Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Death to the Vampire!

Just last week, fellow blogger TomCat took a look at Mike Resnick’s Stalking the Dragon, a parody of hardboiled detective stories with a simple premise at heart: the story, while told in a hardboiled style, took place in a parallel universe with goblins, leprechauns, dragons, and the like walking down the same streets as the private eye, John Justice Mallory. And I instantly resolved to read one of these books in the near future (especially seeing what time of year this is). Well, that day is today, and the book in question is Resnick’s Stalking the Vampire.

It’s Halloween, and detective John Justice Mallory notices that his partner, Winifred Carruthers, seems unusually pale. That’s when he notices the bite-marks on her neck, and he quickly deduces that they were inflicted by her nephew Rupert, who has come over for a visit to his aunt. Well, it’s true: on the boat over to New York, Rupert was bitten by a vampire named Aristotle Draconis, and now Mallory has to figure out how to protect Winifred from her nephew. But then Rupert disappears, and is later found murdered outside Winifred’s apartment. Is Draconis responsible? And if not him, who?

Monday, October 29, 2012

I remember...

Donald E. Westlake’s Memory was published posthumously by Hard Case Crime. It was written by the author way back in his early days of writing, but it was never published. I first heard of this book when reading an article on Donald E. Westlake by Lawrence Block, collected in Mystery & Suspense Writers, Volume 2. Block described the novel and praised it in glowing terms. According to the article, 30 years later, Westlake decided not to publish the novel because he considered it too much a creature of its time.

I’m a big Donald E. Westlake fan, though admittedly I’m a newcomer. And Memory is a challenge to describe. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever reviewed for this blog. It isn’t a mystery in any proper sense of the word, and yet… Okay, here’s the plot: Paul Cole, an actor, is assaulted by the husband of his current lover, and he lands in the hospital. But on waking up, he finds that his memory is bad—it is like a sieve, full of holes and gaps that he simply cannot fill. Memories are constantly draining from his head, though he remembers who he is, how to dance, and (presumably) how to tie his shoes. I know what you’re thinking: this sounds a lot like Memento! But it isn’t anything like the brilliant Christopher Nolan movie – which I highly recommend. Memory is very much a creature of its own…

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Return of Mike Hammer

By Gad, sir, you are a character.
- Casper Gutman, The Maltese Falcon

Regular readers of my blog know that when I read I, The Jury, the first Mike Hammer novel, my reaction was very negative. Well, that’s the nice way of putting it: truth be told, I was positively disgusted by the “hero” and the graphic violence. In fact, I chose it as one of my worst reading moments of 2011. But like him or not, Mike Hammer’s influence on the genre cannot be denied.

Indeed, the best defenses I’ve read of the character come from Max Allan Collins. In the collection Books to Die For, Collins wrote about Spillane’s I, The Jury. He drew some surprisingly astute comparisons between the book and an Agatha Christie plot – although no mention was made of the major plotholes, which were pointed out by Bill Pronzini in Gun in Cheek. But once again, I found myself impressed with Collins’ defense of the series, though it didn’t make me like Mike Hammer any more. Last week, when I reviewed Collins’ novel True Detective, I was honoured when Collins himself visit the blog and left a comment, where he asked me not to give up on Mike Hammer.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Grand Finale

The last time we checked in at Nero Wolfe’s brownstone in The Second Confession, the great man was directly confronted by Arnold Zeck, a criminal mastermind who is something like the Professor Moriarty to his Sherlock Holmes. Luckily for Wolfe, soon afterwards, an event occurred that placed Zeck squarely on Wolfe’s side. But Zeck has gone too far this time.

It happens when Sarah Rackham asks for Wolfe’s help. She is a wealthy woman, and has been happily married to Barry Rackham for four years. In that time, Barry has regularly asked for money, but lately his demands increased so dramatically that Sarah finally refused to give him anything one time. After that, Barry no longer asked her for money, and yet his extravagant spending habits are unchanged. Where is all this money coming from?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Art of Pretentiousness

Every once in a while, a book comes along and changes everything. A book that forces you to look at the world in a new way and to question everything you felt you knew. It’s a book that can define a generation, and change the course of history. Paul Auster’s City of Glass is such a book. It dares you to ask “Who am I?” and “What the hell am I doing reading this?” Truly, this book represents the very epitome of Literary Art. No other book has affected me as much as City of Glass this year. This masterpiece, this tour de force par excellence, has forced me to look over my previous blog posts and wonder what I was thinking. The word “pretentious” does not mean what I thought it meant. And so I would like to begin by apologising to Raymond Chandler for using the adjective to describe his work.

