Thursday, December 26, 2019

Susan Spann, Ghost of the Bamboo Road

Susan Spann, Ghost of the Bamboo Road
Copyright © 2019 Susan Spann
Seventh Street Books
ISBN 978-1-63388-550-9

Let me begin with this:  I’d read around a third of Ghost of the Bamboo Road yesterday when I stopped to eat dinner and do come chores. Around 8:30, I picked it up again, planning to read for an hour or so before going to bed.  Around 11, I finished the book, having not gotten out of my chair.

From which you may deduce (correctly) that I was truly immersed in the story.

That was not altogether a surprise to me.  Having read the previous 6 books in the series,[1] I was prepared to enjoy mystery and the characters.  And, obviously, I was not disappointed.

Hiro Hattori (not his “real” name), a ninja, has been hired by someone who chooses to remain anonymous, to protect Father Mateo, a Catholic priest in Japan, trying to spread the word.  Or, at any rate, his words.  Hiro is skeptical of the mission, but takes his assignment seriously.  He has, over time, come to respect and admire Mateo, even as he remains skeptical of his mission.

In this addition to the o-going saga, Hiro, Mateo, Ana (his Japanese housekeeper), and Gato (the cat, of course) are on their way from Kyoto to Edo.  Rumors have spread that the power behind the Emperor plans to destroy the ninja and kuniochi (the female equivalent) and move the capitol from Kyoto to Edo.[2]  They have stopped in this village to warn Emiri (a kunoichi residing there) of the necessity of going into hiding.

Almost immediately after their arrival, the mother of the innkeeper is murdered; many of the villagers believe that she was killed by a yūrei—ghost—who has been wronged by someone in the village and who seeks revenge.  Neither Hiro nor Mateo is willing to accept that yūrei exist, let alone that they can kill.  Mateo wishes to remain, at least briefly, to try to discover the killer (which, really, means to have Hiro discover the killer); Hiro believes that his mission is more important.  And, as Emiri cannot be found, he is in favor of leaving immediately for Edo.

Of course they stay.  And of course they become involved (partly because Ana is accused of stealing a trove of silver coins).  Their investigation, and the accusation against Ana, brings them in contact with all the villagers (including a couple of unexpectedly interesting and astute men), and with a yamabushi—a hermit/holy man—who lives in the forest.  And, of course, they do discover the murderer.

And if it seems all to “of-course-ish” in my summary, it’s anything but in the reading.  Hiro and Mateo are a good pairing, and they have become close friends.  The villagers, including the resident Samurai, are not just here to advance the plot, but are people with lives that have been disrupted, lives that they hope to be able to recover.  

Of the 7 books so far in the series, this has the least sword-play and violence, and the deepest exploration of character.  (Not that the first 6 ignore character.)

If you have not yet found Spann’s work, I encourage you to seek it out.  If you are already a reader, I probably don’t have to encourage you to read this one.  It’s a fine book.

[1]  Claws of the Cat; Blade of the Samurai; Flask of the Drunken Master; The Ninja’s Daughter Betrayal at Iga;;and Trial on Mount Koya.

[2] Tokyo.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Nicholas Meyer, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols

Nicholas Meyer, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols
Copyright © 2019 Nicholas Meyer
St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books
ISBN 978-1-250-22895-6

This is the fourth extension of the Holmes and Watson saga by Meyer, and, while it has its points, and ultimately makes its point clear, it is not, in my opinion, a particularly successful addition to the canon.

Watson has married (for the third? time), to the sister of Constance Garnett (noted translator of Russian (and other) works of literature.  And Holmes has returned from seclusion.  And Mycroft Holmes has called upon Holmes to retrieve a document—The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—that had been taken from one of Mycroft’s agents (and the agent killed).  Watson, of course, joins Holmes in this quest, as does Anna Walling (a Russian émigré, married to an American millionaire), to act as interpreter for Holmes on this quest.

The quest is ultimately successful, in that the Protocols are found, and a confession of their being a document concocted for the Russian secret police.  But it is a failure, in that the Protocols continue to be disseminated [recently, as Meyer notes in his “Afterword.” Being published in Louisiana (2000) and California (2002)]. 

