Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The A.B.C. Murders: Agatha Christie

The A.B.C. Murders, also published as The Alphabet Murders, is a book in the Hercule Poirot series, published in 1936. An added plus for me is that Captain Arthur Hastings and Inspector Japp join him in this investigation. And in this case, there is another official assigned to the case, Inspector Crome, who, as usual, underestimates Poirot's abilities.

Captain Hastings is visiting Poirot, back from his ranch in South America. Poirot receives a letter hinting that a crime will take place in Andover. Thus begins a series of murders, each set in a different city. The case is unusual for Agatha Christie because it is a hunt for a serial killer, and that was not very common in the 1930's.

As I have been reading more books by Agatha Christie in the last few years, I have found every one of them to be an entertaining read, never boring. And this one was no different on that score. It was not my favorite but it has many things to recommend it.

I like the Poirot novels that are narrated by Captain Hastings; the two have a nice relationship, teasing each other but always supportive. In this case there are sections of the book not told from Hastings viewpoint, and we are warned of this. But I did not find that approach quite as effective. There seemed to me to be more characters than usual and I did get confused trying to keep track of them. Even so, I guessed what was going on, and who did it, but not the motive.

Even though I would not put this on my list of top novels by Agatha Christie, it has made many top 5 or 10 lists of Christie novels so I still would recommend it, especially if you are a Christie fan. If you are new to Christie, maybe it is not the place to start.

See other posts about this book at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., A Crime is Afoot, and Wordsmithonia.

This post is submitted for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Train" category.


Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1966. Orig. pub. 1936.
Length:     188 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Hercule Poirot
Setting:     UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Red Bones and Blue Lightning: Ann Cleeves

When I wrote a post on the first two books in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves, Raven Black and White Nights, I had difficulty explaining exactly what I liked so much about the books. After having read the next two books in the series, I think it is a combination of good storytelling, good characters, and the wonderful setting of the Shetland Islands. And another big plus is that there is variety in each book.

In Red Bones, Jimmy Perez is called to the small island of Whalsay because his deputy's grandmother has been killed. The death appears to be a tragic accident, caused by a neighbor who was shooting rabbits nearby, but there is still a lot of resentment between the families involved. This book was especially interesting because the focus was on dysfunctional family relationships.

In Blue Lightning, Perez has gone to Fair Isle with his fiancée to see his parents. A reception honoring the couple is held at the bird observatory on the island. The next day, Perez is called in because the leader of the institute has been murdered. Perez is on vacation, of course, but the island is socked in due to weather conditions and there is no one else to handle the situation. I liked the immersion in the birding community (which Cleeves knows a lot about); the ending was very much of a surprise, and makes up for the slow pace of the investigation.

Perez is not a troubled detective but his character is very brooding. He follows police procedure in handling the crimes, but it seems that the resolution of the crimes is solved mostly by intuition. The pace is slow and Perez spends a lot of his time (in both books) thinking about his personal life and relationships.

I like everything I have read by Ann Cleeves. Other than the first four books in the Shetland series, I have read two Vera Stanhope mysteries and two Inspector Stephen Ramsay mysteries. The Vera Stanhope series is my favorite so far, but the Shetland series is very, very good. For mystery lovers who like police procedurals or mysteries with unique settings, I would definitely recommend these books. However, if you are bothered by too much of a character's personal relationships in a mystery, this may not be for you. I am neutral on that topic; for me, it really depends on whether the writer can carry if off.

I read these two books recently because we wanted to watch the Shetland TV series. For some reason, they started the series with an adaptation of Red Bones. The series is different from the books in many ways, but mostly the crime and the resolution is very similar to the books, so I am glad I read the books first. The actor playing Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) is very different from the character in the book, at least physically, and the stories are more like police procedurals, with more focus on his co-workers. Here Jimmy Perez is portrayed as widowed with a teenage daughter. Even with the differences, I enjoyed the episodes very much. Honestly, in the TV series, setting is the big draw for me. I could watch the shows just for the beautiful scenery and a look at life on the Shetland Islands.

