review: the monogram murders

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah (2014)

Did you know that Sophie Hannah is writing new books featuring Hercule Poirot? I didn’t either until I stumbled upon one of the books on the kindle daily deal site one day. My initial reaction was this is awesome. Then the skeptic in me reared her head and said slow your roll. With the help of the Library Extension app I’ve downloaded to my browser, I confirmed that the book is available through my local library. I downloaded the ebook version and spent a couple of hours each night after work reading. If you’re on a budget and either haven’t ever read one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels or simply want a low risk way of discovering how well Sophie Hannah brings the Great Detective back to life, borrowing a copy of The Monogram Murders is the way to go. I wouldn’t say I loved this book, and I didn’t have the puzzle completely figured out by the end, but it was an enjoyable read for winding down after work and I wanted to keep reading until the big reveal of whodunnit. Continue reading

review: the thinking engine

The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove (2015)

If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, I have a book for you to add to your reading list. The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove is a compelling, well-written read from start to finish, and Lovegrove has joined my list of writers to watch for new installments in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries currently being published by Titan Books (the other writer on that list is Mark A. Latham). Like Latham, Lovegrove has a strong understanding of Holmes and Watson as characters as well as the original Holmes canon by A. Conan Doyle. Lovegrove masterfully delivers an intricate mystery complete with enough foreshadowing to help readers unravel parts of the puzzle but not enough clues to let them guess the whole puzzle before Sherlock makes his grand reveal. Lovegrove situates the story within a larger thematic context that makes the events of The Thinking Engine relevant to modern 21st century readers, all while offering a fascinating portrait of Holmes, Watson, and their friendship that has an incredible depth of insight. For those readers with a book budget, here’s what you need to know: the book is not available through the Kindle Unlimited library and it also wasn’t available through my local library, either in print or ebook format. If you want to read The Thinking Engine, you’ll have to buy it. This is one of my recommended reads (so far the list this year is short!) and in my opinion, it’s absolutely worth your book dollars, especially if you’re a fan of Sherlock and Watson. Continue reading

review: the vanishing man

The Vanishing Man by Philip Purser-Hallard (2019)

In case you missed it, Titan Books is publishing new novels featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. The books are written by a variety of different authors, and since I’m a fan of the original stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s interesting to see how close to the originals the books in this series feel. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I have previously reviewed The Red Tower by Mark A. Latham. I have also read A Betrayal in Blood by the same author as well as The Legacy of Deeds by Nick Kyme. For any reader who loves the original stories by Conan Doyle, I highly recommend all three of these books. The Vanishing Man by Philip Purser-Hallard is the latest book in this series to capture my attention. It’s not my favorite among the group of books I’ve read so far, but it is an entertaining and engaging read. It follows many of the Sherlockian conventions and I don’t think readers will walk away disappointed. If you are on a budget, be aware that I wasn’t able to find this book in my local library and it’s not available through my Kindle Unlimited subscription. I also couldn’t find a copy in my local used bookstore, so I paid full price for my book. If you want to read one of the books in this series and make your book budget dollars count, I humbly recommend starting with A Betrayal in Blood or The Red Tower, as both of these are the best books in the series I’ve read so far and well worth your book dollars. Continue reading

review: modern sorcery

Modern Sorcery by Gary Jonas (2011)

Modern Sorcery is the first book in the Jonathan Shade urban fantasy series by Gary Jonas. This book has been on my kindle for at least six months. I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but over the weekend I decided I was in the right mood to read this particular book. Well, I should say I was finally in the mood to make a second attempt to read the book. The first time I picked up Modern Sorcery, I read about 9% of the book or what amounts to the first 40 pages. I didn’t know if I would actually make it through the whole book the second time around, but I wanted to, because this is exactly the kind of urban fantasy that is my favorite—private detectives whose investigations take place in a paranormal world, and bonus points if the novel weaves in elements of noir and hardboiled detective fiction. I’m not able to say I loved Modern Sorcery, but I did like it a lot and already plan to read the second book in the series. On a budget? At the time of this writing, it’ll cost you $2.99 plus tax, as the book is not currently available from my local library and it’s also not in the Kindle Unlimited library. If you’re a fan of the urban fantasy genre and looking for a new series, then it’s worth the dollars from your book budget. If you’re a casual fan or new to the genre, I’d recommend starting somewhere else (the Harry Dresden files by Jim Butcher and the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne are fantastic entry points). Continue reading

review: the red tower

Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower by Mark A. Latham (2018)

Here’s what you need to know. If you are a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories written by A. Conan Doyle, then you should read this book. If your only experience with Holmes and Watson is through television or film, then you should read this book. If you think Holmes is the main character of these stories, well…you’ll have to have a little patience. There is a whole lot to like about Mark A. Latham’s latest contribution to the Sherlock Holmes collection of books currently being published by Titan Books. Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower is just the fourth book of the year to get a five-star rating from me. I loved this book and couldn’t have asked the author to do anything more, and one of the best parts is that I had no idea what the solution to the puzzle was until I got to the very end of the book. The Red Tower is a great read, and though it’s not currently available from my local library, it was worth every single dollar from my book budget. Continue reading

review: the valley of fear

The Valley of Fear by A. Conan Doyle (1915)

Reading The Valley of Fear, the final Sherlock Holmes novel, has been on my to do list for quite some time. Imagine my surprise when I started reading and discovered that I had at least started it in the past. I’ve got notes in the margins and underlined sentences throughout the first part of the story, but then nothing for the second part, which leads me to think that I started the book but then didn’t finish it because this is one of the Holmes novels that does that thing I don’t really like—but more on that later. Like I said, The Valley of Fear is the final Sherlock Holmes novel. In case you’re wondering, the others are (in order): A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Also, if you are a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock, the beginning of The Valley of Fear will be familiar to you, as the decoding of a cipher received by Sherlock is adapted in the series one episode titled, “The Blind Banker”.

Structurally, The Valley of Fear is a framed narrative. The story is divided into two main parts and the frame is closed with an epilogue. The use of the framed narrative is actually one of the things that turns me off about the story, and I’m guessing that it was at the start of the inner story that I put the book down. That being said, the framed narrative works for this story. At the beginning of the novel, Sherlock receives a coded message from one of the many confidential informants he’s built a relationship with over the years. The message warns of mortal danger to John Douglas, owner of an old manor house called Birlstone. However, before Holmes can act to save the endangered man, he receives a visit from Inspector MacDonald, who brings news of the brutal murder. Holmes, Watson, and MacDonald make plans to travel to Birlstone the following morning. Prior to their arrival, Watson inserts a chapter into the story that reveals the statements made by those within the house at the time of the murder. In this way, Watson provides back story and what basically amounts to an information dump, so that when the trio arrives at the manor house, Sherlock and Inspector MacDonald can begin their interrogations of the witnesses. Because Sherlock falls into the category of the “Great Detective,” it is often the case that he makes deductions, solves the mystery, and reveals the solution to readers in such a way that readers cannot themselves figure out whodunnit. The Great Detective is needed to explain the crime to us. The first part of The Valley of Fear follows this same structure, however, perhaps more than any of the other novels (and short stories), there is a heavy smattering of clues. While I wasn’t able to figure out the whole of the mystery, there were parts of it I had already deduced before the reveal of the solution. One other noteworthy aspect of the mystery itself is that it is a kind of “locked room” murder mystery, in that the manor house at Birlstone is surrounded by a moat and thus can only be accessed by a drawbridge. Douglas insists the drawbridge be raised every night, and the fact that the drawbridge was raised at the time of the murder is another puzzling fact that Holmes must take into account as he deduces the chain of events leading up to and immediately following the murder.

