Monday, December 31, 2018

Raymond Chandler and a Meditation on Nero Wolfe and His Orchids

I’ve begun reading The Big Sleep Annotated (annotations by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto; hereafter HJR), and it’s fascinating so far.  In fact, it has answered a question for me—why did Nero Wolfe grow (and hybridize) orchids?  As HJR point out (p. 21),

One of the many symbols of wealth and decadence adorning the Sternwood residence.  Orchid-collecting fever swept England and America at the turn of the twentieth century.  Edward Doheny Sr.’s home [near downtown LA]…sported a Tiffany-glass-and-steel-domed conservatory that housed southern California’s first major orchid collection: more than five thousand specimens collected by Doheny’s wife Estelle.  In literature the flowers acquired associations of decay and disease…[They go on to elaborate.]

So Stout would certainly have known of the fascination of the rich with orchids, and of the association of orchids with decadence.  And Wolfe is clearly a man who has, in general, the tastes associated with wealth (but not, particularly, decadence)—an impressive residence; a resident world-class chef; and (generally) refined tastes (leaving the beer aside [1]).  And raising orchids.

HJR then quote from Chandler’s 1936 story “The Curtain,” a passage that found its way pretty directly into The Big Sleep:

The air steamed.  The walls and ceiling of the greenhouse dripped.  In the half light enormous tropical plants spread their blooms and branches over the place and the smell of them was almost as overwhelming as the smell of boiling alcohol.

The butler, who was old and thin and very straight and white-haired, held branches of the plants back for me to pass, and we came to an opening in the middle of the place.  A large Turkish rug was spread down on the hexagonal flagstones.  In the middle of the rug, in a wheelchair, a very old man sat with the traveling rug around his body and watches us come.

Nothing in his face lived but his eyes.  Black eyes, deep-set, shining, untouchable.  The rest of the face was the leaden mask of death, sunken temples, a sharp nose, outward turning earlobes, a mouth that was a thin white slit.  He was wrapped partly in a reddish an very shabby bathrobe and partly in the rug.  His hands had purple fingernails and were clasped loosely, motionless on the rug.  He had a few scattered wisps of white hair on his skull.

We don’t get this bit, though in “The Curtain.”  We get this from TBS, which begins with General Sternwood speaking:

“You are looking at a very dull survival of a rather gaudy life, a cripple, paralyzed in both legs, and with only half of a lower belly.  There’s very little that I can eat and my sleep is so close to waking that it is hardly worth the name.  I seem to exist largely on heat…and the orchids are the excuse for the heat.  Do you like orchids?

“Not particularly,” I said…

They are nasty things.  Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men.  And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”

Wolfe never discussed (as I recall) his motivation for raising orchids.  But he does refer in one of the books to keeping an old woman on the roof and torturing her daily.  And we can make of that what we will.

[1] I have always thought that Stout made Wolfe into a beer-drinker in order to avoid the need to incorporate fine wine into the stories.  These days, with small-batch artisanal craft beer, yo can’t really get around it even with beer.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Aaron Elkins, Switcheroo

Aaron Elkins, SwitcherooThomas & Mercer publishers, 2016
© 2016 Aaron Elkins
ISBN 978-1-4778-2768-0
Elkins has long been a major figure in American mystery fiction, having published 18 mysteries featuring Gideon Oliver (a forensic anthropologist), 3 Chris Norgern (museum curator; I like these books a lot) mysteries; 9 mysteries in 2 series (co-authored with his wife Charlotte), and some non-series works, beginning in 1982 with the first Gideon Oliver book (Fellowship of Fear).  I have found his books generally to be well-conceived, well-set, and well written.  Switcheroo follows that pattern fairly well, except for two things:  While it’s well-conceived and well-set, (1) Gideon Oliver’s entire role in the book could have been just dropped with little or no loss to the story and (2) for my tastes, far too much of the book seems to be there simply to get the book closer to 300 pages. 
The story is this:  In 1940, as it becomes apparent that Germany will invade—and take control of—the Channel Islands, a large-scale evacuation of families takes place.  There is not nearly enough time or enough transport to get everyone out who wants to go, and many people are left either by their choices or by circumstances.  For two families on the Isle of Jersey—the Carlisles and the Skinners—things become complicated.  Howard Carlisle had hoped to get his 2-year-old (and somewhat sickly) son Roddy out.  His brother-in-law, Willie Skinner, his wife, and their robust 2-year-old son George, have places in the evacuation.  Carlisle, essentially, pays Skinner a small fortune to swap George (who will stay, and be treated as if he were Roddy) for Roddy.
In 1945, as the war ends, the Skinners return and, according to plan, the masquerade is scheduled to be reversed.
Nearly 20 years later, both Roddy and George are apparently murdered.
And now, 50 years after that, Rafe Carlisle, son of Roddy, one of the richest men on the island, approaches Gideon about examining what remains of the bodies of Roddy and George.  He agrees, and we spend most of the book on the Isle of Jersey.
Elkins does a fine job of creating the place and the people.  But what he does not do, in my opinion, is create a story in which a forensic anthropologist has much of a role.  And there’s no particular sense of urgency or suspense to propel the story.  By far the most interesting characters are three members of the local police force—the Detective Superintendent Mike Clapper (who knows Gideon from a past encounter, before he was transferred to jersey) and two local detectives, Bayley and Buncombe (think Laurel and Hardy).
In fact, if you can get past the really minor part played by Gideon Oliver and the occasionally lethargic pace of the story (we spend a lot of time describing what everyone ate and drank), this is an OK tale (although the solution seemed to be a bit contrived).  But the pace was a problem, and the presence of Gideon Oliver exacerbated the pacing problem. 

