Category Archives: Classic Mystery

Black Orchids – Rex Stout

Black Orchids (A Nero Wolfe Mystery Book 9) – Rex Stout originally published in 1942 by Farrar & Rinehart. It Contains the novellas “Black Orchids” and “Cordially Invited to Meet Death“. I read the Kindle Edition from Random House Publishing.

This is two novella length stories. The first one tells the story of how Wolfe became the one who owns the black orchids. In a case where a murder is committed in plain sight at a flower show exhibit, Wolfe will find the killer. Though evidence points to a millionaire orchid fancier Mr. Hewitt, who has been exhibiting his hybridized black orchids, Wolfe sees something else at work here. He will expose the actual murderer. Wolfe’s fee for this serve, why, the rare black orchids themselves. Though Hewitt considers it blackmail, he agrees to this deal. As Wolfe investigates, it seems that the dealings of rival planters and their proxies are behind the murder. In typical Wolfe fashion all the principles in this story are collected at the mansion for the ‘big reveal’. The story reaches its climax in Wolfe’s own orchid fumigation room where the guilty party may just poison Wolfe and his guests.

The second story revolves around a poison pen campaign against a prominent party planner. In typical Wolfe fashion, a small group of suspects is collected, including the planner’s secretary,  assistant, niece, nieces fiancée, and a discrete rogue or two. Just as Wolfe sees the impossibility of the initial investigation, the client turns up dead. Now he has a case he’s much more motivated to solve… and he needs to move quickly, before the next body falls!

According to the obit in the Times the next morning, the funeral service was to be Wednesday afternoon, at the Belford Memorial Chapel on 73rd Street, and of course there would be a big crowd, even in August, for Bess Huddleston’s last party. Cordially invited to meet death. I decided to go. Not merely, if I know myself, for curiosity or another look at Janet. It is not my custom to frequent memorial chapels to look at girls even if they’re good dancers. Call it a hunch. Not that I saw anything criminal, only something incredible. I filed past the casket with the throng because from a distance I had seen it and couldn’t believe it. But when I got close there it was. Eight black orchids that could have come from nowhere else in the world, and a card with his initials the way he scribbled them, “N.W.”

The Hidden Staircase – Carolyn Keene

Nancy Drew 02: The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene. Penguin Young Readers Group I read the 1959 revised Kindle Edition.  This Second Nancy Drew story is as good as the first. A nicely crafted story. Not a ‘solve it yourself’ story but a good tale. Reading through this the thought that kept coming around was ‘wholesome’. There is a wholesomeness that envelopes this story.

It starts with Nancy’s friend Helen enlisting her help to solve a ghost haunting mystery at her great-grandmother’s estate Twin Elms. Nany, with her dad’s approval, agrees to help, but prior to leaving for Twin Elms, Nathan Gomber, a attorney representing property owner’s whose land is being purchased for a railroad project arrives and warns Nancy not to leave her father’s side as he is in great danger.

Nancy’s dad encourages her to continue to Twin Elms and help her friend’s great-grandmother as he has business and will be in Chicago for a few days. He say’s that he will rendezvous with Nancy on his way back at Twin Elms. However, he is kidnapped enroute. While Nancy works to discover her father’s where-abouts she continues to discover more secrets about the mansion at Twin Elms. These explorations lead to her father and to a plot to defraud the railroad company he is working for.

I don’t know what technically is considered ‘young adult’ fiction but Amazon has tis listed as good for ages 8 to 12 and grade 3 to 7 which sounds appropriate with the caveat that this edition was written in 1959 and is has some colloquialisms and language that are archaic in today’s parlance. But Nancy is presented as a level headed young woman of eighteen with a keen sense of observation, intrepidness, and perseverance with all the customary manners of a young lady of the 1950’s.


