Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wall of Eyes: Margaret Millar

This novel starts out with an unusual scene and the story itself is unusual. I have not read enough of Margaret Millar's novels to know if this is typical of her mystery novels.

In the novel's very bizarre first scene, Alice Heath - posing as a blind women with guide dog - is going to see a psychiatrist. Alice, who lives with a dysfunctional family of sister and brother, father, and sister's fiance, wants to discuss all of this (especially her blinded by an accident sister) with the doctor.

In the next scene, we return to the house. Kelsey, Alice's sister, is preparing for a visit from her brother's girlfriend. The relationships in the household are strained. Everyone tiptoes around Kelsey and her feelings, trying to please her.

For the first 70 pages (of my 191 page edition), the relationships within the household and outside of the family are explored. At this point, someone in the cast of characters dies, and Inspector Sands is brought in to investigate.

Inspector Sands is fairly unusual for a detective.
He would have preferred to be without face or body, if other people would conform. Since this was impossible he did the next  best thing and ignored his possession of both to such an extent that he could not have described himself accurately on a police bulletin. He knew roughly that he was middle-sized and middle-aged but appeared taller because he was thin, and older, because he was constantly tired.
Regardless, he is my favorite character. He shows up in only one more mystery by Millar, and I wish she had written more novels using him as the detective.

This was the perfect re-introduction to Margaret Millar's mystery novels. I have read some of her books when I was younger but I have little memory of them. This one is close to the basic police procedural mystery, but goes beyond that, delving into the psychology of the family relationships.

Excerpts from reviews from 1943, cited in a book of collected short stories by Millar, The Couple Next Door:
Here is a true adult novel, with wit, satire, fine characterization--and a beautiful plot of crime and mystery...
 -- Elizabeth Bullock in Chicago Sun Book Week
Heady mixture of society life, underworld plots, abnormal psychology, good detecting, and better writing.
 -- The Saturday Review
See Brian Busby's review, titled Damaged, Disfunctional, and Decadent Toronto, at The Dusty Bookcase. Brian points out a real location used in the book and includes some great paperback covers.

Margaret Millar wrote some books set in Canada, where she was born, and some set in Southern California, where she lived most of her adult life.


Publisher:   International Polygonics, 1986 (orig. pub. 1943)
Length:      191 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Inspector Sands, #1
Setting:      Toronto, Ontario,  Canada
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2013.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

500th Post! More Skulls and Skeletons

For my 500th post, I thought I would celebrate by featuring one of my favorite things... mysteries with skulls or skeletons on the cover. Only one of the books in this post has been featured on the blog before, and my goal is to read all of these by the end of the year.

Murder Sunny Side Up is the first book in a series about Congressman Ben Safford. The series was written by Emma Lathen under the pseudonym R. B. Dominic. At least ten years ago, I discovered the existence of this series. Being a big fan of the other books by Emma Lathen, I searched for books in the series. This book was very hard to find at a reasonable price, but my wonderful and dedicated husband found it (and three others in the series) at a used book store in the San Jose area.

Emma Lathen was the  joint pseudonym of Mary Jane Latsis, an economist, and Martha B. Henissart, a lawyer. From Whodunit? A Who's Who in Crime & Mystery by Rosemary Herbert:
The pair introduced their most famous character, John Putnam Thatcher, executive vice president of Sloan Guaranty Trust, in Banking on Death (1961). During a thirty-six-year collaboration, they portrayed Thatcher as using business savvy and urbane wit to investigate mysteries in a variety of business settings. In Murder Sunny Side Up (1968), under the joint pseudonym R. B. Dominic, they introduced another popular series character, Congressman Ben Safford. Safford solves crimes mostly set in Washington, D.C. The success of both series had much to do with the authors' ability to make readers feel like insiders in the worlds they depicted.
I have read three of the seven books in the Ben Safford series. I have copies of all of them.

