Friday, December 29, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: TRAITOR'S PURSE (1941) by Margery Allingham

I haven't been a big fan of Albert Campion, Margery Allingham's Golden Age detective, since I watched a couple of episodes of the television series and hated it AND since I made the mistake of reading one of her worst books (don't ask me the title I've purposely forgotten it) as my first Campion try and swore I'd never read another primarily because the book was filled with anti-Semitic crap.

Oh, I know, I put up with a bit of that from Dorothy Sayers and even Agatha Christie and a couple of others from time to time, but this was really REALLY objectionable stuff do I swore I'd never read another Allingham book.

But then time passed and I saw some recommendations (by people I admire) of a couple of other Allingham books which were thought to be exceptionally good so I wavered. MORE WORK FOR THE UNDERTAKER was quite excellent as was BLACK PLUMES (which didn't have Campion in the plot and didn't miss him). So I decided that the book I'd hated was an aberration. We'll see as we go on.

Campion is an acquired taste which I've never really acquired so I'm not going to pretend that I really like him very much, but in TRAITOR'S PURSE he's got amnesia so his personality is altered for the better and his 'man' Lugg doesn't muck up the works too much. 

We have a very promising beginning in this particular book: a man wakes up in hospital unable to remember who he is and what's happened except that he has a bad headache and the vague memory of a vitally important thing he must do. He overhears some chatter and surmises that he is being kept under guard for attacking a policeman - uh oh. So he does what any self-respecting hero would do, he escapes (through a series of fortuitous incidents) from the hospital in the dead of night (dressed as a fireman) and heads off for parts unknown.

"Any incongruity in the costume did not occur to him. He was still moving with the simple directness of emergency. There was danger behind him and something tremendously important ahead. He was going away from the one and approaching the other. It appeared both sensible and elementary."

He must get his memory back since he knows in his gut that time is of the essence and his mission is one of earth-shattering importance.Talk about blundering about in the dark - it's a good thing that the amnesiac has a good estimation of his own abilities as he heads out into the night looking for a car to steal.

After a coincidence or two and a smattering of good fortune, the amnesiac eventually winds up in a limousine with a plucky young woman named Amanda and her male passenger, an older man named Mr. Anscoumbe. Unexpectedly, the young woman knows the amnesiac as Albert Campion and seems anxious to help him continue his unknown mission. Through things said and unsaid Campion assumes he and Amanda are married. An idea which doesn't startle him as much as it ought since in his own wary way, he finds the girl delightful. However later we learn that they are not married only affianced and Amanda wants to break up the relationship since she is falling in love with another man. But that's neither here nor there except as it affects Campion's sense of self and his feeling that he somehow deserves what's happening and is torn about it - more so as time ticks away and he reacquaints himself with Amanda whom, it turns out, he's known since she was 17.

At any rate, they drop off Mr. Anscombe at his house but not before the number  '15' is brought to Campion's attention several times in conversation. What can it mean?

They then drive to the nearby home of Lee Aubrey, wealthy charismatic Principal of a local scientific society which runs the nearby town of Bridge through some sort of hereditary organization known as the Masters of Bridge. (I never did get the hang of this but I got the feeling that it wasn't necessary that I should.) Lee Aubrey is at the head of the Masters and it seems Albert Campion and Amanda are late for dinner at his 'perfect Georgian house' at 'The Institute' - turns out they are staying at the house. Mr. Anscombe is expected later as well. All this is explained in bits and pieces to a weary and wary Campion who is trying like mad not to let on that he is clueless.

"The drawing room of the Principal's house at the Institute of Bridge was typical both of its owner and of the foundation; that is to say, it was a genuine period piece which had been considerably improved by modern austerity and modern money. Its fluted columns and Wedgwood plaques had been stripped and cleaned and each piece of furniture that it contained had been chosen with care and a splendid disregard of cost either one way or the other, so that an old fruit-wood chair picked up for half a crown rubbed shoulders with Mozart's own spinet, acquired at considerable sacrifice.

