Face Cards (Carolyn Wells, 1925)

Stephen Clearman, the King of Clubs — so called because of his innumerable club memberships — has just completed renovating his house. It’s a risky move because the house is cursed: anyone who modifies it in any way will die. Stephen thinks he’s outwitted the curse, though. He’s traveled extensively in Africa researching magic and building his collection of protective mud masks. He spends an hour a day wearing a mask and… I don’t know, reciting incantations or something, it’s left pretty vague. Standing to inherit, should he die, are his daughter Lulie, his sister Phoebe, and his wife Carlotta, called the Queen of Diamonds because of her love for the stones. Carlotta assists Stephen in his fight by scouring the attic for pages from his great-great-whatever-whatever ancestor’s diary relating to the curse. I guess it’s got a lot of sub-clauses — it’s left pretty vague, too.

And what would you know, Stephen does die during his alone time with his masks. The mode of death isn’t obvious and his room was locked from the inside. Lulie, meanwhile, has vanished without a trace. When the police detective fails, a private detective is called in and it isn’t Fleming Stone this time — it’s Tony Barron, who I think only appears in this one novel, but Carolyn Wells wrote a million of these things and I might be mistaken.

There’s the usual reveal at the end where the detective sums up the crime, but the book actually has a few reveals starting at about the half-way point. Granted, none of them were exactly stretches to solve. How the door was locked from the inside (or rather, how butler West made it seem as though it was) was very plain if for no other reason than the oddly detailed stage direction in the door opening scene that screamed something untoward was afoot. That Carlotta was the mastermind of the murder also took very, very little deductive skill. I’d had her picked out before the murder even occurred — she’d plainly been the author of the forged diary pages and there was no other reason for their existing. No, the real question was how the various sub-mysteries tied together, and a big part of that was whether West was really involved or just Carlotta’s patsy.

No inscriptions.

The House Without a Key (Earl Derr Biggers, 1925)

The Winterslips are an old and respected Boston family. Well, most of them are. Some have a case of the wanderlust and some aren’t entirely paragons of ethics. Dan certainly wasn’t. He’s found murdered in his Hawaiian home. Can Charlie Chan discover the culprit?

There aren’t many clues in this one. Indeed, a number of characters point that out. All the same, I’d had it figured out fairly quickly. Exactly three people knew John Quincy was in San Francisco and what his task was. One of them’s dead, the other has an alibi, and the third’s alibi falls apart when we learn he’s a champion swimmer. Doesn’t help that he’s the only one with any real motive, either.

Inscription: Charles S. Brown on the front endpaper.

Haps and Mishaps at the Old Farm (C.A. Stephens, 1925)

This volume actually has an ad in the back for the other books in the series. When Life was Young is the first of the Old Squire series proper.  A Busy Year is the third installment. I don’t have two or four. I would assume they record the author’s life at ages thirteen and fifteen. Haps and Mishaps is adjacent to the Old Squire books. Some of it is more of the author’s stories, but mostly it’s the author relating stories he’s heard from his friends and neighbors, or from his grandfather — stories stretching as far back as to the pioneering generation of the late 18th-early 19th century.

Inscriptions: There’s a check-out card at the back, so it’s from a library, but I don’t know which. It isn’t stamped or otherwise written anywhere.

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.

Metropolis (Thea von Harbou, 1925)

I feel like I don’t need to go too in-depth with the plot here. This is the book on which the 1927 film Metropolis was based, and for the most part, the film is a faithful adaptation. In a future city, where the masters live in dazzling luxury above ground and the workers toil at dangerous machinery underground, a saintly woman attempts to find a “heart” that with at last unite the “brains” with the “hands”, while a robot who has taken her likeness spreads discord and threatens to destroy workers and masters alike.

There are some differences between the novel and the film, however. In the film, there are all manner of electronic and mechanical wonders, but it’s all grounded in science. In the book, there’s some straight-up magic at play. Rotwang, the creator of the Machine Man, is here more of a sorcerer than a scientist and he draws a great deal from Jewish mysticism. Indeed, the Machine Man is an awful lot like a golem. Religion in general is much more at the forefront. There are religious metaphors in the film, yes, but they’re metaphors. Even in the fever-dream sequence when Freder hallucinates that the Thin Man has transformed into a monk warning that the apocalypse is at hand and sees Death release the Seven Deadly Sins and descend upon the city with his scythe, it’s never suggested that this should be taken literally. In the book, religion is no metaphor.

