Sunday, December 31, 2017

Two Reviews: Melodie Campbell's The Goddaughter's Revenge and Edward D. Hoch's Sherlock Holmes stories

Two reviews:

Melodie Campbell, The Goddaughter’s Revenge
Rapid Reads/Orca Books © 2013 Meoldie Campbell
ISBN 978-1-4598-0489

Gina Ricci has (sort of) broken away from her family’s business, by opening a high-end jewelry store (Ricci Jewelers), in Hamilton (Ont.).  The family business is, by and large, illegal.  But someone, it seems, has removing the real, high-quality gemstones in the custom designed jewelry she creates, and replacing them with much lower quality stones.  She discovers this during a routine cleaning of a ring for one of her customers.  She decides to rectify matters by identifying the items that have been affected, “stealing” them, and re-replacing the stones with the real things.  But things begin to go wrong from the very beginning…

This seemed like a nice set-up—the stones involved all seem to have been replaced when Gina was on vacation, so who did it, and why, are pretty straight-forward.  And the things that can—and do—go wrong can make for a fairly amusing story.  But after a couple of disasters, it’s almost like Campbell lost interest.  The remainder of the book involves, not more and more convoluted problems in resolving the substitutions, but getting her relatives off her back.  And the book ends incredibly abruptly, almost as if she couldn’t figure out how to wind up the story in a convincing manner.  Fortunately, the whole thing took less than 2 hours to read.

Edward D. Hoch. The Sherlock Holmes Stories of Edward D. Hoch
Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2007
(Individual stories have various copyright dates)

Ed Hoch was one of the most prolific authors of mystery short stories ever.  For over 35 years, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published one of his stories in every issue; in total, over 1000 of his stories appeared in print.  13 of these stories feature Sherlock Holmes (and Dr. John Watson, in all except the final story).  I had great expectations for these stories.

The problem with great expectations is that they are so often not fulfilled.  And I’m afraid that happened, for me at least, with these stories.  Hoch does a good job with the setting, I think (although it often seems a bit perfunctory) and he has the relationship between Holmes and Watson just right.  Unfortunately there were, for me, two ways in which the stories do not shine.  The first is what seemed to me to be a failure to capture Watson’s narrative voice.  The cadences of Watson’s style are so much a part of the stories that I at least felt that the rhythms of the stories were flat.  The second problem I had was he frequency with which Holmes would say something like “I guessed that…” something was the case.  Well…that’s just not right.

Overall, although these stories were not first-rate Holmes pastiches, they are readable.  And any dedicated fan of the Great Detective will want to read them.

Friday, December 29, 2017

An extended rant on a Nero Wolfe novella

Rex Stout, "The Next Witness," Three Witnesses (1956)
Reprinted by Bantam in 1994

I’ve been reading (very slowly—2-3pages a night) some of the Nero Wolfe novellas before going to sleep. And a few days ago I started re-reading (for at least the 15th time) “The Next Witness.”  And I’ve spotted something that seems, well, wrong.

On p. 13 of the Bantam reprint (1994), Archie tells Wolfe (and us):  “His [Leonard Ashe’s) story is that a man phoned him…and said if Ashe would meet him at the Bagby place on Sixty-ninth street he thought they could talk Marie out of it, and Ashe went on the hop, and the door to the office was standing open, and he went in and there she was with a plug cord around her throat…” 

Two pages later, Wolfe and Goodwin arrive at the apartment building where the office is.  And, “In the vestibule I pushed the button that was labeled Bagby Answers, Inc., and when the click came I opened the door and led the way across the crummy little hall to the stairs and up one flight,’

So here’s the issue:  There was, apparently, no one in the office (alive) to buzz Ashe through the locked door in the vestibule—if Ashe was telling the truth.  This is not a problem for the prosecution, of course—Ashe buzzed, Marie Willis let him in, and he killed her.  But it is, or should be, a problem for Wolfe.  Assuming Ashe is innocent,--that he found Willis already murdered--how did he get through the door in the vestibule?  Had someone propped the door open?  If so, wouldn’t Ashe have mentioned that at some point?  In short, if Ashe was innocent, how did he get in and to the office?

Now, I have read this story a lot, and this never occurred to me before (I can be a little slow).  But it for sure should have occurred to Wolfe or Archie or to whoever was editing the story for publication.  It can be fixed with addition of three words.  Instead of “…and the door to the office was standing open…”, if we have “…and vestibule door and the door to the office were standing open…”, there’s no problem.  My point, just to be clear, is not that this problem can’t be easily resolved, it’s that, apparently, no one realized that it needed to be resolved.

But then there’s the second problem.  If Leonard Ashe is not guilty, who is guilty?  Or, more precisely, who can we prove to be guilty?  And here the answer seems to be:  “No one.” 

What do we need to do to prove someone guilty?  The classic answer, of course, focuses on motive, means, and opportunity:
Does this person have a motive for killing the victim?
Did this person have, or have access to, the means by which the murder was accomplished?
Did this person  have the opportunity to commit the murder?
Well, where do we stand with respect to all this?

Guy Under, Helen Weltz, Alice Hart, Bella Velardi, and Clyde Bagby all plausibly have a motive, and for all of them, it’s the same motive—to prevent the exposure of a blackmailing scheme operated by and through the answering service.  Everyone in the world had access to the means to commit the murder, assuming access to the apartment.  (The means was strangulation using one of the switchboard cords.

