Monday, January 29, 2018

Monday Salon: Remember When Plane Travel Was Fun?

American Airlines ad, 1949. Good Housekeeping magazine. 

An incident in a recent book got me thinking about once upon a time plane flight.  Of course now it's often just a necessary drudgery. But remember how exciting plane travel could be? Comfortable too, with stewardesses and stewards to see to your every need. And seats like banquettes with small tables and other comfortable accoutrements. The man in the top poster looks as if he's sitting on a wicker chair (!?) Remember dressing up to fly? Remember walking onto the actual tarmac to board the plane? Outside! Those were the days.

And look at these gorgeous travel posters. Yesterday's graphics were often works of art in and of themselves, even if they were only advertising not meant to last forever.

Artwork by American illustrator Harold Anderson. (1894 - 1973)

Designer: Tom Purvis. Imperial Airways 1931.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE PONSON CASE (1921) by Freeman Wills Croft

If you don't like to read police procedural mysteries, you probably won't like the books of
Freeman Wills Croft. Happily for me, I love police procedurals and most especially love the old practitioners of the craft. I haven't read Croft in ages, but began to go through his work again last year - unfortunately, not a lot of it is easily available. But little by little, as the saying goes. And since I don't remember what I read years ago, it's like doing it again for the first time.

Warning: Croft is VERY fond of railway schedules and 'timed to the minute' alibis. And though normally my eyes glaze over when reading alibi minutiae, somehow with Croft, I take it in stride. And railway schedules - ha! I have trouble reading any kind of schedule - you should see me, a grown woman of some intelligence, lost in the utter incomprehension of a town bus schedule. Sad. But this doesn't stop me reading Croft. Go figure. It might just have something to do with the fact that he was a very clever constructor of plots, a writer of the sort of books that few can do well. He also comfortably understood his limitations and seemed happy enough within them. Once you get deep into a Croft book, it's hard to put the thing down. Listen, I'm the least detail oriented person you would ever meet, but I love his work.

And another thing: Of Croft's very early work, there's less of that turn of the century over the top exuberance that you find say, in E.C. Bentley's books, and other writers from that time. Croft avoided the curlycues. AND his women were often not of the faint of heart variety.

THE PONSON CASE (1921) is Croft's second book and does not feature Croft's most famous protagonist, Inspector French of Scotland Yard who will debut a few years later - this time out it's Inspector Tanner who has the case. It was published in 1921, so this is kind of old school before old school was old.

Yet at the same time, there's a rather strong female character  who has lots to do with pushing the case forward even where her male cohort is ready to give it up as a lost cause. The plot develops from their point of view as well as from Tanner's.

Okay so ANY reader (of a suspicious nature) who has read as many mysteries as I have (and more) will be able to figure out, more or less, not HOW the crime was committed but who was likely involved. There is a very strong clue passed off in the early part of the book in an information dump dialogue scene.Though that doesn't prevent a couple of surprises as we near the ending. An ending which dovetails nicely and explains just about everything to the reader's satisfaction.

The plot:

Sir William Ponston disappears one evening from Luce Manor, his beautifully appointed country house in the south of England. Except for the servants he had been home alone as his wife and grown daughter were away on a short trip. The beginning couple of chapters are the sort of thing that I really do enjoy reading - we get into the story immediately in a vivid setting easy to picture.

When his body is later discovered, it appears Ponson had inexplicably taken out a boat from his boat house the night before and gone out alone on the nearby Cranshaw river - something he'd never done before. Once on the river he apparently lost control of his oars and his small boat drifted too close to a waterfall and catapulted him over some rough water (well known in the neighborhood to be treacherous) to his death.

The whole thing seems incomprehensible to his family and soon enough to the authorities. Ponson didn't drown, he was already dead when he entered the water AND there's suspicious bruising on the back of his head. Uh-oh.

The meticulous Inspector Tanner of Scotland Yard is called into the case. It is known that both Ponson's son, Austin and his nephew Cosgrove are hard up at the moment and in need of funds. They will both be much better off under the terms of Sir William's will. Suspicion naturally falls on both men. Both both have seemingly unbreakable alibis for the night in question.

As is often the case in a Croft book, the investigation hinges on the strength of seemingly unshakable alibis as well as on investigatory minutiae, for instance: footprints. Inspector Tanner takes us over the evidence bit by bit as he uncovers and tries to make heads or tails of it.

