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Archive for August, 2022

Mystery Monday Review – The Corpse in the Snowman

Monday, August 29th, 2022

The Corpse in the Snowman by Nicholas Blake

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This novel is set in the dramatic winter of 1940-1941, the beginning of WWII. The story begins when Nigel Strangeways, Blake’s series hero, is invited by a relative of his wife Georgia to investigate a case at the country mansion of the Restorick family, the quality of the place. The strange behavior of the family cat has necessitated the services of a detective. It seems the cat, during a séance, behaved in a way weird and unsettling even for a cat, attacking with ferocity something that was not there.

Strangeways is introduced into the Restorick mansion as a parapsychologist, but soon he is forced to resume his true identity as a private detective, after the beautiful, vain, shameless and deeply troubled Elizabeth Restorick, the younger sister of the host Hereward Restorick, is found hanged in her room.

Strangeways wonders whether her apparent suicide is in fact premeditated murder. Teaming up with his usual sidekick Inspector Blount, he explores the possibilities with the suspects being a bland psychiatrist from London who has been treating Elizabeth, a novelist with a proletarian background and a jealous flighty friend.

Nigel Strangeways’ wife Georgia is an explorer, an unusual avocation for a woman in those days. They discuss the case in terms that Nick and Nora Charles would use if Nick and Nora Charles had had classical educations at Oxford. Another interesting character is Clarissa Cavendish, former don whose specialty was 18th century England, who refers to the Georgian period as “my day.” Last but not least, we have among the characters two nice and spontaneous children. The reader can tell that Day Lewis, both a parent and school master, knew children and their ways.

Nicholas Blake is the pseudonym with which the illustrious English poet Cecil Day Lewis (among other things, the father of the actor Daniel, who played Lincoln and Chingachgook) wrote a score of detective novels for the steady source of income. His mystery novels are much appreciated by discerning readers who like a little heft with their whodunits. That is, the readers of Michael Innes, John LeCarre, Dorothy B. Hughes, or Patricia Highsmith.






Mystery Monday Review – The Asking Price

Monday, August 22nd, 2022

The Asking Price by Henry Cecil

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In Just within the Law, Cecil describes his writing with, “The basis of my stories is the occurrence of an extremely improbable event, followed by completely logical action by all the characters in the story.”

In this comic crime novel, the extremely improbable event comes out of such a situation. In a London neighborhood in the mid-Sixties, Ronald Holbrook lives on a small competence that he built from lucrative dealings on the black market right after WWII. The house bought on the ill-gotten proceeds has been his home for twenty years. At fifty-seven, he finds himself unmarried and with zero intention to marry. However, seventeen-year-old Jane Doughty, the daughter of his next-door neighbors, has been infatuated with him literally her entire life. Her single goal – her steely obsession – is to be married to her Ronnieboy. This situation is first comic, then gradually becomes disturbing and sinister, and we get the extremely improbable event which precipitates another situation.

That’s all the story you’re getting out of me lest I spoil the surprising twists and turns that Cecil puts his characters through. Not only is Cecil gifted as to plotting and characterization (even the walk-ons live and breathe), but he builds suspense as skillfully as, say, Ruth Rendell. The dialogue is sharp and witty and English. Jane asks her Ronnieboy, who’s been resolutely putting off lovemaking, “Do virtuous women have fun? I don’t want to be like the Albert Memorial, all stuck up and nowhere to go.”

For many readers, English comic legal fiction means John Mortimer and his excellent Rumpole stories. Cecil has more generosity and charity and big-heartedness than Mortimer does. I can’t recommend Henry Cecil highly enough for his lucid prose, original tale-spinning, brilliant characterization, deft plotting and spellbinding surprises.




Fantasy Series Spotlight: The Dagger and the Coin

Friday, August 19th, 2022

Series Spotlight Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)


THE DAGGER AND THE COIN is an excellent epic fantasy by Daniel Abraham.  Composed of five volumes, THE DRAGON’S PATH, THE KING’S BLOOD, THE TYRANT’S LAW, THE WIDOW’S HOUSE, and THE SPIDER’S WAR, it is set in a medieval fantasy world much removed from ours. There is a Dagger because this story is about war, several wars in fact, and a Coin because this is also about the economics of war and power. Don’t worry, the economic lessons are not boring.

