Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hammett: Joe Gores


Joe Gores was an admirer and a student of Dashiell Hammett's writing. Both had been private investigators before they  became full time writers. Both had lived and worked in San Francisco. Thus Gores was the perfect person to write this fictionalized version of events in Samuel Dashiell Hammett's life, set in 1928 when Hammett was no longer a private detective and was trying to support himself with his writing.


In this novel, Hammett is approached by Victor Atkinson, a private detective he had worked years before.  He wants Hammett to join him in an investigation of corruption in the San Francisco police department and government. Hammett refuses, stressing that he is not interested and not up the task after many years away from the profession. When Atkinson is killed very soon after that, Hammett gets involved.

Gore's story telling sucked me in. He provided a wonderful picture of San Francisco in the late 1920's. I enjoyed both the view of Dashiell Hammett at that time and the mystery plot. The descriptions of the corruption in San Francisco at that time were fascinating.

The New York Times obituary for Joe Gores has this to say about Hammett:
In “Hammett“ (1975) Mr. Gores skillfully blended fact and fiction, inventing a murder case for his protagonist to solve at the time the actual Hammett was finishing “Red Harvest.” Critics praised Mr. Gores’s evocation of Hammett’s literary style and character, as well as his fictional world.
On the dust jacket of the hardback edition, a quote from Joe Gores:
"I wanted to paint a fictionalized, yet honest portrait of the man who created an authentic and original voice in American literature and to paint that portrait against the backdrop of his times--the 1920’s--and his city--San Francisco." 
The Author Notes at the end of the book about Hammett's life and San Francisco history were almost as enjoyable as the book itself. Those notes got me interested in reading more books by Hammett. So far I have only read The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

After reading the book, I then watched the film adaptation from 1982, directed by Wim Wenders. The executive producer was Francis Ford Coppola, and Ross Thomas was one of the screenwriters. It was not the first time we had seen the movie, so I already knew I liked it. But viewing it after reading the book, I noticed how different it was from the book. Some of the basic story was there, and it was still about corruption and vice in San Francisco, but the story in the film was not nearly as realistic as the book felt. Still, we enjoyed viewing the movie again.

I liked Frederic Forrest as Dashiell Hammett, and Marilu Henner was very good as a neighbor and friend. Peter Boyle is one of my favorite actors and he had a good role as Hammett's old friend, a former Pinkerton detective. That role is much bigger in the film than in the book. And Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part as a taxi driver.

Here are some interesting links regarding problems in the production of the film:

Writers Who Worked on The "Hammett" Screenplay at The Thrilling Detective

Wim Wenders Sets The Record Straight at IndieWire


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Publisher: Putnam, 1975
Length:    242 pages
Format:    Hardback
Setting:    San Francisco
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    Purchased.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Busman's Honeymoon: Dorothy L. Sayers


I was surprised that Dorothy Sayers wrote only eleven mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. I have read them all, but for most of them it was a long time ago. Of these, only four feature Harriet Vane as Wimsey's love interest.

Busman’s Honeymoon was the last novel in the series. After five years of being wooed by Peter, Harriet Vane has finally said yes, and we get a peek at the wedding planning, the nuptials, but most of all their first few days of marriage while on their honeymoon at Talboys, where a dead body is discovered.

The story begins with a series of letters and extracts from the diary of the Dowager Duchess of Denver (Peter's mother). That part of the story is lovely, entertaining, and gives the reader a good picture of the issues with Lord Peter choosing to marry a commoner and a woman who has been previously involved in a murder trial.

Following that, Harriet and Peter leave for Talboys, a farmhouse in the country that Harriet had dreamed of owning when she was a child. Peter has just purchased Talboys and has arranged for it to be habitable for them for their honeymoon. Things go very wrong, and when they arrive the house is locked, and not close to ready for them to take it over. They find the previous owner's niece, who lets them into the house, which is in disarray. The next day, as they all (but mostly Bunter, Peter's loyal manservant) work hard to get it into shape, a body is discovered. Of course, Peter and Harriet inevitably get involved in the investigation.

There is much good to say about this book. Sayers excels at characterization, both in the major and the minor characters. In this book, Harriet and Bunter are getting used to their new roles in relationship to each other. I also enjoyed the portrayal of Superintendent Kirk, of the local CID, who investigates the murder, and his concern for his police constable, Joe Sellon, who seems to  be implicated in the murder.

The body is not discovered until one third of the way into the book, and this story is like many of Sayer's books concerning the couple in that it is not really the mystery that is given the most attention, but the story around the mystery. Some readers like this, others don't. I am mostly neutral on this point, except that I think in this case both the mystery plot and the discussions of Harriet and Peter's new relationship go on too long. The book has interminable stretches where characters discuss the intricate timing of alibis and there is way too much dialog between Peter and Harriet about their relationship (not to mention that much of it is in French). I would have liked a shorter version of this book much better.

