Friday, May 22, 2015

"True Thomas" by Reginald Hill

This week I drew the Queen of Spades, which led me to another story from 2nd Culprit: A Crime Writers' Annual, an anthology edited by Liza Cody and Michael Z. Lewin. This week's story was written by Reginald Hill (1936 - 2012), the author the the Dalziel and Pascoe mystery series, the Joe Sixsmith series, and many standalone novels, some written under the pseudonym Patrick Ruell. This story was first published in 1993 in this anthology.

"True Thomas" is not really a mystery story. There are characters who are policemen or lawyers or criminals, there is a crime, and there is a body. But there is no crime solving. The story really poses the questions: How honest can we be in our daily life? When is honesty more hurtful than helpful?

The story is told in an interesting way, using the ballad of True Thomas as the basis of a wager between the defence counsel and DI Tom Tyler. In literature, True Thomas, also known as Thomas the Rhymer, was carried off by the "Queen of Elfland" and returns unable to tell a lie. Tyler is upbraiding Sylvie Morphet (who he calls "Miss bloody Muffet", although not to her face) for telling lies and twisting the truth to defend her client, who has been set free. She challenges him to spend a 24 hour period telling only the truth.

Tyler thinks this will be a fairly easy bet that he can win, but in the next 24 hours he gets himself in trouble with his wife, his in-laws, and at work. Although not really a humorous story, this is a story that entertains and provides the reader with much to ponder.

Every other week I draw a random card to determine what short story I will read for the Deal Me In Short Story challenge. My list of short stories is hereJay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Trouble in Triplicate: Rex Stout

Trouble in Triplicate (1949) collected three of Rex Stout's novellas featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. This book is my submission for Past Offences' monthly Crimes of the Century.

Although some readers find the novellas lacking compared to the full-length novels, I thought all three of these novellas were strong in plot and full of interesting characters. Each has some relationship to World War II, although only one of them takes place before the war ends. They were first published in The American Magazine: "Help Wanted, Male" in the August 1945 issue;  "Instead of Evidence" in the May 1946 issue, as "Murder on Tuesday"; and "Before I Die" was published in the April 1947 issue.

"Help Wanted, Male" is set in 1944; Archie is a Major in the Army but is in Military Intelligence, working with Wolfe, out of uniform. This is a sequel of sorts to an earlier novella, "Booby Trap," in which industrial secrets are being stolen. A participant in the earlier story, Ben Jensen, has received a threatening note and wants to hire Wolfe's brains, not his brawn, to protect him. I enjoyed this story, but overall the plot is implausible. Still it has so many bits I love, including Archie going to Washington to try to talk a general into sending him overseas to get directly involved in the war.

"Before I Die" deals obliquely with the meat shortage in the US after the war. At this point, with the war over, Wolfe is getting very fed up with the lack of meat. He is so desperate he agrees to do a job for a gangster who has links to the black market.  The gangster has a daughter he wants to protect from his enemies, and has hired another woman to pretend to be his daughter. The fake daughter is blackmailing him for huge sums. The plot is complicated but the characters are (mostly) charming.

Of the three novellas, "Instead of Evidence" is my least favorite. The story involves a couple who visit Wolfe. The husband, Eugene Poor, is sure that his business partner, Conroy Blaney, is going to murder him and gives Wolfe $5000 to prove that Blaney is guilty when Poor dies. The wife protests, and Wolfe agrees that it is a silly proposition. Naturally the man does die and Wolfe has to work to earn the money.

The resolution is clever although seasoned readers of crime fiction would suspect the truth early on. The story is known for Wolfe's use of the word "abditory" which means a hiding place. The business that the two partners own produces novelties and inventions are secreted all over the office in numerous abditories.

Rex Stout wrote 33 novels and 41 novellas about the private detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. The novellas are published in 14 books; each book has two, three or four novellas. Trouble in Triplicate was the third book to collect novellas. Many of the books that had collected novellas had three novellas and "three" in the title, e.g., Three Doors to Death and Curtains for Three.


Publisher: Bantam, 1993 (first published January 1, 1949).
Length:    223 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     Nero Wolfe
Setting:    New York City
Genre:      Mystery

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Dark Side of the Road: Simon R. Green

Brief introduction at Goodreads:
A Country House Murder Mystery with a Supernatural Twist
Ishmael Jones is someone who can't afford to be noticed, someone who lives under the radar, who drives on the dark side of the road. He's employed to search out secrets, investigate mysteries and shine a light in dark places. Sometimes he kills people. Invited by his employer, the enigmatic Colonel, to join him and his family for Christmas, Ishmael arrives at the grand but isolated Belcourt Manor in the midst of a blizzard to find that the Colonel has mysteriously disappeared. 
Simon R. Green, the author of this book, is a very prolific science fiction and fantasy author. Many of his series also have an element of mystery.

