Crime

Mystery Mile

Mystery Mile coverMystery Mile by Margery Allingham (1904 – 1966) was first published in 1930.  It is the second in the Albert Campion series; I read the first back in 2015 and did not really care for it. Mystery Mile, however, is the first novel in which the character Albert Campion actually stars having the main rôle.  Anywhere online where I saw anything about “Albert Campion,” I saw mention of how the character is a parody of or very similar to Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy L. Sayers’ work.  I feel like this is some sort of literary-world mantra that has been repeated so much that most readers accept it as fact. In my reading, I can see how readers might draw that conclusion, but at the same time, I do not think the connection is all that strong. Campion is made to produce a lot of chatter, some of it learned, most of it just free-association. It annoys his fellow characters more than it annoys the reader, truthfully. The Wimsey character can keep up a similar monologue, but his is somehow both more intelligent and more forlorn. So, Allingham might have taken a certain tidbit from Sayers and spun it a little differently. I doubt Wimsey is the only source; I seem to recall Sherlock et al. having a bit of – seemingly – irreverent chatter.

Of the bunch of Golden Age mysteries and detective yarns that I have read, Allingham’s are the least serious.  These are not quite the usual leisurely detecting that, say, are parodied in Leo Bruce’s novels. You know the ones – the murder happens, usually in a country manor home, and all the suspects sit around having brandy while the detective plays at various intellectual exercises.  These are also not the sort of heavy, serious stories that feel like the fate of the world is directly waiting the conclusion of the case. These are romps, a word I do not use often.  These are 1930s action/adventure mysteries.  Indeed, and I am going to go out on a limb here, they are entertaining and fun.

Now, the amount of fun and entertainment mileage a reader gets from a novel like this will vary. The story itself is fairly well-written, no one will accuse Allingham of being a lazy writer or a writer that did not have a grasp of plot, setting, characters, etc. However, at times it seems a bit overwritten.  At times, especially, in this particular novel, it seems the author focused too much on the main character and made the rest of the characters run around like panting obedient dogs behind him.  Do not get me wrong, though, this novel does introduce us to a number of definitely interesting characters who stand on their own. We meet Campion’s manservant/houseman, Magersfontein Lugg.  And Lugg’s associate Thos. T Knapp.  The segments of the story involving this latter character light up because Knapp is such a colorful and lively creature.  The scenes with his mother and their little apartment are also rather priceless.  Knapp’s character does play on some of those archetypes and Allingham pulls in those elements with skill.  Specifically, things like his accent, his skill set, his physical movements, etc.

Still, some of the other characters, though independent and not cardboard placeholders when taken on their own, seem unable to do otherwise than follow and obey the main character. They never really develop or show any particular insights or dynamic other than what their face value has already presented to the reader.  These characters, though likeable in their own way, make for some tediousness.

My main complaint about this novel is a singular plot point. I feel like left alone, most of the plot is organized and reasonable. However, there is one piece that were it not so, would utterly collapse the entire book.  So, it has to do with the early night in which guests arrive and a certain character, Anthony Datchett arrives – uninvited.  The housemaid, Cuddy, lets him in and hands his card to the lady of the house. The rest of the household should, at this point, knowing full-well why all of them are gathered the heck out on this swamp, misty peninsula, punt this guy right back out into the night. Literally, why he is allowed entrance to the room, much less the house and why he is allowed to engage with the guests is inexplicable.

My second complaint is really a bit unfair and very minor. In the middle of the book, the main character is given a specific prop. Apparently, he is aware of what it signifies, but no one else is. And there is no way any reader could know because we do not live on the peninsula nor do we have a map of it. So, when Campion reveals its meaning – though the prop is alluded to a number of times and suspense is allowed to build over it – it falls flat. It makes sense, its logical. However, I think this could have been handled better and been an awesome prop as opposed to a fizzled out element.

“Two young females in this ‘ere flat,” said Lugg. “Well!”

“Shocking!” agreed Campion. “I don’t know what my wife would say.”
Marlowe stared at him. “Good Lord, you haven’t a wife, have you?” he said.

“No,” said Mr. Campion. “That’s why I don’t know what she’d say. Get your coats on, my little Rotarians.” — pg. 199, chapter 24

I laughed at the above.  Some readers might find it stupid. Most of Campion’s punchlines are hit or miss, but this one tickled me. Allingham did provide several nicely done action scenes. There is a rooftop house-breaking rescue full of all the excitement readers could want. There is a nighttime escape and evasion late in the book which results in several reveals, but also things like gunfire and quicksand! There are comical moments as well:  being introduced to the rear entrance to Campion’s apartment is priceless.

Overall, this is a serviceable enjoyable read.  Readers ought not take it too seriously and have fun with the little romp.  There is a dog who provides little levity and amusement, as well. I will very likely read the next in the series, which I already own. However, this is not a series I can gobble down – it definitely does better with breaks in between stories.

3 stars

Red Harvest

Red Harvest coverRed Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1894 – 1961) was published as a whole novel in 1929.  It had previously been published in parts from 1927-1928 in a pulp magazine. Technically, it is his first novel, but he had plenty of short stories and other smaller published pieces before 1929.  It is really quite an absurdity that I have not read any Hammett before. The only thing I can do about that, seeing as I have no ability to time travel to the past, is to read more now and in the future. I am about thirty minutes away, I guess, from a whole collection of Hammett documents and paraphernalia (photos, scrapbooks, writings, letters).  The collection, owned and housed at a nearby library, includes about 250 prints and pencil drawings of Hammett’s work for the Army newspaper he created. He was stationed in the Aleutian Islands where he developed the Army newspaper, The Adakian.

Hammett allegedly wrote Red Harvest with a lot of personal experience and current events in mind. I suspect this has a whole lot more meaning to literary people than to Hammett himself or his audience. Not to say that he or his audience were daft, I just think he used what was ready-at-hand to create the story. He had previously written stories involving a character called “The Continental Op.”  He split with the magazine over money issues. His first story back with the magazine, Hammett dedicated the novel to Joseph Thompson Shaw who was the newly installed editor of the pulp magazine (Black Mask). To me, this sounds like a writer chasing the dollars and not a writer with some lofty literary goals.

