Thursday, September 19, 2019

Thrones, Dominations

Of the Wimsey continuation novels by Jill Paton Walsh, Thrones, Dominations is the best. Most likely because it has the largest amount of Sayers in it. Sayers sketched out most of the novel, left plot diagrams, and wrote about six chapters of the novel before abandoning it in 1936. When I first read it, long before blogging, I was incredibly eager to do so--knowing how much Sayers had left to work with and longing for more Lord Peter Wimsey. At that time I rated it a decent outing, but it also made me sad because I knew how very outstanding it could have been if Sayers had completed. Needless to say--Paton Walsh is no Sayers. She doesn't have the literary style, nor the Renaissance-woman feel of Sayers (despite having been inspired to attend Oxford after reading Sayers' novels). But I thought her handling of the characters decent. There was, however, an indecent lack of Bunter. And when he did appear it was not for long and he did not have the importance of Sayers' character.

This time around I am feeling a bit more generous. In part that is because I don't have the same heightened expectations. But also this "reading" was an audio novel read by Lord Peter Wimsey himself, Ian Carmichael. Carmichael was my first filmed Wimsey and embodies the man for me. Edward Petherbridge also gave a fine performance--but Carmichael was first. His reading of the novel breathes a spirit of the Sayers Wimsey into the work that is lacking on the written page. He knows the Wimsey way (and by extension that of the other characters in the novel) even if Paton Walsh doesn't have complete mastery of it and he brings the work up to another level.

Two notes on the book itself:

The novel is worth it for the appearance of the Countess of Severn and Thames when she swoops down upon Harriet to spy out for herself how her godson's marriage is getting along. I love the way she and Harriet size each other up and come to like one another. Harriet isn't about to be cowed by this formidable woman and gives just as good as she gets.

On a more serious note, this novel continues to explore the themes of love and marriage first broached in Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon. So, on that count, it makes for an interesting follow-up. Where Gaudy Night has Peter tell Harriet "But when you have come to a conclusion about all this, will you remember that it was I who asked you to take a dispassionate view, and I who told that of all the devils let loos in the world there was no devil like devoted love...." Thrones, Dominations examines the jealous, possessive side of love. Sayers' outline contrasts the marriage of equality, respect, and deep love of the Wimseys with the jealous, possessive love of the Harwells. It seems that the Harwells are not happy unless Laurence is repeatedly "storming the citadel" and taking possession of his wife once again. And Rosamund loves to play the ice queen who must be won over and warmed by love and adoration of her man. 

Last time round, I gave this three stars. I'm upping the ante just a bit (primarily for Ian Carmichael's reading): ★★

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) by Claire North

Harry August is a kalachakra, one of a few people born in each generation who relives their own life over and over and over again. Not reincarnation exactly because they are not reborn as something or someone else, but truly reborn as themselves. And yet they retain the knowledge from previous lives. Unless they go through (or are forced through) the Forgetting--a process that wipes the slate clean so they can experience life as an innocent once again. Anyway, Harry is going along with his reliving cycle until his eleventh life when he's on his deathbed and a small girl appears at his side to give him a message from the future*--the world is ending. And it keeps ending faster. And apparently Harry is the only one who can fix it. The remainder of the book is [mostly] about Harry's efforts in his next four lives to find out why it's happening and what he needs to do to stop it.

So...this was not my cup of tea at all. I didn't expect to be hopping back and forth, in and out of Harry's various lives. And he seemed pretty hung up on life number four for no reason that I could really make out. Just when I thought we were finally done with life number four, we'd pop back to it right in the middle of life number eleven or life number fourteen or whatever. That was annoying and distracting. Also, Harry--for all the learning he supposedly does over all the years he's lived through--doesn't really seem to learn anything at all that matters. Like maybe you should stop telling people that you die and get reborn. Either they won't believe you (even when you give them solid evidence of future world events that later actually happen) and think you're crazy and shove you in asylums OR they do believe you and want to use your knowledge for their own ends. And just might torture you to get you to cooperate. And, after all that time, you'd think Harry would develop some kind of a personality. Not so much. The only times he's even remotely likable is in the introductory portion and then at the end when he's trying to save the world.

