Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Becket Factor: Michael David Anthony

There are three books in the Canterbury Cathedral Mysteries; this is the first. They feature a retired intelligence officer, Colonel Richard Harrison, who has given up his job in intelligence to have more time to care for his wife who is disabled. The title of this book comes from the discovery of a tomb that is possibly the last resting place of Thomas Becket. There is a death at the Cathedral, and Harrison's former boss in the intelligence service asks him to investigate surreptitiously. This was the perfect book for me, combining an ecclesiastical background, with a hint of spy fiction.

Coming from a small Methodist church in Birmingham, Alabama, a church setting like this with so many officials was amazing and confusing. The Cathedral has a Dean, a Canon, an Archbishop... and more. This was not the first book I have read about this type of setting recently so I am learning more about that environment. I have a close friend who is Episcopalian and active in his church and he explained the various titles and ranks.

In addition, I found the plot was complex and interesting, which makes sense when politics and history and religion intertwine. What pulled it together for me was Harrison's relationship with his wife, Winnie, and how they were both looking out for each other even when they were at odds on his relationship with his former boss. An extra plus was that  the investigation takes place in the days leading up to Christmas. I always like a book with that setting, and especially when it is peripheral to the mystery.

I don't want to misrepresent this as straight spy fiction, but there is definitely an element of that. If you enjoy books with a clerical setting, I highly recommend this book. And it also would be a good Christmas read.

Moira at Clothes in Books has reviewed this book. In her review of the third book, she says "the daily life of the Cathedral and its school make a convincing and charming background, while still making you realize that such places can be hotbeds of disagreement, not oases of Christian calm and delight. The books look unblinkingly at the problems and future of the Church of England, and the difficulties and sadnesses of rural parishes and the need to close parishes and sell off assets – these decisions are a major theme in the books."


Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2008 (orig. pub. 1990)
Length:      273 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Canterbury Cathedral Mysteries #1
Setting:      Canterbury, England, UK
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Cutter and Bone: Newton Thornburg

I needed help describing this novel so I borrowed this introduction from Peter Boxnall's 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:
A lost masterpiece of the Vietnam era, Thornburg's novel traces the domestic fallout of a period that promised social and political revolution but ultimately produced little or no change. At its center is the relationship between Alex Cutter, an alcoholic, disillusioned, crippled Vietnam veteran, and Bone, a self-interested gigolo.
Richard Bone is heading back to Cutter's house, where he lives when he is not free-loading off of some woman, when he  witnesses a body being dumped. It is raining and he isn't sure what he is seeing and he doesn't get a clear look at person who drops the body  off. When an acquaintance mentions that the body has been found in the neighborhood, Bone realizes what he saw, and he is later picked up by the police. So begins the quest of Cutter and Bone to determine who the murderer is, although Bone is a reluctant participant.

I have three things to say about this novel:
1) It was a fantastic read!
2) It was the most bleak book I have ever read.
3) The depiction of Santa Barbara is spot-on and fits in well with the telling of the story.

This is a crime novel and and there is a whodunit of sorts, but Cutter and Bone is much more about the characters and the experiences that have led them to where they are. At points in the book this is a buddy-drama / road trip. The last portion of this book is a mostly unpleasant drive to the Ozarks, in this case southern Missouri.

The characterizations are very well done. Every character, primary or secondary, comes alive. Many of them are damaged and dysfunctional, and not really sympathetic, but they are interesting.

About two-thirds of the book is set in Santa Barbara and surrounding areas. The depiction of the landscape, the landmarks, and the attitudes were almost perfect. Although the novel was written in and set in the 1970's, Santa Barbara today is not that different.

I found the book to be compulsively readable. There were nights I just could not stop reading. Other nights, I skipped reading it at all because I wasn't in the mood for more bleakness. I will definitely read it again.

The Film Adaptation...

The book was filmed as Cutter's Way, directed by Ivan Passer, with Jeff Bridges as Bone and John Heard as Cutter.  I saw the movie several years before I read the book, and then we watched it again recently. It was a very enjoyable experience, with good acting and even more scenes set in recognizable Santa Barbara locales. But I can see why Newton Thornburg would not have cared for the movie, and the film did not do the book justice.

I think the movie handled the characters well, although Cutter and Bone were diluted versions of the characters in the book. Several important or interesting secondary characters were omitted. But, all in all, well worth viewing, with or without reading the book.

See these resources...

Author Remembers Cutter's Way, interview from the Santa Barbara Independent, August 19, 2008.

From a film review at On Second Look:
Passer gets the atmosphere of Santa Barbara and that Central Coast feel just right. There is a juxtaposition of big money and hippie bohemia that makes it the perfect setting for this story. ...he also gets career defining performances out of his leads.
The Book You Have to Read at the Rap Sheet


Publisher:   Serpent's Tail, 2001 (orig. publ. 1976)
Length:      313 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Santa Barbara, CA; the Ozarks.
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.
Introduction by George Pelecanos 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Reading Summary for May 2018

May was another good reading month, all of the books were winners. Most of them came from my TBR piles, although two were borrowed from my husband. Mostly crime fiction, as usual.

This time I only read one book outside of the crime fiction genre. It was nonfiction, and it was a great choice.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014) by Ben Macintyre
I was about to read Young Philby by Robert Littell but decided that I wanted to know more about the Cambridge Five before I read any more fiction related to that group. My husband had this book in his stacks and very kindly let me read it. It was perfect. The focus is on the longtime friendship of Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby. They were both officers in MI6 for many years. The story is very interesting, the writing is fantastic, and there is an afterword by John le Carré. I still want to read more in-depth about other spies in that group but this was a great introduction.

And the list of crime fiction read:

Downfall (2018) by Margot Kinberg
This is the fourth book in the Joel Williams series. Joel is a former policeman who has left that job to teach criminal justice at Tilton University. I enjoyed visiting with Joel again, and this time he moves outside of his university environment. See my full review.
The Victoria Vanishes (2008) by Christopher Fowler
The Bryant and May mysteries star two elderly detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May, members of the fictional Peculiar Crimes Unit. The series is set primarily in London. Bryant witnesses a drunk woman coming out of a pub in a London backstreet and the next he learns she is dead. But when he goes back to the scene, the pub has vanished and the street is different. Thus this is obviously an homage to Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop
Portrait of a Murderer (1933) by Anne Meredith
First sentence: "Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931." So we know at the beginning who will die, and not too long after that we learn who did it. An inverted mystery, a format I generally enjoy. My husband read this in April and encouraged me to read it. I enjoyed it immensely.
The House at Sea's End (2011) by Elly Griffiths
This is the third book in the series featuring forensics archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives in Norfolk in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh. She is often used by the police as an expert when unidentified bones are discovered. This time the bones date from World War II, and this leads to very interesting story from that time that ties in with the present.
Cutter and Bone (1976) by Newton Thornburg
Why did I wait this long to read this book? It is a very well-written thriller, although extremely bleak. But best of all for me, it is like a tour through Santa Barbara and surrounding areas in the mid-70's and the author obviously knew the area. The book was adapted to film with the title Cutter's Way.
Unorthodox Practices (1989) by Marissa Piesman
And here is another novel that I should have read long ago. It has been on the TBR piles for nearly 12 years. Nina Fischman is a Housing Court attorney, Jewish, single, and a little bit worried about that. It was a lot of fun, humorous, I found myself laughing out loud (very unusual when I read a book). The first half was better than the second half and the mystery was slight, although interesting. 

Traitor's Purse (1940) by Margery Allingham
This 11th in the Albert Campion series, published in 1940, is entirely different from the preceding books. Albert Campion awakens in a hospital bed with amnesia; he doesn't know who he is but he knows he was on a very important assignment. He leaves the hospital with the help of Amanda Fitton, who is his fiancée but it takes him a while to realize that. I loved it. See my full review.

The List (2015) by Mick Herron
A novella in the Slough House series, set between Dead Lions and Real Tigers. I haven't Real Tigers yet, so thought I would read this one first. Very good, mostly about a spy who handles older, retired spies, but featuring some of the characters in the books.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Traitor's Purse: Margery Allingham

Albert Campion awakens in a hospital bed with amnesia; he doesn't know who he is but he knows he was on a very important assignment. He overhears a conversation between two policemen that indicates that he has killed someone, and he knows he must escape and search for the truth.

This was a reread but I remembered very little of the plot, and it was a very entertaining read. So far I consider this my favorite in the series, but then I haven't gotten to Tiger in the Smoke, which is the favorite of most Allingham fans.

I can understand why some people don't care for this book as much as other Campion mysteries. It is not a standard mystery, it focuses more on an unknown conspiracy than a murder (although it does have a murder), and the reader knows as little about what is going on as the protagonist. But all of those reasons are why I liked it so much, along with the presence of Lady Amanda Fitton, charming, capable and dependable, who we learn early on has been engaged to Campion but now wants to call it off.

One thing I can say for sure. If you want to try Margery Allingham's mysteries, don't start here. It is book 11 in the Albert Campion series, published in 1940, and it is entirely different from the others. More than one reviewer had a bad experience with this book and noted that it might be due to not reading any others first. Two other books that feature Amanda are Sweet Danger (#5) and The Fashion in Shrouds (#10).

I especially enjoy mystery novels set during World War II, and even more so when they were also written at the time. Knowing that this was written when no one knew the outcome and in a location where the threat was so imminent adds to the thrill.

Please see other reviews at Pining for the West, In so many words, Jandy's Reading Room, and Crime Time.

Also see the review from Tipping My Fedora. I will share a quote from that post:
More of a wartime spy thriller than a classic whodunit, this is a superb adventure and one that forever changed Albert Campion into a new kind of hero, one that we would however not encounter again until the war was over. Allingham was a great writer and this is one of her best books.


From Mr Campion's Lady, the Second Allingham Omnibus
Publisher:  Chatto and Windus, 1965 (this novel orig. pub. 1940). 
Length:     147 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2005.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation from The Tipping Point to Ask for Me Tomorrow

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six other books, forming a chain. Every month she provides the title of a book as the starting point.

The starting point this month is Malcolm Gladwell’s debut, The Tipping Point. Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the tipping point is defined as "the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place." Malcolm Gladwell explores that idea in this non-fiction bestseller, published in 2000. I have not read the book but it does sound very interesting.

That book leads me to another non-fiction book that I recently read: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre. I read this book because I wanted to know more about the Cambridge Five before I read any more fictional works based on one or more members of that group.

At this time, the particular fictional book I want to read about the Cambridge Five is Young Philby by Robert Littell, one of my long list of favorite authors of spy fiction. Another book by Littell is The Defection of A. J. Lewinter, in which an American scientist defects to the Soviet Union.

This reminds me of one of my favorite series set in Russia, the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series by Stuart M. Kaminsky. My most recent read in that series is Hard Currency, published in 1995, which features a trip to Cuba. One of the things I like about the series is that there were books written before and after the break up of the Soviet Union, and the series reflects the changes in Russia over those years.

I will stay with the same author but a different book for my next link: Bullet for a Star, the first book in the Toby Peters series, published in 1977. The Toby Peters mysteries feature a private eye who often works for the movie studios. Each book centers around a real person, usually a movie star. This one features Errol Flynn and is set in 1940 in Hollywood, California.

Another mystery novel that features a real life movie star is Bye Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins. In the 15th book in the Nate Heller series, the private detective is hired by Marilyn Monroe shortly before her death. Other books in the series deal with real crime and real people from the 1930's into the 1960's. Max Allan Collins is a very prolific author (see his books listed at Fantastic Fiction) and was honored with the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America in 2017. This is another author whose books I have not read yet, although I have several on my shelves.

My last link is to a book by another Grand Master of the MWA ... Ask For Me Tomorrow by Margaret Millar, Originally from Canada, she later moved to Santa Barbara, California with her husband, Kenneth Millar (who wrote as Ross Macdonald). This book was published in 1941 and partially set in a town very much like Santa Barbara, although the town is called Santa Felicia in the book.

I find it interesting that the books in my chain all have links to the past, whether the books are historical fiction or non-fiction or actually written at an earlier time.

Next month (July 7, 2018), we’ll begin with Tales of the City, the first in the much-loved series by Armistead Maupin. I haven't read that one either, but I have it on my Kindle, and I will read several chapters from it in the next month, at a minimum.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Murder is Announced: Agatha Christie

This is the fourth Jane Marple mystery novel and my fourth read in that series in the last few years. The story is set in the small English village of Chipping Cleghorn. A murder announcement is placed into the Personals section of local newspaper and everyone assumes it is a clever invitation to a murder party. However, the group that gathers witnesses a real murder. Miss Marple is called in to help with the investigation.

Having only read four of the Jane Marple books, I cannot point out a definitive favorite, but many fans of Agatha Christie's books have selected it as their favorite. And for now I would place it as tied with The Moving Finger for my favorite.

This is a very clever story, and had me fooled for most of the book. Close to the end I began to suspect who the culprit was but I was still surprised and never guessed the why, the motive.

But, beyond the fact that this is a good mystery, there are several specifics I liked.

The introduction of all the characters, of which there are many, at the beginning of the story. As the morning newspaper arrives at each household in the village, the inhabitants read the announcement and discuss it. Thus we get an overview of each of the households. And throughout the book, the characterizations of both primary and secondary characters is very well done. Where the idea came from that Agatha Christie's books were peopled by cardboard characters, I don't know.

This novel also provided a very good picture of England, and particularly English villages, after World War II. Published in 1950, it was written when the deprivations following the war were still in effect. It was hard to get specific foods, everyone was wary of "foreigners" and it was more usual to have strangers in the area.

Also see reviews at these blogs: A Little Reading, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, FictionFan's Book Reviews, Past Offences, and Clothes in Books.


Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1970. Orig. pub. 1950.
Length:     197 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Miss Marple, #4
Setting:     Small village, UK.
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2007.