This is a series I was sad to see end too precipitously.
Friday The Rabbi Slept Late., Harry Kemelman
In this first book of the series, David Small is the new rabbi of a Jewish congregation in the fictional suburban New England town of Barnard's Crossing. He is both religious and rational; practical and pious.Thus the perfect detective.
Usually Small is drawn into the events when they involve a member of his congregation or Barnard's Crossing's Jewish community in general but in the first book, it is he himself under suspicion.
He is accused of murdering a young woman whose body is found on the Temple grounds. Her purse is in his car.
The charm of this book, and all the books, is watching Rabbi Small deal with troublesome members of his congregation, balancing Temple politics with serving God. And the mystery was almost always rewarding. I will always miss Rabbi Small.
I purchased the 1993 Black Dagger Crime reprint of Margo Bennett’s 1955 mystery, THE MAN WHO DIDN’T FLY, at a library discard sale a few years ago and it languished on the “to be read” shelves (along with several hundred other books) until I finally pulled it down from Mount TBR last month. When I finally did, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Martin Edwards (proprietor of the “Do You Write under Your Own Name?” blog and a fine mystery writer himself) had written a concise and informative foreword for this edition. I felt confident that if someone of Martin’s expansive knowledge of Golden Age and mid-century mysteries enjoyed this book, I probably would too. And I was right—THE MAN WHO DIDN’T FLY is an entertaining and witty mystery.
The book, much of which is told in several long flashbacks, concerns attempts by the police to determine the identity of three passengers who died when a small chartered plane flying to Ireland crashed into the sea just off the English coast. The reason the police are having difficulty determining the identification of the passengers is that four men were listed on the plane’s manifest as scheduled to fly that day, but only three did. The fourth passenger failed to appear and the plane took off without him; however, that man has not stepped forward to identify himself and, therefore, no deaths can be accurately attributed. (In these days of having to arrive at the airport two hours before your flight carrying three different kinds of identification and a pre-printed boarding pass, there’s a nostalgic quaintness to a time when you could literally show up at the airport a few minutes before take-off and climb aboard.) As the police interview witnesses (most of whom are either willfully or naturally unhelpful), the flashbacks begin as we learn of the events that took place over the days leading up to the flight.
Bennett establishes the main characters in crisp descriptive passages: The Wade family (who, in one way or another, are connected to each of the four passengers) consists of Charles Wade, who is constantly dreaming up impractical ways to make money—all of which only lose him more of the limited amount he has—and his two daughters, Hester, a medical student in her early twenties, and Prudence, a sixteen-year-old whose temperament is the opposite of her name. In their orbit are Moira and Joseph Ferguson, a wealthy couple (it was Joseph who chartered the plane—he claimed to have business in Ireland) whose brash houseguest, Harry Walters, is in love with Hester but flirts shamelessly with the older Moira. Harry is supposedly an artistic type, a poet, but he’s really a classic moocher living on people until they tire of him. The Fergusons (particularly Joseph) had tired of him and were offering him a seat on the plane in order to get him out their home and their lives. Morgan Price is the Wades’ one paying boarder (another of Charles Wade’s money-making schemes that has failed to produce results), a hypochondriac who is hiding a secret past and, after an encounter with a group of Londoners, finds it convenient to arrange to go to Ireland “for his health.” Finally, there is Maurice Reid, a family friend who is supposed to be advising Charles Wade on how to invest his capital. He was the final passenger scheduled to fly—a decision hastily made when he, like Morgan, encounters a person from his past that he is eager to avoid.
Each of these men knew and had reasons to distrust the others. And each, in his own way, was something of a con-man. Joseph Ferguson is broke, but knows that it is almost as important to appear rich as it is to actually be rich, so he lives on credit and spends lavishly. Harry Walters, in the guise of an unappreciated poetic genius, thinks nothing of pilfering other people’s belongings or charging items to their accounts at local stores. Morgan Price circumvents questions about his past by focusing on his numerous imaginary ailments. Maurice Reid is clearly a true con-man, although Charles Wade, eager to invest in a get-rich-quick scheme, fails to see this. Even Harry Walters, not the most ethical of men, warns Hester that her father is going to lose all his money if he invests with Reid.
One of the interesting parts of the book is the realization that three of the characters we meet during the flashback scenes are dead in a plane at the bottom of the sea. Bennett does such a fine job of bringing each of them alive that we can’t help but wonder, “Which character do I want to be the one who didn’t fly?”
The book’s ending is neat and satisfying, as the police arrive at the solution of identities by treating the scant clues they have as a logic problem: If passenger A mentioned Australia and passenger B did not smoke and passenger C’s name began with an M, etc., until the answers bring them to the required identifications. The identity of the “man who didn’t fly” is thus established and it only remains to discover where he is. He is in fact located almost by accident and not by the police--another one of the interesting twists in this thoroughly enjoyable and unjustly forgotten mystery.
Joe Barone, The Corpse in Oozak's Pond, Charlotte MacLeod
Brian Busby, Die with Me Lady, Ronald Cocking
Bill Crider, The Original Sceince Fiction Stories; Double Action Detective and Mystery Stories
Martin Edwards, He Never Came Back, Helen McCloy
Curt Evans, The Portcullis Room, Valentine Williams
Jerry House, The Snow Goose, Paul Gallico
Randy Johnson, Judas Gun, Gordon D. Shirreffs
Nick Jones, Backflash, Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)
George Kelley, Conjure Wife/Our Lady of Darkness, Fritz Leiber
Margot Kinberg. The Cape Cod Mystery, Phoeboe Atwood Taylor
B.V. Lawson, Publicity for Murder, Elizabeth Messenger
Evan LewisMonogram in Lead, Carroll John Daly
Steve Lewis/William F. Deeck
Todd Mason THE [SKIFFY] CHANNEL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TV SCIENCE FICTION (sic) by Roger Fulton and John Betancourt
Neer, The Canary Murder Case, S.S. Van Dine
J.F. Norris, From This Dark Stairway, Mignon C. Eberhart
David Rachels, Dirty Money, Richard Stark
James Reasoner, Pandora's Box, Jack Pine
Richard Robinson, The Twelve Deaths of Christmas, Marion Babson
Ron Scheer, The Brand, Therese Broderick
Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang, The Girl With the Long Green Heart, Lawrence Block
Prashant Trikannad, The Man Without A Country, Edward Everett Hale
TomCat, Nightshade, Paul Doherty
Megan's review of INTERCEPT by Dick Wolfe of Law and Order fame can be found here.