Monday, August 12, 2019

Mark Pryor, The Book Artist

Mark Pryor, The Book Artist
© 2019 Mary Pryor
Seventh Street Books
ISBN 978-1-6388-488-5

The main character in this series is Hugo Marston, the head of security at the US Embassy in Paris, although most of what transpires in the books (of which this is the 8th) is not related to his official position.  I

n this entry, the Ambassador has asked (i.e., ordered) him to attend the opening of a sculpture exhibit at the Dali Gallery in Montmartre, as a sort of chaperone for the artist, Alia Alsafar.  He’s reluctant, but his reluctance diminishes when he learns that her sculpture is made from books—Marston is a book freak; the fact that the ambassador refers to her as strikingly beautiful doesn’t hurt. 

And the woman who has been his companion for a while now, Claudia (whose last name I can’t find) is training for a marathon, and her run takes her past the Dali that evening—and she collapses and is taken to a hospital in an ambulance..  At about the same time, someone kills Alsafar.  The police inspector in charge of the investigation soon arrests Claudia—her DNA has been found on Alsafar’s body, and Claudia claims never to have met her.  Hugo, or course, butts into the investigation.

Meanwhile, a murder (Rick Hofer), who has recently been released from prison, is out to get Hugo and his good friend (and CIA spook) Tom Green.  Tom is in Amsterdam, on Hofer’s trail, and Hugo is, of course, torn between his desire to clear Claudia and Tom’s likely confrontation with Hofer.

I suppose it’s not really a spoiler to say that Hugo clears Claudia and helps Tom take care of the Hofer issue.

I’ve been a fan of this series since I read the first one (The Bookseller, 2012, but I’m less enthusiastic about this one.  Having Marston deal with the threat to Claudia’s freedom and the risk that Tom is taking in going after Hofer was probably necessary to get the book out to book-length, but it seemed to me to fragment things a bit too much.  And, in both threads, the climaxes were not particularly satisfying.  The interrogation—handled by Hugo, with the cop mostly just sitting in—seemed perfunctory and the murderer’s confession seemed mostly a matter of needing to wrap things up.  And the final confrontation with Hofer also felt almost perfunctory.

The Book Artist was, for me, just good enough to have warranted my time, but not good enough to keep me from putting it down after reading for a while.  I’ll continue to buy Pryor’s books, but I also hope things pick up in the next installment.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders

Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders
© 2017 Stormbreaker Productions Ltd.
Harper Perennial
ISBN 978-0-06-2623-4

This is a real tour de force, but it’s also remarkably difficult to write a review without including something that might be a spoiler.  So I’m not going to try to do any sort of plot recapitulation—you’ll have to read it for yourself.  I will say that the story has more twists and turns than a Grand Prix auto racing course.  I will also say, because it quickly becomes obvious, that one aspect of the book owes a lot to Agatha Christie.

Horowitz has created a sterling cast of characters, providing them with interesting, and relevant, back stories ((including insights into their characters and their work lives and their personal lives).  He has also created settings, from small-town England to London, that both support and deepen his narrative.  The investigations are handled nicely, and the denouement flows neatly out of what has gone before.  And, for those of you who like this sort of thing (I do), he provides us with some clever, sometimes initially hidden, wordplay.

I have read, and enjoyed, three of his other books (The House of Silk, Moriarty, and The Word Is Murder); this is a step above them.  And there are three more (The Sentence is Death, Trigger Mortis, and Forever and a Day) that I’m about to make sure I have.  I encourage you to do the same.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

James R. Benn, A Blind Goddess

James R. Benn, A Blind Goddess
© 2013 James R. Benn
Soho Press, Inc.
eISBN 978-1-61695-193-1

I seem somehow to be falling behind.  This is, in my opinion, one of the finest mystery/historical fiction series going, and I’m up only to book 8 (there are 5 more in print and another due in a month or so).  And this is one of the best entries in the series, which has become a epic, accurate depiction of some of the events that shaped World War II.

