Saturday, May 27, 2017

How much is that?

One of the things I tend to do is to adjust mentally any prices or incomes in a mystery to the "present-equivalent." And I just read (oddly enough for the first time) Agatha Christie's Death in the Clouds (also published as Death in the Air), which was published in 1938 (and presumably written in 1937). As a part of the story, Poirot discusses making a 500 pound contribution to an expedition being planned by a father-and-son team of archeologists.

So how much is that?

Well,... for starters, that would have been about $2,500 in 1937 at the exchange rate between the dollar and the pound in 1937, or about twice the average income for a male worker employed full-time, full year. So we can adjust that wo ways.

First, according to the CPI, prices are about 17 (16.67) times as high today as in 1937. Su a simple inflation adjustment says that's about $45,000.

Or, we could ask, what's the average annual income for an adult male worker in the US who's employed full-time, full-year now? The answer is about $900 a week, or nearly $47,000. But Poirot was talking about a contribution equal to TWICE the average annual income in 1937, or $94,000.
So either way, Hercule must have had a healthy bank balance to casually consider offering that sore of a contribution. Healthier than mine, for sure.

(Incidentally, he did make the contribution.)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

E.J. Copperman, Edited Out

E.J. Copperman, Edited Out
Crooked Lane © 2017 E.J. Copperman
ISBN 978-1-68331-130-0

In the second outing of the Mysterious Detective series, Rachel Goldman (mid-list author of mystery novels) has found herself stuck on her latest book.  Her series features Duffy Madison, a free-lance consultant to police departments in missing persons cases, and recently (see Written Off) a real, live Duffy Madison has shown up, claiming that he has no recollection of anything before about 5 years earlier (when her series debuted).  Her problem is that the living Duffy seems to be disrupting her thinking about the fictional one.

And when she calls Duffy (to try to clear her mind, he immediately asks to help him try to track something down (in Poughkeepsie) which might yield a clue to who he really is.  Or was.  The something involves the disappearance of one Damien Moseley, who would be about the same age as Duffy, and whom Duffy believes might be who he was before.  Complications immediately ensue.  And whom Duffy believes is dead, based on his discovery of a 5-year-old cold case death investigation.

Duffy uncovers information that leads him to believe that Damien is dead, probably murdered…five years ago.  There is (it happens) a Duffy Madison who was apparently in the same high school graduating class as Damien.  THAT Duffy was apparently a member of the Classics Club, but his picture is not in the yearbook.  And that’s just the beginning.  Rachel, of course, puts aside her writing (which was not going well, although throughout the investigation she continues to try to hammer out her 1,000 words a day) and accompanies Duffy (or is it Damien?) from the wilds of New Jersey to New York. 

Along the way, they discover that Damien had married, had apparently lived (if only briefly with a woman (also in the same high school class who has (also) disappeared) in a condo owned by Damien’s mother. 

The pace of the book accelerates considerably as their investigation proceeds, and the conclusion is neatly handled. 

This is a book that should probably be read only after you read Written Off, although there’s enough background provided that it’s not necessary.  And I think you should read Edited Out.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Loren Estleman, Nearly Nero

Loren Estelman, Nearly Nero:  The Adventures of Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Nero Wolfe
Gallery Books.  © 2017 Loren Estelman

Eight (unless I miscounted) previously published stories about the detection exploits of Claudius Lyon, narrated by his assistant, Arnie Woodbine.  Lyon (who inherited a fortune) has fashioned himself in in the image of Nero Wolfe, including his on private (but non-live-in) chef, Gus.  He grows tomatoes (having a brown thumb), unassisted.  And he completes the household by hiring Arnie Woodbine (sounds a lot like Archie Goodwin is you slur your speech and say it quickly).  (He does not live in Manhattan, but on Avenue J in Brooklyn.)  Lyon takes no pay for his efforts (he’s not licensed, and the bunco squad detective at the local precinct would love to bust him).  In this world, I should note, Nero Wolfe is a real PI, not a fictional character.

Arnie is a con man recently out of prison, and serves as our narrator.  The writing is smooth (I would not have expected anything less of Estelman), but the “cases” are rather thin, and  the solutions (which were all fairly obvious) seemed to less from deduction or from Arnie’s leg work (which was, in any case, largely confined to finding creative ways to supplement his salary) than from coincidence and leaps of intuition.

As an aficionado of the Wolfean world, I found the collection barely worth the time.  A reader who is not already a fan of Nero and Archie and the gang will probably not find this to be a particularly rewarding was to spend a few hours.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Dodge City...and the Great War

Tom Clavin, Dodge City:  Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West
St. Martin’s Press © 2017
ISBN: 978-1-1250-07148-4

Clavin’s simultaneous biography of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson has been fairly widely praised.  I thought it was a generally well-researched but hardly gripping story of the ten year period in which the west went from (mostly) wild to (generally) tame.  Wyatt and Bat are pretty compelling characters on whom to hang the tale, and one of the most compelling parts of their story is how young (Wyatt was 25 and Bat was not yet 20 when the story begins, in 1873) the protagonists were.  Indeed, it’s amazing how young most of the main characters—good (Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren—Wyatt’s brothers; and Jim, Bat’s brother; Doc Holliday) and bad (Billy the Kid, Johnny Ringo, and many others, including the Clancy clan) were.  And the longevity of many of them (Wyatt lived until he was nearly 71; Bat died a month shy of 68; m more than a few of the other people in the tale lived into their 80s and 90s), given the times, is pretty remarkable.

 In my opinion, Clavin has two difficulties he has to overcome.  The first is that there is little real suspense; we know that Wyatt and Bat lived long lives and that their antagonists generally did not.  So every time Clavin relates one of the dangerous incidents in their lives, we know that they are going to get through it basically unharmed.  The second is the difficulty he has in really making clear the personalities and motives of the two men on whom he focuses.  While there has been a lot written about both of them, it seems to me that (at least based on Clavin’s use of his source material) no one really provided a psychological portrait of either man.  (This is, in general, an advantage for fiction—the author has control over the characters’ inner and outer lives.)

One of the lessors that I took away from the book, and one I have to re-learn every time I read a detailed piece of history from before the 20th century, is how mobile at least some portion of the population was, given how difficult travel was.  Just in the 10 period covered in the main part of Clavin’s book, Wyatt (as on example) moves from where he was born (in Illinois), grew up in Iowa, moved to Kansas, and moved around between Dodge and the Dakotas, Texas, and Arizona without really putting down roots anywhere.  After his Dodge City days, he prospected for gold in Alaska, did numerous things in California (where he finally mostly settled down after age 50 or so.  Just as one example of the difficulties of this sort of life:  It’s 900 miles from Dodge to Tombstone.  Google Maps tells me I can drive that in 13 hours.  For Wyatt, on horseback and pushing, that would take at least a month; in a wagon, even longer.  Even by train, it would be at least a week-long trip.  (This book, by the way, would really benefit from having some maps.)

If you aren’t familiar with the lives and times of Wyatt and Bat, Clavin’s book will help you understand the rimes.  I’m less sure that it helps us understand their lives.

John Gardner, The Secret Generations [© 1985]
eBook Publication by Endeavor Press

The Railton family—the main actors in John Gardner’s “Secrets” trilogy—have been insiders in English military and governing structures for generations.  In The Secret Generations, we follow three generations of Railtons from 1910 to 1920 and see how their lives were radically changed by the Great War—and how they contributed to t hose changes as they participate in the war.  Gardner is obviously telling a vast story here, and he has a vast cast of characters with which to do it.  (So vast, in fact, that I felt that the book needed either a list of principal characters, or a genealogy of the Railtons, or both).  In this book, we begin with three generations of the family—beginning with Giles (who must have been born in the 1840s), the middle generation (Charles and Andrew, presumably born in the 1865-1870 period), and the third generation (dating from around 1890, and the fourth generation arrives in stages throughout the book.

Giles is in many ways the focus of the book, and he is an insider (in many ways) in British intelligence.  His actions affect the lives of his family and have the possibility of affecting the Empire.  (“Real” people show up—Churchill, Lloyd George, Roger Casement—if only briefly.)  The plot focuses on German efforts at intelligence-gathering (and sabotage) in England and English efforts to obtain information on German initiatives, largely on the battlefield. 

I found the first half of the book something of a slog, partly because Gardner had to establish the family (so progress on the events that become important in the second half occurs only slowly), but the pace picks up considerably in the second half.  Gardner obviously knows the Great War’s history well, and the limited number of battle scenes evoke it in dramatic fashion.  I thought the extended coda was perhaps a bit more than we needed, but it does at least lead us into the second book in the trilogy---Secret Houses—which I am looking forward to.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Christianna Brand, Fog of Doubt

Christianna Brand, Fog of Doubt Road © 1953; this edition 2011

This is the story of an English family, with complications.  The principals are Thomas and Matilda Evans, a married couple with a small child; Rosie, Thomas’s (20-years-younger than he) sister (and recently returned to England from a school in Switzerland); Thomas’s grandmother; Melissa, Thomas’s secretary and family servant; Tedward (Thomas Edwards), Thomas’s partner in his medical practice; assorted acquaintances; and Inspector Cockrill (Cockie). Known to the family from earlier goings-on.  Oh, and Matilda’s one-time lover, Raoul Vernet, who has come to London for the purpose of communicating something important to her.

Rosie, who is (it seems) in her late teens, and pregnant.  She’s trying to find someone, almost anyone, to have an abortion.  Among the people she approaches is Tedward, who has conceived a hopeless passion for her.  Rosie manages to tell everyone a different story about how, and by whom, she became pregnant.  When she finally pitches up at Tedward’s home (and office), abut 9 PM, with one of London’s famous fogs rapidly making visibility essentially zero., she tells him a story suggesting that Raoul is the man.  While she’s there, the phone rings, and Rosie answers.  It’s Raoul, urgently asking for medical care; he has been assaulted and is at the Evans’ house.

Tedward gets the car out, and, on the way, manages to get lost in the fog.  When they arrive, Raoul is dead (in the hallway, clutching the phone, which has been pulled from the wall).  He has been battered by a blunt object (which turns out to be a mastoid mallet, a medical instrument).  As Rosie and Tedward arrive, Matilda is coming down from having helped her grandmother-in-law to bed and getting her own child down for the night; she has seen and heard nothing.

A London police superintendent investigates, the family calls Cockie to help them find out what’s happened.  Eventually the London cop arrests Thomas, but releases him in order to arrest Tedward.  Roughly the last third of the book is given over to an account of Tedward’s trial.

Brand wrote an interesting introduction (for the late 1970s republication), in which she talks about the background to the story, why she still likes it a lot, and says it is her favorite of all her books.  Personally, I found the Evans family pretty uninteresting and large stretches of the book seems like filler.  But the mystery and its investigation are nicely handled, and the conclusion does come as something of a surprise—although everything I as a reader needed to know is there in plain sight.  Not an outstanding piece of work, but a reasonable and generally satisfying read.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Bill Crider, Piano Man (A Short Story)

Bill Crider, Piano Man
Brash Books © 2014 by Bill Crider
ISBN:  3-978-1941-2982-99

Our narrator is a piano player in the Bad Dog Saloon in a settlement (it might be too much to call it a town) near Fort Laramie.  The story of how he became a piano player, and wound up in the Bad Dog is quickly and well told.  And things become both interesting, and potentially disastrous, when “a man named Morgan” got involved in a poker game with the owner of the saloon—and put his 15-year-old daughter up as his stake on a hand.  He lost, of course.

The remainder of the story involves the Piano Man’s reactions to this event, and Morgan’s efforts to reclaim his daughter.  And the longer this takes, the more violent things get.

This was, for me, something different by Crider; I have basically not read his westerns, having instead been a devoted reader of his PI books (Truman Smith and others), his college mysteries (the Carl Burns and Sally Good books), and his long-running series featuring Sheriff Dan Rhodes.  Crider writes very well, and if the conclusion holds less in the way of surprise that it might, this is a good, solid, and disturbing read.  Worth the time (and money) to seek out.

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Body Snatcher Affair

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Body Snatcher Affair
A Tom Doherty & Associated Book/Forge © 2014The Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
eISBN: 987-1-4299-9723-2

The third book featuring Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon finds Quincannon in Chinatown to find, and return to his home, James Scarlett, an attorney who has been doing a lot of work for one of the tongs in Chinatown.  Meanwhile Carpenter, who has been spending a fair amount of time with Carson Montgomery (a mining engineer), and who is now wondering where the relationship might be going, has accepted a job from the widow of Ruben Blanchford, who had been a financier in life—his body has been stolen, and the thieves are asking for $75,000 for its return.

Things go awry quite quickly for Quincannon—he finds Scarlett quickly enough (in a Chinatown opium den), but Scarlett is shot (and killed) while Quincannon is taking him home.  The police are concerned that this might trigger a gang war in Chinatown; Quincannon concurs, but suggests restraint.  His concern is who killed Scarlett (and nearly killed him), and why.  To discover that, he needs some time, to search Scarlett’s office and to probe the situation in Chinatown.  And, as he discovers, there is also a body missing in Chinatown.

Carpenter, in her case, finds what appears to  be an impossible theft of Blanchford’s body from the family crypt—nothing has been obviously disturbed, and the crypt was (apparently) continuously locked.  The only anomalous fact is that the preparation of the body for interment was handled by a third-rate mortician.

And in the background, “Sherlock Holmes” (an Englishman who either is Holmes or is using his name and reputation) seems to be investigating Carson Montgomery.

Muller and Pronzini do an excellent job of establishing their characters and bringing San Francisco in the 1890s to life.  Chinatown, in many ways, dominates the book, and the social/economic/political structure of Chinatown and of the rest of the city are perfectly done (at least so it seems to me.  Both Carpenter and Quincannon pursue their investigations professionally and according to their characters as they have been established in the first two books.  And if the reader does not learn everything that either of them learns in the course of their investigations, that’s a minor departure from the ideal of the “fair play” mystery.

All three of the Carpenter/Quincannon books are well worth  your time, and thie might be the best of the three.

As an aside (, the issue of opium use among the Chinese is an important issue in the relationships between the Western countries and China, and between the immigrant and the Anglo population in SF.  It’s important to remember that opium was introduced to China by English and French merchants seeking to find something that they could sell profitably to a large Chinese market that had little use for European goods.  (At the same time, Europe was buying huge quantities of things, from tea to spices to silks, from China.)  The Second Opium War (1856-1860) resulted in China being forced to accept a very punitive peace treaty, and yield considerable control of its internal affairs to France and England.  Two important aspects of the treaty is that trade in opium was made legal, and was under European control, and that British ships had a monopoly on the transportation of Chinese as “indentured” workers (but, in reality, virtually as slaves) to the Americas.  William Gladstone, who served off and on as Prime Minister of England in the late 19th century denounced the opium trade as "a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace".[

Friday, March 10, 2017

A photo of a spy gun

"Antique Pistol Spy Gun Produced in 1800, this antique French pistol spy gun. This intricate, yet impractical 5-shot working revolver was once one of the smallest killing devices ever created."
From these folks, but I can't actually find it on the FB page...

No automatic alt text available.

Robert Goldsborough, Murder, Stage Left

Robert Goldsborough, Murder, Stage Left
The Mysterious Press/Open Road © 2017
eISBN 978-1-5040-4110-2

This is Goldsborough’s 12th excursion into the world of Nero Wolfe; like most of the others, it is a valiant effort, but it fails on at least four counts.

To set the stage…Nero Wolfe is hired by a major producer and director of Broadway plays, Roy Breckenridge, who fears that there is some hidden issue—some simmering problem among the cast—of his most recent hit play (Death At Cresthaven).  Wolfe accepts the job (although it is unclear to me why), and his assistant, Archie Goodwin goes undercover, masquerading as a writer for a Toronto-based theater magazine.  He has brief (and not particularly useful) interviews with all the cast members (it is, fortunately, a small cast) and the stage manager.  (There are apparently no costume or make-up people associated with the play, and any backstage crew or front-of-the-house people are excluded, although why they would be excluded is, again unclear.  These interviews occur before a matinee performance and continue in the interval before the evening performance.  And, during the evening performance, Breckenridge is murdered—arsenic in his Coca Cola.

The bulk of the book is spent on individual interviews with the case and the stage manager, during which one of them says something—or, as Wolfe points out at the end doesn’t say something--that reveals to him whodunit.  (During these interviews, Archie is not actually present—his role as a journalist is being concealed from the cast, and Saul Panzer fills in for him.  Also present is Lewis Hewitt, upper-class orchid fancier, whose intervention induced Wolfe to take the case to begin with.)

So what are the failures?  First, as has generally been the case, Goldsborough does not manage to capture wither the voices of the major characters.  When a new author is carrying on a lengthy series, one which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with, this is an issue.  The primary failure is with Archie.  He is at too flippant for one thing, not only with Wolfe but also with the other series characters, and his role as burr under the saddle to Wolfe’s inherent laziness does not really show up. 

Second, the initial justification for an investigation disappears with Breckenridge’s death.  Granted that the murder probably reduces the importance of that, but I, as a reader, was expecting the solution would somehow circle back to Breckenridge’s concerns.  In Archie’s interviews with the cast and crew, no hint of anything really emerges, and I, at any rate, was left with the feeling that Goldsborough just forgot about it.

