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Archive for February, 2017

Mystery Monday Review – The Grand Banks Cafe

Monday, February 20th, 2017

The Grand Banks Cafe by Georges Simenon

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

After three months at sea, a trawler returns to its home port of Fécamp in northern France. Shortly after the return, the captain, Octave Fallut, is found dead by strangulation in one of the harbor basins. The wireless operator of the trawler, Pierre Le Clinche, barely twenty years old, is the person of interest since he was seen prowling around the boat on the day of the killing.

An old friend of Chief Inspector Maigret, Jorissen, a teacher at Quimper, writes an appeal to Maigret to establish the innocence of the young telegrapher. Once in Fécamp, Maigret settles in at the Grand Banks Café, a hangout of sailors. Once again, we have Maigret trying to crack open a closed society in order to figure out events and feelings that lead up to a murder. Slowly Maigret uncovers unreasoning lust and vengeful anger that caused the murder.

Like many of the early, Depression-era, Maigret novels, this one has a heavy atmosphere. Somber but not as depressing as Maigret and the Yellow Dog (also written in 1931). There are various women characters, with Madame Maigret and the widow Bernard providing stability and domesticity, Le Clinche’s fiancé Marie Léonnec providing loyalty and forgiveness, and Adèle Noirhomme for idiot lust and chaos.  Maigret is true to himself. He listens to conversations, taking in the atmosphere of the harbor and its denizens. He is part anthropologist and part psychologist as he bores into the complexity of relationships and interior struggles.

Maigret also delves into the heart of France during the period between the wars. His focus is on his own people, people who toil to get little. This is the France of small shops, cafés on every street corner, and artisans (such as rope makers) whose day you’d have thought passed long before 1930.

Simenon loved the sea so his stories set near locks, on barges and in small fishing ports are worth reading. He’s great with atmosphere, which is also a tribute to the translator. David Coward has also translated Alexandre DumasPierre Choderlos de Laclos, and the Marquis de Sade. It was a good idea for Penguin to commission new translations of these classic mysteries.

 

 

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Mystery Monday – The Case of the Curious Bride

Monday, February 13th, 2017

The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

A woman claiming not to be a bride consults lawyer Perry Mason about her “friend” whose husband, supposedly killed in a plane crash, turns up alive and well. Della Street, Mason’s assistant, is sure the would-be client is in fact a bride. The lying client ends up facing charges of murder. All the evidence points to her guilt, of course, so Perry Mason requires cunning and mother-wit – not to mention a lot of PI legwork that he does himself – to save the client.

Published in 1934, the fifth Perry Mason mystery was a pretty good read. However, it has a hard edge to it, probably because the Depression casts a shadow over the characters and action. A millionaire businessman demonstrates the ethics and morality of an alley cat, reflecting public attitudes that were fed up with The Heartless Conscience-free Rich. Plus, near the end, Mason coldly observes that the murder victim – a con man who swindled plain janes into marriage and then stole all their money – “needed killing.” Yikes, talk about a dog-eat-dog world.

In the intricate plot, Mason is always a couple of moves ahead of the DA and cops. Planting fake evidence will do that, I suppose. I did not figure out who the culprit was before the end and I was blind-sided by the reveal.  To be fair, I must say that Gardner plays fair with reader. He has different characters repeat the basic facts of the case, so we readers can’t complain at the end that Gardner expects us to know things we were never told. I think Gardner used the repetition because the novel was serialized in Liberty Magazine (July 7 to September 15, 1934) and he had to get new readers up to speed.

I liked the antique atmosphere. Despite the racy hint of you-know in the title, there is no you-know in the novel, which is par for Mason novels. The trial sequence, as in many of the early Mason novels, is pretty short.

 

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Thriller Thursday – Dark Voyage

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Dark Voyage by Alan Furst

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In his eighth historical espionage thriller, Furst departs from his usual place and time of Europe between the wars. Nor does he focus on typical spies. In this one, the time is during WWII, April to June 1941 to be exact. The setting is at sea on a spy ship, the Dutch tramp freighter Noordendam. The hero is a stoical captain, Erik DeHaan.

DeHaan has been recruited into naval intelligence by three co-nationals, the owner of the Noordendam, a businessman, and a female artist. The Noordendam is re-painted, put under the control of the British intelligence service (which office is unclear to DeHaan), and sent out on a mission both in convoy and on its own, both as the Noordendam and the Santa Rosa. It lands commandos in Tunisia and explosives in Crete. It negotiates German defenses in the Baltic in order to transport radio equipment to listen in traffic to and from German submarines.

DeHaan is a classic Furstian protagonist. That is, sensitive and professionally capable, he brings his emotional and professional intelligence to fight, because that is what an ordinary person would do, fight when fight we must.

The other characters are regular folks too, doing what they can to fight in the hope that their small contribution will add to the huge effort to eliminate the Fascist threat, whether on the left or the right. Fleeing right extremism are Greek deserters, Spanish Republicans, and a veteran Ukrainian Jewish spy. A female Soviet maritime reporter is fleeing the Russian spies that want to recruit her for dirty work.

One flaw. The second half of the novel is set on the Baltic Sea near Malmö, Sweden, in the first 20 days of June, heading up to the Summer Solstice. Recalling how far north this setting is and the time of the year, readers will recall there is not quite 24 hours of daylight. When I lived in Riga, Latvia (1994-97), the sun didn’t set until close to 11:30 p.m. It didn’t get dark until 1:00 a.m. when it didn’t get “darkest before the dawn” kind of dark either. Then at about 1:00 a.m., it started to lighten up again. Furst does not mention one word about this phenomenon.

This flaw is balanced by the simple fact that Furst sets the climax in the Latvian port of Liepāja. Furst gets points in my book for mentioning Latvia at all, much less a little-known place such as Liepāja. The Russians and Germans wanted to occupy Latvia for the possession of Riga and the ice-free port of Liepāja, which the Russians wanted so secret they didn’t even put it on maps.

Furst’s writing style tends to the run-on sentence, which gives an effective herky-jerkiness to the exposition. We readers never know what going to happen next.

 

 

 

 

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