R.B. Dominic: Murder, Sunny Side Up (1968)

Ova-Cote is a chemical compound that, when sprayed on eggs, preserves them for months without the need for refrigeration. But does it also turn them poisonous? Since the U.S. government has been shipping coated eggs to developing countries, the question is now before Congressman Carl Gunderson (D., Illinois) and the House Subcommittee on Non-Military Assistance to Unaligned Nations, which he chairs. A hearing ends abruptly when Gunderson collapses and dies, due as it turns out to a poisoned throat lozenge. The second-ranking member of the subcommittee, Benton Safford (D., Ohio), takes over as chair – and eventually solves Gunderson’s murder…

Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Hennissart are best known for their John Putnam Thatcher mysteries, written under the pen name Emma Lathen. Critics seem to consider their shorter Ben Safford series as the poor relation, and it’s true that some of the entries in the series really aren’t all that good. There are three or four that are well worth reading, though, and this, Ben’s first case, is one of them. The cast of suspects is well drawn, and there are a couple of well-concealed clues that will lead you to the culprit if you’re smart enough. The Lathen/Dominic team never go for great masses of clues like some Golden Age authors, but they usually play fair.

Unlike most series detectives, Thatcher and Ben don’t seem to have any particular interest in solving crimes. Instead, they have jobs that put them in a lot of situations that involve one or two murders, and by the end of any book they notice enough clues that they realize who must be guilty. Sometimes they set a trap for the killer, sometimes they just put the facts before the cop in charge of the case and let him take over.

Ben has a supporting cast like Thatcher’s, a secretary and several colleagues – I particularly like Congressman Eugene Valingham Oakes (R., South Dakota), a wily old politician to rival any wily old politician you might find in an Allen Drury or Fletcher Knebel novel. Elsie Hollenbach (R., California) is fun too. The sly humour of the Thatcher novels is here too — the main difference is that the setting is Washington, D.C. instead of Wall Street. And Ben’s sister Janet and brother-in-law Fred, working as his political operatives back in his home town of Newburg, add a pleasant homey touch absent in the Thatcher books.

The late sixties were a time of turmoil in the U.S., but you’d never know it to read this book – barring a couple of passing references, it could as easily have been set a decade earlier. Other books by these authors are all caught up in events of their time (such as When in Greece), so it’s not as if they made a habit of ignoring the news. Maybe they just wanted to write a nice cozy sort of mystery this time.

If you like this one, try Epitaph for a Lobbyist, Murder Out of Commission or There is No Justice. I can guarantee at least that they all have better titles than this one.

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Ellery Queen: Face to Face (1967)

(If you don’t know what I mean when I talk about Period Three, etc., click here). 

Gloria Guildenstern, the famous 1930s singer who performed as “Glory Guild,” has been shot to death in her New York apartment. It’s clear that her gold-digging husband, phony “Count” Carlos Armando, put up one of his mistresses to doing the deed so he could collect a large inheritance. But Armando has a whole string of these girl friends, and that’s just counting the ones the police know about. Ellery Queen and Harry Burke, a British PI who’d worked for Glory before her death, investigate…

Face to Face is part travelogue of Manhattan in the mid-1960s, part expression of dissatisfaction by two aging men with a changing world (“Look at the Beatles.” “You look at them.” “No, thanks.”), but mostly it’s the last really good mystery novel Ellery Queen wrote. The earlier mysteries of Period Four (The Player on the Other Side and The Fourth Side of the Triangle) had been partly ghostwritten by other writers, so this was the first written entirely by Dannay and Lee since The Finishing Stroke eight years before. John Dickson Carr said it was the best one since Calamity Town in 1942, and he may well have been right.

Face has a plot worthy of a good Period Three Queen novel, with a piece of misdirection Agatha Christie could have been proud of and a cast of memorable characters. I’m not ashamed to admit that I confidently picked the wrong person as Armando’s tool, and rereading the book knowing the solution made me admire how thoroughly Queen had fooled me.

There are some nits to pick – there’s a trial sequence that’s entertaining enough but mainly serves to pad the story to book length, and I wonder why Ellery spends so much time with Burke when the two of them come to loathe each other as the story progresses. And the dying message Glory leaves is not very good, which is a bit surprising considering these cryptic clues were Queen’s trademark.  All that said, Face to Face is a very solid late effort, and it’s too bad the rest of Period Four Queen isn’t as good.

Nicholas Blake: The Beast Must Die (1938)

A hit-and-run driver has killed the toddler son of crime writer Frank Cairnes, and the police are very sorry but there’s no way they can track the culprit down. That’s not good enough for Cairnes, who vows to find — and kill — the killer…

A couple of weeks ago, The Green Capsule solicited my opinions on a couple of classic mysteries, this one and Pat McGerr’s Pick Your Victim. I dealt with Victim here, but Beast gave me a bit of a problem.

