Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year in Review: Top 10 Discoveries of 2011

What better feeling is there than stumbling over an author you love? That moment of excitement, the thrill of the discovery, is one of many things that keep us readers going. We want to find an author who will excite us, and when we find one, we tend to hold on and refuse to let go.

2011 was no exception for me— I discovered new authors left and right and many of these discoveries were tremendously exciting. Some authors I unfortunately neglected despite the discovery, but I’ll be doing my best to make up for that in the New Year. But which discoveries were the most exciting? After all, it’s been a long year and there have been many book reviews. Surely some must stand out more than others.

Yes, it’s time for another list as I take a look at the ten most exciting literary discoveries I made in 2011. They are, in alphabetical order:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Year in Review... Worst Reading Moments of 2011

Yesterday I posted an article celebrating the best of 2011, but today it’s time to get the furnace fired up to dispose of the literary cadavers I stumbled across throughout the year. I created a tag which I dubbed the “Hall of Shame”, the tag I used for books that had something they ought to have been ashamed of. At times, the book itself wasn’t to blame, but there was still something inextricably, unequivocally, vociferously awful about my experience reading it. Unsurprisingly, many of the entries in the list below made it onto the Hall of Shame, and a few were so awful I neglected to apply the tag until now. But some of these books had enough merit to keep them off that list.

So without further ado, here are, in order of severity, the worst reading moments I experienced in 2011:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Year in Review... Best Books Read in 2011

Not to worry-- it's just a flesh wound.
It has been an interesting year for me. At the Scene of the Crime was not officially opened until March 26th, but my blogging journey began on March 8th. I had read a book I still consider awful in every respect: George Baxt’s The Affair at Royalties. It left me incensed and I finally decided to script and write an internet video based on a rant I wrote about the book. It was flawed in nearly every way: after a promising opening, all signs of imagination were banished from the book as George Baxt engaged in “hilarious” satire about Agatha Christie that missed the entire point. I didn’t even bother stopping before the dénouement, I just ploughed through it and pointed out just how ridiculous the ending was.

I now look back at that video with horror— it seems to me nothing more than a collection of shouts instead of a thought-out review. Nevertheless, instead of getting bashed myself, I got fairly positive reception for my video. I followed it up with two articles and then decided to open up a site on Blogger. I went with a purple colour scheme that, in retrospect, must have been absolutely hideous. I later redesigned the blog entirely, giving it a background pulled from various crime scene maps to fit in with the title. And the older the blog got, the more experienced I became.

Throughout 2011, I’ve read many books but now that the year is drawing to a close, I feel it is time to look back through the year and count down the Top 10 mystery novels I’ve read this year. This list was incredibly hard to compile and I was forced to omit many titles that I’ve given an honourable mention. But at the end of the day, these ten novels were left standing as the best of the best that I’ve read in 2011. They are in alphabetical order:

Monday, December 26, 2011

Do you know that lady?

One of the most fascinating literary figures in the mystery domain is Craig Rice. She began her writing career with Eight Faces at Three, published in 1939, and quickly rose to the top of the mystery landscape. Then, just as suddenly, her production dwindled. In the first six years of her career, she wrote at an astounding pace, coming up with 17 books (going by the bibliography in Jeffrey Marks’ Who Was That Lady?). In the final 12 years of her career, only seven books were published, of which she edited one and one was a collection of previously-written pieces.

But who was Craig Rice really? The only thing that seemed readily available was a magazine article from Time of dubious veracity. Much confusion existed about her background and her life, and just about the only thing everyone more or less agreed about was that drink destroyed the rising star’s career. Alcohol flows freely in a Craig Rice novel, but her life was a far cry from the farce that makes up a typical John J. Malone novel. In an introduction to 8 Faces at 3, published by IPL, William Ruehlmann wrote that “Craig Rice wrote the binge but lived the hangover.” You couldn’t better sum up Rice’s tragic life and the contrast it forms with her extremely funny books. But if you, like me, are itching to find out just “Who Was That Lady?” I highly recommend Jeffrey Marks’ biography of that name.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Murder has no language barrier

Paul Halter’s 1997 novel Les Sept merveilles du crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime) has now been published in English, thanks to the relentless efforts of translator John Pugmire. It is the second Owen Burns novel to be translated after Le Roi du désordre (The Lord of Misrule) and the third Halter published in English, hot on the heels of his award-winning La Quatrième porte (The Fourth Door).

