Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Case of the Tardy Talmudist

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late introduces us to Rabbi David Small, the series detective of Harry Kemelman. Back when this book was published, Rabbi Small was an instant hit—Friday the Rabbi Slept Late was a bestseller and even won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. But like the Oscars (Billy Crystal was great in his return, by the way), when you look back at the results of the Edgars, sometimes the results make you wonder just how something could have won. Did Friday the Rabbi Slept Late deserve the success?

The story begins with Rabbi Small still adjusting to his relatively-new environment as rabbi in the fictional town of Barnard’s Crossing. It’s been a year and his contract is up for renewal. Some of the community’s members are vehemently opposed to rehiring the rabbi, insisting that he might be a good rabbi but not the right one for Barnard’s Crossing. And as if that wasn’t already enough to threaten his job, Rabbi Small gets himself involved in a murder investigation.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Mr. Dortmunder Goes to Washington

At the start of Donald E. Westlake’s What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, professional burglar John Dortmunder answers the door for a FedEx person, having no idea what he’s about to launch himself into. As a result of his opening the door and signing for a package, his lady friend May Bellamy gets her late Uncle Gid’s lucky ring. She wisely decides that John had better take the ring, because he could use a little luck. So, wearing the ring, off goes John on his next job.

See, a multimillionaire named Max Fairbanks has filed for bankruptcy—though he isn’t really bankrupt. It’s just a fancy way for him to get away with robbing people blind. But in any case, he has a house in the town of Carrport which is supposed to be vacated as part of the legal agreement. Which means the house ought to be empty. That means it’s a perfect target for Dortmunder!

Friday, February 24, 2012


I hope you people have fun with your words. But I don't care if you call yourselves the Red Cross, you owe me forty-five thousand dollars and you'll pay me back whether you like it or not.
Parker; The Hunter

I’m not entirely sure how to kick off this review. I tend to follow a formula: first introduce the plot; then talk about the book as a whole: setting, characters, the plot’s quality, etc.; and finally sum everything up in a paragraph containing the word “overall” somewhere. But today’s book, The Hunter by Richard Stark (really Donald E. Westlake in disguise) is very different from the kind of book that I usually review—it isn’t really a mystery in the proper sense of the word, unless you’re working in a bookstore. So how to begin? Well, in the blog’s time-honoured tradition, I’ll take the cleverly-lazy way out and let someone else do the talking for me. The following text has been unashamedly stolen from William L. DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (an invaluable reference tool for the mystery fan):

“One night in the early 1960s, car trouble forced author [Donald E.] Westlake to walk across the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York on a winter evening. The wind and the cold and the cars zooming by made him feel very alone and very alienated. He began to wonder what sort of person would belong in that sort of environment.

The result was Parker, a professional thief shot and left for dead by his associates and his wife. When he is introduced, at the beginning of The Hunter (1962; British title Point Blank), he’s walking across the George Washington Bridge, planning his revenge.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Murder is Our Business

James Anderson’s The Affair of the Mutilated Mink was a wonderful tribute to the finest Agatha Christie novels. You had the country house setting, the “Bright Young Things”, the ingeniously tricky plot, and plenty of respect for the original material. And in a delightful move, the book was set not in the historically-accurate 1930s, but in the universe of 1930s Golden Age mysteries, where murder among the upper classes is taken for granted and Inspectors Appleby and Alleyn are a telephone call away.

That being said, it was the second volume in a series of books and it did give some hints as to the plot of the first book, The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy. All this time later, I’ve had plenty of time (and plenty of books!) to forget these hints. So what better thing to do than to return to Alderly Hall, back to the estate of Lord Burford, back to his family and one of the all-time great butlers, Merryweather.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ten Little Indians: Emily Brent

Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Miss Emily Brent in the 1987 adaptation Desyat Negrityat
Patrick: I am a Catholic and my faith is important to me— wait, don’t turn that dial! Religion plays a major part in my reasons for disliking the character of Emily Brent. Miss Brent was likely not a Catholic—the odds are that, like Agatha Christie, she was Anglican. (Why do I say this? Well, we’re in 1930s England. I have a feeling she wasn’t Baptist.) And yet Miss Brent manages to get her faith so completely and entirely wrong. Emily Brent embodies everything people dislike about religion— she loves her Bible and quotes from it as though she were shellin’ peas. When Mr. Owen’s voice accuses her of bringing about the death of one Beatrice Taylor, she says nothing until everyone falls silent, waiting for her to speak out.

