review: bitter reckoning

Bitter Reckoning by Heather Graham (2018)

You know how you read a book by a prolific writer, and you think to yourself: Self, this book just doesn’t feel like it was written by the same person who wrote the other books in this series I love so much. Yeah, that feeling. Moving on.

Bitter Reckoning is (technically) the sixth book in the Cafferty & Quinn series, which you will likely find in the mystery or suspense category of your favorite bookstore (don’t be fooled—the main characters are in a committed, loving relationship, but these books aren’t romance novels). If you haven’t stumbled upon this series yet, please find the first book, Let the Dead Sleep (and if you’re on a book budget like me, you’ll be glad to know that this book is available through my local library in both physical and e-book format). Furthermore, I don’t want to bury the lede here. Let the Dead Sleep, Wake the Dead, and The Dead Play On are the primary books in this series. If you haven’t read any of these books, focus on those three and then if you feel like you must, you can read the…off-shoots. If you have read the first three books in this series, well, maybe you want to stop there. Continue reading

review: haunted on bourbon street

Haunted on Bourbon Street by Deanna Chase (2011)

It’s a ghost story + a love story + a cozy mystery sans the murder and has touches of the supernatural. Oh, and it’s also book one in the Jade Calhoun series. The mishmash makes it a challenge to categorize Haunted on Bourbon Street in a specific genre. It’s not exactly urban fantasy and it’s not exactly paranormal romance. My inability to pigeonhole the book into a genre doesn’t erase the fact that I did enjoy this book. It wasn’t great but it was good enough to keep me engaged and make me curious about what happens in the next book in the series. If you’re on a book budget (welcome to the club!) the good news is that with this series the first one is free, and I noticed that it’s also available through my library. So if you’re looking for something to read but have also blown your book budget for the month, consider this one as an option to feed your book habit until your budget is back in the black.

Let’s start with the protagonist, shall we? Jade Calhoun is an Idaho transplant who has recently settled in New Orleans. She is an empath and able to sense the emotions of others—this is her superpower, the thing that makes her different from everyone else and will be the source of challenges and obstacles to overcome as her character develops. The thing I like about Jade is that she’s real—she makes mistakes and bad decisions just like people do. Another thing I like about Jade is that she feels like a contemporary, 21st century female protagonist. If you’ve visited my blog before you already know the next question that’s on my mind—is she a compelling protagonist? The kind of main character you absolutely can’t resist and enthusiastically follow through his or her adventures? Jade didn’t draw me in from the first paragraph, but she definitely grew on me, and by the end of the story I definitely wanted to keep reading to see what happened next. The best answer I have right now is that I’m on the fence. I’m willing to go on another adventure with Jade but in the back of my head I’m thinking the next one better be good.

While I might be on the fence about Jade, I’m ready to go along with the supporting cast of characters. There’s Pyper, her new friend and boss at The Grind, the cafe where Jade works. Pyper is the say anything, do anything character that will push Jade’s limits and be a catalyst for her growth as the series continues (this is just my guess, I’ll let you know if I got this one right or not). There’s Aunt Gwen, who still lives in Idaho and can sense Jade’s moods from afar. Aunt Gwen doesn’t have a big role in this book, but I envision that it’s a possibility that she could be more of a presence in future books and she’s also one of the mentor characters for Jade. Bea, a white witch who owns an herbal shop, also has the potential to become the wise woman/mentor figure in the series. We also meet Kat, Jade’s best friend, though how this friendship will play out as the series continues is a mystery and honestly, Kat is probably the character I like the least. Finally, we come to Kane, the love interest and other half of the love story. Kane is cut from the protector cloth so I have instant love for him, though Chase is careful to keep him shrouded in some mystery throughout the story. I’m eager to see how his character is developed in future books. All in all, though, the supporting cast is a good one, and the best part is that Chase succeeds in giving each supporting character enough screen time to introduce them, show how they fit into Jade’s life, and begin to develop them as characters we can get invested in and care about. They are not mere devices used to propel the plot forward and keep the protagonist’s character arc in motion.