   Nancy ignored Gomber’s remarks. Shrugging, the man pushed his way into the hall. “I know this. If anything happens to your father, you’ll never forgive yourself. But you can’t blame Nathan Gomber! I warned you!”
   Still Nancy made no reply. She kept looking at him steadily, trying to figure out what was really in his mind. She was convinced it was not solicitude for her father.
   Nathan Gomber changed the subject abruptly. “I’d like to see Mrs. Turnbull and Mrs. Hayes,” he said. “Go call them.”

Paper Son – SJ Rozan

Paper Son – SJ Rozan, published by Pegasus Books July 2, 2019. This is the twelfth book in the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith Mysteries.

The major theme on this seems to revolve around family, and family ties that connect through distant, and up to this point, unknown relations. Lydia Chin is told by her mother that she, and her partner Bill need to go to Mississippi and investigate the circumstances of her cousin Leland’s incarceration. .. Lydia doesn’t know if she is more surprised by her mother acknowledging her investigating profession, or the fact that she has cousins she never knew about in Mississippi.

When she gets there she’s greeted by her uncle Pete,  her cousin Jefferson’s been arrested for the murder of his father, her uncle, Leland. And we learn the another unknown cousin of hers, Raymond,  uncle Paul’s son, is running for governor of Mississippi. Paul’s son in law Frank gives the reader an insight into who race and family play out in politics here in Mississippi.

Through the course of the investigation, Lydia and Bill come across two sisters, one recently deceased and the other in a nursing home. Through them we see a subplot weaving through about how the bitterness we carry around not only affects our lives but the lives of those left behind.

But the title of this novel Paper Son goes to the heart of the story. The original Paper Son, Lydia’s great-grandfather, becomes a ‘paper son’ when friend of the family returns from worming on the railroads in the United States in the late 1800’s. And, because of immigration law changes, Chinese people are not able to emigrate to the United States as freely as they had been able to. A loop hole in this law allows children of Chinese people already living in the United States to come here from China. Because her great-grandfather changes his identity to become the son of the family friend he is able to emigrate and enjoy the benefits of opportunities.

   My mother made a wordless, but nevertheless easy to understand, sound. She said, “Have you discussed the situation with the White Baboon?”
   Wait. Was my mother really asking me what Bill thought?
   “Yes,” I said cautiously. “He’s – ” I stopped myself before I said stumped. Why cap this new well at the moment it started to flow? “He doesn’t see the answer yet, either. But we’re working on it.”
   “Please continue to work on it.” My mother paused, and I could have sworn her voice softened the tiniest bit as she said, “The Delta of Mississippi is not different from other places. Cuckoos do not hatch from robin’s eggs there. This is only a case, Ling Wan-ju. It’s more important than others because it involves family. But for all that, this is no different from other cases you have solved. You must use the same detecting methods you have used in the past. Please call me tomorrow when you have made progress.”
   And she hung up.

Trouble Is My Business – Raymond Chandler

Chandler, Raymond. Trouble Is My Business . Distributed Proofreaders Canada. Kindle Edition.

This is a collection of four Philip Marlow classic short stories ripped from the pages of Black Mask magazine.

In the first story… a case of extortion, blackmail, revenge and murder, Philip Marlow is subcontracted to rescue an infatuated young man from the clutches of a vicious vixen, after a prior detective on the case turns up deceased things take a turn for the sinister as nefarious types get the drop on our hero. Through bold fisticuffs and intrepid determination, Marlow makes it through to bagging the bag guys.

In the second one Philip Marlow due to testify against a corrupt political boss takes a bodyguard side job for a friend,  when  the friend gets bumped off on the way back from winning a bundle at a wheel rigged roulette wheel… Philip feels a frame… and the tomato playing the numbers at the wheel is telling too many stories to keep it straight.

The third story, Goldfish – Philip Marlow is on the trail of a pair of pearls in a pretty pricy caper… and a determined dame with a flair for violence, is no deterrent. Seems a pair of pearls earnings went missing from a robbery a couple of years ago. The insurance men will pay twenty five thousand for them and a former police woman turned boarding house madam has a clue to there whereabouts. .. twenty five thousand split two ways is a lot of dough. But the bird who gave her the tip have chipped to another, more ruthless chickadee who may just have a head start on Marlow.