Tanner's approach is to weigh each and every clue, each and every statement, and tortuously go over the tracks of the apparent killer or killers since it seems obvious in this case that there is more than one person involved. At an exciting point mid-story, Tanner hires a plane - it's 1921, so the plane is a  two man affair and there's wind and fog and lots of the sort of atmosphere I love - to fly him to Lisbon, Portugal on the trail of a suspect who has made a mad dash to the continent.

This makes for a rather thrilling action sequence in an otherwise localized tale. Tanner's energy is contagious and Croft knows how to write this sort of thing so well.

Some might find the Inspector's keenness for detail tedious, but there's a certain admirable quality to Croft's fine tuning of his plot details. You just can't help being amazed even if I did fast read some of the more esoteric timing of certain alibi aspects.

If you are of a mind to read some really well crafted, well written period detective tales of the police procedural variety then Freeman Wills Croft is the writer for you. I really do enjoy his work.

Link to Croft's Fantastic Fiction page here.

Todd Mason will be doing hosting duties some time today at his blog, Sweet Freedom, while Patricia Abbott takes a break. So don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten or overlooked authors other bloggers are talking about today.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE MYSTERY AT THE ORCHARD HOUSE (1946) by Joan Coggin

Joan Coggin is yet another mystery writer I hadn't heard of until recently. Her Lady Lupin series would probably have remained unremembered and impossible to find except they were republished in 2003 by Rue Morgue Press.Thank goodness! At the moment those still seem to be the only copies available online.

This is a short-lived series since apparently the author stopped at four. The books are most definitely cozies and her heroine is Lady Lupin Lorimer-Hastings, a ditzy but kind-hearted society gal who uncharacteristically, falls in love with a Church of England Minister years older than herself and marries him - much to the surprise of everyone in her lively set. Her family, on the other hand, is just relieved she didn't married anyone in said lively set.

The marriage is a happy one and husband and wife are, in time, delivered of a bouncing baby boy whom they adore.

Okay, when I reviewed the first book in the series, WHO KILLED THE CURATE? (which I simply had to read because: great title) I was thoroughly taken by Joan Coggin's fun attitude towards her characters and the shenanigans they get up to. Though murder is no joke, there's still a lively enough atmosphere in cozy English village life (at least in book form) to offset the horror of untoward death. As well as, incongruously, a few laugh out loud moments as we share with Lady Lupin (or Loops as she's called by close friends) her inability to quite grasp the practicalities of day to day life as it applies to a minister's wife. She was a London city girl after all, and worried she'd find village life boring. But that is not to be. Not with everyone just waiting to pour their trials and tribulations out to her.

There is no murder in THE MYSTERY AT ORCHARD HOUSE which actually makes some sense. In a sane world how many murders could a Minister's wife be expected to run into, let alone solve? Let's get real here.

And truth to tell, murder isn't missed - there's just too much going on in yet another lively story featuring the sorts of people one might find fatiguing in real life, but in book form are no end amusing. This time out Lady Lupin is staying at her good friend Diana Turner's newly inherited house-turned-hotel out in the lovely countryside of Kent. Lady Lupin is exhausted, having just nursed her family through a severe bout of influenza then becoming ill herself. Ergo, Loops needs a recuperative break from normal daily routine. So off she goes to Orchard House for a carefree rest.

Unfortunately, 'carefree' is not in the cards.

There's just something about the lovable if screwy Lady Lupin Lorimer-Hastings that causes people to unburden their souls to her. This may come in handy for her role as a minister's attending wife, but it can get tiresome on a day in and day out basis. Maybe it's her kind heart coupled with a beguiling scatterbrain nature, but whatever it is, people respond and tell her their troubles whether Loops wants to hear them or not.

THE MYSTERY AT ORCHARD HOUSE is not a murder mystery, but a mystery of mistaken intentions and miscues with a wonderful cast of mostly ridiculous characters, some of whom are impossible to like, and a couple for whom you'll want to see a happy ending. And Lady Lupin gets the chance all over again, to get everything wrong and misdirect us all with attempts at deductions which occasionally (if accidentally) are right on the mark.

 As I mentioned, there is no actual murder, just a series of confusing thefts and possibly an attempted murder involving a vehicle. All the while, Lady Lupin must untangle some unlikely alliances, align a few misaligned hearts and help straighten out the career path of a young poet.

We also get a sharply satirical caricature of a novelist - a woman so self-involved with her own work (talk about tunnel vision) that she causes Lady Lupin to wake the entire hotel and run out into the dead of night searching for a missing child much to the chagrin of everyone when it turns out that the 'child' in question is merely a missing manuscript. Oops. 

