#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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#593: Home Sweet Homicide (1944) by Craig Rice

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As a rule, I start getting a bit nervous if it takes me more than three days to finish a book.  I read Home Sweet Homicide (1944), the first of Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig’s novels I’ve ever attempted, over one week and one day and, quite honestly, would have happily kept reading it for another month or two.  I’ve never gotten a sense of her as an author from her short stories — largely, I’d imagine, because of the need to cram in character and plot in less space — and, if I’m honest, didn’t relish the screwball antics her reputation seemed to promise.  Well, no fear.  This isn’t screwball, it’s not especially tightly plotted, and it’s possibly the best book I’ve read in a long ol’ time.

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