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Mystery Monday Review – Silent Thunder

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Silent Thunder by Loren D. Estleman

Review by Matt B. (buffalosavage)


This is the ninth mystery to star the series hero Amos Walker, published in 1989. In the hard-boiled manner of Raymond Chandler’s Phil Marlowe, Walker drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney, shoots straight as an arrow, and cracks as wise as … an owl?

Walker is hired as a freelancer by a large security firm. The behemoth assigns him to investigate Doyle Thayer Junior. His widow Constance has admitted to killing Junior but claims his history of abusing her drove her to plug him fatally in self-defense. Building an argument for self-defense, her lawyer wants Walker to dig up dirt on the dead husband so that the jury will be grateful to the widow for removing such a menace to society. Inarguably, Thayer Junior was a threat to himself and others because he collected enough weapons to stock an arsenal and he partied like it was 1989. Guns, alcohol, testosterone, and negligent gun safety practices were as volatile a mix then as it is nowadays.

Walker’s investigation takes him to the market in illegal guns. His nearly paid-for Chevy is raked by M-16 fire by a hooded quartet. After getting bonked on the head by a knuckle-walker, Walker is comforted by the widow. Not just with iodine.

The language is rough, various scenes feature gun violence. The grim attitudes reflect the noir fallacy that the world is more dangerous and grisly than it really is. The reveal centers around a villain whose plot is as grandiose as any Bond-movie megalomaniac.

But Estleman’s hard-boiled mystery never fails to entertain. Walker, like Lew Archer, has soul and quick wit, though realistic and tough. The references to SE Michigan and uses of local lingo such as “up north” will appeal to Downriver born and bred readers like me.


Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Cautious Coquette

Monday, April 11th, 2016

The Case of the Cautious Coquette by Erle Stanley Gardner


Review by Matt B. (buffalosavage)


Mystery expert Mike Grost says that the creator of Perry Mason had “seemingly inexhaustible ability to generate complex plots.” Evidence for this assertion abounds in this one, the 34th Perry Mason novel.

Amazingly, our favorite criminal lawyer opens the story performing as a personal injury attorney. Before we reach for the cuspidor, however, we must recall that this makes total sense since Mason takes on cases in which the little guy is pitted against remorseless forces like insurance companies.

Mason is seeking witnesses to the hit-and-run accident that left his client (a poor college kid) with a broken hip and his mother (a widow) all shook up. Complexity rears its head after a newspaper ad yields two drivers of two suspected vehicles and eventually two settlements for one accident. Mason is further astonished when found shot to death in a garage is a chauffeur that turns out to be the driver of one of the guys who settled. In typical Dickensian-Gardnerian fashion, the vic was named Hartwell L. Pitken.

Attractive and cunning Lucille Barton wants Mason to represent her in an alimony action, which he declines since he doesn’t do divorce cases. But Mason is with Lucille when Pitkin’s body is found in the garage of her apartment building. Mason directs her to report the body to the police and then leaves. Just like his usual conniving client, Lucille doesn’t make the call and a neighbor provides a positive ID of the hottie, but is less sure of Mason. To avoid having to answer awkward questions from the police, Perry decides to cite attorney-client privilege. This lands him with a client he doesn’t want, so he has to prove her innocence when she is arrested for murder of the driver.

In a rare linking of talents and resources, Homicide Detective Tragg and Mason join forces. Tragg’s rival on the force, Sgt. Holcomb, throws Tragg under the bus, so Tragg gratefully takes a tip from Mason. He cheers – silently, of course – when Mason tricks Holcomb and a witness into a false identification and makes Holcomb look like a big dummy in court. Mason and Tragg are even involved in a car chase, a rarity in the Mason novels.

Despite some antique slang such as “swell” and adjectives that have lost their power (what is the shape, size, and appearance of a “well-upholstered woman” anyway?), both fans of the series and novices will enjoy one of most intricately plotted of Mason’s cases.






