Champagne for One (1958) by Rex Stout

Weighing in at 272 lbs, Nero Wolfe is almost certainly the largest of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives. He lives to eat and to cultivate his prized orchids and cases are taken in order to pay for these two interests. He rarely leaves his brownstone house and this stay-at-home tendency means that someone else has to go into the world and gather evidence on his behalf: enter narrator Archie Goodwin, a wise-cracking private-eye type in Wolfe’s permanent employ. Thus we get an enjoyable mix of Chandleresque style and a real puzzle plot.

In this book, Archie takes the place of a friend who is faking a cold at an exclusive dinner party. One of the guests dies of cyanide poisoning and as she was known to carry a bottle with her at all times and had talked of ending it all, everyone is convinced that it is suicide. Everyone except Archie that is, who had been asked to keep an eye on her and swears blind that she couldn’t have added the stuff to her own glass. To protect Archie’s reputation, and by extension his own, Wolfe takes the case.

As often happens, Archie has to work with Wolfe’s other regular operatives (Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather) to surreptitiously get witnesses and suspects into the brownstone, where Wolfe bullies them into submission by insisting they will either talk to him or to the police. They normally decide to take their chances with him.

By reconstructing the crime in his office, Wolfe solves the problem of how the murderer could ensure that the poison got to the intended victim and then manipulates events to force a confession.

As many have written, it is the characters that are the main draw and I look forward to seeking out more of the delightful Bantam paperback editions as illustrated above.

 

Life of Brian (Flynn)

             Where is Brian Flynn?
    You sanctimonious critic!
   I have an order for his release!
            You stupid critic!
            Uh, I’m Brian Flynn.
                       What?
    Yeah, I – I – I’m Brian Flynn.
            Eh, I’m Brian Flynn.
                  I’m Brian Flynn!
               Look, I’m Brian Flynn!
           I’m Brian Flynn, and so’s my wife!
             I’m Brian Flynn!
     All right. Take him away and                             release him.  
             No, I’m only joking.                     I’m not really Brian Flynn.                  No, I’m not Brian Flynn.                 I was only – It was a joke.                I’m only pulling your leg.                         Put me back.                                  Ruddy Julian Symons!                          Can’t take a joke!

 

 

Ten Dead Comedians (2017) by Fred Van Lente

There is so much classic crime easily available that I haven’t read that I rarely read modern mysteries. Generally, I figure that if something’s really good people will still be talking about it in twenty years’ time and I’ll give it a go then. But I couldn’t resist an update of the island-based serial killer subgenre.

Nine comedians, at various stages of their careers are invited to take part in a new project by comedy legend Dustin Walker on his private Caribbean island. Upon arrival they find a three by three set of photos of them on the wall of a gallery – no prizes for guessing what’s going to happen to those as we go through the book – and they soon see a final video message from their host. A body is discovered but then immediately lost so there is a possibility that it could be a prank but then the murders start and don’t stop.

Interestingly, the murder methods have more in common with the recently re-published “The Invisible Host” than with And Then There Were None so maybe they’d have had more chance surviving if they’d made different choices. I was surprised by the final reveal, but there were two obvious clues which I missed. In fact if you read everything carefully, you should be able to determine another key part of the solution.

The problem for me was the comedy element, which I know is a very subjective area, but mainly because stand-up is meant to be seen and heard, not read from the page, and so the between chapter sections just didn’t really work for me.

As I bought it secondhand, I got my £2 worth from it, but couldn’t advise buying it new. And we won’t be talking about it in twenty years’ time.

BONUS MATHS LESSON

Whilst searching for a cover image, I found a description which said “And Then There Were None but with 100% more jokes than Agatha Christie”. Now I don’t remember any jokes in the original, but even if there had been one or two, then 100% more would only be an additional one or two. So either the writer of that quote is bad at maths or was being accurate and really didn’t find it funny!

 

 

#79 – Problem at Pollensa Bay

Published in 1991 in the UK only (as the contents had all previously been included in American anthologies) this collection was the first “new” Agatha Christie for thirteen years. The eight stories are:

Problem at Pollensa Bay – Parker Pyne is on the homeward leg of his trip abroad detailed in the second half of “Parker Pyne Investigates” where he operated more as a general problem solver rather than a provider of happiness but he returns to his day job here and in so doing illustrates why, although I enjoy his first six cases very much, there was a limit to the possibilities of that type of story as it is very obvious what is going on. Although his first initial is given as “J” in earlier stories, he has inexplicably signed the hotel register as “C. Parker Pyne”.

