Thursday, July 28, 2016

Elizabeth Edmondson, A Man of Some Repute

Elizabeth Edmondson, A Man of Some ReputeThomas & Mercer, 2015
ISBN: 978-1477829349

I have a lot of problems with this book.  And there are probably some spoilers that almost have to show up to explain the problems.

Briefly, the story.  After a dinner party (of ill-assorted guests), the Earl of Selchester and his son Tom have a blazing argument, and Tom storms out.  A blizzard subsequently blankets the castle and the countryside, and Lord Selchester is nowhere to be found the following morning.  He is generally thought to be dead, but with no body, British law doesn't allow for a quick decision about this. 

Fast forward to 1952 (?).  Hugh Hawksworth, an intelligence agent who suffered a severe (but not well-described) leg injury) has been assigned to duties in the village in which the death or disappearance occurred.  Shortly after he arrives, workers trying to repair a plumbing leak remove some flagstones and find--you guessed it--the Earl's body.  After a very perfunctory investigation, both the locals and Scotland Yard are content to conclude that the son (Tom) returned to the castle, killed the old man, and buried him...and then left again. 

Now, think about this.  It would have taken hours to remove the flagstones and bury the body and replace the flagstons so that no one notices they've been disturbed (to say nothing of the likelihood that his decomposition might have been noticed), even if his sister (his presumed accomplice) had helped.  And then he his car?  With the roads impassable?  On foot?  Through waist-high snow, without leaving a trace?  Really?  I rather doubt it.  (I should add that Tom subsequently died in a fire-fight in Palestine.)  Anyway, Hugo decides (for reasons that remain obscure to me) to poke around, and, of course, discovers THE TRUTH.

It helped that I was able to get this as a freebie (Amazon Prime), so at least I don’t feel that I overpaid for it…by much, at any rate.  Also, and perhaps oddly, the title is never explicitly explained.  Although we can all make up our own explanations of who the man in question is.

Two books, same hook...

Basil Thomson, The Case of Naomi Clynes
1934 (as Inspector Richardson, C.I.D.
Republished by  Dean Street Press, 2015 as an ebook

Gil North, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm
British Mystery Crime Classics, 2016
(Reprint of 1960 edition)

Interestingly, the two most recent mysteries I’ve read both involve the death of a woman by inhalation of gas.  In the first case (The Case of Naomi Clynes), the woman is unmarried, has recently had a mystery novel accepted for publication, and has completed her second manuscript.  She moved to London after losing her job (for a Liverpool solicitor, who retired after being in a horrible train crash in France).  In the second case (Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm) a 40-something woman, recently married to a man 20 or so years younger, is found, in her bed, dead from gas inhalation, by Sergeant Cluff, in the Yorkshire town of Gunnarsward.

These two books could not be more different.  In The Case of Naomi Clynes, Inspector Richardson investigates patiently and methodically, uncovering facts that suggest that Clynes was murdered.  (Among other things, the suicide note is inexpertly typed, and she was an expert typist.  Also, he discovers a man’s fingerprints on the typewriter, indicating that something was typed after she died.)  He travels to Liverpool to see if he can discover something about her life there, and finds that she had been engaged during the Great War and though that her fiancĂ© had died in combat (17 years before the time of the book).  His subsequent investigations take him to France, where he finds out what actually happened to the fiancĂ©, and what actually happened in the railway accident.  We learn everything he does as the book progresses, and, while there is no suspense and no unexpected final revelation, there is a clear, patient progress toward the identification of the murdered.

Sergeant Cluff’s method of investigation is, well, not really to investigate.  He concludes—on the basis of exactly no evidence—that the dead woman (Amy Wright) was murdered by her much younger, somewhat feckless husband (an outsider, whose first name we have not learned by half-way through the book).  Having concluded that it’s murder and that young Wright did it, Cluff proceeds by intimidation, threats, and harassment—which will presumably result in a confession (as this is the first of 11 Cluff books, and it is not, in tone or style, a book in which the police will err).

So two books, with the same starting point, with vastly different treatments.  In neither is there much, if any, suspense.  Thomson is much the better writer, and Inspector Richardson is an actual investigator.  North’s writing is, well, lifeless springs to mind, and Cluff is, as presented, apparently a bully and (in my opinion) not very bright.

Guess which one I would suggest…Right you are.  Thomson wins—easily.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Michael Robertson, The Baker Street Jurors

Michael Robertson, The Baker Street Jurors
St. Martin's Press/Minotaur. 2016
ISBN (hardcover) 978-1-250-06006-8

The 5th mystery featuring Reggie (a barrister) and Nigel (a solicitor) Heath. 

