Thursday, June 17, 2021

Rex Stout, Too Many Clients

 Rex Stout, Too Many Clients
© Copyright 1960 (and probably renewed by the Estate of Rex Stout)
Bantam Books reprint 1994
ISBN 0-553-25423-5

I’ve read Too Many Clients many times, and have written about it more tan once.  Having just re-read it, I feel obliged (to myself; everyone else in the world should feel free to ignore this) to write about it again.  So here I go.

Thomas Yeager, (one of?) the VPs of the Continental Plastics corporation has been murdered, his body found underneath a tarp at street construction site, n a relatively undesirable part of Manhattan.  Wolfe winds up with three clients:  The Perez family (property managers living in the basement apartment of a residential building near the where the body was found); Yeager’s wife (who knew about his extramarital activities); and the corporation at which Yeager had worked.  The first discovery is that Yeager had owned the building in which the Perez family lived and worked.  He had constructed, on the top floor, what can best be described as the setting for serial extramarital activities.  (There’s some evidence that the activities involved Yeager and a fairly large number of women,)  Keep in mind that this is in what would generally be referred to as a slum.  And Yeager was killed there.

Wolfe and Goodwin manage to discover the murderer.  But what I want to discuss is something entirely different.

Yeager, one would think, would be at pains to keep both the place and the activities.  But consider:  The top floor had to be essentially rebuilt (walls removed; windows as well; an expensive, unpickable lock installed on the basement level.  And an expensive elevator with only 2 stops—the basement and the bower.  Leave aside the cost.  This would have taken a fair amount of time and a fairly large number of constructions.  The residents of the building, and of the surrounding neighborhood, might not know exactly what was being done.  But they would certainly know that something was in the works.  This would certainly attract the attention of the residents and, I would think, of the neighborhood as a whole.  They would wonder who had done this, and why.  They would be curious about the people entering and leaving.  So it is likely that people would be watching, and, if any of t hem had cameras (Kodak Brownies were relatively cheap, it’s likely that someone would be taking photos.  One source (Kodak Eastman: Brownie Flashmite 20 Price Guide: estimate a camera value ( puts the price at $15 in the early 1950s, so maybe not so cheap.  But, still, it only takes one…)

Now, to be sure, Yeager might not have been all that concerned about people in the neighborhood knowing something was going on, or even the highly likely knowledge about what was going on.  And the women who made the trip to this apartment building in a slum might not have felt all that insecure (although I would suspect that they would have called for a cab prior to leaving, rather than hailing a cab at the curb.) 

After the Yeager’s murder, things might have changed.  His picture would have appeared in the papers.  Some people in the neighborhood might have recognized this visitor (Yeager).  While most of Yeager’s guests would be anonymous, at least one (Meg Duncan, a well-known actress) might well have been noticed and identified by someone.  Among those recognizing Yeager as the murdered man, someone would likely have called the police.  And then everything would have played out differently.  The police would have discovered Yeager’s ownership of the building, and of the nature of the top floor (and, by the way, how is it that Sgt. Stebbins managed to overlook the presence of an elevator?).  Yet there is not even a suggestion that anyone in the neighborhood noticed or cared.  No suggestion that any of the residents—except the Perez family, and Stebbins came to see them because their daughter had been murdered, not because the bower was discovered—had even been asked if they had seen the body being dumped in the hole.  (I would have thought that canvassing the neighborhood would have been automatic in any event, in an effort to determine if anyone had seen Yeager’s body being dumped.)

A secondary issue is the choice of a slum to begin with, so I’m going to touch on that as well.  Yeager bought the entire building (if memory serves, a 3  or 4 story building, likely with 4 apartments to a floor, so probably 12 apartments (excluding the Perez family’s quarters in the basement).  Yeager’s alternative, it seems to me, would have been to purchase a single co-op (or condo) unit and have it remodeled to suit his needs.  I can’t believe that such a choice would have been more expensive than buying an entire apartment building and remodeling as we know it was.  Furthermore, his guests would not face the same (perhaps small) risks to their personal safety were they to visit him in a mid-town residence (even buying a small single family house in the Village couldn’t have been that much more expensive, even if it needed to be remodeled).  Remodeling a co-op unit wouldn’t attract as much attention as would remodeling a unit in a slum.  The attention that might be paid to his visitors would also probably not have attracted as much neighborhood attention.  So the risk associated with the slum location must, for Yeager, and possibly for his guests as well, have been part of the attraction.  To me, that seems to be a stretch, but I still always find myself why selecting a more obviously unusual site is something that Yeager would have chosen.

