Sunday, June 28, 2015

Crystal Nights, by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

Candied Crime, 2015
ebook, sent to me by the author (thank you!)

First, a major apology to Dorte for taking so long getting to her book. With every intention of starting it right away, a LOT of life's little obstacles have recently manifested themselves, limiting my time for reading this book and for reading in general this month.  Second, another note to Dorte -- after finishing this novel, now you've made me want to read your North Sea Cottage, so I bought a copy.  And so grows the TBR pile. 

Crystal Nights is the type of crime novel I just love, where there are mysteries in the present which have their roots in the past.  I'm certainly not spoiling things when I say this; the minute you open this book you're in 1938 following a Jewish family as they are preparing to leave Berlin. Leaving behind her very life, Sara follows her husband who has decided that leaving at that time is probably a very good idea.  The family makes its way to an entirely new existence and tragedy strikes.  Fast forward now to Denmark in 1967 where a little boy disappears from the small village of Kalum.  At first, his mother tries to tell police that he went off with her ex-husband and is staying with his family, but neither Lars-Ole's father or his wife have even seen him. A few suspects are looked at but there is nothing concrete that Lars-Ole's disappearance can be tied to, so little by little the case goes somewhat cold. The only one keeping the hope alive is a friend of Lars-Ole, Niels Haugaard.  The two boys were best friends, and shared a number of entertaining adventures together, their latest pretend-fest centering around the world of spying.  Right after the boy's disappearance,  Niels makes his way to one of their hideouts and discovers Lars-Ole's little notebook in which he leaves coded messages.  However, even after he's figured out what Lars-Ole has written, he still isn't quite sure of its meaning.   Using this little notebook as his only guide, he stays with it while other matters take up the attention of the police.  But when things take a very sinister and rather unexpected turn, the cold case of Lars-Ole's disappearance begins to heat up once again.  
As she explains, the author has set this book in "the northernmost part of Jutland" with her inspiration "the tiny village" of Em where she was born.  It is filled with woods, brooks, farms and as I read, I could envision this small little place in my head.  But beyond the setting, what really comes through in this book is how the past can continue to haunt certain people and become so deeply rooted in their minds so as to twist their perceptions,  augment their fears, and eventually control their very lives.   And another thing that I enjoyed immensely in this novel is the author's examination of the people in this small village with its hidden-away secrets.  At one point when something serious occurs, and everyone seems to think they know who might be behind it, the lead investigator notes that
"...  All these well-meaning neighbors were ever so well-informed when the harm was done. Then they were quick to interfere and get their bit of attention, but would they dream of reporting a neighbor's son to the police before he was seriously out of line?"
 I think that Ms. Jakobsen really understands the point that crime fiction should be used to examine people -- and that she shows this deftly throughout her book.  I will say that I was a little iffy about the story when Niels started looking for Lars-Ole, because I was a bit worried about where this story was going to go. Would Niels be the little crimesolver here? -- in which case I would have been really put off.   I'm happy to report, however that there's a good balance between the story of a boy searching for his very best friend, the police investigation, and the darkness that lives in this small village so I ended up having nothing to worry about.  

As I said at the beginning, reading this book made me want to read yet another novel the author's written, so obviously I liked it; I think others will find it very good reading as well. Not as intense as my usual fare, but the story hung together quite nicely and there's more than enough in here to satisfy my need to understand the darkness that lives within people. I'd say it's too dark for cozy readers and a little too light for those drawn to deep noir, so readers who find themselves between those two extremes ought to be very comfortable with this novel.  Recommended. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

back to the past: #13: The Will and the Deed, by Dorothy Ogburn

Wildside Books
originally published 1935, Dodd, Mead and Company
264 pp

paperback (reproduction of original)

I'll just say that most of this book was entertaining, but when it came down to the last few chapters, I would have poured myself something very strong to take away the reading pain had it not been so early in the day.  Oy!  Talk about convoluted!

About the  author.  Dorothy Ogburn (née Stevens), was born in 1890 and died in 1981. She was married in 1910 to Charlton Ogburn; in the 1920s she began writing mystery novels. She wrote three (Death on the Mountain, 1931;  Ra-Ta-Plan, 1931; and then The Will and the Deed, 1935) before she and her husband became devotées of the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare's identity.  She co-authored a book about the topic with her husband, but after her husband had some kind of debilitating illness, Dorothy went on to write a book on her own, Shake-speare: Behind the Name, published in 1961, and by 1973, when she could no longer read, she'd nearly finished writing another book, Elizabeth and Shakespeare.

The Wildside edition I have has reproduced the original 1935 edition and at the back I discovered a little treasure: the logo designating this book as being part of the Red Badge Detective series.  As I've recently discovered, this was the imprint for Dodd, Mead's mystery lists; just as an interesting sidebar, I'll add the following from an article I found online (bemoaning the fact that these imprints no longer exist):
"Simon & Schuster had an imprint called Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Doubleday had the Crime Club, Dodd Mead had Red Badge Mysteries, Macmillan had Cock Robin Mysteries, and Holt had Rinehart Suspense Novels."
So now, I guess, I have to find all of the Red Badge titles. It's just what I now feel compelled to do.  But moving right along, back to The Will and the Deed.  

This is another country-house sort of mystery, taking place at Thanksgiving at a home called Stonecliffe "not sixty miles from the City of New York." The Walters family and sundry others have been "convened" so that they could hear the reading of the late patriarch's will.  They get a bit of a jolt when they discover that the family attorney isn't going to read the document, but rather it's the old man himself who's going to do it via the medium of film.  Yes, that's right folks, they set up the projector and let grandpa tell each family member (and the faithful retainers) who's getting what.  Well, after the grumbling's over when people got much less than they thought they'd be getting, it isn't long until devoted daughter Ollie Walters Neville (married to Lester) decides that everyone should clear out and then falls from the library balcony to her death.  The family is outwardly convinced it had to have been suicide, but a witness who happened to look up and see two shadows in the library window that night says otherwise. A detective is sent to the home to investigate, and besides the fact that everyone swears that she'd gone "gaga," even to the point of having to spend time in a hospital for her condition, he's not so sure that she actually did herself in.   The family, of course, is resentful of the police intrusion, and refuse to co-operate.   However, while he's there,  there is a robbery, an attempted murder and another death which sort of nullifies the idea of Ollie having taken her own life.

As I said earlier, it's the very last part of this book that drove me crazy. The first half wasn't too bad, and actually presented a good mystery and some family secrets that were revealed along the way.  There is an entire house filled with possible suspects from which to choose, and as it turns out, I totally got the rationale behind the murderer's motive once all was revealed. But when it came down to those last few chapters, it became such a tangle of strange subplots (involving among other things, a séance, a gun loaded with blanks and hypnotism)  that I had to read these pages twice.  Another thing: I'm very used to stilted language from early mystery novels, but I must say, this one absolutely takes the cake for archaic  throughout the book.  The long and short of it is that  no one should have to work that hard to read the last few chapters in a mystery novel.

Still, it's another female mystery novelist  I hadn't previously heard of, so I'm quite happy to have discovered her and to have read her work. Plus, I do have this enduring fondness for country-house murders, so it's another one to add to the list, once I start keeping one!  That's another whole project for another day.  Anyway -- if you're into obscure country-house murder mysteries, I'd say read it, but beware of the last few chapters, and maybe read it after 5 pm so you can help your headache and confusion with a nice martini or something.

Monday, June 8, 2015

catching up: Acqua Morta, by Adam Bane

either createspace or GC Milsom, 2015 (although I couldn't find any reference to this publisher anywhere)

433 pp


"Life would come to a premature end, like a stream diverted, dammed and left to become stagnant, mosquito-ridden acqua morta."

Keeping things on the level, the author emailed me a while back and asked if I would read his book. I've been sort of out of that mode for awhile, preferring to catch up on what I already own (and frankly I'm just tired of getting some pretty poorly-written books)  but this one looked interesting.  He offered me a kindle/iPad copy but I bought the book rather than taking the e-reader version since I'm way more of a love-the-feel-of-a-book-in-my-hands kind of person.  

