Monday, May 17, 2021

Checkmate to Murder: E.C.R. Lorac

This book was published in 1944, and is set in London during World War II. The story starts out with five people in a large studio which adjoins a house in a neighborhood in London. The four men in the main room are busy. Two men are focused on a game of chess; Bruce Manaton is working on a painting; the fourth man, André Dulaunier, is posing for the painting. Rosanne Manaton, Bruce's sister, is in the kitchen cooking their dinner and occasionally looks into the studio to see what they are doing. Later, after dark, Rosanne goes out to check the blackout precautions for the studio, to make sure that they will not be fined.  

After the group sits down to dinner, a Special Warden comes to the door with a young soldier. He accuses the soldier of killing the next door neighbor, demands that they hold on to him until the real police come to pick him up, and goes off to make the call to the police. The young soldier turns out to be the nephew of the dead man, Albert Folliner. That is a complicated opening but it does introduce most of the major players in the story.


After reading about half the story I would have described this as a standard police procedural, with no really outstanding characters, but still I was enjoying the story. The characters and their relationships are interesting, but it does take a while to establish the connections.  

Then, as the investigation gets underway, some characters get fleshed out and more background is added to the story. The head investigator, Chief Inspector Macdonald, is clever and doesn't jump to conclusions; he begins several lines of investigation, including directing Detective Reeves to investigate the previous tenants of the studio, who have since disappeared. Detective Reeves is a very likable character, determined and innovative in his techniques.

Some of the smaller roles were the most appealing. Detective Reeves seeks information from a neighbor, Mrs. Stanton, whose yard has been used as a shortcut to get to the house behind her where the dead man lived. Initially she is somewhat hostile and overbearing, but he compliments her on her garden and she eventually shows him her Christmas roses, or hellebores. Those types of interactions add to a story.

As the story moves along, it gets more and more complex and only comes together at the end. The denouement was unexpected and satisfying. 

A big plus for me was the World War II setting, which is used to good effect here. Blackout regulations are imposed, and Air Raid Wardens monitor the neighborhood. Those in this neighborhood are not well off, suffering more than usual due to the war, the shortages, and the lack of work. People feel like their lives are on hold until the war is over. The police are still doing their jobs, but some wish they were off fighting instead of at home.

E.C.R. Lorac was a pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958). She also wrote as Carol Carnac and was a prolific writer of crime fiction from the 1930s to the 1950s. She wrote several series, and this book was the 25th book in the Robert Macdonald series (of 46 books).


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Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press, 2021 (orig. pub. 1944)
Length:    214 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Chief Inspector Macdonald #25
Setting:    London
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    Borrowed from my husband.


Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Pursuit of Love: Nancy Mitford

This is a witty, entertaining look at the strange lives of aristocratic families. I think all families are weird in their own ways, but it is interesting to see that people in all economic circumstances have to deal with embarrassing or eccentric family members. My family was not well-to-do at all, yet we had some family members very much like the Radletts.

The Pursuit of Love was published in 1946, so it is the picture of an aristocratic family from an earlier time. The story is roughly based on members of Nancy Mitford's family, and I still haven't read enough about them to know which ones. And I think I preferred reading it that way.


This is the story of Linda Radlett, told by her cousin Fanny. Linda, daughter of Matthew and Sadie Radlett, grows up at Alconleigh with her five siblings. Fanny tells anecdotes from their childhood, and about Linda's love life as they grow older. The story continues into the years before and during World War II. Linda's choices in love and marriage are not very wise.

I enjoyed reading this book. I wasn't sure I would, but it worked well for me. Although the story is told with humor, I cared about the characters and was tearful at the end. I liked the depiction of the years between the early 1900s and into World War II, whether or not it was totally realistic.

Some of the characters are wonderful, or at least fun to read about. Matthew Radlett is a bully and an autocrat, but means well. Uncle Davey is a hypochondriac and very particular about what he eats. Fanny's mother brings a Spanish boyfriend home during the war, and it turns out he is a fantastic cook. The loyalty of the family to all its members is a joy.


