Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Two great new CDs: Paur Simon, Stranger to Stranger, and Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle, Colvin/Earle

Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger (2016)
Concord Records

This is not your typical Paul Simon album, not your typical “pop” album.  It doesn’t rely all that much on traditional song forms (verse-refrain, maybe with a “break”), but is more like modernist poetry set to music.  There are exceptions, of course.  “Wristband,” the second track, is a pop-song-sounding thing.  The narrator is a singer/guitar player who manages to get himself locked out behind the venue in which he and his band are performing, and, when he gets to the front, the doorman confronts him with

Wristband, my man
You got to have a wristband
If you don’t have a wristband, my man
You don’t get through the door…

But just when you think it’s a fairly simply little ditty, it suddenly becomes very political:

The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never get a wristband…

And you know that the end will not be a pretty fade out.

There are two songs, not back-to-back, that will stick in my mind—“Street Angel” and “In a Parade.”  In “Street Angel,” we meet a homeless man, on the streets,

I make my verse for the universe
I write my rhythms for the universities
And I give it away for the hoot of it…


They took him away in an ambulance
Made a way with the ambulance
He waved goodbye from the ambulance…

He returns, more or less, in “In a Parade:”  But it’s a parade in the ER and one that does not seem to be likely to have a happy ending:

Diagnosis: Schizophrenic
Prognosis: Guarded
Medication: Seroquel
Occupation:  Street Angel

The opening track, “Werewolf,” really belongs with these two. 

The werewolf is coming.

The fact is most obits are mixed reviews
Life is a lottery
A lot of people lose…

There are love songs as well—“Stranger to Stranger,” “Proof of Love”—both of which are at best ambiguous about the outcome.  But the song that speaks most clearly to me is the closing track (well, before the “bonus” tracks), “Insomniac’s Lullaby.”

Oh Lord, don’t keep me up all night
Side-by-side with the moon
Alone in the bed
The season ahead
In a winter that lasts until June…

All of the songs are supported by extraordinary rhythm tracks and a huge ensemble of supporting musicians.  At age 70-whatever, Paul Simon has lost nothing, and gained much.

Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, Colvin/Earle (2016)
Fantasy Records

You might think this is a fairly standard alt-country outing, but it is really a piece of work.  Six original songs (co-written) and four covers (two of which are excellent).  To deal with the covers first, their version of “Ruby Tuesday” is not much like the Stones’ hit, and the song is not, in my opinion, all that good as a song.  Jagger’s singing carried the original, but it’s not much here.  Their cover of John Loudermilk’s (1960) “Tobacco Road” is nicely done, but, once again, the song (about a poor boy in a dying town who vows to get out, get rich, return, and re-make the town) doesn’t really resonate.  On the other hand, their cover of Sylvia Fricker’s “You Were on My Mind” (1964) really makes you forget the hit version (by We Five).  They make the underlying angst clear and almost a physical thing.  Finally, Emmylou Harris’s 1999 piese, “Raise the Dead” is reason enough to buy the CD.  A sample, the second verse:

Sam Cooke met the woman at the well
She told him that his some was something he could never sell
And I think he knew that a change was gonna come
Still he lived to fast and he died too young
Well dyin’ I have survived but
I’ll never get out of your love alive.

The six originals consist of five very country love songs, in which there is almost always as much pain as happiness, and one more song (which will get more attention).  For me, the best of the five love songs is “You’re Still Gone.”  The chorus changes from verse to verse, but appropriately.  And the verses have some real high points, like:

Every time the rain comes in
Every time I hear the wind
I can hear your voice again…

The high point of the album, though, is “Tell Moses,” which you must hear (I can’t find a working link to it, but the whole CD is worth buying in any event).  The song ends

So tell Mary, tell John
Say the hourglass is empty
And the judgment day has come
Say Joshua’s blown his trumpet
And the walls are comin’ down
Tell sister brother too
Tell them where they’re gonna meet us
And what we’re gonna do
Tell Stephen tell Shawn
There’s a message in the music
Everybody sing along…

The singing is not the real strength of the CD, although it’s strong enough.  The strength is in the writing and the playing (especially Earle’s mandolin, but the backing band is extraordinary). 

