Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Whiffs of Dover

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I love a comedic mystery. I’ve written extensively about Craig Rice and Phoebe Atwood Taylor, but this week I’m going across the pond to England in the 1960s for a dose of Dover. 

Detective Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover was the character created by Joyce Porter for a series of mysteries. Dover is unlike any DCI you’ll ever read about. He’s surly, mean, obese, attention-seeking, fame-grabbing, hard drinking, lazy, and borderline corrupt, and yet he’s one of the funniest detectives around. I recently found two of this series at Grave Matters and I bought them up in a hurry.

In Dover Two, which some critics call the best of the series, he’s sent to the scene of an attempted murder. Dover’s actually glad to be there since he’s tired of hearing about Bigamous Bertie and Superintendent Roderick. A young woman, who is both unattractive and insistent for a suitor, has been pestering the men of Curdley. She was shot several months prior to Dover’s arrival. The woman had been in a coma since the attempted homicide; however, her death makes it a homicide and Dover, along with Sergeant MacGregor, go to Curdley.

They find the town to be in a long-standing feud between the CoE townsfolk and the Catholic residents. Dover is a Methodist, which makes him somewhat immune to the battle. He and MacGregor follow a wide range of clues from pillowcases to the infamous Bigamous Bertie himself. MacGregor, who is a paragon of virtue, is outdone by Dover at nearly every turn in this case.

Focusing on the original crime, Dover finds a somewhat impossible crime situation for which he has a few choice words. The only people in the vicinity of the shooting have eyewitnesses to their locations. Since the walls along the road where she was shot were high and gated, it appears that no one could have shot poor Isobel.

Under the layers of laughter is a taut mystery that is little appreciated. I wish that the Dover books would be reprinted. There are Foul Play Press editions from some years ago, but I’ve heard nothing about other reprints or eBooks of these classics. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

My Top 5 Cool and Lam titles

5) Owls Don’t Blink - Gardner wrote Owls Don’t Blink while staying in New Orleans during January 1942. The start of World War II stifled Gardner’s travel plans and restricted his movements. These changes would be reflected in Gardner’s works with Cool and Lam. He wrote to his parents: “Conditions are so chaotic no one knows what is going on anywhere and it is terribly hard to make plans. I am working on a story of New Orleans for a publisher and expect to have it finished with the next week or ten days. – After that, I’ll probably head directly for California and get things in shape out there so that if I come East again in the spring I’ll have the ranch running all right.” Owls Don’t Blink was the first of Gardner’s wartime trilogy for Cool and Lam. Donald has finished a case in Florida and agrees to meet Bertha in New Orleans (the city where Gardner had written to his parents a few months before) to help locate a missing woman, Roberta
Fenn. Lam finds her without trouble; she then eludes them. When Lam is on the trail of the woman again, he and Bertha find a dead lawyer in Fenn’s apartment. Fenn and a friend, Edna Cutler, had switched identities for a while to cool some suitors. In the interim, Cutler’s husband had served Fenn with divorce papers, which now put into question the legality of Mr. Cutler’s recent remarriage.  Woven throughout the case is the subplot of Bertha landing military construction contracts as a side business to the detective agency. Her motive is both profit and keeping Lam out of the military. Her actions only serve to have Lam enlist before the end of the book. He explains the entire scam on the steps of the Naval recruitment office, just before going inside.

4) The Bigger They Come – The first, and in some ways the most ingenious of the Cool and Lam books. Gardner used a loophole he had discovered in the law to allow Donald Lam to show his own character by using that loophole to save a girl he was interested in. In The Bigger They Come, Lam is assigned to serve
divorce papers on Morgan Birks, who is also wanted in connection with a slot machine con. Through Sandra Birks, the plaintiff in the divorce proceedings, Lam meets Alma Hunt. He falls hard for her, and gives Alma a stolen gun to protect herself. After serving Birks with the papers in a hotel, Lam is kidnapped and taken to see a mysterious man known as “The Chief.” Later, Birks is found murdered, shot with the same gun that Lam had given to Alma.

3) You Can Die Laughing - You Can Die Laughing, the title for the first of the two 1957 titles, comes from a saying that Lam tells a client twice during the course of the story. Gone are the courtroom scenes and the lack of action of Beware the Curves. A client hires Cool and Lam to locate Yvonne Clymer, who also goes by the name of Mrs. Drury Wells. From the start of the book, the client is not honest with the firm. He spins a tale of oil and land grabs to Bertha, only to report a routine missing persons case to Donald. Clymer inherits property and cash if she can be found; otherwise the estate goes to a cousin. The client wants Clymer to sign some paperwork regarding the mineral rights for that property. Unlike many cases where the client is merely an impetus for the story, this client continues to barge into the action, trying to wrest control of the investigation from Donald. Hence, Donald gives him the titular response at one point.

2) Try Anything Once - Lam runs up against the law and Frank Sellers again. An important client asks Lam to keep his name out of a murder case that took place at the motel where he was having an assignation with a woman who was not his wife. Lam impersonates the client, but Sellers doesn’t fall for it, and catches Lam when Lam must either lie directly to the police or admit some of the truth. The police want to learn the
name of Cool and Lam’s client, as the victim was a deputy DA on the trail of a killer when he was murdered. Lam follows the dead man’s tracks to find out what the victim had discovered and why he ended up at the motel. Sellers throws Lam in the drunk tank at one point to keep him away from the crime and the suspects, a move that only temporarily keeps him away from the action and one that leads to a rare apology from Sellers.

1) Top of the Heap - When the firm gets a new client who wants to find two young women, Lam smells a trap. John Carver Billings the Second wants to find the pair he had met previously. When Lam goes to investigate, he finds a prescription label that leads him right to the girls in question. Lam suspects that the girls represent a faked alibi for the heir, and he begins to investigate likely crimes covered by the alibi. One of the crimes is the disappearance of a mobster’s girlfriend, following the mobster’s death. Donald thinks that might be the only crime that would be sufficiently worth the trouble of the alibi.

Fools Die on Friday, Some Women Can’t Wait, Beware the Curves, Double or Quits, and Bats Fly at Dusk, would like round out the top 10 for me.