Mystery

A Share in Death

A Share in Death coverA Share in Death by Deborah Crombie was first published in 1993 and it is the first novel in the Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James series of British police procedural/mystery novels.  I picked up this copy discounted sometime late in 2017.  This year I have been attempting to read a lot of the hangers-on on the bookshelves. Things that should have been read already, things that have been lingering for me to read, things that are book twos in series, etc.  By October each year I am usually whupped and can barely manage holding a book open, much less reading it. I am exaggerating.  Usually in October and November I read things that are puffy, fluffy, pulpy, and easy-readers.  This year there has been a lot more books incoming than outgoing, so hangers-on must be read and sent on their way!

As I mentioned this is the first book in the Kincaid/James series. It takes place in a country home, Followdale House, in non-urban England. My scope of things United Kingdom is forever sketchy. Locations rarely have meaning to me, so usually I need authors to spell it out for me if a scene or a locale has significance. In this novel, there was nothing overly relevant about the setting – except that I really like that it was set in a country house. There is this rite of passage sort of feeling with British mysteries; detectives/investigators must solve a murder that occurs in a country house. That the author starts her series with such a mystery is a smart move and one that should engage readers straightaway.

The murder takes place and the local cops get involved. Naturally, one of the local policemen is a miserable and territorial creature. Naturally, one of the local policemen is a helpful and resourceful chap. However, the build-up friction between the Scotland Yard man and the locals seemed to fizzle and be pointless. In fact, the local police sort of disappear from the novel altogether. But of course, all the suspects are there in the house – and all that is done is that their “statements” are taken. So, another murder is bound to occur.

I enjoyed meeting the characters and the murders were fairly threatening and suspenseful for this sort of book.  Since I doubt we shall ever meet the characters again, I am a little disappointed we did not spend just a few more pages with a couple of the more intriguing characters.  One of the most interesting ended up dead and I felt ripped off that I did not get to know them a little bit more. The main character, Duncan Kincaid, is somewhat creepy with the way he seems to appraise/be interested in every female character – elderly and/or married included. I hope that gets toned down a bit in book two, because it is too much here. I like Gemma James fairly well, but there was not enough of her in the novel. That’s OK, since there is hope for book two, then.

Overall, a perfectly easy reader with basic plots and characters. The cover looks darker than the contents are. I enjoyed the pacing and felt it was sufficient as a weekend read. Has lots of potential for the series. I will read book 2.

2 stars

The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel FawcettIt seems like this book is not as well-known nowadays as it was a few decades ago. I think that is because many readers started to feel that it was dated and when other readers heard that, they became less enthusiastic about reading this novel. The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was first published in novel format in 1954. I read the Fawcett Crest 1972 edition with cover art by John Berkey.  I have tested the title out on a few people – they had no recognition of it. But when I said something like: “Asimov’s robots stuff,” there was immediate recall and familiarity (at least of some concept of the book). Frankly, I love Asimov and his works; he’s one of my answers to those tedious questions of: “Who would you invite to a dinner party if you could pick any six people, deceased or living?” I mention this to say, no, the work does not seem especially dated, and yes, I think this is still a vital read. (By the way, the title comes from a rather poetic line in the novel and represents the state of civilization on Earth.)

Of course other readers will disagree; that’s fine, I just hope they hear me out, too.

One of the reasons that I love Asimov is that he loves to take up a challenge and then chew on it until he has made it his. Can science fiction be a detective mystery? Cross-genre fiction that remains top-notch? The Caves of Steel is such an example. Now, in 2019, readers may not be all that impressed. There are dozens of steampunk-westerns, romantic-urban-fantasy, high fantasy-technothrillers, and mystery novel time-travel stories. How many are any good? Well, that’s a different question. But the familiarity of this mixing is taken for granted now.

I love that Asimov writes about robots. But this isn’t the “juvenile” fiction that we might get from, perhaps, Hal Clement or John Christopher and I always associate with the TV show Flipper (1964 – 1967).  Asimov takes the concept “robot” and chews the heck out of it. I think he even forgets that he’s still chewing on it. The result is a concept of robots that spans nearly all of his fiction works in a consistent manner. The concept is detailed and well-examined. It is also lasting, since everybody seems to run into the Three Laws of Robotics in some fashion. Readers, writers, actors, philosophers, historians, programmers – at one point or another the topic will come up and someone will name drop Isaac. The robots are not tin cans with antennas.

