Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Silent Speaker: Rex Stout

I have been reading the Nero Wolfe series roughly in order recently and finally I have arrived at one of my favorite books in the series, The Silent Speaker.

This summary from the back of the paperback edition I read gives a decent overview without revealing too much:
When a powerful government official, scheduled to speak to a group of millionaires, turns up dead, it is an event worthy of the notice of the great Nero Wolfe. Balancing on the edge of financial ruin, the orchid-loving detective grudgingly accepts the case. Soon a second victim is found bludgeoned to death, a missing stenographer's tape causes an uproar, and the dead man speaks, after a fashion. While the business world clamors for a solution, Nero Wolfe patiently lays a trap that will net him a killer worth his weight in gold.
The dead man, Cheney Boone, was the Director of the Bureau of Price Regulation (BPR). He was scheduled to speak to the members of the National Industrial Association (NIA). The two organizations are at odds. When the murderer is not apprehended quickly, the public is of the opinion that the NIA is responsible, and their reputation is damaged by the continued publicity.


In actuality, Nero Wolfe actively seeks the case, trying to get someone interested in hiring him. Or, he instructs Archie Goodwin, private detective and Wolfe's assistant, to do this. Of course, when Wolfe has snagged a client (the NIA), the representatives are demanding, obstreperous, and irritating, and he regrets getting involved.

This is overall a very entertaining and well-plotted book in the Nero Wolfe series. My favorite part, however, is the character of Phoebe Gunther, confidential secretary to Cheney Boone, and capable of running the BPR herself. She is a fantastic character, strong, confident, a career woman who believes in her job. Archie is immediately besotted by her, but she is much more than just a pretty face. It seems to me that from the sixth novel in the series, the female characters are more interesting and stronger, more defined.

I also liked that this was the first novel published after World War II and we sees the effects of the war. Archie is back from his military assignment. And manufacturers in the US want the price regulations put into place during the war eased so they can make more money.

Walter Mosley's introduction to the Bantam Crime Line edition to this book is full of gems.
I love Nero Wolfe. I love his house, his orchids, his sour disposition, and his shrouded past. I love his reading habits, his unabashed fear of women, and his incredible appetite; that is to say, I love his love of food.
and...
Wolfe was never a hero in the American sense. No gunslinger or karate master he. He never subdued the bad guy or ran a merry chase. As a matter of fact, Nero Wolfe was a coward when it came to things physical.
He was afraid of traffic.
and...
Archie is the leg man. He’s the one who carries out Wolfe’s plans and errands. He drives the car, romances the ladies, and applies the pike to Nero’s rear end when the rent is due and there’s a paying client downstairs.
Archie has no dark moods, no real fears, and no concerns beyond what it takes to keep three hundred and fifty pounds of genius going. He loves women (Lily Rowan especially), but he’s married to his work.
All the years I read the Nero Wolfe mysteries it was because of Archie. Archie talking about walking up Madison; Archie cracking wise with Cramer; Archie amazed by the detecting abilities of Saul Panzer (the second or third greatest detective in New York- and, therefore, the world).
Archie Goodwin was the real gumshoe. He was willing to get out there and work. He wasn’t daunted by traffic or sunlight or possibility of death.



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Publisher:  Bantam, 1994. Orig. pub. 1946.
Length:     271 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #11
Setting:     New York
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Case of the One-Penny Orange: E. V. Cunningham

There are seven mystery novels starring Masao Masuto, a detective on the Beverly Hills police force. The mysteries were  written by Howard Fast, using the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham.The first was The Case of the Angry Actress (1967, originally published as Samantha). I enjoyed the first book in the series mostly because of the setting (Southern California), the time period it was written in, and the political and social commentary. 

