Review: Mystery in White

Mystery in WhiteJ. Jefferson Farjeon, Mystery in White

Six passengers in a third-class train compartment become entangled in a sinister mystery when the train is trapped in a snowdrift on Christmas Eve. The group includes a lively young brother and sister, a chorus girl, an elderly bore, a shy clerk, and a professor with an interest in the supernatural. They all decide to leave the train and seek shelter at a nearby station, but they become lost in the snow and end up at an isolated country house. Desperate for shelter, they enter the house, but no one seems to be home. Yet the teakettle is on, and the table is set for a meal. As the characters try to make sense of these events, one of them reveals that a man was murdered in the train — and when the group is later joined by another “lost” individual, they suspect that he may be the murderer. This chain of events later converges with another mystery concerning the house itself and a murder that happened 20 years ago.

I enjoy Farjeon’s light and humorous writing style, and his characters are well rounded and sympathetic. But plot-wise, I was quite disappointed in this novel. The six characters introduced in the opening chapters of the book are the ones we follow for about two-thirds of the novel, so naturally I assumed that they would be the most important people in the story. But in fact, aside from the professor, who acts as the detective and orchestrates the denouement, none of these six people have any relevance to either of the mysteries in the novel! They provide some humor and some human interest, but they have no actual function in the plot. Instead, two new characters come in late in the game, and they turn out to be central to the story. I can’t understand why Farjeon would structure his story in such a way that it’s totally disconnected from the characters we’ve been following all along. I also felt sorry for several of the characters, who deserved a happier ending than what they got. All in all, this might be entertaining for people who enjoy a witty period piece, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for people who want a good mystery!

Review: The Moving Toyshop

Moving ToyshopEdmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop

On holiday in Oxford, poet Richard Cadogan stumbles upon a perplexing mystery. Arriving in town late at night, he blunders into a toyshop (the front door being mysteriously unlocked) and discovers a corpse in the flat upstairs. Before he can do much more than ascertain that the old woman is really dead, someone hits him from behind and knocks him out. When he comes to, Cadogan escapes and rushes to tell the police about the murder. But when he leads the policemen back to the scene of the crime, the toyshop is gone. In its place is a grocer that has obviously been there for years. Of course, the police think that Cadogan is crazy, and they won’t investigate a murder without a body. Luckily, Cadogan is acquainted with Gervase Fen, an Oxford don who moonlights as an amateur detective. Together, Fen and Cadogan investigate the mystery and uncover a murderous conspiracy, as well as discovering what happened to the moving toyshop.

This is a fun romp of an English Golden Age mystery, with just enough Oxford detail to please fans of academic mysteries. But despite the fact that it’s probably Crispin’s most famous novel, several aspects of it didn’t work for me. First, I can’t figure out Gervase Fen as a character: he’s supposed to be about 40 and lean, but his dialogue (especially the constant exclamations of “Oh, my dear paws!” and “Oh, my fur and whiskers!”) makes me picture a much older and larger man. Also, he’s rude about Jane Austen, which is an automatic strike against him in my book! Then there’s the issue of pacing. The story starts off strong, but it seems like most of the mystery is solved with about one-third of the book still to go. Finally, it seemed like the novel was setting up a romance for Cadogan, but nothing ever came of it, which I found confusing and disappointing. Still, I did enjoy the novel’s light tone overall, as well as the Oxford setting. I’d consider reading more by Crispin, but I think I’ll have to go in with moderate expectations.

Review: The Cut Direct

Cut Direct.jpgAlice Tilton, The Cut Direct

Leonidas Witherall, a retired professor at a boys’ school, can’t imagine why anyone would want to murder him; but within the first few chapters of this book, he is twice run over by a car. The perpetrator looks like one of Witherall’s former pupils, an unpleasant young man named Bennington Brett. But when Witherall regains consciousness after the second vehicular assault, he wakes up in a chair across from Brett’s corpse. Concerned that he’ll be the number-one suspect if he calls the police, Witherall decides that the only available course of action is to solve the murder himself. Along the way, he accumulates a motley crew of assistants, including a drinking pal of Bennington’s, the Brett household’s beautiful secretary, a mobster and his girlfriend, and the kindly widow next door — whose brother just happens to be the local chief of police. Of course, Witherall’s attempts to investigate are hampered by the fact that his description is all over the police reports and the newspapers. As his efforts to evade capture become ever more farcical, he slowly begins to piece the mystery together.

