Friday, November 30, 2012

Mysteries in November and Pick of the Month

This month I read a lot of mysteries. A total of nine, a lot for me. And while I was reading these, I was plugging away at my looooong non-fiction book, The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans. I probably got so much read because I had two weeks vacation and traveled by airplane to Alabama, thus having much more available reading time.

The mysteries I read this month were:
  1. The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
  2. The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson
  3. The Dead Can Tell by Helen Reilly
  4. To Play the Fool by Laurie R. King
  5. With Child by Laurie R. King
  6. The Judas Sheep by Stuart Pawson
  7. The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
  8. A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell
  9. The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor
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.

I liked most of the books I read this month, but I can easily pick a clear favorite: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell. This is a historical mystery set in the years between World War I and World War II. It is also the first book of a series (of four, so far).

I loved this book. I was tentative at the beginning... but at the halfway point, I found that I was hooked by the story and by the main character, Hannah Vogel, a crime reporter in Berlin in 1931. The Great War and the changes in Germany in the years following the war have impacted her life greatly, as it did most people in Europe. The last few chapters of the book were a roller coaster ride. The book did not end at all like I expected, and I liked the ending a lot.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Judas Sheep: Stuart Pawson

The Judas Sheep is the third book in the Charlie Priest series by Stuart Pawson. It was published in 1996. There are now thirteen books in the series, the last published in 2010.

I read the first two books in the series, The Picasso Scam and The Mushroom Man, a few years ago. I liked both of them very much, and plan to read further books in the series.

Excerpt from the book description at the author's website:
Detective Inspector Charlie Priest of the Yorkshire force is officially on leave, but his superiors call him in when Mrs Marina Norris’s chauffeur is found dead by a blast to the head with a Kalashnikov. Charlie is the first to learn that Mrs Norris herself hasn’t been home since the murder, though her husband, a tobacco millionaire, seems unfazed by this fact. Charlie’s certain there’s a link between the murder and the disappearance – but leads are sparse and he has to come off the case.

Soon he’s back in harness again, this time on the trail of drug smugglers on the Hull-Rotterdam run.
Description of Charlie Priest at the author's website:
He is head of CID in the mythical town of Heckley, situated in what was once called the Heavy Woollen District of Yorkshire, somewhere near Huddersfield and Halifax. (Fact is stranger than fiction: this part of the country is undoubtedly the Serial Killer capital of Great Britain. And for a hundred years this particular area supplied all the nation’s public executioners.) Charlie believes in doing things by the book. It’s just that, in the heat of the chase, he sometimes turns over two pages at once.
There is much more interesting information on the series and the author at that site.

The books about Charlie Priest are police procedurals. Charlie is a likeable fellow; he has a life outside of work, but he takes his work seriously. The books are told in the first person, narrated by Charlie. The first person narrative alternates with sections following the criminals told in third person. I like this style, and Pawson does it very well. The story is told with understated humor, especially in the portions from Charlie's point of view.

I was a bit disappointed in this book, it did not live up to my expectations. As in many police procedurals, the police are investigating several crimes, which later turn out to be interrelated. The reader knows a lot about the crimes and who is committing them along the way, so there are no real surprises at the end. I kept expecting some surprise or twist at the end. It is more a "how will they catch them" than a "whodunnit".

I seem to have forgotten that the first one in the series followed the same framework; I saw reviews for The Picasso Scam that commented on this. There are advantages and strengths to telling the story this way. The reader gets profiles of the criminals also and can see their motivations. In some ways, a more rounded story.

Charlie is such a nice person, you could almost think that this is a cozy (based on my description). He gets along with his co-workers and his superiors. But there are gritty elements. The crimes are serious and the criminals are immoral and depraved. Descriptions of crimes are not sugar-coated, but neither are they over-emphasized.

I don't want to scare away potential readers of this series. I firmly believe the Charlie Priest series is a great series. I have several more in the series and I will be reading them. This one just wasn't my favorite. The author says that they can be read in any order; I would recommend starting with the first one, The Picasso Scam.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Secret Adversary: Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary is the first book in a brief series by Agatha Christie starring Tommy and Tuppence. The series consists of only five books, and one of those is a short story collection. This book was published in 1922 and was only Christie's second novel. Tommy and Tuppence are two young adventurers, out of work and running out of money in the months following World War I.

I was aware when I began reading this book that a lot of Agatha Christie fans do not consider it one of her better works. Even Robert Barnard had unkind words for the Tommy and Tuppence in his appreciation of Agatha Christie, A Talent to Deceive, calling them "everyone's least favorite Christie sleuths," although he considered this book the best of that series.

I remember reading some of the Tommy and Tuppence series when I was younger, and those books were among my favorites. So I wanted to give this book a try. And I was very happy with the results. Tommy and Tuppence did not disappoint me.

The Secret Adversary is an espionage thriller. The story is not as serious as today's espionage books; the issues are more black and white. I see it more as a lighthearted entertainment. There is a love story, which of course ends happily.

Tommy and Tuppence meet accidentally, discuss their unhappy situations, and decide to join forces to hire themselves out as adventurers. Even before they put out an advertisement, Tuppence is accosted by a man who proposes to hire her. Then he turns out to be part of a nefarious plot to find and expose a draft treaty which could compromise the British government. Soon they are involved with British intelligence and other persons interested in tracking down the young woman who was carrying the treaty.

The plot gets very complicated very quickly. Most of the action and events are either foolhardy or unbelievable, but I found it was fun and kept me entertained. I like Tuppence because she was a strong female character, spoke her mind, and was not afraid to lead the way. I liked Tommy because he was not brilliant but he had common sense.

This is the first book I have officially read for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, hosted by  Mysteries In Paradise. If you are interested in joining in, here are instructions on how to do that.

Friday, November 23, 2012

With Child: Laurie R. King

This book is the third of the Kate Martinelli mysteries by Laurie R. King. The novels feature a policewoman as the main protagonist, but the stories are not typical police procedurals. With Child focuses in part on the homeless community, as did the second book in the series, To Play a Fool (review here). The second and third books both deal as much with Kate's personal growth and development as with the detection of a crime.

In this book, Kate is living alone for a while and her lover is visiting an aunt in the Puget Sound area of Washington. Kate befriends a twelve-year-old girl, Jules, the daughter of her partner's fiancé. From the description on the back of my paperback edition:
Jules is worried about her friend Dio, a homeless boy she met in a park.  Dio has disappeared without a word of farewell, and Jules wants Kate to find him. Reluctant as she is, Kate can't say no--and soon she finds herself forming a  friendship with the bright, quirky girl.  But the search for Dio will prove to be much more than both bargained for--and it's only the beginning.
As with the previous book in the series, I enjoyed this story more for the writing style than the plot. The characterizations are also very good. I am not saying the plot is not well done; I am saying that the plot dwells more on the issues than on crime detection. I would like a more equal mix.

This book was less than 300 pages long, but it felt long. Not because it was slow; it definitely moved and kept my interest. Maybe because it seemed to be in sections ... first dealing with Dio's disappearance and Kate's developing relationship with Jules; later with an investigation into an abduction.

To sum it up, I like this series and I intend to continue it to the end. I will be interested to see what the next two books in the series bring and where they take Kate.

Laurie R. King has written another series and several standalone mysteries. The other series is about a young woman, Mary Russell, who meets Sherlock Holmes in his later years. The series begins with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, which I have read (several years ago). I liked it; it also was very well written, although the style is different. But it did not entice me to read the next in the series right away, and I have never ventured further with that series. I may remedy that in 2013.

This description is from the author bio at Amazon:
In the Mary Russell series (first entry: The Beekeeper's Apprentice), fifteen-year-old Russell meets Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs in 1915, becoming his apprentice, then his partner. The series follows their amiably contentious partnership into the 1920s as they challenge each other to ever greater feats of detection.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Crime Fiction Alphabet 2012

2012 was the first year I participated in the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme, sponsored by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

Looking over my posts for the meme at this time, I don't see a theme. I concentrated on authors I really like, but a few listed here are not my favorites. I think all the books I featured are interesting books, but not all of the books lived up to my expectations.

I don't rate books in my blog but I do when I put them on Goodreads. The books in this list that I rated as 5 stars are:

Spy Hook by Len Deighton
An Empty Death by Laura Wilson
Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout
A Lily of the Field by John Lawton

Here are my posts ...

A is for Eric Ambler

B is for Robert Barnard

C is for The Cambridge Theorem by Tony Cape (a spy novel)

D is for Len Deighton (with a review of Spy Hook)

E is for An Empty Death by Laura Wilson
(the second novel in a mystery series set in World War II London)

F is for Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout
(my favorite book by my favorite mystery author)

G is for Elizabeth George

H is for Cyril Hare
(with reviews of With a Bare Bodkin and An English Murder)

I is for The Information Officer by Mark Mills

J is for Sébastien Japrisot
(with a review of The Sleeping Car Murders, a very unusual mystery)

K is for Stuart M. Kaminsky
(with reviews of Death of a Russian Priest and Bullet for a Star)

L is for John Lawton
(with reviews of Flesh Wounds and A Lily of the Field)

M is for Charles McCarry

N is for Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh

O is for Anthony Oliver
(with a review of The Property of a Lady)

P is for Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

Q is for A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr

R is for Helen Reilly

S is for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

T is for The Tattoo Murder Case, a vintage mystery by Japanese author, Akimitsu Takagi

U is for Under World by Reginald Hill

V is for Philo Vance and S. S. Van Dine
(with a review of The Greene Murder Case)

W is for R. D. Wingfield
(with a review of A Touch of Frost)

X is for XPD by Len Deighton

Y is for The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

Z is for Zombies of the Gene Pool by Sharyn McCrumb

Len Deighton is the only author I covered twice, and that is because it is hard to find a title or author for X, and because I just discovered him this year. I read nine books by Len Deighton this year. And hope to read three more this year, to finish off the Bernard Samson series.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Dead Can Tell: Helen Reilly

This is the second book that I have read by Helen Reilly, a mystery author who wrote from 1930 through the early 1960's. I found this as a reasonably priced e-book right before my trip to Alabama, and I was glad I had it to read on the airplane, when my paperback mystery was placed in a bag that I could not get to.

Most of the mysteries by Helen Reilly feature Inspector McKee, also referred to as The Scotsman. Per Michael Grost (at this page), her mysteries "were among the first American novels to stress police procedure." Some of her later books ran more to romantic suspense, though they still included detecting by Inspector McKee.

In September of this year, I read Lament for the Bride, and my review is here. I had mixed feelings about that book. I also profiled Helen Reilly in this post.

The Dead Can Tell is similar to Lament for a Bride in that a lot of the focus is on a young woman and her romantic entanglements. She becomes involved in a crime which goes unsolved for quite a long time. The plot follows her relationship problems and Inspector McKee's investigation. I was glad to see that this one featured McKee and his coworker, Todhunter, more than the previous book.

Overall, I was not impressed with this book. Too much emphasis on the romance for me. There were clues to the culprit and I was surprised to discover who it was. My next foray into the mysteries of Helen Reilly will be a book that emphasizes the police and detection more, I hope.

However, the descriptive passages in some parts of the book were superb. I don't usually pay much attention to that aspect, but they really stood out here.

Some samples:
November sunlight streamed gaudily through the wide windows. It couldn't dissipate the fog banks of mounting bewilderment and the ever-increasing dread folding themselves around her, drawing closer in.

His eyes rested moodily on the big black Cadillac beyond the rickety white gateposts waiting to take him back to New York. Poison ivy wreathed a flaming mantle of scarlet in and out of the fence pickets and spread itself over the tawny grass below. Wind whipped the leaves. The weather had turned cold.
One of my favorite things about Helen Reilly is that she has a lot of books in lovely Dell mapback editions. I have a few of those, but I don't have this one.You can see some examples at my other posts on Helen Reilly and her mysteries.

It is getting close to the end of the year and I am trying to finish up some challenges. This book gets me close to completing the Vintage Mystery Challenge.

Monday, November 19, 2012

To Play the Fool: Laurie R. King

The Kate Martinelli mysteries by Laurie R. King feature a policewoman as the main protagonist and they deal with crime, but the stories are not about typical cases. At least not the two I have read most recently. While I was on my trip to Alabama I read the 2nd and 3rd books in the series: To Play the Fool and With Child.

It is difficult to review the books in the Kate Martinelli series because I cannot say much about the characters and some elements of the plots without revealing major plot points in the first book in the series. The first book, A Grave Talent, is a more conventional story of a hunt for a serial killer. That book won the 1994 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

In my opinion, the books in the series should be read in order. In a sense, each is self-contained, and could be enjoyed on its own. Regardless, I am going to keep my comments on the plots and the characters fairly general because I don't like to reveal spoilers for previous books.

What I like about the Laurie R. King mysteries is her style of writing. She pulls me into the story immediately, she keeps me interested and she tells a good story.  My interest never drops off. On the negative side, in this book, I felt like the theme of the book overpowers the story and there is little of the mystery plot left. It isn't that I did not enjoy the book, but I would have preferred a stronger integration of themes and mystery plot. The positive side of her different approach to these mysteries is that she isn't writing the same book over and over.

In To Play the Fool, the victims and the possible culprits are in the homeless community, and we get a look at homelessness in San Francisco. Another major theme is the Holy Fool in religion, which is a topic that the author has heavily researched. Both of these themes is very interesting, and I was entertained (and educated) throughout, but the mystery took 3rd or 4th place here and the resolution was a let down to me.

The Fool in this novel is Brother Erasmus. He has a following both among the homeless in the park and at the University of California, Berkeley campus. He is a very charismatic man, and appears to be harmless. Yet he is a suspect in the murder of another homeless man in the park.

The author describes her character at her website:
One of the distinct characteristics of my particular Fool is that he speaks in the words of others. When asked a question, Erasmus retrieves a quote from the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare, or a number of other sources and applies it to the situation at hand.

This makes the job of a police interrogation somewhat tricky.
Kate Martinelli and her partner, Al Hawken, want to question Erasmus and determine if he could be the murderer, but are stymied by his behavior. Kate spends a large part of the book researching this character and his behavior.

I highly recommend this book. I usually don't have problems with mystery novels where the mystery is secondary, but in this case I think that was overdone. Regardless, I think it is a worthwhile read. Many reviewers had no complaints in that area.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge

I saw this challenge, hosted by Have Books, Will Travel, at a couple of blogs I check in with frequently (My Reader's Block  and Valli's Book Den). It looked like a challenge I would enjoy and yet not too demanding, so I am joining in also.

The primary goal of the challenge is to read books set in 80 different countries (and/or written by authors from the countries) over a period of five years. Other than that, the blogger sets their own goals. I only say this is not demanding because the challenge covers five years and the blogger sets the time frame. Obviously, toward the end, it may be difficult to come up with books from countries not yet covered. Check here for the rules and the sign-up post.

These are my rules:

  • I have five years to complete my journey. My start date is November 18 , 2012 and my end date will be November 17, 2017.
  • I'm counting books that take place in a particular country. If a book takes place in multiple countries then I will only count it towards the country that it is primarily set in. It does not matter what country the author is from. But, given a choice, I would go with the author and the book from the same country.
  • Where feasible I will do some research on the country, and include some background knowledge that that may interesting in my reviews. That will not be a hard and fast rule.
  • I will donate 80 books to a charity that holds an annual book sale as a fund raiser.

Country List:

  6.  BRAZIL
  7.  CANADA
  8.  CHILE
  9.  CHINA
  11.  CONGO
  13.  CUBA
  15.  DENMARK
  17.  ECUADOR
  18.  EGYPT
  20.  ENGLAND:  The Vault Ruth Rendell (December 2012)
  22.  FINLAND
  23.  FRANCE
  24.  GERMANY:  A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell (November 2012)
  25.  GREECE
  27.  HAITI
  28.  HUNGARY
  29.  ICELAND
  30.  INDIA 
  32.  IRAQ
  33.  IRELAND
  34.  ISRAEL
  35.  ITALY
  37.  JAMAICA 
  38.  JAPAN
  39.  KENYA
  42.  LIBYA
  43.  MALTA
  44.  MEXICO
  46.  MOROCCO
  48.  MYANMAR (formally Burma)
  49.  NAMIBIA
  51.  NEPAL
  53.  NIGERIA
  55.  NORWAY
  57.  PANAMA
  58.  PERU
  60.  POLAND
  62.  ROMANIA
  63.  RUSSIA
  64.  RWANDA
  68.  SPAIN
  69.  SRI LANKA
  71.  SUDAN
  72.  SWEDEN
  75.  TURKEY
  76.  UGANDA
  77.  UKRAINE
  80.  VIETNAM

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013: Scattergories

This is the first challenge I have joined for 2013. I am taking part in the Canadian Reading Challenge which runs from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013, but this is the first one starting in the new year. The challenge is hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block. I participated in the 2012 challenge and dipped back into my vintage mysteries for some of my reading.

The challenge sign-up link is here.
  1. The challenge runs from January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2013.
  2. Mystery novels for the challenge must have been originally written before 1960. Short story collections are permissible if all stories fit those guidelines. 
  3. Bev has named a large number of Vintage Categories. The goal is to read books from at least eight of the categories. The categories are listed at the sign-up post. More catergories may be added so I will not list all of them here. 
  4. Once you have met the 8 book minimum, you may repeat any category (except the last one, Get Out of Jail Free) any number of times to reach the 16+ level. 
  5. There are more rules and explanations. See the sign-up post for further information.
Vintage Categories that will work for me: 

Murder by the Numbers: a book with a number, quantity in the title 
Leave It to the Professionals: a book featuring cops, private eyes, secret service, professional spies, etc. 
World Traveler: one mystery set in any country except the US or Britain 
Amateur Night: a book with a "detective" who is not a P.I.; Police Officer; Official Investigator (Nurse Keate, Father Brown, Miss Marple, etc.)
Jolly Old England: one mystery set in Britain 
Locked Rooms: a locked-room mystery 
Country House Criminals: a standard (or not-so-standard) Golden Age country house murder 
Murder Is Academic: a mystery involving a scholar, teacher, librarian, etc.  OR set at a school, university, library, etc. 
Repeat Offenders: a mystery featuring your favorite series detective or by your favorite author (the books/authors you'd read over and over again) OR reread an old favorite   
A Mystery By Any Other Name: any book that has been published under more than one title (Murder Is Easy--aka Easy to Kill [Christie]; Fog of Doubt--aka London Particular [Christianna Brand], etc.) 
Dynamic Duos: a mystery featuring a detective team--Holmes & Watson, Pam & Jerry North, Wolfe & Goodwin, or....a little-known team that you introduce to us. 
Get Out of Jail Free: This is a freebie category.  One per customer. 

My goal is to read 16 books that fit these categories in 2013.

And here is my list:

Scene of the CrimeMurder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Yankee Doodle Dandy: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Jolly Old England: Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Get Out of Jail Free (cross-genre, sci-fi and mystery)The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
Serial Killers: The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
Dangerous Beasts: The Chinese Parrot by Earl Derr Biggers
World Traveler: Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Beginnings: The Secret Adversary

Today, I have a submission for Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader. check the link to learn how to participate in the meme.

I enjoy participating because it forces me to stop and think about the book, why I like it (or not). And then I check out other posts and get some ideas for other types of books I may want to read. I tend to stay in the mystery genre, and it is good to consider other options.

I participated in this meme earlier in the year, then had some difficulties keeping up with a regularly scheduled event. But I am glad to get back to this meme and check out other posts submitted.

The  first lines of my book are...
It was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead.
The book is The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie, published in 1922.

Right away, the author tells us our time period and sets up an event that will guide the story for the remainder of the book. This is actually the beginning of a prologue. The book quickly moves to a year or so after World War I has ended.

This is a vintage mystery and one I probably read years ago. I am, however, planning on rereading a number of Agatha Christie books. This year I have been reading some books for the World War I Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations. Although this one does not focus on World War I, it does mention the problems that both men and women had finding jobs and readjusting to life following the Great War. And this time, as I read it, I have a little more understanding of that time.

I am enjoying reading this book. It is a lot less serious than the first few lines indicate, yet it is covering a serious subject. So far, my take is that it is an entertaining cozy mystery.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Z is for Zombies of the Gene Pool

In 1987, Sharyn McCrumb, best known for her series of Ballad novels, published a parody of a sci fi and fantasy convention, Bimbos of the Death Sun. Which I reviewed here. As I discussed in my review of the earlier book, this novel was a departure for McCrumb, although I do believe her earlier novels had more humor than her more recent works. I may be revealing my ignorance here. I have not read many books by McCrumb.

Five years later, McCrumb published a sequel to Bimbos of the Death Sun. This book is Zombies of the Gene Pool. Although the stories are definitely linked with the same two protagonists, Dr. James O. Mega and Marion, his girlfriend, and the other characters are a part of the sci fi community, the books are very different. There is still a lot of humor in the second novel, but the topics are handled in a more serious way.

This time the action is set mainly in Tennessee, near a fictional town called Wall Hollow. the original town of Wall Hollow was covered by a lake created by the Watauga Dam, built by the TVA to prevent flooding. (That part really happened; the real town was Butler, Tennessee.)

In 1954, a group of sci fi fans (self-named the Lanthanides) lived together on a farm near Wall Hollow. Per the book, the "lanthanides are the rare-earth series of elements." Most of them were aspiring authors, and they buried a time capsule which contained a short story by each person in the group, plus other artifacts. When the town is covered by a lake, the time capsule is also covered. Thirty five years later, the time this story is set, the lake is going to be drained to allow repairs to the dam, and the group have a chance to recover their time capsule. By this time, some of the group are very famous and wealthy; others are still fans, still writing fanzines; and others have moved on to other pursuits.

The group plans a reunion to dig up the time capsule, and that is what this story is about. James and Marion end up being a part of this group. James (Jay Omega is his pen name) and Marion are both professors at a college in their respective disciplines, Engineering and English. A colleague in the English department is one of the Lanthanides group, and invites them to come along. There is an explanation for this, but it is pretty tenuous.

In my opinion, the mystery plot in the first book, Bimbos, was not much of a mystery. This did not detract from my enjoyment of the book overall, except possibly the extended scene where the murderer is exposed.  

Zombies is also weak in that area. The death does not happen until halfway into the book, and even then it is not clear whether it is murder or not. Then our amateur detective rushes about to find clues, some of them via computers and bulletin boards. And the identity of the murderer was not particularly surprising, although I cannot say I guessed it ahead of time. But, again, this did not detract from the enjoyment of the book.

There is a lot of fun in this book. The characterization in this novel is much improved over the first in the series. There is an old writer, very successful, who is losing his memory and his abilities, and is accompanied by a young companion (and fan) who cares for him. There is another successful member, at least in terms of money and fame, Ruben Mystral, nicknamed "Bunzie." The descriptions of his inner dialogs between the part of him that wants to be the same as he was 35 years ago and the successful, pragmatic business man are priceless. And many others.

I liked this book and I liked it better than Bimbos of the Death Sun. Neither is great fiction, but they both have a lot to offer. My son, who reads more sci fi and fantasy books than he reads mysteries, read both books, once years ago and then again, recently. I was interested to find that he liked Bimbos better, of the two.

This author has a very interesting website, but she does not mention the two Jay Omega mysteries other than in a bibliography of her full works. Her site focuses mostly on the Ballad novels; see her bio page for a lot of background. It appears that all of her books are set in the South and many feature the Appalachian region. I have read the first book in the Ballad series. However, I did not find it compelling enough to rush to read the rest of them. I have a few of the Ballad series and I will give that series another try. The Elizabeth MacPherson series appeals to me. She is a forensic anthropologist later on in the series. I have a few of those also, which I will try. I would love to hear any comments or opinions of her other series.

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

Friday, November 9, 2012

In Alabama, Having Fun

I have traveled to Alabama to visit my mother, sister, and brother. I am having fun reminiscing and catching up. But missing my husband and son very much. Also having computer withdrawal, as my mother's computer is ancient and slow and uncooperative.

What is not fun? A twelve-hour trip from beginning to end, not even counting the time to get me to the airport  early in the a.m. Eight hours on a plane, four wandering around in airports.

On the plane flying to Alabama, I was planning to read a paperback, which got stowed in a carry on piece of luggage that I could not get to... so ended up switching to my tablet to read a vintage mystery. First time I have ever had two fiction books going at the same time. On the last flight of the day, I was forced to switch back to the tablet again since the light for my seat was useless. So I was very grateful to have the tablet as a resource.

Completed on the trip:
The Dead Can Tell by Helen Reilly (Kindle version, with a nice cover from the Dell mapback)

In progress:
To Play the Fool by Laurie R. King

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink: James Anderson

It is the 1930's, the Golden Age of the studio system in Hollywood. The Earl of Burford is smitten with films and especially with actors such as Errol Flynn and Rex Ransom. So when Hollywood producer Cyrus S. Haggermeir wants to use his country house for his next picture, Lord Burford invites him, and the star of his next film, Rex Ransom, to visit for a few days. The Countess is not pleased. And for this interesting weekend, a series of unplanned guests stream in until they have a large house party with a diverse set of characters.

This book is the second in a series of three country house mysteries by James Anderson. I had already read the first one (in 2005), and I remember enjoying that book very much. Why did it take me so long to get around to this one? Well, first I had to acquire a copy, and then, well... there are so many books I want to read. So, I just now got around to reading this one.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink has a very convoluted plot and the surprises keep coming to the very end. It is definitely a humorous mystery. I am prejudiced against humor in mysteries but this one proves how wrong I can be. It was laugh out loud funny at times, and I did have affection for many of the characters. Even the irritating daughter (Lady Gwendolyn) who can't decide between two beaus, and plays them against each other.

I read this mystery as my choice for a mystery parody for the Merely Mystery Reading Challenge 2012. This book is often cited in reviews as a parody. But the definition I read of a parody implies some derision of the genre or author being parodied, and I don't see that in this book at all. One definition at was "a humorous or satirical imitation of a serious piece of literature or writing." I will go with that version.

One does get a clue that this is written with a tongue-in-cheek attitude when fictional detectives John Appleby and Roderick Alleyn are mentioned as possible investigators who could be called in to solve the case.

I am a big fan of the country house mystery sub-genre. I re-discovered this when I read Farthing, the first book in an alternate history series by Jo Walton. I loved especially the interplay between the upper classes and the servants. That element is not so prevalent in this mystery, although Merryweather the butler plays a  significant role.

There are excellent reviews of this series out there, if you are interested in knowing more about each book. Here are a few of them:

William I. Lengeman III has a detailed article at with the title "Murder Among the Gentry: James Anderson’s Country House Mysteries." He also has individual posts on the books at his own blog, Traditional Mysteries. This mystery novel is also reviewed in detail here at the blog, At the Scene of the Crime. This blogger notes that this book is really a tribute rather than a parody.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Y is for The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel written by Michael Chabon. It crosses genres, being both an alternate history and a mystery, with elements of a conspiracy thriller. This book came to my attention via my husband, who read it first. And liked it well enough to keep it and recommend it to me.

The premise of this book, as described on the flyleaf of the book:
For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.

The story centers around a police detective, Meyer Landsman, and his partner, Berko. Meyer is Jewish, Berko is half Tlingit (and they are cousins). They are trying to resolve their open cases before they turn over their jobs to whatever agency takes over after the "Reversion." Complicating this scenario is their boss, Bina, who is Meyer's ex-wife. Bina is a "by the book" detective, Meyer is the opposite. And Meyer and Berko are told to drop their work on the case that this book revolves around. Of course, they do not.

I am featuring this novel as my selection for the letter Y in the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme, sponsored by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter. 

Critiquing a book by a renowned writer like Michael Chabon is hard. The novel won a number of science fiction awards, including the Hugo Award for Best Novel. In looking at reviews, I noticed that opinions were all over the place and the things I liked bothered other readers, and vice versa. As I read this book I had some nits to pick, but overall this was a good reading experience for me.

The book resembles a noir novel with a flawed detective and a crime that seems to be one thing but turns out to be much more. I got involved in the mystery and Meyer Landsman's story immediately. Some readers found the story slow; my husband commented on this when reading the first half, then found it improved from that point on. The plot was convoluted and it took a long time to uncover the immensity of the crime, but I imagine that is what real police work is like. I did find the mystery to be resolved to my satisfaction.

Chabon builds an alternate world in this book, with its own vocabulary, that I found at times distracting. There were invented words that were similar to Yiddish terms (I think). However, I adapted early on. I would find fault with the writing, then gradually adjust to things that were bothering me. My only complaint about the way he presents this world is that he ekes out the knowledge to the reader. Up until about halfway through the novel, I was very irritated at this.

Chabon writes beautiful descriptions, and at times these pop up just out of the blue, seemingly. But it was possible to the enjoy his descriptions and not get pulled out of the story. This example combines his skill at description and an invented word, the "shtekeleh":
The Filipino-style Chinese donut, or shtekeleh, is the great contribution of the District of Sitka to the food lovers of the world. In its present form, it cannot be found in the Philippines. No Chinese trencherman would recognize it as the fruit of his native fry kettles. Like the storm god Yahweh of Sumeria, the shtekeleh was not invented by the Jews, but the world would sport neither God nor the shtekeleh without Jews and their desires. A panatela of fried dough not quite sweet, not quite salty, rolled in sugar, crisp-skinned, tender inside, and honeycombed with air pockets. You sink it in your paper cup of milky tea and close your eyes, and for ten fat seconds, you seem to glimpse the possibility of finer things.
One thing I had a hard time adapting to was the use of present tense narrative. However, like all of the other complaints I had as I began reading... I eventually got used to it.

I found the overall story of the Reversion and the unknown fate of the Jews in Sitka depressing, and Meyer's view on life was depressing. There was no possibility for a real happy ending, but the book did not end on a negative note. Thus, the book was dark, but not ultimately a downer.

This book is not an easy read. I did not find it to be so, and I don't think that I am alone. The story is heavily built around Jewish culture, which makes sense given the plot. But as I don't have in-depth knowledge of Jewish culture, I don't know how much I missed. Chess was also central to the plot, and I have no background in chess. Nevertheless, I think I got the points he was making in the use of chess in the story. And I found it interesting. This book was definitely worth the effort.

Michael Chabon is not known as a mystery writer. This excerpt from his Wikipedia page describes his works and the themes he uses, most of which do show up in this novel:
His work is characterized by complex language, the frequent use of metaphor along with recurring themes, including nostalgia, divorce, abandonment, fatherhood, and most notably issues of Jewish identity. He often includes gay, bisexual, and Jewish characters in his work. Since the late 1990s, Chabon has written in an increasingly diverse series of styles for varied outlets; he is a notable defender of the merits of genre fiction and plot-driven fiction, and, along with novels, he has published screenplays, children's books, comics, and newspaper serials.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

European Reading Challenge 2012: Wrap Up Post

This year for the first time I participated in several reading challenges. The European Reading Challenge was one of the first I joined and it was a breeze to complete because I was eager to read each novel. One of my favorite topics in reading is World War II and I am primarily interested in Europe as a setting. Four of the books I read were related to World War II.

The goal of this challenge is: To read books by European authors or books set in European countries. The books can be fiction or non-fiction. Two further stipulations: Each book had to be by a different author, and for a different country.

I enjoyed reading about each country. All the books were not equally good (or perhaps I should say, enjoyable for me), but I learned something from each one. I think the one that was set in an area I am least familiar with is The Information Officer, set on the island of Malta. Norway and its history in World War II was also new to me; I have so much to learn about World War II history.

With the exception of Winter by Len Deighton, all of these books were in the mystery genre. Several were police procedurals; one was espionage fiction. Four of them were by authors new to me (Robert Wilson, Jo Nesbo, Ken Bruen, and Mark Mills).

Initially I had a goal of reading five books for this challenge. I ended up reading nine books. 

The books I read and reviewed:
Winter by Len Deighton (Germany)
The Company of Strangers by Robert Wilson (Portugal)
The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo (Norway)
Dying Light by Stuart MacBride (Scotland, UK)
The Guards by Ken Bruen (Ireland)
The Light of Day by Eric Ambler (Turkey)
The Information Officer by Mark Mills (Malta)
Death of a Russian Priest by Stuart Kaminsky (Russia)
The Sleeping-Car Murders by Sebastien Japrisot (France) 

Visit this post at Rose City Reader to see other wrap up posts for this challenge.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

R.I.P. VII Wrap Up Post

I read five books and watched two perilous movies for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event. That event celebrates reading books of mystery and suspense and viewing films (or TV) in the same area.

This was a fun event for me and I am glad I joined in. I enjoyed visiting the R.I.P. Review Site where participants posted links to any book or screen posts related to this event.

The books I read for this event were...
  1. The One from the Other by Philip Kerr
  2. Lament for the Bride by Helen Reilly 
  3. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  4. The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi
  5. The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers
I viewed two films for this event and both were a little out of my comfort level. I like action movies, but tension and lots of suspense are not what I am looking for in a movie. As usual, after I have watched the movie, I can look back and appreciate its good points. The films I viewed for this event were...Shutter Island and Rear Window. You can check out my posts to see my reaction to them.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mysteries in October and Pick of the Month

I upped my reading total to six books in October. As usual, all of them were mysteries.

The mysteries I read this month were:
  1. The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers
  2. The Greene Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine
  3. A Touch of Frost by R. D. Wingfield
  4. Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb
  5. Zombies of the Gene Pool by Sharyn McCrumb
  6. XPD by Len Deighton
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.

Two were vintage mysteries and I was reading those authors (Biggers and Van Dine) for the first time.  The other four were published between 1979 and 1992.

It is difficult to pick a favorite. The top three were, without a doubt, The House Without a KeyA Touch of Frost and XPD.

I guess my pick for best book this month would be... 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. The plot was more complex than I expected. Charlie was less front and center in this book than he is in the movies. He did not show up until later in the book, and in some ways he seemed to be in the background during the investigation. But it is clearly his intellect and detection that solves the crime.

X is for XPD

XPD is an espionage novel published in 1981 and set in 1979. The premise is that Hitler and Churchill had a secret meeting in 1940, and there are several groups competing to either expose documents about this meeting or suppress them.

The author of this book, Len Deighton, is a man of many talents and varied interests. In his youth, he completed his National Service as a photographer for the RAF, in the Special Investigations Branch. After his discharge, he studied art. He was an illustrator and an Art Director. After he had published his first novels, he became The Observer's cookery writer. In addition to novels, he also wrote several non-fiction books about military history and cooking.

For some reason, even though I have long been a fan of espionage fiction, Deighton was not an author I had read before this year.  The first book I read this year was the first book he wrote, The Ipcress File. From there I moved on to the Bernard Samson novels; I have read six of nine in that series, plus Winter, which is not an espionage novel, but provides background for some characters in that series. And now I have read XPD.

In XPD, the British Secret Intelligence Service is working against Soviet agents to find the long hidden documents, although both groups want to suppress them. There is a group of former SS officers in Germany who are also trying to manipulate the outcome. Also involved is a group of ex-U.S. military staff who looted a large amount of gold at the end of World War II.

When there are so many characters interacting, there will inevitably be many plot threads that the reader must follow, and Deighton balances them very well. I was a bit worried when some reviews mentioned a convoluted plot. It is that... but not a problem to follow. And I often have problems following complex plots. I did not find the plot implausible. Like a good thriller film, the action moves so quickly that the reader doesn't stop to question the events.

Per this post at the Deighton Dossier blog, re the reissue of XPD in 2009: "XPD is a term coined by Deighton for the novel. It stands for 'expedient demise', sanctioned acts of murder or 'wet jobs' necessary to protect state secrets and security."

One interesting aspect of this book for me was that a large part of the action was set in California, in the Los Angeles area. Living in Southern California, I was familiar with a lot of the areas. And it involved the making of a film about the looting of the gold from a salt mine where it had been stored, which alerts the SIS to the problem of possible exposure; the comments on the building of sets for the World War II time period were intriguing.

XPD was written prior to the Bernard Samson series, and I can see similarities and differences. One of the main protagonists in XPD is a member of the British SIS, just as Bernard Samson is. Most of the Bernard Samson novels are told in first person, whereas XPD is told in third person. Thus, the Bernard Samson series seems more personal to me. While reading XPD, I was very interested in the outcome and entertained throughout, but never really involved in any of the characters.

Links to my reviews of the Bernard Samson series, so far:

Berlin Game (1983)
Mexico Set (1984) and London Match (1985)
Winter (1987) [related but not a part of the series]
Spy Hook (1988)
Spy Line (1989) and Spy Sinker (1990)

The Deighton Dossier is an extensive resource on Len Deighton and his books, with more about his life and book covers he designed.

I am featuring this novel as my selection for the letter X in the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme, sponsored by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for the letter X.