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Mystery Monday Review – The Continental Op

Monday, July 8th, 2019

The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Published by Dell in 1967, this pocket paperback bundled about half the pulp magazine long stories that appeared in a collection called The Big Knockover. I re-read these stories in my little free time since I didn’t feel up to reading anything else. The year-end festivities and the end of a semester are exhausting.

Hammett’s hero works in the San Francisco branch of the Continental Detective Agency in the 1920s. To make up for not having a name, he has developed an astute sense of how bad guys think. His core competence is using devious, often violent, methods to get the job done.

This King Business (1928). The Op finds himself in a Balkan country where the idealistic son of a rich guy is bankrolling a revolution for a band of crafty Slavs. Seems that the insurrectionists have promised to make the son a king if the revolution is successful. The rousing climax comes out of an action packed series of events which support the notion that the calculations of criminous types and political types aren’t all that different, a fairly common belief in the 1920s.

The Gatewood Caper (1923). A daughter is kidnapped and the desperate father wants her back mainly because it is a blow to his self-made man ego that somebody has the audacity to extort money out of him. “I’ve never been clubbed into doing anything in my life. And I’m too old to start now.” When the daughter doesn’t return even after the ransom is paid, our cunning Op smells something fishy. The story seethes with vindictive feeling and the setting of the Pacific Northwest – lumbering land – is persuasive.

Dead Yellow Women (1925). Très awkward title in our more enlightened era so we must make allowances for the era’s prejudices if that is our inclination. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Op and a Chinese Tong Boss match wits. In places it feels like a parody of a Yellow Peril story, especially the elaborate polite language of the Tong Boss. The description of the maze-like interior of the criminal mastermind’s mansion is a tour de force. Also, a theme pops up: political idealism is exploited by venal crooks as in This King Business.

Corkscrew (1925). In this unexpected mixture of western and noir, the Op is a fish out of water when he is assigned to clean up remote dusty Corkscrew, Arizona. This ought to remind the shrewd reader of the Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, an exercise in violence and horror that rivals Tarantino. A gunslinger remarks, “A hombre might guess that you was playing the Circle H. A. R. against Bardell’s crew, encouraging each side to eat up the other, and save you the trouble.” The Op replies, “You could be either right or wrong. Do you think that’d be a dumb play?”

$106,000 Blood Money (1927). This presents the sequel to the story The Big Knockover. Like many aftermath stories, it is overall less satisfying than the original. The best part of the story is how the Op neatly solves a complicated problem. Again like Red Harvest, the plot is complicated with vivid characters and motivations. The Op slyly manipulates events to tidy conclusion.

The 1967 Dell paperback has an introduction by Lillian Hellman. It’s interesting but it tells more about her and Dash’s rocky relationship more than the stories. She makes a provocative point about the difficulty of living with somebody who is too stoically proud to complain when they are hurting.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Edwin of the Iron Shoes

Monday, July 1st, 2019

Edwin of the Iron Shoes by Marcia Muller

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Mystery writers as skillful as Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton give Marcia Muller credit for being the pioneer of the female hard-boiled private investigator. Even in Edwin of the Iron Shoes, her first novel released in 1977, Muller deftly narrates a fast-paced story, with concise exposition that might be too telegraphic for readers that like an author who stretches out. The style is taut like a short Simenon thriller, the prose plain and wooden in spots. PI Sharon McCone investigates for the All Souls legal services cooperative in San Francisco. Antique dealer Joan Albritton has been slashed to death. McCone pokes around Joan’s neighborhood which has an assortment of dealers of antiques and junk. Muller effectively captures the edgy mood of McCone staking out the victim’s shop at night. Other plusses: the human interest and local color are interesting for once; it’s a San Francisco that scarcely exists anymore. Readers into old school mysteries or ones who’ve read only the later, longer McCone novels may like this one.

 

 

 

 

Fiction Review – The Honk and Holler Opening Soon

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon by Billie Letts

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

From page two I was hooked on this The Honk and Holler Opening Soon.  Molly O is decorating The Honk for Christmas and ‘frizzy- haired Barbies’ are now positioned doing splits, taped down on every napkin holder.  I laughed out loud at this decorating description and realized I was in for quite a unique story with this novel by Billie Letts

Set in the 1980s in Sequoyah, Oklahoma, Letts has created a world for her unique, yet totally relatable, characters.  Caney, wheelchair-bound diner owner, and Molly O, his mother figure and friend, own and operate The Honk and Holler Opening Soon diner (don’t worry, the name is explained in the book).  The diner is a big part of the community and is part of the daily lives of many of the locals.

One day Vena Takes Horse walks into the diner inquiring about a job and she’s carrying a three-legged dog with her.  Soon after Bui Khanh, a Vietnamese immigrant, arrives and wants to work at the diner, too.  What had become a hum drum existence at The Honk is now a place where new faces are making a big difference in the business and the lives of those in the town.

Billie Letts has a way of creating characters (I love all of the character names she comes up with in her books) that have unique personalities but life experiences that are totally relatable.  She writes stories that have pain and hope swirling together an emotional mix that helps the reader understand the character and their challenges. I got swept in the lives of Caney, Molly O, Vena and Bui and even though I was satisfied in the end, I was also left wanting more and that’s what makes The Honk and Holler Opening Soon a 5-star read for me.

I would also recommend Where the Heart Is and Made in the U.S.A. by Billie Letts. You can read my review of Made in the U.S.A. here.

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Reluctant Model

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

The Case of the Reluctant Model by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Millionaire collector of pictures Otto Olney wants to sue art maven Colin Durant for slander, claiming that Durant is saying that a painting purchased by Olney is a fake.

Lawyer-series hero Perry Mason discourages the slander suit but provides his usual sage legal advice. He later realizes that Durant might be plotting an intricate scam with the coerced help of model Maxine Lindsay. Maxine ends up in trouble deep after Mason and Della Street find a body in her apartment and Maxine seeming to take flight. DA Burger and Homicide Detective Lt. Tragg are not amused.

I liked this one because it did not follow the lockstep stages of a typical Mason novel. Also, I clearly shouldn’t read these because Gardner’s antique Americanisms – “no doubt of it on earth” or “take a powder” or “as dead as a mackerel” – seep into my vocabulary and make middle-aged women at work say to me, “You sound like my dad.”

 

 

 

 

Cold War Thriller – The Ascent of D.13

Friday, May 31st, 2019

The Ascent of D.13 by Andrew Garve

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Born Paul Winterton, Garve (1908 – 2001) was known for his thrilling adventure stories set in places like Turkey and the USSR. In this 1968 rouser, mountain climbers from both sides of the Cold War are sent to retrieve a spy camera from a crashed plane in the mountains on the border between Turkey and Soviet Armenia. Readers who aren’t too sure about climbing gear such as the ice ax, pitons, crampons or features like couloirs, cornices, or tors will still enjoy the vivid fight for survival in cloud, wind, snow and cold at 13,000 feet. Between Bill Royce, a British mountain climber, and Varvara Mikhailovna Lermontov, a Russian Master of Sport, there are engaging conversations about the benefits of democracy and the joy of mountain climbing. So read this for the unique plot and striking setting.

 

 

 

Historical Fiction Review – The Piano Teacher

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

I am always interested in books set during World War II and I like to look for books that explore various perspectives of the war. The Piano Teacher is set in Hong Kong in the years surrounding World War II. The story is not told in chronologically, but rather flashbacks to before and during the war are dispersed amongst events from the 1950s.

