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Archive for October, 2022

Mystery Monday Review – In a Lonely Place

Monday, October 31st, 2022

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

This is the city. Los Angeles, California. The year is 1946.

Dix Steele, a young veteran of good looks and no scruples, has had a pretty good war. Before the hostilities, he was a mere Princeton parasite, sponging tuition from a wealthy uncle and freeloading good times from rich friends. During the war, he was an ace in the Air Corps and ended up colonel in a cushy posting in London.

But postwar, he misses the excitement of flying and dogfights. He is bored and sickened at the idea of work, family life, and contentment in a normal adult life. His case of the blues manifests in a constellation of symptoms like anxiety, depression, irascibility, willful isolation, mood swings, and insomnia. He seeks no help, not recognizing his sulks and bad feelings as warning signs.

Combined with his lust and women-hating, this disgruntled alienated male is the perfect subject for a novel that examines the mind of a monster, never more dangerous than when feeling hopeless or weak or embattled. Proving that classic crime literature can be relevant to today’s headlines, this brilliant noir story, vintage 1947, seems to have been written last week.

 

 

 

Science Fiction Review – Axis

Wednesday, October 26th, 2022

Axis by Robert Charles Wilson

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

 

AXIS is a direct sequel to SPIN, so the reader must be familiar with the events there first. You can read a review of Spin on a previous review here on the PaperBackSwap Blog by clicking here.

This book takes place on the new world of Equatoria. The planet was engineered by the Hypotheticals for humans,  and connected to Earth by way of the Arch.  Humans have now colonized the world and of course are trashing it.

Lise Adams is a young woman trying to figure out why her father disappeared; some months previous she hired Turk Findley to fly her out to a remote desert town where she hoped for clues. They didn’t make it then but she wants to try it again. She knows Turk took another woman out there, a woman who appears in a picture of a party at her parent’s house long ago. However, before that can happen, a mysterious fall of ash begins, as if from a volcanic eruption, but this is soon revealed to be detritus from space – the remains of unimaginable numbers of the Hypothetical’s machines.

Lise is not the only one who wants to know what happened to her father. He was connected with a group of people known as Fourths, who received the forbidden Martian longevity treatment. The government wants to stamp out the Fourths and now they’re after Lise and Turk.

The Fourth community in the desert has attempted a dangerous experiment, and the boy Isaac is the result.  The ashfall is going to trigger an ability in Isaac that was hoped for, but isn’t going to turn out the way the Fourths expect.

Wilson doesn’t get much farther in explaining the Hypotheticals. The ashfall and its consequences – and let’s not forget Isaac – are very interesting, but this is mainly a character-driven novel.  I liked the characters much more this time around; I couldn’t really warm to Tyler and Jason last time, but Lise and Turk are good. Diane from the first book plays a large role here as well.  I also felt sad for this new world. An entire empty planet, and the first thing that happens is oil drilling. Shantytowns, trash blowing in the streets, polluted water…it’s depressing. There’s a paragraph buried in there about how a similar Arch appeared on Mars, going to a planet tailored to the needs of the human Martians – I would love to know more about that.   The first book ended at a place you could stop at and still have a whole story, but not here; it’s definitely the middle of a trilogy.   Next up is VORTEX.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Women Sleuths

Monday, October 24th, 2022

Women Sleuths

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

In the middle 1980s, Reader’s Digest issued a series titled Academy Mystery Novellas. Women Sleuths was the first, followed by Police Procedurals and Locked Room Puzzles. The editors, Martin Greenberg and Bill Pronzini (a mystery writer himself), choose stories that were too long for short story anthologies and too short to be published as stand-alones. Another plus is that they included capsule biographies of the authors. 

 

The Toys of Death (1939): G. D. H. and Margaret Cole wrote almost 30 detective novels. They went along with the Golden Age conventions of complicated engines of death, English country house setting, a plethora of suspects, the intuitive amateur detective, obscure knowledge and the long reveal, this time in a letter written by the perp who has fled to Patagonia or some such wilderness. The rural setting is evocative in this, with an attractive writing style that is concise and vivid.   

