2013 Vintage Mysteries Challenge Wrap-up

I recently completed the annual Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge at My Reader’s Block! The general goal is to read mysteries published before 1960, and this year’s twist was to fit them within certain pre-arranged categories, à la Scattergories.

2013 vintage mystery scattergories

Here’s what I read, along with a brief explanation of why each book fits within its specified category:

  1. World Traveler: Patricia Moyes, Dead Men Don’t Ski — Set in the Italian Alps.
  2. Repeat Offenders: Georgette Heyer, Death in the Stocks — Because I love me some Heyer!
  3. Murderous Methods: Anthony Berkeley, The Poisoned Chocolates Case — Makes me think twice about eating food I get in the mail…
  4. Staging the Crime: Michael Innes, Hamlet, Revenge! — An amateur performance of Hamlet turns deadly.
  5. Country House Criminals: Georgette Heyer, Behold, Here’s Poison — I love a good English country house murder!
  6. Murder Is Academic: Isaac Asimov, A Whiff of Death — Chemistry professors and their murderous impulses.
  7. Yankee Doodle Dandy: Ellery Queen, The Roman Hat Mystery — New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town.
  8. Malicious Men: Georgette Heyer, They Found Him Dead — Only male victims in this one!

I really enjoyed my reading for this challenge! The Roman Hat Mystery was probably my least favorite read, but I still liked it — and The Poisoned Chocolates Case in particular was absolutely wonderful! Can’t wait to sign up for the 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge…you’ll probably be seeing that post in the next day or two! 🙂

Review: They Found Him Dead

They Found Him DeadGeorgette Heyer, They Found Him Dead

This book begins, as so many classic British mysteries do, with an ill-fated party at an English country house. Silas Kane is celebrating his 60th birthday, but many of his guests aren’t in a particularly happy mood. His heir, Clement, is desperate to get his hands on a piece of the older man’s fortune — especially because his beautiful but materialistic wife, Rosemary, is threatening to leave him. Meanwhile, Silas’ neighbor and business partner is eager to interest him in an investment opportunity, but so far he has stubbornly refused to consider the deal. So when Silas is discovered dead the day after the party — having apparently fallen over the cliff where he habitually took a walk every evening — there is no shortage of suspects to consider. And when Clement is shot in the study shortly afterwards, it seems clear that a murderer is at work. Once again, Inspector Hannasyde of Scotland Yard must untangle the various motives in play and discover the identity of a ruthless killer.

I’ve been steadily working my way through Heyer’s mysteries, and this book is a typical example. I always enjoy Heyer’s witty dialogue and hints of romance, although in this book the love story is very peripheral to the main plot. The mystery itself is fine, though there’s nothing particularly surprising for those who read a lot of detective novels. As always, the strength of Heyer’s books is her characters, and there several great ones here, from the self-absorbed Rosemary Kane to the exuberant young Timothy Harte, who is overly eager to assist the police in solving the murder. I should note, however, that while Inspector Hannasyde is a recurring character in Heyer’s mysteries, he is definitely not the protagonist; each individual book tends to revolve around the victim and the suspects much more than around the detective. Anyway, I definitely liked this book overall, but there’s nothing that makes it particularly stand out to me.

Review: The Roman Hat Mystery

The Roman Hat MysteryEllery Queen, The Roman Hat Mystery

In 1920s New York City, crowds have been thronging to see the latest Broadway hit, a sensationalist gangster play complete with flashing lights and gunfire. But little did the audience members of the Roman theater suspect that a real murder would be committed during the second act! Inspector Richard Queen of the local police is on the scene almost immediately, with his curious son Ellery in tow. In examining the victim’s body, they soon discover an interesting anomaly: despite being dressed in full evening clothes, the dead man wasn’t wearing a top hat. The police scour the Roman theater from top to bottom and search all the audience members as they leave the premises, but the hat is nowhere to be found. While Inspector Queen and his fellow police detectives identify the corpse and discover his involvement in a blackmailing scheme, Ellery applies himself to the mystery of the missing hat — and deduces the identity of the murderer as a result.

I really enjoy classic mysteries from the early 20th century, so I was excited to read this first Ellery Queen novel. Overall, I was very impressed with the mystery plot itself; the solution is tight and hangs together well, although part of the motive is concealed from readers until the very end. (Historical racism is also an aspect of the solution, which can certainly be offputting for contemporary readers.) I also liked the way in which the police were depicted as they investigated the murder: far from being bumbling idiots, they approach their job intelligently and methodically. I was especially tickled by the introduction of the district attorney as a character. Most mystery novels focus solely on catching the killer — never mind if s/he can actually be convicted in a court of law! I wasn’t as impressed with the characterization of the detectives, however. Inspector Queen was more central to this book than Ellery, but he didn’t seem to be consistently depicted, and Ellery was barely fleshed out at all. Presumably, though, more character development occurs in subsequent books, and I’d certainly be willing to read more Ellery Queen novels.

