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Just in case you didn’t believe me when I mentioned it in this post

October 2019 from Dean Street Press.

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Seriously, who would accept a one-way ticket to an isolated mansion in the middle of nowhere for a will-reading? Have they never read a mystery novel before? You know full well that a) there’s going to be a thunderstorm, b) the will is going to have some weird conditions attached to it, and c) murder is most definitely on the cards.

But would-be model Pete and her artist boyfriend, Cartwright, decide that her distinctly unpleasant uncle’s money would be rather nice, and are on the next plane to Haiti. And before you know it, events a), b) and c) have all been ticked off, and a night of peril is on the cards. Oh, and there’s a zombie as well. Zoiks!

Theodore Roscoe wrote, I gather, primarily for pulp magazines and this comes across from the writing. Everything is presented in fast-paced, equal-length chapters, most of which have a murder and a cliffhanger of sorts at the end. At times, with the chaos that the events at the mansion descends into escalates and escalates, you have to wonder if he is going to pull the story off. The murders are frequent, some veering into the impossible crime category, and the killer, is, to be honest, quite guessable – I think there’s really only two other viable candidates – but what appears to be a kaleidoscope of chaos resolves itself neatly into a tidy whole. A massively unbelievable tidy whole – it almost makes And Then There Were None make sense – but if you can accept the ridiculous plan, then it does tie together nicely.

Roscoe had visited Haiti and his descriptive sections are beautifully detailed, and he has a nice line in antagonistic dialogue. But it would be wrong to ignore the elephant in the book. Namely the racism.

Roscoe paints all of his characters with a broad brush, mostly picking on one or two character traits and focussing on them. The German character, who is basically a comedy Nazi, and doesn’t really do anything to reach beyond that label. Similarly the British colonial character. But when the rest of the cast are Haitian natives… well, Roscoe lets himself down by concentrating their skin colour. Roscoe had visited Haiti so it may well be that this was the way people spoke about each other on the island at the time, but it is made very uncomfortable reading. It’s all very well to invoke the Haitian belief in zombies in the plot, but the number of times the word “darkey” is used, primarily in character dialogue, would be difficult for the modern reader to accept, especially as that number is more than zero. And that is by no means the only word that is used in a racial way. These characters, rivals fighting over an inheritance, are meant to be unpleasant, but the language used to describe them is not something that I enjoyed reading.

It’s a real shame, as I think without it, this would be a much more popular book. The pace is strong and the plot is clever, and fans of the pulpy action-mystery genre will find much to enjoy here. But the reader will have to choose to look past the datedness of some of the attitudes. I leave it to the reader whether they want to make that choice or not.

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First published in the Strand Magazine in 1911, The Adventure of the Red Circle is the third story collected in His Last Bow.

What’s It About?

Holmes is approached by a Mrs Warren, a landlady who is concerned about the secretive nature of her new tenant, who only communicates by brief written messages and, after the first day, has never been actually seen.

Is It A Mystery?

Oh my word, no. Apart from working out what some flashes of light from a window represent (yes, it is that), and recognising some basic Italian, this is hardly a puzzle the reader can solve.

Is It Any Good?

No. It’s really poor. It’s one of those tales where it seems Doyle wanted to tell the tale of the Red Circle and shoehorned Holmes into an introduction before dumping some exposition on us. There is nothing that Holmes does here that couldn’t have been resolved by kicking down the door of the tenant’s room. Oh, and the Red Circle exposition is pretty dull, too.

Anything Else?

A couple of pieces of trivia that make this seem more interesting that it actually is. It’s the last appearance of Inspector Gregson (out of four), the next-most-frequently appearing policeman after Lestrade. And also a radio play version starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce aired on the same day that Pearl Harbour was attacked.

