Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Wall of Glass: Walter Satterthwait

I discovered Walter Satterthwait at the Santa Barbara Planned Parenthood book sale in 2014. Or rather, my husband discovered him for me. He found a beautiful hardback copy of the second book in the Joshua Croft series, titled At Ease with Death. He then proceeded to find the next three books in the series, also in lovely hardback editions. And each one was only $1.00. So of course, I had to get them. And then I had to find the first book in the series so that I could read that one.

Joshua Croft is a Santa Fe private investigator working for the Mondragón Agency, owned by Rita Mondragón. The case in Wall of Glass centers on a valuable piece of jewelry which was stolen from the house of a wealthy Santa Fe family. The insurance company has already settled the claim, and Joshua is approached by Frank Biddle, who claims to know where the jewelry is. He plans to offer it to the insurance company for a finder's fee with Joshua as the middleman. Before they can come to an agreement, Biddle is killed. The Mondragón Agency then contracts to look into the whereabouts of the stolen necklace.

From the start we know that Joshua has a thing for Rita, who is involved with the investigation but is on the sidelines because she was crippled by a gunshot wound, and is in a wheelchair. This element does not overshadow the story but is always in the background.

The story is told in first person narration by Joshua. He is likable, intelligent, and cynical, a typical wise-cracking private eye. Rita does run the show, but Joshua makes his own decisions, sometimes putting himself in dangerous situations. The story is heavy on dialogue, and Satterthwait does a good job with it. The mystery plot is complex with many possible suspects and various people hiding the truth, but with Joshua telling the story, it moves along at a brisk pace and in a straightforward way.

These three paragraphs describing Joshua's meeting with Frank Biddle illustrate Satterthwait's style, which I found very readable:
He was short and muscular, and he moved across the office with a quick alert strut, a bantam swagger, like someone who might take offense at the word "Napoleon." He wore dusty Western boots, faded jeans, a tight-fitting denim shirt, and a gray Stetson with the sides of its brim curled up. His face was sun-reddened and his eyes had the prairie squint. This being Santa Fe, he could've been exactly what he looked like. A real live cowboy.
On the other hand, this being Santa Fe, he could've been a stockbroker.
He didn't introduce himself or offer his hand or take off his hat. Which probably eliminated stockbroker. He plopped down into the client's chair, stretched out his legs, and crossed them at the ankles. Lacing his fingers together atop his chest, he said, "I got what you call a hypothetical situation." Which probably eliminated cowboy.
One of the quirks of this writer (at least in this book) is that every character is introduced with a description of their clothing. Nothing at all wrong with that, I enjoyed it and I think when we meet people in real life we do "judge" them on their clothing. But the consistency here was a bit surprising... plus the fact that the author is male and he knows way more about clothes than I do. I probably would not have noticed it if I wasn't an avid reader of Clothes in Books and now often pay more attention to clothing descriptions in mysteries.

Here is a description of Joshua, preparing to attend an opening at a gallery:
For my outing that evening I selected a pair of clean Levis, Luchese lizardskin boots, a pale blue silk shirt, and my Adolfo blue blazer. Understated elegance. The sort of thing Hoot Gibson might wear to the Four Seasons.
If, like me, you don't know who Hoot Gibson is, per IMDB he was "a pioneering cowboy star of silent and early talking Westerns" and "one of the 1920s' most popular children's matinée heroes."

You can probably tell that I enjoyed my experience with the first book in the Joshua Croft Mystery series. The Southwestern locale is very well described, both in the town of Santa Fe and the surrounding countryside. At the time this book was published, the author was living in Santa Fe. This library blog lists the books in the Joshua Croft series and describes other books the author has written.

Thanks to my wonderful husband for finding this series of books for me; I will be reading the next book soon.

