Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books: THE HARD WAY by Carol Lea Benjamin

If it's Friday it's you know what day - so all together now: FRIDAY'S FORGOTTEN BOOKS!!! Yup.

Usually hosted by Patti Abbott at her blog, PATTINASE, today FFB Central has temporarily moved over to Todd Mason's blog SWEET FREEDOM. So for a list and the requisite links to other bloggers posting their favorite Forgotten Books today, check in with Todd.

My contribution to the FFB mix is a review of a book I did a few years ago for the old but definitely not forgotten mysteryink website. A site that is, unfortunately, just about done for (hasn't been active in years) so I'm running around trying to save my old reviews (of books not to be missed) from complete extinction.

Here's one of them:

The Hard Way (2006) by Carol Lea Benjamin

Hiding in plain sight, hoping to be accepted in the netherworld of New York's homeless, private eye Rachel Alexander and her pit bull Dashiell wander the city's mean streets, looking for answers in the death of Gardner Redstone. The wealthy fashion executive met a horrific end pushed beneath the wheels of a rush hour subway train by what witnesses describe as a homeless man. Redstone's iron-willed daughter Eleanor, not satisfied with the actions of the police, has hired Rachel to search out the truth.

In The Hard Way, the ninth book in Carol Lea Benjamin's hard-edged series featuring her pragmatic and flinty-eyed detective creation, Rachel Alexander is handed one of the most personally challenging cases of her career.

Making herself nearly invisible by throwing on the guise of Eunice, a dumpster scavenging homeless woman and her dog (even Dashiell gets a new identity), Rachel soon finds that searching for the truth is as elusive as digging out her next meal, and twice as dangerous. Trust is a scarce commodity among the many homeless who venture out onto the city streets barely making it from day to day, hanging on to their humanity by the skin of their teeth, all but invisible to the outside world.

In fact, in one very telling scene in a park, Rachel in her Eunice persona is handed a few coins by her ex-husband who, thinking her hardly meriting a glance, fails completely to recognize her. True, they haven't seen each other in a while, but Rachel is still amazed at the power of invisibility that unwashed clothes, urine soaked shoes and an unkempt appearance can bestow.

Author Benjamin has long been known for her brilliant characterizations and in The Hard Way she creates another of those special characters who loom large over the book from beginning to end. Though he doesn't appear in many scenes, the lost Iraqi War veteran called Eddie will stay with you throughout and beyond the reading of this book, I guarantee it. Without resorting to sentiment, Benjamin has a unique gift for illuminating broken lives in a few quick strokes. Eddie's sad circumstances seem as real and as plausible as if they'd happened to that nice kid up the street.

Though homeless and burdened with memory loss, Eddie's helping hand nevertheless helps steer Rachel to the ultimate truth. There's a poignant scene set in a restaurant between Eddie and Rachel which will absolutely break your heart and maybe leave you misty-eyed. He is that real and that powerful a character.

As the investigation proceeds, Rachel eventually is forced to leave her "street" persona, as events warrant her looking closer to home at the Redstone family business, the very high-end boutique, GL Leather, on West Fourteenth Street. ("The new Mecca of conspicuous consumption.")
Rachel not only insinuates herself into the small sales staff, but Eleanor Redstone's business acumen manages to turn Dashiell into a selling tool as he parades around the shop at Christmas time wearing a totally impractical, excruciatingly expensive leather "canine trench-coat" that, of course, immediately becomes a best seller.

As the grim economic realities of everyday business in the cutthroat fashion world are revealed and Rachel repeatedly goes back and picks at the conflicting memories of the various witnesses, the death of Gardner Redstone may take on a more ominous personal tone.

The ever-defensive Rachel also reconnects with cop Michael Brody, and a glimmer of hope is given that perhaps this time out, she'll open herself to life. Hard lessons have been learned on her last two cases, so all we can do is watch and wait.

I like the New York grittiness of this character very much. I like the way Rachel never gives her charismatic dog any non-canine traits. As a dog trainer, Carol Lea Benjamin knows whereof she speaks when it comes to dog behavior and this helps enrich her stories and make the bond between woman and dog realistically believable.

But it is in her gift for characterization that Benjamin really shines. Very few authors can match her keen eye. Heart-of-the-matter is her style. Couple that with a brisk unsentimental tone and you have one of the better writers working today.

This is not a series that must be read in order, so I say, just pick this one up and dig in. You will not be disappointed but you will wonder why you waited this long to read the work of Carol Lea Benjamin.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Summer Reading by the pool....10 Choices

Artwork by Beth Krommes.

If you don't have access to a pool, get in the tub, light a sea-breeze scented candle and pretend. That's what I do.

For me, summer reading = 'light' reading, books that don't require heavy duty lifting in the brain-power department. But by 'light' I don't mean junk, I mean well-written 'light'. I love a good romance in the summer, reading-wise. I love a good historical or modern adventure. Most of all I love a good mystery. (But really, when do I ever NOT love a good mystery?)

Here are 10 books I've already read and recommend highly, especially when the summer doldrums come a-knocking.

I was going to do a post on books I'll be reading but as it usually turns out, I begin one book, then another beckons and I take a peek (just to see) and begin reading that and then later I realize that there are several books I meant to read and forgot to, so I begin to re-organize my list, but then there's all the stuff I love to re-read and before I know it my original list is kaput. So, no list for now. 