More reviews here:


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2009 and 2010
Length:       392 and 357 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Jimmy Perez, #3 and #4
Setting:      Shetland Islands, Scotland
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:     I purchased the books.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Shock to the System: Simon Brett

This is a very different book by Simon Brett. Most of his books are humorous, lighter mysteries; I have read several books featuring Charles Paris, the actor. A Shock to the System is part dark comedy, and part thriller. Graham Marshall is an HR professional, a seemingly ordinary man, who kills a man in a fit of pique. He does not even know the man he kills; he leaves work after learning that he has not gotten the promotion he expected. He is accosted by a bum begging for money; in a rage, he hits the man with his umbrella and pushes him off a bridge. Initially he is remorseful and fears retribution; when it does not come, he begins to see murder as a solution to his many problems.

Initially, I had empathy with Graham. He has been moving steadily up the corporate ladder for years, his finances are becoming precarious, and his wife is pushing him to get a promotion so that they will have more money. Gradually Graham reveals his sordid, uncaring side; he cares little about how his behavior affects anyone. This is not a whodunnit, or even a howdunnit, as we watch as the crimes take place. The mystery here is whether he will be caught.

I expected the book to be more humorous. I did see the film adaptation when it came out in 1990 but I did not remember how dark the story was. This is black comedy, but I found it to be more black, less comedy.

The story was absorbing, well-written and a quick read; my interest never flagged. But it was not a comfortable read. With the story coming from Graham's point of view, it is hard not to feel the horror of the change in his behavior. Other characters in the book are also interesting and have depth, although few of them are very likable.

A new Blu-ray edition of A Shock to the System was recently released and that was my motivation to find a copy of this book and read it now. There are differences but I did not remember how the story played out in the film. It is set in New York, not the UK; Graham has a wife and a mother-in-law but no children.

Michael Caine is Graham, Swoozie Kurtz is his wife, and Elizabeth McGovern is a young woman who works in Graham's department and is attracted to him. Peter Riegert is the younger man who gets the promotion that Graham expected. Other than Caine, my favorite character in the film is Will Patton, who plays a police detective very much like Columbo.

I found the film lighter than the book but it was still pretty dark. A review in Entertainment Weekly from 1990 described this film as an "exhilarating corporate satire" that is "juicy fun." That would not be my assessment of the film, but it is very entertaining and well worth watching.

Publisher: Macmillan London, 1984
Length:    255 pages
Format:    Hardback 
Setting:    London
Genre:     Thriller
Source:    I purchased this book.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen

I read Pride and Prejudice this month as a part of the Jane Austen Read All A-Long at James Reads Books. The readalong started with Sense and Sensibility in July and continues through Persuasion in December. I opted for Pride and Prejudice in August, Emma in October, and Northanger Abbey in November. However, I was so happy with my experience with P&P this month that I think I may try to do another book or two.

For anyone who hasn't either read the book or watched one of the numerous adaptations, I will give a brief overview.The story is set in the early 1800's and centers on the main character Elizabeth, the second of five daughters whose family lives in a small town in Hertfordshire, near London. Elizabeth is close to her elder sister Jane, although they are very different in temperament. Themes include marriage, morality, education and the choices women had at the time.

Much of the focus of the book is Mrs. Bennet's determination to get her five daughters betrothed to men with some ability to support them, since her husband's estate is entailed and will go to a surviving male heir once Mr. Bennet dies. That she has this desire is natural and loving, but the way she goes about it is disruptive and unappealing.

The story is told primarily from Elizabeth's viewpoint, and we know little about what is going on in anyone else's head. However, Austen also reveals that Mr. Darcy, a young man with whom Elizabeth is at odds, is gradually becoming attracted to her.

I read Pride and Prejudice somewhere back in my distant past. I am sure I liked it then, but I wasn't sure how I would feel about it now. Happily for me, it was a very pleasant experience. As soon as I started reading the book, I realized why it is such an enduring book. I thought the prose and the conversation would be too stilted, too old fashioned. Maybe so, but it never bothered me at all. I was entranced from the beginning. The book was much longer than I thought it would be, but I enjoyed every page. The edition I read is 475 pages, but it does have illustrations.