I have two additional bones to pick, about the motive of the murderer and about Archie’s reaction to the fate of Dinah Hough, but I’ll leave that for another day.  And that discussion will involve revealing the identity of the murderer, and the murder’s motive.

Having said all that, I will say that, if one accepts the premise, both Goodwin’s actions (with one exception) and Wolfe’s deductions make Too Many Clients a fairly compelling read.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Josh Pachter (ed.), The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe

 Josh Pachter (ed.), The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe
Copyright © 202  Rex Stout Literary Properties
Open Road Integrated Media
ISBN 978-1504-059-862

I have found that, generally, compilations like this tend to be disappointing, either because the concept doesn’t work or because the individual stories don’t measure up.  And, being something of a Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe devotee, I was inclined to be skeptical.  But, I am happy to be able to say, this was, as Mr. Wolfe would have said, satisfactory.

The book is divided into four sections:
“Tribute in Triplicate: Introductions” (3 introductions)
“Part I: Pastiches” (6 shorter pieces in which Wolfe appears explicitly or implicitly as a character))
“Part II: Parodies” (7 longer pieces whose main characters are more-or-less homages to Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe)
“Part III: Potpourri” (5 shorter, unclassifiable pieces)

Speaking solely for myself, I found the stories in Part II to be the most interesting and best realized, with the material in Parts I and III being interesting and readable, but not as interesting.  So I’m going to focus mostly on Part II. 

The seven parodies are, as I have already suggested, really homages.  In all seven, there is a detective whose adventure is chronicled by his employee/assistant in the detective business.  In several of them, Wolfe (and Archie) are off-stage presences.  Of the seven, a few really stand out.  For example, “The Case of the Disposable Jalop, (by Mack Reynolds)” in which three scientists (Clarke, Aldiss, and Brunner—and if you have read much SF, you’ll know where those guys came from)  need is assistance in recovering a rather remarkable motor vehicle in a world that reminded me of Frederik Pohl’s story “The Midas Plague.”  It’s a world in which work as we know it  has more-or-less been eliminated, but greed continues.  They want to hire him to find yet another scientist, named Azimov and another guy named Asimov(hint, hint).  And a secretary named Mata Hari Le Guin.

And there’s Lawrence Block’s story of a Christmas party (“As Dark As Christmas Gets)” in Wolfe is hired to recover a stolen manuscript written by Cornell Wolrich that appears to have been stolen from a mystery bookstore in Manhattan.  Our narrator is Chip Harrison, and our detective is Leo Haig (formerly a breeder of tropical fish for a living, but, as a result of a large legacy, a detective—who wants to be so successful that Wolfe invites him to dinner).  (They also appear in novels by Block)  Of course you know exactly which mystery bookstore in Manhattan this is based on.  Right?

Loren Estleman’s contribution features Claudius Lyon (chronicled by a small-time con man trying to go straight, Arnie Woodbine),a detective (unlicensed) who works for free, to avoid having to get a license.  Lyon is “hired” to find a past winner (Noah Ward) of a prestigious poetry award, in order to be able to include the poet’s prize-winning poem in an anthology.  In the course of things, they run afoul of one of the nastier members of the NYPD’s finest.  The solution is what one might call poetic justice.  (Or maybe not.()

Dave Zeltserman [who is, for some reason, not indexed on SYKM, but can be found at a Wikipedia entry (Dave Zeltserman - Wikipedia)] has written a series of stories featuring a wealthy sometime PI named Julius Katz and his virtual assistant.  This is considerably darker (and with higher stakes) than the others.  Katz is in imminent danger of being killed, as his Boston townhouse has been bombed.  And that is aa consequence of his being paid being paid a $20 K retained by the dog food king, Allen Luther.  Someone is apparently trying to kill him, and he wants Katz to make sure that, should he be killed, the perp is caught. 

Michael Bracken presents us with what might be termed the last days of his take on the  duo in “The Possibly Last Case of Tiberius Dingo.”  Dingo is old, in failing health (the office has been turned into a bedroom), and, basically, waiting to die.  His aging assistant (Jughead, which is a nice touch) has arranged for Ruth Entemann to seem Dingo (he declines to take her case (she thinks she’s being stalked, but Jughead has his ways).  Dingo winds up in the hospital.  Jughead pursues the stalking case, and something in Ruth Entemann’s past seems to be involved.

The final section had, for me, somewhat less interest—except for Robert Lopresti’s take on what it might have been like to live next door to Wolfe.  What with one thing (machine gunners destroying the greenhouse) and another (J. Edgar Hoover turning up at the wrong brownstone), I could see that Wolfe might be less than the perfect neighbor, even if it could also lead to Interesting times.

I enjoyed this book a lot.  I think that any fan of Nero Wolfe (or Archie Goodwin) would also.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

13 May 2021

As sunset draws near,
I look up and see a tree
Beginning to bud

13 May 2021


Monday, May 10, 2021

Mark Kurlansky, Ready for a Brand New Beat

Mark Kurlansky. Ready for a Brand Ne Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” became the Anthem for a Changing America
Copyright © 2031 M rk Kurlansky
 Riverhead Books/Penguin Books
ISBN 978-59448-722-4

I finished reading Mark Kurlansky’s Ready for a Brand New Beat, his attempt to convince us (and, perhaps,, himself)of the cultural and political importance of a pop-rock song, “Dancing in the Street.  Composed by a team of Motown songwriters (Marvin Gays, Willian “Mickey” Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter) and initially released by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.  Clocking in at 2:46, it peaked at #4 on the pop charts and was #17 on the 1964 year-end rankings according to Billboard.  Looking at the 1964 year-end list, I think there is a case to be made for it (although I personally would pick The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” which Billboard has at #20.  (It’s clearly a better song than any of the top 100 from 1963, although Sam Cooke’s “It’s Another Saturday Night” is terrific.  I’d put two songs from 1965 ahead of it-The Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction (#3 for the year) and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” (#41). Still, “Dancing in the Street” is a remarkable song and deserves the praise it gets.
Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1964 - Wikipedia
Martha & The Vandellas "Dancing in the Streets" - YouTube

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1963 - Wikipedia
Sam Cooke - Another Saturday Night (Official Lyric Video) - YouTube

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1965 - Wikipedia
[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction - YouTube
Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone (Audio) - YouTube

But Kurlansky wants to do much more than assert the musical merits of “Dancing in the Street.”  His thesis is that “Dancing…” is much more than a great rock song.  It is, he argues, a song whose origins (consciously or not) come out of the political and civic unrest that marked the summer of 1964 and that it continued to resonate in the summers that follow.  An important part of this part of the story is white flight generally and the very real destruction of Detroit as a major American city.  He also, I think, wants to make a case for the importance of Motown (and by extension Berry Gordy) in changing the musical world and providing the soundtrack to the social and political changes that became clear in 1964 and shaped a narrative that helped define the ‘60s.

Detroit got its nickname (The Motor City) because the growth of the population, and the wealth (largely of whites) were driven by the automobile industry.  IN 1880, the population of Detroit was about 116,000.  It nearly triples—to 285,000—in 1900, nearly doubled between 1900 and 1910, doubled again by 1920 (now over 900,000), and, although the city’s growth slowed, it doubled again by 1950 (reaching 1,8 million,  .That, again, is the city of Detroit.  After 1950, the city has shrunk,, almost as fast as it grew; the 2020 Census puts the city’s population at 670,000.  The Detroit metropolitan area has continued to grow.  At 3 million (about 1.1 million outside the city limits) in 1950 (the earliest official data), it’s now at 5.3 million (about 4.6 million outside the city limits.  The city is majority Black, while the suburbs are mostly white.

Kurlansky doesn’t treat this population changes in much detail, although he does sketch the outlines.

The Motown story is actually pretty amazing on its own, without any of the political weight that Kurlansky adds to it.  The incredible blossoming of talent, and the ability of that talent to break out of being only a niche of the music business—the breakthrough of Black music and performers into the pop charts is an important story, and he tells it well.  And telling it requires making it clear that Gordy made household names out of an extraordinary group of talented men and women.  Here, he makes it clear than Gordy did not treat his talent very well, leaving some of the most talented basically in poverty while he got rich (at least for a while).

But Kurlansky wants to do much more than tell the story of Motown and the story of a song.  He wants to convince us that the song was a catalyst for the rise of a political movement—a galvanizing force behind at least part of the civil rights movement.  Especially of the Freedom Rides and the struggle to force states in the south to allow Blacks to register and vote.  The outlines of the events themselves are pretty well handled, and, if that part of the struggle obviously continues (with 30or more states now trying to make voter registration and actual voting harder—and not just in the south).  I don’t think he makes his case.  The argument is that “Dancing in the Street” was heard as (whether it was intended to be heard this way is a much harder case) a call to activism, even to violence.  That “dancing in the street” was not—was not thought to be by political activists in 1964 and later to be a nice dance song, but was, indeed, a call to revolution.  He cites a few activists who claim (if only in hindsight) to see it that way.  But it reads as a stretch, not as an evident truth.

The strangest part of the book is his discussion of the huge number of recorded versions of the song (including, somewhat weirdly, David Bowie and Mick Jagger doing a duet).  I think he’s trying to make a claim for the continued vitality of the song.  And it has been covered and recorded over and over again.  Including a number of weird attempts (the Mamas and Papas?  I don’t recommend it.  Van Halen?  Don’t recommend that either.  The Grateful Dead?).  I can’t find even an estimate of the number of recorded versions, but it seems to be in the hundreds.

I was absorbed by the book, even as I argued with it frequently.  “Dancing in the Street” is a seminal achievement in rock literature.  Bu in the end it’s just a great song.  It did not change the world.  It did not even, really, change the music business.  It probably did not make the singers and players rich.  But it was an important moment for Motown, making the label ubiquitous and helping to make Berry Gordy rich.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Dolores Gordon-Smith, As If By Magic

 Dolores Gordon-Smith, As If By Magic
Copyright © 2009
Constable & Robinson Ltd.

The 3rd of (so far) 10 mysteries featuring Jack Haldean, who, following his service in the Great War, is making a (surprisingly good) living as a writer.  He becomes involved in actual mysteries, working with his friend Chief Detective Inspector Bill Rackham.  In this case, George Lassiter, whom Haldean met during the War, is the catalyst for his involvement.

Lassiter has come to England to find out what has happened to a legacy he should have received—but appears to have been stolen.  Broke, suffering from malnutrition and recurrent bouts of malaria and shell-shock, he breaks into a home after watching the servants leave to see a play.  And he falls asleep/passes out in the warmth of the kitchen.  He awakens, but, hearing voiced, he hides until he can leave without being discovered.  As he prepares to leave, he sees a young woman on the floor of the kitchen—apparently dead.  As he hurries out of the house, he encounters the police, tries to convince them that there’s a death in the house.  But there is no body.

And, instead of arresting him, he winds up in the hospital, suffering from malnutrition and malaria and (so they thing) hallucinations.  He is released into the custody of Haldean until he has recovered sufficiently to be on his own.

The home he invaded is, as it turns out, owned by his grandfather and occupied by the old man, two of his sons, and the widow of a third son.  The family is involved in the nascent airplane business, and is in the process of building a large plane capable of long distance fights (the project is building up to a flight (not non-stop) to India,  Also involved in the business—indeed, its chief executive, is Alexander Culverton, who has disappeared—until reappearing as a corpse in the Thames.  Rackham is on the case (which he thinks might be linked to a series of “Jack the Ripper” slayings of young women, also found in the Thames.

Rackham makes little progress.  And much of the narrative revolves around preparations for the test flight of the airplane (aeroplane?), including a lavish dinner and test flight for the press.  As Rackham deals with both the “Ripper” killings and Culverton’s death, Haldean’s role is to keep George out of trouble, while trying to do his own writing.  He is, unsurprisingly, swept into the investigations.

The story moves briskly enough, but I found myself less interested than I had expected to be.  The theft of George’s legacy is resolved, and in a not very startling coincidence, ties into the machinations over control of the airplane business.  A lengthy “adventure” sequence that ties a number of things up seemed to me to be unnecessary, and, essentially, an excuse for the inclusion of some not very interesting sex scenes.  And hypnotism plays a significant role in the denouement.  More than anything else, reading As If By Magic reminded me why I had not picked it up before (I have also read, some years ago, the first two books in the series). 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Iain Pears, Death and Restoration

 Iain Pears, Death and Restoration
Copyright © 1996 Iain Pears
Berkley Prime Crime Books (reprint)

I’ve been re-reading, and in some cases reading for the first time, Iain Pears’ series of art world mysteries, of which there are, regrettably, only seven (Iain Pears (  I have, I think, only two more to read:  The Last Judgment and The Immaculate Deception.  There are three principal characters:  Jonathon Argyll, an art historian and occasional dealer; Flavia Di Stefano, an officer in Rome’s art crimes division; and Taddeo Bottano, the head of the art squad.  Bottano has only a fleeting role in this story, as he is involved in the possible creation of a continent-wide art theft bureau (Di Stefano is the acting head of the Rome operation).

