Friday, October 9, 2015

from the UK: Before It's Too Late, by Jane Isaac

Legend Press, 2015
282 pp

paperback (from publisher, thank you!)

I was well over the halfway mark in this novel when I realized something -- I hadn't seen any swearing, blatant sex or gratuitous violence anywhere.  Kudos to the author for that. Not that I mind swearing so much,  but I can do without extraneous sex and violence that does little or nothing for or gets in the way of the main story line.

Before It's Too Late is a police procedural on the lighter side. It's not light enough to fall under cozy but not nearly as dark as my normal fare, and much lighter in tone than most of what's out there on bookstore shelves as we speak.   There is an angsty main character, DI Will Jackman, who is still grief stricken after an accident that left his wife paralyzed and unable to function.  Jackman has a daughter Celia, a university student whose inner strength Jackman relies on at times when his fails.  He had moved his family to Stratford-upon-Avon when Celia was young, because it was a "pretty sleepy town when it came to serious crime,"  but at the moment,  the police are currently stumped over a missing person case that turned into murder.  Smarting over the lack of information in that case,  Jackman finds himself tasked with investigating another young woman gone missing -- a university student named Min Li, whose case becomes "high profile" with quick results expected.  Sadly, not much evidence has surfaced in this case either, except for some CCTV footage that may offer clues to her last sighting.  But here's the thing -- the reader knows where Min Li is -- her narrative runs through the book parallel to that of the investigation, while the bad guy gets some brief air time here with his story as well.   Jackman and his people have to find Min Li as quickly as possible and things become even more urgent when another university student goes missing.

It's a good book that will keep you turning pages to figure out the who; there are a couple of plot twists involved that make the armchair detective's work just a little bit harder.  The story isn't overwhelmed with Jackman's angst (a plus);  the author gives you just enough information about him to start fleshing him out as a character.  Isaac also reveals the nature of "political policing," as ego, ambition and well-placed friendships override one cop's need for solid detective work, which Jackman can't stand; another well-crafted part of this novel is the focus on the Chinese community and how interactions with outsiders actually work.  Very nicely done and very insightful.  The only thing I wasn't overly fond of was the kidnapped girl's narrative -- first and foremost, it's a bit too melodramatic for my taste and second, well, I can't really explain this one without spoiling things so I'll leave it for others to discover.

I'd say if you've got one foot out the cozy door and are looking to up your crime game without diving headfirst into gritty noir, Before It's Too Late is a fine transition from cutesy to criminal, with enough edginess to make it compelling reading.  I appreciate that Ms. Isaac didn't feel the need to add in all manner of extraneous stuff that many modern writers feel is necessary -- she proves that sometimes a good story can be had without trying to attract every possible audience by using all of the usual over-the-top creepy sex and violence that seems to be a mainstay these days.  It can be done, folks, and it's a refreshing change.

Again, my thanks to the publisher for my copy.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

... and speaking of Agatha Christie, a new release of Murder on the Orient Express!!

look what just came in my mail!  It's a brand new facsimile edition put out by William Morrow, released today, even down to "The Crime Club notation on the side.  I LOVE this cover!  About this particular edition, the note on Amazon says the following:

"Reproducing the original typesetting and format of the first edition from the Christie family’s archive,Murder on the Orient Express Facsimile Edition also features the first hardcover edition’s actual cover art, which has been painstakingly restored to its original beauty."

Inside is also a lovely reproduction of the original: first, the title page,  

followed by a short blurb and a list of other works by Agatha Christie:

In case you're at all interested, here's the Amazon link (I get nothing if you click through).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Sad news: Henning Mankell: 1948 - 2015

Henning Mankell passed away today at the age of 67.  

One of my very favorite Scandinavian writers has passed away today, after battling cancer.  You can read about it here at BBC news for the full story.

Mankell, of course, authored the Wallander series, which I've been collecting and reading for years now.   He has long been one of my favorite crime writers , not just from Scandinavia but in crime fiction as a whole. Crime readers everywhere will mourn his passing -- he brought something new and completely different to the genre.  Today is a sad day.

requiescat in pace

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? by Stephen Dobyns

blue rider press/Penguin, 2015
351 pp

hardcover (from the publisher -- thank you!)

Before anyone gets all freaked about the dog on the cover smoking a cigarette, no animals were harmed  (or caught smoking) in this novel.  The smoking dog represents just one scam run by a couple of very odd people who solicit money over the phone, telling selected callers that their help is needed to Free Beagles from Nicotine Addiction.  Another selected group of unwary customers gets calls to support Prom Queens Anonymous (directed at fading beauties who never quite grew out of their prom queen days) while yet another specifically-targeted group receives pleas to support Orphans from Outer Space.  So don't worry about the dog or go and boycott the book because the dog may incite teens to take up smoking -- nothing like that goes on here.  But I just know someone will complain or take offense -- you heard it here.

