Mystery

Night Film

Night Film Paper CoverI just finished Night Film by Marisha Pessl. I received this novel in paperback for Christmas in 2014, and so I was really keen on getting it read by Christmas 2015. I totally succeeded….  Anyway, I read Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and decided then that I would read whatever she wrote next. Granted, I read that novel in 2011 and it was originally released in 2006.  So, Night Film‘s release in 2013 was a hefty pause for any Pessl fans.

This novel, like her first, is a weighty thing. Nearly 600 pages, it suffers from the flaw of just dang not knowing when to end. In my review of her first work I wrote that she needed a more stringent editor.  I almost want to say the same thing for this novel. However, I think that a lot less could be edited out of this one. Say, only 100 pages or so. That is a bit of an improvement, then.

Also, Pessl’s use of the metaphor is reduced in this novel, thank heavens. In the first novel, everything was like something and then like something again and then every sentence was a metaphor and that was like….. well, you know. So, if it took seven years for Pessl to write and publish this, I think that she definitely improved. That, my fellow readers, is a very key point not to be overlooked or dismissed. I am usually slightly more lenient with a new author’s first novel. However, for their second, I demand improvement. Pessl meets the measuring stick.

I did not expect a good novel. I am not artsy-fartsy (please, no one get their feathers ruffled with that expression) enough to understand and appreciate film theory. No matter the quality of the first novel, I think Pessl demonstrated she is hardly a bonehead ready to join the ranks pumping out pulpy drivel. In other words, she is a smart one. I like smart people. Still, the topic of this novel was not something that I would read if it was not written by Pessl. I am really leery of film-novels. I really make the effort to avoid gory things, depraved things, suicide-stories, etc. And, well, let’s face it, Pessl was in the NY Times Bestseller’s List. Not a bonus for my preferences of vintage, obscure, and classic choices.  Pessl was starting in the red for me with this one, not her fault, but factually true.

Ultimately, this is a novel about investigative journalist Scott McGrath and his investigations into the suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of very famous cult-filmmaker Stanislaus Cordova. That is the main thread, but just slightly below that line is the work Pessl does to blur, shake, and disrupt the line between reality/fantasy, real/fiction.  It is this subplot that makes the novel fit the category of noir as opposed to some John Grisham-like thriller.

But those are not the only two threads. There are several other lines running constantly throughout the whole novel. For example:  McGrath and Cordova’s lives have plenty of similarities. Also, there is a heap of film theory and understanding of film work here.  Pessl deserves an “A” for her effort here. She literally created a detailed and vibrant body of work for a fictional filmmaker.

Not only did Pessl create this detailed body of work for a fictional filmmaker, but she remains consistent with it – and, amazingly, builds it into a whole society:  actors and actresses, fans and film critics, etc. Serious “world-building.” This was no easy thing and I can appreciate the effort, though, again, film and I are not really cozy. (I’m about as appreciative of Michael Bay’s work as Alfred Hitchcock’s. I’m a bad person. LOL)

The main thing about Stanislaus Cordova is that he is aloof, mysterious, and his films are completely captivating and disturbing. They are known for having a long-lasting, life-changing effect on his audience.  One of the many characteristics of Cordova’s works is that he manages to constantly upend the viewers by truly twisting reality/fantasy around and seemingly constantly forcing his audiences to seek the “really real.”

Now, some may scoff at Pessl’s use of “background” media. But this is 2013 – and her inclusion of internet items and media makes this a contemporary force.  This is, perhaps, where novels will go futuristically. So, readers who consider these items as “gimmicks,” might want to think again. The novel begins with a series of these faux-news articles and online snippets. These give a nontraditional feel to the novel, as well as providing a lot of background for the reader – without another 250 pages of droll background history. This is an innovative and interesting method.

McGrath is a little aggravating after awhile. Pessl clearly sees this and buffers his narrative presence with two other characters; young folk who “join” his investigation into Ashely’s death.  These characters develop throughout the novel and are not just stagnant place-holders for McGrath to bounce off of. Like I said, Pessl is not a bad writer.

The novel had me up late into the night reading along. The middle chunk is definitely suspenseful and mysterious and creepy. Yes, it is sometimes a little bit scary.  I love that Pessl was able to develop this slow-building terror. She does not heavy-hand scare the reader, which I appreciate. I do not know exactly how she did it, but Pessl definitely steadily increases the suspense until the reader is swept along with McGrath down whatever rabbit trail he heads – with a pounding heart. Who would have thought film theory and a suicide investigation would be this gripping?

Still, there are a couple elements that Pessl does take too far. She probably does overwork them a little more than necessary, to be honest. And some readers, the very critical, will suggest that she went over-the-top with some of the Voodoo/fantasy elements. I am undecided; an argument could be made either way on this point. But be advised:  the settings and suspense do build into quite a dark and depraved possible picture.

This is a good novel. It is one of those, however, that readers will love to pick apart and sink their claws into. Well, and Pessl knows that they will. But for the majority of things published, this is a very developed novel with a lot going on in it. And, further, separately, each ingredient of the novel (setting, pacing, characters, etc.) can be praised. Maybe the overall is not five-stars, but at its base this is a solid bestselling novel. I would recommend it to people who enjoyed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and also Pessl’s first novel.

A hundred pages less and this would be a five star novel, I think. Its not a storyline I love, but the pages kept turning and I must praise the effort. I guess I just hope her next novel is sooner than another seven years………

4 stars

The Old Man in the Corner

The Old Man in the Corner - Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner – Baroness Orczy

I’ve had an exceedingly busy October. It started on the first with epic “1,000 year rain/floods” and then this past weekend I took part in the 30th Anniversary of my kung fu school.  In between the 1st and the 24th, there was mainly chaos, pandemonium, and a definite lack of sleep. Nevertheless, I was able to read this book, which I think is actually one that has slipped the memory of many contemporary readers.  I am glad I read it and I am giving it a generally favorable review here.

Having mentioned that I have been a wee bit busy, let me be honest and say I do not know the publishing history of this book. I suppose I could have bothered to do better with researching that, but I just did not. So, I am not sure if this is the first bunch of stories featuring the title character or the second. Also, there is something on the internet about the author reworking these stories – I have no idea about the extent of said reworkings.  None of that, however, truly matters when reading this book.

The author, Baroness Emma Orczy is certainly better known as the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Now, I can tell you that this work was originally a play (1903) that the author also rewrote into a novel (1905).  I feel like “back in the day” (so, think 1950s – 1970s) this story was read a lot more and a lot more readers were familiar with it. I feel its popularity has waned quite a bit. I say all of this, but then must be obnoxious and admit that I have not read it, either.

  • The Fenchurch Street Mystery – 3 stars
  • The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace – 4 stars
  • The York Mystery – 4 stars
  • The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway – 2 stars
  • The Liverpool Mystery – 3 stars
  • The Edinburgh Mystery – 2 stars
  • The Theft at the English Provident Bank – 4 stars
  • The Dublin Mystery – 4 stars
  • An Unparalleled Outrage (The Brighton Mystery) – 4 stars
  • The Regent’s Park Murder – 4 stars
  • The De Genneville Peerage (The Birmingham Mystery) – 3 stars
  • The Mysterious Death in Percy Street – 3 stars

Now, I hesitate to consider this a “collection” of short stories because the author has written them to be somewhat seamless. As if the structure of the collection is presenting a fluid timeline. I suppose one could read these stories in any order, but I don’t see any reason for doing that.

The entire work starts with a few sentences that basically explain and contextualize the rest of the book. Straightaway we meet the title character, known to us as “The Man in the Corner” and his interlocutor, Polly Burton.

The man in the corner pushed aside his glass, and leant across the table.

“Mysteries!” he commented.  “There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.”

Very much astonished Polly Burton looked over the top of her newspaper, and fixed a pair of very severe, coldly inquiring brown eyes upon him.

That is how, more or less, every story begins.  The man in the corner comes across as cantankerous and slightly overbearing. Polly comes across as shrewd, strong-willed, and keen. Together, they make for an interesting scene, if you imagine it.

The structure of each story is the same:  the man randomly blurts out an assertion/comment regarding a relatively famous crime that has been committed.  His statements pique the interest of Polly Burton, who is a young journalist.  The man then retells the story of the crime and the investigation/court case associated with the crime.  Polly is a journalist for the Evening Observer, but the newspaper she is reading (in quote above) is the Daily Telegraph. Polly is decidedly proud of her status as a member of the British Press.

After Polly affixes the man with a icy glare, she authoritatively states that: “And yet, this article will tell you that, even within the last year, no fewer than six crimes have completely baffled the police, and the perpetrators of them are still at large.”

“Pardon me,” he said gently, “I never for a moment ventured to suggest that there were no mysteries to the police; I merely remarked that there were none where intelligence was brought to bear upon the investigation of crime.”

So, of course, Polly attempts to test this arrogant old man’s assertions.  She suggests the Fenchurch Street Mystery, and thus begins the push and pull nature of their conversations.  One of them puts forth a particular “mystery,” and the old man relates the details of the case. By the middle of the book, Polly is less hostile toward the old man, and eagerly anticipates his arrival and his discussion.

All of the mysteries are roughly the same in presentation. A case baffles the police because something does not quite add up. The crimes are Edwardian (circa. 1900 – 1915) and generally involve the middle and upper class. Some are more interesting than others, of course, but overall they are decent reads.  The old man leads Polly to a conclusion wherein it seems like the perpetrator of the crime is revealed, although not all the time does he actually name the criminal. And his “evidence” or proof is not always tangible.  His deductions are generally logical and reasonable, but not to the extent that it is watertight and defensible.

Still, before hard-core mystery lovers attack the author, let me just say that these are entertaining reads.  The context and characters are unique and she deserves praise for her setting and presentation of the stories. Also, Polly (though we do not get to learn enough of her) is not a pushover and deserves her own spin-off series, I think.  If you want to play with logic, go get Asimov and Lewis Carroll and Spinoza and wedge, tilde, instantiate yourself giddy.  Orczy does just fine providing us a fun read with interesting little story twists and points of view. The quirky nervous habit that the old man has of tying knots in string is fantastic for its symbolism and psychology. Well done, Orczy.

The setting of these stories kept interesting me. They take place in a branch of the Aerated Bread Company (often simply referred to as an ABC – which, yes, has different connotations here in USA South.)  I was curious, so I did research this part of the book.  The Aerated Bread Co. was founded in 1862 by Dr. John Dauglish and hinged on a new process of bread-making.  Two years later, the company opened teashops, starting with a location in the Fenchurch Street Railway Station (Cp. the first mystery story in the book).  Dauglish was a graduate of Edinburgh university and passed away in 1866.  His efforts and experiments in bread-making are interesting, though outside the scope of this review. Similarly, the relevance of teashops is also a good study. Sadly, the company was bought out in 1955 and that gobbler corporation closed the business in the 1980s.

Overall, I really like the presentation and setting of these stories. I really want spinoff series for both Polly and the old man. I am tickled by many of the details throughout and I had fun reading these. Recommended for people who have busy Octobers and anyone seeking Edwardian-era things.

3 stars
average: 3.25

March Violets

March Violets - Philip Kerr

March Violets – Philip Kerr

March Violets by Philip Kerr was first published in 1989.  It is the first of the “opening trilogy” of novels starring German detective Bernhard Gunther.  March Violets was republished in 1993 along with the other two novels of the trilogy.  The novel is set in Germany during the 1936 Summer Olympics, but there is no strong connection between the Olympics and the murder-mystery of the plot.  I think this is Kerr’s first published novel.

March Violets has a lot going for it to make it an interesting read.  However, there are a couple of elements that really take away from giving this novel a great rating.  Largely, Kerr wrote this “historical novel” in a way that emulates all of the stereotypes of “noir/hard-boiled” fiction.  Now, depending on whether readers are looking for that style or not, will determine how tolerant they will be of the novel.  If readers are seeking a rough and tumble detective who saw military action, is an ex-cop, drinks like a fish, and has a mighty libido, well, Bernie Gunther will be a hit.  If not, this novel will seem tedious and aggravating.

“It’s just typical of the bloody Nazis,” said Inge, “to build the People’s roads before the People’s car.” – pg. 153, Chapter 13

I was rather impressed with the setting.  Kerr manages to portray the reactions of the citizens living in this tumultuous Germany with skill.  With every character met and with every darkened Berlin street traveled, the reader feels the Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque oppression of the Nazi government.  The factions within the Nazi party create hazy divisions. Everyone is suspect, everyone tries to look like they are obedient to whatever authority is in their proximity. Berlin is overrun with thugs with badges who bully and abuse the citizens – sometimes on official business, sometimes on a whim. Newspapers have turned into propaganda. And anti-Semitism is the rule of the day.  All of these pressures are quite palpable and significant in the novel.

The voice was fastidious, suave even:  soft and slow, with just a hint of cruelty.  The sort of voice, I thought, that could lead you into incriminating yourself quite nicely, thank you.  The sort of voice that would have done well for its owner had he worked for the Gestapo. – pg. 11, Chapter 2

Gunther is an ex-soldier and ex-cop widower. His wife died many years previous and he has left the police force where he was a Kriminalinspektor of some repute.  He now works as a private detective.  This is not exactly a career that makes the official policing agents of Germany happy. Also, the reader is forced to share Gunther’s frustration at practicing this career in a regime wherein truth, legality, and morality are not the norm.  It is usually difficult enough for detectives to hunt down criminals and seek out the truth, but in 1936 Berlin, that seems like a ridiculous task.

Dogs are not at all keen on private investigators, and it’s an antipathy that is entirely mutual. – pg. 78, Chapter 7

The main noir-stereotype that Kerr uses is the metaphor.  Not sweet pastoral metaphors, but gritty tough-guy metaphors. Some of these are amusing and witty. At other times, they are overused. Where this stereotype comes from, I don’t know. But I have never met an individual (detective or otherwise) who thinks so frequently in metaphors as noir-characters do. Still, some of the lingo is fun: bulls = cops, lighters = handguns, etc.

Gunther is collected in the middle of the night by the associates of an industry tycoon. He is taken to that industrialist’s house and is hired to investigate a murder-robbery of the tycoon’s daughter and son-in-law.  The couple were shot and their house (including corpses) suffered arson in an attempt to destroy evidence. In the course of this investigation is where I lost track of the murder-mystery story and just learned to enjoy the setting. I probably was not paying careful enough attention. But Gunther’s “investigations” seem disjointed and without much profit. The cast of characters keeps expanding and I stopped differentiating between them all. Of course, this is meant to show the variety of forces acting in the case, but many times, it just seemed overcrowded and really stretched. Gunther even has a late night meeting with Göring.

Honestly, I spent a large portion of the novel thinking that Dr. Fritz Schemm was the same as the character Haupthandler. I’m still not sure where the latter came in and why he was significant?  He is one of the bodycount, though, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

Another issue I have with the story:  the number of times Gunther is knocked unconscious.  He is beaten senseless at least five times in this novel. I don’t know how many readers have been purposefully clobbered on the head, but that many times knocked down and out is not a light matter. In fact, it is absurd. And many times, Gunther is smacked by a blunt object, falls unconscious, and wakes up and just continues on with the investigation – perhaps muttering about a sore neck/head.

I didn’t need my deerstalker-hat to realize that the place had been turned over, from top to bottom. – pg. 115, Chapter 10

The largest issue I have with the novel is that there are several scenes – particularly the climactic ones near the end – that are what I think of as over-the-line graphic and gory. The scenes are meant to show depravity or inhumanity and they do. But I think the reader has enough to deal with considering the anti-Semitism, the political machinations, the general violence and crime throughout without needing the descriptively gross scenes. I thought about it and without these scenes – or reducing them to a milder level – does nothing harmful to the story. The scenes are unnecessary and bluntly repulsive. Yes, Nazis were brutal, but that is obvious in the novel without moving to the level that these scenes do.

Overall, I give this three stars.  The storyline gets lost and unclear. There is a horrific level of brutality in several scenes. The use of metaphors is a bit too frequent and too heavy-handed, even for noir.  Based on these complaints, one would expect a lower rating. However, the environment of the novel is very well-crafted and the main character, while not unique, is still a real trooper. I may read the next in the series (The Pale Criminal ), but certainly not until I’ve forgotten some of the gross of this novel.

3 stars

Pietr the Latvian

Pietr the Latvian - Penguin Classics, 2013

Pietr the Latvian – Penguin Classics, 2013

I finished Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989).  This novel is the first of the Inspector Jules Maigret novels and it goes by a variety of titles.  It was allegedly written in 1929, serialized in 1930, and then published as a book in 1931. Anything I have skimmed regarding this novel is certain to include a caveat to the effect that (a.) this is not Simenon’s best work; (b.) this is not the ultimate basis of the Maigret character; (c.) Maigret’s characterization was heavily influenced by the real Inspector Marcel Guillaume.  Such statements seem more important than they are. I do not see how a reader needs to be warned and petitioned for mercy before they actually read the book. Also, those facts do not seem entirely germane to the value of this particular novel.  I read this book – and this is the book that I will review.

Anyway, the next time someone asks me for an example of noir, I think I may suggest this novel.  It matches quite well with the judgment that I have made regarding the definition of noir.  I think a lot of people simply suggest gangster novels, crime novels, or gothic-esque novels.  However, this novel really exemplifies what I mean by noir.

The writing style of this novel is exceedingly spare and pared-down.  Absolutely no long-winded descriptions or grandiose pontifications on minor aspects of any element of the novel.  There are no chapter-long ruminations on any relevant (or irrelevant) topics.  In fact, there are definitely some points where I felt a little bit lost or perplexed. Maybe a hair more detail would have been okay.  Or maybe my difficulty was based on the age of the novel and the fact that I read a translation.  Not that this ruins much of anything at all, I am just being honest and considering readers approaching this novel as they would any other.

We meet Maigret straightaway in chapter one.  He is in his office with the pipe, which becomes as essential to him as his limbs, and the fire-blazing stove.  Maigret is reading telegrams and files regarding the movements and description of Pietr the Latvian.  Maigret is on the move fairly soon afterwards and what we need to know about him, Simenon tells us directly.  Simenon tells us that Maigret is a hulking, sombre dude.  He intimidates others, he does not make unnecessary speeches, etc.  We do not get to know Maigret’s internal monologue or thought pattern.  Readers will not watch Maigret link each and every facet of this case together like some sort of jigsaw puzzle.

At first Maigret meant nothing to me.  Just a bland and somewhat predictable detective.  However, in chapter eight, the character really grew on me and I found myself much more concerned for his well-being and pursuits.  All of a sudden, and maybe without a lot of finesse, Simenon gave us a more developed Maigret personality. It was rather obvious, but I don’t always need the convoluted approach, either.

Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science.  But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall.  In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent. – pg. 38 Chapter 5

The novel contains a lot of characters and what seems like half-built plotlines and/or clues.  I do not know if this is because it is an early novel or because Simenon chooses not to get bogged down in every little detail and history.  While this can be confusing, it is also the source of a lot of the noir-feel.  Being a non-omniscient reader has its plusses and in a crime novel, it worked really well.

The dialogue format is probably the thing that will take the most work for readers.  Simenon does not write out every syllable of conversation – it is as if he almost uses just symbolic logic/keywords.  I can see this being annoying and a bit too bare for many readers.  On the other hand, I can think of plenty of readers who would be relieved that the actual speech of characters is reduced to necessary nouns.  Either way, I think this, too, makes the novel noir.

Regarding the actual crime – it is difficult to say how many there are.  Maigret gets the case due to a specific crime, but there is a lot more going on than just one incident.  And this is very relevant. The character whose role I really was not entirely clear about was Mortimer-Levingston. Throughout the novel he seemed very random.  Now, the ending of this novel was unexpected and definitely far from some cozy-mystery novel. I think the last few chapters bespeak a lot about the character Maigret and also the kinds of stories that Simenon was going to try to write.

This is a good novel and there is a lot of value in reading it and knowing about it. It is not a great novel. It is a worthy read and one does want to read more stories about Maigret.

3 stars

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax - Dorothy Gilman; Fawcett, 1990

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax – Dorothy Gilman; Fawcett, 1990

I finished the first novel in the Pollifax series, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.  It was first published in 1966 and is not a mystery novel, but a spy-novel.  That is actually the main reason for its relative fame.  The main character, Emily Pollifax, is a senior citizen who decides that she should finally pursue one of her greatest dreams – to be a spy.  She is a widow and has two adult children with lives of their own.  Pollifax realizes her life has become tedious, boring, and dull.  In fact, she has even suffered some rather self-destructive thoughts.  After visiting her medical doctor and having a brief meeting with an elderly neighbor, Pollifax decides to visit Washington, D.C.

Well, what a different world 1966 must have been that Pollifax could enter the CIA in D.C. and just sort of be selected as a spy.  That’s basically what happens – with a little coincidental help.  Pollifax hits the public library, looks up the address to the CIA headquarters, and takes a metro-train right on over.  Luckily, one of the handlers is working on a project wherein he requires an older operative for a courier-type mission.

Pollifax’s gig starts off with her heading off on a flight to Mexico City.  Events transpire and the majority of the rest of the novel takes place in Albania.  Now, Albania is not exactly one of the most commonly researched countries.  It is my strong recommendation that readers interested in this novel brush up on Albania.  A deep and exhaustive examination is not necessary, but do glance at a map and orient yourself.  Remember to pay particular attention to Albania in the 1950s/1960s (Eastern Bloc timeframe).  (Also, Albania has a cool flag.)

Anyway, all of this is tremendously exciting and unique. And should be full of comic relief and edge-of-one’s seat intrigue.  But somehow, I found this novel really difficult to plod through.  It just moves very slowly.  I think it is well-written and there is plenty of unique stuff in it to keep interest – but it just moves like a snail!  It took me months to force myself to read it.  Yes, Pollifax is charming – she is the epitome of down-to-earth and civilized. But she is also quite annoying and aggravating, too.  The main thing is that with Pollifax, you need to have a willing suspension of disbelief.  She actually accomplishes some things in this book that would thoroughly lay out many 30 or 40 year old gentlemen.  Do I know any elderly women who could do some of these things that Pollifax does? Oddly, yes. I also realize that many people do not.

There is a light amount of the typical American patriotism and such going on, too.  It works in this novel, though, because one would expect a civilized elderly woman to hold certain views and ideas.  So, in that way, Pollifax is also an authentic character. An upper class, elderly WASP in the 1960s probably has some not-so-politically correct views regarding Chinese people, Communists, Mexicans, etc. I’ve read worse….

Still, I cannot put my finger on why this novel was so tedious for me. Spy novels in Albania with eccentric elderly women (and there are also goats in this novel) should not be sluggish.  So here is an odd anomaly:  I found the plot and characters charming and interesting, but the pacing and the novel itself was painfully slow. I would read another Mrs. Pollifax novel – but maybe only in the dead of winter and I am out of comic books and movies to play with.

3 stars

A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead - Ngaio Marsh; Jove 1980

A Man Lay Dead – Ngaio Marsh; Jove 1980

I have not read/reviewed nearly enough books this year. In fact, this is the first review since late January. I moved – and all of my books are still packed in boxes in a room that is also packed tightly. It has been frustrating. However, I did read this Ngaio Marsh novel in February – finally getting around to reviewing it now in April.  A Man Lay Dead is the first (of thirty-two) Roderick Alleyn mystery.  It was first published in 1934. I read the Jove Mysteries 1980 edition.

I have been attempting to read a lot more of the classic detective mystery novels lately. And maybe even some of the not-so classics.  Many of these early stories involve the character archetype of the “gentleman detective/burglar.”  This includes Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsey, Sherlock Holmes, Albert Campion, and Arsene Lupin.  The star detective of this Marsh novel falls under this category.  I have a hit-or-miss sort of opinion of these sorts of characters.  I love Lupin. I love Poirot and Whimsey.  Campion and Alleyn irritate me and I find them pompous and unlikeable. Of course, let’s be honest, I have not really read very many books in any of these series.

The novel that I read before A Man Lay Dead was Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, which was published in 1929. The lesson to be learned between these two novels is clearly:  avoid house parties. So, apparently, no matter the decade (1930s or 1990s, etc.) house parties have a strong tendency to turn ugly.

This short novel has sixteen chapters, all of them generally focusing on the true main character, Nigel Bathgate.  He, and several others, have been invited to a weekend at Frantock. The group is attending another of Sir Hubert Handesley’s parties.  En route to the destination, Bathgate inquires of his distant cousin (Charles Rankin) who will be attending the party.  Rankin says “the usuals,” which includes the Wildes and Angela North and Rosamund Grant. Also, a Doctor Foma Tokareff – a Russian doctor whom Handesley knows from his “Embassy days in Petrograd.”