There are seven mystery novels starring Masao Masuto, a Japanese-American detective in the Beverly Hills Police Department who grows roses and practices Zen meditation. The mysteries were written by Howard Fast,using the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham.The first was The Case of the Angry Actress (1967, originally published as Samantha). I enjoyed the first book in the series mostly because of the setting (Southern California), the time period it was written in, and the political and social commentary.

The last book in the series was The Case of the Murdered Mackenzie (1984).  Since it came 17 years later, it will be interesting to see how it compares.

Andrew Macdonald discusses Masuto in Howard Fast: A Critical Companion:
The detective hero Masuto combines Buddhist meditation with Holmesian ratiocination to make intuitive leaps of both reason and imagination that leave his colleagues and superiors puzzling over the assumptions that further investigation, physical evidence, and testimony confirm. The close observation that allows the Buddhist in Masuto to see beauty where others see ugliness also allows him to see the mundane, the corrupt, and the repulsive behind the beautiful facade of Beverly Hills. These stories look at the wealthy California scene from the perspective of an outsider, racially, culturally, and economically. Masuto can bring Asian perceptions to unraveling the mysteries of his adopted community and counters the mainstream disintegration of family values with his own deep-seated commitment to home and family.

I have had Fender Benders over ten years. The edition I bought was a trade paperback with skeleton playing the guitar. I don't think I bought the book just for the cover, but this book is clearly humorous and that is not strictly my kind of mystery. Maybe I was trying to broaden my horizons.

Author description at Amazon:
Bill Fitzhugh was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. He has also lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Seattle, Washington, and Los Angeles. He writes satiric crime novels, the occasional comic mystery, and for five years, wrote, produced and hosted "Fitzhugh's All Hand Mixed Vinyl" for the Deep Tracks channel of Sirius-XM Satellite Radio.
Story synopsis from the author's site:
Fender Benders is set primarily in Nashville. The backdrop is the country music industry. The story was originally going to be in the pop/rock music industry set in Los Angeles, but my agent kept telling me to do something set in the south, so I guess this is it. Suffice it to say there are some murders, some attempted murders, and some other nefarious activities. Oh, and lots of fried food.
I bought the hardcover edition above (for the cover of course) at the Planned Parenthood book sale last year.

A year and a half ago I purchased Sugar Skull (2003) by Denise Hamilton at the Planned Parenthood book sale. Sugar Skull is the second in a five book series about Eve Diamond, a journalist in the Los Angeles area. Recently I read and reviewed the first book, The Jasmine Trade, and I hope to read this book before the end of 2015.

Review at Publisher's Weekly:
In Edgar finalist Hamilton's (The Jasmine Trade) passionate new puzzle, feisty Los Angeles Times reporter Eve Diamond is anxious to advance from the Valley to a more prestigious desk downtown. She gets her chance when, while writing the roundup of weekend murders, she's confronted by a man frantic to find his runaway daughter. Then the nude body of beautiful socialite Venus Della Viglia Langdon, wife of mayoral candidate Carter Langdon III, turns up in the couple's pool. These two seemingly unconnected occurrences reverberate across the vast urban sprawl that is home to one of the country's most diverse populations. The Mexican Day of the Dead festivities are in progress, and the little sugar skulls given to mark the occasion appear in the strangest places. Eve is soon immersed in the down and dirty worlds of runaways, a high-powered political campaign and the exploding Latin music scene—and caught up in a torrid affair with Silvio Aguilar, son of a music-industry tycoon and Venus's brother. The tenacious Eve discovers that even the most twisted and distant paths can converge, that very little separates the privileged from the desperate and that it's all-too-easy to step over the line of journalistic ethics, become part of the story and maybe wind up dead.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Maltese Falcon: Book and Film

I put off reading The Maltese Falcon for years because I was certain it would be too hard-boiled for me. Now that I have read the book and loved it, I think the problem was with my understanding of the definition of hard-boiled. I thought it was primarily about violence, brutality, and very unlikeable characters.

There are many useful references on the definition of hard-boiled fiction on the internet, but I found Gary Lovisi's article titled The Hard-boiled Way very helpful.

He says:
Some may think it’s only fiction about violence, often very brutal violence, but that’s not a necessary ingredient.
Authentic hard-boiled fiction is also about real people trying to live their lives, to make it in the day-to-day and getting smashed down inch by inch, lower and lower. But they still hang in there. They refuse to go down for the count. 
There is a lot more to the article and I highly recommend it.

I am sure some hard-boiled fiction is too brutal, violent, or dark for me, but this book was not. Most people will be familiar with the plot, so I will include just a brief synopsis. The story is set in San Francisco, in the late 1920's. Sam Spade is a private detective hired by a beautiful and mysterious woman to help her find her sister. Very shortly there are two murders, and the police suspect Spade in at least one of those crimes.  Spade gets mixed up with a strange group of people hunting for an elusive statuette of a falcon.

I loved every word of this book. I could have been biased by my love for the film adaptation (the 1941 version with Humphrey Bogart). After reading the book, I watched the film again. Feeling that I just cannot do justice to either the book or the film (and especially if I avoid spoilers), I am keeping this short and sweet. Both the film and the book are very, very good.

John Huston's adaptation starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. Two other actors I especially liked were Ward Bond as a police detective and Elisha Cook, Jr. as the gunsel.

Although the Sam Spade of the book is a different physical type than Humphrey Bogart, I put Bogart in the role as I read the book. I only noticed a few scenes in the book that were omitted from the movie. They were no great loss to the film, but they did add more depth to the characterizations and relationships in the book.  Otherwise the film is pretty much a straight adaptation of the book, with the dialog matching Hammett's writing very closely.

Mary Astor played the role of the femme fatale perfectly. From the beginning, Spade is not sure how much he can trust her. In my opinion, Astor kept that suspense going to the very end. Having seen the movie so many times, I cannot remember my reaction the first time I viewed the movie. And every time I see it again, I find new things to love about it.

The book was the basis for two other film versions prior to the 1941 version. The first adaptation, released in 1931, was also titled The Maltese Falcon and starred  Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. The second, released in 1936, was titled Satan Met a Lady, and starred Bette Davis and Warren William. I have seen both earlier films. They do not come close to the level of the 1941 adaptation, but they are still interesting. There is a great post on Satan Met a Lady at Davy Crockett's Almanack.


Publisher:   Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1992 (orig. pub. 1930)
Length:      217 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      San Francisco
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Officer Elvis: Gary Gusick

Over a year ago I reviewed Gary Cusick's novel, The Last Clinic. That was the first book in the Darla Cavannah series, and the second book, Officer Elvis, will be published on April 21st.  I requested that book from NetGalley because I had enjoyed the character of Tommy Reylander, a police officer who was also an Elvis impersonator. Imagine my surprise when Tommy is the murder victim in this second novel.

I am using the full description from the publisher's site because it doesn't reveal too much and I think it accurately portrays the flavor and tone of the novel.
In the vein of Harlan Coben and Lisa Gardner, Gary Gusick takes readers on an explosive ride-along with Mississippi detective Darla Cavannah, a Yankee transplant making her name in the Deep South.

After performing at a local old-folks home, off-duty police officer and part-time Elvis impersonator Tommy Reylander smoothes out his pompadour, climbs into his pink Caddy, and gets all shook up—fatally so, when a bomb explodes. Whether he was killed for his police work or bad singing is a mystery that detective Darla Cavannah is determined to solve.

Though it’s been several years since Darla (reluctantly) partnered up with Tommy, she convinces her boss to let her lead the murder investigation. As the new regional director of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, Shelby Mitchell can think of better uses for his star detective’s time, but not even the most hardened good ole boy can resist Darla’s smart, savvy persuasions. She soon embarks on a roller coaster ride through the world of Elvis tribute artists while tracking down one of the most bizarre serial killers in the history of the Magnolia State. Aiding her pursuit of the killer is recently reprimanded officer Rita Gibbons, fresh from the trailer park and described by Shelby as “half a licorice stick short in the manners department.” But Rita’s plenty smart, even when this case takes their suspicious minds in an entirely unexpected direction.
One of my problems with the first novel in the series was that the author seemed to be poking fun at a lot of Southern behaviors and traditions. Yet in the end I decided it must be a good-natured look at the South because the author was from Jackson, Mississippi.

