3 Stars

Enter a Murderer

EaMEnter A Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982) is the second book in the Roderick Alleyn police detective series.  It was first published in 1935, but I read the St. Martins Paperback 1998 edition.  Readers cannot help but be told, if they even glance at Marsh’s career and her opus that this novel is significant because it represents one of her novels in which the plot involves the theatre.  The theatre was Marsh’s primary career interest and she was very successful in that line.

Generally, I am disinterested and unamused by stories that take place in and around a theatre. I am oddly above-averagely educated on Shakespeare, the Classic Greek items, and some select modern works. I also have seen a bunch of plays, dramas, and theatre performances of note. I am woefully uneducated regarding Noh work.  However, I usually dislike the whole sphere because there is something unpalatable – to me – about a profession designed to deceive.  Well, to deceive and to be excessively demonstrative.  In my worst moods, if I dislike a person or how they are behaving, I will snarl “Thespian” in a tone that leaves no misunderstanding for how I feel about it all.

Something about the simulacra and simulation. Or maybe the society of the spectacle. Souring and sneering and disdainful….

I mean, in my very worst moods, I admit, I classify those involved with the theatre (stage and film, as it were) as something lower than the criminal class – usually because, well, the criminal seems nearly more honest about his lifestyle. Trust me, a number of people who know this about me usually want to bludgeon me because of this disdain.  I cannot apologize, though, I am wholeheartedly me.

I mention this information, which does not put me in the best light [see what I did there?!], because I knew this novel was theatre-centric and I dreaded reading it.  I knew I would be bored and I would find the characters insufferable.   It was not as bad as all of that, I was definitely being dramatic [heh, heh].  However, it did not engage me, say, like a novel might in a different setting.

Alleyn and Bathgate, which is another of those happy duos we find endemic to detective fiction, are at times annoying both each other and themselves.  Alleyn is so very pompous at times – even his facetious self-effacing is too obvious and arrogant.  But yet – he has some quoteable segments that really make the reader suspect that Alleyn does deserve all of the praise and postering that goes on.  The quotes are just brilliant lines of wit and insight that just outshine all of the flaws.

“There’s a murder charge hovering round waiting for somebody, Mr. Saint, and shall we say a drama is being produced which you do not control and in which you play a part that may or may not be significant?  To carry my flight of fancy a bit farther, I may add that the flat-footed old Law is stage manager, producer, and critic.  And I, Mr. Saint, in the words of an old box-office success, ‘I, my Lords, embody the law.’  Sit down if you want to and please keep quiet.” – pg. 53, Chapter 5

Miss Susan Max, though, is my favorite character in the book, and it is easy to see why.  She is “old-school” and seems to be the most honest and fair of the lot.  I know that this is an early work by Marsh because I was able to suspect and then correctly assign the crime to the culprit very early in the work.  I think I was able to do this for two reasons, both are probably due to Marsh just overwriting a bit for both reasons.  The one reason being that I took an instant and immense dislike to the character – and there are a bunch of dislikeable (especially from my perspective) characters! The other reason that Marsh overwrote would be a spoiler if I mentioned it, suffice to say its very Shakespearian [Hamlet] as well.

Marsh is clearly a theatre-expert.  She knows her way around a stage like a boss.  She also knows the temperments, tendencies, and traditions of the theatre.  There is nothing that is lacking in her detail of the setting and background for this story.  I am almost curious to do a more deep critical reading and examine how well her novel does or does not structure like a theatre piece – literally did she move the characters round the storyline as if they were on a somewhat larger stage?  And this is but her second novel, I am sure that Marsh improves as she writes this series, so I am looking forward to watching this idea of mine develop a bit. Or fall flat.

Normally the frequent quoting of famous lines or references to plays/dramas would irritate me a lot because it always feels so…. well… dramatic. Contrived and artificial, I guess. In this novel, there is a fair bit of such “quoting,” but it works contextually, obviously, so it did not annoy me as it would have in a different setting.

“All amateurs are tiresome.  You want to be in on this, but you shy off anything that is at all unpleasant.  We had this out before in the Wilde case.  You’d much better keep out of it, Bathgate.  I should have said so at the beginning.” – pg. 135, Chapter 13

Well, a number of readers have mentioned that “romantic” element that swirls around the major character Stephanie Vaughan and ….. I was going to say Alleyn, but really, I ought to simply say “all the other male characters.”  I read this described as cringey and awkward, etc.  I actually did not find it that way – Marsh sets up the intrigue very nicely:  she describes-without-describing-too-much Vaughan and her appeal and Alleyn’s unique handsomeness.  I do think it concerning that Marsh seems to have perfectly written these scenes and yet let some of the other, more pertinent, scenes go less cared for.

The problem with the novel, overall, is setting up a duo of Bathgate and Alleyn and then having Alleyn nearly constantly play a weird game of push-and-pull with Bathgate.  Supposedly a polished and expert detective, he should know better than to use and abuse Bathgate as he does. I mean, I do not particularly like Bathgate, but I felt sympathy for him because Alleyn treats him like a yo-yo. Once is enough, but it happens repeatedly in the novel – telling me Marsh had not quite worked out, perhaps, how this team was going to operate.

Anyway, I suspect we should hand out copies of this book to all the detectives and interested parties involved in Alec Baldwin’s “shooting accident” on the set of the suspended movie Rust (2021).  And wouldn’t you LOVE to know what Ngaio Marsh’s take on it would be?

Recommended to general readership and vintage mystery fans. I intend to read more in the Alleyn series, of course.

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King! For I am a Pirate King!

