Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Charlie Chan: Yunte Huang

The full title of this book is Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History. The author, Yunte Huang, is a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My husband and I are both fans of the Charlie Chan mystery novels by Earl Derr Biggers and the many Charlie Chan films that were based on or inspired by the novels. When this book came out, he bought a copy and he and my son both read it years ago.

When I first heard about this book, I thought it was about Charlie Chan the fictional character and Chang Apana, the Hawaiian police officer that Charlie was based on. That is true, but it is so much more. The book covers much of Earl Derr Biggers' life and it talks about most of the books he wrote, then moves on to the success of Charlie Chan on film. It also provides some background on the history of racism in the US.

All of that is a lot to digest and many reviewers complain that the book tries to cover too much and loses focus. For me, that approach worked fine and made the topic more interesting. The writing was fine and I had no problem staying interested. I was worried about getting too much information about the plots of the books (I have only read 3 of the 6 Charlie Chan novels), but that did not happen. The ones that were mentioned were given an overview and where they fit into Biggers' life.

I found the author very interesting. For one thing, we have some things in common. When Yunte Huang moved to the US from China, he chose to go to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa for his undergraduate studies. That is where I went to college also. He chose Alabama because it was the first state alphabetically, not knowing much about that area of the country. And today he teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Santa Barbara is where I have lived for decades. (In the middle he did post graduate studies in New York... but I have never been to New York.)



Publisher:   W. W. Norton and Co., 2010
Length:       297 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Settings:     Hawaii; USA
Genre:        Nonfiction
Source:       Borrowed from my husband

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

New Orleans Mourning: Julie Smith

This is the first novel in the Skip Langdon series by Julie Smith; it won the 1991 Edgar Award for best mystery novel.

During Mardi Gras the King of the Carnival, Chauncey St. Amant, is shot on his float during the parade. A character dressed as Dolly Parton shoots him from a balcony as the float goes by. Skip Langdon is one of the cops working on crowd control for the event, and she is near to the float when it  happens.

As the Publisher's Weekly review describes it, she "uncovers a cast of intriguing characters, all as much Chauncey's victims as they are suspects in his murder, most of them inhabiting a 'poison garden of corruption' and substance abuse where it's not just on Mardi Gras that everyone wears a mask." I could not put it any better.

Skip also happens to be a friend of the victim and his family, and it is that and her family's status in the community that allows her to be a part of the investigation, although she is only a rookie cop.

The setting of New Orleans during Mardi Gras was very interesting. New Orleans is a beautiful city but this book focused on eccentric and rich people and corruption in the government and the police. I always find evil in high places depressing, if realistic.

When I read this book, I found the story, centered on an extremely rich and powerful and dysfunctional family, to be unrealistic and over the top. But just recently I read The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald, published in 1950 and set in coastal southern California. It features another rich family with absolutely no well-adjusted, happy people so maybe those types of families are more common than I think. Or they make better subjects for crime fiction.

Although Skip Langdon is a policewoman, this is not a straightforward police procedural, because she is assigned to work with two detectives who don't really include her in the investigation. She is supposed to be gathering information from the family because she has connections, and reporting back to them. One of the pair totally despises her,  the other is sympathetic but still not very supportive. So she basically goes off alone looking for clues and the sleuthing is somewhat haphazard.

Skip is the center of the story, but it is told from the perspective of several characters. I like that method of storytelling although it is not universally popular. Skip has lots of insecurities; she is six feet tall and somewhat overweight and has never fit in with her family. Most of the other characters are extremely eccentric or self-centered.

The ending is unsatisfactory but realistic. I liked this well enough to continue and see what happens to Skip in the next one.


Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1991 (orig. publ. 1990) 
Length:       339 pages
Format:      Paperback 
Series:       Skip Langdon, #1
Setting:      New Orleans, Louisiana
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Reading Summary, August 2018

This month I read 12 books, which is a lot for me. One was very short, one was very long (for me). I don't know where I found the time to read all those books, but I do know I have energy for reading but often not enough mental energy for reviewing. I completed reading all the books on my 20 Books of Summer list (actually there were 21 on the list) but reviewed only 6 of them.

Three of the books I read this month were not crime fiction, which is unusual.


Starting Out in the Evening (1997) by Brian Morton
This book follows a short period in the life of four people: Leonard Schiller, a novelist in his seventies; Heather Wolfe, a woman in her early twenties who wants to write her thesis on Schiller's novels; Ariel, Leonard's daughter, who wants very much to have a child; and Casey, one of Ariel's ex-boyfriends. It was a wonderful read but very different from my usual reading. There is a film adaptation; I will be watching it soon.
The Uncommon Reader (2007) by Alan Bennett
I enjoyed this book very much, although of course it bears no resemblance to reality. The Queen ends up visiting a bookmobile on the grounds of Buckingham Palace because her Corgis are causing a ruckus in that area. She checks out a book with no real intention of reading it, but as she gives it a try she becomes intrigued and decides to check out a another book. And thus the Queen becomes a reader. For me, it was all about discovering reading and the joys of reading.

