Sunday, October 15, 2017

Mount TBR #48

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Most Contagious Game – Catherine Aird

In this 1967 whodunnit, our main character, Charles Hardin, is a London business man who has had to retire in his early fifties because of a dicky heart. While in hospital, he’s given his wife a blank check to buy whatever manor house she can find that she finds suitable.

Once discharged and in the house in the village of Easterbrooke, Charles is discouraged to find the house is not much of a fixer-upper. His attitude changes quickly when he discovers a priest’s hole, a hiding place for a priest built into many of the foremost Catholic houses of England during the period when Catholics were persecuted by the Tudors. The chamber, in fact, contains a skeleton about 150 years old. To parallel this old murder mystery is the contemporary murder of an errant wife, whose husband, having vanished, is the suspect.

As Charles does his research on the old murder, readers will be reminded of Josephine Tey’s classic A Daughter of Time, in which a bedridden copper rehabs the rep of Richard III. This village cozy has a brisk pace and well-drawn characters. The prose is witty and intelligent but not too much so. This is a stand-alone mystery, her only outing that did not feature the team of Sloan and Crosby. Though I have kiddish memories of an uncle who read mysteries having Catherine Aird books, this was the first one of hers that I’ve ever read. I can say that I’d like to read more, though I’m usually snooty about cozies. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Master of the Day of Judgment

The Master of the Day of Judgment – Leo Perutz

This 1930 classic fantastic mystery by Leo Perutz is set in Vienna in the early 20th century. The themes and devices will be familiar to us post-modern readers.

A romantic triangle in the era of the late Hapsburgs as in Sándor Márai’s Embers. Guilt over sexual transgressions as in Arthur Schnitzler’s stories from decadent Vienna.  The secret revealed in a manuscript as in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The phantasmagoric atmosphere as in William Kotzwinkle’s Fata Morgana. The unreliability of an unsympathetic narrator – well, name your favorite modernist writer from the early 20th century.

Our narrator, the often ruthless and brutal Baron Yosch, narrates the events surrounding the suicide of actor Eugene Bischoff, the latest in a mysterious series of suicides. His chronicle is plagued by semi-confessed guilt over adultery. We readers receive tantalizing hints as to who is behind the eponymous "The Master of the Day of Judgment." As the amateur detectives Solgrub and Gorsky reconstruct the dead man's final hours, we realize we have to read this slowly so as not to be more confused than the author intends us to be.

Creepy, with a surprise ending. Readers looking for Kafka-lite won’t go wrong.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Indigenous Peoples' Day 2017

Indigenous Peoples' Day is a holiday that celebrates the indigenous peoples of North America. It is celebrated in various localities in the United States on various dates.

The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics among the New England Indians - Patrick Malone

After fighting the Indians in the 17th century, the English colonists in New England had to alter the way in which they fought wars. Instead of firing their muskets into tightly massed formations of enemy soldiers, they had to adjust by actually aiming at an individual adversary, taking cover behind trees and rocks, and attacking in ambushes. In short, they came to rely on the same skulking tactics of the Indians, which at first the colonists disliked because they thought such tactics cowardly and unsoldierly.

These skulking tactics became their doctrine of woodland warfare. Such were used against British troops during the American Revolutionary War. So, the patriots had learned forest tactics from their colonist ancestors, who had learned from bitter experience fighting the Indians.

The Indians based their use of firearms on their traditional way of fighting in the forest with bows and arrows. For one, their ability to aim was practiced since childhood. They preferred the flintlock to the musket because they thought it more natural to aim at a target. They obtained firearms despite colonial efforts to restrict sales of arms, ammo, and parts. When the English forces took an Indian fort during King Philip's War, they killed "'an Indian blacksmith' who repaired Narragansett firearms" and also "demolished his forge and took away his tools. Obtaining gunpowder, however, was a constant problem.

Malone also asserts that the Indians learned the way of total warfare from Europeans. Because of the harsh religious wars in Europe such as the Thirty Years' War, it was usual for armies to make war against civilians by firing villages and destroying crops. The Indians were at first shocked by the new increased intensity of war and the larger numbers of fatalities, which were unexampled in their previous experience.

This is a coffee-table book, lavishly illustrated in black and white, though some of the graphics are of the time and show Indians acting like white people’s ideas of Indians. I’m not especially interested in weapons technology and infantry tactics, but the book held my interest when it focused on these topics.  The author Malone was a Marine who saw combat in Vietnam. In the introduction he drily says he does not recommend the participant observation method to budding military historians. But the reader would have to grant unique experience should give the author a certain authority to add to his technical knowledge and expertise, and historical research.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Rich Presidents Too

From After Many a Summer by Aldous Huxley, a cool novel about LA in the 1930s.

Dr. Mulge was a college president chronically in quest of endowments; he knew all about the rich. Knew, for example that they were like gorillas, creatures not easily domesticated, deeply suspicious, alternately bored and bad tempered. You had to approach them with caution, to handle them gently and with a boundless cunning. And even then they might suddenly turn savage on you and show their teeth. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Bride Wore Black

The Bride Wore Black – Cornell Woolrich

Innocently, I had picked up The Red House Mystery, a 1922 mystery by A. A. Milne. Yes, Winnie the Pooh, that A. A. Milne - Eyore should have tipped me off. After about four pages, the coziness started to smother me. To get my wind back, I did fifteen pushups, three chin-ups, ran in place five minutes and then chucked The Red House Mystery as far as I could.

