Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD (1951) by Agatha Christie


Not forgotten and not too overlooked and not my first time writing about this book and probably not my last.

I've read THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD about twenty or so times over the many years since I first began reading Christie as a teenager, and am currently re-reading it for the 21st time - not that I've kept count. This book is like an old friend whose company is very comforting. And who doesn't need comforting these days.

Whose books do I turn to when things get gloomy ? Well, certainly Agatha Christie is at the top of the list. She writes about a world mostly long gone, a world in which the bad guy always got his or her just desserts and if everyone didn't live happily ever after, at least they lived comfortably.

If you would like some serious criticism or museum quality breakdowns of Christie's work, you won't find it here.There are worthy bloggers online who will spend a great deal of time dissecting Christie, comparing her to other Golden Age authors, often bemoaning her 'lack' of deep characterization (totally wrong-headed far as I'm concerned Christie does characterization very well with just a few broad strokes), while wishing she had done more of this or more of that, fitting her work into this that or the other timeline while separating her best writing years from her not so great - I don't do that. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but, just - I don't do that. I enjoy Christie for what she can do, which is genius.

THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD is one of Dame Agatha's stand-alone books, a thriller basically, with aspects of the mystery mixed in. There is no Poirot and no Jane Marple to solve the case. So perhaps I would not pick this as my first entry into Christie-land. Still, it is her best stand-alone I think, next to THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT with which it shares some similarities. In truth, I often get the two books confused in memory. But since they're both my favorites, I just shrug it off. Once I pick up the book and begin reading, it all sorts itself out.

The story begins leisurely enough with the reader meeting several people who will later play key roles. Lots of books begin this way but not as many do it so well as Christie. Uh-oh, would you consider that a comparison? Forgive me.

An enormously important international conference is to be held in Baghdad. Various world-wide national delegations are converging on the fabled city, including a couple of Presidents and a Prime Minister or two - naturally everyone is anxious to avoid catastrophe. What the meeting is about, Christie never makes really clear, but it hardly matters as long as we understand that it is of most importance to the future of post-war World Peace. 

Anyway, the book contains one of my favorite opening sentences:

Captain Crosbie came out of the bank with the pleased air of one who has cashed a cheque and has discovered that there is just a little more in his account than he thought there was.

I also love this description:

Captain Crosbie often looked pleased with himself. He was that kind of man. In figure he was short and stocky, with rather a red face and a bristling military moustache. He strutted a little when he walked. His clothes were, perhaps, just a trifle loud, and he was fond of a good story. He was popular among men. A cheerful man, commonplace but kindly, unmarried. Nothing remarkable about him. There are heaps of Crosbies in the East.

This is even more telling when we learn, several paragraphs later, that Crosbie's is an assumed persona since he is an undercover agent, a spy. Then we learn that Mr. Dakin, a slovenly, sloop shouldered, ineffectual man whom everyone disregards, is in, actuality, the strutting Crosbie's boss. These two characters have a very interesting opening conversation which sets the book in motion. Exposition, yes, but again, done very well.

From these two we learn that, Henry Carmichael, one of their more important operatives, a brilliant, enigmatic and canny young man of many faces and many languages, has discovered something of paramount importance to be revealed (if he makes it) at the meeting in Baghdad. Carmichael is, at the moment, in disguise as a Bedouin traveller (he speaks all the necessary languages and dialects) attempting to make his way from the mountains into Baghdad. But the enemy is onto him and already several men who had the misfortune to look like Carmichael have been indiscriminately killed in and around the city. It will be a miracle if Carmichael makes it as far as the embassy.

What this important 'thing' is is proof of a nefarious conspiracy to destabilize world peace. This 'thing' is, in truth, what Alfred Hitchcock called, "a mcguffin," a mysterious something everyone wants which sets a story in motion. In her books, Christie was occasionally fond of chatting about the 'real' source of world influence - the power behind the scenes: money. Shadowy money men who helped push the world one way or another, instigating wars and unrest if need be. She uses this idea in several of her books either as guiding light or as reason enough for murder and mayhem.

"...The upshot is that somewhere a third group of people whose aim is as yet obscure, are fomenting strife and misunderstanding and are engaging in cleverly camouflaged money and jewel transactions for their own ends. We have reason to believe that in every country there are agents of this group, some established there many years ago. Some are in very high and responsible positions, others are playing humble parts, but all are working with one unknown end in view. In substance it is exactly like the Fifth Column activities at the beginning of the last war, only this time it is on a world wide scale."

Given today's immense and secret concentrations of money stashed in various countries and the dangerous sway this money has over governments, I can't help thinking that Christie was prescient.

There are two important women characters in THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD, one is our heroine and the other is Anna Scheele, the mysterious confidential secretary to an American tycoon. Scheele's secretly scheduled appearance at the conference in Baghdad sets several governments on edge since they are not quite sure what she - or more importantly, those she represents , are up to. Upon her arrival in London, of course, she is kept under surveillance by the British. How she slips away from them is a tribute to the intelligence of the character and her wily creator.

Finally, we have the heroine of the piece, Victoria Jones. An impressionable (and very inventive) young lady freshly out of a job when she meets a young man in the park, a young man conveniently travelling to Baghdad the next day to join up with a misguided cultural group bent on bringing (among other things) Shakespeare in translation to the Middle East. The group is a kind of non-profit literary peace corps run by an absent minded professor named Rathbone. Victoria's young man - whose name is Edward - regrets he can't stay in London to spend time with her, but may he have a picture before he leaves? Handily, he has a camera.

In a very short space of time and incredible as it may seem, the penniless Victoria does manage to get to Baghdad. Believing herself in love with Edward, thinking herself a Juliet to his Romeo, she arrives lacking a job or a place to stay. But not for long. Soon she is not only reunited with her young man and looking for a job at Rathbone's spurious literary establishment, The Olive Branch, but shortly she finds herself at the scene of a midnight murder.

Of course, it's all a romp, thrilling but confusing when Victoria is kidnapped and for some reason, the kidnappers dye her hair or when we follow Carmichael the spy on his perilous trek into the city, eventually winding up at Victoria's hotel in the middle of the night.

(Earlier I love how he  resorts to Morse Code using Arabic beads to alert a friend, as he plots a quick-witted escape from the waiting room at the British Embassy.)

On the night of the murder, Mr. Dakin, the heretofore very briefly mentioned spy master reappears at a most unusual moment and naturally enough offers Victoria a job spying. Finally, Victoria has paying work.

The plot is neatly woven by Christie, jumping in intrigue from Victoria, to the spies and back again. And just when you think you almost know what's going on, there's that kidnapping with curious beauty salon consequences. Then we're off to an archaeological dig (something Christie knows heaps about) then finally, we're whisked off to the international conference where Anna Scheele comes out of hiding and there's an assassination to be averted.

