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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Crime fiction and the Man Booker Prize

November 6, 2018 at 5:22 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   It used to seem like an article of faith for book loving observers: Not only did Britain’s Man Booker Prize not go to a work of crime fiction, but works in that genre were not even considered for that prestigious accolade. Then in 2016, His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet made it onto the shortlist. (It did not win.) And this year, Snap by Belinda Bauer made it onto the longlist (but no further).

I read His Bloody Project shortly after it came out two years ago. I had this to say about it in a post from early  last year entitled ‘Current trends in crime fiction part three, the books: historical mysteries‘:

Wow! A standalone novel of tremendous depth and power. The year is 1869. Amid the oppression of a community of Scottish crofters by cruel and heedless overseers, a young man’s anger and resentment build steadily until they reach the boiling point. His Bloody Project made the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2016, apparently astonishing certain folk among the ‘literati.’

A word to the wise: if you’re thinking that the title betokens great violence, you would be correct. That violence seems to occur in the blink of an eye; it follows an extended period of almost relentlessly escalating tension and anger. The bloody climax is indeed terrible, but it does not come out of nowhere. Rather, it is the culmination of a cruel and heedless exercise of power over the powerless, one of whom reaches the breaking point, with catastrophic results.

I read Snap some time ago, so its contents are not fresh in my mind. Here’s what I do remember. In this novel, a combination of domestic suspense and police procedural, Belinda Bauer posits two seemingly unrelated story lines. You know they’ll eventually converge, but you’ve no idea how. When it finally happens, you’re treated to one of those ‘aha’ moments so beloved by readers of crime fiction.

Each story line features a young woman who is pregnant. Right away this fact ratchets up the reader’s anxiety level. (I like to think that this would be true for both female and male readers.) And then there’s the wonderfully named Jack Bright, a fourteen-year-old boy who is something of a hero, this despite certain of his actions, which are after all born of desperation on behalf of his two younger siblings.

In searching for reviews, I discovered that Snap was in fact inspired by an actual crime that occurred in 1988 and still has British police baffled. (Fair warning: details concerning that atrocity are fairly well described in the novel’s opening sections. There is no overt violence – just a terrible mystery hanging over the heads of three children.)

Snap is extremely well written, and Bauer tells a very compelling story. Highly recommended.

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American Mystery Classics, selected by Otto Penzler and published by Penzler Publishers

October 30, 2018 at 6:17 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I think of Otto Penzler as the American counterpart of Martin Edwards. Edwards has long been devoted to advancing the recognition and popularity of British crime fiction. He’s also added substantially to scholarship in the field with such award winning tomes as The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. In 2014, he was designated a series consultant for the highly successful British Library Crime Classics series of reissues. In this capacity, Edwards has provided introductions to numerous novels in this series; in addition, he has edited several short story anthologies for the series. (He is also the author of the Lake District Series and the Liverpool Novels.)

Here are six examples of books from the British Library series. (I really loved Murder of a Lady – very atmospheric and beautifully written.)

Now we have Otto Penzler bringing us American Mystery Classics. Here are the first twelve entries:

 

 

  

 

  

 

The first six of these titles became available this month (October); the remaining six are due to come out in March of next year.

Otto Penzler is the founder and owner of the venerable Mysterious Bookshop, currently located in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. Wikipedia states: ” It is now the oldest and largest mystery specialist bookstore in the world.” The store hosts numerous book signings by distinguished authors; in addition, Penzler, like Martin Edwards, has edited quite a number of anthologies. This one just came out this month: .

I found this one, from last year, highly entertaining:

The site for American Mystery Classics has this to say, in the way of a recommendation:

Each book has been personally selected by Otto Penzler, whose more than forty years of experience as an editor, critic, publisher, and bookseller brings an unparalleled expertise to the line.
***********

The Ellery Queen mysteries were actually written together by cousins Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay. The name Ellery Queen is also given to the protagonist – a quirky character and some time author. He investigates various crimes but has no official standing to do so. The cousins’ collaboration began in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and continued until 1971, the year of Lee’s death.

