Friday, November 30, 2018

Rex Stout, Three Doors to Death

Rex Stout, Three Doors to Death
Original hardcover edition, The Viking Press, 1950
Bantam/Crime Line paperback reprint, 1995)
© Rex Stout, 1949, 1950
ISBN-13: 978-0553251272

The fourth compilation of novellas (“Man Alive;” “Omit Flowers;” and “Door to Death”) featuring Nero Wolfe.  A review cited on the Wolfe Pack website tells us “I suppose I could spend some time detailing the plots of these three novellas, but when it comes right down to it they are formulaic, but my, what a formula.  I can’t really disagree with that assessment, but, then, I think it could apply to almost any series character, and perhaps especially in mystery fiction.  I would say that this is not the strongest of the novella collections, but all three are taut, readable, and have some notable points.

I’m going to start with the third story, “Door to Death,” because it has a couple of features I really want to write about.  The plot, briefly, if this:  Wolfe’s full-time greenhouse man, Theodore Horstmann (who has the primary responsibility of caring for Wolfe’s vast collection of orchids) has left, at least temporarily, to attend on his gravely ill mother.[1]  So Wolfe needs to find a replacement, again, at least temporarily.  He has heard very good things about Andy Krasicki, who is employed by Joseph Pitcairn (a wealthy man of no apparent occupation).  Wolfe has written, and phoned, to no avail.  So he and Archie head for Westchester to try to convince Andy personally.  Arriving, they learn that Andy has already mailed a letter saying yes.  So the trip is for nothing?  Well, no.  Dini Lauer, a practical nurse caring for Mrs. Pitcairn, with whom he had fallen in love, and whom he had, only the night before persuaded to leave her job and marry him, is found dead.  In the greenhouse, poisoned by ciphogene gas (a fumigant).  And the police settle on Andy as the most likely killer.

So Wolfe has to prove that he did not commit the murder, which involves sneaking back onto the property and into the greenhouse, and, in a confrontation with the family, disclosing the murderer. 

So what about this is of any special interest?  For me, two things.  First, the uncertainty of whether Theodore is returning.  From the first time I read this story, more than 40 years ago (it was originally published in 1949), I have wondered whether Wolfe had decided to write Theodore out of the household and bring Andy in as a replacement.  And I have concluded that he did think about it, but decided not to.  And I think he decided not to because, a characters, Andy and Archie might have been too similar (both young, handsome, smart, competent, attractive to and attracted by women).

And second, well, it relates to an aspect of Stout’s characterization of some of his male characters (and this pre-dates the Wolfe saga).  Stout’s early novels often (for example, in Forest Fire and How Like a God) featured young (or not-so young) men who had psychosexual hangups, and this occasionally flares up in the Wolfe stories (The League of Frightened Men; Too Many Clients).  And he does not, in my opinion, handle those characters very well.

Whatever my reservations, this is a nice piece of work.

Now, briefly, the other two stories.

In “Man Alive,” a noted fashion designer disappears and is presumed dead (with a rather improbable suicide); he returns to NYC and his niece, who is beginning to fill the void caused by his disappearance, gets arrested and asks Wolfe to prove she didn’t do it (by finding the real killer, of course).  As it happens, all the likely suspects were together, continuously, during the time the murder was committed, and she was not—she was on the scene.  It’s not just her uncle who has been thought to be dead.  The woman he loved is dead (no questions), and her husband, the other partner in the fashion company also seems to have committed suicide. 

Wolfe clears it up neatly.

In “Omit Flowers,” we are thrust into the question of who’s going to run the Ambrosia chain of restaurants (part of this reminded me of HoJo—Howard Johnson hired a classically trained chef, Jacques Pepin, to run the menu design for the restaurants and to oversee the operation of the kitchens).  The founder, H.R. Landy has died.  Some years before he hired Virgil Pompa, a renowned chef, to oversee the culinary side of the business.  Landy has died (with no issues); his widow has remarried (to Floyd Whitten), and has decided to have her new husband take over the business end of things.  Pompa, who wants to retire, is persuaded to stay on through the training period.  And, during one of the training sessions, Whitten and Pompa have a shouting match, Pompa storms out.  Mrs. Whitten follows him to try to calm him down, and discovers her adult children in the downstairs dining room.  She asks Pompa to wait in the living room (he does, for a while, and then leaves) while she beats some sense into the kids.  And Whitten is foud with a knife in his back.  The solution to the murder fairly screams at the reader (I think, anyway), but things happen that might make the obvious solution not so appealing.  Maybe one of the weakest of the novellas, which is not to say it’s badly done.

[1] We do not discover, in this story, or subsequently, whether she recovered.

L.C. Tyler, Cat Among the Herrings

L.C. Tyler, Cat Among the Herrings
Allison and Busby, Ltd.; London.  2016|
© 2016 L.C. Tyler
ISBN 978-0-7490-1996-9
Also available as an ebook

This is the 6th outing of Ethelred Tressider (a writer of mysteries) and Elsie Thirkettle (his former literary agent), and it is (in my opinion) the best of the lot (#7, Herring in the Smoke, is in the tbr pile;

Ethelred lives in the (very) small village of Wittering, on the Sussex coast close to Chichester.  AS the story opens, he is attending a funeral, for Robin Pagham, who died while sailing in truly awful weather.  The rector has some difficulty in making Robin seem like a prince among men, and Ethelred’s silent monologue on the proceedings sets us up nicely.  Also in attendance is Robin’s fiancĂ©, Catarina (of uncertain origin, but most likely east European).  She induces Ethelred to look into Robin’s death—Robin has told her that he will be coming into money when “the old man” dies,” and she’d rather like to have it.

And his friend Tom Gittings, a reported and aspiring novelist, tells Ethelred about another death—a murder—involving both the Paghams and the Gittingses, which occurred in 1845.  It was shortly after that murder that the Paghams began to flourish, while the Gittings clan declined.

If that were not enough, it seems Robin has, or has had, something of a drug habit.

Ethelred’s former agent, Elsie, learns of the situation, and decides that she will come to Wittering and that she (and, very much secondarily, Ethelred) will disclose whodunit, why, and how.  (One highlight of the book is the reproduction of some of Elsie’s letters rejecting the opportunity to accept some aspiring writers as clients.  They are funny and mean and something I could believe a none-too-successful literary agent would fantasize writing.) 

Ethelred makes some progress on the 1845 murder (he sees it as a book), Tom submits his manuscript to Elsie, Catarina continues to be mysterious, but insistent that Robin’s death be found to be a murder.  And, eventually (this is a mystery novel, after all), everything is resolved.

Tyler weaves all the strands nicely together, and the book is a very good mix of quite serious (even somber) and comic elements.  Ethelred discovers the origins of the divergent fortunes of the Paghams and the Gittingses, (there’s even a plot of land called the Herring field) including the consequences of the family histories for the present-day remnants of the families.  And Ethelred has a final showdown with the murderer. 

The further I got into the book, the stronger a piece of work it seemed to me.  A blurb on the cover [“A clever plot, with lots of laughs along the way;” from the (London) Daily Mail] over-emphasizes the comic elements—which are present.  This is not, really a comic novel.  It is a well-conceived, well-executed blend of a tragic historical murder and a perhaps less tragic, but still rather poignant contemporary one.  I think you will enjoy it.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Hollywood vs. the Author

A while back, I posted about "Hollywood vs. The Author," a collection of essays and interviews in which authors reflect on their experiences with Hollywood.  I'm about 2/3 the way through it, and thought I'd post a progress report (I'm unlikely to do a full-bore review of it).  (There are 18 "chapters," of which I have read 10.)  At this point, I'd say that about half the authors are generally positive about their experiences, or (as, for example, in Larry Block's case, sort of bemused by the whole thing), and half had experiences ranging from mildly painful to excruciating (Tess Gerritsen).  I can, at this point, say the book's not a must-read, even for serious mystery/suspense/crime fiction readers, unless you are really interested in behind-the-scenes stuff.  For me, it's been marginally worth the money.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


What should I post on Thanksgiving?  On November 22?  Ordinarily, on TG, I’d just post “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” and that would be it.  But…this is another day.  I heard Phil once explaining this song, that it had taken him more than two years to write, that he had sung it, a capella, to Robert Kennedy, in Kennedy’s Senate office.  It is, for me, one of the most amazing songs I have ever heard (it’s on his album Pleasures of the Harbor, released in 1967).  And it’s Phil’s masterpiece.  I doubt if 1 in 10,000 people in America have ever heard it. 

