So many mysteries….

April 19, 2019 at 8:49 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

 

I felt like reading another British Library Crime Classic, so I picked up Thirteen Guests. J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White is the book that kicked off this series of reissues. Not all of these books have worked for me, but that one certainly did. If not quite as gratifying as Mystery in White, Thirteen Guests was nevertheless an enjoyable read. Luckily, there are more titles available by Farjeon. I intend to feast on all of them.

I wanted to read Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters because I was intrigued by a character in the Maigret series that I first encountered in Maigret and the Dead Girl. That character is the above named Lognon, commonly referred to be his police colleagues as Inspector Hard-Done-By.

Lognon is in fact an excellent investigator, but luck always goes against him. He wants more than anything to work alongside Maigret and his team at their headquarters in 36 Quai des Orfevres. But inevitably, his performance falls short of that dream. And so he trudges home to his invalid wife – a woman rather hard done by herself, I’d say – and their cramped little apartment, with very little to show for his considerable efforts. This includes, in the course of dogged pursuit of criminals, taking a beating that puts him in the hospital.

(As of September 2017, the headquarters of the Police Judiciaire is no longer at Quai des Orfevre, but has moved to premises on the Rue De Saussaies. The Research and Intervention Brigade, however, still operated out of the older location.)

I recommend both Maigret novels, but then I’m somewhat indiscriminate in my affection for this series.

A Suspicion of Silver is the ninth novel in the series featuring Sir Robert Carey, a character based on an actual historical personage from the Elizabethan era. A while back, I led a discussion with the Usual Suspects of the first series entry, A Famine of Horses. There was strong feeling in the group that Chisholm had made too free use of Archaic vocabulary without providing a glossary. Well, for this latest outing, she included a very lengthy glossary in the notes at the front of the novel. (“She listened!’ Frank exclaimed.)

The Silver in the title refers to ore which is being illegally gotten from a mining operation overseen by German emigres, experts in the process. Very interesting, and historically accurate as well. As for Sir Robert, he’s his usual resourceful, irreverent self, and still pining for his beloved – and married, though lovelessly –  Lady Elizabeth Widdrington.

From 1593, we go back to 1549 and the tumult and disorder of the reign of Edward VI. Not really Edward’s fault: he was twelve years old at the time. His reign was being overseen by a council of regents led first by his uncle Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, and subsequently by John Dudley, 1st Earl of Warwick, who in 1551 became Duke of Northumberland.

Tombland is the seventh entry in C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. Shardlake, a Sergeant-at-law, carries out commissions assigned to him by the likes of Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and Queen Catherine Parr. In Tombland, he is tasked by the Lady Elizabeth with looking into the murder of  the wife of John Boleyn,  a distant relation of hers. Elizabeth will one day be queen, but at the time this story takes place, her position is somewhat precarious; for instance, despite being the daughter of the late King Henry VIII, she is not permitted to call herself “Princess.”

Shardlake’s investigation takes him Norfolk, in the East of England, just as a peasant revolt is heating up. Soon Kett’s Rebellion has burst onto the scene. Shardlake becomes legal advisor to its leader Robert Kett, partly in order to save his own skin and that of his assistants, as the politically and religiously fueled mayhem gains momentum. His investigation is  forced, at least for the time being, into abeyance.

Andrew Taylor, himself a writer of excellent historical crime fiction, says this of C.J. Sansom’s series:

Where Shardlake goes, so do we. Sansom has the trick of writing an enthralling narrative. Like Hilary Mantel, he produces densely textured historical novels that absorb their readers in another time. He has a PhD in history and it shows — in a good way. He is scrupulous about distinguishing between fact and fiction.

Tombland is some eight hundred pages long. It provides the reader with a fully immersive experience in the turbulence of mid-sixteenth century England. Sansom has appended an afterward of some fifty or sixty pages of historical explication. So: a commitment, for sure, but well worth it, in my view.

Michael Connelly has reached a point in his career as a writer of police procedurals where he’s hitting them out of the park, one after another. In the beginning, there was Harry Bosch; then came Harry’s half brother and lawyer Mickey Haller. Now they’re appearing together. Then came Renee Ballard. She debuted in the excellent novel The Late Show. Next, she appears with Harry in Dark Sacred Night. And it all works – beautifully!

