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Posts Tagged ‘Book Suggestions’

Mystery Monday – Red Threads

Monday, April 12th, 2021

Red Threads by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The Barnes & Noble website touts its e-book version as “An Inspector Cramer Mystery” as if Stout made the hard-boiled head of NYPD homicide a series hero. Cramer was never a series hero. Cramer usually played the flatfoot foil in Stout’s classic mysteries starring the PI duo of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. And in this 1939 novel, he merely assists the heroine trap the perp.

This mystery contains the prototypical elements of a story from the so-called golden age of detective fiction. The reader catches a whiff of the spiritualism and mysticism that was common in the 20 years after World War I. The color prejudice – involving American Indians – is about what we would expect for the late Thirties. The whodunit snobbery is on display. The glamorous characters are well-off and famous in the arts, design and technology. The victim is a millionaire, killed in the ostentatious tomb of his wife, which is located on the grounds of his swanky country estate. As for the last check-box, what can we say about the prose:

He stopped, gazing at her, and put out a hand and took it back again. “No,” he said. “I’m not going to plead with you. I did that, and what good did it do? But all the same, I won’t tolerate it – what you’re doing with Guy Carew. Now that the fortune is his – the wings for your ambition. I know you can do it – he’s a half-primitive infant – may be you’ve already done it – but I won’t tolerate it and I won’t allow it. I won’t, Portia! You’re mine! By God, you are!”

Pee-yew, is what I’d say, but not unamusing in small doses. To be charitable, he wrote this in 1939, just after the excellent outing with Wolfe and Archie, Some Buried Ceasar. Too much to expect two home runs in a row.

On the credit side, Stout is an old-school feminist whose female characters work hard and enjoy success on their own terms. A textile artist and fashion designer upstages Inspector Cramer by using a peach pit, a red thread from an antique weave, and the call of a whippoorwill to solve the mystery. Stout’s wife was in the cloth business so there’s always smart references to fabric.

In the tradition of Golden Age mysteries, the reveal tests patience and credulity in terms of to what degree will we accept silly and over the top. I can recommend this one only to hard-core fans who have already read a fistful of Nero Wolfe mysteries and, bless us reading gluttons one and all, even reading an Alphabet Hicks or a Doll Bonner or a Tecumseh Fox.



Mystery Monday – The D A Calls It Murder

Monday, April 5th, 2021

The D.A. Calls it Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This is the first book featuring DA Doug Selby who appeared in nine mysteries from 1937 to 1949. It opens with Selby and his friend Sheriff Max Brandon flushed with victory in their recent election to office in Madison City, about 100 miles north of Hollywood. As Brandon is a faithful pard right out of pulp Westerns, Selby’s GF Sylvia Martin is a typical Gardnerian heroine along the lines of Della Street: shrewd, ready for action, and devoted.

A corpse is discovered in a hotel. Besides getting involved in the homicide investigation, Selby takes up detecting duties to gather details about an envelope containing $5,000, a lawsuit over an estate, and a movie scenario of an unintentionally hilarious melodrama titled Lest Ye Be Judged (for us cynics who assumed Gardner didn’t have satire in him). Also involved are a high-tech camera and a poisoned dog (take it easy – Gardner was a dog lover so the pooch is going to be okay).

Selby questions a movie star who lays a lot of New Age California woo-woo on him. Selby also comes within an ace of being hypnotized by the motion picture actress. The scene in which they come to an agreement about where their relationship is going will call to mind scenes between, say, Ida Lupino and Ronald Colman.

The subplots get tangled, the characters act improbably. Happily, Gardner’s readable prose drives the story. We readers can always trust his stories to hustle.



Mystery Monday – The Dreadful Hollow

Monday, March 22nd, 2021

The Dreadful Hollow by Nicholas Blake

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

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 the 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 desperate 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.




Spy Thriller Review – Riddle of the Sands

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This early 20th century spy thriller starts with Charles Carruthers plodding away in the British Foreign Office, marking time on dull reports and doing the social whirl at balls and dinners. For a change, he accepts an offer of a vacation from an old Oxford buddy, Arthur Davies. The stolid quiet Davies proposes duck shooting in the East Frisian Islands on his yacht the Dulcibella. In fact, to make up for being turned down by the Royal Navy, Davies has taken to freelance espionage. He is investigating German plans to invade that royal throne of kings, that sceptered isle.

Though raised near Great Lakes, having lived on an island for six years, and living now in a place ridden by lake effect snow, I’m not really a water guy. I just read lots of nautical stories, in memoirs, serious fiction, mysteries and thrillers. In this novel, the technical information about navigation, sailing and naval dispositions is balanced by expressive narrative like this:

… A sort of buoyant fatalism possessed me as I finished my notes and pored over the stove. It upheld me, too, when I went on deck and watched the ‘pretty beat’, whose prettiness was mainly due to the crowd of fog-bound shipping—steamers, smacks, and sailing-vessels—now once more on the move in the confined fairway of the fiord, their baleful eyes of red, green, or yellow, opening and shutting, brightening and fading; while shore-lights and anchor-lights added to my bewilderment, and a throbbing of screws filled the air like the distant roar of London streets. In fact, every time we spun round for our dart across the fiord I felt like a rustic matron gathering her skirts for the transit of the Strand on a busy night. Davies, however, was the street arab who zigzags under the horses’ feet unscathed; and all the time he discoursed placidly on the simplicity and safety of night-sailing if only you are careful, obeying rules, and burnt good lights. As we were nearing the hot glow in the sky that denoted Kiel we passed a huge scintillating bulk moored in mid-stream. ‘Warships,’ he murmured, ecstatically.

That second 80-word sentence is, well, something, though the ~ing verbs make movement, sights, and sounds realistic and vivid.

Historians tell us that the book was a best-seller when it was published. Public outcry stirred by the book was such that the UK shored up its coastal defense system. Critics say the book was an influence on John Buchan, whose man-child hero Richard Hannay calls to mind Davies in this one. This was Childers’ only novel. He became a stringent Irish Nationalist (his mother was Irish) and had an unfortunate end after the Great War. His son was President of Ireland in the early Seventies.







Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Borrowed Brunette

Monday, March 1st, 2021

The Case of the Borrowed Brunette by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The 28th Perry Mason novel was published in 1946. Shortages of housing and consumer products suggest a post-WWII setting as does the tough road of women trying to make it in a man’s world. For instance, Helen Reedley is trying to get out of a marriage in which her husband holds the economic whip hand besides being a domineering oaf. Also, working girl Eva Martell, to make a few bucks and get noticed in Hollywood, accepts a job in which she has to impersonate another woman. Worried that she may be placed in vulnerable legal position, she and her chaperone Adelle Winters consult crack attorney Perry Mason.

The usual inevitabilities arise. A dodgy gambler turned blackmailer is found with a bullet betwixt his eyes. The cops want to pin the killing on Eva and Adelle just because they have an eyewitness report that Adelle put her gun – the murder gun – in a garbage pail. The DA’s hatchet man is out to cut Mason down to size on legal technicalities and secure the flamboyant lawyer’s disbarment. The outcome hinges on a determination of when the crime was in fact committed, not when it seems to have been committed.

But Gardner departs from the norm aplenty. Unexpectedly, familiar characters such as Della Street, Lt. Tragg, and DA Ham Burger don’t play big roles. But there are many more suspects than the usual three or four, all of whom have cool retro names: Orville L. Reedley, Cora Felton, Daphne Gridley, Carlotta Tipton, and Arthur Clovis. Mason and his PI Paul Drake have extensive and complicated conversations exonerating the persons of interest.

Despite a lot of talking, this novel is one of the more exciting and riveting outings purely on the basis of rational thinking. I mean, enthralling given the reader accepts the initial premise of the impersonation, which, to my mind, often does not come off as convincing in whodunnits.

Mystery Monday Review – High Tide

Monday, February 22nd, 2021

High Tide by P. M. Hubbard

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This 1971 suspense novel was the writer’s tenth novel so it reads like the work of a confident, experienced writer that knows exactly how he wants to tell the story.

Peter Curtis is our first-person narrator. A cultured guy but not an intellectual, Peter hints that he is big and strong enough to be a commando but never dared take the training because he feared with violent skills coupled with his temper he’d be a danger to himself and others. He can usually keep his temper in “dingy kennel” of his mind but when provoked he’s not beyond killing. In fact, the novel opens upon his release from the Big House where he was sentenced to four years for accidentally killing a guy with his bare hands.

The provocation? The vic ran over Curtis’ Labrador.

Curtis does not face the money problems we assume an ex-con would have. So with the dream of buying a sailing boat to cruise the west coast of the Sceptered Isle for a couple of months, he’s driving in the south of England by night and sleeping by day in cheap hotels.

The plot twists when Curtis meets a henchman of the man he killed over the Labby. Then Curtis gets the feeling he is being followed. After adventures with a mysterious girl, Curtis ends up on a Cornish coastal town. Near a hiply designed but deserted farmhouse, he also meets the personification of “still waters run deep” in the form of the wife of a local novelist who writes nautical stories like Patrick O’Brian.

Hubbard also published poetry so he has a keen ear for sounds and a keen eye for details. He effectively evokes the dreary town of Leremouth, with its relentless tides and hazardous quicksand. As a Great Lakes guy, I can recommend this novel as a fine example of the nautical mystery, as enjoyable as Down among the Dead Men by Patricia Moyes, The Sailcloth Shroud by Charles Williams or the immortal The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.







Mystery Monday Review – The Widow’s Cruise

Monday, February 8th, 2021

The Widow’s Cruise by Nicholas Blake

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Set on a ship’s cruise to the Greek islands, this 1959 mystery stars series PI Nigel Strangeways and his live-in GF Clare Massinger, a sculptress like Judith Appleby. They witness an odd situation involving a classics mistress recovering from a breakdown; her rich flashy widowed sister; a loosely educated classicist who is a popularizer and thus a scourge to the scholarly classicist; a flighty selfish school-girl who used to be taught by classicist; her twin brother; a sleazy busybody Brit; a know-all little girl, and a macho-man Greek tour guide who speaks American English.

The set-up is a bit long but things move faster with the disappearance and death of a merry widow’s ugly-duckling sister the classicist and another grisly killing. Aside from the grisliness, another challenging piece of the book is the 17-year-old schoolgirl wanting “experience” from the popularizer who is twice her age. Such bold aspects do not a cozy make. This outing is not as scary as The Corpse in the Snowman or The Beast Must Die; more on the level of The Dreadful Hollow or the first one A Question of Proof.

Nicholas Blake was the penname of Cecil Day-Lewis, classics professor and the Poet Laureate of the UK from 1968 until his death in 1972. Obviously, the vocabulary is literate, carefully chosen, and engaging for us world-weary readers that expect the prose in mysteries to be flat and workmanlike at best. Blake/Day-Lewis creates convincing characters, all with attitudes and motivations that are consistent, plausible and sometimes unsettling. He is especially acute depicting children and youths, probably because he was a teacher for a time. The background scenes of the cruise on the Med are well-done, so this appeals to readers who are a little tired of the country houses of the usual golden-age mystery. Strangeways takes it all the way to the twisted and surprising ending.