Friday, September 8, 2017

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies
Viking Press © 2017 David Cornwell
ISBN 978-0-7352-2511-4
Also available as an ebook.


What follows is a truthful account, as best as I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation, codenamed Windfall, that was mounted against the East German Intelligence Service (STASI) in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, and resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with, and of the innocent women for whom he gave his life.

The is the opening paragraph, and it draws us—it drew me—into a (fictional) past, but one that has always carried with it the aura of truth.  That past is the story told, in 1963, in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, of Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold.  Leamas, because he was chosen (and accepted) the task of acting as a traitor to England, of gaining the confidence of STASI, of casting guilt on a STASI officer, in pursuit of the goal of maintaining a double agent and the information flow that agent provides.  Gold, because she fell in love with Leamas (and he with her).

Now, decades later, in a very different world, all of that comes back to life, in the form of lawsuits filed by children of some of the people directly involved.  And a British government that would like to make it all go away…or at least not become public.

One of the few survivors who were participants in those events, Peter Guillam, who was in his early thirties then and is much older now (depending on when this book is actually set, somewhere between his late seventies and mid-to-late eighties), is required, under the terms of his retirement, to return to London, to be interrogated about those events.  In the course of his interrogation, he reads (or re-reads) the reports generated during the events of that distant past.  He recalls those events, sometimes in ways that differ from the reports.  And he answers questions. 

In what is, I think, a first for Le Carre, this book is written in the first person—Guillam narrates this part of the story, from his point of view, in the present.  So we are, to the extent he allows us, privy to his thoughts, to his efforts to corroborate or modify (or conceal) the history contained in those ancient reports.  And, of course, one issue is whether his memories of the past, and his understanding of who did what, and why, are shaped by his past and his distance from it now.  And throughout we have to deal with one figure—Control, whose name we never learn—who headed this branch of the British intelligence services (called, informally, the Circus) and another figure—George Smiley, then head of Covert Operations—whose decisions and actions shaped, to some degree, the events in that distant past.

Control is long dead; Smiley is long retired, but still, apparently, alive (making him easily into his nineties).  Of the others, well, at least mostly dead.

Guillam has to navigate his interrogation, which means remembering things he’d rather not, and dealing with loyalties (and betrayals) he’d also rather not.  And he has to remember, and deal with his own part.  And that is neither easy nor without its own evasions.

This is, let me say, a magnificent book.  While it may be useful to have read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, you can get along nicely without.  It raises, and carefully does not resolve, a number of difficult moral issues.  Were the actions taken in the past were, then or now, justifiable?  Well, it depends.  Is the current investigation designed to get at “the truth,” or to make it easier to blame anything that looks difficult on those long dead or long out of power?  I think we’re given a number of hints there.  But remember, our narrator was involved, and his take on the current investigation may well be biased.  Is biased.  How can we be sure of, recall, describe, the motivations that led to people’s decisions and actions 50 years ago? 

How can we be sure, I think Le Carre is asking,of our own motives (or our efforts to deceive ourselves and others), of the morality or necessity or utility of our decisions, decisions that might maintain whatever tenuous peace now exists or might lead to needless deaths, and war—now?

Monday, September 4, 2017

M.J. Lee, Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary

M.J. Lee, Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary
Endeavor Press Ltd. © M.J. Lee 2016
ISBN 978-1-5329-3461-2


Samuel Pepys was of course, a real historical figure and is famous to this day for keeping a diary.  (A good overview of his life, and of his diaries can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Pepys)  What M.J. Lee has done is to set a story—I wouldn’t exactly say it’s a mystery—that involves both the diaries and Pepys role as a naval administrator during the Restoration period.

Here’s the situation:  A thief (Jack Turner) has been hired to steal the current volume of Pepys’ diary—a diary that Pepys believed no one actually knows about and, as he writes in in a private code, that he also believes that no one could decode in any event.  While he’s in the house, Turner also steals a piece of jewelry that Pepys’ wife Elizabeth prizes.  So Pepys has two things to recover:  His diary, which had to be the primary object of the thief, and which could cause Pepys a good deal of embarrassment (he has written some things in it that, should the King learn of them, will cause no end of trouble), and his wife’s locket.  He enlists the assistance of his friend, also an Admiralty employee, Will Hewer in this quest.

The first step, of course, is to identify and find the thief.  This proves to be a relatively easy task; they trace the locket to the shop of a notorious receiver of stolen property who is perfectly willing to disclose the thief’s name and abode (for a price).  Unfortunately, the thief has been murdered, and, while the locket is recovered (and then lost again), the diary is not.

And Pepys has a task assigned to him as a part of his job—visit the Admiralty works in Chatham, discover how things are going there, and prepare a report for the King, during the next four days.  (And things there are known not to be going well.)

