Monday, March 28, 2016

Edgar Wallace, The Daffodil Mystery

Edgar Wallace, The Daffodil Mystery
Originally published  in 1920.
Currently available as an ebook and from used book sellers.

I read positive comments on this book and, realizing that it was available (free) as an ebook, and noting that I had never read a book by Edgar Wallace, I decided to give it a shot.

Thomas Lyne, owner (through inheritance) of a major retail establishment in London, has asked Jack Tarling (English, but famous for his work as a detective in China) to investigate a possible on-going embezzlement in his firm.  However, when Tarling arrives, Lyne instead asks him to find evidence that Odette Rider has been stealing from the firm.  (His actual suspicions are of the day-to-day manager of the firm, Milburgh.)  Tarling turns him down.  In rather quick order, Lyne is found dead in a London park and Rider has apparently vanished.

The story moves smoothly and quickly between a number of incidents, and, although Rider’s innocence might seem to be clear, things may not be as they seem.  In fact, there might be good reason to think Tarling himself is the killer—it was his gun, and he just happens to be Lyne’s cousin and heir.  (Can you say coincidence?  I thought you could.)

This is the first of Wallace’s books I have read, and it may have been a bad starting point.  When we reach the denouement, the actual culprit is uncovered, it is not as a result of Tarling’s efforts, or those of Scotland Yard.  The killer, for reasons we need not go into here, is suspected by no one of Lyne’s murder.  And his confession is, essentially a death-bed confession (frankly, a cheap way to resolve things).  I’d prefer my detectives actually to detect something.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Parnell Hall, A Fool for a Client

Parnell Hall, A Fool for a Client
Pegasus, 2015
ISBN-13: 978-1605988832

This is Parnell Hall’s 42nd mystery novel—19 featuring PI/accident investigator Stanley Hastings, 17 “Puzzle Lady” books, and 6 cases handled by actor-turned-attorney Steve Winslow.  The first two series are still active (a “Puzzle Lady” book has been published in 2016), while the most recent Winslow book dates to 1993 (which is too bad; I love the Winslow books).  I had no idea that Parnell had been this productive--42 books in  29 years, maintaining a consistent level of quality throughout.
Hastings works as an accident investigator for personal injury lawyer Richard Rosenberg, who might be the king of New York City personal injury lawyers.  And while the injury cases are Stanley’s way of making a living, things keep coming up, things that involve murder.  This time, Rosenberg’s girlfriend has been murdered, and Rosenberg is the prime suspect.  She died around midnight, and he left her apartment shortly enough before midnight that he’s in the picture. 
The girlfriend is a clerk in the courtroom of a judge handling a very complex, very tedious financial case.  And what’s happening there may—or may not—be tied somehow into her death.
Hastings’ homicide cop friend—McAulliffe—is not handling the murder; Sgt. Thurman, who hates Hastings, and Rosenberg, is.  And Thurman, while honest, is not a particularly skilled investigator.  And Rosenberg finds himself charged, and defending himself (he’s the lawyer with a fool for a client).  For a change, Stanley does not approach his investigations on behalf of Rosenberg entirely haphazardly, although his wife (Alice) does continue to point out his shortcomings as an investigator.  The best parts of the book, for me, are Rosenberg’s cross-examinations,  In particular one of them involving the time of death.
While the denouement seems a bit forced—and a lot rushed—this is a fun book to read.  (Despite its 200+ pages, it’s an easy afternoon’s reading.)  Not a great book, or a great PI series, it’s satisfying and provided me, at least, with a good deal of pleasure.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Jeri Westerson, Veil of Lies

Jeri Westerson. Veil of Lies
St. Martin's Minotaur Books;  2008
ISBN-13: 978-0312580124
Also available as an ebook

The first of a series, currently encompassing eight books.  Five of the books in the series have been nominated for awards; none have yet won.

Crispin Guest, who had been a knight in the service of the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), having picked the wrong side in a dynastic struggle, finds himself having been dispossessed (and lucky to be alive).  He makes a tenuous living by finding things lost or stolen.  Eight years after his fall, he is hired by Nicholas Walcote, a cloth merchant, to discover whether his wife (Philippa) is unfaithful.  Before Guest can complete his commission, Walcote has been murdered.  Philippa is herself an interesting character of whom it would be nice to read more (although I doubt that will happen.)

