Friday, November 20, 2015

for readers of intelligent true crime -- here's one right up your alley: Crooked Brooklyn, by Michael Vecchione and Jerry Schmetterer

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2015
255 pp

hardcover (my copy from the publisher, thank you!)

(also posted at my nonfiction page)

The Rackets Division of the Brooklyn DA's office was where the author (Michael Vecchione) of this absorbing memoir "always wanted to be."  With co-author Jerry Schmetterer, Vecchione invites his readers to join him in a look back at his career.  Vecchione headed the division for over a decade, and was involved in several very high-profile cases that "struck Court Street like an earthquake."  I have to say that it took me longer than normal to read this book, not because of the book itself but because as I started to become more absorbed in his story, I grabbed my iPad and spent quite a bit of time finding more info on these big corruption cases as I read.

To whet potential reader appetites, here's just a very brief preview of a few cases that readers will find in here, most of which had repercussions that spread outward like a ripple in a pond:

  • the crooked ADA known as the Undertaker, "the nephew of a community political leader"  
  • a judge who held up the disbursement settlement in the case of a "permanently brain-damaged" baby by demanding $250,000 from the family's attorney before signing any papers
  • another judge who ruled on the side of whoever would pay him the most, took bribes and gifts from attorneys (this one just killed me -- a woman's custody of her children hung in the balance)
  • a huge case that brought down the "corrupt Democratic county leader and number three man in the New York State Assembly," which Vecchione notes would expose "the dirty political machine that ran Brooklyn politics" -- a huge eye opener for me as Vecchione reveals how things worked in Democratic party politics at the time (and face it, probably still works on some level in the same way even now) 
  • two "Mafia cops," NYPD detectives who were "carrying out hits for the Mafia" 
  • the case of the theft of bones from a funeral home used to build a doctor's fortune
and more.  Personally,  the corruption doesn't surprise me -- I'm sure that these sorts of things continue to happen on a daily basis in cities throughout the United States.  

Crooked Brooklyn makes for compelling reading.  Some of the cases in this book would also make for great movie material.  The downside is that I found it to be a little disorganized in the writing itself -- for example, Vecchione would be talking about a particular case and then in the middle of the story, would go back in time, most of the time talking about something in his personal life that would bring us right up to where he'd left off.  To be very honest, from a reader point of view, when he would do that it was a bit distracting when all I wanted to do was to get back to the cases that to me were the high point of this book.

I have to say that I disagree with the reviewer who wrote about this book in Kirkus Reviews, who stated
"However, the author’s focus on courtroom maneuvering and investigative procedures can become tedious without greater context regarding New York’s labyrinthine government and history of corruption."
I didn't find this to be the case -- a) he does briefly touch on the Tammany machine in this book, b) it is certainly not at all tedious; in fact, the opposite is true, and c) "New York's labyrinthine government and history of corruption" are not the focus of this book, so I don't think that the reviewer is playing fair here. The dustjacket blurb says that this book is "perfect for fans of television shows like Law & Order, readers of true crime, and those hungry for details about the system that keeps us safe." Having watched hundreds of hours of Law and Order  in my day (the original -- not the spinoffs), and cheering on Jack McCoy in his long-running (but not always successful)  crusade for justice, I'd say that the blurber gets it right.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

back to the past #17: Death in the Cards, by Ann T. Smith

Wildside books, 2010
originally published 1945, Phoenix Press
256 pp


I love these Wildside editions -- I have several in my shelves spreading across genres.  They're great facsimile editions which offer readers like myself the opportunity to rediscover old book without having to go into debt buying them.  Sadly, the author remains a mystery to me, since I could find absolutely nothing outside of this book to her credit; I couldn't find any personal information either.  I went through several sources I have at home, including Hubin's great reference work which would normally list a pseudonym as well as at least a birthdate, but got nothing. If I find more later, I'll make an addendum here, but for now, she remains a question mark. That's a shame -- I love unearthing people's histories; they're often very enlightening as well as interesting.  Oh well. I tried.

