Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Mystery & Crime: NYPL Book of Answers (mini-review)

This is a decent little mystery reference book with some interesting information. However, I am a little perplexed by a supposed mystery expert who gets several fairly common (to mystery readers) facts wrong. Hercule Poirot and Nero Wolfe are private investigators--they get paid for most of their investigations--therefore, they are not amateurs. Sherlock Holmes made his startling return from the dead in "The Empty House" not The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Pam & Jerry North (of the Lockridge mystery series) had several cats over the long series of books--in addition to Martini (which according to Mr. Pearsall is the only cat), there are Gin, Sherry, Ruffy, Pete, Toughy, Stilts and Shadow.  Lord Peter Wimsey was a Major in World War I, not a Captain.  I could go on.  It makes it a bit difficult to take the author's word for it on the information that is new to me, when he is mistaken on several counts throughout the book. There is plenty of correct information, though, so I'll take it in stride.

It is an interesting read and there is a good smattering of quotes from some of the big name books. (I love quotes!).  Two and 3/4 stars--rounded to three on Goodreads.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Through a Glass Darkly: Helen McCloy

Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen Mccloy opens with Faustina Crayle being dismissed from her post as an art instructor at an elite girls' school. The headmistress, Mrs. Lightfoot refuses to give a reason beyond the fact that Miss Crayle "does not quite blend with the essential spirit of Brereton." She does, however, give the art instructor six months' pay after only five weeks of work. Evidence indeed that she wishes her gone and spare no expense. 

Faustina confides in her only friend at the school, Gisela von Hohenems, who suggests she consult a lawyer.  When Faustina demurs, Gisela tells her boyfriend, Dr. Basil Willing--famous psychologist and medical assistant to the district attorney, about it.  He insists on meeting Faustina and convinces her to allow him to represent her with Mrs. Lightfoot.  His interview with the headmistress is very surprising.  It seems that Faustina has become the center of rumors about a doppelganger. Several maids and a few of the girls have claimed to see Miss Crayle in two places at once.  A few parents have pulled their girls out of the school because of the unhealthy atmosphere. The practical Mrs. Lightfoot could find no plausible explanation for the incidents and rather than investigate or allow the rumors to create even more havoc with her school's reputation she decided to ask Miss Crayle to leave.
As Willing investigates, he discovers that this isn't the first time Faustina has been dismissed from a school because of doppelganger rumors.  He will have to sift the supernatural from everyday villainy as he follows a trail littered with superstition and jewels; doubles and demimondaines.  There is a tale that says She who sees her own double is about to die...and despite Willing's efforts and his instructions to stay put in a hotel while he investigates, Faustina insists on making a trip to her beach cottage.  A trip from which she never returns.  Did she truly see her double? Or is there a more solid human agent behind her death?   Willing brings us the answer...but the ending is a bit unsettling nonetheless.

McCloy's powers to create atmosphere are at their strongest in this book.  Even though we're quite sure that there's some human deviltry behind Faustina Crayle's plight, Mccloy still manages to make the idea of a doppelganger seem almost possible.  And the ending leaves us just a little unsure that Dr. Willing has completely explained everything.  Yes, it all hangs together.  And, yes, I do believe that X really did orchestrate the whole thing and for the reasons given...but what if Dr. Willing is wrong?  There's a nice shivery feeling to that thought.  

A nicely done, atmospheric piece that also happens to be an excellent detective novel.  Often thought to be McCloy's masterpiece, Through a Glass, Darkly is certainly the best I've read by McCloy so far.  Four stars.


"I knew people were talking about her, but I didn't know what they were saying. And even if I had--one doesn't repeat gossip to the victim, if the victim is a friend. It's one of the things you can't do. Unwritten law. Like telling a husband his wife is unfaithful."

"Even when the victim asks for it?"

"Especially when the victim asks for it! No one really wants to see himself as others see him. If people ask, they're really asking to be reassured. Just as no artist or writer ever wants real criticism for the work he shows you. Just praise."
~Gisela von Hohenems; Dr. Basil Willing (p. 33)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Once Upon a Crime: Review

Campus Cop, Peggy O'Neill, is back to crime-busting in M. D. Lake's Once Upon a Crime.  The fact that Peggy is represented as little more than a glorified nightwatchman hasn't kept her from landing in the middle of five murder investigations in the previous series books and being on the disabled list won't keep her out of this one.  According to Peggy, all she's supposed to do at night is walk the beat, watch out for suspicious-looking loiterers, and shepherd the inebriated undergraduates home. Detective duty is not supposed to be on her duty roster, and yet....