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Publisher:   University of New Mexico Press, 2002 
                  (orig. publ. 1987)
Length:       246 pages
Format:       Trade paperback
Series:        Joshua Croft, #1
Setting:       Santa Fe, New Mexico
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Blackhouse: Peter May

Description from the dust jacket of my edition:
When a grisly murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides that bears the hallmarks of the work of a similar killer on the Scottish mainland, Edinburgh detective and native  islander  Fin Macleod is dispatched to investigate, embarking at the same time on a voyage into his own troubled past.
At the beginning of the story, the reader learns two things about Fin Macleod. He has been taking some time away from his job as a police detective in Edinburgh because his son died a few weeks earlier and his relationship with his wife is not very good. His boss insists that he return to work and sends him off to the Isle of Lewis to investigate a murder there, since Fin was an investigating officer on the similar case that occurred in Edinburgh.

Fin is not exactly welcomed when he arrives in the village where he grew up. The DCI in charge, Tom Smith, doesn't want his help or his expertise. His old friends and acquaintances are wary, at best, since he hasn't been back to the island in 20 years.


The story consists primarily of flashbacks to Fin Macleod's childhood intermingled with Fin's experiences on the island as he renews old relationships. I usually like a mystery that is as much about the characters in the book as about the detection of the crime, but in this case it seemed like there was too much of the protagonist's backstory and not enough about the crime. That part of the book seems like an afterthought, although both stories come together at the end.

This was Peter May's goal when writing the book. From an interview at Visit Scotland, May says:
When someone becomes known as a crime writer, publishers and booksellers expect all future books to be in the same genre. The Blackhouse had a crime in it, but as far as I was concerned the crime was nothing more than a vehicle to tell the personal story of Fin Macleod, his life and his upbringing on the island.
The most effective part of this book is the setting and the atmosphere. It is the protagonist's memories of his childhood that provide us with a picture of life on the Isle of Lewis 20-30 years earlier. The story is powerful and well told.

May did not intend for this book to turn into a series, and had no desire to be tied to a lot of books about one character, but he was persuaded by his French publishers to write two more books featuring Fin. Even though I was not entirely satisfied with this book, I will read the next book in the series. I am very interested in how May continues it.

I am also very excited that the Enzo Files, an earlier series by Peter May, has been reissued in trade paperback editions. I have been looking for the first book in that series for years.

This series is hugely popular and if you haven't already read it, you should probably ignore my reservations and give it a try. See these other posts on The Blackhouse. Each of them have more information on the author, his other books, or the setting:



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Publisher:   SilverOak, 2012 (orig. publ. 2009 in France)
Length:       357 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Fin Macleod, #1
Setting:       Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Burglars Can't Be Choosers: Lawrence Block

The following overview of Lawrence Block's writing was in Marcia Muller's review of After the First Death (1969), first published in 1001 Midnights (1986, ed. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller).
Lawrence Block is a top-flight professional who has written numerous novels featuring extremely diverse characters and situations. His characterization ranges from the grim depths glimpsed in some of his non-series books and in his series about alcoholic ex-policeman Matthew Scudder, to the lightweight but amusing private eye/writer Chip Harrison, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and spy Evan Tanner. Whether Block is chronicling a deadly search or a playful romp, he is a consummate master of suspense and manages to keep his reader fearing for the safety of — and solidly rooting for — his protagonist until the last page is turned.
The Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block now consists of 11 books. The series started in 1977, although the first book, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, was not intended to be the start of a series. The most recent book was published in 2013. I read some of these books many years ago; they would have been from the first five books which were published between 1977 and 1983.

This post on Burglars Can't Be Choosers is my submission for Past Offences' monthly Crimes of the Century feature, for the year chosen for April, 1977.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar. He is proud and confident of his ability at his craft. However he is a loner, and his acquaintances and neighbors have no idea how he supports himself. He usually scouts out his own heists, but this time he accepts an assignment from a stranger to break into an apartment and steal a blue leather box. The problem is he can't find the blue box, and while he is searching for it two policemen come into the apartment. But, worst of all, there is a dead man in the bedroom. Bernie successfully eludes the policemen but he then has the problem of not being able to return to his apartment. Not wanting to leave New York, he begins to try to clear his name.

