1930s

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives – Leo Bruce

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

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

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

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

One of my favorite sections is in chapter 8:

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

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

Some reviews about this novel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

Peril at End House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

The Carter of La Providence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars

Rogue Male

rogue-male largeFirst published in May 1939, Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household is another good read that NYRB publishing has returned to bookshelves. I believe this NYRB edition is 2007. It is a slender novel of merely 208 pages, but it contains a very interesting plotline.  It is a very masculine read, whatever that may mean. ‘Masculine’ being the adjective that I think best describes it – so it will fit on that “Man’s Man” bookshelf alongside Hemingway, Bukowski, and Haggard.  The plotline is in that group of novels that include assassinations, fugitives, and secret agent novels. So, think along the lines of Joseph Conrad and John Buchan.

In a nice pseudo-noir fashion, the reader never learns details about the characters – details such as names, birthdays, and other specific data. However, instead of the novel simply being a chase novel, Household writes intriguing and often insightful assessments of psychological importance. The main character, a member of the highest-level of British society is an avid sportsman. He is no debutante amateur in hunting; throughout the novel we are given plenty of examples of how well this character understands hunting and its associated skills.

Anyway, the novel is supposedly composed of the character’s writings as events occur – or soon thereafter, as in a journal.  The combination of the character being well-educated have possessing a high status in society allows for the journal to be quite a bit more psychological and thoughtful than one would expect from a hunter. Or at least, more than I would expect, which would be merely like a sniper’s log.

One of the key points throughout the novel is that the reader must question much of what the character has written. This is because as the novel (journal) progresses, the character also peels away self-deceptions and discovers more about his own actions and the motives behind them.  Therefore, when we first read that the character finds himself with his firearm on the compound of a political figure, maybe the prima facie reasoning needs to be questioned. But who can have time for that – because immediately, the chase is on.

This shooting trip of mine, started, I believe, innocently enough.  Like most Englishmen, I am not accustomed to enquire very deeply into motives.  I dislike and disbelieve in cold-blooded planning, whether it be suggest of me or of anyone else.  I remember asking myself when I packed the telescopic sight what the devil I wanted it for; but I just felt that it might come in handy. – pg. 8

Do you believe this? The reader, throughout, might question the truth-value of those statements. Well, the plot moves onward:  the main character is chased by the agents of the dictator – chased through the woodland in which he was found and then further chased throughout his own country. The hunter becomes the hunted.

Of course, the novel touches on all the expected points:  the devolution into an ersatz animal-state, loneliness, survival, etc.  All of this is done well and I think it is even more interesting coming from the very English point of view of the character.

Motives are, more or less, what this novel is about – under the rather well-constructed surface story of the hows and wheres of the fugitive and his narrow escapes. In fact, it is not until much later in the novel that the character, in his journal writing, tells the reader a sketchy and detail-less moment about a former romance – how does this romance influence the character’s actions? Further, does the character himself even know?

I wanted to give this novel four stars.  I found it very interesting and highly entertaining. However, there are several places where “you just gotta be there.” By this I refer to points in which the main character is describing things and its just too difficult to really picture what he is describing. I mean, there is a general image – but the details are too messy or undefined. I feel the author is very clearly describing something he knows well, but even for all of that, its too much for the reader to mentally build a perfect representation of the scene or item. But if the reader is at all hindered in this closely followed hunt, then I must deduct a star. The thrill of the hunt is based on the “being there” and if the reader cannot truly picture every fibre of grass and every scent of mud, then it is not as good as it needs to be.

Finally, Asmodeus. The cat. He is eternal. I love cats. I want to give the main character a gold star for understanding them. And avenging them.

3 stars

Why Shoot a Butler?

Why Shoot a ButlerThis year I have mainly read vintage science fiction novels. While that remains my preferred genre, I do like to read just about everything else as well. However, I admit, the other genres usually do not entertain me or engage me as successfully as the science fiction. So, giving space and aliens and the future of humanity a break, I spent some time in the household library digging out non-science fiction novels. Georgette Heyer’s (1902 – 1974) Why Shoot a Butler? was one of those. I believe it was first published in 1933. I believe it is Heyer’s second true-detective story, however she did write several other novels prior to this one.

Anyway, I enjoyed this novel as expected. It took me a moment to get used to the writing style and the diction of the characters. For one thing, the characters are all very sarcastic and until you get used to their remarks, it can be odd. The main character is introduced to the reader as he is en route to a country manor house, surly because he will arrive late for supper.  Heyer is upfront about Frank Amberley; she shares with us at several points that he can be abrasive and unlikable. Well, I never disliked him – but I never came to side with him, either. He is pompous and arrogant. Nevertheless, he is the detective in this story (his actual occupation is that of a barrister.) And he stumbles upon the murdered butler in chapter one.

Anyone who enjoys settings in the English countryside with manor homes and game preserves and little cottages will probably appreciate Heyer’s work here. There does seem to be a dizzying amount of twisting, half-paved country roads.  Still, she does not give in to long descriptions detailing the lawns, gardens, rooms, and decor of the area. Maybe, just maybe, I could have read a few more lines about all of this. Not much more, mind you.

It is good that the title is a question. This is not, as they say, a “fair-play” novel. I don’t mind that at all. Heaven knows I am not getting paid to be detective! I want to be entertained, not play Inspector! I am given to understand that some readers dislike not having an honest shot at solving mystery novel crimes. The title is a question and throughout there will be a lot of questions. Heyer provides a sketchy crime and a number of possible suspects. More than anything, however, the motive is hidden from the reader, and I could see that being somewhat frustrating.

“Why did he come snooping up here? Don’t say because he was tight, because I shall be sick if I hear that again.  If I went bursting into a strange house and tried to shoot up the place and then said I was tight by way of excuse, would you be satisfied with that? Like hell you would! That chap wanted to shoot up someone to start with.  Then he had four or five drinks and thought: By Jove, I’ll go straight off and do it.  Don’t tell me that just because a fellow’s three sheets in the wind it’s the natural reaction for him to get hold of a gun, stagger off several miles to a house he’s never been near before, and turn it into a shooting gallery. It’s childish.”  – pg. 109, Chapter Seven

This sort of sentiment is probably going to be felt by the reader, too. It always seems like events keep happening but we don’t have any idea why they should keep happening other than there is a reason out there somewhere.

Also, while I do not think there is a significant amount of gunplay, it did amuse me that Frank Amberley seems to be quite often coming upon handguns and depositing them in his coat pockets. Heyer never bothers to tell us what he does with them; I think it safe to assume he does something sane and reasonable. But it is fun to imagine this fellow walking around with every pocket containing a handgun.

Most readers seem to like Heyer’s characters – she seems to be well-known for creating likeable, interesting, and curious characters. In this novel the characters are somewhat face-value, no one undergoes a grand change in personality or development. They are all unique in their way, except for the police force.  All of the policemen are absolute bumbling idiots and are constantly being mocked for it. My favorite character in the novel is Lady Matthews who is Amberley’s aunt.

“Can’t talk in a public lounge, dear child.  So unwise. They always do it in bad thrillers, and it invariably leads to disaster.” – pg. 224, Chapter Fifteen

The majority of the novel contains a lot of back-and-forth movement. Driving, riding, pedaling, and walking back and forth to the three or four main locations. Honestly, it gets a bit dizzying and annoying. The dénouement is overly long – I stopped caring long before the characters stopped talking about the events. Sure, I guess it explains everything, but in a drawn out way that is unnecessary.

Recommended for fans of English countryside mysteries and vintage mysteries. I would gladly read Heyer again. I will miss Lady Matthews, though…

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

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 League of Frightened Men

The League of Frightened Men - Rex Stout

The League of Frightened Men – Rex Stout

The second Nero Wolfe novel was published in 1935.  I read the previous Rex Stout effort and so was really excited to get my hands on this book. I ordered it straightaway and read it through.  I think I liked it just as well as the previous novel – but this one seems to be written better.  I zoomed through the first couple of chapters right away and it was immediately fun to hang out with Archie and Nero again.

The voice of the narrator, Archie Goodwin, is very unique.  His narration is interesting and helpful and seems consistent to his character. Also, every once in awhile Archie gives a turn of phrase that makes me read it twice because it is so quirky or unusual.

My first impression of Nero Wolfe was not that I disliked him, but that I felt a lot of other readers would dislike him.  Or misunderstand him. I think he is a hoot – although I am still occasionally taken aback by some of the banter and sniping that he and Archie share. Nero Wolfe (after these two novels) is a bit of an enigma and a person one cannot help but be curious about.  I also feel that Wolfe would say there is actually nothing to be curious about.  Anyway, one of my favorite moments is the “trick” Wolfe uses with Spenser’s poem “The Shepheardes Calender” – and when Archie gets sarcastic later on with Wolfe about this “trick.”  It’s so witty.

