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Mystery Monday – Trouble in Triplicate

Monday, June 11th, 2018

Trouble in Triplicate by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

This is a collection of three novellas that were first published in a weekly called The American Magazine: Before I Die (April 1947), Help Wanted, Male (August 1945) and Instead of Evidence (May 1946). I’ve thought for a long time that many of the novellas starring investigators Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin were perfect in their wit and force. The plot unfolds briskly with just the right amount of characterization, cutting but lively conversations, and Manhattan atmosphere.

The first one Before I Die is set during WWII. Because of food rationing, Wolfe is yearning for more animal protein in the form of meat so he cuts a deal with a black marketer. The gangster asks Wolfe to clear up family problems that border on absurdly implausible until we remember our own families probably look chaotic to outsiders. Not once but twice is Archie almost snuffed. A violent, funny story that alternates between making us readers tense and making us laugh.

At about 25,000 words the second one Help Wanted, Male is the longest of the trio here. It is also set during WWII. Archie is petitioning a general to assign him to combat service because he feels he is missing out on the signal event of his generation. Wolfe perceives a threat to his life so serious that he hires a double to distract a would-be killer. The upshot of that decision is hilarious. Sure, the plot is wildly implausible in this one, but it’s so much fun, who cares?

Instead of Evidence also starts with a victim trying to hire Wolfe to prevent more victimization. A successful manufacturer of novelties suspects his weird partner of plotting to kill him to take over the business. A murder in fact is committed: an exploding cigar takes out the victim in funny gruesome scene. A fine story, so giving more details would detract from the pleasure a reader would get on her own.

Stout valued clear thinking, justice, courageousness, and humor. He has Wolfe Wolfe crack wise about lawyers: “They are inveterate hedgers. They think everything has two sides, which is nonsense.” This is typical of Wolfe’s inflexible ethics which we simultaneously admire and know is nonsense. Hey, it’s only a story.

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Judge and His Hangman

Monday, June 4th, 2018

 

The Judge and His Hangman

by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In this 1950 whodunnit, it all starts with the discovery of a police detective’s corpse, in a car by a constable in a Swiss village. Commissioner Bärlach, an old, experienced detective takes the case despite ill health – he has been plagued with stomach pain that requires a surgery he’s been procrastinating.

When Bärlach discovers that the murdered man had assumed an alias and attended parties at the house of a certain Herr Gastmann in the village, Bärlach’s investigation is suddenly sabotaged by his superior Dr. Lucius Lutz. Lutz was put off by Gastmann’s lawyer who implied that Gastmann was getting protection from the highest levels of the Swiss government, which in turn was being pressured by politicians and arms manufacturers who do not want their lucrative business disturbed.

Bärlach quickly realizes that Gastmann was an old opponent, who, as a young man, had murdered an innocent man in cold-blood, on a bet. Since then, Bärlach had been following this man, who always took on new aliases, but could never pin anything on him. Bärlach realizes that he must continue his investigations in order to produce a just end which cannot be reached in legal ways.

Bärlach is a disillusioned individual who does not battle the ordinary unfolding of events with a belief system or bureaucratic protocol but with his own sense of right and wrong and his own conviction that criminals are caught because the police can exploit the criminal’ mistakes in planning, executing, and covering up a crime. Crooks are humans and humans are fallible because nobody can predict how reality will turn out in the wake of a crime. His nemesis Gastmann, however, argues that the chaotic “entanglement of human relationships” lends itself to unsolvable crimes and lack of proof that could stand in a court of law.

Again because it is very short, it is worthwhile to read it twice: the first time as a crime novel for the sake of untangling the plot’s the surprising twists and the second time as a jumping off point for curious philosophical questions, if that is the reader’s bent.

Fiction Review – Handling Sin

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Handling Sin by Michael Malone

Review by Cheryl G. (Poncer)

 

I had a hard time reading this book, but not for the obvious reasons. It was hard to read because in every single paragraph there was some funniness that made me stop and laugh, out loud.

This book is a riotous romp from cover to cover. And there is quite a ways from the beginning to the end; 656 pages to be exact. And worth every hour it took to read.

The hero, Raleigh Whittier Hayes is sent on what seems to be a wild goose chase by his ill and elderly father through most of the south. And of course he has a side-kick. His loyal neighbor Mingo Sheffield tried to kill poor Raleigh at the start of the book, but through their adventures become bestest-ever friends and allies.

The cast of characters that Raleigh and Mingo run into along the way, an old-school gangster, a used-car salesman cousin, a troubled half-brother, jazz musicians and other assorted crazies, are all gems. Well developed character, each and every one.

