1920s

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

The Red House Mystery

red houseThe Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne is a rather famous mystery novel by the well-known author of Winnie The Pooh. It was first published in 1922.  I got my hardback copy back in 2018 and have been sluggish about reading it.  The cover design on the jacket is unremarkable and the first chapter is a wee bit difficult to read through unless you are in a patient mood. Once one gets beyond the first three chapters, though, the pages really do fly.

At first the novel really does seem precisely like some writing exercise. It seems as if it is an exercise in writing a whodunit mystery by a competent and, even, strong author. However, it does not immediately present as something engaging and exciting. The novel is very British and the setting is the not-quite-manor home of a man who is a bit of a fop and a dandy.  Truthfully, until I got a ways into the story, I really was doubting what all the fuss and praise for this novel were about.  I am really glad that I finally set myself to reading the whole thing and I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I am not sure it qualifies as one of the best I have ever read.  It did improve as I read along and I can recommend it to any general reader who enjoys vintage British mystery stories.

The characters are a bit unbelievable – particularly the four main characters.  Everything is such a setup for the story that I felt Milne might have been a bit lazy. It is not that the setting and characters do not work, it is just that it seems too easy. In other words, it feels like the author wants to write a murder mystery and wants to jump to the heart of the situation without any development or building as to why or whom or how. Just hurry up and get to the detecting parts of the thing.

In a lot of ways Antony, the main character, is too good to be true. He’s too smart, too slick, too convenient, too casual, too friendly, too forgiving, too honest.  I expect every reader likes him a whole lot and wants him to be safe and succeed and win the day.  However, if I am being honest, the character is a little too cool.

It is fun to follow his detecting. Antony is so smart about everything. He is good-natured and a real pal. So, as he runs through the various scenarios and investigates while he enjoys plenty of relaxation, the reader gets a good schooling on how to run a proper vintage British amateur locked-room murder mystery.  An official Inspector is, of course, called in to the crime scene, however, his deductions are not really a part of the story and only become interesting at the inquest.

As if Antony’s skills and personality were not enough, he gets his own “Watson” in this story. A younger lad named William Beverley who is willing to play the Watson rôle because he loves the fun and excitement of the whole thing. He keeps Antony company, does a bit of the dirty work, and provides a little comic relief. Bill Beverley is just the sort of harmless and helpful friend you would want to help you solve your murder mystery.

The murder is not very horrifying. It takes place in the office behind closed doors. The police are notified. Houseguests are sent away and “witnesses” are left to entertain themselves. The detecting takes place amidst dinners, pipe smoking, and leisurely walks. Eventually the frustrations and/or lack of possible solutions narrows the options to the point where the story must end. There can be nothing further to investigate.

I enjoyed the novel because it is a little bit of a writing exercise. I also enjoyed the camaraderie and fun spirit of the characters.  They poke fun at Sherlock and Watson, they tease detective novels, and they sport about the manor home. The story itself is grounded and reasonable. There is a lot to like in the novel and I think it is good to have read it, but it will not remain in my collection because I doubt I would read it again.

3 stars

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

Men Without Women

Men Without WomenMen Without Women is a short story collection by Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961). It contains fourteen stories, first published in 1927, and is Hemingway’s second such collection. It is, I think, the first of Hemingway that I have ever read. I know, I know, I know Hemingway is some sort of big deal; important author or major writer or whatever. To me, there was never any appeal to his writing and, frankly, anytime I learned a tidbit about his life and lifestyle, I was less than enthused.

Truthfully, I wanted to read the short story Fifty Grand. And then, I told myself, I could feel better about reading Haruki Murakami’s work of this same title (Men Without Women, 2017). I’m endlessly about proper method. Finally, though I have no strong desire to read Hemingway, if I was going to ever read Hemingway, starting with a small well-received story collection is likely the best entrance.

  • The Undefeated – 3 stars
  • In Another Country – 3 stars
  • Hills Like White Elephants – 1 star
  • The Killers – 4 stars
  • Che Ti Dice La Patria? – 2 stars
  • Fifty Grand – 4 stars
  • A Simple Enquiry – 1 star
  • Ten Indians – 3 stars
  • Canary for One – 2 stars
  • An Alpine Idyll – 3 stars
  • A Pursuit Race – 1 star
  • Today is Friday – 2 stars
  • Banal Story – 0 stars
  • Now I Lay Me – 2 stars

Well, the final rating for this collection is 2 stars. This kind of fell exactly in the place I thought it would. I do not care for (most) American literature, I have a distaste for Hemingway, and I do not have a strong tolerance for certain topics. I did come to the collection with an even temperment; I went into this thing open-minded. 

So three of the stories are, to my mind, utter trash. “A Pursuit Race,” “Banal Story,” “A Simple Enquiry.”  Rubbish. Now, I am sure there are plenty of other people out there who disagree with my assessment. I encourage them to start their own blogs and pontificate at length about the stupid philosopher who called some of Hemingway’s stories “trash.” However, I am not one to budge easily from my opinions, so its probably not worth arguing with me about these stories. I disliked them for different reasons, but mainly because at the end of them I have no idea what the point of reading – or having written them in the first place – could be. Why? Stream of consciousness junk for “Banal Story.”  “A Pursuit Race” is sad in topic, but what was the point of the story? “A Simple Enquiry” is also something that I finished and wondered briefly what the point of writing that would be. Why bother. Kind of felt that way about “Hills Like White Elephants” – but in that story the writing is a bit better. I mean, the actual wordsmithing. 

Instead of wasting time talking about things I do not like, let me expand on those stories that I felt were very good reads. I was impressed with “The Killers.”  I could recommend this to a lot of folks for a good, quick read. Also, I think if I am going to continue reading noir/crime fiction, this was a good one to include right in the start of my journey. I liked locating the story in Henry’s cafe/diner. I wanted to belly up to the lunch bar for a club sandwich. Or eggs and bacon. I liked the cook who wants nothing to do with any of it, but has curiosity anyway. I like the realism in the snippets of choppy conversation. I like the way the storyline went with Ole Anderson. This is a good solid short story. And I think, though I could be way off here, its fairly representative of Hemingway’s alleged patent style.

“Fifty Grand” more or less met my expectations. I wanted a gritty story about boxing that was realistic. Not shiny current-day boxing with social media and glitter. But old-time boxing with all the underlying crime and troubles. You know, the kind that our grandparents and great-grandparents knew about. I know this is a good story because I am going to remember it for awhile. Its not going to fade away and be lost in all the many things I have read. Frankly, I think Hemingway should have written exclusively about boxing and bullfighting. His war stuff annoys me and makes me feel sour. 

“An Alpine Idyll” has an unexpectedness to it. Maybe this is something of what all the Hemingway fans are on about. The story starts off with two skiers, returning to their hotel after being tired out from skiing. They are exasperated and cranky from “doing the thing too long.” Sun all day and poor snow conditions made them weary. Hemingway does a really good job of wordsmithing here – letting us see the scenery and the exasperated over-skied fellows heading back to the hotel. If you try, its quite easy to conjure the scene in your imagination. 

“We better have some more beer,” John said.

Though Hemingway does not actually describe the beer, I could almost taste it. The bottles of cold beer after a long day that became draining and tedious. I love the way John deadpans “we better have some more beer.” Yes, we better. Because. Beer. John. The story takes an odd turn to talking about “peasants” who live in these snowy mountains. Olz just buried his wife and he is the subject of the conversation.  It is an odd “slice of life” sort of story, but just the sort of story one would hear in a hotel at the bottom of a skiing mountain with bored men and a couple of beers. We are left with not being really certain if there is a tall tale being told, or if there is a sinister side to the story, or if its just something being made out of nothing. This is why my buddy John says: “Say, how about eating?”  The story of the peasant and his wife was fine, but after a tiring day and a couple of beers, no one really cares about it anyway.  If the food is as good as those beers, I am sure John and Nick had a great hearty meal.

