Friday, April 17, 2020

Ed McBain, Give the Boys a Great Big Hand

Ed McBain, Give the Boys a Great Big Hand
Copyright © Ed McBain, 1960

The 11th story in the 87th Precinct series.  I've generally enjoyed these books a lot, but this was a disappointment.  Partly because the blurb on the back cover led me to expect--would have led anyone, I think, to expect--a very different sort of book.  "A man dressed in black is leaving blood-red severed hands all over the city."  Not exactly.  There’s one murder in the book, and the hands are not exactly spread “all over the city.”  And, as 87th Precinct books go, there was a lot of slack time in the investigation (although, as it’s been a long time since I read one, that might just be normal).  And, for no reason that I could discern, McBain throws in a long—3 pages (156-158 in this edition of the book)—passage in which he says, “The city is a woman” over and over again, in different ways.  Those 3 pages did not move the story, did not illuminate any of the characters, did nothing but take up space.  Still, I like the characters (mostly), and, if the outcome of the investigation is somewhat anti-climactic, it’s not a bad idea to revisit the 87th once in a while.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Ross Thomas, The Mordida Man

Ross Thomas, The Mordida Man
Copyright © 1981 Ross Thomas
Available from used booksellers and
as an ebook

Let me start by saying that I thought I’d read all of Ross Thomas’s books…until I ran across this one.  Thomas wrote many of the best thrillers ever written, with some of the most memorable characters in the genre.  So I was expecting something special.  And I got it, mostly.

Writing a review of a book by Thomas is almost impossible.  The number of characters is generally immense.  The machinations are complex (and ever-changing).  While it’s generally possible to be fairly certain who the “good guys” are, one can never be completely clear on that.  The Mordida Man (“mordida is said to be “the man who offers bribes) is no exception.  It is (by my count) his 14th published…novel of suspense (?), and while it is not among his best (in my opinion), it is more than good enough to spend the 2 or 3 hours it will take to read.

The cast of characters is, if anything, even larger and more complicated than usual.  We have a 5-person terrorist group—and a lot of people want to get their hands on its leader.  And some group got its hands on 2 fingers of the leader of this terrorist group.  We have Nigerian and Libyan politicians.  We have an ambassador to the UN whose primary job is gathering useful gossip.  We have rogue FBI and CIA operatives.  We have FBI and CIA operatives who are not rogues.  We have the older brother of the president, who has been kidnapped—and a not-so-terribly -important body part used for identification.  We have a multi-millionaire whiz kid who wants to return to the US (he’s broken a lot of laws).  We have the new ruler of Libya and his air conditioned tent in the desert.  And we have a former (one term) member of Congress, now doing this-and-that to make a living.  This final character (Chubb Dunjee—and the origin of his first name is mentioned, although it really doesn’t matter) is, if anyone is, our “hero.”  (There are more, but these are the major players.)

I’m not sure we need a coherent plot.  Which is good, because I’m not sure we have a coherent plot.

What we do have is a search-and-rescue operation that moves at an almost dizzying pace between the US (mostly New York and D.C.), London, Rome, a Caribbean island, a Mediterranean island (or two), and the Libyan desert.  And I’m probably leaving some places out.  The pace and repartee are fast, the violence is copious and sometimes unexpected, and the denouement brings us to a “happy” ending (the ending is, in my opinion, a bit weak).

This is not Thomas at the top of his form.  But Thomas not at the top of his form is better that 95% of the thriller writers who have ever written.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Marvin Kaye (ed.), Nero Wolfe: The Archie Goodwin Files

Marvin Kaye (ed.), Nero Wolfe:  The Archie Goodwin Files
Copyright (C) 2005 Wildside Press LLC
(All material from The Gazette (C) 2005 The Wolfe Pack, reprinted with permission
ISBN 1-555742-484-5

A collections of articles, transcriptoions of presentations at Wolfe Pack dinners, and pastiches.  And, frankly, not all that good.  The articles are mostly(for example, several try to reconcile the chronology of the first few books with the remander of the following 35 years' worth of books--unsuccessfully, and, actually, needlessly) not very infrmative.  Although those that focus on the history of Montenegro, of the horticulture of orchids, are quite interesting.  The pastiches are not very well done.  But capturing successfully Stout's style (especially the narrative voice of Goodwin) would be a challenge for even the most skilled writer.  (Consider the hash that Robert Parker made of his attempt at a Philip Marloe book.)  Not recommended, unless you are a serious fan of Rex Stout's work; and, if you are, prepare to be moderately disappointed.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Copyright © 2009
Picador (New York)
ISBN 978-1-250-07758-5

I rarely read “literary” novels, and I even less frequently read novels that are over 600 pages long.  And Wolf Hall took me probably two months to read.  It is a staggeringly good book.