Lately, I’ve been listening to these books on CD. They’re usually read by Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch on the Amazon Prime TV series. Most recently, I listened to Two Kinds of Truth. Among other things – there’s always a lot going on in these books – Harry undertakes an undercover assignment where he’s embedded in an operation run by drug dealers who enlist addicts to score prescriptions for opioids and other saleable drugs at so-called “pill mills.” Vivid, true to life, and very scary!

Author Gallery

Georges Simenon

P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

Michael Connelly

 

C.J. Sansom, with a most excellent feline companion

What’s up next for me in this, my favorite genre? I’m currently reading Overture to Death, the next Usual Suspects selection. The author is Ngaio Marsh, whom I greatly admire. Then I’m very much looking forward to new entries in three of my best-loved series: Hitmen I Have Known, a Harpur and Isles (Yes!) mystery by Bill James; Cold Wrath by Peter Turnbull (Hennessey and Yellich are back, to my delight.) and Rough Music, the fifth Cragg and Fidelis historical mystery by Robin Blake.

 

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Mysteries: from India to Italy in one enriching leap

April 15, 2019 at 7:06 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

In February, Marge led the Usual Suspects in a discussion of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. This is the initial entry in a series set in post-World-War-One India, and it’s a great example of a first time author who hit the ground running. Beautifully written, this novel takes full advantage of its exotic setting, all the while weaving a tale of intrigue and introducing us to a memorable cast of characters. Chief among these is Captain Sam Wyndham, veteran of the Great War, who has been recruited to serve in the police force of India’s British Raj. His Sergeant is Surendranath Banerjee, called ‘Surrender-not’ because Sam and others have trouble pronouncing his name. (At any rate, it proves an apt nickname; he does not surrender to difficulty easily but is persistent and resourceful, and a great help to Sam.)

  Oh, and there’s a love interest for Sam. I just finished the second book, A Necessary Evil – also excellent – and all I have to say is, Make your wishes known, Sam, for heaven’s sake! Remember: He who hesitates….

Meanwhile, tensions between the Indians and their British overlords are portrayed with blunt realism. Even back then – undoubtedly before then – Indians were agitating for independence. Reading about the attitude of the British toward the native population, it’s no wonder. Enough to make you seethe with indignation, on their behalf.

Yet amidst all the turmoil, the allure of the place persists. From A Necessary Evil:

We left him and followed Sayeed Ali along a corridor whose walls were lined with murals that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Kama Sutra, and into a cloistered courtyard dominated by a huge banyan tree….We walked through another arched doorway into a stairwell, climbing two flights before entering a well-apportioned sunlit apartment. The room was divided by a carved teak screen peppered with small holes. In front of the screen, the marble floor was covered with a black and gold Persian rug, strewn with silk cushions.

There are those who maintain that this sort of meticulous description does not belong in crime fiction. I for one love it.

Banyan trees, by the way, are rather startling entities. Growing up in South Florida, I remember seeing them from time to time:

A Rising Man won the 2017 Historical Dagger Award, and was a finalist for the Gold Dagger, the Barry for Best First Mystery, the Edgar for Best Mystery, and the Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery.

A Necessary Evil was a Gold Dagger finalist ,as well as a finalist for  the Historical Dagger and for the Barry Award for Best Mystery. The third entry in the series, Smoke and Ashes, is already out.

(This information and more is “at your fingertips” can be found at the site Stop!YoureKillingMe.com)
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  Then it was off to Italy, or more specifically, to Venice. Actually, the way that Donna Leon writes about La Serenissima, it seems less like a part of Italy and more like a separate principality, which, of course, it once was….

Unto Us a Son Is Given is, by my count, the 28th entry in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. Of these, I’ve read at least twenty. The Commissario and I are old friends; likewise, his wife Paola and children Raffi and Chiara. The latter has become an ardent conservationist; Brunetti is proud of her and her new found commitment to the cause.

The Brunetti family members are all getting older but at a blessedly slow rate. Reading each new book in this wonderful series gives me the chance to spend time with them in their magical dwelling place.

Brunetti’s fellow police officers are also on the scene, both those he genuinely likes, like Vianello, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, and Claudia Griffoni, and those whom he has learned to tolerate, like Lieutenant Scarpa. (That name always makes me think of Scarpia, the arch villain in Puccini’s Tosca.)

