Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Golden Spiders: Rex Stout

I am getting ready to go on a trip to Alabama and I needed a short comfort read to fit in while I am preparing and packing. A Nero Wolfe mystery was just the right book to pick. I am a huge fan of the Nero Wolfe / Archie Goodwin stories, so no matter which book I picked, I would like it. A consideration in picking The Golden Spiders was that I want to re-watch the TV movie adaptation of this book, which was the pilot for the A&E series A Nero Wolfe Mystery, which ran for two seasons in 2001 and 2002.

In this novel, Nero Wolfe uncharacteristically agrees to work with a young boy from his neighborhood on a potential case of possible kidnapping. Before long, Archie and Wolfe and his pack of freelance detectives are investigating a group of people taking advantage of poor immigrants who are seeking help in getting settled in this country.

I don't want to describe the plot more because the joy in reading the Nero Wolfe mysteries is learning the story through Archie Goodwin's narration, and that applies even more in this case. 

This story seemed unusual to me because Archie, Fred, Saul and Orrie actually get into a gun fight with some thugs. Archie often carries a gun, but rarely uses it. The plot is very convoluted and the book is shorter than some Nero Wolfe novels. My copy was 150 pages. The first eight Nero Wolfe novels were all around 300 pages long.

The Nero Wolfe mysteries (all 74 of them) do not need to be read in any order. There is one trilogy that features Nero Wolfe's battle with Arnold Zeck, but even those do not depend on reading in order to enjoy them. I am sure that I read what was available in the library when I read the Nero Wolfe books the first time, in no particular order. The only other book that might not work well as a standalone is the very last one, A Family Affair.

The 74 Nero Wolfe mysteries consists of 33 full-length novels and 41 novellas. Most of the novellas were published first in magazines, then published in sets of 2, 3 or 4 in books. The first novel, Fer-de-Lance, was published in 1934; the last was published in 1975.

In my post on Fer-de-Lance, I listed my favorite Nero Wolfe novels and this was not among them. However, I am very fond of all of the stories of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and this had some unique qualities. I enjoyed the discussions and arguments between Nero and Archie, and reading about the daily life in Wolfe's brownstone.

This has been more of a mish mash of my thoughts on this book and this series. I am a bit too much tied up in trip plans to do better than this. I highly recommend reading any and all of the Nero Wolfe series. It is not to everyone's taste but the books do have a lot of fans. At this page about Nero Wolfe, he is described as an armchair detective because Wolfe usually solves the crimes from his office. This paragraph describes Archie well:
By introducing Archie Goodwin into the stories -- beginning in the first novel Fer-de-Lance -- Rex Stout successfully combined the Armchair Detective with the more recent Hard-Boiled school. It is Archie who narrates the stories but he is a much more fully developed character than most "Watsons."
I have multiple copies (usually paperbacks) of almost all of the Nero Wolfe books. The three shown here are the editions I have of The Golden Spiders.

Publisher: multiple reprint editions; originally pub. by The Viking Press, 1953
Length:  150 pages
Format: mass market paperback
Series:  Nero Wolfe
Genre:  Mystery

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Original Skin: David Mark

DS Aector McAvoy and his boss Trish Pharoah are back for a second adventure. The characters are fleshed out even more in this book. It appears that David Mark will continue to dig deeper into his characters lives as they work together.

McAvoy is a Scotsman. Large and very noticeable, he tries to blend in, unsuccessfully. Some descriptions from the book:
Detective sergeant Aector McAvoy spent his first months in plain clothes taking the title literally. He all but camouflaged himself in khaki-colored trousers, hiking boots, and cheap, mushroom-hued shirts, tearing them fresh from polythene packets every Monday. The disguise never worked. At six foot five inches, and with red hair, freckles, and a Highlander mustache, he is always the most noticeable man in the room.
It was his young wife, Roisin, who put a stop to his attempts to blend in. ...
Under her guidance, and blushing at every alteration to his wardrobe, McAvoy had become known within the force as much for his smart suits and cashmere coat, for his leather satchel and cuff links, as for his detective skills and scars.
McAvoy blushes a lot, and seems naive at times.

There are two plot lines going simultaneously in Original Skin.  McAvoy and his boss, Detective Superintendant Pharoah, are working on a high profile case related to drug gangs and killings involving tortured and mutilated bodies. McAvoy takes an interest in an unrelated death of a young man; the death was originally thought to be suicide. He pursues this case without explicit approval from his boss.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It has some very good characteristics, and has gotten high praise in many reviews, but the elements of gritty violence and the emphasis on sex in the story line turned me off. A lot of this is encountered at the beginning of the book, but these themes do continue throughout the book. I have not yet figured out why some books with violence and dark themes bother me more than others, but this one went over the line for me.

I enjoyed David Mark's first book in this series, Dark Winter.  In my review of that book, I described the protagonist ...
McAvoy is a likeable character, honest, well-meaning, idealistic. He is humble, and doesn't believe in himself; worries a lot about whether he is making the right decision. He is a family man, a devoted father, worried that he is making his family suffer when he pays more attention to the job.
After reading this book I would add:  He is a policeman more dedicated to the solving of crimes and righting wrongs than he is to rising in the ranks or impressing his superiors.

All of this is very good, but he does go off on his own a bit too much, and that is what made this story seem unrealistic to me. Most fiction, and especially crime fiction, veers off in this direction because we want to read about unique and courageous people. But this was a niggle for me when reading this book.

Good points:

  • The characterization is very good. We get a very clear picture of McAvoy and his wife and his co-workers and his superior officer.
  • There are many interesting and strong female characters.
  • I like a story to move and pull me in. This one has very good pacing and never drags, not in all of the 427 pages. 

Negative points:

  • Written in present tense. I don't like this style of writing but I found this acceptable in the first novel. In this one, it bothered me throughout the book.
  • Many unsettling scenes of violence, descriptions of bodies. This story and its telling was too dark and gruesome for me.
  • Too much emphasis on McAvoy's personal life. It does come into the plot and it is not boring. I like to know some background on the main characters, but this one has too much of that element for me.

Because Original Skin has received so many positive reviews. I would advise most readers to try the book, with the warning that there are scenes of violence that are hard to take. There is also a good bit of foul language, which doesn't bother me at all but definitely can put off some readers.

See these other reviews at In Search of the Classic Mystery, The Crime Segments, and Euro Crime.

I am committed to reading the third book in this series, Sorrow Bound. I dithered about reading this book first or just skipping to Sorrow Bound. I am now glad that I read Original Skin, because it does fill in more information and background about his family and other policemen that he works with. For me, this will be useful in going on to the next book. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Hobbit, Parts I and II

I don't think we need another review of the two recent movie adaptations (parts 1 and 2 of a planned trilogy) of The Hobbit. I am not the best qualified person to review them anyway. These are just my personal reactions to the first and second parts of the trilogy of movies.

The Hobbit is a fantasy novel by J. R. R. Tolkien, published in 1937. It also is a book directed at children. However, it has been read and cherished by many adults. Gandalf talks Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, into going on a quest with 13 dwarfs to find a lost jewel that will restore their homeland. The jewel is guarded by a huge, fierce dragon who took their home and destroyed the towns around their mountain. [If you are very familiar with the story, I am sure this leaves out a lot of important points. I have read the book but that was many, many years ago.]

The novel has been adapted in three fantasy adventure films directed by Peter Jackson. Part 1 is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Part 2 is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Both of these have already been released. The third part will be The Hobbit: There and Back Again and should come out later this year.

To start with, I enjoyed the two movies because of the acting. Martin Freeman is always good, and he is very effective in the role of Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellan played the role of Gandalf in the Lord of the Ring movies, and he is just as good here. I like Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the exiled king of the dwarfs. In the second part, there is a female Wood-Elf, Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly. This was a role that did not exist in the book. I thought this was a good addition to the story and liked Lilly's acting.

I enjoyed seeing the first two movies so close together because it was very clear how much Bilbo Baggins has matured as the group continues their quest. In the first part he is a reluctant member of the group and resented by some of the members of the group. In the second, he has accepted that he misses home and its comforts, but feels that he can help the dwarfs recover their home and is committed to seeing the adventure through to the end, no matter how dangerous.

I did not realize coming into the movie that the movie had revisions or additions not in the book. There are characters that are important in the movies but do not exist in the book. I am more used to movies where plot lines or characters are excised for lack of time to cover them. This did not bother me. Some of the additional characters were characters I especially enjoyed, as mentioned above, so I would hate to lose them.

I look forward to seeing the final movie. This won't happen until it comes to Blu-Ray and DVD, because we don't go to theaters to see movies. So, it will be a while. I am sure that movie will live up to the first two parts and the conclusion will be handled well.

This is my second submission for Once Upon a Time VIII.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Burning: Jane Casey

From the summary at Amazon:
Maeve Kerrigan is an ambitious detective constable, keen to make her mark on the murder task force. Her male colleagues believe Maeve’s empathy makes her weak, but the more she learns about the latest victim, Rebecca Haworth, from her grieving friends and family, the more determined Maeve becomes to bring her murderer to justice. But how do you catch a killer no one has seen when so much of the evidence has gone up in smoke?
This is another mystery novel that focuses on the search for a serial killer. The bodies that are found are gruesome but there is not a lot of violence. The emphasis is on the methodical sifting through clues, and data, and CCTV tapes looking for evidence to solve the crime.

I thought this was a fine police procedural. I liked the emphasis on Maeve as the lone female policewoman in her group, and the issues that this caused (for her). It was realistic (I think) in that many men she worked with treated her well, others went out of their way to poke fun or make things difficult for her. Yet, Maeve is always determined to do a good job and keeps plugging away. There are no perfect characters in this book; all of them are human with flaws, arguing and making mistakes.

For me, the element that elevated this beyond the standard police procedural was the use of two primary narrators, both female. The alternation between the two gives the reader some insight into knowledge that Maeve does not have.

I also liked that this had a very exciting finish. I felt the resolution was fairly obvious, but I was still glued to the book in the last 75 pages.

Check out these reviews which came out closer to when the book was originally published: At Petrona, and at Reactions to Reading.

I initially was offered this book to read by the publisher. There was a limited time to access it and I saw that I was going to miss that, so I purchased the e-book.

There are more books in this series and I am interested in trying the next one. When I finished this book, I read the first chapter of The Reckoning provided at the end of the e-book and it was appealing.

Publisher:  Minotaur Books; Reprint edition (August 30, 2011); originally pub. 2010
Length: print length 368 pages
Format: e-book
Series:  Maeve Kerrigan, #1
Genre:  Mystery, Police Procedural

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Time's Witness: Michael Malone

Michael Malone is the author of three mystery novels that feature two policemen working in a small town in North Carolina. The two policemen are very different. Justin Savile V is the scion of an old and important family in the state. Cuddy Mangum's origins are much lower, but he and Justin are very good friends.

The first novel in the short series, Uncivil Seasons, is narrated by Justin. In that novel, Justin is charged with solving the murder of his Aunt Cloris, the wife of State Senator Rowell Dollard. I read that book years ago, and all I really remember is that I enjoyed it a lot, and bought several more books written by Malone, both in the mystery genre and not, shortly after that.

Time's Witness, the second in the series and the book I just finished reading, is narrated by Cuddy. Cuddy is educated, but he is not refined, and to the powerful and rich inner circle of Hillston residents, he is a redneck. And at the point in time of this story, he is the Chief of Police. He has cleaned up the police in his town and he has hired women and blacks as police officers. The book was published in 1989 and set around the same time period.

The story in this book centers on George Hall, a black man arrested seven years earlier for killing a white cop. He is now on death row and supporters are seeking a reprieve or pardon. One day after Hall is granted a reprieve, his younger brother, Cooper,  is murdered. About half of the book centers on the investigation of the murder, which leads to the discovery of corruption in the police department and further up in the local and state government. The other half centers on the retrial of George Hall.

This is a very long book and there are many characters, but Malone does a beautiful job with them all. There are some quirky characters and the story is told with humor at times. Yet it is a very serious story. The themes are the death penalty, racism, inequity in the justice system, and the power that the rich can wield to get what they want. The author is passionate about his beliefs; telling the story via Cuddy make this more palatable.

I highly recommend this novel, but I will warn readers that it is not a typical mystery. There is a mystery and the mystery and trial are the primary focus of the book; yet within the frame of a crime story this is the story of a man, his job, his friends, and his love life. The book can easily stand alone; I read the first one so long ago I remember only the two main characters. On the other hand, if the reader comes to the first book after this one some plot points might be revealed. Either way, these are books worth reading.

J. Kingston Pierce (of the Rap Sheet)  interviewed Michael Malone in 2002 for January Magazine. The article and interview are very informative.

The book was published in 1989. It falls at the very end of the range for the Silver Edition of the Vintage Mystery Challenge, hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block.

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark [2002], original pub. in 1989
Length: 541 pages
Format: trade paperback
Series: Justin and Cuddy, book 2

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

In the Heat of the Night (film)

In the Heat of the Night is a film adaptation of the book of the same name, written by John Ball. The book was published in 1965 and the film was released just two years later. The film starred Sidney Poitier, who had won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1964, and Rod Steiger, who won the Oscar for Best Actor for this film. In the Heat of the Night won four other Oscars, including Best Picture.

In the opening of the movie, Sam Wood, a police officer in a small town in the South, is patrolling the streets and finds a body. Bill Gillespie, the chief of police, sends Sam to several areas to look for suspicious characters. At the railway station, Sam finds a nicely dressed black man, Virgil Tibbs, waiting for a train, and arrests him because he has a large amount of cash in his wallet. Eventually it is determined that Tibbs is a homicide cop from Philadelphia and he is coerced into helping out with the investigation.

After reading the novel, I watched this movie again. I had not watched it for a couple of years. I like this movie a lot. Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier were both very good in their roles. I felt like it was a good depiction of the racial prejudices in the South at that time. I did not grow up in a small town, nor did I spend much time in small towns, but I did have relatives that lived in Batesville, Mississippi, a town about the same size as the one in this movie (in the 1960's). The town in the movie seemed realistic to me. I cannot speak to the racial attitudes or tensions at that time in a town like that; but I would guess the scenes in the film were realistic, especially as the 1960's was a time of civil rights demonstrations and unrest.

There are differences between the book and the movie, although the basic story and the intent of the book and the film are the same. The book was set in Wells, South Carolina; the movie is set in Sparta, Mississippi. (The movie was actually filmed in Sparta, Illinois.) The detective, Virgil Tibbs, is from Pasadena, California in the book, and has a much milder manner. In the movie he is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is much more confrontational. In the movie, the main characters are the Chief of Police and Tibbs. Gillespie’s role in the book is minor compared to Sam Woods, his deputy. None of these changes made a huge impact on the story, and probably worked better for the film.

The movie showed more thuggish behavior on the part of townspeople; the novel was more about the shabby treatment Tibbs received from the police and the townspeople, solely based on his color. A key scene in the movie is the visit of Tibbs and Gillespie to the Endicott mansion, where Tibbs is treated poorly. In the book, Mr. Endicott is a highly respected member of the community, originally from the North, and the host of the murder victim; he is not racially prejudiced, and requests that Tibbs continue to help with the investigation.

What I liked about the book over the movie was the role of Sam Woods. The book lets us see a slow transformation as Sam begins to see Tibbs as a human being, and an intelligent, worthy colleague. Although the relationship between Tibbs and Gillespie develops throughout the movie, I found the changes less convincing. Nevertheless, I enjoyed both versions. My review of the book is here.

There is much more interesting background on this film. See this article on 25 Things You Didn't Know About the Sidney Poitier Classic. It is noted in that article that Poitier did not want to film in Mississippi because he and Harry Belafonte had run into some problems while visiting there.

This book and movie review is submitted for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey.