Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Robert Lopresti, Shanks on Crime

Robert Lopresti, Shanks on Crime
© Robert Lopresti 2003-2014
eISBN 979-0-9904784-0-9
Print ISBN 978-0-9904784-1-6

A collection of short fiction featuring mystery author Leopold Longshanks, known to his friends and colleagues as Shanks.  Over the years, Shanks has found himself involved, generally peripherally, with a range of crimes ranging from identity theft to murder, in a variety of settings ranging from his own home to a mystery game weekend to a college commencement.  And he discerns the solutions to the crimes as you might expect—through the application of his imagination as a writer and his ability to think logically in following a chain of evidence or, sometimes, conjecture.

There are a few continuing characters—his wife Cora and some of hi writing buddies (and competitors—but they are mostly not directly involved either in the crime or in its solution.  The police in the cases, as you might expect, aren’t necessarily pleased by his participation in their investigations, but they listen with as good a grace as possible. 

As a writer, Lopresti is inventive, and his dialogue (especially between Shanks and Cora) witty and in keeping with the characters as we know them.  It’s hard for me to pick a favorite from this group of stories, but I liked “Shanks at Lunch,” the first story in the collection and (as I understand it) the first one published, quite a lot.  Shanks and Cora meet a reporter who’s interviewing Cora on the occasion of her first published novel, and Shanks’ attention wanders.  Until he sees something unusual happening.

“Shanks Gets Mugged” is a delight, a little story of a mugging and revenge that made me smile (and laugh out loud).  The payoff is perfect.  I also liked mystery-game weekend story, “Shanks Gets Killed,” a lot, perhaps because I’ve always wanted to do one of those and because of the prize on offer to the winner.  “Shanks Commences” reminds me of a number of commencements in which I have participated professionally, although I don’t remember any corpses.

But this is sort of silly.  Looking back at them now, I have to say that all the stories are immensely readable and the Shanks is fine company throughout (as is Cora, for that matter).  What’s even better is that are more Shanks Tales out there…and, if I’m lucky, another collection of them in the near future.

(I have his novel Greenfellas on my-reader and just bought his Greenwich Village folk scene novel—did I mention that Lopresti is also a songwriter?—Such a Killing Crime, so I also have those to look forward to.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin has died at age 88.

She is one (of several) writers who shaped my response to the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. The three books that affected me most are (perhaps unsurprisingly) her three most famous books:

The Left Hand of Darkness
The Disposessed
and, perhaps most stongly, The Lathe of Heaven
TV adaptation:

The Wind's Twelve Quarters (a collection of stories) is also a stunning piece of work.

Her "earthsea" books [beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea
most often sold (and thought of) as juveniles are (in my opinion) works of great depth and humanity.

She lived long, she, in her own way, changed the world. She was, and is, a light in the world.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Richard Harris, Munich

Richard Harris, Munich
Alfred A. Knopf © 2017 Canal K Limited
Ebook ISBN 978-0-5255-2—276
Also available in print editions

This is the third of Harris’s books I’ve read; like the other two (Enigma, about the code-breaking operation in England during WW2; An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair), this one provides a fictional look inside an important historical event.  This one takes place over a brief period of time in September 1938, culminating with a conference in Munich, wherein England and France consented to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.  The events are seen largely through the experiences of two young, fairly junior foreign office officials, Hugh Legat in England and Paul von Hartmann, in Berlin.  They know each other, although they have not met since 1932, when Legat was at Oxford and Hartmann was also in attendance.

The rest of the cast consists mostly of people in positions of authority and power in England and in Germany.  The story is, of course, the events leading up to the Munich conference.  There are, as well, other things going on.  Legat’s marriage is not going well, and Hartmann is involved in a more hopeful than effective plot against Hitler.

While this is not a period of history in which I have immersed myself (Harris’s bibliography runs to more than 2 pages), it’s an episode that we all have at least passing familiarity.  Harris creates—or re-creates—the events of four days ending with “peace in our time,” and I have to say the whole thing is extraordinarily convincing as a reconstruction.  The atmosphere,  both in London and in Berlin and Munich, are brilliantly handled, and the two key players in the drama—Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler—are portrayed in what seems to me to be a pitch-perfect manner.  (The French prime minister, Édouard Daladier, and ambassador to Germany, André François-Poncet, don’t come off very well, and Mussolini seems perhaps more of a buffoon than he actually was).  The secondary characters in this episode are more perfunctorily drawn, but still seem true enough to what I know of their actual character.

Very little, overall, can surprise us, but Harris makes the events vivid and the magnitude of the stakes quite real.  If you have any interest in this period, and would like a look at it that illuminates the personalities involved, I don’t think you’ll find anything that surpasses this.  At least as a work of fiction.

Mark Pryor, The Reluctant Matador

Mark Pryor, The Reluctant Matador
Seventh Street Books © 2015 Mark Pryor
ISBN 978-1-63388-002-3

Hugo Marston, head of security for the U.S. Embassy in Paris finds himself in an unusual situation.  The step-daughter (Amy Dreiss) of Marston’s good friend (and former co-worker Bart Denum has come to Paris to spend a a few months and has arranged to meet Marston for breakfast.  But she does not show up.  And she’s not answering her cell phone and her voicemail box is full.  And his closest friend (and also occasional co-worker) Tom Green seems to have fallen off the wagon.  After bailing Tom out, he heads to Amy’s apartment to see what’s up.  There, he encounters Emily, an acquaintance of Amy’s, who has not seen (or heard from) her for several days, and she’s spooked by Marston’s arrival. 

Emily, who works as a secretary in a modelling agency, tells Marston that Amy has been looking for work as a model, and points him to a club in the Pigalle district where Amy has apparently made an appointment to talk with someone about work.  The club turns out to be a strip club.  Marston and Green check out Amy’s apartment, finding nothing.  Marston calls his assistant, asks him to look up Amy’s passport number, and check to see whether she—or her passport—has been noticed in another country.  Turns out that Amy (or her passport) has cleared immigration in Madrid.  The trail leads Marston (and Green) to Barcelona (he’s taken time off from his job to pursue this).

In Barcelona, things get even more confusing.  In Barcelona, it appears that Amy has at least spoked to people in a tourist/guide business about a job.  Marston and Green take a look there, and, finding no one home, let themselves in for a look around, and trip the security system.  A subsequent escapade sees then arrested.  But they wind up working closely with the police in Barcelona on a murder that leads to a potential human trafficking operation.

Pryor handles the complications of this well, and does what seems to me to be an excellent job with his settings.  The investigation, even if it proceeds fairly slowly for most of the book, also seems to fit with how an actual investigation would play out.  I do think the pacing is a bit slow, and that there are a lot of coincidences that aid and abet Marston and the Barcelona police.  And a lot of banter, particularly between Marston and Green, doesn't much advance the story.  Overall, a nice addition to this series (this is the fifth book).  I’ve enjoyed them all so far (this one is a bit below the first four), and am looking forward to reading #6.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Anthony Horowitz, Moriarty

Anthony Horowitz, Moriarty
Harper Perennial © 2015 Anthony Horowitz
ISBN 978-0-06-237719-7

I found Horowitz’s House of Silk to be one of the better Sherlock Holmes pastiches I have ever read.  In Moriarty, he returns to the period, but with a different focus.  The title suggests that Professor Moriarty will be the focus of the book…but, then, perhaps not.  Early on, Athelny Jones (who did not fare very well in his interactions with Holmes) and our narrator, a Pinkerton agent (Frederick Chase), meet in the Swiss town of Meiringen, where they view the body, found in the waters beneath the Reichenbach Falls, of a man whom Jones identifies as Moriarty.  In a secret pocket of the suit on the corpse, Jones finds a coded message arranging a meeting between Moriarty and a pair of American gangsters.