From a review by a Southern blogger:
Like all things Elvis, this book is a bit of a guilty pleasure for Southern readers, as there is so much Southern culture incorporated into the story (the whole funeral description was a hoot and pretty much was spot on for any Southern funeral for instance).
From a review at Book Nympho:
Gusick again manages to capture the endearing aspects of the Southern locale, from the vernacular to the politics and social customs of the community. The case is interesting, taking some interesting turns while immersed in the fandom of Elvis Presley and the world of his impersonators.
I found the plot in the The Last Clinic more interesting and more believable. In that novel, the Reverend Jimmy Aldridge is killed while demonstrating in front of an abortion clinic. The plot of Officer Elvis is not as interesting or believable, but it is more fun and overall the book is more humorous. So I guess it depends on what you are looking for. A definite plus in this novel is that the main characters are strong women and they don't play second fiddle to a male character.

This is not my usual type of mystery, but I did find it interesting reading this story set in Mississippi and it held my interest throughout. One reviewer compared this mystery to the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. I can see the similarity and I did enjoy the first few of those, so if readers have enjoyed that series, they may want to try this one. The book currently seems to be available only in e-book format.


Publisher:   Alibi, 2015
Length:      198 pages
Format:      e-book
Series:       Darla Cavannah, #2
Setting:      Mississippi
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      Provided by the publisher for review.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Books of 1936: A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

A Shilling for Candles was the second mystery novel published by Josephine Tey, and the second book in the Inspector Grant series. I re-read this book for the Past Offences Crime Fiction of the Year Challenge for 1936 and I enjoyed it so much I want to re-read all of her mysteries.

In this novel, the dead body of a young woman is discovered on a beach, and is at first assumed to be a suicide or accidental drowning. It takes awhile to identify the victim. She had been vacationing at a cottage nearby under an assumed name, and the man staying with her claims to know her only by her first name. Eventually the police discover that she is the famous movie actress, Christine Clay. Inspector Grant shows up when evidence is uncovered that points to murder.

I like Josephine Tey's novels because they focus more on the characters, and less on the crime and the solution. Inspector Grant is not your usual police detective, although he is well known and has a good reputation for his work. He agonizes over decisions and how to approach the investigation. In this novel, Erica Burgoyne, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the Chief Constable, and Jammy Hopkins, a reporter, are key characters who give us another view of the world of England in the 1930's. Christine Clay's is also a very well-developed character, even though we don't  encounter her until she is dead. Through the accounts of acquaintances, family and friends, we see a full picture of her and the drawbacks of a life of fame and fortune but little privacy. I cannot leave out Robert Tisdall, the man who was living with Christine at the time of her death. Because of the unusual circumstances, he is immediately a suspect.

Another interesting aspect of this novel is the picture of the world of actors and the theater, which Tey had much experience with. This is a slow-paced but entertaining novel (if the mystery plot is not your major concern), and I am eager to re-read more of the books in the Grant series, to see how they compare. The remainder of the novels were written after World War II and it will be interesting to see how they reflect the differences of that period in England also.

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Mackintosh. She was born in Scotland in 1896 and died in 1952.  She also wrote plays and non-mystery novels under the name Gordon Daviot. Nicola Upson has written a mystery series featuring Tey as the main character. There is an interesting page at Upson's website which talks about Tey's life.

This book was made into a movie, Young and Innocent, by Alfred Hitchcock, which was released in 1937. Based on book reviews I read, the adaptation is very loose but may be entertaining.


