The Garden Murder Case (S.S. Van Dine, 1935)

After receiving a mysterious warning, amateur detective Philo Vance drops in on the Gardens. Floyd Garden and his friends areĀ  avid horse race gamblers and are throwing a party of sorts around the Rivermont Handicap. His cousin, Woode Swift, has staked his entire fortune on a horse named Equanimity. Swift is spared the grief of Equanimity’s loss by receiving a bullet to the head ten minutes before the race.

It was framed as a suicide, but Vance at once spots the tell-tale signs of murder. But who among the several guests is guilty? Vance remains vague till his melodramatic reveal at the end, but the clues given quickly narrow the case down to two suspects, and the book isn’t two-thirds done until any reasonably attentive reader will have arrived at the culprit. All the fun of detective novels is in trying to solve the mystery yourself, but this one is simply too easy.

No inscriptions.

The Road to Understanding (Eleanor H. Porter, 1917)

Burke is the spoiled only child of John Denby, a wealthy widower. John is greatly attached to the boy, not only as a son, but also as the only living reminder of his wife. Used to getting what he wants, Burke ignores his father’s criticism when he falls head-over-heals for a maid. It isn’t the difference in wealth that troubles John so much as that Burke and Helen have absolutely nothing in common and have no shared interests. Burke elopes without his father’s blessing.

The newlyweds are not happy, and once the novelty of married life wears off, all that’s left is bitter resentment, on both sides. John proposes a vacation apart — inviting Burke to accompany him on his trip to Alaska and offering Helen $10,000 to go where she will. Burke agrees. Never mind what John’s intent was, Helen takes the news the only way it might be taken. Helen disappears with their infant daughter, Betty. Selfish as always, Burke initially blames all his woes on his wife, but as years pile on years, he comes to understand how responsible for the situation he was and is crushed by remorse.

Eighteen years later, Burke is recommended a new private secretary by an old friend, the sight of whom rekindles many long-suppressed emotions. It’s Betty. Helen had gone to Burke’s friend at once with the mad Eliza Doolittle-ish scheme of learning how to be a swell so that her husband would stop being ashamed of her (beginning with not using words so gauche as “swell”). She eventually abandoned all hope for herself and devoted her life to ensuring that Betty would grow up to be socially refined. The secret comes out and the three reunite as a family: Burke, chastened; Helen, beatified; and Betty, unconsciously classy.

Inscription: on the title page, “To Vesta Day, from Marjorie, Dec 19th, 1919”.

The Pretender (Robert W. Service, 1914)

A bestselling author is chafed by reviews that say he writes nothing but pablum and is incapable of true art. On a whim, he leaves for Europe, where he intends to start from scratch to prove to himself and to the world that his success isn’t a fluke and that he really is a great writer. During his adventure, things happen to him that are so contrived and incredible that he can’t help but think his life is not unlike one of his old stories. He finds himself married to a sickly Frenchwoman and living in a Parisian garret, struggling to scrape together a few sou to buy bread crusts, with his great literary goal always just out of reach. Eventually, he returns to his familiar potboilers and, sure enough, becomes a bestseller once more. He returns to America content with what he is — an author of worthless books that everyone reads and not of important books that nobody does.

Inscription: signed on the front flyleaf in a very fanciful, flowing script that’s almost wholly indecipherable. Norman Vincent, maybe?

Mr. Britling Sees It Through (H.G. Wells, 1916)

An English author is disillusioned of his idealistic, futurist vision of society by the events of WWI — particularly, by the death of his eldest son. But in his despair, he also realizes that he’s witnessing the last gasp of the age of kings and imperial conquest, and that when the fighting finally ends, Europe will inevitably have been dragged out of its own past and into the modern era.

Inscriptions: On the back of the last page, someone has drawn an old woman. From her stiff posture and dark eyes, I think it’s meant to be Aunt Wilshire.