Thursday, March 22, 2018

#30 - Death Points a Finger by Will Levinrew (1933)

About this selection:

About the author: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction states: Pseudonym of US author William Levine (1881-?   ), who seems to have been active in the late 1920s and 1930s, publishing several crime novels during this period, usually featuring the deductive exploits of the elderly Professor Herman Brierly. Seemingly unnatural events and murders are usually brought back to the mundane by the professor. He also authored For Sale - Murder in the Mystery League series. 

Principal characters:

  • Jimmy Hale, star reporter for the New York Eagle
  • Morris Miller, recently deceased
  • August Schurman, recently deceased
  • -- Wrigley, recently deceased
  • Judge Isaac Higginbotham, camp owner
  • Professor Herman Brierly, camp owner
  • Amos Brown, the one veteran they have lost track of

Locale: Two remote camps (Higginbotham's and Brierly's) on Lake Memphremagog, which spans the Vermont/Quebec border


A group of war veterans has an annual reunion at a remote lakeside camp. When the war first ended, they entered into a Tontine investment plan - in which the last survivor gets all the premiums paid into it. Over the years, as each member passed away, the survivors get an anonymous note just signed "14". It seems that "14" is doing away with them one by one in order to be the last survivor.

As the annual reunion begins, only 11 members arrive. News comes that three of their group - Morris Miller, August Schurman, and Wrigley, have just died. The "14" message arrives soon after.

Jimmy Hale, star reporter for the New York Eagle, had been assigned to cover the reunion. He travels to his friend Professor Herman Brierly's nearby camp, and from there they attend the reunion at Higginbotham's camp. As news of the three deaths arrives, Hale and Brierly begin the investigation to see who "14" is, and if the deaths are related.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

#29 - The Stingaree Murders by W. Shepard Pleasants (1932)

About this selection:

About the author: This is evidently his only novel. In Biographical Sketches of Cartoonists & Illustrators in the Swann Collection by Sara Duke, it is noted that he and John Churchill Chase created a comic strip series on New Orleans history in the 1940's. 

Principal characters:
  • Leonard Reade, the host, owner of the New Orleans Herald
  • Harvey Reade, his son
  • Marie Reade, his daughter
  • Wayne Whitsell, architectfriend, and narrator
  • Pierre Lacroix, governor of Lousiana
  • Paul Green, his bodyguard
  • J. D. Henderson, lawyer
  • General Pitts
  • Anne Pitts, his wife
  • Archibald Hurley, Commissioner of Conservation
  • O'Niel Henry, of the New Orleans Herald
  • Needle, servant
  • Si Ling, boat engineer
Locale: The Gulf of Mexico


Thirteen people are aboard the houseboat Terrapin, guests of publisher Leonard Reade. They set out into a remote region of the Gulf on a fishing expedition. One the guests, Louisiana Governor Pierre Lacroix, shows a threatening letter he has received from "The Stingaree Gang", rumored to be drug smugglers. Lacroix has written a secret plan to round them up. Lacroix sets off from the houseboat in a small skiff to fish, and is later found dead, stabbed, with a barb from a stingaree (stingray) in the wound. Then the boat's motor is disabled, and they are marooned in the marshes. Boatman Si Ling volunteers to row to the mainland for help - and he, too, is found dead in his skiff. Two more murders will follow before the murderer is found.


This is a nice tight little mystery, well constructed, especially in Chapter One as the characters are introduced, and in the take-a-breather-and-review-the-suspects (Ch. 12). Th spectacle of the passengers, none of which trust each other trying to stay on deck all night to keep an eye on each other reminds of the famous can't-fall-asleep scene in Treasure of the Sierra Madre

That's the good part. The bad part is the continual distraction by cringe-worthy items such as:
  • Marie Reade deliberately tossing her hat overboard and telling African-American Needle to dive in and retrieve it
  • pejorative terms used in referring to various nationalities
  • the speech of Needle rendered in phonetics ("Thank de Lord my haid am dry"), 
  • likewise, Si Ling ("Si Ling velly solly motor no good")
  • gender stereotypes ("A woman would have abided by intuition, but I was a man, and as a man, I sought logical reasons to support my opinion.")
  • needless killing of animals
Also see this review by TomCat, a.k.a. Last Century Detective, who sums it up this way: "I found this an interesting curio with a fresh look on an old theme and plenty of good ideas, but its unashamed airing of 1930's racial opinion makes this a problematic book to recommend to a modern audience. If you can put it down as a product of its time and think you have come across every trick in the book than you simply have to pick this one up."

Sunday, March 11, 2018

#28 - The Mardi Gras Murders by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning (1932)

About this selection:

About the authors: Here is a Wikipedia article about Gwen Bristow and her husband, Bruce Manning. They also authored three other novels in the Mystery League series (The Invisible HostThe Gutenberg Murders and Two and Two Make Twenty-Two). 

Principal characters:
  • Cynthia Fontenay, leader of DIS 
  • Roger Parnell, DIS member killed at the party
  • Arnold Ghent, DIS member
  • Dick Barron, DIS member, lost a bundle at The Red Cat
  • Ross Hildreth, DIS member
  • Lucy Lake, Cynthia's maid
  • Esther Morse, guest of honor at the DIS party
  • Fritz Valdon, owner of The Red Cat gambling joint
  • Con Conroy, secretary to Fritz Valdon
  • Mark Oliver, toy manufacturer
  • Tony Wiggins, photographer for The Morning Creole
  • --- Wade, reporter for The Morning Creole
  • Captain Murphy, of the Homicide Squad
  • Dan Farrell, District Attorney
Locale: New Orleans


The story is set in three parts, corresponding to the three days at the beginning of Mardi Gras: Collup Monday, Shrove Tuesday, and Ash Wednesday. DIS is a secretive group of 50 who hold their own alternative Mardi Gras celebration with a satanic theme: members dress in masked devil costumes and hold a big drinking party. As they are masked, the only way to tell them apart is a number of the back of each costume.

Photographer Tony Wiggins is assigned to take a group photo for his paper, The Morning Creole. Soon after, one of the DIS party, wearing #47, is found dead by Lucy Lake, maid to DIS leader Cynthia Fontenay. The victim is initially thought to be Arnold Ghent, but when his mask is removed he turns out to be Roger Parnell, wearing the incorrectly numbered costume; belonging to Ross Hildreth. Hildreth was out of town and missed the DIS party.

The investigation begins by Captain Murphy, and reporter -- Wade is his confidante and assistant. 45 of the DIS members present were in a closed room under observation when the murder occurs, and are eliminated from suspicion. The 5 remaining and some others (p. 89) are rounded up for questioning.

Toy manufacturer Mark Oliver, DIS member 147, is shot and slightly wounded by persons unknown. 

Cynthia Fonteney is questioned, and soon after dies in a fall during the Mardi Gras parade. Is it murder? When the parade is over, the body of Mark Oliver is found inside a closed simulated fish bowl on the float in which he was riding.


If nothing else, this book will acquaint you with the runup to Mardi Gras. I'm not sure if the DIS group has any basis in reality, a quick search did not turn up anything on it; but there are many and complex groups making up the celebration.

Reporter Wade seems to have a free hand in running the investigation, with the authorities having minimal participation. In the 1930's everything revolved around the newspaper world, and this story reflects that. Wade works out the solution with photographer Wiggins running the leg work. It is enjoyable following this pair as they work so well together.

It is distracting that the speech patterns of African-American is represented by phonetic spellings, i.e. "yessuh". Although unacceptable today as stereotyped, this was a prevalent writing style of the 1930's. There is liberal use of the n-word when referring to African-Americans, yet this seems, in context, non-derogatory. Two African-Americans play key roles in resolving the murders.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

#27 - Spider House by Van Wyck Mason (1932)

About this selection:

F. Van Wyck Mason (

About the author: Wikipedia states in his biographyFrancis Van Wyck Mason (November 11, 1901 – August 28, 1978) (aka Geoffrey Coffin, Frank W Mason, Ward Weaver) was an American historian and novelist. He had a long and prolific career as a writer spanning 50 years and including 78 published novels, many of which were best sellers and well received.