Third, in his interviews with the people involved in the play, there is never any sense that Wolfe has made any progress.  If anything, at the end of those interviews, we seem to be further from a solution than closer.  The interviews themselves are not well handled; Wolfe does not ask any particularly penetrating questions, and, in fact, leaves any number of issued unexplored.  (I will note that Goldsborough has fallen into a habit of having Wolfe interview those involved individually, whereas one of the strengths of the original books, by Rex Stout, was Stout’s exceptional construction of scenes involving a large number of participants.

But, finally, the solution seems implausible, and almost forced.  As noted, it depends on what one of the people associated with the play does not say, and the inference that Wolfe draws from that seems altogether forced.  Fortunately, that person immediately confesses (which I thought was out of character, as well). 

For me, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books are among the most satisfying in American PI fiction, largely because of Archie Goodwin’s narrative voice.  I could forgive that, to some extent, if Goldsborough managed his plots better.  (And, I’ll confess, I’ll almost certainly go on reading them, but without much in the way of expectations.)

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Spook Lights Affair

Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, The Spook Lights Affair
Tom Doherty Associates LLC/A Forge Book © 2013
eISBN 978-1-4299-0722-5

(NOTE:  Do not read the concluding paragraph if you don’t want to encounter a minor spoiler.)

Sabina Carpenter has been hired to keep an eye on San Francisco socialite Virginia St. Ives, for the purpose of keeping her from seeing Lucas Whiffing, the son of a middle-class family (and a clerk in a bicycle and sporting goods establishment).  While she is in attendance at a major bash at the home of SF mayor Adolph Sutro, Virginia confronts Carpenter, rushes out of the house into a foggy night, and apparently throws herself off a patio overlooking a 250-foot drop.  Her body, when a search is made, is nowhere to be found.  And she left what clearly read as a suicide note.

Meanwhile, Carpenter’s partner John Quincannon has undertaken to recover $35,000 that has been stolen from Wells Fargo—the reward is 10% of whatever money is recovered.  And $3,500 is, even in SF, at least 2 years’ income in the mid-1890s.  He is following Bob Cantwell, who, he has learned, knows something about the theft.  After an unsatisfactory confrontation, Cantwell escapes; Quincannon follows him, only to discover him dead in an abandoned photographer’s studio.  All he has learned is that a man named Zeke and someone nicknamed The Kid are involved.

Both cases take unexpected turns, with Quincannon and Carpenter discovering some things at the scene of St, Ives’ disappearance that might help explain why her body was not found.  And Quincannon discovers that her brother David, Cantwell, and Whitting were all habitues of the same gambling establishment.  And a new client enters the picture…a financial advisor (Barnaby Meeker) who lives in the same rather disreputable area as does Whitting’s family wants to hire Carpenter and Quincannon to investigate ghostly apparitions that seem to be infesting the area around his (and Whitting’s) home.

Muller and Pronzini are pros, and they have created two likable and interesting characters.  The have also created a authentic-seeming backdrop to the action, and the supporting cast is also well drawn.  (This the second in a series; the first, The Bughouse Affair was also a smooth read.)  Carpenter and Quincannon pursue their investigations as (it seems to me) true professionals would, and, by the end of the book, the resolution is well done as well.  There is one aspect of the resolution, however, that has now been a feature of both of the books I have read so far that I  hope will not be a part of every book.  In both The Bughouse Affair and in this book, what begin as separate cases turn out to be one—in this case, Virginia St. Ives’ disappearance and apparent suicide is directly linked to—caused by the same forces—the Wells Fargo robbery.  It makes for a neat resolution, but a little of this sort of thing goes a long way.  But that’s a quibble, and it may not bother anyone but me.  This is a nicely constructed story, well told by two professionals, and ,more than worth your time.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Mark Pryor, The Bookseller

Mark Pryor, The Bookseller
Seventh Street Books; © 2012
ISBN: 978-1616147082

This is the first of Pryor’s books featuring Hugo Marston.  Marston, formerly a “profiler” for the FBI, has been working for some years as chief of security, first at the U.S. Embassy in London (recounted in The Button Man, a “prequel” to The Bookseller) and, in this episode, in Paris.  Marston, who has an interest in antiquarian books, buys two books for his ex-wife (a first edition of Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds and what turns out to be an inscribed—to Paul Verlaine—first edition of Arthur Rinbaud’a Une Saison En Enfer) from his friend Max, a bouquiniste, a bookseller with a stall alongside the Seine.  While there, he sees another bookseller being harassed, and, when he returns (having found an ATM) with the cash to pay for the books, a stranger named Nica arrives—and he is clearly no friend of Max.  After Nica and Max walk down to the Seine, Marston becomes concerned, goes after then, and Nica draws an icepick and holds it threateningly over Max’s eyes.  Following a brief struggle. Marston is on the ground and Nica has shoved Max into the Seine, where they are picked up by a cruising riverboat.

Marston calls the police, who, when they arrive, are not too impressed with his account.

From this beginning, Marston is pulled into his own investigation of what’s going on, including discoveries about the SPB, the organization that actually owns and leases out the stalls; Claudia, a young, beautiful crime reporter; his old FBI (now semi-retired from the CIS) buddy Tom, Claudia’s husband, a French count, and a copy of Clausewitz’s On War.

The suspense is well-maintained throughout; even after we know essentially what is happening to the bouquiniste, and why, and who is  behind it.  For a first novel, this is more than impressive, it’s a tour de force.  Marston is a well-developed character (and I am hoping Tom and Claudia will be continuing characters), and the setting and situation are better than well done.  I read The Button Man first and enjoyed it.  This is a considerably better story, and it bodes well for the series as a while.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Another Episode of CopyCat PhotoBlogging

This is in the town of Santenay, in France, taken in 2000.


Monday, February 20, 2017

Mark Pryor, The Button Man

Mark Pryor, The Button Man
Seventh Street Books © 2014
ISBN 978-1-61614-944-9

Hugo Marston, former FBI agent who specialized in serial killers, has become the chief of security at the US embassy in London.  He gets what is probably an unusual assignment.  Two American film stars (husband and wife), Dayton Harper and Ginny Ferro, have been arrested following the hit-and-run death of a prominent farmer’s son.  They are about to be released from custody, on bail and into the keeping of the American embassy.  The ambassador wants Marston to pick them up and keep them safely out of trouble in his quarters in the embassy compound.

Marston was late to his meeting with the ambassador, because he detoured to look at a 100+ year-old murder scene and, while cutting through an old cemetery, had discovered a body, its head covered by a silk sack, hanging from a tree.  But he reluctantly accepts this new assignment, and goes to pick Harper up.  It turns out that through a clerical error , Ferro was released some hours earlier, and no one knows where she is.  Marston gets Harper back to the embassy compound, where they learn (coincidence? Suicide? Murder, and if so, why?) that the body that Ferro found was that of Ferro.  Harper, understandably, freaks out.
And then (having telephoned earlier) a Member of Parliament shows up—Graham Stopford-Pendrith, who has essentially renounced a title to serve in the Commons.  He was with MI5, and his legislative hobbyhorse is to release aging cons as a money-saving gimmick for the Treasury.  They all chat and then, as a gesture aimed at placating Harper, they pile into the embassy’s Escalade for a drive around London.  Harper escapes and disappears.  And Marston has to find him.

So it becomes a chase.  Marston winds up with the assistance of Merlyvn, a young woman who has jobs at both the hotels at which Harper and Ferro had rooms.  They are followed by a 60-ish free-lance journalist, Harry Walton, who wants the story about Harper and his wife.  It remains a chase basically to the end.  Along the way, more people die or almost die, and Marston becomes convinced that the killer is not Harper, but someone else, acting on what is, through most of the book, an obscure motive.

The Button Man is actually the 4th Marston book (of now 6 in the series), but it is set briefly before the events in the first in the series (The Bookseller, 2012), so I decided to start with it.  Pryor does a very good job with the setting (although I think he overemphasizes the extent of the rain in England, if my tourist experience is worth anything).  I had fairly high expectations for the book, based on reviews I have read of the rest of the series, and, which it was good, it was not as good as I had hoped.  Marston felt sort of incomplete as a character (and I’m not quite sure what I mean by that) and the reliance on a serial killer with a distinctive motivation (I’ll give hm credit for that) was a drawback—I’m not a big fan of serial killer books.  Still, I look forward to reading The Bookseller, and, I hope, the rest of the series.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Marcia Muller, The Cavalier In White

Marcia Muller, The Cavalier In White
St. Martin’s Press © 1986
Available as an ebook from
Speaking Volumes  2011

I generally like mysteries set in and around the art world quite a lot.  I am a big fan of Aaron Elkins’ Chris Nordgren books [A Deceptive Clarity (1987); A Glancing Light (1991), and Old Scored (1993)] and have always wished there were more of them.  I also am very fond of the Alix London books, co-written by Charlotte Elkins and Aaron Elkins [A Dangerous Talent (2013); A Cruise to Die For (2013); The Art Whisperer (2014); and The Trouble With Mirrors (2016)).  My favorites, though, are the 7 books by Iain Pears, featuring Jonathan Argyll (an American art scholar) and Flavia di Stefano and General Bottando, of the Art Theft Squad in Rome [The Raphael Affair (1991); The Titian Committee (1992); The Bernini Bust  (1993); The Last Judgment (1994); Giotto’s Hand (1995); Death and Restoration (1996); and The Immaculate Deception (2000)}.

So when I discovered that Marcia Muller had written a three-book series, set in and around San Francisco [The Cavalier In White (1866); There Hangs the Knife (1988); and Dark Star (1989)], well, I had to acquire them I’ve just finished the first book in the series, and thought that it was a decent, but not great, book.  The set-up is good.  Joanna Stark, who walked away from a museum security firm three years earlier when her husband dies, is at loose ends in Sonoma, when her former partner (Nick Alexander) shows up, to persuade her to come back to assist in the recovery of a painting by Frans Hals (The Cavalier In White, an invented painting; if you want to get some idea what Hals’ work is like, here’s where to look).  She is reluctant, but agrees.  Working with Nick is Steve Rafferty, representing the insurance company, which would rather not have to shell out for the missing painting.  Rafferty & Stark very quickly seem have a mutual attraction.

She quickly, but with little reason, comes to think that the theft might have been engineered by an old nemesis of hers, Antony Parducci (formerly an art thief, more recently an arranger of art thefts).  And someone, it turns out, has been asking art dealers in SF if they know of an art dealer with an adopted son n his 20s.  There is one, who has loaned furniture to the museum, some of which is in the same room n which the Hals had been hung. 

The SF setting is well done, and, as the museum involved (the De Young) is a real museum, that part of the setting is really interesting (especially if you have been there).  The investigation does not lead anywhere very quickly (except to an obviously missing security guard), and (for my taste) Stark’s personal issues take up a little too much of the book.  Although they mostly turn out to be relevant.  Again, to my taste, the ending is a bit pat, both in terms of whose actions initiated the theft and in how the mystery is resolved.  The ending does clearly set us up for a sequel (or more).  I was not bowled over, but I’m more than willing to see where Muller takes us next.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The ressurection of copycat photoblogging

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

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A side effect is that I have nothing to post here

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzni, The Bughouse Affair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sunday, January 15, 2017

10 Albums that influenced me as a teenager

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

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

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

Friday, January 13, 2017

John Gardner, The Liquidator

John Gardner, The Liquidator
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform © 1964; reprinted 2014
ISBN-10: 1523297522
ISBN-13: 978-1523297528

Meet Brian Ian (Boysie) Oakes, the assassin for a very secret British intelligence organization.  He has 25 kills to his credit, and not a hint that any of them was even a murder, let alone a murder committed by a government agency.  While on a weekend getaway with the lovely Iris (who works for the same agency), Oakes is pulled into his highest-stakes job yet—the faux assassination of a member of the British royalty, set up as a test of the security systems.  Maybe.
It’s a good life, though, with a very nice flat, a flashy car, and a very good (by British standards in the early 1960s) salary of ₤4,000—pushing $12,000 at a time when the median pay for white-collar worker in the US was around $6,000.  And with only 4 or 5 assignments (apparently) a year, Oakes has a lot of time to hang around museums and bars and pick up girls. 

Oakes is not, of course, all that he seems (among other things, he has a paralyzing fear of flying), and he is also not the brightest star in the firmament.  His boss, Mostyn, either doesn’t realize this, or affects not to realize it.  And the assignment Oakes thinks he’s about to carry out is not all that it seems either.

The (ironic) nods to James Bond are well-handled, and the plot moves right along.  Unfortunately, Oakes’s assignment seems a bit transparently not what it seems, and that lessens the tension somewhat—we know there’s a twist coming.  The twist is nicely handled, and Oakes, against all odds, comes out of the whole thing with his reputation enhanced instead of trashed.  (The first in an 8-book series.)  Well worth taking a look at the rest of the series (which I will be doing.)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

George Weir, Last Call: A Bill Travis Mystery

George Weir, Last Call: A Bill Travis Mystery
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (October 29, 2012)
ISBN-13: 978-1467917100

Bill Travis is an “investment advisor”—he helps people with too much cash or too little cash (but with sufficient resources) deal with their problems. Julie Simmons’ problem is a little different—she has $300, no other resources.  But she does know where $2 million, in cash. Has been hidden.  The cash belongs to Archie Carpin, the remaining member of a family of Texas bootleggers (among other shady activities, dating back to the 1920s.  Travis’s hormones, rather than his better judgment, take over, and he agrees to help her (a) recover the money and (b) avoid the consequences which means (c) somehow neutralizing Carpin and his minions. 

