The Patient in Room 18 (1929) by Mignon G. Eberhart

This is my first read by Eberhart, who like Rinehart (the topic of yesterday’s post) was well-known for her suspense writing skills and female characters who face jeopardy on a semi-regular basis. Again also like Rinehart in today’s read, we have a nurse who is narrator and amateur sleuth – though I think in the case of Nurse Sarah Keate it is more fair to say she is an information gatherer for Detective O’Leary, who unveils the final solution.

The mystery centres on room 18, at St Ann’s hospital, where over the course of around a week 3 people die in there. However the story begins with a very awkward dinner party, which Keate and fellow nurse, Maida Day are invited to, hosted by Corole, the cousin of Doctor Letheney. Other medical associates are also present, as well as Jim Gainsay, who is an old friend of Letheney’s passing through town. Oppressive weather and romantic tension all add to the uneasiness of the evening. However it is when Keate and Maida go on their night shift that things begin to go awry as in quick succession Keate experiences an array of odd events, (including objects flying pass her and being knocked down by a prowler), culminating in the failure of the electric lights due to the erupting storm. And in to darkness Keate finds that that patient in room 18 has died and not by natural causes… The radium being used in their treatment (all $65,000 worth) has been removed from them. The theft of the radium seems to be the motive for killing and suspicion soon rests on the dinner party guests who all discussed this patient’s treatment hours before. It also doesn’t look very good that Doctor Letheney has disappeared, until of course a grim discovery is made in the locker of room 18… From here on in there is a whole host of suspicious circumstances and unnerving events which would discompose even the calmest of people. What is even more worrying for Keate is the increasing amount of suspicious evidence surrounding her friend Day, who is acting incriminatingly to say the least.

Overall Thoughts

This is definitely a complex case, with clues leading in multiple directions at once, though the romance element does allow some eliminations. Whilst the reader is able to see most of the clues available to O’Leary I think some are unfairly withheld and the solution would have been easier to solve if we were able to read more of O’Leary’s deductions on the evidence he and Keate find. Keate is good at uncovering information but she doesn’t seem to be able to do much with it. Equally in some respects she is a good narrator to follow, but on the other hand she is also a bit of an odd one. She is at the centre of events and knows all the relevant suspects, yet she also seems to lack an in depth understanding of their personalities and characters. We don’t get up close with any of them, not even Day, who she is supposed to be close to, but doesn’t hugely challenge about the number of lies she is telling. I do wonder whether the closeness is more presumed on Keate’s part than Day’s, as Keate does seem to over praise Day’s looks in a crush-like way.

However the hospital setting works really well and the impact of each unnerving event on the community as a whole is effectively revealed. You can definitely class this as a suspense mystery novel, with Eberhart cleverly playing on unknown terrors being far more frightening and stressful than known ones. Personally I think the story could have been shortened a little in terms of the investigation and the final revelation scene, but the complexity of the case itself meant Eberhart just about gets away with the overall length of the novel.

I’m not sure this novel has got me rushing out for works by Eberhart, but I don’t think I would write her off completely. Any suggestions for what her best novels are?

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Nurse

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The Buckled Bag (1914) by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Just a short read for today’s review, which is also a return to Rinehart’s nursing sleuth, Hilda Adams, who I first encountered last year when reading Miss Pinkterton (1941). ‘The Buckled Bag’ is Adams’ first case and it opens with how a chance encounter with a patient, who was a police detective, led to her taking up sleuthing. In particular the opening emphasises how well positioned Nurses are for picking up information from within the family; which is both a blessing and a curse. Harking back to earlier crime fiction in the 19th century, such as several of the Holmes stories, the mystery in this tale does not involve a proper crime as such. It centres on the disappearance of a girl named Clare March, who has been missing for 5 weeks and it is this disappearance which has caused her mother to fall ill. It is through the mother that Adams can infiltrate the household. Through Adams we get a much more troubling picture of Clare, who seems to have had something on her mind over the summer. Her final traced movements are also perplexing. Adams experiences plenty of curious night time encounters including a mysterious woman in black with a buckled bag. This being Rinehart, famous for her HIBK style, we also have Adams taking on dangerous missions such as exploring creepy empty houses on her own.

Apologies for the lack of a proper cover…

Whilst Rinehart can tell a story well I think the brevity of this particular one, limited the mystery in some respects. This tale may shine a light on the darker side of the well to do life, but its’ illuminations do not shine very far and in some ways I think the reader is left with a number of unanswered questions at the end of the story. The solution is also somewhat rushed and I don’t think it is one which the reader can guess at very easily due to limited number of clues available which the reader can suitably deduce from. However, Adams is a very engaging and likeable sleuth and I think her detection role works much better in a longer story format.

