Monday, December 31, 2018

Raymond Chandler and a Meditation on Nero Wolfe and His Orchids



I’ve begun reading The Big Sleep Annotated (annotations by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto; hereafter HJR), and it’s fascinating so far.  In fact, it has answered a question for me—why did Nero Wolfe grow (and hybridize) orchids?  As HJR point out (p. 21),

One of the many symbols of wealth and decadence adorning the Sternwood residence.  Orchid-collecting fever swept England and America at the turn of the twentieth century.  Edward Doheny Sr.’s home [near downtown LA]…sported a Tiffany-glass-and-steel-domed conservatory that housed southern California’s first major orchid collection: more than five thousand specimens collected by Doheny’s wife Estelle.  In literature the flowers acquired associations of decay and disease…[They go on to elaborate.]

So Stout would certainly have known of the fascination of the rich with orchids, and of the association of orchids with decadence.  And Wolfe is clearly a man who has, in general, the tastes associated with wealth (but not, particularly, decadence)—an impressive residence; a resident world-class chef; and (generally) refined tastes (leaving the beer aside [1]).  And raising orchids.

HJR then quote from Chandler’s 1936 story “The Curtain,” a passage that found its way pretty directly into The Big Sleep:

The air steamed.  The walls and ceiling of the greenhouse dripped.  In the half light enormous tropical plants spread their blooms and branches over the place and the smell of them was almost as overwhelming as the smell of boiling alcohol.

The butler, who was old and thin and very straight and white-haired, held branches of the plants back for me to pass, and we came to an opening in the middle of the place.  A large Turkish rug was spread down on the hexagonal flagstones.  In the middle of the rug, in a wheelchair, a very old man sat with the traveling rug around his body and watches us come.

Nothing in his face lived but his eyes.  Black eyes, deep-set, shining, untouchable.  The rest of the face was the leaden mask of death, sunken temples, a sharp nose, outward turning earlobes, a mouth that was a thin white slit.  He was wrapped partly in a reddish an very shabby bathrobe and partly in the rug.  His hands had purple fingernails and were clasped loosely, motionless on the rug.  He had a few scattered wisps of white hair on his skull.

We don’t get this bit, though in “The Curtain.”  We get this from TBS, which begins with General Sternwood speaking:

“You are looking at a very dull survival of a rather gaudy life, a cripple, paralyzed in both legs, and with only half of a lower belly.  There’s very little that I can eat and my sleep is so close to waking that it is hardly worth the name.  I seem to exist largely on heat…and the orchids are the excuse for the heat.  Do you like orchids?

“Not particularly,” I said…

They are nasty things.  Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men.  And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”

Wolfe never discussed (as I recall) his motivation for raising orchids.  But he does refer in one of the books to keeping an old woman on the roof and torturing her daily.  And we can make of that what we will.

[1] I have always thought that Stout made Wolfe into a beer-drinker in order to avoid the need to incorporate fine wine into the stories.  These days, with small-batch artisanal craft beer, yo can’t really get around it even with beer.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Aaron Elkins, Switcheroo


Aaron Elkins, SwitcherooThomas & Mercer publishers, 2016
© 2016 Aaron Elkins
ISBN 978-1-4778-2768-0
Elkins has long been a major figure in American mystery fiction, having published 18 mysteries featuring Gideon Oliver (a forensic anthropologist), 3 Chris Norgern (museum curator; I like these books a lot) mysteries; 9 mysteries in 2 series (co-authored with his wife Charlotte), and some non-series works, beginning in 1982 with the first Gideon Oliver book (Fellowship of Fear).  I have found his books generally to be well-conceived, well-set, and well written.  Switcheroo follows that pattern fairly well, except for two things:  While it’s well-conceived and well-set, (1) Gideon Oliver’s entire role in the book could have been just dropped with little or no loss to the story and (2) for my tastes, far too much of the book seems to be there simply to get the book closer to 300 pages. 
The story is this:  In 1940, as it becomes apparent that Germany will invade—and take control of—the Channel Islands, a large-scale evacuation of families takes place.  There is not nearly enough time or enough transport to get everyone out who wants to go, and many people are left either by their choices or by circumstances.  For two families on the Isle of Jersey—the Carlisles and the Skinners—things become complicated.  Howard Carlisle had hoped to get his 2-year-old (and somewhat sickly) son Roddy out.  His brother-in-law, Willie Skinner, his wife, and their robust 2-year-old son George, have places in the evacuation.  Carlisle, essentially, pays Skinner a small fortune to swap George (who will stay, and be treated as if he were Roddy) for Roddy.
In 1945, as the war ends, the Skinners return and, according to plan, the masquerade is scheduled to be reversed.
Nearly 20 years later, both Roddy and George are apparently murdered.
And now, 50 years after that, Rafe Carlisle, son of Roddy, one of the richest men on the island, approaches Gideon about examining what remains of the bodies of Roddy and George.  He agrees, and we spend most of the book on the Isle of Jersey.
Elkins does a fine job of creating the place and the people.  But what he does not do, in my opinion, is create a story in which a forensic anthropologist has much of a role.  And there’s no particular sense of urgency or suspense to propel the story.  By far the most interesting characters are three members of the local police force—the Detective Superintendent Mike Clapper (who knows Gideon from a past encounter, before he was transferred to jersey) and two local detectives, Bayley and Buncombe (think Laurel and Hardy).
In fact, if you can get past the really minor part played by Gideon Oliver and the occasionally lethargic pace of the story (we spend a lot of time describing what everyone ate and drank), this is an OK tale (although the solution seemed to be a bit contrived).  But the pace was a problem, and the presence of Gideon Oliver exacerbated the pacing problem. 

