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Mystery Monday Review – Through a Glass, Darkly

Monday, June 13th, 2022

 

Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This 1949 mystery starts in cozy way, with shy young art teacher Faustina Crayle living and working in a girl’s boarding school that is prim to the point of grim. Like Rebecca at Manderley, she’s being given poor service on top of the fisheye by the servants. Faustina’s problem is the fallout from multiple witnesses seeing her double here and there on school grounds

You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly colored. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture is vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and – you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself only – there is no mirror. So, you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die…

One professional challenge caused by this uncanny phenomenon is that she is fired from her job. One of her fellow teachers, a pretty refugee Austrian named Gisela von Hohenems, urges her fiancé to look into the “termination without cause.” Her fiancé is psychiatrist Dr. Basil Willing, on staff of a famous Big Apple hospital and consultant to the NYC DA.

Since its first publication, this mystery has received much acclaim for its skillful use of a superstitious belief about The Double as a background for an outstanding mystery plot (see also Dorothy L. Sayers’ “The Image in the Mirror”). McCloy seems to have known a little about a range of people, places, and phenomena. She includes informational tidbits about costume designs for the production of the play Medea, changes in kitchens over time in the Western world, and shifts of attitude on the sable vs. mink controversy. Like Edith Wharton, McCloy provides plenty of details about room arrangements, furnishings, furniture and colors of wall paints. Into describing clothes in a big way, McCloy sent me to my thread-bending wife to ask about words like “chiffon” and “taffeta” and “voile.”

From the early Thirties to the late Seventies, critics and readers respected McCloy for her elegant writing. Even when the reader is dubious about seemingly supernatural elements in a mystery, McCloy’s solution can also appeal to readers who are skeptical about the paranormal. It’s a challenging balance but she manages it through intelligent and graceful writing that is beyond our expectations for a mystery.

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Silent Scream

Monday, June 6th, 2022

The Silent Scream  by Michael Collins

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The hard-boiled mystery from 1973 is the sixth appearance of the series hero Dan Fortune, one-armed Polish-Lithuanian private eye. Fortune is hired by a young but imperious Mia Morgan to identify a pretty woman in a snapshot she hands him on their first meeting.

Fortune identifies the woman easily.

And then finds himself in a situation involving multiple murders, an Israeli commando, New England aristocrats, and Mafia bigwigs and hoods. The economical characterization is well-done. The convincing settings include Chelsea in New York City and working class Somerville in Jersey, in the gritty old days before US manufacturers realized the Japanese had to be dealt with. Like Ross Macdonald did in the Lew Archer novels, Collins deals with adult themes such as troubled families, the risks of power for the power-seeking, and the pitfalls of making wealth and status higher priorities than self-respect and kindness. Like the whodunnits of the 1930s, surprisingly, one killing is of the closed-room variety, featuring an intricate means of murder on the part of the culprit.

Though there’s lots of smoking – it is 1973, after all – Collins never preaches, the language is clean, the action lingers not on violence, and there’s no panting or throbbing. Nor is it too long. I highly recommend this example of old-school hard-boiled detective fiction.

Michael Collins was the pen-name of Dennis Lynds. Under various other names, Lynds wrote 80 novels and a couple hundred short stories. His first novel Combat Soldier (published under his own name) was a fictionalized memoir of his own WWII experience as an infantry rifleman.

 

 

 

Fantasy Friday – A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

Friday, June 3rd, 2022

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians  by H. G. Parry

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

A DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF MAGICIANS by H.G. Parry is one of the “secret history” fantasy genre, dealing with events during the “Age of Enlightenment”, roughly 1780s to 1800-ish, when the freedom of individuals was a hot topic. This is our world, with the same individuals, pretty close to the same system of governments, but with magic underpinnings for many of those in power. You can’t boil down this book to just one theme, but one of the biggest is that individuals have the right to use their magic.

Some individuals are born with magic, and it tends to follow bloodlines. Everyone is tested at birth. If you’re an aristocrat, good for you – you can use your magic and get away with almost anything. If you’re a commoner, you’re out of luck. A magic bracelet identifies you and will burn you unmercifully as well as calling the authorities if you try to use magic, and you’re sent to jail or executed for anything except defending yourself from death.

Slavery is even more horrific than in our timeline. A spellbinding potion is forced down them and from that point on, while their minds rage helplessly inside, their bodies are under complete control of the slavers.

The book follows 3 main narratives: the abolitionist movement in England, with William Pitt the Younger as Britain’s prime minister and his friend William Wilburforce, famous MP and abolitionist; the French Revolution following Maximilien Robespierre; and the slave revolt in the Caribbean, where escaped slave Fina meets up with Toussaint. Except for the slave revolt, this is dense political stuff. Prepare to spend a lot of time reading about votes and meetings and speeches.

