Tuesday, October 17, 2017

E.J Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Absentee Father



E.J Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Absentee Father
Midnight Ink © 2017 E.J Copperman and Jeff Cohen
ISBN 978-0-7387-5079-8

The fourth in the series featuring Samuel Hoenig and Janet Washburn, and the series continues to grow in complexity.  Samuel is the proprietor of a business called Questions Answered—you have a question (within some limit), he will find the answer—for a fee.  In this installment, the question comes from an unexpected source—Samuel’s mother.  She has received an upsetting letter, which has led her to ask Samuel to find the answer to this question:  
Where is your father living now?

His father left 27 years ago, and Samuel has only limited memories of him; his mother has rarely spoken of him.  He really does not want to find the answer to this question. But, how can he refuse?
He (and Janet, to whom Samuel refers to as Ms. Washburn) fairly quickly trace his father, Reuben, to California and to an apparent alias.  And to a rather strange business.  But to make additional progress, it appears that Samuel and Janet will have to travel to L.A., and the prospect of this is truly upsetting to Samuel.
Things become even stranger in L.A., as they encounter a man names—or using—the alias Samuel and Janet had uncovered.  And they are given a package containing about $40,000 in $50s, with almost no questions asked.  Something is very wrong, but what, exactly?
One of the pleasures of the book is seeing the continued development of the relationship between Samuel and Janet.  And the expanded role of a minor character in earlier books works very nicely as well.  
For me, the denouement was really quite moving, partly because Samuel was able to answer his mother’s question, but mostly for a consequence of his being able to answer the question.  And, as a whole, the growth of Samuel—his willingness to take risks, his ability to deal with situations (including driving in L.A.)—make this, for me, an extremely satisfying and fulfilling book.  I’m already looking forward to the next chapter in Samuel’s story.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Mary Challis (Sara Woods), Crimes Past

Mary Challis (Sara Woods), Crimes Past
Raven House (paperback) reprint, 1982.
Available from used book sellers.


14 years before, Derek Locke and Eddie Guard conspired to embezzle a fair amount of money from the bank a were employed.  Guard, on his vacation, began so set up the Swiss account into which they would move the proceeds; Locke, whose vacation followed Guard's, met him on the intervening weekend to finish that up.  Before Derek could return to England Eddie was arrested (the theft had been discovered), and Derek took off for parts unknown. 

Flash forward.  Derek's (14-yearyounger) brother Jeremy is now a solicitor...and Derek has returned to England, planning to meet up with Eddie and get his share of the loot.  And Eddie gets himself murdered; Derek, of course, is the chief suspect--but Derek also says Eddie has told him that a third man as involved..  Jeremy, for reasons that aren't all that clear to me, tries to help him--by finding an alternative suspect and getting Derek out of the country again. 

It's not a bad setup, but there are problems (or omissions).  First, the embezzlement scheme is not really explained very well.  And, more important, there are only two real candidates for party #3.  The story moves well and does nothing to make me revise my opinion of Woods as a writer.  But it's hardly much more than a little above average for a mystery novel.

Friday, September 8, 2017

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies
Viking Press © 2017 David Cornwell
ISBN 978-0-7352-2511-4
Also available as an ebook.


What follows is a truthful account, as best as I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation, codenamed Windfall, that was mounted against the East German Intelligence Service (STASI) in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, and resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with, and of the innocent women for whom he gave his life.

The is the opening paragraph, and it draws us—it drew me—into a (fictional) past, but one that has always carried with it the aura of truth.  That past is the story told, in 1963, in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, of Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold.  Leamas, because he was chosen (and accepted) the task of acting as a traitor to England, of gaining the confidence of STASI, of casting guilt on a STASI officer, in pursuit of the goal of maintaining a double agent and the information flow that agent provides.  Gold, because she fell in love with Leamas (and he with her).

Now, decades later, in a very different world, all of that comes back to life, in the form of lawsuits filed by children of some of the people directly involved.  And a British government that would like to make it all go away…or at least not become public.

