Saturday, October 31, 2015

Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: DEATH OF AN AIRMAN (1935) by Christopher St. John Sprigg

A British Library Crime Classic - this nicely packaged book (with a forward by Martin Edwards) is one of several Golden Age mysteries brought back for our delight by Poisoned Pen Press. It's a wonderful thing to make available little known and/or scarce Golden Agers for those of us who love this sort of book and yearn for more and MORE and still many more. These are the sorts of books we love to read and reread alongside Christie and Sayers and Marsh and Tey and the rest of 'em. I'm very fond of comfortable murders solved by people with manners. Just because someone is lying dead at your feet doesn't mean you can't say please and thank you.

Christopher St. John Sprigg wrote several mysteries (as well as other books under a pseudonym) and died fighting in the Spanish Civil War before his 30th birthday. Afterwards his work faded into obscurity, but now, thanks to Poisoned Pen Press, we can become acquainted with a book that Dorothy Sayers herself (then critic at the Sunday Times), enjoyed and recommended.

DEATH OF AN AIRMAN is a sprightly and intriguing mystery set mostly at a British airfield where professional and amateur pilots go about their daily flying routines and where shortly two murders will throw a monkey-wrench into the proceedings. Baston Aero Club is a flying school run by the unfortunately named Sally Sackbut (yes, I know, but that's her name), it is where we first meet the Bishop, a rather nice provincial chap who has a habit of noticing things and will, before long, be instrumental (in a kind of peripheral way) in helping Scotland Yard solve two brutal murders.

'A young woman with a reddish face and horn-rimmed glasses appeared suddenly out of a door marked "Manager, Baston Aero Club."

"Well, young man, what do you want?" she asked sharply.

The middle-aged man in grey flannels who was standing in the club hall looked around to see who was being spoken to, and then perceptibly started when he realized that it was he who was being addressed.

"Are you the manager of the Baston Aero Club?" he asked.

"Manager and secretary. In fact, I run the place," she answered.

"I see." The speaker, though obviously not shy, had not quite recovered from the surprise of being addressed as "young man" by a woman some years his junior.

"The fact is, I want to learn to fly. That is," he added diffidently, "if I'm not too old for that sort of thing." His diffidence contrasted with a certain deep richness of voice - the kind of voice which inevitably suggests public speaking.

The young woman beamed. "Don't you worry! We'll teach you if it kills us - or you." She rummaged over a table in the hall which was littered with papers and picked out a form.

"We'd better make you a member before you lose your nerve. Are you a British subject? We're not particular, but if you aren't British we don't get a subsidy for teaching you, so we charge you more."

"I am an Australian."

The red-faced young woman peered at him anxiously from behind her glasses. "I hope you don't get fighting drunk? Our last Australian smashed every glass in the place the day he went solo."

The stranger cleared his throat deprecatingly. "I think it unlikely that I should do the same. I am the Bishop of Cootamundra."

The plucky Doctor Marriott, or as he much prefers, just plain 'Bishop', will soon be up in the air in one of the school's planes doing his very best to follow the rather odd sounding (at least to me) instructions issued by his instructors, an enigmatic scar-faced flying ace named Furnace as well as the aforementioned Sally.

When Furnace, flying solo, crashes and is killed in full view of those on the ground the unfortunate event is first thought to be a suicide. But when something about the body itself bothers the Bishop, he decides to ask a few questions.

What follows is a locked room sort of mystery in which the 'locked room' is actually the cockpit of a small two-seater plane and 'the how' of a murderous attack remains unexplained until the last couple of chapters.

After the perturbed local police call in Scotland Yard, there follows an exhumation where a sickening fact emerges. Slowly a far reaching criminal conspiracy is uncovered which leads to a horrible second murder and a rip-roaring ending which, inadvertently involves the Bishop in a high flying death defying trip. I don't, normally, like books where drugs are involved, even tangentially, but when written this well in a style that I admire, I'll put up with it. I love when a whole new world is opened up to me by a writer, especially a writer I've never read before.

But we mustn't forget that this is a book set in and of its time.

It is the kind of thing where, in the end, the bad guys make full confessions and explain everything that needs explaining - nobody does that sort of thing much anymore, but back in the day, bad guys spilled their guts for the edification of the reading audience.

This contrivance is the only weakness (and really, it's not annoying just overly familiar in hindsight) in an otherwise very entertaining book which brings to light, if a shade dramatically I suppose, a bit of the comings and goings of a flying industry still in its infancy. A burgeoning industry in which both male and female pilots were dashing figures whose adventures were followed by the media. A by-gone age where local air shows and races were exciting occurrences and pilots were treated as celebrities.

P.S. There's also a nicely done and totally unexpected development in the very end which left me smiling.

Luckily and surprisingly, my library had a copy of this book, but if your library is not as accommodating, you can certainly find copies of DEATH OF AN AIRMAN online. I'm currently looking for used copies of the rest of the British Crime Library Classics titles.

Since it's Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book day, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's website, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book Review: THE QUESTION OF THE UNFAMILIAR HUSBAND by E.J. Copperman aka Jeff Cohen

I'm a big fan of Jeff Cohen's work all the way back to 2002 and his hilarious Aaron Tucker mysteries set in New Jersey. I love to laugh while reading and Jeff Cohen makes me laugh.

