Monday, June 10, 2019

Robert Goldsborough, Death of an Art Collector

Robert Goldsborough, Death of an Art Collector
Open Road Integrated Media
Copyright © Robert Goldsborough 2019
ISBN 978-81504-0-57547

The writer of mysteries whose work I have most often re-read is Rex Stout.  I think his mysteries are among the best ever written, and that the Nero Wolfe books, in particular, are consistently excellent—inhabited by interesting characters (particularly the main continuing characters, Wolfe; Archie Goodwin, his assistant; Inspector Cramer, whose first name we never actually learn…), possessing generally excellent plots, and concluding with mostly satisfying solutions to the crimes.  Following Stout’s death in 1974, it seemed unlikely that there would be any new books, and particularly Nero Wolfe books for me (and others like me).

However, in the 1980s, a Chicago journalist, Robert Goldsborough, wrote a “Nero Wolfe” mystery as a (as I recall) Christmas present for his mother.  He subsequently received permission from Stout’s estate to have it published, and it appeared d in1986 (Murder in E Minor).  In 2019, Goldsborough published the 14th of his re-creations of Nero Wolfe’s world.  They do not come close to the originals, but several of the early books were reasonably well done.  And I continue to buy them and read them.

The most recent entry—Death of An Art Collector (2019) [1]—does a better job than have some of the recent books of getting both Goodwin’s and Wolfe’s “voices” right (although that is, actually, faint praise), and he provides us with the beginning of a potentially interesting tale. [2]

Goodwin accompanies his long-time companion Lily Rowan to a dinner at which the plans for and the progress on the on the construction of the Guggenheim Museum are the focus, and at which the attendees are almost all wealthy potential supporters of the New York art scene, or others with a deep commitment to fine art and particularly painting.  Goodwin and Rowan are seated at a table with the group who will become the focus of the story:
Arthur Wordell, an extremely wealth art collector, whose collection centers on Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings
Nadia Wordell, his daughter
Faith Richmond, an author of several biographies of 19th century artists
Henry Banks, who serves as the curator for the collections of several wealthy collectors
Roger Mason, Wordell’s own private curator
Arthur Sterling, editor and publisher of Art & Artists magazine
Zondra Zagreb, an artist whose works get described as abstract expressionist
(Two others will also be involved—Wordell’s estranged wife Alexis and Boyd Tatum, a professor of art history at NYU, who has published his one series of books about art and artists.)

It’s a promising beginning, I thought, but things began to fall apart quite quickly.  At the dinner that opens the story, various people tell Wordell that he should seriously consider leaving his art collection [3] as a bequest to the Guggenheim.  This is a serious problem, because the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which owns the collection developed by the late Mr. Guggenheim, has as its mission “to promote the understanding and appreciation of art, architecture, and other manifestations of visual culture, primarily of the modern and contemporary periods, and to collect, conserve, and study’ modern and contemporary art.’ [4]  Or, to put it bluntly, the Guggenheim would not want his collection, and every one f those people would know it.  (The notion that Wordell should leave his collection to the Guggenheim becomes a recurring motif in the book.)

Unsurprisingly, perhaps (especially given the book’s title), Wordell dies, falling, or having been pushed, from the 20th floor office he leases in a rather run-down building near Times Square.  His death occurs fairly late at night; he had a habit of spending time there at night, sitting in the window (literally, sitting on the window frame, dangling he feet outside), watching the lights and enjoying the sounds of Manhattan.

His daughter, Nadia, wants to hire Wolfe to discover how he died—accident, suicide, or murder—and she thinks it’s murder.  The NYPD, on the other hand, has decided it was an accident and is not investigating further.  After a period in which Wolfe refuses to act, he consents to accept her as a client.  He interviews the people listed above, first singly, with little or no progress that I could discern.  And then he assembles them all (including Inspector Cramer and his chief assistant, Sergeant Purley Stebbins) what turns out to be a final meeting.  His questioning, it seemed to me, was not discovering anything new, and certainly does not point conclusively at any of the suspects.  So how do we discover the guilty party?  The murderer, for it was murder, leaps up and runs out of the old brownstone.  With Goodwin in hot pursuit, and the police trailing along behind.

A most unsatisfactory conclusion.

[1] Open Road Integrated Media.

[2] Not that the prose is anything other than fairly pedestrian.  And it includes some howlers, as, for example, this, from p. 98: “…Wolfe sat for several minutes, eyes unblinking, for several minutes, staring across the room…”  I defy you, or anyone, to stare unblinking for even a minute.

[3] A fraction of which is hung in. his house; the great majority of it lives in storage.


Monday, April 8, 2019

Susan Elia MacNeal, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary

Susan Elia MacNeal, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary
Bantam Books, 2012
© Susan Elia MacNeal2012
ISBN 978-0-553-59361-7

The first of (now) 7 books in the series featuring Maggie Hope, a gifted mathematician doing war work of one sort or another in England during World War II.  (5 of the first 6 books have been nominated for awards; I would be surprised if #7 is not nominated for something.)  And a very good debut it is.

Hope, an orphan whose English parents dies in a car crash when she was an infant, has been raised in the US by her aunt, Edith Hope (a professor of chemistry at Wellesley).  She has returned to England to sell her grandmother’s large, old London home (which, given the condition of the house and the state of the war—everyone expects a German invasion, is basically impossible).  And she gave up a place in the doctoral program in math to do so.  To make ends meet, she has acquired a set of five lodgers.  And Maggie decides to look for war work for which she is qualified.

She takes a shot at becoming a Private Secretary (basically, a chief of staff) for someone in the Government, and is rejected because she’s a woman.  She winds up, however, working as a secretary on the Prime Minister’s staff, working directly for Churchill: taking dictation, typing letters, speeches, reports, whatever needs to be done.  And she’s feeling that she’s being prevented from doing something much more.

