Saturday, February 14, 2015

a double blast from the past: The Punt Murder, by Aceituna Griffin and Miasma, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Back to exploring more obscure women crime writers, I ran across two books that have luckily been reprinted to make them widely available to modern readers.  One, The Punt Murder, is set in Britain's interwar period and  Miasma takes us to America in at the end of the 1920s. They are as different as night and day, and while both made for enjoyable reading, Miasma has that dark edge that I absolutely love to find in a crime or mystery novel.

Ostara Publishing, 2007
192 pp

originally published 1936
Sadly, I can't find much about this woman except for a) the fact that she was born in 1876 and died in 1949 and b) the list of the dozen books she's written, which can be found here. Otherwise, her life (to me anyway) is as mysterious as the identity of the killer in this book.  The Punt Murder takes a while to get to the actual crime; in the meantime the author does a great job establishing the scene and more importantly, the characters. It is, like many of the books I've read so far that have come out of the interwar novels, an English country house murder set in a small village.  I am really interested in this phenomenon of the English country house murder, especially those set in rural villages -- and I recently ran across an article written by Peter Dickinson that touches on why these were so popular.  You can read it in full here; one of the most interesting things he states is that
"... the ideal setting for the mystery novel is the imaginary world of the country house. There, supposed balance and harmony is broken by the act of violence, just as in the real world it had been broken by the war. That is why the ideal murderee is the nouveau riche millionaire, the embodiment of the economic upheavals, contrasted with the dwindling resources that had kept the grand old families going". 
I've been wondering about why so little is put into these novels about  the social/economic upheavals of the time -- and now after reading this (and some other things I've been perusing)  I'm beginning to understand. Anyway, the "nouveau riche millionaire...contrasted with the dwindling resources" of the "grand old families" is at the very heart and soul of The Punt Murder, of which the main character is an incredibly wealthy but very young heiress who marries into a very old but now broke British family.  Her name is Merle Holroyd, wife of the squire of Wissingham.  The family home, naturally called Holroyd, was given over to the family by Henry the Eighth although it had been around long before Henry's time.  It isn't long until fireworks start to fly as the traditional world of village squire collides with the modern, as Merle refuses to conform -- and her greatest weapon is the huge inheritance she's brought with her into the marriage. When she realizes the truth behind her marriage, she looks to another for happiness; sadly, the man she has latched on to is an up and coming MP whose career cannot tolerate any scandal.  Soon, however, there's a murder during a  lavish fete, and while the police are satisfied with their choice of suspect, one person has the wherewithal to ask questions, which upsets everyone in the village. With no shortage of suspects, things start to get ugly very quickly.

Moving backward in time, Miasma was published in 1929 and has (luckily for me) been reprinted by Stark House Press, whose motto is "Bring back the mystery." I stumbled onto this small press quite by accident one day, and their list of reprinted vintage crime novels is impressive.

Stark House Press, 2003
269 pp (the full book, which also contains her book Lady Killer)


Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was born in 1889 and died in 1955, and during her lifetime she seems to have been a prolific author. She was the wife of British diplomat George E. Holding, and was the author of 25 novels of which 18 were mysteries; Miasma was her first mystery novel. Her mystery-writing career took off during the Depression when her "serious character novels" stopped selling and she turned to crime writing.   As Greg Shephard notes in his introduction to this edition, she was
"one of the first to write mystery novels that didn't so much ask whodunit, but whydunit,"
and that was the big sell for me in deciding on this author. The whodunits, while fun, are so done to death that I'm much happier finding out the whys rather than the who. Miasma appeals to me on multiple levels -- first, it's one of those stories that I absolutely love where some poor, hapless dope gets caught up in a situation that is much bigger than himself, and only comes to realize very slowly that he's pretty much been painted into a corner and needs to try to find a way out. Here, the main character is a young doctor who is trying to establish himself; he isn't having much luck and is overly frustrated because he will not marry the girl he loves until he can prove himself worthy financially and otherwise.  Second, one of the big questions this book asks is about the nature of justice, a topic I widely explore in my reading.  As the main character asks at one critical point in this story,
"Does it matter? Or can't Justice be satisfied without the whole show -- the judge in the black cap, and the newspaper stories?" 
Third, this book is so claustrophobically dark that it's one I had to put down from time to time just to get out of this very small world in which the main character finds himself -- in this sense, the title is very appropriate. And considering it was written in the late 1920s, it deals with a subject that is of contemporary interest, although I won't say exactly what it is so as to avoid spoilers.

Miasma is the story of Doctor Alex Dennison, who is ready to establish his own medical practice. Before moving to the town of Shayne, he did a lot of careful research to make sure that there "was room for another doctor" there.  He so wants for everything to go right with his career, largely because of Evie, the girl he's planning on marrying, but only after he's made the three thousand a year Evie's decided will be enough for them.  But Dennison's attempt at a practice fails big time and he's virtually on the edge of starving when he decides to take up an offer from another, more well-known physician in town, Dr. Weatherby.  He doesn't have to do much -- see a few patients when Weatherby's busy or away, and he is invited to live in the fine home where Weatherby also houses his practice.  It's a win-win ... he's calculated that he will reach his financial goals easily, and room and board are free.  But as soon as he steps into the house, he has the feeling that something is not exactly right -- that things are a bit off-kilter.  This is a feeling he ignores and when strange things start happening, he goes deep within himself to look for plausible answers, a strategy that works...for a while.

To say that this is a good book is putting it mildly, but then again, I suppose it depends on what "a good book" is to people besides myself. This book has a focus on character much more so than plot -- and although it might feel like it's slow moving, it's one of the better character-based mystery novels I've encountered.   I was impressed with the author's ability to get right inside of Dennison's head from the outset -- nothing, absolutely nothing happens outside of what Dennison sees or more importantly, what he thinks, even though this story is not related as a first-person narrative.  That fact is impressive -- the telling almost reminds me  of something from Patricia Highsmith, although it's not nearly as dark as her work.  Dennison is in a constant battle with himself internally -- and it plays out rather realistically on the page. Frankly, I was hooked on page one and had I not put the book down here and there I easily could have been depressed being so much confined to Dennison's constant headspeak. Then again, that claustrophobia-like atmosphere sets this book apart from the standard crime fare -- a trait that to me, speaks very highly of this author.

So, to recap: there's one whodunit, which is pretty good and which also takes on the intrusion of the modern world into Britain's rigid class system in which appearances are everything, and then there's the "whydunit," my own personal preference in choice of crime/mystery fiction, which immediately immerses the reader inside the mind of a poor, down-on-his-luck guy just looking to do right by everyone, except, possibly, himself.  The Holding is my favorite of the two but both are well worth looking into for anyone who likes vintage crime or mystery.  And one more thing ... Miasma comes in a volume with two complete novels, as do her other works reprinted by Stark House Press, but I'm reading them in chronological order rather than as they appear in the books.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

for the thriller minded: Cane and Abe, by James Grippando

Harper, 2015
356 pp

advanced reader copy - thanks!

(read in January)

According to the back-cover blurb, Cane and Abe is Grippando's twenty-second novel since his debut back in 1994.  He has a set of series novels featuring Jack Swytek (which I confess I've never read) as well as a few standalone thrillers.  Cane and Abe is his newest nonseries book and it is set in Florida where rightly so, the author depicts big sugar as a major villain in this novel.  Big sugar has ruined waterways, has recently sent runoff into the ocean here, has killed wildlife and spoiled the environment big time. Frankly, as he depicts in this novel, I'm afraid that this industry does have the power to line the pockets of some of the officials in the state capital, and sadly, no one in any kind of position of power in this state seems to care enough to do anything. So -- when I read that this book was going to be in some part involved with big sugar, I was eager to read it since I am definitely NOT an advocate of the industry.  

While the book does move a bit among   power wielders in the industry, it turns out that the sugar industry is not the biggest focus here, but it does play a background role in the search for a serial killer whose trademark and killing method "harken back" to the industry's past. That's one plot line. Plot line number two centers around main character Abe Beckham, whose first wife has passed away and who is currently married to wife number two, an old flame named Angelina. Abe is asked by the state attorney's office to take part in the investigation of a body discovered in the Everglades that may be the work of the still-uncaught serial killer. He teams up with an FBI agent named Victoria Santos, and in the middle of their hunt for the murderer, Angelina goes missing.  He is frantic with worry that she may just be the latest victim, but in plot line number three, Santos decides that Angelina's disappearance may not be related -- and Abe finds himself under suspicion, leading to plot line number four in which he works to clear himself. 

