Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Adventure of the Peerless Peer


 The Adventure of the Peerless Peer (1974) by Philip José Farmer

It is 1916 and Holmes and Watson are called upon once again to save Britain. This time they must track down Von Bork before he can unleash a dreaded plague upon the world--bacteria that can devour a good Englishman's favorite food, boiled beef and potatoes. Forced to fly for the very first time (and they both hate it), they track the evil villain to darkest Africa where they form an uneasy alliance with the Lord of Jungle. Will they escape the African tribe bent on making them sacrifices? Will they escape the venomous cobra? Will they discover where Von Bork has hidden the secret formula? Will Watson get married for a fourth time? Will these adventures be enough to keep the reader interested....?

I thought The Veiled Detective by David Stuart Davies was the worst Holmes pastiche out there. I would be wrong. When I found this book by Farmer, I thought it looked like a fun mash-up between Holmes and Tarzan (Lord Greystoke). I've enjoyed several short stories and novels by Farmer in the past and expected a rollicking good adventure if nothing else. What I got was one of most incredibly awful parodies of Holmes and Watson and Tarzan possible (though I'm less solid on Tarzan--having not read much by Burroughs). I'm quite sure Farmer thought he was being hilarious with what passes for humor herein and maybe in the 1970s it was. But reading this at my age in 2021--the "humor" is sophomoric at best and insulting to the Holmes and Watson characters (and the reader) at worst. The only reason I give this one star instead of none is that I did enjoy playing "spot the character" for other fictional characters who pop up along the way. John Dickson Carr's Dr. Fell and Henry Merrivale, H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain, and others make appearances or are mentioned in the narrative. There is even a reference to the world of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey when the Duke of Denver is discussed. 

~As a matter of trivia, I think it interesting that Farmer (or Dell Publishing) was able to use Nigel Bruce's image as Watson and what looks very like Ron Ely as Tarzan, but I'm not recognizing the Holmes figure. It certainly isn't Basil Rathbone--one of the most iconic Holmes.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Howard's End


 Howard's End (1910) by E. M. Forster 

The narrative concerns the relationships that develop between the imaginative, life-loving Schlegel family--Margaret, Helen, and their brother Tibby--and the apparently cool, pragmatic Wilcoxes--Henry and Ruth and their children Charles, Paul, and Evie. Margaret finds a soul mate in Ruth, who before dying, declares in a note that her family country house, Howard's End, which has been the family's connection with the earth for generations, should go to Margaret. Her survivors choose to ignore her wishes, but after marrying Henry, Margaret ultimately does come to own the house. In a symbolic ending, Margaret brings Henry back to Howard's End after several traumatic events have left him a broken man. [Previous portion of synopsis courtesy of Britannica] Woven into this drama is a second storyline involving a poor clerk, Leonard Bast, and his "wife." Leonard becomes acquainted with the Schlegels and much of the trauma in the story emanates from Leonard's relationship with various other characters.

So much drama and dreariness. Leonard Bast and his yearning for culture while dealing with the "wife" he managed to pick up somewhere. Helen and her "secret." The relationships with and among the Wilcox family. So much contradiction--on one page Mr. Wilcox declares that he's going to give Howard's End to his son--but no one shall live in. Not many pages later, he's giving it to his wife absolutely. On one page Margaret will never forgive her husband and is going to Germany. Just a couple pages later, she's learning to love and understand him more each day. Of course, there is more time involved  between those incidents than a couple of pages would seem to indicate. But that, in a nutshell, represents one of my biggest difficulties with Forster's story--he skips through time like nothing and doesn't even use "* * * *" to indicate that time has passed. I constantly felt like I was on the deck of a ship in very rough waters--never knowing if I would be making steady progress in a straight line of would suddenly find myself reeling towards the railing.

I've seen many reviewers comparing Forster to Jane Austen. I adore Austen--her comedy of manners, her wit, and the relationships she represents in her novel. Her work sparkles with humor and human interactions that ring true. Even Emma (my least favorite of the novels I've read) didn't drag the way this did. It's possible that I'm coming back to Forster too late in life (I read A Room With a View in college and loved it) because neither A Passage to India (read in 2019) nor Howard's End have impressed me as much as I feel they should have. Howard's End speaks to class differences in early 1900s England and since I find the Victorian era through World War II to be the most interesting period I would think I would have enjoyed this thoroughly. Unfortunately, I didn't. 

First Line: One may as well begin with Helen's letter to her sister.

The affections are more reticent than the passions, and their expressions more subtle. (p.8)

Last Line: "We've seen to the very end, and it will be such a crop of hay as never!"

Friday, February 26, 2021

Behind the Green Door


 Behind the Green Door (1940) by Mildred A. Wirt

Penny Parker and her dad are planning a Christmas skiing trip to a lodge in Pine Top when Mr. Parker is forced to cancel his plans. Harvey Maxwell, a businessman who owns a chain of hotels, is suing the newspaper of which Parker is editor and publisher for libel. One of Parker's reporters quoted a football player as saying Maxwell had offered him a bribe to throw a game. The player now claims that he never said it and Maxwell is breathing fire. Parker will need to find evidence of Maxwell's wrongdoing or pay up.

Penny heads to the ski lodge on her own--only to find mysteries waiting for her. Maxwell shows up and seems to be in some sort of dealings with Ralph Fergus, another hotel man who owns the Fergus Hotel--a rival establishment to the Downey Lodge where Penny is staying. It looks like Fergus and Maxwell is trying to run Mrs. Downey out of business--but why? Penny discovers that Fergus's hotel has a mysterious Green Room where only those with an invitation can go. She's sure it has something to do with the shady business going on. And then a woman she met on the flight up to Pine Top suddenly acquires a new mink coat and indicates that she could get one for Penny too--at a very cheap price. It isn't long before Penny figures out the connection between all the mysteries and scoops a rival reporter from another newspaper in the process.

