Tuesday, December 31, 2013

As Fit as A Flea



Murder at the Flea Club – Mathew Head

The year 1957 finds The Flea Club a hot Paris night spot. The owner-operator- chanteuse, Frenchwoman Nicole, divided the joint into a public and a members-only section. On hand for additional local color is Nicole’s piano player Tony, a man of mystery, and Bibi, a young prostitute.

The members are the narrator Hooper Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”), art gallery owner and man of the world; a brittle American heiress in the hunt for a fifth husband; the nasty gigolo who’s making eyes at her. Another brassy American female makes eyes at the gigolo, and her troubled 18-year-old daughter mopes more than a young girl should. A young Italian makes eyes at the moper. The chanteuse is done in with a blunt instrument. On the case is Head’s series detective, Dr. Mary Finney. Her companion is Emily Collins.

This story isn’t more crowded than the usual country-house mystery. I had no problem keeping who’s who straight. Still, I got the feeling yet that this is an over-crowded mystery because they don’t have a lot to do except talk. And talk. And talk some more. For instance, an American “confirmed bachelor,” probably with his hand stereotypically on his hip, prattles like this:

Have you been downstairs, Hoopy? .... Well do go! I mean the place is simply fantastic, these utterly tremendous holes, right in the middle of the clubroom, and the most tremendous piles of dirt. Really quite picturesque and too too archaeological! So intellectual, is the way I feel about it, so un-Flea Club. But good, you know, really good. The Institute's been taking pictures, if you can imagine. I mean it - the Institute! Ninth century if it's a day, Professor Johnson says. Can you imagine?

This tedium is worsened by Head’s choice to narrate about half the novel as Hooper’s recounting the last couple days’ action to Dr. Mary Finney. Like the flamboyant bachelor above, the reporting seems to go on and on. Besides it’s too unbelievable that Hooper would remember conversations word for word. By the scene in which they plan to gather all the suspects in a room, I was relieved and grateful.

On the positive side, Head uses language skillfully. He’s memorable at describing sounds (“She put both hands in front of her face and made unlovely burbling sounds”) and colors (“Freddy’s face turned into shrimp-colored blubber and began to vibrate”). Better, he’s funny as when Hooper and the teenager go on a date, the girl acts abstractedly: ""I was proud to be with such a pretty girl, but if anybody tried to figure us out they must have thought either that we had had a lovers' quarrel,  or been married a little too long. Or maybe they just thought we were English."

I gather that series hero Dr. Mary Finney’s usual locale was the Congo. So maybe the writer felt wobbly away from the familiar setting. Plus, this was the last novel in the series so maybe the earlier ones are better. Head is a good enough writer that I will try an earlier book in the series if it falls in my lap. But with regards to this one, I have to warn prospective readers off.

Friday, December 27, 2013

King of Comedy

King of Comedy – Mack Sennett

I like Hollywood autobiographies, ghostwritten or not, because the funny stories are easy to read. The stories might even be true, but I don’t care as long as they make me laugh. Sometimes, however, there are provocative nuggets such as this, slapstick king Sennett quoting James Cagney:

It’s the naïve people who become the true artists. First, they have to be naïve enough to believe in themselves. Then, a performer – especially an actor or an actress – must be naïve enough to keep on trying, using his talent, in spite of any kind of discouragement or double-cross. He doesn’t pay attention to setbacks. In his ingenuousness he doesn’t know a setback when it smites him. Money doesn’t concern him.

I think parts of this apply to athletes too. Who would be a quarterback but a guy who assumes he’ll never be hurt and coolly looks past the linebacker who only wants to tear off his head? To be a hockey goalie, you’d have to be so naïve as to think “I’m gonna stop that puck even if it travels  at 150 miles an hour. “

Anyway, film buffs, historians of comedy, and Hollywood mavens would enjoy this book, first published in 1954. It’s coarse in places, rubbing our 2013 sensibilities a bit raw, but then so are the transcendent shorts of Roscoe Arbuckle. What would be really be interesting is an edited version of this book, telling us where Sennett is misremembering, misrepresenting, mischaracterizing, and getting it plain wrong, for whatever reason.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Ghostly Christmas

Merry Christmas. The Victorians loved to tell ghost stories at Christmas time.


Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology (0192829998)

The 1993 anthology is introduced by the editors. As their academic training taught them to do, Cox and Gilbert in their introduction assert that the Victorian ghost stories reveal ambivalent nostalgia for the looser rowdier 17th and 18th centuries and latent anxieties about the future of their industrializing society. They also give props to women who had to write to provide for their families such Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley's Secret) and Charlotte Riddell (The Haunted House at Latchford).

Surprising us post-modern readers by writing in a less serious genre than usual are Charles Dickens, Henry James, Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, R.L. Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling. Also included are writers known primarily for ghost stories, such as J.S. Le Fanu, M.R. James, and Algernon Blackwood. The tone of the stories varies. The somber tale “John Charrington's Wedding” is made all the more horrible because it occurs on a wedding day, a day that ought to the happiest for bride and groom. However, the humorist Jerome K. Jerome gives a lighter touch in “The Man of Science.”

