Thursday, March 31, 2011

Charlotte Bronte 156 Years Ago...

Charlotte Bronte (1816 - 1855), the last of the remaining Bronte brood died 156 years ago today. She was 38 and pregnant at the time. Too young to die. They were all too young. Honestly, when it comes to medicine and its practice, the 19th century appears to have been a veritable Dark Ages of ignorance.

I wonder what Bronte would think of the latest incarnation of her JANE EYRE character? The popularity, really, of all the sisters' work, but especially, JANE EYRE. I wonder if these young women could have ever suspected that their writing, done in the chilly rooms of that dark and gloomy rectory, would still be read, admired and talked about in the year 2011.

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge: Two Mini-Reviews

I'm doing two shorter reviews today while listening to the Yankee game - Major League baseball begins officially today. I'm not a Yankee fan but I so enjoy listening to them lose - the possibility of them losing, anyway. Ha! I also enjoy listening to Yankee announcers John Stirling and Susan Waldman.

The Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge is hosted by Bev at MY READER'S BLOCK. Check out who else is participating and read their reviews.

TO LOVE AND BE WISE by Josephine Tey (1950)

Many thanks go to Les over at CLASSIC MYSTERIES for recommending this title. It was one I'd never heard of before even though I am a fan of Tey and had read most of her books. I have to say that this is one of the more unusual mysteries I've ever read. I should have expected no less from the pen of Josephine Tey, a writer known for her inventive story-telling and unique point of view.

Again, Scotland Yard's Inspector Grant is called in to decipher a most troubling conundrum: the disappearance, while camping out overnight in the English countryside, of the enigmatic, young photographer Leslie Searle.
Is it murder? Is it kidnapping? Is it suicide? And where is the body, by the way?

The incredibly good-looking Searle - for reasons of his own - had managed to ingratiate himself into the family of author Lavinia Fitch, becoming a thorn in the side of famous (and oh-so-self-important) radio personality Walter Whitmore and intriguing the heck out of Walter's fiancee, Liz Garrowby. Garrowby is a shy, soft-spoken woman Whitmore has taken for granted never having had a perceived rival before.

Grant had been responsible, in a way, for introducing Searle into Fitch's family circle, so he felt an added interest in solving Searle's mysterious disappearance while the photographer was on a walking tour with Whitmore - the two planning on doing a book together.

TO LOVE AND BE WISE is about mistaken assumptions, gender expectations and the terrible weight of suspicion on the lives of the innocent. It has a heck of a surprise ending that I can practically guarantee you will not see coming.

THE DOOR (1921) by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Okay, this book has an ending that makes you initially say, "Oh no, she didn't." And then you have to shake your head in admiration for the audacity of Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Again as with most of Rinehart's books, we have murderous doings among the well-to-do in large houses staffed with many servants. Here we have several nasty murders by as cold-blooded a killer as you're likely to meet in any of Rinehart's books. The plot is one of Rinehart's more convoluted ones - you have to stop and catch your breath while you read the denouement just to keep track of who did what to whom.

I don't know how Rinehart did this sort of thing. She must have kept meticulous notes and outlined everything to within an inch of its life. But the story doesn't show all this frantic work behind the scenes. It just moves organically, one unlikely occurrence after another. As I've said before and will probably say again while working my way through Rinehart's books, I simply could not put this book down. I stayed up last night reading until the very last word. (And only figured out who the murderer was during the last few pages. And even then, I said, nah, can't be.)

When current nurse in residence and old family retainer Sarah Gittings goes missing one night, the family of wealthy spinster Elizabeth Bell is thrown into turmoil by as complex a web of secrets, lies and misdirection as you will ever try to decipher. When after the first murder, the canny Inspector Harrison is introduced, it's hard to believe that several more murders and a kidnapping will occur. But even with cops crawling all over the place, this murderer remains undaunted.

THE DOOR is a prime example of the 'had I but known' school of writing of which Rinehart was queen. There is plenty of 'if only she'd said' or 'if only he'd said' going on. But never enough to annoy, only just enough to make you wonder what on earth is meant. I do like the first person viewpoint of Elizabeth Bell, she is a sensible, no-nonsense sort not above taking the law into her own hands.

As the mystery deepens and an arrest is made, a family member convicted and sentenced, Inspector Harrison is not totally convinced they have the right man. Is it possible that a cold-blooded killer has committed the perfect crime?

The vast majority of crimes, I believe, are never solved by any single method of any single individual. Complex crimes, I mean, without distinct clues and obvious motives.