Like a shot put.

And then – panting – I turned to the 1940 classic of the suspense mystery genre The Bride Wore Black. Yee-haw! A raving beauty shoves a guy off a high-rise ledge, blasts another guy to death, and suffocates yet another guy inside a closet. Coolest of all, dressed as Diana the Hunting Goddess, she zings an arrow into a guy’s chest.  To summarize the plot would do a disservice to both Woolrich the writer and prospective readers. Suffice to say, Woolrich weaves noir magic in unemotional prose as he builds suspense to heart-stopping points, while still developing character and plot. The ending is a rocker.

Just read this exciting and well-crafted story! Don’t mind that the grotesque coincidences  because it’s not like real life is free of them. Ditto for the relentless prose. After all, it comes out of the venerable pulp tradition. And Woolrich is considered a founder of noir, up there with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The High Window

On this day in 1923 my father was born. He died in 2012. It was my father that turned me on to authors like Ross MacDonald, Hammett and Chandler. This post is dedicated to him.

The High Window – Raymond Chandler

In the third novel featuring LA PI Philip Marlowe, our series hero is hired by a mean old rich lady to recover a rare coin that was allegedly stolen by her daughter-in-law. Later a killing baffles everybody, since the person of interest didn’t even know the victim. A second killing makes no sense either. 

Readers like me will be relieved that the plot is not as convoluted as The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely. Rousing action is on the skimpy side. Nor does the private eye do much detecting. Chandler, always experimenting with language and going beyond the conventions of the mystery genre, focuses on setting, character and theme.

Marlowe’s investigations take him to locations ranging from ritzy to sleazy. On the first page, we get a sense of the tasteless consumption of exotic Pasadenans in the boom years during WWII. The client’s mansion is decorated with “a stained glass window about the size of the tennis court.” We are then introduced to the mean old rich lady, with her “pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones.” No fault of Chandler’s that many writers imitated these dazzling expressions, too often not with as much the delicate sense of "so enough already."

The poor and middle-class characters don’t act better than they should either. Of a dubious dealer in old coins: an “elderly party in a dark grey suit with high lapels and too many buttons down the front… Fuzz grew out of his ears, far enough to catch a moth … a Hoover collar which no decent laundry would have allowed on the premises nudged his adam’s apple  and a black string tie poked a small hard knot out of the bottom of the collar, like a mouse getting ready to come out of a mousehole.”

Our hero Phil Marlowe is the only likable character, although we readers are happy when in the scene we find Merle, a young secretary who has lost faith in herself. Her broken appeal is believable and moves the plot. Tough and resourceful, Marlowe can deal with all types of crook, such as the drunken stick-up artist Hench and the smooth villain Vannier. But Marlowe has a profound side too. He relaxes by doing chess problems. When he delivers Merle back to her parents back in Kansas he thinks, “I had a funny feeling … as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again.”

Chandler brought serious themes to mysteries. In this one he examines the effect of power and coercion of human relations. For instance, his mean old client runs roughshod over her son and secretary and thus blights their lives for no discernible end. Chandler looks at the corrosive effects of infidelity on marriage. Marlowe’s sensitive relationship with the police is subtly and intelligently handled here than in most mysteries.

Other Reviews of books by Chandler
Trouble is My Business
The Long Goodbye

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bury Me Deep

Bury Me Deep – Harold Q. Masur

Woo-hoo, this 1947 mystery has a humdinger of an opening scene. Returning from a business trip in Florida, lawyer Scott Jordan enters his New York City apartment. On his couch he finds a bodacious and scantily-clad blonde, listening to his radio and sipping his brandy from his snifter. But Scott smells a rat and bundles the boozy beauty into a taxi. The honey turns up dead, embroiling Scott with iffy lawyers, snarky cops, dense bully boys, a rich girl that wants to be a Broadway star and her sleazy singing coach, a drunken bon vivant and his angry wife, a smooth villain, and a snow bunny. Scott also finds the love of his life. As if the cast of scores was not enough to grab and hold our interest, the episodic action includes poisoning, a fatal car accident, shootings, and assorted fisticuffs.

A contemporary critic summed up this novel with this telegram of a review, “Fast and tough by rote but played so effectively that it slips past the eyes.” This is true. Like a noir movie from the same period, this mystery is simultaneously realistic and implausible. The hard-boiled characters strike the same old poses and their capers are pretty zany. The reader gets the feeling that in this first novel, the writer is jamming in every character and plot twist he can think of, in the most shiny prose possible. It’s appealing as a glittering, fast-moving story. I won’t remember it after a month.

I felt Raymond Chandler’s influence on Masur. For example, Masur describes in dazzling expressions  - “Broadway had pulsed into neon-glaring night life. Swollen throngs milled restlessly with a rapacious appetite for pleasure. Box-office windows spawned long queues, and the traffic din was a steady roar in your ears.”

Released in the same year as the notorious I, The Jury, this best-selling novel is regarded as “a cut above many of the American detective novels churned out at the end of the Second World War.”  Masur later wrote nine mysteries starring lawyer Scott Jordan. Masur once described Jordan: “The series character, Scott Jordan, a New York attorney, was first conceived to fall somewhere between Perry Mason and Archie Goodwin . . . with the dash and insouciance of Rex Stout’s Archie.” Therefore, readers that like the novels of Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner would like Masur’s work.