Historical Fiction Review – Sacajawea

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

During a recent trip to South Dakota I discovered the novel Sacajawea in the Mt Rushmore gift shop.  I was intrigued and decided to give this massive paperback tome a try.  I love South Dakota and I am very interested in our country’s westward expansion and native cultures.

By all accounts, Sacajawea’s life started out pretty idyllic but it didn’t take things long to quickly unravel.  She experienced separation from her family, was traded as a commodity, treated badly and without respect by several key people in her life, and experienced many personal losses and disappointments.  When Sacajawea had the opportunity to join the harrowing Lewis & Clark expedition she was able to reconnect and honor many parts of her cultural heritage, while at the same time she came to appreciate some of the customs of the white explorers.  Much of Sacajawea’s life was tumultuous and uncertain but, based on all that is known of her, she was strong and resilient.

One thing cannot be denied about Waldo’s novel: extensive research was conducted to craft this novel.  The notes were lengthy but added a lot of depth to the novel.  I appreciate this level of research and attention to detail.  Even with this extensive research, there is much that is not known about Sacajawea’s life after the expedition.  There are various accounts of the direction her life took after the expedition and where and how she died.  Waldo presents one widely accepted version of Sacajawea’s later life and this, I think, is where the novel loses some of its traction; I think the first three quarters of the novel are stronger and more clearly presented.

From a historical perspective, Sacajawea is a wonderful novel that gives a voice to one of the most iconic women of American culture.  I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of the American west.




Mystery Monday Review – No Name by Wilkie Collins

Monday, April 4th, 2016

No Name by Wilkie Collins

Review by Matt B. (buffalosavage)


Critics and mystery fans consider this one Collins’ third best novel, after The Woman in White (which he himself thought his best) and The Moonstone (still credited as the first detective novel). I found the plot of No Name absorbing, far-fetched but never ridiculous as in Armadale (from which I had to bail about 100 pages in) or The Dead Secret. In fact, I think Collins wanted to showcase his own marvelous ingenuity in creating a plot and spinning out narrative with various techniques.

This novel opens on a domestic Trollopian note. Two grown sisters enjoy life, loved by their rich parents and secure in domestic comfort. But a series of disasters occurs. The sisters find themselves without their parents and because of cruel antique laws, they are revealed as illegitimate and stripped of their parents’ estate. It lands in the avaricious hands of a cousin who refuses to give the girls a hand even though he knows it was the intention of their father to provide for them.

The middle of the novel calls to mind the atmosphere of intrigue in The Woman in White. That is, the passionate sister vows to take back the legacy by any means necessary. She is helped by a Count Fosco-type villain – ruthless, charming, and a delight whenever he’s in the scene. The book is worth reading just for Capt. Wragge. His gift of gab would have been perfect for W.C. Fields. The middle section features a game of wits and skullduggery between two shrewd gamesters.

The last quarter or so does not let up either, so right to the end I was engrossed. He uses exchanges of letters to speed the plot along. He cuffs around middle-class smug respectability and keeping up appearances too. He does not make a big show of cutting down hypocrisy, but he makes sure we know he stands on the side of the individual against mindless conformity and a society too submissive to antique laws, endless red tape, and “the clap-trap morality of the present day,”as he said called it in the preface to Armadale.

Some readers may grumble that Collins isn’t as funny as Dickens and has fewer wise asides than Trollope. Still, I rather like these digressions

Examples may be found every day of a fool who is no coward; examples may be found occasionally of a fool who is not cunning; but it may reasonably be doubted whether there is a producible instance anywhere of a fool who is not cruel.


Resist it as firmly, despise it as proudly as we may, all studied unkindness—no matter how contemptible it may be—has a stinging power in it which reaches to the quick.


Collins doesn’t do scenery or weather either. It’s hard to know the season sometimes. I think he knew his audience – young, urban, on the way up – enough to know lots of readers just skim that stuff anyway.

