Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: WARRANT FOR X (1938) by Philip MacDonald

First off: If the plot sounds familiar, this is the book upon which the so/so Van Johnson movie 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET was based. The screenplay made drastic changes including getting rid of Anthony Gethryn's charismatic presence and making the American playwright hero (played by Johnson) blind. So let's forget about it and concentrate on the source material today.

I'm really fond of the work of Philip MacDonald (of THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER fame), having recently read (for the first time) and enjoyed, THE RASP, MURDER GONE MAD, and MYSTERY OF THE DEAD POLICE. And now, WARRANT FOR X, which is the 11th in the Anthony Gethryn series and for me, so far, the very best of a pretty good bunch. (I gave it five stars in my listing.)

Link here for a complete listing of Philip MacDonald's books.

So, here we go:

I read WARRANT FOR X aka THE NURSEMAID WHO DISAPPEARED recently and enjoyed every moment. I'm crazy about stories that draw me in and don't want to let me go. I only wish the book was twice as long, but maybe then I wouldn't have been able to stand the excitement.

WARRANT FOR X begins in the company of a successful American playwright alone in London with not much to do. Sheldon Garrett celebrates his 34th birthday alone and reading for the first time ever, a story by the eminent philosophical and mystery great G.K. Chesterton. Thus, influenced by the author, Garret takes a bus and finds himself wandering the lonely streets of Notting Hill where, lost in a maze of dark and unfamiliar byways, he finally stumbles into an empty tea shop near closing time.

When two women enter the shop and head for a booth nearby, Garret overhears a whispered conversation which convinces him that a crime involving a child is about to be committed. Luckily the two women remain unaware of Garret sitting in the shadows.

He decides to follow the two when they leave but soon loses them in the throng of London. What to do next? Well, he goes to Scotland Yard, but without much more to tell them that what he'd heard, they dismiss his story as being unlikely.

Fortunately, Avis Bellingham, the nice society woman Garret has fallen in love with (though they are currently mired in one of those foolish misunderstandings which only seem to occur in books) happens to know Lucia Gethryn, wife of the brilliant Anthony. He, of course, is the well-known solver of crimes and interpreter of puzzles too complex for the official police. A dinner invitation is issued.

After hearing Garret's tale, Anthony Gethryn agrees that a dastardly plot is certainly afoot. And before you can say hop, skip and/or jump, they are on the trail of some very dangerous people. What follows is an intriguing hodgepodge of blackmail, suicide, several nasty murders - actual and attempted murder - a kidnapping, more attempted murder, all amid the kind of inspired misdirection we haven't seen (or at least, I haven't) since I don't know when.

Of course, the book was published in 1938, so there is some creakiness at the joints, but on the whole, nothing to bother about. Philip MacDonald's writing is intelligent, fast-paced and mostly to the point. We hang on for dear life as Gethryn and Garrett, along with the police (finally) attempt to prevent a heinous crime from taking place. Clue after clue is unraveled, often times making things more complex rather than less. Time is of the essence as page after page, things seem darkest before the dawn and their prey remains more elusive than ever. What a thrilling tale.

WARRANT FOR X is definitely my kind of book. Perfect (and easy enough to get online for very little cash) if you're mired in the winter doldrums or soon enough will be. I might save it for January when things always seem dull and dreary. (I know, do as I say, not as I do.)

P.S. 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 on this Friday.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE MAN WITH A LOAD OF MISCHIEF by Martha Grimes

This is the first Richard Jury mystery and the one which introduces us to the nicely neurotic inhabitants of Long Piddleton. The setting is a snowy picture postcard English village, cozily nestled on the banks of the River Piddle. It's the Christmas season but that hasn't stopped a murderer from going about his nefarious duties.

When a dead body is found stuck in a keg of beer at The Man With A Load of Mischief pub (all Jury books are titled after existing English pubs), followed by yet another dead body later found tucked in the mechanical sign above the front door of the Jack and Hammer (Long Piddleton's not so friendly neighborhood pub), well, it's time for Scotland Yard in the form of Richard Jury to make an appearance. Not that that puts paid to the killings in this small village in Northants.