As mentioned, Peggy is on the disabled list--recovering from the lingering effects of her last tangle with a murderer (see Murder by Mail). In her now abundant spare time she meets Pia Austin, undergraduate Hans Christian Andersen scholar and girlfriend to Christian Donnelly--the university's star quarterback.  Her friendship will result in Peggy landing a minor role in a play adaptation of The Emperor's New Clothes and a leading role in the investigation of the murder of Pia's father.  Pia's dad is Jens Aage Lindemann, Danish scholar and the leading expert on Andersen.  Lindemann has been invited as the keynote speaker at the university's symposium on Anderson, an event meant to christen the newly built children's library and special Andersen room.

After the keynote address, Lindemann is found dead in the Andersen room--with a statue of the Little Mermaid as the weapon and a smashed display case at his side.  It looks as though Lindemann walked in a thief making off with original letters written by Andersen to a friend and paid for it with his life.  But Peggy isn't so sure.  What if Lindemann--a man who seems to have gathered more than his share of adversaries and enemies--was the target all along?  Peggy will have to wade through academic rivalries and Lindemann's past love life before the motive and the culprit become clear.

This series by M. D. Lake is a very pleasant, very cozy little take on the academic mystery.  Peggy O'Neill is a very likable character--and a very down-to-earth, believable one.  It is very nice that she is able to manipulate the case so she finally gets a guarantee from her boss that she'll be sent for detective training.  She really is wasted on that night beat.  The mystery is a pretty straight-forward one with very few bells and whistles.  There are, however, enough suspects and red herrings to keep the average reader guessing.  I spotted the vital secret--but I must say I wasn't able to spot the correct killer.

My one major quibble is having Peggy act as judge and jury at the end.  A character like Holmes or Poirot packs enough punch to carry that off....I'm just not convinced that Peggy does.  Three stars for a good solid mystery outing.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Gently Go Man: Review

Gently Go Man by Alan Hunter is like way out there, man.  Like the mostest in the way of late 50s/very early 60s talk.  Like maybe too much mostest.  You dig me, man?

Okay, I can only do so much of that.  Seriously.  So...Gently Go Man was first published in 1961.  The teddy boys have given way to jeebies (don't ask me, I have no idea).  These are jazz-loving, motorcycle-riding teenagers who have had it with the adults and are looking for a way out of squaresville.  They find their way out through the kick of riding their motorcycles hard and fast and through the smoke of a stick (that's marijuana to you and me).

Johnny Lister is one of them--until the night he and his girl are riding hard down five miles of straight road with a dead tree at the end of it.  Initially, it looks like an accident--because one small mistake when you're clocking over a hundred is all it takes to end it.  But there are traces of another rider who may have run Lister off the road and someone stopped to check on the damage (but didn't report the wreck).  Superintendent George Gently of Scotland Yard is called in to try and trace the other rider.  And while he's at it, he'll trace a line back to the supplier of the sticks and break up a cozy little drug ring.

I must say that I am solidly lodged in squaresville.  I just don't dig this book, man.  It doesn't reach me.  And I have to say that if I didn't know that this was published in 1961 and so Hunter must have had a pretty good idea what the lingo of the day for teenagers was, I would think this was a very bad, over-the-top, stereotype of what the early 60s British teenager was like.  There are whole pages of dialogue that is nothing but jeebie slang.  And wading through that was pretty tedious.  The best part of all that was how Inspector Gently didn't let the jeebies get the best of him.  He rolled with it and gave as good as he got.  So--star points for Inspector Gently.

And the actual detective work to figure out who was behind the drug trade and the death of Johnny Lister? That was pretty decent as well.  Unfortunately, the story and the character of George Gently was nearly buried by the jive-talking jeebies.  One and a half stars (rounded to two on Goodreads).  Not the best of the Gently series.

As a side-note--while this is the 8th (or 9th, depending on which list you believe) of the Gently series, the plot is used as the pilot story for the Inspector Gently television series.  It is updated just a bit (to the mid-60s) and an extra plot line involving Gently's wife and a notorious mobster is added (to spice things up a bit?).

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Water Room: Review

The Water Room by Christopher Fowler is the second book in his Peculiar Crimes Unit series.  It stars John May and Arthur Bryant, the octogenarian leaders of a unit of detectives who handle all the cases that the regular detective forces won't touch or can't solve.  This one begins with a simple question: How can an elderly woman drown, fully dressed to go out, in her otherwise dry basement?  Their search will lead them through a maze of shady real estate men, racist threats, shy academic types with something underhand on the side, lectures on the city's undergound river system, and some lessons in Egyptian mythology.  There's a killer on the loose who leaves no clues and who is ruthless in a hunt for a valuable art treasure.  Bryant and May are out to locate the treasure and capture the criminal before anyone else has to die. 

