Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: "Lantern Marsh" by Poppy Z. Brite


This is my kind of sweet, tame Halloween tale. Not too scary, but a little creepy. And with an environmental message on the side.

The story begins:

"The marsh brooded on the outskirts of town. We children sometimes played there during the day, poling flat-bottomed boats through the dark water, choked with swamp hyacinth, stranding ourselves on any of the hundreds of tiny islands. By day the marsh was a place of filtering, shifting patches of sunlight, cypress and live oak bearded with Spanish moss...

At night the lanterns took over."

Three kids (Bronwen, Phil, and Noel) live in Lantern Marsh, a town near a beautiful marsh. All of them are intrigued by the marsh, but Noel is obsessed with the marsh and its lights. Every night the lights hover above the marsh. The teachers say that it is caused by marsh gas, but none of the kids believes that.

Noel also despises a local businessman, Mr. Prudhomme, who owns half the marsh and wants to take it over and develop the land. Years later, when they go off to college, Mr. Prudhomme very nearly succeeds at doing this, but Nick carries through on his promise to stop the development. The ending is mildly creepy.


I read this story in Halloween Horrors. That book is a 2010 reprint of October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween, ed. by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish, published in 2000.


I also read a few more stories from this anthology, but none of those engaged me. They were not bad, just not the type of story I enjoy. Some combine horror with sadness, some were bland and somewhat silly. I will probably put this book on the shelf and try more stories in it next year.






Saturday, October 16, 2021

#1976Club: A Little Local Murder

Robert Barnard (1936 – 2013) was a British author who published mysteries from 1974 through 2012. He wrote over 40 novels and I have read about half of them. A Little Local Murder was his second novel. I selected it for the 1976 Club because I want to compare it to books he wrote after 2000. 

From the Pan Macmillan website, here is a description for a 2016 reprint of A Little Local Murder:

The news that Radio Broadwich is to make a documentary on Twytching for broadcast in America spreads through the small village like wildfire. Mrs Deborah Withens, Twytching's resident doyenne and arbiter of good taste, takes it upon herself to control the presentation of her 'county town' and assumes responsibility for picking those that will take part, provoking fierce rivalry amongst the villagers.

One resident who is reticent to participate in the fuss is Inspector George Parrish . . . until the murder of the first villager chosen, and a rash of poison pen letters uncovering secrets Twytching's leading citizens had fervently hoped were buried, force him to get involved. 


Mrs. Withins, the snobby wife of the Council Chairman, is determined that Twytching should be considered a town, not a village, but this is the quintessential village mystery. The village is filled with characters from a Midsomer Murders episode – gossips, a dotty vicar, and my favorite, a snarky supercilious school teacher. And this book was written well before Caroline Graham's books or the TV show. (Note: I do love Midsomer Murders; we are rewatching the entire series for the third time.) 

My favorite characters in this story are the policemen in the village – Inspector Parrish, Sergeant Stephen Feathers, and Sergeant Betty Underwood. That may be because the reader gets more insight into those characters, especially Inspector Parrish. None of them have a lot of experience with murder cases and they make a few mistakes along the way, but Inspector Parrish has a good handle on the case and the people he is dealing with. The process of tracking down those who received the poison pen letters and their connection to the murder was quite entertaining.

Barnard has written many different kinds of standalone mysteries. Some are satires and more humorous and light; some are serious and dark. Often the characters are quirky and somewhat unsympathetic, as in this book. But almost always the ending is a complete surprise. And this one has a fantastic ending, very unexpected and chilling.

Barnard also wrote two mystery series, both police procedurals. I have enjoyed books from both of those series.


Thanks to Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings for hosting the 1976 Club this week.




 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983 (orig. publ. 1976)
Length:      190 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      UK, a small village
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.



Friday, October 15, 2021

Classics Club Spin #28


The latest Classics Club Spin has been announced. I have chosen twenty books from my classics list. This list of twenty books is the same as my last Spin List, with only one addition to replace the book I read for the last spin. 

It may be difficult for me to fit in a book from my classics list during November because I am going to be focusing on novellas for Novellas in November. Most of the books on this list of twenty are short, quick reads, so maybe that won't be a problem.

On Sunday 17th October, 2021, the Classics Club will post a number from 1 through 20. The goal is to read whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List by 12th December, 2021.


So, here is my list of 20 books for the spin.


  1. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe   [209 pages]
  2. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith [249 pages]
  3. Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier  [410 pages]
  4. The Sign of Four (1890) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle [167 pages]
  5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  6. The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  7. The Quiet American (1958) by Graham Greene   [180 pages]
  8. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers
  9. The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame 
  10. A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L'Engle
  11. Beast In View (1955) by Margaret Millar
  12. The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy   [200 pages]
  13. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) by Roald Dahl
  14. My Ántonia (1918) by Willa Cather
  15. Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood
  16. Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker    [420 pages]
  17. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
  18. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James Cain
  19. The Invisible Man (1897) by H.G. Wells
  20. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson



Thursday, October 14, 2021

#1976Club: Catch a Falling Spy

I love spy fiction, and especially Cold War spy fiction. Len Deighton is one of my favorite authors in that genre. When I saw that one of his spy fiction novels was published in 1976 and I had not read it, I picked it to read for the 1976 Club. Deighton's first five fiction books featured an unnamed British spy. Three of those books were later made into films starring Michael Caine. The spy was given a name in the films: Harry Palmer. This book was the seventh and last book by Deighton that featured an unnamed spy, but he is not the same spy as in the earlier books. Not that it matters.