For many of us, the issues surrounding the events in Wolfe Hall are framed by the magnificent movie (1966), starring Paul Scofield (as Thomas More), adapted for the screen by Robert Bolt from his play, and directed by Fred Zimmerman.  And it is a magnificent movie.  In the movie, More is a man ruled by his conscience, and his conscience prevents him from taking an oath that recognizes as valid Henry’s marriage to Ann Boleyn and proclaiming Henry as the supreme head of the church in England (which, of course, entails a break from the Catholic Church, and rejecting Papal supremacy in religious matters).  More does not publicly proclaim his opposition, but simply refuses to sign the oath, refuses to speak publicly about the marriage or about Papal supremacy, and refuses to explain himself in any way.  The trial scenes and their conclusion are striking.  In this version, Thomas Cromwell (who has risen from poverty and obscurity to become a political force in England) essentially orchestrated More’s downfall.  (The wikipedia article is quite good:

Wolf Hall presents us with a strikingly different perspective.  Let me frame the book a little.

There is a huge cast of characters, so large a cast that it is sometimes difficult to keep the actors straight.  But I can say that there are five who are more prominent than the others.  Working from the bottom (in terms of importance) up:

Ann Boleyn is presented as seeing her relationship with, and marriage to, Henry as a way to lift herself and her family to even greater prominence (and wealth).  Seen through Cromwell’s eyes (as everyone in the book is seen), she is not a sympathetic character.  Her private life is perhaps more checkered than one might wish (including broad hints that she is not a virgin whe she begins her conquest of Henry.

Cardinal Thomas Woolsey, who has basically been running the country (as Chancellor) and for whom Thomas Cromwell has served as his chief of staff, loses the support of the kink=g, because he does not manage to get the Pope to proclaim the marriage between Henry and Catherine of Aragon ( invalid.  (Catherine had been married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, who died before becoming king).  Woolsey if eventually convicted of various crimes against the king, and executed.  Cromwell managed to  avoid and taint from his service to Woolsey.

Thomas More (, trained as a lawyer, served in a number of positions in the government, ending as Lord Chancellor of England—in effect, the head of government, answerable only to the king.  More was also a devout Catholic, believed that the new religious orders (starting with Luther, but encompassing such things as translations of the Bible into the vernacular) were heresies that needed to be stamped out.  He appears to have been perfectly willing to torture those who rejected the Catholic Church as a part of efforts to get them to confess, to identify others, and to renounce their various faiths.

Henry Tudor (, also Henry VIII, King of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, shares center stage (with Cromwell).  The events are driven by his efforts to have his marriage to Catherine declared null, to allow him to re-marry and have a male heir to the throne.  This is not just a personal matter.  His father (Henry VII) had seized the crown, and there were a lot of people around who viewed the Tudors as illegitimate.  Failure to have a male heir might very easily have sparked a struggle over the succession when he died. 

But this is quite simply Thomas Cromwell’s story (  We view events through his eyes and hear them through his ears.  (In any passage in the book in which the thoughts, words, and acts of someone are referred to as “he says,” “he sees,” or “he does,” “he” is Cromwell.  It is, in some ways, a rags-to-riches story.  But, at least for me, he remains, at the end of this volume, something of an enigma.  After spending years outside of England, as a soldier, then a trader, and a merchant, he becomes Woolsey’s close assistant and confidant.  But when Woolsey falls, because of his failure to have Henry’s marriage to Catherine declared invalid, and annulled, Cromwell shifts smoothly and apparently without any difficulty, from Woolsey’s man to the king’s man.  Not that his favor in the king’s eyes lasted.

That is the setting, those are the main actors.  That this struggle transformed England is clear.

The amazing thing is that Mantel makes the motives (well, except for Cromwell’s) and actions of her large cast clear and comprehensible.  And while Cromwell is the central character, I’m less certain that she sees him as the “hero” of these events.  Because we see everything from his perspective, it is tempting to see him as the “hero.”  But I, at least, found him to be an enigma.  Brilliant, talented, ambitious, yes, all of that.  But what he actually believed, what he saw as the path to the future of England remains, for me, after 600 pages, obscure.  He seemed loyal to Woolsey, but shifted his loyalty easily, quickly, and completely, to Henry.  But I never felt that Henry’s goals were Cromwell’s goals, that he actually thought what Henry wanted was best for England.  Yes, he works to get for the king what the king wants.  But why?  We don’t—at least I don’t—know.  