Notes while reading:

Fellow Vintage Children's Series lovers in our Facebook group have long praised Mildred A. Wirt's Penny Parker series. In some cases, folks have said they're better than Nancy Drew. So, when our local community book sale had several of the books on offer (in really good condition!) a few years ago I snapped them up. I'm just now sitting down to read my first one and I have to say...I find Penny annoying. The book starts with her hotdogging in her new snowsuit ("skiing" on an area rug in the hall) and wanting the Parker's housekeeper/cook Mrs. Weems to tell her how cute she looks in it. Then when her dad has to cancel his plans to join her on a skiing vacation because his newspaper is being sued for libel does she (as Nancy would) immediately decide to investigate on her own and dig up the truth to support the news story that has caused so much trouble for Mr. Parker.? No. Her first thought is that the vacation is being messed up. And then when she learns that the trial won't take place for a month, she's all "Don't you think you could take two weeks off anyhow, Dad?" [Like he shouldn't use all the time between now and the trial to dig up corroborating evidence that the story was true?] So, I'm afraid Penny and I haven't gotten off on the best of starts....

Okay, after the bumpy introduction, Penny and I got along better. Once she actually started investigating things up at the lodge (and how about that coincidence where the evil man suing her dad is also doing bad things up on the mountain where she's spending her vacation), I enjoyed the story a lot more. Very Nancy Drew-like--but given that Wirt wrote a great many of the ND stories, that's not surprising. I can't say that I liked it as much as I like Nancy, but it was an enjoyable afternoon's read. 

First lines: "Watch me coming down the mountain, Mrs. Weems! This one is a honey!"

Last lines:  PRESSES ROLLING. FIRST EDITION ON THE STREET AHEAD OF THE RECORD. THE STAR SCORES AGAIN. THIS IS ANTHONY PARKER SIGNING OFF FOR A CUP OF COFFEE.

A Rogue of One's Own


 ...when a woman happened to acquire a rogue of her own, she might as well make good use of him.

A Rogue of One's Own (2020) by Evie Dunmore

Synopsis from the book:

A lady must have money and an army of her own if she is to win a revolution--but first, she must pit her wits against the wiles of an irresistible rogue bent on wrecking her plans...and her heart.

Lady Lucie is fuming. She and her band of Oxford suffragists have finally scraped together enough capital to control one of London's major publishing houses, with one purpose; to use it in a coup against Parliament. But who could have predicted that the one person standing between her and success is her old nemesis, Lord Ballantine? Or that he would be willing to hand over the reins for an outrageous price--a night in her bed.

Lucie tempts Tristan like no other woman, burning him up with her fierceness and determination every time they clash. But as their battle of wills and words fans the flame of long-smouldering devotion, the silver-tongued seducer runs the risk of becoming caught in his own snare. As Lucie tries to out-maneuver Tristan in the boardroom and the bedchamber, she soon discovers there's truth in what the poets say: all is fair in love and war...

This late 1800s historical romance is a bit of a departure for me. Even though I have a great love for the Victorian period, normally when I venture into the romance genre I tend to pick up books set in the Regency era (a la Georgette Heyer). It was a great deal of fun to read about Lady Lucie, a headstrong and determined woman (even in our first look at her in a flashback to when she was thirteen). She and her fellow strong women in the cause make for an interesting look at the fight for suffrage in Britain in the late Victorian period. The love story is typical--antagonists who find that all the sparks between them aren't anger and dislike but in reality a sign of their mutual desire. Thankfully, Lucie and Tristan are good characters that make the typical love story an enjoyable read. 

First line: Young ladies did not lie prone on the rug behind the library's chesterfield and play chess agains themselves.

Last line: "Very," Hattie said promptly, and Lucie knew that the next scandal was already waiting in the wings.

 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Rebecca (spoiler-ridden)


 Rebecca
(1938) by Daphne du Maurier

I have gone once more to Manderley. I didn't intend to--but the Book Challenge by Erin bonus round required me to pick a book for the "Reread" prompt that one of my fellow challengers had selected and this was the most appealing of the choices available.* I last joined our nameless second Mrs. de Winter in 2010 (when My Reader's Block was just a baby blog).

I'm not going to do a synopsis or heavy-duty review this time round. I plan to give most of my attention to the last third of the book (which is why I've marked the review "spoiler-ridden). For a less spoilerish review, please click on the linked title above to view my 2010 post.

Read on only if you want to know a MAJOR plot point.

Upon reading for the third time, I found that most of my attention was drawn to the ending. I mentioned in my 2010 review how our nameless (and for the first two-thirds of the book, spineless) narrator was a bit taxing. The older I get, the less patience I have with women in fiction who don't stand up for themselves. I still understand that the narrator didn't feel like she measured up to Rebecca, but I wish she would have found the nerve to tell Mrs. Danvers off a lot sooner. Given how unsure of herself she is throughout and how nervous, I also find it interesting how she doesn't turn a hair when she finds out that Maxim killed his first wife. Suddenly she's all forceful and "don't tell me I don't love you" and "kiss me again!" And she's all about figuring out how to get Maxim out of the awful hole he's in with Rebecca's body being found. If only she'd shown half this gumption early on.