The plot – it’s not much of a mystery, really – concerns one Gonzalo Rodriguez de Tejada. This elderly gentleman is a wealthy friend of Brunetti’s father-in-law, Count Orazio Falier. Gonzalo is openly gay and, at this late stage of his life, is preparing to adopt a young man as his son. Gonzalo has no other immediate family, but he does have several siblings, including a sister to whom he is quite close. At any rate, Falier has his doubts about this prospective adoptee and asks Brunetti to see what he can discover about him.

This novel has an unusual structure for a mystery. Progress in the investigation is slow and methodical, yielding very few surprises. Then, about three quarters of the way  through the book, there’s a murder. It’s sudden, and deeply shocking.

I really liked this book – well, I like every book in this series. Donna Leon is one of my favorite authors. She never disappoints – at least, that’s the case where this reader is concerned.

 

 

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Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine forges ahead into the Digital Age

March 29, 2019 at 4:14 pm (Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

For years now, the arrival of the quarterly publication Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine has been cause for rejoicing.  Loaded with astute criticism, numerous reading recommendations (with helpfully assigned letter grades), and author news and information, this splendid periodical is a must read for fanatical crime fiction fans like Yours Truly.

The Editor/Publisher of Deadly Pleasures is Mr. George A. Easter. In this effort he is assisted by Associate Editor Larry Gandle and a number of knowledgeable and perceptive contributors.

In the Winter 2019 issue, Mr. Easter made known his intention to transform Deadly Pleasures to a digital only entity. When I first read this announcement, I admit that my heart sank. I prefer my newspapers and magazines to be in hard copy. But Mr. Easter has good reasons for making this switch. He gives those reasons in a special editorial, where he also acknowledges that for some readers, this will be not be a welcome change.

He offered to send me the PDF version of this issue of the magazine. I admit I was deeply impressed. My doubts pretty much evaporated.

And now is the moment to say that this issue of Deadly Pleasures, in any format, is a real triumph. To begin with, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Bouchercon Mystery Convention. To mark the occasion, George Easter was asked to come up with two booklists. One is entitled “Most Influential Novels of the Bouchercon Era,” and the other is “Great Reads from the Bouchercon Era, 1969-2019.” Mr. Easter is soliciting input from readers on both lists, but for myself, I can’t think how either one could be improved.

The second one, especially, is so full of excellent titles that I wanted to drop everything else and just read my way through it. This, despite the fact that I’ve already read several: The Laughing Policeman by  Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker, Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman, Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, The Dead of Jericho by Colin Dexter, and so on. These are all great inclusions, and there are many, many more.

But wait! In addition to these, there are Best of 2018 lists, starting with George Easter’s own selections. I particularly loved this list because – well, the fact is I often like the same books that George likes, to wit: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan, Snap by Belinda Bauer, The Fox by the venerable Frederick Forsyth, and three of my absolute favorite titles from last year: Broken Ground by Val McDermid, The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry, and November Road by Lou Berney.

This issue is fairly bursting with ‘Best of 2018’ lists. Three by distinguished mystery fiction experts  Oline Codgill, Otto Penzler, and Marilyn Stasio, followed by two pages of lists from various publications and websites.

There’s more… But let’s stop there and let me now guide you directly to this cornucopia of crime fiction. George Easter is most eager for folks to subscribe to the digital version of Deadly Pleasures. Toward  that end, he is graciously allowing me to post the link to the PDF of this Winter 2019 issue of the magazine. Here it is:

https://filedn.com/lw969DNk35fFeYTvNXSLMOY/Deadly%20Pleasures%20Mystery%20Magazine%20-%20Winter%202019%20-%20Issue%2085.pdf

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The Burglar, by Thomas Perry

March 9, 2019 at 5:48 pm (Mystery fiction)

  An attractive young woman is jogging in one of Southern California’s many posh neighborhoods. She’s wiry, full of energy, good looking. She is alone; the sun, almost always blazing brightly, is setting now. This woman intrigues you, as she is meant to do. You both admire her and fear for her safety.

But you can put your anxieties to rest. Elle Stowell – that’s her name –  is well equipped to take care of herself. In point of fact, what she is actually doing as she moves swiftly and silently along this quiet street in Bel-Air is, to put it bluntly, casing the joint.

Yes, Elle Stowell is an unusual person. I found that as I read, it took some doing to get used to her. Her character is more subtly drawn, more complex than you might at first believe it to be. She gets herself in a jam early on when in the course of pursuing her “profession,” she stumbles upon a  scene of horror that she was never meant to witness. And her witnessing causes a subsequent tragedy that changes the course of her life. Among other things, it adds another skill to her resume: that of investigator, and a relentless one at that.

Perry has an offbeat sense of humor; it’s never more in play than when he describes Elle’s take on relations between the sexes, to wit:

The problem was that men thought of themselves as being more similar to anything else on the planet–male horses or wildebeests or  chipmunks–then to female human beings. Women were their opposite. To them, a thirty-two-year-old male physicist was more similar to a billy goat  than to a thirty-two-year-old female physicist.

I mostly enjoyed keeping company with Elle, although at times her ingenuity stretched my credulity. Truth be told,  I was looking for another Bomb Maker and this novel wasn’t quite it; for one thing, the structure wasn’t as cunning as it was in that masterful scare job. Nonetheless, The Burglar was an enjoyable read, and I’d be happy to encounter Elle Stowell again. She is nothing if not resourceful!

Thomas Perry

 

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‘What seems beyond comprehension to the police is mere amusement to the professor.’ – Jacques Futrelle’s Thinking Machine stories

February 23, 2019 at 12:18 am (Mystery fiction, Short stories)

The American author Jacques Futrelle wrote mystery short stories in the early years of the 20th century. His name often appears in the ranks of those authors referred to as creators of the rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Others  often considered to be among this cohort are Arthur Morrison (Martin Hewitt), R. Austin Freeman (Dr. John Thorndyke), and G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown).

Futrelle’s protagonist is Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, more widely known as The Thinking Machine. He’s described thus on the Mysterious Press website:

Slender, stooped, his appearance dominated by his large forehead and perpetual squint, Van Dusen spends his days in the laboratory and his nights puzzling over the details of extraordinary crimes. What seems beyond comprehension to the police is mere amusement to the professor. All things that start must go somewhere, he firmly believes, and with the application of logic, all problems can be solved.

I’ve read several of the stories  featuring The Thinking Machine, and have enjoyed each of them. Most recently I read one entitled “The Problem of the Stolen Rubens.” It has an opening line that I love:

Matthew Kale made fifty million dollars out of axle grease, after which he began to patronize the high arts.

Here’s the rest of the paragraph:

It was simple enough: he had the money, and Europe had the old masters. His method of buying was simplicity itself. There were five thousand square yards, more or less, in the huge gallery of his marble mansion which were to be covered, so he bought five thousand square yards, more or less, of art. Some of it was good, some of it fair, and much of it bad. The chief picture of the collection was a Rubens, which he had picked up in Rome for fifty thousand dollars.

I also recommend “The Phantom Motor” and “The Problem of Cell 13.” The official Jacques Futrelle site has links to the full text of both of these (as  well as to “The Stolen Rubens).”

Then there’s “The Tragedy of the Life Raft.”

It is difficult to say exactly when this was written. It’s one of four stories Futrelle left at  home among his papers, unpublished, as he and his wife sailed to Europe.

In much of the writing of that era, there is a sense of an inexorable destiny lying in wait for the characters. This is true of the nonfiction as well as the fiction of that period. (That sensibility is, for instance, very much at work in”“A Memorable Murder,” Celia Thaxter’s account of the murders on Smutty Nose Island in 1873.) Futrelle’s story, though, points the finger of fate directly at the author himself. For he and his wife had booked their passage back to  the U.S. aboard the HMS Titanic.

This line appears near the story’s beginning:

Slowly, as he looked, the sky became a lashing, mist-covered sea, a titanic chaos of water; and upon its troubled bosom rode a life raft to which three persons  were clinging.

Futrelle’s wife survived. He did not. His body was never recovered. He was 37 years old.

To read the complete article, click here.here.

Jacques Futrelle 1875-1912

 

 

 

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Best of 2018, Ten: Crime fiction, part three – the best of the rest

January 11, 2019 at 2:47 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This is it – I promise!

What can I say, except that I pretty much read my way through last year, not doing much else, especially the latter half. And before I get started, I want to thank members of the Usual Suspects Mystery Discussion group for some of the best reading I had in this genre in 2018. If it’s marked with an asterisk, that means it was a Suspects selection.