All of this being said, this is a very famous novel that I think usually receives top marks from readers and critics.  Taken utterly by itself, not looking at context or comparing it to any other work, I do not see how it can get very high ratings.  Even so, taken contextually and comparatively, giving the novel five stars seems silly.  What is the comparison? Well, let’s look at things like Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Wimsey and Agatha Christie’s Poirot.  The stories tell us about a more refined and genteel culture. The settings, characters, and plots are mysteries and isolated crimes.  Hammett wrote this work which showed another facet of “real life” in which workers’ strikes, kingpins, gang wars, and corrupt police departments were the norm. Hammett’s depictions play up the wild, wild West zeitgeist in which the American culture of independence slides into lawlessness and corruption.  Poirot ain’t comin’ to Poisonville.

However, taken novel qua novel, what does the reader of today get out of this? Well, the 1928-1930 time period had the tail end of the Roaring Twenties and prohibition marching straight into the “Great Depression” and general global civil wars. Knowing these basic historical facts, the reader should expect a story of excess and anxiety. Economies are toppling, but everyone is still partying, and there is a general confusion of morality everywhere. On a very small scale, this is what is occurring in Personville as it implodes because the fuse named The Continental Op showed up.

Why did he show up? Its 2022 and it is not common knowledge what the methods and rôles of the Pinkertons or the “Continental Detective Agency” might be. The story is that the Agency was hired to investigate a murder.  This situation goes rather sideways and I honestly find one of the plotholes to be that there is insufficient reason for the Op to have stayed in the town. Frankly, it just seems like the guy is stubborn and as toxic as everyone else in the place.  Anyway, he stays and decides to stir the pot to try to make the city combust with all of its crime goings-on.  This is passed to the reader as “cleaning the place up” by the method of “turning everyone against each other until they extinguish each other.”

The story is written via dialogue. So, if readers want the story told to them through conversation they can find that here. This is, of course, a bit of a departure from the British detectives who are conversing, surely, but still we are given long paragraphs of general information.  Hammett, the star of the new noir/hardboiled genre, keeps the dialogue crispy and direct.  This is a long conversation between all the characters. Here is my complaint – all of the characters and their dialogue sound exactly the same.  One conversation is the same as another.

Similarly, all the characters get jumbled.  Its kind of difficult to sort out who did what to whom and whatever. I think that is kind of the point of the web of crime in this town.  Toward the end of the novel, its clear that even the criminals do not know who is their enemy or their ally or what side anyone is on. In one sense, this could be an effective writing element, but it does not change the fact that it is a bit frustrating for the reader, too. So here is my main feeling on this:  if all the characters seem the same and if I have a feeling of frustration/annoyance, this is not going to be a five-star novel – even if the novel depicts the scenery well.

There is a little morality tale here about sleeping with dogs. You know, you get up with their fleas. So, in chapter 20, our main character is unsettled and goes on a bit of a rant about how he has been changed and snared by the burg.  In other words, the crime he is supposedly fighting against he has gotten snagged within and maybe has lost his moral center – if he ever had one.  Which, when reading this chapter, I wonder how other readers/critics have said that this Continental Op is amoral? Anyway, chapter 20 is probably one of the most important chapters in American fiction – how about that?!  I must give props to Hammett for making things worse – the next chapter, chapter 21, things get even worse for The Continental Op and all those rantings show there was substance to them. In other words, instead of just letting his character have a preachy monologue, he shows that the character had a reason to be concerned.

I liked the character Dinah Brand. I think she was really well-written and a bit different than I expected her to be. I felt vaguely bad about her ending, but she deserved it in the context of this storyline! One of the things a researcher should hunt for in his rummaging in the Hammett Family Papers should be who Dinah was in Hammett’s life. He admitted that nearly all of his characters were taken from “real life” so I would be interested to see who Dinah was patterned on. She was a hoot and probably my favorite character.  Honestly, The Continental Op himself does not impress me. I feel rather non-plussed about the guy.  He behaves as expected and he did not do anything truly amazing. I am kind of hard to impress….

I enjoyed the guns, cigars, and the rivers of gin flowing on every page. I like Hammett’s wordplay a lot. He turns phrases with an awkward fun-ness. One of the key characteristics of The Continental Op is his nonchalant manner. In the middle of gunfights his character is written as if everything is no big deal and he takes nothing seriously.  He comes across as a man who is bored by anyone without a severe economy of words.  He even gets bored with himself when he has to explain things and usually just truncates his own speech. He is all of our definitions of hardboiled.

3 stars

Death At The President’s Lodging

Death At the President LodgingDeath at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes (John Innes Mackintosh Stewart 1906 – 1994) was first published in 1936 and is the author’s first novel in the Inspector John Appleby series.  Innes was an academic; professor of English Language and Letters. This novel was published when he was only thirty years old and while I think it is nearly excellent, there are some minor issues that I think keep it from being a five-star novel.  First and foremost the most important point to emphasize is that this is not an entirely coldly serious novel, it is a bit self-referential and it does seek to amuse via subtle wit at the expense of detective novels in general.  Not just mystery novels, but also academic life (specifically high-brow British).

Throughout the novel the wit and humor is very subtle and very tongue-in-cheek.  Readers who can pick up on subtle nuances and hints are going to have a better time of this one than readers who just like straightforward “whodunits.”  In his very first detective novel, Innes includes a character who is a don of a university that also, under a pseudonym, writes detective novels.  Including such a character is a mark of confidence and also demonstrates the author’s ability to find amusement in such reflective items.

“To be as clear as I can, sir, I would speak a trifle technically and say that your question had a latent content.  The feeling-tone evoked was decidedly peculiar.” And with this triumph of academic statement Slotwiner gave one more ghost of a bow to Appleby and glided – levitated almost, to speak technically – out of the room. – pg. 33, chapter 2, part 3.

This segment, where Inspector Appleby is quickly asking a few questions of the butler, was the first piece of the book in which I laughed aloud.  Its the “technically” part. It is even funnier as you read it in context. Like I said, the humor is subtle and tight.

There are sometimes passages like the below that can be used as a litmus test for readers. You will either snort because you find it amusing or you will find it tedious, stupid, and obnoxious:

The ability to smell a rat is an important part of the detective’s equipment.  Appleby had smelt a rat – in the wrong place.  But he was too wary to take it that a rat in the wrong place is necessarily a red herring:  it may be a rat with a deceptive fish-like smell – and still a rat. — pg. 166, chapter 11, part 1

Subtle humor like this, a little wordplay, will either make readers giggle a bit or they will find it impenetrable and wonder why the author is writing “like this.”  In any case, in this novel there are plenty of suspects, and as the detective often complains, a lot of “light” on the matter. In other words, there seems to be too many clues and too much evidence.  This is kind of a fun twist, again surprising for a first novel, on the detective novel trope – usually, it seems, detectives are missing key clues or are constantly looking for more evidence to prove their theories. The fact that there is an abundance of evidence is a neat element for this genre.

The overall theme of this novel, though, is its academic setting.  As I have said many times, most writers write what they know and Innes was definitely an academic.  We can know this through his biographical reports, but also because of the very accurate and realistic manner in which he portrays the setting and characters in this novel.

Most of the suspects or persons of interest in this novel are dons/fellows/professors.  The ones who are not, are long-time residents and employees of the school. The core group of individuals that are involved are scholars:  to be seen as experts in their field and in academia generally. These are men who have dedicated their lives to their profession, in whatever specific field of study that was, and have been granted the titles and prestige to go along with achieving a high level of success.

Immediately upon beginning his investigation, and at several points throughout, Appleby is struck by the fact that this case is not the “average crime” involving hasty, ham-fisted criminals.  In this case, the suspects and witnesses are all exceedingly comfortable with being interrogated about details, they are experts in explanations, and they are adept at ratiocination. These are calculating, efficient, and sharp intellects that generally do not make errors and cannot be bullied by a gruff interrogation.

Innes does not give us a weakling for an inspector, though. Turns out, Appleby is a graduate of the school himself.  The case allows for a bit of a homecoming, if you will.  This little detail gives the reasonability of Appleby to “keep up with” the dons intellectually and also for his moving around campus with the facility that is afforded a member, so to speak.

I enjoyed considering this situation. It is a daunting and interesting scenario to put your detective up against.  I imagined some of the minds that I know and knew from all of my schooling and I promise I would not want to have to sift through their witness statements or to have to discover which of them was misleading or something. To have to match wits in such circumstances would be intense – but what a fun theme for a novel!

Innes balances out these formidable intellects with a brilliant and lovely segment in chapter eleven that is, no doubt, quite famous among those who have read it.  It is worth, probably, reading the entire book just to come upon this fantastic section.  Appleby has gone about to trace the movements of a couple of the dons on the night the murder took place.  This involves his going to the suburbs where one is likely to find “scholars of enormous age” who live in quiet retreats. The entire segment is worth reading every single word for because it is absolutely beautifully depicted, but the ultimate point is that Appleby has called on a small villa in which lives Sir Theodore Peek.

Appleby found him in a small and gloomy room, piled round with an indescribable confusion of books and manuscripts – and asleep.  Or sometimes asleep and sometimes awake – for every now and then the eyes of this well-nigh ante-mundane man would open – and every now and then they would close.  But when they opened, they opened to decipher a fragment of papyrus on his desk – and then, the deciphering done, a frail hand would make a note before the eyes closed once more.  It was like being in the presence of some animated symbol of learning. — pg. 169, chapter 11, part 2

Every bit of Appleby’s interview with Peek is outstanding for its witty, realism, erudition, and fun. A perfect chunk of writing – including the end of the segment with its utterly truthful response from Appleby. Anyway, this scene is absolutely perfect and I feel like I have seen it, lived it, and see it coming in the future. The description is totally balanced with the necessary realism and the intrinsic characteristic of humor found in brute reality.

From what I have I have written so far, it should be amply clear that I enjoyed the novel and that it contains several uncommon elements to make it interesting and engaging even among mystery readers. However, I am very sad that I have to refrain from giving it the full five-star rating.  The first reason is that it became clear that Innes could not (or would not?) write the character of Dr. Barocho.  This character was removed from the “likely suspects” early on (he lacked means and motive, I suppose), however, if we are to believe Appleby is as thorough and diligent as he is meant to be, then we were deprived of an interview with Barocho – although we did have interactions with him. Unfortunately, the interactions made Barocho seem like an awkward character simply because of the fact that he is a “foreign” item in the setting. It is not that he was written rudely, but that he was not given a fair chance at being either a hero or a villain. So why include him at all except to include a foreigner?

Secondly, the ending is paced a little too suddenly.  One should have expected the denouement to be a bit of a gather round and explain.  However, it seems like Appleby was just a moment ago by the river watching the rowing team and pondering clues. Then, suddenly, denouement. The end. It is not inaccurate or strange, but it is paced too suddenly.  This could be a product of it, indeed, being Innes’ first novel and maybe in the following books this is tamed and tempered.

Lastly, the strongest reason for withholding the fifth star, is the motive-cause of the murderer.   Pargeter would be dismayed. Its not enough. Its not good enough. Its not worth all of the foregoing. It could be valid, naturally, but it was not proven. It was hung upon like shirt is hung on a hanger. It is not sufficiently nuanced.

So, overall, I am thrilled I read this one.  It was a great read and I enjoyed so much of it.  I loved spending time at St. Anthony’s with all of these gentlemen and I did not find Appleby to be some retread of any other inspector.  I liked the setting and the writing and the crime, but yes, I admit, the denouement needed a bit more work. I would happily read Appleby stories again.  Recommended for bright readers, vintage mystery fans, and for readers who do not get frustrated at subtle humor. The reader is not going to be spoonfed – to speak technically.

4 stars

Background to Danger

Background to DangerMy latest read was an excellent novel to read after the misery of the previous one.  Background to Danger (aka Uncommon Danger) by Eric Ambler was published in 1937.  I definitely should have read this one years and years ago. However, in my defense, I have only begun really reading fiction since the late 2000s. So, once again, I find myself commenting on a novel that is very famous and seems like “everyone” has already read. I am late to the party – but it was a helluva party anyway.