Sort of like a female Bertie Wooster without a Jeeves to guide her through, Lady Lupin Lorimer-Hastings is a complete delight as she fumbles her way towards a very satisfactory ending in this cozy dip into a world which, if it ever existed, is now gone forever.

A frantic and very funny second book in a series I've grown fond of. Can't wait to read the two remaining.

Since it's Friday 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, January 12, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: TRIPLE ZECK by Rex Stout


I'm rereading the Arnold Zeck trilogy in handy-dandy omnibus form. The copywrites are 1948, 49 and 50 so it looks as if they were published one after the other - sounds like a trilogy to me. As many of you know, I am an enthusiastic Nero Wolfe fan-girl and as such, I am constantly re-reading my favorites in the canon and it's probably no big surprise that I will now and then write about them. However, I do try not to go overboard. Ha.

Who is Arnold Zeck?

Well, as Wolfe grimly warns his aide-de-camp Archie Goodwin - Zeck is a dangerous man, someone not to be trifled with. In fact Archie is to forget he ever heard the name. Wolfe says if he  were to involve himself in a case which even peripherally had anything to do with Zeck, he, [Wolfe] might have to leave the brownstone and go into hiding.

Archie doesn't believe him, but it turns out to be true.

It also turns out that the greenhouse on the roof of the brownstone is vulnerable to machine gun fire.

Worse yet, it also turns out that Wolfe might have to go on a diet!

And I won't even mention what Lily Rowan is asked to do.

Zeck is 'the napoleon of crime'. He is Wolfe's Moriarity. His nemesis. His arch enemy. And as we all know, any brilliant detective worth his salt must have an arch enemy.

"It's the Zeck with the place in Westchester, of course."

"Yes. I should have signaled you off as soon as I recognized his voice. I tell you nothing because it is better for you to know nothing. You are to forget that you know his name."

"Like that." I snapped my fingers and grinned at him. "What the hell? Does he eat human flesh, preferably handsome young men?" 

"No. He does worse." Wolfe's eyes came half open. "I'll tell you this. If ever, in the course of my business, I find I am committed against him and must destroy him, I shall leave this house, find a place where I can work - and sleep and eat if there is time for it - and stay there until I have finished. I don't want to do that, and therefore I hope I never have to."

"I see. I'd like to meet this bozo. I think I'll make his acquaintance."

"You will not. You'll stay away from him."

An aside: I think I vaguely remember Zeck's name being brought up in a novel or novella involving a chess champion who dies during a tournament, but I'm not sure. Maybe not. At any rate, I hope any Wolfe experts out there will set me straight.  Zeck does say in the first phone call in AND BE A VILLAIN that he's called Wolfe twice before.

Anyway, to that first book in the trilogy:


A man named Cyril Orchard, publisher of a horse racing almanac, dies on the air while drinking the sponsor's product during a live radio talk show. Naturally every one is perturbed - most especially, the sponsor, Hi-Spot Beverages.

At the same time, back at the brownstone, Nero Wolfe is facing a pesky income tax bill. He needs a case with the likelihood of a fee high enough to please the tax man. So he brilliantly insinuates himself (as only Wolfe can) into the case of the dead talk show guest.

This particular mystery has a lively cast of characters for Archie and Wolfe to interact with which is always fun. There's the opinionated show's host, Madeleine Fraser and her array of minions: the on-air side-kick Bill Meadows, the friend and business manager (and former sister-in-law) Deborah Koppel plus a couple of sponsor's representatives and other concerned broadcasting pros. Not to mention, Nancylee Shepherd, teenage president of Fraser's fan-club who is allowed to hang out and be a kind of general dogsbody."She wears socks!" - and is fond of the word, 'utterly.'

As we get deeper into the story and upon further questioning of witnesses it begins to look as if the poison ingested by Cyril Orchard might have originally been meant for Madeleine Fraser herself, so the case has to be turned around and looked at from a different angle. Confusing for the cops, but right up Wolfe's alley.

However, during the course of the investigation Wolfe unknowingly steps on Arnold Zeck's toe, hence the warning phone call. But due to Wolfe's dexterous handling of a most difficult case, the end result is satisfactory for all (well, except for the killer) and Wolfe is not forced to go into hiding at this particular point in time.

Second book in the trilogy:


James Sperling, a well-known industrialist hires Wolfe to find out if his daughter Gwenn's intended fiance, attorney Louis Rony, is a communist. Gwenn is a stubborn girl and prefers to do her own vetting of her own boyfriends and resents that her mom and pop are being difficult about a man she  may or may not marry.