Principal characters:
  • Ezra Boonton, paranoid owner of "Spider House"
  • Juan Boonton, his brother
  • Dora Delray, "bewitching" nurse in a short uniform and high heels
  • GrΓΌber, a male nurse
  • Terence Kelly, butler and bodyguard
  • Whang-Su, Chinese cook
  • Dr. George Lawes, neurologist
  • Captain Janos Catlin, of the State Police
  • Sergeant Matt McNulty, of the State Police
Locale: New Brunswick NJ


Eccentric Ezra Boonton, "Spider of the Street", is a retired financier who has swindled many to build his fortune, and now lives on the second floor of a house fortified with various gadgets to protect him from his supposed enemies. Captain Janos Catlin of the State Police has gone to see him on a request for protection. 

While Catlin is there, butler/bodyguard Terence Kelly is shot when no one is looking. Catlin and his team decide to spend the night. He winds up locked in a closet, and when he gets out finds that (Ezra) Boonton has been killed upstairs as well; and no weapon can be found.

Sexy Dora Delray is hesitant to talk, but invites Catlin to her place (wink, wink). While there, they are both abducted by a gang. Trooper Matt McNulty had been outside on guard, but he is found dead also. While investigating the gang, Dr. George Lawes is abducted; and held hostage on a beat-up houseboat tied up on the river.


This is a version of a locked-room mystery, which has turned into a locked-entire-second-floor mystery. A bit daring, with the killings occurring under the nose of the state police. Red herrings abound. It is remarkable that there is only one woman in the book - and this one is the one your mother warned you about.

The drug smuggling gang seems to be a popular theme of the 1930's. The action all culminates in a big fight on the houseboat, quite satisfying.

Note that the text uses stereotypes and pejorative terms for various nationalities, unacceptable today but common in writing of the time.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

#26 - The Ebony Bed Murder by Rufus Gillmore (1932)

About this selection: This book contained a sealed section to isolate a portion of text in virgin condition until  the reader broke the seal, which J F Norris notes was a gimmick copied from Harper (see his Pretty Sinister Books blog for photos of the seal). The rear portion of the seal contained a promo for Spider House, the next title in the series. In my copy, only a small, jagged portion of the seal page remains bound between 158/159.

This is the first selection to indicate New York and London as their publishing site, both on the front papers and the dust jacket.

About the author: The Golden Age of Detection web site notes: Gillmore, Rufus (1879-1935) was an American mystery writer. The author of four mysteries, Gillmore's books often reflect those of better-known writers. The Alster Case (1914) is virtually a parody of Anna Katherine Green's famous The Leavenworth Case (1878), mixing comedy and chills. The Ebony Bed Murder (1932) echoes the then-popular works of S.S. Van Dine. Gillmore has always been an obscure mystery writer. There is no evidence that such famous mystery historians as S.S. Van Dine, Howard Haycraft or Anthony Boucher had ever heard of him, or read his books. Gillmore was the first husband of writer Inez Haynes Gillmore Irwin. 

Principal characters:
  • Rufus Gillmore, chronicler and narrator, Watson style
  • Griffin Scott, psychologist, advertising expert, and criminologist
  • Randolph Hutchinson, district attorney
  • Detective Sergeant Mullens
  • Detective Haff
  • Helen Brill Kent, the victim
  • Bascomb White, boyfriend of Dorothy Vroom
  • Edward St. Clair, a gigolo and dancing partner
  • Shah, the Persian cat
The six people present at the time of the murder:
  1. Mrs. Vroom, the "stage mother"
  2. Dorothy Vroom, daughter of Mrs. Vroom
  3. Miss Ethel Cushing, daughter of Helen Brill Kent
  4. Captain Brill, of the Salvation Army, brother of Helen Brill Kent
  5. Napoleon Brill, "rat-like" brother of Helen Brill Kent
  6. Jesse Brill, "elephantine" father of Helen, Napoleon, and the Captain.
The five ex-husbands, and #6 in waiting, in order (detailed beginning p. 126):
  1. Harold Beasley Kent
  2. Thomas O. Cushing, father of Ethel Cushing; disappeared in China
  3. Robert Courtlandt Stuyvesant, father of Robert Courtlandt Stuyvesant, Jr., whom Helen "sold" to him
  4. Marquis de la Battaile
  5. Chilton Fullegard
  6. Jason Sullivan, a.k.a. "Big Boss"big tough industrialist, would have been #6

Locale: New York City


Griffin Scott, amateur criminologist, is summoned from his home to scene of Helen Brill Kent's murder. Kent was an actress and society climber, leaving behind a trail of five ex-husbands. She is found shot in her apartment (map on page 41) on her elaborately carved ebony bed. Six others (listed above) had gathered in the apartment to celebrate her birthday.

The family insists it is suicide, but Griffin Scott and D.A. Randolph Hutchinson claim it is murder. A search of the room turns up one curious object: a long, rolled up piece of twine with a shoehorn tied to one end. Someone pulls the electrical fuses, and when they get the lights back on, the twine is gone.

Further developments: Her jewels turn up missing (oxymoron?). Later, Detective Haff calls from the apartment with the news that he knows who the killer/thief is. Before Scott and Hutchinson can return, Haff himself is killed.

Attention focuses on Jason Sullivan, who was lined up to be husband #6, and lives two floors below. Scott spies on Sullivan, who goes on the defensive.


As others have noted, dilettante Griffin Scott is a kindler, gentler version of Philo Vance (from the S. S. Van Dine novels of the same period), minus the snobby condescension; making him a lot more likable. Scott's batcave-like apartment contains all the latest anti-crime tech gadgets (chem lab, workshop, grand piano) as well as a giant chessboard painted on the floor (guess he didn't worry about the security deposit). 

Lots of sixes: Six people present at the murder, Five ex-husbands with a sixth in the pipeline, six keys to the apartment. A floor plan of the apartment is provided (p. 41) which is helpful, but darned if I can find the rear entrance, which plays an important role, indicated on it.

Also please see this review by Mike Grost.

Friday, March 2, 2018

#25 - For Sale - Murder by Will Levinrew (1932)

About this selection: This selection does not contain any promotional or preview material.

About the author: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction states: Pseudonym of US author William Levine (1881-?   ), who seems to have been active in the late 1920s and 1930s, publishing several crime novels during this period, usually featuring the deductive exploits of the elderly Professor Herman Brierly. Seemingly unnatural events and murders are usually brought back to the mundane by the professor. 

He also authored Death Points a Finger, the final selection published by The Mystery League.

Principal characters:

  • Dr. John Agnew, the shady doctor
  • Henry Slater, dead of diabetes before story begins
  • Mrs. Frey, an invalid 
  • Annie Roosma, Mrs. Frey's maid and unstable screaming neighbor
  • Charles Stone, who got too close to a cliff
  • Dr. Richardson Cornwall, who got a bad whiff of something
  • James MacIntosh, Lieutenant of Detectives
  • Richard Quantrell Marlow, reporter for the Newark Evening Bulletin
  • George Becker, City Editor of the Newark Evening Bulletin
  • Louis Carver, chief adjuster of Trans-Pacific Life Insurance Co.
Locale: Newark NJ


It starts with a brief newspaper item of a scheduled speech by Dr. John Agnew at a medical conference, in which the speaker claimed that science has advanced to a point where murder can be committed, leaving no traces. A year goes by - and Louis Carver, chief adjuster for Trans-Pacific Life Insurance Co. becomes suspicious when the company receives an unusual number of claims for deaths of persons with large value policies. Detective James Macintosh and Reporter Richard Quantrell Marlow notice the death certificates are signed by Dr. Agnew. Is he committing murder for hire?

No sooner do they begin inquiring into the death of the last victim, Henry Slater, when Mrs. Frey, invalid patient of Dr. Agnew, is found murdered in her bed. She had been providing a room for her maid, unstable neighbor Annie, who staged a fake attack upon herself, and screams a lot.

More of Dr. Agnew's patients drop off - Charles Stone (literally, off a cliff) - and his associate Dr. Richardson Cornwall - while their beneficiaries collect large sums. Can Dr. Agnew be stopped?


This follows the police procedural formula - it is known early on who the killer is, the challenge is catching him with proof. It is fascinating how the evil doctor keeps coming up with more convoluted, obscure murder methods - and the detective and his newspaper buddy have to keep digging into research to figure them out.

