Friday, January 27, 2017

Sorry, Cain purists, but ick: The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain.

Hard Case Crime, 2012
270 pp


“Something about you doesn't quite match up.” 

Ostensibly the story of a woman's anguish about getting her child back from relatives in whose care the boy has been left, and how she goes about doing so, what we have here is a sort of sleaze version of the Perils of Pauline, as the narrator gets stuck in bad situation after bit situation, none of it, of course, her fault.  

The novel is set up as a confession, of sorts, being taped by main character Joan Medford in the hopes that it just might find its way into print, as she says, "to clear my name of the slanders against me, in connection with the job and the marriage it led to and all that came after..."  The cops are certain she's killed her husband, but one of the pair sets her up with a job in a restaurant which turns into a job in a cocktail bar.  It's here where the action starts, as Joan puts on a pair of "trunks," and agrees to "leave the bra off," because it brings in more tips.  According to Cain's notes reprinted in the afterword, Cain meant for this book to "turn on the hot, close, sweaty, female smell of the cocktail bar," a place where soon the "trunks" are replaced by "hotpants", and where Joan soon enough has her hooks into a wealthy guy who leaves her big tips. In her mind, the more money she saves, the sooner she gets her little boy back -- and as Cain continues to ask throughout this story, what woman wouldn't do anything to have her child back with her?  The problem is that Joan Medford is the most unreliable narrator on the planet here, so anything, and I do mean anything this woman says has to be taken with major grains of salt.

There is a huge difference between writing a femme fatale and writing a skanky gold-digger (which in my head are two vastly different entities), and for my money, with Joan Medford, Cain invested his writing time on the latter. The plot also tends to meander, although I'm not sure exactly how much of this is due to the fact that the editor has gone through a number of different manuscript versions to come up with the finished product. How do we know how Cain might have put this all together had he ever managed to finish his book?   It certainly lacks the control and the polish of his Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce or The Postman Always Rings Twice.  This novel is sleaze-o-rama on a grand scale, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Unlike Cain's big three, all of which in my opinion are works of art, The Cocktail Waitress is just pure trashy story that gets trashier as the novel goes on. Call me silly, but aside from the fact that this is a previously-unpublished Cain  novel, I just don't see the point.  

I really, really wanted to like this book, but well, I just didn't.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

... and the first crime novel of 2017 is Death on the Cherwell, by Mavis Doriel Hay

British Library Crime Classics, 2014
originally published 1935
286 pp


This past July I read my first book by Mavis Doriel Hay, who wrote only three crime novels during her short stint as mystery writer.  I have yet to read her The Santa Klaus Murders, the last of her mystery novels, which is still sitting patiently on its shelf waiting for me to pick it up.  And while I wasn't a huge fan of her Murder Underground, I was really into Death on the Cherwell, which was not only fun, but also a story that turned out to be a good mystery with a number of red herrings and many possible suspects. I got it for Christmas this year and as it turned out, it was just the ticket for brain calming after having read more than one too-serious novel over the holidays.

 If you look at readers' thoughts on this book, more than one person has actually compared this book to a Nancy Drew story.  The truth is though that the only similarity between Death on the Cherwell and Nancy Drew is that a group of young women friends do a bit of sleuthing after a murder -- VoilĂ ,, c'est tout. The comparison is just not right. In fact, in a very un-Nancy Drew sort of way, the book begins with four undergrad girls attending Persephone College, Oxford,  holding a secret meeting on the roof of a nearby boat house.  They've decided to form their own secret society, the Lode League,  the purpose of which is to curse the bursar, the not-much liked Miss Denning.  Just as the group rings are being passed out, along comes what looks to be an empty canoe.  The girls rush to bring it to shore and discover that the canoe is not only not empty, but that it's carrying the body of the very person they formed their League to curse.  Evidently she'd drowned, but as one of the girls, Sally, asks
"How can anyone drown in a canoe?"
Very good question, actually, and one that brings in Scotland Yard to investigate.  In the meantime, though, Miss Cordell, Principal of Persephone College, just dreads the publicity that this death is going to bring to the school -- publicity, as we're told, is her "bugbear:"
"Respectable publicity was bad enough, because newspaper reporters, however carefully instructed, were liable to to break out into some idiocy about 'undergraduettes' or 'academic caps coquettishly set on golden curls'.  But shameful publicity! A death mystery! That was terrible!"
Later, after having been initially questioned by the police, Sally realizes that "There'll be an awful tamasha about this," and decides that the girls should do all they can to "help try to clear up the mystery."  They need to discover the truth about things, "to find it out so that Persephone doesn't look silly."   That's not the only reason that the girls decide to get involved -- their fellow student Draga, a "Yugo-Slav," had already made her feelings about Miss Denning known after the bursar had, as Draga puts it, insulted her. The girls are concerned that if Draga somehow got brought into the investigation, they may have to "cover her tracks," since outsiders don't understand her Yugo-slav temperament. It's a fun little mystery story, and while my choice of suspect turned out to be the killer, it took me a while to figure it out since there are a variety of people with motives to knock off Miss Denning.

Careful readers will note a wide strand of misogyny running throughout this mystery novel.  At one point, for example, a few of the guy pals of our female amateur sleuths are talking, with the main question being that of why "most women get murdered." The answer for one of them is that "Some wretched man gets involved with too many of them and has to remove one or two." Hmmm.  Then, of course, there's one suspect whose family has a long, long history of hating women, and as just one final example (although there are many),  is that we are told in no uncertain terms that Cambridge in the 1930s has yet to offer real degrees for women students.