This was such an interesting concept to me. There have been a lot of books about time-travel and going back in time to change things. And there have been stories about reincarnation. There have even been stories where people have relived portions of their lives (Replay by Ken Grimwood, for one). But this was the first I'd seen where someone relived their entire life. I just wish it had been better. Of course, lots of folks on Goodreads have given it rave reviews, so your mileage may vary.  and 1/2. All for concept and the few bits that I enjoyed.

[*I'm not even going to try to explain how messages get passed back and forth through the years, decades, centuries among the kalachakra.]

False Scent

False Scent (1959) by Ngaio Marsh finds Inspector Roderick Alleyn investigating another murder in the theatrical world. This time the murder is completely off-stage--in all senses of the word. Mary Bellamy is a fading stage star...but still a star to be reckoned with. The scene opens on the day her friends and family and a few important personages have been invited to her home to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. But don't mention that dreaded number to our temperamental star. 

"What's a cake without candles?" said Old Ninn.
"Fifty of them....Oh, wouldn't they look lovely!"
Miss Bellamy took the only possible action. She topped Old Ninn's lines by snatching up the ritual knife and plunging it into the heart of the cake. The gesture, which may have had something of the character of a catharsis, was loudly applauded.

But the mention of the number of her years by her former nanny isn't the only catalyst for a burst of temper. Her husband, Charles Templeton, has the temerity to tell her to tone it down on her favorite scent, Formidable, and to stop using Slaypest--a highly potent and very dangerous pest killer. She doesn't do either. Florence, her personal maid tries once too often to calm her down. Her dress designer and a second-tier actress (known for helping prop the star up to shine more brightly) have deserted ship for another production. And her ward, a young and upcoming playwright who has till now written plays [comedies] only for her, has ventured into new territory [the dramatic] and produced a script that has most obviously not been written with her in mind. He has also taken up with a lovely young actress for whom he has written the play. 

Richard Dakers, the ward, can't see that Mary is not going to be pleased as punch to read a play that isn't for her. He can't fathom that she won't love Anelida (his young actress) as much as he does. And he is perfectly blind to the fact that bringing Anelida to Mary's birthday party and introducing her to a producer and director in theater world (and, most particularly, in Mary's theater world) right under Mary's nose just might make her really mad. So mad that she leaves her guests, tells him a few disturbing things about himself, and then...apparently sprays herself with Slaypest. Was it just a dreadful accident while she was in an incoherent rage? Or did one of the people she had told off that day have enough of her tantrums and stop them for good? Alleyn and Fox arrive on the scene and immediately see pointers towards murder--but which of the supporting players pulled down the curtain on the star?

Marsh's writing about theater personalities is some of her best. She portrays them with a depth and reality that comes from her personal experiences in the world of the stage. The set up is very good--she provides plenty of background and establishes the characters and their relationships to one another. We get a very good look at our murder victim--with all her faults and vanities on display. The way in which the murder is done is a bit obvious and it's disconcerting that Alleyn apparently doesn't catch on to it until very late in the book. But that is one of the few drawbacks. Over all, another enjoyable read from Marsh. As I have been rereading her mysteries in order, I have been reminded how much I enjoyed discovering them almost 40 years ago (really? could that be possible?). ★★ and 3/4.

Golden Vintage: Actor/Actress
Deaths = 1 (one poisoned; one heart attack)

The Case of the Ill-Gotten Goat

The Case of the Ill-Gotten Goat (2008) by Claudia Bishop

Milk inspector Melvin Staples isn't too popular at the Tre Sorrelle Dairy, especially with Doucetta Capretti, the 94-year-old domineering owner. She doesn't like anyone messing with her business and she particularly doesn't like too-good-looking-for-their-own-good young busybodies like Staples who keep telling her the white blood cell counts in her goats' milk is too high. But did she dislike him enough to smack him upside the head with her heavy cane and dump him in a vat of milk to drown? And if not who did? Maybe his wife got tired of his taking up with other women. Maybe one of Capretti's large family decided to to protect the family's interest. Or maybe Neville Brandsetter, DVM and member of the local university's veterinary sciences department, wanted to get rid of his wife's lover. But why choose the Capretti's milk vat as the final resting place? Dr. Austin McKenzie, local vet and private detective, and his band of investigators (including his wife Madeline) set out to help the police get to the bottom of  it all.