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It was one of Washington Poe’s most complex cases. A murder without a body. Poe was convinced that Jared Keaton, the celebrity chef, had murdered his own daughter. Despite the lack of a body, Elizabeth’s disappearance soon became a murder enquiry, and Keaton became Poe’s prime suspect. The case was successful, and Keaton began a life sentence in prison. But Elizabeth was never found…

… until six years later, when she walked into a library, where the police were holding a drop-in session. Elizabeth Keaton was alive. Jared Keaton was innocent. And Poe was wrong. And it seems things are going to get a lot worse for him very quickly indeed.

I reviewed The Puppet Show last week – an absolutely cracking book, apart from the brief bit about the testicles – because I had this lined up. It is so often the case that when books are praised as much as The Puppet Show seems to be, I end up disappointed by it to various degrees. For example, as much as I enjoyed Steve Kavanagh’s Thirteen, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all a bit silly. But The Puppet Show delivered on all counts – a well-plotted edge-of-the-seat thriller, coupled with a whodunit, plus a what-the-hell-was-going-on ideal. And while the villain’s plan is hugely complicated, it didn’t seem that way while reading it – just in hindsight. And that is the art of a great mystery/thriller writer – pulling the reader along with them without making them look over their shoulder during the ride.

But on to Black Summer. We’ve moved on a little from the end of The Puppet Show, but Poe finds himself dragged back to Cumbria by the Keaton case, bringing along Tilly Bradshaw, the probably-autistic analyst, now apparently Poe’s best friend (and vice versa) and heading up her own team of analysts. Oh, and Edgar the dog, he’s back too, even if he misses out on any really character development. Shame.

It’s nice to read about a maverick cop whose colleagues actually trust him, and who he trusts. Rather than keeping secrets and “going rogue”, he has a team around him that believe in him, and even learn to trust him after mistakes made during the Immolation Man case. Yes, Poe has issues, but they always play in support of the narrative, rather than replacing it.

And the plot is a cracker. With the reader kept guessing all the way through as to who is doing what to who, it’s a genuine page-turner, just like its predecessor.

If I had a niggle, I’d have liked to have seen a little more of Tilly in the narrative – the focus is always on Poe but Tilly seems in this one to be relegated to more of a supporting character, rather than almost a co-lead as she was in the first book. In that one, her relationship with Poe (and indeed almost everyone else) was still developing, whereas here she seems much more sorted and accepted. Hopefully next time round (and Book Three is on the way), she will get a little more development.

But apart from that minor niggle, this is just as outstanding as the first book. This has rapidly become my favourite new crime fiction series, so roll on Book Three! And presumably the author finding a third way of doing the testicle thing…

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First published in the Strand Magazine in 1911, The Adventure of the Red Circle is the third story collected in His Last Bow.

What’s It About?

Holmes is approached by a Mrs Warren, a landlady who is concerned about the secretive nature of her new tenant, who only communicates by brief written messages and, after the first day, has never been actually seen.

Is It A Mystery?

Oh my word, no. Apart from working out what some flashes of light from a window represent (yes, it is that), and recognising some basic Italian, this is hardly a puzzle the reader can solve.

Is It Any Good?

No. It’s really poor. It’s one of those tales where it seems Doyle wanted to tell the tale of the Red Circle and shoehorned Holmes into an introduction before dumping some exposition on us. There is nothing that Holmes does here that couldn’t have been resolved by kicking down the door of the tenant’s room. Oh, and the Red Circle exposition is pretty dull, too.

Anything Else?

A couple of pieces of trivia that make this seem more interesting that it actually is. It’s the last appearance of Inspector Gregson (out of four), the next-most-frequently appearing policeman after Lestrade. And also a radio play version starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce aired on the same day that Pearl Harbour was attacked.

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It was one of Washington Poe’s most complex cases. A murder without a body. Poe was convinced that Jared Keaton, the celebrity chef, had murdered his own daughter. Despite the lack of a body, Elizabeth’s disappearance soon became a murder enquiry, and Keaton became Poe’s prime suspect. The case was successful, and Keaton began a life sentence in prison. But Elizabeth was never found…

… until six years later, when she walked into a library, where the police were holding a drop-in session. Elizabeth Keaton was alive. Jared Keaton was innocent. And Poe was wrong. And it seems things are going to get a lot worse for him very quickly indeed.

