Saturday, December 31, 2016

John Lawton, Then We Take Berlin

John Lawton, Then We Take Berlin
Atlantic Monthly Press © 2013
Available both in print and as an ebook.

We meet John Holdernesse as a late-30s free-lance adventurer, hired to help bring the aunt of an American ad agency executive out of East Berlin, in 1963.  During, as it happens, JFK’s visit to Berlin.  But we are almost immediately taken back to his childhood, during World War II, when he is taken in by his grandfather (who is a thief).  The war ends, and then he is drafted; his aptitude for languages gets him pulled into a British espionage group.  Most of the book, as it happens, deals with that part of his life.

We also meet Nell Burkhardt, a 16-year-old German orphan living with her great-uncle as Germany is collapsing.  She makes her way toward Berlin, and, in what was for me the most moving part of the book, winds up working for the British liberators of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Not surprisingly, Holdernesse (who by now, and for some reason that is never really made clear, is now known as Wilderness) and Burkhardt meet in Berlin.  As a sideline, Joe and some others become actively involved in black market activities, mostly selling to the Russians (using a forgotten tunnel from the British zone to the Soviet zone).  Joe and Nell lose each other along the way.  The post-war Berlin segment is by far the greater part of the book.

But we circle back to the beginning, and the planned escape, and Kennedy’s visit.

Lawton (who has also written a 7-book series featuring a Scotland Yard detective, Frederick Troy) has clearly done his research on the times and places, and he has given us several memorable characters, and a memorable story.  (And, yes, the title has been borrowed from the Leonard Cohen song, "First We Take Manhattan.") There’s a second book recently published, The Unfortunate Englishman, which I’m looking forward to reading soon. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Edward Wilson, The Envoy

Edward Wilson, The Envoy
Arcadia Books (September 1, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-1906413125

Kit Fournier is the CIA bureau chief in London, with diplomatic cover, in 1956, just as things are heating up in Hungary and in Egypt.  And England is possibly inching toward some lessening of tensions with the USSR and, by the way, wants its own nukes.  Which the US is determined to prevent.  Fournier, who is apparently in his late 20s, maybe early 30s, is a rising star in the CIA; his London assignment is a plum for someone his age.

The story is fairly convoluted, and the major issues don’t emerge all that quickly or clearly.  And Fournier, for all that he’s a hot shot, seems consistently to do things that (should) get in the way of his doing his job.  Now, keep in mind that what I know about the life of a field intelligence agent is derived from what I have read—mostly from spy novels—so take my comments here for what they are worth.  But take just a couple of things.  Fournier meets (clandestinely) regularly—often—with his KGB counterpart, and the process is always the same.  One of them leaves a marker in the same place in a London park, always in the same way (pretending to re-tie a shoelace, while driving a “spike” with a message into the ground and leaving a chalk mark in a visible location.  And they always meet at the same place.  If either of them is under surveillance, how long do you think this will actually work?

And Fournier is sexually obsessed with his cousin (Jennifer) who just happened to be married to one of Britain’s leading physicists working on their fusion bomb project.  And no one seems to have noticed (well, until the very end).  (There are other behavioral issues as well—Fournier is clearly a bit off-center in a number of ways.)

A number of real historical personages (from the Dulles brothers to Eisenhower to Churchill and  Anthony Eden to JFK) make appearances or are referred to; virtually all these references are disparaging, which may be how the CIA viewed them all, but still seems odd.

And, at the end, we have a fairly extended coda telling us what happened after the story being told in the book has wrapped up.  Maybe we needed that, maybe not.

Wilson actually writes well, and continuing to read the book is not a hard thing to do.  But the story seemed not as well thought out, and the character motivations not as well considered or allowed to emerge from the events as we see them (for example, we learn a lot about some of the characters after things are pretty well wrapped up).  I’ll be giving the following books in this series a shot, but I can’t say, at this point, that I have high expectations.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Three poems (Frost, Thomas, and Yeats) and a Fourth I Cannot Recall

