Wednesday, July 31, 2019

"Cool Jazz Essentials"

Jazziz  magazine has been posting a lot of interesting stuff lately, and today it's a list of "cool jazz" (a not-very-well defined genre) Essentials.  This is the order in which they were listed.  I would note that there are a fairly large number of tunes from Gerry Mulligan's catalog, and that only one album, Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby, had more than one song. ((You can find all of these tunes on YouTube.)

Miles Davis, “Boplicity,” from  The Birth of the Cool

Art Pepper,,"├Łou’d Be So Nice To Come Home To," from Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section

Chet Baker, “But Not For Me,” from Chet Baker Sings

Paul Desmond, “Emily,” from  Summertime

The Modern Jazz Quartet,” Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise,” from Elegance: The Birth of the MJQ

Gerry Mulligan, “Lullaby of the Leaves,” from The Original Quartet With Chet Baker

Bill Evans Trio, “Waltz For Debby (Take 2),”, from Waltz For Debby

Dave Brubeck Quartet, “Take Five,” from Time Out

Miles Davis Quintet, “It Never Entered My Mind,” from Workin”

Lenny Tristano, "Wow,” from Intuition

Stan Getz, “Con Alma.” from Sweet Rain

Gerry Mulligan Quarter with Chet Baker, “Line for Lyons, from Gerry Mulligan Quartet/Chubby Jackson Big Band

Gerry Mulligan with Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish,”Stardust,” from Portrait

Dave Brubeck, “In Your Own Sweet Way,” from Love Songs

Stan Getz and Bob Brookmeyer, “A Nightengale Sang in Berkeley Square,” from Recorded Fall ‘61

Bill Evans Trio, “My Foolish Heart,” from Waltz For Debby

The Johnny Smith Quintet, “Moonlight In Vermont,” from Moonlight In Vermont

Monday, July 29, 2019

Gavin Scott, The Age of Treachery

Gavin Scott, The Age of Treachery
Titan Books
© 2016 Gavin Scott

This is the first of three (so far) mysteries in which the main character is Duncan Forrester, set beginning in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  Forrester was a Fellow of Barnard College (which is a fictional institution) at Oxford University before the war, and he returns there at the war’s end.  During the war, he was a commando, participating in a number of operations (some of which are mentioned in the book.  He still has some flashbacks to those experiences.

He is one of a small number of Members of the College invited to attend a dinner in honor of Arne Haraldson, a Professor of Norse literature at the University of Oslo, and to a reading after of a reading of one of the Norse sagas (which was reconstructed by the Master of Barnard College, Michael Winters), along with a small group of other members of the faculty.  Before the reading, at dinner at the College’s “High Table,” one of the faculty, David Lyall manages to offend Haraldson and get into a scuffle with Gordon Clark (who is Forrester’s closest friend).  Haraldson, for obvious reasons, is invited to (and, in fact, participates in) the reading.

Lyall, as it happens, is having an affair with Clark's wife, which, while not directly the cause of the scuffle, is clearly an outgrowth of it.  Neither Lyall nor Clark attend the reading.

As the reading reaches its climax, it is interrupted by the sound of breaking glass, and by Winters’ wife (who looked out the window in response to the breaking glass, tells her husband (and the assembled readers and audience) that something has happened…”Below a  broken window on the second floor a body lay spread-eagled in the snow.”

The body is Lyall’s.  And the police are summoned.  And they discover, in fairly short order that Lyall and Clark had that altercation at dinner and that Clark’s wife is having an affair with Lyall.  Clark has no alibi—he was alone at the time of Lyall’s death.  Unsurprisingly, Clark is arrested.  Also, probably unsurprisingly, he asks Forrester to help him by calling on his solicitor; Forrester decides, based so on his knowledge of Clark and Clark’s avowal if innocence, to investigate as well.

Forrester’s investigation results in his enlisting the assistance of an undergraduate (who, because of the war, is beginning his college career at the age of 25), consulting with various people (in the War Office, as a start), and travelling to Berlin and subsequently to Oslo in search of evidence that will exonerate Clark by discovering the real killer.  Assuming Clark, is in fact, innocent.

On the whole, the story is a strong one.  Scott does a good (if occasionally heavy-handed) job of making us aware of conditions in England, Germany, and Norway in the immediate post-war days.  And, while I found the denouement to be a bit weak (the guilty party confesses, although Forrester’s evidence is not particularly strong).  He also handles very well the political ramifications of the Soviet Union’s growing presence and relative strength in Germany and in eastern Europe generally.

Scott’s style, on the other hand, caused me a few problems.  None of these are terribly significant, but they annoyed me.  For example, he has Forrester slipping and sliding—metaphorically—too much.  Forrester slipped around the corner, he slid into the shadows, and so on.  As another example, he has Forrester fall asleep instantly (more than once) when he lies down (some people may do that, but no one I’ve ever known).  Another thing I found somewhat annoying was the use of the names of actual people—Kenneth Tynan, Ian Fleming, J.R.R. Tolkien (at least there’s some excuse for this, as Tolkien knew as much as anyone about Norse sagas), C.S. Lewis, and one or two more.  This may have been done as verisimilitude, but none of these “real” people had anything like a significant role, so it seemed more like name-dropping than anything else.