I reread this book because we had purchased a copy of Haunted Honeymoon (1940), the film adaptation starring  Robert Montgomery as Lord Peter Wimsey and Constance Cummings as Harriet. We had taped a copy when it showed on TV years ago and were glad to be able to watch it again. The story was not too changed, although in the film the couple have sworn off of detecting and are not too much like the characters in the book, in my opinion. But still a lot of fun to watch.

Other resources:

Most posts that discuss this book or the entire set of books featuring both Harriet and Peter, do contain spoilers to the early books, so if you haven't read any of the books starting with Strong Poison, you may want to wait to read the following posts.

These three posts discuss Busman's Honeymoon: At My Reader's Block, Classic Mysteries, and crossexaminingcrime.

These two posts discuss all the books with Peter and Harriet: At Clothes in Books and Criminal Element.



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Publisher:  Avon Books, 1968 (orig. publ. 1937).
Length:      318 pages (of very tiny print)
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Peter Wimsey, #11
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Dr. No: Ian Fleming

At the end of From Russia with Love, James Bond had been poisoned. At the point that Dr. No begins, Bond has just returned from months of recuperation and M is eager to send him off on an assignment.

M and Bond are having relationship problems. M thinks that Bond may have lost his nerve or made poor decisions in the last case. The doctor does not want Bond put out in the field so soon after his recovery, but Bond is ready and willing to get back to work. However, he does resent it deeply when M forces him to use a new type of gun, a Walther PPK instead of his Beretta.

M asks Bond to go to Jamaica to follow up on the disappearance of two agents, one of them being the Head of Station in Jamaica, John Strangways. This is considered a "soft" assignment, almost a test of Bond's abilities, and thus Bond feels even more resentment. When Bond decides to investigate some suspicious circumstances on Crab Key island, he sets out with a guide and doesn't bother letting M or anyone else in Jamaica know his plans. Thus when the situation on Crab Key gets rough and dangerous, there is no hope of rescue.

This was a very entertaining novel. Now that I am used to the fantastical aspects in the James Bond novels, I can just go along with that and enjoy the fun. There are some standard elements in each James Bond book: a powerful supervillain, a beautiful and sexy love interest, and lots of action and violence.  Here we have the sinister Dr. No on Crab Key island and Honeychile Rider, the young and naive woman collecting shells on the beach at Crab Key. Quarrel, a Cayman Island fisherman, first met in Live and Let Die, takes Bond to the island. Bond, Honey, and Quarrel discover Dr. No's nefarious plans but don't realize how much of a maniac he is.

Other elements that routinely show up in the Bond stories are racism and sexist attitudes, and this book is full of those. If you can get past those, it is a fun adventure novel, with a fairly accurate view of the place and the time.

I was also biased towards this novel because Dr. No is one of the films that I am most familiar with. As the first adaptation of a Bond novel, it is extremely memorable and I am very fond of it. I was glad to see that the novel and the film are very much alike.

One difference is the presence of Felix Leiter, CIA agent, in the film, and my favorite actor in that role, Jack Lord. The action starts to diverge some after Bond and Quarrel get on Crab Key island, and Dr. No's motivation is somewhat different in the film. Ursula Andress as Honey is very fitting in the role. Since this was the first film adapted from the books, it also benefits from the absence of an overload of gadgets or unbelievable physical prowess on Bond's side.

Other resources: See this post at Killer Covers which features many different cover illustrations for Dr. No.  Also Moira's post on this book at Clothes in Books.

Next I will be moving on to Goldfinger, maybe before the end of the year.



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Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1971 (orig. pub. 1958) 
Length:       216 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       James Bond, #6
Setting:      Jamaica
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The A.B.C. Murders: Agatha Christie

The A.B.C. Murders, also published as The Alphabet Murders, is a book in the Hercule Poirot series, published in 1936. An added plus for me is that Captain Arthur Hastings and Inspector Japp join him in this investigation. And in this case, there is another official assigned to the case, Inspector Crome, who, as usual, underestimates Poirot's abilities.

Captain Hastings is visiting Poirot, back from his ranch in South America. Poirot receives a letter hinting that a crime will take place in Andover. Thus begins a series of murders, each set in a different city. The case is unusual for Agatha Christie because it is a hunt for a serial killer, and that was not very common in the 1930's.

As I have been reading more books by Agatha Christie in the last few years, I have found every one of them to be an entertaining read, never boring. And this one was no different on that score. It was not my favorite but it has many things to recommend it.

I like the Poirot novels that are narrated by Captain Hastings; the two have a nice relationship, teasing each other but always supportive. In this case there are sections of the book not told from Hastings viewpoint, and we are warned of this. But I did not find that approach quite as effective. There seemed to me to be more characters than usual and I did get confused trying to keep track of them. Even so, I guessed what was going on, and who did it, but not the motive.

