Friday, March 10, 2017

A photo of a spy gun

"Antique Pistol Spy Gun Produced in 1800, this antique French pistol spy gun. This intricate, yet impractical 5-shot working revolver was once one of the smallest killing devices ever created."
From these folks, but I can't actually find it on the FB page...

No automatic alt text available.

Robert Goldsborough, Murder, Stage Left

Robert Goldsborough, Murder, Stage Left
The Mysterious Press/Open Road © 2017
eISBN 978-1-5040-4110-2

This is Goldsborough’s 12th excursion into the world of Nero Wolfe; like most of the others, it is a valiant effort, but it fails on at least four counts.

To set the stage…Nero Wolfe is hired by a major producer and director of Broadway plays, Roy Breckenridge, who fears that there is some hidden issue—some simmering problem among the cast—of his most recent hit play (Death At Cresthaven).  Wolfe accepts the job (although it is unclear to me why), and his assistant, Archie Goodwin goes undercover, masquerading as a writer for a Toronto-based theater magazine.  He has brief (and not particularly useful) interviews with all the cast members (it is, fortunately, a small cast) and the stage manager.  (There are apparently no costume or make-up people associated with the play, and any backstage crew or front-of-the-house people are excluded, although why they would be excluded is, again unclear.  These interviews occur before a matinee performance and continue in the interval before the evening performance.  And, during the evening performance, Breckenridge is murdered—arsenic in his Coca Cola.

The bulk of the book is spent on individual interviews with the case and the stage manager, during which one of them says something—or, as Wolfe points out at the end doesn’t say something--that reveals to him whodunit.  (During these interviews, Archie is not actually present—his role as a journalist is being concealed from the cast, and Saul Panzer fills in for him.  Also present is Lewis Hewitt, upper-class orchid fancier, whose intervention induced Wolfe to take the case to begin with.)

So what are the failures?  First, as has generally been the case, Goldsborough does not manage to capture wither the voices of the major characters.  When a new author is carrying on a lengthy series, one which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with, this is an issue.  The primary failure is with Archie.  He is at too flippant for one thing, not only with Wolfe but also with the other series characters, and his role as burr under the saddle to Wolfe’s inherent laziness does not really show up. 

Second, the initial justification for an investigation disappears with Breckenridge’s death.  Granted that the murder probably reduces the importance of that, but I, as a reader, was expecting the solution would somehow circle back to Breckenridge’s concerns.  In Archie’s interviews with the cast and crew, no hint of anything really emerges, and I, at any rate, was left with the feeling that Goldsborough just forgot about it.

Third, in his interviews with the people involved in the play, there is never any sense that Wolfe has made any progress.  If anything, at the end of those interviews, we seem to be further from a solution than closer.  The interviews themselves are not well handled; Wolfe does not ask any particularly penetrating questions, and, in fact, leaves any number of issued unexplored.  (I will note that Goldsborough has fallen into a habit of having Wolfe interview those involved individually, whereas one of the strengths of the original books, by Rex Stout, was Stout’s exceptional construction of scenes involving a large number of participants.

But, finally, the solution seems implausible, and almost forced.  As noted, it depends on what one of the people associated with the play does not say, and the inference that Wolfe draws from that seems altogether forced.  Fortunately, that person immediately confesses (which I thought was out of character, as well). 

For me, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books are among the most satisfying in American PI fiction, largely because of Archie Goodwin’s narrative voice.  I could forgive that, to some extent, if Goldsborough managed his plots better.  (And, I’ll confess, I’ll almost certainly go on reading them, but without much in the way of expectations.)

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Spook Lights Affair

Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, The Spook Lights Affair
Tom Doherty Associates LLC/A Forge Book © 2013
eISBN 978-1-4299-0722-5

(NOTE:  Do not read the concluding paragraph if you don’t want to encounter a minor spoiler.)

Sabina Carpenter has been hired to keep an eye on San Francisco socialite Virginia St. Ives, for the purpose of keeping her from seeing Lucas Whiffing, the son of a middle-class family (and a clerk in a bicycle and sporting goods establishment).  While she is in attendance at a major bash at the home of SF mayor Adolph Sutro, Virginia confronts Carpenter, rushes out of the house into a foggy night, and apparently throws herself off a patio overlooking a 250-foot drop.  Her body, when a search is made, is nowhere to be found.  And she left what clearly read as a suicide note.