The blurb:
"Forced into retirement because of ill-health (sic), Commissario Domenico Martelli is hired to investigate a grotesque and disturbing murder.  The case brings him into conflict with his former colleagues and into confrontation with a devious and mysterious killer.  Set in the breathtaking Ligurian countryside, ACQUA MORTA will keep you guessing until the very last page."
The novel opens on Martelli's last day of work as head of  the murder squad; while the case is intriguing, he has to hand the reins over to Fabrizio Rubini the next day. Rubini is a "political appointee," an "enthusiastic sniffer of the arses of other ambitious poodles."  Martelli sees Rubini as someone whose only interest is himself, and when Martelli arrives to investigate, his notion that Rubini is not such a good cop is reinforced by the sloppy mess at the crime scene.  The crime itself is horrific: a man with hands bound with wire had been forced into a barrel while sulphuric acid had been slowly but steadily trickled in from another container. Air holes had been punched into the barrel so the man wouldn't suffocate before the acid could do its job; only about "half a human being" was left.

An intriguing case, to be sure, but Martelli won't be working it. Except he will, sort of, from an alternate avenue:  after the victim's brother identifies the body, he goes to Martelli (who is suffering from retirement blues and boredom at this point) on a private basis to find his brother's killer. What Martelli and the rest of the police working the case do not know is that a discovery in a gym six hundred miles away has put British detective Ted Logan on the same trail from a different starting point.

The novel moves between Martelli's work as a private investigator (although he has no license, so it's really all about staying busy) and Ted's investigation so that the reader ends up with a two-pronged story.  The author also takes time to delve into the private lives of these two main characters. Martelli fears that retirement
"... would consist of a prolonged period of torpidity followed by an ignoble fizzling out, probably with a tube up his nose and a cannula in the back of his hand, the sickly smell of disinfectant and the buzzing of a flickering fluorescent light his last sensations on this Earth"
and needs to keep his hand in for sanity's sake; Ted also has job-related personal issues to deal with. But both are definitely challenged by their respective investigations, giving heart and soul over to uncovering the truth.

I have to say that this is a very good first effort, and that I would certainly read the second book the author is planning to write that continues the series. It's definitely a good start and I think the author has good character/plot potential in Martelli and his friends left behind in the murder squad.  But I'm one of those odd readers who thinks less is definitely more -- to me the best crime novels are much more streamlined and really don't need all the extraneous descriptive passages that are everywhere in this book. As just one example, there's what amounts to an entire page describing the landscape and weather around Minnis Bay, ending with Ted's wish that he had a dog (62, 63); there's another entire page describing the scene just getting to a conversation between Martelli and the victim's brother (194, 195). And there are more of these sorts of scenes throughout the book. I get that setting and place is important, but it can also be overdone. If you look at Camilleri's Montalbano series, for example, he expertly mingles setting with story without letting it take over the pages.  One more thing: to be very honest, I figured out the biggest plot twists long before the police did.  Frankly, it was too easy not to, but I chalk this up to first-in-a-series mistakes that many authors make.

However, now that I've got my grumblies and niggles out of the way, I can definitely recommend Acqua Morta to readers who are looking for a new crime series.  The story is dark, really gets into Martelli's struggles to stay mentally afloat going into his retirement, and the two-prong approach was very well done. I think that once Mr. Bane gets the hang of crime writing, we'll start seeing some very nice work from this author.

