Friday, July 3, 2015

"Fourth of July Picnic" by Rex Stout

Since Christmas of last year, I have been reading through Rex Stout's And Four To Go, a collection of four novellas featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. All but one of the novellas is set around a holiday, so I have featured each one on the associated holiday. Today we have a Fourth of July story.

One of Nero Wolfe's eccentricities is that he will do almost anything to avoid leaving his home. In most cases he is an armchair detective, and never has any desire to visit the scene of the crime. Yet his antipathy for leaving home goes beyond that. He doesn't like to travel by any means of transportation and won't be driven by anyone but Archie. There are always exceptions, of course. I usually enjoy the stories and novels that take Wolfe out of his normal setting.

In this novella, Wolfe has been hounded into speaking at a Fourth of July picnic for the United Restaurant Workers of America (URWA). In return, one of the representatives of that group will stop hounding Fritz, Wolfe's cook, to join the group. During the speeches, one of the important members of the group is killed. It turns out only a few people (those giving speeches, including Wolfe) could be responsible. The denouement is not up to Stout's usual standards, but the shenanigans that take place up to that point are fun.

Even I, a big Nero Wolfe, was not overly impressed with this novella. It does not have the same charm as the other two from And Four To Go that I read in the last few months. Many of the regular recurring characters did not appear, including Fritz. But it was still entertaining enough for me.

The other two novellas were "Easter Parade" and "Christmas Party". Click on the link for reviews.

This brings me to the last novella in And Four To Go: "Murder is No Joke." I will be reading that one soon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Double Indemnity: James M. Cain

This is a very short book; in my edition, just 115 pages. The story is told from the point of view of Walter Huff, an insurance salesman, and he reveals everything about himself, not prettifying the picture of his plotting and conniving to commit a crime.

Walter visits the home of a man, Mr. Nirdlander,  who has purchased car insurance from him. His policy is up for renewal and Walter wants to get that moving. From the beginning the narrator implies that something bad has happened. He talks about the references to the "blood red drapes" in the newspaper accounts. And then we meet Phyllis, Nirdlander's wife. And Walter soon gets the sense that she is going to be trouble for him.

Later he comes back to visit:
Three days later she called and left word I was to come at three-thirty. She let me in herself. She didn't have on the blue pajamas this time. She had on a white sailor suit, with a blouse that pulled tight over her hips, and white shoes and stockings. I wasn't the only one that knew about that shape. She knew about it herself, plenty. We went in the living room, and a tray was on the table. "Belle is off today, and I'm making myself some tea. Will you join me?"
Walter is very smart in some ways, but dumb enough to let Phyllis lead him into crime. In hindsight he sees where he could have made better decisions, but at the time he actively and willingly colludes with her.  It is chilling to share this experience with Walter.

Along the way, we get a pretty interesting look at the way insurance salesmen and insurance companies worked in the 1930's.

And all of this in 115 pages. Amazing.

The story is very bleak; there is no expectation of a happy ending. I thought I would not like this story of depravity and greed, but I was wrong. I would not say I empathized or sympathized with Walter, but I did not find him or his story horrifying either. The book was much more enjoyable that I expected it to be. I plan to read The Postman Always Rings Twice (Cain's first book) and Mildred Pierce.

We have the movie adaptation of this book and my husband assures me that it is very good. I am looking forward to watching it soon.

See other reviews at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, The Game's Afoot, Vintage Pulp Fictions, and Scott D. Parker.


Publisher:   Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1992 (orig. pub. 1936)
Length:      115 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Los Angeles area
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mount TBR Challenge Check-in: 2nd Quarter

In the first quarter of 2015, I read 20 books from my TBR shelves, stacks, and boxes. I was pretty happy with that. In April, May, and June, I have only read 8 books that count toward the 2015 Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

My goal for the year is 48 books -- Mt. Ararat. So I am now at 58.33% of my goal. I will have to pay more attention to my reading choices in the next two quarters. The challenge is run by Bev at My Reader's Block

For this quarter's check-in, Bev asked us to write about one of three topics. This is the one I chose:

B. Tell us about a book on the list that was new to you in some way--new author, about a place you've never been, a genre you don't usually read...etc.

