Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Books of 1946: Murder Within Murder by Richard and Frances Lockridge


The Mr. & Mrs. North series features a married couple, Jerry and Pam, who often solve crimes with Lieutenant Bill Weigand. Thus the series is half amateur sleuth / half police procedural, and I think that is why I like them. They are often described as light and breezy mysteries. Usually I prefer a more serious tone, but for some reason I like the Mr. and Mrs North series.

Murder Within Murder is the 10th book in the series and was published in 1946. As it is set following World War II, there are indications of how life has changed due to that event. In this story, an employee of Jerry's is murdered in the public library. Miss Amelia Gipson was a retired teacher who had doing research on a book for Jerry's firm. Lieutenant Weigand asked Jerry to formally identify her.

I did read some books from this series when I was younger and I remember liking them. Some of my enjoyment when I read them now is probably nostalgia. I lucked out choosing this as the first one to read in many, many years. Even with some annoying elements, it has a lot going for it. The story is complex. The secondary characters are interesting.

The couple reminded me of Nick and Nora Charles (of The Thin Man) in that they drink an awful lot of alcohol. Unlike Nick and Nora, they are not rich, but they do have a surprising amount of free time to follow their policeman friend around. Pam smokes a lot too. This surprised me only because where I grew up (the South) in the 1940 and 50's, it was unusual for women to smoke.

I mentioned earlier some things I found annoying. Pam is kind of ditzy, and that doesn't appeal to me. I don't mean she is dumb, but she senses things or has an intuition.

I was surprised that there were no racial slurs in this book, given its age, but Sergio at Tipping My Fedora did note the presence of such in an earlier book, Death on the Aisle.

A quote from an article at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki:
The biggest strength of the North novels are the people in them. Pam and Jerry North are appealing human beings, and so are most of the suspects in the story. Unlike some detective authors, who mainly write about nasty characters, the denizens of a North tale tend to be civilized, intelligent, decent people. They are people whom one would love to know in real life.
Not everyone would agree with that assessment, but I do think it explains a lot of the popularity of this series.

This is a mystery novel from 1946 – my contribution to Rich Westwood’s regular monthly meme at the Past Offences blog. I received my copy as a prize from Bev at My Reader's Block. I was thrilled to get this post-war mystery in an edition with a skull on the cover. Bev's review is here. She goes into more detail on the plot.

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Publisher:   Pocket Books, 1982 (orig. pub. 1946)
Length:       207 pages
Format:       Paperback
Series:        Mr. & Mrs. North, #10
Setting:       New York City
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       Received as a prize.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Down Cemetery Road: Mick Herron

This is book 1 in the Zoë Boehm series, yet Zoë is not the main character and really only shows up for about 50 pages at the end of the story. At Amazon.com, the books are referred to as the Oxford Series, and perhaps that is a better description. I won't know until I have read one or two more in the series. And I will do that, because Mick Herron has become another must-read author for me.

From the author's website:
After a house explodes in a quiet Oxford suburb, and a child disappears in the aftermath, Sarah Tucker – a young married woman, bored and unhappy with her life – becomes obsessed with trying to find her. Very soon she’s questioning everything she thought she knew, as her attempts at investigation reveal that people long thought dead are still among the living, while the living are joining the dead … What begins in a peaceful neighbourhood reaches a climax on a remote and unwelcoming Scottish island, as the search for the missing child launches Sarah onto a journey with a companion who is himself being hunted by murderous official forces…
“Good characterization, dialogue and well-paced narrative make this confident first novel frighteningly plausible.” – Daily Telegraph
After a very unappetizing prologue, the book opens with a dreary dinner party. (See the post on Toxic Dinner Parties in Fiction at the Clothes in Books blog. This event could definitely be added to that list.)
On discovering a fire, the instructions began, shout Fire and try to put it out. It was useful, heart-of-the-matter advice, and could be extended almost indefinitely in any direction. On discovering your husband's guests are arseholes, shout Arseholes and try to put them out. This was a good starting point. Sarah was one glass of wine away from putting it in motion.
This book is about a serious subject (actually, more than one) and much of the action is very tense, but the story is told with humor. I find Mick Herron's writing compelling and entertaining, and the characterization and dialogue are very good. There are some quirky characters, and a lot of very evil, scary characters.

The first book I read by Herron was Slow Horses, and that was in the espionage fiction genre. This is not specifically espionage ficiton, but close enough. There are covert operations sanctioned by the government taking place and if innocent people get involved, so be it.

 A conversation between Sarah and Zoë...
"Who said I loved him? That was over years ago."
"So why all this?"
"Because when a woman's partner gets killed, she has to do something about it. It doesn't matter what she thought of him. She has to do something about it."
"I don't get you."
"The Maltese Falcon," Zoë said. "Believe me, Joe'd have understood."
One could accuse this of being a schizophrenic story, switching from a story about a bored housewife obsessing about a missing child to a thriller with covert operatives chasing down people who threaten to uncover secrets. I felt that it held together well and the story was exactly as it should be.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Soho Constable, 2009 (orig. pub. 2003)
Length:       316 pages
Format:       Trade paper
Setting:       Oxford, England 
Series:        Zoë Boehm #1
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       From my TBR pile.



