Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reading in January 2016

This has been another wonderful month of reading. It was a good mix, with some older books and a couple of newer books, some sci-fi, and some espionage fiction.

The Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme is hosted at Mysteries in Paradise. Bloggers link to summary posts for the month, and identify a crime fiction best read of the month. 

These are the crime fiction books I read this month:

Blood Will Tell by George Bagby 
Black Orchids by Rex Stout
The Mountain Cat Murders by Rex Stout
Pashazade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Three Doors to Death by Rex Stout
A Red Death by Walter Mosley
A Murder of Quality by John le Carré
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

Half of my reading this month was vintage mysteries, written in 1950 or before.
  • Blood Will Tell (1950) is an Inspector Schmidt novel and George Bagby is the narrator of the novel and the author. George Bagby is a pseudonym used by Aaron Marc Stein, who also wrote mystery series under his own name and Hampton Stone. He wrote over 100 mysteries from the 1930s through the 1980s. I read many of the Inspector Schmidt novels in my younger years and it was fun to revisit this one.
  • The rest were by Rex Stout and were all rereads.  The Mountain Cat Murders (1939) is one of Stout's non-Wolfe mysteries, has a female protagonist, and is set in Wyoming. Very different from the Nero Wolfe series and I enjoyed it very much. (Most Rex Stout fans are not as kind as I am to this novel.)
  • Black Orchids (1942) collects two novellas, "Black Orchids" and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death." Both appeared in The American Magazine before being published in book format. These two stories are longer than most of Stout's novellas.
  • Three Doors to Death (1950) contains three novellas: "Man Alive" (1947, 70 pages); "Omit Flowers" (1948, 70 pages); and "Door to Death" (1949, 55 pages). I remember all of them fondly, but in all cases I did not remember who did it, so they were especially fun reads.
I finally read the 2nd book in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series, A Red Death. Easy Rawlins, first met in Devil in a Blue Dress, is now a landlord, but masquerades as a handyman and lets his associate Mofass manage the apartment buildings for him. He also does "favors" for people, finding missing persons or solving minor crimes in his neighborhood. Easy is targeted by an IRS agent because he has not reported the income that led to purchase of the buildings. That leads to him becoming a spy for the FBI and from there things get very complicated.

I read two books by John le Carré, the second and third books he wrote. Both featured George Smiley, but in A Murder of Quality he functions as a detective in a setting unrelated to espionage.

In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold he is in the background and the spy of the title is Alec Leamas. We recently picked up the Criterion Blu-Ray edition of the film adaptation of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold with Richard Burton. I haven't ever seen the film and I want to watch it as soon as possible. Thus, I rushed to read the book before watching the movie. I loved the book but I found it depressing.

Last but not least is Pashazade. The story starts with the investigation of a murder, but the chapters skip back and forth in time, sometimes a few days, sometimes going back years in flashbacks. The setting in the present time is El Iskandryia, a North African metropolis in an alternative future where "the United States brokered a deal the ended World War I and the Ottoman Empire never collapsed," as described on the back of the book. So this is an alternative history, sci-fi, coming of age thriller, and just my cup of tea. This is the second book I have read by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and it confirms what I discovered with the first one: I love the way he writes. I was alternately confused and delighted and sometimes had no idea where the story was going, but I loved the journey.

In truth, almost all of the books I read this month would be in contention for top read, but I will narrow it down to two. I ended the month with one of my favorites, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. It is a shame I waited this long to read it, but on the other hand, it was well worth the wait and not a disappointment. The other favorite is Pashazade, and I was glad that it also lived up to my expectations.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Nero Wolfe Novellas

The Tuesday Night Bloggers is a group of crime fiction fans who choose an author every month to blog about. This month the author is Rex Stout. I am participating because I am a big fan of Rex Stout, especially his Nero Wolfe series. In this post, I continue to focus on the novellas in the Nero Wolfe series, in general and specifically. Until I started rereading the books consisting of Nero Wolfe novellas recently, I was of the opinion that Stout's novellas were inferior to the novels. Yet, as I reread them, I have found that they have their own unique characteristics that I like.

A Nero Wolfe novel has the advantage of more time to work through a plot and more time to spend with Wolfe and Archie. But sometimes the investigations bog down in the middle in the novels. Wolfe gets frustrated or disgusted with his clients and just stops working for a while, which in turn irritates Archie to no end. For one thing, he has to deal with the criticisms and hostility from his clients or the police.

The novellas are more like a short story with extra time for the interplay between Archie and Wolfe. There is often one focus in the story and a specific element of the pair's relationship is developed. As in "Christmas Party" (which I reviewed here), where Wolfe is fearful that Archie is going to get married and (a) leave his employee or (b) move a woman into their household.

For this post, I reread Three Doors to Death, published in 1950. That book contains three novellas: "Man Alive" (1947, 70 pages); "Omit Flowers" (1948, 70 pages); and "Door to Death" (1949, 55 pages). I remember all of them fondly, but in all cases I did not remember who did it, so they were especially fun reads.

The very first page in the paperback edition I read (Bantam, 1970) had this description:
THE FIRST DOOR led into a greenhouse teeming with exotic flowers.  
THE SECOND DOOR opened into the chic world of models and high fashion.  
THE THIRD DOOR led into the plush, gilt recesses of a staid New York mansion.  
"Man Alive" 

Cynthia Nieder of Daumery and Nieder (clothing designer and manufacturer) approaches Wolfe to find her uncle. It was believed that he had committed suicide by jumping into a geyser at Yellowstone Park, but there were no witnesses. Then she sees him in disguise at a fashion show.