It's a good read, very easy to get through, and I had a much better time with this book than I did with the author's first novel.  Even though Hay reprises a couple of characters from Murder Underground, Betty (Sally's sister)  and her husband Cyril, thankfully Cyril's not the same twit here that was he was in that one.  About the only spot where this book starts to get boggy is while the Inspector takes his time to try to pinpoint alibis for all and sundry, but otherwise it flows very nicely. There are even a few comedic spots that brought out a chuckle or two, my favorite centering on the girls' secret late-night surveillance of a property belonging to one of the suspects.  But there's some serious stuff here as well, starting as the book comes down to the big reveal.  Nancy Drew it is definitely NOT and while people are certainly entitled to their opinions, well, that's a bit wide of the mark.

Do not miss Stephen Booth's excellent introduction (but do save it for last)  which puts a nice perspective on Hay's work and that of Dorothy Sayer, whose Gaudy Night was also placed in an academic setting.  While Hay's book isn't quite up to the Gaudy Night level of excellence (my personal favorite of Sayers' Lord Peter books), it's still quite fun and a great way to pass a quiet day. People into vintage crime, those who are following the British Library Crime Classics series, or those who are exploring the work of interwar women mystery writers will definitely find a good book here; it may also work well for cozy readers.  Plus, I love the cover art -- just love it!!

crime fiction from the UK

.... but first, the last book from 2016: The Bone Readers, by Jacob Ross

Peepal Tree Press
270 pp


(read in December)

"My gift was reading bones." 

The Bone Readers is,  according to the back cover, the first book  in Ross' 4-book series the Camaho Quartet, so named for the small Caribbean island where this story takes place.   That's a good thing, and I'll be following this series as it's published.  The Bone Readers isn't your average crime novel, nor is the main character your average policeman, both of which are definite plusses in my book.

The star of this show is Michael Digson, aka "Digger," who, as the story opens, finds himself witness to a crime on the streets of San Andrews on the island of Camaho (think Grenada),  a situation that ultimately (and somewhat reluctantly) lands him a job in the small police department.  The biggest incentive he has for joining is that he would have access to information about his mother, who was killed in 1999.   She was a "servant girl" in the home of Digger's father the Police Commissioner, who got her pregnant; leaving Digger to grow up as his "outside" child. DS Chilman,  who'd "recruited" him hopes to put together a younger team, meant to be part of a "separate office from San Andrews Police Central, with its own staff and resources," a
"squad of men who could navigate the forests and valleys of Camaho blindfolded, with guns at their disposal."
As Chilman says, it is "Because is not nice what I see coming in a coupla years time."

Digger is sent to the UK for training in forensics, and on his return he dives right into several cases. Chilman retires, but before doing so, tasks Digger to look into a cold case involving the disappearance of a young man named Nathan, "the ghost that DS Chilman was chasing," who seems to have simply vanished. While Digger's adjusting to his police-department colleagues, Chilman sends in a woman to help him with the case. Enter Miss K. Stanislaus, a rather unorthodox choice since she's not really a police person, but she knows the people and the island inside out.  The novel follows Digger at first on a few official cases, but the story really focuses on Digger's work on the two cases, that of his mother's death and Nathan's disappearance. But there are forces on the island who don't want the truth revealed, and trying to solve these mysteries will not be easy, especially since a) secrets and lies abound and b) what may seem apparent from the outside of things doesn't always reflect the reality of things.

We love the Caribbean islands, and reading this book took me back there for a while.  For example, the description of the little rumshops (sort of ramshackle bars) there was one in particular
"a one-room shed with a single fly-spotted bulb dangling from the centre of the ceiling. The three wooden benches against the wall looked as if they were built by drunks. The wall itself served as a back rest,"
that brought me back to the many "rumshops" we visited on each island -- they are really as he describes them and I could just taste the Puncheon rum we drank in one or two of them  in Port of Spain, Trinidad.  At the same time,  it's not just the physical setting that is impressively and realistically  evoked here -- Ross also takes us behind the scenes, if you will,  to look at how things work politically, socially, and even at the family level on this island, and does so in a way that blends in nicely with Digger's investigations.  One more thing: that the two cold cases are the biggest draw for Digger is interesting, since it allows the author to hone in on a close-up look at victimization, loss, and grief, all of which permeate this story.  Keep your eyes on the women here -- they are the strongest characters in the entire novel.  Major applause.

Moving on to what many readers have had to say about this book, it seems that more than a few had issues with the accents of the characters.  It does take a little time to get into the rhythm of the language Ross uses here, but it soon gets to the point where it just starts being natural. What this novel has that a lot of books coming off the bigger presses at the moment do not is depth, a keen understanding of behavior and human nature, and frankly, an original story/plot that will hold a reader's attention right up until the very end. Then again, I've come to expect very good things from Peepal Tree Press, which specializes in Caribbean fiction as well as "Black British fiction," as noted on the back cover.  There is no question -- I'll be adding each book in this series to my library as it's published.  Definitely a book I can recommend, especially for people looking for something completely different.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

2017 book-reading happiness, at least for me: traveling back through time once again

from The Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington

2017 is going to be a fun year for me, at least in terms of reading crime fiction.  In and around current crime novels, and books that have been sitting on my shelves for ages, the big focus this year is on crime fiction/mysteries written up to the beginning of World War I. I'll be including a few crime-fiction precursors here and there, for example, gothic novels, sensation novels, penny dreadfuls, and then move on to full-blown mystery and detective fiction.  I've been scouring all kinds of resources to come up with a list of titles that, in addition to the majority of novels that have been written by male authors, includes early women writers, translated early crime novels, African-American writers, and other diverse authors who contributed to the genre up to the onset of  World War I. There's absolutely no way I can hit every single book, but I'm very happy with my choices so far.

Sit back, relax, and feel free to suggest titles.  And if anyone's tbr pile happens to increase from my reading choices this year, well, then, I'm delighted.