Over on Facebook, people keep posting a link to Robert Frost reading one of his more famous poems, "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1923), which I think I can get away with reproducing here:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.   
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.   
    The only other sound’s the sweep   
    Of easy wind and downy flake.   
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I remember when I was doing poetry reading in high school speech meets that I considered doing this as part of my repertoire (along with "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (1937),  "Easter 1916" (1916), and something else that I forget).  What, you ask, was the unifying theme of these poems?
Well, from the first time I read Frost's poem, I thought it was being spoken by a man considering suicide--the darkest evening, the dark and deep woods, the isolation, the silence (except for the harness bells).  Dylan Thomas's poem, written (famously) on the death of his father, is a cry of anguish against death:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And Yeats's poem is also, famously, about the deaths of men struggling, in the best way they knew (and if immediately unsuccessful, eventually their cause triumphed) for freedom.  Terrible, yes...I'm somewhat less sure about the beauty.
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wing├Ęd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?   
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born
Four poems (I forget the other one) about death--a potential suicide, a death from old age, deaths as a by-product of a failed revolution...
Anyway, that's how it seemed to me.  And today, hearing Frost read his own words, reading those words again, I wondered...why did that man, stopping in the woods, momentarily want to die?  Was it the harness bells that dissuaded him?  And did he, after those miles in front of him, actually sleep?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Timothy Hallinan, The Fields Where They Lay

Timothy Hallinan, The Fields Where They Lay
Soho Crime © 2016
eISBN 978-1-61695-747-6

Junior Bender, professional thief, is dragooned into trying to discover why shoplifting has spiked at a failing LA shopping mall.  The mall, as it happens, is owned by a group of Russian bad guys.  [Junior has to deal, mostly, with one of them who has re-styled himself Tip Poindexter, to whom he refers (to himself and to us) as Vlad.]  Most of the stores are near-failing (and their owners are pretty cognizant of it,, as Junior discovers when he tries to slip out of one of the stores with a bit of merchandise).  It also has two Santas--Dwayne, the drunk Santa and Shlomo, the good, but Jewish Santa.  And of course, we have not only shoplifting, but a murder--or a shop-owner, Bonnie, at whose store Junior got caught trying to shoplift.  And Shlomo, as it turns out, has a tale to tell, about his father and World War II.  It might seem that this tale, told in three parts, is extraneous, but it actually quite integral to the story, if not the mystery.  Junior also has to deal with his issues with Christmas, with the woman he loves, and with his 14-year-old daughter.  At one point, I was uncertain about the book--we get treated to a multi-page (accurate, but unnecessary) disquisition on the rise and decline of the shopping mall, which brings the narrative to a crashing halt.  But we recover, Junior unravels the shoplifting, solves the murder, and makes peace with himself.  And the last half of the book (or more) is extraordinary, and somewhat heart-rending.  Perhaps the best Christmas-themed mystery I have ever read.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The best mysteries I read this year

Every year, the subscribers to DorothyL--a listserv for readers of mysteries--submit their "best" mystery books read during the year.  So here are mine, in the format we're supposed to submit in (Author, title, date of publication; they obviously need not all have pen published in 2016).  I was a bit surprised that 9 of my 15 were published in 2015 or 2016.  I've added a comment to some of the books.

Satterthwait, Walter, New York Nocturne: The Return of Miss Lizzie, 2016
 The best piece of fiction I read this year.  Satterthwait does a brilliant job of creating a teenage, female, narrator.  And Miss Lizzie is just a wonderful character,

 Billheimer, John, Highway Robbery, 2000
Set in West Virginia, one of a series of 5books.  The settings are beautifully realized and the mysteries are very well done.

McAlpine, Gordon, Woman With a Blue Pencil, 2015
This is a strange book, consisting of a novel being written piecemeal and the editor's comment back to the author.  Set in World War II, in LA, just as people of Japanese descent were  being rounded up.  Eerie and compelling,

 Benn, James, The First Wave, 2007
Fourth or fifth in a series about a young Boston police detective (who made detective largely because of his father's and uncle's influence.  He winds up as a special investigator for Eisenhower.  The war parts and well done, and the characters are vivid and (among the good guys) people I at any rate want to read more about.

 Harris, Robert, Enigma, 1995
About the code-breakers.  An academic recovering from an illness winds up at Bletchly, working on decoding intercede messages.  But something else is going on...This was almost ad good as Harris's recent An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair.

 Pearce, Michael, Our Man in Naples, 2009
Our man is a British Special Branch inspector who keeps getting sent out to various Mediterranean cities to investigate crimes involving Brits.  The setting are well-researched and the mysteries, if slight, are well-resolved.

Cartmel, Andrew, Written in Dead Wax: A Vinyl Detective Mystery, 2016
A collector of old records becomes involved in the deaths of other collectors and a history that goes back to an obscure LA record label that lasted for less than a year in the 1950s.  Strange, but very good.

