‘…Edwards is now the leading English advocate for mystery in all its forms.’

September 18, 2022 at 2:46 pm (Mystery fiction)

Michael Dirda, the voice for literature in the Washington Post, is here speaking of Martin Edwards, whose writing in the history of crime fiction has been so praiseworthy of late. Edwards’s latest effort in this field is entitled The Life of Crime and subtitled Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators.

I was delighted to read Dirda’s glowing review in Thursday’s Post. It’s been a pleasure to watch Martin Edwards’s steady ascent in the rarefied world of crime fiction commentary.

Dirda observes that The Life of Crime spotlights numerous mystery classics that readers will be motivated to seek out. An initiative aimed at making some of these titles newly available has been going on for several years. It could be said to have begun with the issuing of Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon. Subtitled A Christmas Crime Story, this novel was reissued during the 2014 holiday season by the British Library. Finding themselves unexpectedly in possession of a runaway bestseller, the Library proceeded to build on this auspicious beginning. Eight years in, British Library Crime Classics currently features some 112 titles. (Martin Edwards is curator of this series.)

Other publishers have joined in this laudable effort. Here in the U.S., there’s Otto Penzler presents: American Mystery Classics. I was especially taken by The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers. (I think of Otto Penzler as an American counterpart to Martin Edwards. As the site points out out, he has served the crime fiction field in his capacity as “editor, critic, publisher, and bookseller.”) And British Library Crime Classics is now complemented by the Library of Congress’s Crime Classics. I just have to take this opportunity to recommend – very highly – The Dead Letter by Seeley Regester, pseudonym of Metta Fuller Victor.

Finally, there’s a raft of small publishers doing their bit to bring back worthy titles that over the years have fallen into obscurity: Coachwhip Books, Stark House, House of Stratus, Crippen & Landru, and others. I do have one request: Can someone please bring back into print Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby series? Set in southern California, these books have a vivid sense of place, interesting and believable characters, and a very appealing protagonist. There are only nine titles, as opposed to the 82 Perry Mason novels. I like them better than the Perry Mason books, only they are quite difficult to obtain.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, also by Martin Edwards, is an even better place to seek out interesting crime fiction classics. I absolutely loved three titles in particular from that source: Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, At the Villa Rose by A.E.W. Mason, and The Eye of Osiris by R. Austen Freeman. I plan to re-read these three gems, as time permits.

The prolific Mr. Edwards has written a number of other books of commentary on crime fiction. In addition, he has written fiction. I particularly like The Lake District series.

Those of us who love crime fiction owe a serious debt of gratitude to Martin Edwards!

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Cover Her Face by P.D. James

August 18, 2022 at 4:25 pm (Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Here is a novel written in 1962 that reads as if it were written in 1862. You would think that the diction would call attention to itself in an exasperating way. It might. in fact, do that for some contemporary readers.

Not for me, though. I raced through the novel as though it were an up to the minute thriller. Although I’ve read it before – some years ago- I did not remember who the perpetrator was. And I could hardly wait to find out!

I can readily understand a certain impatience being evoked by James’s extremely measured prose style:

There was the sound of slow, careful footsteps and then a knock on the door. It was Martha with the nightly hot drinks. Back in his childhood old Nannie had decided that a hot milk drink last thing at night would help to banish the terrifying and inexplicable nightmares from which, for a brief period, he and Deborah had suffered.

The “he” in this passage is Stephen Maxie, heir to the Martingale estate and surgeon in training at a London hospital. Deborah is his sister, a young widow who also lives at Martingale and has no discernible occupation. Another young woman who frequently turns up at Martingale is Catherine Bowers. She does have a vocation – she’s a nurse – but her true aim in life is to get Stephen Maxie to marry her. Deborah, meanwhile, is spending apathetic time with a smart Londoner names Felix Hearne.

As I was typing in the quoted passage above, I was reminded of the extent to which the residents of wealthy country domains were routinely cosseted by their servants. In fact, Martha fusses over Stephen and Deborah just as she must have done when they were children.

I found something curiously bloodless about these characters. They came perilously close to being caricatures. And yet….

Into this attenuated existence is launched a detonator names Sally Jupp. She is everything the other female characters are not – headstrong, willful and devious. She is also an unmarried mother, and if that isn’t scandalous enough, she refuses to identify her child’s father.

Sally had been living at a home for unwed mothers. It was thought that installing her as a servant in the Maxie establishment would be an advantageous placement. We’re meant to see that by accepting her into their household despite her fallen state, the Maxies are behaving in a magnanimous manner.

