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Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Spy Novel Review – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The British spy service is in shambles. It collects no product. Long-time bosses have been given their walking papers. The resulting reshuffle of duties has demoralized the remaining old timers. However, a minister and his minion bring a low-level agent to the attention of terminated spy master George Smiley. The agent’s story sends Smiley on a hunt for a possible mole who is passing secrets to the Russians.

The novel seems like a mystery since it has multiple interviews with a variety of characters, five suspects, startling twists and an exciting reveal. But it treats themes such as disillusionment, the end of the British Empire, marital dissolution, and the workaday life in a large bureaucracy. LeCarre also uses devices – such as the weather, remote places, and the focus on hands – for more literary effect than we expect in a mystery or spy novel.

In a BBC Radio “Front Row” interview in 2009, John LeCarre said that John Bingham’s crime novels such as My Name is Michael Sibley, published in the 1950s when the two men worked together in British intelligence, inspired LeCarre to write his first two books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. Some critics go so far as to call Bingham the inspiration for George Smiley, but Bingham disliked le Carré’s portrayal of world-weary, cynical spies.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Port Hazard

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Port Hazard by Loren D. Estleman 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Published in 2004, this is the seventh, and to date the next to the latest, historical mystery western featuring deputy US marshal Page Murdock. With three dozen or so westerns, mysteries, and stand-alones to his credit by the time he wrote this one, Estleman challenges himself and his readers by writing in the extravagant style of dime novels and sensational novels of the later Victorian era. Of a theater in Port Hazard:

Cabbage roses exploded on burgundy runners in the aisles. Laurels of gold leaf encircled a coffered ceiling with a Greek Bacchanal enshrined in stained glass in the center, lighted from above so that the chubby nymphs’ nipples and the blubbery lips of the bloated male gods and demigods glittered like rubies.

The dialogue however brings to mind the pithy skepticism about the conventions that we enjoy in noir novels.  There is also much crook argot, which makes sense if you don’t overthink it. A glossary is provided for readers with a low tolerance for ambiguity.

The story opens in Montana, which is more or less the homeless Murdock’s base. His boss, federal judge Harlan Blackthorne, sends his the Barbary Coast on a dangerous assignment. Murdock is to determine if indeed an organization called the Sons of the Confederacy is headed by the Honorable D.W. Wheelock, city alderman and captain in the San Francisco fire brigade. On the way to San Francisco, he persuades Edward Anderson Beecher—a railroad porter (who were all African-American) to watch his back. Murdock trusts the ex-cavalryman to be a fighter.

Rendered well are the gamblers, drunks, vigilantes, prostitutes, thugs, bent politicians and Chinese gangsters. Secondary characters include a gambler who is an undercover Pinkerton gumshoe and a little person whose hand lost in a maritime accident has been replaced with a curious assistive device: an iron ball on a chain. The action is violent, some of the jokes are definitely of the guy variety.

Recommended for those readers who find no problem dipping into mystery genres outside the cozy zone.  

Thriller Thursday Review – The Antagonists

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

 

The Antagonists by William Haggard

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

At a lean 127 pages, this cold war spy thriller is short but packs in a lot of action and intrigue. Haggard excels at getting the reader on the edge of her seat, expecting any twist or turn. He builds tension as skillfully as Ruth Rendall or M.R. James.

But what’s realistic is that the hotshot scientist at the center of events is a real caution. He is a communist epicurean. He has an eye for the ladies. His fork is ever-ready for the West’s best viands. His palate will condescend to sample wines. He’s a brilliant eccentric that brings to mind Richard Feynman.

Also, Haggard features his series hero Col. Charles Russell, star of The Unquiet Sleep and Slow Burner. As Perry Mason is our ideal lawyer and John Putnam Thatcher our ideal banker, Russell is our ideal spy master. Though he detests communists as a gang of tyrants and murderers, he doesn’t allow his personal feelings to cloud his reason.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Mr. Moto is So Sorry

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Mr. Moto is So Sorry by John P. Marquand

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

A reader can tell this spy story was originally published in serial installments in the Saturday Evening Post in 1938. Chapters end with cliffhangers. Three long-winded chapters in the middle give the distinct impression Marquand was getting paid by the word. He gives the magazine audience what it expects. Dangerous encounters on a train. A romantic interest with a modern plucky American woman. Exotic and wily Chinese, Japanese, Mongols, Russians, and, heaven forfend, Australians. A maguffin that spy services want.

But despite temporary and uncharacteristic verbosity in the middle, Marquand is true to himself by including themes that he liked to use. The protagonist is a young American man who finds himself through his adventures, just like the young men in Your Turn, Mr Moto and Think Fast, Mr. Moto. Also, though willing to give his all for the Emperor and expand Japan’s influence, Mr. Moto is kind of a good-guy, working to restrain factions in the Japanese army that want to overrun China.