London is wracked with explosions—both German bombs and IRA bombs—life is dangerous and, for many, cut short.  British Intelligence is, among other things, trying to put the IRA bombers out of existence.  And the IRA has some very large plans.  In the course of this, Maggie thinks she has stumbled across a coded IRA message.
It’s a complex tale, with much sorrow and also personal and career triumphs.  Maggie Hope (and I love the name) is an appealing character (although perhaps too good to be true, but that’s OK).  And parts of the book are very dark, very disturbing.  The end of the book, of course, is not the end of the story.  The war has barely begun (for all that it’s been going on for a year and a half), and the outcome is, in the middle of 1940, hardly pre-ordained (indeed, several books in which the Germans invade and conquer England make clear how contingent the outcome is; Len Deighton’s SS-GB is, I think, the best of these stories).  So there is much more for Maggie to do, and following her through this journey should be a very rewarding trip. 

Monday, April 1, 2019

J.M. Gregson, Murder at the Nineteenth

J.M. Gregson, Murder at the Nineteenth
Original publication William Collins Sons &Co., LTD, 1989
© 1989 J.M. Gregson
ebook publication Endeavour Media LTD., 2018

In the first of nearly 30 books (the most recent is dated 2016) in the series featuring Superintendent John Lambert and Detective Inspector Bert Hook (policemen in an English town/city), the Chairman of the local golf club (James Sheperd) is found murdered in his (locked) office by Lambert.  (Shepherd had called Lambert, asking him to come to the club at about 10 PM, suggesting he had something very serious to discuss.)  The weapon is a large knife originally from the Middle East.  Shepherd lalo had a slightly earlier committee meeting; five of the more prominent members of the club, four of whom chaired a club committee (the fifth was the club’s secretary), were the attendees.

It soon becomes pretty clear that Lambert has five suspects—the attendees of that evening’s meeting.  And none of them have particularly good alibis for the crucial time.

I don’t recall what induced me to buy this book, but I’m always on the lookout for a god series, and the length of this one seemed to suggest that if has some promise.  I will say that the setting was nicely handled, although I don’t think that the actual investigation would stand much scrutiny in comparison with actual investigative practices in England.  In fact I doubt that Lambert would be allowed to conduct the investigation—he’s a member of the golf club and in fact has a role in its administration; he is close to, if not intimate with, all the suspects.  And there’s a specific thing about the writing…

The book, in print, would, I think, run about 200 pages.  But the story was really not complex enough to support the length.  Gregson fills a lot of pages with what can only be called interior monologues (somewhat odd, actually, as the story is written in the third person).  These do not add much, in my opinion, to the story.  My best guess is that, absent those digressions and diversions, we’d have a book of maybe 124-140 pages, too long to be a novella, but too short to be a novel (or at  best a very short novel). 

And the conclusion seemed to me to be both ad hoc and fairly obvious.  The evidence, such as it was, seemed thin.  But the author’s attitude toward the killer was, throughout, much less generous than his depictions of the other potential suspects.  So the ending fell a bit flat.  This was not, by any stretch, a bad book, and I might give a later entry a try (many of them appear also to involve golf).  But, at least for now, these are not on my must-read list.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Steve Hockensmith, On the Wrong Track: A Holmes on the Range Mystery

Steve Hockensmith, On the Wrong Track: A Holmes on the Range Mystery
© Steve Hockensmith 2007
ISBN 978-1-53994-8629

I was looking through my TBR mountain the other day, and unearthed On the Wrong Track.  Now, I would have sworn I had read all of the “Holmes on the Range” books, but the cover did not look familiar, so I thought I’d read the first few pages to remind myself of the story.  But it was not familiar at all.  I was puzzled.  I considered dropping Parnell Hall a note asking him if The Puzzle Lady could help me, but decided just to read the damn book instead.  Which was a good decision, because it is a winner.

Otto (Big Red) Amlingmeyer and his (older) brother Gustav (Old Red) have been cowboys.  Otto, the younger, bigger, and literate one of the pair, has been reading mystery stories (and many of them featuring a hawk-featured gentleman in London) to Gustav.  And, along the way, they have run into some mysteries, and Gustav has solved them (with some assistance from Otto—who has been writing their adventures u with a hope of becoming Gustav’s Watson).  Now, Gustav decides to try to become a detective rather than a cowboy, and they find themselves with a recommendation from the legendary Burl Lockhart (and far from sober).  Unfortunately, from Otto’s perspective, they have been recommended to the Southern Pacific Railroad, and neither of them has a warm place in their hearts for railroads in general.

Nonetheless, Gustav decides that they should take advantage, and they find themselves on a train, headed for California.  Along with them is a rich assortment of passengers, including a traveling salesman, a lovely young woman, a widow with twin sons, an older woman who appears to be something of a card shark, a Chinese doctor (which creates some consternation among the passengers,, and…Burl Lockhart.  The train’s crew is equally diverse—a nasty conductor, a dedicated baggage car man, and a cheeky news agent/concessionaire (“butcher), a black porter (whom Otto and Gustav have to learn to tip, this being their first time on a train).

On the outside is a gang of outlaws who have made a habit of robbing Southern Pacific trains.

And things become a bit difficult when Otto discovers that Gustav can’t handle riding on trains—motion sickness ensues, and while they are on platform of one of the cars, a head—and then a body—emerge from under the train.  They pull the emergency brake cord, and thus begins the investigation.  (The first discovery is that the dead man is a crew member; the second is the presence of a hobo—the King of the Hoboes—who has been riding on the underside of one of the cars.)  Oh, and a very large, very unhappy snake.

It’s quite a cast, and the nature of the problem becomes more and more complex the more Gustav works to solve the mystery. 

One of the things I know something about from my professional live (I’m an economist with a teaching and research interest in US economic history) is railroads in the 19th century—both as a means of transportation and shipping, and as benefactors or exploiters of farmers )and various other producers) and passengers.  And I think Hockensmith has done his research on all of those things, and, from what I know, he has also done a first-rate job of describing the experience of being a passenger on a train in the late 19th century.  And he does all that part of the story in an entertaining way.