My reading speed has slowed down quite a bit, so there's that to take into consideration as well. The spirit is willing but the eyeballs are old.

Anyway, here's the list:

1) 11/22/63 by Stephen King - If you haven't tackled this yet, now's the time. Even for those of us who are not regularly scheduled Stephen King fans, this book is a must. It's a thick tome, but I was surprised at how quickly it read. A time traveler from Maine tries to stop the Kennedy assassination. But what happens when he goes back is not what you'd expect.

2) INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS by Imogen Robertson - This is the first in a series that I believe should probably be read in order. I've read the first two so far and have been raving about them on the blog and elsewhere. If I could stop people in the street (without complications) and urge them to read these books, I would. Those of you who read historical mysteries WILL LOVE THESE BOOKS!! Those of you who don't, there's just no hope for you. But give these a try, they might change your mind.

Now if only the second two were readily available (already published in England but a bit hard to find here). Though Amazon has 'em - my library doesn't. Go figure.

Enter the 18th century world (an era often overlooked by mystery writers) of married gentle-lady Harriet Westerman and her cohort, the often reclusive 'anatomist' Gabriel Crowther as they use their scientific mystery-solving talents to catch murderers in a time when women were supposed to stay home, do needlepoint and not bother with sordidness. Terrific stuff! A great series so far.

3) THE TALISMAN RING by Georgette Heyer - Oh, is this book fun. It's a light-hearted operetta without music - a tantalizing, acerbic, witty, romantic mystery in which manners and custom must be preserved at all cost and it all takes place in a Regency England that probably never existed, but boy it sure would have been fun if it had.

The author gives us a plucky runaway from an arranged marriage, a missing ring, a stalwart guardian, a handsome black sheep of the family named Ludovic Lavenam, a level-headed spinster and her airy headed brother who can't get rid of a cold and last but not least, Bow Street agents,  burly smugglers and sinister miscreants of all sorts. A lovely, lively mix which makes for the perfect beach, backyard, front porch or pool book. DON'T miss it.

4) DRACULA by Bram Stoker - Sinister, yes. Creepy, definitely. Scary, occasionally. Intriguing and engrossing, always. Beautifully well written, emphatically so. Now's the perfect time to read this - what with the sun shining and flowers blooming and all things dark and sinister put aside.

If what's happening on the page bothers you any, simply look up and let summer warm your soul before you step back into the 19th century world of Bram Stoker and his fiendish creation. I waited a long time to read this because I thought I wouldn't like it or it would be too ooky - I was an idiot. It is a FABULOUS book! Don't be put off by preconceived notions. READ it.

5) CHAMPAGNE FOR ONE by Rex Stout - I'm re-reading it now for the umpteenth time. Having a grand old time visiting the brownstone on thirty-something street, once again hanging out with Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe, Fritz Brenner, Saul Panzer, Inspector Cramer and the gang.

When an un-wed mother is murdered at a yearly society event in full view of an entire dinner party, it's Archie who insists that suicide was not intended - Faith Usher was murdered. Period. Too bad if it makes everyone uncomfortable. It is what it is.

6) THREE TO GET DEADLY by Janet Evanovich - Your favorite hamster-loving/ex-lingerie salesgirl and mine, Stephanie Plum, New Jersey ditz and wannabe bounty hunter, is at it again. This is the third book in the series and if I'm remembering correctly, one of the best in the bunch. Hysterically funny is not over-doing it. People will stare while you're reading this because you simply will not be able to keep from screaming with laughter. Who cares. The heck with 'em. They're only jealous cause you're having such a good time.

Or you can begin with ONE FOR THE MONEY, if you please.

7) A VERY SPECIAL FAVOR by Kristin James. A Silhouette Intimate Moments book from 1986 and well worth looking for. This is the book that got me reading romances again way back when, something I hadn't done since early days. Notice that I say this without any shame or embarrassment. We're among friends here, right?

Sometimes, nothing but a good romance will do.

In romance writing circles A VERY SPECIAL FAVOR is well known, Kristin James' writing very much admired. The plot: Emily (forgot her last name) is a 30 year old virgin (No, this is not a fantasy.). She is also secretary to Adam Marshall (who actually comes across a bit thick-headed, but nobody's perfect), a dazzlingly handsome attorney who has women coming out of the woodwork trying to nab him. He is complacent about it all - as only an extraordinarily handsome man would be. Emily feels very much the spinster sitting on the shelf. She has no social life. Why? Probably because she's been in love with her boss for years. But to him, she is just his secretary, someone about whom he rarely has any thoughts whatsoever except work ones.

When Emily's birthday comes around yet again, she thinks it's past time she lost her virginity and decides that there's only one thing left for her to do: ask someone at the office to do the deed. I mean, it isn't as if she were hideous, she's just plain - a little lacking in pizzazz. Add a bit of make-up, change the boring wardrobe, take off the glasses and VOILA! Surely there must be someone down at the office who wouldn't mind doing her a a very special favor.

Yup, you guessed it. I need say no more. It's a doozy of a romance. Totally unrealistic, but that's what I love about it.

8) LORD CAREW'S BRIDE by Mary Balogh - When it comes to historical romance, Mary Balogh's name is legendary. She penned many MANY romances in the old days, is still going strong and her hardcover novels show up regularly on the best seller lists. In my view, she is the best of the Regency romance writers next to Edith Layton, Carla Kelly and Catherine Coulter. All masters of their craft.

The Marquess of Carew is a fabulously wealthy English lord whose physical impairment has made him a bit of a recluse. He is also, understandably so, wary of women. When widowed Samantha Newman, impressed by his kindness, turns to him as a buffer from the dashing Earl who broke her heart years before and has returned to bedevil her yet again, Carew does something he hadn't planned on: he falls in love.

Mary Balogh is so good at writing this sort of thing, she has no qualms in creating the flawed hero, but in this case, he must be a hero who will win your sympathy almost from the beginning if the story is to work. Carew might, in other hands, have come across as a gullible whimp or sad-sack, but Mary Balogh knows what she's doing. Carew breaks my heart, but in the end, believably, he receives the happiness he deserves. I love this book.

It's my favorite, I think, of Mary Balogh's Regencies, but there are many more I could name which come close. She was amazingly prolific for Signet Regencies. The characters in this story also appear in several other books (in various ways) which I guess, makes these a kind of series, but it isn't necessary to read them in order. This and DANCING WITH CLARA are the best of this particular bunch.

Signet Regencies can still be found online and in used bookstores. This one is from 1995 so it's not ancient.

9) THE SECRET VANGUARD by Michael Innes - I'm so glad this was my initiation into the writing style of Michael Innes. I loved it from start to finish.

From the back cover of my paperback:

Our lovely heroine and her various accomplices are the object of a superb chase across Scotland by a scheming band of undercover Nazis. Sir John Appleby of Scotland Yard - a master craftsman in the art of crime and counterespionage - comes to the rescue, and the British Empire stands secure once more.

Couldn't have said it better myself. A terrifically fun book - if your idea of fun is heading to Scotland by train, dashing across the countryside fighting off Nazis while trading quips. But then, who wouldn't want to do that?? I mean, really.

10) TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis - The perfect summer book. It takes place in an Oxford, England of the past and of the future (just a few years future) in which historians are able to travel back in time for research purposes only. They are forbidden to interfere, of course, forbidden to carry back anything. The time portal will automatically not allow them to arrive at any actual history changing event. For instance, if someone tries to get back to stop the Kennedy assassination, say, or to kill Hitler and prevent the war, the portal will land them days before, days after, or if you keep at it, in a totally different part of the world. A workable safeguard that stops any 'what iffing'.

Ned Henry is badly in need of a rest. He's been shuffling between the 21st century and the 1940's searching for a Victorian atrocity called the bishop's bird stump. It's part of a project to restore the famed Coventry Cathedral destroyed in a Nazi air raid over a hundred years earlier.

But then Verity Kindle, a fellow time traveler, inadvertently brings back something from the past. Now Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right - not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.

"Willis effortlessly juggles comedy of manners, chaos theory and a wide range of literary allusions (with a) near flawlessness of plot, character and prose." Publisher's Weekly starred review.

You will not go wrong with any of these books. Depending on your mood, of course.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film Tuesday: LADY ON A TRAIN starring Deanna Durbin and David Bruce

This is my Tuesday entry in the weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to check in and see what other overlooked (or forgotten) films and/or audio visuals other bloggers are talking about today. Todd has all the pertinent links (and even some impertinent ones).

For those of you who may not know, I LOVE train movies. Probably because I've never actually traveled by train except for the NYC subway and once on a short trip from London to Oxford. Those hardly count. So, therefore, I've romanticized the whole thing from all the various trips I've taken by proxy at the movies.

I am definitely not Deanna Durbin's biggest fan, but LADY ON A TRAIN is a lot of fun. Totally improbable - parts of it make little sense - but still worth a look if you happen to be in the mood for a good comedy/mystery with a terrific cast. Not bad for a holiday movie either. I'll have to remember to queue it up in December. (I did and I do.)

The plot:

Young and impressionable Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin) has traveled cross country from San Francisco to New York to spend the Christmas holidays with her aunt (whom we never see in the movie). As the train slows down on its approach to Grand Central, Nikki is comfortably reading a murder mystery. She looks up and is able to see from her compartment into the windows of a passing office building. She spots a murder taking place - an old man bludgeoned with a crow-bar by an anonymous figure. By the way, an incident similar to the one in Agatha Christie's 'What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw'.

Only this time out, it's not a woman being strangled, but an old man beaten to death.

Of course, once the train arrives at the station, Nikki goes straight to the police, but she tells such a confusing story that the cop at the desk (played with his usual irascibility by William Frawley) eventually tells her to get lost. (He's busy trimming a little Christmas tree.) And really, you can hardly blame him. Nikki is not the most coherent story-teller. Though you'd think the cop would be taken by Nikki's utter cuteness and fetching outfit.

Oh, meant to mention that the always wonderful Edward Everett Horton shows up as the utterly hapless Mr. Haskell (from the New York office - Niki's father is an important business mogul) sent to keep an eye on Nikki. Needless to say, she runs rings around Haskell and totally ignores his precautionary squeaks and protestations. In effect he is basically a chihuahua nipping and barking at a plucky pit bull of the female persuasion. I hate to compare Nikki to a pit bull but...yeah, she kind of is. A pit bull with lipstick. Hmmm, where have I heard that before?

But a pit bull who can sing a tune at the drop of a hat and does so in the movie - three times. The fact that this is a murder mystery doesn't mean no singing. She even gets to croon two stanzas of Silent Night, Holy Night over the phone to her daddy who calls her on a snowy Christmas Eve.

There are plenty of close-ups (Durbin later married the film's director, Charles David), and many MANY wardrobe changes - sometimes from scene to scene with no explanation of how it was accomplished. Not to mention, a variety of hairstyles all done, apparently, at the flip of a comb. I mean, my head was spinning.

Okay, so what is a heroine with tons of gumption to do when the cops prove useless and she is the only one who knows that a man has been murdered?

Nikki Collins and mystery writer Wayne Morgan meet cute. You must help me solve the murder even if you're only a writer and we've never met before.

Why, what else? She phones Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), the author of the mystery novel she'd been reading on the train and insists on seeing him. She assumes that a mystery author MUST know something about murder and who better to help her? The fact that she doesn't know Morgan and is calling him out of the blue on Christmas Eve doesn't daunt her in the least. In fact, she is taken aback when Morgan at first refuses to see or help her. No one says 'no' to Nikki Collins.

David Bruce plays Wayne Morgan and is totally wonderful, I've always liked him. I wish he'd had a bigger career. He has such a humorous screen presence in this film - he actually appears to be enjoying himself, even when he's getting beaten up by thugs. 

Do those braids come with the hat? Dorian is right, this is Nikki's Pippi Longstocking moment.

Wayne 's fiancee Joyce, the stiff-necked Patricia Morison is totally wrong for him - in fact, she reminds me of Cary Grant's fiancee in BRINGING UP BABY. So wrong for him. Oh, so wrong. There a point in the movie when Wayne is relieved that Joyce has broken up with him yet again - he's free! He's no dope. The look on his face is priceless.

Well, long story short, after making a nuisance and spectacle of herself in a crowded movie theater trying to get Wayne Morgan's attention - he has gone there with his fiancee to watch a film in peace - silly man. Nikki spots the murder victim's face in a newsreel. He is Josiah Waring, a moneyed business tycoon who has, apparently, died in an accidental fall from a ladder while trimming a Christmas tree at his home in Long Island. But Nikki knows better.

Ralph Bellamy apparently bewildered by Nikki's hat. She doesn't look too happy about it either.

Off she goes to the Long Island mansion of the reclusive dead man. Wearing a hideous coat made of two-toned cow skin, (and after outmaneuvering two LARGE dogs on the grounds of the estate), she waltzes into the house mistaken for the old man's mistress, nightclub chanteuse, Margo Martin.

Conveniently the family is gathered for the reading of the will and Nikki gets to meet the two creepy Waring nephews, Jonathan (Ralph Bellamy) and Arnold (Dan Duryea playing against type which is nice for a change).

Jonathan is under the thumb of snippy (and equally creepy as we later find out) Aunt Charlotte. She is played by the redoubtable Elizabeth Patterson who, I think, got to play every one's aunt in every movie ever made. (Yeah, I'm exaggerating. But she was almost as ubiquitous as Charles Lane who I looked for in this movie but this was one he apparently skipped.) I do like Dan Duryea, he can't help being stylishly sniveling and sleazy no matter what part he's playing. As Arnold he appears to be the black sheep of the Waring family. Certainly he gets the best comic lines.

At the mansion, Nikki also meets up with two strange Waring employees lurking about in the shadows, one holding a cat. The two are the always ominous George Coulouris (he's the cat man) and the always reliably thuggish Allen Jenkins. What they are doing in the mansion (besides lurking) is not explained.

Nikki conveniently finds the bloody slippers the old man was wearing when he was killed. Apparently it didn't occur to the killer to throw them away at the actual murder scene or toss them out of the moving car while transporting the body to Long Island to set up the false crime scene.

I'm not so sure that bloody slippers = proof of murder, but Nikki makes off with them anyway. Yuck!

From then on, everyone is after the slippers. This makes as little sense as just about anything else in this movie, but why quibble.

Well, it turns out that Waring has left all his millions to his mistress Margo who, one suspects, does not have long to live. Anyway, back we go to the city (the fact that it's a snowy night and the drive from L.I. to the city would naturally take hours doesn't faze anyone, least of all, Nikki).

She goes back to her hotel, changes her clothes yet again and off she goes to the Circus Nightclub (it's still Christmas Eve) where Margo Martin works. For whatever reason the singer/paramour never showed at the mansion though she knew she was the main heir - she wasn't bonking the old man for nothing.

At the club, still impersonating Margo, Nikki gets to sing (changing clothes again) and beguile everyone. The orchestra doesn't seem to think it strange that Margo has apparently disappeared and neither does anyone else. Very odd. Actually, Margo is locked in a closet - put there by Nikki.

More murders ensue, more running around and mis-direction, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce) shows up outside Nikki's hotel room in his pajamas (wearing an overcoat which is stolen when he's knocked on the head by Allen Jenkins) and is found lying on the floor in front of Nikki's door - okay, I laughed. David Bruce is so perfect for this sort of thing.

Later they both get arrested for murder and when Nikki is sprung from jail by Mr. Haskell, she's off and running to catch a murderer leaving Wayne behind bars.

