Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Steve Hockensmith, The Crack in the Lens: A Holmes on the Range Mystery

Steve Hockensmith, The Crack in the Lens: A Holmes on the Range Mystery
© 2009 Steve Hockensmith
Minotaur Books 2009
ISBN   978-0312379421
Also available as an ebook.

Looking through my library of ebooks, I realized I had not kept up with the adventures of the Amlingmeyer brothers, Gustav (Old Red) and Otto (Big Red), and decided it was time to see what they were up to.  And, apparently, they were about to be lynched.  That’s how The Crack in the Lens begins.

The Amlingmeyers are a pair of somewhat down-at-the-heels cowboys; Gustav is a devotee of the Sherlock Holmes stories (which Otto has to read to him), and Otto is an aspiring writer of detective fiction (although his tales are based on their own adventures, and on Gustav’s use of Holmesian techniques.  They are in the town of San Marcos, Texas, at Gustav’s insistence—he wants to discover the truth about the death of Adeline, the women he loved (and lost) five years earlier.  But things have changed in San Marcos, if only (to some extent) superficially.  Five years earlier, in 1888, it was a wide open cattle town, complete with saloons and prostitutes and all the accompanying features of a cattle town.  Now, there’s a church (or several), and all the bawdy houses have been moved out into the county (even if just barely).  There’s even a wallpaper store (and, yes, this maters).

Old Red’s search for information about Adeline does not go well, and the owners of the place she worked (who now own the just-across-the-line bawdy house) are not pleased to see either of the boys.  In fact, it becomes very dangerous.  In their search, they encounter the Kreigers (Mr. Kreiger is the only photographer in town, with something of a specialization in death portraits); Milford Bales, formerly a barber, now the town Marshall; Sheriff Ike Rucker (the law then, now the law outside town); Horace Cuff (editor and publisher of the local newspaper, and transplanted Brit); Brother Landrigan (the local hellfire and-brimstone preacher); and assorted cowboys, goat ranchers, thugs, and fallen women.  Oh—Otto learns that his first book has actually been published!

Despite a rather broad overlay of humor, this is a fairly dark book, and there’s a good deal of violence and death before we reach the finale.  The story moves quickly, though, and the ending is logical (which, given Gustav’s veneration for Holmes, is just as well) and generally satisfactory.  If you have not made the acquaintance of the Amlingmeyers, I encourage you to do so (although starting at the beginning might be best, the books stand quite well on their own).  Next up in the series is World’s Greatest Sleuth!; there are also a number of short stories that I still need to find—and will be looking for.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Shedd Institute and the Oregon Festival of American Muusic

So back to our adventure.  We were in Eugene for a series of performances, lectures, and workshops at a place called The Shedd Institute.  Back in 1991, a couple (Ginerva and Jim Ralph) decided that Eugene needed an organization devoted to the performing arts.  They managed to raise enough money to buy what had been the First Baptist Church (and a school associated with it) and renovate the sanctuary into a theater.  And in 1991, their first series of events premiered--the Oregon Festival of American Music, now a two week series of performances, lectures, and other events.

We were there for the second week of the festival, and attended 7 concerts from Tuesday, August 7 to Saturday the 11th.  This year's festival (with the overall title of "In the Hands of the Muses") focused on jazz and show tunes from the 1920s into the 1950s (one place I part company with them is their belief that American popular music--and American jazz--after 1960 is not so wonderful.  While the performances involved a large number of musicians and singers, there was a "working band" on hand for most of the concerts we saw.  None of them are household names; all of them were excellent (I'll mention a few in a moment).  There were about 6 principal singers, again not national stars but also generally excellent.

We were particularly taken with the band.  For three of the shows, it was led by Byron Stripling (a trumpet player (, with a pianist [Bobby Floyd--not the baseball player (]; guitarist Howard Alden (; upright bassist Tom Wakeling (; drummer Chuck Redd (also vibes;; sax and clarinet player Jesse Cloninger (; and trumpeter Tony Glausi ( kid--he's 24).