Certainly in the case of Sarah Gittings, and in those which followed it, the final solution was a combination of luck and - curiously enough - the temporary physical disability of one individual.

And I am filled with shuddering horror when I think where we all might be but for this last.

Belated Happy Birthday, Vincent Van Gogh.

Yesterday was the birthday of the Dutch post-impressionist, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and I missed it. Hence this belated post to celebrate the birth date of this immortal artist.

Learn about the history of some of Van Gogh's works here from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And please visit the Van Gogh Museum here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Favorite Film: THE UNINVITED starring Ray Milland and Gail Russell

Okay, I admit it, THE UNINVITED, based on the novel by Dorothy MacArdle and directed by Lewis Allen, is one of my all time favorite films. The older I get the more I appreciate Ray Milland at the height of his suave good looks and manner. There's just something so soothing about a film like this, even if it is a ghost story. Ruth Hussey, an actress who is usually neither here nor there, is quite wonderful as Milland's level-headed sister. The two of them make for a nicely attractive family couple.

While traveling on the English coast, Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald - brother and sister, decide on the spur of the moment to buy a house on a windswept cliff. (Though the film is obviously shot in California.) The house has a mysterious past (uh-oh) and has been sitting empty for years. The owner is a gruff, irascible old man, Commander Beech, played by Donald Crisp - an actor who has irascible down to a science. He is strangely reluctant to sell the place but subsequently does so when offered enough money.

Ray Milland is a composer and wants a place away from the hubbub of London where he can concentrate on his work. Gail Russell plays the love interest. (Though really she is a little too young for Ray Milland, but who can blame him for falling head over heels? She is so obviously a damsel in distress.) An actress who, tragically died too young - every time I see Gail Russell I can't help but shake my head for the waste. Anyway, she is remarkably beautiful in this film playing Stella Meredith, Commander Beech's fey granddaughter. Later in the film, Ray Milland will 'compose' the song Stella By Starlight for her.

Once Milland and his sister move into the house, strange things begin happening - noises in the night, crying, that sort of thing. Their terrified little dog runs off and their housekeeper refuses to sleep in the house. And what a house it is: just gorgeous. Stylistically, the kind of movie-spooky house we all dream of. Tall windows, flowing curtains, grandfather clocks, curved grand staircase, marble floors. A perfect setting for a ghost that refuses to leave and can be heard crying nightly. A ghost whose 'aura' we see now and then in some very nice, minimal special effects. Most of that 'aura' is created by Charles Lang's shadowy camera work and expert lighting.

Turns out that Stella's mother died in the house years ago and it is, possibly, her ghost which is still hanging around the old homestead. Commander Beech forbids Stella from ever visiting the place because he suspects Stella is in danger from this ghostly apparition. Stella poo-poos this since she thinks it's her mother's ghost and how could her own mother want to hurt her?

Ray Milland wants to get to the bottom of the mystery, so he begins investigating the history of the house and its former occupants. But Commander Beech refuses to cooperate and demands that Milland stay away from his granddaughter.

In the meantime, the town doctor, played amiably by Alan Napier has found Milland and Hussey's little dog who'd run off and he, in turn, becomes friendly with Hussey who asks if the dog can stay with him until they figure out what's wrong at their house on the cliff. Napier is almost as suave as Ray Milland in this film - scholarly suave, he is simply wonderful. No wonder Ruth Hussey falls for him - who wouldn't? He always had such a gentle manner about him.

When an incident occurs in the house that puts Stella in grave danger, it is obvious the ghost means her some harm. The Commander, frantic to get her away, sends Stella to a creepy sanatorium - the sort of place they were always sending movie heroines to in the good old days. Though why Stella obeys the old man and stays in a place that would make anyone's flesh crawl is beyond me. I guess she was just too sheltered and a good, if not very bright, girl.

The sanatorium is run by Miss Holloway, a VERY creepy Cornelia Otis Skinner who makes mincemeat of her part - she is one scary woman. (I can't help but think that the movie's message here is see?, this is what happens when women become too powerful) Turns out that she was the 'nurse' who took care of Stella's mother when she was ill. Stella's mother had been the wife of an artist who'd been having an affair with his model, also in residence at the cliff house. A nice kind of menage-a-trois sort of thing. Well, you know how artists are.

Not to give the rest of the story away, but it turns out that what we think is not what it is and what we thought is not what's happening and long story, short, Cornelia Otis Skinner plays 'wretched' to the very end when she sends Stella to her apparent doom. (Reason? Weird, thwarted love.)