Review: A Whiff of Death

A Whiff of DeathIsaac Asimov, A Whiff of Death

Professor Louis Brade is a middle-aged chemistry professor whose biggest problem is his ongoing struggle for tenure. But his life gets much more complicated when one of his students, Ralph Neufeld, is found dead in the research lab. Outward signs point to an accident; Ralph was preparing an experiment at the time, and he might have accidentally used a poisonous chemical instead of the identical-looking harmless one. But Professor Brade knows that Ralph was a meticulous chemist who would never have made such a mistake. He is reluctant to voice his suspicion that Ralph was murdered, however — especially when it becomes clear that Brade himself is a promising suspect. Can Brade discover the cause of Ralph’s death, clear his name, and avoid becoming the murderer’s next victim?

I was surprised and delighted to discover that Isaac Asimov also wrote detective novels! And I have to say, I was very impressed with this mystery. I enjoyed the academic setting, and although chemistry plays a large role in the story, it’s very easy for non-scientists to follow as well. I also liked Brade as a main character, mostly because of how normal he is compared to other fictional detectives: He’s an intelligent but not brilliant professor, and he has a happy-ish marriage that nevertheless has its fair share of conflict. Finally, I really loved the policeman in this case, whose breezy manner conceals a very sharp mind. The interplay between the policeman and Brade was one of my favorite parts of the book. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this to fans of older mysteries, and I plan to look for more of Asimov’s detective stories.

Review: Behold, Here’s Poison

Behold, Here's PoisonGeorgette Heyer, Behold, Here’s Poison

Gregory Matthews is a domestic tyrant and an all-around unpleasant man, so none of his family members are particularly grieved when he suddenly dies after eating a rich dinner. Everyone, including the local doctor, is ready to accept a verdict of death by heart failure, until the dead man’s overbearing sister insists on a post-mortem. When the autopsy reveals that Matthews was actually poisoned, however, the family is thrown into turmoil. The taint of suspicion touches everyone, from the victim’s sister-in-law, who lives in his house, to his heir, the sophisticated and sarcastic Randall Matthews. Inspector Hannasyde of Scotland Yard is on the case, and he soon finds Randall’s attitude suspicious; meanwhile, Randall claims he is working on his own to discover the murderer. But will he or the police succeed before the guilty party kills again?

I’ve been reading Heyer’s mysteries in publication order, and overall I’ve been enjoying them (though not as much as I love her Regency romances!). Sadly, I think this novel is my least favorite so far. Heyer’s greatest strength isn’t crafting suspenseful mysteries; rather, she excels in creating vivid, likable characters and witty dialogue. In this book, though, I just didn’t find the central characters very likable or interesting. Randall in particular got on my nerves; while Heyer has successfully done similarly urbane, dandified characters in her romances, in this case I found him more irritating than intriguing. The romantic storyline also felt undeveloped and unsatisfying. This book wasn’t a terrible read, by any means, but I’d recommend one of Heyer’s other mysteries instead.

Review: Hamlet, Revenge!

Hamlet, Revenge!Michael Innes, Hamlet, Revenge!

Something is rotten at Scamnum Court. The noble English estate is hosting a large house party in order to produce an amateur performance of Hamlet, but things go wrong almost immediately when cryptic threats — some of them taken from the text of Hamlet itself — are delivered to various houseguests. Then Lord Auldearn, a guest who also happens to be the Lord Chancellor of England, is murdered onstage during opening night. The sheer audacity of the murder makes it particularly hard to solve; although the scene of the crime was packed with actors and spectators, it appears that no one saw a thing. Also, there is no shortage of suspects or possible reasons for the crime. Was Lord Auldearn murdered for the confidential state papers in his possession, or was the motive more personal? Inspector Appleby of Scotland Yard must unravel this complex case and discover a diabolically clever murderer.

