#969: The Chocolate Cobweb (1948) by Charlotte Armstrong

Chocolate Cobweb

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There really is no accounting for taste. When I read The New Sonia Wayward (1960) by Michael Innes following a rave review from Aidan, I found it rather wanting; now that I’ve read The Chocolate Cobweb (1948) by Charlotte Armstrong following a rave review from Aidan, I wonder if he praised it enough, because it’s very probably the best novel of pure domestic suspense that I’ve ever encountered. We can add this to the likes of The Voice of the Corpse (1948) by Max Murray on the list of Books I Should Not Like Yet Absolutely Loved, an experience so enjoyable that it stalled my reading for about a week since I had no idea what I could possibly follow it up with.

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#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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#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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#784: The Widening Stain (1942) by W. Bolingbroke Johnson [a.p.a. by Morris Bishop]

Widening Stain

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To Miss Gilda Gorham, Chief Cataloguer of an unnamed American university’s library — a building oft-expanded, and now an “architectural emetic” — the death of one colleague amongst the stacks may be regarded as a misfortune; the death of two, however, added to the disappearance of a staggeringly rare and expensive mansucript, has the air of carelessness about it. Who among the amicable staff of the university could have perpetrated such acts? And why? So, for ill-defined reasons, she puts any discomfiture aside and launches an investigation of her own. Naturally, it is not too long before all manner of clandestine activites begin to creep out…

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#635: A Taste for Honey (1941) by H.F. Heard

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It’s difficult to know where to begin with A Taste for Honey (1941), the first of three ‘Mr. Mycroft’ novels by H.F. Heard.  The core conceit is delightfully barmy — I shall avoid naming it in this review to preserve it for the curious — and played with an impressively straight face, but beyond that there’s really only a short story’s worth of content here, spread thinly over 189 generously-margined pages.  With only one plot-line, only really three characters, and nothing to widen the universe or engage the mind in any meaningful way past the halfway point (when the ending will already be painfully obvious to anyone), this really is just a latter-day Holmes pastiche with verbal diarrhoea.

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