Category Archives: Classic Mystery

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.

Crooked House – Agatha Christie

Crooked House – A classic British mystery first published in 1949

Charles, a young man striking out on a career in the diplomatic service returns home to England after the war to look up a young woman he knew in Cairo and ask for her hand. But, as is the fashion in a Christie novel, a corpse stands in the way. Well, that’s the lead into Crooked House a mystery of a well-heeled immigrant family three generations living at the family estate Three Gables in Swinly Dean, whose patriarch Aristide Leonides has died in rather uncertain circumstances.

Sophia, Aristide’s granddaughter, whose hand it is being sought, invites Charles to the house to meet her family and discretely see if he can assist the police, lead by Chief Inspector Traverner, as Charles’s father is an Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard and perhaps he may be able to see into the heart of the matter as the inspector appears stymied in his efforts to delve into the family secrets.

Of the characters in residence at the estate are Aristide’s two sons Philip (Sophia’s father) and Richard, their wives Magda and Clemence respectively, and Sophia’s younger brother Eustice and her younger sister Josephine. Also, there is Sophia’s great-aunt Edith de Haviland, sister to Aristide’s first wife, and his second wife Brenda Leonides (fifty years his junior).

The story moves at a slow pace… leisurely taking the reader through a series of interactions and interviews with family. Charles tagging along with the inspector on his questioning of the family and their various motives. The real insight into the case come from Charles’s conversations with his father at his home. The old detective offering his insights into murder and murderers. From here the reader can gain a good perspective and a toehold as to the crooked solution to this puzzle.

Although I enjoyed the story (and the movie BTW), it did lag somewhat in its pacing. It was slow to unfold and even as the story’s climax was approaching the pace never really picked up. There really didn’t seem to be any sense of ‘urgency’ to this drama…

“Dad, what are murderers like?”

“Yes, I’ve never met a murderer who wasn’t vain … It’s their vanity that leads to their undoing, nine times out of ten. They may be frightened of being caught, but they can’t help strutting and boasting and usually they’re sure they’ve been far too cleaver to be caught.” He added: “And here’s another thing, a murderer wants to talk.”

An Unwanted Guest – Shari Lapena

An Unwanted Guest – Published by Pamela Dorman Books; 1st Edition, August 7, 2018 with 304 pages.

In a word – wow! Right from the start of this novel I had a feeling of closeness, of inclusion, of a tightknit cast of characters, and that something, something was going to happen. Even before the actual commencement of the murders to come, there is a thread of suspense. You could not have struck that chord quicker than if you had started with: “It was a dark and stormy night”, because, though it is a dark and stormy night, our cast is assembling during the day.

We are quickly introduced to the cast of characters and get to know them at a superficial level. One thing that I really liked here is that we are introduced to the characters mostly in pairings, such as; Gwen and Riley, a pair of friends on holiday; Matthew and Dana, an engaged couple, Lauren and Ian, an unmarried couple; Beverly and her husband Henry, an older couple married for several years; James and his son Bradley who own and operate the inn, and then there are two other guests unrelated to any others David and attorney who has had charges of murdering his wife dismissed due to lack of evidence, and a writer Candice who is already a guest at the inn.

In quick work the cast is snowed in with a storm outside cutting the inn off from the rest of the world, as well as its electricity. The plot moves quickly. First an apparent accident (or is it David is quick to point out) has the guests openly speculating if a murder or an accident has occurred. Then, when the second body turns up later that day, there is no doubt that homicide stalks the guests. They congregate in the inn’s ground floor lounge with a large fireplace an ample seating for the perception of protection as much as for heat.

It here, in this setting that we begin to get a more in-depth look into the lives of our characters. Everything is laid out in such a flowing narrative, there is just enough detail to give the story lift. I had a feeling of sailing through the story taking it all in and feeling the tension growing, reaching its height at the start of the final third of the story.

The mystery ends as the police are finally able to reach the inn and begin their investigation. This is what covers probably the last ten percent of the novel. The motivation for the initial murder is revealed here… it wasn’t something that could be gleaned from the story itself. But… the clues are there for the reader to determine the most likely suspect before the police arrive. David knows, but he won’t tell you till its all over, and I won’t spoil it here… you just have to read it for yourself.

The main theme here is ‘you never really know anybody’. This is wonderful, clear, straightforward writing and a masterfully crafted story… THIS is why we read mysteries!

“Henry gives this some consideration. His wife has a lot of irritating qualities, but stupidity isn’t one of them. … [he’s] learned a thing or two this weekend. He’s learned that he himself has it in him to be a killer. He finds it’s not tat big a leap, after all, to imagine anyone else as a killer either.”