Saturday, April 25, 2015

500th Post! More Skulls and Skeletons

For my 500th post, I thought I would celebrate by featuring one of my favorite things... mysteries with skulls or skeletons on the cover. Only one of the books in this post has been featured on the blog before, and my goal is to read all of these by the end of the year.

Murder Sunny Side Up is the first book in a series about Congressman Ben Safford. The series was written by Emma Lathen under the pseudonym R. B. Dominic. At least ten years ago, I discovered the existence of this series. Being a big fan of the other books by Emma Lathen, I searched for books in the series. This book was very hard to find at a reasonable price, but my wonderful and dedicated husband found it (and three others in the series) at a used book store in the San Jose area.

Emma Lathen was the  joint pseudonym of Mary Jane Latsis, an economist, and Martha B. Henissart, a lawyer. From Whodunit? A Who's Who in Crime & Mystery by Rosemary Herbert:
The pair introduced their most famous character, John Putnam Thatcher, executive vice president of Sloan Guaranty Trust, in Banking on Death (1961). During a thirty-six-year collaboration, they portrayed Thatcher as using business savvy and urbane wit to investigate mysteries in a variety of business settings. In Murder Sunny Side Up (1968), under the joint pseudonym R. B. Dominic, they introduced another popular series character, Congressman Ben Safford. Safford solves crimes mostly set in Washington, D.C. The success of both series had much to do with the authors' ability to make readers feel like insiders in the worlds they depicted.
I have read three of the seven books in the Ben Safford series. I have copies of all of them.

There are seven mystery novels starring Masao Masuto, a Japanese-American detective in the Beverly Hills Police Department who grows roses and practices Zen meditation. The mysteries were written by Howard Fast,using the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham.The first was The Case of the Angry Actress (1967, originally published as Samantha). I enjoyed the first book in the series mostly because of the setting (Southern California), the time period it was written in, and the political and social commentary.

The last book in the series was The Case of the Murdered Mackenzie (1984).  Since it came 17 years later, it will be interesting to see how it compares.

Andrew Macdonald discusses Masuto in Howard Fast: A Critical Companion:
The detective hero Masuto combines Buddhist meditation with Holmesian ratiocination to make intuitive leaps of both reason and imagination that leave his colleagues and superiors puzzling over the assumptions that further investigation, physical evidence, and testimony confirm. The close observation that allows the Buddhist in Masuto to see beauty where others see ugliness also allows him to see the mundane, the corrupt, and the repulsive behind the beautiful facade of Beverly Hills. These stories look at the wealthy California scene from the perspective of an outsider, racially, culturally, and economically. Masuto can bring Asian perceptions to unraveling the mysteries of his adopted community and counters the mainstream disintegration of family values with his own deep-seated commitment to home and family.

I have had Fender Benders over ten years. The edition I bought was a trade paperback with skeleton playing the guitar. I don't think I bought the book just for the cover, but this book is clearly humorous and that is not strictly my kind of mystery. Maybe I was trying to broaden my horizons.

Author description at Amazon:
Bill Fitzhugh was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. He has also lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Seattle, Washington, and Los Angeles. He writes satiric crime novels, the occasional comic mystery, and for five years, wrote, produced and hosted "Fitzhugh's All Hand Mixed Vinyl" for the Deep Tracks channel of Sirius-XM Satellite Radio.
Story synopsis from the author's site:
Fender Benders is set primarily in Nashville. The backdrop is the country music industry. The story was originally going to be in the pop/rock music industry set in Los Angeles, but my agent kept telling me to do something set in the south, so I guess this is it. Suffice it to say there are some murders, some attempted murders, and some other nefarious activities. Oh, and lots of fried food.
I bought the hardcover edition above (for the cover of course) at the Planned Parenthood book sale last year.

A year and a half ago I purchased Sugar Skull (2003) by Denise Hamilton at the Planned Parenthood book sale. Sugar Skull is the second in a five book series about Eve Diamond, a journalist in the Los Angeles area. Recently I read and reviewed the first book, The Jasmine Trade, and I hope to read this book before the end of 2015.

