Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hit Man: Lawrence Block

Hit Man is not a novel but a series of connected stories about an assassin named Keller. He lives in an apartment in New York City and leads a (mostly) normal life, except that the way he supports himself is by killing people. It was a very enjoyable read but it is an adjustment to get used to a killer being the main focus, without any retribution in the end.

I have read several books about hitmen in the last year: Hit Man and Hit List by Block, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay, and The Butcher's Boy by Thomas Perry. As far as the subject matter, a man who kills for a living, this one was a more challenging read in some ways because it is so matter of fact. In all ways, Keller seems like a really nice guy. Normal except that he doesn't have a standard job. He isn't nasty, mean or a thug, although he is somewhat of a loner.

These stories do take the reader on the road with Keller to his assignments, but they do not focus very much on the actual act itself. The stories are still more about Keller, the people he runs into, his experiences. Keller is a likable person and it isn't that he is trying to fool others into liking him. He just doesn't have any issues with taking money to kill a person and once he has the contract, his main goal is to get the job done, within the specifications of the contract. So he may be nice in his everyday life, but he has picked a profession that is not nice at all.

In some ways I compare this to spies and their assignments. In spy fiction, often the spy is called upon to kill an innocent person just because it is better for the agency he works for, and thus, supposedly, better for the country he works for. The immorality of spies and their methods is not taken for granted, but often forgiven for the greater good. I am not sure that there is much difference between hitmen and spies who are willing to kill for the job.

Lawrence Block is a very gifted writer to convince us that Keller is worth reading about, when each story takes us back, even if only briefly, to the planning and execution of a crime. Dot is the only other character in this book who has a continuing role. Keller gets his assignments from a man in White Plains, and Dot is the go-between. We don't get close to Dot but they have some interesting conversations.

I like the view of New York that we get in these stories. Keller lives in New York City, but visits many other parts of the US. Most (all?) of Lawrence Block's series are set in New York, and he has edited two of books of short stories set in New York (Manhattan Noir and Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics). But I also like Keller's comments on the places he visits. In the first story, his assignment is in Oregon, a small town near to Portland; in the second one it is in Colorado, near to Denver.

Towards the end of this book, one of the stories ("Keller in Retirement") deals with Keller's new found passion – stamp collecting. I learned a lot about stamp collecting from this story, and I assume the information is accurate since the author is also a stamp collector. This hobby continues to be mentioned in stories about Keller.

I cannot forget to mention the humor. The stories are not laugh-out-loud funny, but are filled with low-key humor. Even though I am sure I will continue to find it a challenge to read about a killer for hire, these books are pleasant and fun.

In the Acknowledgments at the beginning of the book, Block says...
Grateful acknowledgment is also due to those publications in which some of Keller's adventures appeared in a slightly different form: Murder on the Run, a collection of stories by members of the Adams Round Table; Murder Is My Business, an anthology edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins; and, of course, Playboy.
It is amazing to me that Block could pull together those stories and make them into a book that holds together so well, and provides a broad picture of Keller and the stage he is at in his life and career.

I would not recommend this book and the later books in the series to everyone, but I will say that if you haven't read anything by Lawrence Block, you should try one of his books. There is the very humorous Burglar series and the serious and dark Matt Scudder series, and more, to choose from.

Also see...


Publisher:  Avon Twilight, 1999 (orig. publ. 1998).
Length:      309 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Keller, #1
Setting:      USA, New York City and various states
Genre:       Linked short stories
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The European Reading Challenge 2018

In the European Reading Challenge hosted by Rose City Reader, participants tour Europe through books. The books can be read anytime between January 1, 2018 to January 31, 2019.

The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country.

I am joining at the FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries. (And aiming for more. Maybe ten?)

Here is the list of countries:
Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.

I plan to read mainly crime fiction set in the European countries. I have participated in this challenge before but not in recent years. So far this year I have already read books set in Poland, Russia, Germany, Portugal, and the UK of course, but I have not reviewed most of them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Black Seraphim: Michael Gilbert

A description from the back of my paperback ediition:
James Scotland, a young pathologist, has come to Melchester on a much-needed vacation. But amid the cathedral town's quiet medieval atmosphere, he finds a hornet's nest of church politics, town and country rivalries. . . and murder. When one of the community's most influential figures dies suddenly (and very publicly), Scotland uncovers some curious alliances among church, state, and big business. Modern forensic pathology, the age-old mysteries of the church, and a bit of unexpected romance all play a part as Scotland unravels the unsettling truth about Melchester.
This is the fourth novel by Michael Gilbert that I have read, and it is my favorite so far. The other novels I read were from earlier in his writing career. However, I have read his first book of Calder and Behrens stories, Game Without Rules, and that series of stories would also be in contention for favorite. There are eleven stories in that book, and they are all about two spies, Mr Calder and Mr Behrens.

The Black Seraphim and Close Quarters, Gilbert's first novel, have the same setting, the Melchester Cathedral close. Otherwise, there is no connection between the two, and this one was published 36 years after Close Quarters. When reading Close Quarters I was at a loss as to the relationships of the residents of the Cathedral. I had heard of vicars, but knew nothing of deans and archdeacons and canons and vergers. An Episcopalian friend of mind explained  the liturgical ranks, and now it is clearer to me, at least clear enough to read the story without being totally at a loss.