One complaint I have, which has nothing to do with the writing, is that the text on the cover of the 1949 paperback edition I read is totally wrong. There is no point in the book, at least not that I remember or could find, where Linda's uncles chide her for being a kept woman (front cover) or living in sin (back cover). That is a total misrepresentation. In fact, they love her very much and want only her happiness. All in all, it is a lovely story and I am glad I read it.



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Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1949 (orig. pub. 1946).
Length:   230 pages
Format:   Paperback
Series:    Radlett and Montdore #1
Setting:   UK
Genre:    Fiction
Source:   I bought my copy in December 2018.


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: Two Stories by S.J. Rozan



I am a big fan of S. J. Rozan's Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series. Briefly, the series is about two private investigators. Lydia Chin is an American-born Chinese private eye in her late twenties who lives in New York’s Chinatown with her mother; Bill Smith is a white private eye in his forties who lives in Manhattan.  They are not partners but they often work together on cases. I have read all of the books in that series except the latest one, The Art of Violence, which will be on my summer reading list.

S.J. Rozan has written several stories using Lydia Chin's mother, Chin Yong-Yun, as the main character. The first one I read was "Chin Yong-Yun Finds a Kitten" in Bullets and Other Hurting Things, edited by Rick Ollerman. I enjoyed that story so much I started looking for others featuring that character.

I am fairly certain that the first story about Chin Yong-Yun is "Chin Yong-Yun Takes a Case", which was first published in 2010 in Damn Near Dead 2, edited by Bill Crider. I don't have a copy of that book, but the story was available as an eBook. In that story, Lydia's mother gets a call from a woman she plays mahjong with, asking that Lydia help her and her son with a serious problem. Chin Yong-Yun says that Lydia is unavailable, but says that she works with Lydia often (not true) and will help them herself. Along the way, Chin Yong-Yun shares her thoughts about her daughter and her family.

These are the first few lines of the story:

My daughter is a private eye.
You see? It even sounds ridiculous. She follows people. She asks the computer about them as though it were a temple fortune teller. She pulls out their secrets like dirt-covered roots to hand to the people who hire her. What is private about that?

The next story I read, "Chin Yong-Yun Sets the Date", was published in 2020 in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller. The Chin Yong-Yun stories that I have read are lighter than most crime fiction, but even so, I found this one to be very moving. Chin Yong-Yun is visiting her husband's grave on the anniversary of their marriage. She tells the story as if she is talking to him, telling him about a case that she recently solved, and also about some recent family news. This one was the best of the three I have read so far.

I don't think you need to have read any of the Lydia Chin and Bill Smith novels to enjoy these stories. I found them very entertaining. There are at least three more stories featuring Chin Yong-Yun and I hope to find copies of those to read also.





Monday, May 3, 2021

Reading Summary for April 2021



I read ten books in April, although some of the books were ones I had started in February or March and finished at the end of April. I was happy with the mix. I read six crime fiction books, and five of those were published before 1970. 


Nonfiction / Essays

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998) by Anne Fadiman

This is a wonderful book of essays, especially for people who love books, language and words. The author's family were all serious readers (her father was Clifton Fadiman), and her husband too, so many of the essays are related to books and reading. The first essay was titled "Marrying Libraries", and talks about when she and her husband combined their libraries after five years of marriage, rather than having some shelves for her books and some shelves dedicated to his books (and duplication of books).


General Fiction

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) by Brian Moore

The setting is Belfast in Northern Ireland, in the 1950s. Judith Hearne, plain and in her late thirties,  has just moved to a new room in a boarding house.   My full review is here.

The Pursuit of Love (1945) by Nancy Mitford

This was my book for the Classics Club Spin in April. Nancy Mitford was one of the Mitford sisters, and the characters in the family are based on members of her family. I haven't read much about that family yet so I had no idea of who was based on who, or how accurate it might be. The story is humorous but there are also serious moments and I was quite invested in the ending of the book. I liked it a lot, and thus will seek out others in the three book series.



