#963: The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941) by Stuart Palmer

Happy Hooligan

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With “Europe [having] exploded”, crime-solving New York schoolteacher Hildegard Withers is holidaying in Los Angeles and, by dint of being recognised from a photo in the paper, is hired by a film studio as a consultant on a new film about Lizzie Borden. When, on her first day, the man in the office next to hers dies from a broken neck, Miss Withers becomes — for reasons that completed eluded this reader — convinced that he was murdered and sets about trying to find his killer. Thankfully, plenty of suspicious types present themselves for consideration, as the prospect of blackmail, secrets, and a general dissatisfaction with the victim’s comportment all float to the surface.

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#948: The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe (1938) by Erle Stanley Gardner

Shoplifter's Shoe

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When charged with republishing the work of someone as prolific as Erle Stanley Gardner, the chief difficulty must surely be where to begin and where — crucially — to stop. As a creator of memorable, compelling, easily-communicated, and complex protagonists the man perhaps has no equal, but as a plotter his loosey-goosey tendencies can sometimes get the better of him…a fact demonstrated no more clearly than in the wild variation represented by the eighty-six Perry Mason books published between 1933 and 1973. So the (thus-far) four titles in that series put out by the American Mystery Classics range make interesting reading.

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#927: The Great Hotel Murder (1934) by Vincent Starrett

Great Hotel Murder

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The tension at the heart of the likes of the wonderful British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics ranges is that they’re reprinting some genuine classics — Home Sweet Homicide (1944) by Craig Rice, The Bride Wore Black (1940) by Cornell Woolrich — whose authors I’d love to comprise their output for the next few years, but likes of E.C.R. Lorac and Mary Robert Reinhart will sell plenty of books to people who aren’t me, despite me feeling better books are out there. So while it would be harsh to say that The Great Hotel Murder (1934) by Vincent Starrett feels like a wasted opportunity, I can safely say that I’ve now read as much Starrett as I have any interest in reading.

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#906: Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing

Vultures in the Sky

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Of the multitudinous ways that Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing is boring, perhaps the most irritating is the incessant padding between plot points that drags out discoveries or turn the Lantern of Suspicion upon someone so palpably innocent of any blame that you have to wonder if the author thought anyone would be paying attention. Eight people on the last train through Mexico before a workers’ strike hits should be a real cauldron of a setting, full of slow-building tension and — if clever misdirection among the tiny cast cannot be achieved — at least some doubt as to who the killer might be. It’s almost impressive how Downing fails on both counts.

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#873: The Odor of Violets, a.k.a. Eyes in the Night (1941) by Baynard Kendrick

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The hybrid mystery — typically, though not always, a blend of clue-gathering detection and pulse-racing thrills — is a tricky proposition, since it often smashes together two styles of writing and plotting that don’t make the most comfortable of bedfellows.  The best example, to my mind, is John Dickson Carr’s underappreciated masterpiece The Punch and Judy Murders, a.k.a. The Magic Lantern Murders (1936), published under his Carter Dickson nom de plume, which solves this oft-discordant clash by keeping  the breathless chases to its first three-quarters before revealing itself as a cannily-clued mystery in the closing stages.

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#870: The Eight of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr

Eight of Swords

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The recent undoing of whatever logjam had prevented the reissuing of John Dickson Carr’s novels is a cause for much celebration among fans of classic detective fiction. It Walks by Night (1930), Castle Skull (1931), The Lost Gallows (1931), The Corpse in the Waxworks (1932), Hag’s Nook (1933), The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), The Plague Court Murders (1934), The Crooked Hinge (1938), The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), She Died a Lady (1943), and Till Death Do Us Part (1944), can now be bought easily for sensible money, finally providing some company for The Hollow Man (1935), which had been flying the flag in bookshops toute seule for decades now.

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#858: The Bride Wore Black, a.k.a. Beware the Lady (1940) by Cornell Woolrich

Bride Wore Black

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Past Jim has a lot to answer for — this haircut, for one, or that fact that I cannot forget the embarrassment of 11:48am on 4th June 1997 — but my current frustration with him is how easily and summarily he dismissed the writing of Cornell Woolrich after reading the Nightwebs (1971) collection as part of the Orion Crime Masterworks series. Had Past Jim possessed a little more discernment (or, dare I say it, maturity), I could have been loving Woolrich’s work for the last two decades instead of coming to it so late. Yes, I got here eventually, via some short stories, some novellas, and a couple of American Mystery Classics reissues, but what is life without something to lament?

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#846: Eight Faces at Three (1939) by Craig Rice

Eight Faces at Three

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At the risk of upsetting the accepted order of things, I have a serious question: in placing Queens of Crime alongside Agatha Christie, why is the scope always so narrow?  The Sayers-Marsh-Allingham-Tey debate rages ever onward, but, after reading just two of her novels, I’m going to throw a hat labelled ‘Craig Rice’ into the ring and stand back to see what happens. Her debut Eight Faces at Three (1939) ain’t perfect, and the review will explain in more detail, but to summarise: buy this now, because we need to convince the American Mystery Classics that a full reprint of Craig Rice is something they should commit to. You can thank me later.

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#818: Waltz into Darkness (1947) by Cornell Woolrich [a.p.a. by William Irish]

Waltz into Darkness

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It’s fair to say that, in the course of writing this blog over the last six years, I have become known as something of a plot fiend. Atmosphere is lovely, memorable characters are preferable, social commentary perfectly acceptable, but what drew me to classic-era detective fiction was the possibilities of plot and plenty of it. On that front, Waltz into Darkness (1947), Cornell Woolrich’s 1880s-set epic of catfishing, revenge, and much more besides should leave me cold — heavy on emotion, laden with dread, fond of repetition to hammer home obvious points…everythng that should send me running. And yet, damn, I wish this probably 120,000-word book was twice as long.

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