Publisher:   Collier Books, 1988 (orig. pub. 1936)
Length:       226 pages
Format:       Paperback
Series:        Inspector Alan Grant, #2
Setting:       England
Genre:        Police procedural
Source:       I purchased this book.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Teleportation Device: Ned Beauman

A brief description of this book at Bloomsbury Publishing:
When you haven't had sex in a long time, it feels like the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. If you're living in Germany in the 1930s, it probably isn't.
But that's no consolation to Egon Loeser, whose carnal misfortunes will push him from the experimental theatres of Berlin to the absinthe bars of Paris to the physics laboratories of Los Angeles, trying all the while to solve two mysteries: whether it was really a deal with Satan that claimed the life of his hero, the great Renaissance stage designer Adriano Lavicini; and why a handsome, clever, charming, modest guy like him can't, just once in a while, get himself laid. 
My husband's review at Goodreads:
I was drawn to this book because a) the concept of teleportation - with its dematerializing of objects for transport from one place to another - seems an interesting subject and b) the cover art is extremely cool. The hero (if hero is a good term here) is theatrical designer Egon Loeser and we follow him from 1931 Berlin to early 1940s Los Angeles in his pursuit of the unattainable Adele. In addition to Adele, Loeser is obsessed with Lavicini, a 17th century theatrical designer who may have invented a teleportation device that actually worked. Mix in shadowy Russian spies, a pulp mystery writer, references to H.P. Lovecraft, a possible ghost, plus a Parisian con man and you have quite a stew. In the end though, I'm not really sure what the book is or is about or even if it is successful. That cover art is great though.

My thoughts:

This book was the last book I read in 2014.  I have been putting off writing a review because I don't know what to say about it. I did not hate it, but I did not enjoy the book while reading it. In the end, I gave it 4 stars at Goodreads, because I felt that the good outweighed the bad. I concluded that it is a well written book that just isn't really for me.

My one-sentence synopsis: As Egon Loesor searches for one woman who has disappeared from his life, many interesting things happen to him and he survives on his wits or his luck. The interesting elements are nice, but they are not enough. A good portion of the story is set in the US, and I enjoyed those parts the most. How true to life the picture of the Hollywood area at this time is, I don't know, but it was still nice to read about.

One disappointment for me was that I expected there to be more science fiction elements to the story. It is loosely based on a teleportation device, but that is not really what the story is about. However, I am sure if I had found other appealing elements, I could have easily overcome the problem. The description on the dust jacket flap implies that the book has elements of historical fiction, romance, noir, and science fiction. That is true, but I don't want a novel to flirt with all of these genres and be a mish mash of them.

My comments above show that a lot of my frustration with the book was due to my expectations. When I go back to the book and read a page or two, I see that the writing is very well done and interesting. But as I was reading it, as a whole it did not appeal to me. This is a book that I plan to re-read, and I expect to like it more the second time around. My husband and I still intend to keep this book, so we haven't written it off. And it does have a wonderful cover.

Many, many reviewers loved this book. There were also reviewers who hated it but I would say overall there are more positive reviews. Certainly the reviews from major publications that I read were very positive.

Here are some other reviews:


Publisher:   Bloomsbury USA, 2013 (orig. pub. 2012)
Length:      357 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      Berlin, Paris, USA
Genre:        Historical Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Friday, April 10, 2015

"Recipe for a Happy Marriage" by Nedra Tyre

Deal Me In Short Story #7

This week I drew the Ace of Hearts and thus I read "Recipe for a Happy Marriage" by Nedra Tyre. Some of my choices for the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis were deliberate. For my list of short stories to read throughout 2015, I chose authors I was familiar with or wanted to return to. But this story was a total unknown. I knew nothing about the author.

Nedra Tyre was born in Georgia in 1921 and worked as a social worker in Virginia. Her short stories were published in various mystery magazines starting in 1955. She also published several suspense novels. This story was first published in the March 1971 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

I found the story in the anthology, Murder on the Menu, so I knew it would feature food in some way. The story is told by a woman who is laid up in her bed with a broken ankle. She tells us about her interview with a local reporter who is writing up an article on love. The narrator has had several husbands, all of which have predeceased her. There is a nice twist at the end. Although I suspect the experienced mystery reader could predict the ending, it was still a very enjoyable tale.