And the mystery is also very well done.  And very complicated.  Otto, who’s narrating this (and as he makes clear, he intends this tale to get published—eventually, and if they survive), lets us see not only how Gustav proceeds, but also the false starts, red herrings, and setbacks of the investigation.  The two main characters are vivid, cantankerous, and very, very good company.  I am actually somewhat disturbed with myself to have discovered On the Wrong Track 12 years after its original publication and at least 5 or 6 years after I first discovered Hockensmith and the world of the Amlingmeyer brothers.  If you haven’t yet made their acquaintance, today—or maybe tomorrow—would be a good time to start.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Christopher Huang, A Gentleman’s Murder

Christopher Huang, A Gentleman’s Murder
Inkshares, Inc. 2018
© Christopher Huang 2018
ISBN 978-1-942645-95-5

In the aftermath of the Great War (not yet known as World War I), Eric Peterkin finds himself drawn into investigating the murder of Albert Benson.  Unlike the other members of the Britannica Club (of which one of Eric’s forbears was a founder), Benson had not served in the military; a conscientious objector, he had served as a stretcher-bearer in the war (and his election to membership was somewhat controversial).  Benson died after being more-or-less talked into a wager with (ex-Captain) Mortimer Wolfe—Wolfe claimed he could break into any of the safe deposit boxes that were available to the club members, and undertook to break into Benson’s.

Eric is also something of an outsider in the Britannica, as his father had married a Chinese woman; his family background causes some (including some members of the Britannica) to regard him as somewhat less than English.  And he has reason to think that the detective (Parker) in charge of the murder investigation may be concealing evidence.

Not surprisingly, the motive for Benson’s murder will be found in the past, 6 years before (in 1918), at what was a convalescent hospital for casualties of the war, and in the disappearance (and death) of Emily Wang (also half-English and half-Chinese, and a qualified nurse).  Emily was a cousin of the wife of the current president of the Britannica, and her death actually is discovered during the investigation of Benson’s murder.

The narrative becomes quite complex, and whatever official investigation is going on gets a little lost; we are focused on Eric’s attempts (ultimately successful) to find the truth.  It’s a quest that culminated in gathering of all the people involved, in one way or another—a classic gathering that would not be out of place in an Agatha Christie mystery.  And this scene is very well done.

All the characters had their points of interest (although I never quite figured out what function (other than being a sort-of-Watson) Eric’s friend Avery Ferrett actually played.  (He’s the least well-developed character in the book.)

Huang has obviously done his research; based on my knowledge of the Great War and its aftermath and of the conditions in London after the war.  The setting, the still powerful consequences of the war, and the London fog, are all vividly conveyed.  I did find a couple of things a bit difficult to accept—Eric’s last name being the one that nagged at me most, the other a scene at the Britannica after the mystery has been solved.  But overall the story works, the characters work, the setting works.  I do hope that there is more to follow.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Bill Crider, We'll Always Have Murder

Bill Crider, We’ll Always Have Murder
iBooks Inc. 2001
© Bogart, Inc. 2001
ISBN  07434-7505-4
Available in paperback (ISBN-13: 978-0743492966
Available from used booksellers

Terry Scott is a free-lance PI in port-war Hollywood; his principal clients are in the movie business (and he has particular ties to Warner Bros.), with the intent of keeping people in the business out of the spotlight when they might have committed an indiscretion.  He’s called to Jack Warner’s office where he finds Warner—and Humphrey Bogart.  It seems someone has tried to blackmail Bogie.  And Scott’s assignment is to put an end to it.  As it happens, the blackmailer is another PI Frank Burleson (whom Scott knows, and has no use for).  His job is to put an end to the blackmail attempt.

He and Bogart find, when they arrive at Burleson’s seedy house, that any problems they might have with Burleson have been attended to—he’s dead.  And a pistol belonging to Bogart is next to the body.  Scott gets Bogart to leave—and also gets him not to take the gun—shortly before the cops, in the persons of Lt. Congreve and Officer Garton (not LA’s finest) arrive.  Now Scott has two objectives—handle the blackmail scheme (because there’s no assurance that it ended with Burleson’s death) and keep Bogart from being arrested for murder.

Much of his investigation centers on a low-rent studio (Superior Pictures) that specializes in knockoffs of other studios’ movies and at Charlie O’s casino.  Bogart, for reasons best known to himself, gets involved in the investigation as well.  And it turns into a fairly difficult—and dangerous—undertaking.

Crider is best known for his Dan Rhodes mysteries, set in contemporary small-town Texas.  Here, he shows that he was also up to the task of re-creating a plausible Hollywood setting as well.  And if Scott gets beaten up perhaps a little more than seems plausible, then you should re-read some of Raymond Chandler’s books, in which Marlowe’s survival seems to be something of an afterthought.  Crider also does an excellent job with Bogart, and if the character as presented seems to owe a lot to his movie persona, then we should remember that he is, in a very real sense, playing a role here—the role of Humphrey Bogart tough-guy actor who won’t be pushed around.

When we get to the resolution (there’s more violence, a difficult encounter with the cops, a trip to a lesbian night club, adventures on the set of a Superior movie, Scott’s recurring dreams of Rita Hayworth, and more), Crider handles the resolution quite well.  In a relatively brief 220 pages, we get quite a ride and quite a good mystery.  I’ve always been sorry that Crider did not re-visit Terry Scott (but given the copyright information, I also suspect he did not own the character).  Just an excellent piece of work by a truly professional writer.

Terence Faherty, Come Back Dead

Terence Faherty, Come Back Dead
Simon & Schuster, 1997
© Terence Faherty 1997
ISBN 978-068483-0841
(Out of print; available as an ebook and from used booksellers)

The second book in the series featuring Scott Elliott, who works for Paddy Maguire and his Hollywood Security Agency, helping the studios contain scandals and protect their interests in a number of ways.  The current issue involves Carson Drury, one-time wunderkind, whose first film (after Broadway and radio triumphs) First American was universally hailed as a masterpiece.  Hi second outing, however, The Imperial Albertsons, was completed after Drury was no longer associated with the studio (RKO), with a completely new ending.  Drury has, 10 years later (in 1955), decided to try to return the film to his original vision—and it appears someone is sabotaging the project.

