books

Background to Danger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 stars

The Third Gate

The Third Gate lincoln child book coverThe Third Gate by Lincoln Child is the third book in his Jeremy Logan series.  I have read the previous two novels.  The Third Gate was published in 2012 and is the first in the series that has Logan on every page of the book, so to speak. In the previous novels, Logan was not a major character; here he takes control of the narrative.

This book is a bit of a mess and is a definite step-down from the previous novel Terminal Freeze. The setup is somewhat the same – in all three novels there is a wealthy, eccentric individual who is at the heart of whatever adventure is going on.  This time Logan is pulled in right from the beginning – he is introduced as an enigmalogist. Logan meets the “eccentric” individual in the depths of the Cairo museum and agrees to join the adventure.  The mission, this time, is to locate Narmer’s tomb.  In the author’s note Child admits that he liberally manipulated and adjusted all facets of Egyptology and related sciences in service of his novel.  In other words, there is historical fiction and then there is adventure fiction and The Third Gate is most certainly in the latter category.

Once again, as with the first Logan novel, I want to accuse Child of lazy writing. There are a couple of things here and there that could have been done better and, yes, I do mean even in the context of a little adventure pulp novel.  For example, the coffee that someone is sipping in the dark deep basements of the Cairo museum – its probably cold. And where did it come from? Somehow I doubt there is a stove deep in the museum among the papyrus stacks – at least, when I was there, I did not see one. Another example is where Child unnecessarily refers to the technicians (i.e. the digital and technological crew) as “tech weenies.”  It feels jarringly crude in a setting wherein we are frequently told the adventure has gathered highly-vetted, highly-trained, highly-established experts in so many fields of study. “Tech weenies”…..?

Anyway, Logan shows up to the site with his duffel bag of items. A variety of items, kind of similar to a doctor’s bag crossed with a magician’s bag. When asked about it, Logan shares some of the items, but also plays it a bit vague.  At the same time, throughout, readers get the sense that the characters are suspicious or at least skeptical of Logan’s field of study and of his need to join the mission.  To counter that, several times readers are given Logan’s resume and stories of his expert field work and research, to include a sidebar regarding his dissertation. All of this being said, several times during the novel, Logan utilizes a device that tests air ionization. Every time except once is the air “normal.”  The one time it reads “not normal,” or increased ionization, he says he does not know what it means.  This just seems incongruous and stupid.

I disliked every character and for that reason I really was not rooting for any of them.  Makes me feel a little bad, I guess. I like adventure stories that keep me on the edge of my seat and I can cheer for a hero or something. The character that is supposed to “balance” the Logan character is one of the world’s top Egyptologists, Christina Romero.  I am not sure what to make of her – most of the time she comes across as impulsively rude, which I very much find toxic.  I guess we are supposed to think that because she is an elite expert, she is also given to temperamental behavior? I dislike that sort of stereotyping, too.

Finally, the plot itself is stupid and difficult and has this adjacent co-plot that I really hated. I really disliked the entire psychological, NDE, “crossing-over” story thread. I hated the characters and how it overtook the plot and I did not enjoy it.  Accepting Logan as an enigmalogist and as a scientist is possible. But this type of plot overextends my suspension of disbelief.

White NileThe good thing:  listen, I love setting and the setting of this novel is really good. I mean it. I was surprised to find such a strong, interesting, and intense setting in an adventure pulp.  Child liberally utilizes the concept of the Sudd (Cp. The White Nile by Alan Moorehead – 1960) and expands and develops it as needed. Seriously, this stuff captured my imagination and I wanted to spend more time in this setting having it weigh on us, confuse us, frighten us.  In other words, Child’s idea to use it is a great idea and he did a decent job.  I just want him to have done an even better job. I did pull my old, crusty copy off of my bookshelves and think I will skim through it, just because I can.

They crawled forward into an ever-thicker tangle of logs and bracken.  The noises from the riverbanks – if indeed there were still any banks to be found in this morass – had all but ceased.  It was as if they were now surrounded by an infinite riot of flora, dead and dying, all wedged into one colossal tangle.  They waited in the bow, barely speaking, as the boat followed the line of flashing beacons. Now and then the path seemed to Logan to lead to a dead end; but each time, after making a blind turn, the fetid tangle of vegetation widened once again. Frequently, the boat had to use its own superstructure to push aside the oozing warp and weft. – pg. 67, chapter 7

At the end of the day, Ancient Egypt adventure stories and swamps and scary things are always going to draw readers in, I think. However, this novel had too much lazy writing. Again, I am not expecting high-brow literature here, but I think a lot of tidying and a little thought would have really worked.  Instead, this novel is a mess, its a bit flat, and I did not really enjoy anything at all other than the setting.  That is not a basis for a great recommendation.

I am a bit concerned about the “development” of the Jeremy Logan character. I like him as an enigmalogist. I dislike the esoteric, pseudo-ghost hunter stuff. I am glad that he got to be a main character in a novel, for once, which is amusing to consider.  Strangely, even as a main character, I feel he was extraneous. Still, I am nervous that in the next novel in the series he might actually have a magic wand or something.

2 stars

From Doon With Death

From Doon with DeathI finished another book, but its another that I really did not like.  In fact, I may actually dislike this one. I read Ruth Rendell’s From Doon With Death from 1964.  I have heard that Baroness Rendell (1930 – 2015) is considered a strong mystery writer, so of course I started with the first of her famous Inspector Wexford novels.  After having read this one, I have to say that I certainly hope that her other novels are big improvements. I think there are twenty-four novels in the Inspector Wexford series – and Rendell also wrote a bunch of other novels, besides.

In a sense, Rendell is up against some stiff competition. This year I have read novels by Dorothy Sayers, Simon Brett, Rex Stout, Ngaio Marsh, and Georgette Heyer.  I do have plans for a Christie novel, too, sometime this year.  Unfortunately, Rendell might never had a chance with this novel.

I do not want to spoil the mystery, let us say, of the story, but I find this sort of resolution lame.  It reminds me of what Simon Brett said about Mrs. Pargeter – about how Pargeter had “a strong prejudice against murders committed by people who were mad.”  Same thing here, in my opinion, it tends to be awkward and stupid. Seems like letting detectives off of the hook or something…. So, needless to say, the resolution was a big let down and felt like a stupid trickery.

Now, among the things that I really disliked about this novel is the main character, Inspector Wexford.  I do not know how or why or when – there are lots of vintage mystery experts who can trace this sort of thing – but having a pompous, obnoxious, jerkface lead detective seems to be so accepted that it is expected in a so-called British mystery.  I would love a novel to be written, a sort of parody, starring Roderick Alleyn and Reginald Wexford.  These two are grating on the reader’s nerves. Absolute jerks. It does not seem, either, that they deserve to be exonerated for such behavior – for example, in this novel Wexford’s co-detective Burden does more work than Wexford. So, imagine a novel in which the arrogant Alleyn has to co-star with the obnoxious Wexford! Let them torture each other like they vexed readers!

“Cigarette, sir?”

“Have you gone raving mad, Burden?  Maybe you’d like to take your tie off.  This is Sussex, not Mexico.” – pg. 52, chapter four

Another element I strongly disliked, and it is pervasive, was the constant highlighting and backbiting and commentary regarding social classes.  I do not have first hand experience of London, say, in 1964.  But I am sure that Baroness Rendell did.  Now, whether she felt all of this class conflict in her novel would separate her from either side of the debate or if she was purposely trying to critique one or the other, I cannot say.  I just know that an undue portion of the novel is spent mentioning who fits into which class and, usually, it comes with sharp, critical comment. Every little aspect of the storyline has some sort of economic/social class status attached to it and running through it.  Even characters who never actually appear in the story and who are living in other continents are appraised. Its another tedious thing in a novel that already has Wexford to deal with.

Well, its obvious I was not too impressed with Wexford, but truthfully, all of the characters are unlikeable. None of them are even endearing or curious.  Several of the characters are caustic and scratchy. So, this could be a method of an author keeping all the characters in front of readers as “likely suspects” – we do not befriend anyone, so readers are ready for any of them to be the criminal, I guess. The method is too unreasonable and it makes for some rough reading; I do not have to adore characters, but making me dislike all of them is a story albatross.