Billy Benn, whose family is related by marriage to Dwight Eisenhower, has spent his time in World War II as a special investigator for Ike.  He finds himself in the village of Newbury in the southeast of England, in March 1944.  One of the British intelligence gurus whom Billy has had much contact, Major Cosgrove, wants Billy to look into the murder of Stuart Neville, and tasks Billy with seeing to it that the murder is treated as a simple murder.  Which, of course, convinces Billy that there is something else going on, especially as the home in which Neville was living is owned by a German refugee family.  

He also has had a call for help a call for help from a friend from his teenage years, Eugene (Tree) Jackson.  Tree is a sergeant in a battalion of tank destroyers; also from Boston, Tree is black (as is the battalion, except for, of course, the officers)..  And his gunner, Abraham (nicknamed Angry) Smith in imprisoned, facing a court-martial, on a charge of murder, the victim being a local constable.  Tree, who is certain Angry is innocent, is hoping Billy can look into it.  Billy, who has 5 days’ leave, is hoping to spend them with Diane Seaton, the woman he loves.  

Diane (who is in the Special Operations Executive) plans to meet Billy.  But first she has an appointment with a high-ranking official in the Foreign Office, to try to persuade him that England, and the Allies in general, need to do something about the German extermination camps.

If that’s not a complicated enough situation, a young girl, a refugee from the Channel Islands, has disappeared from the group home/school in which she has been relocated.

The continuing characters—Billy, Diane, Kaz (a Polish noble and officer in the Polish army—which is now in exile), and Big Mike (a Detroit cop now in the army)—a group who would only have found each other in the dislocations of war, are all finely characterized.  And the characters specific to this book—the local police, a man who operates a sweets shop, the office staff of a Building Society (where Neville worked), and other—provide depth to the narrative.  And the depiction of village life during wartime seems absolutely perfect.

And Benn’s account of the treatment of black soldiers in the midst of this war is both historically accurate and a fairly damning portrayal both of the U.S. military in the 1940s and of the wider society.  One interesting side note comes from Benn’s afterword, in which he describes his research, and provided me with the first positive thing (other than his strategic and tactical strengths as a general) I have ever read about George Patton.  As it happened, the first black armored unit to see battle during the war was assigned to Patton, whose welcome to them included this:  “I don’t care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsabitches…”  And they did.

In case you were wondering, the title derives from this poem, which is also on the opening page of the book.

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we blacks are wise:
Her bandage hide two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Langston Hughes, “Justice”
from The Panther and the Lash

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Brett Halliday, Dividend on Death

Brett Halliday, Dividend on Death: A Mike Shayne Mystery
© 1939 Estate of Brett Halliday
eISBN 978-1-5040-1273-7

A recent blog post by Robert Lopresti (“Today in Mystery History”, reminded me that I had never read any of the Mike Shayne books (of which there are about 50; the first 20 or so were written by David Dresser; the others were work-for-hire by a number of authors).  My failure to have read any of the Mike Shayne books was not an aesthetic decision; I have read books by Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer; only 1, I, the Jury) and Richard Prather (Shell Scott), among others.  Not quite sure how I missed Halliday.  The Mysterious has begun to reissue the books, so I bought this one, the inaugural effort, as an ebook, to see what, if anything, I’d been missing.

The short answer is “Not much.”  In Dividend on Death, a young woman named Phyllis Brighton hires Shayne to prevent her from killing her mother.  (She seems to be a little unbalanced.)  He takes the job, and that evening arrives at the Brighton home, on Biscayne Bay in Miami.  The cast of characters includes Rufus Brighton, rich, reclusive, and very ill; his wife (Phyllis’s mother; his assistant; 2 doctors; 2 nurses; a housekeeper; and a thuggish chauffeur.  Phyllis is in bed, presumably asleep, but definitely not talking.  Shayne excuses himself to speak with her and finds her wearing a blood-stained nightgown and in possession of a bloody knife.  He cleans things up and leaves.