These issues are minor, however, and the book is well worth reading.  I have, and will be reading the second (The Age of Olympus) and third (The Age of Exodus—no wondering what that book’s going to be about, s there?) books soon.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

John Billheimer, Primary Target

John Billheimer, Primary Target
© John Billheimer 2019
The Mystery Company/An imprint to Crum Creek Press
ISBN (paperback) 978-1-932325-57-5
ISBN (hardcover) 978-1-932325-59-5
ISBN (ebook) 978-1-932325-58-5

I’ve been a fan of John Billheimer’s “Owen Allison” books since I read the first one (The Contrary Blues (1998); Primary Target is the 6th in the series) some years ago.  I was drawn in by the character (especially the continuing cast of Owen Allison, his brother George, his mother Ruth, his ex-wife Judith, and Sheriff Thad Reader), by the intricate plots, and, especially, by the setting.  As with many authors (Tony Hillerman and the American southwest; Michael Lewin and Indianapolis; Rex Stout and NYC; and many, many others), the setting becomes an integral part of the story.  And Billheimer makes West Virginia come alive.

There is one thing I don’t understand.  I don’t understand why Billheimer’s books are not more widely read.  Hiehas created memorable characters and compelling stories.  I suspect, though, that the setting is an issue.  The Four Corners region of the southwest is starkly beautiful, and the native American population does, I think, grab people in ways that poor coal miners do not.  New York City and LA and San Francisco and Chicago are vibrant, exciting cities.  Miami has sun, surf, and other exotica.  People vacation there, and have experienced the beauty and the energy.  And West Virginia is a place that, if people think about it at all, gets thought about disparagingly.  It’s not much of a vacation destination.  But…even if you never actually visit, you will be doing yourself a favor by taking a trip there in John Bilheimer’s books.  I encourage you to take that trip, and this book is a good place to start.

I lived in West Virginia from 1970 to 1975, for three years as a graduate student in economics at West Virginia University, then as an instructor—two one-year appointments at two schools.  I can’t say I came to love WV, but I did come to know some of its places of exceptional beauty, some of its places of historic significance (the great railroad strike of 1873 began in Grafton WV, some of the places despoiled by the effects of coal mining.  I came to know some of its people, including one friend from my first full-time teaching job who has been a life-long friend to the men and women (some of them coming to class after a night shift in a mine) in my classes to some of the union leaders. 

Understanding mining, and the not exactly placid history of the United Mine Workers union [1] [2] useful, but not essential, in reading Billheimer’s books.  And mining plays a smaller role in Primary Target than in the earlier books in the series.  Political corruption has also been alleged to be endemic in West Virginia; when I arrived in 1970, three ex-governors were in federal prisons for having accepted bribes in the award of highway contracts. [3]

In Primary Target, the focus is on West Virginia politics, and specifically on the presidential primary pitting California Senator Jason Davison (whose father was a longtime political power in California) against Sam Halstead, the governor of Missouri.  Davison and his campaign are central to the book; Halstead plays essentially no role.  The race is neck-and-neck, and the primary outcomes in West Virginia and Indiana are likely to be decisive.  And in West Virginia, vote fraud has long been an issue, and votes may be for sale; we are told, for example, that in a previous election, more votes were case in Mingo County than the number of people—not voters, people—living there.

Owen Allison has, some years past, returned to his home state to try to reconstruct his life and his career.  He is an engineer, and was a member of a California consulting firm TranAnalytics; a major part of the firm’s business was accident analysis.  The firm went under when a potentially lucrative contract was awarded, by Davison’s father, to a politically connected firm with no experience.  And, at about the same time, Owen’s marriage to Judith was falling apart.

And strange things begin to happen.  One of Allison’s former partners dies in what appears to have been suicide—he was in bad health, and broke.  Owen has doubts, which prove to be well-founded.  His doubts are fueled partly by a fire—arson—at the home of another of his former partners.  And, as if to erase all doubts, his home—the home he grew up in, and where his mother still lives—is firebombed—while he’s inside.  And some of Allison’s records from his old consulting firm are in his ex-wife’s home—which may put her at risk as well.  It begins to appear likely that all this is somehow connected to Davison’s campaign.

Allison has maintained a sporadic consulting practice, and has forged a close friendship with the sheriff, Thad Reader; he even works occasionally as a member of the sheriff’s staff. 

A reported for a New York newspaper, Tom O’Day, shows up; he’s clearly trying to derail Davison’s campaign.  Rumors suggest that Davison (who is married) has been playing around with a campaign staffer, who disappears.  Another staffed dies in a motorcycle crash, which seems likely not to be an accident.  And then things begin to get dangerous.  

Billheimer brings into the narrative a family of former miners, the Elkins family.  Trish works as a caretaker; she’s helping care for Ruth Allison.  The brothers are all former soldiers and current bootleggers.  They also have their own tiny coal mine (which reminded me of the tiny coal mine in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter).  Allison and Reader a witness there; it’s a place that seems unlikely to be discovered.  The Elkins family is a wonderful addition to the cast.