Detective Chief Inspector Jury is tall, handsome, languid, lonely, given to intuitive flashes and incapable of finding the right woman (no matter if she is right in front of his nose). Yet he possesses a smile which is supposed to stop women (and anyone else) in their tracks. Go figure. He is also a man whom children instinctively trust and divulge their secrets to. An especially important trait in a Martha Grimes book.

Here we also meet, for the first time, the charming and very cavalier Melrose Plant, a man who, for reasons which become obvious over the length of the series, has given up his title as Earl of Caverness. Given up the title, yes, but not the mien. Still, he is pretty down to earth for a man of luxurious lifestyle complete with mansion and butler. Now if only he could get rid of his annoyingly batty aunt, all would be perfection. 

So who is responsible for the rather unsightly Long Piddleton killing spree? 

One would immediately jump to the conclusion that I'm talking about a series of cozies, but one would be wrong. Author Martha Grimes has invented a style of story which should be discordant, but to my mind is not; she has managed to combine the ambience of the cozy (along with the requisite cast of assorted eccentrics) with the deeper, darker ambience of the police procedural/thriller. The crimes themselves are often ugly and the solutions never pat. Happy endings for all involved do not abound except very occasionally. One just never knows how a Jury book is going to turn out. If you cannot acclimate yourself to this sort of thing, then the series is not for you. 

Too bad because for wit, intelligence and imagination, you can't top Martha Grimes.  In so many ways she is unique in the world of genre (if you care to describe it like that) fiction.

I've read THE MAN WITH A LOAD OF MISCHIEF a couple of times and have also listened to the audio version narrated superbly by Steve West. It's up to you how you choose to begin this series (not that it really needs to be read in order), if you choose to begin it and I say: please do.

I've written about Richard Jury before since he remains one of my favorite characters in fiction (and one of my huge crushes) and over the years I've read every single Jury book. (But don't ask me for synopsis of plots please, the spirit is willing but the memory banks are depleted.) You must trust me when I say that on the whole, I've enjoyed almost every single one and it is a series I recommend highly. 

(And no I don't mind the inclusion of dogs and cats of varying personalities, names and antics. I like the element of other-worldliness they add to the stories.)

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

Friday, November 13, 2015

A repeat post: Friday's Forgotten Book: REED'S PROMISE by John Clarkson

I've written about REED'S PROMISE before (this is a repeat - more or less - of a post from 2012) and I'll probably write about it again. It is a book that makes other thrillers seem tame by comparison, a fabulous feat of writing by a novelist who I'm still not all that familiar with. (Primarily because he doesn't have a lot of books on the shelves at the library.) He has a spotty publishing history and doesn't turn out books on a regular schedule far as I can tell.

But if you have any affinity for thriller writing at all, make note of John Clarkson's REED'S PROMISE and promise yourself you'll read it. This book continues to be one of the best of its kind, though I suspect there aren't really many of 'its kind' around. It surpassed my expectations going in as it was one of those serendipitous reading events.

The book begins at breakneck speed - we're suddenly thrown into the middle of a motorcycle accident in which the rider, Bill Reed will lose a leg and become an embittered amputee lying in a hospital bed feeling sorry for himself. He is a private eye and ex-FBI agent with a talent for forensic accounting - tracking illegal money back to its original source.

In the middle of bemoaning his fate, Reed receives a note from his cousin Johnny Boy Reed. Johnny Boy has been institutionalized at the Ullmann Institute in upstate NY, since he was a kid. He is severely retarded but able to function enough to put together a note to his private eye cousin asking for help.The note is cryptic enough (a series of numbers and bits of paper glued together), but Bill deduces from it that something is wrong and maybe he should go take a look - if for no other reason then that Johnny Boy is family. Guilt is a great motivator.

With a prosthetic leg in place, and a cane, Bill heads up to the Ullmann Institute.

