Sunday, January 31, 2016

Bob Dylan A to Z

As a result of one of those on-line quizzes (this one was "Which Bob Dylan Song Are You?"  And, I'm not linking to it).  I decided to compile a list of my favorite Bob Dylan song from each letter of the alphabet.  Which was HARD.  So hard that I had to do it twice.  Here is the (so to speak) A list.   The B list will appear anon.

Absolutely Sweet Marie
Bob Dylan’s Dream
Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)
Desolation Row
Everything Is Broken
Farewell, Angelina
Gates of Eden
Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Like A Rolling Stone
Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine
New Morning
One Of Must Know (Sooner or Later)
Positively Fourth Street
Queen Jane Approximately
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
Tangled Up In Blue
Visions of Johanna
When I Paint My Masterpiece

You Ain't Going' Nowhere 

(No songs beginning with U, X or Z.)

Michael Pearce, Dmitri and the Milk Drinkers

Michael Pearce, Dmitri and the Milk Drinkers
HarperCollins (1997)

(Available from used booksellers.)

Dmitri Kameron (his grandfather was Scots) is approached by Anya Semeonova at the courthouse in Kurtsk, asking him to escort her outside for some air.  Then she disappears.  It appears she has somehow been taken away as a part of a convoy of prisoners headed for Siberia.  Dmitri, a young lawyer and the low man in the Kurtsk hierarchy, has to try to find her.  And he does, but becomes involved in the complex life of the prison camp.  And discovering a mass shooting of prisoners (which Anya witnessed) on the way to the camp.  Not actually a mystery, more of a novel of manners set in Russia in the late 1880s.  Pearce seems to have a thorough understanding of the culture of the time, and a feel for the  places (and politics) of Russia.  The "milk-drinkers" of the title are a Christian sect  ( which was quite unorthodox (it dates to the 14th century); drinking milk during religious days and festivals is one of their practices. 

This is the first (of 2) books featuring Dmitri Kameron [the second is Dmitri and the One-Leggged Lady (1999)], and it is excellent.  Pearce is the author of the Mamur Zapt novels, set in Egypt in the 1910s, featuring Gareth Owen as the (British) head of the (Egyptian) secret police, and of the Sandor Seymour books (he's a multilingual officer with England’s Special Branch in the early 1900s); both series are, at their worst, very good.

Francis M. Nevins, Publish and Perish

Frances M. Nevins, Publish and Perish (2000; reprint of 1975)
Available from used book sellers
(not that I'd recommend buying it)

(Had I been somewhat less forgetful, I would certainly have mentioned that it was not Sally Wright's book of the same title, published in 1997, and still available both in print and as an ebook.  I bought it once in paperback and a second time as an ebook, and I enjoyed it immensely.  This is not a review of that book.)

Someone, in something that I read, recommended this, and it sounded as if it would be worthwhile.  Sadly, no.  I spent three hours on it that I will never get back.   THERE ARE HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD.

This should have been a better book than it is.  Law Professor Loren Mensing is called upon to look into the circumstances surrounding the death of Graham Dillaway (henceforth GD), a prominent author, on behalf of his old law firm (he drafted GD’s will)) and GD’s widow, Hope Foxworth (HF; also an author, but her sales have diminished and she’s now a drunk; Mensing also drafted her will).  GD apparently dies in a mountain cabin, in the company of Jackson Corby (JC), apparently in a fire.  The police bungle the investigation, though, and it’s murder. 

And now, I have to ruin the book if you haven’t already read it.  It turns out that Corby is a blackmailer and has been blackmailing GD (who is bisexual).  By the end, we discover that GD has entered into a plot, assisted by HF’s daughter’s husband and a cop, to kill JC, make it appear that GD is also dead, and disappear (he can no longer handle being married to HF). 

But…If GD is dead, he has no income; all his royalties will go to HF.  He is well-known, if not famous (his face appears on the dust jackets of his books), so disappearing will be difficult.  And how he intends to make a living is never even mentioned.  Re-inventing himself as a writer would not be easy (he’s been writing books that have sold well and been widely reviewed for 25 years)—his style is fairly well known. 

Also, it’s unclear what sort of evidence JC had to support any allegations he might make against GD.  It’s 1974.  Videotaping equipment is not readily available to individuals.  GD’s trysts are all at his mountain cabin, making surreptitious approaches difficult.  And conspiracies are also inherently problematic.  He could easily, it seems to me, have gotten JC to the cabin (as he did), and killed him and buried him there—the nearest neighbor is at least a mile away.  A gunshot?  Someone out hunting, legally or illegally.  Get JC’s car to a remote parking lot at the airport and leave it.  By the time someone realizes that the car has been there for a long time, who’s going to find the body? 

But, instead, a conspiracy that’s botched from the beginning (what’s supposed to have been an accidental fire is all too obviously arson, for example; the “corpse” of GD does not have evidence of the broken leg that GD, in fact, had; and so on).  As a consequence, instead of one death, we wind up with seven.  And, by the way, the title makes no sense—there’s been no publication of whatever evidence JC has, so  he did not perish (nor did anyone else) as a result of the publication of anything. 

Nevins has written 3 other books with Mensing as a character, but this debut novel gives me no reason to look for them. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Paul Kantner

And another one's gone...

...and there in the dawn of the nuclear twilight
In the heart of the glowing city
She stood
Pen in hand
Go and find Rose and ask her 'bout order
Go and find Rose and ask her 'bout Yale
There is no more Yale (yaaaaaa!)
There is no more order (yaaaaaay!)
I was out on the river
And in the darkness before me
In the light of the domed city
I saw Rose lightning Rose
She wasn't perfect
But she was semi-perfect
And she remembered all about her days in Yale
Before they turned it into a sheet
Of radio-active glass
Thirty miles across
And I always used to want to think if we could sing
Loudly enough
If we could sing strong enough
And if we could sing
Hopefully enough
Then all of this madness would disappear
And if we could sing
Long enough
If we could sing strong enough
And if we could sing true enough
It might carry us through next year
Go and find Rose and ask about nuclear
Go and find Rose and ask her "what now? "
She'll tell you 'bout future
She'll tell you 'bout how to live beyond the pale
When the time comes...seize it
When the dream starts....believe in it
When the light shines...oh, bathe in it
And now we'll have to be
Strong enough
Have to work long enough
And if we believe
True enough
Then much of this madness'll disappear
I'll be the one
She said
I'll be the only one
In the aftermath of atomic fire
I'll carry us through next year
What if the world was turned around
What if nuclear plants worked
What if nuclear bombs didn't
What if they held nuclear disarmament
Talks in antarctica instead of switzerland
(in igloos, not fancy hotels!) they'd be
Over and done
In six hours, and be on their way home
Imagine, the light
And imagined that Rose was here tonight
And there in her eyes
Was a reason to live
A reason to fight
A reason to die
It scared elevated me
I would do things for her
That I wouldn't do for my mother
My country
My lover
Tis of thee
I sing
Sweet girl of liberty
Sweet bird of freedom

 Jefferson Starship - Rose Goes To Yale Lyrics

Monday, January 25, 2016

Gore Vidal (writing as Cameron Kay), Thieves Fall Out

Gore Vidal (writing as Cameron Kay), Thieves Fall Out
Hard Case Crime, 2015 (reprint of the 1953 edition)
Available as an ebook, but probably not worth the price

"In 1953 he published Thieves Fall Out, written under the pseudonym of Cameron Kay...A paperback publisher brought out the book in 1953, and it quickly faded... Hard Case Crime in New York will bring out a new edition, and it has stirred some backlash…For a start, Gore...didn't want this republished. He was only 28 when he wrote it, and it wasn't much good. .."  More by Jay Parini here:  It's not very good.  A caper story, set in Cairo just after WW2       (There was a real revolution in July 1952, co-led by Nasser, which deposed Faruq, so perhaps this is the one.)  It involves an attempt to smuggle a 4000-year-old necklace out of the country.  And, of course, true love at first sight.  (I got it as an e-book, quite cheaply, and it was not worth the price I paid; in other words, don't waste your money.)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Dave Zeltserman, Julius Katz and Archie

Dave Zeltserman, Julius Katz and Archie
Top Suspense Books, 2011
Available as an ebook

All too obviously patterned on the Nero Wolfe books, Boston PI Julius Katz (assisted  by his extremely small but extremely powerful digital assistant Archie) accepts a job offered  by fading Boston author, Kenneth Kingston.  The job is, as presented, not much of a job--help Kingston stage a confrontation between him and six people, one of whom, he alleges, planning to kill him.  The six are his wife, his agent, his editor, a PI he has collaborated with, his former writing partner, and a book critic.  When Katz meets with them (at 2 PM; Kingston is scheduled to join them at 2:30), he engages in mostly small-talk.  But Kingston does not show up.  He is, in fact, dead,  Murdered.  Katz initially wants nothing to do with the murder, but the Cambridge detective (Inspector Kramer) harasses him and someone attempts to kill him.  So he is dragged into the investigation.  It's a reasonable set-up, and reaches a plausible conclusion. 