From there the plot gets complicated, involving a renowned art critic and a potentially valuable painting, among other things.  Shayne gets threatened by the cops, shot, and beaten.  He also gets through 2 or 3 bottles of brandy in the space of 2 days.  One of the doctors, we find out, is a whole lot off-kilter; the chauffer has a record; and the nurses have things other than nursing in mind.  Shane reveals all and walks away with about $25,000 about $350,000 at today’s price level) from 3 or 4 clients.

Actually, I’m making it sound more interesting that it is.  Either the booze or the injuries would be enough to keep Shayne from functioning well, and the plots (and sub-plots) are not particularly plausible.  I will excuse myself from reading any of the subsequent adventures.

Comments on Doughnut Economics

Well, I’m about a third of the way through Doughnut Economics, and it’s not easy going.   For me, it’s mostly because I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not actually a book about economic theory; it’s a book about economic policy.  

Here’s what I mean by that.  When I taught intro to microeconomics (I haven’t taught macro for about20 years), I try to make sure that students understand what we’re doing.  We’re trying to develop a theory of the actual behavior of people making decisions.  Since decision-making entails objectives, we need to specify, to the best of our ability what those objectives are.  In micro, those decisions are made (mostly) by individuals (or households) and businesses.  And those decisions are a restricted class of all possible decisions—which, in micro, are for households things like how do we decide on what and how much to buy; how do we decide on how to prepare ourselves for making a living; how do we use our income.  For firms, it’s mostly how do we decide what to produce and how to produce it and how to sell what we’ve produced to buyers.  And, to be sure, our decisions about these things are affected by a whole range of forces—advertising, social pressures, who our friends and neighbors are, and much more.  But economic theory spends very little time or effort on where those preferences come from (which may be a mistake on the part of economists), and economists generally do not have anything to say about what those preferences ought to be.

People make other decisions as well, and these other decisions are, I think, more relevant to the issues she is concerned about.  These are decisions, not about what and how much to buy, for example.  These are decisions that are more about what sort of a society we want to live in—they are, broadly, political.  What public policies do we support or oppose?  If we live in a society in which our governments are responsive to the policy preferences of the people (i.e., not China, not Russia), how do we express our policy preferences?  Through voting?  Through other channels?  And how are our policy preferences formed?  These questions seem to me to be more sociological or political than economic.  

Where economics (sort of) comes in is in two places.  First, once we have decided on our policy objectives, what can economics tell us about how we can achieve those objectives more efficiently?  So, for example, economists tend to suggest policy options that would be likely to achieve the optimal amount of reduction in carbon emissions at a lower, rather a higher, cost.  Second, are there any unexpected consequences of those policies that need to be considered?  Or, to put it fairly bluntly:  Economic theory cannot tell you what your economic policy objectives ought to be.  (In my opinion too many economists seem to forget that, but that’s for another day.)

So when I taught intro to micro, yes, I would start with the circular flow diagram—and then talk about what it leaves out.  When I talked about how product markets work, I would spend time on market failures—how the private market for health care insurance can and does fail, for example.  Or how product safety issues can arise (especially when the risks of using particular products are hard for individuals to identify and assess).  Or how business concentration creates situations in which producers can achieve more of the benefits from buying and selling things in markets.  Or how pollution creates what economists call “external costs”—costs that are not recognized or accounted for by buyers and sellers.  Or external benefits (as in education)—benefits of an educated population accrue not just to those who get the education, but to everyone…which is why people of our age ought still to support public funding of education, even though we’re unlikely to benefit directly from the educations being obtained by “kids”.  Issues, things get more complicated.   