Chase and Jones agree to explore this situation.  And Jones reveals himself as an ardent exponent of the methods of Sherlock Holmes.

The tale then moves to, and remains in, London.  As Chase and Jones look into the activities of the Americans, things become somewhat bloody.  One entire household is murdered.  A bomb goes off inside Scotland Yard, very near Jones’s office, which he left minutes before.  Our investigators track one of the Americans to the U.S. legation, but their investigation is impeded by the doctrine of extraterritoriality. 

It is a tangled tale, and much of it was entertaining.  It seemed to me early on that Moriarty must still be alive (because of the book’s title, of course), and I narrowed the possibilities to two.  But the book proceeds at a leisurely—perhaps too leisurely—pace.  And, near the end, the narrative is interrupted by a long, expository recapitulation of what we have read.  As a whole, it’s a readable, but not a book that is impossible to put down, entertaining, but not as entertaining as House of Silk.  Horowitz does a good job of concealing where he’s going, and an excellent job of placing us in late Victorian England.  Overall, I’m not sorry to have read it, but, somehow, felt that the promise of the book was slightly unfulfilled.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Last Jedi

I spent part of yesterday at the movies, seeing The Last Jedi, and, overall, I thought it was, well, not very good (I almost said awful). Some of what I’m about to type may constitute spoilers, so stop reading now if that matters to you.
There were some impressive scenes, but so much of it was so predictable (from Finn shifting from a coward trying to run away to being a hero; to the con man who was a con man—and I’d swear I saw that scene in an earlier episode).
The stunning tactical incompetence of... the bad guys (now calling themselves “The First Order”) continues. And Snokes’ malevolence continues to be overdone. (Hasn’t anyone associated with franchise even heard of, let alone read, Machiavelli?)
Leaving aside Hammill’s acting ability, Luke is a whiner—and the scene with Yoda was just embarrassing.
The battle scenes, in addition to highlighting the incompetence of the bad guys, dragged on and on and on. The final confrontation between Luke & Kylo actually played pretty well, and Luke’s final lines were among the best things in the movie.
The casino scene was nearly pointless, although the escape of the “horses” was morally, if not cinematically, satisfying.
I was, I should note, offended by the scenes with the “chicken”-like critters (this movie’s Ewoks, but with no purpose, except to generate sales of stuffed animals).
They may have lost me with this one...but, then, I thought they’d lost me with Episode 2 (the movie that shall go unnamed).

Sara Woods, Bloody Instructions

Sara Woods, Bloody Instructions
Avon (1986 reprint of 1962 original)
© Sara Woods 1962

Having read 10 books in 3 series by Sara Woods (under 3 pseudonyms) last year, I decided to look back on her lenghty series of books featuring an English barrister (Antony Maitland), his uncle (Nicholas Harding, also a barrister), his wife (Jenny), and some other continuing characters.

Antony Maitland made his debut in 1962, in this book, in which we find most of the characteristics of the series already in place.  Maitland, a barrister, is a member of his uncle Nicholas Harding’s chambers.  He is married to Jenny, who is a stay-at-home wife; they are childless.  And they live in separate quarters in Harding’s house.  Harding, at this stage, is unmarried (apparently never married); his household is run by Gibbs (whose first name, I think, we never learn),, an aged butler who disdains Maitland.

As the book opens, Maitland is off to a solicitor’s office to pick up some documents that his uncle needs.  While he is there, the very dead body of Joseph Winter, the senior partner in the firm, is found in his office, a dagger in his neck.  (One thing that does not get mentioned, and which seems to me to be noteworthy, is that for the death to have been as quick as it seems to have been, a major blood vessel must have been involved.  And yet there is no mention of a lot of blood.)  There is, at any event, a narrow window for the murder, from about 4:12 PM (when the head of the clerical staff spoke with Winter) and 4:30, when the body was found.