Rating: 3/5

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Jumping Jenny (1933) by Anthony Berkeley

Regular readers of this blog and of my more recent Berkeley reviews will know that I’m far from being the world’s biggest fan of Roger Sheringham. His irritating personality and attitudes are deliberate but that doesn’t make them anymore tolerable. However I decided to give him another go. Berkeley’s humour is apparent even from the contents page, listing his quite (albeit darkly) humorous, chapter titles, such as ‘Someone ought to be murdered,’ which is fittingly followed by ‘Someone is murdered’. There are also chapters entitled ‘Odour of rat’ and ‘The Case against Roger Sheringham.’

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The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017) by Martin Edwards

Source: Review Copy (British Library)
I have been eager to read this book since it was first announced at the 2nd Bodies from the Library conference. The purpose of this book is not to give a list of personal favourites or 100 best, but to look at 100 books which have something to say about the journey crime fiction took in the first half of the 20th century, (though technically another 600 books are also mentioned). The book endeavours to explore how the genre developed over the time period and the contexts which influenced those changes. A quick scan of the titles mentioned in the contents page and it seems I have read less than 50 of them, (though in some cases I have read others works by the author mentioned). However, this was not necessarily a bad thing as I think this book has much to offer the seasoned, as well as the novice classic crime reader, with there being a good balance of well-known and obscure crime titles and authors. My to-be-bought list has certainly swelled as a consequence. Initially the book takes a more chronological approach, which is then followed by a more thematic one, as indicated in the chapter titles. The book predominantly looks at British writers, given the space restrictions, but there are a couple of chapters looking further afield, including America, Argentina and France.

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Herring in the Smoke (2017) by L. C. Tyler

Source: Review Copy (Allison and Busby)

This is book 7 in the Elsie Thirkettle and Ethelred Tressider series and it certainly opens with a competition winning opening line: ‘It was at his own memorial service that I first spoke to Roger Norton Vane.’ Ethelred has recently been commissioned to write a biography for the crime writer Roger Vane, who mysteriously disappeared in a Thai jungle twenty years ago, after a tiff with his then partner, Tim Macdonald. This memorial service was intended to be a celebration of his life, followed by his niece Cynthia intending to get him declared dead, with the view to inheriting his quite sizeable fortune. Therefore Vane turning up at his own memorial puts a rather large spoke in the wheel and not just for Cynthia, as his return causes difficulties for his ex-partner and a whole rake of old school friends and other acquaintances who fear his malevolent streak. But is he really who he says he is? The first half of the novel concerns itself with this very question, as the evidence at times is inconclusive, neither pointing definitively one way or another and of course just as Ethelred and Elsie think they have solved matters, a corpse enters the equation.

N. B. Oh before you mention DNA testing, which would fairly quickly prove Vane’s identity, Cynthia is not a blood relative, (having been adopted) and there is no one else to do such a test with. Just thought I’d mention it as this aspect did bug me for a while, as the fact of adoption is withheld from the reader bit longer than seems appropriate.

Overall Thoughts

Many strengths of the previous novels are still there to be found in this latest story, with the narrative switching entertainingly between Elsie and Ethelred. There is an amusing running joke in the book as well, involving a number of the opening lines of the chapters. Ethelred is as endearing as ever, being taken down the garden path by most of the characters, as well as being put upon by pretty much everyone except a Sergeant Beef type policeman named Joe. In a way this is a story of interviews, as Ethelred goes from character to character trying to piece together who Vane was, which is no easy task given how many half-truths and lies he receives, though they do give the reader different portraits of Vane’s personality. Metafiction also makes a delightful appearance in the story, though perhaps less present than is usual in the series. For instance Vane’s disappearance is contrasted with Christie’s own, making the former look more extreme in comparison, even faintly ridiculous. There is also a moment where Ethelred questions the short time frame he has for writing the biography, being concerned about the quality of what he is writing. Elsie true to character, responds by saying that the commissioning editor is ‘not so worried about that […] She’d have got Barry Forshaw or Martin Edwards or somebody to do it if she’d wanted it well written.’

However despite these positives, I don’t think this story was as strong as the previous one in the series, Cat Among the Herrings (2016). The main reason for this I think is due to the narrowness of the plot type, which I don’t think justified the page count. Consequently the pace felt slower and I think the first half of the story could have been shortened a bit. Equally I think some readers will find the ending a bit unsatisfying due to the gimmick deployed.

So whilst this is not the best Elsie and Ethelred in the series, it’s hard to not smile at the antics of these keen though antithetic sleuths, whose unique quirks and differing perspectives on the world shine through in the prose.