If this sounds awfully familiar, it’s because Carson Drury is a thinly (including his physique) disguised Orson Welles, First American is a stand-in for Citizen Kane, and The Imperial Albertsons might be better known as The Magnificent Ambersons.  Not that Welles seems ever to have attempted to redo that one.  For me, one of the weaknesses of the book is its too obvious use of Welles and his movies.  Despite which it is a well-done, sometimes remarkable mystery.

Beginning in Hollywood, we are quickly transported to a smallish town in east north central Indiana, the home of one of the people financing Drury’s project (Gilbert Traynor), whose family, whose family-owned company once produced a line of expensive cars and now is a parts supplier.  Gilbert is looking for a way to do something somewhat more glamorous.  Faherty does an excellent job of developing the Indiana setting (as he should—He’s an Indiana native and still lives in Indiana.

One of the treats for me was attempting to pick out the “real” places that might be the inspirations for the fictional locations.  A good deal of early (1900 through the 1920s) auto production in the US was in fact located in Indiana.  (A list, with links can be found here:  In the relevant part of the state, auto manufacturers flourished for a time in Kokomo, Anderson, and Marion.  Part of the action in the book occurs in Middletown—and Muncie, Indiana, was the site of a very famous sociological study published (in 1959) under the title Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture.  Some of the events in the book occur in Indianapolis and make use of actual settings, under their actual names (Butler University, for example, and its (no longer in existence) outdoor theater.[1]

But back to the story.  Even in Indiana, it appears that someone is still trying to sabotage the film.  The Klan seems to have taken a dislike to Drury (and, in the 1920s, and even later, the Klan was a force in Indiana; it was especially strong in Marion).  Drury’s improvised speech responding to the Klan is a brilliant scene.  Drury’s right-hand man is murdered.  And the investigation of the murder threatens to entangle Elliott and hamper efforts to make progress on the file.  Throughout, the aftermath of World War II continues to cast a shadow.  And there is another murder.  Elliott feels obligated to resolve the mysteries (and Maguire arrives to reinforce his efforts).  Eventually, after a number of false starts and some trips down the wrong path, Elliott, Maguire, and the local law enforcement people find their way to the solution.  If that solution is a bit too heavily laden with psychological trauma for my taste, it works within the events of the story and the behavior and characters of the story.  And Faherty does a brilliant job of evoking both the times and the places.  Well worth the time you could spend with Elliott and Maguire—and Carson Drury. [2]

[1] Where, in the 1960s, on an incredibly hot July night, my family saw Yul Byrynner in The King and I.

[2] This is worth only a footnote.  We learn that Elliott’s full name is Thomas Scott Elliott, which immediately made me think of Thomas Stearns Eliot…which I personally found both interesting and amusing.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

In which I once again engage in copycat photoblogging

Chris Bertram has a great multiple reflections photo:

I have a single reflection in a window in Milan (from 2005):

Friday, February 22, 2019

Bill Crider, That Old Scoundrel Death

Bill Crider, That Old Scoundrel Death
Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press, 2019
© Bill Crider 2019
ISBN 978-1-250-16562-6
Also available as an ebook

The 25th (and, unfortunately, likely last) Sheriff Dan Rhodes book gives us an intriguing plot, Crider’s well-drawn characters (both continuing and those specific to this book), and a setting that pulls it all together into an entertaining few hours.  He does, however, leave one thread hanging:  Will Sheriff Rhodes run for re-election?  I rather hope that, in the world of Blacklin County and Clearview, he will continue to maintain law and order for many years.

We start off with a traffic incident.  Local lay-about and petty criminal Kenny Lambert has chased after a man named Cal Stinson, claiming Stinson cut him off.  Lambert is threatening to shoot him.  Stinson, a newcomer, explains that he’s been out to see the old school in Thurston, which some people in the county want to turn into a community center and others want to tear down.  Rhodes arrests Lambert, and one of his deputies (Ruth Brady) pulls in to tell Rhodes that there’s something he needs to deal with.  Rhodes turns Lambert over to her, and heads for the mayor’s office.

Where he discovers that there’s a new on-line “news” source in town—a blog calling itself Digging that Blacklin County Dirt, run by “Thomas Paine” and “Patrick Henry” which has just called the mayor a nincompoop for wanting to keep his old office once the new City Hall building opens, and the mayor wants Sheriff Dan Rhodes to do something about it.  Rhodes calms him down, pointing out the freedom of the press, among other things, and suggesting a way for the mayor to find out who’s running the operation—hire Seepy Benson, a teacher at the local junior college (and former ghost hunter), who has a PI license—to find out..

Back at the office, he learns (from Hack, the dispatcher) that Stinson has not come in to file a formal complaint.  Rhodes tell Hack to see whether he can find an address for Stinson; Hack can find no one named Cal Stinson in any database he can access.

The next day, a Thurston resident (Wanda Wilkins calls the sheriff’s office to report a dead body in the old school.  And it’s Stinson.  Well, not Stinson, but you know what I mean.  He’s been shot.  And, he had told the woman who later found his body that his name was “Bruce Wayne.”  (And I don’t have to tell you who “Bruce Wayne is, or was, do I?)  Which makes finding out “Stinson” really is somewhat important.  Which he does, in fairly short order (with an assist from Seepy)—he’s one of the people behind Digging that Blacklin County Dirt.  And, as t happens, they’ve been following the school issue.

Rhodes decides he’s going to have to talk to the people involved in the dispute over the school (after all, the body was found there).  And the people Rhodes talks to about “Stinson’s” death all seen to have something to hide. That includes the Hunleys [a family with two war heroes—father (Viet Nam) and son (Desert Storm)] the Falkners, and the Reeses.  The Hunleys are primary backers of saving the old school, and the other couples are the leaders of the “replace” forces.

That’s pretty much the setup.  There are no apparent specific leads.  Even “Stinson’s” car has vanished.  But Rhodes keeps asking questions, finding discrepancies and evasions, and finally has enough to put it all together and is able to identify the killer.  And that has always been Rhodes’s approach.  Ask questions, look for inconsistencies, ask more questions, until the pattern becomes clear and he knows whodunit and where, ultimately, to find the evidence.  I will say that one of the final scenes in the book strikes me as (atypically) implausible, but that’s a truly minor issue (and other readers may not agree with me anyway).  The resolution is in fact rather poignant, but true to the characters.