This one was fun because it was set in the fashion world and we get a peek at the egos and obsessions of those involved in that business. There are numerous wonderful quotes, but my favorite is Archie's comments on the new car Wolfe has just purchased. Not only does it tell us about Wolfe's antipathy to leaving his home, but it describes the functions of some of the denizens of the brownstone.
I felt like indulging him because he had just bought a new Cadillac sedan, which meant that I, Archie Goodwin, had a new car, because, of the four men who lived in Nero Wolfe's house, an old brownstone on West 35th Street not far from the river, I was the only one who drove. Wolfe himself, who suspected all machinery with moving parts of being in a plot to get him, rarely left the house for any reason whatever, and never - well, hardly ever - on business. He stayed in his office, on the ground floor of the house, and used his brain if and when I could pester him into it. Fritz Brenner, chef and supervisor of household comforts, knew how to drive but pretended he didn't, and had no license. Theodore Horstmann, curator of the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, thought walking was good for people and was still, at his age, trying to prove it. 
That left me. In addition to being chief assistant detective, bookkeeper and stenographer, the flea in the elephant's ear, and balance wheel, I was also chauffeur and errand boy. Therefore the new car was, in effect, mine, and I thought I ought to show my appreciation by letting him call me a tomcat at least once.

"Omit Flowers"

This story is memorable for its portrayal of the friendship of Marko Vukcic and Wolfe. Marko is first introduced in Too Many Cooks and he and Wolfe have a long history together.  Also, I like the focus on food and cooking, which are both very important to Wolfe. Archie introduces the story this way:
      He might or might not have taken it on merely as a favor to his old friend Marko Vukcic, who was one of the only three people who called him by his first name, but there were other factors. Rusterman’s Restaurant was the one place besides home where Wolfe really enjoyed eating, and Marko owned it and ran it, and he put the bee on Wolfe in one of the small private rooms at Rusterman’s as the cheese cart was being wheeled in to us at the end of a specially designed dinner. Furthermore, the man in trouble had at one time been a cook. 
      “I admit,” Marko said, reaching to give me another hunk of Cremona Gorgonzola, “that he forfeited all claim to professional respect many years ago. But in my youth I worked under him at Mondor’s in Paris, and at the age of thirty he was the best sauce man in France. He had genius, and he had a generous heart. I owe him much. I would choke on this cheese if I sat on my hands while he gets convicted of a murder he did not commit.” 
The person who is accused of murder is Virgil Pompa, who has "forfeited all claim to professional respect" by working for a chain of restaurants instead of staying in the field of high cuisine. The story is very clever although I think the culprit is evident early on.

"Door to Death"

This one was published separately not only in American Magazine but in a Dell Ten Cent book, with a lovely cover illustration of Wolfe tramping in the snow with Archie following behind. The cover artist is Robert C. Stanley. Per Wikipedia:
As a realist artist, together with Gerald Gregg, he was one of the most two prolific paperback book cover artists employed by the Dell Publishing Company for whom Stanley worked from 1950 to 1959.
This is one of the stories in which Wolfe leaves his home and in this case, he ends up tramping through the snowy grounds of a large estate to pursue a temporary replacement for Theodore Horstmann, who tends Wolfe's orchids, another of Wolfe's special interests. When Wolfe arrives, he finds that the horticulturist he is pursuing, Andy Krasicki, had already decided to take the job, so his trip away from home was unnecessary.

Andy takes Wolfe through the greenhouse to show him a plant:
     It was quite a show, no question about that, but I was so used to Wolfe’s arrangement, practically all orchids, that it seemed pretty messy. When we proceeded to the warm room there was a sight I really enjoyed: Wolfe’s face as he gazed at the P. Aphrodite sanderiana with its nineteen sprays. The admiration and the envy together made his eyes gleam as I had seldom seen them. As for the flower, it was new to me, and it was something special — rose, brown, purple, and yellow. The rose suffused the petals, and the brown, purple, and yellow were on the labellum.
But shortly a body is discovered in the greenhouse, and soon Andy has been charged with murder. Wolfe has to prove him innocent so that he doesn't have to go home and do all the hard work of caring for the orchids himself.

From Eric W.'s review of Three Doors to Death at Goodreads, which is also included on the Wolfe Pack page for the book:
I suppose I could spend some time detailing the plots of these three novellas, but when it comes right down to it they are formulaic, but my, what a formula. I love Rex Stout, although the early novels are probably better than those toward the end of his life. Nevertheless, if you have never read any Nero Wolfe stories, you must. The characters are classic and the word interplay between them is wonderful. 
Stephen Harkleroad at Crank Crank Revolution noticed an interesting item that I did not catch when I was rereading these stories. All three of these stories at one point or another involve evidence manufactured by Wolfe. As he rightly points out, there is nothing wrong with this as a ploy, but repeated in three stories published together, it becomes trite. Except of course, that I did not notice it, but probably because I was reading not for the puzzle but the overall story and experience.


Publisher:  Bantam, 1970. Orig. pub. 1950.
Length:     181 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #17
Setting:     New York
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.

In addition to being a contribution to the Tuesday Night Bloggers posts for Rex Stout this month, this post is also submitted for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Two People" category.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Last Good Place: Robin Burcell

Summary at the publisher's web site:
Sgt. Al Krug and his younger, college-educated partner Casey Kellog are investigating a string of strangulation killings when another victim is found at the Presidio…but a surprising, violent incident at the crime scene makes them wonder if everything is what it seems. The two mis-matched cops, with sharply conflicting approaches to detective work, are under intense pressure to get results. It’s a race-against-the-clock investigation that propels them into the deadly intersection of politics, real estate, media and vice… the fertile, fog-shrouded killing field of a ruthless murderer.
This book is a continuation of a police procedural series from the 1970s, written by Carolyn Weston, which formed the basis for the TV series The Streets of San Francisco. When Brash Books acquired all the rights to Weston’s books from her heirs, they also decided to continue the series and they chose Robin Burcell to write it for them.

The original series was set in Santa Monica, California. I read the 2nd book in that series, Susannah Screaming. In my review, I described the two police officers:
Casey Kellog and Al Krug are two homicide detectives working for the Santa Monica Police Department. Kellog is young and has a college education; Krug is older, cranky, and curmudgeonly... and very resistant to new ideas.
The first book in the series, Poor, Poor Ophelia, was the basis for the pilot of the TV series. Both the book and the TV series were released in 1972. In the TV series, the older cop, Lieutenant Mike Stone (played by Karl Malden), is a kinder and gentler character, a mentor to his younger partner; the younger cop, Steve Keller (played by Michael Douglas), is much like the character in the book, headstrong and brash but intelligent.

As Burcell says in J. Kingston Pierce's excellent article and interview at Kirkus Reviews, this novel is not so much a continuation of the original series by Carolyn Weston as a complete reboot. The route to this new series is circuitous due to the fact that it is drawing on both Weston's books and the TV series.

In the new series, Burcell keeps the names and general relationship of the cops from Carolyn Weston's books. She bases the story in San Francisco like the TV series, but she has updated the story to the present day. It works very well, and the story is accessible to readers who have no familiarity with either Weston's books or the TV series.

A quote from the interview at Kirkus Reviews, re the character of Al Krug in The Last Good Place:
In the end, I made the command decision to bring in the best of both worlds. I took the qualities of Krug that I could live with (grizzled, old-school cop, doesn’t always operate by the books, but knows when it is necessary to do so), then added a dash of Karl Malden and ended up with the modern-day Krug from my book.
Our family are great fans of The Streets of San Francisco and have watched the first two seasons of that show over the last couple of years. As we began watching the shows, we noticed the credit given to Carolyn Weston on each episode, but I never followed up until I noticed that Brash Books was putting out new editions of her books. And I was very interested to hear of a new continuation novel coming out.

The biggest draw that this novel has for me is the setting and the connection to the TV show. But as I have already mentioned, it is a fine police procedural in its own right, and readers don't need to have any knowledge of either the prior series or the TV show.

Other aspects of the book that I like:

  • Burcell does a great job of portraying San Francisco, and that only makes sense as she has lived in the area and has a previous series set in that city.
  • Burcell sticks with the framework used in both Weston's series and the TV show, where we follow the investigation but also get detailed glimpses of the other participants in the story: neighbors, co-workers, investigative reporters. This makes for a complex story with unexpected twists, especially near the end.
  • The story has a good pace without feeling rushed. 

I do hope Burcell continues with this new version of the series. I would like to see her flesh out the characters of Krug and Kellog more.

I will end with a few quotes from other authors:

"Robin Burcell, both a writing and law enforcement veteran, takes hold of novelist Carolyn Weston's baton to create a twisty mystery worthy of the iconic team's homicide investigation. The streets of San Francisco come alive in this new installment, and I hope that there are more to come. A definite winner!"
 -- Naomi Hirahara, Edgar Award winning author of Murder on Bamboo Lane

"Robin Burcell has expertly updated the Krug & Kellogg series for old and new readers alike. She knows her stuff and puts it to good use in this entertaining and authentic police procedural,"
 -- Alafair Burke- New York Times Bestselling Author of All Day and a Night.


Publisher:   Brash Books, 2015
Length:      289 pages
Format:      e-book
Series:       Casey Kellog and Al Krug
Setting:      San Francisco, California
Genre:       Police Procedural
Source:      Provided by the publisher for review via NetGalley

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Blood Will Tell: George Bagby

I read a lot of books by George Bagby when I was younger -- he wrote at least fifty books in the Inspector Schmidt series -- but I am sure I did not read them all. I do remember liking them a lot, so over the last few years I would pick up one now and then in used bookstores.  Blood Will Tell was my first foray into the Inspector Schmidt series in many years.

This is one of those series where the author name is the same as the name of one of the characters; in this series George Bagby narrates the books. In Blood Will Tell, a very rich and obnoxious man has been murdered at the Basingstoke building on Park Avenue. Inspector Schmidt is not looking forward to the investigation because the upper crust think that no one in their circles could be responsible for such a crime.

The main players are: Rudolf, the princely doorman; Simon H. Merrill, the victim, described on the dust jacket as "a very dirty man with lots of even dirtier lucre"; Diane Leggett, engaged to Merrill; and Sybil Swain, another friend of Merrill's. Both Diane and Sybil have apartments at the Basingstoke.

Bagby describes Sybil, when they first meet her at her apartment:
She filled in the outlines of my mental picture too perfectly. A tall woman of ripe and handsome figure, she displayed to even the most casual glance the fact that nature had endowed her generously and that she had freely and fancifully indulged her every whim to improve upon nature. She had the longest lacquered fingernails I have ever seen. She had hair the color of a Halloween pumpkin. She wore a fiery red negligee of some diaphanous stuff that gave you the illusion that if you looked you might see everything she might have to show.
The story is told almost entirely via interviews at the Basingstoke apartment building with various suspects or persons who were familiar with Merrill's routine. Bagby also gives his views of how the inspector works and the various characters.

Much of the story depends on the way the building is designed. Merrill's body is discovered on the fire stairs, which is a set of stairs behind the apartments that allow access only from the apartment (the door only opens one way). Another key element is an elaborate ruse carried out by a mother and her daughter to represent their apartment as large and sumptuous to impress people (especially Simon Merrill). They are clearly trying to give the impression that they are doing well financially.

At least based on this book, the only parts of police procedure that are chronicled in the Inspector Schmidt series are interviews and gathering evidence from the scene. The author was quoted in his New York Times obituary as saying "I don't go in for descriptions of what police labs do and that sort of thing. My books pretty much depend on the mental processes of the detective."

As I read this book, I realized that George Bagby's narration resembles that of Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe series. There are other similarities. In both series, the novels are primarily set in New York City and they often feature prosperous people who have no idea how the rest of the world lives. There are differences, of course. Archie actually works for Wolfe and participates directly in the investigation. Bagby is more of the Watson type, telling the story, giving his thoughts on the investigation as it proceeds, but not taking part in the investigation.

In Whodunit? A Guide to Crime, Suspense, & Spy Fiction (1982, ed. H.R.F. Keating), the series is described:
The stories are upbeat, the New York background as real as being there, and for about fifty years Bagby has never aged, always a pleasure to read.
For me, this book was partially successful. The story was a little convoluted and unrealistic for my tastes; but possibly the story isn't that unrealistic, even for these days. The telling of the story is entertaining, but I wanted more variety. Either spending more time outside of the building. Or more reporting on police procedures. I have a few more George Bagby books, published in 1952, 1956, 1965, and 1980. I will try those and see how I like them. There were at least 15 books in the Inspector Schmidt series published in the 1930s and 1940s. I would like to find some of those.

George Bagby is one pseudonym used by Aaron Marc Stein, who also wrote mystery series under his own name and the pseudonym Hampton Stone. He wrote over 100 mysteries from the 1930s through the 1980s.

This book is my submission for Past Offences' monthly Crimes of the Century feature. This month the year chosen was 1950.


Publisher:   Crime Club, 1950.
Length:       219 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Inspector Schmidt
Setting:      New York City
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Black Orchids: Rex Stout

In addition to the over 30 full length novels in the Nero Wolfe series, Rex Stout wrote 41 novellas about the private detective and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. I believe each novella was published first in a magazine, and all were later released in book format, each book containing two, three or four novellas.

The Bantam Crime Line edition (1992) of Black Orchids has an introduction by Lawrence Block. He has this to say about rereading the Nero Wolfe books, and he is describing me perfectly.
I know several men and women who are forever rereading the Nero Wolfe canon. They read other things as well, of course, but every month or two they have another go at one of Stout’s novels. Since there are forty books, it takes them four or five years to get through the cycle, at which time they can start in again at the beginning. 
They do this not for the plots, which are serviceable, nor for the suspense, which is a good deal short of hair-trigger even on first reading. Nor, I shouldn’t think, are they hoping for fresh insight into the human condition. No, those of us who reread Rex Stout do so for the pure joy of spending a few hours in the most congenial household in American letters, and in the always engaging company of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Black Orchids collects two novellas, "Black Orchids" and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death." Both appeared in The American Magazine before being published in book format. These two stories are longer than most of Stout's novellas. In the Bantam Crime Line edition, "Black Orchids" is 100 pages long, and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" is 90 pages. Most of the other Stout novellas are 50-60 pages.

In the book format, the two stories have an introduction by Archie Goodwin speculating on the link between the two stories... the black orchids. Although such introductions are rare in the series, it serves to let us know that Archie is chronicling Wolfe's cases, just as George Bagby was chronicling Inspector Schmidt's cases in that series (by George Bagby, who is both the author and the character).

"Black Orchids"

This novella was originally published as “Death Wears an Orchid.” It is one of the stories that takes Wolfe outside of his brownstone, although only briefly to a flower show nearby, and it focuses on one of Wolfe's prime interests in life, orchids.

Wolfe is obsessed with a black orchid that has been bred by Lewis Hewitt. He has sent Archie out to a flower show to observe the black orchids on exhibit there, and Archie has amused himself by watching a staged exhibit of various plants around a pond with a beautiful young lady sitting by the pond. Wolfe finally determines he has to see the orchids himself, and while he is there, the other participant in the exhibit is murdered. After having to endure some questioning by the police, Wolfe and Archie are allowed to go home. Later, they endeavor to determine who the culprit is.

I will admit that Archie irritated me in this one with his obsession with Anne Tyler (the lady in the exhibit), just because of her shapely legs and other parts of her anatomy. The other woman in this story, Rose Lasher, is an example of the hard-boiled elements in the Nero Wolfe stories, an immoral woman (judged by the times in which this was written) whose main goal is to hide her behavior from her family.

Even with the outdated (I hope) attitudes toward women, I enjoyed this novella quite a bit and it is one of my favorites. Archie teases Wolfe with his infatuation with Anne. The plot is quite complex for such a short piece. And Inspector Cramer shows up, one of my favorite secondary characters in the series.

"Cordially Invited to Meet Death"

The second story in this book starts out as an investigation into poison pen letters sent to a well-known party planner, Beth Huddleston.  Wolfe stays at home while Archie investigates. In the middle of the investigation, the client dies, so the case is dropped. Wolfe does not work when he isn't going to get paid. Of course, eventually Wolfe does get involved in the investigation of Huddleston's death.

This one feels more like one of the full length novels to me. Archie spends a lot of time on the investigation by himself, and we see more of his interaction with various characters. At Huddleston's residence, a large estate up in Riverdale, NY, a chimpanzee and some alligators roam the grounds unguarded. Some of the suspects are offbeat, especially her brother, a chemist who can't keep a job.

A unique aspect here is Wolfe's interaction with one of the female characters who offers to help with the cooking. Wolfe is so eager to find a solution to the mystery of making corn beef hash that he allows her into the kitchen, which antagonizes Archie no end.
"... corned beef hash is one of my specialties. Nothing in there but meat, is there?”
“As you see,” Wolfe grunted.
“It’s ground too fine,” Maryella asserted. 
Wolfe scowled at her. I could see he was torn with conflicting emotions. A female in his kitchen was an outrage. A woman criticizing his or Fritz's cooking was an insult. But corned beef hash was one of life's toughest problems, never yet solved by anyone. To tone down the corned flavor and yet preserve its unique quality, to remove the curse of its dryness without making it greasy—the theories and experiments had gone on for years. He scowled at her but he didn't order her out.
Wolfe is very interested in food and cooking. The tidbits about cooking in these stories are fascinating.


Publisher:  Pyramid Books, 1963. Orig. pub. 1942.
Length:     190 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #9
Setting:     New York
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.

In addition to being a contribution to the Tuesday Night Bloggers posts for Rex Stout this month, this post is also submitted for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Spider or Spiderweb" category. Although I have no idea what connection the illustration of a window with a spiderweb has with these stories.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt 2016

I have participated in the Vintage Mystery challenges hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block since I started my blog in 2012. This year the challenge will be a Scavenger Hunt for objects on the cover of the vintage mysteries.

Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt 2016:

There are two choices. Participants can play along in either the Golden or Silver Mystery Eras or both. There is a Silver Age and a Golden Age Checklist (both have the same items).

