Monday, September 21, 2020

Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile

 Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
Copyright © Erik Larson 2020
Crown Publishers
ISBN (hardcover) 978-0-385-3871-3

Erik Larson has a deserved reputation for writing excellent works of non-fiction (In the Garden of Beasts; The Devil in the White City among others) and The Splendid and the Vile may be his best yet.  He takes us on an almost day-by-day trip through the period from the collapse of the British and French armies in 1940 to the U.S. entry into the war in 1941.  His focus is on England—where the people, from the famous (Churchill) to ordinary citizens of London and other cities are challenged by the destruction and death (29,000 dead, another 29,000 injured) and destruction (Coventry basically destroyed; thousands of homes and businesses destroyed in cities throughout England) resulting from the bomber raids that struck the country continually.  But in emphasizing the effects on England, he does not neglect the German side of the equation, relying heavily on Göbbles’ diary entries for insights into how Germany saw the war.

What makes The Splendid and the Vile so striking is the wealth of material available, mostly from diaries and letters, that allows us to follow the events as the appeared to the people experiencing them, not as they might be recalled years later.  But there is a cost to this reliance, albeit a minor one: the voices are mostly those of the powerful and the rich.  There was an organized effort by the government (and I am blanking on the agency) to acquire information from the population in general.  Whichever agency it was recruited a fairly large number of people to participate in the “Mass Observation” diary” project (which actually began in 1938); the diarists were often prompted to respond to specific events.  But the story is mostly that of the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected.

And Larson tells the story very well.  For the 500 pages of the text, my interest did not wane; despite knowing how the story ended, the level of detail, and the mix from very personal stories (falling into and out of love; dances and parties) to high strategy kept me engaged throughout. 

That’s not to say that it is perfect.  I’ve mentioned the almost inevitable concentration on the upper classes.  Most of the deaths, most of the injuries, and (probably) a disproportionate share of the suffering, were not among the elite.  And, although we know that Larson is not trying to write a history of the war, he’s trying to capture the period in which the outcome was truly unknown, the ending seemed to me to a disappointment.  But one thing that I truly did moss was and attempt to provide any visuals to accompany the text.  I realize that including photos with the text would have added much to the length and expense of producing the book, but there is (these days) an option:  Create a website with a collection of photos and link to that through a url in the book. 

Whatever reservations I have, however, The Splendid and the Vile is truly a splendid book. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Copycat Photoblogging

 It's been a while since I've done a copycat phtoblogging post, spinning off  Chris Bertram's posts at Crooked Timber (here's a link to the photo I'm copycatting:

My photo was taken during a photography workshop in West Virginia in 2017.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

James R. Benn, The Red Horse

James R. Benn, The Red Horse
Copyright © James R, Benn 2020
Soho Press

After a disastrous mission in occupied France, Billy Boyle (a former Boston police officer (briefly, before the war, working in homicide and a distant cousin of Eisenhower (for whom he now works as an investigator) has landed in the Saint Albans Asylum (formerly a “lunatic asylum) for treatment and recovery from the aftermath of that mission.  During that mission, his close friend, with whom he has worked since the war began, Baron Piotr Kazimierz (Kaz) has had a serious, potentially life-threatening heart seizure.  And things at St. Albans are not what they seem.  But what things are, we learn only gradually.

One thing they are is fatal:

I stood still, unable to decide which way to go.

Which is why I saw the two men up in the clock tower…They were nothing but blurs of brown uniforms. Heads and shoulders barely visible above the crenellated stonework...

Then there was only one man.  And he was flying. (p. 5)

Boyle is certain of what he saw.  But was it real, or was it a stress-induced vision?  There is a corpse—a man named Holland is dead on the ground.  Was it murder (the other man in the tower), suicide, accident?  And when he is asked to look into whether the death was murder, suicide, or accidental, he first has to regain his own (mental) balance.  And that’s not easy.  Fortunately, one of the psychiatrists on staff (Dr. Robinson) manages, using a treatment I’d never heard of, to help Boyle regain his equilibrium  And, to complicate things, Kaz’s condition is very serious; the medical staff thinks that the heart damage he has sustained will be permanent, and he will live out his life as a semi-invalid.  But an American doctor has developed what is still an experimental surgical procedure that might work.

The cast is large, including members of the Home Guard (there as a security detail); patients (male and female); staff members; and folks from British and American intelligence groups (notably the British SOE).  As Boyle’s investigation proceeds, somewhat stealthily, as he is a patient, and is not allowed to be out and around at night, we meet some of the other residents, including a mad scientist, two women (one of whom, much like Holland cannot, or, at least, does not speak).  The situation worsens when a British intelligence officer is (clearly) murdered, and another staff member, also dies, also murdered.  And post-card sized drawings start showing up.

As an added complication, the woman Boyle, Diana Seaton, and Kaz’s sister, Angelika, are both being held in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  Which is close to the factory producing the new V2 German missiles are being produced (we get a very harrowing description of what those missiles can do later on).  And (at least in this universe) Himmler is seeking to repatriate some 100 prisoners (to Sweden), in the hope that, should Germany lose the war, he might be treated leniently.  This, of course, must be kept a secret.

Benn’s knowledge of the war, and of the people and environment in which it is being waged is immense.  His setting, his people, and their actions (the Home Guards, for example, although minor characters are very much alive) all ring true.  And, while the scene in which the murders are brought home seemed to me to resolve a bit weakly, the ending of the book moved me to tears.  In this 15th book in the series, Benn shows that he’s on top of his game.  And I’m looking forward to what I hope are many more tales to come.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Alexia Gordon, Murder in G Major


Alexia Gordon, Murder in G Major
Copyright © 2016 Alexia Gordon
Henry Press
ISBN 978-1-6351-10057-79

I must admit to having a bias against stories that depend heavily on paranormal occurrences.  Especially if the paranormal part is not treated tongue-in-cheek,[1]  But the paranormal elements here are pretty central to the development of the story.  So that’s my warning about my reaction. 

Gethsemane Brown, a world-class concert violinist, has arrived Ireland without her luggage (but with her violin), having seen her job prospects in the States go sour.  She has accepted a position as the music instructor at a small private school in the town of Carraigfaire, and has at least temporary accommodations in the house of Eamon McCarthy, who has been dead for 25 years.  His wife, Orla, also died 25 years earlier; the presumption is that he killed her and then committed suicide.  (A crucial part of the plot is that Eamon was a world-damous composer and that Orla was a world-famous poet.)  Almost immediately after she has begun to settle in, however, Eamon’s ghost, or spirit, appears to her, and implores her to prove that he did not kill Orla and that he did not commit suicide.  His presence in the story is second only to Brown’s, and their relationship is an important part of the story.

Brown wants not to be dragged into any sort of an investigation of a pair of 25-year-old deaths, but can’t avoid it.

Her teaching job, which is really a sub-plot—revolves around a County-wide classical music performance/competition.  Her school has not won the competition for years, and she has only a short time to whip the advanced music students into a functioning orchestra (we’re never told how large her “orchestra” is, but 20 might be a high estimate).  Her plan to win revolves around a “newly-discovered” (by her) of a new concerto written by Eamon.  (Which he did, in fact, as a ghost/spirit, write as a way of bribing Brown into investigating).

The case includes a fair number of strange (if not wonderful) locals, some on whom die as Brown investigates.  The local cops mostly wish she would go away; a couple (who might have botched the investigation of Orla’s murder and Eamon’s death), and one (who’s assignment is the re-investigation of cold cases, which seems unlikely to be a full time job in a small village).

Unsurprisingly, but after a lengthy and dangerous poking around (and putting her life at risk more than once), Brown reaches a conclusion, solving the 25-year-old mystery, and wins the orchestral competition.[2]  I don’t want to give away too much, but her ability to solve the mystery involves files (which have survived, intact, for quite a long period of time) from an abandoned psychiatric facility.  I was, I must admit, underwhelmed.  But I found Brown to be a character I would like to know better, and I will read the second in the series, at last.

 [1] As it is, for example, in Manning Coles’ Brief Candles and Happy Returns.

[2] This is an aside.  The story is set in a rural area of Ireland, apparently without a bid (or even medium) size city.  So all the schools are small.  How many such schools are likely to be able to assemble an actual orchestra (I include Brown’s school in this question)?  And barring a rare and strange alignment of talent, how many of those would be able to perform at a (relatively high level?  (The school at which Brown teaches encompasses what we would think of as a combined elementary and secondary school; we are given no clear indication of its total enrollment).

Sunday, August 23, 2020

W. Bolingbroke Johnson, The Widening Stain

W. Bolingbroke Johnson, The Widening Stain
Copyright © 1942 Morris Bishop
Reprinted 2020 by The Mysterious Press

The author's name is a nom de plume for Morris Bishop, wo was (according to the introduction by Nicholas Basbanes) an academic whose research spread across a number of fields; he was also highly regarded as a teacher and as a writer of limericks.  Otto Penz;er's Mysterious Press re-published The Widening Stain in 2020 as a part of the series "Otto Penzler Presents American Mystery Classics.  Unfortunately, calling something a classic does not make it classic.

The principal character is Gilda Gorham, who is the Chief Cataloguer of the library of an unnamed (but presumptively Ivy-League-ish university.  The cast is composed mostly of faculty members, but also includes the head of the library, the custodian (who is rather sinister), and a buffoonish police lieutenant.  Two of the professors die, one (an assistant professor of French Literature, who is herself French) possibly accidentally, the other clearly murder.  In the end, Gorham provides an explanation of both deaths, and all ends well.

The setting is reasonably well-handled and the participants generally well developed (although Professor Casti’s (Romance Languages, and Italian) vocal tics seemed to me to be more American than not.  Another of the faculty, Professor Parry, is notable mostly for his ability to compose limericks. In my opinion, the limericks were the most interesting part of the book.  I will say that the dynamics of the campus seems well-suited to the 1940s setting, and are, for those of this generation’s readers who are academics, provide an interesting commentary on how things have changed.[1]

My problems with the book are two:
First, there was a lot of padding—scenes, conversations, and so on—that did nothing to advance the story.  Second, and vastly more important, when we get to the end, Gorham proposes a solution to the two deaths, identifying one of the more senior faculty as the culprit.  Her explanation seems (to me, anyway) ad hoc, with little in the way of supporting evidence.  The guilty party promptly has a meltdown, and all ends well for Gorham and for the other faculty.

The book has its charms, but the mystery is not, really, one of them.  I would definitely not consider this to be a classic.

[1] As one example:  One of the faculty s said to routinely wear his Phi Beta Kappa key on a watch chain over his vest.  Counting my undergraduate and graduate school years and my teaching career, I almost never saw a member of the faculty wearing a vest (I certainly never did; the only significant stretch of time that I even wore a suit and tie was my two years as a business school dean).  And I never saw anyone visibly wearing a Phi Beta Kappa key (I have two, which might sound strange.  One is mine, the other is my paternal grandfather’s.) 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Robert Crais, A Dangerous Man

 Robert Crais, A Denageous Man
Copyright © Robert Crais 2019
G. P. Putnam & Sons
ISBN 978-0-525-535-68-3

I think I have read almost everything that Crais has published, and I know I’ve read all of the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike books.  He writes—and plots—extraordinarily well, but the books are sometimes difficult for me, because of the level of violence in them.  A Dangerous Man is an outstanding book, and I read it in essentially one sitting, carried along by the characters and by the events.  But the violence is sure there.

But I’m not actually going to write a review of the book—but do read it; it’s very, very good.  I do want to discuss at a little length a couple of things that I kept thinking about after I finished the book.  The first involves the McGuffin (, the theft of $19 million by the mother of the principal character (non-Cole/Pike division), Isabelle (Izzy) Roland.  The second is…call it a moral dilemma, the nature of which I will try to make ckear.

Izzy’s parents are both dead; she has inherited the house she grew up in, a small bungalow in a middle-class neighborhood.  The main action of the story begins as she is leaving the bank in which she works—she is accosted by a stranger and forced into a car driven by a second man.  Pike, who had just left the bank, rescues her.  We soon find out that someone thinks Izzy has $19 million that her mother is believed to have stolen years earlier (when the mother was working as the bookkeeper for shady doctor—and, apparently, they think it’s in the bungalow, which they search thoroughly.  But Izzy claims no knowledge of that fortune.  Leaving all of that aside, I found myself struck by the logistics of hiding $19 million in a bungalow.

My two immediate thoughts were—gold?  Or $100 bills?  And I had to work that out.  The current price of gold is about $2,000 per Troy ounce; two years ago, when Crais would have bee writing, gold would have been about $1,400 per Troy ounce.  Converting that to “english” ounces, gold would have sold for about $1,275 per “english” ounce.  That’s 930 pounds of gold.  Seems like it would be hard to miss that.

So I tried $100’s.  $19,000,000 would be 190,000 $100 bills.  Maybe not as heavy as the gold.  But how about bulk?  A stack of 250 bills would measure about 3”x6”x1”.  That’s 760 packets of $100 bills, or 13,680 square inches, or 380 cubic feet, or a space roughly 7feet by 7 feet by 7 feet.  Which would be hard to conceal and harder to overlook.

And if the money had been stashed, slowly, over time, in stocks and bonds (etc.), then searching the house would be a waste of time.  (And, also, it seems unlikely that Izzy, whose name was listed on the accounts, had not heard from her mother’s financial adviser(s).)  In any event, there’s a weirdness here that served to actuate the plot, but that is hard to accept.

But that’s just a side issue.  There is, at the core of the story, a pair of moral issues, one involving Izzy’s mother, the other involving Joe Pike.

Izzy’s mother stole $19 million.  Granted, she stole it from two sleazeballs peddling worthless and potentially lethal “pharmaceuticals” to whoever that could con into it.  And the sleazeballs were working with a Mexican drug lord.  Izzy’s mother (and father) rolled on the sleazes and wound up in the witness protection program.  But they apparently never considered finding a way to make any restitution to the people who were mal-treated, made sicker, or died while the scam persisted.  The moral issue, to me, is Should Izzy do what her mother did not do, try to ameliorate the situation of the victims, or keep the money for herself?  That question is never raised.  The assumption seems to be that the money is, without any moral question, Izzy’s.  I found that a little hard to accept.  Well, a lot hard to accept. 

And then, Joe Pike.  After the original troop of bad guys has been arrested or (mostly) killed (in a legitimate use of lethal force), in the coda to the story, Pike takes a trip to Mexico, finds the drug lord, and murders him.  I can’t use the term “execute,” because, to me, that implies an action with some legal sanction.  There is no legal sanction for Pike’s actions.  Was Pike’s action morally acceptable?  I realize that this is not an easy question.  (For example, as long as he’s alive, Izzy is likely not to be safe.)  But for me, accepting that action as morally acceptable is, well, not possible.  Did the drug lord deserve to die?  Well, probably.  Would he have died when he did (when he did) without Pike’s action?  Obviously not.  Would he have continued to commit—or pay others to commit—criminal actions, actions that under any possible consideration would be morally abhorrent?  Obviously he would.  Does that allow us to accept what is legally an act or murder with equanimity?  Speaking only for myself, I have a lot of trouble with it.  (And it’s easy for me to say this, because it is a hypothetical case, and my choice has no consequences,)  But once we begin to say “An extra-legal killing of that guy is OK,” we’re sliding down the slope.

I go back to the years after our wars in Iraq, and the people we tortured in the name of making the world safer.  Does it?  Does our government sanctioning torture make the world safer?  Or does it sanction Russia placing bounties on US military personnel?  Does it sanction the use of poison gas Syria?  Does it allow us to turn a blind eye to the excessive use of force by our police?  Does it allow more and more people, with more and more weapons of greater lethality to claim that their use of those weapons is always OK?

I don’t know.  I do know that the ending of A Dangerous Man left me profoundly troubled.  Which may have been Crais’ intention.  Or maybe not.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Rex Stout, Wher There's a Will

Rex Stout, Where There’s a Will
Bantam (Reprint)
Copyright © 1940 Rex Stout
ISBN 9-780553-763010

Nero Wolfe in dragged, unwillingly, into a contest over a will.  Financier Noel Hawthorne, who has died of a gunshot wound at his country estate, apparently altered his will, leaving everything to Naomi Karn, his mistress, disinheriting his wife and his three s1sters (Daisy, who was disfigured by Noel’s errant archery shot; May, a college president; June, wife of the U.S; Secretary of State John Charles Dunn; and April, an acclaimed actress).  The sisters want him to find evidence that the will is fraudulent.  But the local (upstate, small-town) police conclude that it is murder; the upstate DA shows up with Inspector Cramer, and Manhattan DA Skinner.  Also involved are two lawyers in a toney law firm.

The tale is set entirely in New York, and has one of the rare (?) occasions in which Wolfe leaves home on business.  He makes little progress, has a bad lunch, when Naomi Kern turns up behind the bar in one of the first floor rooms, strangled.  It’s now two murders—but murders for separate or related reasons?  One murder or two?

Wolfe employs some dubious strategems, including keeping a set of photos taken on the day of Noel Hawthorne’s death by Sarah Dunn (daughter of John and June.  And he eventually reaches a conclusion.  Herein lies a problem.  The chief piece of evidence he has that he claims to point to the (single) murder is a photo (spoiled alert), taken in Manhattan taken by Sarah Dunn on the day of the murder.  The evidence is that the accused is alleged, by Wolfe, to be wearing in his buttonhole (it was a different world) a wild flower which, Wolfe claims, would have been unavailable in the City.  Frankly, I’d like to hear Wolfe’s testimony and, more pointedly, the cross-examination.  Which might go something like this:

Defense Attorney: “Now Mr. Wolfe, you have testified that the flower in the picture is of a type that cannot be obtained in New York City, but is only to be found growing wild.  We acknowledge your expertise with orchids, but are you an expert in the cultivation of roses?

Wolfe:  “I am not.”

Att:  “Have you ever attempted to cultivate wild roses?”

Wolfe:  “I have not.”

Att.:  “Have you ever tried to obtain a wild rose from any florist in New York?”

Wolfe:  “I have not.”

Att.:  “Given the size of the photograph, [which would have been probably 3”x5”, and would have included most or all of the body of the defendant—DAC] what is the basis of your conclusion that the flower in the photograph is, in fact, a wild rose.  And if it is a wild rose, what is your basis for concluding that the only place he could have obtained a wild rose that afternoon would have been at Noel Hawthorne’s estate

At this point I don’t know what Wolfe would say.  But since it is solely the “evidence” provided by the photo with the (small) flower that might have placed the defendant at the scene of the murder is, in fact, the (possible) wild rose, I don’t see how any jury would have convicted him.

Archie is in top form, and spending a few hours with Wolfe is always entertaining (and often edifying).  So there’s a lot to like in the book, but the denouement is just unconvincing.