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.