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.
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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.’

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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.
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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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Intrigue, murder…and a basset hound named Balzac

November 7, 2021 at 4:01 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  This time, it’s a cold case that’s got the attention of Bruno Courrèges, Chief of Police in St. Denis, a picture postcard gem of a town in the Dordogne region of France. Properly speaking, the case belongs to Bruno’s boss, Chief of Detectives Jalipeau. J-J, as he is called by his friends and colleagues, had landed this case early in his career – and never solved it. In the way of such things, it has  been nagging at  him ever since. Now, thirty years later, an intriguing clue has emerged. Bruno and his friends and colleagues join in the effort to find the solution to this mystery.

As usual in this series, the plot serves as the structure upon which to festoon the many wonders of this magical region of France. We learn about Audrix, a nearby town that holds a night market. People go there to select their preferred dishes from various vendors and sit outside in the summer evenings and enjoy a tasty dinner. Très civilisé, n’est-ce pas?

In this region, there are caves containing prehistoric art, and a museum devoted to this and other artifacts of the time. There are medieval castles, perched high on cliffs overlooking the Dordogne River.

Bruno, acting as tour guide for his cousin Alain and his fiancée Rosalie, gets a chance to show off some of the wonders of nearby Sarlat:

Other than the shopwindows, it was a place that seemed barely changed over the past four hundred years. Renaissance town houses led to a grand square and cathedral and narrow alleys that were full of restaurants and shops  selling local delicacies. Bruno took them around the back of the cathedral to see the Merovingian royal tombs from the centuries after the Roman Empire fell, and the Lanterne des Morts, a tall, conical tower built eight centuries earlier from whose top  a lantern glowed each night to mark the place of the dead.

Above all, there i Bruno, one of the most likeable, empathetic, and intelligent characters in contemporary detective fiction. He lives in a snug home where he gardens ambitiously, keeps poultry, and above all, enjoys the companionship of Balzac, his basset hound. Balzac is, bar none, the most irresistibly lovable canine character I’ve yet encountered in fiction. Among is numerous skills, he is being trained to detect the presence of truffles underground. “Cherche”, Balzac, his master urges him, “Cherche!” (Bruno also owns a horse named Hector; he is stabled with a  friend who runs a riding school nearby.)

I imagine that Balzac looks something like this:

(I want him!)

I cant’ write about these books without mentioning Bruno’s culinary skills. He’s a gourmet cook, and loved to treat h is friends to his delicious concoctions. At one point, he finds himself with a dinner guest who is a vegan. He takes this circumstance on as a challenge:

First, he turned the oven on, set to one hundred seventy degrees centigrade. He chopped the pumpkins into slices about an inch thick and put them into the biggest roasting pan he could find with a small head of celery, equally sliced. He then mixed a quarter pint of maple syrup into the same amount of olive oil, poured the mixture into the roasting pan and tossed the pumpkin and celery slices until they were all coated. He added salt and pepper and put the pan into the oven for twenty-five minutes. In that time, he made the soup, chopping four fat  green peppers, peeling and then chopping two cucumbers, and tossing them all into a blender with two chopped onions. He added several cloves of garlic puree squeezed through a press, salt, pepper, olive oil, tarragon vinegar and two glasses of Bergerac Sec white wine. Once the mixture was blended he put the soup into the freezer to chill.

Whew! And that’s just the beginning. There’s a delicious fruit compote of sorts for dessert, but we’ll leave that for another time.

There is a companion cookbook to this series, but to far as I can tell, it’s only been published in German.

 

 

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‘I loved the cold because it always made me more conscious of my animal self….’ – Dead by Dawn by Paul Doiron

October 17, 2021 at 3:43 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Mike Bowditch, Game Warden Investigator for the state of Maine, has been tasked with reopening a case of death by drowning. Eben Chamberlain’s death had been ruled an accident, but his daughter-in-law Mariette isn’t buying that judgment. Wealthy, powerful, and forceful, Mariette believes Eben’s death was deliberately brought about. Murder, in other words – a murder that the Warden’s Service was either too lazy or too incompetent to thoroughly investigate.

The deeper Mike  delves into this case, the greater the danger that looms. The story is told in chapters that alternate between the progress of the investigation and a harrowing predicament in which Mike finds himself: His truck has veered off the road and plunged into the Androscoggin River (an actual river in Maine, by the way – else, who could make up such a name?) He manages to extricate himself from the fast-filling vehicle, thinking himself lucky. Little does he know  the worst of this ordeal is yet to come.

