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Mystery Monday Review – The Wings of the Sphinx

October 3rd, 2022

The Wings of the Sphinx by Andrea Camilleri

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


Set in Sicily, this 2006 mystery begins in a tragic way when the nude body of a young woman is found in a landfill. She has traces of gold leaf on her body and the tattoo of a sphinx moth on her left shoulder. Montalbano manages to follow the trail that will involve three other women with the same moth tattoo. He will discover the culprit and the reasons for the murder even though his investigation is always at risk of being hindered by influencers at the top who are corrupted by greed, fear, or the will to power.

The comic relief subplot concerns Mr. Picarella, a man who probably has staged his own kidnapping but whose wife insists the police are not taking the case seriously enough. Montalbano’s subordinates, Fazio and Augello, are skeptical because no ransom demand has been received. They are vindicated when a rich guy produces a photo of Picarella partying in a nightclub in Havana. Mrs. Picarella later curtly rejects this evidence and gets Montalbano in dutch with his pompous superior Bonetti-Alderighi. The scene of them pressing each other’s buttons is hilarious.

The main attraction of this one is, in fact, various confrontations and interrogation scenes that are both realistic and funny. Other strong points are the lush evocation of Sicily, the realistic examination of the sin of treating people like things, and the short chapters driven by brisk rhythm and tempo. With scenes seamlessly woven together, the action is so easy to take in that the book feels shorter than it really is.

As usual, the star is the hero Montalbano, an ordinary middle-aged guy aging ungracefully, subject to dark moods and flying off the handle not to mention poorly managing his long-distance relationship with his GF Livia. The supporting cast includes the pragmatic and meticulous Fazio, the compliant yet daring Augello, and the strong-willed Livia. A brilliant comic creation is the naive and sincere character of Officer Catarella who maddens Montalbano by muddling messages and mangling people’s names and telephone numbers. Hapless Cat is up there with Poirot’s Hastings as the unintentionally comical sidekick.

Some scenes are funny, such as when Montalbano pretends to be an anti-mafia investigator in an amazing two-chapter interrogation. The only cautions are that the reveal feels rushed, and the savvy reader will see where the story is heading. But we don’t read Montalbano novels for the story or the reveal but for Camilleri’s mastery in narrating a story with perfect seams and creating an atmosphere and characters in a world so plausibly realized.



Biography as Fiction

September 27th, 2022

By Nancy C. (nancyzc)


How should an author write about a character who really lived?   Sometimes fiction is the best approach.  Ella Leffland discarded her biography of the World War II Nazi Hermann Goering in its early stages, then wrote an excellent, vivid novel about him called The Knight, Death, and the Devil.  Other authors may have little material to work with (usually because the subject lived long ago), but attempt a biography anyway.  Anne Neville: Queen to Richard III by Michael Hicks was not a worthwhile biography because there just isn’t enough known about this 15th-century woman.  However, Anne’s story treated with the imagination that a novel requires could turn out well.

Sometimes straight biography is the answer even if source material is scarce.  A good biography based on practically no documents at all is Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore.  She writes about Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane, and by extension about all American women of the Revolutionary War period, based on little other than letters and Jane’s Book of Ages, a handmade booklet listing her children’s birthdays and death dates.  Franklin wrote more letters to Jane than to anyone else, and she was a great reader with strong political opinions, so we get insight into her personality.  No likenesses of Jane or her children survive, but Lepore discovered a painting of Jane’s granddaughter which illustrates the dust jacket.  I was completely entranced by this book.  And one of the footnotes cited an English professor who taught me in college!

The Convert by Stefan Hertmans, finds a path between biography and fiction.  Hertmans wants to tell the story of a Christian lady named Vigdis, born in France in 1070, who married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism.   Their marriage—as you might imagine—was not only unpopular and scandalous but tragic.  It is documented in only a very few papers preserved in a synagogue.  So, with most concrete information missing, Hertmans must have decided a biography was out of the question.  Instead, he tells Vigdis’s story in a novel in which he himself is also a character.  He lives in a village where Vigdis lived and can quite literally trace her footsteps.  So we have a twenty-first century viewpoint.  We also get the viewpoint of the eleventh century as we see Vigdis become an outcast daughter, then a refugee, and finally a victim of the Crusaders who kill her husband and kidnap her children.  And we learn a good bit of miscellaneous history, my favorite example being a description of the holy sites of Cairo.  The Convert is one of the best novels I’ve ever read—and I have a book diary going back to 1961.




Mystery Monday Review – Spill the Jackpot

September 26th, 2022

Spill the Jackpot by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair


Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


Gardner wrote 29 Bertha Cool-Donald Lam mysteries. This 1941 entry, the fourth, is one of the better outings. It opens with Bertha checking out of a six-month stay in a sanitarium where she was recovering from a combined form of flu and pneumonia. In a well-plotted story, Lam investigates a disappearance and a murder.

When Gardner wrote as Fair, he allowed himself more digressions from the plot than in Perry Mason novels. He describes the desert country of Nevada and Arizona with affection and awe. He gives the reader a feeling that she’s learning something with a tangent on the inner workings of slot machines. For athletes he gives retro advice on the road work and training that goes into becoming a pugilist. He explores Lam’s wrestling with moral ambiguity with his relationship with a bad girl on the run – who is using whom?

I highly recommend this vintage mystery. Like many born-in-the-Fifties readers, I first read Cool & Lam mysteries as a teenager. Returning to them lately, I have to make allowances for old-timey technology and attitudes, but find the plots clever and the interplay between Bertha and Lam almost as funny as between Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.




Science Fiction Review – The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

September 24th, 2022

THE RISE AND FALL OF D.O.DO. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)


“My name is Melisande Stokes and this is my story. I am writing in July 1851 (Common Era, or – let’s face it – Anno Domini) in the guest chamber of a middle-class home in Kensington, London, England. But I am not a native of this place or time. In fact, I am quite desperate to get out of here. “

So begins THE RISE AND FALL OF D.O.DO., in which Stephenson and Galland happily mix time travel, multiple universes, witchcraft, and government bureaucracy. Melisande is an underpaid and unappreciated lecturer at Harvard University, with a doctorate in ancient languages. After a seemingly accidental meeting, she’s recruited by nice guy Tristan to work for a shadowy government agency, translating documents that all have a mention of magic. To her surprise, there are a lot. In our present, there is of course no magic. But apparently there used to be witches doing magic, and it was just another part of life. Why isn’t there magic in the present day? By working up a timeline, they realize that magic disappeared in tandem with the rise of technology, and more precisely, photography.

Before too long, they’ve got a quantum physicist who might have invented a machine in which magic could exist, if only there were a person who knew how…and voila, here’s Erszabet, a 200 year old witch who says Mel not only told her to live that long, but when to meet.  Mel has no clue how this happened, but of course we readers have figured out that part thanks to the beginning.

The discovery that Erszabet can send people back in time leads to a scheme to fund the project by going back and finding a very rare book, putting it where it can be found 200 years later, and selling it. What could go wrong? Weelll… every action has a reaction, and there are indeed a lot of witches in the past.  Many of them are curious about what these future people want, and some have their own ideas about what might be best for the future.

The first part, while it’s all being set up, is pretty amusing.  Lots of stuff about time travel paradoxes and their unintended consequences. But this isn’t called “The Rise and Fall of DODO” for nothing, because we’re going to get a lot – and I mean a lot – of information about how it grows. Even shadowy military organizations have bureaucracy plus a massive amount of office politics, not to mention petty office jealousies and backbiting. While much of the book is told from Mel’s POV, there are excerpts of email communications, policy notices, text messages and more.  There are excerpts from other characters’ journals (don’t miss The Lay of WalMart). While amusing, it does slow things down; but enjoy the journey as it all contributes to the eventual fall. At any rate, after 600 pages the reader is still wondering what happened to strand Mel in 1851. Fear not, you’re almost there.  In the last act things start happening with a vengeance. So many conspiracies! It’s a 3 ring circus with witches everywhere, people whipping back and forth through the centuries, and treachery at every turn. Is Mel going to get back? Are the bad witches going to triumph after all? No spoilers here.

There is a sequel written solo by Nicole Galland, but this one makes a fine stand-alone if you don’t want to go farther.

Historical Fiction Review – Cinnamon and Gunpowder

September 20th, 2022

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown 

Review by Cheryl G. (Poncer) 

While not a fan of most pirate books because of their violent nature, this book intrigued me because of the mention of cinnamon in the title. I had recently watched a documentary about the history and current production of the spice in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). I am very glad I read this book, even the violent parts. Luckily the narrator was nearly as squeamish as I about violence, so while the book did contain violent scenes, they were over quickly and handled with some sympathy. 

Tossed in to this pirate novel is a charming love story and some recipes to make if you are ever stuck on the high seas with limited ingredients. Or even at home with some seaworthy goodies.

This book takes part during a few months in 1819 and though written in the early 20-teens, it seems very relevant to the discussions taking place since the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the impact of British imperialism around the world. Funny that the history we were taught in school, and the actual ways westerners affected other peoples of the world, are often very different. While this is definitely a work of historical fiction, I did learn some facts about spice trading, privateers and pirates of those days.

One of the best parts of this book was the humor. Some parts were actually laugh-out-loud funny. Along with the human reactions of the main characters, it made the book very readable. The characters were all developed well and all, even the most grizzled old lascar garnered my sympathy in some way as the story progressed. 


I highly recommend this book, and not only to fans of pirate stories. Four stars. 








Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Fabulous Fake

September 19th, 2022

The Case of the Fabulous Fake by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


It is 1969 in Los Angeles. Diana Douglas and her brother Edgar are both employees of the Escobar Import & Export Company of San Francisco. Though controls in the company are cool and casual, auditors have tumbled to the fact that about $10,000 ($72,000 in 2022) is missing from the cash safe. Edgar, a charming do-nothing employed as a favor to his sister, may have embezzled it to settle gambling debts to wise guys.

LA blackmailer, Moray (as in eel) Cassell, has heard a rumor of the missing cash and seems to have contacted Edgar to put the bite on him. Sensitive Edgar got knocked out in an auto accident and is in a coma so sister Diana decides to pay The Eel off. Though she lies and frankly conceals information, Mason agrees to help Diana, mainly because he detests blackmailers. Mason admits he made a mistake when he unwittingly gave Diana enough rope to go and stick her pretty neck into an ugly noose. The inevitable murdered corpse in an apartment results in Diana being charged with Murder One since the murder weapon was a wooden-handled .22 owned by Edgar.

I’ll read late career Gardner because I’m a fan. But critical me has to admit this last Mason mystery, #80, has its problems. It is almost a quarter shorter than usual. There aren’t many suspects. The plot depends on an especially contrived coincidence revealed very late in the game. Gardner doesn’t play fair with the reader when he withholds facts the reader needs to guess the perp. We long-time fans miss Hamilton Burger and his exasperated outbursts; there are no comfy exchanges with Della or Paul Drake. Slightly grating is Gardner’s habit of making adverbs do more than their share of the work as characters glance meaningly, look quizzically, nod solemnly, and say impressively.

On the plus side, Gardner liked to stay abreast of new trends and technology so we feel the atmosphere of 1969 a little when he refers to computers, credit cards, electric typewriters, car phones, the Miranda decision of 1966, and the ease of taking guns onto airliners. The other plus is that a familiar Garderian heroine takes the stage yet again. That is, even though impetuous Diana Douglas plays fast and loose with the truth, she’s brave, headstrong, and loyal to her brother. And she’s starry-eyed with gratitude at the end after Perry foils the System’s savage determination to put her in the gas chamber.





Mystery Monday Review – The Lady in the Lake

September 12th, 2022

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This story features Chandler’s series protagonist, private eye Philip Marlowe. It takes place in California in 1942, so it has various references to smoking stands, cheese glasses, and colors like mulberry and light green. Playing a walk-on part in the climax are the safety measures brought about by the US entry into the Second World War.

Marlowe is hired by Derace Kingsley to find his wife. Kingsley is a well-off cosmetics executive. But scandal would get him fired. There’s no question of community property since his wife’s money – from bubbling crude in Texas – is hers alone. A wild child, she’s been missing for a month, with the only trace of her a bizarre telegram sent from El Paso asking for a divorce. Kingsley needs reassurance that she’s okay because he’s edgy about her getting busted due to her drunk and disorderly behavior and thrill-seeking hobby of shoplifting. Their love burned out some time ago.

With his characteristic realism and irony, Marlowe interviews a variety of curious characters: a womanizer with a violent streak, an drunk with esteem issues, a fluttery landlady, and a slow-talking small-town sheriff right out of the pulps, to name only a few. The brilliant narration is sprinkled with evocative descriptions of LA, Santa Monica (called Bay City in the book), San Bernardino and the mountain hamlet of Little Fawn Lake. The cops are portrayed as so vicious, corrupt and terrifying that one wonders if the police unions of the time complained to Chandler’s publishers.

In this book the reader will find the writing that made Chandler as respected as founder of noir Dashiell Hammett: well-wrought sentences, funny turns of phrase, and a crime story as a way to examine the human condition. Unlike in some other of his novels, Chandler does not over-write and doesn’t leave any gaps in the plot. The hard-boiled epigrams aren’t too corny or contrived. The overall tone isn’t callous or cynical nor is the world portrayed to be more dangerous and mean than it actually is.

It’s firmly in the classic mystery genre, with all the action pointing to a stunning reveal that leaves the reader gaping. I just didn’t expect such a brilliant resolution.