Asimov wrote this novel as a detective story. But he has a few sections where he forgets (this happens often with him) that he is writing a story and he gets on a soapbox, using his characters as mouthpieces, and he runs on about some issue. I am sure some readers find this so very tedious. To me, I love it because this is Asimov chewing on that topic. He is never going to simply hand-wave at a concept. Once he gets on it, though, he really has to flesh out this matter before he can move on.

It sometimes seems to me like readers are always complaining about how they want more depth in their novels. They don’t want wooden motives, cardboard characters, and superficial matter-of-fact plot devices. Well, this is how you get depth sometimes; by getting to the crux of the matter and just working your way around it and carving it out – maybe even using some long-winded soapboxes.

Finally, besides the novel having robots and future-science, besides it being a detective mystery, here are problems of overpopulation, complacency, and stubborn-minded societies. If that was all I mentioned about a book, viz. that it deals with overpopulation and how society needs to be more forward-thinking and tend less toward a nostalgic mentality, who would immediately assume I was talking about a 1950s novel? No one, because such a novel could easily be written and popular in present day!

The biggest complaint that I can justify about this novel is that it is a bit dry sometimes. Dry as in a little bitter, a little dull, and maybe needs a little more gas pedal.  It is true that the main female character is really tough to deal with because she is so hideous a caricature. I would hope that we will reach a stage when it is moot to mention that the female characters in 1950s novels are usually written hideously, demonstrating a chauvinistic mentality common in that era. Certainly there will be some louts today who are still a degree more barbarian in their thinking, but a word from me is not going to change that.  Nevertheless, I understand the level to which the female character (Jessie is her name) vexes readers. Literally, in places, it seems like the entire problem of the storyline is all her fault. The fact that Asimov actually names her Jezebel is just ridiculous. But there it is; do not read this novel for a female role model or strong female lead to identify with, okay?

The characters in the novel (excepting robots) are all tempestuous creatures. Readers might find their stubbornness and their opinionated attitudes disagreeable. None of that is because the novel is dated. Go on Twitter and look at any tweet about anything – you will get the same indignant vehemence and triggered psychoses. One of the robot Daneel Olivaw’s neat abilities is that he can study a person’s psyche by cerebroanalysis. It is as pseudo-science as Asimov gets in this novel. The robot is able to sense when/why humans are willing to change their minds or are receptive to concepts and ideas outside of their own. Definitely this is relevant today – from marketing to ethics.

It is difficult for me to dislike an author who understands that humans, including himself, can be irrationally stubborn or pig-headed. Asimov wrote a detective novel – with some science fiction elements. At the same time, he presented an unnervingly unfriendly look at human attitudes and mentalities. Unlike some modern dystopia novels wherein all is lost and we are waiting for a special, unique hero, The Caves of Steel offers a solution. Shunning the “hold on for heroes” ideas, it makes some strong suggestions for us to roll out of our caves and rekindle our curiosity and bravery.

4 stars

 

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives – Leo Bruce

Recently, discussions and thoughts on this novel had been circulating/re-circulating around my small corner of the internet. Motivated by what I read, I went over to the bookshelf and pulled down this novel (paperback version by Academy Chicago Publishers 1997). Its a 240-page read, which was perfect for my end of the year reading in the middle of all the usual events and such that take place. Originally published in 1936 by Leo Bruce; that is a penname, though. The author is Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903 – 1979) and this is the first in the small “Sergeant Beef” series of novels.

This is quite a well-known work and most fans of vintage/classic British detective novels have already read it or know of it. There is not a lot I could possibly share about this novel that the many better-informed mystery readers of the internet have not already discussed.  I am no expert in mystery novels – I read them for entertainment and I am forever unable to guess who-done-it. But I can mention a few of my thoughts here.

