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Thriller Thursday Review – Cause for Alarm

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

Cause for Alarm by Eric Ambler

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In this 1938 thriller, Ambler uses the familiar situation of an innocent bystander thrust into the twisted world of espionage.

Nick Marlowe is an engineer, not exactly a stable job in the 1930s, when manufacturers were laying off everybody, no matter the color of their collar. After being fired and with marriage on the horizon, Nick takes a job in Italy as a replacement for another engineer.

Nick arrives in the first fascist state and soon discovers the truth of his predecessor’s untimely demise. He is approached by two spies, one from Hitler’s side and the other from Stalin’s. The Nazi spymaster is repellent. The Soviet agent is the lively Russian-American Andreas Zaleshoff, who appeared in other Ambler novels of the Thirties.

This novel feels real, has well-drawn characters, and the action is like an action-adventure novel in the tradition of John Buchan. Fans of Alan Furst should read this.

 

 

 

Science Fiction Review – The Legend Trilogy

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018

     

 

The Legend Trilogy by Marie Lu

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

After doing some research last year around the holidays, I purchased the Legend trilogy for my niece.  Yes, I’m the aunt who always gives books for gifts and I do a little research each time to determine the best books for her age group.  She is nearly 13. When I found this series I thought, ‘heck, this looks good for me, too!’ so here I am now.

Now, typically when I read a trilogy or other series I read a different book or two not from the series in between to break things up so I don’t get bored with the characters or story line.  This didn’t happen with Legend.  So, what started out as a potential recommendation and review for Legend (book 1), ended up including Prodigy (book 2) and Champion (book 3) because I couldn’t stop reading!

Marie Lu imagines the United States many years in the future when it’s no longer the United States, it is divided into the Republic and the Colonies.  We don’t know at first what caused this fracture because we only see things from the perspective of people in the Republic.  We are quickly introduced to June (prodigy of the Republic) and Day (public enemy of the Republic).  Their lives are vastly different; June has lived among the elite being groomed for a top position with the military and Day has been on the streets for years fighting the injustices of the Republic.  They are thrown together due a set of circumstances that pits them against one another, but they come to work together when they uncover secrets that have tragically impacted both of their lives.

When the Elector of the Republic dies, his young son takes over and chaos threatens a fragile country that has worn a mask of strength and prosperity to their people. The new Elector is threatened with assassination and his politicians are trying to manipulate the young leader.  And it turns out the Colonies aren’t struggling as the Republic has convinced its people- it is a thriving country run by corporations and has the Republic in a very difficult position.  In the war between the Republic and the Colonies that has waged for many years, who will be the victor?  When June and Day join forces, will they back the right nation?  Will their relationship survive the doubts of their allegiances? These questions and more are answered in a trilogy that is well thought out and delivered.

I found myself thoroughly engrossed in this series.  The characters were heroes yet had flaws that made them more realistic.  There was the undercurrent of a warning to all readers that if we aren’t careful in how we make decisions for ourselves and our government that we could end up in a broken United States. So, in addition to this being a science fiction, dystopian series, Lu’s series can also be a forewarning of the damage that humans can do a country if leaders are left unchecked.  I think readers who enjoyed other dystopian series (I’m thinking of The Hunger Games or Divergent series…both of which I would recommend highly) will see similar themes in the Legend trilogy but also some aspects of the dystopian world that are new creations.  I am giving the series 5 stars for, among other reasons, its readability, character development, plot, and originality.  And as a bonus I can now talk about the series with my niece!

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Case of the Restless Redhead

Monday, April 9th, 2018

 

The Case of the Restless Redhead

by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

For starry-eyed Evelyn Bagby, Hollywood was the Tinsel Town without Pity. Her curves and red hair (but no freckles) attracted the shark Staunton Vester Gladden. He fed her the usual line that with his mentoring and agenting wizardry, “Baby, I can make you a star.” But under the guise of acting and deportment lessons, he embezzled her money. She ended up waiting tables.

Worse, she lands in court, charged with larceny. Her novice attorney recognizes ace lawyer Perry Mason, who chances to attend the trial. Perry’s solid advice enables the greenhorn to upend the testimony that would’ve sent Evelyn to the clink and obtains her grateful release.

Thanking Perry in his office soon after, Evelyn tells him and faithful assistant Della Street that she thinks Staunton Vester Gladden might be Steve Merrill, the second husband of a big Hollywood star. Perry gets her a waitressing job and promises to look into her case. Helping people who aren’t getting breaks is totally consistent with Perry’s way of doing business.

Staunton Vester Gladden ends up with a bullet in his head that he didn’t put there himself. The cops put the collar on Evelyn as the most obvious perp since she had a beef with old Staunton. I don’t think I’m giving away anything by revealing that the novel ends with a dramatic courtroom climax.

This is a better than average Mason story. The reason is that he boldly ignores evidence that exculpates Evelyn. He has figured out a key piece of the puzzle (that I won’t reveal here) which strips story-telling witnesses of their alibi.

A good one for both hardcore fans and newbies, this 1954 novel was the basis for the script for the first episode of the Raymond Burr television series. Whitney Blake, the mother of actress producer survivor Meredith Baxter, played Evelyn.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

 

The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe

by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This 1938 mystery opens with lawyer Perry Mason having lunch with his secretary Della Street in a swanky downtown department store. Della comments on the kindly appearance of an elderly woman apparently dining out with her niece. Perry observes that the little old lady is a shoplifter. A scene ensues whose upshot is that Perry gets the little old shoplifter off the hook because in fact she did not take the plunder out of the store.

The niece of the five-finger discount lady, Virginia Trent, later comes to Perry’s office for two reasons. She wants advice on how to get psychiatric help for her aunt Sarah Breel’s sudden-onset kleptomania. Gardner satirizes the psychoanalytic jargon and concepts (fixation, unconscious, etc.) that were taking the culture by storm in the thirties. Both Gardner and his creation Perry Mason were skeptics about complicated explanations of human nature.

Virginia Trent is also concerned with legal consequences. A handful of diamonds has disappeared from her uncle’s jewelry store, perhaps ripped off by her boosting Auntie. A bon-vivant named Austin Cullens promises to get the gems back. But he ends up shot. And her aunt is hit by a car while running away from the crime scene. When she wakes up, she claims she remembers nothing, but the cops charge her with murder-one anyway.

Later Virginia Trent and Perry find the body of her uncle. Ginny becomes utterly unglued, what with the stress of her aunt’s shoplifting, missing diamonds, one dead guy, and then her uncle being snuffed and put in a packing case. Gardner is hinting that studying psychology does not necessarily prepare one to meet the curveballs thrown by life.

Gardner does not play fair in this one, but the plot twists are ingenious. Slow down when reading the trial sequence because there is a Trent Gun and a Breel Gun. If you are not careful, you will get as confused as Sgt. Holcomb and Goodreads reviewers who get mighty frustrated with Gardner’s hocus-pocus with two guns, two bullets, two corpses and two crime scenes.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Second Confession

Monday, March 26th, 2018

The Second Confession By Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

A millionaire father doesn’t trust his daughter’s boyfriend, a lawyer with iffy clients. He calls in PI Nero Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin to prove that the BF is a member of the CPUSA (Communist Party of the USA), a very bad thing to be in 1949. Nero Wolfe doesn’t like the smell of the case. He half-sympathizes with the daughter, who naturally resents her father’s interference, but suspects that the BF has a shadowy connection with Arnold Zeck, who is to Wolfe as Prof. Moriarty was to Sherlock Holmes.

Stout was a progressive, always interested in new ideas and gadgets, but he trusted the tried and true as well. Consequently, action occurs at the millionaire’s sprawling country estate where posh is the byword. After lots of curious goings-on, the BF’s corpse is found near the estate’s driveway.

Much to his consternation, Wolfe finds himself hired by his nemesis Arnold Zeck to find the BF’s killer. Zeck regrets the killing of a most promising protégé. Wolfe uncharacteristically motivates himself to overcome his agoraphobia and go outside to solve the mystery.

