Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: The Big Book of Espionage, ed. Otto Penzler

I first learned about this book of short stories at George Kelley's blog. George gives a good overview of what the book has to offer and lists all the stories and authors, so be sure to check out his post.

The book has four sections with a total of 55 stories: The Great War (19); World War II (6); Other Terrors, Other Battles (19); and The Cold War (11). The book is large format with over 800 pages. Some of the authors are surprising, at least to me (Sara Paretsky, Erle Stanley Gardner, Brendan DuBois).

I have only read the Introduction by Otto Penzler and two stories so far. The introduction is very informative, and I enjoyed both of the stories.

"Charlie’s Shell Game" by Brian Garfield is one of 12 Charlie Dark stories. Charlie Dark is an American agent, in the CIA. This story was first published in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Feb 1978, and was also published in the collection Checkpoint Charlie. Fortunately I have that collection on my Kindle, so I can read more of the stories.

"The Spy Who Clutched a Playing Card" by Edward D. Hoch is one of his Jeffery Rand stories. Rand is a British agent, director of the Department of Concealed Communications. This story is very complex and a lot of fun (plus it is the first thing I have ever read by Hoch!). Per the Spy Guys and Gals site: "approximately 81 stories were written about Rand from the first in 1965 to the last published the year of the author's death, 2008." Again, I am fortunate to have an e-book of The Spy and the Thief: A Jeffery Rand and Nick Velvet Collection, which includes seven of the Jeffery Rand stories. I will be looking for other collections of stories by Hoch.

Even if these two stories and the other stories about those characters was the only thing I got out of this book, it would be well worth the price. But I am sure I am going to find many more stories to enjoy in this book.

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: Brian Moore

This year Cathy at 746books is hosting a year long read-along of Brian Moore’s work. She will be reading one of his books each month and will discuss it in the last week of that month. She has invited others to join in. The book for April is The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

From the back of the book:

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an unflinching and deeply sympathetic portrait of a woman destroyed by self and circumstance. First published in 1955, it marked Brian Moore as a major figure in English literature (he would go on to be short-listed three times for the Booker Prize) and established him as an astute chronicler of the human soul.

Judith Hearne is an unmarried woman of a certain age who has come down in society. She has few skills and is full of the prejudices and pieties of her genteel Belfast upbringing. But Judith has a secret life. And she is just one heartbreak away from revealing it to the world.

The setting is Belfast in Northern Ireland, in the 1950s. Judith Hearne has just moved to a new room in a boarding house. Her lack of money is a problem. She lives on a small annuity from her aunt and doesn't have even enough money to buy enough nutritious food, which is affecting her health. She only gets breakfast provided at the boarding house and that is only toast, except once a week. She has no marketable skills, and makes a bit of extra money by teaching piano lessions. But she has lost several students lately.

Judith is desperate to find a man to marry. She alternates between being attracted to any available man and fantasizing about the possibilities, and looking down on those she is attracted to because they are too common. 

She has few friends and nothing to do in her life. She looks forward to visiting the O'Neill family each Sunday after church, and sees them as friends, but in reality they are just tolerating her out of a perceived duty. The O'Neill children laugh at her in secret and are rude in her presence.

At the new boarding house, she meets James Madden, brother of her landlady and recently returned from years of living in the US. Madden's goal is to open a diner, but he needs an investor to provide more cash. He sees Judith's jewelry and decides she has money to spare. Judith misinterprets his advances towards her and sees a future with him as her husband. They are both so eager to get what they want that they ignore the reality of the situation.

Judith is hard to like. She feels sorry for herself, ingratiates herself to others, makes up things to impress people, and she is overly concerned with what people will think of her. Yet she keeps trying, although she is delusional in her view of herself and her life.

My thoughts:

The book is beautifully written. It was amazing to me that a male author could tell this story of a woman's lonely life so well. The characterizations are lovely, from the in-depth portraits of Judith Hearne and James Madden, to the smaller but important roles of the landlady, her son, and the other boarders.

But the story is very sad and the book is painful to read. It held my interest, even as Judith wrestles with her religious beliefs at her church, but at no time was it a pleasant read. It is a perfect length, though (223 pages). I am glad I read the book, and I might even try a reread someday.

