Saturday, January 19, 2019

Russell A. Carleton, The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinkin


Russell A. Carleton, The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking
Triumph Books 2018
© Russell A. Carleton 2018
ISBN 9781-62937-544-1

Carleton is one of the newer generation of baseball analysts, and has written extensively for Baseball Prospectus and has provided analytical services for (according to the back cover of the book) several MLB teams.  It’s clear from reading the book that he is a life-long Indians fan.  He might also be unique among writers who approach baseball analytics largely from a statistical perspective (and he’s quite at home with advanced statistical techniques), in that he has also worked as a behavioral psychologist (including as a therapist),   So he is clearly attuned to not-so-purely statistical approaches as well.  (This shows up most clearly in Chapter 8, “Putting Down the Calculator,” but is obvious throughout.)

Carleton has an informal, somewhat breezy approach (and, if, for my tastes I learn more about him than I bargained for, an engaging writer).  He’s very good at making clear that even relatively simple-seeming issued can have complex –very complex—issue that may be hard to resolve.  I thought his discussion of the ability to identify player talent and acquire it through the amateur player draft was excellent.  And his discussion of “the shift” and the complexities both of how to deploy it and how to counter it was also quite good (if anything, I think those issues are even more difficult than he indicates).

I will say that anyone looking for ANSWERS to big baseball questions won’t actually find them here.  This is a book more about how to frame and approach questions than it is about the (tentative) conclusions one might reach.

I thought, overall, the book is valuable, although it has more about Carleton’s personal life than I thought necessary.  It’s also not the most gracefully written book I’ve ever read.   And I’m not sure it has a permanent place on my bookshelf.  But I also thought it provided sufficient value for the money. 

Anthony Horowitz, The Word Is Murder


Anthony Horowitz, The Word Is Murder
Arrow Books, 2018
(Originally published by Penguin Random House, 2017)
© Anthony Horowitz 2017

ISBN 978-1-78-475723-6

Anthony Horowitz is a prolific author of mystery and suspense tales, in book form and as television scripts (e.g., Foyle’s War; Midsomer Murders); what I have previously read of his work (House of Silk; Moriarty) has been a pleasure to read.[1]  The Word Is Murder is not a pastiche, nor set in the somewhat distant past; it is contemporary, and set in 21st century England, and particularly the higher-end parts of London.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but there is one (to me) dominant aspect of It I had a great deal of trouble with, so let me get that out of the way first.  The author is, obviously, Anthony Horowitz, a prominent and prolific English author.  Not a problem.  But the narrator, and a prominent character in the unfolding of the story, is also a prominent and prolific English author, named “Anthony Horowitz.”  And his—“Horowitz’s” –list of publications is, in fact, the same as that of the author.  Yet the book is plainly a work of fiction (despite the appearance of characters like the movie producers and directors, Peter Jackson and Stephen Spielberg).  I found this somewhat difficult.  How are we to treat this approach?  Do we have a figurative set of characters on parole from the real world?  Are we supposed to infer that this is, in some way not a work of fiction?  Perhaps this troubled me more than it should have, but it made getting into the book harder for me than it perhaps needed to be.

The story, briefly, is this.  A 60-ish, upper-middle-to-upper class English woman, Diana Cowper, resigns from the Board of a theater company and, on her way home, stops at a funeral hope to make arrangements, is great detail, including a very minimalist type of casket, the music to be played, a psalm and a poem to be read.  She appears to be in good health, her son (Damian) has a thriving career as an actor, but, as the funeral director, Robert Cornwallis, assures her, many people make such plans.  She then goes home.

And is murdered, strangled.  Her body is not found until 2 days leader, when her cleaning lady/housekeeper comes to work.  The police arrive and do their standard normal job of investigating the crime scene.  The next day (as clearly as I can tell, writer “Anthony Horowitz” receives a phone call from an ex-Detective Inspector, Daniel Hawthorne; Hawthorne, who quit the force largely because his approach clashed with the institutional approach and who now works as a consultant on especially difficult cases, wants to speak with him.  Nor specifically about the case in hand, but because he wants “Horowitz” to write a book about Hawthorne’s just-beginning investigation of Cowper’s murder, with the proceeds to be shared equally.

After some discussion/argument, “Horowitz” agrees to tackle it, and he becomes Hawthorne’s shadow as the investigation proceeds.  One of the first revelations is that Cowper has had a (10-year-old) encounter with the British justice system.  She was charged with what in the US would be called reckless vehicular homicide in the death of an 8 year-old boy, and the grievous bodily harm done to his twin brother.  So the first, and obvious approach, is to see whether that has played a role in Cowper’s death/

As the investigation continues, there’s a great deal of tension between Hawthorne and “Horowitz,” based in part on Hawthorne’s desire to reveal nothing of himself and to explain as little as possible how he is structuring the investigation, and “Horowitz’s” desire to understand both the forces that drive Hawthorne and the logic behind his investigation. 

Cowper’s son (Damian) returns from LA for the funeral—at which there is an extraordinary interruption to the service, leading him to leave the cemetery.  This, and a related event, cause Hawthorne to explore his background as a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and as an actor, to see whether anything there is relevant to his mother’s death.

As is perhaps typical in an actual investigation, Hawthorne discovers things in the lives of a lot of people, (including the parents of the two boys who were victims in the auto accident—and the nanny who was caring for the boys; the judge who decided that Cowpers’ actions in the accident did not warrant jail time; the actress whose career has been interrupted by having borne Damian’s son; the other students at RADA) which may or may not be relevant.  And, as this is a work of fiction, both Hawthorne and “Horowitz” find their ways to the solution.

We can, apparently, expect additional books in the series.  Notwithstanding the problem I pointed out (and a problem that might be of concern only to me), I’m looking forward to seeing how this develops.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Terrence Faherty, In a Teapot



Terrence Faherty, In a Teapot
The Mystery Company/Crum Creek Press, 2005
© Terrence Faherty 2005
ISBN1-932326-04-2

Scott Elliott (and his employer Paddy Maguire of Hollywood Security; and his fiancĂ© Ella Englehart) return (in 1948) in an investigation with a time limit—Elliott and Englehart are getting married, and the case heeds to be cleared up now.  When last we saw Elliott, he was driving LaSalle Series 52 Special CoupĂ©.  Now, a year later, he has ditched the LaSalle.


For a 1940 Nash Ambassador convertible.  (I don’t know why I’m including the pictures, but I found it sort of interesting.


The core of the investigation is this:  Joel Jefferies is pitching a movie based on The Tempest, with a number of famous British actors in key roles.  It’s sort of important to get started, as many of the big names are preparing to return to England, now that the British film industry has begun to recover from the War.  A young Brit, Forrest Combs, has been cast as Ferdinand (the male romantic lead), and the apparent problem is that he is seeing a burlesque queen—Betty Ann Baker.  Jefferies is hiring Hollywood Security to buy her off.

Of course, nothing goes as planned.  Baker refuses to be bought off; Combs becomes quite irate at the effort to get him to drop Baker.  And Ian Kendall, Baker’s employer, who’s running the Avalon Club, where Baker works, is murdered.  There’s not a lot of time, obviously, to sort all this out in time for the wedding, but Elliott and Maguire take their best shot at it, discovering some interesting and important facts about many of the main characters (as, for example, the ownership of the Avalon Club is hidden behind Kendall’s role as the putative owner.

The Tempest, of course, is also integral to the events, and we learn (or are reminded of a lot of the subtleties of the play (including the conventional wisdom of the time that it was Shakespeare’s last play.  (I am personally very fond of the play, so reading some discussion of the play, and having it quite central to the story, was an added bonus.)

Things are actually more complex that this brief summary suggests, and Faherty deftly weaves it all together to a convincing, if (unfortunately) somewhat tragic ending.  This is a short book—only 118 pages, maybe 30,000 words, so a longish novella or a shortish novel—but it was, for me, a joy to read.  I think you will enjoy it.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Terrence Faherty, Kill Me Again


Terrence Faherty, Kill Me Again
The Mystery Company/The Crum Creek Press, 2003
Originally published by Simon & Schuster, 1996(
© Terrence Faherty 1996
ISBN1-932325-02-6

Kill Me Again introduces us to Scott Elliott, in 1947, working for Paddy Maguire’s Hollywood Security Agency.  Maguire, a former actor (and his wife Peggy, also a dropout from performing, founded the agency to help the studios deal with “issues” that might affect the box office success of movies.  Elliott, an Indiana boy, was also an actor pre-World War II; on his return to civilian life he found something to do that kept him in California.

In this case, it’s an anonymous note, sent to Jack Warner, alleging that Bert Kramer, who has written the screenplay for a sequel to 1942 movie, Passage To Lisbon [1], in which many of the principals (actors and their characters) are involved with the early days of the UN and some hangovers from the original.  This movie is Love Me Again.  The lead actor in both movies, Tory Beaumont, has established his own production company, and this its first production.  And with the House Committee on Un-American Activities gearing up for hearings in Hollywood, both Warner Bros. and Beaumont would very much like to see the allegations about Kramer go away.