This is part of the description from the dust jacket of the 1977 Holt, Rinehart, Winston first edition. I found this at a site dedicated to Howard Fast's books:
Here, in this first of a series, Masao is called in to check a ransacked house from which nothing has been taken. The same day a noted stamp dealer is found murdered in his office, and his assistant is beaten to death that night. Although Masao's chief rages about the transatlantic phone calls Masao demands and no one can fathom the tack he's taking, he quietly begins a search for a little square of reddish-orange paper, imperforate – an 1847 postage stamp from the island of Mauritius, now worth close to half a million dollars. It is one of the rarest, most famous stamps in the world. 
I was much more impressed with this book than I was with the first in the series. This book had a lot to offer in both characterization and plot. I especially liked Masao Masuto and his fellow policeman. His boss is a cranky supervisor, full of stress, but he and Masuto have a good working relationship. The same goes for Masuto's partner, Detective Sy Beckman. He is more that willing to slog through many back issues of a magazine at the library for a picture that Masuto wants or to make overseas calls for him. 

Matsuo is Nisei, a native-born American who parents were Japanese immigrants. At one point I thought that Masuto's detecting skills were a bit too intuitive, but there was a twist towards the end that corrected that impression. He is a tenacious, tireless, and dedicated policeman. He also has a family and tends a garden full of roses. I don't know how much knowledge the author had of the Japanese experience in California, but he and Masuto shared a religion. Matsuo is a Zen Buddhist and his religion shapes his way of looking at things and his behavior in his work.

I liked the picture of the Los Angeles area in the 1970's. Because of the geographical layout of Los Angeles and surrounding cities, there is a lot of overlap between police departments in different communities, at least in 1977 when this book was published. Thus Matsuo ends up looking into multiple murders which are outside of his jurisdiction and cooperating with different police departments.

I thought this was a very entertaining and fast-paced book, with some interesting characters, and a lot of other interesting information. I enjoyed learning some facts about rare stamps and stamp collecting while reading this book

For more information on the author see my review of The Case of the Angry ActressAlso see this article at Mystery*File with information on the books written by Howard Fast as E. V. Cunningham.

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Publisher:   Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982. Orig. pub. 1977.
Length:      159 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Masao Masuto, #2
Setting:      Los Angeles, California
Genre:       Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.



Sunday, April 15, 2018

I Bring Sorrow and Other Stories of Transgression: Patricia Abbott

This book contains 25 short stories by Patricia Abbott, for the most part previously published in anthologies. Abbott has published two novels of psychological suspense: Concrete Angel (2015) and Shot in Detroit (2016). Both cover dark and disturbing subject matter. I wondered if this collection of stories would follow suit. To some extent it does, but of course a short story book usually offers a lot of variety and this is no exception.


One of my favorite stories is the first in the book. "On Pacific Beach" is about a daughter whose mother is homeless. She feels incredible guilt for having moved away and left her mother behind and tries hard to stay in touch. The daughter's first person narration of the story is incredibly moving. I knew after reading that story that I was going to be happy with the rest of the book.

There are three unusual stories from different genres. "The Annas" is set in a post-apocalyptic future where fifty women have had 50 android duplicates created, which they will train in their areas of expertise. "I Bring Sorrow to Those Who Love Me" is a beautiful story with a musical theme and elements of a fantasy story. "The Cape" has a historical setting, telling the story of a tailor who makes a cape for Enrico Caruso.

Not all of the stories are totally dark. Some have the element of humor, especially in the ending. "My Social Contracts" is about a woman who sees marriage as a contract that she can use to her advantage. In "Stark Raving," Elsa Scotia mediates a will for a brother and a sister who have inherited from their mother and have only one small area of contention to resolve. Two couples who have known each other for years share a weekend at a summer home in "Old Friends."

Parts of Abbott's first novel Concrete Angel were published first as short stories and they stand alone quite well. “Mad Women” is about a woman who is caught shoplifting. The last story in the book, “Fall Girl,” is about a daughter used by her mother as a patsy for a murder that the mother committed.

As Reed Farrel Coleman tells us on the cover of the paperback edition: "Any one of the stories in I Bring Sorrow is worth the price of admission." And I could not agree more with Ken Bruen's assessment: "Patricia Abbott's collection of stories are just electric and utterly amazing... A dark, captivating collection.”

See also:



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Publisher:   Polis Books, March 2018
Length:      250 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Varied
Genre:       Short stories
Source:      I purchased my copy.




Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Gold Comes in Bricks: A.A. Fair

A.A. Fair is a pseudonym used by Erle Stanley Gardner for the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam stories. Flamboyant, fast-talking Bertha Cool is the boss; Donald Lam works for her. In this story, she spends most of her time telling Donald to change his ways, until he ends up making lots of money for her.

At the beginning of the book, Donald is studying jujitsu with a master named Hashita. Bertha wants him to be able to protect himself. He is not a tall, handsome, beefy detective. He is short and lean, brains not brawn. Henry Ashbury happens upon the training session and contracts with Bertha to hire Donald to find out how his daughter, Alta, is spending her money. He is concerned that it might be gambling or payments to a blackmailer. He brings Donald into his home as a physical fitness trainer and potential business partner so that he can get to know his family.  While following Alta, Donald learns that she was paying for the return of some personal letters. He also uncovers a scheme to sell gold mine shares which Ashbury's stepson is part of.



Already you can see how complex the plot is. I was confused most of the time I was reading. And this summary leaves out a lot of the characters and twists.

In this story Bertha is nervous and whiny, and constantly threatening Donald if he does not follow her orders. Donald is persevering and has some good ideas. Yet, together they make a great pair, where alone they would be just so so.

The complexity of the plot and the many directions it goes in did not appeal. Another negative is that the jujitsu teacher is referred to as the Jap throughout the book. A sign of the times, I suppose.

I am always surprised that there are 29 novels in this series. Gardner published the first one in 1939 and the last one in 1970 and they vary a lot in quality. Yet I would happily read all of them.

Why did I read this book specifically? Originally, I bought this book for the cover. A few years back, J. Kingston Pierce did a post at Killer Covers on vintage paperbacks featuring butterfly chairs. I put this book on my wishlist and was incredibly lucky to find a decent copy at the book sale. The cover illustration is by Robert McGinnis.

More recently, I learned of a "new" Bertha Cool / Donald Lam book, The Knife Slipped. It was originally written around 1939 but was not published at that time because the publisher considered it too racy. Before reading that book, I wanted to read another from the series written at about the same time. I will be moving on to The Knife Slipped in the next month or so. This post at The Corpse Steps Out gives some background on how the book was discovered.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Dell, 1961. Orig. pub. 1940.
Length:     224 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Donald Lam and Bertha Cool, #2
Setting:     California
Genre:      Mystery, private detective
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2016.


Saturday, April 7, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation from Memoirs of a Geisha to Blue Lightning


The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six other books, forming a chain. Every month she provides the title of a book as the starting point.

It is not a requirement that the books be ones I have read, but this month I have read all of the books in my chain.

The starting point this month is Arthur Golden’s bestseller, Memoirs of a Geisha. I have not read the book, and I will be interested to read what others have to say about this book, as there was controversy surrounding its publication.

Moving on to my first link, I chose to go with another book set in Japan. The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino is a crime fiction novel first published in 2006 in Japan, then translated to English and published by Minotaur Books in 2011.

Yasuko Hanaoka is surprised when her abusive ex-husband Togashi shows up at her apartment. He wants money from her and threatens both her and her teenaged daughter Misato.Togashi ends up dead, strangled. Yasuko’s next door neighbor, Mr. Ishigami, offers to help them dispose of the body. Of course, once the body is discovered, the police consider Yasuko one of the suspects and life becomes very tense for Yasuko, her daughter, and her neighbor.
https://bitterteaandmystery.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-devotion-of-suspect-x-keigo.html

This book is an inverted mystery; the reader knows from the beginning who committed the murder. Thus the story focuses on how the murderer is discovered.

My next book in the chain is The Suspect by L. R. Wright, another inverted mystery. In this book the murder takes place at the beginning of the novel and we know who did it. At eighty, George Wilcox murders a man, and this story is as much about why the murder was committed as how.

This was the author's first mystery novel, and we are introduced to Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The novel is set in Sechelt, which is on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, Canada. It is character-driven, slowly develops the relationships of the main characters, and has a cozy feel. The Suspect won the 1986 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel of the year. It was the first Canadian novel to do so.

For my next choice, I link to another book by a Canadian author, but in this case the action occurs in France during World War II. Kaleidoscope by J. Robert Janes is set in Occupied France, in December of 1942. It is the story of two men who are on opposite sides but must work together. Gestapo Haupsturmführer Hermann Kohler and  his partner, Sûreté Chief Inspector Jean-Louis St-Cyr have been thrown together by circumstances to investigate crimes.  They have developed a trusting relationship, but know that due to the realities of war, it will probably not end well. One side or the other will be the victor, and then where will their loyalties lie? This is the third book in a series of 16 books.



Another series that centers around World War II is the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr. The series begins in 1936 in Berlin, and features plots that show Bernie's experiences before and after World War II. In The One from the Other, the fourth book, he is a private detective in post-war Germany who takes on some missing person cases with connections to ex-Nazis. Before the war he was a policeman. He had served in the military in both World War I and World War II.

Philip Kerr was a Scottish author who died in March 2018.

My next book is also by a Scottish author, Peter May.

The Blackhouse (and the other books in the trilogy featuring Fin Macleod) are set in the Outer Hebrides, an island chain off the west coast of mainland Scotland. The book is worth reading just for the setting.

Description from the dust jacket of my edition:
When a grisly murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides that bears the hallmarks of the work of a similar killer on the Scottish mainland, Edinburgh detective and native  islander  Fin Macleod is dispatched to investigate, embarking at the same time on a voyage into his own troubled past.




Next I move to the Shetland Islands, a subarctic archipelago of Scotland that lies northeast of Great Britain.

My favorite book in the Shetland series by Anne Cleeves so far is Blue Lightning, the fourth book in the series. DI Jimmy Perez has gone to Fair Isle with his fiancée to see his parents. A reception honoring the couple is held at the bird observatory on the island. The next day, Perez is called in because the leader of the institute has been murdered. Perez is on vacation, of course, but the island is socked in due to weather conditions and there is no one else to handle the situation. I liked the depiction of the birding community and the claustrophobic feel of not being able to get off the island or get help in.




So my journey in Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from Japan to Scotland, via Canada, France and Germany.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Small Death in Lisbon: Robert Wilson

A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson has two story lines, one set in the 1940's in Germany and Portugal, the other set in the late 1990's in Lisbon. The later time line features a police detective whose investigation of a teenage girl's murder links back to the experiences of a Berlin factory owner forced into Hitler's SS in 1941.

The main character in the World War II section of the story is Klaus Felsen, the factory owner turned SS officer. With his manufacturing experience, Felsen is ordered to Portugal by the military, primarily to increase the supply of wolfram (tungsten) shipped back to Germany. Unfortunately none of the main characters in that part of the story were likable or sympathetic. The star of the story set in the 1990's is  Zé Coelho, a policeman in Lisbon who is just coming back to work after dealing with the death of his wife. He has a good relationship with his teenage daughter and his new partner is young and brash. Their first case together is the investigation of the brutal murder of Catarina Oliveira. This is a long book and the author has plenty of time to provide rich characterizations and explore the relationships in depth.

This book won the CWA Gold Dagger in 1999. The story is suspenseful and compelling, and I learned a lot while reading the book. I know little about Portugal, and was not aware of the status of that country during World War II, so I found all of the historical background interesting. On the whole this was a great read, but the story contained too much violence and sex for me.

This book is a standalone novel, but the author has written three series: the Bruce Medway series set in West Africa, the Javier Falcon series set in Spain, and the Charles Boxer series, based in London. My favorite novel by Wilson is another standalone novel set in Lisbon, The Company of Strangers.


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Publisher:  Berkley Books, 2002. Orig. pub. 1999.
Length:     451 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     Portugal, Germany
Genre:      Historical Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book.