Glausi led one of the workshops/lectures, talking about (and playing clips of) rap/hip-hop music.  A fair number of the people in attendance--we, at 70, were among the younger people in the crowd--found it difficult to listen to.  I personally thought it was interesting, and that some of the music was pretty good.  Not my sort of thing (bop, cool jazz, 1960s rock, and folk being more my general listening range).  But useful.

All the musicians I linked to above were excellent and all of them are working professionals, making their living mostly by playing or teaching. 

It was a good week of very interesting stuff.  If you decide to spend some time in Oregon in the first half of August, a stop at the Shedd would be well worth your time.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Bernard Knight, The Sanctuary Seeker

Bernard Knight, The Sanctuary Seeker
Copyright © 1998 Bernard Knight
Pocket Books (Great Britain, 1998)
eISBN  13-978-1-4483-0123-2

The first of 15 books featuring Sir John de Wolfe, the recently appointed coroner for the county Devonshire (Exeter is the main city), his two primary assistants, Gywn (like deWolfe, a former crusader) and Thomas (a defrocked priest, who serves as John’s scribe).  Among the other continuing characters are his wife Matilda; her brother sir Richard de Revelle; the de Wolfe’s maid Mary; and a tavern keeper (who is also deWolfe’s lover).  It’s nearly the end of the 1100s, and Richard the Lionheart is in captivity on the continent.  And, in England, a new layer of governance and law enforcement has recently been added.  In addition to the Sheriff (de Revelle in Devon), each county now has a coroner.  The lines of authority are not clear, which of course will lead to conflict.

As the story opens, de Wolfe, Gwyn, and Thomas are arriving at the village of Widecombe, where a body has been discovered in a stream.  One of the coroner’s tasks is to hold an inquest on the dead, especially when, as in this case, there is evidence of murder.  The coroner’s jury consists of all males age 12 and over who can be assembled in the village.  In this case, there is a particularly interesting circumstance—the dead man appears to be Norman, not Saxon or English, making the inquiry into his death rather more important than is usually the case.  De Wolfe holds the inquest, assembles some evidence of where and how the deceased was slain, and returns to Exeter. 

DeWolfes relations with his wife are strained, and, as he is loyal to King Richard, de Revelle has thrown in with Prince John.  So there are political ramifications to everything that happens.  The investigation into the murder does not progress rapidly.  There is the issue of who the deceased is and how his body came to be found in a small stream miles from anywhere.  That the man was Norman complicates things even more.  De Revelle is all for finding someone—anyone--guilty, hanging him, and moving on.  De Wolfe, however, intends to find out, if possible, what has actually happened.

I found the characters well developed, the settings and the situations plausible, and the nature of the investigation nicely done.  The story moves fairly slowly in parts, to some extent because Knight piles on a lot of back story for the main characters.  And, for my taste, we get more description of the attire of the characters than seems absolutely necessary.  (An aside, because this is a bit funny.  One of the characters is described as wearing his hose “cross-gartered,” a style of dress I first encountered in Twelfth Night, when Malvolio believed that Olivia has commanded him to appear before her “cross-gartered.”  Presumably a style of dress that was apparently fashionable around 1200 has become an occasion for scorn 400 years later.  You can see what it looks like here:

I wound up with mixed feelings about the story.  The mystery itself was nicely handled, and the final scenes, although they were somewhat dragged out, provided a satisfactory ending to the book.  I’ll probably read at least one more book in the series.  I hope, however, that it has less of what seemed to me, in this book, to be filler.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Carol H. Shmurak, Death By Committee

Carol H. Shmurak, Death By Committee
Copyright 2006, 2011 Carole Shmurak
E-book ISBN 978-1-4392-8235-9

I read a lot of academic mysteries, and I tend to be very sensitive to the difficulties involved in creating an academic setting that rings true to academics (that is, to me) and that is not so immersed in the academic part of the story that the mystery suffers.  It gives me great pleasure to be able say that this book meets and beats this challenge. 

