Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SMALLBONE DECEASED (1950) by Michael Gilbert



Where have I been that I've missed reading Michael Gilber's work until now? I recently saw a review on one of your blogs about SMALLBONE DECEASED (can't remember where of course) and I was immediately intrigued with the catchy title. Then I looked around and continued to read about Gilbert's many mysteries and the bigger mystery was why I'd never heard of him.

So I am since making up for lost time - after finishing SMALLBONE I ordered three more Gilbert books (Abe Books, of course has them cheap, cheap and free delivery) - can't wait to see if they'll be as good. Hard to beat perfection though. Michael Gilbert has completely won me over with this puzzler of a mystery, fourth in the Major Hazelrigg series.

And okay, I admit it, I didn't catch on to the killer's identity until near the very end and at that point, the author was practically telling me who the culprit was. I thought it was one person and then suddenly it was someone else. Slipped by me completely. I love when that happens.

Most of the 'action' in SMALLBONE DECEASED takes place in an English law office so not a lot of room for physical to-ing and fro-ing. The language is occasionally legalese and precise but still deliciously witty. Gilbert has a knack for the calmly delivered humorous phrase, wording which on second thought makes you laugh out loud. He has the keen wit of a natural observer, someone who perhaps had seen and done it all and found it all amusing.

In truth, he probably had. After graduating from law school, Gilbert joined up and served in WWII. He was captured but escaped with another soldier and endured a 500 mile journey back to the Allied front. After the war he joined a law firm and eventually became partner - all the while writing his mysteries. So between being a lawyer and a soldier he HAD probably seen it all. 'All' comes in handy when you're a prolific writer.

Back to the book:

When Marcus Smallbone, a slightly disreputable trustee whom nobody likes, is found dead at the law offices of Horniman, Birley and Craine (Gilbert had a gift for names), Inspector Hazelrigg is soon on the case. Though in this book he hardly makes any kind of impression since most of the sleuthing is
done by Henry Bohum (pronounced Boon), a young lawyer newly hired by the firm.

Henry is a likable guy with a rare disorder which allows him only about an hour and a half of sleep each night. (Though this disorder has little to do with the case in hand.) Bohun is taken into Hazelrigg's confidence and asked to keep his eyes open and make leading conversation with the rest of the staff, Hazelrigg having decided that Bohum could not be the killer. (Of course, in some other book this would be the tip-off but here it is not. Gilbert is too sly for that.)

And while the mystery itself is complicated and intriguing (who knew that attorney's metal deed boxes were that accommodatingly large?), Gilbert's wickedly amusing writing style enlivens what might have otherwise been a too remote (it is 1950 after all) enterprise set in the supposedly dull confines of an office full of grayish lawyers and clerks.

Here is a brief bit of gossipy dialogue between the firm's secretaries:

"Do you know, I believe Miss Chittering has a boyfriend.,
"Nonsense," said Miss Cornel. "She doesn't know one end of a man from the other."

I enjoyed the interaction between various employees of Horniman, Birley and Craine and most especially loved the grumpy and unpleasant style of Bill Birley, a partner who delights in making his underlings cower.

After a verbal altercation with Inspector Hazelrigg who brooks no nonsense from possible murder suspects, Birley vents:

'Mr. Birley then rang for Miss Chittering, and as soon as she got inside the room started to dictate a lengthy lease at high speed. Miss Chittering was a competent short-hand typist, but no one other than a contortionist could have taken down dictation at the speed at which Mr. Birley was speaking. As soon as she was forced to ask for a repetition Mr. Birley snapped at her and increased his speed.

Five minutes of this treatment was sufficient to reduce Miss Chittering to tears and to restore a certain amount of Mr. Birley's amour-propre.

...Mr. Birley, having disposed of Miss Chittering, looked around for fresh conquests. After a moment's thought he rang the bell and summoned Mr. Prince to his presence.

Mr. Prince, who has already flitted vaguely on the outskirts of the story, was an elderly Common Law clerk. He has spent his professional life with the firm of Cockroft, Chasemore and Butt, whom he had served efficiently, and on the whole, happily for forty years. Unfortunately the firm had failed to survive the war and Mr. Prince had found himself thrown on the labour market. Bill Birley had snapped him up gratefully, made full use of him and paid him a good deal less than he was worth. Since Mr. Prince stood in considerable awe of Mr. Birley, and in even greater fear of losing his job, he was a very convenient whipping block. Mr. Birley reduced him to a state of quivering impotence in something less than five minutes, and then clumped downstairs to plague Mr. Waugh, the cashier.'

Okay, this all had me laughing out loud. Maybe it stops the whodunit forward motion, but I really don't care. This is the sort of thing I always hope to find in British mysteries.

Speaking of which:

The story has several red herrings and an incident with a mirror which is a major clue had we but known that it wasn't the mirror. Though each chapter heading has some legal mumbo-jumbo and a quote, it doesn't necessarily uncomplicate (or complicate, as the case may be) things. The main clue is very neatly passed right in front of our eyes though in truth, the assumption made from the incident might be a bit far-reaching. However, it does make sense I suppose, so I'm not going to make too much of a fuss about it.

When a second person in the law firm is killed, the investigation intensifies primarily because the killing seems cruelly senseless and the victim is an innocuous sort who is killed because of something deadly she knows but doesn't know she knows. Nobody likes when a foolish innocent is killed.

As SMALLBONE DECEASED has been highly recommended already, there's not much I can add except that I too highly recommend it. This is the sort of thing that nobody writes anymore and isn't that just too bad. May be the reason that vintage is still so popular.

Well, since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at Edgar Award nominee and best selling author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Today is Troublesome/Evil Children day at Pattinase, but I'd forgotten, hence my review is not in keeping with the theme. Old lady memory strikes again.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Friday Overlooked Book: FEATHER BRAINED My Bumbling Quest to Become a Birder & Find a Rare Bird on My Own by Bob Tarte


This is not by any means a 'forgotten' book at all, maybe not even overlooked, but I had to figure out how to fit it in on our regular Friday round-up and here we are. Bob Tarte might be thought of as a regional writer and occasionally they do tend to get overlooked by those outside the relevant region. He is an amiable guy prone to worry and grump who nevertheless writes delightful memoir-like books. He lives in Michigan with his remarkable wife Linda in near harmony with the local flora and fauna as well as a mind-numbing collection of beloved pets including parrots, parakeets, bunnies, cats, geese, ducks, turkeys and other assorted animalia. One of my fondest wishes is someday, somehow, to meet the one and only hooligan parrot Dusty.

"Linda's parrot Dusty was enjoying his morning out-of-cage time playing inside the closet at the bottom of the stairs, indulging in a favorite activity of biting a pair of shoes. He paid to attention to me as I padded stocking-footed down the steps to warm up a cup of coffee. I should have known better than to underestimate such a calculating bird. When I reached the landing he whirled around and launched himself at my feet, forcing me to vault over the back of our L-shaped couch, coffee cup in hand. Having reasserted his status at the top of the pecking order, he turned his attention back to the closet."