The plot is fairly complex (with a quite large cast of well-realized characters), and, while the political motives predominate, it’s also the case that Kramer is in a disastrous marriage and that the producer of the movie, Vincent Mediate, also has some issues.  A recurring theme is the effect that the war has had, and is still having, on the people who had to fight it (including Elliott and Mediate—who, while in the Army, made a film—Sunrise At Normandy—with live footage of the landing, and followed that with another documentary, which made him famous—Death Camp.

Maguire and Elliott more or less pursue separate lines, trying as much as possible to avoid the police; Elliott (unsurprisingly) is smitten with Eloise Englehart (better known as Pidgin), so there’s also a serious romantic sub-plot.  Elliott’s part of the investigation takes him to New York (to acquire more information about the background of Mediate in particular).  The historical aspects of the book seem to me to be very well done, with both the LA and NYC settings seeming to be very accurate. 

Faherty has, at this point, written three other Scott Elliott novels (most recently Play a Cold Hand, 2017), one fairly long novella (or very short novel), and a collection of short stories.  (http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/F_Authors/Faherty_Terence.html)  (I have, read all but the most recent novel.)  Elliott is an engaging character (as are all the continuing characters) and the books show a great deal of development.  All are worth seeking out. 

[1] If the general outline of the movie reminds you of something…well, that just proves you are still alive.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Raymond Chandler, The Annotated Big Sleep


Raymond Chandler, The Annotated Big Sleep
(Annotations by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto)
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard/A division of PenguinRandom House LLC
The Big Sleep © 1939 Raymond Chandler © Renewed 1966 Helga Greene
Annotations and Introduction © 2018 Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto
ISBN 978-0-8041-6888-5

There’s not much to be said about The Big Sleep that someone hasn’t already said (and said better than I can).  People can, and do, argue about whether The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye is “peak Chandler,” but that seems to me to be a waste of time (and effort)—they are both masterworks of the genre, and works that any serious reader of mystery fiction should already know well.  But things do surprise me, even after multiple readings.

It’s been a long time (several years) since my last reading of the book, and I’ve seen both the Bogart/Bacall (1946, directed by Howard Hawkes) and Mitchum (1978, directed by Michael Winner) more than once since I’ve read the book.  (Both versions are excellent, and if the 1978 version sticks somewhat closed to the book, I prefer the 1946 edition).  And one thing I tend to forget is exactly how high the body count is in the book—six, counting a pivotal death that occurs before the book opens (I don’t think I’m overlooking anyone).

The plot is famously complicated (some readers/critics think it’s incoherent), and while there’s some truth to that, I’m not sure that a more streamlined plot would be an improvement. 

But my primary purpose here is to discuss the annotations, rather than the book.  I did reread the book while focusing largely on the annotations, and I will say that I’ve read a few other books like this, and in most of the others the annotations get in the way of the book.  That’s not the case here.  What Hill, Jackson, and Rizzuto (HJR) bring to the book was, for me, two major and one minor thing.

The first major contribution they make is to make clear the extent to which Chandler reworked a number of his stories and incorporated them into The Big Sleep.  Most prominent among these are “The Finger Man” (Black Mask, October 934); “Killer in the Rain” (Black Mask, January 1935); and “The Curtain,” (Black Mask, September 1936), but bits of others as well.  I know, having read Tom Hiney’s biography of Chandler (Raymond Chandler: A Biography, 1997) and William Nolan’s The Black Mask Boys (1985),  that there’s some controversy about that, but, as HJR point out, Chandler didn’t expect that anyone would be reading his shorts after the pulp magazines in which they appeared had fallen apart.  Personally, I don’t see that it’s an issue; The Big Sleep all but completely transforms them.

Second, and for me, more interesting and more useful, is the terrific job they do situating the story in the Los Angeles of the 1930s (and how that LA grew out of the LA of the 1920s and before).  This is partly that they do a fine job of the geography of LA and Southern California, including how it changed over time (and the photos included with the annotations are perfect, my favorite being the photo of the Bunker Hill “traction” lift on p. 361).  They also provide insights into the nature of law enforcement, including the depth of the corruption of the LAPD at that time.