SCIENCE FICTION reading in August

The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger
It is difficult to put this book in a category. It could just as easily (and more logically) be called a romance. Time travel books are usually categorized as science fiction but on the other hand, this one has very little science involved. For several days my reading time was spent mesmerized by this story and I had no complaints about the book at all. (I will follow up with a more detailed post eventually.)

CRIME FICTION reads in August:

Dark Passage (1946) by David Goodis
A noir novel about a man in prison for his wife's murder, which he did not commit. He manages to escape from prison and returns to San Francisco and the neighborhood he lived in to try to prove his innocence. We also watched the film adaptation which starred Bogart and Bacall. See my thoughts on the book and the film adaptation here.
Follow Her Home (2013) by Steph Cha
This book is  hard to describe. It starts out seeming light, even frothy, contrary to the descriptions of noir on the cover. It takes a long time to turn darker but when it does it gets very dark quickly. The protagonist, Juniper Song, is Korean American. Philip Marlow has always been her hero, and she models her "detecting" on his adventures (sort of). I don't think this would work for everyone but it did for me.

Death in the Clouds (1935) by Agatha Christie
In this Hercule Poirot mystery, a woman is killed on an airplane during a flight from Paris to Croydon. Her death isn't discovered until well into the flight. Hercule Poirot is a passenger on the airplane but he slept through most of the flight. My full review here.

The Limbo Line (1963) by Victor Canning
Richard Manston has quit his job in intelligence work but his old  boss has called him back for another assignment. It is an old story but by one of my favorite authors so I enjoyed it a lot. I would describe it as Alistain Maclean crossed with the James Bond books by Ian Fleming. Manston shows up in the Rex Carver series by Canning. 
Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie
My second Agatha Christie for the month! I liked it even more than Death in the Clouds, but this one was a good bit darker. The death occurs on a cruise along the Nile, and Hercule Poirot, along with his old friend Colonel Race, must solve the mystery. A large cast of interesting people. And we have watched the film adaptation with Peter Ustinov as Poirot.
The Cold, Cold Ground (2012) by Adrian McKinty
This is the first in a series of six books featuring Detective Sean Duffy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The book is set in Belfast of 1981, during the Irish Troubles, and Duffy is a Catholic cop in a primarily Protestant police force. Very good, and I hope to find a copy of the 2nd in the series soon.
A Cold Day For Murder (1992) by Dana Stabenow
Kate Shugak is a former investigator for the Alaska District Attorney's Office as this books starts. Her former boss talks her into taking on an assignment to investigate two men who have gone missing in the Alaskan wilderness. Kate is an Aleut, and very familiar with the area and the people. I had waited 12 years after I purchased my copy to read this book. What a mistake. I will be looking out for the next few books in this series. She has a lovely dog, and I loved the setting.
The Bigger They Come (1939) by A. A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner)
This was the first book in the Donald Lam and Bertha Cool series. This is the origin story. It was good to hear how Bertha and Donald got together. It was only the third book I have read in this series (since my youth) and definitely my favorite.

A Spy by Nature (2001) by Charles Cummings
Alec Milius is a natural liar, which makes him perfect for the espionage business. He gets involved in corporate espionage, but his work is guided by government departments, whether they admit it or not. It seems to be a very accurate picture of how lonely a person's life can become once he  becomes an agent. There is no one to trust, no one to turn to. It was very good read and based on the author's experience of having been recruited by MI6. I will be following this book up with the sequel, The Spanish Game.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Dark Passage: David Goodis

This is a dark novel about a man in prison for life for the murder of his wife, which he did not commit. Vincent Parry manages to escape from prison and returns to San Francisco and the neighborhood he lived in to try to prove his innocence. A young woman befriends him and helps him hide from the authorities.

He knows he must move on, that he cannot stay with her for long. She wants to buy him some clothes as all he has are some old clothes that he stole.
When he came back to the bedroom she was opening the paper boxes. 
It amounted to almost a wardrobe. Four shirts, three white and one grey. Five neckties, three grey and two on a grey-violet theme. Five sets of underwear and a stack of handkerchiefs. Six pairs of grey socks. A grey worsted suit with a vertical suggestion of violet. A pair of tan straight-tipped blucher shoes. And grey suspenders. 
There were other things. A military brush and a comb. A toothbrush and a jar of shaving cream and a safety razor. 
...  His hair was still damp from the shower and it moved nicely under the brush and comb. He had on one of the white shirts and a grey-violet tie and he put a white handkerchief in the breast pocket of the grey worsted suit. He felt very new and shining
The story is not told in first person narration but much of the story is revealed through the main character's internal dialog. His frustration and the build up of anger at his situation is portrayed in a realistic way. It was very well done.

