Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Champagne for One: Rex Stout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Murder with Pictures: George Harmon Coxe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, August 31, 2019

What I read in August 2019

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

Classic Fiction

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

Crime Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Death in Amsterdam: Nicolas Freeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, August 25, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more detail and further insights, see these reviews:


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

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Behind That Curtain: Earl Derr Biggers

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

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

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

My reviews of other books in the series:

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


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

Saturday, August 17, 2019

City of Shadows: Ariana Franklin

City of Shadows is set mostly in Berlin, starting in 1922 and then picks up the story again in 1932. I find Germany in the years between World War I and World War II  a depressing place to read about, and this book doesn't gloss over any of the horrors of that time, but I learned a lot and the story was told beautifully.

From the book description on my trade paperback editon:
A cultured city scarred by war. . . . An eastern émigré with scars and secrets of her own. . . . A young woman claiming to be a Russian grand duchess. . . . A brazen killer, as vicious as he is clever. . . . A detective driven by decency and the desire for justice.
. . . A nightmare political movement steadily gaining power. . . .
This is 1922 Berlin.
One of the troubled city's growing number of refugees, Esther Solomonova survives by working as secretary to the charming, unscrupulous cabaret owner "Prince" Nick, and she's being drawn against her will into his scheme to pass a young asylum patient off as Anastasia, the last surviving heir to the murdered czar of all Russia.

Esther Solomonova and Nicholai Potrovskov are both Russian émigrés in Berlin. The difference is Prince Nick is rich and Esther is very poor and a Jew. Thus Esther does not want to give up her secretarial job working for Nick, even if his dealings are illegal and immoral.  Their connection to Anna Anderson, who says she is Anastasia, brings them to the attention of a murderer who has been hunting her for years. Enter Inspector Schmidt when the murderer makes a violent attack on one of Nick's clubs. Esther and Schmidt are immediately attracted to each other but they are from two different worlds, and the Inspector is married.

I liked so many things about this book:

  • The author's writing is very good, convincing. She writes about serious subjects, but with humor.
  • The characters are vividly portrayed and feel real, including secondary characters who recur throughout the story. And we see how each of them is affected as Hitler gains more and more power.
  • Along with an interesting story, we get a picture of what it was like to live in Germany in the years after World War I, with inflation getting worse and worse. Even Inspector Schmidt and his wife cannot afford adequate food.
  • There is an unexpected twist at the end of the book which makes you go back and rethink much of what happened. 
  • I liked the use of real people as characters in the book. None of them have large roles, but it put some of the story in context for me.

Ariana Franklin was the pen name of British writer Diana Norman.  In addition to writing historical novels under her real name, she also wrote the Mistress of the Art of Death series, featuring Adelia Aguilar, a forensic specialist in the twelfth century.


Publisher:   Harper, 2007 (orig. pub. 2006)
Length:       419 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Setting:      Berlin, Germany
Genre:        Historical Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Death Knocks Three Times: Anthony Gilbert

This is the second book I have read featuring Arthur Crook, criminal lawyer. The author of the series is Anthony Gilbert, a pseudonym of Lucy Beatrice Malleson.

As the story  begins, Crook is driving home to London, over an isolated moor in a pelting rain, and the road is becoming impassable. When he sees a light he turns off the road down a drive to a large old house, inhabited by Colonel Sherren and his retainer, Bligh, both very old men. Colonel Sherren allows Crook to stay overnight, and Crook leaves the next morning. Colonel Sherren's nephew, John Sherren, is coming to visit that same morning, but he doesn't stay long either. A day or two later, Crook learns that the Colonel has died and both he and John Sherren are required to attend the inquest. Only Bligh was around when the Colonel died, and he does inherit all his money. The inquest returns a verdict of death by misadventure, with no evidence of anyone being responsible.

The rest of the story focuses on John Sherren and his other older relatives, who seem to have a habit of dying shortly after he has visited.  And everywhere John goes, he runs into Arthur Crook in the same place. John is an author, and although he doesn't make much money at it, he does love to write. He hopes to eventually inherit money to supplement his small income so he can continue writing.

