Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Death Blew Out the Match (1935)

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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

Synopsis:

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.

Review:

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
    And..
    • Gilberto Romero, a travel agent
    • Chief Rodriguez, of the police
    Locale: Mexico

    Synopsis:

    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.

    Review:

    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?

    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.