Woman Alive (Susan Ertz, 1935)

A young doctor visits a man who, by semi-scientific, semi-mystic means, is able to project an image of future events into his subjects’ minds. The man asks to see London as it will be in 1986.

Much has happened in the intervening fifty years. Britain went to the Soviets after the world war of 1950, but communism had collapsed in on itself in by the 1960s and the country was once more independent and capitalist. It, and much of the world, is closely allied with the ocean-spanning United States of Europe. War was all but a memory until a few weeks ago, when a break-away state launched an air strike against the USE in a bid for independence. They dropped a new chemical weapon that specifically targeted women. In a matter of days, the contagion spread throughout the world, and soon it is believed that every woman on Earth is dead and that humanity’s last generation has been born.

One woman survived, however. She had been the guinea-pig for a new, experimental vaccine, which left her alone immune to the disease. The daughter of simple farmers in rural England, she becomes quite an important personage. The world is ready to war again for the possession of her — each nation wanting to use her to continue their race — but she would rather see humanity suffer the death it brought upon itself. At first, at least.

Wonderful Art-Deco illustrations (in the first US edition anyway — I can only assume they’re in the others, too)

Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (George Randolph Chester, 1907)

A man wins and loses fortunes by exploiting technically legal financial maneuvers to relieve the trusting of their hard earned money. From the subtitle, “A Cheerful Account of the Rise and Fall of an American Business Buccaneer”, and from the funny picture on the cover, I was expecting a light, comic satire. No. It is neither light nor comic. His “rise” continues for nearly the entire book, leaving a wake of devastation and suffering behind him, and dragging his long-suffering wife along for the ride. On top of that, Mr. Colonel Judge Wallingford’s comeuppance never really comes. He’s only taken down at last by a fellow scammer, and it feels that, for a man like Wallingford, it will only be a temporary setback .

The Hobgoblin Murder (Kay Cleaver Strahan, 1934)

Almost fifty years ago, a young woman eloped with a man that her father considered to be far below her station. He disowned her, and suspicious of his other daughters’ complicity, put his vast fortune in trust. Not a penny was to be turned over until after the death of his eldest daughter, Prudence — a woman as hardhearted and tyrannical as himself. His three remaining children, now elderly, lead an isolated, joyless life filled with fear and anger.

One night, the granddaughter of the estranged eloper appears at the door seeking shelter.  It comes to be known that she is ill and in danger of losing her sight if she does not get an operation, and has come in search of funding. She brings with her a four-year-old child, whose presence is probably the only reason she was not turned away at once. All the same, it is obvious that she will get no money until after Prudence dies.

Prudence is found dead six weeks later, stabbed in the neck with knitting shears. The house was locked tight. Everyone inside had a motive, but also an alibi. Lynn MacDonald, a Sherlock Holmes-like detective, is called to unravel the mystery.

The twist is something that has to be seen to be believed. Stop reading now if you have any intention of picking up this book.

Fair warning, I’m going to spoil the end…

The four-year-old is actually a fully grown circus midget.

The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole, 1764)

Manfred is the Prince of Otranto, but a mysterious prophesy suggests that he may not be so much longer. He is not well liked and the legitimacy of his rule is in question. He wishes to secure his power by marrying his son to Isabella, the assumed closest descendant of Prince Alfonso, the beloved original Prince of Otranto. Suddenly, a giant supernatural helmet appears and crushes Manfred’s son to death. The blame is publicly pinned on a stranger Manfred accuses of witchcraft, but personally, Manfred fears the prophesy is coming true and he rushes to enact plan B: divorce his wife and marry Isabella himself. Then Isabella’s hitherto presumed dead father appears at the castle and, spurred on by a reanimated skeleton sent from God, forbids the alliance. Then the giant helmet joins giant armor and kicks down a large part of the castle, proclaiming that the accused peasant is the lawful prince — who, it turns out, was the long-lost grandson of Alfonso.

Dawn O’Hara (Edna Ferber, 1911)

A newspaper woman in New York marries young to a brilliant but unstable political writer, who becomes a mental and financial boat anchor. His flightiness turns to insanity and he’s committed to an asylum. Dawn, in ill health, goes west to rest with her family, eventually getting a job in Milwaukee and moving there. Her doctor becomes her friend and wants to become more, but Dawn refuses to abandon her husband. An uneasy peace is maintained until word comes from New York that Dawn’s husband has left the asylum and is probably searching for her.

Dawn O’Hara was Edna Ferber’s first book, and while it’s hardly autobiographical, many elements seem to have been drawn from Ferber’s real life. Particullarly the struggling writer protagonist trying to get her first book published.

The Three Days’ Terror (J.S. Fletcher, 1901)

A secret society issues a demand on the British government for £100 million with the threat that, if they are denied, they will begin destroying all the major cities of Europe. At first, the demand is ignored as a hoax or the ravings of madmen, then suddenly a large part of London is reduced to ashes by means of a chemical explosive unknown to all of the nation’s top scientists.

Meanwhile, a mysterious French count ingratiates himself with an English cabinet member and, under the guise of removing them to a place of safety outside of London, abducts his daughter and son-in-law.

There are tantalizing clues scattered about and the corners of the mystery are chipped away, but don’t expect some detective character to step forward and explain everything at the end. The characters who survive learn very little of what has happened or why it happened and neither does the reader.

The novel begins as would a traditional mystery, but as it progresses, it becomes more of a gothic horror.