The story, for me, was best when suspicion falls on Abe and no one believes him when he says he had absolutely nothing to do with Angelina's disappearance. There is evidence (explained away during the course of this plot line) that points in the opposite direction, and he really goes a little crazy trying to get himself out of this mess. He's also got Santos (who, by the way, I couldn't stand) to deal with -- a colleague who for some reason goes off the deep end on the ball-busting side trying to make a case against Beckman.  On the other hand, bringing all of the storylines together leads to a very rushed and sloppy last few chapters that just didn't work. First of all, I figured out the Angelina angle way early on in the game; second, after such a long buildup, the actual ending came rushing out a little too quickly.  However, I will say that the last page  left a bit of a shiver running up my spine as I realized the implications for Beckham's future.  

I'm just not a big thriller reader, so really, this book didn't really grab me all that much. Billed as a "spellbinding new novel of suspense," I found it to be neither all that spellbinding nor suspensefulIt's like been there, seen that, nothing highly original here. And really, when someone writes 22 books in 21 years, well, think about it -- there's no way the output is going to fall on the literary side of crime writing.  On the other hand, my husband, who is very much into thrillers of all sorts absolutely loved it,  with the exception of the ending.  And from what I can see now looking at reader reviews and ratings, there are many other people who think like he did -- it's getting some 4 and 5-star ratings and readers are enjoying it immensely.  

Bottom line -- thriller readers or regular readers of the author's work  (if my husband is any judge) will  love it.  

I read this book for TLC book tours, and there are still plenty of opinions to come after mine. The schedule for this book can be found here.  Many thanks to Lisa for thinking of me!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

a new author for me: James Sallis -- The Long-Legged Fly

Walker and Company, 2001
originally published 1992
200 pp


Well now here is something entirely different -- rather than having an entire series follow a main character's arc, James Sallis manages to put it into one book.  There are five books which follow this one in his Lew Griffin series which I haven't read, but The Long-Legged Fly covers a span of time from 1964 through 1990.

Set in New Orleans, each section of  The Long-Legged Fly centers around Griffin's search for someone who is lost.  Taken as a whole, one could argue that Griffin is also searching for himself in this book.  Who is this Lew Griffin exactly? When we first meet Griffin, he's hell-bent on vengeance and actually kills a man before he goes back to settle into his office where we discover he's a PI  who is friends with a local cop -- pretty much standard pulp-fiction fare.  Then another surprise -- he hits the skids and comes back as a collector for a loan outfit, spending time in a halfway house after weeks of detox for his alcohol problem.  At some point he becomes interested in writing and changes his life again, becoming the author of a Cajun detective series,  until there's a big twist at the end where just who is actually doing the narrating becomes a central question that forces the reader to completely re-evaluate everything he or she has just read.

As New Orleans changes over the years, so too does Lew Griffin.  According to the chronology, the book begins when he is twenty-four.  He is asked by a militant group to find a missing activist who got on a plane in New York and was never seen again. This part of the book has a lot of focus on racial identity, which is a theme carried throughout the novel, with references to early works of Chester Himes and George S. Schuyler (among others), and black heritage, including history and the blues which the author will later note was
"a way of letting you get outside -- outside the sixteen or eighteen 18 hours you had to work every day, outside where you lived and what your children had to look forward to, outside the way you just plain hurt all the time." 
 In the second part, Griffin (now age 30 but feeling "old and tired")  is tasked with finding the "shy" daughter of a couple from Mississipi, who had been gone for three weeks. New Orleans, her parents say, is where she'd been talking about going and that she was talking about staying with an actress with Willona.  It will be tough -- as Griffin tells them,
"...the city doesn't much care about any of us individually, let alone a sixteen year-old girl from Clarksdale." 
It's also in part two where we discover that Lew had served in the military as an MP and had a penchant for "busting heads."  1984 comes along and we find Griffin in a hospital doing detox after he had hit bottom -- committed by the court.  He is in the care of a British nurse with whom he falls in love; through her he feels "new worlds opening within him" that he knew were always there but he could never reach. While staying at a halfway house he meets someone whose life is cut short by gang violence in the inner city, but not before Griffin had agreed to find the man's missing sister.  Six years later, things have really turned around for Lew; he's become a successful detective novelist, a part-time teacher,  and life is good -- up until the day he gets a call about another missing person, this time someone he knows very well. Once more its time time to take stock -- and reflect.

Clearly, this is no ordinary man and Griffin is definitely not the stock PI of pulp fiction. There is a certain rich interplay of elements in this book that makes it unlike any other in this genre. First, there's New Orleans, a city that, like Lew, reinvents itself while keeping its history intact; there's also an abundance of literary references and references to local blues artists and their work.  Griffin has to work through a lifetime of pain and, as noted on the back-cover blurb, he fears "becoming as lost as the frail identities he is trying to recover."  I genuinely appreciate an author who allows his or her characters to discover themselves around a plotline rather than making the plot the central focus of a novel -- and since I prefer understanding people and why they do what they do in a given situation,  I've always felt a plot should be secondary with characters first.  Then again, not everyone reads like I do, so readers looking for a fast-action, pulpy PI novel will definitely not find it here. Readers who also prefer a strictly linear chronology may also not care for this one, but for me, The Long-Legged Fly  is something completely out of the ordinary.  Recommended with absolutely no qualms whatsoever, but mainly to readers who are much more into fullness of character rather than straight-up action.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Girl Who Wasn't There, by Ferdinand von Schirach

Little, Brown, 2014
216 pp

originally published as Tabu, 2013
translated by Anthea Bell


I have no idea when this book is going to be published in the US, but it's definitely one worth looking into. Although I'm posting about it in the same space as other crime fiction, I'm not exactly sure that particular moniker fits this novel.   Whatever you want to call it, it is an interesting work that in my opinion takes reader expectations and turns them on their heads in a very big way. What it centers on is truth and reality; however,  having read von Schirach before, I'm not surprised to see his ongoing themes of the nature of crime, the judicial process, and the nature of guilt repeated in this novel.

The way this book is set up is genius -- sadly, I can't really recount much of the story without giving too much away.  What I can say is that von Schirach carefully guides his readers through the story of Sebastian von Eschburg, who as a young boy lived with his parents in a lakeside home up until the time his father kills himself.  His mother had always been inattentive to him, preferring to bestow her love on her horses, but his father spent time with him, for example, taking him hunting. On one such trip, Sebastian watches his father bring down a deer -- and the experience is one that stays with him for a very long time, as will his father's suicide, which his mother tried to convince him was just a bad dream.  She also tries to convince him that his father was merely cleaning his gun and it went off accidentally, something Sebastian knows is not true. The house, of course, is sold, and Sebastian returns to the boarding school that he will call home for the bulk of his childhood.  When he is finished with school he comes back home -- his mother has married  a genuine creep and all three of them know that living with mom and her new husband is not in the cards for Sebastian. He takes up the photography profession, and it isn't long until he becomes known for his work. He eventually comes to have quite a name in the art world, money, and a lovely woman beside him, but there is something quite dark deep down inside of Sebastian that prevents him from happiness. He also knows that if the situation with the woman becomes serious, he will end up "hurting" her.  He is a very strange person, and it will come as no surprise to the reader at all, given his past, that he ends up becoming the only suspect in a murder.  (This is not a spoiler by the way; a lot of this outline is on the back cover).  While in jail, Sebastian requests that Konrad Biegler become his defense attorney, and Biegler, who is recuperating at a Swiss hotel for burnout, takes the opportunity to get back into the courtroom once again. But as he will discover, and not only from his client, there is truth, and then there is truth.

If that all sounds cryptic, it is meant to be -- to tell is to spoil so it's one that is best experienced on one's own. I will say that long before this story was over I had figured things out (hoping as usual that I was wrong) -- but not the who or the how, and I was still blown away.   Throughout the book  I was entirely wrapped up in von Eschburg's world of darkness and pain almost to the point of claustrophobia, and truthfully,  I enjoyed the getting there more than the reveal of the actual solution. von Schirach is a great storyteller, and while this book is very different than his The Collini Case, which I absolutely loved, there are a number of the same elements that are explored in The Girl Who Wasn't There. This is an incredibly intelligent novel that demands a reread -- and after the second time through, the book made much more sense.   What he does here is so different than the norm that it was actually refreshing from a reader point of view.  As noted earlier, it's not so much a crime fiction novel, but I can't exactly explain why without ruining things. It is, however, one of the better books I've read so far this year and is certainly a candidate for favorite books of 2015.  Definitely recommended.