Millennia ago, the dragons created many different races of humans to be their slaves. But mostly the dragons are legend now. No one knows what happened to them but some of their artifacts still exist – the roads paved with indestructible dragon’s jade are the most evident. The humans still exist in their varied forms – the canine looking Tralgu, the thin pale Cinnae, stocky Firstbloods, and many more. As we start, we’re not shown much prejudice between the races although sadly this is going to change.

The entire story is told from the POV of a limited cast of characters. Cithrin, a half-breed orphan raised by the Medean bank, and a financial wizard from a very young age; Marcus Wester, a one-time general now the captain of a mercenary company; Geder Palliako, a young man who wanted to be a scholar but is now an unhappy military officer; Baron Dawson Kalliam, a noble in Antea; and Clara Kalliam, Dawson’s wife.  There are many interesting secondary characters we’ll get to know, some of them rather well, and one of them has a very important secret.

As it starts out, teenager Cithrin is a refugee. Her city has been sacked by the Anteans, and she’s pretending to be a boy driving a cart with provisions. In reality she’s got the riches of that branch of the Medean bank, but she’s woefully unprepared for the deception. Marcus Wester and his second-in-command soon discover her but decide she needs protection; Marcus will never, ever, admit she reminds him of his deceased daughter. Geder Palliako, left in charge of the captured city, is going to make a murderous decision. Baron Kalliam loves his king and country, and will do anything to save it. Clara is the savvy wife furthering her husband’s career, but her life is going to change rather abruptly.

You see, it turns out that the legacy of the dragons is still very much alive in the world, just waiting for the right time to emerge. Geder is unwittingly going to bring it to light, and then fully embrace its lies while actively embracing the death of thousands and laying waste to entire countries. But maybe the solution is out there, somewhere, and also needs to be uncovered…

No spoilers here, so I won’t go over the entire plot. There is a lot of traveling involved – long and arduous land journeys, sailing trips, and flat-out running from invading armies. There are court politics and the machinations of money. A couple surprising twists show up too.  I found the smaller cast of main characters enjoyable; it’s nice not to have to keep referring back to a character list. Geder is nasty but probably the most interesting – despicable acts with flashes of kindness.  Marcus doesn’t change much at all but he’s a good, solid character with a rather fatalistic sense of humor. I thought his relationship with Yardem was a highlight of the story. I couldn’t like Dawson, but he was honorable in his own way. Cithrin and Clara change the most. I wasn’t all that interested in Clara but as the story went on she became more and more solid. Cithrin is cool (she invents paper money and inevitably the national debt at the same time, later in the story).  I also found the idea of the spider priests’ ability frightening – as soon as they revealed themselves I had so many questions –  and I loved seeing what Abraham did with it.

It all comes to a bloody and battered end, with the bad guys defeated and the good guys attempting to pick up the pieces of the world.  Not all the loose ends are tidied up, either, which leaves us with some intriguing questions. It’s a rewarding series, with excellent imagery and pacing, great world-building and while it’s not short, it doesn’t go on forever.


History and Biography Review: The Five

Wednesday, August 17th, 2022

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

by Hallie Rubenhold

Review by jjares

This book tells the story of the five women killed by Jack the Ripper. This book is well-researched and tightly written. So that you know, this is not a book about Jack the Ripper. Interestingly, the author wants to remove these women (as much as possible) from the label of prostitution. So instead, the author concentrates on these women’s dreary, dismal lives, trying to eke out a simple existence. The young women’s names were Annie, Catherine, Elizabeth, Mary-Jane, and Polly (Mary Ann). This book turns these women into people instead of simply nameless victims.

This book shows Victorian British women’s difficulty caring for themselves without a husband’s support. The police generally labeled any unwed woman, on her own, as a prostitute. Polly (Mary Ann Nichols), the first victim, lost her husband to another woman (a neighbor). After her husband removed his support, Polly became a wandering person, just looking for pennies to find a night’s lodging.

