Thursday, January 29, 2015

reading Ripley, part one: The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992
(originally published 1955)
290 pp


"He was versatile, and the world was wide!"

Tom Ripley is an extremely disturbed man.  Knowing what we know about him, we probably wouldn't want him to come to dinner, live in our neighborhood, date our daughters or our sons, handle our investments -- in short, after we've gotten to know him, we discover he is someone we would avoid like the plague.  But all of the above are judgments made from our outside,  reader point of view.  Rereading this novel taught me a valuable lesson -- when accepting an author's invitation to enter the mind of a paranoid psychopath, you may not like where things are heading, but you've made the choice to be party to his point of view for the time being.  Reading The Talented Mr. Ripley demands that you step into Ripley's brain in order to more fully understand this guy and what makes him tick.  It's the best and imo the only  way to wrap your head around what he does and why he does it.

The first page of this book isn't even over before it becomes clear that Tom Ripley is probably not an upstanding citizen. After he orders a gin and tonic at a bar the next thing on his mind is whether or not the police would send a guy who looked like a
"businessman, somebody's father, well-dressed, well-fed, greying at the temples," 
to effect his arrest. Arrest?  Then -- a reprieve...he's not getting taken away for "grand larceny or tampering with the mails or whatever they call it," but rather, the man who seems to be interested in him has a job for him.   The crime that has pushed his paranoid self to believe he's going to be arrested is tax fraud -- a sort of shakedown operation that benefits Ripley not at all since everyone he's hustled has paid by check and not cash. The "businessman" turns out to be Herbert Greenleaf, father of Dickie, and under the mistaken assumption (which is never corrected)  that Tom and Dickie are close friends, Greenleaf senior wants Tom to go to Europe and convince his son to come home. For Tom, it's the perfect opportunity to start over -- to leave behind his old life.  Raised by his Aunt Dottie, whom he cannot stand (but from whom he still accepts regular checks out of necessity), he grew up in an emotionless environment seeking approval which was never offered; his adult self gains acceptance at parties where he makes an idiot out of himself to make people laugh. This voyage is his chance at escaping -- and he takes it.  His "transformation" begins on the ship, where he decides to play the part of "a serious young man with a serious job ahead of him," but the biggest role of his life awaits him in the small seaside village of Mongibello, where he manages to worm his way into the life of Dickie Greenleaf, with deadly results that will follow Tom as he makes his way around Europe.

[possible spoiler ahead -- do  not read if you don't want to know]

So, getting back to reading this book from the point of view of a paranoid psychopath who has added killing to his repertoire, while in the mind of Tom Ripley, it's easy to understand exactly why he does the things he does.  First, there's Tom, who has zero self esteem and zero self confidence, who is looking to be more than he has been in life so far, and who just wants to be free to live the perfect life.  In Tom's mind, Dickie is a symbol of the freedom that Tom desires -- his life is the one Tom wants for himself, so much so that in his mind, he wants to be Dickie. There's Dickie himself -- the spoiled, self-absorbed son living off of his parents' money, free to do what he likes when he likes, only having to please himself and no one else.  Then there's Marge, who is in love with Dickie who doesn't fully appreciate or love her back, but she keeps waiting for him to come around. Marge is the object of Tom's jealousy; she is an impediment to the happiness that in his mind, he and Dickie could share. So it should absolutely come as no surprise to anyone that when Dickie changes course in his relationship with Tom, Tom takes steps to take care of the situation.  By this time we're so into Tom's head that what he does seems necessary as well as logical.  And here's where I seem to differ from so many people that have read this book -- since I'm seeing things from Tom's point of view, it's almost impossible not to want to see him succeed after everything he's done to get what he wants.  How many people actually take the chance to not only change their lives, but to experience the very freedom that Tom has achieved?

Back in the real world, outside of Ripley's mind, of course the guy's a pathological killer, an amoral bad guy  who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.  He's the ultimate manipulator, the worst kind of bad guy, and someone you would want to never encounter.  But none of that is applicable while you're inside of his world, where good and evil do not exist, where things just sort of follow a logical progression necessary to achieve his ultimate goals.   In fact, it's easy to understand why everyone does what they do in this novel, and that's why it works so well, and why it has remained a classic over the last sixty years.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

for the action-packed set: Windy City Blues, by Marc Krulewitch

Alibi, 2015

kindle ed.