An aside: Lately I've been reading up a storm and several of the books will be reviewed as the days go by primarily because I've loved almost all of them and I want to share my enthusiasm while it lasts. Last few weeks, I've needed cheering up and happily, most of the books that have come my way have done their bit to enliven my mood one way or another.

Back to the topic:

THE QUESTION OF THE UNFAMILIAR HUSBAND is another humorous mystery - second in a captivating new series by Jeff Cohen aka E.J. Copperman - featuring a likable hero who happens to have Asperger's Syndrome and thus, the books' sub-title: 'An Asperger's Mystery'. (In reality, Jeff has a son with Asperger's and is the author of  'The Asperger Parent: How to Raise a Child with Asperger's and Maintain Your Sense of Humor'.)

Samuel Hoenig's business, Questions Answered, operates out of an ex-pizza joint in a NJ strip mall where Samuel (never call him Sam) answers questions put to him by clients who don't have the time or the energy or the know-how to find things out themselves. Yeah, it sounds like a private detective thing, but it sort of, kind of, isn't. Samuel is only interested in the answer to a specific question - if along the way he happens to unmask a killer or two, well that's almost beside the point. Samuel is not a savant, but he does have a way with details that might elude others. He is never remotely apologetic about his Asperger's, even when his linear thinking hampers communication but is self-aware enough to know that his lack of empathy might occasionally be a social problem.

That's where Janet Washburn comes into the picture. She is the young woman Samuel had earlier hired (in the first book) as an associate, who has since declined further employment with Questions Answered. Why? Well, because her husband is not happy about the more dangerous aspects of working for Samuel - in the first book there was that nasty incident of the missing head.

Too bad. Since the two worked fine as a team and Samuel likes to turn to Janet for insight into the often mysterious workings of things some of us might take for granted, like marriage and relationships and the proper meaning of chit-chat and metaphor.

However, to keep hubby happy, Janet has refused to return to her job.

When Samuel's newest client comes in one day and poses the question, "Who is the man in my bed who calls himself my husband?"  Samuel realizes he will need Janet's help again.

The mysteries of marriage - Samuel hasn't a clue. Again he tries to get Janet to join the Questions Answered team which consists of Samuel and occasionally, Samuel's mom. Again she refuses, but we sense she's weakening.

Especially when the latest 'question' put to Samuel takes a sudden ominous turn: the client's husband (?) is found dead on the floor of the Questions Answered office/ex-pizza joint and naturally, the police are suspicious.

Another unconventional mystery (with a touch of the absurd - a Jeff Cohen specialty) featuring characters you can't help but like and want to root for and that's half the battle right there. I hope there will be many more installments in this series and oh by the way, the books themselves are nicely done (with wonderful covers) in trade paperback style which is my preferred paperback size for reading comfortably in bed.

A terrific series, Jeff...uh, E.J. Oh, whoever. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Few Favorite HALLOWEEN Movies

CAT PEOPLE (1942) starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph and Jack Holt.

THE UNINVITED (1944) starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Gail Russell, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Alan Napier.

THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940) starring Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Willie Best, Richard Carlson and Anthony Quinn.

THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) starring Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Nan Grey, John Sutton and Cecil Kellaway.

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill and Josephine Hutchinson.

THE WOLF MAN (1941) starring Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles and Maria Ouspenskaya.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN(1948) starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange and Lenore Aubert.

THE THING From Another World (1951) starring: Kenneth Tobey, Robert Cornthwaite, Margaret Sheridan, Douglas Spencer, Dewey Martin and James Arness.

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) starring Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Gale Sondergaard, Elizabeth Patterson, John Beal, Douglas Montgomery and George Zucco.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton and James Gleason. (This is the Italian poster since all the other posters online are pretty bad.)

I watch two or three or more of these favorites every year around this time and truth be told, other times as well. Far as I'm concerned there's never a bad time to watch a creepy classic. (Though falling leaves and howling wind do add a bit of atmosphere.) Nothing in color, you'll notice. No ugly 'real-life' frights. No gruesome blood-letting in vivid Technicolor for me. Sorry. I'm fairly specific when it comes to my chills and thrills preferences: I prefer my chills in black and white. I also like some humor thrown into the mix whenever possible. I have a very low thresh hold for blood and guts and nightmare stuff.

The most 'modern' film in the post is 1951's THE THING. Obviously I'm living in the past. And why not? It's very comfortable there.

Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, hosts Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films, Television and/or Other Audio-Visuals, so don't forget to check in to see what what's today.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Friday Forgotten Book: THE MESSAGE OF THE MUTE DOG (1942) by Charlotte Murray Russell

Rue Morgue 2001 edition

Oh how I wish authors (then and now) would get it into their heads that having three names makes for confusion on the part of the reading public – namely me.

Except for Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe and maybe one or two others, it’s always best to simplify. Two names were good enough for the likes of Jane Austen and Rex Stout and for goodness’ sake, William Shakespeare.

Simplify. Simplify. Otherwise risk being forgotten or confused in the stacks with someone else or forever having to be looked up since most three name appellations do not slip easily off the tongue or lodge comfortably in memory.

But I digress.

