Thursday, December 26, 2019

Susan Spann, Ghost of the Bamboo Road

Susan Spann, Ghost of the Bamboo Road
Copyright © 2019 Susan Spann
Seventh Street Books
ISBN 978-1-63388-550-9

Let me begin with this:  I’d read around a third of Ghost of the Bamboo Road yesterday when I stopped to eat dinner and do come chores. Around 8:30, I picked it up again, planning to read for an hour or so before going to bed.  Around 11, I finished the book, having not gotten out of my chair.

From which you may deduce (correctly) that I was truly immersed in the story.

That was not altogether a surprise to me.  Having read the previous 6 books in the series,[1] I was prepared to enjoy mystery and the characters.  And, obviously, I was not disappointed.

Hiro Hattori (not his “real” name), a ninja, has been hired by someone who chooses to remain anonymous, to protect Father Mateo, a Catholic priest in Japan, trying to spread the word.  Or, at any rate, his words.  Hiro is skeptical of the mission, but takes his assignment seriously.  He has, over time, come to respect and admire Mateo, even as he remains skeptical of his mission.

In this addition to the o-going saga, Hiro, Mateo, Ana (his Japanese housekeeper), and Gato (the cat, of course) are on their way from Kyoto to Edo.  Rumors have spread that the power behind the Emperor plans to destroy the ninja and kuniochi (the female equivalent) and move the capitol from Kyoto to Edo.[2]  They have stopped in this village to warn Emiri (a kunoichi residing there) of the necessity of going into hiding.

Almost immediately after their arrival, the mother of the innkeeper is murdered; many of the villagers believe that she was killed by a yūrei—ghost—who has been wronged by someone in the village and who seeks revenge.  Neither Hiro nor Mateo is willing to accept that yūrei exist, let alone that they can kill.  Mateo wishes to remain, at least briefly, to try to discover the killer (which, really, means to have Hiro discover the killer); Hiro believes that his mission is more important.  And, as Emiri cannot be found, he is in favor of leaving immediately for Edo.

Of course they stay.  And of course they become involved (partly because Ana is accused of stealing a trove of silver coins).  Their investigation, and the accusation against Ana, brings them in contact with all the villagers (including a couple of unexpectedly interesting and astute men), and with a yamabushi—a hermit/holy man—who lives in the forest.  And, of course, they do discover the murderer.

And if it seems all to “of-course-ish” in my summary, it’s anything but in the reading.  Hiro and Mateo are a good pairing, and they have become close friends.  The villagers, including the resident Samurai, are not just here to advance the plot, but are people with lives that have been disrupted, lives that they hope to be able to recover.  

Of the 7 books so far in the series, this has the least sword-play and violence, and the deepest exploration of character.  (Not that the first 6 ignore character.)

If you have not yet found Spann’s work, I encourage you to seek it out.  If you are already a reader, I probably don’t have to encourage you to read this one.  It’s a fine book.

[1]  Claws of the Cat; Blade of the Samurai; Flask of the Drunken Master; The Ninja’s Daughter Betrayal at Iga;;and Trial on Mount Koya.

[2] Tokyo.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Nicholas Meyer, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols

Nicholas Meyer, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols
Copyright © 2019 Nicholas Meyer
St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books
ISBN 978-1-250-22895-6

This is the fourth extension of the Holmes and Watson saga by Meyer, and, while it has its points, and ultimately makes its point clear, it is not, in my opinion, a particularly successful addition to the canon.

Watson has married (for the third? time), to the sister of Constance Garnett (noted translator of Russian (and other) works of literature.  And Holmes has returned from seclusion.  And Mycroft Holmes has called upon Holmes to retrieve a document—The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—that had been taken from one of Mycroft’s agents (and the agent killed).  Watson, of course, joins Holmes in this quest, as does Anna Walling (a Russian émigré, married to an American millionaire), to act as interpreter for Holmes on this quest.

The quest is ultimately successful, in that the Protocols are found, and a confession of their being a document concocted for the Russian secret police.  But it is a failure, in that the Protocols continue to be disseminated [recently, as Meyer notes in his “Afterword.” Being published in Louisiana (2000) and California (2002)]. 

