The Alster Case (Rufus Gillmore, 1914)

Swan is an attorney at Avery, Avery, and Avery. It’s a dead-end job with no chance of advancement, but he’s stuck there having to provide for his mother and younger siblings. He’s assigned to rewrite Cornelia Alster’s will. Alster is a difficult client. A very wealthy woman — she can, at times, be a most generous benefactor, but at the slightest offense will renounce you to the end of days. Hence the frequent will alterations.

The next day, Cornelia Alster is found dead. It may have been suicide, but private detective Trask is inclined to think not. Perhaps it has something to do with the simultaneous disappearance of Keith, the butler. The will names Swan the executor of the estate. Beatrice and Linda, Alster’s two adopted daughters, at once begin to act strangely — telling obvious lies, secretly corresponding with someone, advancing large sums of money from Swan that immediately vanishes. At last, Linda herself vanishes and Beatrice is convinced she’s been kidnapped by Keith, who she believes is her biological brother.

Can even the celebrated Trask find LInda and solve the mystery?

I read this quick — pretty much in two sittings — so I didn’t have much time to think about the solution myself, but one line very near the start jumped out at me: when Swan gets off the phone and quits the firm, he says it’s to manage the Alster estate because he’s just heard that his client was “murdered”. Not “found dead” but “murdered”. The nature of Alster’s death is not at all certain at the time. Is this a Roger Ackroyd situation, I asked myself? Yes, it is.

Inscription: A typewritten plate is pasted on the inside front cover reading “#22 THIS BOOK IS THE PROPERTY OF HERBERT J BROCK”. Herb has also signed several seemingly random pages.

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Daughter of Fu Manchu (Sax Rohmer, 1930)

An English Egyptologist excavating a tomb and his associates are caught up in the machinations of Fah Lo Suee’s plot to take over the world. Fah Lo Suee is the leader of the until-now-dormant order of Si Fan and the daughter of Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu himself was thought to be dead, but was in fact merely retired. The previous enemy of the West now intervenes to rescue the English leads, stop his daughter, and prevent the world war she’s about to launch.

No inscriptions.

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.

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.