Paul Auster’s City of Glass is Book 1 of “The New York Trilogy”, and it was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. I’m glad to see that the Edgar committee has some sense. Finally, R E A L   L i t e r a t u r e  is nominated in the category. And believe you me, literature can’t get more real than this. See, the entire story revolves around Daniel Quinn, a fellow who – get this –  writes detective stories! Jolly good jumping jelly beans, what a delightful reference to the genre! Anyhow, one night, he gets a telephone call, asking not for Daniel Quinn but for… wait for it… Paul Auster! Say what? Yes, indeed, the author himself is asked for at the telephone. Or is he? For Auster appears as a character as well as being credited as the author, but it is Quinn who is the protagonist, and yet a third person altogether who writes the whole thing!!! Isn’t this whole thing delightful? So very metaphysical, in an almost Miltonian sense, though it never quite approaches the fluid poetry of Keats.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gangsters and Gunsels and Gals (Oh My!)

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
—Maxwell Scott, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Max Allan Collins is something of a recurring figure on this blog. I’ve quoted an interesting article he wrote on “The Hard-Boiled Detective” in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. I’ve read two of his Batman short stories. But I hadn’t yet read any of his novels. I finally took the first step in that direction a while ago, where ten of Collins’ Nate Heller books formed the Kindle Daily Deal – each priced at $1.99. I bought all ten of them. But then I figured to myself, why start in the middle of a series I know nothing about? Why not start where the series started? And so I bought True Detective, the first novel in the Nate Heller series.

The Kindle edition begins with a terrific introduction from the author. He talks about how he came up with the concept for this series and how this book came to be. He tells readers how he named his son, how his literary idol Mickey Spillane complimented him on this book, and how (due to its length and content) it was a challenging book to sell. He also expresses a genuine hope that readers will enjoy the book. I know for a fact that there’s at least one insane reader in Canada who loved every page of it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nothing is Impossible

Last year, I reviewed The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. A translation that was published in 2011, it was the first “new” novel that I had read for the blog and when I found out that a second novel was about to be translated, Salvation for a Saint, I perked up and kept track of the publication date. On the day of this novel’s release I purchased an audiobook. I loved The Devotion of Suspect X, and was hoping to once again get a clever story with good characterization.

Well, Keigo Higashino has done it again. This is an improvement over The Devotion of Suspect X. Once more, it’s an inverted mystery, and once more you know who the killer is. But the author turns it into an impossible crime novel, and manages to pull off a daring piece of sleight-of-hand! The plot is a simple enough one: a wife, Ayane Mashiba, decides to poison her husband Yoshitaka, a man so selfish that he was going to divorce his wife because she hadn’t given birth to a child. But, trickster that he is, Keigo Higashino forgets to tell you just how she murders Yoshitaka, who meets his Maker thanks to poison in his coffee.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What a Trick!: The Tricksters Return

Back in April, I reviewed the entire first season of the Japanese TV show Trick. I found it a delightful series. Although the plots often came with more holes than Swiss cheese, the comedy was fairly decent and the chemistry between the two leads was absolutely terrific. And so it was just a matter of time before I got around to season two.

Overall, I thought season two was a major improvement over the first season. There are still plot holes, but these aren’t quite as jarring as those from the first season—and to be honest, it forms part of the series’ charm. The subtitles also markedly improved, and so I got to appreciate a lot more of the jokes. The production design also improved—season one at times looked like a low-budget 70s TV show. Season two now feels like an okay-budgeted 80s TV show. (Okay, pardon the bad joke.) Finally, the stories in season two have got even more intriguing premises than those of season one, and in general, the plots are a lot more satisfying. Plot-wise, season one only had a few minor successes. Season two, on the other hand, is mainly composed of successes.

Some things have changed in season two. Professor Ueda is now well-known, with a successful TV show and a bestselling book called “Come Over, Spiritual Phenomena”. Naoko Yamada, meanwhile, is still at the same apartment with the same landlord, and she still performs magic tricks. Only now, she resents how the Professor keeps taking credit for the cases she helps to solve. The two police officers, Yabe Kenzo and his assistant Tatsuya Ishihara, play bigger roles than they did in the first season, and continue to admire Professor Ueda while showing nothing but disdain for Naoko.