Review at Publisher's Weekly:
In Edgar finalist Hamilton's (The Jasmine Trade) passionate new puzzle, feisty Los Angeles Times reporter Eve Diamond is anxious to advance from the Valley to a more prestigious desk downtown. She gets her chance when, while writing the roundup of weekend murders, she's confronted by a man frantic to find his runaway daughter. Then the nude body of beautiful socialite Venus Della Viglia Langdon, wife of mayoral candidate Carter Langdon III, turns up in the couple's pool. These two seemingly unconnected occurrences reverberate across the vast urban sprawl that is home to one of the country's most diverse populations. The Mexican Day of the Dead festivities are in progress, and the little sugar skulls given to mark the occasion appear in the strangest places. Eve is soon immersed in the down and dirty worlds of runaways, a high-powered political campaign and the exploding Latin music scene—and caught up in a torrid affair with Silvio Aguilar, son of a music-industry tycoon and Venus's brother. The tenacious Eve discovers that even the most twisted and distant paths can converge, that very little separates the privileged from the desperate and that it's all-too-easy to step over the line of journalistic ethics, become part of the story and maybe wind up dead.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Maltese Falcon: Book and Film

I put off reading The Maltese Falcon for years because I was certain it would be too hard-boiled for me. Now that I have read the book and loved it, I think the problem was with my understanding of the definition of hard-boiled. I thought it was primarily about violence, brutality, and very unlikeable characters.

There are many useful references on the definition of hard-boiled fiction on the internet, but I found Gary Lovisi's article titled The Hard-boiled Way very helpful.

He says:
Some may think it’s only fiction about violence, often very brutal violence, but that’s not a necessary ingredient.
Authentic hard-boiled fiction is also about real people trying to live their lives, to make it in the day-to-day and getting smashed down inch by inch, lower and lower. But they still hang in there. They refuse to go down for the count. 
There is a lot more to the article and I highly recommend it.

I am sure some hard-boiled fiction is too brutal, violent, or dark for me, but this book was not. Most people will be familiar with the plot, so I will include just a brief synopsis. The story is set in San Francisco, in the late 1920's. Sam Spade is a private detective hired by a beautiful and mysterious woman to help her find her sister. Very shortly there are two murders, and the police suspect Spade in at least one of those crimes.  Spade gets mixed up with a strange group of people hunting for an elusive statuette of a falcon.

I loved every word of this book. I could have been biased by my love for the film adaptation (the 1941 version with Humphrey Bogart). After reading the book, I watched the film again. Feeling that I just cannot do justice to either the book or the film (and especially if I avoid spoilers), I am keeping this short and sweet. Both the film and the book are very, very good.

John Huston's adaptation starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. Two other actors I especially liked were Ward Bond as a police detective and Elisha Cook, Jr. as the gunsel.

Although the Sam Spade of the book is a different physical type than Humphrey Bogart, I put Bogart in the role as I read the book. I only noticed a few scenes in the book that were omitted from the movie. They were no great loss to the film, but they did add more depth to the characterizations and relationships in the book.  Otherwise the film is pretty much a straight adaptation of the book, with the dialog matching Hammett's writing very closely.

Mary Astor played the role of the femme fatale perfectly. From the beginning, Spade is not sure how much he can trust her. In my opinion, Astor kept that suspense going to the very end. Having seen the movie so many times, I cannot remember my reaction the first time I viewed the movie. And every time I see it again, I find new things to love about it.

The book was the basis for two other film versions prior to the 1941 version. The first adaptation, released in 1931, was also titled The Maltese Falcon and starred  Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. The second, released in 1936, was titled Satan Met a Lady, and starred Bette Davis and Warren William. I have seen both earlier films. They do not come close to the level of the 1941 adaptation, but they are still interesting. There is a great post on Satan Met a Lady at Davy Crockett's Almanack.


Publisher:   Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1992 (orig. pub. 1930)
Length:      217 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      San Francisco
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Officer Elvis: Gary Gusick

Over a year ago I reviewed Gary Cusick's novel, The Last Clinic. That was the first book in the Darla Cavannah series, and the second book, Officer Elvis, will be published on April 21st.  I requested that book from NetGalley because I had enjoyed the character of Tommy Reylander, a police officer who was also an Elvis impersonator. Imagine my surprise when Tommy is the murder victim in this second novel.

I am using the full description from the publisher's site because it doesn't reveal too much and I think it accurately portrays the flavor and tone of the novel.
In the vein of Harlan Coben and Lisa Gardner, Gary Gusick takes readers on an explosive ride-along with Mississippi detective Darla Cavannah, a Yankee transplant making her name in the Deep South.

After performing at a local old-folks home, off-duty police officer and part-time Elvis impersonator Tommy Reylander smoothes out his pompadour, climbs into his pink Caddy, and gets all shook up—fatally so, when a bomb explodes. Whether he was killed for his police work or bad singing is a mystery that detective Darla Cavannah is determined to solve.