Not unlike Allingham’s novel, this house party decides to play with a particular rare and interesting dagger.  I am not sure what the authors were thinking utilizing this prop.  Do people really go to house parties and fanny around with daggers?  Does anyone really think that this is a good idea and will end well?  Have they considered Scrabble or Yahtzee?  Anyway, no reader should be surprised that there is a murder – yes, the dagger was used. Second lesson:  If you simply must attend a house party and someone hauls out a dagger – for God’s sake, leave the house immediately.

Alleyn shows up to investigate the murder.  He is cryptic and mysterious and annoyingly arrogant.  He begins his investigation by interrogating the members of the house.  However, his interrogation is certainly unique – he suggests they have a “mock trial” through which he will learn the details of the night’s events.  Nigel Bathgate is the most cooperative and interested member of the party.  At some point he seems like he wants Alleyn to think highly of him.  At other points, he is clearly not comfortable with revealing all of his thoughts to the detective. Angela North is a fiery young girl, who is not cowed by Alleyn, nor impressed by Bathgate, though she does take a shine to him.

Alleyn does not do all the work himself. He comes with a team of helpers (to do the grunt work).  Eventually, the storyline moves beyond the Frantock property and there are adventures involving Russian spies and gangs and foreign agents.

Overall, a lot better than Allingham’s showing.  Still, Nigel is the star and he is the one I enjoyed.  Alleyn was average and blah at best.  I am slightly put off with the “Russians are villains” trope, though. I do think I will read more of Marsh’s novels.  Everyone who wants to read 1920s and 1930s detective novels should add this to their list.

3 stars

The Crime at Black Dudley

The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham; Felony & Mayhem, 2006

The Crime at Black Dudley – Margery Allingham; Felony & Mayhem, 2006

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham (1904 – 1966) was first published in 1929.  It is the first of the “Albert Campion” mysteries written by the author.  It is the first novel by this author that I have read.  Overall, I was not terribly impressed.  The main complaint that I have is that the pacing for this story is uncomfortably off-kilter.  The main character, believe it or not, is not Campion, but a young Dr. George Abbershaw.

The story largely takes place at the Black Dudley, which is a large, rural estate owned by Wyatt Petrie.  The property has been in the Petrie family for some time, although in the distant past the manor was a variety of things including a monastery. Petrie allows his uncle, by marriage, to dwell at the property, entertaining the man by having “house parties” every so often.  These house parties consist of Wyatt inviting a number of his fellow young-academics over for dinner, drinks, conversation, and games. This story begins with Dr. Abbershaw finishing dressing in his room and heading downstairs for dinner.

Among the members of the party are Albert Campion and Meggie Oliphant.  The former is mysterious and annoys everyone constantly. The second is a red-haired young lady who Abbershaw is sweet on.  In any case, after dinner the group decides to partake in a game involving a ritual dagger. Its like hide and seek combined with hot potato. Wouldn’t you know, during the course of this game, someone gets killed….

Well, the pacing is all wrong in this novel. Chapters go on and on and on – and nothing much really happens at all. I think the reader is supposed to be getting to know the characters during these chapters, but since I did not really care about the characters, I did not care to bother about getting to know them.  The plot itself has a lot of stop and starts – although, more stops, it feels than starts.  Or, perhaps, the characters are painfully dull and crummy.

Campion annoys the other characters, but I think the reader is supposed to be intrigued by him.  I was not very intrigued. I did develop a sort of tolerance for the main character – who is easily the most developed in the novel. Abbershaw’s deductions, though, are sluggish and tedious.  He’s very mature for the most part, until he’s around Meggie, who makes him in turns:  courageous, sensitive, and protective.  The relationship he has with Campion is actually the only way we get to learn anything about Campion.

There are many chapters where I was grumpy because the characters seemed so pathetic.  Many of those same chapters do not advance the storyline whatsoever, either.  And then, late in the novel, I found myself asking:  “why is this story still happening?” it just goes on and on and it really should have been ended long before. Also, the villains – both the specific and in the relation to a larger body of organized crime – are almost completely absurd.

Overall, it is difficult to be told that most of the characters are skilled, academic professionals and then also watch them act and think so stupidly.  Coupled with the unending circular plot and this novel just is not very good. Nevertheless, I think because it is the first novel in the series, one should not write off this author/series. I do intend to read another Albert Campion/Margery Allingham mystery. Just not too soon.

2 stars

A Nice Class of Corpse

A Nice Class of Corpse - Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

A Nice Class of Corpse – Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

This past week I finished the first novel in the Mrs. Pargeter mystery series by Simon Brett.  A Nice Class of Corpse was published in 1986.  There are, currently, six novels in the series – the most recent having been released in 1999.  A year later, Brett became the president of the famous Detection Club.

Overall, this is probably a 3.5 star rated novel.  It is not a 4, so for this blog it is a 3.  It is a very speedy 221 pages of relatively cozy-mystery.  I say relatively because there are some elements that probably go beyond what mystery readers consider “cozy.” (For the record, some of these subgenre distinctions are a bit ambiguous, anyway.)  You should know that the majority of this story takes place within the Devereux Hotel – which strives to be an upscale retirement community for the rich and/or titled elderly.  Therefore, almost all of the characters are quite old.  Old people get killed off in this novel. Some readers might not find that so “cozy.”

