Sunday, October 13, 2019

James R. Benn, The Devouring


James R. Benn, The Devouring
Copyright © 2017 James R. Benn
Soho Press, Inc.
ISBN: 978-1616959524
Also available as an ebook



The Devouring is the 12th entry in the excellent series of World War II mysteries/thrillers by James R. Benn, and it is a fine addition to the series.  Following their previous assignment (in The Blue Madonna), Boyle and Kaz, his friend, and companion throughout these books (the Baron Pytor Kazimeirski, the sole surviving member of a wealthy Polish family), have to enter Switzerland (somewhat illegally) to assist Allen Dulles in an effort to prevent funds lodged in Swiss banks from being used to support Germany (and to prevent those funds from being used by high-ranking Nazis from escaping with their wealth after the war).


On their way out of France, they encounter Lasho, a Sinti (more or less a Gipsy clan), who has found killing as many Germans as possible to be his only reasons for continuing to live.  They persuade him to escape with them to Switzerland, and he becomes integral to their mission.
  

As usual, Benn nails the details of the situation in Switzerland at that point in the war (mid-1944; his Afterword provides a good guide).)  Among other things, his depiction of a Swiss detention facility is shocking, and accurate.  And the general “neutral,” but effectively pro-German attitude of much of the Swiss government and population adds depth.  Also as usual, he incorporated real people (used, of course, fictionally—Allen Dulles, and Moe Berg, to name two) into the narrative, and has other characters based on others involved during this time.


While there is a murder investigation into which Billy and Kaz are drawn, the book focuses on one particular effort to obtain a huge amount of money (Swiss francs) and gold.  And there were huge deposits of both in Swiss banks, in numbered (and secret) accounts.  [This aspect of the story reminded me that in Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin (1964), the action revolves around an effort to recover the funds, still held in a Swiss bank nearly 20 years after the war’s end, that belonged to a Jewish family.]  Both in fiction and in fact, the issue of those deposits was a very contentious issue for decades.


Benn handles his material wonderfully well, and he has not only created memorable continuing characters, he also populates his stories with rogues and angels and rogue angels as well as anyone whose works I’m familiar with.  Here, he keeps the tension high and the action brisk.  And he raises the possibility, near the end, just the possibility, of an outcome that will change the life of one of his characters.


Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Wages of Blackmail (re-posting)

The Wages of Blackmail

Donald A. Coffin

How much would a painting by Vincent van Gogh have sold for in the early 1950s?  (This question arises because, in “The Last Witness,” a novella originally in The American Magazine (May, 1955) and reprinted in Three Witnesses (Viking Books, 1955), one of the switchboard operators (Alice Hart) at Bagby Answers, Inc. owns a painting by van Gogh.  Here is the passage in which the Van Gogh is introduced and described and discussed (pp. 18-20 of the Bantam edition of 1994)

Her room was a surprise.  First, it was big, much bigger than the one in front with the switchboard.  Second, I am not Bernard Berenson, but I have noticed things here and there, and the framed splash of red and yellow and blue above the mantel was not only a real van Gogh, it was bigger and better than the one Lily Rowan had.  I saw Wolfe spotting it as he lowered himself onto a chair actually big enough for him, and I pulled one around to make a group facing the couch Miss Hart dropped onto[1]

As she sat, she spoke.  “What’s the flaw?”

He shook his head.  “I’m the inquisitor, Miss Hart, not you.”  He aimed a thumb at the van Gogh.  “Where did you get that picture?

She looked at it, and back at him.  “That’s none of your business.”

“It certainly isn’t.  But here’s the situation.  You have of course been questioned by the police and the District Attorney’s office, but they were restrained by their assumption that Leonard Ashe was the culprit.  Since I reject that assumption and must find another in its stead, there can be no limit to my impertinence with you and others who may be involved.  Take you and that picture.  If you refuse to say where you got it, or if your answer doesn’t satisfy me, I’ll put a man on it, a competent man, and he’ll find out.  You can’t escape being badgered, madam; the question is whether you suffer it here and now, by me, of face a prolonged inquiry among your friends and associates by meddlesome men.  If you prefer the latter, don’t waste time with me; I’ll go and tackle one of the others.”