But along the way...First of all, the book was very badly line-edited.  Second, in a sub-plot, Katz is trying to figure our who is cheating him at poker.  In a (not very plausible) set-piece, he and the cheat wind up being the only two left, and they continue raising each other.  OK.  But Katz then offers up the deed to  his house, in which he claims to have $60,000 in equity.  Assuming that the story is set in 2010 or so, the sort of house he seems to be living in (4 stories, a basement with a wine cellar, land enough for a small garden) would probably have had a market value of at least $600,000 on Boston.  So he would seem to have a $540,000 (or greater) mortgage which he would still be on the  hook for.  Also, he would not have the deed--the financial institution holding the mortgage would have the deed.  Minor, but an annoyance.  Third, there is a lot of chatter about which of the suspects is a psychopath, a sociopath, or a narcissist, which is annoying. 

And finally (and to me most annoying), Zeltserman must feel that he has to beat  you over the head with the Nero Wolfe references.  Three outside PIs whom Katz uses--Tom Durkin, Saul Penzer, and Willie Cather.  The detective--Kramer.  His inamorata--Lily Rosten.  Honestly, we'd get the Wolfe references without all that.  (At least he doesn't have a cook named Fritz Bonner...)  Good enough to read another, but just barely.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Dolores and Bert Hitchens, FOB Murder

Dolores and Bert Hitchens, FOB Murder
Doubleday, 1955
Available from used booksellers and (recently) as a part of the Library of America's Women crime Writers set, both in print and as ebooks.

I do not remember where I recently read about her books, but it reminded me that I had a read few of them a long time ago. 

An older man (around 70?) dies after something happens in a railroad yard in LA.  His daughter thinks he was murdered. A young Mexican is discovered  in a freight car in a railroad car in LA.  A young woman claims to have lost diamonds worth $60,000 from her luggage in Union Station in LA.  Two railroad detectives, Collins and McKechnie, begin working these events separately (Collins has the death and the Mexican, McKechnie, the luggage.  Because this is a mystery novel, they turn out to be related.  The LA setting is almost incidental; I never got a real feel for that part of it.  The plot, while good enough, is nothing special, and neither the dialoge nor the narrative rises above good.  But it's a good enough procedural, and the narrative moves briskly to a satisfactory conclusion.  The value of the  diamonds, incidentally, would be about $530,000, adlusted to the current price level, which, for the people involved, would have been a tremendous fortune.  Dolores Hitchens wrote 44 mystery novels between 1939 and 1973, 6 with her husband, Bert, whose day job was as a railroad detective.  (  She was not a major figure in the genre, but her work was (in my experience; I've read 6 or 7 of her books from the late 1950s/early 1960s)) readable and reasonably reliable.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Marvin Kaye (ed.), Nero Wolfe: The Archie Goodwin Files

Marvin Kaye (ed.), Nero Wolfe:  The Archie Goodwin Files
Wildside Press, 2005
ISBN:  1-55742-484-5

This is the second volume of material compiled by Marvin Kaye about the career of Nero Wolfe (the first was The Nero Wolfe Files).  Overall, the material here is stronger and of greater interest than in the prior volume.  What is distinctive about this volume is the inclusion of 4 pastiches, all of which have previously appeared in The Gazette, the journal of The Wolfe Pack:

Maggie Jacobs, “A Healthy Way to Die”
Henry W. Enberg, “The Daughter Hunt”
Charles E. Burns, “Firecrackers”
Greg Hatcher, “Memo for Murder”

Of these, Burns' telling of the first contact between Wolfe and Goodwin is by far the best.  He does an excellent job with Archie’s narrative voice, and both the situation that leads to their meeting and the first case on which Archie works are well-conceived and well-executed.

The first half of the volume consists of reprints of 22 essays that have also preciously appeared in
The Gazette.  These almost all attempt to bring some sense of order to the overall narrative of the Wolfe saga, and almost all are interesting (although I had a tendency to quibble with some of the analysis and conclusions).  Marvin Kaye’s “From Zeck to Moriarty to Wild” is (in my opinion) the best of these essays, taking us beck from Stout’s attempt at a criminal mastermind (Arnold Zeck), through Conan Doyle’s creation of Professor Moriarty, to the real-life leader of a criminal conspiracy, Jonathan Wild (in the late 17th century).  Marina Stajic’s contribution, which takes us into the real Montenegro, is also outstanding.  And all of these essays are worth reading.