Monday, February 20, 2012


Laurence Vining was not a particularly pleasant man. He was a genius, of course, and the police appreciated his help on the odd occasion where they found themselves out of their depth. In fact, just recently, Vining helped to put a murderer behind bars when the police were quite stumped, solving the mystery of the “Shop Murder”. He solves these cases with the help of his very own Watson, Dr. Benjamin Willing.

But despite Vining’s ingenuity, he’s a callous, cold-hearted man who manages to surround himself with enemies. Yet it’s something of a shock when Vining is murdered in a tube station under seemingly impossible circumstances! He gets into a lift by himself, and the operator sends him down— but at the lower level, when the doors are opened, Laurence Vining tumbles out of the lift dead— a knife plunged into his back. (The knife is a curious Oriental dagger, as a matter of course.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Welcome back to the world, Mr. Dortmunder."

Patti Abbott is the mastermind responsible for the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, and this past Friday was devoted to Donald E. Westlake. I was first tipped off about it by Barry Ergang, who wrote a fabulous review of God Save the Mark, and then others turned in reviews, including John at Pretty Sinister Books and Sergio from Tipping My Fedora. I had no idea about the event beforehand or I might have tried to participate myself—but after seeing so many fantastic reviews, I knew I had to join in the fun and discover Donald E. Westlake for myself. I initially planned to read and review God Save the Mark, but in a mix-up worthy of a Westlake novel itself, iTunes decided it wasn’t going to make things so simple. To make a long story short, I ended up getting a copy of Westlake’s The Hot Rock, and I had plenty of time to read it today. I ended up having so much time, in fact, that I finished the book!

The Hot Rock (1970) is the first book in the John Dortmunder series and was also turned into a movie in 1972. The main character is John Dortmunder, a criminal mastermind whose specialty is planning heists. He gets out of prison to start the book off, and due to a mishap he couldn’t possibly have foreseen, he misses out on a chance to make an easy $300. Perhaps this was an omen he chose to ignore; perhaps it was coincidence. Whatever it was, John’s friend Kelp nearly runs him over in a Cadillac and then asks him to help out on a job. And that’s just the first four pages.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

We, the Robots

In The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov created a fabulous and fairly-clued mystery, set three thousand years into the future. Civilisation has been forever changed due to space colonisation and the invention of the positronic brain. And as wonderful as the book was, I had a complaint with it: its false solutions were devilishly ingenious while the correct solution was quite obvious! But I eagerly returned to Round 2 with Asimov, as Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw return in The Naked Sun.

The Outer World planet of Solaria is an idyllic one, but one where humans are outnumbered by robots by about ten thousand to one. There is a grand total of twenty thousand Solarians, all living in isolation from one another. They maintain contact through “viewing”, a technology rather like Skype (without connection problems) where everything is in 3D. The practice of “seeing”—that is, being in actual physical contact with another person—is considered dirty and rather scandalous. On this world, a murder takes place, when a man is found dead on his spacious estate. His wife lies unconscious in the room and the only other entity present is a robot whose circuits have gone haywire.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hope for the Best

A while ago an interesting piece appeared in The Rap Sheet, telling “the story behind the story” of a new book by John Barlow entitled Hope Road, which has been released as an e-book exclusive (you can purchase it from Amazon.com here). I read the piece with enormous interest and thought to myself that maybe I’ll read this book someday... that day came a lot sooner than I expected. I was pleasantly surprised when I was asked to review the book. I didn’t hesitate— it sounded like something I’d enjoy reading. And my instinct didn’t let me down!