In contrast to our world, where it’s only (only) greed and basic inhumanity that make people so awful, this  one has a master villain who manipulates the movers and shakers into a design of his choosing. We don’t see this person for a long time, just a voice that comes to Robespierre, but eventually it comes clear that while Robespierre believes the magical help he is receiving is for good, the end results are anything but. And so, England keeps its slave trade, the French Revolution devolves into guillotining everyone in sight, and blood flows across entire islands.

I very much admired how Parry took these real-life events and real people, and incorporated this whole system of magic with a dark design. The characters are vivid, the sense of place and time are perfect, the dialogue is spot on. She achieved a nice ominous overtone in some sections. But frankly, it was glacially slow. Endless political strategies and debate tend to make my eyes glaze over, and the slave sub-plot just made me unbearably sad. Then, too, knowing that the broad events were real without the excuse of a demonic villain also made me sad. This isn’t light fare: despite the law abolishing the slave trade and the overthrow of the French monarchy, there’s no joy.

My other disappointment happened about halfway through  when I realized that the story is not contained in one book. No payoff – we have only vague ideas who the villain is and there is no confrontation with it. The meager victories are not celebrated, it’s just a grim ending. The next one is obviously the Napoleonic empire, and I’m curious how Parry will deal with it, but by the last quarter of this novel I was really ready for it to be over.

Fantasy Friday Review – Penric’s Progress

Friday, May 27th, 2022

Penric’s Progress by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

 

Penric’s Progress by Lois McMaster Bujold is a collection of 3 fantasy novellas set in the World of the Five Gods. You don’t need to have read her previous books set there in order to enjoy these.

In the World of the Five Gods, the gods are the Father of Winter, the Lady of Spring, the Mother of Summer, the Son of Autumn, and the Bastard. They all have various traits – maybe call them specialties? – for instance, the Father is also associated with justice, the Son with hunting, and so on.  Most people pray to one god or another as appropriate to their situation in life – a girl to the Lady, a father to the Father and so forth. The Bastard takes everything that’s left over or odd. When you die, your soul is taken up by your god. The priests have sacred animals that signal which god has claimed your soul.  For most people, that’s as close as they get. Some might be given a little extra sense, or gift, and they are considered saints. But for a few…

Penric is a younger son of a minor noble family on his way to his wedding when he stops to assist a dying woman. Little does he know she is a senior Temple sorceror, bearing a demon inside. And when the host dies, the demon needs someone else to host and will jump to the strongest person nearby.  Guess who’s going to get it this time? Hosting a demon isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives the human special powers of sight and some interesting talents. But it takes a strong personality to train the demon, to channel their magic into helpfulness instead of mere chaos, and to keep it from consuming their host entirely and then running amok. Hosting a demon means giving up your normal life and joining the Bastard’s temple. Some people would find this horrifying. Once over the initial shock, Penric thinks maybe this won’t be so bad and is rather looking forward to a life of study. But there’s going to be a few bumps along the way.

The first novella, PENRIC’S DEMON, introduces Penric. How he becomes the host and how he and the demon manage to get along is the main story.  There is more than one person who doesn’t want this pairing to succeed, so Penric and his demon Des will have to figure out an escape plan if they want to live.

PENRIC AND THE SHAMAN finds Penric and Des chasing after a shaman, who seems to have murdered a person and taken off with his soul.  Another interesting theological construct, and a lovely ending.

In PENRIC’S FOX, we go back to the shamans and the great-souled animals to solve the mystery of a murdered woman.

Bujold is a fabulous writer, she’s won many awards including the Science Fiction Writer’s Association Grand Master. There’s not a wasted word in any of these – she neatly captures everything you need to know in the conversations, without being boring or pedantic about it. Her characters have depth and personality and her imagery is first-rate. Penric is so engaging and amiable, he’s almost too perfect, and Des makes an excellent balance as the sarcastic and slightly cynical elder. There’s a high emotional quotient too – victories and tragedies that you can really feel.  These are excellent novellas, just long enough to read in a couple hours and be a complete story.

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Poirot Investigates

Monday, May 23rd, 2022

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Over the years I’ve said rude things about Dame Agatha, for which, older and wiser now about the benefits of light reading material, I retract with chagrin, knowing that sometimes a tired brain should not take on anything heavier than a Golden Era whodunnit. I have zero plans to read her novels, but I grant Hercule Poirot is one of the best PI characters in detective fiction and the short stories in which he stars are perfect gems, like the Nero Wolfe novelettes.

Hercule Poirot is similar to Sherlock Holmes. He is a thinking machine and vain about this superior deductive powers. It helps in the comedy department that the narrator of this these stories, Capt. Hastings, is buffoon, the classic dim-witted Col. Brain of Henry Cecil novels who does not grasp how dim-witted he himself is. The lively interplay between Hastings and Poirot is entertaining.

