Friday, March 31, 2017

Bill Crider, Piano Man (A Short Story)

Bill Crider, Piano Man
Brash Books © 2014 by Bill Crider
ISBN:  3-978-1941-2982-99

Our narrator is a piano player in the Bad Dog Saloon in a settlement (it might be too much to call it a town) near Fort Laramie.  The story of how he became a piano player, and wound up in the Bad Dog is quickly and well told.  And things become both interesting, and potentially disastrous, when “a man named Morgan” got involved in a poker game with the owner of the saloon—and put his 15-year-old daughter up as his stake on a hand.  He lost, of course.

The remainder of the story involves the Piano Man’s reactions to this event, and Morgan’s efforts to reclaim his daughter.  And the longer this takes, the more violent things get.

This was, for me, something different by Crider; I have basically not read his westerns, having instead been a devoted reader of his PI books (Truman Smith and others), his college mysteries (the Carl Burns and Sally Good books), and his long-running series featuring Sheriff Dan Rhodes.  Crider writes very well, and if the conclusion holds less in the way of surprise that it might, this is a good, solid, and disturbing read.  Worth the time (and money) to seek out.

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Body Snatcher Affair

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Body Snatcher Affair
A Tom Doherty & Associated Book/Forge © 2014The Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
eISBN: 987-1-4299-9723-2

The third book featuring Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon finds Quincannon in Chinatown to find, and return to his home, James Scarlett, an attorney who has been doing a lot of work for one of the tongs in Chinatown.  Meanwhile Carpenter, who has been spending a fair amount of time with Carson Montgomery (a mining engineer), and who is now wondering where the relationship might be going, has accepted a job from the widow of Ruben Blanchford, who had been a financier in life—his body has been stolen, and the thieves are asking for $75,000 for its return.

Things go awry quite quickly for Quincannon—he finds Scarlett quickly enough (in a Chinatown opium den), but Scarlett is shot (and killed) while Quincannon is taking him home.  The police are concerned that this might trigger a gang war in Chinatown; Quincannon concurs, but suggests restraint.  His concern is who killed Scarlett (and nearly killed him), and why.  To discover that, he needs some time, to search Scarlett’s office and to probe the situation in Chinatown.  And, as he discovers, there is also a body missing in Chinatown.

Carpenter, in her case, finds what appears to  be an impossible theft of Blanchford’s body from the family crypt—nothing has been obviously disturbed, and the crypt was (apparently) continuously locked.  The only anomalous fact is that the preparation of the body for interment was handled by a third-rate mortician.

And in the background, “Sherlock Holmes” (an Englishman who either is Holmes or is using his name and reputation) seems to be investigating Carson Montgomery.

Muller and Pronzini do an excellent job of establishing their characters and bringing San Francisco in the 1890s to life.  Chinatown, in many ways, dominates the book, and the social/economic/political structure of Chinatown and of the rest of the city are perfectly done (at least so it seems to me.  Both Carpenter and Quincannon pursue their investigations professionally and according to their characters as they have been established in the first two books.  And if the reader does not learn everything that either of them learns in the course of their investigations, that’s a minor departure from the ideal of the “fair play” mystery.

All three of the Carpenter/Quincannon books are well worth  your time, and thie might be the best of the three.

As an aside (, the issue of opium use among the Chinese is an important issue in the relationships between the Western countries and China, and between the immigrant and the Anglo population in SF.  It’s important to remember that opium was introduced to China by English and French merchants seeking to find something that they could sell profitably to a large Chinese market that had little use for European goods.  (At the same time, Europe was buying huge quantities of things, from tea to spices to silks, from China.)  The Second Opium War (1856-1860) resulted in China being forced to accept a very punitive peace treaty, and yield considerable control of its internal affairs to France and England.  Two important aspects of the treaty is that trade in opium was made legal, and was under European control, and that British ships had a monopoly on the transportation of Chinese as “indentured” workers (but, in reality, virtually as slaves) to the Americas.  William Gladstone, who served off and on as Prime Minister of England in the late 19th century denounced the opium trade as "a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace".[

Friday, March 10, 2017

A photo of a spy gun

"Antique Pistol Spy Gun Produced in 1800, this antique French pistol spy gun. This intricate, yet impractical 5-shot working revolver was once one of the smallest killing devices ever created."
From these folks, but I can't actually find it on the FB page...

No automatic alt text available.

Robert Goldsborough, Murder, Stage Left

Robert Goldsborough, Murder, Stage Left
The Mysterious Press/Open Road © 2017
eISBN 978-1-5040-4110-2

This is Goldsborough’s 12th excursion into the world of Nero Wolfe; like most of the others, it is a valiant effort, but it fails on at least four counts.

To set the stage…Nero Wolfe is hired by a major producer and director of Broadway plays, Roy Breckenridge, who fears that there is some hidden issue—some simmering problem among the cast—of his most recent hit play (Death At Cresthaven).  Wolfe accepts the job (although it is unclear to me why), and his assistant, Archie Goodwin goes undercover, masquerading as a writer for a Toronto-based theater magazine.  He has brief (and not particularly useful) interviews with all the cast members (it is, fortunately, a small cast) and the stage manager.  (There are apparently no costume or make-up people associated with the play, and any backstage crew or front-of-the-house people are excluded, although why they would be excluded is, again unclear.  These interviews occur before a matinee performance and continue in the interval before the evening performance.  And, during the evening performance, Breckenridge is murdered—arsenic in his Coca Cola.