One thing that is dissatisfying to me now is how they've gone abroad and live such a dreary life. The book opens with her describing how they have finally come through their crisis and escaped the devil that rode them. She talks about how peaceful it all is away from Manderley, but it doesn't seem to be much of a life and the peace seems very fragile indeed. Having exactly two slices of bread and butter with their tea...every single day. No cakes, no crumpets, nothing fancy. Reading aloud all the news of the world and sports--but never again to mention the beauties of England which they have left behind without Maxim's face going grey. It's obvious he's still haunted and believes (as he says towards the end) that Rebecca may have won after all. I don't normally condone murder--but Rebecca goaded her husband into it because she wanted a quick death rather than a protracted, painful illness. After allowing her protagonists to escape the trap Rebecca laid for Maxim, you'd think du Maurier could give them a little real peace. 

First Line: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Last line: And the ashes blew toward us with the salt wind from the sea.


*Choosing to do the bonus round which requires that all choices be made from the books others have read makes for an extra challenge for people like me who don't read a great deal of more recently published books. 

***********

Deaths = one shot (but presumed drowned throughout 90 % of the book)

Monday, February 22, 2021

Uncle Silas


 Uncle Silas (1864) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

When Maud Ruthyn's loving but remote father dies, she is placed in the "care" of her Uncle Silas. True to form, she has inherited quite a bit of property and money and if she dies before reaching her majority guess who gets to scoop the pot? Good ol' Uncle Silas. She's been put under the thumb of an intimidating and kindof nutty French governess and we learn that Silas has been involved in a previous mysterious death. He is a small menacing presence rather than a large, overbearing villain. The whole household under Silas, including his ghastly son, are on the weird and threatening side and Maud feels danger from nearly every direction. Fortunately, she makes a few steadfast friends among her father's household servants and a cousin Lady Knollys (Monica) who see her through the worst of her trials. She undergoes frights and threats and there is a final midnight attempt on her life which lends itself to explaining the earlier death. 

Of course, Maud Ruthyn tells her story of Gothic horror from a place of safety, years later after she is married to the charming Lord Ilbury. Having her tell the story in the first person takes quite a bit of the suspense away. I mean, if Maud can tell us this story we know she survives her ordeal, right? I'm afraid that the suspense just didn't hold me as well as it might have done if this had been told from a different perspective and there had been any possibility of doubt about the outcome. Le Fanu did his best to give the reader proper Gothic shivers and (when one could forget who was telling the story) was fairly successful. An interesting Victorian thriller with an air of mystery and suspense, though for preference, I would take his shorter ghost stories over this longer novel.  

First Line: It was winter--that is, about the second week in November--and great gusts were rattling at the windows, wailing and thundering among our tall trees and ivied chimneys--a very dark night, and a very cheerful fire blazing, a pleasant mixture of good round coal and spluttering dry wood, in a genuine old fireplace, in a sombre old room.

Last Lines: This world is a parable--the habitation of symbols--the phantoms of spiritual things immortal shown in material shape. May the blessed second-sight be mine--to recognize under these beautiful forms of earth the ANGELS who wear them; for I am sure we may walk with them if we will, and hear them speak!


****************

Deaths = 4 (one natural; one stabbed/throat cut; one hit with hammer; one poisoned/overdose)


The Boomerang Clue


 The Boomerang Clue [Why Didn't They Ask Evans?] (1934) by Agatha Christie

Bobby Jones, fourth son of the local vicar, is out for a game of golf with the doctor. A mist is coming up off the sea and Bobby is having his usual erratic luck (mostly landing in bunkers and in the rough) when he smashes a particularly bad shot (it seems to go at right angles) and he hears a cry in the mist. He's afraid he might have hit someone but when he finds his ball there is no one around. His next ball goes right off the edge of the cliff. He looks over the edge for his ball and sees a man's body lying below. They find that he's still alive, but not long for this world. Leaving Bobby with the dying man, the doctor goes for help and while he's gone the man revives just long enough to look straight at Bobby and ask, "Why didn't they ask Evans?"

In deference to the dead, Bobby pulls out the man's handkerchief to place across his face. When he does, a photograph of a beautiful woman comes out as well. He puts it back just before a stranger, Mr. Roger Bassignton-ffrench comes along and asks if he can help. Bobby, remembering that he's promised his father that he'd play the organ at evening service, asks if the man would mind staying with the body until help arrives. He then hares off for church.

The man is identified as a Mr. Pritchard through a photograph in his pocket (presumably the one Bobby saw), but when he attends the inquest as one of the men who found the man he's surprised at how little Pritchard's sister looks like the photograph. Surely a woman wouldn't lose her looks that badly? There follows an odd visit from the Caymans (the sister and her husband) where they want to know if Pritchard regained consciousness and had any last words. Bobby, having forgotten all about the Evans comment says no. But later remembers, writes to the Caymans, and gives them the quote. He immediately receives a letter from an unknown company with an offer of a job in South America--valid only if he leaves immediately. Having already promised his friend Badger that he'd go in with him on a motor garage scheme, he turns it down. He's immediately poisoned with an overdose of morphia and through an exceptionally strong constitution pulls through what should have killed him several times over. 

Something is definitely fishy. And that's exactly what his childhood friend, Lady Frances Derwent (Frankie), tells him. After discussing all the events thus far, they decide that Bassington-ffrench is a very shady fellow and Frankie stages an auto accident to worm her way into the household where the man is staying. She and Bobby waver between thinking Bassington-ffrench the villain of the piece and suspecting a rather sinister-acting doctor. What follows is an adventure with a morphia addict, a possibly fraudulent will, an apparent suicide, a second near-fatal episode for both Bobby and Frankie (averted by the last-minute rescue by, of all people, Badger), and a final escape from death thanks to Frankie's intuition. Oh...and we finally find out who Evans is and why they should have been asked.