Dr. McKenzie is an unusual detective to say the least...not that I haven't run across vets as amateur sleuths before, because I have. But he is not only a veterinarian, but a private detective as well. He and his clinic assistants and his wife make up the Cases Closed sleuthing team. Somehow I find doctors, vets, schoolteachers, and whatever other profession more acceptable as straight up amateur sleuths than I do imagining them operating per usual in their every day occupation AND running a detective agency on the side. That part of the story didn't work so well for me. However, Dr. McKenzie and company are delightful characters and I did enjoy watching them track down clues--solving not only the mystery of excess white blood cells but identifying the killer as well. 

A fun little cozy mystery. ★★

Deaths= 2 (one hit on head; one drowned)
Calendar of Crime = March (something green [grass] on cover)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet is a highly detailed historical crime novel that reads like a non-fiction account of true crime. Roderick Macrae was arrested in 1869 for the brutal murders of Lachlan Mackenzie (aka Lachlan Broad) and his 15 year old daughter and young son. There is never any question that Roddy Macrae is committed the crimes--he admits it straight off and never recants his confession. The only thing in question--and that is seemingly only questioned by his advocate--is whether Roddy was completely sane at the time of the murders. The book tells the story through documents of the time--primarily through Roddy's memoir, written in prison while awaiting trial, but also including a series of police statements taken from his neighbors and doctor's statements about the condition of the bodies. His advocate spends a great deal of time working on the definition of sanity (in terms of culpability under the law) and makes an extraordinarily impassioned plea for Roddy in his closing arguments. Though the verdict is pretty firmly given in the book, the reader is still left with a feeling that perhaps the whole story has not been told.

An interesting look at what drives someone to murder and when sanity and culpability can be questioned...the psychology and actions of both Roderick Macrae and all those around him work together to bring him to what seems to him an inevitable event. He tries to trace where it all began--the moment in his life when his course was set and there was no turning back from the path that leads him to the gallows. The book itself examines Roddy's conclusions about the events and asks the reader to make their own decisions about whether he was truly sane and if he was--whether his motives for the murders were really those he provided in his memoir.

An absorbing read that seemed all too real. I had to remind myself as I was reading that this was fiction. Burnet does an incredible job bringing the people and events to life.  ★★★★

Deaths = 3 (all hit with object)

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Black Aura

E: But what can that possibly have to do--?
TP: Nothing, nothing. Detectives always seize upon some insignificant detail when they're stuck
(Ernestine; Thackery Phin; p. 47)

Black Aura (1974) by John Sladek finds bookish amateur sleuth Thackery Phin up to his eyebrows in mysticism and impossibilities. Having recently put an ad in the paper peddling his talents to those in need:

AMERICAN PHILOSOPHER seeks worry. On leave in London, this drop-out from a think tank, professional logician and amateur sleuth would like a challenge. Anything irrational considered.

And, having had few takers, he decides to investigate another sort of mystery--the occult, the arcane and mystical. His attention is drawn to the Aetheric Mandala Society, a townhouse spiritual commune run by medium Viola Webb. Members include a pop star recovering from drug addiction, a doctor who is seeking the truth about his son's death a few years ago [the son was a member at the time], a scientist whose aim is to debunk the society's so-called powers, a misfit secretary to the society, and a reverend with more interest in spirits than most British religious figures. He sets out to find out what truth, if any, there is in the society's claims and winds up investigating murders.

But before he does sort it out, he has to deal with all kinds of supernatural paraphernalia: scarabs, Egyptian curses, Nostradamus, voices from the great beyond, spirit writing, etc. And the story is full of impossibilities--from the doctor who disappears from a locked bathroom, to the pop star who levitates four stories above the ground and eight feet out from the townhouse, to the reverend who walks into a funeral home's chapel and disappears leaving only his raincoat behind. Thackery is determined to get to the bottom of it and decides that one more murder is necessary...his own.