The bulk of the book is spent on individual interviews with the case and the stage manager, during which one of them says something—or, as Wolfe points out at the end doesn’t say something--that reveals to him whodunit.  (During these interviews, Archie is not actually present—his role as a journalist is being concealed from the cast, and Saul Panzer fills in for him.  Also present is Lewis Hewitt, upper-class orchid fancier, whose intervention induced Wolfe to take the case to begin with.)

So what are the failures?  First, as has generally been the case, Goldsborough does not manage to capture wither the voices of the major characters.  When a new author is carrying on a lengthy series, one which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with, this is an issue.  The primary failure is with Archie.  He is at too flippant for one thing, not only with Wolfe but also with the other series characters, and his role as burr under the saddle to Wolfe’s inherent laziness does not really show up. 

Second, the initial justification for an investigation disappears with Breckenridge’s death.  Granted that the murder probably reduces the importance of that, but I, as a reader, was expecting the solution would somehow circle back to Breckenridge’s concerns.  In Archie’s interviews with the cast and crew, no hint of anything really emerges, and I, at any rate, was left with the feeling that Goldsborough just forgot about it.

Third, in his interviews with the people involved in the play, there is never any sense that Wolfe has made any progress.  If anything, at the end of those interviews, we seem to be further from a solution than closer.  The interviews themselves are not well handled; Wolfe does not ask any particularly penetrating questions, and, in fact, leaves any number of issued unexplored.  (I will note that Goldsborough has fallen into a habit of having Wolfe interview those involved individually, whereas one of the strengths of the original books, by Rex Stout, was Stout’s exceptional construction of scenes involving a large number of participants.

But, finally, the solution seems implausible, and almost forced.  As noted, it depends on what one of the people associated with the play does not say, and the inference that Wolfe draws from that seems altogether forced.  Fortunately, that person immediately confesses (which I thought was out of character, as well). 

For me, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books are among the most satisfying in American PI fiction, largely because of Archie Goodwin’s narrative voice.  I could forgive that, to some extent, if Goldsborough managed his plots better.  (And, I’ll confess, I’ll almost certainly go on reading them, but without much in the way of expectations.)

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Spook Lights Affair

Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, The Spook Lights Affair
Tom Doherty Associates LLC/A Forge Book © 2013
eISBN 978-1-4299-0722-5

(NOTE:  Do not read the concluding paragraph if you don’t want to encounter a minor spoiler.)

Sabina Carpenter has been hired to keep an eye on San Francisco socialite Virginia St. Ives, for the purpose of keeping her from seeing Lucas Whiffing, the son of a middle-class family (and a clerk in a bicycle and sporting goods establishment).  While she is in attendance at a major bash at the home of SF mayor Adolph Sutro, Virginia confronts Carpenter, rushes out of the house into a foggy night, and apparently throws herself off a patio overlooking a 250-foot drop.  Her body, when a search is made, is nowhere to be found.  And she left what clearly read as a suicide note.

Meanwhile, Carpenter’s partner John Quincannon has undertaken to recover $35,000 that has been stolen from Wells Fargo—the reward is 10% of whatever money is recovered.  And $3,500 is, even in SF, at least 2 years’ income in the mid-1890s.  He is following Bob Cantwell, who, he has learned, knows something about the theft.  After an unsatisfactory confrontation, Cantwell escapes; Quincannon follows him, only to discover him dead in an abandoned photographer’s studio.  All he has learned is that a man named Zeke and someone nicknamed The Kid are involved.

Both cases take unexpected turns, with Quincannon and Carpenter discovering some things at the scene of St, Ives’ disappearance that might help explain why her body was not found.  And Quincannon discovers that her brother David, Cantwell, and Whitting were all habitues of the same gambling establishment.  And a new client enters the picture…a financial advisor (Barnaby Meeker) who lives in the same rather disreputable area as does Whitting’s family wants to hire Carpenter and Quincannon to investigate ghostly apparitions that seem to be infesting the area around his (and Whitting’s) home.

Muller and Pronzini are pros, and they have created two likable and interesting characters.  The have also created a authentic-seeming backdrop to the action, and the supporting cast is also well drawn.  (This the second in a series; the first, The Bughouse Affair was also a smooth read.)  Carpenter and Quincannon pursue their investigations as (it seems to me) true professionals would, and, by the end of the book, the resolution is well done as well.  There is one aspect of the resolution, however, that has now been a feature of both of the books I have read so far that I  hope will not be a part of every book.  In both The Bughouse Affair and in this book, what begin as separate cases turn out to be one—in this case, Virginia St. Ives’ disappearance and apparent suicide is directly linked to—caused by the same forces—the Wells Fargo robbery.  It makes for a neat resolution, but a little of this sort of thing goes a long way.  But that’s a quibble, and it may not bother anyone but me.  This is a nicely constructed story, well told by two professionals, and ,more than worth your time.