While the newspapers were still telling about Polly’s murder, Annie Chapman became the next victim. Years earlier, Annie succumbed to liquor and lost her husband. Annie’s husband’s boss would not have a drunkard near his fashionable estate, so Annie’s husband reluctantly turned Annie out. When Annie’s husband’s weekly support did not arrive, she walked miles to find that her husband was dying. Annie fell apart with grief. At the same time, she was suffering from tuberculosis. However, she generally sold her crochet and needlework to earn a bed for the night.

Elizabeth Stride’s story is even more pitiful. Becoming a housemaid at seventeen, someone in the household seduced Elizabeth. By twenty-one (years old), Elizabeth had lost a baby and was treated for venereal disease (an excruciating, dangerous, and humiliating exercise involving the police). Eventually, Elizabeth married, but the marriage fell apart, possibly because Elizabeth could not have children (or at least carry them to term, probably because of latent venereal disease). Eventually, she fell into prostitution. However, she also demonstrated the terminal effects of the neuro-venereal disease (epileptic seizures, disorientation, etc.). Another victim was found on the same night that Elizabeth left this earth.

If possible, Catherine Eddowes’s story is even more pathetic. After her parents died of illnesses, the many Eddowes children quickly married or were sent to workhouses. Catherine received a workhouse education until she was sent to an uncle to find work. Catherine soon left their home and followed a traveling hawker (salesman of chapter books). They had multiple children. He never married Catherine but beat her regularly. Eventually, the family broke apart, and Catherine struck out independently. Finally, after years of ‘living rough,’ Catherine was found the same night as Elizabeth in Whitechapel.

About six weeks after this pair of deaths, the youngest victim would die –  Mary Jane Kelly. This young woman changed her story so much that people did not know if she was Welsh or Irish. No information Mary Jane gave was ever confirmed; the woman who died is unknown. However, she was an attractive woman used to the sex trade. Eventually, Mary Jane took up with a fellow drinker (Joe Barnett), and they lived together for eighteen months until he lost his job. After the couple argued, Barnett left. Hours later, Mary Jane was found in her bed.

Alcohol destroyed each of these women’s lives. This book is a sociological study of lower-class lives during the Victorian Era. This compelling book turns these statistics into tragic, complex beings before their gruesome deaths. The story does not include the details of the women’s deaths, which would have taken from the consequence of their lives. This is probably the most important book I’ve read this year. The author’s research shines on every page of this book; absolutely brilliant.


Mystery Monday Review – The Python Project

Monday, August 15th, 2022

The Python Project by Victor Canning

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Only a rich person that goes for an elephant foot umbrella stand could love the python bracelet. Antique. Gold. Diamonds for eyes. Emeralds for scales. Creepy and corrupt, it has been stolen from its rich widow owner. The insurance company hires private investigator Rex Carver for its recovery.

Carver soon discovers that the thief – the ne’er do well brother of the rich vamp – has disappeared. Carver cajoles his partner, Hilda Wilkins, and her BF Olaf the Swede Sailor, to spend some of their vacation time around Mediterranean doing some investigations. Some early chapters vividly conjure places like Italy and Libya, an accessible place when this story was released in 1967, not so much after 1969.

After Carver locates the bad hat brother and his sleazy partner, however, the game changes completely. He enters the murky world of spies where all the heavy-hitters, no matter what side they are playing on, are cold-hearted bully boys and tough girls, jailers, torturers, and executioners. Canning held a view of espionage as dim as John le Carré’s, but Canning is not as solemn about it. The series hero Carver is not hard-boiled or full of angst, but impudent and irreverent in that winning way the English and Irish do so amusingly.

Rex Carver starred in four fast-paced adventure stories, all released between 1965 and 1968. This was Book 3. Carver occasionally works with Richard Marston, who was the hero of The Limbo Line (1963). Though one would expect Cannings’ book to be long out of print, in fact the Arcturus Press has released this story and The Whip Hand.