For the purposes of this challenge, the Golden Age Vintage Mysteries must have been first published before 1960. Short story collections (whether published pre-1960 or not) are permissible provided all of the stories included in the collection were originally written pre-1960.

Silver Age Vintage Mysteries may be first published any time from 1960 to 1989 (inclusive). Again, Silver Age short story collections published later than 1989 are permissible as long as they include no stories first published later than 1989.

There lots of rules and explanations, so if you are interested in the challenge, click on the link above.

This is the perfect challenge for me since I love old paperback editions and collect as many as I can afford. I am not going overboard in my goals; I plan to aim for six Golden Age Mysteries and six Silver Age Mysteries that fit the rules of this challenge. More than that will just be a bonus.

The checklist for the Silver Age edition:

Click to enlarge

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Read It Again, Sam Challenge 2016

For those of us who love to revisit old friends in the book world, Bev at My Reader's Block presents another round of The Read It Again, Sam Challenge. 

There are four levels for this challenge:

  • Déjà vu: Reread 4 books
  • Feeling Nostalgic: Reread 8 books
  • A Trip Down Memory Lane: Reread 12 books
  • Living in the Past: Reread 16+ books

I am choosing to go for the lowest level, 4 books. I am sure I will reread more books than that this year. I have reread two books already (both by Rex Stout) and have plans to reread several more. But I like to start low and not put pressure on myself.

Other than more Rex Stout, here are some authors that I would like to include:
  • Josephine Tey
  • Margery Allingham
  • Emma Lathen
  • Jill McGown
  • Charles McCarry
  • Patricia Moyes
  • Isaac Asimov (Murder at the ABA)

If you are interested in joining in, check here for more information.

P.S. I love the logo for this challenge. Casablanca may not be my favorite movie of all time (because I can never decide) but it is certainly up there. I have watched that movie countless times.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Darling, It's Death: Richard S. Prather

Before I read this book by Richard S. Prather, all I knew about the author was that he had written a series about private investigator Shell Scott, and that the books were published with some great paperback covers. All the books I have picked up so far were from the book sale and I bought them for the colorful covers featuring gorgeous ladies, usually scantily clad.

Now I know that Prather was born in 1921, in Santa Ana, California, making him about the same age as my father. He attended junior college in Riverside, California, and was in the US Merchant Marine during World War II. After the war, he worked in a civilian job at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California. This is interesting to me because my husband and I lived in Riverside for several years before we moved to Santa Barbara and got married.

There were over 40 Shell Scott books; most were novels but some were collections of short stories or novellas. The cover of The Shell Scott Sampler (1969) boasts "Over 40,000,000 SHELL SCOTT books sold!" In 1986 he was honored with the Private Eye Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.

This is how William L. DeAndrea describes the Shell Scott series in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994):
The first ten Scott adventures were Mike Hammerish stories without the angst. The eleventh, Strip for Murder (1955), found Shell chasing a murderer in a nudist colony, and something clicked. The combination of a patriotic, unbrooding detective with an unabashed delight in the company of beautiful women, steeped in satire and slapstick, and structured round a solid PI story caught on with millions of readers. Scott's breezy, we're-all-friends-here, wisecracking first-person narration added to the fun.
Darling, It's Death was published in 1952, and thus fits in the "Mike Hammerish stories without the angst" category. Scott is in Acapulco on a job for a union official who is being blackmailed. His job is to find the blackmailer and get all of the evidence he is using to blackmail Scott's client. In Acapulco, he finds that he has walked into a convention of crime syndicate bigwigs, intent on taking over the unions to gain power. The case was not an easy task in the first place; now he can see that it is part of a much bigger operation. At the same time, he takes on a smaller case of a young woman, Gloria, who wants to leave her husband but can't because he threatens to kill her.

I found the book to be fun, humorous, and I liked that Shell Scott does not take himself too seriously. The book is full of beautiful, well-endowed women, most often dressed in bathing suits or very revealing clothes. Shell cannot understand why the women all go for him. He describes himself:
I'm a shade less than six-two and weigh 206 full of tacos, but there were a number of better-looking guys around the pool. My nearly white, inch-long hair sticks up in the air like a white cowlick, and the white eyebrows like toppled L's that slant up over my gray eyes and fall down at the outer ends don't add up to Caesar Romero. The slightly bent nose doesn't enhance my beauty either.
There are several women who take part in this story but the one that Scott gets involved with is Maria, an acrobatic dancer at a club frequented by the criminals that he is now involved with. There is some very over the top action going on as the story comes to a climax, Shell fulfills his assignments. The escapades are unrealistic and sometimes bizarre, but once I adjusted to this, I enjoyed the ride. To me he seemed like a James Bond character or a super hero PI, but not so serious. With lots of women and some sex. But the books were not one romp in the hay after another. Far from it.

The only warning I would give is that some readers may be bothered by the politically incorrect portrayals of women. However, Scott is not using the  women or taking advantage of them. It did not bother me because of the time period it was written in, but everyone has their own level of tolerance for that type of thing.


Publisher:  Fawcett, 1954. (orig. pub. 1952)
Length:     143 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Shell Scott, #6
Setting:     Acapulco, Mexico
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2008.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Non-Wolfe Mystery Novels by Rex Stout

The Tuesday Night Bloggers is a group of crime fiction fans who choose an author every month to focus on. This month the author is Rex Stout and I am looking at Stout's mysteries that don't feature Nero Wolfe.

The first Nero Wolfe novel was published by Rex Stout in 1934. Between that time and 1940, he published seven more Nero Wolfe novels. At the same time he was also writing and publishing mystery novels featuring other protagonists.

Between 1937 and 1941 Rex Stout published three mysteries featuring Tecumseh Fox, and one each about Alphabet Hicks, Theodolinda "Dol" Bonner, and Inspector Cramer. In addition there was The Mountain Cat Murders, which does feature the investigation of a murder, but doesn't really star any detective, and The President Vanishes, which is a political thriller. I have read all of these, but for most of them it was a good while ago.

