The Window at the White Cat (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1910)

Allan Fleming, state treasurer, goes into hiding. By all accounts, he was a thoroughly corrupt man and he had many enemies. After more than a week’s absence, his daughter Margery visits a lawyer in the hope that he’ll find him. Fleming is found at the White Cat, an exclusive political clubhouse — or rather, his body is found, with a bullet lodged in his skull. The police rule it a suicide. Margery’s fiance Wardrop was Fleming’s private secretary and he knows it was murder. Wardrop is in neck-deep in his boss’s underhanded dealings. Shortly before the shooting, he was robbed of more than a hundred thousand dollars and several incriminating documents. Meanwhile, Fleming’s elderly sister-in-law disappears without a trace. There are few clues but a number that no one seems to recognize but that seems to crop up at every turn: 1122.

Inscription: on the front endpaper, “If you wish to sew my hair, look on page 59 + 401 – Gladys Shaw”. I haven’t the faintest notion what that means. There’s nothing remarkable on page 59 and there is no page 401. I don’t get you, Gladys.

Advertisements

The Red Lamp (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1925)

On his uncle Horace’s death, mild-mannered English professor William Porter inherits his sea-side estate. Daughter Edith is excited at taking up residence there, but Jane, his wife, abhors the notion. The place is reputedly haunted and she’s had another of her premonitions. They instead decide to rent out the house. A tenant is soon found — a stranger, Mr. Bethel, evidently an author. One side of Bethel’s body is paralyzed and he brings with him an assistant, a shifty-eyed boy named Gordon.

That summer, the village is beset with mystery. A flock of sheep is killed ritualistically. A chalk sigil of a circle enclosing a triangle is left at the scene. The sheep killings are soon followed by human disappearances, and again, the sigil. The villagers are mostly simple folk and they suspect a diabolical presence emanating somehow from the house and the strange, faint red light seen glowing from within it. Porter, while never going quite so far as to call it all bosh, has never lent much credence to the paranormal before — but it isn’t long before he, too, sees little other explanation. The police detective called in from the city, meanwhile, seems firmly convinced that it’s Porter himself who’s the cause of all the mischief.

A very good had-I-but-known mystery that I thoroughly enjoyed. There are parts of the puzzle that I don’t think any attentive reader would fail to solve before the reveal, but the linchpin that ties them altogether came as a surprise that, in hindsight, works perfectly but I never saw coming.

Inscriptions: on the front end paper, “This book belongs to Victor R. Whitcomb, Newburgh, Me.” Prior to Victor, it was part of the Danforth Lending Library in Bangor. Going by the check-out stamps on the back, it was discarded sometime after January 26th, 1929.

The Winter Murder Case (S.S. Van Dine, 1939)

The only son of a declining family returns home with his weird friends for an ice skating party, a man falls to his death in an apparent accident, an emerald collector finds his emeralds stolen, a jewel thief is killed, and the village doctor suddenly decides to elope with the housekeeper. Can detective Philo Vance unravel the mystery?

This was S.S. Van Dine’s last book. The preface insists that it was finished before he died but I doubt it. It’s very rough — hardly more than an outline — and very short — I’d blush to even call it a novella.

Inscription: signed Deb Salisbury on the first page.

13 At Dinner (Agatha Christie, 1933)

Jane Wilkinson is unhappily married to Lord Edgware. She wants to be rid of him to clear the way for her new amour, Duke Merton, and is quite willing to resort to murder if need be. In fact, she loudly proclaims so to all who will listen. The next day, Edgware is found dead. Jane is immediately suspected, but there are twelve witnesses who swear she was with them at a dinner party while the murder occurred. Hercule Poirot must unravel the mystery of Lord Edgware’s death and of the two additional deaths that follow it.

The linchpin of mystery — that Carlotta Adams was indeed impersonating Jane Wilkinson, but that she was the Jane at the dinner party while the real Jane was out murderin’ — I guessed right away. Everything pointed in that direction. The Geraldine diversion was good and in real life would have probably been correct, but by detective story logic, it was too on-the-nose. I will say, I was wrong about the source of the poison that killed Carlotta. Whether he was involved in the murder or not, I thought it came from Ronald Marsh. When he was introduced, Hastings thought he seemed a bit drunk and I figured he was actually strung out on barbiturates.

In all, it’s very similar to Carolyn Wells’s 1921 novel The Luminous Face.

Inscriptions: a plate pasted on the inside front cover reads “Waldo Peirce Reading Room” and “This book is given in memory -of- Florence M. Cushing.”