3 stars

The Rubber Band

THe Rubber BandI finished The Rubber Band by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975), which was first published in 1936 and is the third novel in the famous Nero Wolfe series.  I last read a Nero Wofle novel (the second) in 2014, so reading the third has been due for quite some time. I really enjoy these novels and this January has not been given over to science fiction, but rather mysteries.  There is a lot to love about the classic vintage detectives Lord Peter, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, et al. However, I think Wolfe has the least amount of reader-sympathizers.  He does come across, most of the time, as petulent and stubborn.  His girth and his seemingly-upper class status would be enough to do in most of those people who get past his personality.

One of the necessary things that readers of Wolfe mysteries must be able to do, is to understand that the majority of the commentary is sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek.  Most of the wit and banter is part of the jovial and unsinkable personality of the narrator, Archie Goodwin.  The humor moves around from deadpan drops to facetious comments to outright snark.  It is going to take a witty and discerning reader to enjoy the ruckus. Now, I am not going to say that at times it can get a little tedious. However, it seems there exists readers who take certain lines very seriously, instead of realizing they should be taken quite opposite.  My own household is full of witty retort and often ridiculous conversation.  That is not to say that deep, academic argument is not undertaken.  If this very average household witnesses these things, I can only imagine the same would hold true for Wolfe’s very unique household.

“You’ve already upset enough.  Go upstairs and behave yourself.  Wolfe has three wives and nineteen children in Turkey.”

“I don’t believe it. He has always hated women until he saw how nicely they pack in osmundine.”

Chapter 12

This is a very funny exchange – between harried characters who are both witty folk.  Strangely, I think there are readers out there who could not see this sarcasm….

There is a very surprising and amusing event that happens in the Wolfe household when the city police come through with a search warrant. I was really worried for the group – how were they going to hide their client? And then when it happened, I did laugh aloud. It is funny as heck, particularly if you really spend time imagining the scene properly!

She had been in the plant rooms with Wolfe for an hour before six o’clock, and during dinner he went on with a conversation which they had apparently started then, about folk dances and that sort of junk.  He even hummed a couple of tunes for her, after the guinea chicken had been disposed of, which caused me to take a firm hold on myself so as not to laugh the salad out of my mouth. – Chapter 15

Because at the end of the day, truly, Wolfe, like all good heroes, is a romantic and a connoisseur.  Archie, of course, has no immense cultural learning so his perspective on such moments is priceless. Such is the comedic situation that Stout adroitly manages.  Now, there has been effort by some so-called literary folk to make Wolfe and Goodwin’s lifestyle into some facet of homosexual scenario.  I think, and I did not think very much on it, that such literary folk are reading way too much of their own personal agendas into these novels – simply because there are plenty of lines in each novel that nearly state how untrue that could be. I think one could, if they entertained such imaginings, make a slight case for Fritz (the cook/butler), but otherwise it seems to me such an assessment is hogwash.

So, I have complained about readers who have no sense of humor and ones who seek to agenda-interpret.  The reason for both, though, is the same:  these books are not for the dour and sour.  I do not know much at all about Stout, but I do know – based on these novels – that he was not dour. And his audience is probably primarily the readers of that golden era detective fiction that literature historians have delineated.  However, I do think his actual audience was anyone who enjoyed wit and humor.  The pretty neat thing about Stout’s work is that he was able to combine comedy with detective-plot skill.  I am at the point, now, where I rarely read vintage detection/mystery novels for their plots.  I often find their storylines to be a bit convoluted or tangled.  I am usually reading these novels for the characters and the wit. In short, I enjoy intelligent, witty people and have no use for the miserable and perpetually over-serious.

This novel is full of characters and for a short novel, it is really stuffed with them. Archie, by the way, feels similarly as he is running around the house opening doors and shuttling people to and fro.  I think the plot is okay overall, but that Stout did let it get away from him a bit.  The beginning is a bit slow – and my word, the story that the character Clara Fox tells is really long-winded.  By the end, though, the whole thing is sewn up nicely and satisfactorily.  I think there ends up being three dead bodies in total, which seems like a lot for a two-day time span of the novel.  Unfortunately, the majority of the detection and investigation occurs off-screen and even beyond the scope of the narrator.  This is weird. I mean, even for off-screen detection this one is further on down that line.  For that reason, I am sure many readers would not rate this novel as highly as some other Nero Wolfe reads.  Its strange to have such a great narrator and main character and just keep the reader so completely in the dark about all of the detection.  I suppose that is exactly how Nero gets to have such bombshell-dropping reveals at the end while all of the characters sit calmly in his office. However, it is not a technique I think an author ought to use very much.

So, if you are a fan of vintage “Golden Era” mysteries AND you have a strong sense of humor, I can recommend this novel (and other Wolfe novels).  If you are utterly humorless, well, do not even bother, you will hate them. Now, I am not kidding:  it is literally time for my supper and beer and I absolutely despise when those times are disrupted.

3 stars

Mrs, Presumed Dead

Mrs Presumed Dead brett coverMrs, Presumed Dead by Simon Brett (b. 1945) is the second in the Melita Pargeter series of novels. This one was first published in 1988.  I read the first novel in the series years ago in 2015.  I think these novels (or most of them) are out of print, so until they are reprinted (or not) I am keeping these on the shelf for other readers who need a copy (my specific copy is February 1990 printing).