I reviewed The Puppet Show last week – an absolutely cracking book, apart from the brief bit about the testicles – because I had this lined up. It is so often the case that when books are praised as much as The Puppet Show seems to be, I end up disappointed by it to various degrees. For example, as much as I enjoyed Steve Kavanagh’s Thirteen, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all a bit silly. But The Puppet Show delivered on all counts – a well-plotted edge-of-the-seat thriller, coupled with a whodunit, plus a what-the-hell-was-going-on ideal. And while the villain’s plan is hugely complicated, it didn’t seem that way while reading it – just in hindsight. And that is the art of a great mystery/thriller writer – pulling the reader along with them without making them look over their shoulder during the ride.

But on to Black Summer. We’ve moved on a little from the end of The Puppet Show, but Poe finds himself dragged back to Cumbria by the Keaton case, bringing along Tilly Bradshaw, the probably-autistic analyst, now apparently Poe’s best friend (and vice versa) and heading up her own team of analysts. Oh, and Edgar the dog, he’s back too, even if he misses out on any really character development. Shame.

It’s nice to read about a maverick cop whose colleagues actually trust him, and who he trusts. Rather than keeping secrets and “going rogue”, he has a team around him that believe in him, and even learn to trust him after mistakes made during the Immolation Man case. Yes, Poe has issues, but they always play in support of the narrative, rather than replacing it.

And the plot is a cracker. With the reader kept guessing all the way through as to who is doing what to who, it’s a genuine page-turner, just like its predecessor.

If I had a niggle, I’d have liked to have seen a little more of Tilly in the narrative – the focus is always on Poe but Tilly seems in this one to be relegated to more of a supporting character, rather than almost a co-lead as she was in the first book. In that one, her relationship with Poe (and indeed almost everyone else) was still developing, whereas here she seems much more sorted and accepted. Hopefully next time round (and Book Three is on the way), she will get a little more development.

But apart from that minor niggle, this is just as outstanding as the first book. This has rapidly become my favourite new crime fiction series, so roll on Book Three! And presumably the author finding a third way of doing the testicle thing…

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I think I could probably write a whole blog-post on one aspect of this re-issue. “A Devon Mystery”? Really? Was that a sub-category of Lorac’s work, as Fire In The Thatch is also “A Devon Mystery”? Well, if there is a big contingent of mystery lovers out there desperate for murders in Devon, can I direct you towards Kate Ellis and Michael Jecks while you wait for the next Lorac one – if there are more Devon ones to come, that is.

Anyway, I reviewed this one, one of the better books by Lorac that I’ve come across, a while ago and thought I’d repost the review. Here it is.

The village of Millham Prior is an isolated spot in Devon, and the destination for Doctor Raymond Ferens and his wife, Anne, for the beginning of their new life. Needing a more peaceful location following his traumatic war, Millham Prior seems just the place to take over a country practice. The locals seem friendly and welcoming, both the gentry and the normal village folk. But then there’s Sister Monica…

Sister Monica runs the local children’s home with an iron fist, and a number of the locals seem to have concerns about her. It seems that a year ago, one of her charges died, falling into the water below the mill – the mill race. And then Sister Monica is found dead, apparently suffering the same fate. The villagers seem willing to believe that it was an accident, but the local police are less sure. Enter Inspector Macdonald…

This one was recommended to me by… I think it was Curtis Evans over at The Passing Tramp, as one of the stand-outs of Lorac’s output, also known as Speak Justly Of The Dead in the US. There are 48 Lorac novels featuring Inspector Robert Macdonald and this is one of the later ones – book 38 in fact.