The opening frame ends with the presentation of the solution to the murder. The inner story then goes back twenty years into the past. Part of the function of this inner story is to further illustrate the character of John Douglas. Indeed, it is in many ways a character study. It is also there to explain the motive for murder. Part two of the story paints a vivid and engaging portrait of the man as well as the so-called Valley of Fear, explaining the source of the title. However, what I think is most notable about the second part of the story is that it meditates upon the issue of class warfare and considers the limits of what constitutes justifiable behavior in the struggle between the “little man” and the large corporation. At the same time, the inner story invites us to determine how we feel about a character who is presented as being more than a little morally grey. We have to ask ourselves how we feel about him. Do we like him? Do we abhor him and his actions? Do the ends justify the means? These questions earn greater importance as the inner story concludes, and we as readers must reconcile our impressions and judgement of Douglas in light of the conclusion to his story. The inner story is complex and pushes the reader outside of the bounds of detective fiction and into the margins of moral fiction. Read in this light, the inner story fascinates me on a level that I hadn’t quite expected but definitely appreciate.

Finally, the closing frame of the narrative calls back to the opening, where the spectre of Professor Moriarty hovers of the story as the catalytic force that sets the whole of the initial murder mystery into motion. Because The Valley of Fear was written after “The Final Problem” it is worth pondering how Conan Doyle shaped this story based upon his knowledge of how Holmes’ battle with Moriarty played out. That is, his hindsight allowed him to sprinkle in these references to Moriarty and show him to be the masterful consulting criminal who cannot fail. It could be that if Conan Doyle hadn’t written “The Final Problem” when he did, the stories and this novel that come after it would lack these elements of intrigue and insight into Moriarty as well as the struggle between Sherlock and Moriarty for supremacy.

Though the structure of the framed narrative frustrates me on one level—because I read the Sherlock stories because I want to see Sherlock and Watson in action—I have to admit The Valley of Fear commanded my attention and provoked me to think about the story on a philosophical level. Even though it took me two attempts to get to the end, I recommend reading this novel, especially if you’ve never read any of the stories or novels. You will definitely watch film and television adaptations of the Sherlock and Watson stories in a different way after you’ve read the stories that inspire them.

Have you read The Valley of Fear? What are your thoughts?

from the memoirs of sherlock holmes – part three

“The Resident Patient” (1893)

The case in this story is brought to Sherlock by Dr. Percy Trevelyan.  The doctor comes to Sherlock because his “resident patient” calls to his attention that an unknown person has entered his personal rooms in the house where Trevelyan has his medical practice.  The only people in the house at the time of entry are a Russian count, who is there to see the doctor for treatment of a nervous condition, and his son, who opted to remain in the waiting room during his father’s consultation with the doctor.  Sherlock listens to the doctor’s story and agrees to go to the house to talk with Blessington, the resident patient, but when the man refuses to tell the truth to the questions Sherlock puts to him, Holmes leaves the scene, though he tells Watson that he expects to hear from the doctor the next day.  This prediction comes true, and the case takes a turn before Sherlock solves the puzzle.

For the most part, I have enjoyed the stories in this volume; however, “The Resident Patient” is, I would say, the weakest of them all so far.  If you cannot make your way through the full volume, this story is one you can skip.

“The Greek Interpreter” (1893)

Wow.  Unlike “The Resident Patient” which is something of a disappointment, “The Greek Interpreter” is a must-read in this collection.  Where do I even begin? This appears to be the story in which Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, is introduced and makes his first appearance.  The first paragraph of this story is elegant, as Watson begins his tale by saying that one of the things that has been one of the greatest mysteries about his friend was his lack of any references to his relatives.  Watson writes: “This reticence upon his part had increased the somewhat inhuman effect which he produced upon me, until sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was preeminent in intelligence.  His aversion to women and his disinclination to form new friendships were both typical of his unemotional character, but now more so than his complete suppression of every reference to his own people”.  It’s an insightful portrait into how Watson sees Sherlock.  The appearance of Mycroft and the way he and Sherlock interact, as observed by Watson, is also intriguing.  Sherlock tells Watson boldly that his brother is better at logic and deduction that he is himself, but Mycroft’s problem is that he is lazy.  The narrative proves this as the two catch sight of a man walking along the street and proceed to reveal everything that can be known about him just from his mere appearance and what he carries.  Frequently throughout this volume, Watson has remarked upon Sherlock’s level of energy, and in this story, it is in striking contrast to Mycroft’s sedentary ways and lack of energy.  Through Watson’s gaze we see Sherlock differently because we are also able to see Mycroft–the ways in which they are similar and how they are different.

One question, of course, is whether or not this view of Sherlock in the company of his brother works in humanizing Sherlock. I’m not sure that I know what the answer to that question would be from Watson’s point of view, but we have to remember that Watson’s gaze is also the clinical, medical gaze of a doctor.  Perhaps how he sees Sherlock–as inhuman, unemotional, and heartless–makes it easier for him to dissect his friend, metaphorically speaking, within the pages of the Memoirs.

The case involves a man who is, as the title previews,, a Greek interpreter.  He is engaged by a man that he doesn’t know to use his skills but is threatened with death should he tell anyone of what he sees and hears.  It, too, is remarkable in that it offers a mystery that is substantial and, surprising, can only go solved by way of conjecture.  This isn’t one of Holmes’ failures, but it also isn’t one of his successes.  The story calls out several things that would have been sensational to readers of the time–forced imprisonment, legal redtape that gives the criminals the opportunity to escape justice, and how foreigners were without protections or assistance in England.  I highly recommend this story, and if Moffat and Co. decide to make a fifth series of Sherlock, this story would be a great candidate for an episode.

“The Naval Treaty” (1893)

In the case of “The Naval Treaty” one of Watson’s grade school fellows reaches out to him to request that he bring Sherlock to visit him in Woking (I can’t believe it’s Woking–every time I see that I think of Wells’ The War of the Worlds).  Sherlock agrees to make the journey, and when the arrive, Watson’s old classmate, Percy Phelps, explains that for the last nine weeks he has been confined to bed as he recovered from a brain-fever–which, in this case, means that he has suffered a severe shock and his nerves are shot–due to an incident at work.  Phelps has a position in the Foreign Office, a job he received, in part due to his family ties to Lord Holdhurst.  As part of his duties, Lord Holdhurst asks Phelps to make a copy of a treaty between Great Britain and the Triple Alliance–Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Germany.  The details of the treaty are, in modern terms, highly classified and top secret, and the consequences of any of Britain’s adversaries–France or Russia–learning of the terms of the treaty are grave.  Phelps is instructed by his uncle to stay late in the office until everyone has left for the evening and then begin transcribing the document.  He is in the middle of copying the document, if you can believe, the man needs a cup of coffee in order to stay awake (apparently not a 21st century problem!) and rings the bell to the commissionaire downstairs.  He orders a cup of coffee from the commissionaire’s wife, but after a while passes and he realizes he has not received his coffee, he leaves his office and the top secret document on his desk to get some much needed caffeine (oh, the things we do for coffee and the stupid things we do when our brains are caffeine deficient!).  When he returns to his office, he finds that the top secret document is gone, stolen by someone who he has failed to see come or go through the limited access to the room in which he works. After enlisting the assistance of the police but failing to recover the document, Phelps begins to realize the ramifications of the document going missing on his watch, and the brain-fever ensues (no, I’m not going to comment on that, I’m just going to move along…).

