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Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Mystery Monday – Death before Bedtime

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Death before Bedtime by Gore Vidal writing as Edgar Box

Gore Vidal wrote three mysteries as Edgar Box in the early 1950s. In this, the second novel, series hero Peter Sargent, ex-reporter and PR man, lands a contract with a Senator whose eye is on the Oval Office. On the day prior to his tossing his hat in the ring, he’s blown up in the study of his DC house. In a highly unlikely move, the cops keep all the suspects in the house while they try to identify the culprit.

Helping the cops as he writes sensational articles for a newspaper, Sargent interacts with a weird group of people. The wanton daughter. The too loyal aide. The distant widow. The smooth munitions manufacturer. The lefty journalist.The unctuous governor who appoints himself to fill the murdered Senator’s spot.

Vidal wrote as Edgar Box when publishers thought he was radioactive because of the fallout over his novel about gay men, The City and the Pillar. When his publisher suggested he write mysteries under a pen name, Vidal claims he said “I don’t think I’m sufficiently stupid to be a popular author.”

A man’s got to eat, though.  Vidal was not a mystery writer so the mystery side of this novel is weak though the tone is confident, ironic and suave. It’s worth reading if one is into thrusts and jibes and swipes against the American ruling class in cahoots with conceited politicians. If a reader likes the blunt satire in Burr, 1876, and Hollywood, she will be entertained by this artifact of the Eisenhower era.

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Mystery Monday – Up for Grabs

Monday, April 17th, 2017

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Up for Grabs by A. A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner)

The PI team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam resemble the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy. Bertha Cool, like Hardy, is irascible, easily driven to distraction by her partner’s antics.

There’s an important difference, however, between Bertha and Babe. Oliver Hardy sagely observed of his character, “He’s the worst kind of dumb guy. He’s the dumb guy that thinks he’s smart.” Bertha may be a lot of things – ham-handed, hard-charging, overly fond of barnyard epithets and old-fashioned (even for 1964) expressions like “Pickle me for a beet.” But one thing she is not, is dumb. Her canny observations cut to the pith of the investigation.

On the surface, Donald Lam resembles Stan Laurel.  Both are short and slight. But bright Donald stands in contrast to dim-bulb Stanley. Bertha praises Donald with, “He’s a little runt, but he’s brainy.” As a disbarred lawyer, Donald knows the law well enough to bend it, and the cops enough to send them into conniptions by making evidence twist like a tornado.

Erle Stanley Gardner goes against stereotype by making Bertha the shrewd one and Donald the intuitive one. Materialist Bertha is always distracted by the prospect of big client fees while subtle Donald inevitably senses that the client is not on the up and up, or that something is screwy about a situation. The game afoot is usually a scheme in the grey area between the unethical and the illegal.

Describing the involved plot in this review will dilute the pleasure of surprise for the reader, so I won’t go there. Suffice to say, an insurance executive hires Lam and Cool to catch out malingers who file false claims of injury and disability. Lam flies to Tucson and Dallas to solve the case. He also spends time at a guest ranch in Arizona, in which the desert makes Gardner’s mundane writing as pretty as it ever gets (see also the descriptions of Nevada landscape in Spill the Jackpot!). The exec’s elaborate plan goes by the board, when murder enters the picture.

The mystery plot is not the main attraction. The enjoyment is in watching Donald get in and out trouble with the crooks, the clients, the cops, and crabby Bertha. The complexity of the plots showcases how ingeniously con artists cook up scams and how adroitly Donald can think on his feet and talk his way out of jams. True, Donald Lam, unlike PI Lew Archer or Archie in Nero Wolfe stories, never tells us readers what he is thinking so we have to take his leaps of logic and stunning insight on faith.

Getting to the resolution adds to the fun, even as we shake our heads in bewilderment at Gardner’s endless inventiveness in devising swindles and twisting plots. Gardner’s prose is necessarily concise and plain so the convolutions of the plot won’t confound us alert readers to the point of exasperation.  But who needs puzzles or amazing reveals when the characters are so much fun to hang out with?

 

 

 

 

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Mystery Monday – The Hand in the Glove

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The Hand in the Glove aka Crime on Her Hands by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In the late Thirties, Stout’s publishers were worried that his prolific output featuring his PI hero Nero Wolfe would overexpose the rotund detective. They urged him to try another project so as not to inundate the market for Wolfe tales.

So, with a female readership in mind, he created Theodolinda “Dol” Bonner. She was all ready to live the life of the carefree socialite when the Depression wiped out her father and drove him to suicide. Her cad of a fiancé, seeing that she had no great expectations after all, dumped her. Like Anthony Trollope‘s jilted heroine Lily Dale, Dol swore never to love another and started a detective business with her friend, the heiress Sylvia Raffray.