I cannot honestly call the Pargeter series a cozy mystery series, since there are elements in the books that are not so cozy at all. Cozy/innocent – whatever it is that makes the lightest mystery novels so warm and sweet.  There are elements of Pargeter novels that sometimes come across as critical of society, shuffling morality in a sort of very-English Mill/Bentham way at times, and some sordid moments.  Nevertheless, this was an easy-reading novel that was good for a light off-day.  Just something to occupy the mugs of tea and the chilly temperatures outdoors.  This is a no-stress read.

The main character, amateur sleuth Melita Pargeter has relocated to a very small cul-de-sac style upper class semi-rural development.  I enjoyed Brett’s addition of explaining the detail of how/why the development had the name it had. She has purchased a large house in this rather Yuppie community and has moved into the home and found the social structure of the close a bit challenging.  I wanted to hear more about Pargeter’s designing and decorating and setting up her new house. It would have given a bit more insight into Melita herself – how one organizes one’s living space is very telling about that person’s psychology and activities.

I think the first novel was a bit better in a few respects. My main complaint is that the author was not as smooth and engaging with his main character’s conversations this time. Mrs. Pargeter in this novel was nearly KGB-interrogator at times. I know she is a shrewd and witty old bird, but I think she would also be a bit more subtle than a sledgehammer.  I mean, she just moved into the neighborhood and she really is laser-pointer-focused on the murder investigation. I would think that even the most uppity, yuppie, self-centered people of that neighborhood would notice that Pargeter was so dogged in her conversation.

“I’m not so sure,” said Mrs. Pargeter. “You don’t know what people are like in Smithy’s Loam.” – pg. 222

The other complaint I had was that we are very repeatedly told that Pargeter’s deceased husband had left her a lot of resources.  I mean, once or twice is reasonable – but we are reminded quite a lot. And after awhile, I felt the need to grab the author by his ear and ask if he really felt me so stupid that in a 240 page novel he needed to remind me of this constantly.

I did not guess who did it. I never do, though. I am utterly horrible at mystery novels/television. Its always a surprise for me. Now, I know more astute readers might scoff and tease me about this, but I would remind them that I get full enjoyment out of the books, whereas they are too busy reading stories they have already figured out. Anyway, it makes sense who the criminal was – which is very key in a mystery novel. I want a solid and satisfying resolution not one that feels forced or that it could have just as easily been answered differently. As Pargeter says in that late chapter:

“No, I’ve worked it out now. I should have realised before.” – pg. 238

So, the ending worked out all right, which I like. There were, of course, several points in which Brett could have spiralled this story some other way. Lots of plausible guilty parties with plenty of motive. But I like that Brett has Pargeter tell us:

For a start, she had a strong prejudice against murders committed by people who were mad.  She had always disliked them in crime fiction and didn’t care for them much in real life.  Madness was so vague, so woolly.  Any motivation and logic could be ascribed to someone who was mad.  At the end of a crime book in which a madman dunnit, Mrs. Pargeter always felt cheated and annoyed. – pg. 211

Well, don’t worry, Melita in this one there is no such cheap and flimsy ending.

Recommended for readers needing an easy-read, day-read.  Enjoyable to a point without any major complaints.  Pargeter is a thoughtful woman in many ways. I will likely, eventually, read the next in the series.

3 stars

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

UnpleasantnessThe Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957) is the fourth novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey “series.”   It was originally published in 1928. I read the 1988 printing of the New English Library edition of the novel.  It was quite hard to separate from the book itself because the bright pink cover made it very difficult to ignore!

For the first few chapters, there is some witty sarcasm about the word “unpleasantness” and Sayers was a very intelligent woman so I think this sardonic and ironic bantering has a lot of meaning. It is not just a superficial humor – although, on some level, it is that, too.  The Bellona Club is a British “club” – something contemporary Americans do not really have a concept for. I guess maybe a country club or private drinking club is some sort of vague approximation.  This particular club is for war veterans. The thing is, most Americans do not really have a solid, true experience of British life before-during-after the first World War, either, and that context is very significant in reading Sayer’s Lord Peter novels.  Simply put, the horror and magnitude and shock of experiencing the first World War is not really something that is accessible. We can read about it, but that probably does not come close to the experience. Ineffable and incommunicable lifetime event, I think, best describes that generation/society’s moment. At one point there is a small segment about Armistice Day and wearing a flower and all of this seems so distant and removed from current day that the gravity and significance that those characters would experience is nearly lost on readers today.

So, while the book has this layer of humor and wit, it is also a coping mechanism and a ironic sarcasm for the utter horrors and psychological struggles of the first World War.  That is not to say that you should not chuckle at the wit. The best readers should laugh heartily and then also shed a tear for the unspeakable horrors of that society.

Needless to say, there is a particular character, Wetheridge, that depicts the PTSD-sufferings of veterans perhaps better than the major character George Fentiman, who represents the very demonstrative examples of PTSD. At first, Wetheridge is annoying, but on the last page of the novel, Wimsey points out Wetheridge is all right and has his place among “us.”

I really enjoy reading Lord Peter, as many readers through the decades have said, I’m sure. So, spending time with him as he goes around and harasses and cajoles and banters with other characters is always time well-spent. Lord Peter, himself, as you readers who know also deals with PTSD from his time in the war.

“Exactly. He is the Most Unlikely Person, and that is why Sherlock Holmes would suspect him at once.” – pg. 148 (chapter 15)

However, this story qua story was a bit of a mess. I mean, I think Sayers really wrote a complicated plot, but it was so complicated over nothing, I think. Or, over-complicated. Or it just went on way too long. The storyline really is entangled and it becomes a bit boring to try and sort it out – especially when the red herrings are not exactly red herrings.

There are some enjoyable moments – Peter at the Bellona Club, the scenes with the Munns, any time spent with Marjorie Phelps, and of course, Peter ordering from any menu anywhere.

The end of the story had interesting resolutions to the plot threads and I cannot say that it ended unfairly or untidily. I definitely will read more Sayers, no surprise there, and I recommend this for most vintage mystery readers. However, there is something to be exasperated with here in the slightly over-worked plot.

Overall, the most subtle, and yet key, element is that nearly all of the major characters are war veterans. The doctor, the deceased, the detective, the supporting characters, etc. So, the resolution has a very bittersweet pang to it – because money is the issue. But the issue is not money….

3 stars

Death Shall Come

Death Shall ComeDeath Shall Come is the fourth novel in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series of books.  I have read the first three in December for three years so far and saw no reason to abandon this habit this year.  I think the first book was the best of all of them, by far.  However, the silliness and outlandishness of the stories entertains me and I look forward to my December reading.   Death Shall Come was first published in 2017.  

The thing that the end of the year (particularly these last two years) needs, is some entertaining, outlandish fun to be had. Something silly and preposterous that does not feel oppressive or dismal.  These Ishmael Jones books are utterly the best fit for my end of year reading. Every novel is basically setup the same way – a country house murder-mystery, which usually is quite gory and involves something un/supernatural.  Ishmael and his vivacious partner, Penny, end up wandering around locked rooms, long corridors, and the bodies pile up.  That’s it – that’s the story.

In this particular novel, we are given just a glimpse more into the character of the Colonel.  However, not much more – and I think nearly every page we are re-told how “military” he is.  Its tedious and I am sure impatient readers will hate the whole thing.  But it doesn’t bother me; I was weaned on Homer, do you know how many times we are reminded of the stock epithets for Achilles and Agamemnon? 

This story’s theme involves a family of collectors of ancient Egyptian artefacts.  The family’s name in the book is the Cardavans.  We are told that for generations the Cardavans have used their enormous wealth to acquire treasures and circumvent legal/monetary obstacles regarding possessing these treasures.  Readers with an ounce of history will know that the famous Howard Carter (“discoverer” of the Tut tomb) was financed by George Herbert, Lord Carnarvon.  A name similar to the characters’ in this novel.  The Cardavans have acquired a freshly-unearthed mummy and are currently relishing in their acquisition.  The mummy is allegedly one of the older Cleopatras (not the most famous Greek one). 

The “twist” in this book, I guess, is that the Colonel assigns Ishmael this mission – not for the mysterious Organization, but as a “favor” to him.  And the Colonel stays with us the entire story, not just appearing in the first and final chapters.  Overall, in this particular story, he was rather flat and one-dimensional. I think I preferred him at a distance.  In any case, he asks for this favor from Ishmael because the Cardavans are his in-laws.  Meaning, we get to meet the Colonel’s wife, Chloe.  

‘What are you so nervous about?’ said Penny.  ‘At best it’s a mummy, at worst it’s a serial killer.  We can handle either of those without breaking into sweat.’ – pg 139

So, Chapter Seven actually had a moment of pulse-pounding for me. I guess I am a silly, simple reader.  Nevertheless, when the suspense was building I was really on the edge of my seat.  Its not a long segment, maybe three pages, tops, but it was fun and I liked listening to the terrifying footsteps on the other side of the door. Listening to them listening to it listening to us. 

A personal anecdote of relevance…. one of my favorite books as a single-digit monster was The Secret of Terror Castle (1964). I read the ever-living hell out of that thing. I loved it. I read and re-read that one many times.  So, I do wonder if the impact of having read that story so many times developed a strong inclination toward country-home/Gothic castle murder-mysteries.  In any case, if the story contains any elements whatsoever of The Secret of Terror Castle, chances are I will be thrilled.  And this has borne out with the fact that I rated John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull (1931) so highly.  Anyway, it should come as no surprise that I will likely try to read the rest of Green’s Ishmael Jones series.

3 stars

Between Light and Shadow

Beyond Light and ShadowBetween Light and Shadow by Sarah Jane Huntington is a collection of self-published short stories, first released in 2021. The thirteen stories are structured to be an homage to/a pastiche of the old Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and Outer Limits (1963) television episodes.

I took a chance on this book since I am having a year of reading small press, self-published, independently published items. I am glad to say, most of my choices have been very successful. Between Light and Shadow is another mark in the win column, if you will. The formatting/editing is a tiny bit rough, but nothing that left me aghast. Once again, the rating I give it feels slightly skewed; I am starting to really hate rating any books that are not mass market from the Big Publishers. 4 stars feels too high for this blog, 3 stars feels way too low for the effort and fun. 3.5 just feels like a cop-out. Hey – maybe do not pay much attention to that rating, deal?

The main element swaying me to get this book was the very strong feeling of honesty that I got from the author when I read the intro. I like supporting authors (et al.) who are genuine and authentic and honest. I love the Twilight Zone, too… so I can appreciate any attempts to work in that specific mold.

Of the thirteen stories, two stories really did not work for me. I disliked “Such a Perfect Day” and I think “Tourists Guide to the Galaxy” probably maybe should not have been included, if the author will forgive my saying so. This latter was so very heavy-handed, negative, and abrasive…. Plus, I feel it has been overdone by so many already. It just is the thud of the book, I think.

