Thursday, July 12, 2018

Rex Stout, Black Orchids

Rex Stout, The Black Orchids
© Rex Stout, 1941, 1942
Viking Press, 1942
Bantam reprint 1994
Available from used booksellers

This appears to be the first “collection” of novellas, originally published in book form in 1942, and consisting of two cases: “Black Orchids” (first publication 1941) and “Cordially Invited To Meet Death” (1942).  Perhaps the strangest thing about these two stories. Given their publication dates, is that there is no mention, not even a suggestion, of the war.  The two preceding novels (Over My Dead Body and Where There’s a Will) and the immediately following pair of novellas (“Not Quite Dead Enough” and “Booby Trap”) either foreshadow the war or are directly involved with it.

And these are very strong entries in the series.  In “The Black Orchids,” Wolfe, having sent Archie to the Metropolitan Flower Show three days running, succumbs to an attack of horticultural jealousy, and (with Archie in tow) attends himself to see the black orchids that have been produced in Lewis Hewett’s greenhouse.  (Such things exist, although whether they existed in 1940, or were created by orchid fans after—because—this story was written, I do not know.)  And, of course, a murder intervenes.  The Rucker and Dill “booth” at the show features a pastoral scene, complete with two characters and a babbling brook.  And one of them—Harry Gould—is murdered, quite ingeniously (although I have doubts about the actual feasibility of the procedure).  Unbeknownst to the police, but known to Wolfe and Archie, there is a circumstance that involves Hewett.  And Wolfe’s price for extricating Hewitt is all three of the black orchid plants.

Archie displays an unusual amount of independence in this case, allowing Wolfe to get the first real chance to interrogate an important witness.  The denouement is both fairly startling and quite successful; justice is served, and Wolfe keeps his fee.

At the beginning of “Cordially Invited to Meet Death,” Archie tells us

That’s the first of the two cases.  That’s how he got the black orchids.  And what do you suppose he did with them?  I don’t mean the plants; it would take the lever Archimedes wanted a fulcrum for to pry one of those loose from him…I mean a bunch of the blossoms.  I saw them myself there on a corner of the casket, with a card he had scribbled his initials on, “NW.”  That was all.

I put this case here with the other one only on account of the orchids,  As I said, it’s a totally different set of people,  If, when you finish it, you think the mystery has been solved, all I have to say is that you don’t know a mystery when you see one.

It begins with a telephone call from Bess Huddleson, who wants Wolfe to come see her.  And you know how that plays out.  (In addition to his refusal to leave home, there had been a previous encounter with Huddleson.)  Later, Archie calls her back and invites he to the old brownstone; she accepts, and seeks to hire Wolfe to discover who is sending anonymous notes (not about her, but nonetheless unsettling) to her clients—she is the party arranger to the 1%--and make it stop.  Wolfe takes the case, and Archie is dispatched to Huddleson’s home to do the preliminary work.  And Huddleson dies; a small cut on her foot turns into a case of tetanus, and there is nothing anyone could do.  (In 1940, about 5 people per 1 million population—or about 700 people per year—died of tetanus; today, around 10 cases of tetanus are reported annually.)  And dying from tetanus is apparently an extraordinarily awful way to go.  (While we don’t get an in-depth of that, we learn enough to have no doubt of how nasty it is.)

The first question, of course, is whether it was just one of those things, or if someone helped things along.  And of course, it was murder.  Wolfe untangles the case based on a photograph and a 1” long cut on the ar m of one of the principals in the investigation.  Along the way, h receives some help on some culinary conundrums, corned beef hash being the most consequential.

These are both very well plotted mysteries, and the participants are more plausible and more interesting than is sometimes the case with Stout.  Possible the best of the collections of novellas.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Susan Spann, The Ninja’s Daughter

Susan Spann, The Ninja’s Daughter
Seventh Street Books
© 2016 Susan Spann

I’ve commented before that Spann has done an excellent job of creating what appears to me (I am not an expert, but have read a fair amount) of creating an accurate and believable setting (the late 1500s, in Japan).  It was a period of political (and thus military) upheaval, and for the upper classes in particular, a tie of immense uncertainty.  (There’s what appears to be an excellent wikipedia article covering the period:

And that political upheaval becomes more salient in The Ninja’s Daughter, the fourth entry in her series about Hiro (a shinoba, hired to protect the Portuguese missionary Father Mateo).  Jiro, apprentice to the moneylender Basho, calls on Mateo very early in the morning, seeing his assistance.  He fears he has killed a young woman whom, he met by the river that night, but he was drunk and hopes that he is not the murderer.  Hiro wants to stay out of what is likely to be a messy situation, but Mateo, reluctant to see a possibly innocent person condemned without strong evidence, feels bound to look into it.  The investigation proves to be extremely difficult, as the approach of an army is leading to restrictions on movement even within Kyoto.  And it’s made even more difficult because what passes for the local police refuse to look into it—because the dead woman is merely a commoner, and thus of no importance.