The twists and turns are many and have a feeling of unreality at times, but it is a very compelling story. And I liked the ending. Shortly after that we watched the film adaptation. In both the book and the film, the San Francisco setting is used well.

This a very effective noir novel, but it isn't one that leaves you feeling entirely hopeless, and I was grateful for that.

David Goodis claimed that the TV series The Fugitive was based on Dark Passage. An article at Mystery*File discusses Goodis’ suit against United Artists TV in detail.

Comments on the movie...

The movie was very faithful to the book, but there is no way that a film can convey the protagonist's inner turmoil as effectively. I still enjoyed it a lot, and it has tremendous atmosphere and the wonderful San Francisco setting. And with two talented stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, how can it not be worth watching? It isn't their best movie together but it is very good. Agnes Moorehead also stars as the woman who testified against him at the trial.

See these reviews. Many of them also comment on the movie. 
Barry Ergang's review at Kevin's Corner


Publisher:   Library of America, 2012 (first published 1946)
Length:       190 pages
Format:       Hardback collection
Setting:      San Francisco
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Big Over Easy: Jasper Fforde

This is the first book in the Nursery Crime series by Jasper Fforde, who also wrote the Thursday Next series. DCI Jack Spratt and Sergeant Mary Mary investigate crimes within the world of nursery rhymes. In The Big Over Easy, they investigate the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty. The book is a fantasy / mystery crossover with lots of humor, puns, and satire.

To give you a taste of Jasper Fforde's prose and the wackiness of the story, here is an excerpt. Mary Mary has just been transferred to the city of Reading in Berkshire, England.
Reading wouldn't have been everyone's choice for a transfer, but for Mary, Reading had one thing that no other city possessed: DCI Friedland Chymes. He was a veritable powerhouse of a sleuth whose career was a catalog of inspired police work, and his unparalleled detection skills had filled the newspaper columns for over two decades. Chymes was the reason Mary had joined the police force in the first place. Ever since her father had bought her a subscription to Amazing Crime Stories when she was nine, she'd been hooked. She had thrilled at "The Mystery of the Wrong Nose," been galvanized by "The Poisoned Shoe" and inspired by "The Sign of Three and a Half." Twenty-one years further on, Friedland was still a serious international player in the world of competitive detecting, and Mary had never missed an issue.
However, Mary does not get assigned to work with DCI Chymes. She is assigned to the much less attractive Nursery Crime Division, headed by Jack Spratt.

My thoughts:

My son read this first and recommended the book, and I enjoyed it very much. This book requires that you step into another world peopled by Nursery Rhyme characters, aliens, and mythical creatures... and suspend disbelief. I am not so good at doing that so it took me a third of the book before I was comfortable with the premise.

In this world, it is at least as important to be able to write up the results of the crime to be published (and made into prime time documentaries), as it is to actually solve the crime. In fact policemen are willing to stretch the truth to fit those requirements, and will compete to take over a case that may be "good copy." They then become stars of publications like the Amazing Crime Stories journal. That seems ridiculous on the face of it, but in today's world maybe not so much so. If you can just sit back and accept that it all makes sense in an alternate world, then it is a lot of fun.

I am not a fan of funny names in mysteries, but it works here so I accepted it. Sometimes the humor in mysteries escapes me, as I noted when I read reviews after finishing the book, but even my failure to get many of the jokes did not hamper my enthusiasm or enjoyment.

I will admit I had a problem with too many characters to track and getting confused by the characters and their relationships to Humpty Dumpty. But that happens in a LOT of mysteries I read. On the other hand, I liked the characters, I enjoyed following the story, and I thought the plot and writing were well done.

If you are a fan of humor and satire in your mysteries, and can handle fantasy elements, then this book is definitely worth a try.

TV Tropes has a nice page about the Nursery Crime series, and they describe it as "Shrek meets the Police Procedural."


Publisher:  Penguin Books, 2006 (orig. publ. 2005).
Length:      383 pages 
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Nursery Crime series, #1
Setting:      Reading, UK
Genre:       Fantasy / Police Procedural
Source:      My son bought this at the Planned Parenthood book sale and loaned it to me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Death in the Clouds: Agatha Christie

This Hercule Poirot mystery was published in 1935. A woman is killed on an airplane during a flight from Paris to Croydon. Her death isn't discovered until well into the flight. Hercule Poirot is a passenger on the airplane but he slept through most of the flight. Once the airplane lands, Inspector Japp is on the case and of course invites Poirot to work with him on the investigation. Since the flight is between France and England and the passengers come from both countries, Inspector Fournier of the Sûreté comes over to take part too. As the investigation proceeds, Japp is working in England, Fournier is working in France, and Poirot goes back and forth wherever the clues lead him.

