in his New York home. Since the firm’s senior partner is ill, Mr. Raymond takes on the responsibility of visiting the bereaved family, which consists of two beautiful nieces, a private secretary, and the servants. He also attends the inquest, where the evidence points to one of the nieces, Eleanore Leavenworth, as the guilty party. But Mr. Raymond, struck by Eleanore’s beauty and grace, is convinced of her innocence. He decides to clear her name by collaborating with the police detective in charge of the case, Ebenezer Gryce. But his investigation unearths a shocking secret about the Leavenworth family that may have dire consequences for the family as well as for the murder investigation.

This book is a mystery novel written in the 19th century; that’s pretty much all you need to know to decide whether or not you’ll enjoy it. I thought it was an entertaining and quick read. Despite the flowery language, the book moves quite quickly, with the shocking news of Mr. Leavenworth’s murder being revealed on the first page. The plot is engaging and inventive, especially for its time (the book predates Sherlock Holmes by several years). The characters, on the other hand, are a bit dull and ill-formed. Mr. Raymond, the narrator, could basically be anybody; and the Leavenworth women have few characteristics, at least for the first half of the book, other than being extremely beautiful. So if you’re looking for a deep psychological study, this book probably isn’t for you. But I still found it fun and entertaining, and I’d consider reading more of Green’s work.

Review: The Man in the Queue

The Man in the Queue by Josephine TeyJosephine Tey, The Man in the Queue

When an unidentified man is stabbed to death while waiting in line outside a theater, the crime becomes an immediate sensation in London. Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is assigned to the case, which at first seems impossible. The people standing closest to the dead man noticed nothing, and the murderer seems to have left no trace behind. However, eventually one witness mentions that he saw the dead man arguing with someone in the queue — someone who afterwards left in a hurry. With the help of this statement, Grant is soon on the trail of the man who argued with the victim. However, the more evidence Grant obtains, the more complicated the case seems to grow.

My experience so far with Josephine Tey has been very hit-or-miss: I was disappointed by The Daughter of Time, I really liked Brat Farrar, and now I find myself underwhelmed by this book. I read in the introduction that Tey didn’t like to use the standard conventions of the mystery genre, and that’s certainly evident in this novel. A lot of the book takes place inside Grant’s head, as he immediately begins to theorize about what sort of man might have committed this crime. Thus, much of the novel is Grant jumping to conclusions and then being proved wrong as more evidence is uncovered — which may be true to life but isn’t a lot of fun to read about. The mystery is also technically not “fair,” as the solution comes out of nowhere with no clues given in advance. So I wasn’t a huge fan of this book, but I think I will try some more Josephine Tey in hopes of finding something better.

Review: Death in Zanzibar

Death in Zanzibar by M. M. KayeM.M. Kaye, Death in Zanzibar

Dany Ashton has lived a fairly sheltered life with her Aunt Henrietta in rural England, but she dreams of travel and adventure. So when she has the opportunity to visit her mother and stepfather in Zanzibar, she jumps at the chance. However, before she even gets on the plane to leave England, mysterious events conspire to throw obstacles in her path. Her room is searched, her passport is stolen — and the family solicitor, whom Dany had visited earlier in the day to pick up a document for her stepfather, is murdered. Dany nevertheless manages to get to Zanzibar, but more sinister occurrences follow her. When a member of her stepfather’s house party dies, seemingly by accident, Dany can’t help suspecting that it might be murder — and that her own life may also be in danger.

I have really enjoyed all the “Death in…” books, but I think this one is my new favorite. I liked that there isn’t a lot of tedious exposition at the beginning of the story; rather, Dany is immediately plunged into a mystery and a possible romance, so I was paying attention right away. It was also interesting to read about 1950s Zanzibar from a British perspective. Kaye describes it as an idyllic region fairly removed from politics, yet communism and Cold War ideology are beginning to creep into the area. Kaye is also fairly evenhanded in her portrayal of the native Africans, though certain turns of phrase are harsh on 21st-century ears. If you like the basic premise of “girl travels to exotic location and becomes embroiled in danger and romance,” you’ll probably enjoy this book. Recommended, especially for armchair travelers!

Review: The Unfinished Clue

Georgette Heyer, The Unfinished Clue

This novel begins, as so many British cozy mysteries do, with an awkward weekend at an English country house. Sir Arthur Billington-Smith is a tyrannical husband and father with a terrible temper; therefore, he is less than thrilled when several unexpected guests arrive for the weekend. All the guests dislike Sir Arthur, but since he also happens to be quite wealthy, they are hoping to manipulate him into giving them money. Naturally, Sir Arthur is murdered during the course of the house party, and Inspector Harding of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. He soon finds that nearly everyone has a motive, but there is a dismaying lack of evidence that any one suspect committed the crime.

I absolutely love Georgette Heyer! I’ve read all her Regency-era romances and am now making my way through her mysteries. As a mystery, I have to say that this book is fairly average. Many of the characters seem two-dimensional and could be found in any number of mysteries from this period: the long-suffering wife, the lively young sister-in-law, the disappointing son, the unworldly vicar, and the sharp-tongued vicar’s wife. Still, Georgette Heyer’s snappy dialogue and characteristic hint of romance made this a fun read for me. I even appreciated the meticulous nature of Inspector Harding’s investigation; I never found myself thinking that the police were jumping to conclusions or overlooking evidence, they way they so often seem to do in mystery novels. All in all, if you’re a fan of Golden Age mysteries, I definitely recommend Heyer’s books.