The forth, a case of purloined pearls, Marlow falls into a case of cheating spouses and cheating chiselers. The hot Santa Ana winds feature through this story. Marlow steps into a new bar opening across the street from his apartment building. Only one other guy is sitting there, when a man walks in looking for a dame. A rather specific dame, and he describes what she’s wearing. Neither Marlow nor the bartender have seen her, and adds the man goes to leave, the other patron at the bar shoots him and flees, jumping into the guy’s car still running outside. And as fate would have it… the Dame as described just happens to be walking through the hallway in the apartment building across the street.

   The door opened with a jerk and Finlayson and Sebold came in. Sebold looked as spruce and nasty as ever, but Finlayson looked older, more worn, mousier. He held a sheaf of papers in his hand. He sat down across the desk from me and gave me a hard bleak stare.
   “Guys like you get in a lot of trouble,” Finlayson said sourly. Sebold sat down against the wall and tilted his hat over his eyes and yawned and looked at his new stainless-steel wrist watch.
   “Trouble is my business,” I said. “How else would I make a nickel?”

Someone We Know – Shari Lapena

Someone We Know – Shari Lapena, Viking 2019 and I borrowed my copy from the library. A perfect place to try new authors.

This isn’t a whodunit mystery in a traditional sense, there simply aren’t enough clues for us to reasonably follow but it’s a solid character driven mystery much like her novel The Couple Next Door… but where that story focused on the police procedure and plot driven, this is more like an Unwanted Guest in that the story is strongly driven be well written and multilayered characters both suspects and those who suspect them alike.  Shari… she spends a lot of time showing means motive and opportunity to several characters in this story, each set of particulars turning and twisting but not all the pieces fit together for any of them. Sure the circumstantial evidence is there for each on spades, but when it comes down to it, is the killer someone we know?

The story starts right off with Raleigh committing a break in and roaming about a neighbor’s house. Seems this is his idea of kicks. Meanwhile a neighbor Robert has reported his wife Amanda missing. Seems the flirtatious young wife he’s simply disappeared.  That is until a chance encounter in a lake not far from town reveals her body in the trunk. As detectives Webb and Moen start making inquiries they begin to  find no lack of suspect and no lack of motives in what appears to be an insular close knit community of neighbors. Meanwhile, the questions the investigation spawn lead friends and neighbors through a series of revelations uncovering the secrets that unexpectedly bind them together.

“Parenting is so stressful, she thinks, glancing sidelong at her moody son slouched in the seat beside her. You try to do your best,  But really what control do you have over them once they’re not little anymore? You have no idea what’s going on inside their heads, or what they’re up to. What if she’d never seen that text? How long would it have gone on – until he was arrested and the cops showed up at the house? He was breaking into places, snooping through people’s lives, and they’d known nothing about it. If anyone has accused her son of such a thing, she would never believe it. That’s how little she knows him these days. But she saw those texts herself. He admitted it. She wonders uneasily if he’s keeping any other secrets. She parks the car in their driveway and says, “Raleigh, is there anything else you want to tell me?”

Over My Dead Body – Rex Stout

Over My Dead Body: A Nero Wolfe Mystery – Rex Stout I read the Kindle Edition. This is the seventh Nero Wolfe novel and was published in 1940. This book stands out in the Wolfe cannon as stating that Nero was born in America but this is not the case. In a subsequent interview Rex Stout says that Nero was not being completely forthright with the G man intruding in his personal affairs. This story is a classic mystery but with much fewer clues that the usual Rex Stout story imbedded within making this a relative difficult whodunnit… basically it comes down to guesswork after multiple suspects are interrogated and eliminated.

As it is, the plot begins as a young Montenegrin woman arrives at Wolfe’s office to plead for his help in a case involving a friend of hers, also Montenegrin, whose been accused of stealing diamonds. After a brief discussion, the young lady accused may be Wolfe’s adopted daughter. Archie is dispatched to look into the matter.

