Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Blanche on the Lam: Barbara Neely

Blanche White is an African-American woman in North Carolina working as a housekeeper. This puts many restraints on her behavior. She cannot speak out and share her opinions, at the risk of offending her employers and losing her job. She has little recourse if she is not paid on time or at all. But in this story, Blanche is hampered even more. She is literally "on the lam." She has run away from a one-month jail sentence for bouncing checks, and is working for a family vacationing in a coastal area near the town she lives in. If she leaves that position she is likely to be found and sent to jail. So, when she finds she is trapped in a situation with some very strange and nefarious people, Blanche cannot just leave.

Blanche has both strengths and weaknesses, like anyone else. She takes pride in her job and knows she does it well. She has taken on the role of parent to her niece and nephew following the death of her sister. On the other hand, she is too self-sufficient sometimes, doesn't like to ask for help, which leads to the mess with the bounced checks. She has some quirks. She personifies houses, sensing their personalities and feelings. She has the ability to sense when some people, who are on her "wavelength," are approaching. She makes sense of a person's behavior by comparing them to a friend or relative who has the same traits (similar to Miss Marple?).

Blanche on the Lam is first and foremost a story about relations between blacks and whites, and secondarily a murder mystery. As the author noted in an article in Ms. Magazine:

"I thought I was writing a novel that happened to have murder in it. Blanche was an amusement," Neely says. "But when the book did so well, I realized the mystery genre was perfect to talk about serious subjects, and it could carry the political fiction I wanted to write. In a way, I feel the genre chose me."

I found this to be a very enlightening and enjoyable novel, but only so-so as a mystery. The story is told from Blanche's point of view in first person. It took me a while (50 pages) to get used to the writing style and Blanche's character, then I enjoyed the rest of the book. I think the real pleasure of reading this book is getting Blanche's view on white people and how they mistreat, misjudge, or just look through black people.

This novel was full of great quotes. My favorite quote:
Nowadays, people wanted to tell you class didn't exist and color didn't matter anymore. Look at Miss America and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Miss America and the chairman were no more black people than Mother Teresa was white people. Men like Nate [the gardener] and women like her were the people, the folks, the mud from which the rest were made. It was their hands and blood and sweat that built everything.
I had some reservations about this book, but not serious ones. Although I understood the panic that Blanche felt at facing even a few weeks in jail, running away seemed unlikely. On the other hand, we often need to suspend disbelief when reading mystery novels, and I was willing to do that with this story. Blanche is a fully developed character, but the people she interacts with are more one-dimensional. Amateur sleuths are not my favorite protagonists in crime fiction, and in this case we are over halfway through the book before we get to the first murder.

Barbara Neely is an African-American writer. Prior to writing full-time, she was an activist and at one time worked for Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections and developed the state's first community based correctional center for women.

Blanche on the Lam won three mystery awards for best first novel of 1992: The Agatha, the Anthony and the Macavity. Neely published three more books in the Blanche White series between 1994 and 2000.

Other resources:
Moira's review at Clothes in Books, Margot's Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., and Naomi Hirahara's post at the Rap Sheet.


Publisher:  Penguin Books, 1993. Orig. pub. 1992.
Length:     215 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Blanche White, #1
Setting:     North Carolina
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy in 2006.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Reading Summary for April 2017

April was an incredible reading month for me. I read ten crime fiction novels. I also read a non-fiction book, but the author of that book was a crime fiction author.

The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany is a collection by Donald E. Westlake. Foreword by Lawrence Block. Cover illustration and design by Darwyn Cooke, who adapted some of the “Parker” crime novels as a series of graphic novels.

The pieces were written at various times in his career. They include appreciations of other crime fiction authors, interviews (of Westlake, by others), and letters. There is a wonderful essay by his wife, Abby Adams Westlake, about "Living with a Mystery Writer." I enjoyed reading about his experiences with having his books translated into film, and his experiences as a screenwriter. No matter what he is writing about, Westlake is entertaining. I loved reading this book.

Following are the crime fiction books I read in April:

