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.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Red House Mystery: A. A. Milne

The Red House Mystery, published in 1922, is my choice for the Crimes of the Century Challenge at Past Offences.  I have picked up several copies at book sales over the years and finally I had the impetus to read it. I always stall when reading books of this vintage, for some reason. It isn't that I don't like "dated" books; that is why I read older books... to get some insight into the time. It may be that I think the writing style will be too stilted. I needn't have worried. This story was a great read.

This book was the only mystery novel written by A. A. Milne, famous for his books about Winnie the Pooh. He had me at the dedication of this book:
My dear Father,
Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them. So, after all that you have done for me, the least that I can do for you is to write you one. Here it is: with more gratitude and affection than I can well put down here. 
A. A. M.
As the title implies, this is a country house murder. The Red House is owned by Mark Ablett, a bachelor who often entertains friends there. The story begins with the servants in the house discussing the impending arrival of their employer's brother, who has been in Australia for 15 years. Mark has announced his brother's visit just that morning at breakfast. In the afternoon, the guests have gone off to play a game of golf; the house is empty except for Mark, his cousin, Matthew Cayley, and the servants. The brother arrives, is shown into the office, and the next thing we know a shot is heard and a dead body is found in the office. At the same time, Antony  Gillingham arrives to visit with one of the guests.

This is how Milne introduces our hero, Antony, to the reader:
At about the time when the Major (for whatever reasons) was fluffing his tee-shot at the sixteenth, and Mark and his cousin were at their business at the Red House, an attractive gentleman of the name of Antony Gillingham was handing up his ticket at Woodham station and asking the way to the village. Having received directions, he left his bag with the station-master and walked off leisurely. He is an important person to this story, so that it is as well we should know something about him before letting him loose in it. Let us stop him at the top of the hill on some excuse, and have a good look at him.
The first thing we realize is that he is doing more of the looking than we are. Above a clean-cut, clean-shaven face, of the type usually associated with the Navy, he carries a pair of grey eyes which seem to be absorbing every detail of our person.
Antony has come to The Red House to visit his friend, Bill Beverley. Matthew, the cousin, who functions as estate manager and secretary, has bundled off all the other guests to London, but invites Antony and Bill to stay. Mark has disappeared, and the police have quickly decided that he must be the one who fired the shot, whether in self-defense or not. Very shortly, Antony decides that all may not be as it seems and appoints himself as an amateur sleuth, taking on Bill as his Watson. They are quite a pair.

I enjoyed the puzzle although, strangely, at no time was I trying to follow the clues. I enjoyed Antony's journey in finding the truth, and I did not suspect the final results at any time, although I am sure many readers would. I was immersed in the story. The tone of the book is light, yet murder is not treated lightly.
Yes, humour abounds, as does witty dialogue and social satire, but the novel still acknowledges the dark side of human nature and the horror of the crime that has been committed. And if our Watson, Bill, is having a little too much fun with the investigation, the older and warier Antony acknowledges the tragedy of the situation.
That quote is from a review at Things Mean a Lot, which also has links to several other reviews.

Santosh Iyer's excellent review is at Goodreads.

I must note that Raymond Chandler thoroughly lambasted this book in The Simple Art of Murder. He makes some good points, if you want to quibble with the plot, but I think he misses the point that mystery novels can be different things to each reader. One book can be read for the enjoyment and another can be read to learn more about the world and both can be worthy examples of the mystery genre. He also starts out his tirade with huge spoilers, so only read that piece if you don't mind the spoilers. (You can find it here.)

I only regret that I read the paperback edition of this book and did not discover the introduction by Milne in my hardback edition as I was writing this post. An excerpt:
I have a passion for detective stories. Of beer (if I may mention it) an enthusiast has said that it could never be bad, but that some brands might be better than others; in the same spirit (if I may use the word) I approach every new detective story. This is not to say that I am uncritical. On the contrary, I have all sorts of curious preferences...


Publisher:  E. P. Dutton, 1922 (22nd printing, 1965). 
Length:     211 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2013.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Moving Finger: Agatha Christie

One of the things I like about Agatha Christie's books is that she often surprises me. Some of the books follow a fairly standard plot line but others, like this one, stray from the norm. The Moving Finger has a first person narrator, Jerry Burton. He has moved to the small village of Lymstock with his sister to recuperate from a serious injury. The village is much quieter than they are used to, but that is the point. Then, shortly after he arrives, he receives a very nasty poison pen letter.  He finds out later that there have been others. All of a sudden the village becomes more menacing, and a couple of deaths follow.

I enjoyed this book, the story and the characters. However it was billed as a Miss Marple mystery and she barely shows up until the end, making her part in the solving the mystery a bit unrealistic. It felt to me like she was an afterthought.

I have only read maybe 10 or 12 Agatha Christie novels in the last three or four years, but it also seems to me that this one has a little more romance than usual. The attraction builds slowly and one wonders where it is going, but it is a nice addition. All in all, I would say The Moving Finger is one of my favorite Christie novels so far.

If you are interested in a more detailed overview of the story or samples of the text, see the posts at Mysteries in Paradise and Clothes in Books.


Publisher:  Dell, 1972. Orig. pub. 1942.
Length:     189 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Miss Marple, #3
Setting:     Small village, UK.
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2005.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Dia de los Muertos / Sugar Skull by Denise Hamilton

History of Day of the Dead ~ Dia de los Muertos

The following information is from
Day of the Dead is an interesting holiday celebrated in central and southern Mexico during the chilly days of November 1 & 2. Even though this coincides with the Catholic holiday called All Soul's & All Saint’s Day, the indigenous people have combined this with their own ancient beliefs of honoring their deceased loved ones.
They believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.
Mexico, abundant in sugar production and too poor to buy fancy imported European church decorations, learned quickly from the friars how to make sugar art for their religious festivals. Clay molded sugar figures of angels, sheep and sugar skulls go back to the Colonial Period 18th century.
There is a lot of information at that site. Please check it out. The FAQ page has information on how sugar skulls are made and about the Day of the Dead.

Sugar Skull, the second book by Denise Hamilton featuring Eve Diamond, LA Times reporter, starts out a few days before Dia de los Muertos. The celebration features prominently in the plot.

The review at Publisher's Weekly provides a good overview:
[F]eisty 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.
What I liked:
  • The depiction of Los Angeles and surrounding areas.
  • The portions of the story that dealt with teenage runaways.
  • The portrayal of a strong female character with flaws.
  • The pacing. Kept me entertained and interested.
  • Not cozy at all but not depressing or downbeat either.
I enjoyed reading this book mainly due to its depiction of LA: the culture, politics, crime, and the Mexican-American community. And I think that part of it is excellent. The author lived there, she grew up there, and she was a reporter for many years. Yet, I have a hard time connecting with Eve Diamond and her propensity for getting involved with the people she interviews for stories. I have never found journalists as sleuths a very believable scenario. Nevertheless, I plan to read all of the Eve Diamond books.

The first book in the series, Jasmine Trade, is about "parachute kids," the rich Asian teens who live alone in California while their parents run businesses in Hong Kong. Last Lullaby is set in the world of international adoptions and drug smuggling. Savage Garden explores the theater scene. The fifth book in the series, Prisoner of Memory, is set among L.A.’s Russian immigrant community. I think all of those topics are going to be interesting.

I am fascinated by Denise Hamilton's background and how she has used it in her books and shared her knowledge of LA.

From an interview at The New Mystery Reader:
I’m a first generation American. My mother was a Russian/French immigrant and we spoke French at home. My husband’s parents were immigrants. His mother lives with us and we speak Spanish at home because she’s more comfortable with that language. So a multicultural, multi-ethnic society is second nature to me. Plus living in LA, in a suburb that is majority minority -- heavily Armenian, Russian, Korean and Latino  -- it just feels right. As to poverty, we didn’t have much money and I had academic scholarships all through school or I wouldn’t have made it, so I know that world too, though certainly not the dire poverty of some of my characters. Still, it’s never escaped me that so many people on this planet struggle just to survive, and that our materialistic society often overlooks these people, at least in popular culture. I know that what I write is popular culture – if my books don’t entertain you and keep you up way past your bedtime, then I haven’t done my job. But while I’m writing page-turners, I’m also interested in talking about marginal characters whose struggle is utterly compelling to me, whether it’s caused by poverty, race, class, ethnicity, crime or a mixture of these.

Publisher:   Scribner, 2003 
Length:       295 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Eve Diamond #2
Setting:       Southern California
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.

Photo by Nathaniel C. Sheetz at Wikipedia Commons.