Tecumseh Fox series

The first Tecumseh Fox mystery was Double for Death, published in 1939. Fox is a detective who is wealthy enough to own an estate in Westchester County and provide food and lodging to many odd, non-paying guests. I reviewed that book in 2014. My take on that book:
I would not rate this mystery anywhere near the quality of the Nero Wolfe stories, but I still found it entertaining. There were clues to the identity of the murder, but they were hidden enough to fool me. Stout considered the plot of Double for Death to be one of his best. Comparing it to other Golden Age mysteries, I think it holds up well. Stout's characters are often eccentric or wacky, but that is not unusual for mysteries of that time.
This first novel in the brief series was followed by Bad for Business in 1940 and The Broken Vase in 1941.

Alphabet Hicks or The Sound of Murder

In 1941, Stout introduced another detective, Alphabet Hicks, a young disbarred lawyer, very eccentric. The novel was originally titled Alphabet Hicks, and later published under the title, The Sound of Murder. He is called Alphabet because he gives out business  cards with a string of letters as his title. Such as: C.F.M.O.B, which stands for Candidate For Mayor Of Babylon; or L.O.P.V.S.S.A.F. which stands for Lover Of Peace Unless Someone Starts A Fight.

Hicks lives quite differently from Tecumseh Fox. He supports himself as a cabbie and occasionally as a detective, when he is interested in the case or really in need of money. He is hired by Judith Dundee, whose husband has accused her of stealing secrets from his business and providing them to a competitor. With the $200 he gets from his new client to begin working on her case, Hicks buys a new suit of clothes, a pocketknife, a box of chocolates, some photographs of movie stars, and donates $100 to British War Relief.

An excerpt from the book:
At seven o'clock that evening Hicks was eating spaghetti and arguing about Mussolini at the family table in an Italian restaurant on East 29th Street. At nine o'clock the table was cleared and a pinochle game was started. At midnight Hicks went upstairs to the furnished room for which he paid six dollars a week. 
In yellow pajamas piped in brown, he sat on the edge of the bed and opened the box of chocolates and smelled it with a long deep inhalation. 
“I'll earn it and then I'll eat it,” he muttered. If he had known how much of a chore the earning was to be, he might have added, “If I'm still alive.”
The plot is fairly complex; the proof of Judith Dundee's deception is a voice recording of her conversation with the competitor; it is on an indestructible disc used in a hidden listening device. Hicks follows a lead to Dundee's lab in Westchester County, a murder occurs shortly after he arrives, and the investigation gets much more serious.

This book has a romantic subplot. I think most of the non-Wolfe books included this element and I don't find it objectionable. Some of the earlier Nero Wolfe novels and novellas also have romances, not central to the mystery plot.

I prefer Alphabet Hicks as a detective over Tecumseh Fox; neither, of course, come anywhere close to matching Nero Wolfe or Archie. Hicks solves the crime due to a lot of luck and coincidences, but that is in keeping with a lot of Golden Age mysteries, and I don't have a problem with that as long as the writing entertains.

See these two reviews:

Yvette's review at In So Many Words
John's review at Pretty Sinister Books

The Mountain Cat Murders

This mystery novel is unusual because it really doesn't feature an investigator. Sure, the police are investigating, but one way or the other they are beholden to powerful men in the area or in the state, and they are not so much looking for the truth as for a solution that meets their needs. Regardless, of the three non-Wolfe mysteries by Stout that I have read recently, this one is my favorite. More interesting, and a look at a different part of the country.

Delia Brand is a young woman living in Cody, Wyoming. There has been a lot of tragedy in her life; her father, who managed the prospectors for a grubstaking business, was killed two years ago and just recently, her mother committed suicide. She has decided that she will kill a man, and she announces this in a sporting goods store when she buys some cartridges for her gun. Very shortly, Dan Jackson turns up dead. Delia is discovered standing by his dead body holding her gun. Jackson is the man running the company her father worked for, he had just fired her sister from her job at the company, and Delia had an argument with him earlier in the day. However, she says she did not murder him and he was not the man she wanted to murder in the first place.

It gets even more convoluted from that point on. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence to convict her, including a note found in her purse asking her lawyer about killing a man. Tyler Dillon, her lawyer and an old classmate who is in love with her, wants to find any evidence he can to clear her, but he doesn't go about it very methodically.

I liked this story for its strong (yet misguided) heroine. There were other strong female characters who were taking charge of their own lives. Complicating things are the tangle of family relationships and friends and business relationships. The local and state government corruption add some interest.

Overall, it seems like the non-Wolfe novels of Rex Stout are less entertaining because the story is not told in first person and the lack of the witty dialogue that we see in the Wolfe series. However, they do benefit from being the type of mystery where the reader knows just about as much as the investigator. In the Wolfe novels, some facts are often withheld from the reader.

An interesting tidbit: Rex Stout really likes yellow pajamas. Among Rex Stout fans, Wolfe is famous for his yellow silk pajamas. Note the extract above from Alphabet Hicks; he wears "yellow pajamas piped in brown." And there are two women wearing yellow pajamas in The Mountain Cat Murders.

Delia Brand:
Of all the people involved and active in the affair one way or another—relatives, friends, associates, officials, photographers, politicians, reporters—the only one who was in a state of indifference at ten o'clock Wednesday morning was the girl herself. She was sound asleep on a cot in a cell of the county jail, lying on a clean white sheet, with no cover, clad in soft, clean, yellow pajamas which her sister Clara had brought to the jail, along with other accessories, shortly after dawn. Seated on a chair in the corridor outside the cell door was Daisy Welch, wife of the deputy warden, slowly fanning herself with a palm leaf and from time to time sighing heavily. It was a self-imposed vigil.
and Wynne Cowles, the "Mountain Cat":
Under an awning on the tiled veranda at Broken Circle Ranch, Wynne Cowles, in yellow silk lounging pajamas, reclined on a portable chaise lounge with chromium frame and pneumatic tires.

