The Mystery of the Sycamore (Carolyn Wells, 1923)

Curtis Keefe is the private secretary of Samuel Appleby, former governor of Massachusetts. Sam wants to see his son, Sam Jr., elected, but he doesn’t have enough support among the electorate to win. If he could only get Dan Wheeler to cross the aisle and throw in his support, Junior would be a shoo-in. Dan would never do that, of course. He is conscientious above all else and does not agree with Sam’s party’s platform. Sam thinks he can force Dan’s hand, though. When he was governor some fifteen years ago, he pardoned Dan for forgery (a crime Dan vehemently claims he was framed for committing) on the condition that he leave Massachusetts. Dan’s wife, meanwhile, has inherited their estate of Sycamore Ridge on condition that she reside in Massachusetts. The estate is largely in Massachusetts but partially in Connecticut. Dan stays on the south side, Sara on the north. It’s a sometimes awkward arrangement, but a working one. Sam has discovered that there was a closer heir, however, and if that heir knew, then the Wheelers would have to leave Sycamore Ridge.

Sam confronts Dan. Sam is shot dead. Dan confesses to the crime, and so does wife Sara, and daughter Maida. Maida’s fiancé, Jeff, claims to be the gunman as well. They can’t all have done it, so which one did? The police detectives determine the Wheelers are all covering for one another and so it must be one of them that’s guilty, but they can’t get any further than that. Private detective Fleming Stone is called in to solve the mystery.

Keefe was the heir, which he learned by examining the genealogical records Sam left around. He also has ambitions for the governorship, with a strategy largely gleaned from Sam’s playbook. Keefe killed him, resulting in Junior dropping out of the race. Keefe then attempted to blackmail Maida into marriage or else he would evict her parents from Sycamore Ridge.

No inscriptions.

Spooky Hollow (Carolyn Wells, 1921)

A man calling himself Henry Johnson calls on Homer Vincent at his fabulous home Greatlarch. Homer has owned the sprawling mansion for about five years, ever since his niece Rosemary was left orphaned and came to Vermont to live with Homer and his sister Anne. Rosemary is out to the caller’s dismay. He knows rather a bit about the family to be a stranger. Homer says the caller came to discuss an investment opportunity in artificial rubies. He and his sister would have settled the matter in the morning, but she turns up dead and the caller is missing.

The local police figure Johnson did it to rob Anne of her large ruby, but beyond that, they’re at a loss. Homer has news for Rosemary: she is actually not his niece — she was adopted — and her further presence in the house now that Anne is gone isn’t welcome. Rosemary’s fiancé Bryce Collins is not satisfied with this situation and engages Fleming Stone to unravel the mystery of both the murder and Rosemary’s birth.

Have you solved it already? Rosemary is indeed Homer’s niece. Further, it was Homer’s brother who was wealthy. When Rosemary arrived with her millions, Homer bought Greatlarch and took up the mantle of a country gentleman. Johnson, actually John Haydock, came to beg Rosemary’s hand in marriage. He’s spent the last five years amassing a fortune that would make him Rosemary’s equal. Anne was going to give the game away and tell Rosemary whose money bought Greatlarch. Homer killed Anne and Haydock both and would have sent Rosemary packing.

No inscriptions.

Vicky Van (Carolyn Wells, 1918)

Vicky Van Allen is a social butterfly who lives in a small but perfectly stylish house just off Fifth Avenue. She has a great many friends, but nobody seems to know much of anything about her, and she seems to have simply sprung into existence two years ago. At a dinner party, a mutual friend introduces her to Mr. Somers. Later that night, Somers is found stabbed to death with Vicky Van standing over him, trying to pull out the knife.

Vicky Van vanishes completely. It turns out that Mr. Somers was actually Mr. Schuyler, a wealthy roué who lived in the house literally adjoining the back of Vicky Van’s. The elderly Schuyler sisters are out for blood, but Ruth — the dead man’s wife — would rather let it go. Schuyler was a domineering man who made his much younger wife’s life misery.

Celebrated detective Fleming Stone is called in to find Vicky Van and he doesn’t have to look far.

This is the earliest Fleming Stone novel I’ve read and it was pretty straight-forward. Wells would reuse this plot later for The Vanity Case in 1926. That one was pretty straight-forward, too. Misdirection wasn’t really her thing.

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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.

Prillilgirl (Carolyn Wells, 1924)

A young woman who might be an alien or a pod person or some manner of robot arrives on the doorstep of Guy Thorndike, the famous actor, and tells him that she’s decided to marry him. She had been raised by her uncle and aunt in a very small and mysterious place, but now that the uncle is dead, her aunt wants to take her on a mission to China. She ran away with a short-list of marriage prospects and Thorndike was the first choice. Guy doesn’t take much convincing. He despises people (he gets along with his co-workers, but actors aren’t people) and a ready-made wife takes him off the market. I can’t stress enough that the young woman doesn’t behave like a human. She has a number of nicknames, Prillilgirl being the main one.

Guy is searching for the perfect role and he’s found it in Mallory Vane’s latest play. He wants to buy it from Vane, but Larkin thinks his contract with Vane gives him the option. Pril, meanwhile, is installed in the house. She and Guy rarely meet. She hopes to repay Guy his kindness by writing a play for him herself (she knows almost nothing about anything but does have an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare) in collaboration with Vane. She clandestinely meets with Vane to work on the play, but it would seem Vane has another interest in Pril.

When Vane’s roommate Pete Jessup returns, he finds Pril unconscious and covered in blood in the telephone booth, and Vane at his desk stabbed in the heart with his own pen-dagger. Pete assumes Pril did it and, knowing Vane as he did, is utterly sure she did it in self-defense. He cleans her up, spirits her home, disposes of as much evidence as he can find, and plants evidence pointing to some stranger before calling the police. Pete’s not alone: literally everyone connected with the Vane wants to see the case either dropped or to take the blame themselves… except Larkin, who wants to see Pril cleared like all the others, but rather definitely wants Guy to take the fall.

Disappointing ending in that I never really saw the murder as the mystery here. The mystery was who or what Pril is, and that’s just never really addressed. It’s sort of hinted at once that she’s radio controlled, but that fizzles out.

Inscriptions: stamped several times on the endpapers and flyleaves and once more on the title page, “The Owl’s Nest, 609 S. 47th St., Philadelphia, Pa.”

Feathers Left Around (Carolyn Wells, 1922)

A man with a rather irrational hatred of divorce holds a house party with his fiancee, Pauline. They invite a popular mystery author. He turns up dead — cyanide poisoning — but it wasn’t suicide. The doors and windows were locked from the inside.

Private detective Fleming Stone doesn’t appear until the book is nearly over to solve the riddle. For 75% of the book, if not more, the investigation is lead by the single least competent police detective imaginable. When the dead author’s watch it found missing, the man didn’t even consider searching the house for it.

Pauline was the author’s first wife. He was done in with a poisoned toothpick. The door was locked because he locked it. It was all rather obvious.

No inscriptions.

All At Sea (Carolyn Wells, 1927)

I’ve got a broken shoulder and am typing one-handed, so this will be brief:

At an Atlantic City resort, a wealthy Chicago business man is found dead in the water — stabbed by someone near him beneath the waterline.

His curious collection of dolls, particularly the dark-haired one he told the chambermaid was his favorite, was obviously the key to the murder and went a long way to providing a motive, but didn’t name the knife-man. On that end, while I’m not sure if there were any reals clues, there was certainly a strong enough vibe that it didn’t surprise me at all.

Inscriptions: It’s from a library and it must gave been popular. This book literally fell apart as I was reading it. I was holding up loose leaves for the last forty pages or so. “Two Cents Per Day Pay Collection” is all that’s written on the check-out pocket.