In THE MESSAGE OF THE MUTE DOG, a pleasant if slightly long-winded whodunit set during WWII (raging in Europe) we are introduced to the usual coterie of small town America types, among whose ranks lurks a murderer and saboteur. In fact, if not for the cunningly suspicious mind of busybody spinster detective, Jane Amanda Edwards (three names!), all might have been lost and the blueprint for a newfangled military widget handed over to the Nazis.

Jane Amanda Edwards is your typically officious, eccentric type – a shrewd middle-aged spinster burdened with a brother and sister of the sort perpetually stumbling into trouble and interfering with Jane's detecting activities. Brother Albert is actually a fun character – totally idiotic, but engaging in the sort of bumptious way that old character actors in movies of that era often were. (He reminds me of the loony-toony trumpet playing brother in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE).  The sister, Annie, is exasperating but what the heck, she’s Jane Amanda Edwards’ burden. I could see a Billie Burke type in a movie version which might give flibbertigibbet Annie an added charm missing from the book character.

But don’t get me started on Theresa, the disagreeable Edwards family cook. Jeez. The only reason anyone puts up with her is because she is such a darned fine cook. (There are recipes in the book.) I’ve discovered that in the good old days of mystery, cooks often got away with all sorts of obnoxiousness because of their culinary skills. Yeah, I guess a good cook is a good cook and lots will be forgiven in pursuit of a happy stomach.

Jane and her family are basically caricatures but so vividly sketched by the author that it’s very easy to visualize them, and fortunately their antics and much of the dialogue is amusing when not downright funny. These are people that in real life would drive you batty, but in a whodunit of this type, they are welcome and comfortably familiar.

When the owner of the local manufacturing plant (involved in the war effort) is killed in his office and a fire started to try and cover up the crime, it’s up to Jane Amanda Edwards to step in and solve the mystery most especially since the local constabulary is hapless and clueless against suspected saboteur activity.

As she appears to be the only person in town with any brains, Jane picks up on most of the clues overlooked by the cops and is soon hot on the trail of a murderer. Jane is apt at putting two and two together, hording nuggets of relevant information and generally making a nuisance of herself, and last, but certainly not least, she apparently has a knack for breaking secret codes. The cops are laughably absurd, but they would have to be.

It's not just the cops who are laughably absurd, there are several funny incidents including one that borders on farce when in the dark of night, Jane and her brother and sister show up (unbeknownst to each other) to hunt for clues in a small house trailer belonging to a suspect and wind up hooked to a car, haplessly tugged along by a driver who has no idea the trailer is occupied.

The odd thing is that everyone in town knows who Jane is and what she's up to (more or less) and yet she continues to get away with it and continues to make George Hammond, the local cop in charge, look like a fool as she almost single-handedly takes over the investigation. He, in turn, is very fond of sitting down at Jane's dinner table and feasting on Teresa's culinary creations so perhaps there is method to his madness.

A question: how is a guy with the peculiar name of Jappy Carillo to be taken seriously as a person of Austrian nationality? It occurs to me that the author may not have realized that Carillo is not, necessarily, a Germanic name. But maybe I'm being too picky.

At any rate, this is a fine, fun tale to be read (in this instance, re-read) on a crisp Autumn night – I seem to be saying that a lot lately, but this is my favorite reading weather and lately I’ve been reading up a storm.

If you look at the Recently Finished books list and/or the books read in 2015 column on the left hand side of my blog, you'll see that I tell no lies. I have been reading up a storm. Lots of good books I hope to be talking about over the next couple of weeks or so.

Charlotte Mary Russell (despite the three names) wrote at least 16 books that I'm aware of - see title list at goodreads here - but I've never come across any (besides THE MESSAGE OF THE MUTE DOG). However, I remain hopeful. I'm big on plucky spinster detectives taking care of business.

And since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten (or Overlooked) books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday Forgotten Book: THE UNFINISHED CLUE (1934) by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer is best known for her sparkling Regency romances which are read, reread and loved by millions - myself included - but she also wrote several mysteries which (in my view) rival Agatha Christie and the rest of the Golden Agers. The only problem is that she didn't write enough of them.

However, those that exist are a delight if you, like me, love a good cozy British mystery with a dastardly murder (usually of the wealthy head of the family whose money everyone covets) and a cast of the usual country house suspects.

Over the years I've read all the Heyer Regencies and all the mysteries and lately I've been listening to both on audio and enjoying them again as if for the first time. (One good thing to be said for faulty old lady memory.)

My enjoyment of THE UNFINISHED CLUE is due, of course, to the terrific writing of Heyer, but also to the wonderful reading performance by Clifford Norgate - most especially in his incarnation of Lola, the Mexican gold digger fiancee of the family's young and extraordinarily foolish scion. But where would country house mysteries be without one or two foolish youths?

Though Heyer didn't infuse her mysteries with the same exorbitance of wit and lighthearted humor that help make her Regencies so memorable, the books do have their own individual charm - but first and foremost, they are whodunits.

This time out, it is General Sir Arthur Billington-Smith, an odious man whom no one loves, who will be murdered in his own study in his own home over a country house weekend. The victim will, of course be surrounded by his nearest and dearest, none of whom are especially grieved by the foul deed. The set-up to the murder (by stabbing) is a series of scenes in which the General's beastly behavior is highlighted as is the anguished cringing of family and 'friends'.

Among the suspects are Billington-Smith's young, rather wimpy, long-suffering wife, Fay, and the stalwart, long-suffering man who worships her from afar, longing for a stealthy elopement to the Continent.

The wife's sister, Dinah, who has dropped in for moral support. Of the two, she is the one with gumption and pluck, two attributes Fay lacks in abundance.

The aforementioned feather-brained young scion who has shown up with a gold-digging cabaret dancer in tow planning to announce their forthcoming marriage convinced that all his father has to do is take one look at his intended and he will be charmed into submission.

An impecunious married couple who have been invited to stay primarily because the General has the hots for the wife who, in turn, hopes to cadge some money off the old geezer.

An enigmatic widow, old friend of the old geezer who knew him when and seems to be the only one whom the General will listen to.

And, of course, the vicar and his wife, both of whom are simply shocked, shocked at all the goings on.

Once the murderous deed is done, in will step the tenacious (and attractively debonair) detective, Inspector Harding, to solve the crime. But besides digging up clues and putting two and two together, the Inspector will find himself rather more involved with one of the suspects than he'd bargained for.

The whole thing is a frothy (if murder can be said to be 'frothy') confection, an old fashioned mystery which is the perfect antidote to chilly autumn nights spent (in my case) wearing flannels and cozying up with a nice cup of tea and a couple of ginger cookies.

As I mentioned, I'm enamored of the audio version of THE UNFINISHED CLUE and delighted that most of Heyer's mysteries seem to be available as audiobooks. They are just so much fun to listen to. But I'm not disparaging the printed versions at all. They too are are perfect in their own way. Either/or, you can't go wrong if cozy Golden Age country house murders are your cup of tea.

Link here for a list of all of Georgette Heyer's mysteries. 

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

My FAVORITE Mystery Book Series

Vanessa Bell - source

The idea for my list sprang from a post over at Fred's Place. His list inspired mine. Thanks again, Fred. As you might expect I was a bit more garrulous when composing my own favorites.

I tried for some order, but I'm not overly strict about these things - so without further fuss, are my 10, no my 15, okay make it my 20 Favorite Book Series:


Lately I listen to the audio versions and find Simon Vance's vocal interpretations most satisfactory. What in literature is more thrilling than: "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!" ? Not much.

2) SHERLOCK HOLMES and MARY RUSSELL in the series of adventures by Laurie R. King. My favorites: THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE, O JERUSALEM, THE MOOR and JUSTICE HALL.  King takes Holmes into the realm of flesh and blood man and invents a woman just quirky and brilliant enough (equally brilliant which takes a bit of daring) to get and keep his attention.

The age difference between them might raise an eyebrow or two, but I quickly got used to it - I could see how Russell might be attracted to the much older Holmes, especially since she would never have appreciated someone who would have expected her to behave like other women. No, Russell is Jewish (though non-practicing), a brilliant scholar and problem solver, not to mention, a specialist in Middle Eastern history. She is also not averse to masquerading as male when the occasion calls for it.

3) The AMELIA PEABODY series by Elizabeth Peters, aka Dr. Barbara Mertz, Egyptologist and mystery author. My favorites in this series set in the late 19th, early 20th century and in which the beginning four books must be read in order: CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK, THE CURSE OF THE PHARAOHS, THE MUMMY CASE, LION IN THE VALLEY, THE DEEDS OF THE DISTURBER, THE HIPPOPOTAMUS POOL, THE SNAKE, THE CROCODILE and the DOG, A RIVER IN THE SKY.

This is a delightful historical series set in the early days of Victorian style archaeology, it is full of outrageous good humor, satirical wit, mysterious doings in Egypt and elsewhere and enormously engaging characters. Amelia Peabody and her crazed (in a good way) archaeologist hubby, Radcliffe Emerson are the king and queen of wildly eccentric crime-fighting Egyptologists.

P.S. I was never a big fan of Nefret, so the books in which she is featured are not among my favorites, though I read them all. However I may be in the minority so don't let me sway you from reading the second half of the series. Any Amelia Peabody is better than no Amelia Peabody.

4) (Vintage)The HERCULE POIROT series by Agatha Christie. I fell in love with the 'little' Belgian detective with the charming manners and luxuriant mustache when I was a kid and never fell out. My favorites: THE ABC MURDERS, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, CARDS ON THE TABLE, CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS, ONE, TWO, BUCKLE MY SHOE, EVIL UNDER THE SUN, MRS. McGINTY'S DEAD, subject to change as I reread the books year after year.

5) (Vintage)The JANE MARPLE series by Agatha Christie. "There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands." My favorites: A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED, THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, A POCKET FULL OF RYE, 4:50 FROM PADDINGTON, A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY, also subject to change as I reread the books year after year.

6) (Vintage)The NERO WOLFE series by Rex Stout. My favorites: MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD (the Wolfe book I reread most), MURDER BY THE BOOK, PLOT IT YOURSELF, OVER MY DEAD BODY, THE RUBBER BAND, THE DOORBELL RANG, THE SILENT SPEAKER and BEFORE MIDNIGHT. Of course I reread all the others as well, including the short stories, but I have to stop somewhere. Reading and rereading the Wolfe books is almost the same as a journey back in time to Manhattan when the city was fun and familiar and the comfortable brownstone on West 35th Street seemed the perfect place to live.