What did I like about this story? Just about everything.
  • There were lots of quirky characters. And all of them were very-well developed. Some of them were not so likable, but still interesting to read about. So many good characters: Bligh, Miss Pettigrew. Arthur Crook doesn't show up that much, just here and there. But I liked him in this book and he and John Sherren held the story together.
  • The story was paced well and kept me interested. I was always wondering where the book was going and what the solution was. I was surprised at the end but it did make perfect sense. 
I did not go into lots of detail here, but here are lots of other blogger's thoughts on this book...

See reviews at A Hot Cup of Pleasure, My Reader's Block, Beneath the Stains of Time, Pretty Sinister Books, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, Clothes in Books, crossexaminingcrime, and Mysteries Ahoy!

I have also reviewed two other books by Lucy Beatrice Malleson:
Portrait of a Murderer  (writing as Anne Meredith)
A Case for Mr. Crook  (writing as Anthony Gilbert)


Publisher:  Random House, 1950 (orig. publ. 1949)
Length:     244 pages
Format:    Hardcover
Series:     Arthur Crook series
Setting:    UK
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Books from the TBR piles

Earlier this year my husband took these photos of books I got at last year's Planned Parenthood book sale, so I thought would share them with you. Three of these are crime fiction, one is historical fiction, the other two are non-genre fiction.

I haven't read any of them yet. Hopefully I will get them read in the next few months.

I Hear Sirens in the Street by Adrian McKinty
Book 2 in Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy series. I liked the first book, The Cold, Cold Ground, and intend to continue the series which features Detective Sean Duffy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The books are set in Belfast, during the Irish Troubles, and Duffy is a Catholic cop in a primarily Protestant police force.

The Dry by Jane Harper
I was surprised and thrilled to find a copy of this at the book sale last year (at a good price), because it had only been published in the US in early 2018, and it normally would be higher priced. I haven't read anything by this author yet, but looking forward to reading this one. This book is crime fiction, set in Australia, featuring Federal Agent Aaron Falk, and there is a second book in the series.


Beware, Beware is the second of three crime fiction books by Steph Cha featuring Korean-American Juniper Song. I loved the first book in the series, Follow Her Home (reviewed here), and was happy to find the other two books in the series at the book sale.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
I don't know much about this book. It is set in January 1946 as London emerges from the Second World War and the story is told through correspondence, mostly letters. The setting is enough to interest me. See the review at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan.

More Tales of the City and Further Tales of the City
by Armistead Maupin
I read Tales of the City for the first time in 2018, forty years after it was first published. It amazes me that I missed it when it came out in 1978, since I was living in California at the time. That was a transitional time in my life so I guess other things were on my mind. The book is set in San Francisco, California, and it was originally published in newspaper columns. I am hoping to enjoy the second and third books in the series as much as the first. I love the covers.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Colonel Butler's Wolf: Anthony Price

This is the third book in the David Audley / Colonel Butler series, a cold war espionage series set in the UK and usually featuring some historical element (in this case, Hadrian's Wall). David Audley is the central character throughout the series, but each book is different and in this book he has a smaller but very significant role.

From the description on my paperback edition:
The Russians are looking for a few good men...
...and they're doing most of their looking within the British university system. It's a ploy which has served them well in the past, but now there's a difference. As Dr. David Audley discovers very quickly, the aim of the Soviets is not simply to recruit, but lay the groundwork for destruction.
From the dim, comfortable reading rooms of Oxford to the bleak moors stretching away from Hadrian's Wall, Audley searches for the Russian wolf in don's clothing. What Audley can't know is that the agent has been forbidden to fail...on pain of death! 

So far, each book in the series has had a different point of view character, even though the cast has included a common set of characters. Colonel Butler was a secondary character in the first two books, but this one is told from his point of view. David Audley is an academic, working as a research analyst for the Ministry of Defence. The main character in the second book was RAF Squadron Leader Hugh Rothskill, but he is injured and unavailable as this book begins, so Colonel Jack Butler is called out of retirement to help with the current problem.

Butler doesn't really get along with Audley, and he resents and distrusts his methods, but in the end they get things done. I enjoyed the different point of view, and I love the way the plot is slowly revealed and all the different types of people Butler meets as he gathers information. He spends a good portion of the story with historians and students visiting Hadrian's Wall.