Even though I would not put this on my list of top novels by Agatha Christie, it has made many top 5 or 10 lists of Christie novels so I still would recommend it, especially if you are a Christie fan. If you are new to Christie, maybe it is not the place to start.

See other posts about this book at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., A Crime is Afoot, and Wordsmithonia.



This post is submitted for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Train" category.

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Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1966. Orig. pub. 1936.
Length:     188 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Hercule Poirot
Setting:     UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Red Bones and Blue Lightning: Ann Cleeves

When I wrote a post on the first two books in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves, Raven Black and White Nights, I had difficulty explaining exactly what I liked so much about the books. After having read the next two books in the series, I think it is a combination of good storytelling, good characters, and the wonderful setting of the Shetland Islands. And another big plus is that there is variety in each book.

In Red Bones, Jimmy Perez is called to the small island of Whalsay because his deputy's grandmother has been killed. The death appears to be a tragic accident, caused by a neighbor who was shooting rabbits nearby, but there is still a lot of resentment between the families involved. This book was especially interesting because the focus was on dysfunctional family relationships.

In Blue Lightning, Perez has gone to Fair Isle with his fiancée to see his parents. A reception honoring the couple is held at the bird observatory on the island. The next day, Perez is called in because the leader of the institute has been murdered. Perez is on vacation, of course, but the island is socked in due to weather conditions and there is no one else to handle the situation. I liked the immersion in the birding community (which Cleeves knows a lot about); the ending was very much of a surprise, and makes up for the slow pace of the investigation.

Perez is not a troubled detective but his character is very brooding. He follows police procedure in handling the crimes, but it seems that the resolution of the crimes is solved mostly by intuition. The pace is slow and Perez spends a lot of his time (in both books) thinking about his personal life and relationships.

I like everything I have read by Ann Cleeves. Other than the first four books in the Shetland series, I have read two Vera Stanhope mysteries and two Inspector Stephen Ramsay mysteries. The Vera Stanhope series is my favorite so far, but the Shetland series is very, very good. For mystery lovers who like police procedurals or mysteries with unique settings, I would definitely recommend these books. However, if you are bothered by too much of a character's personal relationships in a mystery, this may not be for you. I am neutral on that topic; for me, it really depends on whether the writer can carry if off.

I read these two books recently because we wanted to watch the Shetland TV series. For some reason, they started the series with an adaptation of Red Bones. The series is different from the books in many ways, but mostly the crime and the resolution is very similar to the books, so I am glad I read the books first. The actor playing Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) is very different from the character in the book, at least physically, and the stories are more like police procedurals, with more focus on his co-workers. Here Jimmy Perez is portrayed as widowed with a teenage daughter. Even with the differences, I enjoyed the episodes very much. Honestly, in the TV series, setting is the big draw for me. I could watch the shows just for the beautiful scenery and a look at life on the Shetland Islands.

More reviews here:



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Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2009 and 2010
Length:       392 and 357 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Jimmy Perez, #3 and #4
Setting:      Shetland Islands, Scotland
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:     I purchased the books.



Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Shock to the System: Simon Brett

This is a very different book by Simon Brett. Most of his books are humorous, lighter mysteries; I have read several books featuring Charles Paris, the actor. A Shock to the System is part dark comedy, and part thriller. Graham Marshall is an HR professional, a seemingly ordinary man, who kills a man in a fit of pique. He does not even know the man he kills; he leaves work after learning that he has not gotten the promotion he expected. He is accosted by a bum begging for money; in a rage, he hits the man with his umbrella and pushes him off a bridge. Initially he is remorseful and fears retribution; when it does not come, he begins to see murder as a solution to his many problems.


Initially, I had empathy with Graham. He has been moving steadily up the corporate ladder for years, his finances are becoming precarious, and his wife is pushing him to get a promotion so that they will have more money. Gradually Graham reveals his sordid, uncaring side; he cares little about how his behavior affects anyone. This is not a whodunnit, or even a howdunnit, as we watch as the crimes take place. The mystery here is whether he will be caught.

I expected the book to be more humorous. I did see the film adaptation when it came out in 1990 but I did not remember how dark the story was. This is black comedy, but I found it to be more black, less comedy.

The story was absorbing, well-written and a quick read; my interest never flagged. But it was not a comfortable read. With the story coming from Graham's point of view, it is hard not to feel the horror of the change in his behavior. Other characters in the book are also interesting and have depth, although few of them are very likable.


A new Blu-ray edition of A Shock to the System was recently released and that was my motivation to find a copy of this book and read it now. There are differences but I did not remember how the story played out in the film. It is set in New York, not the UK; Graham has a wife and a mother-in-law but no children.

Michael Caine is Graham, Swoozie Kurtz is his wife, and Elizabeth McGovern is a young woman who works in Graham's department and is attracted to him. Peter Riegert is the younger man who gets the promotion that Graham expected. Other than Caine, my favorite character in the film is Will Patton, who plays a police detective very much like Columbo.

I found the film lighter than the book but it was still pretty dark. A review in Entertainment Weekly from 1990 described this film as an "exhilarating corporate satire" that is "juicy fun." That would not be my assessment of the film, but it is very entertaining and well worth watching.

  ----------------------------------
Publisher: Macmillan London, 1984
Length:    255 pages
Format:    Hardback 
Setting:    London
Genre:     Thriller
Source:    I purchased this book.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen

I read Pride and Prejudice this month as a part of the Jane Austen Read All A-Long at James Reads Books. The readalong started with Sense and Sensibility in July and continues through Persuasion in December. I opted for Pride and Prejudice in August, Emma in October, and Northanger Abbey in November. However, I was so happy with my experience with P&P this month that I think I may try to do another book or two.

For anyone who hasn't either read the book or watched one of the numerous adaptations, I will give a brief overview.The story is set in the early 1800's and centers on the main character Elizabeth, the second of five daughters whose family lives in a small town in Hertfordshire, near London. Elizabeth is close to her elder sister Jane, although they are very different in temperament. Themes include marriage, morality, education and the choices women had at the time.

Much of the focus of the book is Mrs. Bennet's determination to get her five daughters betrothed to men with some ability to support them, since her husband's estate is entailed and will go to a surviving male heir once Mr. Bennet dies. That she has this desire is natural and loving, but the way she goes about it is disruptive and unappealing.

The story is told primarily from Elizabeth's viewpoint, and we know little about what is going on in anyone else's head. However, Austen also reveals that Mr. Darcy, a young man with whom Elizabeth is at odds, is gradually becoming attracted to her.


I read Pride and Prejudice somewhere back in my distant past. I am sure I liked it then, but I wasn't sure how I would feel about it now. Happily for me, it was a very pleasant experience. As soon as I started reading the book, I realized why it is such an enduring book. I thought the prose and the conversation would be too stilted, too old fashioned. Maybe so, but it never bothered me at all. I was entranced from the beginning. The book was much longer than I thought it would be, but I enjoyed every page. The edition I read is 475 pages, but it does have illustrations.

The only problem with a reread of this book after seeing the adaptations of the book over the years was knowing what to expect, what happens. It did not spoil my enjoyment, but I did wonder how I would react to each section if I did not know what happens next (and who the villains are).

This book has been analyzed to death. I will just share a few thoughts:

  • I enjoyed getting a picture of life at the time, or at least the life of persons of the Bennett's social status. They are not well to do, but neither were they hurting for some of the luxuries of life. I enjoyed the illustrations by Hugh Thomson in my edition because they reminded me of how people dressed for their daily activities. 
  • The book is entertaining whether you are looking for deeper meanings and symbolism (I was not) or just enjoying the romance and the humor in the book. 
  • One of the things I like about this book is that because it was published in 1813, you know the people depicted here are real types that existed. My point is that this is not historical fiction with a picture of how we might like it to be, but fiction that reflects the people of the time, or at least this author's vision of it.

The only criticism of the book that occurred to me in this reading was that Austen tends to be very wordy, both in endless conversations and descriptions of situations. Yet, I loved the writing and the story so much I did not care.

This reread confirmed my belief that you just can't get the same experience from an adaptation. I have seen two TV show adaptations and the 1940 film with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.  Our favorite is the 1980 BBC mini-series with  Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet. But no adaptation can convey the depth that comes through in Jane Austen's writing.


-----------------------------

Publisher:   Book of the Month Club, 1996 (orig. pub. 1813)
Length:      476 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Literary fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dead Skip: Joe Gores

The DKA Files series by Joe Gores features a group of investigators who work for Daniel Kearny Associates, a firm specializing in repossessions of vehicles whose owners have defaulted on their loan payments. On the surface that sounds boring, but really it is not. There are six novels (plus one book of short stories) in the series.


Dead Skip (1972) is the first book in the series; Bart Heslip, a private investigator working for Dan Kearny Associates, is in a coma following a car crash. The police think he totaled the car while joyriding. His friend and coworker, Larry Ballard, knows that behavior does not fit Bart's character. Dan Kearney, his boss, gives Ballard 72 hours to work through Heslip's open files, looking for a clue to connect one of them to Bart's “accident.”


MY THOUGHTS

Joe Gores tells a  fast-moving story, with believable characters. He based the stories in this series on his own experiences as a private investigator in San Francisco, working for a firm very much like DK Associates. He provides a realistic, non-glamorous view of private investigators and their daily activities. The search takes place primarily in San Francisco and some East Bay communities.

