Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Monster's Daughter, by Michelle Pretorius

9781612195384
Melville House, 2016
455 pp

hardcover/arc (read earlier this month)

To put this very bluntly, and without naming names,  I've been a bit disappointed with the so-called summer blockbusters that have come out this year from the big publishing houses.  I've been waiting for someone to get beyond same-old, same-old, and well, here it is. I can honestly say that The Monster's Daughter is an original.  It begins in a normal enough way for a crime novel, with the discovery of a dead body, but trust me, there is nothing at all normal about this book. And that's a good thing.

 There are three different things going on here: first, one of the two main narrative threads has its roots in science/speculative fiction; second, the other thread follows a police investigation into murder, and third, when the two come together, the book serves as a vehicle for exploring a century of South Africa's troubled past and its repercussions in the present.  It's this third aspect, I think, that made this book so incredibly interesting to me -- what a great way to take on such a difficult topic.  So what you get in The Monster's Daughter is a sort of hybrid mix of sci-fi, crime and history, and if that's not original, I don't know what is.

As I said earlier, the novel begins with the discovery of a dead body in the small South African town of Unie. It's December, 2010, and the victim has been burned beyond recognition, so it's going to be a tough job just trying to figure out who the victim is. Plus, the method of death is one that the detectives haven't seen in this area, so it's definitely unusual and seems to be some sort of smokescreen, creating a puzzle for the detectives to solve.  As we're meeting the main characters from the present, the story then goes back in time to 1901, when the British were trying to get rid of the remaining Boers and were sending families to concentration camps. At one of these camps some bizarre experiments are taking place  (and here's where the sci-fi edge comes in); eventually all of this comes to an end, but a bit too late and at a terrible cost. This movement from present to past continues throughout the book until, of course, the two storylines merge.

As the crime story moves forward, Alet Berg, who is working on the crime, begins to uncover some pretty disturbing things that may not only jeopardize  her already faltering career, but may also have some bearing on her personal life.  She also discovers that the death of this victim may be one more in a long-running series of murders where the killer has never been caught.  As time moves forward from 1901, we get a serious look at South Africa's violent apartheid history through the story of Tessa, who finds herself constantly having to change identities and homes to ensure her own survival.

So -- I have to admit that when I first came across the parts about the experiments at the concentration camp, I did a major eyeroll since this is so normally not my thing,  but as things turned out, I just decided to suspend any disbelief, relax, and roll with it and The Monster's Daughter turned out to be pretty darned good.  I will say that it tends to get a bit boggy because there are so many things going on here -- for example, the author throws in some conspiratorial subplots that while important and germane to both present, past, and the novel's title,  received (imo) way too much attention and time when all I really wanted to do was to get back to Tessa, South African history,  and to the murder investigation. Then again, I'm not a big conspiracy fiction person, so that may just be a matter of personal taste. However, as I am so fond of saying, less is more, and this one could have been pared down some without any damage. Other than that, though, as I said, this book is definitely original, and would be well suited for historical fiction and crime readers who don't mind suspending disbelief (and let's get real here -- we do that in most cases anyway),  and I'd also say for readers who are interested in the human costs of racism.  Given the direction of today's politics, it might very well be worth taking a look at the past as so well presented in this novel.

****
I really need to thank TLC book tours and to Melville House (one of my favorite publishers!!) for my copy of this novel.  I'm just one of several readers of this book, so clicking on the link will take you to their thoughts as well. 






Wednesday, July 27, 2016

revisiting Miss Marple: Nemesis, by Agatha Christie


The cover photo above is probably my favorite for this book; mine is part of a set of  Bantam black leatherette hardcover editions and has a cover that is really dull.  However, it's all about what's inside, and there is nothing at all dull about Christie's Nemesis, where Miss Marple's cover as dotty old lady comes in more than handy.  I say her "cover," because as she discovers in this book, she has a propensity to be "ruthless" when she needs to and as it will turn out, she'll definitely need to call on that trait before all is said and done.  Personally, I think this is one of the best Marples in the bunch.

Originally published in 1951, Nemesis opens with our dear Miss Marple scanning the obituaries in the local newspaper, and running across a name she knows --  Mr. Jason Rafiel, whom she'd met while on holiday in the Caribbean, has passed away.  A week later, she receives a letter summoning her to London, where she is received by Rafiel's solicitors.  It seems that Mr. Rafiel has left her a bequest of twenty thousand pounds, but there's a catch:  Miss Marple must, within a year,  "investigate a certain crime," to "serve the cause of justice."  What that crime is though, is left unspecified, and the only clue she has comes in yet another letter inviting her to be part of Tour No. 37 of the Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain, a tour that will last two to three weeks.  She knows she must go, and taking stock once on the tour, notes that
"...What is involved in my problem is justice. Either to set right an injustice or to avenge evil by bringing it to justice." 
She understands that this must absolutely be the case because it is "in accord with the code word Nemesis given to me by Mr. Rafiel."   What she doesn't realize, however, is how very strange this case will turn out to be.

