Tuesday, October 27, 2020

two in one: Ruth Sawtell Wallis: Too Many Bones / Blood From a Stone


Stark House, 2020
268 pp

paperback -- my many, grateful thanks for my copy.  

This book is literally hot off the press (well, minus a couple of weeks),  and it's truly a good one.  First, it's by a writer whose work I've never read; second, both mysteries included in this volume are never dull, keeping me guessing right up until the end; third, both stories have a strong, professional female character taking the lead.  

Both of these lead characters take after their creator.  Curtis Evans has a short but remarkably thorough biography of author Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978) in his introduction to this book, which discusses not only her short mystery-writing career but her years as an anthropologist.  Before transferring to Columbia University to work with Franz Boas,   Ruth Sawtell Wallis had spent time excavating Azilian graves in the French Pyrenees.  Susan Kent in Blood From a Stone (1945) shares  the author's zeal for anthropology and excavation, eventually coming to claim discoveries in a particular cave site as her own, while Kay Ellis in Too Many Bones (1943) took a job in a museum where she was excited to be a part of a "study of human heredity"  involving the skeletons of four families in a remote, isolate area of the Carpathian mountains, previously excavated in 1900.  

In Too Many Bones, Kay arrives in the very small midwestern town of Hinchdale to begin her work with the Holtzerman Collection and right away she is told that she probably "won't be stayin' here long."  First she's not sure that the Director of the Proutman Museum, Alpheus Harvey will let her do the job she came for; it seems that the museum staff were not expecting a woman to fill the job.  But that's the least of her problems.  As she begins her work, she meets the owner of the museum, Zaydee Proutman, who has designs on Kay's direct supervisor, Dr. John Gordon, and almost immediately the redhead starts to make trouble for her.   As Kay is informed later by librarian Alice Barton, Zaydee holds all the cards:
"...if we are judged incompetent at any time because of illness or other cause, we will be retired on pensions equal to our salaries. The Judge of our incompetence will be Zaydee ...All salaries are paid by her...She hires employees and dismisses them." 

Sensing a rival and hoping to entice her to leave, not too long after Kay starts her job, Zaydee knocks fifty dollars off of Kay's salary because "A young woman ... does not have expenses commensurate with a those of a man."  Kay needs the money to put forward to future PhD studies, so she stays.  But it looks like the prediction that Kay wouldn't be staying in Hinchdale too long just might come true after Zaydee finds out that John Gordon and Kay had gone out for an evening, and that later that Kay had been seen with one of Zaydee's former boyfriends Randy Bill.  The ill-tempered, jealous redhead decides that Kay must go due to being "lazy and insulting."  Even worse, while Kay is packing up her trunk to go home, she finds out that Randy Bill has died in a car accident, that Zaydee is missing presumed dead, and that she is the local sheriff's number one suspect.  While he orders her not to leave town, Kay takes it upon herself to quietly investigate the small circle of people surrounding Zaydee, any one of which may have had their own motives to want her dead.  As she tries to find out who may have been responsible for Zaydee's death, she stumbles upon a horrifying discovery that causes her to fear for her own life.  

from Pinterest 

Given that this book was published in 1943, it is somewhat refreshing to find concerns about male/female salary discrepancy here, as well as discrepancies in the treatment between male and females in the academic realm.  And while there is no denying that there are a few cringeworthy racial epithets in this novel, to her credit the author's portrayal of the two African-American characters in this book affords them strong, realistic personalities, giving them each something to contribute towards Kay's investigation.  I could have done without the budding romance, but that's just a me thing.  Otherwise, there's an ingenious as well as fun mystery here, with plenty of motives all around.  I had absolutely no clue as to the who up until the last minute, and the ending was beyond appropriate and ultimately quite satisfying.  