The most unusual book in my list of TBR books this quarter was White Heat by M. J. McGrath. The setting is what makes it unique. The story is set on Ellesmere Island, a location in Canada that I did not know existed. Ellesmere Island is considered part of the Queen Elizabeth Islands. The protagonist is Edie Kiglatuk, half-Inuit and a hunting guide and school teacher. In the first few chapters, I was put off a lot by the descriptions of the food (igunaq, fermented walrus gut; seal- blood soup; fried blubber). By the end of the book, I was getting used to that.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

See Also Murder: Larry D. Sweazy

In 1964, on a farm in North Dakota, Erik and Lida Knudsen are found murdered in their bed, their throats slit. Their two sons—Jaeger and Peter, ages 19 and 20—heard nothing while asleep in their rooms. Sheriff Hilo Jenkins visits Marjorie Trumaine immediately after he leaves the crime scene. He has found an amulet clasped in Erik’s hand. Because Marjorie is considered the smartest person in the area, he asks her to investigate the amulet, which has unusual markings. She suspects that the markings are from Norse mythology, partly because of the many people with Norwegian ancestry in the area. And because Hilo is a close friend, she agrees to get involved, although they both know that his request is very unorthodox.

I liked so many things about this book, it is hard to know where to begin. Let's start with my favorite part. The main character is an indexer, a person who creates the index for non-fiction books. She does this work freelance and she is doing it to make money that she and her husband badly need. They own a farm in North Dakota in 1964, they are financially strapped as was common at the time, and her husband has become an invalid due to an accident on the farm. She became an indexer before her husband's accident, but now the money is even more necessary to their ability to hold onto the farm.

I love indexes in books. I think I always have. I used the library a lots as a child and learned to write research papers with footnotes and references when I was in elementary school. When I worked for a publisher (of historical serials and reference books), I was exposed to indexing from the technical side of it. We had a system called SPindex that "spun" or rotated a set of index terms so that they all were listed together in the index in a string, for each indexed term. And I still look at the index in any non-fiction book before I look at anything else.

So the book had me as soon as I read the summary on the back. My husband, who also worked for the same publisher for many years, found the book for me and pointed out that the main character was an indexer. We both thought it was the perfect book for me, and I hoped it would live up to my expectations.

The setting in 1964 was appealing. I was a teenager in 1964 and my home in the deep South in a big city was nothing like a farm in North Dakota, but I could picture the cars and remember what life, and especially the life of a woman, was like at that time. The story makes the daily work of a farm feel real; the requirements of tending to the farm cannot be ignored while Marjorie investigates per Hilo's request. Marjorie loves the farm and life on the farm, even though her father had hoped she would go to college.

This is a gritty crime story; there is violence but it is not graphic and does not overwhelm the story. Other murders follow; for a small rural community where everyone knows everyone and frequently depends on their help, this is an unheard of occurrence. I did not come close to guessing the ending, and as soon as the culprit was revealed, I realized I should have. The author did a great job of misdirecting me, while leaving plenty of clues.

See Also Murder exceeded my expectations. There is a lot of depth to this story. Marjorie has an antagonistic relationship with her cousin, who is a professor at a college in the nearby town, and looks down on Marjorie because she is not college-educated. She is content with her life (as much as she can be in the circumstances), but her love of books and learning leaves her with cravings that are fulfilled by the indexing jobs. Beyond the tension of the continuing crimes,  there is the emotional strain of needing to keep up with both the farm work and the indexing work, which is on a deadline for publication, because she needs the money and can't afford to antagonize the publisher she is working with.

The story is told from Marjorie's point of view, in first person. Marjorie is a wonderful character. Her life has taken some very bad turns, but she takes things in stride and gets on with what needs to be done. She isn't perfect, but she is a strong person that we can believe in. The relationship with her invalid husband is very well done; they are still in a partnership in making decisions about the farm, but she is the one who has to manage it all.

The author, Larry D. Sweazy, is an indexer and has been doing that work for many years. He also has written several Western novels, which I intend to try. See his website for more information.

See also reviews from other sources:


Publisher:  Seventh Street Books, 2015.
Length:      250 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      North Dakota
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Case of the Dotty Dowager: Cathy Ace

Summary from Goodreads:
Meet the Women of the WISE Enquiries Agency. The first in a new series.
Henry Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, is convinced his mother is losing her marbles. She claims to have seen a corpse on the dining-room floor, but all she has to prove it is a bloodied bobble hat.

Worried enough to retain the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency one is Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish and one English. Henry wants the strange matter explained away. But the truth of what happened at the Chellingworth Estate, set in the rolling Welsh countryside near the quaint village of Anwen by Wye, is more complex, dangerous, and deadly, than anyone could have foreseen.
I should start this review by saying that I enjoyed reading this book a lot and I will be continuing on with the series. It took me a while to get into it, so I think I need to say that up front.