Nikki in yet another outfit complete with hideous chapeau. Dan Duryea driving, obviously wondering why women wear the things they do.

Near the end, Nikki plays right into the mad killer's plans and is trapped in the same room where the old man originally died while the killer explains his modus operendi. (As all good killers should.)

But not to worry, suffice to say, that in the last shot we spy Wayne and Nikki in a train compartment on their way west, having apparently just gotten married. Fast work, Miss Collins...uh, Mrs. Morgan.

 A Deanna Durbin doll that looks nothing like her. Actually, it's kind of creepy.

Apologies yet again for the wonky spacing and google blogger's refusal to allow me to place the photos exactly where I want them and also refusing to allow me to center comments when necessary except when it feels like it. I've been working on this thing all morning trying to get it to look presentable and this is the best I can do. GAK!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge: THE HOLLOW NEEDLE (1909) by Maurice LeBlanc

THE HOLLOW NEEDLE (1909) is the first novel I've read by Maurice LeBlanc, a Victorian era French writer who was a very early practitioner of the mystery/detective story. He created Arsene Lupin a conniving thief and clever gentleman turned detective who went on to star in 21 books and collections of short stories, though admittedly, with a broken heart. The broken heart part we learn about near the end of THE HOLLOW NEEDLE. In this book, the second in the series, Lupin is still very much a thief and criminal genius.
I understand that LeBlanc originally created these stories as a kind of French response to the popularity of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. In comparison of course, there is no comparison. Holmes rules. But I still find it interesting viewing the two different approaches to story-telling.

THE HOLLOW NEEDLE is written in the overwrought Victorian style with strict attention paid to manners and mannerisms. It was still possible in those days to tell a person's occupation by the clothing they wore and even by the accents of their speech. Class divisions were creaky but firmly entrenched in this long ago world before WWI. The mixture of view-points and even at one point suddenly jumping from third person to first and back again can get a bit confusing. But thankfully it doesn't happen often.

I suppose in comparison I might mention Wilkie Collins, but again, Collins is really the better writer. He's also more humorous than LeBlanc whose prose is probably dampened by the sort of French irony which is not as engaging to the English ear - probably loses something in translation.

The plot of THE HOLLOW NEEDLE is fairly convoluted - not surprising - but definitely intriguing, especially in the first half of the book. It features surprises around every corner and a wonderfully clever young high-schooler/amateur detective (it's not called high school in France, but that's the practical equivalent) who becomes a thorn in the side of the great Arsene Lupin. In my view, the young man, Isidore Beautrelet is the single most appealing character in the story even if the first time we meet him he is wearing false whiskers.

The story begins late one night at the chateau of the wealthy Comte de Gesvres. Loud noises in the night. A terrible commotion. Thuds. Grunts. Groans. The Comte's daughter Suzanne and her cousin Raymonde (an orphan whom the Comte has taken into his household) rush down from their rooms but not before they've spied (from a window) some men crossing the property carrying heavy bags and disappearing into the shadows. Robbery or worse!

When the young women reach the library, they find the Comte barely conscious and his private secretary, Jean Daval dead of a stab wound to the neck.

'Brave and plucky' Raymonde rushes to a window and spots a man running away. She raises the pistol she'd appropriated upstairs earlier and shoots the interloper. He falls, wounded, but crawls away into the bushes. Nearby, barely visible, are the crumbling walls of the old Cloister - an Abbey which sits on the grounds of the chateau.

The servants run out into the night convinced they'll find the fallen murderer within a few feet of the house. But the wounded man has disappeared - one of many inexplicable mysteries which will occur that night and into the next few days.

The local magistrate and his minions drive up in horse drawn traps and the story begins to make less sense when the Comte tells them that nothing is missing from the house. Nothing has been stolen, though Monsieur Daval is no less dead.

The Comte owns four Rubens paintings and a medieval tapestry, all worth a fortune, yet he appears to have had little if any security. Nevertheless, the paintings are still on the wall and nothing is missing. What were the 'robbers' carrying?
The magistrate orders his men and the servants to search the property - including the ruins of the Abbey - but they find no one. The search is temporarily called off after several hours and guards placed near the house.

In the morning, when a few members of the press find their way into the house, Monsieur le Juge d'Instrucion (the magistrate) confronts one of the reporters who is unable to produce identification or the proper papers. Once he removes his false whiskers, the erstwhile 'reporter' turns out to be a 17 year old school boy named Isidore Beautrelet, a particularly clever high-schooler traveling (for the Easter holiday) at the urging of his elderly father. Isidore is looking for adventure and finds it.

He proceeds to tell all the incredulous adults that he knows what's missing even if nothing is declared missing and what's more, he knows where the wounded man must be and who the murderer is. The murderer is not the wounded man? No, declares Isisdore Beautrelet with charming aplomb.

But of course, this being a mystery, he's not allowed to tell all he knows (and how he knows it) until later in the story. (Isn't that always the way?) Later he also announces that the wounded man (who, presumably is still hiding on the grounds of the chateau) is none other than Arsene Lupin, famed thief and adventurer - brilliant adversary of the French police. Said police are dumb-founded, though easily brought around to Beautrelet's way of thinking.