Crider always does a remarkable job with the low-life characters, in this case especially Kenny and Noble.  These two are none too bright, not ambitious, and have no redeeming social value, but he makes them almost sympathetic.  They are the sort of minor characters who could come back in another book, not as major figures, but as local color and background.

I’ve been reading the Dan Rhodes books since the mid-1990s, and have found them all somewhere between well above average to excellent.  This is one of the excellent ones.  And I will miss having additional opportunities to spend a few hours with Sheriff Rhodes. His deputies and staff, and his wife Ivy.  And the dogs, Speedo and Yancy.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (Annotations by Martin Gardner)

Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits
Annotations by Martin Gardner
Original publication 1876
This edition by W. W, Norton, 2006
Annotations © Martin Gardner 1962, 1974, 1981, 2006
Introduction © Adam Gopnick 2006
“The Listing of the Snark” © Selwyn H. Goodacre 2006
ISBN 978-0-393-06242-7

Lewis Carroll’s  original publication of The Hunting of he Snark was, in its own way something of a literary event, coming as it did a mere decade after the Alice books.  It is both much, much shorter [the text fits easily 31 pages (including Carroll’s introduction and original illustrations by Henry Hamilton)—which is the length of the other edition I have] and both a much more obscure and a much weirder tale than the Alice tales (which are themselves fairly strange.  As Carroll himself relates, as he was out walking one day the line “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see” came into his mind.  He recognized it as the end to something, and eventually set about writing the beginning and the middle.

The text itself can easily be read in less than an hour.  But reading and digesting the annotations (and other material) in this most recent English version will take much longer, and may—but only may—serve to make the text less obscure.  Carroll invents a number of words (beginning with Snark and Boojum) and a number of expressions (“What I tell you three times is true") that enrich the English language.  But as for what the text means…well, I suspect no one knows--or ever will know. 

Gardner’s annotations don’t really do much to unravel the mystery of the meaning of the poem, but they do help understand some of the references that are obscure to us (for example, the famous Tichborne claimant case which likely formed the basis of “Fit the Sixth” (about which you may find more than you ever wanted to know here: 
I do have a favorite from among the annotations, which is the sad fate of John Colenso, an English mathematician, theologian, and social activist.  Gardner describes it this way (beginning on p. 52):

In 1846 he was appointed Bishop of Natal, a South African province where the native Zulus badgered him with embarrassing questions about the Old Testament.  The more Colenso pondered his answers the more he convinced himself that Christianity was lost if it continue to insist on the Bible’s historical accuracy.  He expressed these heretical views in a series of books, using arithmetical arguments to prove the nonsense of various Old Testament tales…Such opinions seem mild today*, but at the time they touched off a tempest that rocked the English church.  Colenso was savagely denounced, socially ostracized, and finally excommunicated, though the courts decided in his favor and he was later reinstated at Natal.

This edition, which contains Gardner’s last reworking of the annotations, is sadly out of print.  It is, I am more than pleased to say, widely available from used booksellers, generally from around $10.  If you feel a Snark hunt in your future, Lewis Carroll’s magnificent poem can lead you to it, and Gardner’s masterful annotations will help you have some vestiges of ideas about what it all might mean. 

*Perhaps less mild than Gardner thinks.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Bill Crider: An Appreciation

I want to say some things about Bill Crider’s work, especially as what seems likely to be the final book is about to arrive.

I first discovered Bill in the nmid-1990s, so I am sort of a late-comer.  I was driving back from a long day of meetings in Bloomington (IN), at Indiana University, to Chicago where I lived at the time, and I stopped in Lafayette for dinner.  There was a bookstore off the interstate which sold only remaindered books, but, as I had nothing to read while I ate, I stopped and bought a paperback mystery novel titled Shotgun Saturday Night.  The cover copy was intriguing, and the over photo was brilliant, and it was a buck.  And the opening sentence:  Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.”  I had to force myself to stop reading and get back in the car.  When I got home, I stayed up until I finished…which was a problem, as I needed to get up and go to work the next morning.

I immediately began looking for more, (Amazon was an immense help, even then), and discovered another series of books (the Truman Smith PI books) and the earlier Dan Rhodes books (while Shotgun Saturday Night was only the second book in the series, I didn’t discover it until maybe 1995, at which time there were at least a half a dozen.  And then I found the Carl Burns books (of which there were three by then).  And I was hooked—on Bill Crider and on his books.

While the Dan Rhodes books make up most of what he wrote (25 books over 33 years), there were enough of the others to keep me busy (5 Truman Smith books, 4 Carl Burns, 3 Sally Burns, 2 with Willard Scott, 2 with Clyde Wilson, and 1 standalone—We’ll Always Have Murder, which I love).  Given that the man had a full-time job as a teacher and administrator, his ability to produce so much high-quality work is pretty amazing.  Clearly, the Dan Rhodes books are the center of his work.  I have a deep fondness for the Carl Burns and Sally Good books, because they are set on college campuses, and unlike many books in that sort of setting, he nails the setting.  They are good mysteries as well, but I’m an academic, and to have the academic part of it so well done was such a treat.

There is, I think, something of a tendency to consider his books to tend toward the “cozy” (a term than does not fit very well), because the continuing characters are pleasant, normal people, living (mostly) normal lives.  They aren’t border-line depressives (which is how I tend to think of Philip Marlowe) or eccentric geniuses (Nero Wolfe) or idealized fantasy heroes (Spenser).  But murder intrudes in their lives, and they have to deal with it.  For Rhodes, it’s a job, for Smith, it’s sort of tangentially related to his being a PI.  But for Burns and Good, murder is an intrusion into their lives…and threatens to upend or even devastate their worlds. 

