Monday, April 30, 2012

Santa's Slay

I have read only one Ngaio Marsh novel to date, and that was Death of a Fool/Off With His Head. It had a lot of good things in its favour—particularly an intriguing impossible crime—but the book was pretty uneven as a whole. Much of it was good but other parts were laughably obvious or just not very interesting. The detective, Roderick Alleyn, wasn’t repulsive, but he wasn’t particularly memorable, either. In fact, the most memorable point of the book was the work that went into the production of a traditional English dance. The question is, could Marsh improve when I approached her for my second dose of Alleyn, in the late book Tied up in Tinsel?

Tied up in Tinsel is a book about a very rich man, Hilary Bill-Tasman, who has an obsession for the past. He repurchases the old family home, tracks down old furniture and paintings and repurchases them, and plans to restore the house in general. But to do that and to maintain it, he needs servants. But where is one to find servants in the 1970s? Why prison, of course! More specifically, the entire staff is composed of murderers who have left their penitentiaries behind. This is seen as a form of rehabilitation… but things get very awkward when somebody begins to play malicious pranks recalling the murders that the staff had committed years ago! And it’s even worse when an unpleasant butler disappears after having played the role of The Druid (aka Santa) for the local children at Christmastime…

Saturday, April 28, 2012

No, the murderer doesn't live here... try number 21 in Paris

Yesterday, I was initiated into the Stanislas-André Steeman Appreciation Club when I read L’Assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at No. 21) for the very first time. I marvelled at the plot construction, the meticulously fair clueing, and the brilliant ending. But why am I bothering you with this summary? Go and read my review for yourself—I can still feel the enthusiasm dripping from my words. In fact, instead of starting a new mystery novel, I spent much of my reading time yesterday re-reading several passages from the book one more time… and my appreciation only deepened.

Naturally, it was only a matter of time before I got around to reviewing the film adaptation. It was released in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France. American films were banned and so the French cinema was pressed to give its audiences quality films—and thus, Henri-Georges Clouzot (sometimes called the French Hitchcock) was put into the director’s chair for his first major film, adapting L’Assassin habite au 21 with the help of the book’s author. And that’s about all I’ve been able to piece together—I’m sure more material is available on this film’s genesis but I haven’t got the ability to go out and do more research. Instead, I’d like to discuss the process of adaptation: what has translated well? What doesn’t work? What unique touches does Clouzot bring to the film as the director? And so on…

Friday, April 27, 2012

Mr. Smith = ?

It’s been two and a half months since the first death, and the murderer has literally left his calling card at every crime scene. He calls himself “Mr. Smith”—admittedly not a particularly colourful alias, but apparently an effective one, because the police cannot track the killer down. And the Smiths of London are understandably going through a very difficult time…

Until one day, Toby Marsh climbs up onto a lamppost and verbally abuses police constable Henry Beecham, who takes it upon himself to haul the lad into the clink. Once there, Marsh tells an astonishing tale: he followed Mr. Smith home from his last murder, and can give the police the address: the murderer lives at no. 21 Russell Square! But here’s the catch… no. 21 Russell Square is a guest house!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Return of the Peculiar

When I reviewed Christopher Fowler’s The Victoria Vanishes, I quickly recapped my opinion of the Bryant and May series of books. Although I loved the first ones, when White Corridor came, I was instantly turned off. Although White Corridor had a clever plot, it took forever to get anywhere, had plenty of psychotic characters, and was just dull, dull, dull. The Victoria Vanishes was an improvement of sorts, but had a laughable solution and some other problems.

