Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Case of the Weird Sisters: Charlotte Armstrong

Alice Brennan has decided she is going to marry her boss, Innes Whitlock. Innes is rich and definitely interested in Alice and her boyfriend has just jilted her. She is honest about it. When he proposes, she even tells him she is marrying him for his money.

On a car trip, they get stranded in his home town, Ogaunee, Michigan; Innes decides to visit his three half-sisters. Each sister has a serious disability. Gertrude is blind, Maud has lost her hearing, and Isobel has only one arm. And they are very, very strange.

Until Innes proposed to Alice, the three sisters expect to inherit from him. So when accidents start happening while they stay at the old Whittaker home, Alice and the chauffeur think that the sisters are trying to kill Innes before he changes his will.

MacDougal Duff, one of Alice's college professors, happens to be in Ogaunee  at the same time. He is featured briefly in the prologue, then later returns to help investigate the crime. Duff is a retired history professor in New York City and an amateur detective. Here's a description from the book:
He was bound for Pinebend, a few hours away, where there was an Oneida reservation. Duff was interested in Indians, this trip. He had been rambling through northern Wisconsin and in and out of the Upper Peninsula, collecting impressions for Duff's History of America, a most unorthodox work which would take him, he cheerfully hoped, the rest of his life to write, between murder cases. Ogaunee was a central place to stay.
I remember Armstrong's books as being just a bit more creepy and weird than I like but this one was "pleasantly creepy" as described on the cover.
"Pleasantly creepy, excellently written, filled with fascinating characters, suspense and honest detecting... difficult to put down." -- Boston Globe
I mostly agree with the quote from the Boston Globe. The story was engrossing and  very hard to put down. The only drawback for me was that the mystery and the working out of the solution was much too complex.

This story is a bit odd, the writing is unusual, and most of the people are odd. But I found it endearing and charming, and very much liked the writing. MacDougal Duff is the detective in three of Charlotte Armstrong's early novels. Otherwise, all of her novels were standalone mysteries.

I love the paperback edition that I read, pictured here. Sadly it fell apart after I read it. But the image of the three sisters depicted on the cover is not representative of what they looked like in the book. Each was different, in looks and temperament and much older than the women on the cover appear.

There was a film based on the book, titled The Three Weird Sisters. I haven't seen it and don't know much about, but the location was moved to Wales and the story changed a bit.

I read this book in early October, immediately after reading this post at Clothes in Books (by guest blogger Colm). Two other good reviews of this book are at Beneath the Stains of Time and At the Scene of the Crime.

I read another book by Armstrong, The Unsuspected, in November 2018, and I enjoyed it even more. It was made into a movie with Claude Rains, which was also very good. I will be reviewing that book soonish. I am sorry I waited so long to start reading Charlotte Armstrong's novels again.


Publisher:   Berkley Medallion Books, 1970. Orig. pub. 1943.
Length:      192 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Michigan, USA
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

A Colder Kind of Death: Gail Bowen

Gail Bowen is the author of an 18-book series featuring Joanne Kilbourn, a Canadian political analyst and college professor who lives in Regina, Saskatchewan. I recently read the fourth book in this series, A Colder Kind of Death, which won the Arthur Ellis award for Best Novel in 1995.

In the first book in the series, Joanne is a widow with three children, the oldest nearing college age. By the third book, she had adopted a fourth child, the daughter of an old friend who died. Most of the books focus in some way on her family and her family life is prominent in the stories. This story involves events related to the death of her husband, a subject that has haunted Joanne for years.

First paragraphs:
Three minutes before the Hallowe'en edition of “Canada This Week” went on the air I learned that the man who murdered my husband had been shot to death. 
A technician was kneeling in front of me, adjusting my mike. Her hair was smoothed under a black skull-­cap, and she was wearing a black leotard and black tights. Her name was Leslie Martin, and she was dressed as a bat. 
... I glanced at the TV monitor behind her. 
At first, I ­didn’t recognize the face on the screen. The long blond hair and the pale goat-­like eyes were familiar, but I ­couldn’t place him. Then the still photograph was gone. In its place was the scene that had played endlessly in my head during the black months after Ian’s death. But these pictures weren’t in my head. The images on the TV were real. The desolate stretch of highway; the snow swirling in the air; the Volvo station wagon with the door open on the driver’s side; and on the highway beside the car, my husband’s body with a dark and bloody spillage where his head should have been.
The face on the screen was Ian Kilbourn's killer, Kevin Tarpley, and he had just been shot and killed while in prison. Several days after that, Tarpley’s sinister wife, Maureen, is discovered dead wearing a scarf that belongs to Joanne, which puts her under suspicion. The investigation into both recent deaths lead to old secrets and surprises for Joanne.