Last year I read Calamity Town, my first foray into the Ellery Queen opus. I thoroughly enjoyed it, for reasons enumerated toward the bottom of a post entitled Best Reading in 2017: Classic Crime.  Before me sits The Chinese Orange Mystery, which I just finished. Alas, it did not thrill me. I found the crime at once preposterous and uninteresting. More fatally, Ellery Queen himself does not appear in an attractive light. He comes across as a louche dilettante, proclaiming his insights in a drawling manner. The supporting characters often verge upon caricature. The dialog often attempts a sort of noir hipness but doesn’t quite achieve it. (Having recently read Raymond Chandler’s stellar Farewell My Lovely, I’m somewhat sensitive to this particular trope.) I yearned for an appealing love story, but there was none.

While giving due credit to the ingenuity of the puzzle at the heart of the novel, the Kirkus reviewer says the following:

It’s easy to see why Queen’s exercise in deduction has dated badly: Everything about it is creaky and artificial, from the incredible logistics of the murder to the alleged passions of the characters.

Sadly, I agree.

Other readers and reviewers feel differently. For instance, The Chinese Orange Mystery received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  And I hasten to add that my enthusiasm for this new publishing initiative remains undiminished. I note that one of the March 2019 releases is a Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner. I sincerely hope that Otto Penzler will consider placing at least a few of Gardner’s Doug Selby novels in his list. There are only nine of them. I’ve read six and loved them.

 

 

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Dorothy L. Sayers and the Lord Peter Wimsey novels

October 25, 2018 at 9:09 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction)

This delightful visual appeared in a recent issue of the London Review of Books. It reminded me of how much pleasure I’ve received from the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, both in print, on audio, and in the two television versions. (Click twice on this image and you should  be able to read the text in the center.)

The first set of Wimsey episodes for television were aired on Masterpiece Theatre in the early 1970s. Starring as Lord Peter is the inimitable Ian Carmichael. Carmichael seemed eminently to the manor born, the ideal aristocrat of early twentieth century Britain, whose sometimes foppish ways and ready wit conceal a razor sharp mind and a firm sense of justice.

Here’s a trailer that capture’s the flavor of Carmichael’s performance (with apologize for the breakup at 32 secs).

Later, to this depiction of Wimsey, Edward Petherbridge added a vulnerable heart. First broadcast in the late 1980s, Petherbridge starred in three episodes: Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night. Together these comprise the story of Peter’s ardent pursuit of detective novelist Harriet Vane. The course of this true love ran anything  but smooth – in Have His Carcase, Peter and Harriet have an argument that almost breaks them both, it is so full of anguish – and yet, and yet…

To my mind, theirs is an exceptionally compelling  love story. And a surprisingly modern one as well. Told mainly from Harriet’s point of view, it treats of a woman who is desperate to retain her personal autonomy in the face of plenty of pressure, much of it coming, discreetly but relentlessly, from Peter. His is a love that will not be denied, but he is ever the gentleman, acting with restraint and deep respect. He does not wish to curtail Harriet in any way; rather, he wants to set her free to flourish in a world they both value. Only when  she finally acknowledges this fact – and acknowledges her love for him – can she at last relent and give him the answer he so desperately craves.

There are eleven novels in the Lord Peter Wimsey series.  I’ve either read or listened to all of them save Busman’s Honeymoon, the last, which was based on a play of the same name. I’ve enjoyed every one of them, but these three are my especial favorites:

I confess that the lengthy disquisition on campanology with which The Nine Tailors begins nearly stopped me in my tracks. I would have given up save for the fact that I was listening to Ian Carmichael’s marvelous reading. When once the plot got under way, I was captivated.

Due to an automotive mishap, Wimsey and his valet Bunter find themselves temporarily stranded in the little village of Fenchurch St Paul. This is a remote area in the East of England, flat and prone, at least at the time this book was written, to episodes of high water. Indeed, the novel’s climax features a flood of near Biblical proportion. Up until that point,, Peter has been investigating a crime – actually several crimes, with the added factor of assisting the local rector with the bringing off of a marathon bell ringing event – nine hours straight!

Here’s a short video of bell ringing at Westminster Abbey:

In the television version, Wimsey is played by Ian Carmichael and Bunter, by Glyn Houston. The Reverend Theodore Venables  is portrayed by Donald Eccles in one of the most endearing performances in the entire series.

Donald Eccles as Reverend Venables and Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter

When I wrote about The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie, I included a quote by John Curran that exactly described my feelings upon reading that work. There is in that novel, he asserts, “…“…a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.” I feel that the same is true of The Nine Tailors.

There’s a very insightful commentary on this program on the blog In So Many Words.

Here it is, the fateful bringing together of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey. It happens in a courtroom. She’s standing trial for murdering her erstwhile lover Phillip Boyes. She is naturally in fear for her life. Peter, who’s observing the proceedings, swiftly comes to two conclusions: one, she’s innocent; and two, she’s the only woman in the world for him.

This is the novel’s first sentence:

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.

  Finally, there is Gaudy Night. Many are the pleasures of this fine work. Returning to her alma mater by invitation from the faculty, Harriet is filled with justifiable pride at being a graduate of Shrewsbury, an Oxford college. (The actual college is Somerville, named for mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville.)

They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done
since, this remains. Scholar;, Master of Arts;, Domina;, Senior Member
of this University…, a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.

Despite Harriet’s success as an author, she cannot help longing for the insularity of the academic life:

As Harriet followed Miss Lydgate across the lawn, she was visited by
an enormous nostalgia. If only one could come back to this quiet place,
where only intellectual achievement counted , if one could work here
steadily and obscurely at some close-knit piece of reasoning, undistracted
and uncorrupted by agents, contracts, publishers, blurb-writers, inter-
viewers, fan-mail, autograph-hunters, notoriety-hunters, and com-
petitors ; abolishing personal contacts, personal spites, personal
jealousies, getting one’s teeth into something dull and durable ; maturing
into solidity like the Shrewsbury beeches — then, one might be able to
forget the wreck and chaos of the past, or see it, at any rate, in a truer
proportion Because, in a sense, it was not important The fact that one
had loved and sinned and suffered and escaped death was of far less
ultimate moment than a single footnote in a dim academic journal….

Alas, there is a serpent in this Eden. Although no murder takes place in Gaudy Night, there are a number of sinister and  very unnerving pranks being played on Shrewsbury residents. It is these that have brought Harriet back to the college. Can she locate the culprit, without involving the police? It remains to be seen.

Eventually Peter appears on the scene; he lends his support and unerring instincts to help her solve the mystery. And, inevitably, he and Harriet are  due for a final reckoning.

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane

Novelist Jill Paton Walsh has written four novels which continue the story of Harriet and Lord Peter. Of these, I’ve only read the most recent, The Late Scholar. I enjoyed it very much.

 

 

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‘You can be called to a last effort, a final heroic statement….’ – Only To Sleep by Lawrence Osborne

September 14, 2018 at 3:02 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The year is 1988. Philip Marlowe is living in (theoretically) comfortable retirement in Baja, California. For recreation, he goes to the La Fonda Hotel. These words in jacket copy evoke the tenor of his life at this juncture:

‘Sipping margaritas, playing cards, his silver-tipped cane at the ready.’

Wait a minute – Philip Marlowe with a cane? Never fear: canes can conceal useful devices. (One thinks, for instance, of the famous silver-tipped cane of Hercule Poirot.)

For Marlowe, all is in a condition of calm stasis, until:

….two men from the Pacific Mutual insurance company walked into the terrace bar of La Fonda Hotel. They were dressed like undertakers and had sauntered down from the main road above the hotel, finding me seated alone with my pitcher of sangria and my silver-tipped cane as if they had known I would  be there unaccompanied within sight of my home on the Baja cliffs. They knew which house it was, too, because their eyes rose to take it in, and they smiled with the small contempt of company men.

Turns out that these two men find themselves in need of a private investigator. A wealthy Californian, Donald Zinn, has died suddenly while in Mexico. Zinn’s life was insured for a hefty sum. The folks at Pacific Mutual, however, are uneasy about the precise circumstances of his death. Could Marlowe look into the matter  for them?