I found this a different type of Poirot story and very entertaining. A closed environment, somewhat similar to Murder on the Orient Express but even more contained. The victim is killed with a dart from a blowpipe but no one on the flight sees the crime take place. Eleven suspects, twelve if you count Poirot, which he insists should be done. But no one takes that seriously (except the jury at the inquest, initially).

I do always love a map or a diagram, and the one supplied here was very useful.  It was a diagram of the seating in the section of the airplane where the victim and the suspects were seated. If I had had to rely on the descriptions of seating placements in the text I would have been lost. Also it was fun to read about flying at that time, the size of the airplane, the stewards, etc.

This  time I suspected someone early on, but dismissed them as unlikely. Then it turns out that person was the murderer. This has happened to me multiple times when read Christie's books. I think she is very clever with her diversions and her books are such fun to read. I used to get really irritated with Poirot; now I am used to his idiosyncracies and enjoy them.

I have been looking for an edition of this book with the cover illustration by Tom Adams but so far have not been successful. Then I remembered that Moira of Clothes in Books sent me this postcard with the same illustration, so I am sharing it here. Isn't it gorgeous? I am still going to find one with that cover some day.

Another book I read with an airplane flight playing an important part was The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree, a Hildegarde Withers mystery by Stuart Palmer, also written in the 1930's. A Dragonfly Seaplane arrives at the island of Santa Catalina off the California coast with a dead passenger on board.

Other reviews at Clothes in Books, crossexaminingcrime, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and A Crime is Afoot (with links to several other posts)


Publisher:  Berkley Books, 1984. Orig. pub. 1935.
Length:     230 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Hercule Poirot, #12
Setting:     UK, France
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, Sept. 2017.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Reading Summary for July 2018

I cannot believe it is August. And hot and muggy in Santa Barbara. I read ten books in July.  Seven of them were on my list of 20 Books of Summer.

I read two books that were not in the crime fiction genre. Although one of them was strongly related to crime fiction.

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History (2010) by Yunte Huang
This non-fiction book is a blend of many things. It covers much of Earl Derr Biggers' life and it talks about most of the books he wrote, including the success of Charlie Chan in novels and on film. It also provides some background on the history of racism in the US.  
It was a very readable book; I often have problems with non-fiction writing but this one was informative... without being boring or dry.
The Night Watch (2006) by Sarah Waters
The second was a historical novel, set in the 1940's in the UK, one of my favorite times and places to read about. This novel has an unusual structure, with three sections, one set in 1947, the next set in 1944, and the last in 1940. The book never returns to 1947 so we know the ending early on, so to speak. I did not find it totally successful, but I am glad I read it.
The crime fiction books I read this month are:

They Do It with Mirrors (1952) by Agatha Christie
In this fifth Jane Marple book, Jane visits Carrie Louise Serrocold at her Victorian mansion, Stoneygates, at the request of an old friend. The US title is Murder with Mirrors. My thoughts on the book are HERE.

Gasa-Gasa Girl (2005)  by Naomi Hirahara
This is the 2nd book in a crime fiction series featuring Mas Arai, a Japanese-American gardener in Los Angeles. Mas is seventy years old and the book starts as he arrives in New York City on his first visit with his daughter and her family. Mas and his daughter have not gotten along for many years, but now she is asking for his help. I enjoyed it very much.

Moskva (2016) by Jack Grimwood
I have read two of this author's books published as John Courtenay Grimwood and I was very impressed with them, so when I heard he had written a cold war spy thriller set in Russia, I had to read it. I was not disappointed, but there was more violence and sex in the novel than I was prepared for.

The Diggers Rest Hotel (2010) by Geoffrey McGeachin
Set in post-World War II Australia, the hero is Charlie Berlin, who rejoins the Melbourne police force after the war. This book won the 2011 Ned Kelly Award. I look forward to reading more of the series, although affordable copies are not easy to find.

Night Rounds (1999) by Helene Tursten
The second book in Helene Tursten's series featuring Inspector Irene Huss, set in Sweden. I enjoyed this book; it covers social issues in Sweden and sexual harrassment in the police department. My full review (and links to other reviews) is HERE.

The Woman Who Married a Bear (1992) by John Straley
This first novel about Cecil Younger, unofficial private investigator, is set in Sitka, Alaska, a port city on the Alaska Panhandle. I found Cecil to be a very unusual character that I grew to like. This book was winner of the 1993 Shamus for Best First P. I. Novel.
A Study in Scarlet (1887) by Arthur Conan Doyle
I have finally read a novel in the Sherlock Holmes series. This very short novel introduces both Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr. John H. Watson. I did enjoy reading A Study in Scarlet, but it was not at all what I expected.

