Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Killing at Cotton Hill: Terry Shames

When former police chief Samuel Craddock hears that his old friend Dora Lee Parjeter has been murdered, he decides to look into the crime. The current police chief is not only a drunk, he doesn't really care whether he gets the real murderer, as long as he clears the case. He has already decided the murderer is Dora Lee's grandson, who lives in a converted shed on her property. In addition to wanting to make sure the real murderer is apprehended, Craddock is feeling guilty because he had ignored Dora Lee's complaints about a person hanging around her property and spying on her.

The story is narrated in first person present tense by Craddock who has been retired for many years. Because he is not currently in law enforcement, this technically fits in the amateur sleuth subgenre, but of course his experience and contacts help.

When I start reading a new mystery, I want to become immersed in the story and to get to know the characters involved. So my gauge of enjoyment of a mystery is based on how well a book does those things.  Every author is different in how he or she tells the story, so the amount and type of engagement may differ, but if those two things happen for me, I am happy with the book. This book did meet my two biggest criteria for success. I was pulled into the story and I met a new group of characters who were intriguing. Some were likable, some were not, and some were irritating. For me it was not a perfect read, but close.

This story bears a good bit of resemblance to the Bill Crider mystery I read recently, Too Late to Die (published in 1986). Both are set in rural Texas, and the heroes are both recently widowed. The major difference is that Crider's protagonist is the county sheriff, and he has to keep his constituents happy. Bill Crider has good things to say about this novel:
Terry Shames does small-town Texas crime right, and A Killing at Cotton Hill is the real thing. It has humor, insight, and fine characters.
I usually like a book with a faster pace. This book was slower and quieter. In my opinion, that fit the setting, rural Texas. Now I have not lived in or even visited small towns in Texas, but I have lived in the South, and in general I would say the pace is slower, or at least it seems that way. The book is not overly long (231 pages) and a lot of plot is packed in those pages.

A description of Cotton Hill:
Cotton Hill, where Dora Lee’s farm is located, is a tiny hamlet roughly halfway in between Jarrett Creek and the county seat, Bobtail. It’s high summer and the drive out to Cotton Hill is pretty, the alfalfa thick on the ground, the post oak trees still green from the wet June we had. And the cotton is just a few weeks from ready to pick. It’s a terrible crop for the land, sucking up all the nutrients and leaving it as depleted as if it had been strip-mined, but it makes a pretty sight as we cut down the county road to Dora Lee’s farm.
One element in this story that made it more interesting for me was the protagonist's interest in modern art and how that fits into the story. Greg, Dora Lee's grandson, paints but she had never taken his ambitions in that area seriously. When Craddock walks into Greg's room he sees his paintings...
My wife, Jeanne, was crazy about modern art. She grew up in Fort Worth, where some of the best museums in Texas are located, and she was hooked on it. She dragged me to galleries with her, and it turned out I liked looking at art almost as much as she did. Before I met her, I liked pictures of bluebonnets and cactus, but she got me fired up about abstract painters.
So I have some knowledge of art, and I know the minute I walk into the room that I should have paid more attention to Dora Lee’s talk of the boy’s dreams. What is it that makes people think great artists have to come from somewhere else?
The funny thing is that Greg doesn't take Craddock seriously until he sees his collection of modern art.

My one quibble with the book is the use of present tense.  I don't enjoy stories told that way, and it occasionally threw me out of the story. I do plan to read the second book in the series, so the good points clearly outweigh this minor issue.

Other reviews with more detail:


Publisher:   Seventh Street Books, 2013
Length:      231 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Samuel Craddock #1
Setting:      Texas
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Friday, March 27, 2015

"The Duke" by Eric Wright

Deal Me In Short Story #6

This week I drew the King of Spades, which corresponded to "The Duke" by Eric Wright, a Canadian mystery writer. He was born in London, England and immigrated to Canada in 1951. His best-known series features Inspector Charlie Salter of the Metropolitan Toronto Police. Two of his novels have won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel and he has also won awards for his short stories. I have only read one novel by Wright, The Night the Gods Smiled (reviewed here).

A description of the hero of his story:
After half a lifetime of not being very much at home in the world, Duke Luscombe had finally found exactly the right job. He was a cook, trained in Montréal by a catering company to run the kitchen of a construction camp. The training could not have been very extensive: the Duke could cook about twenty different menus, though the same vegetables appeared on most of them, but because some of the items, like steaks and chops, were offered at least once a week, and because there was a roast or a boiled ham every Sunday, some of the menus, like pork tenderloin, appeared only once a month, giving the Duke's repertoire an appearance of being much bigger than it really was. But his skills matched the needs of the men.
Duke is an obsessive man, guarding his domain and its contents at all times. He is a man satisfied with his simple life, and the men accept him for what he is. Until a troublemaker comes along and sees that he can take advantage of Duke's nature.