The Blackhouse (2009) by Peter May
A murder investigation set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. In Part 1 of a trilogy, Fin Macleod, a detective from Edinburgh is sent to the Isle of Lewis because of previous connections to a similar crime. The story is powerful and well told. My review here.
Death on the Move (1989) by Bill Crider
Dan Rhodes is the Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas. In this fourth book in the series, jewelry is disappearing off bodies prepared for burial at the funeral home in Clearview. There is also the problem of a rash of thefts at some homes built around a nearby lake. This is one of my favorite contemporary series. Full review here.
Cold Comfort (2012) by Quentin Bates
This is the second book in a police procedural series set in Iceland. Sergeant Gunnhildur has been promoted from her rural post to the Serious Crime Unit in Reykjavík. She is working on two cases, locating an escaped convict, Long Ommi, and investigating the murder of a fitness guru. I have found this to be a very enjoyable series, with a great main character, who has a realistic life, a single parent raising a teenage daughter.
Burglars Can't Be Choosers (1977) by Lawrence Block
Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar; when he attempts to steal a blue leather box from an apartment, the police walk in on him and a dead man is discovered in the bedroom. Bernie successfully eludes the policemen but they think he killed the man in the bedroom; he then has to prove his innocence. This is the first in a series about Bernie Rhodenbarr. A humorous mystery that was a lot of fun. My review is here.
Badge of Evil (1956) by Whit Masterson
Rudy Linneker, a very rich man in a large border town in California (San Diego?), is blown up by sticks of dynamite thrown into his house. The immediate suspects are Linneker's daughter and her fiance, since Linneker was dead set against their relationship. But Assistant DA Mitch Holt insists that the case does not feel right, and starts investigating in a different direction. This is the book that Orson Welles' 1958 film Touch of Evil was based on. 
Wall of Glass (1987) by Walter Satterthwait
Joshua Croft is a Santa Fe private investigator working for the Mondragón Agency, owned by Rita Mondragón. The case in Wall of Glass centers on a valuable piece of jewelry which was stolen from the house of a wealthy Santa Fe family. The setting was lovely and the story was entertaining. See review here
A Fountain Filled with Blood (2003) by Julia Spencer-Fleming
This is the second mystery in the Reverend Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. As the small town of Millers Kill, New York heads into the July 4th weekend, two gay men are severely beaten in separate incidents. Clare urges the police to notify the public; Russ feels like this could lead to copycat incidents. When another man, also homosexual, is killed, Russ must figure out if the crimes are connected. Mixed in with this are conflicts within the town over development of a luxury spa and environmental issues. Although I have some reservations about this series, I finished this book in a 24 hour period and could hardly put it down, which puts it high in my ratings.
Something from the Nightside (2003) by Simon R. Green
This is a cross-genre novel, blending fantasy and mystery. John Taylor is a private eye in London and his specialty is finding things. He originally came from the Nightside, a hidden part of London where monsters and demons reign. A woman comes to him as a last resort to find her daughter. The only clue she has is that she could be found "in the Nightside." John agrees to help her. This book was light and entertaining, a good read.
The Butcher's Boy (1982) by Thomas Perry
This was Thomas Perry's debut novel; it won the Edgar for Best First Novel of 1982. The two main characters are a professional killer with no name and Elizabeth Waring, an analyst for the Department of Justice. They are both very good at what they do. Full review here.
The Likeness (2008) by Tana French
This book is the sequel to Tana French’s debut, In the Woods. That book featured two detectives in the Murder Squad in Dublin, Ireland, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox. The Likeness continues Cassie's story. Cassie is now working in Domestic Violence at police headquarters, but a unique opportunity arises for her to go undercover, taking up an identity she used previously when she worked in the Undercover division. This is not a perfect book but very close. Also a Chunkster (466 pages).
In April, I read more contemporary novels than usual. I only read one novel written before 1960. There was one written in the 1970s and three from the 1980s. The remaining five books were published after 2001. Regarding authors, only two of the authors were female. In May I am endeavoring to remedy that and focus on female authors.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Butcher's Boy: Thomas Perry

The Butcher's Boy (otherwise nameless) is a professional killer for hire, and apparently does most of his work for the Mafia. This time his jobs center around a corporation that handles pension funds, Fieldston Growth Enterprises. After the killer has done two jobs he heads to Las Vegas for a rest, only to find that he is being targeted by his former bosses. A second story line follows Elizabeth Waring, an analyst for the Department of Justice. She initially notices that a death in Ventura, California is suspicious. She and an FBI agent are sent to Ventura to look into that incident, but are soon taken off that investigation and sent to Colorado where a Senator has been murdered. The cases don't seem to be related, but Elizabeth insists that there is a connection.

I liked the way the story develops, with two main story lines, one following the killer and one following Elizabeth Waring. Although the killer is not likable, and has little personality, it is interesting to watch him work and follow his thought processes when he runs into problems. Elizabeth is highly intelligent and a talented analyst, but she has to watch how she behaves with her superiors, because she is a woman. However she is very competent in her job and not afraid to speak up, and those who work with her realize her value.

The book was written in 1982, and of course all the electronic developments in the last couple of decades were not available. For that reason this book may feel dated to some. That did not bother me; I read a lot of books from the 1970s and 80s for that reason. The story moved along and I was never bored. It was occasionally confusing, because the author does not add a lot of explanation; he lets the reader figure it out. And the characterization was very good.

Thomas Perry is a new author for me. I have a few of his other books on my TBR piles. This was Perry's debut novel and it won the Edgar for Best First Novel of 1982. Perry wrote two books about the Butcher's Boy. The second book, Sleeping Dogs, was published 10 years later, in 1992. In 2011, he published The Informant.  I want to read both of the sequels, of course. The edition of The Butcher's Boy that I read has an introduction by Michael Connelly, which was also entertaining.


Publisher:  Random House, 2003 (orig. publ. 1982)
Length:     313 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Butcher's Boy #1
Setting:    US (Las Vegas, Nevada; Ventura, California; Colorado)
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Over My Dead Body: Rex Stout

Over My Dead Body is the 7th book in the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1940 in book format. Nero Wolfe is a genius, a lover of orchids and fine food, who supports himself (and his household) as a private detective. Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the stories, is both his assistant and a private investigator, and he does most of the legwork. They live in a New York brownstone and share the house with Theodore, the plant expert, and Felix, Wolfe's cook.

Many (but not all) of the Nero Wolfe mysteries follow a formula, although the outcome is never predictable. The formula is this (in very simple terms): there is a new case which often starts with a lesser crime or problem: theft, or a missing person, or just a search for some information. A murder occurs. The case gets more complicated, Archie detects under the direction of Wolfe. Often the police get involved and resent Wolfe's interference. In the end, they are all called together in Wolfe's office and the culprit is revealed.

Over My Dead Body is unusual in the Nero Wolfe series because it centers on a woman who claims to be Nero Wolfe's long-lost adopted daughter. The story was published after the war in Europe had started but the U.S. was not yet involved and it involves international intrigue. And in this book we get a peek at some of Wolfe's background and his activities in Montenegro when he was a young man.

A young woman from Montenegro, Carla Lovchen, comes to Wolfe's house asking for his help. She and a friend are living in the US and work in a studio teaching fencing and dancing. Recently the friend has been accused of stealing diamonds from one of the clients. Wolfe refuses to take the case and Carla leaves, but Archie and Wolfe get another visit later that morning from an FBI agent, who asks if Wolfe is an agent for foreign nationals. Carla returns in the afternoon, announces that the friend accused of theft, Neya Tormic, is Wolfe's adopted daughter, and insists that Wolfe represent her in the matter of the theft. Wolfe sends Archie to the dance / fencing studio to check the situation out. There is a murder at the studio while he is there and it is possible that Neya could have committed the crime.

Wolfe is not convinced that the young woman is actually his adopted daughter. Yet he feels a responsibility to come to her aid until he can resolve the truth of her claims.

This is just the basis for the story, and it gets more complex as it goes along. It is most interesting for the puzzle of whether Wolfe's adopted daughter is still alive and if this woman is actually who she claims to be. What is the international intrigue that is actually going on?

When I come back to each Nero Wolfe story for a re-read, it is not the overall story that I remember but special set pieces in the book that stood out for me. In this case, there are at least two scenes that I remember very fondly.  One is a very brief scene where Archie escapes from the dance studio by going through a couple of courtyards, over a tall fence, and through a restaurant, ostensibly looking for his missing cat. Later, there is a clever ploy where Archie has Carla masquerade as a bellboy to escape the police who are looking for her... so that his boss can talk with her first.

This is not one of the top mysteries in the Nero Wolfe series, in my opinion, but I found many things to like about it. As usual.

I love the Avon paperback cover with the lovely unclothed lady, but I don't know exactly how the illustration fits into the story. And I am glad I had another edition to read, because the print was tiny and faded.


Publisher:  Pyramid Books, 1964. Orig. pub. 1940.
Length:     191 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #7
Setting:     New York City
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

This is a Bust: Ed Lin

Published in 2007, this book is the first of three books about Robert Chow, a Chinese-American policeman in New York's Chinatown in 1976.

The description at Kaya Press is very apt:
This Is a Bust, the second novel by award-winning author Ed Lin, turns the conventions of hard-boiled pulp stories on their head by exploring the unexotic and very real complexities of New York City’s Chinatown, circa 1976, through the eyes of a Chinese-American cop. A Vietnam vet and an alcoholic, Robert Chow’s troubles are compounded by the fact that he’s basically community-relations window-dressing for the NYPD: he’s the only Chinese American on the Chinatown beat, and the only police officer who can speak Cantonese, but he’s never assigned anything more challenging than appearances at store openings or community events.
Robert Chow is a Vietnam vet and that experience changed his view of the world.
Then in 1969 the draft came to Chinatown. I didn't care about getting out of it. I had finished high school and was drifting. But I knew how bad it was in China and how we should be grateful for the better life we had in the U.S. I knew that serving was the best way to prove how much I loved America. We had to stop Communism.
I was real stupid and innocent back then. That was before we were in basic training and the instructor pulled me out of line, faced me to the company, and said: "This is what a gook looks like. He's the complete opposite of you, and he's out to kill you. What are you going to do about it?"
Robert is not happy in his job as a policeman, where the powers that be have chosen him to be the Chinese cop poster boy for the Chinatown precinct.  He makes a effort to get on the detective track and gets pushed back every time he tries. Somewhere along the way he has become an alcoholic.

