Scales of Justice (1955) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , , on August 13, 2022 by cshmurak

Continuing my journey through the works of Ngaio Marsh, I’ve just completed Scales of Justice (1955). On the back cover, there was a quote from the legendary Anthony Boucher (of Bouchercon fame) that read “Her best pure formal detective story.” Indeed, the detection by Marsh’s sleuth, Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, may be admirable, but I couldn’t connect in any signifciant way to any of the characters. (Maybe that’s the “pure formal” part?)

Usually, Marsh introduces the characters in her stories with charming, even funny, vignettes. (See for example, Death of a Peer, reviewed here.) A murder occurs, and only then does Alleyn make his appearance. In Scales of Justice, we are introduced to four families of “gentry” (as opposed to the “ordinary folk”) living in the town of Swevenings on the Chyne River. First and foremost, there are the Lacklanders (three generations: Lady Lacklander, her son George – whom she has to remind constantly not to be “an ass” –  and his son Dr. Mark Lacklander). Next there is the Cartarette family: Colonel Cartarette, Rose, his daughter from his first marriage, and his second wife Kitty. Octavius Danberry-Phinn, who lives alone with his many cats, and Commander Syce, retired from the Royal Navy and suffering from lumbago, whose main pasttime is archery, complete the picture. Mark Lacklander and Rose Cartarette are in love. Syce once killed (accidentally, he claims) one of Phinn’s cats with an arrow. And there is an intense rivalry over catching an enormous trout called “The Old ‘Un.”  The ‘scales’ in the title refer to the fish.

A murder occurs, and the body is found by Nurse Kettle, the “district nurse” who is administering care to both Lady Lacklander and Commander Syce.  (The role of district nurse seems to be a position unique to the UK, Australia and New Zealand.) Lady Lacklander insists that Alleyn, who is gentry himself, be the one who is called in to solve it. Alleyn and his sidekick Fox arrive on the scene on page 90, and fairly soon Alleyn seems to know who the murderer is.  He tells Fox several times that he knows, but he never shares any of his thoughts with the reader. The story continues for another hundred pages, and new facts emerge about these people who thought they knew all about each other. Eventually the murderer is revealed and it is no great surprise.

Readers who are unfamiliar with books from the 1940s and 1950s may find it jarring how often someone in the book ‘ejaculates’ – meaning ‘exclaims.’ 

I learned new things about fish scales from this book, but nothing else was very memorable.


Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) – Agatha Christie

Posted in Agatha Christie, Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Mysteries on August 8, 2022 by cshmurak

Agatha Christie, whose second husband was the British archeologist Max Mallowan, once said, “An archeologist is the best husband any woman can get. Just consider: The older she gets, the more he is interested in her.”

Christie met Mallowan in Iraq in 1928, and married him in 1930. She often accompanied him on his digs, helping with the photography at excavations in Iraq and Syria. After World War 2, she helped with his excavation of Assyrian ruins in Iraq. So when I was searching for a mystery to complete a library book series on archeologists as detectives, choosing this 1936 book by Christie seemed like a good idea.

But the archeology is barely there. This is really a “manor house” mystery moved to Iraq. Instead of a group of people in a stately home of England, there is a group of people living in a large house in the fictional town of Hassanieh, Iraq; there is even a drawing of the house included. All of the occupants of the house are engaged in the excavation of a nearby ruin, Tell Yarimjah, supervised by the Swedish-American, Dr. Eric Leidner. Some of them are new to Leidner’s team and some are longtime colleagues. But it is his wife, Louise Leidner, that is the focus of the mystery. She is in a terrible state, having been harassed by anonymous letters and strangers peeering in windows at her. Her husband hires Amy Leatheran, a nurse, to be a companion for Louise, and it is Amy who narrates most of the story.

When a murder occurs, Hercule Poirot is called into the case (he first appears on page 80). Poirot is conveniently near, having been involved in disentangling a “military scandal in Syria.” Nurse Leatheran becomes, for the duration of this book, a stand-in for Poirot’s usual narrator Captain Hastings. Predictably, there is a person who guesses the solution, but is too disturbed by her conclusion to tell anyone right away; I knew immediately that she would be murdered before she could reveal what she knew.

And of course, there is the usual scene in which Poirot assembles all the suspects and reviews the case, and then announces the ingenious solution to the mystery. However, as many have noted,  the novel is “marred by an ending which goes beyond the improbable to the inconceivable” (quote from Robert Barnard in his book about Christie, A Talent to Deceive,1980).