As the title of the book suggests, Haunted on Bourbon Street is a ghost story. Jade has recently moved into an apartment above the strip club, Wicked, which is owned by Kane and right next door to The Grind. It doesn’t take long for Jade to learn that her new home is haunted, and this is the catalyst that sets the mystery plot into motion. With the help of her old and new friends, the mystery of the ghost is unraveled, the ghost (read: antagonist) is vanquished and order is restored (at least until the next adventure begins). This familiar rhythm is what ultimately makes me place this book into the mystery section of my bookshelf. It has romance and it has elements of the supernatural, but in the end, discovering the identity of the antagonist, bringing him to justice and restoring order is the conventional setup of a mystery novel. That’s what you’ll find in Haunted on Bourbon Street.

I stumbled upon this series because I found myself on Kate Danley’s website (author of the Maggie Mackay Magical Tracker series, which I recommend starting if you haven’t) and she had a link to a box set of seven books that were series starters. Because I’m me and can’t resist sampling a new series, I clicked through and read through the synopsis of each one and decided to give the Jade Calhoun series a try. I know that otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have discovered this series because it’s not exactly what I normally read, and yet it has all of the elements I love in a good book. I’m glad I tried this one and have already added the second book in this series, Witches on Bourbon Street, to my to-be-read list. If you like mysteries but want something that isn’t as…sanitized as some cozy mysteries can be (this is not a knock on cozies as I’ve read my fair share of the category, they just tend more toward clean and wholesome and lacking any kind of sharp edges, which doesn’t align well with my reading preferences) then give this one a try.

Have you read Haunted on Bourbon Street or any other books by Deanna Chase? What did you 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.

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.

review: the missing chapter

The Missing Chapter by Robert Goldsborough (1994)

I started reading the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout years ago.  A friend and I found them in a Half Price Books store, and we bought all the ones on the shelf, divided them up, and exchanged them when we had finished reading them.  For a long time we both looked out for other books in the series that we didn’t have.  It wasn’t until this past Cyber Monday that I discovered that Robert Goldsborough had continued the series and written eight additional Nero Wolfe novels, including a prequel telling the story of how Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe met.  Needless to say I immediately texted my friend and asked her if she knew about these new books; she didn’t, and we both engaged in some internet commerce that day.  I read Murder in E Minor first, which is the first in Goldsborough’s series and seems to pick up two years after the final Nero Wolfe novel published during Stout’s lifetime—A Family Affair. Now I have just finished The Missing Chapter, which is the seventh of the eight (and the last one, really, since the eighth book is the prequel).  The book was an interesting read, but I wouldn’t say it was as good as the first by Goldsborough.

For anyone not familiar with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, here’s a bit of context.  Nero Wolfe is an infamous private detective who lives in a brownstone on Thirty-Fifth Street in New York City and commands “exorbitant” fees for his investigative services.  He rarely leaves home, and on the fourth floor of the brownstone are the plant rooms for the numerous species of Wolfe’s prized orchids, which are one of his chief delights.  Wolfe spends the hours between 9 and 11 and 4 and 6 in the plant rooms daily without fail (except on Sundays), and he gets to the plant rooms by elevator (which happens to break down completely in this novel).  His other chief delight is food—he has a live-in cook, Fritz Brenner, who makes gourmet meals for Wolfe.  Wolfe refuses to allow any discussion of business during meals.  He takes breakfast in bed while wearing his yellow pajamas, and when he’s doing the “brain work” to solve the crime, his lips push in and push out.  He’s a man of many idiosyncrasies and few words, which is one of the reasons we require Archie Goodwin in the story.  The stories are told in first-person through Archie’s point of view.  While Wolfe is your prototypical Great Detective of Golden Age Detective Fiction, Archie is the man of action.  He, too, is a private detective, but he’s worked for Wolfe for years as a kind of private secretary/right-hand man and does all the leg work, reporting his findings back to Wolfe.  One of the things that amused me about this novel is that Archie is asked if he’s a hardboiled detective or if he’s ‘urbane.’ It ends up that he’s urbane, thus reminding the reader that the novel itself is in the Golden Age tradition.  I’ll come back to this point later, but the main thing is that in my opinion, Goldsborough has done a wonderful job of capturing and remaining true to the characters of Wolfe and Goodwin as Stout created them.

