Sunday, December 31, 2023

Charlie Chan Carries On (1930) by Earl Derr Biggers

And now, more Charlie Chan!

Charlie Chan Carries On is the sixth novel in the series. (Keeper of the Keys was the seventh. I read them in reverse without realizing.) This time, the action kicks off in England, when a deaf old man is found strangled to death in his hotel room. Complicating matters is that the man is a member of a round-the-world tour, and most of his fellow travelers barely know him. Chief Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard is assigned to investigate this seemingly motiveless crime.

“But wait!” I hear you cry, “Isn’t this a Charlie Chan novel?”

It is, dear reader, but besides a mention and a letter in the first chapter, it’ll be a while before he shows up.

From the beginning, this book shows more vim than Keeper. I don’t know if I’m reading too much into this (Keeper was written a year before his death and I don’t know how his health was at the time), but I was more engaged with this book than I was with Keeper. The round-the-world tour is a good set-up, and while Biggers doesn’t always make the best use of the constantly shifting local (beyond Italy, where we get a reminder that this is during Mussolini’s rule: “They would bring Il Duce himself into the affair”), it does keep the story moving. This book has quite a large cast. There’s the head of the tour, Doctor (of Philosophy!) Lofton. There’s Patrick Tait, a lawyer with a heart issue. There’s also Walter Honywood, a nervous man who knows more than he’s telling. There’s also Norman Fenwick, a man who will be a bigger thorn in Duff’s side than the murderer, along with his wife. You also have Max Minchin, a former(?) racketeer and his wife, among numerous others. “Some queer characters had certainly crept into Lofton’s Round the World Tour this year,” and Biggers deserves credit for keeping them distinct. Only once did I have to stop and think “Who’s this again?”

Unfortunately, the cluing is sparse. Keeper’s cluing might have been broken, but at least there were multiple clues. Here, there’s one (1) clue. It is, in fairness, a good clue. It’s a clue that requires the reader to pay attention, and it would be a good start to a chain of logic that would inexorably lead to the killer. But it’s only one clue. It’s telling how Charlie’s much more incriminating evidence is something he sees but doesn’t describe. I will give Biggers due credit for making his killer one of the few killers I’ve read in mystery fiction that felt genuinely ruthless. This book has a pretty high body count! I was really sold on the killer being a threat, rather than just someone to be unmasked come the ending.

All in all, I enjoyed this book, but I can’t claim it to be a great mystery. Like its successor, this is a book for when you want something light but engaging. I’d say this is better than Keeper, with more energy and *fun* running through it. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye (1935) by Erle Stanley Gardner

This isn’t my first Perry Mason, but it is my first Perry Mason novel.

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye is a ride. The book opens with a man named Peter Brunold coming to Mason for help. Brunold says that one of his artificial eyes was stolen, and he’s afraid that it could be planted at the scene of “a crime--a burglary, or, perhaps, a murder.” Mason agrees to help…by making a bunch of other fake eyes to presumably plant at crime scenes.

Our hero.

In the next chapter, he agrees to help a spineless whelp pay back money he embezzled. In the next, while trying to help the aforementioned young man, gets consulted on how to end a marriage without letting the husband know. In the next chapter, he gets called the scene of an assault and finds the husband (who’s also the man the guy in the second chapter was embezzling from) shot to death...with a glass eye clutched in his hand.


I’ll be honest, this is not a fair play mystery. You can follow Mason’s logic about why he suspects the killer, but there’s no real evidence pointing to them. What this book is is an exercise in watching Mason give shady advice, stay five steps ahead of everyone, and play legal games. In the course of this novel, Mason:

  • Tells a woman who planted a gun at a crime scene how to avoid the police and media
  • Has a conversation that involves the following (paraphrased) exchange: "Let's assume my client committed embezzlement." "He literally confessed." "My client can say whatever he wants; I don't make confessions."
  • Gives a witness to murder his car so she can go to his office and he can get a statement before the police can
  • Impersonates a window washer to talk to a witness
  • Stumbles on a dead body, plants an eye at the scene, then manipulates the police (who are tailing him, admittedly) into finding it

All of this culminates in a final courtroom gambit that is magnificent. It’s amazing; the instant you realize what (you think he’s) doing, you’ll laugh out loud. Honestly, his end goal wasn’t as impressive as I thought it would be, but the build-up to it is wonderful.

The book isn’t perfect. The plot moves at 100 miles an hour and some of the parts fall off along the way. There are moments that build up suspicion or mystery that end up not meaning anything. For example, there’s one bit at the end of the first chapter (ROT13: Oehabyq tbvat cnyr ng gur fvtug bs Uneel) that never gets explained. But the main framework holds up, and frankly the ride is fun enough that these threads didn’t bother me much. This was a great book that wetted my appetite for more Mason novels. Recommended!

Other reviews: Ah, Sweet Mystery! and Mysteries Ahoy!