There is also a helping of melancholy in this story.  There are some sad and uncomfortable moments throughout the novel.  This adds just a drop of depth to the novel and makes the story heavier than a simple mystery. Whether that is good or bad is for each reader to decide for himself, I think.  There are also some ridiculous and witty moments – most of them due to the star character:  Melita Pargeter.

We are introduced to this spunky elderly lady as she is moving into her new residence at the Devereux Hotel in seaside Littlehampton.  Her arrival causes some commotion because she does not follow the expected behaviors typified by solemn, droll, and sedate “upper class” worthies.  Immediately, Pargeter banters and shows her independence and spunk.  The other characters react in a variety of ways to this.  Brett does a very good job of describing the social sphere and the interactions of the characters.  He is an “observant” writer, even if he leans just slightly on the ridiculous.

Brett lets us meet the characters, though I am not sure we have access to every one of the clues.  He does provide a number of red herrings and false clues that should throw the reader once or twice. I never guessed correctly, so the ending got me!

Soon after Mrs. Pargeter’s arrival – a death occurs.  Mrs. Pargeter, while surfing the variety of entanglements in this closed community, also decides to do a little investigation on her own.  She is incredibly unobtrusive and does not always completely share her “deductions” with the reader.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to watch her patiently bide her time as she fits clues together.  Maybe she is a little too patient, though?

Through the course of these efforts, we also learn that Mrs. Pargeter and her late husband have lived quite unusual atypical lives.  Without my spoiling anything here, let me just say that we are not actually told a lot of detail about these things; Brett develops this subplot slowly and with some “mystery.” Nevertheless, this subplot might be more interesting than the actual plotline of the novel?  This Pargeter couple is definitely unique and interesting and may be the sole reason I really want to read book two in the series.

Due to this being rather unique and my preference for mysteries that take place in one building, I felt this could be four stars. Still, this is only a quick mystery novel and I am not convinced readers were given all the clues.  The ending to this story was very well done – a bit somber, a bit surprising. I think most general readers and mystery readers will enjoy this one.

3 stars

Castle Skull

Castle Skull - John Dickson Carr; 1960 Berkley

Castle Skull – John Dickson Carr; 1960 Berkley

 I finished John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull this evening.  It is the second Carr novel that I’ve read and also the second in the series starring Henri Bencolin.  It was originally published in 1931; I read the April 1960 Berkley edition with the super-awesome cover artwork.

The previous Bencolin novel that I read was a “locked-room” mystery.  It was decent; I gave it three stars.  I liked a lot about the novel, but it had some sections that did not work so well.  I really wanted to get to this novel sooner, but I ended up waiting until late in December to get to it.  The cover artwork really makes me happy and I am glad I have this edition. It reminds me of the first Three Investigators novel and also Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat.  I like haunted house mysteries and stories. I would probably get a kick out of those haunted dinner party events.  Anyway, I made sure I did not raise my expectations too high prior to reading this novel, so I was ready for anything.

This novel surprised me with how good it ended up being.  Two things stand out for me:  the juxtaposition of characters is top notch excellent work and the macabre ambiance of the setting is great.  The basic storyline is a brutal murder that takes place on the bank of the Rhine River.

The novel begins masterfully:  our star characters, Bencolin and Marle, are at a restaurant on the Champs Elysées drinking Vichy water and other things.  The first line of the novel is:

D’Aunay talked of murder, castles, and magic.

That is how you start an interesting novel!  It seems a bit obvious, I suppose, but on the other hand – the reader must read the next line, just to see what follows that opener. And so on.  And through this novel, I have decided that John Dickson Carr certainly knew how to write for his audience.  Throughout the novel, there are dozens of paragraphs and lines that jump out at the reader as just really nice pieces of prose. Really effective writing bits. Witty and interesting sentences that make this novel worth every cent.

I really do not want to give away a single tidbit or spoiler or detail that might ruin the reading experience for another reader.  So, I am being somewhat careful in what I write in this review.  Nevertheless, I can share some basic things.  Once again, the story is narrated by Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s pal from the first novel.  Bencolin himself is aloof, mysterious, and rather arrogant.  He’s described by characters as somewhat sinister – but definitely a man’s man. He’s a bigger fellow who can drink folks under the table, match wits in chess, gunplay, and poker.  Reminiscent of Christie’s Poirot, Bencolin can be disdainful and he purposely leaves the other characters (and, therefore, the reader) out of his deductive processes.  Marle seems a bit more intelligent in this novel than he did in the first.  But by no means is he a simpleton in either novel.

The plot pits the murdered character, an actor, against his neighbor and nemesis, a very sinister magician.  As Bencolin and Marle arrive at the scene to investigate, another official from the locale arrives. This is a German official who has a long-standing (not always friendly) competition with Bencolin.  So, the juxtaposition of these sets of characters is presented and the reader should really appreciate this.  At the nearby home of the murdered actor, a group of people is present – kept there by the police during the investigation.  These people are a variety of socialite-types who ran in somewhat of the same circle as the actor and his heirs.

