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Mystery Monday – Red Threads

April 12th, 2021

Red Threads by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The Barnes & Noble website touts its e-book version as “An Inspector Cramer Mystery” as if Stout made the hard-boiled head of NYPD homicide a series hero. Cramer was never a series hero. Cramer usually played the flatfoot foil in Stout’s classic mysteries starring the PI duo of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. And in this 1939 novel, he merely assists the heroine trap the perp.

This mystery contains the prototypical elements of a story from the so-called golden age of detective fiction. The reader catches a whiff of the spiritualism and mysticism that was common in the 20 years after World War I. The color prejudice – involving American Indians – is about what we would expect for the late Thirties. The whodunit snobbery is on display. The glamorous characters are well-off and famous in the arts, design and technology. The victim is a millionaire, killed in the ostentatious tomb of his wife, which is located on the grounds of his swanky country estate. As for the last check-box, what can we say about the prose:

He stopped, gazing at her, and put out a hand and took it back again. “No,” he said. “I’m not going to plead with you. I did that, and what good did it do? But all the same, I won’t tolerate it – what you’re doing with Guy Carew. Now that the fortune is his – the wings for your ambition. I know you can do it – he’s a half-primitive infant – may be you’ve already done it – but I won’t tolerate it and I won’t allow it. I won’t, Portia! You’re mine! By God, you are!”

Pee-yew, is what I’d say, but not unamusing in small doses. To be charitable, he wrote this in 1939, just after the excellent outing with Wolfe and Archie, Some Buried Ceasar. Too much to expect two home runs in a row.

On the credit side, Stout is an old-school feminist whose female characters work hard and enjoy success on their own terms. A textile artist and fashion designer upstages Inspector Cramer by using a peach pit, a red thread from an antique weave, and the call of a whippoorwill to solve the mystery. Stout’s wife was in the cloth business so there’s always smart references to fabric.

In the tradition of Golden Age mysteries, the reveal tests patience and credulity in terms of to what degree will we accept silly and over the top. I can recommend this one only to hard-core fans who have already read a fistful of Nero Wolfe mysteries and, bless us reading gluttons one and all, even reading an Alphabet Hicks or a Doll Bonner or a Tecumseh Fox.

 

 

Mystery Monday – The D A Calls It Murder

April 5th, 2021

The D.A. Calls it Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This is the first book featuring DA Doug Selby who appeared in nine mysteries from 1937 to 1949. It opens with Selby and his friend Sheriff Max Brandon flushed with victory in their recent election to office in Madison City, about 100 miles north of Hollywood. As Brandon is a faithful pard right out of pulp Westerns, Selby’s GF Sylvia Martin is a typical Gardnerian heroine along the lines of Della Street: shrewd, ready for action, and devoted.

A corpse is discovered in a hotel. Besides getting involved in the homicide investigation, Selby takes up detecting duties to gather details about an envelope containing $5,000, a lawsuit over an estate, and a movie scenario of an unintentionally hilarious melodrama titled Lest Ye Be Judged (for us cynics who assumed Gardner didn’t have satire in him). Also involved are a high-tech camera and a poisoned dog (take it easy – Gardner was a dog lover so the pooch is going to be okay).

Selby questions a movie star who lays a lot of New Age California woo-woo on him. Selby also comes within an ace of being hypnotized by the motion picture actress. The scene in which they come to an agreement about where their relationship is going will call to mind scenes between, say, Ida Lupino and Ronald Colman.

The subplots get tangled, the characters act improbably. Happily, Gardner’s readable prose drives the story. We readers can always trust his stories to hustle.

 

 

Contemporary Fiction Review – Red at the Bone

March 25th, 2021

Red at the Bone: A Novel

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Review by Mirah W (mwelday)

Red at the Bone is my first experience with author Jacqueline Woodson.  While the format isn’t what I typically gravitate to, I found the novel to be almost lyrical, as if I was reading music instead of a book.  Red at the Bone opens at Melody’s coming out party for her sixteenth birthday. The dress she is wearing is one that was meant for her own mother’s sixteenth coming out party, but it was never worn. Woodson moves the reader back and forth through time, giving us the full story of Melody’s background by revealing the rise and fall of her parents’ relationship and Melody’s own relationship with each of her parents.

Told through multi-character perspectives, the reader sees how a teenage pregnancy impacts different generations of different families.  But Woodson takes the story deeper; there are socioeconomic, racial, familial, and cultural forces at work.  How do all of these forces affect the choices that people make and how does it shape us into the people we become? There are so many competing elements in our lives that it can be difficult to block out the ‘noise’ and think about who we really are and what we think our place is in the world. I think Woodson delves into this journey of self-exploration and self-identity that we all experience at some point in our lives.

As I mentioned at the start, this is my first experience reading a book by this author.  Even though it was structurally different than what I usually enjoy, I found myself engrossed quickly and read it through on a quiet Sunday. I give Red at the Bone 4 stars for being well-written and interesting, carefully blending different character experiences into a strong plot.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Dreadful Hollow

March 22nd, 2021

The Dreadful Hollow by Nicholas Blake

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Poison pen letters figure largely in Dorothy Sayers’ novel Gaudy Night, Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger and John Dickson Carr’s Night at the Mocking Widow. Ditto for The Dreadful Hollow (1953). Someone is sending abusive missives in the small Dorset village of Prior’s Umborne. One of the recipients has committed suicide, another has attempted it, and yet another has had a nervous breakdown.

Not only has the tranquility of the quiet village been disturbed by the letters, but the wheels of the factory, the main employer in town, are moving more slowly too. This enrages the imperious owner Sir Archibald Blick. He hires private detective Nigel Strangeways to identify the mean epistle writing culprit. Strangeways gently questions a variety of characters in the cozy village settings of the post office, the Sweet Drop pub and inn, the vicarage and Little Manor, the home of the thirty-something sisters Celandine and Rosebay Chantemerle.

Celandine is a cornflower-blue-eyed blonde, full of vivacious charm, but wheelchair-bound. She has suffered hysterical paralysis ever since she discovered the corpse of her father in a quarry. Rosebay is younger and auburn-haired. Like her red-haired sisters, she’s a passionate soul, which means she’s a blast when she’s feeling good but a thunderstorm when she’s feeling bad. Dinny has kind of a past with Charles Blick, a son of Sir Archibald, while Bay has a present with him.

Nigel Strangeways depends on his insight, phenomenal memory, and deadpan manner in his investigations. His foil is Scotland Yard’s Inspector Blount, down to earth, candid, and tough. In the first half, the focus of the story is always on the anonymous letters. A religious manic-depressive adds to the climate of anxiety in this novel. So the setting is cozy, but the tone is decidedly rattled, though not on the same desperate pitch as the relentless The Beast Must Die.

Cecil Day Lewis, English poet and novelist, used the pen name Nicholas Blake for seventeen mystery novels starring this series detective. His characters and settings are always well-defined, even if the detecting side is sometimes too easy. The writing is highly intelligent and articulate without being overly intellectual. Day Lewis was a classicist so the plots have an undercurrent of Greek tragedy: mistakes come out of impulse, tormented personalities cause a lot of fussing and fighting.

 

 

 

Spy Thriller Review – Riddle of the Sands

March 9th, 2021

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This early 20th century spy thriller starts with Charles Carruthers plodding away in the British Foreign Office, marking time on dull reports and doing the social whirl at balls and dinners. For a change, he accepts an offer of a vacation from an old Oxford buddy, Arthur Davies. The stolid quiet Davies proposes duck shooting in the East Frisian Islands on his yacht the Dulcibella. In fact, to make up for being turned down by the Royal Navy, Davies has taken to freelance espionage. He is investigating German plans to invade that royal throne of kings, that sceptered isle.

Though raised near Great Lakes, having lived on an island for six years, and living now in a place ridden by lake effect snow, I’m not really a water guy. I just read lots of nautical stories, in memoirs, serious fiction, mysteries and thrillers. In this novel, the technical information about navigation, sailing and naval dispositions is balanced by expressive narrative like this:

… A sort of buoyant fatalism possessed me as I finished my notes and pored over the stove. It upheld me, too, when I went on deck and watched the ‘pretty beat’, whose prettiness was mainly due to the crowd of fog-bound shipping—steamers, smacks, and sailing-vessels—now once more on the move in the confined fairway of the fiord, their baleful eyes of red, green, or yellow, opening and shutting, brightening and fading; while shore-lights and anchor-lights added to my bewilderment, and a throbbing of screws filled the air like the distant roar of London streets. In fact, every time we spun round for our dart across the fiord I felt like a rustic matron gathering her skirts for the transit of the Strand on a busy night. Davies, however, was the street arab who zigzags under the horses’ feet unscathed; and all the time he discoursed placidly on the simplicity and safety of night-sailing if only you are careful, obeying rules, and burnt good lights. As we were nearing the hot glow in the sky that denoted Kiel we passed a huge scintillating bulk moored in mid-stream. ‘Warships,’ he murmured, ecstatically.

That second 80-word sentence is, well, something, though the ~ing verbs make movement, sights, and sounds realistic and vivid.

Historians tell us that the book was a best-seller when it was published. Public outcry stirred by the book was such that the UK shored up its coastal defense system. Critics say the book was an influence on John Buchan, whose man-child hero Richard Hannay calls to mind Davies in this one. This was Childers’ only novel. He became a stringent Irish Nationalist (his mother was Irish) and had an unfortunate end after the Great War. His son was President of Ireland in the early Seventies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Borrowed Brunette

March 1st, 2021

The Case of the Borrowed Brunette by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The 28th Perry Mason novel was published in 1946. Shortages of housing and consumer products suggest a post-WWII setting as does the tough road of women trying to make it in a man’s world. For instance, Helen Reedley is trying to get out of a marriage in which her husband holds the economic whip hand besides being a domineering oaf. Also, working girl Eva Martell, to make a few bucks and get noticed in Hollywood, accepts a job in which she has to impersonate another woman. Worried that she may be placed in vulnerable legal position, she and her chaperone Adelle Winters consult crack attorney Perry Mason.

The usual inevitabilities arise. A dodgy gambler turned blackmailer is found with a bullet betwixt his eyes. The cops want to pin the killing on Eva and Adelle just because they have an eyewitness report that Adelle put her gun – the murder gun – in a garbage pail. The DA’s hatchet man is out to cut Mason down to size on legal technicalities and secure the flamboyant lawyer’s disbarment. The outcome hinges on a determination of when the crime was in fact committed, not when it seems to have been committed.

But Gardner departs from the norm aplenty. Unexpectedly, familiar characters such as Della Street, Lt. Tragg, and DA Ham Burger don’t play big roles. But there are many more suspects than the usual three or four, all of whom have cool retro names: Orville L. Reedley, Cora Felton, Daphne Gridley, Carlotta Tipton, and Arthur Clovis. Mason and his PI Paul Drake have extensive and complicated conversations exonerating the persons of interest.

Despite a lot of talking, this novel is one of the more exciting and riveting outings purely on the basis of rational thinking. I mean, enthralling given the reader accepts the initial premise of the impersonation, which, to my mind, often does not come off as convincing in whodunnits.

Nonfiction Review and Mini Interview – “More Than One Life” by Richard Salmon

February 23rd, 2021

 

More Than One Life by Richard Salmon

Review and Interview by Diane G. (icesk8tr)

 

This book is huge at almost 600 pages long, and weighs over 3 pounds, but it is a very interesting story. If you have ever wondered what it was like in South Africa during Apartheid from the viewpoint of someone who lived there, this is for you.

The story is all about the life of Richard Salmon, from when he was a boy growing up in South Africa. This boy had dreams of being at sea, and new adventures. He ended up getting his wish, and traveled on cargo ships. During this time he also was interested in judo and other martial arts. His training in the martial arts is a story in itself and very impressive!! He traveled to train with so many masters and was able to master great things in many disciplines. During all of this he met his wife who was with him through all the changes and adventures in his life! They had 2 sons who also were along in their adventures as they moved from one country to the next. They took many interesting trips and moved from South Africa to the US, and moved to different states in the US, back to Africa, back to the US, and then once again back to South Africa! Each time taking along their possessions in huge crates that were carefully packed.

The impressive thing to me in this book is the way they were able to come back from disasters in their life, stay strong and together through all of it and continue along their way. They were able to come up with new ideas and careers along their paths. They did great things with their martial arts school, leadership schools, awareness programs, environmental education foundation, and planning and organizing safaris. They met some amazing people along the way, and made some lifelong friends. They had some amazing safaris and some good stories from them are also in the book.

Their 2 sons still live in Georgia, and go to visit them in South Africa. They are also very impressive and successful in their businesses, one working in construction, and the other a very talented musician in the duo Surrender Hill. (Check them out, they are amazing!)

I was able to talk to Richard and ask him a few questions about the book and here are the questions and answers:

Q. What inspired you to write this book?

A. Firstly, because of our rather extensive, challenging and unusual life’s journey, I wanted to leave the story as part of our family history for the future generations that follow and to all others that might read our story, to just show what is possible in life with thought, effort and determination and a little courage thrown in..

Q. How long did it take to write the book?

A. On and off, 12 years.

Q. You have lived many places across the globe. Besides South Africa where did you enjoy it the most?

A. Estes Park, Colorado, we absolutely loved living in the splendor of the Rockies.

Q. Do you think your martial arts training helped you deal with things that went wrong during your journey?

A. I have to believe that it was the ethical and spiritual guidance of the Great Masters I was privileged to share time with, combined with the many years of self-discipline in training. Together this gave me the strength at times when needed and even more so, I always knew there was the strength and support of Dot being by my side.

Q. What is your secret in having a good relationship between the two of you?

A. Beside the ‘The love of my life” which is the reason so often given and which it Is for us, I believe further, it’s two words, Respect and Trust.

 

 

 

This book was published in South Africa and it may not be easy to find a copy here in the US, but it is well worth it if you can!