I think any reader with a serious interest in the setting of Chandler’s stories and the development of his work as a writer will find The Annotated Big Sleep invaluable.  It lives up to the high standard of Chandler’s own work.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Greil Marcus, The History of Rock’n’Roll In Ten Songs


Greil Marcus, The History of Rock’n’Roll In Ten Songs
Yale University Press, 2014
© Greil Marcus 2014
ISBN 978-0-300-18737-3

Marcus uses as points of departure 10 songs, using them (in 10 essays) to ruminate on the nature of popular music and American culture, and rock.  The 10 songs might not be what anyone expects them to be, ranging as they do from obscure to weird to throw-away.  The 10 songs are given explicitly only in the table of contents, and are:
“Shake Some Action”
“Transmission”
“In the Still of the Night”
All I Could Do Was Cry”
“Crying Waiting, Hoping”
“Money (That’s What I Want)
“Money Changes Everything”
This Magic Moment”
“Guitar Drag” (this is the weirdest one)
“To Know Him Is To Love Him”
His approach is to take the songs apart, tracing their sources and their consequences, putting them back together on the way.  And along the way he provides an alternative history as well—what if Robert Johnson had not died?

His treatment of the songs, and of the singers is sensitive and generous, even while his treatment of the music business is somewhat more jaundiced.  Along the way we pick up some interesting sidelights—as, for example, the source of Phil Spector’s song “To Know Him Is To Love Him;’ as, for instance Amy Winehouse’s resurrection of “You Know I’m No Good”—and discover connections we might never have known.

Marcus is not always a particularly graceful writer, and at least one of these songs (“Guitar Drag”) will probably strike most people as an odd choice for inclusion.  But his knowledge of the songs, the singers, and the milieu is encyclopedic.  (And it’s nice to know that every song mentioned in the book is available on You Tube.)  If the music of the past 60+ years matters to you, has changed your life, then spend some time with Marcus and this history of rock’n’roll.


Sunday, January 6, 2019

Rex Stout, Trio for Blunt Instruments


Rex Stout, Trio for Blunt Instruments
Originally published 1964.
This edition Bantam Crime Line, 2002
© Rex Stout 1963, 1964
ISBN 0-53-2419105
This was the final collection of novellas published during Stout’s lifetime (a subsequent collection, Death Times Three, was prepared for publication by Stout’s biographer, John McAleer, and published in 1985).  Two of the three are very good; the other has what are, for me, significant problems.  And, with this, I have concluded my bedtime re-reading of the novellas. 

“Kill Now—Pay Later,” the first in the collection and the first published, has its points of interest.  First of all, we learn that both Wolfe and Godwin have their shoes polished (3 times a week) by a bootblack (Peter Vassos), whose business involves his going to his customers, rather than his customers coming to him.  His (apparent) usual for a shine is $0.25 (but Wolfe pays $1). [1]  As the story opens, he has arrived early, because one of his customers was otherwise occupied—he’d been pushed, or fallen, or jumped out of a 10th floor window.  That customer was Dennis Ashby, head of sales in a company manufacturing products for the clothing manufacturing business.

Ashby was apparently something of a cad, and the police settle on the theory that he had debauched Pete’s daughter, and he had responded by defenestrating Ashby.  The daughter, Elma, shows up the next day to hire Wolfe—Pete has been found dead, at the bottom of a cliff in New Jersey; the police have concluded it’s suicide, and she wants Wolfe to discover the murderer.  His initial gambit is to sue the people—including Inspector Cramer—who might have said that Ashby had debauched Elma—for $1,000,000 each.  And he proceeds to uncover the murderer. 

Save for one pretty significant fact about Pete’s death, that no competent/experienced cop would have overlooked, this is an above-average story among the novellas. 

 [1] I have a little trouble working out the economics of this.  Say he manages to serve 4 customers per hour—and given that he’s moving around, that might be generous, and that they all (or almost all) pay $0.25.  So his gross is $1 per hour, and, given that his clientele is apparently working, so his working day is 8 AM to 5 PM and that he has a “full book”, with a half hour out for lunch.  That’s 34 customers per day, of $8.50.  Let’s round it up to $10 per day.  And, given what we know about his clientele, weekends can’t be very lucrative.  So $50 per week, $2,600 per year.  (And he does have some costs of doing business, but let’s ignore them.)  The average annual income for hourly wage workers in the US in 1962 was about $4,000 per year.  The minimum wage was $1.10, so about $2,200 for a full year.  Vassos would not be covered by the minimum wage law, as he was self-employed.  So he (and his daughter) could have managed to live in (apparently) Manhattan, but clearly not well.
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Archie’s relationship with a young woman who has become a highly-paid fashion model (Susan McLeod) sets the stage for “Murder Is Corny.”  Wolfe has been buying 12 ears of corn weekly from Duncan McLeod (her father), and Rusterman’s has been buying 15-20 dozen.  As Wolfe tell s Cramer “…sweet corn…roasted in the hottest possible over for 40 minutes, shucked at the table, and buttered and nothing else, is ambrosia.”  But this week’s corn was not up to Wolfe’s specifications.  The corn was being delivered by Ken Faber that summer, who was working for McLeod because he wanted to be closer to Susan (who spent her weekends on the farm) and Cramer has delivered this week’s corn because Faber is dead.