Which is a good thing because a major issue in the Melchester community has caused a rift between the archdeacon and the dean, and this book seems to be more about a political community and business relationships than a religious community.

One of the quotes on the back of my edition says "there is no turning back for the reader who begins The Black Seraphim." That was so true for me. Once I got into the story, I had a hard time putting the book down.

I liked the protagonist, James Scotland. He is inquisitive, intelligent and a pathologist, so it makes sense that he can tell when something is not right about a death.  Amanda, the Dean's daughter is also a wonderful character, forthright, honest, with high expectations of others. I liked the romance, not sweet and sentimental at all.

See also this review at Peggy's Porch.


Publisher:  Penguin, 1985 (orig. publ. 1984).
Length:      216 pages 
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      Purchased at Planned Parenthood Sale, 2013..

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Reading in February 2018

So far I have read nine books in January and nine books in February; a lot of reading for me. Two of the nine books read in February were not crime fiction, although there is a bit of mystery in one of them.

In the non-crime related group, we have:

Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman (2014)
This is a story about World War II, its aftermath, the Holocaust, displaced persons in camps, and the looting of the belongings of Jewish families.The story begins with a Prologue set in 2013 when Jack Wiseman is dying. He passes a pendant that he took from the Gold Train collection on to his granddaughter, with a request to return it to its rightful owner. What follows is essentially three linked novellas, each a self-contained story, depicting some events related to the pendant. See my review here.
The Blitz:  The British Under Attack by Juliet Gardiner (2010)
It took me over a year to read this. It is a very good book, and a topic I am extremely interested in, but it was harrowing to read about the Blitz, and non-fiction isn't my favorite reading. So I took lots of breaks. A lot of it was first hand accounts of life in Britain during the Blitz, what people had to endure, the difficulty of providing support for those who had lost homes or families, and the devastation to the cities.
This is a very readable book and I would not discourage anyone from reading it, but I see it more as a historical reference in which the author has pulled together a tremendous amount of information about this event in history.

Moving on to my crime fiction reads, this month I read three books in the espionage fiction sub-genre, three vintage mysteries, and a historical mystery. And all of these were from my TBR piles, books that I have owned for at least a year, and in most cases it has been several years.

Death in the Stocks by Georgette Heyer (1935)
Georgette Heyer (1902-1972) is primarily known for her regency romances, but she also wrote 12 mystery novels. Four of them featured Inspector Hemingway, and this is the 2nd novel in that series. I have just recently started reading Heyer's mysteries again, and I am enjoying them quite a bit. See my review here.
The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)
The Polish officer of the title is recruited into the Polish underground after Poland is invaded by Germany in 1939. I was surprised by this book. It was drier than the first two books in the Night Soldiers series, and it felt more like a history than fiction. Many fans of Alan Furst's book consider this their favorite, so I think I am in a minority in my opinion. It doesn't deter me from moving on to the next one in the series, though.
Lumen by Ben Pastor (1999)
Immediately after reading The Polish Officer I started reading Lumen, which is set at the same time in Poland (1939 - 41). The protagonist is a Wehrmacht captain in Intelligence, Martin Bora, stationed in Cracow during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He is tasked with investigating the death of a nun, well known for her prophetic powers. The books were a perfect pair. I learned a lot about Poland during the time period from Alan Furst's book, and it made this one an easier and more interesting read.
The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall (1965)
Quiller is a British secret agent for a covert organization of spies, unacknowledged by the government. This book, originally titled The Berlin Memorandum, was the first in a series of 19 books about Quiller. There is a film adaptation starring George Segal, Alec Guinness, and Max Von Sydow. See my review here.
Murder Begins at Home by Delano Ames (1949)
Another pleasant and intriguing mystery featuring Jane and Dagobert Brown, a crime solving couple. Most of the books in the series are set in the UK, but this one, the second, is set in New Mexico, USA. One of the things I like about this series is that Jane and Dagobert are intellectual equals; Jane's part is not secondary to Dagobert's. See my review here.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (2013)
A Russian mole, spies working to turn enemy agents into double agents, a school for using sex in espionage, and lots and lots of violence. Some of my favorite spy fiction is low key and more about the tradecraft and gathering secrets from documents. This one is definitely on the gritty side but also puts the emphasis on tradecraft . Another one that has been adapted to film, now in theaters. A very good book, some very interesting characters, all very well developed. 
Gold Comes in Bricks by A.A. Fair (1940)
A.A. Fair is a pseudonym used by Erle Stanley Gardner for the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam stories. Flamboyant, fast-talking Bertha Cool is the boss; Donald Lam works for her. She spends most of her time telling Donald to change his ways, until he ends up making lots of money for her. This plot involves a very rich man who wants to find out why his daughter is spending too much money. It could be gambling or blackmail.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Murder Begins at Home: Delano Ames

Another satisfying, humorous, and intriguing mystery featuring Jane and Dagobert Brown, a crime-solving couple. In this 2nd book in the series, the couple is in the US, going to visit Dagobert's aunt who lives in Detroit, but they end up traveling through New Mexico instead. During his time in the military in World War II, Dagobert met Miranda Ross, and Jane and Dagobert drop by to visit at the luxurious ranch house owned by Miranda and her husband. There are several house guests, the situation is very strange and not entirely welcoming, and soon someone at the house has been killed. The couple have to halt their travels until the mystery is solved.