Anthony Price wrote novels with complex plots and well-developed characters, focusing more on the intellectual than on action and adventure. I will keep working my way through the series and see where it takes me next.

I had just purchased this book when I learned that the author, Anthony Price, had died recently, at the age of 91. See Nick Jones' tribute at his blog Existential Ennui with additional links. And also his review of this novel.

Jo Walton has written a post at about the series, pointing out four books that are good places to start reading the series. The first three books in the series are in chronological order but some of them go back to earlier points in time, thus reading them chronologically rather than in order of publication can work. And, of course, she has re-read all of them many times.


Publisher:  Mysterious Press, 1987. Orig. pub. 1972.
Length:      224 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Espionage fiction
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

My Reading in July 2019

I read a lot of books in July. Of the fifteen books I read, ten were crime fiction, although one of the graphic novels could be placed in that genre and the nonfiction book I read was mystery reference. Two graphic novels, both very good. And two older straight fiction books.

Mystery reference

Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals (2017) by Rick Ollerman
The subtitle of this wonderful mystery reference book is "Essays on Crime Fiction Writers from the '50s Through the '90s." Rick Ollerman has written several introductions to omnibus editions of works published by Stark House, and he shares several of them here, along with other essays or articles written for his book. Authors covered include: Peter Rabe, Donald Westlake, Ed Gorman, James Hadley Chase, Wade Miller, and Charles Williams. An entertaining and informative book.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith
This is a well-known and enduring classic story of poverty in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn. The story of Francie Nolan, her parents, and her brother Neeley begins in 1912.  While reading When Books Went to War, I was surprised to learn of this book's huge popularity when distributed as an Armed Services Edition. I am very glad I finally read this book but I found it very hard to read.

Benighted (1927) by J.B. Priestley
This book is sometimes described as horror or psychological terror, but it is not very horrific. It is atmospheric and a good read. And short. Benighted was adapted to film by James Whale, as The Old Dark House in 1932. Introduction by Orrin Grey. My thoughts are here.

Graphic Novels

Aetheric Mechanics (2008) by Warren Ellis (Writer),  Gianluca Pagliarini (Artist)
This is really a graphic novella at only 40 pages. It is a wonderful mish mash of mystery (Sherlock Holmes style), alternate history, science fiction. The line drawings by Gianluca Pagliarani are lovely.
Ignition City (2009) by Warren Ellis (Writer),  Gianluca Pagliarini (Artist)
This could also fit right into the crime fiction section, although it is also science fiction. Mary Raven is a grounded space pilot who finds out that her father has died in Ignition City. She goes there to find out who killed him. Ignition City is a spaceport filled with thinly disguised versions of older space heroes.  I enjoyed this one a lot, even I didn't get a lot of the references. I was surprised that the illustrator was the same as for Aetheric Mechanics, since the artwork is completely different. 

Crime Fiction

Might as Well Be Dead (1956) by Rex Stout
This is a Nero Wolfe novel, published in 1956. The case starts as a search for a missing person, then later turns into a hunt for a murderer. This time Nero Wolfe solves the case from the brownstone, while  Archie Goodwin and the freelance investigators do the legwork. My review here.

Pearls Before Swine (1945) by Margery Allingham
This is the 12th book in the Albert Campion series, also published as Coroner's  Pidgin. This one is set in wartime London, towards the end of the war. Campion has just returned from years on an assignment, and gets pulled into a very strange case. My review here.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2007) by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Carl Mørck has returned to work as a homicide detective after being on leave following an incident which ended badly, leaving him nearly dead. Another policeman was killed and the third was left paralyzed. Moerk feels guilty and responsible, has lost his  edge and is not keeping up with his work. His boss plots to put him in charge of a new department to follow up on high profile cold cases and use most of the funds for the new department to shore up the main Homicide area. This is the first book in the Department Q series, and was published in the UK as Mercy. Set in Denmark. Carl and his assistant Assad are both unusual characters and I hope to continue the series.