When Campion followed Amanda in he walked into one of the few recognizable atmospheres of that nightmare evening. Intelligent academic formality, than which there is nothing more indestructible, closed over his head like glue."

Bluffing his way through and blaming a bump on the head for any vagueness, Campion tries to figure out the rules of the game as it goes along. This is handled exceptionally well by the author and makes for added intrigue since we and our hero know that something big is afoot, but not what it is and how it's to be dealt with. And what about that number 15 thing?

Mr. Anscombe fails to arrive later in the evening and a Superintendent Hutch of the local police shows up instead. It seems that Mr. Anscombe (who had also been Hereditary Secretary to the Society) has been found dead, his neck broken. The eye of suspicion lights on Albert Campion. Though as events progress it's obvious that Hutch knows Campion and regards him in a different light other than suspect. Later Hutch will send a signal that he is waiting outside and to Campion's surprise, off they go on a mysterious night time adventure.

Soon we're traipsing through 'back doors' into secret caverns used by the Masters as a meeting place, a storage base and more. The whole set-up seems a bit strange especially the 'hereditary' aspect of it all. But it's England, and you know how they love their ancient laws secret enclaves and such.

Anyway, after the night jaunt to the caverns in which Campion had  spotted not only some very interesting correspondence and minutes from a meeting but also on further investigation of the labyrinth, a large group of lorries underground, he is taken on a day-time tour of the Institute of which Lee Aubrey is Principal. Campion meets a scientist working on a new explosive (a kind of super hand grenade) and sees other work going on all perfectly above board in furtherance of the war effort - it is 1941 after all. And Aubrey explains that the main work and wealth of the Society lies in patents. Lucrative patents of all sorts of inventions and improvements on inventions.

Campion knows the mission he is on is part of that same war effort and has come to know (thanks to Hutch and their night time adventuring) that it definitely has something to do with the caverns and the august institution known as the Masters of Bridge. He has also assumed that the number '15' which is a date two days hence gives him just 48 hours to do what needs doing.

"Good God, he was mad! Here he was stumbling about in the dark and seeing monsters where there were bushes and innocent shadows where there might be death traps, and all the time the precious hours were racing past. He was a lunatic, very possibly a dangerous lunatic. Mercifully he was gradually getting the intelligence to recognize the fact."

This is a complicated inventive plot full of twists and turns not helped at all by the fact that the guy in charge has amnesia - for in charge he is as even Scotland Yard is working with him. Campion is feeling his way along not sure what he will be required to do except that the government (he finds out) is counting on him and that there's no time to lose - at most he has a couple of days to offset a huge plot against the government and people of England.

"What are you going to do?

The enquiry crept into the almighty muddle of confused thoughts and emotions in Campion's tortured mind and opened out like a great question-mark-shaped hole of nothingness.

He did not answer because both men were looking at him confidently and he saw that he should have no help from them in his decision. He was the Boss still; they relied on him.

He was trying to marshal some sort of order among his scattered forces when another secret question shot out at him. Just how ill am I? Just how serious is this damned injury? Am I going to curl up and die from it, and if so, how long have I got? He put that query away from him impatiently. He guessed he'd find that out when the time came. Meanwhile was was he going to do?

There was something just under his nose which he had missed. He felt it was there and he groped for it. When at last he found it it grinned at him with the dreadful crosseyed leer of complete insanity. This was the fourteenth. Therefore, all the arrangements for the catastrophe, or whatever it was he was struggling so blindly to avert, must have been made already, and the thing itself be on the very point of happening..."

This was, far as I'm concerned, a terrific book to curl up with in a comfy chair, hard by the Christmas tree and twinkly lights, a cup of tea by my side and a sigh of pleasant relief in thanks for the sort of fine (if absurd) tale I enjoy reading most on a cloudy winter afternoon.

Okay, it's Friday again and this time out that means the last Friday of 2017. So don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers will be talking about today. Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR one and all.

Sunday, December 24, 2017


From our house to yours: MERRY CHRISTMAS and a very happy NEW YEAR. May the new year usher in peace, rationality and better times ahead for our beleaguered country.