These are short stories so Christie does not have any room for budding romances, melodramatic padding, or the complicated engines of death that plague mysteries from the Golden Era of whodunits. These stories, only about 10 to 15 pages long, are little classics, ingeniously and tightly constructed. Lest the development of the stories start to feel same-old same-old, they ought to be read one at time over a period of weeks.

 

 

 

Paranormal Romance – Clean Sweep

Thursday, May 19th, 2022

Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Review by Cyndi J. (cyndij)

 

CLEAN SWEEP by Ilona Andrews is the first of the Innkeeper Chronicles series.   It’s an easy-reading pleasant paranormal romance.

On the outside, Dina is a nice young woman running a B&B in a quaint Victorian house. But all is not what it seems. Dina is an Innkeeper, with magic power mostly tied to the house. Her job is running the Inn, which provides a place to stay for an assortment of alien visitors. She must make sure the Inn is a neutral place and keep her guests and the Inn from harm.  The Inn itself is a magical entity that can think for itself somewhat, and as long as Dina is on its grounds it feeds her magical power.
 
The story starts off with a dog being killed, and it isn’t the only one. Dina is supposed to keep out of any situation that doesn’t directly threaten the Inn, but decides she can’t let this go on. Enter the werewolf, who is of course devastatingly handsome and exceptionally powerful even for werewolves. As the plot unfolds we get, naturally, a vampire who is also devastatingly handsome and exceptionally powerful. Of course both of them are attracted to Dina and her long blond hair. Did I mention the two males are aliens?  Yes, and the dog killing nasties are also aliens.  We also get a mass-murdering alien guest who can’t leave the Inn and a suspicious cop who just intuits there’s something wrong here. Dina and cohorts have to figure out what’s out there and why, plus come up with a plan to stop it. Dina is taking a real chance here, as the rules for Innkeepers clearly state she isn’t supposed to take sides unless the Inn is in danger.
 
Told in first person POV, Dina gives the reader quite a lot of explanation about being an Innkeeper and the limitations on her powers.  I found that to be definitely more tell than show. The love triangle is very, very mild and restricts itself to a  lot of male posturing and one kiss.  There’s a lot of snarky banter between the males. There’s so much of this book that feels derivative – the girl/vampire/werewolf love triangle, the magical inn, the alien marketplace – that I have to think Andrews had her tongue firmly planted in cheek when she wrote it. It has the flavor that you’re supposed to be counting all the little digs to other books during the plot. That’s kind of fun sometimes.
 
CLEAN SWEEP has good pacing with lots of action scenes, some funny dialogue, pretty decent world-building, but very stereotypical characters. I hadn’t read any of Andrews’ books before, and while this one is the beginning of a series, it felt a little like I’d been dropped into the middle of the movie.  My favorite bits of the book involved the Inn and Dina’s Shih-Tzu, who is not really a dog.  Andrews has a big backlist and a large fan base; I enjoy other authors in the same genre so I gave it a try, but I found this particular book to be just a little too lightweight for my taste. There are four other books plus a couple short stories in this series so clearly it has a following; it might be just what you’re looking for.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Chinese Maze Murders

Monday, May 16th, 2022

The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert Van Gulik

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

As soon as the judge, his family, his servants, and his subordinates arrive at his new post in Lan-fang, the cases begin to pile up. His predecessor has fled without so much as a greeting, a gross breach of manners in the China of the Tang era (618 – 907). The judge finds out the magistrate before his predecessor was murdered in mysterious circumstances.

Besides administrative troubles, he finds that a local tyrant dominates the village with protection rackets and strong-arm tactics. Hordes of Uighurs – barbarians or freedom-fighters, depending on one’s point of view – make battle plans and recruit Chinese as a fifth column. The messy situation worsens when a well-known ex-general is found murdered, the daughter of a blacksmith disappears and an inheritance dispute escalates.

Because the setting is seventh-century China, women are severely oppressed and therefore vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds. Also, the judge’s subordinates are allowed to beat and torture information out of witnesses. The author portrays Judge Dee as an ideal Confucian official. He resolves cases through his incorruptible spirit and benevolent intelligence.

In an afterward, van Gulik openly says that the ideas for the criminal cases come straight from old literary sources, which he then wove together. The progress of the narrative is that of the western detective novel. All the characters play clear parts. The account follows that of a police procedural with a shocking crime followed by careful questioning and following clues. The lengthy reveal and ingenious engines of murder will call to mind mysteries of the 1920s.

Van Gulik’s writing style is a bit simple and uneven. His pages look like Lee Child’s: lists of single sentences, no paragraphs that might scare the reader who reads only in extreme circumstances. The author’s own illustrations can be safely regarded as amateurish and featuring too many topless females. For some readers it might seem like the writer likes dwelling on gruesome violence a little too much. It will depend on the individual reader if the downsides outweigh the intriguing atmosphere and unfamiliar setting of this unique historical mystery.

I myself have a couple more Judge Dee mysteries in the to-be-read stack and I will take the time to read them. But I have no plan to read all 17 of the Judge Dee collections.