The book, as I noted above, is not (for me) a success, for all that the message that Meyer wished us to receive is an important one.  Holmes behaves in very non-Holmesian ways.  The relationship between Holmes and Anna seems out of character for Holmes, if not for her.  And, in keepng with a difficulty I have had with the three earlier books (The Seven Percent Solution, The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer):  Mixing actual people and events with Holmes and Watson just does not work for me (although it might for you). 

Leaving my personal reaction to incorporating the fictional Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes and the equally fictional Dr. John Watson), there are other issues.  As I said, Holmes behaves in some very un-Holmesian behaviors, the most noticeable of which is (spoiler ahead) torturing a confession out of the original publisher of the Protocols.  And the first half to two-thirds of the book drags noticeablty.
But it deals with a significant issue. Both in the world of the early 1900s and, as is unfortunately all to obvious, in the world of the 21st century.  Anti-Semitism remains a potent force, and a destructive force, everywhere in the world.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes
Copyright © 2017 Jason Fagone
Dey St. (An Imprint of William Morrow)
ISBN 978-0-06-243051-9

The story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William Friedman, who were pioneer cryptanalysts for the United States.  Elizebeth came from a Quaker family in rural Indiana, William from a Jewish family in New York.  Their meeting, which both at the time and in retrospect, seems to have been highly unlikely, was at a very strange household/research facility owned and operated by an eccentric millionaire, George Fabyan on his estate just outside Geneva, Illinois.  Elizebeth (a graduate of Hillsdale College) was hired, in 1916, to work on his Shakespeare project—that was t try to prove that Francis Bacon actually wrote the plays and had left encrypted clues in the First Folio.  But an extraordinary range of other projects were also being researched there.

William was, initially, doing genetic experiments on fruit flies.  But fairly quickly they both discovered that they had a facility for deciphering secret messages.  And they both quickly came to believe that the Bacon project was a dead end.  And William fell in love, and they got married.  They left Fabyan’s establishment, and fairly quickly found jobs in Washington-William as a military code and cipher expert during World Was I, and Elizebeth as doing similar work for the Customs office (deciphering messages exchanged by smugglers, and then bootleggers).

Unquestionably their most important work came during World War II.  They were working separately, and could rarely even discuss their work.  Between them, though, they made a significant impact on Germany’s espionage and sabotage campaigns (in Elizebeth’s case, in South America).  

This is a complex an interesting tale, and Fagone generally tells it well.  He is not a particularly graceful writer, though the story is compelling enough that I mostly overlooked that aspect of the book (although things do drag occasionally).  If anything is a persistent weakness, it is the description and discussion of the code-breaking work itself.  That is a largely technical subject and not especially gripping.  But it is a bit of a hole in the narrative.

Among the other people who have important places in the story, almost all come off well, appearing as dedicated, hard-working people doing, in some cases, dangerous jobs.  One person, however, comes off very badly…J. Edgar Hoover.  He appears as an ambitious attention and credit grabber is cares primarily for his own reputation and secondarily for that of the FBI.  

As I was preparing to write these comments, I discovered a second recent book focusing on Elizebeth Friedman, G. Stuart Smith’s A life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman, published by McFarland in 2007.  It’s considerably shorter than Fagone’s book (and also, oddly, more expensive).  And the description of it (on Amazon) suggests that William’s part in the story is downplayed or ignored.

If you are at all interested in the part that decoding played in the war, Fagone’s book will, I think, be the place to start for American efforts.  There’s also an extensive literature about the British efforts at Bletchley park, with which I am not familiar (although I can recommend Robert Harris’s Enigma, which, as a novel, probably plays a bit loosely with the facts). 

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Comic Sans font

In a blog I read, I ran across a discussion of the text font "Comic Sans."  This is what it looks like.  I learned that it is the easiest font for people who are dyslexic to read ("it doesn’t rely on interchangeable parts among letters. That’s part of what makes it well-suited for posters").

