Monday, April 30, 2018

The French Powder Mystery: Review

The French Powder Mystery (1930) by Ellery Queen has a quite startling beginning. A crowd is gathered on the sidewalk outside of French's Department Store (a very Macy's-like place) eager to watch the daily demonstration of the latest in modern furnishings. The store employee steps into the model living room and bedroom and noon, precisely, begins showing the spectators the amenities of the suite. The focal point is the Murphy bed, hidden in the wall until the demonstrator pushes an ivory button and out pops a most modern bed complete with satin sheets...and the crumpled body of woman. 

It isn't long before the woman is identified as the wife of Cyrus French, owner of the store, and French's head of security wastes no time getting hold of the police. Inspector Richard Queen is called to the case and arrives with his son Ellery in tow. The police, including the inspector, tend to focus on the obvious clues, but Ellery's eyes are scanning everything and taking in all the minor details. Books on a desk, a glass-topped table, a setting for a card game, cigarette stubs in an ashtray, the dead woman's lipstick, the display of shoes in a closet and seemingly innocuous phrases in various witnesses' statements all catch his attention and add to the solution.

There are several suspects for the Queens to sift through--employees of the store, Winifred French's first husband, or perhaps even her missing daughter. Motives abound as well--the dead woman had headstrong ways and when she decided to interfere there was little to stop her. Perhaps she interfered just one too many times or perhaps she set her foot down on toes that had been trodden on more than enough? There are also hints that all is not as it should be at French's and maybe Mrs. French stumbled upon the secrets hidden underneath the oh-so-correct surface of the most proper department store. Leave it Ellery to sort through the clues and see through the lies and half-truths told by the suspects in order to hand his father the culprit on a silver platter (from French's kitchenware department, perhaps?).

An intricately plotted mystery with clues galore. I thoroughly enjoy the older Queen novels with cast of characters at the beginning, a few maps to help the reader get their bearings, and the challenge break where the reader is told they have all the information necessary to spot the culprit. I had my suspicions of the villain of the piece, but I can't say that I picked up (or understood) all of the clues Ellery displays at the end. A nicely done bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of Ellery Queen (Dannay & Lee). ★★

[Finished on 4/24/18]

SPOILER AHEAD--if you haven't read The French Powder Mystery or all of Dorothy L. Sayers's Wimsey novels, then you might want to steer clear.

So--one thing that struck me when reading this was the similarities between TFPM and Murder Must Advertise. Both concern a drug ring using a very proper establishment as a means to notify gang members and/or customers of the location for doling out drugs. The code used in MMA is a little less elaborate than the book system used here, but both plots are dependent upon the cooperation or involvement of at least one member of the establishment. It is also interesting that in both novels, something goes wrong with system (prior to the police catching on) and the eager buyers are disappointed.

April Key Word Reviews (Catch-up Linky)

I am so embarrassed!!! I just realized that I never got the link set up for April Key Words. (hangs head in shame). That's what happens when your moderator gets so far behind on her reviews that she's just now trying to post the April Key Word book that she read on April 13th. So--I've set this one up to run two weeks into May so April can have its own place.

April Key Words = Clear, Rain, Lily, Basket, Out, Gather, Valley, All, Cross
Please link up reviews for any books read with the April Key Word (or "tweaked" variation) here:


Mrs. Malory & the Lilies that Fester: Review

In Mrs. Malory & the Lilies that Fester (2001), Hazel Holt dishes up a cozy British village mystery featuring that expert on 19th-Century novelist and sometime amateur detective Sheila Malory. Sheila finds herself most personally involved when the unsavory Gordon Masefield is murdered in his law office. Gordon was a womanizer and wasn't about putting the moves on any woman who came into his scope--whether she was attached elsewhere or not.

Thea Wyatt is also an attorney in the law office. She had recently returned to Taviscombe to take the job on offer and met Sheila's son Michael. Sheila can sense Cupid at work and is delighted when Michael and Thea announce their engagement. But not too long after this happy event, Thea comes rushing to Sheila's house, quite disturbed. It seems that Gordon Masefield had been particularly offensive in  his latest efforts to seduce the newest member of the law team and when Thea pushed him away, he stumbled off-balance and stunned himself himself against the desk.  