But let’s focus on Dan Rhodes.  He is not really an ordinary man.  He’s smart, and passionately devoted to his job (and his wife and his dogs).  Doing his job well is a driving force in his life, and maintaining an ordered world is part of that.  His co-workers (I especially like Ruth Brady) are an integral part of that (and if Hack and Lawton occasionally get on me nerves, they also get on his).  For me, the whole series reads as an extended morality tale.  Death –violent death, death as destroyer, not death as an inevitable part of live—threatens to destroy the fabric of a community.  But, at least for now, that threat is forestalled, but not defeated.

And the Dan Rhodes books are funny as well, not in a slapstick sense, but in the way that life is often funny.  Wild boars, destructive as they are.  Ostriches?  Yes, ostriches.  Seepy Benton and his enthusiasms.  Hack (the dispatcher) and Lawton (the jailer) who keep the sheriff’s office together (and who apparently do not exist, except there.  Jennifer Loam who runs her own local, internet-based news service.  And Ivy, who anchors Dan’s life (and tries, not terribly successfully, to get him to eat sensibly—I’m with Dan on this one).

What Crider did (as Arthur Conan Doyle did, and Rex Stout, and Tony Hillerman, and a few others), and it’s a true and difficult achievement, is to create a world real enough that we can understand it and see ourselves inhabiting it, but is filled by a kind of magic, and so keeps us coming back, over and over again.

Friday, February 8, 2019

James R. Benn, Death’s Door

James R. Benn, Death’s Door
Soho Crime, 2011
© James R, Benn 2011
eISBN 98-1-61695-186-3

When I began looking for something to read, I thought it was time to get back to James Benn’s Billy Boyle series; I was surprised to discover that it’s been 3 years since I read A Mortal Terror.  That was way too long a gap.  So I picked up my e-reader, opened up the file, and read Death’s Door in two days.  It is yet another excellent entry (the 7th), in my opinion, one of the best books, because of the personal stakes for Boyle, in a series of 13 books.

Billy Boyle, who is a distant cousin of Eisenhower and was, before the war, a Boston cop, now serves as a sort of free-lance investigator for Ike in the ETO during World War II.  In this entry, he’s more-or-less AWOL when he is dragged back to undertake a job that will take him to the Vatican, with Rome still under German occupation, to investigate the murder of Edward Corrigan (who had worked in the Holy Office of the Pope, as a lawyer-within-the-church.  It seems that there are major religious and political figures in the US who want to know who did it, and why.

Boyle is immediately willing to go—not because he really cares about Corrigan’s death, but because the woman he loves (Diana Seaton, a British intelligence officer) will be in or around Rome, in a Gestapo prison—if she’s still alive.  And he intends, one way of another, to find her and get her out.  Going with him on this quest is his close friend, with whom he has worked throughout the war, a Polish Baron, Pitotr Augustus Kazimerz (Kaz).  Along the way a large number of “real people” have minor (Sterling Hayden) or major [any number of priests he works with (or against)] after he gets to the Vatican.

The historical setting is (as is usual in Benn’s books) remarkably well presented.  In this case, it involves the position of refugees (especially Jewish) hiding out from the Nazis, the privations (and some minor privileges for those fortunate enough) experienced by the population.  There’s even a moderately un-nasty German intelligence operative.  As Benn spells out in an afterword, many of the events in the book are historical fact (for one, which sheds no particular honor on the Allies, the bombing of Monte Casino).

The various threads of the story wind up coming together, and Boyle (and Kaz) complete their mission.  But it is, throughout, not a sure thing, with an occupying army, the Gestapo, other elements of German intelligence, and the machinations within the Vatican.  And a considerable number of the actors in this tale don’t come through it unscathed—or even alive.

If you have not yet encountered these books, I would suggest starting at the beginning (with Billy Boyle), and I would strongly suggest starting now.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Alan Beechey, An Embarrassment of Corpses

Alan Beechey, An Embarrassment of Corpses
Poisoned Pen Press, 1997/2014
© Alan Beechy 2014
ISBN 978-1-61595-4287 (ebook)

This is the first of (so far) three books featuring Oliver Swithin (author of the Railway Mice children’s books, featuring Finsbury the Ferret), Detective Superintendent Tim Mallard (Oliver’s uncle), and Detective Effie Strongith Arm.  The book opens with Oliver discovering the body of his friend Sir Hargreaves Random (commonly called Harry; author of boys adventure books)) in the pool surrounding Nelson’s Column.  It’s just after 6 AM, following the annual Snark Hunt organized by and for the members of their club, and based, of course, on Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.  It turns out, of course, to be murder, and a number of subsequent murders occur daily.  And they all have signs left suggesting the Zodiac—in reverse order of the calendar, beginning with Pisces (and you have already noticed that Sir Harry died in a pool, a pool with fountains in the shape of dolphins).

Oliver makes the transition from suspect to assistant to his uncle, and as the death count rises, tempers grow shorter.  And the pressure to find the murderer and stop these apparently random murders also grows.  More than that I don’t think I can say about the plot (although there is one point that I find basically unbelievable, which is the murderer’s actual motive).  Oliver, by the way, would like to get closer to Effie, a desire that is complicated by the people he shares a (large) flat with and by Oliver’s one-time involvement with Sir Harry’s niece Lorina.  I will say, though, that I found the denouement a bit contrived.  Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot.

The three main characters are all interesting and I’m looking forward to the other two in the series (This Private Plot and Murdering Ministers; all three are available as ebooks, but not, apparently new in print; they are available from used booksellers). 

Anthony Gilbert, Death Knocks Three Times

Anthony Gilbert, Death Knocks Three Times
Originally published by Walter J. Black (New York) 1949
© Anthony Gilbert 1949
(This book pre-dates the ISBN system.)

Anthony Gilbert was the pen name of Lucy Beatrice Malleson (thanks to Stop, You’re Killing Me), a prolific writer of mysteries published from 1927 t0 1974 (she died in 1973)  (Her wikipedia page-- much useful information about her career.  At this time, so far as I can tell, none of her books are in print; only one, a compilation of shorts (Sequel to Murder, a compilation published by Crippen & Landru in their “Lost Classics” series).  Even ABE is not much help; I find less than a dozen of her (nearly 75) books available there.