This second book in the Witherall series is just as much madcap fun as the first book, Beginning with a Bash. The book is light, breezy, and full of delicious banter; it reminds me of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, and I really wish someone would adapt the series for television. The opening chapters of the book are a little bewildering because Witherall himself doesn’t know what has happened to him, but it’s actually pretty easy to follow all the strands of the somewhat convoluted plot. As a mystery, I’m not sure it’s entirely successful; some aspects of the solution aren’t fair play, although I think astute readers will spot the culprit fairly quickly. But the characters, the dialogue, and the humor more than make up for any plot deficiencies. I especially loved Mrs. Price, the thoroughly respectable widow who wholeheartedly embraces Witherall’s schemes, even going so far as to use police resources to help him out of various difficulties. In short, this book (and, so far, the series) is a delight, especially for fans of movies like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby.

Review: The Lady Rogue

Lady RogueJenn Bennett, The Lady Rogue

An unconventional young woman growing up in the 1930s, Theodora Fox has a thirst for adventure. Her father, Richard, is a well-known treasure hunter who travels the world collecting rare and precious artifacts. Yet despite Theo’s eagerness to accompany her father on these trips, he usually ends up leaving her behind, allegedly for her own protection. When Richard fails to return from one such trip, Theo is worried that he’s gotten into trouble and decides to take matters into her own hands. With the help of Huck Gallagher, Richard’s protégé and her own former love interest, she looks for clues in her father’s journal and soon realizes that he was on the trail of a supposedly magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Vlad Dracula. Now Theo and Huck must retrace her father’s footsteps into Romania, where they soon discover that they aren’t the only ones on Richard’s trail. They also encounter murder, magic, and a dangerous secret society with its own plans for Dracula’s ring.

This book sounded like it was going to be a fun, adventurous romp, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it. I find myself getting a bit grumpy about YA lately, and this book is a good example of why: I just found Theo to be incredibly immature. She’s one of those headstrong, anachronistic heroines with implausibly amazing skills (in Theo’s case, codebreaking) and a fairly self-centered worldview. She doesn’t really grow or change throughout the novel, although I’ll grant that she does make one very good decision at a climactic moment. But I just didn’t care about her or her quest. The treasure-hunting aspect of the novel is also disappointing, since Theo and Huck are terrible detectives; they wander around Romania cluelessly and finally stumble upon the exact individuals who can tell them what’s going on and what to do next. Finally, the romance irritated me; it was all angst and physical attraction, no true compatibility. Also, I hated the characterization of Huck — he’s from Northern Ireland, and he’s an incredibly broad stereotype (says “Jaysus” all the time, calls Theo “banshee” as a pet name). In short, this one definitely wasn’t for me.

Review: Murder Has a Motive

Murder Has a MotiveFrancis Duncan, Murder Has a Motive

When retired tobacconist Mordecai Tremaine accepts an invitation to visit his friends Paul and Jean Russell in the quaint village of Dalmering, he has no idea that he’ll shortly be called upon to use his skills as an amateur detective. But the day before he arrives in town, a local woman named Lydia Dare is found stabbed to death on the path that leads to her cottage. Mordecai’s friends ask him to help solve the murder, and he is more than willing to do so, especially when he learns that his friend Inspector Boyce is the Scotland Yard man in charge of the case. As Mordecai gets to know Lydia’s friends and neighbors, it seems that all the clues are pointing toward Martin Vaughan, an old friend of Lydia’s who was in love with her, even though she’d just gotten engaged to another man. But Mordecai is unconvinced, and as he continues to search for more suspects, the killer has ample opportunity to strike again.

I’ve read one other book featuring Mordecai Tremaine, Murder for Christmas, and I find my feelings about this book are the same: it’s an interesting, competently written Golden Age mystery, but not particularly groundbreaking or unique. I like Mordecai; he doesn’t have the theatrical idiosyncrasies of Poirot, but rather is kind and unassuming, preferring to fade into the background most of the time. I also really liked Inspector Boyce, and the conversations between him and Mordecai were my favorite scenes in the book. I felt that most of the other characters were pretty flat; they all seemed to be more stock characters than nuanced individuals. The mystery is clever and (I think) plays fair; I even spotted a pivotal clue, though I didn’t follow it to its logical conclusion. I’m not entirely sure I buy the murderer’s psychology, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. Overall, I like Francis Duncan and am glad I have a couple more of his books on my shelves, but I can see why he never became as popular as, say, Agatha Christie.

