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?

Review:

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. 



Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Tainted Token (1939)

dustjackets.com

Major characters:
  • Gordon Firth, shipping tycoon
  • Janet Drake, née Firth, his niece
  • Harvey Drake, her newlywed husband
  • Neal Gregory
  • Dr. Horace Cowles
  • Señora Grimaldo, Firth's housekeeper
  • Ramon Grimaldo, her son
  • Carmelo Grimaldo, another son
  • Vera Rantoul, the femme fatale, engaged to Gordon Firth
  • Señor Tio Laurencio Iturbi, the gardener
  • Pedro Espinosa, runaway from the leper colony
  • "Old George" Stryker, the lottery ticket seller
  • Elisha Macomber, investigator
  • Police Judge Urriola, the local bureuacratic official
Locale: Panama 

Synopsis:

Janet Drake is visiting her uncle, Gordon Firth, at this elegant home in Panama, with her newlywed husband Harvey Drake. They had married on a whim, and with a string attached: Harvey was to work for Gordon as the Traffic Manager for his Gordon Steamship Line. This was a position desired by Neal Gregory, who had also wanted Janet.

Janet's marriage is on the rocks already. Harvey goes out, Janet goes downstairs to discover the body of Gordon, and what she thinks is another injured man who disappears. House guest Elisha Macomber finds an odd coin, the "token". Elisha approaches the local authorities and manages to get their consent to investigate.

Janet gets a message to come see injured "Old George" Stryker, the lottery ticket seller. She finds him - dead. It is discovered that Gordon Firth held the week's winning lottery ticket, drawn just before his death. Now lots of people have motive to do away with him and get the ticket. 


Review: So far I have read perhaps half of Kathleen Moore Knight's books, and two of her recurring themes are: Elisha Macomber on Penberthy Island, and exotic Central/South American locations. When I saw this was a "hybrid" with Yankee Elisha vacationing in Panama, I wasn't too optimistic (expecting A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court); but it worked well. Macomber does a little social engineering and impresses the local authorities enough to leave him alone.

Knight's rendering of the tropical scene is fascinating, with a love story superimposed; reminiscent of Mignon Eberhart's mysteries (another of my favorite writers). They do warm up the reading experience here in a cold, dark Maine winter.

Note: There is one instance of the "n-word" in conversation.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Footbridge to Death (1947)

fantasticfiction.com


Major characters:

Martin Davenant, just returned from the war
Virginia "Ginny" Davenant, his wife
Dora Ferguson, Virginia's maid

Benjamin Davenant, Martin's father
Mrs. Devanant,  Martin's mother
Maria Davenant, Martin's maiden aunt
Celia ---, Martin's sister
Joe Lake, their handyman
Hetty Lake, their housekeeper, wife of Joe

Eloise [Davenant] Banning, Martin's sister
Russell Banning, her husband

Eric and Julia Napier, bridge players
Tim and Toni Howard, bridge players
Theodore and Grace Forbes, bridge players

Hugh Ryrie, blinded in the war
Frances Dwight Ryrie, his wife

Fay Dryden, Martin's former fiancee 
Colonel Tom Dryden, Fay's grandfather

Dr. Worthington Brown, a widower

John Graham, interested in Virginia
Dimity Graham, his young daughter
Lyn ---, his sister, a war widow

Sid Fentress, innkeeper
Lurette Durocher, the inn's chambermaid

Mme. Marise "Mimi" Caron, née Califoux, a Frenchwoman

Elisha Macomber, selectman / investigator
Buck Edwards, Medbury police chief

Locale: Penberthy Island, off the coast of Massachusetts

Synopsis: Martin Davenant has just returned to his wife Virginia from the war. They live in their clifftop home on Penberthy Island, next door to his parents. The two houses are separated by a rocky gorge, over which there is a footbridge.