The annoying aspect of this book is Detective James MacIntosh with his heavy Irish brogue which is rendered phonetically ("Yon's a verra dangerous mon, laddie"), and can turn it on and off at will. Not only is this flip-flopping annoying to the reader, but reporter Marlow likes to fake the brogue just to tease MacIntosh, so it is difficult to follow who is actually speaking. Cute at first, but wears thin quickly.

Caution: Text contains use of the n-word to reference African-Americans.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

#24 - Two and Two Make Twenty Two by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning (1932)

About this selection: This selection was scheduled to contain the solution to Baffle Case Number Three, The Alexander Mystery (presented in #22, The Bungalow on the Roof). However, there is only this brief mention on the dust jacket flap: "The results of the Baffle Case, The Alexander Mystery, have individually been sent to all contestants submitting solutions." This was the last mention of Baffle Cases in the series. 

Gwen Bristow (wikipedia)

About the authors: Here is a Wikipedia article about Gwen Bristow and her husband, Bruce Manning. They also authored three other novels in the Mystery League series (The Invisible HostThe Gutenberg Murders,  and The Mardi Gras Murders). 

Principal characters:
  • Brett Allison, owner of the Peacock Club
  • Major Jack Raymond, federal drug smuggling investigator
  • Andrew Dillingham, federal drug smuggling investigator
  • Linton Barclay, federal drug smuggling investigator
  • Daisy Dillingham, perky grandmother of Andrew Dillingham, amateur sleuth
  • Eva Shale, beautiful woman with a mysterious source of income
  • Imogen Cupping, guest of the club
  • Tracy Cupping, guest of the club, jealous husband of Imogen
  • Judith Garon, guest of the club, keeps busy with frequent changes of elegant clothing
  • -- Foster, potential buyer of the Peacock Club
  • Mrs. Penn, manager of the club, subject to hysterics
  • -- Warren, maitre d' and chaffeur of the club
  • Felicia Meade, telephone operator of the club
  • Beans, radio operator for the club
  • Pedro Artinza, crewman on Linton Barclay's yacht
  • John Smithcrewman on Linton Barclay's yacht

Locale: Paradise Island, in the Gulf of Mexico off Mississippi


A storm is approaching Paradise Island in the Gulf of Mexico. The island is the site of the Peacock Club resort owned by Brett Allison. Most of the guests have gone to the mainland for the duration of the storm but a few remain. Of those remaining are three men investigating drug smuggling into the US via the Gulf (Major Jack Raymond, Andrew Dillingham, and Linton Barclay). 

A private plane lands - on the golf course, no less - to discharge Daisy Dillingham, grandmother of Andrew.

Just as the storm arrives, Linton Barclay is found murdered in his cottage, with Eva Shale present, but disclaiming any knowledge of the murder. The mainland authorities empower Brett Allison to secure the scene and begin the investigation.

It turns out pretty much everyone has a motive, and everyone was in the vicinity of the cottage at the time of the murder. The interviews boil down to a exhaustive query into everyone's movements and accusations. 

To better understand the setting, here is a sketch of my conception of the cottage area which I reverse-engineered from the text. 

Linton Barclay's cottage at the time of the murder.
Numbers indicate page number references.

The investigation gets derailed when Pedro Artinza and John Smith, crewmen on Linton Barclay's yacht, come ashore and start a fight. Artinza is injured. On his deathbed, he tells Daisy that Barclay has committed other murders by using his cane as a weapon. His dying comments allow Daisy to figure out who Barclay's murderer is.


This is one novel which cries out for a map of the environs, S. S. Van Dine or Ellery Queen style - so I had to sketch my own in the process. This is a classic stranded-on-the-island murder which is supposed to limit the cast of characters, but somehow new ones keep popping in periodically. One character, "McPherson" just shows up in the action with no explanation, and I am still not sure who "Warren" is either. 

The solution lies in breaking down the alibis of everyone over the time of the murder, and gets a little tedious (as real detective work goes, I suppose). Feisty Daisy solves the case by her observations, and is a good solid character. When she reveals the solution, my eyebrows went up at the surprising development.

There are some fair play issues which put the reader at a disadvantage. Daisy keeps some observations to herself and does not share them with the reader. The final resolution of what-to-do-with-the-murderer is certainly not kosher legally, but in a sense satisfying to the reader.

In addition, may I refer you to this fine synopsis and review posted by Bev Hankins on