I survived a chemical spill this week – nitric acid and oxides pluming throughout the land; was on the edge of my seat wondering how far the chemical situation would develop.  This is an excellent, though not wholly recommended, backdrop for reading an exciting espionage novel. Another thought that I want to pass on is that due to the reduction of rail travel, thrilling moments like these are almost rendered non-existent these days.  I mean, so many vintage novels and stories and films utilize the train and train depot as a setting or a passage for their plots. It is a real shame that this is gone for the contemporary reader.

I read the Vintage Books 2001 edition.  However, I did find in the stacks an old copy of a Dell edition from 1965.  I took a good look at this later and I do not think it has ever been read. There is a bit of tear on the top right of the cover, but the book is spotless otherwise. Inside, it seems the covers have never been opened (and boy, is that font tiny!)  I really like the art on the cover of that one – I would happily buy it as an art print or poster.

“Mr. Kenton, Mr. Kenton, please! I have not been to sleep all night. I must ask you to spare me your outraged feelings.  We are all feeling outraged this morning, aren’t we, Mailler?” He addressed the words over Kenton’s shoulder. — pg. 80, chapter 7

There is not a whole lot that I can share here about this novel that probably has not been explained and discussed in innumerable places. It is, indeed, a super-famous novel and its stood the test of time, I think, extremely well.  Another thought that I had while reading this book was how the villains and heroes in our fiction have actually gotten stupider.  I mean, the novels nowadays seem to have doubled in size, but they are lacking characters with intelligence and cleverness. So, these page count-expansions seem horribly dull.  The tension and suspense needed in a thriller are slaughtered by stupid characters.

In Background to Danger, there is a relatively small cast of characters. The main character, Desmond d’Esterre Kenton, is likeable and realistic; its easy to believe his situation.  Kenton makes logical choices, human movements. He is not simply a tool the author is utilizing for everything else. The villains do push the boundary a wee bit as to their fanatical behavior or their somewhat ridiculous personalities. Not, though, so much as to actually commit the crime of being outrageous and outlandish. They are violent and intelligent adversaries.  I enjoyed every character in the novel because they were all dynamic and interesting. None of them were the stock characters or cardboard cutouts that readers bemoan in fiction.  The two female characters were quite skilled and enigmatic. They were far more than the typical female characters one might stereotypically expect of the time period/genre.

In fact, one of my favorite chapters was 18 “Smedoff.”  Smedoff is an unforgettable character and I could fancy a whole spin-off novel or series from her character.  I am usually very unimpressed and unenthused by characters, generally. But I am adding Smedoff to my list of characters of awesomeness because she’s fantastic.

Her hair was short, henna’d and dressed in innumerable curls that stood out stiffly round her head, so that with her back to the light she looked like a rather disreputable chrysanthemum. – pg. 248, chapter 18.

The story is definitely a suspenseful and tense read. Ambler’s writing is perfect for it – snappy and lively, but not crude or simple. I know that I was gripped by many of the scenes because they contained just the correct amount of description, plausibility, and movement.  There are several sections that provide a contrast to the somewhat “crackerjack” action sections.  For example, in chapter eight, there is a relatively long commentary on Big Business:

It was the power of Business, not the deliberations of statesmen, that shaped the destinies of nations.  The foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments’ policies; but it was the Big Businessmen, the bankers and their dependents, the arms manufacturers, the oil companies, the big industrialists, who determined what those policies should be.  Big Business asked the questions that it wanted to ask when and how it suited it.  Big Business also provided the answers. . . For those few members of the public who had long memories and were not sick to death of the whole incomprehensible farce there would always be many ingenious explanations of the volte face – many explanations, but not the correct one. For that one might have to inquire into banking transactions in London, Paris, and New York with the eye of a chartered accountant, the brain of an economist, the tongue of a prosecuting attorney and the patience of Job. . . One would have to grope through the fog of technical mumbo-jumbo with which international business surrounds its operations and examine them in all their essential and ghastly simplicity.  Then one would perhaps die of old age. – pg 94, chapter 8

That was a longer quote than I like to use, but its worth it. Maybe even possibly especially in these fiery days…..

There is a snazzy Mercedes, a whole lot of gunplay, dossiers, and interesting supporting characters to meet along the way.  Also, there are several times that Ambler subtly adjusts the disposition of the reader towards characters – so-and-so is obviously a bad guy, right? oh, so-and-so is clearly witless, right? surely, so-and-so had nothing to do with this situation, right?  And each time the change is not some big ugly hammer-fisted reveal, but a slight adjustment like a few key details now shared and that is it. Its intriguing writing that works perfectly for an espionage story.

Ambler also did the minor details very well. For example, a man absently touching a ribbon on his overcoat, a small but utterly necessary detail about an escape, a minor phrase that later on solves an unsuspected question or a problem. (For example, how a mute person speaks on a phone – hah hah! you thought you had us there!) Also, when was the last time you read the word totschläger in a novel?

263760Truthfully, since I feel like everyone has already read this, I feel people will think me foolish for my enjoyment; you know, latecomer to the bandwagon thing. I like intense stories with dynamic characters and exciting storylines. I know some readers today will not agree with me that these are dynamic characters, but my definition tends to be different. I usually do not think having strong characters is the same as endlessly relating every detail about characters.  Yes, I do think some of the most tense action scenes may push the belief of the reader just a bit, but not, truly, in comparison to most of the moments in contemporary novels! Remember how I started off this review talking briefly about nitric acid? Well, you know, sometimes danger and action is a reality and not so far-fetched!

If anyone is wondering – no, I have not seen the film (1943), though I read somewhere that the author was no fan of the thing.

5 stars

Gallows View

Gallows ViewI finished Gallows View by Peter Robinson (b. 1950) this morning and I do not have good things to say about it.  It was published in 1987 and is the first in his Inspector Alan Banks series of novels. This summer, for whatever reason I have been up to my elbows in crime, mystery, and suspense novels. Truth be told, there are only two that I found to be good reading. Only a couple were decent reads and then the majority, I think, were quite bad.  Since I have finished this novel, I am debating with myself about whether this is the worst of the bunch or second-worst.