“Ten Indians” is not a nice story. It is a bit raw and ugly. Its rural and Americana and not things that appeal to me a whole lot. However, the last two paragraphs make up for the ugly of the rest of the story. My rating, really, is based on those last two paragraphs. Anyway, here we have Hemingway’s star character, Nick, riding home with some neighbor friends from a holiday event. In a horse cart. I am going to admit, as soon as I put any of that together it was difficult to keep reading. I have a strong dislike for rural horsecart Fourth of July things. Now, the randomness of the indians all over place is absurd. I do not know if this is racist or bizarre or some hidden symbolism by a weird writer. The rating I gave to this story comes from Nick’s broken heart and the last few paragraphs. 

I do not read a lot of bullfighting stories. Nowadays, I feel, bullfighting is looked down upon, so even if there are stories about bullfighting, well, they are surely different. Sometimes I do think I was born in the wrong time period. Anyway, my experience with bullfighting is through my father’s stories of him having to go to Mexico to retrieve G.I.s who would get rowdy and arrested at Mexican bullfighting arenas. When I was in my very low single digits, the only book I would read or have read to me was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. (1936) I have not watched the recent (2017) film they made. Just to be clear about this childhood obsession, the library had TWO COPIES of this book. When mother would return the book at the counter (remember they stamped the cards?), I would go to the shelves and get “the other copy.”  So, mother had literally a revolving borrowing of the two copies. This. Was. All. That. I Read. Ever. For. Years.  I have also read Yasushi Inoue’s “Bullfight” and I thought quite highly of that – however that story is not quite the same as Spanish bullfighting, I believe. 

Needless to say, I have a tendency to enjoy bullfighting stories. Hemingway’s “The Undefeated” is excellent.  The characters are rustic and rough.  The reader attends the fight right there on the shoulder of the matador, eye level, dust blowing up at us. The writing is spare, but honest. This is a good story. 

So, at the completion of this collection, I have to say it is about what I expected.  I dislike Hemingway, but I still found some things to enjoy and praise. The stories I did not enjoy, I was actually surprised by how much I did not enjoy them. Still, I am glad I read this collection – it is never a bad thing to read new things. I do not know how soon (if ever) I will return to Hemingway, but I will not forget too quickly some of the stories here. I can recommend this collection to readers who like spare writing and who are tired of shiny characters and blazing success stories. 

After reading all of this, the good and the bad, I’m with John: “Say, what about eating?”

2 stars

The Roman Hat Mystery

The Roman Hat Mystery - Ellery Queen; Signet, 1967

The Roman Hat Mystery – Ellery Queen; Signet, 1967

The Roman Hat Mystery was first published in 1929.  It was written by “Ellery Queen,” which in this instance is the collaboration of two cousin-authors:  Frederic Danny and Manfred Lee.  (Those names are also aliases.)  This is the first of the Ellery Queen novels – in this instance referring to one of the major characters in the series.  Ellery Queen, the character, is a mystery writer and amateur detective who assists his father, Richard Queen, a New York City police inspector.  “Ellery Queen” has also been used as a house name and a title which anthologizes mystery stories.

Overall, I expected better.  I was anticipating a better story.  Compared to stories about Lord Peter, Poirot, Nero Wolf, et al., this novel does not fare too well.  The first chapter is interesting and sets up what could be a taut and unique story.  However, the characters started to annoy me and I was very underwhelmed by the pacing of the story.

The Queens, father and son, really get on my nerves and annoy the heck out of me. The father, Richard, is supposedly an older man with a benevolent smile and gentle demeanor. Frankly, I find him churlish, moody, and immature.  The son, Ellery, reminds me of a big oaf.  He is allegedly broad-shouldered and tall, is constantly in a near-haze mentally, and fiddles endlessly with his pince-nez. His entrance into the story comes with some excitement – as if he is an intriguing character.  However, all he does is mope around and whine. He’s like an oversize turd who tries very hard to seem detached and wise. And between the father and son is a clearly co-dependent and exhausting relationship.

Not to mention Djuna, the non-white teenager that somehow Richard managed to bring into their home and subjugate into being a sort of manservant/cook.  Djuna is often compared to a monkey who simply adores his master, Richard. There’s a whole lot of weirdness about this.

Some readers have complained that this novel is “dated.”  Generally, I take “dated” to mean that it is difficult to read and enjoy without contextualizing it within a distant time period/setting.  Being “dated” does not necessarily mean anything, though, because there are heaps of works that are read and valued even though they are not recently published.  I do think we should read this novel (and others like it) with an understanding that it was written in 1928/1929.   Telephones operated differently and there was no internet. However, even for that dating it is difficult to accept as matter-of-fact the motive for the murderer in this story.

Anyway, the good parts of the novel are the actual setting and the props. I like murders in darkened theatres! I like that the theatre was presenting the stageplay “Gunplay!”  I like that there are a variety of characters – from rascal kids, to plump doormen, to sharp-witted policemen.  I like the props:  top hats and bowlers, evening capes and walking sticks, spats and decanters.  Heck, I am more comfortable with all of those items than with what I can accessorize with today!

I think the novelty of this story is that the authors supposedly put forth enough evidence/clues for the reader to race against the detectives and solve the crime.  Well, I guessed part of the solution – simply because it was the obvious.  I did not guess the murderer – or his motive – because that is a bit of a stretch.  And the “false leads” seem too convenient qua false leads.

The book is spoiled by the awfully annoying Queens and the horrendously slow pacing.  The pacing is so slow that chapters go by with literally nothing happening.  Put it this way:  most of the time I want to telephone the Queens up and tell them to “do something!”  instead of sitting around re-tracing their steps or sitting around snorting their snuff boxes. C’mon, get up and do work!

Anyway, I am glad I read it – to say that I read it.  I may try Ellery Queen again sometime, but no time soon. Really, this is only for the vintage-novel reader.

2 stars

Clouds of Witness

Clouds of WitnessClouds of Witness is the second Lord Peter Whimsey mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers.  It was first published in 1926.  It is also the second novel that I have read in the series.  Once again, I am pleased by the effort and absolutely love the main character.

There is a whole lot that appeals to me in this novel, much of it the same as with the first novel.  I continually see similarities between Whimsey and myself.  He and I have that 100-mph mannerism that just can make the most boring story (a murder at a lodge on the moors) an exciting and interesting caper. And Bunter – dear, wonderful Bunter – is once again the epitome of perfect manservant.

The other characters in the novel are interesting as well.  The reader is allowed to come onto this property on the moors and associate with several members of the Whimsey family.  We get to know a lot more about Peter’s sister, Mary, and their brother Gerald.  Gerald, by the way, is the accused in this murder mystery!  We also learn that Gerald is not as droll as we had originally thought!

In this novel, Sayers both supports and mocks the peerage.  There are discussions on “the working man” versus the gentry.  We hear from a variety of people regarding this manner and are witness to the spectacle that comes from accusing the Duke of Denver of murder.  Sayers pokes fun at the pomp and circumstance and yet also shows an astute respect and caring toward the lordships.  It is definitely a novel that readers fond of Great Britain’s “houses” won’t mind reading.

Sayers’ ability to manage the characters and plot while also turning a phrase, providing misdirections, and giving subtle and witty amusements is impressive.  It is one thing to write a good story, it is quite another to write one that also has little asides of humor and show brilliant wit.  There are several sections wherein I had to visibly grin while reading because it was so skillfully written.

Some people might find Lord Peter to be a bit unfocused or random.  They may even think he is unable to be serious – he often seems to derail, interrupt, or wonder aloud.  I know this frustrates people – because I tend to feel that frustration levied toward myself more often than not.  Like Peter, though, I have a loyal group of friends that join me on all of my adventures.  Peter’s biggest help in this novel (besides the indefatigable Bunter) is Charles Parker.  Parker and Whimsey begin by combing the grounds of the property looking for clues:

“Serve him glad,” said Lord peter viciously, straightening his back.  “I say, I don’t think the human frame is very thoughtfully constructed for this sleuth-hound business.  If one could go on all-fours, or had eyes in one’s knees, it would be a lot more practical.”   pg. 48, Chapter 3

I know that in this series, Lord Peter is supposed to “age naturally,” meaning, I think, that he doesn’t stay the same age for five novels and have 85 cases to solve per year.  Nevertheless, I have been unable to imagine him as more than in his late 30s. I know there have been some TV episodes, but I feel their portrayal is too elderly.  I don’t care what the chronology looks like – Peter is so youthful and energetic, he cannot be played by some grey-haired actor.

Doing more sleuthing, Whimsey is retelling part of the story to Parker, and Peter interrupts himself to ask Parker if he knows how to spell ipecacuanha.  Parker does:

“Damn you!”  said Lord Peter.  “I did think I’d stumped you that time.  I believe you went and looked it up beforehand.  No decent-minded person would know how to spell ipecacuanha out of his own head.”  pg. 103, Chapter 6

It really is not a stretch to hear myself saying those lines.  In Chapter 4, there is a small interchange between Peter and Bunter regarding Bunter’s mother – and it is priceless and amusing!  Whimsey surprised to learn that Bunter has one!  Nevertheless, though Peter surely aggravates the heck out of his friends, Chapter 12 demonstrates the loyalty and love his friends and family have for him.  And, honestly, even in dire circumstances, Peter still is sarcastic and obnoxious.  But in an almost self-effacing manner. Whew! Scary moments in that chapter! I am not any more endeared to moors having read this chapter.

With that instinct which prompts one, when depressed, to wallow in every circumstance of gloom, Peter leaned sadly upon the hurdles and abandoned himself to a variety of shallow considerations upon (1) the vanity of human wishes; (2) Mutability; (3) first love; (4) The decay of idealism; (5) the aftermath of the Great War; (6) birth-control; and (7) the fallacy of free-will. This was his nadir, however.

Our plucky hero picks up his spirits and trudges onward across this miserable moor.  I confess I probably have had my share of moments wherein I have paused in some mundane task to consider these kosmically heavy concepts.

The resolution for the mystery is given in the end chapters of the book during the court case.  Part of the storyline of this novel is that this trial involves a Duke.  So, of course, Sayers wants to show us the rigamarole of the court case involving the gentry.  I am just not a fan of courtroom dramas/stories/mysteries, etc.  Make no mistake:  these chapters are exceedingly well-written and are actually very entertaining.  I am just not a reader with patience for such things.

4 stars

Metropolis

MetropolisI read some books. I review some books. But I think this will be among the most difficult of reviews to write.  Metropolis – the novel and the movie – is no simple thing to be just dismissed.  Also, it is difficult to explain any part of the plot without giving away the whole thing.  Metropolis was published (I think) in 1926.  Its author is Thea von Harbou (1888 – 1954), one time wife of Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976), the very famous German filmmaker.  In a lot of ways, Thea’s life is just as fascinating as the author whom I read before this novel (Ernst Jünger) and I feel like reading that novel and then Metropolis was a good one-two punch.

I have decided to write this review as if I have never seen the film.  As I was reading the novel, it did make me want to watch the movie again. Beyond that I kept comparing the two and it got slightly messy. So I think it best to just focus on the novel.  However, if you have seen the movie, you should definitely still read the novel as it explains and fleshes out a lot of the movie.  Let’s face it, the movie is not the most straight-forward and watchable movie ever made.

Anyway, I do not know if this is science fiction, romance (traditionally used), or propaganda.  I also do not know if it fits in the category of “dystopia.”  I have seen it referred to as “expressionist” and “fantastic.”  I mention all of this to share with the reader that this is, from the start, a difficult novel to read and/or describe.

A lot of reviewers/critics have said that this is a futuristic story.  An early science fiction dystopia, as it were. Something along the lines of 1984.  I do not really agree with any of this.  Sure, there are some “fantastic science” elements, but I would not classify this novel along those lines.  I think that to do so really misunderstands the author and the story itself.  I maintain that the author is very much a product of her times and as such is very connected with the political, social, and economic sensations rippling through the continent in these years.  I believe, also, that she was an intuitive and creative person.  Finally, reading this novel I got the feeling that Thea von Harbou was a “strong German woman.”  This woman was ensnared in her country and in her times.  And she made decisive movements within them.

I do not have a command of German, but there are sections in which I wished I could hear it in German – audio.  Not written-English.  Particularly the times in which von Harbou uses the technique of repetition and reiteration.  I’ll be honest – the first time it occurred I just assumed it was because in vintage things, there is often poor editing and type-work.  But after awhile, I was able to recognize how this repetition really drills home the concepts von Harbou is working with.

The novel is thoroughly saturated with a lofty Christianity; sometimes appearing as symbols, sometimes as apocalyptic themes, sometimes as blatant points (e.g. Maria, Paternoster).  Some of this is a little tedious and it gets a little bizarre at times.  And the level of saturation makes me wonder if von Harbou did not impose a “romance” onto the structure of Christianity?  In other words, did she start with a foundation of Christianity and then tack various fiction story bits onto it?  Well, most of this makes the story somewhat cumbersome and not as accessible as it would be otherwise.

Metropolis is very much a story of redemption.  But the author tries to pack a lot of other heavyweight concepts into the novel.  And for this reason, mainly, I give it only four stars.  There’s too much and the author does lose the reins several times.  Is this a romance? A story of redemption? A novel of revolution? A vindication of the authority or a condemnation of the technocrat?  Are we supporting revolution or denouncing it?  Is this a warning? A call-to-arms?  In other words, all these “themes” are expected in such a novel from that time period – but there’s a little too much going on here.  At times, von Harbou steps back or does a 180°.

However, there are chapters and scenes of breathtaking awesome brilliance.  In fact, I want to ask the author if she went back in time and actually witnessed nights of terror and the storming of the Bastille.  She writes a scary, dark night in which Metropolis falls.  She does not wimp out when she gets to this part.  However, my favorite parts of the novel are chapters 12 and 13.  In these chapters, we see the opposite of a militant, strong German revolutionary.  In these chapters, the author writes love and emotion and loss and sorrow.  Very emotive chapters – but without all the drippyness of current-day writers.  Somehow the massive emotion and understanding of the human condition is transmitted without floppy words or annoying prose.  These two chapters are exceedingly well done.  [Chap. 12:  Joh goes to his mother, Chap. 13: Rotwang implores Maria]

Overall, this is a very weird read.  And it is not very accessible.  It is not a perfect, lovely read – it has plenty of issues. Nevertheless, I think really, really well-rounded readers will want to take a look at this.  And, of course, people who want to understand the film.

4 stars

Whose Body?

Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers; New English Library; 1988

Well, the first book to be read and reviewed in 2014 happens to be a Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) novel.  Whose Body? was first published in 1923; I read the 1988 New English Library edition, which I picked up used for $1.80.  This novel is the first of Sayers’ novels, therefore it is also the first in her series starring the private amateur detective Lord Peter Whimsey.

I have been reading older books rather than freshly published ones.  I am trying to especially bulk out the 1920s and 1930s. Why? Absolutely no reason whatsoever.  Random idea.  And I am not really serious about it, just something I am in the process of doing.  Hence, Sayers falls into this category.  She also falls into the category of early detective mysteries. But beyond that, one of the last things that a very old professor (Emeritus and with a lecture series named after them) was working on before they really retired [this can be taken in several senses] was commenting on the religious and philosophical ideas found in Sayers.  This may seem totally non-academic, but I must gently remind you this was more so busywork and senior-minded hobbying; the years for true academic research long past.  At the time I witnessed this work, the professor was 80 years old.  I was always slightly curious about their interest in the author/works.