One of the few survivors who were participants in those events, Peter Guillam, who was in his early thirties then and is much older now (depending on when this book is actually set, somewhere between his late seventies and mid-to-late eighties), is required, under the terms of his retirement, to return to London, to be interrogated about those events.  In the course of his interrogation, he reads (or re-reads) the reports generated during the events of that distant past.  He recalls those events, sometimes in ways that differ from the reports.  And he answers questions. 

In what is, I think, a first for Le Carre, this book is written in the first person—Guillam narrates this part of the story, from his point of view, in the present.  So we are, to the extent he allows us, privy to his thoughts, to his efforts to corroborate or modify (or conceal) the history contained in those ancient reports.  And, of course, one issue is whether his memories of the past, and his understanding of who did what, and why, are shaped by his past and his distance from it now.  And throughout we have to deal with one figure—Control, whose name we never learn—who headed this branch of the British intelligence services (called, informally, the Circus) and another figure—George Smiley, then head of Covert Operations—whose decisions and actions shaped, to some degree, the events in that distant past.

Control is long dead; Smiley is long retired, but still, apparently, alive (making him easily into his nineties).  Of the others, well, at least mostly dead.

Guillam has to navigate his interrogation, which means remembering things he’d rather not, and dealing with loyalties (and betrayals) he’d also rather not.  And he has to remember, and deal with his own part.  And that is neither easy nor without its own evasions.

This is, let me say, a magnificent book.  While it may be useful to have read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, you can get along nicely without.  It raises, and carefully does not resolve, a number of difficult moral issues.  Were the actions taken in the past were, then or now, justifiable?  Well, it depends.  Is the current investigation designed to get at “the truth,” or to make it easier to blame anything that looks difficult on those long dead or long out of power?  I think we’re given a number of hints there.  But remember, our narrator was involved, and his take on the current investigation may well be biased.  Is biased.  How can we be sure of, recall, describe, the motivations that led to people’s decisions and actions 50 years ago? 

How can we be sure, I think Le Carre is asking,of our own motives (or our efforts to deceive ourselves and others), of the morality or necessity or utility of our decisions, decisions that might maintain whatever tenuous peace now exists or might lead to needless deaths, and war—now?

Monday, September 4, 2017

M.J. Lee, Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary

M.J. Lee, Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary
Endeavor Press Ltd. © M.J. Lee 2016
ISBN 978-1-5329-3461-2


Samuel Pepys was of course, a real historical figure and is famous to this day for keeping a diary.  (A good overview of his life, and of his diaries can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Pepys)  What M.J. Lee has done is to set a story—I wouldn’t exactly say it’s a mystery—that involves both the diaries and Pepys role as a naval administrator during the Restoration period.

Here’s the situation:  A thief (Jack Turner) has been hired to steal the current volume of Pepys’ diary—a diary that Pepys believed no one actually knows about and, as he writes in in a private code, that he also believes that no one could decode in any event.  While he’s in the house, Turner also steals a piece of jewelry that Pepys’ wife Elizabeth prizes.  So Pepys has two things to recover:  His diary, which had to be the primary object of the thief, and which could cause Pepys a good deal of embarrassment (he has written some things in it that, should the King learn of them, will cause no end of trouble), and his wife’s locket.  He enlists the assistance of his friend, also an Admiralty employee, Will Hewer in this quest.

The first step, of course, is to identify and find the thief.  This proves to be a relatively easy task; they trace the locket to the shop of a notorious receiver of stolen property who is perfectly willing to disclose the thief’s name and abode (for a price).  Unfortunately, the thief has been murdered, and, while the locket is recovered (and then lost again), the diary is not.

And Pepys has a task assigned to him as a part of his job—visit the Admiralty works in Chatham, discover how things are going there, and prepare a report for the King, during the next four days.  (And things there are known not to be going well.)

When Pepys and Hewer attend a performance of a new play by John Dryden, the epilogue, recited by Nell Gwynn (one of the King’s mistresses) seems to be aimed at Pepys; she looks directly at him as she says:

For the writer’s pen is his phallus,
The blue ink his seed.
And though he’s impotent,
He’s prolific indeed.
He scribes each night,
A daily nocturnal rite,
His words will be his death,
Strung by the neck till out of breath.