But what about opportunity?  Can we prove that Person A (B, C, D…) had access to and was present at the scene of the crime when the murder was committed?  Well, here we have a problem.  Unger and Weltz share an alibi—they were, according to them, together (in the company of Ralph Ingalls and his wife) on a boat.  Hart and Velardi share an alibi—they had borrowed Weltz’s car and were on the shore in New Jersey, cooling off (and presumably Weltz supports their statement about borrowing her car).

But Bagby has no alibi.  No one says, or can say, that he was at home (or anywhere else) when the murder was committed.  Clearly he had access to the building and the apartment—it was his business.  He (presumably) says he was not there.  But he could have been.  But can the police prove that he was there?  Did any of the tenants of the building see him entering or leaving at about the time of the murder?  As far as we know, the answer to that seems to be, “No.”  We might suspect Bagby, but I see no way to prove his guilt.  If he has a good lawyer, my guess is he would walk, guilty or innocent, the proof of guilt is insufficient (unless the police can turn up a witness placing him at the scene.)

Which, oddly enough, brings us back to Leonard Ashe. He has a motive (of sorts; I don’t think it was a particularly powerful motive).  If he was at the apartment, then he had access to the means of murder.  And he was there, so he clearly had the opportunity to commit the murder.  But…if he was the murderer, why didn’t he just quietly walk away?  Why shout for the police?  In fact, for me, that he did not sneak away, that he shouted out the window for the police is the strongest evidence of his innocence.  But the fact remains that the prima facie case against Ashe is stronger than the case against anyone else. 

Wolfe’s entire argument comes down to this:  Someone else (perhaps many someones) had a stronger motive.  But that is not—and should not—be enough to convict that “someone else.”.
(An addendum to this:
Wolfe was not called to testify in Clyde Bagby's trial, which, we are told, ended in a conviction.  But...

It's unclear to me what Wolfe could have testified to in any event. He *deduced* the existence of the blackmail plot, but his deductions are not evidence. Helen Weltz *confirmed* his deductions, but he can't testify to what she said (unless she is the defendant; I suspect the DA would give her immunity in exchange for her testimony); from an evidentiary point of view, what she told him is hearsay. Oddly, Bagby's defense lawyer could rationally subpoena him to testify to Ashe's efforts to get Marie Willis to eavesdrop, in an attempt to rebut the case against Bagby. The defense lawyer could (and, obviously, would) avoid any mention of Wolfe's deductions.

As far as I can tell, the only useful new evidence the police or the DS's office could find is someone who could place Bagby in or immediately around the apartment or building at the relevant time. That might give Bagby something to explain, and it would help us fill out the motive/means/opportunity trilogy. But Ashe's presence actually in the apartment/office at ((or around) the time of the murder seems to me like a pretty good defense...I actually don't see how a jury could vote to convict...)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Christmas poem

Christmas Sparrow
Billy Collins

The first thing I heard this morning
was a soft, insistent rustle,
the rapid flapping of wings
against glass as it turned out,

a small bird rioting
in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of transparency into the spacious light.

A noise in the throat of the cat
hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap in a basement door,
and later released from the soft clench of teeth.

Up on a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a small towel and carried it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, it burst
from my uncupped hands into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
and disappearing over a tall row of hemlocks.

Still, for the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms whenever I thought
about the hours the bird must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,

its eyes open, like mine as I lie here tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Will Thomas, Old Scores
St. Martins/Minotaur Books © 2017 Will Thomas
ISBN 978-1-250-07796-7
Japan has sent a delegation (including an Ambassador, representatives of the army, navy, ministry of trade, and a cultural attaché) to London; the year is 1890.  And, thirty-some years after U.S. warships forced Japan to open itself to the rest of the world, the ruling class in Japan wants to play a major role in the world—and not as a subordinate country to anyone, and especially not in Asia.  Cyrus Barker, a private inquiry agent, becomes involved because members of the delegation have asked to see his (recreation of a) Japanese garden.
That night, Barker has gone to the house which is being used by the Japanese as their embassy—and was outside when the Japanese ambassador was shot.  He has, or course, been arrested.  (His assistant, Thomas Llewellyn discovers this when he realizes Barker is not in his house and decides to look for him at the embassy; Llewellyn is also arrested.)
Subsequently, following their release, Barker is summoned to the embassy and is asked to investigate the murder of the ambassador.  Despite the inherent difficulties of this task, he accepts.  After a long series of twists and turns, involving two rivals in the Chinese community in London, the disappearance—and reappearance—of one of the ambassador’s bodyguards, and much more, Barker is able to uncover the source of the murder.  We do not, however, reach what can be called a happy ending.  Although it is actually remarkably well-suited to the situation and the persons involved.
This is the ninth book in the series, and all have been very good.  In some ways, this is not as strong an entry.  In part, this is because the author spends a good deal of time in the first half of the book providing us with substantial exposition about Japan.  The information is important, and useful as we move through the events, but the fact that it is essentially a data dump slows the narrative considerably.  But the second half of the book is extraordinary.  And along the way, we learn a good deal about Barker’s background, and everything we learn is germane.  So in saying it might not be as strong as the previous books, I am far from attempting to discourage you.  It seems to me that, as the series continues, what we have learned, and what the characters have experienced on this book, will be of ongoing importance.

Sunday, December 17, 2017


The mystery listserv DorothyL (you can subscribe here)  asks its members  to submit their best books read--not necessarily published--during the year.  With  couple of weeks to go, here are my best reads of 2017, alphabetically by author, with links to the reviews I wrote about them.  (The year in which the book was published is in parentheses.)

Allebury, Ted, The Twentieth Day of January (1980)
Collins, Max, The Best of Crime and Detection TV (criticism) (1988)
Copperman, E.J., Edited Out  (2017)
Copperman, E.J, and Cohen, Jeff, The Question of the Absentee Father (2017)
Crider, Bill, Eight Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (short stories)  (2016)
Crider, Bill, Dead, To Begin With, (2017)
Lawton, John, Then We Take Berlin 2013
LeCarre, John, A Legacy of Spies (2017) (By far, the best book I read in 2017.)
Lee, M.J., Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary (2016)
Muller, Marcia and Pronzini, Bill, The Body Snatcher Affair (2015)
Pryor, Mark, The Bookseller (2008)
Pryor, Mark, The Blood Promise (2014)
Tyler, L.C., A Masterpiece of Corruption (2016)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Just a note...about comments

I don't get a lot of comments here, which is fine.  But there are few enough that I tend to forget how BlogSpot works--it doesn't handle comments very well (which is to say, it doesn't do a good job of telling me that there are comments.  I'll try to do better...

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco, Fool Me Once

Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco, Fool Me Once
Midnight Ink © 2015 Steve Hockensmith & Lisa Falco
ISBN 978-0-7387-4223-6

In the follow-up to 2014’s The White Magic Five and Dine, Alanis McLachlan is continuing her effort to use her inheritance of The White Magic Five and Dime (in Berdache, AZ) to pay back all—or as many of them as she can find—the people swindled by her mother…who has more names than the population of Berdache.  Mom was a con-woman, who, with her partner Biddle, moved frequently (so Alanis moved frequently until she broke away), finally ending up, and dying in Arizona.  This is not an inheritance Alanis is very happy about; she was also surprised to discover that she has a much younger half-sister, Clarice (who’s still in high school).

As this book opens, Alanis has been trying to do two things:  Pay back Marsha Riggs and help her develop enough self-confidence to leave her abusive husband Billy.  Things immediately go wrong—Billy is murdered, and Marsha is arrested for the crime.  So now, Alanis has to try to find the real killer and help Marsha turn her life around.  In this undertaking she has the assistance (willing or not) of three men:  Her lawyer Eugene, whom she has hired to defend Marsha; her friend Victor (high school teacher and wresting coach), who is very fond of Alanis, but also very conventional/conservative; and George Washington Fletcher (GW to his friends, who may (or may not) be living outside the law.

And the first step is to try to determine what Billy was into that could have gotten him killed.  The second is to make contact with a killer-for-hire (whom Marsha has been in email contact with).  And try to keep The White Dime in business.  The investigation leads her to break into the Riggs home (Billy’s dead and Marsha’s in jail), with GW’s assistance, to look for clues; to try, also (with Victor’s help) to figure out what sort of scam is going on at the resort community development where Billy worked as a salesman; and figure out what’s going on in her own personal life.  With Clarice’s help, she locates the killer (and that’s an interesting adventure). 

I enjoyed the ride, although the digressions (as far as I was concerned) into Tarot readings were too frequent and didn’t really seem to advance the story very much.  And the third in the series came out earlier this year (Give the Devil His Due, which I read out of order, and reviewed.   So far this is a strong beginning to what might become a long-lasting series. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Alan Melville, Quick Curtain

Alan Melville, Quick Curtain
Poisoned Pen Press 2017 (Reprint of 1934 edition)
© 2015 Estate of Alan Melville
ISBN 978-1-4642-0870-6

Alan Melville, who (according to Martin Edwards’ introduction) had a long and fairly distinguished career as a playwright and with the BBC (radio and then television) from the 1930s to the 1960s, provides us with a light, satiric look at the state of English theatre in the 1930s, with an improbable murder tossed in for additional fun.  The book revolves around the opening of a new musical comedy, Blue Music, produced by the famous producer Douglas B, Douglas starring Brandon Baker and Gwen Astle (both of whom have appeared in many DBD productions, and written by Ivor Watcyns, whose work never fails to amuse.  Everything appears in place for another commercial triumph (let’s ignore artistic considerations).

Among others in attendance at the opening are CID Inspector Wilson and his son, Derek (a journalist).  (I particularly liked the description of one of the theatre critics, James Amethyst, who has written—and turned in—his review before arriving at the theatre.)  The first act passes off rather well, as does most of Act II, Scene 1…until the very end, when a gunshot (which is supposed to be fired by a prop gun (with no ammunition) in fact leads to the actual shooting, and death, of Mr. Blake.  Inspector Wilson takes charge, with his son Derek acting as his Watson, and the investigation begins.  And shortly, a second death occurs—the actor (J. Hilary Foster) who fired the gun is found dead, hanging from the ceiling, in his dressing room.

Part of the charm of the book comes from the interplay between Wilson pere and Wilson fil, and Derek carries out quite a bit of the actual investigation.  (For one thing, he is dispatched to a small town in the north, which results both in some important discoveries and occurrences, but also in an exchange of amusing telegrams between the Wilsons.