But when Sheila calls the office to let her friend Hugh know that Thea won't be returning for the day, she finds the police in possession of the office and Gordon Masefield dead from a blunt instrument to the head. Since Thea was observed fleeing the building, the police naturally suspect her of the deed even though she swears Gordon was still alive and nowhere near fatally injured when she ran from the building. Sheila obviously believes her future daughter-in-law to be innocent and sets out to discover the real culprit. There are many suspects to sift through--from all the other employees in the law office to Gordon's family. The man was a real charmer and attracted enmity the way light attracts moths. It would probably be simpler for Sheila to determine who didn't have a motive to kill the offensive womanizer.

It doesn't take Sheila and Michael long to dig up evidence that clears Thea, but after her ordeal at the hands of the police, Thea doesn't want to go ahead with the wedding plans until the real culprit is behind bars. Sheila is even more determined to investigate than ever and through chance conversations and planned encounters, she is able to discern the answer to the mystery. But bringing the killer to justice may not be as easy as she thought.

This is a comfortable murder mystery in a very comfortable cozy series. The plots are not intricate and it doesn't require a lot of heavy deductions on the part of the reader. Placid village life is interrupted by murder; everyone is suitably appalled; Sheila Malory makes her way through the gossip of the town; and, eventually, the crime is unraveled. Little fuss and no muss...and sometimes that just what the doctor ordered.  I appreciate having series like Mrs. Malory to go to when I want a simple murder mystery in a pleasant setting with friendly, uncomplicated characters. Fine reading for a lazy evening.  ★★

[Finished on 4/13/18]

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Review

This is an Illustrated Classics edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. With such a famous story that I've read many times (most recently reviewed HERE), I'm not going to give a synopsis. This particular version deserves its own entry (and, incidentally, counts as a different book for Mount TBR) because it is a graphic novel version of the celebrated Holmes story. I first discovered Pendulum Press's illustrated editions of classic stories when I was in elementary school. I ordered up Dracula and Frankenstein (among others) from the Scholastic Book Club and thoroughly enjoyed these comic book styled editions of well-known books. But I don't remember Holmes being available to me--the publication date is 1977--and I'm quite sure if it had been I would have ordered it up as well.

The illustrations provided by E. R. Cruz are fantastic and make the Holmes story accessible to young readers. It is also quite delightful to read as an adult--particularly as an adult with a sense of nostalgia harking back to the other illustrated classics I have known and loved. I definitely recommend this edition for children interested in classic stories who may not be ready for lengthy texts without illustrations. I know that these editions greatly increased my interest in Dracula as well as Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Around the World in 80 Days★★★★

[Finished on 4/11/18]

A Vow of Penance: Review

A Vow of Penance (1994) by Veronica Black is the fifth in this convent-based series starring Sister Joan. In this particular installment, Sister Joan is struggling during the Lenten season with her her far from Christian dislike of two new personalities within the order. There is the grim Sister Jerome who seems intent on making the season of Penance even more arduous than necessary and the newly ordained, very joyless Father Timothy who has come to fill in while their beloved Father Malone takes a much deserved sabbatical.

When she discusses the arrival of the two newcomers with the rectory housekeeper, Mrs. Fairly is sure that she's heard the name Sister Jerome somewhere before but cannot recall the circumstances. "I'll recall where I heard that name if I don't consciously think about it." Later that evening Sister Joan receives a puzzling (and far-from-complete due to a bad connection) phone call from Mrs. Fairly asking her to meet her in town at a cafe because "New lay--remembered where--not willing to trouble Father with--ten tomorrow." But when the nun arrives at the cafe she is joined at her table not by the bustling housekeeper but by Detective Sergeant Mill who informs her that Mrs. Fairly is dead--an apparent suicide.

Sister Joan refuses to believe that. She insists that the housekeeper was not the type and that even if she's wrong about that Mrs. Fairly would never had made an appointment to meet her if she planned on killing herself. She prods Mill into looking more closely into the death and does a little discreet detecting on her own. She's even given subtle encouragement to do so when Mother Dorothy assigns her to serve as housekeeper for the the priests until a full-time replacement can be found. Unfortunately, there will be two more victims and a bloody ax will appear on the chapel altar before Mills and Sister Joan can get to the bottom of the mystery. There are other puzzles as well. Why have the convent's trees been vandalized? Is there a connection similar vandalism that happened many years ago? And what was so important about Mrs. Fairly's purse?

This is an entertaining cozy mystery with just a hint of more gore than may be usual for the genre. Sister Joan is a spunky nun with an interesting relationship with Detective Mill. It is refreshing to see a relationship that doesn't depend on romance or sexual tension. Fully developed characters with realistic dialogue give a good foundation to the story. The culprit may not be well-hidden (after all, we aren't exactly given a great number to choose from), but figuring out the motive is a bit more difficult. Veronica Black weaves a convincing story that depends on the past to explain the present. ★★

[Finished on 4/11/18]

My Reader's Block in Books

So, Adam over at Roof Beam Reader posted about this little meme he saw at On Bookes (originally from Fictionophile) and thought it looked fun. I decided that I hadn't participated in a “meme” here at the Block for quite a while, so why not join Adam and the others? 

The rules
  1. Spell out your blog’s name. 
  2. Find a book from your TBR that begins with each letter. (Note you cannot ADD to your TBR to complete this challenge – the books must already be on your TBR.)
  3. Have fun!  
















Thursday, April 26, 2018

Challenge Complete: Charity Reading

Charity Reading Challenge
Host: Becky's Book Reviews (sign up here)
Duration: January-December 2018
# of books: You decide: I'm going for 12

Read for a good cause! Buy books at a charity shop, or, even a friends of the library book sale, or, donate a certain percentage of money for each book you read for the challenge. You can choose your own goal of how many books to read, what charity you'll be donating money towards, how much money, etc. (For example, you might want to donate $1 for each paperback you read, or, $3 for every hardback you read. You can work out the details yourself.) For full details click on link above.

I signed up for my usual 12 and completed that milestone on March 30th. I'm still reading, though and will continue to log my charity books read as well as keeping tabs on my charity book spending.

1. World's Best Science Fiction:1966 by Donald Wollheim & Terry Carr, eds [from Red Cross Book Sale 2014] (1/9/18) 
2. The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction Eighth Series edited by Anthony Boucher [from the FOL used book shop] (1/28/18) 
3. The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Ripper Legacy by David Stuart Davies [from FOL used book shop] (1/31/18) 
4. Lament for a Lady Laird by Margot Arnold [from FOL used book shop] (2/3/18) 
5. The Pink Camellia by Temple Bailey [from FOL used book shop] (2/5/18) 
6. The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird [from Hoosier Hills Book Sale 2017] (2/16/18) 
7. Odor of Violets by Baynard Kendrick [Hoosier Hills Book Sale 2015] (2/27/18) 
8. Dog Will Have His Day by Fred Vargas [FOL used book shop] (3/4/18) 
9. Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain [FOL used book shop] (3/10/18) 
10. The Sign of the Book by John Dunning [FOL used book shop] (3/23/18) 
12. Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner [FOL used book shop] (3/30/18) 

Commitment Complete!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Death of a Hoosier Schoolmaster: Review

Death of a Hoosier Schoolmaster (2002) by Marlis Day is one of those books that I picked up because of my affinity for academic mysteries. This one is full of academic connections. The protagonist of the Day series is Margo Brown, a modern day Indiana schoolteacher who manages to get involved in mysteries in the Midwest the way Jessica Fletcher does in Cabot Cove. This particular installment finds Margo researching the murder of Gus Steiner 55 years ago. Steiner was also a Hoosier teacher who was once the owner of the Margo's property.

The mystery comes to her attention when she discovers an old gun buried in her garden plot. She learns about Steiner--a man who was a stern disciplinarian and who no one in the community seemed to have mourned once he was dead. There was a brief trial that saw the man's sons accused and acquitted of the deed and no follow-up afterward to find the actual culprit. 

What begins as curiosity about the history behind her property soon turns into a full-fledged investigation, but Margo discovers that few people with memories long enough to reach back 55 years really want to talk about the incident. The tidbits she gleans make her even more curious and the reluctance of the townspeople to dig up the past takes a darker turn. Somebody really doesn't want the truth to come out and may be willing to create mayhem to keep their family secrets buried in the past where they belong.

