Archive for Classic Mystery Reviews

The Father Dowling mysteries (1977-2011) – Ralph McInerny

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on October 30, 2018 by cshmurak

The Father Dowling mysteries by Ralph McInerny must have been quite popular because McInerny’s publisher (St. Martin’s from the ’80s on) kept them in print for so many years. Yet the only major mystery award that McInerny seems to have won is a Bouchercon Life Achievement award in 1993; no single title was even nominated for an Agatha or an Anthony.

I’ve now read three of them: the first, Her Death of Cold (1977), and two later ones, Prodigal Father (2002) and Ash Wednesday (2008). I found the debut novel a little slow, but greatly enjoyed the other two; perhaps this is a series that grew better over time. McInerny was certainly a prolific author. A professor of philosophy and medieval studies at Notre Dame University for over 50 years, he wrote two other mystery series (one that was set at Notre Dame), several standalone mysteries, and many books on philosophy and the Catholic Church.

Father Roger Dowling, an expert on canon law and a former member of the Archdiocesan Marriage Court, is a recovering alcoholic who had become disillusioned with his vocation. As part of his recovery, he became the parish priest at St. Hilary’s church in Fox River, a suburb of Chicago. His close friend, Phil Keegan, is captain of detectives in the Fox River police department, and together they solve mysteries. This partnership, much like that of Rabbi Small and police chief Hugh Lanigan in Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series, allows the author to contrast the issues of mercy vs. justice and reason vs. faith. (In some of the later books, Keegan’s role is reduced and much of the police work is carried out by Keegan’s former partner, Lieutenant Cy Horvath.)

The stories are traditional mysteries, with multiple suspects, red herrings, and subtle clues. Her Death of Cold deals with the suspicious death of a wealthy widow who has left a generous gift to St. Hilary’s; Prodigal Father tells the story of a man who has left the priesthood but wishes to return to religious life as a monk in the Order of St. Athanasius, a monastery near Fox River; and Ash Wednesday describes the feud between two parishioners, one of whom takes revenge upon the other for supposedly causing a death in their family.

A few things set this series apart from most traditional mysteries: most notably, the perpetrator of the crime is not always brought to justice. As sometimes happens in the Rabbi Small series, the guilty person’s punishment is having to live with the knowledge of what a terrible thing he/she has done. A number of people in my book groups found this unsatisfying. McInerny’s use of Latin and classical references can make things difficult for readers with less knowledge than the author (and that’s most of us).  His feelings about Vatican II and the problems it has caused in the Catholic Church come across quite strongly too.

McInerny’s gentle humor pervades much of the books. The actions of the recurring characters of Tuttle, an inept lawyer, and Tetzel, a Pulitzer-seeking reporter – no first names were given for either man in the books that I read – are often hilarious.  And Dowling’s housekeeper, Marie Murkin, often lends a wry twist to the goings-on at St. Hilary’s. There are also puns: “fight friar with friar,” for example, and a major character named Agnes Lamb (!).

I haven’t seen the Father Dowling mysteries on TV, though I know that Tom Bosley, who plays the priest/detective in the series, looks nothing like the tall, slightly stooped Dowling of the books. I have to wonder if the humor and plotting of the McInerny novels were retained.

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Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964) – Harry Kemelman

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on April 1, 2018 by cshmurak

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late is a traditional mystery with an untraditional detective. The protagonist, Rabbi David Small, is a young, somewhat unkempt, scholar and rabbi, who is new to his congregation in Barnard’s Crossing, a coastal town in Massachusetts. (The author, Harry Kemelman, lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts, for over 50 years, and it’s clear that Barnard’s Crossing is based on Marblehead.)  Small’s training as a rabbi has focused on the logical analysis of the Talmud, the central text of Jewish law and theology. He is a man of thought rather than a man of action.

As many contemporary clerical sleuths do, the rabbi has a good friend on the local police force (think of Father Roger Dowling and Captain Phil Keegan, or Sidney Chambers, the vicar of Grantchester, and Inspector Geordie Keating). Here, the friend is Police Chief Hugh Lanigan. Small and Lanigan meet for the first time in this book, and they engage in numerous discussions of ethics and religion while discussing the facts of the case at hand. Both men also have wives, and occasionally, they even listen to their wives’ suggestions.

The investigation in this book involves the murder of Elspeth Bleech, a nanny in the employ of the Serafino family. A shy young woman from Nova Scotia, Elspeth had one close friend, who tells the police that Elspeth never went on dates; yet an autopsy reveals that Elspeth was several months pregnant. Because her body was found in the parking lot of the new synagogue, Rabbi Small comes under suspicion, and when her handbag is found in the rabbi’s car, things look even worse. But there are plenty of other suspects. Eventually it is the rabbi’s logic, along with Lanigan’s good sense and long experience in criminal matters, that leads to the solution to this complicated mystery. And the mystery is a good one: I confess I couldn’t guess whodunit. Yet, like the best of Golden Age mysteries, the vital clue was there in plain sight.

For some reason, I’d never read any of Kemelman’s “Rabbi” mysteries before this. Now that I’ve read the first one, I plan to continue through the series. I already have Saturday and Sunday on order (Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry and Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home).

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.

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

hillerman
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.

 

The Way Through the Woods (1992) – Colin Dexter

Posted in Colin Dexter, Mysteries with tags , on November 15, 2016 by cshmurak

waythruwoodsThis is the tenth Inspector Morse mystery and one of the best. (It was awarded the Gold Dagger by the British Crime Writers Association.) When Morse and Lewis investigate the case of a Swedish student who went missing a year earlier, the twists and turns abound.

There are two British authors whose use of unusual words always leads me to compile a list to investigate after I’ve finished the book: Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter. Dexter was a crossword constructor for years, so his love of language comes as no surprise. I don’t mind; it’s fun to discover meanings of words like “boustrophedon,” and one can usually get the gist from the context and look the definitions up later.

Dexter’s style in this book is more complex than usual: he uses diary entries, newspaper articles, letters and even religious confessions, as well as narrative, to tell the story. There are multiple points of view as well, but all these elements are blended into a book that pulls the reader steadily along to its surprising conclusion.

I’ve read this book at least four times and there are still things that give me pause. It’s clear to me that some of the events are left deliberately ambiguous (e.g., who is the woman who rings Morse’s doorbell at the end?).

I’m always surprised when people who say they are fans of the Inspector Morse TV series (and Inspector Lewis and Endeavor) confess that they have never read Colin Dexter. If you are one of them, it’s time to start!

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, HealthyGreenSavvy.com, will receive a small commission.