Phew! This is a Christie book that moves at breakneck speed, full of clever twists and turns and enhanced by a likeable heroine you can't help rooting for.

Just a terrific, unpretentious, fun-thriller which no one - thankfully - has yet succeeded in adapting.

It's Friday and Todd Mason is again doing hosting duties in place of author Patricia Abbott who is currently duking it out with a recalcitrant computer. So don't forget to check in at Todd's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SWAN SONG (1947) by Edmund Crispin


Sorry about the plain cover and all, but great Crispin book covers are in very short supply these days. Had forgotten how much I adore Edmund Crispin so now that I've suddenly remembered and freshly found his Gervase Fen books for my Kindle, there will be no stopping me.

I guess you'd call this an academic mystery since it takes place in Oxford and the 'detective' is the eccentric Oxford don and Professor of English Literature, Gervase Fen. Though the actual setting is mostly at a local opera house (and nearby housing) currently putting on its first post WWII Wagnerian opus, Die Meistersinger - remember that Wagner was verboten in England during the war.

The cast of characters - mostly singers, and other opera personnel - is SO wonderful and SO entertaining and there are, at the end, two happy romantic outcomes on top of the crime solving - I mean, what more could anyone want? Oh and did I mention that this will be one of those impossible locked room murders? Well, not technically locked room, but the sort of thing where no one is seen going in or out through the only door and yet a man is struck dead under seemingly impossible circumstances - you know the routine. Just the kind of thing that captures our fancy.

But a mystery has to be more than just a puzzle - right? The story needs to have something else going on, something like a terrific cast and sparkling dialogue and even, more than one murder if at all possible. All these things are provided by Edmund Crispin in this, the fourth Gervase Fen book.

The main thing to love about SWAN SONG is the exuberant richness of language and the occasional composition of dense sentences on the scale of Michael Innes but with considerably more humor to soften the academic arcana (of which there is really not that much). Edmund Crispin outdoes himself here. The sniffy, sneery, smirking tone is delightful from the opening paragraphs to the introduction of the murder victim's sanity-challenged composer brother and his intimidating little domineering dragon of a paramour. EVERYTHING about this book is presented with attention to the eccentric detail - these are musicians, after all ( implies Crispin) and you know how THEY are.

Opening paragraph:

"There are few creatures more stupid than the average singer. It would appear that the fractional adjustment of larynx, glottis, and sinuses required in the production of beautiful sounds must almost invariably be accompanied - so perverse are the habits of Providence - by the witlessness of a barnyard fowl."

And on from there.

Edwin Shorthouse is a short, stout, unattractive lout with one saving grace: a beautiful bass-baritone voice. The setting for murder, as mentioned, is Oxford in the gray bleakness of January. The reason we are there is to put on a production of Wagner's opera: Die Meistersinger. The main characters in Crispin's story have an inter-connected history which is revealed at a leisurely pace as little by little other pertinent characters enter the picture though in truth, there aren't that many - just enough to confuse the issue of who the killer might be.

The loathsome Shorthouse is the obvious victim just waiting for the right moment to debut as a corpse. We don't have too long to wait.

"It argues a certain poverty of imagination,' said Gervase Fen with profound disgust, 'that in a world where atom physicists walk the streets unharmed, emitting their habitual wails about the misuse of science by politicians, a murderer can find no more deserving victim than some unfortunate opera singer..."

But everyone disliked Shorthouse intensely, in fact, even his only brother despised him. Sad. So there's no one to mourn when he's found dangling from a hook in his dressing room.

In the hothouse atmosphere of the opera house there are several suspects which immediately leap to mind: First off Adam Langley, the tenor and main protagonist. Shorthouse has never gotten over the fact that Adam is married to Elizabeth Harding, the woman Shorthouse lusted over though she could barely tolerate his presence. He has consistently been making a pest of himself even after the marriage must have made it obvious Elizabeth wasn't his for the taking. She, instead, had her eye on Adam even if marrying a singer carried some risk (see opening paragraph). She is an ambitious writer currently working on an assignment which involves interviewing famous detectives. Adam is acquainted with Gervase Fen so what would be more natural than, once in Oxford, he should introduce them.

'Professor Fen' - Elizabeth adopted her most politic charm - 'would you be prepared to let me interview you for a newspaper?'

Fen made a feeble attempt to show disinclination. 'Oh, I don't know...' he mumbled.

'Please, Professor Fen. It's in a series. I'm hoping to do H.M. [Sir Henry Merrivale], and Mrs. Bradley, and Albert Campion, and all sorts of famous people.'

There's also some name-dropping by Fen himself as when he looks out the pub window and spies fellow Oxford professor C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia books among other classics) going about his business. There are all sorts of lovely bits like these intertwined with the mystery of the dead baritone whom everyone disliked.

More suspects: Boris Stapleton and Judith Haynes, madly in love and minor singers in the production. He is a wannabe composer hoping for his big chance to show his opera to the world famous Edwin Shorthouse for his opinion. She is a lovely girl who has been physically accosted by the same Shorthouse to the point that a friend coming along at the appropriate time has to resort to knocking the drunken singer to the ground.

Then there's Joan Davis, another singer and in his conducting debut a young man named Peacock for whom Joan has a lingering eye. Peacock and Shorthouse practically come to blows during one interminable rehearsal.

Then of course there's the aforementioned brother, famous composer Charles Shorthouse who in his own eccentric (and rather absent-minded) way is thrilled that someone has done the job of murdering his brother Edwin for him. The chapter where Charles is introduced practically steals the show.

By the way, I thought I had a handle on who the killer might be from the getgo, but turns out I was wrong.

Gervase Fen is of the Henry Merrivale/Dr. Gideon Fell school of fictional detectives though he is younger, taller and lanky and wears a strange hat which is never described - at least in this book. He also has an invisible family which apparently lives in the same lodgings as he does but are never seen. I was especially surprised to find he had a wife whose bicycle he borrows in a scene near the end.

And of course, like Merrivale and Fell, Gervase Fen is of the same run amok school of driving:

"To realize that anyone is not a very good driver takes a little time; the mind is not eager, in the face of a long journey to accept this particular verity; and it was not until Fen emerged into the High Street, with the velocity of a benighted traveller pursued by spectres, that Adam became really alarmed...

The car rushed on towards Headington. It was a small, red, battered and extremely noisy sports car, a chilled looking female nude in chromium projected from its radiator cap; across its' bonnet were scrawled in large white letters the words LILY CHRISTINE III.

'I bought her,' said Fen, removing both hands from the wheel in order to search for a cigarette, 'from an undergraduate who was sent down. But of course she was laid up during the war, and I don't think it improved her.' He shook his head, sombrely. 'Things keep falling out of the engine,' he explained."

But really none of that is as important as finding out who killed Shorthouse and how and making sure that the characters we grow to like have a happy ending. These books have one purpose and that is to entertain and oh, by the way, tell a good mystery while doing so.

Once Shorthouse is dead, there comes an attempted murder of another character and then the death of another and then a further attempt at yet another and FINALLY, we get to the end which is rather convoluted but to be expected. My kind of book.

Though I find this sort of thing completely engaging I realize that others may not be drawn into the proceedings in quite the same way and that's really too bad. For me, what is so attractive about a book like this is the comfortableness of it all. I love Oxford, so that helps as well.

"Fen, Adam and Elizabeth lunched in Fen's room at St. Christopher's. It was a large room in the second quadrangle, reached by a short flight of carpeted stairs which led up from an alley-way giving access to the gardens. It was, as the saying goes, 'lined with books'; Chinese miniatures were on the walls; and various dilapidated plaques and busts of the greater masters of English Literature decorated the mantelpiece. They ate off a noble Sheraton table, and were served by Fen's scout.

They talked about opera, and in particular about Wagner; speculations about the death of Shorthouse had inevitably reached a stasis for want of further information. Over coffee they considered plans for the afternoon."

Oh, and last but not least, did I forget to mention character names? Another Crispin delight:

There is a character named Furbelow. Yes.
A character named Mudge.
A character named Rashmole.
Not to mention the victim's not very elegant name: Edwin Shorthouse.
And the conductor is named Peacock.
(Not that Gervase Fen is a run of the mill name either.)

This is the kind of nonsense I appreciate.

In my mind, SWAN SONG is second only to Crispin's oh-so-brilliant, THE MOVING TOYSHOP. So that gives you some idea how much I loved it.

Since it's Friday once again, Todd Mason will be doing meme hosting duties later on today at his blog, Sweet Freedom. So don't forget to check in at some point to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Monday Salon: Remember When Plane Travel Was Fun?







American Airlines ad, 1949. Good Housekeeping magazine. 





















An incident in a recent book got me thinking about once upon a time plane flight.  Of course now it's often just a necessary drudgery. But remember how exciting plane travel could be? Comfortable too, with stewardesses and stewards to see to your every need. And seats like banquettes with small tables and other comfortable accoutrements. The man in the top poster looks as if he's sitting on a wicker chair (!?) Remember dressing up to fly? Remember walking onto the actual tarmac to board the plane? Outside! Those were the days.

And look at these gorgeous travel posters. Yesterday's graphics were often works of art in and of themselves, even if they were only advertising not meant to last forever.

Artwork by American illustrator Harold Anderson. (1894 - 1973)

Designer: Tom Purvis. Imperial Airways 1931.


Friday, January 26, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE PONSON CASE (1921) by Freeman Wills Croft


If you don't like to read police procedural mysteries, you probably won't like the books of
Freeman Wills Croft. Happily for me, I love police procedurals and most especially love the old practitioners of the craft. I haven't read Croft in ages, but began to go through his work again last year - unfortunately, not a lot of it is easily available. But little by little, as the saying goes. And since I don't remember what I read years ago, it's like doing it again for the first time.

Warning: Croft is VERY fond of railway schedules and 'timed to the minute' alibis. And though normally my eyes glaze over when reading alibi minutiae, somehow with Croft, I take it in stride. And railway schedules - ha! I have trouble reading any kind of schedule - you should see me, a grown woman of some intelligence, lost in the utter incomprehension of a town bus schedule. Sad. But this doesn't stop me reading Croft. Go figure. It might just have something to do with the fact that he was a very clever constructor of plots, a writer of the sort of books that few can do well. He also comfortably understood his limitations and seemed happy enough within them. Once you get deep into a Croft book, it's hard to put the thing down. Listen, I'm the least detail oriented person you would ever meet, but I love his work.

And another thing: Of Croft's very early work, there's less of that turn of the century over the top exuberance that you find say, in E.C. Bentley's books, and other writers from that time. Croft avoided the curlycues. AND his women were often not of the faint of heart variety.

THE PONSON CASE (1921) is Croft's second book and does not feature Croft's most famous protagonist, Inspector French of Scotland Yard who will debut a few years later - this time out it's Inspector Tanner who has the case. It was published in 1921, so this is kind of old school before old school was old.

Yet at the same time, there's a rather strong female character  who has lots to do with pushing the case forward even where her male cohort is ready to give it up as a lost cause. The plot develops from their point of view as well as from Tanner's.

Okay so ANY reader (of a suspicious nature) who has read as many mysteries as I have (and more) will be able to figure out, more or less, not HOW the crime was committed but who was likely involved. There is a very strong clue passed off in the early part of the book in an information dump dialogue scene.Though that doesn't prevent a couple of surprises as we near the ending. An ending which dovetails nicely and explains just about everything to the reader's satisfaction.

The plot:

Sir William Ponston disappears one evening from Luce Manor, his beautifully appointed country house in the south of England. Except for the servants he had been home alone as his wife and grown daughter were away on a short trip. The beginning couple of chapters are the sort of thing that I really do enjoy reading - we get into the story immediately in a vivid setting easy to picture.

When his body is later discovered, it appears Ponson had inexplicably taken out a boat from his boat house the night before and gone out alone on the nearby Cranshaw river - something he'd never done before. Once on the river he apparently lost control of his oars and his small boat drifted too close to a waterfall and catapulted him over some rough water (well known in the neighborhood to be treacherous) to his death.

The whole thing seems incomprehensible to his family and soon enough to the authorities. Ponson didn't drown, he was already dead when he entered the water AND there's suspicious bruising on the back of his head. Uh-oh.

The meticulous Inspector Tanner of Scotland Yard is called into the case. It is known that both Ponson's son, Austin and his nephew Cosgrove are hard up at the moment and in need of funds. They will both be much better off under the terms of Sir William's will. Suspicion naturally falls on both men. Both both have seemingly unbreakable alibis for the night in question.

As is often the case in a Croft book, the investigation hinges on the strength of seemingly unshakable alibis as well as on investigatory minutiae, for instance: footprints. Inspector Tanner takes us over the evidence bit by bit as he uncovers and tries to make heads or tails of it.

Tanner's approach is to weigh each and every clue, each and every statement, and tortuously go over the tracks of the apparent killer or killers since it seems obvious in this case that there is more than one person involved. At an exciting point mid-story, Tanner hires a plane - it's 1921, so the plane is a  two man affair and there's wind and fog and lots of the sort of atmosphere I love - to fly him to Lisbon, Portugal on the trail of a suspect who has made a mad dash to the continent.

This makes for a rather thrilling action sequence in an otherwise localized tale. Tanner's energy is contagious and Croft knows how to write this sort of thing so well.

Some might find the Inspector's keenness for detail tedious, but there's a certain admirable quality to Croft's fine tuning of his plot details. You just can't help being amazed even if I did fast read some of the more esoteric timing of certain alibi aspects.

If you are of a mind to read some really well crafted, well written period detective tales of the police procedural variety then Freeman Wills Croft is the writer for you. I really do enjoy his work.