Queenpin (2007) by Megan Abbott
I did not know quite what to think about this book but I do rate it very high. The tension that builds wore me out when I was reading it, similar to when I was reading Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. The two books are very different; Highsmith's book centers on two men, this one centers on two women. Set in the 1940s or 50s, in the world of gangsters and gamblers. In 2008, Abbott won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original Novel for Queenpin.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

White Sky, Black Ice: Stan Jones

This series stars Nathan Active, an Alaska State Trooper, and in this first book he is living in the remote village of Chukchi. Although he is Inupiat, and was born in Chukchi, his mother gave him up to white parents who raised him in Anchorage, so his experiences have been very different than the Inupiat people who live there. He doesn't really like his assignment and hopes eventually to be reassigned to Anchorage. When he encounters two suspicious suicides in a week, he decides to check for indications that the victims were murdered.

This is another case where I have fallen for the main character, and want to know where these books will take him. As Nathan Active is a State Trooper, this is a police procedural, and Nathan is a determined investigator, relentless in seeking the truth. I guess you could describe this story as moving at a slow pace, but that worked well in this case.

The description of daily life in the isolated city of Chukchi is intense, sometimes depressing.

The weather is severe, difficult to endure; it amazes me that anyone can survive there.
There were many things he had come to detest about Chukchi since the Troopers had posted him there eighteen months before. But it was probably the west wind he detested most. 
It was the west wind's toothache-like persistence. God help you if you had to go gloveless in it, changing spark plugs on the Suburban or working an evidence camera. It gnawed at your hands and sprayed grit in your eyes. Inside a house at night you could hear it scratching bushes and weeds against the wall. You could feel it suck warm air out the cracks around the windows and push cold air under the door and through the electric sockets.
Stan Jones is a native of Alaska. He has worked as a journalist and a bush pilot. His descriptions of the setting and the challenging environment were convincing.

I have kept my comments on the book brief but if you are looking for more detail, there are several good reviews at:
Reactions to Reading
Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan
An In the Spotlight post at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...
The View from the Blue House


Publisher:   Soho Press, 2003 (orig. pub. 1999)
Length:       264 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       State Trooper Nathan Active #1
Setting:      Alaska
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:      I purchased this book.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation from Atonement to The Coffin Dancer

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six other books, forming a chain. Every month she provides the title of a book as the starting point.

The starting point this month is Atonement by Ian McEwan.  It sounds like it would be my kind of book, based on the time periods it covers, but it never appealed. I do have a copy and it is on my "maybe someday" list to read.

The link to my first book is by author name... first name. In the last few years, I have read a lot of the James Bond books by Ian Fleming, and my favorite so far is From Russia With Love. James Bond is a serious spy, and Fleming modeled him after people he knew in the Secret Service, but the novels are sometimes more adventure stories than spy fiction and sometimes verge into fantasy. In every book James Bond romances one or more women.

From James Bond I move on to Funeral in Berlin, a novel about the nameless spy created by Len Deighton. The nameless spy, known as Harry Palmer in the movies based on the books, is more of a common, everyday person than the James Bond type of spy; sure, he visits exotic locales, and he deals with dangerous situations and dangerous people, but he is just a working-class guy, doing a job, and has a girlfriend from the office.

I discovered Len Deighton's books in 2012, and since then have read many of his books. Another favorite is Winter: A Berlin Family 1899-1945. This story of one family in Germany shows the rise of the Nazi party, how it affected Germans and how they dealt with the changes in their society. The focus is on two brothers, both born around the beginning of the twentieth century. Their mother is from a wealthy American family, the father is a well-to-do German industrialist. Both grow up in Germany, and they fight on the German side in World War I.  Between World War I and World War II they take different paths.
Another book related to Germany  between the two world wars is In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. This is Erik Larson's non-fiction account of the years from 1933 to 1937 when William Dodd was the American Ambassador to Germany. He and his family lived in Berlin and took part in society functions there. An extremely interesting book.

The "garden of beasts" referred to in the title is Berlin's central park, the Tiergarten; the Dodd family lived in a home on the edge of the park. Another book with a similar title is also set in Berlin, Garden of Beasts by Jeffery Deaver. This book is a standalone historical thriller, set at the time prior to World War II that Germany was building toward rearmament. The protagonist is a German-American mobster hit man who is forced to take on the assignment of killing Reinhard Ernst, the man behind the  rearmament effort.

Moving away from Berlin and earlier times, my final stop is another book by Jeffery Deaver, The Coffin Dancer, the second book in the Lincoln Rhyme series. Rhyme is a quadriplegic who is skilled at forensic investigations, usually working as a consultant to the police department. Here he is looking for an assassin who is targeting witnesses to a killing. I read this book nearly two years ago and never reviewed it. It was very suspenseful, kept me entertained throughout, but had too many twists and turns at the end... and too long. On the other hand, a lot of the subject matter relates to flying airplanes and aviation, and if Deaver isn't an expert on the topic he did tons of research because it is very realistic in that area.

