Sunday, December 20, 2020

Iain Pears, The Bernini Bust

 Iain Pears, The Bernini Bust
Copyright © 1982 Iain Pears
Berkeley Prime Crime
ISBN 978-0-425-19187-7

The second entry in Iain Pears’ series of art mysteries (featuring Flavia diSetfano and General Botttano (of the Italian art crimes squad) and Jonathan Argyll (scholar and, for now, an employee o a high-end art gallery).  This outing includes Argyll’s sale of a Titian painting (for $2 million; his share of the commission would keep him happily in Rome for a couple of years); a portrait bust of Pope Pius VI (by, of course, Bernini), and a museum founded and funded by an American billionaire (Arthur Moresby, whose name, of course, is on the museum).  And murders.

When reading the book, I wondered whether any such portrait bust existed.  The answer, I have to report, is that it is unlikely that any such bust ever existed.  I can find no mention of any such bust.  And, that Bernini would ever have created such a bust is highly unlikely.  Bernini was born in 1598 and died in 1680.  There were no popes named Pius during his lifetime (and I suspect that the demand for portrait busts of dead popes was not very great.  Pius III (1439-1503 was pope for one month in 1503.  Pius IV lived 1499-1565, and was pope 1559-1565.  Pius IV, 1509-1572; pope, 1566-1572.  The next Pope Pius (VI) was not born until 1717.  But how many readers will know, or be moved to discover, this?  (But Argyll, at least, should have known.)  Images of portrait buses of Pius V may be found here:
Posthumous Bust of Pope Pius V | The Art Institute of Chicago (
And here:
Mario Cartaro | Bust portrait of Pope Pius V in profile facing left set within an elaborate architectural structure upon which sit allegorical figures including Faith, Charity and Religion above and Justice and Prudence below who flank St Michael | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (

As the tale begins, Argyll is waiting to turn over to the museum’s director Samuel Thanet the Titian painting.  Hector di Souza is delivering the (alleged) Bernini bust to Thanet, and the museum staff (and patrons) are preparing for a reception at which Arthur Moresby, billionaire and founder/funder of the museum will make a speech,  A large number of people, including Moresby’s 5th five and his only son, will be in attendance.  But the reception is a flop and plans for a major expansion of the museum put on hold—Arthur Moresby has been murdered.

The investigation falls to an LAPD detective, Morelli.  Argyll suffers a broken leg in an automobile crash that may or may not have been an accident.  And deStefano, who has been cranky of late,  is assigned an investigation some (related? Or not?) shenanigans in Italy, is dispatched to LA to assist in recovering what might be artworks (specifically, di Souza’s Bernini bust) that have been smuggled out of Italy.  And di Sousa has, as it turns out, also been murdered.

The portrait that Pears gives us in southern California is fairly acid, and the encounters Argyll and deStefano have with the police and assorted suspects are wicked.  In fact, for most of the book, the investigations take a back seat to the description of the environment and its inhabitants.  Pears takes some justified shots at the origins and operations of what can fairly be called a vanity museum (with come collateral comments about the Getty, the Frick, and others.  And, I will admit, I had to pay very close attention to keeping track of the comings and goings of the principal actors. 

The weakest bit in the book is, in my opinion, deStefano’s explanation (assisted by Argyll) of the how and why the murders were committed.  And the ending of the tale, which involves deStafano and Argyll travelling back to Italy, to meet with an old marble carver (who has worked on cathedrals for most of his lifetime), to bring him news of his old friend di Sousa from he has become estranged, is bittersweet and touching. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

17 December 2020

 Heavy dark grey clouds,
Last night’s snow slowly melting.
My mood fits right in.

17 December 2020

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Iain Pears, The Raphael Affair

 Iain Pears, The Raphael Affair
Copyright © 1990 Iain Pears
Berkeley Prime Crime/Penguin-Putnam
     (paperback reprint)
ISBN:  0-425-16613-9

Iain Pears wrote one of the most convoluted, engrossing, maddening (and several other adjectives) I have ever read—An Instance of the Fingerpost.  I don’t even want to try to explain the title (which may be the easiest part of the book, actually).  It has 4 (first-person) narrators, all of them unreliable.  Here, however, we have a fairly straightforward third-person narrative which deals with the rather convoluted (and, in his series of mysteries, nefarious) world of fine art.  There are three main characters:  General Taddeo Bottando, head of the police organization devoted to dealing with art world frauds (and other crimes); Flavia di Stefano, one of his associated; and Jonathan Argyll, an art historian in the process of finishing his dissertation,.  I enjoy all three of t hem; they are delights.  (This is the first of 7 mysteries in which they appear, published between 1991 and 2000. All of the books are, unsurprisingly, art history mysteries, involving the work of other transcendent painters from the15th and 16th centuries.)

The story begins with the discovery of what might be a previously unknown painting by Raphael (Raphael - Wikipedia; 1482-1520; images of his paintings: raphael - Google Search), of a “portrait of Elisabetta da Laguna, about 1505.  Oil on canvas, sixty-eight centimeters by one-hundred and thirty eight.”  It is sold at auction for 63 million pounds (roughly $150 million at the time).  The painting had been over-painted—assuming it’s an authentic Rafael—centuries before.  The buyer is a state museum in Rome.  And, at a reception attended by the rich and famous, art dealers, and assorted others—the painting, about to be unveiled for the first time since the auction, is apparently destroyed (or was it destroyed? in an apparently accidental fire caused by an electrical fuse shorting out (or was it accidental?) 

The story unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace (for a 200 page book), which fine.  We get to know the main characters and we get to spend a lot of time in Roam (and, eventually, Sienna).  Of course, nothing happens easily, and one of the conservators at the museum is murdered.  The suspects in all of this range from the owner of a successful art auction house in London to members of the museum staff, and involve present and past art forgers and thieves.  The resolution occurs in Siena, one of the beautiful hill towns in Tuscany (where there is an annual horse race in the main square of the city—which does not figure in the story, but which is worth mentioning [Palio di Siena - Wikipedia]). 