Christiana Brand, Green for Danger


Christiana Brand, Green for Danger
© Chrisitana Brand, renewed 1992
Available as an ebook through Mysterious Press

Christiana Brand was an author of mysteries appearing between the early 1940s and the late 1970s; Stop You’re Killing Me lists 19 novels and 2 collections of stories.  Green for Danger was her 3rd full-length mystery, and the 2nd (of 7) featuring Inspector Cockrill.  [I have previously read a later Cockrill mystery, Fog of Doubt. (https://wordsmusic-doc.blogspot.com/2017/04/christianna-brand-fog-of-doubt.html)]

Green for Danger is set in a hospital in Kent, during World War II when German bombers were regularly making runs over England.  And, in the course of the book, we learn quite a bit about the operations of such a hospital (including the fact that hospital personnel frequently lived I the hospital (as Brand’s husband, in fact did for a time) and about life in general under bombardment.  Here, the story focuses on 7 members of the hospital staff, 3 doctors (2 surgeons and an anesthesiologist) and two patients—one who dies on the operating table, and one who does not.

In the course of the book, we learn a lot about the operational side of the hospital and about lif in England at that time during the war.  And we can see, as Inspector Cockrill’s investigation proceeds. How both the war and the investigation is affecting their lives.  I will say that, at least for me, it was occasionally difficult to keep the cast straight—they were sometimes referred to by first name, nickname, or surname, rather randomly.  Brand keeps the story moving, however, and Cockrill does eventually sort things out (although there is a final twist to the tale).

Brand was not one of the major authors of this period; although she wrote steadily, her overall body of work was not large.  And she created no characters, so far as I can tell, as memorable as those created by Sayers of Christie or Allingham or Marsh.  But this is a fine book and well worth seeking out.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Yet another return of copycat photoblogging

Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram has a lovely shot of cobblestones or paving stones surrounded by grass.  (http://crookedtimber.org/2018/12/16/sunday-photoblogging-cobbles/)

I have paving stones just outside the Colosseum (2002).


Saturday, December 15, 2018

Series I love and re-read


Today at Sleuth Sayers, John Floyd posted a list of 20 of his favorite series (characters & authors) (https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2018/12/a-series-conversation.html).  So I wondered what my list would look like (restricting myself to mysteries; not necessarily in order of preference).  I want to emphasize that these are (clearly) not the only mysteries, or mystery series, I read.  But I own them all and re-read them all.  I got up to 17 series and stopped.

[Author, series character(s).]

Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe).  The best, number 1.  El supremo.  (http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/S_Authors/Stout_Rex.html)

Frances and Richard Lockridge (Mr. & Mrs. North.  I like their other series characters, but not well enough to put them on this list).
http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/L_Authors/Lockridge_Richard.html
Michael Bowen (Richard Michaelson).  (http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/B_Authors/Bowen_Michael.html)

Tony Hillerman (Both the Joe Leaphorn and the Jim Chee books)
(http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/H_Authors/Hillerman_Tony.html)

Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey)
(http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/S_Authors/Sayers_Dorothy-L.html)

Len Deighton (his nameless spy series and the Bernard Samsom books).
http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/D_Authors/Deighton_Len.html



Lawrence Block (Bernie Rhodenbarr; not really a Scudder fan)
(http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/B_Authors/Block_Lawrence.html)


Parnell Hall (the Steve Winslow books, written as J.P. Hailey)
(http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/H_Authors/Hall_Parnell.html)

Alan Furst (no single character dominates, but World War II is, really, the character)
(http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/F_Authors/Furst_Alan.html)

(Walter Satterthwait (Joshua Croft; Miss Elizabeth Borden))
http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/S_Authors/Satterthwait_Walter.html



John LeCarre (George Smiley; but also the non-series books)
(http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/L_Authors/Le-Carre_John.html)

Alan Gordon (the Jester mysteries)
(http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/G_Authors/Gordon_Alan.html)

Dick Francis is not on this list because he didn’t actually have a “series” character (although Sid Halley does appear, what, three or four times?).
(http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/F_Authors/Francis_Dick.html)

Dashiell Hammett is not on this list because I’m not a big fan of the Continental Op; The Maltese Falcon, is, of course, in  a class by itself.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger


Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger
Original publication, 1942
© Agatha Christie Mallowan 1942, renewed 1970

The third novel in which Miss Jane Marple appears (also, by 1942, a collection of short stories was in print).  It’s a rather strange novel; the narrator (Jerry; I could not find, in a quick look through the opening chapters find his last name) and his sister (Joanna) have rented a house in the village of Lymstock.  He’s recovering from crashing an airplane and she’s keeping him company and caring for him

The first strangeness is this: The book was published in 1942, but is apparently not set during World War II—there is no mention of it.  It’s not made clear what sort of plane crash occurred—was he a military pilot?  Commercial?  Rich and flying more or less as a hobby?  The second strangeness (as far as I’m concerned) is that he and his sister apparently have a substantial private income, but virtually no mention is made of it.  The third strangeness is that, for all this is a “Miss Marple” mystery, she does not appear until p. 128 (of 181).  And she does nothing that even begins to approach an investigation.  In fact, we don’t even see her talking much with people about the murders.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We do discover—on p. 1—that we have an outbreak of “poison pen” letters; Jerry and Joanna receive one alleging that they are not really brother and sister, but are living in sin in Lymstock.  Joanna tosses it into the fireplace, but Jerry rescues it, and turns it over to the police.  Investigating these things is quite obviously difficult, but the local police and the Scotland Yard specialist seem to know what they are doing, but only a little progress is made.  As late as Miss Marple’s arrival, there’s still nothing pointing to anyone in particular.  But things have progressed to an apparent suicide and to murder.  And to various emotional entanglements (including one between Jerry and a young woman in the village—Megan-although, at least so far as I could tell, that was just stuck in to allow something of a happy ending to occur).

Miss Marple, of course, explains all at the end.  Although, again at least as it seems to me, she got to the solution without a particularly convincing explanation of how, or why.  But perhaps I expected too much.  (I will note that this is not the only Miss Marple mystery in which her presence occurs quite late in the story.  In these cases, Miss Marple, and her solutions, become something akin to Hitchcock’s Maguffins—in these cases, way to wrap the book up.  They obviously don’t work well for me.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

A Tell-Tale Sign of Bad Writing

(At least in my opinion.)


Quite frequently, buying a book I’ve never heard of, written by an author I had never heard of, is not a good idea.  Well, I ignored those lessons and took a chance on a “golden age” (in this case, it appears to be fool’s gold) mystery.  (Fortunately, I paid only $0.99 for it, so it at least cost me little, in financial terms, anyway.  
To be fair, this was the author's first mystery (of 7), and at least one of his later books was reasonably good.
The easiest way to express my difficulty with the book is to list, in order of their appearance, the surnames of the characters:

Venables (a journalist)
*Budge (Mrs.)
Brown (a servant)
*Budge (Mr.)
*Merritt
*Blossom
Salteron-Deeley
*Mumby
*Hectoring
*Geranium
*Sanctuary
*Blood
Eppoliki (this character was around for a while, but unnamed)
Evans
Walton
Cantrip
*Clout
(This is in the first 10% of the book…and we continue)
*Twing
Winterton
Noakes
Meredith
Bailey
*Bray (Scotland Yard D.I.)
*Chingley
*Cuff (
Barnard

I have placed an asterisk before the names that, well, raise the odd question or two.  I’m fully aware that too many Smiths and Joneses and so on is boring.  But the Mumby to Blood string was a bit much.  And D.I. Bray seems a bit precious, especially because he seems prone to braying.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Steve Hockensmith, World’s Greatest Sleuth: A Holmes on the Range Mystery


Steve Hockensmith, World’s Greatest Sleuth: A Holmes on the Range Mystery
Minotaur Books
© Steve Hockensmith
ISBN 978-0-312-37943-8
Also available as an ebook

Steve Hockensmith’s World’s Greatest Sleuth is quite an achievement, and some background might be useful.  Gustav (a/k/a Old Red) and Otto (Big Red) are the Amlingmyer brothers, itinerant cowboys in the early 1890s.  Old Red is illiterate, but a devotee of Sherlock Holmes; Big Red reads the stories to him.  And Old Red has internalized Holmes’s methods, and has become something of a sleuth himself.  (You can discover their earlier adventures:
http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/H_Authors/Hockensmith_Steve.html)  This is the 4th full length adventure (there is also a book of short stories).

One thing to keep in mind is that, in the world of these books, Sherlock Holmes is a real historical figure, as are the other sleuths whose real, not fictional, exploits are recounted in the magazines (and occasional books) of the time.  Otto is one of these writers.  And news has come from England that Holmes is gone, vanished and presumably dead.  And a contest has been arranged, for the Chicago World’s Fair, in which a number of the detectives everyone read about will attempt to solve a mystery and claim the title of the World’s Greatest Sleuth—and a substantial cash prize--$10,000, a real fortune in 1893, when the average wage of unskilled labor was about $0.13 per hour, and gross domestic product per capita was about $230 per year.

Gustav is reluctant, but Otto (and the $200 they have received in advance from Urias Smythe, Otto’s publisher) talks him into it, and they are off to Chicago, where they meet, for the first time, Otto’s publisher, who’s immediate reaction is “Oh. God…I’m ruined.”

Well, that’ll set you back.  But there they are, outfitted with new clothes (a story in itself), with rooms in what seems to be the cheapest hotel in Chicago.  They meet their competitors at dinner, all of whom are more comfortable in their surroundings (and one of whom is a woman with whom both Amlingmeyer’s are smitten), and, the next morning the contest begins.  The contest involves solving a clue or series of clues, finding a large bronze egg, and returning with it, with a daily challenge.  The sleuth with the best record, and his (or her) publisher win the prize.  The situations are devised by Armstrong B. Curtis, and the judge is William Pinkerton (son of Alan).

But, of course, a real mystery and a real crime intrudes.  And for the Amlingmeyers (and for their heart throb) winning the contest takes a backseat to catching the killer.

The setting—the White City—has been used often, both in mysteries (for a list:
https://worldsfairchicago1893.com/home/media/books-fiction/)
and in non-fiction (most notably Erik Larson’s The Devil and the White City).  Hockensmith does a masterful job of making the setting come alive.  He also manages to create a Chicago police officer (Sergeant Ryan) who is honest, and a more-than-competent detective.

I have enjoyed all the previous books in the series, and this is a terrific piece of work (and I want to emphasize that my enjoyment of it, while perhaps deepened by having read the earlier installments, did not depend on having read them.  I can assure you that you can—and should—enjoy World’s Greatest Sleuth without starting at the beginning.  It’s 8 years old, now, which makes me worry that me might not have more opportunities to spend time with Old Red and Big Red.  I sincerely hope that I will soon be spending more time with the World’s Greatest Sleuths (an accolade they deserve regardless of the outcome of the contest).

Friday, November 30, 2018

Rex Stout, Three Doors to Death


Rex Stout, Three Doors to Death
Original hardcover edition, The Viking Press, 1950
Bantam/Crime Line paperback reprint, 1995)
© Rex Stout, 1949, 1950
ISBN-13: 978-0553251272

The fourth compilation of novellas (“Man Alive;” “Omit Flowers;” and “Door to Death”) featuring Nero Wolfe.  A review cited on the Wolfe Pack website tells us “I suppose I could spend some time detailing the plots of these three novellas, but when it comes right down to it they are formulaic, but my, what a formula.  I can’t really disagree with that assessment, but, then, I think it could apply to almost any series character, and perhaps especially in mystery fiction.  I would say that this is not the strongest of the novella collections, but all three are taut, readable, and have some notable points.

I’m going to start with the third story, “Door to Death,” because it has a couple of features I really want to write about.  The plot, briefly, if this:  Wolfe’s full-time greenhouse man, Theodore Horstmann (who has the primary responsibility of caring for Wolfe’s vast collection of orchids) has left, at least temporarily, to attend on his gravely ill mother.[1]  So Wolfe needs to find a replacement, again, at least temporarily.  He has heard very good things about Andy Krasicki, who is employed by Joseph Pitcairn (a wealthy man of no apparent occupation).  Wolfe has written, and phoned, to no avail.  So he and Archie head for Westchester to try to convince Andy personally.  Arriving, they learn that Andy has already mailed a letter saying yes.  So the trip is for nothing?  Well, no.  Dini Lauer, a practical nurse caring for Mrs. Pitcairn, with whom he had fallen in love, and whom he had, only the night before persuaded to leave her job and marry him, is found dead.  In the greenhouse, poisoned by ciphogene gas (a fumigant).  And the police settle on Andy as the most likely killer.

So Wolfe has to prove that he did not commit the murder, which involves sneaking back onto the property and into the greenhouse, and, in a confrontation with the family, disclosing the murderer. 

So what about this is of any special interest?  For me, two things.  First, the uncertainty of whether Theodore is returning.  From the first time I read this story, more than 40 years ago (it was originally published in 1949), I have wondered whether Wolfe had decided to write Theodore out of the household and bring Andy in as a replacement.  And I have concluded that he did think about it, but decided not to.  And I think he decided not to because, a characters, Andy and Archie might have been too similar (both young, handsome, smart, competent, attractive to and attracted by women).

And second, well, it relates to an aspect of Stout’s characterization of some of his male characters (and this pre-dates the Wolfe saga).  Stout’s early novels often (for example, in Forest Fire and How Like a God) featured young (or not-so young) men who had psychosexual hangups, and this occasionally flares up in the Wolfe stories (The League of Frightened Men; Too Many Clients).  And he does not, in my opinion, handle those characters very well.

Whatever my reservations, this is a nice piece of work.

Now, briefly, the other two stories.