The two covers I have for The Mountain Cat Murders are similar. The Dell 5849 cover is by Victor Kalin.  The Dell D252 cover is by Chicago illustrator Al Brule, also well known for his pin-up art.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Too Many Cooks: Rex Stout

The Tuesday Night Bloggers is a group of crime fiction fans who choose an author every month to focus on. The first month they covered Agatha Christie, then moved on to Ellery Queen and in December, Ngaio Marsh. This month the author of the month is Rex Stout and I have decided to join in. My topic will be Too Many Cooks, the fifth book featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Rex Stout is most well known for the Nero Wolfe series, although he did write other series and stand alone books.

Overview of the Nero Wolfe series

Copying from some of my earlier posts about Rex Stout's works, here are some facts about the series and some of my opinions.

Rex Stout wrote 33 novels and 41 novellas about the private detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. The novellas are published in 14 books; each book has two, three or four novellas. The series began in 1934 and 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.

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. 

What I love about these stories is primarily (1) Archie's telling of the story and (2) the relationship that Archie and Wolfe have developed over time.  Like many fans of this series, I have reread all the books multiple times, and in most cases when I read them now, I know who the perpetrator is.  Thus I am not reading the books for the resolution of a crime but to enjoy the time with my favorite characters.

The Nero Wolfe stories can be roughly divided into those in which Nero stays in his home and Archie does the legwork and those in which Nero leaves home based on some necessity or desire. Almost always, when Wolfe leaves his home, he makes the decision freely, yet he is still not happy with the results. Thus he is a trial to Archie, with his complaining and extra demands. 

Too Many Cooks

Wolfe has been invited to attend a gathering of Les Quinze Maitres (The Fifteen Masters, a group of well-known chefs around the world) and deliver an address at one of the dinners. The gathering is at the Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. One of the members of the group who has alienated many of the members is killed during a competition among the chefs. Wolfe has no desire to get involved in the investigation, but in the end he does, of course.

What do I love about this book, besides the interplay between Wolfe and Archie? One, it starts and ends with a train ride. Two, the focus is on food and specifically gourmet meals. Wolfe's two loves are fine food and orchids, and very often the focus is on the orchids. I liked this book being totally focused on food and chefs.

To get from New York to the Kenawha Spa, Archie and Wolfe are on the train overnight.  I always like mysteries set on trains but in this case there is the added humor afforded by Wolfe's reaction to riding in any vehicle and especially one not controlled by Archie. The book features one of Wolfe's weaknesses: his fear and dislike of leaving his home and the discomfort he feels when taking any mode of transportation. 

As the story begins, Wolfe is on the train, and is exhorting Archie to get on the train with him. Archie ignores him.
I sauntered on. Tickets my eye. It wasn't tickets that bothered him; he was frantic with fear because he was alone on the train and it might begin to move. He hated things that moved, and was fond of arguing that nine times out of ten the places that people were on their way to were no improvement whatever on those they were coming from. But by gum I had got him to the station twenty minutes ahead of time, notwithstanding such items as three bags and two suitcases and two overcoats for a four days' absence in the month of April, Fritz Brenner standing on the stoop with tears in his eyes as we left the house, Theodore Horstmann running out, after we had got Wolfe packed in the sedan, to ask a few dozen more questions about the orchids, and even tough little Saul Panzer, after dumping us at the station, choking off a tremolo as he told Wolfe goodbye. You might have thought we were bound for the stratosphere to shine up the moon and pick wild stars.
One of the reasons Wolfe has been persuaded to venture from his home and submitted himself to the train trip is to seek out the recipe for Saucisse Minuit, a secret recipe for a very special sausage invented by one of the Quinze Masters, Jerome Berin. He begins working on extracting the recipe from Berin on the train trip to the resort, to no avail.

This book introduces Marko Vukcic, Wolfe's old friend, who owns and runs a restaurant in New York, and is a member of Les Quinze Maitres. Stout does a marvelous job of creating in-depth characters. Marko was once married to Dina Laszio, the wife of the chef who was murdered. The reader can feel the depth of the friendship between Wolfe and Marko as they argue about her mesmerizing effect on Marko.

This has long been a favorite book, but it is somewhat controversial. Many readers object to the language in the book. It is painful to read some of the language used when talking about or addressing black people in this book, but the terms were usual for the time the book was written and the setting in West Virginia. The dialogue would have been unrealistic for the time if it had been cleaned up. I did personally have some objections to Archie's language about various ethnic groups.

The only other negative in this story from my point of view is the lack of my favorite auxiliary characters. We don't get the usual interactions with Fritz and Theodore, and the freelance operatives that work for Wolfe on occasion. I also miss Inspector Cramer and his subordinates, who often are involved in the investigations one way or another when the cases are in New York. This is a minor quibble of course. Saul Panzer, the operative most used by Wolfe, is called in to help with gathering some information and evidence.


Publisher:  Pyramid Books, 1963. Orig. pub. 1938.
Length:     190 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #5
Setting:     West Virginia
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Favorite Reads of 2015

I read 90 books in 2015.  Of that total, 79 were novels, 8 were non-fiction books, and 3 were books of short stories. As usual, most of my reads were mystery novels, but I did read some fantasy and some science fiction. 

I don't keep good statistics so my numbers are rough, but I did check out how many books by male and female authors I read. 45 books by male authors, 34 books by female authors. I would like a better balance in that area. Of the 79 novels, 11 were re-reads. 

Of the 11 re-reads, there were several that were top reads this year. However, with such a long list of favorites, I elected not to include re-reads.

There is no order to this list, and I did not pick a top favorite of them all.

Lock In   by John Scalzi. 
This novel, published in 2014, is a thriller set in the near future. The story picks up about 20 years after the world-wide epidemic of a virus which causes Lock In syndrome. At this point, technological breakthroughs have been developed to the point where the victims of the disease who have been locked in can move around, talk, and function in society in a robotic device while their bodies are lying in a bed elsewhere. The ramifications of a life like this and the society which deals with it is explored via a murder mystery.

