Thursday, December 31, 2015

Crime Fiction Reading in December

This month I read a wonderful variety of crime fiction books. I read two books by my favorite author, Rex Stout. Both were re-reads, of course. I read a graphic novel that I enjoyed immensely. I read one contemporary book from 2008, and a police procedural published in 1941 for the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences. I read a collection of classic Christmas short stories compiled by Martin Edwards for the British Library Crime Classics series. And last, but hardly least, I read a very racy story by Richard S. Prather starring Shell Scott, private detective, my very first book by this author.

My list of December reads is:

Watchmen by Alan Moore, illustrated and lettered by Dave Gibbons
Mourned on Sunday by Helen Reilly
Year of the Dog by Henry Chang
Alphabet Hicks by Rex Stout
Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout
Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards
Darling, It's Death by Richard S. Prather

Again, this month, I could not choose a favorite. Too much variety and I liked them all for different reasons.

Most of my reading this month was vintage crime fiction. Silent Nights was published this year but all the short stories were from before 1960.

Watchmen was published in the 1980s and presented an alternate universe where superheroes were real and the US won the Vietnam War and Nixon is still president.

Year of the Dog was published in 2008 but set in 1994 and into 1995 in New York's Chinatown.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Deal Me In Short Story Challenge

For the second year I will be participating in the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge, hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

In 2015, I kept up with the reading and reviewing of short stories in the first half of the year, but fell off in the second half. Nevertheless, I am eagerly joining in again, and even increasing my participation. I have a lot of short story books, I did enjoy almost all of the short stories I read last year, and I want to keep the momentum going.

What is the goal of the project?

To read 52 short stories in 2016 (that’s only one per week). There are other variations that allow a lower story requirement, reading as few as one a month if preferred.

The challenge is set up so that the participants choose the short stories they plan to read for the year, and assign each to a card in the standard 52 card deck. Each week you choose a card and read that story. It is not a requirement to post some thoughts on the stories read, but many participants do share their experiences on their blog.

Below is my roster of short stories to read:

♦ Diamonds 

Ace – "Miser's Gold" by Ellery Queen (EQMS)
3 – "Anniversary Gift" by John Collier (EQMS)
4 – "Is Betsy Blake Still Alive?" by Robert Bloch (EQMS)
5 – "Tropical Disturbance" by Lester Dent (EQMS)
6 – "Adventure of the Martian Crown Jewels" by Poul Anderson (EQMS)
7 – "Hurry, Hurry, Hurry!" by Paul Gallico (EQMS)
8 – "The Footprint in the Sky" by John Dickson Carter (EQMS)
9 – "Murder is a Public Matter" by Ross Macdonald (EQMS)
10 – "The Habit of Widowhood" by Robert Barnard (HW)
Jack – "The Women at the Funeral" by Robert Barnard (HW)
Queen – "Dog Television" by Robert Barnard (HW)
King – "Perfect Honeymoon" by Robert Barnard (HW)

♣ Clubs ♣

Ace – "Neck" by Roald Dahl (TOU)
3 – "The Phantom of the Subway" by Cornell Woolrich (MSA)
4 – "Professional Man" by David Goodis (BANC)
5 – "The Homecoming" by Dorothy B. Hughes (BANC)
6 – "Nothing to Worry About" by Day Keene (BANC)
7 – "Gun Crazy" by MacKinley Kantor (BANC)
8 – "The Chicken Soup Kid" by R. L. Stevens (MOM)
9 – "The Same Old Grind" by Bill Pronzini (MOM)
10 – "The Norwegian Apple Mystery" by James Holding (MOM)
Jack – "The Last of the Winnebagos" by Connie Willis (IT)
Queen – "Schwarzschild Radius" by Connie Willis (IT)
King – "Ado" by Connie Willis (IT)

♠ Spades 

Ace – "Dead Man" by James M. Cain (MSA)
3 – "That Hell-Bound Train" by Robert Bloch (MSA)
4 – "Sweet Fever" by Bill Pronzini (MSA)
5 – "The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady" by Barry N. Malzberg (MSA)
6 – "Death Ship" by Richard Matheson (TTA)
7 – "Needle in a Timestack" by Robert Silverberg (TTA)
8 – "Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea" by Ursula K. LeGuin (TTA)
9 – "Yesterday was Monday" by Theodore Sturgeon (TTA)
10 – "Fish Night" by Joe Lansdale (TTA)
Jack – "What If" by Isaac Asimov (TTA)
Queen – "In the Tube" by E. F. Benson (TTA)
King – "If Ever I Should Leave You" by Pamela Sargent (TTA)