Friday, June 5, 2015

back to the past: #12 - The Sleepless Men, by E.H. Nisot

Doubleday Crime Club, 1959
189 pp


The Sleepless Men was written by E.H. Nisot, a pseudonym of Mavis Elizabeth Hocking Nisot.  She was born in 1893 in Thornton Heath, Surrey and died in 1973.  She was the daughter of Joseph Hocking, a novelist from Cornwall; her uncle was Silas Hocking, who was also a writer as well as a Methodist minister.   Nisot also used the pen name William Penmare, a name that caught my eye since the main character in this novel shares the same last name.  As William Penmare, she wrote The Black Swan (1928), The Scorpion (1929), and The Man Who Could Stop War (1929).  Her list of titles as Elizabeth Nisot reads as follows:

Alixe Derring (1934)
Shortly Before Midnight (1934)
Twelve to Dine (1935)
Hazardous Holiday (1936)
Extenuating Circumstances (1937)
False Witness (1938)
Unnatural Deeds (1939)

The Sleepless Men was included as a part of Doubleday's Crime Club which published 2,492 titles between 1928 and 1991.   You can tell an original crime club selection by its logo

and to give you a further clue as to what you're going to be reading, the inside dust jacket shows a symbol you're supposed to match to the little symbols on the back cover.  

The symbol to match for The Sleepless Men is a gun being fired, which clues the reader that this book will be a "chase and adventure" story, and that is precisely the case in this book set in New York City. 

The main character is an innocent writer named Mark Penmare,  who finds himself as the main witness in a case of multiple murders.  In a restaurant one evening having dinner, he witnesses and overhears one woman, Laurel Craig,  involved in two very different conversations, including one where money changes hands.  Moving to the bar, he is later joined by Laurel  and her friend, an amateur actress and singer called Charlie, who engage him in conversation. He walks Laurel back to her hotel late in the evening, and when he returns to ask her a question the next day, he discovers that she's dead.  He walks straight into the crime scene, where the police are eager to hear from him.  Rather than being considered a suspect, the police realize that Penmare is a valuable witness, and Penmare becomes sort of an adjunct investigator helping the cops to solve Laurel's murder. But as soon as that investigation moves into full swing, another body turns up, Penmare's flat is ransacked,  and because of the nature of what Penmare had witnessed, he realizes that there could very well be a third death if the police do not act quickly. When all is said and done, while this book is definitely a murder mystery that will keep you guessing, it ultimately moves into an area well beyond the usual murder-mystery fare.  

The Sleepless Men starts a wee bit slowly but the action increases as you move further into the story.  There's a murky figure that weaves in and out called only "the man in the gray suit," so just who this guy might be adds an extra layer of mystery.   It is a fun little book, actually, and while it comes across as dated, the core mystery itself is easy to follow, interesting and leads into something only hinted at, but actually quite  unexpected.  Curiosity nearly killed me getting to the ending, since the author leaves it all until then to unravel the story, but I had a great time along the way. 

I LOVE these old books!  

Monday, June 1, 2015

It ain't the movie, folks: Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith

Vintage, 1999
272 pp


"And Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated, but perhaps in reality loved."

Strangers on a Train is another case where most people have seen the movie but haven't read the book or didn't know there was a novel behind it.  In this case, if you've seen the movie, and then go to read Highsmith's book, you end up with two different entities.  The basic plot is the same -- two men, total strangers, meet on a train; one (Bruno) is a psychopath and in conversation things eventually come around to the concept of the "perfect murder." Bruno will get rid of the woman who stands in the way of the other man's (Guy Haines) path to happiness, and Guy in return, will get rid of Bruno's father. Guy has no intention of carrying out his side of Bruno's imaginary bargain, but Bruno kills Guy's wife anyway.   I can see why Hitchcock got involved with this movie -- it seems tailor made for the man.  But this is where movie and novel take different paths. Actually, the book and movie part company very early on. 

There's really no need to rehash the plot of this book since it is so very well known, but it's worth saying that the strength of this novel  is in Highsmith's ability to very quickly bring the reader inside of her characters' heads. The same is true in her Talented Mr. Ripley .  In Strangers on a Train, she examines the very complex relationship between two men, strangers before they had that fateful meeting on the train, but whose lives afterward become inescapably interwined.  The reader sees what drives each man not only individually, but also in the complexity of the ties that bring them  "closer than brotherhood," even when they are not together. The quotation at the beginning of this post, to me, is critical in trying to comprehend this tangled and tortuous relationship (and I could talk forever on the topic  but I'll spare you),  but the true genius of this novel is that most of what creates the tension and suspense in this story plays out in the space of their minds. Sure, there are the physical scenes where Bruno kills Miriam and Guy reciprocates, but even here, you are taken step by step through the entire process of killing as seen through the respective characters' eyes.  As the story progresses and you feel that all-too human need to sympathize with someone, you begin to realize that sympathy becomes an elusive, rather slippery concept in terms of the two main players. 

If I had read Strangers on a Train as my first foray into the mind of Patricia Highsmith, I would have bought every single book she ever wrote just praying that that they'd all be this good.  I had to disagree with someone recently who complained that the book just didn't have enough "action," because frankly, action is not what Highsmith's writing  is all about, a point evidently lost on the person but whatever. Anyone who picks up one of her books should know that she's going to dive right into the psyche and pull out whatever's there for all to see -- and then you're along for the ride as she slowly starts the dissection.  I can't speak highly enough about this book. Highsmith is genuinely in a class of her own.  

Sunday, May 31, 2015

new from Soho: Innocence; or Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margolius Kovály

Soho Crime, 2015
originally published as Nevina, 1985
translated by Alex Zucker

256 pp

arc -- my super huge thanks to Paul at Soho for sending me my copy.

"... life just glides along, until all of a sudden one day everything goes off the rails." 

First things first. I bought a hardcover copy of this book, so if anyone in these here United States would like my advanced reader copy, let me know and it's yours. Free, gratis, and I pay postage. It really needs a new home.  

While reading this book, it didn't take too long to realize that the author had much more on her mind than writing an ordinary crime novel.  There's way too much going on around the plot and the action that would lead anyone to believe this is just another mystery story.   If you read the introduction to this book written by her son Ivan, he notes that 
"Several personalities in the book see acts like lying, misrepresenting, informing, and betraying confidences as inconsequential, trivial matters, thus diluting the difference between guilt and innocence. Even murder is perceived as an accident for which no one is to blame."
He also calls the story an "intensely complex psychological drama," and this is much more the reality of this book than the "Chandleresque mystery" it's advertised as. It's true that the author loved Chandler, and as the intro goes on to say, like Marlowe, the main character of this novel "struggles" ... "to make her existence worthwhile in an environment devoid of respect for human life."    What the author has given us here, I think, is much more of a fictionalized picture of an historical reality in a totalitarian society -- where people live knowing they are under surveillance, where informing is sometimes a way just to stay ahead of the knock on the door in the middle of the night, and where the fact of who you are can often determine your fate.  All of what I'm saying here is important because if you pick up this novel expecting a standard crime-novel plot trajectory, you're reading the wrong book. As I said, it didn't take me long to figure out that Kovály was writing a somewhat-disguised version of her own story, and I absolutely had to know more about this woman so I picked up her memoir Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968.  If you have the option, either read Under a Cruel Star just before or right after reading Innocence -- as I noted in my own post about that book, it is (in part) an examination of human nature and the moral choices people make under some horrific and appalling circumstances.  And if you read carefully in Innocence, you'll notice the same thing goes on here in the "fractured incarcerated society" that was 1950s Prague under totalitarian rule.

 Just briefly, Helena Nováková works as an usher at a theater.  This is the best job she can get now because her husband has been imprisoned, and she herself is also under surveillance, as the powers that be believe she must have also been involved with her husband's activities against the state.  Not only does she have a low-paying job, she is poison -- anyone seen talking or socializing with her may also come under suspicion; informants are everywhere.  Of course neither Helena nor her husband are guilty, but it didn't take much  at that time to fall under the purview of the state.  The theater where she works becomes a crime scene with the discovery of a dead boy, and now it is not only Helena who is being watched, but the others who work there. The story really centers on this small group of people -- their secrets, their personal interactions with each other and their lives outside of the theater --  and of course, more murders follow. 

As I said earlier, the focus of this book isn't so much on the crimes; instead, it's more about the choices the main characters make as they find themselves becoming caught up in various situations.  It is a bleak book, one that really gets across the sense of the existing fear and paranoia of the time and one that reflects what ordinary people had to endure under this regime. But the bottom line is, it is also one woman's very personal (albeit disguised) story, and Heda Margolius Kovaly is a woman whose true story is worth knowing.  A beautiful book -- maybe not so much a great mystery novel, but once you're into it you start to realize that the crime component truly is not  the important story here. Even if it turned out to be something I wasn't really expecting,  I loved this book. It won't be everyone's cuppa, but it most certainly was mine. 

Once again, my sincere thanks to Paul at Soho.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

back to the past: Motto for Murder, by Merlda Mace (1943)

Julian Messner, Inc., 1943
213 pp

Merlda Mace is the pseudonym of Madeleine McCoy, but beyond that, I can find very little in the way of information about this writer.  I tried obituaries, the usual mystery novelist research sources, but found nothing. Aside from this book, she's also written Blondes Don't Cry (1945)  and Headlong for Murder (1943), both of which feature  "nice girl, with a certain stubborness and inquistiveness" Christine Anderson as the main character.  Motto for Murder was published in 1943 as well; my copy has a "Buy War Stamps and Bonds" message on the back cover. I love these old books -- even if the story isn't so great, having these old tomes in my hands complete with musty smell is heavenly.  

With Motto For Murder, we return to the "country house", closed-circle mystery format, only this time the house is in America, rather than the English countryside.  The setting is just ripe for murder: the house is miles away from anywhere, and there's a snowstorm that turns into a raging blizzard trapping everyone inside.  

The main character in this story is a man who works for the investment firm of Barnes and Gleason as a special investigator.  As Tip O'Neil (whose name actually made me laugh out loud) enters his office one morning, he discovers that he is about to spend his Christmas holiday playing nursemaid for another member of the firm, Jay Hammond.  Hammond, it seems, had "appropriated" around ten grand or so of the firm's money, thinking he'd pay it back before anyone noticed.  Unfortunately for him, the auditors found out, and Hammond now has until the following Tuesday to replace the money. If he fails, he's looking at five to ten in the big house.  His plan: having been invited (along with his two siblings) to his grandmother's Adirondack home called Pine Acres, he will try to convince the old dowager (Marie Hammond) that he really really needs his share of an inheritance left under her control.  The inheritance, to be divided among the three children, was left to them by their grandfather Hammond, to be given to them whenever she felt they were capable of managing their money.  In short, this particularly nasty woman has continued to withhold any money to which the Hammonds were entitled, all in the name of control.   Jay is constantly drunk as a means of trying to cope with his sleazy,  "musical comedy actress" demanding, money-grubbing wife Ivy; he can't tell his grandmother the real reason he needs the money or he'll be disinherited. Tip is to accompany Jay to Pine Acres as a "business friend," to ensure that Jay isn't tempted to do a runner to Canada.  For Tip, it's a Christmas holiday unlike any other -- first, the grandmother (who stays in her room and thumps the floor with a cane to get attention) shares her plans to disinherit the lot of them, changing her will so that they never see a penny; second, one killing turns into multiple murders with everyone stuck in the house, unable to leave.  It's a country home filled with suspects, and since Tip has no emotional or financial interests connected with the family, he takes it upon himself to play detective.

If there's a chance that anyone plans to take on this novel, just so you know, Motto For Murder really shows its age. As just one example, the housekeeper's daughter Molly is banking on a Hollywood career as an ice-skating actress, a la Sonja Henie, to whom she is compared in this book (and who I had to look up because I had no clue as to who she was).  The title itself comes from a Christmas tradition at chez Hammond where "motto candies" are handed out and put on the tree -- somewhat like a confectioner's version of fortune cookies with couplets rather than the standard fake Confucian aphorisms we get these days.  The solution, sadly, is pretty obvious and narrator Tip is a pretty crappy detective, whose one major flash of insight is accompanied by a rather excited "Jumping grasshoppers!,"   but I have to say that  I love this sort of thing.  Despite all of its flaws, it's still a fun little read, and I'm happy to have this book as part of my crime library.  Absolutely perfect for cozy readers and golden-age mystery fans; it may not be the best in the bunch, but I'll happily take on a country-home murder mystery any time.