Sunday, September 20, 2020

Bound to Murder

 Bound to Murder (1987) by Dorsey Fiske 

"That was a plaguy heavy book," Bunce declared. "You're lucky to have a harder head than most; it'd have cracked some skulls like an eggshell."

"Not Caldicott's Discourses on Socmanry. His theories are far too lightweight to do any real damage," scoffed Fenchurch...

Bound to Murder is the second of two academic mysteries featuring John Fenchurch a Fellow of the imaginary Sheepshanks College of Cambridge University. What begins as an investigation into the thefts of precious color prints from various antique volumes and then the disappearance of an entire rare medieval test from the university library, soon becomes a matter of murder when the alleged thief is found murdered on the night of one of the college's feast days.

An abundance of clues and an apparent eye witness makes things look very black indeed for a young history student, Harry Huntingfield whose very existence as a younger son of a noble family (even though impoverished) put him at odds with the left-leaning victim. But Fenchurch is convinced that the murder has something to do with the thefts and can't see any way of connecting Huntingfield to those. And when the beautiful Vivien, Harry's fiancee, begs Fenchurch (who is not immune to her charms even in his middle-aged bachelorhood) to prove Harry innocent, he must needs play the knight errant. He's also got the reputation of the college on his shoulders--what with murder and thievery and a bevy of ladies of the evening who crash the feast. A couple of last minute discoveries finally point the way to an unexpected culprit

A mid-range academic mystery saved by a very engaging amateur sleuth. Fenchurch is quite charming and I enjoyed the way he managed all sorts of personalities--from the sullen Mr. Maunders (our victim) to the charming Vivien to the somewhat gaga emeritus professor who occasionally likes to be addressed as Geoffrey (Chaucer, that is). He also has an interesting relationship with the local police in the person of Inspector Bunce. The two make a good team.

Fiske does a fairly good job of spreading red herrings about and making several suspects behave in a most suspicious fashion--all but one for perfectly innocent reasons (at least as far as murder goes). One spoilerish quibble (highlight the following, if curious): I don't think Fiske or her publishers or whoever is responsible could have chosen a more spoilerish title if they'd planned it. Once anyone figures out what that title has to do with the plot, it's very likely they'll know whodunnit. But overall a very pleasant read. ★★

Added 9/21/20: One thing I meant to mention: Dorsey Fiske must be a Dorothy L. Sayers fan. I noticed several parallels between the Harry Huntingfield/Vivien Murray romance and Lord Peter/Harriet Vane. Harry meets Vivien and immediately falls head over heels in love--proposing marriage right off the bat. Of course, Vivien isn't suspected of the murder, but Harry is and she immediately seeks a way to clear him of suspicion. Since she doesn't have the obstacle of feeling grateful to overcome (as Harriet does), Vivien succumbs to Harry's charms much quicker. The witty back and forth word play between the two is also reminiscent of LP/HV.

[Finished 9/16/20]


Deaths = 2 (one stabbed; one fell from height)

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Into the Valley of Death

 Into the Valley of Death (1986) by H.R.F. Keating (as by Evelyn Hervey)

Harriet Unwin is a governess in Victorian England who manages to get herself tangled up in mystery and mayhem--beginning with the first book (The Governess) where she must prove her own innocence. She's done so well at pointing out clues and connections that the authorities have missed, that it's not unusual that her childhood friend, Vilkins (a housemaid in a country house), calls upon her to help a man who has, she says, been wrongly accused of murder. This time is very different, however. Jack Steadman has already been to trial and is due to be hanged in less than a week's time. His wife is absolutely sure that her husband didn't do it--not that he couldn't kill a man, for after all he had been in the Crimean War, but that he wouldn't be a coward and shoot a man in the back.

When Alfie Goode was found dead, shot in the back, lying nearby was Jack Steadman--knocked out cold, apparently from stumbling over a root (or some such)--with his own discharged rifle beside him. In Jack's pocket was a note signed by Goode arranging for a meeting in the wood. Jack swears that he never saw the message before and that he was walking in the woods when he was struck from behind and knew no more until they awakened him.

Fortunately for Vilkins and the Steadmans, Miss Unwin is available for a trip to the country because her charge is on a family visit and her services aren't needed for a while. So, she makes the journey to Chipping Compton, but when she hears the facts of the case and reads the detailed account of the trial in newspaper clippings that Mrs. Steadman had collected, she offers very little hope. The evidence very clearly pointed to Jack. After talking with his wife, she becomes convinced of the man's innocence but doesn't see any way of finding proof. 

Miss Unwin begins "snooping," pretending to be a ladies magazine writer looking for details to write a sob story piece about the poor little wife who will soon be all alone. She's barely begun when she meets her old friend (though at one time her pursuer when she was thought guilty of murder) Inspector Heavitree in the village. The two team up and soon their questions begin to make people uncomfortable. When it becomes clear that one of the key witnesses in Steadman's trial has been telling lies and then he winds up dead, they know they're on the right track. But will they find enough evidence in time to save an innocent man?

This is a very light historical mystery. No intense detection and no intricate plot--but it is enjoyable and Miss Unwin is an interesting character. Once she has given her word that she will investigate, she doesn't let anything stand in her way--not threats from certain parties or doubts from skeptical men. I also appreciate her interactions with Vilkins, Heavitree, and Mrs. Steadman very much--well, mostly (after the story is full-steam under way). The one thing that will keep my rating mid-range is the beginning. The way the details first get told to Unwin by Vilkins and Unwin's responses to her are infuriating. There surely was a better way to handle that conversation--it makes Miss Unwin appear to be a nitwit instead of the observant person who will save the day for the poor Steadmans. ("What do you mean, Vilkins?" "I don't understand a thing.") But I'll tell you right away that I will take Keating writing as Hervey over any fiction I've read under his given name any day of the week and twice on Sunday. To date, I've read two under Keating--the first rated a dismal one and a half stars and the other I couldn't even finish properly. A quick, fun read. ★★★ and a half


Deaths = two shot

Vintage Mystery: Hat (2016 Silver Scavenger Hunt)

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Out of Control

 Out of Control (1945) by Baynard Kendrick

The sixth mystery featuring Captain Duncan Maclain, blinded during the war and who has since refined his remaining senses to become a brilliant detective. His preference is for impossible, near-perfect crimes ("near" because, of course, our hero always solves them). This outing finds Maclain on his honeymoon in the Great Smoky Mountains where he comes up against a killer who uses a perfect murder method one too many times. When Walter Crane is found dead in an apparent auto accident, the local Sheriff asks the famous detective to lend a hand. Maclain soon realizes that it will be difficult to bring the crime home to the villain and devises a clever plan to trap the culprit.

