Vintage Mystery Bingo Wrap-up

I officially call BINGO for the 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge!

Vintage Mystery 2014

Participants were invited to play Bingo on either the Golden Age card (mysteries written pre-1960), the Silver Age card (mysteries written between 1960 and 1989), or both. Because of my other challenge commitments, I only attempted one straight-line Bingo, and I chose to use the Golden Age card:

Vintage Golden Card

G1: A book with a color in the title — A.A. Milne, The Red House Mystery
O1: A book published under more than one title — Michael Innes, Death at the President’s Lodging — also published as Seven Suspects
L1: A book with a “spooky” title — Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop
D1: A book by an author you’ve read before — Georgette Heyer, A Blunt Instrument
E1: A  book with a detective “team” >> FREE SPACE >> An author you’ve never read before — Ethel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes
N1: A book with an animal in the title — Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance — a type of snake

As always, I really enjoyed this challenge! My favorite books were probably A Blunt Instrument and The Lady Vanishes, while my least favorite was Death at the President’s Lodging (great solution, but what a slog to get there!). I’m already looking forward to the 2015 challenge…I’ve got lots of new (old) books that will work!

Review: The Lady Vanishes

Lady Vanishes, TheEthel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes

Iris Carr is a privileged young Englishwoman enjoying a holiday somewhere in Europe with a large group of friends. But when her crowd is ready to leave, Iris decides to stay an extra day and enjoy the beauties of the mountains by herself. When she boards the train to go home, she is immediately isolated from the other passengers because she doesn’t speak the native language. So when a talkative English spinster named Miss Froy introduces herself, Iris is glad to have the company, even though Miss Froy is rather a bore. After a long chat, Iris takes a nap in her compartment; but when she wakes up, Miss Froy is gone! Eventually she begins to worry, so she finds a young Englisman to act as interpreter and ask the other passengers where Miss Froy went. To Iris’ shock, they all claim not to remember Miss Froy and say Iris must be imagining things. Iris knows she didn’t imagine Miss Froy, but without any evidence to the contrary, how can she be sure? And if the lady does exist, why won’t anyone admit to seeing her?

Recently I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” and really enjoyed it, but I had no idea it was based on a book! I’m glad I discovered the novel, though, because with all due deference to Hitchcock, the book is better. While the movie is a somewhat straightforward thriller, the book has more psychological tension because it keeps you in the dark about Iris’ mental state for much longer. Are the other passengers involved in some sort of unlikely but sinister conspiracy, meaning that she and Miss Froy are both in danger? Or, perhaps even worse, is Iris having a mental breakdown and imagining the whole thing? Either way, she’s trapped in a nightmarish situation, and the book does an excellent job of heightening this tension. I also think the book’s ending is better than the movie’s; while the film ends with a dramatic shootout, the novel has a much more subtle conclusion. So I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who likes psychological thrillers, especially if you’ve seen or plan to see the movie!

Review: The Red House Mystery

Red House Mystery, TheA.A. Milne, The Red House Mystery

In the time-honored tradition of the classic British mystery, a house party goes terribly awry when one of the guests is murdered and the host disappears. Mark Ablett, owner of the Red House, enjoys collecting people around him, so the house party includes such diverse characters as his private secretary, a military man, an actress, and several idle young people. The party appears to be going well until Ablett learns that his brother, the black sheep of the family who had been living in Australia, will be visiting the Red House for an unspecified but sinister reason. When Robert is inevitably murdered, Mark is nowhere to be found. Is he the murderer, or did someone else in the house party do the deed? Young man-about-town Antony Gillingham just happens to arrive on the scene at a pivotal moment, so he decides to try his skill as an amateur detective; but ultimately he discovers that the solution to the mystery is far more tragic than amusing.

When I came across this book a few years ago, I was delighted to discover that the creator of Winnie the Pooh had written a mystery story! It follows many conventions of the classic Golden Age mystery — such as being “fair,” with all clues presented to the reader as the detective discovers them — but it turned out to be a bit darker and sadder than I was expecting. Tony discovers the murderer’s identity fairly early in the book, so the bulk of the mystery lies in discovering how and why the deed was done. And the thing is, I found the murderer very sympathetic! So I was disappointed that this character turned out to be the guilty party. Also, unlike many mysteries from this period, this book doesn’t contain much humor, nor are there any subplots to lighten the mood of suspense and doom. Tony’s sidekick provides a few funny moments, but otherwise the tone remains pretty dark. Finally, Tony’s character isn’t developed very much, which disappointed me; he seemed really interesting, and I would have liked to know more about his backstory. The book is still worth reading if you enjoy Golden Age mysteries, but I have to admit, it wasn’t my favorite.

Review: The Haunted Bookshop

Haunted Bookshop, TheChristopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop

In this sequel to Parnassus on Wheels, bibliophile Roger Mifflin has temporarily abandoned his traveling bookstore for a more permanent location on Gissing Street in Brooklyn. He calls his store the Haunted Bookshop, claiming that it is “haunted” by the ghosts of great literature. One day a young salesman named Aubrey Gilbert enters the store, hoping to persuade Roger to advertise with his firm; instead, the two men have an intense discussion that leaves Aubrey with a newfound appreciation for literature. When Aubrey returns to the shop a few days later, he is immediately smitten with Titania Chapman, the beguiling new shopgirl. But as he starts to visit the store more regularly, he notices something strange: an old and rather obscure volume keeps disappearing from the Haunted Bookshop and then re-appearing without warning. Is there a literary-minded thief frequenting the bookstore, or is something more sinister at work?