Linda rehabilitates wild birds orphaned or injured, from time to time, so there is a constant variety of life (wild and otherwise) to be looked after and day to day adventures in animal husbandry to write about. This is something that, thankfully, Bob Tarte does for a living.

FEATHER BRAINED is Bob's lively journey to be taken seriously as a birder and to find a rare species he can brag about online to fellow birders. Fortunately for Bob and for us, his slightly skewed sense of humor explains all this in often laugh out loud episodes in which he never spares himself or his misadventures. Honestly, Bob and especially Linda's patience with natural foibles sometimes seems super-human.

In addition to laughing as I read along, I also got to learn quite a bit about birds, birding, birdsong, avian habitats and the peculiarities of bird aficionados in general. I also shared Bob and Linda's sense of wonder and awe when an especially beautiful bird showed up at their backyard feeder or foraged in the nearby woods or down by the pond or in a neighbor's tree. I went with Bob and Linda or Bob and his friend Bill (the non-birder birder) on their occasional treks to bird gathering spots across the state all in the name of Bob trying to find a rare species to call his own.

"Jeez, what is that?" I blurted out, startled by a face so fiery orange, it might have been painted with a fluorescent highlighter pen. Two birders told me its name. A charcoal black, triangular patch across the eyes contributed to the blackburnian warbler's black, burning appearance. At that moment I understood why I'd really come. Not so much for the numerical exercise of adding species to my list - though there was that undeniable pleasure - but for fleeting encounters with beings too splendid to exist."

You don't have to know much about birds to enjoy this book, God knows I'm no expert (and I'm not a birder, though my daughter and her family do enjoy occasionally going out into the woods looking for birds) since I have always maintained that nature is best viewed from the inside of a moving car and the only birds I can readily recognize in real life are your standard assortment of sparrows, yellow finches, cardinals, starlings, blackbirds, crows and robins. (Well, yes, I can identify Canada geese and swans and ducks and the like and thrill when watching them in flight.) Anything else, I have to reach for a bird book or check online. That doesn't prevent me, however, from still being fascinated by avian variety and beauty.

Anyone interested in memoirs, birding, birds in general, humorous encounters with nature, the fine points of marriage and stories about grumpy men finding their natural calling will delight in this book. I did, for all of the above reasons.

"I loved birds, and every bird was my favorite bird. But no bird was a better bird than a bird I saw with Linda. This had been true from when we had first met, and it was even truer now."

My hint to the University of Michigan Press towards the betterment of the next edition is this: the black and white photographs which add no real value to the look of the book should be replaced with line illustrations, perhaps by local highschool art students (?) I know color photography is expensive to print, but at the very least, black and white stylized illustrations would add a bit of visual 'oomph' to the charm of Bob Tarte's prose.

Either/or. Read the book. Then check out Bob Tarte's other writings, particularly ENSLAVED BY DUCKS.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at Edgar Award nominated author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked (or not as the case may be) books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: ANY TWO CAN PLAY (1981) by Elizabeth Cadell


An author I've never read before (never even heard of before), recommended by Nan at LETTERS FROM A HILL FARM. Thank you, Nan.

I'm a big fan of D.E. STEVENSON, ANGELA THIRKELL and E.F. BENSON - each has their own quirky (and often stealthily hilarious) way of telling basically the same story set in an England of long ago, an England made familiar to us by so many BBC and PBS television programs. Thanks to them, we are as familiar with fictional English village life and life up at the manor house as any Englishman or woman, maybe even more so.

I wondered if there were more of these types of stories out there. Happy to say, that Elizabeth Cadell fits the bill though her work is a bit quieter and perhaps a bit gentler than either Thirkell or Benson. She is closest to D.E. Stevenson from what I can tell. Of course if you haven't read any of those authors, then you won't know what I'm talking about - you'll just have to play catch-up. But for those of you who are familiar, then you know whereof I speak.

I did try a couple of other recommended authors from this era and wasn't all that impressed, but Cadell stood out for me. In these times of political turmoil, nothing could be further from reality than her endearing romantic story of village life and English quirkiness. A perfect getaway.

In fact, I will probably begin rereading all of my Thirkell, Stevenson and Benson books - as a way of staying sane - if you know what I mean. (I may even go back and reread all of my Jan Karons. These are desperate times.)

At any rate, back to ANY TWO CAN PLAY.

Elizabeth Cadell (1903 - 1989) was a prolific English author of 52 novels, two of which I've read recently and more of which I hope to read throughout the year. Fortunately, many of them are available on Kindle, though I prefer ordering the actual books in used form whenever possible. But it's nice to know that a bunch are available electronically just in case.

The setting for ANY TWO CAN PLAY is the small and typically gossipy English village of fiction. Downing is just the sort of enclave we love to spend time in when retreating from reality.

Natalie Travers, our accommodating twenty seven year old unmarried heroine, must step in to help her academic younger brother Julian when he is left alone and struggling with twins - his wife having left him and the babies in the lurch. Wifey was of the sort who tried domesticity for a short while but upon deciding it wasn't for her, off to London she went, back to the life preferred.

Julian, who is musical director of a private school, is not exactly parental material himself, as his preference is to be buried in his work or out playing golf. He will willingly leave it up to someone else to step in and handle the chores, take care of the kids and do the heavy lifting of day to day life. Unfortunately, daily help is hard to get in Downing, so his very obliging sister Natalie must temporarily save the day. Natalie, as Julian knows very well, is the sort to be counted on in times of domestic crisis.

Meanwhile, the local manor house owned by Downings immemorial for hundreds of years is apparently on the market. Henry Downing, the wealthy owner who'd been living in Italy, has returned bearing his young nephew who will be enrolled in the local school which Downings immemorial have traditionally attended. Henry is looking to sell his large ungainly ancestral home and as the local golf aficionados are looking to purchase the house to turn into an exclusive golf club, all seems to be moving smoothly towards a mutually approved end.

But soon, Henry becomes taken with village life and especially taken with Natalie, who is herself taken with domesticity and her brother's infant twins. She is independently single and not looking for entanglements but Henry's low-key style and inclination to show up when needed earns her spinsterish approval.

Among the rest of the characters, there's a voraciously hungry baby sitter who will eat anything that isn't hidden away, three dotty Downing aunts - one with a secret, Henry's engaging young nephew and his friend a young African student who, because of revolution in his country has nowhere to go, as well as assorted others including Natalie's stiff-necked older brother who would prefer that she take his advice in all things. and is aghast that she, once again, has offered to help Julian in a crisis of his own making.

There are no real problems or troubles that can't be ironed out between rational people and of course, a happy ending which accommodates all loose ends.

A light and lovely story, delightful and charming and endearing and all those good things that these sorts of books specialize in. But just because the story is light doesn't mean that the writing is lightweight, not at all. Cadell is expert at that sort of thing and her elegant touch and quiet humor is evident, as well as her affection for these sorts of people and their problems. I didn't want the story to end and would have still been reading if there'd been more.