The primary hook is this:  Abby Gillette, an assistant professor in the education program at (the fictional) Metropolitan University has prepared her file supporting her application for tenure (which, if granted, generally entails a promotion in rank to associate professor; faculty with tenure become more difficult, but not impossible to fire).  Gillette has some very strong supporters, among both the faculty and students.  And she has serious detractors as well.  And both camps are vocal about their positions.  Susan Lombardi, who has herself recently been granted tenure, is asked by her department chair (Nanette Lehman) to serve on the faculty committee that will consider Gillette’s case, and make a recommendation to Lehmann, which will be forwarded, along with Lehmann’s own recommendation, up the administrative chain.

In the course of the committee’s deliberations, a number of things happen:
Gillette’s dossier is lost, but found again.
The department chair’s (Lehmann) office is set on fire, and she is hospitalized.
And, of greater import both for the mystery and for the committee’s deliberations, a member of the committee is murdered.

I will have to say that in 32 years of observing a lot of tenure cases, I’ve seen a lot of things, but no one ever got murdered.  But this is a murder mystery, so that’s OK.  I will also have to say that Shmurak’s depiction of the faculty and of university life in general is just excellent.  I have known people who resemble each of the characters here, and, having gone through the tenure process twice (one loss, one win, and having served on tenure committees both at the initial (program) level and at the campus level in that order), I think she did an absolutely spot-on job of depicting the way those things work.  (I had a couple of issues, but they are really too minor to mention.)

Lombardi narrates the story, and is as close as we get to the amateur sleuth.  I found Lombardi to be an engaging character, and, again, I could name people on whom she could be modeled. 

If I have a bone to pick (and I do), it’s that the ending of the book seemed almost rushed.  I expected more of a denouement than I got, and I was surprised, when I did the thing you do to turn the page in an ebook, surprised to discover that the story had ended.  I actually can’t quite express the basis for my feeling that the ending was incomplete, and, of course, I might be the only reader who has felt that way.  I will say this:  If academic mysteries are among the types of book you like, I feel certain that you will enjoy this one a lot.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Rex Stout, Not Quite Dead Enough

Rex Stout, Not Quite Dead Enough
Copyright © 1942, 1944 Rex Stout
Original hardcover publication Farrar & Rinehart, 1944
Reissued, Bantam, 1983
Out of print, but available from used booksellers

This is the second novella compilation, consisting of “Not Quite Dead Enough” and “Booby Trap.”  In both stories, Archie (Maj. Goodwin, to you and me) is working for U.S. Military Intelligence.

In the first (1942) story, Archie has been ordered by his superiors to get Wolfe to go to work with the intelligence services (with the first priority an investigation involving a Captain Cross).  So Archie returns from D.C. to New York, having snared a seat on a flight that day.  On board, he winds up sitting next to Lily Rowan, who had flown to D.C. to see him and discovered what flight he was on AND managed to get a seat.  This does not please Archie; apparently a coolness has developed (on his side at least) between them.  He manages his escape from Lily and, arriving at the brownstone, discovers (from Theodore, who is now the caretaker of the orchids) that Wolfe and Fritz are out exercising so Wolfe can lose enough weight to join the army and kill some Germans.  The task of persuading Wolfe to go to work for the war effort seems in trouble, a victim, as Archie puts it to Wolfe’s desire to do something heroic.  So he has to find a lever—a case—to yank Wolfe back onto the tracks.

And Lily might, inadvertently, have given him an idea.  While on the flight, Lily tells him that she even went to see Wolfe about helping Ann Amory, who has a problem.  But she won’t tell Lily what the problem is and she won’t get to see Wolfe, who’s too busy being heroic.  Archie sets out to discover the nature of the problem and to see if it will give him some leverage with Wolfe.  That takes him to the building in which Ann and her grandmother live.  The building belongs to a Miss Leeds (who inherited it from her mother), and occupied by (in addition to Miss Leeds and Ann and her grandmother), one Leon Furey, who makes a living killing hawks (originally on commission from Miss Leeds’ mother, now for Miss Leeds) and Roy Douglas, who raises racing pigeons (originally subsidized by Mrs. Leeds, now by Miss Leeds.