The book, as I noted above, is not (for me) a success, for all that the message that Meyer wished us to receive is an important one.  Holmes behaves in very non-Holmesian ways.  The relationship between Holmes and Anna seems out of character for Holmes, if not for her.  And, in keepng with a difficulty I have had with the three earlier books (The Seven Percent Solution, The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer):  Mixing actual people and events with Holmes and Watson just does not work for me (although it might for you). 

Leaving my personal reaction to incorporating the fictional Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes and the equally fictional Dr. John Watson), there are other issues.  As I said, Holmes behaves in some very un-Holmesian behaviors, the most noticeable of which is (spoiler ahead) torturing a confession out of the original publisher of the Protocols.  And the first half to two-thirds of the book drags noticeablty.
But it deals with a significant issue. Both in the world of the early 1900s and, as is unfortunately all to obvious, in the world of the 21st century.  Anti-Semitism remains a potent force, and a destructive force, everywhere in the world.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes
Copyright © 2017 Jason Fagone
Dey St. (An Imprint of William Morrow)
ISBN 978-0-06-243051-9

The story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William Friedman, who were pioneer cryptanalysts for the United States.  Elizebeth came from a Quaker family in rural Indiana, William from a Jewish family in New York.  Their meeting, which both at the time and in retrospect, seems to have been highly unlikely, was at a very strange household/research facility owned and operated by an eccentric millionaire, George Fabyan on his estate just outside Geneva, Illinois.  Elizebeth (a graduate of Hillsdale College) was hired, in 1916, to work on his Shakespeare project—that was t try to prove that Francis Bacon actually wrote the plays and had left encrypted clues in the First Folio.  But an extraordinary range of other projects were also being researched there.

William was, initially, doing genetic experiments on fruit flies.  But fairly quickly they both discovered that they had a facility for deciphering secret messages.  And they both quickly came to believe that the Bacon project was a dead end.  And William fell in love, and they got married.  They left Fabyan’s establishment, and fairly quickly found jobs in Washington-William as a military code and cipher expert during World Was I, and Elizebeth as doing similar work for the Customs office (deciphering messages exchanged by smugglers, and then bootleggers).

Unquestionably their most important work came during World War II.  They were working separately, and could rarely even discuss their work.  Between them, though, they made a significant impact on Germany’s espionage and sabotage campaigns (in Elizebeth’s case, in South America).  

This is a complex an interesting tale, and Fagone generally tells it well.  He is not a particularly graceful writer, though the story is compelling enough that I mostly overlooked that aspect of the book (although things do drag occasionally).  If anything is a persistent weakness, it is the description and discussion of the code-breaking work itself.  That is a largely technical subject and not especially gripping.  But it is a bit of a hole in the narrative.

Among the other people who have important places in the story, almost all come off well, appearing as dedicated, hard-working people doing, in some cases, dangerous jobs.  One person, however, comes off very badly…J. Edgar Hoover.  He appears as an ambitious attention and credit grabber is cares primarily for his own reputation and secondarily for that of the FBI.  

As I was preparing to write these comments, I discovered a second recent book focusing on Elizebeth Friedman, G. Stuart Smith’s A life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman, published by McFarland in 2007.  It’s considerably shorter than Fagone’s book (and also, oddly, more expensive).  And the description of it (on Amazon) suggests that William’s part in the story is downplayed or ignored.

If you are at all interested in the part that decoding played in the war, Fagone’s book will, I think, be the place to start for American efforts.  There’s also an extensive literature about the British efforts at Bletchley park, with which I am not familiar (although I can recommend Robert Harris’s Enigma, which, as a novel, probably plays a bit loosely with the facts). 

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Comic Sans font

In a blog I read, I ran across a discussion of the text font "Comic Sans."  This is what it looks like.  I learned that it is the easiest font for people who are dyslexic to read ("it doesn’t rely on interchangeable parts among letters. That’s part of what makes it well-suited for posters").

Sarah Caudwell, who worked as a barrister specializing in property and tax law, published her first mystery novel (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) in 1981, when she was 42.  Three other books followed at long intervals [The Shortest Way to Hades (1985), The Sirens Sang of Murder (1980), and The Sybil in her Grave (2000)]; all four remain in print, and all four are well worth the time of any lover of complex, erudite mysteries.  I recently began to reread the books, because Thus Was Adonis Murdered was chosen by the mystery fiction conference Magna Cum Murder ( as the one book for the con.  And rereading them has been a pleasure.[i]

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sarah Caudwell--Four Books

Sarah Caudwell[i]:
Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981)
The Shortest Way to Hades
The Sirens Sang of Murder
The Sybil in Her Grave

Sarah Caudwell, who worked as a barrister specializing in property and tax law, published her first mystery novel (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) in 1981, when she was 42.  Three other books followed at long intervals [The Shortest Way to Hades (1985), The Sirens Sang of Murder (1980), and The Sybil in her Grave (2000)]; all four remain in print, and all four are well worth the time of any lover of complex, erudite mysteries.  I recently began to reread the books, because Thus Was Adonis Murdered was chosen by the mystery fiction conference Magna Cum Murder ( as the one book for the con.  And rereading them has been a pleasure.[ii]

All four of her books were nominated for various mystery fiction awards, with The Sirens Sang of Murder winning the Anthony for best mystery in 1989.

The books focus on a group of five barristers in London (Michael Cantrip, Selena Jardine, Julia Larwood, Desmond Ragwort, and Timothy Shepherd); they are narrated by Hillary Tamar, a professor of (legal) history at Oxford, who in the course of the books does no teaching and little research.  It is Tamar, by the way, who unravels these mysteries, using what he refers to as Scholarship (most definitely with a capital “S”).  I have always thought, perhaps erroneously, that she intended five books, one focusing on each of the five.  If so, she did not get there.  Julia Larwood, Selena Jardine, Michael Cantrip…..all get their turn as the focus of one of the books.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered finds Julia (who is a bit absent-minded and perhaps somewhat indiscreet in her private life, while being extremely competent as a tax lawyer) about to leave for a trip to Venice.  It’s an Art Lover tour, and while Julia has no objection to Art it’s the other part of the tour she has hopes for.  And more so when she meets Ned as the members of the tour are arriving at the airport to begin their trips.  Ned is extraordinarily handsome-or beautiful, if you prefer—and traveling with his companion Kenneth.  And Julia is immediately smitten, and hopeful.

We learn this from a series of letters written by Julia and sent to Selena.  Given what I have experienced with mailing postcards from Italy to the States, I think it’s fair to say that the events recounted in the letters are not breaking news.  The breaking news comes from Cantrip (the women are almost always referred to by their first names; the men, almost always by their surnames), who, while vetting a newspaper’s copy for libel, comes across a teleprinter news report from Venice that one Julia Larwood has been detained for questioning in the death, by stabbing, in his bed, of one of the members of the Art Lovers tour.  Of course, the the corpse is the beautiful Ned.

Much of the book proceeds from letters sent by Julia (and read aloud by Selena, to whom they are addressed.  Timothy (the only one of the men consistently referred to by his first name) is on his way to Venice to meet with a client who is facing a significant tax liability (resulting from his inheritance) unless he takes action to avoid it; he will, while there, try to determine how serious Julia’s situation is.  Meanwhile, all the members of the Art Lovers tour, except, of course, Julia, are allowed to return home.

The ensuing investigation, both on site in Venice and long-distance from London, grows complicated.  It seems that Ned’s personal life was fairly complicated, as was Kenneth’s.  And two members of the tour seem to have somewhat dodgy art and antique businesses.  But the story reads, in many ways, as a farce, until the very end, which, suitably enough, consists of letters between the two (living) people most involved.  Those letters turn the tale into a tragedy.

This is a stunning debut mystery, and one I have never been able, quite, to forget.

The Shortest Way to Hades and The Sirens Sang of Murder both deal even more overtly with estate and inheritance issues.  In The Shortest Way to Hades, a relatively complex multi-generational trust is to be would up, and the heiress, Camilla, is about to become a very wealthy young woman.  (Professor Tamar helpfully constructs the family tree, which I made frequent reference to.)  Before the trust is wound up, though, her cousin Deirdre dies during a party at Camilla’s Rupert Galloway’s flat in London (He is Camilla’s father.).  She fell, or jumped, or was pushed off a balcony/patio.  It’s relevant that all Deirdre’s cousins were present, although there’s no apparent connection between any of them and a multi-million pound legacy…except that the day before her death, she had mailed a letter to Julia Larwood which says, “I have found out something interesting and I want you to tell me what to do about it.”