******Possible Spoiler/s Ahead*******

This is truly a cozy mystery. No blood. No gore. No explicit violence. The only murder is long in the past and while Margo does fall into a bit of danger, there really isn't a sense that her life is at risk. The motive for the murder isn't too hard to guess, but there is a bit of a twist at the end to add interest. Not really a true whodunnit murder mystery, but a charming read and especially interesting for those, like me, who are from Southern Indiana. Day reflects small town Indiana accurately and provides witty dialogue in her comfortably cozy mystery. ★★

[Finished on 4/10/18]

TNB: The Great Detectives (Scholarly Sleuths)

As I noted in my last enstallment, when The Tuesday Night Bloggers heard that a book called The 100 Greatest Literary Detectives, edited by Eric Sandberg and including contributions from various writers – including our own Kate Jackson was coming out to educate the unsuspecting about some of the best detectives in the business, we were excited. But then as we sat and munched on toasted crumpets and sipped our tea, we decided to revive our weekly meetings and discuss the detectives we think ought to be included in any list of the "Greatest" detectives. Because no matter how good Eric Sandberg is, he's bound to miss somebody worthwhile. We also wanted to include some of the really good detectives who don't get as much press as say a Sherlock Holmes or a Miss Jane Marple or (ahem) Hercule Poirot [many press clippings for our Belgian sleuth may found over at Brad's place Ah Sweet Mystery Blog aka "The Shrine To Agatha Christie"].

As Moira mentioned in her first post over at Clothes in Books, some of us have decided to divide our detectives up into categories--including yours truly. I've had quite a month and haven't been able to devote quite the attention to the task that I would have liked. In fact, I managed to miss last week's meeting altogether. So, this week I'm going to squeeze in a quick look at last week's focus: Scholarly Sleuths.

Anyone who has paid much attention to what happens here at The Block, knows that I have quite an affinity for mysteries with an academic bent. I work in the English Department of a university, so I feel quite at home in the halls of academe. And, truth be told, it's sometimes quite satisfying to read about academic types getting their comeuppance. There are a number of academics who have taken up their magnifhying glasses and gone hunting for clues. From an early amateur detective in The Professor's Mystery (1911) who finds himself wrapped up in a more romantic mystery than a true murder to the more modern Kate Fansler who stars in books by Amanda Cross. But the two I want to promote are Adam Ludlow in a series of five books by Simon Nash and Stuart Palmer's schoolteacher -turned-detective, Hildegarde Withers.

Adam Ludlow is my favorite type of academic sleuth. He is scholarly and erudite without being pompous. He is full of apt quotations and specialized knowledge that help to solve the mystery, but his knowledge isn't anything that would be outside the grasp of someone with a well-rounded education. He is also human enough to make mistakes and encourage the reader to think that they might have every bit as good a chance of solving the mystery as Ludlow. The other strong feature in his favor is that his final outing (Unhallowed Murder) serves up a mystery that is just as strong as the previous stories. Nash (aka Raymond Chapman, Emeritus Professor of English at London University and an Anglican priest) provides consistently intriguing plots for Ludlow to unravel and interesting characters for him to interact with. I have not yet read the fourth in the series, but I have every reason to believe that Adam Ludlow will provide an entertaining academic sleuthing adventure equal to his others.

Palmer's scholarly sleuth, Hildegarde Withers is what Miss Marple might have been if she had been born in America and taken up teaching as an occupation. Like Miss Marple who uses her knowledge of personality and character types from village life to inform her observations in questions of murder, Miss Withers uses her experience as teacher to aid her efforts at investigation. After all, “[She's] taught school long enough to know when anybody is telling the truth or not.” Her sharp eyes and inquisitive intellect are often a help to Inspector Oscar Piper. And, like her pupils, she holds Piper to a higher standard--not allowing him to settle for the easiest, most convenient, or most politic answer when it's obvious it's not the correct one.  
Miss Wither's mysteries are a little more action-oriented than Miss Marple's (or even Adam Ludlow's) and they are filled with Palmer's characteristic humor. Her stubborn commonsense approach very often comes into humorous opposition to the gruff police detective Piper. But they play well off of one another and Piper calls her "God's horse gift to all dumb cops." 

I intended to to a round of Dynamic Duos--featuring Colonel Primrose/Grace Lathem [Leslie Ford]; Jeff & Haila Troy [Kelley Roos]; and Lord Peter Wimsey & Bunter [Dorothy L Sayers]. After all, I did tell my fellow Tuesday Night Bloggers that I would cage fight them for Lord Peter--but, alas, April has proved to be a cruel month for blogging (I am SO behind on my reviews!) and I'm just not going to be able to do justice to the last group. Perhaps a future post on these detective twosomes may materialize....

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Zero Trap: Review

The Zero Trap (1979) by Paula Gosling is what I'm going to dare to call a soft-boiled thriller. We are in the late 1970s onboard a U.S. army plane with nine passengers who are gassed in mid-flight from the Mideast and wake up to find themselves hostages somewhere in the frozen landscape of Finland. The hostages are a fairly motley group: a sexy nightclub singer, an astronomy professor, a policeman and the accused murderer he was to escort back to the States, an engineer with his wife and son, a military man, and our heroine, Laura--the daughter of a general with connections to the United Nations.

When the hostages wake up from their drug-induced sleep, they find a note propped on the mantelpiece explaining their situation:


How very polite. But of course the group finds it difficult to just accept their plight and it is the mild-mannered Professor Skinner who begins thinking of ways to outwit their captors--from devising a means for sending coded messages in the photographs taken of them (to prove to the outside world the captives are alive and well) to cannibalizing materials from the house to make a snowsuit and "boots" to brave the cold [they've been left with few clothes and nothing that would withstand the freezing temperatures]. 

Meanwhile, General Ainslie (Laura's dad) is informed that his daughter's plane has gone missing and when he gets a list of the passengers, he and his staff try to figure out what the motive might be. He's very concerned that the hi-jacking has been aimed at him--because of his connections to a U.N. effort to build an Arctic model-city. That makes his daughter a target. But the target could also be Professor Skinner whose brother is Captain in the British navy and involved in the intrigues of the Cold War. Or possibly Sergeant Goade is more than just the Embassy supply sergeant he's listed as. Could the engineering job that took Tom Morgan to the Middle East have been more important than any one knew? But when a message aimed at Ainslie comes direct from the terrorists, he's sure his daughter is the primary hostage. 

The demands are steep--$3 million in gold, various specified  prisoners released, a command performance concert with very particular musicians and conductor, the way, the cancellation of the U.N.'s pet project in the Arctic. The first three will be complicated--but do-able. Ainslie insists to his go-between contact that he doesn't have the influence the terrorists obviously think he has--nobody is going to cancel such a project because he asks them to. Captain Skinner arrives and the men plan how to find the hostages before time runs out. And when the photographs start coming in, Skinner is sure his brother is trying to tell them something in the pictures--but what?

It's a race against time on both sides--and it's complicated by the fact that somewhere in the midst of the hostages there is a secret agent on the run. Then the hostages begin die. Is the agent responsible? Or is there another motive for murder among the nine disparate people?

This is a lively thriller. Gosling's strength is in her characters--particularly Laura, Professor Skinner, and the Morgan's young son, Timothy. Skinner is really fleshed out with a back-story that explains much of his motivation for various actions and interactions which he has with some of the other men. The dual story lines (following the hostages and then following actions of General Ainsley's group) works really well here. I don't always enjoy stories with multiple viewpoints or that jump back and forth between scenes, but Gosling's presentation is smooth and interesting. She also gives the story a few definite twists, producing an exhilarating and surprising ending. ★★★★

My good friend Yvette reviewed this one several years ago. Be sure to check out her take on it HERE.

[Finished on 4/8/18]

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Death in Ecstasy: Review

Death in Ecstasy (1936) by Ngaio Marsh finds Inspector Roderick Alleyn's some-time Watson, Nigel Strangeways, bored on a rainy, blustery London night. He gazes discontentedly out his window and notices a sign glinting in the light as the wind gusts and jostles it about: House of the Sacred Flame. A mysterious-sounding place and as he watches members of the obscure sect enter the sacred portals, he decides that attending the services of a strange religious group is just what he needs to liven up a dull evening. Who knows--there might even be a story in it. Little does he suspect just how much news he's going to find behind the doors.

This particular Sunday night was a special one--a monthly service in which The Chosen Vessel, in this case one Miss Cara Quayne, having been prepared through a month of preparatory sessions with Father Garnette--the founder, reaches a state of Ecstasy through ceremony. Bathgate watches as a sacred chalice is passed among the faithful. There's a bit of chanting, Cara drinks from the cup, and falls down at the feet of the priest. 

My friends...My friends, our beloved sister has been vouchsafed the greatest boon of all. She is in ecstasy. Let us sing our hymn to Pan, the God-in-all.

But--as one of the Initiates points out...

It's not. It's not. She's dead. I touched her. She's dead!