When Pepys and Hewer attend a performance of a new play by John Dryden, the epilogue, recited by Nell Gwynn (one of the King’s mistresses) seems to be aimed at Pepys; she looks directly at him as she says:

For the writer’s pen is his phallus,
The blue ink his seed.
And though he’s impotent,
He’s prolific indeed.
He scribes each night,
A daily nocturnal rite,
His words will be his death,
Strung by the neck till out of breath.

So…Who has the diary?  Who is offering vague threats?  Does someone want to encourage him to report the truth from Chatham, or cover things up?  How can he get his wife’s locket back. Get his diary back, and avoid the Tower?

While the book begins somewhat slowly, the sense we get of late 17th-century London is pretty remarkable (as is the amount people eat and drink).  The history of Restoration-period England is not really something I know much about, Lee seems to know what he’s writing about.  The shadow of Cromwell hangs over things, and the religious divisions (and violence) simmer just below the surface.  I had to look up a number of things, just to make sure I knew what was going on…For one, I’d never heard of the Act of Indulgence (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_Indulgence), proclaimed by James II and guaranteeing (within limits, freedom of worship (but not for Catholics).  And then there was the Fifth Monarchy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Monarchists), an “extreme Puritan sect” which anticipated the imminent second coming of Christ. 

Actual historic personages (Dryden, Nell Gwyn, Aphra Benn (who plays a very prominent role in the second half of the book), Sir William Coventry, Sir Joseph Williamson, the Duke of Buckingham, Charles II, and others).  play significant roles, and I felt it necessary to check up on them as well:
Dryden (Lee does not depict him favorably):
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dryden
Gwyn:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nell_Gwyn
Behn:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphra_Behn
Coventry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Coventry
Williamson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Williamson_(politician)
Buckingham: 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Sheffield,_1st_Duke_of_Buckingham_and_Normanby
Charles II:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_II_of_England

(I should add that it’s perfectly possible to read and enjoy the book without the history lessons.)

The last third of the book, in particular, proceeds at a very brisk pace, and we end with Pepys presenting his report to the King, and its repercussions.  Based on this outing, I hope to be able to read a second adventure of Messers Pepys and Hewer soon.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Eliot Paul, Waylaid in Boston: A Homer Evans Mystery

Eliot Paul, Waylaid in Boston: A Homer Evans Mystery
Coachwhip Publications, 2016 (reprint of 1953 original)
ISBN 978-1616463427


Homer Evans and Finke Maguire (Finke is a PI in LA, Evans is…well, it's not clear quite what he is) are in Boston on a more-or-less vacation.  One evening, over drinks, one of their group of friends, acquaintances, and hangers-on proposes a bet:  That an ordinary citizen could not undertake to follow someone and attempt to discover things about him, without making a hash of it.  Obviously, the bet is accepted, and what ensues can justifiably be called a catastrophe.  The book does have, however, a rather neat money-laundering scheme applicable (in this case, to Argentina) for people trying to get money out of a country with stringent currency controls.  Paul wrote a lot, and, if this is typical, it's perhaps unsurprising that he is  not well-remembered.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Ellery Queen, Ten Days' Wonder

“Ellery Queen,” Ten Days’ Wonder
Mysterious Press/Open Road Integrated Media, 2013
© 1948 Little, Brown and Co.  Renewed, 1976, Ellery Queen
ISBN 978-1-4532-8967-9


A man awakens in a room he has never, to his current knowledge, seen before.  As he investigates, he discovers he is in a flophouse, broke, and has evidently been in some sort of altercation.  He finally realizes who he is—Howard Van Horn.  He gets to New York, and his friend from his days as a student sculptor in Paris, Ellery Queen.  He asks Queen’s help if discovering what, if anything, he has done, and it emerges that he has been subject to similar blackouts, of varying duration, and with no apparent common cause, for years.  He persuades Ellery to come home with him and try to unravel this mystery.  Home is a rich father’s opulent estate in Wrightsville, the setting of two earlier Queen mysteries.

And Ellery goes to Wrightsville, for the third time, with the excuse that he needs a retreat to complete his current mystery novel (which, as it happens, he does need to do).  He meets Howard’s family—his father, Diedrich Van Horn; his uncle, Wolfert; and his step-mother, Sally (who is, as it happens, younger than Howard).

Things get quite confusing, Ellery’s investigation is not making much progress, when blackmail intervenes.  The blackmail leads to two thefts, and, eventually, to murder.

Now none of this is really much of a surprise, and it’s certainly no surprise that Ellery, in a scene with all the principals, and the police, unravels the entire chain of events with his usual remorselessly logical analysis of the evens.

Everyone—except the murderer—is relieved, and, if the blackmailer is not clearly identified, at least there is a resolution.

Except…more than a year later, a new bit of information emerges, and Ellery realizes that he got it all wrong.  So we’re back to Wrightsville for a second bite at the apple.