Ace – "Skin" by Roald Dahl (TOU)
3 – "Nunc Dimittus" by Roald Dahl (TOU)
4 – "The Way Up to Heaven" by Roald Dahl (TOU)
5 – "Fire Burning Bright" by Brendan DuBois (DSOM)
6 – "A Dark Snow" by Brendan DuBois (DSOM)
7 – "A Ticket Out" by Brendan DuBois (DSOM)
8 – "Precious: Winners and Losers" by Michael Malone (RCBC)
9 – "Charmaine: White Trash Noir" by Michael Malone (RCBC)
10 – "The House Party" by Stanley Ellin (SHOS)
Jack – "Death of an Old-Fashioned Girl" by Stanley Ellin (SHOS)
Queen – "The Twelfth Statue" by Stanley Ellin (SHOS)
King – "The Last Bottle in the World" by Stanley Ellin (SHOS)

Because I read mostly from the mystery genre, the majority of the stories chosen are mysteries. But not all of them. The short story anthologies that these stories come from are:

  • Murder on the Menu edited by Carol-Lynn Rössel Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg, and Isaac Asimov (MOM)
  • The Specialty of the House and Other Stories by Stanley Ellin (SHOS)  
  • The Time Traveler's Almanac edited by Ann and Jeff Vandemere (TTA)
  • Midnight Specials: An Anthology for Train Buffs and Suspense Aficionados edited by Bill Pronzini (MSA)
  • Ellery Queen's Murder-- in Spades! edited by Ellery Queen (EQMS)
  • A Dark Snow and Other Mysteries by Brendan DuBois (DSOM)
  • Impossible Things by Connie Willis (IT)
  • Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl (TOU)
  • Red Clay, Blue Cadillac: Stories of Twelve Southern Women  by Michael Malone (RCBC)
  • The Habit of Widowhood by Robert Barnard (HW)
  • The Best American Noir of the Century edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler (BANC)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries

From the description at Poisoned Pen Press:
Crime writers are just as susceptible as readers to the countless attractions of Christmas. Over the years, many distinguished practitioners of the genre have given one or more of their stories a Yuletide setting. The most memorable Christmas mysteries blend a lively storyline with an atmospheric evocation of the season. Getting the mixture right is much harder than it looks. 
This book introduces readers to some of the finest Christmas detective stories of the past. Martin Edwards’ selection blends festive pieces from much-loved authors with one or two stories which are likely to be unfamiliar even to diehard mystery fans. The result is a collection of crime fiction to savor, whatever the season.
This is a collection of classic short stories, featuring favorite and little-known holiday mysteries. The Introduction by Martin Edwards is very interesting and informative. As he says: "This book, like other short story collections in the British Library’s Crime Classics series, aims to introduce a new generation of readers to some of the finest detective story writers of the past."

I enjoyed the first story in the book: "The Blue Carbuncle" by Arthur Conan Doyle. It was my first Sherlock Holmes story ever. The story was clever and I like how the ending was handled.

Another one I liked was "Waxworks" by Ethel Lina White. Two men died when they stayed overnight in the Waxwork Collection of Oldhampton.  A young female reporter decides to spend a night in the Waxworks to determine if the men were frightened to death in that environment. The story is spooky, and her overnight visit has unexpected results.  I have read nothing else by this author, but there are a couple of her books I want to try someday.

While investigating "Waxworks" and its author, I was reminded that Moira at Clothes in Books had posted about a novel by White titled Wax. Since the heroine has the same name (Sonia) and there is a connection to waxworks, I assume there must be some connection between the short story and the book. Yet I could find nothing to confirm that in the time I had to research it. The story was first published in 1930.

Marjorie Bowen was one pseudonym of Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long (1885–1952).  This book includes "Cambric Tea" by this author and also a story she wrote as Joseph Shearing: "The Chinese Apple." Of the two, I much preferred "The Chinese Apple," which was truly creepy although it did not contain supernatural elements. I only mention that because I have read that a lot of her stories do feature the supernatural.

I should have liked "A Problem in White" by Nicholas Blake (pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis) because (a) it is set on a train and (b) I have read and loved many mystery novels by this author. However, it is the type where the solution is not included in the story itself, but at the end of the book, and gives the reader the chance to solve the mystery. I was not impressed with the story overall and I did not like that approach to the ending. (However, another reviewer cited Nicholas Blake's story as her favorite in the book.)

I think my favorite story was "Stuffing" by Edgar Wallace and that was very unexpected. It is a charming story about a failed robbery attempt. The ending is no surprise but I loved it. That story was fiirst published in The Saturday Evening Post, Dec 11, 1926. Clearly I need to look into other works by Edgar Wallace.

Due to the variety in types of stories and authors, I cannot say I wholeheartedly liked every story I read, but it was fun to read a group of stories featuring Christmas traditions of the times and get a sampling of the various author's writings. Based on some of the stories, I like many of these authors better when they are telling a novel-length story.