from Anthrosource

Blood From a Stone takes us to the French Pyrenees and to 1935.  More precisely, we find ourselves in  Volvestre, the valley of St. Fiacre,  outside of the provincial capital of Foix.  There, in a house named La Catine, Susan Kent, an "American girl with red hair," has taken up residence with another woman, Neva (and no man), thus making it "the house of bad habits."  The other permanent resident of the place is a dachsund named Seppel.  As the novel begins, two "farm boys" come across Susan "kneeling by stream, holding a jagged strip of jawbone filled with squat, gleaming teeth," and mistake her for the legendary "White Woman" who "appears in many guises,"  a figure of the local supernatural lore.  Given the strange events to come,   this beginning turns out to be more than appropriate. The daughter of a widowed, wealthy manufacturer, Susan had come to France with a desire to do some excavating in a cave called the Violet Hole, where in 1881 a priest had "picked up some pottery on the surface," but aside from the few "lines about it" that he published, not much more was known.  Just after she is warned by one of the locals that "this work you are about to do is full of danger," a visit to yet another cave with four other people nearly ends in disaster, and things only get worse from there.  Soon enough Susan, "a foreigner, a girl who crawled through caves and played with bones, who might be a witch" finds herself at the top of the list of suspects when she discovers a more recent corpse while exploring the Violet Hole. 

The author drenches this novel in atmosphere from the start, and cloaks her story in a dark air of distrust, betrayal and suspicion.  The characters connected to Susan are mysterious in their own right, each holding their cards close and letting out very little information about themselves, so that by the time the revelations came I was not only genuinely surprised but completely flabbergasted -- I never saw it coming.   But it's the getting there that counts in this book, which I couldn't put down once I'd started.  

This two in one I can most heartily recommend for those who are more than just a little fond of vintage crime.   As always, the powers that be at Stark House have chosen the perfect person, Curt Evans, for introducing the book, and there is also a lovely, poignant Foreword by Nancy Wallis Ingling, Ruth's granddaughter.  I love love love finding women writers whose works I'd never read, and Ruth Sawtell Wallis is just one of many I've found via Stark House.  Now I feel this need to find her other novels; while she only wrote at total of five mysteries, Too Many Bones earned her "a $1000 prize and additional royalties in the semi-annual Red Badge new mystery story contest."  Her work is very different from that of many of the women writers I've read of the same period, most likely because she put much of her professional self into these books, and quite proudly, I'd say.   

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman


Viking, 2020
355 pp


I genuinely hope there is another book after this one, since I really enjoyed The Thursday Murder Club.  Obviously I'm a reader who is much more into the dark/bleak side of crime, but sometimes I just feel this need to go light for a change, a sort of palate cleanser/brain relaxer if you will.  The trick is in finding just the right book without falling deep into cozyland or cutesyville, neither of which I like.   I bought this book because my spouse and I are huge Richard Osman fans after watching way too many British TV quiz shows, and I figured that this book had to be good because he is so witty and snarky funny.  I made a good decision here: the mystery is rather slow burning, without the usual pileup of clues that would normally titillate my inner armchair detective, but here it's much more about the cast of characters that make up the Thursday Murder Club, as well as the members of the police department they've sort of co-opted into the group.  Prepare to giggle, but keep a tissue by your side. 

The Thursday Murder Club is a group of four friends who meet every Thursday in the Jigsaw Room at Coopers Chase Retirement Village ("You can't move here until you're over sixty-five").  It had originally been started by retired Kent Police inspector Penny Gray and the mysterious Elizabeth; sadly, Penny now lays dying in the Village's nursing home, Willows.  When she'd left the police force, she'd brought with her a number of files of unsolved murder cases, and she and Elizabeth would pore over them, looking for anything that may have been missed.  Two other members soon came along, Ibrahim and Ron, and with Penny out, Joyce has stepped in to become the fourth.  They continue to go over old cases from Penny's files, but they up their game with a real murder that hits close to home.  It seems that the builder of Coopers Chase has been bludgeoned to death, and that the killer has left behind only a photograph.   Elizabeth wants to investigate the murder, but the problem is that they "have no access to any case files, witness statements, any forensics."  What they do have, though, is PC Donna De Freitas, who gives lectures at Coopers Chase, and who would rather be out solving this murder instead of bringing teas to the officers working on it in the incident room.  Elizabeth finagles her way into visiting PC De Freitas at the local station, where she asks Donna point blank if she wouldn't rather be "part of it."   There's nothing Donna would like more, and the group members manipulate things so that Inspector Chris Hudson puts her on the team, making it easier for the Thursday Murder Club to know what's going on as the case progresses and to provide information they think worthy of turning over -- when they're ready.    When a second murder hits, the Thursday Murder Club moves into even higher gear.  