Sarah Caudwell, who worked as a barrister specializing in property and tax law, published her first mystery novel (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) in 1981, when she was 42.  Three other books followed at long intervals [The Shortest Way to Hades (1985), The Sirens Sang of Murder (1980), and The Sybil in her Grave (2000)]; all four remain in print, and all four are well worth the time of any lover of complex, erudite mysteries.  I recently began to reread the books, because Thus Was Adonis Murdered was chosen by the mystery fiction conference Magna Cum Murder ( as the one book for the con.  And rereading them has been a pleasure.[i]

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sarah Caudwell--Four Books

Sarah Caudwell[i]:
Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981)
The Shortest Way to Hades
The Sirens Sang of Murder
The Sybil in Her Grave

Sarah Caudwell, who worked as a barrister specializing in property and tax law, published her first mystery novel (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) in 1981, when she was 42.  Three other books followed at long intervals [The Shortest Way to Hades (1985), The Sirens Sang of Murder (1980), and The Sybil in her Grave (2000)]; all four remain in print, and all four are well worth the time of any lover of complex, erudite mysteries.  I recently began to reread the books, because Thus Was Adonis Murdered was chosen by the mystery fiction conference Magna Cum Murder ( as the one book for the con.  And rereading them has been a pleasure.[ii]

All four of her books were nominated for various mystery fiction awards, with The Sirens Sang of Murder winning the Anthony for best mystery in 1989.

The books focus on a group of five barristers in London (Michael Cantrip, Selena Jardine, Julia Larwood, Desmond Ragwort, and Timothy Shepherd); they are narrated by Hillary Tamar, a professor of (legal) history at Oxford, who in the course of the books does no teaching and little research.  It is Tamar, by the way, who unravels these mysteries, using what he refers to as Scholarship (most definitely with a capital “S”).  I have always thought, perhaps erroneously, that she intended five books, one focusing on each of the five.  If so, she did not get there.  Julia Larwood, Selena Jardine, Michael Cantrip…..all get their turn as the focus of one of the books.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered finds Julia (who is a bit absent-minded and perhaps somewhat indiscreet in her private life, while being extremely competent as a tax lawyer) about to leave for a trip to Venice.  It’s an Art Lover tour, and while Julia has no objection to Art it’s the other part of the tour she has hopes for.  And more so when she meets Ned as the members of the tour are arriving at the airport to begin their trips.  Ned is extraordinarily handsome-or beautiful, if you prefer—and traveling with his companion Kenneth.  And Julia is immediately smitten, and hopeful.

We learn this from a series of letters written by Julia and sent to Selena.  Given what I have experienced with mailing postcards from Italy to the States, I think it’s fair to say that the events recounted in the letters are not breaking news.  The breaking news comes from Cantrip (the women are almost always referred to by their first names; the men, almost always by their surnames), who, while vetting a newspaper’s copy for libel, comes across a teleprinter news report from Venice that one Julia Larwood has been detained for questioning in the death, by stabbing, in his bed, of one of the members of the Art Lovers tour.  Of course, the the corpse is the beautiful Ned.

Much of the book proceeds from letters sent by Julia (and read aloud by Selena, to whom they are addressed.  Timothy (the only one of the men consistently referred to by his first name) is on his way to Venice to meet with a client who is facing a significant tax liability (resulting from his inheritance) unless he takes action to avoid it; he will, while there, try to determine how serious Julia’s situation is.  Meanwhile, all the members of the Art Lovers tour, except, of course, Julia, are allowed to return home.

The ensuing investigation, both on site in Venice and long-distance from London, grows complicated.  It seems that Ned’s personal life was fairly complicated, as was Kenneth’s.  And two members of the tour seem to have somewhat dodgy art and antique businesses.  But the story reads, in many ways, as a farce, until the very end, which, suitably enough, consists of letters between the two (living) people most involved.  Those letters turn the tale into a tragedy.

This is a stunning debut mystery, and one I have never been able, quite, to forget.

The Shortest Way to Hades and The Sirens Sang of Murder both deal even more overtly with estate and inheritance issues.  In The Shortest Way to Hades, a relatively complex multi-generational trust is to be would up, and the heiress, Camilla, is about to become a very wealthy young woman.  (Professor Tamar helpfully constructs the family tree, which I made frequent reference to.)  Before the trust is wound up, though, her cousin Deirdre dies during a party at Camilla’s Rupert Galloway’s flat in London (He is Camilla’s father.).  She fell, or jumped, or was pushed off a balcony/patio.  It’s relevant that all Deirdre’s cousins were present, although there’s no apparent connection between any of them and a multi-million pound legacy…except that the day before her death, she had mailed a letter to Julia Larwood which says, “I have found out something interesting and I want you to tell me what to do about it.”

I pass over such incidents as two rather unconventional parties thrown by Rupert Galloway.  And the difficulties in moving the estate forward through probate.  (It is worth noting that English inheritance law seems to be much more complex than American law, however.)