I pass over such incidents as two rather unconventional parties thrown by Rupert Galloway.  And the difficulties in moving the estate forward through probate.  (It is worth noting that English inheritance law seems to be much more complex than American law, however.)

Shortly thereafter almost everyone winds up in Greece.  Two of Camilla’s cousins are the children of her aunt Dorothea (her mother’s sister); their father is a world-renowned Greek poet (Constantine Demetrious).  Camilla is there for visit.  And Selena Jardine, one of the barristers, and her lover (Sebastian Verity rising English poet and devotee of Demetrious’s work) are enjoying a sailing holiday in the Greek islands.  While there, Camilla goes overboard during a sailing expedition, at night, while her cousins were asleep, narrowly escaping serious harm.  And Selena also has a very different but still dangerous sailing accident.

And eventually Professor Tamar arrives in Greece.  The unraveling of all the events—from Deirdre’s death to Camilla’s and Selena’s mishaps—leads to his solution of the mystery.  Selena’s experiences are crucial to this unravelling.

The Sirens Sang of Murder is Cantrip’s story, mostly.  And the setting is among the Channel Islands, which are sort of English, but sort of not, especially when it comes to financial manipulation.  Cantrip has somehow become the counsel to the Daffodil Trust (a multi-million pound estate); the trustees meet on the Isle of Jersey (the Isle of Sark also plays a prominent part).  And he and Julia are co-writing, for purely mercenary reasons, a bodice-buster…whether this would have worked out, we never know, but it seems to me that too many of their characters are too obviously not invented.

The issue facing the Daffodil Trust is to trace the unnamed heir to the fortune.  And, of course, their meetings (on Jersey and later in Monte Carlo) do not go smoothly.  And an English judge, Arthur Welladay (to whom Cantrip refers as old Wellieboots), seems to be haunting the island.  He reports all of this in exceptionally long telex messages back to London, which must be exceedingly expensive.  And Cantrip becomes rather enamored of one of the financial people, the Countess Gabrielle di Silvabianca.  And in the course of the discussiona about finding the heir to the Trust, two members of the Trustees die.

(Back in England, Professor Tamar has been hired to do some archival research to assist in identifying the heir to the trust.)

The tale is quite tangled, as are the relationships between the trustees, the solicitor (Clementine Derwent),, and Cantrip.  Oh, and the Countess’s husband is also present,  By the end, though, the heir has been identified, Cantrip has had a n umber of adventures, and the murders solved.

The final book in the series, The Sibyl in Her Grave, is, as it turns out, a team affair.  Julia has the most direct connection to the events, as her aunt Regina lives in the village (Parsons Haver) which is the setting for much of the action.  There is, again, a legal issue to be resolved, involving insider trading.  There is Isabelle, the fortune teller and the frequent and secretive arrivals of a man in a black Mercedes.  There is an early death, of Isabelle (who appears to have dabbled in blackmail).  There is the fortune teller’s niece Daphne, who inherits Isabelle’s home (but with no money to pay for it or her living expenses) and her fortune-telling.  There is an investment banking firm with successor issues, as its chairman prepares to retire.

There’s the vicar, Maurice, and his budding relationship with a young man (Derek Arkwright, who arrived at the village on the day of the funeral).  There’s the interminable remodeling project at the offices (Chambers) of four of the barristers.  And there’s Professor Tamar being hired to help chairman of an investment banking firm decide who his replacement will be.  As was the case in the first two books, much of the story is told in a series of letters—from Julia’s aunt—which provide a great deal of information about the events in Parsons Haver.

The action precedes over almost a year, and what progress that is being made toward resolving all the issues (and they are all, eventually resolved) seems inconclusive.  Just as, in my reading, the first book (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) end as a tragedy, so does this book.  Caudwell was in ill health during the months leading up to the publication (in early 2000), and died, it appears, before the book was published.  

I will admit that these books might not be to everyone’s taste.  They are refined, indeed almost elegant.  I suspect some readers will find Hillary Tamar to be a bit precious as a narrator.  And others might find the legal complications more complication that is necessary.  I don’t see any of that as a barrier to my enjoyment of the books.  My only regrets are the lengthy gaps between their publication, and Caudwell’s death (which was, as I now see things, premature—I am, as I type this, older than she was (only 60) at her death).  I anticipate reading them again, and perhaps again, with great enjoyment.