Canning was a Silver Dagger winner and named a Grand Master by the British Crime Writers Association. Read him and save him from becoming a neglected writer.




Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Empty Tin

Monday, August 8th, 2022

The Case of the Empty Tin by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

I highly recommend this 1941 Perry Mason mystery. Usually Mason novels start in the lawyer’s office or a public place where a client can button-hole him for legal advice. But this one starts in the cozy Gentrie household. The family owns a small hardware store so they have to watch every cent. They take in a roomer for extra income. They can preserves to save money on food. They depend on both a spinster sister and hired woman to keep the housekeeping and cooking in order for the three active kids. It has its share of strains but what family doesn’t?

I suppose a certain kind of Mason fan will find the beginning slow, but as a hardcore fan who’s read a couple dozen of them, I’m relieved when it starts out in a different way. Also, in a way that brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s making the mundane suspenseful, Gardner puts the typical middle-class family in the center of the mystery.

Other elements make this mystery outstanding in the canon. Mason blithely breaks the law with lying to police officers, house-breaking, and flouting traffic laws with reckless driving and speeding. Della plays a much bigger role, helping Perry break into houses and elude the law. She also helps Perry think by asking germane questions and introducing points that women know but men have no clue.

Remember that this novel was probably serialized in the weekly magazine Saturday Evening Post before it was published between two covers. Therefore, there is a certain amount of recapitulation in the dialogue to get new readers up to speed. We post-modern readers can skim these sections.

Finally, there is no courtroom sequence in this one. This may disappoint some fans and elate others. My bottom line is that this should be the next Mason you read if you’re a fan.



Fantasy Friday Review – Fated

Friday, August 5th, 2022

Fated by Benedict Jacka

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

FATED is the first in another urban fantasy series featuring a wizard in the big city. Alex Versus owns a magic shop in London and his skill is seeing the future. This can be pretty helpful, as it allows him to look at any number of possible futures until he gets to the series of choices that brings him what he wants. But it doesn’t always allow him to escape trouble.

The Council (there’s always a Council) approaches him for help in acquiring an object of great power, guarded by a number of magical traps, and they think Alex is just the person who can come up with the correct sequence of moves to defeat the barriers. There is mutual loathing between Alex and the Council, and it should tell Alex something that they’ve been unable to contact any other seer to do this job.

Meanwhile, Alex’s friend Luna brings him a weird little red cube, obviously something magical, but within minutes they’re both in trouble as three nasty Dark wizards show up spoiling for a fight.  Alex’s precognition tells him they would kill him if they knew about the cube, so he hides it, but it doesn’t stay secret for long.

Multiple powerful wizards all want this mysterious object and for all of them, the way to it goes through Alex. Precognition doesn’t help you much if all the possibilities end up with you dying. Alex is going to have to think fast.

There are a lot of familiar tropes in this series – there’s a shout-out to Harry Dresden early on and I saw another reference to a popular SF author. I really liked Luna and her curse, and I was happy when Jacka used it to good effect late in the book. I liked minor character Arachne better than Starbreeze who seemed a little too handy to have around.

While the tone of this book isn’t dark, this is a nasty wizard’s world. The Dark wizards philosophy is right out of Crowley – “Do what thou wilt” – and is survival of the cruelest. Slaves, torture, whatever, anything goes. The Council, or Light wizards, do not care about this as long as they’re not inconvenienced. Not a place I’d want to spend time in.

I found the pacing rather slow as Alex spends a lot of time explaining his world. Jacka manages to work some of it in as conversation with Luna, but there’s just a lot of exposition. I expect this gets less the farther you read in the series. There are some logic gaps about how things work, but it didn’t do much more than raise my eyebrows a couple times.  Alex is a pretty good character, not as sharp as Harry Dresden or as funny as Atticus O’Sullivan, but he’s very relatable. His precognition skill could make for some really interesting plots. At the time I’m writing this there are 12 in the series, so he’s definitely found a loyal audience. If I knew someone who had never read urban fantasy, I’d probably recommend Jim Butcher first, just because the pacing is better. But anyone who liked that ought to like this just fine.