Winter had a fairly active afternoon, with a steady stream of clients (and one non-client) calling on him.  It’s also noteworthy that his office has access to a second, private and generally unused exit.  For reasons that appear obvious to the police, but not to Maitland, police attention rapidly focuses on the noted actor Joseph Dowling.  Dowling is one of those who called on Winter than afternoon, and is not a client; in fact, his wife, who is a client, is suing for divorce, and Dowling had no good reason to be calling on her lawyer.  (And, just to complicate matters, Dowling’s son Dennis, is completing his apprenticeship as a solicitor in Winter’s offices).

Maitland is a witness for the prosecution in the case, and Harding accepts the challenge of defending Dowling.  This seems problematic to me, but I’m not an expert on what might be deemed a conflict of interest in English courts.  It would, almost certainly, open Maitland to being treated by the prosecution (in the U.S.) as a hostile witness.  Maitland, in addition, visits with the other people who saw Winter that afternoon, as well as other people involved with them, or with Winter. 

The investigation and its complications take up most of the book, with the trial scenes beginning on p. 159 and ending—with Maitland having been instrumental in identifying the murderer—on p. 186.  The whole thing is rather convoluted, and turns on one small bit of documentation which we, as readers, are almost certain to miss.  As a series debut, this is a very strong offering, well-plotted, with interesting characters and settings.  Well worth seeking out, if you like lawyer-focused, character-driven, and generally non-violent mysteries.  Oh, and all the titles are, as I recall, drawn from Shakespeare:

But in these cases
We will have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th’ inventor,  This even-handed justice
Commends th’ ingredience of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.
MACBHETH, Act I, Scene vii

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The re-run of copycat photoblogging.

It's been a while, but this is triggered by Chris Bertram's photograph posted here.

A street somewhere in Rome (I was actually lost when I shot this, in October 2002).

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk

Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk
Mulholland Books/Little, Brown, and Company© 2011 Anthony Horowitz
ISBN 978-0-316-1970-4

While his wife is assisting her former employer (Mrs. Cecil Forester) deal with the severe bout of flu being suffered by Mrs. Forester’s son, Watson has returned to spend some time with Holmes.  Very soon, three cases engage Holmes’ attention.  First, art dealer Edmund Carstairs, asks Holmes to find the man who has apparently been following him.  He suspects the man of being Keelan O’Donaghue, the surviving member of a gang of thieves who destroyed (accidentally) a shipment of paintings he had sent to an American client.  And, it appears, this man has broken into his home and stolen a family heirloom necklace.  With the assistance of the street urchins dubbed the Baker Street Irregulars (especially Wiggins and Ross), Holmes traces the necklace to a pawn shop, and follows that up by tracking down the apparent thief—whom he finds murdered in a cheap boarding house.

The second case follows directly from the first—the young boy, Ross, who found the pawnshop, has disappeared.  He is found murdered, after being tortured.  Holmes traces him back to a school/home for young orphan/homeless boys from the streets of London.  Ross Dixon, to give him his full name, had run away from the Chorley Grange Home for Boys (presided over by the Rev. Charles Fitzsimmons).  This, however, appears to be a dead end, but for the piece of white silk tied around his wrist.

And the third matter Holmes is called upon to investigate involves the mysterious House of Silk.  No one knows what it is, or what it does.

Horowitz manages this fairly complicated narrative very well.   And he does an excellent job of the setting (London and its environs in winter), Watson’s character and narrative voice, and Holmes’ as well.  (Holmes is a difficult character, I think.  It’s difficult to make someone who is portrayed as being more-or-less emotionless, as a creature of pure logic, also as an interesting and occasionally empathetic friend.)  Lestrade has a fairly prominent role to play, and not as the complete dunce of a police inspector that Conan Doyle made of him.  Obviously, all this being Holmes, all three strands of the investigations are successfully resolved, although I can’t say that we feel particularly happy about the implications of the various resolutions for the characters involved.  As pastiches of the Holmes saga go, this is one of the best I have read.  [Horowitz has written one more—Moriarty (2014), which I intend to get to soon.]