The book is related from two perpectives. First, there's Joyce's diary, where she not only talks about what's happening with the group, but also through her writing provides insight into the members' histories including her own.  She also offers glimpses here and there of what living in this community is like, and through her, the author has written compassionately about these older people and how they cope with aging or finding themselves alone without family or widowed.  Her diaries produce alternating bouts of giggles and sadness that wells up without warning, When we're not reading Joyce's diary entries, the story is related in a standard style, incorporating other characters and moving the mystery and its solution forward.  There's always more than a tinge of humor to be found here, and the ending allows the reader to consider the true nature of justice, which isn't always as black and white as one might believe. 
The dustjacket blurber has absolutely nailed it, saying that
"Richard Osman has employed all of his considerable wit and intelligence to give us just the curl-up-and-read novel we need right now."
This book was, as the blurber stated,  "pure enjoyment," and a "flat-out pleasure of a book," precisely what the doctor ordered during our strange present time.   I also agree with author Val McDermid's blurb when she says that The Thursday Murder Club is  a "warm, wise, and witty warning never to underestimate the elderly."  Sadly not only are senior citizens too often underestimated, but ignored as well. And even though this book isn't my usual sort of reading material, it was such a pleasure to have read this novel: it is truly the "curl-up-and-read novel we need right now" that the description promises. 

Absolutely delightful. To Richard Osman: Thank you so very much and let's have another!! 



Wednesday, October 7, 2020

and thus we come to the end: White Jazz, by James Ellroy


 " ... it's dues time." 

White Jazz closes out Ellroy's LA Quartet, and in doing so, takes us into the life of  Dave Klein, Ad Vice lieutenant in the LAPD.   Unlike The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere and LA Confidential, Ellroy's writing style is dialed up full throttle, set at pure, raw energy here as he moves his reader into Klein's head 

"his voice clipped, sharp, often as brutal as the events he's describing -- taking us with him on a journey through a world shaped by monstrous ambition, avarice, and pervision."

Klein is telling this story years after the events of White Jazz, looking backward with his beginning in the fall of 1958:

"Newsprint: link the dots. Names, events -- so brutal they beg to be connected. Years down -- the story stays dispersed. The names are dead or too guilty to tell." 

Afraid he'll forget: 

"I killed innocent men. I betrayed sacred oaths. I reaped profit from horror. Fever -- that time burning. I want to go with the music -- spin fall with it."

 Mind you, we haven't moved into the actual story yet and right away we have a preview of not only what's coming down the pike for Klein, who lived to tell the tale if one could actually call it living,    but of Ellroy's superb jazzed-up prose style as well.  

Aside from his police job, Klein has ties to local bad guy Mickey Cohen, Howard Hughes and mobster Sam Giancana. He is paid well to work as hit man, strike breaker, or to kneecap someone if necessary. He's also a slumlord and a law-school grad.  After the death of a federal witness in Klein's custody,  the case that takes center stage in White Jazz, one which will eventually take everyone involved to places they couldn't possibly have foreseen as ""the City of Angels begins to seem like the City of the Devils," starts with a burglary and the murder of two Dobermans at the home of JC Kafesjian, "LAPD's sanctioned pusher," and the owner of a chain of dry-cleaning establishments.  He is protected by Dan Wilhite of Narco;  Klein is called in "to square things," as Kafesjian insists on no investigation.  Ed Exley, now Chief of Detectives, decides otherwise, and Klein is partnered with Sgt. George "Junior" Stemmons to take care of it.   Away from the job, he is hired by Howard Hughes to keep tabs on a young actress by the name of Glenda Bledsoe, "with an eye toward securing contract-violating information."  In the meantime, as if this all wasn't enough, the  Justice Department investigators are beginning a " 'minutely detailed, complex and far reaching' probe into racketeering in South-Central Los Angeles," part of which would involve rumors of the LAPD allowing vice to flourish and rarely investigating "homicides involving both Negro victims and perpetrators."  Eventually Klein will come to realize that he's been tagged as scapegoat by the powers that be who want to keep their secrets to themselves.  He also knows that he's being used as a pawn in a much bigger rivalry.   He's not going to take either of these lying down -- as the back cover says, for Klein, "it's dues time."  

I really don't want to reveal  anything more about this book plotwise because at this juncture getting into the nitty-gritty of things would just kill it for anyone who hasn't read this book and may want to do so down the road.  There's also the fact that to try to enumerate the subplots found here would just be folly, and there's no way I can possibly describe the bleakness tied to the characters or the way in which things spiral out of control throughout the story.  I will say that while the books that came before this one were dark, this one is downright claustrophobic, a connected web of murder, revenge, sick and damaged souls, making the reader wonder if there is any possibility of justice at all in this hellish vision of LA.   

It also ends the LA Quartet, picking up the speed toward the finish in a way that only Ellroy could make happen as he moved across twelve years from 1947 to 1959.  More accurately it ends what is often labeled as the Dudley Smith Trio that had its roots in The Big Nowhere and comes to a head in White Jazz; although   The Black Dahlia  has little to do with the characters of the three novels that follow, it is most certainly the foundation of Ellroy's vision and as such necessary to understand many of the themes that make their way through all four books.  Word to the wise: do not under any circumstances make White Jazz your starting point -- you will be lost.  

 I think there have only been two other series I've read that have come close to this one in terms of sheer darkness of vision and which out-noir noir,  Derek Raymond's Factory series and David Peace's Red Riding Quartet.   While Ellroy's Quartet novels are, as I've been saying all along, not easy to get through on a number of different levels,  reading these four novels has been an experience in itself and I wouldn't have missed it.  I'm genuinely sad that it's over.  

happier reads now, I think! 

Friday, October 2, 2020

L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy


-- read earlier

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime case and the price for clearing it was very, very high."

I'm one of those weirdos who actually preferred the novel to the film adaptation, and I think it's because it had been so long since I'd seen the movie that it I'd forgotten about it.   I recently watched the film again after finishing the novel and was a bit thrown off -- not only had the story been cut, which due to its complexity I'd expected, but parts of the plot were changed as well, even down to who was killed in the Nite Owl Coffee Shop.   James Ellroy himself said about the film that it was "about as deep as a tortilla." 

Luckily that's not the case with the novel. There is nothing shallow about  LA Confidential, which goes straight for the jugular and doesn't let go.   

As was the case in The Big Nowhere, three police officers are at the center of the story. Sgt. Jack Vincennes  has fifteen years on the force, yet he is not well respected by his superiors.  He was given a fitness rating of D+ by his own supervisor who also remarked that he is "barely adequate."  Jack has a side gig as technical advisor to a TV cop show (think Jack Webb and Dragnet) and also provides celebrity fodder for Sid Hughes' tabloid Hush-Hush, giving Sid the heads up when an arrest is about to be made allowing the magazine a leg up on press scoops. He also wants to leave Ad Vice and return to Narco before he retires,  and is told that if he can "make a major case," in a "Picture-book smut" investigation he'll get his wish.  Like many of Ellroy's tormented characters, Jack has a secret from his past which if uncovered would cost him everything.  Wendell "Bud" White has no use for men who beat women; as a boy he witnessed his mother's murder at the hands of his father.  Lieutenant Ed Exley, former war hero,  lives in the shadow of his father, a retired legendary cop now construction bigwig who is currently bringing a Disneyland-type park and a freeway to Los Angeles.  Exley "works poorly with partners and well by himself;" he is also regarded as a "coward" because he does not use violence against suspects.  Aside from his inner rivalry with his father, he too harbors a secret that he would prefer to keep hidden, and after he rats out the culprit in a jail beatdown by cops during a drunken Christmas Eve party, everyone hates him.  

The main case at the novel's  heart is the shooting at the Nite Owl Coffee Shop, "The first all-Bureau call-in in history."  Six people died when at 3 a.m. three men entered and shot the place up. The police have one hot lead on the case: over the previous two weeks, three men had been seen "discharging shotguns" into the air at Griffith Park.  They had been seen driving a purple Mercury coupe at the time and it was a purple Mercury coupe that a witness had seen parked across from the coffee shop at the same time the massacre went down.  But since this is James Ellroy we're talking about there, this case will quickly unfurl well beyond its center and as it spins, it will drag the three cops along with it, catching up to them in ways no one could predict.   And that's an understatement.  

LA Confidential has been criticized by readers for its rather labyrinthine complexity involving numerous subplots, but I didn't have an issue with it and frankly, could care less, since after having read its predecessors The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere, I've become used to Ellroy's penchant for grandiose, and I was caught up in each and every turn taken by this story.  What I really want to say is that it's a firecracker of a  read that sucked me so far down the rabbit hole of Ellroy's 1950s Los Angeles that is was a relief when I finally got out.   Again, not perfect, but pretty damn close.  

It's another book that is uberbleak, not for the squeamish, should come with warning labels, and yes, it's long in the reading, but I enjoyed every second of it.  Every nanosecond of it.