Sunday, January 19, 2020

A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin

I read this novel for the Classics Club Spin #22. Previously, I had avoided reading anything by Ira Levin because his books are mostly horror and very tense. But I am finding it easier to try new things in my reading. For me it was not a fun read, but it was rewarding.

The story starts with a young man and woman, both college students, discussing their future. She is pregnant, and she wants to get married immediately. He doesn't. That doesn't sound too unusual, but in this case the situation eventually leads to the young woman's death.

The young man in this story is a World War II veteran with dreams and ambitions, but he wants to take short cuts to get to his goal. He doesn't want to finish college and find a job and work his way up the ladder. He wants to marry a young woman who has lots of money. That becomes his goal in life and he will let nothing get in his way of getting what he wants.

That is all I want to say about the plot because it is best to come into this story knowing very little.

My thoughts:

I don't do well with psychological suspense. This book was very intense for me, and there was a point where I just wanted to stop reading it. But I persevered and shortly after that it got less tense and more interesting.

The story is divided into three sections and each has a different feel, or mood, even though the main character remains constant throughout. There is tension in each part of the story, but handled in a different way, and I admired the author's ability to do this. The story has a fantastic twist, and it happens midway through the book. It  took my breath away.

More about the book and the author:

In a New York Times review of A Kiss Before Dying, Anthony Boucher wrote that “Levin combines great talent for pure novel writing -- full-bodied characterization, subtle psychological exploration, vivid evocation of locale -- with strict technical whodunit tricks as dazzling as anything ever brought off by Carr, Rawson, Queen or Christie.”

The New Yorker said:
"A remarkably constructed story depicting an inconceivably vicious character in episodes of thrilling horror."

A Kiss Before Dying has been adapted for the screen twice. The 1956 adaptation starred Robert Wagner, Virginia Leith, Joanne Woodward, and Mary Astor. The second adaptation was produced in 1991 and starred Matt Dillon, Sean Young, Diane Ladd, and Max von Sydow. I haven't seen either of the films but I understand that the 1956 film adhered closer to the plot in the book.

Ira Levin wrote a total of seven novels. Among them were: Rosemary's Baby (1967), The Stepford Wives (1972), and The Boys from Brazil (1976)... all of those also had film adaptations. He also wrote plays, several of which had film adaptations.

These reviews have more details about the plot:


Publisher:  Pegasus Books, 2011 (orig. publ. 1953)
Length:      265 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Setting:      USA
Genre:       Suspense / Inverted Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy in June 2018.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Charlie M: Brian Freemantle

I have wanted to read the Charlie Muffin series for years. The books in this series about a British intelligence agent were published between 1977 and 2013. Charlie M is the first in the series, and I only had an ebook copy, so I finally broke down and read the book in that format in October 2019. It was all I had hoped for.

Description of Charlie M at Open Road Media:
Charlie Muffin is an anachronism. He came into the intelligence service in the early 1950s, when the government, desperate for foot soldiers in the impending Cold War, dipped into the middle class for the first time. Despite a lack of upper-class bearing, Charlie survived twenty-five years on the espionage battle’s front line: Berlin. 
But times have changed: The boys from Oxford and Cambridge are running the shop again, and they want to get rid of the middle-class spy who’s a thorn in their side. They have decided that it’s time for Charlie to be sacrificed. But Charlie Muffin didn’t survive two decades in Berlin by being a pushover. He intends to go on protecting the realm, and won’t let anyone from his own organization get in his way. 
Charlie Muffin does not fit in with the rest of the men he works with. They look down on  him and consider him "a disposable embarrassment, with his scuffed suede Hush Puppies, the Marks and Spencer shirts he didn’t change daily and the flat, Mancunian accent." And they underestimate his abilities.

Charlie's boss, Sir Henry Cuthbertson, has learned that an important Russian KGB official, General Valery Kalenin, wants to defect. He and his team start plotting to set up the defection, excluding Charlie. The CIA finds out about the scheme and insist on being part of the plan. Things start to go badly with Cuthbertson's scheme, and they are forced to use Charlie in the end.

As you can probably tell from the description, the Charlie Muffin books are closer to the Nameless Spy series by Len Deighton than the James Bond type of espionage. This is the kind of Cold War spy fiction I enjoy, and I hope the rest of the series is as entertaining.

There is a very unexpected ending (at least for me) and I don't know exactly how the series can continue, but there are 15 more books in the series, so somehow it does.

The ebook I read features an interesting biography of Brian Freemantle with photographs from the author’s personal collection.

See also Col's review at Col's Criminal Library.


Publisher:   Open Road Media, 2011 (orig. publ. 1977)
Length:       207 pages
Format:      ebook
Series:       Charlie Muffin, #1
Setting:      UK, Germany, Russia
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:      On my Kindle since 2013.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

My Reading: December 2019

I read ten books in December 2019; most were crime fiction, but I started off the month with a book outside of that genre: Crazy Rich Asians. I read a few crime novels set in December, around Christmas, some of them with a Christmassy feel and some not. I ended the month with several mysteries that had been on my TBR for years. All in all, a very good month.

Of my crime fiction reads, four were published between 1930 and 1940 and the other five were published between 1979 and 2007.


Crazy Rich Asians (2013) by Kevin Kwan
I am not sure how to categorize Crazy Rich Asians; some call it a romance, or a romantic comedy, or even chick lit. It is about extremely rich Chinese families in Singapore, and a young American-born Chinese woman who is dating the son of one of the families. I hadn't been interested in this book until I read a review at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan. I knew if Bill could read this book and enjoy it, I could too. 
There were many things about the story I found impossible to believe (even though I am sure many of them are very true) but even so, I just settled in and enjoyed the ride. I was thinking of describing this book as a fairy tale, but it is also a soap opera, and both of those can be very entertaining.

Crime Fiction

Crime at Christmas (1934) by C.H.B. Kitchin
A mystery set at a large home in London where a group of people have gathered for Christmas celebrations. The protagonist is a young stockbroker, Malcolm Warren, who featured in three other mystery novels by Kitchin. See my review here.

This Gun for Hire (1936) by Graham Greene
I haven't read that much by Graham Greene and it has been a while, so I have nothing to compare this too, but other reviews say it is not his best work. It was written before World War II started in Europe and it shows that people are fearing another war. Raven is hired to kill a foreign government official, and then is paid off in stolen bills, so that he will be caught by the police. He finds he has been double crossed and seeks revenge on the people who hired him. Along the way he takes a young woman hostage, and she feels compassion for his plight. I liked the story very much. I thought it was told in a brilliant way and the characters were well done.
The  original title in the UK was A Gun for Sale. The novel was adapted as a film with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, titled This Gun for Hire. My paperback edition has one of the weirdest covers I have seen.

Cold Light (1994) by John Harvey
I read the first three books in the Charlie Resnick series years ago and I remember liking them a lot. Resnick is a detective inspector based in Nottingham, England. In November I read Off Minor (4th book) and now I have read Cold Light (6th book), set during the Christmas season. These two books seemed a bit darker than I remembered. I really like Charlie's character, with his love for jazz and his four cats. He is a middle-aged man trying to do his best in his job.

The Twelve Deaths Of Christmas (1979) by Marian Babson
Another Christmas mystery. I usually read too many of them and cannot review them all but I did pretty well this year. The Twelve Deaths of Christmas is set in a boarding house, and based on the title it sounds grim. But it is more of suspenseful, cozy mystery, with many deaths throughout. My review is here.

The Shop Window Murder (1930) by Vernon Loder
Mander’s Department Store in London is well known for its elaborate window displays. A new one is  revealed every Monday morning. Several weeks before Christmas, the crowd gathered to see the unveiling realizes that the elaborate new window design includes a dead body. And shortly afterward, a second body is discovered. One of the bodies is the store’s owner Tobias Mander and the other is Miss Effie Tumour, a chief buyer for the store. It is a good puzzle mystery and a very interesting picture of a department store of that period, but I could not get too excited about the characters. 

A Fête Worse Than Death (2007) by Dolores Gordon-Smith
This is the first book in the Jack Haldean mystery series, set in the early 1920s. Jack was a fighter pilot in World War I and is now an author of detective stories. He is currently staying with his cousins at their country house in Sussex, when a man he knew during the war is murdered at the local fête. This was a fun book with a clever mystery, and I am sorry it took me so long to get to it.

Death in Blue Folders (1985) by Margaret Maron
Before her well-known Judge Deborah Knott series, Margaret Maron wrote a series about Sigrid Harold, New York City homicide detective. This is the third book in that series; I loved it and I will continue reading the series. See my review here.

Murder At Madingley Grange (1990) by Caroline Graham
This was not at all what I thought it would be, but it turned out to be even better than expected in the end. Madingley Grange is the perfect setting for a 1930s murder-mystery weekend; thus Simon Hannaford plots to convince his half-sister to let him use their aunt's home for a money-making scheme while she is away on vacation. This reminded me a bit of a Peter Dickinson style plot, with many layers and hidden agendas and more than one twist. 

The Dog Who Bit a Policeman (1998) by Stuart M. Kaminsky
Stuart Kaminsky's Inspector Rostnikov series is one of my favorite series, and now I only have four books left to read. The stories are set in Russia in the years between 1981 and 2009. When the series started Russia was still part of the USSR. With each new book in the series, the characters have aged and developed. Kaminsky showed the changes in Russia as the USSR dissolved and new people and groups are in power. This is the 12th book in the series. In most of the books, there are several cases that Rostnikov and his team are working on. A warning, one case in this book centers on an unpleasant subject, dog-fighting, with some graphic scenes included. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Death in Blue Folders: Margaret Maron

I usually write a post mid-week for the Friday's Forgotten Books meme originated by Patricia Abbott at her blog pattinase and now hosted by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom. The book I am featuring today is Death in Blue Folders by Margaret Maron. Obviously Maron is far from a forgotten author, but this book is part of her first series about Sigrid Harold, New York City detective. Maron's other series, featuring Judge Deborah Knott, is much better known.

Shortly after a successful lawyer, Clayton Gladwell, decides to retire, he is murdered in his office, in the evening after the rest of his staff has left for the day. Before the killer left the office, he attempted to burn Gladwell's special blue folders, which the police determine contained information that Gladwell was using to blackmail some of his clients. The police are able to salvage some charred remains from the folders and the search begins for all the clients who had blue folders...

Part of the mystery is tracking down who was being blackmailed and why. Of course, the suspects don't want to reveal damaging facts about themselves. The story behind each folder is interesting, but in some cases it is not clear why the secrets would lead to murder.

This is the third book in the Sigrid Harald series. The story focuses on the murder and the search for the culprit, but Sigrid's background and her life away from work are also part of the story. She is not the typical gorgeous, assured policewoman. She is quiet, shy, serious, and has a cool, reserved demeanor. But the series does show growth and change in the characters. In this story, Sigrid searches for a new apartment that she can afford in New York, with the help of her current roommate, Roman Tramegra. She has a tentative relationship with a well-known artist, Oscar Nauman, who is a good bit older than her. The author achieves a good balance between the mystery plot and the personal aspects of Sigrid's life.

I thought the ending was fairly obvious, or at least the only solution that would make sense, but that in no way spoiled my enjoyment... partly because I always suspect the author is leading me in the wrong direction anyway. It is sort of a sad ending, with some threads left hanging.

It has been nearly six years since I read the 2nd book in this series, and I won't wait that long to read another one. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Margaret Maron's writing. The dialog is very realistic and convincing. The characters are fleshed out and believable. I will continue this series, because I want to see where it takes Sigrid Harald. I may also return to the Deborah Knott series.

The Sigrid Harald series was written (mostly) in the 1980s and the Deborah Knott series started in 1992. A character from Death in Blue Folders, Kate Honeycutt, turns up as a continuing character in the Deborah Knott series. Later in the Deborah Knott series, Sigrid and Deborah meet (in Three Day Town) and they work together in the next novel in the series.

I have also read and reviewed:
One Coffee With (1981)
Death of a Butterfly (1984)


Publisher:  Ocanee Spirit Press, 2013. (orig. publ. 1985)
Length:  203 pages
Format:  Trade Paperback
Series:   Lt. Sigrid Harald, homicide detective
Setting:  New York City
Genre:   Mystery, Police Procedural
Source:  I purchased this book (in 2013).

Monday, January 6, 2020

More 2020 Reading Goals

I have decided to take part in a few more challenges and put them all in one post.

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2020
Hosted by My Reader's Block
January 2020 kicks off the ninth year for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

I have participated before but it has been a few years and I need some motivation to focus on the TBR books I own, rather than getting books from other sources.

A few of the rules:
*Books must be owned by you prior to January 1, 2020. Items requested or ordered prior to January 1, may count even if they arrive in the new year. Audio books and E-books may count assuming you own them.
*A blog and reviews are not necessary to participate.

There are challenge levels. I am going for Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR pile/s.

Japanese Literature Challenge 13
Hosted by Dolce Bellezza

The guidelines are simple:

The Challenge only lasts for thee months.
It runs from January 1, 2020 through March 31, 2020.
Read and review one or more books which have originally been written in Japanese.
There is a separate review site for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 to add links to reviews.

I will read: The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura.
I also have books by Seichō Matsumoto  and Keigo Higashino.

2020 Victorian Reading Challenge
Host: Becky's Book Reviews
Duration: January - December 2020
Goal: Read between 4 to 6 Books (4 minimum)

There are two options:  the basic challenge (quarterly) or the advanced challenge (themed months). This is described in more detail here.
All books must fall into the "Victorian" category being either a) books originally published between 1837 and 1901 b) books originally written (but not published) between 1837 and 1901 c) general nonfiction about the Victorian era (the times, the culture, the people, the events) d) biographies of Victorians.

MY GOAL:  4 books

2020 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
Hosted by Passages to the Past

Any sub-genre of historical fiction is accepted (Historical Romance, Historical Mystery, Historical Fantasy, Young Adult, History/Non-Fiction, etc.)

Each month, a new post dedicated to the HF Challenge will be created to share links to reviews. However, you don't have to have a blog to participate.

Duration: January - December 2020

You can pick different reading levels, from 2 books to 50+ books.
I choose the Victorian Reader level = 5 books. I will probably read more.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Twelve Deaths of Christmas: Marian Babson

I am still in a holiday mood on the 2nd day of the new year, so I am writing about my last Christmas read from mid-December. The Twelve Deaths of Christmas is set in a boarding house, and based on the title it sounds grim. But it is more of cozy mystery, although there are many deaths throughout. Published in 1979, the story is old-fashioned and I liked that. Random deaths are taking place all over London, although the police suspect that one person is causing all the deaths.

The story is told from several points of view. From the point of view of the boarders at Maude's boarding house. From the point of view of the killer, told in first person. And from the point of view of the policemen investigating the crime. Thus this story is part psychological suspense and part police procedural. The reader knows from early in the book that the killer lives in Maude Daneson's boarding house (but not the identity, of course).

Most of the narrative is focused on Christmas preparations and plans at the boarding house and the killer's thoughts and and activities. The killings are haphazard, not usually planned in advance, so the series of deaths seem to be the perfect crime with no links to the killer.

Iris Loring, a freelance artist, serves as the character who introduces the tenants of the house. As a distant relative of Maude, she has her room for free in exchange for serving as the housekeeper. As the tenants enter and return to the building each day Iris meets then as she does her chores and decorates the hallway for Christmas.

Again the style of each chapter feeding hints about the villain but leaving the reader dangling annoyed me (as in The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley), but overall the story is a page turner and a fun Christmas read (and short). The setting of the boarding house is an appealing one. A group of disparate persons, some young, some older and retired, provide some interesting characters and relationships. The policemen on the case do not play a large part, but the characterization of the two men is very well done.

My impression is that Marian Babson wrote many mysteries, but with variations in style, so I think it will be worthwhile to follow up on some of her other books. They don't show up a lot at the book sale so I shall have to make and effort to find some. (Any suggestions are welcome.)

Curt Evans at The Passing Tramp has written a couple of very informative posts with an overview of Babson's career and a focus on one of her novels.

See reviews from Richard Robinson at The Broken Bulhorn and Kate at Mystery Please.


Publisher: Dell, 1985 (first published 1979).
Length:    192 pages
Format:    Paperback
Setting:    London
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    Purchased at Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2006.