Sunday, October 20, 2019

Copycat Photoblogging

Today (10/20/19) Chris Bertram posted a photo of a (I think) the beginning of a pro-EU demonstration in England.

In October 2002, I took this photo of an Italian Communist Party demonstration about to get underway in Rome.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

James R. Benn, The Devouring

James R. Benn, The Devouring
Copyright © 2017 James R. Benn
Soho Press, Inc.
ISBN: 978-1616959524
Also available as an ebook

The Devouring is the 12th entry in the excellent series of World War II mysteries/thrillers by James R. Benn, and it is a fine addition to the series.  Following their previous assignment (in The Blue Madonna), Boyle and Kaz, his friend, and companion throughout these books (the Baron Pytor Kazimeirski, the sole surviving member of a wealthy Polish family), have to enter Switzerland (somewhat illegally) to assist Allen Dulles in an effort to prevent funds lodged in Swiss banks from being used to support Germany (and to prevent those funds from being used by high-ranking Nazis from escaping with their wealth after the war).

On their way out of France, they encounter Lasho, a Sinti (more or less a Gipsy clan), who has found killing as many Germans as possible to be his only reasons for continuing to live.  They persuade him to escape with them to Switzerland, and he becomes integral to their mission.

As usual, Benn nails the details of the situation in Switzerland at that point in the war (mid-1944; his Afterword provides a good guide).)  Among other things, his depiction of a Swiss detention facility is shocking, and accurate.  And the general “neutral,” but effectively pro-German attitude of much of the Swiss government and population adds depth.  Also as usual, he incorporated real people (used, of course, fictionally—Allen Dulles, and Moe Berg, to name two) into the narrative, and has other characters based on others involved during this time.

While there is a murder investigation into which Billy and Kaz are drawn, the book focuses on one particular effort to obtain a huge amount of money (Swiss francs) and gold.  And there were huge deposits of both in Swiss banks, in numbered (and secret) accounts.  [This aspect of the story reminded me that in Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin (1964), the action revolves around an effort to recover the funds, still held in a Swiss bank nearly 20 years after the war’s end, that belonged to a Jewish family.]  Both in fiction and in fact, the issue of those deposits was a very contentious issue for decades.

Benn handles his material wonderfully well, and he has not only created memorable continuing characters, he also populates his stories with rogues and angels and rogue angels as well as anyone whose works I’m familiar with.  Here, he keeps the tension high and the action brisk.  And he raises the possibility, near the end, just the possibility, of an outcome that will change the life of one of his characters.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Wages of Blackmail (re-posting)

The Wages of Blackmail

Donald A. Coffin

How much would a painting by Vincent van Gogh have sold for in the early 1950s?  (This question arises because, in “The Last Witness,” a novella originally in The American Magazine (May, 1955) and reprinted in Three Witnesses (Viking Books, 1955), one of the switchboard operators (Alice Hart) at Bagby Answers, Inc. owns a painting by van Gogh.  Here is the passage in which the Van Gogh is introduced and described and discussed (pp. 18-20 of the Bantam edition of 1994)

Her room was a surprise.  First, it was big, much bigger than the one in front with the switchboard.  Second, I am not Bernard Berenson, but I have noticed things here and there, and the framed splash of red and yellow and blue above the mantel was not only a real van Gogh, it was bigger and better than the one Lily Rowan had.  I saw Wolfe spotting it as he lowered himself onto a chair actually big enough for him, and I pulled one around to make a group facing the couch Miss Hart dropped onto[1]

As she sat, she spoke.  “What’s the flaw?”

He shook his head.  “I’m the inquisitor, Miss Hart, not you.”  He aimed a thumb at the van Gogh.  “Where did you get that picture?

She looked at it, and back at him.  “That’s none of your business.”

“It certainly isn’t.  But here’s the situation.  You have of course been questioned by the police and the District Attorney’s office, but they were restrained by their assumption that Leonard Ashe was the culprit.  Since I reject that assumption and must find another in its stead, there can be no limit to my impertinence with you and others who may be involved.  Take you and that picture.  If you refuse to say where you got it, or if your answer doesn’t satisfy me, I’ll put a man on it, a competent man, and he’ll find out.  You can’t escape being badgered, madam; the question is whether you suffer it here and now, by me, of face a prolonged inquiry among your friends and associates by meddlesome men.  If you prefer the latter, don’t waste time with me; I’ll go and tackle one of the others.”

She was tossing up again.  From her look at him it seemed just as well that he had his bodyguard along.  She tried stalling:  “What does it matter where I got that picture?”

“Probably it doesn’t.  Probably nothing about you matters.  But the picture is a treasure and this is an odd address for it.  Do you own it?”

“Yes.  I bought it.”


“About a year age.  From a dealer.”

“Are the contents of this room yours?”

“Yes.  I like things—well, this is my extravagance, my only one.”

“How long have you been with this firm?”

“Five years.”

“What is your salary?”

She was on a tight rein.  “Eighty dollars a week.”

“Not enough for your extravagance.  An inheritance?  Alimony?  Other income?”

“I have never married.  I had some savings, and I wanted—I wanted these things.  If you save for fifteen years, you have a right to something.”

(Subsequently (p. 68) we learn that Helen Weltz had received about $15,000[2] in excess of her salary during her three years of employment.)

My best estimate of the price at which such a painting might have been purchased is derived from the sale price of the painting “Irises,” which sold at auction in 1987 for $53.9 million. 
O. Chanel, in “Prices and Returns on Paintings:  An Exercise on How to Price the Priceless” (Geneva Papers on Risk and Insurance Theory, V. 19, No. 7, 1994, p. 8), describes this as a “real return” to the previous owner of 12.5% (who had acquired the painting in 1948).  Between 1948 and 1987, the CPI in the US rose by a factor of about 4.7.  Applying that, and a real return of 12.5%, we can calculate the “Irises” must have been purchased for about $120,000 in 1948 (this ignores any insurance or other costs of ownership).  Now, “Irises” is, and has long been, regarded as one of the major masterpieces, so we should expect the painting in question in “The Last Witness” to have been less valuable than that.  Nonetheless, a purchase price in the early 1950s between $60,000 and $80,000 seems plausible.  Assume a large and good van Gogh painting (after all, it’s larger and better than Lily Rowan’s) might have been available for even half my estimate, and Wolfe’s conclusions that is a “treasure” in an “odd place” is accurate. 

All of which means that the blackmail racket being run by Clyde Bagby and Guy Unger  must have been quite lucrative.  In addition to the $5,000+ per year being paid to their employees [that’s $20,000[3] per year for the Rhinelander office, and more for the other three (older and presumably larger) offices in the Gramercy, Plaza, and Trafalgar exchanges (p. 2)], Bagby and Unger were presumably retaining an even larger share for themselves.  [The Rhinelander office had four boards with room for 60 lines each ((p. 3).]  At a guess, the operation had to have been pulling in something on the order of at least, and probably more than, $200,000 to $300,000[4] per year.  While all of this seems possible, if not necessarily plausible; this amounts to a very extensive blackmail operation, and one of which no law enforcement agency had, apparently, received any indication.  Maybe blackmail is a plausible career…until Nero Wolfe gets involved.

[1] This must be a big room, big enough to contain a bed, a couch, at least two chairs, presumably a chest of drawers or two, and a fireplace.
[2] That would be about $150,000 in today’s prices.  In general, adjusting from 1955’s values to today’s values is easy—just multiply by 10, or just add a zero at the end of the 1955 value.
[3] $200,000 today.
[4] $2 million to $3 million today.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Quote, unquote

Ran across this, that I posted on April 28, 2011, and thought enough of it to drag it up tp the top:
"What d'you remember most about the sixties?"

Haynes didn't reply for several seconds. "The music," he said. "And, in retrospect, the innocence."

As memories, and sentiments, go, that's just about perfect.

(Ross Thomas, Twilight At Mac's Place, 1990, p. 53)

Sunday, September 29, 2019

James R. Benn, Blue Madonna

James R. Benn, Blue Madonna
© 2016 by James R. Benn
Soho Press
eISBN 978-1-61605-643-1

The invasion of France is imminent, but Billy Boyle’s assignment has nothing to do, directly, with it.  He’s been charged with infiltrating a gang of blackmarketeers, for the purpose undermining them, so that truly vital supplies (like penicillin) are not diverted.  To do this , he has to help a member of another black market gang free one of his guys who’s being held captive.  Then, he has to get himself, and Baron Pytor Kazimers (a Polish ex-pat working with British intelligence)—and a trained radio operator to a Resistance group in occupied France, where a group of American soldiers are being hidden after their plane was shot down.  

Once they get to France, things get complicated.  Billy, Kaz, and the radio operator are hidden in a crumbling home of a minor French nobleman, along with the crew.  There are two murders, the Germans are getting too close to comfort (although the Abwehr officer in the area is not particularly inclined to apply too much pressure on the Count—who has something (or things; the Blue Madonna figures into this) he wants, and, unsurprisingly, he has something the Count wants.  Billy has to try to discover who the murderer is—or who the murderers are—without compromising the rest of the mission.  And, in fact, the investigation recedes in importance as the need to complete the other part of their mission looms larger. 

