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review 2018-06-01 17:54
Do-It-Yourself Crime Solving from the Golden Age of Mysteries
File on Fenton & Farr - Q. Patrick
Murder Off Miami - Dennis Wheatley
Who Killed Robert Prentice? - Dennis Wheatley
The Malinsay Massacre - Dennis Wheatley
Herewith the Clues - Dennis Wheatley

You'd think that I get to read more than enough files (though not typically crime files) in my day job -- but gluttons for punishment that some of us mystery lovers are, there's nothing we like better than tracking down the murderer ourselves, instead of just reading about some super sleuth doing it for us ... or so the makers of the 1930s' Crime Dossiers / Crime Files series figured, and of course they were dead on target.

 

The idea was first conceived by English authors Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links, whose Murder off Miami (aka File on Bolitho Blane) was such a raging success on both sides of the Atlantic that it inspired follow-ups in both the U.S. and in the UK: in the latter case, three more "Crime Dossiers" by Messrs. Wheatley and Links; in the U.S., Helen Reilly's File on Rufus Ray (Crime File No. 2), as well as File on Fenton and Far, and File on Claudia Cragge by Q. Patrick (aka Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler) (Crime Files Nos. 3 and 4).

 

While the American "Crime Files" Nos. 2 and 4 (Rufus Ray and Claudia Cragge) are true collectors' items that continue to elude me for the moment, I've now read all four "Crime Dossiers" created by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links, as well as Q. Patrick's File on Fenton and Farr, and I'm in awe at the amount of ingenuity that has gone into creating these books.  They really are extremely close to the real thing -- you get correspondence (including cablegrams) and file entries by the investigators as well as witness statements, handwritten documents, crime scene and witness photographs, entire newspapers containing reports on the crime (not merely individual reports but actually entire broadsheets!), and even honest-to-God tactile evidence such as blood-stained pieces of cloth, strands of hair, tubes of lipstick, and other items found at the crime scene or in a witness's possession.  One can only guess at the amount of time and effort that must have gone into the creation of each and everyone of these books -- and they must have been tremendously expensive to produce, too; so no wonder that many of them (and all the originals from the 1930s) are rare collectors' items these days.  Crimes scenes range from a yacht off the Florida coast to an English village not far from London, a castle on a remote Scottish island, small-town New Jersey, and a London night club; and the cast of characters -- in each book as well as in all of them taken together -- is as diverse as any that you might expect to find in the best of crime fiction.

 

This all being said, obviously you can't like all books equally well, however lovingly they are put together; and so far my favorites are Wheatley / J.G. Links's sophomore effort, Who Killed Robert Prentice? (which has downright fiendish elements; it is, however, solvable on the basis of the evidence provided) and Q. Patrick's File on Fenton and Farr ... the latter, if only for the fact that the authors even managed to work a funny-sweet romance between one of the detectives and the police chief's precocious secretary into the file.  (Obviously it also helped that I managed to solve both of these cases substantially (Robert Prentice) / partly (Fenton & Farr) correctly, even if I reserve the right to quibble with some of the evidence in Fenton & Farr.

 

The weakest of the lot is, IMHO, The Malinsay Massacre; not so much because it consists very largely of correspondence but because the solution just plain doesn't make sense to me and some of the conclusions allegedly "forcing" themselves on the reader from individual pieces of evidence are implausible beyond belief.  (OK, sour grapes, I admit.  Still ...) -- Herewith the Clues, the final Wheatley / Links outing, is generally decried as weak as well; however, I actually prefer it to Malinsay -- it does present a genuine puzzle, and even if some of the clues / proposed deductions are maybe a bit far-fetched, a fair amount of them actually do serve a logical purpose in eliminating innocent suspects on the one hand and nailing down the murderer on the other hand.  (Besides, the sheer number of fellow writers and society celebrities of their era that the authors managed to rope in for purposes of posing for "suspect" photos for Herewith the Clues is mind-boggling in and of itself -- in fact, this is the only volume where the true identities of the persons portrayed in the photographs are unveiled -- not least as this is a story dealing with IRA terrorism and some of the suspect biographies also point to Nazi Germany ... surely, in 1937, not exactly connections that many well-known Brits would have welcomed to see associated with their names; however much in a fictional context and with a disclaimer reading "the particulars regarding [name of fictional suspect] which are given in the script have, of course, no reference whatever to [real name of person portrayed], who very kindly posed for this photograph.")

 

Now, if only I could get my hands on at least halfway affordable copies of the File on Rufus Ray and the File on Claudia Cragge ...

 

In the interim, File on Fenton and Farr gets me another square in the Detection Club bingo -- "Across the Atlantic" (chapter 22), which at the same time completes bingo no. 4 ( all 4 corners + center square).

 

Individual ratings:

File on Fenton & Farr - 4 stars

Murder off Miami - 4 stars

Who Killed Robert Prentice? - 4.5 stars

The Malinsay Massacre - 3 stars

Herewith the Clues - 3,5 stars

 

 

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review 2018-05-27 20:50
"They seek him here, they seek him there ..."
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Emmuska Orczy,Gary Hoppenstand
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Stephen Crossly,Emmuska Orczy

Oh, what a glorious prelude to the 2018 Summer of Spies.

 

Maybe not a "spy" novel in a narrower sense, but writing in 1902 and leagues ahead of her time, Orczy created the first book of what would become a series of perfect swashbucklers, starring a power couple in which the heroine is every bit her partner's equal and then some.

 

Indeed, cleverly Orczy even tells this book's story chiefly from Marguerite's point of view, which not only has the benefit of keeping the first-time reader (though ... is there such a creature, in this day and age, when it comes to this particular novel?) unaware of the Scarlet Pimpernel's identity as long as possible, but also gives Marguerite an added reason to hurtle all the way to France in Sir Percy's pursuit once she has cottoned onto (1) his alias, and (2) the fact that Chauvelin has unmasked him as well and is now hunting for him in turn.  After all, the narrative perspective would go to hell in a handbasket if Marguerite were to just stay at home and gnash her teeth, anxiously awaiting her husband's safe return -- whereas this way, Orczy is able to present her as a woman of action ... even if, for the most part, it looks like the much-touted "cleverest woman in Europe" is stumbling blindly after her husband and Chauvelin in their respective tracks and comes darned close to ruining Sir Percy's whole enterprise, not to mention imperiling the life of her beloved brother Armand, to whose assistance Sir Percy had rushed off to begin with (well, that and in order to finish the job of getting the de Tournay family safely across the Channel).

 

No wonder, in any event, that the reading public soon demanded a sequel -- and Marguerite  and Sir Percy would soon also find their way onto the silver screen.  The rest, as they've never said more truly than here, is history ...

 

 

My "Summer of Spies meets Women Writers Project" reading list:

Women of Intelligence

(http://booklikes.com/apps/reading-lists/897/women-of-intelligence)

 

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review 2018-05-10 18:31
Brilliant
The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus - Margaret Atwood,Laural Merlington
The Penelopiad - Margaret Atwood

Irreverent, insightful, funny, deeply humane and empathetic.

 

The myth of Odysseus is one of my favorite parts of Greek mythology: in telling it from the perspective of Penelope -- with a good bit about Penelope's childhood and youth, and her and Odysseus's marriage thrown in for good measure, as well as with her 12 slain maids acting as a very Greek chorus -- Atwood turns it inside out, gives it a feminist spin, and puts it together again in her very own way.  And Laurel Merlington's narration is sheer genius ... if you're into Greek mythology and audiobooks, get the audio version now.  (If you're not into audiobooks but into Greek mythology, still get the edition of your choice.)

 

Absolutely loved every second of it.