Shortly thereafter almost everyone winds up in Greece.  Two of Camilla’s cousins are the children of her aunt Dorothea (her mother’s sister); their father is a world-renowned Greek poet (Constantine Demetrious).  Camilla is there for visit.  And Selena Jardine, one of the barristers, and her lover (Sebastian Verity rising English poet and devotee of Demetrious’s work) are enjoying a sailing holiday in the Greek islands.  While there, Camilla goes overboard during a sailing expedition, at night, while her cousins were asleep, narrowly escaping serious harm.  And Selena also has a very different but still dangerous sailing accident.

And eventually Professor Tamar arrives in Greece.  The unraveling of all the events—from Deirdre’s death to Camilla’s and Selena’s mishaps—leads to his solution of the mystery.  Selena’s experiences are crucial to this unravelling.

The Sirens Sang of Murder is Cantrip’s story, mostly.  And the setting is among the Channel Islands, which are sort of English, but sort of not, especially when it comes to financial manipulation.  Cantrip has somehow become the counsel to the Daffodil Trust (a multi-million pound estate); the trustees meet on the Isle of Jersey (the Isle of Sark also plays a prominent part).  And he and Julia are co-writing, for purely mercenary reasons, a bodice-buster…whether this would have worked out, we never know, but it seems to me that too many of their characters are too obviously not invented.

The issue facing the Daffodil Trust is to trace the unnamed heir to the fortune.  And, of course, their meetings (on Jersey and later in Monte Carlo) do not go smoothly.  And an English judge, Arthur Welladay (to whom Cantrip refers as old Wellieboots), seems to be haunting the island.  He reports all of this in exceptionally long telex messages back to London, which must be exceedingly expensive.  And Cantrip becomes rather enamored of one of the financial people, the Countess Gabrielle di Silvabianca.  And in the course of the discussiona about finding the heir to the Trust, two members of the Trustees die.

(Back in England, Professor Tamar has been hired to do some archival research to assist in identifying the heir to the trust.)

The tale is quite tangled, as are the relationships between the trustees, the solicitor (Clementine Derwent),, and Cantrip.  Oh, and the Countess’s husband is also present,  By the end, though, the heir has been identified, Cantrip has had a n umber of adventures, and the murders solved.

The final book in the series, The Sibyl in Her Grave, is, as it turns out, a team affair.  Julia has the most direct connection to the events, as her aunt Regina lives in the village (Parsons Haver) which is the setting for much of the action.  There is, again, a legal issue to be resolved, involving insider trading.  There is Isabelle, the fortune teller and the frequent and secretive arrivals of a man in a black Mercedes.  There is an early death, of Isabelle (who appears to have dabbled in blackmail).  There is the fortune teller’s niece Daphne, who inherits Isabelle’s home (but with no money to pay for it or her living expenses) and her fortune-telling.  There is an investment banking firm with successor issues, as its chairman prepares to retire.

There’s the vicar, Maurice, and his budding relationship with a young man (Derek Arkwright, who arrived at the village on the day of the funeral).  There’s the interminable remodeling project at the offices (Chambers) of four of the barristers.  And there’s Professor Tamar being hired to help chairman of an investment banking firm decide who his replacement will be.  As was the case in the first two books, much of the story is told in a series of letters—from Julia’s aunt—which provide a great deal of information about the events in Parsons Haver.

The action precedes over almost a year, and what progress that is being made toward resolving all the issues (and they are all, eventually resolved) seems inconclusive.  Just as, in my reading, the first book (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) end as a tragedy, so does this book.  Caudwell was in ill health during the months leading up to the publication (in early 2000), and died, it appears, before the book was published.  

I will admit that these books might not be to everyone’s taste.  They are refined, indeed almost elegant.  I suspect some readers will find Hillary Tamar to be a bit precious as a narrator.  And others might find the legal complications more complication that is necessary.  I don’t see any of that as a barrier to my enjoyment of the books.  My only regrets are the lengthy gaps between their publication, and Caudwell’s death (which was, as I now see things, premature—I am, as I type this, older than she was (only 60) at her death).  I anticipate reading them again, and perhaps again, with great enjoyment.