One of the most fun parts of this novel for me was the crossover to the Parker universe. In this novel, Dan Kearney gets involved in the investigation towards the end, and along the way he runs into an old acquaintance, who turns out to be Parker, a series character created by Donald E. Westlake (as Richard Stark). It is only a brief understated scene, but it was a kick to recognize who he was referring to since I just started reading the Parker novels this year. Parker's encounter with Kearny is told in more detail and from a different perspective in Plunder Squad, a Parker novel. Nick Jones goes into much more detail on that in his review (of both books) at Existential Ennui.

In his review in 1001 Midnights (1986), Bill Pronzini calls this book "an excellent private-eye procedural." He also says: "Even better are the other two novels in the series — Final Notice (1973) and Gone, No Forwarding (1978)." (At the time those were the only books published in the series.)

See Also reviews by TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time and Rick Robinson at The Broken Bullhorn (Rick now blogs at Tip the Wink).


  ----------------------------------
Publisher: Random House, 1972
Length:    184 pages
Format:    Hardback (book club edition)
Series:     DKA Files #1
Setting:    San Francisco
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2016.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Rainbird Pattern: Victor Canning


The Rainbird Pattern (1972) by Victor Canning 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. There is very little oversight of the Department's work and the agents are generally amoral, although they believe that their mission is important to the welfare of the country. The first book I read featuring this covert department was Firebird. The plot was complex and kept me guessing, but most of the characters were unlikeable.

In The Rainbird Pattern, there are two distinct plotlines. One deals with a kidnapping plot; the reader follows the agents of the Department as they investigate two previous kidnappings. The second plot involves an elderly woman's search for her sister's child, put up for adoption decades earlier. Although skeptical about spiritualists, she hires a medium to get in touch with her dead sister. Madame Blanche believes in her gift and her contact in the spiritual world, but also makes use of the detecting abilities of her boyfriend, George. The question, of course, is how will these two plots intersect?

This is a short book, under 200 pages, but the build up to the point where the two plots come together is handled well. The author provides just enough background for the participants; the ending is surprising and dark. The development of the characters is well done but, as in Firecrest, I could not really root for any of the characters. Some of them are either evil or amoral or both, but even those with basically good intentions are primarily self-serving.

This is reportedly Victor Canning's most well regarded book, and that does not surprise me. It won a Silver Dagger Award from the CWA. Firebird was thought-provoking with very good characterization, but The Rainbird Pattern is on a higher level, and moves faster, especially towards the end.

The book was adapted as a film, Family Plot, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, script by Ernest Lehman. The film treatment is very different from the book. The basic elements of the plot remain, but the story is turned into a comedy. The setting is also moved from the UK to Southern California. Initially I found the setting disappointing but in a way it made it easier for me to switch to a different mode. Although none of the actors were spectacular in this film, many of them are actors I enjoy watching: Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black. I liked Barbara Harris as Blanche, the medium; I was not familiar with her before seeing this film. Family Plot is clearly not among Hitchcock's best films, but I enjoyed it.

Other resources:



 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Ostara, 2010 (orig. pub. 1972)
Length:       193 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Birdcage books #2
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.


Friday, August 4, 2017

Reading Summary for July 2017

July has been another good reading month. I read nine books, which is a lot for me.  I am making progress on my Twenty Books of Summer. Of the nine books I read this month, seven were from that list. The other two were read this month because I wanted to read the book before I watched the movie.

One of the books was not crime fiction: Their Finest by Lissa Evans, set in the the UK in 1940 and 1941. The story is about a young female copywriter who gets an assignment to the Ministry of Information, writing parts of scripts for a WWII propaganda film. That alone would be an interesting subject, but the story follows several other people associated with the filming. Each one provides a different view of the UK during the war. It is a lovely story, very humorous, and one of my favorite reads of the month. I much prefer the UK title: Their Finest Hour and a Half.

Now for my list of crime fiction books...

City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley (2010)
A story about a female private eye set in 1940 in San Francisco's Chinatown. I have posted my thoughts on this book HERE.
Red Bones by Ann Cleeves (2009)
Red Bones is the third book in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves; the books are all set on the Shetland Islands, which are part of Scotland. They feature Inspector Jimmy Perez. I read the first two books a few years ago; although I liked them a lot, I don't remember much beyond the basic plot. I read this book (at this time) because we wanted to start the Shetland TV series and Red Bones is the first book which was adapted. I liked the book just as well as the first two. (I just finished Blue Lightning on Thursday, and it is my favorite of the four.)

New Orleans Mourning by Julie Smith (1991)
During the Mardi Gras parade, the King of the Carnival is shot and killed by someone dressed as Dolly Parton. Skip Langdon is one of the cops working on crowd control for the event. She is a friend of the family,  and thus gets involved with the investigation. This book won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The setting was done well and it was interesting to see this view of New Orleans.
The Distant Echo by Val McDermid (2003)
This is the first book in the Karen Pirie series, but she only shows up after 200 pages into the story and even after that only plays a small role in the story. Regardless, this was a very good tale of the investigation of a cold case, with close to half of the book taking place at the time that the crime is committed. I have posted my thoughts on this book HERE.