Like the best books, this a story of transforming, and of becoming better humans. But the lessons learned come at a price. Don’t they always? If you are looking for a light read, this is not it. Mr. Malone is witty and a great story teller. If you are looking for a book that will make you laugh and think, and celebrate humans with all their foibles this is the book.

4 Stars

Mystery Monday – Double or Quits

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Double or Quits by A.A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Writing as A.A. Fair, Erle Stanley Gardner released the fourth and fifth Bertha Cool – Donald Lam mysteries in 1941. In March, Spill the Jackpot had portly Bertha Cool lose weight due to pneumonia. In December, Double or Quits finds Bertha and her crack investigator Lam taking the day off to go fishing. Due to her health scare, Bertha becomes determined not work her life away without having any fun.

But another angler at the pier turns out to be Dr. Hilton Deverest, an M.D. with a big problem. Jewels from his safe have disappeared and so has Nollie Starr, his wife’s social secretary. He hires Cool and Lam to find the secretary, get the jewels back, and let her know that the doc will let bygones be bygones. Things get complicated for Cool and Lam when their client is found dead on the floor of his garage with his car engine running.

At this point with the case heating up, Gardner takes a little digression to tell the tale of how Lam pressures Bertha to make the agency a partnership. Miserly Bertha howls as if stabbed, but agrees. The first thing new partner Lam does is boost the wages of the agency secretary Elsie Brand. Not just a pretty name (I had two aunts named Elsie), she is a Gardnerian Ideal Woman: loyal, resourceful, game, insightful, quick-witted, kind, and easy on the eye.

As usual for both the mystery genre and Erle Stanley Gardner, the characterization is weak. But, more than in the Perry Mason novels, Gardner gets across the sense that the characters are plausible adults having real-life grown-up problems. Dr. and Mrs. Deverest have a marriage so troubled it borders on the sick. The doctor’s niece Nadine Croy is dealing with an ex that is milking her for money. Heartless con men exploit widows’ loneliness and discontent. In a fine scene, Elsie Brand’s cooking appeals to cop’s appetite which proves to be his undoing since after Bertha makes him pay for his greed and poor judgement. In another amusing scene, Lam plays another doctor like a fish, getting him to toss his professional ethics overboard.

More cheering is the relationship that Lam has with Elsie. It is not of the platonic nature of the one between Perry Mason and Della. Near the end of Double or Quits, a nurse solemnly warns Elsie not to be alone with Lam because, under the influence, he might be “abnormally stimulated.” Gardner writes, “Elsie Brand laughed in her face.”

True, the plotting gets convoluted. Granted, the deduction is rather improbable. But this is well worth reading just for the sheer enjoyment of the comical interplay between brainy Lam and stingy hard-charging Bertha, plus of the tender back and forth between Lam and Elsie. It’s funny how the Cool & Lam novels are a little hard-boiled and a little cozy at the same time.

 

 

 

Series Spotlight – The Scotland Yard Murder Squad

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

 

The Scotland Yard Murder Squad Series by Alex Grecian

 

by Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

 
I want to share with you a series of murder mysteries that I thoroughly enjoyed, written by Alex Grecian. The series is called the Scotland Yard Murder Squad, and the first book, The Yard, introduces us to Inspector Walter Day, a young, up-and-coming detective with Scotland Yard, Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith, an unlucky but clever colleague, and Dr. Kingsley, the coroner who has a fascination with clues.   

Walter Day has just come to London to join the newly created Murder Squad.  He is recently married to Clare, a woman who loves and supports him, but according to her parents, she’s married beneath her.  In spite of this, she is happy and adjusting to being the wife of a Scotland Yard detective. 

Alex Grecian brings Victorian London to life: rainy days in a gray city full of fog and grim alleys.  His characters are likeable (well, the good guys) and very believable.  He explores the lack of technology by showing us the difficulties of no rapid communication and no forensic science. Imagine trying to find a boy to deliver an urgent message for a penny rather than having a telephone at hand. 

Today, applying forensic science to criminal investigations is commonplace, but the Scotland Yard Murder Squad operates in Victorian London, where such practices are just being born. Dr. Kingsley is very fond of fingerprints, in spite of the Yard’s skepticism, and tries (mostly in vain) to convince the police to preserve a crime scene rather than tramp all over the place destroying evidence.  The notion of trying to understand the criminal mind, and searching for patterns of behavior and thought is also new and being tested at this time.   

The second book is The Black Country, which sees Walter and Nevil traveling to the Midlands, a place of superstitious villagers, a mysterious epidemic that is killing people, and the sinking of the village into the coal mines below.  So trying to find three missing family members suddenly takes on a bizarre edge, and Walter is challenged to the utmost.   