And there’s someone involved who is personally very important to Billy.

In the end, Blue Madonna is more of an action/adventure story than a mystery.  As usual, Benn serves up a strongly-plotted tale filled with people we care about.  And he makes the war a palpable, personal thing for the people involved.  And I learned more about the war (as I usually do from his books), because it’s told as a personal story, because it’s not the war from 30,000 feet up.  We see real people struggling to get things right, to have to make life-and-death decisions, decisions they almost have to know they won’t always get right.  And Benn makes even a small part of a great war of great significance to us.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Paying Fritz Brenner: Was Nero Wolfe Paying for What He Got?

Life—and Pay—as Fritz Brenner

While the focus of the books is inevitably on the case and the investigation, and, of course, on the relationship between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin), life in the old brownstone on West 35th St. centers on The Meals.  And in giving consideration to them, we need to give consideration to the life—and especially to the working schedule—and compensation—of Fritz Brenner.  In particular, I asked myself, was Fritz compensated as well as it appears he should have been—what would a chef as good and as experienced as Fritz reasonably have expected to earn?

Let’s try to answer that question.  (Briefly, anticipating the answer, Fritz was doing all right.)

What can we say with certainty?  That Wolfe and Fritz have known each other from long before Archie began working for Wolfe.  That Fritz is (according to Wolfe, in Too Many Cooks), competent, if not inspired.  That, at the time of In the Best Families (published in 1950), Fritz was making $1,000 per month.  That Fritz does the shopping for the household.  That Fritz is strongly opposed to having a woman in the place.  And probably more.  But we can also infer what his working schedule must look like.

Wolfe breakfasts at 8:00 (or 8:15); lunch is at 1:00 (or 1:15), and dinner is at 7:15 (or 7:30).  Archie eats breakfast at somewhat irregular times, but usually around 8, and usually lunches with Wolfe.  We don’t know when, where, or if Theodore eats.

If Fritz is going to prepare the food for that schedule, here’s what it seems to me that his day must look like:

7:00 – 9:30:  In the kitchen to prepare breakfast for Wolfe and for Archie.  At about 9 (after Wolfe heads for the plant rooms), he retrieves the tray from Wolfe’s room and finishes any after-breakfast clean-up.  (At some time in this interval, he fixes and eats his own breakfast, and fixes breakfast for Archie.)

11:30 – 2:30:  In the kitchen to prepare lunch.  When Wolfe and Archie finish their meal (by about 2:00), he clears the remaining dishes from the dining room and finishes cleaning up.  (At some time in this interval, he eats his own lunch.)

5:30 – 9:00:  In the kitchen to prepare dinner.  He finishes clearing in the dining room after Wolfe and Archie are done, and finishes up in the kitchen by 9:00.  (Again, he finds time to heat his own meal.)

That’s nine hours per day to prepare and clean up after the three meals served.  We’re not told when he shops, but my guess is that he spends two hours on Monday morning shopping, probably at multiple stores (in the European fashion).  So, for Monday through Friday, we have a 47-hour work week.  We also know that Fritz has Sundays off (or mostly off; sometimes it appears that he prepares breakfast, as is  hinted at by Archie’s reference to his “Sunday morning crescents”).  We don’t know about Saturday, but my suspicion is that he prepares breakfast, and leaves things ready for lunch and dinner, but also has most of Saturday off.

If all this is correct, then Fritz has a roughly 50-hour work week.  How would this compare with the work week of an executive chef in a restaurant, on the assumption that the restaurant does lunch and dinner (as, for example, it seems Rusterman’s does).  Suppose the restaurant opens at 11, serves lunch from noon until 2 and dinner from 5:30 until 10, Monday through Saturday (or, perhaps, Tuesday through Sunday—a fair number of restaurants in Chicago seem to be closed on Monday).  The executive chef may not do all that much line cooking, but must determine the menu (especially weekly specials), order  the food and supplies and attend to its delivery, schedule the rest of the staff, supervise the kitchen, and so on.  This looks like a 12-hour day, 6 days a week, or 72 hours a week.[1]  So, in that respect, Fritz’s work week was perhaps somewhat shorter than that of an executive chef in a first-class restaurant.