The Seven Wonders of Crime is centered on a fascinating idea. Owen Burns and Achilles Stock are back in action as a serial killer begins to terrorize the nation. The faceless madman is striking again and again, killing people in apparently impossible ways and all the while patterning his murders on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. It’s an impressive to-do list and the killer is making his job harder by sending taunting messages along to the police, not by handwriting his message or pasting it with various letters from newspapers, but by painting his messages onto canvas. (Naturally, I use “he” to describe the killer merely as a matter of convenience. It could be anyone or anything, so don't take the choice of pronoun as a clue.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reliving Childhood

I have always had a soft spot for Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin. I more or less grew up with the comic books; they were one of the many things that helped me to learn French. Tintin’s adventures are like those of Indiana Jones— there’s often an element of mystery, but there’s plenty of action that could have come right out of a 1930s serial movie. When I learned one of my all-time favourite directors, Steven Spielberg, would be adapting Tintin, I was ecstatic— Spielberg, who directed such classic as Raiders of the Lost Ark, seemed the perfect choice. Unfortunately, I saw the project delayed time and time again—this studio dropped out, this actor left the project, this strike interferes with the script-writing process… The film seemed cursed…

This summer, while I was at the airport in Paris, I went to the bookstore and to my delight found several French mysteries. Then, as I was about to walk off, I noticed another book— this one was about Tintin, specifically the historical events and figures that inspired the various stories. I purchased the book and enthusiastically read it on the flight (as I am unable to sleep on a plane the second it leaves the ground). Thanks to that book I learned just how the idea for a Tintin film struggled even before Steven Spielberg committed himself to the project in the early 80s. Spielberg was a godsend for this series, for he vowed to stay true to Hergé’s vision.

Now the final product has arrived. It was opening night here in our local theatre on the 21st, and I absolutely had to go see a childhood icon of mine on the big screen. I even paid some more money to see it in 3D, a technology I’m often disdainful of, for the simple reason that the 2D version was not being shown just yet. Has Spielberg kept true to his word? Is this the fun, adventurous Tintin I remember from my childhood or does it resonate hollowly now that I’ve gotten older?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Silence for the Murderer!

When are you guaranteed that an after-dinner speaker won’t be dull? Why, when he drops dead, of course, having gotten himself murdered! It’s what happens to Cheney Boone, head of a federal agency called the Bureau of Price Regulation (BPR). And while its opponents, such as the National Industrial Association (NIA) are rejoicing, Nero Wolfe sets out to find the killer.

This is for the excellent reason that Nero Wolfe’s bank is not particularly pleased to have him as a client at the moment... With the funds stretched to their limits, Archie pesters his boss until Wolfe accepts a high retainer from the NIA to discover the killer. How nice of the NIA— but the real motive for the hiring is that the NIA wishes to find the killer ASAP and stop the discrediting rumours about the organization.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Your move, Professor...

When Sherlock Holmes came out two years ago, I was sceptic. I criticized the trailer for marketing yet another dumb action movie that capitalised on an infamous creation. But as the reviews poured in, I found them surprisingly positive, finally relenting and going to see the film for myself. To my delight, I found that the movie was an intelligent and entertaining film with a very modern take on Sherlock Holmes, hardly the all-out action flick the trailer represented. I solemnly ate my words and enjoyed the movie enormously. My reviews were extremely positive— I even made it into The American Culture with my review, the only time that’s ever happened.

I was all for a sequel… but when the trailers for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows appeared, doubt crept back into my mind. These trailers were even worse than those for the first film, showing disparate elements covering everything between Sherlock Holmes cross-dressing, Lisbeth Salander as a gypsy, and homicidal train employees using a machine gun in an assassination attempt. It seemed like this film would be a total disaster. Besides, let’s be honest: A Game of Shadows is one of the dullest and most uninspired titles of all the Sherlock Holmes films ever made.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

That is the question...

The title of René Reouven’s Tobie or not Tobie could be translated as Tobias or not Tobias, but to be honest, it ruins one of the best bilingual puns I’ve ever heard and certainly one of my favourite titles. So I will go with the name “Tobie” throughout this article to describe the central character of Reouven’s book. It is constructed around an idea that captured my imagination the very moment I heard of it: Reouven takes the Biblical Book of Tobit and rewrites it as a mystery! And Archons of Athens— Reouven even manages to construct the mystery around an impossible crime!

The Book of Tobit lends itself excellently to this rewriting process. A quick summary of the plot might be in order: Tobit, an elderly man, is blind, and despairs that his son Tobie is twenty and still not married. He sends Tobie to Media to collect a large sum of money he loaned to a cousin named Gabael. And while he’s there, there’s a nearby town where a young woman named Sarah lives. She’s twenty years old, beautiful, and unmarried! What a happy coincidence! So Tobit hires a guide for Tobie, a man going under the moniker of Azariah.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Then is the spectres' holiday - then is the ghosts' high noon!

When the spooks have a midnight Jamboree
They break it up with fiendish glee
Ghosts are bad, but the one that's cursed
It's the Headless Horseman, he's the worst.

—Brom Bones, Disney's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The most remarkable element of The Cup of Ghosts is how carefully researched it is. Paul Doherty constructs a fine narrative around true historical events (as he explains in his author’s note at the book’s conclusion). Someone really did die during the coronation ceremony of Edward II— Doherty tweaks it ever so slightly and turns it into a fine murder. Other people who really existed died within a short span of time, and Doherty plays the role of the Grim Reaper again by despatching them with murders, including one locked-room mystery. And Doherty paints a remarkable political picture of the times, as a subtle chess match is being played out between Philip of France and Edward of England.

Into it all Doherty casts Mathilde of Westminster, based on a real historical figure. She was living with her uncle, an influential Templar knight, when Philip of France moved to crush the order and seize its treasures. Mathilde’s escape was arranged— her uncle wasn’t so lucky. Mathilde is hidden in the best possible hiding spot—smack in the middle of the lions’ den, as Princess Isabella’s dame de chambre. Well, the two quickly forge a friendship, but it’s immediately tested severely. A string of brutal murders take place, and there are whispers that Edward of England might very well refuse to marry Isabella despite a French-English treaty. There’s discontent among the English Lords at the favour Edward shows to Lord Gaveston, and trouble in general is brewing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Challenge to the Reader

John Dickson Carr was one of the finest grandmasters in what he called “the grandest game in the world”. For years, he stumped mystery readers with his locked room murders and various impossible problems. In the 1950s, he turned to the historical mystery after deciding he neither understood nor liked the direction the modern world was taking. You could say this began in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate. The 1952 novel The Nine Wrong Answers, although set in modern day, reflects Carr’s dislike of the times. However, the Master never loses focus on his story, and these feelings don’t come across as spiteful (as they do at times in the messy The Cavalier’s Cup). That's a good thing, because plot-wise, the book is one of Carr’s finest later efforts.

Our hero is Bill Dawson, who comes to the lawyers’ firm of Amberley, Sloane & Amberley. They have placed an ad in the newspapers asking for him to step forward— his grandmother has died and left him a small legacy of about 100 pounds. Bill is grateful that the old lady remembered him in the first place, but at the lawyer’s office, he meets Larry Hurst and Joy Tennent. Larry seems keenly interested in him, and when Bill leaves, Larry rushes out after him with $10,000, telling Bill he can have it all for six months’ work.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Trial by Stupidity

I love the stuff written by Anthony Berkeley, and was looking forward to reacquainting myself with his work. I decided to go with something written under his Francis Iles pseudonym: Before the Fact, which was adapted into the Hitchcock film Suspicion. However, I hesitate to call Before the Fact a mystery at all, since the only mystery is just how stupid the heroine is.

Lina McLaidlaw marries Johnnie Aysgarth, despite the warnings from her family, particularly her father, who says the Aysgarth clan is rotten stock. But Lina believes she can rehabilitate little Johnnie— he’s her little child and she so desperately wants what’s best for him. Of course, unknown to her, Johnnie is a murderer, something we find out in the very first paragraph of the book. And at first, Before the Fact is an excellent portrayal of an insecure woman desperately clinging to a love affair, no matter how unhealthy and unwise it is for her. That lasts about eight chapters.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Devil Take the Hindmost

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
— The Ghost, Hamlet (Act I, scene v)

When I recently read Roland Lacourbe’s book on John Dickson Carr, Scribe du miracle, I was particularly interested by a section of the book devoted to various John Dickson Carr homages, parodies, etc. One of these was described in particularly glowing terms: Whistle up the Devil by Derek Smith. I had heard of this book and was intrigued, and Lacourbe’s brief comment was the one that finally sold me on the book. Since brevity is the soul of wit, I will be brief: Whistle up the Devil has got to be one of the most fiendishly ingenious impossible crime novels ever written, period.

It starts off with the best trappings of a fine John Dickson Carr novel. Our protagonist is one Algy Lawrence, a young, good-natured, and somewhat naïve young man. “He could never hope to handle routine work with the quiet excellence which is the hallmark of the professional; but he could tackle the bizarre and the fantastic with expert skill.” One morning, he gets a call from his good friend, Chief Inspector Steve Castle. Steve has got a tantalising problem for him— no, nobody has been killed yet… but it just might happen

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Electronic Detective

I love this cover's simple elegance!
I’m an admirer of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe tales, which are some of the most fun I’ve ever had reading mysteries. I particularly love the narrative voice of Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s assistant. The two are complete opposites: Archie’s a tough man of action and Wolfe is a lazy armchair detective—he quite literally refuses to budge anywhere.

It’s interesting to see what author Dave Zeltserman has written in the way of an homage to Wolfe. His detective, Julius Katz, is unlike Wolfe in many ways. He goes through rigorous exercises and martial arts training, for one thing. However, like Wolfe, he absolutely refuses to work unless he has to, and he also happens to be a gourmet (particularly when it comes to fine wines).

Both Zeltserman and Stout have one thing in common: Archie. But Zeltserman has come up with an absolutely brilliant, innovative variation on Archie Goodwin— Julius Katz’s Archie is not real. By that I mean Archie is not a person, but a supercomputer: a marvel of technology that Julius wears as a tie clip. Archie is designed to simulate human intelligence, and by observing his boss he hopes to one day solve a murder before he does.

Archie works with probabilities and logic, but that doesn’t stop him from nagging his boss Julius, in an eagerness to refine his neuron networks as often as possible. The e-book Julius Katz Mysteries is available for free, and all mystery lovers should take advantage of this offer. It collects two stories that were published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine—the first is more of a novella, while the second is more conventional short story length. Both, however, are great fun.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The game's afoot!

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.
     Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

We’ve had something of a Sherlock Holmes revival in recent years. This is mainly due to the release of Sherlock Holmes, a Hollywood blockbuster starring Robert Downey Jr. as the immortal sleuth and Jude Law as Watson. I highly enjoyed the movie, but have major reservations about the sequel, the trailer to which is even worse than the misleading trailer for the first film! But I digress. Along with this Hollywood revival of detective films (The Thin Man is due for a Johnny Depp remake, and Downey Jr. is set to star as Perry Mason—not to mention the money-grubbing Disney studio out to reimagine Miss Marple as a sexy young Jennifer Garner), we’ve seen the Holmes stories reissued and pastiches of all shapes and colours. And the highest-profile one at the moment is Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, which has been billed as the first novel to get official approval from the Arthur Conan Doyle estate. (But wasn’t Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary also approved by the estate?)

The House of Silk sounds like a typical Holmes pastiche, thanks to the cliché wording of the cover and (on one occasion) Dr. Watson, which claims that the events could “unravel the very fabric of society”. Which basically means Professor Moriarty is part of a world-wide conspiracy to steal the Queen’s underpants during her Diamond Jubilee. Right? Wrong! I was pleasantly surprised. The story begins as a typical Sherlock Holmes adventure, but it slowly expands into an investigation of the titular house of silk.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Great E-Book Debate

I was not expecting its arrival any time soon...
For years I have resisted the e-book revolution. While I could see the advantages of an e-book reader, I simply didn’t see myself using one. The books I’d like to read aren’t available on the format, I said, so why bother getting one? It seemed pointless…

But I’ve finally given in. What does this mean? Will I convert to the Kindle and regard printed books with disdain? Can mystery readers look forward to an imminent auctioning off of my small collection?

Briefly put, the answer is a resounding no. I love printed books and will always remain devoted to them. But there were several factors that pushed me into finally purchasing an e-reader. And so I’d like to share with you the Top 6 Reasons I Bought a Kindle. Why Top 6? Because it’s a nice, round number and I have no better reason. Here goes: