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.

The Visiting Villain (Carolyn Wells, 1934)

Bruce Dunbar is an eccentric old multi-millionaire. He has no immediate family, but his nephew and three nieces dine with him every Saturday night. He would call himself a jolly prankster while the cousins are more likely to call him a malicious bastard. His delight is mentally tormenting them and pitting them against one another. He’s also very fond of wills, rarely going more than a year without writing a new one.

The nearest thing Bruce has to a child is Streamline, his cobra, who he absolutely dotes on. One morning, just after a Saturday dinner, Bruce is found dead in his bed. It was cobra venom that killed him, the autopsy shows, but he wasn’t bitten. Fleming Stone, the celebrated detective, at once notes that the puncture wounds are too small and too close together. Someone injected the venom into him.

Another surprise, on the 25th of last July, Bruce quickly visited several different lawyers and had several different wills made, each naming a different cousin as the sole heir. All were signed within minutes of one another and finding the last one will be a pickle.

Dividing it into its two parts, the murder mystery was written well enough and the clues dropped do narrow down the suspects to two people. My first suspicion was actually that it wasn’t a murder at all: Bruce’s health had been failing — I thought he killed himself and arranged the wills stunt as one final jab at his family. As to the wills portion of the mystery, the solution of that is a pure deus ex machina.

Inscriptions: a name was written on the flyleaf, but it’s been obliterated by permanent marker.

The Tapestry Room Murder (Carolyn Wells, 1928)

At a house party, Gaylord hopes that Diana will finally accept his marriage proposal, although she favors Ted. Marita is in love with Gaylord herself, or at least in love with his money. Cale, Gaylord’s secretary, is in love with Marita. During the “dark time” — a two minute period each night when the town switches from one power plant to another — Gaylord is stabbed to death. He was in a small room he called his tapestry room with Marita at his side, Diana in front of him, and Ted standing in the doorway. His only known relative, a second cousin named Moffatt, is called in. It’s believed Gaylord made a will and left nearly all his estate to Diana, but that will is conspicuously absent now and Moffatt is tentatively the heir. Fleming Stone, the celebrated detective, tries to unravel the mystery the police have failed to crack. His only clues are the sound of a ticking clock and the smell of mothballs.

Reminiscent of The Crime in the Crypt, where an event has been so carefully detailed and corroborated at every turn that it can’t possibly be natural — it had to have been staged. Here, most of the guests have weak alibis, and those in the room none at all, but one man can give an almost second by second account of where he was while the murder took place.

Inscriptions: from the Colonial Lending Library, and later from the Back Mountain Memorial Library. On page 198, there’s a bit of long division. Someone has divided 118.75 by 15 and correctly arrived at 7.91 and 2/3s.

The Ghost’s High Noon (Carolyn Wells, 1930)

A woman travels to Spain and falls in love at first sight. They’re married, but he dies of phosphorus poisoning. Back in the US, she remarries, but this husband, too, dies of phosphorus poisoning. The less chivalrous American courts won’t let her off simply for being a woman so it’s up to detective Fleming Stone to uncover the real murderer.

Not one of Wells’s better stories in that it hangs on clues the reader isn’t given until the reveal, but I’d guessed the murderer anyway. Figuring both men had to be killed by the same person, that person would necessarily be Spanish, and there is only one other Spanish character.

Inscription: Leon Leon Knapp on the front flyleaf. How unfortunate that his last name wasn’t also Leon.