Monday, October 29, 2012

Rear Window: A Film Review (RIP #7)

My second film for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event is Rear Window, a highly acclaimed film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

I thought this movie would fit the theme because it is a thriller and suspenseful. Nevertheless, I kept putting off watching the movie because I was too apprehensive about the tension level (which tells you a lot about my threshold for thrills and chills). I shouldn't have worried. There were definitely suspenseful moments, but I enjoyed them and all of the movie.

Rear Window tells the story of a man stuck in his apartment in his wheelchair for many weeks, due to a broken leg. His apartment window looks onto the backs of several other apartment buildings and he entertains himself watching his neighbors. And one day he thinks he has discovered that a crime has taken place. He tries to convince his nurse/masseuse, his girlfriend, and a friend in the police department that a crime has been committed and at first they all scoff.

This film was a crime thriller but there were so many other aspects I liked. I loved the sets. As the movie opens, the camera pans across the backs of all the apartments. The movie starts with our protagonist, Jeff Jeffries, checking out the activities that he can see. The stories of the residents of each apartment continue throughout the movie. I loved the vignettes of people's lives showcased here.

Another element of the story is the romance between Jeff, the adventurous photographer, and his girlfriend, Lisa, a fashion model. He does not want to settle down and resists her attempts to convince him that they could make a life together. She is the model of perfection; he likes his disorderly and unplanned life. Hitchcock is very good at exploring these types of issues between people.

The movie is based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich, "It Had to Be Murder." The documentary I watched on the DVD set, Rear Window Ethics: Remembering and Restoring a Hitchcock Classic, noted that the short story did not have any of the romance or the stories of the other apartment dwellers, which makes sense. The documentary is also worth watching. Peter Bogdanovich is interviewed and gives his thoughts on the film. Also, excerpts from Bogdanovich's interview of Alfred Hitchcock are included.

I thought this was my first viewing... because I remembered nothing as I watched it, except for the scenes that you see over and over of clips from the movie or in documentaries. My husband, who has tracked our movie viewing (at home, on tape, laser disc, or DVD for 24 years) tells me I saw this 22 years ago. As far as Hitchcock movies go, it does not rank at the top of my list. My favorites are North by Northwest (which we re-watch frequently), Notorious, and Marnie. Vertigo is not at the top of my list either, but I do think it is superior to Rear Window. But I enjoyed it and the background material about how the movie was made.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bimbos of the Death Sun: Sharyn McCrumb

I have had several books by Sharyn McCrumb in my TBR piles for a long time. I recently read Bimbos of the Death Sun, which is an atypical book for this author.

This novel is a parody of a sci fi and fantasy convention, and focuses on fandom and role playing games.  The two protagonists are an engineering professor (Dr. James O. Mega, pen name Jay Omega)  who has written and published a sci fi novel (also named Bimbos of the Death Sun) and is at the convention to promote his book. His friend Marion, who is a professor in the English department, accompanies him to the the convention. I have no idea how realistic the pictures of fandom are, but it is a very entertaining novel, and it pokes light-hearted fun at a lot of groups. Fanatical sci fi fans, fans who attend conventions, fanzines, even authors, publishers and academics. Because of the title, and the covers of various editions, and the setting, this novel has a lot of reviews at sites more devoted to sci fi. Some have found it to be entertaining, others are outraged at it.

The title of the book is not at all indicative of the content. It is mocking the tendency, at least at a point in time, to include well-endowed young women in stories in those genres. In the novel, Jay Omega's book is serious science fiction, but his publisher has forced the title on the book to sell more copies.

One theme was very interesting to me: the picture of loners or outcasts who are attracted to a group because they find a place that they feel they can belong. Marion was once a fan and went to such conventions herself and she was a misfit in her youth. She can remember the need to find a group that she could feel comfortable in and a part of. The author pokes fun at the individuals, but also gives us sympathy for them.

The book was published in 1987 and I enjoyed the picture of the state of computing at the time. At that time I was working in Information Technology but was working with programming for minicomputers and wasn't into the home or desktop PC until later. Nevertheless, it was nostalgic in a way.

One negative aspect to this book is that the characterization was sketchy. The only characters portrayed in any depth were the two main characters. And there were a lot of characters to keep up with.

Another question is... how does this work as a mystery? This is a lightweight book, compared to other books the author has written. It is fun and I enjoyed it, but the mystery was not particularly satisfying. Other reviewers have disagreed and felt it was a good mystery.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, for two reasons. It is fun and it is different. And, the novel won the 1988 Edgar Award for "Best Paperback Original", so it can't be too bad. I saw so many different opinions about it on the web. Five years after Bimbos was published, a sequel came out: Zombies of the Gene Pool. I will follow up later with a review of that book.

In the introduction to this book in the paperback edition (published in 1997) I read, McCrumb explains how she came to write such an unusual novel... for her. To paraphrase, the book started out as a short story, a spoof with the same title as this book, which was just intended as a joke. Later she read the short story for a group and it came to a publisher's attention... and they wanted to publish it (expanded into a book).

From the Author's Note: "Bimbos of the Death Sun was intended to be an observation of the culture of fandom, and a gentle warning. Science fiction writers build castles in the air; the fans move into them; and the publishers collect the rent. It's a nice place to visit, but please don't try to live there."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

W is for R. D. Wingfield

For this week's Crime Fiction Alphabet meme, I am featuring R. D. Wingfield.  Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for the letter W.

R. D. Wingfield (1928-2007) wrote only six mysteries, all starring Inspector Frost of the Denton Division. He wrote most of them later in his life. They eventually garnered a lot of attention and praise.

The story of how the novels came to be is very interesting. More detail can be found at this Wikipedia article.

Wingfield originally wrote radio dramas which were very successful. Per this obituary in the Guardian, written by Mike Ripley, it was Wingfield's "reputation as a craftsman of mystery stories featuring small-time criminals and multiple plot lines that brought him to the attention of publishers Macmillan." In 1972, Macmillan requested that Wingfield write a book for them, and he submitted Frost at Christmas. They rejected it, but eventually it was published in the 1980's in Canada and the UK. In between, there was a radio play featuring Frost.

These are the dates of publication of the six Frost novels, per Fantastic Fiction:
1. Frost at Christmas (1984)
2. A Touch of Frost (1987)
3. Night Frost (1992)
4. Hard Frost (1995)
5. Winter Frost (1999)
6. A Killing Frost (2008)

The Frost series was adapted in a television series beginning in 1992 and had a long run. I have seen the first three of the TV series and I have read two of the novels, and my take on it is that they really softened up the Frost character for TV. He has most of the characteristics that he has in the books, but a much milder version. According to Wikipedia, Wingfield's view was that the TV Frost was not his Frost. Nothing wrong with that, just something to know when reading the books after watching the TV shows, or vice versa.

The Frost books are police procedurals set in England that show the Denton Division handling multiple crimes over the course of several days. Detective Inspector Jack Frost is not typical in any way. He circumvents routine police work whenever possible. He is unkempt to the point of slovenliness and he is forgetful and a procrastinator. He has no respect for his superiors and doesn't hide it very well.  Nevertheless, regardless of all his "weak" areas, at least in the view of his superiors and some co-workers, he usually succeeds in solving crimes.

A Touch of Frost

This the second Frost novel that I have read. From the back of the paperback copy that I read:
Though he's officially on duty, Frost is looking for the nearest opportunity to sneak off to the departmental booze-up celebrating a colleague's retirement. But the normally sleepy town of Denton is not cooperating this cold autumn night, leaving Frost wading in his best suit through a flooded public rest room to investigate a junkie's death. And from there, things start to go seriously downhill...
Even with all of Frost's failings as a policeman, he does care about people and can show sensitivity when needed. There is a very moving section where he is informing a policeman's wife that her husband has been killed. From his interactions with members of the community, you can tell that they know his value and respect him, regardless of what his superiors think.

The story is entertaining and Wingfield's writing draws you in. Even with multiple crimes being investigated, and the assignment of the crimes to officers switching back and forth, I had no trouble following the story and I never lost interest. The back and forth between all levels of the department, from the supervisors to the constables, is interesting. The writing is gritty and police work is not romanticized. I found Frost's behavior irritating and he is at times not likable, but that did not detract from the engrossing story.