Link to Croft's Fantastic Fiction page here.

Todd Mason will be doing hosting duties some time today at his blog, Sweet Freedom, while Patricia Abbott takes a break. So don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten or overlooked authors other bloggers are talking about today.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE MYSTERY AT THE ORCHARD HOUSE (1946) by Joan Coggin


Joan Coggin is yet another mystery writer I hadn't heard of until recently. Her Lady Lupin series would probably have remained unremembered and impossible to find except they were republished in 2003 by Rue Morgue Press.Thank goodness! At the moment those still seem to be the only copies available online.

This is a short-lived series since apparently the author stopped at four. The books are most definitely cozies and her heroine is Lady Lupin Lorimer-Hastings, a ditzy but kind-hearted society gal who uncharacteristically, falls in love with a Church of England Minister years older than herself and marries him - much to the surprise of everyone in her lively set. Her family, on the other hand, is just relieved she didn't married anyone in said lively set.

The marriage is a happy one and husband and wife are, in time, delivered of a bouncing baby boy whom they adore.

Okay, when I reviewed the first book in the series, WHO KILLED THE CURATE? (which I simply had to read because: great title) I was thoroughly taken by Joan Coggin's fun attitude towards her characters and the shenanigans they get up to. Though murder is no joke, there's still a lively enough atmosphere in cozy English village life (at least in book form) to offset the horror of untoward death. As well as, incongruously, a few laugh out loud moments as we share with Lady Lupin (or Loops as she's called by close friends) her inability to quite grasp the practicalities of day to day life as it applies to a minister's wife. She was a London city girl after all, and worried she'd find village life boring. But that is not to be. Not with everyone just waiting to pour their trials and tribulations out to her.

There is no murder in THE MYSTERY AT ORCHARD HOUSE which actually makes some sense. In a sane world how many murders could a Minister's wife be expected to run into, let alone solve? Let's get real here.

And truth to tell, murder isn't missed - there's just too much going on in yet another lively story featuring the sorts of people one might find fatiguing in real life, but in book form are no end amusing. This time out Lady Lupin is staying at her good friend Diana Turner's newly inherited house-turned-hotel out in the lovely countryside of Kent. Lady Lupin is exhausted, having just nursed her family through a severe bout of influenza then becoming ill herself. Ergo, Loops needs a recuperative break from normal daily routine. So off she goes to Orchard House for a carefree rest.

Unfortunately, 'carefree' is not in the cards.

There's just something about the lovable if screwy Lady Lupin Lorimer-Hastings that causes people to unburden their souls to her. This may come in handy for her role as a minister's attending wife, but it can get tiresome on a day in and day out basis. Maybe it's her kind heart coupled with a beguiling scatterbrain nature, but whatever it is, people respond and tell her their troubles whether Loops wants to hear them or not.

THE MYSTERY AT ORCHARD HOUSE is not a murder mystery, but a mystery of mistaken intentions and miscues with a wonderful cast of mostly ridiculous characters, some of whom are impossible to like, and a couple for whom you'll want to see a happy ending. And Lady Lupin gets the chance all over again, to get everything wrong and misdirect us all with attempts at deductions which occasionally (if accidentally) are right on the mark.

 As I mentioned, there is no actual murder, just a series of confusing thefts and possibly an attempted murder involving a vehicle. All the while, Lady Lupin must untangle some unlikely alliances, align a few misaligned hearts and help straighten out the career path of a young poet.

We also get a sharply satirical caricature of a novelist - a woman so self-involved with her own work (talk about tunnel vision) that she causes Lady Lupin to wake the entire hotel and run out into the dead of night searching for a missing child much to the chagrin of everyone when it turns out that the 'child' in question is merely a missing manuscript. Oops. 

Sort of like a female Bertie Wooster without a Jeeves to guide her through, Lady Lupin Lorimer-Hastings is a complete delight as she fumbles her way towards a very satisfactory ending in this cozy dip into a world which, if it ever existed, is now gone forever.

A frantic and very funny second book in a series I've grown fond of. Can't wait to read the two remaining.

Since it's Friday again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: TRIPLE ZECK by Rex Stout

Three Full Length Novels: AND BE A VILLAIN, THE SECOND CONFESSION and IN THE BEST FAMILIES.

I'm rereading the Arnold Zeck trilogy in handy-dandy omnibus form. The copywrites are 1948, 49 and 50 so it looks as if they were published one after the other - sounds like a trilogy to me. As many of you know, I am an enthusiastic Nero Wolfe fan-girl and as such, I am constantly re-reading my favorites in the canon and it's probably no big surprise that I will now and then write about them. However, I do try not to go overboard. Ha.

Who is Arnold Zeck?

Well, as Wolfe grimly warns his aide-de-camp Archie Goodwin - Zeck is a dangerous man, someone not to be trifled with. In fact Archie is to forget he ever heard the name. Wolfe says if he  were to involve himself in a case which even peripherally had anything to do with Zeck, he, [Wolfe] might have to leave the brownstone and go into hiding.

Archie doesn't believe him, but it turns out to be true.

It also turns out that the greenhouse on the roof of the brownstone is vulnerable to machine gun fire.

Worse yet, it also turns out that Wolfe might have to go on a diet!

And I won't even mention what Lily Rowan is asked to do.

Zeck is 'the napoleon of crime'. He is Wolfe's Moriarity. His nemesis. His arch enemy. And as we all know, any brilliant detective worth his salt must have an arch enemy.

"It's the Zeck with the place in Westchester, of course."

"Yes. I should have signaled you off as soon as I recognized his voice. I tell you nothing because it is better for you to know nothing. You are to forget that you know his name."

"Like that." I snapped my fingers and grinned at him. "What the hell? Does he eat human flesh, preferably handsome young men?" 

"No. He does worse." Wolfe's eyes came half open. "I'll tell you this. If ever, in the course of my business, I find I am committed against him and must destroy him, I shall leave this house, find a place where I can work - and sleep and eat if there is time for it - and stay there until I have finished. I don't want to do that, and therefore I hope I never have to."

"I see. I'd like to meet this bozo. I think I'll make his acquaintance."

"You will not. You'll stay away from him."

An aside: I think I vaguely remember Zeck's name being brought up in a novel or novella involving a chess champion who dies during a tournament, but I'm not sure. Maybe not. At any rate, I hope any Wolfe experts out there will set me straight.  Zeck does say in the first phone call in AND BE A VILLAIN that he's called Wolfe twice before.

Anyway, to that first book in the trilogy:


AND BE A VILLAIN (1948)

A man named Cyril Orchard, publisher of a horse racing almanac, dies on the air while drinking the sponsor's product during a live radio talk show. Naturally every one is perturbed - most especially, the sponsor, Hi-Spot Beverages.