But Fritz’s working day was longer, from 7 AM until 9 PM (with occasional later duties if Wolfe had clients and others in after dinner)—14 hours a day in which he would have, at best, 2 hours off between breakfast and lunch and 3 off between lunch and dinner.  Having worked, long ago, the occasional split shift, I would argue that those 5 hours would not provide much time for personal activities.

And for this, let’s assume that the $1,000 per month figure noted above represented his compensation (adjusted, of course, for changes in the general level of prices).  In current terms, this translates to about $10,000 per month, or $120,000 per year.  But we need to take account of the fact that his compensation included two major pieces of in-kind pay:  Housing and food.  So we need to take account of the value he received from that. 

For most of the time, Fritz had a large room in the basement (let’s call it the equivalent of a studio apartment, or a small one-bedroom apartment; it’s clearly more space than, for example, Archie had[2]).  Based on some speculation about the floor plans of the brownstone[3], I would put Fritz’s space at about 500 square feet, perhaps 25% to 30% larger than Archie’s.  What I’m finding[4] is current rents of about $2,500 per month for that sort of space in midtown Manhattan.  So the value of his living space would be about $30,000 per year (that would be taxable income today, and was, according to the tax code, taxable income then—but it was basically ignored).

And then there’s the food.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics[5] estimates that average household expenditures on food (both at home and away) in 2014 was about $6,700.  Now, that’s for the entire household.  However, the quality of food served in the brownstone would clearly be higher than that of the average household in the U.S., so I’m going to count the entire amount in estimating the value of meals-at-home for Fritz--$6,700.  (Again, this would be now, and was then, taxable income, but it was generally ignored until sometime in the 1990s.)

So my estimate of the value of Fritz’s annual compensation, including the value of housing and food, would be about $156,000, or about $13,000 per month.  Or, based on my estimate of a 50-hour work-week, and assuming that Fritz got 4 weeks of paid vacation, $65 per hour.  Was Fritz well-paid, or was he underpaid?  

Well, we know that at the time of Too Many Cooks, Philip Lazio was making $60,000 per year, and Jerome Berin was offered as much as $40,000 per year to replace him.  In today’s terms, that would be about $1 million per year for Lazio and about $675,000 for Berin.  That seems fairly reasonable for world-class chefs; one estimate[6] suggests that Mario Batali makes about $3 million a year, and Bobby Flay makes $1.5 million (for both of them, that includes their earnings from television).  (At least Lazio and Berin were being paid close to what one would expect.)

But cooking for 2 people (or 3, counting himself, or 4 if Theodore eats in the kitchen with Fritz) is not as demanding as running a large restaurant.  So a comparison with private chefs is perhaps more relevant.  A quick check[7] suggests that the average annual pay for a private chef in the top 10% of private chefs in the U.S. is about $120,000.  So, as I am rather pleased to discover, it appears that Fritz is being paid what he deserves—as much as the best and most experienced private chefs in America.

[1] We knew fairly well a couple who ran a restaurant in Chicago for about 15 years.  They did not do lunches, but their work day was generally from about 2 PM until about 11 PM.  She ran the kitchen and he ran the front of the house; she ordered the food and planned the menu and specials; he ordered all the beverages.  She supervised the kitchen staff; he supervised the table servers, bartenders, and other front-of-the house personnel.  The kitchen staff was usually 3-4 line chefs; the front was staffed, on weekends, with 5 wait staff, 5 bus, 2 bartenders, and 1 hostess.  They were closed on Sundays.  So their typical work week was 54 hours a week, and that was without lunch service.

[2] I will note, though, that the bedrooms were quite generously sized.  There were 2 bedrooms on each of the second and third floors, each with its own bathroom.  Those appear to have been front-and-back, with a hallway running also front-to-back.  The first floor had 4 rooms—the front room, the office, the dining room, and the kitchen; of these, only the front room was described as small.  The office could accommodate a crown of 15 or so in a pinch, and we know—from Murder By the Book—that the dining room could seat more than a dozen.  And Fritz had, obviously, a fair amount of space to work in.  

