Sunday, December 31, 2017

SILENT NIGHTS, edited by Martin Edwards

I stumbled across this at the library just before the holidays, and it was a natural. Perfect reading material for the break!

And boy, was it ever. This is another superior collection from British Library Crime Classics, so you can't go wrong. Author/scholar Edwards is a great anthologist and digs up all sorts of good and obscure stories for his collections.

There are some that are familiar, like Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," a natural for Christmas mystery anthologies, Chesterton's "The Flying Stars," and Sayers' "The Necklace of Pearls," all of which I skipped. I'd read them all before...why bother?

The rest, however, are a candy box. Ralph Plummer is an unknown author, but his "Parlour Tricks" is an unjustly overlooked and forgotten story for sheer cleverness. Raymund Allen's "A Happy Solution" was my least favorite of the book, in that it relies on a knowledge of chess, a game at which I am a hopeless muddle. (Seriously, I stink at chess. I gave up trying years ago.) "Stuffing," by Edgar Wallace, is an amusing twist-of-fate story that I enjoyed.

H. C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune stars in "The Unknown Murderer," and while it's not the best Fortune story I've read, it's still damn good as Fortune delves into a series of murders that appear to be distantly related to what we now call Munchhausen-by-proxy syndrome. "The Absconding Treasurer," by J. Jefferson Farjeon, is a fun thriller with a murderer being tracked down in the snow.

Margery Allingham's "The Case is Altered" was my first experience of Albert Campion, and I found it acceptable as the hero detective stumbles into a case of blackmail and espionage at a holiday house party. "Waxworks," by Ethel Lina White, mixes damsel-in-distress tropes with a streak of feminism. "Cambric Tea" by Marjorie Bowen builds as a conte cruel but has a happy ending, and "The Chinese Apple" by Joseph Shearing (actually by the same author, Bowen and Shearing were both pen names of the prolific Gabrielle Long) is a fun thriller about a woman meeting a relative for the first time and piecing together a recent murder.

"A Problem in White," by Nicholas Blake, is a fun mystery set on a train, with an elaborate solution at the back of the book. Edmund Crispin's "The Name on the Window" is an entertaining short starring his detective Gervase Fen, and Leo Bruce's "Beef for Christmas," a forgotten rarity, rounds out the collection.

This is great reading for the holiday season, and I recommend it unreservedly. I'll have a hard time keeping up with Edwards' collections; every so often I hear of another, and thank goodness the local library system is keeping up!

Friday, December 29, 2017


Anthony Monday and Miss Eells are back! And battling the supernatural!

The two are whiling away a summer afternoon by driving through the Wisconsin countryside, when Miss Eells has the inspiration to explore the abandoned Weatherend estate, once home to industrialist J. K. Borkman. In a shed they find some bizarre statues that refer to weather phenomena, and then realize the estate is now inhabited and are chased away by a dog....but not before discovering, and taking, a book they find under the floorboards in the shed.

They soon meet the Borkman heir who's moved in, Anders, and it's clear he has supernatural powers, as he wants the book and exercises some sort of mind control over the two to get it back. Not only that, but all sorts of bizarre weather patterns are holding over Hoosac, WI, leading to speculation that world could end. It's up to Anthony, Myra, and her brother Emerson to figure out a solution and save the world.

I have no idea of Bellairs wanted to start a new series with 1978's The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn but it took him six years to revisit his characters. This is an entertaining adventure but sometimes is a bit lacking; there are plot holes unfilled, such as the nature of the villain and his motivations, and information filled in afterward that nobody could actually know. But the notion of a sorcerer who wants to wipe out civilization with monster storms, and some of the bizarre clues and traps involved, are good, if the execution is sometimes lacking. Overall, enjoyable but flawed.

More Bellairs on the way!

Sunday, December 17, 2017


I'm really starting to kick myself for not having plunged into Kim Newman's works earlier. I read Anno-Dracula back in the 90s and enjoyed it, but never picked up the sequels or anything else by him. Now, after sampling some of his work, I'm making up for lost time.

The Secrets of Drearcliff School (2015) is set vaguely in the 20s, and centers on Amy Thomsett, a young girl with a strange gift; it seems she can levitate herself, but has little control over it. Her uptight widowed mother sends her off to the title institute, which seems to specialize in difficult cases such as Amy. It's not that Amy is a bad person or poor student, but her mother holds Amy's paranormal ability against her.

The school is indeed a dreary spot on the coast, and of course strange things happen. It's not as plainly a magical school like Hogwarts, but it's definitely an odd place. There are the usual problems of bullying and rank and class issues that would rise up in school stories of the type, but here Newman throws in a neat angle in that most of the students are the daughters of mad scientists, pulp heroes, supervillains, and the like. (I chuckled at the mention of a "Sally Nikola" and there's probably a ton of references that sailed over my head.

Amy ends up forming "the Moth Club" with her friends Frecks, Kali, and Light Fingers. Frecks is a stolid British sort who has hidden talents; Kali is the daughter of an Indian bandit lord, and who reads too much gangster fiction and speaks like a pulp gangster. Light Fingers is another Unusual; her hands can move at amazing speed. Amy is a moth fancier and she assigns appropriate code names to her friends. But why? Because hooded figures are stalking the campus, and an attempt is made to abduct Kali.

But once that is resolved, there's a new menace in the form of Antoinette Rowley Rayne, a haughty new girl who openly declares her intention to change the school....and actually succeeds in drawing many of her fellow students into a sort of cult. And the hooded creeps are back, seemingly in league with Rayne.

It's a lot of fun, and my only complaint is that there's a lot of setup with references to strange Other Ones and the like, and when the story concludes there's still a lot of unanswered questions....including the fate of the REAL mastermind behind it all.

Still, it's a good read, and moves well. I enjoyed it immensely, not only for the story and characters but for the many nods to pulp fiction, which is Newman's signature. Worth finding.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

FOURTH DEGREE, by K. S. Daiger

Here's a rarity for you; I just happened to come across a mention of this author in Jess Nevin's Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes and decided to track them down. K. S. Daiger was a local author, and I came across a reference to K. S. being a woman, but am otherwise unable to find much biographical information.

Fourth Degree, published in 1931, opens in the wealthy and bucolic suburb of Towson, outside Baltimore. Beautiful Sunny Paige has been found murdered in her house on the posh Paige estate. Baltimore city cop Everett Andrews, or "Captain Andy" as he's known, is called into the case, although technically Towson is in Baltimore County, not in the city. (This is mentioned, but not much is made of it.) The book is narrated by a newspaper reporter whose full name is never given; they're referred to as "Kay" but it's never clear if that's their first or last name. In fact, I got almost all the way through the book before I found a reference to Kay's sex; I wondered if Daiger had pre-figured Sarah Caudwell's sleuth Hilary Tamar (whose sex is never revealed), but toward the end Kay is firmly referred to as a man. (There are clues galore, but I didn't want to jump to conclusions....but given the time period, and this is a character running around with the cops and handling a gun, chances are it's a man.

It's essentially a country-house murder case mixed with a police procedural; the cops have to piece together the clues leading to the killer of wealthy Sunny. Was it her philandering husband? Her maid, who has a dark past? Her neighbor, who may or may not be a false friend? The lawyer who was in love with her? The shady private eye hired to find clues of his own?

The problem this book has is that the prose is often overheated, and plot elements are introduced, then dropped as soon as they're inconvenient. A shady woman that the husband was involved with? There's a plot thread there that's dropped. The maid's shady past? Same there. A cop's difficult relationship with his family? Yup, dropped. And Daiger goes on several times about how this case "has gone down in the history of Maryland criminology" which is clunky enough to begin with but is repeated too many times.