Both these CDs are keepers, friends.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Michael Pearce, A Dead Man in Malta

Michael Pearce, A Dead Man in Malta
Soho/Constable, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1569478783

Sandor Seymour of the Special Branch is sent to investigate the deaths of three men in a naval hospital on Malta.  All three (two British sailors and one German balloonists) were admitted with relatively minor injuries, and all three died of "respiratory failure."  A letter from an Englishwoman travelling in Malta raised questions about the deaths, and Seymour's job required (a) that he clear up any mystery surrounding the deaths and (b) prevent any conflict between the British government of the island, the local police force, and the Navy. 

His fiancé Chantale manages to join him there (volunteering as a member of a British women's nursing auxiliary--headed by the woman who wrote the letter that triggered the investigation). 

My two favorite characters were Sophia, a Maltese girl, and Kevin, son of the meddling Englishwoman.  They both have school papers to write and wind up helping each other, and, in the process, doing some growing up.  (I could see a book in which they are the main characters.) 

Seymour investigates in his usual manner--talk to everyone, alarm no one, slowly put all the pieces together.  I thought the last part was a bit perfunctory, but this is a solid entry in a very good series.

Michael Pearce, The Face in the Cemetery: A Mamur Zapt Mystery

Michael Pearce, The Face in the Cemetery: A Mamur Zapt Mystery
Poisoned Pen Press, 2001
ISBN 798-1-59058-296-1
Also available as an ebook

It's August, 1919, and Gareth Owen is in Cairo, serving as the head (the Egyptian title is Mamur Zapt) of the Secret (political) police.  The war  has begun, which raises a lot of issues--IfTurkey enters the war of the side of Germany, for example, what will Egypt do?  Should Englishmen in Egypt remain in their posts, or volunteer for war service? 

Owen's job is complicated by the order t0 intern German nationals; this is made doubly complicated because one of them, Herr Fricker, who worked for an Egyptian ministrey, is the author of a plan to arm the village watchmen (ghaffirs--there are 50,000 villages) with modern military rifles, with a first consignment of 850.  Is this a German plot? 

Meanwhile, a body is found in an ancient Egyptian temple site, wrapped in grave cloths, and poisoned (arsenic).  She is the (German) wife of an Egyptian who works in the sugar refining factory.

 All of this has consequences for Owen's relationship with Zeinab (whose father was once and may be again a minister in the Egyptian government). 

Yes, it's complex.  Owen has to somehow get the murder investigation into the hands of his friend Mohammed (lawyer in the prosecutor's office), find 200 missing rifles, determine whether the rifle plan was a German plot.  Oh, and help solve the murder.  The setting is, as usual in the series, brilliantly realized, and the political complexities are nicely handled.  (Some of these are purely British issues, including establishing a coordinating committee of which one member is a strange, supercilious little man named Lawrence). 

Pearce handles all the complexities of the plot well, and, if the resolution leaves some things hanging, well, that's almost inevitable.  A very good book in a very good series (which now has 19 entries, including the recent The Women of the Souk.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Walter Satterthwait, New York Nocturne: The Return of Miss Lizzie

Walter Satterthwait, New York Nocturne: The Return of Miss Lizzie
The Mysterious Press/Open Road Books, 2016
ISNBN 978-1504-02812-7

Miss Amanda Burton, who we met some years ago in Miss Lizzie (1989), has come to New York for the summer, to stay with her uncle, her father’s brother, John Burton (a stockbroker), while her father and step-mother travel around the world.  It is the summer of 1924. Several thousand speakeasies and night clubs are flourishing, and John Burton seemingly knows everyone, everywhere.  During her first week in New York, she wanders the city during the days and is escorted to various more and less savory establishments in the evenings, including a trip to the Cotton Club.  Throughout the book, Satterthwait evokes remarkably well the city in the mid-1920s, not simply recounting things, but making it live for us.