7) The ELVIS COLE and JOE PIKE series by Robert Crais. My favorites: LULLABY TOWN, FREE FALL, VOODOO RIVER, INDIGO SLAM, L.A. REQUIEM, THE WATCHMAN and THE SENTRY. The books are all about the close friendship between two men working together, Elvis Cole, a wisenheimer private detective and his partner, the taciturn Joe Pike, an ex-cop turned mercenary.The strength of this friendship is what, for me, holds the books together. These two men are just so vividly etched in my imagination.

There's lots of snappy dialogue and humor, not to mention, heinous crimes and vile bad guys. The series is set in L.A. though occasionally we venture to the east coast and even down south to Louisiana.

This is one of the few series set in this country that I read religiously and love enormously. One of the few series in which bits of dialogue and action remain in my mind, year after year, never quite disappearing.

8) (Vintage)The CHIEF INSPECTOR JOHN APPLEBY series by Michael Innes. My favorites: THE SECRET VANGUARD (The Appleby book I reread most.), OPERATION PAX, SHEIKS AND ADDERS, APPLEBY'S END, THE AWKWARD LIE (though in this one it's Appleby's son who takes the lead), DEATH ON A QUIET DAY, THE CRABTREE AFFAIR, and THE OPEN HOUSE, interspersed with two of my very favorite Innes stand-alones: THE JOURNEYING BOY and FROM LONDON FAR. Currently I'm still attempting to read all the Appleby books I can find. Just discovered APPLEBY'S ANSWER hidden away on one of my shelves - hooray!

This is a series steeped in literary quotations and allusions (everyone in these books is apparently well and classically read) so the new reader must get used to that. Truth be known, I often don't know exactly what the heck Appleby is alluding to but that never seems to dampen my enthusiasm. I'm mad for these whodunits especially when they are laced with Innes' impish phantasmagoria of strange characters and weird happenings.

9) The CHIEF INSPECTOR RICHARD JURY series by Martha Grimes. My favorites: THE OLD SILENT, THE MAN WITH A LOAD OF MISCHIEF, THE LAMORNA WINK, THE STARGAZEY, THE OLD WINE SHADES, I AM THE ONLY RUNNING FOOTMAN, THE ANODYNE NECKLACE, THE DIRTY DUCK, VERTIGO 42, etc. These books are a rather odd combo of contemporary (and often brutal) mystery and old fashioned cozy - never strictly one or the other. That, on first reading, can be hard to get used to since, to my mind, no other writer does this sort of thing in quite the same way. The stories are peopled with decidedly quirky customers and though the crimes committed are often horrible, strangely enough there are occasional laugh out loud moments betwixt and between. It can make for an uneasy experience.

But there is a surreal quality to these books which fascinates me and there is nothing I like more than getting my hands on the latest Jury book. Obviously up to you if you want to put up with this odd juxtaposition.

In fact, for a modern day cop, Jury and his non-cop cohort Melrose Plant, a filthy rich upper class type (he drives both a Bentley and a Rolls, though not at the same time), are given to flights of reminiscent fancies which somehow in someway are meant to help solve the mystery - or maybe not. This is not like any other mystery series out there, occasionally, a dog or a cat take center stage so that takes getting used to as well. I've read every book so I can hardly be expected to be rational about Jury, a character I am crazy about. And let's not forget that it was a small dog that saved Jury's life once when all seemed lost and I was about to tear my hair out. I can say no more.

10) (Vintage) The JANE and DAGOBERT BROWN series by Delano Ames. My favorites: CORPSE DIPLOMATIQUE, MURDER MAESTRO PLEASE, FOR OLD CRIME'S SAKE and DEATH OF A FELLOW TRAVELER. I'm still trying to track down other Dagobert Brown mysteries, but some titles tend to be rather pricey. I dream of a day when they will all be re-issued. Jane and Dagobert Brown (don't you love that name?) are a young English couple who always seem to stumble across murder every time they go off on holiday, though occasionally the murders are closer to home.

Jane Brown is a struggling author and her hubby Dagobert is fond of not looking for work and having no fixed source of income except for his wife and some vague monthly stipend. Fun series. I love the few books I've read so far. Too damn bad that they are so hard to track down. P.S. This would make a terrific television series - pay attention Masterpiece Mystery!

11) The BRYANT AND MAY 'PECULIAR CRIMES' UNIT series by Christopher Fowler. My favorites: FULL DARK HOUSE, BRYANT AND MAY OFF THE RAILS, THE BLEEDING HEART, THE INVISIBLE CODE, BRYANT AND MAY ON THE LOOSE, THE TEN SECOND STAIRCASE, etc. In fact, I loved them all. (And I still haven't gotten to the graphic comics version.) Another unique series (yeah, I use that word a lot, but that's the sort of series I like best), set in modern day London but which has the feel of a much earlier time.

The two chief detectives of the peculiarly named Peculiar Crimes Unit are elderly (Bryant is VERY elderly and curmudgeonly and May is three years younger and not so impossible), egregiously eccentric and perfectly at home in the sort of weird police unit no one is comfortable admitting exists. You will be required to have a willing suspension of disbelief all the while reading these books, but that's part of the fun. Yes, the books are peculiar, but you knew that going in.

I began rereading THE TEN SECOND STAIRCASE last night and was soon laughing out loud. Couldn't help myself.

"Arthur Bryant took a deep breath and folded his notes back into his jacket. 'I see nothing wrong with speaking my mind. After all, it is a special occasion.' He fixed his DS with a beady, unforgiving eye. 'I rarely get invited to make speeches. People always think I'm going to be insulting. I've never upset anyone before.'

'Perhaps I could remind you of the mayor's banquet at Mansion House? You told the assembly he had herpes.'

'I said he had a hairpiece. It was a misquote.'

Not that the series is lighthearted and full of foolish fun, not at all. Fowler writes about a London that has changed enormously and not for the better. But there are moments in between the mayhem. And after all, the office cat is named Crippen.

12) The JACK REACHER series by Lee Child. My favorites: WITHOUT FAIL, PERSUADER, ONE SHOT, 61 HOURS and WORTH DYING FOR. Haven't read the very latest one, MAKE ME, but am on the reserve list at the library. This is one of the very few thriller series I read and here's the reason why: ex-Army military cop, Jack Reacher. He is the ultimate competent man, a modern day itinerant knight in shining armor who steps in when things need saving and bad guys need putting down. I like the way we're invited into Reacher's analytical thought processes and the quietly self-assured way he goes about his business. Lots of dead bodies in his wake, but hey, you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Also, which is nice, there's very little if any unnecessary foul language. At least on Reacher's part.

13) The WESTERMAN and CROWTHER series by Imogen Robertson. My favorites: INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS, ANATOMY OF MURDER, CIRCLE OF SHADOWS. Haven't read the latest, THEFT OF LIFE. Hard to get series since her books seem not to be published in the USA. Very strange since they are absolutely brilliant English historical mysteries (set in the 18th century). And you know how much we love our Brit mysteries here in this country.

I am devilishly picky about 'historicals' and these are very definitely top of the trees. Gabriel Crowther is a mysterious 'anatomist' who works with Mrs. Harriet Westerman, an eccentric (meaning independent in thought and deed in a time when most society women weren't), inquisitive woman/mother/wife/adventurer. I recommend this series very highly - if you can find it.

14) (Vintage) The RODERICK ALLEYN series by Ngaio Marsh. My favorites: DEATH IN A WHITE TIE, ARTISTS IN CRIME,  DEATH AT THE BAR, DEATH OF A PEER aka SURFEIT OF LAMPREYS, DIED IN THE WOOL, SINGING IN THE SHROUDS, SPINSTERS IN JEOPARDY, A CLUTCH OF CONSTABLES and DEATH AT THE DOLPHIN aka KILLER DOLPHIN. Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is the handsomest cop in the C.I.D. He is also an elegant gentleman (his brother has a title or some cushy government job or both - can't remember), but best of all, he is a finely-tuned detective. As the series progresses, he will meet and fall in love with his future wife, painter Agatha Troy (whom he calls 'Troy'). But that won't hamper Alleyn's crime solving career in any way.

Golden Age author Marsh was also a theater producer and playwright (in New Zealand) so several of the Alleyn tales are set in a milieu she knew very well and many more are set in the upper-crust and murderous English countryside we all love.

15) The FRED TAYLOR series by Nicholas Kilmer. My favorites: HARMONY IN FLESH AND BLACK, MAN WITH A SQUIRREL, DIRTY LINEN and A BUTTERFLY IN FLAME. An art mystery series set in and around Boston's exclusive Beacon Hill. Fred Taylor is an ex-Vietnam vet who works for the very eccentric art collector Clayton Reed, a man paranoid about his privacy and art collecting proclivities.
Though Fred is thuggish in appearance, he is an art aficionado whose girlfriend is a librarian. And when not out solving crimes and running down lost art treasures, Fred checks in at the home he keeps for troubled veterans.

The author of this series is an art historian and painter so there's lots of interesting art stuff woven throughout the tales. Who knew the cultured world of art was rife with such skulduggery?

16) The JONATHAN ARGYLL series by Iain Pears. My favorites: THE RAPHAEL AFFAIR, THE TITIAN COMMITTEE,  THE LAST JUDGEMENT, GIOTTO'S HAND...actually, all the books in the series are pretty much favorites - there are only seven. This is another art series that I recommend highly especially if you, like me, love arcane art history mixed in with your murder and mayhem. Jonathan Argyll is a lovable if hapless English art historian who lives and works in Rome and I guess I'm a sucker for 'hapless English types' - most especially if they have brains and a love of Renaissance art.

When a painting goes missing or a collector or museum mucky-muck is murdered, Argyll is often to be seen cahooting with the Italian National Art Theft Squad. I love this series and wish there had been many more books.

17) The TOBY PETERS series by Stuart Kaminsky. My favorites: MILDRED PIERCED, BULLET FOR A STAR, THE HOWARD HUGHES AFFAIR, HIGH MIDNIGHT, HE DONE HER WRONG, THE FALA FACTOR, SMART MOVES, THE MELTING CLOCK, THE DEVIL MET A LADY, etc. A series set in Hollywood in the late thirties and forties, chock full of eccentric characters, famous actors and actresses and often absurdly funny plot machinations. Toby's a noir-ish type (he wears a fedora) who also happens to be a bit of a schlemiel - a guy who never quite grew up and shuns adult responsibility. Yet somehow, he always manages to solve the mystery, usually with the aid of his three quirky friends: a deranged dentist, a wrestler turned poet, and a Swiss dwarf.

Stuart Kaminsky was a prolific author who wrote several excellent series, but Toby is my favorite of them all.

18) The Detective Inspector Bill Slider series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. My favorites: ORCHESTRATED DEATH, DEATH WATCH, GRAVE MUSIC, BLOOD LINES, KILLING TIME, SHALLOW GRAVE. A contemporary British police procedural which features a bunch of mostly sympathetic (though occasionally disgruntled) London cops whom we get to know and mostly like, from book to book (which is why the series should be read in order). Though it is Bill Slider's personal life which is most often in the forefront - when the unit isn't chasing down murderers that is. While serious about his job, Detective Inspector Bill Slider is still an engaging and likable character, not at all in the bullying, irascible mold of most modern day cops, which is one of the main reasons I like him and this series so much - especially the earlier books.

19) The JANE WHITEFIELD series by Thomas Perry. My favorites: DANCE FOR THE DEAD, SHADOW WOMAN, THE FACE-CHANGERS and BLOOD MONEY. Jane Whitefield is an Onondaga Indian (her mother was white, her father Native American) who lives in upstate New York. Her profession is uniquely her own and has made her many deadly enemies - if only they knew where to look for her. Jane is a self-described 'guide'. She guides people in danger into new lives under new identities and she is very good at what she does. Unfortunately, with the onset of technology as it is today, the work is becoming harder and harder and Jane has mostly given it up, knowing that she is that much closer to being found out every time she undertakes a new mission.

Always cognizant of her roots and the legends of her tribe, Jane is one of the more intriguing heroines in modern day thriller lit.

20) The CORMORAN STRIKE series by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). My favorites: THE CUCKOO'S CALLING and THE SILKWORM. Waiting for CAREER OF EVIL. The series is only three books along but I am already smitten and waiting breathlessly for the latest: CAREER OF EVIL. Another series set in contemporary London, so obviously I must be fond of books with an English setting. Right. You think?

I've left off several other series I read all the time because I have to end this list at some point. But you all know I read the Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde, and the Spenser books by Robert B. Parker and the Gideon Oliver books by Aaron Elkins and the Chet and Bernie books by Spencer Quinn and the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley and the William Monk and the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt books by Anne Perry and the Armand Gamache books by Louise Penny and the Sean Drummond books by Brian Haig and...well, see what I mean? 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE FOURTH BEAR by Jasper Fforde

British author Jasper Fforde is best known, I suppose, for his satirically quirky Thursday Next series of novels which take place in a modern day England that never was; an England in which airplanes haven't been invented, air travel is by dirigible, time travel exists, and the denizens of literature pop in and out of their books often leaving literary chaos in their wake.

But today is not about Thursday Next, literary detective, today is about the Nursery Crimes Division series begun by Fforde way back in 2005 with THE BIG OVER EASY. Unfortunately, this series is still only two books along and here we are in 2015. After THE FOURTH BEAR was published in 2006, no further Nursery Crimes books have come along though we were promised a third - a book now forecast to be published in 2017 - but who knows? I hate to be toyed with. Especially when the writing and story-telling are this good. But patience is a virtue (or so they say) and so I must be patient.

In the meantime, it's true, we've had the very satisfactory SHADES OF GREY (No, not that shades of grey) and its sequel also due out soon. So I mustn't complain - much. The Grey book is set in yet another bizarre though oddly familiar world, but this time out, the color spectrum is in short supply. Go read it if you want to know more. Unlike the other 'shades of grey', this time, bring your thinking cap.

At any rate, this review of THE FOURTH BEAR was first posted by me in 2011 and since I am currently re-reading the book, I've decided to bring the post forward and re-work it. This is too good a book to be forgotten, overlooked or lost in the shuffle.

How high (or low) is your tolerance for nonsense? I don't mean run-of-the-mill nonsense - I'm talking intelligent nonsense - absurdity, if you will - the kind promulgated by...oh, let's say, Jasper Forde. I don't know about you, but I seem to be able to tolerate Fforde's brand of nonsense very, very well, indeed.

Incidentally, I love this artwork by Bill Mudron and Dylan Meconis. Hence my enlarging the cover to this gigantic 'bear' size.

THE FOURTH BEAR was Fforde's second entry in his two book (so far) Nursery Crimes series set in Reading, England in a Berkshire of his own devising. First book: THE BIG OVER EASY had to do with the death of Humpty-Dumpty who turned out not to have been a very nice egg. The likable detective in charge then, Jack Spratt, is back in THE FOURTH BEAR, where once again, due to an unfortunate incident involving a wolf, a girl in a red hooded cape and a bed-ridden grandmother, Spratt is on the outs within his small department. The powers that be are insisting that he undergo psychological evaluation or be trumped out of the NCD (Nursery Crime Division).

From the chapter headings:

First (and only) bear relocation: Mr. and Mrs. Edward Bruin, 1977. With the passing of the 1962 Animal (anthropomorphic) Equality Bill, all talking animals won the right not to be exploited or hunted and instead live in the designated safe haven of Berkshire, England. Bears were fully expected to take up residence in small cottages in the middle of the woods and eat porridge in a state of blissful quasi-human solitude, but they didn't. Most bears instead preferred to remain urbane city dwellers and shunned the notion of foraging in the countryside. Ursine elders deplore the situation but secretly admit that Reading's proliferating coffee shops, theaters and shopping opportunities are not without their attractions.The Bumper Book of Berkshire Records, 2004 edition

While Spratt resists the evaluation,  the seven foot tall Gingerbread man - psychopath, sadist and convicted murderer - escapes from the loony-bin and is roaming the streets of Reading causing havoc. But since Spratt's career is on a downturn, he is not placed in charge of the investigation even though it was thanks to him that the vile ginger cookie was captured the first time around. Rather, Spratt and his associates, fellow detectives Mary Mary and Ashley the luminous (and squishy) blue Alien, get handed the Missing Persons case of golden-haired Goldy Hatchett, star reporter for The Mole newspaper. When 'missing' turns to murder, as it usually does in mystery books, we learn that the last three witnesses to have seen Goldy alive were, you guessed it, three bears.

Here, Jack Spratt interviews Ed Bruin and his wife.

"Have a seat, Inspector. Tea?" 

"Thank you." 

"Honey sandwich? It's all quota - no substance abuse in this house." 

"Thank you, I've already eaten." 

"Do you mind if I have one?"

"Not at all." 

Ed licked his lips and shouted across to his wife. "Two teas, pet - and a honey sandwich for our guest." He winked broadly at Jack and smiled slyly. 

"So when did you last see her?" asked Jack. 

"It must have been Friday morning - " 

"Saturday," said Mrs. Bruin from the other side of the room. Ed looked around. "I think it was Friday, actually, dear." 

"Saturday," she growled."We had to go to the vet about your worms." 

There was a ghastly pause. Ed looked at Jack with an expression of acute embarrassment etched upon his features. He smiled sheepishly....."What were we talking about?" 


"Oh, yes. It was last Saturday. My good lady wife had made some porridge for breakfast - again, strictly quota - and we all went for a walk in the forest while it cooled." 

"Is that normal procedure?" 

"Yes, indeed; it's completely true what they say about bears and forests. Our morning constitutional, as it were. The forest speaks, you know, Inspector. Every morning it has changed in some small way. By the way the trees sway and the birds sing and the leaves - "

"That's very interesting, Mr. Bruin," interrupted Jack, "but what about the porridge?"

"Oh, well, we came home to find that my son's porridge had been eaten. He was most upset about it."


Ed held up a claw."Wait a minute. Then we noticed that my son's chair had been sat on and broken."

"This one here?" 

"Yes, I've tried to mend it, but it's never quite the same, is it?" 

"And then?" 

"We went upstairs and found that woman asleep in my son's bed!" The bear stared at Jack as though he should be as outraged as Ed was. 

"Then what did she do?"

"Isn't that enough?" asked Ed angrily. "You would have thought that finally, after two thousand years of being hunted, kept in grotty zoos, made to ride motorcycles and dance to some forgettable tune played by a repulsive and usually toothless Eastern European, we members of the Ursidae family have won the right to be left alone."

"She broke a chair, but surely that's not the end of the world?"

"It's the thin end of the wedge," he replied indignantly. "How would you like it if a bear wandered into your house when you were out, ate your breakfast, destroyed your property and then had the barefaced cheek to fall asleep - naked - in your bed?"

"I see your point..."

Eventually, both investigations will intertwine as we knew they must, bodies start dropping like flies (including a woman who was wallpapered to her wall), giant cucumbers start exploding, and Jack and Mary Mary must save the day though they will, of course, not be thanked for it. Nobody likes to be shown up, less of all, Jack's ego-maniacal and mostly inept superiors.

Call this a wickedly funny police procedural satire or just a very strange book, whatever you will, just don't miss it.

World's oddest theme park: Contenders abound in this field, and several deserve mention. ElephantLand in impoverished East Splotvia is odd in that it has no elephants, nor a clear idea of what one is. GummoWorld in upstate New York is devoted to the Marx brother who had the distinction of never appearing in a movie, and Nevada's ParkThemeLandWorld is a theme park dedicated to other theme parks, but has no attraction of its own. SommeWorld in the UK invites its visitors to taste the marrow-chilling fear of being an infantryman in the Great War, and, by contrast, ZenWorld in Thailand is nothing but a very large empty space in which to relax. Our favorite, however, is La Haye's DescarteLand, which merely furnishes ticket holders with a paper bag to put over their heads and a note reading, "If you think it, it shall be so." The Bumper Book of Berkshire Records, 2004 edition.

Author Patricia Abbott is away at Bouchercon this week and so meme hosting duties will be handled by Todd Mason at his blog,  Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers will be talking about today.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Saturday Salon: The plants and flowers of SOPHIA PERINA-MILLER

Award winning painter Sophia Perina-Miller was born in Russia in 1974 and now lives and works in Scotland. She exhibits her paintings at galleries and art fairs throughout the United Kingdom.

Perina-Miller currently works in watercolor and gel pen. I love her uninhibited use of bright color and love her eye for fine detail and design. She creates wonderful, vibrant work which is happily available in a variety of ways; as original art and in print and textile form.

To learn more about Sophia Perina-Miller and her work:

Sophia Perina-Miller website

Sophia Perina-Miller on Pinterest

Sophia Perina-Miller at the Jack Tierney Gallery