Well, so, I started reading this novel with zero expectations. I did not know what to expect and I did not demand anything from the novel.  It starts off a little jarringly, I have to say.  The main character, Lord Peter Whimsey, is en route somewhere – but we join the story as he is requesting the cab driver to turn around and return to his house.  At first I was not sure what to make of the character or the story. I was really not sure that I would get through this novel in one piece. But Whimsey grew on me. And then I realized why I was becoming so fond of him….. he reminds me of me.

Seriously.  I didn’t realize it at first, but then I couldn’t help but notice. He’s not a dandy or a fop.  He’s this eccentric, extremely witty, aristocrat. A bon vivant, which is more or less…..well… me. He is an expert in foods and wines and wardrobe and he LOVES BOOKS and folios and incunabula.   Whimsey is 100mph and is a lot of excitement. Maybe this likeness tainted my enjoyment of the novel just slightly.  But also, his mother reminds me of my mother a bit, too.

“You see, Lady Swaffham, if ever you want to commit a murder, the thing you’ve got to do is to prevent people from associatin’ their ideas.  Most people don’t associate anythin’ – their ideas just roll about like so many dry peas on a tray, makin’  lot of noise and going nowhere, but once you begin lettin’ ’em string their peas into a necklace, it’s goin’ to be strong enough to hang you, what?” – Lord Whimsey, Chapter 7

Here’s the story sans spoilers:  a body is found in the bathtub of a certain simple-minded little man named Thipps.  Thipps has no idea who this is or how the body got into his bathtub.  Also, a self-made man of some repute has seemingly gone missing, wearing nothing but his birthday suit.  Lord Whimsey investigates with the help of his friend in the police, Detective Charles Parker and his totally awesome butler/valet Mervyn Bunter.  I suspect if I had a butler, he would have to be exactly like Bunter. And, really, Bunter is as much to credit for the resolution of the case as is Parker and Whimsey.

Sayers writes this novel utilizing lots of dialogue.  You have to follow along with discussions more so than descriptive prose.  This is okay because the majority of the characters say witty, interesting things.  One of the difficulties, though, is that Sayers does include dialect and slang and such.  So, unless you are British and/or reading aloud, it can slow your reading down just slightly until you get used to the “sound” of the voices.  I can see how this might drive some readers batty.  I got used to it and pressed onward without incident.

Sayers was criticized for the novel having a slightly anti-semitic tone.  Well, I am not going to really get into that – I do see how the criticism came about – certain characters do make some typically obnoxious statements, but I do feel it is par for the course with the setting and times of the novel.  It does not affect the novel in any major way, though.  Also, there is another detective that is investigating the case (Inspector Sugg) and it is hysterical whenever Whimsey and Parker mock him.  They obviously do not bear him ill-will, but they do get a kick out of mocking him.  So, the reader probably should take most of this novel on that level.

Anyway, I am definitely going to read more of Lord Whimsey’s series.  I am glad I read this one and I did have fun with it. Wrote down three quotes and laughed aloud a couple of times.  Also, I might start shouting for Bunter.

3 stars

The Big Four

TheBigFourThe Big Four is Agatha Christie’s fifth Hercule Poirot book, fourth novel.  I enjoyed it, Poirot was a lot of fun, and it was good to have Hastings back in the story.  It was originally published in 1927 and some of the language is not as politically-correct, as we say nowadays, as one would think.  Christie was, obviously, a spunky and sharp-witted woman.