Nedra Tyre has a story, "A Nice Place to Stay", in the anthology, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman. Weinman has a very interesting website called Domestic Suspense devoted to her book, which gathers information about each of the authors featured in the book. John at Pretty Sinister Books has reviewed Weinman's book here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Murder on Location: Howard Engel

When Howard Engel wrote his first crime fiction novel he set out to have a different kind of private detective as the hero. Benny Cooperman, first featured in The Suicide Murders, is Canadian and Jewish; he is easy going and doesn't carry a gun. Benny works in Grantham, Ontario, a fictional town modeled after St. Catherines, Ontario, which is in Canada's Niagara Region.

This book, Murder on Location (1982), is the third novel in the Benny Cooperman series. The story opens in Niagara Falls on the Canadian side of the river. Benny is searching for a missing person, the wife of a businessman. Billie Mason, the missing wife, may have gone to Niagara Falls hoping to get a bit part in a movie production. While trying to locate Billie, Benny discovers a dead body and his life gets more complicated. He has to determine whether Billie's disappearance is related to her interactions with the Hollywood actors and crews who are filming in Niagara Falls, or if the shady crooks who are associated with her husband are responsible.

The main attraction in these books, from my point of view, is Benny Cooperman and his family and friends. Benny seems to subsist on egg-salad sandwiches and bagels. He has a good relationship with the policemen he encounters. He spends time with his parents and he is just generally a good guy.

I enjoyed this book particularly because the story revolves around the making of a film, and the setting is near Niagara Falls. Benny and several other characters have been involved in amateur theatrical productions, and that is always fun to read about. The story itself gets convoluted and I was continually confused by the multitude of characters. Yet I admired Benny's determined search for Billie, and I did want to know how it all worked out in the end.

I will be continuing this series for two reasons. One is that I have grown to enjoy reading Canadian crime fiction and getting that opportunity to learn more about that country. I am participating in the 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge which runs from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015.

I was originally motivated to read this series when I read about an unusual event in Howard Engel's life. In July 2001 he suffered a stroke that resulted in a rare condition called alexia sine agraphia. He could no longer read and his memory was affected. After recovering (to a certain extent), he wrote another mystery featuring Benny Cooperman, titled Memory Book (2005). In that book, Cooperman suffers from the same disorder that Engel has. I wanted to read earlier books in the series before reading Memory Book, but it is taking me a while to get to that goal, so I may have to rethink my strategy.

I reviewed the 2nd book in the series, The Ransom Game, here.


Publisher:   St. Martin's Press, 1982
Length:      222 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Benny Cooperman, #3
Setting:      Ontario, Niagara Region
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

New (to me) Authors, 1st Quarter 2015

At the end of every quarter, Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise hosts a meme for the best new-to-me crime fiction authors. Check out other posts for this quarter

In January, February, and March 2015, I read three authors that were new to me per month. All of the books by new authors that I read were entertaining. And there was a good variety in the settings.

These are the books by new authors that I read this quarter:

The 39 Steps by John Buchan
Villain by Shuichi Yoshida
The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe
Cookie's Case by Andy Siegel
Murder in the Raw by William Campbell Gault
Too Late to Die by Bill Crider
A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames
The Hanging Shed by Gordon Ferris
Death Was the Other Woman by Linda L. Richards

From this list, these two books made the most impression on me this quarter:

Murder in the Raw by William Campbell Gault was the first in a series of novels featuring Brock Callahan, an ex-LA Ram football player, who becomes a private detective in Beverly Hills, California. That novel was first published under the title Ring Around Rosa (which is more descriptive)The cover of my edition describes the book as a hard-boiled classic. This book seemed to have less sex and violence than I had expected in that genre.

Too Late to Die by Bill Crider is the first book in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, which now totals 21 books.  Dan Rhodes is up for reelection to the job of Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas. His jurisdiction covers small towns and rural areas, where everyone knows everyone.