Some time ago somebody in an online group I belong to said something along the lines of Christie being  for old ladies (I do believe the phrase "blue hairs" was used), and it sort of got my dander up. My brown-haired self was actually offended that someone who'd probably never even read her work was saying this.  This book disproves his statement -- not only is Nemesis an engaging mystery, but here we see a different side of our old-lady sleuth, who has zero tolerance, no matter what the circumstances, for evil, and a Jane Marple who will face down a deadly foe to serve the cause of justice. There's more, of course -- for example, a look at an England changed after the war -- but really this one is all about Jane Marple herself.



If you haven't read it yet, do yourself a huge favor and pick up a copy.  You can skip the TV adaptation with Geraldine McEwan -- not even close to the novel and very disappointing. I knew I was in trouble when I saw a Nazi soldier parachuting out of the sky, and then, of course, there were the nuns -- seriously WTF?   I'm still digging through garage boxes to find my Nemesis dvd with Joan Hickson as Marple but I can't imagine it would be anywhere near as awful as the McEwan version -- I finished it last night wondering if the screenwriters had even read the book.  But here, it's the book that counts, and Christie has outdone herself with this one.


Friday, July 22, 2016

gritty doesn't even begin to cover it: Clinch, by Martin Holmén


9781782271925
Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published 2015
translated by Henning Koch
316 pp

paperback

The direction of Scandinavian crime has just changed with Martin Holmén's Clinch, and that's a very good thing.  There are two more books to come from Martin Holmén, and that's a very good thing as well.  Like Harry Kvist, the former-boxing champ who is the star of this show, Clinch delivers a serious gut punch that will leave its readers reeling. I loved this book. Absolutely.

Let me say this right up front: this is not your standard Nordic crime novel.  Clinch would be right at home on a hardcore noir reader's shelf.  It's a very physical novel, a book where the term "gritty" doesn't even begin to cover how dark it is. It's also a story that takes its readers into the streets and alleyways of Stockholm in the early 1930s where people are just trying to survive however they can, be it by pimping, prostitution, thievery, whatever.  And even when the story moves into the better neighborhoods, even there things don't become any brighter.

Harry Kvist is just trying to make a living like everyone else.  A former boxing champ, with two stints in prison, he's now a debt collector.  As the story opens, he's at the home of Zetterberg, who had bought an old Opel but didn't make the full payment.  Harry's job is to convince Zetterberg that he needs to pony up with the cash -- if Zetterberg pays and Harry gets the money to his client within five days, Harry's share is fifteen per cent. In this case, the outstanding debt is 2,100 kronor so it's definitely a debt worth collecting.  When he finally makes contact with Zetterberg, it ain't pretty -- things get very physical and Harry gives him until the next day to pay up.  He's tempted to really give Mr. Z. a "proper working over," but as he notes,
"A dead bloke doesn't pay his debts, a badly injured one ends up in a hospital."
However, when he comes back the next day to collect, not only is Zetterberg dead, but someone's set his place on fire ... and the cops really like Harry as the culprit.  He's picked up and later released, but with a warning that he's not "been ruled out of the investigation."  Harry just laughs it off but decides that he's going to clear his name and that he'll find the one witness who can clear him. Easier said than done, but Harry's determined, and he's also eager to stay out of prison -- they can easily throw the book at him for being gay, which is a crime at the time. From there the story moves in some very strange, dark and twisty directions that had me quickly turning pages to see how things were going to come out, gut clinched in suspense all the way.

I offer major kudos to Mr. Holmén for bringing something new to the table and new to the genre. First of all, the 1930s setting is viable and leaps off every page; his descriptions of the Stockholm slums and social/political tensions are beyond outstanding.   Second,  Harry Kvist is not meant to be your average crime solver -- he is sensitive, loves animals, cares about other people, is generous when he has the money.  On the other hand, as I said earlier, this is a very physical novel, and Harry's sexuality both with men and women is writ large here, as is his propensity to violence.