I have read two other books by John Scalzi, both in the Old Man's War series, Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. That series is military science fiction, and it surprises me how much I like it. I do enjoy the way Scalzi tells a story.

The Maltese Falcon   by Dashiell Hammett. 
Most of you will be familiar with this novel, originally published in 1930. Briefly, the story is set in San Francisco, in the late 1920's. Sam Spade is a private detective hired by a beautiful and mysterious woman to help her find her sister. I avoided reading this book for a long time because I thought it would be too brutal and dark for me (even though the 1941 movie with Humphrey Bogart is one of my favorite movies).  I could not have been more wrong; I loved every word of this book. After reading the book, I watched the film again. Both the film and the book are very, very good.
Concrete Angel   by Patricia Abbott. 
This is Abbott's debut novel, published in 2015, and it is stunning. In the opening chapters of this book, Eve Moran kills a man and insists on treating it as an accident; and then proceeds to let her daughter Christine, at twelve years of age, take the blame. From that point on, Christine relates the background of Eve's problems, how her parents met and married, and how Eve's mental problems and behavior mold Christine's life. Thus this book has elements of crime fiction, but it is primarily a character study and the study of a very dysfunctional family. The events are set in and around Philadelphia in the 1960s and 1970s. My summary is inadequate to convey the depth of the story.

Life After Life   by Kate Atkinson.
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. At the beginning, it is a challenge for her to even get out of childhood. One mishap after another and the next time she comes back, that one is averted. Sometimes.

Because Ursula is born in 1910 and the book continues to some point in the 1960s, parts of both World Wars are covered. Through Ursula we experience the Blitz and Germany under Hitler. But what I liked most was the view of roles that women played and how the various lives illustrated the limited opportunities open to them.

Shotgun Saturday Night   by Bill Crider. 
Published in 1987, this was the second book I had read by Bill Crider, and I liked this entry in the Dan Rhodes series even more than the first one, Too Late to Die. Dan Rhodes is the Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas. In this book he gets involved with motorcycle gangs and FBI investigations. Although the story borders on being a cosy-ish police procedural, the ruthless motorcycle gang members do move it a good ways away from cozy.I am hooked on the series, which has now extended to twenty two books. I love the details of life in Blacklin County, in the late 1980's, and the characters, including Sheriff Rhodes' small crew (one jailer, one dispatcher, one deputy).
Hopscotch   by Brian Garfield. 
Published in 1975, this is is an intelligent spy thriller, which won author Brian Garfield the Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writer’s of America. Miles Kendig has been forcibly retired from the CIA. In retaliation, he decides to write his memoirs and publish them, revealing secrets harmful to the CIA. Soon the hunt begins to find Miles Kendig and terminate him. Although most of the agents involved in the hunt are depicted as ruthless, self-serving, and unimaginative, there are some great characters in this book. In 1980, it was adapted as a film starring Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. Both the book and film are very entertaining but the book is darker.

In Bitter Chill   by Sarah Ward. 
This is another excellent debut novel published in 2015. The story focuses on the abduction of two very young girls while walking to school. Rachel was returned to her family, but Sophie was never found. The crime occurred in the 1970s and was never solved. Over thirty years later, Sophie's mother is found dead in a hotel room on the anniversary of her daughter's disappearance, and all evidence points to suicide. The suicide motivates the police to consider reopening the investigation of Sophie's abduction, and this turns Rachel's life upside down

I always enjoy a police procedural; this one focuses not only on the investigation, but also the repercussions on the victim and the two families that were involved. There are sections of the book that alternate between the past and the present and this was particularly well done, maintaining tension throughout.

The Moving Finger   by Agatha Christie.
One of the things I like about Agatha Christie's books is that she often surprises me. The Moving Finger has a first person narrator, Jerry Burton, who has moved to the small village of Lymstock with his sister to recuperate from a serious injury. Shortly after he arrives, he receives a very nasty poison pen letter. He discovers that others in the village have also received such letters. All of a sudden the village becomes more menacing, and a couple of deaths follow.

I enjoyed this book, the story and the characters. It was billed as a Miss Marple mystery, but she barely shows up until the end, making her part in the solving the mystery a bit unrealistic. It also seems to me that this one has a little more romance than usual. The attraction builds slowly and one wonders where it is going, but it is a nice addition.

Funeral in Berlin   by Len Deighton.
Published in 1964, only three years after the Berlin Wall was constructed, this is the third novel in the Nameless Spy series by Len Deighton.  The protagonist is sent to East Berlin to facilitate the defection of an East German scientist. This story is told in first person for the most part, but there are chapters here and there that are in third person. Thus we see some events various character's points of view. I liked that change from the previous two books in the series, although the narration of the nameless spy is one of the best elements of the story.

Diamond Solitaire   by Peter Lovesey.
Published in 1992, Diamond Solitaire is the 2nd book in a police procedural series that is now 15 books long. Its protagonist, Peter Diamond, is ex-CID, due to difficulties in his last assignment. At the beginning of this book, Diamond is sacked from his job as a security guard at Harrods in London. He pursues a personal investigation into the identity of a young Japanese girl, traveling to New York City and Japan along the way. The story is somewhat unbelievable, but I did not have any problems stretching my disbelief and going along with the story. I enjoyed the book throughout, including the methodical way Diamond looks for clues and the patience he exhibits in getting to know Naomi.

The Old English Peep Show   by Peter Dickinson. 
This is the second book in the Superintendent James Pibble series, published in 1969. Pibble is an unusual protagonist, a middle-aged man with a wife who bullies him "into reading the Elsa books." (They figure into the story, of course. This book was also published as A Pride of Heroes.) He is sent off by Scotland Yard to handle the investigation of the loyal servant, Deakin, at Herryngs, a great English country house being run as a theme park, complete with lions, by two retired WWII heroes. Shortly after Pibble arrives he senses that the family is hiding something. This book and the first in the series each won the Gold Dagger award.

Dickinson calls his book "a baroque spoof." The thing that surprised me was that with all the elements of humor and caricature, the later part of the book still has definite thriller elements.