This is something of a country-house murder. The three detectives in the title refer to three quite well-known fictional detectives. Told in the first-person from the character Townsend’s perspective, the novel is also a decent murder mystery. Most readers should enjoy the parody of this type of country house murder combined with locked-room.  Townsend knowingly provides the tag-along simpleton position that allows the famous detectives to pontificate and show-off. Its really quite funny.

The author does a bang up job on representing each of the three detectives, though I think he overuses Lord Simon and underuses Smith. Still, he accurately parodies the famous three – without, somehow, going too far and making the detectives completely foolish. In a sense, mocking these beloved characters – but respectfully and tastefully, I suppose.

One of my favorite sections is in chapter 8:

I had learnt that after a murder it is quite proper and conventional for everyone in the house to join the investigators in this entertaining game of hide-and-seek which seemed wholly to absorb us.  It was not extraordinary for there to be three total strangers questioning the servants, or for the police to be treated with smiling patronage, or for the corpse to be pulled about by anyone who was curious to know how it had become a corpse….. I really wondered how these queer customs had arisen. — pg. 59

This amused me because it is so very true – and even until present day where you can see it all the time in TV serials (e.g. Monk, Castle, Columbo, etc.).  Detective fiction has its ups and downs, flaws and idiosyncrasies.  Perhaps the largest is this situation wherein all the laymen, neighbors, and whomever else happens by, all become part of the “detective squad.”  And murders are more like adventure quests wherein any of the usual horrors and miseries of a sudden death are forgotten.

Some reviews about this novel:

At the Scene of the Crime’s Nobody Invited the Fourth Detective (2011)

Cross-Examining Crime’s Case for Three Detectives (2016)

My Reader’s Block’s Vintage Sunday Mystery (2011)

The Reader is Warned’s Reflections on Parody in Detective Fiction (2018)

While I was amused throughout, there was one laugh aloud moment that I want to share. In chapter 6 (in which we meet Picon), Picon and Townsend examine the room where the murder occurred. Sergeant Beef is doing some detecting there as well. Picon in true-to-Poirot-form exclaims: “Ah, the good Boeuf!” This was such a funny moment for me, I laughed and laughed. Its so perfectly Poirot and so funny even if you don’t know much of Poirot.

Overall, an super entertaining read. Perfect for fans of vintage classic detective fiction. Bruce was clearly an able writer with a good skill for parody. I like that his parody does not turn cruel or nasty. I also enjoyed how he mocks a multitude of aspects of the genre – not solely the “amateur experts.” I can definitely recommend this to most readers.

4 stars

Peril at End House

perilPeril at End House is my latest read Agatha Christie novel. I read The Mystery of the Blue Train earlier this year, but I did not write a review. That is the sort of novel that does not really need to be looked into any further. Christie’s personal troubles during that novel do seem to have spilled over into her writing of it – it is not a very good novel. There really is not much I can add to what has already been said about it dozens and dozens of times. However, Peril at End House was very good and seems to represent Christie back to form.

Peril at End House was published in 1932 and it is the sixth novel featuring Hercule Poirot. The story takes place in Cornwall, which is a place I have never been, but suspect would be nice to visit. In other words, I am immediately more kind to a novel that is set in a location I am interested in. Hastings is in this novel, too. He was sort of written out of the novels for awhile, so the fact that he is in this one makes me a happy reader.

There is an involved and heavily-populated storyline here. Lots of characters, it seems, which means a lot of suspects.  But I think a strong argument can be made that a large part of the novel depicts the relationship between Poirot and Hastings. I hesitate to say that in 2017. Makes it sound untoward. Poirot is very insufferable in this novel – to those that find him annoying. No matter how obnoxious or arrogant he is, Poirot never seems to get on my nerves. However, I can see how he vexes others, including Hastings. The interactions between Poirot and Hastings are often the best parts of the novel. I do feel bad for Hastings – whenever he gets the upper hand on Poirot, Poirot quickly redirects their attention to something else instead of conceding defeat.

Hastings is so naive and harmless, sometimes I wonder how readers are not more annoyed by him than Poirot?

“You would say that! It would appeal, I know, to your romantic but slightly mediocre mind. Buried treasure – yes, you would enjoy that idea.”