They lay out the case before him, photographs included. He agrees to take it on. One of his first moves will be to interview Zinn’s widow, Dolores Araya. “‘Seeing the wife is always the fun part’,” he announces cavalierly. But of course it proves to be quite otherwise. The comely Dolores is the named beneficiary of Zinn’s life insurance policy. She is also the requisite femme fatale in the case, so emblematic of the noir genre. (I’m reminded of one of my favorite of Raymond Chandler’s literary locutions: “She looked tall and her hair was the color of a brush fire seen through a dust cloud.” (from “The King in Yellow”)

Almost all of the action in Only To Sleep takes place in Mexico, as Marlowe follows lead after lead, in his quest for the truth about Donald Zinn’s death. Meanwhile, something within him has been revived:

I bought a sugared churro and wandered about at the edge of this hidden world, feeling young for the first time in years. It happens like  that, and sometimes in a single moment. You are no longer seventy-two years old. The ocotillos bloomed red, their flowers like still paper cups, and the mesquites were filled with gracklings, as if they were the first signs of new life: an old man in a  ragged cowboy hat blinked at them and wondered if he had a year left after all. A year, maybe even two.

And yet, during his first encounter with Dolores:  “Her gaze went straight to the heart of my fog-bound decrepitude.”

It soon becomes obvious that she’s at the dead center of a very clever deception. Knowing this is one thing; proving it is quite another.

A beautiful fraud is like the merging of two elements that combine to make something fat more formidable than the merely beautiful and the merely fraudulent.

Meanwhile, other people, both Mexican nationals and expatriate Americans,  become involved in the investigation. It gets complicated, but never too complicated to  follow. There’s plenty of action, and yet the pace of the novel seemed slow at times, almost stately. There was plenty of space for description of the exotic setting, and for the rueful ruminations of the superannuated detective.

Toward the novel’s conclusion, Marlowe finds himself alone in the midst of a riotous street carnival:

The young looked at me the way you would a piece of cardboard tossed down a street on the wind. Wreckage with eyes and a pulse. The wounded animal dragging itself back to a tree it knows, a patch of shade where it can die in peace.

But of course he does not die. and nor does he succumb to sentiments quite as bathetic as this again. In fact, the ending confers a kind of benediction; Marlowe acknowledges the fact that he has indeed experienced his last hurrah and made a god job of it into the bargain.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
“Ulysses” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
**********************

Lawrence Osborne was asked by the estate of Raymond Chandler to write a novel featuring Chandler’s most famous creation, Philip Marlowe. Two other writers have been so honored: Robert B. Parker (Poodle Springs, which Wikipedia calls a “post-mortem collaboration since Chandler had already written the first four chapters, and Perchance to Dream) and John Banville writing as Benjamin Black (The Black-Eyed Blonde).

In his author’s notes, Osborne admits to feeling  both honored and challenged by “stepping into the mind” of one of crime fiction’s most iconic creations. In my reading of Only To Sleep, I get the sense  that he made some deliberate decision with regard to style. Very little if any hard-boiled slang, not much in the way of snarky one liners. But some very effective use of figurative language – similes and the like.

The autumnal atmosphere hangs heavily over the story. Marlowe is well aware that his strength and his reflexes are no longer those of a younger man. Most poignantly, the desire evoked by a beautiful women has not been tamped down, but the impulse to act on that desire has been muted. The need not to appear overweening or foolish is powerful.

Many are the images that film and television have given us of Philip Marlowe.

Dick Powell

 

 

Robert Mitchum

Elliot Gould

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

In all of these iterations, Marlowe appears to be in his late thirties or early forties. (A letter written by Chandler in 1951 gives his detective’s age as thirty-eight.) As I was reading, I found myself in need of a mental image of Philip Marlowe as he would have looked in his early seventies. I wanted a visage that might look like Ulysses in the poem quoted above: weathered but resolute. Here’s what I came up with at length, with apologies to Clint Eastwood:

Philip Marlowe at 72? Maybe…

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The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

September 9, 2018 at 3:12 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, Uncategorized)

  The Writers’ House is designed to be a sanctuary. Within its walls, those who long for literary achievement and eventual recognition can work in a peaceful setting, receive helpful suggestions from fellow aspirants, and be instructed and encouraged by guest writers acting as as tutors and exemplars.