[3] See





Friday, September 6, 2019

Terrence Faherty, Play a Cold Hand

Terrence Faherty, Play a Cold Hand
Perfect Crime Books 2017

Copyright © 2017 Terrence Faherty
Scott Elliott, the protagonist of Terrence Faherty’s fine series of PI novels set in post-World-War-II LA, returns after six years (Dance in the Dark).  It’s now 1974, nearly 30 years since Elliott went to work for Paddy Maguire’s Hollywood Security, and Maguire has been murdered, his body found in an alley.  Maguire had retired, had, in fact, sold Hollywood Security to a larger firm (for which Elliott has gone to work).  Walter Grove, an LAPD Captain, warns Elliott to butt out.  Which, of course, he promptly proceeds not to do.
But Elliott does have his job to consider, and a hot young director (Amos Decker) has asked specifically for him.  Not, as it turns out, for any security reasons, but to pick his brains about a con run on gangster-turned-movie-producer Ted (Moose) Marriutti in the early 1950s.  The con, a variation called the Kansas City Shuffle, was orchestrated by Maguire, and Elliott was a major player.  Marriutti is dead, as are most of the principals.  But Elliot remembers most of it, and Decker wants to use the con as the basis for a movie he’s scheduled to direct (a riff, of course, on The Sting, which was released in 1973). 
Elliott rapidly discovers that what happed in the early 1950s is not dead and buried.  Among others, estranged his wife, Ella, was involved with the events that led Maguire to run the con on Marriutti, but is involved with the echoes of it that led to Maguire’s death, and Elliott’s attempt to discover his killer.  (If there’s anything surprising about this, it’s that so many of the people involved in the 1950s part of the tale are still alive and active in 1974.) 
Elliott is our narrator for this excursion into the past and its present ramifications, and his narrative voice is fine—a bit wistful for the past, a bit lost because of his estrangement from Ella, a bit compelled to discover who killed his mentor, friend, and father-figure Maguire.  Faherty does Hollywood in the ‘40s and ‘70s extraordinarily well, and Elliott’s investigation plays fair with the reader.  The conclusion is well-handled, too.  All in all, this is a very good story, blending the past and the present, populated with well-drawn, compelling characters.  While a part of a series, it can easily be read as a stand-alone.  Although I would encourage you to seek out the earlier books as well (Kill Me Again, 1994; Come Bask Dead, 1977; Raise the Devil, 2000; In a Teapot (novella), 2005; and Dance in the Dark, 2011; as well as a volume of shorts, The Hollywood Op, 2011). 
As an aside, one of the things I have enjoyed about the Scott Elliott is his fixation with cars.  And, in Play a Cold Hand, I got to look at images of 4 classic cars, three from the in “backstory” parts of the book (1951) and one in the “present day” (1974).  So here’s a chance for you, too to see Scott’s cars.

1974 Lincoln Continental Mark IV

1951 Hudson Hornet Coupe

1951 Chrysler Saratoga

1951 Pontiac Chieftain

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Steve Hockensmith, The Double-A Western Detective Agency: A Holmes on the Range Mystery

Steve Hockensmith, The Double-A Western Detective Agency: A Holmes on the Range Mystery
© 2018 Steve Hockensmith
ISBI 978-1-7905-516161

Steve Hockensmith’s The Homes on the Range series just might be my favorite on-going mystery series.  I think the continuing characters, especially Otto (Big Red) Amlingmeyer) and his brother Gustav (Old Red), are becoming favorites.  The narrative voice (Otto’s) is sharp (and sometimes discursive), funny, and altogether engaging.  And this entry (the 6th novel in the series) is just excellent.

The boys have, they (well, Gustav; Otto might retain some lingering doubts) hope, left behind their days as cowhands, and their more recent association with the Santa Fe Railroad police division, to become partners in the AA Western Detective Agency (headquarters in Ogden, Utah) with ex-Colonel C. Kermit Crowe and his adopted daughter Diana.  After six months of looking for, and not finding, clients, they have a case!  Clayton Haney, owner of a cattle ranch in the New Mexico Territory, has hired the agency to help solve a rustling problem.  And so Big Red, Old Red, and Diana are off, by train and coach.

When they arrive at the town of DeBarge, they notice, almost immediately, something very strange about the town—the businesses on one side of the (only) street are duplicated by stores with apparently identical products directly across the street.  A fact that will soon be explained.  The explanation comes when, while Otto and Gustav and Diana are talking with the town Marshal, Alfred Hinkle, he receives an urgent summons to break up a fracas at the DeBarge General Store (F. Martinez, Proprietor—just across the street from DeBarge Mercantile and Sundries (M. Baker Proprietor).  The AA crew tags along, and the Marshal rapidly buts an end(if only temporarily) to the hostilities.  And it transpires that the men causing the troubles are in the employ of Clayton Haney.

Things become more complex very quickly, the Marshal is found and Haney gets jettisoned as a client, the Sweeny clan (putative rustlers) become the new clients.  

