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Posts Tagged ‘Book Recommendations’

Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Haunted Husband

Monday, August 24th, 2020

The Case of the Haunted Husband
by Erle Stanley Gardner

 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In this 1942 mystery, aspiring actress Stephanie Claire is fired from her hat-checking job after fending off her sleazy boss’ advances. Brave Stephanie hitchhikes to L.A. to get closer to Hollywood and the breaks it might offer. In Bakersfield she is picked up by a handsome confident man in a big fast sedan. He’s been at the bottle and offers her a pull so to keep on his good side she takes a swig. In attempting to make a move on her, the driver loses control of the car, which causes a multi-vehicle accident in which another man is killed. Stephanie is rescued from the wreck, at the steering wheel and with the liquor on her breath. The driver of the car has vanished. She faces a charge of negligent homicide.

Talk about one of life’s dirty tricks.

Investigation reveals that the owner of the wrecked car is one Jules Homan, successful Hollywood writer and producer. He says the car was stolen. So Stephanie lands in trouble deep. One of Stephanie’s friends persuades ace lawyer Perry Mason to take the case, which he is drawn to because he likes cases in which the little guy seems to be pitted against the rich and powerful. Gardner’s view of Hollywood as ultimate company town rings true. Even the cops are afraid of their careers being stopped by its malign influence.

This is the background for one of the most convoluted Mason stories that Gardner ever wrote. Plot and incident abound. The writing is a little looser than usual with hints that are not followed up and conversations that don’t move the story along. On the other hand, these extended conversations reveal Perry Mason’s philosophy of life and death (he’s a bit of a mystic) and Lt. Tragg’s fair but fundamentally authoritarian personality. Della and Paul have a lot to do. Paul is his usual aggrieved self, Della is always game and smart. Ham Burger does not appear and the courtroom scenes are abbreviated.

This was written in the early 1940s, when Gardner was really on fire, churning out Mason and Cool and Lam stories at a rapid pace. Despite the quantity, I think quality did not suffer. I highly recommend this mystery to hardcore fans and green novices wondering why Gardner was the top-selling mystery writer of the 1940s.

 

 

Spy Novel Review – The Honourable Schoolboy

Monday, August 10th, 2020

The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In 1977, this spy novel won the Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

After the unmasking of a ‘mole’, a Soviet agent in the London intelligence agency, George Smiley has taken over the leadership of the Circus. He is tasked to lead the department back to its old clout as it closes residencies and gets its spies out of harm’s way – or out to pasture because their covert lives aren’t covert anymore.

To do this, Smiley has to find ‘Karla’, the Soviet spymaster in charge of the relentless campaign against the Circus and all reasonable guardrails of western civilization. A money trail leads to what we called in the 1970s Indochina. Smiley sends an Old Asia Hand, Jerry Westerby, camouflaged as a journalist, to Hong Kong, where he investigates secret bank accounts – apparently set up by ‘Karla’ for Moscow to pay an agent of tremendous value in Red China.

Westerby travels from Hong Kong to every hot spot Indochina has to offer in the mid-1970s. In a painful set piece, in Saigon days before the withdrawal of the American forces, a bitter American military officer wants to shake Westerby’s hand, since they are now both members of “second-rate nations.” Westerby also delves into the heart of darkness with trips to Vientiane in Laos and Phnom Pen and Battambang in Cambodia.

Without a little knowledge of Southeast Asia and without reading the prequel Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, a reader might feel lost in this big novel. But given these prerequisites are fulfilled, the many details do come together for an alert reader. The local color is amazing and persuasive; the reader can tell LeCarre visited the region to research this novel.

