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Mystery Monday – It’s Different Abroad

October 19th, 2020


 

It’s Different Abroad by Henry Calvin

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This delightful suspense novel from 1963 stars Helen McLeish, a Scottish spinster, in Normandy in her snazzy red Mini. She is on a well-deserved vacation after burying her tetchy invalid father whom she tended for ten long years. After she is passed through French customs she gets the feeling that she is being followed. After she meets her sister and brother-in-law at their vacation house, she takes her niece and nephew to a beach where she has a nasty encounter with one of the stalkers. Happily, she also meets a local mechanic, the hero and love interest of the story, and they have an adventure together.

The McGuffin is rather so-so, but the draws are the brisk pace, ingenious plot twists, and the realistic interplay between characters. A vein of satire animates the observations of a certain kind of Briton overseas to whom all non-Britons are foreigners whether or not they are in their own country. Helen’s sister and brother-in-law are muggles of the worst sort. Her sister Rosemary is judgmental, self-righteous, and materialistic. The brother-in-law is a fast-talking lech, main chancer, and weakling. Both are kinda sorta parents, with the main damage being done to their 10-year-old son, an acting-out bully, coward and snot. The author’s ridicule is not heavy handed and jabs in the direction of philistines are fun.

Henry Calvin was the pen name of Clifford Hanley (1922 – 1999), a journalist, novelist, playwright and script writer from Glasgow.

Mystery Monday – The Sunken Sailor

October 12th, 2020

 

The Sunken Sailor by Patricia Moyes
(aka Down Among the Dead Men)


Review by Matt B. (
BuffaloSavage)

This 1961 mystery was the second novel starring series hero Henry Tibbett, a Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard and his wife Emmy. By chance they meet a couple whose hobby is sailing so they go on a short vacation with them on England’s East Coast. The hamlet is haunted by a recent death and a jewel robbery from the local baronet’s mansion. Two additional killings occur, thus causing Henry to forget his vacation and put on his deer-stalking hat.

When I read stories in which things nautical loom large, I rather bleep over the maritime mumbo-jumbo of tides and sails. Moyes needs the reader to understand a few technicalities of sailing to understand the unfolding of the plot. So at the beginning careful attention to new terminology and concepts on the part of the reader will pay rewards. But putting on the thinking cap is called for. Moyes later was more effective – i.e., less demanding of the reader – in setting her Tibbett stories in specialized settings such as the world of fashion, a movie set, an international convention, and an old air base as substitute for a country house,.

The various characters are smart, articulate, and amusing. Moyes was a cozy-writing traditionalist so she is careful with little details that add up to big reveals. Motive is usually love or money or avoidance of shame and embarrassment. She is rather retro in attitude. For example, Henry confidently asserts that no woman keeps a secret indefinitely, with no spirited opposition from any of his female listeners or caveats about how gossipy men can be.

This is worth reading for true fans of Moyes, but for novices the later ones, such as the late career Night Ferry to Death, are better.

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Case of the Careless Kitten

October 5th, 2020

The Case of the Careless Kitten

by Erle Stanley Gardner


Review by Matt B. (
BuffaloSavage)

This 1942 novel is an authentic Golden Age mystery. It is a strong outing, as many of his novels written during WWII were, well-written with a solid plot and an inventive solution, both of which balance deprecating references to the adversary country of Japan.

In 1932 eminent banker Franklin Shore disappeared in the traditional mysterious circumstances, leaving behind ornery Matilda, a wife with cheatin’ on her mind and an adoring 14-year-old niece, Helen Kendal. A decade later he suddenly gets into contact with the now grown-up niece. He tells her to bring Perry Mason to a confab but at the meeting, a man, not Franklin Shore, is found dead, shot through the head. Though Helen has no connection to the murder victim, the police charge her with the murder so she naturally hires Perry to defend her.

The roof really caves in on this unlucky family. Helen’s cat and then Aunt Matilda are poisoned with strychnine. Both pull through. Lt. Tragg is put out however, when he finds the kitty under wraps in the apartment of Della Street, Mason’s devoted and intrepid secretary. He arrests Della because Mason’s foe, D.A. Hamilton Burger, has convinced himself that Della also knows the whereabouts of Franklin Shore. He charges her for concealing a material witness thus obstructing justice.

Perry, Della, and Paul thus get involved in a case that registers 7 Strands on The Tangled Web Meter. Mystery writer and critic Jon Breen calls this one “one of the best pure detective novels [Gardner] ever wrote.”

It’s also well worth reading because Gardner has Perry vigorously defend what Burger calls “theatrical interludes” and “courtroom flimflam.” Mason argues constitutional protections have been slowly undermined by cops, prosecutors, and judges, raising the prospect of the government using the law and its criminal justice system as tools of political oppression. Doubtless, Gardner, a lawyer for 15 years before he became a writer, was using Mason as a mouthpiece here, warning us that fear and war frenzy eat away at the rights of citizens. Mason makes the argument that lawyers are obligated to use whatever legal means are necessary to defend the individual fighting a system run by folks who seem to assume civil rights are a nuisance that protect the guilty.

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Haunted Husband

August 24th, 2020

The Case of the Haunted Husband
by Erle Stanley Gardner

 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In this 1942 mystery, aspiring actress Stephanie Claire is fired from her hat-checking job after fending off her sleazy boss’ advances. Brave Stephanie hitchhikes to L.A. to get closer to Hollywood and the breaks it might offer. In Bakersfield she is picked up by a handsome confident man in a big fast sedan. He’s been at the bottle and offers her a pull so to keep on his good side she takes a swig. In attempting to make a move on her, the driver loses control of the car, which causes a multi-vehicle accident in which another man is killed. Stephanie is rescued from the wreck, at the steering wheel and with the liquor on her breath. The driver of the car has vanished. She faces a charge of negligent homicide.

Talk about one of life’s dirty tricks.

Investigation reveals that the owner of the wrecked car is one Jules Homan, successful Hollywood writer and producer. He says the car was stolen. So Stephanie lands in trouble deep. One of Stephanie’s friends persuades ace lawyer Perry Mason to take the case, which he is drawn to because he likes cases in which the little guy seems to be pitted against the rich and powerful. Gardner’s view of Hollywood as ultimate company town rings true. Even the cops are afraid of their careers being stopped by its malign influence.

This is the background for one of the most convoluted Mason stories that Gardner ever wrote. Plot and incident abound. The writing is a little looser than usual with hints that are not followed up and conversations that don’t move the story along. On the other hand, these extended conversations reveal Perry Mason’s philosophy of life and death (he’s a bit of a mystic) and Lt. Tragg’s fair but fundamentally authoritarian personality. Della and Paul have a lot to do. Paul is his usual aggrieved self, Della is always game and smart. Ham Burger does not appear and the courtroom scenes are abbreviated.

This was written in the early 1940s, when Gardner was really on fire, churning out Mason and Cool and Lam stories at a rapid pace. Despite the quantity, I think quality did not suffer. I highly recommend this mystery to hardcore fans and green novices wondering why Gardner was the top-selling mystery writer of the 1940s.

 

 

Spy Novel Review – The Honourable Schoolboy

August 10th, 2020

The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In 1977, this spy novel won the Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

After the unmasking of a ‘mole’, a Soviet agent in the London intelligence agency, George Smiley has taken over the leadership of the Circus. He is tasked to lead the department back to its old clout as it closes residencies and gets its spies out of harm’s way – or out to pasture because their covert lives aren’t covert anymore.

To do this, Smiley has to find ‘Karla’, the Soviet spymaster in charge of the relentless campaign against the Circus and all reasonable guardrails of western civilization. A money trail leads to what we called in the 1970s Indochina. Smiley sends an Old Asia Hand, Jerry Westerby, camouflaged as a journalist, to Hong Kong, where he investigates secret bank accounts – apparently set up by ‘Karla’ for Moscow to pay an agent of tremendous value in Red China.

Westerby travels from Hong Kong to every hot spot Indochina has to offer in the mid-1970s. In a painful set piece, in Saigon days before the withdrawal of the American forces, a bitter American military officer wants to shake Westerby’s hand, since they are now both members of “second-rate nations.” Westerby also delves into the heart of darkness with trips to Vientiane in Laos and Phnom Pen and Battambang in Cambodia.

Without a little knowledge of Southeast Asia and without reading the prequel Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, a reader might feel lost in this big novel. But given these prerequisites are fulfilled, the many details do come together for an alert reader. The local color is amazing and persuasive; the reader can tell LeCarre visited the region to research this novel.

I think le Carré challenges his readers to trust him. That is, there are stretches in his long books where literally nothing happens. Even the characters start to get antsy in periods of inertia punctuated by periods of frenzy. On the other hand, he makes unpromising scenarios – interviews, in particular – brilliant character studies and primers on interrogation methods. So the story may be thin, but the suspense is compelling. In LeCarré novels, the last 100 pages or so are always un-put-downable.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Broken Vase

August 3rd, 2020

 

The Broken Vase by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

It is early 1941 in New York City. Gentleman farmer and private eye Tecumseh Fox is rich enough to afford giving a grant of $2,000.00 (about $35,000 in our 2021 dinero) to a young gifted fiddler to purchase a Stradivarius. Though not a music lover, Fox attends the Carnegie Hall concert for the premier performance of the fiddler on his prize violin. Unmusical Fox notices that the audience is shocked and leaving in droves. Fox is told that the violin’s tone didn’t sound at all right. The young violinist, in front of witnesses, takes his own life during the intermission.

Case closed, but a killing occurs that makes Fox think the suicide and the murder are linked. The rich mother of the murder victim hires Fox to investigate the circumstances and find out who committed the murder. Fox has a series of interviews and adventures that make for amusing reading, especially when one’s brain is too tired for more challenging reading matter.

Rex Stout is better known and more respected for his novels starring Nero Wolfe, rotund orchid fancier and PI to the rich and famous. Critics and fans agree that his other detective creations – Tec Fox, Alphabet Hicks, and Theodolinda ‘Dol’ Banner – are not up to the Wolfe-Archie stories, especially the novellas.

But I don’t care. As a fan of between the wars whodunnits, I have a soft spot for vintage characters, society settings, and squads of suspects. To his credit, Stout always plays fair with the reader, giving enough information to the reader to figure it out by the reveal. Also, like Conan Doyle was able to in the Holmes stories, Stout captures an insular world and feeling of timelessness – affluent Manhattan, mid-20th century – a quality that I hope discerning readers will enjoy for years to come.

 

 

 

Historical Fiction Review – Titans

July 23rd, 2020

Titans

Titans by Leila Meacham

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

Meacham has created a literary enjoyment with Titans!  A novel about how family secrets can bring both heartache and redemption, Titans is an emotional and bittersweet journey.

Texas in the early 1900s is on the edge of discovery.  Oil has been found and methods of locating deposits and extracting it from the land are being developed.  Some homes are getting telephones and there is talk of a motorized conveyance replacing horses for travel.  In the Dallas/Ft Worth area, three families will come together as long-held family secrets are slowly exposed.

The Gordons are building an empire with their cattle ranch. Their adopted daughter Samantha is their joy and she has given up her dreams of an advanced education to be more involved with the family ranch. The Holloways have a wheat farm and their son Nathan has a deep connection to the land. Nathan is looking forward to the day he can run the farm and has a close relationship with his father.  Trevor Waverling is a wealthy manufacturing businessman who is no friend to either family, but he is about to meet Nathan and set everyone on a course of change.

Meacham weaves together the lives of these three families with a deft hand and the way the plot comes full circle offers a satisfying and thorough conclusion. Filled with complicated family histories and challenging family relationships, Titans delivers on several levels and I give it 5 stars.  The plot is well thought out and developed, the characters are not predictable but they are relatable, and the way the story comes together is seamless.