She was tossing up again.  From her look at him it seemed just as well that he had his bodyguard along.  She tried stalling:  “What does it matter where I got that picture?”

“Probably it doesn’t.  Probably nothing about you matters.  But the picture is a treasure and this is an odd address for it.  Do you own it?”

“Yes.  I bought it.”

“When?”

“About a year age.  From a dealer.”

“Are the contents of this room yours?”

“Yes.  I like things—well, this is my extravagance, my only one.”

“How long have you been with this firm?”

“Five years.”

“What is your salary?”

She was on a tight rein.  “Eighty dollars a week.”

“Not enough for your extravagance.  An inheritance?  Alimony?  Other income?”

“I have never married.  I had some savings, and I wanted—I wanted these things.  If you save for fifteen years, you have a right to something.”

(Subsequently (p. 68) we learn that Helen Weltz had received about $15,000[2] in excess of her salary during her three years of employment.)

My best estimate of the price at which such a painting might have been purchased is derived from the sale price of the painting “Irises,” which sold at auction in 1987 for $53.9 million. 
O. Chanel, in “Prices and Returns on Paintings:  An Exercise on How to Price the Priceless” (Geneva Papers on Risk and Insurance Theory, V. 19, No. 7, 1994, p. 8), describes this as a “real return” to the previous owner of 12.5% (who had acquired the painting in 1948).  Between 1948 and 1987, the CPI in the US rose by a factor of about 4.7.  Applying that, and a real return of 12.5%, we can calculate the “Irises” must have been purchased for about $120,000 in 1948 (this ignores any insurance or other costs of ownership).  Now, “Irises” is, and has long been, regarded as one of the major masterpieces, so we should expect the painting in question in “The Last Witness” to have been less valuable than that.  Nonetheless, a purchase price in the early 1950s between $60,000 and $80,000 seems plausible.  Assume a large and good van Gogh painting (after all, it’s larger and better than Lily Rowan’s) might have been available for even half my estimate, and Wolfe’s conclusions that is a “treasure” in an “odd place” is accurate. 

All of which means that the blackmail racket being run by Clyde Bagby and Guy Unger  must have been quite lucrative.  In addition to the $5,000+ per year being paid to their employees [that’s $20,000[3] per year for the Rhinelander office, and more for the other three (older and presumably larger) offices in the Gramercy, Plaza, and Trafalgar exchanges (p. 2)], Bagby and Unger were presumably retaining an even larger share for themselves.  [The Rhinelander office had four boards with room for 60 lines each ((p. 3).]  At a guess, the operation had to have been pulling in something on the order of at least, and probably more than, $200,000 to $300,000[4] per year.  While all of this seems possible, if not necessarily plausible; this amounts to a very extensive blackmail operation, and one of which no law enforcement agency had, apparently, received any indication.  Maybe blackmail is a plausible career…until Nero Wolfe gets involved.



[1] This must be a big room, big enough to contain a bed, a couch, at least two chairs, presumably a chest of drawers or two, and a fireplace.
[2] That would be about $150,000 in today’s prices.  In general, adjusting from 1955’s values to today’s values is easy—just multiply by 10, or just add a zero at the end of the 1955 value.
[3] $200,000 today.
[4] $2 million to $3 million today.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Quote, unquote

Ran across this, that I posted on April 28, 2011, and thought enough of it to drag it up tp the top:
-------------------------------------------------------
"What d'you remember most about the sixties?"

Haynes didn't reply for several seconds. "The music," he said. "And, in retrospect, the innocence."
--------------------------------

As memories, and sentiments, go, that's just about perfect.

(Ross Thomas, Twilight At Mac's Place, 1990, p. 53)

Sunday, September 29, 2019

James R. Benn, Blue Madonna


James R. Benn, Blue Madonna
© 2016 by James R. Benn
Soho Press
eISBN 978-1-61605-643-1



The invasion of France is imminent, but Billy Boyle’s assignment has nothing to do, directly, with it.  He’s been charged with infiltrating a gang of blackmarketeers, for the purpose undermining them, so that truly vital supplies (like penicillin) are not diverted.  To do this , he has to help a member of another black market gang free one of his guys who’s being held captive.  Then, he has to get himself, and Baron Pytor Kazimers (a Polish ex-pat working with British intelligence)—and a trained radio operator to a Resistance group in occupied France, where a group of American soldiers are being hidden after their plane was shot down.  


Once they get to France, things get complicated.  Billy, Kaz, and the radio operator are hidden in a crumbling home of a minor French nobleman, along with the crew.  There are two murders, the Germans are getting too close to comfort (although the Abwehr officer in the area is not particularly inclined to apply too much pressure on the Count—who has something (or things; the Blue Madonna figures into this) he wants, and, unsurprisingly, he has something the Count wants.  Billy has to try to discover who the murderer is—or who the murderers are—without compromising the rest of the mission.  And, in fact, the investigation recedes in importance as the need to complete the other part of their mission looms larger. 


And there’s someone involved who is personally very important to Billy.


In the end, Blue Madonna is more of an action/adventure story than a mystery.  As usual, Benn serves up a strongly-plotted tale filled with people we care about.  And he makes the war a palpable, personal thing for the people involved.  And I learned more about the war (as I usually do from his books), because it’s told as a personal story, because it’s not the war from 30,000 feet up.  We see real people struggling to get things right, to have to make life-and-death decisions, decisions they almost have to know they won’t always get right.  And Benn makes even a small part of a great war of great significance to us.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Paying Fritz Brenner: Was Nero Wolfe Paying for What He Got?


Life—and Pay—as Fritz Brenner


While the focus of the books is inevitably on the case and the investigation, and, of course, on the relationship between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin), life in the old brownstone on West 35th St. centers on The Meals.  And in giving consideration to them, we need to give consideration to the life—and especially to the working schedule—and compensation—of Fritz Brenner.  In particular, I asked myself, was Fritz compensated as well as it appears he should have been—what would a chef as good and as experienced as Fritz reasonably have expected to earn?


Let’s try to answer that question.  (Briefly, anticipating the answer, Fritz was doing all right.)

What can we say with certainty?  That Wolfe and Fritz have known each other from long before Archie began working for Wolfe.  That Fritz is (according to Wolfe, in Too Many Cooks), competent, if not inspired.  That, at the time of In the Best Families (published in 1950), Fritz was making $1,000 per month.  That Fritz does the shopping for the household.  That Fritz is strongly opposed to having a woman in the place.  And probably more.  But we can also infer what his working schedule must look like.


Wolfe breakfasts at 8:00 (or 8:15); lunch is at 1:00 (or 1:15), and dinner is at 7:15 (or 7:30).  Archie eats breakfast at somewhat irregular times, but usually around 8, and usually lunches with Wolfe.  We don’t know when, where, or if Theodore eats.


If Fritz is going to prepare the food for that schedule, here’s what it seems to me that his day must look like:

7:00 – 9:30:  In the kitchen to prepare breakfast for Wolfe and for Archie.  At about 9 (after Wolfe heads for the plant rooms), he retrieves the tray from Wolfe’s room and finishes any after-breakfast clean-up.  (At some time in this interval, he fixes and eats his own breakfast, and fixes breakfast for Archie.)

11:30 – 2:30:  In the kitchen to prepare lunch.  When Wolfe and Archie finish their meal (by about 2:00), he clears the remaining dishes from the dining room and finishes cleaning up.  (At some time in this interval, he eats his own lunch.)

5:30 – 9:00:  In the kitchen to prepare dinner.  He finishes clearing in the dining room after Wolfe and Archie are done, and finishes up in the kitchen by 9:00.  (Again, he finds time to heat his own meal.)

That’s nine hours per day to prepare and clean up after the three meals served.  We’re not told when he shops, but my guess is that he spends two hours on Monday morning shopping, probably at multiple stores (in the European fashion).  So, for Monday through Friday, we have a 47-hour work week.  We also know that Fritz has Sundays off (or mostly off; sometimes it appears that he prepares breakfast, as is  hinted at by Archie’s reference to his “Sunday morning crescents”).  We don’t know about Saturday, but my suspicion is that he prepares breakfast, and leaves things ready for lunch and dinner, but also has most of Saturday off.


If all this is correct, then Fritz has a roughly 50-hour work week.  How would this compare with the work week of an executive chef in a restaurant, on the assumption that the restaurant does lunch and dinner (as, for example, it seems Rusterman’s does).  Suppose the restaurant opens at 11, serves lunch from noon until 2 and dinner from 5:30 until 10, Monday through Saturday (or, perhaps, Tuesday through Sunday—a fair number of restaurants in Chicago seem to be closed on Monday).  The executive chef may not do all that much line cooking, but must determine the menu (especially weekly specials), order  the food and supplies and attend to its delivery, schedule the rest of the staff, supervise the kitchen, and so on.  This looks like a 12-hour day, 6 days a week, or 72 hours a week.[1]  So, in that respect, Fritz’s work week was perhaps somewhat shorter than that of an executive chef in a first-class restaurant.


But Fritz’s working day was longer, from 7 AM until 9 PM (with occasional later duties if Wolfe had clients and others in after dinner)—14 hours a day in which he would have, at best, 2 hours off between breakfast and lunch and 3 off between lunch and dinner.  Having worked, long ago, the occasional split shift, I would argue that those 5 hours would not provide much time for personal activities.


And for this, let’s assume that the $1,000 per month figure noted above represented his compensation (adjusted, of course, for changes in the general level of prices).  In current terms, this translates to about $10,000 per month, or $120,000 per year.  But we need to take account of the fact that his compensation included two major pieces of in-kind pay:  Housing and food.  So we need to take account of the value he received from that. 


For most of the time, Fritz had a large room in the basement (let’s call it the equivalent of a studio apartment, or a small one-bedroom apartment; it’s clearly more space than, for example, Archie had[2]).  Based on some speculation about the floor plans of the brownstone[3], I would put Fritz’s space at about 500 square feet, perhaps 25% to 30% larger than Archie’s.  What I’m finding[4] is current rents of about $2,500 per month for that sort of space in midtown Manhattan.  So the value of his living space would be about $30,000 per year (that would be taxable income today, and was, according to the tax code, taxable income then—but it was basically ignored).


And then there’s the food.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics[5] estimates that average household expenditures on food (both at home and away) in 2014 was about $6,700.  Now, that’s for the entire household.  However, the quality of food served in the brownstone would clearly be higher than that of the average household in the U.S., so I’m going to count the entire amount in estimating the value of meals-at-home for Fritz--$6,700.  (Again, this would be now, and was then, taxable income, but it was generally ignored until sometime in the 1990s.)

So my estimate of the value of Fritz’s annual compensation, including the value of housing and food, would be about $156,000, or about $13,000 per month.  Or, based on my estimate of a 50-hour work-week, and assuming that Fritz got 4 weeks of paid vacation, $65 per hour.  Was Fritz well-paid, or was he underpaid?  

Well, we know that at the time of Too Many Cooks, Philip Lazio was making $60,000 per year, and Jerome Berin was offered as much as $40,000 per year to replace him.  In today’s terms, that would be about $1 million per year for Lazio and about $675,000 for Berin.  That seems fairly reasonable for world-class chefs; one estimate[6] suggests that Mario Batali makes about $3 million a year, and Bobby Flay makes $1.5 million (for both of them, that includes their earnings from television).  (At least Lazio and Berin were being paid close to what one would expect.)

But cooking for 2 people (or 3, counting himself, or 4 if Theodore eats in the kitchen with Fritz) is not as demanding as running a large restaurant.  So a comparison with private chefs is perhaps more relevant.  A quick check[7] suggests that the average annual pay for a private chef in the top 10% of private chefs in the U.S. is about $120,000.  So, as I am rather pleased to discover, it appears that Fritz is being paid what he deserves—as much as the best and most experienced private chefs in America.


[1] We knew fairly well a couple who ran a restaurant in Chicago for about 15 years.  They did not do lunches, but their work day was generally from about 2 PM until about 11 PM.  She ran the kitchen and he ran the front of the house; she ordered the food and planned the menu and specials; he ordered all the beverages.  She supervised the kitchen staff; he supervised the table servers, bartenders, and other front-of-the house personnel.  The kitchen staff was usually 3-4 line chefs; the front was staffed, on weekends, with 5 wait staff, 5 bus, 2 bartenders, and 1 hostess.  They were closed on Sundays.  So their typical work week was 54 hours a week, and that was without lunch service.

[2] I will note, though, that the bedrooms were quite generously sized.  There were 2 bedrooms on each of the second and third floors, each with its own bathroom.  Those appear to have been front-and-back, with a hallway running also front-to-back.  The first floor had 4 rooms—the front room, the office, the dining room, and the kitchen; of these, only the front room was described as small.  The office could accommodate a crown of 15 or so in a pinch, and we know—from Murder By the Book—that the dining room could seat more than a dozen.  And Fritz had, obviously, a fair amount of space to work in.  

[3] See http://www.nerowolfe.org/htm/tidbits/Brownstone_Floor_Plans.htm.

[4] http://www.nakedapartments.com/nyc/studio-apartments-manhattan

[5] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cesan.nr0.htm

[6] http://www.seriouseats.com/2008/08/top-10-celebrity-chef-earners-salary.html

[7] http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Private_Chef/Salary

Friday, September 6, 2019

Terrence Faherty, Play a Cold Hand

Terrence Faherty, Play a Cold Hand
Perfect Crime Books 2017

Copyright © 2017 Terrence Faherty
ISBN978-1-7324-1-8400
Scott Elliott, the protagonist of Terrence Faherty’s fine series of PI novels set in post-World-War-II LA, returns after six years (Dance in the Dark).  It’s now 1974, nearly 30 years since Elliott went to work for Paddy Maguire’s Hollywood Security, and Maguire has been murdered, his body found in an alley.  Maguire had retired, had, in fact, sold Hollywood Security to a larger firm (for which Elliott has gone to work).  Walter Grove, an LAPD Captain, warns Elliott to butt out.  Which, of course, he promptly proceeds not to do.
But Elliott does have his job to consider, and a hot young director (Amos Decker) has asked specifically for him.  Not, as it turns out, for any security reasons, but to pick his brains about a con run on gangster-turned-movie-producer Ted (Moose) Marriutti in the early 1950s.  The con, a variation called the Kansas City Shuffle, was orchestrated by Maguire, and Elliott was a major player.  Marriutti is dead, as are most of the principals.  But Elliot remembers most of it, and Decker wants to use the con as the basis for a movie he’s scheduled to direct (a riff, of course, on The Sting, which was released in 1973). 
Elliott rapidly discovers that what happed in the early 1950s is not dead and buried.  Among others, estranged his wife, Ella, was involved with the events that led Maguire to run the con on Marriutti, but is involved with the echoes of it that led to Maguire’s death, and Elliott’s attempt to discover his killer.  (If there’s anything surprising about this, it’s that so many of the people involved in the 1950s part of the tale are still alive and active in 1974.) 
Elliott is our narrator for this excursion into the past and its present ramifications, and his narrative voice is fine—a bit wistful for the past, a bit lost because of his estrangement from Ella, a bit compelled to discover who killed his mentor, friend, and father-figure Maguire.  Faherty does Hollywood in the ‘40s and ‘70s extraordinarily well, and Elliott’s investigation plays fair with the reader.  The conclusion is well-handled, too.  All in all, this is a very good story, blending the past and the present, populated with well-drawn, compelling characters.  While a part of a series, it can easily be read as a stand-alone.  Although I would encourage you to seek out the earlier books as well (Kill Me Again, 1994; Come Bask Dead, 1977; Raise the Devil, 2000; In a Teapot (novella), 2005; and Dance in the Dark, 2011; as well as a volume of shorts, The Hollywood Op, 2011). 
As an aside, one of the things I have enjoyed about the Scott Elliott is his fixation with cars.  And, in Play a Cold Hand, I got to look at images of 4 classic cars, three from the in “backstory” parts of the book (1951) and one in the “present day” (1974).  So here’s a chance for you, too to see Scott’s cars.

1974 Lincoln Continental Mark IV


1951 Hudson Hornet Coupe


1951 Chrysler Saratoga


1951 Pontiac Chieftain