While I generally enjoy Kendrick's mysteries and the character of Duncan Maclain in particular, I found this one less to my taste. I'm not a big fan of the inverted mystery and I was disappointed to discover that we know from the opening chapters who the villain of the piece is. And since this is inverted and we see most of the action from the culprit's viewpoint it means that Maclain enters the story much later than in the previous Kendrick novels I've read. The best I can say for this one is that it is an interesting character study of a person spinning out of control. The murderer is quite sure that they have everything all sewn up even as they proceed to fall apart emotionally and it is fascinating to watch. Those who appreciate a good inverted vintage mystery will most likely rate this higher, but for me--★★.


Deaths = 3 (auto accident)

Friday, September 11, 2020

Letters from an Astrophysicist

 Letters from an Astrophysicist (2019) by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson provides us with 101 letters--most are his responses to everyone from concerned parents to curious children to men behind prison walls to teachers to those who ardently disagree with his scientific stance. A few are his letters to the editor of various newspapers and magazines and one is his open letter to NASA on the occasion of its (and his own) 60th birthday.

The book is charmingly informative--full of Tyson's succinct and sometimes humorous responses to questions and argument. It is also a master class in the art of meaningful communication through letters. Those who wish to learn will find many nuggets of information on a variety of subjects. And it is all presented in short, easily digested bursts. 

It would be difficult to give more substance in a review without giving you entire sections of Tyson's letters...and for that, you might as well go ahead and read the book. It is well worth the time. ★★

Bullet for a Star

 Bullet for a Star (1977) by Stuart Kaminsky

Toby Peters, Hollywood private investigator, debuts in this 1940s-era murder and blackmail fest. He's hired by Sid Adelman of Warner Brothers to make a blackmail payment drop on behalf of Errol Flynn. Someone has a photo and a negative of Flynn with a very young girl in a very compromising position. They're both naked as the day they were born. Adelman and Flynn both claim it's a fake, but they won't be able to prove it until they can examine the negative. So, Toby is hired to drop off the cash and take possession of the print and its negative. If anything goes wrong, he must not mention the studio or Flynn.

What could go wrong? He makes the scheduled appointment, hands over the cash, gets an envelope in return, starts to check the contents...and gets bashed on the head. When he comes to, his gun is gone, the blackmailer is dead--apparently shot with Toby's gun, and the cash and the photo envelope are MIA as well. His brother is a cop, so he manages to wiggle out of a murder rap, but his brother isn't exactly happy with the story he's been told. Which is, naturally, lies from beginning to end since Toby can't mention what he was really there for.

Peters sets off to find the original of the negative and the trail leads him through the film world and, eventually, to the set of The Maltese Falcon, where Bogie and Lorre are cast in roles they hadn't planned on. Errol Flynn gets to play they hero's role at the end, saving our P.I. from a final attempt on his life.

This is a fun romp through 1940s Hollywood for mystery and movie fans. It's also good for readers who like a bit of light hard boiled P.I. action. I must say, however, that Peters is pretty bad at being a tough guy hero--he gets shot at, knocked out, beat up, and framed for murder more often in one book than most detectives do over the course of a series--and Errol Flynn has to save him from the bad guy in the end. But it does make for entertaining reading. And the homage to the glittering silver screen stars of the past was really well done--the cameos didn't feel forced and definitely worked with the story. ★★

First line: It was the summer of 1940, a hot August day in the San Fernando Valley, and I had doubts that my '34 Buick would even get to Warner Brothers.

Last Line: I ran for the door, without saying goodbye to Sid Adelman or Warner Brothers.


Deaths = 3 (two shot; one fell from height)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The October Country

 The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury

...that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger and midnights stay. The country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain... [intro]

Ray Bradbury was just an amazing writer. This collection is excellent with just a few that are too weird or too slight. But his use of language and description is, as always, right on target, reeling the reader in and keeping us on the edge of our seats to see what happens next. ★★ for the collection. Synopses of the stories follows.

"The Dwarf": A dark and painful tale about a young woman who only wants to help and the jealous man who turns her good into evil...and apparently can't see what he's done that's so wrong.

"The Next in Line": A young wife becomes very fearful in a town whose cemetery has an unusual method of interring the dead of families who cannot pay for burials in full. An interesting study of her breakdown and her husband's unfeeling response.

"The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse": Poor Mr. Garvey is a terrible bore and never has had much of a social life...until the avant garde crowd decides that boredom is the latest rage. Garvey finds that he loves being the center of attention and is willing to go surreal lengths to stay there.

"Skeleton": Very creepy story of a man who has pains in his bones, convinces himself he is at war with his own skeleton, and is finally driven to consult an unorthodox specialist. The last line of the story is fantastic. 

"The Jar": Another story of man looking for attention. A poor farmer buys a (kindof disgusting) "thing" in a jar which becomes the center of nightly discussions among his neighbors. His wife hates the thing and tries to ruin his fun...but he has another surprise up his sleeve.

"The Lake": An emotional piece about first love--a love lost to the cold death-grip of the water and how it all comes rushing back to the young man who will never forget Tally.

"The Emissary": A young invalid has two primary contacts with the outside world--his dog and his teacher. His teacher stops by to play games with him and the dog goes on adventures outside, bringing back the smells of the seasons as well as bringing in people he meets to visit his master. But then his teacher is killed in an accident and Dog disappears. The boy is all alone until one night Dog returns...smelling very strange indeed and bringing with him a very unexpected guest.

"Touched with Fire": Two old insurance men have made it their mission to rescue future murderees from their fate. They have learned to spot the psychological and outward signs...but with one woman their good intentions don't have the effect desired.

"The Small Assassin": A horror story built on postpartum depression before it had even been named as such. A woman becomes convinced that her baby is out to kill her....

"The Crowd": A man has a night-time auto accident and has a feeling that the crowd around him gathered much too fast. He doesn't know why it bothers him so much, but he does a bit of research on accidents in the area and comes to a startling conclusion. Before he can share his findings with authorities he has another accident....

"Jack-in-the-Box" This one is odd. A boy is raised in complete seclusion--seeing only his mother and "Teacher"--after his father is killed by the "beasts" outside (in what the reader presumes was a car accident). He is repeatedly told that if he leaves the World (house) that he will die. No wonder he thinks he's dead at the end of the story....

"The Scythe": a brilliant examination of the ways of death and the power of grim reaper.

"Uncle Einar": More dark fantasy than horror, it tells of Uncle Einar, a man with wings (one wonders if he's a vampire) who loses his night-time flying radar one night in an accident with a high tension power line and finds love. He thinks he'll never fly again until his children show him a way he can fly during the day and not be shot down as a monster.

"The Wind": A world traveler finds that he has braved the elements one too many times when the elements come after him in his own home.

"The Man Upstairs": An interesting and creepy twist on the vampire story and how a young boy with an interest in "innards" manages to defeat the man living upstairs.

"There Was an Old Woman": There was an old woman who didn't believe in death--defied it for years. And when death finally came calling and snatched her body away from her, she determined to get it back.