Archie goes undercover to Sperling's Westchester estate where a house party is in progress. His mission: to dig around in general and in particular make himself appealing to Gwenn in the hopes of diverting her attention. He is Archie Goodwin, after all.

Eager to search Louis Rony's room for any evidence of communist nefariousness, Archie prepares a Mickey Finn cocktail to put the suspected communist out of action for a few hours. But the sleight of hand goes wrong when Rony pours his doctored cocktail into a nearby plant and instead, Archie mistakenly drinks a second Mickey-Finn cocktail also intended for Rony. Someone else at the house party has his or her own plan for Gwenn's boyfriend.  Not only will Archie feel very foolish, but he will spend a very unpleasant twelve or so hours the following day wishing he had never set foot in  Sperling's mansion.

Back at the office, Wolfe gets another phone call from Arnold Zeck. This time, the crime king-pin is a bit more perturbed than he was in the previous case. Wolfe is to leave Rony alone. Period. But when Wolfe demurs, an atrocious attack is carried out on the brownstone. Zeck doesn't fool around.

Wolfe then does the unthinkable: at risk of life and limb, he actually leaves the brownstone on business to travel by car (Archie driving of course) to Westchester to pay a call on his client.

A bit later, when Rony turns up dead on the grounds of the Sperling estate and Archie is roped in as the main suspect, all bets are off. Wolfe is prepared to do what he must. In fact, in a crazy turn of events, Zeck tries to hire Wolfe to find out who killed Rony. Go figure.

The last and most incredible book in the Zeck trilogy:


Once Wolfe and Archie are hired by wealthy society heiress Sarah Rackham to investigate her younger husband Barry, events are set in motion which will lead to a Wolfe/Zeck collision. At first it's just a case of finding out where Mrs. Rackham's hubby gets the wherewithal to lead the lavish lifestyle he does. Since she doesn't give him an allowance and he has no visible means of support, she wonders where exactly his money is coming from. Despite her cousin Calvin Leeds, a dog trainer, who urges caution, Mrs. Rackham goes to see Wolfe.

" ought to stop trembling if you can. It makes Mr. Wolfe uneasy when a woman trembles because he thinks she's going to be hysterical, and he might not listen to you. Take a deep breath and try to stop."

"You were trembling all the way down here in the car," the man said in a mild baritone.

"I was not!" she snapped. That settled, she turned to me. "this is my cousin, Calvin Leeds. He didn't want me to come here, but I brought him along anyhow. Where's Mr. Wolfe?"

I indicated the door to the office, went and opened it, and ushered them in. 

I have never figured out Wolfe's grounds for deciding whether or not to get to his feet when a woman enters his office. If they're objective they're too complicated for me and if they're subjective I wouldn't know where to start. This ime he kept his seat behind his desk in the corner near the window, merely nodding and murmuring when I pronounced names. I thought for a second that Mrs. Rackham was standing gazing at him in reproach for his bad manners, but then I saw it was just surprised disbelief that he could be that big and fat. I'm so used to the quantity of him that I'm apt to forget ow he must impress people seeing him for the first time. 

He aimed a thumb at the red leather chair beyond the end of his desk and muttered at her, "Sit down, madam."

...Mrs. Rackham spoke to Wolfe. "You couldn't very well go around finding out things. Could you?"

"I don't know," he said politely. "I haven't tried for years, and I don't intend to. Others go around for me." He gestured at me. "Mr. Goodwin, of course, and others as as required. You need someone to go around?"

She sure does and before too long, Mrs. Rackham will die along with her beloved dog. (A wretched scene.) This triggers Wolfe's disappearance from the brownstone leaving behind explicit instructions that Archie should not look for him. A bereft Archie and Fritz and Theodore must muddle through on their own without a hint from Wolfe.

This is a delightfully improbable book in which detection and coincidence go hand in hand. Certain things just happen in the course of Archie's trying to find his bearings and we must go along with them. Also near the end, we are asked to believe the unlikeliest of events, but hey, it's Nero Wolfe. Archie on his own manages just fine by the way, using his intelligence based on experience. And the endings are real eye-openers. Endings? Yes, there are two endings this time out.

By the way, you do not have to have read the first two books in the trilogy to read the third. The actions in the last Zeck book are not predicated on anything that happened in the first two. But it's still nice to read them in order of publication. Build up the tension, so to speak.

It's Friday once again and today, Todd Mason is doing hosting duties for author Patricia Abbott, at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in to see what forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Year End Reading Round-Up

The gorgeous artwork of contemporary Irish painter Henry McGrane.