REED'S PROMISE resonates with a crushing sense of dread from the beginning of Reed's quest to ferret out the truth and perhaps redeem himself in his own eyes.

First of all, Reed is a man minus a leg - can he stand up to physical attack? Can he fight if he has to? Just how strong is he? Can he be undermined by his handicap? All these thoughts ran through my mind as I continued to read.

Also, I didn't want his cousin Johnny Boy - whom we come to know and like - physically harmed in any way. So from the very beginning I was worried and that worry only grew.

When Reed arrives at the Ullmann Institute, and realizes almost right away that something bad is going on, you do wonder whether he will be able to 'fix' things.

Matthew Ullmann and his wife Madeleine run the institute like some sort of fiefdom (and have made themselves rich in the process) and they are, no question about it, a fiendish duo. We know they are the enemy Reed will have to vanquish if he wants to save Johnny Boy - yet it doesn't weaken the suspense angle one bit.

While reading REED'S PROMISE I remember having to stop and take breathing breaks, tension breaks, while I acclimated my emotions and took deep breaths to calm myself. That's how overwhelmed I was by the increasing fear of what would happen to the two main characters. Up until that moment (a few years ago) I'd never read a book in which the 'hero' was an amputee taking on evil all by himself - using his wits, his smarts and yes, his physical abilities to thwart some especially nasty characters.

I don't know how else to say this except that it's own unique way, this is a brilliant book. Clarkson, who is also a screenwriter, has a knack for visual scene creation which adds immeasurably to the suspense. If your library doesn't have REED'S PROMISE, booksellers online do. Get a copy, read it and see if I'm exaggerating.

Unfortunately, the book has two major strikes against it: One: no one ever heard of it. (The publishers were obviously asleep at the switch.) Two: It has a horrible cover. I say: IGNORE the cover! Read the book.

Recently I learned that Clarkson finally had a new book, another stand-alone: AMONG THIEVES. 
I was really looking forward to it. But it was, ultimately, a disappointment. Good suspense but the violence seemed over the top and the characters had few redeeming qualities. I'd say stick with REED'S PROMISE. (It's entirely possible that AMONG THIEVES is a man's book and I was just the wrong audience, being a frail woman.)

Friday's Forgotten Books is the weekly meme hosted by the oh-so-talented author Patricia Abbott at her blog, Pattinase.Lots of forgotten (or overlooked) books mentioned today so don't forget to go take a looksee.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Happy Veteran's Day!

Herbert Andrew Paus (1880 - 1946) - via 

If you get a chance, remember to thank a veteran for their service.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Saturday Salon: American painter, illustrator and muralist Grant Wood (1891 - 1942)

American Gothic - 1930 - via

Most of us know Grant Wood's rather grim American Gothic painting which has become an iconic piece over the years. But obviously there's more to Wood than one painting, no matter how famous.

Thanks to Poul Webb's art blog, I discovered some of Wood's early work and much to my amazement I realized immediately that there was much more to Grant Wood than I'd suspected. I'd always liked Wood's tightly woven farm and landscape paintings evoking a sort of mythical mid-western ideal, but his early work (influenced by his study in Europe) is much freer and impressionistic in tone. It's always interesting to see the routes that painters make on their way to an eventual style. Take a look:

Courtyard in Italy - 1924 - via

Old Stone Barn - 1919 - via

Statue in Paris - 1920 - via

Cafe in Paris - 1920 - via

The Shop Inspector - 1925 - via

At the Gate 1926 - via

To learn about Grant Wood and see more of his work, please check out Poul Webb's art blog.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: WHEN LAST I DIED (1941) by Gladys Mitchell

Originally published in 1941, this is the 2005 re-issue by Rue Morgue Press. 

Thanks go out to Sergio over at his fabulous blog, Tipping My Fedora, for getting me interested in reading Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley books. His enthusiastic review of DEATH AT THE OPERA did the trick.

(DEATH AT THE OPERA was my first choice, but it quickly became apparent that nobody had this book unless I wanted to pay big bucks and no I didn't.)

