Friday, January 27, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: ESCAPE (1932) by Philip MacDonald

Couldn't find a cover to display for this book so I invented one.

You know how I am, I get a crush on a writer and away I go. Lately I've been crushing on Philip MacDonald's work and so I sent away for a couple of his books (little by little, I hope to read all his mysteries). And am I glad I did. This one is a pip. The perfect momentary 'escape' from our current and provoking political climate.

A guy and gal on the lam from the cops, from a murderer, stealing cars and careering all over the English countryside. I mean, come on, what could be better?

ESCAPE is another delightful escapade from the man who gave us the classic, THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER and a couple of other humdingers. Not an Anthony Gethryn book, but still a plot committed to excitement and the thrill of the chase. Actually, it's more thriller (in the middle and second half) than mystery since about half way through you do figure out, despite the big red herring, who the killer must be, but that shouldn't dim our enthusiasm by any means.

The main character is Peter Craven, thirty five years old, ex-Army, ex-many things, down on his luck and literally out on the streets without a bean in his pocket. In soiled evening clothes (his landlord took everything else in lieu of rent and only let him have the few clothes he's wearing because he couldn't throw him out on the street naked) Peter is wandering about on a dark London street, no money, no food, no place to go.

He spots a house on a side street from which three women (obviously servants) are leaving - Peter assumes they're taking an evening break and wouldn't all do so together unless the place were empty. So he breaks into the house and helps himself to whatever food he can find. He's famished, one can hardly blame him.

Little does Peter know that this wee bit of breaking and entering will catapult him into a bizarre adventure and role as knight errant. Soon he will be carting a dead body over wintery London streets looking for a convenient dumping ground.

You see, the house isn't empty. There's a mysterious young woman in residence who will intrigue Peter and who will lead him to the dead body of her step-father slumped over a desk in the library upstairs.

(As a result of this, an unbelievable occurrence of the sort which could probably only happen in a book, will shortly unveil itself and we are asked to go along with it willy-nilly. It's up to you to decide if the far-fetchedness of it dooms the book for you. I went along and gullible reader that I am, swallowed it hook line and sinker.)

But from that moment, the chase is on as events spiral out of control for Peter and the young woman (whose name we discover is Frances Brandon) as they flee London and head out into the English countryside, helping themselves to a series of convenient cars along the way.

Eventually in their head long flight, in a remote cottage, Peter and Frances will stumble across a wonderfully written and rather enigmatic man who will guide them in their quest to learn the truth and avoid being charged with murder.

Though, as I mentioned, most of you long time mystery readers will soon decipher who the bad guy is, this is still a fun thrill-ride of a book and since it's Philip MacDonald at the helm, the writing is top-notch.

It's Friday once again, so don't forget to check in at author and Edgar nominee Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Books other bloggers are talking about today.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Today in America

Don't normally talk politics here and I don't intend to begin in any major way. But I had to say something and this brilliant take by Tim O'Brien on the alternate reality we seem to be living in - says it all.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS (1960) by Agatha Christie

It's possible I've spoken about this book before, if so, forgive me for rattling on about it yet again. But it is among my top five favorite Agatha Christie books so my enthusiasm for it will hopefully be indulged.

CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS is kind of unique in the Christie lexicon in that Hercule Poirot doesn't make an appearance until about two thirds of the way into the story. Everything develops quite nicely without him, moving back and forth as it does, from several points of view and one country to another. Before all dramatis personae are free to convene at Meadowbank School, scene of the various crimes, there is a revolution in the Middle East to be dealt with and a fortune in jewels to be hidden away.

By the time Poirot is summoned to investigate the mystery, two murders (with a third murder yet to come) and a kidnapping will have occurred. He is brought into story by Julia Upjohn, a young school girl who has intelligently figured out a thing or two, decides that an expert in crime is needed to sort things out and goes off to London to call on Poirot. Julia's intrepid mother is at the moment traveling to Anatolia (Turkey) on a bus and therefore incommunicado, but Julia's self-sufficiency comes to the rescue since she, unlike her gullible friend Jennifer, fully understands the meaning of the Arabian Nights story of 'new lamps for old'.

Meadowbank is an exclusive private English boarding school, the fulfillment of the life's work of two women: imposing Miss Bulstrode, head honcho respected by all and admired by many and the much less imposing but dependable Miss Chadwick, an older bustling sort, ready to smooth any ruffled waters and a math whiz besides. But in general, what Miss Bulstrode says, goes and just as well - she is the senior partner. The school has an excellent reputation and attracts girls from all over England and Europe. The two women are very proud of their accomplishment.