Hope Road is the start of a new series of crime novels set in Leeds. The protagonist is John Ray, whose father Tony was a big-time crook back in his heyday. Now, Tony is living in a retirement home and John has managed to turn the family business (Tony Ray’s Motors) around and make a legitimate living out of it: in fact, when the story opens, John accepts an award for being the top used car dealer in the Yorkshire region.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ten Little Indians: Mr. Rogers

Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.

Mr Thomas Rogers in Desyat Negrityat
Curt: I've always thought the most memorable thing about the butler Thomas Rogers in And Then There Were None is the way he is taken out: struck in the head with the wood chopper. More than any of the deaths that had taken place in the book up to this point, this one is scary, particularly when considered in the light of those ghoulish words ("one chopped himself in halves") from the supposed children's rhyme.

Notice how Rogers meets his death while performing a menial task for the others survivors (for the moment). Even after three deaths--all murders, including that of his wife--and the obvious fact that there's a maniac killer running loose on the island, English social order in this microcosm does not falter. On the contrary, Rogers goes about performing his anointed tasks like the perfect servant that he is ("Will you take cold tongue or cold ham, madam").*

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Come and be killed

I have never before read a novel by Cyril Hare, which was the pseudonym of one Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, an English judge who was also part of the esteemed Detection Club. He was admitted to the club in 1946, and the snippets we get of him in Curt Evans’ fabulous pamphlet Was Corrine’s Murder Clued? made me extremely interested in the author. Some basic research (how did we ever survive before Wikipedia?) reveals something interesting: he read History at New College, Oxford, where he once heard William Archibald Spooner say in one of his sermons “now we see through a dark glassly”. Granted, it’s no “we’ll have the hags flung out” (flags hung out), but it’s an amusing scene to picture nonetheless.

And so that leads us to He Should Have Died Hereafter, which has also been published under the title Untimely Death. In this book, the Pettigrew couple (Francis Pettigrew is apparently a recurring character) go on holiday to Exmoor. It’s a charming little place, which of course means that murder is just ‘round the corner. Francis recalls that when he was a child, he stumbled over a dead body on the moor. But now he’s a man, so he should be able to exorcise this demon—he decides to do so by walking over to the place where the incident occurred… only to stumble over another dead body.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Ten Little Indians: General Macarthur

Warning: The following article contains spoilers regarding Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

Eight little Indian boys traveling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

General Macarthur in 1987's Desyat Negrityat
Patrick: General John Gordon Macarthur is a very respectable military man, the kind of person you’d be able to find in the Bellona Club. I remember liking this character most of all when I first read this book. Out of all the suspects, this is the man who seemed to suffer the most.

Macarthur’s crime was a simple one. The voice of U. N. Owen accuses him that “on the 4th of January, 1917, you deliberately sent your wife’s lover, Arthur Richmond, to his death.” Macarthur cries out that the accusation is preposterous, and later feebly (and unconvincingly) attempts exonerating himself:

“Best really to leave this sort of thing unanswered. However, I feel I ought to say—no truth—no truth whatever in what he said about—er—young Arthur Richmond. Richmond was one of my officers. I sent him on a reconnaissance. He was killed. Natural course of events in war time. Wish to say resent very much—slur on my wife. Best woman in the world. Absolutely—Caesar’s wife!”

When he sits down, Christie informs us that “the effort to speak had cost him a good deal.”

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Curious Case of the Unnecessary Butchering of Murder on the Orient Express

Yeah... That was my reaction too.
A new post from Bill at Traditional Mysteries inspired me to dig through my old reviews and take a look at adaptations of classic detective stories that themselves fall into the “alternative classic” category. There have been many bad adaptations of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple— but I contest that none have ever approached the travesty that is Murder on the Orient Express, a 2001-TV movie starring Alfred Molina. To prove it, I’ve adapted and expanded my old review of this atrocity.