Artwork by Swedish illustrator Elsa Beskow (1874 - 1953).

Friday, December 22, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE NOOSE (1930) by Philip MacDonald

"...In the taxi which bore him from Victoria to his house in Knightsbridge, Anthony Ruthven Gethryn shivered. There is no contrast more unpleasant than the suns of Southern Spain and a damp, bleak, fog-ridden London at a November tea-time."

Another Philip MacDonald book I enjoyed immensely but then I'm predisposed to like his stuff. THE NOOSE has the kind of plot that works for me and the characters in that plot are intriguing though not as deeply involving as in other MacDonald books such as THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER and WARRANT FOR X. But then, those are MacDonald masterpieces so maybe that's expecting too much.

Gentleman super sleuth Anthony Gethryn is an acquired taste, let's be fair, he is a man of his time and place and can be, on occasion, a bit supercilious. He is cannily aware of his brilliance not unlike Sherlock Holmes and Poirot and other super sleuths of the era, but he is also aware of the peculiarity of his position. The trust and faith placed in him by his acquaintances does him honor and he knows it. And unlike Holmes (in the original canon) and Poirot who are lifetime bachelors, Gethryn has the hots for his wife, a devotion which foments just beneath the surface in a rather attractive way.

Gethryn's pet theory is that the police's actual job should be to prevent crime rather than rushing to lock the barn door after the horse has bolted. The police in their turn, indulge him his idiosyncrasy.

The truth is these tales have little to do with how real police work since those at Scotland Yard who know him are in thrall to this upper class gentleman whose brains and cunning are admired to the point of hero worship. But once you accept Gethryn's exalted position in these stories everything falls into place.

In THE NOOSE, Anthony Gethryn receives a telegram from his wife Lucia which beckons him back to England in a hurry to thwart an apparent miscarriage of justice. She has come to believe that a man named David Bronson will hang in five days time for a crime he didn't commit. Selma Bronson, an imposing and curiously affecting woman devoted to her husband, has applied to Lucia for help in convincing Anthony to take a hand in this last ditch effort to save her own husband's life. Lucia is convinced that once Anthony meets Selma, he'll want to help. There's just something about Selma Bronson's absolute belief in the innocence of her hubby which transcends logic.

Scotland Yard, on the other hand, is convinced on the evidence gathered, that Bronson is guilty and deserves his fate for the brutal murder of a man named Blackatter. The victim was someone whom Bronson disliked (in point of fact, he was disliked by many) and with whom (it was alleged) he was known to have arranged a meeting in the very spot where both men were found on the night in question: one unconscious with a gun nearby and one shot in the head dead.

However since its Gethryn nosing around the Yard does not actually forbid his inquires. In fact, unknown to his superiors, Chief Detective Inspector Pike will cut short his own holiday to join in this new investigation since wherever Anthony Gethryn goes, stuff happens and it's not outside the realm of possibility that he will turn up something. They are joined in their search for new clues by Mr. Flood and Mr. Dyson, two special reporters on the staff of The Owl, a publication partially owned by Gethryn - both of these men have their own quirky sleuthing specialties.

Gethryn's initial plan is to assume the innocence of David Bronson and thereby upset the real murderer's apple-cart by showing up and making no secret that he is looking for new information on Bronson's behalf.  So off to the country village of Farrow they go in Gethryn's brand new extra super-duper svelte black car which he drives full throttle never mind his wife snuggled up next to him covered in furs and his butler White, cowering in back.

"The big car devoured the almost empty London streets; tossed them throbbingly, contemptuously behind it. London began to fade; streets straggled; ceased, began again patchily; tailed off into fields. They tore up over Fordley Commons, swung right by the new bridge over the Bale and came out on to the smooth dun-grey riband of the arterial road."  I love this sort of thing: fast, furious, vivid.

Since Gethryn makes no secret that he believes in Bronson's innocence and is looking for cracks in the original case, it's no time before things begin to happen including a second murder. There's always a weak link in any case and Gethryn and his fellow sleuth's expertise is finding that link and exploiting it. This they do quite rapidly. But still, where is the evidence? Stirring up trouble is one thing even if that trouble gets some results, but hard evidence is what's needed to free David Bronson from his date with the gallows.