This is another series that I find most appealing for the characters. Bernie tells his story in first person, and he is a very likable character. I don't condone burglary, but he makes you forget that his chosen profession is illegal and harmful. And, of course, he only robs the rich. He has been described as the Robin Hood type, but since his goal is to support himself, I don't see that as a fitting description.

Not only is Bernie charming, but he runs into many interesting people as he endeavors to prove that he is not a murderer. The setting is New York, and I enjoyed this picture of New York in the 1970's. The story is full of coincidences but none of them detracted from my enjoyment of the resolution of this mystery.

Of course, I have several more books in this series, and I look forward to finding out how Bernie's life as an unrepentant burglar progresses (as I remember very little about the books I read earlier).

The paperback reprint edition that I read includes a short essay about how Lawrence Block came to write this first book in the Burglar series. Lawrence Block has another popular series set in New York about Matt Scudder, an ex-cop who becomes an unlicensed private investigator. That one also started in the 1970s and continued for many years, the last book having been published in 2011. The author has also edited two anthologies of short stories set in New York, Manhattan Noir and Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Onyx, 1995. Orig. pub. 1977.
Length:      283 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Bernie Rhodenbarr, #1
Setting:      New York City
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Death on the Move: Bill Crider

Dan Rhodes is the Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas. In this role, he is kept busy dealing with the smaller problems in his jurisdiction, and sometimes he even has to deal with more serious crimes like murder. In Death on the Move, jewelry is disappearing off bodies prepared for burial at the funeral home in Clearview. Rhodes is well-acquainted with the funeral director, Clyde Ballinger, whose hobby is collecting old paperback books, mostly westerns and mysteries. Then one of his deputies, Ruth Grady, calls his attention to a possible problem of thefts at some homes built around a lake. When they go to investigate, they find several homes that have been totally emptied of furniture and appliances. The homes are mostly lived in only on the weekends, leaving plenty of time for thieves to come in and empty them out. In the second home they look at, a more serious situation is discovered; a dead body is found stuffed in a closet.
"It wasn't really a mummy, of course, though Rhodes's first thought had been of Boris Karloff chasing after Zita Johann. This was even worse–a real human being, or what had once been a human being, completely wrapped up in silver duct tape."
Thus the sheriff must find out who is robbing the homes of their contents, and who killed the woman and wrapped her up like a mummy, and if the crimes are connected.


This series comes close to being in the cozy genre, the difference being that the protagonist is a sheriff and he is supposed to be looking into the crime and he can ask questions directly because it is his job. And he has access to other police departments and more tools that can actually help him find the criminals.

However, in Dan Rhodes' case, he is allergic to the idea of using computers, or possibly just afraid of them. Hack Jensen, the elderly dispatcher at the county jail, keeps hinting that access to a computer would make his work go better, but Rhodes is in no hurry to modernize their office. Rhodes' detection is based more on intuition and knowledge of people than the use of forensics or databases.

This is a quiet story. There is not a lots of action involved in the investigation, but the story moves along at a nice pace. Rhodes' relationship with Ivy, his fiancé, inches forward. I like Ivy; she is forthright without being pushy. She accepts Rhodes for what is he. And she helps out here and there in investigations, in a realistic way.

There are so many touches I love in this fourth book in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series. Speedo, the dog, was orphaned in Shotgun Saturday Night, the second book, and Rhodes took him in. Rhodes loves old movies and watches the Million Dollar Movie at lunch time. This book is chock full of references to vintage paperback novels and old movies, even more than previous books in the series. Crider gives the reader an interesting picture of small-town life in Texas and the story is told with low-key humor.

This post was written for the Small-town Sheriffs / Cops theme at Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books meme for April 15th.

Below is a list of the three earlier books in the series with links to my reviews...