"The Cistern": A young woman who has lost her love describes the secret world in the sewers under the city...where lovers reunite after death. Her sister scoffs at her...until the young woman leaves the house and doesn't come back.

"Homecoming": Uncle Einar's family (all supernatural beings, but one) gather at Halloween for a Homecoming. Timothy is the lone mortal in the family and he feels his differences very much. All he wants is to be able to be like everyone else--something all children feel at one time or another.

"The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone": A reclusive author's fans track him down to ask him why he went into hiding and gave up writing 25 years ago.

A Child's Garden of Verses (...and more)

 A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson

I grew up with a shortened, Golden Book style edition of this book. I loved that book very much (and still have it buried somewhere in a box of my son's things--having given it to him when he was young) and it was nostalgia for those simple childhood verses that influenced my purchase of this longer edition which includes his Garden of Verses poetry as well as the poetry collections "Underwood" and "Ballads" and two short stories which I had previously read, "The Sire de Maletroit's Door" and "The Bottle Imp."   

I found the verses aimed at children still very sweet and charming. The poems "The Land of Story Books" and "My Shadow" are especial favorites. And I'm sure my sense of having loved these so much when I was growing up still influences me--because, honestly, Stevenson was a much better prose writer than he was a poet. Especially when it came to the poems in other two collections which seem to be aimed at a more adult audience. These poems are cumbersome and burdened under his wont for description. His descriptive prose serves him well in short stories and novels, but makes his poetry seem heavy and more difficult to read through. His "adult" poems are really not my cup of tea.

The short stories are two of his best. Each features a protagonist faced with life-altering choices and it is interesting to see how Stevenson works out the problems. "The Sire de Maletroit's Door" centers on a fun-loving cavalier who stays out past curfew one night and finds himself followed by the night watch. Rather than face the music, he slips through an unlocked door to avoid a reprimand. He has no idea that the unsecured door was a trap designed to ensnare the lover of a young woman who lives in the house with her uncle. Uncle takes a severe view of her dalliance, doesn't believe that the cavalier isn't the man in question, and calmly tell him that if he doesn't agree to wed the girl then he will be killed before morning. Will the cavalier take honor to the extreme--dying rather than forcing an unknown and unwanted husband on a lady whose heart belongs to another? "The Bottle Imp" features Keawe, a poor native Hawaiian, who buys a magical, unbreakable bottle which contains a wish-granting imp. The catch? If Keawe cannot sell the bottle for less than he has paid and do so before he dies, then his soul belongs to the devil and will be bound for hell. He decides to risk it and uses the bottle only to own a beautiful home and prosperous land on his home island and immediately sells the bottle. Then several years later he falls in love and asks the young woman to marry him. Life will be even more perfect now. But the morning after his proposal, he finds that he has broken out with what the reader assumes is leprosy (the ailment is not named directly). He decides to hunt down the bottle again, but finds himself in an impossible position--he can buy it, but if he does (at the price of one penny) it seems it will be impossible for him to sell it. Will he risk his soul for love? Is there any way out of this devil's bargain if he does?

★★ for the collection--primarily saved by the charming poems of my childhood and the two excellent short stories.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Something Wicked This Way Comes

 Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) by Ray Bradbury

This is a masterpiece of modern Gothic speculative fiction. It is a memorable story of two boys who are lifelong friends, though almost polar opposites. Jim Nightshade (dark-haired, dare-devil, risk-taker) and Will Halloway (light-haired, quiet, voice of reason) will come to grips with a smiling evil that tries to take over their small Midwestern town through the charm and lure of a colorful carnival. These two youngsters, along with Will's father--who has always considered himself too old--manage to take on the dark forces behind the carnival and save the souls of their fellow townspeople. 

Listening to Bradbury's prose was a delicious experience. I could sit back and just immerse myself in the words. The narrator wasn't named in the version I downloaded, but his voice was an excellent match for Bradbury's word magic. Bradbury's writing is so descriptive and right that it effortlessly places you exactly where and when he wants you to be. I first read this when I was young and enjoyed it for the adventure and the steadfast friendship of the boys. Reading (listening to) it as an adult is much different. I still enjoy the adventure. But I am more interested in the battle between good and evil and the viewpoint of Charles Halloway when he tells us in the book's final chapters that the evil and the fear & suffering that fuels that evil may be here, right now, every day, in us. And that evil only has the power we give it--by feeding it with all the negatives of the world. We hold the power to prevent evil, if we will only use it. ★★

Something the Cat Dragged In

 Something the Cat Dragged In (1983) Charlotte MacLeod

Martha Lomax discovers that her cat Edmund has detective tendencies when he drags in a clue to the latest murder in Balaclava Junction. What first looks to be a dead rodent of some sort turns out to be the bedraggled hairpiece belonging to her boarder, Professor Herbert Ungley. She immediately knows that something is wrong because everyone knows that Ungley wouldn't be caught dead without it (as if everyone in town doesn't know he wears a toupee). Except that's exactly what has happened...she goes in search of Ungley thinking he must be sick or hurt and finds his body out behind the Balaclava Society's clubhouse. There's fair sized dent in his head, but very little blood. 

So, when Police Chief Fred Ottermole's first thought is that Ungley fell and accidentally hit his head on a protruding piece of harrow, Martha Lomax's first thought is Professor Peter Shandy who has helped tidy up a few other mysteries before now. She also notices that Professor Ungley's rooms have been searched--it was a pretty careful search and only her practiced eye and knowledge of how the professor liked his things tells her anyone's been there. But been there, they have. Shandy soon agrees with her that there is more to this death than meets the eye and manages to convince Chief Ottermole as well. When another death occurs, it also becomes apparent that there's more going on in the exclusive Balaclava Society than anyone imagined. What exactly it is and how it prompted murder is what Shandy and Ottermole will need to discover.

The Peter Shandy mysteries are just plain fun and lighthearted (despite the murders). Who could take anything seriously that has a Viking-like, strong man like Thorkjeld Svenson serving as president of Blaclava Agricultural College running around in the background, ready to intimidate the evil-doers that Shandy uncovers or just bend a few steel bars to let off steam? Some of the plots need to be taken with a cupful of salt, but these aren't meant to be serious whodunnit puzzles. When you want a quick read and quirky characters with a few literary puns, quotes, and verbal jousting bouts thrown in, then this is the series to turn to. If you like mysteries with an academic twist (as I do), then that's an added bonus. ★★ and a half.

My one major quibble is also a major spoiler. If interested, then just highlight the apparent empty space:

Even knowing that MacLeod likes to go over-the-top at times, I find the Machiavellian plottings of the Balaclava Society members to be a bit much. One would think that if this group of people were raking in that much cash that somebody would have noticed long before now. But...I suspended my disbelief and went ahead and enjoyed the book anyway.


Deaths = 2 (one hit on head; one strangled)

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Fahrenheit 451

 Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury is story of a dystopian future that is every book lover's nightmare. Guy Montag is a fireman--but not the kind children we have all known have always dreamed about being when they grow up. Firemen in Montag's world don't put out fires--they start them and they mostly start them wherever there are books, because in this world books have been outlawed and any that are found are burned.

Up till now, Montag has been pretty happy as a fireman--but encounters with Clarisse, his seventeen year-old neighbor, and their discussions about simple pleasures, his wife's suicide attempt, and a book-burning that results in the self-immolation of an elderly book hoarder all contribute to a growing set of doubts about his chosen profession. It isn't long before he's hoarding books and finds himself on the wrong end of a Mechanical Hound (a robot used to track bookish lawbreakers) hunt.

It's been a long time since I read this the first time--back when I was haunting Mason's Rare & Used Book Store in my hometown and spending all my hard-earned lawn-mowing money on classic science fiction...Bradbury, Asimov, Ellison, Silverberg, Tiptree and the like. I read Fahrenheit then because I wanted to read all of Bradbury that I could get my hands on after my first sip of his Dandelion Wine collection. And was absolutely amazed by it. I was surprised that it never got assigned in school (neither high school nor college).

This reading seems very timely in an age when social media takes up so much of our time, when there are literally thousands of television programs available at any one time, and when I regularly see articles stating the percentage of people who say they haven't even read one book in the last year. Books are such an important part of my life and have been since I learned to read. I can't even imagine what it would be like to live in a world where owning books...any books, not just certain banned books...was illegal. An incredible (if bleak) vision of the future by a SF master. ★★★★


First Line: It was a pleasure to burn.

M: Why is it I feel I've known you so many years?                                                C: Because I like you, and I don't want anything from you. And because we know each other. [Montag, Clarisse; p. 26)

Always before it had been like snuffing a candle. The police went first and adhesive-taped the victim's mouth and bandaged him off into their glittering beetle cars, so when you arrived you found an empty house. You weren't hurting anyone, you were hurting only things! And since things couldn't really be hurt, since things felt nothing, and things don't scream or whimper, as this woman might begin to scream and cry out, there was nothing to tease your conscience later. (p. 33)

There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don't stay for nothing. (p. 47)

She didn't want to know how a thing was done, but why. That can be embarrassing. You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it. (p. 55)

We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren't happy. Something's missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I'd burned in ten or twelve years. So I thought books might help. (p. 73)

That's the good part of dying; when you've nothing to lose, you run any risk you want. (p. 76)

Last Lines: Yes, thought Montag, that's the one I'll save for noon. For noon....When we reach the city.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Trixie Belden & the Mystery at Bob-White Cave

 Trixie Belden & the Mystery at Bob-White Cave
(1963) by Kathryn Kenny

The Bob-Whites are on vacation again and this time they're visiting Trixie's Uncle Andrew Belden who just happens to own a lodge in the Ozarks*. When a rainy day forces them to stay inside, Trixie discovers a magazine article offering a reward for anyone who can find cave "ghost fish" (white, eyeless fish that live deep in caves) in caves in the Ozarks. She gets the Bob-Whites excited about earning a reward that could go towards one of their charity causes. The search winds up with Trixie nearly getting mauled by a wildcat; the crew saving a man from drowning; fighting a wildfire set by an arsonist; Trixie nearly drowning in a cave sinkhole (but finding ghost fish!); and getting to the bottom of the mystery of the long-haired man living in the nearby haunted cabin. This vacation is action-packed!

It's possible I wasn't in quite the right frame of mind when I read this--but Trixie kindof got on my nerves this time. I mean, seriously, she starts out whiny (again--I'm thinking of her talking about how bored she is at the beginning of The Secret of the Mansion and how she'll just die if she doesn't get a horse). Heaven forbid that it rain on her very first day in the Ozarks. And that she be cooped up in her Uncle Andrew's lodge for, what?, all of an hour or two? And then, when she spies an article about a reward for ghost fish in a magazine that she flips through to try and stop the endless boredom AND she has to wait until Uncle Andrew comes back to the lodge before trekking out to investigate caves that she's never been in before and might be dangerous in a grand search for the fish, she whines like a four-year-old who's been denied the cookies she's been demanding. I mean, Jeepers, how old is she? Doesn't she know better than to go barging off into unknown caves without proper equipment and maybe someone who knows more about spelunking than she does (which is very little)? 

There...having gotten that off my chest, I feel better. I like Trixie--I really do. But she was a little much this time. Once I got past her being a bit miffed every time she had to wait one second to do what she had it in her head they had to do right now, I enjoyed the adventure--but not as much as when I read it back when I was in elementary school. At that time, I was really focused on the cave exploration and the various adventures and Trixie helping to discover who the strange man with the long hair was and I didn't notice how annoying her impatience was. This time Trixie's attitude overshadowed that a bit. I did appreciate how much she was focused on wanting to help others--her impatience is in wanting to find the fish, earn the reward, and be able to donate the money for a station wagon for children with special needs. And then how she and Honey help Linnie fix up her cabin after the fire. 

The plot isn't quite as mysterious as some of my previous Trixie reads. And there's not a lot of detecting going on--more outdoor action than anything. I saw the solution (of who the man was) coming early on, but it made for a nice, happy ending. ★★ 

First Line: "I hate rain! It's simply pouring down, and darker than night outside." [I bet you can't guess--after my review--who's talking here.]

Last Line: "Oh dear, I wonder if we'll ever have another project as exciting as this one turned out to be!"

*I'm a little curious about just how well-off Uncle Andrew is--he owns a sheep farm in Iowa (see The Happy Valley Mystery), but also owns a lodge in the Ozarks? 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Monday, August 31, 2020

Death Rides a Sorrel Horse

 Death Rides a Sorrel Horse (1946) by A. B. Cunningham

The folks at Friendly House knew something was wrong the moment Zeb, the big sorrel horse, came running home like demons were chasing him and his saddle was empty. It wasn't long before a search revealed that Camille Lang, one of the girls of Friendly House (a sort of girls' finishing school for midwesterners--learning to cook and sew and keep house in a small town), had been tossed from the horse. It looked like the horse had dragged her a ways to where her battered and lifeless body was found in the deep grass along the road.

Carl Quick, the city marshal, would be ready to call it an unfortunate accident if it weren't for one thing...a note tossed onto the porch of Friendly House that murder was suspected:

Theys more to her death than appears on the surface. Better ax Jess Roden to come over from Deer Lick and look into it.

Of course, there's always people looking to stir things up and he'd even be willing to put it down to a notoriety-grabber if that note hadn't appeared so quick after Camille was found. Word hadn't gotten around yet. So, if someone said they knew something, then they probably did. He decides that it probably would be a good idea to call in Roden, the sheriff of Deer Lick county. Roden has experience with suspicious deaths, but this time he's up against something new. A death that looks for all the world like an accident...until he looks closer. Once he finds the fresh cut on Zeb's leg, the evidence that Camille's foot had been tied to her stirrup, and the wound on her head that couldn't have been caused by hitting the ground, he knows that murder has been done. But proving it will be another matter.

