Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Murder Must Advertise: Dorothy L. Sayers

Murder Must Advertise is the eighth novel in the Peter Wimsey series. In this book, Victor Dean, a copywriter in an advertising firm, fell to his death on a spiral staircase made of iron. Although many employees had considered the staircase dangerous, there have been allegations that the death was not accidental. Lord Peter Wimsey has now taken over Dean's job, under another name, and is working undercover to determine if his death was a result of foul play.

I have always considered this my favorite mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers, so I was glad to find that the story lived up to my memories of it. Some of Sayers' books were a disappointment to me on a second read.

I like mysteries with an office setting, especially older mysteries like this one. I have enjoyed at least two others: Minute for Murder (1947) by Nicholas Blake, set in the Visual Propaganda Division in the Ministry of Morale, and Smallbone Deceased (1950) by Michael Gilbert, set in the law firm of Horniman, Birley and Craine. This one is mainly set in the offices of Pym's Publicity.

The author does have a lot to say, via her characters, about the evils of advertising. Per her obituary in the New York Times, Sayers' "first job was that of copy writer in a leading London advertising agency." And that was the main attraction of this book for me.

In a recent review, I commented on my dislike of stories about detectives working undercover, but in this case the undercover plot was fun. Wimsey could have been in some danger when consorting with drug dealers, but this was more an adventure story than a thriller. It surprised me that a novel set in the early 1930s has a good deal of the plot related to drug dealing. Somehow I always see this as a more recent problem.

I did especially like that the story allowed Peter to spend time with his sister Mary and her husband Chief Inspector Parker, a pair that I have always enjoyed. And as a ploy to maintain his cover, Peter also drops in on a party given by his older brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, and irritates Gerald's snobbish wife, Helen.

I thought this book was well written and a good puzzle, although the puzzle element of a mystery is not the most important part to me. Possibly a bit too long. Some readers complain about the lengthy discussions of public schools vs state education and cricket, yet I did not think these departures went on too long to be interesting. And, at least in the case of the chapter on the cricket game, it does relate to the plot. Even though this was a reread, I was still surprised at the ending and the way it was handled.

See other views at:
Clothes in Books
The View from the Blue House
A Crime is Afoot
Reactions to Reading
Simon's Book Blog


Publisher:   Perennial Library, 1986. Orig. pub. 1933.
Length:      323 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Peter Wimsey, #8
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copies.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Likeness: Tana French

The Likeness (2008) is the sequel to Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods. That book featured two detectives in the Murder Squad in Dublin, Ireland, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox. In The Likeness, Cassie is now working in Domestic Violence at police headquarters, but a unique opportunity arises for her to go undercover. A woman bearing the identification of Lexie Madison is found dead; the woman cannot be Lexie Madison because that was an invented identity that Cassie used when she worked in the Undercover division. The woman is Cassie's double, and Cassie agrees to take her place at her residence, where she lived with four other undergraduates. A complex premise and one that at times was hard to accept.

I like the structure of the Dublin Murder Squad series. Rob Ryan and Cassie are the two main characters in the first novel. Only Cassie is featured in The Likeness (book 2), and she is working primarily with Frank Mackey of Undercover. In the next book, another detective from book 2 is featured. And so on. In The Likeness, there are references back to the previous case, but knowledge of that book is not necessary to enjoy this one.

I read this book almost a year ago, but I still remember how much I liked it. I felt like the story strained my disbelief a bit, but it was so suspenseful and well-written that I was pulled into it. I liked the characters, and that is helpful in this type of book where you spend so much time with them.

The Likeness does have elements I usually dislike. I don't care for really long books. In the edition I read, this one is 466 pages. Long but not atrociously long. I do think it could have been pared down a little, but I enjoyed every page of it.

I have never cared for stories about undercover assignments, even on TV or in films. They are too stressful for me and too many things can go wrong. This one had the extra added stress that Cassie was pretending to be someone that her housemates had been living with for months, whom they interacted with everyday. Yet I still enjoyed the story ...

What I do like about the two books I have read so far in this series is that the character exploration is just as important as solving the mystery. Yes, I cared who did it, but that isn't what kept me reading. I liked all the characters so well, even though they were young, immature, and had their faults, that I did not want any of them to be the culprit.