Review: The Second Man

Second ManEdward Grierson, The Second Man

Set in 1950s England, this novel focuses on a small-town law practice that has just hired a female barrister. Marion Kerrison is a young woman in an almost overwhelmingly male profession, and she must fight to be taken seriously both in the practice and in court. But she has some allies, including junior lawyer Michael Irvine, who narrates the book. Marion soon proves her worth by winning several cases, and because of her gender she receives some attention from the press. As a result, the practice assigns Marion a much more important case: the defense of John Maudsley, who is accused of murdering his aunt to obtain an inheritance. Everyone except Marion thinks he’s guilty, but she insists that the key witness is lying and that someone else committed the crime. With Michael’s help, she reviews the evidence, questions key witnesses, and tries to come up with an alternate theory of the murder.

Most mystery novels end with the discovery of the guilty party and the implication that he or she will be brought to justice. But this novel explores what happens next: the investigators may have discovered the truth, but can they prove it in a court of law? What happens if witnesses are unreliable, evidence is inadmissible, or one side simply has a better lawyer than the other? This book explores these fascinating questions by focusing almost entirely on the murder trial, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also thought the portrayal of Marion was very interesting. I expected it to be more sexist, frankly, given the author’s gender and the era in which the book was written. But while the novel does make some irritating assumptions about Marion’s “intuition,” it is also surprisingly sensitive to the difficulties she faces as a woman in her profession. My one complaint is that the book ends rather abruptly, and the solution to the mystery isn’t explained in much depth. I missed that final chapter where the detective explains how s/he solved the crime. But overall, I would definitely recommend this book if the premise interests you.

Review: The Cornish Coast Murder

Cornish Coast MurderJohn Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder

Old friends Reverend Dodd and Dr. Pendrill enjoy their weekly custom of eating dinner together and discussing mystery novels. Both are avid fans of the genre but recognize that in their small Cornish town, it’s extremely unlikely that a real mystery will come their way. So when the local major landowner, Julius Tregarthan, is shot dead in his living room, Dodd and Pendrill are naturally eager to assist the police with their investigation. The case quickly becomes more complicated for Dodd, however, when he learns that Tregarthan’s niece, Ruth, was seen behaving suspiciously on the night of the murder. Suspicion also falls on Ruth’s suitor, Ronald Hardy, who had argued with Tregarthan shortly before his death. Reverend Dodd can’t believe that either Ruth or Ronald is guilty, so he exercises his detective skills to find the real murderer.

This is my first John Bude mystery novel, but it won’t be my last! It’s not exactly groundbreaking — I’d consider it a fairly traditional vintage mystery — but it’s a great example of the genre. There’s the unpleasant victim who leaves an inheritance behind him, a pair of young lovers who may or may not be conspiring, an enthusiastic amateur sleuth who assists the police, and a tightly plotted mystery whose solution unfolds logically and systematically. I’m not quite sure it’s “fair,” though — I don’t recall learning enough to guess the motive until the culprit confesses at the end of the book. Also, I wish there had been a few more suspects, and that Ruth and Ronald had been more fleshed out. But I really liked that the book spends a lot of time on both the amateur and professional investigations. Many books of this era don’t care about the routine details of police work, but this one acknowledges them without getting too tediously descriptive. Overall, I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more by the author.

Review: Duplicate Death

Duplicate DeathGeorgette Heyer, Duplicate Death

Young barrister and future baronet Timothy Harte is in love with Beulah Birtley, but his family fears she’s an unsuitable match. She works as a secretary for Mrs. Haddington, a widow with shady origins who has somehow found a way into London society. When a man is murdered at Mrs. Haddington’s bridge party, suspicion falls on Beulah, and Timothy is determined to prove her innocence. But Beulah is clearly hiding something, and she had both motive and opportunity to commit the murder. Luckily, the policeman in charge of the case is Chief Inspector Hemingway, who remembers Timothy from an earlier encounter (detailed in They Found Him Dead). As Hemingway and his assistant investigate the case, they discover not only Beulah’s secret but a host of others. They develop what seems to be a convincing theory of the crime — until a second murder throws all their conclusions into doubt.