The plot is complex, but extremely well-handled, and involves sacred relics (authentic, or perhaps not), representatives of Venetian baron, and of middle eastern powers, a Sheriff of London, and assorted hangers-on.  Guest’s one servant, a young boy names Jack, is nicely portrayed, and I suspect he will grow in importance as the series progresses.  Both the development of the search for a murderer and the other aspects of the keep the narrative moving nicely along, and the denouement follows from everything that we have learned along the way,

Westerson manages, to my non-expert knowledge, a very good job of evoking both the physical London of the late 14th century and the politics of the kingdom (which were, to say the least, somewhat tangled).  Guest is an interesting figure, and if I felt that he had not adequately made a somewhat better peace with his situation (after 8 years), well, that’s probably because I’ve never had my life completely shattered. 

One nice thing about coming into a series in the middle, if it’s a good series, is that there’s more to read right now.  I look forward to proceeding.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Robert Goldsborough, Stop the Presses!

Robert Goldsborough, Stop the Presses! Road,  2016
ISBN-13: 978-1504023573
Also available as an e-book

This is Goldsborough's 11th attempt at a Nero Wolfe mystery, and it is better than some.  That does not mean it is very good. 

Wolfe is approached (via Lon Cohen) by the owner and the publisher of The Gazette to investigate a potential threat to the paper's star columnist, Cameron Clay.  (Think Walter Winchell with a truly nasty, mean streak.)  Clay has been receiving threatening calls from someone, and suspects that the caller is one of 5 people--a lawyer with a penchant for defending mobsters, a developer whose projects are consistently shoddy, a city council member from Harlem who tends not to show up for council meetings, a former cop convicted of brutality and now out of jail, or his ex-wife , an opera star.  He identifies these 5 in a meeting with Wolfe.  

 Not surprisingly, Clay is found dead, in circumstances that lead the police to conclude it was suicide.  Now, the Gazette folks want Wolfe to find the truth, and preferably to find a murderer.  Wolfe interviews the five candidates individually, and then brings everyone together for the denouement.  The structure is OK, but there's an immense amount of padding; this seems to me to be a novella blown up to book length.  The conversations between Wolfe and Goodwin are excessively long, and seem dragged out simply to add to the word count.  Archie's interactions with Lily Rowan also seem more designed to fill up space than to add to or propel the story.  Even Archie's interactions with the suspects are longer than necessary either to accomplish their point or to reveal character.  Wolfe's meetings with the 5 suspects seem more perfunctory than useful as investigatory tools.

And the conclusion is both telegraphed and disappointing.  This is a book, in my opinion, solely for those for whom Nero Wolfe is the detective; for others, I'd say, spend your time and money elsewhere.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

When good authors forget some things about how the world really works

Larry Block is one of the great mystery writers of our time.  He writes so well that sometimes it's easy to overlook some glaring gaps in the world of his stories.  I ran into one of these in his novella Resume Speed, which is available only as an ebook.  Briefly, Bill Thompson is taking a bus out of town, headed ostensibly to Spokane.  He gets off in a small Montana town, gets a job as a fry cook, meets a lovely librarian.  Agrees to buy the restaurant from its current owner.  Remembers some things from his past and googles himself (under a different name), finding nothing.  Gets drunk, wakes up with blood on his shirt.  Leaves town.  Fine, so far as it goes.  Except...

That job.  Unless the owner is completely ignoring the tax system, "Bill Thompson" would need a Social Security number so his SS contributions could be made and his taxes withheld.  When "Bill" buys the diner, he will have even greater tax complications to deal with.  "Bill" gets a car, and has no trouble titling it.  Which seems odd.  None of that would raise an eyebrow if the story were set in the 1920s, pre-Social Security and in a time when the individual income tax would not have hit someone in "Thompson's" income range.  When auto titles were not necessarily a common feature of our lives. 

But the story is obviously present-day--google exists.  But somehow, the other complications of 21st century life seem to be ignored.

Oh, I enjoyed the story.  And the problems didn't intrude until I was finished.  Now, however...well, it's difficult.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Copycat photoblogging returns

As usual, spinning off Chris Bertram's photograph, in this case of a bus shelter.  Here's one of a bus shelter in Paris, taken in 2000.

Friday, March 11, 2016

John Billheimer, Field of Schemes

John Billheimer, Field of Schemes
Gale Books (A Cengage Learning Company), 2007
ISBN 98=78-1-4328-2617-8

I've read 2  (so far) of Billheimer's 5 "West Virginia" books featuring Owen Alison, and thought both of them were excellent, in part because the place was perfectly realized, but also because I cared about the characters and the mysteries were actually well-constructed.  (Comments on one of theme here.) 
This book--the first of 2 (so far) featuring sports writer Lloyd Keaton--was something os a disappointment.  Keaton is a sports columnist, whose primary interest is baseball, writing for a (fictional) newspaper in a (fictional) southeastern Ohio city with a AAA team.  He had been a columnist for a Cleveland newspaper, but lost his job because of his gambling problem-a problem that surfaces in this book.  The focus, however, is on steroid use, both by professional athletes and by high schoolers (one of whom is Keaton's son). 