Early on we learn that Miss Bulstrode has lately been thinking of retiring and everyone assumes she will turn the school over to the redoubtable Miss Vansittart who is an exact copy of the Bulstrode in manner, voice and one supposes, thought. But Miss Bulstrode has doubts.

In the meantime, the new term begins and before you can swing a tennis racket, Miss Springer the gym teacher is shot dead late at night in the new gym or 'sports pavillion'. It is known that Miss Springer liked to pry.

A low-key investigation ensues since the police value the school and champion Miss Bulstrode. She calls in a few favors from old government friends and gets the story down-played in the papers. A couple of girls are withdrawn from the school by their parents and/or guardians but no major harm done.

That is, until the kidnapping of a princess and the second murder of another school mistress.

This is really one of Agatha Christie's more fiendish plots though there is a kind of snafu at the beginning which only becomes apparent after the story is nearly done. It's one of those, well why didn't she make a bigger fuss about what she saw?? But other than that, it's a book I never get tired of re-reading. It has a grand list of characters, including two realistic young girls very much of their time and place, amusing dialogue, clever plot machinations, a vicious killer hiding in plain sight, international complications, the sleepy Colonel Pikeaway, not to mention, the mysterious Mr. Robinson and last but not least, MI-6.

I might not begin here if I'd never read any Christie before, since Hercule Poirot arrives as a fully fashioned figure already many years into his career (career apres retirement, that is), but then again, why not?

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

Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE MONUMENTS MEN by Robert M. Edsel

"What if we win the war, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history on our watch? 
Lieutenant George Stout, U.S. First Army and U.S. Twelfth Army Group

A towering figure in the then obscure field of art conservation, Stout was one of the first people in America to understand the Nazi threat to the cultural patrimony of Europe and pushed the museum community and the army toward establishing a professional art conservation corps."

While reading this brilliant non-fiction account of the heroic quest - as WWII slowly wound down in Europe - of a handful of Americans (and others) for the hiding places of thousands upon thousands of artworks looted by the Nazis, I was once again lost in admiration for that so aptly named 'greatest generation'. Men and women who not only rescued the world from madness, but saved European civilization's cultural history as well. It's about time someone wrote about these long forgotten men of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section aka MFAA (and one valiant French woman) and their struggles to keep the world's cultural masterpieces from being destroyed or disappearing into an abyss.

"Hitler would use new laws, his laws, to gather the great artwork of Europe and sweep it back into the Fatherland."

Naturally the salvation of art masterpieces and monuments took a back seat to the lives of millions caught up in the desperation of war, but it was understood that the Nazis were bent not only on destroying whatever and whoever stood in their way, they were bent also on rapacious plundering of anything and everything that took their thwarted fancies:  Great works of art, paintings, sculpture, jewels, decorative artifacts, reliquaries, church altar pieces, religious artifacts, ancient books, all looted from their original owners, museums, churches and dwellings. No venue was sacred.

"Shortly we will be fighting our way across the continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve.

It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible...." General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander


How a group of stalwart and dedicated men worked day and night under extreme conditions, in the field, sometimes under enemy fire, with little help, no supplies, not even transportation, is one of the great unheralded stories of WWII. The Monuments Men (so-called) were generally in their late thirties and early forties - men who had walked away from careers to join the military and do what they could to save the world's artistic treasures. They were curators, historians, conservators, artisans, architects, and in the case of Walker Hancock, a well-known sculptor, men who understood the beauty and meaning of art not only as a historical necessity but as a human one.

"As impossible as it seems, it was the duty of ...eight officers to inspect and preserve every important monument the Allied Forces encountered between the English Channel and Berlin."

Once on the ground, these officers were often out in the field alone, carrying a map, hitching rides with any available Allied truck or jeep, making their unheralded way through ruined towns and villages, occasionally lost behind enemy lines, attempting to track down known art works. They interviewed suspicious townspeople as best they could since they were rarely in company with a translator, often without the knowledge of the current supervising Allied officers who had only vaguely heard of the monuments work.


Inside the Mountain
Seigen, Germany
April 2, 1945

Half a mile inside a hill:

"As the door swung open, [Walker] Hancock caught a glimpse, just visible in his flashlight beam, of a massive brick-vaulted gallery. Then he felt the air: warm and humid. The ventilation system had been damaged beyond repair by Allied bombs, and water was dripping from the ceiling. George Stout entered the room first, his flashlight beam falling on a series of enormous wooden racks. The racks, Hancock noticed, went all the way to the ceiling. And every nook was filled with art: sculpture, paintings, decorations, altarpieces...In the beam of his flashlight, Hancock recognized works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cranach, Renoir, and especially Peter Paul Rubens the great seventeenth century Flemish painter who had been born in Siegen. On some of the canvases he noticed mold, while the paint on several wood panels was noticeably bubbled and flaked."