[i] Caudwell is a pseudonym adopted for her writing; her name was Sarah Cockburn, and her half-brothers (half-brothers Alexander Cockburn, Andrew Cockburn, and Patrick Cockburn) were prominent English journalists.  Other members of her extended family were also well-known in one or another field of creative endeavor.

[ii] She was also involved in a project with Lawrence Block. Tony Hillerman, Peter Lovsey, and Doanld Westlake--The Perfect Murder: Five Great Mystery Writers Create the Perfect Crime (edited by Jack Hill, and, apparently out of print.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered

Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered
Copyright © 1981 Sarah Caudwell
Dell Publishing
ISBN 978-0440212317

I first read Thus Was Adonis Murdered sometime in the 1980s; I found myself taking it off the shelf recently, because it has been selected as the “one book” for the mystery fiction convention I have most often attended—Magna Cum Murder—which will occur this coming weekend (October 25-25), in Indianapolis.  Magna is a small, and therefore intimate con, where we meet, from year to year, many of the same people, so that if feels much like a family affair.  And, for that reason, it seems to me to be an appropriate choice.

Not that this is a family mystery.  Rather, it’s that the principal (and recurring, in subsequent books) characters feel very much like a family.  Our protagonists consist of four young barristers in London (in alphabetical order), Michael Cantrip, Selena Jardine, Julia Larwood, Desmond Ragwort, and Timothy Shepherd; and Hilary Tamar, an Oxford Don and legal scholar.Our tale commences as Hilary arrives in London to pursue his researches into causas in English law and Julia departs for a vacation in Venice (she has taken with her a copy of England’s tax code with her, hoping (well…) that she shall find some time to work on a brief she must master.  (Henceforth, I will adopt the choice made by the author, to refer to these characters as Cantrip, Selena, Julia, Ragwort, and Timothy, as they, and our narrator, Hillary, do throughout the book.)

Julia, who is a beautiful young woman (and is in search of a somewhat less than celibate holiday), is thought by her colleagues to be (outside of her legal skills) to be somewhat in need of a keeper.  But, as Selena explains, she has done everything possible to get her to the airport and off to Italy, where she will be part of a group of Art Lovers on a conducted tour.  What could go wrong?  Besides, Selena has enjoined her to write daily of the events of her trip, and she has done so.  From this point, a fair amount of the book consists of Selena reading aloud Julia’s letters to the rest of the group.  (Timothy does not hear much of this, as he must himself head off to Venice to deal with the inheritance and consequent tax problems of Richard Tiverton.  Julia, I should add, has some serious tax problems of her own to deal with.

Well, a good deal, as the group discovers when they receive a telephone call from Cantrip, who is absent for the moment, reading the copy of a paper (not a newspaper) called The Scuttle, to protect it from libel suits.  While there, he discovers, from a Telex that has arrived in the newsroom, that Julia Larwood has been detained for questioning in a murder.  The victim is one of the touring Art Lovers, Ned, who had become Julia’s target for non-celibate activities in Venice (he is described as tal, slender, and beautiful).

So here we are.  Julia is in Venice, detained by the police.  Timothy is en route to Venice to deal with his client’s tax issues (and to assist Julia), Selena is, periodically, reading one of Julia’s letters to the group.  Postal service between Venice and Italy, being what it is, leads to a significant lag between the events Julia describes in her letters and Selena’s receipt of them.

Hillary turns out to be out armchair detective, and by listening carefully to the letters they receive from Julia (and, later, from Timothy), he reaches some conclusions.  These will require the assistance of another of the Art Lovers and some surveillance, in London, of another.  Using, Hillary tells the barristers (and us) uses his undoubted (?) skill in reading and interpreting obscure legal texts, to reach a conclusion.  And that conclusion turns out to be right.

Parts of the tale are extremely funny, and Caudwell’s portrayal of her cast is masterful.  She succeeds in giving each character a unique voice—useful, because the story it told largely either from the letters written by Julia and Timothy.  But it is, murder, after all, and the motive for and means of carrying out the murder leave no doubt that this is not, in the end, a comedy.  It is, in fact, a tragedy, and the lives lost in it are enough to leave me, at the end, feeling the tragedy, and the losses of those concerned, quite deeply.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Copycat Photoblogging

Today (10/20/19) Chris Bertram posted a photo of a (I think) the beginning of a pro-EU demonstration in England.

In October 2002, I took this photo of an Italian Communist Party demonstration about to get underway in Rome.