While looking into this at the fencing studio where both women are employed. Wolfe’s daughter has an apparent alibi corroborated by an English customer. As the situation is being resolved, the Englishman is found murdered in one of the training rooms of the studio. While the police are summoned to investigate this, Archie finds that the murder weapon is wrapped in a fencing glove and nestled in the pocket of his overcoat hanging in the office where all the customers and staff of the studio where congregated.

As this fencing glove and its item, may implicate Wolfe’s daughter, Archie returns to Wolfe’s with it while the police are investigating back at the Studio. At this point, Inspector Cramer arrives at Wolfe’s suspecting that with all the foreign intrigues and suspects, he came solve the case quicker by camping out at Wolfe’s. Wolfe, in a unusual manner agrees to let him stay and oversee the operations.

Most of the cast of suspects are brought before Nero at his office in what is to be his customary trademark. They are questioned vigorously with Cramer observing… after some time, deductions are made and Wolfe reveals the murder and the motive… in classic, customary style.

Ps. This is a really good episode in Nero Wolfe Mysteries from A&E Network!

“Have you registered?”
“No. I am not an agent of a foreign principal.”
The G-man threw one knee over the other. “The law applies to agents of foreign firms, individuals or organizations, as well as to foreign governments.”
“So I understand.”
“It also applies, here, both to aliens and to citizens. Are you a citizen of the United States?”
“I am. I was born in this country.”
“You were at one time an agent of the Austrian government?”
“Briefly, as a boy. Not here, abroad. I quit.”
“And joined the Montenegrin army?”
“Later, but still a boy. I then believed that all misguided or cruel people should be shot, and I shot some. I starved to death in 1916.”
The G-man looked startled. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said I starved to death. When the Austrians came and we fought machine guns with fingernails. Logically I was dead; a man can’t live on dry grass. Actually I went on breathing. When the United States entered the war and I walked six hundred miles to join the A. E. F., I ate again. When it ended I returned to the Balkans, shed another illusion, and came back to America.”
“Hvala Bogu,” I put in brightly.
Stahl, startled again, shot me a glance. “I beg your pardon? Are you a Montenegrin?”
“Nope. Pure Ohio. The ejaculation was involuntary.”

Rising Sun – Michael Crichton

Rising Sun – Michael Crichton

How often is it that I read a great ‘who-dunnit’ and it comes with quite an extensive bibliography at the end. I’m sure plenty of people are familiar with the wonderful movie version of this with Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery. If you haven’t seen it… do so! It’s a great cop movie. The book is a bit more rounded, and it focuses more on the threat that the ‘Japanese model’ poses to America. Now, this was written in 1992 and back then it did seem that the Japanese ‘threat’ was real. The 80’s were a time of technological revolution, especially in tangible consular products. The case Crichton makes for caution is well reasoned and, for the most part, compliments the story being told and is presented, mainly through the discourses of Captain Connor.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Initially, a murder has taken place in a conference room above a grand opening ceremony for a Japanese corporation. Since this is a sensitive situation, the building’s representative requests a special liaison officer from the LAPD be present. The story is told from the perspective of this officer, Lieutenant Smith… and right from the start, where Officer Smith is directed to pick up retired Captain Connor as a consultant, things are not what they appear. Someone is manipulating events, and people from behind the scene and as Connor points out repeatedly “their way of seeing things is not our way of seeing things”.

As the investigators continue through the obfuscation put in their path, powerful interests put their media agents to work. There is a newspaper reporter in their employ who works to dig up dirt or manufacture negative press, and potential character smears to threaten the investigators. Crichton really paints a compelling picture of how these tactics are actually being used in the current media.

Despite this, with the clock ticking and time running out, solid detective work wins the day. Buy not taking anything for granted, by questioning the underlying assumptions, and mostly by looking a gift horse directly in its mouth… the novel ends with a very Japanese display of ‘justice’.

After reading this, I want to read a couple of Crichton’s earlier novels. He wrote four novels between 1960 and 1970 under the name John Lange. These books have been republished as part of the Hard Crimes line, so I’ll get myself a couple of them…

   Every homicide crime scene has the same energy, and that finality at the center. When you look at the dead person, there is a kind of obviousness, and at the same time there is an impossible mystery. Even in the simplest domestic brawl, where the woman finally decided to shoot the guy, you’d look at her, all covered in scars and cigarette burns, and you had to ask, why tonight? What was it about tonight? It’s always clear what you are seeing, and there’s always something that doesn’t add up. Both things at once.

And at a homicide you have the sense of being right down to the basic truths of existence, the smells and the defecation and the bloating. Usually somebody crying, so you’re listening to that. And the usual bullshit stops; somebody died, and it’s an unavoidable fact, like a rock in the road that makes all the traffic go around it. And in that grim and real setting, this camaraderie springs up, because you’re working late with people you know, and actually know very well because you see them all the time. L.A. has four homicides a day; there’s another one every six hours. And every detective at the crime scene already has ten homicides dragging in his backlog, which makes this new one an intolerable burden, so ho and everybody else is hoping to solve it on the spot, to get it out of the way. There is that kind of finality and tension and energy all mixed together.

And after you do it for a few years, you get so you like it. And to my surprise, as I entered the conference room, I realized that I missed it.

Bitter End – Rex Stout

Bitter End: The First Nero Wolfe Novella – Rex Stout . I read the Kindle Edition of the original story published in 1940. A classic who-dunit mystery. The clues are there to follow for the observant.

The story starts out where someone has evidently tampered with a jar of pate at the residence of one Nero Wolfe. Poison is suspected and an outraged Wolfe vows to find the dastardly culprit behind this assault on his palate. As fate would have it, Miss Duncan, niece to My Tingley of Tingley’s Tidbits who makes the pate, arrives to engage Wolfe to investigate the product tampering. Among the close knit circle of suspects is: Miss Yates, in charge of production; Mr Cliff, a VP of a competing firm; Philip, Mr Tingley’s adopted son; Mr Judd, a mysterious banker who is also looking to buy Tingley’s Tidbits; and Miss Murphy, assistant to Miss Yates.

The investigation takes a turn for the worse when Mr Tingley is found murdered in his office and Miss Duncan apparently struck unconscious at the scene. The homicide brings Wolfe’s foil Inspector Cramer into the story. With the looting of papers at Tingley’s office, the murder may not be related to the product tampering, but rather the curious birth and adoption of Philip who may be set to inherit the business.

But in the end, deductive reasoning and a careful examination of the facts presented soon turns up the guilty party. And the description, the narrative… its first rate!

It sure was a ramshackle joint. From a dingy hall a dilapidated stair went up. I mounted to the floor above, heard noises, including machinery humming, off somewhere, and through a rickety door penetrated a partition and was in an anteroom. From behind a grilled window somebody’s grandpa peered out at me, and by shouting I managed to convey to him that I wanted to see Mr. Arthur Tingley. After a wait I was told that Mr. Tingley was busy, and would be indefinitely. On a leaf of my notebook I wrote, “Quinine urgent,” and sent it in. That did it. After another wait a cross-eyed young man came and guided me through a labyrinth of partitions and down a hall into a room.

Seated at an old, battered roll-top desk was a man talking into a phone, and in a chair facing him was a woman older than him with the physique and facial equipment of a top sergeant. Since the phone conversation was none of my business, I stood and listened to it, and gathered that someone named Philip had better put in an appearance by five o’clock or else. Meanwhile I surveyed the room, which had apparently been thrown in by the Indians when they sold the island. By the door, partly concealed by a screen, was an old, veteran marble-topped washstand. A massive, old-fashioned safe was against the wall across from Tingley’s desk. Wooden cupboards, and shelves loaded down with the accumulation of centuries, occupied most of the remaining wall space.

“Who the hell are you?”