Dr. Kasbek, a member of the congregation comes forward and confirms the Initiate's declaration. They are about to clear the House when Nigel suggests that no one should leave just yet and perhaps the police should be called. After all--the woman's mouth and eyes look a bit odd and there's a certain smell. The doctor investigates further and agrees with Nigel that it looks very like poison. The newsman uses the phone to call in his old friend Inspector Alleyn.

Alleyn walks into a place of mystery that is nonetheless full of very familiar worldly motives for murder--greed, jealousy, and lust to name a few. There are seven suspects all with reasons to want the lovely Cara dead--from those who were jealous of her chosen position with Father Garnette to those with a taste for the "special cigarettes" that light the way to ecstasy to those who were greedy for her wealth...either for themselves or to fill the coffers of the Sacred Flame. It's up to Alleyn with the help of Inspector Fox and Nigel to sift the clues and find those that point to the murderer.

Marsh does atmosphere very well in this one. Her theatrical background lends itself to creating the slightly over-the-top trappings of the Sacred Flame. A cult that embraces all the gods of everywhere and every time and the sacred words and chants of them all. And she presents it without it seeming like the incredible mishmash that it is. Alleyn may raise his eyebrows at it, but while the ceremony is in progress, even the worldly journalist Bathgate is swept up in the moment and lulled by the words of the priest. It's easy to see how the Initiates could be wrapped up in the cult. 

Well-written with skillful plotting, though not quite as mystifying as her previous work. ★★

[Finished on 4/7/18]

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Wrong Box: Review

 Body, body--Who's got the body?!

The Wrong Box (1889) is a hilarious mystery spoof by Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. It revolves around Masterson and Joseph Finsbury, two brothers who are the last surviving beneficiaries of a tontine. A tontine is a rather diabolical "investment" scheme--subscribers pay into a fund that is then invested for the lifetime of the participants. It is a winner-take-all scheme meaning that the only one to benefit is the last man or woman standing. This, of course, puts all sorts of temptation in the way of the participants (and/or their heirs)--especially once the numbers start to dwindle naturally. I, mean, after all if you have to live to be 100 in order to outlive the competition just how much are you going to be able to enjoy the spoils? And one's sons or nephews might also think it a good idea to shuffle the competition (and you--last, of course) off the playing field so they have an opportunity to enjoy it for you.

Michael Finsbury is Masterson's son. He is a successful lawyer who isn't afraid to skate a little close to the wind if necessary to get a client off and win a case. Morris and John Finsbury are nephews (and wards) of Joseph. Because Joseph was not the best of businessmen and managed to fritter away what little money he held in trust for his nephews, Morris has gotten the old man to sign over his winnings from the tontine (should he outlast Masterson). So--more than ever, Morris spends his days watching over dear Uncle Joseph just to be sure that he doesn't catch a cold that turns into pneumonia and leads to death before tontine. 

He also has a vague feeling that his Uncle Masterson is really dead and Michael is just pretending the old boy is still alive and kicking while he waits for Joseph to keel over. Once that happens, he [Michael] will produce a "tame doctor" who will verify Masterson's death (after Joseph's) and Michael will scoop the pot. This must be avoided at all costs.

Morris decides that the best plan would be to head to the country with Uncle Joseph and keep him all cozy at the seaside where he can breathe the lovely country air and be just as healthy as can be. Plans go awry when there is a train smash-up and an elderly dead body is found in the rubble--with bruised face and wearing what seems to be Uncle Joseph's coat. Morris and John are in despair--there goes their inheritance! So they decide to stash the body in an out-of-the-way cottage until Morris comes up with a plan to ship uncle's body to himself in a huge barrel. The barrel gets mislabeled and the body winds up going on an unexpected journey--from barrel to packing crate to piano and back again. Who has the body? And is Uncle Joseph really dead? Is Uncle Masterson really dead? Who is going to inherit all that money?