I did, however, discover two different covers of  Death in the Cards -- the original

and the reprint

both of which as you can see, offer a clue in the cat on the cover. While I won't say why the cat (whose name is Beauty) is important, let's just say that the poor kitty has a role to play, ultimately coming to a pretty sad end.  But the cat is the least of the worries at the old house on Brattle Street, where Paul and Lita Redfern have taken rooms so that Paul can be close to his new professorial job in Boston.

Death in the Cards is not the best book I've ever read from the 1940s, but it did keep me turning pages to find out who killed old Mrs. Carrie Seton, who owns the house and rents out rooms.  The tenants, aside from Paul and Lita, include an anthropologist (Dr. Oglesbie) whose rooms are filled with skulls, a handyman named George from South Dakota, a Navy man (Phillips) who's just finished a tour of duty on a submarine, two elderly, former Beacon Hill women (Miss Lovelace and Miss Brundage) whose fortunes have faded since the social heyday, and Mrs. Seton's granddaughter Caroline.  Within just a few weeks of moving into the place, old Mrs. Seton ends up dead and Paul, who comes across her body, finds evidence that his wife may have been the culprit.  So many things point to her guilt that he hides what he discovers and takes it upon himself to find the real murderer before the police hone in on his wife.  With so many people in the house though, that's not going to be easy -- and the police are eager to bring this case to a close.

Way more interesting to me than the mystery (which quite frankly gets a bit convoluted and even  brings in a Nazi spy as a sort of patsy -- remember, it's still wartime) is that the author takes her readers into the world of Boston's Beacon Hill society in its heyday (and later as fortunes decline) as she recalls Mrs. Seton's life.  As it turns out, the dead woman was not of their ilk -- au contraire, she was a young woman nee O'Toole from Irish stock and from the wrong part of town. She had caught the attention of her future husband who fell for her and was bound and determined to introduce her to his Boston Brahmin world, which did not go over so well and required the help of her old Miss Lovelace, who remained her very best friend and stayed with her long after Mr.Seton had passed on.

It's a good find, probably not of interest to most people unless you're into obscure vintage fiction, and aside from the meandering nature of the story, not a bad read.

Just as an aside, I have pretty much finished my obscure women writers project for this year, but I have been stacking my shelves with many, many more titles and I'll be reading and posting about them as I come to them.  I'll also be inaugurating my page "Forgotten Women Found" here shortly -- so stay tuned. Thanks to all who have commented.

diving back into Highsmith's brain with This Sweet Sickness

W.W. Norton, 2002
originally published 1960
282 pp


"The Situation. It was all part of the one Situation, after all."

The more Highsmith I read, the more reluctant I become to label her work as crime fiction. The problem in trying to categorize her work is that she's a writer who doesn't pigeonhole easily, so I have just quit trying.  But since there's murder involved here, as in most of the books I've read (with the exception of her The Price of Salt), this seems like the appropriate place to talk about her work.

This Sweet Sickness is Highsmith's seventh book and somewhere around page 90 I had to put it down for a day because of the knots forming in my gut. Somehow I just knew that this story was going to end very badly and well, I wasn't wrong.  This book unnerved me to the max and reaffirmed my belief that it is dangerous indeed to stay in this woman's brain (or that of her main character here) for any length of time.

David Kelsey is an intelligent, successful chemist who lives in a small town in New York.  He has a room in a boardinghouse there during the week; over his weekends he goes to a lovely home he owns, which he'd bought under the name of William Neumeister, "who had never failed at anything, at least nothing important... "  His fellow residents at Mrs. McCartney's boardinghouse know nothing about either Neumeister nor Kelsey's home -- when asked where he goes every weekend, he tells them he is visiting his mother at a nursing home. What no one knows is that David's mother is dead and has been for a while.  It seems that David goes home each weekend looking for letters from the only woman he's ever loved, Annabelle.  He's also fixed the place up in a style he knows Annabelle will love. But David absolutely refuses to accept or to deal with "The Situation," which
 "was the way it was and had been for nearly two a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night."
David's "situation" is that two years earlier, Annabelle had married Gerald Delaney.  That doesn't seem to bother David, though -- in his mind, he had "won Annabelle," who, in Neumeister's house, "lived with him here, he imagined," "her presence in every room."  Everything he does is for Annabelle, and his obsession with her grows as he pursues his dream of having her as his wife.

first US edition cover from Wikipedia
The US first edition cover speaks volumes about what's inside this novel, but once again I turn to
Andrew Wilson, Highsmith's biographer who reveals that Kelsey is a sort of "Nietzschean hero," which should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who's read Highsmith. He also reveals that Highsmith herself "conducted an imaginary love affair," and notes Highsmith's diary as recording that "without her" (the woman about whom she fantasized), "it would have been a different book."

