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.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

I couldn't let the day end without remembering Agatha Christie

This week there's been a downright flurry of blog posts, magazine articles, and all manner of websites offering tribute to Agatha Christie since today marks what would have been her 125th birthday.  After several readings of all of her crime novels and various short story collections, she's still as much fun to read now as she was when I first started reading her books.  She's even currently our entertainment a couple of nights a week -- Larry bought me the complete Poirot  DVD set a little while back and we're going through them one by one, according to publication date rather than date of production.  And I have to say that even Mr. Film Critic likes them and blurts out his own theories on the crimes now and then. Trust me, that's saying a lot.

My contribution to celebrating Dame Christie's career is to read a new book that just came out this year, called A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie.  It's written by Kathryn Harkup, published by Bloomsbury, and so far it's magnificent. Not only do you get the lowdown on poisons Christie used in her book, but you get all kinds of cool historical information and murder cases where those particular poisons were used.  I'm still on Arsenic since I just started this two days ago and got sidetracked but I am having a great time reading it.

I'm sure by now that anyone reading this post knows I tend to read books that are a bit off the beaten path, but from what I can already tell,  serious, dyed-in-the-wool fans of historical crime (and Agatha Christie, of course!) are going to want to read this book.  More later when I'm finished.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

...and we're back with another novel by Patricia Highsmith: A Game for the Living

Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994
(originally published 1958)
282 pp


"You are about to find out who is responsible for this...but it doesn't matter in the least...It's just a silly game -- a game for the living."  (198)

Right off the bat, I will admit that this is not one of my favorite Highsmith novels.  It's a departure from her usual stuff, which is okay, but she really wasn't all that terrific at putting together an existential whodunit novel which, when all is said and done, describes what I think she was attempting with A Game for the Living. I'm not the only one who has an issue with this book -- according to her biographer, Andrew Wilson, Highsmith herself "came to regard A Game for the Living ... as one of her worst novels," and she wrote in her Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction that this novel "was the only really dull book I have written."  

As the book begins, you actually do find yourself in Highsmith land. Set in Mexico, two very different men are in love with the same woman, both are her lovers, and both are very civilized about the whole thing.  She is also very accommodating; there are no fights between the two men (who are friends), and everyone seems to accept the situation as it is. But, when one of the men returns home from a trip and finds her dead in bed, things start to change.  He, Theodore, is positive that the other man, Ramón, is Lelia's murderer -- after all, he knows that Ramón is prone to violent outbursts.  Theodore has even come between the two a few times when Ramón was on the verge of hitting her.  Ramón had also said that someday he'd "give her up" or "kill himself."  Theodore also realizes that 
"between killing oneself and killing the object of one's passion was not much difference...Psychologically, they equated sometimes."
The two do a sort of mental and emotional dance wondering if the other one is guilty, and matters don't improve when Ramón decides to confess.  But far from being the end of the story, his confession is actually just the beginning.  The limits of friendship are constantly tested in this novel;  Highsmith also uses the novel to explore the nature of guilt.  It's also a book that examines religious belief (which I enjoyed) and art (which I also enjoyed).  Yet, while many of these same themes are to be found in her other novels, looking at it as whole, the book  is a kind of a trainwreck of poor plotting, very little in the way of character development outside of the two main characters, and a lack of intensity that for me is the hallmark of a Highsmith novel.  And then there's that beyond-flat ending.

If my lack of enthusiasm is showing, there are plenty of reasons why.  The biggest one is this: I didn't feel this book like I have the others. If you're a regular Highsmith reader, you know what I mean. I'm at the point where now I have to take breathers between reading her novels because they're so dark and so intense, but I didn't get that here.

I'd say try it but proceed with caution. Do not make this your first Highsmith novel or you may never go back to another one.

*back to the past, #16: The Bus Station Murders, by Louisa Revell

Macmillan, 1947
183 pp


<==  The very first thing you might notice about this book is its ugly cover. When you compare it to this UK paperback edition,

you really notice how unappealing it is.  Or if you look at  this one,

I can definitely claim to have the ugliest edition of the bunch.  Oh well. I'm not one to judge a book by its cover, but jeez -- for a first edition, you'd have thought that the publishers would have made it a bit more exciting to the eye.

As usual, first it's all about the author.  Louisa Revell is the pseudonym of Ellen Hart Smith who, aside from her career as a mystery novelist, also wrote a famous biography of Charles Carroll  called Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.   Strangely enough, finding biographical information about Ellen Hart Smith isn't that easy, but I'll certainly keep looking. All I know for sure is that she died in 1985 and that as Louisa Revell, she has seven mystery books to her credit, all featuring retired Latin teacher Julia Tyler from Rossville, Virginia as the main character:

The Bus Station Murders (1947)
No Pockets in Shrouds (1948)
A Silver Spade (1950)
The Kindest Use a Knife (1952)
The Men With Three Eyes (1955)
See Rome and Die (1957)
A Party for the Shooting (1960)

The crimes in this series take place where ever Miss Julia goes on vacation.  She's 67 years old, and is a huge fan of murder mysteries, as evidenced by her mention of such authors as Mignon Eberhart, Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Ngaio Marsh, Leslie Ford (who I'll now add to my list of obscure women crime writers to find), and I know there are more.  Because she's such a constant reader of mystery novels, she has a tendency to want to do some sleuthing on her own, and we get to see her in action in this book. She is, in fact, on the scene when the first murder occurs, on the very bus taking her to her destination. As they reach the Annapolis bus station, the small group passengers begin to disembark, passing a "gray-haired woman" who seems to be sound asleep.  Julia's seatmate wonders out loud how anyone could possibly sleep through all the noise, but it soon becomes obvious:
"The reason was, of course, that the woman was dead,"
the weapon a silver knitting needle.  While Julia isn't too keen on getting involved in this particular case, she does a 180 when she realizes that the policeman in charge is one of her former students.  He encourages her help, noting that he's counting on her "to be another Miss Marple or Miss Silver."

Between the two of them, they discover that half  of the people on the bus had motive enough for wanting the woman dead; now they just have to figure out who was actually responsible. They have to hurry though, because while they're collaborating, more people are being murdered.

While Miss Julia is definitely enough of a quirky character to make this book worthwhile, the setting is also quite interesting and worthy of mention. Annapolis is a very Navy town but at the same time, there are a number of people who are interested in preserving its colonial character. The author is obviously quite familiar with Annapolis, and is able to describe some of its more run-down areas just as well as several of its famous houses and buildings complete with histories.  The local chapter of the DAR is well attended, and there are different historical and building-preservation groups one can join as well.  On the Navy end of it, she describes the students who come out of Annapolis as being "trained technically and trained socially and gentlemen (sic) by Act of Congress..."   The Navy aspects of the town filter down into social circles as well -- the author describes a a strict social hierarchy based on rank not just among officers but among their wives and the "Navy etiquette" that exists within them.   Since this book is set during wartime, she also depicts several of her female characters as sewing for the Red Cross, putting up with shortages, etc.  But beyond all of that, there is also an interesting look at the mental health issues of returning soldiers that still rings true nearly 70 years after this book was written.

Although Miss Julia can slip into various social groups in her little-old-lady persona, the book doesn't end up becoming just another Jane Marple-type mystery at all.  Miss Julia speaks her mind about everything and everyone and can be rather feisty when crossed.  Will I read another book to see where murder follows her again? Highly likely -- I rather like this character but even more, I enjoy the author's insights about the town, about the people, and about people dealing with wartime issues.  Very much worth the read.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Beam of Light, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2015
270 pp
originally published as Una lama di luce, 2010
translated by Stephen Sarterelli 


One thing I really enjoy about this entire series is that the tone of each story, as well as brief hints to what's coming, are both established right at the outset.  Many years and many books ago, Camilleri began to start these novels with  Montalbano in a sound sleep and deep in a dream before being rudely awakened by someone at the office who's looking for him. After the first couple of times I was like "well, that's definitely gimmicky," but as time's gone by, the author has really refined how that entire sequence relates to the rest of story. He has actually outdone himself with that technique in this installment (number 19) -- I won't say why, but he nails it this time.  He's also nailed the story -- A Beam of Light is, like its predecessor, trading much of the quirkiness of  many of the earlier books for a more serious story here, one that gets downright sad.  I'll go on record as saying that it offers readers a glimpse of Montalbano at his most mature self  as compared to his character in the preceding novels.  

At the opening of a new art gallery Montalbano meets and finds himself instantly attracted to the gallery's owner, Marian.  The two hit it off right away, but Marian is soon tasked by a buyer with finding some works of art that will take her out of town.  Luckily, there are a couple of different cases to fill his time until she gets back.  First, a young woman is robbed of a large sum of money at gunpoint late at night by someone laying in wait,  after which she is subjected to a kiss by the bandit.  The story doesn't quite ring true to the inspector, so the team goes to work to try to ferret out the truth.  While that's going on, Salvo is also occupied with looking for a pair of Tunisians who just may or may not be involved in the arms trade and who have gone missing shortly after he'd come to talk to them.  Then there's the case of the body left burning in a car, where the evidence points to possible Mafia involvement.   While he's kept very busy running here and there between investigations,  Salvo spends  most of his time coming to terms with his feelings about both Marian and Livia. 

While there are some truly funny moments here, mostly centering around Mimi Augello and his undercover work as an attorney, A Beam of Light is more about Montalbano reaching a sort of crossroads in his life and having to make some important decisions about the future.  While the crimes are intriguing, most especially the case of the kissing bandit, it's the inspector's personal life that takes center stage in this one.  People who've been with the series since its beginning will definitely appreciate this particular story more than someone who hasn't, although sadly, I can't say why.   I don't mind saying that the ending made me a bit teary-eyed, but to find out why, well, I suppose you'll just have to read the novel. 

Regular fans will NOT want to miss this newest book, and as I always say, do not let this latest installment be your introduction to this excellent series, most especially because of what happens here.  I also have to say that I don't often get so attached to fictional characters, but after reading these books for so long now it's really impossible not to with this odd group of quirky people, and I'm particularly fond of Montalbano himself. He's like an old friend that I hear from now and then as we both get older.  Granted it's a one-way conversation, but I love hearing from him.

crime fiction from Italy