The plotting is brilliant. The length of 200 pages is about perfect. The reveal is neatly done, though I had qualms by the wrap-up. At the end, Wolfe has a crackpot radio yakker yanked from the air, which hardly seems in keeping with Stout’s usually generous and fair-minded impulses. I guess the specter of Communism was deeply frightening then, when nobody suspected that it would keel over of a coronary the way it did in our time.

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Pick Up Sticks

Monday, March 19th, 2018

Pick Up Sticks by Emma Lathen

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Emma Lathen was the pen-name for two Boston businesswomen , Mary J. Latsis and Martha Hennissart. Their entertaining mystery series blended Wall Street characters with either blue collar crimes or white collar schemes that lead up to a murder or two. Their novels were solid sellers from 1961 to 1997 (when Ms. Latsis passed away).

The series hero is John Thatcher Putnam, who is a VP at the Sloan Bank. In these Seventies and Eighties novels he is senior enough to remember the 1929 crash and not be surprised at anything the Street gets up to. He’s as sharp as a tack, though, a keen observer and rational thinker. Follow the money. Who benefits? He’s that rarity in any walk of life: somebody who combines knowledge of how money works with how human beings tick.

In this one, first published in 1970, the authors mildly satirize the real-estate business, specifically the hard-sell techniques relentlessly aimed at potential buyers thinking of a second home in the country or on a lake. Our hero is hiking the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire with his busy-body buddy Henry Morland. They run into a young couple who have gotten lost because they have wandered away from a housing development Fiord Haven, although it is nowhere near the sea. After Henry and John realize the couple can’t tell east from west, Henry goes to get help. Henry returns with two state policemen who are severely interested in a quartet that were around when a murdered body was discovered.

Henry is an enthusiast so he is bent on finding the killer. John is less so. The contrast between the two as they interview persons of interest is pretty funny. Lathen examines the personality of the victim, concluding that such an obnoxious guy would exasperate a saint. His first wife observes that he always took the side of the exploited underdog but always let her do the dishes. Such were the thrusts and jabs readers of a certain age will fondly remember from the women’s liberation movement circa 1970.

Explaining too much of the action would spoil the mystery. So I will only recommend this one as highly as I have others by Emma Lathen (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Certainly the business environment has changed. But the three doors to hell – anger, lust, and good old greed – have not changed though they do get repainted in colors that go in and out of fashion. And Lathen’s witty writing style still stands up, besides providing unwittingly nostalgic asides for readers who think 40 is young.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Rasp

Monday, March 12th, 2018

The Rasp by Philip MacDonald

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

MacDonald is known among film buffs for his screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s version of du Maurier’s Rebecca. His first novel The Rasp came out in 1924 and was the debut of his series detective, Colonel Anthony Gethryn (but don’t call him “Colonel,” the Great War gave him a limp and stressed him out and he doesn’t want to be reminded).

This novel will please fans who liked The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. It has a cerebral detective, a brutal murder in the study of a mansion, not too intense suspense, excellent scene setting, and a love interest with attitudes of bygone days. This, between Gethryn and the love interest, the widow Lucia in a drawing room:

For a moment his eyes closed. Behind the lids there arose a picture of her face – a picture strangely more clear than any given by actual sight.

“You,” said Lucia, “ought to be asleep. Yes, you ought! Not tiring yourself out to make conversation for a hysterical woman that can’t keep her emotions under control.”

“The closing of the eyes,” Anthony said, opening them, “merely indicates that the great detective is what we call thrashing out a knotty problem. He always closes his eyes you know. He couldn’t do anything with ’em open.”

She smiled. “I’m afraid I don’t believe you, you know. I think you’ve simply done so much to-day that you’re simply tired out.”

“Really, I assure you, no. We never sleep until a case is finished. Never.”

Not for everybody but readers like us can read anything. Anything. The “rules” of whodunnits were not in place yet so Gethryn sits on a lot of information until near the end. The culprit is revealed, then we get 58 pages of a letter that Gethryn sends to the police, which outlines his justification and logic. 58 pages, after you know who done it. Aye carumba. If nothing else, this novel has uniqueness value and would be of interest to reading gluttons – me, us – who are interested the development of the whodunnit.