At one point, Martha is questioned by Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgliesh concerning Sally Jupp’s present employment Martingale, to wit: Had Mrs Maxie ever before engaged the services of ‘an unmarried mother?’

Martha offers this spirited riposte:

“It would never have been thought of in the old days. All our girls came with excellent references.”

Well. In a house full of entitled denizens of the upper class, Martha Bultitaft, maid of all work, may be the most rigidly class conscious of them all.

Right from the start, Sally Jupp is a burr under the saddle of the Maxie family’s aristocratic hauteur. It’s pretty obvious that her presence at Martingale will precipitate some sort of crisis.

And so it proves.

One of the many things I love about P.D. James’s writing is her frequent references to classic literature. Indeed, this novel’s title is taken from a line in John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi:

‘Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.’ (The words cover her face are spoken by an appalled Stephen Maxie.)

[There is an interesting story about the choice of title for this novel. It involves Agatha Christie. See the Wikipedia entry for Sleeping Murder and scroll down to ‘Title changes.’]

I have kept very few texts from my college days, but I was able to unearth a 1959 Folger Library edition of The Duchess of Malfi. Here it is, expertly scanned by the resident IT wizard, aka my husband:

Later, Felix Hearne quotes from The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe:

‘But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.’

[Fans of the Inspector Morse books and TV series will recall the title The Wench Is Dead. In that episode, Morse, confined to a hospital bed, struggles to solve a murder committed in the environs of Oxford in the nineteenth century. It’s a set-up that calls to mind – deliberately, one assumes – Josephine Tey’s classic novel, The Daughter of Time.]

And what of the first appearance on the scene of DCI Adam Dalgliesh? In my view, his is a singularly low key debut. Not much in the way of a distinct personality emerges in the pages of this novel. We do learn two important things about him: First, as Felix Hearne exclaims, he is “A cultured cop!” (Hearne adds that he thought such beings only appeared in ‘detective novels.’ This comment is elicited when Dalgliesh correctly identifies a painting by George Stubbs on display at Martingale.) As the Dalgliesh series unfolds, readers gain further insight into the deeply discerning mind of Adam Dalgliesh.

Secondly, there’s an intensely personal disclosure concerning Dalgliesh’s private life. He rehearses it in his own mind, in response to one of Mrs. Maxie’s imperious declarations regarding her son Stephen:

‘I have no son. My own child and his mother died three hours after he was born.’

A shocking revelation, but one that cannot – must not – be uttered aloud.

In his classic text Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons writes of (and quotes) P.D. James:

At first she regarded detective fiction only as a useful apprenticeship for writing novels, but “after I had done three or four [detective] novels, I realized that in fact the restriction…could almost help by imposing a discipline, and that you could be a serious novelist within it.”

And of course, she went on to prove her thesis, many times over.

It has been a pleasure to revisit the work of this exceptional author. Thank you, Hilda, for making this choice for the Usual Suspects discussion group.

The Baroness James of Holland Park OBE, FRSA, FRSL 1920-2014

I have always loved the melancholy theme music, composed by Richard Harvey, that accompanies the Adam Dalgliesh TV series:

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Recent Reads: Reviews at Lightning Speed!

July 24, 2022 at 1:10 am (Art, Mystery fiction)

I didn’t think I’d ever read another book about Abraham Lincoln since finishing the elegant, immensely moving Lincoln on the Verge by Ted Widmer. But this volume intrigued me, especially in regard to the history of the Booth family. As Alford succinctly states, “The son of one family killed the son of the other in the most infamous and consequential murder in American history.”

This book is filled with largely anecdotal tales of people possessing knowledge of events that will occur in the future. The accounts are spread out over time and place, giving the book a somewhat confusing structure – at least it seemed so to me.

One event that does loom large is the collapse of the Aberfan Colliery Spoil Tip in October of 1966. (Aberfan is a village in Wales.)

Knight also tells the story of a train wreck. One of the passengers was Robin Gibb, soon to become famous, along with his brothers, as the Bee Gees.

Some years later, the Gibb brothers were at a recording studio when the power suddenly went out. They found themselves sitting in a darkened stairwell, waiting for something to happen.

Barry Gibb recalls:

‘”That song didn’t take a lot of thinking about because it is a catastrophe and catastrophes happen all the time.” He added: “The atmosphere just came and the song just came.’

The song was odd and somewhat haunting.”

