Saturday, May 27, 2017

How much is that?

One of the things I tend to do is to adjust mentally any prices or incomes in a mystery to the "present-equivalent." And I just read (oddly enough for the first time) Agatha Christie's Death in the Clouds (also published as Death in the Air), which was published in 1938 (and presumably written in 1937). As a part of the story, Poirot discusses making a 500 pound contribution to an expedition being planned by a father-and-son team of archeologists.

So how much is that?

Well,... for starters, that would have been about $2,500 in 1937 at the exchange rate between the dollar and the pound in 1937, or about twice the average income for a male worker employed full-time, full year. So we can adjust that wo ways.

First, according to the CPI, prices are about 17 (16.67) times as high today as in 1937. Su a simple inflation adjustment says that's about $45,000.

Or, we could ask, what's the average annual income for an adult male worker in the US who's employed full-time, full-year now? The answer is about $900 a week, or nearly $47,000. But Poirot was talking about a contribution equal to TWICE the average annual income in 1937, or $94,000.
So either way, Hercule must have had a healthy bank balance to casually consider offering that sore of a contribution. Healthier than mine, for sure.

(Incidentally, he did make the contribution.)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

E.J. Copperman, Edited Out

E.J. Copperman, Edited Out
Crooked Lane © 2017 E.J. Copperman
ISBN 978-1-68331-130-0

In the second outing of the Mysterious Detective series, Rachel Goldman (mid-list author of mystery novels) has found herself stuck on her latest book.  Her series features Duffy Madison, a free-lance consultant to police departments in missing persons cases, and recently (see Written Off) a real, live Duffy Madison has shown up, claiming that he has no recollection of anything before about 5 years earlier (when her series debuted).  Her problem is that the living Duffy seems to be disrupting her thinking about the fictional one.

And when she calls Duffy (to try to clear her mind, he immediately asks to help him try to track something down (in Poughkeepsie) which might yield a clue to who he really is.  Or was.  The something involves the disappearance of one Damien Moseley, who would be about the same age as Duffy, and whom Duffy believes might be who he was before.  Complications immediately ensue.  And whom Duffy believes is dead, based on his discovery of a 5-year-old cold case death investigation.

Duffy uncovers information that leads him to believe that Damien is dead, probably murdered…five years ago.  There is (it happens) a Duffy Madison who was apparently in the same high school graduating class as Damien.  THAT Duffy was apparently a member of the Classics Club, but his picture is not in the yearbook.  And that’s just the beginning.  Rachel, of course, puts aside her writing (which was not going well, although throughout the investigation she continues to try to hammer out her 1,000 words a day) and accompanies Duffy (or is it Damien?) from the wilds of New Jersey to New York. 

Along the way, they discover that Damien had married, had apparently lived (if only briefly with a woman (also in the same high school class who has (also) disappeared) in a condo owned by Damien’s mother. 

The pace of the book accelerates considerably as their investigation proceeds, and the conclusion is neatly handled. 

This is a book that should probably be read only after you read Written Off, although there’s enough background provided that it’s not necessary.  And I think you should read Edited Out.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Loren Estleman, Nearly Nero

Loren Estelman, Nearly Nero:  The Adventures of Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Nero Wolfe
Gallery Books.  © 2017 Loren Estelman

Eight (unless I miscounted) previously published stories about the detection exploits of Claudius Lyon, narrated by his assistant, Arnie Woodbine.  Lyon (who inherited a fortune) has fashioned himself in in the image of Nero Wolfe, including his on private (but non-live-in) chef, Gus.  He grows tomatoes (having a brown thumb), unassisted.  And he completes the household by hiring Arnie Woodbine (sounds a lot like Archie Goodwin is you slur your speech and say it quickly).  (He does not live in Manhattan, but on Avenue J in Brooklyn.)  Lyon takes no pay for his efforts (he’s not licensed, and the bunco squad detective at the local precinct would love to bust him).  In this world, I should note, Nero Wolfe is a real PI, not a fictional character.

Arnie is a con man recently out of prison, and serves as our narrator.  The writing is smooth (I would not have expected anything less of Estelman), but the “cases” are rather thin, and  the solutions (which were all fairly obvious) seemed to less from deduction or from Arnie’s leg work (which was, in any case, largely confined to finding creative ways to supplement his salary) than from coincidence and leaps of intuition.

