Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review: HOLIDAY HOMICIDE(1940) by Rufus King. A tale with an oddly familiar detective duo.

Actually this is a pastiche seemingly based on our favorite Manhattan-centric detectives, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The one and only such endeavor of this sort ever read by yours truly.

In Rufus King's New Year's Day murder mystery (I was going to wait until the end of the year to review it, but then gave in to wild impulse) we're introduced to a decidedly eccentric detective named Cotton Moon who is in possession of brilliance, a huge ego and a cohort/assistant named Bert Stanley - an ex-bartender who takes dictation and narrates this slightly improbable tale:

'A nut, if you care to believe it, was the first reason for Cotton Moon getting mixed up on New Year's morning with the homicide in which Myron Jettwick, that prize real-estate operator and heel, starred as the corpse.

The second reason was money; the pay-off being old Miss Emma Jettwick's check for thirty thousand dollars. Moon banked it after her brother's murderer was well on his way toward what an Englishman, who came in on the homestretch of the case down in Tortugas, called "the heated chair."

Cotton Moon's fees have always come high. They've got to, if he's to stay in that state in which he has decided to keep himself. Also if he wants to go plowing about the seven seas on his boat Coquilla in search of rare nuts to add to his collection, and sometimes to eat. You cannot push one hundred and fifty feet of expensive steel and a crew of eighteen men about in the water on charity...

The nut which started off the business on New Year's morning was not a peanut or a chestnut which, according to Moon, are like having grits for breakfast instead of one of Walter's omelets. Walter is Coquilla's cook and was absorbed by Moon, among other things, in Madagascar.  The nut was a sapucaia nut, and it hit Moon on the forehead as we were standing on Coquilla's aft-deck and greeting the first morning of the year through a seven o'clock murk and snow which were tenting New York City's East River.'

So there you have it: first person narration by a smarty-pants (though Bert is no Archie Goodwin) second in command, huge fees, eccentric nut collecting (instead of orchids), a boat (substitute the brownstone and you have the idea) on which the high fees are spent AND, last but not least, a private cook, this time named Walter (instead of Fritz).

So what are we to make of all this?

If you're familiar with the Nero Wolfe stories you may enjoy making the comparison - I did. If you're not familiar with the Wolfe books then you'll just read this as a fun mystery with screwy overtones. I mean, who collects rare nuts? (Please, no emails if you are a rare nut collector and I have inadvertently maligned you. All in good fun, I assure you. Some of my best friends are nuts.)

Still, this is a lively, amusing tale which begins when Bruce Jettwick, a young radio crooner, attracts famed detective Cotton Moon's interest by bouncing a nut off Moon's head on New Year's Day - their two boats are docked side by side in New York harbor. See diagram below:

I love mapbacks!

While the city celebrates the beginning of a new year, murder most foul has taken place on Trade Winds, the boat belonging to Bruce's step-father, Myron Jettwick, whose body Bruce has just discovered. Fearing he'll be suspected of the murder, Bruce turns to Moon for help and Bruce's aunt Emma steps in with the check covering Moon's hefty thirty thousand dollar fee.

An improbable tale, not laugh out loud funny but engaging enough and not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

I've become a big fan of Rufus King having read and reviewed his work before. I'm hoping, little by little, to get my hands on more of his books, if I can find them at reasonable prices. My library is hopeless when it comes to these fine old vintage reads.

By the way, mystery maven TracyK also reviewed HOLIDAY HOMICIDE at her Bitter Tea and Mystery blog - the link. Although she posted her review at the more appropriate time.

Friday, April 10, 2015

One or Two of the Many Reasons Why I Love Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Books

In CHAMPAGNE FOR ONE (1958) Archie Goodwin states:

'If, to the pass the time, you tried to decide what was the most conceited statement you ever heard anybody make, or read or heard of anybody making, what would you pick? The other evening a friend of mine brought it up, and she settled for Louis XIV saying L'etat, c'est moi. I didn't have to go so far back. Mine, I told her, was "They know me." Of course, she wanted to know who said it and when, and since the murderer of Faith Usher had been convicted by a jury just the day before and the matter was closed, I told her.

Wolfe said it that Friday night when I got home and reported. When I finished I made a comment. "You know," I said, "it's pretty damn silly. A police commissioner and a district attorney and an inspector of Homicide all biting nails just because if they say suicide one obscure citizen may let out a squeak."

"They know me," Wolfe said.

Beat that if you can. I admit it was justified by the record. They did know him. What if they officially called it a suicide, and then, in a day or a week or a month, Wolfe phoned WA 9-8241 to tell them to come and get the murderer and the evidence? Not that they were sure that would happen, but past experience had shown them that it was at least an even-money bet that it might happen. My point is not that it wasn't justified, but that it would have been more becoming just to describe the situation.

He saved his breath. He said, "They know me," and picked up his book.'


More of Nero Wolfe's admirable conceit, from THE RED BOX, (1937):

"But I haven't got ten thousand dollars, not this minute. I think I could have it in a week. But even if I did, my God, just for a couple of hours' work - "

"It is not the work." Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. "It is simply that I will not allow my self-conceit to be bruised by the sort of handling you are trying to give it. It is true that I hire out my abilities for money, but I assure you that I am not to be regarded as a mere peddler of gewgaws or tricks. I am an artist or nothing. Would you commission Matisse to do a painting, and, when he had scribbled his first rough sketch, snatch it from him and crumple it up and tell him, "That's enough, how much do I owe you?" No, you wouldn't do that. You think the comparison is fanciful? I don't. Every artist has his own conceit. I have mine. I know you are young, and your training has left vacant lots in your brain; you don't realize how offensively you have acted." 


Most days at lunch, I re-read my favorites from my stash of Nero Wolfe paperbacks. I am thankful that I had the prescience to buy as many as I could from a friend's soon-to-close bookstore, years ago. They books show wear and tear, but that's the price of affection. This daily ritual began for me a couple of years ago and I'll continue it - on and off - until I tire of the books - which will be: never.
 I do agree with Lena Horne (yes, THAT Lena Horne) in her introduction to my paperback edition of CHAMPAGNE FOR ONE:

'And, of course, there was Archie Goodwin, Nero's legman. Archie had superior wit, a deadpan style, and a deceptively 'unrequiteted' love life. Archie had depth - and he had New York. It was the New York that I missed whenever I was somewhere else. Archie knew the city streets and avenues: brownstones in the West Thirties, bars and grills on Eighth Avenue, coffee shops on Lexington, the Village. He took the subway and buses and taxis; he read the Sunday New York Times. I could picture it all. It satisfied all sorts of homesickness. When I reread Nero Wolfe now, I can see that old beloved New York, and I still miss it...'

Me too, Miss Horne, me too.

New York in the 50's. My hometown.

Just as a fresh reminder, my Five Favorite Nero Wolfe books - at the moment:


A complete list of all the Wolfe books at The Wolfpack.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Saturday Salon, Spring Has Sprung: Flowers in Paint

French painter Edouard Vuillard, 1906. (1868 - 1940)

Swiss painter Cuno Amiet (1868 - 1961)

British painter Mary Fedden (1915 - 2012)

Contemporary Ukranian painter Yana Movchan - Flowers in the style of the Dutch Masters

French painter Henri Lebasque (1865 - 1937) - source

Belgian painter Leon de Smet (1881 - 1966) - source

French painter/illustrator/print-maker, Henri-Claudius Forestier (1874 - 1922)

British painter Duncan Grant (1885 - 1978) - source

Since it's Spring, nominally and otherwise, it's time for a few flower paintings by some favorite artists. In a couple of weeks, it will be time to make the annual pilgrimage to the local gardening centers and/or road-side flower stands - though perhaps this year that delight might have to be postponed until the weather feels fit to cooperate more fully - and load up on flats of young plants heralding the joy and style of the season.

British illustrator/designer Racey Helps - source

So Happy Easter and Passover everyone, hopefully we'll all get to spend some time with family and friends and may the bunny leave some chocolate under your pillow. (Well, maybe not directly under your pillow. The kitchen counter is good too. Or the dining table. Or the desk. Or tucked on a handy book shelf. Or in the mailbox. Or...well, you get my drift.)