There is a flavor, there is an old, dangerous, twilight charm, about the warrior Rhine when it leaves its lush wideness at Bingen.  Thence it seems to grow darker.  The green deepens almost to black, grey rock replaces vineyards, on the hills which close it in.  Narrow and widening now, a frothy olive-green, it rushes through a world of ghosts. – pg 12, Chapter 2

I’ve mentioned that the setting is awesome in this novel. And I mean so, even if I think it could have been utilized even more.  Maybe this is the sort of thing we expect Orson Welles and Hitchcock to collaborate on.  A castle that looks like a skull – on the deep-rooted heritage of the Rhine river – amidst difficult and steep terrain – with tumultuous weather patterns…  this novel has setting galore.  But it is not just dark and evil – there is also the brilliant juxtaposition of the two “houses.”  Like the actor vs. magician and detective vs. inspector, there is also the  house vs. house conflict.

All of the characters have intense personalities.  Sometimes, I did think that they may all be too melodramatic – but then, that’s why I read novels – not for banal and mundane characters!  There is a character in this novel, though, that is one of those super-memorable characters that the reader won’t forget anytime soon.  It is a little significant to remember this novel was published in 1931 and then to place these characters in that time period.  I say this because one of the characters would have an overwhelmingly potent personality in contemporary society – back then, this character would have been shocking. Literally: a real scream! A hoot! An undeniably hysterical classic! A cigar-smoking, Poker-playing, cocktail-drinking larger than life character! Reading just to meet this character (if not also for the mystery) is worthwhile.

I like the overall plot and throughout the novel there are a number of red herrings, diversions, and intrigues subsidiary to the actual crime that bulk out the plot. Some of these are interesting, some are a bit stereotypical.  But all in all, they are interesting and valuable to an entertaining story.  The “active” parts of the investigation are well written and the macabre setting is not overdone.  Marle is a good narrator. The reveal of the deduction is shocking and graphic (a bit gory, even). It’s really not for the tame.  But the last chapter of the story is also surprising and left me with a “ha! how about that!” sort of feeling.

I definitely recommend this novel.  It is not a speedy read, but it is not laborious.  Readers of vintage things, mystery fans, and fans of Clue should all enjoy this one.

5 stars

The Colorado Kid

The Colorado Kid - Stephen King; Hard Case Crime, 2005

The Colorado Kid – Stephen King; Hard Case Crime, 2005

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King was published in 2005.  I bought my copy years ago for $3.  I finally got around to reading it this past week because there was a lot of Haven watching going on around me and it occurred to me that that TV show is inspired by The Colorado Kid.  Anyway, the novel is a short, speedy read – I think I finished it in a day.

Overall, because the author is Stephen King, I think that this novel gets more praise and interest than it would if it had been written by almost any other author (with a few obvious exceptions).  I really like the Hard Case Crime concept – I cannot speak to their quality or their value. I just really like these pulp-style crime novels with vintage artwork covers. HCC has published many recognizable authors in their series; this novel by King is number 013 in the series.  Anyway, in the Afterword, King himself admits that this novel will divide readers – they will love it or hate it, he does not see any middle ground.

I did not hate this novel, but I really am not impressed whatsoever.  I accuse King of vague trickery with this one. Sure, it is a HCC novel and there is a vintage artwork cover on it. Yes, there is a mystery somewhere in the pages. However, as I was reading it and now afterwards, I keep asking myself:   is this really about anything or is it a novel about nothing? The novelty (pun intended) is that there is no closure or resolution to the mystery.  There really isn’t any deduction either.  Angela Lansbury and Sherlock Holmes are not showing up to follow the clues. Instead, at base, this is a rumination on what a “mystery story is” and what a “newspaper story” is.

The main characters are two elderly journalists who have developed a local newspaper (since 1948). They have hired on a young female intern named Stephanie to work at their paper The Weekly Islander.  Basically, the superficial story is that the two older writers are grooming/mentoring Stephanie to take over for them at the paper.  Part of doing this is getting her to value the local geography and society as well as teaching her various subtleties that are beyond textbook journalism basics.

Anyway, one evening the three journalists spend time discussing the locale’s “one big mystery.”  This mystery involves a John Doe body that was found back in 1980. And this is what this novel is really about.  It is a discussion on journalistic jurisdiction, the overarching purpose and goal of news items in a paper, and what a “story” consists of.  Ultimately, the three seem to conclude that mysteries that get published have closure and resolution – even if it is just what people want the end of the story to turn out to be. But real mystery stories tend to have a disconcerting multitude of deadends and open-ends.  And that is the sort of thing that doesn’t work just to sell papers and maybe puts more value in the journalist’s investigation than that of the policeman’s.

Nevertheless, is this novel really about anything? I go back and forth on this. In moments where I am feeling all speculative and academic I want to say that it is – it contains subtle ideas on stories and newspapers and mysteries etc.  In moments where I am feeling particularly empirical and dictatorial, well, I insist it is actually a faux-novel filled with nothing.

I’m only giving this two stars.  I’m not impressed. I just don’t think it is as insightful and witty as it wants to be. It is a quick read with a slight puff of twist to it.  Also, the effort King makes to have the characters speak in the local dialect is annoying. If I never read “Ayuh” again, it will be too soon.

2 stars