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.

Half-Mast Murder (Milward Kennedy, 1930)

A political author is found killed in the summer house. Before the alarm is even raised, our three protagonists are tumbling over themselves to be the first to discover the body, almost as if they already know it’s there and are just waiting for the signal.

That they all suspect one of themselves guilty and are rushing to conceal evidence is obvious. Though a great deal of the book is spent on unraveling the faked and disturbed clues, it’s also pretty obvious that none of them are actually the murderer, either. Who really killed him works in the sense that it fits into the timeline but is very disappointing in that it’s entirely unmotivated. They killed him because otherwise there’d be no book.

Inscriptions: In pen on the front flyleaf, “Doris Hopper” then “Doris Thelma Hopper”. Below that, in pencil, “Doris Hopper”. In pen on the facing end paper, “D. Hopper”.

The Golden Spur (J.S. Fletcher, 1901)

Cosmo has just been evicted, has pawned everything but the clothes on his back, and is stoically facing homelessness when his old friend Nancy appears to offer him a job. Princess Amirel has fled from her small principality of Amavia to marry an Irishman, Sir Desmond. Adalbert, the prince, is after her. She’s been arranged to marry Graf von Hofberg, who’s less interested in her than he is in her jewels — namely, the Amavia amethyst. Cosmo is employed as a watchdog until Sir Desmond gets back home from South Africa. He’s not very good at that as the jewels are stolen. The book is vaguely a mystery novel: who took them? The artist fellow who’s trailing Cosmo, of course. It’s perfectly, blindingly obvious, but it isn’t treated as such.

Inscriptions: There’s a sticker on the inside front cover that’s black on dark red and almost wholly illegible, but does in fact read “C. Mace & Son, Booksellers, Leeds”.

The Case of the Horrified Heirs (Erle Stanley Gardner, 1964)

Virginia Baxter finds herself framed for the murder of Lauretta Trent, a wealthy woman who was poisoned on three occasions, but evidently died when Virginia’s car pushed hers off a cliff and into the ocean.

The reveal didn’t sit with me and I soon realized that it was because none of the clues dropped had anything to do with it. To name the biggest, the man who calls himself George Menard refers to her as “Mrs. Baxter”, despite that fact that she’s estranged from her husband and goes professionally as “Miss Baxter”. Nobody should know she’s married, yet this man does. Doesn’t factor into the solution at all, nor does anything else. The brothers ending feels like a cop-out.

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.”

The King Versus Wargrave (J.S. Fletcher, 1924)

Left an orphan in Italy, Marco Graffi calls his granddaughter Gemma Graffi to come live with him in London. She doesn’t like it one bit and repeatedly begs to go back. One night, Gemma disappears and Marco is found stabbed to death. The coroner’s quest jury finds her guilty of his murder and a warrant is put out should she ever be discovered.

Some years later, Lady Wargrave makes a pilgrimage to her country seat with her son, the three year old Baronet of Wargrave. She’s not English — the late baronet married abroad to an Italian woman. I think you know where this is going. A man named Di Spada discovers who she is and tries to blackmail her into marrying him. The wedding is broken up by an arrest — the police found out, too.

Fairly clear who the murderer was. There was the one red herring of Ottilia Morro, the girl who helped Gemma to escape to Italy, but she totally lacked a motive.

Inscription: on the front flyleaf, “The Half Mast murder, + this one, are old Books. Hope you’ll enjoy reading them. P.D.”

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.