Josaphat’s role is considerably larger than in the film, with a new subplot that’s a  transparent Doubting Thomas allegory. Joh Frederson also has a mother who chastises him a couple times for playing God. There’s also a disturbing amount of hand-wringing over racial mixing in the book that was completely excised for the film.

I don’t know how much of this is von Harbou and how much is the uncredited translator, but the writing is odd. It takes a sort of mock-Biblical tone with lots of repetition and set phrases, but the punctuation seems to have been lifted from a twelve-year-old’s diary. I can’t recall the last time I saw so many ellipses and exclamation marks in a single sentence.

No inscriptions, although the price tag reveals that it sold for 2 shillings and 6 pence.

The Vanishing American (Zane Grey, 1925)

Nophaie is a Pahute Indian who was kidnapped at a young age and sent to school in the East. Now that he’s returned West to his people, he struggles reconciling his culturally white upbringing and his Indian heritage, particularly in matters of faith. He intellectually cannot bring himself to believe in the Pahute animist religion, but neither can he accept Christianity, which he associates with being inherently white. It doesn’t help that the Christian figurehead in the region sets a poor example. The Pahute suffer under the missionary Morgan, who, far from being interested in spreading the faith, wishes only to consolidate his power and enrich himself. Also complicating Nophaie’s life is Marian Warner. They went to school together and fell in love, but Marian is white, and such miscegenation would not be supported by either’s relations. Still, she follows Nophaie to the desert.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Pahutes’ condition becomes dire. The price of wool, their primary trade, plummets. Morgan has stolen most of their land, and more, their water rights. They are overworked and starving, and when the Spanish Influenza arrives, they die in droves. Nophaie, who had fought and sustained serious injury in the war, is not spared. As he nears death, he realizes that the “God of Indian and white man” is universal and the same, but the Indians’ days are numbered and they will soon vanish in the face of the whites’ onslaught.

Inscription: On the back of the frontispiece in smudged green ink is a signature that’s very difficult to decipher, but I think it’s Maymie Fitzpatrick.

False Scent (J.S. Fletcher, 1925)

Stevenege, the celebrated detective, is on vacation in the small English town of Alanschester. His aim is to relax, but he isn’t there 24 hours before he stumbles across the body of a man evidently murdered in the woods just outside of the village. Further, the set of siege coins (there’s a story there, but never mind, all that matters is that they’re valuable antiques) held by the local museum has been stolen. It appears that the dead man stole the coins and was then killed for them. Suspicions fall on Whatmore, the curator of the museum. He’s arrested but quickly and easily escapes, assisted by someone for reasons unknown.

It’s starting to look like a setup to Stevenege — like the whole town’s in on it. A shiftier bunch he’s never met, with several who seem to know much more than they’re letting on. But then Stevenege gets some help… a lot of help, actually. Too many cooks, the old saw goes, but this novel’s spoiled by too many detectives. At one point, there’s no fewer than six professionals and amateurs weighing in, including a mystery author.

After being tipped-off, Stevenege recaptures Whatmore, but is now convinced that he’s only a patsy. Whatmore makes a full confession, which doesn’t amount to much since he had nothing to do with either crime, but it leads to following the evidence trail to a new location and culprit… one that the reader probably suspected all along because it was blindingly obvious and hoped would be subverted with a clever twist at the end, but no. I’ll stand by J.S. Fletcher being a competent enough writer, but the man had no talent at all for detective fiction.

Red Eagle Island (Kenneth Payson Kempton, 1925)

A 16 year old boy lives with his cold and repressive stepfather in a small Maine town. He watches the fishing ships in the harbor and dreams of a day when he might be aboard one. He makes an off-hand comment regarding nearby Red Eagle Island one evening and, to his confusion, finds himself thrown out of the house. As the story unfolds, the boy discovers a great deal about his stepfather he didn’t previously know — namely, that he seems to be embroiled in a plot to cheat at a high-stakes fishing boat race in Nova Scotia by substituting the boat that’s been entered into it with an identical looking yacht secretly being built on Red Eagle.

I tend to pick-up books at random and generally have not the slightest idea what they’re about before reading them, and there’s always a weird joy when I find one that starts to describe a familiar landscape, then mentions the name of a town I know, and then… yay, it’s Maine, I’m from there! It’s probably the same with anyone from places not brought up that frequently.