Overall, this is a short novel so it seems fine that it was not very good; more or less a throw-away read. I do not see why it is necessary to start reading Wexford with this one, if one is inclined to read the Wexford series.  I cannot recommend this one to anyone, its not really of any interest, and the writing style itself is nothing special.  Again, compared to the other authors I read this year, Rendell just did not compete.

2 stars

All Shall Be Well

All Shall Be WellBlazing through books these last two weeks, I finished another.  It was on my to-be-read list because I had read the first, A Share in Death, in the series back in 2019.  I was not really impressed with that book, but I wanted to see how things went.  I enjoyed the second book in the series, All Shall Be Well, less than the first! This second of Deborah Crombie’s “Kincaid/James” series was released in 1994.

Everyone in this novel is to some extent miserable.  I do not think I have read a novel so completely stuffed with unhappy and miserable characters as this one.  The whole conceit of the book is that we are never sure if there is a crime or not and if there is a crime, whether that crime is suicide or murder. Someone has died, all right, but it was a lonely, sad death due to cancer.  Other utterly miserable people shared these woes:  a wimpy failure at life, a cruel bully with no prospects, an overworked divorcee whose ex has skipped out, a old military veteran living alone after disastrous outcomes during his service, a mousy friendless girl, and a number of relatives in mental homes and health care facilities. Literally, everyone in this book is absolutely miserable. And they are nearly vying with each other in their sorrows.

The deceased is slightly interesting because of her background. That becomes wearing and dull, though. There is a cat in the novel – I think it is supposed to be a spot of lightness to the story. Literally, the thing is neglected throughout and though it has a good ending, one cannot help but feel sad for it.

Most of the story is probably spent developing the relationship between the two detectives and their surrounding environment. Their similarities, differences, reactions, etc. Its all very dull, frankly. As with the first book, the Kincaid character is a bit off when it comes to females. I remember 1994 quite well, so please do not try to tell me anything about how it “used to be.” His reactions and thoughts are weird – so it makes me want to raise a suspicious eyebrow at the author about all of this.

He found himself starting absently at two girls ordering food at the counter.  One had orange hair cropped almost to her skull, the other a straight fall of fair hair halfway down her back.  Spandex minis left their legs bare from the buttocks down, in spite of the chill, damp evening.  He supposed vanity provided them sufficient internal warmth – what bothered him was not the likelihood of their catching a chill, but that he’d no idea how long they’d stood there before he noticed them.  He must be getting old. – Chapter 13, pg 176

Yuck.

Anyway, the characters are miserable and the storyline is dull. But worse than that, the story is also invasive and uncomfortable.  We really dig into the deceased’s affairs – old journals from the 1960s and such – as if we are biographers. The deceased is a very private and reserved person, so doing this sort of rummaging is unpleasant to read about.

The things I did like:  we are told about every garden, flower patch, or potting soil bag in the country. Also, we have pint with every meal and its always crisp and refreshing and without struggle. Seamless pints to go along with country-food. I am a bit jealous of the pubs and the gardens.

This is a dull thing and very focused on character introspection and relationships. Its overall story is nearly not a story anyway.  A fast read about nothing much. I cannot recommend this to many readers – skip this one. I may read the next novel simply because its on these shelves around here.

2 stars

The Escape Orbit

ACE 1983 edition; cover art Wayne Barlowe

ACE 1983 edition; cover art Wayne Barlowe

The Escape Orbit by James White (1928 – 1999) was first published in 1964 as Open Prison. The next year the variant The Escape Orbit was released with the fancy Jack Gaughan cover art.  I read the 1983 edition with Wayne Barlowe’s cover art.  This is the fifth book by James White that I have read. Two of the five have been part of White’s Sector General series.  White’s works have run the gamut as far as my ratings.  This novel was nominated in 1965 for a Nebula Award….. and so was Clifford D. Simak’s All Flesh is Grass, PKD’s Dr. Bloodmoney, and Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Obviously, White’s work did not win. But it seems that those 1964-1966 years were really something for science fiction and some great things were written/published.