Before the Browns get to Miranda's ranch they stop at Pa Fergusson's combo filling station, eatery, and store. This a a description of Pa's daughter-in-law, Yolanda. Jane, the narrator, is writing a book about the mystery.
While I was noting these details, Dagobert was addressing the girl who stood with hands on hips behind the Coca-Cola cooler. She was appraising us coolly — or rather she was appraising Dagobert coolly — with wide dark eyes. She wore cheap earrings, which dangled as she put her head on one side, a vivid scarlet blouse, and a tight-fitting black-silk skirt. She wore no stockings, and her shoes, a size too big for her, were run over at the heels.
Dagobert, glancing through this description, says that I have somehow missed the essential Yolanda. He says I've forgotten her voluptuous yet satirical mouth, her white teeth, the sheen of her black hair which fell in waves down to straight slim shoulders, the clear olive complexion, the proud swell of her bosom. These are his phrases, and I record them just to give the masculine viewpoint. There was, I admit, something about Yolanda.
We get to see Pa Fergusson quite a bit more in this story, because he is also a deputy sheriff and in charge of investigating the murder at the ranch.

Jane and Dagobert are both such good characters, strange, weird, and adventurous. One of the things I like about this series is that they are intellectual equals; Jane's part is not secondary to Dagobert's. Some reviewers have compared this couple to Nick and Nora Charles. Jane and Dagobert do tend to talk about drinking a lot, although I don't remember them doing so much of it. And their repartee is clever and risqué at times.

The secondary characters at the ranch are a different matter; they all seem to be strange and not so wonderful characters, in different ways, and they all seem to be focused on Miranda. At first most of them are unappealing but throughout the book the reader can see that first impressions may be deceiving.

These books are humorous and not quite realistic but in the midst of all the shenanigans there is a serious mystery. I have to admit it, this book is not nearly as much fun as She Shall Have Murder, the first book in the series. I don't know if it is the setting (London law office vs. New Mexico ranch), or the characters. But still, I enjoyed the story. I have read reviews of some of the other books in this series and it seems the couple travel a lot. I look forward to more adventures in exotic places.

My copy was generously sent to me by Moira at Clothes in Books since she knows I love book covers with skulls; note the tiny skulls in the flowers on the book cover. Also see Moira's review of this book.


Publisher:   Rue Morgue Press, 2009 (orig. pub. 1949)
Length:      191 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Jane and Dagobert Brown series  #2
Setting:      New Mexico
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      A gift.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation - From The Beauty Myth to The Wine of Angels

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.

It is not a requirement that the books be ones I have read, but this month I have read all of the books in my chain.

The starting point this month is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I have not read the book, had never even heard of it, and I was surprised to find that it was first published in 1990. I doubt that things have changed that much since then.

Having grown up in the American South in the 1950s and 60s, I am well aware of pressure to be beautiful, to fit the mold, etc. And in my family, although my intelligence was praised, beauty in women was very important. It was a relief to get to California, and especially Santa Barbara, where things were much more relaxed. I stopped wearing make up, only putting it on when I went back to Alabama for the first few years. At least in my everyday life, I no longer felt that pressure.

But rather than continue on the Beauty theme I will move to another non-fiction book. The Monuments Men is about a kind of beauty, the beauty found in art. This book tells the true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program established in 1943 to help protect cultural property in war areas during and after World War II. Several hundred service members and civilians worked with various military forces to safeguard art works of historic and cultural importance from war damage. It is an amazing story.

My next link is to Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman, a novel that starts with the discovery of the Hungarian Gold Train, which contained valuables confiscated from Jewish citizens of Hungary during World War II. Where The Monuments Men focused on art treasures that were saved, this book focuses on the looting of everyday belongings (watches, jewelry, silverware, china), most of which were never returned to the owners or their families.

The next connection uses the time setting, another book related to World War II. The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott is a historical crime fiction novel, set during WWII in Australia. I like to read crime fiction set before, during and after that war, and this was especially interesting because I had not read much about Australia during that time. As the title indicates, the events take place from Christmas to New Year's Day. This was a somewhat gritty thriller.

 This leads to another mystery set at Christmas, Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown. This one is set in the UK in the 1980s, when it was published. The victim is the vicar's son-in-law, and he is found dead in a bedroom at the vicarage. The vicar, his wife, and his daughter are all suspects. This is a Christmas mystery that is not saccharine, and not cozy at all. This book is part of the Lloyd and Hill series, one of my favorite mystery series.