The Couple Next Door – Shari Lapena

The Couple Next Door – Shari Lapena Published by Penguin Books in 2016 (316 pages) the third novel from Canadian writer Shari Lapena. It’s a masterclass in plotting a fast pace thrill ride… although I think the term is a bit over used, by the second half this book is a real page turner… and I’m glad to be reading a physical copy for the shear joy of actually tuning pages! Much like watching a movie meant to be seen on the big cinema screen.

It’s an intensely intimate look into the characters, their inner world, their life together, not so much their hopes and dreams but their fears and suspicions. Right from chapter one we jump into the heart of the crime… the next ten chapters really focuses on Anne and Marco, but chapter three, Anne becomes ‘the mother’ and Marco becomes ‘the husband’ and it isn’t made clear why. Perhaps this is a chapter written from the detective’s point of view.

Then… click bait alert, chapter eleven is straight out of left field. Things are not what they seem. And by chapter seventeen, the curves start flying – and we know the theme of this is all about the secrets… those we keep from others, but so much more those we keep from ourselves.

But let’s talk about the ending, those last five chapters… the dominoes have been falling one by one and from here the pace just accelerates to a point where all the remaining dominoes are just dumped in a heap, but the truth wins out through a strangling thicket of thorns, and no one comes up unscathed.

And just when you think it’s over… the final chapter holds that sign reading ‘but wait, there’s more’ and as for Anne, in the end, I like to think of her outcome as … ambiguous. But that’s just me, I’m an optimist.

“So what if the babysitter cancelled? They should have brought Cora with them, put her in a portable playpen. Buy Cynthia had said no children. It was to be an adult evening, for graham’s birthday. Which is another reason Anne has come to dislike Cynthia, who was once a good friend – Cynthia is not baby-friendly. Who says that a six month old baby you isn’t welcome at a dinner party? How had Anne ever let Marco persuade her that it was ok? It was irresponsible. She wonders what the other mothers in her mom’s group would think if she ever told them. We left our six-month old baby home alone and went to a party next door. She imagines all their jaws dropping in shock, the uncomfortable silence. But she will never tell them. She’d be shunned.”

The Oxford Murders – Guillermo Martinez

 The Oxford Murders – I’ve read the Penguin Press 2005 paperback edition translated from Spanish to English.

This is the third novel by Argentinian mathematician Guillermo Martinez. The story is a nice, compact (197 pages) page turner on a classic mystery reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel. I enjoyed this story, its narration was clear and to the point, no barrel of red herrings that you would get from Colin Dexter.

Our narrator, an Argentinian mathematics student come to Oxford to further his studies, tells this tale of events that happened in the past… it unfolds nicely at a leisurely pace on the bucolic suburb of Oxford. Shortly after settling into a room he lets from an elderly lady, she is murdered, and a mathematical clue is left with his mentor Professor Seldom, who discovers the body with our narrator.

I like the opening to this story. Its narrated in a journal or a diary tone that seems somewhat intimate and old fashioned… I can picture the then young, now older man reflecting back a what would probably be one of the most memorable highlights of his life. A grand adventure!

The story touches on several mathematical topics and theories, as well as several philosophical themes as the two gentlemen work to solve what may be a series of murders, each laid out in a mathematical sequence. As I finished this book, there was something that I had remembered from somewhere else… the best place to hide a murder, is in a series of murders.

One of the draw backs to this book being so brief, is that although we are taken to several different locations within Oxford while taking this pursuit, we never really get to stop and admire our surrounding all that much. Surely Kaminsky would have shown us more of the sights.

Now that the years have passed and everything’s been forgotten, and now that I’ve received a terse e-mail from Scotland with the sad news of Seldom’s death, I feel I can break my silence (which he never asked for anyway) and tell the truth about the events that reached the British papers in the summer of ’93 with macabre and sensationalist headlines, but to which Seldom and I always referred – perhaps due to the mathematical connotation – simply as the series, or Oxford Series. Indeed, the deaths all occurred in Oxfordshire, at the beginning of my stay in England, and I had te dubious privilege of seeing first at close range.