The Big Four is perfect for people who are new to Poirot, I think, and don’t really enjoy cozy mysteries.  This is really a mystery/thriller and really seems a prime candidate for some film company to use as a summer blockbuster.  Adjust a few things, get a couple solid actors, and shazam! a movie.   The storyline speeds along much quicker in this novel than in the previous ones and there are more physical confrontations.  In the previous novels, Poirot and Hastings do not really deal with situations in which they are in true physical danger.  Generally, they are involved in intellectual battles.

The Big Four is actually an international group of anarchist criminals.  There are four and we are to believe that they have a hand in many worldwide occurrences.  In fact, today, we would call them a terrorist cell.  Christie, I feel, was trying out Poirot on a big stage – international events and crimes that affect the world, not just some small UK village.  I kind of want to ask Christie:  “So, how do you feel about Poirot and Hastings on this level?”  I think Poirot is much more charming on a smaller scale, but I do want to say that this story seems to make Poirot even more unbelievably impressive.

At points, the reader will truly feel that Christie is pulling a bit too much from Doyle’s Watson, Sherlock, Moriarty, Irene setup.  And I’m okay with it.  Other readers may want to complain about using a recycled idea.   Another small complaint:  Hastings rushed off to Argentina, but in this novel it seems like he is in England with Poirot (and for no other reason than hanging out with Poirot) for at least two years.  I mean, what was all the googly-eyed romance about his wife about if he can take off to England for years?  This was a bit odd.  On the other hand, yeah, we missed Hastings, so who cares about his silly wife in South America?

I probably should give this novel 3 stars.  However, I am giving it 4.  I cannot help myself… I still love Poirot and Agatha is a Dame Commander, so who am I to criticize?  I think I will try to cast this movie in my head this evening. Should be a fun supper activity.  And thinking about a book after the last page is done good and read is a good sign!

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but OF COURSE I have to give this FOUR stars!)

4 stars

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger AckroydThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Agatha Christie’s fourth Hercule Poirot book, third novel.  It was published in 1926 and it is the third Agatha Christie book I have read.  It is actually one of Christie’s most well-known books, particularly because of the twist in the method of telling the story – which, if you have not read the book, do not read about it – but go ahead and read the actual novel.  I would tell you – but it would wreck it.  So, this review will have to seem a bit ambiguous.

I kept myself innocent of knowledge about the novel and therefore, I was duly surprised and impressed by the famous “twist.”  Also, I give it five stars because of the twist and the continuous wit throughout the novel.  I really enjoyed the novel.  It’s almost a “locked room murder.” Hastings is alluded to, but we learn he has gone off to the Argentine.  Taking his place is the narrator of the story, Dr. Sheppard.

Poirot is really well-developed in this novel.  Much more so than in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links.  Christie gives a more complete picture of Poirot – and he is slightly less frustrating than in the previous two novels.  He is witty, amusing, and solves the mystery with panache.  How can you not love Poirot?

This novel has so much wit in it. Dry humor. Sarcastic humor.  Amusing characters.  I absolutely love the characters of Dr. Sheppard and his sister.  Their interactions are wonderful.  Also, I really think Christie describes Dr. Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, with such insight and perfection that Christie must have known a person in real life such as Caroline.  And don’t we all?  After all, one thing that I do like about these characters in this novel is that I feel I know someone like each of them.  To include the tedious Mrs. Ackroyd.

One of the many amusing lines, from chapter 14:

“The English people, they have a mania for the fresh air,” declared Poirot. “The big air, it is all very well outside, where it belongs.  Why admit it to the house?”

I really chuckled at this because Poirot is such a stubborn and enigmatic character – plus, Christie loves using him to represent stereotypes of the French (Belgian) and English.  She’s poking fun at all of us and it is a real hoot.

I recommend this novel for everyone .  Sure, even if you are more shrewd than I and figure out the twist long before the ending, I think you will still enjoy the wit and setup in the novel.  The characters, for sure, are worthy.  If you are like me, and enjoying being surprised by the twists and turns of detective novels, you’ll like this one – it is a classic one that influenced the detective novel henceforth.

5 stars