The link to my next book, Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie, is quite clear. Not only are the titles very similar but Jill McGown's book was written as a homage to Christie's book. This novel is the first in the Miss Marple series and was published in 1930. The story is set in the village of St. Mary Mead. A very unpopular resident of the village is murdered in the vicar's study. The first person narrator is the Vicar. Miss Marple  is very perceptive and sees the evil that is hidden underneath the surface in the village.

My final link is to The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman, a completely different kind of mystery novel, with a touch of the supernatural, starring a female vicar. I have enjoyed series with clerical protagonists, but mixing the supernatural in was questionable and the length was daunting (589 pages).  However, the book proved to be especially interesting because it highlights the difficulties of being a woman priest; it was an engaging read and I loved every page of it.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Quiller Memorandum: Adam Hall

Quiller is a British secret agent for a covert organization of spies, unacknowledged by the government. He is very unusual (for a hero of spy fiction) in that he doesn't smoke, drink, or carry a gun. At the point that the book begins (in the 1960s), he is in Berlin and has finished a long string of assignments to find Nazi war criminals and bring them to trial. He is planning to return to England the next day, but is enticed into a new assignment when another agent is killed.

This novel is also unusual in that the plot is taut, a straightforward telling of Quiller's relentless search for Heinrich Zossen, a Nazi war criminal who Quiller detests. It does have a good bit of action with  tense moments of suspense but still a cold, often matter-of-fact story.

All of these descriptions are negatives, yet I liked the book quite a bit, and I like the character. Maybe because he is so believable. Spying is not romanticized. The first person narration pulled me in immediately.

For me this book doesn't rank up there with those of Deighton, le Carré, or McCarry but then I have only read one book in the series, so maybe I will be won over in future books. The style is unique. There are another 18 books in the series, written over 30 years, and I will definitely be reading more of them.

This book was originally published in 1965 under the title The Berlin Memorandum. Adam Hall is a pseudonym for Elleston Trevor, and you can learn more about him at The Unofficial Quiller Web Site.

There is a film adaptation, starring George Segal, Alec Guinness, Max Von Sydow, and Senta Berger. I did not find that the film measured up to the book. It was a very loose adaptation, and I thought the story was confusing. It did move pretty fast but it seemed to be more of an art piece than an action film. However, there are many fans of the movie and I would love to hear other opinions. I will probably be watching it again. The director was Michael Anderson and the screenwriter was Harold Pinter.

See these sources for more detail and other opinions:


Publisher:   Tom Doherty Associates, 2004 (orig. pub. 1965)
Length:      220 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Quiller #1
Setting:      Berlin
Genre:       Espionage 
Source:      From my TBR piles; purchased in 2014.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

To Say Nothing of the Dog: Connie Willis

Ned Henry, a historian working in the Time Travel department at Oxford, has made too many trips to 1940 in search of the Bishop's bird stump, and has been prescribed a week or two in Victorian England to get some rest and relaxation. He thinks he is there to recuperate, but really he has a new mission to pursue, and he has no time to relax.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is at once an adventure story and a romance, with time travel thrown in. It is the second novel in the Oxford Time Travel series. I am reading that series in the order of publication, but from what I have read, the first two novels can stand alone. I read Doomsday Book first. Where Doomsday Book was sad, To Say Nothing of the Dog is humorous with some elements of a mystery and more than one romance.

This book alternates between 2050, when time travel is possible and used by academics for studies of the past, and Victorian times (1888), with a couple of short trips to the 1940's (all set in England). The focus in this book is finding the Bishop's bird stump, which is an ornamental piece that once existed in the Coventry Cathedral. The Oxford time travelers are more interested in learning  history than finding this piece, but they continue the quest for the Bishop's bird stump because Lady Schrapnell's donation will keep the time travel project funded.

I loved this book just as much as Doomsday Book. They each have their strengths. In my opinion, the characterization is not as strong in this book as in Doomsday Book, but there were still very many interesting characters: Ned Henry and Verity Kindle are the primary time travelers in this book, but some of the secondary characters in the Victorian timeline are a lot of fun: Tocelyn "Tossie" Mering, an ancestor of Lady Schrapnell, and Baine, the butler in the Mering household; Mrs. Mering who is into spiritualism, and Colonel Mering, who collects exotic goldfish.

This book is more frenetic, and has much better pacing than Doomsday Book. In fact at times it can get confusing. I may have zoned out during sections of the book, but I had confidence at all times that it would be worth the read and that the story would come together to a satisfying ending. Which it did.

Another thing I especially loved about this book were the animals. A bulldog named Cyril and a cat named Princess Arjumand are very special characters. Although this is a humorous book throughout, it was the scenes with Cyril and the cat, especially toward the beginning of the book, that made me laugh out loud. In the near future world of this book, where time travel is possible but not perfected, cats are extinct. A disease has killed them off. So the time travelers are both charmed by the cat and so unused to the behavior of cats that they don't know how to deal with them.

With regards to the title, there are references to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat in this novel, but not having read that book, the references did not mean that much to me. There are also references to Golden Age mysteries and to other authors but, to be truthful, I am sure I missed the majority of those references. Regardless I enjoyed the story immensely. I think that the references add another layer of interest for those who appreciate them.