I have enjoyed several books that mix mystery with fantasy or science fiction. Green's books are a little too heavy on the fantasy side for me, but I still found this to be a very enjoyable  read. I love the way Green tells a story, and I have no problem suspending my disbelief. In The Dark Side of the Road the pacing was good; the story never drags. There are touches of humor, although not the laugh out loud type. However, the story does turn dark fairly quickly. There was too much of a romance element for me, but it did not take over the story. A plus is that it is set at Christmas, and I always love a Christmas story, even in mystery novels where the crime usually overpowers the joys of the season.

I have read two other books by Green, both from the Secret Histories series. The main character in that series is Eddie Drood, a secret agent also known as Shaman Bond. My review of Daemons are Forever is here. I liked this book better than the book in the Secret Histories series, probably because of the setting, a large mansion out in the country in the middle of an impenetrable snowstorm. They are similar in many ways. This book is not totally serious, but it relies a lot less on humor than the Eddie Drood books.

This is the first book I have read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings


Publisher:   Severn House, 2015
Length:      224 pages
Format:      e-book
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Fantasy /  Mystery
Source:      Provided by the publisher for review.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Accounting for Murder: Emma Lathen

Why did I read this book? Lots of reasons, including the fact that I like Emma Lathen's John Thatcher series. But the immediate reason was that I saw it on a post about Tax Day Crime Fiction at Mystery Fanfare, which included a list of Accounting-Accountant crime fiction titles.  I started the book on Tax Day (April 15th) and finished it the next day. I found it to be an entertaining short mystery, which is not surprising since it was a reread.

John Thatcher is a banking executive who encounters many murders in the banking world.  There are 24 books in the series and I have read all except the last two. Each book centers around a particular kind of business and the reader gets a picture of the banking industry in years past, and details of the various businesses. Thatcher works on Wall Street, but often he travels to other parts of the country or outside of the US.

In Accounting for Murder, Thatcher gets involved with investigating the problems at the National Calculating Company. A group of irate stockholders want the company to be audited to find out if the losses of most divisions are due to inefficiency or fraud. Thatcher has an entertaining group of co-workers and friends. Tom Robichaux, investment banker and old friend, pulls him into the problems at National Calculating.

The murder doesn't occur until 70 pages into the book and this is over a third of the book. That is fine with me. I like it when the author spends some time introducing the characters and the situation before the murder occurs.

In Whodunit? A Who's Who in Crime & Mystery by Rosemary Herbert, Emma Lathen's two series protagonists are described:
Thatcher is rich, handsome, unattached, and endowed with keen intelligence and a huge store of common sense. Safford is a government insider. Both men, in the Golden Age tradition, solve crimes by noticing and remembering details that are more or less furnished to the reader but whose significance is lost to everyone else.
One aspect of the Thatcher novels is the selection of clever chapter titles, that in some way reflect some aspect of each book. In Accounting for Murder, one of the characters is Mr. Fortinbras and chapter titles are related to Hamlet . In Murder to Go, set in the fast food industry, the chapter titles are all elements of a recipe.

Also interesting in this book is the role of women in business and development in the 1960's. Margaret Cobb is described as one of the most competent scientists at National, yet she has played second fiddle to several young male scientists who have headed her department. Not unusual at all for the time, but it is a bit unusual to point out that discrepancy in a book written at that time.

One reviewer says:
More impressive than the murder plot is the insider’s tour that Lathen conducts through the halls of corporate America, circa 1964. The glimpse offered here of that go-go culture is highly satirical, but Lathen’s use of satire hardly lessens the accuracy of her portrait.
See the full review at Only Detect.

Accounting for Murder was short listed for the 1965 Gold Dagger. That year Ross Macdonald won it for The Far Side of the Dollar. Emma Lathen was the joint pseudonym of Mary Jane Latsis, an economist, and Martha B. Henissart, a lawyer.


Publisher:   Pocket Books, 1974 (orig. pub. 1964)
Length:      190 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       John Putnam Thatcher, #3
Setting:      Ontario, Niagara Region
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

"Even the Queen" by Connie Willis

Deal Me In Short Story #9

My short story this week was "Even the Queen" by Connie Willis, an American author of science fiction novels and short stories.  Three of the stories I picked for the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge were from Impossible Things, which collects 11 stories by Willis. This is the first piece of fiction I have read by this author. I plan to read some of her Oxford time travel series, but have not tried them yet. They are all very long, 500 - 600 pages each.

It turned out that this did not feel like a sci fi story at all. It takes place in a near future setting, and some there are some scientific advancements discussed but that is about it. Still a new experience for me, because I don't read much non-genre fiction. This is really just a story of three generations of women who gather because they are worried about a young woman in the family.

I wasn't sure how to review this, it touches on a taboo subject. But then I realized I did not really have to delve that deep into the story because part of the fun of reading the story is discovering what the characters are talking about.

The premise is that Traci, a lawyer, gets several phone calls from members of her family because her daughter has joined a radical group. There is talk of cults and deprogramming. Traci meets with her mother and other female relatives at a restaurant to talk the problem over. The results are humorous and illustrate that family dynamics will be the same no matter how society changes. It is a feminist story which Willis wrote because she had "gotten a bunch of flack recently for not writing about Women's Issues."