The Second Gong – Poirot arrives late for dinner to find his host already dead. This was expanded into “Dead Man’s Mirror” included in “Murder in the Mews”.

Yellow Iris – Poirot is summoned to a matter of life or death at the Jardin des Cygnes but when he arrives at the restaurant finds that no one will take responsibility for the telephone call. And then a young woman dies… The basic elements here were later used in “Sparkling Cyanide” but the murderer and method used are different.

The Harlequin Tea Set – this is set “a large number of years” after the stories collected in “The Mysterious Mr Quin”. According to Wikipedia no original publication date has been found although it was anthologised in “Winter’s Crimes 3” where all stories are described as “new” on the front cover. Based on the ages of characters mentioned, I think this has to be set post-WWII which would make Mr Satterthwaite as impossibly old as Hercule Poirot. The story itself is daft as the person with criminous intentions has already achieved their aim and what they then attempt to do is completely unnecessary.

The Regatta Mystery – a young man is unhappy as he is the only person who could have a stolen a diamond and so he consults Parker Pyne. This was originally a Poirot story but the sleuth was changed before being included in the US collection “The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories”.

The Love Detectives – Mr Satterthwaite with the assistance of Mr Quin has to save a pair of lovers from a cunning plot. Colonel Melrose is the Chief Constable so this story takes place in the same county as “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and The Secret of Chimneys”. This was originally published in 1926 and was presumably not included in 1930’s “The Mysterious Mr Quin” as Christie was re-working the central ideas into a novel at the time.

Next to a Dog  – a non-mystery for dog lovers only.

Magnolia Blossom – a non-mystery in which a woman must choose between love and duty. 

Although fans would have been excited to have access to some “new” Parker Pyne and Mr Quin stories, I’m sure they’d have been a bit disappointed because none of these stories is memorable.

 

Answer Smash – Crime Writers – The Answers

 

Village play

MARGERY ALLINGHAMLET

Heart problem

JOHN DICKSON CARRHYTHMIA

Former England football manager

COLIN DEXTERRY VENABLES

Cinematic topiarist

MARTIN EDWARDSCISSORSHANDS

Creator of Colonel Gore

BRIAN FLYNN BROCK

Not DC

PAUL HALTERNATING CURRENT

Question asked at Grace Brothers

CYRIL HARE YOU BEING SERVED?

Creator of Manory and Williams

P. D. JAMES SCOTT BYRNSIDE

Creator of Montague Cork

ROSS MACDONALD HASTINGS

Eight-division world boxing champion

RICHARD OSMANNY PACQUIAO

Biblical Scottish football team

ELLERY QUEEN OF THE SOUTH

Fictional legal secretary

RUTH RENDELLA STREET

Keats’ avian poem

JOHN RHODE TO A NIGHTINGALE

Won awards for Kazan and Brando

GEORGES SIMENON THE WATERFRONT

Played Christie’s fictional alter ego

SEISHI YOKOMIZOË WANAMAKER

 

 

Answer Smash – Crime Writers

In the excellent quiz show “House of Games” the final round is always “Answer Smash” where you are shown a photo and given a clue which you have to smash together e.g.

Multiple major winning Northern Irish golfer

A picture of actress Helen McCrory, and a clue for Rory McIlroy, so the answer is HELEN McCRORY McILROY.

All the pictures are of crime writers. Have fun!

Village play

Heart problem

Former England football manager

Cinematic topiarist

Creator of Colonel Gore

Not DC

Question asked at Grace Brothers

Creator of Manory and Williams

Creator of Montague Cork

Eight-division world boxing champion

Biblical Scottish football team

Fictional legal secretary

Keats’ avian poem

Won awards for Kazan and Brando

Played Christie’s fictional alter ego

I’ll publish the answers later in the week. In the meantime please take a look at my previous puzzles.

