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Posts Tagged ‘Book Suggestions’

Historical Spy Novel Review – The Spies of Warsaw

Wednesday, May 27th, 2020

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Pre-World War II Warsaw becomes an arena of intense international rivalry. In almost every embassy, friendly and hostile, an intelligence cell operates. Secret agents assigned to Warsaw create an extremely colorful society. Poles, French, Germans, Russians – everyone knows that in the war is coming and that you have to prepare for it or be destroyed. Everyone believes that by their intelligence activities they will save their country from being occupied or that they will ensure victory for the homeland.

Our hero Jean-François Mercier, the French military attaché, also knows that armed conflict is inevitable. At 46, he has already participated the Great War and the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920. He has had a long and dedicated service, and he would like to leave for a well-deserved retirement, but a sense of responsibility for the fate of millions keeps him on post. He skillfully navigates in a narrow diplomatic world, but does not avoid a direct, even painful clash, with an opponent. His strength is certainly increased by the warm feeling of a beautiful French-Polish woman working for the League of Nations that he met at a boring official reception. Mercier discovers that first of all he is not so old, and secondly – that he is not only ready for retirement, he is ready to go to extremes.

The book details Mercier’s activities in episodes. He runs agents and even saves one from being kidnapped and forcibly repatriated to a certain death in Germany. He sneaks into Germany to observe tank exercises. On his travels, in hotels and restaurants, a foreboding comes over him, “What is going to happen to these people after war comes.” He meets ordinary people who are fighting the forces of evil – literally – because it is the right thing to do.

The settings all have evocative details of Silesia and the countryside of Poland (think rural New Jersey). Furst is also effective at getting across the mundane details of ordinary people doing their best in trying circumstances – something we in the pandemic can connect to, for sure. We readers need the romantic angle as a break from the suspenseful intrigue and tension of Nazi cruelty. We readers also know what the characters do not: Poland is doomed to Nazi occupation and will be the most damaged country staggering out of World War II.




Mystery Monday – The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom

Monday, May 4th, 2020

The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Mysteries in the Perry Mason series often start with a bang. In this 1949 outing, while working late in his office, Mason spies pair of shapely gams on the fire escape. When Mason queries her as to what she’s up to, the beauty says she works upstairs for a company in the extraction industry. Mason notes she’s carrying something that metallically glints, which she tosses away, saying it was a flashlight.

He wants to confirm her identity by checking out her car registration, but out on the street she smacks him, making onlookers think she’s a pretty baa-lamb fending off a wolf. In celeb-addled LA, this spectacle is noted and thus appears in the gossip column in the paper the next morning. His secretary Della Street rags Perry about the next morning.

But things get complicated mighty quick when Perry finds himself enmeshed in a case that involves two convoluted situations. One is bigamy involving a Mexican divorce that may or may not be legal. The other is a proxy fight looming at a stockholders meeting.

As usual, Gardner paints an unflattering portrait of the guardians of our criminal justice system. The cops arrest their person of interest by using trickery. At the trial two bumbling prosecutors are more intent on puffing themselves up by making Perry look bad than on building a strong case. They are helped out by Perry’s client, who lies to Perry about his movements on the night of the killing. The reliable lesson we regular folks can draw out of Mason mysteries is never lie to your lawyer.

A good, not great, Mason mystery redeemed by a rocker of an ending.




Mystery Monday – The Case of the Lucky Loser

Monday, April 27th, 2020

The Case of the Lucky Loser by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


This 1957 mystery starts with a troubled young woman hiring Perry to attend a court case and give her an informed opinion as to how a witness to a hit and run comes off on the stand. His lawyer’s intuition says the witness is lying.

Coincidentally enough, the next day the defendant’s aunt-in-law contacts Mason. The plus: the plot in this one becomes spectacularly tangled, as complex a puzzle as a Mason novel ever provides.

This novel provides an excellent example of Gardner’s uncanny ability to keep us turning the pages to see what happens next, even when we have given up trying to comprehend the twists.




Mystery Monday – Wolf in the Shadows

Monday, April 20th, 2020


Wolf in the Shadows by Marcia Muller

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

A reader with some pretentions to taste would expect, after 14 installments in a series, to hear the gears grinding. But not at all in this case because Sharon McCone, the baddest female PI in Early Nineties San Francisco, learns, grows, and changes from book to book.

This 1993 mystery deals with the issues of illegal immigration and dolphin-protecting environmentalists. With her bosses going all corporate on her and pressuring her to accept sitting at a desk and moving papers around, she proves herself to be the Coolest Toughest Girlfriend Ever and works on finding her missing soul mate Hy Ripinsky who has gone missing.

As usual, the characterizations, even of the secondary characters, are very finely drawn, as are the settings. Nothing mars the elaborate plot but a couple of melodramatic scenes.

Well worth reading.

Mystery Monday – Lament for a Maker

Monday, April 13th, 2020

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Set in remote rural Scotland in the middle 1930s, this novel borders on the surreal, with fanciful plotting and bizarre characters. Who is responsible for the death of morbidly stingy Ranald Guthrie of Erchany? Maybe his stepdaughter Christine, or even her fiancé, who had at least a motive, since he comes from family in a feud with the Guthries – a story almost like Romeo and Juliet.

Innes narrates the story just as Wilkie Collins did in The Woman in White: he tells the tale through various characters, starting with the quirkiest of all – Ewan Bell, patriarch and village cobbler. He uses the unfamiliar vocabulary of Scottish English: such as, chiel for man. The new words add to the local color, strange atmosphere and bizarre goings-on. It’s challenging but attentive reading allows us to ken the meaning.

The next section is narrated by Noel Gylby, who is clearly an English major with a sophisticated literary style. Innes was a university prof and must have read – and suffered – stacks of papers written in this witty mannered style. Gylby appears in Hamlet, Revenge! by Innes. Very impressive is his depiction of Gothic scene of the ruined castle, unheated and unlighted, with the mad miserly laird in his keep, his face lined and heart in turmoil.

The third section features the orotund style of Lawyer Wedderburn. His pompous prose calls to mind attorneys in Dickens. The fourth section is the narrative of Innes’ series hero, Yard inspector John Appleby. The next section, I can’t possible give away as a spoiler. Innes – that is, J.I.M. Stewart – was a scholar of modernist prose so he enjoys pulling tricks out of its bag: multiple points of view, unreliable narrators, sly social comment, starting in the middle of the story, etc.

Innes wrote mysteries assuming his audience included bookish people. He has Lawyer Wedderburn define mysteries as “a species of popular fiction which bears much the same relation to the world of actual crime as does pastoral poetry to the realities of rural economy. “ So Innes thought it appropriate and fun to “bring a little fantasy and fun into the detective story,” as he said in his 1987 memoir.

Readers that like Nicholas Blake, Cyril Hare, Mary Fitt and Josephine Tey will like the intelligent and deftly written mysteries of Michael Innes. Lament for a Maker is a gem of detective fiction. It has been recognized as a classic for years. Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, included it on a 1947 list of best detective stories. It was selected for the “Top 100 Crime Novels of the 20th Century” by The Times in 2000.




Mystery Monday – The Dreadful Hollow

Monday, March 30th, 2020

The Dreadful Hollow
by Nicholas Blake

Review by Matt B. (

Poison pen letters figure largely in Dorothy Sayers’ novel Gaudy Night, Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger and John Dickson Carr’s Night at the Mocking Widow. Ditto for The Dreadful Hollow (1953). Someone is sending abusive missives in the small Dorset village of Prior’s Umborne. One of the recipients has committed suicide, another has attempted it, and yet another has had a nervous breakdown.

Not only has the tranquility of a quiet village been disturbed by the letters, but the wheels of the factory, the main employer in town, are moving more slowly too. This enrages the imperious owner Sir Archibald Blick. He hires private detective Nigel Strangeways to identify the mean epistle writing culprit. Strangeways gently questions a variety of characters in the cozy village settings of the post office, the Sweet Drop pub and inn, the vicarage and Little Manor, the home of the thirty-something sisters Celandine and Rosebay Chantemerle.

Celandine is a cornflower-blue-eyed blonde, full of vivacious charm, but wheelchair-bound. She has suffered hysterical paralysis ever since she discovered the corpse of her father in a quarry. Rosebay is younger and auburn-haired. Like her red-haired sisters, she’s a passionate soul, which means she’s a blast when she’s feeling good but a thunderstorm when she’s feeling bad. Dinny has kind of a past with Charles Blick, a son of Sir Archibald, while Bay has a present with him.

Nigel Strangeways depends on his insight, phenomenal memory, and deadpan manner in his investigations. His foil is Scotland Yard’s Inspector Blount, down to earth, candid, and tough. In the first half, the focus of the story is always on the anonymous letters. A religious manic-depressive adds to the climate of anxiety in this novel. So the setting is cozy, but the tone is decidedly rattled, though not on the same high pitch as the relentless The Beast Must Die.

Cecil Day Lewis, English poet and novelist, used the pen name Nicholas Blake for seventeen mystery novels starring this series detective. His characters and settings are always well-defined, even if the detecting side is sometimes too easy. The writing is highly intelligent and articulate without being overly intellectual. Day Lewis was a classicist so the plots have an undercurrent of Greek tragedy: mistakes come out of impulse, tormented personalities cause a lot of fussing and fighting.



Mystery Monday Review – Defending Jacob

Monday, March 16th, 2020

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Review by Cheryl G. (Poncer)

This legal thriller took me quite by surprise. As a genre, I have enjoyed reading legal thrillers and courtroom dramas for as long as I can remember. A great genre for escaping the grunt and grind of everyday life. John Grisham, Scott Truro, Michael Connelly… they have all kept me entertained. But I have to say, that Defending Jacob by William Landay has now risen to the top of the list. There is good reason that this book became a bestseller.

The book begins with testimony from a grand jury hearing; the witness being questioned is a ‘former’ Assistant Attorney. It is from his point of view that the book is written. The book continues at a good pace, not rocketing and careening, but slowly and surely building a story of meaning of this attorney and his family when personal life and work life collide.  As the reader, my sympathy was with him the whole way through the book. His character is well defined and very human, and relatable.

Through several twists, and many chapters, the grand jury testimony continues, and it is this testimony that eventually brings the book to its stunning conclusion. With the last page read, I said aloud, “Wow!” It is a book that will stay with me a while. With things to turn over in my mind. Thoughts of “What if…”, “How would I react if…”. This is a book that made me think as well as feel. And a great book to escape into during this time of social distancing.