This is a very unusual book, and I mean that in a good way. Even though the story is generally a downer, it has something of an upbeat ending, which I did not expect at all. A large part of the story is dialogue, which I don't usually care for, but it worked here. There are great characters that you meet and get to know along the way. I don't know that This is a Bust will appeal to everyone, but I found it memorable and enlightening, and compelling.

There are two more books in this series, Snakes Can't Run (2010) and One Red Bastard (2012). Ed Lin's second series, the Taipei Night Market series, is set in Taiwan.


Publisher:   Kaya Press, 2007 
Length:       345 pages
Format:       Trade paperback
Series:        Robert Chow, #1
Setting:       Chinatown in New York City
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:       I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Wall of Glass: Walter Satterthwait

I discovered Walter Satterthwait at the Santa Barbara Planned Parenthood book sale in 2014. Or rather, my husband discovered him for me. He found a beautiful hardback copy of the second book in the Joshua Croft series, titled At Ease with Death. He then proceeded to find the next three books in the series, also in lovely hardback editions. And each one was only $1.00. So of course, I had to get them. And then I had to find the first book in the series so that I could read that one.

Joshua Croft is a Santa Fe private investigator working for the Mondragón Agency, owned by Rita Mondragón. The case in Wall of Glass centers on a valuable piece of jewelry which was stolen from the house of a wealthy Santa Fe family. The insurance company has already settled the claim, and Joshua is approached by Frank Biddle, who claims to know where the jewelry is. He plans to offer it to the insurance company for a finder's fee with Joshua as the middleman. Before they can come to an agreement, Biddle is killed. The Mondragón Agency then contracts to look into the whereabouts of the stolen necklace.

From the start we know that Joshua has a thing for Rita, who is involved with the investigation but is on the sidelines because she was crippled by a gunshot wound, and is in a wheelchair. This element does not overshadow the story but is always in the background.

The story is told in first person narration by Joshua. He is likable, intelligent, and cynical, a typical wise-cracking private eye. Rita does run the show, but Joshua makes his own decisions, sometimes putting himself in dangerous situations. The story is heavy on dialogue, and Satterthwait does a good job with it. The mystery plot is complex with many possible suspects and various people hiding the truth, but with Joshua telling the story, it moves along at a brisk pace and in a straightforward way.

These three paragraphs describing Joshua's meeting with Frank Biddle illustrate Satterthwait's style, which I found very readable:
He was short and muscular, and he moved across the office with a quick alert strut, a bantam swagger, like someone who might take offense at the word "Napoleon." He wore dusty Western boots, faded jeans, a tight-fitting denim shirt, and a gray Stetson with the sides of its brim curled up. His face was sun-reddened and his eyes had the prairie squint. This being Santa Fe, he could've been exactly what he looked like. A real live cowboy.
On the other hand, this being Santa Fe, he could've been a stockbroker.
He didn't introduce himself or offer his hand or take off his hat. Which probably eliminated stockbroker. He plopped down into the client's chair, stretched out his legs, and crossed them at the ankles. Lacing his fingers together atop his chest, he said, "I got what you call a hypothetical situation." Which probably eliminated cowboy.
One of the quirks of this writer (at least in this book) is that every character is introduced with a description of their clothing. Nothing at all wrong with that, I enjoyed it and I think when we meet people in real life we do "judge" them on their clothing. But the consistency here was a bit surprising... plus the fact that the author is male and he knows way more about clothes than I do. I probably would not have noticed it if I wasn't an avid reader of Clothes in Books and now often pay more attention to clothing descriptions in mysteries.

Here is a description of Joshua, preparing to attend an opening at a gallery:
For my outing that evening I selected a pair of clean Levis, Luchese lizardskin boots, a pale blue silk shirt, and my Adolfo blue blazer. Understated elegance. The sort of thing Hoot Gibson might wear to the Four Seasons.
If, like me, you don't know who Hoot Gibson is, per IMDB he was "a pioneering cowboy star of silent and early talking Westerns" and "one of the 1920s' most popular children's matinée heroes."

You can probably tell that I enjoyed my experience with the first book in the Joshua Croft Mystery series. The Southwestern locale is very well described, both in the town of Santa Fe and the surrounding countryside. At the time this book was published, the author was living in Santa Fe. This library blog lists the books in the Joshua Croft series and describes other books the author has written.

Thanks to my wonderful husband for finding this series of books for me; I will be reading the next book soon.


Publisher:   University of New Mexico Press, 2002 
                  (orig. publ. 1987)
Length:       246 pages
Format:       Trade paperback
Series:        Joshua Croft, #1
Setting:       Santa Fe, New Mexico
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.