On the evidence of Death Knocks Three Times (by my count the 22nd in the series of books featuring barrister Arthur Crook), this is a pity.  I bought this one based on some very positive comments about it I read somewhere, and it is excellent (which is not to say perfect).  We begin with Crook driving through a storm, on his way home (which is London) following the successful completion of a trial.  The roads are bad, he has to take a detour, and finally comes upon an isolated house, where he seeks refuge.  The occupants—Col. James Sherren (ret.) and Jimmy Bligh, his servant—are surprised (in the case of the Colonel, somewhat outraged) that someone has arrived at their door. Crook, however, persuades them to offer him a (cold, uncomfortable) room.

Shortly after Crook’s return to his chambers in London, a police inspector calls on him, to ask what, if anything, he might know about the Coloner’s death.  He died the night following Crook’s departure, while his nephew, John Sherren, was there for a brief visit.  The (rather unique) cause of death is suspicious, and Crook is required to attend the inquest, at which the verdict is death by misadventure.

But Crook’s interest in the death of the Colonel does not end there.

The Colonel has left everything to Bligh (as his nephew knew).  And John Sherren is left with two maiden aunts, his mother’s sisters, Isabel and Clara Bond.  John inherited his mother’s estate, which was sufficient to support his efforts as an author.  Clara inherited the Bond estate from her father, from her (and Isabel’s) brother, with a stipulation that Clara take care of Isabel, with the balance to go to Isabel if Clara dies first. 

At this point, John is a none-too-successful author, and Clara and Isabel are living together, supported by their inheritance.  Until one day Isabel’s body is found on the rocky beach below their house on a bluff overlooking the sea.  (She had been, so far as anyone knows, home alone.)

And then Clara begins receiving threatening letters (some through the post, some left at the house).

So that’s the setting.  Clara sells the house and moves into a residential hotel.  And following dinner and after-dinner entertainments with John and a friend of Isabel’s, Frances Pettigrew.  With them at the end of the evening is a Mr. Marlowe, who had been courting Isabel shortly before her death.  (Miss Pettigrew is there because Clara has asked her advice about the threatening letters.)  That night, Clara dies, having taken poison.  The question, obviously is who and why.

Crook’s attention is attracted to the affair, and while he does not exactly investigate, he does take an interest, talking often and at length with the other parties.  And, following a long conversation with Miss Pettigrew, he indicates that he knows who is responsible for Clara’s death, and why.  In the course of that conversation, Crook also explores how, and why, Isabel died.  That’s not exactly the end, but it is the climax. 

This is a relatively sort (155 pages) book, but the story is complex and multifaceted.  It was, for me, an engrossing mystery, with a fairly well-hidden solution.  And so I am left hoping to find more of Anthony Gilbert’s books,

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
Liveright, 2015
© Mary Beard Publications 2015
ISBN 978-1-63149-222-8

In this stunning and compelling book, Mary Beard tries to understand, and to help us understand, the transition of Rome from a “republic” (governed, more of less, by the Senate) to an empire (ruled by an emperor).  For some reason, this seems like an important question, one that may have implications not just for our understanding of the (relatively distant) past, but for our present and near-term future.

Her narrative takes us from roughly 200 BCE to 200 CE, as the Roman republic increasingly experiences crises of government, with the first climax being Julius Caesar’s return to Rome (about 45 BCE) and his fairly open courting of becoming a king.  The second turning point is Octavian (Caesar’s adopted son) claiming the title of Emperor (in 31 BCE).  What follows, in Beard’s account, is a roughly 200 year period of empire, ruled by 14 emperors (as she notes, the following 100 years saw 70 or so “emperors”), of relatively peaceful governance of an empire that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to well into Asia Minor.  Her objective is to understand, and to help us understand, how Rome got from Caesar to Commodus.

What became clear to me was that Rome’s structure of governance was, by Caesar’s time, no longer up to the task of dealing with what was already an empire in extent.  The Senate remained (at least in theory) the center of governmental power, and executive authority was exercised by consuls (of whom there were generally 2) who served 1-year terms (although, as time went by, consul were more frequently re-elected to subsequent terms) and tribunes (who apparently could, and did, act independently of the consuls).  This was a pretty rickety structure, especially if the primary consul proposed (and the Senate enacted) significant “reforms.”  (The most obvious cases were that of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (tribune in 133 BCE) and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (tribune in 127 BCE):  Both were killed because many of the aristocrats opposed their changes.  Beard argues that Caesar faced similar resistance, which, along with fears that he might declare himself a king or emperor, resulted in his death as well).

And as Rome became the center of a physical empire—long before it was ruled by an emperor—the very real problems of how to control such a sprawling expanse made governance by the Senate increasingly problematic.  And so Rome inched toward more central control, more authority vested in one man, until, eventually, Octavian renamed him self Augustus and became the first emperor.

The story, of course, is much more complicated than my summary (and probably more complicated than Beard’s 500+ page book).  In my opinion, she does a magnificent job or making clear what the turning points are, and how (if not why; why is always harder) changes occurred.  She also helps us understand how the daily life of at least wealthy Romans went on during all this (and makes an effort to present the life of the poor and near-poor, as well; that task is complicated because there is next to no documentary evidence extant that helps much).

She also does an excellent job of making clear how much the late Republic and early Empire was reliant on very distant sources for many of the goods that made up people’s lives—including olive oil, grain, and other daily necessities of life.  One of my favorite bits of information involves the Monte Testaccio—which is not a mountain, or even a hill, but a trach dump, made up of (literally) millions of (empty) containers of olive oil.  (They could not be reused, because the oil seeped into the clay of the containers and turned rancid).  (A very good description of Monte Testaccio can be found at  I’ve included an aerial view of it.