Descriptors that come to mind referencing Wolfe are easily “obese” and “smart.”  However, I think a very necessary ingredient to his make up is a bravado/confidence.  He is not really a person who is capable of false humility or insecurity.  And it is this odd confidence found in an agoraphobic that really interests me qua reader.

“Don’t badger me. I read it because it was a book.  I had finished The Native’s Return, by Louis Adamic, and Outline of Human Nature, by Alfred Rossiter, and I read books.” – Nero Wolfe to Archie, pg. 18; chapter 2

This semi-churlish quote from Wolfe amused me.  But I, of course, had to look up the names of these.  I am pretty sure other readers probably run right past them. I cannot let a book reference in a book go un-researched.  Anyway, I discovered that Alfred Rossiter was a relatively famous and successful astronomer who married Ruth Stout. Ruth is Rex Stout’s sister.  Kudos to Rex for planting this little reference in his novel!

I like the way Stout writes because I can be in the scene with the characters.  Somehow, using Archie’s voice and Wolfe’s uniqueness, I can easily form images of the scenes in the novel.  Everything is so clear for me to imagine.  I contrast this with so many novels that, try as I might, I can only summon up some vague picture that may not really be accurate to the author’s conception.  In this novel, I was right in the Wolfe’s office, in the roadster with Archie, and in the Inspector’s building.

Anyway, this is reputed to be a major example of a psychology-filled mystery. I think that is clearly accurate.  There’s a lot of “psychology” going on in this novel – not just with the overall criminal.  As far as “scientific psychological analysis,” that’s something different.  But fiction-wise, this novel presents characters that are not just handed some flat and barren motive that allows the heroes to hunt them down.  Archie and Nero are astute with examining people and describing the other characters in terms of psychological-driven ideas, mores, motives, and moods.  It’s very well done and deserves most of the praise given to it.

However, I think this novel is a bit long. The mystery, that is.  There are a lot of mis-trails and re-directions.  They all seem connected and some seem needless. And maybe it is not exactly the most logically-precise wrap up of a mystery.  But that is okay, because it is quite entertaining and a truly interesting read.  Once again, mystery readers will not be disappointed whatsoever.

4 stars

Fer-de-Lance

Fer-de-Lance - Rex Stout; Pyramid, 1968

Fer-de-Lance – Rex Stout; Pyramid, 1968

Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was first published in 1934. It is the first in the Nero Wolfe detective series. I have two copies of this novel:  the 1984 Bantam paperback and the 1968 (3rd printing) of the Pyramid paperback. I read the former.  There were a number of typos in my edition; I did not find this reprehensible, but other readers might hate reading such text.  I think that there is at least one erroneous paragraph in the Bantam versions – beyond the basic typos.

Nero Wolfe is one of the most famous detectives in the genre.  Of course, everyone knows Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but Nero Wolfe may be the third famous.  The character is even referenced in a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. He is exceedingly large, sedentary, and fastidious.  We first meet Wolfe as he is tasting beers – this timeline corresponds to the passing of the Cullen-Harrison Act (March 22, 1933) that legalized a low-alcohol (3.2%) beer.  The entire novel, though, is told through the eyes and ears of the main character, Archie Goodwin.

Archie is something like the footman and errand boy for Wolfe.  He does all of the actual legwork in the investigations.  He resides in the NYC brownstone along with Wolfe and Wolfe’s other “servants.”  Of course, it is the 1930s and one doesn’t say “servants,” even though just household crew is meant.  Archie is in his 30s, I think, but from this novel, it is difficult to really say that with any true assurance.  In fact, throughout, one might reasonably guess Archie’s age to be anywhere from 19 – 42 years old.

Archie does all of the grunt work on the investigations and he acts like head-of-household.  But he is not simply the brawn to Wolfe’s brain – Archie also is shown as capable for taking notes, collating stories and documents, and doing research.  I think he also does a good portion of the budgeting in the household. It takes a bit to get used to Archie’s point of view.  The author has a distinctive writing style and it can be jarring.  Also, until the reader gets used to it, the sarcastic banter between Archie and Wolfe, et al. seems really caustic and abrasive.  Overall, Archie is a good-hearted chap, although quite opinionated. He is devoted to his boss – even loyal enough to disagree with Wolfe when the need arises. It is through Archie’s eyes that we meet the other characters in the book.