The use of "water" in the title of this one is very a way.  Because this story is, quite frankly (in my opinion), duller than ditch water.  There are long explanatory, historical bits about the underground rivers.  There are repeated episodes with one of the characters hearing rushing water in her house, fighting off spiders, and thinking that someone is entering her house when she's not there.  There's a long time between the first murder (that no one except Bryant and May considers a murder for quite a while) and the next.  There's a lot of talk and not a whole lot of action.  The mystery could be a quite interesting one....if the story would just move along....

I read the first of this series quite a while ago (pre-blogging days) and all I can tell you about it is that I enjoyed it enough to snatch up a couple of the books when I got a chance.  But I honestly don't think I'll be reading any more.  This one just didn't do it for me.  One star.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Laddie: A True Blue Story

Laddie: A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter is a lot like my mystery favorite The Mystery of Hunting's End.  No, it's not a crime novel.  But I have loved this book for a very long time for a lot of reasons.  Like Hunting's End, it came in a box of books from my Grandma.  It's a first edition--but it's a well-loved, well-used first edition.  The spine covering was none too firm when it arrived and it fell off altogether before I'd managed to read it the first time.  I taped up the binding to keep it as protected as possible and then proceeded to read and reread it.  

When I was young, I longed for a brother.  I grew up with two boy cousins who I adored and there would have been nothing finer, in my opinion, than to have a brother. When I read Laddie...all about Little Sister and how she loved her big brother best of all and what a fine young man Laddie was...well, I wanted a brother just like Laddie.  My cousins were pretty good substitutes, I must say.  They treated their younger cousin pretty well--and they were the next best thing since I had no brothers of my own,.

And, not only did Laddie remind me of my cousins, but Gene Stratton-Porter's stories took place in my neck of the woods.  Little Sister (whose real name is never mentioned) talks about her father selling apples and other goods in Ft. Wayne--which was only an hour away from where I lived.  It was the first book I read that took place in Indiana--and in the very area where I grew up.

Laddie's story is a very sweet, family-oriented one.  Laddie and Little Sister are part of a huge family with twelve children and a mother and father who love each other and their children with all their hearts and who love God most of all.  Their main Christian precept is that God is Love and they show their love to their family, their friends, their neighbors, and even the strangers who come to live and resist becoming part of the community.  It is a very idealistic view of family life in the late 1800s--but it is very nice to think that folks could really be that way.  That they could live the Golden Rule and yet be strong people who stand up for their own.

The story is also about Laddie and his love for the strangers' lovely daughter.  It's about his efforts to break through their resistance and show them what friendship and love are all about.  It's about in your friends, faith in your family, and faith in God to see you through.  And....actually there is a bit of a mystery.  The strangers....the Pryors have a secret trouble.  It's a trouble that keeps them to themselves and makes Mrs. Pryor white-faced, weak, and heart-broken.  It's a mystery that will have to be solved before Laddie can have his girl and the Pryors can truly become part of the community.  And Little Sister plays a major role in helping the happy ending come about.

There are some stories that having read them when you are young, you just can't go back to.  Either you've outgrown them or you've since read other books that make them seem unlikely or something has happened to change your point of view.  Whatever it may's just not the same.  When I sat down to read Laddie, it was like 30-some years just fell away.  The story was just as dear and appealing as it was all those years ago when I longed for a big brother like Laddie.  Five stars for a lovely trip down memory lane and a memorable story that has stood the test of time.


Secrets with Laddie were the greatest joy in life. He was so big and so handsome. He was so much nicer than any one else in our family, or among our friends, that to share his secrets, run his errands, and love him blindly was the greatest happiness. Sometimes I disobeyed father and mother; I minded Laddie like his right hand. (p. 1)

As long as there had been eleven babies, they should have been so accustomed to children that they needn't all of them have objected to me, all except Laddie, of course. That was the reason I loved him so and tried to do every single thing he wanted me to, just the way he liked it done. That was why I was facing the only spot on our land where I was the slightest afraid; because he asked me to. If he had told me to dance a jig on the ridgepole of our barn, I would have tried it. (p. 6)

Do you know that being a stranger is the hardest thing that can happen to any one in all this world? ~Pamela Pryor (p. 16)

Maybe after all it's a good thing to tell people about their meanness and give them a stirring up once in a while. (p. 49)

You always must answer politely any one who speaks to you; and you get soundly thrashed, at least at our house, if you don't be politest of all to an older person especially with white hair.  Father is extremely particular about white hair. (p. 52)

Mother always tells me not to repeat things; but I'm not smart enough to know what to say, so I don't see what is left but to tell what mother, or father, or Laddie says when grown people ask me questions. (p. 58)

Monday, October 21, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is a bookish meme hosted by Book Journey. It's where we gather to share what we have read this past week and what we plan to read this week. It's a great way to network with other bloggers, see some wonderful blogs, and put new titles on your reading list. So hop on over via the link above and join in...and leave a comment here so I can check out what you are reading.
Two weeks later (I missed last week somehow) and I'm further behind.  Here's the list since the last time I checked in:

Books Read (click on titles for review): 
The Haunted Dolls' House by M. R. James
Unthinkable by Richard Cibrano 
Murder at Cambridge by Q. Patrick 
Cold Earth by Sarah Mossm
Dead of a Counterplot by Simon Nash 
Goodness....only five books.  No wonder I'm behind.
Currently Reading:
Laddie: A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter: This is a bright, cheery tale with the scenes laid in Indiana. The story is told by Little Sister, the youngest member of a large family, but it is concerned not so much with childish doings as with the love affairs of older members of the family. Chief among them is that of Laddie, the older brother whom Little Sister adores, and the Princess, an English girls who has come to live in the neighborhood and about whose family there hangs a mystery.

Books that spark my interest:
A Love Worth Giving by Max Lucado
Once Upon a Crime by M. D. Lake
The Water Room by Christopher Fowler
The Wit & Humor of Oscar Wilde by Alvin Redman (ed) 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dead of a Counterplot: Review

Dead of a Counterplot (1962) is the first in a series of academically inclined detective novels by Simon Nash.  Nash is the pen name used by Raymond Chapman, Emeritus Professor of English at London University and an Anglican priest, for five mystery novels published in the 1960s. Professor Chapman worked as a non-stipendiary priest in Southwark, and is currently on the staff at St Mary's Barnes in Southwest London. His police detectives are Inspector Montero and Sergeant Jack Springer, unofficially aided by the gifted amateur and lecturer at North London College, Adam Ludlow. Chapman has also written many books on religious themes and English literature. For more information on Nash/Chapman check out gadetection.  I owe Jon (author of the post) a great debt--previously when I went searching for information on Nash, there was pretty much nothing to be found.  Jon  did his own bit of detective work and tracked Chapman to his current post at St. Mary's.

I've said it many times, so frequent readers of the blog should know: I do love me an academic mystery.  And I was so pleased when I stumbled upon Nash's Killed by Scandal several years ago.  He wrote only five detective novels and I've managed to get my hands on four of them (Dead of a Counterplot; Killed by Scandal; Death Over Deep Water; and Unhallowed Murder).  I'm still on the hunt for the fifth--Dead Woman's Ditch--but fortunately I have two more to read while I hunt.

Counterplot is Ludlow's first venture into amateur detective work. He's visiting with a fellow lecturer and warden of Mudge Hall when Stuart Latham, sub-warden of the men's residence, comes bursting in to tell them that there is a female student strangled in one of the rooms.  Jenny Hexham is the woman--a staunch proponent of the College Communist Party and one who is not willing to let new recruits slip out of the Party's matter what it takes. Even blackmail.  The room just happens to belong to Robert Trent, one of Ludlow's most promising students, who had wandered into the Party's clutches.  So, naturally, the English lecturer must get involved and look for clues and try to clear Trent's name. Trent hasn't helped matters by disappearing from College and he shoots to the top of Inspector Montero's suspect list.

But there are plenty of other suspects too.  There's the suspicious owner of a bookstore--well-known as a Party sympathizer. There's Jenny's cousin who now stands in line to scoop an inheritance that Jenny would have had a share in.  There's Latham who may have known Jenny better than a lecturer should.  There's Henry Prentice who seems much interested in the whereabouts of the missing Trent--but does he want to help or hinder?  And there's the little matter of the Polish student and the porter and a set of keys.  And everybody seems interested in Jenny's missing bracelet.  A bracelet that she said held the secret to her stash of blackmail evidence.  Ludlow will converse with Communists and dawdle at dance halls; he will be slugged and half-strangled himself before he produces an esoteric bit of knowledge that helps bring the crime home to the proper quarter.

This is another lovely little academic mystery to add to my campus crime shelf.  Sure, Ludlow really ought to let the police just do their job, but where's the fun in cozy crime novels if the amateur doesn't dabble in danger?  The clues are fair and even the esoteric knowledge is well within the grasp of an academic with a well-rounded education.  But--supposing the reader doesn't get that clue--it certainly fits with the information we've been given about the characters.  I learned to like Adam Ludlow in Killed by Scandal and it was very nice to go back and see him in his initial outing.  I didn't quite figure it out--although I did get the essential clue.  I just didn't realize that it could point in more than one direction.  Great fun for four stars.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Cold Earth: Review (possible spoilers)

Cold Earth is a debut novel by Sarah Moss.  It is set in Greenland with a team of six archaeologists and researchers from the United States, England and Scotland spending a few weeks at the beginning of the Arctic summer searching for traces of a lost Viking settlement. While they are on the expedition, there is an epidemic of some sort going on and they gradually lose contact with family at home and the outside world in general.  In response, they each write what may be their last letter home.