Keep in mind that my plot summaries will try to avoid spoilers, and so I won’t describe many of the scams that are exposed on the side. The episodes really like that kind of thing, where a psychic or medium or whatnot will try to prove their authenticity with a bold trick. Describing them all would be a major chore, however, and would probably make this review far too long. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on season two of Trick.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

No Smoke Without Fire

It’s a dangerous world when an author sets about to write a book with pre-existing characters. The quality of such novelizations can vary wildly. An author might do well with the characters, construct a good plot, and engage his readers. But just as easily, an author could turn out a lazy, unmemorable product. I’ve come across both types of novelizations in my (admittedly brief) time. So when I finally made the decision to approach Lee Goldberg’s Monk novelisations, it was with something like a sense of unease. Which category would this turn out to be in?

My evidence is limited to the first book in the series, Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse. But I’m glad to report that it was a fun little book to read: it’s got a decent plot and good characterization. And it’s fun to keep track of the story. It all starts out when Adrian Monk’s home is being fumigated. None of his friends want him to move in with them, and hotel managers break down in terror when he approaches them to thoroughly examine their rooms. Finally, his assistant Natalie Teeger decides to let him stay at her place.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

When Two Great Minds Meet

Whenever we walk into the brownstone of Nero Wolfe, we’re used to seeing everything in its place. Fritz is in the kitchen, doubtless making another fine dish for his employer. Theodore Horstmann is upstairs in the plant rooms, tending to ten thousand orchids. And when Wolfe isn’t up there himself, he’s in his office reading a book and attempting to ignore Archie Goodwin’s sarcastic digs, with the occasional cry of “Pfui!” But how did it all get there?

After all, Wolfe and Archie had to meet—what was that first encounter like? Were they working on a case together? What case was it? What did Archie do to impress Wolfe so much that something possessed him to hire the young man as his personal assistant, when their personalities are such polar opposites? To answer all these questions, Robert Goldsborough ended up writing Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to Rex Stout’s famous series.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A-Blogging We Will Go...

Hello everybody, and happy Friday! Although I’m aware of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, I’ve never posted an intentional FFB review myself. But this Friday is a special one—it’s Agatha Christie day! And readers of my blog know very well that at the mention of her name, I’m liable to go off babbling about how wonderful she was for hours. I’ve read most of her output multiple times and that’s why her name hasn’t shown up so often in reviews… but I did manage to persuade John Curran to do an interview/discussion with me on the subject of Christie.

For this Friday, I was asked to contribute an Agatha Christie review to Kevin Tipple’s excellent blog, which is where Barry Ergang posts many of his reviews. (Barry’s a dangerous reviewer, and I can’t even guess the number of books I’ve bought based on his recommendations.) Of course, I was both honoured and very pleased – for once, the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler was on my side, because I was just preparing to write a review of Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage!

So for today, I’ve temporarily set up shop at Kevin’s Corner, and I hope you will all join me there! Please click here to read my review of The Murder at the Vicarage.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Doc it Was That Died

"[W]hy in the name of literature must I be fobbed off with long discussions of the detective's personal problems? Am I a couch?"
—Jacques Barzun

Dr. Mawsley, the Harley Street gland specialist, was not universally liked, but everyone agreed that he knew his stuff. He was, in effect, the top man in the country for all things gland-related, which makes his sudden death all the more mysterious. You see, Mawsley was alone in a room while his butler stood outside the door. Suddenly, there comes the sound of a crash, and when the butler enters the room, he sees his master lying on the floor, dead, having given himself a fatal dose of strychnine. It happens in John Rhode’s Death in Harley Street.

Was it suicide? Of course not—Mawsley simply wasn’t that kind of man. Utterly self-centered, his practice was thriving and he had much to look forward to. (In fact, he had just spent that evening discussing an unexpected £5,000 legacy that he had inherited.) Besides, suicide was far out of character. So was it murder? Equally unlikely, for several reasons that John Rhode details thoroughly (but which I can’t afford to go into). So it must have been an accident. But how could such an eminent doctor make such a stupid mistake and willingly give himself a lethal injection?

Monday, October 08, 2012

One Hell of a Mess

I don’t know what it is about me reading books involving the devil’s footprints of late. But that’s precisely what we get in Arthur Upfield’s The Devil’s Steps—at one point, it seems that Satan himself walked across a patch of grass, killing the grass there and leaving the imprint of enormous feet. And indeed, this is the cleverest situation of the book, and rather quickly explained. The rest of the book is a rather unsuccessful attempt to combine a mystery and a spy thriller of sorts.

Please be warned: I read an audiobook edition, and the narrator was good… but I have no idea how most of these names are spelled. So I won’t risk it. I’ll be avoiding names throughout this review. Anyhow, The Devil’s Steps opens with the murder of a German man down in an Australian guest home. Luckily, Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is there to conduct the investigation? Although it’s not really a stroke of luck—it turns out the murder victim was a very highly placed official during the Third Reich and left the country with important state secrets that ‘Bony’ must recover before they fall into the wrong hands!

