Friday, February 14, 2020

Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men

Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men© 1934 Rex Stout (Renewed 1966)
Bantam.  Also available as an ebook and from used book sellers
ISBN  978-0553762983

The second Nero Wolfe mystery, and a worthy entry in the series.  Paul Chapin was seriously injured (resulting in permanent damage to his right leg) in a hazing incident at Harvard some 20 years earlier.  He has recently become a best-selling author (and he has been charged with writing an indecent book, based on the sexual content and depiction of violence of his current novel).  And the Harvard students, now middle-aged men, responsible for his injuries begin to die (two of them so far)—with cryptic verses sent to those remaining hinting at more deaths to come.  (These men have maintained their relationship largely as a result of Chapin’s injuries; they have, over the years, tries to provide him with financial and other assistance.)

One of those men-Andrew Hibbard, a psychology professor, who believes Chapin is responsible for the deaths (as do his classmates), tries to hire Wolfe to prevent Chapin from killing him. Wolfe, of course, turns him down.  Soon thereafter, Hibbard disappears, and classmates assume that Chapin is responsible.  Hibbard’s niece attempts to hire Wolf t find her uncle or discover his murderer; he rejects her as a client.  But he has a plan—to hire the Harvard gang, with shared prorated (from thousands to only a few dollars, depending on their current financial conditions). 

Wolfe, as usual, leaves the active part of the investigation to Archie.  He investigates by reading Chapin’s novels (including the current one, which has been banned as obscene—he tells Archie to approach his usual bookseller, because, after all, what’s the point of ab obscenity trial if not to encourage sales of the book?).

Archie’s part of the investigation doesn’t lead to much (although it does turn up some physical evidence); Wolfe’s reading of the books, however, persuades him that he knows what has happened, is happening, and is going to happen.  Then, one of the Harvard guys is murdered, no doubt about it.  Chapin was on the scene.  His guilt is assumed by one and all (except Wolfe; I thought there were some circumstances that made the certainty of Chapin’s guilt somewhat premature).

The ending is well-handled, although Chapin is not pleased with the outcome.

What is, to me, the most interesting aspect of the book is how well it reflects Stout’s earlier work as a literary novelist.  Between 1929 and 1931, he published 3 novels—How Like a God, Seed on the Wind, and Forest Fire (Forest Fire is my personal choice for worst book ever written).  All three have psychological aspects, including psycho-sexual elements that would please your basic Freudian.  The psycho-sexual elements in The League of Frightened Men are quite clear, and while this aspect of the book most strongly relates to Chapin’s actions and motivations, there are hints involving some of the others.  (his first Nero Wolfe book, Fer-de-Lance, also has some Freudian overtones, as do several of his later books).  But those elements are basically side issues in the Wolfe books.  Personally, I think his move away from plots emphasizing psychological aberrations (and that aspect is most prominent in this book) was a good thing.  

While this is probably not among my top 10 Nero Wolfe mysteries, that leaves it as one of the better mysteries in the genre.  I have read it often, and I suspect I will read it again.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Frances and Richard Lockridge, The Faceless Adversary

Frances and Richard Lockridge, The Faceless Adversary
J.P. Lippincott and Co. 1956
© Frances and Richard Lockridge 1956
Available as an ebook and from used booksellers.

John Hayward, having just asked the woman he loves (Barbara Phillips)to marry him, arrives at his apartment, and finds the police waiting for him.  They ask him to come with them, to answer questions about the murder of Nora Evans.  From their questioning, it’s apparent that they believe (with some reason) that he murdered her to get out of his relationship with her.  They do not, at this point, have sufficient evidence to charge him with murder; he is released on bond (of $20,000—something around $150,000 at today’s prices).  Hayward is in his early 30s, a veteran of the Korean War, and an assistant vice-president of a large New York bank.  And things do not look good for him.

