Sunday, September 30, 2012

Wolfe Steps Out

To set the plot of The Second Confession in motion, James U. Spurling, a wealthy industrialist, comes to Nero Wolfe’s brownstone and hires the famous detective to do a bit of tricky work for him. Spurling is convinced that his daughter Gwenn’s suitor, Louis Rony, is a Communist. Spurling asks Wolfe to prove this, but Wolfe decides it would be simpler to look for evidence that will convince Gwenn to drop Rony. And so, Archie Goodwin is sent down to the countryside to get some fresh air and do some undercover sleuthing.

But before you know it, Nero Wolfe gets a telephone call from Arnold Zeck, who introduced himself in the previous book in the series, And Be A Villain. Zeck demands that Wolfe cease the investigation, and when Wolfe refuses, Zeck arranges for some armed goons to shoot up Wolfe’s brownstone, completely destroying the plant rooms. This means war, and Nero Wolfe reacts to this threat by breaking one of his most sacred rules: he steps out of his house.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Not-So-Talented Miss Highsmith

Strangers on a Train was Patricia Highsmith’s first published novel, and it was a smash hit. So big, in fact, that a film adaptation was quickly made by the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. And the first script was written by Raymond Chandler – although venom-filled “creative differences” between Hitch and Raymondo ended up getting Chandler dismissed from the project. The final product is one of Hitchcock’s finest thrillers. But how does the novel compare?

Fans of the film are warned that the book is very, very different from the film. I suspect that many of the differences arose thanks to the Hollywood censors, but if that was the case I can only say “Thank God!” When reviewing Francis Iles’ Before the Fact, which became the film Suspicion, I remarked that Hitchcock could take the silliest stories and turn them into terrific thrillers. My batting average for books-that-become-Hitchcock-films is very low right now: Strangers on a Train is one of those silly stories. And I have no idea why it has such a high reputation.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Case of the Starved Semite

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi David Small in Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. I found it a delight, with plenty of colourful characters, a pleasing detective figure, a fascinating Jewish backdrop, and an excellent mystery. And so, you had to figure that it was only a matter of time before I got around to the sequel: Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry.

After the events of the previous book, Rabbi David Small’s contract has been renewed and he is working in the community of Barnard’s Crossing. A major Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) falls on a Saturday this year, and so Rabbi Small prepares for the day-long religious service, which requires him to fast (hence the title). The entire Jewish community, it seems, is at the temple for most of the day.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An Air of Evil

Someone needs to buy Christopher Fowler a drink. I’d do it myself, except I’m not in the UK area. Here is a modern writer who understands that, generally speaking, a mystery is only as good as its story. And he comes up with a terrific plot idea in this one: Bryant and May and the Invisible Code. Two children are playing “Witch Hunter” outside a church, and decide that a sad-looking young woman is a witch. “So how are we going to kill her?” one of the kids asks. The woman then enters the church… and then, as the kids watch from the door, the woman drops to the ground, dead! Nobody approached her, and the CCTV cameras clearly show that she died alone.

Arthur Bryant gets to hear of this death from his doctor and is intrigued, but the Home Office refuses  to hand him the case. Instead, Oscar Kasavian calls Bryant and May to his office. Kasavian, it turns out, needs help. His wife has been going crazy of late—covering the mirrors in the house, talking to strangers on the street, and insisting that a coven of witches is after her life. Kasavian doesn’t understand what is going on, and he’s due to make a major speech in a week’s time. He asks Bryant and May to investigate his wife and try to help her—and if they succeed, Kasavian promises to stop trying to shut down the Peculiar Crimes Unit.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

About the Murder of a Nobody

Mr. Marcus Smallbone was found dead under most original circumstances. Due to the lawyer Abel Horniman’s extremely sophisticated sorting system, a variety of clients have their own deed boxes, which are sealed in an air-tight manner in order to prevent the accidental destruction of documents. A key goes missing, a key belonging to the deed box of the Ichabod Stokes trust fund, of which Messrs. Smallbone and Horniman are the sole trustees. Mr. Horniman is now dead and Mr. Smallbone is nowhere to be found. Fearing the worst, that perhaps Mr. Smallbone has run off with the money, the box is forced open… and the firm’s employees make a grisly discovery: Mr. Smallbone, or rather his corpse, is in the deed box, and apparently has been there for weeks.

It is the plot of Michael Gilbert’s Smallbone Deceased, a book that everyone has told me is an absolute masterpiece—a must-read for detective fiction fans. But of course, that’s what people were telling me about Hamlet, Revenge! and I didn’t quite agree. So is this book really as good as its reputation suggests? Or is this just a lot of hype?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Deed of Dreadful Note

The scene of the crime is Scamnum Court, seat of the Duke of Horton. As for the crime itself, it is one of the most bizarre in all of detective fiction. Someone has shot the Lord Chancellor in the middle of a production of Hamlet. The Lord Chancellor was playing the part of Polonius in a production that attempted to reproduce Hamlet as it would have been originally performed. So when Hamlet is supposed to stab Polonius through an arras, a gunshot sounds. When “Hamlet” reaches the curtained-off rear stage, he finds “Polonius” very much dead of a gunshot wound, the weapon nowhere in sight.

In due course, a document vital to national security goes missing, and so the Prime Minister himself asks Inspector John Appleby to investigate the goings-on at Scamnum Court. And investigate he does—it turns out to be a complex case. The killer took several foolhardy risks, but all of them seem to have paid off! Are there accomplices? Was the killer working alone? And when a second murder takes place, suicide seems most unlikely indeed…

Saturday, September 08, 2012

The Art of Enthusiasm

Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle might deceptively sound like an academic text of no interest to the casual reader. When I first heard of it, I immediately passed it over—why would I want to listen to an academic tell us just how silly the Sherlock Holmes stories are and how little merit they have as Pure Literature? But, being a foolish mortal, I didn’t notice that the book came with a subtitle: or, The Whole Art of Storytelling. It was only after Curt Evans published a review of the book that I decided that, after all, this was a book worth having. And rather than spend my money on a Kindle edition, I gave $10 extra and went for a physical copy of the book.

Dirda’s book won the Edgar Award earlier this year in the “Best Critical/Biographical” category, managing to beat out John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making. Although I was rooting for Curran’s excellent book, if any other nominee had to beat it, I’m glad it was Dirda. On Conan Doyle is not a dry academic text that dissects the stories we all know and love. It’s more of a personal reflection by Dirda on his love for Conan Doyle’s stories.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Jumping the Shark

It is with a heavy heart that I write this review—and there is a high risk that it will turn into a rant. I have genuinely enjoyed the work of Canadian mystery novelist Louise Penny in the past, and I really looked forward to her newest book, The Beautiful Mystery. It had an intriguing plot idea, and with an author as skilled as Penny behind the wheel, I thought there was no possible way for the book to fail. I was wrong.

The Beautiful Mystery takes place in the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, a reclusive order of monks who have taken a vow of silence. Ironically, despite their vow of silence, the monks have become famous worldwide for their beautiful singing voices, having released a best-selling CD of Gregorian chants. But then, someone at the monastery murders the world-famous choirmaster, and it is up to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec to investigate, along with his sidekick Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Scarlet Wizard

Clayton Rawson was a magician, and so naturally, when he wrote mysteries he created a magician detective, The Great Merlini. I believe that Merlini’s first appearance, in Death from a Top Hat, is one of the all-time great fictional debuts. The book is a masterpiece, pure and simple, and understandably, Merlini’s career was all downhill from there. I’ve already reviewed a short story collection of Rawson’s on this blog, in which his Great Merlini tales were brought together. But did you know those aren’t the only short works Rawson wrote? In fact, he also wrote four novellas as “Stuart Towne” starring Don Diavolo, The Scarlet Wizard.

The novellas, as well as all of Rawson’s novels and stories, have been brought back to life by, and I cannot recommend them strongly enough. These e-books are absolutely gorgeous by e-book standards, with excellent formatting, editing, proofreading, etc. And so today, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on the novellas found in Death from Nowhere.

But before I do, I’d like to tell you my one reservation about the collection. There are plenty of terrific images throughout these two stories, but on two occasions, a full-page image illustrated a crucial event in the story… chapters before they happen! It never ruins the method behind seeming impossibilities and doesn’t quite ruin the culprit, but it does tell you that Don Diavolo will have to do such-and-such sooner or later and so you do anticipate, for instance, Diavolo’s way of evading police surveillance at a circus. When I contacted somebody about this issue, I was told that the Rawson estate apparently prefers that layout. I cannot imagine why, unless it has something to do with the original magazine publication’s layout.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The Noble Duke of York

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.
— English children’s nursery rhyme

After my disastrous experience reading Louise Penny’s Still Life, I decided to return to the Golden Age of detective fiction: back when good plots were more important than overwriting a story with an obvious conclusion. And what better way to contrast the two experiences than to go to one of the “Humdrums”: authors with such a bad reputation that you’d think they were unable to entertain so much as a drunken fish. But I’ve challenged this point of view many times on my blog, and I will do it again. So I decided to go back to a reliable favourite: Henry Wade.

Henry Wade was the pseudonym of Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher. I’ve said it before, but because his real name is so damn awesome I decided to say it again anyways. He’s perhaps best known for his series character of Inspector Poole, but he also wrote the fantastic inverted mystery novel Heir Presumptive, one of the best books I’ve ever read, regardless of genre. But today I decided to return to Inspector Poole, in Wade’s third book, The Duke of York’s Steps.