 Havill, Steven, Blood Sweep, 2015
Another series--over 20 books now--set in fictional Posada County (New Mexico).  The two main characters are Bill Gastner (now retired, in his early 70s) and Estelle Reyes-Guzman (the Under Sheriff--think chief deputy).  Havill does a great job with the local and in this case with eyes-Guzman's child musical prodigy.  The whole series is at its worst very good.

 Crais, Robert, The Promise, 2015
Another series character book (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike).  Cole is  hired by a teenage girl to find her mother (and to figure out what her father is up to).  Things (of course) blow up, and the body count is large.  (These are generally quite violent books, which is generally something I don't care fore, but Crais pulls it off.)

 Collins, Max Allan, Better Dead, 2015
Collins' PI, Nathan Heller, is hired by Joe McCarthy to find out what the FBI has on him.  Roy Cohn and Bobby Kennedy make appearances, and Heller manages to maneuver gracefully through the muck,

 Hallinan, Timothy, King Maybe, 2016
Junior Bender is hired to rip off a hit man, and thing go pear-shaped.  Junior's new girl friend (whose name I am blanking on) deserves a book of her own.

 Benn James, Blood Alone, 2008
See above.

 Crider, Bill, Survivors Will Be Shot Again, 2016
Sheriff Dan Rhodes (in book 23 in the series) has to deal with feral hogs, alligators, petty theft, and murder.  One of the highlights in a fine series.

 Brewer, Steve, Bank Job, 2005
A retired bank robber in his seventies (who has violated his parole, not that anyone much cares) is coerced by three young would-be crooks into pulling a bank robbery.  Nothing goes as you would expect.  Parts of the book are very funny, parts are fairly scary.  Brewer does this sort of thing as well as anyone.

 Thomas, Will, Hell Bay, 2016
The 8th book in the series about Cyrus Barker, a London PI in the 1880s, narrated by his Welsh assistant Thomas Llewelyn.  Barker is hired to provide security at a secret meeting between the French ambassador and a high Foreign office official being held on a small island off the west coast of England.  Things go very badly and people start dying.  Who is killing them, and why?  (Not an original hook, but Thomas handles it adroitly.)  The period details seem correct.  Again, the entire series is strong.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Peter Ames Carlin, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon

Peter Ames Carlin, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon
Henry Holt © 2016
ISBN 978-1-62779-034-5

A detailed account of the life and music of Paul Simon, the book left me with something of an empty feeling.  Carlin recounts the events of Simon’s live (as well as one can tell) accurately, but there’s a strange flatness to the book.  And some things one might have thought would have been mentioned earlier seem to pop up out of nowhere.  (For example, on p. 352: “Younger brother Eddie was the first to take up the guitar and became the better player of the two boys.”  Why leave this until the next-to-last chapter of the book?  Or, on p. 373—two pages before the book ends: “I heard from his co-manager and brother Eddie a few times…”)

I also came away from the book that Carlin, in the end did not much care for Paul Simon the man (start about half-way down p. 373 and to the first paragraph on p. 374, for one final example of that); I also got the feeling that, much as he tried to praise the music, he mostly got hat wrong as well.  (I’m not even going to try to get into that, because it’s a matter of how his discussion of the music feels, and that’s a fairly evanescent thing.)  (On the other hand, I think he’s much to kind to the songs that make up the failed musical The Capeman, although perhaps I should listen to it again.)

Unless you really a fan of Paul Simon’s music (and keeping in mind Joan Baez’s words from “Winds of the Old Days:” 

Singer or savior, it was his to choose
Which of us knows what was his to lose
Because idols are best when they're made of stone
A savior's a nuisance to live with at home
Stars often fall, heroes go unsung
And martyrs most certainly die too young

I think you can skip this one.  Although I am glad I read it.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016

Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long.
Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.
Well I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how you're pinned:
When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned.

 I cannot follow you, my love,
you cannot follow me.
I am the distance you put between
all of the moments that we will be.
You know who I am,
you've stared at the sun,
well I am the one who loves
changing from nothing to one.

If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me
Your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free.

Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried.

And Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear --

And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of may,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
and who by avalanche, who by powder,
who for his greed, who for his hunger,
and who shall I say is calling?