Once again, Heyer delivers a mystery in which the plot is a lot less interesting than the characters. But her sparkling dialogue and incisive social commentary make up for any weaknesses in the mystery itself. I enjoyed Timothy’s interactions with Beulah, which strongly reminded me of Heyer’s romances. I also liked the fact that, for the first time in a Heyer mystery, the policemen are actual characters! Hemingway gets a lot more time on page than he has done in previous mysteries, and his exchanges with the Scottish Inspector Grant are some of the funniest in the book. But as I mentioned earlier, the mystery plot isn’t particularly strong, particularly when it comes to the second murder. The book also describes a homosexual character in very derogatory terms by today’s standards. Overall, I did enjoy this book and would recommend it to people who like Heyer and/or vintage mysteries, but it’s not a keeper for me.

Review: Verdict of Twelve

Verdict of TwelveRaymond Postgate, Verdict of Twelve

This Golden Age mystery (originally published in 1940) uses a unique method to tell its story. The book opens with the information that someone is on trial for murder, and it focuses on the swearing-in of the jury. It gives a short sketch of each juror’s life, the various obstacles they’ve faced, their political opinions, how the world perceives them, and how they view the task they’re about to undertake. One juror, for example, is distracted by problems at his job and only wants to finish the business as quickly as possible. Another is a grieving widow whose husband was killed in an anti-Semitic attack, and his murderer was never brought to justice. Only after giving these psychological portraits of the jurors does the novel describe the actual case, which centers around a woman who is accused of murdering her nephew and ward. By focusing on the jurors’ backgrounds and biases, the book provides a nuanced, cynical view of law and justice.

I was very interested in the premise of this novel and found it a fascinating read. Many Golden Age mysteries tend to focus on plot, and the characters are often flat and two-dimensional. But this book is just the opposite; the characters are extremely well defined, while the mystery plot is quite simple and is given comparatively little attention. I thought the psychological studies of the jurors were very well done and convincing, though for me, the descriptions of the accused woman and her nephew were even more interesting. The final scene in the jury room is almost anticlimactic after all the intense buildup. It’s interesting to see who originally votes “guilty” and “not guilty,” but there is no real drama in reaching the verdict. The novel’s ending is fantastic: it reveals what really happened but also ends on an ambiguous, somewhat chilling note. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the premise!

Review: Enter a Murderer

Enter a MurdererNgaio Marsh, Enter a Murderer

This second installment of the Inspector Alleyn series is set in the London theater world. Arthur Surbonadier, a supporting actor in a new play, has managed to alienate nearly everyone in the cast and crew. He has threatened his uncle, who owns the theater company, in order to be cast in a better role. He has made unwelcome advances to the leading lady, which upsets both her and her new lover, the leading man. So it’s not entirely surprising that Arthur ends up murdered — shot onstage with a prop gun that was supposed to be loaded with dummy cartridges. Luckily, Inspector Alleyn and his journalist friend, Nigel Bathgate, are in the audience. Their investigation uncovers many sordid details about the victim’s past, including blackmail, drug dealing, and the seduction of one of the stagehands. But they are nevertheless unprepared for another murder, which leads to the shocking discovery of the killer’s identity.

I’ve been reading up a little bit about Ngaio Marsh, and one of the most frequent complaints about her novels is that they have a good setup but get very boring once the murder takes place. I can see some validity in that complaint: the first few chapters of this book are very compelling, as they introduce the characters and ratchet up the pre-murder tension, but the rest of the novel follows the relatively mundane police activity of interviewing suspects. Nevertheless, I wasn’t bored by this book — it’s very short, and I didn’t mind the suspect interviews, especially when they allowed Alleyn and Bathgate to bounce off of each other. I still don’t really have a sense of Alleyn as a character, except that he can occasionally be playful and enjoys keeping his friends (i.e., Nigel) in the dark. But perhaps he’ll be fleshed out more in later books. I did enjoy the solution to the mystery, which I didn’t guess ahead of time, and I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.