Category Archives: 06. A Century of Crime

Dean Street December kick-off

The Invisible HostThe Invisible Host
by Bruce Manning, Gwen Bristow
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1930
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 129
ReRead?: No
Project: dean street december

Guests at a New Orleans party face a mysterious and deadly host in the widely suspected inspiration for Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

When eight guests arrive for a party at a luxurious New Orleans penthouse, their unknown host is nowhere to be found. Then, speaking to them through radio broadcast, he informs them of the evening’s chilling theme: every hour, one of them will die. As the host’s prophecy comes horribly true, the dwindling band of survivors grows desperate to escape their fate. To discover their tormentor’s identity, they must each reveal their darkest secrets and find the common thread—but confessions may not be enough when they realize that one of them may be the killer.

First published in 1930, this classic mystery was adapted into the Hollywood film, The Ninth Guest. It bears a striking resemblance to Agatha Christie’s bestseller And Then There Were None—which appeared nearly a decade later.

To kick off Dean Street Press December, I decided to go with a book that I acquired in December, 2021. I am pretty sure that I heard about from reading this post at Classic Mystery Blog. I also recognized Gwen Bristow’s name – I’ve been planning to read Jubilee Trail for years, since it was reissued by Open Road Media. So, I bought the book and then promptly failed to read it. For two years.

Liz at Adventures in Reading’s decision to reprise Dean Street December gave me the perfect opportunity to dive in – you can find her main post here.

It’s a treat of a vintage mystery. The setting – a penthouse high above New Orleans – is a treat, and it was published in 1930, dead center (no pun intended) of the Golden Age of Mystery, and 9 years prior to Christie’s masterpiece. The plot is convoluted and, ultimately, deeply implausible but who cares. It kept me guessing and I didn’t even remotely begin to guess the culprit.

It is, in fact, a lot like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which is the superior book in every respect, but then again, of course it is, given that ATTWN has claim to being the greatest mystery novel ever written. Invisible Host relies far too heavily on weird technological devices, while ATTWN is more straight up misdirection.

None of that mattered, though, while I was reading it. It moves swiftly, at only 129 pages, it’s probably technically a novella. There are some loose ends left, but when I finished, I was satisfied.

My vintage mystery series: Volume 1

I read a lot of mysteries, and a lot of the mysteries are read are vintage mysteries. I thought it would be fun – and helpful – to make a list of the golden/silver age series that I have been making my way through over the last few years. This is going to require multiple posts, so today is just volume I.

Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series: I am on book 11 of this series

Why I read it: I’ve been reading it for probably 4 or 5 years at this point. Most (if not all) of the books are available through the Kindle Unlimited library on Amazon, and, as well, I bought a huge number of them when they went on sale many years ago for $.99 or $1.99 a book. The books are set in the fictional city of Isola, which is an obvious stand-in for NYC. McBain started writing the books in 1956, with The Mugger, and it is the longest-running American detective series (of which I am aware), with 55 entries, the last of which was published in 2005, so nearly 50 years later. I’m intrigued at the idea of a series which covers all of the changes in police procedure and criminal investigation that have occurred over the 49 year period, including changes in interview techniques, forensic evidence, and legal opinions. I don’t know how much McBain will mention those changes, but it has the potential to be very interesting.

The Henry Gamadge series by Elizabeth Daly: I am on book 6 out of 16.

Why I read it: I stumbled on this series when I was browsing the digital catalogue at one of my two libraries systems. I had never heard of Elizabeth Daly, but when I started googling and looking on GR, it looked interesting. The first book was published in 1940, and there are 16 entries in the series, with the final book having been published in 1951. I’ve enjoyed the five books I’ve previously read, and my library has the entire series, so I’m sure that I will read the rest of them, at some point or another. Henry Gamadge is a rare-book dealer/antiquarian, although so far his occupation hasn’t featured as much as I would have liked. I really like mysteries published in the 1940’s, and I’m hopeful that I will get some WWII homefront vibes. The next book in the series is Evidence of Things Seen, published in 1943.

Mr. and Mrs. North by Frances & Richard Lockridge: I am book 7 of 26.

Why I read it: I don’t actually remember how I found this series, but it’s perfect golden-age mystery fun. The first book, Mr. and Mrs. North, was published in 1936. Pam and Jerry North are a young married couple living a very glamorous 1930’s life in NYC. I reviewed the first three books in this post: Mr. and Mrs. North and their Glam and Fab Murder Life, and since then, I’ve added another 3 to my read pile. All of them are delightful. Pam North is particularly enjoyable, with her sparkling personality and occasional poorly-tuned sense of self-preservation. Detective Weigand – aka Loot – and his former love interest, now wife, Dorian are also terrific characters. The mysteries are fine, but it’s the sense of glamour and amusement that really makes these books worth reading. Unfortunately, my library only has 14 of the books, so if I want to read the other 12, I’m probably going to have to buy them. They were re-issued by Mysterious Press/Open Road, so they are available as ebooks.

Inspector Maigret by Georges Simenon

Why I read it: Well, first of all, I’m completely obsessed with the new Penguin Classics editions. They are lovely books, and my local library has – I think – all of them available. I’ve been checking them out in blocks of 4 at a time. I can’t say where I am at in the series, because I have just been reading them in no particular order, as my fancy (and what’s available) guides me. The series began with Pietr the Latvian in 1931, and spans 75 books and 5 decades, ending with Maigret and Monsieur Charles in 1972. The books themselves are often barely more than novellas, but it’s the character and setting that Simenon makes sing – Maigret himself is intriguing, but the side characters: the victims, the perpetrators, the witnesses, bring the various settings within France, Paris and elsewhere, to life. I imagine that I will read these books for the rest of my life, because, like Agatha Christie, they have become comfort reading for me and the mystery is almost beside the point.

Chief Inspector Littlejohn by George Bellairs

Why I read it: This is another series where I read more or less randomly. According to Goodreads, there are 57 books in the series, but they have not been reprinted by a single publisher. British Library Crime Classics has a few, Agora Press has some, Mysterious Press has a few, and some haven’t been reissued at all as far as I can tell. Fortunately, this is not a series that requires chronological reading, so I’ve mostly been reading the ones that are available through the Kindle Unlimited library, which tend to be the Agora Press editions. I enjoy Chief Inspector Littlejohn and his wonderful wife, Letty. There are several books that are set on the Isle of Man, which is a unique setting – Bellairs apparently retired to the Isle of Man, which explains why. There are also a few that are set in France, that take place while Littlejohn is on holiday. The first book in the series was published in 1941, the final book was published in 1980.

That’s a start for today. To be continued…

2023 Reading Plans and Updates

This time of year, I always get excited, thinking about a brand new reading year in the offing, and I start making plans for what I want to tackle in the new year. 2023 isn’t an exception to that rule – in fact, because I am retiring on 9/30, I’m extra excited about the possibility of more reading time at the end of the year.

I still have several ongoing projects that I am working on, and will continue with next year:

With respect to my A Century of Women project, I made a lot of progress early in 2022 and then sort of fizzled out towards the end of the year. I have been struggling with 1900 through 1919 because I haven’t been enthusiastic about the books that I have found for that part of the challenge. I decided to change up the challenge, and, instead of starting in 1900, to start in 1920 and read through 2019. This should open up my book choices a lot and enable me to put this particular project to bed – probably not in 2023, but maybe in 2024, which would be great. I have a follow up project – A Century of Crime – that I have been waiting to start until the finish line is in sight.

I also decided to do the Back to the Classics Challenge this year.

Again, I did really well on this one early in the year. There are a total of 12 prompts, and I have read for & posted about 8 of them. There is 1 more that I can finish off with books I’ve already read. I finished Jane Eyre, which will work for 19th Century Classic. That leaves me with 3 unread. I’m satisfied with that. I think I’m going to pass on this challenge for next year, because I have some other plans.

I also have an ongoing Classics Club project that I largely ignored in 2022. I’d really like to make some progress on this project. I read a few of the books on it, but never got around to writing up a post, so that’s probably going to be something I work on during January. The books are: Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, and Lolly Willows by Sylvia Townsend Warner, all three of which I loved. I DNF’d Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, which is odd because I usually love her, so I may give that one another try. If it continues to not work for me, I’ll read a different Gaskell. I also started, but lost interest in, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. I’m also going to give that one another chance because I didn’t get very far into it, but if it’s not for me, I’m taking Murdoch off the list and adding someone else. Life is too short.

My new projects for next year are:

All of the Agatha Christie mysteries for 2023 (in my GR group) were published in the 1940’s, so I decided to focus on that decade next year. It was a really good decade for mystery publishing, and I’m looking forward to reading a lot of different mystery styles by different vintage authors, both men and women. My library has a lot of the American Mystery Classics reprints, many of which were published during this decade, and there are a number of reprints from BLCC and DSP that are from the ’40s. As a part of this project, I may also watch some film adaptations from the books I read. This will give me a jump start on my Century of Crime project – I expect I will fill in the entire decade by the end of the year.

Because I am planning to focus on mysteries published in the 1940’s, I think it’s time to start this project in earnest.

My final challenge for 2023 is a short story challenge.

My other project for next year is to try to finish the Deal Me In Challenge, which is a short story challenge that I have tried to complete several times and have consistently failed. The basic challenge structure is to assign each card in a deck of cards a different short story, and then draw a card each week to select that week’s story. I will have a separate master post that sets out the stories I have assigned to each card. I have some really great anthologies that I will be reading out of:

  • Deep Waters: Murder on the Waves: a BLCC anthology edited by Martin Edwards (assigned to Clubs)
  • The Collected Stories of Willa Cather by Willa Cather (assigned to Hearts)
  • The Persephone Book of Short Stories, Volume 1: a Persephone anthology edited by Susan Glaspell (assigned to Spades)
  • Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: an anthology of vintage crime stories written by women, edited by Sarah Weinman (assigned to Diamonds)

The only suit that I haven’t managed to assign at this point is Spades, because the Persephone anthology hasn’t arrived and I can’t find a list of stories anywhere on the internet. My copy isn’t going to be here for a few weeks, but my library has a copy that I can check out to start the project. I am really happy with the anthologies I have chosen for this challenge, so I’m hopeful I can finish it!

There are some other, smaller items I have in my general reading plans – more Maigret, more Inspector Alleyn, catch up on a few series, finish all of Willa Cather’s published works (only 1 novel left, and that short story collection!) read more Dorothy Whipple, Patricia Highsmith, Barbara Pym & Stella Gibbons.