This novel felt like a world tour. It starts out in the Algerian Sahara Desert and returns to that spot for the denouement.  In between we visit multiple spots in the US and France and Ireland. The story is narrated by the unnamed British agent. It was originally published in the UK as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy.


In Algeria, the narrator and his partner in this mission, Major Mann of the US Secret Service, meet with Professor Bekuv, a Russian defector. The two agents are charged with getting Bekuv to the US and determining if he really has the information he is offering in return for asylum in the US.

In New York the agents try to get more information out of Bekuv. He demands that they bring his wife to the US to be with him, but our pair of agents are not committing to that. Then it turns out that a highly placed CIA operative has already gotten her over to the US, and the two are reunited. Bekuv is ditzy, focused more on communication with aliens in outer space and not interested in strategic scientific pursuits. His wife seems to be running the show. 

Mann and the UK agent meet up with Mann's wife and a friend of theirs, Red Bancroft. Red had shown up at a cocktail party earlier and the unnamed narrator finds her very intriguing and attractive. This foursome, plus the Bekuvs, head for the Catskills to celebrate Christmas. [If I had known this was set around Christmas time, I might have saved it for a December read.] They take the Bekuvs to Mass on Christmas Eve, and as they leave the church, Mrs. Bekuv is stabbed. By whom? For what reason? 

The agents want to know who Bekuv has been getting information on US scientific research. Mrs. Bekuv supplies the name of his contact: Henry Mann, an ex-CIA agent now living in France (and coincidentally an old friend of Major Mann). And at this point we are only at the one-third point in the book. So the rest of the book is spent chasing down leads from the intell they get and determining what to do with the Bekuvs. Is their decision to defect genuine?


My thoughts:

Happily, I liked this book best of all of Deighton's unnamed spy novels. This book (like others by Deighton) is often described as complex and confusing but it was fine with me. A more frenetic and active adventure than most cold war stories I read, but a lot of fun. The partnership between the UK agent and Major Mann adds interest and humor. They work well together.

This book highlights one of the costs of a career in the secret service. It is very hard to have a relationship of any depth or length. The British narrator falls for Red Bancroft, but she has needs and ambitions of her own. A major theme is the complexity of relationships of any type in spy fiction and the inability to really trust anyone.

I have noticed now that I am drawn to novels with defections and the problems surrounding them. I have read two other books about defections written in the 1970s. I wonder if that was a time when defections were of special interest? Robert Littell's debut novel, published in 1973, The Defection of A. J. Lewinter, is about the defection of a US scientist to the USSR. Charlie M (1977) by Brian Freemantle is about a Russian KGB official who wants to defect to the US.


The author:

Len Deighton. born in 1929, is best known for his novels, but has also written works of military history, screenplays and cookbooks. I have read all nine of the Bernard Samson series, plus Winter, a historical novel which features characters from the Samson series. I have read four of the Nameless Spy series and I like them, but I still prefer the Samson series. 


I am enjoying reading and reviewing novels from 1976 this week for the 1976 Club, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings




 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1976 
Length:       268 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      Algeria, US, France, Ireland.
Genre:        Espionage thriller
Source:      I purchased my copy in 2015.



Tuesday, October 12, 2021

#1976Club: Home to Roost

Home to Roost by Andrew Garve isn't a straightforward mystery or detective story, more of a suspense novel. This is the first book I have read by this author. I was fascinated by this book, and I will be reading more of Garve's novels. This is the first book I read for the 1976 Club, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings.


These are the first sentences of the book:

This is an account of how Max Ryland got himself murdered, and what happened afterwards. For obvious reasons, the manuscript will not see the light of day until all the people concerned are dead and forgotten; I have taken steps to ensure that. You may think, dear reader, that as a story it builds up rather slowly but -- so does a hurricane.

Walter Haines narrates this book. He has written an account of his marriage to Laura Franklin and what happens afterward. First he gives us some background of his early life. He starts out as a newspaper reporter, but leaves that to try writing novels, and eventually does well enough to support himself with his writing. Then he meets Laura. They get married, and the early years of their marriage are happy. After a few years their marriage becomes shaky, for a variety of reasons. 

At a cocktail party they meet the charming and well-known actor, Max Ryland. The three become friends, and Walter and Laura visit Max's weekend home on the coast, where he has a sailboat. Soon, Max has enticed Laura to leave Walter. Nothing unusual in that, except that very shortly it is obvious that Max has been using Laura, and she leaves him also. A few weeks later, Walter goes on a vacation to Portugal to attempt to recover from the end of his marriage to Laura. When he returns, he finds that Max Ryland has been found dead at his house on the coast.

It turns out that Max is a real cad and has many enemies, and there are plenty of suspects, but Walter is at the top of the list. Unfortunately, for the police, Walter's alibi is very good. Then another man confesses to the murder, and Walter decides to confess also, saying that he does not want someone else to pay for his crime. He provides proof that he could have carried out the crime. Neither man will withdraw their confession. 