So, yeah, not a great novel. I didn't hate it, there were a few times I laughed, and it was kind of fun reading all the references to Baltimore of almost a century ago. I work in Towson now, and it's interesting reading of that bustling, very developed suburb as a quiet rural town.

But I had a good belly laugh when reporter Kay refers to Captain Andy as having helped reduce Baltimore's crime rate to one of the lowest in the country. Oh my, how times have changed.

Daiger wrote another book, but I may not bother.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Phantom Solo for December!

Visiting Ramsey at his new place is always an adventure; his house is in a neighborhood that's slowly being revived, and while his place is in wonderful shape, the place next door is a ramshackle wreck, uninhabited for years.

We're gathered there for a pre-holiday get-together, all of dreading the horrors of the season ahead (crowded stores, monotonous music, brutally enforced cheer), when Laura suddenly puts up her hand for silence. "What's that? Is that coming from next door?"

It certainly seems so...someone's playing a piano in the ruined house!

Ramsey does tell us that there is a ruined piano in the living room of the old house, but it's a wreck. Viola and James are all for investigating....I wonder what we'll find....

Saturday, November 18, 2017


And we're back to Bellairs! This time we'll take on his shortest series, the Anthony Monday novels.

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn is set in the 1950s in the fictional town of Hoosac, MN, along the Mississippi River. Anthony is a more-or-less "normal" teen (a rarity for Bellairs) who comes from a lower-middle-class family. His father operates a saloon (euphemistically called a "cigar store"). Despite not being particularly bookish, Anthony's best friend is elderly librarian Myra Eels, who gets him a part-time job at the library assisting her.

The Hoosac library is the unacknowledged star of the novel; it's a quaint, curious building donated by the Alpheus Winterborn of the title, an eccentric millionaire and world traveler who supposedly hid a treasure somewhere, possibly in the library itself, before dying himself.

When Anthony stumbles on a clue that the treasure is real and hidden somewhere in town, he quickly comes to view it as the possible cure to his family's money troubles. Miss Eels warns him that Winterborn was also a notorious practical joker, and this all may be a sham, but he is eager to find a solution.

His efforts catch the eye of Hugo Philpotts, a vice-president of the local bank and a relative of Winterborn; Philpotts, of course, wants the treasure for himself. And as Anthony and Miss Eels stumble on one clue after another, Philpotts becomes more and more dangerous to them. Eventually, the treasure is the library.

Wait, I hear you cry. Where's the supernatural? Well, there is none. That's right, this is all a mundane mystery. It's kind of a disappointment, and many Bellairs fans rank this near the bottom. It has its strengths; the milieu is well-depicted, and apparently this was Bellairs' biggest effort at recapturing his own youth in Michigan. However, the villain is a bit over-the-top, the plot sometimes drags, the villain sometimes seems to always be in the right place at the right time, and some events that he should have been responsible for are brushed off as mere accidents. But the nature of the treasure is intriguing and a macabre story could have been built around it. It's unfortunate that Bellairs chose differently.

When first published in 1978, it was illustrated, and had a cover, by Judith Gwyn Brown, but when it was issued in paperback in 1980, it was given a one-off Edward Gorey cover that has stuck with it. Future Monday volumes would feature Gorey art.

Never fear, the rest of the Monday series features supernatural thrills, so there's more to come!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

November in the Phantom Recital Hall

Tonight we're off in the cold evening air to a recital by a talented pianist, on a tour through the country. The venue is a new one, an addition at the university, so we're getting a gander at the new facility and enjoying some good music.

And appropriate for the season, one piece is Bolcom's "The Poltergeist."

I love this playful piece, with sinister hints; it's a good representation of the concept it's named after. It's one of Bolcom's three "Ghost Rags", written after the death of his father and in his studio overlooking a cemetery.

And speaking of cemeteries, we have to pass one on the way home....

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween 2017!

Hope everyone is having a great Halloween! Be safe, but be crazy! At least a little crazy. Or be as low-key as you want. Just honor the day!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

DOWN BY THE OLD BLOODSTREAM, "edited" by Alfred Hitchcock

In the 1960s and '70s, Alfred Hitchcock's name was attached to countless anthologies. I doubt he truly edited them; he worked hand-in-glove with former radio writer Robert Arthur who I suspect is probably responsible. Arthur also wrote a good number of the "Three Investigators" boys' series that featured Hitch as a sort of "M" to a trio of teen sleuths.

Down by the Old Bloodstream, published in 1971, is sadly unremarkable as an anthology. There's no real luminaries among the authors, with two a "Hal Ellison", likely our old friend Harlan, but his story "The Good Thief" is a bore. The other is TV cop Jack Webb, and his story, "A Miracle is Arranged," is slightly better, a tale of attempted insurance fraud undone by a Twilight Zone-ish twist of fate.

Some of them write checks they can't cash. "Kurdistan Payload," for instance, sounds like a tale of international intrigue, but instead it's a noir-ish tale involving a moving company and a valuable Oriental rug. "The Monster Brain" sounds like a pulp horror tale, but the title refers to a computer that's only peripherally involved. In fact, that story is part of the one thing that makes this collection interesting...there are three stories in sequence, "The Still Small Voice," "Haunted Hill," and "The Monster Brain," that function as what I can best term "Hillbilly Noir." All three involve crime and conniving in a backwoods setting, with rustic characters. "The Monster Brain" is an exception as it's narrated by an insurance investigator, but the setting and the remainder of the characters put it in that mini-genre I just invented. It's an interesting view of a time when the world was less connected and it wasn't unusual to drive from a major city for less than a day and be in an area with no telephones or very little electricity.

Aside from that, not much to recommend it, really. Another story, "A Fair Warning to Mystery Writers," is amusing in its depiction of an author who rents a quiet place to do some writing but is constantly hassled by neighbors. Otherwise, this is forgettable stuff.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

An October Night at the Cinema!

In October it's nice to take a break from all the Halloween festivities and just relax. We're doing that right now, having a nice time chatting over dinner. It's a blessing to have a chance to breathe and not worry about planning parties and costumes and the like. Next year, we promise, there'll be a more relaxed holiday...

After dinner is over, we head up the street to our favorite old theater. They don't bother to decorate; as the ticket-taker jokes, it's always Halloween there, one way or another, It's true; we've seen so many horror films there that another just seems par for the course.

Tonight's film is a goofy thriller, The 13th Man.

The show over, we depart, making one last joke with the ticket-taker, and then wander up the street for a drink at the usual cafe....

Sunday, October 15, 2017

GOLD BY GEMINI by Jonathan Gash

Lovejoy, the antiques-dealing detective, is back in his second mystery!

I had a slight sense that Gash wasn't sure about if a series would take off, so the first, The Judas Pair, may have been intended as a one-off with room for expansion. And, well, it seems to have expanded.

Lovejoy's world is a bit more fleshed out, with more friends, girlfriends, and an apprentice we never heard about the first time. This time around, he comes across a very obviously faked painting, but there's something about it that intrigues him....the faker took great care and could have gotten away with it, except he used a very obvious modern pigment that could be spotted a mile away.

Something's up, and as Lovejoy finds out the identity of the faker, and comes across more items from the same person, he suspects there are clues being laid. But to what? The faker is dead, and his daughters compete for his effects. What's going on?

With the help of his friends, Lovejoy pieces together that the faker had discovered a cache of Roman gold on the Isle of Man. However, there's a very determined villain out for it, willing to kill any man or beast that gets in their way...

As with any Lovejoy mystery, there's lots of good information about the antiques trade, how things are faked, how to spot the genuine, and the tricks of the trade. The story and the mystery are pretty well done.

What didn't I like? There's little sense of continuity with The Judas Pair. Lovejoy's cottage, burned down in the first book, is perfectly fine in this one. (Yes, he could have moved, but there's no mention of a previous house burning down, and both have a hidden chamber in the cellar.) Is this meant to be a prequel? Or was The Judas Pair a rough draft, and this the start of a "real" continuity? Leslie Charteris did the same with The Saint. Also, Lovejoy has a pair of pet budgies in this story, never referred to before.

