Friday, June 29, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books: THE CASE OF THE SEVEN WHISTLERS (1944) and DEATH IN THE NIGHT WATCHES (1945) by George Bellairs

Not one but two books by George Bellairs, both lively and entertaining British Golden Age mysteries. Both currently available (alongside a whole host of other Bellairs books) on Kindle. Bellairs was the inducement for me to join Kindle Unlimited (first month free then ten bucks a month) because it's a cheap way to get to read not only Bellairs, but Gladys Mitchell and a bunch of  older mystery writers who may not be readily available. I know a lot of people say it's not worth ten bucks, but yeah, it kind of is. I mean, if I read only three books a month it's worth it. But I read quickly so I expect I'll be over-indulging in my drug of choice: reading - more than getting my money's worth. And I can always quit at any time.

Back to Bellairs:

On the whole, there are more pluses than minuses when it comes to George Bellairs. I've only just recently begun reading his stuff and so far so pretty good. Though his detective, Inspector (later Superintendent) Littlejohn is not exactly Mr. Personality and he never really comes to life at least over the few books I've read so far, but in truth, the same can be said for several of the Golden Age detectives, so no big deal. Let's move on.


I'm inclined to pick up books with titles that begin with 'The Case of The....' or 'The Mystery of ...' or 'The Adventure of...' Can't help myself. So I picked this one - so to speak - when it showed up on my Kindle recommendations. I'd read a couple of Bellairs' books previously so I kind of knew he was a good writer of puzzlers. So no big surprise that I enjoyed THE CASE OF THE SEVEN WHISTLERS.

The Seven Whistlers is the name of a small antiques establishment catering mostly to tourists in a picturesque English seaside town. The shop is run by a very odd duo: Messrs. Grossman and Small aided and abetted by a bleached blond by the name of Mrs. Doakes who is, apparently, no better than she should be. But something very fishy is going on at The Seven Whistlers.

What I had forgotten is that George Bellairs has a wicked sense of humor and it shows to advantage in this tale of a body found in an antique trunk (I call it a trunk even if it technically is more of a large decorative wooden box.) The intriguing thing is this particular body turns out to be that of Mr. Grossman - proprietor (alongside his slovenly partner, a large man named Small) of The Seven Whistlers. Mr. Grossman sold the aforementioned antique box to a Miss Selina Adlestrop of Hartsbury on the last day of her holiday in Fetling-on-Sea. The box to be shipped by train.

What follows is one of the more hilarious body discoveries in the history of crime fiction. I can say no more - except this alone is worth the price of the book.

The solution is fairly obvious around two thirds in after the second death, but as I mentioned, that didn't dampen my enthusiasm.


England during WWII. Blackout regulations and other strict measures.This is the second Bellairs book I recently flew through - attracted by the setting. Bellairs is excellent at creating ambience - something I especially like in these sorts of long ago mysteries. Come to think of it, I like good ambience in modern day stuff too - though easier said than done.

You know the harm that a pesky will can cause - especially a pesky will in a Golden Age mystery. And you know how old moneyed codgers in these mysteries are always making imprudent marriages much to the horror of their own grown-up children - adults with expectations. (Nothing more dangerous than adults with monetary expectations.) This is the case when the will of William Worth is read, a will which practically begs for the murder of his widow - a woman younger than Worth's own children. Ah, families.

The Worths are an especially cringe-worthy lot. Suspicion, sniffy snobbery and resentment fester and, as expected, it seems as if someone is, indeed, trying to get rid of young Mrs. Worth.

It comes as a surprise then when it's the eldest son,  Henry Worth, the unpopular managing director of Worth's Engineering Works, who is murdered instead while on firewatch (there is a war on after all) at the factory one evening. Who could have done it? One of the surly laborers? Or looking closer to home - there is that pesky will. But why Henry? It's the stepmom after all who controls the dough.

There are several suspects for Detective Inspector Littlejohn to investigate:  Henry's artsy-fartsy brother, a sister who has married an obsequious French Count, the young stepmother who, conveniently, had been carrying on an affair with Henry under the nose of the contriving elderly hubby (who is already dead and buried as the novel opens). Or could it have been the stepmom's soldier brother who shows up rather surreptitiously one evening? Or how about the nanny, an elderly family retainer with suspicions, who has her own room upstairs at the manor? Or is it possible that the killer is someone who objected to Henry's many romantic dalliances? An outraged hubby or daddy?

Not the greatest mystery ever written, but I enjoyed it precisely because I was in a lazy mood and not looking for anything to wrack my sun frazzled brains in what has to be one of the hottest summers I've ever had the misfortune to live through.

