Thursday, August 29, 2019

Rex Stout, Too Many Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

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

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

Monday, August 12, 2019

Mark Pryor, The Book Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

James R. Benn, A Blind Goddess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Brett Halliday, Dividend on Death

Brett Halliday, Dividend on Death: A Mike Shayne Mystery
© 1939 Estate of Brett Halliday
eISBN 978-1-5040-1273-7

A recent blog post by Robert Lopresti (“Today in Mystery History”, reminded me that I had never read any of the Mike Shayne books (of which there are about 50; the first 20 or so were written by David Dresser; the others were work-for-hire by a number of authors).  My failure to have read any of the Mike Shayne books was not an aesthetic decision; I have read books by Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer; only 1, I, the Jury) and Richard Prather (Shell Scott), among others.  Not quite sure how I missed Halliday.  The Mysterious has begun to reissue the books, so I bought this one, the inaugural effort, as an ebook, to see what, if anything, I’d been missing.

The short answer is “Not much.”  In Dividend on Death, a young woman named Phyllis Brighton hires Shayne to prevent her from killing her mother.  (She seems to be a little unbalanced.)  He takes the job, and that evening arrives at the Brighton home, on Biscayne Bay in Miami.  The cast of characters includes Rufus Brighton, rich, reclusive, and very ill; his wife (Phyllis’s mother; his assistant; 2 doctors; 2 nurses; a housekeeper; and a thuggish chauffeur.  Phyllis is in bed, presumably asleep, but definitely not talking.  Shayne excuses himself to speak with her and finds her wearing a blood-stained nightgown and in possession of a bloody knife.  He cleans things up and leaves.

From there the plot gets complicated, involving a renowned art critic and a potentially valuable painting, among other things.  Shayne gets threatened by the cops, shot, and beaten.  He also gets through 2 or 3 bottles of brandy in the space of 2 days.  One of the doctors, we find out, is a whole lot off-kilter; the chauffer has a record; and the nurses have things other than nursing in mind.  Shane reveals all and walks away with about $25,000 about $350,000 at today’s price level) from 3 or 4 clients.

Actually, I’m making it sound more interesting that it is.  Either the booze or the injuries would be enough to keep Shayne from functioning well, and the plots (and sub-plots) are not particularly plausible.  I will excuse myself from reading any of the subsequent adventures.

Comments on Doughnut Economics

Well, I’m about a third of the way through Doughnut Economics, and it’s not easy going.   For me, it’s mostly because I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not actually a book about economic theory; it’s a book about economic policy.  

Here’s what I mean by that.  When I taught intro to microeconomics (I haven’t taught macro for about20 years), I try to make sure that students understand what we’re doing.  We’re trying to develop a theory of the actual behavior of people making decisions.  Since decision-making entails objectives, we need to specify, to the best of our ability what those objectives are.  In micro, those decisions are made (mostly) by individuals (or households) and businesses.  And those decisions are a restricted class of all possible decisions—which, in micro, are for households things like how do we decide on what and how much to buy; how do we decide on how to prepare ourselves for making a living; how do we use our income.  For firms, it’s mostly how do we decide what to produce and how to produce it and how to sell what we’ve produced to buyers.  And, to be sure, our decisions about these things are affected by a whole range of forces—advertising, social pressures, who our friends and neighbors are, and much more.  But economic theory spends very little time or effort on where those preferences come from (which may be a mistake on the part of economists), and economists generally do not have anything to say about what those preferences ought to be.

People make other decisions as well, and these other decisions are, I think, more relevant to the issues she is concerned about.  These are decisions, not about what and how much to buy, for example.  These are decisions that are more about what sort of a society we want to live in—they are, broadly, political.  What public policies do we support or oppose?  If we live in a society in which our governments are responsive to the policy preferences of the people (i.e., not China, not Russia), how do we express our policy preferences?  Through voting?  Through other channels?  And how are our policy preferences formed?  These questions seem to me to be more sociological or political than economic.  