In conclusion, I think readers that liked The Woman in White would probably like this one.



Mystery Monday – The Perils of Sherlock Holmes

Monday, March 28th, 2016

The Perils of Sherlock Holmes by Loren D. Estleman

Review by Matt B. (buffalosavage)


This short story collection was authorized and licensed by the estate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the world’s greatest consulting detective. A discerning reader need not be wary, fearing a bad pastiche. The author of 70-some mysteries and historical westerns, Estleman has been a hardcore Holmes fan and re-reader of the stories since his adolescence in the Seventies.

Estleman is a master of the Victorian idiom: the prose sounds like Conan Doyle. However, he gives the stories his own imaginative stamp by taking our favorite duo to both the UK and US basing characters on real-life figures such Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and Sax Rohmer (the creator of Fu Manchu). There is even a story that takes Holmes and Watson to mansion formerly owned by Scrooge and now owned by grown up and successful Tiny Tim.

All in all, I read these inventive stories with a smile on my face. Just amazing work, I can’t recommend it more highly.




Mystery Monday Review – The Gold-Digger’s Purse

Monday, March 14th, 2016



The Case of the Gold-Digger’s Purse by Erie Stanley Gardner


Review by Matt B. (buffalosavage)


When Perry Mason’s confidential secretary, Della Street, peeks inside a red-headed gold-digger’s purse, she spies a roll of bills big enough to gag a mastiff – and the gun that killed businessman-heel Harrington Faulkner.

Mason and Della don’t feel it proper or opportune to burden the police with their knowledge. Then – too late – it dawns on them that Della’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon. The police regard the gold-digging ingenue and Mason and Della with the most profound suspicion.

Turns out that in order to raise funds her tubercular boyfriend needs for a sanitarium stay, the gorgeous but loyal gold-digger figures on separating the businessman-heel from a little of his dough. She offers the heel her BF’s cure for the heel’s sickly goldfish. Proving nobody is completely bad, the poor fishies with ick are the only creatures for which the heel has any human feelings. However, her plan goes ahoo when the fish vanish and Faulkner ends up shot to death still with shaving lather on his face.

Thus, Mason has to solve multiple disappearances: rare goldfish called Veiltail Moor Telescopes a.k.a. “the Fish of Death,” a secret formula of an new ick remedy, a vanished bullet, and the real murderer.

In rating this 1956 mystery, the 26th Mason novel, I can give only a qualified thumbs-up. On the positive side, we readers enjoy the retro names (Adele, Genevieve, Elmer, tail-rot for ick) and retro artifacts (straight razors, fountain pens, cars with finicky chokes). The nemesis Lt. Tragg proves himself a most worthy opponent. Gardner gets across points about the fallibility of the police and their unwitting misconstrual of evidence when they think they know who the perp is. In the last scene, Perry and Della do a victory waltz at a dance hall. Letting her guard slip, she calls him “darling.”









Mystery Monday Review – Ways and Means

Monday, March 7th, 2016

Way and Means 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. Sometimes he is profound – see According to the Evidence, which is about capital punishment.

This novel from 1952 describes four scams pulled off by the con artists Basil and Nicholas. The shameless fraudsters unethically exploit soft spots in the British legal system in order to spin money, avoid real work, and keep their attractive wives in style. Cecil explains their ingenious scams and the vulnerable legal system in clear language. The dialogue-driven stories should be read slowly and savored.

Cecil’s bag of tricks will call to mind P.G. Wodehouse in that he uses stock characters like the dumb colonel and on the make widow. But, to my mind, Cecil writes breezy, sometimes profound stories set in a recognizable world whereas Wodehouse writes silly and not too memorable tales set in Neverneverland.

Reading Henry Cecil’s books makes me feel nostalgic for a vanished world I never knew first-hand but confirms my belief that the basic vices and virtues of human beings haven’t changed and probably won’t change down through the ages.