Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Champagne for One: Rex Stout

In August, I reread one of my favorite books by Rex Stout, Champagne for One. It  is part of the Nero Wolfe series, of course,

An acquaintance of Archie's asks him to take his place at an annual dinner party and dance for unwed mothers, and one of the mothers, Faith Usher, ends up dead. Another unwed mother at the dance told Archie that Faith carried cyanide with her in her purse at all times, and had some at the party. So he keeps a close eye on her. When Faith does die of cyanide poisoning, Archie insists it was murder, not suicide. The high society woman who gave the dance, Mrs. Robilotti, is inconvenienced, and thus the police are irate.

This book has all the best features of the series. The interplay between Archie and Nero Wolfe. Inspector Cramer visiting the brownstone to berate Archie for sticking to his guns regarding the cause of death. And Orrie, Fred, and Saul helping with the detecting.

Wolfe's client is not Mrs. Robilotti, as you might think, but one of the guests, who actually was connected to the dead woman and does not want that information to come out.

I have very fond memories of this book. I can picture Archie driving Wolfe's car up the snow-covered drive to the home for unwed mothers, and encountering a large group of very young pregnant women. It is such a small scene in the book but it has stuck with me for years.

Not only is this one of my favorite books, but I also have two TV adaptations of the story so I watched both of them. The version from the A&E series starring Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin was the most faithful to Stout's story, and was a lot of fun. Some of the narration and dialog was taken directly from the book and that works well with Rex Stout's novels. I have watched all the episodes from that series multiple times.

The Italian adaptation starring Francesco Pannofino as Nero Wolfe and Pietro Sermonti as Archie Goodwin was also very good, although that one took a lot more liberties with the story. It was more serious, but had humorous elements also. The Italian Nero Wolfe series has eight feature length episodes and each is based on a book in the series. I have only watched this one and the adaptation of Fer-de-lance, but I enjoyed both of them and look forward to watching the others.


Publisher: Viking Press, 1958 (book club ed.)
Length:    184 pages
Format:    Hardcover
Series:     Nero Wolfe
Setting:    New York City
Genre:     Mystery

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Murder with Pictures: George Harmon Coxe

This is the first book I have read by George Harmon Coxe. I was interested in his books because two of his series protagonists are photographers. He wrote the Kent Murdock series consisting of 23 books, and a shorter series starring "Flashgun" Casey, a crime photographer.

This is the brief review at Kirkus, from 1935:
A cameraman on a Boston paper acquires a persistent girl, plenty of excitement and action and a much-desired divorce, as a result of his work in the solution of a complicated crime. Top notcher.
Kent Murdock is a newspaper photographer, with a gift for sleuthing. Murder with Pictures was the first book in the series, published in 1935. As the story opens, Nate Girard has been acquitted of a murder charge. Many people, including the police, still think Girard was guilty of the crime. Kent Murdock gets some photos of Girard and his lawyer, Mark Redfield, leaving the courthouse. That evening, Murdock attends a party at Redfield's apartment, conveniently in the same building that Murdock lives in.

There are two women at the party that interest Murdock: his estranged wife, Hester, who refuses to give him a divorce and is seeing Nate Girard, and a beautiful but standoffish blonde in a blue dress.

A description of the blonde that has Murdock interested:
As he approached he saw that he had been right about her hair. Ash-blond, it escaped being straight by the merest trace of a natural wave. It was pulled back, hiding two-thirds of the ears, so that he was not sure whether it was long or just a long bob. The pale-blue dress looked soft and heavy and shiny.  There was a little jacket which reminded him of a vest without buttons.
Murdock tries to start up a conversation but is rebuffed. He leaves the party early and asks his estranged wife to go with him to his apartment to discuss a divorce.  That doesn't go well.

Shortly after that, the young woman in the blue dress runs into Murdock's apartment while he is taking a shower, and desperately jumps into the shower with him. Then a couple of policemen pursue her into the apartment, but Murdock does not let on that she is in there with him. So now we have a beautiful young woman in the shower with a nude man. He convinces the police that he knows nothing about the woman that they are pursuing, gets out of the shower and answers some questions, dresses, and leaves the apartment with the police.

What a great beginning to a story! Murdock gets involved with the investigation because he has connections with the police, and because he has a soft spot for the blonde, regardless of his first impression at the party.

In some ways I would compare this story to the Mike Shayne books with lots of action, good pacing, and lots of beautiful women. (Keeping in mind that I have only read two books by Brett Halliday.) The differences I see are that we get to know several of the key characters in this story much better and share their inner thoughts about the situation and their lives.

I have two more books in this series to read and one standalone. I will also be looking for The Jade Venus which deals with the effort to recover art treasures during World War II.

This book is covered in more detail at The Passing Tramp.


Publisher:   Harper & Row, 1981 (orig. publ. 1935)
Length:       269 pages
Format:       Paperback
Series:        Kent Murdock #1
Setting:       US
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2015.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

What I read in August 2019

I had a good reading month in August. I read mostly mysteries, although I read one excellent classic novel. I completed my 20 Books of Summer reading list. I read books from three more countries for the European Reading Challenge.

Classic Fiction

Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons
This book is a parody of rural novels written in the early 1900s. I had heard so much about it I had to try it, but I was hesitant. Flora Poste moves in with her country relatives, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. I loved it, from the first page. Introduction by Lynne Truss.

Crime Fiction

If The Dead Rise Not (2009) by Philip Kerr
The 6th book in the Bernard Gunther series. The series jumps all over the place in time. The first four novels are set  between 1936 and 1949, then the fifth book is set in Argentina in 1950. This book takes the reader back to 1934 Berlin. At the beginning of the story, Bernie has resigned from his job as a policeman, and is working as house detective at the Adlon. Berlin has been chosen as the site for the 1936 Olympics and there are illegal maneuverings by powerful men to make money out of that situation. Later, the novel hops to Cuba in 1954. Coincidence brings the same players from the first part of the book together but the story has an interesting ending.

Death Knocks Three Times (1949) by Anthony Gilbert
This is the second book I have read featuring Arthur Crook, criminal lawyer. I liked this one a lot, even with its complicated plot and plethora of characters. See my thoughts here.

Champagne for One (1958) by Rex Stout
I enjoy rereading the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Here Archie is invited to attend an annual dinner party and dance for unwed mothers, and one of the mothers ends up dead. This is one of my favorite books in the series.

City of Shadows (2006) by Ariana Franklin
A rich Russian emigré in 1922 Berlin believes he has discovered Anastasia, the last surviving heir to the murdered czar of Russia. (Or at least sometimes he does.) His secretary, a poor Russian emigré, helps him, unwillingly, as they prepare to announce her identity. Very complicated and interesting story. See my thoughts here.

Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street (1985) by Heda Margolius Kovály
Set in the 1950s in the early days of Communist Czechoslovakia, this novel portrays the paranoia and pain of that time when no one knew who to trust, and policemen and State Security agents were looking for traitors at the slightest excuse. See my thoughts here.

Death in Amsterdam (1962) Nicolas Freeling
This a police procedural where we see less of the detective than we do of the suspected murderer, who is being held in jail. The novel was originally published in 1962 in the UK with the title Love in Amsterdam. See my thoughts here.

The Axeman's Jazz (1991) by Julie Smith
Skip Langdon, a police detective in New Orleans, is new to her job, uncertain of her skills, and eager to prove herself, and she gets her opportunity when a serial killer names himself after the historical serial killer, the Axeman. The New Orleans setting is very well done. This is the second in the series, following New Orleans Mourning.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Death in Amsterdam: Nicolas Freeling

Death in Amsterdam is the first book of the Van der Valk series by Nicolas Freeling. The novel was originally published in 1962 in the UK with the title Love in Amsterdam and is better known under that title.

The story opens with Martin in custody in a jail cell in Amsterdam. His ex-mistress, Elsa de Charmoy, has been murdered and he is being held for questioning. He has been there two weeks. There is no real evidence to prove that Martin is the killer but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence and no other viable suspects.

This book was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a fairly conventional police procedural but it was quite different. Martin is the focus of attention for much of the book. The detective, Inspector Van der Valk, is only shown in conversations with Martin, and all we know about the investigation is relayed to us during these conversations.

Since Martin is in jail for a good bit of the story, he spends a lot of time thinking about his past with Elsa, and his relationship with his wife. This introspective aspect of the story may not appeal to all crime fiction readers. But I liked this approach.

Per the Kirkus review:
The comparison to Simenon is inevitable. The pace, the investigatory technique, the relationship that builds up between investigator and suspect -- all are here.
I have not read any books by Simenon for years so I cannot say if that is true, but I thought it was an interesting comparison.

I also enjoyed learning about the judicial system in The Netherlands at the time the book was written.

The story seemed like it would make a good movie, and it was made into a British film titled Amsterdam Affair in 1968. Inspector Van der Valk is featured in twelve more novels and there was a British TV series titled Van der Valk that aired in the 1970s and the early 1990s, starring Barry Foster as Inspector Van der Valk.


Publisher:  Ballantine Books, 1964. Orig. pub. 1962.
Length:     188 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Van der Valk, #1
Setting:     Amsterdam
Genre:      Police Procedural
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2016.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street: Heda Margolius Kovaly

Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street is set in the 1950s. It is the early days of Communist Czechoslovakia, a time when no one knew who to trust, and policemen and State Security agents were looking for traitors at the slightest excuse.

This novel focuses on Helena Nováková, an usher at a cinema in Prague. Her husband is in prison, accused of espionage, based on a map he drew for friends coming to visit them. She hopes for his release, hates living alone, and is very depressed. She has lost her job working at a publishing house and has had to move to a smaller apartment. As the story starts she is going to her job as an usher at the cinema.

Some of the story is told in first person from Helena's point of view. Other chapters give the reader glimpses of the lives of the other ushers at the cinema. The cinema and its employees are being watched because the authorities know that some information is getting out of the country through someone there. This sounds like a very depressing story and certainly it is not upbeat at any time. But there are surprises at the end and I found it well worth the time spent on it.

The story is semi-autobiographical. The events in Helena's life were close to those in the author's past. Heda Margolius Kovály first published this book in 1985 in Germany. There is a very illuminating Introduction by Ivan Margolius, son of Heda Margolius Kovály.

I was very glad I read this book. It gave me more insight into that time in Czechoslovakia. I would recommend it to those interested in the setting, and those who like a blend of espionage and crime fiction, although this is not your normal rendition of those genres. I found it a brief and engaging read, and wished I could have finished it in one read.

For more detail and further insights, see these reviews:


Publisher:   Soho Crime, 2015 (orig. pub. 1985)
Translator:  Alex Zucker
Length:       231 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Setting:       Prague, Czechoslovakia
Genre:        Mystery / Espionage
Source:       Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2017.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Behind That Curtain: Earl Derr Biggers

Although there were many Charlie Chan movies released in the 1930's and 40's, there were only six novels in the series, published between 1925 and 1932. This one is set in San Francisco, and Charlie meets a retired Inspector from Scotland Yard, Sir Frederic Bruce, who has come to the US to continue the investigation of a case he was never able to solve. Unfortunately, Sir Frederic is killed at a dinner party and Charlie Chan must find his murderer.

I found San Francisco to be a more engaging environment than the California desert, the setting for the previous book in the series, The Chinese Parrot. Throughout this book, Charlie is eager to return to his home in Hawaii where his eleventh child, a son, has been born. Yet he feels a responsibility to see the case through before he leaves. And it is a complicated case, with many suspects.

This is the third book in the series, and the fourth that I have read. Earl Derr Biggers is a wonderful story teller and he always keeps me entertained. I find his characters engaging and enjoyed the romance in this one, which does not overshadow the plot.

My reviews of other books in the series:

Other reviews of this book at Vintage Pop Fictions, The Broken Bullhorn, Classic Mysteries, and Mystery*File.


Publisher:    Academy Chicago Publishers, 2009 (orig. pub. 1928)
Length:        279 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Series:        Charlie Chan, #3
Setting:       San Francisco, CA
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       Borrowed from my husband.