Friday, September 30, 2011

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!"

Welcome once again to a special edition of At the Scene of the Crime! As you probably know by now, I am celebrating my 100th blog post with an extravaganza of crossover reviews, joined by various other mystery bloggers. Today, The Puzzle Doctor has kindly joined me from his blog over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. In fact, it was this same mathematician who, back in July, posted an enticing review of Nightshade by Paul Doherty. That post started an avalanche of Paul Doherty reviews in the mystery blogging community, and I was intrigued from the get-go. At the time, I commented:

“Ok, not fair. After plenty of talks with Curt Evans, here I am with a huge list of books by guys like R. Austin Freeman and JJ Connington, and here you go intriguing me with a completely different book!”

But if you scroll down just a wee bit, you’ll find another comment by John from Pretty Sinister Books, who wrote the following: “I also like the Canterbury Tales series especially since they show Doherty’s proclivity for the inclusion of supernatural elements in a detective novel. AN ANCIENT EVIL is one of the most frightening books about the vampire cult in old Romania I have ever read.”

This intrigued me: a series of mysteries centered on The Canterbury Tales, with supernatural elements? And that comment on An Ancient Evil from such a prolific blogger was too fascinating to resist... So it seemed like an ideal book to read and review with The Puzzle Doctor (a.k.a. Steve), who is responsible for this Doherty craze in the first place.

Steve, the crime scene is all yours! Thank you for joining me!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

By Hook or By Crook

Welcome back, good readers, to the scene of the crime! As part of my 100th post celebrations, I’ve lined up a series of crossover reviews with other bloggers, readers, etc., and today, blogger extraordinaire TomCat joins me from his blog Detection by Moonlight.

The first question, of course, was what to review. Perhaps a book by John Dickson Carr? But then again, I read Carr only every once in a while now, to delay the inevitable day when I read all his known work. I haven’t read much Margery Allingham, but although I enjoy her work, TomCat most emphatically does not. Well, there’s always a book by Paul Halt—er, wait a minute… TomCat doesn’t know French…

And then TomCat came up with a great idea, which can be traced to the Puzzle Doctor’s recent reviews over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. Earlier this year, this rogue mathematician wrote an exciting and enticing review on Paul Doherty’s Nightshade, and several other reviews followed. I went down quickly without much of a struggle, eagerly lapping up The Devil’s Domain before leaving for Spain. TomCat succumbed to temptation as well, reviewing The Horus Killings and The Anubis Slayings, novels from Doherty’s Ancient Egypt series starring Amerotke, Chief Judge of Thebes.

I had yet to be initiated into Doherty’s Ancient Egypt series, so The Mask of Ra, first in the series, seemed like a good book to review (particularly after the Doc’s enticing review on his blog—again, it was TomCat’s idea). What is the secret behind Doherty’s work, so that several bloggers have expressed admiration for it in recent weeks? How do his characters hold up? Can he spin another impressive impossible crime set in the past? All this and more will be answered today!

Thank you for joining me today, TomCat!

***

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Simple Art of Murder

I’d like to welcome readers to another special edition of At the Scene of the Crime! Back in June, I collaborated with Sergio of Tipping My Fedora on a review of George Baxt’s The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case. Our views on the book were rather similar, but we approached it from two different vantage points: one that of a Baxt enthusiast (Sergio), the other of someone whose introduction to Baxt was far from pleasant (that would be me). So it seemed like a perfect plot to reunite with Sergio and collaborate on another review, as part of the 100th post extravaganza celebrations.

(What follows may seem like a non-sequitur, but bear with me.)

A few years ago, I picked up a copy of Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder. I’m not sure which edition I picked up, but I was never able to finish it (and my library got rid of it since). Symons then struck me as a condescending person who didn’t understand the fun of the genre, and his appraisal of several authors, including Dorothy L. Sayers, annoyed me. But all this time later, I’ve matured somewhat, and I was interested to see what impression would remain. Would I once again be annoyed by Symons? Or would I actually enjoy Bloody Murder?

Well, there was only one way to find out, and that was by reading the book. It then struck me that Bloody Murder would make excellent material for a crossover review with Sergio, who has expressed positive sentiments for Julian Symons and this book. And here we are today!

So let the repartee begin! Welcome back to the crime scene, Sergio!

***

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sto lat, to za mało…

It is hard to believe that already, after starting this blog such a short while ago, I am celebrating my 100th blog post. But that’s precisely what I’m doing at this very moment. It’s a very special milestone and I’m proud to have achieved it.

Since starting this blog, so much has happened. I’ve started using my French by writing a French language blog (which has been inactive for a bit but will start up again shortly) as well as reading books in French for fun. I’ve managed to survive through a Mickey Spillane novel, I’ve somewhat revised my opinions about George Baxt, and I’ve gotten to appreciate the hardboiled genre a little bit more. I’ve learned that Henry Wade is not as Humdrum as some might think, that R. Austin Freeman is an extremely interesting author, and that for all his flaws, Freeman Wills Crofts can be quite entertaining. I’ve also turned 18 in the process and spent a few weeks in Spain for the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid.


I’d like to thank everyone who visits the crime scene on a regular basis, whether you just read my critical analysis ramblings or post comments. I love reading mysteries, and I write these reviews in the hope that someone will find them useful, entertaining, or informative. It’s thanks to you readers that this blog keeps firing on all cylinders.

To mark this great occasion, I’ve prepared a special extravaganza for you all. Over the next few days, I will be involved in several crossover reviews with various other bloggers, readers, etc. Hopefully you can join us analysts addicts, as we take turns discussing various books/topics and celebrate the variety in what John Dickson Carr called “the grandest game in the world”.

You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles...

My library has got an interesting feature on their website. After you log in to your account, using library card number and a pin, you can look up your reading history. This way, I can see every book I’ve ever borrowed out on my library card, from the time I moved to this city to the present day. One entry in particular interests me. On April 21st, 2008, I checked out three books that would change my reading life for good: The Three Coffins, Hag’s Nook, and Nine— and Death Makes Ten. All three were penned by John Dickson Carr, and I read them in that order. I was immediately captivated and started placing Interlibrary Loans left and right, placing myself at the mercy of the system to read more Carr. Then, when I found out that He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and The Eight of Swords were unavailable via ILL, I started haunting the local used bookstores, to the point where I’m on a first name basis with a few of the owners. I found The Eight of Swords quickly enough—it was the first in my collection, along with The Crooked Hinge, The Mad Hatter Mystery, and A Graveyard to Let. Other titles were more elusive…

Then, on July 4th, 2009, I checked out a book by Douglas G. Greene: John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles. I delayed borrowing it out for quite a while. I thought it would be a stuffy academic criticising Carr and his writing left and right, throwing in never-before suspected connotations about his sexuality every other page.

As it turns out, I was completely wrong.

Monday, September 26, 2011

All that glisters is not gold

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Henry Wade’s Gold Was Our Grave. It is a 1954 novel, written under the Wade pseudonym by Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher. It’s the third book I’ve read by Wade, and although in general it’s a solid read, it is somewhat problematic at the same time. It has elements of a police procedural (for which Wade hardly gets enough credit) but it’s a genuine mystery at the same time.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning (an excellent place to start, I find). Hector Berrenton is a financier, who years ago was involved in a scandal involving the San Podino gold fields, when a Mexican engineer fabricated a fictional reserve of gold, tricking the company involved into asking for investments… only to ruin many people who had invested in good faith. It resulted in the prosecution of Berrenton and two others, who were accused of knowing the gold field was fake and supressing the information, selling out before the bottom dropped out and making some nice profit out of the whole deal. However, due to lack of evidence, the trio was acquitted…

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Yet She Must Die

Like famous critic Anthony Boucher, I’m a Catholic, and I believe God has a sense of humour. Either that or the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler has been up to his old tricks again. Why do I say this? This morning, after several months of the application process, I went to volunteer at the local hospital for the first time. Later, I realised how ironic it was that I just finished reading Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead.

See, The Wench is Dead largely takes place inside a hospital, as Inspector Morse finds himself there, recovering from a nasty bout of illness. While in the hospital, Morse comes into contact with fellow patients, nurses, doctors, etc. and they all turn out to be a very colourful, lively bunch that I liked reading about.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Can you see?

The 2002 movie Minority Report is one of my favourite movies of all-time. Then again, maybe I’m a little bit biased. I’m a huge fan of director Steven Spielberg, I tend to like action movies, and I really liked the movie’s creative visuals and special effects. I’d argue that it’s one of the greatest movies made in recent years, and it’s also a movie that mystery fans would probably enjoy.

The movie is based on a short story by (who else?) Phillip K. Dick. It stars Tom Cruise, who in those days hadn’t yet become the major punch line he is now. Cruise plays John Anderton, Chief of the Pre-Crime Unit in Washington, D.C. The Pre-Crime unit uses “precogs”, mutated human beings who experience visions of future murders. These are interpreted by police officers who go and arrest the culprit before they can commit their crime.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I am Inspector Tiger...

One of my favourite playwrights is Tom Stoppard, a veritable theatrical genius. His play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favourites; it’s an intellectual tennis match with the audience, as Stoppard retells the story of Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s two school friends. Throughout the play, the characters ponder on their purpose, the meaning of life, and the role of the theatre in life (although, of course, just about nobody debates that last point out loud).

Some of these elements are transferred into The Real Inspector Hound, Stoppard’s first play and a lively parody of the country-house whodunit, particularly Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Our two main characters are Birdboot and Moon, theatre critics. Birdboot is a fickle critic who is willing to give actresses positive reviews in exchange for certain favours. Moon is a second-string critic, substituting for Higgs, the first-stringer, who has failed to show up.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dead for a ducat

Like so many detectives before me, I found myself searching for a man's lost daughter. My case began last year. The girl I sought was a Californian, 17 years old. She lived in Santa Barbara. One winter night, she was driving home drunk from a party and struck and killed an 11-year-old boy. If I were the Continental Op, Dashiell Hammett's detective, the girl would be the wealthy daughter of a Manchu provincial leader now living in exile up in San Francisco. If I were Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, the girl would be the reckless daughter of an oil tycoon (…) Finally, if I were Lew Archer, Ross Macdonald's gentle but edgy investigator (…), the girl would be the daughter of a Santa Teresa pharmacist who had discovered that her father was not her father, but a man being blackmailed for 17 years by the president of a shipping company because her real father is the president's brother, the captain of an oil tanker who knocked up the girl's mother when he discovered her as a young stowaway aboard his ship hiding from her boyfriend, the pharmacist, who was then a young bank robber on the lam from a foiled job where he shot and killed a teller who was the mother of the captain's wife, who in turn was mother of the little boy the girl ran down (her half-brother).

Raymond Chandler is known for creating mean streets on which his detective, Phillip Marlowe, would walk. Ross Macdonald, however, took the hardboiled genre in a new direction by creating Lew Archer, a private detective who was sensitive. The Zebra-Striped Hearse was published in 1962, three years after 1959’s The Galton Case, which kicked off this series of hardboiled reviews. Perhaps it’s appropriate to come full circle and end this series by returning to the beginning… if that makes sense. If it doesn’t…. hey, it’s a Ross Macdonald novel.

Monday, September 12, 2011

We like to get the trial over with quickly, because it's the sentence that's really the fun!

It’s rare for me to be thoroughly disgusted by a novel. There have been plenty of unpleasant reading experiences, such as Anthony Wynne’s The Toll House Murder or Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. I have been alarmed a handful of times, such as with a disturbing central character in Peter Lovesey’s Mad Hatter’s Holiday. But until now, only George Baxt’s The Affair at Royalties had thoroughly disgusted me— I can now add Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury to the list.

Spillane was once the most vilified writer in America. His hero, Mike Hammer, is as politically incorrect as they come. He refuses to forgive the Japanese for the war, he plays games with his secretary, he sleeps with every woman he comes into contact with on the job, and he threatens or beats up half the suspects he interrogates. And that’s just the first few chapters.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

So Long, My Sweet

Earlier this year, I attempted to struggle through Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and failed. The book started off well, but at the point at which I gave up, the plot was going nowhere, you could see the ending coming for miles ahead, and it was so overly padded that I simply couldn’t face the prospect of finishing the book. I put it down, wrote a harshly negative and sarcastic series of comments, and concluded that, after all, Raymond Chandler couldn’t write, and his stories were no more realistic than those he blasted in his famous essay The Simple Art of Murder.

So perhaps it’s only fair to give Raymond Chandler another go. My motives were not entirely altruistic; I’ve been preparing to paint my room, putting all my books into boxes and the like (which, by the way, resulted in my desk falling apart yesterday, which will make a lovely start to the school year). So I’ve been listening to an audiobook, and Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely was the only one of his I could find which I hadn’t read yet. I had no intention of returning to the frankly incompetent The Big Sleep, and my thoughts on The Long Goodbye are already well-known.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Face-Off

Bon Cop Bad Cop is a very Canadian film. It is a mystery, a thriller, a cop/buddy movie and a comedy rolled into one, and it has two very Canadian things at its core. The first is the noble pastime of hockey, a truly Canadian sport. The second is the relations between English and French Canadians, which have not always been the most cordial. In October of 1970, it escalated into violence when members of the Fédération de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped James Cross and murdered Pierre Laporte. It was the only time in Canadian history that the War Measures Act (ie marshal law) was imposed during peacetime.

There are a few reasons for this (all too brief) digression on Canadian history. Like I said, it’s important to understand that French Canadians and English Canadians have not gotten along well in the past, as this plays a key role in Bon Cop Bad Cop. But my other motive is simply a love of history in general, and the October Crisis holds a strange fascination for me.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

[insert name-related pun here]

The last time I looked at a Bill Pronzini novel, it was Camouflage, the latest entry in the Nameless Detective series, published in June of this year. It is somewhat fitting then that I return to the series with Blowback, the fourth book in the series, published in 1977. My copy of the book comes complete with a quote that declares the main character is “an immensely likable addition to the roster of private investigators”. It slightly shocked me when I realized that the quote was attributed to my favourite author of all-time, John Dickson Carr. In 1978, the year my edition was printed, Carr could still sell books. My, how times change.

Blowback is a fairly short novel, but it is jam-packed with events. It all starts when the Nameless Detective gets a call from an old friend and fellow WWII veteran, Harry Burroughs. Harry owns and runs a small fishing camp, and invites Nameless to spend some time there, as he would like to ask him a favour. Nameless is waiting for results of a test—he has a lesion on one of his lungs and is waiting to hear whether it is benign or malignant. Waiting it out alone over the weekend doesn’t sound like much fun, so he decides to accept Harry’s invitation.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Murder on Air

It might seem like an odd choice to review a novel by William L. DeAndrea in this series of hardboiled reviews. But in this case, I think the choice is defensible: Killed in the Ratings (DeAndrea’s first novel) is far more hardboiled than later entries in the Matt Cobb series. The book deservedly won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and DeAndrea would follow it up impressively, winning another Edgar the following year for The Hog Murders. (Here’s an interesting bit of trivia—looking at the dust jacket of Killed in the Ratings, it seems that DeAndrea originally planned to call his second book The Serial Murders.)

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Are you a detective?

Macdonald constructed his plots rather than improvise them, thereby merging his novelist’s concern for his themes with the reader’s desire for a good (and fairly clued) mystery. The plot was everything with Macdonald. Beginning with The Galton Case (1959) (…) all Macdonald’s novels have the same plot. A murder in the past traumatizes a child and poisons the present, threatening a relationship and causing more murders. The themes of child’s loss of parent and parent’s loss of child (Macdonald experienced both) are rendered poignantly again and again.
—William DeAndrea, Encyclopedia Mysteriosa

Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald
When I moved, I started to attend Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School. This is the same high school that Margaret Millar and her husband Kenneth Millar (better known under his pseudonym Ross Macdonald) attended. For what it’s worth, I despised the school, which is full to the brim of bad memories for me. I don’t recall a single enjoyable day I had between those walls, and returning for a single evening to obtain a diploma was one the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I left five minutes after the general reunion got underway.

Perhaps it’s one of the reasons I’ve been interested with the work of Ross Macdonald, a prolific writer of hardboiled mysteries starring private eye Lew Archer. I have no idea how he and his wife enjoyed the high school experience, but I walked through the same corridors as they did for a few years. What really surprises me is how long it’s taken me to read something by Macdonald: I decided to acquaint myself with his work through The Galton Case, which he apparently considered the book in which he broke off from the influence of Raymond Chandler and started writing his own way.