I decided after reading this novel that it is a five star novel.  At the end of the day, ratings are mostly subjective.  Those novels that I think are five stars, others may hotly contest that they even deserve three stars! It is what it is. I think that it being my blog, the rating should reflect my readings/opinions.  I do try to make the case for five star novels being rated so – I do not just say ‘oh, I liked it a lot’ and leave it at that.  And then, perhaps, my tastes or criteria have adjusted in the years since I read a work; not making my rating of a book invalid, but heavily locating it in a definite time/place.  Further, I think it is important to remind readers that a five star rating does not mean that I think the novel is perfect.  I actually do not think there are “perfect” novels.

The Escape Orbit is not a book that I expected was going to be given high marks when I started reading it. I knew it had some good potential and that White is a decent author.  The one element that I think continually convinced me of the five star rating was the unanticipated amount of effort that the author put into this novel.  My copy is 184 pages and I feel like it contains more of the author’s blood, sweat, and tears (so to speak) than many of the 364 page novels published nowadays.  I mean it – several times during my reading I was caught like this, ‘Oh wow, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that’ or ‘yeah, that makes sense, great workaround!’

White knew he was writing a novel in which he might also be accused of helping the characters a bit too much with the problems they faced. White did respond to this:

“It was a simple, daring plan which at practically every stage was packed with things that could go wrong…. it would be workable with just the average amount of good luck instead of a multiple chain of miracles.” – pg. 39, chapter five

The book is fiction and while it attempts to be quite realistic, let us say, we all know we are going to allow a lot of leeway for the characters to get what they need in service of the plot.  So, sure, at points White knew readers might think he handed the characters some easy fixes.  However, it was not done utterly unknowingly and there were plenty of struggles so that the characters did not get handed chains of miracles (a phrasing that is tickling me).

There has been a long, long running interstellar war between humans and the “Bugs.”  Both sides are worn thin from the war effort and the war was never total war, so to speak.  White details some of this at the start of chapter two so that the reader can get a grasp of something near a century of warfare between the species.  The keeping of prisoners, on both sides, has become an issue.  There is no need to slaughter prisoners, but at the same time, supporting the number of prisoners in a “humane” fashion is also untenable. So, the Bugs, at least, have found envirnomentally human-friendly planets and they drop humans prisoners (military) off on this planet to fend for themselves. Thus, a prison planet.

We join the story with the survivors of the warship Victorious being dropped off on the planet.  Among them is our main character, Sector Marshal Warren, who turns out to be the highest-ranking prisoner on the planet.  It is somewhat impressive that James White, himself, was not (as far as I know) in the military because from the books of his that I have read, he does display a decent working knowledge of aspects of the military.  That is to say, he writes very convincingly and his characters are reasonably created.

Overall, the story is one of survival, escape, and leadership.  In one sense, this can be a rather dull story – it is completely full of nothing more than problem-solving and maybe that gives it the somewhat slower-feeling pacing.  However, actually considered, there are plenty of character-tensions, action scenes, and plot twists.  Its good writing, believe it or not, and maybe I did not even realize that until late in the novel. It feels slow-moving at times, but there is a lot going on, I think. And its only 184 pages! I am still surprised by how much happened in the book compared to its length.

Warren had wondered briefly how it was possible to both like and dislike what he was doing, and the people who were helping him do it, intensely at one and the same time. – pg 121, chapter fourteen

This book, after all, is all from Warren’s point of view, although it is not exactly fair-play in the sense that Warren plays his cards close, if you will, and never fully reveals all of his decisions to the other characters or to us readers.  However, it does not feel deceitful or contrived because Warren himself lets us all know that he is playing it close and he knows it has to be that way and it may frustrate others.

Right up until the very last page readers are, I would think, torn between whether each character is a good guy or a bad guy.  Because, truly, most novels have good and bad.  This novel is realistic because the characters are dynamic and their motivations and insights are reasonable – and typically human. Right up until the last page, readers may still be wondering about Warren’s motives and morality. Keeping readers off-balance so they are not sure what side they are on is a tough feat.  It resembles some of those other excellent novels of the time period that were nominated for awards. That’s some very strong writing skill.