Poirot is tough on him, but only because Christie is trying to be tough on the reader. Hastings sometimes represents that reader that wants their stories to be as fantastic and outrageous as possible. On one hand a reader seeking for wild entertainment and romantic elements – on the other, Poirot seeking methodological deductions. Describing Hastings to another character (in front of Hastings), Poirot says:

“He is, to begin with, reluctant to see evil anywhere, and when he does see it his righteous indignation is so great that he is incapable of dissembling.  Altogether a rare and beautiful nature. No, mon ami, I will not permit you to contradict me. It is as I say.”

That does describe Hastings perfectly and succinctly and it is significant to note that Poirot calls this both “rare” and “beautiful.”  Its also aggravating and appalling. But Poirot seems to enjoy having this personality around him, even though it frustrates him. Just as, we know very well, Hastings is sometimes thoroughly frustrated with Poirot.

The situation in the resort town St Loo is that it seems someone is trying to kill “Nick” Buckley. Buckley is a rather rambunctious young lady who has ownership of End House, a dilapidated old home around which the resort area has developed. Buckley is called “Nick” as reference to her grandfather, who owned End House, and their close relationship.

Nick has a number of guests, friends and acquaintances, that seem to revolve around her home. The lives of these folk has a rather bohemian feel to it, they are all in this little town drawn there because of some connection to Nick, but yet, it does not seem that they are really there because of her, either.  There is a feeling of lazy, youthful socialites.  This is the most difficult part of the novel for me:  why are all these people here? It feels like some weird parasitical group-up with these people.

Christie pulls off something like what she did in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but not exactly. It works, though, because it does suit the character’s temperament, making it seem genuine and obvious. In reality, Christie is really skilled at making the reader fall for whatever she wants them to. The reader will follow Christie like a lemming and then be surprised whenever Christie pulls the curtain aside.

Overall, the storyline is interesting, the characters are really well written and distinct, and Poirot is totally obnoxious. It is not the greatest mystery ever written, but it is a charming read.

4 stars

The Carter of La Providence

The Carter of La ProvidenceThe Carter of La Providence (also known as The Crime at Lock 14 and Le Charretier de la Providence) by Georges Simenon is one of the Inspector Maigret novels. I believe it was the second one.  It definitely is the second one I have read and I have mixed feelings about it. It was first published in 1931 in Belgium.

Having grown up on an island and amidst rivers and lakes, having wiled away many an afternoon watching boats come through locks, I did appreciate the setting of this story. But I like the setting much more than the story itself. Simenon also made the weather lousy.  So, not only is the story set on the Marne Canal in Northern France, it is raining, muddy, and generally dismal. A perfect location for the bulky, sulking main character:  Inspector Maigret.

There were two or three patches of sky where the sunlight still lingered, but the rain was coming down more and more heavily. -pg 49

Maigret is as expected – rock-solid.  He ponders a lot and does not share one bit of what he is thinking.  He seems demanding and grumpy.  Maigret interrupts people when they talk, stomps around in the mud, and thinks heavy thoughts. So, if murder was not grim enough, when Maigret is added to the storyline, things get heavy.  Why do I like Maigret? Well, probably because unlike Poirot or Lord Wimsey, Maigret is the noir figure. Unlike Whimsey’s hyperactivity and Poirot’s “little gray cells,” Maigret seems to use brute force to conquer mysteries.  But not physically.  It is as if Maigret confronts mental challenges with a bull-like resistance and then overpowers them. From Maigret, I can see derivatives in Stuart Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov and Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther characters.

Unfortunately, Maigret kept a little too much to himself this time around. I feel that because the reader was not privy to most of Maigret’s deductions, it made Maigret’s movements seem very random.  Further, the actual resolution seemed a bit too convoluted. Or something. Its just not a resolution that I found reasonable.