This is a very short story and I won't go into the plot further than that. What makes this story different is that the narrator addresses the reader briefly at the beginning and the end with a fairly straightforward story in between. I liked this approach and I liked the twist at the end very much. The author set it up very well and certainly had me fooled.

The story was first published in 1993 in 2nd Culprit: A Crime Writers' Annual edited by Liza Cody and Michael Z. Lewin. I bought this book of short stories because of the gorgeous cover, and now I am finally reading some of the stories.

"The Duke" has since been published in A Killing Climate, an anthology of the author's stories and in two collections of short stories by Canadian authors (Iced: A New Noir Anthology of Cold, Hard Fiction and Mystery Ink).

Every other week I draw a random card to determine what short story I will read for the Deal Me In Short Story challenge. My list of short stories is here. Jay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Books of 1967: Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas

I love spy fiction and have been planning on reading more books by Ross Thomas, so I jumped at the chance to read this for the Past Offences Crime Fiction of the Year Challenge for 1967. Here is the #1967book sign-up page.

In Cast a Yellow Shadow, Mac McCorkle has settled in Washington, D.C. with his new wife, Fredl. They met in Germany where he and his friend Mike Padillo owned a bar. Before McCorkle left Germany, Padillo disappeared and was presumed dead; now he has re-appeared and brought trouble with him.

McCorkle learns about his friend Padillo's reappearance from Hardman, described here:
He was far up in the Negro numbers hierarchy, ran a thriving bookie operation, and had a crew of boosters out lifting whatever they fancied from the city's better department stores and specialty shops. He wore three- or four-hundred dollar suits and eighty-five dollar shoes and drove around town in a bronze Cadillac convertible talking to friends and acquaintances over his radio-telephone. He was a folk hero to the Negro youth in Washington and the police let him alone most of the time because he wasn't too greedy and paid his dues where it counted.
Hardman starts to tell him about Padillo. This is by far my favorite quote from the book, because it is so true:
"Well, I got me a little business over in Baltimore." He paused. I waited. I prepared for a long wait. Hardman was from Alabama or Mississippi or Georgia or one of those states where they all talk alike and where it takes a long weekend to get to the point.
I don't know if everyone in the South has that problem, but everyone in my family does.

This book is the 2nd in a short series of four books featuring this pair. Padillo at one time was a spy working for the US. A group of politicians from a South African nation want Padillo to carry out an assassination for them. When he refuses, they use the kidnapping of McCorkle's wife as leverage.

McCorkle narrates the novel. Here we have a man who may never see his wife again, and we can feel his despair while he tries to plan for a way to save her life. Yet still the novel remains light, not depressing. Padillo brings in a motley group of agents to help in the rescue effort and of course there are the usual twists and turns and double crosses.
We sat there in our stocking feet in the fancy apartment in the northwest section of Washington, D.C., the Negro, the Spanish-Estonian, the Pole, the Englishman, and the Scotch-Irish saloon-keeper, waiting for the Syrian-Hungarian woman to arrive. We sat there and drank the coffee in silence for fifteen minutes before the door chimes rang again.
McCorkle and Padillo are likable characters. McCorkle just wants to settle down. Padillo seems to want to leave the spying business but others keep pulling him back in. The pacing is good, which helps to make the implausible story seem possible.

The Cold War Swap (1966), the first in the series, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. That book and this one are the only Ross Thomas books I have read, so cannot testify to his skills throughout all of his books, but I have quite a few more to try. He wrote espionage fiction and political thrillers and  was the inaugural winner of the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 (posthumously). He won a second Edgar for Best Novel in 1985 for Briarpatch.


Publisher:   Mysterious Press, 1987 (orig. pub. 1967)
Length:       266 pages
Format:       Paperback
Series:        Mac McCorkle, #2
Setting:       Washington, D.C.
Genre:        Spy fiction
Source:       Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2007.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Once Upon a Time IX: Reading Fantasy, Folklore, and More

The Once Upon a Time Challenge, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings, takes place during the months of spring. As usual, I have a stack of books I have been saving to read at this time of year.

Carl describes this challenge thusly:
Saturday, March 21st marks the official start date of the ninth annual Once Upon a Time Challenge. This is a reading and viewing and gaming event that encompasses four broad categories: Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, including the seemingly countless sub-genres and blending of genres that fall within this spectrum. The challenge continues through June 21st and allows for very minor (1 book only) participation as well as more immersion depending on your reading/viewing/gaming whims.
Check out the post for Once Upon a Time IX for an explanation of options for participation and sign-ups. The option I have chosen is The Journey. I want to participate but not commit to reading a specific number of books.

These books have been on my list for a long time:
  • The Black Company by Glen Cook
  • Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams
  • Land of Dreams by James P. Blaylock
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
Other books I would like to read are:
  • Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook
  • Callahan's Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
Four of these books are mine; four come from my son's bookshelves. Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook is the first book in the Garrett, P.I. series, which blends mystery and fantasy elements.