The amount of strategy and planning and devising in the book is quite impressive. I do not want to simply say it is a study of leadership and strategy, because this makes it seem like the book is something it is not.  This is still a novel, which at times is nearly pastoral and ruminative.  It is not The Art of War or something from Tacitus. Readers wanting a pulpy adventure story of a prison planet will be very disappointed. Similarly, readers wanting hard science fiction in which the characters are just barely names and ranks will also be frustrated.  Instead, White wrote a very human novel about humans in a difficult situation being constantly confronted with problems to solve – including the main one:  the rôle of goals in human activity/psychology.

There are a lot of ethics/pyschology concepts for an intelligent reader to wrangle with here. At the heart of it, this is not fluffy.  If a reader does not come away questioning or wondering as they read through the chapters, they are doing it wrong.

This is not a difficult read, but it is not something to blaze through on the beach.  I am impressed with it and I do recognize it is not a perfect novel (whatever that could be). I am really glad I read it – it was not what I expected and I can say afterwards that it was definitely worth reading.  This is for thoughtful readers and fans of vintage science fiction. If a reader is going to read about the prison planet setting, this one is necessary.

5 stars

The Rubber Band

THe Rubber BandI finished The Rubber Band by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975), which was first published in 1936 and is the third novel in the famous Nero Wolfe series.  I last read a Nero Wofle novel (the second) in 2014, so reading the third has been due for quite some time. I really enjoy these novels and this January has not been given over to science fiction, but rather mysteries.  There is a lot to love about the classic vintage detectives Lord Peter, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, et al. However, I think Wolfe has the least amount of reader-sympathizers.  He does come across, most of the time, as petulent and stubborn.  His girth and his seemingly-upper class status would be enough to do in most of those people who get past his personality.

One of the necessary things that readers of Wolfe mysteries must be able to do, is to understand that the majority of the commentary is sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek.  Most of the wit and banter is part of the jovial and unsinkable personality of the narrator, Archie Goodwin.  The humor moves around from deadpan drops to facetious comments to outright snark.  It is going to take a witty and discerning reader to enjoy the ruckus. Now, I am not going to say that at times it can get a little tedious. However, it seems there exists readers who take certain lines very seriously, instead of realizing they should be taken quite opposite.  My own household is full of witty retort and often ridiculous conversation.  That is not to say that deep, academic argument is not undertaken.  If this very average household witnesses these things, I can only imagine the same would hold true for Wolfe’s very unique household.

“You’ve already upset enough.  Go upstairs and behave yourself.  Wolfe has three wives and nineteen children in Turkey.”

“I don’t believe it. He has always hated women until he saw how nicely they pack in osmundine.”

Chapter 12

This is a very funny exchange – between harried characters who are both witty folk.  Strangely, I think there are readers out there who could not see this sarcasm….

There is a very surprising and amusing event that happens in the Wolfe household when the city police come through with a search warrant. I was really worried for the group – how were they going to hide their client? And then when it happened, I did laugh aloud. It is funny as heck, particularly if you really spend time imagining the scene properly!

She had been in the plant rooms with Wolfe for an hour before six o’clock, and during dinner he went on with a conversation which they had apparently started then, about folk dances and that sort of junk.  He even hummed a couple of tunes for her, after the guinea chicken had been disposed of, which caused me to take a firm hold on myself so as not to laugh the salad out of my mouth. – Chapter 15

Because at the end of the day, truly, Wolfe, like all good heroes, is a romantic and a connoisseur.  Archie, of course, has no immense cultural learning so his perspective on such moments is priceless. Such is the comedic situation that Stout adroitly manages.  Now, there has been effort by some so-called literary folk to make Wolfe and Goodwin’s lifestyle into some facet of homosexual scenario.  I think, and I did not think very much on it, that such literary folk are reading way too much of their own personal agendas into these novels – simply because there are plenty of lines in each novel that nearly state how untrue that could be. I think one could, if they entertained such imaginings, make a slight case for Fritz (the cook/butler), but otherwise it seems to me such an assessment is hogwash.

So, I have complained about readers who have no sense of humor and ones who seek to agenda-interpret.  The reason for both, though, is the same:  these books are not for the dour and sour.  I do not know much at all about Stout, but I do know – based on these novels – that he was not dour. And his audience is probably primarily the readers of that golden era detective fiction that literature historians have delineated.  However, I do think his actual audience was anyone who enjoyed wit and humor.  The pretty neat thing about Stout’s work is that he was able to combine comedy with detective-plot skill.  I am at the point, now, where I rarely read vintage detection/mystery novels for their plots.  I often find their storylines to be a bit convoluted or tangled.  I am usually reading these novels for the characters and the wit. In short, I enjoy intelligent, witty people and have no use for the miserable and perpetually over-serious.