Also, the basic ingredients of the story did not appeal to me. Old weird people on a “pleasure boat” seemingly idle, drunken, and pointless sicken me. Bohemian leeches, hang-ons, bored socialites… none of these people are ones that I want to have anything to do with. Still, I admit that they add to the heaviness of the setting; the novel feels full of sluggish muddy elements. A character is describing one of the yacht-riders to Maigret:

“A dead weight.  A beautiful woman who is incapable of existing except on a couch, smoking cigarettes and drinking sweet liqueurs.  She started the day she first came on board and has been doing it ever since. . . . Oh sorry:  she also plays cards. I think it’s the only thing that really interests her.” – pg. 56

This is good writing. From this description I can really picture this creature. I was not around in the 1920s/1930s, but it seems like this sort of character was everywhere.  I imagine such a person to be something like a flapper-chick who has gone rotten and just oozes over chaise-lounges and smokes endlessly.

The resolution seemed a little less resolving – and maybe that is Simenon’s fault.  He set up some wonderful red herring-suspects and he gave us a truly weird character swirled in the middle of the muddy locks to wonder about. But the solution seemed almost unrelated or cobbled together.  I just didn’t like it. Came too quickly, from out of nowhere, and did not go in a more expected direction, I guess.

Overall, it’s not really a good read. However the unique setting and the brooding Maigret manage to make the story worthwhile. I want to read more Maigret, but this one is unnecessary. Its a shame because…. locks….

2 stars

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag

weed-that-strings

2010, Alan Bradley (Bantam Books)

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley is the second novel in the Flavia de Luce series. I read the first one and knew that I would read the second.  The first was published in 2009 and this novel was released in 2010. I gave the first novel four stars and I will do the same with this one.

I have found that these novels either appeal to readers or readers cannot tolerate them. I confess that I am under Flavia’s spell. I think she is splendid and I enjoy following her detective exploits around the countryside. Now, I do not think the negative comments regarding the novel are all invalid, but I very uncharacteristically find the novels so charming that it outweighs any flaws. Such an unbalanced view of novels is rare and I admit that usually I am preaching about the completeness and fullness of works.

Bishop’s Lacey and Environs is actually very key in providing much of the charm of the novel. It is possible that Flavia would be equally captivating in other settings, but I really enjoy the pastoral country setting in which she pursues her mischief. The historical aspects of the war hang around and the astute reader should be able to pick up some of this darkness lurking just outside of the view of the novel. Were it not for Flavia’s brightness, a definite heaviness would overtake the story.

Some readers are turned off by the fact that Flavia is as “smart” as she is. They find it difficult to get beyond the fact that this eleven-year old girl is probably stronger in chemistry than they are. I think they may forget that without a TV, computers, and ridiculous distractions, a child can actually be very smart and learn a great deal from books and experiment. Flavia is “lucky” in that she lives in an old country manor which provides her resources many children her age would not have. She has a private laboratory and hundreds of books/journals/magazines to pour over and experiment from. In fact, this is how she spends her free time.

Because at the end of the day, it is not Flavia’s intelligence that is remarkable. It is actually her initiative, curiosity, and independence that makes her so great. She is never, really, a bored child and she entertains herself by motivating herself. That is something that is uncommon and it is entirely refreshing to read about.  That’s the main thing that I love about reading these novels. I love how Flavia does not just sit on her duff all day, but has dozens of projects she is continuously working on.  And often these projects are just for the sake of doing/making – not for profit or under duress.

Flavia also has a keen wit regarding adults and their interactions with children. She seems to be just old enough to be able to wheedle and wriggle whatever she wants from adults. Some might call her a bit deceitful, but it seems typical of her age group.  Having independence, yet still requiring so much from adults. She often treats them as if they are her equal, but yet putting on a variety of faces depending on what she wants or what the adult thinks she might be.  Flavia is the ultimate actress and because we see everything through her viewpoint, she thinks she has adults wrapped around her finger.  In reality, if the viewpoint were switched, it is clear that many adults find her difficult, annoying, but also unique and intelligent.

Overall, though, the plots of the two novels in the series leave me rather unimpressed. Oh, I suppose the mysteries are tied up effectively and the number of red herrings and clues is commensurate with the crimes.  Flavia does solve the mystery – to the consternation of the local police.

