Monday, December 5, 2016

Marshall Browne (1935 - 2014)

I was terribly saddened to read about the death of Marshall Browne, an Australian author whose books I love. Though he died two years ago, I've just learned about it in an email from his daughter letting me know of his passing and also that a book of his which was in its final editing stages has been published - one of Browne's Inspector Anders series, so there is that to look forward to. 

(INSPECTOR ANDERS AND THE PRAGUE DOSSIER is currently in Australian bookstores.)

I never did understand why Marshall Browne's books were not more readily available here in this country. But whenever I got my hands on one it was a happy day. I treasure his two Franz Schmidt novels, THE EYE OF THE ABYSS and THE IRON HEART. Both classic WWII spy novels and much more approachable than John Le Carre's work, far as I'm concerned. Browne's work has emotion, something definitely lacking in many spy novels. And he was unmatched in establishing a sense of dread. 

I've read and reread both of these novels over the years and can't recommend them highly enough. THE IRON HEART though, is especially tough to find in this country. But do try. Begin with THE EYE OF THE ABYSS which is occasionally available.  

Marshall Browne and I exchanged several emails a few years ago when he was kind enough to thank me for a review and when I lamented that I couldn't find a copy of THE IRON HEART (the second Franz Schmidt novel), he very kindly sent me one all the way from Australia! Authors are often the nicest people.

My review of THE WOODEN LEG OF INSPECTOR ANDERS which appeared directly on author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, way back when in 2010. (You have to scroll down a bit, I couldn't isolate the link.)

Browne had hinted at a third Franz Schmidt book, but it was not to be. But a fourth Inspector Anders novel is wonderful news. The first Inspector Anders book was titled, THE WOODEN LEG OF INSPECTOR ANDERS (one of the all time great book titles ever conceived - far as I'm concerned) and well worth looking for as are the other two in the series. And now there will be a fourth - great news.

The Inspector Anders books were my introduction to Marshall Browne's work and I was thrilled with my discovery of this talented author. I only wish his books had gotten to be better known in this country so that he would have gotten the literary stardom and appreciation he deserved.

Link to obituary from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE BIG THAW (2001) by Donald Harstad

I think I'm echoing a recent review by one of our FFB bloggers (please remember I have old lady memory and can always be counted on to forget where I read what and when). If so, please do identify yourself and I'll happily give you proper credit for reminding me (what goes around comes around) of this fabulous thriller by a little known but much appreciated writer.

I must be on a role. Lately, I'm reading (and re-reading) nothing but great stuff. (Well, okay there were one or two clunkers along the way, but the less said about those, the better.)

Donald Harstad is a writer often categorized as 'regional' and perhaps that's why he's not better known. Also, he doesn't write a book a year like most other genre writers and that, perhaps, tells against him too. Though I prefer to wait for the best a writer can give me, rather than insist he write something just to meet a yearly schedule. My feeling is that you have to respect a writer's writing rhythm. If you want the good stuff, anyway.

Harstad excels at what I think 'they' call Rural Noir. Nation County, Iowa is his fictional stomping ground. The writer (a former long-time police officer) also lives and works in Iowa, a section of the country I know very little about (and, in fact, would know nothing at all except for these books). At any rate, I'm a lost cause since I always get Iowa mixed up with Idaho, so it takes me a while to figure out where exactly I am. For some reason I have a tendency to think that Iowa is further west than it actually is no matter how many times I self-correct. 

Anyway, Harstad's creation is Carl Houseman, an affable, stalwart, remarkably adept Iowa deputy sheriff in whom any town in any county in any state would be proud to place their trust. The author has skillfully taken this stolid, competent man (missing all the usual genre eccentricities) and placed him at the center of this exciting series of books - in and of itself, quite an accomplishment. Carl Houseman is the kind of man who exemplifies the best sort of cop - the guy we should all be so lucky to turn to when the you-know-what hits the fan. The cop we would like all cops to be.

And though he occasionally works with the FBI and other assorted government types in this post 9/11 era - Houseman is NOT in love with the beautiful FBI agent (gotta' have one of those in every book, even this one), he is happily married, he is NOT an alcoholic (recovering or otherwise), he is NOT a guy who shoots first and asks questions later AND he gets along with almost everyone he meets. AND wonder of wonders, the people around him actually like and admire him, well, most of 'em. His boss even appreciates him. Go figure. All this, in my book, makes Carl Houseman a welcome anomaly in this modern day world of anti-heroes dragging unsavory personal baggage about. He's just a guy you can count on, doing a difficult job, often coming up against vileness of the worst sort but not allowing it to drag him under.

Speaking of vileness: Who knew that the mid-western U.S. was such a hotbed of international crime? Well, guess who shows up in THE BIG THAW but that familiar linchpin of thriller-dom, 'the arch-criminal' - this time it's Gabriel, whom Houseman and his small department have reason to remember from an earlier and very deadly encounter years ago. But not to worry, the author is dexterous enough to make all this improbability work. 

Donald Harstad is terrific at combining police procedural tropes with the adrenaline rush of a break-neck crime thriller. Not an easy task as many other writers have proven. Just about everything in this fast-moving tale of conspiracy, murder, terrorism, set in a landscape of snow and ice and freezing winds, captures the imagination.

An aside: The only other author I've read who is this good at icy ambience is the multi-Edgar Award winning Steve Hamilton in his Alex McKnight series set in the upper Michigan peninsula. (If you're not familiar with those books, then it's time to add Hamilton's name to your TBR list as well.)

THE BIG THAW begins quietly enough with a frightened guy sitting in a parked car on a snowy lane in the dead of night. This almost immediately leads to two dead bodies, shot execution style (with a Russian weapon), found hidden under a tarp on a lonely, deserted farm whose owner is known to be away and oh-by-the-way why is the refrigerator stocked with food?

There's something about the routine of small town police work that I enjoy (the author's personal experience makes everything, from dialogue, to nuts and bolts investigation, to cop radio jargon seem natural and absolutely real), especially when so deftly handled. Add in some hard-boiled agents of the Federal government, and it all makes for a quick, thrilling, eye-brow raising, entertaining tale.

For just when it seems that the police might have their killer, the crime expands into something else and the Feds shows up yet again in Nation County. This time on the trail of a terrorist with Russian connections who may or may not be planning something local and spectacular. Soon there are black ops snowmobiles (well, FBI) racing over icy fields, a spectacular bank robbery, and a Mississippi (yes, the Mississippi goes up this far - who knew?) river boat - used as an off-shore casino - under assault.  I know, I know, it sounds too over-the-top, but you know, it works. When something works, I don't quibble. I just enjoy the ride. Later, I will stop and admire the skill it took to put the whole thing together.

I liked this even more than I thought I would primarily because of the excitement of the last few chapters. Every now and then, you just want to read something like this precisely because you don't want to stop and think too deeply about what's happening. (Not that this is a mindless enterprise, not at all, it just doesn't require you to carry the great weight of the universe while you're reading. That's all I'm saying.) And when the writer is this good, it doesn't hurt at all.

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER (1959) by Philip MacDonald

No question about it, re-reading this after many years, nothing much has changed - it remains a thoroughly splendid book. There - I said it and I'm glad. Even better then the first time around. It is and should be viewed a classic. Period.