I thought I had read all the books in this series, but upon reading (not, as it turns out, re-reading it), I found the entire thing new.  The three main characters are delightful, and I’m looking forward to the others.  If there’s a weakness, it comes in the denouement, when General Bottando explains to everyone what has happened (including generous acknowledgement of the efforts of Flavia and Jonathan).  The problem is that we neither saw nor heard of Bottando’s part of the investigation, so it’s not really a fair-play mystery.  It’s still a very good book, well set and well told, with characters well worth revisiting.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Rex Stout, And Be A Villain

 Rex Stout, And Be A Villain
Copyright © 1948 Rex Stout
Bantam Crime Line reprint
ISBN 0-553-23931-7

I have been re-reading Rex Stout’s And Be a Villain, and I have found myself concluding that the case Wolfe makes against the putative murderer is one of the weakest in the series of Nero Wolfe mysteries.  It is impossible to deal with this without exposing much of the plot, and especially the denouement, so you are warned:  HERE BE SPOILERS.

And Be a Villain has, as a significant plot device, a blackmail scheme, which works as follows:  The criminal mastermind sets stooges up as the writer/provider of one or another weekly newsletter.  The two we actually learn of are Track Almanac (Cyril Orchard), which provides tips for horse racing bettors, and What is Happening (Beulah Poole), political commentary.  These sell for $10 per week (that would be around $120 per week, adjusted to today’s general level of prices).  The mastermind’s other minions begin a smear campaign (e.g., accusing a prominent physician with numerous and repeated improprieties with his female patients), and offer to put an end to these accusations in exchange for a 0ne-year subscription to the newsletter.  And the one-year limit is strictly adhered to (although the victims don’t know with certainty that it will be adhered to).  So a total tab of $520 ($6240, adjusted to today’s prices).  As Wolfe points out, this is, for someone with a large income, a mere inconvenience.

Almost inevitably (it seems), one of the newsletter authors—Cyril Orchard—is murdered (cyanide poisoning in the soft drink bottle), poisoned while appearing as a guest on a nationally syndicated radio program hosted by Madeline Fraser. At first, the police—and Wolfe—assume that the poison was intended for .Frazier, because of the details of a specific on-air advertising gimmick involving a soft drink.  But when Poole is also murdered (shot), and Wolfe deduces the blackmail operation, we have to conclude that the poisoned soft drink was in fact intended for Orchard.  And that reduces the potential murderer suspects to the people at the table and involved in passing the soft drinks around during the commercial spot.  And, of the people at the table, the only one with a reputation to be defended and an income large enough to find the blackmail amount a mere annoyance is Fraser.  But what blackmailable secret could she have? She’s from a small town in Michigan, and has been a public figure for several years.  There is one thing—her husband, Lawrence Koppel (the brother of Fraser’s close friend and business manager, Deborah Koppel) committed suicide—apparently.  He was a photographer in a small town, and apparently not a very successful one, apparently prone to bouts of depression.  Given the timeline, it appears that he w\could easily have chosen to commit suicide in the depths of the Great Depression.  So he would have had access to cyanide; he was apparently depressed; and he left a letter, with his best friend, expressing his intention to commit suicide.

And how do you get a blackmail hook from this?  A letter sent to at least one of the people who worked with Fraser, which said that she was lucky that the handwriting on Koppel’s suicide letter had not been examined by an expert.  (This would seem to have involved somewhat more than a casual knowledge of the blackmail victim’s life.   But perhaps I am being picky.)  The letter was still in the possession of his best friend (after around 15 years, and there’s no mention of other examples of his handwriting for comparison—which is a significant oversight in the narrative), and, when retrieved and analyzed, the experts “called it [the letter] one of the cleverest forgeries they had ever seen.”  Frankly, if I were a prosecuting attorney, I would not want to go into court with my primary piece of actual evidence being, according to my experts, an extremely clever forgery.  Just imagine what a good defense attorney (say, Perry Mason) could have done with that.  Even given the death of Debby Koppel (also cyanide poisoning) and the discovery of a cache of cyanide in one of Fraser’s slippers—pretty sloppy work there, if you ask me—it’s pretty hard to see a strong case.  Even if the verdict of the jury was Guilty.  For me, this is one of the least satisfying, least convincing of the Wolfe novels.


Thursday, December 3, 2020

William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval World and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age

 William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval World and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age 
Copyright © 1992, 1993 William Manchester
Little, Brown and Company (paperback reprint)
ISBN  0-316-54556-2

William Manchester was not an historian of the period (roughly, 500 A.D. to 1520 A.D.) or the  place (Europe); he is, by training and interest, an historian of the 20th century, and, mostly, of America (William Manchester - Wikipedia).  He was, obviously, very much interested in this particular time period, and (at least for me, as an interested reader) he has written a mostly engaging book.

The book comes in three parts.  The first is a brief (28 pages) summary of what a late medieval community looked like.  He perhaps over-generalizes, but this does set the scene well.  The core of the book (190 pages) is the splintering of Christianity (with emphasis on the corruption of Rome and the role of Martin Luther in).  He does this very well, and I found this section to be of great interest.  He is also more sympathetic to Henry VIII than many historians

The final section (75 pages) deals with Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage which ultimately provided irrefutable evidence that this planet is a sphere.  His description of the voyage is riveting. But in the end of this third part that things fall apart.  The final few pages are a paean to Magellan that seems more than a bit over the top.  Magellan’s voyage was a remarkable achievement (which he did not live to see concluded), but the voyage itself seems to me to have been inevitable.  And the part of the voyage that, for Magellan, ended in his death while attempting to coerce the inhabitants of what we know as the Philippians, seems to be seen, by Manchester as a tribute to Magellan’s beliefs.  Whereas I see it as an amazingly maladroit act of hubris.  But the demonstration that our planet was one of many planets moving was, as Manchester concludes, the final end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the “modern” age.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Elaine Pagels, Why Religion: A Personal Story

 Elaine Pagels, Why Religion: A Personal Story
Copyright © 2018 Elaine Pagels
Ecco/An Imprint of Harper Collins
ISBN 978-0-236854-6

Pagels is, of course, a well-known and highly successful writer on ancient religion (The Gnostic Gospels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas), ans, for anyone who knows me well. My reading this book might seem strange.  I read it as a part of a reading group which my wife participates, and which I join occasionally.  The book is, really, two stories, interwoven.  The first is an autobiography, which is a story of her personal and professional lives..  And in her personal life, it includes two episodes of immense loss and sorrow (the loss of their son to a congenital heart disease, at age 6; the death of her husband in a hiking accident).  The second is a summary of her professional life, centering on her research and writing.  And the final few pages deals with what see sees as the intersection of the two.