Christiana Brand, Green for Danger

Christiana Brand, Green for Danger
© Chrisitana Brand, renewed 1992
Available as an ebook through Mysterious Press

Christiana Brand was an author of mysteries appearing between the early 1940s and the late 1970s; Stop You’re Killing Me lists 19 novels and 2 collections of stories.  Green for Danger was her 3rd full-length mystery, and the 2nd (of 7) featuring Inspector Cockrill.  [I have previously read a later Cockrill mystery, Fog of Doubt. (]

Green for Danger is set in a hospital in Kent, during World War II when German bombers were regularly making runs over England.  And, in the course of the book, we learn quite a bit about the operations of such a hospital (including the fact that hospital personnel frequently lived I the hospital (as Brand’s husband, in fact did for a time) and about life in general under bombardment.  Here, the story focuses on 7 members of the hospital staff, 3 doctors (2 surgeons and an anesthesiologist) and two patients—one who dies on the operating table, and one who does not.

In the course of the book, we learn a lot about the operational side of the hospital and about lif in England at that time during the war.  And we can see, as Inspector Cockrill’s investigation proceeds. How both the war and the investigation is affecting their lives.  I will say that, at least for me, it was occasionally difficult to keep the cast straight—they were sometimes referred to by first name, nickname, or surname, rather randomly.  Brand keeps the story moving, however, and Cockrill does eventually sort things out (although there is a final twist to the tale).

Brand was not one of the major authors of this period; although she wrote steadily, her overall body of work was not large.  And she created no characters, so far as I can tell, as memorable as those created by Sayers of Christie or Allingham or Marsh.  But this is a fine book and well worth seeking out.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Yet another return of copycat photoblogging

Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram has a lovely shot of cobblestones or paving stones surrounded by grass.  (

I have paving stones just outside the Colosseum (2002).

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Series I love and re-read

Today at Sleuth Sayers, John Floyd posted a list of 20 of his favorite series (characters & authors) (  So I wondered what my list would look like (restricting myself to mysteries; not necessarily in order of preference).  I want to emphasize that these are (clearly) not the only mysteries, or mystery series, I read.  But I own them all and re-read them all.  I got up to 17 series and stopped.

[Author, series character(s).]

Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe).  The best, number 1.  El supremo.  (

Frances and Richard Lockridge (Mr. & Mrs. North.  I like their other series characters, but not well enough to put them on this list).
Michael Bowen (Richard Michaelson).  (

Tony Hillerman (Both the Joe Leaphorn and the Jim Chee books)

Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey)

Len Deighton (his nameless spy series and the Bernard Samsom books).

Lawrence Block (Bernie Rhodenbarr; not really a Scudder fan)

Parnell Hall (the Steve Winslow books, written as J.P. Hailey)

Alan Furst (no single character dominates, but World War II is, really, the character)

(Walter Satterthwait (Joshua Croft; Miss Elizabeth Borden))

John LeCarre (George Smiley; but also the non-series books)

Alan Gordon (the Jester mysteries)

Dick Francis is not on this list because he didn’t actually have a “series” character (although Sid Halley does appear, what, three or four times?).

Dashiell Hammett is not on this list because I’m not a big fan of the Continental Op; The Maltese Falcon, is, of course, in  a class by itself.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger
Original publication, 1942
© Agatha Christie Mallowan 1942, renewed 1970

The third novel in which Miss Jane Marple appears (also, by 1942, a collection of short stories was in print).  It’s a rather strange novel; the narrator (Jerry; I could not find, in a quick look through the opening chapters find his last name) and his sister (Joanna) have rented a house in the village of Lymstock.  He’s recovering from crashing an airplane and she’s keeping him company and caring for him

The first strangeness is this: The book was published in 1942, but is apparently not set during World War II—there is no mention of it.  It’s not made clear what sort of plane crash occurred—was he a military pilot?  Commercial?  Rich and flying more or less as a hobby?  The second strangeness (as far as I’m concerned) is that he and his sister apparently have a substantial private income, but virtually no mention is made of it.  The third strangeness is that, for all this is a “Miss Marple” mystery, she does not appear until p. 128 (of 181).  And she does nothing that even begins to approach an investigation.  In fact, we don’t even see her talking much with people about the murders.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We do discover—on p. 1—that we have an outbreak of “poison pen” letters; Jerry and Joanna receive one alleging that they are not really brother and sister, but are living in sin in Lymstock.  Joanna tosses it into the fireplace, but Jerry rescues it, and turns it over to the police.  Investigating these things is quite obviously difficult, but the local police and the Scotland Yard specialist seem to know what they are doing, but only a little progress is made.  As late as Miss Marple’s arrival, there’s still nothing pointing to anyone in particular.  But things have progressed to an apparent suicide and to murder.  And to various emotional entanglements (including one between Jerry and a young woman in the village—Megan-although, at least so far as I could tell, that was just stuck in to allow something of a happy ending to occur).