This is the sort of book I can’t read a steady diet of.  The violence level is too high for me, and the ability of our protagonist to avoid the legal consequences of his actions requires me to suspend a bit too much disbelief.  (I have similar issues with, for example, Robert Parker’s Spenser books, with Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole/Joe Pike books, with Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar/Win Horne books, with John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee books, and more.)  So I read them sparingly.

Weir never quite makes clear how Travis deals with his (normal) clients’ issues, but I at least presume that some of what he does nears the line between aggressive asset management and, ah, fraud.   And we don’t, in the end, find out how the $2 million is disposed of.  We do, on the other hand, get a fairly fast-paced trip which takes us from Austin to rural northern Texas, with help from Travis’s friend Hank and Hank’s friend Duke, with Hank’s dog Dingo also making an important contribution.  We also meet Ms. Coleeta and her son Lawrence (a barbecue legend), and Keesha, the young girl whose drug-addicted mother does not make it to the finish line.  In fact, by the end, there’s enough pain to make everyone think twice about getting out of bed the next morning.

But Travis—our narrator as well as our protagonist—is a good guide through the events, and Weir makes Texas, present and past come alive.  I will read more of the books in the series, because this one is, of its type, excellent.  But not just yet.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Not a book, not music. STAR WARS: ROGUE 1

Star Wars:  Rogue 1

I finally made it to the new Star Wars movie, Rogue 1, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The female and male leads (Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso and Diego Luna as Andor) were well cast and worked well together.  The blind Jedi (or proto Jedi), Chirrut Imwe, played brilliantly by Donnie Yen, was actually my favorite character in the movie, and his companion/protector Caze Malbus (played by Wen Jiang) was also excellent.  Riz Ahmed does a nice job as a space pilot Bodhi Rook.   (The rest of the cast was serviceable.  Ben Mendelsohn, playing the head honcho of the Death Star project, failed to exude much menace, and Forest Whitaker was wasted as a rebel leader.

As for the story.  It does a good job of filling in the back story to A New Hope, but I thought that the movie was about 30 minutes of plot and 90 minutes of blowing things up.  The blowing-things-up part was, as usual handled, splendidly.  The slight nod to On the Beach at the end was a nice touch.  And what is the story?  An Empire scientist (Galen Erso, Jyn’s father) has dropped out, becoming a farmer on a distant planet, with a wife and a young child.  But the Death Star project has stalled, and Orson Krennic, who’s in charge of the project, turns up with a squadron to Stormtroopers to force him back to work.  Having made plan for this eventuality, Galen and his wife (Lyra) send Jyn into hiding; 15 years later, as the Death Star is nearing completion, she reappears.  From there, the question is how to find a way to stop the Death Star, after a demonstration of its force against the “holy city” of Jeddah.  So the framework is good, but, as I mentioned above, it’s really a 30-minute story.

Now I am very fond of the Star Wars saga, but there continues to be one big thing that bugs the hell out of me.  Here we have a galactic civilization capable of accelerating spaceships the size of the Sears Tower to faster-than-light speeds (which would require more energy that our planet consumes in a decade), of producing huge fleets of faster-than-light spacecraft in a variety of sizes, and with weapons that fire energy blasts, not projectiles, and apparently never need to be reloaded.  So not technologically backward.  But look at the rest of that civilization.  Its cities consist of what look like wattle-and-daub buildings (except for the monumental buildings), with narrow, unpaved streets, and bars (which often appear to be the only businesses) that apparently do not have anything like electric light.  And it’s not just the Empire that has the ships and the weapons—so do the rebels.  I know that the point of the movies is not a lesson in the economics of that place long ago and far away, but it always strikes me as odd.  [And, by the way, we never did learn (did we?) what Luke’s Uncle Owen was producing there on Tatooine, or who he was selling to, or what Galen Erso is growing on his farm, or who his customers are.  It may be that the ancillary fiction fills in those gaps, but I have never cared enough to try to find out. 

That last paragraph, as long as it was, is a side issue.  Rogue 1 is a very good continuation of the saga, and worth your time if you were as taken with the first three Star Wars movies as I was.