The salt mine at Altaussee, Austria, 1945:

...throughout the centuries, as cities and empires rose and fell, the Steinburg mine in the Sandling Mountain of Austria, just above the village known as Altaussee, continued to produce salt....

But in the winter of 1943-1944, the salt mine at Altaussee was assaulted by the modern world. First came the tracked vehicles necessary for maneuvering over the roads in the winter, when the five meters of snow were almost level with the treetops. They were followed by supply jeeps, and eventually a seemingly endless line of trucks going back and forth through steep mountain passes. Nazi officers descended on the mine as guards. Workers arrived, expanding catacombs and building wooden floors, walls and ceilings in dozens of salt chambers. Giant wooden racks were assembled in workrooms deep within the mountain and hammered into position, in some places three stories high. Experts and clerks moved in; a shop was built deep inside the mine where technicians could work and even live for days at a time. And it was all done for art.

...the mine was soon requisitioned by Hitler for his personal use. Worried by increasing Allied air raids, the Fuhrer ordered all the treasures destined for his great museum at Linz...sent deep into seclusion....Dug straight into the side of a massive mountain, the horizontal mine was impregnable to aerial bombardment - even if the bombers could locate it in the vast Sandling mountain range.

Inside the mine:

6577 paintings - among them two Vermeers, 'The Artist's Studio' and 'The Astronomer' stolen from the Rothschilds.
230 drawings or watercolors
954 prints
137 pieces of sculpture - among them Michelangelo's long sought Bruges Madonna.
129 pieces of arms and armor
79 baskets of objects
484 cases thought to be archives
78 pieces of furniture
122 tapestries
181 cases of books
1200 - 1700 cases apparently books or similar
283 cases contents completely unknown

Earlier, the salt mine had been designated for destruction (bombs were already in position and needed only detonators) by the Nazi mayor of Altaussee who was a devoted Hitler fanatic. It was only through the unsung heroism of Dr. Emmerich Pochmuller, general director of the salt mine and several mine workers, that this event was forestalled.

Because of exigent circumstances, once the Monuments men arrived, they would have just four days to empty the mine or risk the contents being handed over to Stalin. (Truman had agreed, under pressure, to withdraw American forces to pre-war geographical boundaries.) Working under horrendous conditions, George Stout and his men ran over the four day deadline, but, working sixteen hour days, managed to get the job done.

Story upon story of such dedication are chronicled in this remarkably detailed and researched book. (Included are many touching letters written home to their wives from several of the monuments men.) I was moved to tears at one or two points when reading about the hardships (these men were not immune from death) and struggles of these resolute men and women - most of whom would earn no accolades or thanks until many years later, if then. In fact, though it continues today, there are many who have no clue or conception of the challenges faced, the non-stop work that went into saving the masterworks of Europe. The beauty we take for granted when we travel and visit museums, churches and cathedrals might have been completely lost to civilization had it not been for a small band of brothers intent on making sure that the masterpieces of our artistic history would survive.

But - "Despite the best efforts of the men and women of the MFAA, hundreds of thousands of works of art, documents, and books have yet to be found. The most famous is perhaps Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man, stolen from the Czartoryski Collection in Cracow, Poland and last known to be in the possession of the notorious Nazi governor-general Hans Frank. Tens of thousands were no doubt destroyed. These include the personal collection of SS Heinrich Himmler, which was burned by SS stormtroopers before British troops could intervene. The famed Amber Panels of Peter the Great, looted by the Nazis from Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg (formally Leningrad)...Thousands of paintings and other works of art have never been claimed, either because their provenance could not be determined or their owners were among the millions who died or were murdered in Hitler's military crusades. Sadly, not all museums, the interim custodians of some of these works of art, have demonstrated the determination of the Monuments Men to locate their rightful owners or heirs."

Link to learn more about The Monuments Men.

Link to current news and work of The Monuments Men as it continues.

THE MONUMENTS MEN is a fascinating book not only about history and art but about heroes who went unsung for far too long. There are plenty of intriguing photographs, even a 'cast of characters' photo gallery at the beginning which I found very helpful.

To my mind, this is a book that needs to be read by anyone who has any interest in art, European history, civilization and/or WWII.

It's too bad that the movie based on this book was such a dud. Maybe if it had been in more capable and experienced hands. They certainly had a good cast, but somewhere along the way, they lost the thread of the story and were unable to visually express the thrill of the hunt for artistic treasure and the idealism of the characters involved. These men were, in many ways, larger than life and the film failed to realize this.

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.