The pacing of the story is slow but steady, until towards the end when the action speeds up. Crider combines good characterization of the Sheriff, and his family, friends and enemies, with an interesting picture of rural Texas. The story is told with dry humor.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

"Easter Parade" by Rex Stout

Briefly, if you are not familiar with the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe is a genius, a lover of orchids and fine food, who supports himself as a private detective. Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the stories, is both his assistant and a private investigator, and he does most of the legwork. They live in a New York brownstone and share the house with Theodore, the plant expert, and Felix, Wolfe's cook.

There are 32 full length novels featuring this pair, and over ten books which collect between two to four novellas per book. In And Four to Go (1958), there are four novellas; "Easter Parade" is the second novella in the book.

Jane Haddam wrote the introduction to the Bantam Crime Line edition of And Four to Go, and she is very complimentary of his short fiction here.
Someone looking for a chance to spend time with Wolfe and Archie at their most vivid could hardly pick a better volume than this one. Short detective fiction is often very frustrating. Restricted to a few thousand words, even the best of authors choke. Characters strongly drawn in the longer fictional forms become thin. Plots made intricate by twists and turns over the course of two hundred pages turn out to be obvious and feeble when confined to twenty. Maybe my third-grade teacher was right. Maybe Mr. Rex Stout was perfect. There are none of the weaknesses of your run-of-the-mill mystery story here.
Of the novellas that I have read recently, the stories seem to focus more on the Wolfe - Goodwin relationship and less on the process of detecting. I do enjoy them just as much as the full length novels, but readers who want a good mystery might be disappointed.

The second paragraph of this story reads like Archie's job description . Archie is refusing to stoop to thievery, which he thinks is what Wolfe is after.
"If you wanted me to hook something really worth while, like a Mogok ruby, I might consider it. For what you pay me I do your mail, I make myself obnoxious to people, I tail them when necessary, I shoot when I have to and get shot at, I stick around and take every mood you've got, I give you and Theodore a hand in the plant rooms when required, I lie to Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Stebbins whether required or not, I even help Fritz in the kitchen in emergencies, I answer the phone. I could go on and on. But I will not grab an orchid from a female bosom in the Easter parade. There is--"
Wolfe is not asking Archie to break the law and steal a very rare orchid, but he does want him to find someone who is "adroit, discreet, resolute, and reliable" for the job. The orchid will be worn in the Easter Parade, and Wolfe's lust for it will lead to problems for both him and Archie.

As Haddam mentions in her introduction, "Easter Parade" was first published in the April 16, 1957, issue of Look magazine, and it included color photos with clues to the mystery. You can see the illustrations that were in Look magazine at the Wikipedia page for this story or at The Wolfe Pack website.

Three of the stories in And Four To Go feature holidays, and I reviewed one of them, "Christmas Party," in December.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Mount TBR Challenge: First Quarter 2015

This quarter I have read 20 books that count toward the 2015 Mount TBR Reading Challenge. My goal for the year is 48 books -- Mt. Ararat. So I am at 41.66% of my goal. The challenge is run by Bev at My Reader's Block. Bev hosts several challenges, and she reads and reviews a lot of mysteries, my favorite genre.

I did so well in this area in the first three months of the year because I also was participating in  the Double Dog Dare TBR Challenge hosted at James Reads Books. The goal in that challenge was to read only from the TBR pile in January, February, and March. 

Bev requests that we complete ONE or more of the following:
 A. Post a picture of your favorite cover so far.
 B. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.
 C. Have any of the books you read surprised you--if so, in what way (not as good as anticipated? unexpected ending? Best thing you've read ever? Etc.)
 D. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?
My favorite cover: Villain by Shuichi Yoshida.

The book that surprised me most was The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe. The novel is a serial killer thriller and that is not my favorite type of mystery. Yet I found the story compelling. The protagonist, Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef, is a wonderful character and I look forward to reading the next in this series, which is also on my TBR pile.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Cruelest Month: Louise Penny

It wasn't until I finished this book that I realized that I had serendipitously read a novel set at Easter when that event was very close at hand. Hidden within the plot of this mystery set in a small village, the author explores the themes of the Easter season.