The woman (whose name is Emi), it turns out, is a member of an acting troop (one of the daughters of one of the actors).  And in order to determine exactly how, and why, she died, Mateo must convince Hiro that he intends to investigate, regardless of how the authorities and how Hiro himself feel about the matter.

The investigation is inherently difficult, and made more difficult by the political situation (which leads many people to leave Kyoto for the (relative) safety of the countryside.  With Hiro’s reluctant assistance, Mateo has to untangle the relationships within the troop, including the arranged marriages of the younger members of the troop.  And then there’s the issue of the provenance, and importance, of a golden coin…

This series just keeps getting better, but it is likely to work best if read in order.  And I would strongly encourage seeking out the first three books in the series:
Claws of the Cat
Blade of the Samurai
Flask of the Drunken Master

as well as the two which follow The Ninja’s Daughter:
Betrayal At Iga (2017)
Trial on Mt, Koya

Copycat Photoblogging Redux

Chris Bertram posted this lovely shot.  Here's my copycat, in Milan, 2005:

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Sara Woods, Error of the Moon

Sara Woods, Error of the Moon
© 1963 Sara Woods
Out of print, but available from used booksellers

The fifth book featuring London barrister Antony Maitland; the title again is drawn from Shakespeare, although I cannot see any real connection to the story.

It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more near the earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad.
 Othello, Act V, Secne II

Set apparently in the early 1960s, and Maitland’s legal practice is a sufficiently fallow period that he almost willingly accepts a commission from (presumably) from the Ministry of War (and based on his wartime service in military intelligence to investigate what appears to be an effort to obtain the plans for a new breed of missiles.  By the time the request comes, two men have died under suspicious circumstances.  The research/factory site is in the west of England. 

Maitland’s inquiries go quite slowly, and it was, for me, somewhat difficult to keep track of the quite large cast of character, all of them are referred to interchangeably by their first and last names.  Eventually, and based on at least one piece of information that (if my memory serves) we do not have, Maitland identifies the guilty party (who also seems to end the book in a state of mental disarray). 

As usual, Woods writes well, and there is one passage (near the end of the book) that will remind any reader of “golden age” British mysteries of a book by Dorothy L. Sayers.  But I found it sort of a slog.  This was the second book (out of five) that hearkens back to Maitland’s military intelligence work, so there was little f what (for me) makes the series work as well as it does—his uncle’s looming presence, the solicitor who works closely with Maitland quite frequently, and, above all, the presence of the institutions and customs of English law. 
And it seems to affect how Woods depicts Maitland as well.  He is more diffident than usual. His investigation seems to me to be almost perfunctory.  With all that, though, the book is adequate, and, if you are a fan of the Maitland series and have not yet read it, probably worth your time.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Susan Spann, The Flask of the Drunken Master

Susan Spann, The Flask of the Drunken Master
A Thomas Dunne Book/Minotaur/St. Martin’s
© 2015 Susan Spann
ISBN 978-1-250-02706-1

This is the third in the (so far) excellent series of mysteries, set in Japan in the late 1500s.  The main character Matsui Hiro (his work name, as it happens), is a shinobi (think ninja); his clan has been hired to protect a Portuguese Catholic priest, Father Mateo Avila de Santos, who is attempting to convert ordinary Japanese to Catholicism.  A large part of the stories involves Hiro trying to understand the thoughts of Mateo, while Mateo has to learn about how—and why—the Japanese people respond as they do.

The historical setting is well done and (based on a small amount of reading) seems accurate.  Looming in the background (mostly; sometimes this becomes a significant part of the story) are dynastic machinations over the control of the Emperor, and, thus, of Japan.  And the Portuguese mission to Japan is also factual ( even achieved a fair amount of success until Catholicism was banned in the early 1600s.

In this entry in the series, the political ramifications remain in the background.  A relatively unsuccessful sake brewer (Chikao) has been found dead, presumably murdered, behind Ginjiro’s brewery.  He and Ginjiro were known to have argued, and so the yoriki think policeman) has arrested Ginjiro.  Neither Hiro (who has occasionally visited Ginjiro’s establishment) nor Mateo think it likely that Ginjiro is the murdered, and prevail on Chikao’s widow to ask the magistrate to postpone Ginjiro’s trial.  They have four days to find evidence that will clear Ginjiro and, presumably, implicate someone else.

They are not lacking for possible suspects.  There’s Chikao’s son Kaoru, an impulsive, often drunk ne’er-do-well, who is deeply in debt.  And his debts have made it difficult for Chikao and his partner Ren to expand and upgrade their brewery (with the goal of being able to join the sake brewer’s guild.  And Ren, who finds Chikao’s indulgence of his son to be a hindering their efforts.  Basho, a wealthy rice merchant has also been behaving oddly.  Akechi Yoshiko, a female samurai who was become a debt collector and guard (to support her mother) might well have been trying to collect from Chikao.  And the constantly drunken monk Suke was on the scene and claims to be the murderer.