Cassie narrates this story which makes it even more personal and emotional. Here is a quote:
I don't tell people this, it's nobody's business, but the job is the nearest thing I've got to a religion. The detective's god is the truth, and you don't get much higher or much more ruthless than that. The sacrifice, at least in Murder and Undercover —  and those were always the ones I wanted, why go chasing diluted versions when you could have the breathtaking full-on thing? — is anything or everything you’ve got, your time, your dreams, your marriage, your sanity, your life. Those are the oldest and most capricious gods of the lot, and if they accept you into their service they take not what you want to offer but what they choose.
Good quote from the review at The New Yorker:
Most crime fiction is diverting; French’s is consuming. A bit of the spell it casts can be attributed to the genre’s usual devices—the tempting conundrum, the red herrings, the slices of low and high life—but French is also hunting bigger game. In her books, the search for the killer becomes entangled with a search for self. In most crime fiction, the central mystery is: Who is the murderer? In French’s novels, it’s: Who is the detective?
See other views by Moira at Clothes in Books and John Grant at Goodreads.


Publisher: Penguin Books, 2009 (orig. publ. 2008)
Length:  466 pages
Format:  Trade paperback
Series:   Dublin Murder Squad, #2
Setting:  Dublin, Ireland
Genre:   Mystery

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hit Man: Lawrence Block

Hit Man is not a novel but a series of connected stories about an assassin named Keller. He lives in an apartment in New York City and leads a (mostly) normal life, except that the way he supports himself is by killing people. It was a very enjoyable read but it is an adjustment to get used to a killer being the main focus, without any retribution in the end.

I have read several books about hitmen in the last year: Hit Man and Hit List by Block, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay, and The Butcher's Boy by Thomas Perry. As far as the subject matter, a man who kills for a living, this one was a more challenging read in some ways because it is so matter of fact. In all ways, Keller seems like a really nice guy. Normal except that he doesn't have a standard job. He isn't nasty, mean or a thug, although he is somewhat of a loner.

These stories do take the reader on the road with Keller to his assignments, but they do not focus very much on the actual act itself. The stories are still more about Keller, the people he runs into, his experiences. Keller is a likable person and it isn't that he is trying to fool others into liking him. He just doesn't have any issues with taking money to kill a person and once he has the contract, his main goal is to get the job done, within the specifications of the contract. So he may be nice in his everyday life, but he has picked a profession that is not nice at all.

In some ways I compare this to spies and their assignments. In spy fiction, often the spy is called upon to kill an innocent person just because it is better for the agency he works for, and thus, supposedly, better for the country he works for. The immorality of spies and their methods is not taken for granted, but often forgiven for the greater good. I am not sure that there is much difference between hitmen and spies who are willing to kill for the job.

Lawrence Block is a very gifted writer to convince us that Keller is worth reading about, when each story takes us back, even if only briefly, to the planning and execution of a crime. Dot is the only other character in this book who has a continuing role. Keller gets his assignments from a man in White Plains, and Dot is the go-between. We don't get close to Dot but they have some interesting conversations.

I like the view of New York that we get in these stories. Keller lives in New York City, but visits many other parts of the US. Most (all?) of Lawrence Block's series are set in New York, and he has edited two of books of short stories set in New York (Manhattan Noir and Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics). But I also like Keller's comments on the places he visits. In the first story, his assignment is in Oregon, a small town near to Portland; in the second one it is in Colorado, near to Denver.

Towards the end of this book, one of the stories ("Keller in Retirement") deals with Keller's new found passion – stamp collecting. I learned a lot about stamp collecting from this story, and I assume the information is accurate since the author is also a stamp collector. This hobby continues to be mentioned in stories about Keller.

I cannot forget to mention the humor. The stories are not laugh-out-loud funny, but are filled with low-key humor. Even though I am sure I will continue to find it a challenge to read about a killer for hire, these books are pleasant and fun.

In the Acknowledgments at the beginning of the book, Block says...
Grateful acknowledgment is also due to those publications in which some of Keller's adventures appeared in a slightly different form: Murder on the Run, a collection of stories by members of the Adams Round Table; Murder Is My Business, an anthology edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins; and, of course, Playboy.
It is amazing to me that Block could pull together those stories and make them into a book that holds together so well, and provides a broad picture of Keller and the stage he is at in his life and career.

I would not recommend this book and the later books in the series to everyone, but I will say that if you haven't read anything by Lawrence Block, you should try one of his books. There is the very humorous Burglar series and the serious and dark Matt Scudder series, and more, to choose from.

Also see...


Publisher:  Avon Twilight, 1999 (orig. publ. 1998).
Length:      309 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Keller, #1
Setting:      USA, New York City and various states
Genre:       Linked short stories
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The European Reading Challenge 2018

In the European Reading Challenge hosted by Rose City Reader, participants tour Europe through books. The books can be read anytime between January 1, 2018 to January 31, 2019.

The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country.

I am joining at the FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries. (And aiming for more. Maybe ten?)

Here is the list of countries:
Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.

I plan to read mainly crime fiction set in the European countries. I have participated in this challenge before but not in recent years. So far this year I have already read books set in Poland, Russia, Germany, Portugal, and the UK of course, but I have not reviewed most of them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Black Seraphim: Michael Gilbert

A description from the back of my paperback ediition:
James Scotland, a young pathologist, has come to Melchester on a much-needed vacation. But amid the cathedral town's quiet medieval atmosphere, he finds a hornet's nest of church politics, town and country rivalries. . . and murder. When one of the community's most influential figures dies suddenly (and very publicly), Scotland uncovers some curious alliances among church, state, and big business. Modern forensic pathology, the age-old mysteries of the church, and a bit of unexpected romance all play a part as Scotland unravels the unsettling truth about Melchester.
This is the fourth novel by Michael Gilbert that I have read, and it is my favorite so far. The other novels I read were from earlier in his writing career. However, I have read his first book of Calder and Behrens stories, Game Without Rules, and that series of stories would also be in contention for favorite. There are eleven stories in that book, and they are all about two spies, Mr Calder and Mr Behrens.

The Black Seraphim and Close Quarters, Gilbert's first novel, have the same setting, the Melchester Cathedral close. Otherwise, there is no connection between the two, and this one was published 36 years after Close Quarters. When reading Close Quarters I was at a loss as to the relationships of the residents of the Cathedral. I had heard of vicars, but knew nothing of deans and archdeacons and canons and vergers. An Episcopalian friend of mind explained  the liturgical ranks, and now it is clearer to me, at least clear enough to read the story without being totally at a loss.

Which is a good thing because a major issue in the Melchester community has caused a rift between the archdeacon and the dean, and this book seems to be more about a political community and business relationships than a religious community.

One of the quotes on the back of my edition says "there is no turning back for the reader who begins The Black Seraphim." That was so true for me. Once I got into the story, I had a hard time putting the book down.

I liked the protagonist, James Scotland. He is inquisitive, intelligent and a pathologist, so it makes sense that he can tell when something is not right about a death.  Amanda, the Dean's daughter is also a wonderful character, forthright, honest, with high expectations of others. I liked the romance, not sweet and sentimental at all.

See also this review at Peggy's Porch.


Publisher:  Penguin, 1985 (orig. publ. 1984).
Length:      216 pages 
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      Purchased at Planned Parenthood Sale, 2013..

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Reading in February 2018

So far I have read nine books in January and nine books in February; a lot of reading for me. Two of the nine books read in February were not crime fiction, although there is a bit of mystery in one of them.

In the non-crime related group, we have:

Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman (2014)
This is a story about World War II, its aftermath, the Holocaust, displaced persons in camps, and the looting of the belongings of Jewish families.The story begins with a Prologue set in 2013 when Jack Wiseman is dying. He passes a pendant that he took from the Gold Train collection on to his granddaughter, with a request to return it to its rightful owner. What follows is essentially three linked novellas, each a self-contained story, depicting some events related to the pendant. See my review here.
The Blitz:  The British Under Attack by Juliet Gardiner (2010)
It took me over a year to read this. It is a very good book, and a topic I am extremely interested in, but it was harrowing to read about the Blitz, and non-fiction isn't my favorite reading. So I took lots of breaks. A lot of it was first hand accounts of life in Britain during the Blitz, what people had to endure, the difficulty of providing support for those who had lost homes or families, and the devastation to the cities.
This is a very readable book and I would not discourage anyone from reading it, but I see it more as a historical reference in which the author has pulled together a tremendous amount of information about this event in history.

Moving on to my crime fiction reads, this month I read three books in the espionage fiction sub-genre, three vintage mysteries, and a historical mystery. And all of these were from my TBR piles, books that I have owned for at least a year, and in most cases it has been several years.

Death in the Stocks by Georgette Heyer (1935)
Georgette Heyer (1902-1972) is primarily known for her regency romances, but she also wrote 12 mystery novels. Four of them featured Inspector Hemingway, and this is the 2nd novel in that series. I have just recently started reading Heyer's mysteries again, and I am enjoying them quite a bit. See my review here.
The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)
The Polish officer of the title is recruited into the Polish underground after Poland is invaded by Germany in 1939. I was surprised by this book. It was drier than the first two books in the Night Soldiers series, and it felt more like a history than fiction. Many fans of Alan Furst's book consider this their favorite, so I think I am in a minority in my opinion. It doesn't deter me from moving on to the next one in the series, though.
Lumen by Ben Pastor (1999)
Immediately after reading The Polish Officer I started reading Lumen, which is set at the same time in Poland (1939 - 41). The protagonist is a Wehrmacht captain in Intelligence, Martin Bora, stationed in Cracow during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He is tasked with investigating the death of a nun, well known for her prophetic powers. The books were a perfect pair. I learned a lot about Poland during the time period from Alan Furst's book, and it made this one an easier and more interesting read.
The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall (1965)
Quiller is a British secret agent for a covert organization of spies, unacknowledged by the government. This book, originally titled The Berlin Memorandum, was the first in a series of 19 books about Quiller. There is a film adaptation starring George Segal, Alec Guinness, and Max Von Sydow. See my review here.
Murder Begins at Home by Delano Ames (1949)
Another pleasant and intriguing mystery featuring Jane and Dagobert Brown, a crime solving couple. Most of the books in the series are set in the UK, but this one, the second, is set in New Mexico, USA. One of the things I like about this series is that Jane and Dagobert are intellectual equals; Jane's part is not secondary to Dagobert's. See my review here.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (2013)
A Russian mole, spies working to turn enemy agents into double agents, a school for using sex in espionage, and lots and lots of violence. Some of my favorite spy fiction is low key and more about the tradecraft and gathering secrets from documents. This one is definitely on the gritty side but also puts the emphasis on tradecraft . Another one that has been adapted to film, now in theaters. A very good book, some very interesting characters, all very well developed. 
Gold Comes in Bricks by A.A. Fair (1940)
A.A. Fair is a pseudonym used by Erle Stanley Gardner for the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam stories. Flamboyant, fast-talking Bertha Cool is the boss; Donald Lam works for her. She spends most of her time telling Donald to change his ways, until he ends up making lots of money for her. This plot involves a very rich man who wants to find out why his daughter is spending too much money. It could be gambling or blackmail.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Murder Begins at Home: Delano Ames

Another satisfying, humorous, and intriguing mystery featuring Jane and Dagobert Brown, a crime-solving couple. In this 2nd book in the series, the couple is in the US, going to visit Dagobert's aunt who lives in Detroit, but they end up traveling through New Mexico instead. During his time in the military in World War II, Dagobert met Miranda Ross, and Jane and Dagobert drop by to visit at the luxurious ranch house owned by Miranda and her husband. There are several house guests, the situation is very strange and not entirely welcoming, and soon someone at the house has been killed. The couple have to halt their travels until the mystery is solved.

Before the Browns get to Miranda's ranch they stop at Pa Fergusson's combo filling station, eatery, and store. This a a description of Pa's daughter-in-law, Yolanda. Jane, the narrator, is writing a book about the mystery.
While I was noting these details, Dagobert was addressing the girl who stood with hands on hips behind the Coca-Cola cooler. She was appraising us coolly — or rather she was appraising Dagobert coolly — with wide dark eyes. She wore cheap earrings, which dangled as she put her head on one side, a vivid scarlet blouse, and a tight-fitting black-silk skirt. She wore no stockings, and her shoes, a size too big for her, were run over at the heels.
Dagobert, glancing through this description, says that I have somehow missed the essential Yolanda. He says I've forgotten her voluptuous yet satirical mouth, her white teeth, the sheen of her black hair which fell in waves down to straight slim shoulders, the clear olive complexion, the proud swell of her bosom. These are his phrases, and I record them just to give the masculine viewpoint. There was, I admit, something about Yolanda.
We get to see Pa Fergusson quite a bit more in this story, because he is also a deputy sheriff and in charge of investigating the murder at the ranch.

Jane and Dagobert are both such good characters, strange, weird, and adventurous. One of the things I like about this series is that they are intellectual equals; Jane's part is not secondary to Dagobert's. Some reviewers have compared this couple to Nick and Nora Charles. Jane and Dagobert do tend to talk about drinking a lot, although I don't remember them doing so much of it. And their repartee is clever and risqué at times.

The secondary characters at the ranch are a different matter; they all seem to be strange and not so wonderful characters, in different ways, and they all seem to be focused on Miranda. At first most of them are unappealing but throughout the book the reader can see that first impressions may be deceiving.

These books are humorous and not quite realistic but in the midst of all the shenanigans there is a serious mystery. I have to admit it, this book is not nearly as much fun as She Shall Have Murder, the first book in the series. I don't know if it is the setting (London law office vs. New Mexico ranch), or the characters. But still, I enjoyed the story. I have read reviews of some of the other books in this series and it seems the couple travel a lot. I look forward to more adventures in exotic places.

My copy was generously sent to me by Moira at Clothes in Books since she knows I love book covers with skulls; note the tiny skulls in the flowers on the book cover. Also see Moira's review of this book.


Publisher:   Rue Morgue Press, 2009 (orig. pub. 1949)
Length:      191 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Jane and Dagobert Brown series  #2
Setting:      New Mexico
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      A gift.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation - From The Beauty Myth to The Wine of Angels

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six other books, forming a chain. Every month she provides the title of a book as the starting point.

It is not a requirement that the books be ones I have read, but this month I have read all of the books in my chain.

The starting point this month is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I have not read the book, had never even heard of it, and I was surprised to find that it was first published in 1990. I doubt that things have changed that much since then.

Having grown up in the American South in the 1950s and 60s, I am well aware of pressure to be beautiful, to fit the mold, etc. And in my family, although my intelligence was praised, beauty in women was very important. It was a relief to get to California, and especially Santa Barbara, where things were much more relaxed. I stopped wearing make up, only putting it on when I went back to Alabama for the first few years. At least in my everyday life, I no longer felt that pressure.

But rather than continue on the Beauty theme I will move to another non-fiction book. The Monuments Men is about a kind of beauty, the beauty found in art. This book tells the true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program established in 1943 to help protect cultural property in war areas during and after World War II. Several hundred service members and civilians worked with various military forces to safeguard art works of historic and cultural importance from war damage. It is an amazing story.

My next link is to Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman, a novel that starts with the discovery of the Hungarian Gold Train, which contained valuables confiscated from Jewish citizens of Hungary during World War II. Where The Monuments Men focused on art treasures that were saved, this book focuses on the looting of everyday belongings (watches, jewelry, silverware, china), most of which were never returned to the owners or their families.

The next connection uses the time setting, another book related to World War II. The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott is a historical crime fiction novel, set during WWII in Australia. I like to read crime fiction set before, during and after that war, and this was especially interesting because I had not read much about Australia during that time. As the title indicates, the events take place from Christmas to New Year's Day. This was a somewhat gritty thriller.

 This leads to another mystery set at Christmas, Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown. This one is set in the UK in the 1980s, when it was published. The victim is the vicar's son-in-law, and he is found dead in a bedroom at the vicarage. The vicar, his wife, and his daughter are all suspects. This is a Christmas mystery that is not saccharine, and not cozy at all. This book is part of the Lloyd and Hill series, one of my favorite mystery series.

The link to my next book, Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie, is quite clear. Not only are the titles very similar but Jill McGown's book was written as a homage to Christie's book. This novel is the first in the Miss Marple series and was published in 1930. The story is set in the village of St. Mary Mead. A very unpopular resident of the village is murdered in the vicar's study. The first person narrator is the Vicar. Miss Marple  is very perceptive and sees the evil that is hidden underneath the surface in the village.

My final link is to The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman, a completely different kind of mystery novel, with a touch of the supernatural, starring a female vicar. I have enjoyed series with clerical protagonists, but mixing the supernatural in was questionable and the length was daunting (589 pages).  However, the book proved to be especially interesting because it highlights the difficulties of being a woman priest; it was an engaging read and I loved every page of it.