Basically, this has the elements of a cozy mystery from the classic era of whodunnits between the wars. The characters are affluent, cultured, charming. The setting is a house in the New England country. There is a fistful of suspects. Aside from the female PI, what makes this mystery something different is the totally believable character of George Leo Ranth. He is a guru of a belief system that seeks to separate society matrons from their money and chattels. Stout gives him a line of mystical patter about Ranth’s “League of the Occidental Sakti,” patter than is simultaneously familiar, demented, and laughable. Stout had a sharp sense of language and its various styles to balance his over-fondness for and frequent use of unusual words such as “quidnunc.”

Anyway, hardcore Stout fans may want to check this out if it comes their way. Stout never returned to starring Dol in another novel, but she does show up with other Wolfe helpers like Saul and Orrie If Death Ever Slept and Plot It Yourself and a novella, Too Many Detectives, which is one of 3 stories in Three for the Chair.

 

 

 

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Historical Fiction Review – The Invention of Wings

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

I have a ‘love/hate’ relationship with Sue Monk Kidd.  Well, maybe hate is strong word.  Perhaps it’s better to say I have a ‘love/don’t really love’ relationship with Sue Monk Kidd.  I loved her first novel The Secret Life of Bees.  It was such an honest, earthly, coming of age story.  And then came The Mermaid Chair and I was so disappointed.  I had a hard time finishing that book, to be honest.  So when a friend recommended The Invention of Wings I thought, ‘Ok, Sue, what’s it going to be this time? Should I give you another try?’ My mind told me to go with my friend’s recommendation and I am so glad I did!

The Invention of Wings is the story of Sarah Grimké and Hetty “Handful” Grimké, beginning in 1803 and Sarah’s eleventh birthday.  Sarah’s family has long owned slaves and for Sarah’s eleventh birthday she is given Handful.  Sarah, even at age eleven, feels she should not be given a person as property and tried to reject the gift.  In the end, Handful remains with the family, owned by Sarah’s mother, but Handful serves Sarah.  A friendship of sorts develops and Sarah grows into a woman of conviction and her choices put her on a course to defy her family and follow her conscience.

Hetty “Handful” Grimké is the daughter of Charlotte, a strong woman who belongs to the Grimké family and talented seamstress.  She instills a strength and quiet rebellion in Handful and wants nothing more than for Handful to one day be free of her slavery bonds.

The stories of Sarah and Handful cross decades as both women search for understanding and truth during their lives.  Sarah’s defiance of her family’s traditions and beliefs separates her from Handful and during that separation Handful experiences her own defiance and search to make a difference.

Told from both character’s perspectives, The Invention of Wings is a story of strength and resilience but it is also about the role of guilt in the lives of the two women and how that impacts their decisions and relationship to one another.  I am so glad I have Kidd another chance and read The Invention of Wings and I hope others will read it, too.  I am happy to say I give The Invention of Wings 5 out of 5 stars!

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Mystery Monday Review – The Grand Banks Cafe

Monday, February 20th, 2017

The Grand Banks Cafe by Georges Simenon

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

After three months at sea, a trawler returns to its home port of Fécamp in northern France. Shortly after the return, the captain, Octave Fallut, is found dead by strangulation in one of the harbor basins. The wireless operator of the trawler, Pierre Le Clinche, barely twenty years old, is the person of interest since he was seen prowling around the boat on the day of the killing.

An old friend of Chief Inspector Maigret, Jorissen, a teacher at Quimper, writes an appeal to Maigret to establish the innocence of the young telegrapher. Once in Fécamp, Maigret settles in at the Grand Banks Café, a hangout of sailors. Once again, we have Maigret trying to crack open a closed society in order to figure out events and feelings that lead up to a murder. Slowly Maigret uncovers unreasoning lust and vengeful anger that caused the murder.

Like many of the early, Depression-era, Maigret novels, this one has a heavy atmosphere. Somber but not as depressing as Maigret and the Yellow Dog (also written in 1931). There are various women characters, with Madame Maigret and the widow Bernard providing stability and domesticity, Le Clinche’s fiancé Marie Léonnec providing loyalty and forgiveness, and Adèle Noirhomme for idiot lust and chaos.  Maigret is true to himself. He listens to conversations, taking in the atmosphere of the harbor and its denizens. He is part anthropologist and part psychologist as he bores into the complexity of relationships and interior struggles.