But the first week ends.  And it ends with Burton’s rather savage murder in his apartment at the Dakota.  Amanda is the only other person in the apartment at the time, and there are no indications of an intruder.  The New York police (who are not depicted as zealous pursuers of the guilty), seize on Amanda as, if not a likely suspect, someone on whom they can fasten guilt.  She is rescued by Morrie Lipkind, an attorney, and taken to the person who hired him, Miss Lizabeth Borden, in her suite at the Algonquin.  Miss Lizzie decides that it is imperative to conduct an investigation of the murder, to forestall any further actions by the police.  With Lipkind’s assistance, the assistance of Robert (Lipkind’s chauffer, etc.), PI Carl Leibowitz, and Cutter (who is something of a mystery), they begin.

They move in the real New York, against a backdrop of the people who inhabited it, including Arnold Rothstein and Dorothy Parker.  As the investigation, proceeds……well, as this conversation between Miss Lizzie and Amanda suggests.  Miss Lizzie speaks:

“It might, however, be wisest to withhold judgment until you know the complete truth.”

“But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?  We can’t ever know the complete  truth.”

“Yes,” she said, and smiled.  “That is indeed the whole point.”

 This is am immaculately constructed and written book, with what has actually transpired being revealed slowly.  The climactic scenes (there are two) would both make great theater and do make great reading. 

Whether Miss Lizzie returns for a third installment, I suspect, and sincerely hope, that we have not read the last of Amanda Burton.  If you have not yet read New York Nocturne, go to your local bookstore, or get on your computer, and buy it now.  You will not be disappointed.

John G. Brandon, A Scream in Soho

John G. Brandon, A Scream in Soho
British Library Crime Classics
ISBN 978-0-7123-5745-6
Also available as an ebook

Detective Inspector Patrick Aloysius McCarthy is handed the job of solving an apparent murder--with a disappearing body--which occurred in Soho Square.  McCarthy and a young constable both hear a scream--after midnight, and in the blackout conditions of wartime London.  McCarthy, born and raised and still living in Soho, knows the byways, the good, and the bad of the quarter, knowledge that he puts to good use.  However, he is ialmost immediately called away to investigate the theft of war plans (at the Foreign Office's HQ in Whitehall) from a locked safe in a locked room, with only about  30  minutes for the theft to have been accomplished.  (Now, how an unauthorized stranger managed to get into the building and remain unobserved even for that long is unexplained.) 
Coincidences abound (Surprise!  The murder and the theft are linked!), and McCarthy seems impervious to pain (and possible concussion), and a satisfactory time is had by all (and a satisfactory conclusion reached).  Not by any means a great--or even much above average--book, but not a chore to read either.  I'm not recommending that you seek it out, however.

E. J. Copperman, Written Off

E. J. Copperman, Written Off
Crooked Lane, 2016
ISBN 978-1-62953-599-9
Also available as an ebook.

Mid-list mystery author Rachel Goldman has just finished the first draft of her fifth novel featuring missing-persons investigator Duffy Madison.  And then she receives a phone call from a man claiming to be Duffy Madison, a missing persons investigator who is currently working with the Bergen County prosecutors's office.  To say Goldman is skeptical is putting it mildly.  Especially when he claims to have no memories that go further back than 4 years--when Goldman's first book was published. 

They meet and she gets sucked into the investigation of a missing mystery writer (A-list), which leads to the discovery that three other mystery writers, in three states, had all gone missing and then been found dead.  Hmmm.  Nicely constructed and written, and Goldman manages to avoid the TSTL syndrome.  Her assistant (Paula Sessions) contributes by finding some rather strange facts about Madison's past.  And Goldman's father shows up to help her and becomes an integral part of the story. 
While this is not a perfect book (e.g., the name "Remington Steele" kept intruding on my consciousness), it is very well done.  I wonder, however, how easy it's going to be to keep the central theme of the book--"Who is Duffy Madison?"--going for very long.  This one, at any rate, is is well worth your time.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The return of copycat photoblogging (another feature no one asked for)

Chris Bertram has a neat photo of a street corner in Cork.  I have the Flatiron building in NYC.

(Taken in 2003.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

James Grady, Last Days of the Condor: An addendum

One interesting feature of many books is that the chapters are headed by a quotation or other material.  One thing Grady has done is head some of his chapters with song titles, which make an interesting play list:

Buffalo Springfield, "For What It's Worth"
Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run"

The Kingston Trio, "The Zombie Jamboree"
            (Written by Conrad Eugene Mauge)
Roy Orbison, "In Drams"
Jackson Browne, "Doctor My Eyes"

Bob Dylan, "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall"
The Yardbirds, "Heart Full of Soul"

John Lee Hooker, "Boom Boom"
Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money"
Jesse Colin Young, "Darkness, Darkness"

The Doors, "Light My Fire"
Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car"
John Stewart, "Daydream Believer"
             (Of course, the Monkees had the hit single)
Steely Dan, "Do It Again"
Richard Thompson, "I Feel So Good"
Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone"

James Grady, Last Days of the Condor

James Grady, Last Days of the Condor
Forge Books (TOR), 2016
ISBN 978-0-7653-7841-5

This is a sequel to Six Days of the Condor, which, in my opinion, was a good but not great spy thriller.  [It was made into a great spy movie, of course, starring Robert Redford (who was actually old for the part), Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, Max von Sydow, and John Houseman, and was directed by Sydney Pollack; the screenplay was by Grady and Lorenzo Semple, Jr.  It is, as a result, one of two movies in which the author of the book was involved in writing a screenplay that vastly improved on the novel.  The other is The Big Fix.]

Grady is not a graceful writer. But the first 80% or so of this book is killer.  Condor has been released from a facility where he was being treated for, well, being crazy.  He's back in Washington, working at the Library of Congress, deciding whether books being disposed of by one of another government agency should be saved of pulped.  He is, of course, under surveillance, and one day, when he arrives home, he finds one of his watchers dead, rather gruesomely, in his living room.  He goes on the run, partly not to be sent back, partly to stay alive, and partly to discover why. 

In the course of his escape, he meets and teams up with Faye Dozier,* who was another of the CIA people keeping tabs on him since his release.  They manage to avoid death, but only by creating an incident in a subway station that makes his flight hard to completely cover up (even if the particulars can be disguised).  They wind up at the apartment of Merle Mardigan, a 50-something government employee whom Condor has seen (as I recall in a coffee shop) and wanted to get to know.  She, somewhat unwillingly, provides them with shelter.

But the time comes when they have to try to come in from the cold, and that’s where things go, as the Brits say, pear-shaped.

The book is mostly a compelling read, and I, at any rate, became very involved with Condor, with Faye, and with Merle.  (The initial part of Merle's involvement may echo a little too closely Six Days of the Condor.)   We see Condor, now in his 60s, trying to recover the skills—or at least his knowledge—of his earlier days (there is one reference to Six Days... in the book).

But the last roughly 20 pages seem to me to be a cop-out, as if Grady didn't really know how to end it.  The ending does not provide much resolution, nor does it leave us wondering what will come next.  But up to that point, it is very good.

*I can’t help thinking that a woman named Faye D. is a tip of the hat to Faye Dunaway.

(Includes, after the book concludes, a "prequel" to this book, "Next Day of the Condor," which should probably be read first.) 

Max Allan Collins, Better Dead

Max Allan Collins, Better Dead
Forge Books, 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0765378286
Also available as an ebook

While presented as a single story, I think it works better to consider Better Dead as two linked novellas (as in fact the TOC suggests).  In the first, Nathan Heller, Chicago PI with an office in LA and a newly-opened one in NYC, is hired by Joseph McCarthy to discover what is being hidden about the Rosenbergs, by a committee seeking a new trial for them (headed by Dashiell Hammett), and by columnist Drew Pearson seeking information to discredit McCarthy. 

For anyone who has (for whatever reason) followed the Rosenberg case at all, there's not much new here.   Despite the evidence that has emerged making it clear that at least Julius Rosenberg was a spy, the overwhelmingly strong case that the prosecution engaged in misconduct and that both the FBI and the CIA were pursuing ends other than a just resolution to this case, to me at any rate, remains the most important conclusion.  Collins (through Heller) dissects the evidence and the personalities quite well, and, if you are not familiar with the events, this about as good an introduction as you are likely to find. 

The second half of the book involves CIA experiments in the mid-1950s with LSD and other chemical means of controlling people. This section of the book spins off the career and death of a government chemist, Frank Olson, who was involved in the research in question, but who had a conscience.  Linking the two cases is Heller's involvement with McCarthy, who wants to go after the CIA.  Heller pushes through cover-ups, stonewalling, and what can only be called CIA malfeasance to an unsettling conclusion. 

If you want two mysteries drawn from the recent history of the US and of the involvement by government agencies in activities that will (I hope) make you think twice about government secrecy in general and the CIA in particular, these two tales will compel your attention.  They will not leave you feeling pleased or happy or safe.

Sarah R. Shaber, Simon Said
St. Martin’s Press, 1997
The first book in the series featuring Simon Shaw, Profess of History at Kenan College in Raleigh, NC.  I felt, while reading it, that I should like the book more than I was.  I have taught at the college level since 1970, so I tend to be perhaps overly sensitive to "academic" mysteries.  In that respect, the book was better than most--I have only three or four reservations, which are worth mentioning.  (Which should tell you what I think of most mysteries with academic settings.)  My main problem is that I did not like the main character.  We could start with his attitude toward the prosecuting attorney with whom he becomes acquainted (Julia McGloughlan).  He seemed obsessed with what she was wearing (and especially if, according to his tastes, what she was wearing "went with" her hair and general appearance.  Their entire relationship seemed off, somehow.  We could go on to his being something of a mope (with cause, perhaps,  but a mope).

With respect to the academic setting (this is relevant to some of the events in the book)...Part of the story involved a rivalry between Simon and one of his history department colleagues.  Simon received tenure when he was hired, Alex Andrus was an untenured assistant professor.  What struck me as wrong about their portrayal was indicating that Simon's appointment with tenure would preclude Andrus (who was already a member of the faculty when Simon was hired) from getting tenure.  In my experience, that's not how it works.  If Andrus was hired as an assistant professor in a tenure track position, then his eligibility for tenure would become dependent on the quality of his work.  If he was not hired in a tenure-track position, then Simon's hiring would be irrelevant to whether he got tenure--he wouldn't because he was not hired into a tenure-eligible position.  

A second somewhat major plot point arises out of Simon's having been the faculty member in charge of the senior honors thesis course for history majors.  In that course, seniors wrote an honors thesis; for students intending to apply to graduate school in history, that thesis would have been a major thing.  One of the students, Bobby Hinton (who, coincidentally, turns out to be related to the family in which the central murder in the book occurred), received a C.  Not good.  The problem is that Simon was the *only* reader of his thesis.  Every institution with which I am familiar that has an honors thesis option for majors has a committee of faculty who read the theses; these may be outside faculty (I've read several honors theses in economics for other econ programs at other places). 

A third weirdness is that the book is set during the summer session.  If Bobby had completed his course work in the normal 4 years at a small, private, selective, liberal arts college, he would have graduated.  But there he was, and it's not clear why. 

A fourth--Simon has to miss a day of his summer school class, which is an upper division, specialized course in North Carolina history.  And with next to no notice, and with no preparation, another of the history faculty walks in and teaches it?  Really?  I suppose it's possible. 

The initial mystery (to get back to the point of the book) is the discovery of a woman's body, buried beneath what would have been the old cookhouse that is being excavated (archaeologically) by one of Simon’s colleagues.  She is identified as the daughter (Anne Bloodworth) of a wealthy man in the community in the early 20th century; she had disappeared in 1925 (?), and, based on the bullet hole in her skull, murdered on the night she disappeared.  When she disappeared, the servants in the house had been given the night off (by her, to see a movie). her fianc (Adam Bloodworth) who lived in the house  and was her second cousin, whom she did not want to marry) had what turns out to be an iron-clad alibi; and her father(Caleb) was allegedly asleep at the time someone shot her and buried her just outside the main house  (in the cellar of the old cookhouse).  Now, what leaps to your mind about who is the most likely suspect?   Yeah, me too.  But it takes the entire book before (1) the experienced detective on the Raleigh police force, (2) the attorney, and (3) Simon to get it--and, actually, only he gets it.  I suppose I could accept that if I found Simon to be a character with whom I want to spend more time.  But, as I said above, I found him unlikable.  Which is too bad.  Good series are hard to find.