This book does not have a holiday theme but it begins on Halloween and continues through to the days before Christmas. Gail is more actively involved in looking for the murderer than in some of the earlier books. There are many characters, and, as usual, I had trouble keeping track of them.

For me, this was the best book in the series so far. The pacing is good and the story never bogs down.

Links to my reviews of the Joanne Kilbourn series, so far:

1. Deadly Appearances (1990)
2. Murder at the Mendel (1991)
3. The Wandering Soul Murders (1992)


Publisher:   McClelland & Stewart, 2011 (orig. pub. 1995)
Length:       228 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Joanne Kilbourn #4
Setting:      Saskatchewan, Canada
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: C. W. Grafton

Jess London, a young lawyer, murders his despicable brother-in-law. When London's sister is suspected of the crime, he confesses to the crime. Initially, the confession is not believed but later the police decide to accuse him of the crime. By that time, his sister has been cleared, and London retracts his statement. He decides to act as his own lawyer and plead not guilty.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was written in 1950, and set in 1940, in a small town in Kentucky. It is a well-written book, with a complex plot which I found very believable, and interesting characters. The last third of the book is taken up with the court room drama.

The story is very unusual; we know who the killer is and why it happened. But he is also telling the story in first person narrative. Do we root for him to go free or should justice prevail? Because of this, tension is maintained until the very end.

C. W. Grafton was the father of Sue Grafton, and is now best known for his  relationship to her. Of his four novels, three were mysteries. This was his last novel, and I believe it is the best known, considered by some a classic. He was a practicing attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, and his three mysteries were set in a fictional county in Kentucky.

A quote from Sue Grafton in an article in the LA Times, February 18, 1990:
"My father taught me a lot about writing," Grafton says, "even though he himself eventually abandoned it for his law practice. Still, he often talked about the process of writing, about keeping language simple, about the importance of transitions and paying attention to small details in a scene."


Publisher:   Perennial Library, 1980 (orig. publ. 1950)
Length:      338 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Kentucky, 1940
Genre:       Inverted Mystery
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2015.

Monday, January 14, 2019

European Reading Challenge 2018: Wrap Up Post

This is my wrap up post for the 2018 European Reading Challenge. The goal was to read and review five books set in different European countries and by different authors. I enjoyed reading these books and will be signing up for this challenge in 2019.

My biggest problem is getting books reviewed but I made an effort to get most of the books that I read for this challenge reviewed.  I have linked the title to posts if I wrote one, otherwise I have included a short summary and comments.

The Whip Hand by Victor Canning (Croatia)
The hero, Rex Carver, visits many countries in this adventure, but he spends a good amount of time in Yugoslavia (1960s) in the area which is now Croatia.

Lumen by Ben Pastor (Poland)

The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall (Germany)

Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman (Hungary)
The first part of the book is set in Salzburg, Austria; 2nd and 3rd parts are mainly in Budapest, Hungary. Also some of the 2nd part takes place in Israel.

The Black Seraphim by Michael Gilbert (UK)

A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson (Portugal)

Eva's Eye by Karin Fossum (Norway)
The story begins with a woman discovering a body while walking on a river bank with her young daughter. The woman is Eva Magnus, and soon we learn that she is also linked to another unsolved case, the murder of a prostitute.  The police get to work on figuring out how the two cases are related. I enjoyed this first book in the Inspector Konrad Sejer series very much, although I found the ending quite sad.

Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel (Spain)

The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri (Italy)
The second Inspector Montalbano mystery, set in Italy, part of a long-running series. Montalbano finds a cave filled with artifacts and the bodies of two young lovers who have been dead for 50 years. I had read the previous book in the series but had forgotten how much of an independent loner the inspector is. The story is very complex.

