Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Christmas Egg: by Mary Kelly

This book is not a typical puzzle mystery, and even though the main characters in the book are two policemen, Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale and Sergeant Beddoes, it is not a typical police procedural either.

The story starts with the death of an old Russian woman, Princess Olga Karukhin, just a few days before Christmas. She seems to have died in her sleep, but some very valuable jewels and Russian art objects have been stolen from a chest in her room at the same time. Is this a coincidence? Based on the sighting of a green van in front of her building at the time in question, the police link the theft with a gang of robbers who have been working in the area recently. There is also the name of a jeweler left beside her bed. Nightingale and Beddoes follow up on these leads.

I enjoyed the interplay between the two policemen; we spend a good bit of time with them in this story. Nightingale likes his job, but it is not the only thing in his life. His wife is a singer, and he sings in an amateur opera company. Beddoes is ambitious and doesn't hesitate to speak his mind.

Nightingale is searching for a Christmas gift for his wife, which he ends up buying from a jeweler who he is questioning in regards to the theft of the Princess's valuables. At the same time he finds that the Princess also had two records that she planned to sell, rare recordings by Jean de Reszke (real life Polish tenor and opera star) that a collector would be willing to pay a good amount of money for, adding another dimension to the theft.

My experience with this book was very positive. The case the police are focused on relates to robberies, not murder, and the story is more following down clues (and guesses) and tracking the missing jewels in order to find the gang. The story reveals details of life at the time the book was written. There are surprises along the way (at least for me).

Anthony Boucher said: "The book is fascinating as a stage in the development of an important writer, and a pleasing entertainment in its own right." Kirkus Reviews described the story as "more pursuit than procedure" and "fast to follow, with no remission of interest."

This book is the third of three mysteries featuring Brett Nightingale. I am interested in the previous books and they are available online in used copies at reasonable prices so I will pursue them soon. The later books written by Mary Kelly were standalone mysteries and many critics have preferred those later books.

Martin Edward's introduction to this British Library edition is excellent, giving the reader more information about the author.


Publisher: British Library, 2019 (orig. pub. 1958).
Length:    219 pages 
Format:    Trade Paperback 
Series:     Inspector Brett Nightingale #3
Setting:    London
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    Borrowed from my husband.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

November 2019 Reading Summary

In November, I read only crime fiction novels. And a good number of the books I read were related to Christmas (three books set at Christmas, and one following Christmas into the New Year). Two books were published before 1960, four were published between 1961 and 1999, and two were published after 2000.

These are the books I read:

Death After Breakfast (1978) by Hugh Pentecost
I read the Pierre Chambrun novels by Hugh Pentecost years ago, and remember them fondly. Chambrun is the manager of a luxury hotel in New York and the stories are narrated by Mark Haskell, the hotel’s public relations director. Per Goodreads, this is the 13th in the series of 22 books. My thoughts here

Motherless Brooklyn (1999) by Jonathan Lethem
This was my first experience reading anything by Jonathon Lethem and this book is certainly different. It is described as a "riff on the classic detective novel." Leonard Essrog works for Frank Minna at a limo service / detective agency. When his boss is killed, he decides he will find out who did it. The catch is that he has Tourette's Syndrome and communication with others is challenging. I liked the book and want to try other books by this author.

The Hunting Party (2019) by Lucy Foley
A group of friends from Oxford vacation together at an isolated luxury hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, continuing a New Year's tradition that started ten years ago. The estate is beautiful but during inclement weather it can be cut off from the world. The friends all have secrets, as do the manager, the gamekeeper, and the caretaker. As we expect, this is a recipe for disaster. The dilemma of being snowed in is a standard Christmas mystery trope. This book was an engrossing read although sometimes I was confused by the multiple narrators.

Nothing Lasts Forever (1979) by Roderick Thorp
The film Die Hard (1988) was based on this novel. If anything, the book has more violence than the film, and the book is definitely darker. The story is set at Christmas, and much of the action is very similar, but characters and relationships are different. Regardless, I liked the story very much. As usual, the novel reveals more about the characters and their background than the film.

The Christmas Egg (1958) by Mary Kelly
This is a "seasonal mystery" published by the British Library in its Crime Classics series. The author was new to me and she did not publish very many mystery novels. It was different, and concentrated on interesting characters, which I liked. I do hope to find more books by this author.

Off Minor (1991) by John Harvey
This month I returned to the police procedural series starring Charlie Resnick, written by John Harvey. This is the 4th book in the series; I read the first three books in 2008 and 2009. This one is about child abductions, not a pleasant subject, but a good entry in the series. 

The Black-Headed Pin (1938)
by Constance and Gwenyth Little
Leigh Smith's father died and she was left with no money at all. After moving to a big house in the country, miserly Mrs. Ballinger offers her a job as companion and housekeeper, or as "Smithy" puts it, "general slave." The fun begins when Mrs. Ballinger invites her young relatives to a house party for Christmas. The authors were sisters, born in Australia; their family later moved to East Orange, New Jersey. Their books were all standalone mysteries. This is a very funny mystery and I will be looking for more books by these authors.

Magpie Murders (2016) by Anthony Horowitz
This is a book within a book, and in this case we get two mysteries for the price of one. The first book starts with Susan Ryeland, an editor, reading a mystery by one of her clients for the first time. That story is set in the late 1950s in a small town in England, and features a private detective somewhat like Hercule Poirot. I liked this book, it was a page turner, and both parts of the story were entertaining on many levels. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Killed in the Ratings: William L. DeAndrea

William L. Deandrea is an author I have been planning to read for years. Finally I have read one of his books and I will be reading more.

Description at The Mysterious Press:
This Edgar Award–winning debut novel introduces Matt Cobb, vice president of special projects at a large television network—where “special projects” means anything sensitive, or even fatal, that the company wants to keep quiet.
Cobb’s no stranger to following mysterious orders, so when he receives a telephone call asking him to visit a hotel room he obliges. The invitation, however, means a dead body, a sharp blow to the head, and suspicion from the police that he committed the crime. And while one of the detectives put on the case has known Cobb since he was a child, the other is convinced of his guilt.
It turns out that the dead man that Matt discovers in the hotel room was the ex-husband of Matt's old flame, Monica Teobaldi.  And he was also the person in charge of ARGUS, a computer that compiles the ratings for TV shows. So the case he is involved in mixes his personal life and his business responsibilities.

Here is Matt's description of the department he works in:
Special Projects is the guerrilla band of broadcasting. We wait in the weeds until some incident pops up that could harm or embarrass the Network. For example, if an important congressman has a favorite show, we'll find out what it is and whisper to the programming department not to cancel it until after the licensing bill is dealt with. We'll follow the kleptomaniac star around and pay for what she stole. We do everything that's too touchy for Public Relations, and too messy for the legal department.

He keeps hoping he will be moved up and out to a position in Programming or Production, but is probably stuck in his current job because he is very good at it.

What did I like about this book?

  • To start with, Matt Cobb is a very engaging narrator. I usually enjoy stories told in first person. It does mean that the reader gets a limited view of the story, but it also means that we get to know the narrator pretty well. And more than one reviewer noted that Matt is similar to Archie Goodwin (Nero Wolfe's assistant).
  • Another thing I loved was Matt's obsession with word usage and grammar (which also reminded me of the Nero Wolfe series). Don't get me wrong, this book is not at all like the books in Rex Stout's series, but it does have the same light, not too serious, feeling. 
  • I also like books written and set in the 1970s and 80s before computers and technology were so pervasive in our daily lives.
  • There is  a lot of action in this book and the characters are fun. Many of them (especially at the top of the corporation Matt works for) are unlikable and corrupt, but still interesting. 

I first became aware of William L. DeAndrea when he wrote a column ("J'Accuse") in The Armchair Detective magazine. He wrote eight books in the Matt Cobb series. He also published three other series, including an espionage series, and several standalone mysteries. A collection of short stories was published posthumously by Crippen & Landru. DeAndrea's books are easy to find in eBook format.

He was married to mystery writer Jane Haddam (pseud. of Orania Papazoglou), and died in 1996, at age 44. DeAndrea was awarded three Edgars.  One (as mentioned) for this book. One for The Hog Murders, his second novel, for Best Paperback Novel. The third was for Best Critical/Biographical Work in 1995, Encyclopedia Mysteriosa.

See Also:


Publisher:   Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1986 (orig. publ. 1978)
Length:       243 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Matt Cobb #1
Setting:      New York City
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy in 2005.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Keeper of Lost Causes: Jussi Adler-Olsen

Carl Mørck has returned to work as a homicide detective in Copenhagen, after being on leave following his last case, which ended badly, leaving him nearly dead. Another policeman was killed and the third was left paralyzed. Mørck feels guilty and responsible, has lost his  edge, and is not keeping up with his work. Not only that, but he is not well-liked in his department. He is a very capable detective, but he alienates other detectives in his department, seeing their work as shoddy and letting them know it. Thus, his boss plots to put him in charge of a new department to follow up on high profile cold cases and funnel the majority of the funds for the new department to shore up the main Homicide area.

Carl's office for the new Department Q is located in the basement and has few amenities. He gets an assistant, Assad, a Syrian immigrant, who is really supposed to clean and organize but ends up being an asset to the tiny department. Carl doesn't much care where he works, and initially gets little real work done.

Soon his boss has to show results for the new department, so he pushes Carl to name a case he is currently working on. By chance, he and Assad start looking into the case of Merete Lynggaard, a rising politician who went missing during a ferry crossing and is assumed dead. Her handicapped younger brother, Ulle, was initially charged with her murder but the charges were dropped.

I found this to be a very compelling mystery. I enjoyed every part of the story. The narrative goes back and forth between Mørck's present life and the current investigation, Merete's story, starting 5 years earlier, and the disastrous incident which led to Mørck's change in responsibilities. I will point out, for those who love puzzles, this is not really that type of mystery. It is pretty easy to figure out, and the story is more about following the process of the investigation.

Many of the secondary characters, more than I can mention here, are very well-developed. The protagonist has an unusual living arrangement, with an almost ex-wife living nearby, her teenage son living with Mørck, and a tenant who cooks and cleans. Assad, the assistant, is a fantastic character. Carl is very much a flawed detective, but with all the other interesting threads going on in his life, I can forgive that.

Jussi Adler-Olsen is a Danish author of crime fiction novels. This was the first book in the Department Q series, and was published in the UK as Mercy. I intend to continue this series.

Other reviews...


Publisher:   Dutton, 2011 (orig. pub. 2007)
Translated by Lisa Hartford.
Length:      395 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Department Q #1
Setting:      Denmark
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:     I purchased this book in 2013.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Wicked Uncle: Patricia Wentworth

I started reading Miss Silver mysteries again, after a long hiatus, in November 2017. This is only the third I have read, but I have noticed some similarities. Miss Silver shows up later in the books, not at the beginning, and each one featured a romance to some extent. In this one the romance was more prominent and for a while that bothered me, but I ended up liking that element too.

Summary on the back of my edition:
Gregory Porlock had brought them together... the dithering Mrs. Oakley and her rich businessman husband... nouveau riche Mr. and Mrs. Tote, still uncomfortable hobnobbing with the hoity-toity... the Mastermans, a brother and sister raised above genteel poverty by the timely death of their aunt... Leonard Carroll, actor and clever man-about-town... Moira Lane, sophisticated society beauty... Justin Leigh, her escort... and the innocent Dorinda Brown, young social secretary with an older man in her past.
A group of house party guests with apparently nothing in common ... until their host, the oh-so-charming and "wicked" Gregory Porlock is found with a knife in his back and blackmailer as his epitaph.

Dorinda Brown is the focus of the story; she is invited to the house party because she works for the Oakleys. I liked her because she did not have much money and was self-supporting, very independent and responsible.

The detectives are Frank Abbott and Chief Superintendent Lamb, who have worked with Miss Silver before. They bring Miss Silver in on the case because she helped out Dorinda when she was accused of shop lifting on a trumped up charge. They discover that what the guests have in common is being blackmailed by their host, which leaves almost everyone under suspicion.

I enjoyed the post-war setting, and I liked the way the relationships were important to the solution. I was surprised at the ending, because it seemed a bit obvious to me. But still a good read overall.

Wicked Uncle was published in England under the title Spotlight.


Publisher: Warner Books, 1991 (first publ. 1947)
Length:    264 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     Miss Silver Mysteries #12
Setting:    UK 
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy at the 2010 Planned Parenthood book sale.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Les Misérables: Victor Hugo

This book was quite a challenge to read in its entirety–1230ish pages in my edition–but it was a journey worth taking. The translator, Norman Denny, has written an introduction to the book, explaining the liberties that he has taken in translating the text. Two appendixes (one about convents, one about argot) were removed from the text and banished to the end of the book but they are not that long, so I read them too.

Description from the edition I read:
Victor Hugo’s tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat: by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place; and by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert. It is not simply for himself that Valjean must stay free, however, for he has sworn to protect the baby daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty.
A compelling and compassionate view of the victims of early nineteenth-century French society, Les Misérables is a novel on an epic scale, moving inexorably from the eve of the battle of Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830.
Les Misérables is more than a story about Jean Valjean and the orphan girl he takes on as his responsibility; it also functions as a history of those times and a look at the social issues that concerned Hugo. And for me, both aspects of the book succeeded. I did not mind at all the side excursions into the Battle of Waterloo and convent life, etc.

However, the book is very long and it was hard to stay focused on it. I started reading it on January 1, 2018, as part of a chapter a day challenge. The book in its long version has 365 chapters, many of them quite short. But that approach did not work well for me and I was reading it in e-book format. About a third of the way through I switched to a paperback copy, but that still did not keep me from reading in fits and starts. I will admit that parts of the book were a slog to read. Worth it in the end, of course. By the beginning of December 2018 I still had only read 800 pages. At that point I could not give up so I read the remaining 400 pages and finished at the end of January 2019.

Some parts of the story just flew by, and I was emotionally gripped by the story. The parts that diverted from the story and showed us a picture of France at the time were there for a reason and sometimes provided necessary background for the story. Yet they were slower to read and broke the momentum.

The last 150 pages of the book was a very emotional section of the book, pulling it all together, and I am glad I read the book. I don't recommend it to everyone, for the reasons I have mentioned above, but I will say that if you are interested, the book is worth trying and it has a lot to offer.

There are different translations of the unabridged book, and if you are interested in the differences, Brona's overview covers that very well.


Publisher:  Penguin Books, 1982 (orig. pub. 1862). 
Length:     1232 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Setting:     France
Genre:      Fiction, Classic
Source:    I purchased this book.
Translation from French by Norman Denny.