The action moves quickly, and it’s not clear, even as we learn more and more about what, exactly, has been happening, and why, that it’s going to be possible to bring the killer or killers to justice.  And it’s not clear how the revelations will affect the outcome of the presidential primaries. 

And Billheimer’s writing is taut, and true to the characters.  I particularly liked this exchange between Owen Allison and the sheriff, starting with the sheriff:

“Oh, he remembered you all right. He was lying about that”!

“How do you know?”

“I‘ve spent the last forty years learning to recognize when people lie to me.”

“What did you do for the first twenty-five?”

“Believed whatever anyone told me. Got a Purple Heart and a glass eye to show for it.”

This is an exciting and compelling book, and I strongly encourage you to read it (and the books that preceded it).

[1] Jock Yablonsky, the leader of a dissident group of miners, was murdered (along with the rest of his family) when he ran to force Tony Boyle out as president of the Union.  Boyle hired thugs to perform the killing and was convicted of being an accessory to murder in 1973; he died in prison.

[2] Boyle was succeeded as UMW president by Arnold Miller.  Miller had been instrumental in forcing the US Department of Labor to take black lung seriously as an occupational illness.  It remains a scourge, destroying lives to this day.

[3] While I was living there, Jay Rockefeller (John David Rockefeller IV) became prominent in the state’s politics, being elected Governor twice (1976 & 1980).  There was a fairly strong feeling that one reason he was so popular was that no one could afford to bribe him.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Lev Raphael, State University of Murder

Lev Raphael, State University of Murder
Perseverance Press
© Lev Raphael 2019
ISBN 978-1-56474-609-2

This is the ninth mystery featuring Lev Raphael and his (now) spouse, Stefan, and the State University of Michigan.  I have read and mostly enjoyed the first eight books.  But this one eluded me.  To explain why, I need to digress, and explain my background.

Since August 1965, I have spent much of my life on university campuses, first as an undergrad at a small, private liberal arts college, then four years in grad school, and, since 1973 (except for a four-year stint working as an economist in local government), as a faculty member (from 1973 to 1976 and 1980 to 2012, full-time, at five institutions, 25 years at the last one; then six more years as a part-time instructor).  None of these institutions were perfect, and at one was an experience that led me to spend those four years in local government.

But.  The one bad experience was entirely a matter of the upper administration.  My faculty colleagues were generous, supportive, good at what they did.  A couple of them became long-time friends, with whom I kept in touch after leaving there.  Everywhere else—it was a pleasure to work there, and, again, I made friendships that endured, one for more than 45 years. 

My last position was at a branch campus of a major public research-intensive university (the research expectations at my campus were somewhat lower than at the two flagship campuses).  During those 25 years I was involved in a number of things that were university-wide, and I met and got to know people at all eight of the campuses.  One of these involvements resulted from my membership in a university-wide initiative to support excellence in teaching; another was my participation in faculty governance on my campus, and system wide.  This also led to my knowing, and working with faculty from all the campuses—and administrators from every campus (including three university presidents, two university vice-presidents for academic affairs, chief administrative officers at every campus, and academic affairs vice-chancellors at most of the campuses).  And not a few members of the board of trustees.

As a result of all this, I knew, very well, somewhere around 100-125 faculty and administrators, from all the campuses.  I developed close friendships with people from every campus and from almost every discipline (economics, of course, which is my field; history; English, including poets; political science; chemistry; business; fine arts).  And I developed friendships with non-academic folks as well—in student services, art gallery directors, non-academic administration, and so on.  

Nothing in my experience corresponds in any way to the campus as depicted in State University of Murder, in which everyone is presented as, in one way or another, as venal, or evil, or duplicitous.  Except, actually for Stefan.  Nick, who narrates the story, makes clear his disdain for the other members of the faculty who are involved in the events in the book, reveals himself (it seems to me) as being no better than the people that Nick-the-narrator presents to us as completely self-centered, with little or no interest in the university as a whole, or in its students.  As a result of my own background and experiences, I found the depiction of the university and its faculty difficult to accept.

As for the mystery itself.  As Nick relates the story, the first victim becomes obvious almost immediately—Napoleon Padovani, the newly-appointed chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing (in which both Nick and Stefan are faculty).  It takes, however, what seemed to me to be an interminable amount of time for someone to get around to killing him (Nick finds him, dead, about halfway through the book).  The official murder investigation (which is carried out by the campus police—I found this odd, by the way, as the murder has apparently occurred off-campus, at a conference-retreat center) features only tangentially in what follows.  Nick sort of pokes around, and thinks he has identified the killer, based on his identification of the cologne scent he remembers as having been what he smelled at the scene of the murder.  (By which time, the campus cops have developed some actual evidence that, fortuitously, points to the same person.)

Another aspect of the book that was relatively trivial, but annoyed me disproportionately, was Nick’s obsessive identification of every brand of food and drink and clothing.  I will concede that some of that might have been useful in providing insight into the characters, but it did not seem to me to be used in that way.

My own opinion is that this is a disappointing entry in a series that has been, generally, very good.