With respect to her personal life.  It was in many ways a charmed and privileged life;  she earned a doctorate, met and married an exceptionally talented physicist; they both had productive research and teaching careers at prestigious universities (and were well compensated for it).  Their combined income allowed them to afford a comfortable home in Manhattan and summers in the Colorado mountains or in in California.  They could also afford full-time domestic help (especially for child care) and private schooling for their children.  Charmed, that is, except for the deaths. 

Professionally, they were both highly successful (including her becoming a MacArthur Fellow).

The book’s title might seem a bit odd; I think the book was an attempt to unite the personal (including tragic) and professional aspects of their lives.  I think she meant to try to explain how religion, for her, allowed her to deal with the personal losses.  I’ll confess that I have never had to deal with such losses and have no idea how I would react.  For Pagels, as she tries to explain in the conclusion of the book, it was her understanding of religion and its importance, historically, that allowed her to experience the deaths of two people she loved, long before what one might see as a “normal” life-span.  At the same time, I think she was trying to explain her belief that religious belief is one way, perhaps the best or only way, for people to cope with what might appear to be a harsh, almost random world.

In that way, it seems to be an intensely personal book, but one that I could only approach as an outsider.  At the end, I understood her reactions and deeply sympathized with her effort to reconcile her life as it unfolded with (what seemed to be) religious belief as an emergent source of comfort and explanation.  And, perhaps, if I were to experience losses as grievous as hers, I might also find peace in a belief in a transcendent power.  That is something I have never been able to go, though, and not something that Why Religion made any more likely that I will ever be able to do. 

Monday, November 9, 2020

The same image

 The first version is straight out of the camera; the second is what I got from doing nothing but changing the lighting,  Photoshop can be amazing.  Whatcha think:?

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Rex Stout, The Silent Speaker, but mostly a discursion of World War II price controls

 Rex Stout, The Silent Speaker
© Estate of Rex Stout 1946
Bantam reprint

The Silent Speaker is one of my favorites f the Nero Wolfe novels, but I’m not really going to do a review of it.  Rather, I’m going to write about the background—the story of price regulation and rationing during and (briefly) after World War II.  The starting point is this:  

Following the mini-depression in 1938-1939, the economy continued its recovery.  But in 1941, economic growth really took off, as a rapid increase in the production of war material took hold.  Employment gains were large—8 million new jobs (about 20% of the 1939 level) in 1940-1942 combined.  And, actually, the effect was larger than that.  Not counted in the employment gains were the increases in the number of military personnel—an increase of 1.4 million between 1940 and 1941, another 2 million in 1942, and 5.2 million more in 1943.  Unsurprisingly, per capita income grew dramatically:  Per capita income was about 45% higher (adjusted for inflation) in 1943 than it had been in 1939.

But—and there’s always a “but”—a lot of that additional income came from war material.  During the war years, for example, we produced a lot more motor vehicles—but, from 1942 to 1945, almost no new cars for the domestic market.  Also no new tires.  Little new housing was built.  People’s incomes rose dramatically, but what were they going to buy?  Left to itself, businesses, faced with a dramatic increase in domestic demand and a much smaller increase in domestic output would do exactly what you would expect:  They would raise prices.  Between 1929 and 1939, the general level of prices in the US (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) actually fell by nearly 20%.  By 1943 (compared with 1939), the price level was up by 20%.  But that increase in prices was constrained by the creation of the Office of Price Administration of Price, created (by executive order) in1941.  ( 

The OPA had the power to place ceilings on all prices except agricultural commodities, and to ration scarce supplies of other items, including tires, automobiles, shoes, nylon, sugar, gasoline, fuel oil, coffee, meats and processed foods. At the peak, almost 90% of retail food prices were frozen. 

A corollary of price controls in a time of rising incomes was, inevitably, rationing.  Rationing, of course, led to the emergence of black markets.  And, unsurprisingly, business organizations began to lobby for eliminating the OPA, or drastically reducing its authority,  Those lobbying efforts were led by the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Dry Goods Association.  Stout, obviously, conflated the two, in The Silent Speaker, into the National Industrial Association.  And he renamed the Office of Price Administration, hence the Bureau of Price Regulation.

The OPA had three administrators:  Leon Henderson (1941-1942), Prentiss Brown (1943), and Chester Bowles (1943-1946).  And John Kenneth Galbraith, who became somewhat famous in the 1950s and 1960s, was the deputy administrator from 1941 to 1943 (from the wikipedia article: “…he “was forced out in May 1943, accused of ‘communistic tendencies’ ”).

Given the authority that the OPA had over much of the American economy, the possibility that someone working there might be offered a bribe, it’s perhaps remarkable that (so far as I can determine) there were no major (or perhaps even minor) corruption scandals.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of McDougal Street

Dave Van Ronk (with Elijah Ward), The Mayor of McDougal Street
© Copyright 2005 Elijah Ward and Andrea Vucola Van Ronk
DeCapo Press
ISBN 978-0-306-82216-2

Dave Van Ronk was one of the major figures in the folk revival that began in the late 1950s (although he spent time playing jazz, and then blues).  Born in New York in 1936, he was never much for formal education (and dropped out of high school), but very early fell in love with music.  He moved to Manhattan in the early ‘50s, and spent years as a nomad in the city, but developing his chops.  The focus of this memoir is the folk revival that began in the late ‘50s and its growth, development, and slow demise in the ‘60s.