What I found myself thinking, at the end, is that this is an almost perfect meta-analysis of all the Ellery Queen mystery.  The obscurity of the events and the evidence, the logical interpretation of it all, and the solution.  But here, we’re shown just how shallow Ellery’s conclusions can be.  Based on the evidence he has, and some assumptions he makes, he reaches a conclusion.  Here’ we’re shown that the same evidence, with a (slightly) different set of assumptions, a (slightly) different analysis can lead to a very different conclusion.

And in doing this, we should bring the entire Ellery Queen series of mysteries to an end.  Because we have just been shown how contingent all of the solutions have been.  The previous 17 Ellery Queen cases have, in effect, been shown to have been constructed on…nothing.  The famous “Queen Method” is as fallible, as liable to false conclusions, as any other method.

And, in its own way, this is a magnificent book, a work of great honesty and, if you will, integrity by its authors.  They show us the mechanism, they let us see  how fragile it is, how illusory their conclusions are.  Here, then, the series should end. 

But, of course, it doesn’t.  Another 16 book length cases follow, as well as a number of short stories.  I think that, had I been coming at this series as it was written, Ten Days’ Wonder would have been the last book I would have been able to read.  I would be conscious, as I would not have been before, of the (logical) error that lies at the heart of the Queen method and the Queen stories.  One small change in one’s assumptions, and the edifice crashes.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Bill Crider, Dead, To Begin With

Bill Crider, Dead, To Begin With
Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press © 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-07853-7
Also available as an ebook


Jake Marley, who has been a recluse for decades (since shortly after his younger sister died in an automobile accident, has recently purchased the old, abandoned, and decrepit opera house in Clearview.  He intends to renovate it, and, for the first event, has commissioned a version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to be set in Texas.   And then he is found--dead--inside the opera house, by Aubrey Hamilton (a local realtor who worked with Marley on his purchase of the opera house.

Although it looks like Marley has fallen from a catwalk, Sheriff Dan Rhodes has his doubts.

Of course, that’s not all that’s going on in Blacklin County, Texas.  For one thing, Elaine Tunstall has gone off her meds and is threatening to inflict serious damage (with a sledgehammer) on The Beauty Shack, where she got what she regards as a bad haircut.  And we have a case of disputed possession of an item at a garage sale, for another.

But Marley’s death is the main event.  The question is, why, if it is murder, anyone would want to murder an extremely wealthy recluse who has come out of seclusion with plans to spend a lot of money to restore the opera house?

Another question is why, in his will, he specifies that he wants the Sheriff to be present at the first performance of the play.  More, why has he named four of his fellow high school students to four specific roles in the play (Scrooge, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet To Come)?  Why will he be playing (of course) the ghost of Jacob Marley?  How, is at all, is his sister’s death related to all this?

Perhaps more than usual, the town of Clearview is a character in this episode of the series.  Its part is, more or less, that of the aging and declining world that was in a world in which it may no longer has a role.

And there may be ghosts.  So C.P. (Seepy) Benton, math professor at the community college, and Harry Harris, English professor (and designated author of the play Marley wanted written), as Clearwater Paranormal Investigations, crash the investigation/

Rhodes pursues his investigation in his usual way, asking questions, stirring up (in this case) decades-old memories, and provoking responses from all the folks concerned.  I was pleased that Rhodes’ wife Ivy has a larger than usual role in the book, as a participant in the investigation.  And Rhodes’ dogs, Yancey and Speedo, are not just doing their doggie thing, they make a contribution to fighting crime.

Crider’s been doing this for a while (this is the 24th book in the series; the first one—Too Late to Die—was published in 1986, and, as in any long-running series, there are commonalities among the tales.  But that doesn’t mean it’s all become formulaic.  The plot here is quite intricate, and the events, from Marley’s emergence from seclusion to the opera house rehab and play to the ultimate solution raise interesting questions about motive, about community, and about justice.  Crider is at the top of his form here, in one of the best books in a fine series.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

E.J. Copperman, Dog Dish of Doom

E.J. Copperman, Dog Dish of Doom
Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press © 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-08427-9
Also available as an ebook


The first in a projected series featuring Kay Powell (an entertainerturned lawyer turned talent agent—she represents animals) and her parents (Jay Powell & Eleanor Ray); as a trio, they played resort hotels as Jay, Kay, and El until Kay broke up the act by going semi-straight.  Her parents forged ahead as a double act on cruise ships.

Kay’s office in in New York and she lives in New Jersey with her two dogs, Steve and Eydie.  Her newest client is Bruno, who’s up for the part of Sandy in a revival of “Annie,” slated to replace the current performer (Horatio).  Bruno is a large, shaggy sweetheart of a dog and a natural performer, of indeterminate breeding.  His owners (Trent and Louise Barclay) are something of a problem at the audition, but that gets partly resolved when Trent is murdered later late that night.

Kay sort of tries to stay out of things, but the detective in charge of the investigation pretty much coerces her into becoming a CI (confidential informant), because she knows both the people involved and the environment in which they work.  And in short order things get complicated.  Someone wants Bruno, and is apparently willing to go to great lengths to get him.  But what’s going on?  Why would anyone want a mutt?  Is this related to Trent’s murder or not?  Why is the Les the director’s assistant (Akra) acting so strangely?