Saturday, October 06, 2012

'Tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil

Maciej Słomczyński
Joe Alex was the pen name of Polish author Maciej Słomczyński (1922-1998). His most famous accomplishment is that he was the only person in the world to translate the complete works of William Shakespeare – an accomplishment I mention because it is relevant to today’s review. Unfortunately, his translations have been criticized as unclear, unfaithful to the source material, and lacking “literary value”—whatever that is. Still, the accomplishment itself is an impressive one, and it is a work of Shakespeare’s – sort of – that lends his novel Jesteś tylko diabłem (You’re Only a Demon) its title.

I say “sort of” because the text in question is The Birth of Merlin, which although originally credited as a co-production between Shakespeare and William Rowley, most scholars nowadays agree that Shakespeare didn’t write any of it. Another reason I say “sort of” is because the book kicks off with the following quote of The Birth of Merlin, translated into Polish… and the lines I have highlighted are all condensed into the phrase “Jesteś tylko diabłem”.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Hoorah for the Humdrums!

Curt Evans, mystery scholar extraordinaire, has been on the blogosphere for a while now, managing an interesting little blog entitled The Passing Tramp. As the name may indicate, the blog is devoted to wandering around the mystery genre, encountering all sorts of interesting specimens, and then reporting back to readers. It’s an excellent blog, and I tend to agree with Curt on many points, especially his continued and unrepentant defense of a group of authors collectively known as “The Humdrums”. You could say he’s written the book on the subject. Literally—I am of course talking about Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-61.

To put it quite simply, Curt’s book is a bravura performance. He takes a look at three major mystery authors from the Golden Age: John Rhode/Miles Burton, Freeman Wills Crofts, and J. J. Connginton. All three men have been condemned to out-of-print hell, and when brought up by academics at all, their opinions tend to be largely dismissive of these “mere puzzles”. But Curt remains unconvinced, and through his analyses he tries to prove that these books have far more merit to them than such a label might imply.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

An Unsuitable Job for a Poorly-Defined-Character-Who-is-Nonetheless-an-Interesting-Concept

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the legendary private eye Philip Marlowe is introduced (at least, in novel form), and like it not, Marlowe is one of the most important figures in the genre’s history. For that reason alone, every serious mystery fan should read The Big Sleep at least once. Whether they will enjoy the book is another matter altogether.

The plot: uhm… Marlowe goes from place to place to witness people getting gunned down, and comes across every racist homophobic sexist in the city of Los Angeles. It seems that everyone’s primary purpose in life is to make Marlowe’s existence a living hell. There’s some stuff about pornography, blackmail, and other cheerful subject matter, and an attempt is made to create a plot out of it. The attempt fails. In fact, at times the book makes you wonder whether Raymond Chandler somehow managed to defy space and time and read John Dickson Carr's The Grandest Game in the World back in the 1930s, never realizing that its summary of a hardboiled mystery was a satire, not a guide on how to write them!

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

A Predicament

... You've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?
– Harry Callahan, Dirty Harry (1971)

After the success of The Floating Admiral, The Detection Club soon decided to do another round-robin novel entitled Ask a Policeman. The cast list was once again comprised of all-stars, but this time they were not quite as numerous. Six novelists combined their efforts into Ask a Policeman, namely Helen Simpson, Milward Kennedy, John Rhode, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, and Dorothy L. Sayers.

The plot is only a semi-serious one, although the parody elements never outweigh the detection elements. A rich, despised-by-all newspaper tycoon is shot dead at his house, with a plethora of suspects playing a complex game of ring-around-the-rosy around the scene of the crime. But, as luck would have it, these suspects happen to include an Archbishop, the Chief Whip of a political party, and an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard. But for good measure, you can throw in the dead man’s secretary and a Mysterious Lady, as well as a suspicious butler and other members of the domestic staff.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Acquisitive Chuckle III: It's Really the Fourth Entry in the "Showing off Acquisitions" Series, but Only the Third to Use "The Acquisitive Chuckle" in the Title

Well, folks, it’s been a while since my last update on acquisitions. And believe me, there have been plenty of acquisitions in the interim. My biggest haul was pulled off lately when a local used bookstore, which just closed down, held a huge final sale in which prices were ridiculously low. How could I not take advantage of these deals? There are plenty of books to cover and I know I’ll manage to forget some, so let’s get right to it!