Though it’s been several years since Darla (reluctantly) partnered up with Tommy, she convinces her boss to let her lead the murder investigation. As the new regional director of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, Shelby Mitchell can think of better uses for his star detective’s time, but not even the most hardened good ole boy can resist Darla’s smart, savvy persuasions. She soon embarks on a roller coaster ride through the world of Elvis tribute artists while tracking down one of the most bizarre serial killers in the history of the Magnolia State. Aiding her pursuit of the killer is recently reprimanded officer Rita Gibbons, fresh from the trailer park and described by Shelby as “half a licorice stick short in the manners department.” But Rita’s plenty smart, even when this case takes their suspicious minds in an entirely unexpected direction.
One of my problems with the first novel in the series was that the author seemed to be poking fun at a lot of Southern behaviors and traditions. Yet in the end I decided it must be a good-natured look at the South because the author was from Jackson, Mississippi.

From a review by a Southern blogger:
Like all things Elvis, this book is a bit of a guilty pleasure for Southern readers, as there is so much Southern culture incorporated into the story (the whole funeral description was a hoot and pretty much was spot on for any Southern funeral for instance).
From a review at Book Nympho:
Gusick again manages to capture the endearing aspects of the Southern locale, from the vernacular to the politics and social customs of the community. The case is interesting, taking some interesting turns while immersed in the fandom of Elvis Presley and the world of his impersonators.
I found the plot in the The Last Clinic more interesting and more believable. In that novel, the Reverend Jimmy Aldridge is killed while demonstrating in front of an abortion clinic. The plot of Officer Elvis is not as interesting or believable, but it is more fun and overall the book is more humorous. So I guess it depends on what you are looking for. A definite plus in this novel is that the main characters are strong women and they don't play second fiddle to a male character.

This is not my usual type of mystery, but I did find it interesting reading this story set in Mississippi and it held my interest throughout. One reviewer compared this mystery to the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. I can see the similarity and I did enjoy the first few of those, so if readers have enjoyed that series, they may want to try this one. The book currently seems to be available only in e-book format.


Publisher:   Alibi, 2015
Length:      198 pages
Format:      e-book
Series:       Darla Cavannah, #2
Setting:      Mississippi
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      Provided by the publisher for review.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Books of 1936: A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

A Shilling for Candles was the second mystery novel published by Josephine Tey, and the second book in the Inspector Grant series. I re-read this book for the Past Offences Crime Fiction of the Year Challenge for 1936 and I enjoyed it so much I want to re-read all of her mysteries.

In this novel, the dead body of a young woman is discovered on a beach, and is at first assumed to be a suicide or accidental drowning. It takes awhile to identify the victim. She had been vacationing at a cottage nearby under an assumed name, and the man staying with her claims to know her only by her first name. Eventually the police discover that she is the famous movie actress, Christine Clay. Inspector Grant shows up when evidence is uncovered that points to murder.

I like Josephine Tey's novels because they focus more on the characters, and less on the crime and the solution. Inspector Grant is not your usual police detective, although he is well known and has a good reputation for his work. He agonizes over decisions and how to approach the investigation. In this novel, Erica Burgoyne, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the Chief Constable, and Jammy Hopkins, a reporter, are key characters who give us another view of the world of England in the 1930's. Christine Clay's is also a very well-developed character, even though we don't  encounter her until she is dead. Through the accounts of acquaintances, family and friends, we see a full picture of her and the drawbacks of a life of fame and fortune but little privacy. I cannot leave out Robert Tisdall, the man who was living with Christine at the time of her death. Because of the unusual circumstances, he is immediately a suspect.

Another interesting aspect of this novel is the picture of the world of actors and the theater, which Tey had much experience with. This is a slow-paced but entertaining novel (if the mystery plot is not your major concern), and I am eager to re-read more of the books in the Grant series, to see how they compare. The remainder of the novels were written after World War II and it will be interesting to see how they reflect the differences of that period in England also.

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Mackintosh. She was born in Scotland in 1896 and died in 1952.  She also wrote plays and non-mystery novels under the name Gordon Daviot. Nicola Upson has written a mystery series featuring Tey as the main character. There is an interesting page at Upson's website which talks about Tey's life.

This book was made into a movie, Young and Innocent, by Alfred Hitchcock, which was released in 1937. Based on book reviews I read, the adaptation is very loose but may be entertaining.


Publisher:   Collier Books, 1988 (orig. pub. 1936)
Length:       226 pages
Format:       Paperback
Series:        Inspector Alan Grant, #2
Setting:       England
Genre:        Police procedural
Source:       I purchased this book.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Teleportation Device: Ned Beauman

A brief description of this book at Bloomsbury Publishing:
When you haven't had sex in a long time, it feels like the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. If you're living in Germany in the 1930s, it probably isn't.
But that's no consolation to Egon Loeser, whose carnal misfortunes will push him from the experimental theatres of Berlin to the absinthe bars of Paris to the physics laboratories of Los Angeles, trying all the while to solve two mysteries: whether it was really a deal with Satan that claimed the life of his hero, the great Renaissance stage designer Adriano Lavicini; and why a handsome, clever, charming, modest guy like him can't, just once in a while, get himself laid. 
My husband's review at Goodreads:
I was drawn to this book because a) the concept of teleportation - with its dematerializing of objects for transport from one place to another - seems an interesting subject and b) the cover art is extremely cool. The hero (if hero is a good term here) is theatrical designer Egon Loeser and we follow him from 1931 Berlin to early 1940s Los Angeles in his pursuit of the unattainable Adele. In addition to Adele, Loeser is obsessed with Lavicini, a 17th century theatrical designer who may have invented a teleportation device that actually worked. Mix in shadowy Russian spies, a pulp mystery writer, references to H.P. Lovecraft, a possible ghost, plus a Parisian con man and you have quite a stew. In the end though, I'm not really sure what the book is or is about or even if it is successful. That cover art is great though.

My thoughts:

This book was the last book I read in 2014.  I have been putting off writing a review because I don't know what to say about it. I did not hate it, but I did not enjoy the book while reading it. In the end, I gave it 4 stars at Goodreads, because I felt that the good outweighed the bad. I concluded that it is a well written book that just isn't really for me.

My one-sentence synopsis: As Egon Loesor searches for one woman who has disappeared from his life, many interesting things happen to him and he survives on his wits or his luck. The interesting elements are nice, but they are not enough. A good portion of the story is set in the US, and I enjoyed those parts the most. How true to life the picture of the Hollywood area at this time is, I don't know, but it was still nice to read about.

One disappointment for me was that I expected there to be more science fiction elements to the story. It is loosely based on a teleportation device, but that is not really what the story is about. However, I am sure if I had found other appealing elements, I could have easily overcome the problem. The description on the dust jacket flap implies that the book has elements of historical fiction, romance, noir, and science fiction. That is true, but I don't want a novel to flirt with all of these genres and be a mish mash of them.

My comments above show that a lot of my frustration with the book was due to my expectations. When I go back to the book and read a page or two, I see that the writing is very well done and interesting. But as I was reading it, as a whole it did not appeal to me. This is a book that I plan to re-read, and I expect to like it more the second time around. My husband and I still intend to keep this book, so we haven't written it off. And it does have a wonderful cover.

Many, many reviewers loved this book. There were also reviewers who hated it but I would say overall there are more positive reviews. Certainly the reviews from major publications that I read were very positive.

Here are some other reviews:


Publisher:   Bloomsbury USA, 2013 (orig. pub. 2012)
Length:      357 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      Berlin, Paris, USA
Genre:        Historical Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Friday, April 10, 2015

"Recipe for a Happy Marriage" by Nedra Tyre

Deal Me In Short Story #7

This week I drew the Ace of Hearts and thus I read "Recipe for a Happy Marriage" by Nedra Tyre. Some of my choices for the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis were deliberate. For my list of short stories to read throughout 2015, I chose authors I was familiar with or wanted to return to. But this story was a total unknown. I knew nothing about the author.

Nedra Tyre was born in Georgia in 1921 and worked as a social worker in Virginia. Her short stories were published in various mystery magazines starting in 1955. She also published several suspense novels. This story was first published in the March 1971 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

I found the story in the anthology, Murder on the Menu, so I knew it would feature food in some way. The story is told by a woman who is laid up in her bed with a broken ankle. She tells us about her interview with a local reporter who is writing up an article on love. The narrator has had several husbands, all of which have predeceased her. There is a nice twist at the end. Although I suspect the experienced mystery reader could predict the ending, it was still a very enjoyable tale.

Nedra Tyre has a story, "A Nice Place to Stay", in the anthology, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman. Weinman has a very interesting website called Domestic Suspense devoted to her book, which gathers information about each of the authors featured in the book. John at Pretty Sinister Books has reviewed Weinman's book here.