I had originally been put off reading Gladys Mitchell because of the television series starring Diana Rigg (whom I like) which I never cottoned to, though I did like the interaction between Mrs. Bradley and her neat chauffeur. And I loved the fashions.

At any rate, I've now read two Mrs. Bradley books: one I really liked and one I didn't finish. So I suppose I'll be reading more - one out of two isn't bad. But the next one had better be one I finish.

WHEN LAST I DIED begins with a note from the author:

To you, American Reader, whoever you are, affectionately.

I am a Londoner. Proud, too, of it. Whilst this book was being written,the Jerries made rings round it. They picked off seven houses, a railway bridge, and a block of flats. We put the Union Jack up on all these sites. They they wiped out shops, factories, and the main road. It took time to put back the gas mains alone on that main road. Then they dropped high explosives in the garden six doors away. Still, here is the book.


How anyone can continue to write under those conditions, I just cannot even imagine. I feel humbled by Mitchell's grit and steadfastness.

On with the review:

WHEN LAST I DIED makes use of a good plot ploy - the found diary. I do have a weakness for cold case type murder investigations.

Now, it says here in this book that Mrs. Bradley is a psychologist though, to my mind, a very strange one. She is so weird herself that it would make one pause before going to her with any problems of the mental sort. I never got a clear sense of what she looked like - I know she's old and kind of 'reptilian' and has an odd propensity for cackling (?) but that's about it. Just for a lark, I began to envision her as a lizard in a serviceable suit  and hat. Not that that was what the author intended I'm sure.

I also noticed that in the books, the chauffeur, up front and center in the television series, is hardly on the scene when most of the action is taking place. He doesn't show up at all in the second book (the one I didn't finish), at least not in the pages I read. Too bad. I like the idea of a chauffeur as associate crime fighter.

At any rate, Mrs. Bradley decides to rent a house by the sea for a few weeks as part of some sort of psychological experiment resulting from her professional involvement with a school for delinquent boys. Her seven year old grandson occasionally comes to stay which I found a bit odd to begin with, since there had been sinister doings at the school and the experiment involves short term stays at the Bradley house by various boys. A kind of break from their normal routine.

The rental had, several years before, been the property of a young woman named Bella who was tried and acquitted for the murder of a cousin, a ghost hunter who'd been investigating a local haunted house. The woman had since committed suicide and the house passed to a servant who is happy to let the place for the summer.

In the meantime, Mrs. Bradley gets her hands on a diary written by Bella outlining events prior to the murder and the strange disappearance of two boys from the aforementioned school at which Bella herself had once worked. Then there is the suspicious death of Bella's aunt, a well-to-do old woman who'd choked to death on some grated carrots (?).

Mrs. Bradley is almost immediately suspicious of what she reads in the diary and decides that there's much more here than meets the eye. And as she goes nosing about it is soon obvious that she is correct, there is something rotten in this pleasant little village by the sea.

I was completely taken in and spent most of a night reading and trying to get to the bottom of a rather convoluted tale of twisted lives and ugly death.

Admittedly I found Mrs. Bradley hard to take - especially the cackling part - and as I mentioned, I had trouble visualizing her. She just didn't seem real to me if I can call anyone in this sort of story 'real' - but you know what I mean. But other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

The other Mitchell book I began (my local library only had the two titles) was THE RISING OF THE MOON, a book I thought I'd like but didn't bother finishing. This one had Mrs. Bradley entering the fray very late in the story which was okay but leading up to her involvement, the tale was told from the point of view of two young, adventurous boys living in a village who come across a murder or two or three. Sounded good, but for whatever reason, wasn't.

But as I say, WHEN LAST I DIED is worth a look, if you can find a copy. And I'm still hoping to come across DEATH AT THE OPERA. Maybe an inter-library loan will do the trick.