He and Barbara find themselves looking for evidence of his innocence (and of someone else’s guilt; the police keep him under surveillance and continue to build a case against him.  And there is a bad-cop (Grady), good-cop (Nathan Shapiro) element to the story.  (This is the first, of ten, books in which Shapiro plays a major role.  He winds up being instrumental in identifying the actual murderer, although it’s hard to call him the lead character.  He has a few walk-on appearances in the Mr. and Mrs. North books, also written by the Lockridges.)

The Lockridges do their usual good job of making the reader see and feel what New York was like (and, in this case, what a part of the Connecticut suburbs were like).  John and Barbara make an attractive couple, and there is a charming secondary character, the Anglican priest, Father Higbee, who both accepts their account of what has happened, but provides them with some insight into the people in his small Connecticut town who are a part of what has happened.

The Lockridges were never really among the top rank of mystery writers in their career (spainng the years from the early 1940s to the late 1970s; Richard carried on as a solo act after Frances’s death in the early ‘60s).  But they were reliable, and their main characters [(the Norths in particular, but also Shapiro and Merton Heimrich (24 books, a state police inspector introduced in the second Mr. and Mrs North book (Murder Out of Turn)] were always likeable.  IThe Faceless Adversary is a good example of their work—solidly plotted, with appealing characters.  I have always found that spending a few hours with thir books time well spent, and The Faceless Adversary is no exception.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Leonard Gribble The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Leonard Gribble The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, reprint edition in the British Library of Crime Classics
2018Poison Pen Press 2018
© Leonard Gribble 1939

A competently done story, with a pretty much faceless protagonist (Chief Inspector Slade).  The murder takes place during a football (soccer) match, between a prominent professional team and what is perhaps the best amateur team in England.  Shortly before the end of the first half, one of the amateurs, John Doyce (who had only recently joined the teeam) collapses, and dies shortly after being carried of the field.  The cause of death turns out to be poison, one of the alkaloids.  Inspector Slade and his assistant, Sergeant Clinton, investigate. 

Almost anyone might have committed the murder--the deceased turns out to be something of a bastard.  And it may be linked to the death, some years before, of a young girl , in a town in which a number of the principals in the story lived or  had business dealings.  But how the murder was committed is at issue.  And it's the "how" that is, in my mind, the weakest part of the narrative.  

The poison has been injected into Doyce's forearm by his being scratched by the dead girl's engagement ring, onto which the poison has been smeared.  This seems quite a hit-and-miss method of murder.  It's unclear how one of the players could have worn the ring (it was, after all, a girl's ring, and she is described as petit.  Carrying the ring in his uniform--do soccer uniforms even have pockets?--would make it difficult to get to.  Opportunity might not have presented itself.  The poison might have been rubbed off the ring.  The amount  \of poison, of necessity, given the method, might have been insufficient to kill him.  Someone might have noticed the murder scratching Doyce.   Quite a number of things might have gone wrong, or rendered the killer without opportunity.

Stylistically, Gribble has a few tics that are annoying, the chief of which is that several characters, but most noticeably Sgt. Clinton "grunt" relatively long passages of dialogue.  Nonetheless, I thought the story was reasonably well-told, even if it does not induce me to seek out any more of Gribble's quite extensive catalog.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Rex Stout Described Nero World, Archie Goodwin, and the brownstone

Rex Stout’s Descriptions of Nero Wolfe,
Archie Goodwin, and Wolfe’s Office

Height 5 ft. 11 in.  Weight 278 lbs. Age 56.

Mass of dark brown hair, very little greying, is not parted but sweeps off to the right because he brushes with his right hand.  Dark brown eyes are average in size, but look smlaller because they are mostly half closed.  They are always aimed straight at the person he is talking to.  Forehead is high.  Head and face are big but do not seem so in proportion to the whole.  Ears rather small.  Nose long and narrow, slightly aquiline.  Mouth mobile and extremely variable; lips when pursed are full and thick, but in tense moments they are thin and their line is long.  Cheeks full but not pudgy; the high point of the cheekbone can be seen from straight front.  Complexion vaies from florid after meals to an ivory pallor late at night when he has spent six hard hours working on someone.  He breathes smoothly and without sound except when he is eating; then he takes in and lets out great gusts of air.  His massive shoulders never slump; when he stands up at all he stands straight.  He shaves every day.  He has a small brown mole above his right cheekbone, halfway between the chin and the ear.

Height 6 feet.  Weight 180 lbs.  Age 32.  Hair is light rather than dark, but just barely decided not to be red; he gets it cut every two weeks, rather short, and brushes it straight back, but it keeps standing up.  He shaves four times a week and grasps at every opportunity to make it only three times.  His features are all regular, well-modeled and well-proportioned, except the nose.  He escapes the curse of being the movie star type only through the nose.  It is not a true pug and is by no means a deformity, but it is a little short and the ridge is broad, and the tip has continued on its own, beyond the cartilage, giving the impression of startling and quite independent initiative.  The eyes are grey, and are inquisitive and quick to move.  He is muscular both in appearance and in movement, and upright in posture, but his shoulders stoop in unconscious reaction to Wolfe’s criticism that he is too self-assertive.

The old brownstone on West 35th Street is a double-wide house.  Entering at the front door, which is seven steps up from the sidewalk, you are facing the length of a wide carpeted hall.  At the right is an enormous coat rack, eight feet wide, then the stairs, and beyond the stairs the door to the dining room.  There were originally two rooms on that side of the hall, but Wolfe had the partition removed and turned it into a dining room forty feet long, with a table large enough for six (but extensible) square in the middle.  It (and all other rooms) are carpeted; Wolfe hates bare floors.  At the far end of the big hall is the kitchen.  At the left of the big hall are too doors; the first is one is to what Archie calls the front room, and the second is to the office.  The front room is used chiefly as an anteroom; Nero and Archie do no living there.  It is rather small, and the furniture is a random mixture without any special character.

The office is big and nearly square.  In the far corner to the left (as you enter from the hall) a small rectangle has ween walled off to make a place for a john and a washbowk—to save steps for Wolfe.  The door leading to it faces you, and around the corner, along the opther wall, is a wide and well-cushioned couch.

In furnishings the room has no apparent unity but it has plenty of character.  Wolfe permits nothing to be in it that he doesn’t enjoy looking at, and that is the only criterion for admission.  The globe is three feet in diameter.  Wolfe’s chair was made by Meyer of cardato.[1]  His desk is cherry, which clashes with the cardato, but Wolfe likes it.  The couch is upholstered in bright yellow material which has to go to the cleaners every six months.  The carpet was woven in Montenegro in the early nineteenth century and has been extensively patched.  The only wall décor are three pictures: a Manet, a copy of a Correggio, and a genuine Leonardo sketch.  The chairs are all shapes, colors, materials, and sizes.  The office makes you blink with bewilderment at the first view, but if you had Archie’s job and lived there you would probably learn to like it.

[1] What follows is my commentary on one point—the “cardato” of the chair clashing with the “cherry of the desk.
“ 'Cardato' is a woollen fabric consisting of big and hairy yarns, particularly warm and of medium-high weight, therefore ideal for the winter season.
Cardato fabric was the traditional mainstay of the Prato industry from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, especially in its 'regenerated' version. This fibre is obtained by recycling old clothes and production waste into yarn to be spun and woven again.

“From the beginning, wool regeneration met with great success, reducing the costs of raw material and manufacturing and giving rise to a new expert, the rag man, who, through his experience and tactile sensibility, could classify fibres very accurately. After the Second World War, Prato became the world's most important and specialized centre for the collection of rags: more than half of the huge amounts of rags reaching Prato’s warehouses are exported abroad after being graded and packed in bales."

Cardato is still an important part of textile production as it lends itself to creative and diverse processing methods (fantasy yarns, mix of colours) and the environmentally-sustainable regenerated wool is attracting new interest, as it uses textile cut-offs that would otherwise become waste.

It’s not clear to me why or how the chair would have to clash with the chair, as the color of the chair could be almost anything—cardato is the type of fabric, not the color.  Stout had to know this, so whether he chose not to explain further, or all of the cardato fabric he was familiar with would have provided a discordant contrast with the cherry of the desk.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Susan Spann, Ghost of the Bamboo Road

Susan Spann, Ghost of the Bamboo Road
Copyright © 2019 Susan Spann
Seventh Street Books
ISBN 978-1-63388-550-9

Let me begin with this:  I’d read around a third of Ghost of the Bamboo Road yesterday when I stopped to eat dinner and do come chores. Around 8:30, I picked it up again, planning to read for an hour or so before going to bed.  Around 11, I finished the book, having not gotten out of my chair.

From which you may deduce (correctly) that I was truly immersed in the story.

That was not altogether a surprise to me.  Having read the previous 6 books in the series,[1] I was prepared to enjoy mystery and the characters.  And, obviously, I was not disappointed.

Hiro Hattori (not his “real” name), a ninja, has been hired by someone who chooses to remain anonymous, to protect Father Mateo, a Catholic priest in Japan, trying to spread the word.  Or, at any rate, his words.  Hiro is skeptical of the mission, but takes his assignment seriously.  He has, over time, come to respect and admire Mateo, even as he remains skeptical of his mission.

In this addition to the o-going saga, Hiro, Mateo, Ana (his Japanese housekeeper), and Gato (the cat, of course) are on their way from Kyoto to Edo.  Rumors have spread that the power behind the Emperor plans to destroy the ninja and kuniochi (the female equivalent) and move the capitol from Kyoto to Edo.[2]  They have stopped in this village to warn Emiri (a kunoichi residing there) of the necessity of going into hiding.

Almost immediately after their arrival, the mother of the innkeeper is murdered; many of the villagers believe that she was killed by a yūrei—ghost—who has been wronged by someone in the village and who seeks revenge.  Neither Hiro nor Mateo is willing to accept that yūrei exist, let alone that they can kill.  Mateo wishes to remain, at least briefly, to try to discover the killer (which, really, means to have Hiro discover the killer); Hiro believes that his mission is more important.  And, as Emiri cannot be found, he is in favor of leaving immediately for Edo.

Of course they stay.  And of course they become involved (partly because Ana is accused of stealing a trove of silver coins).  Their investigation, and the accusation against Ana, brings them in contact with all the villagers (including a couple of unexpectedly interesting and astute men), and with a yamabushi—a hermit/holy man—who lives in the forest.  And, of course, they do discover the murderer.

And if it seems all to “of-course-ish” in my summary, it’s anything but in the reading.  Hiro and Mateo are a good pairing, and they have become close friends.  The villagers, including the resident Samurai, are not just here to advance the plot, but are people with lives that have been disrupted, lives that they hope to be able to recover.  

Of the 7 books so far in the series, this has the least sword-play and violence, and the deepest exploration of character.  (Not that the first 6 ignore character.)

If you have not yet found Spann’s work, I encourage you to seek it out.  If you are already a reader, I probably don’t have to encourage you to read this one.  It’s a fine book.

[1]  Claws of the Cat; Blade of the Samurai; Flask of the Drunken Master; The Ninja’s Daughter Betrayal at Iga;;and Trial on Mount Koya.

[2] Tokyo.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Nicholas Meyer, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols

Nicholas Meyer, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols
Copyright © 2019 Nicholas Meyer
St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books
ISBN 978-1-250-22895-6

This is the fourth extension of the Holmes and Watson saga by Meyer, and, while it has its points, and ultimately makes its point clear, it is not, in my opinion, a particularly successful addition to the canon.

Watson has married (for the third? time), to the sister of Constance Garnett (noted translator of Russian (and other) works of literature.  And Holmes has returned from seclusion.  And Mycroft Holmes has called upon Holmes to retrieve a document—The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—that had been taken from one of Mycroft’s agents (and the agent killed).  Watson, of course, joins Holmes in this quest, as does Anna Walling (a Russian émigré, married to an American millionaire), to act as interpreter for Holmes on this quest.