The Wolf Pack (Ridgwell Cullum, 1927)

An orphaned boy, called only by the nickname Wolf, is taken in by a cattle rustler and raised alongside his daughter in the Canadian northwest. Pideau has played his hand carefully but at last the police get on his track. The Wolf witnesses him kill two Mounties and Pideau knows it. Years later, after the two have partnered together in a bootlegging operation, Pideau sees his chance to rid himself of the danger the boy poses. The Wolf has come to love his daughter, Annette, but she has eyes only for Constable Sinclair. She’s pregnant and Sinclair has promised to marry her if she tells him where the still is. Pideau is waiting for Sinclair and shoots him dead. He sets it up so that Annette thinks the Wolf did it and that the Wolf thinks it was Annette.

Inscription: “Leo C. York, Canton, Me.” on the front endpaper.

The Saint of the Speedway (Ridgwell Cullum, 1924)

Two Alaskan boys set out to Australia chasing a mythical river of gold that turns out to be real. There’s millions of dollars worth for the taking, but it’s far too big a project for them to handle themselves in their little boat. They charter a ship and Jim Cleaver, one of the Alaskans, leaves with its captain and crew and $500,000 in the hold, but on their first voyage, the ship is caught in a storm and sinks.

Back at home, Saint Claire Cleaver and her mother are left to fend for themselves, which Claire decides to do by becoming a professional gambler. She proves to be poker player without equal and regularly breaks the bank at the Speedway Casino in Beacon Glory, Alaska. Beacon Glory was a boom town back in the gold rush, but now it’s a disreputable hive of scum and villainy. Enter the Aurora Clan. The Clan, who are replete with white gowns and conical hoods, make it their mission to clean up the town. None knows the identify of their leader, known only as the Chief Light.

Enter now another mysterious individual, Cy Liskard. Liskard’s struck it rich somewhere up north and is banking his gold in Beacon Glory — a curious, red gold not at all like the sort typically found in Alaska. Hint, hint. He insults Claire at the casino and thus makes an enemy of her boyfriend, Ivor McLagan. Ivor only drops into town occasionally, being preoccupied with his oil work further up the coast. When he returns, he’s met with the singularly remarkable sight of an abandoned ship drifting toward the rocks. When it finally beaches, he examines the wreck. Not unlike the Mary Celeste, it seems to have been abandoned quickly and for no obvious reason. There’s also evidence that it’s name plate has been altered, and recently so.

You’ve in all likelihood solved the puzzle already, so we’ll skip to the end. Chief Light Ivor sees that Captain Julian Casper, alias Cy Liskard, is hanged for the murder of Jim Cleaver. The gold, or what remains of it, is returned to Jim’s partner. A massive oil deposit is discovered that will at once reverse the fortunes of Beacon Glory. Ivor and Claire marry.

(Edit:) Also, ghosts. It would be remiss of me to not mention that there are ghosts.

Inscriptions: On the front endpaper and flyleaf there are three-ish lines of curious asemic writing in navy blue wax crayon. It’s not a childish scribble, it’s quite deliberately done. On the flyleaf there are even some faint pencil markings that appear to be a rough draft.

The Album (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1933)

The Crescent is a small gated community of old money families, or at least what had been old money before the market crash. Life there exists in virtual stasis, each day following the exact same script it’s followed for as long as Lou Hall can remember, until one day old Mrs. Lancaster is found hacked to death with an axe. The “why” of the murder seems clear enough, as Mrs. Lancaster had grown paranoid of banks and began hoarding gold in a chest under her bed — the chest that now contains nothing but lead dress weights. It’s the “who” that’s the puzzler. The families of Crescent, despite being more or less interconnected, are a reserved and secretive lot. Lou’s lived next door to the Lancasters her whole life and barely knows them. The police, as well as private criminologist Herbert Dean, have their work cut out for them in unraveling this murder and the series of seemingly inexplicable murders that follow it.

In classic had-I-but-known style, the story hinges on a single fact that links all the disparate plot points together and at once explains everything. If only the Crescent’s “Great Secret” has been known sooner, the tragedy might have been averted. As far as mystery novels go, had-I-but-knowns are more difficult than who-dun-its, in that solving them isn’t about simple deduction — it requires rather a lot more lateral thinking. The Album‘s reveal seems to come out of the blue when you first reach it but makes perfect sense in hindsight.

Inscription: Stamped in red ink on the back endpaper, “The Eatonia Tea Room & —Sh—”. The stamp was unevenly inked and the second half is too faint to read but it probably says “Gift Shop”.