This was fun! I learned a lot, too. Heller introduced me to a number of interesting artists. Admittedly, some of these works didn’t do much for me, but I was pleasantly surprised by others.

Like this one, by Frank Stella:

Quaqua! Attaccatai La!

The story of the nineteenth century obsession with finding the source of the Nile River. The expeditions undertaken into Africa are good examples of a trip you would never wish to take, unless you are confirmed masochist. Millard’s focus is on two explorers who did in fact undertake it: Richard Burton and John Speke.

That’s Burton on the left. This visual makes them look like great buddies. In reality, they were anything but.

Candice Millard is the author of Destiny of the Republic, a book which made a powerful impression on me and on many others as well. She admits that it was a difficult story to write, and I can understand why. It was difficult to read, too. But people need to know about the quiet heroism of James A. Garfield. He was shot by an disappointed office seeker who was clearly insane. Garfield endured months of acute misery before finally passing away at the age of 49.

The plot of Swanson’s thriller is exceptionally cunning and fast moving. Nothing too profound here, but good fun and excellent escapism.

A primer on the ecology of the Southeast, a subject about which I knew next to nothing. I know more now, but the book is so rich with anecdote and evocative description, I fear I have retained very little of its riches. A Road Running Southward is a prime candidate for rereading, I think.

The author’s choice to anchor his own experience to that of John Muir is a device that works beautifully. Many people know of Muir’s explorations of Northern California, especially his adventures in the High Sierras, his “range of light.” But before heading West, Muir headed South, and kept a detailed journal of his observations while traveling – on foot, naturally.

“‘Today, emerging from a multitude of tropical plants, I behold the Gulf of Mexico stretching away unbounded,except by the sky,’ he wrote in A Thousand Mile Walk. ‘What dreams and speculative matter arose as I stood on the strand, gazing out on the burnished, treeless plain!'”

Comparisons between what Muir saw then and what the author sees now are inevitable, and often deeply dismaying.

Dan Chapman has produced a marvelously informative work. A world unknown to me came vividly to life. Highly recommended.

The first part of this book reads more like an exposé than anything else. Most of us know about the lobotomies, but not about the furious rate at which they were performed in the early years of the twentieth century, and the inadequacy with which the outcomes were made known. Then of course there is electroconvulsive therapy, the results of which were also rather horrific, at least when it first came into use.

That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This is a complex subject, but Scull treats it in a lucid manner. One thing is made clear: Treating mental illness is a very perplexing undertaking. That is as true today, as it was a hundred years ago:

“Mental illness remains a baffling collection of disorders, many of them resisting our most determined efforts to probe their origins or to relieve the suffering they bring in their train.”

This book is filled with fascinating revelations. I found it a mesmerizing read.

And now: Even in a field of such superior works , this one stands out.

The Goldenacre is many things at once: a thriller complete with a cunning plot and a twist at the end that I, for one, did not see coming; a terrific sense of place, that place being Edinburgh, a compelling cast of characters whose motives are not always obvious, and finally, writing that absolutely soars.

The title refers to a painting attributed to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Here is how it is described:

“Mackintosh had painted a blaze of white sky, and, within that blaze, something living and diaphanous. In the distance sat the black of the Pentlands. They had been rendered as if they were not bare hills stripped of their native trees but two giant legs and a mammoth body: a distant giant cut from the landscape. The perspective of The Goldenacre was unnerving: the field was both flat and three-dimensional, and the height down to the foreground was precipitous. Throughout, the colours were bold and watery, as rich as a passing reality, as sorrowful as a dream departing upon waking.”

The story involves a young man with the improbably name of Thomas Tallis whose job it is to verify this attribution.

Anyway, just take my word for it. The Goldenacre gives proof that people can still create works of this caliber. I’m deeply grateful to Philip Miller, a writer whom I did not know. I know him now. And on the strength of this novel, I am deeply, deeply impressed by him.

Philip Miller

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Recent Reading in Crime Fiction

May 13, 2022 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Of late, I’ve read much and written little. So here’s a corrective, of sorts.

This one was a bit of a hyperintellectual brain teaser, infused with mathematical theorizng ad literary speculation. The plot revolves, almost inevitably, around Lewis Carroll and the questions surrounding his affinity for young girls. Recommended, if you desire a brisk workout for your ‘leetle gray cells..’