This is my first year-end round-up after many years of blogging and I was inspired to do so by a wonderful year end post over at Brad's AHSWEETMYSTERY blog.  Of course being a person of little introspection and zero memory (each book I read remains only as a vague interlude floating about in my brain) so I may not have as many interesting things to muse over as Brad does. But I'll do my best.

I too will try and stay away from the politics of 2017 except to say that never have I welcomed the end of year more. My hopes are pinned on the 2018 election and/or some nicely timed arrests but that's all I'll say about it on this blog. Those interested in my more detailed political expostulations are welcome to check out my Facebook page.

This past year I only read 79 books - see link to titles and ratings here, but it was more than I read the previous year even if still less than what I'd set out to do. I thought I was reading at a much faster clip but turned out I was wrong, I seem to have slowed quite a bit. But maybe it's for the best. After all, it's not a race.

Example of the brilliance I was exposed to this year:

If I HAD to pick my favorite mystery this year, this would be it. What a terrific piece of writing. I had never read any Michael Gilbert before so this was a fantastic introduction. I almost wish I hadn't read it so that I could have the absolute pleasure of reading it again. Which I will do sometime this year once its innards fade to nothingness in my brain.

This was the beginning of a wonderful series set in a cold, cheerless and very remote section of Great Britain which the author somehow makes inviting. I love the cold wind and rain, the ocean and sand and the feeling of damp isolation. The protagonist is a forensic archaeologist who is called in whenever bones are uncovered which is actually more often than one might imagine. I didn't think I'd like this series as much as I do which means that I am, at my creaking old age, still capable of being surprised.

I also read several books by Angela Thirkell and Elinor Lipman this year, two authors whose work rarely disappoints. I continue to love the worlds they create. And near the end of the year, I discovered the wonderful Bill Crider's Dan Rhodes books. Proving once again what an eclectic reader I am and proud of it.

But then there were these two books which cruelly disappointed me. Yes, cruelly, because I always go into a book expecting something wonderful.

1) Normally I don't bother chatting too much about bad books, but this one was a doozy, most especially since I had been led to believe it was a pretty good book, maybe even exceptional. May I say that this was a total waste of my time? I began skimming near the end hoping I'd come across something that would suddenly turn the thing around, but I never did find it. This is the sort of book that sets you up nicely with a visually pleasing locale and the whole idea of Ellery Queen going off to an upstate town to see a different view of life and gather color for a book he is either in the process of writing or just about to be in the process of writing. The house he rents is set up for him with the appropriate mystery and expectations are set in place. Unfortunately these expectations are NEVER met. Queen acts like a nitwit throughout the book and when you think AHA! something is going to happen now - NOTHING does. It's a dud, a pedestrian effort at best. As I said: a total waste of time even if it is the first of the fabled Ellery Queen 'Wrightsville' books.

2) I'd only read one other Helen McCloy book - CUE FOR MURDER - and liked it well enough. So I kind of thought I'd enjoy this one which seemed to have the sort of plot I normally look forward to. But, oh, was I wrong. I did stop reading about half way through because I just couldn't take the pontificating. Certain characters' dialogue read as if they were giving a lecture at the United Nations on the wretchedness of bad government and/or fascism and/or other trials of mankind. All mixed in with what was supposed to be dialogue. And the heroine - oh my goodness, her behavior was, I think, supposed to be eccentrically entertaining, but instead appeared nothing but dull-witted. Another book I wanted to like, but no, it was not to be. Thankfully, books like these are few and far between.

On a better note: 2017 was also the year I began reading a couple of vintage authors for the first time thanks to bloggers like John at PRETTY SINISTER BOOKS and others, who specialize in vintage and whose tastes I can usually count on.

I've continued to contribute to author Patricia Abbott's Friday Forgotten Book Meme (even if a bit tardy at times) which gives me another reason (if I needed any more) to read vintage, vintage and more vintage. Though I do still read some modern day authors, for instance: Elly Griffiths, Spencer Quinn and Elinor Lipman. And I'm very much looking forward to Robert Crais' new novel, WANTED among other things, here and there.

Also keenly looking forward to Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo DaVinci. I read three non-fiction books this year which is less than I would like, but the three I read were excellent:

Almost against my will, I am getting more used to reading on my Kindle (it took you long enough, Yvette!) though I still prefer actual books and truth to tell, I don't think I'll EVER get used to tapping the screen to turn the page. But there are just certain difficult to find vintage books which are either unavailable as actual books or if they are, are just too expensive. Ergo: Kindle is the next best choice.

So, all in all, I guess you could say I had a very good reading year and here's to 2018 being just as good if not better.

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