The Heath Brothers share office space in a large office building on the sight of 221 Baker Street, and, in exchange for reduced rent, have to answer letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes.  And generally a letter addressed to Holmes triggers the events in the book.  As it does in this one.  But the letter is not asking Holmes for assistance—it’s a jury summons addressed to him at the Baker Street address, and comes in the same mail as a summons addressed to Nigel.  (Reggie, by the way, is still on his extended honeymoon.)  Nigel makes a paper airplane out of the Holmes summons and launches it toward the wastebasket; it soars, instead, out the window.  Nigel figures no harm can come of it, because, after all, how can a fictional character respond to a jury summons? 

Nigel, of course, turns  up along with more than 20 other prospective jurors, and his number comes up for the trial of England’s greatest living cricket player, who has been charged with the murder of his wife.  The process for the selection of a jury in England is rather different than that in the US, in that the lawyers involved cannot directly challenge a juror (they can ask questions, but the decision is up to the judge); the idea is to select a jury that has been randomly selected.  The trial procedures are also different; among other things, during the questioning of witnesses, a juror may submit a question to the judge, who may (but only may) put the question to the witness.  This comes up several times, with interesting results.  There are 12 regular jurors selected, and 5 alternates, of whom Nigel is one (of course), despite the objection of the prosecuting attorney.

As the testimony proceeds, jurors start dropping like flies, and ere long, Nigel is no longer an alternate.  In fact, he winds up proposing a question, the judge puts the question, and the result is that the judge, the attorneys, the courtroom officials, and the jurors travel to a holiday (more or less) location.  Where things get really dicey. 

My only complaint about Robertson is that he does not publish quickly enough.  He writes well, and (as with Thomas) evokes London in the 21st century quite nicely; he also does a nice job on the locale of the jury’s trip.  [And, just to demonstrate that this book, and the precious book reviewed here (Fatal Enquiry) share something, one of the jurors (a violin-playing, pipe-smoking gent named Siger—short for Sigerson) cannot help but remind you of a 19th century literary creation.]  This series is well worth reading, and I think this may be the best so far.  (It’s not very long, 260 pages; I read it in about 3.5 hours.)

Will Thomas, Fatal Enquiry

Will Thomas, Fatal Enquiry:  A Barker and Llewelyn NovelSt. Martin's Press/Minotaur, 2014
ISBN (trade paperback):  978-1-250-06850-7

The 6th Barker & Llewelyn book, and a reasonable entry in the series.  Unlike the previous books, though, there is essentially no mystery to unravel. 

Sebastian Nightwine, with whom Cyrus Baker’s live has been entwined for more than 20 years (and who appeared in (as I recall, the first book in the series, Some Danger Involved), is returning to London, and has apparently proposed an audacious scheme to the Foreign Office—he is to lead a small (private) army in an attempt to take control of Tibet and make it yet another country under the control of the British Empire.  And while he expects this make himself rich, he also hoped ti discover, and plunder, the perhaps mythical city of Shambhala.  Braker, of course, has his own reasons for trying to prevent Nightwine from doing whatever he plans to do. 

In the course of the story, we discover a great deal about Barker’s past (especially his years in China).  He is also framed for murder, pursued through the streets of London by the police (and by perhaps hundreds of men seeking the ₤250 reward for his capture that has been offered by Nightwine.  [And just how much is that, you ask?  At the exchange rate in 1890, about $1,200 (or considerably more than twice the average income for a working-class man in England at the time); in today’s prices, around $30,000.] 

Also, in the course of events, Thomas Llewelyn, Barker’s young assistant, meets and becomes enamored of a young woman named Sophia Ilyanova (who is not what she seems).  And nearly a dozen people die. 

I enjoyed the book a great deal.  Thomas writes well, and his descriptions of late-19th-century London are evocative (and apparently quite accurate).  [And there is a little nod to a 20th century English author—one of the secondary characters is named Psmith (the “P” is silent).  And you should be able to name that author.]  A number of historical personages appear, one of whom might be familiar to mystery readers, Israel Zangwill, a Jewish intellectual/journalist, who wrote one quite good mystery novel, The Big Bow Mystery. 

The problem is this:  There is no mystery involved.  The plot is based on the conflict between Barker and Nightwine, so we know, from the beginning, that there will be a confrontation between them.  We can also infer that Barker will survive the confrontation—because he is the main character in the series (think of Llewelyn as his Archie Goodwin).  The story has to be strong enough to get us to that end, and it, in general, is.  And there is, I think, at least some ambiguity about the ending.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Seventh Return of Copycat Photoblogging

Chris Betrram posts "Hunter."  I post "Prey."

