Sunday, October 21, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A.A. Fair), Give 'em the Axe: A Donald Lam/Bertha Cool Mystery

Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A.A. Fair), Give 'em the Axe: A Donald Lam/Bertha Cool Mystery
(C) 1944 Erle Stanley Gardner
Available as an ebook

A very quick, very brief comment.

The Lam/Cool books generally have extremely convoluted plots, but I've usually been able to keep things straight enough to at least follow the conclusion.  Not in this case.  Lam has been invalided out of the Navy and has returned to LA.  The current case involves a businessman seduced into marriage with a woman who is a serial auto accident "victim; the woman who really loves him; a shady "pick-up" bar and its owner (who has a sideline in blackmail), and others.  In the middle, there's a traffic accident and Bertha Cool is present and is deposed as a witness.  The deposition scene goes on forever, and makes Cool look even less rational than usual.  And, in the ending, I had to work pretty hard at figuring out who Lam was telling us (and the cops) the killer was.  Not the finest moment in the series.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Dead Mistress

E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Dead Mistress
© 2018 E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen
Publisher: Midnight Ink
ISBN 978-0-7387-5061-3

Samuel Hoenig, the proprietor of “Questions Answered” (you have a question that you want answered, he’s likely to take a shot at answering it—but you must formulate it as a question, does not approach life as most of us do; as someone wrote (in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine), “Copperman/Cohen succeeds in providing a glimpse not only of the challenges experienced by those with Asperger’s, but also of their unique gifts.”

And, more to the point, he makes a fascinating investigator in this series of extremely well-done mysteries.[1]  And this, the fifth book in the series, is a worthy entry.

As the story opens, Samuel has received an email (which reads: “I have a question that I desperately need answered.  May I come in for an appointment?”) to which he is not sure how to respond—he does not require that potential clients make appointments.  So he asks his associate in the business, Janet Washburn, what she thinks.  She suggests responding that no appointment is needed, and providing their office hours.  He does so, and returns to his current assignment—“determining the reach in millimeters of the average orangutan”—and he has some doubts about that client.  He gets an almost immediate response—“I’m coming now.”  And, after some back-and-forth, the prospective client, Virginia Fontaine, asks her question:  “Mr. Hoenig, is my husband having an affair with his dead girlfriend?”

Samuel does not believe in ghosts, so you can probably guess his answer.  But it’s not that simple, and Janet persuades him to take the question.

And it turns out to be much less clear-cut than those of us who do not think ghosts “exist.”  Among other things, Virginia Fontaine’s first husband died under somewhat murky circumstances.  And a still more complicating circumstance is that the current husband—Brett [2] Fontaine—does not play a particularly active role in the remained of the book.  And the girl friend, Melanie Mason, died a couple of years ago in a spectacular car crash.

And things get more complicated (and dangerous) from there.  Samuel finds himself more-r-less dragged into finding the answer, although Janet has the primary responsibility for it.  And Samuel’s life is complicated enough, as his father has recently re-entered his (and his mother’s) life after 27 years.  Another issue is that the relationship between Janet and Samuel is changing, in ways that please, puzzle, and disturb him. 

But as complicated as it is, and as hard as the various actors try to discourage Samuel and Janet from pursuing their inquiries, they move closer and closer to an answer.  If not to an answer to Virginia’s question, an answer to the various mysteries that intrude.  Like, for example, are ghosts “real”?  There’s a trip to a cemetery that forces us to, perhaps, reconsider that one.  Ultimately, of course, the original question, and all the other questions that arise, are answered.  And the changes in Samuel’s life that began early on in the series continue.  Personally, I can’t wait for the next episode.[3]

[1] I might suggest reading them in order, as there is a major plot element that runs through all the books.
My reviews of earlier books in the series may be found here:
The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband
The Question of the Felonious Friend
The Question of the Absentee Father

[2] This was written, I probably don’t need to tell you, before the most recent Supreme Court nomination.

[3] Oddly, this is the second book I have read this year with all or part of the title includes the words “Dead Mistress.”  And they are nothing alike.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof

Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof
© 1935 Nicholas Blake
This edition Rue Morgue Press, 2008
ISBN 978-1-60187-025-4

I seem to be reading (in this case) or re-reading a fair amount of older books this year.  (Nicholas Blake is the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, Poet Laureate of England from 1968 to 1972.  I’m not all that fond of his poetry, an example of which is at the end of this review.)

This is the first in his series of mystery novels featuring Nigel Strangways, Oxford drop-out turned private investigator (who apparently possesses a private income as well).  Fortunately, the series gets stronger from here.

At a small English boarding school (apparently encompassing what we might think of as roughly the elementary school years), one of the teachers (“masters”), apparently of English language and Literature (Michael Evans) had fallen in love with Hero Vale, the wife of the Head Master who is much younger than her husband.  They meet somewhat furtively when and as they can, and have a tryst by a haystack shortly before an afternoon of games (with parents in attendance).  And, of course, death—murder—intervenes.  The body of Algernon Wyvern Weymss, the nephew of the Head Master, is found in the same haystack by which Michael and Hero met.

Weymss  is not particularly popular, as he is seen as something of a snitch.  And he has been blacklisted by the “secret society—the Black Spot—at the school.

The local police inspector, Superintendent Armstrong, takes charge of the case, and his attention quite obviously focuses on Michael and Hero.  Not only were they on the spot at or around the time of death, public knowledge of their relationship would likely cost Michael his job and Hero her reputation.  Michael, apprehensive about their situation, asks his friend Nigel Strangeways from their time at Oxford to investigate. 

Somewhat unusually for a lot of the mysteries of the time, Armstrong is not depicted as incompetent or a fool; he is shown to be intelligent, hard-working, and desiring to reach the correct conclusion rather than the easy, obvious one.

Strangeways takes his own approach, which involves extended conversations with the academic staff (there are at least 6 masters and a good deal of time with Michael and Hero.  And he thinks, fairly early on, that he knows who the murderer is.  But he has no convincing proof, and the best he can do is persuade Armstrong not to act precipitously.  Eventually, we get a reenactment of the activities of the day of the murder, which confirms Strangeways in his conclusions.  But at a cost.  And he manages to find the evidence needed to exonerate Michael and Hero as well.

I have read, I think, all of the subsequent Strangeways books ( and found them generally quite good.  This one, had I read it first, might not have encouraged me to go on to the others.  I suspect that it might be easier, for someone looking to start these books, to start with #2, Thou Shell of Death (1936), which my memory tells me is quite good.

Ignore this paragraph unless you are a masochist.
And now, I have to digress a bit.  The economics of the school left me a bit puzzled.  We have 6 masters and the head master; at least one full-time groundskeeper (with day-labor as required); a cook; a nurse; and presumably several maids (although only 1 is mentioned by name.  We have, we are told, about 80 students.  I’m having trouble figuring out how the school even breaks even with that few students.  I figure the average annual salary of the masters to be roughly £400 (based on the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar and the US dollar, the exchange rate of the US dollar to the English Pound, and what teachers earned in Canada.  So we have £2400 for the teaching staff.  Other staff salaries would be less than that, probably totaling1/2 to 2/3 as much, so £1200 to £1600.  Annual expenditures on food would probably have run around £60 per person (for the school year; and I’m estimating 12 total staff and 80 students) or about £5000.  Other materials and supplies would probably be less than that, call it £2000.  The Head Master has to make some living from this, say £1000.  So I have a total budget of £12,000 or required fees of £150 per student.  And I’m finding an annual upper-middle class average family income of around £750 in the mid-1930s.  Such a family could easily have 2 children in school at once…so I have some difficulty making the numbers work.  A school of say 150 students would make the financials much more plausible…


Come, Live With Me and Be My Love”
Cecil Day-Lewis

Come, live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of peace and plenty, bed and board,
That chance employment may afford.

I'll handle dainties on the docks
And thou shalt read of summer frocks:
At evening by the sour canals
We'll hope to hear some madrigals.

Care on thy maiden brow shall put
A wreath of wrinkles, and thy foot
Be shod with pain: not silken dress
But toil shall tire thy loveliness.

Hunger shall make thy modest zone
And cheat fond death of all but bone -
If these delight thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Being amused by Agatha Christie

I've just finished The Body In The Library (Agatha Christie/Miss Marple), which is a perfectly OK book, but especially notable for this, spoken by the grandson (age 12 or thereabouts) of one of the key characters:

"...Do you like detective stories?  I do…I read them all.  I've got autographs from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H.C. Bailey,..."

Which amused me greatly.