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review 2018-05-05 20:58
Four Solid Winners in the Miss Silver Series
Latter End - Patricia Wentworth
Latter End - Patricia Wentworth,Diana Bishop
Poison In The Pen - Patricia Wentworth
Poison In The Pen - Patricia Wentworth,Diana Bishop
Miss Silver Comes to Stay - Patricia Wentworth
Miss Silver Intervenes (Miss Silver Mystery) - Patricia Wentworth
Miss Silver Intervenes - Diana Bishop,Patricia Wentworth

... lined up in order of preference.

 

I admittedly have so far only read two other Miss Silver books besides these four -- Grey Mask and The Chinese Shawl, respectively --, but based on the books listed above, my appreciation of the series is certainly increasing.  Like Georgette Heyer's mysteries (and to a lesser extent, Ngaio Marsh's), all the Miss Silver books seem to come with a side order of romance, which is probably not surprising, given that this is where Patricia Wentworth started out.  But once she had gotten the standard mystery and romance tropes out of her system that bogged down the first book of the series, Grey Mask, and are also still way too prevalent for my liking the fifth book (The Chinese Shawl -- what most annoyed me there was the predominant "youthful damsel in distress" theme), it seems that she found her stride somewhere between that book and the next one (Miss Silver Intervenes).  There are still common elements to all the novels; e.g., in addition to the invariably-included romance, like Marsh and Heyer Wentworth seems to be playing favorites: Once a character has been introduced as genuinely likeable, it is extremely unlikely that (s)he will turn out to be the murderer -- and if a superficially likeable character turns out to be the bad guy (or girl) in the end, there will be subtle hints all along the way that there might be more to them that meets the eye.  And of the four listed above, I think Miss Silver Intervenes is still the weakest.  But it's clear that Wentworth's apprentice phase as a mystery writer was over and done with.

 

In Miss Silver Intervenes, the detective (or "private enquiry agent," as she prefers to style herself) is called in to untangle a web of deceit, blackmail and murder in a London apartment building, against the background of WWII food shortage and other restrictions of daily life (and I confess I can't think of any other Golden Age mystery where one of the "good guys" is ultimately revealed to be

a sausage king.)

(spoiler show)

Though both of the book's main female characters have a whiff of snowflake / damsel in distress (and their beaux are consequently suffering from a mild form of white knight syndrome) -- and there is perhaps a bit too convenient a use of the amnesia trope (which I don't particularly care for, anyway) -- what I really like about this book is the way in which Wentworth brings the effect of WWII to life, chiefly in one particular character, but ultimately in all of them.  The mystery isn't quite on the level of Agatha Christie, nor does it in fact reach the cleverness of that presented in the previous Miss Silver book, The Chinese Shawl, but the characters -- especially some of the supporting characters, as well as the two policemen (CDI Lamb and Sergeant / later DI Abbott) -- here begin to come alive and take on three dimensions once and for all (though I will say that Miss Silver herself had reached that point by book 5 already).

 

I've yet to catch up with the Miss Silver novels between books 6 and 11, but by the time she got to Latter End (book 11), Wentworth had definitely also weaned herself of the need to have "damsel in distress" heroines.  There still are two such ladies as supporting characters, but the heroine is a young woman who can -- and does -- take care of herself extremely well, and is loved because (not in spite) of that by the hero ... and both she and the hero repeatedly refer to the two ladies in need of rescue as "doormats" (albeit in a spirit of genuine worry about these ladies' inability to put up a fight in their own behalf). -- In terms of plot, again this is perhaps not exactly Christie-level clever; also, the setting is, facially, an exponent of the "toxic family relations explode at country manor" Golden Age staple ... but it's all done with such incredible panache that the characters downright burst off the page; and the murder victim of the piece is in the best Golden Age tradition of a thoroughly despicable human being without whose presence and continuous bullying and intrigues everybody is decidedly better off. -- As in Miss Silver Intervenes, the policemen "formally" in charge of the case are DCI Lamb and Sergeant Abbot.

 

Miss Silver Comes to Stay (book 16) is an example of another Golden Age staple setting, the village mystery with sinister goings-on both in the village and at the nearby manor; and here we get to meet the third policeman that Miss Silver more or less routinely associates with, DI Randal Marsh, who is an old pupil of hers (Miss Silver was a teacher / governess and actually looking at a rather drab and modest sort of retirement before, by mere chance, she stumbled into becoming a "private enquiry agent"). --

Randal Marsh, in turn, also meets his future wife in this book.

(spoiler show)

This was the first book by Wentworth that I ever read, and I liked it well enough to continue my exploration.

 

Poison in the Pen (book 29), finally, is one of Wentworth's last Miss Silver Books -- there are 32 in all.  Again we're on Randal Marsh's turf, of which he has become Assistant Commissioner in the interim -- but the driving force behind Miss Silver's involvement in the case is DI Frank Abbot, who thinks "Maudie", as he privately calls her, is the ideal person to gently worm her way into the social circles of a village beset by poison pen letters.  This is, noticeably, also Miss Marple territory of course, and kudos to Wentworth, whose foray into this area I for once even prefer to Christie's ... albeit as always, not on the grounds of plot or intricacy of the mystery but chiefly on the grounds of the characters involved.

 

Based on these four books, I'm definitely going to continue my journey into Miss Silver's world ... and can I just say as a final note that I prefer my editions' covers of Miss Silver Intervenes and Miss Silver Comes to Stay -- both created by Terry Hand -- to those listed on BookLikes for the same ISBNs?

 

 

(Same ISBN as the covers listed on BL, so no legit grounds to change them, and I can't be bothered to create extra entries for the alternative covers.  But the new ones are stock images which -- probably not entirely coincidentally -- are also used for Georgette Heyer's mysteries, e.g., see the cover of Detection Unlimited, to the left ... where, incidentally, it fits decidedly less well than with Wentworth's Latter End; but then, a disjoint between cover image and contents of the book is common ailment of most of the recent editions of Heyer's mysteries.)

 

 

The audio editions of the Miss Silver books are, incidentally, read by Diana Bishop, whose narrations I've thoroughly come to enjoy.

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review 2018-04-20 22:28
A murder is committed -- and hilarity ensues.
The Moving Toyshop - Edmund Crispin
The Moving Toyshop - Edmund Crispin,Paul Panting
Quick Curtain - Alan Melville
Quick Curtain - Ben Allen,Alan Melville

Both Edmund Crispin's Moving Toyshop and Alan Melville's Quick Curtain are mentioned in the "Making Fun of Murder" chapter of Martin Edwards's Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.  Both are excellent examples of writers taking something as horrific as murder and turning it right around and into a farce, albeit (as Dorothy L. Sayers remarked in her review of Melville's book) at the expense of a realistic description of proper police procedure.  But then, a surfeit of realism isn't necessarily what either of these authors was aiming for.

 

Which doesn't mean that their observations on society, or the segment thereof being portrayed (academia in Crispin's case, the world of showbiz and the theatre in Melville's) aren't spot on satire.  In fact, if read in that spirit, they are, in many respects, as timely today as they were when originally written:

"Tuesday, June 18th, you will have noticed, was the great day [of the musical company's London opening].  On Sunday, June 16th, when most of the Blue Music company were still in Manchester [...], seven grim females parked seven rickety campstools outside the gallery entrance of the Grosvenor Theatre.

 

They were joined a little later in the evening by four more females and a lone male.  They unpacked sandwiches and munched.  They uncorked thermos flasks and drank hot coffee out of the aluminium tops of the flasks.  They discussed with one another Mr. Douglas, Miss Astle, Mr. Baker, Mr. Douglas's past successes, Miss Astle's last divorce, Mr. Baker's profile -- both the port and the starboard view.  They half slept.  They suffered endless agonies on their stupid, unreliable campstools; they each contracted stiff necks and shooting pains in the lower reaches of the spine; they were photographed for their pains by a man in a dirty waterproof and appeared on the back page of the Daily Post under the title 'Gallery Enthusiasts' Three-Day Wait for New Douglas Show.'  They were stll there on Tuesday morning, proudly in the van of a fair-sized queue."

 

(Alan Melville, Quick Curtain)

Harry Potter and Apple gadgets, anyone?

 

 

Edmund Crispin's Moving Toyshop concerns the temporary metamorphosis of a grocer's shop into (you guessed it) a toyshop for purposes of the concealment of the scene of a murder; a plan that goes haywire when one of the book's two protagonists, a poet friend of Oxford don (and star of this book series) Gervase Fen, accidentally stumbles into the temporarily morphed shop, shortly after the dastardly deed has been committed.  Crispin's particular forte were hilarious chase scenes, of which this book contains several, perhaps the most notable being the two amateur sleuths' chase after a young woman in the midst of the Oxford Händel Society's rehearsal of Brahms's Schicksalslied in the Sheldonian Theatre:

"The girl with the blue eyes and the golden hair was embedded in the very middle of the altos, and there was no way to get near her except through the basses, who stood nearby, behind the orchestra.  Accordingly, they hacked out a path between the instrumentalists, under the envenomed gaze of Dr Artemus Rains [the conductor].  The second horn, a sandy, undersized man, went quite out of tune with indignation.  Brahms thundered and trumpeted about their ears. 'Blindly,' the chorus roared, 'blindly from one dread hour to another.'  They knocked over the music-stand of the tympanist, sweating with the efford of counting bars, so that he failed to come in at his last entry.

 

The haven of the basses achieved at last, a number of further difficulties presented themselves.  The Sheldonian is not particularly spacious, and the members of the large choir have to be herded together in conditions not unreminiscent of the Black Hole of Calcutta.  When Fen and Cadogan, pushing, perspiring, and creating a great deal of localized pother, had penetrated the basses to a certain distance (Cadogan shedding wicker basket, bootlaces, and dog-collar broadcast as he went) the could literally get no farther; they were wedged, and even the avenue by which they had come was now irrevocably closed and sealed. [...]

 

Dr. Rains leaned his spidery form forwards across the rostrum. 'Professor Fen --' he began in a silky voice.

 

But he was not allowed to finish.  The girl with the blue eyes, profiting by this sudden focusing of attention, had pushed her way through the altos and was now heading at a brisk pace towards the door.  Unnerved by this fresh interruption, Dr Rains swung round to glare at her.  Fen and Cadogan got on the move again with alacrity, clawing their way back through the basses and the orchestra without ceremony or restraint.  But this process delayed them, and the girl had been out of the hall at least half a minute by the time they reached open ground.  Dr. Rains watched them go with a theatrical expression of sardonic interst.

 

'Now that the English Faculty has left us,' Cadogan heard him say, 'we will go back to the letter L.' The rehearsal started afresh."

I've yet to see the BBC TV adaptation of this, but if handled well, this is not the only scene that would have made for much hilarity, never mind the novel's otherwise somewhat thin plot.

 

Alan Melville's Quick Curtain is, as shown already in the excerpt further above, a satire on the world of 1930s theatre and showbiz, where a murder occurring at the focal point of a bestselling new musical comedy is investigated (with many quips and witty asides) by a policeman and his journalist son.  Obviously, this premise in and of itself is more than merely a little preposterous, even for the 1930s, but if you're able to get past this point (Ms. Sayers obviously wasn't) and past the fact that the central plot device has been used about a million times since, there is much to enjoy here -- and Melville, who knew the world he was describing inside out, certainly doesn't mince words when it comes to the characterization of the chief players who, like those of another theatre insider turned mystery writer of the day, Ngaio Marsh, are thinly veiled take-downs on several real life stars -- yet Melville (like Marsh) kept the allusions just on the right side of the generic and light-hearted, without ever descending into outright character assassination.  (Well, he was making a living in that very world himself, after all.)  And he managed to maintain his light, almost absurdist approach right until the end: Think a Golden Age mystery always ends with a pat and neat solution?  Think again.  Even if there is such a thing as a standard-issue conclave in the 23:45th-ish hour ...

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