"...and don't forget we're working upside-down. As Bronson did not kill Blackatter at all, therefore Bronson did not kill Blackatter in a quarrel, and therefore also, Blackatter was not killed in any sudden quarrel by anybody but was killed at the climax of a highly polished plan whose partly achieved object was two deaths, Blackatter's and Bronson's."

The final denouement, when it comes, reaching out of the past in a fight to the death, is a shocker.

Not the greatest plot in the world but it works well because these time is of the essence things usually do AND because MacDonald has a deft hand with setting, mood and keeping us in the dark. And also because in this ancient text from between the wars, there are three incredibly single-minded women written (for their time) quite well.

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

Friday, December 15, 2017

Froday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: TOO LATE TO DIE (1986) by Bill Crider

This was my first Bill Crider book (shame on me) and the first in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series begun in 1986. Based on this one book, I'll definitely be reading more. It's exciting to discover a new series (new to me) that's quite a few books along since it gives me lots to look forward to. Bill has written several other series also worth investigating as well many short stories and stand alone novels, so it's a win-win situation all around.

Dan Rhodes is a resilient and likable small town Texas sheriff with a taste for Dr. Pepper and baloney sandwiches. He is a widower living with a grown daughter and running for re-election faced with a formidable opponent who is not only taller, but a better dresser and more charismatic when it comes to speech making and glad handing. But Rhodes only knows to be himself and that will have to be good enough for the people of Blacklin County, Texas.

"Ralph Claymore was Rhode's opponent in the May election, less than a month away. He was ten years younger and, Rhodes was convinced, much better-looking than the present sheriff. He had wavy black hair with no gray in it, and he could wear tight-fitting western shirts without revealing the slightest bulge in the area of his belly. He wore western hats like he was born in them, and boots, and big silver belt buckles. Rhodes didn't like boots because they hurt his toes. He didn't have any silver buckles, and he knew that in a western hat he looked like a cat turd under a collard leaf. And now he had a murder on his hands. He might not look like a sheriff, but he was damn sure going to have to act like one."

There is a kind of elegance of nature to Dan Rhodes which comes across as the book develops and we learn more about his day to day and the problems facing a sheriff with few resources, little staff and no modern gimmickry.

The plot:

A night that begins with a petty grocery store robbery suddenly changes direction and the sheriff finds himself embroiled in the first of three murders and eventually a death by wild boar. Not at all the sort of thing which makes for a quiet election cycle especially when the sheriff himself gets roughed up once or twice.

AND as if that weren't enough, the deputy who is dating his daughter is accused of beating up two guys outside a club. And those two guys have hired a lawyer to sue the town and the department for police brutality And on a personal note, the sheriff is being pursued by a persistent widow who thinks the mourning period of a year is quite long enough. Though in the meantime at a political rally, he has met a nice woman named Ivy running for Justice of the Peace.

At first I thought I wasn't going to engage with the story in the way I like, but that quickly changed and I read the book in two nights as Rhodes and the cast of quirky characters grew on me. Not to mention that I'm fond of plots with several dead bodies.

Bill Crider manages one of the more difficult tasks when writing mysteries: combining so-called cozy elements with the visible brutality of murder - one of which takes place in front of our eyes as the sheriff is questioning a suspect. Besides murder and coziness, Bill Crider also injects plenty of action into the plot - action which, at one point, brings us face to face with a bunch of surly wild boars.

Everything works together pretty seamlessly and makes for a satisfying story with an ending you won't see coming - perhaps because of the giant red herring used deftly by the author.

There is also, partway though the book, an outrageous scene at a funeral which is so unexpected and so hilarious that I burst out laughing - in fact, laughed so hard that I worried my neighbor might hear and think I was up to no good. Though there are several amusing incidents in the book and one or two good laughs, I had not expected this wild rumpus at the funeral of one of the victims. If nothing else, this along makes the book memorable for me - I love a good laugh. I won't say any more about it because I don't want to spoil it.