True love leaves no traces
If you and I are one
It's lost in our embraces
Like stars against the sun

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love 

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

And I loved you when our love was blessed
and I love you now there's nothing left
but sorrow and a sense of overtime
and I missed you since the place got wrecked
And I just don't care what happens next
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess

Too late to fix another drink –
The lights are going out –
I’ll listen to the darkness sing –
I know what that’s about.

From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.
We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.
The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.
Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.
I got no future
I know my days are few
The present's not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too

I have to die a little
Between each murderous thought
And when I'm finished thinking
I have to die a lot
There's torture and there's killing
And there's all my bad reviews
The war, the children missing
Lord, it's almost like the blues

If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

 Sincerely, L. Cohen

Friday, November 4, 2016

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Bruce Springsteer, Born to Run
Simon & Schuster © 2016
ISBN 978-1-5011-4151-5

A fairly lengthy autobiography of one of the great pop songwriters and performers ever.  Like all autobiographies, it leave out a lot, but Springsteen if fairly open about things that have gone wrong (his first marriage), his ambition, and his very pronounced efforts to make sure we realize that it’s BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and the E Street Band—that this is not a partnership, however close they might be personally and professionally, it’s his band, and, ultimately, his career.

What remains unclear, perhaps even to him, are a couple of things. 

Where did the ambition come from?  Lots of people played music, lots of people even started bands.  But few of them have the sort of ambition that he apparently had, from the very beginning, from age 15 or 16.  Was it a consequence of the sort of childhood and family life he had?  Maybe, but if it was, he does not show us how, or why.  The only role models, if you will, were the people, the bands, who had made it, and even that is a fairly muted part of the story.  The Beatles, the Stones, Roy Orbison, and more were there, and are a part of the background, but the sense that “If they can do it, so can I” is not really a part of the story.  Maybe that part of his life is still something of a mystery to him.

And where did the songwriting skills—the words, maybe, more than the music—come from?  He makes it clear that he was an indifferent student.  He says nothing about being much of a reader (there is, for example, no mention of any particular feeling for the rhythms and language of poetry).  But if you look at even the first album (Greeting From Asbury Park), yopu find things like this (“Growin’ Up” © 1973):

I stood stonelike at midnight suspended in my masquerade
I combed my hair till it was just right and commanded the night brigade
I was open to pain and crossed by the rain and I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and came out with my soul untouched
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said `Sit down' I stood up
Ooh-ooh growin' up

The flag of piracy flew from my mast my sails were set wing to wing
I had a jukebox graduate for first mate she couldn't sail but she sure could sing
I pushed B-52 and bombed `em with the blues with my gear set stubborn on standing
I broke all the rules strafed my old high school never once gave thought to landing
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said `Come down' I threw up
Ooh-ooh growin' up

I took month-long vacations in the stratosphere and you know it's really hard to hold your breath
I swear I lost everything I ever loved or feared I was the cosmic kid
Well my feet they finally took root in the earth but I got me a nice little place in the stars
I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said `Sit down' I stood up
Ooh-ooh growin' up
Ooh-ooh growin' up

Or this (“It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” © 1973):

I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova
I could walk like Brando right into the sun
Then dance just like a Casanova
With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet
Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat
When I strut down the street I could feel its heartbeat
The sisters fell back and said "Don't that man look pretty"
The cripple on the corner cried out "Nickels for your pity"
Them downtown boys sure talk gritty
It's so hard to be a saint in the city
I was the king of the alley I could talk some trash
I was the prince of the paupers crowned downtown at the beggar's bash
I was the pimp's main prophet I kept everything cool
A backstreet gambler with the luck to lose
And when the heat came down it was left on the ground
The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street
Showin' me a hand I knew even the cops couldn't beat
I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove into the heat
It's so hard to be a saint when you're just a boy
And the sages of the subway sit just like the living dead
As the tracks clack out the rhythm their eyes fixed straight ahead
They ride the line of balance and hold on by just a thread
But it's too hot in these tunnels you can get hit up by the heat
You get up to get out at your next stop but they push you back down in your seat
Your heart starts beatin' faster as you struggle to your feet
Then you're outa that hole and back up on the street
And them South Side sisters sure look pretty
The cripple on the corner cries out "Nickels for your pity"
And them downtown boys sure talk gritty
It's so hard to be a saint in the city

(And I’m not even going to think about “Blinded by the Light” or “Spirits in the Night.”)