I think le Carré challenges his readers to trust him. That is, there are stretches in his long books where literally nothing happens. Even the characters start to get antsy in periods of inertia punctuated by periods of frenzy. On the other hand, he makes unpromising scenarios – interviews, in particular – brilliant character studies and primers on interrogation methods. So the story may be thin, but the suspense is compelling. In LeCarré novels, the last 100 pages or so are always un-put-downable.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Broken Vase

Monday, August 3rd, 2020

 

The Broken Vase by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

It is early 1941 in New York City. Gentleman farmer and private eye Tecumseh Fox is rich enough to afford giving a grant of $2,000.00 (about $35,000 in our 2021 dinero) to a young gifted fiddler to purchase a Stradivarius. Though not a music lover, Fox attends the Carnegie Hall concert for the premier performance of the fiddler on his prize violin. Unmusical Fox notices that the audience is shocked and leaving in droves. Fox is told that the violin’s tone didn’t sound at all right. The young violinist, in front of witnesses, takes his own life during the intermission.

Case closed, but a killing occurs that makes Fox think the suicide and the murder are linked. The rich mother of the murder victim hires Fox to investigate the circumstances and find out who committed the murder. Fox has a series of interviews and adventures that make for amusing reading, especially when one’s brain is too tired for more challenging reading matter.

Rex Stout is better known and more respected for his novels starring Nero Wolfe, rotund orchid fancier and PI to the rich and famous. Critics and fans agree that his other detective creations – Tec Fox, Alphabet Hicks, and Theodolinda ‘Dol’ Banner – are not up to the Wolfe-Archie stories, especially the novellas.

But I don’t care. As a fan of between the wars whodunnits, I have a soft spot for vintage characters, society settings, and squads of suspects. To his credit, Stout always plays fair with the reader, giving enough information to the reader to figure it out by the reveal. Also, like Conan Doyle was able to in the Holmes stories, Stout captures an insular world and feeling of timelessness – affluent Manhattan, mid-20th century – a quality that I hope discerning readers will enjoy for years to come.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – A Place for Murder

Monday, July 20th, 2020

A Place for Murder by Emma Lathen

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

There’s no way to make any money in cattle in Connecticut but a wealthy gentleman farmer keeps a herd of Anguses anyway. He also depends on the help to run an up-and-coming dog breeding kennel, another hobby of folks with a lot of dough. Unfortunately, in middle age he has kicked over the traces, impregnated a canine handler half his age and thus feels the honorable thing to do is divorce his wife of 20 years to the comic consternation of their son the college student.

Splits between wealthy business partners who are also husband and wife involve complex negotiations concerning property settlements. So our series hero, John Putnam Thatcher of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, is brought in to facilitate the settlement. Shockingly, the other woman ends up killed and so does another victim and Thatcher must solve the mystery.

Lathen trains her satirical eye on corporate America and a rural enclave of the very rich. She skewers corporate jockeying when the PR man of the Sloan is striving to get a seat on the Board of Directors, an outcome the conservative Thatcher is valiantly opposing. All the leading characters are middle-aged men with the usual problems of that sad demographic but the women – wives, secretaries, clerks – make the system work and further their ends in the indirect ways the oppressed and canny have developed over time immemorial.

Every Lathen novel seems to have a slapstick scene of public mayhem that’s hilarious. So, the dog show is an extremely well-done set piece, with funny interplay between fierce rivals competing hard for best in breed and show.

Published in 1963, the second Thatcher murder mystery gives a part to the recurring character, young Ken Nicholls. He met his wife in Accounting for Murder so in this one Jane is expecting their first and Ken is comically concerned about her delicate condition and spending too much time away in The Constitution State. The other members of the gang also play funny parts – perfectionist Everett Gabler and man about town Charlie Trinkam and Miss Corsa, Thatcher’s implacable PA. The inept and dense bank president Brad Withers plays a much bigger role in this one since he is brother to the wife in the troubled couple.

Well-worth reading, one of the best of the 24 book series, though it was only the second written.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Case of the Rolling Bones

Monday, July 13th, 2020

The Case of the Rolling Bones by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In the waning days of the Klondike Gold Rush, Alden Leeds and his partner Bill Hogarty mined a pocket of gold. In lawless country and murky circumstances, the partnership dissolved like the hungry dreams of busted prospectors.