Rating: 4/5

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Letters to Sherlock Holmes (1985) ed. Richard Lancelyn Green

This book is one I have had lying around for a while so a train journey to London gave me the motivation to finally give it a read. Its premise is a rather simple but intriguing one. from very early on readers of the Holmes’ stories have written letters to this sleuth and in the 1950s when the Abbey National Building Society began to run their business from 221B Baker Street, they decided to set up a secretary for Holmes to answer all the mail. At the time of publication they were receiving 700 letters a year. This book contains an impressive catalogue of some of these letters. By and large they are ones which came to the building society but they’ve also included some earlier epistles. Whilst on the whole the letters are rather hilarious in their random bizarreness, it was also touching to read some letters from writers who were going through some hard times and felt Holmes was their only source of help.

Initially the letters don’t seem too odd. For instance in 1904 someone wrote to offer to show Holmes the ropes in beekeeping, whilst another offered him housekeeping services. There is also the first signs of the demanding letter writer, as one girl wanted Holmes to send her his stories, as they were too expensive to buy in her home country, Russia. Requests for help come quick on the heels of these letters with someone asking for his help in uncovering some lost Indian jewels in Africa in 1950, whilst another requested his assistance in a murder trial in Warsaw.

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The Bodies from the Library Conference: 2017

Yesterday I went to the third Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library and it was another great day full of interesting talks and even a Poirot lookalike. It was also great meeting up with a number of my blogging friends. One such friend, the Puzzle Doctor, being much more of a morning person than I am, has already shared his thoughts on the day – so I shall try my best to not parrot him too much.

The first panel of the day, comprising of Martin Edwards, L. C. Tyler, Seona Ford and Jake Kerridge, was on the continuing popularity of the Golden Age and in many ways it was a panel which raised more questions than answers: Why did Christie and Sayers do so well? Why was there a loss of popularity in golden age detective fiction after WW2? Can we read such novels as historical mysteries, telling us something of the times they were written in? Why did female writers from the period survive better? Whilst I didn’t always agree with the answers given to these fairly weighty questions, they all definitely gave food for thought.

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No Mourning for the Matador (1953) by Delano Ames

Today’s review is another return to the work of Delano Ames, this time from his Jane and Dagobert Brown series, which I love. Given the title there are no prizes for guessing where the Browns are next. Ames gets straight to the point in his opening chapter, which is set at a bullfight in Barcelona, where Jane witnesses the death of the matador, Denis St. John. It is presumed to be an unfortunate but not unanticipated accident, as St John had been acting jittery all afternoon and was not up to his usual bull fighting standard. But Dagobert of course thinks otherwise, especially when he hears that St John’s final word was madrecita (darling mother in Spanish). A car problem leaves the Browns in Barcelona, giving Dagobert all the excuse he needs to dig into St John’s death further. The next two days are action packed for the Browns, who certainly know how to fill their time in. The case which unfolds is quite complex, not in the how, which is dealt with rather swiftly, but in the who and why. Suspects abound unsurprisingly, including St John’s money focused fiancée and soon to be father in law; St John’s own relations, who have no qualms about stealing from each other and even the Browns own friends have suspicious connections to the deceased. After a very exhausting two days, where it seems more than one person is trying to prevent the Browns from investigating, events come to a head in a bar fight, which finally resolves the remaining aspects of the case.

As one reviewer put it: ‘I am very attached to Dagobert and Jane Brown.’ You can always rely on Dagobert for some bizarre and zany logic, which nevertheless always seems to work out and I think part of me does want to go on holiday with these two, just the once. After all I feel like once would be enough, given the antics those two get up to. Ames’ time in Spain definitely comes through in his descriptions of Barcelona, especially the Ramblas, where he recreates an intensity of the senses: sights, sounds, noises and smells. No wonder it seems almost too much for Jane. You also feel like you going beyond the tourist point of view of Spain. The characterisation as always is memorable and it was particularly interesting to see how Ames depicts the ambiguous and complex attitude of the spectators at the bullfight. The choice of culprit definitely took me by surprise and I am not sure how easy it is to identify them. However, in one particular aspect of the solution there is a very glaringly obvious but also very sneaky clue, which being me I completely missed. Whilst there was much less metafictional humour in this tale, (whilst earlier works have more of this), it was still a story which brought a smile to my face and I enjoyed how Ames made you feel like you were there amongst it all. So all in all this is another entertaining read by Ames. I don’t think he has really managed to disappoint me yet.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Performer

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The Man with Three Chins (1965) by Delano Ames

This is the third novel from Ames’ Juan Llorca series, set in Spain, though it is my second read, having already read The Man with the Three Jaguars (1961). As to why every title in this small series has the word three in it, I’m not sure, but Ames does like his amusing titles.

