Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Case of the Rolling Bones: Erle Stanley Gardner

Description from the back of my paperback edition of The Case of the Rolling Bones:
Perry Mason sat quietly in his office and complained to Della Street that life was dull. Two minutes later he was neck deep in trouble. It involved Alden Leeds, black sheep of the Leeds family. It seemed that when Uncle Alden was much younger he had run away to Alaska. There he had struck gold and become entangled with a Klondike dance-hall girl. Now that girl had reappeared and staked a claim on Alden. His heirs took one look at her and objected strenuously.
And this is only the start of a very complicated story starring Perry Mason, the famous and talented defense lawyer, and his lovely secretary Della. The plot of TCOT Rolling Bones is so complex even now I could not hope to explain it to you. There are confused identities, multiple aliases, and the story leads all the way back to Alden Leeds' early days as a prospector in Alaska.

My favorite part of a Perry Mason novel is always Perry and Della and the way they work together. Here are the descriptions of those two in The Cast of Characters at the beginning of the book:
Perry Mason, who likes to puzzle with human problems, and gets a lot of encouragement. 
Della Street, who is not only Perry's Girl Friday but all the other days of the week.
Due to the complexities of the plot and me getting completely lost in it, I would not say this is my favorite Perry Mason novel. Of course, I have only read two of them in the last few years, so I don't have much to compare to. (I read many books from the series when I was a teenager.) The other one I read recently, The Case of the Restless Redhead, published in 1954, had a more straightforward plot (comparatively). It did involve Perry juggling the evidence; I had forgotten that he has no problems doing that and getting away with it.

So, not my favorite, but still an entertaining read. Many people liked this one a lot, so I don't want to discourage anyone from reading it. John at Pretty Sinister Books has written a wonderful review with lots of detail, and his post features three lovely covers different from mine.

We have been watching episodes from the Perry Mason TV series. In the first season, a large number of the episodes are based on the novels, and the last episode of that season is an adaptation of TCOT Rolling Bones. As you would expect when you shorten the story to  a one hour episode, the story is greatly simplified in the TV show, but it doesn't lose any of its charm.

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason is very entertaining, always so sure of himself. Barbara Hale as Della is terrific, and it is fun to see the cars and clothes from the 1950s. In this episode, Perry and Paul Drake (a detective who often works for Perry) go to Reno, Nevada via airplane, and it was also fun to see the old airplane, a Douglas DC-4. The California settings are good too.


Publisher:   Pocket Book edition,1947. Orig. pub. 1939.
Length:      218 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Perry Mason
Setting:      Southern California
Genre:       Legal Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Mansfield Park: Jane Austen

I enjoyed this story of a young girl who was taken in by her aunt and uncle because her own parents cannot afford to support all their children. Thus, Fanny Price grows up in a much wealthier and educated family than the one she was born into. As she grows up, Fanny is made very much aware that she is less educated and not of the same station as her cousins. She misses her parents and her siblings, especially her older brother, William. Her new family has two girls and two boys and all of them are older than she is. Fanny is befriended by one of her male cousins, Edmund, who is six years older. The others pretty much ignore her.

The first three chapters (of nearly forty) cover from the time Fanny joins the Bertram's at Mansfield Park at about 10 years of age until she is about 16 or 17. At that point, her cousins Maria and Julia are looking for husbands and the rest of the story covers the ups and downs of their flirtations, courtships, and marriages.

Both because of her younger age and because she is  not of the same social status as her cousins, Fanny does not expect to be a part of the associated festivities and is usually more of a looker on. Although Fanny has had many of the benefits of being raised at Mansfield Park, there is a clear difference between her and her spoiled cousins, who are demanding and think little of others. Fanny has turned into a lovely and kind young lady, but is often treated as more of a companion and a servant to her two aunts.  Especially by her Aunt Norris, who doesn't want to see her get any special treatment at all.

Complex relationships develop between the Bertram daughters and sons and other young people in the area. A wealthy brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford, move into the area. Fanny's two female cousins (Maria and Julia) are both in love with Henry and in competition for his affections, even though the eldest already has a fiancé. Mary Crawford is attracted to Edmund Bertram, but isn't happy with his lower prospects financially as a younger son.

A very interesting part of the story for me was the plans by the young people to perform a play. Tom, the eldest son, starts up construction in one part of the house to have a stage for the performance. Fanny's uncle, usually very much in charge of the events in the household, is away in Antigua and Edmund and Fanny are sure that he would not approve the performance of a play in his home. But even Aunt Norris, who has been left in charge while Lord Bertram is gone, supports the endeavor. In the end there are ruinous relationships and broken friendships.

Later, Fanny returns to live with her own lower-middle-class family for several months. In this section the chasm between her family and her adopted family is very clear. Her main joy in this visit is seeing more of her favorite brother William but he is quickly shipped off to sea on a new assignment. She is shocked by the rowdy and rude behavior of her siblings and sees the reality of life without the luxuries of Mansfield Park where there were servants to cook and clean.