Meanwhile, Carpenter’s partner John Quincannon has undertaken to recover $35,000 that has been stolen from Wells Fargo—the reward is 10% of whatever money is recovered.  And $3,500 is, even in SF, at least 2 years’ income in the mid-1890s.  He is following Bob Cantwell, who, he has learned, knows something about the theft.  After an unsatisfactory confrontation, Cantwell escapes; Quincannon follows him, only to discover him dead in an abandoned photographer’s studio.  All he has learned is that a man named Zeke and someone nicknamed The Kid are involved.

Both cases take unexpected turns, with Quincannon and Carpenter discovering some things at the scene of St, Ives’ disappearance that might help explain why her body was not found.  And Quincannon discovers that her brother David, Cantwell, and Whitting were all habitues of the same gambling establishment.  And a new client enters the picture…a financial advisor (Barnaby Meeker) who lives in the same rather disreputable area as does Whitting’s family wants to hire Carpenter and Quincannon to investigate ghostly apparitions that seem to be infesting the area around his (and Whitting’s) home.

Muller and Pronzini are pros, and they have created two likable and interesting characters.  The have also created a authentic-seeming backdrop to the action, and the supporting cast is also well drawn.  (This the second in a series; the first, The Bughouse Affair was also a smooth read.)  Carpenter and Quincannon pursue their investigations as (it seems to me) true professionals would, and, by the end of the book, the resolution is well done as well.  There is one aspect of the resolution, however, that has now been a feature of both of the books I have read so far that I  hope will not be a part of every book.  In both The Bughouse Affair and in this book, what begin as separate cases turn out to be one—in this case, Virginia St. Ives’ disappearance and apparent suicide is directly linked to—caused by the same forces—the Wells Fargo robbery.  It makes for a neat resolution, but a little of this sort of thing goes a long way.  But that’s a quibble, and it may not bother anyone but me.  This is a nicely constructed story, well told by two professionals, and ,more than worth your time.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Mark Pryor, The Bookseller

Mark Pryor, The Bookseller
Seventh Street Books; © 2012
ISBN: 978-1616147082

This is the first of Pryor’s books featuring Hugo Marston.  Marston, formerly a “profiler” for the FBI, has been working for some years as chief of security, first at the U.S. Embassy in London (recounted in The Button Man, a “prequel” to The Bookseller) and, in this episode, in Paris.  Marston, who has an interest in antiquarian books, buys two books for his ex-wife (a first edition of Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds and what turns out to be an inscribed—to Paul Verlaine—first edition of Arthur Rinbaud’a Une Saison En Enfer) from his friend Max, a bouquiniste, a bookseller with a stall alongside the Seine.  While there, he sees another bookseller being harassed, and, when he returns (having found an ATM) with the cash to pay for the books, a stranger named Nica arrives—and he is clearly no friend of Max.  After Nica and Max walk down to the Seine, Marston becomes concerned, goes after then, and Nica draws an icepick and holds it threateningly over Max’s eyes.  Following a brief struggle. Marston is on the ground and Nica has shoved Max into the Seine, where they are picked up by a cruising riverboat.

Marston calls the police, who, when they arrive, are not too impressed with his account.

From this beginning, Marston is pulled into his own investigation of what’s going on, including discoveries about the SPB, the organization that actually owns and leases out the stalls; Claudia, a young, beautiful crime reporter; his old FBI (now semi-retired from the CIS) buddy Tom, Claudia’s husband, a French count, and a copy of Clausewitz’s On War.

The suspense is well-maintained throughout; even after we know essentially what is happening to the bouquiniste, and why, and who is  behind it.  For a first novel, this is more than impressive, it’s a tour de force.  Marston is a well-developed character (and I am hoping Tom and Claudia will be continuing characters), and the setting and situation are better than well done.  I read The Button Man first and enjoyed it.  This is a considerably better story, and it bodes well for the series as a while.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Another Episode of CopyCat PhotoBlogging

This is in the town of Santenay, in France, taken in 2000.


Monday, February 20, 2017

Mark Pryor, The Button Man

Mark Pryor, The Button Man
Seventh Street Books © 2014
ISBN 978-1-61614-944-9

Hugo Marston, former FBI agent who specialized in serial killers, has become the chief of security at the US embassy in London.  He gets what is probably an unusual assignment.  Two American film stars (husband and wife), Dayton Harper and Ginny Ferro, have been arrested following the hit-and-run death of a prominent farmer’s son.  They are about to be released from custody, on bail and into the keeping of the American embassy.  The ambassador wants Marston to pick them up and keep them safely out of trouble in his quarters in the embassy compound.