And a pair of mysterious strangers—a Mescalero Apache and a hard-to-classify (Otto can’t get a good look at him—appear, and seem to be trying to run the Amlingmeyers out of the territory.  Yet another mysterious stranger, a Mr. Burr—who admits to being roving gambler—shows up.  

So the situation is complex, and made more difficulty by ethnic antagonisms.  But Gustav, applying the methods of (of course) Sherlock Holmes, moves steadily, albeit not directly, and with setbacks, to the solution.

Hockensmith has created an engaging cast of characters, all with strong and well-defined personalities.  The dialogue is sharp, the settings add a great deal to the story.  All in all, this is a highly successful mystery.  I look forward to the next entry in the series, which, with luck and if we’re all good girls and boys, will arrive with a shorter hiatus.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Rex Stout, Too Many Women

Rex Stout, Two Many Women
© 1947 Rex Stout
Random House
eISBN 978-0-3077-6808-7

I’ve read Too Many Women too many times, but for me most of Stout’s “Nero Wolfe” books are almost endlessly re-readable.  Despite its very apparent faults (from a contemporary perspective), it remains, after 70+ years, readable and entertaining. 

The plot is fairly straightforward.  An executive at Naylor-Kerr, Inc. (an engineering supply company, although that is actually all but irrelevant), Mr. Kerr Naylor (the son of one of the founders, and named after the other), responds to an internal questionnaire about employee turnover,  His explanation for the termination of Waldo Moore is one word:  Murdered.  Moore died at the end of the prior year, his body found on a deserted side street in Manhattan, run over by a car.  Wolfe is hired (with his assistant, Archie Goodwin, doing most of the work) to substantiate calling his death murder, or to disprove it.  The firm’s president (Jasper Pine) is married to Naylor’s sister (Cecily), who is the largest shareholder in the company.  (Naylor, who inherited 25% of the company’s stock, has retained voting control of it, but transferred ownership to a small number of long-time, now mostly retired, employees.)

Following Pine’s suggestion that Archie pose as a personnel expert, Wolfe takes the case and Archie does the legwork.  He discovers more than he might have hoped for, beginning with an extremely large number of young, apparently all attractive, women, their workspace being a single large open-plan room in which…well, let me let Archie describe it:

One good glance and I liked the job,  The girls.  All right there, all being paid to stay right there, and me being paid to move freely about and converse with anyone whomsoever…Probably after I had been there a couple of years I would find that close-ups revealed inferior individual specimens, Grade B or lower in age, contours, skin quality, voice, or level of intellect. But from where I stood at nine-fifty-two Wednesday morning it was enough to take your breath away.  At least a half a thousand of them, and the general and overwhelming impression was of—clean, young, friendly, spirited, beautiful, and ready.  It was an ocean of opportunity.

I think you can see how this aspect of the book would raise questions among today’s readers (and in fact I always find this part of the narrative somewhat off-putting, along with the depictions of the women employed there who have fairly important roles in the book).  The spell is broken when Kerr Naylor, having come up alongside Archie, says. “I doubt very much if there’s a virgin in the room.”  Which is another aspect of the book that does not play well with readers today.

(As an aside, I have always had a little difficulty with an open-plan work space filled with desks and filing cabinets and seating 500 or so clerical workers.  I rather think this is based on the famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed S. Cc Johnson workspace, constructed in 1936-39, and one of the first, and still one of the most famous open-plan workspaces in America.  But I also think that such a space would have been highly unlikely in a 1930s vintage Manhattan high-rise.  My calculations suggest that to provide space for 500 clerical workers would require something like 40 square feet per workstation, plus something around half again as much space for filing cabinets and access and ceiling supports, or 30,000 sq.ft. of space—an open space some 300’x100’, which seems unlikely for a high rise at the time,

Archie begins the task of interrogating the staff (not limited to the clerical staff), and things are going nowhere.  Although Archie’s dealings with the clerical staff are related clearly, if discreetly.  Unfortunately, the results are underwhelming.  And Kerr Naylor decides to tell Archie that he actually knows who killed Wilmot Moore, but, as he has no evidence, he can say no more.  This little revelation, when reported to Pine, the corporate president, has repercussions, and Naylor tells Archie, before witnesses, that he never said he knew who killed Moore.  And, following another death and some stratagems by Wolfe, which put another employee at risk, we get a successful conclusion.