But I was very intrigued by the plot summary of The Memory of Blood, the ninth Bryant and May novel. The extremely rich Robert Kramer hosts a party for the cast and crew of The Two Murderers, a lurid play with plenty of gratuitous sex and violence. Everyone is there: Robert’s wife Judith, the leading man Marcus Sigler, the director Russel Haddon, the scriptwriter Ray Pryce, and plenty more. Suddenly, Judith comes to Robert and tells him that the door to their baby Noah’s room is locked, and she had left it open. And to make a long story short (too late), the door is broken down and Noah is missing—he’s been thrown out of the window! But how was it done? A malfunctioning lock makes it impossible for anyone to have locked the door from the outside! But the most grotesque thing about this business is that the puppet of Mr. Punch is no longer on its hook—instead it is lying inside the room, as if he came to life and threw the baby out the window…

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Acquisitive Chuckle

Well, folks, it’s that magical time when you’ve just received a bunch of books in the mail and are hopping around the room for joy. And so I thought to myself—why not show off my acquisitions? Granted, there’s no ultra-rare-holy-hell-am-I-ever-jealous edition among these books, but nonetheless I am rather proud of the newest additions to a region of my room called Mount To-Be-Read. It will soon require its own tectonic plate…

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Previous Adventures of Sam Spade

One of the reasons I recently re-read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was because I wanted to refresh my memory on it. I remembered it hazily but remembered admiring it very much. Still, I wanted to re-read it so that I could go and read today’s book, Spade & Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, by Joe Gores. Published by Knopf in 2009, the reviews I saw were very kind to the book and thus my curiosity was piqued. (So it’s the same sad story all over again.)

The thing that attracted me most about Spade & Archer was its being a prequel, which I thought had far more potential than any sequel. After what Sam Spade went through in Hammett’s classic novel, further adventures might simply seem anticlimactic. What could possibly top a murderous hunt for a mysterious long-lost treasure? But prequel territory seems far better game. How does Sam Spade become the man he is? How did he form a partnership with that “son of a b!tch” Miles Archer? How did Effie Perine come to be his secretary?

Monday, April 23, 2012

"Sentence first—verdict afterwards."

The Hatter looked at the March Hare, who had followed him into the court, arm-in-arm with the Dormouse. `Fourteenth of March, I think it was,' he said.
`Fifteenth,' said the March Hare.
`Sixteenth,' added the Dormouse.
`Write that down,' the King said to the jury, and the jury eagerly wrote down all three dates on their slates, and then added them up, and reduced the answer to shillings and pence.
 —Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Years ago, one of the directors of the Barnabas publishing firm disappeared. He never again showed up, and it set something of a precedent for the firm itself. Perhaps that’s why nobody paid any real attention at first when Mr. Paul Brande went missing. Except this time, the missing director shows up—and he’s very dead to boot.

Suspicion quickly turns to the dead man’s cousin, Mike Wedgewood, who was in love with the dead man’s lovely wife Gina. The police arrest him and are quite satisfied with the outcome… but Albert Campion is not. He knows the family personally and he simply cannot believe that Mike killed his cousin. And so he commences his own investigation into the firm of Barnabas and Company, and discovers that several people would have liked the victim out of the way after all…

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Birds of Prey

When a young girl comes to ace detective Sam Spade for help, he has no idea what he’s about to get himself into. The girl, giving the name of Miss Wonderly, asks Sam and his partner, Miles Archer, to trail a man named Floyd Thursby, who has run off with Miss Wonderly’s younger sister. The money is good and so Spade and Archer take the case. Later that night, a phone call wakes Sam up. Miles Archer is dead—he’s been shot. The police, meanwhile, seem to consider Sam their number one suspect, and Sam refuses to give to give the police more information than is absolutely necessary. He admits Miles was on a case, for instance, but he refuses to name the client. But since there’s no evidence against Sam, the police reluctantly let him walk free.

Before long, Sam is embroiled in a complex mystery. Finding out that his client is really named Brigid O’Shaughnessy, that she never had a sister, and that several people are in town, hunting for a mysterious black bird. And they are willing to kill each other over it. It’s the plot of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, one of the all-time greatest classics in detective fiction and one of the books that gave rise to the hardboiled detective story.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Long live the Queen (of Crime)!