As with
The Nero Wolfe Files, this material will largely be of interest to those of us whose interest in the Wolfe saga is intense.  If I have one issue with much of the discussion and analysis of the stories, it’s the reluctance people have to deal with Stout’s quite conscious decision to freeze Wolfe and Goodwin in time (at, roughly, early-to-mid 30s for Goodwin and mid-to-late 50s for Wolfe).  This decision makes it difficult to deal with the other fact about the stories:  They are all set in the present (i.e., the time at which Stout wrote them) and they cover the period from 1934 to 1974, making internal consistency somewhat difficult.  If you are a major Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin fan, however, this is likely to be essential reading.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Nero Wolfe Files

Marvin Kaye (ed.), The Nero Wolfe Files
Wildside Press. 2005

I was pleased to discover recently that The Nero Wolfe Files was available in a print edition.  As I am the biggest (physically, if in no other way) Nero Wolfe addict around, I bought it instantly (and the sequel, The Archie Goodwin Files, on which I shall report once I have read it).  As Mr. Wolfe would say, this is satisfactory.  But not, I am somewhat sorry to say, very satisfactory.

It's a compilation of pieces (essays, transcriptions of speeches. and ephemera) related to the founding of the Wolfe Pack (, a society devoted to the works of Rex Stout and the memory of Nero Wolfe.  The Pack publishes a quarterly (or so) newsletter and host events in NYC and elsewhere.  The historical pieces in The Nero Wolfe Files do a nice job of tracing the organization of the Pack, and provides some useful  insight into Rex Stout as a human being.  For that--roughly 80% of the book--it's worth the price.  The ephemera (reproductions of dinner menus, limericks, and song lyrics composed at the Pack's annual dinners) are occasionally amusing, but mostly forgettable.

I would judge that this book will be of interest mostly to truly serious fans of Stout and Wolfe, and of lesser interest to the rest of t he mystery community.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Wages of Blackmail: A Reflection on Rex Stout's "The Next Witness"

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.”


“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.

(I wrote this in May 2015 and submitted it to The Gazette, the publication of The Wolfe Pack; having heard nothing from them, I decided to publish it here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Shamelessly stolen from someone on FB:

Monday, January 4, 2016

Two "Golden Age" Mysteries

Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder
Originally published 1935
Available as an ebook.

On the eve of the introduction of a bill in Parliament that will give the government expanded powers to crack down on fringe political groups, the Home Secretary (chief supporter of the bil), Derek O'Callaghan, is taken to a private hospital and operated on (he has a burst appendix).  And he dies.  It is subsequently discovered to be hyoscine poisoning.  Suspicion falls on a fairly large group of suspects.  One of the doctors--the anesthesiologist--is a eugenicist.  After much back-and-forth, Alleyn discovers both who committed the murder and how it was done.  Alleyn is still way too unprofessional for a professional.  The politics of the book are distressing, frankly.  And, as a whole, it's an example of the sort of murder mystery that inspired Raymond Chandler's line "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley...Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes." 

Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask Originally published 1929
Available as an ebook.

Highly implausible, but entertaining.  Maude Silver is a private detective in London.  Charles Moray has returned to England after 4 years wandering around the world in search of adventure.  He overhears, in his family homw (which has been uninhabited), what appears to be a plot to kill someone.  He also sees a woman who appearst to be involved and who was his fiance (she called it all off, and he left the country), Margaret,  Moray eventually hires Miss Silver, but resolutely withholds information from her.  After much intrigue and adventure, we reach the resolution and everyone will apparently life happily ever after.  There is much that is wrong with this book.  Miss Silver has almost no personality, and, until the final scene, is seen only in her office.  (Which is to say, she does not appear actively in the narrative.)  All the characters do relatively stupid things--failing to keep their presumed friends and co-investigators involved.  The principal villain, instead of killing our hero and heroine, simply locks them in a hidden cellar in his basement and departs to the continent.  (He is providentially killed in an airplane crash--which apparently kills a number of quite innocent people as well.)  The notion of a 20-year long, successfully-run theft and blackmail racket (including people who change their names and manage to be taken on in the homes of wealth folks, with Scotland Yard, um, somewhat unobservant) is implausible.  But it reads well.  (Chandler’s critique, above, applies here as well.)