He was everywhere and played with everyone, and he has much good and much not so good to say.  His depiction of the tangle of left-wing politics in the ‘50s is in itself worth the price of the book.  One aspect of his life in the ‘50s that is difficult (for someone like me) to comprehend is how easy it was for people to survive in NYC then without a real place to live and without anything that might be called even a income.  The last half of the book deals with the early ‘60s and the explosion of talent that migrated to NYC—Tom Paxton, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Peter Paul and Mary, Mark Spolestra, Phil Ochs, and many, many more.  But the second lead in this story is Bob Dylan (whom he refers to most often as Bobby).  Which is, in a way, all but inevitable.

Van Ronk died way to young (at 66, from cancer), and he never became a household word (never made it big, either), although you will see mention of him in any book written by or about the other musicians of that time.  One thing I think the book lacked:  A listing of his recordings.  Fortunately, wikipedia accommodates us (’s fairly extensive, 33 LPs between 1959 and 200, and 3 posthumously.  Unfortunately, I can’t find any suggestions about what’s best. 

I did not get through the book as rapidly as my interest and enjoyment of it might have led me too; the outside world (that is, the presidential election campaign) kept getting in the way.  But his narrative voice captivated me, and the anecdotes cracked me up often.  There’s no great moral, no “here’s what you must take away” to his story.  But if the time and the setting and, most of all, the music matter to you, you should seek it out.  It’s a winner. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

John Dickson Carr, The Crooked Hinge

 John Dickson Carr, The Crooked Hinge
Copyright © 1938 Estate of Clarice M. Carr
Reprinted by The Mysterious Press, 2019
ISBN 978-1-16316-130-2

As I began reading The Crooked Hinge, I had conflicting impressions—first, that I was reading it for the first time, and, second, that I had read it and knew how it turned out.  Those impressions persisted throughout my reading, until the very end.  Partly because the book’s title rang no bells for me at all.  (I checked on the “Stop, You’re Killing Me website, to see whether the book had been published at some time under another title—but  it had not.

Let me begin here by saying that The Crooked Hinge is not exactly a locked-room mystery; it is an “impossible crime mystery.  The murder is witnessed by several of the others involved.  But no one actually sees how the murder was committed.  This is one of the reasons I thought I had already read it—I knew both how and who immediately. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story is set in the late 1930s, and involves as principals, two men who, as young boys, had been sent to America.  In 1914.  On the Titanic.  One was John Fairleigh, the younger son of Sir Dudley Fairleigh; he was sent to (they hoped) reform his ways.  The other was a boy of about the same age, Patrick Gore, the child of a poor family.  The ship, of course, sank, the boys survived.  And, years later, after his older brother died, John Farleigh returned to England, inherited the property, and set about being the typical country squire—including marrying the young woman whom he had known.  Then, a man who had grown up under the name Patrick Gore arrives, claiming to be the true John Farleigh, and seeks to take possession of the estate.  (To keep things from becoming too tangled, I will refer to the man who did inherit Farleigh and the interloper Gore.)

Both men have engaged solicitors.  And they are to meet to discuss the situation.  And, as it turns out, for one to be identified as the real John Fairleigh.  The identification is to be provided by Kennett Murray, Fairleigh’s tutor as a young boy, who has, in addition to that knowledge, a set of fingerprints, taken of young Fairleigh 20+ years before.

Death intervenes.  As I was (re?)reading, I expected the victim to me Murray (of course).  But it was Fairleigh, who was in the middle of a sort of maze (the shrubbery being about waist high) who dies, with no one within sight, by (apparently) slashing his throat with an old knife.  I appears, of course, to be suicide (which would clear up the identity issue).  But not everyone is convinced, including a police inspector (from London, who’s there because of another death, clearly a murder) and Dr. Gideon Fell.  (I want to pause, and give thanks to the designer of the cover of this edition of the book; I now know what Dr. Fell’s “shovel hat” looks like.)

We get that far quite quickly.  The problem is that, as more information becomes available, the case for suicide becomes weaker and the case for murder becomes stronger.  And the issue of which of the men was actually Sir John Fairleigh now takes on a somewhat different role. 

But Dr. Fell does unravel the mystery.  And it was, in fact, the solution that I “remembered” from my unclear memory of having once, long ago, read the book.  Carr was a master of creating situation that make it seem impossible for anyone, but especially for the murderer, to have committed the murder, and this is one of the better scenarios.  If complex misdirection mysteries appeal to you, you can hardly do better than JDC.  And this is a very good example of what he can do.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile

 Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
Copyright © Erik Larson 2020
Crown Publishers
ISBN (hardcover) 978-0-385-3871-3

Erik Larson has a deserved reputation for writing excellent works of non-fiction (In the Garden of Beasts; The Devil in the White City among others) and The Splendid and the Vile may be his best yet.  He takes us on an almost day-by-day trip through the period from the collapse of the British and French armies in 1940 to the U.S. entry into the war in 1941.  His focus is on England—where the people, from the famous (Churchill) to ordinary citizens of London and other cities are challenged by the destruction and death (29,000 dead, another 29,000 injured) and destruction (Coventry basically destroyed; thousands of homes and businesses destroyed in cities throughout England) resulting from the bomber raids that struck the country continually.  But in emphasizing the effects on England, he does not neglect the German side of the equation, relying heavily on Göbbles’ diary entries for insights into how Germany saw the war.

What makes The Splendid and the Vile so striking is the wealth of material available, mostly from diaries and letters, that allows us to follow the events as the appeared to the people experiencing them, not as they might be recalled years later.  But there is a cost to this reliance, albeit a minor one: the voices are mostly those of the powerful and the rich.  There was an organized effort by the government (and I am blanking on the agency) to acquire information from the population in general.  Whichever agency it was recruited a fairly large number of people to participate in the “Mass Observation” diary” project (which actually began in 1938); the diarists were often prompted to respond to specific events.  But the story is mostly that of the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected.