Basically, for those of you who were lucky enough not to see this version of Murder on the Orient Express, I will sum it up as best as I can. Those who have seen it won’t find anything new in this post, but you might want to read it so that you know that I feel your pain. Obviously this post contains spoilers.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Sherlock who?

Over the last few days at work, I’ve had the enormous pleasure of listening to The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes as read by the brilliant Derek Jacobi. I listened to Jacobi reading The House of Silk last year and absolutely loved his reading: he made Dr. Watson sound intelligent and charming, and not a buffoon like Nigel Bruce admittedly did. (That doesn’t mean I dislike Nigel Bruce as Watson, I just don’t think he’s anything like the character Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about.) I don’t think you could possibly find a better actor than Jacobi to read these stories aloud. He makes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose come vividly to life, so that each story, even if forgettable, becomes a fantastic auditory experience.

I was well-familiar with these tales and so I was reacquainting myself with them. I found that I enjoyed them all very much after all this time. Truly, Sherlock Holmes is a timeless character— I am revisiting these stories yet again, and every time, I find that I love Conan Doyle’s world! The stories only seem to get better with age.

There is one omission here: The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, which in the U.S. is included in His Last Bow, was not among the tales I listened to, so I decided not to review it. For other reviews of Holmes shorts, please take a look at The Puzzle Doctor’s site, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, where the doc is discovering the Holmes tales and finding out just how much he’s been missing out on!

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Ten Little Indians: Mrs. [Ethel] Rogers

Warning: This article may contain spoilers about the book And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.

Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were Eight

“It’s awful, but I never really look at them properly, do you?”
—Virginia Revel on “governesses and companions and people one sits opposite to on trains” in Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

The Rogers in 1987's Desyat Negrityat
Curt: Without doubt to my mind, Christie triumphantly portrays at least one companion, Miss Gilchrist, in After the Funeral (1953).  As for governesses, there is Vera Claythorne herself, of the novel under discussion, And Then There Were None (1939).  Surely Miss Claythorne is one of Christie's greatest creations. 

Yet generally speaking, in my view, the depiction of servants and other lower-class characters is not one of Christie’s strong points as a writer.  Concerning maids and girl shop assistants I remember mostly a succession of rather dim Alices and Gladyses and Ednas (“Edna sniffed” is the ostensibly humorous refrain in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, 1952, when Poirot questions the seriously sub-intelligent, adenoidal girl concerning a matter related to a murder).  We learn a little bit of the inner life—such as it is--of the very silly maid Gladys in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), but it’s more pathetic than rounded.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Elementary, my dear Colonel...

Is it a coincidence that at around the time I participated in a Sherlock Holmes-themed podcast, I suddenly was reviewing a lot of Sherlock-related material? Not entirely. If you’ve listened to the podcast (as I’m sure you have), you’ll know that I was very excited to mention Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Kim Newman. I claimed that it took the character of Colonel Sebastian Moran and Professor James Moriarty and made them into twisted reflections of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

It’s all quite cleverly done. Similar to Watson and Holmes, Moran and Moriarty are introduced by a man named Stamford. They too share rooms and have a housekeeper named Mrs. Halifax (often referred to as Mrs. H) who keeps a brothel. Holmes has the Baker Street Irregulars? Moriarty matches him with the Conduit Street Comanche. And throughout the entire proceedings, author Kim Newman reimagines the familiar Holmesian universe through the eyes of Colonel Sebastian “Basher” Moran.

But these are not merely Holmes stories retold from the villains’ perspective. Rather, these are entirely original adventures that intertwine with the Holmes stories we all know and love. We see just how Moriarty manages to influence the cases Holmes was soon going to crack. And Holmes rarely appears onstage, but as the short story collection progresses, his presence becomes more pronounced, ultimately culminating in The Problem of the Final Adventure. In fact, all the short stories in this fine collection have titles that play around neatly with the titles of the original Holmes adventures.