At the same time, back at the brownstone, Nero Wolfe is facing a pesky income tax bill. He needs a case with the likelihood of a fee high enough to please the tax man. So he brilliantly insinuates himself (as only Wolfe can) into the case of the dead talk show guest.

This particular mystery has a lively cast of characters for Archie and Wolfe to interact with which is always fun. There's the opinionated show's host, Madeleine Fraser and her array of minions: the on-air side-kick Bill Meadows, the friend and business manager (and former sister-in-law) Deborah Koppel plus a couple of sponsor's representatives and other concerned broadcasting pros. Not to mention, Nancylee Shepherd, teenage president of Fraser's fan-club who is allowed to hang out and be a kind of general dogsbody."She wears socks!" - and is fond of the word, 'utterly.'

As we get deeper into the story and upon further questioning of witnesses it begins to look as if the poison ingested by Cyril Orchard might have originally been meant for Madeleine Fraser herself, so the case has to be turned around and looked at from a different angle. Confusing for the cops, but right up Wolfe's alley.

However, during the course of the investigation Wolfe unknowingly steps on Arnold Zeck's toe, hence the warning phone call. But due to Wolfe's dexterous handling of a most difficult case, the end result is satisfactory for all (well, except for the killer) and Wolfe is not forced to go into hiding at this particular point in time.

Second book in the trilogy:


THE SECOND CONFESSION (1949)

James Sperling, a well-known industrialist hires Wolfe to find out if his daughter Gwenn's intended fiance, attorney Louis Rony, is a communist. Gwenn is a stubborn girl and prefers to do her own vetting of her own boyfriends and resents that her mom and pop are being difficult about a man she  may or may not marry.

Archie goes undercover to Sperling's Westchester estate where a house party is in progress. His mission: to dig around in general and in particular make himself appealing to Gwenn in the hopes of diverting her attention. He is Archie Goodwin, after all.

Eager to search Louis Rony's room for any evidence of communist nefariousness, Archie prepares a Mickey Finn cocktail to put the suspected communist out of action for a few hours. But the sleight of hand goes wrong when Rony pours his doctored cocktail into a nearby plant and instead, Archie mistakenly drinks a second Mickey-Finn cocktail also intended for Rony. Someone else at the house party has his or her own plan for Gwenn's boyfriend.  Not only will Archie feel very foolish, but he will spend a very unpleasant twelve or so hours the following day wishing he had never set foot in  Sperling's mansion.

Back at the office, Wolfe gets another phone call from Arnold Zeck. This time, the crime king-pin is a bit more perturbed than he was in the previous case. Wolfe is to leave Rony alone. Period. But when Wolfe demurs, an atrocious attack is carried out on the brownstone. Zeck doesn't fool around.

Wolfe then does the unthinkable: at risk of life and limb, he actually leaves the brownstone on business to travel by car (Archie driving of course) to Westchester to pay a call on his client.

A bit later, when Rony turns up dead on the grounds of the Sperling estate and Archie is roped in as the main suspect, all bets are off. Wolfe is prepared to do what he must. In fact, in a crazy turn of events, Zeck tries to hire Wolfe to find out who killed Rony. Go figure.

The last and most incredible book in the Zeck trilogy:


IN THE BEST FAMILIES (1950)

Once Wolfe and Archie are hired by wealthy society heiress Sarah Rackham to investigate her younger husband Barry, events are set in motion which will lead to a Wolfe/Zeck collision. At first it's just a case of finding out where Mrs. Rackham's hubby gets the wherewithal to lead the lavish lifestyle he does. Since she doesn't give him an allowance and he has no visible means of support, she wonders where exactly his money is coming from. Despite her cousin Calvin Leeds, a dog trainer, who urges caution, Mrs. Rackham goes to see Wolfe.

"...you ought to stop trembling if you can. It makes Mr. Wolfe uneasy when a woman trembles because he thinks she's going to be hysterical, and he might not listen to you. Take a deep breath and try to stop."

"You were trembling all the way down here in the car," the man said in a mild baritone.

"I was not!" she snapped. That settled, she turned to me. "this is my cousin, Calvin Leeds. He didn't want me to come here, but I brought him along anyhow. Where's Mr. Wolfe?"

I indicated the door to the office, went and opened it, and ushered them in. 

I have never figured out Wolfe's grounds for deciding whether or not to get to his feet when a woman enters his office. If they're objective they're too complicated for me and if they're subjective I wouldn't know where to start. This ime he kept his seat behind his desk in the corner near the window, merely nodding and murmuring when I pronounced names. I thought for a second that Mrs. Rackham was standing gazing at him in reproach for his bad manners, but then I saw it was just surprised disbelief that he could be that big and fat. I'm so used to the quantity of him that I'm apt to forget ow he must impress people seeing him for the first time. 

He aimed a thumb at the red leather chair beyond the end of his desk and muttered at her, "Sit down, madam."

...Mrs. Rackham spoke to Wolfe. "You couldn't very well go around finding out things. Could you?"

"I don't know," he said politely. "I haven't tried for years, and I don't intend to. Others go around for me." He gestured at me. "Mr. Goodwin, of course, and others as as required. You need someone to go around?"

She sure does and before too long, Mrs. Rackham will die along with her beloved dog. (A wretched scene.) This triggers Wolfe's disappearance from the brownstone leaving behind explicit instructions that Archie should not look for him. A bereft Archie and Fritz and Theodore must muddle through on their own without a hint from Wolfe.

This is a delightfully improbable book in which detection and coincidence go hand in hand. Certain things just happen in the course of Archie's trying to find his bearings and we must go along with them. Also near the end, we are asked to believe the unlikeliest of events, but hey, it's Nero Wolfe. Archie on his own manages just fine by the way, using his intelligence based on experience. And the endings are real eye-openers. Endings? Yes, there are two endings this time out.

By the way, you do not have to have read the first two books in the trilogy to read the third. The actions in the last Zeck book are not predicated on anything that happened in the first two. But it's still nice to read them in order of publication. Build up the tension, so to speak.

It's Friday once again and today, Todd Mason is doing hosting duties for author Patricia Abbott, at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in to see what forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Year End Reading Round-Up

The gorgeous artwork of contemporary Irish painter Henry McGrane.

This is my first year-end round-up after many years of blogging and I was inspired to do so by a wonderful year end post over at Brad's AHSWEETMYSTERY blog.  Of course being a person of little introspection and zero memory (each book I read remains only as a vague interlude floating about in my brain) so I may not have as many interesting things to muse over as Brad does. But I'll do my best.

I too will try and stay away from the politics of 2017 except to say that never have I welcomed the end of year more. My hopes are pinned on the 2018 election and/or some nicely timed arrests but that's all I'll say about it on this blog. Those interested in my more detailed political expostulations are welcome to check out my Facebook page.