And this is quite the opposite. Alexander McCall Smith is incredibly skilled at writing about the human side of his characters without waxing sentimental. Theft of painting, a terrible injury to Ulf’s dog Martin – the only dog in Sweden that can lip read, by the by – these stories and more are interwoven seamlessly in this novel. Ulf is a detective with a heart as big as the great Scandinavian outdoors, yet with it , a brain as sharp and knowing as any policeman could need or desire.

C.J. Box is on a roll, with his Joe Pickett series now being made for television. These novels combine fast moving plots with characters you care about. The writing about the West, with all its problems and promises, is outstanding. Shadows Reel is a worthy addition to this series. And if you’ve never been to Wyoming…well, drop everything and go. What a gorgeous place!

DI Vera Stanhope is driving home in a blizzard when she spots a car at the side of the road. It appears to be empty. The driver’s side door hangs open. She pulls over and stops for a closer look. Suddenly she hears a soft, mewling noise from the back of the vehicle. Like a kitten. But not a kitten. A baby.

Vera gathers the child in her arms and trudges to the nearest dwelling. And here, more surprises await…

Ann Cleeves is a wonderful writer, And the Vera Stanhope series has been brought vividly to life on television. I highly recommend it.

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Noir Fiction and Film: Sources

February 19, 2022 at 9:17 pm (books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I’m looking forward to the beginning of my Osher class on Noir Film and Fiction. Meanwhile, I’m assembling a short – really short, and very subjective – presentation on this topic for my friends in Usual Suspects.

Below are four books which for some time now have been my go-to sources for topics touching on noir:

Let’s start with Sleuths, Inc. The book is subtitled Studies in Problem Solvers. Eames includes five storied names in this volume: Conan Doyle, Simenon, Hammett, Ambler, Chandler, in that order.

In the section on Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade, there are a number of memorable quotes. Here’s my favorite. It’s from The American Commonwealth, a work by James Bryce, penned at a time – -1888 – when Lord Bryce was the British Ambassador to the U.S. It concerns California in general and San Francisco in particular:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union.’

The Viscount concludes this wry bit of social/historical analysis thus:

‘That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

Hammett once commented to a reporter that in California, politics were the most corrupt in the world. Later there’s a quote attributed to James J. “Sonny” Rolph, mayor of San Francisco while Hammett was living there:

“You make a buck, I make a buck.”

The entire section on Hammett is well worth close attention. In fact, I ought to sit down and read the entire book by the somewhat mysterious Mr. Eames. It seems to be filled with startling insights I have not encountered elsewhere.
**************

Black Mask Boys is a collection of stories that first appeared in the justly famous magazine. Hammett and Chandler are present, and there’s one story each by Erle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly, Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Horace McCoy, and Paul Cain. That’s the whole of it.

It’s a small volume. But William F. Nolan’s introduction is the main attraction:

Black Mask, and the fiction it printed, grew directly out of the era between the two wars, when machine guns flashed fire from low-slung black limousines, when the corner speakeasy served rotgut gin, when swift rum-runners made night drops in dark coastal waters, when police and politicians were as corrupt as the gangsters they protected, when cons and crooks prowled New York alleys and lurked in trackside hobo jungles, when Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone made daily headlines and terrorized a nation….

‘The elegant, deductive sleuth, the calm, calculating sifter of clues, gave way to a new breed–the wary, wisecracking knight of the .45, an often violent, always unpredictable urban vigilante fashioned in the rugged frontier tradition of the western gunfighter.’

‘In the pages of Black Mask, the private eye was born.’

**************

I’ve had Guilty Parties for a long time. Published in 1997, the book breezes through the history of the mystery genre starting with Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin tales and going right up to a lengthy chapter on “The State of the Art.” (I just chanced on a discussion of Colin Dexter’s Morse series, in which author Ian Ousby describes the tv version of the protagonist as “alternately dyspeptic and urbane.” To think that we have by now lost both the inimitable John Thaw as Morse and his creator, Colin Dexter.…)

In Guilty Parties, you will find pithy summations of novels and stories plus wonderful visuals, from the outrageous pulp covers to screen shots from tv series. One of the most enjoyable source books in my voluminous library.
**************

Finally, A Girl and a Gun by David N. Meyer. Published in 1998, the book is subtitled The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video. (Were it to be re-issued, I imagine those last two words would be dropped.) In the introductory section, Meyer describes what happened in the 1940s when the clipped, deadpan prose and cynical tone of writers like Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain and Mickey Spillane met up with the heavily ironic, refined sensibilities of refugee film directors like Robert Siodmak, Anatole Litvak, and Fritz Lang:

“The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of American middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.” Meyer then concludes: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

Meyer sums up the characteristics of noir in this way:

“No good deed goes unpunished.
A detached, ironic view is the only refuge.
Crime doesn’t pay, but normal life is an experiential/existential straitjacket.
Character determines fate.
Though love might seem to be the only redeeming aspect of human existence, it’s not.
Kicks count for something.
Alienation rules.”