Allmen and the Dragonflies (2011) by Martin Suter
This is an unusual crime fiction novel set in Switzerland. Translated from German by Steph Morris. I enjoyed it very much. My review here.

China Lake (2002) by Meg Gardiner
Evan Delaney series, book #1. I bought this book because it was set in California and a large portion of it takes place in  Santa Barbara. I had also heard good things about the author. The book was a page turner but it was too much of a thriller for me and I had problems with the characters. I still have Mission Canyon, the 2nd book in the series, and Mission Canyon is the part of the Santa Barbara area that we lived in the first six years in California. So I am sure I will read that one too.
Broken Harbor (2012) by Tana French
The fourth book in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series features Mike "Scorcher" Kennedy, who had a minor role in Faithful Place, and his new partner, rookie detective Richie Curran. See my thoughts on the book here.

Colonel Butler's Wolf (1972) by Anthony Price
I had just purchased this book when I learned that the author, Anthony Price, had died recently, at the age of 91. This is the third book in the David Audley / Colonel Butler series, a cold war espionage series set in the UK and usually featuring some historical element (in this case, Hadrian's Wall). Colonel Butler was a secondary character in the first two books, but this book is told from his point of view. David Audley is the central character throughout the series, but each book is different and in this book he has a smaller although significant role. I am truly enjoying this series.
The Disciple of Las Vegas (2011) by Ian Hamilton
Ava Lee series, book #2. This book is similar to China Lake by Meg Gardiner, also read this month. Both books are thrillers, and focus on action and pacing. They both have interesting settings (at least for me). The difference is the characters. In The Disciple of Las Vegas, the main characters are interesting, professional, low key -- highly focused on the job at hand. I enjoyed the book throughout and look forward to continuing the series. However, I will admit to being bothered by some distasteful and graphic violence.
The Summons (1995) by Peter Lovesey
The third book in the Peter Diamond series, set mostly in Bath, England. The series started in 1991, and the 18th book was published this year. Goodreads describes Peter Diamond as "a modern-day police detective in Bath". In the early books he is most definitely not interested in modern day techniques, and I look forward to seeing how that changes. In this book, he has not been working as a policeman for a while, and Bath CID is forced to ask him to return to help with a case.
Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) by Tony Hillerman
This book was my introduction to Hillerman's series of books featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. The first three books featured Joe Leaphorn, the next three books were focused on Jim Chee, and the remaining books were about both of them. This is the 2nd book in the series and I am glad I started the series here. This was one of my favorite reads this month.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Benighted: J.B. Priestley

I read this book because it was the source for the film The Old Dark House. My husband bought the book and read it, and we wanted to re-watch the film. Because this is in the horror genre, I was not too sure I would enjoy it. But I did like it, although it wasn't scary at all to me. Atmospheric, yes, very much so.

From the book cover:
A torrential downpour forces Philip and Margaret Waverton and their friend Roger Penderel to seek shelter in an ancient, crumbling mansion inhabited by the strange and sinister Femm family. Determined to make the best of the circumstances, the benighted travellers drink and talk to pass the time while the storm rages outside. But as the night progresses and tensions rise, dangerous and unexpected secrets emerge. On the house’s top floor are two locked doors: behind one of them is the mysterious, unseen Sir Roderick Femm, while the other conceals something terrifying and deadly ... 
Benighted (1927), a classic ‘old dark house’ story of psychological terror, was the second novel by one of the most prolific and beloved British authors of the 20th century, J.B. Priestley (1894-1984). This edition includes an introduction by Orrin Grey, who discusses the connections between the novel and its film adaptation, James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).
The first three chapters are told from the point of view of each of the three main characters (although not in first person). The first chapter focuses on Philip Waverton's thoughts as he drives his wife and his friend Penderel in a horrendous storm, on mountainous  roads, in "wildest Wales." Soon they are forced to turn into the drive of an old house off the road. The second chapter is devoted to Penderel,  who gains entry to the house. In that chapter, the Femm family members who reside in the house are introduced, and their servant, Morgan. Miss Femm and her brother live in the house with their brother Roderick, who is confined to bed upstairs. In the third chapter, we see things from Margaret's point of view as she changes out of her soaked clothes and experiences Miss Femm's strange ways. At this point, the reader is aware that there is some problem between Margaret and Philip Waverton, and it is clear that they both want it to be resolved.

Although the house has no extra beds, the visitors must stay because the road is entirely blocked in both directions. The Femms share their dinner with the unwelcome guests. And then two more victims of the storm seek shelter and the group gets livelier. For such a brief book, the character development is very impressive. Due to the unusual and tense circumstances, the group tends to share more than one might usually do in a social situation. Those looking for more thrills might find the conversations and introspection less interesting, but this was perfect for me. There are unpleasant surprises towards the end, but overall, an excellent read.

Very soon after I read the book, we watched the film; I remembered nothing from the first viewing. Up to a point, the film is very faithful to the book. The actors seem like good choices for the roles, although I wasn't picturing someone like Charles Laughton in the Sir William Porterhouse role. Penderel, played by Melvyn Douglas, was my favorite character in the book and the film. The film also stars Gloria Stuart as Margaret, Raymond Massey as Philip, and Boris Karloff as Morgan.

The film was more effective at being menacing and scary, but the book gets across the characters and their relationships better. I enjoyed both. The introduction by Orrin Grey, which discusses both the film and the book, was interesting and informative.

See the reviews by NancyO at Oddly Weird Fiction and J.F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books.


Publisher:  Valancourt Books, 2018. Orig. pub. 1927.
Length:     172 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Setting:     Wales
Genre:      Horror, Psychological Terror
Source:     Borrowed from my husband.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Broken Harbor: Tana French

The fourth book in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series features Mike "Scorcher" Kennedy, who had a minor role in Faithful Place, and his new partner, rookie detective Richie Curran. Their new assignment takes them to the scene of a multiple homicide. And the Brianstown housing development just happens to be on the site of a spot where Scorcher's family vacation for many years when he was a child. At that time the area was called Broken Harbor.

From the dust jacket of my hardback edition:
On one of the half-built, half-abandoned "luxury" developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care. 
At first, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, think it’s going to be an easy solve. But too many small things can’t be explained. The half-dozen baby monitors, their cameras pointed at holes smashed in the Spains’ walls. The files erased from the Spain’s computer. The story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder who was slipping past all the locks. 

There are two stories here: the crime, the murder of three members of a family; and the background story of Scorcher Kennedy. As Scorcher and Richie dig deeper into the investigation, they run into many inconsistencies and learn that the face that the family presented to the world was far from the truth. They slowly find their way to the truth.

Scorcher narrates the story, and the picture that the reader gets of him is very different from how he was portrayed in Faithful Place, which was told from Frank Mackey's point of view. Scorcher has always prided himself on being a top-notch detective and sticking by the rules. He wants (and needs) to solve the case quickly but not at the expense of possibly charging the wrong person with murder. So he and Richie use all the resources of the Murder Squad to find out what was really going on in the last few weeks of Frank Spain's life. Could he have murdered his children and tried to kill his wife?

This is the fourth Dublin Murder Squad story that I have read. As usual I found the story compelling and the characters very well developed. I especially liked the portrayals of the two detectives and their developing relationship. The story of Scorcher's early family life is slowly revealed, and impacts on this case, although there is no connection to the crime.

I love Tana French's writing. I usually shy away from extremely long books but I don't mind the length in her books; this one was 450 pages. One thing about this book that I had a problem with... The ending of the book is downbeat, quite bleak. So if you are looking for a book with a more positive outlook, this isn't it. It seemed to me to be a realistic picture of an investigation, showing the wear and tear such work can have on the policemen involved.

See these reviews:
At Mystery Scene
John Grant's review at Goodreads
Rob Kitchin's review at The View from the Blue House


Publisher: Viking, 2012
Length:    450 pages
Format:    Hardcover
Series:     Dublin Murder Squad
Setting:    Dublin, Ireland
Genre:     Police Procedural
Source:   Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, Sept. 2018.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Might As Well Be Dead: Rex Stout

Might As Well Be Dead by Rex Stout is a Nero Wolfe novel, published in 1956. In some ways, this novel fits the (somewhat) standard formula of the mysteries featuring Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. The case starts as a search for a missing person, then later turns into a hunt for murderer. The setting is New York and we spend plenty of time in the brownstone, following the investigation. Wolfe's standard group of freelance investigators are called in to help.

