Sunday, December 16, 2018

Favorite Sleuths (1965) by John Ernest

At last, a mystery anthology that isn’t terrible.

I’m not sure of the background behind Favorite Sleuths, other than that it was composed by someone named John Ernest. The book is a collection of numerous classic sleuths. Ellery Queen. Miss Marple. The Saint. Tommy Hambledon.

Yeah I don’t know who he is either. But let’s not waste any more time.

First up is Ellery Queen with “Object Lesson.” The setup is almost too mundane for a Great Detective, as he’s been invited to a classroom to give a lecture on the futility of crime in hopes of scaring straight a trio of juvenile delinquents responsible for petty robberies. Of course, he arrives to find that there’s been another robbery from the teacher herself, namely that of an envelope with money for another teacher. So the lecture becomes a demonstration of crime solving techniques, but one where Ellery nearly ends up the fool, as the envelope containing the money vanishes, in spite of a search.

While an impossibility is always fun, this one is a little weak. The location of the money is clever, yes, but we’re never really granted a chance to see when the hiding occurs, and it’s all based on Ellery not doing a very specific thing. Considering how the thief was operating on a strict time limit, this makes sense, but even so. The “whodunit” aspect is also a little arbitrary. But the story is quick fun.

Next up is Philip MacDonald not with Colonel Anthony Gethryn but with Doctor Alcazar“who had no right to the name and even less to the title.” The good doctor is a fortune teller who one day gets a nervous client who refuses to give her answer in detail, even after some cold reading, but does admit her sister is at risk of being betrayed. But with no further info, the good doctor takes her pay and watches her leave...and reads in the newspaper later that she was murdered.

Not much of a mystery here, admittedly: the killer soon becomes obvious, with the only real twist being the cruelty of their plan. The main joy of this story is watching Alcazar unleash a never ending stream of bull to get what he wants. He strikes a good balance between scammer and charming rogue: He’s solving this case for the reward money, but doesn’t exploit the loved ones of the victim to do it. My main issue is that he never runs into an actual obstacle, he just blows over everything in his way with little effort. I’d like to read more of him, but apparently he only starred in one other story.

Next up is Dorothy L. Sayers with “The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba.” Oddly, this isn’t much of a mystery, more revolving around the exploits of a secret society of thieves and how Whimsey (presumed dead at the beginning but I highly doubt that’s a spoiler) takes them down. It’s good, but like the other Sayers story I’ve reviewed, very arch and polite and British, beyond vague implications of the group’s tortures. And the fate of the leader, geez. Maybe Jigsaw read this story for inspiration?

“A Window for Death” is Rex Stout’s entry, and it plays the whodunit game….and the howdunit one. David Fife comes to Wolfe with a case of maybe-maybe-not murder. His estranged brother had returned, now a rich man thanks to a uranium discovery, but soon expired from a bad case of pneumonia. Nothing major, but another brother has become convinced it was murder, based on some empty hot water bags, but how can one arrange death by pneumonia in a New York apartment?

I’ve read one Wolfe story before this, but this worked quite a bit better. Considering how much of the story is taken up with people saying “This isn’t murder.” over and over, it flows well. The whodunit aspect is a bit weaker however, with what I almost swear is a contradiction is Wolfe’s reasoning.

“The Case of the Perfect Maid” is Christie’s contribution, and is one of the later Miss Marple stories. This time, the problem is a purely domestic one for the old maid of fiction, as her maid notes that a relative has been fired from her job due to a minor issue requiring Marple to go in and preserve her job. The employers have little interest, as they’ve found a wonderful new maid, perfect in every way….

Obviously, this is a simple enough story, with a solution that will seem familiar to the Christie fan, but it's still nice, relaxed piece of detection. Which of course just makes it all the more irritating when the back cover gives the crime away. Not the solution, but the crime itself, which considering how much of the story is build-up to said crime, is quite an offense.

Leslie Charteris with Simon “The Saint” Templar is up next with mostly unexplored territory in mystery fiction: The Loch Ness Monster. The Saint finds himself drawn into this old Scottish mystery when animals start turning up mutilated, resulting in him rooming with a pair of Nessie enthusiasts. Of course, there’s a human hand behind it all, and while the story is well-told, the solution won’t bring any surprises (and in fact, in the height of my arrogance, I'll state that my solution was much more unexpected!)

The next two stories have one thing in common: They both have premises that John Dickson Carr would drool at and they’re both disappointing. Mannings Coles’ “Handcuffs Don’t Hold Ghosts” has a group of ghost hunters vanish during a live radio broadcast of their investigation of a seemingly haunted estate. Sadly, the explanation is simple, lacking any real deduction.

Albert Campion stars in Margery Allingham’s “The Man in the Window.” The titular man is an actor, well-known for sitting in the same chair at the same window at the same club for years. He practically lives in the chair...and then dies in it, of totally natural causes. A time of sadness for all, but the body is barely removed and the papers have barely been circulated when he shows up again, alive and well.

Again, an interesting premise, and there’s more deductions than in the previous story, but the story is a little too simple for my tastes.

Next up is Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason in “The Case of the Crying Swallow.” The longest story in the collection kicks off with a colonel coming to Mason to set up a defense for his wife. It seems that valuable jewelry was stolen, shortly after said wife insisted on cutting off the insurance. Now she’s vanished, leaving only a cryptic message behind, cuing Mason’s investigation.

This is actually my first experience with a Perry Mason story, and man, it was fun. No courtroom drama here, just Mason investigating and trying to decipher a cryptic note with the help of the small army he apparently has on call to investigate every lead that comes up. Not to mention beholding his probably unlawyery behaviors. You see, when most men stumble on a dead body that their client might be implicated in, they call the police and go from there. Perry Mason is not most men. Perry Mason wipes his fingerprints (and when called out on destroying evidence just hand waves and says, “Eh, I’m sure the killer did it already.”), then finds his client, and only then does he report anything.

Considering how fun the the story is, it disappoints me somewhat to note that the detection isn’t as good as it could be. It's more about watching the gradual unraveling of events then true detection, with the final summation coming out in a rush, and with the killer barely getting any page time. But it was so much fun that I’m hoping the rest of the novels are like that.

The final story of the collection is also my first encounter with H. C. Bailey, “The Little Dog.” Bailey's Reggie Fortune is called in to give his opinion of the death of the black sheep of a family who was found drowned in a boathouse, although the victim was kind enough to tie his legs beforehand (in fairness, the idea is that he did so in order to avoid instinctively swimming to the surface, but still). While Fortune can’t officially say it was murder, he was reason to think so, especially the matter of the dog he found near-death outside the boathouse…

After hearing so much about Bailey (thank you Nick Fuller), I was worried that he had been overhyped for me. This story actually worked well, with plenty of logical the first bit. At the three-quarters mark we suddenly take a hard right into Victorian melodrama land, with shootings and suicide as our finale. It’s never even explained how Fortune came to his conclusions. But I still enjoyed it, and am cautiously optimistic for more.

On the whole, an enjoyable little anthology. Sadly, while the stories are of even quality, nothing really excels or stands out, and it’s not a must get. But if you can find it cheaply or in a library, it’s Recommended, with caveats.