Publisher:   Poisoned Pen Press, 2015 (orig. pub. by The British Library Publishing Division, 2015)
Editor:        Martin Edwards
Length:       298 pages
Format:      e-book
Genre:       Mysteries, short story collection
Source:      Provided by the publisher for review via NetGalley

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Small World of Murder: Elizabeth Ferrars

From the book summary at Goodreads:
It is not the happiest of journeys to the other side of the world for a family Christmas. Nina Hemslow knows that when she accepts the invitation to join her wealthy friends, Nicola and Jocelyn Foley, for the Foleys had recently lost their only child - a daughter who vanished without trace from her pram outside a supermarket, and whom police and parents are convinced is dead.
The story opens with Nina, Nicola, and Jocelyn beginning their trip from Heathrow airport. They unexpectedly meet an old friend of Jocelyn's, Bill Lyndon. Bill is returning to Australia after visiting his sister in London, and Jocelyn is joining his brother Adrian for Christmas in Australia. Along the way, the group visits Mexico, then Fiji, and finally New Zealand. Bill joins them for a few days in Mexico. At several stops along the way, there are strange mishaps; both Jocelyn and Nina express their fears that the other is trying to get rid of them. This becomes a very uncomfortable situation for Nicola.

I found this to be a great read, although the suspense for most of the book is just figuring what is going on. The first death occurs over 50% into the book, and even at that point it is not clear why. Are both members of the couple unbalanced because of the loss of their child? Why does Bill keep inserting himself into their activities? In the end it all makes sense, although there is a bit of melodrama.

This is a very different Christmas mystery (for those of us not living in or near Australia). It is during the summer and very hot.
[In Fiji]   Jocelyn, who had his very expensive German camera with him, took photographs of mountain and shore, of straw huts and flaming flowering trees. One of these, drenched in fiery red blossom, was call a Christmas tree and was a reminder that Christmas was only three weeks ahead. A Christmas that would feel very strange, coming as it would at the peak of the Australian summer.
And several weeks later in Australia, Sergeant Furness, a detective, is asking Nina about her whereabouts at the time of the murder:
"My word, if you want to commit a crime, my advice is, do it in the afternoon of Christmas Day. Everyone's had too much to eat and drink, and it's hot, and they'll have been swimming, if they've had the chance, so what do they want to do but sleep, and who's going to see anything? You really didn't hear or see anything?"
I love Ferrars' descriptions of people, of their relationships, even their clothes. She often describes how people dress and I never find it to detract from the story; the descriptions fit right in.

She describes Sergeant Furness:
... a tall, fleshy man with greying hair and a round, unexpressive slab of a face. He was wearing a light grey suit, a mauve shirt and a highly coloured tie, in which he looked far more as if he had come from a party than to investigate a death. Probably his clothes were what he had put on for his Christmas festivities.
I have only read one other book by Ferrars, Skeleton in Search of a Cupboard. It was a gift from Moira at Clothes in Books, primarily because of the skeleton on the cover.  I liked that book a lot.

I happily found The Small World of Murder and one other book by Ferrars at the Planned Parenthood book sale this year, on the last day I visited the sale. Serendipitously, this book was set at Christmas, so it fit perfectly into my Christmas reading.

I have enjoyed the two books by Ferrar that I have read. They are moody and I like the writing. It is never quite clear who the "good guys" are vs. the "bad guys." Everyone seems very normal, but there is something strange going on beneath the surface. Yet they don't give me the uncomfortable feeling I get when reading Ruth Rendell's non-series books.  In Rendell's books that I have read, you can generally tell who is evil or manipulative; in Ferrar's I am never sure until the end. I don't contend that her books are better than Rendell's non-series books; they just suit me better.

Elizabeth Ferrars published a lot of books, from 1940 through the 1990s. Some were series books; around 30 books with five series characters. There were also at least 40 standalone books. Her books were published under the name E. X. Ferrars in the US. I would like to try some of her series novels and also more of the standalone books.


Publisher:  Penguin Books, 1976 (orig. pub. 1973). 
Length:     159 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     Australia, Mexico, Fiji, New Zealand, UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2015.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Mourned on Sunday: Helen Reilly

Mourned on Sunday is the ninth book in the Inspector McKee series by Helen Reilly and the third book by Reilly that I have read. The first one, Lament for the Bride, also featured Inspector McKee of the Manhattan Homicide Squad. In my review, I described that book as a "hybrid, part romantic suspense, part police procedural." That description fits this book as well. The second one was The Dead Can Tell; I found that book too focused on romance and not enough detection. However in all the books I have read, I have enjoyed the depiction of Inspector McKee.

In Mourned on Sunday, Nora Dalrymple has returned to the small town of Silverlock after her husband's death. She hopes to reunite with Roger Thew, a man she had fallen in love with while stil married to her much older husband. However, it turns out that he has married another woman from Silverlock, whose mother has inherited a lot of money. Through a series of strange events, Nora is lured away from her house late at night, and is later accused of the hit-and-run accident which occurred at that time.

The plot is very complex. The injured woman, Sylvia Thew, wife of Roger, remains in very bad condition and cannot testify about her attacker. Inspector McKee shows up in Silverlock and investigates the death of Sylvia's mother, who had fallen from a balcony of her hotel room in his precinct in Manhattan just a few weeks earlier. The reader, being privy to Nora's whereabouts during the attack on Sylvia, knows that she cannot be guilty of that crime. Reilly provides us with many possible suspects from Sylvia's circle of friends and acquaintances with a variety of possible motives. Roger behaves suspiciously and erratically, but no one can prove he has a connection to either crime. In the eyes of the local police, Nora is the most likely suspect for the hit-and-run attack on Sylvia, and there is a witness who saw her car nearby. McKee, however, is almost immediately convinced that someone is trying to frame her.