Christie's stand-alone novels tend more towards adventure and thrills than mystery. These are quite fun novels, but there isn't much choice for culprits and little scope for her devious sleight of hand tricks with red herrings and false clues. It had been a very long time since I read this one (40-ish years, I'd say) but I still enjoyed the antics of Frankie and Bobby. More recently, I had watched the 1980 filmed version with James Warwick and Francesca Annis (more frequently seen as Christie's Tommy & Tuppence Beresford). A delightful adventure that was perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon. ★ and 1/2.

First line: Bobby Jones swung his golf club and hit his ball very hard.

Last line: In an hour's time, the news was all over Marchbolt.

************

Deaths = 3 (one; poisoned; one shoved off cliff; one shot)

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Murder at Bray Manor


 Murder at Bray Manor (2017) by Lee Strauss

Lady Ginger Gold has just gotten her new London dress shop off the ground when she receives a plea for help from her sister-in-law Felicia at Bray Manor--it seems there is a poltergeist harassing the Dowager Lady Ambrosia Gold. Household items are moved to random, nonsensical places throughout the manor. Ginger doesn't want to leave her fledgling business, though she has hired a highly competent shop manager, but the two ladies seem truly in distress. So she and her American friend Hayley venture out to the country house to investigate. 

The Gold family have a title, but the coffers are pretty bare so Felicia and a reluctant Ambrosia have opened the estate up to the public for room rentals. Various clubs rent rooms on a once-a-week basis where they may hold their club meetings and special events. Ginger becomes convinced that one of the club members is playing the practical jokes specifically to irritate the somewhat snobbish Ambrosia. She's barely begun to investigate when tragedy strikes.

On Saturday night, Bray Manor hosts a charity ball to benefit a local society in aid of wounded soldiers. Felicity has invited some of her flapper friends and her beau--a certain Captain Smithwick who incidentally has a bit of history with Ginger. Not a pleasant history at all--Ginger knew him during the war and had hoped never to see him again. She's not the only one who doesn't seem to care for the captain. One of Felicity's friends, Miss Ashton has a bit of an argument with him on the dance floor.  The next morning, Miss Ashton is found dead at the edge of the estate's large pond...with an odd puncture wound in her back. When the weapon is found to be a knitting needle that disappeared after the last knitter's club meeting, Ginger has to wonder if the "poltergeist" has now turned killer.

The local police have had zero experience with murders and seem a bit overwhelmed, so Ginger tactfully suggests that they might call in the Yard...and specifically ask for Inspector Basil Reed. She and Reed have had other mystery adventures together and she trusts him to investigate intelligently and discreetly....until circumstantial evidence points to Felicity and his duty forces him to take her in for questioning. Then Ginger has to find the real killer on her own...before her sister-in-law can be tried for murder.

This is a totally new-to-me historical mystery series set in the 1920s. Lee writes with a light touch and it has a cozy feel to it. But it does also address some heavier social issues such as the differences between the classes and the pressures that can be brought to bear...even by one's supposed friends. Ginger Gold is a fine central character and I found her interactions with her friends, family, and Inspector Read to be quite interesting. I definitely can see myself visiting Ginger's world again. 

***********

Deaths = one stabbed

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) by 
John le Carré

George Smiley is brought out of a forced retirement to uncover a Soviet mole who has been planted in the British Secret Intelligence Service (the Circus) for years. He was forced out of the Circus when Control, the former head of the service, directed a failed attempt to find evidence of the mole. When "Operation Testify" fails, ending with the shooting and torture of fellow agent Jim Prideax (code name Ellis), Control and those most loyal to him (like Smiley) were forced out and new leadership takes over. But new information has come and Smiley must discover which of the agents--code named Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, or Poorman--is the enemy agent. His investigation finds that Ellis was deliberately set up by those who wanted to protect the mole at all costs. Smiley gathers a small team of loyal agents to help him investigate--they must be successful because another debacle like Operation Testify could spell disaster for the Circus...and Britain.

This is another critically acclaimed spy novel by Le Carré, most notable for its commentary on the Cold War era and its relevance at the time when it followed the defection of Kim Philby. There's no doubt that it is an important book in the spy genre. But I have to admit that it did little for me. When I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold back in 2016, I loved it. I don't generally love spy thrillers, but I thought Le Carré had written an absolutely superb book. I'm not sure if I just really wasn't in the mood for a spy novel this time or if the plot was just too convoluted for me (lots of wheels within wheels in this one), but if I hadn't had to finish this for one of my challenges then I probably wouldn't have. I think another difficulty was that there really is very little action (and in my mind spy/espionage = action). Smiley spends a lot of time investigating and talking to people and there's a lot of time spent in people's telling about their experiences rather than the experiences actually happening there on the page in front of you. Needed more showing and less telling. 

First Line: The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn't dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood's at all.

Last Line: The gun, Bill Roach had finally convinced himself, was, after all, a dream.