Bodies are Where you Find Them by Brett Halliday (1941)
I have a good number of the Mike Shayne novels by Brett Halliday, but I started with this one because the film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was loosely based on this novel. I did not really expect there to be much similarity between the two, but the basic premise is the same in both. In the book,  a woman’s body shows up in Mike's bed but disappears; Mike and his friend, reporter Timothy Rourke, are searching for it. I enjoyed this book, but I am pretty sure I am going to enjoy my next Mike Shayne story even more now that I have a taste of the series.

Brothers Keepers by Donald Westlake (1975)
This is about a small, obscure Catholic order of monks who are in danger of being tossed out of their home. This summary from Goodreads is just perfect so I am going to use it.  
"When the order's lease on the Park Avenue monastery expires, sixteen monks face a greedy real-estate mogul, and Brother Benedict falls in love with the mogul's daughter."
I loved this book. Another of my favorite books of the month.

A Shock to the System by Simon Brett (1984)
This is a very different book by Simon Brett. Most of his books that I have read are humorous mysteries about Charles Paris, the actor. A Shock to the System is part dark comedy, and part thriller. Graham Marshall is an HR professional, a seemingly ordinary man, who kills a man in a fit of pique. Initially he is remorseful and fears retribution; when it does not come, he begins to see murder as a solution to his problems. (This was the 2nd book I read because we want to watch the movie again. It just came out in a new Blu-ray edition.)


The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham (1938)
The simplest description of this book is that Albert Campion’s sister, a fashion designer, is implicated in a murder, and Albert wants very much to find the culprit. The story is, of course, much more complicated than that. Amanda Fitton, from the earlier book Sweet Danger, shows up again and she and Albert stage a fake engagement. My thoughts on the book are HERE.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Fashion in Shrouds: Margery Allingham


I am rereading the Albert Campion books in order, aiming to get to Tiger in the Smoke (1952). The Fashion in Shrouds is the 10th book in the series, published in 1938. 

Margery Allingham described this book as "a satirical comedy contrasting the characters of two young career women who have fallen in love with the same man" in her remarks in Mr. Campion's Lady, an omnibus of three books which involve both Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton. The two young women are Georgia Wells and Val Ferris, Campion's sister. Amanda Fitton was introduced in Sweet Danger; Campion's sister shows up first in The Fashion in Shrouds

This may be my favorite Albert Campion book yet; it is almost perfect. Allingham's writing just gets better and better. The plot is very complex. As the story begins, Campion has found the body of a man, who had died over a year before. The man was the lover of Georgia Wells at the time he died. Georgia, a very well known and popular actress, is now married to Raymond Ramillies, the governor of a British colony in Africa. But not satisfied with one man at a time, she soon becomes attracted to the man that Val is in love with. Val is a famous couturier designing Georgia's costumes for the play she is in. 

But let's not forget Amanda Fitton, now an aircraft engineer employed by Alan Dell. Campion and Amanda meet again for the first time in six years. She enlists his help in finding out why her boss is neglecting his airplane business. The answer: Georgia has him under her spell. And that is just the setup. So you can see it is a complicated story.  

When the second death occurs, Val and all the people in her circle are suspects, an awkward situation for Campion. He works with his old friend Inspector Stanislaus Oates of Scotland Yard and assures him that he can be impartial because he wants to discover the murderer as much as anyone. In the most recent Allingham books I have read, the investigations tend to go on and on and I get tired of that. So maybe this book was a little overlong, but still so beautifully told I did not mind.

Allingham creates many interesting characters. Albert Campion is a wonderful character, of course, but there is also Albert's manservant, Lugg, who provides humor. The focus on the women and their relationships in this novel is very different. There are also many eccentric characters in the theater and the fashion industry.

Much as I loved this story, there were places where I winced at racist and sexist statements and ideas. As far as the attitudes towards women at the time, I can only say that I was born early enough to be raised to consider that a woman's place is in the home, and it was only by chance that I went to college and did have (still have) a career. And this story was written in much earlier times with much more pervasive attitudes about women.

Note: Belatedly I am adding a link to Moira's post on The Fashion in Shrouds at Clothes in Books. And don't miss the link in that post to a previous post on the book.

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Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2008 (orig. pub. 1938)
Length:      340 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Albert Campion #10
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

City of Dragons: Kelli Stanley

Summary from the publisher:
February, 1940. In San Francisco's Chinatown, fireworks explode as the city celebrates Chinese New Year with a Rice Bowl Party, a three day-and-night carnival designed to raise money and support for China war relief. Miranda Corbie is a 33-year-old private investigator who stumbles upon the fatally shot body of Eddie Takahashi. The Chamber of Commerce wants it covered up. The cops acquiesce. All Miranda wants is justice--whatever it costs. From Chinatown tenements, to a tattered tailor's shop in Little Osaka, to a high-class bordello draped in Southern Gothic, she shakes down the city–her city–seeking the truth.