I laughed myself silly throughout the first half of this book and a little beyond.  When I'd finished the book very very late last night, I took a look at what readers on goodreads had to say and discovered that I must have a strange, quirky sense of humor because not a whole lot of people found this book at all funny.  Then again, I'm known for enjoying the unconventional and the strange. My point is that it's a novel that may not appeal to everyone, but if you like snark and sarcasm, you'll find plenty of it here.

I won't get too much into plot but the novel begins with a horrific accident in which a motorcycle rider is sliced to ribbons and decapitated.  How is that funny, you may ask. Well, it's not, but everything that follows starts from this incident.  Based on several factors, the investigating officers are not so sure that it was indeed an accident but rather a carefully-planned murder.  The main character in this novel (Connor) just happens to be on scene  and gets stuck there; while standing around he meets another guy (Sal) who is stranded waiting for the accident to be cleared.  This fateful meeting will have major repercussions when Connor, certain that he knows the guy or that he's at least seen him before at a Detroit casino where he used to work, calls his brother to ask about him. He doesn't realize it but Connor has just stepped into a major hornet's nest involving the FBI, the witness protection program and a crazy Harley fanatic who goes by the name of Fat Bob.

a Fat Bob Harley, photo from Adam Campbell, 2014 at Cruiser

It's not so much the story but the characters who really drive this novel -- and there are any number of lunatics who populate this book. The two cops have a serious "passive-aggressive" thing going on in their work partnership.  Manny Streeter is crazy about karaoke and has spent a lot of money turning one of the bedrooms into a karaoke lounge complete with tables and rules; his partner, Benny Vikström really wants out of the partnership but finds that the only way out is to become a bike cop.  He also catches a lot of flak on the job when people joke about him being a "famous Swedish detective."   The scam artists at Bounty Inc. are just insane but they have given Connor a job working for them and say they are prepping him to take over the business; even the bad guys are sort of silly, with one exception, a crazy lunatic named Chucky. There's also a homeless guy who thinks he has a tail every time he gets through a bottle of Everclear.   Then there's Connor himself, the guy who through no fault of his own ends up in more than one situation he's having trouble keeping under control.  There really isn't one sane person in this book and when you combine them all what you get is a rather crazy mix of characters who keep things beyond lively.  You also get a murder mystery in and among all of the absurdity here, but it's more about the people than the story.

Now the downside to this book is that even though it's terribly clever, at the end it was like I was watching a movie. It's like the novel was really fun up to that point, but the ending had all of the trademarks of those films that feature the hapless hero and all of the crazies in his/her orbit. I could actually see things playing out in my head exactly to form.   If you've read this book you'll know precisely what I'm saying; if not, well you will.  I would like to think that the author did this on purpose, but who knows. So the bottom line is this: as the dustjacket blurb notes, it is an "entertainingly absurd" novel, and it made me laugh out loud for most of the book.  I don't know that I'd say it's a novel for everyone, because clearly some readers couldn't get into the humor of it all.  I say if you come into it with no expectations, making your mind a blank slate and not worrying about the whole mystery/crime thing, it will probably make for fun reading.  I have this tendency to root for the offbeat, so it was a good read for me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

pure (icky) pulp: Solomon's Vineyard, by Jonathan Latimer

Black Mask, 2009 (reprint)
[originally published 1941]
132 pp


With the call to read banned books about to start up again here shortly (banned books week starts the 27th), crime readers may wish to move off the beaten path and read something really different.  Solomon's Vineyard was originally published in 1941, and banned not too long afterwards.  My my how times have changed.  Today we have so much explicit rough sex in novels that it's sort of old hat and skimworthy, but my guess is that the Boston matriarchs and the bible belters of the day rejected it in print, at least in public.