 

The Terracotta Dog (1996) by Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sartarelli)

Having already read several of Inspector Montalbano’s cases by the time I got the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives, when I came to the entry on Pepe Carvalho, a Spanish gourmand, created by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, I knew there had to be a connection given that Montalbano is always stuffing his face, often with seafood, described so lovingly that it even makes me hungry and I generally take my fish in fingers. This is made explicit in this, the second book in the series, as Montalbano is reading one of Carvalho’s cases, although he reflects that “in matters of taste he was closer to Maigret than to Pepe Carvalho…who stuffed himself with dishes that would have set a shark’s belly on fire”.

Montalbano lives and works in Vigàta,a fictional town on the island of Sicily, and so organised crime in the form of the Mafia is often present in one form or another. This case begins with a meeting with an old, high-ranking Mafioso who is looking for a way to retire but becomes a cold case dating back to WWII.

In this he is helped by his womanising second-in-command, Augello, the loyal Fazio with his Records Office complex (he has to introduce any person with a potted biography before getting down to the pertinent facts) and hindered by the malapropistic Catarella, who does eventually reveal a hidden and unsuspected talent in later books. 

As someone said to me recently about Margery Allingham’s books, you don’t read them for the mystery, you read them for the characters, and I would have to apply this description to Camilleri’s work. I’m not going to rush out and get any more, but I will pick them up if I find them in charity shops, and at some point I will definitely read the last book in the series “Riccardino” in which – shades of “Maigret’s Memoirs” – author and character meet.

 

#78 – Miss Marple’s Final Cases

Or to give it the full title on the UK first edition “Miss Marple’s 6 Final Cases and 2 Other Stories”. As they were originally written and published between 1935 and 1954 they weren’t her final cases at all.

Sanctuary – Miss Marple solves the riddle of a dying man’s last words. This was written specially for the Westminster Abbey restoration appeal which may explain why a church was chosen as a key location in it.

Strange Jest – Miss Marple hunts for treasure.

Tape-Measure Murder – a nice story set in St Mary Mead but it would have been a better mystery if Christie had borrowed Chesterton’s title “The Point of a Pin”.

The Case of the Caretaker – Dr Haydock sets Miss Marple a puzzle to cheer her up whilst she is convalescing. Christie went on to expand this into a later non-series novel so you have been warned.

The Case of the Perfect Maid – Miss Marple intervenes to catch a thief.

Miss Marple Tells a Story – does what it says on the tin. This was written for radio and Christie read it herself making her technically the first person to play Miss Marple.

The Dressmaker’s Doll and In a Glass Darkly both belong in a collection similar to “The Hound of Death”.

And so farewell to “Aunt” Jane for the last time.

Recurring characters

Miss Marple

Shows her economic mindset when she goes shopping in London:

“Really a prewar quality face towel,” gasped Miss Marple, slightly out of breath. ” With a J on it, too. So fortunate that Raymond’s wife’s name is Joan. I shall put them aside until I really need them and then they will do for her if I pass on sooner than I expect.” 

Had an Uncle Henry who was very fond of flowers and whose motto was “Never show emtion”.

Signs of the Times

Miss Marple prefers the work of Mr Alma-Tadema and Mr Frederic Leighton to that of Joan West. Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was a Dutch painter and Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-96) was a British artist.

References to previous works

Bunch Harmon, revealed in “Sanctuary” to be Miss Marple’s favourite godchild, first appeared in “A Murder is Announced”.

Jane Helier, who introduces Edward and Charmian to Miss Marple in “Strange Jest”, appeared in the second six of “The Thirteen Problems”.

Mr Petherick, who brings a client to see Miss Marple in “Miss Marple Tells a Story”, appeared in the first six of “The Thirteen Problems”. He has now died and his son has taken over his practice. 

The Finchley Puzzle (1916) by Richard Marsh

 

Judith Lee, one of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives is described by one adversary as “a young woman who calls herself a teacher of the deaf and dumb; in reality she is the most dangerous thing in England. The police aren’t in it compared with her: they make blunders, thank God; she doesn’t. If she catches sight of your face at distance of I don’t know how many miles, and you happen to open your lips, you are done.”

Her great talent is lip-reading and having an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time to “overhear” conversations of a criminal nature. And yet twice in this short story she takes absolutely no precautions when she opens what she knows are very likely dangerous parcels (compare this to Dr Thorndyke’s elaborate actions in “As a Thief in the Night” when dealing with a much less suspect package) and almost loses her life both times. I knew I had come across one of the methods used before and on looking it up found it to have been in a short story written by Marsh twenty years earlier.