The plot of this novel revolves around the death of a detective fiction writer, Charles Childress.  Childress (like his creator) has continued a series of detective fiction novels after the death of the series creator.  As the story unfolds, readers learn that some people praised Childress’ new novels in the series while others thought they were terrible.  We get the opinions of the suspects who are also part of the book world—his publisher, his editor, his agent, and a vicious newspaper literary critic—and a lot of what they say is couched within the discourse surrounding detective fiction as a literary genre—such as suspects, plots, the detective, etc.  Even Wolfe himself articulates one of the criticisms within that discourse when he summarily dismisses detective fiction and assures us that Tolstoy’s place in the canon is safe.  It all makes the novel an example of metafiction—it’s about the murder of a writer who has continued a beloved series of detective fiction written by a writer who is continuing a beloved series of detective fiction.  Like I said before, the novel is very conscious of itself as following the Golden Age tradition.  At one point, we are reminded of one of the main rules of detective fiction—that the novel itself is a puzzle, and that in the spirit of ‘fair play’ readers must be given all the clues they need in order to be able to solve the puzzle.  It also talks of red herrings, and there are plenty of those in this novel.  Another notable aspect of the novel is that one of the accusations leveled against Childress by his editor is that his plots are too thin and the suspects are too obvious.  As I was reading The Missing Chapter, I thought that the plot was a little thin. Now that I have read the entire book, I have to wonder if Goldsborough did this on purpose and that it is just another part of the metafiction.  If so, I think the novel definitely succeeds on that level.

The thing I have enjoyed about The Missing Chapter and Murder in E Minor is that they feel updated but familiar.  The Missing Chapter makes a host of pop culture references, including references to Leno and Letterman, and Archie makes use of personal computers.  Still, if you want to sample this new series of Wolfe novels, I would recommend starting with Murder in E MinorThe Missing Chapter is fine, but it’s not compelling and I had a hard time getting invested in the story.  I still want to read the other books in Goldsborough’s series, but I may have to lower my expectations.

from the adventures of sherlock holmes – part two

“The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”

Watson tells us at the beginning of this story that this is only one of two cases that he referred to Holmes during their partnership.  The puzzle begins with a man arriving at Watson’s residence in dire need of medical attention as a result of his thumb being amputated.  Victor Hatherly tells Watson that the story of his missing thumb is an extraordinary one for which he’ll need to contact the police, but Watson recommends that he tell his story first to Holmes, and Hatherly agrees, saying he is familiar with Holmes’ reputation and will pursue whatever recommendation Holmes gives him.  Once at Baker Street, it is revealed that Hatherly is a hydraulics engineer who used to be employed with an engineering firm but now is in business for himself.  He hasn’t many clients or a lot of work, so when a man appears—Colonel Lysander Stark—with a job for him which he is willing to pay Hatherly twenty guineas to complete, Hatherly instantly agrees.  However, the job is a curious one—he must appear at his client’s house at 11pm in the evening, and he must tell no one anything about the job itself.   There is also no train back to London and so Hatherly will have to spend the night at his client’s home.  Hatherly is a bit suspicious but he agrees, and as the evening progresses he becomes even more suspicious.  He does finally have a look at the machine and identifies the problem, but he also knows that the machine cannot be used for the purpose that Stark has claimed it is used for.  Revealing this knowledge puts Hatherly in danger and results in the loss of his thumb.

I think that this story is one of my least favorite stories.  Hatherly states the case to Holmes and Watson, but once he does, Holmes calls in Scotland Yard and they go to apprehend the culprit.  There’s not much thinking involved, just the resolution and reveal of the business that Hatherly has gotten himself mixed up in.

“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”

This is the story of Lord St. Simon and the “strange” events of his marriage.  Holmes receives a letter from St. Simon, requesting his assistance in a highly delicate matter.  Holmes turns to Watson to get the backstory on St. Simon, who has been following the man’s story—both leading up to and after his marriage—in the papers.  Watson explains to Holmes that St. Simon at last finally proposes to and marries a young American heiress, and that the newspapers are up in arms because it seems that the sons of the British aristocracy have begun to select American wives instead of British wives.  Immediately after the wedding takes place, the wedding party returns for a wedding breakfast, and ten minutes into the breakfast, the bride excuses herself and completely disappears.  St. Simon hopes that Sherlock can help him solve the mystery of his missing wife.  Holmes does, quite easily, and he says that he’s known even before meeting St. Simon what the likeliest explanation was for his wife’s disappearance.