This past year I only read 79 books - see link to titles and ratings here, but it was more than I read the previous year even if still less than what I'd set out to do. I thought I was reading at a much faster clip but turned out I was wrong, I seem to have slowed quite a bit. But maybe it's for the best. After all, it's not a race.

Example of the brilliance I was exposed to this year:

If I HAD to pick my favorite mystery this year, this would be it. What a terrific piece of writing. I had never read any Michael Gilbert before so this was a fantastic introduction. I almost wish I hadn't read it so that I could have the absolute pleasure of reading it again. Which I will do sometime this year once its innards fade to nothingness in my brain.

This was the beginning of a wonderful series set in a cold, cheerless and very remote section of Great Britain which the author somehow makes inviting. I love the cold wind and rain, the ocean and sand and the feeling of damp isolation. The protagonist is a forensic archaeologist who is called in whenever bones are uncovered which is actually more often than one might imagine. I didn't think I'd like this series as much as I do which means that I am, at my creaking old age, still capable of being surprised.





I also read several books by Angela Thirkell and Elinor Lipman this year, two authors whose work rarely disappoints. I continue to love the worlds they create. And near the end of the year, I discovered the wonderful Bill Crider's Dan Rhodes books. Proving once again what an eclectic reader I am and proud of it.

But then there were these two books which cruelly disappointed me. Yes, cruelly, because I always go into a book expecting something wonderful.

1) Normally I don't bother chatting too much about bad books, but this one was a doozy, most especially since I had been led to believe it was a pretty good book, maybe even exceptional. May I say that this was a total waste of my time? I began skimming near the end hoping I'd come across something that would suddenly turn the thing around, but I never did find it. This is the sort of book that sets you up nicely with a visually pleasing locale and the whole idea of Ellery Queen going off to an upstate town to see a different view of life and gather color for a book he is either in the process of writing or just about to be in the process of writing. The house he rents is set up for him with the appropriate mystery and expectations are set in place. Unfortunately these expectations are NEVER met. Queen acts like a nitwit throughout the book and when you think AHA! something is going to happen now - NOTHING does. It's a dud, a pedestrian effort at best. As I said: a total waste of time even if it is the first of the fabled Ellery Queen 'Wrightsville' books.

2) I'd only read one other Helen McCloy book - CUE FOR MURDER - and liked it well enough. So I kind of thought I'd enjoy this one which seemed to have the sort of plot I normally look forward to. But, oh, was I wrong. I did stop reading about half way through because I just couldn't take the pontificating. Certain characters' dialogue read as if they were giving a lecture at the United Nations on the wretchedness of bad government and/or fascism and/or other trials of mankind. All mixed in with what was supposed to be dialogue. And the heroine - oh my goodness, her behavior was, I think, supposed to be eccentrically entertaining, but instead appeared nothing but dull-witted. Another book I wanted to like, but no, it was not to be. Thankfully, books like these are few and far between.

On a better note: 2017 was also the year I began reading a couple of vintage authors for the first time thanks to bloggers like John at PRETTY SINISTER BOOKS and others, who specialize in vintage and whose tastes I can usually count on.

I've continued to contribute to author Patricia Abbott's Friday Forgotten Book Meme (even if a bit tardy at times) which gives me another reason (if I needed any more) to read vintage, vintage and more vintage. Though I do still read some modern day authors, for instance: Elly Griffiths, Spencer Quinn and Elinor Lipman. And I'm very much looking forward to Robert Crais' new novel, WANTED among other things, here and there.

Also keenly looking forward to Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo DaVinci. I read three non-fiction books this year which is less than I would like, but the three I read were excellent:



Almost against my will, I am getting more used to reading on my Kindle (it took you long enough, Yvette!) though I still prefer actual books and truth to tell, I don't think I'll EVER get used to tapping the screen to turn the page. But there are just certain difficult to find vintage books which are either unavailable as actual books or if they are, are just too expensive. Ergo: Kindle is the next best choice.

So, all in all, I guess you could say I had a very good reading year and here's to 2018 being just as good if not better.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other authors are talking about today.


Friday, December 29, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: TRAITOR'S PURSE (1941) by Margery Allingham


I haven't been a big fan of Albert Campion, Margery Allingham's Golden Age detective, since I watched a couple of episodes of the television series and hated it AND since I made the mistake of reading one of her worst books (don't ask me the title I've purposely forgotten it) as my first Campion try and swore I'd never read another primarily because the book was filled with anti-Semitic crap.

Oh, I know, I put up with a bit of that from Dorothy Sayers and even Agatha Christie and a couple of others from time to time, but this was really REALLY objectionable stuff do I swore I'd never read another Allingham book.

But then time passed and I saw some recommendations (by people I admire) of a couple of other Allingham books which were thought to be exceptionally good so I wavered. MORE WORK FOR THE UNDERTAKER was quite excellent as was BLACK PLUMES (which didn't have Campion in the plot and didn't miss him). So I decided that the book I'd hated was an aberration. We'll see as we go on.

Campion is an acquired taste which I've never really acquired so I'm not going to pretend that I really like him very much, but in TRAITOR'S PURSE he's got amnesia so his personality is altered for the better and his 'man' Lugg doesn't muck up the works too much. 

We have a very promising beginning in this particular book: a man wakes up in hospital unable to remember who he is and what's happened except that he has a bad headache and the vague memory of a vitally important thing he must do. He overhears some chatter and surmises that he is being kept under guard for attacking a policeman - uh oh. So he does what any self-respecting hero would do, he escapes (through a series of fortuitous incidents) from the hospital in the dead of night (dressed as a fireman) and heads off for parts unknown.

"Any incongruity in the costume did not occur to him. He was still moving with the simple directness of emergency. There was danger behind him and something tremendously important ahead. He was going away from the one and approaching the other. It appeared both sensible and elementary."

He must get his memory back since he knows in his gut that time is of the essence and his mission is one of earth-shattering importance.Talk about blundering about in the dark - it's a good thing that the amnesiac has a good estimation of his own abilities as he heads out into the night looking for a car to steal.

After a coincidence or two and a smattering of good fortune, the amnesiac eventually winds up in a limousine with a plucky young woman named Amanda and her male passenger, an older man named Mr. Anscoumbe. Unexpectedly, the young woman knows the amnesiac as Albert Campion and seems anxious to help him continue his unknown mission. Through things said and unsaid Campion assumes he and Amanda are married. An idea which doesn't startle him as much as it ought since in his own wary way, he finds the girl delightful. However later we learn that they are not married only affianced and Amanda wants to break up the relationship since she is falling in love with another man. But that's neither here nor there except as it affects Campion's sense of self and his feeling that he somehow deserves what's happening and is torn about it - more so as time ticks away and he reacquaints himself with Amanda whom, it turns out, he's known since she was 17.

At any rate, they drop off Mr. Anscombe at his house but not before the number  '15' is brought to Campion's attention several times in conversation. What can it mean?

They then drive to the nearby home of Lee Aubrey, wealthy charismatic Principal of a local scientific society which runs the nearby town of Bridge through some sort of hereditary organization known as the Masters of Bridge. (I never did get the hang of this but I got the feeling that it wasn't necessary that I should.) Lee Aubrey is at the head of the Masters and it seems Albert Campion and Amanda are late for dinner at his 'perfect Georgian house' at 'The Institute' - turns out they are staying at the house. Mr. Anscombe is expected later as well. All this is explained in bits and pieces to a weary and wary Campion who is trying like mad not to let on that he is clueless.

"The drawing room of the Principal's house at the Institute of Bridge was typical both of its owner and of the foundation; that is to say, it was a genuine period piece which had been considerably improved by modern austerity and modern money. Its fluted columns and Wedgwood plaques had been stripped and cleaned and each piece of furniture that it contained had been chosen with care and a splendid disregard of cost either one way or the other, so that an old fruit-wood chair picked up for half a crown rubbed shoulders with Mozart's own spinet, acquired at considerable sacrifice.

When Campion followed Amanda in he walked into one of the few recognizable atmospheres of that nightmare evening. Intelligent academic formality, than which there is nothing more indestructible, closed over his head like glue."

Bluffing his way through and blaming a bump on the head for any vagueness, Campion tries to figure out the rules of the game as it goes along. This is handled exceptionally well by the author and makes for added intrigue since we and our hero know that something big is afoot, but not what it is and how it's to be dealt with. And what about that number 15 thing?

Mr. Anscombe fails to arrive later in the evening and a Superintendent Hutch of the local police shows up instead. It seems that Mr. Anscombe (who had also been Hereditary Secretary to the Society) has been found dead, his neck broken. The eye of suspicion lights on Albert Campion. Though as events progress it's obvious that Hutch knows Campion and regards him in a different light other than suspect. Later Hutch will send a signal that he is waiting outside and to Campion's surprise, off they go on a mysterious night time adventure.

Soon we're traipsing through 'back doors' into secret caverns used by the Masters as a meeting place, a storage base and more. The whole set-up seems a bit strange especially the 'hereditary' aspect of it all. But it's England, and you know how they love their ancient laws secret enclaves and such.

Anyway, after the night jaunt to the caverns in which Campion had  spotted not only some very interesting correspondence and minutes from a meeting but also on further investigation of the labyrinth, a large group of lorries underground, he is taken on a day-time tour of the Institute of which Lee Aubrey is Principal. Campion meets a scientist working on a new explosive (a kind of super hand grenade) and sees other work going on all perfectly above board in furtherance of the war effort - it is 1941 after all. And Aubrey explains that the main work and wealth of the Society lies in patents. Lucrative patents of all sorts of inventions and improvements on inventions.

Campion knows the mission he is on is part of that same war effort and has come to know (thanks to Hutch and their night time adventuring) that it definitely has something to do with the caverns and the august institution known as the Masters of Bridge. He has also assumed that the number '15' which is a date two days hence gives him just 48 hours to do what needs doing.

"Good God, he was mad! Here he was stumbling about in the dark and seeing monsters where there were bushes and innocent shadows where there might be death traps, and all the time the precious hours were racing past. He was a lunatic, very possibly a dangerous lunatic. Mercifully he was gradually getting the intelligence to recognize the fact."

This is a complicated inventive plot full of twists and turns not helped at all by the fact that the guy in charge has amnesia - for in charge he is as even Scotland Yard is working with him. Campion is feeling his way along not sure what he will be required to do except that the government (he finds out) is counting on him and that there's no time to lose - at most he has a couple of days to offset a huge plot against the government and people of England.

"What are you going to do?

The enquiry crept into the almighty muddle of confused thoughts and emotions in Campion's tortured mind and opened out like a great question-mark-shaped hole of nothingness.

He did not answer because both men were looking at him confidently and he saw that he should have no help from them in his decision. He was the Boss still; they relied on him.

He was trying to marshal some sort of order among his scattered forces when another secret question shot out at him. Just how ill am I? Just how serious is this damned injury? Am I going to curl up and die from it, and if so, how long have I got? He put that query away from him impatiently. He guessed he'd find that out when the time came. Meanwhile was was he going to do?

There was something just under his nose which he had missed. He felt it was there and he groped for it. When at last he found it it grinned at him with the dreadful crosseyed leer of complete insanity. This was the fourteenth. Therefore, all the arrangements for the catastrophe, or whatever it was he was struggling so blindly to avert, must have been made already, and the thing itself be on the very point of happening..."

This was, far as I'm concerned, a terrific book to curl up with in a comfy chair, hard by the Christmas tree and twinkly lights, a cup of tea by my side and a sigh of pleasant relief in thanks for the sort of fine (if absurd) tale I enjoy reading most on a cloudy winter afternoon.

Okay, it's Friday again and this time out that means the last Friday of 2017. So don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers will be talking about today. Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR one and all.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!


From our house to yours: MERRY CHRISTMAS and a very happy NEW YEAR. May the new year usher in peace, rationality and better times ahead for our beleaguered country.

Artwork by Swedish illustrator Elsa Beskow (1874 - 1953).

Friday, December 22, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE NOOSE (1930) by Philip MacDonald


"...In the taxi which bore him from Victoria to his house in Knightsbridge, Anthony Ruthven Gethryn shivered. There is no contrast more unpleasant than the suns of Southern Spain and a damp, bleak, fog-ridden London at a November tea-time."

Another Philip MacDonald book I enjoyed immensely but then I'm predisposed to like his stuff. THE NOOSE has the kind of plot that works for me and the characters in that plot are intriguing though not as deeply involving as in other MacDonald books such as THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER and WARRANT FOR X. But then, those are MacDonald masterpieces so maybe that's expecting too much.

Gentleman super sleuth Anthony Gethryn is an acquired taste, let's be fair, he is a man of his time and place and can be, on occasion, a bit supercilious. He is cannily aware of his brilliance not unlike Sherlock Holmes and Poirot and other super sleuths of the era, but he is also aware of the peculiarity of his position. The trust and faith placed in him by his acquaintances does him honor and he knows it. And unlike Holmes (in the original canon) and Poirot who are lifetime bachelors, Gethryn has the hots for his wife, a devotion which foments just beneath the surface in a rather attractive way.

Gethryn's pet theory is that the police's actual job should be to prevent crime rather than rushing to lock the barn door after the horse has bolted. The police in their turn, indulge him his idiosyncrasy.

The truth is these tales have little to do with how real police work since those at Scotland Yard who know him are in thrall to this upper class gentleman whose brains and cunning are admired to the point of hero worship. But once you accept Gethryn's exalted position in these stories everything falls into place.

