Archive for the Classic Mystery Reviews Category

Photo Finish (1980) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , on February 26, 2018 by cshmurak

I’m still making my way through unread books of Ngaio Marsh; Photo Finish, a book late in the Roderick Alleyn series, is not one of her best, I’m sad to say. As in many of her books, there is a theatrical background, though this time it’s a performance of a new opera that is the centerpiece of the plot. There is also a New Zealand setting, but aside from one Maori character, the book could have just as well been set in any country. Essentially, it’s a manor house mystery, with a group of people isolated in a large mansion on an island in the middle of a storm-racked lake. Of course, a murder occurs.

Superintendent Roderick Alleyn just happens to be there because his wife Troy has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the internationally celebrated opera star known as “La Sommita.” Loosely based on Maria Callas, Isabella Sommita is the mistress of millionaire Montague Reece, who has built the mansion for her. The diva has been stalked for years by a photographer known as “Strix,” and he may be on the island too. The debut of a new opera, written expressly for Sommita by an infatuated young musician, is the occasion for the gathering at the mansion.

Alleyn, of course, does what he can when the murder occurs, though he has no official standing as a police officer. Troy doesn’t do anything much except make a few sketches, and later, inexplicably, make a few beds. None of the other characters really comes to life in this book. Additionally, the fact that Mr. Reece’s male secretary is gay is constantly alluded to in the most unpleasant way.

Still, the story carries the reader along to its logical conclusion, and Marsh is scrupulously fair in providing clues. Photo Finish was a nice diversion while I was travelling, but it’s not a book that I’d recommend to someone who’s never read Marsh’s mysteries.


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

Posted in 19th Century Mysteries, Agatha Christie, Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Margery Allingham on January 10, 2018 by cshmurak


I received this book as a Christmas gift and I’ve been having a wonderful time with it!

My first instinct — and this may be yours as well, since you are a reader of this blog — was to go through the Table of Contents, pencil in hand, and check off all the books I’d already read. Results: 30 out of 100.  Hmmm, not too bad, but so many more books to enjoy.  Next I turned to the chapter on Trent’s Last Case, my personal favorite of the early classics (see my review here). Good summary and analysis, no spoilers, and a brief bio of E.C. Bentley. Nice.

Then I began to read the book cover-to-cover. For each mystery, Edwards gave just enough detail for me to decide whether this was a mystery that I simply had to read, or whether it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I ended up with a long list of books, some of which I’ve been able to download at no cost from The Gutenberg Project or purchase very cheaply from iBooks.

The organization of the book must have been quite a challenge, but I like what Martin Edwards has done here. It starts off (mostly) chronologically with a section on “A New Era Dawns,” then “The Birth of the Golden Age.” Once Edwards arrives at the Golden Age, there are so many books to discuss that he groups them by theme: “The Great Detectives,” manor house mysteries, academic mysteries, ‘impossible’ crimes, inverted mysteries, humorous mysteries etc. American mysteries get their own chapter.

Have I finished this book? No, not yet. There’s too much to savor here. But I know I will, and I’m grateful to Mr. Edwards for his monumental work and all the fascinating books that I’m going to read because of his book.

[You can buy The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books here.]

Night at the Vulcan (1951) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh on August 27, 2017 by cshmurak

Back to the Golden Age with Ngaio Marsh! This is another of her mysteries with a theatrical background, (see my review of Light Thickens), and her long experience as a producer/director is evident here. For example:

“There is nothing that gives one so strong a sense of theatre from the inside as the sound of invisible players in action. The disembodied and remote voices, projected at an unseen mark, the uncanny quiet offstage, the smells and the feeling that the walls and the dust listen, the sense of a simmering expectancy; all these together make a corporate life so that the theatre itself seems to breathe and pulse and give out a warmth.” [I wondered if it should be ‘corporal’ rather than ‘corporate’. A typo?]

In this book, the theatre is the Vulcan, recently renamed and reopened because a murder took place there years earlier. [This may have been in an earlier book in the series that  I haven’t read or have forgotten.] We follow a cast of players through two dress rehearsals and into opening night, and it’s not entirely clear which of the company will be the victim. But finally one of them doesn’t make it to the final curtain, and the police are called in to determine whether the death was a suicide or a murder. As with many Golden Age mysteries, there are a limited number of suspects; as with many of Marsh’s books, the death occurs quite late in the book (page 140 in my edition) and Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard doesn’t appear till several pages after that (page 147).

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Martyn Tarne, a young actress.  Martyn is similar to Roberta Grey in Death of a Peer in that she has just arrived from New Zealand and sees London from that perspective, as Marsh herself must once have done. Indeed, one of the young Lampreys from Death of a Peer is actually a character in this book.