Anyway, here goes:

Contemporary (with one or two exceptions)

*Farewell My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler, and Only To Sleep (2018) by Lawrence Osborne. These two naturally go together, having as they do the same protagonist; namely, Philip Marlowe. Farewell My Lovely was a welcome reminder of the brilliance of Chandler; Only To Sleep was a cunning resurrection, as it were, of Philip Marlowe, affording him one last opportunity to engage in the world of crime solving. Osborne’s novel made quite a few ‘Best of 2018’ lists, which I was glad to see.

(My extreme enjoyment of Farewell My Lovely prompted me to read The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman.   Subtitled ‘Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,’ this is the author’s effort to bring Chandler’s wife, Cissy Pascal, out of the shadows. A fascinating read, though it must  be said that with regard to her specific goal, Freeman is only partially successful. Cissy Pascal Chandler remains, for the most part, a mystery – perhaps, rightly so. Open and Shut and First Degree by David Rosenfelt. Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter mysteries benefit greatly from the presence of his excellent golden retriever, Tara. Also from the self-deprecating humor of Andy himself. A delight to read, especially when you need something that’s not too heavy. And First Degree is an excellent choice for those enamored of legal thrillers.

Tara gets up on the couch and assumes her favorite position, lying on her side with her head resting just above my knee. It virtually forces me to pet her every time I reach for my beer, which works for me as well as her. If there’s a better dog on this planet, if there’s a better living creature on this planet, then this is a great planet, and that must be one amazing living creature.

(I owe thanks to ‘Angie’s group’ for recommending this series.)

*Off the Grid by P.J. Tracy

*The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Bone on Bone by Julia Keller. Follow-up to the brilliant and deeply moving Fast Falls the Night.

*The Night Stalker by Robert Bryndza

*Land of Burning Heat by Judith Van Gieson. This novel got me yearning for New Mexico all over again….

The front of her house faced east toward the Sandia Mountains which provided a backdrop for the reflection of the setting sun and the rising of the moon, but her backyard faced the long view across the city over the Rio Grande Bosque into the vastness of the West Mesa.

The weather usually came from the west and tonight thunderheads were building over Cabezon Peak. Claire couldn’t remember exactly when it had rained last, but it had been months. The ground, the people, the vegetation, even the air itself held its breath longing for rain. The prickly pear and ocotillo in the foothills were parched and layered with dust. She had the sensation she had every summer that she was waiting for something she believed would come but feared might not. The sky seemed promising tonight. The clouds were darkening and the wind was picking up.

Harbor Street and The Glass Room and by Ann Cleeves. Do I like this author? Gosh yes. And the tv series featuring Brenda Blethyn is terrific.

*Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker, in which I finally get around to reading the first entry in one of my favorite series. Walker hit the ground running as far as I”m concerned; this book was a delight.

November Road by Lou Berney. Brilliant!

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan. An impressive debut, highly recommended by the most recent Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine.

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

Bury the Lead by Archer Mayor. Always a pleasure to revisit Joe Gunther, Sammy Martens, the ever irascible Willy Kunkel, Lester Spinney, Beverly Hillstrom, et. al. in Vermont, a venue vividly brought to life by this dependably excellent writer. Bury the Lead is the twenty-ninth book in the Joe Gunther series. I hope Archer Mayor throws himself a big party number thirty arrives!

South Atlantic Requiem by Edward Wilson

Broken Ground by Val McDermid. Absolutely loved this novel – perfection in a police procedural!

*An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Sleep No More by P.D. James. This is one of those times when I am grateful to be in a book group. I would never have thought to reread An Unsuitable Job for a Woman had it not turned up on the Usual Suspects schedule.

  I  read Unsuitable Job about ten years after its initial publication in 1977. At the time, I had been working at the library for a few short years and was first becoming acquainted with the works of Baroness James. I remember liking the novel a great deal, and especially liking its protagonist Cordelia Gray. Reading it again, as I did just a few months ago, I found it equal parts dated and relevant. But the writing – ah, the writing! James’s fluency, her wide ranging vocabulary, her shrewd insight into the human heart – these things can never be dated.

Sunday afternoon evensong was over and the congregation, who had listened in respectful silence to the singing of responses, psalms and anthem by one of the finest choirs in the world, rose and joined with joyous abandon in the final hymn. Cordelia rose and sang with them. She had seated herself at the end of the row close to the richly carved screen. From here she could see into the chancel. The robes of the choristers gleamed scarlet and white; the candles flickered in patterned rows and high circles of golden light; two tall and slender candles stood each side of the softly illuminated Rubens above t he high altar, seen dimly as a distant smudge of crimson, blue and gold. The blessing was pronounced, the final amen impeccably sung and the choir began to file decorously out of the chancel.

