Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Counterstroke

Counterstroke – Andrew Garve

We mystery fans remember writers who create a series hero. Conan Doyle for Holmes. Christie for Poirot. Sayers for Lord Peter Lamesey. We consign to obscurity writers of stand-alone thrillers. Fight this tendency by not neglecting Andrew Garve. He built his reputation in the Sixties and Seventies the old fashioned way, one stand-alone at a time.

In his last novel in 1978, terrorists kidnap the wife of a member of Parliament. The terrorists threaten that if authorities don’t release their fellow murderer from prison by their deadline, they will slowly torture her to death.

Robert Farran, a “resting” actor, takes to the police his plan to impersonate the terrorist and be exchanged for the unhappy victim. The process of preparing for the exchange takes surprising turns.

The climax and ending may feel abrupt to us post-moderns who expect thrillers to sprawl. Persuasive is the portrait of the cold and heartless terrorists. Paul Winterton was the real name of Andrew Garve and Roger Bax. Winterton was a journalist so he knew how to write concise clear prose.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Gold Comes in Bricks

Gold Comes in Bricks – Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair

1940 saw publication of the third of 29 novels starring PI’s Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. Like Laurel and Hardy, the partnership features the shrimpy one and the stout one.

This mystery opens with the slight Lam taking lessons in the martial arts at the behest of his employer Cool, who likes her tobacco, liquor, and comfort. She thinks he needs some toughening up in order to avoid getting beaten up on the job.

The client Henry Ashbury, concerned about his independent-minded daughter’s burning through his money, hires Cool and Lam to look into the girl’s financial dealings iffy associates. So that the daughter will not wonder why Lam is in the house he is to pose as Ashbury’s personal trainer.

It’s a dumb plan, but miser Cool sees only the bucks to be earned by Lam. Dubious but really shaking the tree, Lam uncovers a complex but not too bewildering trail involving fraud, blackmail, and murder. As is usual in the Cool and Lam books, they make the situation worse until they grift the grifters and narrowly escape being arrested just for being pains in the neck.

The strain between thinking machine Lam and bull in the china shop Cool is as funny as Cool’s smarmy concern over Lam’s love life. Women inevitably fall in love with Lam for his gentlemanly respect and willingness to listen. So Cool is concerned that Lam will end up in romantically deep waters and lose his focus working for her. It’s a hoot.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Worm of Death

The Worm of Death – Nicholas Blake

Cecil Day-Lewis, classics prof and poet laureate, didn’t take seriously the 20 or so detective novels he wrote as Nicholas Blake. This does not mean they deserve their neglected status nowadays. In fact, this novel is dark enough to appeal to post-modern readers who like dark mysteries.

This 1961 story, the 14th featuring PI Nigel Strangeways, opens with Strangeways and his artist wife Clare Massinger having dinner with an awkward family. Father Piers, a doctor, is sarcastic and tyrannical. Daughter Rebecca longs to be free to marry her artist BF whom he father dislikes. His son James, also a doctor, fears making a misstep that will hurt his reputation. His other son Harold is a flash businessman and his trophy wife Sharon is as flirty as we’d expect. The favorite son, Graham, is seen as an ‘old lag’ (ex-con) by Strangeways.

The setting of docks, alleys, barges, and the Isle of Dogs is the main attraction here. Greenwich was a shabby part of London at the time. We readers walk in the February chill and fog along the banks of the River Thames. It’s the perfect backdrop for Father Piers Louden to go missing and then turn up dead in Thames clad only in a tweed coat. Son James hires Strangeways to investigate which he does with the help of Inspector Wright. They narrow the circle of suspects down to the unhappy family.

Blake’s dark realism is decidedly not cozy. The reveal chills us readers with its plausibility. The Perp is consumed with envy and bent and revenge. Blake asserts that WWII claimed victims after the cessation of hostilities in 1945.

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Ides of Perry Mason 20

The 15th of every month until I don't know when I will post a review of a Perry Mason mystery. For the hell of it.

The Case of the Spurious Spinster – Erle Stanley Gardner

The Perry Mason novels written in the late Fifties and early Sixties are sometimes organized like the vintage TV episodes featuring the super-lawyer. That is, the action opens with a plucky working girl just trying to do her best - what anybody would do - in a set of circumstances full of unpredictable factors. The situation deteriorates to the point where the shrewd but scared protagonist is driven to consult Perry Mason, who suspects a scam has put his client in a legally vulnerable position.

In this one, a modest secretary, Susan Fisher, suspects her boss of funny business when the boss’ young son comes into the office with a shoebox full of benjamins. Also, the owner of the company – the kind of blunt astute business woman Gardner respected – disappears along with accounting evidence that somebody has been peculating the profits.  Seeing herself in legal jeopardy, Susan consults Perry Mason.

So, the first chapter of this 1961 mystery is one of the longest set-ups in the Gardner canon of 80-some Perry Mason novels.  Usually I would feel impatient with this (I like a vic right away in a mystery), but Gardner, employing narrative magic  in a story of thievery, kidnapping,  and subterfuge, builds suspense by getting us veteran fans wondering when the heck the murder is coming off and who is going to be the vic. When Perry and Della finally come upon a grisly corpse, the tension is almost unbearable. 

The trial sequence is thus delayed and seems a tad rushed. Though dour Detective Tragg and Perry have some fine exchanges, DA Hamilton Burger does not get a chance to make his usual exasperated outburst.