However, all of the other stories contain the wonder, twists, entertainment, and escapism that I like to have when reading fiction. These are short stories that are easily digestible, engaging, and all over the spectrum of “speculative fiction.” In particular, “Written On a Subway Wall” and “Trapped” were really good. If a reader is into horror, the gruesome and twisted “Mirror Darkly” works well, even if it is not completely surprising.  Also, I enjoyed “Exploration for Humanity” – even though it felt a wee bit too obvious.

This is a fun collection and I am glad that the author shared them with us. She was not aiming for “Greatest Stories Ever Written” – and she’s honest about that. Instead, she aimed for “strong effort, fun genre, and comfortable writing.” Huntington nailed it! Readers who need some easy-reading with some similarity to the sentiments of those old television shows will be mostly satisfied with this collection.  And I am encouraged to try more of her writing. (I think I saw that she has a new horror-genre novel out.)

3 stars

Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories

Green TeaGreen Tea and Other Ghost Stories is a Dover Thrift Edition by Dover Publications.  It contains four stories by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1814 – 1873).  I have the 1993 edition of this collection; Dover released an e-book edition with a different cover.  On the back of my edition the price is $1.50, but I have a used book sticker, too. I probably paid next to nothing for this.  I mention this because a reader wanting to read just a few good stories will have definitely gotten their money’s worth with this edition.  I am given to understand LeFanu was a somewhat prolific writer, but of the four stories in this book, only one is one of LeFanu’s famous works. The other three stories are much lesser known.

  • “Green Tea” – from In a Glass Darkly (1886)
  • “Squire Toby’s Will”  – from Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales (1923)
  • “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” – from Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales (1923)
  • “The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” – from Dublin University Magazine (1838)

The stories are written in the style that I assume is typical of their times.  Sometimes this feels like it really suits the stories, sometimes it feels ridiculous. Most of the stories are told via a narrator or through someone who heard someone’s story.  In “Green Tea,” for example, the narrator is actually reiterating info from letters by a Dr. Martin Hesselius to a Professor Van Loo of Leyden. 

These are not fast reads and part of that is due to the typical Victorian lack of word economy making it stilted, too (this is the official description of it).  Part of the slowness, though, is because these stories all rely heavily on atmosphere.  In “Green Tea” the relating of the events by a doctor to a professor is an attempt to make the very frightening and oppressive angst seem even more elevated by describing it from a pseudo-scientific and clinical perspective.  Obviously, the reader is left to do a lot of the work here – do they believe, as the doctor clearly does, that this is all just just just explainable and diagnosable OR do they believe that this is a rare and supernatural occurence that cannot be explained away by the rationalist?  Its one of those situations where OF COURSE there is a reasonable explanation for all of this mania.  Right? 

“Green Tea” might be the closest to what readers consider to be horror.  It really derives its horror from the juxtaposition of the clinical with the unnatural.  When I read through it, I was somewhat unimpressed.  However, the element of the red-eyed ape is really disturbing and creepy. It is probably as terrifying as any violent, gory, scare-fest found in the horror genre because it is unexplained.  Being watched is often an element of a scary story.  The reader who can put themselves in the character’s place will get a lot of creepy thrills here. Imagine being in the room while the red-eyes glare…….

“Squire Toby’s Will” is probably my favorite of the bunch. I think that I liked it most because it is the grittiest and most noir of the bunch. Sibling rivalry, a wild and unruly rich father, and a loyal manservant named Cooper fill these pages with angst and struggle.  I liked the inclusion of the dog as the pivot point for the whole story. This story also has the most satisfactory ending, as well. Poor Gylingdon Hall with its creepy King Herod’s Chamber.  

“The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” is on par with the others, but it is definitely a bit long-winded, which is exacerbated by the Victorian manner of speech. So, one of the characters, Lady D– says:

“I still must believe that some latent fever has affected his mind, as that owing to the state of nervous depression into which he has been sinking, some trivial occurrence has been converted, in his disordered imagination, into an augury foreboding his immediate dissolution.” – pg. 78

The words and meaning are easy enough, but heavens! that is a windy way to put that. Especially when all parties involved are sleep-deprived and in a state of great anxiety.  Do you think he is making a mountain out of a molehill? Or do we really want to go with: into an augury foreboding his immediate dissolution?  Still, look how charming this way of writing was! 

Anyway, I feel bad for all the servants and butlers in these stories. They are all included, named and described, in order to provide a witness to the events that occur.  I feel bad for them because they seem to have all been loyal and honest folk. Jones in “Green Tea” probably should have his side of the story told. But then Cooper in “Squire Toby’s Will” seems the most robust of the lot and he made out the best, in the end, as well. 

All of these stories rely on what remains unexplained, what the servants saw and heard, and how the key causes and outcomes are left undefined.  I know a lot of readers might really dislike this sort of writing. I enjoyed it – it has its place. I would not want every story to be like these.  The fun and value is that a reader has to really get involved in the atmosphere and maybe that means not speed reading through descriptions of the forests and valleys.  The reader has to do work in their imagination, wondering at all the possible causes/outcomes and turning over the events in their mind, knowing that a definitive author’s decision is not available.  It is fun and interesting to ponder the rôle of the dog, the purpose and intent of the red-eyed ape, the mysterious Jacque character, et al. With some time on a quiet evening, a thoughtful reader could develop a hundred different re-tellings, subplots, and resolutions to these stories.

Another component to these stories is their setting.  Usually we have large manor homes and estate in Ireland.  Huge stone castles surrounded by forests and stone walls that enclose family crypts.  The stables are out back; occasionally we need the stableman to ready one of the horses.  The servants have always lived in these homes, waiting on these families. In the abandoned mansions, vines and rot have taken over and so it requires imagination to see them in their finest moments.  Sweeping staircases, portraits on the walls, candles being ported here and there by characters.  Do not forget the huge wooden and iron doors that are supposed to keep out whatever should not be inside.