After reading the thing, I let the covers gently ease shut and I was frowning at it. In all honesty, if the author were in the room I would be giving him a narrowed-eyed look of deep suspicion.  I mean, I do try to separate author from book, but sometimes you read a thing and cannot help but feel uncomfortable and distrusting. The entire novel is about sex and the creepiest and weirdest aspects thereof. I do not solely mean the main crime of the book (the peeping Tom) which starts on page one in a graphic way. I also mean in the utterly toxic, obnoxious, idiotic drivel of “psychology” that the characters engage in pretending to be scientific, but realistically, just playing barroom banter.

The character of Dr. Jenny Fuller – psychology professor at York University – is quite possibly the worst-written, most farcical, cringe-worthy, embarrassment of a fictional character to ever have been written.  I do not know if I can truly explain how horrendous this character is, but allow me to just paint broadly and say:  the character is a gruesomely heavy-handed ploy to make the novel seem edgy and balanced and feminist (to a point) and yet seem objective and modern.  All of this is an absolute fail.  So, that is the theory, here is the evidence:  in chapter three, she is at a bar with the main character – this is how they have serious work meetings – and she is overcome in a giggling fit that includes a bout of the hiccups. The whole time, though, she has a weird “you had better take me (and my field of study) seriously” vibe. It is truly one of the most awful scenes I have ever read. I could write quite a bit about the awfulness of this whole thing, but I think my disgust is apparent.

The writing is inconsistent and stupid. For example, we are at a crime scene that is the home of an elderly lady.  Her place is stuffed with cubbyholes and mantles and little shelves that are full of bric-a-brac, knick-knacks, mementos, trinkets, etc.  It is busy and flowery.

The house was oppressive. . . . The walls seemed unusually honeycombed with little alcoves, nooks and crannies where painted Easter eggs and silver teaspoons from Rhyll or Morecambe nestled alongside old snuff boxes, delicate china figurines, a ship in a bottle, yellowed birthday cards and miniatures.  The mantlepiece was littered with sepia photographs. . . . and the remaining space seemed taken up by the framed samplers, and watercolors of wildflowers, birds and butterflies.  Jenny shuddered.  Her own house though structurally old, was sparse and modern inside. It would drive her crazy to live in a mausoleum like this. – pg 54, chapter 3

I found this writing to be intolerable. Absolutely awful. The author spent a lot of time describing the home and I developed an image of the place as per his guidance.  And then his idiot character, Fuller, is made to say blatant illogical stupidity. I almost threw the book after I guffawed and complained to my household. I understand what the author was attempting to say, but he stupidly chose the incorrect word. Unfortunately, he literally chose the word that would lend to the opposite imagery. Have you ever been inside a mausoleum? Its brutally “sparse and modern” in most cases. It is cruelly “empty” of human touch. Sure there are sometimes small hangers with fake flowers or perhaps a small flag, but the overall scene is cold and empty and yeah, mausoleums tend to smell a bit off. I suspect Robinson meant a reliquary or menagerie – or, worse, that he meant MUSEUM and typed mausoleum.

Every character in the book is constantly drinking.  The majority of their time is spent in a pub or drinking bottles of liquor. Immense amounts of alcohol are consumed in this novel. Literally constantly, by everyone:  morning, noon and night. There is a gross imbalance in this sort of writing. Its too much by a lot. The characters drink whenever anything happens, they are always in the pub, half of them are always drunk, they drink before they drive – and whenever they get to their destination. Its just overboard.

Far too much of the novel is also taken up with Banks’ amazing struggle to remain faithful to his wife, Sandra. I mean, Banks is madly overwhelmed with desire from the moment he meets Dr. Fuller in the cop shop. That evening he begins their professional, working relationship at the bar across the street. And then, has her drive him to a crime scene in her car.  Further on in the novel, Banks ends up at Fuller’s house and “resists” the urge to cheat on his wife. Fuller knows he is married and allegedly was just testing him. Or was testing her own assessment of him. Either way, its utterly toxic and hideous.  Of course, throughout the novel, Banks avoids mentioning his collaboration with Fuller to his wife. Others (including the superintendent who requested Fuller’s presence on the case from the university) in the police force make it obvious that they suspect him of cheating on his wife.  I would really like to Banks to read Matthew 5:28 if he can stay out of the pub long enough to do so……

Two young thug teenagers have begun a life of crime. They escalate their crimes from theft, to breaking and entering, to awful behavior.  In one of their heists, they urinate/defecate all over the living room of the house they broke into. Things escalate further when, in the middle of a break-in, the owner comes home and finds them. The one teenager, who has never been with a woman, decides now is the time – and he rapes her.  Ridiculously enough, that is how the cops catch him – he gets VD from the woman and he seeks treatment at a clinic.  Seriously, the constant all-angles obsession with sex in this novel makes me uncomfortable about this author.

One would assume this is all that could be done in this little novel. Alas, I am sorry to report that there is more. One of the red herring characters is a creepy librarian with a penchant for porn magazines – a fact all the police officers seem to mention very knowingly.  Further, and worse, the father of one of the teenage thugs is currently having an affair with a woman in the neighboring apartment because her husband is often out of town.

This is a nasty little town of perverts. It is not a well-written novel! I have yet read much praise for this novel and for the main character, Banks.  Frankly, all the weird adultery aside, he is the most boring and dull detective that I have met in books. I am really floored and confused by all the praise it has been given. Once again it occurs to me that readers rate and review the novel that they THINK that they read or the novel that they WANTED to read and not the one they have in their paws. It is a strange disassociated delusion I think happens more than readers admit. There is nothing good I can say about this one, unfortunately, but I own book two of the Banks series and am unsure if I will read it.

1 star

Black Knight In Red Square

Black Knight in Red SquareI finally got around to reading the second book in Stuart M. Kaminsky’s (1934 – 2009) Inspector Rostnikov series Black Knight In Red Square (1983). I had read book one in the series way back in 2013.  I gave that novel a four star rating and I am going to give this novel the same. I knew even before opening the book that it would be four stars, so I am likely very prejudiced by enjoyment and not being very objective.

