mystery

Memory Man

Memory ManMemory Man by David Baldacci is the first novel in the Amos Decker series. It was first published in 2015 and this is the first novel I have read by Baldacci. I really like the main character, Amos Decker. I think his backstory is fascinating and the author handles it consistently and entertainingly. I was pretty much onboard with this story through half of the book. But then the criminal element got too bizarre and wonky, which I don’t like. I am already suspending disbelief to accept the fantastic abilities and story of the main character. But when the author starts expecting me to believe all sorts of outlandish and really demented things, it feels like maybe he is taking my suspension of disbelief for granted. Most novels have some concept or segment that demands a lot of patience or willing to believe, but was too far.

A couple of muders and a school shooting were enough. This is one reason I dislike many crime novels…. the crimes all turn into massive extremes (which seems silly to say). I guess what I mean is, when the body count keeps going up, and there’s already been the massacre of a family and a school shooting, well, now I feel like the author is just piling on outrageously. The body count was just jumping up nearly in every chapter for awhile and I got annoyed with this. It always feels, when I read contemporary crime novels, that the authors feel the more murders the better and when they do not know how to shore up a plot point or make an interesting clue – they just set up a murder scene. It feels a bit cheap.

Nothing about the not-good-guys was redeemable or even, really, believable. Beyond that, certain details were even more annoying – the character Sebastian Leopold, for one. So much stereotyping and eye-rolling details about this character. Literally, when Decker explains (while duct taped and under threat) the history of Leopold and he lets us all in on Leopold’s ethnicity and previous whereabouts, it was difficult not to chuck the book – but I was almost finished with the thing, anyway. But of course. Of course he spent time in that country.  Shoddy, cheap writing.

Now, Amos Decker’s “thing” is that he has a great memory. Hyperthymesia. This is probably a pretty decent condition particularly for detectives and cops (Cp. the TV show Monk (2002-2009)) A lot of the novel the reader, very much like Decker’s partners and fellow law enforcement officials, is just sitting there staring at Decker, waiting for him to remember/spot something. Now, I read crime novels, but I do not want to actually join the FBI. However, I do not want to hear elevator music while the star of the show is having a long reverie about clues. Somehow, though Baldacci was really consistent in his treatment of the character, he needs to also keep the reader involved during Decker’s many moments of mental effort.

The last chapter of the novel, after all the resolution, was interesting because I did not see that coming – I guess many readers probably did. I want to know what happens next to Amos Decker, because like I said, he is an interesting character. So I will probably read the next in the series. I am just disappointed in the outrageousness of this storyline in particular.

2 stars

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The Caves of Steel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

 

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives – Leo Bruce

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

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

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

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

One of my favorite sections is in chapter 8:

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

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

Some reviews about this novel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

Peril at End House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

The Carter of La Providence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars

Death at Crane’s Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

Death of an Old Girl

death-of-an-old-girlI enjoy vintage mystery novels quite a bit. I finally got around to picking up Elizabeth Lemarchand’s Death of an Old Girl at the end of 2016.  It was first published in 1967 – so I do not know how “vintage” that really is – but it is the first in her relatively famous “Pollard and Toye” series. Tom Pollard and Gregory Toye are two Scotland Yard detectives.  The series runs, at least, seventeen novels. It is the first Lemarchand (1906 – 2000) I have read.

The two novels that I read prior to this one were horrible disappointments. One and two stars were earned respectively. From the first page of this novel, I foresaw a good reading experience.  There was something immediately vintage and British about this novel and I could easily see the writing was a higher caliber than my previous reads.

The setting gave me some pause – I was concerned that a vintage girl’s private school in England could be a terribly boring setting. However, I also assumed that for her first mystery, Lemarchand was writing about something with which she had a good deal of familiarity. Let me reassure readers that although this is not the most exciting of settings, it is handled very nicely and does not become boring.

It is the end of semester and the school, Meldon, is having their annual get-together wherein the “old girls” are invited for supper and a meeting and, more or less, to gossip and reminisce. Most of the “old girls” enjoyed their time at Meldon and continue to look upon the school fondly.  Unfortunately, not all of the “old girls” are as welcoming to change and the future.  There is one in particular, Beatrice Baynes, who takes a keen interest in snooping around and keeping herself insinuated in every decision at the school. She even lives in her large mansion just on the road outside of the school’s gates.

Baynes is tolerated because the school is respectful and mannered, but also because Baynes is a heavy monetary contributor. Unfortunately, her financial contributions cannot be accepted without accepting her staunch suggestions and opinions about the running and maintenance of the school.  She also is the murder victim.

The cleaning lady finds Baynes’ body stuffed behind the puppet theatre stand in the art studio.Very undignified and also a strange location for Baynes to be found generally.

The Scotland Yard detectives get involved and the story really begins to focus on their investigation.  Now, there have been many police procedurals written in the mystery genre.  I have to believe, though, that this is one of the more thorough and detailed ones. Lemarchand literally takes every step with us. We make suspect lists and timelines together. We interview suspects and witnesses with nearly excruciating detail.  Yes, the story does get a bit boring – unless you are a big fan of investigations and deductions.  Now, if you are a fan of mysteries that are actually thrillers – this is not going to interest you at all and you will be angry reading it.

There are also a number of subplots that run alongside the main storyline.  Some of these help to develop our red herrings and suspicious persons.  The subplots involve boisterous wealthy people, romantic interests, whimsical young teachers, caretakers and groundsmen, and even family connections.  When the book blurb on the back cover shares that there are a lot of people who disliked Baynes and wanted her dead – that is not even the half of it.

Some of the supporting characters are likeable, some are detestable. All of them are realistic and convincing.  I think this is what really helps keep everyone guessing at who the criminal is right until the very end.  There is no character who stands out as more suspicious or obvious than the rest. Also, there are some supporting characters who are surprisingly introduced in such a subtle way that when they begin to take an active role in the investigation, it hardly seems remarkable that they were not there all along.

The two detectives from the Yard are fine. I do think they are the most diligent and detail-oriented detectives that I have ever read about.  I do not feel, though, that I have much else to say about that. I hope that in further novels in the series their personalities will develop and I can have more remarks about them.

There is a bit of wit and banter – all good-natured and fun-loving – between the policemen. It isn’t heavy-handed sarcasm and it brought little bits of lightness to an exceedingly detailed investigation. Made the whole thing not so droll and tedious.

You can’t commit murder without taking risks,” replied Inspector Beakbane. “It often holds me back.” pg. 135

Now because the book is such a detailed examination, it makes it seem longer than it is. And that means slower reading. And that means people with short-attention spans who seek thrills and chills will dislike it. I felt this was a nice comfy, intellectual mystery. I also appreciated the motive of the criminal and felt that the crime was tidied up nicely. If Lemarchand was still alive I would gladly tell her that I truly can see the effort that she used writing this novel and that I appreciate her attention to detail.

I will definitely read the next in the series and I am glad that I read this one. I am giving it a four-star rating especially for “apparent author effort.”

4 stars