The missing person is the son of a businessman from Omaha, Nebraska; the well-to-do business man, James R. Herold, has discovered that he wrongly accused his son of theft eleven years earlier and wants to re-establish contact with him. The New York police have had no success finding him and they suggested Nero Wolfe might be able to do more on the case. Soon Archie and Nero are wondering if the man they are searching for is a man recently convicted of murder. That leads to Wolfe trying to prove that the convicted man was not the murderer and this becomes one of the more complex cases that Wolfe has dealt with.

There are many interesting characters. The father is a real cold fish, but he is trying to do right by his son. And he keeps mentioning how his wife as getting impatient about the search.

The convicted man's lawyer is certain the man did not commit murder, but doesn't have the resources to do the required research to prove it. And thus Wolfe gets involved, taking the risk that if he can prove the man is innocent, he will reap some benefits. Wolfe and Archie are both at their best in this story. Archie is again bewitched by a woman who is central to the story. And it works very well here.

Wolfe's lawyer, Nathaniel Parker, has a bigger role than usual. Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins are not happy at all to hear that Wolfe is trying to prove that they made a mistake in charging the convicted man.

I always love the descriptions of Wolfe's band of investigators who work for him when needed. Archie is narrating, of course.
WHEN I GOT BACK to 35th Street it was half-past six and the conference was in full swing.
I was pleased to see that Saul Panzer was in the red leather chair. Unquestionably Johnny Keems had made a go for it, and Wolfe himself must have shooed him off. Johnny, who at one time, under delusions of grandeur, had decided my job would look better on him or he would look better on it, no matter which, but had found it necessary to abandon the idea, was a pretty good operative but had to be handled. Fred Durkin, big and burly and bald, knows exactly what he can expect of his brains and what he can’t, which is more than you can say for a lot of people with a bigger supply. Orrie Cather is smart, both in action and in appearance. As for Saul Panzer, I thoroughly approve of his preference for free-lancing, since if he decided he wanted my job he would get it–or anybody else’s.
Any Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout has a lot to offer, and this one is no different. This was a reread, and it did not disappoint me.

See Yvette's review at In so many words.


Publisher:  Fontana, 1980. Orig. pub. 1956.
Length:     192 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe
Setting:     New York City
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased this book.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Allmen and the Dragonflies: Martin Suter

This book was an unusual choice for me. I picked it up in the bookstore on the mystery shelves, knew nothing about it. I loved the cover, but I did check the blurbs and description on the covers before I purchased the book. The story sounded interesting and it was set in Switzerland. Crime fiction set in Switzerland isn't the easiest to find. (Suggestions are welcome.)

Here is the description of the protagonist of this book, from the back of my edition:
Johann Friedrich von Allmen, a bon vivant of dandified refinement, has exhausted his family fortune by living in Old World grandeur despite present-day financial constraints. Forced to downscale, Allmen inhabits the garden house of his former Zurich estate, attended by his Guatemalan butler, Carlos. When not reading novels by Balzac and Somerset Maugham, he plays jazz on a Bechstein baby grand. 

Allmen has expensive tastes and questionable morals. He isn't afraid to break the law to add to his available funds. Even so, he refuses to lower his expenditures in order to live on the money he takes in, and ends up in enough debt that one of his debtors begins to threaten him. Initially he solves  this problem by stealing a very valuable Art Nouveau bowl with a dragonfly motif. This leads him into even more trouble.

This book doesn't fit the usual crime fiction format and assumptions; it is quieter, not full of action or  excitement. The English-language publisher bills this as a "thrilling art heist escapade" and I think that is misleading. There is crime, there is even a murder, but the only puzzle is how Allmen will solve his problems. All of that was fine with me, I just want to be clear that this is a low-key mystery, not a thriller.

I found this to be a charming read and well worth spending time on. I liked the two main characters, Allmen and his companion, Carlos, and Allmen's dire situation is handled with subtle humor. The story is a good length, under 200 pages. There are four further books featuring Allmen, but only the second has also been translated into English. Reading this book also made me curious about Martin Suter's other books.


Publisher:   New Vessel, 2018 (orig. pub. 2011)
Length:      186 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Allmen #1
Setting:      Zurich, Switzerland
Genre:        Mystery
Translation:   Translated from German by Steph Morris
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Pearls before Swine: Margery Allingham

I am rereading the Albert Campion series by Margery Allingham in order, although I have been tempted to skip over a few of the books and move on to Tiger in the Smoke. For some reason I had the impression I wasn't going to like this book that much (even though I am a huge fan of the series), but as soon as I started reading I was again under the spell of Allingham's writing.

As the novel starts, we know that Albert Campion, returned to London from a long wartime assignment, is taking a bath in preparation for catching a train to the country. But we also know that two people have brought a dead body into his London flat and laid it on his bed and we suspect that this will delay his train trip. We soon find out that the two people carrying the dead body are Mr. Lugg, Campion's manservant, and Lady Carados, elderly mother of John, Marquess of Carados, now a war hero. They found the body in Lord Carados' bed, and they don't want it to be found there.

This book is like the previous book in the series, Traitor's Purse. The reader doesn't know for a good portion of the story exactly what is going on, and neither does Albert Campion. He stays in London out of loyalty to Lord Carados, but he is aggravated that he is expected to stay and help with the investigation, when all the facts are not shared with him. The situation can be confusing, thus I would not recommend this book as an entry point to the series. But for me, the slow reveal of the full situation and the pulling together of the various mysteries was rewarding and entertaining.

I especially enjoyed this for the setting of wartime London, at the end of the war. Lord Carados' mansion is livable and is housing a good number of his friends, but has been damaged by the bombing. The other three homes on the square where he lives have much worse damage. Lugg is an ambulance driver during the Blitz, and Lady Carados runs a voluntary canteen in the square.

I usually read these books equally for the mystery and the characters and their stories, but this time the plot was admittedly very hard to follow. In a review of a previous book, Flowers for the Judge, I noted: "Margery Allingham's plots are sometimes fantastical; there are weird, eccentric characters, who seem to be in the book for no reason." There is also often an element of romance as a side plot. And, as usual, I enjoyed the whole experience, quirky characters and all.

This book was originally published in the UK as Coroner's Pidgin. See the review at Past Offences.


Publisher:  Bantam, 1984. Orig. pub. 1945.
Length:     216 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Albert Campion
Setting:    UK, mostly London
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

My Mother, the Detective: The Complete Mom Short Stories: James Yaffe

I had surgery yesterday; it wasn't very serious and went well. However, my chair in front of my laptop is the only place I can sit comfortably without pain, so I am taking advantage of that to write this short post.

The eight short stories in My Mother, the Detective were originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, between 1952 and 1968. In each story, Dave, a detective in the New York Homicide Squad, and his wife Shirley visit his mother and they discuss one of his cases over dinner. She asks some pertinent questions and solves the case, and he is afraid that his coworkers are going to find out that his success rate with cases is due to his mother's help.

That sounds like a silly premise, but it certainly worked for me. The stories are light and fun. Dave's mother is like a Jewish Miss Marple, using her experiences with people in her neighborhood to draw connections that solve the crimes. She is a very entertaining armchair detective. My favorite stories in the book are the last two: "Mom and the Haunted Mink" and "Mom Remembers."

James Yaffe is a new author to me. He recently came to my attention at Clothes in Books, where Moira focused on the story titled "Mom Sings an Aria."

Yaffe was a very interesting man, who wrote both non-fiction and fiction. Between 1988 and 1992 he wrote four novels about Dave's Mom. I look forward to trying one of those. See these posts to learn more about James Yaffe:

My copy of My Mother, the Detective was published by Crippen and Landru in 1997. Twenty years later, they published an enlarged edition with one extra story, “Mom Lights a Candle,” written in 2002.


Publisher:   Crippen and Landru, 1997
Length:      174 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      New York City
Genre:       Short stories
Source:      I purchased my copy.