Thursday, September 29, 2016

Harlan Coben, Home

Harlan Coben, Home
Dutton © 2016
ISBN-13: 978-0525955108

It’s been five years since we were last in the company of Myron Bolitar and Winthrop Horne Lockwood III (Live Wire, 2011).  And things have changed.  The book opens with a (first-person narration) scene, with Win in London, in search of two boys, kidnapped 10 years before, when they were 6, and were having an after-school play date at one of e boy’s home.  A $2 million ransom was prepared, but never picked up by the kidnappers, and what seems most likely is that they are dead.  Win received word that one of the boys could be found in an area that is a “cruising zone” for male prostitutes and their male clients—and that one of the boys (Paul) will be there.  The other boy (Rhys) is Win’s nephew.  Suffice it to say that things do not go well, and Win calls on Myron (at a somewhat inopportune time) for help.

The plot is extraordinarily complex, but there are two key questions:  Was the boy Win saw really Paul?  Is Rhys alive or dead?  Did the Scandinavian au pair who was taking care of the boys have anything to do with it?  And what has happened to her?  Finding answers to these questions involves dredging up some secrets from the past, and the current relationships among the four parents whose lives were altered in ways that I for one cannot even imagine.  And will the pursuit of the truth get in the way of Myron’s forthcoming marriage to Therese?

Win is still his violent self, and we get more insight into how his mind works in the first-person sections of the book, those in which Win is both the narrator and the chief actor.  When the focus in on Myron, the narration is third-person (and I felt that it was Win providing the narration in those scenes as well).  The quest is helped along by Esmerelda, Myron’s former partner in the agent business and now, apparently doing PI stuff, and Big Cindy, Esmeralda’s former—and current (there’s apparently a circuit for “senior” women) wrestling partner.  Myron’s nephew Mickey (himself an outstanding basketball player, a Myron had been) and his girl friend provide significant assistance.  

And the ending of the mystery is heart-wrenching.  And the end of the book provides an insight into another mystery…one best left unexplored here.  Overall, an outstanding, if violent and very disconcerting story.  Very much worth the time.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Jamer R. Benn, A Mortal Terror

James R. Benn, A Mortal Terror
Soho Crime © 2011
ASIN: B004NNUYIS (ebook)
ISBN-13: 978-1616951627 (paperback)

Billy Boyle has some leave between assignments, and is in Switzerland to meet (briefly) Diane Seaton.  Diane has been in Rome on an assignment for MI5, and she has to meet with someone in the MI5 hierarchy (who turns out to be Kim Philby) to provide him with some very important information.  Boyle, to whom Philby owes a favor, hitches a ride.  What Seaton has to disclose (it’s January 1944, with a major campaign underway in Italy and, of course, the invasion of France looming) comes as a severe shock both to Philby and to Boyle.  It’s something that various people in various ways have tried to communicate, but none of them have been believed.

This is, however, a diversion from the events of the book, although it does provide some context for things that happen, or are disclosed later on.

Boyle has to leave Switzerland for Italy to investigate two deaths in Naples.  The means of murder differ, but both have been found with playing cards on their corpses—a Ten of Hearts on the body of a Lieutenant Landry and a Jack of Hearts on the body of Captain Galante.  Landry was in a combat unit; Galante, a doctor who thinks he has a way to deal with the overwhelming stress of combat.  But the question is—just these two?  Or are we working our way up the ranks?  Will it be a major, then a colonel, then a general next?  Or are the cards just a diversion (as in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murder, the victims’ names were a diversion) from the intended victim?

In short order, Boyle is in Naples, and then moves to Caserta, where plans are being laid for the landing at Anzio and the eventual assault on Monte Cassino (, if you want details).  Boyle’s investigation of the two (soon three—a Sargent) leads him into the combat zone.  In the course of this, he also finds out that his younger brother, Danny, who has been in a special training program (yes, it’s real: the Army Specialized Training Program, to train men to step in as 2nd Lieutenants quickly when the need arose (, has been shipped out—to Italy.  Given the casualty rates among Lieutenants in combat, this is somewhat anxiety producing.

And then the investigation leads him into combat, shortly after the landing at Anzio.

In the midst of the investigation, Boyle has something of an epiphany (about half-way through the book):

That's how evil made it's way in this world. Not with a devil's face, as the nuns taught us. It slithered between the cracks, caught decent people off guard, dragged them along until they were in too far. Then it made them into something they never thought they could ever be

Murder investigations are difficult enough when the murders are not straight-forward, but conducting an investigation in the middle of a major battle is a good definition of nearly impossible.  Nonetheless, he makes progress (although there are some false starts).  And, eventually, we reach the end.

This is another terrific book, but the conclusion left me disturbed (I can’t say why, because it would spoil the wrap-up), as Boyle acts in what was, to me, an unexpected way.  My other somewhat idiosyncratic issue is that I am not a big fan of deranged serial killer books, and one of the questions that must be resolved is whether this killer is, in fact, a deranged serial killer.  With those things on my mind, I still unreservedly recommend this book (and the entire series so far—this is book 6 of, at this point, 11). 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Susan Spann, Flask of the Drunken Master

Susan Spann, Flask of the Drunken Master
Minotaur Books/A Thomas Dunne Book/St. Martin’s Press, © 2015

The third book in the series finds Matsui Hiro (acting as a bodyguard) and Father Mateo (a Portuguese Catholic priest) investigating the murder of the half-owner of a not-very-good sake brewery; the accused in Ginjiro, who is a friend of Hiro’s (and to whom he has a personal obligation).  The murder occurred late at night, outside Ginjiro’s establishment (a bar/eatery/brewery of a higher class than the dead man,s, Chikao).  Chikao has, as it happens, a ne’er-do-well son (Kaoru) who has debts right and left; a debt collector trying to collect his debts, Akechi Yoshiki (the daughter of a murder victim in a previous book—Blade of the Samurai—in the series), may or may not have been on the scene shortly before, or at the time of, or shortly after, the murder.

Complicating matters include the political tension surrounding the appointment of a new Shogun, which threatens to engulf Hiro and Mateo (and Luis Alvarez, the Portuguese trader who has a contract to sell guns…to the wrong faction).  Security has become so tight in yoto that just getting around to make the investigation is problematic.  Another complication is that is they cannot clear Ginjiro quickly, he will be tortured until he confesses or dies.

The characters are well done (and Mina, Chikao’s widow, is especially interesting); the continuing characters hold out interest, and the drunken monk Suke actually makes a contribution to the investigation.  Spann continues to provide a rich (and so far as I can tell, accurate) backdrop for the action, and to develop the relationship between Hiro and Mateo, as they try to reconcile their cultural differences.  It may seem (it deemed to me) that the solution was sort of ad hoc, but it holds up well enough to make this a worthwhile read in an excellent series.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Copycat photoblogging AGAIN?

Yep.  Chris Bertram has a lovely shot of the "...gothic the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes in LaGuardia..." Spain.  I have an interior shot of the Pantheon, hand-held as well, from 2005.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Dermot Morrah, The Mummy Case Mystery

Dermot Morrah, The Mummy Case Mystery
Coachwhip Publications, 2016
(Reprint of ©1933 edition published by Harper)
ISBN 871-1-61646-250-5

At the end of term, on the night of the Commemoration Ball (think of it as your senior prom, on steroids), Professor Peter Benchley, an Egyptologist and Senior Fellow of Beaufort College (Oxford University) has apparently died in a fire in his rooms at the college.  Or at least someone has died.  Or maybe it’s just a mummy that has burned.  The evidence is unclear.  What is clear is that the extremely valuable mummy--the oldest extant mummy--of a Sixth Dynasty pharaoh (King Pepi) has either been burned or stolen.  Professor Benchley, who had recently purchased the mummy (and its case) from Professor Bonoff, a Russian Egyptologist, is at the very least missing.

The inquest, which is held in college and for which the Coroner’s Jury consists of the Fellows of the College, returns a verdict of accidental death, identifying the deceased as Benchley.  Two Junior Fellows, Denys Sargent (Law) and Humphrey Considine (Archeology), find themselves unconvinced by the evidence, and decide to investigate.  (Considine is Benchley’s executor, and Sargent acts, in that respect, as his legal advisor; the will has an odd codicil).  In the course of their investigation, they meet up with two (female) undergraduates from another College, who have some pertinent information, which leads to the recovery of the mummy case (but not the mummy itself).  They also try to trace Bonoff’s movements in England (including what appears to be a sighting of him in Beaufort College the night of the fire).

Morrah—an academic himself and a mathematics Fellow at New College in Oxford—never wrote another mystery—he was only 37 when this one was originally published, and that is probably too bad.  Based on what I know, he evokes the Oxford experience extremely well (if somewhat more lighted-heartedly than, for example, Dorothy Sayers did in Gaudy Night).  And Sargent and Considine are pleasant, intelligent investigators.  In particular, Considine's knowledge of the archeology of Egypt has its place in the investigation, but Sargent is the real sleuth.   The mystery itself is not the real reason for reading the book; it’s a decent plot, but I felt sure I knew the basic outline of the solution by about a third of the way into it (I was, as it happens, right—or I would not have mentioned it, would I?).  The one somewhat badly drawn character is an American millionaire, one Van Ditten, who badly wants to acquire the mummy for his collection, and expresses himself willing to pay up to a million dollars (about ₤200,000) for it.  Easily recommended as a light, pleasant summer read.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Obsolescent themes in mysteries

A couple of books I’ve read lately made me think about themes or plot devices that used to be common in mystery novels, but no longer work for “contemporary” mysteries—those set in the 21st century.  *There may be “spoilers” in the following material; proceed at your own risk*

Two of these are significant plot points in a Perry Mason mystery I just finished, *The Case of the Blond Bonanza* (1962).  A significant plot point involves a man who disappeared when a boat overturned 14 years before the events in the book; he then re-appears with a different name and a new life.  This is a fairly common device in some books, either in the plot or (as in *The Maltese Falcon* [the Flitcraft parable (for a lengthy discussion:] a narrative device.  (A recent example is in Lawrence Block’s novella, *Resume Speed.*)  In a time before nearly everyone had a Social Security number, and getting employment did not require you to have a SSN, drifting from place-to-place with a very malleable identity more-or-less works as a plot device.  But in a “contemporary” story, it’s something that almost demands explanation—how does the character get away with it?

The second plot point in the Gardner book involves a PI keeping one of the characters under surveillance.  He has to leave his surveillance position to make a phone call, which eventually tips Perry off as to the actual course of events.  (Again, this is a common bit in a lot of PI novels—the need to find a phone to report in/ask for help/etc.)  But now, with cell phones, that no longer works. 

The other plot device comes mostly from “caper” books, especially those involving the heist of a company payroll.  [Donald Westlake as Richard Stark, *The Score* (1964) is a good example.]  As late as the mid-1960s, this seems somewhat plausible.  But by about the late 1960s/early 1970s (and in my own case, from the very first summer job I had, working for a grocery store chain), companies generally paid by check, even to employees without bank accounts, and today most large firms pay only by direct deposit.  So another plot device that worked fairly recently would probably raise eyebrows in a book set in the US in the 2010s.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Sylvia Fischbach Braden, Karl Marx Imperial Dispensary and Himalayan Tea Garden

Sylvia Fischbach Braden, Karl Marx Imperial Dispensary and Himalayan Tea Garden
Silver Oaks Press (Baltimore Maryland), © 2016

I sat down and read the 22 poems in this stunning book, and found myself at a loss.  I am reminded of Buddy Glass (in J.D. Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction”) saying that what he wants to do for his readers is plunk down all the poems written by his older brother Seymour.  I find myself wanting to type this book out for you to read now, to fall into now, to discover now.  I started by putting bookmarks on the pages of the poems that particularly moved me, but stopped, because I was bookmarking almost every page.  I want to quote from them (and will, a little, but only a little).