(I did receive a copy of the book, but as happens often, I  ended up not being able to find it when needed so I ended up buying my copy)

Windy City Blues is the second novel in a series to feature Jules Landau, a Chicago private eye with a family history he'd much rather forget -- a take on the PI subgenre that I personally haven't encountered up until now.  The action begins in a short chapter with the murder of a parking officer, Bagrat Gelashvili, aka Jack. Jack is killed in his own neighborhood, but the homicide detectives in charge of the investigation  don't seem to care very much about getting serious about why Jack's dead. A week later, a concerned citizen visits the office of PI Jules Landau, and wants to pay him to find out who did it. He didn't know Jack, but he lives in the neighborhood where Jack met his end.  Remembering the Boston Marathon bombing and how deeply it affected him, he wants Jules to find out who did it so that the case does not stay unsolved -- he is also thinking about how the lives of his children, three year-old twins, who will "never be the same" after seeing the ambulance, police cars and the crowd. He needs to know "why a life was extinguished so close to where my children, my neighbors, and I lay our heads to sleep."  Jules, whose father wasn't particularly happy about the last murder case his son took on, is definitely interested, because the previous murder case he'd solved had made him feel that "he never felt more alive" while investigating it.  Needless to say (or we wouldn't be here right now, right?) Jules takes the case, but he has no idea what he's actually in for. As it turns out, the murder of the parking officer is just the first step down a long path that will take him places he never would have believed.

The story takes a twisty path before it gets to the end. If you can imagine a flow chart  looking something like this:

with the murder of the parking officer as the central event, that's what Landau eventually runs up against. In fact, he uses a flow chart to help himself make connections throughout the story; a necessity because every time he uncovers one clue, it leads to several others. This central mystery of who killed Jack and why is intriguing, the writing style is gritty, and the plot kept me interested -- to a point. I enjoy mystery novels where the facts are revealed slowly, little by little, and that is definitely the case here.  There are also a couple of built-in red herrings that sent my thinking in odd directions before getting back to business.

Now here come the niggles. The first obstacle is the good citizen who comes to Jules'  office and starts the ball rolling.   I mean seriously.  Most people would be irate and upset about a murder happening in his or her neighborhood, but probably not enough to spend a ton of money to hire a PI to do the job of the police, even if the police aren't doing their jobs. That is simply not realistic; it is simply not human nature.  Another thing:  Windy City Blues is the second in a series to feature Jules Landau -- and there's a lot in here about his father and  his dying mentor Frownie, as well as his previous murder case. A mention or two here and there about Landau's past might have been enough to get all of this down for someone who hasn't read this second book, whereas there are full chapters devoted especially to Frownie that totally interrupted the flow of the rest of the story.  I've read plenty of series novels in my life, and I've seen this kind of thing done so that it doesn't take up so much space and reader attention while still getting the point across.  Third:  I appreciated Jules' little "updates" each time he learns something new and is trying to make connections, because things start getting a little confusing as the scope of the bad guys grows in ever-widening circles.

 I'm not exactly sure just how to characterize this novel -- when all is said and done, it's like an action-packed  private eye/conspiracy/mob/corruption/crime thriller/murder mystery with a little bit of love interest added in. This becomes problematic at the end  because combining so many elements lends itself toward the entire story simultaneously coming together and falling apart as you're turning the final pages. It also finishes with that Hollywood/TV-style big flourish that  seems to be de rigeur  these days, which is, I suppose,  what readers want, but definitely not my style.

So, while I enjoyed the mystery component, Jules, and getting to the solution of the murder, there were a number of  distractions along the way and I thought the set up and ending were both too over the top to be believable. But hey - there are plenty of people who love that sort of thing, AND there are plenty of people who started with the first book in the series and continued on, so I guess that's why this book is getting some pretty good 4 and 5 star reviews.