Today is a special day over at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, a celebration of Bill Crider,  author and extraordinarily nice human being.

Bill is having some health issues now and we want to make sure he knows how much he is admired and well thought of even by those of us who had never made Dan Rhodes' acquaintance until recently, but who had heard over the years how much the author was liked, admired and respected on a personal level. When an author is known to be a good guy, it always adds a bit of something extra to the author/reader relationship - at least for me it does.

Check out his Fantastic Fiction page to get a full listing of all of Bill Crider's books. There are more than I ever imagined. As well as being a wonderful writer, Bill Crider is prolific - good for us.

Bill Crider

Friday, December 8, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: Three Mystery Series

This is a complete re-tooling of a post from 2010 when many of us were not yet aware of each other's blogs and/or of our various predilection for mysteries and other assorted literary minutiae.

Which leads me to these three mystery series which you may or may not be aware of and which certainly deserve to be much better known and appreciated. Not only that, but some of the books had gorgeous covers at one point in time and for that alone, they deserve to be remembered. But turns out, they're also fabulous in content.

1) Oxford historian Iain Pears is known for his stand-alone books, AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, THE DREAM OF SCIPIO, STONE'S FALL and ARCADIA. But previous to these bestsellers, he had written an acclaimed short term series of mysteries featuring a hapless British art historian living in Italy.

Jonathan Argyll is a Brit ex-pat who unofficially helps Rome's Art Theft Squad (an invention of the author's) solve crimes centering on art theft, forgery. murder and other assorted art-based shenanigans. The thing I like most about Argyll is his complete uncoolness. He is anything but the dashing art specialist with a huge ego, called in to swat an assassin or fend off thieves and high stakes killers.

The murders herein are pretty grisly, but they contrast nicely with Argyll's diffident demeanor and natural inclination NOT to get caught up in murder. After all is said and done, he is just an art historian trying to make a living in the dog eat dog world of Renaissance art. However, murder seems to dog Argyll and his associates so he and the two reps from the art squad, Flavia de Stefano and the gastronomically inclined General Bottando are usually right in the thick of things.

I was heartbroken when Pears stopped writing the Jonathan Argyll books - he only wrote seven. But if you're even remotely interested in art, mystery, Italy, great writing with wonderful characterizations, find and read these books.

Iain Pears Fantastic Fiction page.








2) The Jason Lynx books by A.J. Orde (otherwise known as sci-fi author Sheri S. Tepper), are hard to find but oh-so-well-worth the search. The first in the series A LITTLE NEIGHBORHOOD MURDER is available occasionally on the secondary market. However, this is a series that should probably be read in order so if you stumble across another Orde title, wait patiently until you can get your hands on this first one. It will be so well worth it.

Jason Lynx is an antiques dealer and designer living and working in Denver, Colorado. He is a dog person, the owner of a Kuvasz, a rare breed of Hungarian watch-dog. The dog is named Bela, after Bela Lugosi. This alone told me I was destined to like Jason Lynx. But don't get the wrong impression, these are not cutesy dog books, not at all.

Lynx is a man of mystery. He's never known who his father was - the last name of Lynx was given to him at an orphanage because as a child his blond hair twisted upwards like a Lynx cat's ears. So part of the series' arc is Jason trying to find out who he really is. The second mystery thread in this first book is Jason needing to know more about the accident that may or may not have killed his wife - her body has never been found. The heartbreaking residue of this mystery is especially cruel, rarely have I been so affected by an entrance into a new series.

And more recently, as the book begins - what about the bomb delivered next door?

A LITTLE NEIGHBORHOOD MURDER is a disturbing mystery - the murder a particularly vile and sad one and the denouement is galling.

Don't miss this series, if you can find it.

A.J. Orde's Fantastic Fiction page.

Some titles to get you started:







3) Art Historian Nicholas Kilmer writes a wonderfully quirky and often sinister series of books set in Boston, Ma. They feature the charming and eccentric Boston Brahmin art dealer and genius Clayton Reed and his enigmatic all-purpose, but entirely honorable henchman Fred Taylor who is also a genius in his own way.