My chain covered mostly earlier periods in history but ended up with a thriller. It was a lot of fun. Check out the other chains, the links are always interesting.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Thunderball: Ian Fleming

I started reading the James Bond books in 2016, in order, skipping Casino Royale because I knew that I had read that one. In 2016 I read 4 of them, in 2017 only one of them. This year I read Goldfinger and Thunderball. I skipped the eighth James Bond book, For Your Eyes Only, because it is four short stories and I was eager to move onto the three books involving SPECTRE. I have a lovely reprint edition titled The Blofeld Trilogy which includes Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice.

Thunderball is the ninth James Bond book.  Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of the criminal organization SPECTRE, makes his first appearance. Two other interesting characters are Emilio Largo, Blofeld's main henchman, and Domino, Largo's mistress. Felix Leiter of the CIA works closely with Bond on this one, and I always like his presence in the Bond novels (and films).

The story starts at an expensive health clinic near Brighton where M has sent 007 to detoxify. He stumbles onto a sinister plot engineered by SPECTRE, although he doesn't realize its importance immediately. When a bomber carrying two nuclear bombs disappears over the Atlantic, a demand is sent to the British and US governments, demanding a large amount of money, Bond and M make the connection. This is where Felix Leiter comes in, and he and Bond are sent to the Bahamas to investigate.

As in most of the other Bond novels I have read, this one includes a good bit of sexism; if you can get past that, it is an enjoyable book. On the plus side, this was more of an adventurous spy novel, with less of the fantastical elements that are in some of the earlier novels in the series. More believable, but with lots of underwater scenes, which I did not care for.

We recently watched the film adaptation. Thunderball was the fourth of the James Bond films, starring Sean Connery as James Bond, Adolfo Celi as Emilio Largo, and Claudine Auger as Dominique "Domino" Derval. Blofeld stays in the background in the book, and also in the fim. He is a presence, but we don't see his face.

This not one of my favorite Bond films starring Sean Connery. A lot of the same thoughts on the book hold for the movie. Too many long underwater scenes. The lengthy section in the book about the health club is pared down, which is good, but then some of the action doesn't make as much sense in that section. Overall the story in the book and the movie is about the same, unlike some of the adaptations which pretty much ditched the plot in the novel.

I enjoyed having Felix Leiter in the movie, even though it is a different actor playing him each time. Domino's role in the film was not as good as in the book, where she is stronger and purposeful.

See these excellent reviews of the novel. Some of them comment on the conflicts related to the publication of this novel. They also feature some lovely covers.


Publisher:  Penguin Books, 2010 (orig. publ. 1961).
Length:      226 pages 
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       James Bond, #9
Setting:      UK, Bahamas
Genre:       Espionage fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Night Rounds: Helene Tursten

This is the second book in Helene Tursten's series featuring Inspector Irene Huss, and is set in Sweden. The story starts when the power goes out in a hospital and the backup generator has been disabled. Only a skeleton staff is working at the time, and one of the nurses can't be found. The police are called in; after the dead body of the missing nurse is found, the homicide detectives arrive. The author's background is in nursing and dentistry; thus she has insights into the daily (and nightly) events at a hospital.

Irene's husband is a chef, and they have twin daughters and a dog. They feel like a real family; the parents both have demanding jobs, and have a hard time finding time to spend with each other. The two girls are teenagers and at that stage where parents worry about them a lot. Irene takes the dog, Sammie, to doggie day care if no one's going to be at home.

The story is told primarily from Irene's point of view. She is a female policewoman working in a predominantly male department. The other female in the department is experiencing sexual harassment at work, and it doesn't get handled very well by the bosses. Other social issues are covered as well (homelessness, mental patients released too early), but they never take over the story.

You can probably tell that I enjoyed this book. The reader follows the details and repetitive work involved in a murder investigation; there are not a lot of sensational events but the story is complex and there are plenty of surprises. I sometimes get irritated when the police in mysteries seem to forget facts or not realize their importance or put off following up on them, but that is probably like real life. The police make mistakes too and they have too much work and can't get to everything.

I read this book as a part of the European Reading Challenge. I had previously read and enjoyed the first book in the series, Detective Inspector Huss. One of the advantages of taking a long time to get going on a foreign language series is that you are more likely to have the books available to read in order. In this case, Night Rounds was the fourth of Tursten's novels that were translated, but the second in the series. I have had this one for five years but I am finally getting around to it. And there now seem to be ten books in the series that have been translated in English.

See more  reviews of Night Rounds at:
the crime segments (review of the first book here also)
Mysteries in Paradise
Ms. Wordopolis


Publisher:   Soho Press, 2012 (orig. pub. 1999)
Length:       326 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Inspector Irene Huss #2
Setting:      Sweden
Genre:        Police procedural
Translation:   Laura A. Wideburg
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Death of a Nationalist: Rebecca Pawel

Carlos Tejada Alonso y León is a Sergeant in the Guardia Civil, stationed in Madrid in 1939.  He is the son of a conservative Southern family of landowners, a supporter of the Catholic Franquista cause, and a Nationalist. The bitter civil war between the Nationalists and the Republicans has ended and the Guardia Civil is attempting to impose order in Madrid.

