Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Diamonds Are Forever: Ian Fleming

I am working my way slowly through the James Bond books by Ian Fleming. And enjoying watching the associated films for each book. Although I remember reading a few of Ian Fleming's spy novels years ago, I was surprised when I started reading them again. I read Casino Royale in 2007 shortly after I watched the film starring Daniel Craig; I found the book to be gritty and action oriented, and enjoyable.  I expected the rest of the books to be about the same. After Casino Royale, the books have seemed to be more of an adventure story and have had unreal and fantastical elements.

Summary from the MJF Books edition:
Somehow, African diamonds are being smuggled into the United States via London. The British Secret Service sends Bond to infiltrate the smugglers' organization and if possible, destroy it. Bond journeys through New York City's diamond market, the race tracks and mud baths at Saratoga Springs, and the gambling places of Las Vegas, to finally penetrate the very heart of the Mob. Along the way he meets the beautiful Tiffany Case, and is assisted by his American friend Felix Leiter. From the deserts of Afrca to the deserts of Nevada, follow Bond into the scorpion's nest.
So, another book set primarily in the US. I like the settings in Diamonds Are Forever, but it is surprising to have American gangsters as the villains. And they don't make much of an impression.

In this book, it seemed like Bond was making poor decisions. His goal is to find a way to continue to be used as a courier for stolen diamonds, to work undercover to identify the forces behind the diamond smuggling. Instead he seems to go out of his way to antagonize the gangsters. He doesn't like working undercover, so he just ignores instructions. The decision to help Felix Leiter seemed irresponsible to me. Sure, they are friends and Felix has left the CIA due to injuries in a previous story, but still it is unprofessional to risk an important mission to do a favor for a friend.  At least this does show his human, fallible side (which doesn't show up much in the movies). I did enjoy the parts of the story set at the racetrack. And Felix has a Studillac, which is a Studebaker equipped with a Cadillac engine. So that part of the story has its good points.

The best part of this novel is Tiffany Case. For the most part, she can hold her own with Bond. Bond's behavior toward her is sexist and condescending, but he does appreciate her abilities and grows fond of her. This is one way that the books differ from the movies. In the movies, Bond may be intrigued  by the main Bond girl but he is not committed to her. In the books, at least so far as I have read, he grows very fond of and sometimes wants to commit to a relationship with the woman he has been adventuring with. The reader may eventually figure out that this will really never happen, but Bond is serious about it at the time. In Tiffany's case, even though they work well together, he finally realizes that they want different things in life.

All in all, this is not my favorite book in the series so far. It just seemed too complex and meandering. But it was still a lot of fun and a fast read. You just have to stifle any irritation with the views of the time towards women, ethnic groups, anyone who is different.

The Adaptation Starring Sean Connery

As usual the movie is very different from the book. A good bit of the movie is set in the US, as in the movie, but most of the time in the US is spent in Las Vegas; Saratoga and the race track is skipped entirely. The villain becomes Blofeld instead of American gangsters. That at least makes a bit of sense, to stay more on track with the movies.

I was excited to finally be reading a book where James Bond would be played by Sean Connery, but this was the last official Bond movie that featured Connery and doesn't compare well to the others that he starred in. This may be due to a switch to a very camp approach to the story, which continues in the Roger Moore films. Connery seemed much older to me here, but he was only 41 in 1971 when the movie came out.

However, I have found all the Bond films I have watched so far to be entertaining, and Sean Connery will always be my favorite. All I am saying is that this one was not in the same league as From Russia With Love and Goldfinger.

Other resources:

See these posts on Diamonds Are Forever (the novel):
at Vintage Pop Fictions; at Clothes in Books; and At the Scene of the Crime.

Also interesting are these posts on Diamonds Are Forever and Saratoga Springs:
at Literary 007 and Fleming's Bond.


Publisher:   MJF Books, 1993 (orig. pub. 1956) 
Length:       217 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       James Bond, #4
Setting:      Africa, US
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fire Will Freeze: Margaret Millar

First things first. I do love the cover of this book. It is not an accurate depiction of the story.  There is a woman in a sable coat, she is on a bus, and it does get stranded on a country road. There is even a rifle in the story somewhere. But she never holds the rifle, nor does she come off as that belligerent. Nevertheless, it is a very nice cover.

The woman in the sable coat is Miss Isobel Seton, a 35 year old woman who thinks a lot about marriage but has no prospects. She is on a bus with a group of people headed for a skiing lodge and is getting so fed up that she is composing a letter of complaint (mentally) to Abercrombie & Fitch:
Because one of your irresponsible clerks did not prevent me from buying a pair of skis, I am sitting here in what these damned Canadians call a Sno-bus, which means a bus that meets a Sno-train and conveys one to a Sno-lodge. I am marooned in the wilds of Quebec in a raging Sno-storm. My nose is red. I am thirty-five, which not an age for adjustments. I am hungry.
[Keep in mind that Margarer Millar was born, raised, and educated in Canada.]
Within the first chapter, the bus has become stranded and the bus driver has left the bus to find help. Soon, the travelers leave the bus to follow in the footsteps of the bus driver, who has failed to return. They come upon an isolated house; they are shot at as they walk up to the house but they seek shelter anyway. It is a large house but with only two residents, an insane woman and her female caretaker. Neither one is thrilled to have company in the house, and the group from the bus is allowed to stay only under duress.

In the one night  that the group spends in the house, there are three deaths and numerous strange occurrences.

So what did I like about the book?

I liked the characters as they developed throughout the book. At first I found almost all of them either irritating or boring and silly. The first chapter reveals more about Isobel Seton than any other character and we mostly see the others through her eyes. As the story continues, each one reveals more about themselves and becomes a more interesting person, for good or bad. And this is the way it would happen in real life if you were on a bus with a group of strangers. At first you would only see the surface and then various facets would be revealed.

The "stranded in a snowed-in mansion" story is not one that I am overly familiar with, so this did not feel tired to me. I liked the comic aspects and the humor broke up the tension of being stuck in an enclosed space with some genuinely nutty people and not knowing who to trust. The women in this story were much braver than I; I would hide under the bedclothes until help arrived.

What did I dislike?

Nothing. I enjoyed reading the book; the story and the characters engaged me. Isobel is the most well defined character, but we learn more and more about the others in the group. The mystery plot is not very strong, but so far that has been my experience with the books I have read by Millar, and I don't find fault with that.

This is not considered one of Millar's better novels. However, of the ones I have read, I enjoyed it the most. If the reader is looking for a good puzzle mystery, this is not the best book to choose, although there are clues, all of which I missed. A warning: An animal is killed in this book.

This book is my submission for 1944 for the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences.

Margaret Millar wrote some books set in Canada, where she was born, and some set in Southern California, where she lived most of her adult life. I have read and reviewed Wall of Eyes (1943), also set in Canada, and Ask For Me Tomorrow (1976), set in California and Mexico.

See other reviews here:


Publisher:   International Polygonics, 1987 (orig. pub. 1944)
Length:      158 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Québec countryside,  Canada
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2014.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

USA Fiction Challenge Update

In October 2013, I joined a challenge to read books for all 50 states in the USA, plus the District of Columbia. I did not keep up with how many states I had completed over time, so now I am doing that.

The challenge is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. The challenge is ongoing, not limited to a timeframe. If you are interested you can read about the challenge at the USA Fiction Challenge site.

In order to identify the states I looked through all blog entries after October 2013. It amazes me that I read so many mysteries that are set outside of the United States. I haven't kept stats at all but as I look at books reviewed for each month, the great majority of books are set in the UK. I also read a good number of books set in Canada. Plus a lot of European countries, some Asian countries,and some Central and South American countries. And even when I read books set in the US, a large number are set in California or New York.

I have now read novels for nearly one third of the states (plus the District of Columbia). I initially decided to stick with crime fiction novels that are set in the state. If I have trouble getting to the total of 51 books I may eventually start adding novels from outside the crime fiction genre.

Below is the list of states and the books I have read so far. Later, I may include multiples if the books are really good examples of the setting.
  5. CALIFORNIA:  Jasmine Trade by Denise Hamilton
  9. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas
  10. FLORIDA:  Don’t Lose Her by Jonathan King
  12. HAWAII
  13. IDAHO
  16. IOWA:  Eleven Days by Donald Harstad
  17. KANSAS:  The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips
  19. LOUISIANA:  The Indigo Necklace by Frances Crane
  20. MAINE
  22. MASSACHUSETTS:  The Hanging Judge by Michael Ponsor
  23. MICHIGAN:  Motor City Blue by Loren D. Estelman
  25. MISSISSIPPI:  The Last Clinic by Gary Cusick  
  29. NEVADA
  32. NEW MEXICO:  Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes
  33. NEW YORK:  Death of a Butterfly by Margaret Maron
  34. NORTH CAROLINA:  Time’s Witness by Michael Malone
  35. NORTH DAKOTA:  See Also Murder by Larry D. Sweazy
  36. OHIO
  38. OREGON
  39. PENNSYLVANIA:  Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott
  41. SOUTH CAROLINA:  In the Heat of the Night by John Ball
  44. TEXAS:  Too Late to Die by Bill Crider
  45. UTAH

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Some Buried Caesar: Rex Stout

I am a biased reader of the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. I love them all, and if there are flaws, I forgive them easily.  I have read each of them several times, thus my experience will never be the same as a first time reader. So I can only tell you what I love about each book.

Just in case you are not familiar with the Nero Wolfe series, I like to start with an overview.

Rex Stout wrote 33 novels and 41 novellas about the private detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. Nero Wolfe is a genius, a lover of orchids and fine food, who supports himself (and his household) as a private detective. Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the stories, is both his assistant and a private investigator, and he does most of the legwork. They live in a New York brownstone and share the house with Theodore, the plant expert, and Felix, Wolfe's cook. The series began in 1934 with Fer-de-Lance; the last book in the series, A Family Affair, was published in 1975, shortly before Stout's death. Over the forty plus years this series was published, the protagonists did not age at all, but they were always placed within the context of the time that the book was written.

There are several traits that Nero Wolfe is well known for, and one of them is his extreme distaste of leaving his home. According to The Wolfe Pack site, Wolfe leaves his home in 34 of the 74 Nero Wolfe stories; some of those excursions are brief and he stays within New York City. Some Buried Caesar is one of two novels that I can remember where Wolfe and Archie are away from the brownstone from the beginning to the end of the book. (The other is Too Many Cooks.) Thus while Nero and Archie are away from home, we don't get the interactions with Fritz and Theodore, and he and Archie are on their own, without help from the freelance private eyes they frequently call on. I like that aspect of this book because of the variation from the norm and because it brings Archie and Nero into an environment that they know little about.

Another problem Wolfe has is he is afraid of riding in cars. He doesn't trust any driver other than Archie, and he sits in the back seat and hangs on for dear life even when Archie is driving. This book begins with a car accident while Archie is driving Wolfe to an exposition where Wolfe will display some of his prize orchids. The car has run off the road due to a flat tire at 55 mph, so the results are quite damaging to the car, although both Archie and Wolfe escape shaken but not harmed. The ensuing comments from Wolfe and Archie are quite humorous, and the events that follow lead Wolfe to his next case.

At this point, Archie and Wolfe are stranded on a country road, far from New York City, and still 18 miles from Crowfield, the city hosting the North Atlantic Exposition. They decide to walk to a ranch house nearby, across a fenced-in field that they belatedly discover is holding a bull. Wolfe gets stuck on a boulder to avoid the bull, while Archie goes looking for help. Eventually they arrive at the house of a millionaire, Tom Pratt, who owns a restaurant chain. It turns out that Pratt has purchased the bull, Hickory Caesar Grindon, for $45,000, so that the bull can be barbecued and served to Pratt's guests at a party, as a publicity stunt for his restaurant chain. The members of the National Guernsey League are outraged. There are also strained relations between Pratt's family members and those on a neighboring ranch.

Wolfe volunteers Archie to help guard the bull so that they can stay at Pratt's luxurious home rather than in crowded motel quarters in Crowfield, and there is a murder nearby where Archie is guarding the bull. As usual, Wolfe does not jump in to investigate the murder, but eventually he is dragged into the investigation by circumstances.