Other confusing events happen in rather rapid fashion until, if you're not paying attention, you might lose track of who, what, where and how, fairly quickly. There's a doctor gone missing overnight who, upon his return, refuses to reveal where he's been, an inn which no one can find, a kidnapping (actually kidnappings galore), a chapel dismantled and stolen (?!), a corpse in an underground crypt, another fight ending in a disabling knife wound, the disappearance of the Chief Magistrate and the celebrated English detective Holmlock Shears (!?) who'd crossed the channel at the request of Monsieur le Comte - hired to solve the wave of crimes which have stumped the police.

Now, obviously, Holmlock Shears has a rather obvious ring to it. A simple re-arranging of Sherlock Holmes' name - author Maurice LeBlanc's little bit of fun, I suppose, but very un-ironic, I'd have thought.

But wait there's more: A lost treasure, a document written by Louis XVI, a notation by Marie Antoinette, something called The Hollow Needle mentioned even by Voltaire....Phew! At this point I admit I was ready to throw in the towel, but I persevered.

Read a bit more about the problem of the Hollow Needle here. (the 'needle' is supposed to hold the legendary treasures of the Kings of France).

The second half of LeBlanc's book is basically a continuing battle of wits between the established genius of a master criminal and the untutored genius of a 17 year old boy. Near the end we also have the perspicacity of Holmlock Shears (who'd been released from captivity months before) thrown in for good measure, precipitating an event which will change Arsene Lupin forever. Or so we are led to believe.

One of the main and rather mannered idiocyncrasies of the plot revelations is the way that both Isidore Beautrelet and Arsene Lupin are given space on the front pages of the newspapers to reveal - in Isidore's case, his solution to the various mysteries and in Lupin's case, his rebuttle written in a kind of chortling style. This happens a few times. Can you imagine? Well, yeah, I can. LeBlanc seems to have precipitated online media by almost a hundred years.

I think I would like to read the next installment just to see what Arsene Lupin gets up to next, what Maurice LeBlanc has planned for him. I'm also hoping to meet up with Isidor Beautrelet once again. LeBlanc was prolific, so there's plenty to look forward to.

Going in, I knew nothing about these stories except the name, Arsene Lupin. But it's been fun to discover LeBlanc's creation and to learn more about the very early days of mystery fiction. (Even if I had to contend with reading on line off my computer screen.) I read this book at Project Guttenberg where it's available for free.

HOLMLOCK SHEARS?? What are you, kidding me? Apparently not.

This is my umpteenth entry in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2012 hosted by Bev at her blog, MY READER'S BLOCK. 

My Summer Guest Post On WORDSMITHONIA

Apparently, I've suddenly been hit with a burst of energy so there will be lots happening this week. To start things off: I have a Guest Post up on Ryan's WORDSMITHONIA blog. It's a reminder of that great summer-time blockbuster which indelibly etched the wonderful Will Smith into our movie-watching consciousness: INDEPENDENCE DAY.

(Was it really 1996? It seems like yesterday. Wait, it was. Ha!)

Go take a look, if you have a moment.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Queer Film Blogathon: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005) Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal

It's been a long time since I've allowed myself to watch BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005), one of the most moving and beautifully told stories ever brought to the screen. The initial shock of sadness I felt at the end of the film never quite leaves me and I suppose I'm not anxious to live through it again. Added to it, of course, is the very untimely death of one of the young stars, Heath Ledger, a relatively short while later. Somehow the real-life tragedy incorporated the fictional and the two events became hard to separate in my heart and mind.

Back then though, I was mesmerized and did see the film several times in some futile attempt, I suppose, to magically change the outcome. I so wanted that film to have a happy ending even when I knew it couldn't. Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the heart-wounding short story on which the movie is based, mentioned at one point how difficult BROKEBACK was for her to write and conclude because she'd set her characters up for tragedy. (I paraphrase.) According to her, there could have been no other ending. But oh, how I wished otherwise.

I even joined Dave Cullen's Brokeback Mountain website where alongside other like-minded fans, I could fearlessly talk about the clinging effect this film had had on me and not have anyone think I was going nuts. For a long time, the workings of BROKEBACK refused to leave me in peace. Something that only happens to me infrequently, thank goodness.

Directed by Ang Lee and scripted by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana - all three won Oscars for their work - BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is necessarily fleshed out from the few pages which initially appeared in The New Yorker magazine. But not, I think, to its detriment. The reclusive Annie Proulx has been quoted as saying she was satisfied with the film. It's not perfect, but I imagine it's close to the essence of what she fashioned for her two characters who, apparently, at one point took on a life of their own for her.

For those of you who haven't seen BROKEBACK for whatever reason, perhaps because you're afraid of the subject matter, I say: grow up. If this isn't a film for grown-ups, I can't imagine what is. It's a love story between two men, yeah, get over it. It is a beautiful film made by a cast and crew with great and genuine respect for the original material, all artists working at the top of their game. A brilliant film.

From the single almost jarring, opening chords of music by Gustavo Santoalalla (another Oscar winner) evoking the bleak loneliness of the western setting, we know we're in for something special. The camera work (by Rodrigo Prieto) and music set the initial pace.

The first ten or so minutes of the film features no dialogue. The camera reveals first one scruffy, out of work ranch hand who's hitched a ride on a truck to a potential job site in the middle of nowhere - Heath Ledger's character. Then a few minutes later, he's joined by another out of work, equally scruffy, black-hatted, wannabe cowboy who drives up in a battered old truck. The two young men do not speak, but merely observe one another with some suspicion, each possibly mistaking the other as job competition.

The visuals quickly establish the shy, withdrawn, uncomfortable in his own skin, personality of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger). His body language and aversion to eye contact reveals all. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is another type altogether. He appears (by his body language) a bit more assertive and self-aware, the camera lingers on his face for many seconds as director Ang Lee makes sure we notice the actor's beauty.

I think it's possible that Lee is forcing us to confront the good looks of these two men, getting it over with at the very beginning so we can move on from there. Whatever his reasoning, the camera moves admiringly over Jake Gyllenhaal's face in a way calculated to make the viewer take notice. It is a stirring moment usually reserved for the female lead in a movie.

It's apparent almost immediately that these two are two losers 'going nowhere', both broke and needy and probably not qualified to do much beyond hardscrabble physical labor.

Though obviously curious, neither speaks to the other until after they've been 'interviewed' by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), a pugnacious, over-bearing rancher who shows up late and contemptuously offers them jobs herding sheep up on Brokeback mountain, a government range.

Jack and Ennis will spend part of the summer splitting duties, one staying with the herd at night, the other in daylight - in between 'cooking' and doing whatever chores are required as they move the sheep from one grassy slope to another. Necessary food, horses and dogs, supplied.

Eventually, out of the blue, driven by loneliness, circumstance and the sheer lack of warmth and/or love shown to two young men while growing up, the initial spark of curiosity deepens. The two become close - each discovering in the other a mute acceptance which, obviously, they've never experienced before. It's also possible and very likely that neither has ever had a best friend.

Even though Ennis has plans to marry in the Fall, I believe he's only doing what's expected in that lonely rural setting of the 1960's. What else is there for him to do - a guy with no prospects - but marry and raise a family and try to get by? It's what men do. It's all he knows.

The first sexual encounter between them is instigated by Jack but Ennis quickly takes control, in keeping with what we know of their personalities. It's fairly graphic though not shockingly so - at least when compared to what is regularly shown now on cable. Their second encounter happens, after a shame-faced, embarrassed and angry Ennis tells Jack that 'this is a one shot thing.' He warns Jack that'...he's not queer.' Jack replies, 'Neither am I.' It won't be the first lie they tell each other.

(I've always wondered though, whether it's strictly a lie if the person actually believes what he's saying.)

But Ennis is powerless to stay out of camp at night, he lingers after supper. Ang Lee then films an exquisitely tender love scene (which is not detailed in the short story) to let us know (in case we are in doubt) that these two souls, against all odds, against all expectations, against Ennis's inclinations, have fallen in love. It is a beautiful scene. Jack and Ennis show each other the sort of tenderness that only love engenders. (I believe the scene was filmed with just the actors, Ang Lee and the camera operator on set.)

What neither expects, what neither accepts - at least at first - is that their lives, from that moment on, have changed forever. They both prefer, Ennis more than Jack, to believe it's all just a carnal episode which will end once the summer's over.

And it does.

Ennis goes off to be married leaving an obviously distraught Jack behind. Though it's made obvious at their parting that Ennis too is having a great deal of difficulty walking away. So difficult that afterwards he actually becomes physically ill. Yet neither asks the other to stay. Neither makes any gesture to force the issue. It is heartbreaking.

They will not see each other for another four years.

In the meantime, Ennis marries and begins a family (two daughters), according to plan, his wife Alma (played sympathetically by Michelle Williams) having no clue to Ennis's true nature. Indeed, Ennis refuses to accept his true nature, so why should she even be aware of it? They are desperately poor, living in whatever housing they can afford, Ennis taking whatever work he can find. It's a hard life.

Jack, on the other hand, has had better luck. While riding bulls at a rodeo, he's captured the interest of a vivacious young woman (Anne Hathaway) who's father owns a farm machinery dealership. They marry and have a son. Jack gives up his rodeo-ing and goes to work for a father-in-law who has no great liking for him.

After four years, a postcard arrives out of the blue stating that Jack will be in the area on business (Jack lives in Texas and Ennis in Wyoming) and would Ennis like to get together. Ennis writes back two simple words: 'You bet.' 

It's almost as if both characters have been existing in stasis, making do, until the inevitable moment when they must meet again. Ennis, conceivably, might even have been waiting (I think he was) for Jack to get in touch. Not consciously, though. Never consciously. But we assume that each must have wondered what had happened to the other.

It is in those moments in the film when Ennis realizes that he is going to see Jack again that we see him show any happiness, eagerness, even joy. He stays home from work. He buys a new shirt. He is beside himself - nervously awaiting Jack's arrival. Alma assumes that Jack is just an old friend who will be having dinner with them. But once Jack arrives, Ennis quickly makes other plans.

The reunion scenes are incredibly moving as Jack and Ennis immediately realize just how much they've missed each other and how desperate they've been to be together again. The acting of both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal is equally superb.

As is that of Michelle Williams, the wife who is relegated to the sidelines. The look on her face when she spots Jack and Ennis in each other's arms and cannot quite believe what she's seen, simply takes your breath away. But stubbornly she will pretend to know nothing for the few more years the marriage lasts. That is her nature.

We've already seen the heightened excitement between Jack and Ennis as they make it clear that no power on earth can stop what happens next.

What happens next is twenty years of misery in which Jack and Ennis go on meeting in secret once or twice a year up in the mountains - though never Brokeback ever again - because of Ennis's inchoate fear of being found out. Even when Alma finally divorces him, Ennis still refuses Jack's idea of a life together.

Part of Ennis's fears stem from a childhood incident in which Ennis's father had forced him to view the torn and battered body of an old man who'd been beaten to death because he was queer. Ennis even suspected his own father might have had a hand in the murder. A horrible memory he shares only with Jack.

It is this overwhelming fear of Ennis's that serves, in the end to destroy any chance of happiness he and Jack might have had. It's only when it's too late that Ennis comes to the realization of what he's lost, how he's ruined not only his, but Jack's life as well. Too late he finally understands not only how much he loved Jack but how much he, Ennis, was loved in return - when it's too late to do anything about it.

"If you can't fix it, you have to stand it." A sad epitaph.

This is as gut-wrenching a film as I've ever seen. It lingers in the heart and mind long after the credits role and we hear Willie Nelson's plaintive rendition of 'He Was A Friend Of Mine."

I cried for half an hour. As much as I did when I read Annie Proulx's short story.

I still cry if I re-watch the film, so I rarely do.

But if you haven't seen it, you are missing one of the great adaptations, one of the great films of all time. A film in which everyone involved gave everything they had and by doing so, created an enduring work of art.

But keep a box of tissues handy.

Director Ang Lee, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal on set.

This is my delayed entry in the Queer Film Blogathon which has been going on all week with lots of movie mavens writing about how homosexuality has been expressed in films - then and now. Check in at Caroline's fabulous movie blog, GARBO LAUGHS and see who else has contributed to what I hope will be a yearly event. 

Again I apologize for the wonky spacing and inserts. Google-blogger appears to be dragging its feet.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Well, I'm now able to fashion legible blog posts - thanks to my daughter who quickly assessed what was wrong and fixed it in a few minutes.

I'm still forced to take twice as long to post anything with pictures, so I'm going to try and cut back on posting as many pix as I usually do. I now have to reformat and clear the post in preview stage before posting, that takes a while. So I hope you'll bear with me over the next few weeks as I hope and pray Google fixes whatever was causing this jiggery-pokery in the first place.

At least I can now blog.


Apologies in advance. I can't post anything for now (at least until my daughter can take a look near the end of the week and maybe figure out what's wrong). I have no trouble typing out a completed post, but when I try to preview it, there's something erasing parts of my text. Instead of text, I get white horizontal boxes substituting for lines of type. I thought I could re-type everything, but even that's not working.

I believe it has something to do with trying to post type and pictures. I know, it makes no sense. But I had a full movie post completed for tomorrow's Forgotten Movie meme (with pictures inserted) and whole blocks of type are whited out - although in the compose mode, the text is still there, still visible.

Google Blogger Is At It Again...

Krazy Kat by George Herriman

There's something wrong with my posting apparatus - yet again. What the heck is it with google blogger? There's always something. Anyway, I'm doing my best, but I'm sure you've noticed the klutzy spacing of my recent posts. Can't be helped. I keep reminding myself that this is all free so what did I expect? But it's still annoying. Hopefully whatever is going on will fix itself sooner rather than later.

Battle of Waterloo Anniversary

'Battle of Waterloo' by William Holmes Sullivan - Source

197 years ago today, one of the most famous (and important) battles in history was fought in an area a few miles south of Brussels. The country now known as Belgium had temporarily become part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands following the Congress of Vienna.

Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington. Source

Sunday, June 18th, 1815 was the day fate had chosen for the defeat of Napoleon by the British forces of Wellington, combined later in the day with Prussian troops under the command of General Blucher.

General Eberhard Von Blucher. Source

The battle raged for 12 hours finally leaving 50,000 dead and wounded. This was the definitive defeat of Napoleon that the British and the countries of the Seventh Coalition had wanted. The Emperor of the French was finally vanquished at the cost of one out of every four men to took part in the battle.

Waterloo brought to an end Napoleon's 100 days return to power after his escape from Elba. Coalition forces entered France and returned Louis XVIII to the throne. Napoleon abdicated, surrendered to the British and was exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

The Battle of Waterloo by Clement-Auguste Andrieux - Source

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Saturday Salon: A Favorite Painting or Two.....or Three! Fathers in Paint.

By the wonderful Tibor Gergely

'The Waiting Room' by William E. Rochfort

'Father and Son' by Brian Hible

By Marjorie Torrey

'Father and Son' by James Ormsbee Chapin

'Learning the Ropes' by Julie Hill

Illustration for Saturday Evening Post 1918 Cover by K.R. Wireman

'Traveling with Dad' by Steven Hanks

'Place de la Concorde' by Edgar Degas

By Amos Sewell

By Helen Oxenbury for 'We're Going On A Bear Hunt"

' Aeneas Flight From Troy' by Federico Barocci - 1596
Aeneas, Trojan hero, fled the burning city of Troy carrying his father and leading his son.

Since Father's Day is tomorrow, I'm focusing on artwork featuring fathers and their children. Various artists, various techniques and disciplines, a mixture of fine art and illustration.

Happy Father's Day to all you dads out there.