1. Too Late to Die (1986)
2. Shotgun Saturday Night (1987)
3. Cursed to Death (1988)

Please check out Curtis Evans' review of A Mammoth Murder, the thirteenth book in the series, which he calls "a southern country cozy." Curtis blogs at The Passing Tramp.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1990 (orig. pub. 1989)
Length:      184 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Sheriff Dan Rhodes #4
Setting:      Texas
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

All the Lonely People: Martin Edwards

All the Lonely People was Martin Edward's debut crime novel, set in Liverpool and published in 1991. All the titles in the series of eight books are taken from hit songs in the 1960s.

Harry Devlin is a lawyer whose estranged wife, Liz, returns to his apartment for a short stay. She needs a place to stay for a few days because she is afraid of the man she has been living with for two years. She hints at a new lover but won't name him. Later she is found dead in an alley and Harry is the obvious suspect.

Harry is still besotted with Liz. When she shows up in his apartment, he has brief fantasies of getting back with her.
He drank in the sight of her. The black hair—in the past never less than shoulder-length—was now cut fashionably short . Nothing else about her had changed:  not the lavish use of mascara, nor the mischief lurking in her dark green eyes. All she wore was a pair of Levis and a tee shirt of his that she must have found in the bedroom. She had tossed her jersey and boots on to the floor. On the table by her side stood a tumbler and a half-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker.
This book is a great introduction to Harry Devlin. The reader follows along as he searches for the truth behind his wife's death and discovers some unsavory facts about her. His investigations take him into the seedier neighborhoods in Liverpool. Harry may not be the best person to follow up on Liz's murder; he clearly wants to prove that the murderer is the man who Liz left him for, Mick Coghlan. Along the way he does come up with other suspects but is loath to let go of his suspicions of Coghlan.

The story has good pacing, with a straightforward plot. I loved getting to know Harry, who isn't perfect, but is a nice guy with no overwhelming flaws. Harry's partner Jim Crusoe is another well developed character, who cares for Harry and has never been susceptible to Liz's charms. I did not come close to guessing who the culprit was and the ending surprised me. I look forward to reading more books about this character.

See more reviews at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel and Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema

Check out Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books post at Pattinase this Friday. Martin Edwards is definitely not a forgotten author, but he is better known for his latest series set in the Lake District. He has also  edited many anthologies of short stories, both by Golden Age authors and contemporary authors and written a notable mystery reference book, The Golden Age of Murder, which has won many awards.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Arcturus Publishing, 2012 (orig. publ. 1991)
Length:     255 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Harry Devlin #1
Setting:    UK
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Crime Fiction Reading in March 2017

March was a good reading month and I stuck to crime fiction the entire month. So without further ado I will list the books I read...

Fear Itself by Andrew Rosenheim
This is the first in a series of historical mysteries set in the US just before and during World War II, starring Jimmy Nessheim, a German-American FBI agent. My review is here.
Over My Dead Body by Rex Stout
This is the 7th book in the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1939. I am rereading the series in order at least until I get to The Silent Speaker, book 11 in the series. And I will probably continue past there.  I like this book because it features Nero Wolfe's long-lost adopted daughter, who is visiting the US and needs his help. 

Dancers in Mourning by Margey Allingham
The Albert Campion books are another series I am rereading in order. In this case, I am aiming to get to Tiger in the Smoke (1942). Dancers in Mourning is the 8th book, published in 1937, and I read it for the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences. My review is here.
The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning
The Rainbird Pattern (1972) is the 2nd book in a loose series called the Birdcage books. They all revolve around a covert security group in the UK, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. In this case we have two plots, one about the search for an heir to a fortune and the other dealing with a kidnapping plot, which converge at the end. The book was adapted as a film, Family Plot, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The film treatment is very different from the book. My post on the first Birdcage book, Firecrest, is here.


The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
The Bourne Identity, published in 1980, was the first of three novels about Jason Bourne written by Robert Ludlum. (The series was continued by Eric Lustbader, starting in 2004.) My review is here.

The Hunter by Richard Stark
Richard Stark is a pseudonym used by Donald E. Westlake for two of his series, the Parker series and the Alan Grofield series. This book is the first in the Parker series, and it is a revenge novel. Parker has been double-crossed and left for dead and now he is tracking down the people who betrayed him.