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.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Book Review: RADIANT ANGEL by Nelson DeMille

The only thing I didn't like about this book and it's only because I'm squeamish, were several scenes of disturbing violence, other than that I'm highly recommending RADIANT ANGEL to any reader who loves a suspenseful, thrill packed adventure yarn where all the good guys are working towards a common and worthy goal, in this instance, saving Manhattan from annihilation. Not telling you too much, all this is pretty evident in the quickly moving early chapters. Besides, the title and cover really say it all.

Re: the violence - you can always skim, i.e. look the other way. That's what I do.

The bad guys in this, one of Nelson DeMille's more fast-paced books, are not those whom we might have expected which makes for a nice break in the action. Know what I mean? And again, no I'm not revealing too much.

There is an enviable knack, maybe even a genius, to telling a good rip-roaring story that makes it almost impossible to put a book down until you get to the end and Nelson DeMille has it. I read RADIANT ANGEL in two large bouts of reading late into the night. Luckily this was not the usual lengthy tome we normally get from DeMille (not that there's anything wrong with that), no, this is slightly shorter and more action condensed DeMille and the story doesn't suffer for it. This is atypical DeMille, but still excellent.

Before we go any further let me just add that I've read most of Nelson DeMille's fiction except three -and the ones written under various pseudonyms which I never knew existed until recently - and I've enjoyed and admired everything of his that I've read except two. Nah, I'm not gonna' tell you which two. Cause who am I to diminish your possible enjoyment? And besides, I'm definitely in the minority.

Of all DeMille's many protagonists, my favorite is John Corey whom we meet again in RADIANT ANGEL. We initially came across (now former) NYC homicide detective Corey on his way to bust up a frightening conspiracy in PLUM ISLAND, the first book. Since then there have been five more with RADIANT ANGEL being the very latest.

Corey has worked for several government agencies including the FBI but seems constantly to be moving about from job to job since he is known for being a maverick (that's why his bosses try and try and try to keep a tight rein on him). He is also an unorthodox thinker, a screw-up, and occasionally a loose cannon. Most of all, I think, the higher-ups despise Corey for his refusal to go along to get along, his complete lack of political awareness (the source of some of his funnier and more wince-inducing epitapths) and his wicked and totally inappropriate sense of humor - he has that in abundance.

These are some of the main reasons why I love this character - that and the fact that he gets things done when others are still fumbling about trying to figure out what to do. Corey can reason quickly and has an uncanny knack for linking a and b and correctly deducing z. In an out of control world filled with evil doers, this is a mighty welcome talent - you'd think.

In RADIANT ANGEL, Corey is now back in NYC (his wife still works for the FBI and commutes between the city and Washington D.C.), working for the DSG (Diplomatic Surveillance Group) keeping an eye on Russian diplomats working at the U.N. This job is thought to be a nice quiet dead end resting place for Corey after his run in with the CIA while battling terrorists in Yemen in the last book. But you know, where John Corey goes, trouble always seems to follow. Thank goodness.

While on a routine weekend surveillance Corey and his fellow watchers are scooped up into a quickly escalating crisis of the sort that might seem fanciful if not for the fact that the world today is what it is.

"I was parked in a black Chevy Blazer down the street from the Russian Federation Mission to the United Nations on East 67th Street in Manhattan, waiting for an asshole named Vasily Petrov to appear. Petrov is a colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service - the SVR in Russian - which is the equivalent to our CIA, and the successor to the Soviet KGB. Vasily - who we have affectionately code-named Vaseline, because he's slippery - has diplomatic status as Deputy Representative to the United Nations for Human Rights Issues, which is a joke because his real job is SVR Legal Resident in New York - the equivalent of a CIA Station Chief. I have had Colonel Petrov under the eye on previous occasions, and though I've never met him he's reported to be a very dangerous man, and thus an asshole."

Corey has a way with words.

Read this only if you have a few hours to set aside because I guarantee you will not (or at least not until the wee hours of the morning) be able to put this book down until you get to the nail-bitingly fabulous end.

And yes, you may read this even if you haven't read any of the others books in the series. You can always go back and see what happened when and why Corey's marriage is a bit rocky right now.

I hope there will be more of John Corey in the future because I am definitely not ready to say goodbye.