Fred is a Vietnam vet with dark memories who, lately, appears to have settled down in Boston with a librarian named Molly and her two kids. This relationship is conceptualized well and made believable as the series progresses. Fred owns an old house which he allows other Vietnam vets to use (as long as they follow a few rules) no questions asked, whenever anyone of them needs a place to crash. They are damaged souls and Fred knows from his own experiences, that times can be tough for men like these.

Fred is the direct opposite of his boss, the excitable Clayton, but the two men get along, Fred helping well-to-do Clayton in his never ending search for the next lost painting or rare undiscovered work of art. I would say, that for whatever reason, the first book in the series, MADONNA OF THE APES (released after the series ended and apparently written in some sort of rush) is to be avoided. Other than that one mistake, the rest of the series is splendid.

Begin with HARMONY IN FLESH AND BLACK, (as I did) and continue from there. I love all the books in the series (with the one exception), most especially the wry and very funny, DIRTY LINEN. These are not to be classified as cozies by the way, since some of the murders are front and center and rather gruesome. The world of high stakes art collecting as revealed to us by the author is a murky, complicated place.

A couple of the books have been re-issued with new covers. But I'd try and find the gorgeous covers used the first time around - if you care about good looks. A well-designed book is a thing of beauty as far as I'm concerned.

Nicholas Kilmer's Fantastic Fiction page.

Some titles to get you started:





These four titles, by the way, are my favorites in this series, though I've read and recommend them all but for the one exception listed in my comments.

If you have the inclination, check these books out. I can practically guarantee you'll be rewarded by a terrific read. Yeah, I know, I use the word terrific a lot, but let's face it, I only recommend that type of book.

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: IT WALKS BY NIGHT (1930) by John Dickson Carr

Just so you know, Henri Bencolin is my favorite John Dickson Carr sleuth. However this particular book is one I've never read before AND it is the first in the Bencolin series. How did I miss it? Maybe I didn't - you know how old lady memory goes. All I can say is that it came as a nice surprise to me since I hadn't remembered anything at all about it. So there is something to be said for old age and scattered wits.

Bencolin is always a treat because he is so vividly visualized by Carr. If a character is hardly more than a 'presence' when it comes to any actual resemblance to human kind, it's always a good idea to allow an eloquent visualization to carry the day. Carr's colorful description of a guy who fashions his hair - parted in the middle - with little wing tips which resemble small horns AND struts around wearing a long black cape is so over the top that it becomes in some weird way, enticing and self-energizing.

"In his hands a thousand facets came glittering out of the revolving jewel of Paris - lights and shadows, perfume and danger - the salon, the greenroom, the pits - abbey, brothel, and guillotine, a Babylonian carnival through which he walked in the name of the prefecture. The twirled hair, the pointed beard, the wrinkled eyes, and the inscrutable smile were known wherever he chose to go; whatever happened, his expression was always that of one meditating over a glass of wine. He sat alone in his office, with his fingers on all Paris as on a map. A finger moved across lights and grey squares, up streets, and paused at a house; he said a few words into the telephone at his elbow, and on the instant the police trap snapped like a deadfall. Even so, I had never accompanied him on an investigation until this night of April 23, 1927, when we were united in pursuit of the murderer Laurent."

Bencolin is a man so sure of himself and his powers that he claims rarely to have had to take more than 24 hours to solve a crime - even one as brutal and convoluted as the current incidence of mutilated bodies.

Not that this is a locked room murder of the normal sort contrived by Carr - well, yes, the murder occurs in a card room where no one was seen entering except the victim, all doors were watched, etc, etc, BUT the eventual denouement isn't - far as I'm concerned - the sort of standard locked room theatrics we're used to. (Please feel free to tell me if I'm wrong.) I can say no more without giving too much away.

Events take place in and around Paris where Bencolin is currently Prefect of Police. He is on the case because a famed sportsman and member of the aristocracy (or what's left of it), the Duc de Saligny, has sought police protection from a madman who has threatened his life. Uh-oh.