This is one of those cozy little books that take you back to a simpler time, and I found it absolutely charming! Roger Mifflin’s enthusiasm for books is infectious, and the novel is full of his musings on literature, both in general and about specific books. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize most of the titles he mentioned, presumably because they’ve gone out of fashion (and print!) since the book was published in 1919. But this is definitely the type of book that reminds me of the huge number of books in the world that I still haven’t read! The mystery plot is clever, though very slight and easy to guess (and very much a product of its time). I also liked the central characters, especially Aubrey, who makes a lot of endearing mistakes in his quest to solve the mystery and win Titania’s heart. All in all, I finished this book wishing that I could stop by the Haunted Bookshop for dinner and a literary discussion with these characters.

Review: A Blunt Instrument

Blunt Instrument, AGeorgette Heyer, A Blunt Instrument

When wealthy Englishman Ernest Fletcher is found in his study with his head bashed in, his relatives and neighbors are shocked. Ernest was well-liked and seemingly had no enemies, so why would anyone want to kill him? But as Superintendent Hannasyde and Sergeant Hemingway investigate the case, they soon uncover several motives. First there’s Neville Fletcher, the dead man’s nephew and heir to his fairly large fortune. Then there is Helen North, who has a secret involving Ernest that she doesn’t want anybody — especially her husband — to know about. Or the culprit could be Abraham Budd, a businessman who was complicit in some of Ernest’s shady financial dealings. But as the police collect motives and unearth secrets, they become more and more puzzled by the conflciting testimony about what actually happened on the night of the murder. And when a second victim appears, Hannasyde and Hemingway know they will have to act fast to catch a partiuclarly elusive killer.

In general I prefer Heyer’s romances to her mysteries, but I really enjoyed this book! There are some wonderful characters in this one: the vague, mischievous Neville, who is much sharper than he appears; the blunt, monocle-wearing Sally Drew, who writes detective novels; Constable Glass, the Bible-quoting policeman; and the impatient, down-to-earth Sergeant Hemingway. The dialogue is witty and sparkling, as usual, and I loved the romance(s) that emerged throughout the course of the book. The mystery itself is also a bit more substantial than in some of Heyer’s other books, and I was surprised by the Christie-esque twist that revealed the murderer’s identity. Overall, if you’re interested in trying Heyer’s mysteries, I think this is a really good place to start! (Hannasyde and Hemingway are recurring characters in her mysteries, but the books absolutely do not have to be read in order.) I’m reading these mysteries in chronological order, so I’ll be interested to see whether they get even better as they go on!

Review: Death at the President’s Lodging

Death at the President's LodgingMichael Innes, Death at the President’s Lodging

This first installment of the Inspector Appleby series is a classic locked-room mystery set in the fictional St. Anthony’s college, where its president, Dr. Umpleby, has just been murdered. Because of the prominence of the victim, Inspector Appleby is summoned from Scotland Yard to assist the local police. He soon learns that the layout of the college would have made it impossible for someone without a key to access the scene of the crime. Therefore, suspicion centers around the other fellows of the college, most of whom either had a key or could easily obtain one. As Appleby begins his investigation, he notices strong tensions among these men and uncovers various professional rivalries. He also begins to realize that the case is cluttered with many side issues and diversions. But as he sifts the relevant facts from the distractions, Appleby eventually reaches a conclusion as bizarre as it is shocking.

I’ve now read two mysteries by Michael Innes, and what I’ve learned is that I love his solutions, but I’m not terribly fond of how he gets there! In most mysteries that I read, there’s not a lot of irrelevant information; every fact the detective discovers is a clue. In this book, on the other hand, much of what Appleby discovers isn’t relevant to the solution of the murder. This is certainly more realistic than, say, a Poirot mystery, but it made the reading experience more difficult for me. I also didn’t like the relative lack of character delineation. It’s been less than a month since I read this book, and already I couldn’t tell you the main suspects’ names! Nobody (including Appleby) has much personality, so the murder is more like a logic puzzle than a dramatic event involving actual human beings. All that said, I really did love the solution to this one, which got downright farcical in places! So overall, I’m glad I read this book, but I doubt I’ll get sucked into the rest of the series — which is probably a good thing!

Review: Fer-de-Lance

Fer-de-LanceRex Stout, Fer-de-Lance

This novel introduces the famous detective team of Nero Wolfe, an eccentric genius whose skill in detection is rivaled only by his fondness for orchids, and Archie Goodwin, his streetwise secretary. Although they live in comparative luxury, Wolfe and Archie have not been immune to the effects of the Great Depression, and they certainly won’t turn down any opportunity of making some hard cash. So when a worried Italian woman comes to their doorstep asking them to track down her missing brother, they are eager to take the case. Due to Wolfe’s obese build and strange fears of the outside world, he refuses to leave his home; so it’s up to Archie to investigate the man’s disappearance. He soon discovers, however, that the missing Italian man is just one piece of a much larger puzzle involving the sudden death of a prominent university professor. While Archie collects evidence, Wolfe applies his considerable talents to solving the mystery.

This is my first encounter with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but it certainly won’t be my last! I loved Archie as the narrator; his wry, amusing voice reminds me of the fast-talking banter of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s. It was great fun to see the investigation through his eyes, as he applies his own special brand of persuasion to the various suspects and interested parties. Nero Wolfe, by contrast, is significantly less interesting, since the inner workings of his mind remain largely mysterious. He did have some funny moments, though, and I liked his extremely formal patterns of speech. He and Archie make a nice contrast in that regard, since Archie is full of contemporary slang and has an almost aggressively casual tone. As for the mystery itself, it is quite well-plotted, even if the solution isn’t very surprising. The only thing I disliked was that the book keeps going after the culprit’s identity is revealed. For me, the fun of reading a mystery is trying to solve it; once the solution is discovered, I don’t want to read a long denouement about how the guilty party was finally caught. So I thought the end dragged a bit; but other than that, I enjoyed this mystery and look forward to reading more in the series.