From the author's website:
Easter in Three Pines is a time of church services, egg hunts and seances to raise the dead.

A group of friends trudges up to the Old Hadley House, the horror on the hill, to finally rid it of the evil spirits that have so obviously plagued it, and the village, for decades. But instead of freeing a spirit, they create a new one. One of their numbers dies of fright. Or was it murder? Enter Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team from the Surete du Quebec. As they peel back the layers of flilth and artiface that have covered the haunted old home, they discover the evil isn't confined there. Some evil is guiding the actions of one of the seemingly kindly villagers.
But Gamache has a horror all his own to confront. A very personal demon is about to strike.
Easter in Three Pines. A time of rebirth, when nature comes alive. But something very unpleasant has also come alive. And it become clear - for there to be a rebirth, there first must be a death.
This is a very popular series and this book received the Agatha Award for best novel of 2008. It was also nominated for several other awards. I am almost afraid to criticize this book. However, if readers are interested in this type of series, I don't think my comments will deter them.

I did not enjoy reading the first half of the book. That portion centered on the happenings in Three Pines and the inhabitants of that area, and the beginnings of the investigation by Gamache and his team. A lot of of it seemed repetitive, going over and over the same points. There are actually two plot lines, one involving the murder and its resolution, and the other related to a plot against Gamache which has been building up gradually in previous books. Both of the plots (and the characters involved) seemed a little over the top to me.

For such an idyllic town, many of the characters are very unlikeable. Of course, some of their faults are those we all have from time to time, like envy which leads to very bad behavior. But these are characters we are supposed to like. Some of the characters are just plain wacky. I don't find them all as charming as many readers do.  Inspector Gamache is a very good protagonist, almost too good. I don't like my heroes or heroines too good or too bad, just in between. However, it is very hard not to like Gamache and his family, and he has strong bonds with most of his team.

At about the halfway point, the book picked up for me and got more interesting. So in the end, I was not disappointed in the read. I am not the only reviewer who did not love this book but I am in a minority. And among the reviews I have read that have the same quibbles that I express, most say they will continue reading the series and have heard good things about the later books. So I also will continue reading more about Inspector Gamache.

I did like the 2nd book in the series, A Fatal Grace, a lot more than this one. In my review of that book I compared it to the writing of Jane Haddam and Agatha Christie. Other reviewers have drawn the comparison to Christie. Like the Jane Haddam Gregor Demarkian series, this series seems to be darker than the usual "cozy." Like many books by Christie, the setting is small village with underlying secrets.

Other reviews:
Mysteries in Paradise
Carol's Notebook
Joe Barone's Blog


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2008 (orig. pub. 2007)
Length:      311 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Inspecter Gamache, #3
Setting:      Quebec,  Canada
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Reading in March and Pick of the Month

In March I read nine books, eight mysteries and one non-mystery novel. My reading included three books written by Canadian authors, although only two of them were set in Canada. Another mystery (The Hanging Shed) was written by a Scottish author and set in Scotland after World War II.

The non-mystery was Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and that was a very lovely book. The edition I read was about 525 pages but I sped through it. 

Once again I have reviewed very few of the books I read this month. I am learning to live with this, because I don't think that situation will change anytime soon. 

The end of March ended my participation in the Double Dog Dare TBR Challenge hosted at James Reads Books. The goal was to read only from the TBR pile for those three months. My rules allowed me to read some ARCs that I had committed to in 2014. In January, February and March, I read a total of 20 books from my TBR piles. 

These are the mystery novels I read in March:

A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames
Officer Elvis by Gary Gurick
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas
Murder on Location by Howard Engel
The Hanging Shed by Gordon Ferris
The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
Death Was the Other Woman by Linda L. Richards

It is easy to pick my favorite crime fiction read for the month.  It is The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. I loved every word of it. I thought I would find it too hard boiled, and I think that is why I put off reading it for so long. I could have been biased by my love for the film adaptation (the 1941 version with Humphrey Bogart).