Though I was disappointed in the scarcity of archeological detail, I found this a very clever and engaging mystery – until that ending.




A Salute to Peter Lovesey

Posted in Contemporary Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Peter Lovesey on January 17, 2022 by cshmurak

I’ve mentioned before that I compose a “Top Ten” list of mysteries each year to post on Dorothy-L. When I look over the last twenty years of these lists, one name stands out: Peter Lovesey.  I read my first Lovesey book – The Last Detective – in 2003 and was hooked. (The book won the 1992 Anthony Award for Best Mystery, so I don’t know what took me so long to discover it.) It was his first mystery featuring detective Peter Diamond, and I soon caught up with that series. Since then I find myself looking forward to a new Lovesey/Diamond book each year.

Mr. Lovesey has been writing mysteries since 1970. His first mystery, Wobble to Death, was about a road race, the “wobble.” Fifty years later, his book The Finisher (2020) was also about a race, the Bath half-marathon – and it’s one of his best! Peter Diamond, at first Inspector and more recently Superintendant, in the Bath police department, is sometimes irascible, often witty, and occasionally impatient with “modern” police methods, especially those involving computers (though more recently he seems to have made his peace with those). But the reader grows to love him, just as his team of Bath homicide detectives eventually do. The plots are never repetitive, but always twisty and clever; the writing always first rate.  [I haven’t yet read the latest Diamond mystery, Diamond and the Eye (2021), but it’s there on my ToBeRead pile.]  It’s just about impossible to pick favorites, but I have to single out Bloodhounds (1996), which is both a locked room mystery and a parody of mystery book clubs, Diamond Dust (2002) for its daring twist, and Another One Goes Tonight (2016) for sheer fun.

So here’s my salute: Well done Mr. Lovesey!! Thanks for giving me years of happy reading. I’m hoping for many more.

And here are the books that have made my “Top Ten” of the last two decades (all are from the Peter Diamond series, except where noted):

The Last Detective (1991)

Diamond Solitaire (1992)

Bloodhounds (1996)

Upon a Dark Night (1998)

Diamond Dust (2002)

The House Sitter (2003)

The False Inspector Dew (1982) – a standalone, winner of the Gold Dagger

The Secret Hangman (2007)

Skeleton Hill (2009)

The Headhunters (2008) – a Hen Malin mystery

Stagestruck (2011)

The Tooth Tattoo, (2013)

The Stone Wife (2014)

Down Among the Dead Men (2015)

Another One Goes Tonight (2016)

Beau Death (2017)

Killing with Confetti (2019)

The Finisher (2020)

Singing in the Shrouds – Ngaio Marsh (1958)

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , , , on July 25, 2021 by cshmurak

Ngaio Marsh spent much of her life on ships, travelling from New Zealand to England and back, so she knew a lot about long sea voyages. (Maybe she’s even showing off a little in this book when she talks about things like the “forrard well-deck” and “hatch combing?”)

Ten years after Singing in the Shrouds was published, Marsh sent Roderick Alleyn’s artist wife, Troy, on a river cruise with a murderer aboard (see my review of Clutch of Constables). But in 1958, it was Alleyn himself who boarded the Cape Farewell for an ocean voyage to South Africa in search of a serial killer suspected to be onboard. The so-called “Flower Murderer” is a strangler of women who sings as he kills and then leaves flowers on the body.
   On the ship with Alleyn are four women: the elegant, flirtatious, but much admired Mrs. Dillington-Blick, the young and attractive Brigid Carmichael, heart-broken after recently being left at the altar; Miss Abbott, an unhappy spinster who is an expert on Gregorian chants; and the querulous Mrs. Cuddy, who is traveling with her husband, a draper. Which one is the likely victim?
   There are plenty of male suspects: a TV celebrity, a pedantic schoolmaster, an Anglo-Catholic priest, a young psychiatrist, an elderly philatelist, members of the crew, and the Captain himself. Alleyn is traveling incognito as Allan Broderick, and he writes home to Troy frequently, sharing his thoughts. He seems to have a most likely candidate for murderer right from the start,  but Marsh doesn’t reveal exactly who that is till the end.
   The solution is a bit too “pop psychology” for me, but the book as a whole is a smooth, entertaining read. Not one of Marsh’s very best, but a good classic mystery.

Martha Grimes: An Addendum

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Contemporary Mysteries, Martha Grimes, Mysteries on March 31, 2021 by cshmurak

Sad to say: The Old Success was a failure as far as I’m concerned.