Marquand was an Army Intelligence operative during WWI and traveled in China and Japan during the Thirties so his writing on these topics have authority. Recommended to readers of vintage mysteries.

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Longer the Thread

Monday, July 24th, 2017

 

The Longer the Thread by Emma Lathen

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The 13th mystery starring series hero John Putnam Thatcher was published in 1971 by two business women who wrote under a pen name. Thatcher, a middle-aged financier on Wall Street, must visit his bank’s Puerto Rico branch, which is concerned about problems at an investment, a large garment maker. The backdrop of Puerto Rico provides social and political conflict between those who want Puerto Rico to be independent versus those who want the special status with the US to continue as usual.

The garment maker’s factory has seen sabotage of finished goods and machines. A foreman – an obnoxious bad actor who was enjoying the trouble (we all know such people at work) – is shot to death. The main suspects are the gringo managers of the plant, which sparks talks of strikes. The factory owner calls in a union organizer, a tough woman negotiator, a character for which the book is worth reading for the authoresses’ first-wave feminist views (that anybody can achieve success from logical thinking and having a clear-cut goals). Thatcher investigates the murder and sabotage, but arrives at the conclusion mainly by reasoning. There is local color and plausible action in Lathen stories, like fires, riots, and intense confrontations, but ultimately reason takes center stage.

I highly recommend this one to Lathen fans and novices.

 

 

Fiction Review – Calling Me Home

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Review by Mirah Welday (mwelday)

Dorrie and Isabelle have what many call an unconventional relationship.  Isabelle: eighty-nine years old, white, set in her ways, and facing the realities of secrets she has kept all of her life.  Dorrie: single mom in her thirties, black, business owner, and dealing with issues of trust and acceptance.  Somehow, these two forge a relationship akin to granddaughter/grandmother when Isabelle begins seeing Dorrie regularly for haircuts.

When Isabelle approaches Dorrie with the request for her to drive Isabelle from Texas to Ohio the following day in order to go to a funeral, Dorrie accepts even though she is not clear on the details.  The resulting road trip brings Dorrie and Isabelle even closer.  Isabelle shares memories with Dorrie that explain her guarded life and deepen the connection between the two women.

Calling Me Home is the quest of one woman to find closure and acceptance to events that happened to her many years before, events that she has never fully been able to move beyond.  Both women are warm characters with connections that deepen their love and appreciation for one another.  And one is able to learn how to navigate today’s world and relationships by learning from what happened to another many years before.

Love comes from all kinds of places, some of which are totally unexpected.  Kibler reminds us in Calling Me Home to be open to love from others even when our differences seem so insurmountable. I give this novel a heartfelt 5 stars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Where There’s a Will

Monday, July 17th, 2017

Where There’s a Will by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Internal evidence – references to the World’s Fair in New York City and the parlous state of Europe – suggests that this mystery was written in 1939. Slightly abridged, it was published in the May, 1940 issue of The American Magazine (1906 – 1956). It was the eighth story starring eccentric private eye Nero Wolfe and his wise-cracking bodyguard, secretary, bookkeeper and legman Archie Goodwin.

Since The American Magazine concentrated on female readership, Stout featured in the story three strong successful women. The mystery opens in Nero Wolfe’s office where the celeb Hawthorne sisters – April the stage actress, May the college president, and June the State Department spouse hostess – want advice on breaking the bizarre will of their multi-millionaire brother Noel . Clearly they are upset at being bequeathed, respectively, an apple, a pear, and a peach. But cops burst in with the unhappy news that the forensic evidence says their brother was murdered, not killed in a gun-related accident as originally thought.

In contrast to the earlier novels, this outing is shorter because less exposition makes for a more briskly-paced story. Depending on the reader’s tolerance for description or the extras we want to see in a Wolfe novel, this tightness may or may not be a good thing.

I missed the absent or slighted extras. Archie does not have his usual love interest Lily Rowan around. Wolfe has to leave the brownstone but Stout doesn’t exploit the fish out of water situation except for a mildly comic scene when the gourmet Wolfe is served a lackluster lunch. Wolfe does little detecting and deducing nor is evidence clearly provided. The femme fatale does not have much banter in her, especially not with Archie. Homicide Detective Cramer is overbearing in an unfunny way.

Finally, the amazing Hawthorne sisters – the beautiful one, the smart one, and the practical one – must be based on actual celeb sisters of that bygone era. But it drives me crazy that I can’t identify the original versions since I regard myself as a Thirties buff.

Still and all, I recommend this one to Nero Wolfe fans. Newbies may want to start with The Rubber Band or the great Some Buried Caesar.