Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Forgotten Film: THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1948) starring Gene Kelly, Lana Turner, June Allyson, Vincent Price, Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury

I don't do forgotten films much anymore primarily because most of the movies I wanted to write about I've already written about (or forgotten), if you know what I mean. Plus I don't have a television anymore so it seems that TCM movies are, for me, a dream of the past. Still, now and then I remember a movie that somehow I'd overlooked and so here I am today, writing about an old favorite of mine.

Lana Turner, Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, June Allyson and Angela Lansbury. La Turner looks as if she was added to the shot at some later time.

Haven't seen THE THREE MUSKETEERS in a while but it's one of those films that stays vividly in memory even for those of us whose memory is, shall we say, not exactly sparkling fresh.

When MGM (and Technicolor) was in its heyday no one could touch it for sheer over-the-top 'artistic' exuberance. Colorful extravaganzas were the studio's meat and potatoes. Even in memory, the brightness of the color stands out almost like a separate entity. Not to mention the costumes, the California scenery (mostly greenery filled studio backlots), the lively sound effects and music. And oh, yes, the actors.

You might not think so, but Gene Kelly makes a splendid D'Artagnan. Not my idea of a Frenchman, but hey, nobody's perfect. And he doesn't even have to dance in this one, except that he's so gracefully athletic and so energetic (willing to sling and swirl his body around the screen as no other actor I've ever seen then or since) that it's almost as if he's dancing anyway - just watching him move is a joy, not to mention his fencing, dueling, riding or whatever. Just a sheer manly delight.

Celebrated director George Sidney doesn't tamp down the flash since obviously he was of a mind that the more frenetic activity the better.

Based on the Alexander Dumas book (this time with screenplay by Robert Ardrey), THE THREE MUSKETEERS has been filmed many times over many years with many different actors in the cast, all with varying degrees of success. (Even the Ritz Brothers got into the mix at one point, not to mention cartoon duo Tom and Jerry.) However, this MGM version remains my favorite. Simply because it doesn't try in the least little bit to be realistic - even if there is a cruel murder in a castle prison. (And that particular scene, when it happens, seems to be happening in a different film.) Still, it works somehow because Lana Turner is really quite superb in her evilness. So evil that she is even photographed without make-up. Well, as 'without make-up' as MGM got, at any rate. Even then, she is exquisitely beautiful - especially when praying.

Oh yeah and there's a matter of the chopping off of a certain head near the end - but not to worry you don't see anything gory - just a very VERY chilling scene vibrating with portentous drama and nice costumes as two figures walk away into the sunset - one to return, one not.

Ah, the costumes (this time by Walter Plunkett). They take your breath away. Lana Turner, especially, as the villainous Lady De Winter who is in cahoots with the equally villainous Cardinal Richelieu (Vincent Price) and  struts around in gorgeous satins and feathery overkill (She, not he. Though he looks pretty spiffy in red satin robes.).

Frank Morgan as the nincompoop King Louis XIII, Angela Lansbury as his intelligent but none too heart-wise Queen and Vincent Price as the always disagreeable Cardinal Richelieu.

And Angela Lansbury as the Queen looks every bit the way a queen should look - regal and majestic even when cheating on her hubby, the King. (The plot hinges on those pesky diamond studs given her by the king and passed on by her to her special 'friend', the Duke of Buckingham (played elegantly by John Sutton).

Lana the glamorous and Vincent the vile, plotting their evil deeds.

Said diamonds must then (to save the Queen's reputation) be returned and just in the very nick of time delivered to the Queen to wear in time for the King to see them being worn at a grand court event. Phew! Lots of running back and forth between England and France.

The studs! Those damn troublesome diamond studs!

And lots of attempts by the bad guys to stop the good guys from carrying out their appointed task. I know, makes little sense, but what the heck - the Musketeers to the rescue. A QUEEN'S REPUTATION IS AT STAKE!! Remember when reputations meant something? Ah, the good old days.

The very swoony Gene Kelly sans dancing shoes.

In the beginning, D'Artagnan (Gene Kelly) shows up as a country bumpkin (complete with beret) set on making his way in the world, namely joining the Crown's musketeers and cutting a swash and buckle swath in Paris. (I believe his father had been a musketeer but not sure). By chance he meets up with Athos (Van Heflin), Porthos (Gig Young) and Aramis (Robert Coote) and before you can say, 'All for one and one for all!', he's proven himself with some well-timed rough and tumble swordplay.

Soon he's hanging out with the three musketeers (of the title), getting the lay of the land, learning the ins and outs of court life, the difference between friend and foe, the tricks of giving and/or not giving offense, and meeting and falling for the sugary sweet Lady Constance (June Allyson), the Queen's lady in waiting. And let's not forget, that he later gets embroiled in a plot to rid the King of the Queen's steadying influence and garner even more power for Richelieu.

Phew! Lots for an ambitious country boy to take in. But he's willing and able and off we go.

Of the regulation musketeers, Van Heflin as Portos is the anguished one. Well, that's because he carries heavy baggage and a cruelly broken heart. Athos (Gig Young) is the twinkly-eyed one, a dandy for the ladies. And Aramis (Robert Coote) is the older, boisterous one who's seen it all and probably done it too.

They take to D'Artagnan like ducks to water, and soon they're Three Musketeers + One, in search of a lark worthy of their talents.

Lots of fun to be had with this version, lots of visual firecrackers (you know what MGM was in those days) and lots of stars at the height of their allure. Though Price was older by this time, he was still, in a vile and evil way, alluring.

Good movie. It's a wonder to me that Neflix hasn't bought the MGM vault. But that's probably because somebody else has. Maybe Turner? I wish TCM had a streaming service. Surprised no one's thought of it.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SLEEPING GIANTS by Sylvain Neuvel

Actually this isn't a forgotten or overlooked book since it was just published this year to some nice reviews, but I'd never heard of it until I stumbled across it online somewhere - 'Forgotten (or Overlooked)' is just a loose interpretation anyway.