Monday, January 1, 2018

Margaret Leek (Sara Woods) Voice of the Past

Margaret Leek (pen name of Sara Woods), Voice of the Past
Raven House Mysteries, 1981.

The third (and last) book in the series featuring (and narrated by) solicitor Anne Marryatt and set in a (very) small town in the midlands.  I think this was the best of this series [We Must Have a Trial (1980); The Healthy Grave (1980)], and this mini-series was the best of the three written by Woods (three books as Ann Burton about Richard Trent, a London  banker, and four as Marry Challis featuring Jeremy Locke, a London solicitor). (That’s a total of 10 books, not about Antony Maitland, all published in 1980 or 1981.)

[An aside.  One can never be sure about this sort of thing, but it seems at least possible that these books were written earlier (there’s little, if anything, that ties them to the 1980-81 period, except for a reference, in Voice of the Past to something that happened in 1979, a change that would be easy to make).  The primary characteristic of the books that argues for their having been written in the late 1970s is their attitude toward women in the workplace—it’s treated as an ordinary occurrence.]

Reading this book (and the others not written as Sara Woods) almost inevitably leads to a comparison to the Maitland books (of which there are 48, published beginning in 1962, with the final book in 1987—essentially two books a year—and four in 1980/1981).  One obvious difference is that Maitland was a barrister.  A second (in the case of the “Leek” books) is that the main character was a woman.)  Otherwise they have things in common.  In all three, the domestic life of the main characters is prominent.  In all three, the main character goes beyond his or her primary task and acts as an investigator.  If you have the interest, I think it’s fair to say that the Maitland books are, in general, better.  (They do have an interesting feature in that, by the mid-1970s, Woods realized she had tied herself down a bit by referring as often and as strongly as she did to Maitland’s World War II experience—including a severe shoulder injury.  So she set all the remaining books in the mid-1970s, with relatively specific dates.  I know of no other author of a long-running series who has done that.)

Nonetheless all three (non-Maitland) series have their points of interest, and in the case of Voice of the Past and its companions, one of those is the small village setting; the village is a stand-in, I think, for the larger family settings in the other series.

In Voice of the Past, a well-to-do, highly respected Baronet (and chairman of a local mortgage lending institution), Sir Lancelot Walker is shot, with his own shotgun, in the study of his home (with his wife Dorothy upstairs).  Suspicion falls immediately on his son-in-law (Arthur Kilburn), a commercial artist facing declining demand for (and declining income from) his work and seeking a loan to tide him and his family (wife Paula, two children) over as he re-orients his work.  Anne Maryatt, a local solicitor (and the narrator of these books) accepts Kilburn as a client, and begins a series of interviews to see what, if anything, she can find that might exonerate him.  It seems like a fruitless task, until her husband Stephen provides something from Walker’s past that might be worth exploring.

It happens that Walker and Stephen’s father Mark worked closely together in the immediate post-war years (Walker as a lender, Mark as a property appraiser) as the nearby town of Brompton grew explosively.  And now Walker is leaning on Stephen to shade, or outright falsify, his appraisal of a property that Walker wants to buy, and tells Stephen that he—Walker—and Stephen’s father committed fraud and that he will reveal Mark Maryatt’s participation in the fraud, if Stephen does not go along (as we learn quite quickly, Stephen ain’t gonna play).   But it obviously opens up a possible argument for the defense.

Unlike the other two books in the series, we basically see the entire trial, and the courtroom scenes are handled very well, including the climactic revelations.  I’ll admit that I picked out the killer quite early, albeit more by intuition than by any evidence whatsoever.  “Leek’s” handling of the courtroom revelations and their aftermath are very well handled, and all of the tensions (especially between Stephen and Anne) are resolved.  While this is not a great book (or mini-series), the courtroom scenes in particular worked well (barrister Benedict Tennant, Q. C., could give Perry Mason a run for his money) and parts of the denouement were suitably surprising.  Well worth the time if you can find a copy (they are available from used book sellers).

One of my projects for 2018 will be to take a new look at the Antony Maitland books.