While he was deployed, Virginia had been friendly - a little too friendly - with John Graham. Martin and Virginia's marriage has been strained, due to her family's wealth and his absence. Martin has lost a considerable amount of the family assets on speculations, and has been dependent on Virginia's money. Graham tells her if she and Martin do patch things up, he will bow out of the picture; but if they split, he wants to marry her.

Meanwhile selectman/investigator Elisha Macomber gets a phone tip to keep an eye on Frenchwoman Mme. Marise Caron, who is heading for the island.

A welcome-home gathering is held for Martin, but it is awkward - with his wife Virginia, John Graham (Virginia's boyfriend), and Fay Dryden (Martin's stood-up fiancée) all present. It becomes even more awkward when mysterious, elegant Mme. Marise Caron shows up unexpectedly and greets Martin like a lover - turns out he had met her in France.

Virginia's sleeping pills go missing. Her maid, Dora Ferguson, has taken them and takes one - and it contains poison. She is saved by Dr. Worthington Brown. Virginia and John take a walk on the beach to discuss it, and stumble across the body of Mme. Caron. Another murder will follow, and all evidence points to a conspiracy by Virginia and John.

Review: One thing I enjoy about Knight's books is that as soon as a new character pops in, she explains their relationship to everyone else. And this book opens with a party-full of characters. This story would have benefitted from a sketch map of the homes, footbridge, and road - their description in text doesn't lend to a good visualization.

The story moves right along and we follow Virginia as the circumstantial evidence piles up against her. Empathy for her is a bit of a struggle, she loves John but she is still married to Martin who has been off in the war all this time; even though he turns out be quite a cad. The Elisha Macomber stories never fail to disappoint.

Plenty of characters to follow, hopefully the list above will help you sort them out.



Friday, November 16, 2018

They're Going to Kill Me (1955)


Major characters:

Lance Hardy, a Korean War veteran, the one "they" are going to kill
Susan Carey, bookshop owner, his reluctant girlfriend
Aunt Amelia "Amy" and Aunt Cecilia "Cissy", Lance's high society aunts
Bradford Howes, the family attorney
Channing Wills, Lance's business partner
Velma Larkin, a cheap little gold-digger
Harrison Turner, a bookshop patron

The other Korean War veterans:
  • John Cramer
  • Frank Fitzpatrick
  • Max Tully, the hatless one
  • Jerry Morgan, bar owner, who swore to kill Lance
  • Greyson "Grey" Fiske, the sympathetic one


Locale: Boston

Synopsis: It is the Christmas season and Lance Hardy has returned to his Boston Beacon Hill home from the Korean War. He lives with his two old-fashioned aunts, Amelia "Amy" and Cecilia "Cissy". He reunites with long time casual girlfriend Susan Carey, who is becoming increasingly disenchanted with him and his privileged airs.

Five of his war "buddies" meet in a bar. They are ganging up on Lance, who had abandoned them in Korea, leaving them to become prisoners of war. They are bent on revenge but disagree on specifics. Four are for killing him, with Greyson Fiske the holdout.

A couple of scare attacks are made on Lance as he and Susan stroll about Boston. Greyson Fiske takes on the role of protector.

A cheap Velma Larkin shows up and contacts Lance. They had a brief affair while he was in training. Velma claims they have a child and knowing of his wealthy background, asks for money - or marriage. Max Tully takes the first step of revenge and kidnaps Lance and holds him hostage. Susan and Grey search for Lance, and go to Velma's apartment, to find her dead.

Review:

An enjoyable pre-Christmas read, as it is set in familiar (to me) Boston; and in the Christmas season. The streets, parks, and subways are described with accuracy. The action starts off a bit slow and stretching believability a bit when the veterans engage on their petty revenge campaign by playing a certain song to scare Lance. It starts out looking like a Lance/Susan romance, but that quickly deteriorates.

However, it soon turns serious with the threatening appearance of Velma, and the abduction of Lance. When Velma is found dead, circumstances point at Lance as the killer. Action builds to a tense climax, with a surprising turn of events. This book does not disappoint, and a good read especially for those familiar with the streets of Boston.