Historical Fiction

Post Captain (1972) by Patrick O'Brian

This is the second novel in the highly acclaimed historical fiction series about Jack Aubrey (a naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars) and his friend Stephen Maturin (physician and naturalist). I enjoyed this one even more than the first book, probably because I had gotten used to the nautical jargon. Also, Jack and Stephen spend more time on land this time, and get involved with several women looking for husbands. I look forward to further adventures in this series.


Crime Fiction

Case for Three Detectives (1936) by Leo Bruce

This was one of the four books that I reviewed for the 1936 Club this month. It is a humorous mystery, poking fun at the Golden Age detectives created by Sayers, Christie, and Chesterton. Set in a country house, and surrounding villages, it is a lot of fun. My review is here.

Murder in Piccadilly (1936) by Charles Kingston

This was another book that I reviewed for the 1936 Club this month. Murder in Piccadilly tells the story of a young man, Bobbie Cheldon, who has expectations of inheriting the family estate and a large income when his uncle dies. The hitch is that his uncle, Massy Cheldon, is healthy and he could easily live another 20 years. This book provided a good picture of London in the 1930s, especially the less well-to-do London environments. My review is here.


The Clocks
(1963) by Agatha Christie

This month I read two later books in the Hercule Poirot series, published in the 1960s. In general they are not as good as earlier books but I still found them to be entertaining reads.

In The Clocks, a good number of the chapters are told via first person narration by Colin Lamb, a secret agent, who gets involved with a case of murder while following up on an espionage assignment. Colin visits his friend Hercule Poirot, and describes the crime. An older man was found dead in the sitting room of a blind woman's home, and the body was discovered by a young woman who had an appointment to do some stenographic work for the blind woman, Miss Pebmarsh. Colin challenges Poirot to solve the crime without talking to any witnesses himself, but just based on the facts of the case as brought to him by the investigators. So Poirot makes suggestions and Colin continues to visit him and discuss the case.

Hallowe'en Party (1969) by Agatha Christie

Overall Hallowe'en Party was less satisfying for me than most other mysteries by Christie, but I do love it when Ariadne Oliver shows up. Again she involves Poirot in a mystery by asking him to come help out.  One unusual thing in this story is that the murder victim was a child and children play a big part in the story.  

The Meaning of Night (2006) by Michael Cox

This is a Gothic tale of revenge, set in the 1850s, mostly in London but with a good bit of time spent at a lavish country estate, Evenwood. Edward Glyver is the main character and he believes he is rightful heir to the estate. Many readers loved this book; I did not. It took me two months to finish reading it, and I considered not finishing it many times. But after 400 pages (out of 700) I wanted to see if it would improve and how it all ended. I did like the last third of the novel, and I think that was because finally more is shared about the story and it is no longer a mystery as to what the whole thing is about.

Sunset over Soho (1943) by Gladys Mitchell

I read this book between April 5th and April 26th, and that is a long time for such a short book (192 pages). But this was a read along and I am very glad I read it that way. It was quite confusing, with a very complex structure, and having a group commenting on that element was very helpful. I loved the book because it was both written and set during World War II, mostly in or near London, with some seafaring scenes, including a chapter about Dunkirk. Just fantastic, and I will surely read it again. Unfortunately, it is only really affordable in the e-book edition. There are four posts at Jason Half's blog about this book and the group's thoughts, all in April 2021.


READING NEXT?

I started The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel on April 28th. I think it may be a long slow read, because it is hard for me to follow the large number of characters and it is about 750 pages long. I am enjoying it so far.


I may be blogging a bit less for a while, and spending more time on gardening and other home maintenance tasks. Below is a photo of one of my geraniums in bloom this month. The photo at the top features a geranium in my front area with curly variegated leaves and multicolored flowers. Click on the images to enlarge.




Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: The Big Book of Espionage, ed. Otto Penzler


I first learned about this book of short stories at George Kelley's blog. George gives a good overview of what the book has to offer and lists all the stories and authors, so be sure to check out his post.

The book has four sections with a total of 55 stories: The Great War (19); World War II (6); Other Terrors, Other Battles (19); and The Cold War (11). The book is large format with over 800 pages. Some of the authors are surprising, at least to me (Sara Paretsky, Erle Stanley Gardner, Brendan DuBois).