Faithful Place by Tana French (Ireland)
Set in Dublin, this novel features Frank Mackey, a Dublin detective working in the Undercover department. Frank returns to his old neighborhood and the family he left 22 years earlier to investigate a possible crime. Another great story by this author, my favorite of her books ... so far.

Night Rounds by Helene Tursten (Sweden)

Blood & Rubles by Stuart M. Kaminsky (Russia)

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker (France)
The first installment in a wonderful new series (to me) that follows the exploits of Benoît Courrèges (Bruno for short), a policeman in a small French village. This seemed like a fantasy because the life in the village is (at least on the surface) so rustic. That description makes it sound on the cozy side, and it is not that at all. Although this book is heavy on the details of Bruno's past and the setting of the series, I am sure I am going to enjoy more of these books.

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg (Denmark)

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

True Detective: Max Allan Collins

True Detective is a historical mystery, with a private detective as the protagonist. Likable, not damaged, but not perfect either. And set in a very interesting time and place: Chicago during Prohibition, early 1930s.

Nate Heller has always wanted to be a detective, and started out in the Chicago police. After having to go along with some illegal activities within the department, he decides that isn't the type of detective he wants to be, and sets himself up as a private investigator. He doesn't have much money but he is very resourceful and has some useful friends.

The author, Max Allan Collins, sets the stories for this series alongside real historical events. In this book, some of the real characters are obvious... Eliot Ness and George Raft for example. There are a lot of other real people involved, but I did not know enough history to recognize many of them, so it did not spoil my enjoyment at all. The story begins in 1932, at the end of Prohibition, and includes the election of Franklin Roosevelt, and the World's Fair of 1933.

I loved how this was written and I found Nate Heller to be a fantastic character. The story is told from his point of view in first person, which I always enjoy. It is on the hard-boiled side, with no coziness at all, and a good bit of sex and violence.

Several sections of the book begin with period photos from the time: Maxwell Street in Chicago, Hooverville, the Chicago Water Tower, the Chicago World's Fair.

Max Allan Collins is a very prolific and versatile author. He has written several other popular series: the Frank Nolan series, the Quarry series, the Mallory series, and a Disaster series. Between 1977 and 1993, he scripted Chester Gould's Dick Tracy comic strip. And much more.


Publisher:   Tor Books, 1986 (orig. publ. 1983)
Length:      370 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Nathan Heller, #1
Setting:      Chicago, 1932-33 
Genre:       Historical Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book... a long time ago.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

2019 TBR Pile Challenge!

Roof Beam Reader’s Official TBR Pile Challenge is back for its EIGHTH YEAR! And this will be my 5th year participating.

The idea is:
1) Read 12 books that have been sitting on your TBR shelf for at least a year.
2) The books must be listed in advance and the post up by January 15, 2019. Two extra alternate titles are allowed in case you run into a title that you cannot read or finish for any reason.
3) Books must be read and must be reviewed (doesn’t have to be too fancy) in order to count as completed.

Last year I did not do so well with the challenge. Of the total of fourteen books, I read 11 of them, which is not bad. But of those 11, I only reviewed 4 of them.

So here is my list and we will see how well I do with it this year.

  • Deadly Nightshade (1940) by Elizabeth Daly
  • The Iron Gates (1945) by Margaret Millar
  • The Long November (1946) by James Benson Nablo
  • Perfect Gallows (1988) by Peter Dickinson 
  • A Chill Rain In January (1990) by L.R. Wright
  • The Axeman's Jazz (1991) by Julie Smith
  • The Summons (1995) by Peter Lovesey
  • Tarnished Icons (1997) by Stuart Kaminsky
  • What Never Happens (2004) by Anne Holt
  • The Secret in Their Eyes (2005) by Eduardo Sacheri
  • City of Shadows (2006) by Ariana Franklin
  • The Shanghai Factor (2013) by Charles McCarry


  • Death in Amsterdam (1962) by Nicolas Freeling
  • Murder in Mykonos (2009) by Jeffrey Siger

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Corridors of Death: Ruth Dudley Edwards

The Robert Amiss series consists of twelve books published between 1982 and 2012. In this first novel in the series, Amiss is a civil servant, working under departmental head Sir Nicholas Clark. His boss is murdered and there are many suspects.

