Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Iron Gates: Margaret Millar

I especially like Margaret Millar's crime fiction novels because they are different. The focus is on the psychological aspects of crime, and often the characters are strange and quirky (but not in a comical way). Reading her books adds more variety to my reading.

The Iron Gates is the second novel featuring Inspector Sands and one of Millar's earlier novels. Her novels did not feature recurring characters often but the ones I have read appeal to me.

The story starts with Lucille Morrow coming down to breakfast to join her family. She is very pleased and satisfied with her married life. Her second husband, Andrew, a doctor, is devoted to her, but her step-children, Polly and Martin, have never warmed to her, even though they were very young when their first mother died and Andrew and Lucille married. One morning a stranger delivers a package for Lucille, and shortly after that, she disappears. Andrew reports her as missing, and Inspector Sands is assigned to find her. Coincidentally, Inspector Sands also took part in the investigation of the death of Andrew's first wife. We take a circuitous (but rewarding) path to discover why she disappeared.

This is a book of psychological suspense more than a puzzle, but there are mysteries to be solved. What happened to Marian Morrow, Andrew's first wife. Why did the contents of the package drive Lucille to disappear? And more deaths follow. How and why?

Margaret Millar draws very interesting characters. Even small roles are well-defined. Giles, Polly's boyfriend and soon to be husband, extracts himself from the family until he can understand what is going on. He senses unacknowledged emotions buried beneath the surface. Although the police do not have a large role in this story, several of them have interesting back stories, and I really liked the character of Inspector Sands (as I did in Wall of Eyes).

Also of interest is the wartime setting. The book was published in 1945 and is set during the war. Polly's fiancé is in the military, soon to be sent overseas, and, due to the draft, there is a shortage of men available to work on the police force.

Margaret Millar was born, raised, and educated in Canada. Some of her books were set in Canada, and some were set in Southern California, where she lived most of her adult life with her husband Kenneth Millar, also known as Ross Macdonald. This book was set in Toronto, Canada, and uses that setting very well.

From Brian Busby's review in The Dusty Bookcase:
Margaret Millar's sixth novel, The Iron Gates, was the one that really made her. With the proceeds of its sale she bought a house in Santa Barbara, sharing it with her husband Kenneth, far from the cold of Canadian winters past.
See also:


Publisher: Dell, 1960 (orig. pub. 1945).
Length:    222 
Format:    Paperback (D-332)
Series:     Inspector Sands #2
Setting:    Toronto, Canada
Genre:     Mystery, Police Procedural
Source:    I purchased this book in 2015.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Reading Summary for April 2019

In April, all my reading was related to the crime fiction genre. One non-fiction book about Scandinavian crime fiction. Of the fiction books, four were published between 1985 and 2002, so nothing very recent. One book published before 1900, and two books published in the 1930's.

Mystery reference

Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction (2012)
by Barry Forshaw
The book covers the authors thoughts about crime fiction authors whose books have been translated to English from these countries: Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland. Sweden gets the most coverage and I suppose that reflects that more Swedish authors have been translated. Most of the coverage is for current authors, although earlier translated works by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are discussed. No way to give a good overview of this in one paragraph. I will read any book on mystery reference, and I learned a lot from this one.

Crime Fiction

The Shortest Way to Hades (1985) by Sarah Caudwell
The Hilary Tamar series centers around a group of young barristers who often seek Hilary's help when they run into trouble. This is book 2 in the series. See my review here.
Tarnished Icons (1997) by Stuart Kaminsky
This is the eleventh novel in Stuart Kaminsky's Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series, set in Russia in the late 1990's. The prolific Kaminsky is one of my favorite authors. See my review here.

Save the Last Dance for Me (2002) by Ed Gorman
This entertaining and nostalgic book takes us back to the summer of 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were running for President. It is the fourth of ten books starring Sam McCain, a young and not very successful lawyer in Black River Falls, Iowa. In need of money, he often works as an investigator for District Judge Esme Anne Whitney, who is rich and influential in their community. As the book begins, McCain is attending a religious service with the local newspaper reporter, Kiley Burke. Unforturnately, the Reverend John Muldaur is poisoned and dies during the service. Judge Whitney wants the crime solved quickly because Nixon will be visiting the town and she will be hosting an event in his honor. 

Free Reign (1997) by Rosemary Aubert
Set in Canada. The unusual protagonist of this story is a homeless man who was once a judge, high in Toronto society. At the point that the book begins, Ellis Portal is about 50 years old and has been homeless for five years, living in a homemade shelter in a ravine in Toronto. See my review here.

The Woman in White (1859) by Wilkie Collins
I had resisted reading this book for years. Even though it a well-known crime fiction classic, I did not think I would enjoy the old-fashioned story (how wrong I was!). Even then I might have tried it if it had not been so long (600-700 pages).  Finally I overcame my prejudice when Judith at Reading in the Wilderness blogged about how much she enjoyed it.
This book is one of the first sensation novels.  It tells the story of a young woman who marries unwisely and the man who loves her and tries to rescue her from the clutches of an evil. It has multiple narrators, which I really like. William Hartright, a young drawing teacher, starts out the story and is one of the major players, but at times he is only on the fringes of the story.

Death Sends a Cable (1938) by Margaret Taylor Yates
Anne Davenport McLean, better known as "Davvie", is a Navy officer's wife who is living in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Her husband is a doctor; she is an ex-Navy nurse. Recently a young officer on the base has committed suicide; both his wife and Davvie insist that the death was not suicide. Eventually his death is investigated and that leads to other crimes and discoveries. This was the second book by Margaret Taylor Yates in a four book series featuring Davvie as the sleuth. John Norris introduced me to this book at his blog, Pretty Sinister Books, and kindly offered to send me his copy to read. I enjoyed the book, both the mystery and the picture of life in the Navy in this time period. A post with more of my thoughts on the book will follow soon.

Cards on the Table (1936) by Agatha Christie
This is another Christie novel with a different 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, some one dies. This was the first appearance of Mrs. Oliver and I enjoyed meeting her. I always love it when Colonel Race shows up. So this was a fun read for me.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Evil Under the Sun: Agatha Christie

In this story, Hercule Poirot is on a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Smugglers’ Island, Leathercombe Bay, off the coast of Devon. A beautiful, shallow, and self-centered actress, Arlena Marshall, is killed and the murderer must be one of the guests on the island. First the actress's husband is suspected. Arlena has been obviously dallying with a younger male guest. Or maybe it is the younger man's wife, mousy and pale compared to Arlena. There are many possibilities among the guests at the Jolly Roger Hotel, and Poirot works with the local police to solve the crime.

As usual for an Agatha Christie novel, this is a clever and entertaining story. There is a huge cast of characters and it is easy to get confused. The solution to the crime reveals a complex plan which surprised me. This was not one where I even had a clue who was guilty. I had plenty of favorite characters who I did NOT want to be the culprit.

I did like the plot of this book, and the holiday setting and the closed environment, but the emphasis was more on the puzzle than the characters or the psychology. I don't think it will be in my list of top-rated Poirot stories.

I read this particular Hercule Poirot book out of order because we had purchased the film adaptation starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and I wanted to read the book first. Ustinov is not my picture of the ideal Poirot but I still enjoyed him in the role. Several other noteworthy actors and actresses are featured in the film, including James Mason, Roddy McDowall, Diana Rigg, and Maggie Smith. The film version keeps to the basic story but does change some things from the novel. The main difference I noticed was that Poirot is pretty much the only investigator, at least at the beginning. The plot moves fairly quickly and dispenses with a few of the secondary characters from the book.

We bought the film of Evil Under the Sun in a set of three movies based on books by Agatha Christie. The other two movies were Death on the Nile (also starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot) and The Mirror Crack'd. My husband preferred Evil Under the Sun to the other two, and my favorite was Death on the Nile. Neither one of us was very impressed with The Mirror Crack'd, although it had some good actors playing many of the roles.

There are plenty of reviews and other opinions of this book available. I found the TV Tropes page for this novel (and the 1982 movie) very interesting. Spoilers are omitted but some of the tropes may point to the solution, so you might enjoy it more if you have already read the book.


Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1963. Orig. pub. 1941.
Length:     183 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Hercule Poirot, #23
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2017.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation: from The Dry to Bluffing Churchill

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 The Dry by Jane Harper. I know very little about this book except that it is a crime fiction book that was incredibly successful for a debut novel. And it is set in Australia.

My first link is to another book set in Australia, On the Beach by Nevil Shute. I just finished reading that book last night, and it was a fantastic read. This is a post-apocalypse story, a sub-genre I do enjoy reading now and then. The book was published in 1957 and was set just a few years later than that.

My next book in the chain is another apocalyptic story, but this time with a contemporary  setting. The Last Policeman is the story of a policeman, Detective Hank Palace, pursuing a homicide case in a pre-apocalyptic world. It has been confirmed that an asteroid heading towards earth and human life on earth will end. In a world where many people are abandoning their jobs or changing their entire lives, Hank is stubbornly investigating an incident that every one else thinks is suicide.

That book leads me to another book with a similar title.  Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective by Leslie Thomas is about an alcoholic, bumbling detective, who is assigned a cold case that he pursues with determination. Davies lives in a boarding house, where his best friend Mod also has a room. Davies' wife also lives there but they are in different rooms. Davies has a dog (large, old and cranky), that lives in the back seat of his car. It is a very weird and humorous story, published in 1976.

There are many other mystery series that feature a detective and his dog, but I have read none of them. However, in Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, Jackson Brodie rescues a dog from a man who is abusing him. I read this one back in 2011 and don't remember a lot of the story, but there are several threads that come together in the end.

My next book is by the same author: Life after Life. This book, published in 2013, is not a mystery, and it has an unusual structure. Ursula, the heroine, lives her life over and over. Sort of like the plot of the film Groundhog Day, but not. Ursula is born in 1910 and the book continues to some point in the 1960s; thus, the reader experiences the Blitz and Germany under Hitler.

My final book in the chain is Bluffing Mr. Churchill by John Lawton, set in 1941 London during the Blitz. This fourth book in the Inspector Frederick Troy series combines espionage and World War II. Published as Riptide in the UK.

So my chain took me from Australia to London, England during World War II, by way of two post-apocalyptic novels. And two books in the chain were not crime fiction, so a little variety.

Next month the starting book for the chain will be Murmur By Will Eaves.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Tin Flute: Gabrielle Roy

The Tin Flute is a classic Canadian novel, first published in French as Bonheur d'occasion. The book tells the story of the Lacasse family in the St. Henri area in Montreal, during World War II. They are poor, and only the oldest daughter, Florentine, is working. Eugene, the oldest brother, has joined the military. It took me a while to get into the story, but about halfway into the book it took hold of me and I could not stop reading.

This is how the story begins:
Toward noon, Florentine had taken to watching out for the young man who, yesterday, while seeming to joke around, had let her know he found her pretty.
The fever of the bazaar rose in her blood, a kind of jangled nervousness mingled with the vague feeling that one day in this teeming store things would come to a halt and her life would find its goal. It never occurred to her to think she could meet her destiny anywhere but here, in the overpowering smell of caramel, before the great mirrors hung on the wall with their narrow strips of gummed paper announcing the day’s menu, to the summary clicking of the cash register, the very voice of her impatience. Everything in the place summed up for her the hasty, hectic poverty of her whole life in St. Henri.
The story centers around Rose-Anna, the mother, and Florentine. With eight children in the family, Rose-Anna is again pregnant. Her youngest child, Daniel, is in very ill health. The father, Azarius, is usually unemployed, a dreamer, always leaving one job for a "better" opportunity and spending most of his time away from home talking with a group of men, young and old, about the state of the world.

Florentine is a waitress in a restaurant in the back of a Five and Ten store in her neighborhood. She meets Jean Lévesque, a customer, and falls for him, although he is arrogant and aloof. She is desperate to escape from her life in poverty. Later she meets Emmanuel, a friend of Jean's, who loves her while she is still obsessed with Jean.

The story is beautifully written. In the first portion of the novel I was impatient with the slow pace and the introspection of the characters. As I became more involved in the pain and sadness and frustrations of the family members, I was pulled into the narrative.

This is a story of war and those who are affected, the Canadian home front, and the pain of poverty. There is so much more to this book than I can describe here, but not without revealing the later parts of the story, and I think each reader should discover all of it on their own.

I found the story depressing although I am sure not everyone would feel that way. Yet, I am very glad I read this book and I highly recommend it.

The Tin Flute was Gabrielle Roy's first novel. Nine more novels followed, published between 1950 and 1982.

Brian Busby of The Dusty Bookcase introduced me to this book, suggesting it two years ago for a World War II reading challenge. I did not get to it until this year. I am grateful that he mentioned it.


Publisher:   McClellan & Stewart, 2009 (orig. pub. 1945)
Length:      400 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Translated by:  Alan Brown
Setting:      Montreal, Canada, 1940
Genre:       Fiction, Classic
Source:     I purchased this book.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Follow Her Home: Steph Cha

Follow Her Home is the first of three books featuring Korean-American Juniper Song. I read this book in August 2018, but never had time to write a post about it. I liked the book so much I decided to do one now.

From the book cover:
Juniper Song knows secrets–how to keep them and how to search them out.  As a girl, noir fiction was her favorite escape, and Philip Marlowe has always been her literary idol. So when her friend Luke asks her to investigate a possible affair between his father and a young employee, Juniper (or "Song" as her friends call her) finds an opportunity to play detective. Driving through L.A.'s side streets, following leads, tailing suspects–it all appeals to Song's romantic ideal of the noir hero. 
But when she's knocked out while investigating a mysterious car and finds a body in her own trunk, Song lurches back to the real L.A., becoming embroiled in a crime that goes far beyond role play. What's more, this isn't the first time Song has stuck her nose in other people's business. As she fights to discover the truth about her friend's family, Song reveals one of her own deeply hidden secrets, something dark and damaging, urging her to see the current mystery through, to rectify the mistakes of her past life.
This book is hard to describe. It starts out seeming light, even frothy, contrary to the description of "L.A. noir" on the cover. It takes a long time to turn darker but when it does it gets very dark, very quickly. I don't think this switch in mood and style mid-way into the story would work for everyone but it did for me.

Philip Marlowe has always been Song's hero, and she models her "detecting" on his adventures. I did not initially like the idea of the amateur sleuth modeling herself after Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's books, but it actually did work well in the end. (Although the Philip Marlowe books are hard-boiled, not noir.  I think the description of "noir" gets thrown around a lot where it doesn't really apply.)

There is a secondary story of Song's relationship with her depressed sister. That part of the story is important to the whole, but the process of the story going back and forth from the present to Juniper's earlier days with her sister threw me off at times.

There are two main themes throughout the book: family relationships and the experience of being Korean American and a woman. I enjoy reading about families, so this was right up my alley. And I liked reading about a female protagonist who keeps pushing to find the answers to questions, no matter what.

In the end: 

I loved this book. I have the next two books in this series, and I just found out that Steph Cha has another book coming in October 2019 (not part of the Juniper Song series).


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2013
Length:      278 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Juniper Song #1
Setting:      Los Angesles, CA
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy.