Sunday, May 21, 2017

E.J. Copperman, Edited Out

E.J. Copperman, Edited Out
Crooked Lane © 2017 E.J. Copperman
ISBN 978-1-68331-130-0

In the second outing of the Mysterious Detective series, Rachel Goldman (mid-list author of mystery novels) has found herself stuck on her latest book.  Her series features Duffy Madison, a free-lance consultant to police departments in missing persons cases, and recently (see Written Off) a real, live Duffy Madison has shown up, claiming that he has no recollection of anything before about 5 years earlier (when her series debuted).  Her problem is that the living Duffy seems to be disrupting her thinking about the fictional one.

And when she calls Duffy (to try to clear her mind, he immediately asks to help him try to track something down (in Poughkeepsie) which might yield a clue to who he really is.  Or was.  The something involves the disappearance of one Damien Moseley, who would be about the same age as Duffy, and whom Duffy believes might be who he was before.  Complications immediately ensue.  And whom Duffy believes is dead, based on his discovery of a 5-year-old cold case death investigation.

Duffy uncovers information that leads him to believe that Damien is dead, probably murdered…five years ago.  There is (it happens) a Duffy Madison who was apparently in the same high school graduating class as Damien.  THAT Duffy was apparently a member of the Classics Club, but his picture is not in the yearbook.  And that’s just the beginning.  Rachel, of course, puts aside her writing (which was not going well, although throughout the investigation she continues to try to hammer out her 1,000 words a day) and accompanies Duffy (or is it Damien?) from the wilds of New Jersey to New York. 

Along the way, they discover that Damien had married, had apparently lived (if only briefly with a woman (also in the same high school class who has (also) disappeared) in a condo owned by Damien’s mother. 

The pace of the book accelerates considerably as their investigation proceeds, and the conclusion is neatly handled. 

This is a book that should probably be read only after you read Written Off, although there’s enough background provided that it’s not necessary.  And I think you should read Edited Out.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Loren Estleman, Nearly Nero

Loren Estelman, Nearly Nero:  The Adventures of Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Nero Wolfe
Gallery Books.  © 2017 Loren Estelman

Eight (unless I miscounted) previously published stories about the detection exploits of Claudius Lyon, narrated by his assistant, Arnie Woodbine.  Lyon (who inherited a fortune) has fashioned himself in in the image of Nero Wolfe, including his on private (but non-live-in) chef, Gus.  He grows tomatoes (having a brown thumb), unassisted.  And he completes the household by hiring Arnie Woodbine (sounds a lot like Archie Goodwin is you slur your speech and say it quickly).  (He does not live in Manhattan, but on Avenue J in Brooklyn.)  Lyon takes no pay for his efforts (he’s not licensed, and the bunco squad detective at the local precinct would love to bust him).  In this world, I should note, Nero Wolfe is a real PI, not a fictional character.

Arnie is a con man recently out of prison, and serves as our narrator.  The writing is smooth (I would not have expected anything less of Estelman), but the “cases” are rather thin, and  the solutions (which were all fairly obvious) seemed to less from deduction or from Arnie’s leg work (which was, in any case, largely confined to finding creative ways to supplement his salary) than from coincidence and leaps of intuition.

As an aficionado of the Wolfean world, I found the collection barely worth the time.  A reader who is not already a fan of Nero and Archie and the gang will probably not find this to be a particularly rewarding was to spend a few hours.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Dodge City...and the Great War

Tom Clavin, Dodge City:  Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West
St. Martin’s Press © 2017
ISBN: 978-1-1250-07148-4

Clavin’s simultaneous biography of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson has been fairly widely praised.  I thought it was a generally well-researched but hardly gripping story of the ten year period in which the west went from (mostly) wild to (generally) tame.  Wyatt and Bat are pretty compelling characters on whom to hang the tale, and one of the most compelling parts of their story is how young (Wyatt was 25 and Bat was not yet 20 when the story begins, in 1873) the protagonists were.  Indeed, it’s amazing how young most of the main characters—good (Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren—Wyatt’s brothers; and Jim, Bat’s brother; Doc Holliday) and bad (Billy the Kid, Johnny Ringo, and many others, including the Clancy clan) were.  And the longevity of many of them (Wyatt lived until he was nearly 71; Bat died a month shy of 68; m more than a few of the other people in the tale lived into their 80s and 90s), given the times, is pretty remarkable.

 In my opinion, Clavin has two difficulties he has to overcome.  The first is that there is little real suspense; we know that Wyatt and Bat lived long lives and that their antagonists generally did not.  So every time Clavin relates one of the dangerous incidents in their lives, we know that they are going to get through it basically unharmed.  The second is the difficulty he has in really making clear the personalities and motives of the two men on whom he focuses.  While there has been a lot written about both of them, it seems to me that (at least based on Clavin’s use of his source material) no one really provided a psychological portrait of either man.  (This is, in general, an advantage for fiction—the author has control over the characters’ inner and outer lives.)

