Friday, November 20, 2020

Bait for Murder (1948)

Major characters:

Andrea Philbrick, mystery writer and our narrator

Pleasure crew of The Cormorant:
Ives Berrien, a plagiarist
Charlotte Quentin, his wife
Miles Granby, his agent

Pleasure crew of Xiphias:
Dick Eaton, author
Guy Philbrick, publisher, Andrea's husband
Dan Warner, writer's agent

Commercial crew of The Rover:
Tony Matarellis
Matt Matarellis

Commercial crew of The Three Sisters:
Olaf Magnusson
Seth Benton

Alice Chilton, wealthy cougar

Elisha Macomber

Locale: Penberthy Island, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Synopsis: Two pleasure swordfishing crews arrive on Penberthy Island. Guy Philbrick and the crew of Xiphias, from a publishing company; and the crew of The Cormorant, headed by Ives Berrien. Bad blood exists between them - Berrien has plagiarized and published work by Dick Eaton. Guy brings his wife, Andrea, along; but she prefers to remain on the island and work on her mystery story.

Berrien and crew quickly antagonize the commercial crew with their dishonest work. Twice they attempt to take swordfish which other crews are fishing. They collide with The Three Sisters, seriously injuring Olaf Magnusson. Berrien continues to make enemies among the locals, and as expected, turns up dead on his boat. The locals are surprised to find that Charlotte Quentin is married to him. Wealthy Alice Chilton shows up in her speedboat, she is after Berrien himself and is also quite annoyed to find him married. Alice looks like the prime suspect, but then she is killed as her speedboat runs up on the rocks.

Review: An excellent Knight, told from the unusual third-person aspect of a mystery writer, observer, and narrator Andrea Philbrick. The tensions between the pleasure fishermen and the locals is tangible and realistic. The same tensions exist here in Maine between locals and fishermen from away.

Berrien is a first rate cad and no one is sad to see him go. A couple more deaths pile up and may not be accidents. 

The story takes a surprising Agatha Christie-style turn at the end when the murderer is revealed. The solution skirts with fair play a bit, as some aspects were not revealed to the reader as they occurred. The end is eye-opening, however, and the ultimate ending a bit sad.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Death Came Dancing (1940)

Major characters:
  • Barbara Locke, assistant to Tod Richmond
  • Tod Richmond, owner of Tropical Tourist Agency
  • Liane Richmond, his predatory wife
  • Peter Scotland, newspaper reporter, friend of Tod
  • Sidney Bonfield, British diplomat
  • Mark Fleming, banker
  • Carol Fleming, his pregnant wife
  • Dr. Lucius Lear
  • Julia Lear, his wife
  • Eric Thurman, antique dealer
  • Gustav Nilsson, a trader
  • Elisha Macomber, investigator
  • Police Judge Urriola
Locale: Panama City

Synopsis: Barbara Locke, our protagonist, has come to Panama seeking glamour and excitement. She takes a job at Tropical Tourist Agency, as an assistant to owner Tod Richmond. Tod's wife, Liane, is a predator and has her eyes and claws out toward various possibilities: Sidney Bonfield, British diplomat; and Mark Fleming. 

Preparations are underway for a gala evening: the Pollera Ball. At a pre-gala cocktail gathering, Liane mentions she will be wearing her Tembleques, a priceless Panamanian gold hair ornament. The pairings for the ball indicate the dysfunction of the Richmond marriage: Tod is taking Barbara (instead of his wife), while Sidney Bonfield is taking Liane. After the ball, Barbara returns to her room to find Liane is dead and the Tembleques gone.

Elderly Julia Lear (Liane's aunt) is aghast, she is more upset that the tembleques are missing than her niece is dead. Later she receives a package with the tembleques in it, and is instructed to attend the carnival that night to find out who killed Liane. Julia wears the templeques to the carnival, and she is killed also; and the tembleques she is wearing are found to be a copy.

Elisha Macomber is still in Panama on vacation, and is urged to investigate.

Review: This novel is a sequel to The Tainted Token. While it is a standalone story, The Tainted Token sets up the locale and the background for why Elisha Macomber is in Panama, and his relationship with the authorities.

Knight has, again, set up the atmosphere of Panama well; and in a similar household setting as The Tainted Token. The characters all inhabit a common version of an apartment building, a hollow single-story square with a balcony around the outside and a common courtyard in the center.