From the author's website:
Battered to death with a piece of abstract sculpture titled 'Reconciliation,' Whitehall departmental head Sir Nicholas Clark is claimed by his colleagues to have been a fine and respected public servant cut off in his prime. Bewildered by the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Whitehall, Scotland Yard's Superintendent Jim Milton recognizes a potential ally in Clark's young Private Secretary, Robert Amiss. 
Milton soon learns from Amiss how Whitehall works: that it can be Machiavellian and potentially homicidal, that Sir Nicholas was obnoxious and widely loathed, that he had spent the weeks before his murder upsetting and antagonizing family and associates, and that his last morning on earth had been spent gleefully observing the success of his plan to embarrass his minister and his department publicly. And they still need to discover who wielded the blunt instrument.
Even with the explanations Amiss gives of the complex relationships within the British Civil Service and goverment, I was hopeless confused. Fortunately, that did not matter much and the resulting story is very entertaining. Many of the characters were not terribly likable but were interesting. The protagonist and the policeman he works with are both good characters (and sympathetic). Amiss wants to solve the puzzle (and keep his job) and fortunately has an alibi for the time when the crime was committed. The policeman is committed to his job, a really nice guy, and has a happy home life.

I found this book fun, full of subtle humor. The ending was a surprise, and I always like that. Of course, I want to read more of the series, and have already ordered #2 in the series, The Saint Valentine's Day Murders.

Other resources:

  • At Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., Margot puts the Spotlight on Corridors of Death. (blog no longer available)
  • Ruth Dudley Edwards gives an overview of the Robert Amiss series at Mystery Fanfare. Later on in the series, Baroness "Jack" Troutbeck becomes a regular character in the stories.


Publisher:   St. Martin's Press, 1982 
Length:      186 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Robert Amiss, #1
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Reading summary, December 2018

I had another very good reading month in December. I enjoyed all the books I read, although some were more challenging than others. I finished up the year with 112 books, many more than I expected to read.

Classic Fiction in December

A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens
This was a wonderful read. Not only is the book a pleasant and humorous read, while giving us a beautiful story of redemption and finding new happiness, it also shows us today what life was like in the 1800's. See more on the book here.

Crime Fiction in December

Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (1966) by Harry Kemelman
This is #2 in the Rabbi Small series and a re-read for me. I read the early books in the series back in the 1970s and 80s, and I remember liking them a lot. Today, the attitudes and behaviors in the book are surprising to me, but this is a good picture of those times. And a great way to learn more about the Jewish religion and laws. I will be reading more of them.
Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1992) by Peter Høeg
A very young boy that Smilla has befriended is dead as the result of a fall off a building. The death is almost immediately declared to be accidental, but Smilla disagrees and pushes for an investigation. This was also a re-read and I appreciated it even more the second time. For my summary and thoughts, check here.

At Ease with the Dead (1990) by Walter Satterthwait
Joshua Croft is a Santa Fe private investigator working for the Mondragón Agency, owned by Rita Mondragón. He is hired by a Navajo man to find and return the remains of a Navajo leader who died 100 years earlier. He heads to El Paso, Texas, where the investigation stirs up a lot of trouble. This is the second in a series of five books. I love the books for the combination of a serious mystery with humor and local history.

Salamander (1994) by J. Robert Janes
This is #4 in the St-Cyr & Kohler series. Set in the days leading up to Christmas 1942, in Occupied France. For more on this book, see this post.
Corridors of Death (1981) by Ruth Dudley Edwards
This is the first book in a series of 12 books about Robert Amiss, a low level member of the British civil service. In this book, his boss, a devious and despicable man, is killed during a meeting of many government officials and businessmen.  Amiss offers to help the police inspector in charge of the murder case with some background on how the civil service works and provide his insider knowledge. The mystery is secondary to the humor and the picture of the civil service and government at the time. Another very good read.
A Time to Kill (1989) by John Grisham
I have watched the film based on this book several times, but I resisted reading the book for many years due to the length and the subject matter. This is a story of revenge, about a black man who kills two white men to avenge the rape of his ten-year-old daughter, and is tried for that crime in a small town in Mississippi. It is not an easy read, but I was very impressed with the book, especially since it was Grisham's first novel.