Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Countdown Continues....

Just to recap the count 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

And now:

stained glass window by Maitland Armstrong
father of Margaret Armstrong
#15 Murder in Stained Glass (1939), by Margaret Armstrong (reviewed February 9 )

A member of one of New York's wealthiest patrician families and an accomplished book artist, Margaret Armstrong published three mystery novels, the best of which is this, her first and one of the finest mystery novels in the Mary Roberts Rinehart mold (middle-aged "spinster" narrator, premonitory passages, lashings of young love) that I have read.

The narrator, Miss Harriet Trumbull, is a great character, the mystery has some interesting twists and there is good detail about stained glass art (Armstrong's father was a noted stained glass artist).

#14 The Thirteenth Floor (1931), by J. F. W. Hannay (reviewed June 8 )

An unflinching look at murder in Dallas, Texas (fictionalized as Ensign, Texas).  Who horribly hurled the two victims to their deaths from the thirteenth floor of the sinister staircase of the Cotton Exchange?

Author James Frederick Wynne Hannay was a son of the noted Anglo-Irish clergyman James Owen Hannay, who wrote fiction under the name George A. Birmingham.  In the 1930s the younger Hannay wrote a small number of novels, including mysteries.  The Thirteenth Floor was his first.

Dallas Cotton Exchange
scene of two horrific murders
in The Thirteenth Floor
J. F. W. Hannay migrated to Dallas in the 1920s to join his brother, Robert, in a cotton brokerage firm.  The Thirteenth Floor benefits from its authentic, though often unpleasant, local color.  Societal racism is on full display, particularly during an amazing trial scene, where a defense attorney essentially puts the second murder victim on trial for being a Jew and a businessman (there are strong echoes of the Leo Frank case).  Even the nominal hero is not free of prejudice himself.

Not a pleasant book, but a fascinating look at the American South of eighty years ago.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hannay's novel was published only in England.  The truth can hurt.

#13 The Third Eye (1937), by Ethel Lina White (reviewed October 19 )

She was gripped again by the sensation of having invaded some strange region outside time and space, where no one cast a shadow and nothing grew but finger-nails....

Ethel Lina White's classic suspense novel makes one as squeamish as The Thirteenth Floor, due not to realism, however, but rather White's splendid ability to create creeping unease.  A conscientious games mistress crosses a malevolent older woman in a girls' school, then encounters this woman's yet more malevolent older sister.....

The Third Eye takes a while to get moving, but when it does, it will have you staying up past the midnight hour, biting your own fingernails....

Clavell Folly, inspiration for The Black Tower
#12 The Black Tower (1975), by P. D. James (reviewed August 9 )

One of the best (though not, I would argue, THE best) examples of this reigning Crime Queen's art.

This novel too promotes unease, arising from its setting at Toynton Grange, a bleak home for incurable patients on a rocky coast in Dorset, and the author's stoic refusal to gild death with consolatory trimmings.

It's a tour de force for James' convalescing detective, Adam Dalgleish, who is left badly isolated from formal investigative machinery at Toynton Grange as the dead bodies accumulate around him.  Perhaps in retrospect the culprit is a bit obvious, but the narrative is suspenseful, and the writing superb.

The Blackheath Poisonings 
classic Victorian family murder
#11 The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), by Julian Symons (reviewed March 30 )

One of this talented author's best formal detective novels, with an interesting puzzle and a splendid exploration of seamy side of the Victorian world. 

There is also, I argue in my review, much of the author himself in the novel's protagonist, Paul Vandervant.  Paul is a marvelous portrait of a young man of artistic temperament in love, in his case with an older woman, the beautiful and enigmatic Isabel Collard.

Some characters unfortunately are more caricatures and the culprit probably is more obvious today than 35 years ago, but The Blackheath Poisonings in 2012 remains a fascinating and moving tale.

Coming soon....the top ten!


  1. Interesting that this section tends to be heavy on the Gothic influence. I'm tempted to come up with my own best of list this year. It's always so hard for me. I may make a "Best of Each Month" which will be easier since I read 116 books this year. Even I am shocked by that number!

  2. BTW - I should mention that like Sergio, who has a John Norris Recommends shelf in his home, I have started a Curt Evans Recommends *box* in my home. In that box are two of the books in your list so far: INVITATION TO A KILL and MURDER IN STAINED GLASS. The box also contains a lot of titles from a list you made that was posted on Mystery*File a while ago, most of them are by the Coles and Rhode. I managed to read the Rufus King books almost immediately, but the others keep calling my name. I hope I'll be able to read them all next year.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Jon. Yes, there does seem to be a Gothic cast to this, doesn't there?

    I hope you like Invitation to Kill. I kind of went out a limb there, but I think the narrative device was very clever and the mystery and characters and writing strong too.