After her previous book, The Knowledge (2018), made my Top Ten list for 2019, I was eager to read the next installment. (See my review of The Knowledge here.) But The Old Success (2019) was awful – I think she phoned it in.  Characters from books written 10-30 years ago were mentioned without explanation; other ongoing characters, like Vivian Rivington and Diane DeMornay, were brought in for no apparent reason except perhaps to give them a curtain call. And towards the end, a new character was introduced whose existence seemed unnecessary unless he is to reappear as an important character in a forthcoming book. The plot was ho-hum and the solution not very satisfying.

I became very frustrated by the references to earlier books, which I couldn’t quite place. (I’ve read all of her Richard Jury books.) Finally, I tried Googling one of the characters whom I thought I was supposed to recognize, and I found this: “Lady Eleanor Summerston, a character longtime Grimes readers will remember from 1987’s The Five Bells and Bladestone.” Really? Is it reasonable to assume that even faithful readers will remember a character from 32 years earlier in a series?!
Grimes was born in 1931. Perhaps at 90, her talents are waning? I hope not – I’d like to see Richard Jury and Melrose Plant go out in a blaze of glory, as Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe did in Midnight Fugue (2009).
(See my review of Midnight Fugue within this article.)

Parnell Hall: An Appreciation

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Mysteries on December 17, 2020 by cshmurak

Parnell Hall (1944 – 2020) died this past week, and I’m so saddened by this. Parnell was an old friend from DorothyL and from so many mystery conferences like Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. He was also an occasional penpal, sending me hilarious answers to my (I thought) innocent questions.

But most of all, he was a fine mystery writer. Because his books were so funny, some people overlooked how cleverly plotted they were. I’m referring here to his 20 Stanley Hastings books, all of which I’ve read, and the 6 Steve Winslow books (written under the pseudonym of J.P. Hailey), of which I’ve read a few. (They’re hard to find, but maybe it’s time I tracked a few more down.) I could never get into his “Puzzle Lady” books; though I love puzzles myself, I never felt that his heart was in these. Stanley Hastings, on the other hand, was Parnell’s alter ego.

As I look at the list of books that have made by Top Ten each year, I see Stanley’s adventures appearing numerous times: Client (1990), Shot (1991), Actor (1993), Suspense (1998), Cozy (2001), Hitman (2007).  I’ve used Shot, Actor and Suspense with various book groups as well, and Stanley soon became a beloved character for many.  Since Parnell started his career as an actor, the books based on that experience (Movie and Actor) were particularly resonant. Some of his later books were meta-mysteries, in which he examined various genres of crime fiction like suspense novels, so-called “cozies”, and caper novels. In Suspense, for example, he dealt with the proposition that a good suspense novel could not be written in the first person. (And guess what? It could.)

In his last days, Parnell posted on Facebook from his hospital bed, asking his many Facebook friends tp buy his latest (and only standalone) mystery, Chasing Jack. I did. But I think it will be a while before I can bring myself to read it, knowing that it’s his last.

Meanwhile here’s a wonderful video of Parnell Hall at his best, singing of the plight of many a mystery author.

Links to books mentioned in this post:

Detective (1987) if you want to begin at the beginning (nominated for an Edgar and a Shamus award)

Client (1990)

Shot (1991)

Actor (1993)

Movie (1995)

Suspense (1998)

Cozy (2001)

Hitman (2007)

Chasing Jack (2020)

When in Rome (1970) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , , on September 26, 2020 by cshmurak

Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) began writing Golden Age mysteries in 1934 and continued writing them right up to her death. Some of the later ones are excellent (see my reviews of Clutch of Constables and Light Thickens) and some are disappointing (Photo Finish). I think this one belongs in the latter category.

In this book, Superintendent Roderick Alleyn is – no surprise here – in Rome. He’s on the case of some international drug dealers and, in that role, he has been given an introduction to Valdarno, the Questore of Rome. Alleyn joins a tour group of visitors from England and the Netherlands, which is led by one Sebastian Miller, a man of dubious reputation, and features guest lectures by the famous author, Barnaby Grant. On the first day of the tour, during a visit to the Basilica of San Tommaso in Pallaria, Miller disappears. Is he dead? Has he run off? [There is a  real San Tomasso in Parione located near the Piazza Navone, as the one in the book is, but actually Marsh has based her description of the basilica on the real Church of San Clemente al Laterano, a structure built of three levels: an 11th C basilica on top of a 4th C basilica on top of an underground 2nd C temple to the Etruscan god Mithras.]

Clearly Marsh had visited Rome, (she thanks the New Zealand Ambasssador to Rome and his wife, and their staff for their help), and was very impressed with the basilica; I’m sure it is amazing. But the book lingered there for much too long to keep my interest, even with Sebastian Miller going missing. The characters themselves were not very appealing: the writer Barnaby Grant and the young woman, Sophy Jason, who works for his publisher and is clearly destined to be a love interest, are the nicest of the group. The Baron and Baroness Van der Veghel, a Dutch couple who reside in Geneva, are sweet and a bit silly, and unfortunately say things like “my darlink.” And we are reminded too often that they resemble the Etruscan statues in the underground chambers. Major Sweet is a grumpy British stereotype, and Kenneth Dorne a dissolute drug addict. The cruelest descriptions are reserved for Dorne’s elderly aunt, Lady Braceley, who still fancies herself attractive to men: “More than the precariously maintained mask or the flabby underarm or the traitorous neck. It’s the legs…But the face was not too good either. Even if one discounted the ruches under the eyes and the eyes themselves, there was still that dreadfully slack mouth.” I noted in my review of Overture to Death that Marsh in her mid-40s was very harsh in her treatment of middle-aged spinsters; here she is at age 75 treating old women just as cruelly. The spinsters were sexually repressed and ‘holier-than-thou’; the elderly Lady Bracely is the opposite: “She has experienced everything, except poverty.”

Giving credit where it’s due, I have to say that Marsh did a fine job with the plot twist near the end and Alleyn’s final disposal of the case. And I liked Alleyn’s summation: “What was the position of a British investigator in Rome when a British subject of criminal propensities had almost certainly been murdered, possibly by another Briton, not impossibly by a Dutchman, not quite inconceivably by an Italian, on a property administered by an Irish order of Dominican monks?”

BarbaraNeely: A Tribute

Posted in History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , on August 4, 2020 by cshmurak

BarbaraNeely (her legal name had no spaces) died in March, 2020. She had recently (December 2019) been named a “Grandmaster” by the Mystery Writers of America, an honor usually given to those who have written a long list of mystery novels, going back over many years. But Neely had written only four – all about Blanche White, a domestic worker. And yet that was enough for the Washington Post to refer to her as “a genre unto herself.”

Her Grandmaster award came with this tribute: “Neely is a groundbreaking author, and MWA is delighted to recognize her work, in which she tackles tough social issues with an unflinching eye and a wry sense of humor.” (Read more from MWA here.) Among the social issues that Neely dealt with were racism, classism (especially among the Black community), standards of female beauty, and violence against women. Yet she seldom seemed preachy.

Instead, her main character, Blanche White (the name being doubly ironic), speaks with strong, edgy wit as she tells her stories. Readers first met Blanche in the 1992 book, Blanche on the Lam, as she was forced to leave her hometown in North Carolina to avoid being jailed for writing bad checks. Hired by a wealthy family to work in their summer home, Blanche soon becomes embroiled in a murder case and almost immediately is deemed the prime suspect by local police. Using the invisibility of her position and the old girl network of domestic workers, Blanche soon solves the mystery.

In subsequent books, Blanche has moved to Massachusetts with her dead sister’s two children, Malik and Taifa, and works in the homes of wealthy Bostoners. In Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994), Neely examines class issues in the African-American community as Blanche vacations at Amber Cove, an exclusive Black resort in Maine. A suicide, a possible murder (or was it an accident?), and a budding romance occupy Blanche’s time and thoughts. Blanche Cleans Up (1998) finds her back in Boston, working in the home of a prominent Massachusetts politician, when family secrets and a subsequent murder threaten to upset the family’s future. The final book, Blanche Passes Go (2000), brings Blanche back home to North Carolina to confront the man who raped her eight years earlier.

Recurring characters include Blanche’s family (Malik and Taifa, Mama, Cousin Charlotte) and her best friend Ardell, often “appearing” only in phone conversations but serving the dual purpose of being a sounding board for Blanche and a source of humor. There are also several men who provide romance for the definitely interested Blanche.

BarbaraNeely had the pleasure of seeing her books translated into many languages, most recently into Czech by a university class in Prague. (Here is a rare video of her, in Prague.)

Blanche White is a most appealing feminist detective wih a strong narrative voice. Thank you, BarbaraNeely, for bringing her to life. 



The Real Cool Killers (1958) – Chester Himes

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on January 16, 2020 by cshmurak

Chester Himes was an angry man – and his mysteries are full of rage. Expelled from Ohio State University as a sophomore in 1928 for a fraternity prank that ended in a bar brawl, and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor (of which he served seven years) for armed robbery, Himes began to write short stories based on his prison experiences. The stories were published in African-American newspapers and in Esquire magazine, where they were signed with his name and prison ID number. In the 1940s, Himes moved to Los Angeles to find work in wartime industry, and found the racism and hypocrisy of Los Angeles worse than the “Jim Crow” South.  He left the United States in the mid-1950s to join other African-American expatriates living in Paris. It was here that a French publisher offered him a large advance to write a crime novel set in Harlem; within three weeks Himes produced For Love of Imabelle (later known as A Rage in Harlem), which was a great success and won the Grand Prix Policier, France’s major award for crime fiction. His two Harlem police detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, became the heroes (anti-heroes?) of a series of nine novels. The Real Cool Killers was the third in that series, and the easiest to obtain for my mystery group, as it was included in an anthology, American Noir of the 1950s (1997).

The Real Cool Killers is a whodunnit. A white man named Ulysses Galen is shot outside a bar in Harlem, and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed must find the murderer. But nothing is simple, no one knows who did it, and very few people care about the truth. Certainly not the police commissioner, who just wants to keep Harlem safe for the white people who visit there for entertainment and/or the exploitation of black women. In Himes’s Harlem, the police are as brutal as the criminals – and that’s just fine with the commissioner, as long as they keep things under control. Six people die in this short novel, some killed by the police, and in most cases, no one pays for their crimes. Yet there is a certain justice to the ending that’s satisfying. It’s easy to see the influence of Himes on later black detectives like Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins.

There’s an ironic tone to much of the writing, and some of the scenes are truly comic. (In two of the films made from Himes’s books, Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Come Back Charleston Blue (1972), Grave Digger was played by comedic actor Godfrey Cambridge with great effectiveness.) The action is fast-paced, and at only 150 pages in length, this is a quick read that manages to leave a lasting impression. Himes said of this series: “The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real. I just wanted to take it away from the white man, if only in my books.”  Though he had originally written them just for the money, Himes came to see his detective novels as a way to explore and express the black experience in America. This book certainly does that.


The Knowledge (2018) – Martha Grimes

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Martha Grimes, Mysteries with tags , , , on January 5, 2020 by cshmurak

I’ve been reading Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury books since the 1980s. I remember, early on, loving her precocious child characters, like ten-year-old Lady Jessica of Help the Poor Struggler (1985). Since I started keeping “Top Ten” lists in 1999 in order to post them on the DorothyL mystery e-list, Grimes’s books have appeared several times: The Blue Last (2001), Winds of Change (2004), The Black Cat (2010). I’m fairly certain that The Knowledge (2018) will make my Top Ten for the coming year. So it was with great surprise that I found, upon looking up her books on the Stop You’re Killing Me website , that only one of her books, The Anodyne Necklace (1983) has ever won a major mystery award; in this case, the Nero Award. (Not even a finalist for the Agatha?! !) Yet, she has been named a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America. So occasionally it happens that an author is recognized for a body of work, rather than for a single title, as was true also for Ralph McInerny and his Father Dowling mysteries.

All of the titles in Grimes’s Richard Jury series are taken from the names of British pubs. “The Knowledge” is a London pub, known only to the legendary cabbies who have memorized every street and landmark in the city of London; not on any map, it is the favorite hangout of that elite group of drivers. Not even Detective Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard can find it, nor can he persuade any cabbie to take him there.

When cab driver Robbie Parsons becomes involved in the murder of a young couple outside the famous casino known as the Artemis Club, he and his fellow cabbies help track the murderer to Waterloo Station and Heathrow Airport. From there, the killer is trailed – all the way to Kenya! – by a ten year old girl, Patty Haigh, member of a group of crime-solving street urchins, and another of Grimes’s delightful too-wise-for-her-years characters.  And speaking of characters, the longtime reader of the Jury books will not be disappointed: both Melrose Plant of Ardry’s End and Marshall Trueblood, antiques dealer and denizen of the Jack and Hammer pub, play major roles in the solution of the mystery, with brief appearances by Vivian Rivington and Diane Demorney. Melrose develops a quirky relationship with Patty Haigh, and even gets to be a hero in her eyes.

The Knowledge is an intriguing mystery with some nice red herrings, and a surprising, intricate solution. The central premise, of a pub that only cabbies can find, is great fun. I thought there was a bit too much time spent in Kenya, however, and I found myself looking forward to the chapters set in Scotland Yard. But that’s not surprising: for me, Richard Jury is always the heart of Grimes’s stories.