Mourned on Sunday has elements of the "damsel in distress" story and also bears some resemblance to the "had I but known" sub-genre, but doesn't fit neatly in either. The reader sees most of the story from the point of view of either Nora Dalrymple or Inspector McKee. Nora is a strong woman, capable of taking care of herself, but keeps her own counsel about some facts that could help clear her. McKee stays around in Silverlock with a team of his detectives, working alternately on the suspicious death of Sylvia's mother and the case of the hit-and-run accident.

I enjoyed reading this book, more than any of the other Reilly books I had read previously. I found the ending to be rather outrageous, but there were many clues I missed. I have a few more Inspector McKee books to sample and then I will seek out some others that get the best reviews.

I read this book for the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences. The year for this month is 1941. This book did seem to reflect the times, although I remember no mention of the politics at that time. It depicted both big city and small town New York. The focus seemed mostly to be on fairly well-to-do families, although they often complained about having fallen on hard times. Some of them had formerly been relatively poor and then inherited money.


Publisher:  Dell, 1944. Orig. pub. 1941.
Length:     240 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Inspector McKee, #9
Setting:     New York
Genre:      Police procedural
Source:     I purchased this book.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The TBR Triple Dog Dare in 2016

James at James Reads Books says he is bringing back The TBR Dare one last time.

From James' description:
For the first three months of 2016 read only the books that were already in your TBR stack as of midnight December 31, 2015. 
As always, you can include books you’ve ordered but not received yet as well as books you have already placed on reserve at your local library.  You can also make exceptions for certain books that will be published early next year along with book club choices and ARCS as needed.  The TBR Dare has always been about having fun, so make whatever changes to the “rules” you need to to keep it fun. 
If you just want to take The TBR Dare for a month, that’s fine, too.  The TBR Triple Dog Dare will run from January 1, 2015 to April 1, 2005.  Technically, it’s not a shopping ban so you can still buy books–you just can’t read them until April 1.

If you are interested in signing up or just want to read more of the rules, check out THIS LINK.

I had actually sworn off challenges for 2016 (or at least decided to cut back a lot) but as James points out, it is not a challenge, it is a DARE.

To make the event suit my needs, these are my rules:

  • If I need to buy a book to fit the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences, or re-read a book I have already read, I will do that. So far, all the books I have read have been from my books.
  • I will allow myself to pick books from my husband's shelves if I have been planning to read them for years. There are plenty of those. Ditto for my son's books. I have some books from each of them sitting on my shelves waiting to be read.

Mainly my aim in January, February, and March will be to read my books and make a dent in the ones that have been hanging around the longest. But my overall goal in 2016 will be to read what I want to read and not try to fit my reading to a challenge. So if I bought a book on December 20th, 2015 and it calls to me, that is the book I will read.

One other reason I chose to participate in The TBR Triple Dog Dare in 2016 is because I plan to pair it with a personal challenge to abstain from buying any books in the first three months of 2016. Note that this is NOT a goal of The TBR Triple Dog Dare, but an additional choice I am making. It would be great if I could extend that goal past March 2016, but that is unrealistic. I just hope to make my book buying decisions more conscious in 2016 and into the future.

I must give credit for inspiration to attempt these goals to two bloggers: Christine at A Reading Life and Moira at Clothes in Books.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Season of Snows and Sins: Patricia Moyes

Patricia Moyes wrote a series of 19 mystery novels about Henry Tibbett, Scotland Yard Inspector, whose wife Emmy usually gets involved with an investigation in some way. I have always considered these to be police procedurals, considering that Tibbett is a policeman, but there is often very little police procedure involved. Her books are puzzle mysteries, and are usually fairly clued, but Tibbett does depend on intuition to get him headed in the right direction.

Even though this is a short book, only 217 pages, the plot covers a lot of ground. The story has several narrators, starting with Jane Weston, who has moved to a small chalet in the Swiss Alps. She is a sculptor and befriends a young woman who models for her. Her young friend, Anne-Marie, marries a local ski instructor, Robert Drivaz, and Jane helps them find a place to live. She invites Emmy and Henry Tibbett to visit at Christmas, since she knows how they love to ski.

Months later, Robert gets involved with a group of visitors who are either rich or famous and becomes infatuated with a film actress. He is murdered and everyone, including Jane, think that Anne-Marie killed her husband because she was jealous. In fact, it is Jane's evidence that convicts Anne-Marie of the crime. Emmy and Henry return for another vacation visit in September, and Henry begins to think that the conviction was a mistake.

This is a very simplified version of the setup for this book and it really tells more than I like to reveal about a book, but I could not come up with anything better that conveyed the story at all. Every summary of this book that I find uses the description that is on the back of my paperback edition, and it is full of errors.