There are two intertwined mysteries: the two killings, and the situation of the original and the copy of the tembleques. They turn out connected, and the solution revealed satisfactorily. The ending seems to me hastened, with the killer bowing out of the story suddenly, and the love story between Peter and Barbara coming to an ambiguous ending.

The two stories should be read together, in sequence, for the best experience.


Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Trouble at Turkey Hill (1946)
Major characters:

  • Elisha Macomber, selectman, investigator
  • Marcella Tracy, librarian, our narrator
  • Tad Marsh, returning Army veteran, manager of Turkey Hill Farm
  • Lays Marsh, his wife
  • Pershing Willis, returning Army veteran
  • Candy Pierce, Pershing's girlfriend
  • Pudgy Billins, returning Army veteran
  • Zaire Pinho, had affair with Tad
  • Harvey Winchester, owner of Turkey Hill Farm
  • Enoch Snow*, hired man at Turkey Hill Farm
  • Mattie Mason, cook at Turkey Hill Farm
  • Miss Marion Thorne, mysterious veiled lady

Locale: Penberty Island, off Cape Cod, MA.

Synopsis: The island community of Penberthy Township gathers at the dock to welcome three local boys returning from the war: Tad Marsh, Pershing Willis, and Pudgy Billings.

Harvey Winchester is the owner of Turkey Hill Farm and is looking forward to Tad’s return to his former job as farm manager. The other employees are Enoch Snow*, hired hand; and Mattie Mason, cook.

The boys are met at the dock by Tad’s wife Alyse March (who has never forgiven him for a previous affair with sultry Zaida Pinho), and Pershing’s girlfriend Candy Pierce (distant due to news of Pershing’s brief marriage overseas which ended with the wife’s death in childbirth).

A town dance is held in celebration that evening, but most of the attendees are busy shooting eye-daggers at each other. Miss Marion Thorne, who is always veiled, is injured by a thrown rock outside the dance.

The next morning librarian (and narrator) Marcella Tracy goes to Turkey Hill Farm to find Alyse dead from violence. While she and selectman Elisha Macomber investigate, another murder occurs at the farm.


Elisha Macomber is sharper-tongued than in other books, and here enlists a local as both narrator and co-investigator. Petty jealousies abound between members of the small island community, and what should have been a happy homecoming for the three servicemen falls apart quickly. I had to make a sketch of who-loves-who as there are several affairs happening simultaneously. 

Elisha solves the case not by active investigation, but in his role as father-confessor for the town as various people reveal things to him. The final scene is exciting as two people struggle at the top of a cliff, alternately illuminated by the red and white beams from the lighthouse, a setting which reminded me of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty at their struggle on the cliff. 

One nitpick: In the denouement, Elisha reveals several facts which had not been shared with the reader.

*sound familiar? This is also a character name from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, which was written in 1945.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Death Blew Out the Match (1935)

Radio dramatization available: I came across this public domain .mp3 recording of this book, which was on the Crime Club radio program in the 1930's-1940's. I have placed it on my web site so you may enjoy it. Here it is (30 minutes): DeathBlewOuttheMatch.mp3

Major characters:
  • Anne Waldron - our narrator and protagonist
  • Hazel "Kerch" Kershaw - her friend who is staying with her
  • Leonard "Len" Case - Anne's friend, in a body cast
  • Wing Lo - Leonard's assistant and housekeeper
  • Marya Van Wyck - a New York playwright
  • David Hyland - a mysterious outsider
  • Jeffery Pemberton - a wealthy resident
  • Henry Cahoon - deaf and mute local, a tinkerer
  • "Simple Sam" Layborn - a local, friend of Henry
  • Chris Witherbee - a local
  • Gloria - Len Case's tame crow
  • Elisha Macomber - investigator, chair of the Board of Selectmen
  • Buck Edwards - chief of police of Medbury
Locale: Penberthy Island, Massachusetts


Our narrator Anne Waldron and her friend Hazel "Kerch" Kershaw are opening up their summer cottage on Penberthy Island. Leonard Case lives nearby on a hilltop with the village in view. He is recovering from a car accident and is in a body cast. He spends time watching birds and the villagers through a telescope.

Len calls Anne. Through his telescope, he has observed a door open at playwright Marya Van Wyck's cottage; believed vacant. He asks Anne to go secure it. When she does, she looks inside to find the body of Marya, on the floor in front of the fireplace - holding a burned out match. She had died in the act of lighting the fire. The doctor is called, and states it appears to be some fast-acting poison. Elisha Macomber heads up the local investigation.