A quote from the story:
In the first fine flush of freedom after the Liberation, I had entertained hopes that it would change everything - that it would somehow do away with inequality and matriarchal dominance and those humorless women determined to eliminate the word "manhole" and third-person singular pronouns from the language.
Of course it didn't. Men still make more money, "herstory" is still a blight on the semantic landscape, and my mother can still say, "Oh, Traci!" in a tone that reduces me to pre-adolescence.
"Even the Queen" won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1992. It has been included in many anthologies.

Every other week I draw a random card to determine what short story I will read for the Deal Me In Short Story challenge. My list of short stories is here. The challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"G" is for Gumshoe: Sue Grafton

The following lines are the beginning of "G" is for Gumshoe:
Three things occurred on or about May 5, which is not only Cinco de Mayo in California, but Happy Birthday to me. Aside from the fact that I turned thirty-three (after what seemed like an interminable twelve months of being thirty-two), the following also came to pass:
1. The reconstruction of my apartment was completed and I moved back in.
2. I was hired by a Mrs. Clyde Gersh to bring her mother back from the Mojave desert.
3. I made one of the top slots on Tyrone Patty's hit list.
I report these events not necessarily in the order of importance, but in the order most easily explained.
So there we have the story. Kinsey Millhone is a private detective hired to find a missing woman who has been living in a trailer in Slab City, a site used by RV owners and squatters At the same time, she gets a call from an attorney with the public defender's office in Carson City, Nevada. He informs her that a man that they put in jail has a contract out on both of them. Kinsey heads off to locate the missing woman, who is found in a care facility. After arranging to have the woman returned to Santa Teresa, she is attacked by the hit man on her return trip. Soon after that, she hires Robert Dietz, a PI that she has worked with (long distance) in the past, as her bodyguard.

The two stories intertwine, not related to each other, but each one impinging on the other. The main characters are interesting and realistic. My only complaint was that the plot seemed very complex and leaned toward the unbelievable. Nevertheless, overall it was an interesting read. Based on this book, the Kinsey Milhone series is clearly decent mystery writing, but not for everyone, I am sure. If I continue reading the series, it will be for the glimpses of Santa Barbara and the setting of the 1980s. The series was started in that decade, and as of the last published book, "W" is for Wasted, Kinsey has not left that decade.

Moira at Clothes in Books recently blogged about "U" is for Undertow, a much later book in the series. I commented that, since I live in the area the book is set in, I should read more of the series. Back in the 1980s I read at least the books for letters A through E and possibly F, and I have had this omnibus including G, H, and I on my shelves for a while.

Kinsey lives in Santa Teresa, and she chose that name for the city to honor Ross Macdonald, who used that city in some of his books also. In both cases, Santa Teresa is a fictionalized version of Santa Barbara, California. To be honest, I am geographically challenged, and cannot even find my way around beautiful downtown Santa Barbara alone, so the locations mentioned did not remind me of any place specifically. She does mention Colgate and Montebello, which correspond to areas outside of Santa Barbara called Goleta and Montecito. (Grafton lives part of the year in Montecito). There are numerous scenes at the Edgewater Hotel, which corresponds to the Santa Barbara Biltmore. But I would not have recognized the hotel without some research. I don't spend a lot of time in luxury hotels.

What did strike me is her description of my favorite part of the Santa Barbara area... the weather.
May and June, in Santa Teresa, are often masked by fog—the weather as blank and dreary as the white noise on a TV set when the broadcast day is done.
You can tell that she doesn't like the fog, and that is the general opinion of most residents of the region. But there are a few of us around who revel in the May Gray and June Gloom, who love the cool days and overcast skies.

Another scene:
The marine layer was already beginning to dissipate, but the yard had that bleached look that a mist imparts. The foghorn was bleating intermittently—a calf separated from its mother—in the still morning air. The strong scent of seawater saturated the yard. Sometimes I half expect the surf to be lapping at the curb out front.
With the novel opening on Cinco de Mayo, I wanted to publish my review on May 5th, but that did not work out. On Cinco de Mayo in Santa Barbara this year, we had a full day of overcast skies and chilly weather. Today, May 6th, the fog was there in the morning but rolled out by mid-afternoon. A lovely beginning to the week.

Unrelated to the setting geographically but fitting in with the time frame, my favorite part was the Betsy Wetsy comment:
Why does everybody assume women are so nurturing? My maternal instincts were extinguished by my Betsy Wetsy doll. Every time she peed in her little flannel didies, I could feel my temper climb. I quit feeding her and that cured it, but it did make me wonder, even at the age of six, how suited I was for motherhood.
If you are not familiar with the Betsy Wetsy doll, see this post. I thought maybe the timing (when Kinsey would have had such a doll) was wrong, but it was available from the 1930s to the 1980s. I had a Betsy Wetsy doll, or my sister did. Hard to remember now.


Publisher:   Omnibus ed. published by Wings Books, 2002 (orig. pub. 1990)
Length:       260 pages
Format:       Hardcover collection
Series:        Kinsey Millhone, #7
Setting:       Southern California
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased this book.