Miss Marple, of course, explains all at the end.  Although, again at least as it seems to me, she got to the solution without a particularly convincing explanation of how, or why.  But perhaps I expected too much.  (I will note that this is not the only Miss Marple mystery in which her presence occurs quite late in the story.  In these cases, Miss Marple, and her solutions, become something akin to Hitchcock’s Maguffins—in these cases, way to wrap the book up.  They obviously don’t work well for me.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

A Tell-Tale Sign of Bad Writing

(At least in my opinion.)

Quite frequently, buying a book I’ve never heard of, written by an author I had never heard of, is not a good idea.  Well, I ignored those lessons and took a chance on a “golden age” (in this case, it appears to be fool’s gold) mystery.  (Fortunately, I paid only $0.99 for it, so it at least cost me little, in financial terms, anyway.  
To be fair, this was the author's first mystery (of 7), and at least one of his later books was reasonably good.
The easiest way to express my difficulty with the book is to list, in order of their appearance, the surnames of the characters:

Venables (a journalist)
*Budge (Mrs.)
Brown (a servant)
*Budge (Mr.)
Eppoliki (this character was around for a while, but unnamed)
(This is in the first 10% of the book…and we continue)
*Bray (Scotland Yard D.I.)
*Cuff (

I have placed an asterisk before the names that, well, raise the odd question or two.  I’m fully aware that too many Smiths and Joneses and so on is boring.  But the Mumby to Blood string was a bit much.  And D.I. Bray seems a bit precious, especially because he seems prone to braying.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Steve Hockensmith, World’s Greatest Sleuth: A Holmes on the Range Mystery

Steve Hockensmith, World’s Greatest Sleuth: A Holmes on the Range Mystery
Minotaur Books
© Steve Hockensmith
ISBN 978-0-312-37943-8
Also available as an ebook

Steve Hockensmith’s World’s Greatest Sleuth is quite an achievement, and some background might be useful.  Gustav (a/k/a Old Red) and Otto (Big Red) are the Amlingmyer brothers, itinerant cowboys in the early 1890s.  Old Red is illiterate, but a devotee of Sherlock Holmes; Big Red reads the stories to him.  And Old Red has internalized Holmes’s methods, and has become something of a sleuth himself.  (You can discover their earlier adventures:  This is the 4th full length adventure (there is also a book of short stories).

One thing to keep in mind is that, in the world of these books, Sherlock Holmes is a real historical figure, as are the other sleuths whose real, not fictional, exploits are recounted in the magazines (and occasional books) of the time.  Otto is one of these writers.  And news has come from England that Holmes is gone, vanished and presumably dead.  And a contest has been arranged, for the Chicago World’s Fair, in which a number of the detectives everyone read about will attempt to solve a mystery and claim the title of the World’s Greatest Sleuth—and a substantial cash prize--$10,000, a real fortune in 1893, when the average wage of unskilled labor was about $0.13 per hour, and gross domestic product per capita was about $230 per year.

Gustav is reluctant, but Otto (and the $200 they have received in advance from Urias Smythe, Otto’s publisher) talks him into it, and they are off to Chicago, where they meet, for the first time, Otto’s publisher, who’s immediate reaction is “Oh. God…I’m ruined.”

Well, that’ll set you back.  But there they are, outfitted with new clothes (a story in itself), with rooms in what seems to be the cheapest hotel in Chicago.  They meet their competitors at dinner, all of whom are more comfortable in their surroundings (and one of whom is a woman with whom both Amlingmeyer’s are smitten), and, the next morning the contest begins.  The contest involves solving a clue or series of clues, finding a large bronze egg, and returning with it, with a daily challenge.  The sleuth with the best record, and his (or her) publisher win the prize.  The situations are devised by Armstrong B. Curtis, and the judge is William Pinkerton (son of Alan).

But, of course, a real mystery and a real crime intrudes.  And for the Amlingmeyers (and for their heart throb) winning the contest takes a backseat to catching the killer.

The setting—the White City—has been used often, both in mysteries (for a list:
and in non-fiction (most notably Erik Larson’s The Devil and the White City).  Hockensmith does a masterful job of making the setting come alive.  He also manages to create a Chicago police officer (Sergeant Ryan) who is honest, and a more-than-competent detective.

I have enjoyed all the previous books in the series, and this is a terrific piece of work (and I want to emphasize that my enjoyment of it, while perhaps deepened by having read the earlier installments, did not depend on having read them.  I can assure you that you can—and should—enjoy World’s Greatest Sleuth without starting at the beginning.  It’s 8 years old, now, which makes me worry that me might not have more opportunities to spend time with Old Red and Big Red.  I sincerely hope that I will soon be spending more time with the World’s Greatest Sleuths (an accolade they deserve regardless of the outcome of the contest).