This was a quick, easily read little mystery--perfect for when you want a one-sitting book. Roden is a good, ol' country sheriff with a quick eye and a quick wit for discerning what's really going on. I did suspect the "who"--but I missed the big clue that pointed to him/her and then got distracted by a very red herring. A nice, tidy little plot. ★★ 


First line: The big sorrel plunged with the headlong recklessness of a horse gone mad with fright.

Last line: "Let's git goin'," Roden interrupted him.


Deaths = one hit on head

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

 Beneath a Scarlet Sky (2017) by Mark Sullivan is an incredible fictional history of heroism and human frailty in war-torn Italy. Based on actual events in the life of Pino Lella, it follows Pino as he abruptly comes of age--one moment he's your average teenager wanting to see movies and have his first real romance and the next his home town of Milan is being bombed as the Allies make their way into Italy. His father sends him to a Catholic boys school in the Alps and there he is recruited by Father Re to help lead Jews to safety through dangerous mountain passes. But, as the age of forced conscription into the Axis forces draws near, his family decides that he should volunteer--in order to avoid being sent to the Russian front. He's injured one night on guard duty and finds himself assigned to be the driver for the second most powerful man in Italy--General Hans Leyers. This gives him an ideal opportunity to spy for the Italian Resistance--though his position in the Nazi camp will cost him one of his lifelong friends.

I found Lella's story very compelling and interesting. Most stories about World War II focus on England or France. This was the first I had read that centered on Italy. Sullivan does a good job portraying Lella as a very human and fallible hero. Lella was at his heroic best in the mountains. He led multiple groups of Jews through dangerous climbs--risking his own life and steadfastly encouraging them to go on when they thought they couldn't make it. He also braves the bandits who have claimed the mountains as their own and who have repeatedly warned him off climbing there. He also does well when working undercover as the driver--willing to lose the respect of his friend rather than tell him about his secret mission as a spy. 

Human frailty takes over when the Nazi hold is falling apart and the woman he loves--Anna--is taken by the Italian mobs. Anna had been a maid in General Leyer's house and the angry mob denounces both Anna and her mistress as Nazi whores and then kills them. Anna begs them to spare her--telling them she was just a maid--and Lella watches, unable to speak out. His inability to be brave enough to save the woman he loves will haunt him long after the war is over. But his chance to brave again comes--will he be up to another challenge?

While the writing was not nearly as good as the story it needed to tell, I found the story compelling enough to overcome the writing's shortcomings. I especially enjoyed (if that word can be used about the horrors of WWII) the events in the mountains. Father Re was a very great man, filled with the purpose and belief that all men and women deserve help--no matter what personal risk he needed to take to help them. He inspired Pino Lella and other boys to be just as brave. ★★ and 1/2.

First Line: Like all the pharaohs, emperors, and tyrants before him, Il Duce had seen his empire rise only to crumble.

Last Lines: "I don't understand, Carletto. And the war's not over. I don't think it ever will be over for me. Not really."

Saturday, August 29, 2020

A Client Is Cancelled

 A Client Is Cancelled (1951) by Frances & Richard Lockridge

Oh-Oh (Orson Otis) and his wife, the Pooh (Winifred who doesn't like to be called Winnie), are invited to a cocktail party at their neighbor's one hot summer afternoon. Oh-Oh can't really see why they should have to put on more clothes (suitable for visiting) to be even hotter on the Townsends' terrace than they already are on their own back porch. Besides, Pooh's Uncle Paul (also known as Uncle Tarzan) may be liable to challenge Oh-Oh to a tennis match or something much too exhausting in the heat. But Pooh says, "One can never tell; a chance is always worth taking." Why, if they hadn't gone, they would have missed out on one of the biggest murders in their area of the New York countryside. And...they would have missed out on being suspects. (But I get ahead of myself.)

So, the Otises duly dress and make their way to the Townsend place up on the hill. The Townsends are much better off than the Otises--lots of land, everything all shiny and fashionable, and a lovely swimming pool (that will be important later). Pooh's uncle is there but he seems far too distracted by business matters to think about athletic endeavors. Something is brewing in tobacco advertising arena. George Townsend has the advertising campaign for Paul Barlow's tobacco company and there seems to be a stale odor surrounding it. In fact, Oh-Oh senses a great deal of animosity swirling around Uncle Tarzan. Nothing he can describe definitely when he's asked later, but something, all the same.

After the cocktail party breaks up, the Otises wander off to the local inn for more (!) drinks and some dinner, run into Dwight Craig and Ann Dean whom they met at the party, decide to go home but then run into some other people they know and wind up even more hot and tired than before. They decide it would be fine idea to take George Townsend up on his offer to "use the pool any time" and have a midnight swim. Which all goes..swimmingly... until the Pooh takes one final, deep dive and sees something on the bottom of the pool that doesn't belong there. Uncle Tarzan--quite dead, but not drowned. He's been shot. They quickly dress and raise the alarm up at the Townsend house (where half the household seems to still be up). Captain Heimrich and Sergeant Forniss arrive and we're off and running in another State Trooper murder case. 

The Otises come under suspicion, especially after it is discovered that Uncle Tarzan very generously left his niece fifty thousand dollars in his will and Oh-Oh's service revolver has managed to go missing. Knowing the Lockridge's light touch, we feel fairly certain that Oh-Oh (our narrator) isn't guilty and there are plenty of other motives hanging around. There's the farmer with a grudge against Barlow--for supposedly running his family out of the tobacco business. There's Townsend and Craig who may have been facing the loss of their biggest advertising campaign. There's Barlow's daughter who may have resented her father's meddling in her romantic affairs. But then Oh-Oh and Pooh are found standing over another dead body.

So...this isn't the all-time greatest Lockridge plot. Honestly, I thought it pretty obvious and Heimrich's methods of detection weren't quite as appealing to me in this one. He keeps pushing pieces around trying to get the players to reveal themselves and then spends a really long time building up suspense in the final scene. But despite all that, I do really like Oh-Oh and Pooh--the characters themselves. I'm not enamored of their nicknames, but I wouldn't mind them quite so much if they weren't used all the time. I do enjoy watching them interact with each other and with other characters. They remind me of younger versions of Mr. & Mrs. North. ★★ and a half for a decent, light mystery.

Spoiler (in the apparent blank space--just highlight if curious): So...the title is an absolute give-away if you pay attention to it. There's only two people for whom Paul Barlow is a client--and readers of Lockridge books know when there is a couple of young people going through the pangs of romance that neither of the couple will wind up being guilty. So that leaves you with one person.


First Line: It was one of the more interesting murders of that summer and the Pooh and I almost did not attend.

Last Line: So we went, of course. The Otises try not to miss out on things.