And Larson tells the story very well.  For the 500 pages of the text, my interest did not wane; despite knowing how the story ended, the level of detail, and the mix from very personal stories (falling into and out of love; dances and parties) to high strategy kept me engaged throughout. 

That’s not to say that it is perfect.  I’ve mentioned the almost inevitable concentration on the upper classes.  Most of the deaths, most of the injuries, and (probably) a disproportionate share of the suffering, were not among the elite.  And, although we know that Larson is not trying to write a history of the war, he’s trying to capture the period in which the outcome was truly unknown, the ending seemed to me to a disappointment.  But one thing that I truly did moss was and attempt to provide any visuals to accompany the text.  I realize that including photos with the text would have added much to the length and expense of producing the book, but there is (these days) an option:  Create a website with a collection of photos and link to that through a url in the book. 

Whatever reservations I have, however, The Splendid and the Vile is truly a splendid book. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Copycat Photoblogging

 It's been a while since I've done a copycat phtoblogging post, spinning off  Chris Bertram's posts at Crooked Timber (here's a link to the photo I'm copycatting:

My photo was taken during a photography workshop in West Virginia in 2017.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

James R. Benn, The Red Horse

James R. Benn, The Red Horse
Copyright © James R, Benn 2020
Soho Press

After a disastrous mission in occupied France, Billy Boyle (a former Boston police officer (briefly, before the war, working in homicide and a distant cousin of Eisenhower (for whom he now works as an investigator) has landed in the Saint Albans Asylum (formerly a “lunatic asylum) for treatment and recovery from the aftermath of that mission.  During that mission, his close friend, with whom he has worked since the war began, Baron Piotr Kazimierz (Kaz) has had a serious, potentially life-threatening heart seizure.  And things at St. Albans are not what they seem.  But what things are, we learn only gradually.

One thing they are is fatal:

I stood still, unable to decide which way to go.

Which is why I saw the two men up in the clock tower…They were nothing but blurs of brown uniforms. Heads and shoulders barely visible above the crenellated stonework...

Then there was only one man.  And he was flying. (p. 5)

Boyle is certain of what he saw.  But was it real, or was it a stress-induced vision?  There is a corpse—a man named Holland is dead on the ground.  Was it murder (the other man in the tower), suicide, accident?  And when he is asked to look into whether the death was murder, suicide, or accidental, he first has to regain his own (mental) balance.  And that’s not easy.  Fortunately, one of the psychiatrists on staff (Dr. Robinson) manages, using a treatment I’d never heard of, to help Boyle regain his equilibrium  And, to complicate things, Kaz’s condition is very serious; the medical staff thinks that the heart damage he has sustained will be permanent, and he will live out his life as a semi-invalid.  But an American doctor has developed what is still an experimental surgical procedure that might work.

The cast is large, including members of the Home Guard (there as a security detail); patients (male and female); staff members; and folks from British and American intelligence groups (notably the British SOE).  As Boyle’s investigation proceeds, somewhat stealthily, as he is a patient, and is not allowed to be out and around at night, we meet some of the other residents, including a mad scientist, two women (one of whom, much like Holland cannot, or, at least, does not speak).  The situation worsens when a British intelligence officer is (clearly) murdered, and another staff member, also dies, also murdered.  And post-card sized drawings start showing up.

As an added complication, the woman Boyle, Diana Seaton, and Kaz’s sister, Angelika, are both being held in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  Which is close to the factory producing the new V2 German missiles are being produced (we get a very harrowing description of what those missiles can do later on).  And (at least in this universe) Himmler is seeking to repatriate some 100 prisoners (to Sweden), in the hope that, should Germany lose the war, he might be treated leniently.  This, of course, must be kept a secret.

Benn’s knowledge of the war, and of the people and environment in which it is being waged is immense.  His setting, his people, and their actions (the Home Guards, for example, although minor characters are very much alive) all ring true.  And, while the scene in which the murders are brought home seemed to me to resolve a bit weakly, the ending of the book moved me to tears.  In this 15th book in the series, Benn shows that he’s on top of his game.  And I’m looking forward to what I hope are many more tales to come.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Alexia Gordon, Murder in G Major


Alexia Gordon, Murder in G Major
Copyright © 2016 Alexia Gordon
Henry Press
ISBN 978-1-6351-10057-79

I must admit to having a bias against stories that depend heavily on paranormal occurrences.  Especially if the paranormal part is not treated tongue-in-cheek,[1]  But the paranormal elements here are pretty central to the development of the story.  So that’s my warning about my reaction. 

Gethsemane Brown, a world-class concert violinist, has arrived Ireland without her luggage (but with her violin), having seen her job prospects in the States go sour.  She has accepted a position as the music instructor at a small private school in the town of Carraigfaire, and has at least temporary accommodations in the house of Eamon McCarthy, who has been dead for 25 years.  His wife, Orla, also died 25 years earlier; the presumption is that he killed her and then committed suicide.  (A crucial part of the plot is that Eamon was a world-damous composer and that Orla was a world-famous poet.)  Almost immediately after she has begun to settle in, however, Eamon’s ghost, or spirit, appears to her, and implores her to prove that he did not kill Orla and that he did not commit suicide.  His presence in the story is second only to Brown’s, and their relationship is an important part of the story.

Brown wants not to be dragged into any sort of an investigation of a pair of 25-year-old deaths, but can’t avoid it.

Her teaching job, which is really a sub-plot—revolves around a County-wide classical music performance/competition.  Her school has not won the competition for years, and she has only a short time to whip the advanced music students into a functioning orchestra (we’re never told how large her “orchestra” is, but 20 might be a high estimate).  Her plan to win revolves around a “newly-discovered” (by her) of a new concerto written by Eamon.  (Which he did, in fact, as a ghost/spirit, write as a way of bribing Brown into investigating).

The case includes a fair number of strange (if not wonderful) locals, some on whom die as Brown investigates.  The local cops mostly wish she would go away; a couple (who might have botched the investigation of Orla’s murder and Eamon’s death), and one (who’s assignment is the re-investigation of cold cases, which seems unlikely to be a full time job in a small village).

