Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Blanche on the Lam: Barbara Neely

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Reading Summary for April 2017

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


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

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



Following are the crime fiction books I read in April:

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


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Butcher's Boy: Thomas Perry

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


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

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

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


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

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Over My Dead Body: Rex Stout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Sunday, April 30, 2017

This is a Bust: Ed Lin

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


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

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

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


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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Wall of Glass: Walter Satterthwait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 -----------------------------

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


Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Blackhouse: Peter May

Description from the dust jacket of my edition:
When a grisly murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides that bears the hallmarks of the work of a similar killer on the Scottish mainland, Edinburgh detective and native  islander  Fin Macleod is dispatched to investigate, embarking at the same time on a voyage into his own troubled past.
At the beginning of the story, the reader learns two things about Fin Macleod. He has been taking some time away from his job as a police detective in Edinburgh because his son died a few weeks earlier and his relationship with his wife is not very good. His boss insists that he return to work and sends him off to the Isle of Lewis to investigate a murder there, since Fin was an investigating officer on the similar case that occurred in Edinburgh.

Fin is not exactly welcomed when he arrives in the village where he grew up. The DCI in charge, Tom Smith, doesn't want his help or his expertise. His old friends and acquaintances are wary, at best, since he hasn't been back to the island in 20 years.


The story consists primarily of flashbacks to Fin Macleod's childhood intermingled with Fin's experiences on the island as he renews old relationships. I usually like a mystery that is as much about the characters in the book as about the detection of the crime, but in this case it seemed like there was too much of the protagonist's backstory and not enough about the crime. That part of the book seems like an afterthought, although both stories come together at the end.

This was Peter May's goal when writing the book. From an interview at Visit Scotland, May says:
When someone becomes known as a crime writer, publishers and booksellers expect all future books to be in the same genre. The Blackhouse had a crime in it, but as far as I was concerned the crime was nothing more than a vehicle to tell the personal story of Fin Macleod, his life and his upbringing on the island.
The most effective part of this book is the setting and the atmosphere. It is the protagonist's memories of his childhood that provide us with a picture of life on the Isle of Lewis 20-30 years earlier. The story is powerful and well told.

May did not intend for this book to turn into a series, and had no desire to be tied to a lot of books about one character, but he was persuaded by his French publishers to write two more books featuring Fin. Even though I was not entirely satisfied with this book, I will read the next book in the series. I am very interested in how May continues it.

I am also very excited that the Enzo Files, an earlier series by Peter May, has been reissued in trade paperback editions. I have been looking for the first book in that series for years.

This series is hugely popular and if you haven't already read it, you should probably ignore my reservations and give it a try. See these other posts on The Blackhouse. Each of them have more information on the author, his other books, or the setting:



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Publisher:   SilverOak, 2012 (orig. publ. 2009 in France)
Length:       357 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Fin Macleod, #1
Setting:       Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Burglars Can't Be Choosers: Lawrence Block

The following overview of Lawrence Block's writing was in Marcia Muller's review of After the First Death (1969), first published in 1001 Midnights (1986, ed. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller).
Lawrence Block is a top-flight professional who has written numerous novels featuring extremely diverse characters and situations. His characterization ranges from the grim depths glimpsed in some of his non-series books and in his series about alcoholic ex-policeman Matthew Scudder, to the lightweight but amusing private eye/writer Chip Harrison, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and spy Evan Tanner. Whether Block is chronicling a deadly search or a playful romp, he is a consummate master of suspense and manages to keep his reader fearing for the safety of — and solidly rooting for — his protagonist until the last page is turned.
The Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block now consists of 11 books. The series started in 1977, although the first book, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, was not intended to be the start of a series. The most recent book was published in 2013. I read some of these books many years ago; they would have been from the first five books which were published between 1977 and 1983.