Other options that I might participate in would be reading short stories or watching movies or TV shows in one of these genres. I am especially interested in trying some short stories, but we will see if I have time or the inclination in the next three months.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Too Late to Die: Bill Crider

Excerpt from the back cover of my paperback edition:
Jeanne Clinton was a pretty and well-liked woman—though in her younger days she'd been known to be a bit wild. But she married an older man and settled down to a quiet, respectable life. Now she is dead, brutally murdered in her home. 
Dan Rhodes, the thoughtful, hard-working sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, has enough to worry about already: a rash of burglaries in town and an election coming up against a hot-shot opponent. Now he's got to find a killer among the residents of his little town—a wily killer, bound and determined not to be caught.
When Newgate Callender reviewed this book in The New York Times, he said:
Sheriff Dan Rhodes is an honest man, a quiet man and a stubborn man. It is pleasant to make his acquaintance.

Too Late to Die is the first book in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, which now totals 21 books.  Dan Rhodes is up for reelection to the job of Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas. His jurisdiction covers small towns and rural areas, where everyone knows everyone.

The pacing of the story is slow but steady, until towards the end when the action speeds up. Rhodes has other, minor crimes and issues to deal with but in the end everything leads up the the logical resolution of the crime.  I like a good mystery but my favorite mystery authors provide more that that. Crider combines good characterization of the Sheriff, and his family, friends and enemies, with an interesting picture of rural Texas. The story is told with dry humor.

At his website, Crider describes the area that Dan Rhodes works in:
The Sheriff Dan Rhodes series features the adventures of a sheriff in a small Texas county where there are no serial killers, where a naked man hiding in a dumpster is big news, and where the sheriff still has time to investigate the theft of a set of false teeth.
And here is an excerpt from the book, describing both of the men running for Sheriff.
Ralph Claymore was Rhodes's opponent in the May election, less than a month away. He was ten years younger and, Rhodes was convinced, much better-looking than the present sheriff. He had wavy black hair with no gray in it, and he could wear tight-fitting western shirts without revealing the slightest bulge in the area of his belly. He wore western hats like he was born in them, and boots, and big silver belt buckles. Rhodes didn’t like boots because they hurt his toes. He didn’t have any silver buckles, and he knew that in a western hat he looked like a cat turd under a collard leaf. And now he had a murder on his hands. He might not look like a sheriff, but he was damn sure going to have to act like one.
Dan Rhodes is a man I want to read more about. I have the next book in the series, Shotgun Saturday Night, on order, and I have purchased some of the recent books in the series that are still available in hardback.  He has written several other series and standalone novels. There is a four book series featuring Carl Burns, a college professor of English literature; a three book series with Sally Good, Head of the English and Fine Arts Division of Hughes Community College in Texas; a five book series starring private investigator Truman Smith set in Galveston, Texas; and more.

Col at Col's Criminal Library recently reviewed Outrage at Blanco, the first of two books featuring Ellie Taine. That one is a Western / crime novel set in 1887.


Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1989 (orig. pub. 1986)
Length:      182 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Sheriff Dan Rhodes #1
Setting:      Texas
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Friday, March 13, 2015

"A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J. D. Salinger

Deal Me In Short Story #5

This week I drew the 3 of Spades, which corresponded to "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" from the book Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger. I read this story years ago, along with all his other short stories and novellas. I remember loving his stories, and was eager to read them again, but afraid I would be disappointed. I was not.

It seems that with most short stories it is impossible to say much without revealing spoilers, so this is just a brief introduction. Several of J. D. Salinger's stories and novellas feature one or more members of the Glass family. This was the first one to do that, and it relates the activities of one day when Seymour Glass and his wife Muriel are on vacation in Florida. At the opening of the story, Muriel is talking to her mother on the telephone, and it is obvious that her mother is concerned about Seymour's mental state. Seymour has recently returned from Germany, where he was stationed in the Army.

Salinger submitted this story to the New Yorker in 1947, and editors at that magazine worked with him to revise the story. It was published in 1948 and was met with much acclaim.  J. D. Salinger is a very famous writer, and most famous for his decision to stop writing and stay out of the public eye. All of that is well documented and I am not in any way an expert, so that is all I will say about that. He is the author of one novel, The Catcher in the Rye, which is probably the most well-known work. I loved that too when I read it initially but I am less sure that I will love it when I re-read it.

So the takeaway from reading this story is that I am eager to read more of them. One more is on my Deal Me In Short Story list, and I will be reading the rest throughout the year. There are two other books that contain novellas or short stories, and I plan to find copies of those and re-read them too.

Every other week I draw a random card to determine what short story I will read for the Deal Me In Short Story challenge. My list of short stories is hereJay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.