Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Penguin Pool Murder: Stuart Palmer

Whenever I read a book from a series that I read back in my youth, I hold my breath in anticipation. Will I still like this author's books? I was relieved once I got into this story. All the things I remembered were still there: an enjoyable set of characters and a good story. A bit complex with a lot of red herrings, but still definitely my cup of tea. This book was published in 1931; the action occurs shortly after the stock market crash in 1929 and the murder victim was a stockbroker. Miss Withers is a schoolteacher; she is very sharp and notices details. She helps Inspector Oscar Piper with his investigations.

As William DeAndrea describes it in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa:
... Stuart Palmer took the already time-honored device of the spinster detective, gave her an attitude, filled the books with humor, and with his creation of Miss Hildegarde Withers, entertained several generations of mystery readers.

In this first story in the series, the murder takes place at the New York Aquarium. Miss Withers has taken her third grade class to visit the aquarium and they encounter two crimes on that day; a pickpocket steals a woman's purse and a man's body is found in the penguin tank. Miss Withers and one of her students are the ones who discover the body, thus she is interviewed by Piper. While there, she begins taking notes for the Inspector and their partnership begins.

It seems like a pairing of a middle-aged, unmarried school teacher (decidedly not elegant) and a police detective would require a lot of suspension of disbelief.  The way this story is told it makes sense, and it is entertaining. Miss Withers is very out-spoken and not afraid to share her views. Very soon Piper recognizes the value that Miss Withers can supply, and he actively encourages her participation in the investigation.

At one point, Miss Withers asks what the Inspector has planned:
Piper burst out in hearty laughter. Miss Withers had never seen him laugh before, and it was pleasant. “Good Lord, woman. I'm not on any track. I'm like the man in Leacock's book who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions. This is a real case, not a puzzle out of a story magazine. I'm a detective, not a super sleuth. Sherlock Holmes would know all about this case in no time, what with a magnifying glass and his knowledge of the bone structure of Polynesian aborigines. Philo Vance would solve it between puffs of a Regie cigarette, from simple deductions based on the squawks of those penguins we met up with yesterday. But not me. I don't know any more than you do. Maybe less, only I know how to act wise. I'm just blundering ahead, trying not to miss any of the more apparent lines of approach.

Some of the Hildegarde Withers books and short stories were made into movies. The Penguin Pool Murder was filmed and released in 1932.  Warner Archives has made the Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection available on DVD. We had seen several of those adaptations on TCM but it had been years. The movie adaptation of this book was a lot of fun; the story and action in the film is very close to the book. Parts of it were filmed at the aquarium in New York. (See this post at Jeremiah's Vanishing New York.)

The stars of the film are Edna May Oliver as Miss Withers and James Gleason as Inspector Piper. Edna May Oliver continued in her role in the next two films, but was replaced by Helen Broderick in the 4th film, and Zazu Pitts starred in the last two. James Gleason continued his role through all six films.

I loved this book and the movie, but many reviewers agree that some of the later books and movies were much better.

Author Steven Saylor has written a very informative piece about the author, the books in the series, and the movies.

See also:

This post is submitted for Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog


Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1986 (orig. pub. 1931)
Length:      182 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       A Hildegarde Withers Mystery #1
Setting:      New York City
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

In 2017 I am joining in on the Australian Women Writers Challenge. This is the 6th year of the challenge, but only the second time I have joined in. (And the first time I did not do so well.)

Per the website:
The AWW challenge was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, living in or outside Australia, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year.
Also please check out Bernadette's post at Reactions to Reading: Thoughts on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The levels are:
  • Stella: read 4 – if reviewing, review at least 3
  • Miles: read 6 – if reviewing, review at least 4
  • Franklin: read 10 – if reviewing, review at least 6
  • Create your own challenge: nominate your own goal e.g. “Classics Challenge”.

I am joining at the Stella level, and plan to read and review at least 4 books by Australian women writers in 2017. 

The books I have on hand are:
  1. The Half-Child by Angela Savage
  2. Murder in the Telephone Exchange by June Wright
  3. Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood
  4. A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill
  5. Malicious Intent by Kathryn Fox

If you are interested in reading more about this challenge, see this post

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Manchurian Candidate: Richard Condon

The Manchurian Candidate focuses on two characters. Raymond Shaw returns from the Korean War a hero, awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. His former commanding officer, Ben Marco, also returns from the conflict, and visits with Raymond in his apartment for two weeks. During that visit, he begins to experience nightmares and vague memories that he cannot explain.

Raymond Shaw has never been likable. He is haughty, self-centered, and doesn't have friends. Even now as a war hero, he is not likable but he is well-known and connected. He is the stepson of a influential and unprincipled senator, Johnny Iselin. Raymond hates his stepfather and has a very unhappy, uncomfortable relationship with his mother, who is only interested in using him to elevate her husband to higher office. The portraits that Condon paints of the senator and Raymond's mother are very convincing and very scary.

Ben Marco is an intelligence officer, and he knows that there is something wrong with his memory of the events that led to Raymond's medal. Even Raymond has that feeling, that his memories are not real. But neither is aware that they have been brainwashed or that Raymond is a sleeper agent, who can be triggered to carry out any crime that his handlers desire. (This is revealed early in the novel.)

The Manchurian Candidate is a political thriller about a very serious subject, but its black humor provides relief from the tension. The narrative style is not smooth, but the story is entertaining.  In many cases, Condon picks up on a subject, like the Medal of Honor and what it means, and goes off on an essay on that subject. I did not mind those lengthy asides at all. The story is very much of its time, but it also reminds of the political situations we live with now.

This is another book, like The Big Sleep, where my reaction was greatly affected by having seen the 1962 movie adaptation first, and having viewed it many times. The book might have been more confusing to me if I had not experienced the movie first; the story is very complex. As it was, because the 1962 movie and the book are so closely aligned, it was like visiting an old friend but getting more of the story than I had heard before. The book does give the reader more background on both the events and the setting, and the characters are more fleshed out.

The adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate directed by John Frankenheimer is a Cold War thriller filmed in black and white. As mentioned before, it adheres to the events of the novel very closely. This and Seven Days in May, also directed by Frankenheimer, are two of my favorite movies. Frank Sinatra does a beautiful job playing Marco, and Laurence Harvey plays the sleeper agent Raymond Shaw. Angela Lansbury plays Raymond's mother, and James Gregory is the Senator. I especially enjoyed Janet Leigh as Marco's girl friend, Rosie. The way they meet and their relationship is almost identical to the way it is handled in the novel, although her role is reduced in the movie.

The edition of the book I read is a movie tie-in edition for the 2004 adaptation, starring Denzel Washington as Marco and Liev Schreiber as Raymond. I have seen that movie and I liked it OK but it does not compare favorably to the 1962 adaptation. It is updated to use the Gulf War as the conflict as opposed to the Korean War.

This is my submission for the book of 1959 for the Crimes of the Century meme for this month, hosted by Rich at Past Offences. See also Rich's review from 2016.


Publisher:  Pocket Star Books, 2004. Orig. pub. 1959.
Length:     358 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     US
Genre:      Political Thriller
Source:     I purchased this book.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Reading in December 2016

I read seven novels in December.

I read one book for the Sci-Fi Experience, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. That was The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, an alternative history set in 1962 after Nazi Germany and Japan won World War II. Although I have planned to read this book for a long time, I was motivated to read it at this time because I have been watching the TV adaptation produced by Amazon Studios.

I will have more to say about the book in a future post but I can say the book was stunning, although it was not what I expected, especially based on the TV episodes. Having read this book, I want to try more of Philip K. Dick's novels and also his short stories.

As usual, most of my reading during the month was crime fiction. Here's the list:
  • Inner City Blues by Paula L. Woods:  Quoting from The Black Female Detective in Mystery Literature at Martin Hill Ortiz's blog:  "Misogyny and racial tension are up-front and center as Det. Justice is plunged into the midst of the "Rodney King" riots and becomes involved in solving the mystery of who killed the man who killed her husband and child. The internal politics and prejudices of the LAPD make a formidable, albeit uncomfortable, backdrop to the novel which went on to win the Macavity Award and spawned three sequels."
  • Christmas is Murder by C. S. Challinor:  A contemporary country-house mystery, set at Christmas. Review HERE.
  • Kill Now, Pay Later by Robert Kyle:  This is the book I read for the Crimes of the Century meme for December, hosted at Past Offences. Published in 1960. Review HERE.
  • Cursed to Death by Bill Crider:  The 3rd mystery to feature Dan Rhodes, Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas. It was published in 1988. Review HERE
  • Capital Punishment by Robert Wilson:  This is the start of a series starring Charles Boxer, former homicide detective who has becom a kidnap consultant. Set in London. The mechanics of the business of kidnap response is interesting. 
  • The Alamut Ambush by Anthony Price:  The 2nd book in the Dr. David Audley series, published in 1971. Audley features in some way in each book, but some of the books are from the viewpoint of other characters who work with Audley. This time Squadron Leader Hugh Roskill is at the forefront.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Cursed to Death: Bill Crider

Cursed to Death is the 3rd mystery to feature Blacklin County Sheriff Dan Rhodes. It was published in 1988, which means no use of modern technology in solving the crime, an aspect I like. The series now has 23 books, with the 24th coming out in 2017.

In this story, Rhodes responds to a complaint from a dentist who has been cursed by a woman who claims to be a witch. The dentist, Dr. Samuel Martin, rents a house to this woman, and she owes him several months rent. He then takes her television set, which makes him as much in the wrong as she is. She threatens him with ill health, losing all his money and his teeth. There isn't much Rhodes can do about this, but the situation gets confusing very fast when the dentist disappears a week later.

One thing I really like about this series is that there is a "big" crime, a murder or two, but there are also the small crimes and small-town misunderstandings that a sheriff has to deal with. It feels real, not just a thriller carrying me along with fast-moving action. (Not that I don't enjoy such a thriller, I just want a varied diet in my mystery reading.)

One of the smaller issues the sheriff deals with here is an altercation in a nursing home caused by two residents who want to sleep together. This nursing home has a policy to only accept single patients, and they don't want any hanky panky going on. Rhodes suggests that maybe in this case they should allow the two to get married, but the resolution of this issue takes a while.

Another thing to like about this series is the recurring secondary characters, and my favorites are Hack Jensen, the dispatcher, and Lawton, the jailer. They are older men, well past retirement age, who work for next to nothing ... and love their jobs. They delight in holding back information from the sheriff and doling it out in bits and pieces. It is a little game they play, much to the sheriff's chagrin.

Cursed to Death was one of my mysteries read in December because it is set at Christmas. Does the title sound like a Christmas mystery? No, not at all. Does it really have much of a Christmas theme? Well, sort of. It is almost Christmas and Sheriff Dan Rhodes spends a good deal of his time during this book mulling over what to get his fiancé for Christmas. He is a widower and he seems to be waffling on the idea of marriage. Ivy, his fiancé, visits the jail and sees that it has no tree, no Christmas decorations. The two men who run the jail agree that a tree and some sprucing up for the season would be nice. So, yes, there are elements of Christmas throughout but they remain firmly in the background.

I loved this scene with Rhodes and Ivy preparing to go fishing:
Rhodes hunted up his tackle box and tossed it and the two rod-and-reel combos into the back of the county car. This wasn't official business, but he didn't think the commissioners would complain. He was going to visit the site of a suspected crime, after all. 
He picked up Ivy, who was waiting in front of her office. She was wearing low heels, but her pants outfit was much too nice to go fishing in. Or most women would have thought so. "I don't need to change," she said when she got into the car. "We don't have much daylight left." 
Rhodes knew that he wasn't making a mistake in being engaged to her. Anyone who understood the importance of fishing was a rare treasure.
In Cursed to Death, Bill Crider has written a great story with interesting characters and just the right amount of humor. I am reading my way through this series in order and loving it. I have not decided if I might eventually jump forward and read some of the newer books in the series... which I have already bought. Any opinions from those who have read this series?


Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1990 (orig. pub. 1988)
Length:      171 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Sheriff Dan Rhodes #3
Setting:      Texas
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Vintage Scavenger Hunt Wrap Up

Every year since 2012 I have participated in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, a challenge hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block. The challenge for 2016 was a Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt. There were two categories, Golden Age mysteries and Silver Age mysteries. I was happy with my results for the Golden Age books but I did not read many Silver Age mysteries with covers that fit the requirements.

Here is my list of Golden Age reads for the challenge:

Black Orchids by Rex Stout (Item: Spiderweb)

3 Doors to Death by Rex Stout (Item: Two people)

13 at Dinner by Agatha Christie (Item: Timepiece)

Minute for Murder by Nicholas Blake (Item: A Blonde)

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie
(Item: Hand Holding Gun)

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming (Item: Playing Cards)

Fire Will Freeze by Margaret Millar (Item: Country Scene)

Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout (Item: Map)

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
(Item: Building which is not a house)

The Case of the Restless Redhead by Erle Stanley Gardner (Item: Jewelry)

Background to Danger by Eric Ambler (Item: Hat)

She Shall Have Murder by Delano Ames
(Item: Damsel in Distress)

Fast Company by Marco Page (Item: Book)

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming
(Item: Photograph)

Thou Shell of Death by Nicholas Blake (Item: Bloodstains)

Kill Now, Pay Later by Robert Kyle (Item: Revolver)