And what comes next? Blackout and All Clear are two very long books that are connected. From what I have read, we once again meet with Dr. Dunworthy and his time travel team and Colin Templar who was just a boy in Doomsday Book. Members of the team go back to various locations and events in World War II. Reading these books will be an ambitious undertaking -- they are both very long -- but I am looking forward to it.

I did not go into much detail about the story so if you want to read more about that and read other opinions, see these sources:


Publisher:   Bantam Books / Spectra, 1998 (orig. publ. 1997)
Length:      434 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Oxford Time Travel, #2
Setting:      England 
Genre:       Time Travel
Source:      Borrowed from my husband.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Inner City Blues: Paula L. Woods

From the description of this book at W. W. Norton:
Meet Detective Charlotte Justice, a black woman in the very white, very male, and sometimes very racist Los Angeles Police Department. The time is 48 hours into the epochal L.A. riots and she and her fellow officers are exhausted. She saves the curfew-breaking black doctor Lance Mitchell from a potentially lethal beating from some white officers — only to discover nearby the body of one-time radical Cinque Lewis, a thug who years before had murdered her husband and young daughter. Was it a random shooting or was Mitchell responsible? And what had brought Lewis back to a city he'd long since fled?

Published in 1999, Paula L. Woods' debut novel won the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery in 2000. This is an excellent mystery which also gives us a look at what it felt like to be on the police force protecting the city during the riots and what it felt like to be black during that time of heightened tensions over racial disparities in the legal system.

I am not overly fond of detectives that come into a book with baggage, and Charlotte has a lot of that. She lost her husband and young child in a drive-by shooting, and ten years later she is still mourning them. Yet she is proud to be a police detective, even though the choice wasn't a popular one with her upper class parents and siblings. She is a believable and sympathetic character. Some of the harassment by male officers that comes her way is as much because she is a woman as that she is  black. I like the way Woods uses the structure of the mystery novel to insert subtle social commentary without preaching.

I have a weakness for series that use song titles for the book title. Two others I like are Martin Edwards' Harry Devlin series and Ed Gorman's Sam McCain series.

These are the remaining titles in the Charlotte Justice series:
Stormy Weather (2001)
Dirty Laundry (2003)
Strange Bedfellows (2006)
In Stormy Weather, Charlotte investigates the death of black film director Maynard Duncan, a pioneer in his field. I look forward to seeing where that story takes her.


Publisher:  Fawcett, 2002. (orig. pub. 1999)
Length:     318 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Charlotte Justice, #1
Setting:     Los Angeles
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2015.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Love & Treasure: Ayelet Waldman

This is a story about World War II, its aftermath, the Holocaust, displaced persons in camps, and the looting of the belongings of Jewish families.The story begins with a Prologue set in 2013 when Jack Wiseman is dying. He passes a pendant that he took from the Gold Train collection on to his granddaughter, with a request to return it to its rightful owner. What follows is essentially three linked novellas, each a self-contained story, depicting some events related to the pendant.

The first section follows Jack in Salzberg as he is assigned to catalog and guard the items that arrived on the Hungarian Gold Train. He meets and falls in love with Ilona, a Hungarian refugee and survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau. During his assignment in Salzburg, Jack wrestles with the dilemma between his duty to the US Army and his belief that the items on the train that were taken from Jewish families should be returned to the rightful owners. The middle section features Jack's granddaughter, Natalie, as she works with Amitai, an art dealer who recovers lost World War II art pieces, to determine the provenance of the pendant. The last section is the most bizarre, but also the most entertaining and disturbing. Set in 1913 in Budapest and told from a psychoanalyst's point of view, we see the early history of the pendant. That section is especially interesting because it focuses on two young women of the time who are interested in having careers, and also are working towards women's suffrage.

There are so many things I liked about this book. First of all, the writing. Without good writing, the experience might be educational but boring. The story itself is told beautifully, and the characters in each section are fully developed and I cared about them.

I like the structure of the book. By dividing the book into three distinct stories, each provided some illumination of different topics related to Jewish life and anti-semitism over the course of 100 years. Although my favorite section dealt with Jack and the aftermath of the war in Europe, the other two sections expanded on the themes and gave the story more depth. There are no tidy endings here, and I liked that too.

I learned so much about World War II and its aftermath without it feeling at all like a history lesson. I have read The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, but the focus of that book is on art treasures that were saved, and this book focuses on the everyday belongings (watches, jewelry, silverware, china) that were confiscated by the Hungarian government from Jewish families. I had known nothing of the Hungarian Gold Train until I read this book. Plus the section set in the early 1900s was especially interesting, a time period I have read little about.

Other resources:


Publisher:   Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Length:       331 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Settings:     First part in Salzburg, Austria; 2nd and 3rd parts mainly in
                   Budapest, Hungary. Also some of the 2nd part was in Israel.
Genre:        Historical fiction
Source:       I purchased my copy. On my TBR pile since 2014.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Last Billable Hour: Susan Wolfe

Susan Wolfe is a lawyer, and in this book she writes about a Silicon Valley law firm filled with sleazy and / or very ambitious lawyers. She writes well about this subject; I hope she hasn't ever had to work in such a corrupt firm.