And the songwriting only deepened; until you get something like this (“The River” ©1978):

I come from down in the valley
where mister when you're young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
when she was just seventeen
We'd ride out of this valley down to where the fields were green

We'd go down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we'd ride

Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress

That night we went down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we did ride

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don't remember
Mary acts like she don't care

But I remember us riding in my brother's car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I'd lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse
that sends me down to the river
though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river
my baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride

And while that is (maybe) what I think is (maybe) his best song, the following 30 years have seen a lot more high points.  Well, maybe there are no answers.

Springsteen does tell his story well, if episodically, and, as it is an autobiography, we are left, not in the middle of a life, but without an ending.  And maybe the ending is, finally, the music.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Will Thomas, Hell Bay

Will Thomas, Helll Bay
Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press © 2016
ISBN 978-1-250-07795-0

The eighth volume in the chronicles of Cyrus Barker, private inquiry agent in late 19th century London, narrated by his young assistant Thomas Llewelyn.  In keeping with the previous books in the series, this is an excellent way to spend a few hours.

Barker is asked, by Lord Hargrave (who has some ill-defined position in the Foreign Office), to provide security for a week-long visit by the French ambassador (M. Gascoigne) to Hargrave’s home on a private island off the west coast of England.  The public purpose of the week is to try to find husbands for Hargrave’s two daughters; the real purpose is to negotiate an understanding with France to restrain Germany and Russia.  No one really expects any trouble, so what Hargrave is doing amounts to taking out insurance.

Until Hargrave is shot, by a high-powered rifle by an unseen marksman.  Now things become difficult.

For Hargrave, the island was a retreat.  Only his family and servants, and a lighthouse keeper live on the island.  When they need outside assistance, they either hoist a red flag as a signal for one of the boats from the nearby islands to make a call, or they send a signal from the lighthouse.  In short order, the flag has been stolen and the flagpole sabotaged, and the lighthouse put out of commission and its keeper killed.  And others begin to be murdered as well.

It remains unclear who is behind all this, and whether the motive is personal or political.  The house party consists of a rather ill-assorted bunch, providing Barker and Llewelyn ample scope for exploring possible motives.  Llewelyn is a fine narrator, and it’s only the knowledge that he is writing this account some years later that lets us know that the situation has been, somehow resolved—but not whether that resolution is acceptable.

The pacing of the book maintains the tension inherent in the situation, and if it is in some ways reminiscent of other stories of a group isolated on an island/by a storm (e.g., Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, under whichever of its titles you prefer), it’s not an imitation.  The resolution actually makes sense, and it does not wipe away the sense of looming disaster that the book evokes.  If you have not yet met Barker and Llewelyn, you should, and while you can start here, wherever you start, I think you will want to read them all.

Leigh Perry, The Skeleton Takes a Bow

Leigh Perry, The Skeleton Takes a Bow
Berkeley/Penquin, © 2014
ISBN 978-0-698-14320-3

Moving into her second semester as an adjunct at McQuaid University (and living in her childhood home, while her parents, both of whom are tenured full professors at McQuaid, are on sabbaticals), Georgia Thackery has enough on her plate—5 courses—when her daughter Madison (who had auditioned for the role of Ophelia) is cast as Guildenstern (in Hamlet).  And the resident skeleton, Sid, is cast as Yorick’s skull.  The plan is that Madison will take Sid’s skull (which can hear, see, and speak, and which somehow holds the entire skeleton together) to school, where she will stow him in her locker, and take him to rehearsal.  And bring him home at night.

Until one night, things get sort of frantic, and Madison forgets about Sid, who spends the night backstage in the auditorium/theater.  And overhears what seems to have been a murder.

There is, of course, no sign of a body, and no sign of a struggle.  But there is a dead body—a woman, who as these things happen had also been an adjunct at schools in the area.  But not the murder victim.  So, how and why did she die?  And where’s Sid’s murder victim? 

Absent a relevant corpse, it’s hard to get the police interested.  But Georgia persists, and turns up a shady foundation, possible ringers taking the SAT for local students (for a price…).  Perry does a fine job weaving all the strands of this plot together (including the life issues of yet another adjunct, Dr. Charles Peyton), and provides us with a quite suspenseful and stirring climax.  In which, I’m pleased to say, Sid plays a starring role.