For further information on the Brian Moore at 100 Read-Along, check here


Publisher:  New York Review of Books, 2010 (orig. pub. 1955)
Length:      223 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Setting:      Belfast, postwar
Genre:       General Fiction
Source:      Purchased in March 2021.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: "Clever and Quick" by Christianna Brand


This is a very clever short story about a couple who earn their living acting in the theater, but are not getting roles any more. They are running out of money to support their lifestyle, and are fighting over whether to get rid of their au pair girl.

I made a discovery after reading this short story. I can tolerate unsympathetic characters much better in short stories. No one in this story was likable, but that wasn't an issue for me, probably because I don't have to spend a lot of time with them. And, of course, the number of characters is limited in a short story.

The introduction to this story says:

In the short-story form, Brand specialized less in pure detection than in the twist-upon-twist double-or-triple-cross crime story of which “Clever and Quick” is a prime example.

I read this story in A Moment on the Edge, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. I believe the story was also published as "Madame Thinks Quick." Although I think of Christianna Brand as a Golden Age mystery author, this story was first published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1974.

A Moment on the Edge consists of 26 short stories by women, selected by Elizabeth George. The stories are in chronological order by copyright date. The first story is "A Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell from 1917, an excellent story which I had read before and was worth rereading. The last two stories are from 2001, one by Joyce Carol Oates and one by Minette Walters. 

I have only read the first nine stories in the anthology, and will continue reading them. 

Mathew Paust wrote about this anthology and the story by Joyce Carol Oates at Crime Time.

B. V. Lawson wrote an overview of the anthology at In Reference to Murder.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

#1936Club: The Rubber Band

For my fourth and last book for the 1936 Club, I am reviewing The Rubber Band by Rex Stout. It is the third book in the Nero Wolfe series. Rex Stout is my favorite author, so bear in mind that my opinion of his books is biased. 

Nero Wolfe is a genius, a lover of orchids and fine food, who supports himself (and his household) as a private detective. Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the stories, is both his assistant and a private investigator, and he does most of the legwork. Archie does secretarial work for Wolfe when they are not working on a case. (He also is the narrator for every book in the series.) They live in a New York brownstone and share the house with Theodore, the plant expert, and Felix, Wolfe's cook. 

On a Monday in October, Archie has scheduled two appointments for Wolfe in the afternoon.

   The first one, down for 3:30 in the afternoon, was with a guy named Anthony D. Perry. He was a tycoon, a director of the Metropolitan Trust Company, the bank we did business with, and president of the Seaboard Products Corporation—one of those vague firms occupying six floors of a big skyscraper and selling annually a billion dollars’ worth of something nobody ever actually saw, like soy beans or powdered coconut shells or dried llama’s hoofs. As I say. Perry was a tycoon; he presided at meetings and was appointed on Mayor’s Committees and that kind of hooey. Wolfe had handled a couple of investigations for him in previous years—nothing of any importance. We didn’t know what was on his mind this time; he had telephoned for an appointment.

The second appointment is more vague...

   The second appointment was for 6 P.M. It was a funny one, but we often had funny ones. Saturday morning, October 5, a female voice had phoned that she wanted to see Nero Wolfe. I said okay. She said, yes, but she wanted to bring someone with her who would not arrive in New York until Monday morning, and she would be busy all day, so could they come at 5:30. I said, no, but they could come at six, picking up a pencil to put down her name. But she wasn’t divulging it; she said she would bring her name along with her, and they would arrive at six sharp, and it was very important. It wasn’t much of a date, but I put it on the memo pad and hoped she would turn up, for she had the kind of voice that makes you want to observe it in the flesh.

Anthony D. Perry wants to hire Wolfe to investigate the theft of thirty thousand dollars from his company. One of the high level executives in the company insists that a woman employed by the company, Clara Fox, is guilty of the theft. Perry does not think that is true, and wants Wolfe to find the truth.

Clara Fox turns out to be the woman who made the second appointment, and she wants to hire Wolfe to negotiate a settlement of a debt for herself and several other people. Her father and several other men helped a man escape a charge of murder in the old West, in Nevada in 1895, and he had promised to give them a share of his wealth when he came into his inheritance. The man escaping from the law has been identified as the Marquis of Clivers, an English diplomat, who is currently visiting New York on official government business. Clara's father died in World War I, but she has gathered up the other men who engineered the escape, plus the daughter of one of them who was too old to travel.

The situation is complex to begin with, and it becomes even more complex when one of the men in Clara's group is killed.

I don't usually include such detailed descriptions of the plot, although I think the excerpts from the book help to give the tone of Rex Stout's writing, and clues to Archie's character. And the part of the plot I have included so far is just the tip of the iceberg.

What I love about these stories is primarily (1) Archie's telling of the story and (2) the relationship that Archie and Wolfe have developed over time.  Like many fans of this series, I have reread all the books multiple times, and in most cases when I read them now, I know who the perpetrator is.  Thus I am not reading the books for the resolution of a crime but to enjoy the time with my favorite characters. These are not light mysteries, but there is a good amount of humor. There are recurring characters in most of the books. Inspector Cramer, in charge of the New York City homicide department, shows up in this one, along with Lieutenant Rowcliff. Also Fred Durkin, Saul Panzer, and Orrie Cather, the team of freelance operatives that Wolfe hires when needed.

In this book, I especially like that Clara Fox is a strong female character. She know what she wants and she won't be intimidated. Wolfe could be described as a woman hater, although really he just doesn't want to deal with a woman in his daily life. Which makes it doubly interesting when he harbors Clara in his house to keep her from being questioned by the police. Rex Stout often includes strong, intelligent female characters in his books, which balances out the negative comments about women.

See also these reviews:

At Crossexaminingcrime, where Kate notes comparisons to the Sherlock Holmes series.

At In So Many Words, because Yvette loves the Nero Wolfe series as much as I do and rereads them.

The Pocket Book edition shown above was published in 1943, and notes that the book can be sent "to a boy in the armed forces anywhere for only 3 cents postage." 

Thanks to Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings for hosting the 1936 Club this week.


Publisher:  Bantam, 1992. Orig. pub. 1936.
Length:     267 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #3
Setting:     New York
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.

Friday, April 16, 2021

#1936Club: Murder In Mesopotamia


Murder in Mesopotamia
is one of three Hercule Poirot mystery novels by Agatha Christie published in 1936. The other two are The A.B.C. Murders, which I read and reviewed in 2017, and Cards on the Table, read and reviewed in 2019. 

It was also the first of Christie's novels to feature an archaeological site, which Christie was very familiar with because her second husband, Max Mallowan, was an archaeologist, and she went with him to work on some of his sites.

This Hercule Poirot mystery is set in Iraq, at an archaelogical dig located near Hassanieh. Dr. Giles Reilly asks Amy Leatheran to take on the position of nurse to the wife of the chief archaeologist at the dig. The wife, Louise, is nervous and is in fear of her life, partly as the result of threatening letters she has received. No one takes this very seriously until Louise is killed, in what seems to be an impossible situation. Poirot happens to be passing through the area and is called upon to look into the death. 

My favorite part of this novel is the narration by Nurse Leatheran. She is telling the story four years after the event, again at the request of Dr. Reilly. The reader sees all events through her eyes and learns about the characters from what she is told or experiences herself. Her initial reaction to Hercule Poirot is very funny.

Here it is:

I don’t think I shall ever forget my first sight of Hercule Poirot. Of course, I got used to him later on, but to begin with it was a shock, and I think everyone else must have felt the same!

I don’t know what I’d imagined—something rather like Sherlock Holmes—long and lean with a keen, clever face. Of course, I knew he was a foreigner, but I hadn’t expected him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what I mean.

When you saw him you just wanted to laugh! He was like something on the stage or at the pictures. To begin with, he wasn’t above five-foot five, I should think—an odd, plump little man, quite old, with an enormous moustache, and a head like an egg. He looked like a hairdresser in a comic play!

And this was the man who was going to find out who killed Mrs Leidner!

I suppose something of my disgust must have shown in my face, for almost straightaway he said to me with a queer kind of twinkle:

‘You disapprove of me, ma soeur? Remember, the pudding proves itself only when you eat it.’

The workings of the dig were very interesting. In addition, I thought all the characters were well defined. Louise Leidner is reported to be attractive to men and manipulative in relationships with both men and women. When she joins the dig, the comaraderie of the established team is disturbed. Sheila Reilly, daughter of Dr. Reilly and a very outspoken young woman, was my favorite character aside from the nurse.

Many reviewers have pointed out that the solution to this crime is ridiculous and/or seriously strains the reader's ability to suspend belief. I can understand that point of view, but when I read the book I found the solution acceptable. Overall, I enjoyed reading the novel. 

Agatha Christie's dedication for this book:

  Dedicated to
  My many archaeological friends 
  in Iraq and Syria

I am enjoying reading and reviewing novels from 1936 this week for the 1936 Club, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings


Publisher:  Fontana, 1979. Orig. pub. 1936.
Length:     190 pages (of tiny print)
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Hercule Poirot
Setting:     Iraq
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2014. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

#1936Club: Murder in Piccadilly

This is my second post for the 1936 Club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings. There are so many good books published in 1936, it is hard to choose just one or two. This one was reprinted by the British Library, and available in the US from Poisoned Pen Press. The cover illustration is gorgeous.

Murder in Piccadilly tells the story of a young man, Bobbie Cheldon, who has expectations of inheriting the family estate and a large income when his uncle dies. The hitch is that his uncle, Massy Cheldon, is healthy and and could easily live another 20 years.

Bobbie has been spoiled by his mother, Ruby, so he is not interested in working and not prepared for a job. He daydreams about his uncle dying (sooner than expected) so that he can get his inheritance while he is still young.

Bobbie's desire for more money becomes more important when he falls in love with a nightclub performer in a London nightclub. She has made it clear that she will not marry a man without money. Some of her friends start plotting the uncle's death, hoping to gain from it.

My thoughts...

This was a good picture of London in the 1930s. I liked the big city setting, especially the depiction of the less well-to-do London environments. The contrast between Uncle Massy's luxurious lifestyle and the extremely reduced circumstances that Bobbie and his mother live in is interesting. 

This story is a variation on the inverted mystery, even though the death doesn't take place until midway into the story. We don't know who did it, but we know who is planning the crime. That is not unique, but I liked that the structure of the story is a bit different. 

For most of this book I was on the fence about whether I liked it or not. The characters were portrayed well, but the majority of them were unsympathetic, and there was no one character that I liked or cared about. Even so, I did enjoy a lot of the conversations and scheming of the characters. When there finally is a murder, Chief Inspector Wake of Scotland Yard takes on the challenging case. However, he is not a major player in the story.

Ruby's machinations to convince her brother-in-law to help Bobbie out are both humorous and painful. Massy, though miserly, is not a mean person. He just doesn't approve of Bobbie wanting others to support his lifestyle and he points out that if Bobbie had a job, he and his mother could afford better lodgings, etc.

The story moves fairly slowly at times, but the slower pace is to be expected in vintage mysteries. And I often enjoy that. In this case I wanted the story to pick up and move on. 

Yet in the end there was a marvelous twist, delivered in a very realistic and entertaining way, which made up for any quibbles. At least for me.

After reading this book, I would like to read more of Charles Kingston's books, especially more in the Chief Inspector Wake series. I am interested in whether Wake has a larger role in later books.


Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press, 2015 (orig. pub. 1936)
Length:    305 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Chief Inspector Wake #1
Setting:    London
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    On my TBR piles since 2015.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Classics Club Spin #26

One of the events offered by The Classics Club is The Classics Club Spin. Spin #26 has just been announced. Members who participate list twenty books from their classics list that they have not read. As usual, my list is mostly the same as the one I used for the previous spin. 

On  Sunday 18th April, 2021, the Classics Club will post a number from 1 through 20. The goal is to read, review and post about whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List by 31st May, 2021.

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

  1. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe   [209 pages]
  2. Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte   [452 pages]
  3. Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier  [410 pages]
  4. The Sign of Four (1890) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 
  5. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston 
  6. The Quiet American (1958) by Graham Greene   [180 pages]
  7. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers
  8. Foundation (1951) by Isaac Asimov  
  9. A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L'Engle
  10. Beast In View (1955) by Margaret Millar
  11. The Pursuit of Love (1945) by Nancy Mitford
  12. The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy   [200 pages]
  13. Much Ado About Nothing (1598) by William Shakespeare
  14. My Ántonia (1918) by Willa Cather
  15. Sense and Sensibility (1811) by Jane Austen   
  16. Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker    [420 pages]
  17. The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame 
  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

Sunday, April 11, 2021

#1936Club: Case for Three Detectives

I read this book for the 1936 Club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings. I have had this book on my TBR for eight years so I am glad I got around to it now. 

This book by Leo Bruce was reviewed in 1001 Midnights, ed. by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller and described thusly:  

Case for Three Detectives is at once a locked room mystery worthy of John Dickson Carr and an affectionate spoof of the Golden Age detectives created by Sayers, Christie, and Chesterton.

Dr. Thurston and his wife Mary are entertaining four younger men at a weekend party: Alec Noriss; Sam Williams; Mr. Townsend, and David Strickland. At dinner the first night, the vicar, Mr. Rider, is also a guest. Later in the evening, Mrs Thurston and two of the guests have gone up to bed, the vicar has gone home, and Townsend, Williams, and Dr. Thurston are still downstairs talking. While they are talking, a scream is heard from above, and the men rush upstairs to find Mary Thurston's door locked. Once they break the door down, they find her lying in the bed, covered with blood. Her throat has been slit.

Due to the nature of the crime, it is deemed prudent that Scotland Yard be called in. The local policeman, Sergeant Beef, is offended by this. He says that he has already solved the crime. However, the next morning three "indefatigably brilliant private investigators who seem to be always handy when a murder has been committed, began to arrive." The first is Lord Simon Plimsoll, a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey; his man, Butterfield, is with him. Next is Monsieur Amer Picon, representing Hercule Poirot. Last is Monsignor Smith, a comic depiction of Father Brown.

One of the guests at the Thurman's house, Townsend, is the narrator of this book. That works really well for telling the story, because he is fascinated with how the detectives work, and follows them around as they work. 

My Thoughts:

I did not find this story quite as comical or the parodies as convincing as many other reviewers. I am very familiar with the Peter Wimsey series and the Hercule Poirot series, but I have read only one Father Brown story. The spoof of Hercule Poirot seemed the best of the three detectives to me; Lord Plimsoll as Wimsey seemed overdone. One thing that all of the detectives shared was an insistence that they know who did the crime, but each refuses to share that information with anyone. That does happen often in classic mysteries, and it often irritates me when they do that.

However, I did enjoy the storytelling and I was committed to staying with the story to see how the three consulting detectives (plus the local detective, Sergeant Beef) would pull it all together. I found the ending to be very satisfying. 

This is also a nice variation on the country house mystery, and I enjoyed the depictions of the Thurston's servants: a butler, a chauffeur, a cook, and a housemaid.

Case for Three Detectives is the first book featuring Sergeant Beef, and there are seven more books in the series. I have learned that Townsend narrates all of the mysteries in this series. As I enjoyed him immensely as narrator of this book, I will be seeking out more books in this series.


Publisher:    Academy Chicago Publishers, 1997 (orig. pub. 1936)
Length:        240 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Series:        Sergeant Beef, #1
Setting:       UK
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       On my TBR since 2012.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: "So Much Cooking" by Naomi Kritzer

This short story is written as a series of blog posts, beginning with hints of an outbreak of bird flu. The blog focuses on food and cooking and that is a great way to illustrate the differences that a catastrophe can make in your life. The setting is in Minneapolis and takes place mostly in February so it is cold. 

The flu in the story is H5N1 and it soon leads to social isolation and difficulty in getting food and other supplies. The blogger lives with a boyfriend or husband (don't know if that was specified). They are both able to work from home. Then she takes in two of her nieces because her sister-in-law is a nurse and could easily expose them to the flu. Later two more kids are added to the "family" because their mother is sleeping in her car so she won't expose the kids, and one of them is a three year old. 

The story reminded me a lot of how it felt at the beginning of the current pandemic ... with food shortages and speculating what was the best way to avoid exposure or how long it would last. Just not knowing what the next day would bring.

I have to say I loved this story. It was written in 2015, and it was interesting to see what the author imagined a viral pandemic to be like and what did and did not correspond to how it has gone with this pandemic. It was emotional and sad, but not depressing.

Other things I liked:

  • The first blog post is about a recipe for chicken with potatoes, garlic, and lemon. It sounds great.
  • Some interesting information on substitutions in making recipes.
  • A constant refrain of how she has to have some caffeine everyday. (She ran out of coffee early on.)

The story is available online at Clarkesworld. It has also been published in a collection of the author's stories, Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories, which I will be getting soon. The stories in the collection are science fiction or fantasy.

The author wrote an article about this story in April 2020 at the Tor website.