2018 Vintage Mystery Challenge Wrap-Up

2018 Vintage Mysteries

I’m a few days late with this post, but the end of 2018 means the end of the 2018 Vintage Mystery Challenge at My Readers Block. The goal of the challenge was to read at least 6 vintage mysteries (published before 1960) that answer the questions “Who,” “What,” “Where,” “When,” “Why,” and “How” Here’s what I read:

1. Ngaio Marsh, A Man Lay Dead — What (reference to a man in the title)
2. Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime — Why (author I’ve never tried)
3. Elizabeth Daly, Unexpected Night — How (at least two deaths by different means)
4. Miles Burton, Death in the Tunnel — Where (mode of transportation)
5. Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase — Who (crime-solving duo)
6. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep — Why (out of my comfort zone)
7. Francis Duncan, Murder for Christmas — When (set during a recognized holiday)

I enjoyed almost everything I read for this challenge, but the standouts were Death in the Tunnel (best plot), Have His Carcase (best character development), and Unexpected Night (best overall). My least favorite book of the challenge was The Incredible Crime. If you also participated in this challenge, what were your favorite (or least favorite) books?

2018-vintage-mysteries-gold-card-edited

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Mini-reviews: Miracle, Murder, Wired

Miracle on 5th AvenueSarah Morgan, Miracle on 5th Avenue

Eva Jordan, who owns an event-planning company with her two best friends, has been hired to decorate a swanky Manhattan apartment for Christmas. Little does she know that the owner — wildly successful (and handsome) mystery writer Lucas Blade — is still in residence. As luck would have it, a severe blizzard hits New York, trapping them in the apartment together. Sunny, optimistic Eva and grumpy, brooding Lucas clash right away, until of course they don’t. But will their very different personalities and priorities put a stop to their growing romance? I liked how honest Eva was about her needs and feelings, but otherwise I thought this book was just okay.

Murder for ChristmasFrancis Duncan, Murder for Christmas

A quintessential English country house mystery in which Father Christmas himself (as portrayed by one of the house party) is murdered. Naturally, all the characters seem to have a motive, and amateur detective Mordecai Tremaine just happens to be on the scene to solve the case. I really liked the atmosphere and writing style of this novel, although I’ll admit to being somewhat disappointed by the resolution of the mystery. It does make logical sense; it just didn’t turn out the way I would have preferred. Still, I’m definitely interested in trying more of the Mordecai Tremaine novels!

Wired LoveElla Cheever Thayer, Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes

A charmingly old-fashioned story about a young woman who falls in love with someone she “meets” on the telegraph wire, before ever seeing her correspondent in person. Naturally, complications ensue! I really enjoyed the fact that this is the same plot as You’ve Got Mail written more than 100 years earlier. I also liked the main romance, but I was extremely indignant at the fates of some of the secondary characters (poor Quimby and Jo!). So, not quite as satisfying as I’d have liked, but I still enjoyed this short book overall.

Mini-reviews: Sleep, Magpie, Bookshop

Big SleepRaymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

I haven’t read widely in the hardboiled mystery genre, but I don’t tend to love dark books, so I was a bit apprehensive about trying this one. But I actually really enjoyed the voice of this book — it’s funny and descriptive and uses startlingly apt metaphors. The plot is exciting and twisty, highlighting the governmental and societal corruption of 1930s Los Angeles in a grim yet matter-of-fact way. Philip Marlowe is a flawed protagonist, to say the least, and the book’s portrayal of women is ugly, albeit true to its time. But all in all, I’m interested to read more of Raymond Chandler in the future.

Magpie MurdersAnthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders

This book has gotten a lot of good buzz, including a lot of comparisons to Agatha Christie, so I was excited to read it. Ultimately, though, I have mixed feelings about it. There are two mysteries for the price of one. First, an editor is reading the manuscript of famous mystery writer Alan Conway’s latest novel, but the last chapters are missing. What happened to them, and where is Conway now? Second, of course, there’s the mystery within Conway’s novel, which involves two deaths that may or may not be related. I was much more interested in the second mystery than the first; I found the editor tiresome, Conway odious, and none of the other characters in that story memorable. But I did think the solution to the second mystery (within Conway’s novel) was pretty ingenious. Basically, I enjoyed the puzzle but could have done without all the meta stuff.

Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Corner

I’m now officially a fan of Jenny Colgan. This book is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it’s also well-written and charming — the perfect read if you’re looking for something light and uplifting. When main character Nina gets laid off from her job, she decides to follow her dream of opening a mobile bookstore. I think a lot of us bookish folks can relate! Nina also, naturally, finds herself torn between two suitors…I wanted to roll my eyes at the saccharine predictability of it all, but the romance actually did work for me, so I won’t complain too much! A lovely comfort read, and I’ll continue to seek out more books by Jenny Colgan.

Review: Have His Carcase

Have His CarcaseDorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase

Harriet Vane, the famous detective novelist and infamous murder suspect (recently acquitted), is on a walking tour of British coastal villages. One afternoon she has a picnic on the beach and drops off to sleep. When she awakens, she is shocked to discover the body of a dead man farther along the beach. The man’s throat has been cut, but there is only one set of footprints (which must belong to the corpse), so suicide is a possibility. But Harriet can’t help thinking it might be murder. She photographs the body — which will be washed away when the tide comes in — and goes for help. But much to Harriet’s chagrin, help eventually arrives in the form of Lord Peter Wimsey, whose eagerness to solve the mystery is compounded by his desire to spend more time with Harriet. As the two join forces to solve the mystery, they also struggle to define the nature and boundaries of their relationship.

The more I read of Dorothy L. Sayers, the more I come to realize that she is emphatically not for everyone. This book is a Golden Age mystery, but it’s far from a typical one. Sayers is unquestionably familiar with the tropes of the genre — indeed, Peter and Harriet have some fun mocking them in this book — but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in following them herself. As with many of her other books, the “whodunit” is not the main concern; rather, she spends most of her time setting up a seemingly impossible crime, then explaining at length how it was possible after all. It’s clever, but I must confess that it didn’t hold my attention. A chapter near the end, where Peter and Harriet decode a letter and painstakingly explain how the code works, is especially dull.

However, I still really liked this book, and the reason is that I’m fascinated by the development of the relationship between Peter and Harriet. There’s one scene in particular, where they leave aside their usual polite banter and express their real emotions, that hit me right in the gut. Much as my romantic heart wants them to get together, I completely understand Harriet’s ambivalence and her struggle to maintain her independence in the face of Peter’s relentless pursuit. I’m extremely eager to read Gaudy Night now, but since I’m going in publication order, I have a couple books in between. I think that when I reread the series (as I undoubtedly will), I’ll group all the Peter-and-Harriet books together.

Review: Death in the Tunnel

Death in the TunnelMiles Burton, Death in the Tunnel

When prominent businessman Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a first-class train compartment, the local police assume that he must have committed suicide. After all, they found the murder weapon, monogrammed with Sir Wilfred’s initials, in the train compartment, and the train employees swear that no one entered or left the compartment except Sir Wilfred himself. But because of the man’s high social status—and the apparent lack of a motive—Scotland Yard is called in. Inspector Arnold is not quite satisfied with the suicide theory, so he in turn asks for the help of his friend Desmond Merrion, an amateur expert in criminology. Together, Arnold and Merrion consider the possibility that Sir Wilfred was murdered and try to discover how it could be done.

This is one of those Golden Age mystery novels that’s all plot and absolutely no character development. The two principal characters are Arnold and Merrion, and all we ever learn about them is that Merrion is more “imaginative” than Arnold, but both are good detectives. They have literally no other character traits — though I believe there are several other books featuring Merrion, so he may be better defined elsewhere. Sir Wilfred is only fleshed out enough to hint at a possible motive for murder, and the three or four suspects are only vaguely differentiated from each other. That said, the plot is actually very ingenious — one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a while from a pure “puzzle” standpoint! Merrion and Arnold piece together their solution in a very logical way, demonstrating how the seemingly impossible crime could have been accomplished. So in the end, the excellent plot made up for the lackluster characterization, for me; your mileage may vary.