Fritz giggled.  He’s the only man I’ve ever known who could giggle without giving you doubts about his fundamentals. – pg. 93, chapter 10

Wolfe has a live-in chef named Fritz Brenner.  Fritz acts as the household butler and prepares elaborate meals for the household.  He is also, I believe, in charge of acquiring and serving Wolfe’s vast amount of beer. The biggest issue I had with this entire novel, is that we have a fantastic chef, a spunky American named Archie, and an obese genius who spends his afternoons cultivating orchids and drinking beer – and we do not really get much background at all about these characters.  There is no backstory as to how this crew met, decided to work together, decided what to work on, how they developed their idiosyncrasies, etc.  And frankly, between agoraphobic Wolfe, happy-go-lucky Archie, and a cook named Fritz – one would expect an amazingly thrilling backstory.

The actual crimes in the book to which Wolfe and Archie apply themselves are typical of the genre.  Murder. Two murders, actually.  Plenty of suspects, an inept and obnoxious district attorney and investigator, and a rich, young woman fill out the storyline.  The young woman’s father is murdered on the golf course.  Literally, at the tee.  Nero Wolfe, without leaving his brownstone, solves the crime.  But the twist is that the crime is not what the reader originally thinks.  Instead, this death is also connected to two other deaths – one recent, one many years past.

The key feeling within the novel is that Wolfe and Archie do not solve these cases because of some altruistic belief or some devotion to justice.  Both seem to have a keen sense of truth and prefer monetary reward to the satisfaction of justice served.  They do not always play fair and perhaps cross the line into committing criminal acts themselves.  Definitely, they hinder and obstruct the course of lawful investigation. Regardless, it is interesting to have an agoraphobic genius who is so attached to money.

The major prop in the novel is a fer-de-lance – a breed of poisonous serpent.  Archie struggles with saying the name:

I tried it again. “Fair-duh-lahnss?”  Wolfe nodded.  “Somewhat better. Still too much n and not enough nose.  You are not a born linguist, Archie.  Your defect is probably not mechanical.  To pronounce French properly you must have within you a deep antipathy, not to say scorn, for some of the most sacred of the Anglo-Saxon prejudices.  In some manner you manage without that scorn, I do not quite know how. – pg. 166, chapter 16

Overall, I really want to find out more about this NYC brownstone and its inhabitants.  After having read Sherlock and Poirot, well, its kind of tough to impress me.  So the “genius” of Wolfe isn’t all that impressive.  However, it is curious and because of that, I have collected a number of Nero Wolfe novels.  This specific novel is quite standard in comparison to the genre and so I can only give it three stars.  I recommend this to those who like pre-1940 American novels and who want more and more and more of the detective genre.

3 stars

The Journey to The End of The Night

The Journey to the End of the Night - L-F Céline.

The Journey to the End of the Night – L-F Céline.

Finally I finished reading this infamous novel by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894 – 1961).   The Journey to the End of the Night was first published in 1932 in French.  I think I got this book sometime in the spring/early-summer of 2013.  I started reading it then, but I just completed it now.  I think, though I’m uncertain about this, that I actually re-started it from the beginning somewhere in that timeline.  Needless to say, this was a long slog through murky waters.

A bit about L-F Céline:  this is his penname, derived from his grandmother’s name.  His real name is Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches.  There’s plenty of photos of him as a handsome young fellow who turns into a smirking middle-aged chap, and finally a cantankerous looking old man. He had a diverse life, working in jewelry shops, as a sergeant in the military, as a writer, and a physician.  He traveled extensively.  In fact, one wishes that Céline just wrote an honest autobiography instead of hiding behind characters.  But one cannot trust Céline – he embellishes and he clearly knows how to slip away, around, and under.  He is world-wise and absolutely not simple.  On the other hand, of all the things I would think of as compatible employment for his personality, medicine is not one of them.  Oddly incongruous.

Céline has this bizarre fascination, though, with the worst and/or lowest of society.  Not, please, like Mother Teresa or St Francis of Assisi; but in some morbid, weird way he is drawn to them.  This novel is supposedly semi-autobiographical.  I feel like that statement is misleading. It seems somewhat difficult to tell where the autobiography stops and the fiction begins and vice versa.  The main character, Ferdinand Bardamu, follows a timeline very much like Céline’s own.  The locations and some of the stories change a bit, I think, but overall, this is Céline ripping loose through the guise of a fictional character – loosely fictional.