I'm currently reading DEATH SENDS FOR THE DOCTOR, another Bellairs book in which ambience (this time a creepy sort of English town square where everybody overlooks everybody else and everyone knows everyone's business and there's a skeleton in a well which needs explaining) is even more important and liking it very much. I guess I'm on a Bellairs bender for now.

Hey, it's Friday once again, so 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, June 8, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE BOX OFFICE MURDERS (1929) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Yet another English police procedural by Freeman Wills Crofts, this one highlighted by three murders and a brazen kidnapping Just the kind of thing I was in the mood for. But then, I am very fond of so-called police procedural mysteries, especially those written by 'golden age' authors whose like we'll never see again. Thankfully, their work lives on, though Freeman Wills Crofts' books are harder to find than most. Unusual for an author who is not exactly unknown and wrote some terrific stuff. Luckily, more and more of Crofts' books are being reprinted - but not fast enough to suit me. He was a prolific author whose many books have all but disappeared. Undeservedly so. 

But one day, THE BOX OFFICE MURDERS showed up on a list of Kindle recommendations quite out of the blue. Consider me very pleased. Especially since the book lived up to my expectations.

A young woman who works in a movie box office finds herself in a bind. She talks to a friend. The friend recommends she see an attorney for advice. They do. The attorney sends the young woman to Scotland Yard where, fortunately, Inspector French (Crofts' dogged sleuth) is free at that moment to hear her story.Thus he learns of the mark of the purple sickle.

That mark sounds more romantic than it is and in truth, it is about as fanciful as Freeman Wills Croft gets. But it's a nice touch.

The young woman's name is Thurza Darke and the story French hears from her is an old one, familiar to a seasoned detective. It's the one about a gullible girl being drawn into the clutches of people who have promised her a surefire way to make some side money - a vague sort of gambling scheme which can't fail. Right. Silly sort of ruse, but Miss Darke falls for it. Then of course she winds up owing the wrong people money and being menaced by a particularly evil chap who then coerces her into a perplexing gambit. I won't say anymore since you really do have to read the thing for yourself.

French assures Miss Darke that he will help and tells her to say nothing to anyone. Leave it to him.

But the next day, Miss Darke's body is found floating in the ocean.  Somehow, the bad guys discovered what she'd been up to and disposed of her.

As French, feeling a bit guilty that he didn't have Miss Darke followed, delves further and further into the story initially told by the victim, he finds two other murders, two other young women killed by 'drowning' - two who also happened to work in the box office of two different theaters.

Baffled, French continues to investigate, trying to find out what these clerks could be doing that would benefit a murderous gang. In pursuit of the bad guys, French is called upon to commit burglary but does so with aplomb since there's no other way for him to get the evidence he seeks. It's THAT sort of case.

Going into this tale, I expected (as per usual with Crofts) to be puzzled, confounded, entertained and in general, led about by the hand since there's no one who can fashion a perplexing plot quite like Crofts. And sure enough, I read the book through in just a couple of sittings, muttering to myself. There's little characterization here, so be warned, but you won't miss it. It's not really needed in this sort of story.

But I like that one of the characters, a box office clerk named Molly Moran, turns out to be a plucky girl who, hit over the head, kidnapped and thrown into a car tied hand and foot and wrapped in a rug, then threatened with a horrible death - NEVER gives up the will to survive.

AND on top of that, there's a hairsbreadth last minute chase across English country roads to the sea.

I recommend this very British, very intriguing, very convoluted tale which is not strictly a whodunit but a step by step investigation with dead ends at every turn - just the sort of thing I love.  We basically know who the bad guys are, but we don't know what they're up to except that they're willing to murder for it.

I won't say any more about the plot because it's one of those that you really need to unravel for yourselves and I won't dampen the joy of that. Just go ahead and download this wonderful puzzler while it's still available.

And since it's Friday once again, you know the routine. Head on over to author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. The list and the links are there.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: ALIAS BASIL WILLING (1951) by Helen McCloy

Okay I admit it, I read this book because of the title. Basil Willing is one of my very favorite character names in all of literature. PLUS a couple of other bloggers have written about the book and made it sound like something I might like.

However, since Willing, an American psychiatrist working for the N.Y. District Attorney, is not nearly as charming or intriguing as Philip MacDonald's English crime solving gentleman of means, Anthony Gethryn, whom he vaguely reminds me of and the plot of this particular book peters out near the end, I can't say that ALIAS BASIL WILLING quite lived up to my expectations. As you'll see, it's a book I'm 'iffy' about.

