Sunday, December 4, 2016

Reading in November 2016

Another wonderful month of reading with a good bit of variety. Some relatively current crime fiction, a fantasy novel, a couple of mysteries set at Christmas, and some mysteries from earlier decades.

I started out the month with a book from the fantasy genre, one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. I read Mort, the first book in the Death series. I am glad that I have finally started reading Pratchett's books.

I also read a very short graphic novel, RED. This graphic novel by Warren Ellis was the basis for the movie of the same title, released in 2010, starring Bruce Willis, Mary Louise Parker, and a lot of other entertaining and talented actors. When I say it was short, it was only three issues when first published, for a total of 66 pages. The book also includes character design sketches and the script and layouts for issue 1. I found these very interesting since I don't know the processes for developing a comic.

These are the crime fiction books I read in November...

A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake
(Originally published in 1935, this book is set in a boarding school. This was the first book in the Nigel Strangeways mysteries by Nicholas Blake. Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Cecil Day Lewis, a poet laureate in the UK in the late 1960's into the early 1970's.)

Thou Shell of Death by Nicholas Blake
(This was the second book in the Nigel Strangeways mystery series. It is set at Christmas, and is a traditional English country house mystery.)

The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald (reviewed here)

Past Tense by Margot Kinberg (reviewed here)

Dupe by Liza Cody (reviewed here)

Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves
(This is the second book in Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series, which is also now a TV series. A woman was put in prison ten years before for killing a teenage girl, the daughter of her ex-lover. Now it has been discovered that the woman was innocent, and Vera is looking into the original investigation.)

Murder Goes Mumming by Alisa Craig
(Another book set at Christmas. This one is a cozy, a humorous tale set in New Brunswick, Canada. Alisa Craig is the pseudonym of Charlotte MacLeod, used for two series set in Canada . Review coming soon.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dupe: Liza Cody

This is the first book in the Anna Lee Mystery series by Liza Cody, published in 1980. It won the CWA's John Creasey award for best first novel and was an Edgar nominee for Best Novel. There are five more books in this series; Cody's next crime fiction series was about a female wrestler, Eva Wylie.

Description at goodreads...
Anna quit the London police force because it was a dead end for women, but her job with Brierly Security isn’t a whole lot livelier. Her boss doesn’t much approve of female investigators, and her assignments tend toward the frustratingly genteel. The Jackson case doesn’t look like a big improvement. Ambitious, unpleasant young Deirdre Jackson has died, the apparent victim of a car accident on a lonely stretch of highway, and her parents want to know what their black-sheep daughter was up to in her last few months. Anna’s job, she knows, is to ask a few questions, write a report, and collect the Jacksons’ check. But the more questions she asks about Dee’s life, the more questions arise about her death.
Unlike other female private investigators who were introduced in the early 1980's (by Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky), Anna Lee works for a security company and is not her own boss. She is the only female investigator in the office, and doesn't get the best assignments.

Some modern readers complain that the story is dated. That is what I like about reading a story written at this time, so no complaints from me in that area. The story centers around a group that produces black market films and Anna works undercover briefly as a projectionist, which I found interesting. Also, I worked in those times, and I know how women were treated in the workplace (not in all circumstances of course).

This is not an action-packed story although Anna was beaten up and loses a few teeth because she won't give up looking into the case. That is one of her best characteristics... she is obstinate in pursuing a case, although realistic. If her boss won't keep the case open, she knows she cannot continue on her own.

I enjoyed this book, and have ordered the 2nd one in the series. Long out of print, affordable copies are now available at

The female authors I mentioned above have had very nice things to say about Liza Cody. In a list at Pan Macmillan, Sue Grafton names Anna Lee as one of her top five fictional detectives (the other four are men). In a Guardian article, Sara Paretsky names Liza Cody as her favorite living author in her field. Marcia Muller wrote a very complimentary review of Dupe in 1001 Midnights, edited by Muller and Bill Pronzini.

In Martin Edward's review of Dupe:
This was one of those books I read in the eighties, and from which I sought a bit of inspiration, when I was thinking about what it took to write a fresh new mystery series. I liked Cody’s crisp, economical style of writing, the plausible way in which Anna and her colleagues were depicted, and the evocative way in which she depicted Anna Lee’s London.
I like how Liza Cody explains the process of writing this novel (at her website)...
At the very beginning all I wanted to do was to avoid my freezing, uninsulated studio, and look busy by the fire. 
I hadn't read a lot of detective fiction - just Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross McDonald - but I'd enjoyed the pace and the writing. I did, however, have very serious doubts about their views of women. On top of that part of the attraction was the US itself, which seemed like an exotic location where gunplay and casual violence were plausible; not at all like England which breeds a different kind of nastiness altogether. 
It made me wonder what would happen to an ordinary, competent English woman who happened to be a detective; someone who went unarmed, used the Yellow Pages a lot and got hurt when she was hit.
So I started small: I fitted an ex-police woman, Anna Lee, into a small detective agency on Kensington High Street and gave her an unimportant case. Then, sort of like a reader, I waited to see what happened. 
I'm a feminist and I tend to believe that ordinary, competent women can change the world if they want to. But back in the late '70s, early '80s it was as if they had to wait for male permission. 
Anna was a woman who was somewhat damaged by living and working in a man's world; she probably wouldn't have called herself a feminist - she would've just worked twice as hard and tried to be twice as good as the guys in order to be thought of as not quite equal.  
So the book, Dupe, as it developed, was never intended as a polemic. But it was intended to be a feminist story: to show the slights, insults and restrictions that ordinary, competent, intelligent women faced every day, especially those who worked in what at the time was seen as a man's world - a detective agency.


Publisher:   Bantam Crime Line, 1992 (orig. publ. 1980)
Length:       235 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Anna Lee, #1
Setting:      London
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book, in November 2005.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

An American Spy: Olen Steinhauer

An American Spy (2012) is the third novel in a spy fiction trilogy written by Olen Steinhauer. Milo Weaver works in the Department of Tourism, a division of the CIA that most people don't know about. An agent in that department is a perpetual tourist, with no home, sent on mission after mission, doing whatever job they are given, with no explanation. And many times the assignment is to kill someone. In each of the books in the series, Milo's goal is to stop working as a Tourist, but still he does not reject the need for department itself. However, in each book he is pulled back into the work due to circumstances beyond his control.

Summary from Olen Steinhauer's website:
After the dissolution of the Department of Tourism, Milo’s old boss, Alan Drummond, grows obsessed with revenge against the man who’s destroyed his life: the Chinese spymaster Xin Zhu. When Alan disappears in London, having traveled around the planet, to reach the UK, clues are few and questions numerous. 
In China, Xin Zhu tracks evidence of a conspiracy against him (and his young wife) as he tries to survive the intrigues of Beijing politics. 
In Germany, Erika Schwartz comes across signs that Tourism may not be as dead as it seemed to be. 
In the center of it all is Milo Weaver, trying to stay alive and protect his family in Brooklyn.
In the first book, The Tourist, Milo has acquired a wife and a step-daughter. Since family life and the job of a Tourist cannot coexist, he has a desk job and works as a support person in the department. Throughout the series, his main goal is to keep his family safe. He would be happy to leave the CIA behind and become a normal citizen, but the Department of Tourism is hard to break away from.

The plot centering around Xin Zhu in China was one of my favorite parts. I also enjoyed the inclusion of Milo's father and his estranged half-sister in this book, exploring the importance of family connections in a different way. Milo's father is a former Russian spymaster and U.N. official, and he has ties to many people in the espionage community. He first shows up in the 2nd novel, The Nearest Exit. Although the fact that his father was a spymaster explains some factors in Milo's life and personality, it was an element that seemed a little over the top in that novel. In An American Spy, that story line seems to work better.

These books are full of action. I do prefer quieter, more cerebral spy novels, but it does keep the pace up. The plots border on the unbelievable, but that is fairly common in spy fiction, and I have no problem suspending my disbelief. I like the depth of the characters and the exploration of the conflicts in their lives within this framework.

Steinhauer's spy fiction has been compared to that of Graham Greene, Len Deighton, and John le Carré. I haven't read enough of Greene to speak to that. I would say he is closer to le Carré if we must make comparisons. On the other hand, in Deighton's Bernard Samson series, Bernard's family, especially his two children, are always his main concern. But, the point here is that if you like the writings of Deighton or le Carré, you definitely should give the Tourist trilogy a try. It is best if the books are read in the order published.

If you shy away from spy thrillers, you might find Steinhauer's other series a better fit. Some of those novels do have some of the elements of espionage fiction, but are historical fiction as well. The author describes them as "five novels that traced the history of an unnamed, fictional Eastern European country during its communist period, from 1948 until 1989, one book for each decade. The novels began as crime fiction, morphing gradually into espionage." There is not one main character but the characters are linked from one book to another.

The titles are, in order of publication:

The Bridge of Sighs
The Confession
36 Yalta Boulevard
(The Vienna Assignment in the UK)
Liberation Movements (The Istanbul Variations in the UK)
Victory Square

See these reviews:


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2012
Length:      386 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       The Tourist trilogy #3
Setting:      US, UK, China, Germany
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Labyrinth Makers: Anthony Price

David Audley is an unlikely spy. True, he works for England's Ministry of Defence, but strictly as a back-room man, doing meticulous research on the Middle East. This new assignment, then, comes as something of a surprise: A WWII-era British cargo plane has been discovered at the bottom of a drained lake, complete with the dead pilot and not much else. Why are the Soviets so interested in the empty plane and its pilot--interested enough to attend the much-belated funeral? And why has Audley been tapped to lead the investigation? 
As Audley chips away at the first question, he can't stop asking the second. Could he possibly have been given the assignment in order to fail, to preserve the decades-old secrets at the bottom of the lake? If that's the case, someone's made an error. Audley's a scholar by training, temperamentally allergic to loose ends. And the story he unravels is going to make some people very uncomfortable indeed.
This introduction to the story is taken from the back of my Felony & Mayhem edition.

I first read about Anthony Price and his series of esponage novels featuring Dr. David Audley at Nick Jone's blog, Existential Ennui. I was hooked in by his review of War Game, book 7 in the series. Now that I finally got around to reading this first book in the series, I am forever grateful. This is just the type of spy fiction I like: a quiet book, a lot of talking and thinking and not a lot of action.

The characterizations are very good. Audley and the daughter of the dead pilot are the best characters in this book, but there are secondary characters here that will be featured in later books. I liked the author's writing style. I started re-reading portions for this review, and I noticed lovely descriptions of the area (the South Downs) that I had missed in my first read through. And on top of that, each book may center around another person that Audley works with. Although Audley is always involved to some extent, this should indicate that there will be variety in the series.

The only negative is that I want to read the rest of the books and there are eighteen more. I have now ordered the second book in the series, The Alamut Ambush.

In Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, William L. DeAndra notes that a characteristic of each novel in this series is that it hinges on some piece of history.
Anthony Price writes spy novels as no one ever has. The interwoven adventures of Dr. David Audley of British Intelligence and his associates combine haunting characterization, complex plots, history, international intrigue and pure detection to an extent rare in the genre.
Jo Walton also wrote an article at on the aspects of history in this series, titled History Informs the Present: Anthony Price’s Audley series. So if you like learning about history, this is a good series to try. Walton's article also points out four novels in the series that could be good starting points.

Other resources...


Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2005 (orig. pub. 1970)
Length:      287 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       David Audley #1
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Mike Shayne series by Brett Halliday

When I was at the book sale this year I ran into a box full of vintage paperbacks. That has never happened in all the decades I have been attending the sale. There may be occasional boxes of paperbacks with one or two vintage paperbacks in them on the tables. This box was tucked away under a table. There were lots of Mike Shayne mysteries and a good number of Perry Mason or Bertha Lam / Donald Cool mysteries. Today I concentrate on the Mike Shayne series by Brett Halliday.

I could not have passed up these books because most of them had covers by Robert McGinnis. Luckily this was identified on the back cover of the books, because even though I have two books about McGinnis's book covers and art in general, I cannot identify them without help. He does have a distinctive style but there were other cover artists with similar styles. The books were not in great condition but the cover illustrations are still lovely and the text is readable which is a big plus.

I had no idea if I would want to read these books or just have them for my collection of vintage book covers. When I got home I started investigating and discovered that his books will be well worth reading, or at least sampling them to see what I think.

At Mysterious Press:
Miami-based Michael Shayne is at once a hardboiled private eye and a methodical, Nero Wolfe-esque classical detective. In the early books in the series, his tightly-plotted investigations are complemented by humorous episodes involving his wife, offering some relief as he tangles with all sorts of criminals, be they blackmailers (The Private Practice of Michael Shayne), scammy realtors (The Uncomplaining Corpses), or murderous politicians (Bodies Are Where You Find Them).

The first thirty novels in the series were written by Davis Dresser, using the pseudonym Brett Halliday. The remaining novels (there were over 70) were written by other authors. Many were written by Robert Terrall; Dennis Lynds (a Santa Barbara resident) and Ryerson Johnson also wrote a few. I will have more on Robert Terrall in a later post.

If you want to learn more about this series, see this post at Killer Covers:
The Corpse Came Calling, by Brett Halliday
There I learned that Davis Dresser was also a resident of Santa Barbara. I was also reminded that one of my favorite films, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, was based partly on Brett Halliday's novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them.

At this post by J. Kingston Pierce of the Rap Sheet, there are many links about Brett Halliday and the Mike Shayne series, plus illustrators of book covers for that series.

The Thrilling Detective website is a wonderful resource for fictional private eyes. See the page there for Mike Shayne.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Dreadful Lemon Sky: John D. MacDonald

I took advantage of the Crimes of the Century meme for November, hosted at Past Offences, to get back into reading the Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald. This month the year chosen was 1975. The 16th book in the series, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, was published in that year.

For readers not familiar with the Travis McGee series, McGee is essentially a private detective, although he describes himself as a "salvage consultant." He has also been described as a knight errant. He only takes jobs when he needs money; the rest of the time he spends in "retirement."

This story starts when a friend shows up in the middle of the night on Travis McGee's house boat, the Busted Flush. Carrie Milligan met McGee when she was very young (18), and got married shortly thereafter. He loaned her the Busted Flush for her honeymoon. Now, six years later she is back, having divorced her husband three years earlier. She brings with her around 100,000 dollars and asks McGee to hold it for her for a few weeks. If she returns for it, he gets $10,000 for keeping the money safe for her; if she doesn't, he still keeps the $10,000, but his job is to deliver the money to her sister. After some quick checking to satisfy himself that the money is actually hers, he agrees; two weeks later she is dead. McGee takes the Busted Flush to the small town on the Florida coast where she lived and worked .... to see if he can find out what happened.

This is pretty much the standard plot of the books in the series. McGee is approached by a woman needing help. He takes a break from his retirement to provide aid. Most of the books are set in Fort Lauderdale, Florida or other coastal towns.

What makes the books so good is MacDonald's storytelling. I was rereading sections of this book after the first read through, and they are just as good the second time around. There is a quiet humor in the writing.

The characters in the books are well developed and interesting. His male characters are better than the women. The women characters, at least in this book, don't seem to have much depth and are very similar. Besides McGee and his sometimes sidekick Meyer, an economist who also lives on a boat in the harbor, in this book there is also a sleazy but very convincing politician and a very cynical policeman.

Also the setting and sense of place is very well done. I have never been to Fort Lauderdale, but I have been to Florida many times (in the sixties and the seventies). Mostly I visited the Gulf Coast so not exactly the same area and I was too young to see it in the same way he did. MacDonald was very concerned about the commercialization of the area and the damage to the environment.

The books have a good bit of social commentary and philosophy thrown in. I am sure this one of the aspects that attracted me when I first read the series, but some readers grow tired of this. In this book that aspect is not overdone.
I found a shopping center and found that they had left some giant oaks in the parking lot. This runs counter to the sworn oath of all shopping center developers. One must never deprive thy project of even one parking slot.
Does this book reflect life in the US in 1975? I would say yes. McGee attends a memorial service for Carrie. He describes some of the people at the gathering:
...I realized anew that there is a new subculture in the world. These were mostly young working people. Their work was their concession to the necessities. Their off-work identities were contra-establishment. Perhaps this was the only effective answer to all the malaise and the restlessness and the disbelief in institutionalized life, to conform for the sake of earning the bread and then to step from the job into almost as much personal freedom as the commune person.
When I read that paragraph, it took me back to my first job out of college. I worked and socialized with people like that. Amazing that he got it just right.

One of the elements of the books is that McGee usually (always?) ends up having sexual relations with at least one of the women that feature in the plot. I have read at least three reviews or analyses of this series that discuss the "sex as therapy" element in this series, so I feel I must mention it. I did not dislike that element in this book but I will admit to a bit of discomfort. In this particular case the woman involved with McGee was not so young, and she was using him as much as he was using her. McGee's attitude toward women is a lot like James Bond's, except that McGee often expounds on his attitude towards women, which may be the problem. To be clear, at least in this book, the sex is not graphic or offensive, in my opinion.

I do have an issue with the cover on my paperback edition. On the one hand it has a skull on the cover, on a hundred dollar bill. On the other hand, it shows a helicopter against a lemon yellow sky. I remember nothing about a helicopter in this story. An airplane yes, and it has a lot to do with the plot. I have even read a review that indicates a helicopter is used. I don't want to quote the passage that establishes it is a plane, not a helicopter, because it could be considered a spoiler. But still, why the helicopter on the cover?


Publisher:   Fawcett Gold Medal, 1988 (orig. publ. 1975) 
Length:       272 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Travis McGee, #16 
Setting:      Florida
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.