Quite frankly, This Sweet Sickness is one of the most disturbing novels in Highsmith's lineup to this point, and reader beware -- there is absolutely nothing uplifting or redeeming to be found here, which normally doesn't bother me, but with Highsmith I've found that reading her work has to be done in small doses.  I'm totally not surprised that Hitchcock bought the television rights to this book, which eventually became an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour called "Annabel"   (season one) starring Dean Stockwell.  Maddeningly, I can't find a copy to buy anywhere, nor can I find anything but a VHS copy of the movie based on this book (1977) starring Gérard Depardieu, "Dites-lui que je l'aime."

Enter at your own risk, but then again, that's true of every Highsmith novel. Her books definitely get an NFE (not for everyone) rating from me -- but I can't help myself.  I love her. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Franchise Affair again...this time the movie

Through the miracle of my region-free dvd player, I watched the screen adaptation of Tey's The Franchise Affair over the weekend.  After its release, the 1952 New York Times reviewer called it "an hour and a half of sheer boredom," which was pretty much Mr. Film Critic's take on it.  (Mr. Film Critic is my husband, who is a good enough sport to sit with me through a lot of these old films, although he prefers comedy films and isn't really an old movie fan, although to his credit, he loved Double Indemnity when we went to a special TCM special screening a few months ago.)  My complaint is that a LOT of what makes Tey's  novel so great gets lost in translation when it hit the big screen.

I get that screenwriters can't possibly get every single nuance of an original story, but in this case, Robert Hall and Lawrence Huntington really missed the boat.  As one example, the big reveal of the case, the part where we discover just what sort of girl our young Betty Kane is, just falls flat, sort of defeating the purpose of the novel; it's also completely rewritten.    Another thing -- the tension that builds throughout the book as readers start to think that attorney Robert Blair is doomed to failure and that these poor women are going to land in prison just isn't there. In the novel you get to a point where you're just praying for some sort of miracle that will save the genteel Sharpes from life of hard time; not so in the movie version.  And one of the biggest scenes in the book is so completely lost in translation so much so that it's not even there.

from The Guardian
While it was over all very cool to watch this book come to life, as in most cases, the original novel was better.  If you get the chance to watch the movie, take it ... it's still pretty good, despite my complaints.

just in time for Black Friday shopping, Kirkus presents the best mysteries and thrillers of 2015. Hmmmm.....

I don't set foot outside of my house the day after Thanksgiving, aka Black Friday.  I do the bulk of my holiday shopping online -- it's quick, clean and no one's beating me up over the last set of Legos I'm buying for the little ones in my family. Nope. It's e-tail for this woman.   So just in time for the holiday shopping countdown when people are wondering what to buy for their loved ones this season, Kirkus has released what they say are the best mysteries and thrillers of 2015, and the best news is that you don't have to partake in that god-awful stampede and swarm of humanity to pick them up.

Here's the list:

1. A Different Lie, by Derek Haas /  thriller

2. Spy Games, by Adam Brookes /   thriller

3.  The Stranger, by Harlan Coben /  thriller

4.  A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly / thriller

5.  X, by Sue Grafton /PI novel

6. Recipes for Love and Murder, by Sally Andrew / part cozy, part mystery, complete with recipes

7. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins / mystery, thriller, and if you ask me, a terrible book so how did it get on this list? Here's another one where I suffer from fish-swimming-upstream syndrome

8.  Last Ragged Breath, by Julia Keller / legal thriller

9.  Hush Hush, by Laura Lippman / mystery, thriller

10. Crucifixion Creek, by Barry Maitland /police procedural, Australia

11. Taking Pity, by David Mark /police procedural, thriller (part four in an ongoing, good series with angsty cop)

12. Where they Found Her, by Kimberly McCreight  / newspaper reporter main character mystery

13. The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny / police procedural

14. The Do-Right, by Lisa Sandlin / thriller, parolee and ex-oil man detective team up.

15. The Blondes, by Emily Schultz.  Okay -- you have to read this premise to believe it, and I quote:
"A Canadian grad student, newly pregnant with her married professor’s baby, must navigate a world altered by a pandemic in which blonde women attack the people around them."
The author says it's satire, but still. Major pass.  Seriously? And you wonder why I prefer foreign and vintage crime. good grief.