I initially thought this book was going to be too cozy for me. It really depends on how you define "cozy" of course. The protagonists are four women who have banded together to form the WISE Women Enquiries Agency. They chose this name because they hail from different areas in the UK. Carol is from Wales, Christine is from Ireland, Mavis is from Scotland, and Annie is from England. They all now live and work out of London. For this case, Carol, the computer wizard, stays in London to coordinate the investigations, and the other three women go to Wales to investigate.

I would say it took me close to half of the book before I was hooked. Then, boom, I was engrossed in the story and the characters. It may be that the story seemed slow at first to me because the author had to introduce the four main characters and their relationships and that slowed down the pace for me.

I wasn't the only reader who had this problem (see this review from the Galesburg Public Library) and I am pointing this out so that readers will keep reading... It gets really interesting in the second half.

I liked the portrayal of the characters, primary and secondary. Some of them felt like stereotypes in the beginning, and later were fleshed out and seemed more realistic and believable. I was quite fond of some of the secondary characters and most of them turned out to be more than their initial portrayal implied.

This article at Publisher's Weekly confirms that the series is continuing:
The series—for which Ace has already written the second book, The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer (coming out next year), and sketched out the third—is character driven first and foremost and offers a “fascinating look at the way these women from very different backgrounds can work together, not so much despite their differences but because of their differences.”
See these reviews:
Cathy Ace has also written a six books series starring a Welsh-Canadian professor Cait Morgan. Like the protagonist of that first series, Cathy is Welsh-Canadian, born and raised in Swansea, South Wales, and now a Canadian citizen.


Publisher:   Severn House, 2015
Length:      244 pages
Format:      e-book
Series:       A WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery, #1
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      Provided by the publisher for review.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Death of a Ghost: Margery Allingham

Summary from the The Margery Allingham Society website:
John Sebastian Lafcadio, one of the greatest painters of the Edwardian period, left twelve pictures to be exhibited, one every year, after his death. But there is an unexpected event at the unveiling of the eighth painting -- murder. Albert Campion must employ all his tact as well as his formidable intelligence to trap the killer. The author's observation of the art world, both aristocratic and bohemian, ensures that Death of a Ghost is a remarkable novel as well as a compelling mystery.
I was tentative about rereading Margery Allingham's books, because I reread Sweet Danger several years ago and wasn't as taken with it as I had been the first time around. Still, I had decided to start from there and reread all of the books up to The Tiger in the Smoke, and the choice of 1934 for the Crimes of the Century meme  was the perfect motivation to get started on that.

I needn't have worried about liking this book. I liked the story and the way Allingham tells it. Campion is an old friend of Belle's, thus he is present when the first murder occurs at the unveiling of the painting when the crime occurs. And of course he brings in his friend Stanislaus Oates of Scotland Yard and gets involved in the investigation.

There are many other eccentric characters to enjoy here. Belle, Lafcadio's wife, is central to the story. I loved her goodness, the way she felt responsible for the women who live with her and others who have cottages on the grounds of Little Venice, her home. They all depend on her generosity to live in comfortable circumstances. There is Donna Beatrice, who was a model for Lafcadio and sees herself as more important to his work than she was. There are the Potters, an artistic couple, and Fred Rennie, the man who made Lafcadio's secret paint recipes.

Max Fustian is the art dealer who represented Lafcadio before his death and was commissioned, along with Belle, to handle the exhibition and sale of each of the twelve pictures. He is another unusual character, affected and self-important.

The plot is complex, but in a good way. This did not feel like a whodunnit. For almost half of the book, the killer is known to Campion and Inspector Oates. However they can find no proof. And they both fear that more deaths will occur if they cannot unmask the murderer.

I like what Patrick of At the Scene of the Crime says about Allingham's books and their reception:
It seems that, of the traditional “Crime Queens” (Christie, Sayers, Marsh, and Allingham) Allingham provokes the most extreme reactions. It seems that half the people who approach her books absolutely love them, and the other half despise them and wonder how anyone could enjoy them. I personally belong to the first camp: I really like Allingham, but not for her plotting ability (which is limited). No, I tend to read Allingham for her style, her characters, and her writing.
Other reviews of this book:

As noted above, this book is my submission for Past Offences' monthly Crimes of the Century feature. This month the year chosen was 1934.


Publisher:  Bantam, 1985. Orig. pub. 1934.
Length:     206 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Albert Campion, #6
Setting:     UK, mostly London
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy.