Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Charlie Chan: Yunte Huang

The full title of this book is Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History. The author, Yunte Huang, is a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My husband and I are both fans of the Charlie Chan mystery novels by Earl Derr Biggers and the many Charlie Chan films that were based on or inspired by the novels. When this book came out, he bought a copy and he and my son both read it years ago.

When I first heard about this book, I thought it was about Charlie Chan the fictional character and Chang Apana, the Hawaiian police officer that Charlie was based on. That is true, but it is so much more. The book covers much of Earl Derr Biggers' life and it talks about most of the books he wrote, then moves on to the success of Charlie Chan on film. It also provides some background on the history of racism in the US.

All of that is a lot to digest and many reviewers complain that the book tries to cover too much and loses focus. For me, that approach worked fine and made the topic more interesting. The writing was fine and I had no problem staying interested. I was worried about getting too much information about the plots of the books (I have only read 3 of the 6 Charlie Chan novels), but that did not happen. The ones that were mentioned were given an overview and where they fit into Biggers' life.

I found the author very interesting. For one thing, we have some things in common. When Yunte Huang moved to the US from China, he chose to go to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa for his undergraduate studies. That is where I went to college also. He chose Alabama because it was the first state alphabetically, not knowing much about that area of the country. And today he teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Santa Barbara is where I have lived for decades. (In the middle he did post graduate studies in New York... but I have never been to New York.)



Publisher:   W. W. Norton and Co., 2010
Length:       297 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Settings:     Hawaii; USA
Genre:        Nonfiction
Source:       Borrowed from my husband

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

New Orleans Mourning: Julie Smith

This is the first novel in the Skip Langdon series by Julie Smith; it won the 1991 Edgar Award for best mystery novel.

During Mardi Gras the King of the Carnival, Chauncey St. Amant, is shot on his float during the parade. A character dressed as Dolly Parton shoots him from a balcony as the float goes by. Skip Langdon is one of the cops working on crowd control for the event, and she is near to the float when it  happens.

As the Publisher's Weekly review describes it, she "uncovers a cast of intriguing characters, all as much Chauncey's victims as they are suspects in his murder, most of them inhabiting a 'poison garden of corruption' and substance abuse where it's not just on Mardi Gras that everyone wears a mask." I could not put it any better.

Skip also happens to be a friend of the victim and his family, and it is that and her family's status in the community that allows her to be a part of the investigation, although she is only a rookie cop.

The setting of New Orleans during Mardi Gras was very interesting. New Orleans is a beautiful city but this book focused on eccentric and rich people and corruption in the government and the police. I always find evil in high places depressing, if realistic.

When I read this book, I found the story, centered on an extremely rich and powerful and dysfunctional family, to be unrealistic and over the top. But just recently I read The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald, published in 1950 and set in coastal southern California. It features another rich family with absolutely no well-adjusted, happy people so maybe those types of families are more common than I think. Or they make better subjects for crime fiction.

Although Skip Langdon is a policewoman, this is not a straightforward police procedural, because she is assigned to work with two detectives who don't really include her in the investigation. She is supposed to be gathering information from the family because she has connections, and reporting back to them. One of the pair totally despises her,  the other is sympathetic but still not very supportive. So she basically goes off alone looking for clues and the sleuthing is somewhat haphazard.

Skip is the center of the story, but it is told from the perspective of several characters. I like that method of storytelling although it is not universally popular. Skip has lots of insecurities; she is six feet tall and somewhat overweight and has never fit in with her family. Most of the other characters are extremely eccentric or self-centered.

The ending is unsatisfactory but realistic. I liked this well enough to continue and see what happens to Skip in the next one.


Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1991 (orig. publ. 1990) 
Length:       339 pages
Format:      Paperback 
Series:       Skip Langdon, #1
Setting:      New Orleans, Louisiana
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Reading Summary, August 2018

This month I read 12 books, which is a lot for me. One was very short, one was very long (for me). I don't know where I found the time to read all those books, but I do know I have energy for reading but often not enough mental energy for reviewing. I completed reading all the books on my 20 Books of Summer list (actually there were 21 on the list) but reviewed only 6 of them.

Three of the books I read this month were not crime fiction, which is unusual.


Starting Out in the Evening (1997) by Brian Morton
This book follows a short period in the life of four people: Leonard Schiller, a novelist in his seventies; Heather Wolfe, a woman in her early twenties who wants to write her thesis on Schiller's novels; Ariel, Leonard's daughter, who wants very much to have a child; and Casey, one of Ariel's ex-boyfriends. It was a wonderful read but very different from my usual reading. There is a film adaptation; I will be watching it soon.
The Uncommon Reader (2007) by Alan Bennett
I enjoyed this book very much, although of course it bears no resemblance to reality. The Queen ends up visiting a bookmobile on the grounds of Buckingham Palace because her Corgis are causing a ruckus in that area. She checks out a book with no real intention of reading it, but as she gives it a try she becomes intrigued and decides to check out a another book. And thus the Queen becomes a reader. For me, it was all about discovering reading and the joys of reading.

SCIENCE FICTION reading in August

The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger
It is difficult to put this book in a category. It could just as easily (and more logically) be called a romance. Time travel books are usually categorized as science fiction but on the other hand, this one has very little science involved. For several days my reading time was spent mesmerized by this story and I had no complaints about the book at all. (I will follow up with a more detailed post eventually.)

CRIME FICTION reads in August:

Dark Passage (1946) by David Goodis
A noir novel about a man in prison for his wife's murder, which he did not commit. He manages to escape from prison and returns to San Francisco and the neighborhood he lived in to try to prove his innocence. We also watched the film adaptation which starred Bogart and Bacall. See my thoughts on the book and the film adaptation here.
Follow Her Home (2013) by Steph Cha
This book is  hard to describe. It starts out seeming light, even frothy, contrary to the descriptions of noir on the cover. It takes a long time to turn darker but when it does it gets very dark quickly. The protagonist, Juniper Song, is Korean American. Philip Marlow has always been her hero, and she models her "detecting" on his adventures (sort of). I don't think this would work for everyone but it did for me.

Death in the Clouds (1935) by Agatha Christie
In this Hercule Poirot mystery, a woman is killed on an airplane during a flight from Paris to Croydon. Her death isn't discovered until well into the flight. Hercule Poirot is a passenger on the airplane but he slept through most of the flight. My full review here.

The Limbo Line (1963) by Victor Canning
Richard Manston has quit his job in intelligence work but his old  boss has called him back for another assignment. It is an old story but by one of my favorite authors so I enjoyed it a lot. I would describe it as Alistain Maclean crossed with the James Bond books by Ian Fleming. Manston shows up in the Rex Carver series by Canning. 
Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie
My second Agatha Christie for the month! I liked it even more than Death in the Clouds, but this one was a good bit darker. The death occurs on a cruise along the Nile, and Hercule Poirot, along with his old friend Colonel Race, must solve the mystery. A large cast of interesting people. And we have watched the film adaptation with Peter Ustinov as Poirot.
The Cold, Cold Ground (2012) by Adrian McKinty
This is the first in a series of six books featuring Detective Sean Duffy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The book is set in Belfast of 1981, during the Irish Troubles, and Duffy is a Catholic cop in a primarily Protestant police force. Very good, and I hope to find a copy of the 2nd in the series soon.
A Cold Day For Murder (1992) by Dana Stabenow
Kate Shugak is a former investigator for the Alaska District Attorney's Office as this books starts. Her former boss talks her into taking on an assignment to investigate two men who have gone missing in the Alaskan wilderness. Kate is an Aleut, and very familiar with the area and the people. I had waited 12 years after I purchased my copy to read this book. What a mistake. I will be looking out for the next few books in this series. She has a lovely dog, and I loved the setting.
The Bigger They Come (1939) by A. A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner)
This was the first book in the Donald Lam and Bertha Cool series. This is the origin story. It was good to hear how Bertha and Donald got together. It was only the third book I have read in this series (since my youth) and definitely my favorite.

A Spy by Nature (2001) by Charles Cummings
Alec Milius is a natural liar, which makes him perfect for the espionage business. He gets involved in corporate espionage, but his work is guided by government departments, whether they admit it or not. It seems to be a very accurate picture of how lonely a person's life can become once he  becomes an agent. There is no one to trust, no one to turn to. It was very good read and based on the author's experience of having been recruited by MI6. I will be following this book up with the sequel, The Spanish Game.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Dark Passage: David Goodis

This is a dark novel about a man in prison for life for the murder of his wife, which he did not commit. Vincent Parry manages to escape from prison and returns to San Francisco and the neighborhood he lived in to try to prove his innocence. A young woman befriends him and helps him hide from the authorities.

He knows he must move on, that he cannot stay with her for long. She wants to buy him some clothes as all he has are some old clothes that he stole.
When he came back to the bedroom she was opening the paper boxes. 
It amounted to almost a wardrobe. Four shirts, three white and one grey. Five neckties, three grey and two on a grey-violet theme. Five sets of underwear and a stack of handkerchiefs. Six pairs of grey socks. A grey worsted suit with a vertical suggestion of violet. A pair of tan straight-tipped blucher shoes. And grey suspenders. 
There were other things. A military brush and a comb. A toothbrush and a jar of shaving cream and a safety razor. 
...  His hair was still damp from the shower and it moved nicely under the brush and comb. He had on one of the white shirts and a grey-violet tie and he put a white handkerchief in the breast pocket of the grey worsted suit. He felt very new and shining
The story is not told in first person narration but much of the story is revealed through the main character's internal dialog. His frustration and the build up of anger at his situation is portrayed in a realistic way. It was very well done.

The twists and turns are many and have a feeling of unreality at times, but it is a very compelling story. And I liked the ending. Shortly after that we watched the film adaptation. In both the book and the film, the San Francisco setting is used well.

This a very effective noir novel, but it isn't one that leaves you feeling entirely hopeless, and I was grateful for that.

David Goodis claimed that the TV series The Fugitive was based on Dark Passage. An article at Mystery*File discusses Goodis’ suit against United Artists TV in detail.

Comments on the movie...

The movie was very faithful to the book, but there is no way that a film can convey the protagonist's inner turmoil as effectively. I still enjoyed it a lot, and it has tremendous atmosphere and the wonderful San Francisco setting. And with two talented stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, how can it not be worth watching? It isn't their best movie together but it is very good. Agnes Moorehead also stars as the woman who testified against him at the trial.

See these reviews. Many of them also comment on the movie. 
Barry Ergang's review at Kevin's Corner


Publisher:   Library of America, 2012 (first published 1946)
Length:       190 pages
Format:       Hardback collection
Setting:      San Francisco
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Big Over Easy: Jasper Fforde

This is the first book in the Nursery Crime series by Jasper Fforde, who also wrote the Thursday Next series. DCI Jack Spratt and Sergeant Mary Mary investigate crimes within the world of nursery rhymes. In The Big Over Easy, they investigate the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty. The book is a fantasy / mystery crossover with lots of humor, puns, and satire.

To give you a taste of Jasper Fforde's prose and the wackiness of the story, here is an excerpt. Mary Mary has just been transferred to the city of Reading in Berkshire, England.
Reading wouldn't have been everyone's choice for a transfer, but for Mary, Reading had one thing that no other city possessed: DCI Friedland Chymes. He was a veritable powerhouse of a sleuth whose career was a catalog of inspired police work, and his unparalleled detection skills had filled the newspaper columns for over two decades. Chymes was the reason Mary had joined the police force in the first place. Ever since her father had bought her a subscription to Amazing Crime Stories when she was nine, she'd been hooked. She had thrilled at "The Mystery of the Wrong Nose," been galvanized by "The Poisoned Shoe" and inspired by "The Sign of Three and a Half." Twenty-one years further on, Friedland was still a serious international player in the world of competitive detecting, and Mary had never missed an issue.
However, Mary does not get assigned to work with DCI Chymes. She is assigned to the much less attractive Nursery Crime Division, headed by Jack Spratt.

My thoughts:

My son read this first and recommended the book, and I enjoyed it very much. This book requires that you step into another world peopled by Nursery Rhyme characters, aliens, and mythical creatures... and suspend disbelief. I am not so good at doing that so it took me a third of the book before I was comfortable with the premise.

In this world, it is at least as important to be able to write up the results of the crime to be published (and made into prime time documentaries), as it is to actually solve the crime. In fact policemen are willing to stretch the truth to fit those requirements, and will compete to take over a case that may be "good copy." They then become stars of publications like the Amazing Crime Stories journal. That seems ridiculous on the face of it, but in today's world maybe not so much so. If you can just sit back and accept that it all makes sense in an alternate world, then it is a lot of fun.

I am not a fan of funny names in mysteries, but it works here so I accepted it. Sometimes the humor in mysteries escapes me, as I noted when I read reviews after finishing the book, but even my failure to get many of the jokes did not hamper my enthusiasm or enjoyment.

I will admit I had a problem with too many characters to track and getting confused by the characters and their relationships to Humpty Dumpty. But that happens in a LOT of mysteries I read. On the other hand, I liked the characters, I enjoyed following the story, and I thought the plot and writing were well done.

If you are a fan of humor and satire in your mysteries, and can handle fantasy elements, then this book is definitely worth a try.

TV Tropes has a nice page about the Nursery Crime series, and they describe it as "Shrek meets the Police Procedural."


Publisher:  Penguin Books, 2006 (orig. publ. 2005).
Length:      383 pages 
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Nursery Crime series, #1
Setting:      Reading, UK
Genre:       Fantasy / Police Procedural
Source:      My son bought this at the Planned Parenthood book sale and loaned it to me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Death in the Clouds: Agatha Christie

This Hercule Poirot mystery was published in 1935. A woman is killed on an airplane during a flight from Paris to Croydon. Her death isn't discovered until well into the flight. Hercule Poirot is a passenger on the airplane but he slept through most of the flight. Once the airplane lands, Inspector Japp is on the case and of course invites Poirot to work with him on the investigation. Since the flight is between France and England and the passengers come from both countries, Inspector Fournier of the Sûreté comes over to take part too. As the investigation proceeds, Japp is working in England, Fournier is working in France, and Poirot goes back and forth wherever the clues lead him.

I found this a different type of Poirot story and very entertaining. A closed environment, somewhat similar to Murder on the Orient Express but even more contained. The victim is killed with a dart from a blowpipe but no one on the flight sees the crime take place. Eleven suspects, twelve if you count Poirot, which he insists should be done. But no one takes that seriously (except the jury at the inquest, initially).

I do always love a map or a diagram, and the one supplied here was very useful.  It was a diagram of the seating in the section of the airplane where the victim and the suspects were seated. If I had had to rely on the descriptions of seating placements in the text I would have been lost. Also it was fun to read about flying at that time, the size of the airplane, the stewards, etc.

This  time I suspected someone early on, but dismissed them as unlikely. Then it turns out that person was the murderer. This has happened to me multiple times when read Christie's books. I think she is very clever with her diversions and her books are such fun to read. I used to get really irritated with Poirot; now I am used to his idiosyncracies and enjoy them.

I have been looking for an edition of this book with the cover illustration by Tom Adams but so far have not been successful. Then I remembered that Moira of Clothes in Books sent me this postcard with the same illustration, so I am sharing it here. Isn't it gorgeous? I am still going to find one with that cover some day.

Another book I read with an airplane flight playing an important part was The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree, a Hildegarde Withers mystery by Stuart Palmer, also written in the 1930's. A Dragonfly Seaplane arrives at the island of Santa Catalina off the California coast with a dead passenger on board.

Other reviews at Clothes in Books, crossexaminingcrime, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and A Crime is Afoot (with links to several other posts)


Publisher:  Berkley Books, 1984. Orig. pub. 1935.
Length:     230 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Hercule Poirot, #12
Setting:     UK, France
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, Sept. 2017.