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’.

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

No commentary, just links to a few songs.

“It Ain’t Me, Babe.
(Joan Baez)

“Masters of War”

“Restless Farewell”

“Only A Pawn In Their Game”

“Subterranean Homesick Blues”

“Desolation Row”

“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
(Neil Young)

“Visions of Johanna”

“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”
(Richie Havens)

“Hard Rain”

“It’s All Right, Ma”

“Mr. Tambourine Man”

“Positively Fourth Street”

“Tangled Up In Blue”

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”
(Madeline Peyroux)