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.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The ressurection of copycat photoblogging

At Crooked Timber, has a lovely perspective on a set of steps.  This is my take of a set of steps, in Sorano, Italy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A side effect is that I have nothing to post here

One of the reasons all the crap that I keep seeing and hearing online pisses me off is that it has made me too upset to read any of the mysteries, histories, and other books that are on the table next to my chair in the TBR mountain.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzni, The Bughouse Affair

Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzni, The Bughouse Affair:  A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery
A Forge Book/Tom Dohrety Associates LLC © 2012
eISBN: 9781429997218

The first of 5 (so far) C&Q mysteries does an excellent job of taking us back to San Francisco in the 1890s (if there’s one problem, it’s what seems to me to be that Sabina Carpenter is too easily accepted by clients as an equal in the business).  John Quincannon is a former Secret Service agent and Sabina Carpenter is a former Pinkerton; both have suffered tragic losses.  Qunincannon asked Carpenter to join him in a private detective business in SF, and she agrees if and only if it was an equal partnership, to which he agreed.

They begin with separate cases—Carpenter is trying to identify and stop a pickpocket working an amusement park and Qunicanon has been hired to investigate a series of thefts from homes (of relatively well-to-do SF residents), all insured by the Great Western Insurance Company.  What appears as a sidelight is the appearance of a man in Ambrose Bierce’s column in the SF Examiner who claims to be Sherlock Holmes.

They begin their separate investigations, and, while Carpenter makes some progress, Quincannon does not.  His meeting with the insurance people lead him to believe that the thief has probably obtained information from someone at the insurance company (which, of course, has lists of the valuable insured), and he picks one of their other policy-holders as the next likely tasget.  And, although the thief does try to burgle the home he has staked out, Quincannon’s pursuit of him is interrupted by…”Sherlock Holmes,” who stops him as he is running through the yard of a home in which Quincannon is running.

The twin investigations proceed relatively smoothly, except that “Holmes” intrudes himself even more into the events.  And in a huge surprise the investigations begin to merge.  On the second stakeout (Quincannon and “Holmes”), the householder is murdered, in a locked room, so we have that to deal with.

In a scene worthy of a Golden Age author, everyone meets in the insurance company offices and Holmes offers up his solution (to a point), then Quincannon takes over (to a point) and Carpenter finishes off the tale.  It is all nicely done, and the succeeding books seem likely to be agreeable as well.

I’ll admit that I did find the “Holmes” something of an intrusion (which may be a failing on my part), and there is one plot point—from whom did the burglar get his information—that is just dropped.  But we have two pros here, and they do a professional, if not sensational, job.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sunday, January 15, 2017

10 Albums that influenced me as a teenager

Chris Coffin (my nephew) posted this challenge on FB, and I responded there.  Thought I'd post it here as well.  No explanations, and the order is not necessarily order of importance:

1) Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin'
2) Dave Brubeck Quartet, Reunion...

3) Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
4) Janis Ian, Janis Ian
5) Blues Project, Live At Town Hall
6) Beatles, Rubber Soul
7) Who, My Generation
8) John Coltrane, Impressions
9) Kingston Trio, Live At the Hungry i
10) Judy Collins, Wildflowers