I enjoyed the first book in this series (The Skeleton in the Attic), and this entry is a substantial step up in quality.  The characters are as real as they come, and the issues in their lives outside the murder are not imposed for the sake of the plot, they arise organically from who the characters are.  If you have not read the first one, go get it, and then get this one.  A very good read.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Steve Brewer, Bank Job

Steve Brewer, Bank Job © 2005
available as an ebook

Three small-time hoods, Leon, Roy, and Leon’s younger brother Junior, are cruising around northern California, looking for something to rob (Junior, frankly, just wants to go home).  They settle on robbing a liquor store near Redding, and Junior gets elected for the job; things do not go well (to say the least)—Junior is assaulted by two older women (the proprietors) wielding liquor bottles, and the trio has to make a quick getaway, with no loot.  Looking for a place to hide out for a while, they invade the home of Maria and Vince Carter.  Maria is a retired nurse, and Vince is a retired bank robber (they met in prison—Vince was an inmate and Maria worked in the prison clinic).

Leon hits on the notion of having Vince pull a bank robbery for them, to get them some cash.  Implicit is that Vince and Maria won’t be long for this world.  Vince agrees (mostly, it seems, as a stall for time, but partly because, well, maybe it might be sort of fun).

I think I will leave the plot outline at that.  Leon and Roy are fairly inept as criminals, and Junior probably wishes he had never come on that road trip.  Maria and Vince make a wonderful couple.  Given the setup, this could have been a fairly noir-ish novel in other hands.  But it’s Steve Brewer, so you know it’s going to have an off-beat slant on things.  Not that is is a domestic comedy caper novel, however.  There’s enough grit for anyone. 

I very strongly suggest that you get it.  You won’t regret it at all.

Leigh Perry, A Skeleton in the Family

Leigh Perry, A Skeleton In The Family
Berkley/Penguin, © 2013
ebook ISBN 978-01-101-62507-1

The first in a series featuring English instructor Georgia Thackery and the family skeleton Sid.  I generally am not aa big fan of books with a lot of paranormal in them, but I do like a good academic mystery, so I decided to take a shot at this one.  And I’m glad I did.  Georgia has landed a last-minute (well, technically, after-the-last-minute) part-time teaching gig at a small New England school (McQuaid University, where her parents, both tenured professors there, work; they are on sabbatical for the year, so Georgia has a rent-free place to live).  She and her daughter Madison move in (and Georgia has to work at keeping from learning of the existence of Sid, who mostly lives in the attic and is not yet ready to make Madison’s acquaintance).

Fairly soon after Georgia is beginning to get settled, Madison discovers that a manga convention (Mangachussetts) is happening on McQuaid’s campus, and she really wants to go.  Georgia agrees; the problem is Sid also really wants to go as well…how to get a skeleton into the convention?  Well, disguise him as a manga character that is a skeleton!.  So that works out.  But at the con, Sid sees someone he recognizes, maybe from when he was alive, and this troubles him greatly.  As a result, Georgia and Sid begin to track down his past.

But then they discover the body of the woman Sid recognized—a retired professor of zooarchaeology at a nearby college, Joshua Tay University, Dr. Jocasta Kirkland.  They decide to visit her to see if they can learn anything about Sid’s past…and discover her dead body.  Oops.  So now, in addition to trying to uncover Sid’s past, they are trying to catch a murderer.

The hunt winds up involving a couple of other adjunct faculty at McQuaid and Georgia’s sister Deborah (who is a local locksmith).  The whole thing is rather far-fetched, but enjoyable, and the solution is well-thought out and nicely woven into the rest of the story.

I had two minor quibbles, both of which involved the academic side of things.  But neither is all that important, and, unless you are an academic, neither will cause you even a moment’s concern.  (I’m going to mention them now.  I don’t think either one is a spoiler, but you might want to skip the next paragraph.)

The first thing is that Georgia is teaching five sections of English composition at McQuaid.  I know of no institution that assigns that sort of a course load to a single adjunct.  Everywhere I have ever been and everywhere about which I have knowledge limits adjuncts to no more than 3 (and usually no more than 2) courses per semester.  Heavier loads, again, everywhere that I know of, trigger full-time status and its attendant benefits.  I’m not saying that the course load is something that never happens, just that I know of nowhere at which that could occur.  The second thing is that somewhere, mostly in passing, someone says that Kirkland had been forced to retire because she hit the JTU’s mandatory retirement age.  Ah, no.  An amendment to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, eliminated mandatory retirement rules (except for a few occupations, of which college professor is not one).  (As a result, any universities are trying to figure out how to get people to retire, because they can’t be forced to go.)  Again, minor and frankly irrelevant to the story, but annoying to me.