This story is similar to the one that precedes it in the collection—there is long exposition of the case and the reveal happens almost instantaneously.  This story was okay, but again, not one of my favorites.  I like it better when Holmes and Watson actually do some detecting.

“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”

In this story, Sherlock’s client is one Alexander Holder, a London banker.  This story also begins in an entertaining way.  Watson is standing at the windows and notices a man running down the snowy, icy streets of London; he thinks the man is an escapee from an asylum, while Sherlock believes that he is their newest client, and of course he ends up being correct.  Once the banker is able to calm himself, he begins to state the case to Holmes and Watson.  Just the previous day, he was approached by an incredibly prominent, important personage whose face everyone in London would recognize but whom Holder will not name for reasons of propriety and discretion.  This person asks Holder for a short term loan of 50,000 pounds, and because the banker is known for not making loans unless some kind of collateral can be given to secure the loan, this person provides Holder with the beryl coronet—a most valuable public possession of the empire.  If anyone were to find out that this person has used the possession to secure a loan, or if anything should happen to the coronet, it would be quite the public scandal.  Holder, of course, agrees to give the loan, but at the end of the day he feels uneasy about leaving the coronet in the safe in his office.  He thinks it would be better to always have it in his possession, and so he takes it home with him, where it is promptly stolen from his bedroom that very night.  In the house at the time are some servants whom Holder has the utmost faith in, save one, as well as his son and adopted daughter.  Holder’s son has a problem with gambling and getting into debt, and when Holder hears a noise that night and goes to investigate, he finds his son holding the coronet, which has been damaged and from which three of the beryls have been removed.  Holder believes his son to be guilty and has him arrested.  He has come to Holmes for help in locating the missing beryls and trying to convince his son to reveal what he has done with them.  Sherlock takes the case.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and it’s one of my favorites in this collection.  Again, Holmes has to do some detecting and looking into motives for the crime.  Holmes is notorious for donning disguises, and once again he puts on the disguise of someone who is “disreputable” merely by changing his clothes, offering further commentary on how appearances can be deceiving.  Another thing about this story is that Holmes’ favorite maxim makes an appearance: “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  After finishing this story, I found myself hoping that Steven Moffatt would choose this story to adapt for the Sherlock series.  I can totally imagine Mycroft bringing this case to Sherlock and asking him to solve it.  This is definitely one of the must-read stories in this collection.

“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

The beginning of this story is wonderful.  Indeed, the first couple of pages are the best part of the story.  Holmes and Watson are home at Baker Street, and Holmes tells Watson that he tends to embellish the stories, and notes that he doesn’t write up the cases that get the greatest public attention but those cases which showcase Holmes’ powers of deduction and logic.  Feeling a bit stung by Holmes comments, Watson calls Sherlock egotistical and that it is one of Holmes’ qualities that he finds most repellent.  Holmes says “Crime is common. Logic is rare.”  He goes on to tell Watson “You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.”  The opening is a fantastic look into the relationship between the two men.  Of course, their conversation is interrupted by a new client.  Her name is Violet Hunter, and she is a governess.  She comes to Holmes to ask if she should take a new job and tells him the story of her potential employer and his odd idiosyncrasies.  The one she finds most offensive is his request that she cut her lovely chestnut hair.  Ultimately, Holmes advises her to take the case but also cautions her that there is something wrong about the job offer and tells her to call him when she feels herself to be in danger.  She does call, and Holmes and Watson go out to investigate.  The solution to the mystery reminded me a bit of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, but otherwise, this was one of my least favorite stories in the collection.  It’s only the beginning that redeems it.

 

 

from the adventures of sherlock holmes – part one

from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A. Conan Doyle (1892)

*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!

“The Man with the Twisted Lip”

This story is about the search for a man named Neville St. Clair.  One of the things I really liked about this story was the way it started—Watson has just returned home to his wife after a long day at work when a woman knocks on his door.  She entreats Watson to find her husband who has been missing for two days, and she suspects that he has spent the time in an opium den.  Watson dutifully goes to find the man and send him home to his wife, and while in the opium den he encounters Sherlock Holmes, dressed in disguise.  Holmes bids Watson to wait for him outside of the opium den, and when he appears, he asks Watson to accompany him to the home of Mr. and Mrs. St. Clair, the latter being his client.  Mrs. St. Clair has told Holmes that she saw her husband in a room above the very same opium den where he and Watson ran into each other, and that she fears for her husband’s life.  During the seven-mile journey to the St. Clair home, Holmes recounts the case to Watson (and thereby, the reader) and upon arriving puts several questions to Mrs. St. Clair.  Holmes and Watson then retire to bed—well, Watson goes to bed.  Holmes stays up all night smoking his pipe and puzzling out the case.  At dawn he wakes Watson and says he has solved the puzzle.  I’ll try not to spoil the ending, but one of the things that interests me about the revelation of the story is the way it demonstrates class privilege but also the way it explores how a man can make a more fruitful living by casting off the vestiges of his middle-class status and effecting a disguise of a man of a lower class.  As in so many other Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle uses the art of disguise to demonstrate that what is on the surface is not always indicative of what lies beneath or an accurate measurement of an individual.

“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”

This story opens in an interesting way.  Watson makes a call on Holmes at Baker Street, and when he enters his gaze falls upon an old, beaten-up hat that is hanging on the back of a chair.  As is Holmes’ way, he invites Watson to examine the hat and relay what it tells him about its owner.  As is Watson’s way, he looks at the hat but can discern nothing.  Holmes proceeds to tell Watson all kinds of things about the owner of the hat, and Watson, astounded, encourages Holmes to explain how he has deduced all that he has.  I will say that I was particularly amused by the opening of the story.

The mystery comes when Peterson, the man who brought the hat as well as a goose to Holmes, returns to Baker Street to tell him that his wife discovered a blue carbuncle within the cavity of the goose as she was preparing to cook it for Christmas dinner.  A carbuncle is a precious gem, and because blue carbuncles are rare (indeed, the note in the story says that a blue carbuncle has never been discovered and that carbuncles are usually red in color) Holmes recognizes it as the very blue carbuncle that has been reported stolen by an aristocrat.  A man has already been arrested and held over for trial as the suspected thief, but with this new development Holmes begins to think that the man may indeed be innocent.  So the game is on to trace the goose back to the actual thief.

I actually enjoyed this story.  It was one of my favorites thus far in this collection.  I also found two great lines spoken by Holmes: “I am somewhat of a foul fancier, and I have seldom seen a better goose” and “My name is Sherlock Holmes.  It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” I feel like both of these are just classic Sherlock Holmes lines and I can imagine Benedict Cumberbatch uttering them.  The choice Holmes makes at the end about the fate of the actual thief is an interesting one in that it is Holmes obstructing justice for what he thinks is the greater good, and of course Watson’s agreement makes the reader think that what Holmes has done is ultimately the correct choice.

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

Something interesting happens in the first paragraph of this story – Watson says that, at the time he is writing this story, it has been eight years that he has known Sherlock Holmes and that together they have investigated over seventy cases together.  He explains that the case he is going to relate occurred early in his association with Holmes, while they were both still bachelors living at 221B Baker Street.  The client is one Helen Stoner.  She comes to see Sherlock because she fears for her life.  Her twin sister, Julia, died under somewhat mysterious circumstances two years before, just a couple of weeks before her marriage.  Now Helen is engaged to be married, and little things that have been happening in her home have raised alarm bells in her mind.  Miss Stoner explains to Sherlock that she lives with her stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott (what a name!), and through Sherlock’s deductions it is revealed that Roylott is a cruel and abusive man.  Indeed, no one in the neighborhood where they live actually like Dr. Roylott.  Holmes agrees to take her case, and then he says something funny to Watson.  As they prepare to make the journey out of London to Surrey, Holmes makes sure that Watson will be bringing along his revolver and tells him that the only other thing they will need is a toothbrush. A revolver and a toothbrush.  Seriously?

One of the other things that I found interesting about this story is that (a) it delves a bit more deeply into motive—why does someone want Miss Stoner dead, and why would they have wanted her twin dead as well?  This doesn’t usually come up so strongly in the Holmes stories; and (b) Watson repeats a couple of times that Holmes works for the love of his art rather than the acquirement of wealth.  I think that that is such a wonderful statement to break down.  Holmes was able to work for the love of his art because he was already independently wealthy, and there is nobility in doing exactly that; and yet, most of us have the business of daily living and at best we look for ways to combine doing what we love for a paycheck.  Still, that sentiment recalls back to me the idyllic, and perhaps overly simplistic ideas about work and art.  It also reminds us just how singular Sherlock was, and how all of his eccentricities and peculiarities served to set him apart from the typical man.  I’ve noticed that a lot more now that I’m reading these stories a bit closer together (I’ve been reading before going to bed each night).  Doyle is definitely putting in characteristics and qualities of Holmes that make him not only unusual, but one of a kind.

**The first five stories of this collection, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Red-headed League,” “A Case of Identity,” “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” and “The Five Orange Pips” have already been written about elsewhere, so they won’t appear here.

review: a man called jones

A Man Called Jones by Julian Symons (1947)

This novel features Julian Symons’ Inspector Bland of Scotland Yard.  It is the second novel in which Inspector Bland appears (the first being The Immaterial Murder Case).  These are the only two novels I have read by Symons but my impression so far is that they do not have to be read in order.  The plot of the novel revolves around solving the murder of Lionel Hargreaves, son of Edward “EH” Hargreaves, owner of the Hargreaves Advertising Agency.  The murder occurs during a 25th anniversary/birthday celebration for the agency that is being held at the Hargreaves home. Upon discovering the body of his son, EH calls in Scotland Yard. Enter Inspector Bland, and the search for a murderer begins.

A Man Called Jones is a prime example of classic, golden age detective fiction, and it starts with Inspector Bland himself.  His last name, as you would expect, is a signal of his demeanor, his personality, and his general disposition.  Thus, when his behavior is anything but bland, the reader knows that she should sit up and take notice.  Like the figure of other “Great Detectives” in golden age detective fiction, Bland does have a handful of mannerisms that make him unique and singular, most noticeably the way that he holds the tip of his pencil against his teeth while in thought.  The thing about Inspector Bland is that he is indeed bland, and so although he is the central character in the novel, he’s also a difficult character to become invested in. He’s not offensive, but he’s also not as fully drawn or developed like other Great Detectives of the tradition, such as Hercule Poirot.

Other conventions of the genre are present in the novel—a somewhat isolated or limited access setting for the murder, a closed circle of suspects, and a full statement of the case to all interested parties after the murderer has been caught.  At the end of the novel, order is restored and justice has been served, and all of the characters are free to go back to their lives without further delay or concern.  The murder plot is a puzzle for the reader, and though I felt that I knew who the murderer was before it was revealed, I’m not sure that I would say all of the clues were laid out for me.  One thing I have noticed Symons does in both of the novels that I have read is that he has Bland select a confidante/helper from the pool of suspects.  Both times it has been someone that Bland knows, and both times it has been someone that can give Bland inside access to the group of suspects.  I don’t know if this happens in all of the Inspector Bland novels, but it’s different and something that gives these novels a kind of trademark that readers can come to expect.  In a hardboiled detective novel the reader would expect this confidante/helper to betray the detective but in Symons world, it seems that the confidante/helper is above suspicion and trustworthy.  Indeed, in this novel, Bland refers to his helper as his Watson, à la Sherlock Holmes.

In general, I am a fan of detective fiction and I enjoy defending it against charges of being formulaic and mere “brain candy” instead of “important” literature.  Not all literature needs to be important in my opinion and reading should be a pleasure, not a torment.  Still, I can see why detective fiction has these charges leveled against it, and this particular novel displays much of the ammunition used by critics who accuse the genre of being subpar.  While I was interested in discovering who had killed Lionel Hargreaves, I wasn’t really all that engaged with the story, and the characters weren’t all that interesting to me.  They felt like stock, flat characters who occupied the world of the novel in order to serve a purpose.  The reason why the Poirot novels escape this criticism, at least for me, is that at least the Belgian detective is interesting and commands my attention.  I can’t say the same for Bland.  If it was Symons’ intention to create a bland Great Detective who is different from Holmes, Marple, and Poirot, he certainly succeeded.  The consequence, though, is a character that I don’t really care about.  Still another criticism of golden age detective fiction is that it’s completely consumable and then forgettable, and though I think this criticism is unfair, I have to admit that A Man Called Jones is a totally forgettable read for me.  I consumed it, and after writing this review, I’m going to forget it.  Finally, as I’m sure I have demonstrated so far in the books that I review on my blog, I am a big fan of serialized fiction.  I love seeing characters develop and evolve as the series progresses.  However, I’m adamant that the primary characters do show development and evolution, and I also expect that with each new installment the author will pull me so deeply into the world and characters he or she has created that once I get to the last page, I’ll want to pick up the next installment.  Unfortunately, with these Inspector Bland novels, that’s not the case.