In noir fashion, however, the past exerts a baleful sway over the present. In 1939, 33 years later, Leeds’ avaricious relatives worry that Leeds is bent on marrying former taxi dancer Emily Millicant and cutting them out of the will. In a desperate attempt to prevent this, they kidnap and commit Leeds with the connivance of a greedy doctor.

As Mason works to get Leeds sprung from the sanitarium, Leeds escapes with the help of an old crony. Emily’s black sheep brother, John, later ends up with a carving knife in his back with Leeds’ prints all over the apartment.

Readable as usual especially for the first appearance of Gertie the Office Switchboard Girl and the appeal of the ole pard relationship between Leeds and Hogarty.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Down in the Valley

Monday, July 6th, 2020

Down in the Valley by David M. Pierce

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Born in Montreal in 1932, David M. Pierce was a poet, actor, and songwriter for Alice Cooper (among others). Pierce was also, because the performing arts gives way too many chances to rest between gigs, bartender, truck driver, reporter and sales agent for furniture and magazine companies.

So he brought to the six mysteries starring PI Victor Daniel varied professional experience and his copious reading — we hardcore mystery readers who also read everything can always tell from vibrant word play when a writer has read everything from Shakespeare to Dickens to Pound.

This novel is the first mystery featuring PI Victor Daniel, published in 1989. For us of a certain age in 2020, the nostalgia factor is strong with his Apple II computer, Adidas kicks, and on the radio Maureen McGovern. Daniel is over six and half feet tall, wears loud Hawaiian shirts, and does about any kind of job that comes his way.

While there is a modicum of a plot involving fighting the dope problem at a high school, strung together are incidents of various cases he has boiling. These incidents are peopled with a wide variety of characters: a one-legged vet, a riot grrl, and a police detective in heliotrope suits and burgundy shoes, just to name a few. The dialogue is always engaging, the word choices apt, though there are some spots where not much seems to happen and lapses of taste and crudeness of attitude to show how hard-boiled Valley People are.

Apparently, even though the author wrote five additional novels in this series, they never really caught on and are only remembered by true connoisseurs of mysteries. In the 1990s, recall, really long and really dark mysteries became the thing and these novels, under 300 pages and madcap, are not long and dark. Maybe the writer had trouble with the publisher promoting the books in the right way. Pierce passed away in 2016 of complications due to a stroke.

But the work lives on and it’s up to us hardcore mystery readers to read Pierce so he’s not as unjustly forgotten as Mignon Good Eberhart.

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Independent Witness

Monday, June 29th, 2020

Independent Witness by Henry Cecil

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The English judge Henry Cecil (1902 – 1976) wrote comic legal fiction. Think of John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories, though more gentle and less acerbic, just as clever, funny, and enjoyable. Cecil will call to mind P.G. Wodehouse in that Cecil uses stock characters like the dumb colonel, the obsessed widow, the silly young person, etc.

This novel from 1963 describes a hit and run case in which a member of Parliament is accused of not only hitting a motorcyclist but fleeing the scene. Cecil has a variety of comic characters take the stand. The dialogue-driven cross-examinations should be read slowly and savored. While this is not a typical whodunit, I still recommend it to mystery fans since there is a traditional surprise at the end.

Cecil’s humor is very English, wise, and humane and not as silly or zany as Wodehouse’s jesting is. Mercifully, to my mind, but different strokes. Cecil’s comedy is smart, with lucid prose, dazzling dialogue, and difficult legal points explained gracefully and comprehensibly. Cecil was a barrister and high court judge himself so his views on evidence, judges, juries, lawyers, and clients are worth listening to. The eager reader doesn’t mind his digressions on topics such as the thought processes of ordinary people who are would-be jurors or lawyers and judges who talk too much.

His legal fiction from the Fifties and Sixties is still in print, because his wit, style, intelligence, and deft plotting still provide much interest and sheer reading pleasure.