Archie manages to extract Ann from the building, telling her that he’s a friend of Lily, that Lily had mentioned that Ann had a problem, and offering Wolfe’s services.  So they’re off for dinner and dancing.  And they bump into Lily, which causes Archie and Ann to leave in great haste.  But Ann refuses to see Wolfe.

Archie spends the next day trying to find some kind of a lever to use on Wolfe, and, at the end of the day, Roy shows up and he and Archie converse.  As Roy is leaving, Lily arrives, breathless and seriously bothered, bringing the news that Ann has been murdered. 

A lever, Archie hopes, at last.  But he has to find a way to force Wolfe to become involved.  He does (and it’s quite a means to an end), and, in the end, of course, Wolfe solves the murder and resumes his usual life and livelihood.

There are a number of things of interest here.  First, Lily reappears in the saga (her first appearance was in Some Buried Caesar), after two novels and two novellas without her.  Second, Archie takes some shortcuts that would ordinarily lead to an extended stay in one of the State of New York’s finest prisons.  Third, we gain some additional insight into Wolfe.  And we get a little back-story about Kramer.  But…For one thing, Archie misses something that was a sort of obvious possibility.  And I found Wolfe’s desire to kill some more Germans somewhat under-motivated.  All in all, a good, not an outstanding, piece of work.

“Booby Trap” is even more a World War II story.  Wolfe is back doing what he does (in this case, sacrificing most of his income and a lot of his usual habits, in order to help the war effort).  Archie is assigned to work with Wolfe, and, although he is not spending all his time at the military intelligence offices, he is in uniform.  And Wolfe goes (not happily, but not too grudgingly) to meetings in someone else’s office.  The immediate issue is the death of Captain Cross, who jumped, or fell, or was thrown, from a hotel window after recovering an advanced type of grenade that had been stolen.  Wolfe and Archie are present at a meeting to discuss what comes next, in the office of Sol. Ryder (second in command of the New York office), Maj. Tinkham, Lt. Lawson, and a civilian, Senator John Bell Shattuck.  They are joined by Gen Fife.  As the meeting is drawing to a close, Ryder tells Fife that he has an appointment for the following day, with Gen. Carpenter, in D.C. (telling your commanding officer this, in a group meeting, is a serious breach of military discipline—and Fife points it out).  The meeting breaks up, and, as Wolfe and Archie are leaving, Archie takes another opportunity to try to become on more non-military terns with Sgt. Dorothy Bruce (which fails, in an amusing way).

That afternoon, Fife asks Wolfe to come back for some further discussions.  And, just as they arrive, an explosion occurs, and Ryder is dead, blown up by one of the grenades recovered by Cross (and then re-recovered by Archie).  Obviously, the NYPD has to be involved (as they were already involved in the investigation of Cross’s death), and, so, Inspector Cramer becomes involved.  There’s not a lot to investigate; the grenade was pretty obviously in Ryder’s suitcase, so “means” is not an issue.  Likewise for “opportunity”—everyone in the building had opportunity.  So the investigation focuses—has to focus—on motive.  No one is getting much of anywhere, although Bruce introduces a new prospective motive.  So Wolfe employs a stratagem.  And it works.  The denouement is not just that, however; the investigation has to be concluded without revealing some things that would be a bit uncomfortable for a lot of people.
As with “Not Quite Dead Enough,” “Booby Trap” is a good, but not excellent, outing.  I had anticipated that the resolution would disclose whether we were dealing with a case of military espionage or industrial espionage, but we weren’t.  The conclusion also leaves open the actual motive of the murderer (which could, after all, be separate from the other issues.  And the guilty party behaves in a manner that surprised me.  All in all, however, a reasonable addition to the saga.