Friday, April 10, 2015

One or Two of the Many Reasons Why I Love Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Books

In CHAMPAGNE FOR ONE (1958) Archie Goodwin states:

'If, to the pass the time, you tried to decide what was the most conceited statement you ever heard anybody make, or read or heard of anybody making, what would you pick? The other evening a friend of mine brought it up, and she settled for Louis XIV saying L'etat, c'est moi. I didn't have to go so far back. Mine, I told her, was "They know me." Of course, she wanted to know who said it and when, and since the murderer of Faith Usher had been convicted by a jury just the day before and the matter was closed, I told her.

Wolfe said it that Friday night when I got home and reported. When I finished I made a comment. "You know," I said, "it's pretty damn silly. A police commissioner and a district attorney and an inspector of Homicide all biting nails just because if they say suicide one obscure citizen may let out a squeak."

"They know me," Wolfe said.

Beat that if you can. I admit it was justified by the record. They did know him. What if they officially called it a suicide, and then, in a day or a week or a month, Wolfe phoned WA 9-8241 to tell them to come and get the murderer and the evidence? Not that they were sure that would happen, but past experience had shown them that it was at least an even-money bet that it might happen. My point is not that it wasn't justified, but that it would have been more becoming just to describe the situation.

He saved his breath. He said, "They know me," and picked up his book.'


More of Nero Wolfe's admirable conceit, from THE RED BOX, (1937):

"But I haven't got ten thousand dollars, not this minute. I think I could have it in a week. But even if I did, my God, just for a couple of hours' work - "

"It is not the work." Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. "It is simply that I will not allow my self-conceit to be bruised by the sort of handling you are trying to give it. It is true that I hire out my abilities for money, but I assure you that I am not to be regarded as a mere peddler of gewgaws or tricks. I am an artist or nothing. Would you commission Matisse to do a painting, and, when he had scribbled his first rough sketch, snatch it from him and crumple it up and tell him, "That's enough, how much do I owe you?" No, you wouldn't do that. You think the comparison is fanciful? I don't. Every artist has his own conceit. I have mine. I know you are young, and your training has left vacant lots in your brain; you don't realize how offensively you have acted." 


Most days at lunch, I re-read my favorites from my stash of Nero Wolfe paperbacks. I am thankful that I had the prescience to buy as many as I could from a friend's soon-to-close bookstore, years ago. They books show wear and tear, but that's the price of affection. This daily ritual began for me a couple of years ago and I'll continue it - on and off - until I tire of the books - which will be: never.
 I do agree with Lena Horne (yes, THAT Lena Horne) in her introduction to my paperback edition of CHAMPAGNE FOR ONE:

'And, of course, there was Archie Goodwin, Nero's legman. Archie had superior wit, a deadpan style, and a deceptively 'unrequiteted' love life. Archie had depth - and he had New York. It was the New York that I missed whenever I was somewhere else. Archie knew the city streets and avenues: brownstones in the West Thirties, bars and grills on Eighth Avenue, coffee shops on Lexington, the Village. He took the subway and buses and taxis; he read the Sunday New York Times. I could picture it all. It satisfied all sorts of homesickness. When I reread Nero Wolfe now, I can see that old beloved New York, and I still miss it...'

Me too, Miss Horne, me too.

New York in the 50's. My hometown.

Just as a fresh reminder, my Five Favorite Nero Wolfe books - at the moment:


A complete list of all the Wolfe books at The Wolfpack.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Saturday Salon, Spring Has Sprung: Flowers in Paint

French painter Edouard Vuillard, 1906. (1868 - 1940)

Swiss painter Cuno Amiet (1868 - 1961)

British painter Mary Fedden (1915 - 2012)

Contemporary Ukranian painter Yana Movchan - Flowers in the style of the Dutch Masters

French painter Henri Lebasque (1865 - 1937) - source

Belgian painter Leon de Smet (1881 - 1966) - source

French painter/illustrator/print-maker, Henri-Claudius Forestier (1874 - 1922)

British painter Duncan Grant (1885 - 1978) - source

Since it's Spring, nominally and otherwise, it's time for a few flower paintings by some favorite artists. In a couple of weeks, it will be time to make the annual pilgrimage to the local gardening centers and/or road-side flower stands - though perhaps this year that delight might have to be postponed until the weather feels fit to cooperate more fully - and load up on flats of young plants heralding the joy and style of the season.

British illustrator/designer Racey Helps - source

So Happy Easter and Passover everyone, hopefully we'll all get to spend some time with family and friends and may the bunny leave some chocolate under your pillow. (Well, maybe not directly under your pillow. The kitchen counter is good too. Or the dining table. Or the desk. Or tucked on a handy book shelf. Or in the mailbox. Or...well, you get my drift.)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Pursuit of Happiness - English Style: the Barsetshire novels of Angela Thirkell

'Summer in Cumberland ' - British painter James Durden (1903 - 1993)

In between vintage mysteries as they arrive on my doorstep or on my new Kindle, I've discovered the delights of the very elegant British writer Angela Thirkell (1890 - 1961). Though Thirkell is considered by some as a 'minor' writer, in my view, she has the slyness and grasp of language of a Jane Austen had Austen lived and written in more modern times. (I must say that Thirkell often makes me laugh out loud and Austen, though very wise, makes me smile and shake my head in recognition but rarely makes me scare the dog with jollified outbursts.)

Thirkell's books are the sort of thing in which nothing much happens except the major and minor exigencies of day to day life, but still, you can't stop reading. Most of her books are set in the fictional county of Barsetshire (much earlier created by the 19th century author, Anthony Trollope) and the stories are all about the countrified life of the British upper classes before, during and after WWII. Every relevant and not-so-relevant thing is seen through a slightly jaundiced eye and described with the author's decidedly wicked wit and most of the books end in the happy embracement of a fortuitous marriage or, at the very least, a providential engagement or two.

At this stage of life, a battered old cynic (like me) really does value a happy ending here and there. But I love it when there is no attendant goopiness to gum up the works - Thirkell eschews goopiness. Her style may hide a hint of cold glitter beneath the surface, but it's up to the reader, I think, to decide just how much of it to unearth.

Thirkell's keen enthusiasm for a Britain that is no more and her casual indulgence of the eccentricities of the British upper (and lower) classes doesn't negate the occasional pointlessness of it. It is pertinent to remember, though, that these are among the sorts of people who kept German bombers at bay in the early part of WWII, did their duty, lived and died and loved their king and country.

A small bit of author bio: Angela Thirkell was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, daughter of a Scottish Classical Scholar and Oxford Professor of Poetry and through her mother (daughter of the painter) was also distantly related to Rudyard Kipling and P.M. Stanley Baldwin - according to Wikipedia.

Though some would suppose you ought to read the Barsetshire books in order, I haven't, and yet I'm enjoying every moment spent among the sorts of people whom I very much enjoy encountering in fiction. Such is Angela Thirkell's brilliant finesse that all snobbery is forgotten and forgiven. And the charm, oh the wonderful British charm - maybe in place to make up for the usually odious English summer weather which necessitates the warmth of blazing fireplaces in July and the fortification of copious cups of afternoon tea. But even on those rare occasions when the sun shines, tea and scones are never far away.

I've read nine of Thirkell's Barsetshire books so far, and can only think I found them at just the right time in my life.

Now rather than talk about any one specific book, I'll just quote (at length) from a favorite, AUGUST FOLLY (but Yvette, isn't that the same thing?), which will I hope, give you some idea of Thirkell's style, wit and charm.

I'm also including a link to a comprehensive list all of Angela Thirkell's books and also a page of book summaries, both provided by The Angela Thirkell Society of North America, a terrific place to go to find out more about Thirkell and her work.

"The little village of Worsted, some sixty miles west of London, is still, owing to the very defective railway system which hardly attempts to serve it, to a great extent unspoilt. To reach it you must change at Winter Overcotes where two railway lines cross.

Alighting from the London train on the high level, you go down a dank flight of steps to the low level. Heavy luggage and merchandise are transferred from the high to the low level by being hurled or rolled down the steps. From time to time a package breaks loose, goes too far, and trundles over the edge of the platform on to the line, but there is usually a porter about to climb down and collect it. 

When your train comes backwards into the station, often assisted for the last few yards by a large grey horse and its friends and hangers-on, you may take your seat in a carriage which has never known the hand of change since it left the railways shops in 1887. If it is market day at Winter Overcotes your carriage will gradually fill with elderly women, carrying bags and baskets, who prefer the train to the more expensive motor-bus, children with season tickets coming back from school, and one or two old men who still wear a fringe of whisker... 

...The line meanders, in the way that makes an old railway so much more romantic than a new motor highway, among meadows, between hills, over level crossings. At Winter Underclose, Lambton and Fleece, the train stops to allow the passengers to extricate themselves and their baskets from its narrow doors. It then crosses the little river Woolram and enters a wide valley, the further end of which is apparently blocked by a hill. 

Just under the hill is Worsted, where you get out. The valley is not really impassable, for a few hundred yards beyond the station the train enters the famous Worsted tunnel, whose brutal and unsolved murders have been the pride of the district since 1892.

The line is staffed and controlled by three local dynasties; Margetts, Pattens and Polletts. If a Margett is station-master, you may be sure that there is a Patten in the goods yard, or on the platform. If a Patten is engine-driver, his fireman can hardly avoid being a Pollett. If there is a Pollett in the signal-box, there will be a Margett to open the gates of the level crossing and warn the signalman that a train is coming. All three families are deeply intermarried.

Mr. Patten is the station-master at Worsted. His head porter is Bert Margett, son of Mr. Margett the builder, and his nephew, Ed Pollett, whose father keeps the village shop, is in the lamp-room, and gives such extra help as zeal, unsupported by intellect, can afford. He also has a genius for handling cars. 

The inconvenience of the hours of running is made up for by the kindness of the staff. They will hold up a train for any reasonable length of time if old Bill Patten, cousin of the station-master and father of the second gardener at the Manor House, is seen tottering towards the station half a mile away; or young Alf Margett, Bert's younger brother, from the shop, has forgotten one of the parcels he should have brought on his handlebars, and has to go back to fetch it. Since no trains can proceed until their various drivers have exchanged uncouth tokens of metal, like pot-hooks and hangers, or gigantic nose and ear-rings to be bartered with savage tribes for diamonds and gold, there is no danger.

Most of the land hereabouts is owned by Mr. Palmer, whose property, bounded on the north by the Woolram, runs south nearly as far as Skeyne, the next station down the line. East and west are Penfold and Skeynes Agnes, where there is a fine Saxon church. Mr. Palmer is a J.P., an excellent landlord, and owner of a very fine herd of cows which supply Grade A milk, at prices fixed by the Milk Marketing Board. His wife, in virtue of her husband's position and her own masterful personality, has taken the position of female Squire.

Of other gentry there are few in the immediate neighbourhood. Lady Bond at Staple Park does not count, because she and Mrs. Palmer have not for some time been on speaking terms. There are also the Tebbens, who live at Lamb's Piece, near the wood above the railway. 

At the moment when our story opens, on a warm June morning last summer, Mrs. Tebbens was in her drawing-room, reviewing a book on economics. Happening to raise her eyes to the window, she saw Mrs. Palmer opening the garden gate, so she went to warn her husband."

AUGUST FOLLY, 1936 - by Angela Thirkell

Once I'd read this far, resting comfortably in bed, snuggled under the covers with Rocky at my side, I had no choice but to stay up all that night and read the rest of the book, occasionally laughing out loud and enjoying myself enormously.

I suppose you have to have a bent for this sort of deliciously meandering writing to enjoy it as much as I do, but for those of us who do, Angela Thirkell's books are a gold mine. Put everything aside and go find some.

Need more convincing? Link to this 2008 Angela Thirkell opinion piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the NY Times.

P.S. And yes, I am bound to begin reading Anthony Trollope this year.

'On the Balcony' by James Durden. Another painting I think shows the Thirkell style.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The 'Rivers of London' novels by Ben Aaronovitch - Urban fantasy at its lively best.

Something about this series caught my eye somewhere, somehow, and you know how that goes. My local library only had one book available - NOT the first in the series - so I ordered the first, RIVERS OF LONDON (aka MIDNIGHT RIOT), online, read that, then jumped to next to last, the very excellent BROKEN HOMES, which was the one and only title the library had, and then I was on to the almost as equally excellent FOXGLOVE SUMMER  which is the latest book and not the second or the third. Luckily, I'm not anal about reading things in order - except sometimes.

I'm pleased to say that this is a series that just gets better and better and that's not easy to do when I remind myself how absurdly high-concept the first book, RIVERS OF LONDON, actually was. Not an easy act to follow, by any means. This is a hellish brew of CSI, police procedural and Harry Potter, all set in a gritty modern day London and its environs. Lots of gory doings when you involve practitioners of magic, spells and general witch-craftery with the Metropolitan police and even, tiny as the department may be, within the actual police force, since crimes involving skulduggery of the magical sort must, of course, be handled by specialists.

Very understandably, it takes a wizard to catch a wizard - but don't get us started on fairies, unicorns and werewolves, not to mention the gods and goddesses of the River Thames. And no, here they are not, in general, the sugary benign (well, except for the werewolves) creatures we're used to reading about in other venues.

Enter our dynamic duo: the very enigmatic Inspector Nightingale, he of the mysterious background, a cop/wizard who's been around since before WWII and is not necessarily showing his age and his current apprentice (the first in fifty years), the laconic constable Peter Grant who discovers, one night, while out on patrol, that he can see dead people. That is, the specters of the dead.

Needless to say, Grant is immediately recruited by Nightingale - who happens to be lurking about - as a trainee wizard in an adjutant section of the Metropolitan Police Force so secret that most don't know it exists and is only reluctantly called into action when supernatural forces are suspected at a crime scene. (Wouldn't you love to see the guys who bring us Law and Order tackle this one? Bom. Bom.)

This is a London (with occasional trips to the countryside, as in FOXGLOVE SUMMER) not so beloved by tourists, the London of grisly doings, bad traffic and blood-thirsty specters of the night.

In the hands of a less talented writer than Ben Aaronovitch this might have been just another fantasy pastiche, but this guy really knows how to write, seems to know how the police force actually works and better yet, he KNOWS the highways and byways of London - so we have plenty of gritty verisimilitude. It's the kind of deal where while you're reading you're believing that this sort of thing actually exists. Wizard cops, I mean. It all makes some kind of loony sense. Suspension of disbelief. You know how much we love when that happens smoothly and naturally.

Plus the tales are told in first person narration, which I also love. Especially when the narrator, in this instance, the young and often bemused cop/wizard-in-training, Peter Grant, is such a delightful person to spend time with. He is an engaging combo of laid-back cynical with a dash of stalwart and the occasional flash of sleuthing brilliance. Plus, it's interesting to have a hero who is of mixed race (his mother is from Senegal), especially in stories set in London and thereabouts.

All in all, a terrific series well worth your time even if you normally aren't fascinated by this sort of thing which I generally am not. Except when it's this well done.

Warning: There are, here and there, some rather gruesome crimes involved, so take heed. But if I didn't succumb to the vapors, neither should you. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Saturday Salon: An Honest Day's Work

'Pot of Tea and Ice Cream ' - American illustrator  Edmund Marion Ashe (1867 - 1941)

'The Postman' 1931 - British painter Alan Sorrell (1904 - 1974)

Part of Riker's Island Mural 1937 - American painter Harold Lehman ( 1913 - 2006)

'Fireman with Hat', 1992 - Contemporary American painter Steven Assael

'The Manicurist' - French painter and caricaturist, Albert Guillaume (1873 - 1942)

'The Dentist' 1934 - Irish painter Sir John Lavery (1856 - 1941)

'The Piano Tuner' - American painter/illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894 - 1978)

'Valencia Fisherwomen' - Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863 - 1923)

'The Maid' - Australian painter George W. Lambert (1873 - 1930)

'The Concerto' 1935 - British painter and print maker Cyril Power (1872 - 1951)

'Late Night DJ' - American painter Ernie Barnes (1938 - 2009)

'St. Just Tin Miners' 1935 - British painter Harold Harvey (1874 - 1941)

'Autumn' - American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889 - 1975)

French painter Edouard Joseph Dantan (1848 - 1897)

'Covent Garden' - Scottish painter William Bruce Ellis Rankin (1881 - 1941)

'Builders' - Contemporary American painter Steven Huston

'Official Rat Catcher to the city of Birmingham' 1927 - British painter Arthur Charles Shorthouse (1870 - 1953)

Study for 'Last Load of the Day' - American contemporary painter Steve Huston

Daily toil. A prime subject for artists - the perceived nobility of workers in their chosen (or in many cases, not so chosen) professions, trades, occupations, craft, jobs.

 These are some of my favorites by painters and illustrators you may or may not be familiar with.

"Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life instead of a Monday through Friday sort of dying." - Studs Terkel

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: MURDER BY LATITUDE (1930) by Rufus King

This book by an author foolishly forgotten has everything you'd want in a mystery and then some. I began reading - not really knowing what to expect - and didn't/couldn't stop until I was over half way through and the only reason I did finally stop was that is was four in the morning. I am now proposing we start a Rufus King Fan Club - with myself as president.

Rufus King (1893 - 1966) was an American mystery writer born in NYC and already seven years old at the dawn of the exciting twentieth century with its influx of new-fangled inventions sprouting right and left and two World Wars on the horizon. He lived long enough to see the advent of most of what we take for granted today. In his time, King was as famous and sought after a writer of whodunits as Ellery Queen and the rest of the American Golden Agers. But have you ever heard of him? Probably not. I had only vaguely done so and have just recently read this one book of his - the others being a bit pricey online.

First a bit of bio from Mike Grost at gadetection:

He [King] was educated at Yale, joined the army in 1916 and later went to sea as a wireless operator. During the 1920's he originated the upper-crust detective Reginald De Puyster in a series of magazine stories. A more famous character, Lieutenant Valcour, appeared in his first novel, MURDER BY THE CLOCK (1929). A further series centered on Stuff Driscoll, a criminologist in a sheriff's office. He [King] also wrote humorous plays with detective themes.

MURDER BY LATITUDE (1930) is one of several sea-faring whodunits written by King and features his laconic NYC cop, Lieutenant Valcour. This time out, Valcour is on board the Eastern Bay's scheduled voyage from Bermuda to Halifax, on the trail of a murderer whom he suspects is on board. Well, you know, this sort of mystery - murder on board ship - is like manna from heaven for me. I fairly leaped into the book. Don't you love when that happens?

The plot:  A chap named Gant, the ship's wireless operator (and incidentally, the ONLY crew member on board who knows how to use the necessary contraption), is ruthlessly murdered after receiving an important message - from NYC police headquarters - which would have given Lieutenant Valcour an eye witness description of a killer. Since of course the killer has destroyed the initial message, Valcour is in a quandary, with several suspects among the passengers and even, perhaps, the crew.

Among the passengers is the enigmatic Mrs. Poole, an older woman in stubborn defiance of her true age, honeymooning with a new and sexy young hubby (her fourth or fifth) whom she's picked up on a Bermuda beach. Though in reality she is only as young as surgery and make-up can make her, she is rolling in dough and, as we know, good looking young men without inclination to earn a living, must have means.

As Valcour surmises, the mystery centers around Mrs. Poole and her convoluted family history. In New York, the initial murder victim was Poole's first husband, an event which does not seem to upset the lady over much.

The other passengers on board the Eastern Bay - an eccentric bunch - are several young men of various attitudes and looks, a couple of spinster sisters, an elderly husband and wife, and a guy who wears high heels. Now I don't know about you, but high heels on a man - even a man obviously meant to be gay, seems a bit much. I can't remember when high heels were ever worn with men's clothing (by men, that is) even way back when. But I'm assuming the author means men's shoes with a raised heel? Not, I assume, women's pumps. I was never sure. But anyway, it's only a minor point. And the guy who wears 'em makes no apology for this idiosyncrasy, so it's soon forgotten and/or accepted as the killer strikes yet again.

Note: At one point in the book, Valcour must decide if the murderer is a woman masquerading as a man or a man masquerading as a woman. Hint: Mrs. Poole had an 'adopted daughter' who she'd tired of and given away when the child was nine years old, never to be seen or contacted again except through yearly drafts from lawyers.

Sexual identity is the unusual main theme of MURDER BY LATITUDE and Rufus King handles this very well. He makes no secret of the fact that Gant, the radio operator, had a close pal among the crew, a pal who is grieving and hoping for revenge. With his help and that of the Eastern Bay's voluble captain, Valcour will use his wiles to ferret out a canny killer who seems always to have luck on his side.

I am duly smitten with Rufus King and Lieutenant Valcour and hope I've convinced you to try this book which is one of the easiest to find online for hardly much money at all. Abe Books is currently my 'go-to' for 'cheap' vintage and I always think if I can't find it there at reasonable cost, it probably doesn't exist. I'm not talking about collectible copies, of course - just decent readable ones.

And for another look at MURDER BY LATITUDE, from another Rufus King admirer, check out The Passing Tramp's earlier review.

Also, we musn't forget John at Pretty Sinister Books, who is also a Rufus King aficionado. Here's his review of King's MURDER MASKS MIAMI, Lieutenant Valcour's last case.

And Vintage Pop Fiction's review of King's, 'Very highly recommended'

Something New

I've begun - with this year's list - to add stars to the books I read during the year. So if you'd like to see how I rate what I read, just check out the 'Pages' list on the left hand side of the blog under, 'Books Read in 2015'. Since I don't know how to make cute little stars, I'm just writing it out in a different though easily legible font. You'll get the idea.

But keep in mind that as a rule I generally like most books I finish or else I wouldn't finish them. And, of course, I don't list a book unless I have finished it. It's just my own pedantic way.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Book Review: HUNTINGTOWER (1922) by John Buchan

It's very early days yet, but any book I read from now on will have to go a mighty long way to thrill and enchant me in quite the same way as John Buchan's HUNTINGTOWER has. What a marvel of a book!

John Buchan: What a man. What an amazing life. What a writer. HUNTINGTOWER is just the perfect sort of book for a cold and snowy February.

I've already read Buchan's THE THIRTY NINE STEPS and know the film well of course, and I'm also reading - very slow-going because I'm reading online - GREENMANTLE. I also have MR. STANDFAST lined up as well - all three titles are Richard Hannay books.

But much as I like Buchan, I don't enjoy reading on my computer screen (don't have a Kindle) so it sometimes takes me as long as a year to finish up a book there. It's just the way I am hard-wired (or not, as the case may be). Having said that, it is so very difficult to beat free down-loading. I'm thinking maybe I'll just get the audible versions at some point. We'll see. I'm slogging along.

But, happily, I picked up a very nice paperback edition of HUNTINGTOWER online and read it through in two nights. This is a Buchan 'romance' in the great tradition of romantic adventures so favored by writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson or Sir Walter Scott though it takes place in the 'modern day' of 1922 or so. But it is also a tale with a dark undertow of unregenerate villainy, outreach of the revolutionary scourge rampant in Russia in the early part of the 20th century.

Our hero is Dickson McCunn, a nice, middle-aged Scottish grocer who has sold his very successful Glasgow emporium (and its two branch stores) to a big chain and is able thereon, to lead a life of leisure.

Dickson yearns for adventure and the romance of the open road. He has a couple of weeks to himself as his wife has gone off to her favorite spa where she '...put on her afternoon dress and every jewel she possessed when she rose in the morning, ate large meals of which the novelty atoned for the nastiness, and collected an immense casual acquaintance, with whom she discussed ailments, ministers, sudden deaths, and the intricate genealogies of her class.'  None of which interest Dickson in the least.

No, he is off on a walking tour of the Scottish highlands - looking for adventure and whatever comes his way. Though cognizant of the fact that, at his age, he really and truly would not know how to deal with 'Adventure' if it did come his way in large doses, Dickson still yearns for, maybe, a small sort of adventure, something appropriate to his nature and stature. To that end he perforce comforts himself with idyllic thoughts, romantic poetry and moody scenery - languid stops amid the heather and the bracken and the crisp beauty of the Scottish hills stir the longing of his soul.

Not to mention frequent stops at accommodating inns along the way:

Now the Black Bull at Kirkmichael is one of the few very good inns left in the world. It is an old place and an hospitable, for it has been for generations a haunt of anglers, who above all other men understand comfort. There are always bright fires there, and hot water, and old soft leather armchairs, and an aroma of good food and good tobacco, and giant trout in glass cases, and pictures of Captain Barclay of Urie walking to London, and Mr. Ramsay of Barnton winning a horse-race, and the three-volume edition of the Waverley Novels with many volumes missing, and indeed all those things which an inn should have. Also there used to be - there may still be - sound vintage claret in the cellars. The Black Bull expects its guests to arrive in every stage of dishevelment, and Dickson was received by a cordial landlord, who offered dry garments as a matter of course...(Dickson having been caught in an exhilarating downpour while perambulating the countryside.)

At the Black Bull the would-be adventurer first meets John Heritage, ex-soldier, erstwhile poet, admirer of the struggling proletariat, absorbed in a book of poetry. A glance convinced Dickson that the work was French, a literature which did not interest him. He knew little of the tongue and suspected it of impropriety.

Presently, and almost quicker than Dickson, perhaps, would have liked, Adventure with a Capital A, descends on him: a beautiful Russian princess in the immediate neighborhood needs saving. She is being held prisoner in a place called Huntingtower, an isolated, abandoned and decrepit manor perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. A princess in a tower. Yes.

But really, is it any of his business? muses Dickson. After all, it may be a hoax. Things like this don't happen in reality. And anyway, he's much too old to be involved in anything this hare-brained.

So, what if John Heritage thinks he has recognized a voice singing in the night? Heritage is younger and stronger - if he fancies himself a knight-errant, so be it.  - let him go off on a wild goose chase. He, Dickson, will continue on his walking tour.

Well, of course, he doesn't, he can't. His own self-esteem will not let him desert a fellow-being in trouble.

What happens next is as thrilling an adventure as anything Dickson could have invented for himself, an adventure which will test him to the very marrow of his being. In addition, he will be introduced to several wonderful - even life altering - characters.

Not only John Heritage, who, after making a bad first impression, turns out to be as stalwart and loyal a friend and hero as anyone could hope to meet, but also, very unexpectedly, young Dougal and his barefoot, skinny and bedraggled band of steadfast Glaswegian 'boy scouts'  (aka the Gorbals Die-Hards) without whose help, the Princess would have surely perished. Then there's the elderly and very canny Scottish villager, Mrs. Moran, whose indefatigable spirit, gumption and notions of right and wrong will, at one perilous point, help save the day.

As for the villains, there are many - even a hunchback with a limp! Thugs, mindless minions, and an evil master criminal who will stop at nothing and arrives at just the right point in the narrative, eager to do his vile worst - exactly the sort of villainy we yearn for - at least in books.

In the meantime, Dickson McCunn has undergone an evolution: the grocer has discovered in himself a man of action, a man who can be counted on, someone who may be relied upon not to quit when the going gets rough. The adventure he craves, arrives and finds him ready and able to heed its call - after an initial bout of disbelief and self-doubt, which I'd add, is only prudent.

John Heritage too has made a discovery - his cynicism has taken a beating - he has found that, despite his early protestations, his soul does, indeed, crave romance. Heritage goes so far as to quote Tennyson (a poet he'd sneered at) quite willingly, finding that, after all, the Victorian Poet Laureate did have relevance.

'And on her lover's arm she leant, 
And round her waist she felt it fold,
And far across the hills they went
In that new world which is the old:
Across the hills, and far away
Beyond their utmost purple rim,
And deep into the dying day
The happy princess followed him'

He repeats the last two lines twice and draws in a deep breath. 'How right!' he cries. 'How absolutely right! Lord! It's astonishing how that old bird Tennyson got the goods!'

What an absolute delight of a tale. I'm in love with the whole idea of the hesitant, middle-aged, secretly romantic English male enjoying scenery, reading poetry and stumbling over an amazing adventure.  I also love the idea of an odd bunch of willing help-mates who will fight to the death - if need be - to save the princess in peril. Honor's the thing here. I love that too - old fashioned notion as it may be. Such a wonderfully developed and dramatically exploited tale. I can't wait to read it again.

Found my copy at Abe Books for very little money.

Lots of love going on in this review, but I simply couldn't help myself.

Friday, January 30, 2015

My Vintage Haul

Over the past month or so, I've scored a nice bunch of vintage books online (and not as I would have preferred, digging around in the back room of an old and musty bookstore), STILL, it's better than not having them at all. 

Shall I set aside what I'm currently reading and dive into my new stash?

How do you handle a new onslaught of books in the mail? It's so hard to stop the hankering to drop everything. 

I mean, look what I have sitting here, simmering and waiting:

THE FOUR FALSE WEAPONS (1937) by John Dickson Carr. 
A Henri Bencolin mystery. This is only my second Bencolin book. The creepy-crawly CASTLE SKULL is still the one and only of this French sleuth's adventures I've ever read so I'm really looking forward to my second sojourn with the suavely eccentric Parisian. For some odd reason I've always thought that CASTLE SKULL was the one and only Bencolin book - link to my review.

DEATH IN THE FOG (1933) by Mignon G. Eberhart
Ooooh, this one sounds all dark and spooky and as we know, Eberhart loves things that go bump in the night. I remember reading this author years ago but for the life of me I can't remember what books of hers I actually read - this was in the time before I kept a reading record. (If I'd known that my memory was going to go bust, I certainly would have begun recording my reads much earlier.) I did read WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT (that much I do remember) a while back and wrote about it on the blog. Link to my review.

Next: A lethal anthology: LETHAL LADIES featuring three novels, two of which I've NEVER read and one which is long overdue to be re-read: 

THE LADY VANISHES (1936) by Ethel Lina White (the novel upon which my second favorite classic Hitchcock film is based). I've never read any of White's books so this will be a double pleasure I'm sure.

LAURA (1942) by Vera Caspary I've never read any books by this author but of course I love and am very familiar with the Otto Preminger film starring Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. Very eager to read the source material of one of my  favorite films.

REBECCA (1938) by Daphne du Maurier Read this many, MANY years ago, love the film with Olivier and Fontaine and well, it's just time for a re-read. A good book for a cold winter night.

Next: An Alistair Maclean Anthology: 

H.M.S. ULYSSES (1955) 

Am I in heaven or what?

Oh, mustn't forget to mention: HUNTINGTOWER (1922) by John Buchan -  It arrived early, a few weeks ago - my review will be up and running just as soon as I can manage it. Hint: I LOVED THIS BOOK!!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Favorite Books of 2014

2014 was a great reading year. In fact, I read so many wonderful books that it was more difficult than ever to cull my absolute favorites. For this end of year list I've excluded re-reads as it is to be assumed that, generally, if I re-read a book, it's because I loved it the first time and want to repeat the experience. So, without further ado, here are my Top Ten favorite first time reads of 2014 plus five runners-up.

1) LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson - Yvette's Book of the Year. Thinking back over the year and if I had to pick just one book to recommend, this would be it. My review.

2) WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? by Maria Semple - Yvette's Runner-up Book of the Year. The second book I'd recommend most from the past year. Another popular choice that, unexpectedly, lived up to the hype. My review.

3) THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY by J.R.R. Tolkien. An absolutely wonderful reading experience. My favorite of the three - to my surprise - THE TWO TOWERS, the second in the trilogy. (I was beguiled by the walking and talking trees.)

4) THE BONES OF PARIS by Laurie R. King. Paris in the twenties. An eerie tale of dark doings, creepily inclined 'artists' and ex-pats, a missing girl, and a down and out detective. My review.

5) ASSIGNMENT IN BRITTANY by Helen MacInnes. The author's second book - a fabulous WWII spy thriller not to be missed. My review.

6) THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by Gabrielle Zevin.  Absorbing and engaging. A moving novel about spiritual loneliness, the love of books, the workings of a bookstore and the often confounding unexpectedness of life. A.J. Fikry is an emotionally detached, woebegone (and rather cranky) widower who owns a bookstore in a place called Alice Island in which he is fortunate enough to be the only game in town - book-wise. When I read that a book is about 'redemption and reformation' I usually run the other way. Those two words mean 'book club book' to me and that's not my gig. But occasionally one will slip in under my guard. This one did and boy am I glad.

 7) FROM LONDON FAR by Michael Innes. A wildly energetic and very odd thriller /farce combo from the erudite Mr. Innes. An Alice in Wonderland story with a middle-aged philologist named Richard Meredith in place of Alice and a tobacconist's shop cellar in place of the hole in the ground. Very strange, but I loved it.

8) SUDDENLY AT HIS RESIDENCE by Christianna Brand. An English country house mystery is always a good thing. An English country house mystery set during the Blitz (WWII) is even better, especially since this impacts the story very satisfactorily in the end. Who killed grandfather as he was about to change his will yet again? The eccentrically inclined Inspector Cockrill is called upon to find a very clever killer. My review.

9) THE SILKWORM by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling (The first book, THE CUCKOO'S CALLING was also excellent, but I think I liked THE SILKWORM just a tad more.) In the second book in the Cormoran Strike series, Rowling takes on the dark asides of the publishing industry with gusto. Owen Quine, a pretentious, pompous, untalented and unloved writer with a taste for Jacobean dramatics, goes missing and his hapless wife asks Strike to find him primarily because she's run out of money. One grisly murder discovery later and said wife quickly falls under suspicion.

I am very eagerly looking forward to the next Cormoran Strike mystery.

10) FLETCHER'S END by D.E. Stevenson. I fell in love with the house first, then the characters. Fletcher's End is an old and decrepit house on the outskirts of a country village. The current owner, a young naval officer away on sea duty is looking for a quick sale. But with only an old caretaker 'in situ' and no real attempt to keep up the property - the garden is a jungle - the years pass and the house continues to sit empty and forlorn.

Enter Bel and Ellis Brownlee, happy newlyweds who are looking to settle in the country. They, with the convenient help of an architect friend, will discover that Fletcher's End has fine bones, beautiful structure and, with a few adjustments, is just the perfect place for them to begin their new life together. I adored this book and plan on re-reading it. In fact, I also mean to get the audio version. My review


I loved these books too. Really, in my view, you can juggle all of these fifteen, pick one or two and not come up with a loser in the bunch. (In fact, I loved most of the books I read this year. That's a problem when compiling this sort of list.)

11) SARAH MORRIS REMEMBERS by D.E. Stevenson. My review

12) QUEEN LUCIA, MAPP AND LUCIA, LUCIA IN LONDON by E.F. Benson. My review (Yes, I know I've listed three books, but it's all of a piece.)

13) THE DOG WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD by Alexander McCall Smith. My review

14) MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY by Winifred Watson. 
My review

15) THE VERGE PRACTICE by Barry Maitland. My review

A listing of all the books I read in 2014 (or for that matter all the books I've read in the past five years in which this blog has been 'in business') can be accessed at any time from the link on the left hand side of my blog under 'Pages'. But here's the link again, just in case you missed it. 

Since I rarely finish a book I don't like, most of the books on this list are eminently readable and quite a few of them I've reviewed. But this year there is an exception and that would be a rather unpleasant Margery Allingham book, THE FASHION IN SHROUDS which was finished by me only because someone had recommended Allingham highly and I'd heard of her Albert Campion series, of course, through the years. Horrible book. I won't make that mistake again.

One of these days I may decide to 'star' the titles on my list. But not just yet.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Detail from a J.C. Leyendecker Saturday Evening Post cover.

Wishing my family and all my friends, a VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!  

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

MERRY CHRISTMAS! May God bless us every one.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Yet Again: My Favorite Quirky Christmas Movies (Heavy on the Quirk)

With your indulgence, this is a revamp of previous Christmas film posts. Nothing new is ever added, I stubbornly hold to the belief that nobody knows how to make this sort of movie anymore. 

1) MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS (1934) is watched religiously by me every year either at Thanksgiving or Christmas. It is ritual. I know the songs by heart and can often be heard  humming along tunelessly with the music and if I'm really in the mood, I'll sing the words too. When it comes to this movie I am incorrigible. Laurel and Hardy, Santa Claus, Little Bo-Peep, A cello playing Cat, A bomb throwing monkey and Boogeymen - what more could you want? 

My original review for you purists out there.

Do not, whatever you do, fall for the 'colorized' version, it is blech. Stick to black and white, if you can find it.

2) THE THIN MAN (1934) Obviously '34 was a good year for Christmas movies. The very suave and sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles solve a murder or two, drink endless martinis, kibbitz in Manhattan's best eateries and dives, and celebrate Christmas with a hotel room full of wise-cracking NY riff-raff. Again I ask, what more could you want? And when was the last time you saw a movie featuring someone named Minna Gombell? I ask you.

Poor hapless Minna looks perpetually shell-shocked. I think it's the eye-makeup. Elizabeth Arden it ain't. And note that her very icky gigolo-hubby is played by none other than the still-to-be-suave Cesar Romero.

3) AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS (1951) If you can find this early black and white television version, then this is the one to watch. A short opera written for television by Gian Carlo Menotti (who was one of the directors), it remains fixed in my mind and heart as sheer Christmas perfection.

Three Wise Men (Three Kings, actually), following their star, must stop and rest for the night and choose the very humble abode of a desperately poor widow and her young, mischievous, handicapped son who hops about on a crutch and can't help getting into trouble. He's very inquisitive, you see.

There's no cuteness though, it's all just glorious singing to glorious music as well as some dancing villagers and, near the end, a miracle. If you've never seen this, you're in for a wonderful treat. This unique production is one of several reasons I am a life-long opera fan.

4) LADY ON A TRAIN (1945) starring Deanna Durbin as a ditzy society babe, out from under the watchful eye of her indulgent dad, just in from the coast to spend Christmas in NY with her aunt. But as the train pulls into Grand Central the deb spots a murder from the window of her compartment and the hunt is on for a killer. (What else is a nicely bred young lady to do in NYC on Christmas eve?) 

There is a cast full of character stalwarts from the forties, including Edward Everett Horton (with, truthfully, not much to do), David Bruce, Ralph Bellamy (at his ultra creepy best), Dan Duryea (equally creepy, he just can't help himself), Elizabeth Patterson, Allen Jenkins and George Coulouris, there to prop up Miss Durbin who does a creditable job playing the ditz who drives everyone crazy. 

She even gets to sing Silent Night (in close-up) over the phone to her dad out in California. 
Here's my original review, if you're so inclined. 

5) THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942) starring Bette Davis, Monty Woolly, Reginal Gardiner and Ann Sheridan in a loony tale of a famous New York radio personality/curmudgeon who is forced by circumstance - a slip and fall incident - to spend the holidays in the home of a 'normal' small town midwestern family (with money) whose lives he upsets in a hilarious and often fiendish variety of ways. This is SO much fun and as the quips and insults fly by quickly - you gotta' pay attention. Bette Davis plays quietly sweet (if gently acerbic) very well as the curmudgeon's secretary and general factotum.

Note: An adorably engaging impersonation of Noel Coward by Reginald Gardiner almost steals the movie from the ferocious Monty Woolley whom I adore.

Here is fellow movie maven Dorian's take on THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. Hint: She loves it as much as I do.

LADY IN THE LAKE starring Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter and Lloyd Nolan. Based on Raymond Chandler's book. Spend Christmas with Phillip Marlowe and solve a murder, meet a gaily dressed gigolo and solve a murder or two while you're at it. My original review

Of course there are many versions of Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL, but this year I'm choosing the one originally made for television and starring the superb American actor George C. Scott, (he had that curmudgeon face down pat). Scott's English accent isn't very good, but it doesn't seem to matter, it all works for me. He really is wonderfully touching.

SUSAN SLEPT HERE starring Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis, Glenda Farrell and Alvy Moore. A saucy comedy in which Debbie plays a seventeen year old truant who takes an improbable detour at Christmas - brought about by the machinations of two soft hearted L.A. cops. Susan aka Debbie, lands in the apartment of man-about-town screenwriter Dick Powell whose dragon queen fiance is played to the absolute hilt by an all but snarling Anne Francis.

Yes the age difference between the two principals is a bit of a stretch, in truth, Powell is old enough to be Debbi'es father, though on screen he's supposed to be in his late thirties - yeah, right. Well, Susan does turn 18 during the course of the story so that makes her legal - just. There are no real love scenes so not to worry. It's all just light and frothy Cinderella fun. But if you're of a serious turn of mind, then skip it.

Here's my original review.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT starring Barbara Stanwyck , Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet. Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a magazine food writer whose warm-hearted articles about hubby, baby, home and hearth on a Connecticut farm are followed religiously by women all over the country. The only trouble is that Liz is single, doesn't know how to cook, and has no real love for the country which is just as well since she doesn't really have a farm in Connecticut.

Over Christmas she is forced to make this fantasy life come true for her boss, publisher Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet in a rare benign performance) who insists on spending a real old fashioned Christmas with Liz and her 'family' as they welcome home a war hero played by Dennis Morgan. Uh-oh.

A Christmas delight of confused identities and happily ever after.

Where are WHITE CHRISTMAS and HOLIDAY INN? Not quirky enough. Besides I'm not a fan of Bing Crosby.