Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: HEIR TO MURDER (1953) by Miles Burton

This is the third time I've run into Miles Burton's creation, Desmond Merrion, wealthy criminologist and former intelligence officer. And it is also the third time I've come away unimpressed. Lucky for me, then, that Burton's books (at least the three I've read so far) work pretty well despite the banality and uninspired crime-solving of Merrion and Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard, Burton's detecting duo. Obviously, there is more to these books than who solves the crimes or I would not have sat down to read a third one.

The crimes in HEIR TO MURDER begin on a rainy windswept night overlooking the rush of a storm swept sea - so of course we are hooked right off the bat. The author is then smart not to let the time lag between a second murder and more chicanery. Crimes that seem at first to be accidents - unrelated coincidences - turn out to be links in a nefarious chain. (As we knew they would.)

There are NO coincidences - especially in murder mysteries, so off we go.

Miles Burton's obvious forte was plotting, at least so it seems to me. His characterizations suffer by comparison and though I am usually a 'character' person, occasionally I will be drawn in to a story where plot and setting are intriguing (or familiar) enough to satisfy my craving for a good stormy night English village mystery. The setting is Carmouth on the Southwest coast of England. (I'm big on windswept English villages - well, you probably already knew that.)

Not that Burton's characterizations are awful, that would be too much to bear, but just that they are not memorable in any way. Even the killer, once exposed (and those of us who are long time mystery buffs will probably figure out who the murderer is before Merrion does) is not anyone who is sharply drawn and his motivation isn't clear until we are given information near the end which should have been (in a fair play mystery which I believe this is supposed to be) revealed earlier. But again, that didn't stop me continuing to read and so I give the author credit for that particular deft trick.

HEIR TO MURDER begins right off the bat with the death of a local doctor in a cruelly staged accident. Then later a nurse is done in cliff-side by 'accidental' fall.

Desmond Merrion and his wife are vacationing nearby and get drawn into the mystery early. Scotland Yard finally shows up on the scene after a third violent incident with more to come. At first I had the suspicion that we were dealing with a serial killer - English village style, but after awhile that seemed not to be the case.

Lady Violet Ventham, a wealthy elderly woman turns out to be the fulcrum around which events are progressing though she herself remains untouched, keeping her own secrets while inviting Merrion and his wife to stay with her and her resentful niece at the local manor house. Of course Lady Ventham is rich enough that her will is an item of more than casual interest. Could it be the reason for all the violent happenings?

What do you think?

But the resolution of the mystery takes more than the usual twists and turns and even if the ending is a tiny bit of a let-down, the author still brings it off.  It is in the oft misleading way in which the story unfolds that keeps the reader guessing and wondering what will happen next. In a mystery, 'what  happens next' can make up for any short-comings if there are certain other elements present.

Foremost of these elements is style of writing which often makes up for other sins. Miles Burton is a good writer and sometimes that's just enough when coupled with plotting dexterity. He is adept and clever enough to interest the reader and keep him or her riveted despite his lackluster characters. How that works I don't know, I just know that occasionally it happens. There's no accounting for the mysterious.

I recommend HEIR TO MURDER even if you haven't read any of Burton's books before. It is the 46th (!?) entry in the series but this type of thing doesn't need to be read in order.

Miles Burton was the pseudonym for Cecil Street, a decorated soldier and later prolific writer of mysteries.

It is Friday once again, so don't forget to check in at Edgar Award nominated author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: CORPSES IN ENDERBY (1954) by George Bellairs

I was not bowled over by this, my first George Bellairs book, but I was engaged enough. I am very fond of murder mysteries that take place in English villages and are written with some wit and imaginative detail. I am also fond of mysteries in which the characters have eccentric names. Bellairs has a gift for naming his characters, no question.