[i] Caudwell is a pseudonym adopted for her writing; her name was Sarah Cockburn, and her half-brothers (half-brothers Alexander Cockburn, Andrew Cockburn, and Patrick Cockburn) were prominent English journalists.  Other members of her extended family were also well-known in one or another field of creative endeavor.

[ii] She was also involved in a project with Lawrence Block. Tony Hillerman, Peter Lovsey, and Doanld Westlake--The Perfect Murder: Five Great Mystery Writers Create the Perfect Crime (edited by Jack Hill, and, apparently out of print.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered

Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered
Copyright © 1981 Sarah Caudwell
Dell Publishing
ISBN 978-0440212317

I first read Thus Was Adonis Murdered sometime in the 1980s; I found myself taking it off the shelf recently, because it has been selected as the “one book” for the mystery fiction convention I have most often attended—Magna Cum Murder—which will occur this coming weekend (October 25-25), in Indianapolis.  Magna is a small, and therefore intimate con, where we meet, from year to year, many of the same people, so that if feels much like a family affair.  And, for that reason, it seems to me to be an appropriate choice.

Not that this is a family mystery.  Rather, it’s that the principal (and recurring, in subsequent books) characters feel very much like a family.  Our protagonists consist of four young barristers in London (in alphabetical order), Michael Cantrip, Selena Jardine, Julia Larwood, Desmond Ragwort, and Timothy Shepherd; and Hilary Tamar, an Oxford Don and legal scholar.Our tale commences as Hilary arrives in London to pursue his researches into causas in English law and Julia departs for a vacation in Venice (she has taken with her a copy of England’s tax code with her, hoping (well…) that she shall find some time to work on a brief she must master.  (Henceforth, I will adopt the choice made by the author, to refer to these characters as Cantrip, Selena, Julia, Ragwort, and Timothy, as they, and our narrator, Hillary, do throughout the book.)

Julia, who is a beautiful young woman (and is in search of a somewhat less than celibate holiday), is thought by her colleagues to be (outside of her legal skills) to be somewhat in need of a keeper.  But, as Selena explains, she has done everything possible to get her to the airport and off to Italy, where she will be part of a group of Art Lovers on a conducted tour.  What could go wrong?  Besides, Selena has enjoined her to write daily of the events of her trip, and she has done so.  From this point, a fair amount of the book consists of Selena reading aloud Julia’s letters to the rest of the group.  (Timothy does not hear much of this, as he must himself head off to Venice to deal with the inheritance and consequent tax problems of Richard Tiverton.  Julia, I should add, has some serious tax problems of her own to deal with.

Well, a good deal, as the group discovers when they receive a telephone call from Cantrip, who is absent for the moment, reading the copy of a paper (not a newspaper) called The Scuttle, to protect it from libel suits.  While there, he discovers, from a Telex that has arrived in the newsroom, that Julia Larwood has been detained for questioning in a murder.  The victim is one of the touring Art Lovers, Ned, who had become Julia’s target for non-celibate activities in Venice (he is described as tal, slender, and beautiful).

So here we are.  Julia is in Venice, detained by the police.  Timothy is en route to Venice to deal with his client’s tax issues (and to assist Julia), Selena is, periodically, reading one of Julia’s letters to the group.  Postal service between Venice and Italy, being what it is, leads to a significant lag between the events Julia describes in her letters and Selena’s receipt of them.

Hillary turns out to be out armchair detective, and by listening carefully to the letters they receive from Julia (and, later, from Timothy), he reaches some conclusions.  These will require the assistance of another of the Art Lovers and some surveillance, in London, of another.  Using, Hillary tells the barristers (and us) uses his undoubted (?) skill in reading and interpreting obscure legal texts, to reach a conclusion.  And that conclusion turns out to be right.

Parts of the tale are extremely funny, and Caudwell’s portrayal of her cast is masterful.  She succeeds in giving each character a unique voice—useful, because the story it told largely either from the letters written by Julia and Timothy.  But it is, murder, after all, and the motive for and means of carrying out the murder leave no doubt that this is not, in the end, a comedy.  It is, in fact, a tragedy, and the lives lost in it are enough to leave me, at the end, feeling the tragedy, and the losses of those concerned, quite deeply.

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