Helen McCloy was a prolific American writer who wrote not only thirteen Basil Willing full length mysteries and one volume of short stories, but also an assortment of standalone suspense novels. She was a big proponent of the psychoanalytical view of human affairs and her tales reflect it. I've yet to read MR. SPLITFOOT and THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY, which are considered her best Basil Willing books, so I haven't really contrived a final opinion of her work. But so far, from what I've read, I would rate McCloy in the middling-to-good class of Golden Age-to-mid-20th century school of writers. But that may change as I move on.

If memory serves me, I've read one other Basil Willing book, CUE FOR MURDER, so I kind of knew what to expect and truth be told, this was the better of the two, though again, that soupcon of tense excitement so effortlessly created by McDonald in his tomes, is altogether missing from McCloy's efforts. I've also read one of her standalones, DO NOT DISTURB, which I disliked primarily because it SHOULD have been a terrific book and wasn't, bogged down as it was with character speeches about human rights and whatnot, not to mention, an improbable set-up (which could have been overcome, but wasn't). I hate when that happens.

ALIAS BASIL WILLING was okay, maybe just a little better than okay, but the ending left me feeling that I'd been bamboozled and not in a good way. (Needless to say, I never mind being bamboozled in a good way.)

Oh the book starts off brilliantly, no doubt.

A man overhears another man identify himself as himself. What? Oh, I mean that one night Basil Willing, in a coincidence of coincidences, overhears a man identify himself as Basil Willing and the chase is on. Intriguing - right? Real Basil follows fake Basil and winds up at a bizarre party thrown by a Dr. Zimmer, in yet another coincidence, a well known psychiatrist. Zimmer is the sort who regularly likes to observe his patients in a casual party atmosphere to judge how their neuroses work in a social milieu. The parties are a weekly thing.

Real Willing finds this odd. He isn't keen on this sort of psychoanalytical approach, but to each his own. After all, Zimmer has a good reputation and non-Freudians are known to veer off in different directions. But still, there's something untoward about the whole night, especially when a short while later, two guests are murdered.

While at the party, the real Willing is spotted by one of the guests but she keeps quiet. Fake Willing is the guest of a blind woman, Katherine Saw, who happens also to be a patient or is at the party because her nephew brought her. I can't remember which. Anyway, turns out that the blind woman hired the man to impersonate Basil Willing because she fears someone is trying to kill her. 

Fake Willing turns out to be a private detective - not an especially big surprise there. Unfortunately, the man winds up dead that very night after leaving the party. His last words, a cryptic expression (aren't they always) which even when explained near the end, makes little sense.

Here's the thing about 'cryptic dying expressions' - why doesn't the victim EVER just shout out the name of his or her killer? That would make more sense then muttering some line of poetry or fanciful observation or worse - code words! - meant to confound whoever it is that must hunt down the killer. Stands to reason - right? Ah, but then where would we be?

And there is lots of poetry and quoting from obscure texts in this particular mystery. Kind of nonsensical in a way, because why would a psychiatrist know this much about poetry and English lit? Oh I know people got different educations way back then, but still it did make me roll my eyes a bit. It's not as if he were a professor or collector - but maybe he is and I missed the reference. Or maybe there's something in Willing's background that explains it - possibly in another book. And before you say: Michael Innes! Let me remind you that his detective, John Appleby, was a different kettle of fish, since he was obviously, a kind of prodigy AND his creator was a Scottish academic. Plus you do expect a brilliant English detective of the old school to spout literary quotes and whatnot - at least, I do.

Back to Basil Willing: Another death soon follows and it becomes obvious that there was something far more wrong at that strange psychiatric gathering than the bizarre atmosphere and Dr. Zimmer's strained bonhomie AND a man masquerading as a famous psychiatrist.

There are plenty of suspects amongst the party guests so as we follow Real Willing in his investigation there's no shortage of suspicious behavior and weirdness, including the likelihood of a possible mercy killing to add to the mix. Lots to consider even if none of the characters earn much of our sympathy.

The final denouement, as I mentioned, is of the kitchen sink variety and too weirdly absurd even for a genre that routinely deals with absurdities. I felt kind of cheated.

In truth, this is one of those books that insists you make your own judgement because the reviewer - yours truly - could be entirely wrong and then you'd be missing out on something good. In other words - judge for yourselves on this one. Don't know why I'm saying this except that I'm kind of persuaded that I might have overlooked something but somehow I don't care enough to do a re-reading.

Here is John's excellent review of ALIAS BASIL WILLING at Pretty Sinister Books, he goes into more detail than I do since he's the expert and I'm not.

And 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.