Thursday, November 13, 2014

Enigma: Robert Harris

Set in 1943, this book uses Bletchley Park and the code breaking efforts there as a background for a mystery. Tom Jericho had left Bletchley to recuperate in Cambridge after a nervous breakdown resulting from the stress of his work. Now he is asked to return to help in a new effort to break Enigma codes.

After his return, he gets involved in a search for a missing woman, Claire Romily, that he had a brief affair with. He is helped by her roommate, Hester Wallace, who has aspirations to take a more central part in code breaking, but has been passed over and given clerical work because she is a woman.

Publisher's Weekly described Enigma as a "high-adrenaline thriller." It felt more slowly paced to me, although towards the end as Tom and Hester take chances to trace some missing cryptograms, it does ratchet up the tension.

My husband's review at Goodreads:
Enough time has elapsed since original publication (1995) that I believe this mystery thriller of World War II code breaking can be considered a genre classic. The thriller aspects center on Bletchley Park and efforts to break (rebreak actually) the extremely complex German Enigma codes. Worked into the plot are fascinating details on code breaking in general and the Enigmas in particular. Mystery aspects mostly involve the shadowy figure of Claire Romilly. Who she is, what she has done, where she has gone. A film version was released in 2001 and I remember it as not particularly involving. Given my positive reaction to the book, I plan on giving the movie another look.
This is a clever story with convincing characters. Not all of them are likeable or admirable. The author also gets across the lack of food and supplies in World War II Britain.
This was where the devil of the war resided: in the details, in the thousand petty humiliations of never having enough toilet paper or soap or matches or clean clothes. Civilians had been pauperized. They smelled, that was the truth of it. Body odor lay over the British Isles like a great sour fog.
I like the author's style of writing, but it is possible that I liked this story even better because it is an espionage story and it is set during World War II. I am eager to try more of the author's books. I have had Fatherland and The Ghost for five years now, so it is time I got around to reading them. I bought An Officer and a Spy shortly after it was published in the US.

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Publisher:   Random House, 1995.
Length:       320 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Setting:       UK, 1943
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:       I read my husband's copy.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Read it Again, Sam 2015 Challenge

As Bev at My Reader's Block describes it, this challenge is a chance to get credit for rereading old favorites. I love the logo for this challenge. Casablanca may not be my favorite movie of all time (because I can never decide) but it is certainly up there. I have watched that movie countless times.


Last year I had too many things going on to reread books, but this year I have several books I want to reread. I am grateful that Bev decided to continue the challenge.

The challenge is pretty straightforward:

  • Challenge runs from January 1 to December 31, 2015.
  • You may sign up anytime from now until November 3rd, 2015. Any book read from January 1 through December 31, 2015 will count no matter when you sign up.
  • Books may be used to count for other challenges as well.
  • Everyone who completes their challenge level will be entered in a year-end drawing for a book-related prize package.

Check out the challenge post for other rules and explanations and sign up.

I don't have definite re-reads planned but here are some authors that I would like to include:

  • Rex Stout (no surprises there)
  • Josephine Tey
  • Ruth Rendell
  • Margery Allingham
  • Emma Lathen
  • Jill McGown
  • Charles McCarry
  • Patricia Moyes
  • Isaac Asimov (Murder at the ABA)

My plan is to complete the "Feeling Nostalgic" level of the challenge: Reread 8 books.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Coroner's Lunch: Colin Cotterill

From the description at the publisher's site:
    Laos, 1975. The Communist Pathet Lao has taken over this former French colony. Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old Paris-trained doctor, is appointed national coroner. Although he has no training for the job, there is no one else; the rest of the educated class has fled.
    He is expected to come up with the answers the party wants. But crafty and charming Dr.Siri is immune to bureaucratic pressure. At his age, he reasons, what can they do to him?
There are so many things to like about this book: the setting, the time period, the colorful and interesting characters. And, most important, the story is told well and with humor.

Dr. Siri Paiboon is a very unusual protagonist. Possibly because he is 72 years old, he doesn't take anything too seriously. He is also visited by the dead. His visitors are usually people that he has done autopsies on. They do not solve his crimes but they do motivate him to look beyond the obvious, and to be willing to circumvent the authorities to get the information he needs.

This first novel in the series opens in 1976, after Siri has been the unwilling coroner for one year. There are two cases that demand his attention. The wife of an important official has died and the official is pushing to speed up the autopsy. A Vietnamese body has been discovered and may have been tortured. And then he is sent to Hmong territory because of some suspicious deaths, although Dr. Siri suspects he is just being shunted off to keep him away from cases others want covered up.