In “Man Alive,” a noted fashion designer disappears and is presumed dead (with a rather improbable suicide); he returns to NYC and his niece, who is beginning to fill the void caused by his disappearance, gets arrested and asks Wolfe to prove she didn’t do it (by finding the real killer, of course).  As it happens, all the likely suspects were together, continuously, during the time the murder was committed, and she was not—she was on the scene.  It’s not just her uncle who has been thought to be dead.  The woman he loved is dead (no questions), and her husband, the other partner in the fashion company also seems to have committed suicide. 

Wolfe clears it up neatly.

In “Omit Flowers,” we are thrust into the question of who’s going to run the Ambrosia chain of restaurants (part of this reminded me of HoJo—Howard Johnson hired a classically trained chef, Jacques Pepin, to run the menu design for the restaurants and to oversee the operation of the kitchens).  The founder, H.R. Landy has died.  Some years before he hired Virgil Pompa, a renowned chef, to oversee the culinary side of the business.  Landy has died (with no issues); his widow has remarried (to Floyd Whitten), and has decided to have her new husband take over the business end of things.  Pompa, who wants to retire, is persuaded to stay on through the training period.  And, during one of the training sessions, Whitten and Pompa have a shouting match, Pompa storms out.  Mrs. Whitten follows him to try to calm him down, and discovers her adult children in the downstairs dining room.  She asks Pompa to wait in the living room (he does, for a while, and then leaves) while she beats some sense into the kids.  And Whitten is foud with a knife in his back.  The solution to the murder fairly screams at the reader (I think, anyway), but things happen that might make the obvious solution not so appealing.  Maybe one of the weakest of the novellas, which is not to say it’s badly done.

[1] We do not discover, in this story, or subsequently, whether she recovered.

L.C. Tyler, Cat Among the Herrings


L.C. Tyler, Cat Among the Herrings
Allison and Busby, Ltd.; London.  2016|
© 2016 L.C. Tyler
ISBN 978-0-7490-1996-9
Also available as an ebook

This is the 6th outing of Ethelred Tressider (a writer of mysteries) and Elsie Thirkettle (his former literary agent), and it is (in my opinion) the best of the lot (#7, Herring in the Smoke, is in the tbr pile; http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/T_Authors/Tyler_L-C.html).

Ethelred lives in the (very) small village of Wittering, on the Sussex coast close to Chichester.  AS the story opens, he is attending a funeral, for Robin Pagham, who died while sailing in truly awful weather.  The rector has some difficulty in making Robin seem like a prince among men, and Ethelred’s silent monologue on the proceedings sets us up nicely.  Also in attendance is Robin’s fiancĂ©, Catarina (of uncertain origin, but most likely east European).  She induces Ethelred to look into Robin’s death—Robin has told her that he will be coming into money when “the old man” dies,” and she’d rather like to have it.

And his friend Tom Gittings, a reported and aspiring novelist, tells Ethelred about another death—a murder—involving both the Paghams and the Gittingses, which occurred in 1845.  It was shortly after that murder that the Paghams began to flourish, while the Gittings clan declined.

If that were not enough, it seems Robin has, or has had, something of a drug habit.

Ethelred’s former agent, Elsie, learns of the situation, and decides that she will come to Wittering and that she (and, very much secondarily, Ethelred) will disclose whodunit, why, and how.  (One highlight of the book is the reproduction of some of Elsie’s letters rejecting the opportunity to accept some aspiring writers as clients.  They are funny and mean and something I could believe a none-too-successful literary agent would fantasize writing.) 

Ethelred makes some progress on the 1845 murder (he sees it as a book), Tom submits his manuscript to Elsie, Catarina continues to be mysterious, but insistent that Robin’s death be found to be a murder.  And, eventually (this is a mystery novel, after all), everything is resolved.

Tyler weaves all the strands nicely together, and the book is a very good mix of quite serious (even somber) and comic elements.  Ethelred discovers the origins of the divergent fortunes of the Paghams and the Gittingses, (there’s even a plot of land called the Herring field) including the consequences of the family histories for the present-day remnants of the families.  And Ethelred has a final showdown with the murderer. 

The further I got into the book, the stronger a piece of work it seemed to me.  A blurb on the cover [“A clever plot, with lots of laughs along the way;” from the (London) Daily Mail] over-emphasizes the comic elements—which are present.  This is not, really a comic novel.  It is a well-conceived, well-executed blend of a tragic historical murder and a perhaps less tragic, but still rather poignant contemporary one.  I think you will enjoy it.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Hollywood vs. the Author

A while back, I posted about "Hollywood vs. The Author," a collection of essays and interviews in which authors reflect on their experiences with Hollywood.  I'm about 2/3 the way through it, and thought I'd post a progress report (I'm unlikely to do a full-bore review of it).  (There are 18 "chapters," of which I have read 10.)  At this point, I'd say that about half the authors are generally positive about their experiences, or (as, for example, in Larry Block's case, sort of bemused by the whole thing), and half had experiences ranging from mildly painful to excruciating (Tess Gerritsen).  I can, at this point, say the book's not a must-read, even for serious mystery/suspense/crime fiction readers, unless you are really interested in behind-the-scenes stuff.  For me, it's been marginally worth the money.



Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Crucifixion


What should I post on Thanksgiving?  On November 22?  Ordinarily, on TG, I’d just post “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” and that would be it.  But…this is another day.  I heard Phil once explaining this song, that it had taken him more than two years to write, that he had sung it, a capella, to Robert Kennedy, in Kennedy’s Senate office.  It is, for me, one of the most amazing songs I have ever heard (it’s on his album Pleasures of the Harbor, released in 1967).  And it’s Phil’s masterpiece.  I doubt if 1 in 10,000 people in America have ever heard it. 

Phil Ochs, Crucifixion,
(From the album, released 10/31/67) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dGDYM-kYec (Live in Montreal, 10/22/66) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPXi49dWTE4

Images of innocence charge him go on
But the decadence of destiny is looking for a pawn
To a nightmare of knowledge he opens up the gate
And a blinding revelation is laid upon his plate
That beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate
And God help the critic of the dawn.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018




E.J. Copperman, Bird, Bath, and Beyond
Minotaur Books (2018)
© 2018 E.J. Copperman
ISBN-13: 978-1250084293

Kay Powell, whom we first encountered in Dog Dish of Doom[1], represents animals (and their owners) to the entertainment business.  She grew up as a child performed in her parents’ night-club and cruise-ship act, until she dropped out and entered college, intending to become a veterinarian (which lasts until sciences do that in), but getting a law degree (and license to practice).

Her newest client, Barney, is a parrot, and a replacement for Babs (who is no longer, apparently, with us) who has a continuing role on a hit TV series (Dead City, a zombie-based adventure/drama).  Barney, we soon learn, is quite adept at being able to repeat short phrases and to associate them with cues.  Kay is present on the set, because Barney’s owner, Patty Basilico, has a heavy-duty cold.  During a break in taping, Kay meets the show’s star, Dray Mattone, who plays the medical examiner.  They chat, and Kay leaves Barney in Dray’s trailer to await the subsequent set-up and shooting.

Except another shooting intervenes.  Dray is shot (and Barney is a witness, of sorts)).  And Kay, once again, winds up in the middle of a murder in which one of her clients is a principal. 

Her first difficulty is making it clear to the police (the investigation is headed by Joe Bostwick) that Barney doesn’t really spontaneously say things; he has to be coached into repeating a word or phrase when given a cue to do so.[2]  So Kay is stuck caring for Barney for a while and becomes, whether she likes it or not, involved in the investigation.  And things become difficult when Barney starts (apparently spontaneously) coming out with lines like:  “A lot of people want you dead, Dray.”

Things become even more difficult when the police arrest Patty, because Patty says she wants to consult with her lawyer—Kay.  Kay protests that she is not really a lawyer, and definitely not a criminal defense lawyer, but she in temporarily stuck.  (She does get Patty linked up with a law school buddy, Jamie Wallace, who is a criminal defense lawyer, and a good one, and this will be a very high profile case for him.)

Meanwhile, Kay’s parents, who stay with here when they aren’t working, have their own crisis to deal with—her mother wants to quit.

And things proceed, with a lot to be sorted out, which it eventually is.  And Kay managed to sort through several layers of deception to arrive at the truth.  The book moves smoothly, and the characters, both the continuing ones and the ones whom I do not expect to see in subsequent books, are well-dome.  I enjoyed this a lot, and will be happy to buy the next installment as soon as it’s available.

[1] Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press © 2017; ISBN 978-1-250-08427-9.  My review can be found here:  https://wordsmusic-doc.blogspot.com/2017/08/ej-copperman-dog-dish-of-doom.html

[2] When I was in grad school, some friends or mine had a parrot—Hawkins—who was emphatically not a nice parrot.   He would fly around the living room, and at random moments utter—scream, really—the only word he had learned:  “F*ck!!!!”  That was more than 45 years ago, and, for all I know, Hawkins may still be with us—parrots can live a very long time.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Hesitant Hostess

Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Hesitant Hostess
Original publication 1953
(C) 1953, Renewed 2011


A typically convoluted case for Mason.  He's the
court-appointed attorney for a man charged with
armed robbery. Although, as things developed,
that seems likely to segue into a murder charge.  

Basically a standard Mason outing.  

However, at one point, we get this: "...and (she)
realized she had about $20,000 worth of pure
uncut heroin."  This was hidden behind (or,
actually, within) what appeared to be a large
mirror in a handbag.  So, being an economist,
I asked myself:  How much heroin was that

actually?  This proved oddly hard to discover.  A
relatively recent report (https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/WDR2011/WDR_Final_Prices_crop.pdf)
puts the US price at between $100,000 and $150,000
per kilogram.  But finding earlier prices is much

more diffcult.  If we assume that heroin prices have 
increased at roughly the same rate as prices in
general, then uncut heroin prices in the early
1950s would have been around $12,500 per kilo.  
So $20,000 worth of heroin would be about
1.6 kilos, or about 3.5 pounds.  That seems to be 
something that would be fairly noticeable to be
concealed behind a mirror in a handbag, but maybe
I'm being unfair.  

In any event, while I wouldn't recommend making
a search for this one, it's probably worth a read if
you come across
it.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A.A. Fair), Give 'em the Axe: A Donald Lam/Bertha Cool Mystery

Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A.A. Fair), Give 'em the Axe: A Donald Lam/Bertha Cool Mystery
(C) 1944 Erle Stanley Gardner
Available as an ebook

A very quick, very brief comment.

The Lam/Cool books generally have extremely convoluted plots, but I've usually been able to keep things straight enough to at least follow the conclusion.  Not in this case.  Lam has been invalided out of the Navy and has returned to LA.  The current case involves a businessman seduced into marriage with a woman who is a serial auto accident "victim; the woman who really loves him; a shady "pick-up" bar and its owner (who has a sideline in blackmail), and others.  In the middle, there's a traffic accident and Bertha Cool is present and is deposed as a witness.  The deposition scene goes on forever, and makes Cool look even less rational than usual.  And, in the ending, I had to work pretty hard at figuring out who Lam was telling us (and the cops) the killer was.  Not the finest moment in the series.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Dead Mistress


E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Dead Mistress
© 2018 E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen
Publisher: Midnight Ink
ISBN 978-0-7387-5061-3

Samuel Hoenig, the proprietor of “Questions Answered” (you have a question that you want answered, he’s likely to take a shot at answering it—but you must formulate it as a question, does not approach life as most of us do; as someone wrote (in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine), “Copperman/Cohen succeeds in providing a glimpse not only of the challenges experienced by those with Asperger’s, but also of their unique gifts.”

And, more to the point, he makes a fascinating investigator in this series of extremely well-done mysteries.[1]  And this, the fifth book in the series, is a worthy entry.

As the story opens, Samuel has received an email (which reads: “I have a question that I desperately need answered.  May I come in for an appointment?”) to which he is not sure how to respond—he does not require that potential clients make appointments.  So he asks his associate in the business, Janet Washburn, what she thinks.  She suggests responding that no appointment is needed, and providing their office hours.  He does so, and returns to his current assignment—“determining the reach in millimeters of the average orangutan”—and he has some doubts about that client.  He gets an almost immediate response—“I’m coming now.”  And, after some back-and-forth, the prospective client, Virginia Fontaine, asks her question:  “Mr. Hoenig, is my husband having an affair with his dead girlfriend?”

Samuel does not believe in ghosts, so you can probably guess his answer.  But it’s not that simple, and Janet persuades him to take the question.

And it turns out to be much less clear-cut than those of us who do not think ghosts “exist.”  Among other things, Virginia Fontaine’s first husband died under somewhat murky circumstances.  And a still more complicating circumstance is that the current husband—Brett [2] Fontaine—does not play a particularly active role in the remained of the book.  And the girl friend, Melanie Mason, died a couple of years ago in a spectacular car crash.

And things get more complicated (and dangerous) from there.  Samuel finds himself more-r-less dragged into finding the answer, although Janet has the primary responsibility for it.  And Samuel’s life is complicated enough, as his father has recently re-entered his (and his mother’s) life after 27 years.  Another issue is that the relationship between Janet and Samuel is changing, in ways that please, puzzle, and disturb him. 

But as complicated as it is, and as hard as the various actors try to discourage Samuel and Janet from pursuing their inquiries, they move closer and closer to an answer.  If not to an answer to Virginia’s question, an answer to the various mysteries that intrude.  Like, for example, are ghosts “real”?  There’s a trip to a cemetery that forces us to, perhaps, reconsider that one.  Ultimately, of course, the original question, and all the other questions that arise, are answered.  And the changes in Samuel’s life that began early on in the series continue.  Personally, I can’t wait for the next episode.[3]

------------------------------------------
[1] I might suggest reading them in order, as there is a major plot element that runs through all the books.
My reviews of earlier books in the series may be found here:
The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband 
https://wordsmusic-doc.blogspot.com/2015/10/copperman-cohen-question-of-unfamiliar.html
The Question of the Felonious Friend
https://wordsmusic-doc.blogspot.com/2016/08/ej-copperman-and-jeff-cohen-question-of.html
The Question of the Absentee Father
https://wordsmusic-doc.blogspot.com/2017/10/ej-copperman-and-jeff-cohen-question-of.html

[2] This was written, I probably don’t need to tell you, before the most recent Supreme Court nomination.

[3] Oddly, this is the second book I have read this year with all or part of the title includes the words “Dead Mistress.”  And they are nothing alike.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof


Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof
© 1935 Nicholas Blake
This edition Rue Morgue Press, 2008
ISBN 978-1-60187-025-4

I seem to be reading (in this case) or re-reading a fair amount of older books this year.  (Nicholas Blake is the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, Poet Laureate of England from 1968 to 1972.  I’m not all that fond of his poetry, an example of which is at the end of this review.)