From reading about Bellairs on a couple of other blogs, I got the impression that he is not considered top notch, but then there are not all that many 'top-notchers' that remain unread. And once you've read those, what do you do? You go to the next tier, and the next one below that and hope for the best. Otherwise, you'd have to stop reading vintage mysteries altogether or read the same ones over and over. The choices are not infinite.

Bellairs was the pseudonym for a British author named Harold Blundell (1902 - 1982) who also wrote as Hilary Landon. That's all I'll say about him, because really, if you're interested, you can find out all you want to know by googling. Frankly, those kinds of details don't interest me that much. I prefer to concentrate on his wares: the book (or books) as the case may be.

CORPSES IN ENDERBY hints at more than the usual amount of murders but doesn't deliver more than the usual - this time, two. With a title like that you'd have expected the plot to be littered with...well, corpses, but to no avail. Still, I enjoyed the book once I realized that two was it.

However, I was not all that impressed with Bellairs' cop duo: Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Littlejohn and his associate, Cromwell. Neither of them made any long-lasting impression on me. But we'll see as I get further into the series.

The plot:

Ned Bun is not a well-liked denizen of the English village of Enderby. He is a bully with money - the type that usually winds up prematurely dead in mysteries of this type. So when he's murdered on a dark and stormy night there's not much sadness in evidence though of course, there's the usual consternation in the village. The real question to my mind is - why wasn't he killed sooner?

Enter Scotland Yard after Bunn's body is found sprawled on a rainy street just outside his shop.

Almost immediately we have a suspect. A man named Wilfred Flounder (I told you, Bellairs has a gift for names), a would-be suitor of Bunn's daughter Bertha - they were planning on running away since Bunn was not keen on the match. In fact Flounder seems to be the last person to have seen Bunn alive and judging by the police's interest he is convinced he's going to be arrested.

"In the afternoon following the murder of Edwin [Ned] Bunn, Wilfred Flounder took a rope from the shop and prepared to hang himself. He was highly strung and impulsive, and he thought he might as well get it done before the public hangman did it for him."

Ned Bunn was an unlamented member of a large clan of country folk who see it as familial duty for all to descend on Enderby for the funeral draped in black like a bunch of beetles gathering at a dung feast.

I loved the parade of eccentrics as they show up either on the local bus or in taxis. Though the family is known to have lots of money, they certainly don't lavish it on themselves or their methods of transportation.

"Mr. Blowitt [the publican] was still standing at the window watching the procession of Bunns coming and going at the shop opposite. The coffin with the corpse had just been taken in and figures in black kept entering eagerly and coming out with either tearful or resigned expressions. A large taxi, like a hearse itself, drew up bearing a black burden of such weight that the vehicle heeled over dangerously.

"Hullo. Aunt Sarah's come."

Several of the family emerged, fawned on the contents of the taxi, and then hoisted out an enormous woman, larger than any two of the reception committee."

The author parades three viable suspects before us as the story progresses, it's not only Wilfred Flounder (he survives the botched suicide attempt) who looks suspicious. There is also a desperate man named Hetherow who has the shop next door to the dead man and unable to pay his mortgage to Bunn was about to be foreclosed upon, he and his sick wife thrown out into the street.  Then there's Jubal Medlicott who has a roving eye and a habit of wearing spats (even though this is the 1950's) and strutting about like a dandy with a flower in a buttonhole. Medlicott had long ago gone through his wife's money and they and their silly twin daughters were now reduced to living in the attic of their former home while renting the rest of the building out to noisy tenants. His doormat of a wife, Anne Bunn, is due to come into a very welcome share of Ned's money.

There are all sorts of secrets, red herrings and village shenanigans to be exposed and exploited and about three quarters of the way through, we kind of know who did the dirty deed. Unlike Christie and the other 'top-notchers' Bellairs isn't able to hold the plot together strongly enough NOT to give away the identity of the killer. But I still read through to the end and didn't resent the fact.

Since I haven't read any other Bellair books, I have to say that judging by this one, I will be reading a couple more now and then as they are readily available as e-books for Kindle. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

Since this is Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author and Edgar Award nominee Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Saturday Salon: Women in Red (In celebration of this past week's International Women's Day.)

American painter Bessie Hoover Wessel (1888 - 1973) via

Russian painter Alexej Jawlenski (1864 -  1941) - via 

Chilean painter Claudio Bravo (1936 - 2011) via

Hungarian painter Geza Voros (1897 - 1957) 

English painter Dame Laura Knight (1877 - 1970)

American painter Laura Wheeler Waring (1887 - 1948) via

British painter Henry Young Allison (1889 - 1972) 

Contemporary Chinese painter Xi Pan

Spanish painter Montserrat Gudiol (1933 - 2015) 

Polish contemporary painter Zofia Blazko - via

Painters of all sorts from different countries, art of all types, women and dabs of red in common. International Women's Day was Wednesday, March 8th, but any day is a good day to celebrate women who now, more than ever, need to band together. NEVER forgetting that we have NO ALLIES in the current American administration.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday Forgotten Book: BLACK HEARTS AND SLOW DANCING (1988) by Earl Emerson

This is a  re-working of a post from 2011 because I got to thinking it was time again to talk about author Earl Emerson (I haven't done so in a while) and this is one of my very favorites of his many books.

Shamus Award winning author Earl Emerson was a Seattle firefighter for 32 years so when he writes about fire, fire-fighters, fire-fighting and all relevant accoutrement, he knows whereof he speaks. His on-the-job knowledge adds a rich verisimilitude to his writing -  if the plots concern fire in any way (and they often do), all the gritty details will be right. Besides that, Emerson has a fine sure hand with an intricate plot and a gift for inventive characterization and smart-guy dialogue.

Often labeled a 'regional' author, because he lives in and writes books set in the Pacific Northwest, Emerson is not, perhaps, as well known here in the east as he should be. I discovered him a few years ago and have been a fan ever since.

BLACK HEARTS AND SLOW DANCING is the first book in the Mac Fontana series. (Did I mention that Emerson also has a gift for titles? One of my other favorites is, HELP WANTED: ORPHANS PREFERRED.

Staircase, Washington, is a small town at the base of the Cascade Mountains. It is 'interim' Sheriff and ex-firefighter MacKinley Fontana's current neck of the woods. A 'live and let live' kind of guy, he's happy enough there, sorting out his life and raising his son Brandon.

But now that he's found a dead body lashed to a tree, Mo Costigan, the major, is having second thoughts about Mac's interim job. It's not as though he were the 'real' sheriff. But Mac is no pushover. Just see the way he handles Satan, the ex-sheriff's intractable German Shepherd.

The dead man turns out to have been a firefighter and Mac, an ex Seattle firefighter himself, wants to find out why he was killed - beaten to death. Against the mayor's wishes, he heads up to Seattle to nose around - Mac has a nose for greed and corruption. But by doing so he winds up opening old wounds and making himself a few more enemies.

Mac's been trying to settle into 'normal' after some hard times involving his firefighting past and a mysterious job out east in that 'other world' he doesn't like to think about. But someone in Staircase doesn't like the way Mac's investigation into the fire fighter's death is going.

When he's shot at and left for dead and the town's biggest church goes up in flames Mac comes to the realization that life in a small town is not going exactly the way he envisioned it.

Mac Fontana is a hard-driven guy with a twisted sense of humor and a fondness for the relative quiet of the countryside. But it's going to take him a while to get into the slower, easier rhythm. (Being shot and church fires not withstanding.) In the meantime, he's raising his boy and doing the best he can. Emerson's writing in the scenes between Mac and his son is especially appealing. He writes those so naturally, yet when Mac is dealing with some ugly, nasty types, those scenes evolve equally well. There's nothing forced here, just a kind of fluid writing ability I like. I think this stems from having well-rounded characterizations - Mac's interactions arise organically from who he is.