Unsurprisingly, but after a lengthy and dangerous poking around (and putting her life at risk more than once), Brown reaches a conclusion, solving the 25-year-old mystery, and wins the orchestral competition.[2]  I don’t want to give away too much, but her ability to solve the mystery involves files (which have survived, intact, for quite a long period of time) from an abandoned psychiatric facility.  I was, I must admit, underwhelmed.  But I found Brown to be a character I would like to know better, and I will read the second in the series, at last.

 [1] As it is, for example, in Manning Coles’ Brief Candles and Happy Returns.

[2] This is an aside.  The story is set in a rural area of Ireland, apparently without a bid (or even medium) size city.  So all the schools are small.  How many such schools are likely to be able to assemble an actual orchestra (I include Brown’s school in this question)?  And barring a rare and strange alignment of talent, how many of those would be able to perform at a (relatively high level?  (The school at which Brown teaches encompasses what we would think of as a combined elementary and secondary school; we are given no clear indication of its total enrollment).

Sunday, August 23, 2020

W. Bolingbroke Johnson, The Widening Stain

W. Bolingbroke Johnson, The Widening Stain
Copyright © 1942 Morris Bishop
Reprinted 2020 by The Mysterious Press

The author's name is a nom de plume for Morris Bishop, wo was (according to the introduction by Nicholas Basbanes) an academic whose research spread across a number of fields; he was also highly regarded as a teacher and as a writer of limericks.  Otto Penz;er's Mysterious Press re-published The Widening Stain in 2020 as a part of the series "Otto Penzler Presents American Mystery Classics.  Unfortunately, calling something a classic does not make it classic.

The principal character is Gilda Gorham, who is the Chief Cataloguer of the library of an unnamed (but presumptively Ivy-League-ish university.  The cast is composed mostly of faculty members, but also includes the head of the library, the custodian (who is rather sinister), and a buffoonish police lieutenant.  Two of the professors die, one (an assistant professor of French Literature, who is herself French) possibly accidentally, the other clearly murder.  In the end, Gorham provides an explanation of both deaths, and all ends well.

The setting is reasonably well-handled and the participants generally well developed (although Professor Casti’s (Romance Languages, and Italian) vocal tics seemed to me to be more American than not.  Another of the faculty, Professor Parry, is notable mostly for his ability to compose limericks. In my opinion, the limericks were the most interesting part of the book.  I will say that the dynamics of the campus seems well-suited to the 1940s setting, and are, for those of this generation’s readers who are academics, provide an interesting commentary on how things have changed.[1]

My problems with the book are two:
First, there was a lot of padding—scenes, conversations, and so on—that did nothing to advance the story.  Second, and vastly more important, when we get to the end, Gorham proposes a solution to the two deaths, identifying one of the more senior faculty as the culprit.  Her explanation seems (to me, anyway) ad hoc, with little in the way of supporting evidence.  The guilty party promptly has a meltdown, and all ends well for Gorham and for the other faculty.

The book has its charms, but the mystery is not, really, one of them.  I would definitely not consider this to be a classic.

[1] As one example:  One of the faculty s said to routinely wear his Phi Beta Kappa key on a watch chain over his vest.  Counting my undergraduate and graduate school years and my teaching career, I almost never saw a member of the faculty wearing a vest (I certainly never did; the only significant stretch of time that I even wore a suit and tie was my two years as a business school dean).  And I never saw anyone visibly wearing a Phi Beta Kappa key (I have two, which might sound strange.  One is mine, the other is my paternal grandfather’s.) 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Robert Crais, A Dangerous Man

 Robert Crais, A Denageous Man
Copyright © Robert Crais 2019
G. P. Putnam & Sons
ISBN 978-0-525-535-68-3

I think I have read almost everything that Crais has published, and I know I’ve read all of the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike books.  He writes—and plots—extraordinarily well, but the books are sometimes difficult for me, because of the level of violence in them.  A Dangerous Man is an outstanding book, and I read it in essentially one sitting, carried along by the characters and by the events.  But the violence is sure there.

But I’m not actually going to write a review of the book—but do read it; it’s very, very good.  I do want to discuss at a little length a couple of things that I kept thinking about after I finished the book.  The first involves the McGuffin (, the theft of $19 million by the mother of the principal character (non-Cole/Pike division), Isabelle (Izzy) Roland.  The second is…call it a moral dilemma, the nature of which I will try to make ckear.

Izzy’s parents are both dead; she has inherited the house she grew up in, a small bungalow in a middle-class neighborhood.  The main action of the story begins as she is leaving the bank in which she works—she is accosted by a stranger and forced into a car driven by a second man.  Pike, who had just left the bank, rescues her.  We soon find out that someone thinks Izzy has $19 million that her mother is believed to have stolen years earlier (when the mother was working as the bookkeeper for shady doctor—and, apparently, they think it’s in the bungalow, which they search thoroughly.  But Izzy claims no knowledge of that fortune.  Leaving all of that aside, I found myself struck by the logistics of hiding $19 million in a bungalow.

My two immediate thoughts were—gold?  Or $100 bills?  And I had to work that out.  The current price of gold is about $2,000 per Troy ounce; two years ago, when Crais would have bee writing, gold would have been about $1,400 per Troy ounce.  Converting that to “english” ounces, gold would have sold for about $1,275 per “english” ounce.  That’s 930 pounds of gold.  Seems like it would be hard to miss that.

So I tried $100’s.  $19,000,000 would be 190,000 $100 bills.  Maybe not as heavy as the gold.  But how about bulk?  A stack of 250 bills would measure about 3”x6”x1”.  That’s 760 packets of $100 bills, or 13,680 square inches, or 380 cubic feet, or a space roughly 7feet by 7 feet by 7 feet.  Which would be hard to conceal and harder to overlook.

And if the money had been stashed, slowly, over time, in stocks and bonds (etc.), then searching the house would be a waste of time.  (And, also, it seems unlikely that Izzy, whose name was listed on the accounts, had not heard from her mother’s financial adviser(s).)  In any event, there’s a weirdness here that served to actuate the plot, but that is hard to accept.