Here's a ground-level view:

If you have an interest in Roman history, this is a must-read book.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Three Basebal Books: A Day in the Bleachers; Nine Innings; and Power Ball

Arnold Hano, A Day In the Bleachers
Original publication 1955
This edition Da Capo Press, 1995
© Albert Hano 1955, 1995
ISBN 978-0-307-81332-1

Arnold Hano war a fan of the New York Giants (and, although this book contains an “Afterword,” discussing some of the things that happened to the Giants’ players, he does not discuss what must have been a wrenching event—the Giants’ move to San Francisco before the 1958 season).  And this is a fan’s book.  His view of the game—Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, played at the Polo Grounds in New York against the Cleveland Indians—chronicles his feeling and reactions to the day and to the events of the game. 

Although (obviously) he wrote his chronicle after the fact, he intended it to read as a contemporary account of the game (and, for the most part, succeeds).  He wrote as a life-long Giants fan, and so does not write objectively.  But, from his walk from his home to the Polo Grounds to his final words, he is a Giants fan, and he reacts to the ebb and flow of the game as a Giants fan.  Only occasionally does the tone slip, most prominently in his description of Willie Mays’s amazing catch—and throw—of a ball hit by Vic Wertz, which is now mostly referred to as “the Catch.”  As it must, because we all know that Ways caught Wertz’s drive and then made (even more amazingly) a perfect throw that prevented Al Dark from scoring from second after tagging up.  But his description of the play is breathtaking.
The Catch:

As a reader and baseball fan (although one who saw almost no baseball in person until I was nearly 30, and who saw very little even on television, and whose favorite team is one I see only rarely even now), I regard this short book with awe.  It captures both the rhythm of a baseball game, it captures the emotional highs and lows fans experience.  A book that stands the test of time.

The box score may be found here:

Daniel Okrent, Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game
Original publication 1985
This edition Houghton Mifflin, 2000
© Daniel Okrent 1985
ISBN 978-0-618-05669-9

In 1980, Dan Okrent had the idea of attending, and writing about a single baseball game.  Or, more accurately, to think about baseball as seen through the experience of attending a single baseball game.  The game that is the focus of this book was played on June 10, 1982, at Miller Park, in Milwaukee, between the Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles, both teams then members of the American League East division.  Going into the game, the teams had the same record—28-17—and were in contention for the division title (the Brewers ultimately finished first, at 95-67; the Orioles finished 1 game back.

At the time Okrent conceived this project, Pete Palmer and John Thorne were working on their ground-breaking work, The Hidden Game of Baseball (also to be published, as it happens, in 1985).  And Bill James had just published the first commercial edition (1982) of his Baseball Abstracts, a book that also contributed to a revolutionary change in the way we think about baseball (he had self-published 5 previous editions of the Baseball Abstract, 1977-1981.  Had Okrent’s project involved looking at a single baseball game, in depth, in 1986 or 1987, I suspect he would have written a very different book.

But the book he did write is, in its own way, path-breaking.  What he did was to take us, half-inning by half-inning, through the game.  Mostly, he focused on events around the game, not the game itself (although he does tell us, batter by batter by pitcher what happened).  And it’s clear that he had access to the people running the Brewers, from Bud Selig (principal partner and club president) to Harry Dalton (general manager, and his staff) to Harvey Kuehn (the manager).  (The Orioles are a decidedly minor partner in the story.)  What the book is really about, then, is not just one (as it turned out pivotal) game, but about the place of one team the larger context of Major League Baseball, and its relationship to the city in which it is located.

So we begin with the story of how the Brewers (nee the Seattle Mariners) wound up in Milwaukee, their early tribulations, and how the major leagues were changing from 1970 to 1982.  The changes to the game included, among other things, the creation of a salary arbitration mechanism (dating to 1973), to the revolutionary ending of baseball’s “reserve clause” (and the attendant creation of a system by which players gained the right to negotiate with more than one possible employer.  And the explosion in player salaries that was a consequence. 

He also gives us a detailed account of how the 1982 team was constructed (a story told in bite-sized chunks) and of the personal characteristics of the key players on the Brewers during the 1982 season.

This is a fine book, and one which, if you have not read it will be well worth your time.  But you need to keep in mind that much of the revolution in the analytics of baseball occurred after Okrent wrote his book,

Rob Neyer, Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game
HarperCollins 2018
© 2018 Rob Neyer

I previously wrote a separate review of Neyer’s book, which can be found here:
My conclusion, which I see no reason to change is:
If you are a baseball fan, this is, I think, one of the most important baseball books you can read this, or any other, year.”

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Yet another rendition of Copycat Photoblogging

Chris Bertram has a lovely shot of a diner here:

This is a shot of the interior of a French bistro in 2000.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Russell A. Carleton, The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinkin

Russell A. Carleton, The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking
Triumph Books 2018
© Russell A. Carleton 2018
ISBN 9781-62937-544-1

Carleton is one of the newer generation of baseball analysts, and has written extensively for Baseball Prospectus and has provided analytical services for (according to the back cover of the book) several MLB teams.  It’s clear from reading the book that he is a life-long Indians fan.  He might also be unique among writers who approach baseball analytics largely from a statistical perspective (and he’s quite at home with advanced statistical techniques), in that he has also worked as a behavioral psychologist (including as a therapist),   So he is clearly attuned to not-so-purely statistical approaches as well.  (This shows up most clearly in Chapter 8, “Putting Down the Calculator,” but is obvious throughout.)

Carleton has an informal, somewhat breezy approach (and, if, for my tastes I learn more about him than I bargained for, an engaging writer).  He’s very good at making clear that even relatively simple-seeming issued can have complex –very complex—issue that may be hard to resolve.  I thought his discussion of the ability to identify player talent and acquire it through the amateur player draft was excellent.  And his discussion of “the shift” and the complexities both of how to deploy it and how to counter it was also quite good (if anything, I think those issues are even more difficult than he indicates).

I will say that anyone looking for ANSWERS to big baseball questions won’t actually find them here.  This is a book more about how to frame and approach questions than it is about the (tentative) conclusions one might reach.

I thought, overall, the book is valuable, although it has more about Carleton’s personal life than I thought necessary.  It’s also not the most gracefully written book I’ve ever read.   And I’m not sure it has a permanent place on my bookshelf.  But I also thought it provided sufficient value for the money.