Claire Pendleton arrives in Hong Kong with her husband after the war. She gets a job as a piano teacher for the daughter of the wealthy Chen family. The Chen’s driver, Will Truesdale, is handsome and mysterious and Claire is drawn to him immediately. Feeling unhappy and unfulfilled in her marriage, Claire begins an affair with Will. As Claire gets to know Will better, she realizes his experiences during the war deeply impacted him. She also learns there are deep-rooted secrets from the war shared among the members of Hong Kong’s social elite.

In learning Will’s story, the reader meets Trudy Lang, a socialite in Hong Kong prior to the war. She and Will are in a relationship that gets derailed by the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Will is forced into an internment camp and Trudy begins her perilous association with the Japanese, including the head of security forces who uses Trudy as a pawn in his dangerous manipulations to gain power and control.

I found this novel a little difficult to get into at first. The characters seemed to lack substance initially and I had a hard time connecting with them and feeling invested in their stories. The storyline did gain traction about half-way through the novel and my interest increased. The characters seemed to gain a ‘voice’ at this point, and it was easier to be interested in what happened to them and I was drawn into their stories. The secrets revealed in the end explained character connections and provided depth to the novel on the whole.

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Rear Window and Other Stories

Monday, May 20th, 2019

Rear Window and Other Stories by Cornell Woolrich

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Among fanatics of noir, Woolrich is up there with Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, though most admit, I gather, that his prose is the most purple and pulpy of the founding bunch. Among non-fans of noir, Woolrich is probably best-known through movie adaptations: The Bride Wore Black is a 1968 French film directed by François Truffaut and Rear Window, a 1956 fun fest by Alfred Hitchcock.

It Had to Be Murder was the original title of Rear Window, which he published in 1942 in the late lamented pulp Dime Detective. Left obscure in the story is why the narrator is trapped in his Big Apple apartment and so idle that he takes to secretly observing the lonely city lives of his neighbors through their windows. He realizes that the man across the way has very likely done away with his invalid wife. And he enlists the help of his “houseman,” an African-American, to break into the possible killer’s apartment. It’s a solid story that’s fun, though allowances must be made for the casual racism of the time and all of us readers know the reveal, more or less.

Though the fanatics seem to regard Post-Mortem (1940) as a mediocre story, I think the over-the-top premise redeems it. A widow wants to have her recently deceased husband disinterred so that a pocket of the last suit he’ll ever wear can be checked for a missing but winning sweepstakes ticket. Hey, $150K back then had the purchasing power of $2.5 million today, so I don’t think many people would think twice on this unique problem. The oddity is that her current husband puts his foot down, refusing to go along with the disinterment. Why?

The story Three O’Clock made its first appearance in a 1938 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. A concussion turns a mild-mannered watch repairman into a deviser of infernal engines of death. He rigs up a homemade bomb to blow up his house with his wife in it. What these nimble-fingered handy guys will get up to. But circumstances prove that Creation is not above having its little joke on the unwary makers of infernal engines. The suspense in this story is so killing that the smart reader slows down to get the maximum effect.

Change of Murder (Detective Fiction Weekly, 1936) is the shortest story of this collection. It is a noir story with gangster characters, one named Brains and the other Fade (as in the craps term). What makes it worth reading in our jaded day is Woolrich’s surprise ending, which will call to mind the tradition of H.H. Munro (Saki) but a lot grimmer, as befits the period between the wars.

Momentum was originally published as Murder Always Gathers Momentum in 1940. In a story with a persuasive Depression-era bleakness, an ordinary guy, half of a young married couple, has the wolf baying at the door. He runs into a peck of trouble when he accidentally yet fatally shoots a conscience-free rich guy who owes him money. This fast-moving, ironic story will persuade even the most optimistic reader that doing a bad thing once makes it more likely to do so again. And again. And again.

In Woolrich’s view, the universe has endless space, time, flux, and hostility. In other words: so many people are bouncing off so many other people – especially in cities, the usual setting of his stories – that mischief and turmoil and irony are inevitable. The characters in Woolrich stories think to get across muddy roads they are walking safely on planks but really they are on tightropes over abysses. With no pole.