Any possibility of cowardice becomes a glowing hope if you’re not a fool. That’s my opinion.  Never be picky and choosy about means of escaping disembowelment, or waste your time trying to find reasons for the persecution you’re a victim of.  Escape is good enough for the wise. – pg. 102

The first half of this novel is actually quite engaging and well-written.  It is a bit grumpy, let’s say, but it still contains that flavor of gullibility or goofiness in the narrator.  Bardamu really seems to go wherever the current takes him and does not seem to do a lot to help himself.  Generally, the situations and places in which he finds himself are coincidence and fate, but he never seems surprised about it.  He makes bad choices and from the start of the novel we learn that his vices control him.  Nevertheless, there is an adventurous and almost exciting thrill to following Baradmu’s overseas adventures.

The street was like a dismal gash, endless, with us at the bottom of it, filling it from side to side, advancing from sorrow to sorrow, toward an end that is never in sight, the end of all the streets in the world. – pg. 166

Nothing in the first half of the novel is worthy of the shock and raving that people heap on this novel.  It’s pessimistic and there is sex and violence.  But it is all relatively literary.

The second half of the novel is where all the misanthropic, nihilistic, savage criticism, and shock appear at full strength.  Even so, this is 2014 where there exist TV shows like True Blood, Dexter, and Spartacus.  The 50 Shades of whatever also has been dumped into society like a burst-sewer.  So, it is actually a case of society outgrowing even Céline’s vicious writing.  It is somewhat shocking to read how extreme Céline/Bardamu think and act, however it is not special or unique to someone in 2014 who lives with the extremes we find in contemporary media. That fact makes me a bit dismayed.

It was true what she’d said about my having changed, I couldn’t deny it.  Life twists you and squashes your face.  It had squashed her face too, but less so.  It’s no joke being poor.  Poverty is a giant, it uses your face like a mop to clear away the world’s garbage.  There’s plenty left. – pg. 187

What makes Céline’s style of ribald nihilism so fascinating (even this many years later) is that he writes it with such literary style and double-edged wit.  Céline, himself, and therefore Bardamu, are not dumb.  These are not bumbling idiots writing out strings of vulgarities just because they want to zap us.  Céline actually writes with skill and the vulgarities are just part and parcel of it.

The thing is, roughly around page 300 (around La Garenne-Rancy scenes), I felt the novel change.  Not only did Bardamu stop having international adventures, but the tone became much more vicious and dark.  There seemed to be more vulgarity and more despondency.  To put it bluntly:  Bardamu wasn’t very entertaining anymore and any interest or sympathy I had as a reader was now gone.  The storyline and the characters had become tedious. Dare I say, before the events at the insane asylum, I was even bored with the storyline. It was a struggle to get through the last 150 pages of this novel.  The famous “ellipses” one hears about Céline’s writing are present in this novel – though less so in the first half.  The second half ramps up those – another sign of how the novel degrades.

Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment.  Being in love is nothing, it’s sticking together that’s difficult.  Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or to grow.  On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state – that’s the unconscionable torture. – 291

I really don’t know what to say about most of the characters in this novel – especially Robinson.  I feel like all the characters in this novel are immature and juvenile – as if they really never ever “grew up.”  And so, the last 25 pages or so, which heavily involve Robinson, were tedious and droll.  Yeah, yeah, we could read this existentially, or in terms of the nihilism, or in any other sorts of filters – but if we are being honest and not just trying to impress others – the novel is good, but it isn’t great. And its just not that shocking anymore. Or maybe I am just as miserable and jaded as Céline.

Interiors are no good.  As soon as a door closes on a man, he begins to smell and everything he has on him smells too.  Body and soul, he deteriorates.  He rots.  It serves us right if people stink.  We should have looked after them.  We should have taken them out, evicted them, exposed them to the air.  All things that stink are indoors, they preen themselves, but they stink all the same. – 308

Overall, I am between a 3-star rating and a 4-star rating for this novel.  Nothing else is like it – and if there might be something like it, it is not as good as this.  And it probably owes a debt to this.  Nevertheless, I cannot lie and say that the second half of the novel was on par with the first.  That’s tricky, because is that like saying Céline’s second half of life was not as “entertaining” as the first part? Hence the difficulty with this so-called semi-autobiographical label.  I’m going to give it 4-stars, though, because I do think it will remain in my brain for quite some time for mulling and pondering and comparison.  Plus, Céline is so quotable!

4 stars