When it comes down to it, Clinch is an explosive novel, best enjoyed by readers who are at home with  gritty noir that packs a major punch.  There is absolutely nothing cutesy here, no angsty detectives, no hints of the sort of Scandinavian crime fiction that is on bookstore shelves -- this is something very, very different and well, frankly, it's time for that to be happening.  Highly, highly recommended.  I will have to try to remain patient until the next book comes out but after reading and loving Clinch,  that's not going to be easy.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

another British Library Crime Classic, and it's a good one: Murder of a Lady: A Scottish Mystery, by Anthony Wynne

9781484205712
Poisoned Pen Press, 2016
originally published 1931
297 pp

paperback

"...there's something wrong with this house."

The thing I enjoy most about locked-room mysteries is, of course, waiting for the solution to materialize.  Up until that point,  I am mentally watching for anything that might be a clue as to how a locked-room murder was pulled off.  This time, there was nothing to give it away, and I had to wait until the last few pages for the answer.  Clever it was, indeed; I never would have guessed.  Yet not all action takes place within the confines of a single locked room -- two other equally puzzling murders happen right under everyone's noses with no suspect in sight. So here you've got a bonus:  a locked-room mystery and an impossible-crime story.

Set in Scotland, Murder of  a Lady was written by Anthony Wynne, the pseudonym of Robert McNair Wilson (1882-1963).  When he wasn't writing histories (12) or wasn't practicing medicine, he spent time writing crime novels --  with some 28 titles under his mystery-author's belt. This particular book is number twelve of his Dr. Eustace Hailey series; Hailey is not only an amateur detective but he specializes in mental diseases. I'm sure I'll cross paths with Dr. Hailey in the future -- it's sad that for some reason Poisoned Pen Press in association with the British Library didn't publish his first crime novel, The Mystery of the Evil Eye aka The Sign of Evil.  Seriously, why start with number twelve?  Pet peeve, and anyone who knows me  knows it drives me crazy.

The first victim in this story is an elderly woman, Miss Gregor, who according to everyone, doesn't have an enemy in the world; she is praised for having spent her life "in service."   Yet, this paragon has been found murdered in her locked bedroom (windows locked as well, of course) so at least one person seems to have wanted her out of the way.  But why? With a house full of suspects, trying to narrow down the who would seem to be a daunting task, especially since the only clue to be found is a herring scale.   As Dr. Hailey surveys the scene, he is met by Inspector Robert Dundas, who has been tasked with solving Miss Gregor's murder.  It's important to him: the case is the chance of his life, so he tells Dr. Hailey that he does not want his help, and that there "must be no independent lines of enquiry" going on. Hailey agrees to abide by Dundas' rules, and it isn't long before Dundas admits defeat and comes back 'round to Hailey. However,  circumstances lead to another police inspector being brought into the case -- and he's certain he has all of the answers. Dr. Hailey, though, isn't so sure.

While the locked-room/impossible-crime components will probably be enough to please any vintage-mystery reader,  I always go right to the human element in crime novels, and the dynamics at work in this household are perfect for examining what's in the minds of the people who live there. As the quotation with which I started this post states, "there's something wrong with this house," and Wynne gets to the dark heart of exactly what that something is.  It takes a while to get there, but it is definitely worth the read time.


Friday, July 15, 2016

perfect noir greatness: Black Wings Has My Angel, by Elliott Chaze

(read in June)



9781590179161
NYRB Classics, 2016
originally published 1953
209 pp

paperback

"...real life is not a series of nice interlocking ripples graded for size and fitting into a pattern that can be called off like your ABCs. It's a bunch of foolish tiny things that don't add one way or the other, except that they happened and passed the time." -- 62

As I am fond of saying, plot isn't always everything in a good crime novel, and Elliot Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel is a great case in point.  It's also now the best crime novel I've read so far this year, and I do not say those words lightly.

After a sixteen-week gig working as a roughneck on a drilling rig in Louisiana, Tim Sunblade has his first bath in four months in his flea-bitten hotel in Krotz Springs.  A knock on the door later he meets prostitute Virginia; three days later they're on the road together, Virginia having warned him that "when the money's gone ... I'm gone too."  When Tim tells her in return that when that day comes, he'll probably be sick of her, she replies in what turns out to be prophetic words: "It'll be better if you're sick of me."   The two begin to make their way west where Tim has big plans that initially don't include Virginia, but as they make their way first to Colorado and later, to the Big Easy, their relationship takes on a strange, twisted life of its own, ultimately sealing both of their fates. That's the nutshell version which doesn't say much but in terms of what happens here, the story is best experienced on one's own.   Chaze has offered up a deadly match up in Tim and Virginia, both of whom have self-destructive tendencies, both of whom are flawed people with dark pasts.  Tim and Virginia are two of a kind: they have a healthy love of cash; both have a "horror of being broke," and each has the measure of each other.