Maigret also delves into the heart of France during the period between the wars. His focus is on his own people, people who toil to get little. This is the France of small shops, cafés on every street corner, and artisans (such as rope makers) whose day you’d have thought passed long before 1930.

Simenon loved the sea so his stories set near locks, on barges and in small fishing ports are worth reading. He’s great with atmosphere, which is also a tribute to the translator. David Coward has also translated Alexandre DumasPierre Choderlos de Laclos, and the Marquis de Sade. It was a good idea for Penguin to commission new translations of these classic mysteries.

 

 

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Mystery Monday – The Case of the Curious Bride

Monday, February 13th, 2017

The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

A woman claiming not to be a bride consults lawyer Perry Mason about her “friend” whose husband, supposedly killed in a plane crash, turns up alive and well. Della Street, Mason’s assistant, is sure the would-be client is in fact a bride. The lying client ends up facing charges of murder. All the evidence points to her guilt, of course, so Perry Mason requires cunning and mother-wit – not to mention a lot of PI legwork that he does himself – to save the client.

Published in 1934, the fifth Perry Mason mystery was a pretty good read. However, it has a hard edge to it, probably because the Depression casts a shadow over the characters and action. A millionaire businessman demonstrates the ethics and morality of an alley cat, reflecting public attitudes that were fed up with The Heartless Conscience-free Rich. Plus, near the end, Mason coldly observes that the murder victim – a con man who swindled plain janes into marriage and then stole all their money – “needed killing.” Yikes, talk about a dog-eat-dog world.

In the intricate plot, Mason is always a couple of moves ahead of the DA and cops. Planting fake evidence will do that, I suppose. I did not figure out who the culprit was before the end and I was blind-sided by the reveal.  To be fair, I must say that Gardner plays fair with reader. He has different characters repeat the basic facts of the case, so we readers can’t complain at the end that Gardner expects us to know things we were never told. I think Gardner used the repetition because the novel was serialized in Liberty Magazine (July 7 to September 15, 1934) and he had to get new readers up to speed.

I liked the antique atmosphere. Despite the racy hint of you-know in the title, there is no you-know in the novel, which is par for Mason novels. The trial sequence, as in many of the early Mason novels, is pretty short.

 

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Thriller Thursday – Dark Voyage

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Dark Voyage by Alan Furst

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In his eighth historical espionage thriller, Furst departs from his usual place and time of Europe between the wars. Nor does he focus on typical spies. In this one, the time is during WWII, April to June 1941 to be exact. The setting is at sea on a spy ship, the Dutch tramp freighter Noordendam. The hero is a stoical captain, Erik DeHaan.

DeHaan has been recruited into naval intelligence by three co-nationals, the owner of the Noordendam, a businessman, and a female artist. The Noordendam is re-painted, put under the control of the British intelligence service (which office is unclear to DeHaan), and sent out on a mission both in convoy and on its own, both as the Noordendam and the Santa Rosa. It lands commandos in Tunisia and explosives in Crete. It negotiates German defenses in the Baltic in order to transport radio equipment to listen in traffic to and from German submarines.

DeHaan is a classic Furstian protagonist. That is, sensitive and professionally capable, he brings his emotional and professional intelligence to fight, because that is what an ordinary person would do, fight when fight we must.

The other characters are regular folks too, doing what they can to fight in the hope that their small contribution will add to the huge effort to eliminate the Fascist threat, whether on the left or the right. Fleeing right extremism are Greek deserters, Spanish Republicans, and a veteran Ukrainian Jewish spy. A female Soviet maritime reporter is fleeing the Russian spies that want to recruit her for dirty work.

One flaw. The second half of the novel is set on the Baltic Sea near Malmö, Sweden, in the first 20 days of June, heading up to the Summer Solstice. Recalling how far north this setting is and the time of the year, readers will recall there is not quite 24 hours of daylight. When I lived in Riga, Latvia (1994-97), the sun didn’t set until close to 11:30 p.m. It didn’t get dark until 1:00 a.m. when it didn’t get “darkest before the dawn” kind of dark either. Then at about 1:00 a.m., it started to lighten up again. Furst does not mention one word about this phenomenon.

This flaw is balanced by the simple fact that Furst sets the climax in the Latvian port of Liepāja. Furst gets points in my book for mentioning Latvia at all, much less a little-known place such as Liepāja. The Russians and Germans wanted to occupy Latvia for the possession of Riga and the ice-free port of Liepāja, which the Russians wanted so secret they didn’t even put it on maps.

Furst’s writing style tends to the run-on sentence, which gives an effective herky-jerkiness to the exposition. We readers never know what going to happen next.

 

 

 

 

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