As I read, I marked passages, over 100 of them.  Here’s just one example of Mantel’s ability to provide us with words that will stay with us, and it’s rather long:

At Greenwich, a friar called William Peto*, he head in England of his branch of the Franciscan order, preaches a sermon before the king, in which he takes as his text and example, the unfortunate Ahab, seventh king of Israel, who lived in a palace of ivory.  Under the influence of the wicked Jezebel he built a pagan temple and gave the priests of Baal places in his retinue.  The prophet Elijah told Ahab that the dogs would lick his blood, and so it came to pass, as you would imagine, since only successful prophets are remembered.  The dogs of Samaria licked Ahab’s blood.  All his male heirs perished.**  They lay unburied in the streets.  Jezebel was thrown out of a window of her palace.  Wild dogs tore her body to shreds.

Ann says, “I am Jezebel,  You, Thomas Cromwell, are the priests of Baal.”  Her eyes are alight.  “As I am woman, I am the means by which sin enters this world.  I am the devil’s gateway, the cursed ingress.  I am the means by which Satan attacks the man, whom we was not bold enough to attack, except through me.  Well, that is their view of the situation.  My view is that there are too many priests with scant learning and smaller occupation.  And I wish the Pope and the Emperor and all Spaniards** *were in the sea and drowned.  And if anyone is to be thrown out a palace window…alors, Thomas, I know who I would like to throw.  Except the child Mary****, she is so fat she would bounce.

**Or, in Henry’s case, were never borne.
***Catherine of course, was Spanish.
****Mary is the daughter of Henry and Catherine.

This story is almost certainly true:
in 1532 he denounced the King's divorce in his presence; R. W. Chambers wrote that Peyto did not fall afoul of the statutes against prophesying evil to the king when he warned Henry of possible consequences in the future (having dogs lick his blood, as they had Ahab's, after death.[1]), because he spoke conditionally of this happening if the king were to behave like Ahab.[2] He was imprisoned till the end of that year, when he went abroad and spent many years at Antwerp and elsewhere in the Low Countries, being active on behalf of all Catholic interests.”

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Too Many Words About Bob Dylan's "Idiot Wind"

I think that I was alerted to this listing of Bob Dylan’s 50 greatest song (which is, in any event, a fool’s errand—ranking masterpieces can never be done “correctly”) by Lani Novak.
In any event, this has “Idiot Wind” (ranked as #3:  It’s a great song, but I wouldn’t have it that high on my list (even if I were rash enough to make such a list); in fact, I don’t think it’s even the best song on the album, Blood on the Tracks (I think “Tangled Up In Blue” has that distinction).

Here’s what the folks who ranked it #3 had to say about it:

“On one level an outpouring of fury to rival anything his amphetamine-fuelled younger self came up with, yet Idiot Wind differs from Ballad of a Thin Man or Positively Fourth Street in that its author isn’t just hurling bitter accusations, he’s writhing in agony: “I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like.” The end result is extraordinary, harrowing listening.

So let’s look a bit at “Idiot Wind.”  The structure of the song is a bit…odd.  It opens with this verse—which is a bit schizophrenic:

Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky
People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts
Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that
Sweet lady

To me, the first fines and the second five lines look like they belong in different songs.  Then the first chorus:

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the backroads headin’ south
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

He’s obviously not (vast understatement) happy.  But, then, 

I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike
I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like
There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door
You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin’ every battle

Then we’re back to very angry the second half of that verse, and chorus:

I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle

Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb
Blowing through the curtains in your room
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

Clearly, the singer/speaker is angry, betrayed in some way.  And this anger continues for another verse and chorus.   But then, something changes…and the final verse softens.  Maybe slowly, bus surely, a song that (as I read it) filled with anger, with (at best) severe disappointment):

I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory And all your ragin’ glory
I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry

“…hounded by your memory…your “ragin’ “ glory”…he’s “kissed goodbye to the howling beast”; he’ll never know her “holiness"…her "kind of love.”  Instead of anger, sorrow.  And the final chorus is, for me, a catharsis…it’s not…well, here it is:

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves

Maybe, I think he’s saying, sometimes we’re all idiots, we all need compassion, forgiveness.  And, yes, a great song (but what’s that opening verse doing there?).