This is the first book in a planned trilogy, (trilogies are big now) but far as I'm concerned this can be read quite nicely on its own even if tagged with an ending that surprises and sets us up for the next chapter. Not exactly rocket science, but I am eagerly looking forward to see what happens next. (Yes, yes, I know some of you don't like this sort of story-telling, but I say, pretend it's a very thick book and you are, for some reason, only allowed to read it in thirds.)

The plot:

When 11 year old Rose goes riding her birthday bike across the landscape near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota she (and her bike) fall down a deep hole in the ground. When finally found by searchers, the girl is alive and sitting in the palm of a gigantic hand.

Many years later, the perplexing riddle of the hand has still not been solved. How old is it?What do the glowing symbols? Who built it? What is it made of? What is its function? Is it merely an ancient work of art? Are there any other parts or is the hand a singular creation?

Naturally enough, after the hand gives up a few of its unsettling secrets, the government gets involved.

Rose Franklin grows up to be a physicist in charge of the riddle. Because her childhood accident seems predestined, she is deemed the perfect person to get to the bottom of the mystery. The hand is thought to be thousands of years old and actually seems to have some sort of functionality. Soon, other parts of a colossal metallic warrior woman are found buried underground at various sites around the world.

To try and figure out the why and the what and the how, Rose is aided by three other people. Two pilots (a woman and a man) and a language expert (a man). Why pilots? Well, you'll have to read the thing to find out. I can't give you everything. Same answer for the language guy.

This seems a small band. But the metallic figure apparently has an eerie propensity for only specific humans. The whole thing is supposed to be a secret, so the less who know the better. I can say no more.

Best of all, the story is revealed bit by bit from journal excerpts, mission logs, official reports, news articles and interviews with a 'Mr. Big' - a kind of all-knowing honcho behind the scenes who may or may not be a government mucky-muck. I am a major fan of this type of story-telling and I was won over almost right away.

Canadian author Sylvain Neuvel is quick with dialogue and plot twists and turns, so that just when you think you know the what of something, it quickly becomes something else. Though there is a bit of an unexpected bog down in the middle (emotional personal baggage shenanigans), this deftly forces the plot to turn down another unexpected avenue. And yet again, another major surprise comes about two thirds of the way through and here we go again, down yet another avenue.

(And of course, where would we be without government conspiracy and behind the scenes chicanery?)

As most science fiction stories do, this one asks itself (and us) to think about The Big Picture, about things greater than ourselves, about the universe and our place in it and this time out, about the accepted history of our world. But nothing very heavy-weight, Neuvel is too bent on telling a fabulous tale.

A delightfully jam-packed thriller (remember those?), with an odd element of creep, SLEEPING GIANTS should immediately be added to your TBR list, if you haven't read it already. Even if you're not a regular science fiction fan, this fast-moving tale has just enough thriller aspects to make up for any implausibilities of plot. And the stuff you're asked to believe is not all THAT preposterous. Well, maybe just a little.

Next book in the trilogy is titled, WAKING GODS. Can't wait.

This Friday, Todd Mason is doing substitute hosting duties for FFB at his blog, Sweet Freedom.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE LAST POLICEMAN (2012) by Ben H. Winters

Now would not seem the time for reading dystopian novels set in an alternate USA, but what the heck. Live dangerously, I say.

The Edgar Award winning novel, THE LAST POLICEMAN, by Ben H. Winters is the first in a trilogy (brought the second and third installments home from the library tonight) and though the subject matter is dicey, I was utterly fascinated and had trouble putting the book down - I know, I know, I always say that about books I enjoy. But terrific writing glued me to the page. I was also riveted by the intriguing concept.

If the definitive end of the world were near, would you bother to keep your normal day to day routine? Would you stay on the job? Do the job? Would any of it matter? OR would you take the 'easy' way out?

The setting is Concord, New Hampshire. There, Henry (aka, Hank) Palace, a newly promoted detective in a dwindling force (most have retired or simply walked away from the job) is determined to solve a case even while faced with the upcoming end of the world. Literally.

Hank is a native Concordian (is that the way you'd say it?), young, gangly and very, very tall. So much so that everyone has to comment. Though I wouldn't say that six feet four or five is THAT tall, but maybe in New Hampshire. He is an engaging, even endearing character who is determined to make his life count, determined to do the right thing even when faced with insurmountable odds.

And the odds are spectacular.

Earth is on its final countdown. A giant meteorite is directly headed our way and the world and most everything on it has six months to live. As you might imagine, societal barriers are in break-down mode. Day to day living is wobbly at best. Gallows humor is the norm. Suicide has become a routine death. Religious zealotry confronts one on every street corner. World economies have tanked. Conspiracy theorists run amok. Governments rally to strengthen their control and keep the populace from panicking.

No one cares about the suicide of Peter Zell, a hapless insurance actuary who hangs himself in the bathroom at a MacDonald's. (Well, a copy-cat MacDonald's, since that and most other fast food chains have all gone out of business - what, no Starbucks?)

But did Zell really hang himself?

Hank Palace thinks not. But since the three other cops left in his division don't care to detect anymore, it's up to Hank to solve what might be a murder in disguise. AND it is also up to him to keep tabs on his clinging sister, Nico, who is apparently willing to put up with her dolt of a hubby even if he is currently in jail, branded a terrorist.

This lively, fast-moving tale is probably meant for those of us who may not normally enjoy dystopian views of the world, even in fiction (I am not a fan of HUNGER GAMES or any of its ilk) but who do like a good detective yarn with some extra fireworks thrown in. Somehow THE LAST POLICEMAN breaks down all barriers. Resistance is futile. The main character is the first lure, terrific writing is the second. And even the inevitable world ending scenario didn't dim my enthusiasm. Probably because Winters is not a hysterically inclined writer - his page by page exposition of life nearing the end, is rather matter-of-fact and utterly believable.