In this particular novel, Kaminsky’s work as a professor of film studies comes through very strongly as the setting for the novel is an international film festival in Moscow.  This background really works for the novel and I think that Kaminsky does a great job with it. However, anything involving film theory is lost on me. You may as well be trying to explain deontology to a goat for all the connection you would get between me and film.  I hate TV, to be honest. I think one of the earliest films (in the theatre) I saw was The Song of the South (1946) and since then, I have not seen nearly what most people have. Surest way to make me lose interest is to start talking about the camera qua eye or the formalist valuations or the cut scenes. Oh, and I can be harsh with my criticism:  sitting staring, mouth agape, at some flat screen while fakery dances before your eyes via people who live to deceive must be the stupidest non-activity modern man has developed. What a flabbergasting waste of life.  Usually when I “watch” TV/films I am usually more intent on the people around me – how are they suddenly hypnotized and de-brained so easily? Passive zombies.

It absolutely, to my mind, proves the insanity of humanity when people watch movies/TV “together.” To my mind, film or TV is utterly a singular, personal, non-group non-activity. Its farking madness that people have a sort of “where two or more are gathered in any name, let the TV be on” mentality. The majority of TV/film I have seen has come from times when I was ill, times when the weather was super inclement, or I was alone for long stretches of time.

You can imagine that I have made many many friends and allies with these views. Let us just say that the people I know must have a great deal of tolerance and patience for me.

So, naturally, I was a bit disappointed in this setting because well…. anything, for me, might be more interesting.  But then I must give credit to Kaminsky because he wrote an engaging setting without making me feel like I was suffering through more “film theory” hypnotism. Indeed, he writes a certain character who is very extreme in his film making. He wrote another, a German named Bintz, that he describes in a lively and realistic manner.

“I make no movies with terrorists,” said Bintz, his hands still to his lips, his head shaking a vigorous no. “If they don’t like your movie, they put your head in a bag and shoot off your knees. Werewolves are safe.” – pg. 99, chapter 8

There are Russians who bond with film theory – maybe even invented it. And there are Russians like the character Emil Karpo – who are busy working. I am with Karpo. In fact, Karpo steals the show in this novel.  The main character, Rostnikov is still there and leading the proceedings, but Karpo is the star of the novel. I really liked everything about him in this one and he and I would be excellent friends, were either of us to have such things as “friends.”

Throughout the novel, there are some scenes that are written perfectly. For example, when Karpo interacts with the medical examiner.  That whole segment is beautifully done; the characters, the props, the dialogue is all perfect.  Similarly, the fight scene when the elevator opens and the “stubby washtub” Rostnikov is scowling at everyone is also written so skillfully. And, of course, the humor and surprise and emotion that Kaminsky plays with when he describes Rostnikov’s weightlifting competition (chapter 11)! Finally, any scene with Rostnikov and Comrade Timofeyeva is marvelous.

It is not lost on me that Kaminsky writes his book as if it were almost a movie. Or perhaps he writes the movie in his imagination as if it were transcribed into a novelization.  Kaminsky is very good at this creating these scenes and the elements in them. What would this movie be like as a film? Would it be better or worse?

Film and fiction can (and do) exaggerate.  Is this not based on the physical nature of the ancient theatre works? A stage is always the place for the melodrama and the hyperbole. It is no place for the dull, mundane, or normal. Thinking this way, does Kaminsky exaggerate or play on stereotypes of Soviet society and Russian personality? Yes and no. I think he treads a fine line and goes a little each way, but overall holds the centerline and keeps the whole thing very entertaining – which is, ultimately, what is wanted in a novel.

From time to time foreigners have attributed this quiet atmosphere to the fear of the people in a totalitarian state, but they have only to read accounts of Moscow streets before the current century to know that this is not true.  No, while Muscovites can be given to hearty laughter and heated argument and even madness, they are essentially a private people.  They drive their emotions inward where they build, rather than outward where they dissipate.  And Russians are fatalistic.  If a person is run over by a car, it is terrible, horrible, but no more than one can expect. – pg 171, chapter 12

Terrorists, or maybe just one terrorist, are threatening Moscow.  The MVD and the KGB are working “together” – in the strange and antagonistic way that they do. It is never the teamwork or the group as a whole that find success.  Instead, the focus is on the individual diligence.  Obviously a strange paradox for a communist situation. In any case, Kaminsky also relates the terrorist’s motives to film – or, at least, the stage.  Terrorism is to be seen and known, at least in Kaminsky’s 1980s.

I took a course in undergrad school called World Terrorism and it was taught by some very significant professors/experts in the field.  At that time, this was hardly a field and it was bunched into the political science curriculum.  I remember, though, the constant emphasis on “what does it show? who was the audience?”  Terrorism as film and vice versa? Heavens! no wonder I dislike film.

Overall, I really like the Russian characters, Karpo especially, but also Rostnikov and Timofeyeva. I feel like I can sympathize and understand them. I do not understand many characters in books, so this novel was a pleasant change for me. The pacing in the novel was spot-on and the writing is very well done.  The novel, which on the surface is just a little mystery thriller, is actually a bit more significant when read as a film theory.  The fact that I enjoyed this and picked up on a lot of this speaks to how skillfully this was all done! I definitely recommend this to readers and I do intend to read more in Kaminsky’s series. Also, there is a pet cat in the novel.

4 stars

The Late Monsieur Gallet

Monsieur Gallet Simenon coverThe Late Monsieur Gallet (also known as The Death of Monsieur Gallet) by Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989) was first published in 1931.  It is the third Inspector Jules Maigret novel that I have read. I think I like this one the most, so far. Still, I am giving it the same rating as the first that I read, Pietr the Latvian.  I think that Maigret’s brooding, aloof manner really suits this storyline very well. The mystery was revealed carefully enough to complement Maigret’s personality.

These are short novels, so far. M. Gallet was only 155 pages in the Penguin Classics edition (2013) that I read. Its nice and noir, so to speak, how Simenon gives us such bare bones stories with so much character in them. I do not feel like I missed out on anything, that the book was lacking in some obvious respect, or that the story needed to be expanded in any direction.

