Wednesday, July 10, 2019

My Mother, the Detective: The Complete Mom Short Stories: James Yaffe

I had surgery yesterday; it wasn't very serious and went well. However, my chair in front of my laptop is the only place I can sit comfortably without pain, so I am taking advantage of that to write this short post.

The eight short stories in My Mother, the Detective were originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, between 1952 and 1968. In each story, Dave, a detective in the New York Homicide Squad, and his wife Shirley visit his mother and they discuss one of his cases over dinner. She asks some pertinent questions and solves the case, and he is afraid that his coworkers are going to find out that his success rate with cases is due to his mother's help.

That sounds like a silly premise, but it certainly worked for me. The stories are light and fun. Dave's mother is like a Jewish Miss Marple, using her experiences with people in her neighborhood to draw connections that solve the crimes. She is a very entertaining armchair detective. My favorite stories in the book are the last two: "Mom and the Haunted Mink" and "Mom Remembers."

James Yaffe is a new author to me. He recently came to my attention at Clothes in Books, where Moira focused on the story titled "Mom Sings an Aria."

Yaffe was a very interesting man, who wrote both non-fiction and fiction. Between 1988 and 1992 he wrote four novels about Dave's Mom. I look forward to trying one of those. See these posts to learn more about James Yaffe:

My copy of My Mother, the Detective was published by Crippen and Landru in 1997. Twenty years later, they published an enlarged edition with one extra story, “Mom Lights a Candle,” written in 2002.


Publisher:   Crippen and Landru, 1997
Length:      174 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      New York City
Genre:       Short stories
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Reading Summary, June 2019

This has been a pretty good reading month for me. I was concentrating on reading from my 20 Books of Summer List. I also read mostly more contemporary fiction, unusual for me, because my 20 Books list was slanted that way.

Mystery reference

Historical Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Fiction, Film & TV (2018) by Barry Forshaw
I know that historial crime fiction is a popular sub-genre now. I enjoy reading that type of novel. But I was surprised at how many authors write that sort of mystery. And the book does not cover every author in that area, of course. My favorite sections cover the early 20th century through the 1950s. There is a good overview of this book at Crime Fiction Lover, if you are interested. And a very interesting post at the Rap Sheet, with lots of details and an interview with the author.

Historical Fiction

Crooked Heart (2014) by Lissa Evan
This is a dark comedy, beautifully told, very moving. Noel Bostock, aged 10, is evacuated from London to escape the Nazi bombardment, shortly after the death of his godmother, with whom he had been living. He is assigned to Vera Sedge, a small time con artist, mostly unsuccessful. 

Transcription (2018) by Kate Atkinson
I wasn't quite sure what category this fits in. I consider it spy fiction; the New Yorker refers to it as a "spy novel." But on Goodreads it is overwhelmingly shelved as Historical Fiction. It doesn't matter. I loved the book, I am sure it will be one of my top reads this year. The story is set in 1940 and 1950, with a brief framing story in 1981.

Post-apocalyptic Fiction

Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel
The apocalyptic event in this story is the Georgia Flu, a strain of the swine flu that wipes out 99% of the world's population. The story is set primarily in Toronto, Canada and northern Michigan. My thoughts on the book are here

Crime Fiction

My Mother, the Detective: The Complete Mom Short Stories (1997)
by James Yaffe
The eight short stories in this book were originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, between 1952 and 1968. They are a lot of fun. Dave, a policeman, visits his mother every week and over dinner they discuss one of his cases. 

Friends and Traitors (2017) by John Lawton
This is the 8th book in the Inspector Troy series, one of my favorite series. The novels are a mix of police procedural and espionage, and are set between 1934 and 1963, with many of them covering multiple timelines. This one is set in 1958, but does have flashbacks to earlier times.

London Rules (2018) by Mick Herron
This is the 5th book in Herron's Slough House series about spies who have been demoted due to some disgrace or screw up in their jobs, and are now working under Jackson Lamb. I have liked each book in the series more than the last.

Out of the Deep I Cry (2004) by Julia Spencer-Fleming
This is the 3rd book in a series featuring Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alstyne, the police chief of Miller's Kill, New York. This time the story features two timelines, one in the present and one that starts in the 1920's during Prohibition. This is another series that gets better with each book I read.

Perfect Gallows (1988) by Peter Dickinson
A story about a murder that occurs in 1944 on an estate in the UK; the estate is occupied by US forces preparing for the invasion of France. See my thoughts here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Perfect Gallows: Peter Dickinson

I have been reading a lot of books set during World War II lately, and Perfect Gallows is one of the best of them.

