Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Benighted: J.B. Priestley

I read this book because it was the source for the film The Old Dark House. My husband bought the book and read it, and we wanted to re-watch the film. Because this is in the horror genre, I was not too sure I would enjoy it. But I did like it, although it wasn't scary at all to me. Atmospheric, yes, very much so.

From the book cover:
A torrential downpour forces Philip and Margaret Waverton and their friend Roger Penderel to seek shelter in an ancient, crumbling mansion inhabited by the strange and sinister Femm family. Determined to make the best of the circumstances, the benighted travellers drink and talk to pass the time while the storm rages outside. But as the night progresses and tensions rise, dangerous and unexpected secrets emerge. On the house’s top floor are two locked doors: behind one of them is the mysterious, unseen Sir Roderick Femm, while the other conceals something terrifying and deadly ... 
Benighted (1927), a classic ‘old dark house’ story of psychological terror, was the second novel by one of the most prolific and beloved British authors of the 20th century, J.B. Priestley (1894-1984). This edition includes an introduction by Orrin Grey, who discusses the connections between the novel and its film adaptation, James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).
The first three chapters are told from the point of view of each of the three main characters (although not in first person). The first chapter focuses on Philip Waverton's thoughts as he drives his wife and his friend Penderel in a horrendous storm, on mountainous  roads, in "wildest Wales." Soon they are forced to turn into the drive of an old house off the road. The second chapter is devoted to Penderel,  who gains entry to the house. In that chapter, the Femm family members who reside in the house are introduced, and their servant, Morgan. Miss Femm and her brother live in the house with their brother Roderick, who is confined to bed upstairs. In the third chapter, we see things from Margaret's point of view as she changes out of her soaked clothes and experiences Miss Femm's strange ways. At this point, the reader is aware that there is some problem between Margaret and Philip Waverton, and it is clear that they both want it to be resolved.

Although the house has no extra beds, the visitors must stay because the road is entirely blocked in both directions. The Femms share their dinner with the unwelcome guests. And then two more victims of the storm seek shelter and the group gets livelier. For such a brief book, the character development is very impressive. Due to the unusual and tense circumstances, the group tends to share more than one might usually do in a social situation. Those looking for more thrills might find the conversations and introspection less interesting, but this was perfect for me. There are unpleasant surprises towards the end, but overall, an excellent read.

Very soon after I read the book, we watched the film; I remembered nothing from the first viewing. Up to a point, the film is very faithful to the book. The actors seem like good choices for the roles, although I wasn't picturing someone like Charles Laughton in the Sir William Porterhouse role. Penderel, played by Melvyn Douglas, was my favorite character in the book and the film. The film also stars Gloria Stuart as Margaret, Raymond Massey as Philip, and Boris Karloff as Morgan.

The film was more effective at being menacing and scary, but the book gets across the characters and their relationships better. I enjoyed both. The introduction by Orrin Grey, which discusses both the film and the book, was interesting and informative.

See the reviews by NancyO at Oddly Weird Fiction and J.F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books.


Publisher:  Valancourt Books, 2018. Orig. pub. 1927.
Length:     172 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Setting:     Wales
Genre:      Horror, Psychological Terror
Source:     Borrowed from my husband.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Broken Harbor: Tana French

The fourth book in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series features Mike "Scorcher" Kennedy, who had a minor role in Faithful Place, and his new partner, rookie detective Richie Curran. Their new assignment takes them to the scene of a multiple homicide. And the Brianstown housing development just happens to be on the site of a spot where Scorcher's family vacation for many years when he was a child. At that time the area was called Broken Harbor.

From the dust jacket of my hardback edition:
On one of the half-built, half-abandoned "luxury" developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care. 
At first, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, think it’s going to be an easy solve. But too many small things can’t be explained. The half-dozen baby monitors, their cameras pointed at holes smashed in the Spains’ walls. The files erased from the Spain’s computer. The story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder who was slipping past all the locks. 

There are two stories here: the crime, the murder of three members of a family; and the background story of Scorcher Kennedy. As Scorcher and Richie dig deeper into the investigation, they run into many inconsistencies and learn that the face that the family presented to the world was far from the truth. They slowly find their way to the truth.