Still, I enjoyed it, and that's the important thing.

Gold by Gemini is out of print, but is likely available at libraries and may be cheaply purchased at your local friendly used-book emporium.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

October at the Phantom Jazz Club

It's about time we got out of the concert halls and did something different! This month we're checking out a club that we've walked by a dozen times before, but never ventured inside. That is being changed, and we're glad for it.

So of course, the band plays something appropriate for the season....

Hope everyone has a magical October! Mine so far....well, it's been a hot damp one here in Baltimore so far, but hopefully that will change before long.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

QUIET AS A NUN by Antonia Fraser

I'd read this many, many years ago, and recently I felt an urge to revsiit Fraser's series ,so here we are.

Quiet as a Nun is Antonia Fraser's first mystery; she was already noted for historical biographies so this was something of a departure for her. Her character (and narrator, for this book only) is Jemima Shore, an investigative TV reporter who stumbles into murder and mystery and uses her investigative talents to bring a solution.

In this, Jemima is dealing with a fizzling love affair (with a married MP) and receives word of an old friend's death. Rosabelle Powerstock had been a wealthy heiress, but she had become Sister Miriam at the Convent of the Blessed Eleanor, and had been behaving erratically before she locked herself in a ruined tower and starved to death. Jemima had attended the convent school for a time, and Mother Ancilla, the Reverend Mother, contacts her to come investigate; something is very wrong with Sister Miriam's death, and one of the girls at the school may know something...

For a contemporary setting (published in 1977), it's actually quite Gothic in its atmosphere, with an ancient convent, a ruined tower that may or may not have shielded a scandal in the past, secret passages, disputed wills, and a ghostly nun haunting the convent whose presence presages death. It made for fun reading as a teen, and I enjoyed it again. It's also very visual and dramatic, which made it a natural for a TV adaptation. Britain's ITV adapted it for their "Armchair Thriller" in 1978 and it aired on PBS' "Mystery!" in its 1982-83 season, which was when I saw it.

In fact, the series is still notorious for having what is judged to be one of the most frightening TV moments in British TV history, when Jemima sneaks into the ruined tower and meets the ghostly Black Nun...

It's a tiny bit dated, but still a good fun read, and Fraser handles the Gothic chills well.

There was an entire Jemima Shore series of novels, which I think I'll reread. ITV also aired a 12-episode series, "Jemima Shore Investigates," in 1983 and somewhere I picked up an anthology of stories from the show, so that will be included as well.

Check it out if you happen on it at the library or the used book store; it's good fun.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A September Afternoon at the Cinema!

Taking advantage of a lull in our schedules, we meet for brunch on a sultry September Sunday. Why is it so hot when the first day of autumn has just passed? We lament our busy lives, the state of the world, and the fact that Halloween falls on a Tuesday this year.

Then it's up the street to our favorite movie theater! Thankfully the AC is working, the drinks at the counter are cold, and the ticket-taker is showing us a welcoming smile along with his usual biceps and tattoos.

Today's show is a 1936 thriller, The Mandarin Mystery!

Despite the Yellow Peril inferences of the title, this is actually an adaptation of Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery, published just two years earlier. And despite the bait-and-switch, it's actually a good film.

The show over, we bid goodbye to the staff and wander out for a cold drink before going our ways to prepare for the week ahead...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

THE BISHOP OF HELL by Marjorie Bowen

Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952, real name: Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long) is someone who has fascinated me for a long time. She was a writer by necessity, supporting her increasingly ungrateful and demanding family (although her children adored her; her youngest son, who wrote the charming introduction, speaks of her was a wonderful, loving mother). She wrote under numerous pen names....historical novels as George Preedy, crime novels as Joseph Shearing (really romans-a-clef, based on notorious real crimes), assorted novels and stories as Margaret Campbell, John Winch, and Robert Paye, but she's best remembered for her supernatural tales written under the Bowen moniker.

But even with all that, which would lead one to assume she was a hack....she was a damned good storyteller, often quite daring, and with undeniable grace as a stylist. She made good money writing, so she was capable of grasping the public imagination. She is slowly being rediscovered by the literati for her style and grace. And she could be transgressive...her first novel, The Viper of Milan, had trouble finding a publisher as it was deemed too violent, especially for something written by a young lady. (She was only in her teens when she wrote it.) But later works could delve into taboo subjects...Black Magic, for instance, deals with a sorcerer who engineers to be elected Pope, and although never explicitly stated, it's pretty clear the character is a woman passing as a man (and is a version of the Pope Joan legend), with homosexuality and trans issues lurking in the wings at every turn.

This collection in particular, one of Wordsworth's excellent series of supernatural reprints, is a superb sampler of Bowen's work. To run down...

Some tales are contemporary. "The Fair Hair of Ambrosine," set in France, is a tale of love, murder, and destiny via a prophetic dream. "The Crown Derby Plate," one of Bowen's more popular works, is a simple ghost story given a twist by the fact that the manifestation of the ghost hints that the original person may have been a cross-dresser or trans.

 A group of tales are set in the Regency, which I think is an overlooked time for supernatural fiction. "The Housekeeper" deals with a dissolute Regency beau who finds himself benevolently haunted by a seemingly forgiving shade of someone he once deeply wronged. "Florence Flannery" is a strange tale, dealing with a possible case of reincarnation, and revenge committed by a watery specter.

"Elsie's Lonely Afternoon" is an interesting tale with some trappings of the supernatural but really a tale of crime. It deals with a young girl who's browbeaten and convinced she's an unwanted nuisance by all around her, and how she falls victim to a crime by dint of her own trusting nature and innocence. The depiction of an innocent who is beaten down and taken advantage of by a grasping family sounds a lot like Bowen's own home life; I wonder if it was deliberate.

"The Bishop of Hell" is another Regency tale, this time a rather straightforward tale of a bad man who dies, but returns to give a warning of sorts....but he seems to relish his punishment. "The Grey Chamber" purports to be an anonymous French tale that Bowen translated, but I think it's an original work. And it's a great sort of penny-dreadful tale of a night spent in a haunted chamber; rather standard in its plot, but well done for what it is. "The Extraordinary Adventure of Mr. John Proudie" is another penny-dreadful sort of story, but again, well done. In it, a good doctor is called on to give aid under mysterious circumstances, but finds himself caught in a web of intrigue. It's not very supernatural but full of thrills and weird atmosphere.

"The Scoured Silk" is a nasty conte cruel of a man's brutal treatment of his wife, and Bowen might have been making a feminist comment with it. In other works, she did express sympathy for women caught in bad marriages and mistreated by the men in their lives, so I can't help but wonder. "The Avenging of Ann Leete," a tale set in Georgian times, is a tale of murder and a unique sort of justice, involving a sort of confession by astral projection!

"Kecksies," another Regency tale, is also notably famous. It's full of dire, macabre atmosphere, but also gives us spectral revenge in the form of what is clearly indicated to be a ghostly rape and murder. This is sharp stuff for the time! The collection concludes with "Ann Mellor's Lover," a tale of a clairvoyant antique dealer putting together the clues to solve a decades-old murder. It's not a bad tale, and I wonder if it was meant to become a series. Bowen writing a supernatural detective would have been wonderful.

This is a great collection of eerie tales by a neglected master. Look for Bowen's works when you browse the used book racks, or try your local library system. Anything by her is worth checking out, and I hope more of her work is reprinted or at least made available as ebooks.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Phantom Serenade for September

September has arrived, bringing what feels like an early autumn. Temperatures have been cool, sometimes downright chilly, and we go about our rounds bringing along light sweaters and jackets, and pausing for warm drinks in the afternoon.

