Sunday, September 21, 2014

Death of a Hollow Man: Caroline Graham

I seldom re-read mysteries, not because I don't want to but because I have too many unread books to read.  But recently I decided I wanted to do a book to movie post on one of the episodes in the Midsomer Murders television series. Only five of the seven books in the Inspector Barnaby series by Caroline Graham were adapted for television. I picked the second book in the series, Death of a Hollow Man, because I knew how the first book ended. For this one, even though I had read the book, and watched the episode, I had forgotten the ending.

It takes over one hundred pages in this book of 268 pages before the murder takes place. The first 105 pages cover the preparation for the play and setting up the background on some of the participants. The actual crime takes place during the first performance of the play, which Inspector Barnaby of Causton CID is attending. Barnaby's wife is the wardrobe mistress and has a small part in the play. His daughter, Cully, attends the play with him and is an aspiring actor. Barnaby even painted some of the props for the play. So he is well acquainted with everyone associated with the play, which is, of course, a challenge.

It surprised me how much I liked this book the second time around. I know I liked the series a lot when I read the books years ago, because once I had read the first two I purchased all of them and read them very shortly thereafter. I had forgotten the biting humor and the wonderful characterizations in the book. The stories seem like cozies (although by the some strict definitions a police procedural is not a cozy), but they are not even close in my opinion. Very fun, not thrillerish, but not cozy either.

It helped that the story is centered on the Causton Amateur Dramatic Society, since I have participated in such a group and know that the actors, directors, and even techies take the whole thing very seriously. It also helped that the play is Amadeus, which I know enough about so that the many players and their roles were not confusing. I also enjoyed reading about the main characters after having watched so many Midsomer Murders episodes.

Inspector Barnaby is such a wonderful character; I never grow tired of him, in a book or on the screen. He leads a normal home life (when he is there); his only demon is that he doesn't like his wife's cooking. He is a smart, insightful investigator, and knows how to handle Sergeant Troy, who is homophobic and boorish.

I will report on a comparison between the book and the TV episode in a future post. I am currently rereading Death in Disguise, the third book in the series. I picked up a copy at the book sale yesterday... a paperback edition with a lovely picture of the grim reaper on the cover. And I wanted to read it immediately, before I re-watch the episode. So I will be reviewing that book in the future too.


Publisher:  William Morrow, 1990. Orig. pub. 1989.
Length:     268 pages
Format:     Hardback, book club edition
Series:      Chief Inspector Barnaby, #2
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Police Procedural
Source:     I purchased my copy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Books of 1958: The Count of Nine by A. A. Fair

I have fond memories of reading books by Erle Stanley Gardner. I read many Perry Mason mysteries starting in my teens. I suspect I discovered the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam series later. Those books were written under the pseudonym of A. A. Fair. I have not read either of these series for years, so I am no expert on his books.

This month I read The Count of Nine for the 1958 Book challenge at Past Offences. I was somewhat disappointed with this book, and I am hoping this is just an example of a lesser Cool / Lam story. However, my copy is a Pocket Book paperback with a lovely cover, and that may be why I bought it in the first place.

This summary is from the section on Erle Stanley Gardner at the.Golden Age of Detection Wiki.
The Count of Nine (1958), a Bertha Cool and Donald Lam novel, opens with an impossible theft (Chapters 1-8). The theft recalls the criminal schemes found in Gardner's early pulp stories about Lester Leith and Paul Pry. The subsequent murder mystery in the novel is much less interesting. The tale includes the complex architecture sometimes found in Golden Age books.
It is true that the plot is almost divided into two parts. The first eight chapters described above is only 50 pages and covers the set up and solution of the "impossible" crime. The next 130 pages follow up on a second related section with more action and excitement. I found that section of the book more interesting.

Bertha and Donald have an unusual relationship. Bertha is the boss, but Donald goes his own way. They argue a lot but have an affectionate relationship underneath it all.  Donald gets beat up a lot and is not big on carrying a gun. Bertha, on the other hand, doesn't do much detecting. In this book she is hired to watch the entrance of a party and insure that some valuable art objects are not stolen. I am going to have to read more of these because I think I just need to get to know these characters.

I have copies of Fools Die on Friday (1947) and Top of the Heap (1952) and neither of these are very early in the series. I would like to read the first in the series, The Bigger They Come (1939), where Bertha and Donald start working together. Also, the 6th through the 9th books in the series, around World War II: Owls Don't Blink (1942) - Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans; Bats Fly at Dusk (1942) - Donald has joined the Navy; Cats Prowl at Night (1943) - Bertha works alone; and Give 'em the Ax (1944) - Donald returns.


Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1962, orig. pub. 1958.
Length:   182 pages
Format:   paperback
Series:    Bertha Cool and Donald Lam #18
Setting:   US
Genre:    Mystery, private detectives
Source:   I bought my copy.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Wine of Angels: Phil Rickman

I have been wanting to read this book for years. Don't ask me why, it really wasn't my kind of book. Descriptions of the series indicated that the main character is a female vicar who exorcises spirits. I have enjoyed series with either protagonists or secondary characters who are religious, but mixing the supernatural in was questionable. Still I was intrigued, and I kept it on my wishlist. Finally, the series was released in reprint editions in the US, and it was easier to find an affordable copy online. What I did not realize when I purchased it was the length. My copy is 589 pages. Still I was not  daunted. And then I realized it was the perfect book to read for the R.I.P. challenge this year.

The main character, Merrily Watkins, is a recently widowed single mother of a teenage daughter. Her first job as a vicar in the Church of England is in a small town in Herefordshire. At the beginning, there is a death (by shotgun) which could be the result of an accident or suicide.  Later a teenager (a friend of her daughter) goes missing. There are suggestions of supernatural elements involved, both in these incidents and in other strange happenings in the village, but they are subtle. Publisher's Weekly described it as "a first-rate thriller with supernatural overtones".

I loved this book, every page of it, and I only hope I can explain why. For a nearly 600 page book I got through it quickly, and I was eager to come back to it any opportunity I had. It met all my expectations.

The story centers around three characters: Merrily; Jane, her daughter; and Lol Robinson. The narrative moves back and forth between those three character's point of view. I like this kind of story, but it can be confusing or irritating to some readers. The setting seemed well done to me. I cannot speak to how accurate it is, but the book is definitely atmospheric. The series has gotten a lot of praise from readers for the effectiveness of the setting.

The characterization is wonderful. All of the main characters are well fleshed out but especially Merrily and Jane. Jane rejects her mother's religious beliefs, and like many teenagers, is embarrassed by her mother. Lol Robinson, a newcomer to the community, is another significant characterer . The author takes a while explain Lol's backstory and connections with other characters, and I liked the slow revelation of where he fits in. Also, the characters are all realistic; all have flaws. They are mostly likable but far from perfect.  The various townspeople are interesting and convincing, at least to someone who doesn't know a lot about various parts of the UK.

This book is also interesting because it highlights the difficulties of being a woman priest.
As if having a woman priest in the family wasn’t enough, her mother, from the safety of suburban Cheltenham, had been out of her mind when Merrily had gone as a curate to inner-city Liverpool, all concrete and drugs and domestic violence. Running youth clubs and refuges for prozzies and rent boys. Terrific, Jane had thought. Cathartic, Merrily had found.
While her mother was putting out feelers.
Good old Ted had come up with the goods inside a year. The vicar of Ledwardine was retiring. Beautiful Ledwardine, only an hour or so’s drive from Cheltenham. And Ted was not only senior church warden but used to be the bishop’s solicitor. No string-pulling, of course; she’d only get the job if she was considered up to it and the other candidates were weak… which, at less than fifteen grand a year, they almost certainly would be.
‘You’ve had a stressful time,’ Ted said. He’d never asked her why she’d abandoned the law for the Church. 
In those few paragraphs, we learn a lot about Merrily, why she is where she is, and the pressures she experiences.

If I was looking for a book with exorcisms I would have been disappointed. This book is really the set-up to future books with more of that element. The author says that the first book was not supposed to be the beginning of a series, and is different from the rest of the series.
It all started with The Wine of Angels, which is not really representative of the rest of the series.  It began as a standalone, and Merrily Watkins wasn't even going to be the main character. It was just that I had a story in need of a woman vicar.
I will be reading more of this series. The length and the supernatural elements will deter some readers. I hope to hear from others who have read this book or this series with their opinions. Although I found this book to be a fast read with good pacing, my experience differed from that of some reviewers, who complained that it dragged in spots.

See reviews at: read_warbler and Kittling Books.


Publisher: Corvus, 2011 (orig. pub, 1999)
Length:   589 pages
Format:   trade paperback
Series:    Merrily Watkins, #1
Setting:   small town in Herefordshire, UK
Genre:    Mystery
Source:   purchased my copy

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Moving Target: Ross Macdonald

The Moving Target is the first book in the Lew Archer series. Archer is called to the home of  millionaire Ralph Sampson, in Santa Teresa. Sampson is missing. Although he has been gone for less than a day, the circumstances of his disappearance are suspicious.

Sampson is described as a very eccentric millionaire, who has given away a mountain retreat to a "holy man" and dabbles in astrology. The main characters in this book, other than Archer, are Sampson's wife, his daughter, and his pilot. Sampson's lawyer, Bert Graves, is an old friend of Archer's. Once Archer starts his investigation, a lot of seamy characters that were associated with Sampson are unearthed. There are very few appealing characters in this book, but they were interesting.

I enjoyed this book more than the Ross Macdonald book I read last month, The Ivory Grin. I think that is because the plot was less convoluted and I could understand Archer's motivation throughout. It might also help a bit that Santa Teresa is a fictionalized version of Santa Barbara, California. Santa Barbara in 1949, but still recognizably Santa Barbara.

Archer started out as a policeman and became disenchanted.
When I went into police work in 1935, I believed that evil was a quality some people were born with, like a harelip. A cop's job was to find those people and put them away. But evil isn't so simple. Everybody has it in him, and whether it comes out in his actions depends on a number of things. Environment, opportunity, economic pressure, a piece of bad luck, a wrong friend.
Ross Macdonald is well known for his imagery. Sometimes he goes overboard in my opinion, but most readers love it.

A cab driver offers to drop him at The Wild Piano in West Hollywood:
“Why not?” I said. “The night is young.” I was lying. The night was old and chilly, with a slow heartbeat. The tires whined like starved cats on the fog-sprinkled black-top. The neon along the strip glared with insomnia.
And Archer aims a lot of criticism at women in this book. An example:
It seemed to me then that evil was a female quality, a poison that women secreted and transmitted to men like disease.
It will be interesting as I read later books in the series to see if his opinion of women softens.

Other resources:

Publisher: Vintage Books, 1998 (orig. pub. 1949)
Length:  245 pages
Format: trade paperback
Series:  Lew Archer novels, #1
Setting: Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, California and surrounding areas
Genre:  Mystery
Source: purchased my copy

Monday, September 8, 2014

Season of Darkness: Maureen Jennings

I enjoy reading crime fiction books about World War II. I like vintage mysteries written anytime from the 1930's up through 1955, covering the lead-up to the war and the years following the war. I also read a lot of historical fiction set in those years. This book is in the latter group.

Summary from the back the paperback edition:
Tom Tyler is the sole detective inspector in Whitchurch, Shropshire. The quiet village is also home to an internment camp where many German nationals are being held in this hot summer of 1940, mere months after the disaster of Dunkirk and with the threat of a German invasion looming. Young women from all walks of life -- known as Land Girls -- have come to help farmers during this dark time, and one, Elsie Bates, has just been found dead on a deserted country road, with a German Luger and a spray of white poppies by her side.
Here we have a story of a small village in turmoil, with the war increasing everyone's anxiety. There is a murder and many people want to blame the internees. Tyler's investigation is hampered by the possible involvement of his family and friends and the existence of an intelligence group investigating possible spies in the area.

Tom Tyler's home life is a shambles. His son has returned from Dunkirk, damaged and uncommunicative. His teenage daughter is at a difficult age in a difficult time. And his relationship with his wife has never been very good. In the midst of all this, his ex-lover comes back into town, adding more difficult choices to his life.

I enjoyed this book, with its story of a small village in the UK in World War II. The depiction the internment camp and the home where the Land Girls were living both seemed realistic and fit well within the overall story and the investigation. The presence of a murder investigation highlights the confusion and uncertainty in the village resulting from the tensions of the war.

Tom Tyler is not a lovable character; he is selfish and self-absorbed, but he does care about his family and especially his kids. On the other hand, he is not damaged, just going through a difficult time in his life. The important characters were very well drawn. None of them were perfect, which is pretty close to reality, at any time period.

What I did not care for was the love interest sub-plot between Tyler and his old lover. The sub-plot was realistic enough and it did fit within the mystery plot but still, it just did not appeal to me.

As far as a recommendation, I am torn. If this type of story appeals to you and you like the historical setting, it is definitely worth a try. There are three in the series and a fourth is in the works. I plan to read the next one for sure.

Jennings has written another police procedural series, the Detective Murdoch series, set in Toronto, Canada in the 1890's. That series has been turned into a television series, Murdoch Mysteries.

About this author at Goodreads:
Maureen Jennings, now a Canadian Citizen, was born on Eastfield Road in Birmingham, England and spent her formative years there until she emigrated to Canada at the age of seventeen with her mother.
And in this interview, in The Birmingham Post:
Her father Bert, a carpenter, died in the war when she was four. He was a sapper killed during the Italian Campaign at Anzio Beachhead in 1944. Maureen’s mother Betty worked as a cook to support the family while Maureen was a pupil at Saltley Grammar School.

Publisher:  McClelland & Stewart, 2011
Length:     396 pages
Format:    Trade Paperback
Series:      Detective Inspector Tom Tyler Mystery
Setting:     Small village, England, World War II
Genre:      Police procedural, historical mystery
Source:     Purchased

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Epitaph for a Spy: Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler's spy novels often feature hapless individuals who are trapped in a situation they have no control over.  Normal men who get involved in situation through no fault of their own. I have only read a small sampling of Ambler's books so this information is gleaned from overviews of his works in reference books and on the web
Josef Vadassy, the protagonist of Epitaph for a Spy, is a Hungarian refugee living in Paris. While on a vacation in St. Gatiens, he stumbles upon adventure.
I possess only two objects of value in this world. One of them is a camera, the other a letter dated February 10, 1867, from Deak to von Beust. If someone were to offer me money for the letter I should accept it thankfully; but I am very fond of the camera, and nothing but starvation would induce me to part with it. I am not a particularly good photographer; but I get a lot of pleasure pretending that I am.
I had been taking photographs at the Reserve and had, the previous day, taken an exposed spool into the village chemist’s shop to be developed. Now, in the ordinary way, I should not dream of letting anyone else develop my films. Half the pleasure of amateur photography lies in doing your own darkroom work. But I had been experimenting, and if I did not see the results of the experiments before I left St. Gatien, I should have no opportunity of making use of them. So I had left the film with the chemist. The negative was to be developed and dry by eleven o’clock.
And this is his downfall. He is arrested for possessing a suspicious roll of film.  Having no papers, he is at the mercy of the authorities, and is forced to help them in their inquiries. He must return to his hotel, mingle among the other guests, and determine who really took the pictures which got him in trouble.

Vadassy is a shy man, and even the idea of  attempting to pump strangers for information puts him in agony. Plus, even if he convinces the police he is innocent and can return to Paris, he has to get there on time or he will lose his job. So he is under double pressure to meet the deadline that the Secret Police have imposed upon him. There is a motley group of people staying at his hotel: an older British couple, two young Americans (brother and sister), a German, a Frenchman with his mistress, a Swiss couple.

This was only the third book by Ambler that I have read. The first one, A Coffin for Dimitrios (also published as The Mask of Dimitrios), is similar to Epitaph for a Spy. The Light of Day (later made into a film, Topkapi) is a lighter novel, about a petty thief and con-man, who gets mixed up in a complicated heist.

I liked this book and I am glad I read it. It did have long stretches of conversation where other guests tell their stories to Vadassy. That was also a characteristic of A Coffin for Dimitrios, and not my favorite storytelling style. I preferred this book, possibly because I empathized with the protagonist, with his shyness and his reluctance to get involved. He was really thrown into this situation whereas the hero of A Coffin for Dimitrios actively seeks to learn more of Dimitrios and his life.

Ambler provided a footnote to a 1952 edition of this book:
I wrote Epitaph for a Spy in 1937, and it was a mild attempt at realism. The central character is a stateless person, there are no professional devils, and the only Britisher in the story is anything but stalwart. I still like bits of it.
In a review of another novel by Ambler (at The Rap Sheet), Journey into Fear, Charles Cumming says:
He uses lengthy passages of dialogue, for example, to explore political ideas. ...
In exploring those ideas, Ambler elevates the spy novel to a different level, paving the way for the likes of Le Carré, Deighton, Alan Furst, and Dan Fesperman.
There was a film adaptation of this novel, Hotel Reserve, released in 1944. It starred James Mason, Lucie Mannheim, and Herbert Lom.

I will continue reading more espionage novels by Eric Ambler. I have a few more that he published in the 1930's and two published in the 1950's.


Publisher:  Bantam, 1952 (orig. pub. 1938)
Length:   164 pages
Format:   paperback
Setting:   small fishing village in France
Genre:    espionage fiction
Source:   Purchased my copy