And I ran across this, in A Murder Is Announced (also Agatha Christie/Miss Marple):

Miss Marple speaking:

"I may have got the term wrong," she murmured.  "I am not very clever about Americanisms--and I understand they change very quickly.  I got it [the term "fall guy"--DAC] from one of Mr. Dashiell Hammett's stories.  (I understand from my nephew Raymond that he is considered at the top of the tree in what is called the 'tough' style of literature.)"

(I also loved the parentheses in a spoken does one "hear" parentheses?)

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Eric Vuillard, The Order of the Day

Eric Vuillard, The Order of the Day
© 2017 Acres Sud
Translation © 2018 Mark Polizotti
Other Press LLC
ISBN 978-159051-969-1

From the end of the book:

"We never fall into the same abyss twice. But we always fall in the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread. We so desperately do not want to fall that we grapple for a handhold, screaming. With their heels that crush our fingers, with their beaks they smash our teeth and peck out our eyes. The abyss is bordered by tall mansions. And there stands History, a reasonable goddess, a frozen statue in the middle of the town square. Dried bunches of peonies are her annual tribute; her daily gratuity, crumbs for the birds."

Friedrich Nietzsche
"And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you."
A short (132 page) meditation on…what, exactly, I am not sure.  Vuillard begins with a meeting of 24 German industrialists, in 1933, with the new Chancellor of Germany—Adolph Hitler.  He proceeds, slowly, discursively, through Austria’s yielding, without much resistance or regret, to incorporation into the Reich.  He reminds us that those industrialists benefitted, during the war, not just from lucrative contracts with the German war effort, but from the labor, and the deaths while laboring for those companies, of thousands of men and women forced to work in their factories.  And he ends with the fact that the companies founded or run by those 24 industrialists did survive, that their owners and executives, far from paying a price for their participation in genocide and world war, emerged in the post-war world still powerful, still wealthy, apparently unashamed of their contribution to the deaths of millions.

Many of the names, and the companies, will be familiar, I think, to anyone who has spent much time with the history of that time:
And the rest of them:

But it’s also about the ordinary people who lined the streets for the parades, the politicians, in Germany, in Austria, in France, and in England, who either knew or should have known what this was leading to. 

And it’s about the millions who died.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Initial publication, 1892.
This edition, The Oxford University Press, 1993

We’re reading some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, also (as with Agatha Christie) in preparation for the Road Scholar (formerly elderhostel) event we will be participating in soon.  This is the first collection, of Holmes short stories, but not the first published works—it’s preceded by A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890).  I suspect, though, that for many people, the shorts were their first introduction to Holmes and Watson.  The Oxford University Press edition is part of an excellent compilation of the complete Holmes, with useful introductions to the specific works and to the entire body of work.  The text is also usefully (and unobtrusively) end-noted; unlike footnotes, the use of end notes makes it a simple matter for the reader to ignore them, or not, fairly easily.

I have read (and re-read) all of the Holmes stories, and much prefer the short stories to the novels.  (Of the four novels, only The Hound of the Baskervilles works at all well for me.)  And it’s easy to see why, even at the time of their initial publication, the short stories were so well received.  Holmes is a remarkable character, and Watson (if a bit—OK, a lot—too dim) makes a fine narrator and chronicler.  The stories themselves vary quite a bit in quality (which is not surprising), but, at their worst are fairly compelling.  Also, given today’s taste in subject matter, it’s interesting to reflect that some of the stories do not include any crime and that many of them do not involve a murder.

The Adventures… begins with what is (in my opinion) one of the best of the entire run of stories—“A Scandal In Bohemia.”  Both how Holmes discovers the threat to the King of Bohemia and how Holmes is then himself thwarted is really nicely done.

The level of this entire collection is quite high, although there are a couple of instances either in which the mystery is not very mysterious (“The Copper Beeches”) on in which there is, it seems to me, a thread left hanging (“The Noble Bachelor”).  And in a number of instances, Holmes solves the mystery, but the malefactors (just reading these things has me referring to “malefactors” instead of “bad guys”) are not brought to (conventional) justice (“The Five Orange Pips,” for one).  And, of course, in reading all 12 of the stories together, I became aware of a great deal of repetition in the openings.  There are, after all, only a few ways for Watson—who is, for most of the stories, a practicing physician with a wife and family—to introduce (or re-introduce) us to Holmes and lead us into the events of the cases.  So I would recommend spacing them out a bit.  And, for my taste, the “official” detectives are too stupid to be worthy adversaries in detection.

But I would definitely recommend either acquainting or reacquainting yourself with Holmes and Watson.