Well.  It appears we have a solution to the crimes, and Inspector Wilson is set to make his arrest during the first performance of Blue Magic since the tragic events of the premiere.  Justice triumphs, and all is well.  Or not.  There is, as it happens, a final series of disclosures…

This is not a masterpiece; it’s light (well, as light as a book with multiple murders can be), and I particularly enjoyed the relationship between the Wilsons.  It’s a pleasant way to spend a few hours, and, if you do, I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Mark Pryor; The Blood Promise

Mark Pryor; The Blood Promise
Seventh Street Books © 2014 Mark Pryor
ISBN 978-1-16164-815-7

The book begins in Paris, in 1795, with a letter being written, and with a burial. 

Then, still in Paris, but in  the present, Hugo Marston (head of security for the US Embassy) has been handed the job of helping coordinate security for a US Senator, Charles Lake, who is arriving in Paris to negotiate with the French about a tiny island in the Caribbean, (the island is French territory, but both its inhabitants and the US government want sovereignty to be yielded to the US).  Lake has aspirations for the presidency and is very much concerned to reduce the US commitments to the outside world.

The negotiations are to occur in an old mansion, the property of the Tourville family; Henri Tourville has a position near the top of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.  His sister Alexie, who occasionally lectures in history, has a special interest in (and business investigating) genealogy.  On the first night after negotiations begin. Lake believes that he has been drugged and that someone has entered his room at the chateau.  Marston (and everyone else) is skeptical.  (I should mention one thing, that really did not strike me as soon as it should have.  The US negotiating team was a bit weird, consisting solely of the Senator—no one from the State Department, no assistants or communications people or note takers, no support staff at all.  These folks need not have been significant to the story, but some of them ought to have been there.)

We eavesdrop, in a sense, on a theft at another chateau, and on a murder that occurs in the course of it.  This becomes important when a fingerprint taken at the scene matches a fingerprint found in the Senator’s bedroom.

As has been the case in the three prior books (chronologically in the series narrative, if not in order of publication), Marston winds up working closely with Raul Garcia, a high-ranking Parisian cop, and Tom Green, a CIA agent and long-time friend.  As things develop, Lake disappears for a day, occasioning a bit of panic, and refuses to say where he was or why he disappeared (he left his cell phone behind to prevent being tracked).  And while the murder investigation seems not to be progressing, it’s also the case that the negotiations (which occur off-screen) also seem not to be achieving much.

Pryor’s narrative unfolds very nicely, and we become even more invested in the continuing characters in the series.  The twists of the plot occur almost naturally, if (in at least one case) in wholly unexpected ways.  And the denouements—there are two, really—flow almost seamlessly from the story.  I don’t know how well this series is doing commercially, but I guarantee that it is doing very well artistically.  I strongly recommend these books.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

L. C. Tyler, A Masterpiece of Corruption

L. C. Tyler, A Masterpiece of Corruption
Constable © 2015 L.C. Tyler
ISBN 978-1-4721-1496-9

Following nearly a decade of civil war, Charles I has been defeated (and executed), Charles Stuart (also known as Charles II) has fled to Belgium, and Oliver Cromwell has become Lord Protector.  And John Grey (whom we first met in A Cruel Necessity) has become a law student, in London, in the winter of 1657.  His father, a Royalist, has also fled to Belgium, and his mother has “remarried.”  John’s life is about to become almost unbearably complicated.

A letter arrives at the house in which he is lodging, which reads

Mr. S. K. presents his compliments to one newly arrived and begs your presence at his chambers at Gray’s Inn.  He wishes to be better acquainted with you.  Have no fears—he is an honorable man and wishes you no hurt.  Tonight at seven o’clock would be agreeable.  Ask the porter for directions.  The one-eyed porter, not the other one.

When he gets to Grey’s Inn (where a number or lawyers have places of business), he is directed to the chambers of one Sir Richard Willys (of whom he has never heard), where he finds two men.  After some confusion (they were clearly expecting someone else), they accept him, and he lets them know that he knows who S. K. is—and that they are Royalists working for the re-establishment of the monarchy.  They think he is a co-conspirator, come to England to assassinate Cromwell.  Grey can hardly just try to walk away.  First he thinks his father is somehow involved.  And, somewhat more urgently, if he does try to walk away, they’re more likely to kill him than wish him a pleasant evening.

And with that Grey becomes involved with Royalist plots.  And, in short order, with Republican counter-plots, as he is almost immediately coerced into working for Cromwell’s spy service, to uncover the plot and report on it.

Tyler handles the period quite well, both in terms of the intrigue and the politics (for reference, here’s a handy timeline of Cromwell’s life:, but also for the mundane facts of travel and accommodations in the late 17th century.  Grey is an engaging narrator, and the supporting cast—Cromwell, Charles Stuart and his advisors in Belgium, an assortment of conspirators on either (or both) sides, and Grey’s acquaintances—add depth to the narrative. 

Given the timeline, it should be no surprise that by the end of this episode in Grey’s life, Cromwell has died (in September 1658), and old allegiances are once again re-worked.  But the twists and turns that bring us to that point make a rather remarkable story.   Particularly for those with an interest in this period of English history, this will be an enjoyable few hours.  And also for those who just enjoy a good mystery.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Mark Pryor, The Crypt Thief

Mark Pryor, The Crypt Thief
Seventh Street Books © 2013 Mark Pryor
ISBN 978-1-61614-785-5

As a general rule, I’m not a fan of nutcase serial killer books; on the other hand, I have truly enjoyed the Hugo Marston series by Mark Pryor (of which this is the third I have read).  So which of these attitudes won out?

Well, Pryor clearly loves Paris and he does an excellent job of making you feel you are in Paris.  (I have included a photo of one of the riverboats on the Seine,; such a houseboat plays a role in the story.  The continuing characters, starting with Marston, are well-conceived and people I, for one, want to spend time with. 

