Monday, January 23, 2017

Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzni, The Bughouse Affair

Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzni, The Bughouse Affair:  A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery
A Forge Book/Tom Dohrety Associates LLC © 2012
eISBN: 9781429997218

The first of 5 (so far) C&Q mysteries does an excellent job of taking us back to San Francisco in the 1890s (if there’s one problem, it’s what seems to me to be that Sabina Carpenter is too easily accepted by clients as an equal in the business).  John Quincannon is a former Secret Service agent and Sabina Carpenter is a former Pinkerton; both have suffered tragic losses.  Qunincannon asked Carpenter to join him in a private detective business in SF, and she agrees if and only if it was an equal partnership, to which he agreed.

They begin with separate cases—Carpenter is trying to identify and stop a pickpocket working an amusement park and Qunicanon has been hired to investigate a series of thefts from homes (of relatively well-to-do SF residents), all insured by the Great Western Insurance Company.  What appears as a sidelight is the appearance of a man in Ambrose Bierce’s column in the SF Examiner who claims to be Sherlock Holmes.

They begin their separate investigations, and, while Carpenter makes some progress, Quincannon does not.  His meeting with the insurance people lead him to believe that the thief has probably obtained information from someone at the insurance company (which, of course, has lists of the valuable insured), and he picks one of their other policy-holders as the next likely tasget.  And, although the thief does try to burgle the home he has staked out, Quincannon’s pursuit of him is interrupted by…”Sherlock Holmes,” who stops him as he is running through the yard of a home in which Quincannon is running.

The twin investigations proceed relatively smoothly, except that “Holmes” intrudes himself even more into the events.  And in a huge surprise the investigations begin to merge.  On the second stakeout (Quincannon and “Holmes”), the householder is murdered, in a locked room, so we have that to deal with.

In a scene worthy of a Golden Age author, everyone meets in the insurance company offices and Holmes offers up his solution (to a point), then Quincannon takes over (to a point) and Carpenter finishes off the tale.  It is all nicely done, and the succeeding books seem likely to be agreeable as well.

I’ll admit that I did find the “Holmes” something of an intrusion (which may be a failing on my part), and there is one plot point—from whom did the burglar get his information—that is just dropped.  But we have two pros here, and they do a professional, if not sensational, job.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sunday, January 15, 2017

10 Albums that influenced me as a teenager

Chris Coffin (my nephew) posted this challenge on FB, and I responded there.  Thought I'd post it here as well.  No explanations, and the order is not necessarily order of importance:

1) Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin'
2) Dave Brubeck Quartet, Reunion...

3) Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
4) Janis Ian, Janis Ian
5) Blues Project, Live At Town Hall
6) Beatles, Rubber Soul
7) Who, My Generation
8) John Coltrane, Impressions
9) Kingston Trio, Live At the Hungry i
10) Judy Collins, Wildflowers

Friday, January 13, 2017

John Gardner, The Liquidator

John Gardner, The Liquidator
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform © 1964; reprinted 2014
ISBN-10: 1523297522
ISBN-13: 978-1523297528

Meet Brian Ian (Boysie) Oakes, the assassin for a very secret British intelligence organization.  He has 25 kills to his credit, and not a hint that any of them was even a murder, let alone a murder committed by a government agency.  While on a weekend getaway with the lovely Iris (who works for the same agency), Oakes is pulled into his highest-stakes job yet—the faux assassination of a member of the British royalty, set up as a test of the security systems.  Maybe.
It’s a good life, though, with a very nice flat, a flashy car, and a very good (by British standards in the early 1960s) salary of ₤4,000—pushing $12,000 at a time when the median pay for white-collar worker in the US was around $6,000.  And with only 4 or 5 assignments (apparently) a year, Oakes has a lot of time to hang around museums and bars and pick up girls. 

Oakes is not, of course, all that he seems (among other things, he has a paralyzing fear of flying), and he is also not the brightest star in the firmament.  His boss, Mostyn, either doesn’t realize this, or affects not to realize it.  And the assignment Oakes thinks he’s about to carry out is not all that it seems either.

The (ironic) nods to James Bond are well-handled, and the plot moves right along.  Unfortunately, Oakes’s assignment seems a bit transparently not what it seems, and that lessens the tension somewhat—we know there’s a twist coming.  The twist is nicely handled, and Oakes, against all odds, comes out of the whole thing with his reputation enhanced instead of trashed.  (The first in an 8-book series.)  Well worth taking a look at the rest of the series (which I will be doing.)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

George Weir, Last Call: A Bill Travis Mystery

George Weir, Last Call: A Bill Travis Mystery
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (October 29, 2012)
ISBN-13: 978-1467917100

Bill Travis is an “investment advisor”—he helps people with too much cash or too little cash (but with sufficient resources) deal with their problems. Julie Simmons’ problem is a little different—she has $300, no other resources.  But she does know where $2 million, in cash. Has been hidden.  The cash belongs to Archie Carpin, the remaining member of a family of Texas bootleggers (among other shady activities, dating back to the 1920s.  Travis’s hormones, rather than his better judgment, take over, and he agrees to help her (a) recover the money and (b) avoid the consequences which means (c) somehow neutralizing Carpin and his minions. 

This is the sort of book I can’t read a steady diet of.  The violence level is too high for me, and the ability of our protagonist to avoid the legal consequences of his actions requires me to suspend a bit too much disbelief.  (I have similar issues with, for example, Robert Parker’s Spenser books, with Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole/Joe Pike books, with Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar/Win Horne books, with John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee books, and more.)  So I read them sparingly.

Weir never quite makes clear how Travis deals with his (normal) clients’ issues, but I at least presume that some of what he does nears the line between aggressive asset management and, ah, fraud.   And we don’t, in the end, find out how the $2 million is disposed of.  We do, on the other hand, get a fairly fast-paced trip which takes us from Austin to rural northern Texas, with help from Travis’s friend Hank and Hank’s friend Duke, with Hank’s dog Dingo also making an important contribution.  We also meet Ms. Coleeta and her son Lawrence (a barbecue legend), and Keesha, the young girl whose drug-addicted mother does not make it to the finish line.  In fact, by the end, there’s enough pain to make everyone think twice about getting out of bed the next morning.

But Travis—our narrator as well as our protagonist—is a good guide through the events, and Weir makes Texas, present and past come alive.  I will read more of the books in the series, because this one is, of its type, excellent.  But not just yet.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Not a book, not music. STAR WARS: ROGUE 1

Star Wars:  Rogue 1

I finally made it to the new Star Wars movie, Rogue 1, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The female and male leads (Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso and Diego Luna as Andor) were well cast and worked well together.  The blind Jedi (or proto Jedi), Chirrut Imwe, played brilliantly by Donnie Yen, was actually my favorite character in the movie, and his companion/protector Caze Malbus (played by Wen Jiang) was also excellent.  Riz Ahmed does a nice job as a space pilot Bodhi Rook.   (The rest of the cast was serviceable.  Ben Mendelsohn, playing the head honcho of the Death Star project, failed to exude much menace, and Forest Whitaker was wasted as a rebel leader.

As for the story.  It does a good job of filling in the back story to A New Hope, but I thought that the movie was about 30 minutes of plot and 90 minutes of blowing things up.  The blowing-things-up part was, as usual handled, splendidly.  The slight nod to On the Beach at the end was a nice touch.  And what is the story?  An Empire scientist (Galen Erso, Jyn’s father) has dropped out, becoming a farmer on a distant planet, with a wife and a young child.  But the Death Star project has stalled, and Orson Krennic, who’s in charge of the project, turns up with a squadron to Stormtroopers to force him back to work.  Having made plan for this eventuality, Galen and his wife (Lyra) send Jyn into hiding; 15 years later, as the Death Star is nearing completion, she reappears.  From there, the question is how to find a way to stop the Death Star, after a demonstration of its force against the “holy city” of Jeddah.  So the framework is good, but, as I mentioned above, it’s really a 30-minute story.

Now I am very fond of the Star Wars saga, but there continues to be one big thing that bugs the hell out of me.  Here we have a galactic civilization capable of accelerating spaceships the size of the Sears Tower to faster-than-light speeds (which would require more energy that our planet consumes in a decade), of producing huge fleets of faster-than-light spacecraft in a variety of sizes, and with weapons that fire energy blasts, not projectiles, and apparently never need to be reloaded.  So not technologically backward.  But look at the rest of that civilization.  Its cities consist of what look like wattle-and-daub buildings (except for the monumental buildings), with narrow, unpaved streets, and bars (which often appear to be the only businesses) that apparently do not have anything like electric light.  And it’s not just the Empire that has the ships and the weapons—so do the rebels.  I know that the point of the movies is not a lesson in the economics of that place long ago and far away, but it always strikes me as odd.  [And, by the way, we never did learn (did we?) what Luke’s Uncle Owen was producing there on Tatooine, or who he was selling to, or what Galen Erso is growing on his farm, or who his customers are.  It may be that the ancillary fiction fills in those gaps, but I have never cared enough to try to find out. 

That last paragraph, as long as it was, is a side issue.  Rogue 1 is a very good continuation of the saga, and worth your time if you were as taken with the first three Star Wars movies as I was.