I read this novel as part of a TLC book tour and it looks like I'm the end! If you'd like to see what a group other readers thought of this novel, you can find their reviews (which are pretty positive on the whole!) here

Sunday, January 18, 2015

David Goodis: Nightfall

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1991
originally published 1947
139 pp


"The road he had selected could be the wrong road. Because there were many other roads. The road he had selected could be the wrong road. And it was as though he was in a car and he was going up the that road, and the farther he traveled,  the more he worried about it being the wrong road."  -- 94

A good Samaritan finds himself locked in a nightmare in this book, the third novel by crime author David Goodis.  He is a man who has experienced the grave misfortune to have been exactly in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.  He is also the subject of a three-city manhunt, wanted for murder and for bank robbery, and according to the evidence, is guilty of both crimes.  But Nightfall goes much deeper, examining two men who ponder the roads they've taken in their lives.

As the novel opens, it's a "hot sticky" summer night in Manhattan, and Jim Vanning, a WWII Navy veteran, now working as a freelance commercial artist at his home, is feeling the heat. As he stares out his window, "looking upon Greenwich Village, seeing the lights, hearing noises in the streets," he decides that he'd really like to get out and go talk to somebody. But he's also afraid to leave his place -- he knows for a certainty that if he goes out, "something was going to happen tonight."  His gut sense of danger proves correct -- a chance meeting with a young woman in a Village bar leads him right into the path of three very nasty characters who want something they think he has. The problem is, he doesn't have it, and has no idea where it might be, since his mind only sends him fleeting images of that part of his past.  Even when they rough him up and some memories start to surface, he still can't remember where the object is.

Recently discharged from the Navy, Jim Vanning decides that he's going to take some time before going to Chicago, where a job awaits him along with his dreams of someday getting married and starting a family. First though, he's going to go to Denver, and sets off from Los Angeles in his newly-bought convertible.  On the road, he comes across a station wagon that has just been in an accident, and being the good Samaritan that he is, he gets out to try to help. That is when Vanning's living nightmare begins, one that culminates in his life on the run.   He considers going to the police, but plays scenarios of being given the third degree over and over in his head and realizes that this could quite possibly make things much worse for himself and kill his dreams of a decent future.

While Vanning manages to escape his captors, he is still unknowingly under surveillance by the police.  He is being carefully and closely watched by Fraser, a family man whose career is riding on Vanning's successful apprehension. But Fraser is also trapped in his own way -- he has been watching Vanning for some time, feels like he knows him like the back of his hand , and although under pressure from the police in three different cities, he finds it incredibly difficult to believe that Vanning is capable of committing the crimes for which he's been accused. As he notes, "Talk about a paradox, this one takes the cake."  And then there's the small matter of the incontrovertible evidence which says that Vanning must have done it...

As the two storylines slowly come together, there is, of course, the question of the truth, but the true focus is on Fraser and Vanning, who just may epitomize the proverbial both sides of the same coin.

This is only the second Goodis novel I've read after Night Squad, but in comparison to other noir novels I've enjoyed, there seems to be something missing in the depth zone.  When Goodis is inside the heads of Vanning and Fraser, the story is engaging, but as the story starts moving ever outward to the love interest, or to the violence of the three criminals, something seems to get lost here.  It's not as dark as I would have expected given the author's reputation.  That's not to say I didn't like it, and other Goodis fans may feel free to disagree, but it just didn't pack the gutpunch I'd expected.

One more thing, which is more personal: I wrecked my Vintage copy (that I'll have to replace now) by slicing my thumb on a fan blade and picking up the book right after. I discovered only then that I was bleeding all over pages 62 and 63:

I was more upset at ruining my book than I was at all of the blood, but at least it's appropriate to reading crime fiction!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

another book nobody's ever heard of: Death and the Pleasant Voices, by Mary Fitt

Dover, 1984
originally published 1946, by Michael Joseph, Ltd.
208 pp


Now, here's something entirely different -- we're still in the English country house murder phase with Death and the Pleasant Voices, but at least it's a new take on an old theme.

 This book was written by Mary Fitt, AKA Stuart Mary Wick, both pseudonyms of Kathleen Freeman (1897-1959), a classicist who, in a field that belonged more or less to men, "used her excellent brain to make the Greeks intelligible and accessible to every man and woman in the English-speaking world."  When she wasn't working for the war effort, she turned her hand to writing mystery novels as well as ghost stories, some of them featured in The Second Ghost Book and The Third Ghost Book, anthologies edited by none other than Lady Cynthia Asquith, whose own ghostly tales are often featured in old ghost-story anthologies. Death and the Pleasant Voices is her tenth novel out of nineteen to feature Superintendent Mallett, who plays only a small role here.