This novel is full of characters and for a short novel, it is really stuffed with them. Archie, by the way, feels similarly as he is running around the house opening doors and shuttling people to and fro.  I think the plot is okay overall, but that Stout did let it get away from him a bit.  The beginning is a bit slow – and my word, the story that the character Clara Fox tells is really long-winded.  By the end, though, the whole thing is sewn up nicely and satisfactorily.  I think there ends up being three dead bodies in total, which seems like a lot for a two-day time span of the novel.  Unfortunately, the majority of the detection and investigation occurs off-screen and even beyond the scope of the narrator.  This is weird. I mean, even for off-screen detection this one is further on down that line.  For that reason, I am sure many readers would not rate this novel as highly as some other Nero Wolfe reads.  Its strange to have such a great narrator and main character and just keep the reader so completely in the dark about all of the detection.  I suppose that is exactly how Nero gets to have such bombshell-dropping reveals at the end while all of the characters sit calmly in his office. However, it is not a technique I think an author ought to use very much.

So, if you are a fan of vintage “Golden Era” mysteries AND you have a strong sense of humor, I can recommend this novel (and other Wolfe novels).  If you are utterly humorless, well, do not even bother, you will hate them. Now, I am not kidding:  it is literally time for my supper and beer and I absolutely despise when those times are disrupted.

3 stars

Mrs, Presumed Dead

Mrs Presumed Dead brett coverMrs, Presumed Dead by Simon Brett (b. 1945) is the second in the Melita Pargeter series of novels. This one was first published in 1988.  I read the first novel in the series years ago in 2015.  I think these novels (or most of them) are out of print, so until they are reprinted (or not) I am keeping these on the shelf for other readers who need a copy (my specific copy is February 1990 printing).

I cannot honestly call the Pargeter series a cozy mystery series, since there are elements in the books that are not so cozy at all. Cozy/innocent – whatever it is that makes the lightest mystery novels so warm and sweet.  There are elements of Pargeter novels that sometimes come across as critical of society, shuffling morality in a sort of very-English Mill/Bentham way at times, and some sordid moments.  Nevertheless, this was an easy-reading novel that was good for a light off-day.  Just something to occupy the mugs of tea and the chilly temperatures outdoors.  This is a no-stress read.

The main character, amateur sleuth Melita Pargeter has relocated to a very small cul-de-sac style upper class semi-rural development.  I enjoyed Brett’s addition of explaining the detail of how/why the development had the name it had. She has purchased a large house in this rather Yuppie community and has moved into the home and found the social structure of the close a bit challenging.  I wanted to hear more about Pargeter’s designing and decorating and setting up her new house. It would have given a bit more insight into Melita herself – how one organizes one’s living space is very telling about that person’s psychology and activities.

I think the first novel was a bit better in a few respects. My main complaint is that the author was not as smooth and engaging with his main character’s conversations this time. Mrs. Pargeter in this novel was nearly KGB-interrogator at times. I know she is a shrewd and witty old bird, but I think she would also be a bit more subtle than a sledgehammer.  I mean, she just moved into the neighborhood and she really is laser-pointer-focused on the murder investigation. I would think that even the most uppity, yuppie, self-centered people of that neighborhood would notice that Pargeter was so dogged in her conversation.

“I’m not so sure,” said Mrs. Pargeter. “You don’t know what people are like in Smithy’s Loam.” – pg. 222

The other complaint I had was that we are very repeatedly told that Pargeter’s deceased husband had left her a lot of resources.  I mean, once or twice is reasonable – but we are reminded quite a lot. And after awhile, I felt the need to grab the author by his ear and ask if he really felt me so stupid that in a 240 page novel he needed to remind me of this constantly.