The only problem with a reread of this book after seeing the adaptations of the book over the years was knowing what to expect, what happens. It did not spoil my enjoyment, but I did wonder how I would react to each section if I did not know what happens next (and who the villains are).

This book has been analyzed to death. I will just share a few thoughts:

  • I enjoyed getting a picture of life at the time, or at least the life of persons of the Bennett's social status. They are not well to do, but neither were they hurting for some of the luxuries of life. I enjoyed the illustrations by Hugh Thomson in my edition because they reminded me of how people dressed for their daily activities. 
  • The book is entertaining whether you are looking for deeper meanings and symbolism (I was not) or just enjoying the romance and the humor in the book. 
  • One of the things I like about this book is that because it was published in 1813, you know the people depicted here are real types that existed. My point is that this is not historical fiction with a picture of how we might like it to be, but fiction that reflects the people of the time, or at least this author's vision of it.

The only criticism of the book that occurred to me in this reading was that Austen tends to be very wordy, both in endless conversations and descriptions of situations. Yet, I loved the writing and the story so much I did not care.

This reread confirmed my belief that you just can't get the same experience from an adaptation. I have seen two TV show adaptations and the 1940 film with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.  Our favorite is the 1980 BBC mini-series with  Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet. But no adaptation can convey the depth that comes through in Jane Austen's writing.


Publisher:   Book of the Month Club, 1996 (orig. pub. 1813)
Length:      476 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Literary fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dead Skip: Joe Gores

The DKA Files series by Joe Gores features a group of investigators who work for Daniel Kearny Associates, a firm specializing in repossessions of vehicles whose owners have defaulted on their loan payments. On the surface that sounds boring, but really it is not. There are six novels (plus one book of short stories) in the series.

Dead Skip (1972) is the first book in the series; Bart Heslip, a private investigator working for Dan Kearny Associates, is in a coma following a car crash. The police think he totaled the car while joyriding. His friend and coworker, Larry Ballard, knows that behavior does not fit Bart's character. Dan Kearney, his boss, gives Ballard 72 hours to work through Heslip's open files, looking for a clue to connect one of them to Bart's “accident.”


Joe Gores tells a  fast-moving story, with believable characters. He based the stories in this series on his own experiences as a private investigator in San Francisco, working for a firm very much like DK Associates. He provides a realistic, non-glamorous view of private investigators and their daily activities. The search takes place primarily in San Francisco and some East Bay communities.

One of the most fun parts of this novel for me was the crossover to the Parker universe. In this novel, Dan Kearney gets involved in the investigation towards the end, and along the way he runs into an old acquaintance, who turns out to be Parker, a series character created by Donald E. Westlake (as Richard Stark). It is only a brief understated scene, but it was a kick to recognize who he was referring to since I just started reading the Parker novels this year. Parker's encounter with Kearny is told in more detail and from a different perspective in Plunder Squad, a Parker novel. Nick Jones goes into much more detail on that in his review (of both books) at Existential Ennui.

In his review in 1001 Midnights (1986), Bill Pronzini calls this book "an excellent private-eye procedural." He also says: "Even better are the other two novels in the series — Final Notice (1973) and Gone, No Forwarding (1978)." (At the time those were the only books published in the series.)

See Also reviews by TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time and Rick Robinson at The Broken Bullhorn (Rick now blogs at Tip the Wink).

Publisher: Random House, 1972
Length:    184 pages
Format:    Hardback (book club edition)
Series:     DKA Files #1
Setting:    San Francisco
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2016.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Rainbird Pattern: Victor Canning

The Rainbird Pattern (1972) by Victor Canning is the 2nd book in a loose series called the Birdcage books. They all revolve around a covert security group in the UK, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. There is very little oversight of the Department's work and the agents are generally amoral, although they believe that their mission is important to the welfare of the country. The first book I read featuring this covert department was Firebird. The plot was complex and kept me guessing, but most of the characters were unlikeable.