“You’re right, of course, Sergeant.  We don’t have the same entreé to the homes and hearths of Bishop’s Lacey, do we? Its an area in which we could do better.” – Inspector Hewitt pg. 340.

If Flavia doesn’t play entirely fairly with the adults in Bishop’s Lacey – she also does not with the reader. We follow her around and enjoy her conversations, however, most of her deductions she keeps to herself.  This is probably why the last few chapters, as Flavia explains things to the adults she remains so fascinating and marvelous.

The crime in this novel is actually related to a previous event that took place in Bishop’s Lacey. In a sense, Flavia solves two crimes in this novel.  However, the pieces that connect the two events are really pushing the limits into the outlandish. I mean, it does seem a bit convoluted. It is all possible and understandable, but I am not certain how plausible it is. It would be easy to be skeptical of these things.

Chapter Four contains Flavia at her wittiest. There is a chunk where she thinks about Beethoven, and this has nothing to do with the mystery, but it is laugh aloud worthy. Enjoy it! I do not think I can think of Beethoven again without Flavia’s thoughts on the matter. Well done, Bradley! So, I definitely enjoyed this novel. I think it is more or less suitable for most readers, although, certain events in this one are a little disturbing. Because, truly, murder is fundamentally disturbing.

4 stars

Death at Crane’s Court

death-at-cranes-courtDeath at Crane’s Court by Ellis Dillon (1920 – 1994) was first published in 1953.  I read the Perennial Mystery Library edition of 1988 with cover by Bradley Clark. This is the first novel I have read by Dillon – not too surprising a fact since Dillon is only known for very few mystery novels. I would definitely read more of her works, though.  She was born in Galway, Ireland and several of her novels take place there.

In this particular novel, however, the setting did not play a major rôle whatsoever.  I actually would have preferred if it had more significance. I was hoping for a more culturally-flavored story, I think

Crane’s Court is a “hotel” (older meaning of the term) near Galway. The hotel has a new owner and he arrives via train with one of the new residents of the hotel. The new owner is found murdered not much more than a month after his arrival and the suspects are multiple since the majority of the residents are: hunters/sportsmen, senile and crazed, invalids/infirm.

Everyone, it seems has motive, opportunity, and is in agreement regarding their negative feelings toward the new owner:  John Burden.  The story begins following the travels of George Arrow to his new home at Crane’s Court. And as plain and easy-going as George is as a character, the novel is really stolen completely by the enigmatic and vociferous Professor Daly.

Issues that face the detective, Inspector Mike Kenny, are the facts that the residents of the hotel are members of a past-age wherein many would have been upper class and therefore not subservient to lawmen and the public justice. They all still dress for dinner. The location of teatime in the facility is a major item of contention. In other cases, the senile and/or crazed residents are treated with just as much privilege as their peers. But, rather than living in a familial and warm community, there is a great deal of competition, distrust, pettiness within Crane’s Court. Some of this is due to eccentricities of old age, some of this is due to social status.

I wanted to like this novel a whole lot more than I did. There are a number of red herrings, but the clues are slim. All of the characters are recklessly unique and some of them are charming. But throughout, I felt any one of them could turn and reveal their hidden maniacal side. I was never sure when each character really was cleared of suspicion.

And it is not a fair-play novel. For the most part the reader follows Inspector Kenny around as he questions the residents and suspects, but the reader is not privy to any of his conclusions or argumentation. Toward the end of the book, the real surprise is almost how much work Kenny has done “off-stage.”  In fact, a lot seems to happen off stage and maybe filling in some of these gaps would have made a more rounded novel.

At the end, if I am being bluntly honest, I am not sure I think the guilty character is perfectly convincing – although it is all explained sufficiently. And I don’t think I really like any of the characters. I mean, they would be fine to read a short novel about, but I do not think I would turn my back on any of them.

This novel would not disappoint any vintage readers or mystery readers. I think it actually falls closer to a four-star rating, but I always rate low when books are in the middle unless there is just some overwhelming reason to do otherwise. The Professor could have been one of those reasons – he is definitely the most engaging of the group. I found him, sometimes, to be a little creepy and weird (the glib are disconcerting).

3 stars