In this entry in the series, two young tourists are found murdered ((one of the dead is the son of a US Senator who was about to start a job in the US Embassy, where Marston is head of security near Jim Morrison’s tomb in the Pere Lachaise cemetery), and there are indications that the killer was in the cemetery for a purpose that he was unable to complete.  So the police, with Marston’s cooperation and assistance arrange in-depth surveillance of the cemetery, and, as it turns out, he returns.  And somehow escapes.  (The intelligent reader is likely to get to the how of the escape pretty quickly.)

The situation is exacerbated by the Senator’s insistence that the perpetrator is a Muslim terrorist, so the effort to catch the murderer is potentially being disrupted by a search for the terrorist.  Marston hasn’t bought the terrorist angle, so he continues to pursue the crazed serial path while his friend and ex-CIA agent (still doing some jobs for them) Tom Green is involved in the search for the terrorist.

The book is quite readable (I read it in about 6 hours of one day), and the narrative is compelling.  The risks to everyone involved are clear, and Pryor does an excellent job of making us aware (often uncomfortably) or our surroundings.  So I am, in a way, glad to have read it.  But the crazed serial killer aspect (and, believe me, this killer is crazed) made it a difficult read for me.  There are at least 4 more books in the series, and I sincerely hope that we do not run into another nutcase serial killer.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Steve Hockensmith (with Lisa Falco), Give the Devil His Due

Steve Hockensmith (with Lisa Falco), Give the Devil His Due
Midnight Ink; First Edition, © 2017
ISBN-13: 978-0738742243

In the first book in this series (The White Magic Five and Dime, 2015), Alanis McLachlan has moved to Berdache, Arizona upon inheriting her mother’s new age store, The White Magic Five and Dime.  (Along with the shop, she inherits her half-sister Clarice.)  Unfortunately, her mother was a con artist, and Alanis was—before she broke away—an apprentice con artist.  Her mother has been murdered, and now the store (along with a fair amount of undeclared cash) is hers.  She decides to take on the store and try to make amends for the years of deception.  And in the process learns enough about Tarot to help keep the store afloat without fleecing the customers.

Berdache is, according to Alanis, a “Sedona light,” new-agey, but not thriving.  And in the first book, and in the second (Fool Me Once), Alanis has to think fast and work hard to solve some mysteries.

And, in Give the Devil His Due, the devil—her mother’s partner in con, Biddle (no first name that I can remember) shows up; Alanis had thought him long since dead.  (I’m pretty sure “Biddle” is the Devil referred to in the title.)  Things rapidly get weird.  An older man enters the store and asks to use the john…and disappears.  Another man, whom Alanis immediately pegs as some king of cop wanders into the store.  So she uses a ruse to get Clarice (and her girlfriend CeeCee) out of the store so she can give the guy a Tarot reading.

The weirdness expands to involve a German billionaire, a reporter, a couple of older former mob guys, a senior-citizen female professional killer, a local crook (GW) who would like to get closer to Alanis, and a stolen (in 1991) Van Gogh.

Large chunks of the plot are fairly far-fetched, but the characters are intriguing, the dialogue is smart, and the story moves quite quickly along.  And the resolution, if somewhat far-fetched, is handled very well.

I do have one reservation about the plot hook here—the stolen Van Gogh—a reservation I have in a lot of mysteries in which a valuable and important painting is at the core of the plot.  The people involves, both the bad guys and the good guys, too often seem to treat the multi-million work of art in ways that seem highly likely to cause serious damage to it.  And, in my opinion, it happens here.  (Also, the value of the painting is given as $2.5 million, which might have been plausible several decades ago, but now?  Eh, not so much.)

It’s not clear whether Biddle will return in the next outing (but we can hope).  I enjoyed the book quite a lot, reading it in one big gulp (of about 4 hours).  And I hope the series continues.

Friday, November 10, 2017

And now, a movie review: Murder on the Orient Express

We (finally) got to the theater to see Murder on the Orient Express today (we've both seen the 1974 Albert Finney version and the more recent David Suchet version, and we've both read the book). Since I first read the book--a long time ago--I've been somewhat prejudiced against it, because I think the ending is something of a cheat. But it has worked well as a movie.

Both the 1974 version and the 2017 one have things in common--chiefly that they are both "star" vehicles, especially in the non-lead roles. The 1974 version, for example, has these folks in it:
Albert Finney
Lauren Bacall
Ingrid Bergman (who, for me, was reason enough to see it)
Jacqueline Bisset
Sean Connery
John Gielgud
Wendy Hiller
Anthony Perkins
Vanessa Redgrave
Rachel Roberts

If anything, that's more star power than the remake (but not by much):
Kenneth Bramagh
Daisy Ridley
Penelope Cruz
Johnny Depp
Derek Jacobi
Michelle Pfeiffer
Judi Dench
Willem Dafoe

And, in fact, one of my problems with both feature film productions is that most of those stars are mostly wasted.

As it happens, we both mostly enjoyed the current version (although the sound, in the theater in which we saw it, was muddy), at least while we were watching it. But, as I have thought about it afterwards, it was not a particularly well-made movie. Much of the "location" footage was at best adequate (and the opening scenes were pretty much unnecessary). The use of camera movement once we got on the train was distracting (and did not add anything). And the set décor and lighting were at best adequate.