This is the first in his series of mystery novels featuring Nigel Strangways, Oxford drop-out turned private investigator (who apparently possesses a private income as well).  Fortunately, the series gets stronger from here.

At a small English boarding school (apparently encompassing what we might think of as roughly the elementary school years), one of the teachers (“masters”), apparently of English language and Literature (Michael Evans) had fallen in love with Hero Vale, the wife of the Head Master who is much younger than her husband.  They meet somewhat furtively when and as they can, and have a tryst by a haystack shortly before an afternoon of games (with parents in attendance).  And, of course, death—murder—intervenes.  The body of Algernon Wyvern Weymss, the nephew of the Head Master, is found in the same haystack by which Michael and Hero met.

Weymss  is not particularly popular, as he is seen as something of a snitch.  And he has been blacklisted by the “secret society—the Black Spot—at the school.

The local police inspector, Superintendent Armstrong, takes charge of the case, and his attention quite obviously focuses on Michael and Hero.  Not only were they on the spot at or around the time of death, public knowledge of their relationship would likely cost Michael his job and Hero her reputation.  Michael, apprehensive about their situation, asks his friend Nigel Strangeways from their time at Oxford to investigate. 

Somewhat unusually for a lot of the mysteries of the time, Armstrong is not depicted as incompetent or a fool; he is shown to be intelligent, hard-working, and desiring to reach the correct conclusion rather than the easy, obvious one.

Strangeways takes his own approach, which involves extended conversations with the academic staff (there are at least 6 masters and a good deal of time with Michael and Hero.  And he thinks, fairly early on, that he knows who the murderer is.  But he has no convincing proof, and the best he can do is persuade Armstrong not to act precipitously.  Eventually, we get a reenactment of the activities of the day of the murder, which confirms Strangeways in his conclusions.  But at a cost.  And he manages to find the evidence needed to exonerate Michael and Hero as well.

I have read, I think, all of the subsequent Strangeways books (http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/B_Authors/Blake_Nicholas.html) and found them generally quite good.  This one, had I read it first, might not have encouraged me to go on to the others.  I suspect that it might be easier, for someone looking to start these books, to start with #2, Thou Shell of Death (1936), which my memory tells me is quite good.

Ignore this paragraph unless you are a masochist.
And now, I have to digress a bit.  The economics of the school left me a bit puzzled.  We have 6 masters and the head master; at least one full-time groundskeeper (with day-labor as required); a cook; a nurse; and presumably several maids (although only 1 is mentioned by name.  We have, we are told, about 80 students.  I’m having trouble figuring out how the school even breaks even with that few students.  I figure the average annual salary of the masters to be roughly £400 (based on the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar and the US dollar, the exchange rate of the US dollar to the English Pound, and what teachers earned in Canada.  So we have £2400 for the teaching staff.  Other staff salaries would be less than that, probably totaling1/2 to 2/3 as much, so £1200 to £1600.  Annual expenditures on food would probably have run around £60 per person (for the school year; and I’m estimating 12 total staff and 80 students) or about £5000.  Other materials and supplies would probably be less than that, call it £2000.  The Head Master has to make some living from this, say £1000.  So I have a total budget of £12,000 or required fees of £150 per student.  And I’m finding an annual upper-middle class average family income of around £750 in the mid-1930s.  Such a family could easily have 2 children in school at once…so I have some difficulty making the numbers work.  A school of say 150 students would make the financials much more plausible…

---------------------------------------------------

Come, Live With Me and Be My Love”
Cecil Day-Lewis

Come, live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of peace and plenty, bed and board,
That chance employment may afford.

I'll handle dainties on the docks
And thou shalt read of summer frocks:
At evening by the sour canals
We'll hope to hear some madrigals.

Care on thy maiden brow shall put
A wreath of wrinkles, and thy foot
Be shod with pain: not silken dress
But toil shall tire thy loveliness.

Hunger shall make thy modest zone
And cheat fond death of all but bone -
If these delight thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Being amused by Agatha Christie


I've just finished The Body In The Library (Agatha Christie/Miss Marple), which is a perfectly OK book, but especially notable for this, spoken by the grandson (age 12 or thereabouts) of one of the key characters:

"...Do you like detective stories?  I do…I read them all.  I've got autographs from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H.C. Bailey,..."


Which amused me greatly.

And I ran across this, in A Murder Is Announced (also Agatha Christie/Miss Marple):

Miss Marple speaking:

"I may have got the term wrong," she murmured.  "I am not very clever about Americanisms--and I understand they change very quickly.  I got it [the term "fall guy"--DAC] from one of Mr. Dashiell Hammett's stories.  (I understand from my nephew Raymond that he is considered at the top of the tree in what is called the 'tough' style of literature.)"



(I also loved the parentheses in a spoken comment...how does one "hear" parentheses?)