 But as I said, it's not so much the plot here but the ongoing, deepening interplay between these two characters that makes this story, as well as  Chaze's excellent writing.  I already knew I was in love not too far into the novel, when Virginia gets the better of Tim at a cafe in the New Mexico desert, and Tim goes back to track her down. He's fuming, holding a Magnum .357 that he sticks into his waistband as he's coming into town, where he passes by some little shops with signs that read "COME IN AND SEE THE GIANT MAN-KILLING LIZARD," "SEE THE MAN-DESTROYING RATTLESNAKE," and "REAL LIVE COBRA -- COBRAS KILL A MAN EVERY HOUR IN INDIA."  If we haven't yet figured out that Virginia is a femme fatale, a predator, and a man eater, well, we definitely get the point now, in big, bold letters.   But more than anything else, the beauty of this book is in the way Chaze uses Virginia's sexuality to bedazzle Tim into making some pretty bad choices here, while at the same time revealing Tim's major weaknesses and his sheer desperation that allow readers to actually sympathize with him.

Black Wings Has My Angel is one of those books that kicks you directly in the gut and doesn't let up. Reading it, I knew that happy endings probably weren't in the cards for either Tim or Virginia; I knew something terrible was coming down the pike, and I once again had that feeling of watching an unavoidable, inevitable train wreck, unable to look away.  It's not pretty -- it's very dark, filled with an overarching sense of doom and gloom, and god help me, I absolutely loved it.  I'd say that someone needs to make a movie out of this book, but they'd probably mess it up, so no.  This is noir reading perfection and it seriously just does not get better than this.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

*Some Must Watch, by Ethel Lina White

World Publishing Company
Forum Books Motion Picture Edition, 1946
256 pp
originally published as Some Must Watch, 1933

hardcover

This book was so much fun to read and it hit all of my classic mystery reading buttons --  an isolated family home, a murderer on the prowl and all of it set against the proverbial dark and stormy night, complete with banging shutters and an elderly bedridden woman predicting doom and gloom.  How could it possibly be any better???

Ethel Lina White (1876-1944) was a prolific novelist, with a 17-book career starting in 1927 with The Wish-Bone.  Some Must Watch is her sixth novel, and it's a good one.  I'm almost sorry I didn't wait for the proverbial dark and stormy night to read it since it would have been the perfect backdrop for this book.  The action here takes place over the course of one stormy night, set in a family home called The Summit  "on the border-line between England and Wales."  It's  twelve miles away from the nearest village, and twenty-two miles from the nearest town; a "three-storied house, with two staircases..."  As one might imagine, the Warren family has trouble finding or keeping domestic help, since no one really wants to live in such an isolated place.  That's not the case with Helen Capel, though -- she seriously needs a job after "some months of enforced leisure" and employment suits her just fine. And unlike some characters in  Victorian novels,  she's not there hoping for a "potential husband" -- she plans to keep investing in Savings Certificates, since as she says, "she believed in God -- but not in Jane Eyre." Helen is joined by Mr. and Mrs. Oates, the couple who help to keep things running at the Summit, as well as the Warren family: Professor Sebastian Warren, his sister Blanche who doubles as housekeeper, the Professor's son Newton and his wife Simone, and the Professor's elderly but feisty mother Lady Warren.  As we discover about her,
"The household was waiting for her to die, but she still called the tune. Every morning, Death knocked politely on the door of the blue room; and Lady Warren saluted him in her customary fashion, with her thumb to her nose."
Also in attendance on this particular night is Stephen Rice, who's come for help from the Professor as he prepares for a civil service job, and last but not least, Nurse Barker (whose last name as it turns out, is quite appropriate), who has been hired to help take care of Lady Warren.

The opening of this novel is very well done, setting the tone and the atmosphere for what's to come.   Helen is just returning from a long walk as day is about to slip into night. She still has some way to go before reaching the house, and while she's making her way back through the dense grove that sits between her and the Summit, murder is on her mind.  Four of them, to be precise -- "credibly the work of some maniac, whose chosen victims were girls." The murders started out in the town, moved to the village, and the last victim had been killed in another "lonely country-house, within a five-mile radius" of the Warren home.  In short, the killer is getting closer and much more bold, moving from a "street murder" to actually going inside a house to make his move. Thinking about these murders spooks Helen to no end, and as she comes closer to her goal, she actually believes she sees one of the trees move.  Feeling relief as she enters into safety once again, it isn't long before the house is thrown into upset: the doctor taking care of Lady Warren announces that another murder has just occurred, this one committed very, very close to home.  The Professor puts the house on lockdown -- no one in and no one out.  But the night is only just beginning ....




And right now I so want to do that evil villain laugh, the  "muah-hah-hah-hah-hah" reminiscent of the old Shadow radio show opening because this is just that type of book.  And while I thought it was clever and well paced, with ratcheting tension that continues throughout the night making me flip pages in a frenzy, I see that some readers weren't so crazy about it.  Well, it sort of goes with Ethel Lina White territory that there are a lot of psychological observations from the characters in her work, so here the talky parts didn't bother me at all. Personally, I think the dynamics among the characters are just as much a part of this story as the mystery, so I quite enjoyed it. And the thing is that when it comes to the film, all of that is missing, which is really a shame.

In fact, I have no idea why the powers that be who made this film changed it as much as they did because to me it really was a letdown after having read the novel.  First of all, they took Helen's character (played by Dorothy McGuire) and made her unable to speak and I still haven't figured that one out.  Second, there is very little quality interaction among characters, since they've stripped the whole thing down to the point where there are only a handful of people involved; the nurse's role between book and film is pretty much left out entirely.  Not only that, but for me, there was way more suspense and tension in the novel than the movie gave off, to the point where not too far into the movie Mr. Film Critic guessed who the killer was, something he never does and something  I didn't do while reading the book.  So if you've only seen the film, you're missing out on so much more.

If anyone can come up with a cool design for Ethel Lina White fan club t-shirts, let me know. I'm really starting to appreciate and enjoy her work with every book of hers I read.  Some Must Watch is definitely another boo-yah! read for me. I only wish the weather had been bad so I could have crawled under the covers spooked out by thunder and lightning while reading it.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

from the British reading room: Murder Underground, by Mavis Doriel Hay

97807122357258
British Library Crime Classics, 2014
originally published 1934
286 pp

paperback

"The annals of murder are riddled with coincidence."

Between 1934 and 1936 British author Mavis Doriel Hay (1874-1979)  published three mystery novels, with Murder Underground as her first, followed by Death on the Cherwell in 1935 and The Santa Klaus Murders in 1936.   This is my first book by Hay, and while I found it a bit underwhelming, it certainly won't be my last.

Miss Euphemia Pongleton has been murdered, strangled with her dog's leash and left on the stairs going down to the Belsize Park underground station. There is a man in custody for her death, but no one at the Frampton Private Hotel (the boarding house where Miss Pongleton lived) can believe he actually committed the crime.  In fact, the denizens of the house have much more sympathy for the accused than they do for the dead woman, who was rather eccentric, cheap, rather "tiresome," and known to have "loved a sense of power."  While the police are called in to investigate, in this book the Inspector in charge has only a minor role, arriving late to the story.  The focus is really on the efforts of the people at the Frampton who try to discover who really killed her. In the meantime, someone else has his own reasons for wanting to conceal what he knows, and ends up causing more than a lot of confusion in the case.

Considering how very much I love these old books and British murder mysteries in general, overall this one was, like Miss Euphemia Pongleton, a bit tiresome.  What I enjoyed about it was the focus on the boarders, who have their own theories on what happened.  The best scene takes place at the beginning of the story, when all are together in one room, waiting to be called individually to talk to the (somewhat invisible at this point) police Inspector. There we discover that while these people feel sorry that she'd met with such a terrible end, they're also realistic, with one woman noting that
"It would be hypocritical to pretend that any one of us is overwhelmed at the removal of Miss Pongleton."
This conversation is very lively, with a novelist, Mrs. Daymer, applying her "expert" knowledge of the police, of investigations, and of the victim herself while "surveying the possibilities of the situation." The other boarders voice their own opinions or come up with logical questions that are discussed in turn, each one speculating on motive, means and opportunity.    But when outside of the boarding house, someone decides to gum up the works to protect himself and starts covering up his own movements and  telling a series of lies, the story quickly gets tedious, making the novel  tough to get through.  Talk talk talk, very little in the way of action until the book is nearly finished.   I read several reader reviews where people had said that they got bored enough to flip to the end, but really, it's so incredibly easy to figure out that no one should have had to do that.  For me the question was one of waiting it out to see how long it took before things are set right, and exactly how that was going to be accomplished.

While I won't sing the praises of this novel, I do still plan on reading her other two, so maybe they'll be a bit better.  However, as an example of the work of a previously-obscure woman mystery writer of the Golden Age, Murder Underground is very much worth reading.