In the end, of course, everything becomes clear, Bruno is saved, and justice is done.  (And, given when I was reading the book, I sort of needed that.)

Kay’s narrative voice is very good, and her parents are delightful (El has a great response early on when Kay says “Mom, I don’t think you’re getting exactly what I’m risking here;”Jay is constantly playing a part).  Copperman does the settings, both in the city and in Jersey, very, very well.  And sneaks in a reference that made me smile.  I’m assuming that Jay and El will manage to find their way to the NY/NJ area in subsequent adventures (I’ll miss them if they’re not there).  And I’m hoping Kay’s assistand in the agenting business, Consuela, and Consuela’s son Dee, will be part of the ensemble (with more to do.

This is probably going to get tagged as a “cozy,” and maybe it is.  But it’s also pretty tough underneath.  I think you’ll enjoy this installment; I know I’m already looking forward to #2.

 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Copycat Photoblogging: Memoies of WW2

Ingrid Robeyns (http://crookedtimber.org/2017/08/12/sunday-photoblogging-never-forget/#comments) reminds us that we should never forget the mass deaths of World War II.  I'd agree.

(May 2000)

Friday, August 4, 2017

George Bellairs, Death of a Busybody

George Bellairs, Death of a Busybody
British Library Crime Classics © 1942 George Bellairs
Reprinted 2016
ISBN 978-0=7123-5644-2


Bellairs was a second- or third-tier writer of mystery novels in what we now call the “golden age.”  The English version of this encompassed members of the various police forces (often a Scotland Yard detective working with a local police unit, as in the case of this book) and “gifted amateurs,” often aristocratic (Campion, Wimsey), but not always (Marple).  He was also fairly prolific, having written 58 books featuring Superintendent Thomas Littlejohn between 1941 and 1980.  Unfortunately, this is a pretty unrelievedly bad book.

The “busybody” of the title is Ethel Tither, a middle-aged spinster in a small village, who wages a one-woman war against immorality, directly confronting those who offend her, urging religious tracts upon them, and insisting that they repent.  Her body is discovered in the septic system of the vicar’s residence, where she had been placed within a very short window, and in which she drowned. 

Littlejohn quickly discovers that Tither had recently—the day before her murder—written a new will (without consulting her solicitor).  What’s not clear is whether the new will—which alters the primary legatee from a cousin to an organization based in London and having as its stated purpose rescuing poor women from a life of degradation—matters.  The investigation does not focus on any particular individual, or small group, mostly because Littlejohn doesn’t learn much of anything pertinent until near the end (and then mostly because people just tell him things).  The real detective work is done in London and its environs, by his Scotland Yard-based assistant Sgt. Cromwell.

Almost all the characters (including the local vicar, the village constable, and Sgt. Cromwell, but not including Littlejohn) have minor (Cromwell’s identification with the Lord Protector) or major (the vicar’s 1,000+page treatise on bee-keeping) eccentricities.  And we have the usual run of “cute” names-the vicar is Mr. Claplady, for example.

This is the third of his Littlejohn books I’ve read, and the characterizations of our protagonist have been fairly inconsistent.  In this instance, he spends a lot of time knocking back the odd glass of beer, making notes, walking around the neighborhood…but remarkably little actually detecting.  The book shares one feature with the other Bellairs books I’ve read—an annoying use of dialect in the conversations Littlejohn has with the locals; the use of dialect seems mostly designed to point out how unsophisticated, or backward, or stupid the people are.  And it extends to using spellings (e.g., “wuz”) in which (as far as I can tell) the pronunciation is the same in the dialect and standard presentation of the words.

Many of the books in the British Library Crime Classics series are actual classics or are worth reading even though they are not classics.  This book is neither.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

John Bude, The Cheltenham Square Murder

John Bude, The Cheltenham Square Murder
British Library Crime Classic, 2016 reprint of 1937 original
© 2016 Estate of John Bude
ISBN 978-1-4642-0669-6


John Bude is a pseudonym of Ernest Carpenter Elmore, who published 36 books (30 as Bude) between 1935 and 1957 (the year of his death).  Superintendent William Meredith appears in 23 of the books, including this one.

It’s a bizarre and obscure crime.  There’s a square on which 10 homes are located, mostly in the English style—abutting each other, but separate structures.  While things seem fairly serene on the surface, emotions seethe beneath, and the book opens with some hints at these underground issues. 

Captain Cotton, employed as a car salesman (and continuing to be referred to with the rank he held 20 years earlier in the Great War, has entered into an affair with one of the residents of the square (Isobel West, wife of Arthur West, who works in a local bank).  One evening, Cotton drops in on Edward Buller, a semi-retired stockbroker.  And, while seated in Buller’s second floor study, with only the back of his head visible above the back of the chair,h aving a drink and a talk about Cotton’s recent inheritance, Cotton is shot, through the open window.  By an arrow.  Loosed, as we shall discover by a 6’ long bow.  And several residents of the square are members of an archery club.

