Friday, April 27, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE ISLAND OF SHEEP (1936) by John Buchan


This is the fifth Richard Hannay book and the last in what is really not so much a series as five individual adventures not directly interconnected. In other words, you can read them as you find them, or begin at the beginning with THE 39 STEPS. It all depends on how strict you are about these things.

Might as well state that I am a very enthusiastic John Buchan fan-girl (perhaps some of you already knew that) and simply cannot control my zeal for his work even if I know, intellectually, that many of his views are not politically correct seen from the perch of today.

Loving Buchan's work, anachronisms and all, I cannot be sensible about his faults. The truth of it is, that despite being a brilliant thriller writer with an extraordinary sense of color, setting and mood, he was a creature of his upbringing and class. (Certainly, not shocking that this would be so.) There is the implied 'class will tell' motif and stalwart white man stuff, but that's not that unusual, I think. for this time.

The heroes in Hannay's world were, in general, of a certain class and kept to the 'sporting' code of that class. They fought, when necessary, as soldiers, convinced of their superiority, did their best for King and country, and  behaved with gallantry towards women. Bound by honor, once they gave their word there was no turning back. In other words, they were of a type with the flaws and strengths of that 'type.' If you do not enjoy their company, then do not read John Buchan - but then you would be missing out on some thrilling (if not occasionally poetic) adventures.

Buchan was born in Scotland in 1875 and died in 1940. He was not only a wonderful and prolific story-teller but a life-long public servant (1st Baron Tweedsmuir) who became Governor-General of Canada.

Obviously Buchan lived through Great Britain's age of dominion and colonialism, enthusiastically so. But he also lived to see that dominion drawing to a close with WWI and knew, at the end of his life, that a second world war was on England's doorstep.

My favorite John Buchan books are the Hannay series and the Dickson McCunn books, most especially HUNTINGTOWER, a charmingly told, warm-hearted, beautifully put together adventure tale which I've read several times, always with the same enthusiastic sense of wonder and astonishment. Buchan's inventive story-telling genius is, to my mind, unequaled as is his gift for scene setting and mood.

In THE ISLAND OF SHEEP, Hannay is retired and living a quiet, idyllic life (though he suspects he may be getting decrepit) in the English countryside with his wife and adolescent son, a budding falconer. (There are bits of arcane knowledge about falcons and hawks peppered throughout at the beginning of the tale.) But as so often happens to men who have had all encompassing histories of overseas service and its attendant derring-do, people pop up out of the past now and then seeking Hannay out for advice and/or help, usually of a clandestine nature. And of course, there are always old friends and acquaintances from days gone by - memories and stories to share.

This book has everything one could wish for in a Buchan story. The author has the knack of stopping forward motion by having characters tell tales which become relevant to the current plot as we move along. Some may frown on this sort of thing, but in Buchan's hands, it makes for marvelous diversion - the stories are always of the thrilling sort and we understand that Buchan is not wasting our time but getting us in the mood.

It is a tale out of the past which sets the ball rolling in THE ISLAND OF SHEEP: a nearly forgotten oath of honor inspired by the sorts of physically rigorous crisis that characters of a certain stamp always seem to stumble into in books - this one  having to do with a deadly feud involving some very bad men, a Norwegian treasure hunter named Haraladsen and a fight to the death in the South African bush. That long ago oath pulls Hannay into yet another life or death adventure. This time out it will also involve his fourteen year old son, Peter John, an intelligent, intuitive boy, keen on bird lore and as I mentioned, a budding falconer.

(The treatment of animals in Buchan's books by the way, is respectful but unsentimental and not Disneyesque in the slightest. There's a touch of 'nature red in tooth and claw', but only in passing, not so much so that the animal lover blanches in horror.)

Back to the plot: The treasure hunter's grown son, Valdemar Haraldsen, has turned up in England in desperate need of Hannay's help - he is being tormented by some thugs with a murderous grudge against his late father.

Hannay, with the help of two long time friends, the resourceful and quick-witted Sandy Arbuthnot, Lord Clanroyden and Peter Lombard, now a plump, successful businessman rather than a man of action but willing to do his part, are drawn into a dangerous struggle to keep Haraldsen and his young daughter Anna from being destroyed by this vendetta from the past.

My kind of story. Especially when it involves a fantastic car chase along back roads in the English countryside, a hairbreadth escape in the dead of night, the Scottish highlands, travel to an island in Norwegian waters, colorful customs and lore, impersonations, youthful derring-do and near the end, enraged villagers brandishing knives. Ah, the good old days.

At first I wasn't sure I'd enjoy this Hannay thriller as much as I had Buchan's earlier books, but I did. It's a wonderful tale. I am so enamored of well written stories where friends band together to do the right thing come hell or high water.