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

Friday, January 27, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: ESCAPE (1932) by Philip MacDonald

Couldn't find a cover to display for this book so I invented one.


You know how I am, I get a crush on a writer and away I go. Lately I've been crushing on Philip MacDonald's work and so I sent away for a couple of his books (little by little, I hope to read all his mysteries). And am I glad I did. This one is a pip. The perfect momentary 'escape' from our current and provoking political climate.

A guy and gal on the lam from the cops, from a murderer, stealing cars and careering all over the English countryside. I mean, come on, what could be better?

ESCAPE is another delightful escapade from the man who gave us the classic, THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER and a couple of other humdingers. Not an Anthony Gethryn book, but still a plot committed to excitement and the thrill of the chase. Actually, it's more thriller (in the middle and second half) than mystery since about half way through you do figure out, despite the big red herring, who the killer must be, but that shouldn't dim our enthusiasm by any means.

The main character is Peter Craven, thirty five years old, ex-Army, ex-many things, down on his luck and literally out on the streets without a bean in his pocket. In soiled evening clothes (his landlord took everything else in lieu of rent and only let him have the few clothes he's wearing because he couldn't throw him out on the street naked) Peter is wandering about on a dark London street, no money, no food, no place to go.

He spots a house on a side street from which three women (obviously servants) are leaving - Peter assumes they're taking an evening break and wouldn't all do so together unless the place were empty. So he breaks into the house and helps himself to whatever food he can find. He's famished, one can hardly blame him.

Little does Peter know that this wee bit of breaking and entering will catapult him into a bizarre adventure and role as knight errant. Soon he will be carting a dead body over wintery London streets looking for a convenient dumping ground.

You see, the house isn't empty. There's a mysterious young woman in residence who will intrigue Peter and who will lead him to the dead body of her step-father slumped over a desk in the library upstairs.

(As a result of this, an unbelievable occurrence of the sort which could probably only happen in a book, will shortly unveil itself and we are asked to go along with it willy-nilly. It's up to you to decide if the far-fetchedness of it dooms the book for you. I went along and gullible reader that I am, swallowed it hook line and sinker.)

But from that moment, the chase is on as events spiral out of control for Peter and the young woman (whose name we discover is Frances Brandon) as they flee London and head out into the English countryside, helping themselves to a series of convenient cars along the way.

Eventually in their head long flight, in a remote cottage, Peter and Frances will stumble across a wonderfully written and rather enigmatic man who will guide them in their quest to learn the truth and avoid being charged with murder.

Though, as I mentioned, most of you long time mystery readers will soon decipher who the bad guy is, this is still a fun thrill-ride of a book and since it's Philip MacDonald at the helm, the writing is top-notch.

It's Friday once again, so don't forget to check in at author and Edgar nominee Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Books other bloggers are talking about today.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Today in America


Don't normally talk politics here and I don't intend to begin in any major way. But I had to say something and this brilliant take by Tim O'Brien on the alternate reality we seem to be living in - says it all.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS (1960) by Agatha Christie


It's possible I've spoken about this book before, if so, forgive me for rattling on about it yet again. But it is among my top five favorite Agatha Christie books so my enthusiasm for it will hopefully be indulged.

CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS is kind of unique in the Christie lexicon in that Hercule Poirot doesn't make an appearance until about two thirds of the way into the story. Everything develops quite nicely without him, moving back and forth as it does, from several points of view and one country to another. Before all dramatis personae are free to convene at Meadowbank School, scene of the various crimes, there is a revolution in the Middle East to be dealt with and a fortune in jewels to be hidden away.

By the time Poirot is summoned to investigate the mystery, two murders (with a third murder yet to come) and a kidnapping will have occurred. He is brought into story by Julia Upjohn, a young school girl who has intelligently figured out a thing or two, decides that an expert in crime is needed to sort things out and goes off to London to call on Poirot. Julia's intrepid mother is at the moment traveling to Anatolia (Turkey) on a bus and therefore incommunicado, but Julia's self-sufficiency comes to the rescue since she, unlike her gullible friend Jennifer, fully understands the meaning of the Arabian Nights story of 'new lamps for old'.

Meadowbank is an exclusive private English boarding school, the fulfillment of the life's work of two women: imposing Miss Bulstrode, head honcho respected by all and admired by many and the much less imposing but dependable Miss Chadwick, an older bustling sort, ready to smooth any ruffled waters and a math whiz besides. But in general, what Miss Bulstrode says, goes and just as well - she is the senior partner. The school has an excellent reputation and attracts girls from all over England and Europe. The two women are very proud of their accomplishment.

Early on we learn that Miss Bulstrode has lately been thinking of retiring and everyone assumes she will turn the school over to the redoubtable Miss Vansittart who is an exact copy of the Bulstrode in manner, voice and one supposes, thought. But Miss Bulstrode has doubts.

In the meantime, the new term begins and before you can swing a tennis racket, Miss Springer the gym teacher is shot dead late at night in the new gym or 'sports pavillion'. It is known that Miss Springer liked to pry.

A low-key investigation ensues since the police value the school and champion Miss Bulstrode. She calls in a few favors from old government friends and gets the story down-played in the papers. A couple of girls are withdrawn from the school by their parents and/or guardians but no major harm done.

That is, until the kidnapping of a princess and the second murder of another school mistress.

This is really one of Agatha Christie's more fiendish plots though there is a kind of snafu at the beginning which only becomes apparent after the story is nearly done. It's one of those, well why didn't she make a bigger fuss about what she saw?? But other than that, it's a book I never get tired of re-reading. It has a grand list of characters, including two realistic young girls very much of their time and place, amusing dialogue, clever plot machinations, a vicious killer hiding in plain sight, international complications, the sleepy Colonel Pikeaway, not to mention, the mysterious Mr. Robinson and last but not least, MI-6.

I might not begin here if I'd never read any Christie before, since Hercule Poirot arrives as a fully fashioned figure already many years into his career (career apres retirement, that is), but then again, why not?

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


Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE MONUMENTS MEN by Robert M. Edsel


"What if we win the war, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history on our watch? 
Lieutenant George Stout, U.S. First Army and U.S. Twelfth Army Group

A towering figure in the then obscure field of art conservation, Stout was one of the first people in America to understand the Nazi threat to the cultural patrimony of Europe and pushed the museum community and the army toward establishing a professional art conservation corps."

While reading this brilliant non-fiction account of the heroic quest - as WWII slowly wound down in Europe - of a handful of Americans (and others) for the hiding places of thousands upon thousands of artworks looted by the Nazis, I was once again lost in admiration for that so aptly named 'greatest generation'. Men and women who not only rescued the world from madness, but saved European civilization's cultural history as well. It's about time someone wrote about these long forgotten men of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section aka MFAA (and one valiant French woman) and their struggles to keep the world's cultural masterpieces from being destroyed or disappearing into an abyss.

"Hitler would use new laws, his laws, to gather the great artwork of Europe and sweep it back into the Fatherland."

Naturally the salvation of art masterpieces and monuments took a back seat to the lives of millions caught up in the desperation of war, but it was understood that the Nazis were bent not only on destroying whatever and whoever stood in their way, they were bent also on rapacious plundering of anything and everything that took their thwarted fancies:  Great works of art, paintings, sculpture, jewels, decorative artifacts, reliquaries, church altar pieces, religious artifacts, ancient books, all looted from their original owners, museums, churches and dwellings. No venue was sacred.

"Shortly we will be fighting our way across the continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve.

It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible...." General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander


*******************************************

How a group of stalwart and dedicated men worked day and night under extreme conditions, in the field, sometimes under enemy fire, with little help, no supplies, not even transportation, is one of the great unheralded stories of WWII. The Monuments Men (so-called) were generally in their late thirties and early forties - men who had walked away from careers to join the military and do what they could to save the world's artistic treasures. They were curators, historians, conservators, artisans, architects, and in the case of Walker Hancock, a well-known sculptor, men who understood the beauty and meaning of art not only as a historical necessity but as a human one.

"As impossible as it seems, it was the duty of ...eight officers to inspect and preserve every important monument the Allied Forces encountered between the English Channel and Berlin."

Once on the ground, these officers were often out in the field alone, carrying a map, hitching rides with any available Allied truck or jeep, making their unheralded way through ruined towns and villages, occasionally lost behind enemy lines, attempting to track down known art works. They interviewed suspicious townspeople as best they could since they were rarely in company with a translator, often without the knowledge of the current supervising Allied officers who had only vaguely heard of the monuments work.

*****************************************

Inside the Mountain
Seigen, Germany
April 2, 1945

Half a mile inside a hill:

"As the door swung open, [Walker] Hancock caught a glimpse, just visible in his flashlight beam, of a massive brick-vaulted gallery. Then he felt the air: warm and humid. The ventilation system had been damaged beyond repair by Allied bombs, and water was dripping from the ceiling. George Stout entered the room first, his flashlight beam falling on a series of enormous wooden racks. The racks, Hancock noticed, went all the way to the ceiling. And every nook was filled with art: sculpture, paintings, decorations, altarpieces...In the beam of his flashlight, Hancock recognized works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cranach, Renoir, and especially Peter Paul Rubens the great seventeenth century Flemish painter who had been born in Siegen. On some of the canvases he noticed mold, while the paint on several wood panels was noticeably bubbled and flaked."

The salt mine at Altaussee, Austria, 1945:

...throughout the centuries, as cities and empires rose and fell, the Steinburg mine in the Sandling Mountain of Austria, just above the village known as Altaussee, continued to produce salt....

But in the winter of 1943-1944, the salt mine at Altaussee was assaulted by the modern world. First came the tracked vehicles necessary for maneuvering over the roads in the winter, when the five meters of snow were almost level with the treetops. They were followed by supply jeeps, and eventually a seemingly endless line of trucks going back and forth through steep mountain passes. Nazi officers descended on the mine as guards. Workers arrived, expanding catacombs and building wooden floors, walls and ceilings in dozens of salt chambers. Giant wooden racks were assembled in workrooms deep within the mountain and hammered into position, in some places three stories high. Experts and clerks moved in; a shop was built deep inside the mine where technicians could work and even live for days at a time. And it was all done for art.

...the mine was soon requisitioned by Hitler for his personal use. Worried by increasing Allied air raids, the Fuhrer ordered all the treasures destined for his great museum at Linz...sent deep into seclusion....Dug straight into the side of a massive mountain, the horizontal mine was impregnable to aerial bombardment - even if the bombers could locate it in the vast Sandling mountain range.

Inside the mine:

6577 paintings - among them two Vermeers, 'The Artist's Studio' and 'The Astronomer' stolen from the Rothschilds.
230 drawings or watercolors
954 prints
137 pieces of sculpture - among them Michelangelo's long sought Bruges Madonna.
129 pieces of arms and armor
79 baskets of objects
484 cases thought to be archives
78 pieces of furniture
122 tapestries
181 cases of books
1200 - 1700 cases apparently books or similar
283 cases contents completely unknown

Earlier, the salt mine had been designated for destruction (bombs were already in position and needed only detonators) by the Nazi mayor of Altaussee who was a devoted Hitler fanatic. It was only through the unsung heroism of Dr. Emmerich Pochmuller, general director of the salt mine and several mine workers, that this event was forestalled.

Because of exigent circumstances, once the Monuments men arrived, they would have just four days to empty the mine or risk the contents being handed over to Stalin. (Truman had agreed, under pressure, to withdraw American forces to pre-war geographical boundaries.) Working under horrendous conditions, George Stout and his men ran over the four day deadline, but, working sixteen hour days, managed to get the job done.

Story upon story of such dedication are chronicled in this remarkably detailed and researched book. (Included are many touching letters written home to their wives from several of the monuments men.) I was moved to tears at one or two points when reading about the hardships (these men were not immune from death) and struggles of these resolute men and women - most of whom would earn no accolades or thanks until many years later, if then. In fact, though it continues today, there are many who have no clue or conception of the challenges faced, the non-stop work that went into saving the masterworks of Europe. The beauty we take for granted when we travel and visit museums, churches and cathedrals might have been completely lost to civilization had it not been for a small band of brothers intent on making sure that the masterpieces of our artistic history would survive.

But - "Despite the best efforts of the men and women of the MFAA, hundreds of thousands of works of art, documents, and books have yet to be found. The most famous is perhaps Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man, stolen from the Czartoryski Collection in Cracow, Poland and last known to be in the possession of the notorious Nazi governor-general Hans Frank. Tens of thousands were no doubt destroyed. These include the personal collection of SS Heinrich Himmler, which was burned by SS stormtroopers before British troops could intervene. The famed Amber Panels of Peter the Great, looted by the Nazis from Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg (formally Leningrad)...Thousands of paintings and other works of art have never been claimed, either because their provenance could not be determined or their owners were among the millions who died or were murdered in Hitler's military crusades. Sadly, not all museums, the interim custodians of some of these works of art, have demonstrated the determination of the Monuments Men to locate their rightful owners or heirs."

Link to learn more about The Monuments Men.

Link to current news and work of The Monuments Men as it continues.

THE MONUMENTS MEN is a fascinating book not only about history and art but about heroes who went unsung for far too long. There are plenty of intriguing photographs, even a 'cast of characters' photo gallery at the beginning which I found very helpful.

To my mind, this is a book that needs to be read by anyone who has any interest in art, European history, civilization and/or WWII.

It's too bad that the movie based on this book was such a dud. Maybe if it had been in more capable and experienced hands. They certainly had a good cast, but somewhere along the way, they lost the thread of the story and were unable to visually express the thrill of the hunt for artistic treasure and the idealism of the characters involved. These men were, in many ways, larger than life and the film failed to realize this.

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, December 30, 2016

FFB: Favorite Books of the Year

N.C. Wyeth (1882 - 1945)

A list of books not necessarily published in 2016 (in fact all but two weren't) read by yours truly for the first time in this past year. AND not necessarily ALL forgotten or overlooked (though several of them qualify). But it's Friday, and this seemed the appropriate time, date and moment.

I don't include any re-reading of past favorites in this current year-end list since those titles were already listed and accounted for in years past.

I wish I could link you to my previous 'Favorites' lists, but my blog linking apparatus still isn't working the way it should. However you may be able to do it from your end if you are so inclined. I've given up trying to figure out what's what with Google. Life's too short.

So without any further muss or fuss, here is my list of favorites for 2016:

1) EVERYBODY'S FOOL (2016) by Richard Russo

I am a huge fan of Russo's work - he is one of the few contemporary 'literature' writers I read probably because of his natural ability to tell a story, his often laugh-out-loud humor and his slightly jaundiced view of a world he knows very well. But don't get me wrong, Russo loves these characters - it's just that he sees right through them. And somehow he makes us love them too even as we see how very far from perfect they are.

Though this is a sequel, it isn't necessary to have read NOBODY'S FOOL (1993), the book which first introduced us to Donald Sullivan aka Sully, the middle-aged n'er do well 'hero' and his misanthropic circle of friends and acquaintances. I had read it years ago but to tell the truth, I'd forgotten most of it - still I had no trouble jumping right into events which take place ten years after those in the first book. Sully is now 70 and suffering the aches and pains of decrepitude. We're back in upstate New York, in the small depressed town of Bath where nothing much ever happens and even when it does, it's never to the benefit of the town's sad-sack citizenry.

T.C. Boyle's review of EVERYBODY'S FOOL from the NY Times.

THE HOUSE OF FOUR WINDS (1935) by John Buchan

A 'Ruritania' style romance and the final book in the Dickson McCunn trilogy of adventure stories set in an Europe that is gone forever, if it ever existed. Next to HUNTINGTOWER (the brilliant first novel in the series) this is one of my all time favorite books. (The second installment in the series, CASTLE GAY, is good, but doesn't really hold a candle to the first or last.)

Dickson McCunn, the retired but wealthy Scottish grocer with a romantic heart, is back again and ready, despite 'old age' aches and pains, for another adventure. The street boys from Glasgow are also back all grown up: Jaikie on a walking tour and Dougal on assignment for his newspaper. McCunn is headed to a German spa for his health but that won't stop him getting side-lined. Several other characters left over from CASTLE GAY will also show up and eventually all will get involved in a plot to restore the monarchy of Evallonia, a mythical middle-European country. Impossibly far-fetched I know, but oh so wonderful.

3) SUMMERLAND (2002) by Michael Chabon

A friend handed me this book and said read it. So I did. Meant for young readers (10 and up), but not so you'd notice. This is a wonderfully sharp-eyed fantasy about baseball, the meaning of life and the possible end of the world as we know it. (Seems highly appropriate and prescient.) Eleven year old Ethan Feld is the worst baseball player in the history of the game, but he is the 'chosen one' as far as saving the world from the evil machinations of the dreadful baseball loving Coyote and his wicked minions. The author draws from American mythology and legends in his first book for young readers which, of course, can be read and enjoyed by everyone and anyone of any age whatsoever.

Kirkus Review of SUMMERLAND

4) THE LAST POLICEMAN (2012) by Ben H. Winters

A dystopian science fiction/mystery tour de force for those of us who do not ordinarily like dystopian fare (as, for that matter, is SUMMERLAND, sort of - see above). The world is on an inevitable collision course with a giant asteroid and most humans are handling it as one would expect. Social and economic disorder reigns, corporations have closed up shop, most workers see no point in continuing in their jobs, and food grows scarcer and scarcer. As the days tick-tock away, looting and suicides become common, 'survivalists' head for the hills, all hope is gone and only the military and police have fuel supplies as frightened families hunker down and wait for the end. Hank Palace is a young detective in New Hampshire struggling to do his job even on the brink of annihilation. When murder occurs, he is determined to catch a killer while also dealing with family problems: a sister who has become involved with a cult which believes that they have the science to save the world.

The second and third installments of the trilogy, COUNTDOWN CITY and WORLD OF TROUBLE are also excellent and highly recommended by yours truly. I would read all three at a clip. Terrific stuff with very little, if any. letdown as the trilogy comes to its predestined end.

5) ANNA, WHERE ARE YOU? (1951) by Patricia Wentworth

A moody, engrossing Miss Silver mystery and one I cannot ever remember reading before. When Patricia Wentworth was at the top of her form, she was really quite good even if what she was writing was cozy and derivative and highly improbable - not that any of that matters if the plotting, setting and characterizations work and the sense of menace is high. As it is is this sinister installment.

When Thomasina Elliott's old school friend Anna Ball stops writing to her, Thomasina suspects that something is wrong. She knows that she is Anna's only real friend, someone to whom Anna would regularly take the time to write her latest news simply because there was no one else. It had been that way for the many years the two girls had known each other. So when Thomasina stops hearing from Anna after learning she had recently quit one job and been offered a new one, Thomasina worries. Though her friend Peter scoffs at her apprehension, Thomasina insists on doing something.

Enter Miss Silver, elderly spinster and private detective.

6) THE FOLD (2015) by Peter Clines

Terrific science fiction which I found almost impossible to put down. Though it kind of/almost loses its way near the end, it still packs a wallop most especially because of its thrilling mystery-like 'what happens next' aspect and the appeal of an engaging main character with a very rare eidetic memory. Mike Erikson has the ability to remember everything he sees, reads or hears. Hard to deal with as you may imagine, which is why he prefers to remain a low-key high school teacher in an out of the way New England town.

But when Mike's friend (the head of a hush-hush government program) cajoles him into traveling to California for a looksee at a project involving a working teleportation device, little does Mike know that his talents will be soon called upon to save the world from an onslaught of alternate universes. Hard to explain, but it all makes a sort of sense once you get into the spirit of the thing. Hey, I'm no scientist, but I still enjoyed the idea of leaping about from one reality to another - side by side travel through a 'fold' in time. (Even if I couldn't make heads or tails of the actuality of the thing.) It's time travel but not. As I said, hard to explain. Just read the book.

It's a fun read and not meant, I think, to be taken too seriously.

7) THE PROMISE (2015) by Robert Crais

Those of you familiar with my reading likes will know that I am an unabashed Robert Crais fan-girl. I love his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike thrillers and consider him to be one of the best (if not the best) American thriller writer working today. Certainly no one else can match Crais for macabre sense of humor amidst carnage, something which shouldn't work, but does. Mostly because of Crais' confident sense of who his main characters are and how their psyches work. Elvis and Joe are heroic in the truest sense of the word and their stories are, at heart, about the workings of a close friendship.

Here in the 16th book in the long-running series, Elvis and Joe are joined by L.A. canine officer Scott James and his partner, Maggie, a German Shepherd (fresh from their own previous book, SUSPECT).

Approaching the hunt for a heartless and very dangerous killer from two different directions and hindered by a string of lies not the least of which is from Elvis' secretive client, all four protagonists eventually join forces on the trail of a vengeful murderer fanatically eager to eliminate the only witness to a recent crime: Officer Scott James.

8) GREY MASK (1928) by Patricia Wentworth

The first Miss Silver mystery and one of the author's best - an incredible tale of a sinister masked miscreant and a nasty kidnapping plot upon which our hero stumbles late one night while skulking about a supposedly empty house. Don't you love when that happens?

Miss Silver doesn't enter into the story until about half way through which is just right for this particular introductory story. Full of anachronisms (hey, it's 1928) and twisted logic, GREY MASK still works a treat and is the perfect antidote for a chilly winter night. These stories are either your cup of tea or they are not, if they are then this one is a prime example of its kind - meant to entertain and intrigue for a few hours and nothing more. I loved it.

9) SLEEPING GIANTS (2016) by Sylvain Neuvel

Lately I am beginning to read more and more science fiction and really liking it. But the stories I seem to gravitate towards are not, necessarily, the flying saucer or outer space type things, but stories about unusual happenings - magical reality on steroids, I suppose. Personified by author China Mieville and others, i.e. Sylvain Neuvel whom I discovered recently.

In South Dakota, a young girl named Rose rides her new bicycle, falls through a crack in the earth and lands in the palm of a giant golden hand. Eventually the hand will join other parts found buried around the world until, put together, they make a full grown warrior woman. But what are these wondrous artifacts? Long lost art? Remnants of an ancient civilization? Weapons of mass destruction? Who hid them? When? Why? And more importantly why are they suddenly coming to light now?

Seventeen years after stumbling into the mystery, Rose Franklin is now a top physicist working with a small secret team to try and find the meaning of this bizarre puzzle. The story is intriguingly told through a series of diary entries, notes and other first person writings.

I am eagerly awaiting the second book in the series,

10) THE FAMILY MAN(2009) by Elinor Lipman

Henry Archer is a divorced gay man of a certain age, a quiet, courtly gentleman living a quiet courtly life in his elegant Manhattan townhouse. Like most of Elinor Lipman's characters inhabiting one of her gentle social satires, he is someone we would all like to know.

In the middle of mourning for his recently deceased best friend Celeste, the lonely Henry discovers that his stepdaughter Thalia has been working right under his nose (at his barber's) all the while unnoticed by him. The story then centers on Henry's attempts to re-connect with his long-lost daughter, not only a hat-check girl at the barber's but also an actress looking for her first break. Once upon a time 24 years previously, Henry had foolishly allowed his ex-wife's mogul husband (now also deceased) to adopt Thalia and because of one thing or another, had lost touch with the girl. Regrets - he has many.

Soon, the mercenary money-hungry ex-wife now penniless (due to a clever pre-nup) attempts to storm-troop her way back into Henry and Thalia's good graces. While Thalia gets mixed up in a public relations gig posing as the girl friend of a weird horror film actor who is, in turn, in love with an underage girl of 17. Not to worry, Elinor Lipman is an expert at untangling convolutions, it all works out nicely.

Like most of the author's work, this is an engaging and charming (if occasionally sharp-edged) tale in which everyone gets what he or she deserves. I like that.

11) HUNTING EICHMANN (2009) - How A Band of Survivors and A Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb 

In 1944 when the war was all but lost, many Nazi higher ups began planning their escape, knowing full well that they would be held accountable by the Allies for Germany's atrocities. Among these many cowards was Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's bureaucratic mastermind in charge of 'the Jewish question'. Eichmann was a precise, unfeeling man who sent millions to their deaths and would later use the excuse that he was 'only following orders'. With the help of Nazi sympathizers, he eventually made his way to Argentina after the war, there to join a growing community of ex-Nazis given refuge in the South American country. Eichmann would dodge pursuers for fifteen more years, his trail having gone cold until he was all but forgotten.

How a small band of agents recruited from Mossad and Shin Bet, the Israeli secret services, tracked and finally cornered Eichmann on a dark road outside his Buenos Aires home, makes for a stirring tale of true adventure and daring. Meticulous planning and good fortune combined to help these dedicated agents get their man and smuggle him out of the country aboard the first Israeli plane ever to land in the Argentine capital. Thanks to these men, Eichmann would eventually stand trial in Israel in full view of the world.

This is non-fiction that reads like fast-paced fiction. It is hard to believe all this actually happened. But it did.

Kirkus Review of HUNTING EICHMANN.

And now, since this 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.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Artist: Elsa Beskow

Uncertainty aside, at least for the next few days, have a wonderful holiday weekend with family and/or friends, and if you are traveling, stay safe. Let us celebrate the things in life worth celebrating and forget the rest - at least for the time being.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

5 Favorite Christmas Movies

I do this list every year and every year it's the same movies since I haven't really seen anything new that captures my imagination or makes me feel especially Christmasy. Though I may be in the minority, I dislike Lifetime TV Christmas movies with their lachrymose plots and past-their-prime actors attempting to breathe life into plots force fed with pretend holiday cheer. I'd rather watch A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS over and over again - the original one. Or Raymond Briggs' THE SNOWMAN, a wistfully beautiful animated short film.

For this short list, I've left off the more obvious classics like A CHRISTMAS CAROL since it's a given we all love those. I am especially fond of three versions: the Alistair Sim one, the George C. Scott one and the Patrick Stewart one. I used to be fond of the musical, SCROOGE, but now, not so much.

We all need an extra bit of Christmas cheer these days so hopefully one or two of my favorite movies will do the trick. Escapism is the key word for the next four years, beginning with now.



1) THE THIN MAN (1934) Though some of you might think that W.S. Van Dyke's classic movie based on Dashiell Hammett's rather dark book is NOT exactly Christmasy, I say, think again. Not only does the story take place over the Christmas holidays, but William Powell and Myrna Loy as the zany sophisticates Nick and Nora Charles share oodles of snappy dialogue and sparkling bon-mots, drink martinis, throw a party, open presents, and tackle a murder plot full of nitwits and thugs. A very young and beautiful Maureen O'Sullivan is also in the cast, as is a bad-tempered gigolo played by a young and sulky Cesar Romero.


2) LADY ON A TRAIN (1945) Deanna Durbin (directed by Charles David whom she later married) plays a flighty heiress who spots a murder from her train window as her train shuffles into Manhattan on Christmas eve. And we're off and running. Durbin gets a mystery writer involved in her hunt for a killer because who else would one go to for help in solving a crime than a mystery writer? What is it about Christmas and murder? Only in movies like these where it's all improbable fun and absurd villainy and Durbin gets to sing a very nice version of Silent Night, over the phone to her dad in California. And Dan Duryea and Ralph Bellamy play sleazy, sinister guys up to no good.


3) THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942) Based on a stage play by George S. Kaufman and photographed more or less like one (but not to its detriment), this film does not concern us with murder but merely with a bad-tempered but powerful radio personality of immense popularity played by the irascible Monte Woolley. He is the sort of man who, if this WERE a murder a mystery, would be bumped off in the first ten minutes. But anyway, here he just takes a nasty fall on the snowy doorstep of a conservative mid-western family and is forced by medical exigency to spend Christmas with the sort of people his over-bearing New York personality loathes. Bette Davis plays his long-suffering secretary, Anne Sheridan plays a gold-digging Hollywood glamour gal, Jimmy Durante plays a maniacal old pal and the wickedly charming Reginald Gardiner plays a Noel Coward type and almost steals the movie.


4) CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) A delightful film starring Barbara Stanwyck as a hyper-drive, domestically hapless NYC magazine columnist/editor doing her best to play happy housewife (with borrowed baby) for her boss, publisher Sidney Greenstreet (who is quite wonderful), while falling in love with a soldier (Dennis Morgan) on holiday leave. The plot is kind of clunky, but since this all takes place in a movie-style Connecticut farm house during a movie-style white Christmas with jingly sled and horses, it's all good.


5) MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS aka Babes in Toyland (1934) Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without this old chestnut. The truth is, my un-reasoning affection for this movie knows no bounds. Watched it as a kid every year growing up: WPIX, Channel 11.  I even like to sing along with the Victor Herbert songs. The scene is Toyland, toyland, beautiful girl and boy land - and the incomparable Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play Santa's helpers. Though the duo often does more harm than help, for instance turning Santa's order of 100 six inch soldiers into 100 six foot wooden marching soldiers. It's just as well though, for when hordes of shaggy, snarling bogie men attack Toyland, the soldiers come in handy. I love the old fashioned characterization of nursery rhyme characters such as Little Bo Peep and Tom the Piper's Son and The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe (literally) and Mother Goose, etc. SO much fun - even the odious Victorian villain Barnaby who overreacts his way into acting infamy. Ha!


Monday, December 12, 2016

A Rant: Agatha Christie's PARTNERS IN CRIME (The NEWEST Version)

Jessica Raine and David Walliams as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.

The actors are pleasing and professional and deserved better, especially David Walliams who does take getting used to after years of envisioning James Warwick (the ultimate Tommy) in the role. But once you get over the physical disparity, you do warm up to Walliams as the often hapless Tommy. AND I love Jessica Raine's (Tuppence) hair-do. James Fleet as Mr. Carter is superb in a thankless role - exactly my idea of a professorial spy master. But he's really the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal enterprise.

(Francesca Annis and James Warwick were the ultimate Tommy and Tuppence in the early series adaptation - relatively true to the book and short stories - from the 1980's. And available to watch on Acorn TV. In fact both series are currently available.)

But here's the problem: the two novels adapted for the newest Tommy and Tuppence endeavor, THE SECRET ADVERSARY and N OR M, were simply thrown overboard and replaced with newfangled modern-sensibility scripts based on who knows what research in the firm belief that you can take brilliance and somehow improve on it. Okay, maybe not brilliance, these are not Christie's best novels, but you know, even Christie at her less than ultimate, is better than the crap modern day writers get up to when trying to adapt her work. When faced with Christie's superb sense of timing and plot, they just cannot leave well enough alone.

This nonsensical need to IMPROVE or somehow make the stories more contemporary is completely wrong-headed. Christie's milieu is part and parcel of the Christie charm. Her people occupy a specific universe. They are who they are. You cannot improve or adapt or otherwise make them people of today. Though Christie used themes that are eternal, her characters populated a particular era. That world (long gone) with its own pressures and intrigues has a specific allure. THAT, my friends, is one of the main reasons why Christie is so enticing to so many of us.

Forgive me in advance for not being political correct: In a jarring note, in this newest version of THE SECRET ADVERSARY, a key member of the plot, Jules Hersheimmer the American millionaire searching for his niece, is played by an African American actor (Clarke Peters). The niece too is played by a mixed race actress (Camilla Beeput). No rhyme or reason. Totally disconcerting and adds little to the plot. I'm all for ethnic casting if it makes historical sense or adds to or improves the story in some way. But here it just adds confusion.

Even more interesting, Tommy and Tuppence do not even notice that Jules is black which, for the time, the early fifties (the series has been moved from WWI era) seems odd and almost stops the story in its tracks while we adjust. Wait - who is this?

Jules Hersheimmer is supposed to be a larger than life Texas oil millionaire - the third richest man in America. Here he is someone who has a company pushing synthetic sweeteners. some variation on early saccharine, I suppose. I mean - what? And the way he behaves towards Tommy is very odd. Jules was supposed to be around the same age as Tommy and Tuppence, here he is an older man. Not someone who will supposedly join in the adventure. WHY the change? No reason. It's just change for change's sake.

The original story takes place just after WWI (Tommy and Tuppence have recently been de-mobbed and they meet again for the first time after several years). The sinking of the Luisitania is a key element in the plot with its totally improbable beginning. It is meant to be improbable, not to be taken seriously - this is not a realistic spy novel. It is meant to be fun, the bringing together of two quirky young adventurers at the start of their long and devoted relationship - the 'macguffin' is an international treaty hidden away at the onset of war. For Tommy and Tuppence, it is a wild ride in search of a brilliantly devious master criminal hiding in plain sight. Which is why the attempt by today's writers to force the damn thing to take a serious 'cold war' turn is ludicrous.

It is the 1950's, Tommy and Tuppence are already long-time marrieds with a son away at school and a dog that nobody seems to be taking care of since, at the drop of a hat, both owners go off and leave the animal for long stretches of time. Once assumes someone is walking and feeding and watering the animal, but who knows? These are small details that should have been taken care of in the script. If you include a dog, then include the details of who cares for it. People notice these things.

Also, WHO are all these extraneous characters introduced in the first episode? And, oh by the way, a shooting takes place on a train and NOBODY NOTICES??? NOBODY hears the shots??? And later, was it really necessary to strangle a man in full view of Tommy and the audience? THIS is not Christie. This is someone ruining Christie - someone with ZERO understanding of the author's work. So why not just invent a new cast of characters and eliminate Christie all together? There is NO POINT to using Christie's title and a few of her characters names and then break up the plot so that it becomes unrecognizable. I suppose they are assuming that younger viewers are not familiar with the original Christie plot but then, it that's so, why use her name to begin with?? What is the point?

Was England in the 50's a successfully integrated multi-ethnic society? Probably more so than in the USA, I'd think, but political correctness is just an unnecessary element in these period dramas. Forgive me if I'm being insensitive, but there is a time for multi-ethnic casting - when it makes sense - and there is a time when it just doesn't fit. These are not stories about racial equality or inequality, they are supposedly light-hearted mysteries and/or thrillers. Modern day sensibilities adjust or they don't - if they don't, they don't watch. Simple as that.

But what with all the padding and extraneous bits of supposedly sinister stops and starts (and Tommy and Tuppence behaving stupidly and deserving of being caught by the bad guys), the whole thing turns tedious and almost impossible to watch. I stopped about midway through, furious, yet again, at the way Christie's stories get yanked around to no purpose.

As for N OR M, a story which originally takes place during WWII, when Tommy and Tuppence's grown children are away at war and both parents are feeling useless, bemoaning the fact that they are too old to take part. When suddenly Mr. Carter shows up and offers Tommy a gig at a rooming house where one of the boarders is thought to be a German agent. Simple enough plot. But no, it has to be modernized to the point of absurdity with blood spattered corpses and wild shoot-em-ups in the streets of foggy London. Ugh.

PARTNERS IN CRIME has NOT gotten a second series start and no wonder. You cannot do this to Christie's work and expect good results.

P.S. I am hesitant to watch the newest version of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, also available on Acorn. I understand that this too was re-fashioned to make it more entertaining (?!) for modern day audiences.

And now I've read that an even newer version of THE ABC MURDERS with, I am assuming, a new Hercule Poirot, is in the works. David Suchet is/was the ultimate Poirot. We've just finished 25 years of watching him brilliantly expand on the role and eventually die, in CURTAIN.

Now, we get another Poirot? Who on earth would have the temerity? One can only shudder.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: O JERUSALEM (1999) by Laurie R. King


"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning." Psalm 137:5

This is a re-working of a review I posted a few years ago. These days (with good reason) many of us are looking for escapism, books that are thrilling and well written and take us out of ourselves and maybe also take us back in history to a time when all things were possible. And who better to travel with than Sherlock Holmes and his apprentice, Mary Russell whom we met in the brilliantly conceived,THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE. (And if we haven't met her, then rush right out and buy the book for goodness' sake - it's a keeper! Even Conan Doyle would have approved of Russell.)

Please note: This is not the second book in the series begun so spectacularly (and audaciously) with THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE, though I think it should have been. I always recommend reading O JERUSALEM second if you've just begun or are about to begin reading the Holmes/Russell series. But of course, it's totally up to you. The 'official' second book in the series is actually A MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF WOMEN, but this could easily be read as the third book without missing a beat. All my own opinion, you understand.

At any rate, if you favor historical fiction, I can't stress enough how imaginative, how dazzling, how truly wonderful O JERUSALEM is without seeming like a slavering groupie. Well, okay, I'm a slavering groupie. There's worse things I could be. Ha!

The plot:

It is 1918, Sherlock Holmes and his apprentice/partner, the brilliant Oxford student Mary Russell are forced by deadly circumstance to get away from London for awhile. So off they go to the British protectorate of Palestine, a country liberated from the Turks the previous autumn. At the behest of Mycroft Holmes - Sherlock's brother who is high up in murky government circles - both travelers will be performing some vague undercover work while they make their way across the rugged terrain to the city of Jerusalem. (Given a choice of several destinations by Holmes, it is Russell who has chosen to travel to Palestine, she is Jewish and Jerusalem holds special allure for her.)

To that end and upon arrival at night hidden in a skiff, they must meet and pass muster with two suspicious Arab agents who do not want them there in the first place. Mahmoud and Ali regard Holmes and Russell as nuisances who have been foisted upon them. They are not happy playing nursemaids at a time when any wrong move could bring disaster. Palestine is (and always appears to have been) a hazardous place, especially for outsiders. Jerusalem in 1918 is a hodgepodge of Brits, Arabs, Jews, Christians, spies, troublemakers and possible terrorists.

Steven immediately shipped his oars, stood, and stepped over the prow of the little boat into the shallow water. Holmes grabbed his haversack and went next, jumping lightly onto the coarse shingle. I followed, pausing for a moment on the bow to squint through my salt-smeared spectacles at the dark shore. Steven put his hand up to help me, and as I shifted my eyes downward they registered with a shock two figures standing perfectly still, thirty feet or so behind Holmes.

"Holmes," I hissed, "there are two women behind you!"

Steven's hand on mine hesitated briefly, then tugged again. "Miss Russell, there'll be a patrol any minute. It's all right."

I stepped cautiously into the water beside him and moved up to where Holmes stood.

"Salaam aleikum, Steven," came a voice from the night: accented, low, and by no means that of a woman.

"Aleikum es-salaam, Ali. I hope you are well."

"Praise be to God," was the reply.

"I have a pair of pigeons for you."

"They could have landed at a more convenient time, Steven."

"Shall I take them away again?"

"No, Steven. We accept delivery. Mahmoud regrets we cannot ask you to come and drink coffee, but at the moment, it would not be wise. Maalesh," he added, using the all-purpose Arabic expression that was a verbal shrug of the shoulders at life's inequities and accidents.

The inscrutable Mahmoud and Ali, go on to become two of author Laurie R. King's most indelible characters. I have never forgotten them and with my memory (or lack thereof) that's saying something. (They will show up later in another of King's books, JUSTICE HALL under totally different circumstances.) Here they almost steal the show from Russell and Holmes. How these four characters become trusting equals realistically takes most of the book, all paths hindered by the fact that Russell is a woman who, to Mahmoud and Ali's horror, must masquerade as a man for most of their journey.

Almost from the start, things go wrong, beginning with the brutal murders of some Jewish farmers. After a brief examination of the crime scene, Holmes senses that more is afoot than just the slaughter of a farm family. The bodies have apparently been left as inflammatory messages. He is able to deduce that the dead settlers are only the beginning of some bizarre plot. A dangerous traveler is abroad in the land.

In the end, it becomes a race against time (don't you love that?) to save Jerusalem, save the peace, and save our travelers from the machinations of an insidious terrorist plot.

This is the sort of story in which the most minute clue must be interpreted correctly or disaster waits. The reader is brought along on a gritty, hair-raising adventure, travelling in unfamiliar country, across treacherous unforgiving terrain, meeting up here and there with friends but mostly with enemies. All the while Russell learning the language and dialects so she can 'pass'. Mostly they label her a mute and leave it at that. It is fortunate that Russell has a genius for languages and as she beings to get a handle on the dialects, we do too. We also begin to understand the possible repercussions from the slightest of mistakes. This is an ancient and very complex society made more even more volatile by its recent history and its current (though temporary) domination by the British.

One of many things I like about King's books is that she often mixes 'real' persons within her stories. In O JERUSALEM, we get a level, sympathetic portrayal of General Allenby, the legendary British commander. There is also mention of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and we get a brief glimpse of him near the end.

I can't equivocate, I love this book. I love the writing, the constant wary sense of danger, the grand adventure, the relationship between the four characters, the setting, the historical turmoil and everything, anything having to do with this amazingly well told story. When I feel like leaving reality behind and heading out on an improbable adventure, I reread O JERUSALEM.

P.S. In a way, this book is almost a stand-alone, being more a thriller than a whodunit or 'regular' mystery in the Holmes vein. It is totally different from any Holmes story heretofore in canon or pastiche. If you have trouble seeing Holmes as a man of action, author Laurie R. King will convince you that not only is he capable of feats of endurance more natural to a younger man, but that he is, in her hands, more a man of flesh and blood than Conan Doyle ever envisioned.

I have a signed first/first of O JERUSALEM which I watched Laurie R. King sign for me in Las Vegas years ago, it is one of my most prized possessions.

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.


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.