I was commenting on a blog recently and I compared Inspector Frost to Commissaire Adamsberg of the series by Fred Vargas. Both work in unconventional ways and see possibilities of solutions that others don't see. Then I recently saw this review at Mysteries in Paradise where she also compared the way the two detectives work. I will have to go back and give the Commissaire Adamsberg series another try.

Obviously I plan to finish up this series.

Monday, October 15, 2012

V is for Philo Vance and S. S. Van Dine

Today I am featuring a vintage mystery author, S. S. Van Dine, and his famous character, Philo Vance, for the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise
There is much available on the web about S. S. Van Dine and his place in the history of mystery. I hesitate to cover that ground again. I will note that S. S. Van Dine is a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939), who had worked as a critic and journalist in the U.S. before his career as a mystery novelist.

In Mystery Scene, Summer Issue #95, there is a profile of Philo Vance which includes this summary of how the books came to be:
Philo Vance was born during a two-year period of bed rest for Wright, brought on by the author’s drug abuse. To occupy him, Wright’s doctor suggested light reading, such as detective fiction. For someone who had once written, “There are few punishments too severe for a popular novel writer,” it sounded like a dubious proposition, but to Wright’s surprise, he found mystery novels challenging and entertaining. After reading the genre dry, he decided to get into the act himself. Wright devised the plotlines for three novels—with the intent of writing six in total—and created the nom de plume S.S. Van Dine so his acquaintances wouldn’t know. “Van Dine,” he claimed, was an old family name, but John Loughery, author of Alias S.S. Van Dine, found no evidence supporting that. Wright likewise claimed that S.S. stood for “steam ship.”

One innovation of Wright’s was to also give the name S.S. Van Dine to the first-person narrator of the books, a trick that would later be be used in a similar way by Ellery Queen.
When I first looked into reading a Van Dine mystery, I was intrigued to find such extreme opinions about his books... in mystery reference books that I have and in book reviews on blogs. He is either revered or held in disdain by many mystery fans. And there are those who find his works of historical interest, but still do not enjoy the stories or the character.

The Greene Murder Case: My Take

So I picked The Greene Murder Case as my first entry into the works of Van Dine, based on several blogs I read (at Mystery*File and Tipping My Fedora) and the recommendation of 1001 Midnights by Pronzini and Muller. This story is about a wealthy family that is being killed off, one by one. The police first blame the murders on a burglar but eventually have to admit that it must be an inside job. The entire family lives in one mansion, forced to do this by the will left by the patriarch of the family.

Initially I did not find the plot or the characters entertaining, and the writing style was not to my liking. (Perhaps I should have started with the first Philo Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case, which explains Van Dine's relationship to Vance.) I was at least two thirds of the way into the book before I began to truly enjoy it.

I liked the list in chapter 23. It is a summary of the crimes and associated facts from beginning to end and lists nearly 100 items. Very unusual but I liked it. I have no problem with Philo Vance's supercilious and arrogant attitude. He has this in common with other fictional detectives; one of my favorites of this type is Nero Wolfe.

I agree with this assessment at Vintage Pop Fictions:
Most of the criticisms that have been made of these books are entirely accurate. It’s just that if, like me, you’re a fan then you’ll see those things as virtues rather than faults. Vance’s aristocratic mannerisms, his affected mode of speech, his prodigious knowledge of any subject you care to mention, the scholarly footnotes, these are all these things you will either find irritating or endearing.
I have yet to decide what side I am on. I will read at least one more of the Philo Vance series, and I would like to find one where the crime is a bit more of a puzzle, and less dependent on intuition (and time) to be solved.

My husband and I have seen the Philo Vance films starring William Powell; the one I remember the best is The Kennel Murder Case. Having read more about films of the books starring other actors, I would love to see those also.

A disclaimer here: I was reading The Greene Murder Case as my first e-book. I have minor reading problems with just about any format (print too small, print too light) and reading an e-book for me has the same problems as reading a computer screen. Eventually it becomes stressful to my eyes. So I might have enjoyed this more as a real paper book. Who knows how that affected my experience? The footnotes were separate and there was no diagram of the floor plan included in the version I read.

Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise for other entries for the letter V.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Shutter Island: A Film Review (RIP #6)

This was one creepy movie. My first film for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event. I usually avoid scary movies. Horror movies with psychological aspects or with blood and gore... either way, they are pretty much off limits. Supernatural I can deal with, but still avoid. But I knew that Dennis Lehane is not really a writer in the horror genre, so I felt like there had to be more to this than it appeared (from the trailers).

I came to this movie with no knowledge of the book or the plot. I have read two and a half Dennis Lehane books, and while I find him a very talented writer, I find his books too intense for me. At least the thrillers. So I had no interest in reading Shutter Island. My husband bought the DVD and I knew I was going to watch it, so I intentionally avoided all reviews or comments on the movie.

Shutter Island starts with a scene on a boat going out to Shutter Island, taking two U.S. Marshals to investigate the case of an escaped inmate at a mental institution. The pair are partners, but they are meeting for the first time on this assignment.

The film also starts with spooky, ominous music. I was pretty freaked out just by the music. And with plenty of rain and bad weather, on a remote island, the mood is set.

After the marshals arrive, they are introduced to the doctor who runs the institution, which is run more like a prison.  The main character, Teddy Daniels, begins to have dreams, hallucinations, flashbacks to memories of past traumas. At that point, I wasn't sure where the movie was going.

I am a stickler for not revealing enough of a plot to ruin it for someone who has not watched a movie or read a book, and I don't know how much I can say about this movie without doing that.

An aside: This was the perfect time period for me. Post-World War II with flashbacks to the war and the aftermath. I love mystery novels about World War II and the lead up to the war and the post-war years. Had I known the setting for this novel, I might have given it a try earlier. But I am glad I didn't. Seeing the movie would have been a different experience if I had.

My recommendation: If you don't mind scary movies, some blood and gore, then watch it. After watching it, I felt like it was really well done. While watching, I was in a state of confusion much of the time. The book and the movie had mixed reactions when released, and they are not everyone's cup of tea.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Joining the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge

I have been planning to join in on this challenge for a while. I want to read more Agatha Christie and I like the idea of doing it in an organized fashion so that I can compare style of writing over time, etc. But I was planning to wait until January 2013 to do that.  Today I decided to bite the bullet and go ahead and commit. Based on this post at Mysteries in Paradise: Forgotten Books, Agatha Christie?

 I have been blogging less than a year and I only have one post about an Agatha Christie book so far.  My review of Murder on the Orient Express is here.

I hope to review at least one more Christie mystery before the end of the year, and then I will aim at one (or more) a month in 2013.  This is a self-paced challenge and it is continuing. Two appealing factors.

If you are interested in joining in, here are instructions on how to do that.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

U is for Under World

For this week's Crime Fiction Alphabet meme, I am featuring Under World by Reginald Hill.  Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for the letter U.

This book is the 10th in a series of 24 books. I read the first nine several years ago, and have the whole series in my TBR stacks and bookshelves.  Must move faster on that. Reginald Hill is a wonderful author. Based on my reading so far, he cannot write a bad book. Maybe some of his books not in the Dalziel and Pascoe series are a bit more humorous than I would like, but still very entertaining.

My take on Under World:

The book focuses in large part on Ellie Pascoe and her relationship with a young miner, Colin, who takes a class from her at the local university. She cannot resist getting involved with the troubles he and his family experience as a result of a crime that occurred a few years earlier. I get irritated with Ellie's willingness to get involved in activities that could be detrimental to her husband's job, and I find her to be an abrasive personality. But I do understand that this is part of her character and provides a way to explore themes beyond straight detection of crimes.

I like the partnership of the rough and crude Dalziel with the more refined and sensitive Pascoe, and I appreciate the respect they find for each over time. In most cases, I don't care for out and out humor in a mystery novel. However, Hill writes with subtle humor, especially in the interactions of Ellie and Pascoe and Pascoe's reactions to both Ellie and Dalziel. This is not my favorite of the series so far, but it is nevertheless an excellent novel, and whetted my appetite for more.