Now, the last story in the book “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” is not one that I thought much of. It contained a lot of the elements of the other stories to make it just similar enough.  Here we have a gentleman traveling on horseback and he passes by the ruins of a castle, which he finds intriguing. After moving on to the next town and getting a meal at the inn, he returns to wander and peruse the ruins. 

Suddenly, a voice speaks to him – its an elderly hunchback with a lisp.  The hunchback proceeds to tell him the history of the ruins (because the creepy guy was raised there and his grandfather was also a manservant there long ago).  In fact, he begins his tale by pointing with his cane to a spot on the wall that he alleges is the skull and brain matter of the former owner, Sir Dominick Sarsfield.

I could not help thinking, as I read, about how this story plays out in contemporary times.  So, driving through small-town country roads, you pass by a crumpled building in ruins. Now, you might be intrigued for some reason. I know abandoned buildings and similar things have always had a niche following. Maybe when you stop for gas in the only gas station in town (that is charging a dollar more per gallon than reasonable), you ask the cashier about the place. I guess you drive back to get a better look – with your phone camera?  And maybe you find a place to park and are thinking of your Instagram/Facebook post and you go try to get some good shots. 

All the wood inside is pretty rotted and you are definitely sure you saw a few roaches. There are spiderwebs here and there. But no way are you just gonna sit a spell on the bottom of the staircase. You are probably more inclined to make a Google Assistant reminder to get a tetanus shot.  Anyway, as you are taking a pic of the vines mildewing around the wall, a voice next to you quotes some creepy verse. 

LeFanu thinks you are going to then hang around and hear the history tale of the place from the creepy hunchback with a lisp. 

Instead, its just more likely you are wondering:  wait, why is there a creepy dude here?  and instead of the “hallooo! don’t mean to scare you…. Hallooo?” calls that would alert someone to your presence, this little old guy quotes some verse? So, what really happens, is you pull your CWP firearm and drop your phone, trip over a piece of fallen debris, and wonder if you left the car unlocked.

3 stars

The Deep Blue Good-by

176166I read The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald. It was first published in 1964 – by the request of the publishing house Fawcett.  In other words, it was a commissioned work. I am not entirely sure how that worked – but this story is not one of those where the author went from house to house to try and find anyone that would publish it in return for pennies.  

This is a novel for mature readers – and not because of the language or scenes alone, but also because there is a deeper sentiment to be found in this one, hiding under the ribald and loose 1960s Florida attitude. That is to say, it’s a lot more noir than it is expected to be.  It is very important for readers to know going into this that these are not good characters.  There is not the good guy chasing the bad guy.  To a greater or lesser extent, of course, the characters range out from the stupid and unlucky to the violent and cruel.  Readers, particularly recent readers, seem to really dislike this book for what would be termed sexism and misogyny.  No doubt there is some of that spewed nearly on every page and for a good-minded individual in 2021, it seems rotten and crude. 

I leaned against the center island and drank it, feeling unreal. I walked on a fabric of reality but it had an uncomforatble give to it. You could sink in a little way.  If you walked too much and came to a weak spot, you could fall through. I think it would be pretty bleak down there. – pg. 136, Chapter Ocho 

However, and I am not making any excuse or ratio for such mentality, I would not expect people of poor morality to have glistening views of humanity.  The main character is a misanthrope; I did not think he would say pretty things.  I neither like nor dislike the main character, Travis McGee.  Yet, he is quite unique from what I have read… not too many sulky, principled, off-the-grid chaps that are so good at reading people and keeping their sour bitterness under a Miami tan.  Travis McGee is not a nice guy.   He is very bitter and he survives in his lifestyle by the very fact that his misanthropy is validated by the crime and grift and corruption in society.  He takes advantage of miserable situations brought on by immoral and miserable people.  There is a lot here for a reader to dislike.

However, there is a adeptness with which this novel is written that shows MacDonald knew how to write and knew how to write people. The form of the story, the muscular, organic speech-patterns, the sudden switches from “pseudo-psychology” to bar-room slang – all make up a very strong read. This is one of the many things missing from contemporary fiction.  This book has a tone and voice, whether or not the reader agrees with it or likes it, it is potent and vibrant.  This writing is not dull or bland.

I began checking the marinas.  All this great ever-increasing flood of bronze, brass, chrome, Fiberglas, lapstreak, teak, auto pilots, burgees, Power Squadron hats, nylon line, all this chugging winking blundering glitter of props, bilge pumps and self-importance needs dockside space. The optimum image is the teak cockpit loaded soft with brown dazed girls while the eagle-eyed skipper on his fly bridge chugs Baby Dear under a lift bridge to keep a hundred cars stalled waiting in the sun, their drivers staring malignantly at the slow passage of the lazy-day sex float and the jaunty brown muscles of the man at the helm.  But the more frequent reality is a bust gasket, Baby Dear drifting in a horrid chop, girls sunpoisoned and whoopsing, hero skipper clenching the wrong size wrench in barked hands and raising a greasy scream to the salty demons who are flattening his purse and canceling his marine insurance. – pg. 163, chapter Diez

Yes, indeed, McGee is very much a cynical misanthrope. But reading that description – its very clear MacDonald has some open eyes as well.  No one can write a misantrhrope without a dose of misanthropy themselves, I believe.  Taking that passage, and ones similar, MacDonald is nearly telling the reader:  you want a cozy read where the good guy rights the wrongs and the bad guy gets what is coming to him. You want a novel that does not offend that does not push too many limits and does not make you cringe in disgust at times. But that’s the image of a summery novel, not the reality of a good noir yarn.  Because let’s face it, MacDonald wrote a bleak, dark story with all sorts of unsavory elements – and placed it in the touristy, ever-sunny South Florida.  I am a bit impressed.  