Marston was late to his meeting with the ambassador, because he detoured to look at a 100+ year-old murder scene and, while cutting through an old cemetery, had discovered a body, its head covered by a silk sack, hanging from a tree.  But he reluctantly accepts this new assignment, and goes to pick Harper up.  It turns out that through a clerical error , Ferro was released some hours earlier, and no one knows where she is.  Marston gets Harper back to the embassy compound, where they learn (coincidence? Suicide? Murder, and if so, why?) that the body that Ferro found was that of Ferro.  Harper, understandably, freaks out.
And then (having telephoned earlier) a Member of Parliament shows up—Graham Stopford-Pendrith, who has essentially renounced a title to serve in the Commons.  He was with MI5, and his legislative hobbyhorse is to release aging cons as a money-saving gimmick for the Treasury.  They all chat and then, as a gesture aimed at placating Harper, they pile into the embassy’s Escalade for a drive around London.  Harper escapes and disappears.  And Marston has to find him.

So it becomes a chase.  Marston winds up with the assistance of Merlyvn, a young woman who has jobs at both the hotels at which Harper and Ferro had rooms.  They are followed by a 60-ish free-lance journalist, Harry Walton, who wants the story about Harper and his wife.  It remains a chase basically to the end.  Along the way, more people die or almost die, and Marston becomes convinced that the killer is not Harper, but someone else, acting on what is, through most of the book, an obscure motive.

The Button Man is actually the 4th Marston book (of now 6 in the series), but it is set briefly before the events in the first in the series (The Bookseller, 2012), so I decided to start with it.  Pryor does a very good job with the setting (although I think he overemphasizes the extent of the rain in England, if my tourist experience is worth anything).  I had fairly high expectations for the book, based on reviews I have read of the rest of the series, and, which it was good, it was not as good as I had hoped.  Marston felt sort of incomplete as a character (and I’m not quite sure what I mean by that) and the reliance on a serial killer with a distinctive motivation (I’ll give hm credit for that) was a drawback—I’m not a big fan of serial killer books.  Still, I look forward to reading The Bookseller, and, I hope, the rest of the series.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Marcia Muller, The Cavalier In White

Marcia Muller, The Cavalier In White
St. Martin’s Press © 1986
Available as an ebook from
Speaking Volumes  2011

I generally like mysteries set in and around the art world quite a lot.  I am a big fan of Aaron Elkins’ Chris Nordgren books [A Deceptive Clarity (1987); A Glancing Light (1991), and Old Scored (1993)] and have always wished there were more of them.  I also am very fond of the Alix London books, co-written by Charlotte Elkins and Aaron Elkins [A Dangerous Talent (2013); A Cruise to Die For (2013); The Art Whisperer (2014); and The Trouble With Mirrors (2016)).  My favorites, though, are the 7 books by Iain Pears, featuring Jonathan Argyll (an American art scholar) and Flavia di Stefano and General Bottando, of the Art Theft Squad in Rome [The Raphael Affair (1991); The Titian Committee (1992); The Bernini Bust  (1993); The Last Judgment (1994); Giotto’s Hand (1995); Death and Restoration (1996); and The Immaculate Deception (2000)}.

So when I discovered that Marcia Muller had written a three-book series, set in and around San Francisco [The Cavalier In White (1866); There Hangs the Knife (1988); and Dark Star (1989)], well, I had to acquire them I’ve just finished the first book in the series, and thought that it was a decent, but not great, book.  The set-up is good.  Joanna Stark, who walked away from a museum security firm three years earlier when her husband dies, is at loose ends in Sonoma, when her former partner (Nick Alexander) shows up, to persuade her to come back to assist in the recovery of a painting by Frans Hals (The Cavalier In White, an invented painting; if you want to get some idea what Hals’ work is like, here’s where to look).  She is reluctant, but agrees.  Working with Nick is Steve Rafferty, representing the insurance company, which would rather not have to shell out for the missing painting.  Rafferty & Stark very quickly seem have a mutual attraction.

She quickly, but with little reason, comes to think that the theft might have been engineered by an old nemesis of hers, Antony Parducci (formerly an art thief, more recently an arranger of art thefts).  And someone, it turns out, has been asking art dealers in SF if they know of an art dealer with an adopted son n his 20s.  There is one, who has loaned furniture to the museum, some of which is in the same room n which the Hals had been hung. 

The SF setting is well done, and, as the museum involved (the De Young) is a real museum, that part of the setting is really interesting (especially if you have been there).  The investigation does not lead anywhere very quickly (except to an obviously missing security guard), and (for my taste) Stark’s personal issues take up a little too much of the book.  Although they mostly turn out to be relevant.  Again, to my taste, the ending is a bit pat, both in terms of whose actions initiated the theft and in how the mystery is resolved.  The ending does clearly set us up for a sequel (or more).  I was not bowled over, but I’m more than willing to see where Muller takes us next.