Where economics (sort of) comes in is in two places.  First, once we have decided on our policy objectives, what can economics tell us about how we can achieve those objectives more efficiently?  So, for example, economists tend to suggest policy options that would be likely to achieve the optimal amount of reduction in carbon emissions at a lower, rather a higher, cost.  Second, are there any unexpected consequences of those policies that need to be considered?  Or, to put it fairly bluntly:  Economic theory cannot tell you what your economic policy objectives ought to be.  (In my opinion too many economists seem to forget that, but that’s for another day.)

So when I taught intro to micro, yes, I would start with the circular flow diagram—and then talk about what it leaves out.  When I talked about how product markets work, I would spend time on market failures—how the private market for health care insurance can and does fail, for example.  Or how product safety issues can arise (especially when the risks of using particular products are hard for individuals to identify and assess).  Or how business concentration creates situations in which producers can achieve more of the benefits from buying and selling things in markets.  Or how pollution creates what economists call “external costs”—costs that are not recognized or accounted for by buyers and sellers.  Or external benefits (as in education)—benefits of an educated population accrue not just to those who get the education, but to everyone…which is why people of our age ought still to support public funding of education, even though we’re unlikely to benefit directly from the educations being obtained by “kids”.  Issues, things get more complicated.   

On the macro side of things, which deals more with four very different.  Those four things are:
1) Achieving “full employment, which allows everyone to be able to earn an income and feel that, through their work, they are making a contribution to society (not that working Is the only way people contribute.)
2) Achieving equity.  This is a complicated subject.  There’s general agreement that part of it is making sure everyone can (does) have enough income to live a decent life.  (That’s not a universal belief, though.)  This is both within individual countries and across all countries.  (For myself, this also suggests that extreme wealth is probably not a good thing.  Unfortunately, extreme disparities in income, or standards of living, have been around for a very long time, and the political issues in reducing extreme wealth are difficult.
3) I’m putting this in here twice, really.  Achieving global equity; creating a global economy in which we produce enough stuff that everyone has access to a decent life.  I know people who argue that we should ignore this, because (they argue) it cannot be achieved without reducing the (average) standard of living in today’s already rich countries.
4) Not destroying the planet.  I’m not sure this is even mostly an economic issue, but it has economic implications.  Climate change is the most obvious aspect of this right now, but things like resource depletion and development of long-run sustainable energy sources also enter in.

Macro, you will note, is much more policy-oriented, and therefore much more politically contentious.  And these issues seem more directly implicated in Raworth’s book than the micro issues.  A lot of economists (including me, based on what I’ve read so far)-) would argue that she’s ignoring the micro part of the world that (sort of) adds up to the macro part.  If we need to change people’s behavior—that is, if we want people to be willing to move toward the outcomes she is working toward, then we need to change individual behavior as well as change macro policies.  And we need to develop macro policies that are broadly acceptable to people in rich countries and in not-so-rich countries. 

If, for example, one issue is climate change, and if climate change is a consequence
 of increasing the atmospheric carbon load, then we need policies that will accomplish a reduction in emissions.  But that has consequences for people’s lives in rich countries and in not-rich countries.  To the extent that we would prefer to achieve our goal—survival of the world—more-or-less peacefully, then the policies have t take account how people make decisions in their buying and selling behavior—which, conceptually, is relatively straight-forward.  The difficulty is not an economic problem—it’s a socio-political one:  How do we persuade people to accept the required policies?  If we can’t persuade them, can we actually implement those policies without the consent of the governed?  And what if the relative cost of implementing those policies falls more heavily on poor countries, by making it harder for them to escape poverty?

As I said, I’m about 1/3 of the way through.  Right now, I don’t think the issues are really about economics.  I think they are sociological and political.  It might be easy to say, in the abstract, what policies are the appropriate ones.  It’s less clear to me, right now, how she thinks we’ll get there.