You see, when I first read this book I had no idea what was going to happen beyond what I read on the back cover of my paperback copy (which little bit of info didn’t affect my enjoyment). And my ignorance of how things were going to play out made it all the more fun to read.

So I wondered if other online reviewers had also considered this a problem. I read a few posts and… they all gave away more than I’d have wanted to know if I hadn’t already read it. None of them revealed the final denouement or anything like that, but they did spoil some of the earlier developments.

What to do? Well, I’ve already done it… I’ve told you what that back-cover blurb told me, and kept my mouth shut about further events. So if the initial premise catches your fancy, let me leave you with two take-aways:

  1. Read The Beast Must Die, a fine fair-play mystery and probably the best one Nicholas Blake wrote.
  2. Until you do, don’t read other reviews of it.

Pat McGerr: Pick Your Victim (1946)

Pick Your Victim is well-known to detective-story buffs as the mystery that’s written backwards – you know from the start who the murderer is, and you try to figure out who he killed. (I can say the killer’s a “he” without spoiling a thing!)

It’s 1944 and Pete Robbins, USMC, is stationed on a base in the Aleutians. If you know anything about the real history of that part of World War Two, you know that the greatest enemy of US troops stationed there wasn’t the Japanese, or even the cold, but sheer boredom; the US wrested the islands from Japan’s control in 1943, and nothing else of significance would happen there for the rest of the war. Robbins and his fellow Marines have read and reread every item of printed matter available to them – and when one of their number receives a “care” package from home, they assemble the torn scraps of newspaper used as packing material into complete stories – where they can.

To Pete’s surprise, one of these scraps tells him that Paul Stetson, former managing director of the Society to Uplift Domestic Service, has been convicted of murdering another of the organization’s directors. SUDS, a Washington, DC-based non-profit organization, is where Pete worked before he enlisted, and of course he wants to know which of the other directors Stetson killed. Unfortunately, the part of the article with that information on it didn’t make it into the package.

With nothing else to do, the men decide to place bets on the identity of the victim, and over the coming days Pete tells them everything he can remember about his tenure at SUDS, about Stetson, and about the pool of possible victims. (This recounting amounts to over 90% of the book, in case you were anticipating a story of military life.) Not surprisingly, Stetson had some sort of grudge against each of them. Once Pete gets to the end of his recap, everybody makes a case for a different director being The One – but most of them are based on guesswork and intuition. A Marine named Joe Morris, on the other hand, puts together a convincing solution that ties everything together – and weeks later, a copy of the complete newspaper article arrives, confirming that Joe was right.

If McGerr had used the clues she constructed in a traditional mystery, it would have still been a good solid one, not only a well-constructed puzzle but an entertaining picture of office politics with a cast of well-drawn characters. The reverse angle lifts Pick Your Victim into the category of minor classic. I wouldn’t mind reading more who-got-its, except how many ways are there for your characters to know who the killer is but not the victim? Not too many, I suspect.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor: The Six Iron Spiders (1942)

As a change of pace, here’s a mystery from Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1909 -1976), featuring her series detective Asey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock”. If you’re a fan of old-school whodunits, you’ve probably heard of Asey even if you’ve never read one of his cases: he’s a shrewd old Yankee who works for a car manufacturing company, a job that keeps him away from his native Cape Cod for extended periods of time. When he does get home for a visit, he usually finds a murdered body and has to get busy figuring out who did it, either to clear his own name or that of some innocent person.

Okay, the books are not quite as formulaic as that, but Asey does find himself in the above situation quite a bit. The Mayo books fall into two distinct periods: in Period One (1933-1939, roughly) the books are pretty solemn affairs, often with a lot of genuine menace thrown in (the early Mystery of the Cape Cod Tavern seems to be part mystery, part warning about the dangers of fascism). In Period Two (1940-1946, plus one last novel published in 1951), there’s a lot more of the screwball comedy Taylor put into her other series, the Leonidas Witherall mysteries (published as by Alice Tilton). Did the grim situation of the early Forties impel Taylor to make her books more fun?

The Period Two Mayos also have a quality of breathlessness about them – the action generally takes place over a day or weekend, and Asey doesn’t get a break from the ongoing action unless someone’s bashed him on the back of the head and knocked him out for a bit. Don’t start a later Mayo books when you’re tired; you’ll be exhausted by the time you finish!

The Six Iron Spiders is an early Period Two effort, with Asey returning home on a two-day break (the car plant has been converted to a tank plant for the duration), walking in on a wartime first-aid class, and promptly stumbling over the body of the widely-disliked Philemon Mundy. Asey’s cousin and housekeeper Jennie looks to be a prime suspect in terms of motive and opportunity, so he sets about to find the real killer, which – after many misadventures – he does.