Review: Unexpected Night

Unexpected NightElizabeth Daly, Unexpected Night

This first novel in the Henry Gamadge series centers around Amberley Cowden, a young man who stands to inherit millions of dollars on his 21st birthday—assuming he lives that long. He has a chronic heart condition, and it’s only a matter of time before he has a fatal attack. But when his body is found at the bottom of a cliff on the very day he turns 21, his death can’t help but raise suspicions. The local police mount an investigation that leads to a nearby theater troupe, another mysterious death, and the attempted murder of Alma, Amberley’s cousin and heiress. Henry Gamadge, who knows some of Amberley’s relatives, assists the police in their investigation, and his expertise in handwriting analysis proves valuable in solving the case.

Although it’s not particularly groundbreaking, I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery very much. The plot is a little bloated in places, but I found the ultimate solution ingenious. I also liked the character of Henry Gamadge, although he’s very involved with an investigation he really has no right to be involved with — a fact that several of the other characters point out! But I like that he cooperates so well with the local police, rather than trying to investigate on his own. Stylistically, I didn’t like the fact that dialogue tags are very infrequent; it’s often not immediately obvious who is speaking, although I could generally figure it out from context. Still, that quibble aside, I liked this book and am excited to read more in the Henry Gamadge series.

Review: The Incredible Crime

Incredible CrimeLois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime

Prudence Pinsent enjoys her position as the daughter of the Master of Prince College, Cambridge. She socializes with the various professors, Fellows, and their wives, and she loves a good rugby match. One day she travels into the countryside to visit her cousin, Lord Wellende, and to enjoy a few days’ hunting on his estate. En route, she encounters an old acquaintance who happens to be a coast guard inspector. He reveals that a nasty new drug is being smuggled into England, and the central distributor is operating out of Cambridge. Moreover, he suspects that Lord Wellende, whose estate is on the coast, may also be involved. He asks Prudence to keep her eyes and ears open while she visits her cousin, but she insists that Wellende couldn’t possibly be involved in drug smuggling. However, the longer she stays at Wellende’s estate, the more she is forced to admit that something fishy is going on. Meanwhile, she finds romance in an unlikely place.

I enjoyed this book for its bright, lively voice, but I must say that the plot is very scattered! Cambridge actually isn’t a huge part of the story, but the scenes set there feel more like a satire of academia than anything else. The drug smuggling is the main plot, but it’s not a traditional mystery in the sense of fair cluing, multiple suspects, alibis, and the like. There is a suspicious death in the book, but it happens almost at the end of the novel and is resolved fairly quickly. Then there’s the romantic element, which I (somewhat surprisingly) was not a fan of and which felt very tacked on. My overall impression is that the book isn’t sure what it’s trying to be. I think it’s best to approach the novel as a period piece — the style is enjoyable, there are some lovely descriptions of the countryside, and some of the minor characters are great fun. But it’s not particularly satisfying as a mystery, and I’m not sure whether I’ll end up keeping my copy.

Review: A Man Lay Dead

Man Lay DeadNgaio Marsh, A Man Lay Dead

This first book in the Inspector Alleyn series is pretty much the quintessential English country house murder. A group of acquaintances is invited to Frantock, the stately home of Sir Hubert Handesley, who is famous for his house parties. Everything seems to be going swimmingly, although first-time guest Nigel Bathgate notices some tension in the air. Sir Hubert suggests a game of Murders, in which one guest is secretly designated the “murderer” and must “kill” another member of the party without being caught. Of course, the game becomes all too serious when one of the houseguests is really killed. Inspector Alleyn is on the case, and he soon uncovers several motives for murder — but it seems as though none of the suspects would have been able to complete the dastardly deed in time.

I’m almost positive that I’ve read this book before, but it’s been so long that I hardly remembered anything about it. Maybe I didn’t like it the first time, because I don’t remember reading any other books by Ngaio Marsh; but I definitely enjoyed it this time around! I liked the writing style, the book has good pacing, and the clues are well planted and spread around. The solution to the mystery is bizarre but satisfying, and there’s even a nice little romance on the sidelines. The characterization is rather flat, even for Alleyn; Nigel Bathgate is the only one with a bit of depth. And a fair bit of the plot is spent on a Russian secret society that (spoiler alert) has nothing to do with the murder and is just there to create trouble. (I mean, that’s not even really a spoiler, because it is literally never the Russians.) Still, I’m definitely interested in continuing with this series, and I’m sure the characterization — at least of Alleyn himself — will improve in later books!