And since this is 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, April 13, 2018

The Emails! The Emails! (No, I'm not talking about H.C.)

My email account been down for some time while, behind the scenes, I tried to cope. So if you've emailed me and haven't gotten a response, that's why. At the moment, I can't receive or (naturally enough) respond to emails. I have a temporary yahoo email account but don't want to use it for the blog - at least not until all hope is lost.

At some point my daughter (when she gets a free moment or two) will have to straighten it out. But for now, it's kaput.

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE CORPSE STEPS OUT (1940) by Craig Rice


Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig aka Craig Rice wrote 14 novels and was once so popular she made the cover of Time magazine. But she seems to have faded into obscurity over the years except to those of us who appreciate wacky mysteries from days gone by.

This is my second Craig Rice book after HOME SWEET HOMICIDE which was a delight.

Though I loved THE CORPSE STEPS OUT just a little less, it was still tons of fun - the setting, story and characters are totally different in tone and plot than HOME SWEET HOMICIDE. This is the second book in the breezy John J. Malone, shady Chicago lawyer, series (though the cover says otherwise).

Malone's crime fighting (more or less) cohorts are Jake Justus, press agent, and Jake's girl friend (soon to be wife if they can find a moment in the middle of a frenetic case) Helene Brand. She is a high society dame who drinks like a fish (they all seemed to do that back then - didn't they?) and thinks nothing of jumping right into the middle of a baffling murder mystery. How these people can drink all night and yet still manage to put two and two together to catch a killer is beyond me, but they do.

Jake Justus is currently press agenting the very glamorous Nelle Brown, a popular radio singer with her own show. It is the 40's, radio is still king and sponsors insist that entertainers adhere to the strictest morality, especially married entertainers - something Nelle Brown is apparently unable to do. Madcap Nelle indulges a very tangled personal life which it is Jake's job to untangle and keep under control.

Though she is married and loves her elderly husband, Nelle drifts from man to man kind of like in a pin ball game, always on the look-out for some mythical ideal. But people cover for her because she is well-liked and she is the headliner. Her husband, Henry Gibson Gifford aka Tootz, seems unaware of Nelle's proclivities and she wants to keep it that way - in some strange way they are devoted to each other.

However, when blackmail and murder rear their ugly heads, Nelle turns to Jake once more to get her out of this latest scrape. You see, there are a bunch of letters (letters - isn't that always the way?) which need to be found immediately if not sooner. Jake will also have to handle the fall-out from an awkward murder: the corpse of Paul March - Nelle's latest lover - whose dead body she had earlier discovered on the kitchen floor of their little apartment/love-nest.

Naturally, Nelle had thought it best to call her press agent and not the cops.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) when Jake turns up at the apartment later, the dead body has disappeared and the kitchen has been wiped clean of all murder traces.

Where oh where has the corpse gone?

"Why shoot a man, leave the body kicking around for an indeterminate length of time, and then come back, move the body and wash the floor?" 

"Maybe the murderer has naturally tidy instincts,"...

Down at the radio station, the show must go on. Until a second and then a third murder intervenes. But wait - who in the radio biz would kill a potential sponsor? Nobody there is THAT crazy.

This is a frantic hour by hour mystery of the sort made into movies (in fact a couple of these books were) in which everyone runs around, downing drinks to calm their nerves while trying to figure out what the heck is happening and trying to keep the cops from arresting someone they all like.

Yeah, it's all a wacky hoot, but also a good whodunit (though an experienced mystery fiction reader might figure out who the killer is by mid-book) and fun to read. The setting is the city of Chicago - mostly at night, the best time for chicanery. The characters are the sorts of people you would expect to find inhabiting this world of zany fast-talking, morals all askew, radio folk. The action is frenetic as our heroes chase about in those great clunky cars of the time. My favorite scene: a madcap middle of the night escape from a building on fire as the cops give chase - Helene driving for all she's worth, scaring the hell out of Jake. Ah, good times.

In the end, everything works out for the best that can be expected. The denouement is convoluted and hard to swallow, but what the heck, logic is not why we read these mysteries. Right?

I managed to get a copy of THE CORPSE STEPS OUT in a nice cache of Craig Rice books I found on eBay for four bucks. I even got the same fabulous cover shown above. That's what I call luck.

Okay, it's Friday, once again so don't forget to check in with Todd at his blog, Sweet Freedom  to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about this week. Our regular host, author Patricia Abbott, is having a medical procedure. Here's to a speedy recovery, Patti!

Craig Rice on the cover of Time.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: NOTHING VENTURE (1932) by Patricia Wentworth


This is essentially a very silly book, but that doesn't stop me loving it. I've read it twice and will probably read it again and again down the line whenever I need a bit of comforting and a reminder that occasionally love triumphs over evil in romantic hackneyed ways which I guess I'm fool enough to enjoy.

Mathew, stop reading here and go do some errands. This book is not for you, m'dear. Catch up with me next week. 

English author Patricia Wentworth is most noted for her Miss Silver series but NOTHING VENTURE is not a Miss Silver book, it is instead one of several stand-a-lones written in the early years. Wentworth was a prolific author, so there's lots and lots of books (some good, some very good, and some not so) to get lost in. These are all basically the sorts of stories which offer up sympathetic characters, a good (occasionally excellent) cozy type mystery and a romance somewhere in the mix. Books as comfort food - you've heard that before and you know what I'm talking about. Sometimes (especially these days) we just need a dose of comfort reading above all else.

There's little in this particular story-line that coincides with any reality, but that's okay.

Here we go:

1) The heroine is Nan Forsyth, a young (early 20's) English woman who is nobly supporting her too weary to work younger sister who is pining for the man she can't marry because none of them have any money.

Meh, you say? Well, yeah. But somehow we love Nan Forsyth because she is so beautifully self effacing in her nobility plus she is very gutsy. She is also a 'real' heroine in the sense that years ago she saved the life of the man she loves and has loved since she was 10 years old - saved him from drowning. But get this: HE DOESN'T KNOW IT WAS SHE WHO SAVED HIM. Through a series of occurrences he has no clue who she was and/or is once they meet again many years later where, coincidentally, she is working as a typist in his lawyer's office.

Next up Nan gets yet ANOTHER chance to step in and save the man she loves again - this time from losing his fortune according to an uncle's idiotic will. You know how that goes.

There are LOTS of coincidences in this story which is why it shouldn't work, but somehow it does - at least for me.

2) The hero - though it's kind of hard to call him that because he's such a blockhead - is Jervis Weare. He has no clue that the young woman he's been forced (well, more or less) to marry (to save his fortune) is the self-same young girl who saved his life once upon a time. In fact, though she keeps on saving his life (several times) once they're married, he prefers to treat her with disdain. After all, she married him for the money to help her sister marry her beau and set off for Australia to live happily ever after - Jervis doesn't know that's what she wanted the money for because Nan doesn't tell him. There's lots of stuff she doesn't tell him because after all, she's the noble heroine.

Anyway, Jervis scoffs at the very idea that anyone would want to kill him though attempts keep happening over and over and it would be obvious to a blind man that he's in some sort of danger. If only he would listen to his wife. Told you he was a blockhead.

But Nan loves him so we put up with him despite our raised eyebrows.

And when they go off to the requisite house in the English countryside, we worry.

3) There's a vamp of course. Her name is Rosamund Carew and she is the blond she-devil of the piece. She's the one who threw over Jervis at the very last minute causing him to marry the next girl who came down the pike which happens to be Nan Forsyth. The uncle's will insists he be married by a certain date or he forfeits the entire estate.

4) The evil bad guy is named Robert Leonard - we know he's a bad dude from the beginning so no spoilers here. This guy is has been up to no good for years, but so far he's failed dismally at killing Jervis. One would think he'd get a clue and quit trying, but he perseveres. Little does he know that he's up against a prescient warrior princess in the guise of a young married girl with a pair of fine gray eyes. She thinks nothing of thrusting herself between her hubby and danger. THAT'S what I love about her. THAT'S what makes the book work for me so very nicely. Even if that hubby walks around clueless and disparaging her warnings. She stands guard.

5) In addition, there's also a heaven sent pal named Frederick Fazackerley, the kind of friend who is always showing up in the nick of time. He's a journalist who travels a lot and had some sort of war related adventures with Jervis.

6) And, last but not least, there's a dog named Bran.

If you can get over the colossal thickheadedness of the hero and accept that the heroine has a finely tuned sense of danger when it comes to her hubby, you will, as I do, love this book. There's just something about it that engages and charms and makes you turn a blind eye to the coincidences and plot contrivances.

One last thing to love about NOTHING VENTURE is the moody mise-en-scene, which is superb. Dark and creepy doings in the night, a huge country house, the wind, the storms, the lightning. Not to mention that the heroine's feelings of encroaching doom are catching. In addition, there are several hairbreadth escapes from certain death and last but certainly not least, a devastating, torturous incarceration in a dank, slimy, underground cave with the tide rising and no escape. These are some wonderfully written chapters. When it came to terror and scene setting, Patricia Wentworth knew her stuff.

Despite a rather abrupt ending, NOTHING VENTURE is worth a good look, especially if you're in a certain sort of mood.

P.S. Nothing wrong with a book in which the hero is a dork and the heroine is the one who comes to the rescue. Kind of refreshing, actually.

Okay, it's Friday once again and time to check in and see what other forgotten and/or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. Todd Mason will be doing hosting duties at his blog, Sweet Freedom, this week while author Patricia Abbott takes a needed break.