 

The Calico Dog (1934): It is odd that Mignon Eberhart (sounds like a character in a Perry Mason mystery) is a neglected writer now, since she had about the longest career of any American mystery writer (from the 1920s to the 1980s) and was known as the “American Agatha Christie.” This Golden Age story has a unique plot: two young men claim to be the same nephew who was kidnapped as a child. The sleuth, Miss Susan Dare, is hired by the aunt who must decide which one is the real one and thus inherit about 30 million mid-1930s dollars, about a bazillion dollars in today’s money. The story moves along briskly, has very fine settings, and is worth reading as a high society mystery. 

 

The Book That Squealed (1939): Cornell Woolrich pokes genial fun at his heroine Prudence Roberts. She’s a young librarian who’s kind of a blur to men until she takes off her glasses. Then even hard-bitten police detectives start to feel all funny inside.  Prudence gets involved in a serious crime with unhinged crooks during her own investigation after the police hoot at her warning that something bad is happening, or will happen at a remote house. Woolrich, to my mind, is much better in short stories than in novels, which I find overwrought and shrill. 

 

The Broken Men (1985): I’d not read a Sharon McCone story by Marcia Muller in about 25 years so this really brought back the 1980s for me: Chambray pants, Adidas running shoes, and overflowing ashtrays. McCone is hired as a bodyguard for two clowns at a show at a pavilion. It’s an easy job, of course, until the killing. Good use of flashback and past sins, a lazy horse named Whitefoot is funny, clowns are usually fun, and – O, my fur and whiskers! – her cat gives her the idea for the solution. Highly recommended. 

 

 

 

Thursday, October 20th, 2022

The Charms of Miss O’Hara: Tales of Gone With the Wind & the Golden Age of Hollywood from Scarlett’s Little Sister 
by Phillip Done

Review by jjares

This book is a charming biography of Ann Rutherford. There are three roles for which she is still known. Ann was Carreen O’Hara, the youngest of the three daughters in Gone With the Wind. Ann also played Polly Benedict (Andy Hardy’s love interest) thirteen times in the Andy Hardy series. She was Lydia in the 1940 production of Pride and Prejudice (she runs off with Mr. Wickham). Ann died in 2012 in Beverly Hills, CA. However, years before, she befriended a school teacher and budding author, Phillip Done. Over the years, she told him fascinating stories about the Golden Age of Hollywood.

This book is a labor of love because Ann Rutherford comes across as joyous and enjoying her life to the max. These are wonderful stories that are never spiteful or demeaning. The tidbits she shares are things only someone active in the movie business could have known. Ann says that Pride and Prejudice was filmed in black and white for a unique reason. Technicolor was a new medium, and there were only seven or eight cameras in the world then. Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz had them all. Since the stars were under contract and time was short, they were forced to use black and white cameras.

If you are a “Golden Age of Hollywood” buff like me, the whole book is a trip down memory lane. Ann explains that the cast members always referred to Gone With the Wind as — The Wind (most folks writing about that film called it GWTW, but not those involved in it). Almost every page had something I didn’t know. Vivian Leigh (Scarlett) had tuberculosis as a child and never fully recovered. She was not well during the filming of The Wind and David Selznik wanted to reshoot the opening scene with Scarlett (of her running out of Tara with the twins running behind her). But he could not because Vivian had aged too much. Vivian was constantly losing weight; when she took off a costume, the seamstresses immediately took it in for the next day’s filming. Ann says The Wind was hard on Vivian; the filming took over six months. However, Vivian never came to work late or unprepared, even though rewrites were constantly problematic for the actors (new lines to learn for the next morning). One thing Ann mentioned that I hadn’t realized was that Vivian was in almost every scene. By the time the film was complete, they had twelve hours of story. However, they cut it down to four hours.

Ann had stories about everyone in the film. She said that Clark Gable was poor while growing up and never lost sight that other workers made him look good. He waited for his time to film by playing cards with the gaffers and other blue-collar workers on the set. He did not let anyone call him Mr. Gable; he was always Clark.