But that’s just a side issue.  There is, at the core of the story, a pair of moral issues, one involving Izzy’s mother, the other involving Joe Pike.

Izzy’s mother stole $19 million.  Granted, she stole it from two sleazeballs peddling worthless and potentially lethal “pharmaceuticals” to whoever that could con into it.  And the sleazeballs were working with a Mexican drug lord.  Izzy’s mother (and father) rolled on the sleazes and wound up in the witness protection program.  But they apparently never considered finding a way to make any restitution to the people who were mal-treated, made sicker, or died while the scam persisted.  The moral issue, to me, is Should Izzy do what her mother did not do, try to ameliorate the situation of the victims, or keep the money for herself?  That question is never raised.  The assumption seems to be that the money is, without any moral question, Izzy’s.  I found that a little hard to accept.  Well, a lot hard to accept. 

And then, Joe Pike.  After the original troop of bad guys has been arrested or (mostly) killed (in a legitimate use of lethal force), in the coda to the story, Pike takes a trip to Mexico, finds the drug lord, and murders him.  I can’t use the term “execute,” because, to me, that implies an action with some legal sanction.  There is no legal sanction for Pike’s actions.  Was Pike’s action morally acceptable?  I realize that this is not an easy question.  (For example, as long as he’s alive, Izzy is likely not to be safe.)  But for me, accepting that action as morally acceptable is, well, not possible.  Did the drug lord deserve to die?  Well, probably.  Would he have died when he did (when he did) without Pike’s action?  Obviously not.  Would he have continued to commit—or pay others to commit—criminal actions, actions that under any possible consideration would be morally abhorrent?  Obviously he would.  Does that allow us to accept what is legally an act or murder with equanimity?  Speaking only for myself, I have a lot of trouble with it.  (And it’s easy for me to say this, because it is a hypothetical case, and my choice has no consequences,)  But once we begin to say “An extra-legal killing of that guy is OK,” we’re sliding down the slope.

I go back to the years after our wars in Iraq, and the people we tortured in the name of making the world safer.  Does it?  Does our government sanctioning torture make the world safer?  Or does it sanction Russia placing bounties on US military personnel?  Does it sanction the use of poison gas Syria?  Does it allow us to turn a blind eye to the excessive use of force by our police?  Does it allow more and more people, with more and more weapons of greater lethality to claim that their use of those weapons is always OK?

I don’t know.  I do know that the ending of A Dangerous Man left me profoundly troubled.  Which may have been Crais’ intention.  Or maybe not.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Rex Stout, Wher There's a Will

Rex Stout, Where There’s a Will
Bantam (Reprint)
Copyright © 1940 Rex Stout
ISBN 9-780553-763010

Nero Wolfe in dragged, unwillingly, into a contest over a will.  Financier Noel Hawthorne, who has died of a gunshot wound at his country estate, apparently altered his will, leaving everything to Naomi Karn, his mistress, disinheriting his wife and his three s1sters (Daisy, who was disfigured by Noel’s errant archery shot; May, a college president; June, wife of the U.S; Secretary of State John Charles Dunn; and April, an acclaimed actress).  The sisters want him to find evidence that the will is fraudulent.  But the local (upstate, small-town) police conclude that it is murder; the upstate DA shows up with Inspector Cramer, and Manhattan DA Skinner.  Also involved are two lawyers in a toney law firm.

The tale is set entirely in New York, and has one of the rare (?) occasions in which Wolfe leaves home on business.  He makes little progress, has a bad lunch, when Naomi Kern turns up behind the bar in one of the first floor rooms, strangled.  It’s now two murders—but murders for separate or related reasons?  One murder or two?

Wolfe employs some dubious strategems, including keeping a set of photos taken on the day of Noel Hawthorne’s death by Sarah Dunn (daughter of John and June.  And he eventually reaches a conclusion.  Herein lies a problem.  The chief piece of evidence he has that he claims to point to the (single) murder is a photo (spoiled alert), taken in Manhattan taken by Sarah Dunn on the day of the murder.  The evidence is that the accused is alleged, by Wolfe, to be wearing in his buttonhole (it was a different world) a wild flower which, Wolfe claims, would have been unavailable in the City.  Frankly, I’d like to hear Wolfe’s testimony and, more pointedly, the cross-examination.  Which might go something like this:

Defense Attorney: “Now Mr. Wolfe, you have testified that the flower in the picture is of a type that cannot be obtained in New York City, but is only to be found growing wild.  We acknowledge your expertise with orchids, but are you an expert in the cultivation of roses?

Wolfe:  “I am not.”

Att:  “Have you ever attempted to cultivate wild roses?”

Wolfe:  “I have not.”

Att.:  “Have you ever tried to obtain a wild rose from any florist in New York?”

Wolfe:  “I have not.”

Att.:  “Given the size of the photograph, [which would have been probably 3”x5”, and would have included most or all of the body of the defendant—DAC] what is the basis of your conclusion that the flower in the photograph is, in fact, a wild rose.  And if it is a wild rose, what is your basis for concluding that the only place he could have obtained a wild rose that afternoon would have been at Noel Hawthorne’s estate

At this point I don’t know what Wolfe would say.  But since it is solely the “evidence” provided by the photo with the (small) flower that might have placed the defendant at the scene of the murder is, in fact, the (possible) wild rose, I don’t see how any jury would have convicted him.

Archie is in top form, and spending a few hours with Wolfe is always entertaining (and often edifying).  So there’s a lot to like in the book, but the denouement is just unconvincing.

Monday, August 3, 2020

An Extended Rant on the Failings of Richard Lockeidge's *Twice Retired*

This is something I don’t do very often when reading a novel set largely on a college campus, because it is fairly often that the author does not have a full understanding of the institutions, and of the ways in which decisions are made.  Sometimes, however, the impulse is too strong to ignore.  That’s the case tonight, now that I have finished reading Richard Lockridge’s Twice Retired.  The murder (of the chairman of the college’s board of trustees; he’s a retired Army general, named Philip rmstrong) in the midst of protests against the war in Viet Nam (the book was published in 1970).  I am, with some reluctance, going to pass over his treatment of the protests and the protesters, and focus on his depiction of the (fictional) Dyckman University.

