ambuscades, burglarious, cachinnate, rodomontade

The Moving Toyshop: A Detective Story by Edmund Crispin. Walker and Company, 1946. 0802754341.

I was complaining to a co-worker about having to give up on two classic mysteries in a row because they were too dark. (I have to be in the right mood for a really gritty book.) He recommended a series featuring a crime-solving Oxford don and loaned me this book. (Thanks, Tom!) It turned out to be just right.

English professor Gervase Fen is a delightful sleuth: he has a keen, logical mind, a tremendously dry sense of humor, and drives his red sports car (named Lily Christine III) around Oxford like a maniac. His poet friend Richard Cadogan comes to Oxford on vacation. On his way into town late at night, he finds the door of a toyshop unlocked. He enters to let the shopkeeper know, makes his way to the apartment upstairs, and finds the body of an elderly woman who was strangled to death. The unseen killer knocks him out with a blow to the head. After Cadogan comes to, he escapes through a back window. When he brings the police to investigate, both the body and the toyshop are gone. The police figure he imagined it all because of his (very real) head injury. Fen thinks otherwise. Together they piece together the clues to a murder without a body.

The crime itself is a complex and baffling puzzle. Even the suspects comment that it is an impossible murder, a locked-room mystery in an unlocked room. Several times I was convinced that I knew who had done it, only to have the evidence clear that person and a new suspect emerge. The solution brought everything together in a satisfying way. I am definitely going to follow the rest of Gervase Fen’s cases!

Both Fen and Cadogan are wonderfully eccentric, and they manage to gather quite a few odd characters to help them. My favorites were Wilkes, a hard-of-hearing elderly professor who always ends up near the liquor and beautiful women; an unnamed truck driver with a great appreciation for literature; and Mr. Barnaby, a student who interrupts his intellectual madeira-and-cake soiree to gather a mob of drunk undergrads and chase down a suspect. I found the book richly written and quite fun, with some lovely turns of phrase and a vocabulary that sent me to the dictionary quite a few times. There are many entertaining literary references including a plot point involving the poetry of Edward Lear, a pair of heavies nicknamed Scylla and Charybdis, and a running joke involving Fen half-starting a discussion about Measure for Measure every time he’s on the phone with the police.

Who Let the Spectral Dogs Out?

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. Grosset & Dunlap, 1902.

A country doctor comes to Baker Street with a problem. His friend, Charles Baskerville, has died suddenly, apparently due to an ancient family curse: he was frightened to death by an unearthly demon dog. His heir, Henry Baskerville, may be in danger. The story starts off with the familiar scientific deductions of Sherlock Holmes, but then the detective sends Dr. Watson on his own to the family estate to keep an eye on the heir until Holmes can join them. Dr. Watson’s descriptions of the general spookiness of Baskerville Hall and the surrounding countryside turn the book into a haunting gothic romance, complete with neolithic dwellings, scary animal noises, and the Grimpen Mire: a deadly bog that can swallow a pony.

I really enjoy how different Watson is from Holmes. His point of view as the narrator turns these stories into exciting adventures, spooky ghost stories, and romances, much to the disgust of the no-nonsense Holmes. At the start of The Sign of Four, Holmes complains (about A Study in Scarlet): “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” I think this is only a burn if you’re Holmes. Pretty sure I would snag a copy of this notional mathematical love story.

Mrs Vince Camden Written on a Pee Chee

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter. Harper Perennial, 2008. 9780061577659.

Sarah: So when you first talked about Book Wows, you pitched the idea to me as we grab a book from our collection and talk about why we love it. So this is the first book I thought about, but I didn’t want to start out with it. It’s almost too much for me to talk about. The book is Citizen Vince by Jess Walter.
Gene: OK!
S: It’s the first or second book by him that I read.
G: He was a journalist somewhere in Washington state, I think — he’s somewhat local, right?
S: He still lives in Spokane.
G: He used to work with my friend Jonathan. I was at a party at Jonathan’s house and he and another reporter talked about how Jess Walter had escaped journalism much like librarians talk about those who escape the library.
S: Walter and Sherman Alexie do this podcast together, it went on hiatus while Alexie was ill, but it’s rumored that it’s coming back. It’s so good: two really smart guys who are incredibly good writers interviewing other writers they like. It is the best way to get to know authors that you need to read.
G: So tell me about this book. Is it a mystery? Continue reading “Mrs Vince Camden Written on a Pee Chee”

National Review Books In Poems Month

Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith. Random House, 2016. 9781101996256.
A guest review in verse by Murphy’s Mom because: National Poetry Month

Summer vacation has been ruined for the sunbathing Jude and her cousin.

They were enjoying sights and sun of Hollywood when the phone call came in.

Jude’s best friend / drama queen / glamour puss Maggie Kim was dead in her pool.

Maggie was always one for hysterics. But she is really gone,

Killed by an enemy, or who knows, it might have been someone she called a friend.

Parents and coroners alike want to believe Maggie took her own life.

But if it was murder…

 

Everyone is a suspect during the Kim family’s time of anguish and strife.

Jude knew her better than everyone;

they would gossip, laugh, and get snarky by the pool as they soaked up the rays.

Now with Maggie dead and gone, Jude knows her responsibility,

to keep the braying hyenas and blood-thirsty sharks (their so-called friends) at bay

while looking for answers.

But her own skeletons are rising to the surface.

What’s on Second, I Don’t Know’s on Third

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers. Dover, 1923. 9780486473628.

whosebodyThe first Lord Peter Wimsey novel is another milepost on my yearlong journey through classics of the mystery genre. Lord Peter takes a baffling case: the body of an unknown man, nude except for a pair of gold pince-nez glasses, in the bathtub of an an architect. His friend, the police detective Mr. Parker, is trying to solve the apparent disappearance of wealthy financier Sir Reuben Levy. The corpse in the tub is obviously not the missing man, but is there a connection between the two cases?

Lord Peter Wimsey is wonderful: he projects the image of a silly younger son of a wealthy aristocratic family (Sayers said he was a cross between Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster), but underneath it he has a sharp mind, both analytical and philosophical. He’s turned his walking stick into a combination measuring tool and compass with a sword hidden inside, plus he has a magnifying monocle and an encyclopedic knowledge of crime and detection. His butler, Bunter, has taken up crime scene photography and fingerprint detection.

This is another mystery that surprised me with how funny it was — there was quite a bit of dry commentary on class, and characters talked about how real life was different than in detective stories. On the more serious and philosophical side, Sayers included thoughtful discussion of the morality of enjoying mysteries when someone’s life has been lost. I had only expected a puzzle and an adventure but found a story with depth and complexity.

Like I Need a Reason to Crave Asian Style Pastry

Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong by A.J. Low. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2016. 9781449477899.

sherlocksamElementary-aged, Singaporean amateur sleuth Sherlock Sam (real name: Samuel Tan Cher Lock) teams up with his sister, his cousin, and his snarky robot Watson to solve the mystery of his Auntie’s missing heirloom cookbook. Sherlock Sam is earnest, he learned all about problem-solving from Logicomix, he’s annoyed that adults keep pinching his chubby cheeks, and he’s motivated by food. This book made me hungry: it’s packed full of Singaporean delicacies (Sherlock Sam’s love of his Auntie’s ayam buah keluak is the main reason he wants to solve the case quickly).

This is an illustrated chapter book (though Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Kids imprint is known for graphic novels) with delightful black and white spot illustrations by Andrew Tan.

My Mystery Mission: Marple Edition

The Murder at the Vicarage: A Miss Marple Mystery by Agatha Christie. Harper, 1930. 9780062073600.

murdervicarageI’ve decided that my personal reading challenge for 2017 is to sample the classics of the mystery and detective genre. I started early, with the first Sherlock Holmes novel in November. This was my first inkling of how difficult this will be, since I immediately wanted to read the rest of the stories! My next author was Agatha Christie. Now I want to read through all of her mysteries, too. I had only known that Christie’s books had well-crafted puzzles, I had no idea how funny she was!

In The Murder at the Vicarage, local blowhard Colonel Protheroe is murdered in the vicar’s study. No one in the village of St. Mary Mead is terribly sorry that he’s gone, and there is no shortage of suspects. The story is narrated by the vicar, Leonard Clement, who makes hilariously dry internal observations about the odd characters who cross his path as he tries to solve the crime. In a tiny village where everyone knows everyone’s business, a murder is almost gleefully appreciated. Everyone fancies themselves a detective and begins looking for clues. The most observant and knowledgeable about human nature (as well as being an avid mystery reader) is Miss Marple, one of the many spinsters who dominate local life. I loved the various winks to the reader about the conventions of mystery novels — this was written in 1930, as the genre was just beginning its golden age!