Added to their increasing distress at what might be happening to the world around them is the unease created by Nina.  Nina isn't really an archaeologist--she's an English major trying to tie Vikings into her research...and a friend of the team leader, Yianni.  Nina begins seeing and hearing things and believes that the ancient Vikings are not pleased to have their resting place disturbed.  With their connection to the outside world lost, food running out, and the possibility that no one will come back to get them, the possibility of a haunted burial site may be the last straw.

Described on the back of the book as an "exceptional and haunting debut novel" and a "heart-pounding thriller," it does sound like there's a lot of cool things going on.  Doesn't it?  Well....there's a lot of really cool ways that this story could have played out.  And it doesn't use any of them.  The ending is incredibly disappointing.  After creating all this tension regarding the "epidemic" back home, we don't really ever find out how this epidemic affected them. Or affected anyone, really.  After building up this atmosphere of a haunted archaeological site, we never find out if it's really haunted or if Nina is just one disturbed academic.  There's the suggestion that it might all be in her head or that she's even behind the odd things that happen (somewhat reminiscent of The Haunting of Hill House), but it's even vaguer than Shirley Jackson's novel on that point.  

This was a fairly decent read.  It kept me going to the end.  But I was thoroughly dissatisfied when I finished. I had very little sympathy with any of the characters--and two of them--Yianni, the team leader, and Ben--get very short shrift indeed.  Nina gives us 103 pages for her letter, Ruth--79...and the letters get shorter and shorter.  While both Yianni and Ben (the last of the writers) give us a mere four pages apiece.  The team leader has only four pages to relate about one of the most important digs of his career?  

So...this is represented as an apocalyptic, end of the world tale with dash of ghost story for added flavor.  It comes off as rather bland and certainly not "thrilling" in any sense of the word.  I didn't hate it--but I can't say that I'll be recommending it. Two stars.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Murder at Cambridge: Review

Murder at Cambridge has what I'm looking for in a British academic mystery: It's funny and witty.  It's set at Cambridge.  There are dons and students and proctors and an absent-minded Master.  We see our characters at class and in Hall and in their lovely, old-fashioned 'varsity rooms (which are way better than the dorms I stayed in here in the States).  We get to attend a cricket match and there's mention of punting on the river.  Not to mention, we've got a pretty decent 1930s campus crime spree. Q. Patrick really has it going on.  

Our narrator is Hilary Fenton, American student studying at Cambridge's All Saints College.  He has never been great pals with the South African student across the hall, but when Julius Baumann calls on him for help, he can't refuse.  Julius asks Fenton and another man to witness a document which he then seals in an envelope and makes Fenton promise to post in the event that Baumann should disappear from Cambridge.  He tells Fenton that he may have to leave suddenly and may not be able post it himself.

That very night there is a dreadful storm, the lights go out, and when Fenton tries to check that all is well with Baumann he finds his fellow student dead from a gunshot wound.  There is cleaner and a rag nearby and it looks like Baumann may have accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun.  "Death by Misadventure" will be the verdict at the inquest.  But Inspector Horrocks doesn't believe it.  Fenton knows it isn't true--but refuses to tell everything because there is evidence (he believes) that will implicate a certain Camilla Lathrop....light of his life and the girl he has just (that day as well) fallen head over heels in love with.  Despite knowing that Fenton is holding back, Horrocks takes him into his confidence and between the two of them, they will bring the culprit to justice.  But not before another death and an attempt on the beloved Camilla.

Q. Patrick is one of the several pen names used by various combinations of four writers (Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge are two others whose mysteries I've sampled) and this is third novel using this particular nom de plume.  Most of the Q. Patrick books are written by Richard Wilson Webb and MaryMott Kelley, but this one is the work of Webb only.  Up till now, I have much preferred the Stagge novels to those written under the Quentin name and I was curious to see what I would think of the Patrick offerings.  

If this one is anything to go by, I like them. I thoroughly enjoy Fenton's outsider point of view and his interactions with the traditional British characters.  My favorite character, however, was the Master of the College, Dr. Martineau Hyssop--portrayed as the absent-minded professor, he is very quick on the uptake when the killer tries poison Camilla with a little prussic acid in her tea.  It's clear that Dr. Hyssop still has it all together--even if he may not have all the names right.  The clues are all there--and there are enough red herrings that I got distracted several times (just like Inspector Horrocks) before coming to the finish line just at the same time as Fenton.  A good solid mystery plot with excellent characters and a nice peek at the 1930s university. Four stars.

Now, to those whose jaded appetites require the constant stimulus of thrills and horror, I am afraid that this chronicle to date must have appeared hopelessly dull and singularly devoid of dramatic incident...Nothing in that to make a song about--let alone a mystery story. No? Well, the unexpected happens so seldom at Cambridge.