As the novel opens, DI Vera Stanhope has been prowling the environs in search of her neighbor Joanna Tobin. Joanna has suddenly gone missing; her partner Jack thinks she’s at the Writers’ House. Vera hasn’t had any luck so far in finding her and thinks she might be on a fool’s errand.

Suddenly, from an upper balcony of the house, an bloodcurdling scream issues forth. What on earth can have happened in this quiet, remote fastness dedicated to intellectual pursuits? The police have been called, but Vera is already on the scene, ready to intervene in what must certainly be a dire crisis. And so it proves to be. But she and her team of investigators are a long time figuring out the real genesis of that scream.

I love the way this novel unfolds. The situation becomes increasingly complex as new characters emerge onto the scene – everyone in the Writers’ House, to begin with. Vera and her trusty second, Joe Ashworth, remain in charge of the investigation.

It proves a very tough nut to crack. But Vera, exulting in just this kind of chase, thinks:

Deep down, everyone loved a murder almost as much as she did. They loved the drama of it, the frisson of fear, the exhilaration of still being alive. People had been putting together stories of death and the motives for killing since the beginning of time, to thrill and to entertain.

But of course, there could be qualifying circumstances:

It was different of course if you were close to the victim. Or to the killer.

Throughout the novel, Cleeves intersperses clues to Vera’s thought processes and working methods, especially where interviewing a witness or a suspect is concerned. These nuggets tend to be expressed briefly and in pithy language:

Vera had better timing than a stand-up comedian and knew the importance of a pause.

In theory Vera liked strong women; in practice they often irritated her.

Kindness could be a great weapon.

‘There’s a casserole I made a couple of days ago when I was feeling domestic. I get the urge sometimes, but it soon passes.’

It occurred to her that there might be a greater proportion of psychopaths in Parliament than in prison.

Vera had no patience for speculation. Unless she was the one doing the speculating.

Gradually these observations coalesce to form a portrait of a singular personality. Speaking as a person who more or less devours large quantities of crime fiction – not to mention true crime – I find Vera Stanhope utterly unique.

We also learn a lot about Vera from the way she interacts with Joe Ashworth:

Joe had been listening intently. She loved that about him. The way he hung on her every word.

Vera thought Joe was a soft-hearted sod, but she liked him the better for it.

Although it is Vera’s restless intellect with which we’re primarily engaged, Joe is an important character as well, a vital sounding board for her wide-ranging thoughts and speculations. Vera is somewhere in middle age, lives alone, has no children. This in no way hinders her powers of empathy. Joe is somewhat younger, married with three small children.

An interesting thing happens to Joe in this novel: he finds himself attracted to Nina Backworth, a woman involved in the case that he and Vera are investigating. The attraction seems to be mutual. Acting on this attraction would be a bad idea for any number of reasons. Yet so perverse are the wellsprings of human desire that the worse the idea becomes, the more power it exerts. ‘Lust that felt like adultery’ is what Joe is experiencing; it’s causing him to feel desperate and distracting him from the case.

Finally at one point, Joe manages to carve out some time at home for his wife Sal and their ‘bairns:’

When they were alone at last, he sat with his wife on the sofa, his arm around her shoulders, cuddling together like teenagers. Thought there was nobody in the world he would feel so at ease with. He couldn’t imagine Nina Backworth watching old episodes of The Simpsons and laughing with him at the same jokes. Later he took Sal to bed and they made love. Afterwards he lay awake, listening to her breathing, loving her with all his heart and soul and pushing away the feeling that there should be more to life than this.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in The Glass Room. Questions beget answers, which then beget more questions. I was completely drawn in, and stayed that way till the end.

Thus far I’ve read six of the eight novels in the Vera Stanhope series. I am worried about running out. No pressure, Ann, but could you write faster?

I can’t discuss this series without mentioning the television adaptations. I think they’re excellent. Some of the episodes are based directly on the novels; others use the characters and write new stories for them. As is almost always the case, the casting of the main protagonist is inspired: Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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