This is an absolutely delightful story--the black comedy is a little unexpected from Stevenson, but it is hilarious. Watching Morris drive himself quietly crazy as he tries to outsmart Michael and track down his missing uncle is great fun. Who would have thought that the most prominent and interesting character in a book would be a dead man who won't sit still long enough for you to get a really good look at him? Not that the other characters aren't interesting, they are. Stevenson always provides great characters and those in The Wrong Box meet his standards. Highly recommended. ★★★★

[Finished on 4/3/18]

Go Down, Moses: Mini-Review

Go Down, Moses (1942) is a book of seven interconnected short stories by William Faulkner. The stories' most prominent character and the character's voice which becomes most familiar is Isaac McCaslin, also known as Uncle Ike. Isaac lives to be a quite old man who is "uncle to half a county and father to no one." Faulkner uses the McCaslin family to highlight the very complex and changing relationship between whites and blacks. The McCaslin family itself has two branches--a white branch which descends from Carothers McCaslin and his wife and a black branch which descends from McCaslin's sexual relationship with a slave named Tomey. Tracing the history of the families, Faulkner presents events to the reader that take on significance only in later stories. He also uses the stories to underline the painful racial divisions that permeate the South and wants the reader to know that without an understanding of that basic fact of Southern life, there can be no understanding of the South as a whole.

I've mentioned before my difficulty with stream of consciousness writing, particularly in relation to Faulkner's work. I struggled with Intruder in the Dust seven years ago, but I found the struggle to be rewarding and didn't mind the slog through the stream. Unfortunately, that was not the case here. One would expect that the shorter format would limit the exhaustion of the stream of consciousness format--it didn't. The shorter format only seemed to make the long, convoluted sentences more obvious and more work for less reward. 

Intruder, in my opinion, is even more crucial to understanding the division in the South than these stories...or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. "The Fire and the Hearth" (included here) is tagged in the fly-leaf notes as a kind of prelude to Intruder in the Dust, but I can't say that I really see the connections (of course, that may be because that happens to be one of the stories in this collection that I understand least). And it certainly doesn't have the power of the longer work. I do appreciate Faulkner's technique in weaving the stories together and I found his stories about Uncle Ike's younger years to be most interesting. ★★ and a half.

[Finished on 3/30/18]

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

TNB: The Great Detectives (Professionals on the Prowl)

As I noted last week, when The Tuesday Night Bloggers heard that a book called The 100 Greatest Literary Detectives, edited by Eric Sandberg and including contributions from various writers – including our own Kate Jackson was coming out to educate the unsuspecting about some of the best detectives in the business, we were excited. But then as we sat and munched on toasted crumpets and sipped our tea, we decided to revive our weekly meetings and discuss the detectives we think ought to be included in any list of the "Greatest" detectives. Because no matter how good Eric Sandberg is, he's bound to miss somebody worthwhile. We also wanted to include some of the really good detectives who don't get as much press as say a Sherlock Holmes or a Miss Jane Marple or (ahem) Hercule Poirot [many press clippings for our Belgian sleuth may found over at Brad's place Ah Sweet Mystery Blog aka "The Shrine To Agatha Christie"].

As Moira mentions over at Clothes in Books, some of us have decided to divide our detectives up into categories--including yours truly. This week on the Block I am turning the spotlight on some outstanding professional detectives who may not be as familiar to detective fiction fans. Up first is Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte, featured in the novels of Arthur W. Upfield. Bony is an unorthodox, half-Aboriginal, half-white detective who works out of the Queensland police force, although his investigations take him to various places in Australia. He is particularly self-assured for a man who might well have found his mixed heritage to be a burden rather than an asset. He states in The Bachelors of Broken Hill: "I always finish a race, always finalise the case I consent to take up."And it is often mentioned that he has an unblemished record when it comes to solving the cases to which he is assigned. 

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His spotless record is good for keeping him employed--because sometimes his self-assurance gets him into trouble with his superiors. He has a habit of going his own way and often finds himself sacked for disobeying orders. But that never last long, because his commanding officers know that his is intelligent, has the patience to unravel the most snarled case, and has charm enough to get evidence from those who don't want to give it. His mixed heritage allows him to work equally well in the outback as well as in more suburban areas and his pride and stubbornness keep him on the case until the culprit his brought to justice because he doesn't want to lose that perfect record.

Helen Reilly's Inspector Christopher McKee is on the other side of the world, heading up the Manhattan Murder Squad in New York City. In the early novels, he is an efficient leader of men with a strong personality, a vast storehouse of facts in his memory, and who strikes an imposing figure when confronting suspects. He figures in one of the earliest police procedural series by a female author and his stories feature the line-up, the radio room, the morgue, the mysterious depths of the fingerprint department--all the varied and exciting activities of one of the greatest police departments in the world on full view in mysteries of the 1930s. This is especially true of the case related in McKee of Centre Street.