(An iron spider, by the way, isn’t an arachnid but a kind of skillet that stands on eight little legs to keep the flame from directly touching it. One gets used in this book to clobber Mr. Mundy to death.)

So… is this one worth your time? As Asey himself might say, “wa-el”…

The Mayo books fall into the category of “stories I enjoy but wouldn’t necessarily recommend”. To deal with their strengths, Taylor was a Cape Cod native and the books show a depth of knowledge about the place you don’t get from a guide book or a short stay. I certainly prefer Period Two to Period One, given the fast-paced action and the often-funny humour (Asey and his supporting cast certainly have a better track record in this regard than Sir Henry Merrivale.) Plus, I’m a World War Two buff and the wartime Mayos draw a detailed picture of what it was like to live on the home front (the part not far from enemy subs) and have to deal with things like rationing and emergency preparation.

On the other hand, I never read a Mayo (and I’ve read about half of them) where I was dazzled by the solution. Generally the case Asey builds against the killer is okay, but it’s made up of something from page 73, and something else from page 108, and something else from page 182… and that’s the case in this one. Which is just to say that for all her good points, Taylor is no Agatha Christie when it comes to plotting.

Once you’ve exhausted Christie and Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, you have to accept that even their better-regarded colleagues aren’t going to pull the rug out from you so reliably. (Has there ever been a less ingenious mystery writer than Ngaio Marsh?) Just accept that fact, I say, and be grateful when you come across something like Blake’s The Beast Must Die or McGerr’s Pick Your Victim. Taylor never wrote a solution as good as those, but the one here is not bad, and one of the clues is actually in “pretty good” territory. So I can honestly say I enjoyed it, but if the extras above don’t appeal to you, you might want to give Taylor a pass.

The Mayo books drift in and out of print. Back in the 80s and 90s, Norton reprinted them as cheap-looking mass-market paperbacks with garish covers. More recently, Countryman Press put some of them out as trade paperbacks with elegant covers, and they still seem to be available on Amazon. At least in Canada where I live, they’re not available as e-books.

The best impossibilities of Edward D. Hoch

I’ve seen it suggested that Edward D. Hoch (1930-2007), not John Dickson Carr, should be remembered as the master of the impossible crime, since he wrote many more of them (although always as short stories, never as novels.) One of his series characters, Dr. Sam Hawthorne, specializes exclusively in locked rooms, impossible disappearances, and the like, and solves over 70 cases in the course of his career.

While I have a great deal of respect for anyone who could publish some 950 stories in his lifetime, I don’t think Carr’s crown is in any danger, mainly because Carr has a higher percentage of truly ingenious solutions. Hoch dazzles me from time to time, but when I read, say, one of his Hawthorne collections, my reaction to the explanation is frequently “meh”.

That said, Hoch does indeed dazzle me from time to time, and here are some of his best impossibilities. All but one have been reprinted in Hoch collections that are currently available as ebooks.

“The Long Way Down”, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine February 1965, reprinted in The Night My Friend

What seems to happen: one foggy morning, a tycoon smashes open a window on one of the high floors of a skyscraper, throws himself out, and vanishes. Hours later, he reappears out of the fog and completes his fatal fall to the pavement.

You can’t get much more impossible than that.

“The Impossible ‘Impossible Crime'”, EQMM April 1968, reprinted in The Night People

What seems to happen: two men, all alone in the Arctic, get along like a couple of scorpions in a bottle. One is shot dead. The other one knows he didn’t do it, but it wasn’t suicide, and there is no one else out there in the snow.

Hoch was not a master of characterization, but in the part before the murder, he effectively portrays the mutual hate of the two men.

“The Leopold Locked Room”, EQMM October 1971, reprinted in Leopold’s Way

What seems to happen: Captain Leopold and his ex-wife are alone in a room together when she collapses from a fatal gunshot wound. Leopold knows he didn’t even draw his pistol, much less use it to shoot her, but the ballistics report says otherwise.

This was adapted for an episode of the TV series McMillan and Wife. Now that I think of it, the setup is similar to the one in the previous story in this list, but the solutions are very different.

“The Problem of the Covered Bridge”, EQMM December 1974, reprinted in Diagnosis Impossible

What seems to happen: one winter day in early 1922, a man drives a horse and buggy into a covered bridge. There are tracks in the snow that go in one end of the bridge, but none coming out. Hours later, the horse and buggy are found miles away, along with their driver, now dead from a gunshot wound. Dr. Sam Hawthorne’s first case.