Today it had happened twice, and yet these extraordinary happenings afterwards seemed like the quiet lull before the storm if strange incidents that were to follow--mere hors d'oeuvres preceding a regular orgy of unexpectedness. (p. 20)

Whatever the truth about our Master, the longevity of the Cambridge don is notorious. The excellence of the college cellar is probably responsible, on the principle that the better the preservative the longer the preservative. (p. 48)

 ... I was ready to weigh, with impartiality, the pros and cons of the Baumann case. I went to my room, rolled up my sleeves and proceeded, literally and metaphorically, to sharpen my pencil. Would I could have sharpened my wits to that same fine point. (p. 82)

Having lived for almost a year among young Englishmen, I had realized the sad truth that distinction in athletics seemed to supersede all other worldly and spiritual considerations. To be a "blood" at Cambridge meant more to the average undergraduate than the hopes of a ringside seat in heaven. (p. 89)

Cambridge, apparently is proof against all outward chance and inward circumstances, It goes serenely on. Dynasties may totter, currencies may crash and a sick world may writhe in postwar agonies, But undergraduates still attend or cut their lectures, they hold their debates at the Union and they continue to exchange rather painful persiflage on religion, sex and communism over pale tea and improbable cakes from Matthews. So it has been, so it shall always be. (p. 114)

For, during the past eighty or ninety years Dr. Martineau Hyssop had had abundant opportunity to perfect the art of saying the right things to the wrong people....But he dropped his little bricks so charmingly that they seldom, if ever, fell on sensitive corns. A great deal is forgiven a man who has lived through four or five generations and retained his interest in the things that go on in the world around him.  Still more must be forgiven a man who has always been careful never to say the wrong thing to the right person. (p. 123)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Unthinkable: Review

Unthinkable by Richard Cibrano is a book that I expected to like.  It had a lot of things going for it...Time Period: early 20th Century.  Subject: the sinking of the Titanic. Mystery: was there more to that tragedy than meets the eye?  It involved the Pinkerton Detective Agency and a cross-Atlantic conspiracy.  What was there not to like?

Item One: The Present Tense narrative--that's what.  I guess I'm picky--but if you're telling me a story, then the story has already happened. You went here.  You did that.  You talked to those people over there.  I just don't get the recent craze with present tense.  I've read quite a few new releases that seem to think telling it like it's happening right now is the best thing since sliced bread.  It's not. It's awkward.  It makes the narrative ungainly.  It feels laborious. It just doesn't work. It especially doesn't work when that's your primary narrative tense and then you throw in several quick-changes to past tense.  That's even more uneven.

Item Two: There is way too much telling and not enough showing going on.  We get tons of narrative telling us what Pinkerton, or his operatives, or Ismay, or J.P. Morgan and company, or British Intelligence or whoever did off-stage.  Then a bunch of dialogue mixed in with what's happening (currently, right now, present tense).  Then more telling about stuff.  Just let the characters do--let the reader follow along and see what actually happened.

Item Three: Minor point--but the word is used repeatedly and it began to bug the crap out of me.  The word scam, according to every website I can find as well as my good, old-fashioned hardbound dictionary, was first used in mainstream America in the 1960s. Fifty years after the events in this novel.  No wonder Pinkerton and company sometimes sound like private investigators from the James Bond era.

There...I got all the complaints out of my system.  Now, let me tell you what I liked about this novel.  First and foremost, kudos for the sheer audacity of the idea.   Here it is:  So, what if the sinking of the Titanic wasn't just the unfortunate run-in with an iceberg that we've always thought?  What if there was this huge plot to take the ship down and start an international incident?  Maybe even war? Wow.  And the thing is Cibrano really made me believe it could have happened.  It's scary to think it could have happened--that men could be so ruthless in the pursuit of their own goals.  The investigation is logical and the events that lead up to what could have been the greatest confidence scheme in recent history make such an event seem perfectly plausible.

The Pinkerton Agency is contacted by former President Theodore Roosevelt to investigate just such a possibility.  Roosevelt has received a letter from his former adviser, Major Archibald Butt, which was mailed just before the Titanic set sail.  Since assisting Roosevelt, Butt has been serving current President Taft and was on his way back from a diplomatic visit to Italy.  Butt writes that a representative from Italy had told him in confidence that there were rumors of a plot to bring about world war.  This plot would focus on the sinking of a passenger liner and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the launch of the mighty Titanic made her a prime target.  Now that the White Star's pride has indeed gone down, Roosevelt wants Allan Pinkerton and his men to discover whether there is any truth to the rumors from Italy. What they find is even worse than what is first suspected.

The other very strong component of this novel is the characterization.  I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Allan Pinkerton, Francis Dimaio, and the fresh-from-Dartmouth, young detective Oswald Mogg.  They are well-defined, genuine men of action with very human sides.  Cibrano also does very well with his representation of the already larger-than-life Roosevelt.  He uses the President's well-known phrases and mannerisms to emphasize his character without making him a caricature.