"I've got to get back to the house before it's too late." [Phin]
"Too late? Too late to prevent another killing?" [Inspector Gaylord]
"No, too late to have another killing. It's absolutely essential to have one more murder. Goodbye, Inspector." [Phin]

Fortunately, he doesn't really have to die to flush out the villain of the piece.

Considering this was written in the 1970s--long past the Golden Age--this is a very good locked room (rooms, actually) story. A very odd setting and an interestingly peculiar amateur detective. But very good. In fact, Phin's advertisement does remind me a bit of two of Christie's Golden Age series--Tommy & Tuppence's "Young Adventurers Ltd" Ad and that of Parker Pyne--in which investigators try to bring clients to them. Of course, Phin doesn't really get involved in his little mystery through the advertisement, but it is a nice throwback to the vintage era. 

I thought Sladek played his locked room tricks very nicely--though I would like to see the levitating method in action. I'm having a difficult time picturing it exactly. But that did not detract from the mystery at all. Quite an engaging novel all round. ★★★★

Nowadays, the police did not wait politely behind the arras while the amateur investigator produced his dazzling deductions. They swarmed in, lights flashing and klaxons blaring. As they no doubt saw it, anything a lone amateur could do with meerschaum and meditation, they could do so much better with twenty tiny cars filled with eighty large officers--all talking at once on the radio. (p. 60-1)

Even a spirit medium needed account books. (p. 61)

G: Don't you wear a watch?"
P: No, I'm training myself to waste time. I find  that if I can forget the days,, the minutes and hours forget themselves. [Gaylord, Phin; p. 83]

P: If Webb's alive, this really is a body-in-the-library case. By all fictional precedents, we can expect him to pop up as one of the Aetherians. Returned to blackmail someone, or to avenge some old wrong. No, that really is too much to hope for. But are you absolutely sure he vanished?
B: Of course not. All I know is what I hear, from a couple of old friends in the trade. But it's good gossip, they wouldn't kid me about that. I mean, they might tell me he was snatched off to Hell, or he vanished out of a locked room, or--
P: A locked bathroom. Or he levitated, and fell. But they wouldn't tell you something believable. They wouldn't make up a story about a man deserting his wife. [Phin, Beeker; 93]

Vintage Silver Card: Who (Vicar/Religious Figure)
Calendar of Crime: December (author's birth month)
Deaths = 3 (one poisoned, one stabbed/fell from height, one strangled)

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Holmes-Dracula File

The Holmes-Dracula File (1978) by Fred Saberhagen

The year is 1887 and Queen Victoria’s Jubilee is scheduled for late June. Meanwhile, a mad scientist prepares to unleash thousands of plague infected rats on the British public if his obscenely huge ransom demands aren't met. There is also a bizarre killer leaving a trail of bloodless and bloodied corpses--a killer who seems to be a madman of enormous strength. Count Dracula joins the World’s Greatest Detective in an effort to avert the impending crisis and take revenge on an enemy. The story is told alternately by Watson and the Count--in a document released long after Holmes and Watson are dead. In 1916 Holmes tells Watson that it is time to tell the true story which had been referenced in "The Sussex Vampire" as “a story for which the world is not yet prepared.” But still the world was not ready and the tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra is not given to the public until its caretaker releases it for publication in the 1970s. 

It's amazing how many fictional people didn't really die--even when their creators said they did. I've now read Holmes pastiches where Moriarty survived his plunge down the Reichenbach Falls and Stapleton didn't really drown in the Grimpen Mire. Bringing back characters from the dead seems to be the thing to do if you're going to write a Holmes story. Or if you're not into that, then just mix Holmes up with some famous person...fictional or real, it doesn't really matter. We've got Holmes and Teddy Roosevelt; Holmes vs. the Phantom of the Opera; Holmes vs. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde; Holmes and H.G. Wells and his martians; Holmes and Jack the Ripper...just to name a few. In the 1970s, Fred Saberhagen gave us a double-whammy--not only did he bring someone back from the dead; he brought back someone from the undead and then brought him into a Holmes storyBram Stoker went to a great deal of trouble to tell us how Count Dracula was killed once and for all. Apparently, that was all stuff and nonsense. In his first book in the Dracula series (The Dracula Tape--which I haven't read, by the way), the Count tells all about how his supposed demise was a big fake to fool Van Helsing.