Howard Rickover is an inexperienced lawyer and has only been at Tweedmore and Slyde for a few months when one of the founders, Leo Slyde, is killed. Homicide detective Sarah Nelson enlists his help in uncovering the murderer by requesting that he keep an eye open at the firm and let her know if he hears or sees anything useful. That is not an orthodox approach but it works.

The story is very engaging. The first quarter of this very brief book (182 pages) is about the huge amount of work that Howard takes on in his first weeks at the firm, and the dog eat dog world of the legal firm he works for.  In fact, Howard's story was just as interesting as the mystery for me. It is pretty clear that everyone dislikes Leo Slyde, but when the police interview the employees at Tweedmore and Slyde, everyone but Howard says that Leo was loved by all.

I liked this book a lot, even though it is an amateur sleuth mystery. Yes, there is a police detective who plays a prominent role in the story, but Howard is the real star of the show. The book won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1990. It is a real shame that the author did not continue with more books about this pair.

I first discovered this book at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan. See Bill Selnes' review there, and his later post on the author, who has now written a second mystery.


Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1990 (orig. pub. 1989)
Length:      182 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Silicon Valley, California
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy at a book sale in 2015.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Reading in January 2018

So in February it only took me until the 11th to get a reading summary up for January's reading. In January I stuck with crime fiction, although the first book I read in 2018 was a mix of fantasy and mystery.

I am reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo throughout the year as a part of a read along, one chapter a day. I really did not know what to expect, If I ever knew anything about the story I forgot it long ago. So far it has been very interesting, especially reading it in small chunks. Some days I get a bit ahead, sometimes I fall a bit behind. Check out the sign-up post at One Catholic Life for more details.

These are the nine crime fiction books I read in January and all of them were very, very good.

The Big Over Easy (2005) by Jasper Fforde
This is the first book in The Nursery Crime series. DCI Jack Spratt and Sergeant Mary Mary investigate crimes within the world of nursery rhymes. Here, they investigate the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty. The book is clearly a fantasy / mystery crossover with lots of humor, puns, and satire. My son read this first and recommended the book, and I enjoyed it very much. A review will follow... sometime soon. 
Grey Mask (1928) by Patricia Wentworth
The first book in the Miss Silver series. I was very pleasantly surprised. Book review here.
Hit List (2000) by Lawrence Block
Hit List is the 2nd novel in the Keller series. I read the first book, Hit Man, in December and liked it so well I started this one while reading another book. Keller is a hitman living in New York City; he gets his jobs or assignments from Dot, who works for a man who brokers (arranges) hits for his clients. As I said in my summary of Hit Man, it was a very enjoyable read but it is an adjustment to get used to a killer being the main focus.
Death of a Red Heroine (2000) by Qiu Xiaolong
The story is set in Shanghai in 1990 just after Tiananmen Square, with Chief Inspector Chen Cao as the lead character. The author was born in Shanghai, China, in 1953, but has lived in the US since 1988. I primarily enjoyed this book for the picture of life in Shanghai in the 1990s. I will be returning to the series.  
The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933) by Stuart Palmer
The fourth book in the Miss Hildegarde Withers series. It was a lot of fun because of the setting, on Santa Catalina island off the California coast. Book review here, with  some comments on the film adaptation.
Cold Cold Heart (2017) by Christine Poulsen
A medical thriller with two story lines: one set at an Antarctic research base, and the other set in the UK. I loved the detail of the daily life on the base during the winter months when no one can leave and no one can fly in. Review here.

The Whip Hand (1965) by Victor Canning
Although I have read only three books by Victor Canning, I have become a big fan of his writing. This book is along the lines of a James Bond thriller, although the protagonist, Rex Carver, is a private eye and not a spy. He does do some side jobs for a British secret service department. Carver is hired to track down a missing au pair in Brighton. 
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter (2013) by Malcom Mackay
This is the second book I read this month about a hitman, a man who kills for a living. Calum Maclean has been an independent agent, taking jobs as he needs the money. Then he is offered a temporary job working for Peter Jamieson, head of a crime organization in Glasgow, while the regular hitman is having a hip replacement. The first in a trilogy and I will be reading the 2nd and 3rd books also.
Metzger's Dog (1983) by Thomas Perry
Chinese Gordon and his friends Immerman and Kepler break into a lab at the University of Los Angeles to steal some pharmaceutical cocaine, worth a lot of money. But Chinese also takes some papers a professor has compiled for the CIA, which include a blueprint for throwing a large city into chaos. The CIA decides that a band of terrorists has stolen the papers... and go overboard in their attempts to rectify the situation. Very funny at times, entertaining, with a wonderful ending.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Death in the Stocks: Georgette Heyer

Last October, I read Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer. It had been a long time since I had read any of her mysteries, and I really enjoyed it. So, I decided to try another one, Death in the Stocks, the first of the novels featuring Superintendent Hannasyde as the detective. And, as luck would have it, I enjoyed this one just as much as Envious Casca. That may have been because I knew what to expect this time.