Mateo and Hiro investigate (and it is in the course of their investigation that we learn more about their beliefs and about their cultural differences).  Eventually, more or less at the last minute, Hiro thinks he has the solution and he and Mateo talk their way into the magistrate’s hearing.  And in a scene reminiscent of Perry Mason, Hiro builds a case that reveals the truly guilty party.

I find the relationship between Hiro and Mateo (and the other two members of Mateo’s household) to be well done, and to have become deeper as the series progresses.  Spann’s plots are intricate, but fair to the reader.  I find myself becoming involved, especially with the two main characters and more and more interested in the setting.  This is a series that has yet to disappoint me and has grown richer and deeper as it proceeds.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Stephen Carlsen, Dean and Rector at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis:
“Holy Scripture is clear about how we are to treat people trying to find safety for their families – we are to show mercy and welcome them. The Holy Family today calls us to stand with all families seeking safety and a future for their children,” he continued. “We will not stand by while children are being taken from their parents, and families are being taken from our communities and congregations.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Greil Marcus, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations

Greil Marcus, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations
Harvard University Press, 2015
© 2015 Greil Marcus
ISBN 978-0-674-18708-5

I have just finished reading one of the strangest little books I have ever read.  Strange, in that it is about songs and singers you have never heard of.  Little, physically (it’s the size and shape of a mass-market paperback), in length (it’s a mere 164 pages, and maybe a third of that’s notes and the index), and in subject matter [it treats no high themes, it makes (explicitly) no great claims, it is, in the end, something like the third of the three songs].

The first song, and the first singer, will be familiar enough—it’s Bon Dylan’s epic “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” from his third album and the first of his albums I bought), The Times They Are a-Changin, released in 1964.  (A live version, by Dylan here:  A remarkable version of it, by Nina Simone, here:  Lyrics here:  I always, almost reflexively, thought it dealt with an actual event.  It did not.  But is seems in all its particulars too detailed, too demanding of our attention, to have been invented.  Marcus discusses the song in great detail.  But this is the key:

The story of the song is the story of how Bob Dylan was able to make the song sing as if it were not his, as if it were found as the images Michael Lesy* discovered in the files of Charles Van Schaik (in the 1890s the town photographer of Black River Falls),,,It’s the story of how Dylan finally made the song slip his skin, until it could feel…as mythical as “Frankie and Johnny,” as factual as “Casey Jones.”

It seems, listening to the song, that it must be real.  Or, alternatively, I think, as if is had grown from a real event, to become as mythis and as real as (to use another example) “Tom Dooley.”

But that’s just the beginning.  The second song is one I had never heard (or heard of) until I read this book.  The singer was also unknown to me (and as Marcus suggests, unknown to everyone, even to the obscurity of her name).  The song is “The Last Kind Word Blues,” and no one knows how old it is, or who first sang the version that grew into many versions.  Its first recorded version (that anyone knows of) was recorded in 1930 by the Paramount label (a division, believe it or not, of the Wisconsin Chair Company--, things are already getting weirder), in Grafton (which is nowhere near Black River Falls)), Wisconsin.  The song is credited to Geeshie Wiley (singer and guitar player).  But it soon escaped from captivity and took on a life of its own, with literally hundreds of performances and recordings, all of them probably different.  (You can listen to it here:; and one set of lyrics can be found here:  Marcus traces the song, and the people, and we can see how the song mutated and grew.  How it was rediscovered…

Finally, we arrive at the story of Bascom Lamar Lunsford (of whom some of you might have heard; he remained active into the early 1960s, performing at folk festivals—including his own, singing this song and many others) and another strange, constantly mutating song called (as Lunsford wrote it down) “I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground.”  (This is Lunsford:; here are his lyrics:   Marcus says of it that “…it is a song with a thousand face.  It’s an old American song—no one knows how old.’”  He traces some version of it back to the American Revolution (there’s  reference to a “forty dollar bill”—piece of currency that existed only in paper money issued by Alabama during the War of Independence—and he has a picture!)  It seems to be a song about making this world disappear:

I wish I was a mole in the ground
Yes I wish I was a mole in the ground
Like a mole in the ground
I’d root that mountain down
And I wish I was a mole in the ground

We also have lizards (which makes me wonder whether Jim Morrison, the Lizard King, knew or knew of this song).  We have birds in a tree, a killer in the sand, a dream in the night.  Marcus claims to see traces of it in Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” (a song worthy of exegesis in its own right).  Marcus notes its use by some in the Free Speech movement in Berkeley.  He digresses to quote Mark Twain at length about the difference between a humorous story (American), a cosmic story (English), and a witty story (French) (pp. 140-141).  He connects it (through Lunsford) to the “John Henry” saga. And he concludes:

He** knew the song was a mystery before and after it was anything else, and he knew it was a mystery he was passing on,  As he did so, every time he sang the song—Bascom Lamar Lunsford erase himself; He wished himself into the song and sent the song out into the world…

I’ll leave the rest of that passage, which is on the last page of the book, for you to discover for yourselves.

*See the book Wisconsin Death Trip.