I did not guess who did it. I never do, though. I am utterly horrible at mystery novels/television. Its always a surprise for me. Now, I know more astute readers might scoff and tease me about this, but I would remind them that I get full enjoyment out of the books, whereas they are too busy reading stories they have already figured out. Anyway, it makes sense who the criminal was – which is very key in a mystery novel. I want a solid and satisfying resolution not one that feels forced or that it could have just as easily been answered differently. As Pargeter says in that late chapter:

“No, I’ve worked it out now. I should have realised before.” – pg. 238

So, the ending worked out all right, which I like. There were, of course, several points in which Brett could have spiralled this story some other way. Lots of plausible guilty parties with plenty of motive. But I like that Brett has Pargeter tell us:

For a start, she had a strong prejudice against murders committed by people who were mad.  She had always disliked them in crime fiction and didn’t care for them much in real life.  Madness was so vague, so woolly.  Any motivation and logic could be ascribed to someone who was mad.  At the end of a crime book in which a madman dunnit, Mrs. Pargeter always felt cheated and annoyed. – pg. 211

Well, don’t worry, Melita in this one there is no such cheap and flimsy ending.

Recommended for readers needing an easy-read, day-read.  Enjoyable to a point without any major complaints.  Pargeter is a thoughtful woman in many ways. I will likely, eventually, read the next in the series.

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

The Voice and Other Stories

The VoiceThe Voice by Seicho Matsumoto (1909 – 1992) is a collection of six short crime stories.  This is the first I have read by him, but I absolutely would read everything by him based on how much I enjoyed this collection. I think the height of popularity for him was in the 1960s/1970s.  In 1952 he was the winner of the Akutagawa Prize.

This collection was just the sort of fiction that I enjoy.  One of the characteristics is that the writing is perfectly balanced – like a nice gravy. Yeah, that is an odd thing to use, I know, but hear me out.  Most gravies/sauces are too salty, too fatty, too pungent, too potent, too sweet! Every once in a while, though, you get the joy of a perfectly balanced sauce that is blended, vibrant, and balanced.  There is no one flavor or seasoning that is overpowering. The whole thing is complementary of whatever else is being eaten. In the case of these stories, I felt Matsumoto’s writing was utterly balanced:  he absolutely had the correct scaling between giving us a robust and well-formed story and not over-writing every aspect.  The writing was excellent for short stories.

The genre of crime fiction and noir stories really matches Matsumoto’s writing skills here. At the heart of each story is not some complicated situation with many actors and many victims and misdirects and red herrings. The stories here are from situations in everyday life.  Although there are a few points that rely on coincidence, most of these stories are so ordinary as to be rather boring – were it not for the skill in telling them.

  • Kyohansha – 1965 – The Accomplice5 stars
  • Kao – 1959 – The Face5 stars
  • Chiho-shi o kau Onna – 1959 – The Serial5 stars
  • Sosa Kengai no Joken – 1959 – Beyond All Suspicion5 stars
  • Koe – 1959 – The Voice4 stars
  • Kanto-ku no Onna – 1960 – The Woman Who Wrote Haiku4 stars

The first story, The Accomplice, was stressing me out as I read it. I am a silly, basic reader and I kept shaking my head as I read because the main character’s choices were digging him deeper into the scenario and it was all because of a choice he had made a long time ago that was haunting him and tormenting him.  Now, I am quite sure, many readers would scoff at my tension caused by this character.  But there is no defense, Matsumoto knew how to get his story to resonate with my reading style, I guess. Character Hikosuke was a man who created his own demise, but he made me worry about him and his errors. Without a doubt, I gave this story five stars because unlike so many stories I read, it engaged me quite a bit – and without using exaggerated writing tricks.

The Face has some similar elements to the first story – the main character is, again, the cause of his own struggles. The perspectives of characters and the skewed decisions based on such perspective drive both of these rather mundane storylines. In this story, there are some detectives that really bring the plot to life.  I like Matsumoto’s detectives, because they are not the superhuman Poirots and they are not the pompous Nero Wolfs.  There is a fantastic scene that takes place in a restaurant in Kyoto – an imobo (kind of a yam based dish…) restaurant – that caused my heart to palpitate.  It was so subtly written and yet so immersive.