At first I was not sure that the structure of the novel was a successful device. I had some trouble keeping track of the timeline. (The investigation chapters are narrated in the past tense; the survival chapters, in the present tense.) But gradually the narrative began to tighten; it began to work. And I have to say that the chapters describing Mike’s desperate efforts to stay alive are among the most gripping I’ve ever read.

In summary, Paul Doiron has written one humdinger of a novel. It kept me turning the pages at a great rate, an experience I’ve had with surprisingly few recent mysteries. At the same time, the characters are vivid and authentic, if not always likeable. (I prefer interesting to likeable anyway.)

It’s always a pleasure to begin a series at the beginning and watch the main characters grow and mature in subsequent entries. (The first title in the Mike Bowditch series is The Poacher’s Son, which I read and liked when it came out in 2010.) Dead by Dawn, the twelfth entry, is the best yet, in my opinion. It combines the elements of a thriller with those of a more literary work, with great character delineation and vivid descriptions of the beautiful (and sometimes treacherous) Maine landscape.

And the excellent writing is informed with a keen sense of history:

For much of my youth, I had suffered under  the delusion of having been born  too late. I was a displaced person from the era of the Voyageurs who had set out across the Great Lakes in bateaux in search of furs; I was a temporal fugitive from the age of  the Klondike Gold Rush when men literally bet their lives against nature with more than riches on the line. Sometimes I still succumbed to this mode of thinking. An overfondness for nostalgia was the crack running down  the middle of my character.

I await with happy anticipation the next Mike Bowditch adventure. Thank you, Paul Doiron, for this outstanding series.

Paul Doiron

 

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Bounding, from wave to wave…

September 1, 2021 at 1:11 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories, The British police procedural, True crime)

…on the internet, that is, rather than on the actual ‘bounding main.’

I speak of two recent research adventures on the web, both inspired by Laura Lippman’s
new novel.

First – the premise itself. Novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his apartment in Baltimore. These are brand new digs, and he was blindsided by one of  those architectural features so cheerfully touted by real estate agents: a so-called floating staircase. Having tumbled down said design feature and badly broken his leg, he finds himself temporarily immobilized.

Gerry is not a detective – or not a professional one, that is – but his plight reminded me of two series protagonists who were: Morse and Alan Grant. In fact, Lippman at one point makes mention of Josephine Tey‘s Daughter of Time. In that classic of detective fiction, Scotland Yard’s Alan Grant, likewise laid up with a broken leg, occupies his mind with an effort to prove the innocence of Richard III in regard to the disappearance and supposed murder of Prince Edward and Prince Richard.

Then there’s The Wench Is Dead, the eighth entry in the Morse series written by Colin Dexter. (This novel was the 1989 Gold Dagger winner.) Morse, like Alan Grant, is hospitalized, not with a broken leg but with a bleeding ulcer. Like Alan Grant (and Gerry Andersen, for that matter), Morse needs  a way to occupy his mind while he’s recuperating. Someone gives him a book about a crime that occurred on a canal boat, in 1839, as it was making its way through Oxford. A passenger on the craft, Joanna Franks, was murdered; two men were hanged for killing her. The more he reads, the more convinced Morse becomes that the two men were in fact innocent.

I always assumed that the Joanna Franks case was fictional; it turns out that it was based on an actual occurrence. The victim’s real name was Christina Collins. She’d been traveling via canal boat to meet her husband, but she never made it. Her lifeless body was later pulled from the canal. Colin Dexter used these basic facts in constructing his narrative, changing the location from Staffordshire, where the crime actually occurred, to Oxford.

The Murder of Christina Collins by John Godwin came out in 2011. It features an introduction by Colin Dexter. Click here for an article with excellent photographs of the site.

The TV episode of The Wench Is Dead can be seen on YouTube:

In addition, the DVD is owned by the library – two copies, to be exact. Watch for Colin Dexter; he appears in the museum crowd at the beginning of the film.

This viewing experience may make you nostalgic for the days when this superb series was first aired, and in particular for John Thaw, whom we lost way too soon.
******************

The second adventure was sparked by this brief passage in Dream Girl:

It’s a fine little story, as clever and compact as the ones he used to read in those Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies. Kill your husband with a leg of lamb, serve the leg of lamb to the detectives.

What??

The story being referenced here is “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl. I read it several years ago; the mention of it in this context made me want to read it again. I found it in an excellent anthology that I own called Murder Short & Sweet. In his introduction to the Dahl story, the editor Paul D. Staudohar says:

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect short story than this one, both in plot and in presentation.

I couldn’t agree more.

This story can be downloaded by clicking on this link.

Murder Short & Sweet is available from Amazon.

And finally, do read Dream Girl. I loved it!

 

 

 

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