Sherlock agrees to take the case, and after a couple of days of investigation solves the puzzle.  “The Naval Treaty” is the penultimate story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and in a sense it does heighten a reader’s sense of tension if for the only reason that she knows that the next story in the volume is “The Final Problem”. Sherlock does not give much away in this story, keeping not only his client in the dark in terms of his suspicions as well as the steps he intends to take to catch the thief, but also Watson, and in that way we are just as cut off from Sherlock as he is.  As he unravels the details of whodunit, we see how Holmes solved the puzzle and though the thief’s identity does not come as any great surprise, the way that he brings off the crime is interesting and shows Sherlock’s skills of deduction.  In all honesty, I am looking forward to finally reading “The Final Problem” for the first time, and perhaps that excitement has unfairly dulled my appreciation of “The Naval Treaty”.  I liked this story, but it is not my favorite story.  I say read it, but don’t make it your first priority when it comes to the short stories.

“The Final Problem” (1893)

I have read that this story was first published in the December 1893 issue of the Strand Magazine.  What a Christmas present for Doyle to give to his readers!

It is a strange experience, reading “The Final Problem” for the first time after having seen so many adaptations of it in popular culture.  And the thing about reading, whatever story or novel you are reading, is that you can only read it for the first time once.  I can read the story again and again, but nothing will ever be like reading it for the first time.  The first paragraph is striking and sets the tone.  Watson tells us that it is with a heavy heart that he writes these lines.  He had not intended, he says, to include it for publication, and yet feels compelled to do so because the brother of Professor Moriarty has made claims that, he says, are untrue.  It is for him to tell the true story.  In this he reminds a bit of Horatio, who has the responsibility of telling all those interested of the tale of Hamlet.  Watson is writing the events of the story two years after they have happened, and so he has time to compose himself, and there is a sense of acceptance of Sherlock’s choices.  This is, I think, in opposition to the BBC’s Sherlock, where it is still raw in the telling for Watson.

The story unfolds when Holmes–who has had a mostly long absence from Watson in the past few months–arrives at Watson’s house and explains what he has been doing, how he has uncovered Moriarty and the extent of the man’s criminal enterprise and organization.  He is every bit the criminal mastermind and genius that popular culture portrays him to be, and he has garnered Sherlock’s appreciation in this regard.  Still, Sherlock is intent up on bringing him to justice, and he is willing to give his life in the cause.  This is something that Sherlock repeats more than once–that he is willing to die if that means removing the threat of Moriarty from the world.  It is, in every sense, built up to be a clash between two opposing forces; however, neither man walks away from the battle.  Both are believed to have perished, and this prompts Watson to describe Sherlock as the greatest man he has ever known.  This last is notable because Watson so often views Sherlock as being robotic, inhuman, a machine without a heart or feelings.  But in the last line of the Memoirs Watson refers to him as a man.  Perhaps it is only in Sherlock’s death, in the proof that he is subject to that final end just like any other human, that Watson is finally capable of seeing Sherlock as human, of seeing his humanity.  Or perhaps it is Sherlock’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good.  I cannot say.

Another insight that I have now after reading the story is the fact that throughout the story, Sherlock only refers to his adversary as Professor Moriarty–indeed, in the beginning of the story, Watson refers to Moriarty’s brother as Colonel James Moriarty.  Also, the story closes with a note from Sherlock that he writes to Watson, but in many ways it may as well have been written directly to Doyle’s readers–that he is okay with his death, glad even to give his life if it means eliminating Moriarty’s influence upon the world.  It is not intended to be a sad ending though it is meant to be a final goodbye.  I can’t help but compare this to the end of the “The Reichenbach Fall” of the BBC’s Sherlock, where Sherlock calls Watson and tells him that his phone call is his “note”. There, Sherlock means his suicide note, but in the story it is something quite different entirely.  Similar but different, and a wonderful adaptation.

If you think you know the story but haven’t read it, please read it. Though it will feel familiar, it is essential reading.  “The Final Problem” does not disappoint.

from the memoirs of sherlock holmes – part two

The “Gloria Scott” (1893)

In my opinion, “The ‘Gloria Scott’” is a must read story within the Holmes canon.  Several things make this story remarkable.  First, it is a framed narrative that contains another framed narrative.  If you have read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you’ll be familiar with that narrative structure.  The primary, or first frame, is Sherlock’s narrative that recounts the case that convinced him that he could make a living as a consulting detective and that his powers of deduction and observation could be used for something more than a hobby.  The story that Sherlock tells reveals several personal details about him–that he spent only two years in college, and that even then he did not make friends easily, thus demonstrating him to be isolated and existing on the fringes and margins even as a young man.  The one friend that he does make is Victor Trevor, and during the winter holidays, Sherlock joins Trevor at this father’s country estate.  One day, Trevor explains to his father that Sherlock can deduce things about people that no one else can.  Of course, Trevor Sr. asks for a demonstration and Sherlock obliges his host.  One of the things he says is that Trevor Sr. had a close association with someone referred to as J. A. but that he had wished to erase all memories of that association at some point in his life.  This startles Trevor Sr. so badly that he faints, and though he minimizes the episode, he remains uncomfortable around Sherlock for the remainder of his stay at the estate.  Another incident happens while Sherlock is visiting the Trevors.  A man named Hudson comes to visit Trevor Sr. on the night before Sherlock is scheduled to leave.  Trevor Sr. is quick to invite Hudson to stay with him and promises to find him a job, but it’s clear he makes the elder Trevor uncomfortable.

About seven weeks after Sherlock leaves the country, his friend comes to his door and implores him to return to the country to solve a puzzle–Trevor Sr. is dying and the younger man believes that Hudson’s appearance and presence at the estate is the cause.  Trevor tells Sherlock on their way back to the estate that his father had received a short note that seems to carry no threat or hint of malice and yet upon reading it he suffers a stroke.  When they arrive at the estate, they find that Trevor Sr. has died, and that his last words to the doctor was to communicate to his son the location of the letter he had written a few months before, when Trevor had pressed him to explain why he tolerated Hudson’s presence on the estate.  Trevor finds the letter and asks Sherlock to read it.  Sherlock agrees, and this begins the second framed narrative.  Thus, “The ‘Gloria Scott’” is a narrative within a framed narrative.

Trevor Sr.’s letter unwinds the mystery, explaining why Hudson had come to see him and why he took pains to keep him happy and satisfied.  It also explains why the note that Trevor Sr. received shocked him so badly that he suffered a stroke even though on the surface it seemed nonsensical and random.

After he finishes reading the letter to Watson, which he still has along with the note, he hands both documents to his friend and tells him that he can use them in his writings of their cases if he so chooses.  Obviously, Watson does choose to do so because we have this story, which in many ways is Sherlock’s origin story.

“The ‘Gloria Scott’” is a fascinating read and one I definitely recommend.

“The Musgrave Ritual” (1893)

This is another story that is a must read within the canon. It begins with Watson commenting on the paradox between Sherlock’s well-ordered mind and his disordered style of keeping house.  The beginning is also interesting in that, if you have watched the BBC’s Sherlock, it will call to mind the scene where Sherlock is firing off a gun at the living room wall in the flat that he and Watson share, the scene where he leaves a note for Watson by affixing it to the mantle with a knife, and the scene where Watson is looking in the refrigerator and finds a human head.  Little easter eggs that the show has pulled from the stories themselves.

