Friday, April 29, 2011

The Queen is Dead

One of the most criminally forgotten mystery writers ever is Christianna Brand. Brand was a supreme talent, who perfectly fused complex puzzle-oriented mystery with strong characterization. With her novels, it isn’t simply about this evening’s eccentric detective, rolling the dice to figure out the murderer, or anything of the sort. Brand could create likeable, believable characters the reader comes to know closely, feeling sympathy for both the innocent and the guilty, and as a result, her books often have depressing endings.

Take Death of Jezebel, for instance, one of Brand’s most highly-praised works (and also a very hard one to find!). The story opens in 1940 as a nice young man named Johnny Wise discovers his girlfriend Perpetua Kirk with another man, Earl Anderson—this is cruelly unveiled to him by a rather sadistic woman, Isabel Drew. Stricken with grief, Johnny commits suicide.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Goodness! Not tapioca!!!

One of my very favourite movies of all-time is The Princess Bride, which is a very funny film with a little something for everyone: romance, action, satire… you name it! It is based on a book by William Goldman, which pretends it is an abridged version of a novel by S. Morgenstern, originally a satire of the excesses of European royalty. Both Morgenstern and the original book are entirely fictitious, but the details of Goldman’s “good parts” version are fun to read about.

The more I read the 1963 novel The Merry Hippo, the more I felt like it could use a “good parts” version itself. Written by Elspeth Huxley, it details the adventures of the Connor Commission, whose mission is to set down its recommendations for the rules that the Protectorate of Hapana, a British colony in Africa, should follow, as they seek independance. (A seemingly simple matter, but in actuality quite complex.) They are a delightfully mismatched bunch, and their arguments are plenty of fun to read. But of course, murder soon intervenes…

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

All murderers are equal, but some are more equal than others

They talked about movies. Professor Benedetti, who had decided to come after all, turned out to be an avid fan of American westerns. Buell criticized them for not being true to life.
“What difference does that make?” Benedetti had replied. “They are not historical documents, they are entertainment. Do you believe the motion pictures produced in my native country show an accurate picture of the life of a roman gladiator? A motion picture is an illusion, possible only because of a defect in our perception; why should we ask more of it than diversion, eh? When real life offers so many more profound illusions.”

As if I needed another reason to like William L. DeAndrea, I’m starting to believe he was a fan of Westerns. After all, he wrote two Western mysteries and may have written more if not for his untimely death— as it happens, this quote came from chapter 14 of The HOG Murders, which I was able to read thanks to John over at Pretty Sinister Books, who heard my cry of despair over not being able to find the book (in my Killed on the Ice review) and graciously sent me a copy. It was well worth the wait.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Dead fiancées, spirit hands, and Russians! (Oh my!)

Back when I reviewed Paul Gallico’s Too Many Ghosts, I wrote that “From what I can discern, Too Many Ghosts is his only entry into the mystery genre, and it’s a pretty damn good one at that.” As it turns out, this was a lie on my part, and so, I went to confess my literary sins to Father Brown. He advised me that as penance, I should read and review the sequel, The Hand of Mary Constable. So here I am today …

First off, this book is entirely different from its predecessor. Too Many Ghosts was a mix of a supernatural mystery and a comedy, with only a few creepy scenes and a marvellous impossible problem. The Hand of Mary Constable seems to reverse this statement: it has a marvellous atmosphere, but its impossible problem ultimately is not given such an interesting solution.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

So the murderer must be somewhere in this house... unless he had very long arms!

You know, usually when I write these reviews, I try to start things on a clever note by starting with some sort of broad statement, and then whittling it down until I get to the book I wish to review itself. I find that I can’t really do this for today’s review. The author in question, Rufus King, is one I had never heard of until I stumbled over a little row of his books on the 10th floor of the library. I cannot comment on how good or bad an author King was, or what I like or dislike about him— at least not until I get to the main review. Well, enough stalling; today I will be looking at Rufus King’s Somewhere in This House.

This is truly a bizarre book. The events all take place in the same secluded house in the countryside over the course of one night. A maid, Alice Tribeau, has been shot, but luckily she isn’t dead. Lieutenant Valcour is near the scene, and so, along with the man he’s staying with, Dr. Harlan, he goes off to the house to investigate while Harlan treats the young lady.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

That's my steak, Will!

The late Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe
Some of the most fun I’ve ever had while reading mysteries can be found in the pages of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. Stout’s plots were often weak, but what made his novels so delightful were his characters and his dialogue. His main characters are Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. Goodwin is a man of action, employed by Wolfe, an enormously fat man with a brilliant mind (and a spectacularly lazy person as well). Archie is like the traditional hardboiled detective, and Wolfe is the traditional “armchair” detective. The two are thrust together in the same novels and their banter is extremely fun (quite possibly the best aspect). Other characters are generally speaking well-defined, with plausible motivations behind their actions, and provide plenty of fun. And when Stout came up with a good plot, like he did in Too Many Cooks, the result is one outstanding novel.

An author I recently reviewed for the first time, William L. DeAndrea, seems to have been heavily inspired by the work of Rex Stout. Someone commented on my Killed on the Ice review that the protagonist, Matt Cobb, is remarkably like Archie Goodwin, an excellent comparison I hadn’t even thought of. DeAndrea wrote quite a few other novels and died tragically young, before he was even 45. The world was robbed of an excellent and creative author. I can only imagine how much fun it would be to eagerly anticipate a new book of his…

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The book I will be looking at today is William DeAndrea’s Written in Fire. This is a novel set in the Old West, and it reads very much as though Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin were the main characters. So if you like Wolfe (I do) and you like Westerns (Yes, sir!), this is a treat. (There would also be a sequel, Fatal Elixir. Which I just so happen to have...)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Raymond Chandler
There is a moment in the 1994 movie Speed which suddenly transforms the movie from a good action movie into an exhilarating thrill ride: it is the moment when the bus goes over 50 mph. From that moment on, the movie, which was already good, becomes great, as an intelligent thriller results, with complication after complication thrown in our characters’ faces. Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye contains the exact opposite of this moment: it begins as an intelligent and rather enjoyable story, but suddenly transforms into a mind-numbingly painful experience when it reaches Chapter 13.

Before I go any further, let me say two things. First off, a confession: I did not finish reading this book. Second off: I absolutely despise Raymond Chandler. [Also, be warned: I avoid rude language in my reviews because I believe in using intelligent language, but I found it unavoidable today, and the nicest term I could think of to describe just about all the characters appears quite often: “jackass”. I considered replacing it with “Pineapple”, but it came across as too silly. So "jackass" it is.]

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Sister Act

My acquaintance with Anthony Boucher (rhymes with voucher) has been limited to date. I mainly know him as one of the scriptwriters on the radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which was always a delight to listen to, even when Basil Rathbone left the show. Boucher and his partner in crime, Denis Green, came up with interesting problems for Holmes to investigate; although the mysteries themselves were often easily solved (after all, the episodes were less than a half hour long) they showed creativity in their scenarios. Overall, they were interesting expansions of references to un-chronicled cases throughout the Holmes canon. (Occasionally, they dramatized the original stories as well, such as The Speckled Band or A Scandal in Bohemia.)

I’m also aware of Boucher’s influential role as a mystery critic, but he was also involved in the world of science fiction. (You can read all that and more in the back of the IPL edition, which I own, where one "Burke N. Hare" gives a brief biographical outline of Boucher's life. Incidentally, the cover to Nine Times Nine is proof that Nicky Zann is a genius. After all, thanks to his genius, I bought that monstrosity, The Affair at Royalties. Awful, awful stuff. I'm still attending group therapy to get over it. But his cover is once again magnificent, and really intrigued me and intellectually blackmailed me to read this book.) But until now, I never read a novel by Boucher. This mistake has been rectified, as I’ve finished his excellent novel, Nine Times Nine.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Whoever's Behind This Haunting Will Have a Long Chat With Mother Superior...

It is incredible what you can find during an afternoon at your local library. After my recent review of William DeAndrea’s Killed on the Ice, when I found myself at my library, I couldn’t resist looking at the shelf to see if there were more DeAndreas, even though I knew there weren’t (thanks to the magic of the Internet). When I started to walk away towards the door, something caught my eye, and I stopped at the next shelf. A hardcover book with an altogether too-familiar spine was sitting there on the shelf—it was a Black Dagger Crime edition of Too Many Ghosts, by Paul Gallico (best-known, perhaps, as the author of The Poseidon Adventure, which made for an unreasonably delightful movie).

I really like the way old Dell Mapback editions would start out, by telling you what the book would be about, listing the most intriguing-sounding things about the plot. I will try to do the same. 

Friday, April 01, 2011

How to Make "Saw" Look Like a Family Film: A Lesson in Detection

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I am a huge fan of classic mysteries, particularly from the Golden Age, and those by authors who emulate the style. But there are times where I have tried getting through modern mysteries. I have come to the conclusion that imagination, creativity, and fair play with clues must be considered crimes for some reason or another— how else to explain the character angst that drives far too many novels, the touches of faux artistry, and the mysterious lack of a plot?

If my theory is correct, then Soji Shimada is a wanted man. Shimada is a Japanese author whose work has not really been translated into English. The only translated work of his I can find is his first mystery novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, originally published in 1981. A translated publication was made available in 2004. If you’ve never read this book, I urge you to check your local library. If they don’t have it, I would recommend purchasing it from a bookstore. It is an investment I guarantee you will not regret, or I will eat my hat.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders starts with a brief forward from the author, and I find it comforting that a modern mystery novelist insists on the very first page he will play fair with the clues. No evidence will be hidden- there will be an even playing field for the reader and the author’s detective, Kiyoshi Mitarai. Shimada is not lying. He gives you all the clues and plays 100% fair. In addition, he writes the best “Challenge to the Reader” I have ever read. After a specific point in the novel, Shimada tells you that you have all the necessary clues in your possession, and wishes you good luck in finding the solution. He doesn’t sound condescending or like he’s showing off: no, it’s genuine delight in the duel between author and reader. Shimada understands the mystery novel and has fun with it! He shows great creativity, originality, and imagination and this makes for a great read.