I read this book in late August. See my full review, which also includes a bit more information on Reginald Hill's career and writings.

Other links:
  •  For the letter D in the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme, Margot Kinberg profiled one of the two main stars in this series, Andy Dalziel. See that post here.
  • In June of this year, there was a blog to celebrate Reginald Hill's life and  writing. One post at that site included a great overview of Under World by Michael Walters.
  • This page at Ex Libris Reviews has a nice overview of the whole police team in this series.
This is the full list of  the Dalziel and Pascoe series (with links to Fantastic Fiction):
1. A Clubbable Woman (1970)
2. An Advancement of Learning (1971)
3. Ruling Passion (1973)
4. An April Shroud (1975)
5. A Pinch of Snuff (1978)
6. A Killing Kindness (1980)
7. Deadheads (1983)
8. Exit Lines (1984)
9. Child's Play (1986)
10. Under World (1988)
11. Bones and Silence (1990)
12. One Small Step (1990)
13. Recalled to Life (1992)
14. Pictures of Perfection (1994)
15. The Wood Beyond (1995)
16. Asking For The Moon (1996) [four novellas]
17. On Beulah Height (1998)
18. Arms and the Women (1999)
19. Dialogues Of The Dead (2001)
20. Death's Jest Book (2002)
21. Good Morning, Midnight (2004)
22. Death Comes for the Fat Man (2007)
     aka The Death of Dalziel
23. A Cure for All Diseases (2008)
     aka The Price of Butcher's Meat
24. Midnight Fugue (2009)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The House Without a Key: Earl Derr Biggers (RIP #5)

I recently read the first Charlie Chan mystery, The House Without a Key. I have seen many of the Charlie Chan films, and I have always enjoyed them, but I had not read any of the books. I was pleasantly surprised that I found this first book very enjoyable. My husband was the first to try them and he has enjoyed all of the Charlie Chan books that he has read (four of the six in the series).

The book has a complex plot that held my interest. A family originally from Boston, the Winterslips, has some members living in Hawaii. One of the wealthy Winterslips living in Hawaii is murdered. A younger member of the family, John Quincy Winterslip, has been sent to Boston to check up on his Aunt Minerva and persuade her to return to Boston. He arrives in Honolulu the day after the murder. He gets involved in the investigation and is determined to see it through to the end, before he returns to the mainland.

It turns out that the owner of a hotel is suspected of the murder. His daughter has recently returned to the islands and John Quincy is enchanted by her, and by his cousin Barbara (the daughter of the victim). Plus he has a fiancee back in Boston. This sub-plot of his various possible love interests is entertaining.

The Charlie Chan character has been controversial, especially in the movies. In the books, his speech is not perfect English but he is striving to speak English well. And he is never an object of ridicule. Charlie Chan does not show up until later in the book, and in some ways he seems to be in the background during the investigation. But it is clearly his intellect and detection that solves the crime.

Initially the Winterslips from Boston are shocked to see a Chinese detective in the police and are reluctant for the murder case to be assigned to him. The local residents who know Chan defend his capabilities and extol his virtues as an investigator.

I also enjoyed the picture this book gives us of Hawaii and Honolulu in the 1920's. This book is the second book I have read for the 50 State Mystery Challenge at Goodreads.

This post is my fifth for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event. That event celebrates reading of books of mystery and suspense.

I would like to point out an interesting recent book: Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang. My husband and son have both read this book and encouraged me to read it. I may wait until I have read more of the books, because it could spoil some of the stories for me.

In this review of the book by Huang at the Washington Post, Michael Dirda notes that "Huang does somehow neglect the most obvious aspect of the Chan books and movies: their status as mysteries, as minor works of art." Nevertheless, he also considers it a "terrifically enjoyable and informative book, one that should appeal to both students of racial history and to fans of one of cinema's greatest detectives."

This book also counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
New Author Challenge
1st in a Series Challenge
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

New (to me) Authors, July - September

Today I am joining in on the meme on best new-to-me crime fiction authors 2012 at Mysteries in Paradise. The goal is to share authors that are new-to-us this year, especially the ones we liked. This meme runs at the end of each quarter. Check out other posts for this quarter.

This quarter I have read books by five authors that I have never read before. None of them are new authors. Several of them have established continuing series.
  1. Whiskey Sour by J. A. Konrath
  2. The Suspect by L. R. Wright
  3. Lament for the Bride by Helen Reilly 
  4. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  5. The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi

Whiskey Sour is the first novel of a mystery series written by J. A. Konrath. Lieutenant Jacqueline 'Jack' Daniels is a detective in the Chicago Police Department. Her partner is Herb, a family man. He is supportive and a calming influence on Jack. The book was a quick read and enjoyable. The story is told in first person, with Jack as the narrator. There are chapters giving the killer's point of view. Those chapters were creepy and graphic, but I do find I enjoy novels that give us more than one point of view. However, the humor in this series did not appeal to me and I probably won't continue the series.

Of all the new authors I read this quarter, The Suspect by L. R. Wright was my favorite. This book won the 1986 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel of the year, and it was the first Canadian novel to do so. This is an inverted mystery; we know from the beginning who committed the murder. Since the reader knows whodunit, the reader is more concerned with how the culprit is caught. And, in the case of this book, why did he do it? The novel is set in Sechelt, which is on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, Canada.

Lament for the Bride, published in 1951, is a vintage mystery novel, part of a long series featuring Inspector McKee of the Manhattan Homicide Squad. It is a hybrid, part romantic suspense, part police procedural. This is a story of its time -- the 1950’s. The characters are mostly rich and powerful, or once rich and powerful. People who are used to having money being about to do what they want. The bride is from outside of that world, a woman who worked for a company her husband owns. Only the bride's motivations and character are fully fleshed out. The remaining characters are murky and threatening. This is the first Helen Reilly novel I have read. I would like to read some of the earlier mysteries that focus more on McKee and his police work.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was a fun mystery to read. The story, narrated by a precocious 11-year-old as the detective, is set in 1950, and reflects some of the hardships of post-War Britain. Set in an English village, this is the typical cozy with quirky characters and a kindly policeman. Flavia de Luce, our charming protagonist, lives in a decrepit old mansion with her father, her two sisters, and an old friend of her father’s, Dogger, who is now the gardener. Dogger and her father were both soldiers during the war, and Dogger came back with severe psychological problems.

The Tattoo Murder Case is a vintage mystery by a Japanese author, Akimitsu Takagi.  It was published in 1948 and translated into English in 1998 by Deborah Boehm. The story is set in Tokyo and it involves the tattoo culture in Japan. At the time, tattoos were illegal in Japan. I enjoyed the book for the picture of Japan at the time. I found this to be a good and enjoyable mystery, at times, but I did have quibbles with some elements. Nevertheless, I recommend it highly.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Mysteries in September and Pick of the Month

I read five books in September and all of them were mysteries. I was working on a very long non-fiction book during the month, but I think this was just one of my slow reading months.

For the second month in a row, all of the books I read were set in earlier times. Three of them are historical mysteries, and the others were vintage mysteries. I enjoyed all of the books I read this month.

The mysteries I read this month were:
  1. The One from the Other by Philip Kerr
  2. A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr
  3. Lament for the Bride by Helen Reilly 
  4. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  5. The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi
The Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme is hosted at Mysteries in Paradise. Bloggers link to summary posts for the month, and identify a crime fiction best read of the month.

My favorite book of this month was... The One from the Other by Philip Kerr.

This book was the fourth in a series about Bernie Gunther, a private detective in post-war Germany. He is a former policeman who was in the military in the Great War and in World War II. Gunther was the protagonist of three earlier books by Philip Kerr, published in 1989, 1990, and 1991. Together they were republished as a trilogy: Berlin Noir. I read that trilogy six years ago. This month I picked up the series again, reading the fourth and fifth books in the series.

Like the first three books, The One from the Other is written in the hard-boiled style of Raymond Chandler, told in first person narrative and loaded with similes. I liked everything about this book. The story, the setting, the portrayal of the characters. The overall feeling of the book is gloomy and resigned; the picture of Germany at the time is depressing. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to read.

Monday, October 1, 2012

T is for The Tattoo Murder Case (RIP #4)

The Tattoo Murder Case is a vintage mystery by a Japanese author, Akimitsu Takagi.  It was published in 1948 and translated into English in 1998 by Deborah Boehm. The story is set in Tokyo and it involves the tattoo culture in Japan. At the time, tattoos were illegal in Japan.
In the Soho edition that I read, these paragraphs precede the story:
In the shadowy depths of Mount Togakusbi in Nagano Prefecture, there lived three powerful, wicked sorcerers who were masters of the black arts of magic and enchantment. These mysterious magicians were known as Tsuneciabime, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru, and their legendary exploits have been the subjects of folk tales, Kabuki plays, woodblock prints, and some of the most spectacular Japanese art tattoos ever created.

This is the tragic story of three of those tattoos.
Another edifying element of the story was the portrayal of Japan after World War II. The book starts with these sentences:
It was the summer of 1947, and the citizens of Tokyo, already crushed with grief and shock over the loss of the war, were further debilitated by the languid heat. The city was ravaged. Seedy-looking shacks had sprung up on the messy sites of bombed-out buildings. Makeshift shops overflowed with colorful black-market merchandise, but most people were still living from hand to mouth.  
Since I am introducing these elements of the book first, you can probably tell that I enjoyed the book for the picture of Japan at the time, and opening my eyes to tattoo culture in that country. I found this to be a good and enjoyable mystery, at times, but I did have quibbles with some elements.

This book is my pick for the 2012 Crime Fiction Alphabet for the letter T. Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise for other entries for this letter. 

This post is also my fourth submission for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event. That event celebrates reading of books of mystery and suspense. This book has some very creepy elements, and it is an example of the locked room mystery.

Also counts towards a few other challenges: the Vintage Mystery Challenge and the Japanese Literature Challenge, and the New Authors Challenge.
The main protagonist in this novel is Kenzo Matsushita, a medical school graduate who was a medic in the military. Suffering from the effects of the war, he is now living rent-free with his elder brother and hoping to join the medical staff of the police. His brother is a Detective Chief Inspector in the Tokyo police department. Thus Kenzo gets involved in this very bizarre case involving the tattoo culture and gangsters.

This novel turns out to be of the Sherlock Holmes / Watson type, with a Genius Detective, in this case Kyosuke Kamizu. Kyosuke is an old friend of Kenzo's, also a doctor, and also recently back from military duty and a detention camp in Java. And our genius does not show up until page 209 of this 324 page novel. This was a (very) minor quibble I had with this book. Between the murder and the arrival of Kyosuke, much time was spent on the police and Kenzo spinning their wheels, waiting for some break. That may be realistic, but then a genius showing up to figure it all out is not realistic.

I also had problems with the translation. The Library of Congress describes the book as "translated and adapted by Deborah Boehm." There were additions to supplement the text (apparently). This paragraph seemed to contain such comments:
The three men shared a light meal of rice, miso soup with tofu and straw mushrooms, grilled butterfish, and various savory side dishes. (Daiyu's wife Mariko, as was customary, served them in silence, then ate by herself later in the kitchen.) Between bites, Daiyu and Kyosuke poked good-natured fun at ...
The book was an enjoyable read. Yet, such asides seemed out of place and took me out of the story.This review at Scene of the Crime also comments on these aspects of the translation, and covers aspects of the book that I have not discussed.

Even with the aspects that I personally found negative, I would highly recommend this book. Definitely worth the read. I will seek out the other two books by Takagi that have English translations:
Honeymoon to Nowhere 

My husband rated this book very highly at Goodreads. Here is his elegantly brief review:
A complex and exceedingly clever murder mystery set in post-WWII Tokyo. And in classic tradition, the solution (no, I'm not saying what it is) is all laid out for us in the last few chapters. Quite a pleasure to read.