I remember the day as though it was yesterday, although it really took place on a hot summer day in 2006. The scene was a used bookstore, and I was happily browsing through the section where books were going for 25 cents. And that was when I met Agatha Christie for the first time. More specifically, I found copies of Cards on the Table and Murder on the Orient Express. I read the plot descriptions and I just knew I had to get these books—and I did! I started with Cards—to date still my favourite Christie—and moved on to Orient and then went and found a copy of Poirot Investigates… Before long, I was hooked on Agatha Christie, reading And Then There Were None, Five Little Pigs, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and wondering where on earth I could find a copy of Hallowe’en Party

It didn’t take me long to read all of Agatha Christie’s novels—it took me just over a year, and the delay was due to my staying in Poland for two months, with no access to Christie whatsoever except through Polish translations… which I quickly learned were extremely subpar. But at any rate, something about the Queen of Crime has always attracted me, and until I came across the work of John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie was my favourite crime writer of all-time. And it was that passion for Christie that led me to purchase John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

All aboard the S. S. Van Dine!

I’m afraid that readers of this blog will begin to think that I’m simply stealing my reading list off of other blogs. Once again, today’s book was inspired by a previous review—and yet again, it was Bill from Traditional Mysteries who inspired it. The book is Murder in Pastiche by Marion Mainwaring, and after the enticing review Bill wrote in January, the book flew near the top of my to-be-read pile… and now that it’s April, I figured it was about time to give it a read. (Yeah, I’m not sure how to explain the physics behind that… Apparently, the last few months on this blog have been a massive game of Jenga with my to-be-read pile, and nobody was aware of it.)

But I digress. We find ourselves on board the R. M. S. Florabunda as it sails from Liverpool to New York. And, by an astonishing coincidence, nine prominent detectives have all come on board the same ship! These sleuths are parodies of some of the most famous detectives of all-time: M. Atlas Poireau (Hercule Poirot), Sir Jon. Nappleby (Sir John Appleby), Jerry Pason (Perry Mason), Broderick Tourneur (Roderick Alleyn), Trajan Beare (Nero Wolfe), Miss Fan Sliver (Miss Silver), Spike Bludgeon (Mike Hammer), Mallory King (Ellery Queen), and Lord Simon Quinsey (Lord Peter Wimsey). With any one of these detectives on board, a mystery is bound to explode— but with nine? That’s just tempting fate.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

'B' is for Bernie

This next review was inspired by Bill of Traditional Mysteries, who reviewed Lawrence Block’s The Burglar in the Library a while ago. The review interested me—I had never read a Block and he seems to be a very prolific author of hardboiled mysteries/crime novels. I have another of his books, Eight Million Ways to Die, sitting on my shelf awaiting me to read it. But it seemed to me a little more interesting to first take a detour to the world of Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and professional burglar, as he gets involved in a traditional snowed-in-English-country-house mystery!

After a relationship of Bernie’s goes sour (after all, the girl was getting married that Thursday!) the burglar decides to say “to hell with it” and refuses to cancel reservations he’s made for the weekend at an exclusive and quaint little hotel/guest house called Cuttleford House. He decides to instead bring Carolyn Keiser along, his best friend in the world as well as a lesbian. But he isn’t coming to Cuttleford House just to enjoy the fairy-tale-England atmosphere of the place… he’s there to look for a book. More specifically, a copy of the first edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep inscribed by the author to Dashiell Hammett! Such a book, if it existed, would be absolutely priceless to fanatical collectors. And Bernie, after reading the memoirs of a forgotten pulp author, is convinced not only that the book probably exists, but also that its location is Cuttleford House.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Judgment Day

The last time we saw Parker was in The Outfit, where he hit The Outfit where it hurts most: in their wallets. This seemed to conclude the plot thread that started in The Hunter and The Man With the Getaway Face… but I forgot something about The Outfit. You see, Parker shot a man in that book and the woman he was with, Bett Harrow, still has the gun. Parker can get the gun back, but there are conditions…

And as the book opens, Parker and Handy Mackay are working together to find “the Mourner”. You have no idea what this Mourner is at first, but eventually you find out what it is and why Parker and Handy are trying to get their hands on it… but the plan goes wrong. Handy gets picked up by some nasty folks who seem to be after something themselves, and they don’t appreciate the fact that Parker is messing around their plans. Parker must race against time to find Handy before he gets bumped off… and thus he encounters Auguste Menlo.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Things that go bump in the night...

Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective is back in action in Nightcrawlers! As the book begins, Nameless is summoned to the death bed of Russell Dancer, a once-infamous pulp magazine writer whose promising career went down the drain. (Dancer appeared in the novel Hoodwink and apparently on at least one or two other occasions.) Dancer wants Nameless to deliver a message to Cybil Wade, Kerry Wade’s mother and the woman Dancer has had a crush on all of his life. Nameless decides to comply with Dancer’s wishes, but he immediately finds strange resistance on the home front from Kerry, who insists that he should inform Cybil right away although Dancer asked Nameless to wait until he died—so that Cybil doesn’t see him in his current state, he says.

Meanwhile, Jake Runyon gets involved in another case when his long-estranged son Joshua gives him a phone call. Jake’s son basically hates his living guts, and Jake hopes that this call might be a sign that a reconciliation is in the works. The news is far grimmer—Joshua’s boyfriend has fallen victim of two predatory gay bashers. Moreover, he isn’t the first victim—and the attackers are only getting more vicious with each new victim.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

You Reap What You Sow...

WARNING: This review contains a potential spoiler in that I give away something that does not happen when I hoped it would. However, it was impossible to describe my disappointment without this revelation. The reader is warned, but it's something that should have been obvious.
The Reverend Otis Joy is a very, very wicked man. Indeed, his bishop, one Marcus Glastonbury, discovers that Joy has been embezzling funds from the Church of England systematically, and there is a deficit of about £15,000. But Marcus Glastonbury wants to ensure there is no public scandal involving the church, and so he makes a fatal mistake. The bishop neglects to tell anyone of his plan visit to Otis Joy, coming more-or-less-inconspicuously on his day off. And so, Otis Joy seizes his opportunity and murders the bishop, making the whole thing look like a suicide. To add credibility to this theory, he makes the bishop look like a sex pervert who jumped into a quarry because of shame.

It’s a jolly start to the story in Peter Lovesey’s The Reaper, and as we soon find out, Otis Joy is not only an embezzler but also a serial killer. People who inconvenience him have a nasty habit of dropping dead and things are no different at his current parish in Foxford. But the police scoff at these stories, shared in the pub: after all, how could a man go and tell his congregation to live their life one way, and then turn around and do something completely different himself? Otis Joy is a man of the cloth: how could he be a serial killer?

Friday, April 13, 2012

It calls the D.A.

Perry Mason is sitting in his office when a woman comes in. She seems very distressed and tries to extract information from Mason on behalf of “a friend” of hers. Mason sees through the ruse and challenges her on it. But the reaction is quite unexpected—the woman gets up and walks out of the office!

This leaves Perry Mason rather upset. He knows the woman is in some sort of serious trouble, and he decides he will help her—this decision is made when he finds out that the woman had left a $50 retainer with his secretary! Luckily, the damsel in distress forgot her purse behind in the office, and thus begins a trail as Perry Mason finds his client and then must help her when she gets involved in a murder!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Eleven little Indians wished to see Big Ben / One was all wrung out and then there were ten.

In July of last year, fellow blogger John Norris over at Pretty Sinister Books wrote an intriguing review of  a book by the French writing duo of Jacquemard-Sénécal. Originally entitled Le Onzième Petit Nègre (The Eleventh Little [Person of African Origin]), it was translated as The Eleventh Little Indian in the US, and I will refer to it under that title. John reviewed an English translation of the book, but as I am bilingual (thanks again for that, Mom and Dad!) I managed to get a hold of the original French edition of the book.

The Eleventh Little Indian has a fascinating premise. A visionary young director, Alexandre Stefanopoulos, has written his own adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but he takes it in an entirely different direction from those adaptations that already exist. For instance, he refuses to entertain the idea of a traditional English-country-house décor—he insists (quite correctly) that Agatha Christie emphasizes the modern-ness of the house on Indian Island. He equally insists on a particular sort of expressionistic makeup (ah, theatre fads of the 70s, where are you now?) and finally, the tone of the play is faithful to that of the original novel, retaining the original ending instead of the happier one most film and stage adaptations go with.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Make way for the prince!

Getting involved in a murder investigation is serious business, especially if one happens to be heir to the throne. Yet that is precisely what Albert Edward, Prince of Wales – Bertie to his friends – does. Moreover, he approaches the challenge of detective work as marvellous fun, though the events he investigates are far from jovial. In fact, they are rather grim, as a famous jockey named Fred Archer (aka the Tinman) suddenly takes his own life with a revolver in the presence of his sister. The man’s final, frantic words were: “Are they coming???”

This mysterious allusion to some mysterious “they” is taken by everyone as part of the dead man’s delusions brought on by typhoid. After all, the poor man had been severely ill that weekend, and it isn’t inconceivable that the malady was typhoid. Yet Bertie is unconvinced—he himself suffered from typhoid, and Archer’s symptoms—or rather, lack of symptoms— seem most unusual. Bertie suspects that the whole thing is a well-intentioned cover-up in order to spare the family further grief.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Twist in Time

One theme that particularly fascinates me is, without a doubt, the time paradox. It is unfortunately difficult to deal with. (…) Time paradoxes suggest a wide variety of situations, the most classic being the case of the man who travels back in time to kill his grandfather. The rational solutions to explain these phenomena, on the other hand, are not legion…
— Author Paul Halter in an interview

The date: November 21st, 1955. Spectators leaving the Adelphi Theatre are surprised to see a young man, in his 30s, wearing clothes long out of fashion from the turn of the century. He’s walking around as if he’s shocked, seeing everything around him for the first time. He almost gets killed by a car, but Providence spares his life. Unfortunately, Providence doesn’t help the man in question when he goes to a subway station. When the sound of the oncoming car is heard, the man appears curious and enters the tunnel to get a good look. And that is when he gets crushed by the subway, his body thoroughly mangled. Happily, the extensive damage leaves the face relatively intact and fingerprints can be salvaged from the corpse.

Thanks to the evidence of the deceased’s face, Inspector Archibald Hurst manages to find out his identity. But the maddening part of the whole puzzle is that the man cannot possibly be who he is identified as! The body is identified as belonging to one Victor Stephenson. Here is the catch: on December 2nd 1905, Victor Stephenson went for a walk and never returned home. Almost 50 years later, he’s been spotted again—but he hasn’t aged by a single day! And the corpse bears this out: the dead man’s pockets are full of old things from 1905 but they seem like they’re in brand-new condition!

Monday, April 09, 2012

Mountain of Mystery

According to legend, Monte Verita was the site of an impossible disappearance from a grotto. But that happened so long ago—surely the tale must have been embellished. After all, nothing like that could possibly happen in real life, right? Besides, it is 1938 and we’re attending a worldwide mystery convention—if something were to happen, there are many amateur sleuths on hand to solve the case!

One of these mystery addicts is Pierre Garnier, newly wed to his wife Solange. Pierre is something of an expert in the mystery genre and he is delighted at the opportunity to meet so many enthusiasts. But as fun as it is to participate, some of the members get involved in quarrels with each other. Finally, one member accepts a challenge to duplicate the feat of the impossible grotto disappearance… but before he can pull this feat off, he himself is murdered in a locked room!

It’s a good thing the police saw the guilty party at work: a woman was seen stabbing the victim and then closing the blinds… but the description of this woman oddly resembles Pierre’s new wife Solange, who has never really told her husband anything about her past… and just before his death, the victim confided in Pierre that his wife was a multiple murderess…

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Return of Mrs. Croc

Simon and Keith Innes are two young boys who are supremely excited: the circus is coming to town! It’s true that the festivities will be taking place on a Good Friday, but it only comes once a year and it should be taken advantage of. And in honour of Good Friday, the only reasonable thing to do is to sneak into the circus without paying!