Judith does a neat job of work to get close to a suspect but beyond that there was little of interest to me and no reason to get hold of either volume that collects her other twenty-one cases. Why she made the cut when the aforementioned Thorndyke did not is a much bigger puzzle than what happened in Finchley.

#77 – Sleeping Murder

Gwenda Reed, newly married and newly arrived in England, impulsively buys a house in the seaside town of Dillmouth. Aspects of it seem to be familiar to her: where she instinctively feels there should be a door between the drawing room and the dining room, a builder tells her that one has been plastered over and when she imagines a flowered wallpaper, one with those exact colours  is found inside a bedroom cupboard. Slightly perturbed she belatedly accepts an invitation from her husband’s cousins in London and this brings things to a head when she screams and runs out of a performance of “The Duchess of Malfi”.

Fortunately the cousins are Raymond and Joan West and Miss Marple is also staying with them. Gwenda tells her all that has happened, explaining that at the line “Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young” she pictured someone saying the line standing over the body of a dead woman in the house she now owns. By discussing Gwenda’s memories of sailing from India to New Zealand when a young child, Miss Marple identifies a discrepancy which implies Gwenda went on more than one boat. So by a remarkable coincidence , which Miss Marple just glosses over by saying that they do happen (Gideon Fell would have said ” We’re in a detective story – of course coincidences happen), Gwenda has bought the same house that she stayed in for a short time as a very young girl. Which means that if her memories of the door and wallpaper are real, then so is that of a murder that no one has suspected for eighteen years.

Miss Marple warns her to let sleeping murder lie but Gwenda is determine to find out who the woman was and who killed her, with deadly consequences.

Miss Marple is on fine form, inveigling herself into the Reeds’ investigation, using her connections to get invited to tea by relations of suspects, and inventing a missing gingerbread recipe to track down a servant from the time of the crime.

The mystery itself is nothing special but it would have been a treat to those reading it at first publication as it was written much earlier and deliberately held back to be published posthumously and would have been an improvement on Elephants Can Remember and Postern of Fate.

A fitting place to end the Christie novels is with a quote that sums up Miss Marple’s philosophy of detection:

You believed what (the murderer) said. It really is very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.”

Signs of the Times

Though described on the cover as Miss Marple’s Last Case nothing within it means that it has to be considered to have taken place after “Nemesis”. The events of “The Moving Finger” are mentioned so it takes place after that but Colonel Bantry is still alive and he had been dead for some years at the start of “The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side”. In a new edition of the Miss Marple novels which feature spines that when put in order show St Mary Mead, Harper Collins have put it after “The Moving Finger” and before “A Murder is Announced” which fits with the time Christie actually wrote it. In his recent Facebook comments about this David Brawn pointed out that the fact that John Gielgud appears in the production of “The Duchess of Malfi” that Miss Marple, the Wests, and the Reeds go to see, cements the story in 1945 (April at the Haymarket Theatre to be specific). However as Kelvin Halliday and Helen Kennedy married on Friday 7th August that would have occurred in 1925 or 1931 and it would have to be the latter as 19 years later the Second World War has clearly finished. Unfortunately there is a later reference to Saturday 17th August which I think is meant to be a year after the wedding (at most two years) and that doesn’t occur in any of 1926, 1927, 1932 or 1933.

At this time did most New Zealanders refer to “England” as “Home” as Christie asserts on the first page?

In her confusion at finding the floral wallpaper that she had previously described Gwenda thinks “Dunne, Experiment with Time – seeing forward instead of back…” “An Experiment with Time” is a 1927 book by J. W. Dunne deals with precognitive dreams that he had personally experienced and his theory of why they happened.

Miss Marple responds to Dr Haydock’s suggestion of a tonic by saying “Easton’s syrup is always very helpful”. This was a syrup of iron phosphate with quinine and strychnine – sounds delicious!

Calcutta Lodge smells of beeswax and Ronuk. The latter was a furniture and floor polish, the name being an anglicised version of an Indian word meaning “brilliance”.

Mrs Mountford has pictures of the King, Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret Rose.

References to previous works

A lady at the sanitorium says “Is it your poor child, my dear…behind the fireplace but don’t say I told you”  similar wording to that used by Mrs Lancaster in “By the Pricking of Thumbs”.