A pause for a snack brings a rare opportunity for a serenade by an accomplished violinist...

Lovely, eh? This is part of Hope's album "For Seasons," which has the familiar Vivaldi Four Seasons along with 12 pieces, one themed to each month of the year. It's a charming album that I discovered recently and recommend.

Hope everyone's doing as well as can be expected, and that any readers who are dealing with Harvey's aftermath or the onslaught of Irma are hanging in there...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

An August Afternoon at the Cinema!

Summer is slowly sliding into autumn, and August has been gentler and easier than July was. While the sun is bright and warm, the breezes are cool while we sit at a sidewalk table outside our usual restaurant, enjoying an afternoon meal, and trading tales of things we've done since last assembling, and of our hopes for the autumn ahead.

After splitting the bill, we walk up the street to that beloved old movie theater we love so well. The green-haired gal at the counter and the ticket-taker with the biceps and tattoos are glad to see us...

This afternoon's movie is the 1936 adventure Death in the Air!

What makes this interesting is that, along with ah hair-raising plot, there's also antiwar undercurrents here, in its look at the problems of shellshocked veterans. (The old radio show The Shadow did an episode, "The Silent Avenger," that was also strongly antiwar, with an open message about how society expects people to kill in war but then to conveniently forget their training and experiences once the war is over.) While not great, it's an overlooked gem and very enjoyable.

The sun's still in the sky as we leave....let's get a drink and relax before going our separate ways...

Sunday, August 13, 2017

WALK OUT ON DEATH by Charlotte Armstrong

I've been wanting to read some Charlotte Armstrong for a while, after reading some good things about her work. This was the first I picked up....and I wasn't too thrilled by it.

Walk Out on Death (originally titled Catch-As-Catch-Can) isn't much of a mystery, but a thriller in which a series of circumstances lead to a perilous situation. It opens with a fairly silly situation: world traveler Jonas Breen has brought home Laila, his beautiful daughter (or so he claims) from a quickie marriage in the South Seas (or so he claims). Seriously, everyone seems to take this at face value. But anyway, he dies, and innocent and very naive 18-year-old Laila inherits a half million dollars. (For 1952, that was a fortune.) She is surrounded by various cousins: Clive Breen, Dee Allison, and Andrew Talbot. Laila has a crush on Andy, who's been having a turbulent relationship with Dee, and Clive, who always needs money. There's also Pearl Dean, a friend of Jonas, a spiritualist who may or may not have designs on the Breen cash.

After realizing she's made a fool of herself over Andy, Laila leaves the house for a long walk, and while she's gone the people in the house are in a panic as the housekeeper collapsed and died. It turned out she had eaten some improperly-canned beans and got botulism as a result...and Laila had just eaten some of the same beans. Soon Dee and Andy are searching for her to get her to a hospital for treatment. (This was a reality in the day; people could and did die from botulism, and their only hope was to be rushed to a hospital for an injection of an antivenin before 24 hours were through.)

Clive finds out...and decides to keep Laila on ice until she dies from the poison, so he can inherit. But then she takes off on her own, hooking up with her friend Pearl and hiding in Pearl's trailer while she drives off to the beach.

Dee and Andy have a series of misadventures while looking for Laila, and there's a prolonged chase, a dramatic traffic accident, a creepy laundry truck driver, and a conclusion in a house about to be flooded with a powerful insecticide fog before it all ends happily.

It's a bit of a mess, but at least it's an energetic mess. It moves quickly although sometimes the plot contrivances are just too damn contrived and convenient, including Laila nursing a broken heart in the morning and finding true love in the afternoon. I did like how a witness to the aforementioned accident, an elderly mute woman, is regularly dismissed and ignored by everyone around her until finally someone stops and thinks to ask if she happened to see anything. Maybe a bit overly obvious that she's standing in for how so many women and their contributions are overlooked and ignored, and also for society's dismissive attitude toward the elderly, but it was still nicely done.

But all in all, the story is too muddled and too contrived to hit bullseye, but it is energetic and fast-moving enough to make an acceptable time-killer for a lazy afternoon. It's a fairly brief read, about 184 pages, and out of print, but you may come across an old copy in your local friendly used book emporium.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

An August Evening at the Phantom Tavern...

It's an unexpectedly cool night in early August; normally we should feel like we're imprisoned in a celestial Crock Pot, but it's actually breezy and autumnal. No big concerts or anything, so tonight we wander out for a drink at a place we haven't been to before; it's an old, slightly ramshackle place, but the drinks are good, the prices reasonable, and they feature some good music.

Tonight, we're stepping outside the usual comfort zone and listening to some country/'s a classic murder ballad....

Kind of chilling, eh? Surprisingly how many gruesome old ballads are out there like this. This is a 19th century ballad that got some play during the 20th century folk revival, and still pops up every now and then.

We have a good time and definitely will be back.....

Monday, July 24, 2017

PROMISE NOT TO TELL by Jennifer McMahon

Promise Not To Tell was a something I'd had recommended to me somewhere (I forget where), and on a recent library run I checked it out. I'm pretty glad I did.

Kate Cypher, divorced, a 41-year-old school nurse, has flown from her job in Seattle to her mother's home in Vermont. Mom has Alzheimer's, and is steadily getting worse; Kate has to arrange a new living situation for her. But the day she arrives in town, a teenaged girl is an identical fashion to how a friend of Kate's was murdered 30 years before. Undoubtedly there's a connection...but what?

What makes this different is there's a definite supernatural element. Del Griswold (derisively called "the Potato Girl" due to a constant smell that hung about her) was from a white-trash family, definitely troubled, held back in school, and her murder seems sadly a release from a horrible life with no prospects. But she was desperate for a friend, and young Kate Cypher was willing to play along. Kate, however, was also keenly aware that Del was extremely unpopular, and hanging out with her was social death, so she tried to shrug it off as "we waited at the bus stop, I barely knew her" kind of thing. But when an adult Kate returns, Del shows up in the edges of Kate's vision, and while you might at first think that it's symptomatic of Kate's guilt over her betrayal of Del's trust as a child and her lifelong denial of knowing anything about her after her murder, it turns out that Del really IS coming back, and soon possesses Kate's mother to communicate. It's clear that the ghostly visitations are indeed real.

What did I like? The atmosphere (Kate's mom lived in a failed utopian commune/settlement), the way the supernatural is handled, and how McMahon presents Del as having become a figure of local folklore, somewhere in between Bloody Mary and the Blair Witch. And the ins and outs of Kate's friendship with Del, and her attempts to play the situation to her advantage with the other kids at school, ring true. Childhood can be horribly cruel.

What didn't I like? The solution to the murders is a bit hasty and unsatisfactory. Some plot elements are never explored, like how one of Del's tormentors died, supposedly choking to death on a slice of raw potato; it's mentioned in passing but never developed further. Kate angered me as she persists in hiding things and keeping secrets when she doesn't need to, and there's no sense at the end that's she's learned anything from her experience.

Still, it wasn't overly long; I hate overly padded books. I started it on a Sunday afternoon and finished by bedtime. It moved along briskly and was never drawn-out or dull, and that's pretty damn remarkable.

It was McMahon's first book, and there's a bunch more out there, so I may start looking into them. It's supernatural without real horror; the ghosts are the remains of tragic happenings and circumstances, and the mystery plot is what takes center stage. (There's almost a strain of magical realism here....) So I'm willing to forgive some imperfections for a first novel, especially such a well-paced and atmospheric one. Not bad in the least and worth an afternoon in your reading nook.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Hot July Afternoon at the Movies!

A light lunch at our usual place is in the cards today; it's brutally hot and humid, and rather than engage in other weekend activities, we're opting for something inside.