"About the book" from the author's website:
In 1875 Arnold Wragge left the back streets of Portsmouth for the diamond fields of South Africa. Twenty years later he returned a millionaire, built himself a mansion in the Downs, and sired two daughters and a son. When the son is missing, presumed killed, in the Allied invasion of Italy, he sends for his great-great-nephew Andrew, to come from the same back streets and be inspected as a potential heir.
Andrew isn’t interested. He is set on a career on the stage. One of Sir Arnold’s daughters, his cousin Elspeth, equally stage-struck in her time, persuades him to take part in her proposed amateur production of The Tempest. The park is full of American soldiers preparing for the invasion of Normandy. In the middle of all the activity a stranger appears, claiming to be the missing heir.
Forty years later Andrew, now the famous Adrian Waring, tells the story to his partner and explains his own part in the tragedy that followed.

Peter Dickinson has long been one of my favorite authors, and several of his mystery novels feature dual timelines where the older time setting is during (or around) World War II. This story opens in 1944 with Andrew discovering a death in the dovecote on the grounds of The Mimms, the home of his wealthy uncle. Although the death could be suicide, Andrew can see that it has been faked to look that way. In 1986, Andrew returns to The Mimms for an estate sale, and memories of the death and his part in it return. Most of the novel covers the time in 1944 that Andrew spent at The Mimms leading up to his discovery of the body.

Andrew is young, soon to be conscripted into the military, but even at this age he knows he wants to be an actor and that he is very good at it. Everything he does, every thought he has, is focused on learning more about acting. Every experience is stored in his memory for use in future roles. Many of the activities in the story center around a performance of The Tempest, which is being organized by his cousin, Elspeth Wragge, but referred to most often as Cousin Brown. (Which sometimes makes things confusing.) His association with Elspeth is fortuitous because she sees his talent and can understand his aspirations in the theater.

Since the majority of this novel is set in 1944, in the days leading up to D-Day, the dual timelines are not confusing at all. And the chapters that switch to a new timeline are clearly marked. It is partially the picture of Andrew's life before the war contrasted with the older Adrian (the name he took as he began his acting career) that appealed to me so much. I will note that some readers find the main character an unlikable character and could not get past that.

This novel worked for me both as a mystery and a depiction of Britain during the war, after the US had joined in the war. The Mimms is occupied by US forces gearing up for the invasion of France. This novel is a very interesting look at how that affected the household, both the Wragge family and the servants, and the relationships between the US military and the British in situations like this.

This is what P.D. James had to say about this book:
A new Peter Dickinson novel is a keenly-awaited event for all those aficionados of the detective story who demand a great deal more than an ingenious puzzle. He is the true original, a superb writer who revitalises the conventions of the mystery genre to give us novels present them. He is incapable of writing a trite or inelegant sentence, and he creates characters who are true eccentrics but never caricatures. From the marvellous first chapter of Perfect Gallows when we encounter the hanging body in the dovecote, we know we are once again in the safe hands of a master.
Jo Walton has a wonderful post at Perfect Mystery: Peter Dickinson’s Perfect Gallows.

My favorite book by Dickinson is King & Joker, an alternate history set in an England where George V's elder brother did not die but lived to become King Victor I, and is later succeeded by his grandson, King Victor II.

I am also very fond of his unusual mystery series featuring Superintendent Jimmy Pibble. See my reviews of The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest and The Old English Peep Show.


Publisher:  Pantheon Books, 1988. 
Length:     234 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK, World War II and 1986
Genre:      Historical Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Station Eleven: Emily St. John Mandel

This book got a lot of hype when it first came out, but I did not pay much attention. I prefer to wait and see before trying newer books, whether they have been hyped or not. If my husband had not bought a copy, I might still be waiting to read it.

From the synopsis at the author's website:
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

The apocalyptic event in this story is the Georgia Flu, so named because it started in the Republic of Georgia. The famous Hollywood actor is Arthur Leander, feeling his age and about to divorce his third wife. Although he dies at about the same time the apocalyptic event starts to affect Canada and the United States, much of the story follows his life and the people who were important to him. Another focus is the Travelling Symphony, how they function, and how they have survived. One character in that group is Kirsten, a young actress who had a small part in the play Arthur was performing in at the time of his death.

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic story, and I do like that sub-genre. But the book has many other characteristics I like. The state of the world without the internet, travel by automobile or airplane, electricity, and many other things we take for granted is an important factor in this book. But it is the story of the interconnections of people and how they adapt to changes in their lives that makes it special.

What did I like?

  • The story was unified by two strands, Arthur's story and the Travelling Symphony. I loved the way the story moved about in time, how the relationships are interwoven and how the characters connect in the end.
  • I liked the author's style; I had a hard time putting this book down. I read it in two days, which was pretty fast for me, especially this month. 
  • I liked the contrast between the older people who have memories of life before the flu and the young people who had no memories of the different ways of living.
  • This is not a long book (333 pages) and it follows quite a few characters but there are several characters that we get to know quite well. Arthur and Kirsten are pivotal characters. Others are Javeen Chaudhury, an EMT in training; Clark, Arthur's best friend since college; Miranda, Arthur's first wife.

See other reviews ...


Publisher:   Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Length:       333 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Settings:     Starts out in Toronto, where Arthur is performing in a play. 
                   Some scenes are in Hollywood. 
                   The Travelling Symphony travels along Michigan's northern coast.
Genre:        Post-apocalyptic fiction
Source:       My husband passed this book on to me.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Monkey Justice and Other Stories: Patricia Abbott

This is another wonderful book of short stories by Patricia Abbott. The 23 stories in this book were published earlier under a similar title but only in e-book format. This is a reissue, making the book available in trade paperback and e-book.

Many of the stories in this book fit within the crime fiction genre and most of them look on the darker side of life. Often misfits or small-time criminals are central to the story. But some of the stories have a humorous side too.

Here are brief descriptions of my favorites in the collection:

  • In “Georgie," Rufe and his friend take care of a problem for Rufe's mother. Lucky for Rufe, Georgie is very resourceful although he is fourteen and still in grade school in a "special" class.
  • The title story, “Monkey Justice," is about a man who gets two women pregnant; they both deliver their babies on the same day in the same hospital. No crime in that story, but an unusual premise.
  • “On Paladin Road” is a haunting story about the  ravages of old age. Two men have lived in the same subdivision for years. Donald is 85, Martin is 65. They have an ongoing disagreement about some borrowed tools.
  • "What Happened Next" is a sad story about a mother coming to visit her grown son; she has not seen him since he was five. 
  • “The Tortoise and the Tortoise” is a fantastic story about a man in a nursing home who has been very popular, but gets pushed out of the top spot when a new male resident arrives. 
  • “Girl Of My Dreams” is about a very bad boss getting his just desserts. 
  • “Raising the Dead” is a short story featuring Violet,  a photographer, and Bill Fontenel, her boyfriend, characters in Abbott's second novel, Shot in Detroit. I enjoyed that brief look at those two characters again.

There are many more great stories in this book and I will be revisiting them all.

I highly recommend this book and others by Patricia Abbott. She has written two novels, Concrete Angel and Shot in Detroit, and a book of short stories, I Bring Sorrow.

Also see these reviews...
at Crime Time
at Kevin's Corner

And an interview at In Reference to Murder.


Publisher:   Down & Out Books, 2019
Length:      247 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Varied
Genre:       Short stories
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Cards on the Table: Agatha Christie

Cards on the Table is the 15th Hercule Poirot book and it is another novel in that series with a unique approach. A strange and somewhat disconcerting man, Mr. Shaitana, has invited Hercule Poirot to dinner. When he arrives, he learns that three other sleuths have been invited: Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle and Ariadne Oliver. (Mrs. Oliver is actually a mystery writer, but in this case she tries her hand at detecting.)  After dinner, two foursomes play bridge. At one table are the sleuths, the remaining four guests play at the other table. During the bridge game, Mr. Shaitana is killed. The four sleuths take it upon themselves to solve the crime.

I had been looking forward to reading this book for a while, and it was an engaging and pleasurable read. Again in this novel Poirot emphasizes psychological analysis in searching for the murderer. As the sleuths investigate, we learn more about the suspects, their backgrounds, and their connection to Mr. Shaitana. I had no clue who did it, and Christie did a super job of misleading me, misdirecting my attention.

It was an added bonus to have Superintendent Battle, Ariadne Oliver, and Colonel Race working together with Poirot. I have enjoyed both Battle and Race in previous books. This was the first appearance of Mrs. Oliver in the series, and the first book I have read with her in it, so I enjoyed meeting her.

Even though I know nothing about bridge, I enjoyed that element of the story. I can see how familiarity with bridge could help solve the crime in this situation. There was a drawing depicting each suspect's score card.

I highly recommend this book; Christie's writing always entertains me. I have said this before, but it bears repeating: In the first few novels I read featuring Poirot, I found Poirot to be smug and irritating. After reading more books in the series, I now find him charming, and am glad I have many more to read in this series.


Publisher:  Berkley Books, 1984. Orig. pub. 1936.
Length:     226 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Hercule Poirot, #15
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, Sept. 2007.