McGee is a tough character because though he is incredibly bitter, he still has some odd way of keeping to principles of his own making.  Its too early in the series to tell if he is consistent with this. Another facet of McGee is his self-loathing, it shows up here and there – particularly in little snarls that the character lets slip.  I think this self-loathing really adds another layer to the noir elements of the character and sets the character apart from all the other glib, easy-going, private investigator/amateur detective/part-time crooks that show up in novels. 

So here is book one in the Travis McGee series.  Its full of miserable people that run, more or less, in the same circles as the main character – no hero, but at least aware of his rôle.  It is a rough read for content, the sex and the 60s zeitgeist is layed on quite heavily. Recommended for mature readers. Recommended for all noir/crime readers.

Fast read, good trim on the words. I own book two and when ready, I’ll read it.

3 stars

Of Dogs and Walls

Of Dogs and WallsDue to the temperature being 109° F, I have been indoors this past week more than I normally would be. I am outdoors a lot, but even I know better than to make myself so miserable in this heat. This has given me opportunity to read a lot more during the daytime than usual and I have a tbr mountain that makes me feel ashamed. Today I was able to read the tiny book in the Penguin Modern series Of Dogs and Walls, which contains two stories by Yuko Tsushima. The little book is only 65 pages and is the 43rd in the set of 50 similar books by Penguin. It was published in 2018, the whole set was finished being released by 2019, I think, and could be purchased in a box set. I am not exactly sure what the editors were going with for this particular set – blurbs on the Penguin site speak of “pioneering” modern writers, etc.

Yuko Tsushima is the penname of Satoko Tsushima (1947 – 2016).  She is the second daugher of the famous author Osamu Dazai (1909 – 1948). Dazai and his extra-marital interest committed drowning suicide in the Tamagawa Aqueduct.  

The first story in this book, The Watery Realm, was originally published in 1982.  It very much so is an exploration and coming-to-terms with her father’s death. The wildly creepy and unnerving fact that most readers might not be aware of is that in 1985, Tsushima’s young son drowned in a bathtub accidentally. This is the last paragraph of The Watery Realm:

Ah, that reminds me. I have to tell my five-year-old about the Dragon Palace – to tell him that, somewhere in the deep, the original of that underwater castle he’s so proud of surely exists.  There, as colorful fish tickle the tips of their noses, the folk we long to see again sleep the sleep in which a hundred days are a hundred years. – pg.30

I do not know exactly what to say about this paragraph and the future unhappy drowning. At best I can describe my face as having a suspicious and incredulous look on it, maybe with shades of “yikes!”   I really love this paragraph at the end of the story, though. I like the off-hand manner in which the narrator is thinking of the deep [pun intended] topic. 

Overall, I liked this first piece better of the two. But, since I have a strong connection to water, that makes sense. In both stories the author writes fluidly [heh!] and the edges blend. What edges? The clearly defined borders of characters, of time, of space. In some points it feels like a stream of consciousness. And that hazy fuzziness really works for this particular story in which family members seem sickeningly close and yet completely estranged.

I loved the last paragraph of the first story and I loved the usage of the umbrella. This is subtle and mysterious and skillful writing.

If it’s still raining when she starts for home again, she will take her umbrella. Sometimes it will have stopped and she’ll leave the umbrella with her daughter. That umbrella disturbs and frightens her daughter, while she herself is disturbed and frightened at having forgotten it. When it’s nothing, really. When it really doesn’t mean a thing. – pg. 12

I really also like this paragraph. Its in the middle of the story and its yet another voice, besides the mother or the daughter and it just resonated with me because things can be so aggravating and disturbing and yet meaningless. 

The second piece in this small text is the title entry, Of Dogs and Walls.  It was one of Tsushima’s later works, published in 2014 in the magazine Shincho. There are a lot of similarities between both of the stories, so I can definitely see how a Penguin Editor might have known they go together, though they were written so many decades apart.  The main one being the relationship and viewpoints of the female characters; mothers and daughters to be specific. The mothers in both stories seem incomprehensible, but also utterly transparent.  These are hardened women, not ones you would cross. They are left behind and “on their own.”  They are also maybe slightly mad because of this.  

Both stories are of a close radius. But I do not think I was able to get the resounding significance of the dog and the wall like I was able to internalize and comprehend the water and the umbrella. 

I think that Penguin liked selecting these stories – not solely because they are quite interesting works, but also because a female Japanese author was an excellent “diverse” pick for their collection. They are not wrong.  However, I think a lot of readers will zero in on the fact that Tsushima is largely writing about marginalized or forgotten women and then slap a “feminist” label on her and her works.  I am absolutely no expert in these matters, but I think to do so would be to really build a barrier (a wall?) around Tsushima and also her characters.  I would not want her stories to drown in the ogreish designs of insensitive readership.

One question I am very curious about is how deeply, frequently, and extensively Tsushima read or studied her father’s works. Did she have nothing much to do with them? Or were they often pawed through and wrestled with? Or maybe she was utterly indifferent to them? I think she has one daughter and that is who we would have to ask. Yes, it would probably be apropos to have to ask Tsushima’s daughter about Tsushima’s relationship with her father’s literary works.