Death and the Pleasant Voices itself starts out like a ghost story, in that the narrator of this tale is driving through a blinding rainstorm, complete with lightning. Coming to a fork in the road, he takes the wrong turn and before he can turn around, he discovers he's arrived at a mansion of "dark grey stone."  The door is opened by a manservant, who seemed to expect him, not even asking his name.  He is greeted by a young woman, Ursula Ullstone, who refers to him incorrectly as "Hugo," and introduces him to the others in the room. The narrator is actually Jake Seaborne, and as he proffers his real name, discovers that one of the party knows his brother. This is Sir Frederick Lawton,  a "great surgeon" and Jake's brother's hero.  Jake is also a medical student, now on a short holiday.  As Lawton escorts Jake to another room for a little chat, Jake hears Ursula ask "But where is Hugo?" , a question that will be answered quite shortly upon Hugo's arrival.  It seems that Hugo is the son (via first marriage to a high-caste Indian woman) of the late Mr. Ullstone (the father of Ursula and her twin brother Jim), and up until three weeks prior, no one in the family or in the household had even heard of him.  Strangely though, Hugo is now the owner of  Ullstone Hall, the now-deceased Mr. Ullstone having made him his heir after refusing to ever allow him to come into contact with the rest of the family. Obviously they've never seen Hugo, since they all mistook Jake for their half-brother.  The problem, as so neatly outlined by Sir Frederick, is that
"...all these people who thought themselves securely in possession for the rest of their lives are now going to be dependent upon the caprice of this young man. And as none of them has ever had to earn a living, none of them will have the slightest idea of what to do if Hugo decides that he doesn't want their company." 
In short, the Ullstone family destiny is in the hands of a complete stranger.  Jim and Ursula were left an annuity of three hundred pounds a year, "a sum that to most the inhabitants of this island would seem to give freedom from financial anxiety fro the rest of their lives," but Hugo has the bulk of the estate.  Lawton is there as a "sort of buffer" for Hugo against the family; he must leave and is overjoyed that Jake has arrived, and asks Jake if he wouldn't mind staying until Lawton returns to act in the same role. Because of Jake's connection to Lawton, he agrees -- and ultimately Hugo arrives.  That's when the first hint of trouble raises its head -- and before long, three people will end up dead.

Death and the Pleasant Voices is a novel about people, each with their little secrets and lies they have to maintain -- while the plot is decent enough, the heart of this book exists in its characters.  As an example, Jim and Ursula have  "conditioned" by their upbringing to never have to bother with the mundane task of working to make ends meet; their house guests are sponges who are there for long periods of time, one of them, a physician, has more or less given up on his practice, leaving it in the hands of his locum, for a life of leisure and secret love. The author makes a critical point here that not everything one sees is the way it actually is -- and it is the characters who eventually enliven this theme as the story progresses.   The book also  has a lot to say between the lines -- the author writes about class, about prejudice, about family relationships, about the roles of women and the follies and foibles of love -- but  considering that the book was published in 1946, there's surprisingly very little, in fact nothing, said about the effects of the war that had concluded just a scant year earlier. Frankly, to me, this is quite a surprising omission.  Everyone seems to have gone about his or her business somewhat unscathed after such a horrific war -- there is no rationing, the family still employs servants, and it's almost as if the war danced around this little slice of the English countryside.

It's a good enough little read; coming in at just over 200 pages, it will definitely give a crime reader a few good hours of entertainment, and I can attest to the fact that there is a true puzzle to solve here. I thought I had guessed the culprit by page 80 and as things progressed, I realized not only was I wrong, but my choice was not even close.  As usual though, if it's too easy, it's no fun.  Definitely a keeper, Death and the Pleasant Voices is book #6 in my ongoing obscure women crime writers project, and I would recommend it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

well, that's time I'll never get back: Sound Alibi, by Maribel Edwin (from my obscure women crime writer project)

Hillman-Curl, Inc., 1938
288 pp


"...a shot in the dark sounds to me like murder. That's what comes of reading thrillers." 

Sound Alibi is book number five in my ongoing project of discovering and reading the work of obscure/forgotten women crime novelists, and it was not, I repeat, not a pleasurable experience.  Had I not been so set on finishing it I probably would have put it aside, and moved on to the next book. But stuck with it I did, it's over and well, as I said at the outset, that's time I'll never get back. This book actually gave me a headache. It  was so slow and so repetitive that at one point I remember thinking a fork in my eye would have given me less pain.

First things first. The history:

About Maribel Edwin there seems to have been not a whole lot written.  When I googled her, one of the links I found was a pdf of an old journal called The Bookman. A small article in the December, 1933 edition reveals that Maribel Edwin was the daughter of  "the late" Sir J. Arthur Thomson, who evidently died that year. Thomson was a scientist, a naturalist; from what little I can gather.  Writing under the pseudonym of Maribel Edwin, the daughter  seems to have followed in her dad's love-of-nature footsteps, writing children's stories grounded in nature, several nature books (including a yearly publication called Nature's Year), and apparently, since she wrote this book, she must have also dabbled a little in mystery, although I've done a lot of looking and have yet to come up with any more crime/mystery novels she's written.

  Sound Alibi was written in 1938 and was a part of the original Hillman-Curl Clue Club, started in 1937. I LOVE finding these old books!

 This made me laugh: a so-called detective story readers' "bill of rights" which promised the following:
"1.  A Clue Club Mystery must have an exciting plot which is intrinsically interesting aside from the actual solution of the crime."  (this one didn't)

2.  All characters must be well-drawn flesh and blood people whose prototypes can be found in everyday life.  (okay, I'll go along with this one)

3.  The actual perpetrator or perpetrators of the crime or crimes must be prominent characters introduced early in the narrative.  (check)

4.  All purposely misleading circumstances must be carefully avoided.  (okey-dokey)

5.  The crime or crimes must be solved by logical deduction derived from material clearly presented to the reader without the aid of supernatural devices or psychic power."  (check)
Too many years have gone by for me to get my money back (and let's face it, they're probably LONG out of business anyway).

Then, a promise:  "Under this imprint Hillman-Curl, Inc., publishes each month outstanding mystery novels by distinguished writers.  The sign of the skull is a guarantee that the book is original and well-written." So I quickly checked the spine and sure enough, mine has a skull.  Again. Too late to sue for misrepresentation.
The best thing about this book was finding  this website I've been quoting from -- there are a LOT of other books I need to find and to read, if only to see if Sound Alibi was a fluke. Perhaps there were some really good mysteries/crime novels that were part of the Clue Club and this one was an aberration.

 But now, onto the book itself. Sound Alibi is another mystery novel written in the interwar years, and is also another example of the good old "English country house" murder.  The head of household at Dolphin Court is Dr. Quintin Grey, who is renown for his studies on heredity, specializing in "the inheritance of criminal tendencies."  Grey has been blind for several years now, and since coming to Dolphin Court (left to him by a wealthy uncle), he spends much more time dealing with flowers than criminals. He does, however, have a soft spot for rehabilitated criminals, and often helps to find them work. On a day when daughter Jenny has brought home a friend, Philip Westland, Grey's secretary Cuthbertson (aka "Stuffy) keeps telling Grey that he needs to have a word, but Grey is too busy and tells Cuthbertson that he'll see him at 9:15 that evening.  But Cuthbertson never gets to tell Grey whatever it was that was on his mind, because just as Grey is about to go and find him, a shot rings out and Cuthbertson is dead. The remainder of the novel is of course, the investigation into his murder -- and as the Inspector is going about his business, it seems that everyone at Dolphin Court has a very "sound alibi."  The Inspector has a long list of suspects to go through, and as he starts his questioning, it becomes apparent that each and every person at the house is holding back his or her share of secrets.

  This book is a true whodunit in every sense of the word.  The identity of the killer is not revealed until very near the end (which is a plus), and I didn't guess the solution (a double plus) because of a series of red herrings and a shortlist of suspects as well.  Thankfully the puzzle is a good one, but it's the getting to its solution that killed me. If ever there was a book that could labeled as "dull" it's definitely this one, and I don't often have that experience while reading these old novels. I wanted to skim so badly, but figured I'd miss something, so I stuck to it. However, after finishing it, I can easily say  it's a skipper, meaning even the most ardent fan of these old, obscure mysteries could go through life, never read it, and he/she wouldn't have missed a thing. I find that a little sad, actually, since up to now I was having such a great time with these old forgotten books.