I will make only one comment on the mystery.  In keeping with the other books in this series, Lockridge has made it quite easy for the reader to identify the murderer.

What follows is an extended rant on my part on Lockridge’s failure to get the setting of his story anywhere near right.

Early in the book, two of our protagonists arrive at Dyckman to interview Carl Benson, an not yet tenured assistant professor of English (whose primary field is composition).  They enter the classroom in which Benson is concluding his class in “Advanced English Composition.” The scene is described as follows:

There were some fifty young men and women sitting in the room…

Let’s stop right there.  This is a selective, expensive private university.  I attended (from 1965 to 1969) such a university (albeit not in New York City).  Composition classes tend to be small because grading in such classes is time consuming and difficult.  It’s difficult enough to give essays in any course, but composition is different.  In other disciplines (such as mine, economics) grading can be easier, even of essay exams, because there are, usually, more nearly and less nearly right answer.  But in a composition class, it is the process, the individuality, that matters.  Even in an introductory comp class, grading a large number of papers would require a great amount of time.  My intro comp class (required of all of us) was a class of about 20.  This is an advanced comp class, where the nuances become even more important.   A 50 introductory comp class would be difficult; an advanced comp class of 50 would be a brutal assignment.

And the class is winding up, and Benson addresses the class.  I should note that we are nearing the end of the semester.  There is a suggestion in the text that he has been lecturing, which is, in and of itself unusual in a comp class.  In any event, Benson addresses the class:

“Imitate no one.  No one.  Learn the rules,  Yes; then learn to ignore the rules.  Make your own rules.  Rules that are rules.  Your own rules…[following an interruption, in which Benson takes note of the investigators]…Nine tenths of you will never learn to write,  Of that one tenth—that doomed tenth—two thirds will fall victim to the Hemingway syndrome.  Chop. Chop, chop, bang.  [A student drops her notebook, and Benson proceeds to humiliate her.  Eventually he continues; we are told he speaks “angrily.”]  Find your own way.  In writing as in other things in your life.  If any of you learns to write.  You will be under pressure to conform,  Most of you will conform, in the end.  It is the safe way to live.  The establishment approves of conformity.  It sometimes even rewards conformity.  Do as you’re told.  That is the eleventh commandment.  For those of you who are black it is the eleventh and the twelfth.  [A pause to regard the investigators.]  There may be one of you who understands what I am saying…One of you who will, even as he grows older, continue to be free.  If necessary, to defy.  Defy in his life and in what he says, writes, about his life.  For that one[another pause to look at the investigators]…the last fifty minutes will not have been completely wasted.

Seriously.  Lockridge thought that academics—some academics, anyway—actually talk like that?  In a moment, I’ll get to Benson’s future at Dyckman,  Suffice it to say that if I were the chair of the English department, and (as we shall see) Benson did not have tenure, I’d not renew his contract.

Now.  What would happen in an actual advanced composition class?  To begin with, it would be small, probably fewer than 20 students.  The class would not consist of a professorial lecture.  The students would read their work aloud, most likely, so that the class (not just the professor, but the entire class) could engage in a discussion of the work.  (Even in 1970 that’s how it would have gone.)

Benson does not disappear from the stage.  He becomes a focus of the investigation—because Armstrong, the chairman of the Board of Trustees—is pressuring the university’s president to fire him.  Again, as it happens, Benson is nearing the end of his probationary status, and is a candidate for tenure.  And this leads to the next badly handled element of the book.  As Lockridge writes it, the decision on tenure (or not) is entirely that of the university president (James Decker).  And (this, unfortunately, was in the 1950s and 1960s all to common) Armstrong has made it clear to Decker that Benson must be fired.  (Decker would prefer not to fire him.)  So how did tenure decisions then get made?  In much the same way as they are still made.  The school hires someone to teach in a specific program, school, department.  This may be a position for which there is no potential offer (eventually) or tenure.  Ot it may be a tenure-track appointment.

The way tenure-track appointments generally worked, then and now is this:  The new professor is hired for a probationary period (typically, in my experience, 6 or 7 years.  Baring something exceptional—such as extremely bad performance, or overt personal or professional misconduct—the new faculty member teaches, does research, which gets published in professional journals (or in the case of, say, a poet of a writer, writes and publishes).  Let’s say the probationary period is 7 years.  The candidate, beginning in his/her 5th year, prepared an application for tenure which includes all of their professional accomplishments.  A candidate’s research/publication record is reviewed by outside reviewers, who assess the quality and importance of the work.  The candidate’s reaching record is also reviewed, using information from student course/teacher evaluations and (again) outside assessments, particularly if the candidate is basing the case for tenure on excellence in teaching.

The dossier is reviewed by a committee composed of members of the candidate’s department or program, which makes a recommendation.  The first level administrator (department/program chair, or. In some cases, a program dean) makes a recommendation.  There is usually an additional review by tenured faculty—an all-campus promotion and tenure committee—and then by the university’s chief academic officer.  Which goes to the university’s chief administrative officer.  In general, a negative recommendation at any level is the kiss of death.   Then it goes to the Board of Trustees.  And, in the 1950s, at any rate, during the height of the McCarthy years, many candidates for tenure whose cases go to the trustees were, in fact, effectively fired.  

In the more recent years, a denial tenure is not an immediate (i.e., end of the academic year) dismissal.  The unfortunate candidate for tenure still has that last year or his or her initial contract which, if you have been one of the unfortunate ones, you spend (as I did in the 1986-87 academic year) your final year looking for a new job, and trying to make sure the people you have been working with will say good things about you…after all, you’re going to need letters of recommendation, and, if your most recent colleagues have nothing good to say about you,  you have a real problem.

That is almost certainly more than any of you want to read, but I feel better.