Pulp fiction sells--witness the check that very morning--but one has to pulp a lot of it. (p. 9)

Apparently he [Dwight] had the same problem about going ahead with a lot of things he would have enjoyed saying, and was overtaken by manners. This seemed a pity, since they were both mad enough to be quite interesting. (p. 18)

He [Uncle Paul] told the Pooh, with an inflection of surprise, that she was looking very well. He had, evidently, expected her to look like a starving refugee. [p. 23]

I finished my drink and began to wonder how many I'd had. I couldn't remember, exactly, so I poured myself another. [p. 31]

We agreed that one nice thing about my occupation was that it could be carried on anywhere, which was what people were always telling us. this isn't particularly true, but it's truer when you have fifty thousand dollars than when you don't. Most things are. [p. 68]

...we agreed that neither of us had killed Uncle Tarzan for fifty thousand dollars. We hoped Captain Heimrich would agree too, since that would make things a good deal more chummy. [p. 69]

One o'clock in the morning is, certainly, one hell of a time to take a walk in the country, moonlight or no moonlight. I'd once known a man who did, but he was a man peculiarly prone to cosmic thoughts, which he found it necessary to walk off. I doubted Francis Eldredge had cosmic thoughts very frequently. [p. 92]

I said his {Heimrich's apparent} method, seemed like being a somewhat wasteful one....Obviously, if one could stir up a murderer until he had murdered all the people whose activities might involve him, one would end up with a solution. There would be one person left alive, and he would be "it." It was a method that leaned hard on the theory of expendability. [p. 125]


Deaths = two shot

Friday, August 28, 2020

R.F.K.: A Photographer's Journal

 R.F.K.: A Photographer's Journal (2008) by Harry Benson

Published 40 years after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Benson captures in pictures and journal entries the days of Kennedy's run for the presidential nomination--from the day he announced his candidacy to that fateful day in June of 1968 when a man with a gun in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel cut that run short. The photography is excellent--beautiful, touching, and haunting--capturing RFK in private moments with his family and public moments when he made connections with those of all races and all backgrounds. Benson also captures the horror and tragedy of Kennedy's final moments and the outpouring of grief in the faces of those who lined the railroad tracks as his body made its way to Arlington. Robert Kennedy is one of those "what ifs" of history--what if he hadn't been taken through the kitchen that night? What if he had lived and become president? What kind of president would he have made and how might we as a nation be different?  ★★★★

Thursday, August 27, 2020

When Gods Die

 When Gods Die
(2006) C. S. Harris

When Gods Die is the second in the Sebastian St. Cyr (Lord Devlin) mystery series. At the end of the debut novel, Sir Henry Lovejoy, impressed at Devlin's abilities in ferreting out the murderer, asks if he'd like to take on investigative work among the upper classes whenever future delicate cases might arise. Sebastian turns him down flat, but then immediately finds himself embroiled in another delicate mystery in this latest outing. 

The Prince Regent is holding a party at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. All goes well until the Prince enters his Yellow Cabinet, anticipating a romantic conquest, only to find the young Marchioness of Anglessey dead with a knife in her back. Rumors already swirl around his family--rumors that the madness of his father, George III, runs amok in all of the Hanovers. And now the rumors will fly that he is as violent as his brother Cumberland, who killed his valet (though officially that was ruled a suicide). When a beautiful necklace that was last seen around the neck of Sebastian's mother on the day she perished in a boating acciedent is found around the dead woman's neck, the Prince's confidante Lord Jarvis is empowered to pressure Devlin into investigating the matter. The sooner the real killer is found, the sooner the pressure will be off the Prince.

But nothing is ever that simple and Sebastian will have to make his way through a maze of lies, political intrigue, and startling discoveries about his own past before he can get to to the bottom of the mystery. A plot against the House of Hanover is tangled with personal retribution, but discovering who might want revenge against a beautiful young woman isn't as easy as looking at the Marquis's nephew. The nephew was the heir apparent until he learns that his elderly uncle was an expectant father. Fitting Bevan Ellsworth up as the murderer would be satisfying, both to Sebastian who never liked the man and to the Marquis who desperately wants someone else to inherit. But Sebastian has standards and won't accuse Ellsworth without proof. Proofs soon come (after a few too many more deaths)...but they lead to a very unexpected answer.

Once again Harris sweeps the reader back to Regency England. Sebastian is a good, solid character with a fine streak of decency running through him. He doesn't want to tidy up the murders with the least fuss for those of his class. He wants the right killer found and brought to justice for what they did--whether high born or not. He also cares deeply about Tom, the young boy he has rescued from the streets and who now serves as his tiger (to care for and mind his horses when out and about), and feels the injustices that face children like Tom who have to make their own way in the world. Sebastian is someone you definitely want on your side when you're up against it--just, intelligent, and a good man in a fight. 

It is also interesting how Harris weaves Sebastian's back story into the mystery plots--just enough to keep a running thread in the various books, but not so overbearing that it completely dominates nor so much as to make the connections unbelievable. It will be interesting to see where this takes us in future books. Another good historical mystery. ★★★★


Deaths = 10 (two poisoned; one fell from height; four stabbed; two drowned; one hit on head)

The Christie Curse

 The Christie Curse
(2013) by Victoria Abbott (Victoria & Mary Jane Maffini)

Jordan Bingham is in need of a job--she owes money on grad school loans and on a credit card that a good-for-nothing ex-boyfriend maxed out before she knew what was happening. She'd like a job that fits with her interests, but who wants a literary woman with a specialty in languages? Vera Van Alst--the most hated woman in Harrison Falls...that's who. 

Vera is a rabid book/manuscript collector and she has advertised for an assistant to help her track down a rumored long-lost play by Agatha Christie. A play that's never been produced or published and supposedly written while Dame Agatha went missing for eleven days in 1926. Vera had an assistant, but he, most annoyingly, got run over by a subway before he could track the manuscript down. Jordan is desperate for a job and decides that she'll try and run the gauntlet of Vera's irritable ways. Because, other than her employer's personality, everything seems perfect--getting paid to do research? Awesome. Hobnobbing with rare books people? Cool. Living in a fantastic little attic apartment? Sweet. Finding out your predecessor was probably murdered? Now wait a minute....Before she knows it, Jordan isn't just looking for the missing Christie. She's also trying to figure out who killed Alexander Fine before whoever they are decides Jordan Bingham needs bumping off as well.

The Christie Curse is definitely a cozy mystery. The only death takes place off-stage (well before we come along) and the attempted second is very light on violence. We also have the amateur sleuth getting herself into trouble with both the bad guys and the police while she tries to make sense of the clues left for her. The plot is a little murky at times (I'm wondering just how X got involved in the first place, for one), but this type of mystery isn't meant to be intricate and in need of high-voltage brain power. It's just a lot of fun to read. 