I should say that Sylva and I attended the same high school, graduating in 1965, and that, of all the people I knew there (and we had, I think, an extraordinary class), only Sylvia intimidated me (intellectually).  And now, 51 years later, I find myself intimidated again by the brilliance and intimacy of what she has written.  She weaves together her life with her memories of (and love for) her mother, father, sister, grandparents, and I, the reader, became surrounded by her words, caught voluntarily in them, wishing the book were longer. 

In time, the poems span the 20th century; in space, they move from India to St. Louis to Indianapolis, to Baltimore.  Emotionally, from tranquility to anger (“Sestina: Hopping Mad”) and back.

Her use of language—simple, direct—is stunning.  For example, from “Seedpods Explode in Eden:

I like to imagine
Impatiens glandulifera
blooming prodigiously
in the foothills
behind Eden Hospital,
the now-crumbling edifice
in Darjeeling
where my mother was born…

I’m not going to quote it, but the fourth stanza in “It’s May” is one of the most effective uses I have read of using language to evoke a feeling of love and (it seemed to me) loss.  “The Upanishad Admonishes” is a perfectly wrought reminder that our lives are more than this or that (and reminded me of the great Issa’s haiku, “I know this world of tears/Is only a world of tears/And yet…and yet”).  The three “Grayson’s Tail” poems are beautiful—and simple, especially the final line of the second one (“Grayson”).  And this, from “New Year,” transfixed me:

(And now I’ve spent
half an hour on you tube
dancing with tiny rhythmic
hip and shoulder shrugs
inside my swivel chair,
listening with love and awe
to Oscar Peterson
and others
Begin the Beguine).

(And I’ll save you the trouble of looking for it yourselves—it’s here.  And listening with love and awe is the only possible response to almost anything played by Oscar Peterson.)

But enough.  If you possibly can, find this book, read it.  And re-read it.  It is a beautiful book.  Written by a beautiful person.  Peace, and love, Sylvia.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

I.J. Parker,, The Convict's Sword

I.J. Parker, The Convict's SwordPenguin, 2011
ISBN  978-0143115793

Sugawara Akitada, second secretary in the Ministry of Justice faces a number of crises--first in his professional life (his superior hates him), second in his family life (his wife thinks he is neglecting his family in favor of his career), and third in his conception of himself (how does he relate to his responsibilities, including to one dead friend in particular).  In the 12th century, Kyoto is facing a smallpox epidemic, Akitada's retainer Tora is suspected of the murder of a street singer, Akitada faces the possibility of dismissal from his position and has to cover for his superior who has fled the city, and he also has to come to terms with his family crises and his feelings of responsibility to his dead friend Haseo.  The plot is serviceable, but Akitada can be wearing as a character--he is mercurial (indeed, I wondered sometimes if he might be bi-polar), and much of the heavy lifting is done by others.  I remain a fan of this series, but this is far rom the strongest entry.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

I don't like to be pedantic, but...

This, from an author, in a blog post:

"Right after World War I, the country started urbanizing, and as of the 1920 census, just over half the U.S. population lived in cities for the first time ever. Barely fifty years before, only five percent of the population had."

Well, no.  In 1870, according to the Census, 25.7% of the US population lived in what the Census called "urban places."  In fact, in 1790, 5.1% of the population lived in "urban places."  Urbanization was a continuous process through the 19th and 20th centuries, not something that began after World War I.  (This matters to me because I teach US economic history, and I really prefer that people get things right.  The part of the blog post dealing with what happened in agriculture in the 1920s, I want to emphasize, is just fine.)  Here are the data:

The Urbanization of the US Population
United States