This was the first Cordelia Gray novel. It was followed by The Skull Beneath the Skin, which I’ve not read. Then, no more. There was a reason for the abrupt cessation of this series. James explains it in her own words in a Guardian article from 2011 (See paragraph 16).

As for the six stories that comprise Sleep No More, they were a welcome chance to revisit once again the work of P.D. James.

Snap by Belinda Bauer

Stay Hidden by Paul Doiron

Sunburn by Laura Lippman. This made numerous Best of 2018 lists; for me, though, it was not her best, though enjoyable nonetheless. It really is impossible for Laura Lippman to be boring!

Human Face by Aline Templeton. My first by this author, little known in this  country. I look forward to reading more.

The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. The creator of Foyle’s War among his other achievements, Horowitz seem to excel at anything and everything he attempts in the fields of fiction and television.  The Sentence Is Death, a sequel to The Word Is Murder, is due out this June. Once again, Horowitz himself combines forces with the cunning Daniel Hawthorne – Yes!

Shadow Play by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. I faithfully read each new book in this series and am always sorry when I reach the end.

The Knowledge by Martha Grimes

The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry. Books like this give thrillers a good name. Flawless structure, edge-of-the-seat suspense, intriguing characters, a careening plot that makes the reader hold on for dear life – what’s not to love?

The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor. What a pleasure it is to see a writer you’ve followed from his first book (Roman Blood, ) proceed from strength to strength in the way  that Steven Saylor has done with this series.

Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson. Marge and I have both been with this writer from the start of the Alan Banks series.

*Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen. A gripping and powerful novel, with one of the best endings I’ve encountered in recent years (and that’s saying something – that’s where a lot of crime fiction falls down, in my view).

   The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly. This writer of police procedurals just gets better and better with each new book. Connelly is a superb storyteller. His plots have a propulsive drive, occasionally lightened by comic relief. Harry Bosch is kept grounded and humane by his fierce caring for daghter Maddie, now in college. I highly recommend the audio versions narrated by Titus Welliver, who portrays Bosch in the tv version, available via Amazon Streaming.

Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet. An oddly downbeat, extremely powerful procedural set in the east of France.

Money in the Morgue, a novel begun by Ngaio Marsh and finished by Stella Duffy. Truth to tell, I was not exactly blown away by this novel, though I’ve always held the work of Dame Ngaio in high esteem. My favorites by her are A Clutch of Constables, The Nursing Home Murder, and most especially Death in a White Tie, which features that rare commodity, a sympathetic victim, in addition to a sparkling depiction of the London ‘season’ and topped off by a compelling love story.

Classics – or, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s great

In the course of 2018, I started quite a few classic crime novels only to abandon them part of the way through – a very small part, in some cases. The following, however, proved most enjoyable (and of course I loved Farewell My Lovely, see above.)

Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. Lorac


The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons. Symons was still very much alive and writing when I went to work at the library in 1982. (He died in 1994 at the age of 82.) I remember reading and enjoying The Detling Murders, The Tigers of Subtopia, and The Blackheath Poisonings. These works were especially welcome, since at the time, I was just starting to learn about crime fiction.

The prolific Mr. Symons wrote not only mysteries but also criticism, other nonfiction, and poetry.


The Robthorne Mystery by John Rhode


Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley. I’d read this once before and not like it all that much. But this book makes so many all time best lists that I decided to give it another try. I liked it much better this time.


The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle A most pleasant surprise. Much of the second half this short work takes place in the American West. The narrative was lively and engaging. I liked it a lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Best of 2018, Nine: Crime fiction, part two

January 7, 2019 at 2:19 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland, The British police procedural)

“After the demise of the UK’s queens of crime, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, only one author could take their place: the Scottish writer Val McDermid….”

The Guardian

I’m aware there are those who would dispute this assertion. But after reading Broken Ground, I’m on board with it. I absolutely loved this book.

I’d previously only read two novels by Val McDermid: A Place of Execution (2000) and The Grave Tattoo (2006). Those are both standalones. Broken Ground, on the other hand, is the fifth novel in the Karen Pirie series.