So....provided you can swallow that particularly large and gaudy fly, you can settle down for an interesting look at Victorian London with Dracula and Holmes working together (for different purposes) to prevent an evil doctor and his minions from unleashing those plague-ridden rats on the people of England. Holmes is, of course, working for Queen and country. Dracula is bent on a personal revenge--after all, these imbecile mortals dared to cosh him on the head with wood (one of his rare weaknesses) and experiment on him in their efforts to reintroduce the plague. Holmes is his usual brilliant self--pointing Lestrade in the right direction for the mad killer portion of the story and foreseeing the moves of the mad scientist. He works out a clever strategy with the Count to foil the evil doctor's plans. 

Having gotten over the hurdle of Dracula not having been destroyed, I actually enjoyed this one very much. It doesn't do to hold on too dearly to the actual Stoker story...or to mind if Saberhagen comes up with a somewhat bizarre connection between Dracula and Holmes (beyond the whole wipe out the evil-doers thing). He does provide an intriguing explanation for why Holmes (and Mycroft) hasn't married and doesn't hold women or romantic relationships in high regard. The explanation also touches on Holmes's unconventional and, perhaps, unhappy childhood and relationship with his mother. An interesting take to say the least. Overall, Saberhagen does well with the characters--staying true to Holmes's and Watson's personalities--though Watson is a little quick to doubt Holmes's sanity when he starts talking about vampires. He also gives Dracula an interesting voice--with just enough snark when referencing the incidents with Van Helsing and company.  ★★ and 3/4. 

Deaths = 7 (one stabbed; three struck by objects; one run over by carriage; one strangled; one neck broken)
Vintage Silver Card: Where (Hospital--mental hospital)
Calendar of Crime: May (author's birth month)

Monday, September 2, 2019

And Hope to Die: Mini-Review

And Hope to Die (1947) by Richard Powell

When his wife Arabella (Arab for short) talks him into a vacation in Florida, all Andy Blake wants to do is loll in sun, drink Planter's Punch, and avoid fishing like the plague. He certainly doesn't want to be the target for a barbed fish spear, bashed over the head, and nearly drowned and fed to the sharks. He's not much interested in lonely houseboats and little girls who are tied up there. He certainly doesn't want to interfere with tough guys who are smuggling people in and out of Cuba. But Arab has a way of nosing out trouble...and landing Andy smack dab in the middle of it. Of course, it is nice to figure out who the little girl is and help her find her dad. But if only he didn't have to deal with so much unpleasantness to get there. 

Honest-to-goodness, this sounded like it would be a fun romp. I'd heard somewhere that Andy and Arab were better than the Abbots (series by Frances Crane), so I looked forward to reading it. The mystery is convoluted. Things move along in a jerky kind of way. And it just doesn't grab me at all. This is supposed to be a funny, bantering couple mystery novel. But Andy and Arab just make me tired. There is too much banter. Andy is too reluctant. Arab is too eager. They spend too much time being fake jealous over the other's supposed interest in various members of the opposite sex sprinkled throughout the story. And seriously, these two couldn't solve their way out of a wet paper bag {Does that metaphor even work? I don't care....}--except when it comes to little girls. If you've read Nick and Nora, the Norths, the Troys, and even the Abbots and are looking for another husband and wife sleuthing team....keep looking. At least, that's my feeling on this one. I've got another Powell book sitting on the shelf. Maybe it will be better. 

Unnatural Death audio novel

Unnatural Death (1927) by Dorothy L. Sayers; read by Ian Carmichael  ★★★★

Forging ahead with my audio "rereads" of the mystery novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, I have finished listening to Ian Carmichael's rendition of the third book in the Lord Peter Wimsey chronicles. As with the other Sayers books I've listened to this year, I will not be doing an in-depth review of the story. Those interested in my thoughts about the plot may click above--it links to the review I posted when I read all the Wimsey novels for the As My Whimsy Takes Me Challenge in 2011. 