One of the lessors that I took away from the book, and one I have to re-learn every time I read a detailed piece of history from before the 20th century, is how mobile at least some portion of the population was, given how difficult travel was.  Just in the 10 period covered in the main part of Clavin’s book, Wyatt (as on example) moves from where he was born (in Illinois), grew up in Iowa, moved to Kansas, and moved around between Dodge and the Dakotas, Texas, and Arizona without really putting down roots anywhere.  After his Dodge City days, he prospected for gold in Alaska, did numerous things in California (where he finally mostly settled down after age 50 or so.  Just as one example of the difficulties of this sort of life:  It’s 900 miles from Dodge to Tombstone.  Google Maps tells me I can drive that in 13 hours.  For Wyatt, on horseback and pushing, that would take at least a month; in a wagon, even longer.  Even by train, it would be at least a week-long trip.  (This book, by the way, would really benefit from having some maps.)

If you aren’t familiar with the lives and times of Wyatt and Bat, Clavin’s book will help you understand the rimes.  I’m less sure that it helps us understand their lives.

John Gardner, The Secret Generations [© 1985]
eBook Publication by Endeavor Press

The Railton family—the main actors in John Gardner’s “Secrets” trilogy—have been insiders in English military and governing structures for generations.  In The Secret Generations, we follow three generations of Railtons from 1910 to 1920 and see how their lives were radically changed by the Great War—and how they contributed to t hose changes as they participate in the war.  Gardner is obviously telling a vast story here, and he has a vast cast of characters with which to do it.  (So vast, in fact, that I felt that the book needed either a list of principal characters, or a genealogy of the Railtons, or both).  In this book, we begin with three generations of the family—beginning with Giles (who must have been born in the 1840s), the middle generation (Charles and Andrew, presumably born in the 1865-1870 period), and the third generation (dating from around 1890, and the fourth generation arrives in stages throughout the book.

Giles is in many ways the focus of the book, and he is an insider (in many ways) in British intelligence.  His actions affect the lives of his family and have the possibility of affecting the Empire.  (“Real” people show up—Churchill, Lloyd George, Roger Casement—if only briefly.)  The plot focuses on German efforts at intelligence-gathering (and sabotage) in England and English efforts to obtain information on German initiatives, largely on the battlefield. 

I found the first half of the book something of a slog, partly because Gardner had to establish the family (so progress on the events that become important in the second half occurs only slowly), but the pace picks up considerably in the second half.  Gardner obviously knows the Great War’s history well, and the limited number of battle scenes evoke it in dramatic fashion.  I thought the extended coda was perhaps a bit more than we needed, but it does at least lead us into the second book in the trilogy---Secret Houses—which I am looking forward to.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Christianna Brand, Fog of Doubt

Christianna Brand, Fog of Doubt Road © 1953; this edition 2011

This is the story of an English family, with complications.  The principals are Thomas and Matilda Evans, a married couple with a small child; Rosie, Thomas’s (20-years-younger than he) sister (and recently returned to England from a school in Switzerland); Thomas’s grandmother; Melissa, Thomas’s secretary and family servant; Tedward (Thomas Edwards), Thomas’s partner in his medical practice; assorted acquaintances; and Inspector Cockrill (Cockie). Known to the family from earlier goings-on.  Oh, and Matilda’s one-time lover, Raoul Vernet, who has come to London for the purpose of communicating something important to her.

Rosie, who is (it seems) in her late teens, and pregnant.  She’s trying to find someone, almost anyone, to have an abortion.  Among the people she approaches is Tedward, who has conceived a hopeless passion for her.  Rosie manages to tell everyone a different story about how, and by whom, she became pregnant.  When she finally pitches up at Tedward’s home (and office), abut 9 PM, with one of London’s famous fogs rapidly making visibility essentially zero., she tells him a story suggesting that Raoul is the man.  While she’s there, the phone rings, and Rosie answers.  It’s Raoul, urgently asking for medical care; he has been assaulted and is at the Evans’ house.

Tedward gets the car out, and, on the way, manages to get lost in the fog.  When they arrive, Raoul is dead (in the hallway, clutching the phone, which has been pulled from the wall).  He has been battered by a blunt object (which turns out to be a mastoid mallet, a medical instrument).  As Rosie and Tedward arrive, Matilda is coming down from having helped her grandmother-in-law to bed and getting her own child down for the night; she has seen and heard nothing.

A London police superintendent investigates, the family calls Cockie to help them find out what’s happened.  Eventually the London cop arrests Thomas, but releases him in order to arrest Tedward.  Roughly the last third of the book is given over to an account of Tedward’s trial.

Brand wrote an interesting introduction (for the late 1970s republication), in which she talks about the background to the story, why she still likes it a lot, and says it is her favorite of all her books.  Personally, I found the Evans family pretty uninteresting and large stretches of the book seems like filler.  But the mystery and its investigation are nicely handled, and the conclusion does come as something of a surprise—although everything I as a reader needed to know is there in plain sight.  Not an outstanding piece of work, but a reasonable and generally satisfying read.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Bill Crider, Piano Man (A Short Story)

Bill Crider, Piano Man
Brash Books © 2014 by Bill Crider
ISBN:  3-978-1941-2982-99

Our narrator is a piano player in the Bad Dog Saloon in a settlement (it might be too much to call it a town) near Fort Laramie.  The story of how he became a piano player, and wound up in the Bad Dog is quickly and well told.  And things become both interesting, and potentially disastrous, when “a man named Morgan” got involved in a poker game with the owner of the saloon—and put his 15-year-old daughter up as his stake on a hand.  He lost, of course.

The remainder of the story involves the Piano Man’s reactions to this event, and Morgan’s efforts to reclaim his daughter.  And the longer this takes, the more violent things get.

This was, for me, something different by Crider; I have basically not read his westerns, having instead been a devoted reader of his PI books (Truman Smith and others), his college mysteries (the Carl Burns and Sally Good books), and his long-running series featuring Sheriff Dan Rhodes.  Crider writes very well, and if the conclusion holds less in the way of surprise that it might, this is a good, solid, and disturbing read.  Worth the time (and money) to seek out.

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Body Snatcher Affair

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Body Snatcher Affair
A Tom Doherty & Associated Book/Forge © 2014The Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
eISBN: 987-1-4299-9723-2

The third book featuring Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon finds Quincannon in Chinatown to find, and return to his home, James Scarlett, an attorney who has been doing a lot of work for one of the tongs in Chinatown.  Meanwhile Carpenter, who has been spending a fair amount of time with Carson Montgomery (a mining engineer), and who is now wondering where the relationship might be going, has accepted a job from the widow of Ruben Blanchford, who had been a financier in life—his body has been stolen, and the thieves are asking for $75,000 for its return.

Things go awry quite quickly for Quincannon—he finds Scarlett quickly enough (in a Chinatown opium den), but Scarlett is shot (and killed) while Quincannon is taking him home.  The police are concerned that this might trigger a gang war in Chinatown; Quincannon concurs, but suggests restraint.  His concern is who killed Scarlett (and nearly killed him), and why.  To discover that, he needs some time, to search Scarlett’s office and to probe the situation in Chinatown.  And, as he discovers, there is also a body missing in Chinatown.

Carpenter, in her case, finds what appears to  be an impossible theft of Blanchford’s body from the family crypt—nothing has been obviously disturbed, and the crypt was (apparently) continuously locked.  The only anomalous fact is that the preparation of the body for interment was handled by a third-rate mortician.

And in the background, “Sherlock Holmes” (an Englishman who either is Holmes or is using his name and reputation) seems to be investigating Carson Montgomery.

Muller and Pronzini do an excellent job of establishing their characters and bringing San Francisco in the 1890s to life.  Chinatown, in many ways, dominates the book, and the social/economic/political structure of Chinatown and of the rest of the city are perfectly done (at least so it seems to me.  Both Carpenter and Quincannon pursue their investigations professionally and according to their characters as they have been established in the first two books.  And if the reader does not learn everything that either of them learns in the course of their investigations, that’s a minor departure from the ideal of the “fair play” mystery.

All three of the Carpenter/Quincannon books are well worth  your time, and thie might be the best of the three.

As an aside (, the issue of opium use among the Chinese is an important issue in the relationships between the Western countries and China, and between the immigrant and the Anglo population in SF.  It’s important to remember that opium was introduced to China by English and French merchants seeking to find something that they could sell profitably to a large Chinese market that had little use for European goods.  (At the same time, Europe was buying huge quantities of things, from tea to spices to silks, from China.)  The Second Opium War (1856-1860) resulted in China being forced to accept a very punitive peace treaty, and yield considerable control of its internal affairs to France and England.  Two important aspects of the treaty is that trade in opium was made legal, and was under European control, and that British ships had a monopoly on the transportation of Chinese as “indentured” workers (but, in reality, virtually as slaves) to the Americas.  William Gladstone, who served off and on as Prime Minister of England in the late 19th century denounced the opium trade as "a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace".[

Friday, March 10, 2017

A photo of a spy gun

"Antique Pistol Spy Gun Produced in 1800, this antique French pistol spy gun. This intricate, yet impractical 5-shot working revolver was once one of the smallest killing devices ever created."
From these folks, but I can't actually find it on the FB page...

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