Initial suspicion is on mysterious David Hyland, who has suddenly appeared on the island and is renting the Mannering cottage. He lurks around and peeps in windows. Simple Sam Layborn and Henry Cahoon have disappeared. Kerch disappears, and in her search for her, Anne is kidnapped.


This story is written in a diary-entry format which is quite effective and realistic. My edition (Crime Club, 1935) contains a sketch map on the endpapers which is helpful. The parallel story of the tension between the local, Elisha, and a mainland investigator, Coughlin, is evident. The author is quite successful in fooling the reader in suspecting (incorrectly) several characters in turn. Another excellent work by Kathleen Moore Knight.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Birds of Ill Omen (1948)

Fantastic Fiction

Major characters:

The Canniffs:
  • Louise Canniff - elegant, aristocratic, always gets what she wants 
  • John Canniff - her wealthy take-no-prisoners husband
  • Dennis Canniff (John's son) - 
  • Mark Pryor (Louise's son) - a brat
  • Veronica "Ronnie" Pryor (Louise's daughter) - a schemer
At the San Cosmé hacienda:
  • Antonietta "Toni" Lind, proprietor 
  • Don Antonio Salazar, her elderly great-grandfather
    • Bartolo Gomez - his servant
    • Ana Cristina Lind, her mother
    • Nicha, Ana Cristina's maid
    • Peter Lind - Toni's brother - blinded in the war
    • José - Peter's servant
    • Roldan Licona, Toni's assistant
    • Gilberto Romero, a travel agent
    • Chief Rodriguez, of the police
    Locale: Mexico


    Bitchy Louise Canniff sees a photo of the San Cosmé hacienda guest house in Mexico, and instantly recognizes it from her dreams. She tells wealthy, pushy husband John Canniff he is to buy it for her, sight unseen. John sends his practical, diplomatic son, Dennis Canniff, down to inspect it and make an offer. 

    Dennis meets with proprietor Toni Lind, and finds her unwilling to sell. He finds other family members live there in seclusion: widowed 97-year old Don Antonio Salazar, Toni's invalid mother, and her brother Peter Lind, who has blinded in the war. Coincidentally, two species of birds arrive at the same time, which legend has it portends death.

    Louise and John arrive. Louise encounters 97-year old Don Antonio Salazar while exploring, and he suddenly has an attack and dies. His servant Bartolo hangs himself in grief that evening.

    Louise and John continue to try to convince Toni to sell. She states she can not legally do so, with Don Antonio's death the property has passed to her brother Peter.

    Louise's daughter Ronnie encounters Peter Lind, to find that he is unaware he is living in a cottage on the grounds of his own home; thinking he is in some hotel. The family, thinking he has amnesia, has kept him unaware he is on their own property.


    Kathleen Moore Knight again creates a colorful exotic atmosphere, perfect for us reading during a New England winter. The despicable Canniffs are the ugly Americans you love to hate, except for son Dennis who somehow turned out a decent human being. 

    As the story winds on, it becomes a bit of struggle remembering the various tangled family generations (there are four present) and relationships; but it does not detract from the story.

    The enjoyable, developed characters are Toni Lind, Dennis Canniff, and (surprisingly) Peter Lind. 

    The climactic scene takes place in an abandoned chapel, and has a Hitchcock feel to it (Birds? Abandoned chapel? What could possibly go wrong?). Despite the title, the birds are a minor aspect of the story, and their role is reminiscent of the rooster crowing when Peter denies the Lord three times (Mark 14:30).

    The ending didn't quite play out as I expected it to, leaving it somewhat to the imagination; yet still a satisfying conclusion.

    Monday, April 1, 2019

    The Wheel That Turned (1936)

    Major characters:

    Jean Holton, our protagonist, visiting the island
    Mahlon Hobart
    Hulon Reynolds, mailman
    Lavinia Matthews, a summer boarder
    Dr. Pinckney Castrow, a summer boarder
    Chet Powers, with mismatched eyes, usually drunk
    Jem, the hired man

    Elisha Macomber, investigator and selectman
    Buck Edwards, of the police

    Grandma Bassett, and her three children, as follows:

    Seth Bassett, dead of food poisoning, whose funeral opens the book
    Fannie, his widow
    Irene, Bart, and Larry, their children

    Phin Bassett, died years prior to story
    Hester, his widow
    Phin Jr. and Prudy, their children

    Marilla Bassett, a spinster, the victim found by Jean Holton

    Locale: Penberthy Island, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

    Synopsis: Jean Holton is invited to Penberthy Island by Seth Bassett, but unknown to her, he dies while she is en route; and she arrives while his funeral is occurring. While Jean waits for them to return home, she goes behind the barn and discovers the body of Marilla Bassett, Seth's spinster sister. 