In [this novel] you will meet Inspector McKee, tight-lipped, cold-eyed, a hunter of men and the most absorbing sleuth since Lieutenant Valcour; listen with him as the telephone call that is the first information in the case of the murdered dancer comes into Spring 7-3100; watch as he throws out swiftly the far-flung net for a subtle and brilliant killer. [from my copy of the book] 
The story revolves around the murder of Rita Rodriguez, a beautiful dancer in a high-tone speakeasy. The murderer takes advantage of the dim lighting, the audience's attention to the silver-clad beauty dancing on the stage, and the spotlight which oh-so-conveniently brings his target into sharp outline. Although the police are called in immediately by the ultra-alert spotlight handler, there are still fish which escape the net and it is McKee's job not only to sift through the statements of everyone still within the establishment, but also to try and discover who is missing.

When he is finished he's left with a small group of suspects. There is the missing waiter; the rich playboy, his wife, and step-son; the wife's very attentive friend, the colonel; the young woman found hiding in the phone booth; and the couple who can't quite decide where they were when the dancer fell to the floor. As he follows up their stories (and amended stories), he soon discovers that there are connections between the characters that lead back to the past....with blackmail and stolen emeralds lurking in the shadows.

What follows is a detailed account of how the police department of the 1930s operated. The reader follows closely on McKee's heels and is given what is described as "real inside information, high-pressure thrills, suspense." Reilly manages to deliver without boring the reader with those details. I have read other (later) mysteries by Reilly and was a bit disconcerted by the description of McKee as a tight-lipped, cold-eyed hunter of men. This didn't really connect with the McKee I had met in these later novels. Granted, this earlier version of McKee is a bit more steely and there is far more procedural detail given, but in the end he is the same detective I recall...showing a good deal of compassion and humanity in the closing scenes. Not quite the cold hunter of men that the blurb served up.

My last professional detective is most certainly the least well-known and will probably be completely unknown to many. His author, Harold Kemp certainly is: According to Classic Crime Fiction, Death of a Dwarf (1955) is the fifth in a mystery series by Harold Kemp and features Detective Inspector Jimmy Brent and his team of sleuths. Like me, the folks at CCF have found very little information about Kemp out on the interwebs. If anyone has any information beyond his birth year (1896) and short bibliography (seven titles in all), I'd love to hear about it. 

Detective Inspector Jimmy Brent was first introduced to me when I discovered the near-pristine, dust-jacketed Death of a Dwarf sitting on the shelf of Half Price Books. I mean, who could resist a vintage mystery with a title like that?  But I wasn't sure whether I should be glad to have brought it home or not. 

The story is quite good with a standard motive given a nice little twist. Fairly clued--it's certainly not Kemp's fault that I completely forgot a little tidbit that he prominently displayed for me back in the early chapters. Likeable characters--the interactions between Jimmy Brent and his superiors, colleagues, and underlings are delightful and supporting characters from the village are just as good (save for a few suspects...but then we're not supposed to like them). There's even a knowing little old lady calmly knitting in her little apartment--but none appear to be stock characters used purely for effect. Finely drawn surroundings--nice country village and there's even (see the cover) a menacing castle with ruins. My uncertainty lay in the fact that I was quite sure that future installments of Brent and company are going to be rather difficult to come by (unless I want to break down and search for him through internet sellers). I did manage (through the generosity of my boss--who doesn't mind using the internet to buy books and who got it for me as a present) to get hold of a second Jimmy Brent novel--Red for Murder.

Brent is an educated man, having been at York, St. Peter's and Cambridge, where he had taken his B.A. He is still in his thirties, but has risen rapidly through the ranks due to his native wit, determination, and integrity. He has a quirky sense of humor and an easy relationship with both his superiors and his assistants Gregg and Lewis. He brings a fresh point of view to a division that is made up of policeman who have less imagination and no eye for the unusual. Brent certainly isn't one to accept an easy answer just to close a case quickly and if he has to sort out vicars who hide under hedges and tell unnecessary lies as well as doctors who feign hearing loss to avoid answering questions, then he's perfectly willing to do so to ensure that justice will be served. His investigations are straight-forward, though the circumstances surrounding them rarely are and the clues are readily available to the reader which makes for interesting reading. Brent is another detective whose greatness lies in the fact that I have been left wanting more of his adventures and may have to resort to internet treasure hunting to fill that need.