James R. Benn, Blood Alone

James R. Benn, Blood Alone
Soho Press, 2008
ISBN 978-1-56947-516-4
Also available as an ebook

“Blood alone moves the wheels of history.”  Benito Mussolini, 1914.  The epigraph of the book, and a remark quoted later by one of the characters, who comments to the effect that we should have been listening.

Billy Boyle is back in this third book in the series, which begins with his regaining consciousness in a field hospital in Sicily, but without knowing who he is, where he is, or why.  As his memory returns (slowly), he finds himself being sheltered by a somewhat crooked supply sergeant and being dragged off to the front lines.  He realizes, as his memory returns, that he had been sent to Sicily before the invasion, based on information that there was a scheme to steal occupation scrip.  Things are not quite so simple as that, however, and Billy finds himself caught between his responsibilities to the Army, his gratitude to a Sicilian doctor who has helped him discover the nature and extent of his memory loss, and the local mafia.

Benn deftly weaves the events of the war (most of which are very accurate depictions of what the war was like, and what Sicily was, and in some ways is, like) into Billy’s narration of his investigation.  Along the way, he learns some things about himself (including remembering a piece of advice given to him by his father—“Remember who you are—advice that he comes to realize has a deeper meaning that he had thought), about the differing meanings of loyalty, and about how he has chosen to live.

Benn maintains the tension nicely, and the resolution fits well into everything we have learned.  He incorporates real people (including the principal Mafioso) and events neatly into the story, and makes the emotional implications, and costs, of everyone’s actions direct and forceful.  There’s much more to come in the series (there are at least 10  books so far), and Benn shows no signs yet of faltering. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

When even famous authors make mistakes

I recently finished reading Agatha Christie's Remember Murder (1945; title in England: Sparkling Cyanide), and, frankly, it was not worth the time I invested in it.  I'm not going to summarize the plot or do much of anything except discuss the denouement.  I think there's a spoiler here, so you might want to read carefully.

In the book, the young, vivacious wife of an older (early 40s) man dies during her birthday party, of cyanide poisoning (in her champagne); it is ruled a suicide.  Eventually, he comes to believe she was murdered, and, roughly one year after her death, stages another party, with the same guests, at the same restaurant, because he has a plan to reveal the murderer.  At one point in the evening, everyone gets up to dance; while they are waiting, a passing waiter retrieves one of the guest's purse from the floor and places it on the table.  The kicker is that he replaces it on the other side (left instead of right) of whatever dishes are on the table at her place.  Returning to the table (and arriving back at the able before anyone else), she sits so that her purse is (once again) on her right side, and everyone else sits down in the same places relative to where she is now sitting--everyone has moved one place to the left.  (I will admit that when I read the discussion of this, I was back at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party--"Clean cups!  Clean cups!  Move down!  Move down!")  (The table is obviously a round table, or someone would have had to notice.)

See, here's the thing.  No one notices.  Everyone is now sitting enough further to the left that their sight lines are different, and no one notices.  And then someone dies of cyanide poisoning (in the champagne, again).  A woman at another table, having been temporarily abandoned by her escort, has been watching the events at that table closely.  When questioned by the police, she gives a detailed account of what took place both before and after the dancing.  And she does not notice--or does not mention--the rearrangement of the seating.  This strikes me as incredible, in a literal sense.  And it is a crucial event in the book, and crucial to the unraveling of the deaths. 

And so I had to vent about it.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Michael Pearce, Dimitri and the One Legged Woman

Michael Pearce, Dimitri and the One Legged Woman
Originally published in hardcover by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 1999.

In the late 1890s, Dimitri Kameron, a lawyer in Krusk (and now Deputy Procurator) becomes involved in the investigation of the disappearance an icon--of the One-Legged Lady.  The disappearance comes during a famine in Tula (and surrounding villages), and demonstrations (which have attracted the interest of Volkov and the Corps of the Gendarmes--the Cossacks).  Dimitri wants to resolve the disappearance of the icon and forestall any attack by the Cossacks on the villagers. 

He's an appealing character--a "modernist," who believes the Law (capital L) has to be independent of the Tsar, and of the aristocracy, and especially of the Cossacks.  (More than 100 years later...well, Vladimir Putin.)  The second (and so far final) book featuring Dimitri (the first was 1997’s Dimitri and the Milk Drinkers), and Pearce clearly understands the time and the society in which he has set these stories. 

The mystery element is fairly slight, but the issue of the rule of law is pretty central to most mystery novel.  These books are no longer in print, and may not be easy to find, but they are worth the effort.

