Saturday, January 13, 2018

Anthony Horowitz, Moriarty

Anthony Horowitz, Moriarty
Harper Perennial © 2015 Anthony Horowitz
ISBN 978-0-06-237719-7

I found Horowitz’s House of Silk to be one of the better Sherlock Holmes pastiches I have ever read.  In Moriarty, he returns to the period, but with a different focus.  The title suggests that Professor Moriarty will be the focus of the book…but, then, perhaps not.  Early on, Athelny Jones (who did not fare very well in his interactions with Holmes) and our narrator, a Pinkerton agent (Frederick Chase), meet in the Swiss town of Meiringen, where they view the body, found in the waters beneath the Reichenbach Falls, of a man whom Jones identifies as Moriarty.  In a secret pocket of the suit on the corpse, Jones finds a coded message arranging a meeting between Moriarty and a pair of American gangsters.

Chase and Jones agree to explore this situation.  And Jones reveals himself as an ardent exponent of the methods of Sherlock Holmes.

The tale then moves to, and remains in, London.  As Chase and Jones look into the activities of the Americans, things become somewhat bloody.  One entire household is murdered.  A bomb goes off inside Scotland Yard, very near Jones’s office, which he left minutes before.  Our investigators track one of the Americans to the U.S. legation, but their investigation is impeded by the doctrine of extraterritoriality. 

It is a tangled tale, and much of it was entertaining.  It seemed to me early on that Moriarty must still be alive (because of the book’s title, of course), and I narrowed the possibilities to two.  But the book proceeds at a leisurely—perhaps too leisurely—pace.  And, near the end, the narrative is interrupted by a long, expository recapitulation of what we have read.  As a whole, it’s a readable, but not a book that is impossible to put down, entertaining, but not as entertaining as House of Silk.  Horowitz does a good job of concealing where he’s going, and an excellent job of placing us in late Victorian England.  Overall, I’m not sorry to have read it, but, somehow, felt that the promise of the book was slightly unfulfilled.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Last Jedi

I spent part of yesterday at the movies, seeing The Last Jedi, and, overall, I thought it was, well, not very good (I almost said awful). Some of what I’m about to type may constitute spoilers, so stop reading now if that matters to you.
There were some impressive scenes, but so much of it was so predictable (from Finn shifting from a coward trying to run away to being a hero; to the con man who was a con man—and I’d swear I saw that scene in an earlier episode).
The stunning tactical incompetence of... the bad guys (now calling themselves “The First Order”) continues. And Snokes’ malevolence continues to be overdone. (Hasn’t anyone associated with franchise even heard of, let alone read, Machiavelli?)
Leaving aside Hammill’s acting ability, Luke is a whiner—and the scene with Yoda was just embarrassing.
The battle scenes, in addition to highlighting the incompetence of the bad guys, dragged on and on and on. The final confrontation between Luke & Kylo actually played pretty well, and Luke’s final lines were among the best things in the movie.
The casino scene was nearly pointless, although the escape of the “horses” was morally, if not cinematically, satisfying.
I was, I should note, offended by the scenes with the “chicken”-like critters (this movie’s Ewoks, but with no purpose, except to generate sales of stuffed animals).
They may have lost me with this one...but, then, I thought they’d lost me with Episode 2 (the movie that shall go unnamed).

Sara Woods, Bloody Instructions

Sara Woods, Bloody Instructions
Avon (1986 reprint of 1962 original)
© Sara Woods 1962

Having read 10 books in 3 series by Sara Woods (under 3 pseudonyms) last year, I decided to look back on her lenghty series of books featuring an English barrister (Antony Maitland), his uncle (Nicholas Harding, also a barrister), his wife (Jenny), and some other continuing characters.

Antony Maitland made his debut in 1962, in this book, in which we find most of the characteristics of the series already in place.  Maitland, a barrister, is a member of his uncle Nicholas Harding’s chambers.  He is married to Jenny, who is a stay-at-home wife; they are childless.  And they live in separate quarters in Harding’s house.  Harding, at this stage, is unmarried (apparently never married); his household is run by Gibbs (whose first name, I think, we never learn),, an aged butler who disdains Maitland.

As the book opens, Maitland is off to a solicitor’s office to pick up some documents that his uncle needs.  While he is there, the very dead body of Joseph Winter, the senior partner in the firm, is found in his office, a dagger in his neck.  (One thing that does not get mentioned, and which seems to me to be noteworthy, is that for the death to have been as quick as it seems to have been, a major blood vessel must have been involved.  And yet there is no mention of a lot of blood.)  There is, at any event, a narrow window for the murder, from about 4:12 PM (when the head of the clerical staff spoke with Winter) and 4:30, when the body was found.

Winter had a fairly active afternoon, with a steady stream of clients (and one non-client) calling on him.  It’s also noteworthy that his office has access to a second, private and generally unused exit.  For reasons that appear obvious to the police, but not to Maitland, police attention rapidly focuses on the noted actor Joseph Dowling.  Dowling is one of those who called on Winter than afternoon, and is not a client; in fact, his wife, who is a client, is suing for divorce, and Dowling had no good reason to be calling on her lawyer.  (And, just to complicate matters, Dowling’s son Dennis, is completing his apprenticeship as a solicitor in Winter’s offices).

Maitland is a witness for the prosecution in the case, and Harding accepts the challenge of defending Dowling.  This seems problematic to me, but I’m not an expert on what might be deemed a conflict of interest in English courts.  It would, almost certainly, open Maitland to being treated by the prosecution (in the U.S.) as a hostile witness.  Maitland, in addition, visits with the other people who saw Winter that afternoon, as well as other people involved with them, or with Winter. 

The investigation and its complications take up most of the book, with the trial scenes beginning on p. 159 and ending—with Maitland having been instrumental in identifying the murderer—on p. 186.  The whole thing is rather convoluted, and turns on one small bit of documentation which we, as readers, are almost certain to miss.  As a series debut, this is a very strong offering, well-plotted, with interesting characters and settings.  Well worth seeking out, if you like lawyer-focused, character-driven, and generally non-violent mysteries.  Oh, and all the titles are, as I recall, drawn from Shakespeare:

But in these cases
We will have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th’ inventor,  This even-handed justice
Commends th’ ingredience of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.
MACBHETH, Act I, Scene vii

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The re-run of copycat photoblogging.

It's been a while, but this is triggered by Chris Bertram's photograph posted here.

A street somewhere in Rome (I was actually lost when I shot this, in October 2002).

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk

Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk
Mulholland Books/Little, Brown, and Company© 2011 Anthony Horowitz
ISBN 978-0-316-1970-4

While his wife is assisting her former employer (Mrs. Cecil Forester) deal with the severe bout of flu being suffered by Mrs. Forester’s son, Watson has returned to spend some time with Holmes.  Very soon, three cases engage Holmes’ attention.  First, art dealer Edmund Carstairs, asks Holmes to find the man who has apparently been following him.  He suspects the man of being Keelan O’Donaghue, the surviving member of a gang of thieves who destroyed (accidentally) a shipment of paintings he had sent to an American client.  And, it appears, this man has broken into his home and stolen a family heirloom necklace.  With the assistance of the street urchins dubbed the Baker Street Irregulars (especially Wiggins and Ross), Holmes traces the necklace to a pawn shop, and follows that up by tracking down the apparent thief—whom he finds murdered in a cheap boarding house.

The second case follows directly from the first—the young boy, Ross, who found the pawnshop, has disappeared.  He is found murdered, after being tortured.  Holmes traces him back to a school/home for young orphan/homeless boys from the streets of London.  Ross Dixon, to give him his full name, had run away from the Chorley Grange Home for Boys (presided over by the Rev. Charles Fitzsimmons).  This, however, appears to be a dead end, but for the piece of white silk tied around his wrist.

And the third matter Holmes is called upon to investigate involves the mysterious House of Silk.  No one knows what it is, or what it does.

Horowitz manages this fairly complicated narrative very well.   And he does an excellent job of the setting (London and its environs in winter), Watson’s character and narrative voice, and Holmes’ as well.  (Holmes is a difficult character, I think.  It’s difficult to make someone who is portrayed as being more-or-less emotionless, as a creature of pure logic, also as an interesting and occasionally empathetic friend.)  Lestrade has a fairly prominent role to play, and not as the complete dunce of a police inspector that Conan Doyle made of him.  Obviously, all this being Holmes, all three strands of the investigations are successfully resolved, although I can’t say that we feel particularly happy about the implications of the various resolutions for the characters involved.  As pastiches of the Holmes saga go, this is one of the best I have read.  [Horowitz has written one more—Moriarty (2014), which I intend to get to soon.]

Monday, January 1, 2018

Margaret Leek (Sara Woods) Voice of the Past

Margaret Leek (pen name of Sara Woods), Voice of the Past
Raven House Mysteries, 1981.

The third (and last) book in the series featuring (and narrated by) solicitor Anne Marryatt and set in a (very) small town in the midlands.  I think this was the best of this series [We Must Have a Trial (1980); The Healthy Grave (1980)], and this mini-series was the best of the three written by Woods (three books as Ann Burton about Richard Trent, a London  banker, and four as Marry Challis featuring Jeremy Locke, a London solicitor). (That’s a total of 10 books, not about Antony Maitland, all published in 1980 or 1981.)

[An aside.  One can never be sure about this sort of thing, but it seems at least possible that these books were written earlier (there’s little, if anything, that ties them to the 1980-81 period, except for a reference, in Voice of the Past to something that happened in 1979, a change that would be easy to make).  The primary characteristic of the books that argues for their having been written in the late 1970s is their attitude toward women in the workplace—it’s treated as an ordinary occurrence.]

Reading this book (and the others not written as Sara Woods) almost inevitably leads to a comparison to the Maitland books (of which there are 48, published beginning in 1962, with the final book in 1987—essentially two books a year—and four in 1980/1981).  One obvious difference is that Maitland was a barrister.  A second (in the case of the “Leek” books) is that the main character was a woman.)  Otherwise they have things in common.  In all three, the domestic life of the main characters is prominent.  In all three, the main character goes beyond his or her primary task and acts as an investigator.  If you have the interest, I think it’s fair to say that the Maitland books are, in general, better.  (They do have an interesting feature in that, by the mid-1970s, Woods realized she had tied herself down a bit by referring as often and as strongly as she did to Maitland’s World War II experience—including a severe shoulder injury.  So she set all the remaining books in the mid-1970s, with relatively specific dates.  I know of no other author of a long-running series who has done that.)

Nonetheless all three (non-Maitland) series have their points of interest, and in the case of Voice of the Past and its companions, one of those is the small village setting; the village is a stand-in, I think, for the larger family settings in the other series.

In Voice of the Past, a well-to-do, highly respected Baronet (and chairman of a local mortgage lending institution), Sir Lancelot Walker is shot, with his own shotgun, in the study of his home (with his wife Dorothy upstairs).  Suspicion falls immediately on his son-in-law (Arthur Kilburn), a commercial artist facing declining demand for (and declining income from) his work and seeking a loan to tide him and his family (wife Paula, two children) over as he re-orients his work.  Anne Maryatt, a local solicitor (and the narrator of these books) accepts Kilburn as a client, and begins a series of interviews to see what, if anything, she can find that might exonerate him.  It seems like a fruitless task, until her husband Stephen provides something from Walker’s past that might be worth exploring.

It happens that Walker and Stephen’s father Mark worked closely together in the immediate post-war years (Walker as a lender, Mark as a property appraiser) as the nearby town of Brompton grew explosively.  And now Walker is leaning on Stephen to shade, or outright falsify, his appraisal of a property that Walker wants to buy, and tells Stephen that he—Walker—and Stephen’s father committed fraud and that he will reveal Mark Maryatt’s participation in the fraud, if Stephen does not go along (as we learn quite quickly, Stephen ain’t gonna play).   But it obviously opens up a possible argument for the defense.

Unlike the other two books in the series, we basically see the entire trial, and the courtroom scenes are handled very well, including the climactic revelations.  I’ll admit that I picked out the killer quite early, albeit more by intuition than by any evidence whatsoever.  “Leek’s” handling of the courtroom revelations and their aftermath are very well handled, and all of the tensions (especially between Stephen and Anne) are resolved.  While this is not a great book (or mini-series), the courtroom scenes in particular worked well (barrister Benedict Tennant, Q. C., could give Perry Mason a run for his money) and parts of the denouement were suitably surprising.  Well worth the time if you can find a copy (they are available from used book sellers).

One of my projects for 2018 will be to take a new look at the Antony Maitland books.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Two Reviews: Melodie Campbell's The Goddaughter's Revenge and Edward D. Hoch's Sherlock Holmes stories

Two reviews:

Melodie Campbell, The Goddaughter’s Revenge
Rapid Reads/Orca Books © 2013 Meoldie Campbell
ISBN 978-1-4598-0489

Gina Ricci has (sort of) broken away from her family’s business, by opening a high-end jewelry store (Ricci Jewelers), in Hamilton (Ont.).  The family business is, by and large, illegal.  But someone, it seems, has removing the real, high-quality gemstones in the custom designed jewelry she creates, and replacing them with much lower quality stones.  She discovers this during a routine cleaning of a ring for one of her customers.  She decides to rectify matters by identifying the items that have been affected, “stealing” them, and re-replacing the stones with the real things.  But things begin to go wrong from the very beginning…

This seemed like a nice set-up—the stones involved all seem to have been replaced when Gina was on vacation, so who did it, and why, are pretty straight-forward.  And the things that can—and do—go wrong can make for a fairly amusing story.  But after a couple of disasters, it’s almost like Campbell lost interest.  The remainder of the book involves, not more and more convoluted problems in resolving the substitutions, but getting her relatives off her back.  And the book ends incredibly abruptly, almost as if she couldn’t figure out how to wind up the story in a convincing manner.  Fortunately, the whole thing took less than 2 hours to read.

Edward D. Hoch. The Sherlock Holmes Stories of Edward D. Hoch
Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2007
(Individual stories have various copyright dates)

Ed Hoch was one of the most prolific authors of mystery short stories ever.  For over 35 years, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published one of his stories in every issue; in total, over 1000 of his stories appeared in print.  13 of these stories feature Sherlock Holmes (and Dr. John Watson, in all except the final story).  I had great expectations for these stories.

The problem with great expectations is that they are so often not fulfilled.  And I’m afraid that happened, for me at least, with these stories.  Hoch does a good job with the setting, I think (although it often seems a bit perfunctory) and he has the relationship between Holmes and Watson just right.  Unfortunately there were, for me, two ways in which the stories do not shine.  The first is what seemed to me to be a failure to capture Watson’s narrative voice.  The cadences of Watson’s style are so much a part of the stories that I at least felt that the rhythms of the stories were flat.  The second problem I had was he frequency with which Holmes would say something like “I guessed that…” something was the case.  Well…that’s just not right.

Overall, although these stories were not first-rate Holmes pastiches, they are readable.  And any dedicated fan of the Great Detective will want to read them.