Jordan is a very likable protagonist--I immediately had a fondness for her from my work with graduate students in real life. And I loved the way she handled her difficult employer. Their interactions made for for some highly enjoyable moments, as did her life with her disreputable uncles. Overall, a fun, light mystery with an interesting tie-in for Christie fans. The next one has connections to Dorothy L. Sayers and I'll be interested to see how that plays out. ★★ and a half.


Deaths = one hit by subway

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The A.B.C. Murders

 The A.B.C. Murders (1936) by Agatha Christie

Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions. [Poirot]

A serial killer takes on Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells--sending taunting letters to announce their murders. The first letter tells Poirot to keep his eye on Andover on the 21st of the month. When the 21st arrives, Mrs. Ascher is is found bludgeoned to death in her tobacco shop. The next letter predicts a murder in Bexhill-on-sea...and Betty Barnard is found strangled to death on the beach. Each letter is signed A.B.C. and an ABC railway guide is found on or near the bodies. How far will the killer get through the alphabet before Poirot can bring his man to justice?

Relatives of the victims band together to form The Special Legion and offer their services to Poirot in an effort to help find the killer quicker. They have no faith in the police and, especially, in the rather arrogant Inspector Crome who seems to think he knows everything about everything. They gather together in Poirot's apartment to share what little information they have and to ask him to give them assignments to find out more.

The difficulty is that there are very few clues--other than a nagging feeling that Poirot has that there's something not right about the letters themselves. And then a possible villain--with the fateful initials A. B. C. is caught with numerous pieces of evidence on his person and in his room at a boarding house. But, again, Poirot believes there is something not quite right about the culprit they've been presented with. He has to go back to the beginning and discern just what it is about those letters that isn't right. 

I enjoyed having Hastings come back from South American to go "hunting once more" (as Poirot puts it) with his old friend. The Poirot stories are so much better when he has his "Watson" by his side. Their exchanges were just humorous enough to prevent a serial killer mystery from getting too dark. It was also good to see Poirot show up the young, very-full-of-himself Inspector Crome who seems to think the elder detective is past it. 

Christie tries something a little different with this one--switching periodically from Hasting's viewpoint to that of our possible villain. In fact, the whole thing has just a bit of difference--from the impersonal serial killings to the multiple viewpoints to Poirot working with The Special Legion. There are red herrings, but not quite in the way of things in a standard closed-circle mystery plot. It's really quite interesting and enjoyable. ★★

First line: It was in June of 1935 that I came home from my ranch in South America for a stay of about six months.

Last line: So, Hastings--we went hunting once more, did we not? Vive le sport.


Deaths = 4 (two hit on head; one strangled; one stabbed)

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Death on the Nile

 Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie 

Linnet Ridgeway is the girl who has everything--looks, brains, money. And now she's got her best friend's fiancé. Jaqueline de Bellefort, poor in her own circumstances but desperately in love, had asked her friend to give Simon Doyle a job. Because as she declares to Linnet, "I shall die if I can't marry him! I shall die! I shall die! I shall die...!" She swears Simon is just perfect for the job of land manager for Linnet's new estate and Linnet agrees to look him over. When she does, she decides that he is just perfect...for her.

Next thing we know Linnet and Simon are married. They've chosen Egypt as their honeymoon destination and plan to spend a blissful month visiting the pyramids, looking at the Sphinx, and sailing down the Nile. But life doesn't always turn out as planned...there's little bliss to be found when everywhere they go, up pops Jackie. Annoying as can be, but not actually abusive or threatening. What can be done?

Also vacationing in Egypt is Hercule Poirot. When Jackie shows up again at the Cataract Hotel and Linnet spies Poirot out on the terrace, the heiress tries to hire him to get rid of Jackie. But there's nothing he can do (again, the broken-hearted girl isn't actually hurting anyone by vacationing in the same places as the honeymooners)...and he will not be hired by the imperious young woman whom he suspects feels more guilty than she will admit. He does, however, talk with Jackie about letting her anger go because he senses she is embarking on a dangerous journey.

Do not open your heart to evil....Because--if you do--evil will come...Yes, very surely evil will come...It will enter in and make its home within you and after a while it will no longer be possible to drive it out.

But Jackie is determined to make the honeymoon a miserable as possible. And, even, it seems, has contemplated murder. She shows Poirot a little pearl-handled pistol that sometimes she would love to put up against Linnet's head and just press the trigger--but as long as the persecution keeps rattling them, she won't.

The four of them wind up on the Karnak, sailing down the Nile with an assortment of interesting passengers. There is Linnet's maid (Louise) and her American trustee ("Uncle" Andrew Pennington) who just "happened" to run into the happy couple in Cairo. There is also a sex-obsessed romance novelist (Salome Otterbourne) and her unhappy daughter Rosalie; Tim Allerton and his mother; a member of the American high society (Mrs. Van Schuyler) and her entourage consisting of poor relation/companion Cornelia and a nurse, Miss Bowers; an offensively outspoken communist (Mr. Ferguson); an Italian archaeologist Guido Richetti; a solicitor Jim Fanthorp; and a famous Austrian physician Dr. Bessner. And..Poirot's old friend Colonel Race

One evening, a hysterical scene takes place between Jackie and Simon with the result that she shoots him in the leg. And then when Linnet Doyle winds up dead--from a pistol shot--suspicion naturally focuses on Jackie. But Jackie couldn't have done it. She was attended by the nurse all night after being dosed with morphine for her hysterics. Poirot and Race work together to investigate and soon learn that just about every passenger aboard has a possible motive for wishing Linnet dead. But who took the opportunity of a dropped pistol to make the wish reality?

Well, I wound up having a regular floating Christie party. I listened to the audio novel version read by David Suchet. I read the hard copy novel. And I ended my excursion down the Nile with the 1978 film featuring Peter Ustinov as our Belgian sleuth. Definitely one of my top ten Christie excursions--I was thoroughly baffled on first reading and I love way she is able to make clues point in several directions with what seems to be little effort (though I know she carefully plotted these things out) and nothing & nobody is ever quite what they seem.   ★★★★

First Line: Linnet Ridgeway! "That's Her!" said Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the Three Crowns.

Last Line: For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.


Deaths = 5 (four shot; one stabbed)

Saturday, August 22, 2020


 Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson

[Synopsis from Britannica] Neuromancer follows its protagonist Case, an unemployed computer hacker who is hired by a mysterious new employer called Armitage. He's teamed with Molly, a cyborg, and Peter Riviera, a thief and illusionist, to carry out a series of crimes that set the stage for the group's ultimate purpose, which is played out on the orbiting space station called Freeside, home of the wealthy Tessier-Ashpool family. The family has created two artificial intelligences (AIs), Wintermute and Neuromancer, that are so powerful that they can only be connected at a single point. Case and his cohorts learn that they have been hired by Wintermute to break the separation between the AIs.

Reading this, I have discovered that cyberpunk is definitely not my thing. I found the book equal parts confusing, annoying, and offensive (mostly in language). The scenes jumped around and the characters spoke in jargon that we were expected to just soak up like a sponge, I guess. But none of it stuck with me. It's possible this sort of science fiction might have gone down better with me when I was younger, but it's not the kind of science fiction that appeals to me at this point of my life. I can see that the story has ground-breaking concepts and I understand why it won the awards that it did--it just didn't do anything for me.★★

First Line: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Last Line: He never saw Molly again.

The Clue in the Diary

 The Clue in the Diary (1932) by Carolyn Keene (original text)

Nancy, Bess, and George are on their way home from a carnival where they befriended a little girl and her mother. Mrs. Swenson and her daughter Honey seem to be in dire straits and the three young women take it upon themselves to see that the Swensons are able to enjoy themselves at the fair. As Nancy is driving back to River Heights, they witness a house go up suddenly in flames and they rush to the scene to give what aid they can. The house belongs to a Mr. Felix Raybolt (known as "Foxy Felix") and none of the neighbors appear to be too upset that the man's house has burned down. Rumors are that he has defrauded several people of their rights to patents. 

Nancy sees a man run from the scene and then finds a diary that he apparently dropped. Her researches reveal that the diary belongs to Joe Swenson--Mrs. Swenson's husband who has been missing. When Mr. Swenson is found and arrested for starting the fire--and possibly killing Mr. Raybolt whose wife swears he was in the house at the time of the fire, it's up to Nancy and her friends to clear his name and help the Swansons get back on their feet.

When I read the Nancy Drew books growing up, Diary was one of my favorites--primarily because it introduces Nancy to her long-term "special friend" Ned Nickerson. Ned is also at the fire and Nancy first sees him moving her car...away from the sparks (he says). At first she's a bit suspicious that he chose her car ("obviously the most expensive model parked there"), but Ned soon proves himself and becomes another helper in the effort to clear Mr. Swenson.

I enjoyed revisiting this entry from my childhood From what I remember, they didn't change the story much. And certainly not as much as some of the titles where they completely changed the plot. A fun, quick read. ★★

Friday, August 21, 2020

A Night in the Lonesome October


A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) by Roger Zelazny

It's October and your favorite classic monsters and things that go bump in the night are coming out to play...a brand new (to us) Game. A paranormal game that will either usher in a whole new reality (if the openers have their way) or maintain the status quo, if the closers get the upper hand. We've got our friend the Count and the good Doctor and his huge, hulking Experimental Man. And then there's Larry Talbot who sometimes appears as "Lucky" the werewol--er dog., that's it. We've also got Jack, a fellow who's pretty handy with knife, and a few other players who maybe aren't quite so familiar. 

Speaking of familiars...each of of the players have a helper in the form of an animal. Jack's sidekick, and our narrator, is Snuff, the dog (who really is a dog). Snuff is a watcher and a calculator, whose job is to keep an eye on the various Things trapped in mirrors, wardrobes, and trunks around the house as well as to calculate the location for this year's paranormal battle. He has to manipulate a map in his head based on where each of the other players have their home base. His computations are made more difficult by the fact that the Count keeps changing the location of his coffin and Snuff isn't sure if Larry Talbot is a player or not. And should he take any note of the Great Detective and his friend with the military doctor air about him?

This is a rollicking good tale from a master of SF and Fantasy--made even better by the illustrations from the pen of the illustrating legend, Gahan Wilson. We follow Snuff as he loyally helps his master Jack collect the oddest of odds and ends necessary to play the Game properly. Snuff also makes friends with the other familiars--from Graymalk the cat and Needle the bat to Nightwind the owl and Quicklime the snake. Until the "death of the moon" they are allowed to trade gossip and attempt to discover how many players are in the Game as well as what their "persuasion" is (opener vs. closer). When some of the players wind up dead, the animals band together to figure out who is taking out the humans.

I haven't enjoyed anything so much for a long time. Excellent storytelling and having it all told from the viewpoint of Snuff, the watchdog was amazing. I love Zelazny every time I read him. And every time I read him, I wonder why I haven't read more sooner. ★★★★


PopSugar: Bird on cover

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A Study in Scarlet Women

 A Study in Scarlet Women (2016) by Sherry Todd

Charlotte Holmes has always been an unsettling girl--quick of observation and a bit lacking at first in the social graces. She knows one thing--she doesn't want to have to get married and be beholden to any man for her living. But forging her own way in Victorian society is no easy task and she has to make herself a social pariah before she can make a start. Meeting up with a rich widow by the name of Mrs. Watson, gives her the chance she needs. 

Then there is a set of unexpected deaths and Charlotte's sister and her father each fall under suspicion. In an effort to dispel suspicion, Charlotte sends a letter under the name of Sherlock Holmes that points out certain discrepancies in the findings of the police and the doctors and soon finds herself consulted by Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard (through a ruse where he thinks he's consulting her sickly brother "Sherlock"). It will be a desperate struggle to find the connection between the three deaths and to bring the crime home to the proper villain.

So....I like Charlotte Holmes a lot. If I separate out the part where we totally ditch Conan Doyle's creation in favor of Charlotte, then I really enjoyed the book and thought the mystery well done.  I enjoyed the relationships between Charlotte and her sister, between Charlotte and Lord Ingram, and between Charlotte and "Mrs. Watson," I thought the development of Charlotte's character over the book was realistic and interesting and I very much appreciated the strong female characters. What don't I like? Totally ditching Sherlock Holmes in a Holmes story. So now we have a fictional character who is really the made-up "disguise" for another fictional character. Because we couldn't figure out a way to have a brilliant, unconventional female detective character in Victorian England without co-opting the most famous detective in all of mystery fiction.

I could definitely have gone for Charlotte as the unmentioned sister of Sherlock & Mycroft Holmes (because women--like children were supposed to be seen but not heard in Victorian times). Or a cousin. I'm all for pastiches that build on the world and characters of an author--without damaging it in any real way. But I am a bit tired of modern authors completely rewriting Doyle's work. I've suffered through versions where everybody (including Mycroft and Dr. Watson) were in the pay of Professor Moriarty. I've read a pastiche where Mrs. Hudson was really a young hottie that Holmes was interested in (like Dr. Watson, who had an eye for the ladies, would have neglected to mention that little tidbit). I've watched Moriarty come back from the dead in so many ways and even had a few other baddies who had been reported dead reappear (because "we" couldn't come up with our own villain, apparently). Now we have a version where there is no Sherlock (as we know him), no real Dr. Watson, and no real Mrs. Hudson. I wanted to love this book--I almost do. But ★★ and a half is pretty close.

First Line: Had anyone told the Honorable Harrington Sackville that the investigation into his death would make the name Sherlock Holmes known throughout the land, Mr. Sackville would have scoffed.

Last Line: Looking back at her, he said, "From the beginning, Holmes. The very beginning."


Deaths = (three poisoned; one natural causes