I would have given this five stars except for a couple of things in the final denouement which I found a bit confusing. (Hank does do a bit of stumbling around.) That is, the way that he finally figures out who the murderer is - the reasoning seems a bit clunky. But other than that, this is a super-duper, first rate book, highly recommended by yours truly. Can't wait to read the next two.

It's Friday, so don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sunday Salon: A Celebration of Painted Women

Hungarian painter Imre Goth (1893 - 1982) 

American painter Polly Thayer (1904 - 2006) Self-portrait 

Russian/American painter Isaac Soyer (1902 - 1981) 'Rebecca' 1940 - via

American painter Guy Pene Du Bois (1884 - 1958) - via

American painter Moses Soyer (1899 - 1974) - via

British painter Anna Zinkeisen (1901 - 1976) via

Spanish painter Jose Cruz Herrera (1890 - 1972)  'Marocaine' via

 American painter Carl Schmitt (1889 - 1989) Portrait of Helen Hart Hurlbut via

British painter Dod Proctor (1892 - 1972) via

French painter Francois Flameng (1856 - 1923) Portrait of Mrs. Adeline M. Noble - via

Contemporary American painter Beth Carver - via

Contemporary American painter Mark Dalessio - via

Contemporary Chinese painter Liu Ye - via

Scottish painter John Duncan Fergusson (1874 - 1961) - via

Polish/American painter/illustrator W.T. Benda - via

A small celebration of  women in paint and/or pastel as the whole thrilling idea of Hillary Clinton as our first viable American woman Presidential candidate sinks in. All sorts of women by all sorts of artists in all sorts of styles.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: DEATH IN THE STOCKS (1935) by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer, as many of you might know, wrote a whole delightful selection of Regency and Georgian novels - mostly comedies of manners, but some heavier in weight - which are beloved by readers (myself among them) of all ages and stripes. But she also wrote a bunch of mysteries and though not considered one of the greats of that Golden Era, my feeling is that she would be if she'd written more than just a few. Though what's there is very much choice.

And with the turmoil in the world these days, Georgette Heyer makes for especially soothing reading. I've been indulging myself by listening to the audio versions of her books for days.

DEATH IN THE STOCKS (1935) is the first Inspector Hannasyde book (Hannsyde is one of two detectives featured in Heyer's mysteries - the other is Inspector Hemingway. (Heyer was apparently fond of the letter H.)

The plot:

Ashleigh Green, a village outside London, is a convenient location for a snug little country retreat nicely named River Cottage. For Arnold Vereker, the unpleasant but wealthy London business man who owns it, the cottage is mainly a place for assignations of the romantic variety. However, on one moonlit night, Vereker's body is found by the local bobby while out on his rounds. Attired in evening clothes, the corpse is slumped over, knife in back, feet tucked in the wooden stocks on the village green.

Stocks, an early system of public shaming, for those of you who may not know exactly what Heyer meant.

Called in on the case, Scotland Yard Detective-Superintendent Hannasyde finds himself immediately bombarded by a one too obvious suspect, Antonia (Tony) Vereker, the dead man's younger half-sister. Motive? Well, she was engaged to a a rather oily Vereker employee, Rudolph Mesurier, whom Vereker disliked intensely. Tony's brother controlled the purse strings and would not countenance a marriage - no more need be said. Except that Tony was on the scene on the night of the murder - had sprung an impromptu visit on her surly brother and having found the cottage empty, had decided to crash.

When the cops show up on the doorstep in the middle of the night, Tony immediately clams up (but not before making a general nuisance of herself) then calls her cousin Giles Carrington, who happens to be a lawyer.

The Verekers are a highly eccentric family, the sorts of people for whom telling the truth is an absolute social faux pas. Tony's brother Kenneth, now the presumptive heir, is an artist who seems to luxuriate in 'struggling' at his Chelsea flat. It's no big mystery that he welcomes his inheritance especially since he is lately engaged to a flighty young woman with acquisitive tendencies. Violet Williams is a beautiful fashion designer (or illustrator, can't remember which) who is not too eager to 'struggle' any more than she can help. Tony can't stand her. Neither can the less beautiful Leslie Rivers who has nursed a hopeless passion for Kenneth since they were youngsters.

Kenneth and Tony delight is making themselves unpleasant to the police, obfuscating the truth and behaving as if murder were not as big a deal as the cops make it. After all they have the mantle of  'bright young things' to wear about London.

It is enough to make cousin Giles quietly want to tear out his hair.

The Vereker siblings can do that to you. Doesn't Kenneth realize that the cops are fashioning a hangman's noose for his tender neck? Sure he does, but he has a persona to maintain. As Nero Wolfe is fond of saying (and I paraphrase): Eccentricity only works as true eccentricity if it is maintained come hell or high water.

That is, until long lost Roger Vereker, older half-brother to Tony and Kenneth, decides to come back from the dead. Complications ensue (including a second body) since Roger is now the presumptive heir to the Vereker fortune.

Someone may have committed murder for nothing.

While it is true, as many online comments attest, that there is no one in this book to cozy up to and/or especially cheer for (except maybe Leslie Rivers who does not have a major role), I still enjoyed (maybe because at my age, my eye is too terribly jaded) this whodunit enormously. Even if at some points in the proceedings, I wanted to strangle Tony and/or Kenneth and even, occasionally, the elegant Giles whom we immediately suspect rather dotes on Tony. Truth be known, I kind of liked Giles, he is just the kind of hubby Tony needs. But as usual, I get ahead of myself. First there is Rudolph to get rid of.

The killer comes as a surprise (though some of you may figure it out long before, I didn't, until nearly the end) and is, of all things, the least likely among the small cast. Money is a great motivator for deadly doings as we all know.