In The Rainbird Pattern, there are two distinct plotlines. One deals with a kidnapping plot; the reader follows the agents of the Department as they investigate two previous kidnappings. The second plot involves an elderly woman's search for her sister's child, put up for adoption decades earlier. Although skeptical about spiritualists, she hires a medium to get in touch with her dead sister. Madame Blanche believes in her gift and her contact in the spiritual world, but also makes use of the detecting abilities of her boyfriend, George. The question, of course, is how will these two plots intersect?

This is a short book, under 200 pages, but the build up to the point where the two plots come together is handled well. The author provides just enough background for the participants; the ending is surprising and dark. The development of the characters is well done but, as in Firecrest, I could not really root for any of the characters. Some of them are either evil or amoral or both, but even those with basically good intentions are primarily self-serving.

This is reportedly Victor Canning's most well regarded book, and that does not surprise me. It won a Silver Dagger Award from the CWA. Firebird was thought-provoking with very good characterization, but The Rainbird Pattern is on a higher level, and moves faster, especially towards the end.

The book was adapted as a film, Family Plot, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, script by Ernest Lehman. The film treatment is very different from the book. The basic elements of the plot remain, but the story is turned into a comedy. The setting is also moved from the UK to Southern California. Initially I found the setting disappointing but in a way it made it easier for me to switch to a different mode. Although none of the actors were spectacular in this film, many of them are actors I enjoy watching: Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black. I liked Barbara Harris as Blanche, the medium; I was not familiar with her before seeing this film. Family Plot is clearly not among Hitchcock's best films, but I enjoyed it.

Other resources:


Publisher:   Ostara, 2010 (orig. pub. 1972)
Length:       193 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Birdcage books #2
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Reading Summary for July 2017

July has been another good reading month. I read nine books, which is a lot for me.  I am making progress on my Twenty Books of Summer. Of the nine books I read this month, seven were from that list. The other two were read this month because I wanted to read the book before I watched the movie.

One of the books was not crime fiction: Their Finest by Lissa Evans, set in the the UK in 1940 and 1941. The story is about a young female copywriter who gets an assignment to the Ministry of Information, writing parts of scripts for a WWII propaganda film. That alone would be an interesting subject, but the story follows several other people associated with the filming. Each one provides a different view of the UK during the war. It is a lovely story, very humorous, and one of my favorite reads of the month. I much prefer the UK title: Their Finest Hour and a Half.

Now for my list of crime fiction books...

City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley (2010)
A story about a female private eye set in 1940 in San Francisco's Chinatown. I have posted my thoughts on this book HERE.
Red Bones by Ann Cleeves (2009)
Red Bones is the third book in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves; the books are all set on the Shetland Islands, which are part of Scotland. They feature Inspector Jimmy Perez. I read the first two books a few years ago; although I liked them a lot, I don't remember much beyond the basic plot. I read this book (at this time) because we wanted to start the Shetland TV series and Red Bones is the first book which was adapted. I liked the book just as well as the first two. (I just finished Blue Lightning on Thursday, and it is my favorite of the four.)

New Orleans Mourning by Julie Smith (1991)
During the Mardi Gras parade, the King of the Carnival is shot and killed by someone dressed as Dolly Parton. Skip Langdon is one of the cops working on crowd control for the event. She is a friend of the family,  and thus gets involved with the investigation. This book won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The setting was done well and it was interesting to see this view of New Orleans.
The Distant Echo by Val McDermid (2003)
This is the first book in the Karen Pirie series, but she only shows up after 200 pages into the story and even after that only plays a small role in the story. Regardless, this was a very good tale of the investigation of a cold case, with close to half of the book taking place at the time that the crime is committed. I have posted my thoughts on this book HERE.

Bodies are Where you Find Them by Brett Halliday (1941)
I have a good number of the Mike Shayne novels by Brett Halliday, but I started with this one because the film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was loosely based on this novel. I did not really expect there to be much similarity between the two, but the basic premise is the same in both. In the book,  a woman’s body shows up in Mike's bed but disappears; Mike and his friend, reporter Timothy Rourke, are searching for it. I enjoyed this book, but I am pretty sure I am going to enjoy my next Mike Shayne story even more now that I have a taste of the series.

