Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Countdown Continues (Part 2)

The countdown so far:

#20 The Victorian Album (1973), by Evelyn Berckman
#19 The Confession (1917), by Mary Roberts Rinehart
#18 Maigret and the Spinster (1942), by Georges Simenon
#17 Death for Dear Clara (1937), by Q. Patrick
#16 Invitation to Kill (1937), by Gardner Low
#15 Murder in Stained Glass (1939), by Margaret Armstrong
#14 The Thirteenth Floor (1931), by J. F. W. Hannay
#13 The Third Eye (1937), by Ethel Lina White
#12 The Black Tower (1975), by P. D. James
#11 The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), by Julian Symons

Now for #10 to #5:

#10 The Lesser Antilles Case (1934), Rufus King (reviewed September 3 )

I started reading Rufus King in depth this year and found him a great discovery (I had only read one novel by him before, and was indifferent to that one).  That this once highly-regarded, sophisticated and ingenious Golden-Age mystery writer has languished out of print for, literally, my entire lifetime (and I'm not young!) is a travesty.

The third in King's 1930s Lieutenant Valcour "maritime trilogy," The Lesser Antilles Case is a fascinating tale of a shipwreck in the Caribbean, where some of the deaths may have been precipitated by a malign human hand.  Death follows the shipwreck survivors back to New York City and poisons someone's highball, before the original scene of the crime in the Lesser Antilles is revisited, in a highly tense, bravura finish involving sea diving.

#9 The Bloody Tower (1938), by John Rhode (reviewed August 9 )

American edition of The Bloody Tower
 No best blogged book list of mine would be complete without a "Humdrum" and this year's is this intricately plotted tale of rural squalor by Major Cecil John Charles Street, under his "John Rhode" pseudonym.

It's often pronounced that Golden Age British detective novels romanticized the English gentry.  Some certainly did, but not this one.  Though descended from Yorkshire landed gentry his mother's side of his family and of independent means, Major John Street was fascinated with technology and industry and at one time not only owned stock in, but was the chief electrical engineer of, a power company in Lyme Regis.

(Street's skill came in handy many years later, by the by, when the Major rigged the eye sockets of the Detection Club mascot, Eric the Skull, to glow red in the dark during darkness-shrouded Club rituals.)

When Caleb Glapthorne is found dead, half his face blown away by a rifle shot, it soon appears that his death was not an unfortunate accident but coldly calculated murder.  Eventually another murder will take place, one of the most unusual and ingeniously contrived in the literature of detection.  How does the legend about the tower on the Glapthorne family estate fit into pattern of death?  The Yard's Jimmy Waghorn investigates, but it takes the brilliant Dr. Priestley to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

John Street was considered the Golden Age's greatest master of murder means, and he does not disappoint in this novel.  Also of interest is the squalid setting of The Bloody Tower, which is like something out of a Mary Webb novel or Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm.

#8 The Scarlet Circle (1943), by Jonathan Stagge (reviewed October 5 )

Another novel, under a different pseudonym, by the very clever duo of Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb.  This one is serial killer novel set a marvelously creepy locale.  To quote from my original review it's

Cape Talisman, one of those crumbling (literally) H. P. Lovecraftian oceanside New England villages where seemingly everyone is sitting around waiting for Yog-Sothoth or some such creature to appear from another dimension.

There's a wonderfully intricate, fair play puzzle plot too (worthy of Agatha Christie), plus Dawn, the young daughter of Jonathan Stagge's amateur detective, Doctor Hugh Westlake.  Dawn will be a delight for some, a royal pain for others, but you certainly won't forget her.

#7 The Ferguson Affair (1960), by Ross Macdonald (reviewed December 14 )

Wonder of wonders!
A best blogged book actually in print
At his best, Ross Macdonald could plot on the level of the English Crime Queens, and he's at his best here.  What starts out as a seemingly relatively simple stolen property case spirals into a wonderfully complex conundrum, with several twists in an extended denouement that left me in sheer awe of this man's plotting skill.

Macdonald also manages to include some interesting glimpses of Hispanic-Anglo relations in mid-century modern California, as well as his usual sensitive studies of pathological family dysfunction (not overdone here, as it is in some of his novels, I think).

#6 The Warrielaw Jewel (1933), by Winifred Peck (reviewed January 15 )

That the famous Anglo-Catholic theologian Ronald Knox had a sister, Winifred Peck, who wrote novels too is little known today.  However, Peck's first novel, a mystery story titled The Warrielaw Jewel, in my opinion is superior to any of the half dozen that her distinguished brother produced.

Set in Scotland in the year 1909, The Warrielaw Jewel is a murder mystery, but also a rich novel of character.

Essentially it's dark tale of a decaying gentry family devastatingly impacted by murder.  It's a good corrective to the view that the Golden Age of detective fiction produced "merely" puzzles.  The Warrielaw Jewel would not shame the best modern "crime novels" in my view.  I really hope that eventually some small press sees fit to reprint this title.  I think it would find an appreciative audience.

Look out in a couple days for the Final Five.  Tomorrow I shall try to have one final new review for 2012 (this should have been Friday's forgotten book!).


  1. Lots of good authors, good books, good reviews, and some great covers too, in all your Countdown posts...many thanks.

    1. Thanks so much, Prashant, glad you have enjoyed the series.

  2. Agree, of course, on the Rufus King assessment above. I read three King books this year including the one above (which is so far my favorite), one play by King, and watched the movie version of MURDER AT THE VANITIES, the mystery plot of which is negligible and easy to figure out. Only started reading the Lew Archer novels this year and found THE CHILL to be a stunning book with a whopper of an ending you'd expect to find in Christie or Macdonald's wife's work.

    1. Well, fortunately I was able to make it up to Macdonald after disliking his Barbarous Coast! I still have some of his novels left to read next year.

      Totally agree about King, how has he been OOP since 1964?