This post on Burglars Can't Be Choosers is my submission for Past Offences' monthly Crimes of the Century feature, for the year chosen for April, 1977.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar. He is proud and confident of his ability at his craft. However he is a loner, and his acquaintances and neighbors have no idea how he supports himself. He usually scouts out his own heists, but this time he accepts an assignment from a stranger to break into an apartment and steal a blue leather box. The problem is he can't find the blue box, and while he is searching for it two policemen come into the apartment. But, worst of all, there is a dead man in the bedroom. Bernie successfully eludes the policemen but he then has the problem of not being able to return to his apartment. Not wanting to leave New York, he begins to try to clear his name.

This is another series that I find most appealing for the characters. Bernie tells his story in first person, and he is a very likable character. I don't condone burglary, but he makes you forget that his chosen profession is illegal and harmful. And, of course, he only robs the rich. He has been described as the Robin Hood type, but since his goal is to support himself, I don't see that as a fitting description.

Not only is Bernie charming, but he runs into many interesting people as he endeavors to prove that he is not a murderer. The setting is New York, and I enjoyed this picture of New York in the 1970's. The story is full of coincidences but none of them detracted from my enjoyment of the resolution of this mystery.

Of course, I have several more books in this series, and I look forward to finding out how Bernie's life as an unrepentant burglar progresses (as I remember very little about the books I read earlier).

The paperback reprint edition that I read includes a short essay about how Lawrence Block came to write this first book in the Burglar series. Lawrence Block has another popular series set in New York about Matt Scudder, an ex-cop who becomes an unlicensed private investigator. That one also started in the 1970s and continued for many years, the last book having been published in 2011. The author has also edited two anthologies of short stories set in New York, Manhattan Noir and Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Onyx, 1995. Orig. pub. 1977.
Length:      283 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Bernie Rhodenbarr, #1
Setting:      New York City
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Death on the Move: Bill Crider

Dan Rhodes is the Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas. In this role, he is kept busy dealing with the smaller problems in his jurisdiction, and sometimes he even has to deal with more serious crimes like murder. In Death on the Move, jewelry is disappearing off bodies prepared for burial at the funeral home in Clearview. Rhodes is well-acquainted with the funeral director, Clyde Ballinger, whose hobby is collecting old paperback books, mostly westerns and mysteries. Then one of his deputies, Ruth Grady, calls his attention to a possible problem of thefts at some homes built around a lake. When they go to investigate, they find several homes that have been totally emptied of furniture and appliances. The homes are mostly lived in only on the weekends, leaving plenty of time for thieves to come in and empty them out. In the second home they look at, a more serious situation is discovered; a dead body is found stuffed in a closet.
"It wasn't really a mummy, of course, though Rhodes's first thought had been of Boris Karloff chasing after Zita Johann. This was even worse–a real human being, or what had once been a human being, completely wrapped up in silver duct tape."
Thus the sheriff must find out who is robbing the homes of their contents, and who killed the woman and wrapped her up like a mummy, and if the crimes are connected.


This series comes close to being in the cozy genre, the difference being that the protagonist is a sheriff and he is supposed to be looking into the crime and he can ask questions directly because it is his job. And he has access to other police departments and more tools that can actually help him find the criminals.

However, in Dan Rhodes' case, he is allergic to the idea of using computers, or possibly just afraid of them. Hack Jensen, the elderly dispatcher at the county jail, keeps hinting that access to a computer would make his work go better, but Rhodes is in no hurry to modernize their office. Rhodes' detection is based more on intuition and knowledge of people than the use of forensics or databases.

This is a quiet story. There is not a lots of action involved in the investigation, but the story moves along at a nice pace. Rhodes' relationship with Ivy, his fiancé, inches forward. I like Ivy; she is forthright without being pushy. She accepts Rhodes for what is he. And she helps out here and there in investigations, in a realistic way.

There are so many touches I love in this fourth book in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series. Speedo, the dog, was orphaned in Shotgun Saturday Night, the second book, and Rhodes took him in. Rhodes loves old movies and watches the Million Dollar Movie at lunch time. This book is chock full of references to vintage paperback novels and old movies, even more than previous books in the series. Crider gives the reader an interesting picture of small-town life in Texas and the story is told with low-key humor.

This post was written for the Small-town Sheriffs / Cops theme at Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books meme for April 15th.

Below is a list of the three earlier books in the series with links to my reviews...

1. Too Late to Die (1986)
2. Shotgun Saturday Night (1987)
3. Cursed to Death (1988)

Please check out Curtis Evans' review of A Mammoth Murder, the thirteenth book in the series, which he calls "a southern country cozy." Curtis blogs at The Passing Tramp.


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Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1990 (orig. pub. 1989)
Length:      184 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Sheriff Dan Rhodes #4
Setting:      Texas
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

All the Lonely People: Martin Edwards

All the Lonely People was Martin Edward's debut crime novel, set in Liverpool and published in 1991. All the titles in the series of eight books are taken from hit songs in the 1960s.

Harry Devlin is a lawyer whose estranged wife, Liz, returns to his apartment for a short stay. She needs a place to stay for a few days because she is afraid of the man she has been living with for two years. She hints at a new lover but won't name him. Later she is found dead in an alley and Harry is the obvious suspect.

Harry is still besotted with Liz. When she shows up in his apartment, he has brief fantasies of getting back with her.
He drank in the sight of her. The black hair—in the past never less than shoulder-length—was now cut fashionably short . Nothing else about her had changed:  not the lavish use of mascara, nor the mischief lurking in her dark green eyes. All she wore was a pair of Levis and a tee shirt of his that she must have found in the bedroom. She had tossed her jersey and boots on to the floor. On the table by her side stood a tumbler and a half-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker.
This book is a great introduction to Harry Devlin. The reader follows along as he searches for the truth behind his wife's death and discovers some unsavory facts about her. His investigations take him into the seedier neighborhoods in Liverpool. Harry may not be the best person to follow up on Liz's murder; he clearly wants to prove that the murderer is the man who Liz left him for, Mick Coghlan. Along the way he does come up with other suspects but is loath to let go of his suspicions of Coghlan.

The story has good pacing, with a straightforward plot. I loved getting to know Harry, who isn't perfect, but is a nice guy with no overwhelming flaws. Harry's partner Jim Crusoe is another well developed character, who cares for Harry and has never been susceptible to Liz's charms. I did not come close to guessing who the culprit was and the ending surprised me. I look forward to reading more books about this character.

See more reviews at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel and Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema

Check out Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books post at Pattinase this Friday. Martin Edwards is definitely not a forgotten author, but he is better known for his latest series set in the Lake District. He has also  edited many anthologies of short stories, both by Golden Age authors and contemporary authors and written a notable mystery reference book, The Golden Age of Murder, which has won many awards.

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Publisher:  Arcturus Publishing, 2012 (orig. publ. 1991)
Length:     255 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Harry Devlin #1
Setting:    UK
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Crime Fiction Reading in March 2017

March was a good reading month and I stuck to crime fiction the entire month. So without further ado I will list the books I read...

Fear Itself by Andrew Rosenheim
This is the first in a series of historical mysteries set in the US just before and during World War II, starring Jimmy Nessheim, a German-American FBI agent. My review is here.
Over My Dead Body by Rex Stout
This is the 7th book in the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1939. I am rereading the series in order at least until I get to The Silent Speaker, book 11 in the series. And I will probably continue past there.  I like this book because it features Nero Wolfe's long-lost adopted daughter, who is visiting the US and needs his help. 

Dancers in Mourning by Margey Allingham
The Albert Campion books are another series I am rereading in order. In this case, I am aiming to get to Tiger in the Smoke (1942). Dancers in Mourning is the 8th book, published in 1937, and I read it for the Crimes of the Century meme at Past Offences. My review is here.
The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning
The Rainbird Pattern (1972) is the 2nd book in a loose series called the Birdcage books. They all revolve around a covert security group in the UK, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. In this case we have two plots, one about the search for an heir to a fortune and the other dealing with a kidnapping plot, which converge at the end. The book was adapted as a film, Family Plot, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The film treatment is very different from the book. My post on the first Birdcage book, Firecrest, is here.


The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
The Bourne Identity, published in 1980, was the first of three novels about Jason Bourne written by Robert Ludlum. (The series was continued by Eric Lustbader, starting in 2004.) My review is here.

The Hunter by Richard Stark
Richard Stark is a pseudonym used by Donald E. Westlake for two of his series, the Parker series and the Alan Grofield series. This book is the first in the Parker series, and it is a revenge novel. Parker has been double-crossed and left for dead and now he is tracking down the people who betrayed him. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Alamut Ambush: Anthony Price

Summary at Goodreads:
A brilliant young electronics expert is killed by a car bomb seemingly meant for the head of the Foreign Office's Middle-Eastern Section. Intelligence officer Hugh Roskill is sent by David Audley on an investigation that takes him from London clubland to the Hampshire countryside, and deep into the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, to find the answer to two questions: who was the real target of the bomb? And what is Alamut? Against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the period before the Camp David Accords, Dr Audley and Colonel Butler are confronted with an assassin capable of turning the Middle Eastern conflict into Armageddon.

This series is perfect for me; all of the 19 books were written before the end of the cold war and are about an intelligence organization functioning at that time. This is the 2nd one that I have read, and I enjoyed it just as much as the first one. Although the two books are different, they have many of the same characteristics. These are quiet spy novels, interesting, but not much action. The plot unfolds gradually and the characters, their interactions and growth are the best part of the book.

These books are referred to as the Dr David Audley/Colonel Jack Butler series, and I presume that means that those two characters show up in all or most of the 19 novels. The stories all seem to center around Audley, but there are other secondary characters who feature prominently in the series.

In The Alamut Ambush, the point of view character is Hugh Roskill, a young RAF Squadron Leader that has been assigned to the intelligence group. Hugh is involved deeply in this case because he knew the young man who was killed and is close to his family. In order to find out why the electronics expert was killed Hugh visits the family. As in the first story, there is a romance, and I found it entirely acceptable.

More than one review says that this is not one of the best novels in the series. If that is so, I have a lot to look forward to, because I like this story a lot. It will be very interesting to see what book 3 brings.

I first read about Anthony Price and this series of espionage novels at Nick Jones' blog, Existential Ennui. See his review of The Alamut Ambush here

My review of the first book in the series, The Labyrinth Makers, is here.

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Publisher:  Mysterious Press, 1986. Orig. pub. 1971.
Length:      219 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      David Audley / Jack Butler #2
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Spy fiction
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Bourne Identity: Robert Ludlum

Most people reading this will have some familiarity with the character in this book, Jason Bourne, due to the 2002 movie starring Matt Damon, based on The Bourne Identity, and subsequent movies featuring Bourne.

As this book starts, a man has been fished out of the Mediterranean Sea. He is alive but just barely. The fishermen who saved his life bring him to a French island, where he is cared for by Dr. Geoffrey Washburn. Washburn discovers that the man he is tending has had surgery to change his appearance, and has a microchip surgically implanted in his hip. He pieces together enough information to help the man, who has amnesia from head trauma, start searching for who he is and why he ended up nearly dead in the sea. Washburn also helps him get to Zurich, the first step of his journey.

As the story progresses, Bourne conveniently can remember many of the facts from his past without remembering who he is or what has happened to him. He can use fighting skills, remember places (although only hazily) and recognize a person without knowing where the person fits into his life. I don't know if this happens in real-life amnesia or not.

As Bourne is forced to interact with those who want to capture him or kill him, his instinct and past knowledge of weapons and self-defense lead to some violent and cruel behavior on his part. Based on this behavior and flashes of returning memories, he makes the assumption that he was a pretty loathsome character, no matter what group it is in service of.

I prefer to provide as little about the plot as possible and in the case of this type of book, that is even more important. If you want more information in that area there are many sources online, including some excellent reviews and sites devoted to the series.

I had owned this book for years, and I don't know why I put off reading such a well-known book in the spy fiction genre. So, after waiting so long to read this book, what did I think of it? Overall, I enjoyed reading the book. It falls more in the action thriller area than most spy fiction I enjoy, and it did require me to suspend disbelief quite a bit. Yet, for the most part, the journey Bourne takes to learn his real identity makes sense. I don't have any complaints about this book other than the length and some repetitiveness. The same phrases repeated over and over by the main characters, the same interactions between the characters occurring a few too many times. Yet that isn't unrealistic, just irritating to read.

Ludlum keeps the story moving. Most chapters end with a cliff hanger and this ploy was very successful at keeping me in the story. It took me several days to read the book (it was 535 pages) but there were many times I read too late into the evening, each chapter pulling me into the next one.

I am not a fan of romances in mystery fiction, and this book does have that element. However, the woman that gets involved with Jason, Marie St. Claire, does serve a purpose in the plot and is not just there to add spice to the story. She is a strong female character and plays a significant role in his quest to find out who he is. With her background as a economist who works for the Canadian government, she can provide information on politics and finance that he does not have in his current circumstances. She is also not afraid to risk her life to help him out, and actively seeks to influence important people to come to his aid. This type of portrayal is admirable in any novel but  especially in spy fiction written in 1980.

After finishing the book, I learned that Bourne's nemesis in the book is a real person, Ilyich Ramírez Sánchez. The newspaper articles in the Preface to the book are actually published articles and press releases from 1975.

The Bourne Identity was the first of three Bourne novels written by Robert Ludlum. It was published in 1980 and the next two novels came out in 1986 and 1990. Starting in 2004 with The Bourne Legacy, Eric Lustbader continued the series. There are now a total of 13 books in the series.

I won't comment in detail on the 2002 movie here. I have watched the movie 2 or 3 times, and enjoyed it every time I watched it, but the movie is only loosely based on the book.

I like this assessment of some differences between the book and the movie at double o section:
Suffice it to say, the truth of Bourne’s identity in the book is far more interesting, more rewarding and more morally complex than in the movies, and it’s a shame that the films didn’t follow Ludlum’s template. And the secretive Treadstone program of Ludlum’s covert world is infinitely more fascinating (and possibly disturbing) than the mere super- soldier factory it's presented as in the films.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Bantam Books, 2002 (orig. publ. 1980)
Length:       535 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Jason Bourne, #1
Setting:      Zurich, Paris, US
Genre:       Espionage fiction
Source:      I purchased this book.



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dancers in Mourning: Margery Allingham


Thus far in my rereading of the Albert Campion series (Death of a Ghost and Flowers for the Judge), I have found the books to have fantastical plots and weird characters. This story was less fantastical but the number of extremely unusual, self-absorbed characters made up for it. The story centers around the star of a musical review (Jimmy Sutane) who has been targeted by a malicious prankster. Campion has been brought in to help him out with this problem. Many of the cast have gone to his country house for the weekend and Campion is invited to join them on Sunday. By the end of that day a woman has died, run over by a car driven by Jimmy Sutane. Although there is no convincing evidence, Campion suspects it may be murder.

Campion hardly detects at all in this story. Early on, he falls for Jimmy Sutane's wife, Linda, and thus when the family is presented with a murder in its midst, he prefers to stay out of it, because his detecting may end up causing her pain. This seems a bit too melodramatic for me, but otherwise the story would have been over much sooner, so that device plays the role of extending the plot. Almost to the end, Campion is so stuck in the morass of his problems that he misses what really happened. I had no suspicions of who the culprit must be, although I think I might have had I paid more attention.

I did not like most of the characters because they were unforgivably selfish and thoughtless. The characters are either actors or so immersed in the theatrical production that they ignore everything else. The victim, Chloe Pye, was a nuisance and unpopular, and most of them as just as glad she is gone. Jimmy and Linda don't have much time to spend with their six-year-old daughter, Sarah, who leads a very lonely life.


That all sounds like I did not like this novel, but I did. I am under Allingham's spell, and even a lesser effort is fun for me. The plot dragged in spots, and went on too long, but there were bits of it that I loved. Uncle William, the author of the memoir that the musical review is based on, is an old friend of Campion's and one of the few likable characters. His presence injected some humor into the proceedings. When the Sutane's butler quits after a disastrous party, Campion's manservant Lugg is dragooned into acting as butler for as long as needed. He and the sweet Sarah Sutane become fast friends; he teaches her card tricks and how to pick locks.

I have a lovely hardback edition of Dancers in Mourning with map endpapers (no dust jacket though). Years ago I purchased the same edition but with the endpapers covers with stamps and writing, so I was happy to find a much better copy recently. My paperback edition is a TV series tie-in edition.

This is my submission for the book of 1937 for the Crimes of the Century meme for this month, hosted by Rich at Past Offences. This post is also submitted for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Hat" category.

-----------------------------

Publisher:  Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937.
Length:      336 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Albert Campion
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copies.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fear Itself: Andrew Rosenheim


From the publisher's website:
Set in the tense and uncertain years before the Second World War, when America was still largely conflicted about entering the war on either side, Andrew Rosenheim’s thriller Fear Itself offers a rich depiction of history as it was—and as it might have been. Jimmy Nessheim, a young Special Agent in the fledgling FBI, is assigned to infiltrate a new German–American organization known as the Bund. Ardently pro-Nazi, the Bund is conspiring to sabotage American efforts against Adolf Hitler. But as Nessheim’s investigation takes him into the very heart of the Bund, it becomes increasingly clear that something far more sinister is at work, something that seems to lead directly to the White House. Drawn into the center of Washington’s high society, Nessheim finds himself caught up in a web of political intrigue and secret lives. But as he moves closer to the truth, an even more lethal plot emerges, one that could rewrite history.
My favorite character in this book is Jimmy's boss, Harry Guttman, a Special Agent who reports to Clyde Tolson, Associate Director of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Guttman is 44 years old, and has an invalid wife who requires a lot of care; he has a caregiver who comes in during the day but he takes care of her needs the rest of the time. He has concerns about the German American Bund group and wants to send in an undercover agent, but the mission is not approved. Nessheim is not aware  that his undercover assignment is counter to Hoover's instructions.

The undercover assignment is only one part of a very complicated plot. This book begins in 1936 and covers the years up to the middle of 1940. It is set primarily in various locations in the US but occasionally in Germany or Austria. Unfortunately the complexity weighs the story down, and the pacing is uneven.


The author includes real-life figures in addition to Hoover and Tolson: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherford. I have mixed feelings about that in any book; sometimes using prominent real-life characters is distracting to me. I focus too much on those characters and how they fit in. In this case it did not bother me and the author handled it well.

I enjoyed learning more about these years in the US. I was hardly aware of the existence of the German American Bund organization. The characters in the book allow the author to address the prejudices of both US citizens and Germans at this time. Nessheim's family background is German-American; Guttman is Jewish and a Polish-American. A German double agent is homosexual and has a relationship with a black man. All of this is handled well, matter-of-factly.

In summary, this was a good book but it could have been much better. I liked all the detail about the historical period. I haven't read many books with a World War II focus set in the United States. The book gives a picture of the lack of enthusiasm for entering a war that was happening so far away. The negative aspects were the inconsistent pacing and a lack of depth in most of the characters. I liked the main characters, Guttman and Nessheim, but even so I did not find their story compelling.

In an interview at Publisher's Weekly, the author explains his themes and goals in writing the book.
It came out of an interest in the under-recognized Germanness of so much of American society; also a “what if” interest about what would have happened had FDR not run for a third term.
Andrew Rosenheim grew up in the US. He went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1977 and has lived there ever since. He continued this series for two more books: The Informant (2013), aka The Little Tokyo Informant, and The Accidental Agent (2016).


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Overlook Press, 2012 (orig. publ. 2011)
Length:       420 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Jimmy Nessheim, #1
Setting:      US
Genre:       Historical Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.