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.