Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Drowning Pool: Ross Macdonald

In this second Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald, the plot is complicated, with a large cast of characters. Archer's client is a woman who has intercepted a letter intended for her husband that reveals that she has been dallying with another man. She is concerned that her husband will see the letter, but even more than that, she does not want her mother-in-law to hear about it. Her husband's family was very well-to-do but at this point in time is living on a lovely estate on a relatively small fixed income and the mother-in-law controls the purse strings. The job she wants Archer to do is find out who sent the letter, and possibly prevent any future occurrences. When Archer visits the family home where they all live, the mother-in-law is drowned in a pool during a party.

The other characters include the client's teenage daughter; the chauffeur who is attracted to the daughter; the husband's friend, a playwright; and the sheriff who is a close friend of the family. Immediately the chauffeur comes under suspicion as the killer, but Archer is not convinced that he committed the crime. In his mind, just about anyone could be a suspect.

That is more of the set up and the story than I like to reveal about a novel, but there is plenty more to follow. The family is extremely dysfunctional, and there are various criminal elements involved. The initial setting is the southern California coast, in an area where oil is the prime source of money. Archer travels as far afield as Las Vegas looking for clues and evidence, and gets beaten up along the way.

Archer is one of those private eyes who won't give up, and gives the case his all. He goes above and beyond. The ending surprised me, and the book was a pleasure to read.

An example of the writing... which also demonstrates Macdonald's concern for the environment.
I was still chilly a half-hour later, crossing the pass to Nopal Valley. Even at its summit the highway was wide and new, rebuilt with somebody's money. I could smell the source of the money when I slid down into the valley on the other side. It stank like rotten eggs. 
The oil wells from which the sulphur gas rose crowded the slopes on both sides of the town. I could see them from the highway as I drove in: the latticed triangles of the derricks where the trees had grown, the oil-pumps nodding and clanking where cattle had grazed. Since 'thirty-nine or 'forty, when I had seen it last, the town had grown enormously, like a tumor. It had thrust out shoots in all directions: blocks of match-box houses in raw new housing developments and the real estate shacks to go with them, a half-mile gauntlet of one-story buildings along the highway: veterinarians, chiropractors, beauty shops, marketerias, restaurants, bars, liquor stores....
More had changed than the face of the buildings, or the number and make of the cars. The people were different and there were too many of them. Crowds of men whose faces were marked by sun and work and boredom walked in the streets and in and out of the bars, looking for fun or trouble. Very few women showed on the main street. The blue-shirted cop on the main corner wore his holster on the front of his hip, with the flap unbuttoned and the gun-butt showing.

After reading the book, my husband and I watched the film version with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. I was very surprised that the story had been relocated to New Orleans and surrounding areas. The setting was lovely and the decadent culture of the rich and the dysfunctional family fit in perfectly there. The story was not identical; some relationships had been changed. But for the most part the basic structure remained and the acting was very good. Melanie Griffith plays the extremely flirtatious daughter. As usual, the book is better, but the film is very entertaining.

Other reviews:


Publisher:  Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1996 (orig. pub. 1950)
Length:   244 pages
Format:   Trade paperback
Series:    Lew Archer, #2
Setting:   Southern California
Genre:    Mystery
Source:   I purchased my copy

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Limbo Line: Victor Canning

Richard Manston has quit his job in intelligence work but his old  boss has called him back for another assignment. They have identified a Soviet group that kidnaps Russian defectors and returns them to the USSR to deter others from defecting. A young ballerina who is now living in England will be the next target. Manston wants to prevent the kidnapping but his superiors want to allow it to happen so that they can trace the route and shut down the operation.

I would describe this story as an Alistair MacLean adventure crossed with the James Bond books by Ian Fleming. I have read seven books by Fleming but only one by MacLean (The Guns of Navarone) so this may not be entirely accurate. Manston is working for an unnamed secret intelligence group but the story felt much more like an adventure thriller to me, with romance included. All of it was very well done, including the romance, so no complaints here.

Manston is a very likable character. He shows up later in the Rex Carver books, and in those books he is a bit different, darker. I also like the portrayal of Irina, the dancer, a woman who is capable and unafraid. That may be one of Canning's strongest points for me; he does a very good job with his characters, keeping me interested and involved whether they are good or bad or in between. There are some very interesting villains in this book too.

I am a big fan of Victor Canning's writing. I have only read his mystery and espionage fiction, and this is only the fourth book of his I have read, but I will be seeking out more of his books.

One resource I used in writing this review was a reference book by John Higgins, A Rex Carver Companion.

This review of Limbo Line at Mystery*File has more details, and more about the author's writing career and recommended books.


Publisher:   Berkley Medallion Books, 1965. Orig. pub. 1963.
Length:      192 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      UK, France
Genre:       Adventure, Thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Charlie Chan: Yunte Huang

The full title of this book is Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History. The author, Yunte Huang, is a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My husband and I are both fans of the Charlie Chan mystery novels by Earl Derr Biggers and the many Charlie Chan films that were based on or inspired by the novels. When this book came out, he bought a copy and he and my son both read it years ago.

When I first heard about this book, I thought it was about Charlie Chan the fictional character and Chang Apana, the Hawaiian police officer that Charlie was based on. That is true, but it is so much more. The book covers much of Earl Derr Biggers' life and it talks about most of the books he wrote, then moves on to the success of Charlie Chan on film. It also provides some background on the history of racism in the US.

All of that is a lot to digest and many reviewers complain that the book tries to cover too much and loses focus. For me, that approach worked fine and made the topic more interesting. The writing was fine and I had no problem staying interested. I was worried about getting too much information about the plots of the books (I have only read 3 of the 6 Charlie Chan novels), but that did not happen. The ones that were mentioned were given an overview and where they fit into Biggers' life.

I found the author very interesting. For one thing, we have some things in common. When Yunte Huang moved to the US from China, he chose to go to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa for his undergraduate studies. That is where I went to college also. He chose Alabama because it was the first state alphabetically, not knowing much about that area of the country. And today he teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Santa Barbara is where I have lived for decades. (In the middle he did post graduate studies in New York... but I have never been to New York.)



Publisher:   W. W. Norton and Co., 2010
Length:       297 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Settings:     Hawaii; USA
Genre:        Nonfiction
Source:       Borrowed from my husband

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

New Orleans Mourning: Julie Smith

This is the first novel in the Skip Langdon series by Julie Smith; it won the 1991 Edgar Award for best mystery novel.

During Mardi Gras the King of the Carnival, Chauncey St. Amant, is shot on his float during the parade. A character dressed as Dolly Parton shoots him from a balcony as the float goes by. Skip Langdon is one of the cops working on crowd control for the event, and she is near to the float when it  happens.

As the Publisher's Weekly review describes it, she "uncovers a cast of intriguing characters, all as much Chauncey's victims as they are suspects in his murder, most of them inhabiting a 'poison garden of corruption' and substance abuse where it's not just on Mardi Gras that everyone wears a mask." I could not put it any better.

Skip also happens to be a friend of the victim and his family, and it is that and her family's status in the community that allows her to be a part of the investigation, although she is only a rookie cop.

The setting of New Orleans during Mardi Gras was very interesting. New Orleans is a beautiful city but this book focused on eccentric and rich people and corruption in the government and the police. I always find evil in high places depressing, if realistic.

When I read this book, I found the story, centered on an extremely rich and powerful and dysfunctional family, to be unrealistic and over the top. But just recently I read The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald, published in 1950 and set in coastal southern California. It features another rich family with absolutely no well-adjusted, happy people so maybe those types of families are more common than I think. Or they make better subjects for crime fiction.

Although Skip Langdon is a policewoman, this is not a straightforward police procedural, because she is assigned to work with two detectives who don't really include her in the investigation. She is supposed to be gathering information from the family because she has connections, and reporting back to them. One of the pair totally despises her,  the other is sympathetic but still not very supportive. So she basically goes off alone looking for clues and the sleuthing is somewhat haphazard.

Skip is the center of the story, but it is told from the perspective of several characters. I like that method of storytelling although it is not universally popular. Skip has lots of insecurities; she is six feet tall and somewhat overweight and has never fit in with her family. Most of the other characters are extremely eccentric or self-centered.

The ending is unsatisfactory but realistic. I liked this well enough to continue and see what happens to Skip in the next one.


Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1991 (orig. publ. 1990) 
Length:       339 pages
Format:      Paperback 
Series:       Skip Langdon, #1
Setting:      New Orleans, Louisiana
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Reading Summary, August 2018

This month I read 12 books, which is a lot for me. One was very short, one was very long (for me). I don't know where I found the time to read all those books, but I do know I have energy for reading but often not enough mental energy for reviewing. I completed reading all the books on my 20 Books of Summer list (actually there were 21 on the list) but reviewed only 6 of them.

Three of the books I read this month were not crime fiction, which is unusual.


Starting Out in the Evening (1997) by Brian Morton
This book follows a short period in the life of four people: Leonard Schiller, a novelist in his seventies; Heather Wolfe, a woman in her early twenties who wants to write her thesis on Schiller's novels; Ariel, Leonard's daughter, who wants very much to have a child; and Casey, one of Ariel's ex-boyfriends. It was a wonderful read but very different from my usual reading. There is a film adaptation; I will be watching it soon.
The Uncommon Reader (2007) by Alan Bennett
I enjoyed this book very much, although of course it bears no resemblance to reality. The Queen ends up visiting a bookmobile on the grounds of Buckingham Palace because her Corgis are causing a ruckus in that area. She checks out a book with no real intention of reading it, but as she gives it a try she becomes intrigued and decides to check out a another book. And thus the Queen becomes a reader. For me, it was all about discovering reading and the joys of reading.

SCIENCE FICTION reading in August

The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger
It is difficult to put this book in a category. It could just as easily (and more logically) be called a romance. Time travel books are usually categorized as science fiction but on the other hand, this one has very little science involved. For several days my reading time was spent mesmerized by this story and I had no complaints about the book at all. (I will follow up with a more detailed post eventually.)

CRIME FICTION reads in August:

Dark Passage (1946) by David Goodis
A noir novel about a man in prison for his wife's murder, which he did not commit. He manages to escape from prison and returns to San Francisco and the neighborhood he lived in to try to prove his innocence. We also watched the film adaptation which starred Bogart and Bacall. See my thoughts on the book and the film adaptation here.
Follow Her Home (2013) by Steph Cha
This book is  hard to describe. It starts out seeming light, even frothy, contrary to the descriptions of noir on the cover. It takes a long time to turn darker but when it does it gets very dark quickly. The protagonist, Juniper Song, is Korean American. Philip Marlow has always been her hero, and she models her "detecting" on his adventures (sort of). I don't think this would work for everyone but it did for me.

Death in the Clouds (1935) by Agatha Christie
In this Hercule Poirot mystery, a woman is killed on an airplane during a flight from Paris to Croydon. Her death isn't discovered until well into the flight. Hercule Poirot is a passenger on the airplane but he slept through most of the flight. My full review here.

The Limbo Line (1963) by Victor Canning
Richard Manston has quit his job in intelligence work but his old  boss has called him back for another assignment. It is an old story but by one of my favorite authors so I enjoyed it a lot. I would describe it as Alistain Maclean crossed with the James Bond books by Ian Fleming. Manston shows up in the Rex Carver series by Canning. 
Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie
My second Agatha Christie for the month! I liked it even more than Death in the Clouds, but this one was a good bit darker. The death occurs on a cruise along the Nile, and Hercule Poirot, along with his old friend Colonel Race, must solve the mystery. A large cast of interesting people. And we have watched the film adaptation with Peter Ustinov as Poirot.
The Cold, Cold Ground (2012) by Adrian McKinty
This is the first in a series of six books featuring Detective Sean Duffy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The book is set in Belfast of 1981, during the Irish Troubles, and Duffy is a Catholic cop in a primarily Protestant police force. Very good, and I hope to find a copy of the 2nd in the series soon.
A Cold Day For Murder (1992) by Dana Stabenow
Kate Shugak is a former investigator for the Alaska District Attorney's Office as this books starts. Her former boss talks her into taking on an assignment to investigate two men who have gone missing in the Alaskan wilderness. Kate is an Aleut, and very familiar with the area and the people. I had waited 12 years after I purchased my copy to read this book. What a mistake. I will be looking out for the next few books in this series. She has a lovely dog, and I loved the setting.
The Bigger They Come (1939) by A. A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner)
This was the first book in the Donald Lam and Bertha Cool series. This is the origin story. It was good to hear how Bertha and Donald got together. It was only the third book I have read in this series (since my youth) and definitely my favorite.

A Spy by Nature (2001) by Charles Cummings
Alec Milius is a natural liar, which makes him perfect for the espionage business. He gets involved in corporate espionage, but his work is guided by government departments, whether they admit it or not. It seems to be a very accurate picture of how lonely a person's life can become once he  becomes an agent. There is no one to trust, no one to turn to. It was very good read and based on the author's experience of having been recruited by MI6. I will be following this book up with the sequel, The Spanish Game.