Overall, a fantastic story idea that could benefit from a little bit better delivery.  Still--very enjoyable at 2 and 3/4 quarter stars.  Almost 3 and I will round up on Goodreads.

[Disclaimer: My review policy is posted on my blog, but just to reiterate....The book was offered to me for impartial review by the author's publicists and I have received no payment of any kind. All comments are entirely my own honest opinion.]

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Haunted Dolls' House: Review

The Haunted Dolls' House by M. R. James is a collection of pleasantly creepy short stories.  Just the sort to read on a brisk October evening when the days are drawing closer, ever closer to Halloween. His stories then to be set in a picturesque little village in England--or Sweden or France.  He also likes a good university or abbey or church as the backdrop.  His characters tend to be gentlemanly scholars or just plain gentlemen who come across an obscure bit of knowledge with a supernatural connection that they just can't resist figuring out. Or who run into a curse or a mysterious treasure guarded by a ghost or a maze that's been shut up for years--but no one knows why.  Almost always, the gentleman/scholar discovers some ancient book or object that brings the wrath of the otherwordly down upon him.

As with most short story collections, this is a mixed bag.  There are some outstanding stories such as the title story--which tells about a Gothic dolls' house where a deadly drama is enacted each night at 1 am.  The newest owner believe he's gotten a bargain when he buys the house at a bottom dollar (bottom pound?) price.  But he soon finds out his mistake. There is also "Casting of the Runes" which, if nothing else, gives academics the perfect revenge against those publishers and journal editors who refuse to print their work.  A nice runic curse is just the thing to prove that your life's work is nothing to trifle with.  Just be sure it doesn't come back to haunt you. The creepiest story by far is "Lost Hearts"--I won't ruin it, but let's just say that if you're alone in the world and under 21, then you don't want Mr. Abney taking pity on you and offering you a home.  Really.  Go live in the woods and eat berries.  It'd be way better.  "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" is the first story in the collection and probably the most well-known.  I've seen it several times in collections and it never ceases to give me a chill or two.  A professor goes on a golfing holiday combined with an intent to get some scholarly work done.  His colleague asks him to check out a possible archeological site in the area and let him know if it would worth setting up a dig.  When he does, he discovers a metal pipe that looks like some sort of ancient whistle.  He learns that you should be careful when you blow on whistles.  You never know what might answer your call.

The story which I found least interesting was "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance."  The story of the haunted maze just didn't evoke the same sense of the supernatural as the others in the collection.  The atmosphere doesn't quite work as well.  Which is unfortunate because of all the stories, it's the only one I snagged any quotations from--but they are both about books (see below).  Over all, this is a fine bunch of spooky stories to while away an evening.  A high number of excellent stories, a few that are good, and just a couple that aren't quite up to standard.  Three and a half stars.

I've always taken a keen interest in literature myself. Hardly anything to my mind can compare with a good hour's reading after a hard day's work.... ~Mr. Cooper (p. 159)

The library was the obvious place for the after-dinner hours. Candle in hand and pipe in mouth, he moved round the room for some time, taking stock of the titles of the books. He had all the predisposition to take interest in an old library, and there was every opportunity for him to make systematic acquaintance with one....There were probably treasures to be found, too: even manuscripts, if Cooper might be trusted. (p. 161)

Winner! Mountaineering Checkpoint #3

So, I got all wrapped up looking forward to the Red Cross Book Sale this year I only managed to add 48 new-to-me books to my TBR pile for next year (that's not too bad, is it? We won't talk about the stacks of books I already had.)....and realized that, Hey!  I need to post about the September Checkpoint.  And now it's time to find a winner for the Checkpoint prize.  So....without further ado, I will just plug in the random number generator and enter in the parameters....and the lights flash and webpage whirs and we get  (drum roll, please).....Link #6!  That means that neer @ hot cup of pleasure is our winner!  Congratulations, neer!  I'll be contacting you soon with the prize list.

Thanks to everyone for participating in the check-in.  I enjoy seeing your progress so far. Thanks as well to all climbers for joining me in scaling those Mount TBR heights.  Good luck in the last leg!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Peril on the Screen: The Haunting

Back on September 24th I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.  It had been billed as "super scary" and a book that "scared the crap" out of more than one of my blogging buddies.  I didn't find it to be quite so scary to read (click on title above for my review).  So I decided to give the 1963 movie adaptation, The Haunting, starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, and Richard Johnson a try as another entry for Carl's R.I.P. event.