On the macro side of things, which deals more with four very different.  Those four things are:
1) Achieving “full employment, which allows everyone to be able to earn an income and feel that, through their work, they are making a contribution to society (not that working Is the only way people contribute.)
2) Achieving equity.  This is a complicated subject.  There’s general agreement that part of it is making sure everyone can (does) have enough income to live a decent life.  (That’s not a universal belief, though.)  This is both within individual countries and across all countries.  (For myself, this also suggests that extreme wealth is probably not a good thing.  Unfortunately, extreme disparities in income, or standards of living, have been around for a very long time, and the political issues in reducing extreme wealth are difficult.
3) I’m putting this in here twice, really.  Achieving global equity; creating a global economy in which we produce enough stuff that everyone has access to a decent life.  I know people who argue that we should ignore this, because (they argue) it cannot be achieved without reducing the (average) standard of living in today’s already rich countries.
4) Not destroying the planet.  I’m not sure this is even mostly an economic issue, but it has economic implications.  Climate change is the most obvious aspect of this right now, but things like resource depletion and development of long-run sustainable energy sources also enter in.

Macro, you will note, is much more policy-oriented, and therefore much more politically contentious.  And these issues seem more directly implicated in Raworth’s book than the micro issues.  A lot of economists (including me, based on what I’ve read so far)-) would argue that she’s ignoring the micro part of the world that (sort of) adds up to the macro part.  If we need to change people’s behavior—that is, if we want people to be willing to move toward the outcomes she is working toward, then we need to change individual behavior as well as change macro policies.  And we need to develop macro policies that are broadly acceptable to people in rich countries and in not-so-rich countries. 

If, for example, one issue is climate change, and if climate change is a consequence
 of increasing the atmospheric carbon load, then we need policies that will accomplish a reduction in emissions.  But that has consequences for people’s lives in rich countries and in not-rich countries.  To the extent that we would prefer to achieve our goal—survival of the world—more-or-less peacefully, then the policies have t take account how people make decisions in their buying and selling behavior—which, conceptually, is relatively straight-forward.  The difficulty is not an economic problem—it’s a socio-political one:  How do we persuade people to accept the required policies?  If we can’t persuade them, can we actually implement those policies without the consent of the governed?  And what if the relative cost of implementing those policies falls more heavily on poor countries, by making it harder for them to escape poverty?

As I said, I’m about 1/3 of the way through.  Right now, I don’t think the issues are really about economics.  I think they are sociological and political.  It might be easy to say, in the abstract, what policies are the appropriate ones.  It’s less clear to me, right now, how she thinks we’ll get there.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

"Cool Jazz Essentials"

Jazziz  magazine has been posting a lot of interesting stuff lately, and today it's a list of "cool jazz" (a not-very-well defined genre) Essentials.  This is the order in which they were listed.  I would note that there are a fairly large number of tunes from Gerry Mulligan's catalog, and that only one album, Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby, had more than one song. ((You can find all of these tunes on YouTube.)

Miles Davis, “Boplicity,” from  The Birth of the Cool

Art Pepper,,"├Łou’d Be So Nice To Come Home To," from Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section

Chet Baker, “But Not For Me,” from Chet Baker Sings

Paul Desmond, “Emily,” from  Summertime

The Modern Jazz Quartet,” Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise,” from Elegance: The Birth of the MJQ

Gerry Mulligan, “Lullaby of the Leaves,” from The Original Quartet With Chet Baker

Bill Evans Trio, “Waltz For Debby (Take 2),”, from Waltz For Debby

Dave Brubeck Quartet, “Take Five,” from Time Out

Miles Davis Quintet, “It Never Entered My Mind,” from Workin”

Lenny Tristano, "Wow,” from Intuition

Stan Getz, “Con Alma.” from Sweet Rain

Gerry Mulligan Quarter with Chet Baker, “Line for Lyons, from Gerry Mulligan Quartet/Chubby Jackson Big Band

Gerry Mulligan with Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish,”Stardust,” from Portrait

Dave Brubeck, “In Your Own Sweet Way,” from Love Songs

Stan Getz and Bob Brookmeyer, “A Nightengale Sang in Berkeley Square,” from Recorded Fall ‘61