I picked this book to read at this time because of its connection to the Christmas season, which is slim. As a confirmed fan of Henry and Emmy Tibbett, I found this to be an enjoyable read, but I would hesitate to recommend it to first time readers of the Henry Tibbett series. Henry and Emmy are less involved in this one and I would not consider it representative of the series. However, the structure of the plots varies from book to book in this series, and I consider this a plus.

For me, the best aspect of this book is the shift from one narrator to another throughout the story, from Jane Weston, to Emmy, to the rich wife of a government official, and back to Emmy. On the negative side, the characters seemed to be either very, very nice or very sleazy and self-centered. And the plot was overly complex and a bit slow.

The books in the Henry Tibbett series are often set in exotic and interesting locales. This one and the first in the series, Dead Men Don't Ski, are set in the Alps, and feature skiing. Others are set in Holland and the Caribbean.

Recent reviews of other novels by Patricia Moyes:


Publisher:  Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1983. Orig. pub. 1971.
Length:     217 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Henry Tibbett, #10
Setting:     Alpine village
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2014.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The 2016 Sci-Fi Experience

                       (Art by Chris Goff, used with permission.)
For the fourth year I am joining in on the Sci-Fi Experience, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. The 2016 Sci-Fi Experience begins December 1st and runs through January 31st, 2016.

Per Carl...
Events like these are all about taking the largely solitary act of reading and viewing and gaming and adding the element of “community” to it. 
The Sci-Fi Experience will hopefully give people an opportunity to:
a) Continue their love affair with science fiction
b) Return to science fiction after an absence, or
c) Experience for the first time just how exhilarating science fiction can be.
If you have ever wanted to give science fiction a try, or are already a fan of the genre and are looking for a group of kindred spirits, this is the event for you.

December isn't usually a good month for science fiction reading for me, as I like to focus on Christmas themes and have other goals to finish up. But this year I had a science fiction read going before the end of November: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dan Gibbons. Watchmen is a graphic novel published in 1987 which gathers together the 12-issue comic series published in 1986 and 1987. The story begins with the murder of a superhero; it is set in an alternate history where the US won the Vietnam War and Nixon is still president. I have read through 10 of the 12 parts and I am enjoying the experience.

In January I plan to read Pashazade by Jon Courtney Grimwood. The first book in the Arabesk Trilogy, it is described at SF Site as a "SF/mystery hybrid set in an alternate world in which Germany won the First World War, and the Ottoman Empire never collapsed." In 2014 I read Grimwood's novel 9tail Fox, reviewed HERE.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Ice Harvest: Scott Phillips

From the Publisher's Weekly review:
Everywhere you look, trashy people are doing trashy things in this darkly delicious debut comic thriller. Set in the middle of a Christmas Eve blizzard in 1979 Wichita, the novel opens with lawyer-turned-petty-mobster Charlie Arglist marking time before an important meeting with his shady partner, Vic Cavanaugh.
Charlie Arglist is getting out of town. For the nine and a half hours he has to kill before he can leave, he visits various of his old haunts and has a very uncomfortable encounter with his ex-wife and children. We get a pretty pathetic picture of his life at this point. His apartment is mostly emply; the fridge has the remnants of some very old food. First he visits a bar...
At four-fifteen on a cold, dry Christmas Eve a nervous middle-aged man in an expensive overcoat walked bare-headed into the Midtown Tap Room and stood at the near end of the bar with his membership card in hand, waiting for the afternoon barmaid to get off the phone. She was about forty, heavy in a square way, with a shiny face and dishwater blond hair that looked like she'd got shitfaced and decided to cut it herself. 
... ... ... 
He couldn't remember ever seeing the Tap Room in daylight before, if the failing gray light filtering through the grime on the front windows qualified as such. It was a deep, narrow old building with a battered pressed-tin ceiling and a long oak bar. On the brick wall behind the bandstand hung a huge black-faced clock with fluorescent purple numbers, and running the length of the opposite wall was a row of red Naugahyde booths. All of this was festooned with cheap plastic holly and mistletoe. Around the walls seven feet or so from the floor ran a string of multicolored Christmas lights, unplugged at the moment. This is my last look at this place, he thought, mildly surprised at the idea. He hadn't been out of town for more than two or three days at a time in fifteen years.
I have a love / hate relationship with this book. It is unrelentingly grim and bleak. Yet, Scott Phillips tells a great story, and I enjoyed reading it, mostly. I don't mind reading about sleazy characters with little or no redeeming qualities when the writing is so good and I could handle the violence in this book. But in the end, I wanted something more. I wasn't looking for a happy ending; that obviously wasn't going to happen. I really don't know what I expected.

It may have had to do with having watched the movie first. We watched the movie three or four years ago, and I remembered it as more comic and lighter. Not a barrel of fun, but not as bleak. Many reviewers talk about how funny this book is... but I was not laughing. The scene of Charlie visiting his in-laws and seeing his young children for the first time in months was heart-breaking.