It is because the flat has become such a mess that Watson encourages Sherlock to do some cleaning, particularly putting away some of his papers that seem to overflow the space.  Obliging him, Sherlock retrieves a box from his bedroom that holds papers regarding old papers.  He pulls out one particular set and explains to Watson that they refer to the third case he investigated, which he refers to as the adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.  Intrigued and more than willing to hear Holmes recount one of his earliest cases (with Watson commenting that he regretted he had no notes regarding Sherlock’s early work), Watson gives Holmes a free pass when it comes to tidying their flat if he’ll tell the story.  What follows is Sherlock’s rendition of the case.  One of his old college-mates comes to Sherlock for assistance, explaining that he had had cause to dismiss the butler who had been with his family for nearly twenty years after finding him going through some old family documents to which he had not been given free access.  One of the documents included the Musgrave Ritual, a catechism of questions and answers that each Musgrave son had been put through for over three hundred years.  Sherlock at once recognizes the words as a kind of riddle that point to something that has been hidden.  He sets about finding the exact place referred to in the Ritual, and in doing so begins to unravel the mystery of the missing butler.

I would love for this story to be one that is made into an episode of BBC’s Sherlock.  Part of the ritual has to do with the history of the British monarchy that I appreciate because I have taught that moment in history to a group of students, and that’s probably another reason that the story appeals to me.  I definitely recommend reading this one.  Don’t skip it!

“The Reigate Puzzle” (1893)

This story finds Sherlock Holmes recovering from an illness, an interesting state for Sherlock because one, Watson so frequently characterizes him as a man of energy when he is investigating a case but who is also given to bouts of lethargy when there is nothing for his mind to concentrate upon; and two, because Sherlock as a patient gives Watson yet another reason to keenly observe his friend but for a whole different reason.  Not only is Watson’s biographical gaze upon Sherlock in this story, but also the medical gaze of a doctor.  What Doyle does in this story that is brilliant is put those two gazes in conflict with each other–where the man who has been Sherlock’s biographer cannot be fully separated from the man who has been his doctor.

In order to further Sherlock’s recovery, Watson recommends spending some time in the country at a friend’s house.  They leave London, and Sherlock remains sunk in the restful peace of the country and absence of anything to really arouse his intellect.  Then comes news of a murder at a neighboring estate, and though Watson recommends that Sherlock remain uninvolved, an Inspector arrives and pulls Sherlock into the case.  As the case unfolds, Sherlock’s usual vigor and energy returns in full force, almost to the point that it appears to be manic and frenzied.  Perhaps it is, but by the end of the story, Sherlock feels entirely like himself again and is ready to return to London the next morning. In this way, Doyle enacts the critical “change” in his character by bringing him from the weak and ill man we find at the beginning of the story–someone very much unlike the Sherlock we think we know–to a man who relishes the next mystery and awaits it with fervor and energy.  Doyle does this to the extent that the mystery itself–who killed William Kirwan–is only the B plot. It is Sherlock who is the focal point and the A plot is getting him back on his feet.

“The Crooked Man” (1893)

If the note in my edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is correct, this story is the only one in which Holmes says the phrase “Elementary”.  It’s not even “Elementary, my dear Watson.”  Just “Elementary”. I love these little tidbits.  Sort of like the fact that in Casablanca, the phrase Rick utters isn’t “Play it again, Sam” and yet it’s one of the famous phrases associated with the film.

“The Crooked Man” is perhaps the most suspenseful story in the volume thus far. Sherlock arrives at Watson’s home late one night and recounts the details of a case he is currently working.  It is the story of Colonel Barclay, who is found dead in a locked room with his wife, who is passed out at the time of discovery.  It’s not entirely a locked room mystery, though, because one of the French doors is open and Sherlock believes that a third man was there.  Several details still confound the Great Detective, though, and it is only upon finding the third man on the following day, with Watson accompanying him as a witness, that he learns the full details of what happened in that locked room and the mystery surrounding Colonel Barclay’s death is unraveled.

The thing that interests me most about the story is the depiction of the Indian Mutiny (or, the Indian Rebellion).  Doyle shows what side of the imperial narrative he stands on, characterizing the Indian fighters as enemies and rebels to the authority of the Crown, and he does this through the story the third man tells regarding his time in India.  What cannot be overlooked is that the third man tells of a betrayal done to him by a fellow British army soldier, and though that betrayal is not absolved at the end of the story, it is also not framed as being as dastardly as the events of the Mutiny.  The point I’m trying to make here is that as part of my literary studies, this era of British history and literature was one of my focuses, and reading these stories further impresses upon me just how much events that occurred within the 19th century were integrated into the popular imagination and remained of great importance, and that stories like this one can be viewed as reinforcing rather than challenging Empire.  Doyle lends a historical dimension to the Holmes stories and in doing so demonstrates how certain historical events continued to be important to Britons in the late 19th century and influenced the making and sustaining of the British identity.

Like “The ‘Gloria Scott'” I think “The Crooked Man” is a must read in this volume.

from the memoirs of sherlock holmes – part one

*Note: These are just brief sketches of the short stories so that I can remember what each story is about and what I thought of it.  Beware: here may be spoilers!

“Silver Blaze” (1892)

I don’t know if the order is the same for all editions of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, but in my edition, the first story is “Silver Blaze”.  In this story, Holmes is involved in a case of a missing horse whose name provides the title of the story and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker.

The stories of Sherlock Holmes are told through the first-person narrative of Dr. John Watson.  From the start of the story, it occurred to me how important this detail is.  I love watching the BBC’s Sherlock, but if you haven’t read any of the stories, it’s hard to understand that everything we know about Sherlock is filtered through Watson’s perspective of him.  It is Watson’s perspective of the way Sherlock uses logic and observation to solve crimes.  We see him the way Watson sees him, and that may or may not be indicative of who he truly is.  There is a moment in the story where Sherlock admits that he made a blunder, and he tells Watson that contrary to what he writes in his memoirs–which is interesting in itself, because it invites you to ask the question: Whose memoirs are these? Sherlock’s or Watson’s?–he does actually make mistakes.  Watson, as he spends more time with Sherlock, demonstrates that more and more he, too, is becoming an astute observer.  His powers of logic, inference, and observation, in his own opinion, are not as powerful as his companion’s, but they do still exist.   In turn, while Sherlock uses these skills to solve crimes, is it not possible that Watson uses those same skills to provide revelations about his friend to his readers? While Sherlock studies and solves crimes, it’s as though Sherlock is the mystery that Watson is studying and trying to solve.

As expected, Sherlock not only solves the mystery of the missing horse as well as the murder of the trainer.  He lays out the details and facts of the case to Watson as they travel to the scene of the crime, and he uses logic, inference and deduction to lead him to the solution of the case.  While I was able to deduce the murderer with the clues given in the story, I still didn’t have the full picture, and so the conventional scene in a detective story where the great detective explains how the crime was committed and how he found out the culprit filled in the details for me.  Overall, this was a good story and one that I would recommend reading if you are looking for a way to spend a spare hour.

One other noteworthy thing about this story that I was not expecting.  There is a line in the story that reads: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”  I recognized the words as the title of a book, and sure enough when I looked it up, it’s a mystery where the protagonist uses Holmesian logic and inference to solve said mystery.  Now I want to read that book because my interest has been peaked, and I’m often willing to give fiction inspired by Sherlock Holmes a try.

“The Yellow Face” (1893)

This story is preceded by a note, if you will, from Watson, where he explains that if may seem to his readers that he only presents Sherlock’s successes rather than his failures.  He goes on to say that the reason he doesn’t write about the failures is in part due to the fact that where Sherlock has failed, so has everyone else failed to solve the mystery.  He says this by way of letting us know that in the story that follows, he will relate a case in which Sherlock was wrong.

In this story, the facts of the case are related to us by Grant Munro, a man who has come to Sherlock for help in solving a mystery that involves his wife’s strange behavior.  He wants Sherlock’s help as a consulting detective but also as a judicious man who can tell him what to do.  The story is an interesting read for a 21st century reader, in that it reveals the prejudices and racialized thinking of the late Victorian era.  It also exposes gender politics and male privilege, in that Munro comes to Sherlock because his wife is keeping a secret from him and refuses to reveal the truth behind her recently odd behavior.  In this sense, there’s the underlying presumption that as her husband, he has a right to know everything and anything about her, and all he need do is demand that she tell him what he wants to know.  Her continued refusal to reveal her secret is what drives Munro to Sherlock, and mistaking what is really going in in this case, Holmes and Watson accompany Munro as he sets about revealing his wife’s secret by force.

Because of the insight it gives to race and gender relations in late 19th century England and because it shows us that Sherlock is, indeed, infallible, “The Yellow Face” is worth the read, but it’s not the best of the stories in the collection.

“The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” (1893)

I happen to work in the financial services industry, and so reading “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” is an interesting look into what the industry looked like over a century ago.

The beginning of this story provides some insight into Watson’s life and current circumstances.  He is married and has recently purchased a medical practice, and it’s been some months since he last saw Sherlock or worked a case with him.  This story takes place after The Sign of Four, which Sherlock makes a direct reference to while inquiring about the health of Mrs. Watson.  When Sherlock explains he’s there to invite Watson to join him on a case in Birmingham, Watson jumps at the opportunity.  The two join Sherlock’s newest client, Mr. Hall Pycroft, who is waiting in the carriage outside of Watson’s door, and on the journey to Birmingham Pycroft recounts the details of the case that have caused him to enlist the services of Sherlock Holmes.  Pycroft had been, in today’s terms, laid off from his previous job, and after a few months of searching for a new position and running through his savings (a plight 21st century readers can relate to) he finally got a new job at a prestigious financial firm that was known for managing large sums of money.  While the salary was less than what he had been making in the past, Pycroft agreed to take the position because he had no other options.  Until, that is, a man appears at his door and offers him a position that will pay at least twice what he would make at his new firm.  After several questions, Pycroft decides to take the offer, but at the request of the headhunter, to use a modern term, Pycroft does not write to his new employer to officially resign his position.

Pycroft becomes suspicious that something is not right with his new employer when he arrives at the corporate offices and there are no other workers and only a chair and two empty chairs for furniture.  After a week, he appeals to Sherlock to determine if his employer is legitimate or if he has fallen into some sort of scam.  It does not take much time for Sherlock to solve the case, and it’s charming that an article in the newspaper is what helps him put all of the pieces of the puzzle together.  It demonstrates just how important newspapers were at the time as a source of information.

The thing about this story is its relatability to 21st century life.  Here is a man who has lost his job, spent several months looking for a new job and depleted his small savings, and when he does find a new job, he gets a “better offer” and ultimately ends up being caught in a scam.  If the story was a cautionary tale at the time it was published, it can be viewed in the same way to modern readers.

review: playback

Playback by Raymond Chandler (1958)

Playback is the final novel in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series that was completed before his death in 1959.  Although this book is the last in a series, each of the books mostly stands alone so there’s no reason to warn you about spoilers.  One thing that happens at the very end of the previous novel in the series, The Long Goodbye, does pop up a couple of times in the book so beware if you are or intend to read the books out of order (and by the way, the first book in the series is The Big Sleep, which I highly recommend).  Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, onto the book itself.

The setting for Playback isn’t Los Angeles, but instead a small town south of the city, seemingly somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego.  One of the reasons the setting is important is because the law enforcement in Esmeralda bear little to no similarity to the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department that Marlowe has battled and contended with throughout the series.  The first time we encounter the police, Marlowe obviously comes to the meeting with his jaded and negative prior experiences to inform his words and responses.  And yet, Captain Alessandro is not like other police captains, and in fact there is a moment where a wealthy man attempts to use his wealth to demand that the captain do what he wants and accuses him of corruption; Captain Alessandro basically tells him that neither he nor his department is corrupt and sends the wealthy man away angry that his money did not buy him the influence he is used to receiving.  In his interactions with Marlowe, while he doesn’t necessarily trust him completely, he does allow Marlowe to pursue his current investigation without the usual threats we have become accustomed to the LAPD issuing him in previous novels.  As a result, one of the conventions of hardboiled detective fiction–rampant and unchecked corruption with law enforcement–is notably absent in Playback.

The case that sets the story in motion is an attorney, Clyde Umney, who hires Marlowe to follow a woman who is arriving in Los Angeles by train.  Umney provides no other details, particularly the reason that he wants Marlowe to follow her and report her location back to him, and so at the beginning of the book, the woman herself is the mystery. Eventually Marlowe learns that her name is Betty Mayfield, and not long after she arrives in Los Angeles, she is approached by a man named Larry Mitchell.  Through observation, Marlowe guesses that Mitchell is blackmailing Mayfield, but what exactly he has on her takes a while for Marlowe to learn, and although he approaches Betty many times and offers his help, she remains unwilling to tell him why she left the East or reveal her secrets.  But as is the case with the genre, the mystery of Betty Mayfield only leads to a deeper mystery when he learns of a murder.  Because it’s Marlowe, he feels compelled to investigate and get to the truth, even as Betty continues to refuse becoming his client while continuing to try to throw money at him.  His actions and his pursuit of a murderer highlight Marlowe’s “knight complex” that has driven him throughout the series.  He has no idea what Betty has done, but he believes she’s a woman who needs help and he intends to help, whether she’s willing to accept that help or not.

Like other books in this series (and The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye come immediately to mind) the murder victim is someone shown to be morally deficient and a person who preys upon others.  Thus, there is no outrage on the victim’s behalf, and although Marlowe is motivated by a sense of right and wrong to solve the murder, he isn’t equally motivated to reveal the identity of the murder to the police.  This is in contrast to a suicide that Marlowe discovers–he feels obligated, on a moral and legal level but also as a man trying to be decent human being in a world that so often seems to lack common decency, to inform the police of the man’s death, even though it may get him into trouble with the police.  On the one hand, Marlowe continues to search for the murderer because he feels that in doing so he will protect his unwilling client, Betty, but because he will not allow him to stop until the case is closed.  But, Marlowe moves further into that grey area between right and wrong when, after confronting the murderer, he returns to Los Angeles without telling Captain Alessandro his suspicions.  In doing nothing, it is left to us as readers to determine if he walks away because he believes that perhaps justice has already been done, with one less predator in the world. Is it out of a sense of powerless? Or is he tired of the fight that never seems to be won? I don’t know the answer to the question, and perhaps neither does Marlowe.

The novel ends on what feels like a much more hopeful note than The Long Goodbye. After Marlowe returns from Esmeralda, he looks around at his house and expresses the sentiment that no matter where goes or what he does, these are the same walls he will always return to.  In a way it’s comforting, but in another it has an edge of nihilism, suggesting that nothing he does matters.  And yet early in the novel there’s a strong indication that those walls matter to him, or at least memories made within those walls.  The way the novel ends leaves the impression that there’s a possibility for more memories to be made there.  It also challenges the idea of Marlowe as an isolated loner, an aspect of the prototypical hardboiled detective.  Don’t get me wrong–Marlowe is a long way from being assimilated back into society or even close to being surrounded by family and friends.  There’s not even the hint that that kind of life awaits him, but there is hope that he’s not entirely alone.  Again, a divergence from the traditional conventions of the hardboiled detective fiction novel, but given the fact that this is the final novel in the series–though not by design–leaves me with a feeling of satisfaction that the series on a note where Marlowe has something more to look forward to than the next case.

If I were reading this book through my literary lens, I would question how the novel was impacted by the events happening in Chandler’s life.  There is the character of an old man in the book who contemplates verbally on several ideas, particularly that death will come for him soon and what his last days will be like, and a kind of relief that death is the one thing a person only has to experience once.  I don’t know if he is a fictional reflection of Chandler’s mindset or offered as a looking glass into a possible version of Marlowe in the future.

Now that I have completed the series and can think of it as a whole, it is one that I would recommend to any reader who enjoys hardboiled detective fiction.  Although Marlowe is a product of his time in that he views his world through the eyes of a mid-20th century white male (there is no getting around his misogynistic or racial stereotyping) his journey through the series and the development of character still fascinates this 21st century reader and makes me think.

review: the long goodbye

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)

The Long Goodbye is the sixth novel in Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled detective fiction series featuring the iconic Philip Marlowe.  This book has been on my to-read list for a long time.  It’s been nearly three years since I read the previous book in this series, The Little Sister, and this has been one of those books that I started, got about 100 pages into, and put down for a long while before starting again and finishing it.  I previously wrote in a review that I thought The Little Sister was the “odd” one in the series; The Long Goodbye doesn’t deserve that description, but it has a different feel to it than the others.

Although Marlowe is recognizable as the character we’ve come to know up to this point in the series, he’s also different.  Older, yes.  He is thirty-three in the first book, The Big Sleep, and now it is nine years later. He is still the man who wants to do the right thing, but doing the right thing doesn’t mean being the knight (as was the metaphor in The Big Sleep).  Like in The Big Sleep, doing the right thing comes at a personal cost to Marlowe, but even more than that, by the end of the novel, that gray space between black and white in which he operates is an even darker shade of gray.  It took me a while to understand how the title came about and what was its significance.  Near the end, Marlowe makes a reference to a French saying–each time you say goodbye you die a little.  Marlowe’s actions in the novel represent his way of saying goodbye to a man he considered to be a friend.  It is, indeed, a long goodbye, and yet in the last pages of the book I got the sense that it wasn’t just his friend Marlowe was saying goodbye to, but an actual piece of himself, a part of him that has died in the effort to do what he felt was right.  Marlowe isn’t lost, he just isn’t the same and never will be.

Like the best examples of the genre, the storyline of The Long Goodbye is complex and layered.  On the top layer is Marlowe’s initial meeting of Terry Lennox.  Lennox is married to Sylvia Potter,, the daughter of a wealthy newspaperman, and her murder is the catalyst that sets everything in motion.  Lennox, of course, is suspected of the murder, and for reasons entirely his own Marlowe makes a choice that bring him to the attention of the police, who want to charge him as an accessory after the fact.  The world that Chandler has created in this series stays true to form, presenting the police force as being rife with corruption and more concerned with closing cases and building careers than pursuing justice and capturing the person actually responsible for the crime.  The police in this book are depicted as being even more brutal (and inept) than previous novels, as Marlowe himself is the target for their brutality and and what he has always seen as a systemic coercion of suspects to implicate themselves in order to stop further abuse and forced into making false confessions and statements.  Marlowe does not comply, and though it would be easy to say that this is the reason for my sense that we have a “colder” Marlowe in this book, that’s not the reason.  He brushes off the time he spends in jail and the police brutality as part of the normal, the everyday.  Others have been treated this way and now it is simply his turn for the same treatment. Eventually, though, this part of the storyline ends–or seems to–and Marlowe moves on and we get a second, deeper layer to the story.  Marlowe takes on a case that involves a popular writer, Roger Wade, who has gone on a drunken binge and disappeared.  Marlowe takes the case from Roger’s wife, Eileen Wade, who is the book’s femme fatale and whose beauty draws Marlowe’s attention instantly.  She is temptation throughout the story.  Like Marlowe’s endeavor to say goodbye to a man he called a friend, his struggle to resist the temptation of Eileen Wade as well as the part he plays in the lives of the Wades wears on him and claims another piece of him.  His methods for bringing justice to those who have committed a crime are merciless and without sympathy.  One character says to Marlowe that he isn’t very sympathetic.  His response is “Why should I be?”.   Marlowe has always been drawn as a man who gives sympathy where it is deserved.  The character is right, he isn’t sympathetic in that particular moment, but he doesn’t lack sympathy.  I also don’t think he is incapable of mercy.  I think this is important because it would be easy for Marlowe to lose those two qualities in the world in which he lives and works, and in so doing he would be no better than the law enforcement he despises.  He doesn’t cross the line in this book, but there is the sense that he has been pushed closer and closer to it, using methods at this point in his life that maybe he wouldn’t have resorted to when we first met him in The Big Sleep.

The Long Goodbye isn’t an easy, simple read.  I’ve lived in the world of academia and heard a lot of dismissals of hardboiled detective fiction as a “popular” genre with little to no “literary” value.  I’m not saying that The Long Goodbye is an “important” book, but it is thought-provoking and presents a protagonist who is not only at odds with the world in which he lives but is also at odds within himself.  It definitely has the feel of a book that is trying to hold up a mirror to society and critique what it sees reflected back.  There are times when the critique is heavy-handed and for a 21st century reader it is at times misogynistic.  It is also at times a little fatalist and maybe even a little nihilistic.  It is a good read, however, a good read and it gives further depth to Marlowe, making him just a little bit more complex, a little bit more isolated, a little bit farther from the traditional image of the knight but accepting that the modern version of a knight–his version at least–is simply just doing the best he can.

review: the thousand dollar tan line

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham (2014)

There has been so little time to read in the last few months that a book has to really catch and hold my attention for me to get past the first twenty pages, much less to the end. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line did that, but maybe it was because I was already familiar with and invested in the protagonist and supporting cast of characters. If you have been a fan of the television series or got your first introduction to the world of Veronica Mars from the recent film, you should find a lot to like in this book. If you have no previous knowledge of the show or the film, you should also find something to like in the book, and rest assured that Thomas and Graham take care to make sure to fill you in on all the details of this world so that you know all the key players.

For those of you who saw the film, the summary on the back of the book is true to its word—the story begins about two months after the point where the film ends. We find Veronica Mars still living in Neptune, California and working as a private investigator in her father’s company, Mars Investigations. Veronica’s father, Keith, is still recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash and so it has been up to Veronica to keep the agency going. Veronica’s best friend Mac is still working as a kind of Girl Friday, but none of the work that has come their way so far has really tested her skills or paid the bills for that matter. The world of the novel is also much the same—Neptune is still a hotbed for police corruption and a place where the wealthy and privileged do whatever is necessary to hold onto what they have, while the 99% struggles to get by. It is also a world where the beautiful surfaces and facades hide the ugliness and decay that lie beneath and where very little is as it seems. The class divide is magnified in this novel by the time of year—it’s Spring Break, and for three weeks college students from all over the West flock to Neptune for parties, binge drinking, and debauchery. Thomas and Graham give the town the feel of Carnival and Las Vegas mixed together. Amid the Spring Break festivities, an eighteen-year-old student goes missing, and the owner of the Neptune Grand Hotel, Petra Landros, hires Veronica to find her. Petra is a member of the Neptune Chamber of Commerce, and her primary motive for hiring Veronica is to quiet the rising, negative media scrutiny that threatens the profit to be made during the Spring Break season. Veronica takes the case. To avoid spoilers, that’s all the summary you’re going to get. Well, I will tell you that Wallace, Weevil, and Logan all get page time, and Sheriff Lamb is still a thorn in Veronica’s side. There is also a surprise appearance by someone from Veronica’s past and believe me when I tell you I wasn’t expecting this person at all, and I’m definitely not going to be the person to spoil the surprise for you.

What I really want to talk about is the way the novel engages with the style of the classic hardboiled detective fiction story. Veronica is in many ways your typical hardboiled detective, and Neptune in many ways is your typical setting for a hardboiled novel. We’ve got the corrupt police, the beautiful landscape with a dirty underbelly that our detective must wade through while trying to stay clean herself. Yet it is also modern in that unlike classic hardboiled detectives, Veronica isn’t an isolated loner. She has her father and friends. She doesn’t have to do it all alone even though doing it all alone is her first inclination. The most significant way that the novel diverges from classic hardboiled detective fiction is that it is told in third-person. I can tell you that even before I picked up the book, I just knew it would be written in first person. All of my favorite detective fiction is written in the first person and I get to see the world through the eyes of the detective and only the detective. I get to be in his or her mind and I only know what the protagonist knows. This is not to say that there is a great distance between the reader and Veronica; however, as a reader I think there would have been more immediacy if Veronica was given to us as a first-person narrator. One of the great aspects of the television show (and the film did this as well) was to have voice-overs from Veronica, cluing us into things that the visual medium couldn’t relate. This element also allowed us to hear Veronica’s voice in a way that we didn’t hear it as she went about solving mysteries. By giving the story to us in third-person, the novel loses that sarcastic, vulnerable, ironic voice and frequently scathing wit that was has always been one of Veronica’s trademarks. If the novel falls short of my expectations, it’s in this aspect, and as I write this I am once again reminded of the importance of the choice writers make between first and third person.

Will I read the next book in this series when it arrives in January 2015? Absolutely. It was a fun read with characters I like. I’m not sure how the series will develop or how long it will continue, but I’m on board and along for the ride.

review: archie meets nero wolfe

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel by Robert Goldsborough (2012)

Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe were originally created by Rex Stout, and somewhere in the 1990s, Robert Goldsborough wrote about half a dozen new Nero Wolfe novels.  I have already reviewed The Missing Chapter on this blog and I have also read Murder in E Minor, both by Goldsborough.  I just finished the novel that Goldsborough published last year which imagines how Archie and Wolfe met and how Archie came to New York City and started working for Wolfe.  On the one hand, it’s an inventive story of how it could have happened; on the other hand, it didn’t feel true to Archie Goodwin’s character as readers such as myself have come to know him.

The story begins with Archie Goodwin working as a night security guard.  He’s only 19-years-old and he’s brand new to Depression-era New York City.  Archie hasn’t been holding this job for long when criminals come to the location he is guarding and try to steal the goods owned by his employer.  Archie ends up shooting one of the criminals out of self-defense and in the duty of protecting his employer’s merchandise.  Although his employer appreciates this, Archie is still fired from his job and forced to look for work again.  He decides to try working for a private investigator and goes to the offices of Del Bascom.  Bascom tells him that he can’t afford to hire him because he doesn’t have enough work for one person, much less two.  Archie says he will prove himself by working for his first case for free, and Bascom gives him a case he hasn’t been able to solve.  Of course, Archie solves it, and for a while he works for Bascom.  It is through Bascom that Archie meets Fred Durkin, one of Nero Wolfe’s freelance investigators.  It is also through Bascom that Archie meets Wolfe.  Bascom, as well as Fred, Saul Panzer, and Orrie Cather, are asked by Wolfe to help him with his current case—the kidnapping of 8-year-old Tommie Williamson, son of ridiculously wealthy hotelier Burke Williamson.  The five men do all of Wolfe’s leg work, and eventually they rescue Tommie from his kidnappers.  Still, Wolfe is not satisfied that the kidnappers and the ransom money paid to them by Williamson remain at large, so the five men keep investigating and at the end of the novel in Wolfe’s typical fashion, the crimes are unraveled within Wolfe’s study with all of the suspects, law enforcement, and private investigators present.  Throughout the novel, the primary cast of characters with whom readers of Stout’s series are familiar eventually get introduced: Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s master chef; Theodore Horstmann, Wolfe’s master gardener and assistant in the rooftop plant rooms where Wolfe’s prized orchids are grown; Inspector Cramer, the New York City chief of homicide, and Sergeant Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff, also of the NYPD.  Wolfe’s brownstone is still in the same place, as is Wolfe’s daily routine and consumption of beer.  Even the red leather chair is there and accounted for.

While the plot and to some extent the characters and setting feel familiar, there are also things that feel off or wrong altogether.  Reading the dialogue of the private detectives often felt wrong—as though they were talking in a kind of slang that felt false.  Also, I’m used to seeing much more of Wolfe during the story, but in this prequel, the focus is much more heavily placed on Archie (which feels right) as well as the suspects themselves.  However, the primary reason why this novel felt unlike Rex Stout’s novels is the presentation of Archie himself.  Goldsborough gives us an Archie Goodwin who is at the beginning of his relationship with Wolfe, his life in New York City, and his work as a private detective.  So yes, of course the Archie that I’m used to isn’t represented in the pages of Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel because that Archie does not yet exist.  And yet, maybe it’s the older, wiser, more experienced Archie that makes reading the Rex Stout mysteries so fun in the first place.  He is not the Great Detective, but he is the central character of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, and to have him be essentially missing makes the whole novel feel…just…too far afield.

One other notable aspect of this book is the dropping of dates and events that pin down the time in which the story takes place.  I read in an introduction to one of Stout’s books that he purposefully wrote the novels so that readers could enter the series at any time and didn’t have to read them in order of publication.  Perhaps that’s why it’s not obvious when the story is taking place.  In Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel, Goldsborough makes it clear that the time of the story is  somewhere between 1929 and 1931.  The Stock Market Crash of 1929 has already happened, Prohibition has not yet ended, and the Empire State Building (completed in 1931) is being built but has not yet been completed.  The rise of telephones in the home and the models of cars also helps to date the events in the novel.

Goldsborough deserves credit for imagining how it all could have started between Archie and Wolfe.  I think the reasons I didn’t really like the book are that Archie at 19 is much different than the 30-something Archie I have always known, and I wanted more interaction between Archie and Wolfe.  Because of the story that Goldsborough wanted to tell—an origin story—neither of these things could be helped.  My advice is that if you haven’t read any of the Rex Stout books, don’t begin with this prequel.  If you have read the Stout books, take Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel with a grain of salt and come to it expecting something different.  Different isn’t bad, it’s just different.

review: the little sister

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler is the fifth novel in the series featuring hardboiled private detective Philip Marlowe.  It seems that I read one Marlowe novel a year, so this is my book for 2013.  What I will remember most about The Little Sister is my sense that this is the “odd” one.

The story begins with Marlowe in his office.  He obviously doesn’t have a case or anything to do, so his focus is on a blue bottle fly.  Marlowe watches the fly, waiting for his chance, and when it finally arrives, his phone rings.  Marlowe answers, asks the caller to hold a moment in a soft voice, and then squashes the blue bottle fly. Then he returns to his caller, Orfamay Quest.  Orfamay is from Manhattan, Kansas, and she is in Los Angeles to find her brother, Orrin Quest, who has gone missing.  She is the eponymous little sister of the title, and with reluctance on both of their parts, Orfamay becomes Marlowe’s client.  Marlowe sets out to investigate, and in the course of two days he stumbles upon two murders, both of which he reports anonymously to the police.  From the second crime scene, he takes a piece of evidence that eventually leads him to a Hollywood starlet, Mavis Weld.  Though she declines his offer of assistance, Marlowe convinces her agent to retain his services so that Mavis Weld, too, is one of his clients and on whose behalf he can do further investigation.  It is also for her benefit and protection that Marlowe gets further enmeshed into the morally corrupt and decaying world that is Chandler’s fictional world of Los Angeles, to the point that he too gets his hands dirty, all in the name of protecting his client. Ultimately, Marlowe does find Orrin Quest and solves the series of murders that occur during his investigation, and as readers have come to expect, Marlowe is irrevocably changed by his experiences and the choices that he makes.