But this is a good start for the series.  I’m looking forward to #s 2 & 3, which Ialready have.  Read it and enjoy.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Michael Gilert, Open the Door

Michael Gilbert, Open the Door
As an ebook, House of Stratus 2012 (© 1949)

This was Michael Gilbert’s third book, and it’s a very good one.  It’s shortly after the end of WW2, and Paddy Carter (whose war record really is distinguished) has a boring job in an accounting firm.  On the way home one night, and about the only passenger on his train, he sees a man in the car behind his take out a pistol and look at it.  He recognizes the man as a neighbor, and fears that the man is planning to take his life.  So Carter makes a point of getting the man (a Mr. Britten) to join him for a drink.  During their conversation, he discovers that Britten is in his 50s, has just been fired from his job at a large insurance company, and has no prospects.  He talks Britten into giving him the pistol (which he subsequently throws into the Thames), and goes home, hoping hs has dissuaded Britten from killing himself.

When he arrives home from work the following day, he finds Detective Inspector Winterbourne waiting for him.  Britten’s body has been found in the river, possibly an accident, improbably murder; Winterbourne believes it to be a suicide.  Carter is unpersuaded; he saw Britten home (drunk), and thinks it unlikely that he would have gone back out.  And Britten’s wallet is missing—he had taken it out to show some papers to Carter when they were at the pub.

So Carter decides to poke into it.  He goes to the insurance company and has a talk with Mr. Legate (who is Britten’s boss’s boss); Legate confirms the firing, noting that Britten had become careless and had been making a number of small and not-so-small mistakes.   In the course of their talk, Carter describes the papers that Britten has shown him.

Three weeks later, Carter is fired.  He does not understand why, but discovers that a Mr. Brandison—Britten’s boss—has just seen his boss.  He suspects his firing is retaliation for…something.  He seeks out a wartime colleague, Noel Anthony Pontarlier Rumbold (known as Nap), now a barrister, for advice, They decide to investigate the situation together.  Their investigation leads them to discover something odd about an Italian restaurant (Nap), and some shady financial dealings than might involve Britten’s employer (Carter, who is now working as a financial journalist and has a reason to poke into financial shenanigans). 

We eventually get to the truth—Britten (no surprise) was murdered, and there are financial shenanigans going on.  With the help of Superintendent Hazelrigg (Gilbert’s series cop), and following some risks to everyone, the truth is discovered.

Gilbert writes well, especially about legal matters (his primary work was as a solicitor; the scene in the bankruptcy court is enough to make this book worthwhile), and his plots are devious but fair.   I had something of a problem with the ending, but, overall, this is a first-rate book.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate, part 3

Advice to the young:

Advice for Geraldine on her Miscellaneous Birthday
Stay in line. stay in step.  People are afraid of someone who is not in step with them.  It makes them look foolish t’ themselves for being in step.  It might even cross their minds that they themselves are in the wrong step.  Do not run nor cross the red line.  If you go too far out in any direction, they will lose sight of you.  They’ll feel threatened. thinking that they are not a part of something that they saw go past them, they’ll feel something’s going on up there that they don’t know about.  Revenge will set in.  They will start thinking of how t’ get rid of you.  Act mannerly towards them.  If you don’t, they will take it personal.  As you come directly in contact face t’ face do not make it a secret of how much you need them.  If they sense that you have no need for them, the first thing they will do is try t’ make you need them.  If this doesn’t work, they will tell you of how much they don’t need you.  If you do not show any sadness at a remark such as this, they will immediately tell other people of how much they don’t need you.  Your name will begin t’ come up in circles where people gather to tell about all the people they don’t need.  You will begin t’ get famous this way.  This, though, will only get the people who you don’t need in the first place all the more madder.  You will become a whole topic of conversation. ..Needless t’ say, these people who don’t need you will start hating themselves for needing t’ talk about you.  Then you yourself will start hating yourself for causing so much hate.  As you can see, it will all end in one great gunburst.  Never trust a cop in a raincoat.  When asked t’ define yourself exactly, say you are an exact mathematician.   Do not say or do anything that he who standing in front of you watching cannot understand, he will feel you know something he
doesn’t.  He will react with blinding speed and write your name down.  Talk on his terms.  If his terms are old-fashioned an’ you’ve passed that stage all the more easier t’ get back there.  Say what he can understand clearly.  Say it simple t’ keep your tongue out of your cheek.  After he hears you, he can label you good or bad. Anyone will do.  T’ some people, there is only good an’ bad.  In any case, it will  make him feel somewhat important.  It is better t’ stay away from these people.  Be careful of enthusiasm…it is all temporary an’ don’t let it sway you.  When asked if you go t’ church, always answer yes,  Never look at your shoes.  When asked what you think of gene autry singing of hard rains gonna fall say that nobody can sing it as good as peter, paul and mary.  At the mention of the president’s name, eat a pint of yogurt an’ go t’ sleep early…when asked if you’re a communist, sing america the beautiful in an italian accent.  Beat up nearest street cleaner.  If by any chance you’re caught naked in a parked car, quick turn the radio on full blast an’ pretend that you’re driving.  Never leave the house without a jar of peanut butter.  Do not wear matched socks. when asked to do 100 pushups always smoke a pound of deodorant beforehand.  When asked if you’re a capitalist, rip open your shirt, sing buddy can you spare a dime with your right foot forward an’ proceed t’ chew up a dollar bill.  Do not sign any dotted line.  Do not fall in trap of criticizing people who do nothing else but criticize.  Do NOT create anything. it will be misinterpreted.  It will not change.  It will follow you the rest of your life.  When asked what you do for a living say you laugh for a living.  Be suspicious of people who say that if you are not nice t’ them, they will commit suicide.  When asked if you care about the world’s problems, look deeply into the eyes of he that asks you, he will not ask you again.  When asked if you’ve spent time in jail, announce proudly that some of your best friends’ve asked you that.  Beware of bathroom walls that’ve not been written on.  When told t’ look at yourself…never look.  When asked t’ give your real name…never give it.