I have to confess that I spent most of this book being completely bewildered. There were so many characters to keep track of, and I wasn’t sure who would turn out to be important to the plot, so I exhausted myself trying to keep tabs on everyone! This is also a very cerebral mystery; most of the “action” is conversations between Inspector Appleby and his friend Giles Gott. However, I definitely enjoyed the book more as I got further into it, and the ultimate solution was both ingenious and unexpected. I would definitely recommend having read Hamlet, or at least being familiar with the plot, before reading this book; otherwise many of the allusions and plot twists will be very obscure. Overall, I’m not sure this is quite “my kind” of book, but I did enjoy it and would consider reading more by Innes. There’s a whole series featuring Inspector Appleby, and this book is #2, but I was able to follow everything without having read the first book.

Review: The Poisoned Chocolates Case

The Poisoned Chocolates CaseAnthony Berkeley, The Poisoned Chocolates Case

Roger Sheringham is the president of an amateur criminology club. The club has six members, almost all of whom are famous in their respective fields of law, drama, and literature. Since Roger and the other club members are fascinated by crime, they are delighted when a unique opportunity comes their way: a Scotland Yard inspector invites them to try their hands at solving a prominent murder case that has stumped the police. The club members, confident in their abilities, decide that that they will each formulate a possible solution to the mystery and present it to the club as a whole. If all the members agree on the murderer’s identity, they will inform Scotland Yard of their conclusion. As the members take turns presenting their solutions, however, it becomes clear that the case is much more complicated than they originally thought.

This is one of the most unique and interesting mysteries I have ever read. The format is unlike most other mysteries because it doesn’t focus on practical detective work like discovering clues and interviewing suspects. Rather, almost all the evidence is presented to the club members at the beginning of the novel, and the book spends most of its time exploring the characters’ different theories of the crime. I really liked how the book pokes fun at various detective-novel conventions, particularly the idea that facts necessarily lead to one and only one conclusion. Here, all the club members have access to the same facts, but they all argue convincingly for different solutions. I didn’t guess the ultimate answer to the puzzle (although I did have the same theory as one of the club members), but the answer really isn’t the point. Instead, this book is all about the philosophy of the detective novel, and as such, I would definitely recommend it to mystery fans!

Review: Death in the Stocks

Death in the StocksGeorgette Heyer, Death in the Stocks

When a dead man wearing evening dress is found locked in the stocks on the village green, the local police are only too happy to turn the case over to Scotland Yard. The corpse is Arnold Vereker, a universally despised man who kept a tight hold on the family purse strings. When Superintendent Hannasyde questions Vereker’s young relatives, they all declare themselves extremely happy that their unpleasant half-brother is dead at last. Hannasyde doesn’t know what to make of Antonia, Kenneth, and their various love interests, but he suspects that there are secrets hidden beneath their lighthearted jokes. He sifts through the muddle of motives and alibis with help from Giles Carrington, the Vereker family’s solicitor, who has his own reasons for wanting to uncover the murderer.

I’m a longtime fan of Georgette Heyer’s romances, but I’m quickly coming to love her mysteries as well! As someone who loves a good period piece, I found this an extremely fun book to read. The mystery is perfectly fine, with some interesting little twists and red herrings; I figured out some pieces of the puzzle but didn’t ultimately guess whodunit. However, the real pleasure of this book is the characters, their witty conversations and their blossoming romantic attachments. While the Verekers and their friends take center stage, though, Superintendent Hannasyde is also an intriguing sleuth, and I look forward to reading about more of his cases in subsequent Heyer novels.

Review: Dead Men Don’t Ski

Dead Men Don't SkiPatricia Moyes, Dead Men Don’t Ski

Inspector Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy are looking forward to a relaxing ski holiday in the Alpine town of Santa Chiara, Italy. However, Henry has also been asked to keep his eyes peeled for information relating to an international smuggling ring that might be headquartered in the area. Though reluctant to spoil his holiday with work, Henry can’t help but notice that several of his fellow vacationers have secrets to hide. Then one of the other guests at his hotel, Fritz Hauser, is found murdered on the ski lift. As Henry helps the local police to investigate, he soon learns that Hauser was involved in the smuggling ring — and that several of the hotel guests had good reasons for wanting him dead.

I think this book could best be described as a “traveling” English country house mystery. All the key elements are there — unlikable murder victim, plenty of suspects, an unusual crime scene which demands very precise alibis from everyone — but it happens to take place in a ski villa rather than an English country house. Since I love the genre, I found a lot to enjoy in this book. I especially enjoyed the subtle deviations from the standard mystery formula: for example, two of the characters are a hearty English colonel and his domineering wife, yet there’s more to both of them that meets the eye. Also, the “foreigners” in classic mystery novels always seem to be there as mere background, but here they were truly fleshed-out characters with actual relevance to the plot. I believe this is the first book in a series featuring Tibbett, and I’d gladly read more. Definitely recommended for classic mystery fans!