John Dickson Carr had a well-honed proclivity for dark doings and things that go bump in the night, most of his books reek of this - in a good way. Shadows lurk around every corner and creepy stuff happens regularly to his characters who, on the whole, are not a very likable bunch mostly because Carr simply isn't that concerned with them as much as he is concerned with plotting 'impossible' feats of bewilderment. The title of the book, IT WALKS BY NIGHT, is part and parcel of the whole effect - it's all atmospherics. Carr is keen on atmospherics. In this particular book macabre hints of Jacobean overkill lurk in almost every scene. Without that I suppose we'd get to the bottom of the thing that much sooner. But Carr is so skilled at all this grotesque nicety that it would be a shame not to indulge him.

Back to the plot:

The lunatic Laurent is the madman in question according to threatening letters received by the aforementioned Duc de  Saligny. Admittedly mad and recently escaped from a lunatic asylum, Laurent is currently in Paris but not before having had his face altered by plastic surgery. So, according to Bencolin, this madman could be anyone. The unsettling eeriness of that is part of the reason why I so enjoy Carr.

All this is revealed in conversation between the Prefect of Police and others, including a young American lawyer named Jeff Marle whom Bencolin has known since  Marle was a boy. The narrative is in the hands of this side-kick up from Nice at Bencolin's invitation since what is a mystery without an apprentice to amaze. I can't recall if this is the same chap who shows up in the next few books but I do remember that at one point he is on the verge of a duel with one of the suspects. But I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.

Oddly enough, a psychiatrist has also been invited along to observe the doings on the evening in question. His initial bewilderment and later his surmises add to the mix of confusion. The action takes place at a casino where the Duc and his new bride are spending the evening (strange honeymoon doings I'd have said) and where the police have set up a watchful presence.

Turns out that that very day, said Duc has married madman Laurent's beautiful ex-wife whom he [Laurent] had attempted to kill in an especially blood thirsty way. Needless to say, the young woman has spent many years getting over the attack and not bothering with male companionship until the Duc swept her away. Unfortunately it's going to be a very short marriage as, across a crowded room, Monsieur le Duc is seen stepping into the club's well guarded card room (known to be empty) and before anyone realizes anything is wrong, he is kaput. The crash of a steward's tray as he enters the room a few minutes later alerts Bencolin and his men to the horror that awaits within.

There in the otherwise empty room sits a ghastly sight: the body of Monsieur le Duc slumped on a divan. He is dead as a door-nail and minus his head. That head is propped up on the floor by the stump of its neck confronting any who enter the room. I told you Carr has a liking for the macabre. (At one point, the psychiatrist who should have really known better even in 1927, picks up the head by the hair and holds it up for inspection.)

Well, there's not much that can top this sort of ghoulish bloodletting. It is immediately deduced that no one had entered or left the card room (except for the victim) and that the doors were in full view of keen-eyed policemen at all times AND the window in the room had a forty foot drop and a layer of undisturbed dust.

It is up to Madame Saligny's long time friend Edouard Vautrille, a tall self-important man who smells vaguely of lilac-water, wears a monocle and clicks his heels together when he leaves the room, to step in and take charge of the distraught widow.

In the meantime, developments.

Bencolin's lawyer friend, snooping around, discovers the Duke's mistress - yes, even on his wedding day, he'd arranged a tryst (he's French) - reclining in a darkened room upstairs in the casino. He is taken aback but intrigued and helps her beat a hasty retreat. Later upon visiting her home at her invitation and with Bencolin's approval, another suitor shows up. It is Vautrille, the widow's friend with the clicking heels who drops by to be humiliated. Just a bit later, a second dead body is discovered slashed and stabbed.

This is actually a pretty straightforward story, but what with all the lurid atmospherics and Bencolin's enigmatic hints and asides, there's lots to weave through before a thoroughly satisfactory denouement is achieved.

Okay so this might not be everyone's cup of tea since histrionics are involved and you know how some people are about such things - but still, a very luxurious and murderous tale written by an expert. And the ending will, I guarantee, come as a surprise.

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