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)

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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.

There is a sequel to this book, see Death Came Dancing (1940).