In THE NOOSE, Anthony Gethryn receives a telegram from his wife Lucia which beckons him back to England in a hurry to thwart an apparent miscarriage of justice. She has come to believe that a man named David Bronson will hang in five days time for a crime he didn't commit. Selma Bronson, an imposing and curiously affecting woman devoted to her husband, has applied to Lucia for help in convincing Anthony to take a hand in this last ditch effort to save her own husband's life. Lucia is convinced that once Anthony meets Selma, he'll want to help. There's just something about Selma Bronson's absolute belief in the innocence of her hubby which transcends logic.

Scotland Yard, on the other hand, is convinced on the evidence gathered, that Bronson is guilty and deserves his fate for the brutal murder of a man named Blackatter. The victim was someone whom Bronson disliked (in point of fact, he was disliked by many) and with whom (it was alleged) he was known to have arranged a meeting in the very spot where both men were found on the night in question: one unconscious with a gun nearby and one shot in the head dead.

However since its Gethryn nosing around the Yard does not actually forbid his inquires. In fact, unknown to his superiors, Chief Detective Inspector Pike will cut short his own holiday to join in this new investigation since wherever Anthony Gethryn goes, stuff happens and it's not outside the realm of possibility that he will turn up something. They are joined in their search for new clues by Mr. Flood and Mr. Dyson, two special reporters on the staff of The Owl, a publication partially owned by Gethryn - both of these men have their own quirky sleuthing specialties.

Gethryn's initial plan is to assume the innocence of David Bronson and thereby upset the real murderer's apple-cart by showing up and making no secret that he is looking for new information on Bronson's behalf.  So off to the country village of Farrow they go in Gethryn's brand new extra super-duper svelte black car which he drives full throttle never mind his wife snuggled up next to him covered in furs and his butler White, cowering in back.

"The big car devoured the almost empty London streets; tossed them throbbingly, contemptuously behind it. London began to fade; streets straggled; ceased, began again patchily; tailed off into fields. They tore up over Fordley Commons, swung right by the new bridge over the Bale and came out on to the smooth dun-grey riband of the arterial road."  I love this sort of thing: fast, furious, vivid.

Since Gethryn makes no secret that he believes in Bronson's innocence and is looking for cracks in the original case, it's no time before things begin to happen including a second murder. There's always a weak link in any case and Gethryn and his fellow sleuth's expertise is finding that link and exploiting it. This they do quite rapidly. But still, where is the evidence? Stirring up trouble is one thing even if that trouble gets some results, but hard evidence is what's needed to free David Bronson from his date with the gallows.

"...and don't forget we're working upside-down. As Bronson did not kill Blackatter at all, therefore Bronson did not kill Blackatter in a quarrel, and therefore also, Blackatter was not killed in any sudden quarrel by anybody but was killed at the climax of a highly polished plan whose partly achieved object was two deaths, Blackatter's and Bronson's."

The final denouement, when it comes, reaching out of the past in a fight to the death, is a shocker.

Not the greatest plot in the world but it works well because these time is of the essence things usually do AND because MacDonald has a deft hand with setting, mood and keeping us in the dark. And also because in this ancient text from between the wars, there are three incredibly single-minded women written (for their time) quite well.

Since it's Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Froday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: TOO LATE TO DIE (1986) by Bill Crider


This was my first Bill Crider book (shame on me) and the first in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series begun in 1986. Based on this one book, I'll definitely be reading more. It's exciting to discover a new series (new to me) that's quite a few books along since it gives me lots to look forward to. Bill has written several other series also worth investigating as well many short stories and stand alone novels, so it's a win-win situation all around.

Dan Rhodes is a resilient and likable small town Texas sheriff with a taste for Dr. Pepper and baloney sandwiches. He is a widower living with a grown daughter and running for re-election faced with a formidable opponent who is not only taller, but a better dresser and more charismatic when it comes to speech making and glad handing. But Rhodes only knows to be himself and that will have to be good enough for the people of Blacklin County, Texas.

"Ralph Claymore was Rhode's opponent in the May election, less than a month away. He was ten years younger and, Rhodes was convinced, much better-looking than the present sheriff. He had wavy black hair with no gray in it, and he could wear tight-fitting western shirts without revealing the slightest bulge in the area of his belly. He wore western hats like he was born in them, and boots, and big silver belt buckles. Rhodes didn't like boots because they hurt his toes. He didn't have any silver buckles, and he knew that in a western hat he looked like a cat turd under a collard leaf. And now he had a murder on his hands. He might not look like a sheriff, but he was damn sure going to have to act like one."

There is a kind of elegance of nature to Dan Rhodes which comes across as the book develops and we learn more about his day to day and the problems facing a sheriff with few resources, little staff and no modern gimmickry.

The plot:

A night that begins with a petty grocery store robbery suddenly changes direction and the sheriff finds himself embroiled in the first of three murders and eventually a death by wild boar. Not at all the sort of thing which makes for a quiet election cycle especially when the sheriff himself gets roughed up once or twice.

AND as if that weren't enough, the deputy who is dating his daughter is accused of beating up two guys outside a club. And those two guys have hired a lawyer to sue the town and the department for police brutality And on a personal note, the sheriff is being pursued by a persistent widow who thinks the mourning period of a year is quite long enough. Though in the meantime at a political rally, he has met a nice woman named Ivy running for Justice of the Peace.

At first I thought I wasn't going to engage with the story in the way I like, but that quickly changed and I read the book in two nights as Rhodes and the cast of quirky characters grew on me. Not to mention that I'm fond of plots with several dead bodies.

Bill Crider manages one of the more difficult tasks when writing mysteries: combining so-called cozy elements with the visible brutality of murder - one of which takes place in front of our eyes as the sheriff is questioning a suspect. Besides murder and coziness, Bill Crider also injects plenty of action into the plot - action which, at one point, brings us face to face with a bunch of surly wild boars.

Everything works together pretty seamlessly and makes for a satisfying story with an ending you won't see coming - perhaps because of the giant red herring used deftly by the author.

There is also, partway though the book, an outrageous scene at a funeral which is so unexpected and so hilarious that I burst out laughing - in fact, laughed so hard that I worried my neighbor might hear and think I was up to no good. Though there are several amusing incidents in the book and one or two good laughs, I had not expected this wild rumpus at the funeral of one of the victims. If nothing else, this along makes the book memorable for me - I love a good laugh. I won't say any more about it because I don't want to spoil it.

Today is a special day over at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, a celebration of Bill Crider,  author and extraordinarily nice human being.

Bill is having some health issues now and we want to make sure he knows how much he is admired and well thought of even by those of us who had never made Dan Rhodes' acquaintance until recently, but who had heard over the years how much the author was liked, admired and respected on a personal level. When an author is known to be a good guy, it always adds a bit of something extra to the author/reader relationship - at least for me it does.

Check out his Fantastic Fiction page to get a full listing of all of Bill Crider's books. There are more than I ever imagined. As well as being a wonderful writer, Bill Crider is prolific - good for us.

Bill Crider