The very short preface to this novel states the following:
"Listen. This is a wild one. Maybe the wildest yet. It's got everything but an abortion and a tornado. I ain't saying it's true. Neither of us, brother, is asking you to believe it. You can lug it across to the rental library right now and tell the dame you want your goddam nickel back. We don't care All he done was write it down like I told it, and I don't guarantee nothing."
That little tongue-in-cheek blurb is signed by Karl Craven, the narrator and main character of this novel. His attitude toward women sucks -- he is the poster boy (and quite possibly king) of misogynists everywhere. Ex-football player and now PI,  the only thing going for this fictional jerk in my opinion is that he was a fervent reader of Black Mask magazine. His creator was evidently a reader of Dashiell Hammett -- if you read Hammett's The Dain Curse, you'll notice that there's a beyond-huge similarity between the two books.  Both (although Hammett's was first, obviously) take the reader on a wild ride centered around an odd religious cult -- here it is the titular Solomon's Vineyard taking center stage, a "religious colony," where they "raise grapes and hell."  Craven's rolled into the corrupt little burg of Paulton to meet up with his partner, Oke Johnson ("a smart Swede", the only smart one I ever saw"), who is there trying to convince their client's niece to leave Solomon's Vineyard and return home.  A lot of money is riding on their success, so when Johnson turns up dead, Craven has to try to get the girl out of there by himself.  But he also wants to nail the people who killed Johnson. And that is not going to be easy, by any stretch.  He makes enemies of the town tough guy pretty much the minute he hits town by bedding his girlfriend Ginger; his real interest though lies in "The Princess," who is "the head of the women" up at the Vineyard.  Craven noticed her the minute he got into town:
"From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she'd be good in bed." 
and then of course, his eyes move further up:
"She had gold-blonde hair, and curves, and breasts the size of Cuban pineapples."

Then in a scene highly reminiscent of Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, when Craven finally gets the blonde, he's surprised when he discovers that not only is she willing, but that she likes it rough, telling him

"Hit me!" after she slaps him and then beats him with her fists.

[As a sidebar, I've just finished Cain's novel -- and the first physical scene between Frank and Cora is her telling Frank to bite her.]

 It gets pretty out there sometimes, not just in terms of the masochistic sex but also in what's really going on in the town and more importantly, up at the Vineyard.  But to get through it, you absolutely have to leave whatever amount of  PC-ness and modern sensitivities at the door. It's not for the faint of heart -- in this book misogyny and racism rule the day.   If you're a plot-based crime reader, you'll also notice that this book starts moving into the incredulity zone pretty quickly and just sort of hangs there like an inversion layer over the LA basin until the ending.

Solomon's Vineyard is likely the most hardboiled (and icky) novel I've ever read and I'm hoping, judging from the short preface,  is that it's meant to be kind of a wisecracking, skewering take of that genre especially since it's pretty obvious that Latimer sort of "borrowed" elements from at least two other books I've read.  All in all while I hated the main character, I did enjoy the novel.  Once you pick it up, you cannot put it down. It actually scares me that I just said that.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Mr. Bazalgette's Agent, by Leonard Merrick -- A British Library Crime Classic

British Library, 2013
originally published 1888
139 pp


 Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book, which ended up with an incredibly ironic twist that made me laugh out loud, but I've found myself now wanting to tackle the entire series of British Library Crime Classics.   I have an intense fondness for these old novels.  They may come across as silly and outdated to some readers (which I totally understand)  but they have some of the best story lines that aren't mucked up by all kinds of extraneous stuff --  which is a) what I see in a LOT of today's crime fiction/mystery output, and b) the reason I just don't buy that much contemporary crime any more. Plus, they come with a bonus -- for me, history geek-person-fanatic, they open up a window into the past.  This particular book was written in 1888 and it speaks volumes.

The story is recounted through the diary of our heroine Miss Miriam Lea, who is, as the novel opens, very much down on her luck.  Poor woman -- at age 28, she has no prospects and is facing penury if something doesn't change. She once was an actress, and then became a governess until her past career became known.   Now she's down to her last "four pounds thirteen and sixpence," and her future doesn't seem all that bright.  But everything changes one day when a fellow boarder at her rather sad boardinghouse points her toward a little blurb in the newspaper:
"ALFRED BAZALGETTE, 7, Queen's Row, High Holborn. -- Suspected persons watched for divorce, and private matters investigated with secrecy and despatch. Agents of both sexes. Consultations free."
Making her way to Queen's Row, Miss Lea's hopes to be taken on as a lady detective are seemingly dashed until a full two weeks later when she writes in her diary "I am engaged!"  It seems that Mr. Bazalgette is tasked with locating one Jasper Vining, a banker's clerk who is wanted for fraud and for the theft of some bonds of the Egyptian Unified Loan which he'd handled while working in connection with the stock exchange.  Evidently, Scotland Yard has had no success, and the matter's been handed over to Bazalgette.  Her task: along with another female operative who will accompany her in the guise of a maid, Miss Lea is to
 "find the man; then to be in his company till you have got sufficient information to convince the authorities you have a right to demand an arrest!" 
"The swell" Jasper Vining will probably be hiding out in "capitals or big cities," and Miss Lea and her "maid" Dunstan  are to travel forthwith to Hamburg to begin their search.  She is to stay in the best hotels, dress the part and hopefully make contact. Thus begins a quest that will take Miss Lea and Dunstan on a whirlwind trip through Europe and ultimately across the sea to South Africa in search of this wretched thief and swindler.

I could write so much about this book because there is a LOT hiding under its surface, but I'll  just make a couple of  observations here.  First, in the introduction to this novel, Mike Ashley notes that Mr. Bazalgette's Agent is quite likely the "first ever British novel to feature a professional female detective."  Prior to this one, as he states, there were "quite a few" short stories to do so, but in general, most fictional detectives of the time were men. Well, no surprise there. 

Second, and much more interesting, prior to her appointment as Bazalgette's agent, Miss Lea finds herself in a very tight spot.  She's had a brief stint as an actress,  "until they discovered I could not act," at which point she is taken on as a governess by Lady Edward Jones. However, once her former career is made known to her employers, she is let go after two full years of service.  It seems that Lady Edward Jones does not approve and is 
"unwilling that Master Pelham Jones should imbibe any vulgar tendencies toward art..."
It seems that even though Miss Lea is obviously highly educated, she is also highly unemployable because of her past association with the stage.  However, when called to work for Bazalgette, she refuses to take the small salary she is offered by her employers -- they want to pay her a pound a day; she most adamantly turns it down.  Women, it seems, are very rarely hired on as detectives; when they are, it's temporary.  As she states,
"...on the termination of this undertaking, I should be without an engagement from you, probably find it extremely difficult to return to more ordinary occupations, and have only earned a trifling sum to make amends for the embarrassment." 
To her credit, she holds out for the better sum of thirty shillings a day, but she does recognize that she's pushing her luck here.

It's little things like this (and much more I haven't touched on so as not to put someone to sleep)  that  I appreciate about this novel, and as I said at the outset it has a wonderful, ironic twist at the end that made me laugh out loud.  I won't say what it is or how the book ends, but as I'm squirming in my seat wanting to yell at her for being so daft, things changed in the blink of an eye.  Mr. Bazalgette's Agent is a wonderful book if you are into crime literature of the Victorian era.  Instead of looking at the book as "dated" or "out of touch" with the modern world, it should be appreciated for what it is -- a unique book in its field that allows a  woman in the role of an otherwise mostly-male career. And besides that, it's just plain fun.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, by Kathryn Harkup

Bloomsbury Sigma, 2015
320 pp


A is For Arsenic is most definitely a niche read, but it's a  must-have for diehard Christie fans.  I count myself in that category, and so does the book's author, Kathryn Harkup:  she's  described on the back-cover blurb as a "chemist, author and Agatha Christie fanatic." She combines all of these attributes in this book which focuses on fourteen different poisons (arsenic through Veronal -- alpha by poison) used by Christie to kill off several of her victims in  her novels and short stories.

After a brief introduction in which we discover (among other things) that Agatha Christie was a trained  apothecary's assistant (dispenser) with an incredibly in-depth knowledge of poisons, Harkup wastes no time getting into the meat of this book.

Let's take the opening chapter, which happens to be "A is for Arsenic." Each entry follows pretty much the same pattern, so I'll just offer a brief look at the first.  The Christie title she associates with arsenic is Murder is Easy (aka Easy to Kill).   Harkup start with a short summary of the book (no spoilers)  then moves into "the arsenic story," which gives a bit of info about the history of this poison, "long the preserve of the rich and powerful." This particular part also goes into past crimes where arsenic was the poison of choice, as well as how scientists came up with tests designed to prove forensically that arsenic was used. From there it's "How Arsenic Kills,"  which gets into arsenic's chemistry, the symptoms one might show when poisoned with it, and the resulting consequences and effects on the body.  The next section asks "Is there an antidote?" followed by "Some real-life cases." [As a sidebar, I'll just mention that Harkup mentions one of my favorite cases here, that of Madeleine Smith, the Glasgow poisoner who got away with murder.]   Then we get move to  "Agatha and arsenic," where the author goes back to Murder is Easy, once again spoiler free.

As an added bonus, there's an entire appendix in the back, "Christie's Causes of Death," which is a table listing each story or novel written by Christie:  the UK title, the murder method of choice, followed by the American title.  Here's a sample (and I apologize for the blur -- photography just isn't my thing):

The only  drawback I can see with this book is that each chapter has a subsection about the science of the particular poison -- scientific jargon that I'll admit goes over my head at times. I'll also admit to skimming through many of these sections precisely because I am not by any means a science person. Ask me a question about religions, philosophy or history and I can talk your ear off, but science, well, to me it's often mystifying.   However, aside from that aspect, the book is one I'd highly recommend to anyone who is a true Christie devotee, and it's a very welcome addition to my quickly-growing collection of crime-fiction reference books.