I’ll admit there’s a lot of sexism here, and the Pine household is a strange one.  (In common with a number of the other Wolfe stories, some of the sexual behavior of some of the characters would have been, well, unusual for the time.  Too Many Clients is a notable example of what I’m referring to.)  But if you can come at the book without letting that aspect of it dominate, it’s an interesting case, a generally well-plotted story.  Although I think the ending is a bit of a cop-out.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Where Is the Building that houses Naylor-Kerr, Inc., in the Nero Wolfe novel Too Many Women (by Rex Stout)

I'm re-re-re-re-re-re-re-reading Two Many Women, and very early on Archie comments that Naylor-Kerr has its offices in the general vicinity of Wall Street, and the executive offices are on the 36th floor.  So that's probably at least a 500-foot-tall building.  I've never done this before, but I was curious.  Here is a list (taken from a list of the 100 tallest buildings in Manhattan I found on the web, of all the buildings in Manhattan, 500+ feet tall, constructed before 1950:
The Empire State Building, 102 floors, 1250 feet, 34th Street and  and 5th Avenue.  Not near Wall Street.
The Chrysler Building, 1930, 77 floors, 1046 feet (counting the spire), 42nd and Lexington.  Not near Wall Street.
70 Pine Street, 1932, 66 floors, 952 feed, obviously at 70 Pine St.; about 2 blocks from Wall Street.
The Bank of Manhattan Trust Building*, 70 floors, 927 feet, 725 5th Ave,; not near Wall Street,
The RCA Building.**  1933, 70 floors, 850 feet, 1250 Avenue of the Americas.  Not near Wall Street.
The Woolworth Building.  1913, 57 floors, 792 feet.  223 Broadway, about a half mile north of Wall Street.
The City Bank-FarmersTrust Building.***  1931, 57 floors, 741 feet.  Basically on Wall Street.
500 Fifth Avenue.  1931, 60 floors, 709 feet.  Nowhere near Wall Street.
Met Life Insurance Tower.  1909, 50 floors, 700 feet.  Just off Times Square.
Lincoln Building.  1930 56-72 W. 42nd St.  Midtown.
1 Wall Street.  1931, 50 floors, 658 feet.  Definitely near Wall Street.
Chanin Building.  1930, 56 floors, 649 feet.  122 E. 42nd.  At Grand Central.
570 Lexington.  1931, 50 floors, 640 feet.  Midtown.
Mercantile Building.  1929, 48 floors, 629 feet.  10 E. 40th.  Midtown.
New York Life Building.  1928, 40 floors, 615 feet.  200 Park Ave.  Midtown.
So we have 70 Pine, The City Bank-Farmers Trust Building, 1 Wall Street as possibilities.  Given that the president of Maylor-Kerr was Jasper Pine, I'd bet on 70 Pine...
*Now the Trump Building,
**Now the GE Building
***Now 20 Exchange Place

Monday, August 12, 2019

Mark Pryor, The Book Artist

Mark Pryor, The Book Artist
© 2019 Mary Pryor
Seventh Street Books
ISBN 978-1-6388-488-5

The main character in this series is Hugo Marston, the head of security at the US Embassy in Paris, although most of what transpires in the books (of which this is the 8th) is not related to his official position.  I

n this entry, the Ambassador has asked (i.e., ordered) him to attend the opening of a sculpture exhibit at the Dali Gallery in Montmartre, as a sort of chaperone for the artist, Alia Alsafar.  He’s reluctant, but his reluctance diminishes when he learns that her sculpture is made from books—Marston is a book freak; the fact that the ambassador refers to her as strikingly beautiful doesn’t hurt. 

And the woman who has been his companion for a while now, Claudia (whose last name I can’t find) is training for a marathon, and her run takes her past the Dali that evening—and she collapses and is taken to a hospital in an ambulance..  At about the same time, someone kills Alsafar.  The police inspector in charge of the investigation soon arrests Claudia—her DNA has been found on Alsafar’s body, and Claudia claims never to have met her.  Hugo, or course, butts into the investigation.

Meanwhile, a murder (Rick Hofer), who has recently been released from prison, is out to get Hugo and his good friend (and CIA spook) Tom Green.  Tom is in Amsterdam, on Hofer’s trail, and Hugo is, of course, torn between his desire to clear Claudia and Tom’s likely confrontation with Hofer.

I suppose it’s not really a spoiler to say that Hugo clears Claudia and helps Tom take care of the Hofer issue.

I’ve been a fan of this series since I read the first one (The Bookseller, 2012, but I’m less enthusiastic about this one.  Having Marston deal with the threat to Claudia’s freedom and the risk that Tom is taking in going after Hofer was probably necessary to get the book out to book-length, but it seemed to me to fragment things a bit too much.  And, in both threads, the climaxes were not particularly satisfying.  The interrogation—handled by Hugo, with the cop mostly just sitting in—seemed perfunctory and the murderer’s confession seemed mostly a matter of needing to wrap things up.  And the final confrontation with Hofer also felt almost perfunctory.