Other exceptional scenes: Della uses her femininity to open up a crusty prospector and Paul flatly predicts, “The evidence points so unerringly and so damningly that there isn’t a ghost of a chance she’s innocent. And what’s more, I’m betting that within twenty-four hours Amelia Corning’s body will be discovered somewhere and you’ll find your client charged with another murder.” Boy, you’d think after 60-some novels (this was published in 1961), Paul would have as much faith in Perry as Della does.

As we fans do….

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Back to the Classics 2021 #1

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

A 20th century classic. A modern novel with the backdrop of the most destructive war in history seemed the ticket to read for this category. About this time last year friends gave me The Balkan Trilogy for a get-well present when I was recovering from getting my chest sawn open.

The Great Fortune - Olivia Manning

This is the first book in The Balkan Trilogy, a fictionalized autobiography which brilliantly captures the expatriate community in a European capital city haunted by the harsh reality of war in 1939-40. I enjoyed the novel a great deal, though Balkan critics sniff that since neither Manning nor her fictional stand-in, Harriet Pringle, spoke or read Romanian with advanced proficiency, their view of the country was superficial, with plenty of scenes in pricey eateries, snug coffee houses, buggy rides and parties hosted by embassies.

As an ex-superficial expatriate myself,  I confidently attest that this novel tells how expatriate life feels for working adults, their spouses and their colleagues and rivals. In the late 1930s Romanians and non-Romanians (English, Germans, Jewish people, Romany) feel the same uneasy uncertain insecurity about the imminence of WWII. In the middle 1990s, Latvia had a bank panic that, believe me, gave everybody a case of full-blown heebie-jeebies. Along with the local people at the school (who could ill-afford financial loss however slight), I had feelings of alarm I didn’t have again until the panic shopping of March 2020. This is an example involving large ructions, but Manning represents day to day expat life and its rhythms and trials really well too.

Also feeling genuine is the sense that main characters Harriet and Guy Pringle were too young to get married in the first place, much less be newly married in another culture. Though they don’t really know what they’re getting into (which is probably just as well), young people have inner resources and distractions, trivial and not, that make them draw closer. For instance, the climax of this novel involves a student production of Troilus and Cressida. Poor Harriet is really tested when Guy casts his Romanian Ex in the title part, but she comes to see another side of him and admires him for being such a great director.

The female protagonist Harriet is only 22 years old, from a loveless family background. She’s just getting to know her new husband Guy, who is 23 years old, a combination of cluelessness and exuberance. You can tell he’s young even for his age when he tells Harriet, “I expect from you only what I expect from myself.” Guy is often irritating and unpleasant especially when he carelessly puts Harriet in a bad position, ignoring her, not taking her opinions into account, and making her look stupid, especially when Guy’s Ex, a local named Sophie, is involved.

Introverted Harriet, who has had little experience accepting people as they are, has trouble with friendships. She ends up hanging out with Bella, an Englishwoman she never would have befriended in England, but who ends up being a woman of great resource and if not wisdom, then sense. Guy forces Harriet into a lot of acquaintanceships and unwanted house-mates, especially the marvelous comic character, Prince Yakimov, a dim bulb and scrounger and glutton.

The novel works on both the social and personal level so, I’m looking forward to the next two books in the trilogy. Readers who are into Europe between the wars will enjoy this novel, calling to mind work by Rebecca West, Victor Serge, Alan Furst, and Eric Ambler.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Be He Live

Or Be He Dead – James Byrom

A best-selling writer in the true crime genre, Raymond Kennington is telling his story in the 1950s about his adventures in the 1930s when we wrote about a famous trial in the 1890s.

In a London made tense by the coming of WWII, Kennington alleges in his new book that Claude Neville Millington-Forsett was probably guilty of a killing that he was acquitted of in a famous trial of 1894. Millington-Forsett was a nasty throwback to the ethics-free Regency bucks and blades.

Kennington’s publishers are nervous about libel suits since Millington-Forsett won punishing damages for libel in the past. They send Kennington to Paris with his secretary, comely Josephine Canning, to confirm that Millington-Forsett has in fact shucked off this mortal coil and gone to his eternal deserts, which, the reader hopes, involve slow roasting. Once in Paris Kennington and Josephine kick over numerous rocks and generally get in the face of bad people dangerous to know.

The premise is original, the adventures are engaging, and the romance tolerable though it provides fantasy fodder for middle-aged male readers who hold fast the delusion that women half their age will be attracted to them. The far-fetched plot twists that the reader is supposed to buy are balanced by the highly literate writing, which is clearly the product of an author who is well-read and a professional writer. The settings feel more sordid than we usually find in a classic whodunit, but count this as another point that makes this mystery unique. Put this writer in the ranks with Nicholas Blake, Andrew Garve, Cyril Hare, and Michael Innes.

How do the English do the entertaining mystery so well and make it look so easy?

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Love Without Wings

Love Without Wings - Louis Auchincloss

This book of short readable essays describes the friendships of 16 pairs famous in literature and politics. As we’d expect in a close observer of people, an avid reader, and a figure in society who has hob-knobbed with people who knew the subjects, Auchincloss passes on interesting tidbits about Hawthorne & Melville (exuberant Herm exhausted private and reticent Nat) and Fitzgerald & Hemingway (Zelda pained Scott when she described his new friend Ernest as “a pansy with hair on his chest”).  

Also interesting are Boswell & Johnson, Henry Adams & John Hay (great for readers who like Vidal’s Empire), Byron & Shelley, Tennyson & Arthur “In Memoriam” Hallam, Roosevelt & Hopkins, Emerson & Thoreau. Less interesting, because the subjects feel grey and faraway to me, are Edith Wharton & Margaret Chanler and Woodrow Wilson & Colonel House. 

Light bedside reading or for when a reader is not up to more substantial challenging fare.