In good Golden Age form, Alleyn gets to assemble all the suspects and explain the case to them. I had narrowed down the suspects to two likely characters, one of whom I really didn’t want to be guilty, and was still surprised by the final answer. This was a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying mystery.



Peter Dickinson – A Tribute

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries on June 13, 2017 by cshmurak

I recently reread Peter Dickinson’s Some Deaths Before Dying (1999) – it may have been the fourth time I’ve read it – and was deeply impressed still again by the magnificent story-telling. Sure, there have been other books in which the detective is bedridden and must rely on the footwork and interview skills of others: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter come immediately to mind. But those two books center on police detectives who are professionally trained and experienced at solving mysteries. Dickinson’s protagonist is a 90 year old woman with ALS, paralyzed from the neck down and barely able to speak. Her determination to understand the events leading up to her husband’s death draws in two other women who are willing to help her in her quest. It’s an amazing book.

When I first retired from 40 years of teaching, I decided to start a mystery readers group at my local library, and fortunately my efforts were welcomed by the library. For our first meeting, I wanted to choose a book that would attract people who were already mystery lovers and perhaps some other readers who were not familiar with classic mysteries. I chose Dickinson’s The Yellow Room Conspiracy (1994). The title harks back to two classics: The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) by Gaston Leroux and The Yellow Room (1945) by Mary Roberts Rinehart. The story itself is set in England in the period between world wars and thus reflects the time of The Golden Age mysteries. And it’s a compelling story of love and loss. We had a stimulating discussion, and the mystery group continues to this day.

Peter Dickinson (1927-2015) died not long ago on his 88th birthday. Unfortunately Some Deaths Before Dying was his last mystery (though he continued writing prize-winning children’s books for many years afterwards). He simply could not write mysteries fast enough to meet his publisher’s demands and so he gave up on them. But what a legacy he has left behind! His very first mystery, The Glass-Sided Ant’s Nest (1968)also published as Skin Deep –   won the Golden Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association and was a finalist for the Edgar Award in the United States. His second book, The Old English Peep Show (1969) did the same; Dickinson was the first author to win two Gold Daggers in a row.

His books are never formulaic, even those in his Jimmy Pibble series. The Glass-Sided Ant’s Nest is about murder among a New Guinea tribe that is housed in London; The Old English Peep Show is a country manor mystery, but the killers appear to be a pride of lions. Two of his mysteries create an alternate history of the British royal family: King and Joker (1976) and Skeleton-in-Waiting (1989). In these books, the eldest son of King Edward VII did not die in 1892 but instead went on to rule as King Victor II, and Buckingham palace is the scene of the crimes. Among my other favorites of Dickinson’s books are The Last House Party (1982), again set in the period between wars, and Hindsight (1983) with its World War II backstory of the relocation of London’s children to the countryside.

For many, many hours of fascinating reading, Peter Dickinson, I salute you!

Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) – Tony Hillerman

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Tony Hillerman with tags , , , on March 6, 2017 by cshmurak

This is the second book in Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series set in the Four Corners area of Arizona/New Mexico. The series almost didn’t happen: Hillerman’s agent, on reading the first book, The Blessing Way, suggested that he cut Joe Leaphorn and “all that Indian stuff.” Fortunately Hillerman persisted, and an editor at Harper & Row suggested that Leaphorn’s role be enlarged. A few books later, Jim Chee was created. (Hillerman had briefly lost the rights to Leaphorn and so had to invent a new Navajo detective; when he regained those rights, Leaphorn and Chee became a team.)

Dance Hall for the Dead won an Edgar award for Best Novel and was well-deserving of the honor. As a traditional mystery, it has all the requisite elements: several murders, a cruel and devious murderer, clues, red herrings, and a distinctive detective. But it has so much more: Joe Leaphorn is a man who lives in two worlds, a protagonist with the knowledge of the modern police detective and the skills of a traditional Navajo tracker. Like some of the Native American sleuths who have followed him (I’m thinking particularly of Jane Whitefield, Thomas Perry’s Seneca ‘guide’), Leaphorn has the ability to remain still for hours, while keenly observant of his surroundings.

In addition to the hunt for the murderer, there is a search for a missing Navajo boy in the high desert, where winter is fast approaching; thus the setting becomes, as is true in most of Hillerman’s books, an important element of the book. And the reader will, of course, learn much about both Navajo and Zuni cultures, as well as some fascinating archeological information (about Folsom man).