My thoughts:

This is a very short book, under 200 pages, with a very complex plot that can be confusing, but it a concise story with no padding thrown in. I enjoyed it a lot and found many things to like.

Although the subject is serious, the story is told with subtle humor, in the descriptions of Walter's life and the events leading up to the disintegration of his marriage.

At least in this book, Andrew Garve was a very good plotter and could tell a good story, but wasn't strong on developing characters. However, since the story is told in first person, we do get to know Walter Haines, the narrator, very well. 

The ending of this book is ambiguous, and some reviewers criticize that aspect. In this case, that aspect did not bother me at all. I feel that the author leaves it up to the reader to decide, and that worked for me.


Andrew Garve is a pseudonym of Paul Winterton, who wrote over 40 detective and adventure books between 1938 and 1978. This was close to his last published book. Paul Winterton also wrote as Roger Bax. I have more of his books to try, No Tears for Hilda and Murder through the Looking Glass by Andrew Garve, and Blueprint for Murder as Roger Bax. All of those are from much earlier in his writing career.

Also see:


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Penguin Books, 1978 (orig. pub. 1976). 
Length:     182 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Crime fiction
Source:    I purchased this book.

Friday, October 8, 2021

The Stranger Diaries: Elly Griffiths

This is a modern mystery story with gothic elements. I bought it on the first day of the Planned Parenthood book sale, and I started reading it within a day or two. Gothic stories haven't appealed to me in the past, but I enjoyed this one. 

There are three main characters who share the narration of the story. All three are interesting, with very different points of view on life. Clare is an English teacher at a high school; a close friend at work has been brutally murdered. Harbinder Kaur is a policewoman working on the investigation of the death of Ella Elphick, Clare's friend. Georgia is Clare's fifteen-old-daughter, who is a student at the high school that her mother teaches at.  Some of Clare's sections are told via entries from her diary, which does play an integral part in the story.

 


What did I like?

For me it was a slow read, but every night I was eager to get back to reading the book. The gradual unfolding of events and examination of the key players kept me interested throughout.

I liked the structure of the book with the story told from the viewpoint of three characters. The main story was framed by a ghost story, which is slowly revealed throughout the book. 

Clare and Georgia have a great dog, Herbert, named after a dog in the framing ghost story. The mother / daughter relationship was interesting. Clare doesn't seem to have a clue about her daughter's interests and a lot of her activities, probably pretty normal for the parent of a teenager.

There are many, many references to books sprinkled throughout the story. Mostly older or classic books and authors. That feels natural with Clare being an English teacher and Georgia's interest in writing and reading.

I like all three main characters, but Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur was my favorite. I look forward to the next book in the series.


Negatives?

Although the solution to the murder seems to come out of nowhere, I should have expected the outcome.

Most of the story is told in present tense. The narration by Clare and Georgia are told via present tensely, mostly. The sections from Harbinder's point of view are in past tense.


The story takes place in October through early November, with many references to Halloween, so this was the perfect read for R.I.P. XVI (Readers Imbibing Peril).


 -----------------------------

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
Length:    338 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Harbinder Kaur #1
Setting:    UK
Genre:     Mystery
Source:   Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2021.


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: "The Black Pumpkin" by Dean Koontz

In the month of October, for R.I.P. XVI (Readers Imbibing Peril), I am planning to read several short stories from Halloween Horrors, an anthology of spine-tingling stories compiled by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish. For my first selection, I just dived into the first story in the anthology, which was by Dean Koontz. This is my first experience reading that author.



"The Black Pumpkin" by Dean Koontz

Tommy is a twelve-year-old who lives a miserable life. His parents and his older brother Frank mistreat him. And when he and Frank visit a pumpkin patch a day before Halloween, it looks like things are going to get worse. Frank buys a specially decorated pumpkin, painted black and with a disturbing design. The pumpkin carver will take any amount of money that Frank wants to give him, but warns him that "You get what you give." And Frank gives only a nickel.

The story was very scary, tense, and horrifying. And really not my kind of story. Just the way Tommy is treated by his family was horrifying. But... it was well-written and a good read, in the sense that once I started it I could not stop reading. And the ending was pretty good.


In the comments on my R.I.P. post, Todd Mason provided additional information on the Halloween Horrors anthology. It is a 2010 reprint of October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween, which was published by Cemetery Dance Publications in 2000. The book has 22 short stories of Halloween fiction (some are new, some are classic reprints), plus a good number of short pieces by authors recalling their favorite memories of Halloween and essays on Halloween.

"The Black Pumpkin" first appeared in Twilight Zone Magazine in December 1986. In 1995 it was published in a collection of stories by Dean Koontz, Strange Highways.





Friday, October 1, 2021

Reading Summary for September 2021



September was another very good reading month. This month's reading was all crime fiction. Two books of the eight I read were spy thrillers, but I count those in crime fiction. 


Crime Fiction

The Lady Vanishes (1936) by Ethel Lina White

The Lady Vanishes was originally published as The Wheel Spins in 1936. Two years later the book was adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock, with the title The Lady Vanishes, so many editions of the book have the same title as the film. I had seen the film many times, and now I am glad that I have also read the book. The book is more suspenseful and serious, with more realistic characters, but both are good. See my full review here.