Some of the phrases and sentences are slightly awkward. They are not maligned, but just ever-so-slightly off. I assume that is the translation, though. I have enough French that I could get through Simenon, but I have yet to see a physical copy of one of these novels in French. So, every once in awhile a sentence is a little less than smooth.  It usually seems fine because it melds with the noir feeling and Maigret’s ever-somber personality.

The story begins 27 June 1930 and it is a hot summer, a fact that seems to wear heavily on Maigret. In the low 90°s throughout the novel.  Maigret, of the Flying Squad, is sent to investigate a murder in Sancerre (just about the center of France, south of Paris). Strikes me as a bit absurd – having Maigret with his imposing stature being in the Flying Squad. He travels to Saint-Fargeau by train in the heat to meet with the family of the deceased. He meets the Madame Gallet and informs her of the situation – but the whole time, he seems distracted and set at great unease by the temper and status of the household.

One of the things that I enjoy about Maigret is how he very much allows his thoughts to take control of his movements and attitude and he is little swayed by the, let us say, smoke and mirrors that appear around him.  From this first experience at the Gallet home, Maigret is never able to shake a feeling of wrongness that pervades his whole investigation. There is also a particular prop that is collected here and remains with Maigret and the reader throughout the novel.

It was so extraordinary that the picture the inspector was constructing for himself made him feel an indefinable anxiety, as if it evoked certain phenomena that shake our sense of reality. – pg. 57, chapter 4

Anyway, once in Sancerre, we meet a variety of other characters as Maigret gets to the typical work of detecting.  We meet an almost-charming landholder and we are pestered by an enthusiastic hotelier.  There is a sort of femme fatale going about who is first described as similar to a Greek statue. The deceased has been shot and stabbed and no one seems to have very much information at all. Maigret’s sense of unease and dissatisfaction with the case continues to haunt the pages.

Every criminal case has a feature of its own, one that you identify sooner or later, and it often provides the key to the mystery. He thought that the feature of this one was, surely, its mediocrity. – pg. 23, chapter 2

In a sense Maigret’s gut-instinct here in the beginning is quite valid, but it plays out in an unexpected and interesting way. I do not want to give away the plot, but mediocrity is such a significant term for this novel.  Ironic and paradoxical.

The plot is relatively unique and I did not really see what had happened until it happened. It is not complex – once it is demonstrated. However, the looming, angry Maigret during the big reveal is a terrible and frightening image. This is not a novel that will restore a reader’s faith and hope in mankind.  There are some crooked and selfish characters in this one that will make readers as dissatisfied and sour as Maigret.  But there IS Maigret – the bulky and brooding detective that ferrets out these ugly incidents of human action and is the reader’s consolation because he, too, is angered and repulsed.

This is a quick read and most vintage mystery readers ought to be familiar with it, I think.  I like the economy of the novel and the strength of the main characters. Overall, while it is not a cheerful read, it is a solid noir-type mystery.

3 stars

New York Dead

NewYorkDeadNew York Dead by Stuart Woods (b. 1938) was first published in 1991.  This is the first in the Stone Barrington series. There is really not much I can say about this one that is positive.  Shockingly, there are over sixty in the series. One of the reasons I read it is because I am trying to get through a very large stack of – truly – pulp fiction.  The stack has a lot of real junk fiction on it – schlock and pulp at its finest worst. Part of me is utterly amused by how horrible most of these books are. I do mean in that paradoxical sense of “so bad, its good.”  Not all of them meet that level, though. Most are “so bad, just so bad.”

So interspersed with my usual much better reads there are going to be some of these schlock novels.  I could not possibly read them back-to-back, I would probably expire.   However, I realize it is ludicrous to use the same sort of rating system that I do with general fiction, etc.  The first thing to do is to decide if a thing is in the “Schlock Category” or not.  This book by Woods is without doubt in that category.  So, then to decide how to rate it within that category?  Maybe the novels earn stars through meeting basic elements. Like a coherent plot. Well, let me share that New York Dead is missing that. The plot was so, utterly, unnecessarily, uncomfortably ridiculous that it lost any claim to the concept “plot.”

Maybe we give a star for likeable and enjoyable characters.  Ones that are good to have met because they are interesting, curious people or because they are proficient at their jobs. Characters that maybe a better story and a better author could really develop.  In New York Dead we meet no one even remotely good at their jobs or even in the slightest to be likeable.  (There is a character named Baron Harkness – whom I could not think otherwise than Baron Vladimir Harkonnen from Dune.) These are some idiotic and wretched characters – in particular the main character, Stone Barrington.  The “uniqueness” is that he is allegedly from an upper “WASP” background full of money and education (he has his law degree, just has not passed the bar exam, which, by the way, he does in a skinny minute) and he inherits a massive old home. Except Stone decided he wants to be a cop because of some convoluted backstory that is unrealistic.  The thing is, he isn’t even a good cop, but we are supposed to believe that he is a detective (second rank).  Instead, he is an intemperate, undisciplined sucker who enjoys going to the posh spots in NYC.  Its supposed to come off as unique, but instead its dislikeable and toxic.

All right, but what about good writing? Good pulp writing should be a bit sharp and snappy. Caustic and yes, maybe it does rely on tropes, stereotypes, and well-built standards of junk fiction.  But the writing should be relatively consistent.  New York Dead has several examples of stupid writing:

“I had a couple of good collars that got me a detective’s shield; I had a good rabbi – a senior cop who helped me with promotion; he’s dead now, though, and I seem to have slowed down a bit.” – pg. 77, chapter 10.

That was the main character talking to another key character over dinner. Stone was asked for his life story and he just spewed it out over the dinner. Not very wary, is he? Anyway, he told her what a “rabbi” in that context was. But then on page 128 we have this interchange:

“Stone laughed and shook his head. “To get that badge, you’d have to sign up for the Police Academy, walk a beat for a few years, spend a few more in a patrol car, then get luck on a bust or two, and have a very fine rabbi.”

“Rabbi?”

“A senior cop who takes an interest in your career?”

“Do you have a rabbi?”

“I did. His name was Ron Rosenfeld.”

“And he helped you?” – pg 128, chapter 17

I mean, holy crap. If it had been a conversation between two different characters, maybe? But its like Groundhog Day at dinnertime with these idiots.