If you enjoy mysteries set in Boston, also see Waylaid in Boston by Elliot Paul.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Three of Diamonds (1953)

Fantastic Fiction

Major characters:
  • Jessamy Noyes - assistant to Dan Gilbert
  • Dan Gilbert - a potter
  • Coralie Gilbert, his wife
  • Miss Leah Crocker - an old maid, "frightening, ramrod-backed, and acid-tongued"
  • Miss Emmeline Crocker - her sister, a "fluttery, stupid little spinster"
  • Titus Crocker, their brother, seen as simple
  • John Bartlett, who rents a room to Jessamy Noyes
  • Mattie Bartlett, his wife
  • John Whitman, a wealthy Boston sportsman
  • Harry Hurst, another wealthy Boston sportsman
  • Tony Oliva, milkman
  • Elisha Macomber - the only authority on the island
  • Buck Edwards, chief of Medbury police
  • Harvey Minden, Boston reporter
Locale: Penberthy Island, off the Massachusetts coast

Synopsis:

At the isolated end of Penberthy Island lies the old Crocker place, run down, overgrown, penniless, and inhabited by the last of the Crocker line: three siblings ... Miss Leah Crocker (the boss), Miss Emmeline Crocker, and Titus Crocker (who is a little simple). To bring in some cash, they have rented a building to a potter Dan Gilbert and his wife Coralie. Dan has hired Jessamy Noyes as a summer assistant. The Crockers also made a deal with two flush Boston fishermen, John Whitman and Harry Hurst, to lease them exclusive fishing rights on their property. 

Jessamy, who rents a room from John Bartlett in town, walks to the Crocker place to work and feels someone watches her on the isolated road; but no one is found. Titus Crocker goes bird hunting and finds a dead man on a hill. He comes back to report it, and when the scene is reached, the body is gone. The only evidence Titus can offer is a playing card, the three of diamonds, which he said he found with the body. Meanwhile, news reports from the mainland bring updates of a jewel theft ring which may be connected to the murder. Suspicion points at off-islander John Whitman.

Complicating the plot is a love affair between John Whitman and Coralie Gilbert, 

Review:

The Elisha Macomber titles are always satisfying, and this one lives up to that standard. The island offers a closed environment for our suspect, and multiple red herrings. The periodic news reports from the mainland provide an intriguing parallel plot as the islanders keep their ears glued to their radios to follow progress. Of course, islanders always view off-islanders with suspicion anyway, so they will have to cope with that bias.

The three Crocker sibling provide a colorful element, with fully developed characters that seem so familiar to all of us.



Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Blue Horse of Taxco (1947)

dustjackets.com


Major characters:

  • Troy Bannister, buyer for Frobisher Department Stores
  • Jerome Blake a.k.a. Joe Blank
  • Dan Kinnaird. Mexican sales representative
  • Casimir Lazlo, jewelry maker
  • Dorka Lazlo, his daughter
  • Carmelo Ortiz, jewelry maker
  • Chucho Ortz, his son
  • Schuyler Ames, a sign painter from Brooklyn, and a blackmailer
  • Barney O'Toole, a US veteran with a limp, Jerome Blank's valet
  • Tomas Guerrero, a local Indian and guide
  • Bernhardt Schmidt, a German visitor
Locale: Mexico

Synopsis:

Troy Bannister heads to Mexico to select a jewelry maker for Frobisher Department Stores. She has organized a competition to select one to be their exclusive supplier in the US. She has a hidden agenda: she wants the winner to be old flame Jerome Blake, to get him back in her clutches and back to the US.

Upon arrival, two sinister things happen. First, she visits one of the jewelry makers, Casimir Lazlo - considered to be front runner in the competition. Minutes later, he is found stabbed to death and his prototype necklace missing. Second, she runs into old flame Jerome Blake, but he pretends to not recognize her, and is going under the alias of Joe Blank.