I, of course, thoroughly enjoyed listening to Carmichael read to me. His was the first filmed version of Wimsey that I saw and, despite the excellent portrayal by Edward Petherbridge, will always be Wimsey in my mind. The only thing that could have made the Carmichael audio versions better would have been to have Glyn Houston read the Bunter portions. 

I was struck even more so than when I read it myself previously by how Wimsey's crusade to prove the doctor correct--that there really was some kind of hanky-panky in the death of Agatha Daswon--managed to result in several more deaths and the attempted murder of both Lord Peter and his right-hand woman Miss Climpson. It poses a moral dilemma--was it better to bring a murderer to justice or would it have been better to leave well enough alone and save lives? I still feel that even if Lord Peter had curbed his curiosity the killer had such a personality that next person to get in their way (in whatever form) probably would have been dispatched as well. 

I had a particularly good moment of fun this time round when Peter decides to take Charles to meet Miss Climpson. Poor Charles is certain that Peter has chosen this moment (for reasons known best to himself) to introduce his friend to his "kept woman." It proves how very fond Charles is of Peter that he plunges on through his discomfort just so Peter can share this bit of his private life. And, as always, it was a delight to listen to Miss Climpson in action--and Carmichael's interpretation of her exclamatory (!) and underlined reports. Another fun audio romp. 

Deaths: 4 (3 injected with empty hypo; one strangled)

The Spanish Cape Mystery

"That’s the trouble with clever men,” muttered Ellery. “A crime being necessary, according to their lights, they determine to commit it so ingeniously,that it will be insoluble. But the cleverer they are and the more complex their schemes, the more danger they run of going wrong."

The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) finds Ellery Queen on vacation and immediately confronted with a baffling murder and a too-clever-for-his-own good murderer. The story opens with David Kummer and his niece Rosa sitting outside the family's Spanish Cape home having a little confidential chat about Rosa's interest in the handsome ne'er-do-well John Marco. Next thing they know they're being hustled to an empty neighboring cottage by giant tough guy, Rosa is tied up, and David (who the giant insists is John Marco) is knocked out and toted off to a boat.

Enter Ellery and his friend Judge Macklin who are renting the cottage in question for a late summer vacation. Imagine their surprise when they find the door busted in and a pretty young woman tied to a chair. They're even more surprised when they take her home and discover that John Marco has been found murdered in the very spot from which Rosa and David were kidnapped. Marco was banged on the head, strangled with wire, and found naked as the day he was born except for an opera cape. Ellery works with Inspector Moley of the local police to find out why David was kidnapped; why Marco was killed; why the corpse was naked; and who did it. By the time David escapes from his captor, Ellery is ready to answer all the questions.

This is the last appearance of Queen's Challenge to the Reader as well as the last of the "international" titles (Roman, French, Dutch, Egyptian, Spanish....). I grew up on the TV version of Ellery Queen with Jim Hutton and I always loved when Ellery would break the fourth wall, turn to the audience, and ask us if we knew who did it. Because at that point we had all the clues.

For years now I have been challenging my readers to solve my cases by the exercise of close observation, the application of logic to the winnowed facts, and a final correlation of the individual conclusions... Technically there are no snags. The facts are all here at this point... Can you put them together and logically place your finger on the one and only possible murderer?

I also loved it when I discovered that the challenge came from the early books. It's a shame they stopped using it, but I could see that they might have wanted to avoid getting thoroughly entrenched in a rut. This is a good solid mystery from the early period of the Queen novels--though perhaps not quite as mystifying as others. I did spot the killer--but that didn't detract from my enjoyment. ★★★★

Vintage Gold Card -- What: written by more then one person
Calendar of Crime: Sept -- primary action
Deaths =  2 (1 strangled; 1 fell from height)

Sunday, September 1, 2019

September Calendar of Crime Reviews

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September Virtual Mount TBR Reviews

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September Mount TBR Reviews

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September Monthly Key Word Reviews

September's Key Words: Book, Here, Back, School, Speak, Train, Leave, Paper, Them

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September Just the Facts Reviews

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