Author Patricia Abbott is traveling today so she's handed FFB duties over Todd Mason at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: ANNA, WHERE ARE YOU? (1953) by Patricia Wentworth

This is, for those of you unbelievers, an enjoyably compelling Miss Silver mystery - really and truly. Yes, Wentworth is a bit of an acquired taste, but in between the chaff and raff, she did create a few worthwhile (and fun) tales of suspense and even (yes!) eerie mystery. This is one of them.

In ANNA, WHERE ARE YOU? aka Death at Deep End, we have the well-worn trope: an acquaintance (the heroine's) of long-standing suddenly gone missing. I'm fond of this sort of thing. Wentworth has used it before, but never, in my view, as well as in this particular book which, actually, might make a neat little creep of a movie. (Lots of mysterious stuff taking place at night.)

The Plot:

Thomasina (I love that name!) Elliot is worried. Her school friend Anna Ball has suddenly stopped writing to her.

"She said she had got another job and she would write and tell me all about it when she got there. And she never wrote again. You see, I can't help worrying."

Well, sure. I'd worry too.

Actually, Anna Ball sounds kind of a hapless sad-sack, not the sort of young woman anyone would really want as a friend but she hasn't anyone else - so Thomasina feels she has a duty to keep in touch. Long time friend, Peter (a bit on the overbearing side and prone to pooh-poohing her fears) chides Thomasina for her efforts to find out what's happened to Anna.

“...you can’t go through life collecting lame ducks, and stray dogs, and females whom nobody loves. You are twenty-two—and how old would you be when I first patted your head in your pram? About two. So that makes it twenty years that I’ve known you. You’ve been doing it all the time, and it’s got to stop. You started with moribund wasps and squashed worms, and you went on to stray curs and half-drowned kittens. If Aunt Barbara hadn't been a saint she would have blown the roof off. She indulged you."

But Thomasina has a stubborn streak and Peter or not, she will find out what, if anything, has happened to poor Anna. First step, go to the police with her worries.

In the meantime, Miss Maud Silver, genteel lady detective, gets a visit from her long-time friend,  the ever-elegant, Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Frank Abbott. In a roundabout way, while having tea, they discuss (in general) cases of missing people.

"Do you remember a case which was in all the papers a few years ago?"

Eventually, Abbott also gets around to mentioning Thomasina Elliot's concerns about her 'missing' friend since it seems he was impressed by her eyes. 

"The names are Anna Ball and Thomasina Elliot. Thomasina is the one with the eyes. Anna sounds as dull as ditchwater...School friendship. Pretty, popular girl taking up the cudgels for dreary, unpopular one. Three years' intensive post-school letter-writing on Anna's part. Generous response by Thomasina. Last letter saying Anna was going to a new job and would write when she got there. And then finish. No address. No hint of any destination. Previous jobs, nursery governess for over two years, and companion for one month. No clue as to new job. Might be anything from a housemaid to a henwife - and I rather gather she was likely to be a washout at whatever it was -"

He broke off to suddenly enquire. "Why are you looking at me like that? You can't possibly be interested. I can assure you that nothing can be duller than the whole affair."

She [Miss Silver] gave him her charming smile.

"Yet you have introduced the subject with care, and you are quite unable to let it drop."

From then on, things begin to happen as Miss Silver unofficially begins to prod. Her genteel questioning at Anna Ball's last place of employment garners information which had eluded the police and eventually, everybody involved winds up in Deep End, a community of would-be artists at whose center stands a bombed out manor house. In the house, or at least the habitable part of it, lives a chap named Peverell Craddock, a tyrant and self-obsessed pretend-writer with a family (cringing wife, odd children) who live in fear of upsetting his routine. Attached to this center, are various oddlings with artistic pretentious. 

Needless to say, also lurking in the background, is a neighborhood story of an unfortunate accident (or was it murder most foul?) - the victim, a young woman who'd worked at Deep End. There are also, frustrating the local police and Scotland Yard, a series of murderous bank robberies carried off in broad daylight. How do these events link up? And what has any of this to do with Anna Ball?

Miss Silver cleverly finds her way into the center of the hive by getting a job as a mother's help to the ever-cringing and weary Mrs. Craddock at Deep End.

Lots of red herrings, lots of mysterious doings and lots of strange behavior follow. The final denouement, just when I was smugly thinking I knew everything there was to know, comes as a bit of a surprise - at least it did to me. 

A nice evening's entertainment, if that's how you view this sort of book. And I do.

P.S. Here's a link to ANNA, WHERE ARE YOU? available at Project Guttenberg to download or read online - the copyright having expired in Canada.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Vive La France!

Paris - Rue de Parme on Bastille Day, 1890 - Pierre Bonnard

A sad day. But good must and will triumph. 

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: MURDER OF A LADY (1931) by Anthony Wynne

This 'impossible' crime mystery is a total delight in that it is reasonably well-written, the Scottish setting is wonderful and there are multiple 'impossibles' (so we don't have to sit and concentrate on one 'impossible' murder for the entire book, mystified alongside a cast of befuddled characters) and what's more, when the method of murder is revealed in the end, it still seems impossible. Ha! 

Oh, and the method was one which gained infamy used later in a famous television mystery anthology series (I think) of which I can say no more.

Obviously, I'm the sort who doesn't take these things very seriously, so pardon me if you are and wish I weren't so off-hand about murder and whatnot. But you know, Golden Age murder is not really, really real, no matter how horrible - more puzzlers than anything else. The vintage novels in re-release by British Library Crime Classics (and in this country, Poisoned Pen Press) are an intriguing mix. Some are quite good, some are just good, and some are not. I've read a few and admittedly I find it fun to see what the next one will bring since I'd never previously read any of them nor am I familiar with any of the writers except Freeman Wills Croft (whom I adore).

I'm not looking for great literature here and really, there's only been one which I chucked aside almost immediately as being drek. But I won't name that one because my drek may be someone else's treasure as we all know. I do, however, wish BLCC had spent a bit more time weeding in and out of all these lost and forgotten authors and picked only those who more rightly deserve being revived - a couple of these books really do deserve their buried in the past status I'm sorry to say.

On the whole though, more good than bad so don't be put off by the possibility of a dud.

Anthony Wynne is really the pen name of somebody else - all explained by editor and writer Martin Edwards in the Introduction to the tale - lots of pseudonyms back in the day. So if you want to know more about Wynne's various identities, read the intro when you get your hands on the book.

At any rate, there's a baffling locked room mystery in MURDER OF A LADY (the other murders in the book are merely bafflingly 'impossible'). So let's get crackin'.

Mary Gregor, it turns out, was a nasty bit of goods and probably deserved being murdered. But I'm getting ahead of myself as usual. Mary was the spinster sister of the Laird of Duchlan (as I mentioned, the tale takes place in Scotland) and had not an enemy in the world. At least that's what is first spread about by the stunned members of her family. Her brother, especially, is in such shock he can barely behave rationally. At least, he doesn't behave like anyone losing a beloved sister to a serious cosh on the head might behave. 

Secrets. Families all have them. Some families more than others, some secrets more virulent than others. 

The Laird's sister was found in her bedroom (locked from the inside of course) kneeling on the floor next to her bed with a horrible head wound and no way anyone could have entered the room to kill her. "I have never seen so terrible a wound." So says, Mr. Leod McLeod, Procurator Fiscal of Mid-Argyll to Dr. Eustace Hailey, who will try (albeit a bit ineffectively) to solve the dreadful crime(s). Luckily he happens to be staying nearby and even though he's warned off the case by a rather officious inspector of the Glasgow police, Hailey perseveres from the sidelines.

One of the more unusual things about this mystery is that the next two victims (there are four in all) will not be the usual run of the mill victims we are mostly accustomed to and also there is more than a touch of eerie to the whole thing. I can say no more. 

Dr. Hailey is not an especially memorable 'amateur' detective, he has very little in the way of eccentricities (gotta' have eccentricities if you're going to be an 'amateur' snoop - right?) or even, of personality. I understand he was the author's 'detective' of choice in many of his books, so I'd have to read a couple more to see what the author saw in him.

However despite that, MURDER OF A LADY is still a thoroughly engaging and entertaining mystery which caught me up from the first and kept me reading late into the night as I like to say. And even if the ending and the final explanation call for a great big (all together now) SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF! - it's still a terrific book, most especially if there's a storm brewing outside and you're tucked away someplace comfortable.

P.S. This is also one of those books in which everything seems to take place at night. Some books are like that. I think it's that the ambience just quietly runs amok. Being out there in the middle of the Scottish Highlands where just about everything is oozing with atmosphere doesn't hurt.

I'm very eager to read more of Anthony Wynne's work - if I can find it readily available.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Ta-DAH! The Blog's All Fixed.

Andrew Loomis

And to think I didn't have to do a thing. So for now it's all right and tight and back to what passes for normal around here.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Blog is Verklempt - for now...

Well, obviously something is wrong with the blog and all my efforts to center things are for nought. I've tried and tried and re-booted and nothing works. So, no further posts from me until this damn thing decides to fix itself. I cannot stand posting things that aren't symmetrical. It's a mania.

In the meantime, I'll be reading and writing and getting ready for the moment when all things shall be righted once again.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sunday Salon: Stillness

Jennifer Diehl, contemporary painter - via

Eric De Vree, contemporary painter - via

Olga Antonova, contemporary painter - via

Joseph Stella, Italian/American painter (1877 - 1946) - via

Jopie Huisman, Dutch painter (1922 - 2000) - via

Julian Merrow Smith, contemporary painter - via

Conor Walton, contemporary painter - via

Jeffrey T. Larson, contemporary painter - via

Scott Conary, contemporary painter - via

Boyd Gavin, contemporary painter - via

Judith Pond Kudlow, contemporary painter - via

Alexei Antonov, contemporary Russian/American painter - via

There's just something about a good still life painting that is very calming. Perhaps It is the focused, mesmerizing attention paid to an object (s) - the grandeur of the familiar. Different from a camera's focus (in my view) in that a still life painting is an interpretation while a photo is an appropriation.

It has been a terrible and frenetic week in this country, so this post is just a wee effort on my part to instill a bit of calm into the mix. Look at art. Take a moment or two to breathe.

Friday, July 8, 2016

MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD (1956) by Rex Stout

Nero Wolfe, the rotund genius of detection and his wise-cracking henchman, Archie Goodwin, must outrun the clock to save a wrongly convicted man from the electric chair.

This is my favorite Nero Wolfe book - I've lost track of how many times I've read it. And mind you, I've read all 33 Nero Wolfe books and as many of the novellas and short stories as I could find and in general am extremely fond of them all. Though of course, I have a whole list of special favorites, but MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD is the novel I turn to more often than not when I'm in the mood for a Wolfe re-read. This particular story just never gets old for me. And it is so well set up by Stout.

The plot:

James R. Herrold, a stiff-necked hardware businessman from Nebraska hires Wolfe to find his son. The young man was given a raw deal years before and the family wants to make it up to him. Paul Herrold was accused of embezzling a large amount from his father's firm and immediately kicked out of hearth and home. But come to find out, years later, the boy has been proven innocent by circumstances which don't concern us except that they have led his father to travel to NY. Paul has sent Christmas and birthday cards to his mother and sisters postmarked NYC each year since his disgrace, so apparently that is where he dwells. Wolfe almost immediately deduces that he must be living under an assumed name.

Now, at the moment, there is a murder trial going on in the city. The victim was a man of somewhat shady background who was married to a beautiful young woman who should have known better. At any rate, she (coming to her senses rather late in the day) is assumed to have been involved with a certain Peter Hays, a young advertising copywriter who had fallen for her and it is he, who is now on trial facing conviction for the murder of her husband. The evidence seems overwhelming, including the fact that Hays was found at the scene of the crime with the murder weapon in his pocket AND was foolish enough to get into a scuffle with the cops. He has since refused to cooperate with the police, his attorney or anyone else who desires to know what, when, where and why. In fact, he refuses to speak at all or help in any way with his defense.

Not for nothing are we fans of whodunits and detective fiction; with this set-up, you know what happens next.

Turns out that Peter Hays is none other than the aforementioned and much maligned Paul Herrold of Nebraska. And here he is again, years later, once again done in for a crime he hasn't committed. We learn that bit of truth rather quickly but that's what we would expect once Wolfe decides that Paul Herrold and Peter Hays must be one and the same - a guy who if he didn't have bad luck wouldn't have any luck at all.

Once Hays is convicted (just a few pages into the story), the rush is on (without his cooperation) to find out what actually happened.

The case itself was initially put together by Inspector Cramer (head of NYC Police Homicide Division) and his men. They do not take it very well that their work has apparently convicted an innocent man. Cramer is an old favorite around the 35th street brownstone and when he shows up, sparks generally fly. It is to his credit though, that he recognizes Wolfe's rather annoying bouts of brilliance and even if they are not friends, they are not exactly enemies - both working for the same side.

"Cramer's sharp gray eyes, surrounded by crinkles, were leveled at Wolfe's brown ones. He was not amused. On previous, occasions, during a murder investigation, he had found Wolfe a thorn in his hide and a pain in his neck, but this was the first time it had ever happened after it had been wrapped up by a jury.

"I am familiar," he said, "with the evidence that convicted Hays. I collected it, or my men did."

"Pfui. It didn't have to be collected. It was there."

"Well, we picked it up..."

Since the solution to the crime had seemed at first glance to be self-explanatory and Peter Hays such a convenient murder suspect, it's hard to blame Cramer for accepting him as a gift to be quickly brought to trial. But still - once Wolfe gets on the case, it becomes obvious that the crime was never investigated as thoroughly as it might have been.

And once the case is re-opened, more murders occur as a ruthless killer is frightened into desperation.

What I like best about this particular book:

Some of the chit chat between Wolfe and Archie:

"...Did you get anything?"

"I don't know." I sat. "She's either a featherbrain or a damn good imitation. She starts every other sentence with 'Oh' You'd walk out on her in three minutes. She drinks four parts ginger ale and one part gin."



"Good heavens. Did you?"

"No. But I had to watch her..."

One of several pithy Archie observations:

Tom Irwin, with his dark skin and think little clipped mustache, looked more like a saxophone artist than a printing executive, even while holding his wife's hand. His wife, Fanny, was obviously not at her best, with her face giving the impression that she was trying not to give in to a raging headache, but even so she was no eyesore. Under favorable conditions she would have been very decorative. She was a blonde, and a headache is much harder on a blonde than on a brunette; some brunettes are actually improved by a mild one.

And of course, the gang's all here: Fritz and Saul and Fred and Orrie and Johnny.

But in addition, Peter Hays' lawyer Albert Freyer (who believes fervently in his hapless client's innocence) is a stand out. As is Peter Hays himself, a sad lumpkin of a dejected fall guy - someone who has been so badly knocked about by life, one hardly blames him for being a gloomy gus. (Though if I were him I'd wonder what it was about myself that had caused me TWICE to be wrongly accused and convicted of crimes.)

I also like that Wolfe's lawyer/friend Nathaniel Parker plays a larger than normal role. AND, last but not least, I like that there's more than one murder to liven up events. Though one of the murders hits too close to home for Wolfe and Archie and adds a personal impetus to the search for a vicious murderer.

A proviso: the truth is that the initial crime unravels very briskly once the killer makes a stupid mistake and one wonders that the cops could have been so ham-handed in following up on certain rather evident inferences. But I guess when fate is kind enough to hand you an on-scene, practically caught-in-the-act murderer, the rest is duck soup, investigation wise.

All in all, a more than terrific book which I do not think I'll ever grow tired of re-reading.

Since it's Friday, (and Rex Stout Day) don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis

I'm not, normally, a HUGE reader of science fiction or even fantasy (though having said that, I do actually read some - I'm not a complete knucklehead) and therefore I'm not sure how to approach this post because I know there are many hard-core sci-fi and fantasy fans out there who will quibble with my effrontery. Me not being an expert and/or a REAL hardcore fan and all.

Nevertheless, I do appreciate Connie Willis who, for whatever reason, is apparently not the first name anyone thinks of when called upon to make a list of sci-fi favorites. (I understand that it's not called sci-fi anymore, but humor me. I like the sound of it).

To my mind, Willis has, so far, written three masterpieces, 1) DOOMSDAY BOOK, 2) PASSAGE and 3) the book we're talking about today. While the first two are dark, foreboding and very moving, this third book is hilarious even if it is sometimes thought of as a sequel (of sorts) to the infinitely more somber DOOMSDAY BOOK. I don't, however think of it that way, so don't worry about it. The only thing the two books have in common is the actuality of a time travel apparatus and a couple of characters if I'm remembering correctly. (PASSAGE, on the other hand, is a mesmerizing stand-alone with a shocker of a 'stop in your tracks' surprise halfway through.)

TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG (1998) owes its catchy title to Jerome K. Jerome's paean to Victorian leisure and the antics of three inept but jovial chaps: THREE MEN IN A BOAT (To Say Nothing of the Dog) published in 1889. Both books feature a long and somewhat leisurely boat trip down (or is it up?) the Thames between Kingston-Upon-Thames and Oxford. A similar trip is taken (as part of a more goal oriented agenda) by Ned Henry, a time weary (kind of like jet lag but without the jet) traveler from mid-21st century Oxford who must shuffle back and forth in time in pursuit of arcane knowledge.

It is 2057, Coventry Cathedral (destroyed by the Nazis in WWII) is being rebuilt and time travelers are busy plucking precise minutiae from the past. In return for a sizable donation (what we would call a grant) from the coffers of a certain Lady Schrapnell (whose self-appointed task it is to rebuild the Cathedral - something to do with her family's history), the technicians and apparatus of the Time Travel section of Oxford University have been made available to the somewhat crazed benefactor.

Nothing must go wrong at the great 'unveiling' of the Cathedral. And to that end, Lady Schrapnell has run amok, not caring about the hazards of time travel wear and tear, not to mention the dreaded 'slippage' and the vagaries of the entire time travel structure - she is only interested in results! And lately, to be sure, the Bishop's Bird Stump - a hideous Victorian artifact which must be located and placed in its niche if the Cathedral is to appear EXACTLY as it did before the bombing. Ned Henry, an exhausted traveler suffering from time lag syndrome is forced to trek back yet again after an unforeseen 'incident', the results of which may throw the entire time space continuum into a conniption.

"Oh, good, you're here, Mr. Chiswick," Mr. Dunworthy said. "I want to talk to you about an incident concerning - "

"And I want to talk to you about Lady Schrapnell," Chiswick said. "The woman's completely out of control. She pages me night and day, wanting to know why we can't send people more than once to the same time and place, why we can't process more drops per hour even though she has systematically stripped me of my research staff and my net staff and sent them running all over the past looking at almsboxes and analyzing flying buttresses ." He waved the bleeping handheld. "That's her now. She's paged me six times in the last hour, demanding to know where one of her missing historians is! Time Travel agreed to this project because of the opportunity the money afforded us to advance our research into temporal theory, but that research has come to a compete stop. She's appropriated half my labs for her artisans, and tied up every computer in the science area."

He stopped to punch keys on the still bleeping handheld, and Mr. Dunworthy took the opportunity to say, "The theory of time travel is what I wanted to discuss with you. One of my historians - "

Chiswick wasn't listening. The handheld had stopped bleeping, and now it was spitting out inch upon inch of paper. "Look at this!" he said...

Mr. Dunworthy broke in. "What would happen if an historian brought something from the past forward through the net?"

"Did she ask you that?" he said. "Of course she did. She's gotten it into her head to have this bishop's bird stump she's so obsessed with if she has to back in time and steal it. I've told her and told her, bringing anything from the past to the present would violate the laws of the space-time continuum, and do you know what she said? 'Laws are made to be broken.'

He swept on, unchecked, and Mr. Dunworthy leaned back in his desk chair, took off his spectacles, and examined them thoughtfully.

"I tried to explain to her," Chiswick said, "that the laws of physics are not mere rules or regulations, that they're laws, and the breaking of them would result in disastrous consequences."

"What sort of disastrous consequences?" Mr. Dunworthy said.

"That is impossible to predict. The space-time continuum is a chaotic system, in which every event is connected to every other in elaborate, non-linear ways that make prediction impossible. Bringing an object forward through time would create a parachronistic incongruity. At best, the incongruity might result in increased slippage. At worst, it might make time travel impossible. Or alter the course of history. Or destroy the universe. Which is why such an incongruity is not possible, as I tried to tell Lady Schrapnell!"

"Increased slippage," Mr. Dunworthy said. "An incongruity would cause an increase in slippage?"

"Theoretically," Mr. Chiswick said. "Incongruities were one of the areas Lady Schrapnell's money was to enable us to research, research which has now gone completely by the wayside in favor of this idiotic cathedral!"

At any rate, due to this 'slippage' thing, hapless historian Ned Henry travels back to Victorian England, years before WWII, to try and correct an incongruity which could have enormous ramifications for the future.

Let me just add that involved in all this is a boat, the Thames river, an almost drowned professor, a dog, chaos theory, Victorian manners, a girl named Tossie, a seance, a sort of love story and a cat.

A time travel comedy is not something most of us might think of when thinking science fiction, but Connie Willis makes it work oh-so-very well.

P.S. I've read TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG three times and will probably read it yet again as time goes by. (I also have it on audio, which is tons of fun to listen to.)

Normally on Friday, author Patricia Abbott would be doing FFB hosting at her blog, Pattinase. But today Todd Mason has taken over hosting duties at his blog, Sweet Freedom, while Patti is on assignment. Don't forget to check in and see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Books other bloggers are talking about this week.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE HOUSE OF THE FOUR WINDS (1935) by John Buchan

Sorry guys, I can't be reasonable about these books - when it comes to John Buchan, you could say that I'm close to becoming unhinged (but in a good way). Can't help it. I haven't read all he's written, but the books I have read I've loved and taken to my heart, they are books I will continue to reread as long as I live. You see, I love well-written (if improbable) adventures of long ago  - stories that recall a different world where codes of honor and good manners mattered. A world where people still dressed for dinner and occasionally read poetry. (It also doesn't hurt that I've been an anglophile since my teens.)

Before I forget, here's my review, from last year of HUNTINGTOWER just in case you missed it. It's the first book in the Duncan McCunn trilogy.

The three books (HUNTINGTOWER, CASTLE GAY and THE HOUSE OF THE FOUR WINDS) should be read in order so that the recurrence of certain characters (and their personalities and quirks) will have that much more meaning. But it's not the end of the world if you don't. Stay flexible - that's my motto. Though THE HOUSE OF FOUR WINDS is actually the sequel to CASTLE GAY.

Most of you are probably familiar with John Buchan from having seen Hitchcock's early classic THE 39 STEPS based on the first Richard Hannay book. Though the film script made many changes from the novel (there is no woman romantic interest in the book, for example) it has its own delightfully shadowy allure even to this day. The book is rather different, but it also has its own allure. I've read it twice and will read it again along with GREENMANTLE and MR. STANDFAST. Terrific stuff.

These are the sorts of books you either have an inclination for or you don't. The kinds of books I loved as a kid (books I could disappear into) and still love as an old lady. They are definitely of their time, but I don't find that a hindrance at all. If you enjoyed THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL by Bareness Orczy and THE PRISONER OF ZENDA by Anthony Hope and/or the books of Rafael Sabatini, for instance, then you will probably enjoy John Buchan's stories.

The McCunn books were a late find for me (I had only been familiar with Buchan's Richard Hannay books the last couple of years). And now I am incorrigible about recommending them to anyone who likes a good rip-roaring yarn full of adventure and derring-do, books where the good guys win and the bad guys don't. My kind of books. I mean, sometimes you do need a break from the grimness of everyday life.

Duncan McCunn is a retired grocer (with a romantic heart) and the endearing Scottish hero of HUNTINGTOWER, the first book in this trilogy. He jumps into the fray once again, years later when adventure comes calling in the very enjoyable CASTLE GAY, the second in the trilogy. But to my mind, THE HOUSE OF FOUR WINDS stands up even better to HUNTINGTOWER (which I consider to be 'brilliant') and makes for a perfect third installment.

It's years since Duncan McCunn and the Gorbal Diehards (Glaswegian slum boys without whom a princess would not have been saved and a dangerous villain routed) had an unexpectedly splendid adventure in the Scottish Highlands. After which, impressed by their devotion and intelligence, McCunn had taken two of the boys, Wee Jaikie and Dougal(Chief of the Diehards) into his home and raised them as surrogate sons. They are now young men off to make their way in the world.

All are traveling over the summer holidays to Europe from Scotland. Each on his own, but they will meet up at various places on the Continent which of course, accommodates the adventure nicely. Several characters from the second book, CASTLE GAY, will also be along to help as well as a menacing leftover bad guy in need of a strong rebuke.

Duncan McCunn who is feeling elderly aches and pains will be traveling for his health, Jaikie is on a walking tour and Dougal is on assignment for his newspaper.

It is 1935 and two pugnacious factions are gearing up to overthrow the corrupt rulers of the tiny country of Evallonia. The monarchists form one group and 'Juventus', a well-regulated rebellious youth movement (sort of like the brown shirts in Germany, but nicer) form the other. They see the monarchy in the person of Prince John (the rightful King of Evallonia) as nothing more than a puppet leader and not to be trusted. Needless to say, there are some very nasty villains trying to make sure that neither of these groups succeeds in their aims, setting them against each other and generally stirring the pot.

To prevent a blood bath and place good Prince John on the throne will take all the amateur skill and ingenuity first evinced in HUNTINGTOWER by McCunn and his 'diehards' not to mention the skill and heroics of friends met along the way - the novel is told from several points of view and doesn't suffer in the least from this since John Buchan handles it all skillfully. The last third of the novel is as exciting as just about anything I can remember reading. (Which isn't saying a lot because my memory is not what it once was, but you get my drift.) The beginning is rather slowish and a bit meandering, but stay with it. I did. It soon picks up speed and you'll be off on a grand adventure. Hold on to your hats - because there will even be a Prince in disguise!

Needless to say, there are plot machinations galore and a bit of a love story (involving darling Jaikie whom we've come to have great affection for over the three books) as all the links are finally woven together in an expert way - though I might add that the story-line does require that you pay attention. It's all in the mind-set, you know. If you're in tune, you'll love all this as much as I did. If you're not, you won't.

What can I say? I'm not sensible about any of this.

And since it is Friday, we usually check the FFB links at Patricia Abbott's blog, but this week Todd Mason is doing hosting duties later on today at Sweet Freedom.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tuesday Salon: The Art of Richard Adams, Contemporary Painter (not the writer, Richard Adams)

'Above the Estuary' Richard Adams - via

'The Farmer's Bride' - via

The Red Millvia

'The Village Wakes' - via



'The Kitchen Garden' - via

'The Bridge' - via

The Lost Villagevia

'A Winter Afternoon' - via

'Skeletons of Summer' - via 

Contemporary painter Richard Adams (not to be confused with the author of WATERSHIP DOWN) is, to my mind, a British national treasure. (Well, and so is Richard Adams, the author, but today it's all about paintings.)

I stumbled across Adams zany world online and fell instantly in love. His paintings and illustrations depict a kind of fantasy pre-1960's England - halcyon days of idyllic rural countrysides beloved in books and art. Years faithfully written about by authors such as Angela Thirkell, D.E. Stevenson and E.F. Benson and SO brilliantly captured in vintage mystery novels too. 

English villages, as we know, were also the special domain of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Michael Innes and their finely tuned ilk. Murder never seemed as foul when taking place among the cabbage roses and topiaries.

Certainly these settings were NOT the innocent byways and highways perceived by less perceptive outsiders, much to our delight, there were always nefarious secrets hidden in the hedgerows - anyone who's read a vintage cozy mystery knows that. 

And certainly anyone who knows ANYTHING about the sinister and oh-so-satirical rural ambience of Stella Gibbons' COLD COMFORT FARM (and if you don't - what are you waiting for?) will recognize the deceptively cozy atmosphere of Adams' work.

That's what I love most about it. Here's all this charmingly innocent rustic detail sparked occasionally by a disconcerting hint of abandon. (This IS England, after all.) But the implied sex in the haystacks is, in itself, of the Cold Comfort Farm type - outrageous yet somehow, not especially shocking. "I saw something nasty in the woodshed."

Adams works, I believe, in pastels which are notoriously difficult to master. But oh are they fun to mess around with. I have a box, untouched, un-used, of oil pastels which I've held onto for years thinking that at some point I'd give 'em a try - but oh, my friends. just TOO intimidating. 

Still, I enjoy the results when they are this obviously brilliant and engaging.