In a small English village, a man with a knife wound in his back is found dead, clapped in the stocks in the town square. The victim is identified as Arnold Vereker, who has been renting a cottage in the village and using it on weekends. The local police don't feel up to handling the investigation, and Superintendent Hannasyde of Scotland Yard is called in to work on the case. At first, suspicion falls on the dead man's half-sister, Antonia, who was at his house outside the village on the night he died. Her brother, Kenneth, is also a prime suspect because he is heir to Arnold’s considerable fortune. And they both freely admit that they despised Arnold. Their friends, lovers, and relatives provide some other suspects, but no one stands out as the culprit. Most of the investigation takes place in London, since all the suspects live there.

Of the two books by Heyer I have read recently, both are peopled mainly by unlikable characters.  Many of them are rich, or aspiring to be rich. I don't mind unappealing characters as long as they are entertaining, and that is true here. The dialogue between Antonia and her brother and their friends is very good and sometimes unbelievably odd.

I have also enjoyed the portrayal of servants in Heyer's books. In this one, Antonia and Kenneth's housekeeper and cook, Murgatroyd, is a wonderful character. She is is cranky and outspoken, but quite likable, always trying to keep Antonia and Kenneth in line.

The main draw of these mysteries is the combination of humor with a good mystery. They are also light-hearted romances, keeping you guessing as to who will pair with who. If you like mysteries in that vein, I think you would enjoy this story.

Other Sources:
Sparkling Murder at
Reviews at Vintage Pop Fictions and In so many WORDS


Publisher:  Sourcebooks Landmark, 2009 (orig. publ. 1935)
Length:     314 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:      Superintendent Hannasyde #1
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy

Monday, February 5, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation - From Lincoln in the Bardo to 9Tail Fox

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.

This is my first month to join in. It is not a requirement that the books be ones I have read, but this month I have read all of the books in my chain, although I have not reviewed them all.

The starting point this month is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I have not read Lincoln in the Bardo but my understanding is that much of the novel takes place in the "bardo", a Tibetan term for the Buddhist "intermediate state" between death and reincarnation.

That leads me to my first book in the chain, The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. That book shows another version of life after death, and is divided between two settings. One is the City,  a sort of afterlife where those who have died reside as long as they are remembered by one living person. The second is Antarctica, where a woman is trapped alone in a research station, running out of supplies.

My next book is also set in two locations, one of which is Antarctica. This is Christine Poulson's new book, Cold, Cold Heart, in which Katie Flanagan, a medical researcher and doctor, stationed at a remote research base in the Antarctic. The second story line is set in and around Ely in the UK, where a patents lawyer investigates another scientist's research into a cancer cure.

From Cold, Cold Heart, I move to Malicious Intent by Kathryn Fox, whose protagonist, Dr. Anya Crichton, is also a doctor, in this case a pathologist and forensic physician. This book is set in Sydney, Australia, which leads me to...

A book by Katherine Howell, The Darkest Hour, also set in Sydney. In the Ella Marconi series, Ella,  a police detective, is the main protagonist, but each book also features a different paramedic who becomes involved in a crime. The author worked as a paramedic for 15 years, so the scenes with the paramedics feel very authentic. This book is primarily a police procedural, which leads me to...

...the first book in an urban fantasy series, Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich. This is a police procedural with a difference. The protagonist, Peter Grant is a constable in the Metropolitan Police Service in London. He ends up working with Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, in a specialist unit that deals with ghosts, spirits, vampires, you name it, when they are disrupting the peace in London. A wonderfully entertaining series.

And finally I link to another novel which is blend of fantasy and police procedural, 9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.

Bobby Zha, a Sergeant in the San Francisco Police Department in Chinatown, is gunned down while investigating a crime. When he awakens in the body of an accident victim who has been comatose for the last twenty-odd years, in New York City. He returns to San Francisco in his new body to investigate his death, and along the way he discovers a lot about himself.

So, my chain has taken me from Lincoln in the Bardo to 9Tail Fox. It makes sense that the chain has as much fantasy as mystery novels in it, but not what I expected.

I do hope to read Lincoln in the Bardo someday, when I encounter a copy and the time is right.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Cold, Cold Heart: Christine Poulson

Cold, Cold Heart by Christine Poulson is a medical thriller in an Antarctic setting. Katie Flanagan is a research scientist with medical training, which qualifies her to take over the research for an injured scientist at a remote British base in Antarctica. In addition to carrying on the important research, she can back up the doctor on the small base, which consists of only 10 people. Katie flies into the base on the last plane before the base is isolated due to subzero temperatures.

Back in the UK, another scientist has been working on a breakthrough cancer cure, and patent lawyer Daniel Marchmont has been asked to check into the research. The reader knows that there are problems in both the UK and on the Antarctic research base, but the connection between the two is unclear at first. Gradually the residents of the base realize that they have a killer among them.

My thoughts:

This was a terrific book.  I liked following the two storylines; sometime novels with that format can be  confusing but this one is very clear about where we are. The level of tension was maintained throughout, as the situations in both locations are gradually revealed and the stories begin to link up. There were a lot of characters but I had no problem keeping them straight.