Will Stella be saved? Will Milland get there in time? Will that little dog ever agree to stay overnight in the house? Will the housekeeper? See the movie.

Wednesday: Quote for the Day

If you hear that someone is speaking ill of you, instead of trying to defend yourself you should say: 'He obviously does not know me very well, since there are so many other faults he could have mentioned.' Epictetus

It's Official: Angelina Jolie will play CLEOPATRA!

Don't know about you, but this is a film I will definitely want to see. Jolie is a great choice to play Cleopatra. As to who should play Marc Anthony? I pick Daniel Craig. Yes? No? For Julius Caesar I pick Jeremy Irons. Yes? No?

Can't wait to see what they make of this fabulous historical epic. The last time out with Elizabeth Taylor as Cleo, scandal eclipsed the film. In truth the film just wasn't very good - too much pomp, not enough circumstance. Though Liz, of course, was stupefyingly gorgeous.
I'm wondering if the film will be based on the new book, CLEOPATRA: A Life, by Stacy Schiff.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

10 Authors Who Deserve More Recognition

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the gals at THE BROKE AND THE BOOKISH. Today's topic is Top Ten Authors Who Deserve More Recognition. Okay, here are my ten:
1) CONNIE WILLIS. Though her latest book, ALL CLEAR (sequel to BLACK OUT ) published last year was a disappointment, everything previous to that has been top notch. She tackles time travel in many of her books (which are primarily set in England) and I love her take on the vicissitudes of travelling backwards: she's set it up so that only historians use the time travel mechanism - makes a lot of sense to me. Her characters are generally likable, her humor ironic and her drama can be heart-stopping.

She has written two masterpieces as far as I'm concerned: PASSAGE and THE DOOMSDAY BOOK. Only one of which involves time-travel. PASSAGE (2001) is the almost claustrophobic story of a doctor and a group of medical students who are working on a near-death research project. The setting is a dark warren of a hospital. Halfway through this book something happens so shocking that you have to set the book down and think about it for awhile. Then you either pick the book up and continue or you walk away. Connie Willis is fearless. An extraordinary book.

DOOMSDAY BOOK (1992) is the story of a historian who goes back in time to medieval England and through a series of technical missteps gets stranded with a family trying desperately to avoid the plague - the black death - which is ravaging the countryside. A harrowing book which, ultimately breaks your heart. For a list of Connie Willis books, please go here.

2) EARL EMERSON. Emerson was a Seattle firefighter for many years. He writes thrillers which often involve the tragedy of deadly fire and its aftermath. He has a unique writing style as well as a unique perspective. He has written many stand-alone books and also two mystery series: one features ex-firefighter and current small town sheriff Mac Fontana and the other, Thomas Black, Portland private detective. Emerson's books are set in the Pacific Northwest, an area of the country that I am especially fond of and enjoy reading about. His latest book CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT (2010) is the long-awaited and very well received continuation of his Thomas Black series. For a list of all of Emerson's books, please go here.

3) AARON ELKINS. Another writer from the Pacific Northwest, Elkins is an Edgar Award winner and has been writing for years. He is the creator of three series (one of which is written with his wife) and several stand-alones. One of these, LOOT (1999), is on my list of favorite books of all time. Elkins' main series features forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver. Where Oliver goes, bones and a mystery always turn up. Oliver travels all over the world, usually with his forest ranger wife, and adventure is always waiting for him. These are great escapist books, I've read every one. Another series of his that I love features Chris Norgren, art historian and museum curator. I wish there were more books in this series, but the few that there are definitely worth looking for, especially if you, like me, are fond of art mysteries. For a list of all of Elkins' books, please go here.

4) MARTHA GRIMES. It always confounds me how a woman who has been writing wonderful books for so many years and is often on the best seller lists, still manages, somehow, to exist under the radar. It's almost as if since she's been around so long, people just assume you've heard of her and have read her books. All I can say is, I've yet to meet more than a handful of people who know her work. Go figure.

Grimes writes the Richard Jury series set in England, though she, herself, is an American who lives, I believe, in Washington D.C. But no matter where she lives, her love of all things British shines in her work. (All the Jury books are titled after existing British pubs.) Her main characters are Richard Jury, detective superintendent of Scotland Yard, an enigmatic, lonely man unable to find personal happiness and Melrose Plant, a titled Englishman (he's refused the title, but finds it comes in handy in his investigations) with property and wealth who is Jury's friend. The stories are all set in Great Britain and usually involve the most dreadful of fiendish murders. Grimes is excellent at setting up the eerie underpinnings of her crimes. Her writing style is like no other.

Grimes also writes an excellent series set in this country, which features 12 year old Emma Graham as the protagonist. The series is four books strong. I'm currently reading the latest, FADEAWAY GIRL (2011) Emma is one of several young (mostly female) main characters appearing in books lately, it's kind of a trend right now. But Grimes was one of the originators. She has also published a few stand-alones and several books of poetry. For a list of all of Grimes' books, please go here.

Browne is an Australian author but that's no excuse as to why he's not better known and/or better read in this country. He is a fine writer of mystery/thrillers and creator of one of the more memorable book titles in history: THE WOODEN LEG OF INSPECTOR ANDERS (1999). How's that for a title? LOVE it! His books are very hard to find, but so worth the effort. I loved the Inspector Anders series set in Italy and also the stand-alone and one of my very favorite books, THE EYE OF THE ABYSS (2003) set in pre-WWII Germany. If you can find this, read it immediately. There is a sequel, but so far I haven't had any luck in finding it in this country. Very frustrating. To see a list of most of Browne's books, please go here.

6) KEITH COPLIN. Well, Coplin has only written one book as far as I know. But WHAT a book! It should have instantly made him a star. But the vagaries of publishing and publicity and general reading tastes continue to elude me. CROFTON'S FIRE (2004) is one of the best books I've read in many years. It is that rarity: a book that makes you gasp with astonishment at just how good it really is and why haven't you heard of this guy before? Here's a blurb I actually agree with, from the backcover of CROFTON'S FIRE:

This is a book that takes you by surprise. It seems to be about war in the late nineteenth century, but it is really about a human being who manages to find his humanity as well as his courage on battlefields from Little Big Horn to Zululand. Thomas Fleming. Yes. Exactly. AND with a sense of humor to boot. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

7) LYNN FLEWELLING. I wasn't, until a couple of years ago, a very enthusiastic fan of science fiction or fantasy books, but that seems to have changed. Since I discovered Connie Willis and a few other writers of this sort of thing, my view of sci-fi and fantasy has changed entirely. I did always love the movies, so it was not a stretch to find that I do like certain authors writing in this genre. Naomi Novik and her Temeraire series is, of course, one. Jasper Fforde, another. Both are brilliant in their own unique way. I think, really, great science fiction or fantasy attracts brilliance. To do this well, one needs a goodly amount of brain power.

Lynn Flewelling has been writing fiction for awhile. I know she writes another series, but the one I am most familiar with is the Nightrunner series which I began reading just a couple of years ago. These books are set in a land which most resembles, to me anyway, the sort of place Tolkien might have invented. Another land faraway with its own geography, its own set of rules, societies and people and most inventively, it's own language. Flewelling is very good at inventing language - names of characters and places - you can check her website for pronunciations. She is an author who appears to totally immerse herself in the world she creates.

The two heroes of the Nightrunner series, Seregil and Alec, are unique in many respects, not the least of which is the fact that they are lovers and partners as well as master spies. Their relationship has developed over several books, so I advise anyone wanting to read this series to begin at the beginning with LUCK IN THE SHADOWS (1996). The emotional involvement of the two leads is incidental to the excellent story-telling, but of course, it binds the two men together. The depth of their feelings adds to our understanding of their characters and though the death defying adventures, outlined in each book, often separate the two men, they usually find their way back to each other in the end. I love these books for the author's invention of another world as well as their sense of grand adventure and romance. For a list of all of Lynn Flewelling's books, please go here.

8) JEFFREY COHEN. Cohen writes some of the funniest books ever, I mean, laugh-out-loud funny. I discovered him when I picked up an arc of his first Aaron Tucker book, FOR WHOM THE MINIVAN ROLLS (2002). Then went on to read the next two Tucker books, grinning all the while. He also writes the Double Feature paperback series featuring Elliot Freed, owner of a small theater which specializes in classic comedy films. Both of these series are set in New Jersey where Cohen lives. Jeffrey Cohen has also written several non-fiction books about autism and Asperger's Syndrome. For a complete list of Jeff's books, please go here.

9) JONATHAN ROSS. One of the best kick-ass British police procedural series that no one ever heard of except me - or so it seems. These are terrific, well written, tightly plotted books that deserve a much wider audience. The main character is George Rogers, a Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent. The cast: his working team of oddly assorted regulars. The stories: all manner of murderous doings in London and its environs. I've read almost all the books and I can recommend them to anyone who likes great police procedurals, a terrific story and an all too human chief protagonist with occasional feet of clay. For a complete list of Ross's books, please go here.