You may recall that I wrote about the first “Bodies” conference at the British Library when I queried Ngaio Marsh’s membership of the Crime Queens. I suggested Gladys Mitchell as a replacement – yeah, I know – but maybe Lorac was a better suggestion. There’s a lot of similarity in the structure of Lorac and Marsh, where they both take time to develop the setting and then wheel in the police once the murder has been committed. The difference is that Lorac is a lot better at the detection element.

Having said that, there’s a sense of disappointment here when the Ferens get sidelined once Macdonald shows up, as they are interesting characters in the build-up, but there is here a plot-related reason for it, as there is a running thread concerning the village’s reaction to the crime while the police investigate. It also does fall into the trap, not uncommon in the Golden Age, of trying to convince the reader too early as to who the killer is, when we’re not going to be fooled due to the page count.

Regardless, this is a solidly entertaining murder mystery, but still not the outstanding work by Lorac that I was hoping for. I wouldn’t shell out the £100+ that it’s going for on Abebooks,  but the alternate title is much, much cheaper… Worth A Look.

Well, obviously it’s out now from the British Library, so thankfully you can all take a look. While I’m still waiting for that outstanding Lorac title, this is one of the better ones.

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June 1914 and the world is on the eve of war. But in London, a more personal tragedy is about to take place. Three bizarre attempted suicides raise the suspicions of DI Silas Quinn and his team – but Quinn is unwilling to share all of his concerns with his colleagues. The suits that the suicides discarded before jumping bring back memories from a dark part of his life – a life in an asylum.

What is causing the suicides? Is it related to Timon Medway, a psychopath from Quinn’s past, currently a resident at the asylum. And can Quinn keep his own sanity as he searches for the truth?

A good while ago, I read the third Silas Quinn mystery, The Dark Palace, and it was safe to say that I admired it, rather than enjoyed it. It was dark, very well written with a tortured lead, but it felt more like a story about a mystery than a whodunit. Fair enough, that’s the writer’s choice – not everyone has to write books specifically tailored to my choices.

So why come back to the series if it wasn’t quite for me? Pretty simple, I met the author recently at a book launch and had a very interesting chat with him about writing, detective stories and all sorts of things. So I figured I’d give the series another try.

Again, if you are looking for a classic-style mystery, then you should probably look elsewhere. While there is an element of whodunit here, it’s structured more on the lines of a thriller with a twist, and an impressive character piece.

Quinn probably wins some sort of award for most tortured lead in detective fiction – dead family, past insanity, problems with authority – but it does make him an intriguing focus for the story. The asylum scenes are particularly effective, but one has to perhaps questions the lengths he goes to in order to go undercover. Yes, it works, but did he really need to sh.. no, family blog, not going to go there.

Again, it’s a book I admired rather than enjoyed, but it’s an engrossing read. And I’m looking forward to taking a look at the next title in the series, as Quinn finally gets a chink of light in his life. Fingers crossed he doesn’t mess it up…

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Everyone reads a book for a different reason. A favourite author? Possibly. An eye-catching cover? Seems reasonable, although given the current trends, possibly a similar cover to a book you’ve enjoyed before. Maybe it’s got good word of mouth. Maybe it’s a long lost title that you’ve stumbled across in a charity shop.

Or maybe it’s because it features a murder on a bus. That’s the case here, anyway.

There are three cases in the opening Brian Flynn titles where plot points are shared with other titles. They are all coincidences – even the one where the other book was released a year or so earlier, as Flynn’s book was being dragged from publisher to publisher at that point. One, the one which shares an idea with Gladys Mitchell, I’m convinced is inspired by a news story of the time, but I’ve no idea which one. And this one has a murder on the top deck of a bus, just like Murder En Route. I’m an idiot, but one determined to research properly the introductions for the upcoming Flynn re-releases, so one transatlantic book delivery later…

Murder En Route is a cracking book. A man is found strangled alone on the top deck of a bus, when nobody went up or down the stairs. And that’s just part of the mystery.

This is not a cracking book.

Well, the bus is not relevant to the story. Boo! The villain is seen running down the stairs before the conductor can get a look at his face. The victim, you see, had been researching the murder of one Mr Fortescue a year of so previous, and may well have gotten too close to the actual murderer’s identity. Enter Detective Van Dusen Ormsberry, who failed to catch the murderer the first time round. Can he catch them this time? And if he does catch them, can he remember who the villain was? Because I couldn’t…

Not a fan of this one, I’m afraid. Dorothy Stockbridge Tillet, under the pseudonym John Stephen Strange, wrote twenty or so mystery novels, but I’m in no rush to try another. The suspects are an uninspiring bunch, all of them with an underhand agenda to either cover up the murder, implicate someone else in the murder, blackmail someone for something or other, or even hire a killer to do their dirty work for them. And that’s not even mentioning the behaviour of one of them when their plans go wrong, dismissed with a distinct lack of concern by the authorities.

And, as I said, when the villain was unmasked, I had to flick back through the text to try and remember who they were – and indeed if they even had appeared earlier in the book (they had).

Ah, the things I do for dear old Brian. At least I’ve now read the two primary Golden Age murder-on-a-moving-bus mysteries. That’s something, I suppose…

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I think I could probably write a whole blog-post on one aspect of this re-issue. “A Devon Mystery”? Really? Was that a sub-category of Lorac’s work, as Fire In The Thatch is also “A Devon Mystery”? Well, if there is a big contingent of mystery lovers out there desperate for murders in Devon, can I direct you towards Kate Ellis and Michael Jecks while you wait for the next Lorac one – if there are more Devon ones to come, that is.

Anyway, I reviewed this one, one of the better books by Lorac that I’ve come across, a while ago and thought I’d repost the review. Here it is.

The village of Millham Prior is an isolated spot in Devon, and the destination for Doctor Raymond Ferens and his wife, Anne, for the beginning of their new life. Needing a more peaceful location following his traumatic war, Millham Prior seems just the place to take over a country practice. The locals seem friendly and welcoming, both the gentry and the normal village folk. But then there’s Sister Monica…

Sister Monica runs the local children’s home with an iron fist, and a number of the locals seem to have concerns about her. It seems that a year ago, one of her charges died, falling into the water below the mill – the mill race. And then Sister Monica is found dead, apparently suffering the same fate. The villagers seem willing to believe that it was an accident, but the local police are less sure. Enter Inspector Macdonald…

This one was recommended to me by… I think it was Curtis Evans over at The Passing Tramp, as one of the stand-outs of Lorac’s output, also known as Speak Justly Of The Dead in the US. There are 48 Lorac novels featuring Inspector Robert Macdonald and this is one of the later ones – book 38 in fact.

You may recall that I wrote about the first “Bodies” conference at the British Library when I queried Ngaio Marsh’s membership of the Crime Queens. I suggested Gladys Mitchell as a replacement – yeah, I know – but maybe Lorac was a better suggestion. There’s a lot of similarity in the structure of Lorac and Marsh, where they both take time to develop the setting and then wheel in the police once the murder has been committed. The difference is that Lorac is a lot better at the detection element.

Having said that, there’s a sense of disappointment here when the Ferens get sidelined once Macdonald shows up, as they are interesting characters in the build-up, but there is here a plot-related reason for it, as there is a running thread concerning the village’s reaction to the crime while the police investigate. It also does fall into the trap, not uncommon in the Golden Age, of trying to convince the reader too early as to who the killer is, when we’re not going to be fooled due to the page count.

Regardless, this is a solidly entertaining murder mystery, but still not the outstanding work by Lorac that I was hoping for. I wouldn’t shell out the £100+ that it’s going for on Abebooks,  but the alternate title is much, much cheaper… Worth A Look.

Well, obviously it’s out now from the British Library, so thankfully you can all take a look. While I’m still waiting for that outstanding Lorac title, this is one of the better ones.

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