But, again, for me, the waste of talent was appalling. Johnny Depp, as Edward Ratchett, seemed bored. He had a right to be--he didn't have much to do. Judy Dench had, I think, about 8 words of dialogue, and, while she sat nicely in her train seat, that's about all she did. Willem Dafoe didn't have much to do, either. I thought Daisy Ridley was about as engaging as anyone, and that Michelle Pfeiffer was excellent. Bramagh (I know a lot of people didn't like his 'stache, but it didn't bother me all that much) just seemed wrong as Poirot--not dedicated enough to the use of the little grey cells (and what was the deal with the picture he was carrying with him), and seeming to jump from suspect to suspect almost at random. Maybe he was too concerned with directing the thing than with his performance.

Fortunately, we get the senior citizen discount and we both had a really nice lunch before the movie. I think we'll watch the David Suchet version again, just to see how it holds up

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Elizabeth Edmondson, A Question of Inheritance

Elizabeth Edmondson, A Question of Inheritance
Thomas & Mercer © 2015
ISBN-13: 978-1503947856
Also available as an ebook

The second in the series featuring Hugo Hawkesworth, who is still working for British Intelligence despite a severe leg injury.  We first encountered him in A Man of Some Repute, in which Hawkesworth unravels a 7-year-old mystery.  A consequence of that discovery is that an unexpected claimant to the Earldom of Selchester has been discovered—a 40-ish American  history professor, Augustine (Gus) Fitzwarin, and he and his two daughters (Babs and Polly) have arrived shortly before Christmas in 1953.  The old Earl’s daughter Sonya is very disturbed by this, as she had expected to inherit the property (if not the title) and had expected to sell it for at the very least a small fortune.

As a part of that, she has plans to sell a stash of paintings, the provenance of which is doubtful in the extreme, and she has brought Oliver Seynton, a somewhat ethically flexible art expert from a somewhat ethically flexible auction house, to Selchester Castle to examine a cache of paintings she has hidden in the castle.  She hopes to make up a part of what she had expected to be her inheritance by selling them quietly.

And a severe snowstorm strikes England, disrupting rail and road traffic, so, at least for a day or so, no one is going anywhere—except to the village.  And, of course, murder ensues.

Hawkesworth’s connection with the intelligence community and his wartime experience give him son insight and some standing as the local police begin their investigation.  And the past is very much a part of the present events.

The characters are well-conceived and (at least as far as I’m concerned) seem to be “real” people, not just characters slotted into their roles in a story.  The pace is leisurely, and we spend at least as much time and attention on the people as we do on the murder, which, in this case at least, works well enough.  I was not particularly thrilled by the first book in the series, but this one is a significant advance.  I’m now looking forward to the third (A Matter of Loyalty).

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

E.J Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Absentee Father

E.J Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Absentee Father
Midnight Ink © 2017 E.J Copperman and Jeff Cohen
ISBN 978-0-7387-5079-8

The fourth in the series featuring Samuel Hoenig and Janet Washburn, and the series continues to grow in complexity.  Samuel is the proprietor of a business called Questions Answered—you have a question (within some limit), he will find the answer—for a fee.  In this installment, the question comes from an unexpected source—Samuel’s mother.  She has received an upsetting letter, which has led her to ask Samuel to find the answer to this question:  
Where is your father living now?

His father left 27 years ago, and Samuel has only limited memories of him; his mother has rarely spoken of him.  He really does not want to find the answer to this question. But, how can he refuse?
He (and Janet, to whom Samuel refers to as Ms. Washburn) fairly quickly trace his father, Reuben, to California and to an apparent alias.  And to a rather strange business.  But to make additional progress, it appears that Samuel and Janet will have to travel to L.A., and the prospect of this is truly upsetting to Samuel.
Things become even stranger in L.A., as they encounter a man names—or using—the alias Samuel and Janet had uncovered.  And they are given a package containing about $40,000 in $50s, with almost no questions asked.  Something is very wrong, but what, exactly?
One of the pleasures of the book is seeing the continued development of the relationship between Samuel and Janet.  And the expanded role of a minor character in earlier books works very nicely as well.  
For me, the denouement was really quite moving, partly because Samuel was able to answer his mother’s question, but mostly for a consequence of his being able to answer the question.  And, as a whole, the growth of Samuel—his willingness to take risks, his ability to deal with situations (including driving in L.A.)—make this, for me, an extremely satisfying and fulfilling book.  I’m already looking forward to the next chapter in Samuel’s story.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Mary Challis (Sara Woods), Crimes Past

Mary Challis (Sara Woods), Crimes Past
Raven House (paperback) reprint, 1982.
Available from used book sellers.

14 years before, Derek Locke and Eddie Guard conspired to embezzle a fair amount of money from the bank a were employed.  Guard, on his vacation, began so set up the Swiss account into which they would move the proceeds; Locke, whose vacation followed Guard's, met him on the intervening weekend to finish that up.  Before Derek could return to England Eddie was arrested (the theft had been discovered), and Derek took off for parts unknown. 

Flash forward.  Derek's (14-yearyounger) brother Jeremy is now a solicitor...and Derek has returned to England, planning to meet up with Eddie and get his share of the loot.  And Eddie gets himself murdered; Derek, of course, is the chief suspect--but Derek also says Eddie has told him that a third man as involved..  Jeremy, for reasons that aren't all that clear to me, tries to help him--by finding an alternative suspect and getting Derek out of the country again. 