Last but not least, I love that Mac Fontana, bad as he wants to be, loves to slow dance at the local weekly dances. There he and the Mayor, Maureen known as 'Mo' work out their antagonisms with a few smooth moves.

Mac Fontana, a man of many talents.
Earl Emerson, author of many talents.

I really do wish there were more books in this particular series. But not to worry, Earl Emerson has also written several stand-alone books as well as the very engaging Thomas Black series featuring a private eye working in Portland, Oregon who gets involved in often bizarre cases. Check out his Fantastic Fiction page for all the titles.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author and Edgar Award nominee Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE EMPTY HOUSE (1978) by Michael Gilbert

Another Michael Gilbert book to talk about. Admittedly I was very disappointed in the rather boring and unpleasant PAINT, GOLD & BLOOD by Gilbert, which I read after the oh-so-brilliant SMALLBONE DECEASED, but THE EMPTY HOUSE makes up for the lapse.

(I'm currently reading a third Gilbert book which we'll talk about at some point - if I like it. So far so good.)

The thing is, from what I understand, Gilbert had no inclination to follow a set routine. Where SMALLBONE DECEASED was a wonderful whodunit set in a London law office, the other two books I've read have been more thrillers than anything else. So take that into consideration. Occasionally this kind of thing can be disconcerting. But I'm willing to adapt if the writing is good enough and the stories engage me in some way.

And now for THE EMPTY HOUSE:

Tall ("I'm 6' 5") and string thin Peter Manciple is an insurance adjuster with a quirky talent.  He is blessed with a kind of selective photo memory thing which helps him in his work and makes him a valued investigator even at his youngish age. His cautious firm is quite willing to send him off on an important case even if he is considered a bit of an occasional loose cannon.

The plot:

When a car carrying a local man plunges over a cliff at Rackthorn Bay,  no one expects the car or the body to be found since the waters there are treacherous. This particularly jagged coast of Devon is known as a spot where ships, in the past, had often been lured by smugglers to their doom.

"What Rackthorn takes, Rackthorn keeps."

The occupant of the car is presumed to be Dr. Alexander Wolfe, a geneticist who was working on a hush-hush project involving potential biological warfare at a nearby government installation. Turns out his insurance policy has an odd provisio involving death by water which is one of the reasons adjuster Peter Manciple is on the job.

Was it accident or suicide or something else? As Manciple begins his investigation it almost immediately becomes apparent that 'something else' might be involved. Dr. Wolfe was being stalked by both Israelis and Palestianian agents so his 'death' came at a very opportune time. When Manciple visits the sinister government labs where Wolfe worked, he is aware that all is not as it should be. One of the scientists seems especially jittery and later calls Peter to arrange a secret meeting. Uh oh.

In the course of the investigation, Peter also visits a local archaeological dig where he spots some incongruities which cause him to wonder if the workers there might not be involved in nefarious activities having to do with Dr. Wolfe's death. Peter's trick memory plays a valuable part in deciphering visual clues as he begins to put two and two together. To that end he will hook up with a beautiful young woman traveling about the countryside with her brother.

When he is advised to leave well enough alone and sign off on the investigation, Peter is more determined than ever to do his job even in the face of obvious threats to his life. As a result he will be drawn into a treacherous conspiracy of cold blooded army types, Israeli assassins and equally murderous Palestinians all vying for the notes Dr. Wolfe is presumed to have left behind.

Though I was not especially happy with one aspect of the ending, I still highly recommend THE EMPTY HOUSE even though I have no idea why the book is titled thus since no empty house has anything to do with anything in the book. Not really. But you'll like the engaging leading character (and isn't that always half the battle right there?) and his quest for the truth simply because it is his job.

And since this is Friday once again, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom - he is doing hosting duties this week - to see what other forgotten or overlooked book other bloggers are talking about this week.