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Archive for January, 2018

Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Lucky Legs

Monday, January 29th, 2018

The Case of the Lucky Legs by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This is the third of 75 mysteries starring ace lawyer Perry Mason. Published in 1936, its settings appeal to a reader nostalgic for times when her ancestors were young: cigar stores, resident hotels, soda fountains, speakeasies, and full-serve gasoline stations. The period language teaches us how to speak noir: “look common” and “know your onions.”

This is an early Mason story so various elements jar us readers used to the lode Gardner mined, say, after WWII. Della Street has not found her usual role as confidante and enabler of illegal entry and evidence funny business. In this one, poor Della is not even taking notes while Mason grills a prospective client. Perry and PI Paul Drake’s relationship is convincingly stiff as neither knows the other enough to trust him. Mason as housebreaker has a set of skeleton keys he uses without compunction. Mason as tough guy threatens to punch people. Generally speaking the prose is mechanical, even plodding at the three-quarters mark, making me wonder, “Cripes, another interrogation! Again.”

And the smoking! Two scenes emphasize the power of watching smoke rise to assist deep thinking, which we ex-smokers will remember with rueful disgust at undeniable pleasure. David Sedaris mentions in When You are Engulfed in Flames that publishers have asked him if they could cut out references to smoking in a story they wanted to reprint. If publishers plan on doing that to Perry Mason, huge blacked out redactions will appear in these texts.

On the upside the characterization, such as it is, strikes me as better than usual because all four principles plus the two tough cops are plausible, with one of them being wily and worthy antagonist to Mason. Also, on the upside, as far as I, who’s read dozens of Mason novels, am concerned, it includes no courtroom scene.




Mystery Monday Review – Ashes to Ashes

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

Ashes to Ashes by Emma Lathen

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Emma Lathen was the pseudonym for the writing team of Mary J. Latsis and Martha Henissart. From the early Sixties to the Nineties, their series hero was Wall Street banker and amateur sleuth John Putnam Thatcher. The magazine Newsweek described Lathen as “a master plotter, an elegant stylist, a comic genius and a purist who never sacrifices logic for surprise effect.”

In this mystery Ungar Realty, a large developer, is planning to acquire St. Bernadette’s School, a beloved Catholic school in a Queens-like neighborhood of the Big Apple. The deal between the company and archdiocese looks done until the newly formed Parents League protests the closing of the school and files a lawsuit. Then the leader of the activists is found murdered in the group’s headquarters. John Putnam Thatcher, whose bank is financing the deal, is drawn into a complex web of parish intrigue and protest as he tries to identify the perp.

The murder, of course, generates much publicity. The publicity attracts the types that Lathen, both of whom were probably old-style New York Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, likes to skewer. For instance, horning in on the Parents League protests are liberal Catholics who alienate the working class locals by advocating for the Pill to be distributed to teenaged girls. Also showing up are the Bhagavad Catholics who mix in Hare Krishna with Christianity. There are two action-filled scenes, one a genuine riot and another more peaceful protest at the UN, which brings together Jewish, Arabic, and Catholic folks in mutual support against absentee landlords.

With the Sixties-type activism and the mixed reaction to Vatican II, this 1971 book feels nostalgic for those of us readers born in the Forties and Fifties. But then again it also feels very here and now in light of headlines in my newspaper that say “Ten Catholic elementary schools in —– Diocese are closing, displacing 1,154 students (K-8) and 195 faculty and staff.”


Thriller Thursday – Budapest Noir

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Budapest Noir by Vilmos Kondor

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


When “noir” is in title, I can’t help but have expectations. Dark story, surprising twists, thugs, a tough-talking detective smoking, and all the characters drinking like fish and smoking like chimneys. This mystery includes these attractions, but the investigative reporter protagonist is self-controlled, mordant, and a stereotypically Hungarian Gloomy Gus.  I felt this story was so-so — a good-enough representative of the “Europe between the wars” genre that has been so popularized by Alan Furst. But remember the dark plot clearly in a couple of months? I doubt it.

The main character is crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon. The authorities are trying to sweep a prostitute’s killing under the carpet, but Gordon becomes interested in the woman’s past, the events that lead up to her murder. The reason is that he saw nude photo of the woman in a drawer in a police official’s desk. In tracing the culprit in the backstreets of Budapest, the incautious Gordon soon finds himself to be the witch of interest in a witch hunt.

Set in October 1936, just after the sudden real-life death of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös, the exposition hints at the coming menace. Jewish people are under increasing pressure. The communist and fascist powers are asserting power. Still, the focus is always on the woman’s death and the investigation and interviews. Budapest’s streets, squares and landmarks are mentioned by name, which will thrill people who have lived and visited that city. Having a Hungarian grandmother, I like the stereotypes: Hungarian women are beautiful; two Hungarians will hold and argue about three different opinions; and when Hungarians want you to try their wonderful cuisine, they stuff you with viands full of fat. And paprika.

The development of the main character Gordon takes precedence over the plot, even though he is a little more than a monochrome photograph. I liked the fact that the investigator had a job other than a PI or a homicide detective. Gordon is a macho man who maddeningly stubborn and pessimistic, but he’s smart and resourceful. And sly. Not to mention the kind of BF that says things like, “Please don’t be more angry than necessary.” Mercifully, there are some normal people, such as Krisztina, the graphic designer GF of Gordon, and the comic relief grandfather, Opa, a former doctor who spends his days making experimental jams and preserves.





Mystery Monday Review – The Fashion in Shrouds

Monday, January 8th, 2018

The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This 1938 whodunnit combines mystery, romance, and novel of ideas. It’s set in a fashion house and peopled with glamorous and good-looking characters.

The mystery: an irresponsible brute of an aristo is poisoned in his own plane and this convenient death may or may not be related to a suicide whose skeleton is found by the hero Albert Campion.

The romance: three professional women must balance their successful careers with romance and marriage to suitable men. The novel of ideas: the obstacles to balancing career and love for women.

Although in our post-modern days these issues are rather dated, the book is worth reading for the character of Georgia Wells, stage-actress and femme fatale who is the illustration of Rebecca West’s observation, “The main difference between men and women is that men are lunatics and women are idiots.” Idiotic in the original Greek sense that Georgia is vain, selfish, egocentric, and childishly cares only about her own goals and pleasures. Georgia is an incredible creation, right up there with Uriah Heep and Elizabeth Bennett’s Silly Mother.






Non-Fiction Review – Living With Cannibals

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

Living With Cannibals And Other Women’s Adventures
by Michele Slung


Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo)


I was shelving books in the library the other day when I ran across a small volume called “Living with Cannibals and Other Women’s Adventures” by Michele Slung.  Well, I have to confess “Living with Cannibals” really caught my eye.  I know all about the old saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ but sometimes it happens! 

Anyway, the cover had an old photograph of a very determined looking woman wearing a skirt and a pith helmet swathed in veils, standing on top of a mountain.  I thought, anybody who could climb a mountain dressed like that is worth reading about.  And I was right! 

“Living with Cannibals” profiles 16 women adventurers; it gives a brief biography of each woman and then details the wanderings and adventures of her life.  A few of the names are familiar, such as Amelia Earhart and Dian Fossey.  But most of the women’s names are unknown, in spite of their accomplishments.  For instance, can you name the first woman to reach the North Pole?  How about the first woman correspondent to report on World War I from the front lines?  Which woman has logged more hours orbiting the earth than any other woman on Earth?  Yeah…I didn’t know either.   

Not all the women profiled here did something “first”; some of them took risks or traveled to exotic places at a time when most women seldom left their front yards.  Ida Pfeiffer, in 1842 at the age of 45, wrote her will and set off on a trip around the world.  She saw Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Cairo.  She ended up taking two more voyages around the world, and wrote about her adventures in books titled “A Lady’s Voyage Around the World”, and  “A Lady’s Second Journey Around the World.”  She had no qualms about dressing in trousers or passing herself off as a man if need be, unlike Fanny Bullock Workman.  Fanny absolutely refused to wear anything other than her skirts–not even a divided skirt.  Fanny fell in love with the relatively new sport of climbing.  She pounded nails into the soles of her boots, and ended up breaking the woman’s altitude record by reaching 23, 300 feet on Nun Kun peak in what is now India in 1906.  (In fact, Fanny is the intrepid climber on the book’s cover.) 

Adventurous women were not only to be found in the 19th century.  We also learn about Helen Thayer, who with a single Husky serving as an alarm system for polar bears, skied by herself to the North Pole in 1988.  Dervla Murphy set out from her home in Ireland in 1963 and bicycled all the way to India, alone.  In 1989, Arlene Burns realized a childhood dream by kayaking 100 miles down Tibet’s Brahmaputra River.  She then returned to land, made her way alone back to Katmandu and on to Bangkok where she swapped her kayak for a mountain bike.  She then cycled from Bangkok down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore. 

The book ends by introducing Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist who reached a record depth in 1979 of 1, 250 feet diving in a Jim suit.  She has spent hours exploring the ocean, our last frontier.  Sylvia says, “People are under the impression that the planet is fully explored, that we’ve been to all the forests and climbed all the mountains.  But in fact many of the forests have yet to be seen for the first time.  They just happen to be under water.  We’re still explorers.  Perhaps the greatest era is just beginning.” 

The wonderful thing is that just about every woman profiled in this volume wrote about her adventures; a very complete bibliography of titles is listed at the back of the book.  I have lots of new titles to search out now!