This story begins with the death of a corporal in the Guardia Civil. A young woman, sympathetic to the Republicans, goes to recover a child's school notebook left by the body, and is casually killed by Sergeant Tejada, just due to her presence at the scene of crime. From that point, I found it hard to have any sympathy with the protagonist. Not impossible, but very hard.

Tejada soon discovers that the dead corporal is an old friend and thus is doubly determined to find the murderer. His inquiries take him to the schoolgirl who owned the notebook and her family and school.

This is another book I should have read a long time ago. It has been on my shelves for twelve years. However, the time was right, and it was a great choice for the European Reading Challenge. Reading about the Spanish Civil War was new for me. The story does not go into a lot of historical background, but uses the circumstances of the characters lives to provide the background needed. The book was  extremely well-written and the characters had plenty of depth.

Quote from the author's web page:
Death of a Nationalist was originally conceived as a single novel with two protagonists, one on each side of the Spanish Civil War.  But at the end of the book, I realized there was more story to tell about at least one of the protagonists.  Carlos Tejada Alonso y León, the right-wing guardia who suffers a crisis of conscience in the first book, needed to develop further.  So the book became a series, currently with four novels, detailing the life of Carlos Tejada, who is often unsympathetic, but ultimately, like Marcus Brutus, an honorable man.
I hope to continue reading the series. I have the fourth book but this is definitely a series that needs to be read in order, so I will look out for the next book.

Also see reviews at:
The View from the Blue House, Brothers Judd, and MostlyFiction Book Reviews


Publisher:   Soho Press, 2004 (orig. pub. 2003)
Length:       262 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Carlos Tejada Alonso y Leon #1
Setting:      Spain, 1939
Genre:       Historical mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Private Practice of Michael Shayne: Brett Halliday

This second book in the Michael Shayne series features a private investigator in Miami, Florida. His best friend, Larry Kincaid, gets involved with shady characters because he wants to make quick money. One of them, Harry Grange, is a blackmailer who ends up dead. In trying to protect his friend from suspicion, Shayne implicates himself in the murder and spends the rest of the story trying to undo that. Peter Painter, chief of the Miami Beach detective bureau, has a grudge against Shayne and would love to prove him guilty.

This is only the second Michael Shayne novel I have read, but both books have been fun and entertaining, the stories full of twists and turns. The first thirty novels in the series were written by Davis Dresser, using the pseudonym Brett Halliday. The remaining novels (there were over 70) were written by other authors, all using the same pseudonym. I don't know how the quality of the novels holds up throughout the long series, but I will be trying more of them.

Lloyd Nolan starred in seven films based on this series, starting in 1940, and the first one, Michael Shayne, Private Detective, was based on this book. Thus I sought out this paperback edition of the book so I could read it first.

Michael Shayne in the books is a tall tough red-headed Irishman. Lloyd Nolan does not exactly fit that description, but he still makes a fine Michael Shayne, charming and appealing but still tough. He is willing to bend the rules to save himself or a friend or client from arrest, and he has a humorous come-back for everything. The story in the film is switched around quite a bit, with additional characters, but basically it shares the same mystery plot as in the book. Other actors I enjoyed in this film were Marjorie Weaver as Phyllis Brighton (Shayne's love interest), Douglass Dumbrille as a crooked casino owner, Walter Abel as a crooked race horse owner, Elizabeth Patterson as Aunt Olivia, and Charles Coleman as Ponsy the butler. The film was very entertaining, much better overall than I expected it to be.

Included on the DVD was a very informative featurette titled The Detective Who Never Dies, including interviews with Otto Penzler, Barry T. Zeman, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, James Ursini, Alain Silver, Stuart Kaminsky, and Halliday's widow, Mary Dresser.

Both the cover of my paperback edition and the DVD cover shown here feature illustrations by Robert McGinnis.

My earlier posts related to this series are an overview of the series and a  review of Bodies Are Where You Find Them.


Publisher:  Dell, 1958. Orig. pub. 1940.
Length:     190 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Michael Shayne, #2
Setting:     Miami, Florida
Genre:      Mystery, private detective
Source:     I purchased my copy.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Murder is Academic: Christine Poulson

After reading Christine Poulson's most recent mysteries (Deep Water and Cold, Cold Heart) I wanted to go back and read her first series. Murder is Academic is the first book in the Cambridge Mystery series, starring Cassandra James.

In this debut novel, Poulson has set her story at St. Eltheldreda's College at Cambridge. Cassandra is a professor of English, and she finds the head of her department drowned in a pool, surrounded by exam papers.