So…Who has the diary?  Who is offering vague threats?  Does someone want to encourage him to report the truth from Chatham, or cover things up?  How can he get his wife’s locket back. Get his diary back, and avoid the Tower?

While the book begins somewhat slowly, the sense we get of late 17th-century London is pretty remarkable (as is the amount people eat and drink).  The history of Restoration-period England is not really something I know much about, Lee seems to know what he’s writing about.  The shadow of Cromwell hangs over things, and the religious divisions (and violence) simmer just below the surface.  I had to look up a number of things, just to make sure I knew what was going on…For one, I’d never heard of the Act of Indulgence (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_Indulgence), proclaimed by James II and guaranteeing (within limits, freedom of worship (but not for Catholics).  And then there was the Fifth Monarchy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Monarchists), an “extreme Puritan sect” which anticipated the imminent second coming of Christ. 

Actual historic personages (Dryden, Nell Gwyn, Aphra Benn (who plays a very prominent role in the second half of the book), Sir William Coventry, Sir Joseph Williamson, the Duke of Buckingham, Charles II, and others).  play significant roles, and I felt it necessary to check up on them as well:
Dryden (Lee does not depict him favorably):
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dryden
Gwyn:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nell_Gwyn
Behn:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphra_Behn
Coventry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Coventry
Williamson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Williamson_(politician)
Buckingham: 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Sheffield,_1st_Duke_of_Buckingham_and_Normanby
Charles II:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_II_of_England

(I should add that it’s perfectly possible to read and enjoy the book without the history lessons.)

The last third of the book, in particular, proceeds at a very brisk pace, and we end with Pepys presenting his report to the King, and its repercussions.  Based on this outing, I hope to be able to read a second adventure of Messers Pepys and Hewer soon.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Eliot Paul, Waylaid in Boston: A Homer Evans Mystery

Eliot Paul, Waylaid in Boston: A Homer Evans Mystery
Coachwhip Publications, 2016 (reprint of 1953 original)
ISBN 978-1616463427


Homer Evans and Finke Maguire (Finke is a PI in LA, Evans is…well, it's not clear quite what he is) are in Boston on a more-or-less vacation.  One evening, over drinks, one of their group of friends, acquaintances, and hangers-on proposes a bet:  That an ordinary citizen could not undertake to follow someone and attempt to discover things about him, without making a hash of it.  Obviously, the bet is accepted, and what ensues can justifiably be called a catastrophe.  The book does have, however, a rather neat money-laundering scheme applicable (in this case, to Argentina) for people trying to get money out of a country with stringent currency controls.  Paul wrote a lot, and, if this is typical, it's perhaps unsurprising that he is  not well-remembered.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Ellery Queen, Ten Days' Wonder

“Ellery Queen,” Ten Days’ Wonder
Mysterious Press/Open Road Integrated Media, 2013
© 1948 Little, Brown and Co.  Renewed, 1976, Ellery Queen
ISBN 978-1-4532-8967-9


A man awakens in a room he has never, to his current knowledge, seen before.  As he investigates, he discovers he is in a flophouse, broke, and has evidently been in some sort of altercation.  He finally realizes who he is—Howard Van Horn.  He gets to New York, and his friend from his days as a student sculptor in Paris, Ellery Queen.  He asks Queen’s help if discovering what, if anything, he has done, and it emerges that he has been subject to similar blackouts, of varying duration, and with no apparent common cause, for years.  He persuades Ellery to come home with him and try to unravel this mystery.  Home is a rich father’s opulent estate in Wrightsville, the setting of two earlier Queen mysteries.

And Ellery goes to Wrightsville, for the third time, with the excuse that he needs a retreat to complete his current mystery novel (which, as it happens, he does need to do).  He meets Howard’s family—his father, Diedrich Van Horn; his uncle, Wolfert; and his step-mother, Sally (who is, as it happens, younger than Howard).

Things get quite confusing, Ellery’s investigation is not making much progress, when blackmail intervenes.  The blackmail leads to two thefts, and, eventually, to murder.

Now none of this is really much of a surprise, and it’s certainly no surprise that Ellery, in a scene with all the principals, and the police, unravels the entire chain of events with his usual remorselessly logical analysis of the evens.

Everyone—except the murderer—is relieved, and, if the blackmailer is not clearly identified, at least there is a resolution.

Except…more than a year later, a new bit of information emerges, and Ellery realizes that he got it all wrong.  So we’re back to Wrightsville for a second bite at the apple.

What I found myself thinking, at the end, is that this is an almost perfect meta-analysis of all the Ellery Queen mystery.  The obscurity of the events and the evidence, the logical interpretation of it all, and the solution.  But here, we’re shown just how shallow Ellery’s conclusions can be.  Based on the evidence he has, and some assumptions he makes, he reaches a conclusion.  Here’ we’re shown that the same evidence, with a (slightly) different set of assumptions, a (slightly) different analysis can lead to a very different conclusion.

And in doing this, we should bring the entire Ellery Queen series of mysteries to an end.  Because we have just been shown how contingent all of the solutions have been.  The previous 17 Ellery Queen cases have, in effect, been shown to have been constructed on…nothing.  The famous “Queen Method” is as fallible, as liable to false conclusions, as any other method.

And, in its own way, this is a magnificent book, a work of great honesty and, if you will, integrity by its authors.  They show us the mechanism, they let us see  how fragile it is, how illusory their conclusions are.  Here, then, the series should end. 

But, of course, it doesn’t.  Another 16 book length cases follow, as well as a number of short stories.  I think that, had I been coming at this series as it was written, Ten Days’ Wonder would have been the last book I would have been able to read.  I would be conscious, as I would not have been before, of the (logical) error that lies at the heart of the Queen method and the Queen stories.  One small change in one’s assumptions, and the edifice crashes.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Bill Crider, Dead, To Begin With

Bill Crider, Dead, To Begin With
Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press © 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-07853-7
Also available as an ebook


Jake Marley, who has been a recluse for decades (since shortly after his younger sister died in an automobile accident, has recently purchased the old, abandoned, and decrepit opera house in Clearview.  He intends to renovate it, and, for the first event, has commissioned a version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to be set in Texas.   And then he is found--dead--inside the opera house, by Aubrey Hamilton (a local realtor who worked with Marley on his purchase of the opera house.

Although it looks like Marley has fallen from a catwalk, Sheriff Dan Rhodes has his doubts.

Of course, that’s not all that’s going on in Blacklin County, Texas.  For one thing, Elaine Tunstall has gone off her meds and is threatening to inflict serious damage (with a sledgehammer) on The Beauty Shack, where she got what she regards as a bad haircut.  And we have a case of disputed possession of an item at a garage sale, for another.

But Marley’s death is the main event.  The question is, why, if it is murder, anyone would want to murder an extremely wealthy recluse who has come out of seclusion with plans to spend a lot of money to restore the opera house?

Another question is why, in his will, he specifies that he wants the Sheriff to be present at the first performance of the play.  More, why has he named four of his fellow high school students to four specific roles in the play (Scrooge, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet To Come)?  Why will he be playing (of course) the ghost of Jacob Marley?  How, is at all, is his sister’s death related to all this?

Perhaps more than usual, the town of Clearview is a character in this episode of the series.  Its part is, more or less, that of the aging and declining world that was in a world in which it may no longer has a role.

And there may be ghosts.  So C.P. (Seepy) Benton, math professor at the community college, and Harry Harris, English professor (and designated author of the play Marley wanted written), as Clearwater Paranormal Investigations, crash the investigation/

Rhodes pursues his investigation in his usual way, asking questions, stirring up (in this case) decades-old memories, and provoking responses from all the folks concerned.  I was pleased that Rhodes’ wife Ivy has a larger than usual role in the book, as a participant in the investigation.  And Rhodes’ dogs, Yancey and Speedo, are not just doing their doggie thing, they make a contribution to fighting crime.

Crider’s been doing this for a while (this is the 24th book in the series; the first one—Too Late to Die—was published in 1986, and, as in any long-running series, there are commonalities among the tales.  But that doesn’t mean it’s all become formulaic.  The plot here is quite intricate, and the events, from Marley’s emergence from seclusion to the opera house rehab and play to the ultimate solution raise interesting questions about motive, about community, and about justice.  Crider is at the top of his form here, in one of the best books in a fine series.