Meyer names seventeen films that he believes comprise ‘Noir 101-The Canon.’ I won’t list them all here, but several are among my favorites, and possibly yours too: Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, Night and the City, Vertigo. He then proceeds to traverse a much larger group belonging to the noir genre. The stars and directors of the respective works are named, and brief but illuminating descriptions of each are included.

Ron and I have used A Girl and a Gun as a guide for our own home film noir festivals. Writing this post has reminded me that we need to do this again. These films are more available now than they ever were – through streaming, off course, but also via DVD from your local library.

Speaking of which…

None of the four titles I’ve just written about are owned by our local library. Three out of four, however, are available through interlibrary loan. Which one isn’t? A Girl and a Gun. This is unfortunate, because it is a book well worth obtaining – well worth owning, in fact. You can try for a non-network referral through the library, or you can purchase it used on Amazon for as little as $2.23.

Two other titles that are available locally and worth mentioning in this context:

The first of these I haven’t had a chance to look at. I read the Chandler biography when it came out in 2016 and enjoyed it very much. The title, by the way, comes from a passage that appears toward the end of The Big Sleep:

Outside the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though small wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in its light. I got into my car and drove off down the hill.

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The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep

February 2, 2022 at 10:48 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

It was with some trepidation that I returned to “those thrilling days of yesteryear” – namely, to the novel that some say started the whole noir thing:

I am doing this because I have signed up for a Lifelong Learning course called ‘Trouble Is My Business: Hardboiled Fiction & Film Noir.’ It begins in late February. Fact is, I signed up for it and promptly forgot about it. Then I received an email informing of the reading list.

Reading list? Oh my…

The Maltese Falcon
The Big Sleep
The Postman Always Rings Twice

A couple of years ago, Usual Suspects discussed The Maltese Falcon. I wrote a blog post on the occasion. I began the post with a quotation from The American Commonwealth by James Bryce, aka Viscount Bryce:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union.’

The Viscount concludes this wry bit of social/historical analysis thus:

‘That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

Well, we derive plenty of knowledge concerning that ‘dangerous constituent’ in Hammett’s novel.

So, on finishing this rereading, what’s my overall take? First off, from the get go, I found the writing to be, for the most part, rather pedestrian, with a few flashes of hardboiled brilliance, as in this pitiless description of Casper Gutman:

‘The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all of his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin Ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped gray worsted trousers, and patent-leather shoes.’

At least he’s decently dressed.

As for the plot, it quickly becomes so complicated that by the back stretch of this slender volume, I was pretty well lost. Into the bargain, I was having trouble caring about any of the dramatis personae in the whole tangled mess. And as for the desired object itself, it’s an egregious example of what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – and not a very intriguing one at that.

There is one thing in The Maltese Falcon that I find fascinating. It has nothing to do with the plot; it’s a story that Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy while they’re waiting for something, or someone. It’s actually more of a parable than a simple tale. It’s about a man called Flitcraft:

Richard Layman, a Hammett biographer, delivered a lengthy and very interesting speech at The Library of Congress in 2005 on the history of The Maltese Falcon. Click here to read it.

I just watched a video on Hammett from 1999. It’s called Dashiell Hammett. Detective. Writer. I found it very interesting. His daughter is interviewed; several other people who knew him also appear:

So, on I go to The Big Sleep. Right off the bat, I’m startled by the difference in the quality of the prose. Chandler’s irreverent wit and colorful figures of speech – perhaps too colorful, at times? – come at you. The carefully crafted sentences – too carefully crafted? – are striking in their precision. You almost want to say, okay, Big Guy, you’re laying it on a little too thick, but it’s such fun, so keep going!

I love the opening paragraph:

‘It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue socks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.’

The eponymous four million dollars refers to the lavish Sternwood estate, where trouble is brewing, courtesy of two out-of-control daughters. What’s needed is a P.I. to make that trouble go away swiftly and silently, without involving the police.

Philip Marlowe has been summoned to take on the job, if he’s willing and/or able. He’s led by the butler – the Sternwood establishment possesses a surfeit of servants – into a ragingly hot greenhouse, where the aged paterfamilias, known simply as the General, spends his remaining days.