From the prologue...
It’s hard now to remember what first struck me as not being quite right, but I think it was the garden sprinkler. 
... As I walked down the path I heard the gentle swishing without being able quite to identify what the sound was. Then I turned the corner of the house and saw the water falling in slow rhythmic veils. The ground underneath the sprinkler was sodden, the grass almost submerged. It must have been on for hours, all night probably. You’d have to know Margaret as well as I did to understand why that was odd. She ran a tight ship in college and it was the same at home. I’d often thought it was just as well that Malcolm was fanatically tidy, too. They would have driven each other mad otherwise
Margaret Joplin's death appears to be accidental, but later more and more strange and unsettling developments point to the possibility of murder.

Soon Cassandra's boss asks her to take over the position as the Head of the English department. And with that new position, she has the stress of pushing not only herself but all  members of the small department to complete some research to satisfy a Research Assessment Exercise that is coming up.

One of the things that Christine Poulson does really well is setting and atmosphere. That is true in her two most recent books, one set in Ely in Cambridgeshire, in the world of pharmaceutical research; one set partially at a research station in the Antarctic. In Murder is Academic, in addition to the college setting, we have plagiarism, séances, the pressures to publish research. And you will notice that research is a prominent theme in all of these.

And on top of that, she creates characters that I care about. Cassandra is shaken up by the death of her friend and colleague. She is in a tentative romantic relationship with Stephen, an attorney, and she doesn't know how  far she  wants that to progress. Stephen; the department's office assistant, Cathy; the various quirky academics in the department -- all of those characters felt real and believable to me.

The plot is intricate, but with the setting in academia, among scholars and book lovers, I enjoyed the twists and turns that it takes.  I had no complaints. And I loved the ending.

The UK title of this book is Dead Letters.  I have the 2nd book in the series, Stage Fright, on order.

See also these posts at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., Clothes in Books, and I Prefer Reading.


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2004 (orig. pub. 2002)
Length:       240 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Cassandra James, #1
Setting:      Cambridge
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

They Do It with Mirrors: Agatha Christie

I have been reading the Miss Marple books in order. In the first four that I read, Miss Marple was introduced later in the book. At first this confused me, I felt like she was an afterthought. Later I decided I liked that approach, so that we get to know the characters well before the sleuthing begins.

In They Do It with Mirrors, Miss Marple is on the scene from the beginning. The story opens with Ruth Van Rydock, an old friend of Jane Marple, requesting that Jane visit her sister, Carrie Louise Serrocold. Ruth has a feeling that something is wrong at Carrie Louise's home, Stonygates, and she wants Jane to visit there and check out the situation.

This is our introduction to Ruth.  She has been trying on an exquisite gown, while talking to Jane:
The elderly maid with the grey hair and the small pinched mouth eased the gown carefully up over Mrs. Van Rydock's upstretched arms.
Mrs. Van Rydock stood in front of the glass in her peach satin slip. She was exquisitely corseted. Her still shapely legs were encased in fine nylon stockings. Her face, beneath a layer of cosmetics and constantly toned up by massage, appeared almost girlish at a slight distance. Her hair was less grey than tending to hydrangea blue and was perfectly set. It was practically impossible when looking at Mrs. Van Rydock to imagine what she would be like in a natural state. Everything that money could do had been done for her - reinforced by diet, massage, and constant exercises. 
Ruth Van Rydock looked humorously at her friend. 
'Do you think most people would guess, Jane, that you and I are practically the same age?' 
Miss Marple responded loyally. 
'Not for a moment, I'm sure,' she said reassuringly. 'I'm afraid, you know, that I look every minute of my age!' 
Miss Marple was white-haired, with a soft pink and white wrinkled face and innocent china blue eyes. She looked a very sweet old lady. Nobody would have called Mrs. Van Rydock a sweet old lady.
After the first two chapters setting the story up, we leave Ruth behind, and move on to Stonygates. Carrie Louise is living there with her third husband, Lewis Serrocold, who runs a home for delinquent boys on the estate. Other relatives from her two previous marriages are living there or visiting. There are also people staying there who are employed at the school that Carrie Louise's husband runs. So, we have a large and confusing cast of characters. And eventually there is a murder, under very strange circumstances.

This was an interesting look at postwar England, when owners of large estates had difficulties keeping them running. Carrie's granddaughter Gina was sent to America during the war and met her husband, Wally, over there. They have only recently returned to England to live with Carrie Louise. Wally is not pleased with that situation at all. (Gina also seems to have every young male around madly in love with her.)

I should have known who did it. I even suspected, but as usual, Christie fooled me and kept me interested in other possibilities. All in all, this was an entertaining story and a different look at Miss Marple. Her connection with Ruth and her sister Carrie Louise was that they were at a European boarding school together, thus remained fast friends over the years even with little contact. I can picture that, although I never thought of Jane Marple as the product of a finishing school.

I read this book in a UK edition, with a lovely cover by Tom Adams. The title for the US edition was Murder with Mirrors.


Publisher:  Fontana, 1975. Orig. pub. 1952.
Length:     188 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Miss Marple, #5
Setting:     UK.
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased this book.