While we're happy to be together, the heat robs us of our appetites, and after a light nibble we head up the street (staying in the shade as much as possible) until we get to our favorite old theater...thankfully with new air conditioning.

This afternoon's show is the 1936 mystery/horror House of Secrets!

Chesterfield Studios was facing dire financial problems in 1936, so they remade an earlier hit with stronger technical work and a better cast (in some cases, cast against type). It didn't stop Chesterfield's collapse, but at least it endures as their shining hour.

After the show, we slowly walk up the street to our usual cafe for a cold drink...and to maybe linger a while. There's rain in the forecast and maybe it will cool things down a little...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

ASYLUM by Patrick McGrath

I've never read Patrick McGrath, but after coming across several mentions praising his ability with the Gothic, I decided to check him out. After all, I've reviewed some of the original Gothics, so I might as well review some modern Gothics as well.

Asylum's timeframe seems to be in the 50s or early 60s, and takes the form of an extended narrative by psychiatrist Peter Cleave, who is reflecting on his patient, Stella Raphael. Stella is the wife of Max Raphael, a doctor at the high security asylum where Cleave works, and they have a son, Charlie. Stella appears to be the happy housewife on the surface, but it soon becomes clear that her marriage is not the happiest, and is devoid of excitement and passion. She becomes infatuated with Edgar Stark, an inmate, a sculptor who murdered his wife and mutilated her body, in the delusional belief that she was unfaithful to him. He even believes he has a son who does not exist. Edgar, who is part of a work detail and is restoring a Victorian conservatory that's part of the Raphael home (which is on asylum grounds). Stella and Edgar begin a passionate sexual affair...but where is it going? How deep do their feelings run? To what degree are they using each other? And how much does Peter Cleave know, as he seems to be keeping an eye on them?

It's an examination of passion and obsession, madness and self-destruction. As is obvious from page one, Stella inevitably ends up in the asylum herself as a patient, after a horrifying crime....and it's ambiguous to what degree it was deliberate and to what degree it was a product of her profound depression and instability at the time. Nobody's really heroic; Stella is self-absorbed, a user, and a borderline alcoholic, Max is a stick-in-the-mud, Edgar is passionate but deranged and dangerous, and Peter is a creep whose lack of professionalism permits things to roll out of control.

McGrath also uses setting and weather to his advantage; there's tons of great descriptions that also lend atmosphere and meaning to the action of the story and the moods of the characters. I love authors whose books have a great sense of place; there's no use having your book take place in Hong Kong or Botswana when for all the description you give and all the use you make of the location, it may as well be in Indiana.

There is some predictability to the story, but that is more or less built in to the narrative. It's hardly a feminist work, either, as Stella only defines herself through relationships. (Unless that's part of the point? That such attitudes are ultimately destructive? Something to ponder....)

It was made into a film in 2005 with Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellan, and Martin Csokas, and I'll have to track it down sometime. The book itself is currently out of print but likely easy to find used, or at the library. (I got an ebook from the library; great system for that.)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Phantom Fireworks!

It's Independence Day, and we're enjoying an outdoor concert leading up to a fireworks display. The heat and humidity have let up a bit so we can enjoy being outside, and the orchestra is in fine form. Sure, there's lots to be unhappy about in the current climate, but we meet some local candidates who seem to be sincere about making a difference, have a good meal, listen to some good music....and then, the fireworks!

The orchestra plays something lively to match the pyrotechnics, and it's actually fairly appropriate...

It may be a Russian composer's interpretation of Spanish music, but it's a lively piece and a good match for exploding rockets, eh?

We wait a while after people need to get caught up in all that traffic, and we have enough time to linger. It's a pleasant night, and we're starting to maybe feel a little optimistic about the future...maybe?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A June Night at the Cinema!

The heat of June has lifted somewhat, and while it's still warm, at least it's a bit drier and there's a pleasant breeze. We elect to sit at an outdoor table when we gather at the usual restaurant, and enjoy a light meal and stimulating conversation. As the sun declines into the west, we pay the bill and wander up the street to that shabby old theater with its comfortable seats....

The ticket-taker with the biceps gives us a stellar smile when we arrive; and we settle in our favorite seats for the show.

Tonight's movie is the 1936 thriller "Revolt of the Zombies"!

From the makers of the now-classic "White Zombie," this didn't do as well, largely because the filmmakers stuck to clunky silent-movie-style techniques that had grown even more outdated in the years since their initial film. However, those techniques now seem almost charming and quaint with the passage of time, and the film has obtained a minor lustre now that it lacked in its own day.

The show over, we start to wander up the street to our usual cafe....and hey, the ticket-taker says he'll join us in a little bit, after he closes up....

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

MEET THE TIGER by Leslie Charteris

So, here's another ongoing project: I plan on reviewing all of the Saint works. This particular book, however, occupies a unique netherworld.

Y'see, it's the book that introduces Simon Templar, aka "The Saint," his Cockney servant Orace, and Templar's girlfriend Patricia Holm. And yet in later years Charteris would all but disown Meet the Tiger, feeling there was too much wrong with it, and excluded it from the official chronology of the Saint...and yet later acknowledging that it was a seminal work for him.

So...what happens?

It's the late 1920s. Templar and Orace show up in the Devon town of Baycombe. Templar is 27, a seasoned adventurer who's been around the world and is independently wealthy. (If I recall correctly, later in the series it's revealed that he fought in WWI. But more about that as the series unfolds.) He knows that somewhere in the town is a dastardly criminal, The Tiger, who's hiding out there after an enormously profitable bank heist in the US, and has laundered the money in South Africa and is bringing it up here.

The problem is...he's never met The Tiger, and while dodging attempts on his life, he has to figure out who it is, as well as locate the loot. Templar meets Patricia, who is living there with her aunt, and falls in love with her fierce spirit. I loved this little quote from her: "I know it isn't going to be a picnic - but I'm sorry if you think I'm a girl that's only fit for picnics. I've always fancied myself as the heroine of a hell-for-leather adventure, and this is probably the only chance I shall ever have. And I'm jolly well going to see it through!" Stern stuff, she. In fact, I like how Charteris treats her. Of course, she's motivated by a love for Templar, but also very by a love of excitement and adventure. And at one point where she believes Templar to be dead, she and Orace take a deep breath and continue the operation themselves, with her ruthlessly going after the villains. She's a badass.

The villains are treated interestingly as well. The identity of The Tiger is kept secret until the very end, although a few times you learn that such-and-such a character definitely ISN'T The Tiger. Charteris avoids some of the ethnic bigotry of the day; none of the henchmen (whom he calls the Tiger Cubs) are caricatures, and one being a Boer is noted only in passing. But the Cubs obviously have minds of their own, and they're not just puppets of The Tiger.

It's a fun book, if with some flaws. Sometimes the style is a little clunky, there's a couple of very unlikely coincidences and things being just a little too convenient, and a plot point involving an impersonation that seems very unlikely. But at the same time, it's made clear that Templar and Patricia have sex in the novel (nothing explicit, but it's obvious), which is perhaps a bit eyebrow-raising, as the square-jawed British heroes of the day were generally very prudish. (More on the Saint and Patricia's relationship later....)

The bad part of this is that the book is hard to get hold of. Charteris' "official" Saint canon was recently made available again as ebooks, but Meet the Tiger was left out. You have to count on finding an old copy somewhere....mine is a 1952 Avon paperback. Worth hunting down a copy, especially for some good old-fashioned hell-for-leather adventure, which I think we need more of.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

June at the Phantom Recital Hall

It's a warm, rainy night in early June....and will this rain ever stop? It's been a horrendously wet season so far, and the jokes about washing mildew out of one's hair are already stale.

However, we're at the new recital hall at the university, where a piano student is giving a recital of Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit", which includes this eerie section...