This was Scott Phillips' debut novel. It was nominated for the Best First Novel Edgar and short listed for the Gold Dagger award from the CWA for 2001. So if you are interested in noir fiction, I would definitely recommend this book.

Shortly after reading the book, we watched the movie again. I liked the movie even more this time, having read the source material. There were changes in the plot, but the movie sticks to the basic story. The ending of the movie is slightly less dark than the book, but it fits with the overall tone of the story. Scott Phillips has said that he is happy with the adaptation of his novel.

My husband liked the movie for the bad weather and the Christmas setting. I liked the choice of actors; John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, Billy Bob Thornton is his partner in crime, and Connie Nielsen plays the gorgeous femme fatale. Oliver Platt plays a friend who is now married to Charlie's ex-wife. The film was directed by Harold Ramis.


Publisher:  Ballantine Books, 2001. Orig. pub. 2000.
Length:     217 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Setting:     Wichita, Kansas, Christmas Eve
Genre:      Noir
Source:     I purchased this book.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Reading in October and November

I skipped a summary post for the books I read in October. Too busy, too many other posts due at the same time. But this is a practice that I have found fulfilling as long as I have had the blog, so I will make up for it by covering both October and November in this post. In both of those months I stuck to crime fiction.

In October I read:

The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest by Peter Dickinson
The Old English Peep Show by Peter Dickinson
Sugar Skull by Denise Hamilton
And Four To Go by Rex Stout
Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown
Chef Maurice and A Spot of Truffle by J. A. Lang

In November I read:

Season of Snows and Sin by Patricia Moyes
The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
Hour of the Cat by Peter Quinn
Trust Me on This by Donald E. Westlake
The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips
The Small World of Murder by Elizabeth Ferrars
The Last Good Place by Robin Burcell

In the past I have picked a favorite book from each month, but in either of these months I would have difficulty doing that. From October, there are too many favorites. In November, I found almost all of the books equally appealing and none stand out as favorites. All in all, I had two very good months of reading.

One point of interest, to me at least. The last review I wrote was for a very cozy mystery, Chef Maurice and a Spot of Truffle by J. A. Lang. Right now, I am working on a review for a book that is the exact opposite, at the other end of the spectrum. That book is The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips, and although it is set on Christmas Eve, it is the bleakest, darkest book I have ever read. Review coming soon.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Chef Maurice and a Spot of Truffle: J. A. Lang

Description from the author's website:
“They say one should never trust a thin chef. By this measure, Chef Maurice was very trustworthy indeed.” 
It’s autumn in the Cotswolds, and Chef Maurice is facing a problem of mushrooming proportion. 
Not only has his wild herb and mushroom supplier, Ollie Meadows, missed his weekly delivery—he’s missing vital signs too, when he turns up dead in the woods near Beakley village.
In general I don't want a book to be too cozy, and I don't look for humor in my mysteries, but somehow J. A. Lang put those two together and created a book that I found charming.

Why did I read this book? First, because I saw a very, very positive review at the Puzzle Doctor's blog, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. Second, because I like to try the occasional book outside of my comfort zone, on both ends of the spectrum. Third, because the author contacted me and asked me to read and review it (back in June of this year, I am very slow). I did, however, purchase my own paperback copy.

This book is about 230 pages long, and about 22 chapters. I think it took me about 3 chapters to settle in. From that point I enjoyed it to the end. Some of the characters are over the top, especially the main character, Chef Maurice. Yet I found the characters to be the most attractive part of the book. Even the sleazy ones. I had a hard time believing I would like Maurice's pet pig, who was adopted from The Helping Paws Pet Sanctuary in Cowton to aid in the hunt for truffles. But I did enjoy Hamilton, the micro-breed pig, and his presence did not dominate the story.

Basically, Chef Maurice is interested in food and cooking and his restaurant. All of his motivations are ruled by his search for good foods, supplies for his restaurant, and ... truffles. This is how he sees the policewoman working on the case...
It was PC Lucy Gavistone, of the Cowton and Beakley Constabulary, and the only member of the force who lived in Beakley itself. She ate at Le Cochon Rouge every Sunday lunch and always tipped well.
Other favorite characters are Maurice's friend Arthur Wordington-Smythe, a food and restaurant critic and Patrick, the sous-chef. Here they have a conversation about Patrick's dinner date with PC Lucy...
“What if she's an awful cook? Should I lie?”

“Never,” said Chef Maurice, who lied all the time.

“Absolutely,” said Arthur, the happily married man. “Make sure to have second helpings too. The way to a woman's heart is through your stomach.”

Patrick looked pained. “Can I at least offer constructive criticism?" 
“Not if you don't want her to retaliate,” said Arthur, patting him on the shoulder. “Especially at a point in the evening when you least expect it.” 
I thought about adding a bit more description of the plot but decided just to point you to other reviews which do cover that in more detail:

At the Scene of the Crime
Euro Crime (by Rich Westwood)
A Crime is Afoot
My Reader's Block

The real test of how much I like a book is whether I am motivated to buy the next book. I am definitely putting #2 in this series on my Christmas list.

Publisher:  Purple Panda Press, 2015
Length:   229 pages
Format:   trade paperback
Series:    Chef Maurice #1
Setting:   UK (Cotswolds)
Genre:    humorous cozy mystery

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Funeral in Berlin: Len Deighton

Funeral in Berlin (1964) is the third novel in the Nameless Spy series by Len Deighton. I will confess to being confused about plot points and characters and relationships when reading books in this series. In fact, I was very disappointed in The Ipcress File because I was lost a good deal of the time. In this particular book, there were only a few chapters where Deighton lost me temporarily and later it all began to make sense. This is my favorite so far of that series. (I will be going back to reread The Ipcress File, and probably the rest of the books in the series, once I have finished all the books.)

In this story, the nameless spy is sent to East Berlin to facilitate the defection of an East German scientist. He must work with the Russian security-chief Colonel Stok and Hallam of the British Home Office. An elaborate plan is set up to get the scientist out of East Berlin. This book was published only three years after the Berlin Wall was constructed; in the introduction, Deighton speaks of the time he spent in East Berlin shortly after the wall went up. The setting feels very authentic.

This book in the series had some interesting differences from the first two. There are over 50 chapters and  almost all of them start with a brief tidbit about a move or strategy in chess. For example: "Players who relish violence, aggression and movement often depend upon the Spanish Game." With no knowledge of chess, this meant nothing to me, but it was a nice touch anyway.

This story was not entirely told in first person. From what I remember, the first two books were told only from the nameless spy's point of view and in first person. In this book, there where chapters here and there that were in third person and focused on the story from various character's points of view. I liked that change, although the narration of the nameless spy is one of the best elements of the story.

There are lots of great characters in this story. The aforementioned Stok in East Berlin and Hallam in London are both memorable. Johnny Vulkan is a double agent that has helped the agency before. There is a discussion with the head of the agency regarding using Vulkan on this case:
'The point I'm making is, that the moment Vulkan feels we are putting him on ice he'll shop around for another job. Ross at the War Office or O'Brien at the P.O. will whip him into the Olympia Stadion and that's the last we will see of him...'
Dawlish touched his finger-tips together and looked at me sardonically. 
'You think I am too old for this job, don't you?'
I said nothing.
 'If we decide not to continue with Vulkan's contract there is no question of leaving him available for the highest bidder.' 
I didn't think old Dawlish could make me shiver.
Another element I like in these stories is the addition of footnotes. They are not extensive enough to break the flow of reading but do add bits of information which would not fit in the flow of conversation.

This book was made into a film, as was The Ipcress File. Michael Caine starred in both films. I had seen The Ipcress File film for the first time in May of this year. I enjoyed it; Caine was just wonderful in the role (called Harry Palmer in the films). However, it was only a bit less confusing than the book. I watched the film adaptation of Funeral in Berlin very shortly after finishing the book and I liked this film even better than the first one. Probably because I understood what was going on, plus my increased familiarity with the characters.

Martin Edwards has posted a film review of Funeral in Berlin at his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name?

I have reviewed Horse Under Water and also all the books in the Bernard Samson series. My review of the last book in the series, Charity, is here.


Publisher:  Reissued 2011 by Sterling (first published 1964)
Length:   270 pages
Format:   trade paperback
Series:    Nameless Spy #3
Setting:   UK, East and West Berlin
Genre:    espionage fiction

Saturday, November 21, 2015

"The People Across the Canyon" by Margaret Millar

Continuing on my goal to catch up with the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge, for the Five of Hearts I read "The People Across the Canyon" by Margaret Millar.

The story starts with Marion Borton worrying about neighbors moving across the canyon. She is not happy about giving up her privacy in the secluded area where she and her husband had been the first to build a home. Her husband, Paul, thinks that this is a good thing; maybe the new neighbors will have some children that their eight-year-old daughter Cathy can play with. In the following days, Cathy reports on meeting the new couple at the house and seems to be obsessed with them. They represent all the things that her parents are not, in her eyes.

The end of the story is very haunting and a bit creepier than I usually like. Yet I enjoyed the way that the story is presented and I didn't expect the twists that it takes.

I selected this story from The Couple Next Door: Selected Short Stories by Margaret Millar.  The book was edited by Tom Nolan, author of the biography of Ross Macdonald (the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, Margaret's husband). He also wrote the lengthy introduction to this book of short stories which includes a good bit about Millar's life and her writing. This book is part of the Lost Classics Series, published by Crippen & Landru.

This story was originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, October 1962. It has since been published in several anthologies: A Century of Great Suspense Stories, ed. Jeffery Deaver; Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics, ed. Denise Hamilton; and most recently  published in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, ed. Sarah Weinman.

The story is available here, read by Douglas Greene, publisher of Crippen & Landru.