If you like golden age detective fiction and haven’t sampled anything by Julian Symons, you might give this novel a try.  Inspector Bland might be more to your liking than mine.  In the final analysis, though, I wouldn’t recommend adding this book to your to-be-read list.

review: the lady in the lake

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler (1943)

This is the fourth novel featuring Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled private detective, Philip Marlowe.  The story begins with Marlowe meeting his client, Derace Kingsley.  Kingsley wants Marlowe to find his wife, Crystal Kingsley, who hasn’t been seen by anyone in a month.  Mrs. Kingsley was last seen at the mountain cabin the couple owns, and that is where Marlowe begins his investigation.  As the story develops, Marlowe once again must make his way through a world where everyone has something to hide, surfaces can be deceiving, and law enforcement is not only ineffective but corrupt.  Marlowe continues to be a flawed character and yet, just as Chandler mandated, he is the best man in his world. As is typical in hardboiled detective fiction, the plot is intricate and the disappearance of Mrs. Kingsley opens the door for murder, which Marlowe aims to solve while still protecting his client.  The climax of the novel for readers who have caught some of the clues but haven’t fully figured out the resolution to the mystery is both satisfying and surprising. The novel ends a bit abruptly but with one of Marlowe’s characteristic observations that possess multiple meanings.

The first six weeks of my summer vacation were spent teaching a course on classic and hardboiled detective fiction, and so I just recently re-read the first book in the Philip Marlowe series, The Big Sleep.  I think that rereading the first book in the series and teaching a class on the genre has definitely impacted my reading of The Lady in the Lake.  It adheres to the format and conventions of the hardboiled detective novel—there’s the femme fatale, the corruption of law enforcement, and the alternative forms of justice that the guilty are subject to.  But one of the things that makes this particular installment in this series stand out in my mind is that even though Marlowe is still very much the sleuth as loner and is still isolated and alienated from the world in which he lives and works, he’s not completely alone this time.  At the beginning of the novel he meets Sheriff Patton who is a source of help to Marlowe and who also holds, if not the exact same, then at least similar ideals of justice, morality, and ethics.  He has a personal code just as Marlowe does, and like Marlowe, he doesn’t waver from it while doing the best he can with what he’s got.  Also during the course of the investigation he meets Captain Webber, who once again is not the same as Marlowe and who sees Marlowe as a complication to the murder investigation and a dangerous, loose cannon.  The two men eventually come to at least respect each other and the struggle of the other to do good in a corrupt world.  Like The Big Sleep, Chandler gives us other characters who fall into the same category as Marlowe, and yet, it is still Marlowe who reveals the mystery and in his own (heroic) fashion, brings those who are guilty to justice.  Perhaps this is all to say that what I liked about this novel was Marlowe’s interaction with the other “good” men and I also appreciated that while the plot was intricate, it wasn’t as disconnected as some of the other Marlowe novels in that as a reader, I could see what some of the clues were adding up to and how they fit together.  This novel is by no means a “puzzle” like classic detective fiction of the Golden Age, but I didn’t feel like I was simply along for the ride as the action reached the climax.

There is something about The Lady in the Lake that makes it feel different from the first three novels in this series, but I struggle to put my finger on exactly what that is.  I think it has to do with my sense that the characters in this novel just aren’t as vividly drawn as the characters in previous novels, with Marlowe being the obvious exception.  The rest of the characters felt flat and only there to serve specific narrative and plot purposes.  If I have one complaint about the novel it is that I would have liked to see some of the other characters given more life.  Marlowe is definitely the star and the central focus of the novel (and the series as whole) but it seems that in this novel he has to do all of the heavy lifting without help from the supporting cast. In the final analysis, I would say that I liked The Lady in the Lake and would recommend it to other readers who have read any of the Philip Marlowe novels and/or readers who like early hardboiled detective fiction.  I don’t think you have to read the books in order, though I would recommend starting with The Big Sleep so that you can have a better idea of Marlowe’s philosophy, his code of ethics, and what drives him to do what he does.