Despite sounding like the name of a Clark Ashton Smith character, "Gaspard de la Nuit" is a three-movement suite by Ravel, each movement based on a poem by Aloysius Bertrand. "Scarbo," the final piece, depicts a goblin dancing and pirouetting around the landscape, getting into mischief. It's considered one of the more difficult pieces in the standard repertoire....but yet this student handles it with ease. From whence came their unearthly talent?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017


The first of a series of classic Gothic reprints from Valancourt, this is certainly amusing, if sometimes a chore. Published in 1798, it's probably a good example of the Gothics of the period, which were consumed like popcorn.

Set in France in the Dark Ages, it involves....well, a lot. You've got peasants on the run. You have corrupt nobles. You have good nobles in exile. You have a femme fatale in the form of the wicked Brunchilda. You have a haunted castle with a mischievous skeleton cutting capers.

It's full of plot and counterplot, and to try to recount it would be pointless as it's all a mad jumble. That being said, it's a FUN mad jumble, so utterly berserk and over-the-top that it's hard to take all that seriously. In fact, there's a vein of black comedy running through much of the supernatural doings, which I understand was fairly rare for the genre.

But at the same time, there's a lot that's interesting. It's free of the Catholic-bashing that so many Gothics indulged in; in fact, the clergy are quite heroic in this story. There's also a lot that's probably fairly typical of the genre, with people showing up in disguise, people lamenting their fates, characters dying because the author probably doesn't know what to do with them and/or needs to motivate his other characters, and an ending where the wicked are punished and the good rewarded. It's a mad tumult, fitting a lot into a dense 108 pages.

So, if you're interested, check it out. It's available in paperback and as an ebook. The Animated Skeleton

Sunday, May 21, 2017


The fifth in Popular Library's 1970's reprinting of selected de Grandin stories, this is the usual assortment of tales featuring the dashing French phantom-fighter.

There's not much of a running theme here as there was in the last volume, but it's still fun pulp nonsense. Interestingly, two tales in this volume, "The Great God Pan" and "Mephistopheles and Company, Ltd.," are mundane mysteries with the trappings of the supernatural. "Pan" has de Grandin coming across a Greek revival cult with a criminal at its head, and "Mephistopheles" has him assisting a woman being victimized by fake psychics.

Of the supernatural tales, there's "The Devil-People," about a Malaysian woman being pursued by the Rakshasas of Indian folklore. It's an OK story but there's some mild racism and religious chauvinism that taint the enjoyment somewhat...but you have to accept that as part of the pulp canon, the nature of the beast.

"Restless Souls" is a vampire story, but better than Quinn's previous assays at the creature. In this one, a young, newly-made vampire is under the control of an older vampire, and must do their bidding, including luring a lonely man to his destruction. It's a good plot, if a bit overly romantic and dramatic (but hell, it's pulp) and holds together well.

"The Wolf of Saint Bonnot" is a bit of a problem. There's a seance at a weekend house-party, and of course something hideous is raised that victimizes one of the participants. However, it comes out of nowhere...there's no connection and no reason given for why the seance raised that particular spirit. It just does, randomly. I wasn't quite down with that...I do like a tidy logic to things like this, rather than someone being tormented by a spirit from another time and place simply at random. It's not good storytelling, if you ask me.

"The Hand of Glory" is probably the best of the lot, a tale of supernatural rivalry as an archaeologist is planning to raise an ancient goddess, but must also combat a rival who wants the relics for himself. It's enjoyable fluff, with some darkness as it becomes clear one of the main characters is more than happy to sacrifice a loved one to achieve his aims.

All in all, not bad, and I always enjoy de Grandin. And wouldn't you know it...just as I finished this, I found out that now all of Quinn's de Grandin stories, the entire canon, are to be reprinted, with the first volume out now. Dangit! More money to be spent!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

May at the Phantom Cabaret!

Between two shops, one selling martial arts supplies, the other a sub shop, is a narrow passage with a tiny sign indicating some sort of establishment lies back that way. Only the most discerning know of it...well, really, quite a few know, but few actually make the trouble to go there. We're going there tonight, in hopes of some good drinks and good music.

It turns out to be a lovely and elegant place, and with surprisingly reasonable prices. The staff greet us warmly and give us a good table where we can see the stage. The drinks and good and there's some unique creations on the menu. And then....the entertainment!

The music is impressive and we have a great time. We actually have a chance to chat with the performers (who, luckily, have access to a back entrance so they don't have to negotiate that narrow passage...).

And who are those folks at that other table, looking at us? Should we start a conversation?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Happy Walpurgisnacht! And Happy Ninth Birthday!

Hope everyone's having a good time tonight, whatever you're doing! And I've been plugging away at this for nine years! Wow....

Two in the Mountains

Recently, I read two books back-to-back with somewhat similar settings, so I thought, why not review them together?

Dead Men Don't Ski is the first novel by Patricia Moyes, who started it while down with a broken leg (after a ski accident). Published in 1959, it's redolent of the kind of travel and lifestyle available to Britons abroad in the 1950s.

Scotland Yard Inspector Henry Tibbett is going on a ski holiday with his beloved wife Emmy, to the (fictitious) town of Santa Chiara in the Italian Alps. However, it's a working holiday; there's something suspicious going on at the place they'll be staying, and Henry's asked to keep an eye open for clues. The Albergo Bella Vista is indeed full of odd characters, but when the loathsome Hauser boards the ski lift (the only way to the hotel) at bottom a living man, and is dead when he reaches the top, the mystery kicks into full gear.

Everyone staying in the hotel has a secret...there's the Bright Young Things fresh from London, and the dour German family of Hauser's fiancee, and the stodgy British couple, and the glamorous Austrian baroness, and the dashing ski instructor. Everything moves at just the right pace, with descriptions of the town and the life people are leading done in great detail. The first couple of chapters detail the journey from London (train to Dover, a crossing over the channel, an overnight train to Innsbruck, a change to a local train to Chiusa, and then a local skier's special to Santa Chiara), and the hotel and townspeople depicted in loving detail. One is very conscious that this is just after WWII and it's still lingering in people's minds.

The conclusion is satisfying and enjoyable, and along the way there's good detective work (by both Henry and Emmy, who are an effective team) and some good characterizations. I found myself liking Colonel Buckfast, the male half of the stodgy British couple, and feeling compassion for him. But nearly everyone is likable here, and you enjoy the time spent.

This launched a long-running series that kept going until the late 80s, and I have them all...

Murder on the Matterhorn, published in 1951, is the second in a series of mountain-climbing-themed mysteries by Glyn Carr, featuring as detective a Shakespearean actor named Ambercromie Lewker, known as "Filthy" to his friends. (Get it? Filthy Lewker? Yeah, it's a bit too cute. Bear with me.) Lewker is off to Zermatt to spend a climbing holiday on the Matterhorn, and while there meets Leon Jacot, a former Resistance leader, now a wealthy sportsman who's going into politics. There's tensions and a death threat sent to Jacot, seemingly from an anti-communist activist group. (Jacot may be leaning toward Communism, which alarms some.) But then Jacot turns up dead one morning, seemingly after attempting an ill-advised solo climb up the Matterhorn in less-than-ideal conditions. Lewker, however, spots the body's condition and clues that he was suffocated, not killed in a fall, and investigates. Who is responsible? Were his political ambitions to blame?

Carr's knack for characterization is sometimes a bit lacking, but he knows his mountain climbing. (His real name was Showell Styles, and he was an accomplished climber.) His descriptions of climbing are his strength, and the plot holds up well. He does a decent job of describing Zermatt and the Swiss ambience, but he's not Patricia Moyes in that regard. (I love books with a good sense of place, and that's always a factor when I review books. Don't set a book in Hong Kong or Prague when you don't go out in the environment at all, and it might as well be Cleveland.)

It's also interesting to get into that early 50s mindset of anti-Communist paranoia, which was also a factor in his previous book, Death on Milestone Buttress.

It's not up to Moyes, who was a real wordsmith, but it's still enjoyable, and I'll probably read more in the series as I can find them....

Sunday, April 23, 2017

An April Night Out at the Cinema!

April has come and it's an unexpectedly chilly night. At least the frequent rains seem to be washing away the pollen that has given us so many problems.

Dinner at the usual place is a cheery affair, with the chef sending out samples of new menu items and the owner giving us a round of drinks on the house. After the bill is settled, we stroll up the street to that shabby but comfortable old theater for this month's movie.

Tonight, the show is the 1935 thriller Death from a Distance!

This is an old Poverty Row work, but given some extra polish by some professional special effects work, significant for the time and budget. Watch and enjoy!

The show over, we amble up the street for a final drink....and hey, the ticket-taker with the tattoos and biceps is joining us tonight!

Thursday, April 13, 2017


I went looking for more of Bailey's Mr. Fortune mysteries out there....there is so little available other than the first book! What a crime! You'd think, with all the reprinting and ebooks going on out there, someone would have pounced on Bailey....but so far, not much.

I got hold of this collection of stories through interlibrary loan, and there's some more available, plus I may have to shop on Ebay or Amazon for used copies, which seem to mostly exist in the UK.

Anyway, for the contents...

"The Missing Husband" has a tale of a husband who disappears one day, only to turn up a few days later, dead, in an easily findable spot near his house. What is going on? To be honest, this was my least favorite story in the book, and I almost thought it may have been a bad idea to get this book in the first place. The minute the story was over, I forgot it. That's not good.

But...."The Cat Burglar," the second story, makes up for it. It's a dashing tale of jewel thieves and murder, in a glamorous setting of London society. And it also has some surprising material for a Golden Age mystery story that I won't reveal here, but it's easily spotted.

"The Lion Party" has Fortune investigating a jewel robbery at a high-society party of notorious people, and while the solution may be a bit unsatisfying, it does look into the psychology of those involved. "The Violet Farm" has Fortune looking in on a friend's daughter, getting entangled in a murder and scandal, and eventually finding treasure. "The Quiet Lady" has a woman accused of murder, but an unexpected witness clears up the case. And "The Little House" is a story I've reviewed before.

The language is graceful, and it's also a bit daring for Golden Age stories in depicting police corruption and child abuse, as well as Society characters who are venal and shallow. It's actually very modern for something from 1927.

Anyway, recommended....if you can find it. Back to the library it goes!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

At the Phantom Concert Hall

So, tonight we're at the concert hall again, for something different. VERY different.

Tonight's program includes a very modern piece, Robert Paterson's 2013 composition "Ghost Theater," The name isn't just a postmodern joke; this is really meant to depict a derelict theater haunted by ghosts and shadows, and the specters of soldiers killed in combat.

Give it a listen....

I know, this is very out-of-character for me. I'm normally much more traditional in my music selections, but I'm trying to avoid being stodgy. I saw this performed live here in Baltimore a few weeks ago, and it made an impression.

So...who's up for a drink?

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Last of the Barnavelts: THE SIGN OF THE SINISTER SORCERER by Brad Strickland

Great cover, huh? It's appropriate; this is the last of the Barnavelt series, and the last Bellairs novel that Strickland wrote. Apparently his publisher decided to axe the series.

It's the mid-1950s, and Lewis Barnavelt is having a rough time, as usual. At an end-of-school party, where Uncle Jonathan is performing a magic show, he sees an odd, cloaked figure off to the side, which disappears quickly. Then he has a run of bad luck; he gets two black eyes, he loses his allowance, and twists his ankle. He then looks in the enchanted mirror that hangs in the coatrack in the front hall and sees the image on the cover...the hooded figure tracing a "3" in the air.

What could it mean? Lewis is trying to puzzle it out when his uncle's wand vanishes and later Jonathan himself disappears. What's going on? Who is responsible? And what of the new kid in town, Hal Everit, who has so many questions about magic and sorcery?

It's an interesting story, and I get the vibe that Strickland knew this was it, as he did something a little daring. (SPOILERS!) The thing is, Jonathan is being persecuted by an old rival from his student days, who had participated in the manufacture of the enchanted coatrack mirror, and who now wants it for himself. However, the rival has taken the guise of young Hal Everit, and toward the end of the book there's a scene where the artifical Hal falls apart. It's pretty gruesome for a kid's book.

However, there's one bit that I found a problem, and I had to double-check to be sure I was right. In the first book in the series, the coatrack mirror is clearly described as round, and the Gorey illustration follows suit. But Strickland makes a goof, and describes the mirror as being rectangular. A pretty serious error.

Still, it's not a bad book at all, though not the best of Strickland's work. I felt a little wistful as it ended, but the series could only go so far. The idea of the kids being frozen in time, more or less, and never getting older (when the Bellairs-penned works touched on their getting older), which I understand was the command of the publisher, but it took something away from the series, I felt.

Bellairs wrote two other series, one about Anthony Monday (four books) and another about Johnny Dixon (an even dozen) and I'll get into those later. Now that I'm working again, I have to schedule my reading time more carefully!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Belated Evening at the Phantom Concert Hall

We pick our way across the patches of ice and solidified snow to that old concert hall. It's a big night; a noted guitarist is in town, and we nabbed tickets!

We're hoping for some hot guitar action to bring in some signs of spring, but the freezing temperatures and high winds are telling us that winter is still with us. However, some music from sunny Spain puts us in a romantic springtime mood.

(I'm so sorry for being so late with this....I started a new job last week and it's taking a lot of my energy and time, and it'll be a while before I've adjusted to working full time again. And we're having brutally cold weather right now that's got me in a rotten mood....)

The show over, we slip out and find a cafe for a warm drink....that wind is brutal!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Catching Up & Short Takes

OK, I've been busy and distracted lately, but in a good way: I start a new job tomorrow! It came just in time; my unemployment ran out (you get six months here in Maryland) and what money I had was on the verge of running out, so if I didn't land a job when I did I'd be moving in with my mother and updating this blog from the local library. (She doesn't have internet.)

I won't go into detail about the new job but it's with a local stable company, involves research, is a temp-to-hire position through a famous temp company, but if they like me after about six months I'll be brought on permanently. The pay is less than I had been making but is right at the low end of what I'd prefer. (Considering everything else I'd been interviewing for was below that mark, sometimes significantly below, I think I'm lucky.)

So...what have I been reading lately?

Some of H. C. Bailey's works about Reggie Fortune are available as ebooks and I read the first one, after sampling some excellent tales. These are fun traditional mysteries from 1920, and while sometimes Reggie seems a bit too much like Lord Peter Wimsey (whom some simply can't stand), the stories tend to the darker than Wimsey's and could deal with intense obsessions, corruption, miscarriages of justice, and child abuse. The stories in this particular collection are a bit lighter in tone than some of later ones, but Bailey's elegant and sophisticated style are a joy to read and the mysteries can be genuinely nasty...although one is a bit comical. They do give an "origin story" as the first tale, "The Archduke's Tea," features Fortune accidentally embroiled in a mystery, with the police (and he himself) being surprised as his acumen in solving the case, leading him to be called in on others as the volume progresses. I can't wait to dip into more Fortune; this is damn good stuff.

Well, this is lurid, isn't it? This is the first in a series of collections of pulp tales by Paul Chadwick, about the adventures of reporter Wade Hammond, who becomes embroiled in some startling mysteries. The first story, "Murder in the Mist," is shockingly mundane, but the third story, "The Murder Monster," which the cover illustrates, is sheer pulp madness. There's a mad criminal called the Tarantula, a mesmeric mastermind, and a bizarre plot involving making people see skeletons. My favorite story, "Doctor Zero," had a mastermind using weird purple lights as murder weapons. This is good pulpy fun, as published in the magazines "Detective Dragnet" and "Ten Detective Aces" between 1931 and 1935.

Elizabeth Daly had been a big deal in the 40s, with Agatha Christie naming her as her favorite mystery author. This is her first book....and I wasn't thrilled. It actually took me three tries to read it, and when I finally did, I had the plot figured out easily. Henry Gamage (Daly's detective, a rare book expert) is vacationing at a seaside resort in Maine when an alarming death occurs, as a frail, ill man seemingly falls from a cliff. However, there's evidence that it might not have been an accident, and the death occurs literally hours after he inherited a fortune. There's a lot of meandering around a local theater company and a golf game, but I found it confusing and hard to follow, and the final revelation not much of a shock. I was very disappointed in this book but I have heard some very good things about her other novels, so I'll probably give her another try at some point.

The first in a new series and while it was well-structured and well-written, I was rather annoyed with it as it's yet another one of those books set in Victorian times but with the characters not acting all that Victorian. Really, it seems to be endemic among those who write historical fiction these days to make their physical milieu well-researched and period-accurate but their character's attitudes and behaviors to be perfectly modern. But I digress...March Middleton, newly orphaned, goes to London to live with her new guardian, detective Sidney Grice, who is a flamboyant and well-known figure in the papers. Middleton finally convinces him to allow her to assist on a case, a seemingly sordid one involving a murder in a sleazy junk shop, but it ends up leading into rather strange Victorian noir territory. Not bad, but there were aspects of it I wasn't crazy about. Unsure if I'll continue down this road...

Well, there's some more, but that's enough for now. I need to get to bed and be ready for my first day of work tomorrow....

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A February Evening at the Cinema

It's been a strangely warm February; is this a hint of a hot summer to come? Is it climate change? Well, of course it is, that much is obvious, but we chat over dinner about how we didn't have much of a winter this year. Not much in the way of deep cold spells, no significant snowstorms to speak of. Takes away a good excuse to hunker down at home.

But after teasing the waiter over the bill, and remarking on tonight's fish special, we head up the street to that old movie theater we love so well.

Tonight's film is another golden oldie from 1936, The Rogue's Tavern.

This actually holds up quite well as a comedy/mystery and is still very enjoyable today. Produced on a shoestring, it actually looks like a million bucks thanks to good sets and a good cast.

The show over, we bid our adieus to the folks at the theater and wander up the street to that little cafe...

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

THE DIVINERS by Libba Bray

This was another library find, picked up at random. But when I got home, I found it on a list of recommended books that I'd jotted down long ago and almost forgotten. This is an entertaining tale of murder and the occult set in 1920s New York.

Evie O'Neill is a wealthy flapper from the town of Zenith, OH (nice tip of the hat to Sinclair Lewis there) who has a psychic power: she can hold a person's possession and get psychic impressions of them and see their secrets. Blurting out a local's dirty secret at a party, she's shipped off to New York to stay with her Uncle William, who runs a museum of the occult with his assistant, Jericho.

Evie makes friends with the downtrodden Mabel, the child of social-reformer parents, Theta Knight, a Ziefeld showgirl, and her best friend, gay pianist Henry, pickpocket Sam (who's more than he appears to be) and Harlem numbers runner Memphis Campbell. Everyone has their secrets, people sometimes clash, but everyone's lives converge.

A series of murders is striking New York, with serious occult overtones, and Will is called in by the police to assist. Evie uses her psychic powers to get information, and investigates. Evie is madcap and goofy, but inside is haunted by the death of her older brother in WWI and her parents' rejection of her. She has repeated dreams of him and it becomes clear that he's trying to communicate something to her, but she can't tell what. Memphis, who plays a large role in this, is haunted by his memory of having healing powers as a child, but is also protective of his younger brother Isaiah, who has psychic powers of his own, and is dealing with the death of his mother and his family's seeming abandonment by his father.

Their paths converge as more murders occur, and clues point to a racist church in the suburbs, then to a former cultist's compound upstate (actually a fairly accurate depiction of such cults back in the day). There's fake (and real) spiritualists, weird revelations, and hints of government conspiracies and shady operations.

It's interesting that there's a lot of world-building going on here, and lots of wheels are set in motion that are still turning by the end of the book. In fact, after the main threat of the novel is resolved, there's still a lot going on that will presumably be continued in a sequel, Lair of Dreams, and one presumes there's an entire series in the works.

It's long, nearly 600 pages, but it moves quickly and I was able to complete it in a few days. It's certainly fun, if sometimes uneven, and so much left hanging at the end. (I tend to prefer books that are self-contained.) Still, it's new and different, and the Roaring 20s setting is well-researched. Worth checking out.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

February at the Phantom Concert Hall

It's been a while since we've been to the symphony, so this month we've scored tickets and are dolling up in our best bohemian finery. (One of these days, we'll get to the opera. Really.)

We hurry to our seats, which are actually good ones for a change. (Remember that Beethoven concert where we were so far back we heard the traffic more than the music?) All around us people are thronged, some looking at us enviously with our easy laughter and unconventional-yet-dressy attire.

Tonight's program is an epic....Mahler's 7th Symphony, also called "The Song of the Night."

Whew...that was a marathon! Well, friends, shall we go back to my place and enjoy a late dinner? I have something in the slow cooker that will be done by the time we get there...

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


The next volume of the Barnvelt adventures, by Brad Strickland, The House Where Nobody Lived is a fun little chiller based on some reality, and is also fairly different from the others. Besides that hideous cover painting.

It's sometime vaguely in the 1950s. (By now, Strickland had been pressured by the publisher to "freeze" his characters age-wise and the timeline being just the '50s.) Lewis and Rose Rita, out rambling around town, come across Hawaii House, an isolated building in an odd architectural style that had been built by a sea captain who had first taken American diplomats to Hawaii in the 1800s; the house was in the style of wealthy Hawaiian landowners. (Back then, they had been called the Sandwich Islands, though.) However, there's a gruesome tale of how once people moved in, everyone in the house died in the space of one night, all being found frozen to death. The two hear drumbeats from inside, and see phantom figures, and flee the scene. Time passes.

Later, a family buys the house, and Lewis and Rose Rita befriend the son, David Keller, who has a speech impediment. (Which is handled nicely, and Lewis and Rose are actually realistically sympathetic.) But the family has problems; they never get a decent night's sleep, and dream of drums and phantom figures. David has a haunted aspect about him, and when Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann manage to visit the house, they find weird emanations abounding.

I won't tell much more, but I was happy to see that there's no unnecessary secret-keeping, and the book's menaces are based on Hawaiian mythology, and it's all very nicely handled. In fact, I'd say that while the writing in this isn't brilliant, at the same time it's one of the best structured stories that Strickland had done for the Barnavelt series. I came away without any issues regarding continuity or plot lapses. It may not be art, but it's damned good craft.

So, a solid late entry for the Barnavelt saga, worth reading.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Chilly January Night at the Cinema!

Tonight, the weather is blustery and cold, but at least the rain stopped. We dine comfortably in our favorite restaurant while chatting about our latest adventures, not the least of which is surviving the holiday season, while looking ahead with dread to Valentine's Day.

After we finish dinner, and conclude our good-natured teasing with the waiter over the bill, we head up the street to that old theater we like so much...

Tonight's film is the 1936 mystery chiller A Face in the Fog.

Despite some cheap production values and subpar sound, this has got a good cast and a nicely macabre murder plot. It was based on a story by Peter Kyne, and is one of several adaptations of that author's work by the long-gone Victory company.

The show over, we huddle into our coats and head up the street for a last libation at that small cafe...please join us....