Miranda Corbie chooses to investigate Eddie Takahashi's death. She does pick up a second, paying case investigating the suspicious death of Lester Winters, and the disappearance of his daughter, Phyllis.

The handling of the setting in time and place is fantastic. Kelli Stanley makes San Francisco of the 1940's come alive, and she describes the tensions within Chinatown due to the war in Asia and Europe very well. I learned much about Chinatown and the US attitude toward the war at that time. I always enjoy a story set in Chinatown (of any city) but I don't think I have ever read one that was set before World War II.

Due to the writing style we are privy to Miranda's thoughts at times, and get glimpses of her background as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, and the loss of her boyfriend in that war. She is clearly still suffering from these experiences, and seems to take out her pain on friends and foes alike.

Although the story is told from Miranda's point of view it is not in first person. Sometimes her thinking and reactions read like a stream of consciousness, with short sentences and choppy delivery. At other times, the writing is very beautiful, lovely descriptions and straightforward prose.

I will not pretend that this was the perfect reading experience for me. We are reminded too often about the unhappiness and confusion that Miranda is experiencing. Many readers complained about the many, many references to smoking, which did not bother me. And I should warn readers that there is a lot of profanity, although I felt it fit the context.

Nevertheless, I was involved with the story and admired the heroine. I want to follow her in her story and I plan to read the next book in the series. My husband has read all three books in the series and will be purchasing book 4 when it comes out.


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Publisher: Minotaur Books, 2010
Length:    335 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Miranda Corbie #1
Setting:    Chinatown, San Francisco, 1940's
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    I borrowed this book from my husband.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Man with the Getaway Face: Richard Stark



Under the pseudonym of Richard Stark, Donald E. Westlake wrote a 24-book series featuring Parker, a thief and hardened criminal. Almost all of the books center around a heist.

In the first Parker novel, The Hunter, the focus is on revenge. Parker's wife and his partner betrayed him; after a heist, he was shot and left for dead. Parker goes after them, trying to get his share of the money back. Thus the second novel, The Man with the Getaway Face, is the first real heist novel in the series.

This book gives the reader a picture of the mechanics of setting up a heist, in this case, an armored car robbery. There is a "finger" who finds the opportunity for the heist. There is a person who provides the bank roll, the money to carry out the heist. Obviously there is the planning.




This time Parker is partnered with a guy called Skimm. A quote from the book describes the differences between them:
Skimm, like most men on the bum, lived from job to job; he spent more in one year than most make in five and was always broke, dressing and looking like a bum. How he did it, where it all went, Parker didn’t know. 
He [Parker] worked it differently, spending the money and time between jobs living at the best resort hotels and dressing himself in the best clothes. There was no overlap between people he knew on and off the job. He owned a couple of parking lots and gas stations around the country to satisfy the curiosity of the Internal Revenue beagles, but never went near them. He let the managers siphon off the profits in return for not asking him to take an active part in the business.
One of the givens in a heist story is there will be hitches in the plan. In this one, there are two hitches (at least) and one of them Parker is expecting. The other is a surprise to Parker and to the reader. The entertaining part is seeing how the story plays out when Parker runs into the problems.

In this book, even though Parker sees the problems early on, he is committed to the heist because he needs money dearly. He just paid a small fortune to have his face restructured, because people in the Outfit (the organization that is his nemesis) know what he looks like. So now he needs to build up his capital.

My thoughts:

In my review of The Hunter, I described Parker as having no redeeming qualities, and I said that there was "nothing admirable or likable about him." That is not far from the truth, but if so, what does pique my interest in these books? I do find Parker fascinating as a character study and I am sure that is due to Westlake's writing, which is very plain and unadorned. Parker is a professional. He is pragmatic; he makes his decisions related to completing a job in an intelligent way. He does not kill unnecessarily although this is mostly because he realizes that this is not in his best interests.

This book is like "the anatomy of a crime" (or in this case, a robbery or heist). It does not glorify the crime or the criminal, but treats it more like a job. There is no back story for Parker, no discussion of how or why did he come to this point in his life. We learn that he did care for his wife and misses his relationship with her, but that seems to be the only thing in his life that he has any emotional thoughts about. And even that is only a one-paragraph digression. The book is a non-emotional, straightforward story about a crime and the fallout from the crime.

I also see comparisons here with some spy novels I read. It seems like espionage appeals to the type of person who is good at thieving and killing, but in that case they get to do it for a cause. Sometimes they enjoy it, sometimes they are conflicted. In Parker's case, he is never conflicted about his job. This isn't everyone's type of book, but I am continuing on through the series for a while.