In The Little Sister, Chandler gives us a darker, edgier Philip Marlowe in the sense that it feels like, if Marlowe ever had any hope for humanity, it is now all gone.  He’s 38 years old in this novel, five years older than the Marlowe we meet in The Big Sleep.  It’s as though he has given up or lost some important part of himself and now all he has left is his personal code of ethics that drives his sense of duty to do the best for his clients.  I felt this especially in Chapter 13, where Marlowe repeats the phrase: “You’re not human tonight, Marlowe.” There’s also a point in that chapter where he narrates: “Well, what is my business? Do I know? Did I ever know? Let’s not get into that.  You’re not human tonight, Marlowe. Maybe I never was or ever will be.  Maybe I’m an ectoplasm with a private license.  Maybe we all get like this in the cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right.” This is what I mean when I say Marlowe has lost something important, and here he states plainly what that something is: his humanity.  It’s this loss of feeling human that plagues Marlowe throughout the novel, and what makes it more interesting is his response to the three women in the novel.

Hardboiled detectives are always confronted with the femme fatale, and though they are tempted by them, they can never give into them.  This blueprint is followed in The Little Sister.  Orfamay Quest, Mavis Weld, and Dolores Gonzales (another actress) each represent sexual temptation and at various moments, damsels in distress in need of Marlowe’s help.  Also typical of Chandler’s femme fatales, they express the extent of the moral decay and corruption of Chandler’s post-war Los Angeles.  All three women are transplants to Los Angeles, and all three succumb to its corrupting influence and, like Marlowe, lose part of their own humanity.  Not surprisingly, it is the woman who has kept some semblance of humanity that gains most of Marlowe’s support and becomes the one woman he’s willing to sacrifice himself for.  Because even though this Marlowe is older and more cynical, we are still supposed to see him as the knight from The Big Sleep.  Tarnished and forced to get dirty in order to serve his clients, but a knight nonetheless.  But it’s Marlowe’s response to all of these women that intrigues me in that they throw themselves at him, and he doesn’t resist, but there’s also no pleasure either, and I think this is intended to further demonstrate his loss of human.  No, he’s not supposed to care for these women in a romantic sense, but it’s also that he seems to lack the ability to care for these women beyond a detective-client relationship.  I’ve always had difficulty with the way Chandler characterizes women, but at the same time, I can see how his characterization of them is intended to be representative of the world Marlowe is forced to navigate.  This novel in particular, though, seems more intent upon developing the female characters so that they highlight the growing disillusionment and nihilism of Marlowe’s worldview.

I said above that I would think of The Little Sister as the “odd” one.  Throughout the novel, Marlowe is just bumbling along, not sure where he’s going or what he should do next.  This is typical of hardboiled detective fiction, but this novel is even more chaotic and nonsensical than most.  This wasn’t my favorite Chandler novel, but what I did like was the evolution of Marlowe’s character.  If you’re reading the entire series, don’t skip this one; if you haven’t read any of the books in the series, definitely don’t start with this one.  It can stand alone, but it isn’t the right one for an introduction to Philip Marlowe.  My final analysis is that The Little Sister was okay, but I’m hoping the last novel, The Long Goodbye, will be better.

book review: death of a cozy writer

Death of a Cozy Writer by G. M. Malliet (2008)

I am a fan of cozy mysteries and golden age detective fiction.  So when I saw Death of a Cozy Writer as the Kindle Daily Deal a while back, I bought it without hesitation.  Maybe there should have been some hesitation.

I don’t want to give away the entire plot, so my summary will be brief.  This is the story of the Beauclerk-Fisk family, whose patriarch, Sir Adrian, is a cozy mystery writer.  He manipulates his four children—Ruthven (the heir apparent), George, Albert, and Sarah—with frequent changes to his will, threatening to disinherit one or all of them as suits his fancy.  When the story begins, Sir Adrian has sent all of his children an invitation to his wedding to Violet Mildenhall, and this puts his children in an uproar because they realize this will further jeopardize their inheritance and make their cuts of the inheritance smaller.  The children mobilize and descend upon Sir Adrian’s home, Waverley Court, with the intention of preventing the marriage.  Only, they discover that Sir Adrian has already married Violet.  Throughout the novel, Sir Adrian’s children are shown to be motivated by greed and self-interest, and so there really isn’t one person for readers to like. Enter the figure of the Great Detective—St. Just.

Now, I said earlier that I like golden age detective fiction, and Death of a Cozy Writer certainly intends, at least superficially, to take its position within this style of detective fiction.  Which means that the central character of the novel must be the Great Detective (think Hercule Poirot) and Malliet follows this convention by giving us Detective Chief Inspector St. Just of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary.  The first problem I had with this book grows out of Malliet’s use of this convention in that it’s more than a third of the way through the novel before the central character appears (I read this on my Kindle and it was at about 38% that St. Just made his entrance).  This was a problem for me because when I find all of the suspects to be petty, selfish, manipulative, self-absorbed, and generally unlikable, I want a character I can like and who will provide balance and contrast to the other characters.  I know that that character is intended to be St. Just, but he doesn’t come into the story soon enough.  When he did appear, well, he was kind of boring and bland.  The conventional Great Detective possesses some quality that makes him eccentric but brilliant. He is often isolated and somehow outside of the social order and it’s through this position that he is able to restore order to society.  I didn’t get this with St. Just at all.  There was nothing to attract me to him.  Yes, he was definitely a more likable character, but in this novel of generally unlikable characters, that wasn’t going to be too difficult.

Malliet also draws upon the familiar convention of providing a cast of characters before the first chapter begins.  I don’t usually find myself having a reaction to these lists one way or another, but as I was reading through this one, I kept thinking that there were a lot of characters. I can see why Malliet gave the character list—it was a way of describing the characters for the reader before actually meeting them and a way to help the reader keep all the characters straight.  Still, the character list was a preview of how flat the characters would be.  They are character types, and yes, that is often a complaint leveled against golden age detective fiction, but the character list seemed to make that deficiency even more apparent.  I will say that I think Malliet tried to fill the characters out and make them more round, and I think it is for this reason that the murder doesn’t actually take place until a third of the way through the story.  Again, the problem for me is that the first third of the book was used for character development, which would have been fine, if there had been any likable characters, or if through the character development the characters became more likable or even appealing and interesting as characters. For the record, no, I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that all characters must be likable, but all characters must be interesting, and this is doubly true when it comes to unlikable characters.  The author needs to give me a reason to keep reading about these characters I dislike so much.

Malliet employs the isolated setting convention and gathers all of the suspects in the same room at the end of the novel so that St. Just can reveal the killer and unravel the mystery.  In this respect, I do think Death of a Cozy Writer fits into the style of golden age detective fiction and readers of this subgenre will enjoy the familiarity.  However, I think the novel breaks the rule of “fair play” in providing all of the clues so that the reader can solve the puzzle if she has been paying attention.  I don’t think the novel gave all of the clues, and so the revelation of the murderer was a complete and unexpected surprise, to the point that I couldn’t even say “oh yes, that was a clue and I just didn’t catch it.”

Overall, I felt like it took too long for the murder to occur and too long for the central character, St. Just, to make his appearance.  I have written this elsewhere and I’m sure I’ll write it again, but the purpose of the first book in a series is to make me want to keep reading the series, and for me, Death of a Cozy Writer failed in its purpose.  This novel won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel in 2008, so apparently a lot of people liked it.  I’m just not counting myself among their number.