The story begins with Llorca a sergeant in the Guardia Civil, having a very odd experience when he goes exploring Benijacar. He has been recently posted there to provide reinforcements for the impending festival. Unintentionally Llorca trespasses onto Don Beltran’s estate through an open gate and by moonlight he hears beautiful singing and also comes across a woman in distress. Whilst fending off her attentions, Llorca gets knocked out from behind and wakes to find an English doctor, Jessica Fitzpatrick, near at hand – though conversation is at a minimum when it appears the dogs have been let loose on the estate. Looking back on the incident Llorca feels something is up; in particular he wonders why he only heard the town’s clock strike 6 times when he heard the singing when it was in fact 10 o clock.

Further mysteries are just around the corner, as when Llorca goes to tell Beltran about his open gate the following day, not only does he receive a shock as to who the woman he saw was, but he also comes across a murder and the victim is unexpectedly Dr Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick definitely comes under the heading of an unusual victim, given the lack of motive. Though of course the reader therefore knows that the motive will be key to identifying the killer. However to begin with though the officials decide it is an accidental death and what an accidental death it is! I won’t reveal the method of murder but it is the first time I have ever come across it. As with The Man with Three Jaguars there is a key suspect, who is also very powerful and rich, making them difficult to handle given that the senior officials do not want such an important person being bothered. Another thread to muddy the investigative waters is Jorge El Pajaro, the lead singer of the festival and secret lover of Beltran’s daughter; a situation which causes his grandmother to worry for his safety. Whilst this story does not have the laugh out loud comedy of Ames’ Jane and Dagobert Brown series, there are still lots of colourful and bizarre characters, including a rock fanatic named Primrose Greenbaum. Llorca is going to go through quite a number of head thumping experiences before he finally unravels the truth.

This read was definitely a tonic after my last two not so good reads and was wonderfully entertaining. Ames has a real skill when it comes to developing an engaging first person narrator and it impressed me how different he makes Llorca’s narrative voice from Jane’s. There is still humour, but Llorca’s humour is much more self-deprecating and full of understatement. The reader is in for quite a number of surprises at the end of the story. Clues are left for the reader earlier on, but I do think they perhaps need specialist knowledge of sorts. Ames’ elegant and smooth writing style in a way makes you less on guard when it comes to spotting clues, as it moves you along so well that you can forget to pause and think. I think though a few more clues might be have been good just to make the case less reliant on one particular type of clue. Nevertheless still a very enjoyable read.

Rating: 4/5

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The Willow Pattern (1965) by Robert Van Gulik

It has been a while since I have read something from Gulik’s Judge Dee series. My reluctance to return to him sooner is partly because having read his earlier work I am now faced with his later poorer efforts. However, the blurb for this story, (another charity shop find), intrigued me due to Judge Dee being required to go back to the Imperial capital, which is suffering from the plague.

The story begins well, deviating from Gulik’s usual style, as the opening of the book has a woman and a helper move a dead body, positioning it so it looks like they have died from an accidental death. The initial setting is also strong with a city silently despairing of the ever increasing death count. Various procedures are put into place to deal with these deaths, including enrolling men into scavenging for dead bodies and taking them away to be burnt. This decision though does have a few flaws, given that the men are drawn from the criminal classes and therefore are keen to exploit this opportunity for their own ends.

The body which is moved at the start of the novel is also soon identified, as the Merchant Mei, whose death has now meant the end of his family line. His family was one of the three old distinguished aristocratic families who used to rule the area before the emperor was established. Yet a second death is quick on the heels of the first; this time the head of the Yee family, one of the other old families. Although it is a clear case of murder, Judge Dee is still suspicious of the first one and is wondering whether they are part of a wider scheme. A slippery and ambiguous clue through the story is the willow pattern and readers will be impressed with how Dee unravels it – mainly because his final solutions for all the cases, although credible, do leave the reader wondering how Dee arrived at them so deftly. Whilst there are plenty of clues, of sorts, especially at the beginning of the story, I don’t think they are dealt with in a way that the reader can use them to identify the truth, as there is little discussion of them until the end.

On balance this read has confirmed my suspicion that the later Dee novels are not up to the standard of the earlier ones. Not entirely sure why these later efforts lack the charm of the earlier ones, though I wonder whether the choice of cases or mode of investigation might be part of it. Or perhaps my reading tastes have changed or novelty of reading mysteries in early China has worn off? Either way I don’t think I will be trying any new Gulik reads any time soon. Though to end on a more positive note I did find it quite cool that one of the female characters had very deadly sleeves, loaded with iron balls, to inflict on attackers. I feel like carrying an iron ball in each sleeve, would definitely be a new way to get toned arms!

So after two less than brilliant reads I am quite relieved that my next one is from one of my favourite mystery writers’ Delano Ames.

Rating: 3.5/5

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