I want to like the Dr. Sam stories more than I usually do – Hoch was trying to write mysteries that also worked as slices of rural Americana, but generally the effect for me is a little artificial. (“Barnstorming pilots were big in those days – okay, I’ll write a story about one. Bootleggers were big in those days…” etc.) This is one of the most successful in taking you back to a different time and place (unless you live in rural New England, in which case it will just take you back to a different time.)

“Captain Leopold and the Impossible Murder”, EQMM December 1976, no reprint that I know of

What seems to happen: a man drives his car into a traffic jam. When the jam clears and the other cars drive off, he’s found strangled in his, even though nobody entered or left the car while it was stopped.

I love this story for the audacity of the impossible situation. I’m not quite sure the murderer could have pulled it off in the manner described, but I can’t say it absolutely couldn’t have happened.

Rating Carr

I’ve been working for a while on rating the novels of John Dickson Carr (as himself and as Carter Dickson), using a letter-grading system.  Omitted are: the five “Jeff Marle” novels, the historical novels (including The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey), and Fatal Descent. Because it was originally published as a standalone work, I have included the novella The Third Bullet, but nothing else of shorter than novel length.

Basically I start off giving a book a B and then start adding or subtracting points (so adding a point to a B makes it a B-plus, and so on.) Of course, it’s axiomatic that a Carr B novel, or even a C, is way above the A-plus efforts of most other mystery writers.

So what did I add or subtract points for?

The murderer

  • Did I spot the murderer using (at least some of) the evidence provided? Take off a point.
  • Did the murderer’s identity come as a genuine surprise to me? Add a point.

The impossible crime

  • Did I spot how the impossible crime was committed? Take off a point.
  • Did the solution to the impossible crime make me slap my forehead? Add a point.
  • Did it make me say “uh-huh, OK”? No points added or subtracted.
  • Did it make me say, “come on, that would never work”? Take off a point.
  • Was there no impossible crime at all? Obviously, no points added or subtracted.

Miscellaneous

  • Did the solution include some arcane fact that, had I known it, would have made it easier for me to figure things out? Take off a point.
  • Were there too many coincidences or similar plot contrivances? I give Carr a bye on the first one, but if they start piling up, take off one or more points.
  • Did Carr’s opinions get in the way of my reading enjoyment? Take off a point.
  • Did Carr spend too much time trying to be funny? Take off a point. If he was really unbearable, two.
  • Did Carr actually succeed in being funny? Add a point.
  • Did Carr’s efforts to mystify the reader cross the line into cheating? Take off three points.
  • Did the novel feel padded? Take off a point.
  • Did the plot just get too darn complicated, to a point where I kept having to check previous pages long before the solution came into view? Take off a point. (There are only a couple like this.)
  • Did I close the book thinking, “I just read a classic”? Add a point.

There were so few C’s and D’s that I didn’t bother sorting them into pluses and minuses. Occasionally, a flaw is so flagrant or a good point so very good that I subtract or add an extra point.

I’m not going to go into deep analysis of every book, but here’s how it played out…

A-plus:

  • Arabian Nights Murder
  • Case of the Constant Suicides
  • Death in Five Boxes
  • He Who Whispers
  • Judas Window
  • Problem of the Green Capsule
  • She Died a Lady
  • Three Coffins

A:

  • Burning Court
  • Hag’s Nook
  • He Wouldn’t Kill Patience
  • Man Who Could Not Shudder
  • Nine – and Death Makes Ten
  • Peacock Feather Murders
  • Third Bullet
  • Till Death Do Us Part

A-minus:

  • Eight of Swords
  • Graveyard to Let
  • My Late Wives
  • Plague Court Murders
  • Problem of the Wire Cage
  • Reader is Warned
  • Seat of the Scornful
  • Skeleton in the Clock

B-plus:

  • Bowstring Murders
  • Gilded Man
  • Mad Hatter Mystery
  • Panic in Box C
  • Sleeping Sphinx

B:

  • Crooked Hinge
  • Four False Weapons
  • In Spite of Thunder
  • Nine Wrong Answers
  • Punch and Judy Murders
  • Red Widow Murders
  • To Wake the Dead
  • Unicorn Murders

B-minus:

  • Below Suspicion
  • Curse of the Bronze Lamp
  • Dark of the Moon
  • House at Satan’s Elbow
  • White Priory Murders

C:

  • And So to Murder
  • Blind Barber
  • Dead Man’s Knock
  • Death Watch
  • Emperor’s Snuff Box
  • Patrick Butler for the Defence
  • Seeing is Believing

D:

  • Behind the Crimson Blind
  • Cavalier’s Cup
  • Night at the Mocking Widow

Even the A-plus ones aren’t perfect, of course, I could pick a nit about every one of them (even spotted the murderer in one!).  And I do reserve the right to reread a book at any point and decide I was being too generous – or not generous enough.

But for now, that’s how I rate them!