My list of short stories is hereJay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Murder at the Old Vicarage: Jill McGown

Inspector Lloyd has finished reading a novel in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, and is thinking about spending his Christmas with friends, when he would rather be spending it with Detective Sergeant Judy Hill. Judy, however, is married and will be spending Christmas with her husband and in-laws. It is snowing and they will have a white Christmas. Within the next twenty four hours, there is a murder at the vicarage in Byford, and Lloyd and Judy Hill  are called in to work on the case together.

The victim is the vicar's son-in-law, Graham Elstow; his wife, Joanna, has moved back in with her parents because he has beaten her, and the last time she ended up in the hospital.  Graham and Joanna have met at the vicarage to talk; he is drunk and they fight. Later, he is found in his wife's bedroom, beaten with a poker from the fireplace. Although all of the residents of the vicarage claim to have been out when the murder occurred, the police assume one of them must have murdered Graham.

This book is part of one of my favorite series, the Lloyd and Hill books written by Jill McGown. Each book is different, they are not written to a formula. The relationship of Lloyd and Judy Hill continues throughout the series. I often have an aversion to mystery novels with romances, but in this case I find the relationship between Inspector Lloyd and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill to be an enjoyable addition. It is plausible; they seem like very real people with real problems.

As far as the solution to the mystery, I was fooled even on the second read. I thought I had the villain figured out, and even thought it might be that I was remembering it from the first read. But no, I was totally wrong.

The novel is a homage to Agatha Christie. Of course the title is very similar to one of Christie's novels: The Murder at the Vicarage. Inspector Lloyd is an avid reader of mysteries, a fan of Agatha Christie, and he points out the similarities to some of her plots: the murder occurs at the vicarage, the village is snowbound, etc.

The original title of this book, as published in the UK, is Redemption. Regarding the US title, Jill McGown stated at her website that she did not choose the US title and actually argued with the US publisher that it was inappropriate, since it was so close to the title of Christie's novel. There are many other interesting facts about this novel at Jill McGown's website. Please check it out.

This is the second book in the Lloyd and Hill series of thirteen books. The backstory and the relationship of the main detectives is introduced well, and there is no real need to read the first book in the series, The Perfect Match. However, I loved that book and it was the reason I continued reading the series, so I do highly recommend it. Sergio at Tipping My Fedora reviewed that book recently.

I have reviewed another book in the series, Plots and Errors. Moira at Clothes in Books reviewed Murder... Now and Then recently.

This post is for the Winter Holiday edition of Forgotten Friday Books, which will be featured at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, on Friday, November 20th. I try to read several mysteries set at Christmas in the last quarter of the year. Sometimes they are merely set around the holiday time and the Christmas element is minimal. Not so in this case. Judy is dreading Christmas because her in-laws are visiting and her marriage is a shambles. George Wheeler, the vicar, is having a crisis of faith and having problems writing his Christmas Eve sermon. This is a Christmas mystery but not saccharine, and not cozy at all.


Publisher:  Ballantine Books, 1991. Orig. pub. 1983.
Length:     246 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Lloyd and Hill, #2
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Police Procedural
Source:     I purchased this book.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Deal Me In 2015: More Short Stories

This year has passed by fast for me. Work has been very busy during the second half of the year, and that has meant less time and energy for reading, reviewing, and blogging. I fell far behind on my short story challenge and I intend to catch up because I plan to continue on the challenge in 2016.

For the Ace of Spades, I read "Stella: Red Clay" from Red Clay, Blue Cadillac by Michael Malone. It was a corker. Just wonderful. Set in a small town in the South, it is the story of Stella Dora Doyle, a has-been movie star, and Buddy Hayes, whose father dated her when they were in high school. Stella is on trial for murder after her husband is found shot with her gun outside their mansion.

The story follows Buddy and his encounters with Stella from his childhood into adulthood. Both he and his father have been mildly obsessed with Stella all their lives. It is a brief but telling picture of a small town and how its denizens react to the ups and downs of Stella's life.

The story won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1997.

I covered another story in Malone's book of short stories back in February ("Marie: Blue Cadillac"), and I am going to repeat some parts of that post here.

January Magazine featured a very long article by J. Kingston Pierce on Michael Malone's books, including an interview, in December 2002. Here is a extract from the interview related to Red Clay, Blue Cadillac.
Can you tell me what, in your mind, distinguishes Southern women from those reared in other parts of the United States?
They're like women in other parts of America, just more so. As Gloria Steinem said about Ginger Rogers: She was doing everything Fred Astaire was doing, just doing it backwards in high heels. Well, Southern women are doing and enduring what other women have to do and endure, but (at least until recently) they had to do it in heels and hats and white gloves and makeup and a sweet smile, with maybe a glass of bourbon and a cigarette to get them through the magnolia part of being a steel magnolia. The women in Red Clay, Blue Cadillac are all very strong people. Sometimes they have to pretend otherwise.
That description -- "white gloves and makeup and a sweet smile" -- is so true and very disturbing. 

I have also read two of Malone's novels, also set in the South: Uncivil Seasons and Time's Witness.

My list of short stories is hereJay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.