Meredith, who is in Cheltenham visiting a friend, is asked, unofficially, to assist the local police Inspector Long.

Their investigation takes a number of turns, some down blind alleys, before reaching a conclusion.  One thing, though, which seemed obvious to me, apparently does not occur to the police until quite late in the game.

I’d call this a workmanlike effort, but not a classic.  Meredith and Long rather quickly conclude that the murder must be one of the people living in the square, although it’s not clear why.  Cotton’s background remains murky for longer than (it seemed to me) it would have in a real investigation.  And, as I have already suggested, they miss a point that seems both obvious and important.  I’ve read three of four of Bude’s other books, and this one is not up to the others.  Solid, readable, but a little labored and plodding.  If you have not read anything by Bude before, I’d start with Death on the Riviera or The Lake District Murder (his first book).

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Christopher St. John Sprigg, Death of an Airman

Christopher St. John Sprigg, Death of an Airman
British Library Crime Classics 2015 reprint of © 1934 original
ISBN 978-1-4642-0482-1


Another in the ongoing reprints of more-or-less forgotten authors and books.  I certainly had never heard of Sprigg before, and on the evidence of this book, I suspect I’d be interested in giving one or more of his 7 other mysteries a look--and it looks as if I'll be able to,  His Fatality In Fleet Street is available both in print and as an ebook.  (In his introduction to this volume, Marin Edwards notes that Sprigg wrote “a Marxist critique of poetry,” which was publiched posthumously.  (Sprigg died in the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, fighting for theRepublican forces.)

He also had a background in aviation, which certainly shows in this book, much of which takes place in a flying club somewhere in England.  The principal victim (ex-Major George Furnace)is a famous aviator who is working as an instructor at the Baston Aero Club; for no apparent reason, the plane he has taken up for a morning flight goes into a dive and spins into the ground.  An Anglican Bishop from Australia (Edwin Marriott) notices something odd about the corpse (Marriott having had a medical course to help prepare him for his rural Bishopric)—rigor mortis appears to have passed off extremely quickly (or else Furnace did not die when he apparently did).  And so an investigation into Furnace’s likely murder begins.

Sprigg has assembled an interesting cast of characters, including a local police Inspector (Creighton) and a Scotland Yard Inspector (Bray) who wind up working closely together to solve the mystery.  Creighton takes the case to Scotland Yard because, having discovered that Furnace had recently received large payments unrelated to his work, he also discovered that Furnace had taken a white powder to a local chemist for an analysis—and it was cocaine.

As Creughton and Bray pursue the investigation, the timing and cause of Furnace’s death become more mysterious, and the structure and operation of the cocaine  of the cocaine operation become increasingly central to their efforts.

This was, it appears, Sprigg’s second or third mystery(Edwards mentions two other titles, The Perfect Alibi and Crime In Kennsington, the latter of which was Sprigg’s first mystery).  As such, it has some rough spots, and the denouement is a bit perfunctory.  There are several very “stock” characters who don’t add much to the story, but the story is generally well told, and all the pieced are nicely fit together by the Inspectors.  The characterizations are not deep—no one stands out all that much—but it is an enjoyable book.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

One by Mignon Eberhart, another by Mary Roberts Rinehart


Mignon G. Enerhart, Postmark Murder
Open Road 2012 r-reprint of © 1955, 1956

I was scrolling through something recently, and ran across some commentary about Mignon Eberhart, a fairly popular author of what would now (I think) generally be regarded as “cozy” mysteries (52 of them between 1929 and 1988).  And I realized I had never read anything she wrote.  Whatever I ran across mentioned this book (Postmark Murder), which is available as a ebook (as is much of her work), and I thought I’d give it a shot.

The story is set shortly after World War II.  Three people (Doris Stanley, Charlie Stedman, and Laura March) are trustees under the will of Conrad Stanley (Doris is his widow; Charlie, a close friend and business associate; and Laura, the daughter of a close friend; Matt Cosden was Conrad’s lawyer).  One peculiarity of the will is that half of the estate is being held in trust for a cousin Conrad had never met, Conrad Stanislowsky, who was known to have been living in Poland, but who has apparently disappeared.  And the trust is to be wound up three years after his death, with 1/3 of the residual of his estate going to each trustee.  As it happens, Matt discovers a that the Polish Conrad had a daughter, who was in an orphanage in Vienna.  As the book opens, Matt is returning from Vienna with the daughter, Jonny. 

(I suppose I should note that Laura is deeply in love with Matt, who, before Doris married Conrad Stanley, was engaged to Doris.)

So now there is a twist.  If the legatee—and I wish they were not both names Conrad—fails to show up, does the residual estate devolve upon Jonny (who is, for the time being, living with and being cared for by Laura)?

And a second twist:  Shortly before Christmas, a man shows up at Laura’s apartment claiming to be Conrad Stanislowsky and wanting to see his daughter.  He catches a brief glimpse of her, but Laura refuses to allow any contact until he proves who he is.  And he leaves.

A strange woman (calling herself Maria Brown) calls Laura and tells her to come to an address in the Polish section of Chicago (the Pilsen neighborhood, for those of you to whom that will mean something).  Laura (disregarding the lessons of thousands of mystery novels) goes, taking Jonny with her.  She briefly encounters Maria, enters th boarding house, and finds the man who called himself Conrad Stanislowsky dead.  (Of course.) 

The remainder of the book follows (at second hand, actually) the police investigation of the murder.  Laura is a suspect, as are the other 2 trustees.  And Matt is also involved.

The set-up is fairly interesting, but following the progress of the investigation is not handled well, as we really only see it first-hand when Laura is being questioned.  And the denouement was, to me, even less well-handled.  Only Laura is particularly well-developed as a character; the city of Chicago, however, does make itself felt pretty realistically.

On the basis of this experience, I can say both that I can understand Eberhart’s populatiry and doubt that I’ll read another—unless I read a very strong recommendation for a specific book

 

Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Man in Lower Ten
Open Road Media, 2014 (Originally published, 1906, and in the public domain)

Another author by whom I had previously read nothing, one whose reputation today is not as high as it was when she was active (27 novels and a huge number of sorts between 1908 and 1952)

A youngish lawyer, in a partnership in Washington, Lawrence Blakely, ha to travel to Pittsburgh, to take the deposition of a man involved in a counterfeiting situation.  (His partner, Ritchey McNight, pleads he necessity of seeing the young woman he has recently fallen for.)  The trip to Pittsburgh goes smoothly, the deposition is taken, and Blakely boards the train for the return journey to D.C.  This is where things go pear-shaped.

On the return trip, Blakeley assists a fellow passenger in buying a ticket (making sure that she gets a lower berth—11C); he has 10C.  That night, hot and uncomfortable, Blakeley can’s sleep, so he gets up and, in his pajamas and robe, goes to have a smoke.  When he returns, there is someone else asleep-snoring loudly—in lower 10.  On the advice of one of the train staff, he agrees to move across the corridor to 9C—which is probably where the guy in 10C was probably supposed to be.  Later that night, there’s a crash, the man in 10C is discovered dead—not from the crash, but stabbed, the documents Blakeley had been carrying have vanished (as have his clothes).  He’s forced to dress in the clothes of whoever it was who had booked 9C (and they fit none too well).  Subsequently, he and a young lady (Allison East) leave the train; they both have reason to be concerned about an investigation into the death (Blakeley is an obvious suspect, of course).

The set-up is not bad, and has been used over and over again in mysteries set on trains.  But the “investigation” of the murder is, even for the early 20th century, essentially non-existent, and toe “solution” consists of one party who is guilty of one thing dumping responsibility for the murder elsewhere. 

So much for my introduction to MRR.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Alexander Williams, Murder in the WPA

Alexander Williams, Murder in the WPA
Coachwhip Publications © 2017; reprint of 1937 original
ISBN 978-1-61646-415-8


Alexander Williams (who, according to one source was born in 1894 and died in 1952) wrote this and at least three other mysteries [The Hex Murder, The Jinx Theatre Murder (1933), and Death over Newark (1933)].  This is described (at Amazon) as a "golden age" mystery; you can consider it as such if you take as the baseline the hard-drinking, hit-them-over-the-head mystery as "golden age."  Or maybe American "golden age," not British "golden age." 
Murder in the WPA is narrated by James Moore, who has been sent by Works Progress Administration executive Ben Cook to look into the WPA’s operations in an unnamed city.  This assignment has been prompted by a telegram sent by the WPA’s administrator, Commodore Ireton, alleging the presence of communist infiltrators and calling for the suspension of the WPA’s white collar programs (largely in the visual and performing arts, and some others).  (The WPA was established in 1935 and dissolved in 1943.)  Shortly after Moore arrives, Ireton is murdered—strangled—in his office during a demonstration both outside and inside the WPA’s offices.

Moore’s outsider status, and his appointment of acting WPA administrator for the district, makes him a natural to work with the police officer (Detective Lieutenant Pietro Tonelli, who also appears in The Jinx Theatre Murder and Death Over Newark, both, apparently—I have read neither of them—set in New York).  Given the disruption at the time of the murder, it’s difficult to determine immediately a motive, or to identify a small group of suspects.  Within short order, Ireton’s lover is also murdered, in her apartment, again in circumstances that fail to eliminate anyone or to focus suspicion on anyone.

Complicating the situation is the existence of an organization calling itself Four-Square For America (an obviously fascist organization); many of the WPA workers seem to be members.  Another complication is that Ireton’s daughter (Jaze) and one of the people in the theatre section (Larry) are in love, and trying to keep it a secret.

There’s much drinking, a fair number of people bopped on the head (including Moore more than once), and much confusion.  Little in the way of detection occurs, until we have a climactic scene in a farmhouse some distance from the city.  In fact, we discover some of the information relevant to the solution of the murders when Tonelli explains all to Moore at the end of the book.

There’s a fair amount to like in the book.  Williams obviously knew a lot about the organization and operation of the WPA arts programs, and the story is fast-paced and more-or-less in the screwball comedy category of mysteries.  I would not call it a fair-play mystery though.  I’ll probably read the two previous books (The Hex Murder is also available; Tonelli does not appear in it, so I’ll wait on that).  But these are also not going to be keepers.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Hank Philippi Ryan, The Other Woman


Hank Philippi Ryan, The Other Woman
Forge Books; © 2012


This is the first book in a series (so far with five entries) featuring Jane Ryland, and it was quite widely admired:

2013 Mary Higgins Clark Award

Finalist 2012 Agatha Award for Best Novel
Finalist 2013 Anthony Award for Best Mystery
Finalist 2013 Macavity Award for Best Mystery
Finalist 2013 Shamus Award for Best Novel

It probably says more about me than about the book, but I was not all that impressed.

Ryland was a rising television news star in Boston, until the subject of one of her stories (Arthur Vick) sued for libel—and won a $1 million judgment.  Ryland had refused to reveal her source for the story, and the jury chose to believe Vick.  She lost her job in the aftermath, and, as this book opens, is beginning a new job (which, incidentally, is not well defined—newspaper reporters tend to have “beats”—local government, education, neighborhood, crime/police; by inference, Ryland seems to be on a mix of covering politics—a campaign for a US Senate seat—and crime).  Her first assignment is to get an interview with the wife (Moira Lassiter) of one of the candidates (Owen) for the Senate.

Meanwhile, a cop whom Ryland has reluctantly chosen not to pursue a personal relationship with is one of the lead investigators working on what may, or may not, be serial killings.  (Incidentally, for all the media coverage the killings are getting, it seems odd that apparently only two cops are actively working the case.)  And—surprise!—one of the potential suspects is Arthur Vick.

Reverting back to the campaign, a young woman (Keena Wilke) basically talks her way into a more and more important role as a volunteer, while another (or the same?) woman is up to something as Holly Neft.  As we progress through the book, Lassiter’s campaign manager, Rory Maitland, does some fairly surprisingly badly designed things…and Lassiter seems not to realize that Maitland is behaving strangely (Lassiter, it should be noted, is a career politician and a former governor of Massachusetts).  None of these characters seem to me to be well-developed or particularly credible; their actions seem to spring more from the requirements of Ryan’s plot than from their personalities.

Jane Ryland, our lead character, did not make a very positive impression (on me, at any rate).  She starts off being pretty self-pitying (understandably, maybe) and whiny.  She apparently never sleeps or eats.  And the examples we get to read of her reportorial writing are not very compelling.  As an interviewer, she doesn’t ask interesting, probing, or challenging questions.  (Frankly, she never seems to be well-prepared for interviews.)

Finally (the this is almost certainly a SPOILER, so you might want to skip this paragraph), apparently no one knows that Owen Lassiter had been married once before he married Moira, and that he has a son and a daughter from that first marriage.  The man’s a career politician, for god’s sake.  As near as I can make out the timeline, he held elective office during his first marriage.  And everyone has forgotten about it? 

Ryan writes reasonably well, and the conclusion to the book is reasonably well-handled,  But I had a lot of trouble getting to the conclusion.  I’m not sure I’m inclined to read another in the series.



 



Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Margery Allingham, Coroner’s Pigdin (Pearls Before Swine in the US)

Margery Allingham, Coroner’s Pigdin (Pearls Before Swine in the US)
Ipso Books, 2015 ebook reissue of 1945 original
© Estate of Margery Allingham 1945


Had you told me there was an Albert Campion story I had not read, I would (a) have laughed and (b) tried to find it immediately.  I ran across a mention of this book (I forget where) and did not recognize the title, or the description of the book.  So I acquired it and read it.

It’s 1944; Campion has returned to London (a stopover on his way home) after an extended undercover assignment, presumably for a British intelligence service.  Stopping by his London flat to bathe before catching a train, he is interrupted by the arrival of his manservant Lugg and Lady Carados.  They have brought a corpse to his flat, in an attempt to disguise the fact that the death actually occurred in the flat of Lady Carados’s son Johnny.  Johnny is to be married in a couple of days to the widow of one of his comrades-in-arms (RAF); he had promised to take care of her.  And the body, we quickly learn, was found in Johnny’s bed. The widow, Susan Shering, also arrives, and shortly thereafter a US Army Lieutenant (Don Evers) also arrived.

So we now have 5 living and 1 dead in Campion’s flat.  And Johnny is apparently on his way.  And he arrives, with /Evangeline (Eve) Snow, an actress and Johnny’s long-time lover, and with Dolly Chivers, a sort of administrative secretary to the Carados family,.

If this sounds like the setup for a farce, well, it does—even with the corpse in the bedroom.  (Actually The Corpse In The Bedroom wouldn’t have been a bad title for the book.)

And, finally, we learn the name of the dead woman—Moppet Lewis, a hanger-on in the crowd around Johnny.

Everyone thinks it’s suicide, but, of course, it’s murder, and the police are shortly to hand.  And Campion, far from taking the train home to wife (Amanda Fitton, who runs a very successful aeronautical engineering company) and son, is stuck with his part in the investigation.

The investigation has its moments, although there’s an extended interruption involving stolen art works, and, while I thought Campion really had very little to do except finally point out where the police were going wrong, the book is quite readable.  Not really a first-rate work, probably really not enough going on for a novel,, but satisfactory. 

(The cover illustration is particularly jarring, as no one was shot or stabbed or bled profusely.)

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ted Allebury, The Twentieth Day of January

Ted Allebury, The Twentieth Day of January
Dover Publications 2017 reprint of 1980 original
© Estate of Ted Allebury
ISBN 978-0-486-81922-8


I decided to purchase and read this book largely because of the back cover copy:

Seemingly out of nowhere, wealthy businessman Logan Powell has become President-elect and is weeks away from assuming the most powerful position in the world…British intelligence agent James MacKay uncovers shocking evidence that suggests something might be terribly wrong with the election.  With the help of a reluctant CIA, MacKay sets out…to discover if the unthinkable has occurred:  Is President-elect Powell actually a puppet of the Soviet Union?

It’s almost as if Allebury had a pipeline to the future.

MacKay, as it turns out, is not the major figure in the investigation; a senior CIA official, Peter Nolan, is.  Allebury (whose best book, in my opinion, is The Other Side of Silence, about the Kim Philby fiasco) has written a readable thriller with an all-too-plausible scenario.  Logan Powell is not, exactly, a puppet of the Soviet Union, but, as we quickly learn, so this does not, I think, reveal anything important, his campaign manager (and Chief-of-Staff designee) Andrew Dempsey is a long-term Soviet agent (dating back to the upheavals in France in 1968).

In the course of finding actual evidence of what has happened, several people die and the CIA uses what many of us might regard as somewhat dodgy investigative (break-ins) and interrogation (potent and dangerous drugs) techniques.  This is a quick (218 pages), generally satisfying read.

As is often the case when an English author undertakes to write a story set in and mostly populated by Americans, there are occasional mis-hits with language.  In this case, he has Americans consistently saying “I shall” do something, when anyone I know would say “I will,” or “I’ll.”  And there are some minor mistakes with Congressional positions.  Those slips do not detract from the overall excellence of the work. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Anthony Rolls, Scarweather

Anthony Rolls, Scarweather
British Library Crime Classics, 2017 reprint of 1934 original
© 2017 Estate of Anthony Rolls
ISBN 978-1-4642-0740-2


John Farringdale (who narrates this tale) and Eric Foster are cousins; Foster has studied to become a doctor, and Farringdale, two years younger, is studying to be a lawyer.  One of Farringdale’s mentors, oddly, is a chemist (with interests in other sciences, including archeology), Frederick Ellingham.  The story begins in the summer of 1913.  Through his membership in the London Archeological Union, Foster makes the acquaintance of a famous chemist and archeologist Tolgen Reisby.  And, as a result of their meeting and mutual interest, Foster is invited to visit Reisby at his home (Scarweather), in a remote part of Scotland.  Foster invites his cousin to come along (in the spring of 1914).

There, they meet Reisby’s much younger wife Helen (she’s in her early 20s; Reisby is, as the story opens, in his late 50s) and their young daughter (Frances).  Everything seems to be splendid, but Foster also seems to be falling in love with Helen (and she, perhaps with him), which is likely to create complications.  Ellingham is also a part of this visit.

Somewhat later, while Foster is there and Farringdale and Ellingham have returned to England, Foster disappears.  The police conclude that he died in a boating accident and his body is lost in the North Sea.  At this point we are maybe 25% through the book.  We do not reach a conclusion until some 13 years later.

However, there is really no suspense.  Anyone who has read even an inconsiderable amount of mystery fiction knows how this is going to end (and Farringdale is continually dropping hints).  So, at least for me, there was little suspense, and little surprise in what had transpired.   Martin Edwards, in his introduction, notes that the author (whose real name is Colwyn Edward Vuillamy) was himself an archeologist of some note.  He compares Vuillamy’s crime fiction (not unfavorably) to that of Francis Iles (Malice Aforethought, among other books).  Personally, I don’t see the comparison—Iles’ books are truly suspenseful and psychologically complex.  This example of Vuillamy’s fiction is neither.