The problem is that Cramer thinks Archie was in the alley at Rusterman’s when Faber made the delivery there, and might have killed Faber because he’s been spreading rumors about Susan.  And Wolfe (and Archie) have to uncover the actual murderer, in no small part to keep Archie out of jail.  Cramer, somewhat surprisingly as far as I’m concerned, seems bent on misinterpreting a piece of evidence that points away from Archie, rather than toward him.  [2]

[2] And you have to be willing to believe that McLeod can determine which ears of corn are at the peak of perfection for eating—without disturbing the husks.  Always a bit difficult for me.
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A strange piece of mail for Archie the starting point for “Blood Will Tell.”  He gets, in a cream-colored envelope [with a return address (James Neville Vance and a street address in the Village) that’s “really” engraved], with a tie (same color scheme as the stationery) and a note typed on matching stationery that says:  “Archie Goodwin—Keep this until you hear from me.”  Followed by a phone call telling him to burn it, from someone whom Archie thinks may be disguising his voice.  And the tie has a splotch on it that appears to be blood. [3]  Archie is moved (a) to have the spot tested to see if it’s blood and (b) drop in on Mr. Vance.  While he’s at Vance’s town house (with three apartments—the 1st floor is occupied by the Fougere; the 2nd by Bonny Kirk (her husband, Martin, has moved out; Vance occupies the 3rd and 4th floors) a policeman stops by to ask Vance to let him into the second floor apartment—the cops got a call saying something might be wrong there.  And there is; Bonnie Kirk has been bludgeoned to death with a (full) vodka bottle.  (Archie leaves discreetly.)

Martin Kirk is the obvious suspect, because of Bonnie’s infidelity, because he moved out, and because the note Archie received in the mail (allegedly from Vance) was typed on a typewriter Kirk recently disposed of.  And Kirk has asked for Wolfe to help him, and Wolfe agrees (although Archie clearly has doubts).  Again, Wolfe pulls a rabbit out of a hat.

Now here I have to suggest that you stop reading, because what follows is a massive spoiler.  Massive.  Not just whodunit, but also some major plot points I have not mentioned.  So stop now.

[3] Archie identifies the tie—silk—as a “Sutcliffe” tie, probably $20 retail—or about $160 if tie prices have kept pace with inflation.  The only truly high-class tie label I’m even semi-familiar with is Sergio Ferragamo, which seem to be about $150 these days. So, a reasonable factoid.

Everybody gone?  OK.

Remember the tie?  It’s the same color as the stationery (and the paint job on the townhouse).  Vance had 9 of them, identical.  He claims that he gave 1 to Kirk (which is putatively the tie someone—Kirk?—sent to Archie) and that 1 is otherwise missing.  As both Archie and Wolfe recognize, Vance’s having given Kirk a tie is suspect.  But another tie is missing as well?  Uh.  Why?  What possible reason is there for the second tie to be missing?  It makes no sense, even after the killer is identified.  And if Kirk killed his wife, and got blood on the tie, why not just take it off and leave it there, or burn it?  What possible reason could Kirk have for mailing the tie to Archie?  The whole fol-de-rol with the ties is clearly very odd and clearly points anywhere but to Kirk.

The second major issue I had with this story has to do with Stout’s treatment of sexually disturbed men, in this case, a middle-aged man.  For James Neville Vance is our murderer.  We learn that Bonnie Kirk has been “playing” (her husband’s term) Vance—playing one of his pianos when she’s bored, dressing somewhat provocatively apparently.  And Vance wants her badly.  But all she does is flirt and tease.  So he conceives the hocus-pocus with the ties—at least 3 weeks before the murder, because Kirk got rid of the old typewriter that long before the murder. He makes a present of one of his ties to Kirk (and hides another one).  He kills her not in the heat of some passion; he planned the murder.  And, having killed her, he cuts off a (bloody lock of her hair and hides in inside a glove.  I could see a heat-of-passion killing, actually, although nothing we learn about Vance suggests he cares that much about anything except himself and modern piano music.  There’s nothing about his character as it is revealed to us that makes this ending plausible (except Paul Fougere’s assertion that Vance had the hots for Bonnie Kirk, and that’s an assertion than neither of the other people in the story who were familiar with both the murder victim and the murderer seem to have noticed.  I just couldn’t buy it.