I love so many things about Some Buried Caesar. It is the book that introduces Lily Rowan. The other characters and their relationships are developed well.  I love the scenes at the eatery at the exhibition. Archie is arrested and spends a night in the local jail; the scenes there are wonderful.

This sample provides an interaction with Lily Rowan and revolves around food, which plays a big part in almost any Nero Wolfe mystery. Archie is going to meet Lily for lunch at the "Methodist grub-tent":
Believe it or not, she was there, at a table against the canvas wall toward the rear. I pranced across the sawdust, concealing my amazement. Dressed in a light tan jersey thing, with a blue scarf and a little blue hat, among those hearty country folk she looked like an antelope in a herd of Guernseys. I sat down across the table from her and told her so. She yawned and said that what she had seen of antelopes' legs made it seem necessary to return the compliment for repairs, and before I could arrange a comeback we were interrupted by a Methodist lady in white apron who wanted to know what we would have. 
 Lily Rowan said, "Two chicken fricassee with dumplings." 
"Wait a minute," I protested. "It says there they have beef pot roast and veal--"  
"No." Lily was firm. “The fricassee with dumplings is made by a Mrs. Miller whose husband has left her four times on account of her disposition and returned four times on account of her cooking and is still there. So I was told yesterday by Jimmy Pratt.”

Archie later brings Wolfe to the tent to taste the chicken dumplings and they return at least one more time during the exhibition. Lily Rowan and Archie have a long-term relationship with no strings attached, as Lily is a very independent and wealthy woman. For some reason, perhaps because I like Archie's relationship with Lily so much, I thought she featured in many more of the stories than she does. I am on a mission to document which stories she shows up in, even if only briefly.

This is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe stories, and is highly regarded by many other readers also, but it is not a typical Nero Wolfe mystery. Wolfe and Archie are out of their element in the rural setting and mingling with ranchers and cattle breeders.

See other thoughts on this book at Dear Author, Vintage Pop Fictions, My Reader's Block, and A Hot Cup of Pleasure.

Source: I have six paperback editions but this is the one I read this time:

Publisher: Pyramid, 1963 (orig. publ. 1939)
Length:    190 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     Nero Wolfe #6
Setting:    Rural New York
Genre:     Mystery

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Reading in June 2016

In June, I read six books, all of them crime fiction.

  • The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré
  • The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie
  • Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout
  • A Perfect Spy by John le Carré
  • Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars
  • An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer

There is no way I could pick a favorite book this month. I read three books that I regarded as excellent books: A Perfect Spy, Some Buried Caesar, and An American Spy. The authors of those books, John le Carré, Rex Stout, and Olen Steinhauer respectively, are among my favorite authors. The other three books were also very enjoyable reads. I rarely consider a book I have read to be a clunker, but sometimes there are books that just are not my thing. Not this month. A wonderful month of reading.

I continue to read mostly spy fiction. The Honourable Schoolboy by le Carré is one of the Smiley novels. A Perfect Spy and The American Spy are both obviously spy novels, and The Seven Dials Mystery is a lighter version of the espionage fiction genre.

An American Spy is the third book in a trilogy by Olen Steinhauer, and I waited nearly two years to finish this series. Milo Weaver works for the CIA, in the Department of Tourism. "Tourists" are described as undercover agents with no identity and no home. Milo is not the James Bond type, although there are plenty of thrilling escapades and violence. But we see the other side of this spy's life, the family he wishes he could spend more time with. I did enjoy picking up on Milo Weaver's adventures again. The first book in the trilogy is The Tourist, the second is The Nearest Exit.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Murder Among Friends: Elizabeth Ferrars

From the dust jacket flap of my reprint edition, this is the setup for the crime and the events that follow:
In war-time London, wardens are checking for lights in the blacked-out streets,  but inside Cecily Lightwood's flat, behind its thickly curtained windows,  a party is in progress. Talented, vibrant Cecily has invited people from the literary and artistic world in which she moves. ... Everyone is waiting for the arrival of Aubrey Ritter, the handsome and famous playwright who has just moved into the flat upstairs following the suicide of his wife. 
Ritter's non-appearance dominates the evening, distressing or annoying guests in differing degrees -- until the party is finally shattered by a voice shouting wildly on the stairs and the discovery of Ritter's savagely murdered body.
The protagonist of this novel, Alice Church, is a guest at the party. She is a friend of Cecily's but all of the other guests are strangers to her. Cecily has invited her expressly to meet Janet Markland, a successful businesswoman who works in publishing and is a partner in a literary agency. Janet is the only person who leaves the party before the murder and when she returns her behavior is strange. The evidence indicates that no one else could have murdered Ritter. Her actions following the discovery of the body are suspicious. Thus she is quickly arrested, brought to trial, and eventually convicted of murder.