Here’s the greenhouse:

‘The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom….The light had an unreal greenish color like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.’

And here is General Sternwood:

‘Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair an old and obviously dying man watched us come with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, but which still had the coal-black directness of the eyes in the portrait that hung above the mantel in the hall. The rest of his face was a leaden mask, with the bloodless lips and the sharp nose and the sunken temples and the outward-turning earlobes of approaching dissolution….His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.’

Well…yikes. This passage puts me in mind of Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming:’

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…That seems to describe Marlowe, as he takes in the sight of this bare wreckage of a man.

Eventually – sigh – the novel settles down to the kind of plot -driven mania that I found so challenging in the Hammett novel. I’m now on page 104 of 231, and I’m darned if I can tell you who’s doing what to whom. Still, it’s fun – good, harrowing, knuckle-biting fun. And the dialog is,, of course, very entertaining. Actually, my favorite snippet of dialog by Raymond Chandler occurs in the film version of Double Indemnity. James M. Cain wrote the novel and Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay. I believe that the famous “How fast was I going, Officer?” exchange was Chandler’s invention:

I think it’s fair to say that as the years have passed, both The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep have been overshadowed by the films they inspired.

Click here to read a review I wrote of a biography of Raymond Chandler that came out several years ago. And finally, I can’t resist showing once again Raymond Chandler’s Hitchcock-like cameo in Double Indemnity. His presence in the film was detected separately by two film scholars in 2009. He’s sitting outside the office of Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson:

Michael Grost’s site A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has long been a great help in guiding my forays into older works in the field. He’s not a great fan of Raymond Chandler’s work; nevertheless, he admits that Chandler can at times rise to great heights. This is never more striking than the concluding passage of The Big Sleep. Of the writing there, Grost allows: “This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610).”

Here it is:

‘What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.’

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This Year’s Edgar Award Nominees – Some Thoughts

January 22, 2022 at 9:08 pm (Awards, Mystery fiction)

  The redoubtable Mystery Writers of America has announced its picks for this year’s awards. It’s a long list, so rather than reproducing it here in its entirety, I’ll give you the link.

Whenever this list comes out, I like to see how many of  these titles I’ve already read. Well, this year, the result of  this exercise was rather laughable. I had to scroll down to ‘Best Fact Crime’ before I could even come up with one! That one is Two Truths and a Lie by Ellen McGarrahan. To get there, I had to pass by the nominees for Best Novel, Best First Novel by an American Author, and Best Paperback Original.  And yet mysteries and true crime constitute such a large portion of my reading material – in any give year. Go figure.

Continuing to scroll down, I found one title in the Best Critical/Biographical category. This was The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch. Then, down to the Mary Higgins Clark  Award. One of the nominees for that particular encomium is Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara. This is a novel that I absolutely loved – the best mystery I’ve read in a long while. (This category reminds me that Marge T, my fellow mystery lover, once acquired two cats at the same time and named them Simon and Schuster, respectively.)

Finally, there’s the G.B. Putnam’s Sons Sue Grafton Memorial Award nominee, Sleep Well, My Lady by Kwei Quartey. Oh, Sue, how we do miss you. The Letter Z will ever remain mysterious…

This year’s selection for Grand Master is Laurie R. King, which, I think, is an entirely appropriate choice.

So, then: What are my own selections for Best Mysteries of 2021?

Both of the above titles are historical fiction, one of my favorite subgenres. Graham Brack’s Master Mercurius series is outstanding but hard to find, although if you have Kindle Unlimited on Amazon, you can obtain it for free. I believe this is true for every title in the series. Do yourself favor and star with Book One: Death in Delft.

 

 

Two of my favorite authors, writing at the top of their game. The novels are set in Australia and Venice, Italy, respectively.

 

Andrew Mayne is an author previously unknown to me. Black Coral was recommended in one of the specialty magazines to which I subscribe – Deadly Pleasures or Mystery Scene. The protagonist, Sloan McPherson, is a deep sea diver who works for Florida’s Underwater Investigation Unit. Well written and very suspenseful.

Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch novels are among my favorites. Mike is a game warden in the state of Maine. His adventures  are recounted with verve and energy. His personal life figures in as well.

 

The year 1979 was a pivotal one in Val McDermid’s writing career. This novel exuberantly revisiting that time. (It’s amazing to think how recently it was that people were not in constant touch with one another via social media and cell phones.) As for A Line To Kill, I don’t think it was Horowitz’s best, but it was still great fun.