Bill Evans Trio, “My Foolish Heart,” from Waltz For Debby

The Johnny Smith Quintet, “Moonlight In Vermont,” from Moonlight In Vermont

Monday, July 29, 2019

Gavin Scott, The Age of Treachery

Gavin Scott, The Age of Treachery
Titan Books
© 2016 Gavin Scott

This is the first of three (so far) mysteries in which the main character is Duncan Forrester, set beginning in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  Forrester was a Fellow of Barnard College (which is a fictional institution) at Oxford University before the war, and he returns there at the war’s end.  During the war, he was a commando, participating in a number of operations (some of which are mentioned in the book.  He still has some flashbacks to those experiences.

He is one of a small number of Members of the College invited to attend a dinner in honor of Arne Haraldson, a Professor of Norse literature at the University of Oslo, and to a reading after of a reading of one of the Norse sagas (which was reconstructed by the Master of Barnard College, Michael Winters), along with a small group of other members of the faculty.  Before the reading, at dinner at the College’s “High Table,” one of the faculty, David Lyall manages to offend Haraldson and get into a scuffle with Gordon Clark (who is Forrester’s closest friend).  Haraldson, for obvious reasons, is invited to (and, in fact, participates in) the reading.

Lyall, as it happens, is having an affair with Clark's wife, which, while not directly the cause of the scuffle, is clearly an outgrowth of it.  Neither Lyall nor Clark attend the reading.

As the reading reaches its climax, it is interrupted by the sound of breaking glass, and by Winters’ wife (who looked out the window in response to the breaking glass, tells her husband (and the assembled readers and audience) that something has happened…”Below a  broken window on the second floor a body lay spread-eagled in the snow.”

The body is Lyall’s.  And the police are summoned.  And they discover, in fairly short order that Lyall and Clark had that altercation at dinner and that Clark’s wife is having an affair with Lyall.  Clark has no alibi—he was alone at the time of Lyall’s death.  Unsurprisingly, Clark is arrested.  Also, probably unsurprisingly, he asks Forrester to help him by calling on his solicitor; Forrester decides, based so on his knowledge of Clark and Clark’s avowal if innocence, to investigate as well.

Forrester’s investigation results in his enlisting the assistance of an undergraduate (who, because of the war, is beginning his college career at the age of 25), consulting with various people (in the War Office, as a start), and travelling to Berlin and subsequently to Oslo in search of evidence that will exonerate Clark by discovering the real killer.  Assuming Clark, is in fact, innocent.

On the whole, the story is a strong one.  Scott does a good (if occasionally heavy-handed) job of making us aware of conditions in England, Germany, and Norway in the immediate post-war days.  And, while I found the denouement to be a bit weak (the guilty party confesses, although Forrester’s evidence is not particularly strong).  He also handles very well the political ramifications of the Soviet Union’s growing presence and relative strength in Germany and in eastern Europe generally.

Scott’s style, on the other hand, caused me a few problems.  None of these are terribly significant, but they annoyed me.  For example, he has Forrester slipping and sliding—metaphorically—too much.  Forrester slipped around the corner, he slid into the shadows, and so on.  As another example, he has Forrester fall asleep instantly (more than once) when he lies down (some people may do that, but no one I’ve ever known).  Another thing I found somewhat annoying was the use of the names of actual people—Kenneth Tynan, Ian Fleming, J.R.R. Tolkien (at least there’s some excuse for this, as Tolkien knew as much as anyone about Norse sagas), C.S. Lewis, and one or two more.  This may have been done as verisimilitude, but none of these “real” people had anything like a significant role, so it seemed more like name-dropping than anything else.

These issues are minor, however, and the book is well worth reading.  I have, and will be reading the second (The Age of Olympus) and third (The Age of Exodus—no wondering what that book’s going to be about, s there?) books soon.