Recommend for quite advanced readers and for those who enjoy dream-like streams of slice-of-life. I would like to give the first story 4 stars and the second 2 stars; so here we end at 3 stars.

3 stars

Terminal Freeze

Terminal FreezeRecently, I finished Terminal Freeze by Lincoln Child. It was published in 2009 and I think has been on the to-be-read shelves forever. Among the slight changes in my reading habits this year (reading (reading crime, reading small publishers, reading things other than science fiction) is the effort to clear the shelves! Be advised, I say that is a goal every year. I read Deep Storm by Lincoln Child in 2017 and I did not give it high marks. Terminal Freeze seemed both better and worse than that previous read.

As I started reading this, I was sure it was going to be a quick, but annoying read. For the first quarter of the book I was so unenthused and unimpressed. Everything seemed so utterly obvious, heavy-handed, and predictable. Not to mention, there was not anything about the plot that seemed even a bit engaging. All of the characters were vexing, the setting was annoying, the plot seemed very predictable. Halfway through the novel, I admit I was more engaged in the story and I was turning pages without annoyance. So its not high-brow literature, but what happens next? Maybe I’m a bit of a sucker because I just like being entertained by a story?

Since this is pulp-adventure, I do not want to ruin the thing by handing over the plot to those who may wish to read it. Suffice to say, it takes place in an old (Cold War era) US Army ice station in Alaska. There are a team of scientists there who are funded, through a number of channels, by Hollywood.  The scientists discover something, a random native shaman shows up, and then the base is overrun by the production company. The scientists are chafed because the production company takes charge and the “relationship” of the scientists and the movie-makers is clarified.  All hell breaks loose when the discovery, which is the focal point for the documentary, goes missing. Action ensues.

I have a lot of interests, but TV and movies, film and cinematography are not them. I am even confronted on occasion by film theory and I still struggle to participate.  I watch very little TV and film. And all the “classic” and “important” film? Yeah, I probably have not seen it – and you would not really want me to because it would be lost on me. I know everyone thinks I’m kidding when I say I lose track of where the TVs are in my home. I have known some film theory “fans/experts” and when they talk about these things they are very animated and it seems so intense for them. I appreciate that there are people out there with this interest.

I mention this to say that I have a natural (strong?) dislike toward film production. That it plays such a central component to this novel was a surprise for me and an immediate turn off.  There is a particular character who takes his film theory, film production immensely seriously – more important than life itself. (By the way, this is how ALL film theory/producers and directors seem TO ME. They all seem obsessed and eccentric and intense; is this image one that they self-cultivate?) This character is really well written because he does fit a lot of the stereotypes and he provides another challenge point for the storyline. Yes, he can be horribly obsessed and unbelieveable. He’s not a villain, per se, but he plays a character archetype – the weirdly obsessed/driven. Readers immediately will dislike him and as the story progresses, even his most devoted and loyal “co-workers” begin to be disgusted and disillusioned with him. However he is one of the reasons I am giving this novel another star:  thinking about the things he is saying about the filming, the film industry…. he is entirely correct, regardless of the morality of the situation. It is this intense “sacrifice everything for the product” mentality that is both abhorent and yet vitally truthful; unexpected in a pulp adventure novel.

I really enjoyed how no matter the setbacks or failures that occur, this character was pushing the boundaries and re-imagining his film creation. He even was willing, at the last, to do the grunt work himself. Morally misguided, perhaps, but utterly dedicated to his idea of what his work is.

He waved at two bookcases full of DVDs that framed the screen. “You see those? That is my reference library. The greatest films ever made: the most beautiful, the most groundbreaking, the most though provoking.  The Battleship Potemkin, Intolerance, Rashomon, Double Indemnity, L’Avventura, The Seventh Seal – they are all here. I never travel anywhere without them. Yet they are not just my solace, Dr. Marshall – they are my oracle, my Delphic temple. Some turn to the Bible, for guidance; others, the I Ching, I have these. And they never fail me.” – Conti, pg. 153 (chapter 18)

I admit throughout the book I was expecting a certain nefariousness from a character. I did keep waiting for Gonzalez (one of the soldiers) to show “true colors” and be at the heart of the drama. This never happened. But it frequently happens that I will not get the storyline guessed out. Instead, Gonzalez ended up being quite wysiwyg.  The character Logan, though, is utterly pointless. I don’t know what he does except to make it seem like he is a storyline guide, really. I have not read a lot of books where I felt like there was a character inserted in a plot that was a guide for the other characters to stay on plot. Its strange.

Frankly, the native shaman character was also a bit superfluous. I mean, he adds a bit of local interest and supernatural/unnatural flavor to the book. He is there to add a wee bit of Other to the novel, balancing out the science and military. But is he really necessary? Nope, honestly I kept waiting for him to “do something” other than just be native and mysterious. I guess he is the main character’s therapist or doppleganger or something.

Finally, the best parts of the action, I think, were the segments dealing with the ice road trucker. That was some edge-of-my-seat reading. If this is a thriller, it wasn’t because of the kaiju-monster-survival stuff, it was, for me, the nervous-wreck reaction to ice road driving. Maybe because I have had plenty of driving in blizzards and ice storms and I could access those feelings.

Not great literature and superficial and full of obvious plot points. The characters are very wysiwyg. The plot is survival within a difficult setting against a scary supernatural/unnatural monster. I am glad I finally read it and can recommend it as a good, lightweight adventure story to readers who need basic entertainment. Read it for the film aspects and less for the native Alaskan elements.

3 stars