 

The third book, The Devil’s Workshop, tells us what had happened to Jack the Ripper (he was still alive, being held prisoner by a vigilante group determined to bring him to their own brand of justice) and introduced us to a murderer called the Harvest Man, after the Harvest spider who lives in attics. The Harvest Man liked to lurk in attics until the family was sound asleep, and then come out to kill.  But he had been captured, and was in prison—until he escaped with three other prisoners during a jail break.  To make matters worse, Jack the Ripper managed to escape his captors as well.  Walter Day and Nevil Hammersmith are racing against time to find these two madmen.  

 

 

Without giving too much away, let me just say that The Devil’s Workshop ended on a ‘bit’ of a cliffhanger, and the tension immediately continues in The Harvest Man, with the action picking up shortly after the third book ends.  The hunt is still on, and time is rapidly running out as the victim count rises.  Oh, and if you thought the cliffhanger was bad in book three, then brace yourself!  It’s even worse in book four.  So have book 5, Lost and Gone Forever, close by!  You won’t be sorry.  Grecian has announced that there will be a sixth book, but no definite date has been set.  I’m anxiously awaiting the next installment!   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Silence Observed

Monday, April 30th, 2018

Silence Observed by Michael Innes

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

In this 1961 mystery, Appleby says he is 53, which means he was born in 1907 or 1908. Yard detective John Appleby first appeared in 1936 in Seven Suspects, an academic murder mystery set in an Oxford-type institution. He retired from the Yard after WWII and went to work in the upper reaches of the Metropolitan Police. He was active post-retirement in 1986 when Appleby and the Ospreys appeared. I know of no other author who kept a character going for 33 novels and numerous short stories for 50 years.

I suppose some critics argue that the Appleby novels of the 1970s and 1980s lack the literary touches that characterize Hamlet, Revenge! (1937) and Lament for a Maker (1938). Silence Observed is mainly for entertainment, with few writerly flourishes and only a little suspense. I think it’s worth reading for the creative use of learned language and examination of the acquisitive mentality of collectors and misers. Appleby observes, “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. Just a little mad, for a start. Inclined, say, to unreasonable jokes in the course of business. But later – well, very mad indeed.”

Just by chance, Appleby’s attention is arrested by two instances of forgeries in the art world. One collector has acquired a forgery of a notorious forger; another has been offered, of all things, a lost Rembrandt. An unlucky young man has been discovered with both bodies in highly suspicious circumstances. Appleby feels something is amiss and gets him off the hook, since in whodunnit land, as we hardcore mystery readers know, it is never the obvious suspect.

The pool of suspects is small enough to make the reveal fairly predictable. But the familiar characters, the erudite vocabulary, and London setting – though there is another remote insane manse as in Lament for a Maker and Hare Sitting Up, among others – make this an agreeable, soothing read.

 

 

 

True Crime Review – Small Town D.A.

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Small Town D.A. by Robert Traver

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is known as God’s country, a great place for hunting, fishing, snowshoeing, skiing, and canoeing. Besides dairy-farming, its industries were mainly of the extractive kind – lumbering and mining. In this 1954 memoir of Traver’s 14 years as a D.A. in Marquette County, he describes offenders of descents such as Finnish, Scandinavian, Italian, Irish, Cornish, with the occasional American Indian tossed in. The crime to be prosecuted was often drunk driving, as we would expect. But there were also cases of rape and murder. For extra thrills, thankfully rare, there were kidnapping and even an adultery case.

Each chapter of the book is an anecdote about a specific case and numerous stories about a certain crime. His anecdotes of the brutal crimes that happen in remote places will prime us to roll our eyes the next time we hear a somebody say, “Things like that just don’t happen here,” or see the headline, “Girl’s Violent End has Village in Shock.” The tone is generally upbeat, benevolent and humorous. Traver is inconsistent in that in the preface he believes the human nature is basically good and later he says we have to take human nature as we find it. But his stories illustrate his belief that human beings naturally resilient and enduring. In other words, we’re tough, tougher than we give ourselves credit for.

The real name of the author was John D. Voelker. He was born in 1903 in Ishepeming, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He went to law school at the University of Michigan. He returned to his home region to lawyer, becoming a D.A. in Marquette Country. He wrote this memoir in 1954 and says in the preface that he did not aspire to higher political office or judgeships. People change their minds and he didn’t say no when Gov. G. Mennen Williams appointed him to the Michigan Supreme Court. During this stint, he somehow found the time to write, under the pen name above, the courtroom novel Anatomy of a Murder, which became a monster best-seller and hit movie starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick, with the soundtrack composed by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.