The Serial started off with such an everyday and mundane beginning that I was sure that it was not going to meet the level of the previous stories. But I was wrong! First of all, I really enjoyed the brief thoughts about newspapers that used to print serial fiction. (Maybe, in a few years, I will simply be reminiscing about a thing called newspapers!) I enjoyed this one a lot because it also played on the characters’ assumptions and perspectives. I really liked the inclusion of some of the details and the way the plot built. The main character is trapped in a situation, so, of course, I pity the character.

Beyond All Suspicion was one of the longer stories, but it kept my interest the full length. Again, a character finds himself in an unfortunate situation and does not make the best choices. He chooses revenge and thinks he can outwit everyone. Poor, miserable character. As a revenge tale it works really well because it demonstrates a revenge that is long-in-coming and not some hot-headed slash-up.  It also contains a bunch of noir elements like nighttime bars, banks, taxi-cabs, and a silly song that becomes an integral part of the story.

The last two stories are the ones I gave only four stars.  I felt that The Voice started off very interesting and super noir.  However, the second part (there are two parts to this one) got a bit too convoluted, though the detective team involved really do keep the reader informed throughout the investigation. I just felt the resolution was a bit too complicated. Or, maybe “complicated” is not the most accurate word here. Perhaps I just did not like the way it all worked out. I think that is accurate.  I felt badly for the victim; she had a lot of nonsense in her life that it does not seem she deserved – plus, she was one of us:  a fellow reader!  Similarly with The Woman Who Wrote Haiku – wow, this was quite a sad story.  The crime was entirely imaginable, though. It was difficult to not feel sad for the poor woman we readers never actually met.  I supposed we ought to be somewhat glad that there were these interested parties (members of a Haiku magazine) who solved the crime.

Easily some of the best stories I have read in this year. The style of writing is exactly what I enjoy and the crime/noir was neither gross nor over-done.  Nothing was exaggerated, nothing was unnecessary. I do not re-read a lot of fiction, but I do think that I could re-read these stories.  I wish I could get my hands on all of the author’s fiction, because he has a lot of skill that makes reading his stuff an enjoyable experience.

5 stars

Between Light and Shadow

Beyond Light and ShadowBetween Light and Shadow by Sarah Jane Huntington is a collection of self-published short stories, first released in 2021. The thirteen stories are structured to be an homage to/a pastiche of the old Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and Outer Limits (1963) television episodes.

I took a chance on this book since I am having a year of reading small press, self-published, independently published items. I am glad to say, most of my choices have been very successful. Between Light and Shadow is another mark in the win column, if you will. The formatting/editing is a tiny bit rough, but nothing that left me aghast. Once again, the rating I give it feels slightly skewed; I am starting to really hate rating any books that are not mass market from the Big Publishers. 4 stars feels too high for this blog, 3 stars feels way too low for the effort and fun. 3.5 just feels like a cop-out. Hey – maybe do not pay much attention to that rating, deal?

The main element swaying me to get this book was the very strong feeling of honesty that I got from the author when I read the intro. I like supporting authors (et al.) who are genuine and authentic and honest. I love the Twilight Zone, too… so I can appreciate any attempts to work in that specific mold.

Of the thirteen stories, two stories really did not work for me. I disliked “Such a Perfect Day” and I think “Tourists Guide to the Galaxy” probably maybe should not have been included, if the author will forgive my saying so. This latter was so very heavy-handed, negative, and abrasive…. Plus, I feel it has been overdone by so many already. It just is the thud of the book, I think.

However, all of the other stories contain the wonder, twists, entertainment, and escapism that I like to have when reading fiction. These are short stories that are easily digestible, engaging, and all over the spectrum of “speculative fiction.” In particular, “Written On a Subway Wall” and “Trapped” were really good. If a reader is into horror, the gruesome and twisted “Mirror Darkly” works well, even if it is not completely surprising.  Also, I enjoyed “Exploration for Humanity” – even though it felt a wee bit too obvious.

This is a fun collection and I am glad that the author shared them with us. She was not aiming for “Greatest Stories Ever Written” – and she’s honest about that. Instead, she aimed for “strong effort, fun genre, and comfortable writing.” Huntington nailed it! Readers who need some easy-reading with some similarity to the sentiments of those old television shows will be mostly satisfied with this collection.  And I am encouraged to try more of her writing. (I think I saw that she has a new horror-genre novel out.)

3 stars