How I wish I’d begun at the beginning! Karen Pirie, beleaguered but undaunted, is a hero for our times – my times, anyway. She’s having to come to terms with the loss of her lover, also an officer in the Force. (In this sense, as in some others, she reminded me of Erika Foster in Robert Bryndza‘s excellent series.) She’s human but not superhuman. Not always likeable, but almost always admirable.

I love McDermid’s writing. It is always assured, sometimes even poetic, but it can veer abruptly toward hard hitting. For a novel in which action predominates, there is some striking description. Most likely McDermid can’t help including such passages when writing about her native Scotland, whether city or countryside. (If you’ve been there, you’ll understand why.)

In the course of an investigation, Karen finds herself on rural, alien ground, housed in an odd accommodation:

For a woman accustomed to  attacking insomnia by quartering the labyrinthine streets of Edinburgh with its wynds and closes, its pends and yards, its vennels and courts, where buildings crowded close in unexpected configurations, the empty acres of the Highlands offered limited possibilities.
…..
The sky was clear and the light from the half-moon had no competition from the street lights so the pale glow it shed was more than enough to see by. She turned right out of the yurt and followed the track for ten minutes till it ended in a churned-up turning circle by what looked like like the remnants of a small stone bothy. Probably a shepherd’s hut, Karen told herself, based on what she knew was the most rudimentary guess work. The wind had stilled and the sea shimmered in the moonlight, tiny rufflets of waves making the surface shiver. She stood for awhile, absorbing the calm of the night, letting it soothe her restlessness.

I feel deeply grateful that there are still people who can write like this. I’m equally grateful that police procedurals of this caliber are still being written.

While researching Val McDermid, I came upon a gracious memorial she composed on the occasion of the passing of  Colin Dexter, creator of the inimitable Inspector Morse.

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Best of 2018, Eight: Crime fiction, part one – and one other important item

January 5, 2019 at 9:48 pm (Best of 2018, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

Before I do a deep dive into this one, I want to mention with praise and gratitude Tom Nolan’s list of best crime fiction of 2018. Why do I like this list so much? Because I’ve already read and enjoyed four out of ten of the titles he selected. They are:  

Here’s a link to the article. Tom Nolan writes for the Wall Street Journal, which tends to keep its content behind a pay wall. That content can, however, be accessed via the local library’s database HCLS Now! Research. Other library systems probably have a similar service.

Speaking of which, I’d like to commend the Howard County Library System for its generous gesture of suspending fees and fines during the current government shutdown. This has been done in recognition of the large number of federal workers living in this area. Several other measures have been taken to ease the impact of the shutdown. This action has been initiated by our new County Executive Calvin Ball (whom I encountered this morning at the League of Women Voters annual Legislative Luncheon).

Well done, Sir.

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Two books that simply must go back to the library

December 9, 2018 at 2:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Don’t know about you, but I hate being overdue. So here goes:

  It’s late November, 1963. We meet the following in quick succession:

A small town housewife and mother – think June Cleaver undermined by a restless streak (and a well-intentioned alcoholic husband). Throw in a small time hood and glad hander steeped in the ethos of the Big Easy. Then there’s a vicious mob boss and his highly unconventional enforcer.

It’s a combustible combination. And into its midst bursts an assassination that shakes the world. What has that got to do with this oddball cast of characters? More that you’d think….

This was an amazing read. Toward the end I got so tense and agitated, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to race through the rest of the book or hide it under a stack of magazines – anything to avoid the conclusion I was dreading.

Memorable lines, spoken after a snappy exchange of dialog:

Guidry laughed and glanced at her, taking a fresh look. He liked a woman who could hit the ball back over the net.

An outstanding thriller, on a par with The Bomb Maker.
**************
  I was deeply impressed with You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, and so was eager to read her next foray into the land of literary suspense. Give Me Your Hand is a worthy follow-up, though for some reason it didn’t grip me with quite the force of its predecessor.

Kit Owens has landed a coveted position in a lab where investigation is under way on the causes of a debilitating form of premenstrual syndrome –  PMS. She has the world figuratively on a string when her old nemesis Diane Fleming is added to the roster of researchers. Nemesis? – surely not; they were friends once. Then whence the atmosphere of dread that Diane brings with her?

I very much liked this novel’s setting. The tangle of relationships within the hothouse lab atmosphere are vividly rendered.  The sense of urgency and uncertainty is heightened by the first person narration. The milieu of scientific research is convincingly portrayed, and made to seem every bit as fraught and competitive as the world of athletics.