Some quotes:
Despite having joined the Communist Party for entirely inappropriate reasons, Siri had been a paid-up member for forty-seven years. If the truth were to be told, he was a heathen of a communist. He’d come to believe two conflicting ideas with equal conviction: that communism was the only way man could be truly content; and that man, given his selfish ways, could never practice communism with any success. The natural product of these two views was that man could never be content. History, with its procession of disgruntled political idealists, tended to prove him right.
And a description of the morgue ...
The morgue at the end of 1976 was hardly better equipped than the meatworks behind the morning market. For his own butchery, Siri had blunt saws and knives, a bone cutter, and drills inherited from the French. He had his personal collection of more delicate scalpels and other instruments. There were one or two gauges and drips and pipettes and the like, but there was no laboratory. The closest was forty kilometers away, across the border in Udon Thani, and the border was closed to the dreaded communist hordes.
There was an old microscope Siri had requisitioned from the stores at Dong Dok pedagogical institute. If they ever reopened the science department, it would likely be missed. Even though the microscope was an ancient relic of bygone biologists and should have been in a museum, it still magnified beautifully. It was just that the slide photographs in his old textbooks were so blurred, he couldn’t always tell what he was looking for.
The inclusion of supernatural elements may deter some readers. My recommendation is to try the book anyway, because it has so much to offer in both entertainment value and education. I know very little about Laos at this time, and I learned a lot reading this. I have ordered the next few books in the series, and I hope to get to Thirty-Three Teeth, the 2nd book, in early 2015.

See reviews by Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, Maxine at Eurocrime, and Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm. And Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist did a Spotlight post on this book.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Soho Crime, 2004
Length:       257 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Series:        Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1
Setting:       Laos, 1976
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Few Forgotten Books


I haven't done very well at blogging this week so I thought I would post more about some older books I got at the book sale. They are not all forgotten, but three of them I haven't gotten around to reading yet.

Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop (1946)

A copy of the US edition of The Moving Toyshop with damaged dust jacket. And it has a skull on the cover.

Richard Cadogan, a poet, is in Oxford for a short holiday. He finds a dead woman in a room over a toyshop, then he is hit on the head. When he comes to, he returns to the building with policemen, only to find that the toyshop and the dead woman have both vanished. He appeals to Gervase Fen, an Oxford Don, for help.

This is the only book in this group I have read and I did like it a lot. I have only sampled a few of Crispin's series about Gervase Fen and this was my favorite so far.


John Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)

Popular Library edition published in 1963

Summary at Fantastic Fiction:
John Buchan wrote "The Thirty-Nine Steps" while he was seriously ill at the beginning of World War I. In it, he introduces his most famous hero, Richard Hannay, who, despite claiming to be an "ordinary fellow", is caught up in the dramatic race against a plot to devastate the British war effort. Hannay is hunted across the Scottish moors by police and a pitiless enemy in the corridors of Whitehall and, finally, at the site of the mysterious 39 steps. The best-known of Buchan's thrillers, this novel has been continuously in print since first publication and has been filmed three times.
See this article about the book by John Buchan's grandson. And there is a very nice review at Col's Criminal Library.



Robert Traver: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Dell reprint edition, F75.

Description of the film at Wikipedia:
Anatomy of a Murder is a 1959 American courtroom crime drama film. It was directed by Otto Preminger and adapted by Wendell Mayes from the best-selling novel of the same name written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker under the pen name Robert Traver. Voelker based the novel on a 1952 murder case in which he was the defense attorney.
The film stars James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, and George C. Scott. The title sequence is by Saul Bass and the musical score by Duke Ellington.

Yvette recently reviewed the film at In So Many Words, with lots of details.

I should know more about this book and its movie adaptation, but I don't. I am happy to keep it that way, until I have read the book and watched the movie. It is a very long book, over 500 pages, and the print in my copy is fairly small.



Ursula Curtiss: So Dies the Dreamer (1960)

Hardcover, book club edition.

From the book flap:
A sane, happily married man does not throw himself out of a twelfth-story window. Nor could Sarah Trafton accept the psychiatrist's monstrous theory that her husband Charles had been driven to kill himself before she could kill him. That his dreadful nightmares, his strange panic, had been caused by fear of her.  
There had to be a rational reason for his suicide. To find it Sarah returned to the pheasant farm she had inherited from Charles-the farm with the brilliant fairy-tale birds which was managed by his autocratic Aunt Bess, with the help of her taciturn son Hunter, her owl-like nephew Milo, and his fluttery wife Evelyn. 
These relatives warned Sarah against probing into Charles past. Even Kate Clemence who had loved Charles, and Harry Brenden who obviously liked Sarah, implied that for Charles' sake it would be better if she did not discover too much. And they were all curiously evasive about the death of Charles' beautiful stepmother Nina. 
Here is an absorbing story of a young widow who learns that her questions have forced her into a duel with a murderer. That her only hope of survival is to identify her deadly antagonist.
I have heard of this author before. She is the daughter of mystery writer Helen Reilly, who wrote the Inspector McKee mystery novels, starting in 1931. But it was only recently that I read a review of another novel by this author, The Deadly Climate, at John's Pretty Sinister Books blog, which spurred me on to looking for books by Curtiss.