As an aficionado of the Wolfean world, I found the collection barely worth the time.  A reader who is not already a fan of Nero and Archie and the gang will probably not find this to be a particularly rewarding was to spend a few hours.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Dodge City...and the Great War

Tom Clavin, Dodge City:  Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West
St. Martin’s Press © 2017
ISBN: 978-1-1250-07148-4

Clavin’s simultaneous biography of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson has been fairly widely praised.  I thought it was a generally well-researched but hardly gripping story of the ten year period in which the west went from (mostly) wild to (generally) tame.  Wyatt and Bat are pretty compelling characters on whom to hang the tale, and one of the most compelling parts of their story is how young (Wyatt was 25 and Bat was not yet 20 when the story begins, in 1873) the protagonists were.  Indeed, it’s amazing how young most of the main characters—good (Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren—Wyatt’s brothers; and Jim, Bat’s brother; Doc Holliday) and bad (Billy the Kid, Johnny Ringo, and many others, including the Clancy clan) were.  And the longevity of many of them (Wyatt lived until he was nearly 71; Bat died a month shy of 68; m more than a few of the other people in the tale lived into their 80s and 90s), given the times, is pretty remarkable.

 In my opinion, Clavin has two difficulties he has to overcome.  The first is that there is little real suspense; we know that Wyatt and Bat lived long lives and that their antagonists generally did not.  So every time Clavin relates one of the dangerous incidents in their lives, we know that they are going to get through it basically unharmed.  The second is the difficulty he has in really making clear the personalities and motives of the two men on whom he focuses.  While there has been a lot written about both of them, it seems to me that (at least based on Clavin’s use of his source material) no one really provided a psychological portrait of either man.  (This is, in general, an advantage for fiction—the author has control over the characters’ inner and outer lives.)

One of the lessors that I took away from the book, and one I have to re-learn every time I read a detailed piece of history from before the 20th century, is how mobile at least some portion of the population was, given how difficult travel was.  Just in the 10 period covered in the main part of Clavin’s book, Wyatt (as on example) moves from where he was born (in Illinois), grew up in Iowa, moved to Kansas, and moved around between Dodge and the Dakotas, Texas, and Arizona without really putting down roots anywhere.  After his Dodge City days, he prospected for gold in Alaska, did numerous things in California (where he finally mostly settled down after age 50 or so.  Just as one example of the difficulties of this sort of life:  It’s 900 miles from Dodge to Tombstone.  Google Maps tells me I can drive that in 13 hours.  For Wyatt, on horseback and pushing, that would take at least a month; in a wagon, even longer.  Even by train, it would be at least a week-long trip.  (This book, by the way, would really benefit from having some maps.)

If you aren’t familiar with the lives and times of Wyatt and Bat, Clavin’s book will help you understand the rimes.  I’m less sure that it helps us understand their lives.

John Gardner, The Secret Generations [© 1985]
eBook Publication by Endeavor Press

The Railton family—the main actors in John Gardner’s “Secrets” trilogy—have been insiders in English military and governing structures for generations.  In The Secret Generations, we follow three generations of Railtons from 1910 to 1920 and see how their lives were radically changed by the Great War—and how they contributed to t hose changes as they participate in the war.  Gardner is obviously telling a vast story here, and he has a vast cast of characters with which to do it.  (So vast, in fact, that I felt that the book needed either a list of principal characters, or a genealogy of the Railtons, or both).  In this book, we begin with three generations of the family—beginning with Giles (who must have been born in the 1840s), the middle generation (Charles and Andrew, presumably born in the 1865-1870 period), and the third generation (dating from around 1890, and the fourth generation arrives in stages throughout the book.

Giles is in many ways the focus of the book, and he is an insider (in many ways) in British intelligence.  His actions affect the lives of his family and have the possibility of affecting the Empire.  (“Real” people show up—Churchill, Lloyd George, Roger Casement—if only briefly.)  The plot focuses on German efforts at intelligence-gathering (and sabotage) in England and English efforts to obtain information on German initiatives, largely on the battlefield. 

I found the first half of the book something of a slog, partly because Gardner had to establish the family (so progress on the events that become important in the second half occurs only slowly), but the pace picks up considerably in the second half.  Gardner obviously knows the Great War’s history well, and the limited number of battle scenes evoke it in dramatic fashion.  I thought the extended coda was perhaps a bit more than we needed, but it does at least lead us into the second book in the trilogy---Secret Houses—which I am looking forward to.