    While Jean is trying to settle in, Seth's widow Fannie misunderstands Jean's position, assuming Jean has come as hired help. Jean manages to cope with that position; as Fannie considers her house guests as either paying "boarders", or "hired help" who exchange work for room and board.

    While the dust is settling from the two deaths, Jean finds someone is trying to poison her. She strikes up an alliance with Mahlon Hobart, who moves in as well in order to protect her.

    Someone is sneaking around the house trying to find something, and put people out of the way as well. Selectman Elisha Macomber tries - unsuccessfully - to prevent another murder from occurring. Jean discovers a friend masquerading as an enemy, and an enemy masquerading as a friend.

    Review: The Bassetts are a complex family, and I had to stop and sketch out the relationships early on, as summarized above. The body count rises and the action keeps escalating, a definite page-turner. The final scene in which Jean comes face to face with the murderer is reminiscent of a Hardy Boys adventure, with many of the usual clichés thrown in: a hidden treasure map, a buried treasure, and the obligatory abandoned mill with the water wheel of the title. Think of it as "The Secret of the Old Mill" for grown-ups. Another satisfying Elisha Macomber mystery, made even more believable since he is unsuccessful in preventing one of the murders.

    Wednesday, March 6, 2019

    Stream Sinister (1945)

    Major characters:

    • Lieutenant Gavin Scott, visiting Mexico on leave
    • Gareth Lancelot, "The Duke", Gavin's war buddy
    • Chris de Curiel, a.k.a. El Chico, a.k.a. don Christopher, died in Normandy invasion as story begins
    • Fernande de Curiel, a.k.a. Señorita Chula, his twin sister
    • Fernando, a.k.a. Gran-Gran, their father, age 102
    • Ynez Montoya, a distrant relation
    • Eduardo Michel, Fernande's suitor
    • Daniele Duran, who hoped to marry Chris upon his return
    • Dr. Raul Santos, a chemist
    • Rosa Santos, his wife
    • Hilario, a cousin
    • Anne, Hilario's wife 
    • Sin Cabeza, "The Headless One", a legendary figure

    Locale: Mexico

    Synopsis: Lieutenant Gavin Scott and Chris de Curiel are in the Normandy invasion, and Chris is killed. Gavin had promised to visit his family in Mexico, and sets out on leave for there. Word reaches the de Curiel family of his death just prior to Gavin's arrival.

    Upon arrival, Gavin finds many strange happenings. There are incidents which suggest Chris has returned and leaves messages for Fernande. A headless horseman, Sin Cabeza of legend, appears and Fernando dies from the shock. The headless man continues to haunt the area.

    Additional deaths follow, and Gavin realizes the heirs of Fernando are being eliminated one by one ... the inheritance motive becomes obvious. But who is it?


    One aspect I liked at the beginning was a dinner where all characters were present and introduce themselves (and to the reader as well). 

    The multitude of names is confusing, many characters are referred to by more than one; which I have tried to list out above. Note that "Don" and "Doña" are honorary titles (like Mr. and Mrs.) and should not be confused with actual names.

    There are some puzzlers. Fernando (Chris' father), "died a long time ago" (p. 10), yet Chris' great-grandfather Fernando is still around at age 102 and shows up for dinner (p.22). Chris and Fernande are described as identical twins (p. 13), yet cannot be (identical twins must be of the same sex, brother/sister twins can only be fraternal twins).

    When the action turns from a mysterious disappearing figure in black to exploring a cave, it begins to read like The Hardy Boys.

    The book brings in a couple of themes you will recognize from elsewhere. The mysterious black orchids which are found deep in the forest is a regular plot element of the Brenda Starr comics (which began in 1940). And of course the Headless Horseman is a fictional character from the 1820 short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving.

    Overall, once again Kathleen Moore Knight does a bang-up job of placing the reading in rural Mexico.