Brothers Keepers by Donald Westlake (1975)
This is about a small, obscure Catholic order of monks who are in danger of being tossed out of their home. This summary from Goodreads is just perfect so I am going to use it.  
"When the order's lease on the Park Avenue monastery expires, sixteen monks face a greedy real-estate mogul, and Brother Benedict falls in love with the mogul's daughter."
I loved this book. Another of my favorite books of the month.

A Shock to the System by Simon Brett (1984)
This is a very different book by Simon Brett. Most of his books that I have read are humorous mysteries about Charles Paris, the actor. A Shock to the System is part dark comedy, and part thriller. Graham Marshall is an HR professional, a seemingly ordinary man, who kills a man in a fit of pique. Initially he is remorseful and fears retribution; when it does not come, he begins to see murder as a solution to his problems. (This was the 2nd book I read because we want to watch the movie again. It just came out in a new Blu-ray edition.)

The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham (1938)
The simplest description of this book is that Albert Campion’s sister, a fashion designer, is implicated in a murder, and Albert wants very much to find the culprit. The story is, of course, much more complicated than that. Amanda Fitton, from the earlier book Sweet Danger, shows up again and she and Albert stage a fake engagement. My thoughts on the book are HERE.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Fashion in Shrouds: Margery Allingham

I am rereading the Albert Campion books in order, aiming to get to Tiger in the Smoke (1952). The Fashion in Shrouds is the 10th book in the series, published in 1938. 

Margery Allingham described this book as "a satirical comedy contrasting the characters of two young career women who have fallen in love with the same man" in her remarks in Mr. Campion's Lady, an omnibus of three books which involve both Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton. The two young women are Georgia Wells and Val Ferris, Campion's sister. Amanda Fitton was introduced in Sweet Danger; Campion's sister shows up first in The Fashion in Shrouds

This may be my favorite Albert Campion book yet; it is almost perfect. Allingham's writing just gets better and better. The plot is very complex. As the story begins, Campion has found the body of a man, who had died over a year before. The man was the lover of Georgia Wells at the time he died. Georgia, a very well known and popular actress, is now married to Raymond Ramillies, the governor of a British colony in Africa. But not satisfied with one man at a time, she soon becomes attracted to the man that Val is in love with. Val is a famous couturier designing Georgia's costumes for the play she is in. 

But let's not forget Amanda Fitton, now an aircraft engineer employed by Alan Dell. Campion and Amanda meet again for the first time in six years. She enlists his help in finding out why her boss is neglecting his airplane business. The answer: Georgia has him under her spell. And that is just the setup. So you can see it is a complicated story.  

When the second death occurs, Val and all the people in her circle are suspects, an awkward situation for Campion. He works with his old friend Inspector Stanislaus Oates of Scotland Yard and assures him that he can be impartial because he wants to discover the murderer as much as anyone. In the most recent Allingham books I have read, the investigations tend to go on and on and I get tired of that. So maybe this book was a little overlong, but still so beautifully told I did not mind.

Allingham creates many interesting characters. Albert Campion is a wonderful character, of course, but there is also Albert's manservant, Lugg, who provides humor. The focus on the women and their relationships in this novel is very different. There are also many eccentric characters in the theater and the fashion industry.

Much as I loved this story, there were places where I winced at racist and sexist statements and ideas. As far as the attitudes towards women at the time, I can only say that I was born early enough to be raised to consider that a woman's place is in the home, and it was only by chance that I went to college and did have (still have) a career. And this story was written in much earlier times with much more pervasive attitudes about women.

Note: Belatedly I am adding a link to Moira's post on The Fashion in Shrouds at Clothes in Books. And don't miss the link in that post to a previous post on the book.


Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2008 (orig. pub. 1938)
Length:      340 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Albert Campion #10
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.