This is, I think, the longest of these art mysteries, and perhaps the best. 

Early one morning, one of the priests of the monastery San Giovanni has been assaulted and a 15th century icon has vanished.  Di Stefano, in place of Bottano, has to deal with it.  And, as old icons are a hot item on the art market (licit and illicit), this icon could have great monetary value.  It already has great religious significance to many of the people in the area, who view the icon (of St. Teresa and the baby Jesus) as the protector of their part of Rome.

And, recently arrived from England, is Mary Verney, whom Argyll and Di Stefano encountered in an earlier adventure set in the English countryside (Giotto’s Hand).  Verny has something of a checkered past, and her presence in Rome poses some issues for Di Stefano.  I I must not overlook the organized crime family from Greece, the Charanis clan.  Argyll has given up his “career” as a dealer and has become an academic, teaching art history to a class of less than enthusiastic students.  And he and Di Stefano have too little time together.  And I should not overlook the art scholar and restoration guy, Dan Menzies, who is restoring some works at San Giovanni, and becomes enmeshed with the theft and recovery of the icon/

Early on, an art dealer (whose business ethics might be all they should be) is murdered.  Verney’s granddaughter has been kidnapped, and she is being coerced into stealing the icon from San Giovanni.  The monastery faces a financial (and spiritual) crisis.  Di Stefano feels over-worked and perhaps in over her head.  Argyll takes on the task of tracing (with the assistance of an elderly monk whose mental state is unsteady) the history of the icon.  Rome itself is a character, focusing mostly—not exclusively--on the neighborhood around the monastery.  [I have spent some time in Rome, mostly not in the lower income parts of the city; it is my favorite city, and, if I spoke Italian—and had a somewhat larger income (the cost of living in Rome is, well, maybe less than New York, but not by much), I think we’d be living there.)

I love the characters, and I love the setting,  And Pears’ ability to weave contemporary Rome with the collapse of the Constantinople is a key element of what happened in the 15th century and what has just happened. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Walter Mosley, Blood Grove

Walter Mosley, Blood Grove
Copyright © 2021 The Thing Itself, Inc.
Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company

Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins is, in 1969, a success, running his own investigations firm (with a handful of employees), driving in a Rolls Royce (not his but collateral for payment), and with a teenage step-daughter.  As it happens, everyone else in the agency is out of the office when Craig Killian, a veteran of the war in Viet Nam and suffering the after-effects of his time there, comes in, to ask for Rawlins’ help.  He’s afraid that he may have killed a man in a blood orange grove and he needs to know.  Rawlins, who had served in World War II, in the ETO, and who knows what traumas can linger, takes the case.

Rawlins narrates the events, from what might be years after the events.  And it is a complicated story.  In addition to this investigation, he’s responsible for his adopted teenage daughter Feather, and has to cope with her (early 20s uncle Milo showing up).  And that’s not the end of the complications, which include the LAPD (which does not come off well—and, from everything I have read about the LAPD in the 1960s and later, is deserved).

And “complicated” is perhaps an understatement.  The cast of characters is large and varied, and Mosley handles it well.  The investigation itself—which turns out to involve an armored-car heist (and, it seems, the murder of the guards) of something around a half a million dollars (about $4 million, these days, adjusted for inflation).  His client dies, but he feels an obligation to continue the investigation.  He is threatened by a…well, I guess psychotic mob boss is perhaps the best description, for one thing.  And even finding a thread to begin his investigation seems all but impossible.

Maybe not a masterpiece, but a book I found hard to put down, and people who will, for good or evil, remain in my memory.  This pretty well sums things up:  “Every now and then I think that the closest I ever came to death was at the hands of that woman.  She was a nearly perfect predator in a world that scared the shit out of me.”