10)PAULA MARANTZ COHEN. I love this author's books. Her sense of humor is priceless and pitiless though never cruel. She takes the classics and skewers them in her own special way. For instance: JANE AUSTEIN IN BOCA - a tale of Pride and Prejudice among the elder set at a Florida retirement home. Wait, wait, don't run screaming from the room! It works AND what's more, it's funny as heck. JANE AUSTEN IN SCARSDALE is a re-imagining of Austen's Persuasion set in the suburbs. MUCH ADO ABOUT JESSIE KAPLAN is a take on Shakespeare set in Cherry Hill, New Jersey - hilarious. Most of Cohen's likable characters are women of a certain age and yet, somehow, she makes it all work without denigrating the original tales on which the books are based.

I've just learned that Paula has a new book. Hooray! WHAT ALICE KNEW A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. (How intriguing is this title?) Can't wait to read it. Learn more about Paula's books here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Letter L = Lee Child

This is my Letter L entry in the weekly Crime Fiction Alphabet meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at her blog, MYSTERIES IN PARADISE.

Letter L = Lee Child. In my opinion, author Lee Child is the best damn thriller writer in the business (next to Robert Crais). No further equivocation. These two are the top of the heap. Today I'm concentrating on Lee's work and his main character Jack Reacher.

Reacher is a modern knight in not-so-shining armor, the go-to guy when trouble is brewing in a violence prone world. Reacher takes no prisoners. He is always on the side of justice, more often than not, his brand of justice, and more often than not, he gets the job done. He has no doubts. He wades in where others fear to tread. He is the ultimate competent man.

Jack Reacher is ex-Army, former Military Police. He is an intimidating 6'5" tall and afraid of nothing. A kind of modern vagabond, he travels light from place to place, not looking for trouble, but always ready when he finds it. From the first book in the series, KILLING FLOOR, you know what to expect from Lee Child: terrific writing, inventive plots and always, Reacher being Reacher with never a false note. He is what he is and makes no bones about it. He rarely spends time ruminating, doubting or second-guessing himself. He does what he does better than most and knows it. Besides being supremely competent, he is also confident in himself and his talent for righting wrongs.

I love the character. Consequently, I've read every book in the series. If you haven't read Lee Child's stuff, I suggest you do so as soon as possible. You're already playing catch-up.

Author Lee Child is British, but currently lives in NYC. He seems to have had little trouble in making his American hero, Reacher, an icon. I suppose it's his 'outsider's' point of view that gives Lee a clearer picture of Americans and their habits, gives Reacher his ironic stance. Do yourselves a favor and try and attend one of Lee's book signings if you can, you will rarely meet a more erudite, more charming, more knowledgeable man of letters. Please use this link to get a full listing of all the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child. There's also a good website for Lee Child here.

Monday Review: A RED HERRING WITHOUT MUSTARD by Alan Bradley

Alan Bradley is such a wonderful writer - yeah, I'm gushing again. I really and truly do wonder how a man of a 'certain' age can write such terrific stories all from the point of view of an 11 year old girl. My initial inclination is this: 11 year old girls are not that much different from 11 year old boys and so I'm assuming Bradley pulls on his own memories of running about the countryside of his youth causing havoc. I'm smiling while I'm writing this, but hey, it might be the case.
This is the third book in the Flavia de Luce series begun with the multi-award winning THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE. The stories are set in the 1950's English countryside and feature the eccentric youngest sister of a trio of girls, daughters of an indifferent, lonely, taciturn widower whose passion is collecting stamps. They all live in a ramshackle, rundown estate called Buckshaw, the house a mere shadow of better times.

Flavia's two older sisters nicknamed Daffy and Feely, are horrors - well, as described by Flavia anyway - definitely two wicked sisters from out of a fairy tale. Most especially cruel is their annoying habit of making Flavia feel as if their dead mother Harriet (who died in a mountain climbing accident when Flavia was a baby) didn't care much for Flavia and that Flavia is adopted.

For Flavia, a brilliant but lonely child, these reminders that she never got to know her mother or form memories of her are a constant sadness. But she plots her revenge against her sisters in her own special place in the house: the 3rd floor laboratory full of potions and poisons and chemical paraphernalia, conveniently left behind by a dead relative. Flavia is a natural-born scientist and her gleeful love of chemical formulas and experimentation is fun to read about, especially when she's plotting against her sisters and brewing poisons.