I had read a few of the later Hillerman best-sellers, like Thief of Time (1988) and Coyote Waits (1990), but it was interesting to go back to a much earlier book in this series. Joe Leaphorn was a marvelous addition to the world of detective fiction.

A Sleeping Life (1978) – Ruth Rendell

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries, Ruth Rendell with tags , on December 27, 2016 by cshmurak

sleeping-lifeUnlike many fictional detectives, who are often eccentric loners,  Reginald Wexford is a family man: happily married, with an adoring wife and two grown daughters. In A Sleeping Life, one of his daughters is unhappy in her marriage, and his attempt to understand her situation makes him wonder about his own.

Set in 1978, A Sleeping Life brings the reader into a time when women were questioning much about their lives. Like Parker’s Finding Rachel Wallace (reviewed here), it gives us a glimpse of the feminist movement of the time.  Rendell was called “the biggest anti-feminist there is” by Ms. Magazine  for her portrayal of a radical women’s group in An Unkindness of Ravens (1985), but here, she seems sympathetic to the plight of both Wexford’s daughter Sylvia and that of the murder victim, Rhoda Confrey.

Rhoda Confrey, a middle-aged, unattractive woman, is someone whom society might well have assigned the role of caregiver to her elderly father. But by suddenly coming into money, she escapes that fate and goes off to live her own life in London. What then leads to her death by stabbing in her hometown? And what exactly was her life like in London?

Wexford and his longtime friend and assistant, Michael Burden, go up several blind alleys in their attempt to solve the mystery of Rhoda’s life and death. Rendell provides many clues, cleverly distracting the reader from their significance.  A finalist for the Edgar Award (at a time when very few women were nominated for Edgars), A Sleeping Life is one of my favorites of Baroness Rendell’s Wexford books.


Golden Age Mysteries: My Favorites

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , on May 13, 2016 by cshmurak

The Golden Age of Mystery is usually defined as the period between World War I and World War II, or roughly 1920-1940; some people would extend it into the early 1950s. As for me, I like to think of the Golden Age as beginning with Trent’s Last Case in 1913, interrupted by WWI, and then continuing into the early 1950s (so I can include the best of Josephine Tey, who’s clearly a Golden Age author). Below I list my favorites –  a subjective list, of course. The order is somewhat random, I confess, but I think the first three are truly my top three.

  1. 99661574Trent’s Last Case (1913) by E.C. Bentley – The book that introduced a detective who’s fallible and human, at a time when most mystery authors were creating omniscient Sherlock Holmes clones. Read my review of it here. So many Golden Age authors (Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie among others) admired this book as one of the outstanding pieces of detective fiction of all time, and Sayers even copied an important plot point for her first mystery, Whose Body.

  2. strong poisonStrong Poison (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers – The beginning of the Lord Peter/Harriet Vane romance as well as a well-plotted and humorous mystery. Though others may prefer Gaudy Night or The Nine Tailors – both of which I’ve enjoyed – I find them too weighed down by feminist rhetoric or showy scholarship (into bell-ringing!). You can find my review of Strong Poison here.
  3. bewiseTo Love and Be Wise (1950) by Josephine Tey – It’s so difficult to choose just one of Tey’s books, but this is a sentimental favorite. I love Brat Farrar too, and many people would say it was her best book, but I just can’t choose a book without Alan Grant! And as for The Daughter of Time, I find it brilliant on some days and tedious on others. Reviews of all three: TL&BW, BF, DoT
  4. longdivorceThe Long Divorce (1951) by Edmund Crispin – Many people would choose The Moving Toyshop as Crispin’s best book, but I’ve never liked it that much; maybe the over-the-top finale is just too much for me. For complete hilarity, I’d go with Crispin’s Buried for Pleasure instead. Long Divorce, on the other hand, while still quite humorous, puts the emphasis on the mystery, as Crispin’s Oxford don detective, Gervase Fen, travelling incognito as “Mr. Datchery,” solves a case involving poison pen letters and murder. People who enjoy humor that is eccentric and scholarly (though never pompous) will enjoy this one.
  5. 51mru5rxXfL._SX367_BO1,204,203,200_Flowers for the Judge (1936) by Margery Allingham – Allingham wrote so many novels about Albert Campion (and she kept on writing them through the mid-1960s) that it’s difficult to choose. I really like Sweet Danger, in which Albert meets Amanda Fitton for the first time, and Dancers in Mourning (which I review here). But Flowers for the Judge is especially entertaining, both for its look at the world of publishing and for the amazing disappearance in broad daylight of one of the members of the publishing house.
  6. MarshConstables_Clutch of Constables (1968) by Ngaio Marsh – Like Allingham, Marsh is another of the great British writers who continued to write Golden Age mysteries long after the period was over (until 1982, in fact). I might have chosen Artists in Crime (1938) instead, the book in which Roderick Alleyn meets Agatha Troy –  notice a certain romantic theme in my favorites (see Strong Poison and Sweet Danger mentioned above) – or Death of a Peer (1940) (reviewed here) for its exuberant silliness – another theme in my favorites (see Buried for Pleasure above and Appleby’s End below). But I truly love this one that features Troy in the leading role. Here’s my review.
  7. farewellThe Long Farewell (1958) by Michael Innes – Like Marsh, Michael Innes wrote Golden Age mysteries from the 1930s to the 1980s. Some of them are very funny (like Appleby’s End with its bizarre train ride); others – chiefly those written in the 1940s –  are more like spy novels, and some are pure mysteries. The Long Farewell is in the last category and shows Oxford scholar Innes at his best, as his detective Sir John Appleby investigates the suicide (or was it murder?) of a bigamous Shakespearean scholar. In addition to his Appleby novels, Innes wrote a series of books about Charles Honeybath – most of which I don’t like – and a few non-series books that are very good, particularly A Change of Heir and Christmas at Candleshoe. (The Disney studio bought the title, Candleshoe, and then threw away the book, so the film and the book have nothing much in common.)
  8. Trial&ErrorTrial and Error (1937) by Anthony Berkeley – Berkeley wrote a series of good mysteries in the 1920s and 1930s featuring the writer/sleuth Roger Sheringham. In 1929 he created a character named Ambrose Chitterwick (“a mild little man of no particular appearance”) and placed him in a Sheringham book, The Poisoned Chocolates Case.  An unlikely detective, Chitterwick appeared in two more of Berkeley’s novels, The Piccadilly Murder (1929) and Trial and Error (1937). For me, it’s really a toss-up between Poisoned Chocolates and Trial and Error. But I’m choosing Trial and Error for the uniqueness of the plot, wherein a murderer tries to prove he committed the murder so an innocent man won’t be convicted of the crime. Berkeley also wrote under various pseudonyms; as Francis Iles, he was the creator of the creepy Before the Fact, the basis of the Hitchcock film, Suspicion.
  9.  AdrianThe List of Adrian Messenger (1959) by Philip MacDonald – Starting with The Rasp (1924), MacDonald wrote a series of mysteries in the 1920s and 1930s about detective Anthony Gethryn, then brought him back for one last bow in this book, a finalist for the 1960 Edgar Award.  Adrian Messenger gives a list of ten men’s names to a friend at Scotland Yard; then the plane carrying Messenger is blown up, and Gethryn must investigate each of the ten men to find if any of them is still alive and which one is the murderer. This was made into a film of the same name in 1963, starring George C. Scott as Gethryn, and featuring people like Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Robert Mitchum in fairly obvious disguises. The movie is fun, though not nearly as clever as the book.
  10. HouseoftheArrowThe House of the Arrow (1924) by A.E.W. Mason – Mason is most often remembered – if he’s remembered at all – as the author of The Four Feathers, a wonderful adventure story. But he also wrote a series of five detective novels featuring Inspector Hanaud, an eccentric French detective who may have been a precursor of Hercule Poirot. The House of the Arrow may be Mason’s best, though At the Villa Rose, written in 1910, is a close second. In Arrow, Hanaud must help a young heiress prove that she hasn’t murdered the woman who left her all her fortune. Publisher and critic Bennett Cerf said of this book: “Its startling but thoroughly logical conclusion, which took me completely by surprise, still impresses me as the cleverest piece of literary sleight-of-hand I have ever read in a detective story.” There have been three British film versions of this novel (1930, 1940, 1953), none of which I’ve ever seen, but I think I’m going to try to track them down!

All of these books are available online, many as e-books as well as paperbacks, and a few others have been recently reprinted by wonderful publishers like Felony & Mayhem or Stratus. Here are links to their pages on Amazon:

Trent’s Last Case

Strong Poison

To Love and Be Wise

Brat Farrar

The Long Divorce

Buried for Pleasure

Flowers for the Judge

Sweet Danger

Dancers in Mourning

Artists in Crime

Clutch of Constables

Death of a Peer

The Long Farewell

Appleby’s End

Poisoned Chocolates Case

Trial and Error

List of Adrian Messenger

House of the Arrow

At the Villa Rose

Note: If you make a purchase using one of these links, I receive no payment; however, at no cost to you, my daughter’s green living blog,, will receive a small commission.