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate, part 2

When I was doing speech tournaments in high school, I mostly did extemp. But I also did poetry reading, and usually did not fare well, mostly because judges would tell me that Bob Dyln was not a poet. I was using excepts from the "11 Outlined Epitaphs," and I think these are the sections I used. You tell me--poetry, or not?

...but the winds of the
north came followin’ an’ grew fiercer
an’ the years went by...

but I was young
an’ so I ran
an’ kept runnin’ . . .
I am still runnin’ I guess
but my road has seen many changes
for I’ve served my time as a refugee
in mental terms an’ in physical terms
an’ many a fear has vanished
an’ many an attitude has fallen
an’ many a dream has faded
an’ I know I shall meet the snowy North
again-but with changed eyes nex’ time ’round
t’ walk lazily down its streets
an’ linger by the edge of town
find old friends if they’re still around
talk t’ the old people
an’ the young people
runnin’ yes . . .
but stoppin’ for a while
embracin’ what I left
an’ lovin’ it-for I learned by now
never t’ expect
what it cannot give me

strength now shines through my window
regainin’ me an’ rousin’ me
day by day
from the weariness
of walkin’ with ghosts
that rose an’ had risen
from the ruins an’ remains
of the model T past
even though I clutched t’ its sheet
I was still refused
an’ left confused
for there was nobody there
t’ let me in
a wasteland wind whistled
from behind the billboard “there’s nobody home
all has moved out”
flatly denied
I turned indeed
flinched at first
but said “ok
I get the message”
feelin’ unwanted? no
unloved? no
I felt nothin’
for there was nobody there
I didn’t see no one
t’ want or unwant
to love or unlove
maybe they’re there
but won’t let me in
not takin’ chances
on the ones that come knockin'
should I then be angry?
I feel that the grittin’ of my teeth
for only a second
would mean
my mind has just been
swallowed whole
an’ so I step back t’ the street
an’ then turn further down the road
poundin’ on doors
not really
just out lookin’
a stranger?
no not a stranger but rather someone
who just doesn’t live here
never pretendin’ t’ be knowin’
what’s worth seekin’
but at least
without ghosts by my side
t’ betray my childishness
t’ leadeth me down false trails
an’ maketh me drink from muddy waters
yes it is I
who is poundin’ at your door
if it is you inside
who hears the noise

lonely? ah yes
but it is the flowers an’ the mirrors
of flowers that now meet my
an’ mine shall be a strong loneliness
dissolvin’ deep
t’ the depths of my freedom
an’ that, then, shall
remain my song

there’s a movie called
Shoot the Piano Player
the last line proclaimin’
“music, man, that’s where it’s at”
it is a religious line
outside, the chimes rung
an’ they
are still ringin’.