Peter Lovesey is one of my favorite authors. His novels are both witty and precise, also beautifully structured. I especially love the banter between Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond and members of his team. In this novel, Diamond finds himself forced to work alongside a private investigator (hence, the ‘Eye’ in the book’s title). To say that he is resistant to this arrangement in putting it mildly. Nonetheless, the static between them makes for some memorable dialog.

I wonder if so-called international intrigue or novels of espionage are considered by MWE members. Maybe they need their own category? After all, we are now sadly bereft of the great John Le Carre, and we need to encourage other great writers to explore the themes that were so vital to his works. Fortunately, we have some up-and-coming writers rising through the ranks who are doing just that. I highly recommend Flynn Berry, whose Northern Spy is set in Northern Ireland, and Charles Cumming, whose latest, Box 88, currently has me completely mesmerized.

 

Another fine writer in this vein, most worthy of your consideration, is Paul Vidich.

Finally, I wish the MWE would create a category for newly reissued classics. I particularly recommend The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It’s included in the anthology Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s. (There is also a volume  for the 1950s. Both are edited by Sarah Weinman.)   Also, I just finished A.S.F. by John Rhode, which was written in 1924. It concerns the out-of-control spread of cocaine use in London and various other locales. The novel is cunningly plotted, and  fascinating for any one of a number of reasons. It also has a young hero whose fate hangs in the balance, and a love story that achieves a graceful fruition at the end.

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Nobody ever told Morse or Rebus to mind their own business.’ – A Line To Kill by Anthony Horowitz

December 22, 2021 at 6:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  But someone does say it about Daniel Hawthorne. Like those two famous fictional sleuths, Daniel Hawthorne, once on the trail, is indefatigable – utterly committed. He’ll see it through, no matter what.

In A Line To Kill, “it” consists of a suspicion of foul play, at work in a seemingly benign venue: a literary festival on Alderney, one of the Channel Islands. Now an island is a fine setting for a mystery, as Dame Agatha would tell you. A limited pool of suspects keeps the tension high and climbing higher. Of course, there is a murder, shortly followed by another. Officers from nearby Guernsey are present at the scene, but it is Hawthorne, acting in concert with the police, who keeps things moving towards their inevitable conclusion.

One thing must be said about Daniel Hawthorne: He pursues leads with inexorable force. If his blunt questioning causes pain, well, so be it. At one point, one of the individuals whom he’s been pressuring relentlessly rounds on him and delivers this diatribe:

“I know you’re only doing your job, Mr. Hawthorne, and you don’t really care how you get your results. I was there when you were giving your talk and it struck me then that you have absolutely no heart at all. You don’t believe in the law. You don’t want to help people or society. You don’t seem to have any understanding of morality at all. You’re a detective. That’s all that matters to you.”

Hawthorne makes  no response to this ringing condemnation. The narrator, Anthony Horowitz, thinks to himself, ‘As a parting shot, it was a good one.’

In fact, to me. the most interesting thing about this series is the relationship between Anthony and Daniel. At times, they seem like two halves of  the same person, but much of the time, they are seriously at odds. Anthony’s task is to shadow Daniel in order to write about his methods, much as Dr. Watson narrates the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. But there was much less static in that relationship than there is in the relationship between Anthony and Hawthorne. Anthony often feels like second best alongside Hawthorne, whose brilliant insights run circles around his own comparatively sluggish thought processes.

In the final chapters of A Line To Kill, the author has a great deal of summing up and explaining to do. I’ve encountered this tendency in any number of mysteries, and I find it off-putting – a sign that the narrative has become too convoluted, or the characters too numerous, or both. This is where the mystery short story has an advantage over a full length novel, I think. It’s limited duration keeps things relatively simple and straightforward.

Anyway, don’t let these final observations put you off reading the book. It was fun and a fast read. I recommend it.

 

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1979

December 12, 2021 at 2:38 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland)

  Allie Burns is young, ambitious, and smart. She wants desperately to make it as an investigative reporter. For the time being, she’s on the staff of a small regional paper The Clarion of Glasgow. She considers this position a stepping stone that will lead, hopefully, to a position with a major news organization.

Meanwhile, she finds a congenial colleague in Danny Sullivan; both his drive and his goals are similar to hers. Together, they embark on a story about tax fraud that targets some heavy hitters. After scoring with this investigation, Allie and Danny decide to go after bigger fish. and then bigger – until….