I have only read the Introduction by Otto Penzler and two stories so far. The introduction is very informative, and I enjoyed both of the stories.

"Charlie’s Shell Game" by Brian Garfield is one of 12 Charlie Dark stories. Charlie Dark is an American agent, in the CIA. This story was first published in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Feb 1978, and was also published in the collection Checkpoint Charlie. Fortunately I have that collection on my Kindle, so I can read more of the stories.

"The Spy Who Clutched a Playing Card" by Edward D. Hoch is one of his Jeffery Rand stories. Rand is a British agent, director of the Department of Concealed Communications. This story is very complex and a lot of fun (plus it is the first thing I have ever read by Hoch!). Per the Spy Guys and Gals site: "approximately 81 stories were written about Rand from the first in 1965 to the last published the year of the author's death, 2008." Again, I am fortunate to have an e-book of The Spy and the Thief: A Jeffery Rand and Nick Velvet Collection, which includes seven of the Jeffery Rand stories. I will be looking for other collections of stories by Hoch.

Even if these two stories and the other stories about those characters was the only thing I got out of this book, it would be well worth the price. But I am sure I am going to find many more stories to enjoy in this book.


Friday, April 23, 2021

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: Brian Moore

This year Cathy at 746books is hosting a year long read-along of Brian Moore’s work. She will be reading one of his books each month and will discuss it in the last week of that month. She has invited others to join in. The book for April is The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

From the back of the book:

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an unflinching and deeply sympathetic portrait of a woman destroyed by self and circumstance. First published in 1955, it marked Brian Moore as a major figure in English literature (he would go on to be short-listed three times for the Booker Prize) and established him as an astute chronicler of the human soul.

Judith Hearne is an unmarried woman of a certain age who has come down in society. She has few skills and is full of the prejudices and pieties of her genteel Belfast upbringing. But Judith has a secret life. And she is just one heartbreak away from revealing it to the world.


The setting is Belfast in Northern Ireland, in the 1950s. Judith Hearne has just moved to a new room in a boarding house. Her lack of money is a problem. She lives on a small annuity from her aunt and doesn't have even enough money to buy enough nutritious food, which is affecting her health. She only gets breakfast provided at the boarding house and that is only toast, except once a week. She has no marketable skills, and makes a bit of extra money by teaching piano lessions. But she has lost several students lately.

Judith is desperate to find a man to marry. She alternates between being attracted to any available man and fantasizing about the possibilities, and looking down on those she is attracted to because they are too common. 

She has few friends and nothing to do in her life. She looks forward to visiting the O'Neill family each Sunday after church, and sees them as friends, but in reality they are just tolerating her out of a perceived duty. The O'Neill children laugh at her in secret and are rude in her presence.

At the new boarding house, she meets James Madden, brother of her landlady and recently returned from years of living in the US. Madden's goal is to open a diner, but he needs an investor to provide more cash. He sees Judith's jewelry and decides she has money to spare. Judith misinterprets his advances towards her and sees a future with him as her husband. They are both so eager to get what they want that they ignore the reality of the situation.

Judith is hard to like. She feels sorry for herself, ingratiates herself to others, makes up things to impress people, and she is overly concerned with what people will think of her. Yet she keeps trying, although she is delusional in her view of herself and her life.


My thoughts:

The book is beautifully written. It was amazing to me that a male author could tell this story of a woman's lonely life so well. The characterizations are lovely, from the in-depth portraits of Judith Hearne and James Madden, to the smaller but important roles of the landlady, her son, and the other boarders.

But the story is very sad and the book is painful to read. It held my interest, even as Judith wrestles with her religious beliefs at her church, but at no time was it a pleasant read. It is a perfect length, though (223 pages). I am glad I read the book, and I might even try a reread someday.


For further information on the Brian Moore at 100 Read-Along, check here


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Publisher:  New York Review of Books, 2010 (orig. pub. 1955)
Length:      223 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Setting:      Belfast, postwar
Genre:       General Fiction
Source:      Purchased in March 2021.