I found Nelson Gidding's script and Robert Wise's direction to be much more affecting than reading the novel.  While, the script does remain pretty faithful to the novel, Gidding read the book as more about mental deterioration than the supernatural and, even after a meeting with Shirley Jackson in which she stressed that the book was, indeed, about the supernatural, Gidding kept elements of mental breakdown in the story.  The viewer is left with even more definite questions about Eleanor's stability in the movie than in the novel.  Her mental fragility is exquisitely portrayed by Julie Harris--and even when the scenes make it clear that all members of the "ghost-hunting" party have experienced a taste of the other-worldly, we are tempted to believe that it's all in Eleanor's mind.

The cast, director, and crew all work together to create a perfectly spooky film.  A film that is regarded by many as the best, most unsettling horror film of all time--and has made the top twenty of many lists of horror movies.  I much prefer my spooky films in black and white with the atmosphere building up most of the suspense.  This is the way to scare me--no blood and gore, no crazy, slashing psycho-killers.  Everything from the lighting, to the music, to the pounding, to the indistinct voices, to the door that appears to "breathe" works together to thoroughly creep the viewer out.  When the trap door opened above the stairway balcony, I thought I was a goner.  A marvelous "thrills and chills" movie that did an excellent job with Jackson's book.

(also viewed for the Book to Movie Challenge--book review linked above)

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is a bookish meme hosted by Book Journey. It's where we gather to share what we have read this past week and what we plan to read this week. It's a great way to network with other bloggers, see some wonderful blogs, and put new titles on your reading list. So hop on over via the link above and join in...and leave a comment here so I can check out what you are reading.

I keep flirting with the "on track" designation on Goodreads--but I don't seem to be be able to stay on track or get ahead.  Read, Bev, read!:

Books Read (click on titles for review): 
The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson 
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
The Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier
Currently Reading:
The Haunted Doll's House by M. R. James: A macabre human drama is enacted in a Gothic dolls' house; a whistle awakens a force of unspeakable malevolence; an ancient curse is passed from person to person; a grisly crime is avenged from beyond the grave; the tomb of a Swedish count will not rest quietly....M. R. James's chilling ghost stories reveal a world where the familiar becomes diabolical, the smallest object can lead to unimaginable horror, and evil brushes against everyday life in the most unexpected and sinister of ways.
Books that spark my interest:
A Love Worth Giving by Max Lucado 
Dead of a Counterplot by Simon Nash
Murder at Cambridge by Q. Patrick  
Once Upon a Crime by M. D. Lake 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Challenge Complete: A-Z Mystery Authors

I was so pleased when Michelle decided to run this challenge again.  Mysteries are my mainstay and any challenge that requires mystery-reading is a good thing, I say.  Last year I managed the entire alphabet even after declaring my commitment as letters A-M...but a few of those letters in the second half of the ABCs can be tricky. So once again, I committed to just A-M.  I had pre-planned my "M" read, but when I sat down to tackle Whatever Goes Up by Bertram Millhauser, I found that I just couldn't get into it.  I had read Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh earlier this year (as well as a few other "M" authors that could just as easily count) I slotted her in instead.

Here's my conquered list:
A: The Silence of Herondale by Joan Aiken (4/21/13)
B: The Chinese Parrot by Earl Derr Biggers (6/18/13)
C: Veiled Murder by Alice Campbell (1/28/13)
D: Sally's in the Alley by Norbert Davis (3/25/13)
E: The Mystery of Hunting's End by Mignon G. Eberhart (3/29/13)
F: The Devil's Stronghold by Leslie Ford (4/21/13)
G: The Case of the Careless Kitten by Erle Stanley Gardner (7/23/13)
H: Murder on Safari by Elspeth Huxley (6/8/13)
I: The Long Farewell by Michael Innes (8/3/13)
J: Malcolm Sage: Detective by Herbert Jenkins (9/8/13)
K: Holiday Homicide by Rufus King (4/23/13)
L: The Lady in the Morgue by Jonathan Latimer (3/10/13)
M: Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh (8/28/13)

I am certainly not done.  I'll keep on reading and see if I can complete the second half by year's end.
N: Dead of a Counterplot by Simon Nash
O: The World's Best 100 Short Stories III: Mystery by Grant Overton (ed) [2/24/13]
P: The Puzzle of the Silver Persian by Stuart Palmer (1/15/13)
Q: Black Widow by Patrick Quentin (4/3/13)
R: The Quiet Road to Death by Sheila Radley
S: Murder at Markham by Patricia Sprinkle (1/26/13)
T: Aaron's Serpent by Emily Thorn (2/22/13)
U: The Mountains Have a Secret by Arthur W. Upfield (4/16/13)
V: Maid to Murder by Roy Vickers
W: Corpses at Indian Stones by Philip Wylie (2/7/13)
X: Choice of Evils by E. X. Ferrars (5/4/13)
Y: The Small Hours of the Morning by Margaret Yorke
Z: A Habit for Death by Chuck Zito