Murder (1987) by Parnell Hall

Murder was the second book in the Stanley Hastings series. Stanley is a bumbling private detective (sort of). His primary work is following up on accident reports where people want to sue for damages, but in the two books I have read, he gets involved in investigations on the side, helping people who need favors or at the request of his wife. This is a humorous series where Stanley handles serious crimes and helps people out. See my review here.

The Chinese Shawl (1943) by Patricia Wentworth

The fifth Miss Silver mystery by Patricia Wentworth. I love the Miss Silver series, and this one was especially good, with the wartime setting. I am trying to finish all the books in this series set during the war or immediately afterward before I move on to later ones or Wentworth's novels that don't feature Miss Silver.

Blackout in Gretley (1942) by J. B. Priestley

This is the second book I have read by Priestley. My husband got it recently and liked it very much. The setting and genre were perfect for me, World War II espionage fiction, with the protagonist trying to locate Nazi spies in a Midlands town in England. 


A Siege of Bitterns (2014) by Steve Burrows

This is the first book in the Birder Murder Mystery Series; the main protagonist is DCI Domenic Jejeune. He is the new DCI in the Norfolk town of Saltmarsh. A TV presenter and ecological activist is murdered, and Jejeune is heading the investigation. Birding is big in the area, and Jejeune is a birder. I loved the passages about birds and the ecology of the area and the mystery was handled well too. Check out Rick Robinson's review at Tip the Wink.


The Stranger Diaries (2018) by Elly Griffiths

This is a modern mystery story with gothic elements. I have never been a big fan of gothic stories, but I enjoyed this one. For me it was a slow read, but I was always eager to get back to reading the book. I liked the structure of the book with the story told from the viewpoint of three characters, and the book framed by a ghost story, which is slowly revealed throughout the book. This was the perfect read for R.I.P. XVI (Readers Imbibing Peril).


Home to Roost (1976) by Andrew Garve

Andrew Garve is a pseudomym of Paul Winterton, who wrote over 40 detective and adventure books between 1938 and 1978. Home to Roost isn't a straightforward mystery or detective story, more of a suspense novel, told in first person by a successful author who writes adventure novels. This is the first book I have read by this author, and I will be reading more of his books. The novel was published in 1976 and is the first book I read for the 1976 Club

Catch a Falling Spy (1976) by Len Deighton

Originally published in England under the title Twinkle Twinkle Little Spy. Len Deighton is one of my favorite authors, and this is a cold war spy novel. The narrator is nameless, although I am not sure he is the same nameless spy as in Deighton's earliest novels. The action starts and ends in Algeria, with hops to France, Ireland, and several locations in the US. A very complex story, not for everyone but perfect for me. Another book I read for the 1976 Club.



The plant shown immediately above is Veronica (Spiked Speedwell). The plant shown at the top of the post is Tibouchina heteromalla (Silver leafed Princess Flower). Both are entirely new plants to me, and we bought them to plant in our yard this year.



Monday, September 27, 2021

Murder: Parnell Hall

Murder was the second book in the Stanley Hastings series by Parnell Hall. My husband is a big fan of that series and I am slowly catching up. Stanley is a bumbling private detective (sort of). Actually, most of the time he does quite well at it, he just doesn't have confidence in himself. 

His primary work is following up on accident reports where people want to sue for damages, to supply evidence for his boss, attorney Richard Rosenberg, who is a piece of work. It sounds like a terrible job. But inevitably he gets involved in a real murder that he has to solve. I enjoyed this entry in the series a lot.


This time the subject matter was pretty serious (prostitution and pornography, but with no graphic violence or sex). A woman has been blackmailed into working as a prostitute, and needs help to get out of a difficult situation. Stanley's wife knows her, sympathizes, and asks Stanley to help. He has a hard time saying no to his wife, so he gets involved.

Some readers complain about the series being dated. Murder was published in 1987, and Stanley has to respond to a pager and hunt around for a telephone booth to make a call from to get his assignments for his job. But that is exactly what I like about books set in the 1980s and 1990s. No cell phones and no internet to look things up instantaneously.

I like humor in mysteries, but I prefer the subtle approach. In the past, I have avoided mysteries that are written specifically with the intent to be funny, but my enjoyment of all types of humor in mysteries is broadening. In the Stanley Hastings series, the humor is present in every interaction, but my favorite parts so far are Parnell Hall's descriptions of Stanley's day-to-day job of meeting with applicants who want to sue for damages after an injury. He usually has much sympathy for the applicants because they are often living in bad situations with low-paying jobs, but he also describes the rough neighborhoods he has to go to to meet the clients, the dangers involved, and his fear of that part of the job. 

The stories are told in first person narration by Stanley. I like that style of storytelling, and it works well here. We get the whole story from Stanley's point of view. The stories are also fast-paced and keep my interest from beginning to end. This was a fun book and I hope it doesn't take me so long to read book 3 in the series.


This is my husband's review on Goodreads, from 2013. Since then he has read seven more books in the series and has enjoyed them all.

This second volume in Parnell Hall's Stanley Hastings detective series is every bit as good as the stellar original. With a witty, self-deprecating protagonist (who, amazingly, has a home life and is personally undamaged) and an intricate clockwork plot (although the ending does feel a bit rushed) you really can't ask for a more entertaining read. Since I came late to this long-running series I anticipate more reading pleasure ahead.