John Billheimer, Dismal Mountain

John Billheimer, Dismal Mountain: An Owen Allison Mystery
The Mystery Company/Crum Creek Press, 2001 (reprinted 2014)
ISBN 978-1-932325-43-0

"Failure analyst" Owen Allison has returned to West Virginia (from California) because his mother is about to undergo an operation and then, probably, chemotherapy.  He almost immediately becomes involved  in the facts surrounding the upcoming trial or his Aunt Lizzie on a charge of Murder, to which she has confessed; Lizzie runs the only hospice in the county, as well. 

Meanwhile, the president of the local hospital is pressuring the hospital's chief financial officer to bill for services not provided (to make up for the revenue shortfall that has occurred because he loaned the hospital's reserves to a company that is building a shopping center).  The construction of the shopping center involves leveling the top of a mountain and dumping the resulting debris in a hollow (valley), which has ruined several people's homes and wells.  (The murder charge stems from Lizzie's attempts to stop the dumping. 

Owen runs into his high school flame (nearly 20 years ago), Kate O'Malley, now Sister Mary Perpetua and the head of the medical staff at the hospital).  The state senator for the area is campaigning for re-election, and it's not clear where he stands on a number of issues.  Owen persuades his ex-wife to come to WV from CA to assist in Lizzie's defense (and, subsequently, to help some of the people damaged by the construction project). 

Billheimer pretty much nails WV politics and economics, and Owen' role in unravelling the mysteries is plausible (given his background).  The local sheriff is a finely drawn character as well.  In fact, except for a somewhat implausible escape from an abandoned mine, everything is exceptionally well done. 

This is #3 in the 5 book series (following Contrary Blues and Highway Robbery).  I'm looking forward to reading the final two (Drybone Hollow and Stonewall Jackson's Elbow).  The first 3 books are still in print, from The Mystery Company/Crum Creek Press, and the final two are easily found from used booksellers.  A fine series.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Dean Young, Shock by Shock

Dean Young, Shock by Shock
Copper Canyon Press, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-155659-431-1

Dean Young’s most recent book of poetry, Shock by Shock, was written in the aftermath of heart failure and a heart transplant (in 2011).  Not surprisingly, many of the poems involve mortality, death, and survival.  I’ve been reading his work for 15 years or so, and this is about as good as it gets.  His language is sharp and his images are vivid, and if you don’t have tears in your eyes a lot of the time, there’s something wrong with you.  A line from the final poem in the book, “Believe in Magic”:

“I believe reality is approximately 65 percent if.”

And, “Exit Strategies”:

“Second to last day of November
2014, a year I can almost admit
to surviving.  In an airport
in North Carolina, Laurie looks up
from her phone and says, Sad news.
No one is allowed to live forever
so that part isn’t a surprise.
The whole flight back I try to block out
the kid screaming behind me
even though he is me.
The stewardess tries her toy-plane
trick followed by the beverage cart.
I wish I was an ancient Chinese poet
so drunk even the moon seems sober.
I wish my mind was a flower.
Carry me oh carry me home.”

Also on the back cover, from a   poem titled “To the Critics”:

“…Have you ever tried
to stand up on a bicycle?
Have you ever tried to stand up
on a bicycle made of glass
juggling lemon trees while
a huge rectangle of darkness
approacheth on wheelchair wheels?
Sure you have.”

What I really want to do is type the whole book out for you, but that would be wrong.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Timothy Hallinan, King Maybe

Timothy Hallinan, King Maybe: A Junior Bender Mystery
Soho Crime, 2016
ISBN 978-1-61695-432-1

Junior Bender is in a large mansion-ish home in LA, preparing to steal a very rare stamp…when the homeowner, who happens to  be a contract killer, returns and very nearly traps him.  This kicks off a story that involves Junior's relationship with his wife and daughter, his daughter's problems with her boy friend, Junior's issues with his current flame, his problems with his fence, a nasty Hollywood mogul, an exceptional artist, and more. 

While the narrative occasionally drags, the story is well-conceived and everything holds together (and, no it's not all connected).  The climactic scene, in which Junior manages to turn the tables on a number of his adversaries and manages to see justice partially done--he makes that justice complete later on--is extraordinary. 

Junior is an engaging character, and Ronnie, the current flame, matches him in likeability and in inventiveness in a crisis.  I hope we see her again (indeed, she might deserve her own book).  The title of the book is brilliant, and gets explained.  Hallinan makes the LA setting and the milieu of the studios characters in their own right.  (For a book   presumably written in 2014/2015, there's a great Trump reference.  Also a great Hitchcock quote:  "When someone asked [Hitchcock] how he kept his calm when he was confronted with production crises, difficult actors, uncooperative weather, and the light-blocking, soul-sucking bulk of producers, he said, "I try to live my life as though it happened three years ago.' "  Words to live by.)   A hit with me.