There are several very interesting (and maddening) characters. Lady Bertram has hardly any interest in her children and is very passive, refusing to make decisions. Her sister, Aunt Norris, is a busybody, controlling and manipulative, and very unkind to Fanny.

I personally liked Fanny a lot, but some readers find her bland. At one point she rejects a proposal of marriage because she does not care for the young man, nor does she believe that his sentiments are sincere, and I respect her sticking to her convictions. Some Bertram family members are disappointed with her behavior. I would have liked her to share her opinions and speak up for herself, but due to her upbringing and being treated with little affection for so many years, I  can see how this could have shaped her quiet, submissive behavior.

So far in my reading of Jane Austen's books (this book and Pride and Prejudice), it seems the stories focus on marriage and the importance of the proper choices of mates (with sufficient resources). All of this was very important in those times, and the book highlights the limited options for women. Another theme is family relationships, especially those between parents and children.

I bought an annotated copy of Mansfield Park to read, but I found it really wasn't useful for a first read. Too distracting from the story. Luckily I had another copy to read. But afterwards, I did enjoy reading through some of the notes and picking up more information on facts and attitudes of the times. This is a book I am sure I will reread and probably enjoy even more on a second read.


Publisher:   The Folio Society, London, 1959 (orig. pub. 1814)
Length:      364 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Literary fiction
Source:      I purchased my copies.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hammett: Joe Gores

Joe Gores was an admirer and a student of Dashiell Hammett's writing. Both had been private investigators before they  became full time writers. Both had lived and worked in San Francisco. Thus Gores was the perfect person to write this fictionalized version of events in Samuel Dashiell Hammett's life, set in 1928 when Hammett was no longer a private detective and was trying to support himself with his writing.

In this novel, Hammett is approached by Victor Atkinson, a private detective he had worked years before.  He wants Hammett to join him in an investigation of corruption in the San Francisco police department and government. Hammett refuses, stressing that he is not interested and not up the task after many years away from the profession. When Atkinson is killed very soon after that, Hammett gets involved.

Gore's story telling sucked me in. He provided a wonderful picture of San Francisco in the late 1920's. I enjoyed both the view of Dashiell Hammett at that time and the mystery plot. The descriptions of the corruption in San Francisco at that time were fascinating.

The New York Times obituary for Joe Gores has this to say about Hammett:
In “Hammett“ (1975) Mr. Gores skillfully blended fact and fiction, inventing a murder case for his protagonist to solve at the time the actual Hammett was finishing “Red Harvest.” Critics praised Mr. Gores’s evocation of Hammett’s literary style and character, as well as his fictional world.
On the dust jacket of the hardback edition, a quote from Joe Gores:
"I wanted to paint a fictionalized, yet honest portrait of the man who created an authentic and original voice in American literature and to paint that portrait against the backdrop of his times--the 1920’s--and his city--San Francisco." 
The Author Notes at the end of the book about Hammett's life and San Francisco history were almost as enjoyable as the book itself. Those notes got me interested in reading more books by Hammett. So far I have only read The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

After reading the book, I then watched the film adaptation from 1982, directed by Wim Wenders. The executive producer was Francis Ford Coppola, and Ross Thomas was one of the screenwriters. It was not the first time we had seen the movie, so I already knew I liked it. But viewing it after reading the book, I noticed how different it was from the book. Some of the basic story was there, and it was still about corruption and vice in San Francisco, but the story in the film was not nearly as realistic as the book felt. Still, we enjoyed viewing the movie again.

I liked Frederic Forrest as Dashiell Hammett, and Marilu Henner was very good as a neighbor and friend. Peter Boyle is one of my favorite actors and he had a good role as Hammett's old friend, a former Pinkerton detective. That role is much bigger in the film than in the book. And Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part as a taxi driver.

Here are some interesting links regarding problems in the production of the film:

Writers Who Worked on The "Hammett" Screenplay at The Thrilling Detective

Wim Wenders Sets The Record Straight at IndieWire


Publisher: Putnam, 1975
Length:    242 pages
Format:    Hardback
Setting:    San Francisco
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    Purchased.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Busman's Honeymoon: Dorothy L. Sayers

I was surprised that Dorothy Sayers wrote only eleven mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. I have read them all, but for most of them it was a long time ago. Of these, only four feature Harriet Vane as Wimsey's love interest.

Busman’s Honeymoon was the last novel in the series. After five years of being wooed by Peter, Harriet Vane has finally said yes, and we get a peek at the wedding planning, the nuptials, but most of all their first few days of marriage while on their honeymoon at Talboys, where a dead body is discovered.

The story begins with a series of letters and extracts from the diary of the Dowager Duchess of Denver (Peter's mother). That part of the story is lovely, entertaining, and gives the reader a good picture of the issues with Lord Peter choosing to marry a commoner and a woman who has been previously involved in a murder trial.

Following that, Harriet and Peter leave for Talboys, a farmhouse in the country that Harriet had dreamed of owning when she was a child. Peter has just purchased Talboys and has arranged for it to be habitable for them for their honeymoon. Things go very wrong, and when they arrive the house is locked, and not close to ready for them to take it over. They find the previous owner's niece, who lets them into the house, which is in disarray. The next day, as they all (but mostly Bunter, Peter's loyal manservant) work hard to get it into shape, a body is discovered. Of course, Peter and Harriet inevitably get involved in the investigation.

There is much good to say about this book. Sayers excels at characterization, both in the major and the minor characters. In this book, Harriet and Bunter are getting used to their new roles in relationship to each other. I also enjoyed the portrayal of Superintendent Kirk, of the local CID, who investigates the murder, and his concern for his police constable, Joe Sellon, who seems to  be implicated in the murder.

The body is not discovered until one third of the way into the book, and this story is like many of Sayer's books concerning the couple in that it is not really the mystery that is given the most attention, but the story around the mystery. Some readers like this, others don't. I am mostly neutral on this point, except that I think in this case both the mystery plot and the discussions of Harriet and Peter's new relationship go on too long. The book has interminable stretches where characters discuss the intricate timing of alibis and there is way too much dialog between Peter and Harriet about their relationship (not to mention that much of it is in French). I would have liked a shorter version of this book much better.

I reread this book because we had purchased a copy of Haunted Honeymoon (1940), the film adaptation starring  Robert Montgomery as Lord Peter Wimsey and Constance Cummings as Harriet. We had taped a copy when it showed on TV years ago and were glad to be able to watch it again. The story was not too changed, although in the film the couple have sworn off of detecting and are not too much like the characters in the book, in my opinion. But still a lot of fun to watch.

Other resources:

Most posts that discuss this book or the entire set of books featuring both Harriet and Peter, do contain spoilers to the early books, so if you haven't read any of the books starting with Strong Poison, you may want to wait to read the following posts.

These three posts discuss Busman's Honeymoon: At My Reader's Block, Classic Mysteries, and crossexaminingcrime.

These two posts discuss all the books with Peter and Harriet: At Clothes in Books and Criminal Element.


Publisher:  Avon Books, 1968 (orig. publ. 1937).
Length:      318 pages (of very tiny print)
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Peter Wimsey, #11
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Dr. No: Ian Fleming

At the end of From Russia with Love, James Bond had been poisoned. At the point that Dr. No begins, Bond has just returned from months of recuperation and M is eager to send him off on an assignment.

M and Bond are having relationship problems. M thinks that Bond may have lost his nerve or made poor decisions in the last case. The doctor does not want Bond put out in the field so soon after his recovery, but Bond is ready and willing to get back to work. However, he does resent it deeply when M forces him to use a new type of gun, a Walther PPK instead of his Beretta.

M asks Bond to go to Jamaica to follow up on the disappearance of two agents, one of them being the Head of Station in Jamaica, John Strangways. This is considered a "soft" assignment, almost a test of Bond's abilities, and thus Bond feels even more resentment. When Bond decides to investigate some suspicious circumstances on Crab Key island, he sets out with a guide and doesn't bother letting M or anyone else in Jamaica know his plans. Thus when the situation on Crab Key gets rough and dangerous, there is no hope of rescue.

This was a very entertaining novel. Now that I am used to the fantastical aspects in the James Bond novels, I can just go along with that and enjoy the fun. There are some standard elements in each James Bond book: a powerful supervillain, a beautiful and sexy love interest, and lots of action and violence.  Here we have the sinister Dr. No on Crab Key island and Honeychile Rider, the young and naive woman collecting shells on the beach at Crab Key. Quarrel, a Cayman Island fisherman, first met in Live and Let Die, takes Bond to the island. Bond, Honey, and Quarrel discover Dr. No's nefarious plans but don't realize how much of a maniac he is.

Other elements that routinely show up in the Bond stories are racism and sexist attitudes, and this book is full of those. If you can get past those, it is a fun adventure novel, with a fairly accurate view of the place and the time.

I was also biased towards this novel because Dr. No is one of the films that I am most familiar with. As the first adaptation of a Bond novel, it is extremely memorable and I am very fond of it. I was glad to see that the novel and the film are very much alike.

One difference is the presence of Felix Leiter, CIA agent, in the film, and my favorite actor in that role, Jack Lord. The action starts to diverge some after Bond and Quarrel get on Crab Key island, and Dr. No's motivation is somewhat different in the film. Ursula Andress as Honey is very fitting in the role. Since this was the first film adapted from the books, it also benefits from the absence of an overload of gadgets or unbelievable physical prowess on Bond's side.

Other resources: See this post at Killer Covers which features many different cover illustrations for Dr. No.  Also Moira's post on this book at Clothes in Books.

Next I will be moving on to Goldfinger, maybe before the end of the year.


Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1971 (orig. pub. 1958) 
Length:       216 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       James Bond, #6
Setting:      Jamaica
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.