A slugging first baseman on his way to the majors is having a great season in AAA, when he is called up to Cleveland (and does not do well), is fingered for steroid use (and subsequently testifies before a congressional committee).  And gets murdered.
 Keaton follows the story, discovering links to a gym which also manufactures and sells a "performing-enhancing" substance which may or may not be.  Throw in an illegal gambling operation in Wheeling, Keaton's good buddy who is a bookie (perhaps not the best choice of buddies if one has a gambling problem), and the elements seem to be there for a good book. 

But the place is just a generic small city, with nothing that makes it unique or memorable.  And the people are not as fully characterized; indeed, one of them spends much of the book in a coma.  Not a bad book, and I will read the second in the series.  But not special, either.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Rules for writing a "space opera"

Charles Stross finds his publishers wanting him to write a "space opera" (think a multi-volume, thematically-connected episode of Star Trek, or a multi-volume "hobbits in space."  He has been thinking about the pitfalls to be avoided in developing the institutional and physical structure of such a work (and, it seems to me implicitly says such works can't be coherently constructed).  I decided not to read through the 500+ comments already on his blog post (he has a huge and literate following), but wanted to add this.

Any "space opera" will   have to have either (or both) of the following characteristics:

1. Much faster-than-light travel and communications.
2. Extremely robust  social/political/economic institutions.
Why?  Simple.  Planets are a long way apart; the closest likely  habitable planets to us are 4+ light-years away, the second closest more like 13 l.y.  For commercial purposes, there needs to be a way to finesse the extremely long time it would take for beings on Planet A to place an order with beings on Planet B and have that order delivered.  With out closest possible neighbors, we're talking around 10 years, even with communications and travel at (or near) the speed of light.  Transactions times in the decades are perhaps more plausible.

The alternative is, in effect, inter-planetary commerce that consists of "tramp spaceships" picking up loads of stuff on Planet X, heading off to the nearest planetary systems, and hoping to find a market (that seems to me to have been the Ferengi economic plan in Star Trek: Deep Space 9).  And hoping that your customers will pay you in something that you find useful or can sell (barter) elsewhere.  And being able to live with what you can get for sustenance.  At the speed of light, you've got maybe 10 or 12 ports of call in your lifetime, assuming (a point Stross raises) you can keep your ship from falling apart, and/or can fend off space pirates.  (Let's face it, piracy was a major problem for global commerce on this planet for hundreds of years.)

The alternative to all this is simply to hope your readers aren't paying enough attention, of just don't care.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Two Good Ones: Chris Ewan's The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam and James Benn's The First Wave

Chris Ewan, The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam
 Minotaur Books; 2007

ISBN-13: 978-0312376338
Also available as an ebook

The first book in the series featuring Charlie Howard, author (of mystery novels) and thief.  He is recruited to steal two figurines (Speak No Evil and Hear No Evil), apparently worthless.  The may who recruited him is quickly murdered, and Howard comes under immediate suspicion of something by the Amsterdam police.  Charlie has to figure out (a) why the figurines are valuable; (b) who is after him; (c) who killed his "employer;" among other things.  The plot is quite nice, Ewan writes well.  Charlie is a reasonably likable character (even if he does tend to suggest another thief whose initials are B.R.).   The resolution is also well-done, if fairly obvious.  The one problem I had was that the denouement, in which Charlie gathers all those concerned (including the police) in an abandoned warehouse to explain things, takes almost the last 20% of the book.  Frankly, that was way too long.  Overall, a good start to the series.  (I earlier read, quite out of order, The Good Thief's Guide to Berlin.)

James R. Benn, The First Wave
Soho Press; 2007

ISBN-13: 978-1569474716
Also available as an ebook

The second in the series featuring Billy Boyle and set during World War II.  Billy Boyle is on his way to North Africa to assist in some undercover negotiations between the Vichy government of Algeria and the US forces about to invade North Africa.  Things don't go well, and Billy and Major Sam Harding are quickly embroiled in local politics, the theft of supplies at a quickly-established Army hospital in Algiers, the these of medical supplies--including most of the penicillin in the world,   the disappearance of a large number of French-Algerian opponents of Vichy (and of Billy's love, Diane, who is there as an OSS operative).  The plot is extraordinarily complex, and completely believable.  The situation is well-established; it's quite easy to believe both that these events could easily have occurred and that the people involved would act and react as they do in the book.  Billy's background on the Boston PD serves him well, and he displays growing skills as an investigator.  The ending is moth moving and authentic.  It's a good thing there are more books in the series.  Because I would hate to have to wait in order to read them.  The first book--Billy Boyle--is also excellent.  This is a series I suspect is best read in order.