It's not a bad setup, but there are problems (or omissions).  First, the embezzlement scheme is not really explained very well.  And, more important, there are only two real candidates for party #3.  The story moves well and does nothing to make me revise my opinion of Woods as a writer.  But it's hardly much more than a little above average for a mystery novel.

Friday, September 8, 2017

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies
Viking Press © 2017 David Cornwell
ISBN 978-0-7352-2511-4
Also available as an ebook.

What follows is a truthful account, as best as I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation, codenamed Windfall, that was mounted against the East German Intelligence Service (STASI) in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, and resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with, and of the innocent women for whom he gave his life.

The is the opening paragraph, and it draws us—it drew me—into a (fictional) past, but one that has always carried with it the aura of truth.  That past is the story told, in 1963, in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, of Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold.  Leamas, because he was chosen (and accepted) the task of acting as a traitor to England, of gaining the confidence of STASI, of casting guilt on a STASI officer, in pursuit of the goal of maintaining a double agent and the information flow that agent provides.  Gold, because she fell in love with Leamas (and he with her).

Now, decades later, in a very different world, all of that comes back to life, in the form of lawsuits filed by children of some of the people directly involved.  And a British government that would like to make it all go away…or at least not become public.

One of the few survivors who were participants in those events, Peter Guillam, who was in his early thirties then and is much older now (depending on when this book is actually set, somewhere between his late seventies and mid-to-late eighties), is required, under the terms of his retirement, to return to London, to be interrogated about those events.  In the course of his interrogation, he reads (or re-reads) the reports generated during the events of that distant past.  He recalls those events, sometimes in ways that differ from the reports.  And he answers questions. 

In what is, I think, a first for Le Carre, this book is written in the first person—Guillam narrates this part of the story, from his point of view, in the present.  So we are, to the extent he allows us, privy to his thoughts, to his efforts to corroborate or modify (or conceal) the history contained in those ancient reports.  And, of course, one issue is whether his memories of the past, and his understanding of who did what, and why, are shaped by his past and his distance from it now.  And throughout we have to deal with one figure—Control, whose name we never learn—who headed this branch of the British intelligence services (called, informally, the Circus) and another figure—George Smiley, then head of Covert Operations—whose decisions and actions shaped, to some degree, the events in that distant past.

Control is long dead; Smiley is long retired, but still, apparently, alive (making him easily into his nineties).  Of the others, well, at least mostly dead.

Guillam has to navigate his interrogation, which means remembering things he’d rather not, and dealing with loyalties (and betrayals) he’d also rather not.  And he has to remember, and deal with his own part.  And that is neither easy nor without its own evasions.

This is, let me say, a magnificent book.  While it may be useful to have read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, you can get along nicely without.  It raises, and carefully does not resolve, a number of difficult moral issues.  Were the actions taken in the past were, then or now, justifiable?  Well, it depends.  Is the current investigation designed to get at “the truth,” or to make it easier to blame anything that looks difficult on those long dead or long out of power?  I think we’re given a number of hints there.  But remember, our narrator was involved, and his take on the current investigation may well be biased.  Is biased.  How can we be sure of, recall, describe, the motivations that led to people’s decisions and actions 50 years ago? 

How can we be sure, I think Le Carre is asking,of our own motives (or our efforts to deceive ourselves and others), of the morality or necessity or utility of our decisions, decisions that might maintain whatever tenuous peace now exists or might lead to needless deaths, and war—now?

Monday, September 4, 2017

M.J. Lee, Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary

M.J. Lee, Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary
Endeavor Press Ltd. © M.J. Lee 2016
ISBN 978-1-5329-3461-2

Samuel Pepys was of course, a real historical figure and is famous to this day for keeping a diary.  (A good overview of his life, and of his diaries can be found here:  What M.J. Lee has done is to set a story—I wouldn’t exactly say it’s a mystery—that involves both the diaries and Pepys role as a naval administrator during the Restoration period.

Here’s the situation:  A thief (Jack Turner) has been hired to steal the current volume of Pepys’ diary—a diary that Pepys believed no one actually knows about and, as he writes in in a private code, that he also believes that no one could decode in any event.  While he’s in the house, Turner also steals a piece of jewelry that Pepys’ wife Elizabeth prizes.  So Pepys has two things to recover:  His diary, which had to be the primary object of the thief, and which could cause Pepys a good deal of embarrassment (he has written some things in it that, should the King learn of them, will cause no end of trouble), and his wife’s locket.  He enlists the assistance of his friend, also an Admiralty employee, Will Hewer in this quest.

The first step, of course, is to identify and find the thief.  This proves to be a relatively easy task; they trace the locket to the shop of a notorious receiver of stolen property who is perfectly willing to disclose the thief’s name and abode (for a price).  Unfortunately, the thief has been murdered, and, while the locket is recovered (and then lost again), the diary is not.

And Pepys has a task assigned to him as a part of his job—visit the Admiralty works in Chatham, discover how things are going there, and prepare a report for the King, during the next four days.  (And things there are known not to be going well.)

When Pepys and Hewer attend a performance of a new play by John Dryden, the epilogue, recited by Nell Gwynn (one of the King’s mistresses) seems to be aimed at Pepys; she looks directly at him as she says:

For the writer’s pen is his phallus,
The blue ink his seed.
And though he’s impotent,
He’s prolific indeed.
He scribes each night,
A daily nocturnal rite,
His words will be his death,
Strung by the neck till out of breath.

So…Who has the diary?  Who is offering vague threats?  Does someone want to encourage him to report the truth from Chatham, or cover things up?  How can he get his wife’s locket back. Get his diary back, and avoid the Tower?

While the book begins somewhat slowly, the sense we get of late 17th-century London is pretty remarkable (as is the amount people eat and drink).  The history of Restoration-period England is not really something I know much about, Lee seems to know what he’s writing about.  The shadow of Cromwell hangs over things, and the religious divisions (and violence) simmer just below the surface.  I had to look up a number of things, just to make sure I knew what was going on…For one, I’d never heard of the Act of Indulgence (, proclaimed by James II and guaranteeing (within limits, freedom of worship (but not for Catholics).  And then there was the Fifth Monarchy (, an “extreme Puritan sect” which anticipated the imminent second coming of Christ. 

Actual historic personages (Dryden, Nell Gwyn, Aphra Benn (who plays a very prominent role in the second half of the book), Sir William Coventry, Sir Joseph Williamson, the Duke of Buckingham, Charles II, and others).  play significant roles, and I felt it necessary to check up on them as well:
Dryden (Lee does not depict him favorably):
Charles II:

(I should add that it’s perfectly possible to read and enjoy the book without the history lessons.)

The last third of the book, in particular, proceeds at a very brisk pace, and we end with Pepys presenting his report to the King, and its repercussions.  Based on this outing, I hope to be able to read a second adventure of Messers Pepys and Hewer soon.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Eliot Paul, Waylaid in Boston: A Homer Evans Mystery

Eliot Paul, Waylaid in Boston: A Homer Evans Mystery
Coachwhip Publications, 2016 (reprint of 1953 original)
ISBN 978-1616463427

Homer Evans and Finke Maguire (Finke is a PI in LA, Evans is…well, it's not clear quite what he is) are in Boston on a more-or-less vacation.  One evening, over drinks, one of their group of friends, acquaintances, and hangers-on proposes a bet:  That an ordinary citizen could not undertake to follow someone and attempt to discover things about him, without making a hash of it.  Obviously, the bet is accepted, and what ensues can justifiably be called a catastrophe.  The book does have, however, a rather neat money-laundering scheme applicable (in this case, to Argentina) for people trying to get money out of a country with stringent currency controls.  Paul wrote a lot, and, if this is typical, it's perhaps unsurprising that he is  not well-remembered.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Ellery Queen, Ten Days' Wonder

“Ellery Queen,” Ten Days’ Wonder
Mysterious Press/Open Road Integrated Media, 2013
© 1948 Little, Brown and Co.  Renewed, 1976, Ellery Queen
ISBN 978-1-4532-8967-9

A man awakens in a room he has never, to his current knowledge, seen before.  As he investigates, he discovers he is in a flophouse, broke, and has evidently been in some sort of altercation.  He finally realizes who he is—Howard Van Horn.  He gets to New York, and his friend from his days as a student sculptor in Paris, Ellery Queen.  He asks Queen’s help if discovering what, if anything, he has done, and it emerges that he has been subject to similar blackouts, of varying duration, and with no apparent common cause, for years.  He persuades Ellery to come home with him and try to unravel this mystery.  Home is a rich father’s opulent estate in Wrightsville, the setting of two earlier Queen mysteries.

And Ellery goes to Wrightsville, for the third time, with the excuse that he needs a retreat to complete his current mystery novel (which, as it happens, he does need to do).  He meets Howard’s family—his father, Diedrich Van Horn; his uncle, Wolfert; and his step-mother, Sally (who is, as it happens, younger than Howard).

Things get quite confusing, Ellery’s investigation is not making much progress, when blackmail intervenes.  The blackmail leads to two thefts, and, eventually, to murder.

Now none of this is really much of a surprise, and it’s certainly no surprise that Ellery, in a scene with all the principals, and the police, unravels the entire chain of events with his usual remorselessly logical analysis of the evens.

Everyone—except the murderer—is relieved, and, if the blackmailer is not clearly identified, at least there is a resolution.

Except…more than a year later, a new bit of information emerges, and Ellery realizes that he got it all wrong.  So we’re back to Wrightsville for a second bite at the apple.

What I found myself thinking, at the end, is that this is an almost perfect meta-analysis of all the Ellery Queen mystery.  The obscurity of the events and the evidence, the logical interpretation of it all, and the solution.  But here, we’re shown just how shallow Ellery’s conclusions can be.  Based on the evidence he has, and some assumptions he makes, he reaches a conclusion.  Here’ we’re shown that the same evidence, with a (slightly) different set of assumptions, a (slightly) different analysis can lead to a very different conclusion.

And in doing this, we should bring the entire Ellery Queen series of mysteries to an end.  Because we have just been shown how contingent all of the solutions have been.  The previous 17 Ellery Queen cases have, in effect, been shown to have been constructed on…nothing.  The famous “Queen Method” is as fallible, as liable to false conclusions, as any other method.

And, in its own way, this is a magnificent book, a work of great honesty and, if you will, integrity by its authors.  They show us the mechanism, they let us see  how fragile it is, how illusory their conclusions are.  Here, then, the series should end. 

But, of course, it doesn’t.  Another 16 book length cases follow, as well as a number of short stories.  I think that, had I been coming at this series as it was written, Ten Days’ Wonder would have been the last book I would have been able to read.  I would be conscious, as I would not have been before, of the (logical) error that lies at the heart of the Queen method and the Queen stories.  One small change in one’s assumptions, and the edifice crashes.