An absorbing and worthwhile read.

The brain itself is built with the battered beams of our early years. What the conscious mind forgets, the neurons remember.

 

 

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American Mystery Classics – Take Two

November 16, 2018 at 7:41 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Yesterday’s Washington Post features an article by Michael Dirda on American mystery classics. He begins with Leslie Klinger’s hefty anthology, which includes The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen,  The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine, The House Without a Key (in which Earl Derr Biggers introduced the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan), W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, and Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.

The only one of those five that I’ve read is Red Harvest. With regard to the plot, I don’t recall any of the specifics but I’ll probably always remember what a wild ride it was. The body count alone was impressive – somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-three! Good guys  and bad guys, guilty and innocent, male and female – they kept stumbling into a shooter’s cross hairs or the wrong end of a knife.

Red Harvest is not a Sam Spade novel; rather, it features protagonist known only by his job title: the Continental Op, an operative of the Continental Detective Agency of San Francisco.   The famous first sentence more or less sets the tone for  the rest of the novel:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.

First appearing in 1929, The Roman Hat Mystery was the first novel by Ellery Queen, the pseudonym of joint authors (and cousins) Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. This hugely successful collaboration rolled merrily along until 1971, the year of Lee’s death. I recently wrote about Ellery Queen in the post entitled American Mystery Classics, selected  by Otto Penzler and published by Penzler Publishers.  In that post, I mentioned The Chinese Orange Mystery. This is one of eight mysteries newly reissued by Penzler. According to Michael Dirda, it is “…probably Ellery Queen’s most dazzling case.” I didn’t much care for the novel, finding it too gimmicky and full of uninteresting characters, including, alas, Ellery himself. (The author and the investigator share the same name, a somewhat disconcerting device which you eventually get used to.)

I had previously read and enjoyed Calamity Town, first in a brief series of Ellery Queen titles set in the fictional New England town of Wrightsville. Additional reading of critics and bloggers directed me back to the Wrightsville novels (and stories).  Ergo, I am currently reading- and very much enjoying – the second book in the series, The Murderer Is a Fox.

If you scroll to the bottom of the American Mystery Classics blog post that I linked to above, you will find several interesting observations on Ellery Queen by Xavier L., my occasional gracious and very knowledgeable online correspondent. Xavier has written an article entitled “Ellery Queen in France;” it can be found on his blog, At the Villa Rose.

About The Roman Hat Mystery, Michael Dirda says this:

Here was a classic Golden Age puzzle — Ellery Queen’s first case, in fact — and virtually all the characters were caricatures, the dialogue was stilted and corny, and the elaborate plot verged on the ludicrous. What more could one ask for?

He goes on to observe:

That sounds paradoxical, but artificiality is a welcome attraction in many vintage who-and-howdunits. The stories deliberately leave out the messiness of real life, of real emotions, thus allowing the reader to mentally just amble along, mildly intrigued, feeling comfortable and even, yes, cozy. In this case, the key clue — where is the murdered Field’s missing top hat? — drives home the difference between then and now: We are a long way from deranged fanatics armed with semiautomatic weapons.

I have to interject here that the dialog in The Murder Is a Fox is  anything but stilted. It is real and urgent. Here is part of a conversation between Ellery Queen and a local judge:

“How familiar were you with the proceedings?”

“I followed it fairly closely at the time.”

“And your sympathies?”

“In my business,” remarked Judge Martin to his stogie, “if you have any such, you sit on ‘em till they smother to death.”

“Then you did have some.”

“Perhaps.”

“For the victim or the defendant?”

Judge Martin tapped ashes into his wastebasket. “Young fellow, you’re not going to pump me on that. Where my sympathies lay is irrelevant—purely emotional, you understand. No basis in fact, no evidential value, no standing in court.”

“What did you think of the verdict?” persisted Ellery.

“My personal opinion?” Judge Eli squinted at him through the acrid smoke. “I don’t like the kind of evidence they convicted Bayard on. As a judge, I mean. I prefer something substantial when you’re trying a man for his life and liberty—like fingerprints.”

Ellery is desperate for some kind of information that will corroborate his view of the case.

As I noted previously, The Roman Hat Mystery came out in 1929. I can only assume that the Queen cousins learned something about writing dialog between then and 1945, the publication year of

The Murderer Is a Fox.

Ellery Queen, aka Manfred B. Lee (left) and Frederic Dannay

 

 

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