Scorcher narrates the story, and the picture that the reader gets of him is very different from how he was portrayed in Faithful Place, which was told from Frank Mackey's point of view. Scorcher has always prided himself on being a top-notch detective and sticking by the rules. He wants (and needs) to solve the case quickly but not at the expense of possibly charging the wrong person with murder. So he and Richie use all the resources of the Murder Squad to find out what was really going on in the last few weeks of Frank Spain's life. Could he have murdered his children and tried to kill his wife?

This is the fourth Dublin Murder Squad story that I have read. As usual I found the story compelling and the characters very well developed. I especially liked the portrayals of the two detectives and their developing relationship. The story of Scorcher's early family life is slowly revealed, and impacts on this case, although there is no connection to the crime.

I love Tana French's writing. I usually shy away from extremely long books but I don't mind the length in her books; this one was 450 pages. One thing about this book that I had a problem with... The ending of the book is downbeat, quite bleak. So if you are looking for a book with a more positive outlook, this isn't it. It seemed to me to be a realistic picture of an investigation, showing the wear and tear such work can have on the policemen involved.

See these reviews:
At Mystery Scene
John Grant's review at Goodreads
Rob Kitchin's review at The View from the Blue House


Publisher: Viking, 2012
Length:    450 pages
Format:    Hardcover
Series:     Dublin Murder Squad
Setting:    Dublin, Ireland
Genre:     Police Procedural
Source:   Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, Sept. 2018.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Might As Well Be Dead: Rex Stout

Might As Well Be Dead by Rex Stout is a Nero Wolfe novel, published in 1956. In some ways, this novel fits the (somewhat) standard formula of the mysteries featuring Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. The case starts as a search for a missing person, then later turns into a hunt for murderer. The setting is New York and we spend plenty of time in the brownstone, following the investigation. Wolfe's standard group of freelance investigators are called in to help.

The missing person is the son of a businessman from Omaha, Nebraska; the well-to-do business man, James R. Herold, has discovered that he wrongly accused his son of theft eleven years earlier and wants to re-establish contact with him. The New York police have had no success finding him and they suggested Nero Wolfe might be able to do more on the case. Soon Archie and Nero are wondering if the man they are searching for is a man recently convicted of murder. That leads to Wolfe trying to prove that the convicted man was not the murderer and this becomes one of the more complex cases that Wolfe has dealt with.

There are many interesting characters. The father is a real cold fish, but he is trying to do right by his son. And he keeps mentioning how his wife as getting impatient about the search.

The convicted man's lawyer is certain the man did not commit murder, but doesn't have the resources to do the required research to prove it. And thus Wolfe gets involved, taking the risk that if he can prove the man is innocent, he will reap some benefits. Wolfe and Archie are both at their best in this story. Archie is again bewitched by a woman who is central to the story. And it works very well here.

Wolfe's lawyer, Nathaniel Parker, has a bigger role than usual. Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins are not happy at all to hear that Wolfe is trying to prove that they made a mistake in charging the convicted man.

I always love the descriptions of Wolfe's band of investigators who work for him when needed. Archie is narrating, of course.
WHEN I GOT BACK to 35th Street it was half-past six and the conference was in full swing.
I was pleased to see that Saul Panzer was in the red leather chair. Unquestionably Johnny Keems had made a go for it, and Wolfe himself must have shooed him off. Johnny, who at one time, under delusions of grandeur, had decided my job would look better on him or he would look better on it, no matter which, but had found it necessary to abandon the idea, was a pretty good operative but had to be handled. Fred Durkin, big and burly and bald, knows exactly what he can expect of his brains and what he can’t, which is more than you can say for a lot of people with a bigger supply. Orrie Cather is smart, both in action and in appearance. As for Saul Panzer, I thoroughly approve of his preference for free-lancing, since if he decided he wanted my job he would get it–or anybody else’s.
Any Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout has a lot to offer, and this one is no different. This was a reread, and it did not disappoint me.

See Yvette's review at In so many words.


Publisher:  Fontana, 1980. Orig. pub. 1956.
Length:     192 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe
Setting:     New York City
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased this book.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Allmen and the Dragonflies: Martin Suter

This book was an unusual choice for me. I picked it up in the bookstore on the mystery shelves, knew nothing about it. I loved the cover, but I did check the blurbs and description on the covers before I purchased the book. The story sounded interesting and it was set in Switzerland. Crime fiction set in Switzerland isn't the easiest to find. (Suggestions are welcome.)

Here is the description of the protagonist of this book, from the back of my edition:
Johann Friedrich von Allmen, a bon vivant of dandified refinement, has exhausted his family fortune by living in Old World grandeur despite present-day financial constraints. Forced to downscale, Allmen inhabits the garden house of his former Zurich estate, attended by his Guatemalan butler, Carlos. When not reading novels by Balzac and Somerset Maugham, he plays jazz on a Bechstein baby grand. 

Allmen has expensive tastes and questionable morals. He isn't afraid to break the law to add to his available funds. Even so, he refuses to lower his expenditures in order to live on the money he takes in, and ends up in enough debt that one of his debtors begins to threaten him. Initially he solves  this problem by stealing a very valuable Art Nouveau bowl with a dragonfly motif. This leads him into even more trouble.

This book doesn't fit the usual crime fiction format and assumptions; it is quieter, not full of action or  excitement. The English-language publisher bills this as a "thrilling art heist escapade" and I think that is misleading. There is crime, there is even a murder, but the only puzzle is how Allmen will solve his problems. All of that was fine with me, I just want to be clear that this is a low-key mystery, not a thriller.

I found this to be a charming read and well worth spending time on. I liked the two main characters, Allmen and his companion, Carlos, and Allmen's dire situation is handled with subtle humor. The story is a good length, under 200 pages. There are four further books featuring Allmen, but only the second has also been translated into English. Reading this book also made me curious about Martin Suter's other books.


Publisher:   New Vessel, 2018 (orig. pub. 2011)
Length:      186 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Allmen #1
Setting:      Zurich, Switzerland
Genre:        Mystery
Translation:   Translated from German by Steph Morris
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Pearls before Swine: Margery Allingham

I am rereading the Albert Campion series by Margery Allingham in order, although I have been tempted to skip over a few of the books and move on to Tiger in the Smoke. For some reason I had the impression I wasn't going to like this book that much (even though I am a huge fan of the series), but as soon as I started reading I was again under the spell of Allingham's writing.

As the novel starts, we know that Albert Campion, returned to London from a long wartime assignment, is taking a bath in preparation for catching a train to the country. But we also know that two people have brought a dead body into his London flat and laid it on his bed and we suspect that this will delay his train trip. We soon find out that the two people carrying the dead body are Mr. Lugg, Campion's manservant, and Lady Carados, elderly mother of John, Marquess of Carados, now a war hero. They found the body in Lord Carados' bed, and they don't want it to be found there.

This book is like the previous book in the series, Traitor's Purse. The reader doesn't know for a good portion of the story exactly what is going on, and neither does Albert Campion. He stays in London out of loyalty to Lord Carados, but he is aggravated that he is expected to stay and help with the investigation, when all the facts are not shared with him. The situation can be confusing, thus I would not recommend this book as an entry point to the series. But for me, the slow reveal of the full situation and the pulling together of the various mysteries was rewarding and entertaining.

I especially enjoyed this for the setting of wartime London, at the end of the war. Lord Carados' mansion is livable and is housing a good number of his friends, but has been damaged by the bombing. The other three homes on the square where he lives have much worse damage. Lugg is an ambulance driver during the Blitz, and Lady Carados runs a voluntary canteen in the square.

I usually read these books equally for the mystery and the characters and their stories, but this time the plot was admittedly very hard to follow. In a review of a previous book, Flowers for the Judge, I noted: "Margery Allingham's plots are sometimes fantastical; there are weird, eccentric characters, who seem to be in the book for no reason." There is also often an element of romance as a side plot. And, as usual, I enjoyed the whole experience, quirky characters and all.

This book was originally published in the UK as Coroner's Pidgin. See the review at Past Offences.


Publisher:  Bantam, 1984. Orig. pub. 1945.
Length:     216 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Albert Campion
Setting:    UK, mostly London
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

My Mother, the Detective: The Complete Mom Short Stories: James Yaffe

I had surgery yesterday; it wasn't very serious and went well. However, my chair in front of my laptop is the only place I can sit comfortably without pain, so I am taking advantage of that to write this short post.

The eight short stories in My Mother, the Detective were originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, between 1952 and 1968. In each story, Dave, a detective in the New York Homicide Squad, and his wife Shirley visit his mother and they discuss one of his cases over dinner. She asks some pertinent questions and solves the case, and he is afraid that his coworkers are going to find out that his success rate with cases is due to his mother's help.

That sounds like a silly premise, but it certainly worked for me. The stories are light and fun. Dave's mother is like a Jewish Miss Marple, using her experiences with people in her neighborhood to draw connections that solve the crimes. She is a very entertaining armchair detective. My favorite stories in the book are the last two: "Mom and the Haunted Mink" and "Mom Remembers."

James Yaffe is a new author to me. He recently came to my attention at Clothes in Books, where Moira focused on the story titled "Mom Sings an Aria."

Yaffe was a very interesting man, who wrote both non-fiction and fiction. Between 1988 and 1992 he wrote four novels about Dave's Mom. I look forward to trying one of those. See these posts to learn more about James Yaffe:

My copy of My Mother, the Detective was published by Crippen and Landru in 1997. Twenty years later, they published an enlarged edition with one extra story, “Mom Lights a Candle,” written in 2002.


Publisher:   Crippen and Landru, 1997
Length:      174 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      New York City
Genre:       Short stories
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Reading Summary, June 2019

This has been a pretty good reading month for me. I was concentrating on reading from my 20 Books of Summer List. I also read mostly more contemporary fiction, unusual for me, because my 20 Books list was slanted that way.

Mystery reference

Historical Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Fiction, Film & TV (2018) by Barry Forshaw
I know that historial crime fiction is a popular sub-genre now. I enjoy reading that type of novel. But I was surprised at how many authors write that sort of mystery. And the book does not cover every author in that area, of course. My favorite sections cover the early 20th century through the 1950s. There is a good overview of this book at Crime Fiction Lover, if you are interested. And a very interesting post at the Rap Sheet, with lots of details and an interview with the author.

Historical Fiction

Crooked Heart (2014) by Lissa Evan
This is a dark comedy, beautifully told, very moving. Noel Bostock, aged 10, is evacuated from London to escape the Nazi bombardment, shortly after the death of his godmother, with whom he had been living. He is assigned to Vera Sedge, a small time con artist, mostly unsuccessful. 

Transcription (2018) by Kate Atkinson
I wasn't quite sure what category this fits in. I consider it spy fiction; the New Yorker refers to it as a "spy novel." But on Goodreads it is overwhelmingly shelved as Historical Fiction. It doesn't matter. I loved the book, I am sure it will be one of my top reads this year. The story is set in 1940 and 1950, with a brief framing story in 1981.

Post-apocalyptic Fiction

Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel
The apocalyptic event in this story is the Georgia Flu, a strain of the swine flu that wipes out 99% of the world's population. The story is set primarily in Toronto, Canada and northern Michigan. My thoughts on the book are here

Crime Fiction

My Mother, the Detective: The Complete Mom Short Stories (1997)
by James Yaffe
The eight short stories in this book were originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, between 1952 and 1968. They are a lot of fun. Dave, a policeman, visits his mother every week and over dinner they discuss one of his cases. 

Friends and Traitors (2017) by John Lawton
This is the 8th book in the Inspector Troy series, one of my favorite series. The novels are a mix of police procedural and espionage, and are set between 1934 and 1963, with many of them covering multiple timelines. This one is set in 1958, but does have flashbacks to earlier times.

London Rules (2018) by Mick Herron
This is the 5th book in Herron's Slough House series about spies who have been demoted due to some disgrace or screw up in their jobs, and are now working under Jackson Lamb. I have liked each book in the series more than the last.

Out of the Deep I Cry (2004) by Julia Spencer-Fleming
This is the 3rd book in a series featuring Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alstyne, the police chief of Miller's Kill, New York. This time the story features two timelines, one in the present and one that starts in the 1920's during Prohibition. This is another series that gets better with each book I read.

Perfect Gallows (1988) by Peter Dickinson
A story about a murder that occurs in 1944 on an estate in the UK; the estate is occupied by US forces preparing for the invasion of France. See my thoughts here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Perfect Gallows: Peter Dickinson

I have been reading a lot of books set during World War II lately, and Perfect Gallows is one of the best of them.

"About the book" from the author's website:
In 1875 Arnold Wragge left the back streets of Portsmouth for the diamond fields of South Africa. Twenty years later he returned a millionaire, built himself a mansion in the Downs, and sired two daughters and a son. When the son is missing, presumed killed, in the Allied invasion of Italy, he sends for his great-great-nephew Andrew, to come from the same back streets and be inspected as a potential heir.
Andrew isn’t interested. He is set on a career on the stage. One of Sir Arnold’s daughters, his cousin Elspeth, equally stage-struck in her time, persuades him to take part in her proposed amateur production of The Tempest. The park is full of American soldiers preparing for the invasion of Normandy. In the middle of all the activity a stranger appears, claiming to be the missing heir.
Forty years later Andrew, now the famous Adrian Waring, tells the story to his partner and explains his own part in the tragedy that followed.

Peter Dickinson has long been one of my favorite authors, and several of his mystery novels feature dual timelines where the older time setting is during (or around) World War II. This story opens in 1944 with Andrew discovering a death in the dovecote on the grounds of The Mimms, the home of his wealthy uncle. Although the death could be suicide, Andrew can see that it has been faked to look that way. In 1986, Andrew returns to The Mimms for an estate sale, and memories of the death and his part in it return. Most of the novel covers the time in 1944 that Andrew spent at The Mimms leading up to his discovery of the body.

Andrew is young, soon to be conscripted into the military, but even at this age he knows he wants to be an actor and that he is very good at it. Everything he does, every thought he has, is focused on learning more about acting. Every experience is stored in his memory for use in future roles. Many of the activities in the story center around a performance of The Tempest, which is being organized by his cousin, Elspeth Wragge, but referred to most often as Cousin Brown. (Which sometimes makes things confusing.) His association with Elspeth is fortuitous because she sees his talent and can understand his aspirations in the theater.

Since the majority of this novel is set in 1944, in the days leading up to D-Day, the dual timelines are not confusing at all. And the chapters that switch to a new timeline are clearly marked. It is partially the picture of Andrew's life before the war contrasted with the older Adrian (the name he took as he began his acting career) that appealed to me so much. I will note that some readers find the main character an unlikable character and could not get past that.

This novel worked for me both as a mystery and a depiction of Britain during the war, after the US had joined in the war. The Mimms is occupied by US forces gearing up for the invasion of France. This novel is a very interesting look at how that affected the household, both the Wragge family and the servants, and the relationships between the US military and the British in situations like this.

This is what P.D. James had to say about this book:
A new Peter Dickinson novel is a keenly-awaited event for all those aficionados of the detective story who demand a great deal more than an ingenious puzzle. He is the true original, a superb writer who revitalises the conventions of the mystery genre to give us novels present them. He is incapable of writing a trite or inelegant sentence, and he creates characters who are true eccentrics but never caricatures. From the marvellous first chapter of Perfect Gallows when we encounter the hanging body in the dovecote, we know we are once again in the safe hands of a master.
Jo Walton has a wonderful post at Perfect Mystery: Peter Dickinson’s Perfect Gallows.

My favorite book by Dickinson is King & Joker, an alternate history set in an England where George V's elder brother did not die but lived to become King Victor I, and is later succeeded by his grandson, King Victor II.

I am also very fond of his unusual mystery series featuring Superintendent Jimmy Pibble. See my reviews of The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest and The Old English Peep Show.


Publisher:  Pantheon Books, 1988. 
Length:     234 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK, World War II and 1986
Genre:      Historical Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book.