Some other resources:



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Publisher:  Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008 (orig. publ. 1963)
Length:     213 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Series:      Parker #2
Setting:     New Jersey, mainly
Genre:      Hard-boiled
Source:     I purchased my copy




Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Distant Echo: Val McDermid

In 1978, four young men, students at St. Andrews University, walk home from a party in the early morning hours. They are very drunk, loud and rambunctious. They happen upon a woman's body; it is clear she has been stabbed and is near death. One of them goes for help. By the time he has returned with a policeman, the woman has died, although one of the students tried to save her.

The victim, who was raped before she was stabbed, is Rosie Duff, a barmaid at a pub that the students frequented. Immediately they become the chief suspects in the crime. When no other viable suspects turn up, and the crime is not solved, they continue to be under a cloud of suspicion.

Twenty five years later, the case is reopened by a newly commissioned cold case squad. Assistant Chief Constable James Lawson, who was a police constable at the time of the crime, heads the squad, and DC Karen Pirie is investigating the Rosie Duff murder.


The first 160 pages (of 400) of The Distant Echo cover the discovery of the crime and the first few days of the investigation. The rest of the book is about the investigation of the crime 25 years later, and the impact that the unsolved crime has had on the four men over time.

The story focuses on the four young men throughout the first part of the book and they continue to feature prominently in the second half. Whether one or more of them is actually the murderer is left open for most of the book, and I got very involved with their stories. I guessed the resolution of the mystery early on but there was enough doubt to keep it interesting.

What else did I like about this book:

  • The use of the setting in Scotland is marvelous, especially in the first half of the book.
  • The perfect balance of / blending of the story about the four young men who find the body and and the police investigation.
  • The story in 1978 vs the story in 2003 is handled well. With the book split into two parts, there is less confusion than when the book goes back and forth.
  • Good character development. There are three main police officers, the four suspects, Rosie Duff's family and the families of the suspects. That is a lot of characters, but even with the jump to 25 years later in their lives, it did not get confusing and they were all well defined.

This is billed as the first book in the Karen Pirie series, but she only shows up after 200 pages into the story and even after that only plays a small role in the story. ACC Lawson plays a much more prominent role. This is not a problem for me, I just thought I should mention it. However, as far as the series go, I would read this one first because based on other reviews, this one is unavoidably spoiled if you read the second one first. This novel read much more like a standalone book, and it was a very enjoyable one.

See reviews at Goodreads by K. A. Laity and John Grant.


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Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur, 2003
Length:    404 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Karen Pirie #1
Setting:    Scotland
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book in 2005.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Passing: Nella Larsen

Passing by Nella Larsen was published in 1929 and was one of only two books by this American author. It is the story of two childhood friends who meet up again by chance in Chicago. Both are light-skinned African-American women who can pass for white. Clare Kendry continues to live in Chicago and has married a white man who does not know that she has Negro blood. The couple have a daughter. Irene Redfield is married to a black doctor; they live in Harlem with their two young boys. Later, Clare wants to continue her friendship with Irene, and Irene resists.

The story is told primarily from Clare's point of view and focuses on her home life, her reactions to Clare, and how the continuation of their friendship affects both of their lives. For me it was an eye-opening picture of the black community in Harlem in the 1920's.

As Clare continues to force her way into Irene's life, it is strange how strongly Irene reacts. At first Irene's husband is disapproving of Clare, then he begins to accept her and enjoy her presence. Clare's husband is very antagonistic towards Negroes, so Clare's visits with the Redfields are in secret. Clare seems to be running away from her life in white society when she visits New York. She is risking her marriage and the loss of her child if her husband becomes aware of her background, but she seems to want that to happen. Irene finds her irritating but irresistible.

Irene meanwhile seems to ignore the fact that racism exists and doesn't want her children to have to deal with that. Her husband is unhappy with their life in New York and wants to move to Brazil where he hopes they would have a better life. Their relationship is very conflicted. Clare's entry into their life, even on an occasional basis, begins to bring Irene's marital problems to the forefront.

The reader can sympathize with Clare's desire to live a different life where she is treated as an equal, but we can also see that the subterfuge takes a great toll on her. It is also interesting that both of these women are married to well-to-do men and have servants. They have attained a dream of wealth and a family, but both are unhappy.

For such a short novel (in my copy less than a hundred pages), this is a very complex story. Some readers were dissatisfied with the ending. I found it surprising but felt that it fit in with the story, leaving some things up in the air. The themes in this book go beyond racism, to the role of women, identity, and the difficulty of relationships. In addition, it is extremely well written.

My first introduction to this book was at Clothes in Books in a post by guest blogger Colm Redmond. I urge you to check out his insights in that post.

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Publisher:  BN Publishing, 2012 (orig. publ. 1929).
Length:      94 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Harlem, New York (mainly)
Genre:        Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.