Stepping through the door into my laboratory was like gaining sanctuary in a quiet church: The rows of bottled chemicals were my stained glass windows, the chemical bench my altar. Chemistry has more gods than Mount Olympus, and here in my solitude I could pray in peace to the greatest of them: Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (who, when he found a young assistant in a linen draper's shop surreptitiously reading a chemistry text which she kept hidden under the counter, promptly dumped his fiancee and married the girl); William Perkin (who had found way of making purple dye for the robes of emperors without using the spit of mollusks); and Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who probably discovered oxygen, and - more thrilling even that that - hydrogen cyanide, my personal pick as the last word in poisons.

Flavia's only friend appears to be her bicycle, Gladys, and as Flavia scampers about the countryside in and out of trouble, solving mysteries and digging for answers to quirky problems that seem to fall in her lap, Gladys come in handy for quick escapes or for following up a culprit.

Glady's tires hummed happily as we shot past St. Tancred's and into the high street. She was enjoying the day as much as I was.

Ahead on my left, a few doors from the Thirteen Drakes, was Reggie Pettibone's antiques shop. I was making a mental note to pay it a visit later when the door flew open and a spectacled boy came hurtling out into the street.

It was Colin Prout.

I swerved to avoid hitting him, and Gladys went into a long shuddering slide.

"Colin!" I shouted as I came to a stop. I had very nearly taken a bad tumble.

But Colin had already crossed the high street and vanished into Bolt Alley, a narrow, reeking passage that led to a lane behind the shops.

Needless to say, I followed, offering up fresh praise for the invention of the Sturmey-Archer three-speed shifter.

The current book begins with Flavia having her fortune told at a country fete by an old Gypsy named Fenella. When through a series of clumsy actions, Flavia burns the Gypsy's tent down, the story is off with a bang.

After that, all Flavia can do is allow the Gypsy to camp her horse and wagon on her family's land even if long ago her father had sent this Gypsy's family packing. On their way to the campsite, they are accosted by Mrs. Bell outside her hovel of a home. She accuses the Gypsy of having stolen her baby years ago. But with some clever dissembling, Flavia and Fenella manage to get away from the agitated woman.

Later that night, Flavia out on one of her nocturnal skirmishes, finds Fenella halfway beaten to death inside her wagon. Heroically, she leaps on the sleepy horse's back and gallops into town for help, saving the Gypsy's life. Flavia is nothing if not a courageous kid.

When Fenella's granddaughter, Porcelain Lee, shows up at the hospital, Flavia hides her at Buckshaw. (No one ever comes into her part of the house.) Porcelain is penniless and has no where to go. Obviously she can't stay in the wagon which is a crime scene. Though Flavia doesn't entirely trust Porcelain, she's happy enough to have someone to talk to about the crime. Flavia NEVER reveals much about her adventures to her family - she operates on a 'need to know' basis only.

When Flavia finds Brookie Harewood, local nasty n'er do well, lurking inside one of Buckshaw's main rooms in the middle of the night, holding an antique fireplace iron, she is naturally suspicious. But does she summon help from her father? No. Once Brookie leaves, Flavia decides to solve this mystery on her own as usual. By astute observation and Flavia-like reasoning she figures out that Brookie is involved with some ugly folks in town, and that possibly they are all members of an old-time religion now mostly gone extinct. The Hobblers, as they're called, were given to arcane baptism practices. They also seem to be dealing in fake antiques - possibly copying authentic pieces and replacing them with fakes.

Just a short while later, Flavia and Porcelain discover Brookie's dead body hanging off the Poseidon statue in the dried out, neglected Buckshaw fountain. By now, Flavia is not unused to dead bodies, but this one causes even her to turn a hair or two.

Enter Inspector Hewitt who has met Flavia before and is well aware of her precocious nature and her penchant for trouble. Once more Hewitt tries, unsuccessfully, to keep Flavia out of the investigation chagrined when the young girl stumbles over clues his more experienced men have overlooked.

In this book, we are made aware of the heretofore unknown hidden fountain water-works built beneath Buckshaw (by their original owner, a distant relation of Flavia's family) complete with dungeon like atmosphere and clanking metal doors and wheels and all sorts of damp and dark apparatus. Very atmospheric.

Near the end we find ourselves along with Flavia down in these dungeon-depths wishing she'd be a little more cautious, hoping against hope she'd tamp down her zest for solitary adventure.

But, as usual, Flavia escapes harm and solves the mystery. With a great deal of mental and physical dexterity, she puts two and two together and comes up with the right answer, managing for a moment, to impress even her distant father. Though she seems well aware that it's only a momentary respite and that her sisters will soon be up to old tricks soon as the adults' backs are all turned.

Invisibility was nothing new to me. It was an art I had been forced to learn from the day I took my first step.

Visible and invisible: the trick of being present and absent at the same time.

Another impressive entry in this series by a writer whose inventive mind knows no bounds and whose writing talent keeps shining brightly. I do, most heartily, recommend that you make the acquaintance of Flavia de Luce. Sooner, rather than later.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

...and another thing: A Favorite Film: LADY IN THE LAKE starring Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter

I'd seen this film before, but years ago, so I'd forgotten parts of it. Watched it last night and I have to admit I was laughing a good deal of the way through. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's a terrific noir-ish sort of film based on one of my favorite Raymond Chandler stories, LADY IN THE LAKE. And instead of Bogart, it stars Robert Montgomery as Philip Marlowe. But see, here's the thing:

The film - directed by Montgomery himself - must have had a budget of 99 cents - tops. Except for a couple of night time car scenes, everything was shot indoors. Even though part of the story takes place at a camp site in the country - we never see where the body of the 'lady in the lake' (of the title) is found. It's all explained to us by Montgomery as he appears during a couple of breaks in the story as a kind of avuncular 'host'.

Robert Montgomery is an odd sort of duck. Not movie-star handsome yet there's something about him that's compelling. You either like him or you don't. My feeling has always been that a little of Montgomery goes a long way. But I like him well enough in this.

This is a film with a BIG gimmick: The camera's eye is our eye, the film is shot from the first person point of view of Marlowe as he moves around 'town' trying to find the missing wife of a publisher played inanely and laughably by Leon Ames. (What a weakling! He made my flesh crawl.)

We don't see much of Marlowe in the film except when he stands in front of a mirror or when the film 'breaks' for his 'hosting' duty. A bit odd that, but I went with it. Shooting in front of a mirror is extremely difficult I understand, but it's very well done. Tricky, but it works well.

Audrey Totter, an actress who has trouble playing 'sincere' on her good days, plays Adrienne Fromsett, a woman who - horror of horrors - actually works for a living. (She has shoulder pads!) She is the associate of publisher Derace Kingsby played by Ames. I actually like Totter, but she is not someone who intantly charms you. She takes getting used to. The camera should soften her up a bit, but in this film, it doesn't bother.

Marlowe is instantly smitten with her even though - horror of horrors - she's made her mark in the 'man's' world of publishing. Later when she asks him what he wants in a wife, he says he wants someone to 'take care of him' someone who, I assume, doesn't work - at least outside the home. Hey, who wouldn't want someone to take care of our every whim?? You can't blame Marlowe for that. Though I had a good laugh.

Here's the gist of Chandler's story which, actually, is one of my favorites: Publisher Kingsby's wife has gone missing. It is presumed she's run off with a sleazy guy named Chris Lavery. And oh my goodness, you have to see this guy's get-up when he first answers the door to Marlowe. I do believe he shops at 'gigolos are us.' I won't describe it, you have to see it.

When Marlowe tracks down Lavery in Bay City, he claims he hasn't seen Mrs. Kingsby in two months. Here's the thing though, it's Adrienne who's hired Marlowe to find the wife, NOT the husband. At least not right off. So that's kind of - huh? Obviously Adrienne has some sort of design on the hubby. Marlowe laughs at her for that. Marlowe does a lot of laughing in this film. It's sort of a snicker/chortle/laugh, a 'tough guy' laugh, that is kind of off-putting. You be the judge.

Anyway, Lavery attacks Marlowe and sets him up to be arrested for 'drunk' driving by the Bay City cops. In this way we get to meet the two Bay City cops who play a large part in the story. Lloyd Nolan is the gruff and nasty (though strangely attractive) DeGarmot and Tom Tully is his boss. They warn Marlowe off the story and out of Bay City. But does Marlowe listen?

On his second trip back to Bay City, Marlowe runs into Lavery's 'landlady" played fabulously to the crazy hilt, by Jayne Meadows. She's flashing a gun, claiming to have found it on the landing and where the heck is Lavery, he owes her back rent. Marlowe goes upstairs after the landlady leaves and finds Lavery dead in the shower. A really good creepy sort of scene.

Okay, after this, that and the other, Marlowe realizes that DeGarmot is in this ugly story up to his neck and sets a trap for him while all the while the cops think Marlowe killed Lavery and is somehow mixed up in the disappearance of Kingsby's wife.

Jayne Meadows as the erstwhile 'landlady' shows up in the end to play a scene of demented hysteria that is so over the top, I always look forward to it.

The story, in typical Chandler style, has a few gaping holes and the film gives Marlowe a happy ending quite out of keeping with the whole idea of 'noir'. In truth, except for Lloyd Nolan and Jayne Meadows who play their 'noirish' parts to the hilt, you might think the rest of the story takes place in another genre. Well, except for the fact that all the men in the story appear as 'weaklings' (except for Marlowe of course) and all the women appear 'strong' - something that noir films used occasionally to great effect. It's all kind of a mish-mash, really.

But, I must say, it is most enjoyable 'mish-mash'. I really do like this film even if my review hints otherwise. But you have to go into it with your eyes wide open. It's a hoot. Montgomery did the best he could with a non-sensical screenplay and zero budget. The camera gimmick saves the day, I think. And I do like Lloyd Nolan a lot. And Jayne Meadows throws herself into her part with all the vigor you could want in a woman playing loony-toony.

On the whole, I think, a film worth watching if only to see how Montgomery's interpretation of Marlowe differs from Bogart's. I liked the book much better, though. Read that if you get a chance.

Sunday Salon: This and That...

Well, Spring has sprung - but you wouldn't know it. This past week we had snow which actually accumulated! And it's been cold as the dickens for days. Winter-coat cold. Just when I had put my coat back into the recesses of the coat closet - out it came again. The sun is shining today and the temp seems a bit better, but the wind is still bitter.

Not really complaining though. Compared to what's going on in Japan, a late spring is nothing. My heart goes out to those devastated people in that section of the world. Everything is relative.

Looks like I'm not the only one having to go on the usual diet this time of year. Rocky looks like a watermelon with four legs. The thing is: He LOVES to eat. It is his favorite past time. If he could he would spend all day, every day eating, with breaks for napping in between. When I have a meal, he must accompany me. He makes these strange little noises if I ignore him. Or he reaches out with his front paws as if to remind me that he's waiting for his share. He's hard to resist. Consequently, he is now a not-so-little chihuahua. Gordito chihuahua is more like it.

I've tried to put him on a diet, cutting back on his snacks and such. But he refuses to cooperate. He puts on an act - as if he hasn't eaten in three weeks. Mommy, mommy I'm starving! Why are you being so cruel to me?!

If you've never lived with a chihuahua (I never have before, I was always a big-dog person.), you have no idea what they can get up to. Lots of drama packed into these small dictator-class dogs. They're not all that keen on lengthy exercise either. But I have a feeling that's going to be the key. SOMETHING has to give!

Guess what arrived in the mail this week: A package from my good friend Jean in Colorado. She sent along a beautiful Colorado calendar, a book for me to read with my granddaughter, THE QUIET BOOK by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska. Such a gentle and adorable book. Can't wait to read it with her.
Also in the package, LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfield, a book I've been hearing about and been meaning to read. It looks like it's going to be lots of fun.

Also in the package - last but definitely NOT least! A baseball cap signed by none other than Robert Crais, one of my favorite authors in all the world. The hat says 'Craisie' on the front. That's what we Robert Crais fans are called, 'Craisies' - HA! LOVE IT!!

Thank you again, Jean, you're a Colorado peach!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saturday Salon: A Favorite Painting

Paul Cesar Helleu (1859 - 1927) was born in Vannes, France. He was a contemporary and close friend of John Singer Sargent as well as J.J.J. Tissot, Giovanni Boldini, Whistler and a whole host of other artists working during La Belle Epoque. In fact Helleu himself was a man of great style and wit and was painted by both Sargent (in one my earlier Favorite Paintings posts) as well as Boldini and others. I have an idea all these artists often sketched and painted each other. It makes for a fascinating work and social record. A kind of 'we were all in this together' approach. Though that was definitely not always the case.

Known widely as a brilliant society portraitist, Helleu painted most of the fashionable beauties of his day. He worked extensively in drypoint and pastels. To read about his life and work, and find out exactly what the 'drypoint' technique is, please use the excellent link above.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Agatha Christie Carnival

If you like a good Golden Age mystery: Don't forget to check out the Agatha Christie Monthly Carnival at Kerrie Smith's blog, MYSTERIES IN PARADISE.

Every month Kerrie rounds up the entries and posts a great list of Agatha Christie themed posts by various bloggers. Including me, of course....ahem!