The action begins on Holy Thursday, when the boys sneak out of their house to prepare their route for the following night. But suddenly they see a sinister-looking figure clutching a knife—a knife that looks rather like the knife owned by their elder brother, with whom they live! The next day, a grisly discovery is made—one of the circus people, a tight-rope walker, is found murdered, slashed to death by a Jack-the-Ripper-like murderer… and the bad news is, this is only the beginning.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Enter Arnold Zeck

Nero Wolfe doesn’t enjoy work, but he is forced to do so by powers he cannot possibly control: the popularity of the series and the rate at which author Rex Stout’s pen flowed. This time, the International Revenue Service can be added into the mix. Wolfe needs to pay his income taxes, but he needs some more money. So after some prodding by his assistant Archie Goodwin, Wolfe sends Archie to offer his services as a private detective to Madeline Fraser, a radio talk show host who has gotten involved with a now-notorious murder case.

See, Miss Fraser did a bit of advertising on the radio not unlike the old Petri Wine plugs in the Sherlock Holmes radio plays. In these segments, she and her guests would open up bottles of a drink called Hi-Spot and drink it, all while eulogizing the merits of the drink. Nero Wolfe, whose palate revolts at such atrocities, insists Miss Fraser is a dangerous woman. But it’s all quite harmless… until one of the guests, Cyril Orchard, drinks some cyanide-laced Hi-Spot and dies during the live broadcast (ah, irony!).

Monday, April 02, 2012

What a Trick!

A while ago I started watching the Japanese TV series Trick, which dealt with impossible crimes being investigated and solved by an unlikely duo: a physics professor and a magician. The magician, Naoko Yamada, constantly gets fired and is hounded by her landlady for rent. The professor, Jiro Ueda, is a sceptic of all things supernatural, but manages to get easily puzzled over apparently-impossible feats such as mind-reading and locked-room murders. There are several other recurring characters, such as the bumbling Detective Yabe and his incompetent assistant.

While the series is interesting as a whole is interesting, it does tend to focus quite a bit on comedy, which leaves me at a disadvantage. I’m not Japanese, nor do I know much about the Japanese culture and mystery tradition. I was left at the mercy of at-times-terrible subtitles, and thus missed out quite a bit on things like wordplay—in one case, wordplay is at the heart of the solution. In addition, the style of the series was completely new to me, with all sorts of bizarre angles and jump cuts that to my mind often made little sense. That might just be the typical way Japanese TV works, but it was new to me. In addition, the production values were extremely low; the series at times looked like a low-budget TV series from the 1970s. Fortunately, the show’s true value was elsewhere, so although it was distracting at first, I got more and more accustomed over time. (I’ve already started on Season 2 and I can already say the production values are miles above those from this season.)

Yet with that being said, there was still enough merit in the series that it caught my attention and I ended up watching the entire first season with no regrets. (Besides, how could I regret watching a show with such an awesome, yet extremely brief, theme song?) Anyhow, here is an analysis of the first season of Trick:

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Case for Sir Clinton

One of the all-time great mystery writers was Alfred Walter Stewart, a chemist who hid under the moniker of J. J. Connington. His series detective, Sir Clinton Driffield, was a sarcastic Chief Constable often accompanied by Squire Wendover. They shared plenty of banter along the way, often dripped in irony, as Sir Clinton investigated complicated cases that relied on plenty of ingenuity. Red herrings, twists and double twists are just some of the old friends you will meet in Connington’s ingenious detective stories: and without a doubt, The Castleford Conundrum is one of the very best.

In some ways, it’s an archetypal case: an odious woman is shot dead at her estate in the country. There was talk of her will being changed, in which she would have cut off her husband and step-daughter. The new will would have significantly benefited the two brothers of her first husband, and there was also a substantial increase in profit for her half-sister/companion. She had already rescinded the first will, but had not yet managed to pen and sign the second when she was killed.