One of the few people Ann panned was Joan Crawford. She said she wished Christina Crawford, who wrote “Mommie Dearest,” had called her. Ann could have told plenty more about Joan. Miss Crawford was an early star who descended on the studio (when she worked) with an entourage (of employees following her). When Joan wasn’t looking, stars mimicked Joan and her entourage walking around the studio lot. When Joan found out, she wasn’t amused.

Since the premiere of The Wind was before my time (in 1939), I had no idea about the hoopla associated with its opening. There were three premieres:  Hollywood, New York City, and Atlanta, Georgia. The story of those premieres and the five, ten-year, and multi-year festivals was amazing. Films simply do not garner the kind of notoriety that they did in earlier times.

This was a unique and fascinating book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Ann Rutherford was an interesting woman, full of joy for being alive. She loved everything about being a star — and it showed.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – A Murder of Quality

Monday, October 17th, 2022

A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

This 1962 mystery was the second novel of the author of the Karla Trilogy. At only about 150 pages, A Murder of Quality lacks elbow room. That is, it feels like the novelist had to restrain himself from exploring themes such as the lingering effects of WWII on those that had to fight it; the suffocating environment of public schools (that is, private schools); and the deceptiveness of mere appearance and persona. Retired spy George Smiley, for example, looks like “the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation.” But the inoffensive appearance masks the fact he has, one colleague observes, “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.”

Smiley is contacted by a wartime co-worker who has received a strange letter. A woman who lives in a public school town writes that she afraid that her husband, one of the masters there, has designs on her life. Smiley recalls that Terence Fielding, brother of one of Smiley’s colleagues in intelligence during the war, teaches classics at the school. However, Smiley hears that the letter writer has been murdered. Smiley is invited by the local police to investigate since the local chief of police knows a little of Smiley’s WWII exploits, wants to hold off Scotland Yard, and the middle class chief is not comfortable investigating the quality that are connected to the public school.

Like Maigret in a Simenon novel, or Campion in an Allingham novel, Smiley finds himself investigating the crime in a world with its own rules of conduct. Also in the whodunnit manner, there are red herrings and odd characters galore. This early novel is well-worth reading for fans of le Carré, Alan Furst, and whodunit writers with a little edge like Tey, Marsh, Innes and Highsmith.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Gold Comes in Bricks

Monday, October 10th, 2022

Gold Comes in Bricks by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

1940 saw publication of the third of 29 novels starring PI’s Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. Like Laurel and Hardy, the partnership features the shrimpy mellow one and the stout irritable one.

This mystery opens with the slight Lam taking lessons in the martial arts at the behest of his employer Cool, who likes her tobacco, liquor, steaks, and comfort. She thinks he needs some toughening up in order to avoid getting beaten up on the job.

The client Henry Ashbury is concerned about his independent-minded daughter’s burning through his money. He hires Cool and Lam to look into the girl’s financial dealings with iffy friends. So that the daughter will not be suspicious as to why Lam is in the house, he is to pose as Ashbury’s personal trainer.

It’s a dumb plan, but miser Cool is mesmerized by the big bucks to be earned by Lam. Dubious Donald follows his instincts and really shakes the tree. He uncovers a complex situation involving fraud, blackmail, and murder. As is usual in the Cool and Lam books, they make the situation worse until they grift the grifters and narrowly escape being arrested for being Pains in the Neck in the First Degree.

The strain between thinking machine Lam and bull in the china shop Cool is as funny as Cool’s smarmy concern over Lam’s love life. Women inevitably fall in love with Lam for his gentlemanly respect and willingness to listen without judging. So Cool is concerned that Lam will end up in romantically deep waters and lose his focus which she thinks he must dedicate to working for her.

It’s a hoot. You get the feeling when Gardner was writing Mason stories he was getting satisfaction from getting all the puzzle pieces into place. But when he was writing Cool and Lam he was having fun.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Wings of the Sphinx

Monday, 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.