This is my second book read and reviewed for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event.



-----------------------------

Publisher:  Donald I. Fine, 1987.
Length:      256 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Stanley Hastings, #2
Setting:      New York, New York
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      Borrowed from my husband.


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: Anthologies and Collections from the Book Sale



Today, for Short Story Wednesday, I am sharing a few short story anthologies or collections that I purchased at a book sale this weekend. This year Planned Parenthood is having their annual book sale, after having to call it off in 2020. The sale started on Friday, September 17 and will continue through Sunday, September 26. We went to the book sale on both Friday and Saturday, and on the first day I picked up several short story books. I have not sampled any of them yet. So, here they are.



Montalbano’s First Case and Other Stories by Andrea Camilleri, Stephen Sartorelli, translator

The late Andrea Camilleri is the author of a long-running police procedural series featuring Inspector Montalbano. The series is set in Italy. For this volume, Camilleri selected twenty-one short stories that follow Italy’s famous detective through cases throughout his career.  The introduction by the author is interesting.



Maigret's Christmas by Georges Simenon, Jean Stewart (translator)

From the back of the book:

It's Christmastime in Paris, and the great detective Maigret is investigating holiday mayhem in nine delightful short stories. The mysteries abound: an otherwise sensible little girl insists that she has seen Father Christmas, a statement alarming to her neighbors, Monsieur and Madame Maigret. Then, a choirboy helps the inspector solve a crime while he lies in bed with a cold; and another boy, pursued by a criminal, ingeniously leaves a trail to help Maigret track him.



Alabama Noir, edited by Don Noble

I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. I did not even know that this book existed; it was published fairly recently, in 2020. I don't believe that the cover photo is identified, but it is the perfect representation of what I remember about Alabama. Lush green landscapes, trees reflected in a body of water. I am very excited to read the stories in this book.



Hard-Boiled, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian

I was also very excited to find a copy of this book. It had been on my want list for a couple of years, and when I looked for it initially, it was hard to find a copy at a price I was willing to pay. The subtitle of this book is "An Anthology of American Crime Stories." It contains over 500 pages of stories published from the 1920s through the 1990s. 

See a very good review by Bill Crider at his Pop Culture Magazine blog. The review also lists the Table of Contents.



Dublin Noir edited by Ken Bruen

The subtitle of this book is "The Celtic Tiger vs. the Ugly American." I don't know exactly what that means, but there is this explanation in the introduction by Ken Bruen:

At first it was straightforward -- Dublin authors to write on their city... Then we turned the concept on its head, as you do in noir. The Irish are fascinated by how we appear to the world, so let's have a look, we thought, at how this city appears from the outside. In addition to a couple of us locals, let's take a cross section of the very best of today's crime writers from America, as well as Britain, Europe, and Canada.


Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Lady Vanishes (AKA The Wheel Spins): Ethel Lina White

In 1938, Alfred Hitchcock released The Lady Vanishes, a film based on a book by Ethel Lina White, The Wheel Spins. The book was published in 1936. The film differs in many ways from the book, but having seen the film before, several times, I knew the basic premise of book. A young woman, Iris, meets an older lady while traveling on a train. They have tea and talk for a while, and then, Iris takes a nap. When she awakens, Miss Froy, the older woman, has disappeared, and the other people in the same carriage deny that there ever was a Miss Froy in the  carriage.

Iris frantically searches for the woman Miss Froy, and can not find her. When she asks other passengers on the train to comfirm that they saw her, no one will admit that she exists. Even other English passengers on the train from the hotel, who had seen Miss Froy on the train, deny that they saw her. They each have their own reasons, but that doesn't help Iris. 

The panic she feels when no one believes her or will listen to her is palpable. For various reasons, she lets herself be convinced that she imagined the old lady, that she was having hallucinations. The only other explanation is that there is a conspiracy afoot to cover up Miss Froy's absence, which seems ridiculous.

My thoughts...

This is a mystery, but it is also a character study and full of psychological suspense, with a bit of romance thrown in. It is hard for me to judge how much I was affected by previous viewings of the film when reading this book. I think it did cut down on some of the tension. I enjoyed reading the book and I preferred it to the film, if only because the characters are better developed.

The novel explored Iris's character and psychology. As the book opens, she is at the hotel, a remote vacation spot in Europe, with a large group of friends. She is kind of flighty, does not have a lot of self-confidence, drifts into relationships.  The friends are artificial, obnoxious, and shallow, and she grows tired of them. She decides not to leave the resort when they leave, but to wait until a day or two later. Thus when she runs into trouble on the train, she is alone and has no one to turn to. She does eventually find a young man her age who helps her out. Iris's behavior matures on this trip. She wants to throw off the superficiality of her previous life. 

I also liked that the book gives us brief glimpses of Miss Froy's family at home, with her parents and her dog eagerly awaiting her return from her governess job for a government official in a distant country.

We watched the 1938 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, again after I finished the novel. I enjoyed it as usual, although I noticed the changes to the story this time around. There is much more humor in the film, and the blossoming romance between Iris and a young man on the train is more believable. All the characters are different from the book. The ending is more tense and more thrillerish. 


The edition I read contained this novel plus one other by Ethel Lina White, The Spiral Staircase, which was first published as Some Must Watch in 1933.

Also see:

Christine Poulson's post at A Reading Life on Ethel Lina White and her career, titled A Forgotten Woman Crime Novelist.

Reviews at Clothes in Books, FictionFan's Book Reviews, and Crossexaminingcrime.



This is my first book read in September for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event.





 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Wordsworth Classics, 2015 (orig. publ. 1936)
Length:       157 pages (of tiny print)
Format:       Trade paperback
Setting:       Train trip through Europe
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy in 2017.


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: "Sweet Baby Jenny" by Joyce Harrington



In A Moment on the Edge, Elizabeth George collects 26 crime fiction stories over the past 100 years, all written by women. This week I decided to feature a story from that anthology, "Sweet Baby Jenny" by Joyce Harrington.

This is the story of a young woman, born on a farm, and still living there; she is the youngest of six children, with five older brothers. Her mother died shortly after her birth and no one has told her much about her mother or how she died. Her father, who she remembers vaguely, disappeared several years after that. 

Jenny wants to get out of the life she is stuck in but she feels like she has to take care of her older brothers. Most of them make some money for the family, but not much. Only the youngest brother, Pembroke, is getting an education and he encourages Jenny to do the same. 

She knows her mother once worked as a maid for a family in town named the Carpenters; the father is the town's one and only bank president. So she decides to work for them to make some money. She gets the job easily; she is a good cook and is not afraid of work. As a result of that, she learns much more about what happened to her mother and her father.

The story is told in first person by Jenny, in a rural dialect. I found it very easy to read and understand. The story is about a serious subject, but it has humor to give it balance. The ending was fantastic, I always like a good ending. It was clever, and not predictable at all. 


This story was first published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 1981. I have read one other story by Joyce Harrington, "The Purple Shroud," in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman.




Sunday, September 12, 2021

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril -- R.I.P. XVI

This year I will be participating in R.I.P. XVI, the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event. This event was originally hosted by Carl V. Anderson at the Stainless Steel Droppings blog. Since then it has been taken over by other bloggers and lately has been primarily on Instagram and Twitter. You can use #RIPXVI or tag @PERILREADERS to connect with other participants.


This is Carl's description from one of the R.I.P. announcement posts:

The purpose of R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril ... is to enjoy books and movies/television that could be classified (by you) as:

  • Mystery.
  • Suspense.
  • Thriller.
  • Dark Fantasy.
  • Gothic.
  • Horror.
  • Supernatural.

Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

I have already read several books and a short story this month that fit those categories. 


This is one book I will be reading...



And I will read some short stories from this book as Halloween nears...




Thursday, September 9, 2021

Reading Summary for August 2021



I read nine books this month, a bit more than usual. I read two historical fiction novels, two science fiction novels, and five crime fiction novels. Some were contemporary novels and some were older novels from 1950 and before. And a decent number of short stories, although I should be reading more.

I finished all of the books on my 20 Books of Summer list, and am glad to be back to unplanned reading. 

 

Historical Fiction


The Women in Black
(1993) by Madeleine St. John

In some ways this is a wonderful book. It is about several women who work in the women's dresses department in a big department store, in 1950's Australia during the Christmas rush and post-Christmas sales. The setting is great. I enjoyed reading the book, I cared about the characters, but it was too light and "feel good" for me.  I keep having mixed feelings about this; I might come back to it and review it in December. There is a film adaptation directed by Bruce Beresford.


Historical Fiction / Romance

The Grand Sophy (1950) by Georgette Heyer

Miss Sophy Stanton-Lacy is an outrageous woman. She is young but was raised by her father to be independent and think for herself. She is always trying to fix people and usually succeeds. This is only the second Regency romance by Georgette Heyer I have read (and I haven't read any by other authors). I enjoyed this as much as I did Frederica. The plots are quite different, but I did notice similarities in the heroines in the two books, and the types of families involved. Both feature a number of younger children, which was interesting.


Science Fiction

Way Station (1963) by Clifford D. Simak

All I knew when I started this book was that it was a science fiction classic about a man on earth, in the US in the 1960s, providing a station where aliens from other planets stop overnight while traveling from planet to planet. This is completely hidden from the rest of the world. It is a very interesting and entertaining book, with lots of tension, because his station is discovered, and I was surprised at the ending. It is very much of its time, but I did not mind that at all.


Just One Damned Thing After Another (2013) by Jodi Taylor

This is the first book in a time-travel series. The main protagonists are historians from St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. Each has a special area of expertise but the assignments may take them to any time in the past. The story carries you along pell mell through adventure after adventure, and the historians find out that there are lots of challenges ahead.  There are now 12 books in the series and I will be reading the next one for sure. 



Crime Fiction

Lockdown (2020) by Peter May

This is a police procedural mystery set in London during a pandemic that has paralyzed the city. I enjoyed it, but it is not my favorite book by Peter May. See my thoughts here.


The Art of Violence (2020) by S. J. Rozan

This is the thirteenth book in S.J. Rozan's series about private investigators Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, and I have read every book in the series. I loved this book, especially the ending. See my thoughts here.


The Turquoise Shop (1941) by Frances Crane

Beginning in the early 1940's, Frances Crane wrote a series of over 25 books featuring Pat and Jean Abbott. This is the first book in the series, set in a fictionalized version of Taos, New Mexico, where Jean Holly owns a shop that sells antiques, art, and jewelry. Pat Abbott is a private investigator, who at the beginning of the story maintains that he is just there on vacation. Most of the books had a color in the title, and they were set in a variety of locations. In all the books, Pat does most of the investigating, and the stories are narrated by Jean. The other book I read in this series, The Indigo Necklace, was set in the French Quarter in New Orleans during the closing months of World War II. For me, these are enjoyed for the locations and the ambiance of the 1940's and 50's, and the mystery is just a sideline.


The Mouse in the Mountain (1943) by Norbert Davis

This is a book I have been meaning to read for nearly 10 years. It is vintage crime fiction from the US, published in 1943. The story is humorous. One of the characters is a large dog named Carstairs, a Great Dane. His owner is Doan, a private investigator. It is a very short novel, set in Mexico, about 150 pages. There are two more short novels and two short stories in the Doan and Carstairs series, and I will be reading them all. Coincidentally, Norbert Davis was related to Frances Crane, author of The Turquoise Shop (above). Davis was Crane's son-in-law and they both wrote mysteries in the 1940's. 


The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1973) by John Godey

This novel is about the hijacking of a New York City Subway train. The story takes place in one afternoon and is told from the point of view of the hijackers, policemen, staff from the transit agency, and some of the passengers taken as hostages. My full review here.


Currently reading and What's Next?

I am currently reading a Miss Silver mystery by Patricia Wentworth. The title is The Chinese Shawl, it is the 5th book in the series, and it was published in 1943. Loving it.

I will be taking part in RIP XVI (Readers Imbibing Peril), although it is now an event that takes place primarily on Instagram and Twitter. But other bloggers are joining in and it isn't a stretch for me, since I mostly read mysteries anyway. It was Kay's post at Kay's Reading Life that motivated me to do it this year.

I will be finding a couple of books to read for The 1976 Club in October and also novellas to read for Novellas in November. I am planning to stick with books I already own, but if anyone has suggestions, I would welcome them.



The lovely flowers above are geraniums. The cat is Rosie in her favorite chair. Both photos were taken by my husband.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: "Sugar and Spice" by Vera Caspary

"Sugar and Spice" is a short story first published in 1943; it is about 60 pages long, close to novella length. Vera Caspary, the author, was the author of Laura, a novel that I enjoyed reading. Laura was adapted to film, starring Dana Andrews as a police detective and Gene Tierney as Laura.

In "Sugar and Spice," Mike Jordan visits a friend and tells her who killed a famous actor, Gil Jones, and how. Two women, cousins and life-long rivals, are the suspects in his murder. The two women grew up in the same small town where Mike Jordan lived, and the three were in high school together. Mike tells the history of their relationship, how it changes over time, and how they mature as they marry and have careers. The two women both fall for Gil Jones, and support his acting career and eventually one of them kills him.

It is the background of their childhood and how they competed with each other over time that explains how one of the women has become capable of murder. When they were teenagers, Phyllis was beautiful, but her family was poor; Nancy was plain and overweight, but her family was wealthy and she gets everything she wants. Their grandmother is a vicious old woman who sets them against each by constantly pointing out Phyllis's beauty and superior talent.

The narrative structure of Mike Jordan telling the story to his friend while waiting for a telephone connection to New York City to talk to one of the suspects is what makes the story especially interesting.

My description does not do this story justice, but I do recommend it and also the anthology that it is in, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman. See two previous posts on this anthology at my blog, here and here.

I did notice that Weinman's introduction to Caspary's story has the details quite wrong. But no matter, I enjoyed the short story a lot and am glad it was included in the anthology.


See two other reviews of this book by John at Pretty Sinister Books and Curtis at The Passing Tramp.



Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: John Godey


In 1974, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was released as a film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. If you have seen that film, then you have a good idea of the basic plot of this book. 


This is the story of the hijacking of a New York City Subway train. The train that is hijacked is designated Pelham One Two Three to indicate its point and time of origin. Thus it had left Pelham Bay Park station at 1:23 p.m. Four men take over the train: one ex-mercenary soldier; one former motorman (driver) for the subway; one ex-Mafia crook; the fourth is hired muscle. They demand a $1 million ransom, or else hostages will be killed.

The story is told from the point of view of the hijackers, policemen, staff from the transit agency, and some of the passengers taken as hostages. With so many characters, at times it can get confusing, but I enjoyed the story. It takes place over one afternoon, although there are a few flashbacks to the preparations for the attack.

The tension builds up well. I had no idea how it would turn out. Would there be a very dark ending or a more upbeat ending? 

Through the interactions of various characters, the book provides insight into racial issues and the realities of race interactions in the early seventies in New York City. There were characters working in the police and in the transit system with prejudices towards blacks (and women). There are several important characters who are black and we see race relations at that time from their point of view. Some readers complained about racial slurs in this book, but I felt like it gave a balanced picture of racial prejudices at that time and how it affected individuals.


The Adaptation

A few days after I finished reading the book, we watched the 1974 film adaptation. Robert Shaw is the leader of the hijackers, Martin Balsam plays the ex-motorman, and Walter Matthau is a lieutenant in the Transit Authority police. Tony Roberts has a small role as the Deputy Mayor, which he handled very well. 

It is a fairly faithful adaptation, although we get little background on the characters. Many characters have different names, and the four hijackers are not identified by name, but are called Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey, and Mr. Brown. The story moves well, no dull spots. I enjoyed it especially for the picture of New York City at the time. There is more humor in the film than in the book, although the subject is still treated very seriously.

There have been two other adaptations, in 1998 and in 2009, but I have not seen those.



-----------------------------

Publisher:  G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1973.
Length:      316 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      New York, NY
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      I purchased my copy in 2018.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: Stories from Without a Hero by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Without a Hero is a short story collection by T. Coraghessan Boyle, published in 1994. I bought this book five years ago at the annual Planned Parenthood Book Sale. I hadn't read any of the stories until this week, and this was the first time I read anything by this author (more commonly known as T. C. Boyle).


The first story I read was "Big Game." At 22 pages, it was one of the longer stories in the book. It is about a man who has set up a wild animal area near Bakersfield, California, where the rich can pay to shoot exotic animals. The owner, Bernard Puff, buys old or injured animals from zoos and or circuses and allows them to be "hunted" for a fee. The story was hard to read because it was about killing animals and the people who want to kill them, but, ignoring that, it was a good story, and had an unexpected ending.

I also read the next three stories in the book and they were all good reads.


List of stories:

  • "Big Game"
  • "Hopes Rise"
  • "Filthy With Things"
  • "Without A Hero"
  • "Respect"
  • "Acts of God"
  • "Back in the Eocene"
  • "Carnal Knowledge"
  • "The 100 Faces of Death, Volume IV"
  • "56-0"
  • "Top of the Food Chain"
  • "Little America"
  • "Beat"
  • "The Fog Man"
  • "Sitting on Top of the World" 


Of the stories I read, three dealt with the obsessive or excessive acquisition of material things, to a greater or lesser extent. I find that an interesting topic, which is probably why I liked them. The fourth story was about a couple who was very concerned about the extinction of frogs and toads all over the world. 

My first reaction to these stories was that they do not inspire me to read any of T. C. Boyle's  novels, but the more I think about it, the more I think I might try one.  

Have you read his short stories or his novels? And if you have, what did you think of them?



Friday, August 27, 2021

The Art of Violence: S. J. Rozan

This is the thirteenth book in S.J. Rozan's series about private investigators Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, and I have read every book in the series. There were one or two I was disappointed in, but overall I rate the series very highly. After Ghost Hero in 2011, there were no more books in the series until Paper Son in 2019. That book was a change of pace, set in the Mississippi Delta where many Chinese immigrants settled in the last half of the 19th century.

In this book, Lydia and Bill are back in New York. Bill Smith lives in Manhattan; Lydia Chin is an American-born Chinese who lives in New York’s Chinatown with her mother.  They are not officially partners but they have an agreement that they will work on each other's cases if requested. The element that I have always liked about this series is that the narrator of the books alternates. This book is about one of Bill's cases and he narrates this book. Usually books centered on Bill's cases are grittier than the ones about Lydia's cases, and that is true here. That is another element that adds variety to the books in the series.



Description of this book from the dust jacket:

Former client Sam Tabor, just out of Greenhaven after a five-year homicide stint, comes to Bill Smith with a strange request. A colossally talented painter whose parole was orchestrated by art world movers and shakers, Sam's convinced that since he's been out he's killed two women. He doesn't remember the killings but he wants Smith, one of the few people he trusts, to investigate and prove him either innocent or guilty.

NYPD detective Angela Grimaldi thinks Sam's "a weirdo." Smith has no argument with that: diagnosed with a number of mental disorders over the years, Sam self-medicates with alcohol, loses focus (except when he's painting), and has few friends. But Smith doesn't think that adds up to serial killer. He enlists Lydia Chin to help prove it.

My Thoughts

This was a great book in the series. I like the relationship that has grown between the two partners over the series. Bill and Lydia are wonderful characters; neither fits the stereotype of a private eye. Also the secondary characters are well done. Especially Sam Tabor, the client, crazy, irritating, unreliable, but easy to like, and police detective Angela Grimaldi, open to suggestions yet willing to stand her ground when necessary.

The competitive world of art in New York is a large part of the story: not just the artists, but collectors and agents. All of them can be interesting characters, although sometimes abrasive or repellant.

And then there is Lydia's mother, Chin Yong-Yun. Although she usually plays a small part in each novel, she is one of my favorite characters, and has starred in several of Rozan's short shories. See this post. In The Art of Violence, she plays a very important part at the end of the story.

I usually reject books about serial killers, but this one did not have the standard aspects of serial killer thrillers that I dislike (creepy serial killers who share their thoughts, for one). 

I loved the ending.


This series does not have to be read in order, but for me, reading the series in order worked best.

There is a new Lydia Chin / Bill Smith book coming out in December, Family Business. I will be getting it as soon as it is available.


-----------------------------

Publisher:  Pegasus Books, 2020.
Length:      275 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Lydia Chin / Bill Smith, #13
Setting:      New York, New York
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.