16. A Kind of Grief, by A.D. Scott / historical mystery set in Scotland

17. Pretty Girls, by Karin Slaughter / thriller

18. Crush, by Phoef Sutton / thriller, bartender who's "hurt lots of martial arts teachers" hired to protect rich daughter from Russian Mafia.

I'll be posting more of these "best of" crime fiction/mystery lists as they appear.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

now here's a book I really love -- The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

Scribner/Simon and Schuster, 1998
originally published 1949
299 pp


I read this book a very long time ago, but recently it came back to my attention after reading that Sarah Waters had read it, calling it "the first dark germ of The Little Stranger" (one of my favorite books of all time) and a source of research for her The Night Watch.  I've recently been running a series of readings of work by women writers of the Golden Age on goodreads, and I've included The Franchise Affair in the list of five novels after books by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers.  There's still time if you want to get in on the discussion (let me know) -- because of my vacation we don't actually start until November 15th.

The Franchise Affair is just a perfect gem of a novel, based on the real-life case of Elizabeth Canning in 1753 which you can read about at the Guildhall Library Blog.  Moving the case into contemporary times, Tey also updated this story to reflect various postwar concerns, as Sarah Waters calls them, "moral panics - about 'problem' children and juvenile delinquency, for example - of postwar life."

The main focus here is on the young  Elisabeth Kane (Betty - 15), who  had gone off to a suburb of Larborough to visit an aunt over a school vacation.  She'd  kept in touch with her guardians via postcard for a while, reporting that all was well enough to merit her staying on with her aunt for a while. Her guardians figured that with the school holiday ending in three weeks this shouldn't be a problem, but when she doesn't turn up again at the end of the three weeks, they start to wonder what's going on and write to the aunt to make her come home.   The aunt writes back (rather than phoning or sending a telegraph) that Betty had left for home some two weeks earlier; by communicating via the post, a lot of time was lost and by the time the guardians went to the police, Betty had been missing for four weeks.  Then out of nowhere, the girl returns home, in a "state of complete exhaustion."  Her story was that she'd been "kidnapped in a car" and then two days later she reveals that she'd actually been kidnapped and held by two women who tried to force her into domestic service.  Inspector Grant is sent to interview the two women in question, Marion Sharpe and her mother, who claim to know nothing about Betty and fervently deny any involvement. But things don't look good for the Sharpes who live at a house called The Franchise, since Betty can clearly identify items in the house, the room she was supposedly held in prior to making an escape and even the different-colored tire on the car that supposedly used in her abduction.  Marion Sharpe calls on lawyer Robert Blair, who wants to fob her off on a more criminally-experienced solicitor but changes his mind on meeting the Sharpes and hearing what he considers to be an absurd story.  He makes it his mission to prove Betty Kane is lying, but gets nowhere before the local tabloid drags the Sharpes through the mud, making Betty out to be a pathetic, innocent victim, garnering sympathy from all of the country.  He has an uphill fight on his hands, one that is made worse little by little as the novel progresses.

To say that The Franchise Affair is a good book does it absolutely no justice.  To me, it is one of her very best works, and I've read them all.  Not only does it shine in terms of plot and plot turns, but Tey is also examining postwar British society here.  I can't really divulge much about Betty Kane without ruining things, although what Tey has to say about her in a cumulative way reflects the dangers someone of her sort represented to the social order of the time. The English public is also looked at here --  the tendency for tabloid readers to believe what they read and make judgments based on their impressions with no real facts strikes a chord with our own times of sleazy tabloids in print and online, as well as the non-questioning sheep who believe everything that comes out via social media. Tey's novel also reflects the tendencies of those same judgmental people to make trouble for those under media scrutiny.   And then there's Robert Blair, the attorney who is  "usually so placid, so lazily good-natured," but discovers that with the Sharpe case, he has a "focus of interest," changing "the pattern of his life." Used to a somewhat prescribed lifestyle "without hurry and without emotion," he finds himself actually feeling alive with this case, quite possibly for the first time.   The Sharpes live in a big house that once upon a time had seen better days; now they barely scrape by without servants or money but there are still certain forms that need to be maintained for eyes outside of their gates.   There's so much more to talk about with this novel, but well time and all of that.

The Franchise Affair can be read by mystery/crime fiction readers across the board, except for those people who trend toward kickass thriller stuff  ... it is so well done that it will appeal to pretty much everyone. Tey was a gifted writer, but in this book, she's gone beyond her norm and given readers a book that should, in my opinion, be considered a classic. It is an incredibly superb book that all aficionados of British crime fiction/mysteries should read.

Monday, November 9, 2015

the final chapter of the Öland Quartet : The Voices Beyond, by Johan Theorin

Transworld Publishers/Doubleday, 2015
originally published as Rörgast
translated by Marlaine Delargy
462 pp


For now, it seems that if you live in America and you want to read this book, you'll have to order it from the UK like I did or sit patiently and wait for it to be published in this country.  The second choice wasn't even an option for me -- as soon as I'd heard it was available, I had to have it; it went on vacation with me where I read it stretched out in a long lounger chair from which I didn't move while reading.   I have really enjoyed all of the books in Theorin's Öland Quartet up to this point, and I have to say that for a final entry, The Voices Beyond is an absolute page turner.  Despite the fact that there are nearly five hundred pages in this book, the story moves very quickly, but what I loved about this book is that it moves back and forth in time, revealing that the past most definitely has a strong hold on the present.  And as always, Theorin here is a master of atmosphere that just doesn't quit.  If you have to end a series, this is definitely the way to do it.  

It's tough not to get sucked into the story from the beginning.  If you've followed Theorin's Öland Quartet series so far, you will definitely remember Gerlof Davidsson.  When Gerlof was young in 1930,  he was part of a group of people digging a grave in the churchyard for Edvard Kloss. Once the body was lowered into the grave and covered up, the small group of gravediggers hears noises coming from where they'd just put the coffin --  a series of knocks that Gerlof Davidsson never forgets over the course of his lifetime.  Flash forward to the present and we find Gerlof back on the island of Öland for the summer holidays, staying at his home with his grandchildren.  In the middle of one night when he is sleeping in his boathouse, he is awakened out of a sound sleep by pounding on the door where he discovers a young boy, Jonas Kloss, wet and terrified.  It seems that Jonas has had a horrific encounter on what he calls a "ghost ship," and has managed to escape.  Because of Gerlof's own past, he has no trouble believing Jonas' account, and after he calms him down a bit, Gerlof starts asking questions.  What Jonas tells him lands Gerlof smack in the middle of a mystery that will take the reader back in time, moving ever slowly into the present where the past still exists in some minds.  It is a dark story that gets darker as the book (and the Swedish summer) moves along, revealing not only a modern-day mystery but also the failed dreams of a young boy who gets caught up in a situation not of his own making.  

Unlike my usual cautionary self, I have nothing negative to say about this novel which (with apologies for the old cliché) kept me glued until I turned the last page.  It is a fine story, difficult to read at times because of the sheer cruelty and inhumanity that Theorin so deftly reveals here, but perfect for someone like me who is very much into the darker side of human nature.  Cozy readers or readers of tamer Scandinavian crime fiction beware -- this is an incredibly dark and at times bleak novel, nothing at all cutesy here. It's an example of Scandinavian crime at its best.   One more thing -- even though it's #4 in Theorin's quartet, it is very possible to read this book as a standalone, but my advice is to take each book in its order of publication and to not let this one be your introduction to the series: read Echoes from the Dead, The Darkest Room, The Quarry all before you tackle The Voices Beyond -- there is a lot of history here of some of the characters that you won't want to miss.  

Super book -- I'm just sorry that it isn't widely available in the US right now so that more crime fiction fans can read it.