The Book Artist was, for me, just good enough to have warranted my time, but not good enough to keep me from putting it down after reading for a while.  I’ll continue to buy Pryor’s books, but I also hope things pick up in the next installment.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders

Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders
© 2017 Stormbreaker Productions Ltd.
Harper Perennial
ISBN 978-0-06-2623-4

This is a real tour de force, but it’s also remarkably difficult to write a review without including something that might be a spoiler.  So I’m not going to try to do any sort of plot recapitulation—you’ll have to read it for yourself.  I will say that the story has more twists and turns than a Grand Prix auto racing course.  I will also say, because it quickly becomes obvious, that one aspect of the book owes a lot to Agatha Christie.

Horowitz has created a sterling cast of characters, providing them with interesting, and relevant, back stories ((including insights into their characters and their work lives and their personal lives).  He has also created settings, from small-town England to London, that both support and deepen his narrative.  The investigations are handled nicely, and the denouement flows neatly out of what has gone before.  And, for those of you who like this sort of thing (I do), he provides us with some clever, sometimes initially hidden, wordplay.

I have read, and enjoyed, three of his other books (The House of Silk, Moriarty, and The Word Is Murder); this is a step above them.  And there are three more (The Sentence is Death, Trigger Mortis, and Forever and a Day) that I’m about to make sure I have.  I encourage you to do the same.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

James R. Benn, A Blind Goddess

James R. Benn, A Blind Goddess
© 2013 James R. Benn
Soho Press, Inc.
eISBN 978-1-61695-193-1

I seem somehow to be falling behind.  This is, in my opinion, one of the finest mystery/historical fiction series going, and I’m up only to book 8 (there are 5 more in print and another due in a month or so).  And this is one of the best entries in the series, which has become a epic, accurate depiction of some of the events that shaped World War II.

Billy Benn, whose family is related by marriage to Dwight Eisenhower, has spent his time in World War II as a special investigator for Ike.  He finds himself in the village of Newbury in the southeast of England, in March 1944.  One of the British intelligence gurus whom Billy has had much contact, Major Cosgrove, wants Billy to look into the murder of Stuart Neville, and tasks Billy with seeing to it that the murder is treated as a simple murder.  Which, of course, convinces Billy that there is something else going on, especially as the home in which Neville was living is owned by a German refugee family.  

He also has had a call for help a call for help from a friend from his teenage years, Eugene (Tree) Jackson.  Tree is a sergeant in a battalion of tank destroyers; also from Boston, Tree is black (as is the battalion, except for, of course, the officers)..  And his gunner, Abraham (nicknamed Angry) Smith in imprisoned, facing a court-martial, on a charge of murder, the victim being a local constable.  Tree, who is certain Angry is innocent, is hoping Billy can look into it.  Billy, who has 5 days’ leave, is hoping to spend them with Diane Seaton, the woman he loves.  

Diane (who is in the Special Operations Executive) plans to meet Billy.  But first she has an appointment with a high-ranking official in the Foreign Office, to try to persuade him that England, and the Allies in general, need to do something about the German extermination camps.

If that’s not a complicated enough situation, a young girl, a refugee from the Channel Islands, has disappeared from the group home/school in which she has been relocated.

The continuing characters—Billy, Diane, Kaz (a Polish noble and officer in the Polish army—which is now in exile), and Big Mike (a Detroit cop now in the army)—a group who would only have found each other in the dislocations of war, are all finely characterized.  And the characters specific to this book—the local police, a man who operates a sweets shop, the office staff of a Building Society (where Neville worked), and other—provide depth to the narrative.  And the depiction of village life during wartime seems absolutely perfect.

And Benn’s account of the treatment of black soldiers in the midst of this war is both historically accurate and a fairly damning portrayal both of the U.S. military in the 1940s and of the wider society.  One interesting side note comes from Benn’s afterword, in which he describes his research, and provided me with the first positive thing (other than his strategic and tactical strengths as a general) I have ever read about George Patton.  As it happened, the first black armored unit to see battle during the war was assigned to Patton, whose welcome to them included this:  “I don’t care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsabitches…”  And they did.

In case you were wondering, the title derives from this poem, which is also on the opening page of the book.

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we blacks are wise:
Her bandage hide two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Langston Hughes, “Justice”
from The Panther and the Lash