There are so many good characters: Daniel's wife, Rachel, and five-year-old daughter, Chloe; Lyle Linstrum, scientist, venture capitalist, and Texas rancher; Graeme, the base commander. But I especially liked the two women at the research base. Katie is the main female protagonist, Sara is the doctor at the base. Both are strong female characters, important to the function of the base.

I loved the Antarctic setting, the picture of daily life on the base during the winter months when no one can leave and no one can fly in, and how they deal with emergencies. In addition to researchers, there is a chef and someone to handle communications and a mechanic, and cross-training between jobs is required. The sections set on the base were exciting and very tense, but the story line in the UK is important too, extremely well done and believable.

It was great revisiting the characters established in the first book in the series, Deep Water, but I think the book can be read and enjoyed as a standalone.

See Also:


Publisher:  Lion Hudson, 2017
Length:      262 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Series:      Katie Flanagan, #2
Setting:     Antarctica, UK
Genre:      Medical thriller
Source:     I purchased my copy

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree: Stuart Palmer

This book is part of the Hildegarde Withers series of mystery novels. The protagonist is a spinster schoolteacher who often ends up working on cases with Inspector Oscar Piper of the New York Police Department. In this fourth book of fourteen, Hildegarde Withers is enjoying her first vacation in years on the island of Santa Catalina when a Dragonfly Seaplane lands with nine new visitors to the island. One of the passengers on the plane is dead and the local officials want to declare the death as due to natural causes, a heart attack. Hildegarde thinks he was poisoned. She raises a stink but gets no results.

The victim turns out to be Roswell T. Forrest, who has a $15,000 price on his head to prevent him from testifying before the Brandstatter Committee investigation back in New York. Hildegarde promptly telegraphs to Inspector Piper in New York. He sends a telegram in return telling the police chief to hold off on doing anything with the body until he arrives.

Because the death occurred on the airplane, the circle of suspects is limited to the pilots or the other passengers on the flight. In this story Hildegarde gets to do most of the detecting herself. Inspector Piper is delayed and does not show up until close to the end. Hildegarde is fearless in detecting and strikes off hiking across the island in search of evidence, fortunately not alone but with a friend from the hotel, a passenger who had come in on the seaplane.

This was a fascinating read. The picture of Avalon and Santa Catalina island in the early 1930’s is just wonderful. There is a diagram of the old seaplane and where people sat. I could just imagine what such a flight would be like. Hildegarde Withers is always entertaining. She doesn’t put up with anything and always speaks her mind.

It was good to see Hildegarde getting her own investigation, mostly, but the friendship and respect that she and Oscar Piper have for each other is always a part of these books that I enjoy, so I was glad when he showed up.

And the plot is very good. There were a lot of characters, and I only had a slight hint of who the culprit might be. These stories are humorous, but they are not written exclusively for laughs. There is a serious story and Hildegarde Withers is serious about her investigation.

I was surprised at a young woman wearing trousers on an airplane trip...
With the decisiveness of an old campaigner, the man in brown chose the third seat from the front on the right, placing himself thus directly in front of the girl with the red curls. The usual pair of dark sun glasses obscured her eyes, but her mouth was pleasantly tinted in an orange that matched her hair and contrasted well with the blue of her corduroy trousers
There is a lovely description of the masses of people on the streets of Avalon, and I was surprised to read about the scanty attire of the young ladies in 1933.
Brown-faced gentlemen moved shoreward, bearing the heavy rods and tackle that spell menace to swordfish and leaping tuna. Red-faced gentlemen bore large and shiny golf bags. Little boys swung bright tin pails. Old ladies beamed from wheelchairs—and young ladies beamed from everywhere.  
There were girls, girls—thousands of girls. Girls in furs and girls in cotton pajamas. Girls in riding habits, girls in Paris models, girls in homemade frocks—but mostly girls in very little of anything. Young, tanned bodies in the briefest of shorts, with a wisp of silk haphazardly bound across their breasts ... the essence of Catalina.

The film adaptation: Murder on a Honeymoon

We also watched the film adaptation of this book starring Edna May Oliver and James Gleason as Hildegarde Withers and Oscar Piper. Although the story in the film is close enough to the plot of the book, Piper does show up earlier and play a larger role. Some of the passengers on the seaplane are eliminated from this version and Hildegarde comes over on the plane with the other passengers. The footage of the flight and Santa Catalina Island was wonderful. As usual, I prefer the book, but the movie is a lot of fun too.

There were six films based on this series of novels, and Edna May Oliver starred in the first three. Later she was replaced by Helen Broderick and Zazu Pitts.

See Also...

The Rue Morgue Press edition of this book is still available online, and the book is also available as an e-book from Mysterious Press.


Publisher:   Rue Morgue Press, 2008 (orig. pub. 1933)
Length:      191 pages
Format:      Trace Paperback
Series:       A Hildegarde Withers Mystery #4
Setting:      Santa Catalina Island, California
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      From my TBR piles; purchased in 2017.