You’ll have  to read it to find out.

Val McDermid has based this story on her own experiences as a young journalist – ‘journo,’ as I often see them called in British crime fiction. It has a ring of authenticity. The other Clarion reporters come across as genuine and believable. But it’s Allie and Danny’s show, that’s for sure. They’re enthusiastic, resourceful, and above all, just plain gutsy. This is the start of a new series; I for one am eager to follow Allie on her (sometimes harrowing) adventures.

In the course of this narrative, McDermid pays tribute to some of the great writers in the crime fiction field, both past and present. At one point, Allie, in need of some good reading material,  finds just the thing in a nearby bookstore: Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell. YES!!!

Val McDermid

 

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Best Mysteries and Thrillers 2021

November 24, 2021 at 9:18 pm (Best of 2021, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Below you see the choices of Washington Post columnists Maureen Corrigan and Richard Lipez for best mysteries and thrillers of 2021:

                                          

I now beg your leave, Dear Reader, to weigh in on this topic.

First, may I say that I’ve already read four out of ten of these titles: Northern Spy, Sleep Well, My Lady, Dream Girl, and Silverview. Of those four, the one I like best is easy to choose: Flynn Berry’s Northern Spy. This is not just one of the best crime fiction titles I’ve read this year – it’s one of the best novels, period.

Here is how it begins:

We are born with a startle reflex. Apparently it’s caused by the sensation of falling. Sometimes, in his crib, my son will fling out his arms, and I hold my hand to his chest to reassure him.

Tessa will need all the strength she possesses to insure the safety not only of her small son Finn but herself as well. For they are living amidst the perilous uncertainty of Northern Ireland. Tessa works for the BBC and is trying desperately to remain above the noisy fray of partisan politics. But this leaves her with a narrow, treacherous path to navigate. Crucial decisions confront her at every turn.

Tessa has a sister Marian, to whom she’s very close. And Marian has secrets – dangerous secrets. So: Tessa, Finn, Marian…what’s to become of them?

In Northern Spy, we get equal measures of suspense, passion, and deep human feeling. This is an extremely wonderful novel.
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I’m a  great fan of Kwei Quartey’s crime fiction. He sets his stories primarily in Ghana, his native land, and in his hands the country comes vividly to life. Thus far, he has produced two series: The first is a police procedural featuring Darko Dawson; in the second, Emma Djian, originally also a member of the police force, changes direction and  becomes a private investigator. So far, there are two entries in the latter series, The Missing American and Sleep Well, My Lady. I was delighted when the first was nominated for an Edgar Award last year. It was excellent! I personally did not enjoy Sleep Well, My Lady to the same extent. Nevertheless, I was glad that it earned a place on the Post’s ‘best of’ list.

I also highly recommend the Darko Dawson books. I’ve read four out of the five books currently in that series. While I’m very pleased with the creation of the character Emma Djian, I really love spending time with Darko and his family, and I’m hopeful that Kwei Quartey will continue that series.
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Laura Lippman is an author whose books I read, as they appear – no waiting around for reviews. That said, Dream Girl was thoroughly entertaining, but not – at least, for me – her absolute top work.
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And then there’s Silverview. Being as this was the final effort from the pen of the great John le Carré, I knew I waned to read it. Plus it’s quite short, always  plus for me these days. Nevertheless….

There were so many characters, and so much going on with the plot, that towards the midpoint of the novel, I almost gave up. Then somehow, toward the conclusion, things  got clarified, and the old magic began to work. So give it a try; it’s worthwhile.

Ave atque vale, John le Carré. We don’t have that many great fiction writers that we could spare you.
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At present, I’m eagerly awaiting my reserve on A Line To Kill. As I’ve said before, Anthony Horowitz, creator of Foyle’s War, author of several episodes of Midsomer Murders, and creator of fictional sleuths Atticus Pond and Daniel Hawthorne, is one of my favorite writers. As for the remaining five titles on the Post list, I have them all on reserve at the library, a process which takes longer and longer these days, for whatever reason.
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I don’t want to sign off without recommending a terrific new series by Elly Griffiths. The first two titles are The Stranger Diaries and The Postscript Murders. In these novels, Griffiths introduces us to DS Harbinder Kauer. She is, in her own (privately spoken) words, “the best gay Sikh detective in West Sussex.” She’s also the most thoroughly engaging new protagonist I’ve encountered in a long time. I love her! and her family too.

 

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