Better, of course, than the movie with those tiresome rubbery make-up tricks meant and failing to intrigue (if you've seen the film you'll know what I mean) - a movie only saved by the wonderfully warm and intelligent performances of George C. Scott, Jacques Roux and Colin Brook. I recommend the film based on those three actors and the spiffy, fast-moving plot (different in many ways from the book) DESPITE Kirk Douglas' ham-bone turn and the rest of the make-up jiggery-pokery. Honestly, if they'd only gone forward with the film in a straight forward way, John Houston would have had another classic film to brag about.

But back to the book:

Which has a richer and more complex plot than the film and becomes the sort of thing you don't ever want to end. Don' you love when that happens? I know, I'm getting googly, but bear with me.

Anthony Gethryn is the gentleman detective/crime-solver par excellence (happy to work with Scotland Yard) conceived by the very underrated Philip MacDonald (who also wrote and co-wrote excellent screenplays), a writer mostly forgotten these days. It's really a shame that MacDonald's books are no longer available in new editions. I, for one, would love nothing better than a whole shelf devoted to his trade paperbacks - stand-alones and Anthony Gethryns. As it is, I pick them up as best I can online.

(I've reviewed MacDonald's other classic, WARRANT FOR X, and would have gladly linked it for you, but for whatever reason, Google - in its infinite wisdom - now no longer permits me to search the blog by name or title so I can't find the damn thing and neither will you. I don't know why this is happening but at some point I hope the powers that be will wake up and change whatever they did and go back to the way it was.)

Anthony Gethryn is, of course, the kind of sleuth we love. He is brilliant, elegant, upper class and worthy of all we've come to associate with gentleman detectives from the golden age. He has manners! He has a family and lives in a wonderful house in London. (Though home and family are conveniently absent this time out, since I suspect they would have only curtailed his agility.)

I can't even begin to express just how much I love this book except to say that I am going to begin rereading it yet again in a few days time just as soon as I finish with several library books whose deadlines are fast approaching.  More about those in later posts. (You can keep track of what I'm reading by checking the blog's left side bar near the top under 'Finished Reading', and also my Page: 'Books Read in 2016'.)

Something odd: I had remembered the ending of THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER film as being a bit better than the ending of the book, but upon this second re-reading, I've decided I was wrong. The book has a better ending. Totally different and in a way, more satisfying.

Okay, and now The plot:

"This tale hinges, like so much in humanity's sorry history, on a piece of paper. In this case no broken treaty or injudicious epistle from one Personage to another, but a slip upon which Adrian Messenger wrote the names and addresses and occupations of ten men."

Messenger is an English author currently at work on a memoir. A day or so before a fateful trip to America, he lunches with a friend, General Firth, who works in an advisory capacity at Scotland Yard - Special Assistant to the head of the C.I.D. (Both Messenger and Firth had shared hair-raising war time activities and know each other to be the sort who wouldn't waste each other's time with nonsense.) They have an enigmatic conversation which results in Messenger giving Firth a list of ten names and asking him to quietly and unofficially check on whether those ten men are still living at those ten addresses within the United Kingdom.

More than that, Messenger will not say. Except that the thing he's working on is so preposterous no one would believe it anyway - and no, it's not a conspiracy of any sort. Once Messenger returns from America, he'll have more details.

But Messenger is destined to gather no more details. Once his plane is over the Atlantic, an explosion takes care of it and the passengers bound for America. All except for one survivor, journalist Raoul St. Denis who, fortunately, overhears Messenger's final rambling words as both men and an unconscious woman (who later dies and has nothing to do with the story) dangle on a crate floating in the sea.

It is assumed, at first, that the tragedy is the result of a horrible malfunction of plane-ware.

General Firth, in the meantime, has done his duty by Messenger - he's instituted a stealthy check of the names on the list and the results trouble him enough that he wants to consult.

In turn, he and Sir Lucas (aforementioned head of the C.I.D. and old crony of Anthony Gethryn) arrange a dinner meeting (naturally at one of their clubs) with Gethryn.

"There was something in your voice, my friend. What is this - a problem?" 

"That," said Lucas cryptically, is what Firth wants to find out."

And find out they do over the next exciting pages of this thrilling escapade of a book. I know, I know, my hyperbole is running amok - but honestly, I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. I have a strange fascination for stories featuring competent people faced with an enigmatic problem they are determined to solve for no other reason than because something is wrong which must be set right. It's my kind of story and I'm always on the look-out for one I may have missed. It's the kid in me that fell hook line and sinker for tales of this sort, ages ago. I am enamored of rational men (or women) using their guile, intelligence and wit to do the right thing. Old fashioned, especially these days, but there it is.

Back to the book:

 Troublesome odds: All of the men on Adrian Messenger's list have, one by one, over the previous five years, met accidental deaths. The odds of which trouble not only Firth, but immediately fascinate Gethryn. Though Lucas drags his feet a bit, he too finally comes to see that the odds of that sort of thing happening by chance are absurd.

Eventually, Gethryn and the lone survivor of the plane tragedy, journalist Raoul St. Denis, meet in person, though they had actually 'met' before during the War when both were underground operatives connected by long distance radio and false names. St. Denis is/was an explosives expert who will fall in love (at first sight) with Jocelyn Messenger, a painter of miniatures once married to Adrian Messenger's brother, killed in the war. Long story short, they all get involved, in varying degrees in the hunt for an unknown and very efficient killer. A man who has been getting away with murder (on two occasions, mass murder) for years and left nary a clue. Not a serial killer of the sort we're used to reading about, so it's not your average tale of a man driven by blood lust or sex or politics or even delusion. As Messenger himself says in the beginning, "And anyway, if I'm right it's a far older sin than any politics..."

In the end, here's my advice: grab a copy anyway you can find it - if you're lucky, your library might have one, though mine didn't. Now and again a copy shows up on Amazon or Abe Books and there's your chance. Mine was only four bucks (a rackety old paperback). But you have to move swiftly.

Then allot a long afternoon to one of the cleverest thrillers ever written. Events in the book happen between one Christmas and the next, so this would be an appropriate title to add to your seasonal reading list even if, well, the holidays don't have anything to do with things except in passing.

And another thing:

One of Philip MacDonald's many writing strengths is his way with settings, convivial or otherwise. He has the Agatha Christie knack of almost immediately being able to lift you up and set you down in whatever surroundings are required. He is especially good at drawing the reader in as if he or she were a guest and welcome to our adventure.

It was a darkening and bitter half past four when, back in London's outskirts again, he crossed the river at Putney and headed for Chelsea; fifteen minutes later when he rang the bell of Number Five Whistler's Walk, and two minutes later when the little Scotswoman, after a short conversation over the inter-house phone, led him across to the studio.

Charming outside, this was even more so within. It was long and high and the whole northern section of the roof was glass. At one end fir logs crackled in a fireplace of dark red brick and at the other a big stove glowed. Around the stove and under the glass roof was all the pleasing litter of a painter's workplace, but about the hearth were order and comfort; deep chairs and a sofa and a low round table upon which stood a tea service on a silver tray.

And he entered, Jocelyn rose from one of the big chairs and from the other side of the hearth, on the sofa, Raoul St. Denis raised a hand in greeting. Permeating the comfortable glow of the place, lending an invisible nimbus to the man and woman already in it, there was an atmosphere of felicitous and personal excitement which for want of a better word Anthony was forced to describe to himself as 'romantic.' He answered Raoul's gesture in kind, and smiled at Jocelyn as she came to meet him. And looking at her was suddenly smitten, albeit with a pleasantly wistful benevolence, by consciousness of his years.

All this and a fascinating hunt for killer who will stop at nothing - what more could you want?

Todd Mason will be doing hosting doings for author Patricia Abbott at his blog, Sweet Freedom this Friday. Don't forget to check in to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE HAND IN THE GLOVE (1937) by Rex Stout

First things first: THIS IS NOT A NERO WOLFE BOOK. So don't be misled into thinking it is one you might have overlooked.

This is Stout's first Theodolinda 'Doll' Bonner book, a stand-alone - presumably at one time meant as a possible first in a series. The character does go on to appear (peripherally) in a couple of Nero Wolfe short stories in later years but (evidenced by this first book) she just wasn't strong enough (or interesting enough) to 'carry' a series and thank goodness, I suppose, that Rex Stout realized it before possibly pushing forward with more books.

So in a way, this review is more of a rant than anything else. Possibly because I'm in a ranting mood.

Going in I'll say that despite a few lukewarm reviews here and there online, I began the book expecting to be entertained. I'm just too big a fan of Rex Stout (and admirer of his genius) to expect otherwise. Sad to say, THE HAND IN THE GLOVE is not as entertaining as might have been expected. Good writing is a given when it comes to Stout and there is some of that here, just not enough to save this failed attempt by a man to write from a woman's point of view. Stout, unfortunately, is unable to capture even a smidgen of what it means to be female. His characters are merely that - characters in a story - never once do they come alive. Hard to believe, I know.

Especially when you consider how wonderfully alive Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are in their books. It really is hard to reconcile THE HAND IN THE GLOVE as anything but a very minor Rex Stout attempt at something different. B for effort.

So why am I even bothering to talk about it? Well, I am a huge fan of the Nero Wolfe books and an admirer of some of Stout's other non-Wolfe books such as ALPHABET HICKS (now here's a series he might have done well with had he pursued it), not to mention the very enjoyable Tecumseh Fox mysteries which I found over at the Kindle store (since hard copies are notoriously difficult to locate). I definitely recommend the 'Fox' and 'Hicks' books however you can find them.

In a contrary sort of way, it is my enthusiasm and love for Rex Stout's books that makes an anomaly such as THE HAND IN THE GLOVE, kind of fun to talk about. At least it's interesting to me to try and analyze where an author might have gone wrong.

I'll begin with the main character: Theodolinda 'Dol' Bonner. She is a typically spirited young woman, pragmatic and keen-eyed, a budding detective eager to make her way in the world. She was once jilted at the altar and that has soured her on men. We take her and her cynicism at face value though at first glance it does seem a bit over the top considering that many women have been jilted and not had it twist their perceptions with such depth and rancor. It would have helped had we known a few of the details, but none are forthcoming. Just that she was jilted and ipso-facto, she has sworn off men forever.

At any rate, Dol and her heiress friend Sylvia Raffray are on the verge of going into business together. It's all just about a done deal. When, lo and behold, Sylvia pulls out at the very last minute because her guardian, P.J. Storrs has had a hissy fit over the whole idea. He is dead set against Sylvia being associated with 'business' and worse, ' a private detecting business'. People of her sort don't do this kind of thing. And because Sylvia is easily manipulated she goes along with her guardian's demand that she sever her ties with Dol's enterprise though it means that Dol will have to immediately close up shop, fire the receptionist and scramble to get her fledgling business up and running once again. Well, I suppose, friendship only goes so far.

Not that Sylvia doesn't feel guilty, there's plenty of hand-wringing and even a few tears and 'oh will you forgive me' going on. Whereas Dol, reacts rather benevolently and says she understands and not to worry, all will be well. We're still friends even though I have to shut down the office before we even get going. No harm done. Except that as a reader, I immediately disliked Sylvia and began right then to have my doubts about Dol.

This is where the whole story starts to fall apart even before it begins - at least for me.

Now, I don't know about you, but one would expect Dol to harbor at the very least some understandable resentment towards the wishy-washy Sylvia even if they have been friends for years and years and even if she, Dol, admires Sylvia's youth and attractiveness and sweetness of temperament, or variations thereof.

That's just when I began to think that perhaps Dol's deep fondness for Sylvia had more going on with it than just friendship. It would explain all the rationalization and looking the other way when anyone else would have been forgiven for losing their temper and stomping about a bit.

And in fact, for the rest of the book, I felt the same thing. Dol does seem inordinately fond of her friend. (And I do realize that friendship came with different vocabulary back then.) HOWEVER, no one in the book thinks anything of the closeness and Rex Stout gives no hint that the friendship had any unusual aspects. But honestly, it's hard to read this from a modern day vantage point and not see which way the wind was blowing, at least as far as Dol Bonner was concerned. In fact, had Dol's crush on Sylvia (I can't explain it any other way) been allowed to flourish a bit, it might have made Dol a more interesting and certainly a more sympathetic character.

As for Sylvia, well she is the sort of helpless young woman that men of that era danced devoted attendance on. If you've seen movies from the thirties and forties, read a few books, you know the type I mean. Exceedingly tedious today, but back then, seen as delightfully fragile and needing of help, guidance and strong shoulders to lean on.

Dol, in contrast, is the self-sufficient slightly older friend who can be counted on in times of stress. In most books and movies from that era, these women were usually the ones who chose careers and watched bemused as their friends upped and married and lived happily ever after. (Though Dol does go on to fashion and maintain a reputable private detection business in NYC - not such an easy thing to do. And earn the respect of Nero Wolfe - even harder to do.)

Now we come to the second untenable event in the book which threw me for a loop: Sylvia's guardian, though he is unwilling to allow his ward to go into business with Dol turns right around and hires Dol to investigate some suspected finagling going on in his family. My first thought: huh?

It seems that Storrs' nitwit of a wife is under the influence of a charlatan soothsayer (apparently back then this was a big 'thing' with the moneyed class - sooth-saying and so forth) and worse, has been giving said soothsayer chunks of cold hard cash. In the movie this guy would have been played by Cesar Romero.

Well, anyway, Dol isn't in a position to turn down a fee no matter where it comes from and so up she goes to Storrs' country estate just in time to find her client murdered and the house full of suspects, including her friend Sylvia and Sylvia's callow swains (yes there are more than one).

In these types of stories it is really is very helpful if you like the main protagonist especially when she or he will be surrounded by a bunch of not-so-very-likable suspects any one of whom might be a clever murderer. There is a knack to this sort of thing and admittedly, very few had it then or now (it is at the heart of any good country house mystery). Dol Bonner just isn't very likable primarily because she isn't an especially sympathetic character.

I suspect that Stout didn't have a clue about friendships between women and perhaps that's all that is at the bottom of the whole clumsy thing.

Anyway, there you have it. Rex Stout wasn't perfect, only nearly so. And aren't we lucky that he continued to write Nero Wolfe books until the end of his long life.

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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Tuesday Salon: No Specific Theme, Just Some Paintings I Love

American Impressionist William Howe Foote (1874 - 1965) - 'Sunlit Interior'

English painter Dame Laura Knight (1877 - 1970) - 'On the Cliffs' - via

English painter Ernest Townsend (1880 - 1944) - 'The Balloon Man' - via

French painter Louis Valtat (1869 - 1952) 'Femme au Chat' - via

French Abstract painter August Herbin (1882 - 1960)  "Composition Monumentale' - via 

Irish painter Sir John Lavery (1856 - 1941) 'Return from the Market'  - via

American Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956) 'Shimmering Substance, 1946' - via

French Impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919)  - via

Dutch Post Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh 'Portrait of Postman Joseph Etienne-Roulin - via

Contemporary American painter Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920) - via

French Symbolist painter and printmaker, Edouard Vuillard (1868 - 1940) 'Fleurs' - via

Dutch Renaissance Master Jan Vermeer (1632 - 1675) 'Girl with a Red Hat' - via





These few words are about as close as I'm going to get to alluding to the hideous results of the recent Presidential election. I like to think of my blog as a respite from reality. We need to have someplace to go when things around us are falling apart. You are welcome to hide here with me and we will continue to talk about books and art and (mostly) old movies and pretend that somehow or other all will be well.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Friday Forgotten Book: THE CORNISH COAST MURDER (1935) by John Bude

Another in the beautifully designed trade paperback series from British Library Classics. Golden age mysteries forgotten by time, emblazoned with gorgeous covers.

John Bude is the pseudonym of Ernest Carpenter Elmore (1901 - 1957), an English theater producer/director who wrote mysteries and fantasies which, unfortunately, many of us have never heard of. While not in the upper echelons of Christie and the other Golden Agers, John Bude was certainly deserving of a better literary fate than he received.

THE CORNISH COAST MURDER was Bude's mystery writing debut and a pretty good one. The book features an engaging crime-solving vicar and a befuddled local inspector of police working together to solve the murder of grumpy and unlovable Julius Tregarthan, an elderly magistrate found dead in his study with a bullet in his head. Just the sort of good stuff you go to cozies for. And certainly better written then most modern day attempts which are often nothing more than cartoons looped around some sort of eccentric hobby. In general, I'll take unheard of vintage cozy writers over their modern day brethren any day. In fact, I've given up on most modern-day cozy attempts. But as usual, I digress.

Also involved in THE CORNISH COAST MURDER are a couple of young lovers, one a shell-shocked WWI vet and the other the niece of the murdered man. There is even a sinister butler named Cowper. And a keen-eyed mid-wife named Mrs. Mullion, who happens along a dark lane on the night of the murder at an inappropriate moment.

Not that this is a perfect mystery, but it's not a bad way to wile away a few hours on and Autumn night or two. The book does go on a bit longer than it needs to and in the end, the killer is someone not mentioned except, perhaps, in passing, in the first half of the book. The denouement then is kind of brought in on a tangent, but it's not totally off the wall. You can see how the vicar arrived at his conclusion once two and two begin to make four in a roundabout kind of way. Though the actual 'how-to' of the murder seems a bit far-fetched. Still, it's only a quibble.

I also think the book might have been a bit sprightlier with a second murder thrown in, but maybe that's just personal taste. At any rate, despite that, the story moves along fairly rapidly with the rather small set of suspects being viewed and reviewed and nefarious plots surmised and dismissed by Inspector Bigswell who is on a time table rush to solve the case before the big honchos from Scotland Yard are called in.

I may sound lukewarm about THE CORNISH COAST MURDER, but I'm not. The three main reasons I enjoyed this book so much are:

1) The damp and windswept Cornish coast locale which is captured superbly by the author. Setting and the knack of describing it without seeming like a travelogue is so important in a mystery.

2) The wonderful fact that the murder investigation begins on a dark and stormy night.

3) The character of Reverend Dodd, the crime-solving vicar who enjoys his roaring fireplace, his food, reading murder mysteries and sharing them with his friend Doctor Pendrill who comes over once a week for the ritual sharing of six new mysteries by current (by 1935) writers:

"Let's see now - an Edgar Wallace - quite right, Pendrill. I hadn't read that one. What a memory, my dear chap! The new J.S. Fletcher. Excellent. A Farjeon, a Dorothy L. Sayers and a Freeman Wills-Croft. And my old friend, my very dear old friend, Mrs. Agatha Christie. New adventures of that inimitable chap Poirot, I hope. I must congratulate you, Pendrill. You've run the whole gamut of crime, mystery, thrills and detection in six volumes!"

The doctor coughed and puffed earnestly at his pipe."

Nicely done. Though the doctor never fully comes alive as a character, Dodd more than makes up for it with his admittedly fussy way of sorting through the clues and coming up with the murderer.

Another fine and unruffled mystery of the old school variety - don't miss it if this is to your taste.

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.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween Night Frights: 5 Scary Movies I Like

I've done this sort of Halloween post before, but for those of you who may have missed it (or them), let's have a do-over. (Plus it seems as if Google has made it impossible to search my blog for titles of long lost posts.) The movies I like may not be the best movies ever, they rarely are, but they are the movies that I liked and continue to like best.

With rare exceptions I am a purist, I am not fond of technicolor (or any other color) horror movies. I like my spine tingling chills in black and white. For me, scary movies from the 50's, 60's, 70's (well, you get my drift) were always TOO gory and catsup colored - no thanks. (Sorry, Sergio!)

So, having said that, here we go:

The order of these movies can be shuffled about easily so don't take the numbers thing too seriously. And of course there are many, MANY other titles I could have included, all from the golden age of movie making (at least, far as I'm concerned). But these 5 are, I think, a good representation of the best in stylish ghoulishness. Can't disregard that pesky thing called 'style'.

1) THE UNINVITED (1944) starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Gail Russell. Directed by Lewis Allen. This is the absolutely perfect Halloween movie. Eerie, atmospheric, beautifully photographed, minimalist in tone yet gloriously gloomy. It's all there: An old house pulsing with mystery, perched on the edge of a cliff, a weeping ghost and a very satisfying ending. Of course, being that there's a cliff we not only get the sounds of waves crashing against the rocks, we also get a story of how, long ago, someone fell to their death over those very cliffs. It doesn't hurt the suspense any when the things we expect happen anyway.

The house, newly purchased at a very cheap price (uh-oh) by a composer (Ray Milland) and his sister (Ruth Hussey), contains, along with a gorgeous entryway and fabulous staircase,  an icy menacing presence (whom we don't see except vaguely in one scene) and the sound of ghostly crying in the night.

Almost from the first, the fight is on for the life of a young and impressionable girl played by perpetually bewildered Gail Russell. The only weak link in the chain is Russell's 'English' accent which is a total failure, but she is so beautiful in this that it hardly matters. My review.

2) SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) starring Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi. Directed by Rowland V. Lee. My favorite Frankenstein movie (except for the Abbott and Costello one). NOTHING can top Basil Rathbone's frenzied, wild-eyed performance as Wolf von Frankenstein as he goes over the top once he discovers that, yes, his dad was capable of doing the unthinkable.

To my eye, the second most memorable thing about the film is the setting which includes a very bizarre and angular central hall (torture chamber school of interior design) in a home purporting to be a place where the Frankenstein family will raise their young son (who, by the way, has a Southern accent - don't ask, I have no clue). Third most memorable is the Frankenstein monster himself, played by Karloff as he skulks about behind the walls of the castle, gleefully kept in check by Ygor (Bela Lugosi) who uses him as a revenge tool to do away with the members of a jury which condemned him (Ygor) to death by hanging. A hanging which, obviously, didn't take.

Anyway, LOVE this movie which also features an enormously engaging performance by Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh, a dogged policeman with a wooden arm. My review.

3) CAT PEOPLE (1942) a Val Lewton film directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Tom Conway. LOVE this movie most especially for the fabulous camera work and menacing atmosphere. Almost everything that happens here happens in our imagination, THAT'S why this is such a frightening film.

There's very little excess of anything, except that you KNOW something is percolating beneath the surface and when oh when will it spring out and grab you. See, there's this young Serbian woman (beautiful in a cat-like way, of course and played by the always slightly off kilter Simone Simon) that believes she is descendant from a race of people who turn into cats when angry or sexually aroused (though of course that is not mentioned explicitly). We first meet Irena at the zoo where she is sketching a black panther unhappily pacing back and forth in a cage in the old fashioned way of zoos. The film takes place in some mid-western American town, far as I can tell.

Along comes Oliver, played by the always hapless and clueless Kent Smith, and of course he falls in love with Irena. And before he has a chance to realize that maybe this is not such a great idea (Irena's strange beliefs for one), they're married. Soon though, cracks develop in the happy facade of connubial bliss.

Irena, it turns out, has a real problem with jealousy. She fixates on her hubby's co-worker, the equally hapless Jane Randolph as Alice, whom Oliver likes to confide in. Naturally enough, this doesn't go down well with the new bride. And before you know it, all manner of strangeness is lurking about in the shadows. The frightening swimming pool scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Desperate for help, Irena consults the sleaziest psychiatrist in the history of film, Dr. Judd, played by the perennially unsavory Tom Conway. And well, things go even more downhill from there.

I know I reviewed this film somewhere on my blog, but darn if I can find it.

4) THE WOLF MAN (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, Warren William, Bela Lugosi, Patric Knowles and Ralph Bellamy. A great cast well directed by George Waggner. When I was a kid we always referred to Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry 'Wolfman' Talbot no matter what movie he was in. Anyway, this is the film that brought him eternal fame. Though of course, his dad was an even more famous silent film actor and creator of monsters on his own.

Long story short: Lawrence Talbot returns home to Wales to reconcile with his dad played by Claude Rains. I'm sorry, but in no universe that I know of is Claude Rains physically applicable as the father of Lon Chaney, Jr. No way. No how. Plus Rains has some kind of English accent and son Larry speaks pure American. But what the heck, let's move forward to the good stuff.

Before you can roll your eyes, Larry has spied a pretty girl in the local village. Her name is Gwen and she runs an antique shop. Larry buys a cane with - coincidentally - a silver wolf's head from Gwen, just to strike up a conversation. Later, in the dead of night, he is set upon by a 'wolf' in the woods whereupon he beats off the creature with his new wolf's head cane. Unfortunately, not before he is bitten. Uh-oh.

Soon several people are attacked and killed and of course nobody believes Larry when he confesses to being a wolf man. "It's all in your head." However, the local gypsy woman, played by the always wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya knows all and warns Larry that he is doomed. (Or words to that effect.)

In between there's lots of creepy stuff and wolfian transformations and lurking about in the shadows. Great stuff.

A terrific film and the best of the Wolf man series before the whole thing became a kind of gag.

5) THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) Another Val Lewton creepy-fest, again directed by Jacques Tourneur, this time starring Dennis O'Keefe (I know - huh?) and Margo, the actress with one name. The screenplay is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, which is kind of interesting in and of itself.

No, Dennis O'Keefe doesn't turn into a leopard. Get that out of your mind right away. It's kind of a deceptive title when you think about it, but maybe they wanted to give their intended audience an immediate mental image.

Anyway, the setting is a town in New Mexico which sports a nightclub which sports an act which features a real live leopard. Dennis O'Keefe is the guy whose brilliant idea this was. Sure enough, the leopard (more a panther) escapes and begins ravaging the countryside. Or does he?

When several people are mauled, the obvious conclusion is that the leopard did it. Well, I mean, stands to reason. But soon enough, it's obvious that the poor cat is getting a bum rap. Well, except for the first attack in which a young girl is killed in one of the most frightening film sequences I've ever seen. So much so, that when I was a kid, I spent years afraid to watch this film again precisely because of this sequence - it scared me to death.  And yet, if you ask, well what did they show, Yvette, that scared you so much?

My answer: Some blood yes, but that's about it. (It's where the blood shows up that impacts.) In the scene we do not see the cat at all. We just hear it as it chases the victim down and...well, I won't spoil it for you guys who may be unfamiliar with it. And probably you won't think all that much of the scene, inured as most of us are by the unchecked blood and guts of later films. I will say this, I've yet to see anything as frightening, made more so by the fact that most of it happens (except for the sound effects) in our imagination.

A so/so film worth finding and watching just for this scene alone. Oh, and also if you like films about a serial killer who gets turned on by a leopard attack. Hey, it takes all kinds.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: Skeleton Crew

This is a book of  Sayer short stories which I've probably read. At one time I know I read pretty much all of Dorothy Sayers' output. And just a few years ago I know I re-read all the short stories in one handy anthology (not this one). So in a vague sort of way, yes I recommend. Hey, listen, any Dorothy Sayers is better than no Dorothy Sayers. All except for STRONG POISON which I have no patience for because I never liked that Harriet Vane - the woman poor Sir Peter fell hook line and sinker for. I mean, really, what she put him through...

Another author (pseudonym for John Dickson Carr) whose work I read once upon a time when I was young and loved puzzles and locked room mysteries and such. But again I ask you not to ask me for details. (Hey, that's what google is for.)  All I can say with any equanimity is that I recommend John Dickson Carr and all his pseudonyms because once upon a time I was a big fan.

Don't know anything about Leslie Ford (though probably I've heard of him or her through John's blog, Pretty Sinister Books. But isn't this a lovely cover? Tried to find out who the artist is, but failed.

I'm a fan of the Lockridge's Mr. and Mrs. North books and have become a recent (well, last couple of years) fan of their Captain Heimrich books based on the one book I read. (Not this one.) Haven't read any others yet, but I certainly plan to. 

As I mentioned, I read all of John Dickson Carr when I was young and impressionable and always planned to read them all again. But somehow I haven't. Still, if you haven't - read them all, I mean - then you must. If you want to call yourself a vintage mystery maven, that is. The main difficulty with Carr (and his output under various pseudonyms) is that his main characters are not especially warm or cuddly or even people you'd want to know - that can be a problem with mystery series. It's not enough. in my view, to be a genius writer of puzzles. Puzzles are okay, but there has to be some likability quotient attached. 

Having said that: CASTLE SKULL is one Carr book I have recently reread and recommend highly. Especially for Halloween.

Don't know anything much about Edgar Wallace except that in times gone by his stuff was very popular and well-regarded. And I do love anything that has 'Crime Club' splashed across the cover.

Rufus King was new to me, a year or so ago, but now I'm a big fan. I've only read maybe three of his books, but plan on getting my hands on more. (Admittedly, I love the name 'Rufus' but that has nothing to do with my affection for his books. I promise.)  I love this cover because it shows two of my favorite things: skeletons and a big old house. I mean, what more could  you ask for?

I know I said I'd read all of Carr and his pseudonyms, but this one is not ringing ANY sort of bell so I will likely try to find a copy to read or re-read as the case may be. I love mysteries on boats. 

I've only ever read a couple of Helen Reilly books and I can't say I was unduly impressed. However, this cover intrigues me and how can I resist murder and a honeymoon combined? Plus, lots of people do like Reilly, so that means that there's probably something wrong with me.

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 (and/or their covers), other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday Forgotten Book: THE WAY MEN ACT (1993) by Elinor Lipman

I'm not a big chick-lit fan, but even I can see that Elinor Lipman is not writing fluff. She's too talented for that. Her books are a witty barometric on, I suppose,  the day to day of millennials, pre-millennials and pre-pre millennials ( I forgot what the youngsters were called in the nineties) and how they live. Even if THE WAY MEN ACT was first published in 1993, it is very modern day in outlook or at least, that's how it seems to me looking backwards from an old lady's point of view. Truth to tell, 1993 doesn't really seem all that long ago.

Two of the Lipman books I read over the weekend actually feature characters in their late forties and early fifties, (THE FAMILY MAN and THE LADIES' MAN). But my official re-introduction to the author was THE WAY MEN ACT which features a younger cast of characters. I say 're-introduction' because I have read Lipman before. Years ago I read the well-reviewed THE INN AT LAKE DEVINE and liked it very much. But then I went to another book of hers and became disenchanted, hence my years long avoidance of her work.

But for whatever reason I recently declared myself ready to return to the fold and I'm glad I did. It may be that I am in a different place psychologically or whatnot, but I decided this past week or so to immerse myself in the world according to Elinor Lipman. Of the four books I brought home from the library, DEARLY DEPARTED, was the dud - in fact, I didn't finish it. But three out of four isn't bad at all.

Lipman has such a wry sense of humor and when it comes to modern day social behavior, her observational skills seem right on the money. She doesn't try to make her characters cute and fuzzy or even instantly likable. Her leading lady (ladies) are not faultless or perfect or innocent, they are complex modern women, warts and all. That threw me at first because I am very much of the 'once upon a time' school of boy/girl relationship story telling which generally features an engaging female waiting for a perfect ('perfect' being a relative term) man whom she will 'gentle' and settle down with.
I like that stuff when it's well done and I make no bones about it. (One of many reasons why I continue to read vintage books.) I'm very big on happily ever after. Sue me.

Anyway, in THE WAY MEN ACT, the main character, first and foremost, is the fictional small town of Harrow, Massachusetts. One of those perfectly picturesque New England towns full of eclectic shops catering to townies and tourists. There's a certain established 'look' to these sorts of towns, everyone on the street generally looks a certain way and everyone who lives there knows everyone else's business. But the truth is that these places, while lovely to look at in a picture postcard sort of way, can be intimidating to outsiders. To those that belong though, they can be a haven.

Melinda LeBlanc, at age 30, has (resentfully) come home to Harrow, tale between her legs. She is that rarity among contemporary heroines, a non-college grad with no real career path and no clue what to do next. At the moment she is a floral designer working in a shop owned by her cousin and his wife, a duo who have no sense of humor and no idea that Melinda's talents are the reason for their current success. Elinor Lipman is SO good at creating the sorts of people who are clueless about themselves.

The three main characters in THE WAY MEN ACT have all known each other since high school, though their lives have since then have gone in separate directions. Melinda, the once popular girl, shares a house with her mother, a widow who secretly has her eye on the local fish monger. Melinda's high school 'friend' Libby, a designer of unique (some would say, 'odd') women's fashions has also recently returned to Harrow to open a small boutique and pick-up the thread with a local guy with whom she believes she shared an unrequited passion back in the day. The guy in question is Dennis Vaughn, owner of Brookhoppers', a fly fisherman's paradise of a shop. Dennis was one of the few African American students back in high school and of the three or four major characters in the book, the most successfully content with his lot in life. Dennis' genius for creating fly fishing lures is well known and his shop, best-selling book and local radio gig attract fishermen from far and wide. Fly-fishing seems to be a sort of cult-like thing revered by those who indulge.

Anyway, turns out that Libby believes Dennis once ALMOST made a pass at her but she believes she rebuffed him because of his race. She now believes that she broke Dennis's heart and so has returned to Harrow to try and mend fences and give their budding once upon a time romance a fresh start. Unfortunately, Libby's beliefs are totally wrong. Dennis doesn't remember the so-called pass and/or subsequent rebuff and is hardly suffering from any broken heart.

His eye may be sort-of/kind-of on Melinda with whom he once shared a one night stand - the result of guesting at a wedding in which they both indulged in too much wine and surrendered to the general romantic vibe. At least that's the cowardly excuse Dennis uses (the old 'it's not you it's me' routine) for stepping back from any future entanglement. Naturally enough, Melinda is a bit displeased since she sensed that they might have been on the verge of 'something'.

At any rate, Melinda continues to bemoans her un-wed (at least her un-relationship) state. She, who was once the belle of the ball, is now forced to earn her living designing weddings for girls who once envied her popularity in high school. How the tide has changed. Not that Melinda isn't getting any action, she does have a now and then 'arrangement' with a guy who plays in a wedding band. But that's more a physical thing than anything else. Friends with benefits I guess you'd call it. Though the 'friends' part hardly even enters into it. Not the best side of Melinda's character I'd say. Though I must learn not to be put off by this sort of thing - young women are different these days. Get over it, Yvette.

In truth, Elinor Lipman fashions an amusing tale with wit and intelligence, not to mention a keen understanding of human nature. It's a story in which nothing much happens except that it does. Know what I mean? Though at first Melinda may seem a bit off-putting, you will soon get caught up in her life and the lives of her friends. What happens next happens naturally enough and the bumps in the road seem to occur as they do in life - with little author interference in the outcome. I do like books in which the author is absent and the tale seems to resolve itself organically.

A good read for a calm Autumn evening, maybe while sitting in a comfy chair with your feet up, a glass of wine by your side.

And since this is Friday, you know the routine. Don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's website, Pattinase to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. (Just learned that Todd Mason will be hosting the links later on today at his blog, 
Sweet Freedom )

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SILENCE OBSERVED (1958) by Michael Innes

SILENCE OBSERVED (1958) is one of the more 'normal' of British writer Michael Innes' Appleby mysteries in that there's not a lot that you have to double-think about. On my first reading, I thought that maybe it was a bit dullsville. But on my second read, I realized that maybe I was the dullard.

This is a terrific whodunit art mystery and of course, we already know (or should know) that the erudite Inspector John Appleby has hidden depths of art expertise alongside his standard depths of esoteric literary knowledge. So no big surprise here when he recognizes all sorts of arcane bits and pieces and tucks them into conversation. If you insist on being off-put by this sort of thing, don't read Innes.

Otherwise you may be in danger of falling under the author's spell, as I was from the beginning and always shall be as those of you who regularly read my blog know. There's just something about a man who speaks as if having a fine brain is an unexceptionable thing. Of course there's always the danger of elitism, but that's not a deal breaker for me if I like the character - there are much worse character flaws. Besides there's very little of that in Sir John Appleby's make-up. (He was just plain John Appleby in the early books.) Wit and a true appreciation of art (especially the old masters) are very sexy character traits - at least to me. Of course it doesn't hurt that the aging Appleby retains his oh-so-dry sense of humor.

A sign stating SILENCE OBSERVED hangs imperially on a wall at the private London club where Appleby and a character named Charles Gribble, a collector of all sorts of things including acknowledged forgeries by well-known forgers (apparently that is 'a thing') not-so-silently get into a soon to be pertinent conversation. Gribble is showing off his latest find to an unenthusiastic Appleby, when he unexpectedly makes a humbling discovery.

I don't know about you, but I love the whole idea of these stuffy private clubs to which so many men retreated in so many books from the golden age of mysteries. Yes, we ladies were excluded, but the truth is I don't think in reality we'd actually want to be members.

The Diogenes Club (Mycroft Holmes' haunt) created by Arthur Conan Doyle was the first time I can remember hearing about such places and though I knew that the doors would always be closed to me, I couldn't help being fascinated from the first moment I learned about these dens of upper class male ritual. But as usual, I digress.

Back to the purpose: As with all of Innes' books one curious thing will very often lead to another even if at first the lead is tenuous and hairsbreadth thin and seems plucked out of thin air. Often it is a result of some heavy duty mental leap frog on Appleby's part and more often than not, the reader is not exactly privy to the step by step. SILENCE OBSERVED is no different.

'Simple persons, of unassuming colloquial speech, will sometimes be heard to remark that one damned thing leads to another. But policemen are only too happy when it does. A distinguishable sequence or concatenation between events is just what they are after.'

Those 'concatenations' will get you every time.

Later on the afternoon of the same event-filled day, Appleby has a conversation with another member of his club, Sir Gabriel Gulliver (Gulliver and Gribble, one can't help thinking that Innes has terrific fun with British names), a 'Director of an august national institution' who is also some sort of connection of Appleby's wife, Judith who, as it happens, is a sculptor.

"As a matter of fact," he said, [Gulliver] "it's about Rembrandt that I want to talk to you about."

Okay. Appleby is used to all sorts of esoteric ploys and gambits. And of course this conversation will also prove pertinent when a second murder occurs.

But it is the first murder most foul later that very same night when Appleby is called away from a small dinner party at his home - a dinner party where one of the guests has failed to show up - and urged to take a hand in the investigation (Appleby does little day to day police work anymore) by the same Sir Gulliver who had earlier been expounding a curious Rembrandt tale.

A reluctant Appleby shows up at the scene of the crime, a dark and dingy shop a few blocks from the British Museum. The murder victim is a collector and dealer of books, art and incunabula. Turns out that the murder is not only connected to information revealed by Sir Gabriel Gulliver, but also to Appleby's conversation much earlier in the day with Charles Gribble.

Appleby arrives at the moment when the body is still in situ and a frazzled police Inspector is trying to make heads or tails.

Appleby turned to Inspector Parker. "Just what is the situation, Parker, and what do we want to know?" 

"Well, sir, Mr. Heffer [young man found at the scene] has some story about an old woman."

Appleby frowned. He plainly thought poorly of this as the beginning of an expository speech.

"Some story, Parker?" I don't think we can have that. It carries an implication of prevarication which isn't at all proper at this stage. I can see that Mr. Heffer is an irritating person - or at least that he is behaving in an irritating manner now. But irritated is just what we musn't get. So let's start again. "

This is the sort of thing that endears Appleby to me.

There aren't that many characters in this tale of murder, kidnapping and high level forgery but somehow, Innes manages to make you not instantly know who the killer or killers are and that to me, is a great magicians trick. There's also not a lot of exposition (except in the preliminary set-up conversations at the club) and things move along briskly to a rather exciting end.

I do have one quibble though (just to prove that even Innes hits a bump in the road now and again) and here it is: later in the tale, Appleby asks his wife to carry out an errand - something which I think should have rightly been done by a member of his staff, thereby involving her in the case and unknowingly putting her in danger. This seems off kilter to me but maybe I'm nit-picking. And besides, I never said that Appleby was a perfect all-knowing human being.

Other than that, this is one of Innes' more down to earth murder plots, totally lacking in phantasmagoria and the flights of fancy (well, except for the young woman who looks like a Botticelli Venus) the author was sometimes inclined to indulge in. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

SILENCE OBSERVED is a thoroughly enjoyable tale which should please art lovers and those inclined to want a little erudition tossed in with their dead bodies.

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

Friday, October 7, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: PICTURE MISS SEETON (1968) by Heron Carvic

I had vaguely heard about this series over the years, but nothing that hardened itself in memory and besides, I had never seen the books in a bookstore or even, at the library. So imagine my surprise when Miss Seeton suddenly showed up in e-book form over at Amazon and at fairly cheap prices. How could I resist? I like the idea of fumbling old lady detectives if cleverly written AND with a humorous bent. (On this particular cover, you'll note that Miss Seeton doesn't appear particularly old but use your imagination.)

My suspicion is that Miss Seeton is meant to be a satirical swipe at the Miss Marples and Miss Silvers of this world and that’s okay by me. If you have an interesting take on old lady detectives and their Scotland Yard cohorts and you have a wicked sense of humor and some writing skill, then go to it.

Miss Seeton is an art teacher, semi-retired and recently moved to one of those small English villages full of crackpots…er, eccentrics. Her only weapons against the criminal element are her complete lack of street smarts, her obliviousness to what is actually happening and her trusty umbrella which she puts to good use when necessary.  She also has a bit of psychic ability (not overly pronounced) plus good visual memory and drawing ability, enough so that at some point in the series, she becomes a kind of unofficial sketch artist for the Yard. But again, I'm getting ahead of myself.

In this first book in the series, Miss Seeton has just inherited a small cottage out in the country and is looking forward to either selling it or retiring there. The story begins in London on the eve of her move as Miss Seeton wends her way home from the opera (‘Carmen’ by Bizet). Taking a wrong turn, she finds herself in a dark alley witness to a vicious murder she doesn’t recognize as murder until after she swats the killer with her umbrella and causes him to flee. Left behind is the body of a dead 'working' girl.

Since she glimpsed the killer's face and can sketch him, she becomes an invaluable witness for the police who immediately recognize the face in the drawing as a local bad guy. 

Scotland Yard Superintendent Alan Delphic (known as 'the Oracle') and his sidekick, Sgt. Ranger, are both bemused by Miss Seeton’s naivete, not to mention the quick way in which she used her umbrella. But they realize that she will be in some danger until the murderer is caught, something that has not occurred to Miss Seeton.

However, since the killer knows he was seen, he is soon after Miss Seeton, undeterred by her move to the small village of Plummergen (in Kent). A village which will soon become a hub of strange doings much to the speculative delight of its denizens.

It is apparent that the police cannot keep track of Miss Seeton in her various wanderings nor can they, also apparently, seem to keep her safe. The press too is keenly interested in the battling spinster able to rout a murderer with her trusty umbrella. To all this, Miss Seeton displays complete bewilderment - she can't seem to grasp how her backstreet escapade might interest anyone.

However, she keeps stumbling over strange people in the dark and is even kidnapped at one point (with a sack thrown over her head) to the amazement of her neighbors who take malicious delight in inventing various reasons for all the nighttime activity.

Eventually it turns out that someone in Plummergen is connected with a ‘gang’ which specializes in getting people hooked on some insidious new drug. There is also a reckless bunch of young locals intent on mischief and a would-be hero equally intent on keeping his childhood friend from falling deeper into the clutches of the wrong crowd. Not to mention, the local mystery woman who writes children's books and seems not to notice that her daughter is pretty much a juvenile delinquent.

 But is all this connected to the murder in London which Miss Seeton witnessed? Yes and no.

The cops know who the killer is but catching him is another story. In the meantime, said killer keeps trying and failing (through no fault of his own) to get his hands on Miss Seeton.

Which leads to the biggest laugh I’ve had in a very long while: somewhere along the middle of the book there is a nighttime escapade involving a supposed auto accident, the death of a young woman who should have known better, the near drowning of Miss Seeton, the disrobing of a large police constable, several cars zipping back and forth through the village – one of them a police car, lights flashing, one an open sports car in which a titled lady and her son are driving hell bent for leather, first one way then another – one of the cars containing the near naked constable holding what looks like a body – all while several busybody villagers watch the comings and goings and invent the most hilarious stories to account for the night’s events. I laughed so hard I almost fell off my bed.

In addition, the ending will come as no surprise if you've paid any attention to the particular peculiarities of a large closet (wardrobe?) in Miss Seeton's cottage. Very funny and much in keeping with the general understated tone of the book. There's no one in the world who can do understated hilarity like the Brits.

I do recommend Miss Seeton in this season of political wretchedness when a good laugh is balm for the soul. I’ve since ordered the second book in the series, just to see if the first one was, perhaps, a fluke. Stay tuned.

Since this is Friday, don’t forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's 'forgotten book' meme, this week being hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, Sweet Freedom. You will certainly want to see what other 'forgotten' or 'overlooked' books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: A POCKETFUL OF RYE (1953) by Agatha Christie

Of course I've read this Miss Marple book (7th in the series) many times over the years, but I'm enjoying it now in audible form for the first time, narrated by the wonderful actor Richard E. Grant.

Highly recommended, especially if you're (God forbid) not familiar with Miss Marple or Agatha Christie or even, Golden Age mysteries. A POCKETFUL OF RYE is as good a place to begin as any.

I don't know about you, but there's just something about Christie (no matter the mayhem involved) that I find soothing and comforting when I'm feeling agitated. And if this current election cycle hasn't agitated you then you haven't been paying attention. I also find English accents of a certain sort VERY soothing and comforting. Don't ask me to explain - it must be some kind of leftover childhood thing.

England, 1953. Living at Yewtree Lodge near London is a family which would, in Regency times, have been called 'Cits' - self-made rich folk of the slightly vulgar variety. The head of the family is shady business man Rex Fortescue, elderly and unscrupulous and altogether a bad lot. He has recently married a much younger woman, a manicurist whom he met in Brighton. (He and she are both types, certainly, but Christie was so good at categorizing with a few broad strokes.) One morning Fortescue goes off to work at the family firm, Consolidated Investments, and promptly suffers a very unpleasant death (well, strictly speaking, he dies later in the hospital, but he comes close enough in his office to call it a day).

It is wickedly amusing (if somewhat exasperating) to read how the frightened and bewildered office staff goes about prolonging Fortescue's death agony while they fumble about trying to figure out what to do for their boss who, in the meantime, is left writhing in his office. Christie could be wryly cruel when she wanted to be.

There's very little question that poor Rex has been poisoned and so Scotland Yard is on the case almost immediately. We meet the likable Inspector Neele whom I don't remember meeting before, though his name rings a bell. At any rate, the book belongs to Miss Marple even if she doesn't make her entrance until later in the story. The elderly sleuth becomes involved in the mystery in a very understated way, insinuating herself into the case in the cause of justice after the callous death of a gullible and not very bright young woman who'd once worked for her as a maid. But I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.

Let's back up. Rex Fortescue dies in hospital and during an examination of his clothing, a pocketful of rye seeds are discovered in his jacket. This perplexing clue will begin to make more sense after the second murder. But it is Miss Marple who first points out the nursery rhyme aspect. (Christie had a thing for nursery rhyme titles and tricks.)

The Fortescue family are not a nice bunch. (Their housekeeper calls them 'odious'.) So it is not an especially unhappy event when several of them are done away with. Even the unfortunate young parlor maid, ex-employee of Miss Marple, leaves a lot to be desired - her gullible stupidity offsets any sympathy one might have felt for her. There's hardly anyone to like here except for maybe one of the wives - an outsider named Patricia Fortescue, wife of Lancelot Fortescue, the black sheep of the family. And even she seems a bit drippy. Well, I mean, she's already buried two husbands, how cheerful could she be?

Rex Fortescue's young wife, Adele (30 years younger than hubby) is a blond babe with a roving eye. She is currently getting it on (when she's supposed to be out playing golf) with a gigolo (and boy did Christie know how to fashion gigolos - apparently once upon a time, this was practically a profession) named Vivien Edward DuBois. Don't have to describe him, you get it all from the name.

Second son and junior partner in absentia is Lancelot Fortescue (mentioned previously) who had until recently lived in Kenya, having gone off in a sulk to lick his wounds after a big dust-up years before with dear old dad. Left behind and still working for the family company is his older brother Percival (obviously the boys' mother had a thing for romantic literature), an unsavory sort with an eye on the main chance and not above skirting the law - so much so that Inland Revenue has their eye on him. He lives with his  unhappy wife of three years, Jennifer. There is also a Fortescue daughter named Elaine who wants to marry a man her father doesn't approve of (don't they always?) and a dizzy old aunt, Miss Ramsbottom (Aunt Effie), religous zealot and older sister of Rex Fortescue's first wife, who spends a lot of time bemoaning the morals of the younger generation.

As an aside: Only the women in this tale seem to have what you might call 'normal' names.

But my favorite name has to be, Crump, the butler. A n'er do well who is tolerated only because Mrs. Crump is such a good cook. You see, the butler drinks. But good cooks are hard to find.

There is also an unlikely housekeeper named Miss Dove who has her own unvarnished take on the family and her own secrets to hide, so she fits right in. Lots of secrets in this house and when they all begin to unravel, it's like, 'Whew!' didn't see that one coming. That's part of the fun of this book, the mind-bending revelations and also the fact that there are quite a few murders. Lots of corpses usually mean a rip-roaring Christie tale.

As to how the nursery rhyme aspects rounds the thing up, you'll have to wait and see. There is a very satisfying amount of obfuscation in this tale of greed and family madness and if the ending is not exactly what one might have wished, it is satisfying enough.

The denouement is brought about by Miss Marple's knowledge of human character - character and pattern are the major clues here, so much so that if we pay close enough attention we too will know who is behind the killings almost from the beginning. Christie was a master of the sleight of hand and she often passed the card right in front of your nose while you were busy looking elsewhere.

Preordained destiny is the key here as well as in several other Christie tales. 'In my character is my fate' - something Shakespeare and others knew quite a bit about and is something Christie obviously believed as well.  But this sort of thing seems to have gone out of fashion. Though I can't help but think that Christie and the others had it right. People will behave in recognizable patterns. They can't seem to help themselves.

This sort of character reading is probably the main reason Miss Marple was such an astute detective to begin with. Here, she is practically omniscient.

Read this book if you're in the mood for an excellent cozy mystery with plenty of clues, red herrings and Miss Marple at her sharpest. This is a book, by the way, that could also have been named, NEMESIS. For that is exactly the role Miss Marple plays, yet again.

P.S. It is interesting to note (at least to me) that the BBC or Granada or whatnot version of this particular story (done many years ago with Joan Hickson, the one and only Miss Marple as far as I'm concerned) is amazingly true to the book and very well worth watching - if you can find it.

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.