The quest is ultimately successful, in that the Protocols are found, and a confession of their being a document concocted for the Russian secret police.  But it is a failure, in that the Protocols continue to be disseminated [recently, as Meyer notes in his “Afterword.” Being published in Louisiana (2000) and California (2002)]. 

The book, as I noted above, is not (for me) a success, for all that the message that Meyer wished us to receive is an important one.  Holmes behaves in very non-Holmesian ways.  The relationship between Holmes and Anna seems out of character for Holmes, if not for her.  And, in keepng with a difficulty I have had with the three earlier books (The Seven Percent Solution, The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer):  Mixing actual people and events with Holmes and Watson just does not work for me (although it might for you). 

Leaving my personal reaction to incorporating the fictional Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes and the equally fictional Dr. John Watson), there are other issues.  As I said, Holmes behaves in some very un-Holmesian behaviors, the most noticeable of which is (spoiler ahead) torturing a confession out of the original publisher of the Protocols.  And the first half to two-thirds of the book drags noticeablty.
But it deals with a significant issue. Both in the world of the early 1900s and, as is unfortunately all to obvious, in the world of the 21st century.  Anti-Semitism remains a potent force, and a destructive force, everywhere in the world.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes
Copyright © 2017 Jason Fagone
Dey St. (An Imprint of William Morrow)
ISBN 978-0-06-243051-9

The story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William Friedman, who were pioneer cryptanalysts for the United States.  Elizebeth came from a Quaker family in rural Indiana, William from a Jewish family in New York.  Their meeting, which both at the time and in retrospect, seems to have been highly unlikely, was at a very strange household/research facility owned and operated by an eccentric millionaire, George Fabyan on his estate just outside Geneva, Illinois.  Elizebeth (a graduate of Hillsdale College) was hired, in 1916, to work on his Shakespeare project—that was t try to prove that Francis Bacon actually wrote the plays and had left encrypted clues in the First Folio.  But an extraordinary range of other projects were also being researched there.

William was, initially, doing genetic experiments on fruit flies.  But fairly quickly they both discovered that they had a facility for deciphering secret messages.  And they both quickly came to believe that the Bacon project was a dead end.  And William fell in love, and they got married.  They left Fabyan’s establishment, and fairly quickly found jobs in Washington-William as a military code and cipher expert during World Was I, and Elizebeth as doing similar work for the Customs office (deciphering messages exchanged by smugglers, and then bootleggers).

Unquestionably their most important work came during World War II.  They were working separately, and could rarely even discuss their work.  Between them, though, they made a significant impact on Germany’s espionage and sabotage campaigns (in Elizebeth’s case, in South America).  

This is a complex an interesting tale, and Fagone generally tells it well.  He is not a particularly graceful writer, though the story is compelling enough that I mostly overlooked that aspect of the book (although things do drag occasionally).  If anything is a persistent weakness, it is the description and discussion of the code-breaking work itself.  That is a largely technical subject and not especially gripping.  But it is a bit of a hole in the narrative.

Among the other people who have important places in the story, almost all come off well, appearing as dedicated, hard-working people doing, in some cases, dangerous jobs.  One person, however, comes off very badly…J. Edgar Hoover.  He appears as an ambitious attention and credit grabber is cares primarily for his own reputation and secondarily for that of the FBI.  

As I was preparing to write these comments, I discovered a second recent book focusing on Elizebeth Friedman, G. Stuart Smith’s A life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman, published by McFarland in 2007.  It’s considerably shorter than Fagone’s book (and also, oddly, more expensive).  And the description of it (on Amazon) suggests that William’s part in the story is downplayed or ignored.

If you are at all interested in the part that decoding played in the war, Fagone’s book will, I think, be the place to start for American efforts.  There’s also an extensive literature about the British efforts at Bletchley park, with which I am not familiar (although I can recommend Robert Harris’s Enigma, which, as a novel, probably plays a bit loosely with the facts).