Yet Alice cannot believe that Janet is the murderer and she cannot leave the issue alone. She finally decides to question some of Janet's friends from the party. She is on a quest to understand why Janet killed Aubrey Ritter or find another solution to the crime.

There are so many things I liked about this book. Some of them are characteristics of other books I have read by Ferrars and some are unique to this book.

The book is set in London during the second World War and was written around that time. The effects of the war and the situation in London at the time are very much a part of the story.
[Janet and Alice are talking at the party.] 
"Was it still raining when you got here?" Janet went on, attempting in the midst of some preoccupation to sound interested in what she was saying. 
"No," said Alice, "it's cleared up, it's a rather beautiful night at the moment. It's very starry. I found a warden and a policeman discussing astronomy on the doorstep." 
"Astronomy?" said Janet. "Really?" 
"Yes. That's something good that's come out of the black-out, isn't it?" said Alice. "All sorts of people have suddenly gotten interested in astronomy."
What people are wearing is usually described in detail in Ferrar's novels, and in this case, is of importance to the mystery plot. As is noted in Whodunit?, edited by H.R.F. Keating, "Her people are notably real. They eat; they choose clothes."
Alice later found that she had no difficulty whatever in remembering her first impression of Kitty Roper. Probably few people ever had.... She came into the room ahead of Cecily, smiling already and full of interest and pleasure. She was a big woman, shaped with a splendid, healthy plumpness, she was rather untidy and  more than a little flashy. Her coat was of a grey Indian lamb, worn over a scarlet woolen dress which was held in round her far from slender waist by a belt of gilded leather. She had a heavy gilt necklace round her throat and chunks of gilt screwed on to the lobes of her ears. With her fair hair, done up in a gaudily striped turban, showing on her forehead in a cluster of dishevelled curls, with her fresh, fair skin, blue eyes and soft, full lips, gaily daubed with few haphazard strokes of lipstick, she was like some magnificent doll, come to exurberant life.
Ferrar's books are more about the people than the crimes. The crime exists and it certainly was always in the back of my mind while reading this book, but in this case it provides a framework for Ferrars to delve into the psychology and the buried motives of the characters' behavior.  This story is much more a part of the psychological suspense sub-genre than Ferrar's other books that I have read. The first one I read, Skeleton in Search of a Cupboard (1982) is a straightforward mystery plot; the second, The Small World of Murder, is more of a psychological thriller.

For me, this book had some of the problems of amateur sleuth mysteries; how does Alice successfully get all these people to talk to her, people that she barely knows? Of course, she isn't really trying to solve a crime, although she does have doubts. She seems to be more obsessed with figuring out who Janet was underneath her persona. A good deal of the story is Alice's conversations with other people. Eventually her husband agrees that are are serious questions to be asked and gets involved.

Although this type of story is not for everyone, I do recommend it highly, primarily for the look at London and its people during the war, but also for the character development and revelations.

H.R.F. Keating also included this book in Crime & Mystery -- The 100 Best Books. There he says:
"During the course of her hesitant inquiries she comes across facts of life likely among a somewhat bohemian set of people. It is a mark of the realism Elizabeth Ferrars achieved that her regular publishers declined the book on the grounds that detective stories could not be this seamy."

Elizabeth Ferrars was born Morna Doris MacTaggart. In the US her books were issued under the name "E.X. Ferrars." She was a very prolific writer.

See other reviews at Pining for the West, In Reference to Murder, and A Hot Cup of Pleasure.

This book is a submission for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Staircase" category.


Publisher:   Constable, 1987 (orig. pub. 1946) 
Length:       191 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      UK, mostly London
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.