Recommendations from the SMSA Crime & Mystery Book Club

The theme this month is a locked room mystery.  The selection ranges from Nordic Noir to little known Irish crime novels written in World War Two.  Here are our recommendations:

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Beast In View by Margaret Millar

Winner of the 1956 Edger Allen Poe Award, Beast In View. is set in Southern California in the 1950s and it features a young woman, Helen, who lives alone in a small hotel in Hollywood. She lived in self imposed isolation and is a loner. One day she takes an irratic phone call from a woman, Evelyn Merrick, who accuses Helen of being a coward. Helen asks her former investment broker, Mr Blackshear, to investigate Evelyn. As Blackshear starts to investigate, the novel tells the story from different perspectives, revealing the secrets and lies of those involved. This is a dark novel that delves into the human psyche. Margaret Millar was a Canadian author who wrote 21 crime novels, her first one was Invisible Worm in 1941.  She was a pioneer in writing about the psychology of women and her books are very straightforward and frank about women, society and relationships in relation to class and economic necessity.

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The Mind's Eye by Håkan Nesser

The Mind's Eye is the first in the Inspector Van Veeteren mystery series set in Sweden. Published in 1993, Nesser was awarded the Swedish Crime Writers' Academy Prize for this novel. According to Amazon, "The swift conviction left Van Veeteren uneasy: Janek Mitter woke one morning with a brutal hangover and his wife dead in the bathtub. With only the flimsiest defence, he is found guilty and imprisoned in a mental institution. But when Mitter is murdered in his bed, Van Veeteren regrets not following his gut and launches an investigation into the two murders. As the chief inspector delves deeper, the twisted root of these violent murders will shock even him."

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The Dead Room By Herbert Resnicow

This is a text book locked room mystery. The body of inventor of an audio speaker, Walter Kassel, is found in the echoless chamber called the "dead room" at Hamilcar Hi-Fi. The room is soundproof, airtight and monitored at all times. The speaker that Kassel was working on is essential to the future of the company. Success means the company stays afloat, so it is essential to the company directors that the murder be solved quickly. The main investor in the company, Ed Baer decides to investigate and asks his son, Matthew, a philosopher, to help him detect. The story is as much about the relationship between father and son as an intellectual puzzle. It is a quick read and very much of its time, which is the late 1980s. Herbert Resnicow was a civil engineer who began to write mystery novels in his 60s. His novels are built around logic and are plot puzzles.

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The Twelfth Juror by B.M. Gill

Written in 1984, this Gold Dagger Award winner is a court room drama told from a juror's perspective. Set in the UK, TV personality Edward Carne is on trial for his wife's murder and the twelfth juror, Robert Quinn, starts to delve deep into the background of the case due to his emotional involvement in the case. There are some implausible plot points as Robert should be impartial and his behaviour and actions would have typically caused him to be dismissed from his jury service, but overall in it a bit of a page turner. B.M. Gill is a non-de-plume for Barbara Margaret Trimble, who wrote over 20 crime and romance novels under this name and two others, Margaret Blake and Barbara Gilmour.

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Common or Garden Crime by Sheila Pim

Written in 1945, this is a first novel for Irish writer Sheila Pim. Set in a small Irish village during World War Two, this cozy crime novel tells the story of an investigation into a murder by the Guard (Irish police) and local Lucy Bex, who is neighbour to the deceased. Lucy uses local knowledge to solve the crime, especially as poisonous plants from her garden were the means for murder. The introduction to the book says this about Sheila Pim, "she wrote her first detective novel, Common or Garden Crime, to satisfy her father’s thirst for detective stories, the publication of which had been curtailed thanks to the paper shortages which affected neutral Ireland during the “Emergency”—or World War II, as it was called in most other parts of the globe. The book turned into something of a collaboration, at least when it came to research, with Sheila and her accountant father pooling their knowledge of gardening and sharing details about the habits of their Dublin neighbours."

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Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express by Stuart Kaminsky

Another Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov novel, the 14th to be exact.  As the title suggests, it is set on the Trans-Siberian Express in present day Russia, although the series started when the country was known as the Soviet Union. There are quite a few plots on the boil with Rostnikov and his assistant Sasha Tkach getting on board the Express in search of a historical document from the time of Tsarist Russia. There is also a gem involved, which is hidden near the historical document with its own set of characters in pursuit. Back in Moscow, there is a serial killer on the loose, and it is up to Rostnikov's son Iosef (also a policeman) and his partner Elena Timofeyeva to catch her.  So that is just the beginning. Kaminsky is a great writer who is able to offer social commentary as well as entertain.  If you are new to the series, we suggest starting at the beginning as there are character and historical developments that make the series a bit of a treasure to read.

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The Locked Room by Maj S. Jöwall & Per Wahlöö

Originally published in 1972, this is 'vintage' nordic noir, before anyone had heard of a girl with a tattoo of a dragon. It is set 15 months after the previous novel, The Abominable Man, and Martin Beck is recovering from being shot. He is handed this case as he returns to work and it involves the death of Karl Edvin Svard, who was found shot dead in a locked room. The case was originally identified as a suicide and handled in such a manner, so when Beck comes to take over, he has to start from the beginning. In addition there is a series of bank robberies that has instigated a task force headed up by a District Attorney, Sten Olsen.  The book focuses on the difference in approaches between Olsen and Beck and there is also insight into the actions of the criminals, which is unusual for a Martin Beck novel. This is another series that offers social commentary as well as entertainment.  This novel is a good opportunity to dip into the world of Martin Beck and see if it is a place you want to visit again,

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Busman's Honeymoon by D.L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers is a contemporary of Agatha Christie and wrote crime novels featuring her English hero, Lord Peter Wimsey and his delightful family.  She introduced Lord Peter in 1921 in the novel Whose Body? Busman's Honeymoon is the 13th and last full crime novel she wrote, only completing short stories and leaving an unfinished manuscript upon her death. This novel is set in 1937 during Lord Peter and Harriet Vane's honeymoon at their newly acquired estate in the country where a man is found dead in the cellar. Most of the investigating is left to Harriet as Peter is called to do some work for the Foreign Office. As a writer of crime novels and someone who has assisted Lord Peter in his work before, this is really a Harriet Vane novel. It is an intellectual puzzle like all DL Sayers novels, and if you are a fan of the characters, a good way to see how this relationship is going to work as a marriage. Harriet was introduced in Strong Poison (1930) where she was on trial for the murder of her lover.  She is also part of Have His Carcase (1932) and Gaudy Night (1935), all of which featured their unusual courtship and the duo solving a couple of murder cases. Other Lord Peter novels where written in between these and are pretty much stand alones, except for a reference to the time and place they are set.  

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Winter At Death's Hotel by Kenneth Cameron

The author of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle becomes the fictional character in this novel by Kenneth Cameron. Set in New York in January 1896, Conan Doyle and his wife, Louisa are at the beginning of Conan Doyle's American literary tour. A woman is found murdered in a Bowery Alley and Louisa becomes convinced that she had seen the woman at the hotel that they are staying at. Conan Doyle dismisses it as fancy, bu when Louisa twists her ankle and is forced to stay at the Hotel Britannica while Conan Doyle continues his tour, she becomes involved in trying to solve the mystery with the help of the hotel detective and an intrepid female reporter. Although Louisa and Conan Doyle were actual people, the book basically uses them as a frame to delve into society of that time and the place and expectation of educated women. It does not really need the tenuous link to Sherlock Holmes, but I suppose it guarantees some type of marketing then.

Next month the theme is a crime involving any of the elements - earth, wind, fire or water.