**************

Deaths = one neck broken

The Talisman Ring


 "I may have said that I wanted to have an adventure," replied Miss Thane. "But I never said that I wanted to be murdered in my bed."
The Talisman Ring (1936) by Georgette Heyer

Historical romantic comedy meets murder mystery in my latest read penned by Heyer. Two years ago, Baron Lavenham's heir, Ludovic, was accused of murdering Sir Matthew Plunkett over the loss of the titular talisman ring in a rigged game of chance. His cousin, Sir Tristram Shield, helped him escape the law and Ludovic has been a fugitive heir ever since. As the story opens, Baron Lavenham is on is deathbed. It is his dying wish that Tristram shall marry his half-French cousin Eustacie before the baron expires. After meeting for the first time, neither are very enthused at the idea. Eustacie, for her part, does not believe her cousin to be romantic and adventurous enough. When the baron dies before the wedding can take place, Eustacie decides to run away and become a governess rather than marry Tristram whom she declares to be not sympathique. All she wants in life is adventure. [why she believes a governess to be the route to go for adventures is beyond me...]

Eustacie soon finds herself embroiled with smugglers...er...that is free traders. One of whom turns out to be her missing cousin Ludovic. They have to run away from Excise Men, Ludovic is wounded, and they wind up taking refuge at the Red Lion inn where a Miss Sarah Thane (who also longs for adventure) takes them under her wing. Ludovic swears that he did not kill Sir Matthew and after hearing that the baron has died is determined to find out who committed the murder and stole his precious ring. The rest of the story sees them teaming up with Tristram (after briefly flirting with the idea that he is the villain of the piece), avoiding Excise Men, searching for hidden panels, nearly being murdered in their beds...and, of course, finding the ring and the murderer. Eustacie falls in love with Ludovic--and after witty bantering throughout the second half of the novel Sarah winds up with Tristram. All's well that ends well. 

This was a fun read. Heyer does period romantic comedy very well and she's one of my very favorite historical romance authors. The mystery portion is a little weak--after ruling out Sir Tristram, one really doesn't have to look very hard for the murderer, but the fun is watching the characters work their way towards capturing him rather than having an intricate puzzle to solve. I did think the hiding place for the ring was a nice touch. ★★ and 1/2.

Quotes:

First Line: Sir Tristram Shield, arriving at Lavenham Court in the wintry dusk, was informed at the door that his great-uncle was very weak, not expected to live many more days out.

People who collect objects of rarity, my dear Eustacie, will often, so I believe, go to quite unheard of lengths to acquire the prize they covet. (Sir Tristam, p. 22)

Sir Tristram was contemplating with grim misgiving the prospect of encountering vivacity at the breakfast table for the rest of his life... (p 33)

"In my back bedchamber, sir," said Nye loudly. "I always house smugglers there to be handy for the riding-officers." (p. 91)

"Sir," said Miss Thane, "during the course of the past twelve hours my life seems to have become so full of smugglers, Excisemen, and wicked cousins that I now feel I can face anything." (p. 105)

Last Line: "You are in love, enfin!" she exclaimed.

***********

Deaths = one shot



Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Cannibal Who Overate


 The Cannibal Who Overate (1962) by Hugh Pentecost

The first of the Pierre Chambrun mysteries set in the Hotel Beaumont. The Beaumont is the most luxurious of the luxury hotels in New York City and everything runs like clockwork, thanks to Chambrun's exquisite managerial skills. It even runs like clockwork when Aubrey Moon, the superrich, sadistic own of one of the Beaumont's rooftop suites tries to disrupt everything and everybody with the planning of his annual birthday bash. He doesn't want much--just exotic foods and flowers flown in from all corners of the globe, the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera to sing "Happy Birthday," and to-the-second timing on every single item on the agenda. It's enough to make most men tear their hair out--but not Chambrun.

But, then a high-class call girl commits suicide in one of the hotel's suites and it's revealed that she was under pressure to kill Moon. Not that anyone would weep at his passing. Moon has made a life out of destroying those who annoy him--driving men and women to suicide, ruining careers, and bankrupting his foes. Apparently he has pushed one of his victims too far because someone with a lot of money to spend is throwing it at people in the "Moon Club"...those who have a reason to want Moon dead. Now they have an added incentive (beyond their hate and thirst for revenge) of $10,000 to put themselves and all of Moon's victims out of their misery. 

Chambrun doesn't care for Moon any more than anyone else and really wouldn't mind much if someone did the vicious man in, but he does care about the Beaumont and doesn't want any unpleasantness to mar its reputation. So he sets to work trying to discover the person behind the murder plot. Working with Jerry Dodds, his chief of security at the Beaumont, and Lt. Hardy of the NYPD, he helps to catch the mastermind in the act.

Not a bad beginning to the highly successful series. The characters aren't quite fully realized and Chambrun is not nearly as central to the story as he will become later in the series. I did realize fairly quickly where the plot was headed, but this was an enjoyable afternoon's read and a series that I do recommend overall. ★★

First Lines: It was Monday. This Saturday would be the Great Man's birthday.

Last Line: Fill up the glasses, Wills, I'd like to drink to that.

**********

Deaths = 4 (one hanged; one shot; one natural; one hit on head)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

My Own Words


 My Own Words (2016) by Ruth Bader Ginsburg

[from the book flap] My Own Words offers Justice Ginsburg on wide-ranging topics, including gender equality, the workways of the Supreme Court, being Jewish, law and lawyers in opera, and the value of looking beyond U. S. shores when interpreting the U. S. Constitution. Throughout her life Justice Gingsburg has been a prolific writer and public speaker. This book's sampling is selected by Justice Ginsburg and her authorized biographers Mary Hartnett and Wendy. W. Williams.....This is a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of America's most influential women.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was, in a word, amazing. The Supreme Court and America lost someone most nearly irreplaceable as a human can be when she left us in September 2020. This is made even more glaringly obvious [in my opinion] by the shoddy replacement given us by the previous administration. Justice Ginsburg came to the highest Court in the land with roughly 30 years of experience in law. She had written briefs for ACLU cases brought before the Supreme Court; she had served on the U.S. Court of Appeals. She had, as they say, been in the trenches. She brought to the bench a thorough understanding of law, a broad knowledge of cases that had come before, and a real desire to provide impartial justice. Impartiality is an absolute necessity for justice. Judges should not be placed on the bench out of political one-up-manship or to serve a particular party's agenda. She believed (as did Chief Justice Renquist before her that Justices should be "bound to decide each case fairly, in accord with the relevant facts and the applicable law, even when the decision is not the one the home crowd wants."  [I'll get off my soap box now.]

This book was a terrific look at Justice Ginsburg's background, her thoughts, her beliefs about the way justice is best served, and what it means to have gender equality:

Feminism...I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, "Free to be You and Me." Free to be, if you were a girl--doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you're a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that's OK too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers--manmade barriers, certainly not heaven-sent.

Through speeches, lectures, briefs, and Supreme Court dissents, we get the messages direct from Ginsburg herself. I don't listen to a lot of audiobooks, but this is one that I would love to listen to--to hear the portions read by Justice Ginsburg herself and to truly hear it in her own words. She promised in her speech accepting President Bill Clinton's nomination to the Supreme Court to work "the the best of my ability, for the advancement of the law in the service of society." I believe she did just that. I would have liked a bit more of her own words about Justice Ginsburg to balance with the sometimes repeated words about a few of the court cases. But on the whole an interesting and absorbing work. ★★


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Valentine's Day

 

 
It's been a very long time since I've participated in the Top Ten Tuesday (in fact it's been about 7 years--how did that happen?), but Kate over at Cross Examining Crime has tempted me with her post about Dell covers and romantic "advice." So, I've been on a cover scavenger hunt of my own. I went looking for covers that feature popular items and themes associated with Valentine's Day.

1. Hearts: From the years of grade school hearts have represented love and Valentine's Day--we cut out red hearts from construction paper in art class. The valentines we exchanged were loaded with pink and red hearts. Even mystery covers come festooned with them--of course, most people don't expect murder on Valentine's Day.
 
 
2. Lots of folks choose to "Say It With Flowers" on Valentine's Day--buying roses and other beautiful bouquets for their loved ones. Just make sure yours doesn't come with a message of death attached.


3. Another popular gift for romance is chocolates. Nothing says "I Love You" like a box of candy filled with arsenic.


4. But maybe you'd like to be a little more extravagant in your gift-giving. How about a beautiful diamond...with a bonus skeleton?


5. Sharing a bottle of bubbly or a nice glass of wine can also help those romantic moments along. And if things don't go as well as planned, you could always drop a bit of cyanide into a peach brandy where it will hardly be noticed at all.


6. But what of the evening's activities? Do you have a date for Valentine's Day? Do you have an interesting evening planned? Dinner? A movie? Stumbling over dead bodies?


7. Perhaps you and your beloved enjoy going to the theater. Hopefully, you've planned ahead and gotten your tickets well in advance. But we'll also hope there won't be a death in the final act. Especially yours.


8. Music is another good idea for the romantically-inclined. Picking the right melodies can set just the right mood for a cozy little night together...or for a cozy little murder.


9. And maybe you like a little dancing with your music. It's certainly a lovely way to get up close and personal with your significant other. Just make sure you know what they're doing with that hand behind your back.


10. If your Valentine's day has been a success (and you've survived), then when the evening's over don't forget to give your sweetie a heart-felt kiss goodnight kiss. 





Monday, February 8, 2021

The Listerdale Mystery


 The Listerdale Mystery (1934) by Agatha Christie is a collection of twelve short stories--none of which feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or any of her other repeated characters. They include stories of mistaken identity (mostly on purpose), stolen jewels, exploits on trains, mysterious butlers, missing lords, and fake policemen. Quite a number are fairly unbelievable adventure stories ending with rapid romance. There are a few murders thrown in for interest and some of the stories remind me most of the Harley Quin style of plot. Entertaining enough for an afternoon or two of listening (I listened to the audio version read by Hugh Fraser), but most are not Dame Agatha's best work. My favorites are "Philomel Cottage," "Accident," "Jane in Search of a Job," and "Swan Song." ★★

"The Listerdale Mystery": A gentlewoman in reduced circumstances is offered the chance to live in a beautifully appointed home for a nominal rent. She takes advantage of it for the benefit of her daughter--whom she hopes to see engaged to a more affluent young man. Lord Listerdale has disappeared under mysterious circumstances--leaving the home open for let--and Mrs. St. Vincent's son is certain there is something fishy about the whole set-up and decides to investigate.

"Philomel Cottage": Alix Martin marries a man after a very brief acquaintance. After a few odd conversations, she begins to suspect her husband of harboring secrets from her. Possibly deadly secrets.[Made into a movie called "Love from a Stranger" starring Basil Rathbone in 1937.]

"The Girl in the Train": George Rowland is fired by his uncle too many nights out late carousing. He decides to go on a train journey and encounters a mysterious young woman who begs him to hide her from her uncle. She then sets on the road to more adventures...and romance and wealth.

"Sing a Song of Sixpence": While on a sea voyage, Sir Edward Palliser made a promise to a young woman that if she ever needed help then she could come to him. He's rather surprised when several years later, she does. Someone has murdered great-aunt and she wants him to find out who did it. You'll not be surprised to know that he does.

"The Manhood of Edward Robinson" begins with Mr. Robinson reading a story of a heroic young man getting into all kinds of daring adventures and being kissed by mysterious young women. Mr. Robinson is engaged to a rather managing young woman who wants him to be practical and save money for their marriage. He wins a tidy little packet that allows him to buy himself the motor car of his dreams...and he has an adventure of his own which sends him back to his fiancee a changed man.

"Accident": Retired Inspector Evans is sure that he recognizes a woman in the village as one who was acquitted of poisoning her previous husband. He's pretty sure she was guilty and that she's planning on polishing husband number two as well. While he's still debating what to do about it, he visits a fortune teller at the local fete who tells him to be very careful. He is about to make a decision that could be life or death...and if he makes a mistake there will be death. This is one fortune teller who earns her pay....

"Jane in Search of a Job": Jane Cleveland is badly in need of a job. She spies an advertisement in the paper looking for a young woman who looks quite like she does and who speaks French (which she does). It winds up being a position to pose as a double for the Grand Duchess Pauline of Ostrava. There may be danger...but what's a little danger when three thousand pounds are in the offing?

"A Fruitful Sunday": A working couple with dreams of better things take a holiday in the country. When they stop by a fruit stand and buy a basket of cherries, they get more than they bargained for. In the bottom of the basket is a gleaming necklace which looks exactly like the one recently written up in the newspaper as having been stolen. What should they do? Dorothy is all for coaxing Edward into finding a fence and getting some money for the thing. After all--they didn't steal it. 

"Mr. Eastwood's Adventure": Mr. Eastwood is a mystery writer in need of a plot. He's got a perfectly good title ("The Mystery of the Second Cucumber"), but that's all he's got. He's got no mystery. Well...that is until he receives a mysterious phone call asking him to come to the aid of a young woman and the code word is...cucumber.

"The Golden Ball": As with George Rowland above, George Dudas is sacked by his uncle for taking an unapproved holiday from work. He's told that he hasn't grasped the "golden ball of opportunity." As he's sitting and contemplating his future, society girl Mary Montresor stops her car in front of him and asks if he'd like to come for a drive. Next thing she's asking if he'd like to marry her and when he says he would, she says: "Well, some day you might." They go for a joyride in the country, playing at picking out the house where they'll live and they wind up held up by the inhabitants of a likely-looking place. Will George grasp the golden ball this time?

"The Rajah's Emerald": James Bond goes on holiday "with" his girlfriend. But rather than the romantic weekend he imagined, Grace goes to stay at a much grander hotel with friends and leaves James to the lodgings that are more within their budget. He's disgruntled and feeling looked down upon...but he has the last laugh when the Rajah's emerald is stolen and he gets to play hero.

"Swan Song": The temperamental opera singer Madame Paula Nazorkoff gives a final performance of Tosca that no one will ever forget...least of all her leading man. 


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Deaths = 6 (one hit on head; one natural; two poisoned; one fell from height; one stabbed)

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Bookwanderers

I'm sure I don't have to tell you two how powerful books are. Books can change minds and change worlds, open doors and open minds, and plant seeds that can grow into magical or even terrifying things. Stories are things to be loved and respected at the same time, never underestimate the power of them. It's why books are often casualties of censorship; those who ban or burn books are those who are scared of what can be found among their pages. (Amelia, the Under Librarian)

The Bookwanderers (2019) by Anna James

Tilly Pages has lived under the mystery of her mother's disappearance when Tilly was a baby. Her father had died before she'd been born and her grandparents, with whom she had lived her whole life, would never tell her much. Every time she asked questions, they managed to quickly change the subject. Living in her grandparents' bookshop (Pages & Co.), it was natural that she would turn to books for comfort--especially after moving on to middle school and finding that her best friend had apparently moved on to other friends once she joined the net ball team.

Soon, she isn't just getting lost in the stories for comfort--she's amazed to find characters from her favorite books, like Anne of Green Gables and Alice from Wonderland appearing in the bookshop. And it's not just her favorite characters...she stumbles upon her grandma with a woman called Lizzie (Elizabeth Bennett from Pride & Prejudice) and her grandfather in deep conversation with a man who looks suspiciously like Sherlock Holmes. She's not sure what exactly is going on and then before she knows it Alice has taken her for a visit in Wonderland. 

In between these unusual adventures, Tilly has started a friendship with a boy from her school named Oskar. When she tells him about her experiences, he's naturally a little skeptical. Especially, knowing that she's recently found a box of books that used to belong to her mom. He wonders if it isn't just a bit of daydreaming on Tilly's part. But then Anne shows up while he's in the bookshop with Tilly and takes both of them to world of Green Gables. After they get back, they decide it might be a good idea to have a talk with Tilly's grandfather. 

They learn that they have become bookwanderers--readers who read books so intently that they can actually see the characters and visit their worlds. But there are dangers involved with being a bookwander and Mr. Pages takes them to meet the Under Librarian and for a full initiation into their powers. More for their safety than anything. Before their initiation is complete, Tilly finds that she has powers even more unusual than most bookwanderers and that there is a threat that not even the Under Librarian knows about. And somehow it's all connected to her mother's disappearance so many years ago. Will she and Oskar be able to solve the mysteries involved and get back safely from their fictional wanderings?

This a delightful middle-grade book about literary adventures which is perfect for those who love books. It weaves themes of friendship, loss, love, and reality into a interesting and exciting story that kids of all ages (even those over 50 😉) can enjoy.  James also does an excellent job giving voice to Anne, Alice, and Sarah Crewe from A Little Princess. Their conversations with Tilly and Oskar are very true to character and it's interesting to see how they react to Tilly's world and Tilly's & Oskar's reactions to the worlds of fiction. The final twist at the end shouldn't have been unexpected...but it still managed surprise me and it makes me wonder if it will be followed up in the next book in the series. ★★ and 1/2. 


Thursday, February 4, 2021

Magpie Murders


 Magpie Murders
(2016) by Anthony Horowitz

Susan Ryeland is given the latest manuscript by Cloverleaf Books' bestselling author, Alan Conway. Conway specializes in British mysteries in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers--murder and mayhem in quaint little English villages. She expects Magpie Murders to be more of the same. The book is pretty much what she expected--Atticus Pünd is investigating a rather gruesome murder at Pye Hall (which has followed close on the heels of an apparent accident--but was it?). There are murders and suspects and clues and red herrings galore...but no solution. The chapters which should contain the classic wrap-up scene where the detective reveals all are simple not there. And, almost more disturbing, what is there seems to indicate that Conway is killing off his bestselling detective.

Before she and her boss Charles Clover can contact Conway to ask about the missing chapters, the author is found dead from an apparent suicide. It seems that Conway, like his detective, has been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer and has chosen to end it all before it becomes too much too bear. But the longer Susan spends with the manuscript and the more she talks with those who knew Conway, the less sure she is that he really did take his own life. There are clues hidden in the manuscript and in real-life conversations that seem to indicate a real-life story of jealousy, greed, revenge, and....murder. 

Very meta. The framing story mirrors the inner mystery in a number of ways (or vice versa)--inoperable cancer and a suicide or "suicide" to follow; messages with a portion handwritten and a portion typewritten; the author of the inner story lives in a house like that in his mystery; the author's boyfriend is the model for his detective's sidekick, and so on. We learn that Alan Conway the author of Magpie Murders (the mystery within the mystery) had a great love for anagrams, crosswords, and word puzzles of all kinds. He filled his own books with coded names from real life and based characters and incidents on real life as well. Susan has to decide how much was just Alan playing with puzzles and how much really points to the reasons behind his death.

This was fantastically put together. A great homage to classic detective novels with nods to characters and places particularly in the novels of Agatha Christie. Horowitz does an excellent job of laying out the clues and then distracting you from them--in both the inner story "written" by Conway and in the framing story about Conway's death. He actually did a much better job with the inner mystery--I didn't guess the culprit there, though I can clearly recognize the clues I missed now that I've finished. I did figure out the plot surrounding Conway's death, but the fact that it was more obvious to me didn't detract from my enjoyment. A truly fun, twisty read. ★★★★

First Lines: A bottle of wine. A family-sized packet of Nacho Cheese Flavoured Tortilla Chipsand a jar of hot salsa dip. A packet of cigarettes on the side (I know, I know). The rain hammering against the windows. And a book. What could have been lovelier?

Last Lines: I had been the detective and now I was the murderer. And do you know? I think I liked it more.

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Deaths = 10 (one drowned; two fell from height; three stabbed; one natural; three poisoned) [This includes "real life murders" in the framing story as well as murders committed on the pages of Conway's mysteries as told in the inner story.]


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The Double-Jack Murders


 The Double-Jack Murders (2009) by Patrick McManus 

Sheriff Bo Tully has quite a bit on his plate. And it's not just the barbeque from the big shindig that kicks off the first chapter. A crazy killer has escaped, vowing vengeance on the lawman who was silly enough to try and put him behind bars (that would be Tully). He's also taken on a 75-year-old missing persons case that most likely ended in murder. His good friend Agatha Wrenn has asked him to look into the disappearance of her father and his assistant. The two were a pair of gold miners who disappeared just when it was rumored they had found a huge vein of gold in Blight County. Agatha's mother always told her that her husband Tom Link wasn't the disappearing kind, so Agatha grew up assuming he and Sean had been murdered. And now she wants to know for sure. 

Tully doesn't mind digging around in old (really old) mysteries, especially when it will suit his purposes for flushing out Lucas Kincaid--the killer on his track. So he loads up his ex-Sheriff father Pap and a tracker by the name of Dave and the three head out to Deadman Creek for a little camping, a little gold mine hunting, a little ancient murder solving, and...to set himself up as bait for Kincaid. He's also got the best shot in the sheriff's office, Deputy Brian Pugh on tap to play sharpshooter and pick Kincaid off if he tries anything. Trouble is...after Kincaid has two tries at killing him things go silent. No more evidence of Kincaid and, more troubling, not one peep out of Pugh. Did Kincaid give up that easily? Did he get Pugh first and decide that a dead deputy was as good as a dead sheriff? Just how man murders will Tully wind up solving after all?

The beginning of this one gave me déjà vu. I am quite sure that I have never read a Patrick McManus mystery before, but that whole beginning where Sheriff Tully installs his deputy in the upper floor of his house with a scope rifle to watch out for a mentally unstable escaped killer with Tully on his hit list seemed awfully familiar to me. I'm not so positive about the whole barbeque in his "front yard" (the sprawling meadow around his house), but the deputy with the rifle--yes. 

Anyway...this is a decent, fast read. I didn't find it nearly as hilarious as the blurbs on the cover seemed to think I would:

The Funniest Writer Around Today (or at least in 2009)

I mean sure if you like your humor laced with macho self-appreciation or jokes about killing people (at least I think they're joking) or shooting in general or all men loving trucks--then, yeah, this is a rollicking yuck-fest. But for those of us who aren't all that keen on jokes about guns/shooting/killing and etc.--not so much.  It wasn't offensive--just not funny. The primary mystery (the missing miners) wasn't too difficult to figure out. I didn't get the slight twist, but I did recognize the motive and have it attached in the general direction. ★★

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Deaths = 3 shot

Monday, February 1, 2021