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.

The Saint of the Speedway (Ridgwell Cullum, 1924)

Two Alaskan boys set out to Australia chasing a mythical river of gold that turns out to be real. There’s millions of dollars worth for the taking, but it’s far too big a project for them to handle themselves in their little boat. They charter a ship and Jim Cleaver, one of the Alaskans, leaves with its captain and crew and $500,000 in the hold, but on their first voyage, the ship is caught in a storm and sinks.

Back at home, Saint Claire Cleaver and her mother are left to fend for themselves, which Claire decides to do by becoming a professional gambler. She proves to be poker player without equal and regularly breaks the bank at the Speedway Casino in Beacon Glory, Alaska. Beacon Glory was a boom town back in the gold rush, but now it’s a disreputable hive of scum and villainy. Enter the Aurora Clan. The Clan, who are replete with white gowns and conical hoods, make it their mission to clean up the town. None knows the identify of their leader, known only as the Chief Light.

Enter now another mysterious individual, Cy Liskard. Liskard’s struck it rich somewhere up north and is banking his gold in Beacon Glory — a curious, red gold not at all like the sort typically found in Alaska. Hint, hint. He insults Claire at the casino and thus makes an enemy of her boyfriend, Ivor McLagan. Ivor only drops into town occasionally, being preoccupied with his oil work further up the coast. When he returns, he’s met with the singularly remarkable sight of an abandoned ship drifting toward the rocks. When it finally beaches, he examines the wreck. Not unlike the Mary Celeste, it seems to have been abandoned quickly and for no obvious reason. There’s also evidence that it’s name plate has been altered, and recently so.

You’ve in all likelihood solved the puzzle already, so we’ll skip to the end. Chief Light Ivor sees that Captain Julian Casper, alias Cy Liskard, is hanged for the murder of Jim Cleaver. The gold, or what remains of it, is returned to Jim’s partner. A massive oil deposit is discovered that will at once reverse the fortunes of Beacon Glory. Ivor and Claire marry.

(Edit:) Also, ghosts. It would be remiss of me to not mention that there are ghosts.

Inscriptions: On the front endpaper and flyleaf there are three-ish lines of curious asemic writing in navy blue wax crayon. It’s not a childish scribble, it’s quite deliberately done. On the flyleaf there are even some faint pencil markings that appear to be a rough draft.

The Album (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1933)

The Crescent is a small gated community of old money families, or at least what had been old money before the market crash. Life there exists in virtual stasis, each day following the exact same script it’s followed for as long as Lou Hall can remember, until one day old Mrs. Lancaster is found hacked to death with an axe. The “why” of the murder seems clear enough, as Mrs. Lancaster had grown paranoid of banks and began hoarding gold in a chest under her bed — the chest that now contains nothing but lead dress weights. It’s the “who” that’s the puzzler. The families of Crescent, despite being more or less interconnected, are a reserved and secretive lot. Lou’s lived next door to the Lancasters her whole life and barely knows them. The police, as well as private criminologist Herbert Dean, have their work cut out for them in unraveling this murder and the series of seemingly inexplicable murders that follow it.

In classic had-I-but-known style, the story hinges on a single fact that links all the disparate plot points together and at once explains everything. If only the Crescent’s “Great Secret” has been known sooner, the tragedy might have been averted. As far as mystery novels go, had-I-but-knowns are more difficult than who-dun-its, in that solving them isn’t about simple deduction — it requires rather a lot more lateral thinking. The Album‘s reveal seems to come out of the blue when you first reach it but makes perfect sense in hindsight.

Inscription: Stamped in red ink on the back endpaper, “The Eatonia Tea Room & —Sh—”. The stamp was unevenly inked and the second half is too faint to read but it probably says “Gift Shop”.

Dolores Divine (Kenneth M. Ellis, 1931)

This appears to be a transcript of a radio drama interspersed with newspaper articles written by the reporter character in said drama that are wholly pointless as they merely reiterate what’s just been said, often verbatim in long block quotes, without providing any additional commentary. Damon Fenwicke is found dead and Dolores Divine is accused of his murder. The drama is mostly confined to the courtroom, where the State presents an extremely weak case that I think we’re supposed to find convincing and the Defense does nothing at all. Did Divine do it? No, of course not. Was it the mafia? No, just as they appeared to be, they were a red herring. In a not very shocking twist, the culprit turns out to be Divine’s overprotective mother who confesses to everything at the end for no particular reason (Divine’s already been acquitted — it isn’t to spare her).

Inscriptions: Stamped on the front endpaper and flyleaf, “Taylor Lending Libraries, Book No. R432”.

The Case of the Substitute Face (Erle Stanely Gardner, 1938)

Aboard a ship from Honolulu to San Fransisco, a man is seen thrown overboard in an apparent murder. His wife is suspected of the crime. Perry Mason defends her, and in doing so, gets to the bottom of what happened that night, which the wife says began with the puzzling disappearance of her daughter’s photo.

Quite easy, overall. The motivation doesn’t become clear until later, but I had the “murder” itself figured out within the first ten chapters. In fact, I had a strong suspicion that Carl Moar and Roger Cartman were one and the same even before Moar’s staged death was committed, and once you realize that Moar wasn’t dead but in hiding, then the theft of the picture becomes obvious.

Inscription: “Given to the U-7 grade room NOV. 27 1956 By Linwood Gilbert”, in pencil on the inside front cover. “Grade room” is in cursive, the rest is in print.

The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye (Brian Flynn, 1928)

Brian Flynn may not have been the best mystery novelist but he’ll always hold a place in my heart for being the one who introduced me to the idea of reading for pleasure. Looking back at this blog, it seems that I read 41 books this year. I don’t boast — certainly, there are people who regularly read twice that number — but I think that child-me would be shocked.

This was a re-read, as every Brian Flynn book would be at this point. I considered reading the first of his that I ever picked up, Crime at the Crossways (1930), but I know the story too well and mysteries never hold up without the element of surprise. Peacock’s Eye I hadn’t revisited in decades and had almost completely forgotten, which is good as it’s got a hell of a twist ending.

Two crimes have been committed that may or may not be related: the blackmailing of foreign prince in regards to a past fling that had been amicably settled but, if made public, would spell disaster for his present royal engagement; and the murder of a young woman whose late father had served in India and came home with a particularly valuable war trophy — a large blue emerald worth £20,000. Amateur detective Anthony Bathurst tags along with Chief-Inspector Bannister of Scotland Yard to solve the puzzle.

With mystery novels, you’ve got your Christie-style who-dun-its and Rinehart-style had-I-but-knowns. Flynn is more Rinehart than Christie, but his style is fairly distinctive on its own. There’s generally a mistake near the beginning that the characters make and the reader is invited to make as well. This confounds solution, as any attempt to follow the clues that spring from it are necessarily predicated on a false premise. It isn’t until that initial mistake is re-evaluated that the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place.

Peacock’s Eye
‘s is no exception. It all hinges on the stranger at the Hunt Ball whose true identity everyone seems to know, but do they really? Of course, the man’s name is only the start. The clues must be followed from there to the conclusion. I confess that I failed, but I will admitted that this is a solvable book, although it’s made deucedly difficult by Flynn withholding the most damning evidence until the reveal at the end and leaving the reader only with the less definite points.

If I might give a slight hint (not really a hint at all — it’s there in the text, I only call attention to it): What is the plural of iris? There aren’t many English-speakers so pedantic that they insist on the Greek plural irides. Who do we know who speaks affectedly?

Inscription: Carelessly signed P. Smith in pencil on the inside front cover.