Soon after, Troy is leaving her room and comes across the body of Carmelo Ortiz, another jewelry designer. His son, Chucho Ortiz, tells how he saw her running away from the scene. All circumstantial evidence points to her.

Meanwhile, she finds that several residents jealously guard some small pieces of blue ceramic. They turn out to be legs broken off a ceramic horse, and they serve as a talisman for something important ... but what?

Review:

Troy Bannister starts out likable but soon is revealed to be a selfish, scheming woman who will stop at nothing to get her claws into her old flame, Jerome Blake - even going so far as creating a rigged competition and arranging for him to win for her own purposes. A very unusual casting of characters for a Knight novel, we are used to the falsely-accused woman protagonist as the heroine (much like the stories of Mignon Eberhart).

The descriptions of the Mexican village paint an amazing word picture and are worthy of standing alone as a travelogue, and remind me of the nonfiction writings of Erle Stanley Gardner.

The meaning of the blue ceramic horse legs is not revealed until the end, when the plot takes a surprising turn.



Monday, July 16, 2018

Invitation to Vengeance (1960)



Major characters:



Visitors from America:
  • Susan Torrenti, a.k.a. Susan Brooks, widow of Roberto Torrenti
  • Calvin Brooks, her infant son
  • Miss Flora Gentry, retired American schoolteacher
  • Hatcher Selby, very interested, but just who is he anyway?
The Sicilians:
  • Gino Torrenti, her father-in-law
  • Maria Torrenti, her sister-in-law
  • Carmelita Torrenti, her sister-in-law
  • Joanna, a nurse
  • Pietro Souza, a Mafiosi
  • Nick Minaros, a well-dressed Mafiosi
  • Carlo Monaco, recipient of a smuggled package
Deceased before the story occurs:
  • Roberto Tottenti, executed for murder

Locale: Sicily

Synopsis:

Susan Brooks (formerly Susan Torrenti) is the widow of Roberto Torrenti, who was executed for a double murder which occurred during a bank robbery. The proceeds were never recovered. Susan was pregnant at the time. After a son, Calvin, was born, she had both their surnames changed to Brooks to avoid notoriety.

Susan receives a letter from Roberto's father, Gino Torrenti, in Sicily, explaining he is dying and wishes to hold his grandson before he dies. Susan travels to Sicily to grant his last wish, taking Calvin along. While traveling, she meets and befriends Miss Flora Gentry, a retired teacher; and Hatcher Selby; both traveling to Sicily as well. On the train in Italy, a fellow traveler, Pietro Souza, is murdered and his bag stolen.

When she arrives at the Torrenti home, things are not as she expected. She gets a cold reception from Gino, who wants to keep the baby for himself. One sister-in-law, Maria Torrenti, is likewise cold and hostile to her. The other sister-in-law, Carmelita Torrenti, is friendly.

It becomes apparent Gino has been planning to keep the baby and send Susan back to the US. She tries to extricate herself from the family. She has conversations with Hatcher Selby, who seems to know everything about everybody.

She finds everyone suspects her of having the robbery proceeds, and bringing them to Sicily. Flora Gentry has meanwhile has been smuggling a package for Carlo Monaco. In the search for the stolen money, and Flora's package, Carlo is found dead.

Review:

This book will cause you to cancel any travel plans to Sicily. It portrays an island where the Mafia is in control, no one trusts anyone else, or especially the police. Despite that premise, this story is a James Bond type thriller where all the bad guys are after the loot with a lot of collateral damage. The characters do stretch believeability - the protagonist Susan is too naïve to sense the danger in accepting her father-in-law's strange request, especially after arriving to find his story of approaching death to be false. Teacher Flora Gentry is a two-dimensional stereotype of a schoolteacher, and how did she ever get duped into being smuggling a secret package into Italy? The strangest part of the book is the ending, where several of the Sicilians undergo a personality transplant; suggesting that the author was struggling on how to end the novel. This is the first book by this author that I wasn't satisfied with.