Phil Ochs, Crucifixion,
(From the album, released 10/31/67) (Live in Montreal, 10/22/66)

Images of innocence charge him go on
But the decadence of destiny is looking for a pawn
To a nightmare of knowledge he opens up the gate
And a blinding revelation is laid upon his plate
That beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate
And God help the critic of the dawn.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

E.J. Copperman, Bird, Bath, and Beyond
Minotaur Books (2018)
© 2018 E.J. Copperman
ISBN-13: 978-1250084293

Kay Powell, whom we first encountered in Dog Dish of Doom[1], represents animals (and their owners) to the entertainment business.  She grew up as a child performed in her parents’ night-club and cruise-ship act, until she dropped out and entered college, intending to become a veterinarian (which lasts until sciences do that in), but getting a law degree (and license to practice).

Her newest client, Barney, is a parrot, and a replacement for Babs (who is no longer, apparently, with us) who has a continuing role on a hit TV series (Dead City, a zombie-based adventure/drama).  Barney, we soon learn, is quite adept at being able to repeat short phrases and to associate them with cues.  Kay is present on the set, because Barney’s owner, Patty Basilico, has a heavy-duty cold.  During a break in taping, Kay meets the show’s star, Dray Mattone, who plays the medical examiner.  They chat, and Kay leaves Barney in Dray’s trailer to await the subsequent set-up and shooting.

Except another shooting intervenes.  Dray is shot (and Barney is a witness, of sorts)).  And Kay, once again, winds up in the middle of a murder in which one of her clients is a principal. 

Her first difficulty is making it clear to the police (the investigation is headed by Joe Bostwick) that Barney doesn’t really spontaneously say things; he has to be coached into repeating a word or phrase when given a cue to do so.[2]  So Kay is stuck caring for Barney for a while and becomes, whether she likes it or not, involved in the investigation.  And things become difficult when Barney starts (apparently spontaneously) coming out with lines like:  “A lot of people want you dead, Dray.”

Things become even more difficult when the police arrest Patty, because Patty says she wants to consult with her lawyer—Kay.  Kay protests that she is not really a lawyer, and definitely not a criminal defense lawyer, but she in temporarily stuck.  (She does get Patty linked up with a law school buddy, Jamie Wallace, who is a criminal defense lawyer, and a good one, and this will be a very high profile case for him.)

Meanwhile, Kay’s parents, who stay with here when they aren’t working, have their own crisis to deal with—her mother wants to quit.

And things proceed, with a lot to be sorted out, which it eventually is.  And Kay managed to sort through several layers of deception to arrive at the truth.  The book moves smoothly, and the characters, both the continuing ones and the ones whom I do not expect to see in subsequent books, are well-dome.  I enjoyed this a lot, and will be happy to buy the next installment as soon as it’s available.

[1] Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press © 2017; ISBN 978-1-250-08427-9.  My review can be found here:

[2] When I was in grad school, some friends or mine had a parrot—Hawkins—who was emphatically not a nice parrot.   He would fly around the living room, and at random moments utter—scream, really—the only word he had learned:  “F*ck!!!!”  That was more than 45 years ago, and, for all I know, Hawkins may still be with us—parrots can live a very long time.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Hesitant Hostess

Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Hesitant Hostess
Original publication 1953
(C) 1953, Renewed 2011

A typically convoluted case for Mason.  He's the
court-appointed attorney for a man charged with
armed robbery. Although, as things developed,
that seems likely to segue into a murder charge.  

Basically a standard Mason outing.  

However, at one point, we get this: "...and (she)
realized she had about $20,000 worth of pure
uncut heroin."  This was hidden behind (or,
actually, within) what appeared to be a large
mirror in a handbag.  So, being an economist,
I asked myself:  How much heroin was that

actually?  This proved oddly hard to discover.  A
relatively recent report (
puts the US price at between $100,000 and $150,000
per kilogram.  But finding earlier prices is much

more diffcult.  If we assume that heroin prices have 
increased at roughly the same rate as prices in
general, then uncut heroin prices in the early
1950s would have been around $12,500 per kilo.  
So $20,000 worth of heroin would be about
1.6 kilos, or about 3.5 pounds.  That seems to be 
something that would be fairly noticeable to be
concealed behind a mirror in a handbag, but maybe
I'm being unfair.  

In any event, while I wouldn't recommend making
a search for this one, it's probably worth a read if
you come across