Setting and pacing might be my last two vital elements for these silly novels.  I can be a sucker for certain settings and I can appreciate well-written settings. I want to see those in all the books. I want the place to come alive. And if there is no setting whatsoever (Cp. PKD’s novels) then there has to be a legitimate reason for it (in PKD’s case, a setting would keep the plot too grounded and PKD likes when the reader is floundering a bit). As far as pacing goes, well, even a bad story can have action or edge-of-your-seat interest. Surprises, maybe? Tension and suspense?

Well, New York Dead was a bad read. I am not saying that because it is junk fiction. I am saying it because as I might rate schlock, it still does not attain a good rating.  I mean, there are some things in here that are just so awful I cannot write about them. Trust me, do not read this one – its very bad on the crap scale. The best thing that comes of my having read this (and my expectations on it were very low, by the way, when I began it) is that now I have some benchmark for how the junk fiction pile should be assessed. It gets 1 star for the fact that the idea of the main character is vaguely unique; too bad it was mauled. So, pure junk and bad even for it being pure junk!

1 star

** I made a grievous error in writing this review.  There is a character, Elaine, who is, for all intents and purposes, Elaine Kaufman (1929 – 2010). My error in saying there were no likeable characters obviously does not include Elaine – real or simulacrum.

Forever Odd

ForeverOddThe next novel that I finished in my current reading spree is the Dean Koontz ( b. 1945) story Forever Odd.  It is the second novel in the Odd Thomas series and was released in 2005.  I did read the first novel in the series, back in 2015. Overall, I liked this second novel more than the first because it was somehow just slightly less gory or dark or something. Well, there were some really dark parts in the first novel.  There are also some dark parts in the second novel, but they are somehow a bit more balanced and manageable, at least to me.

In 2015, I was not sure if I would continue the series. My household has, though, and I wanted to read the next novel so we can move the book on out, as we do when its been read by everyone.  Its weird and dark and yet there is something intriguing about the main character.  My problem with the first book is that the main character, Odd Thomas, seemed more mature and more intelligent than most twenty year olds that I meet.  That same problem holds in this book. In fact, in this book it becomes really obvious that Odd Thomas is not “just” a character, but he actually is, to some extent, the mouthpiece and alter-ego of the author. To what extent, I cannot say.  Is all of this a problem? Not at all. And to be very honest – maybe that is what I am reading these books for. I am a bit interested or intrigued or bemused or something about this situation. Do not misunderstand me, I am not rapt with fascination about anything here. I just find it curious and I want to see how all of this goes.

As I have said before, I have shied away from Koontz’ novels because I was not interested in how they seemed to be very much in the horror genre or even the dark and disturbing category.  I have a vague concept of a friend’s father reading a Koontz novel. He read whatever his wife picked up for him at the library book sale. He seemed to enjoy reading, but it was utterly diversionary – and I found it so strange that he would read whatever his wife purchased for him. As I recall, he would read mostly these sorts of paperbacks:  Koontz, Clancy, Grisham, et al.  I only read non-fiction back then. The reader I am speaking about died a few years back and I can still remember him lounging reading a Koontz novel.

Anyway, abandoning my digression – I just want to say that I never thought much about Koontz novels. Now that I am through two of the Odd Thomas novels, I find the author far more interesting.  Odd Thomas is interesting.  Koontz creates some of the weirdest, most bizarre, incredibly twisted characters.  Two books in, I find these books to be some of the most unbelieveable things ever.  More science fiction and more fantasy than actual books “officially” in those genres.  This is perfectly acceptable, though, because these are entertainments, not instruction manuals etc.  Still, if a reader likes suspense and thriller novels, these seem to even push the necessity for suspending disbelief farther than most fiction.  The plot is far out there, the characters are far out there, the novel’s events are far out there, and everything is just quite a bit, well, far out there.

There is something endearing and interesting about the main character, though, and I do mean beyond his “special” paranormal abilities.  A fry cook with occult skills is a unique character.  Very noticeably Koontz makes Odd Thomas much wiser than he ought to be.  For example, in this book, what Odd Thomas is able to accomplish tends to run beyond unbelieveable. He ends up doing stuff that one reads about in other novels done by career special forces guys with lots of awesome training. It is not just his lack of physical training – but also his skillful tactical thinking that seems stretched.

However, as a reader, I am pulling for him the whole time – c’mon, kiddo, you got this! And then every time one of the “oh nos!” happens I am indeed worried and scared for the guy.

Odd Thomas is likeable.  You root for him because he is unlucky yet he seems to still be humble and honest and a generally good person.  He laments things like his choice of shoes. He quips down-to-earth and utterly matter-of-fact things. For example, the contents of his backpack, which he eventually admits to selecting poorly, but which at the time seemed utterly correct. Its amusing, but also probably “realistic” (I mean, inasmuch as any of this is realistic).

The storyline in this one is a doozy, I am not sure it has believeable setup motives. It hinges on the bizarre – and I mean the really bizarre. So bizarre that its truly difficult to be horrified correctly. Drilled down directly, the whole plot stems from coincidence. A phone call connecting two people. What are the odds [pun!]?

I like the setting a lot. I am a sucker for rundown, abandoned buildings, chases in mazes, singular locations like hotels and forts. It is super weird – but put the weird in a fired-out, earthquaked ex-hotel and I am all in.

I mentioned above that this novel seemed less dark than the previous Odd Thomas novel.  I think because the humor and wit is even more present here – it really balances the totally bonkers weird dark stuff that is going on.  Ever been in an earthquake and a blizzard simultaneously? I have. Trust me, I was laughing like a fool because the utter ridiculousness of the situation was not lost on me – even as I worried about the damage/safety. Some day when I have a lot of spare time on my hands and I can just write frivolous nothings all day long, I am going to write an essay investigating the similarities of humor and horror.

This novel is not for all readers. The dark twisted stuff is dark and twisted, no matter how Koontz balances it with wit.  Still, Odd Thomas is an interesting character and worth reading a few novels for.  I think I will continue in the series, which would put me halfway and then, of course, why not finish it off? Readers who hate outlandish plots and action scenes may want to steer clear, there is a whole lot of “really out there” impossibilities.

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 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