The stories range in time, from 1852 for "The Old Nurse's Story" by Elizabeth Gaskell (North and South; Cranford) to 1908 for “Thurnley Abbey" by Perceval Landon. The stories , therefore, , represent a range of period styles. Here’s a sample of light, from Mrs. Molesworth’s "The Story of the Rippling Train:"

"'Smoke,' was my first idea. 'Can there be anything on fire?' But I dismissed the notion almost as soon as it suggested itself. The something, faint and shadowy, that came slowly rippling itself in as it were beyond the dark wood of the open door, was yet too material for 'smoke.' My next idea was a curious one. 'It looks like soapy water,' I said to myself; 'can one of the housemaids have been scrubbing, and upset a pail on the stairs?' For the stair to the next floor almost faced the library door. But—no; I rubbed my eyes and looked again; the soapy water theory gave way. The wavy something that kept gliding, rippling in, gradually assumed a more substantial appearance. It was—yes, I suddenly became convinced of it—it was ripples of soft silken stuff, creeping in as if in some mysterious way unfolded or unrolled, not jerkily or irregularly, but glidingly and smoothly, like little wavelets on the sea-shore.

Only a couple of the stories are so ornate as to be unreadable. Readers in the market for a variety of haints, spirits, and specters that dog unwary families that rent weird houses and travelers in lonely districts should check out this anthology.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Classics 2013

Notable Classics of 2013

For a reading challenge I read about 15 classics. The most notable were the following

Playback by Raymond Chandler.  This novel does not belong to the highest rank in terms of the mystery genre or the writer’s own work. However, it was the first Chandler I’ve read in about 40 years and it made me revise my previous hasty and callow opinion of Chandler.

The Forged Coupon by Leo Tolstoy. This is a classic because its theme (actions have unforeseen consequences) has lasting significance and worth. Plus, the narrative vitality and coherence is model story-telling.

The Master andMargarita by Mixail Bulgakov. This is a work recognized as definitive in its genre of fantasy and satire. I can’t decide if the political and social satire is more powerful than the sheer art of the prose. In the end, I will opt for art, I think.

My Bondage and MyFreedom by Frederick Douglass. Of course, it is a classic because it is a traditional example of a slave narrative, but the sheer power of his prose I didn’t expect.

V. by Thomas Pynchon. 2013 was the 50th anniversary of this novel. Turning 50, then, it becomes a classic because it established a standard for post-modern prose, as powerful and exasperating as that can be.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Greenmantle

Greenmantle - John Buchan

Our hero Richard Hannay, recovering from a wound taken in the trenches, volunteers for an espionage assignment. His must find out more information about a suspected German plot to stir up the Middle East and break lines of communication and transportation between Great Britain and its eastern empire.

The American eccentric John Blenkiron (a master if dyspeptic spy) and school-mate Sandy Arbuthnot (a Lawrence of Arabia kind of guy) add their unique talents to the mission. Making his way to Turkey, Hannay meets his South African pard Peter, the archetypal faithful retainer and pale noble savage.

The action rocks in the old-fashioned way of an adventure story for boys from the early part of the twentieth century. Written in 1916, it suffers from both wartime xenophobia of The Enemy and misogynistic, homophobic, jinigoistic, racist asides that have become breath-taking in our year 2013. In the Sixties, I grew up in white working class suburb where the N-word was flung about freely, but even I had to roll my eyes when the hero finished a work-out and observed, “I felt like a white man again.”

Making allowances for unfortunate attitudes of the past, I would say that of the five Hannay novels, Greenmantle is the best one, slightly edging the better-known The Thirty-Nine Steps. It is certainly better than Mr. Standfast, which is flawed in execution, and way better than the nearly worthless The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sign Up 2104 War Challenge with a Twist

2104 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations

Click the title for a review on my blog.

Gulf War, Iraq
1.       Hollow Victory: A Contrary View of the Gulf War -- Jeffrey Record
2.       The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq -- Patrick Cockburn

French and Indian War

Korean War
  1. This Kind of War: A Study of Unpreparedness - T. R. Fehrenbach
  2. The River and the Gauntlet - S. L. A. Marshall
  3. Broken Soldiers - Raymond B. Lech
  4. The Last Parallel - Martin Russ
WWI
1.       The Soldier's Song - Alan Monaghan
2.       The Ravi Lancers - John Masters
3. A Long Long Way - Sebastian Barry

WWII
1.       The Cruel Sea – Nicholas Monsarrat
2.       The Road to Stalingrad - Benno Zieser
3. Night Soldiers - Alan Furst

Vietnam War
  1. Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat - James R. McDonough
  2. Reconciliation Road: A Family Odyssey - John Douglas Marshall 
  3. The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brian

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Vintage Mysteries

I will read these mysteries for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

1. Color in the Title: Blues for the Prince – Bart Spicer, 1950. My review is here.
2. Published under more than one title:  The Rubber Band aka To Kill Again – Rex Stout, 1936. My review is here.
3. Spooky title: Death Comes to Perigord – John Ferguson, 1931. My review is here.
4, An Author You’ve Read Before: The Golden Spiders – Rex Stout, 1953. My review is here.
5. With a Detective Team: The Case of the Calendar Girl – Erle Stanley Gardner, 1958. My review is here.
6. Animal in the Title: The Beast Must Die – Nicholas, Blake, 1938. My review is here.

May 9, 2014 - that's a bingo - all first row.

7. Set outside UK or US: Engaged to Murder – M. V. Heberden, 1940. My review is here.
8. Number in the title: The Three Couriers – Compton Mackenzie. My review is here.
9. Made into a Movie/TV Episode: The Case of the  Buried Clock- Erle Stanley Gardner, 1942.My review is here.
10. Courtroom, lawyer, judge: According to the Evidence – Henry Cecil, 1954. My review is here.
11. Time, day, month in title: Rose’s Last Summer - Margaret Millar, 1952. My review is here.
12. Place in the title: The Man on the Boulevard – Georges Simenon, 1953. My review is here.
13. A crime other than murder: A Touch of Death – Charles Williams, 1954. My review is here.
14. Food or Cooks: 
15. Amateur detective: The Survivors - Georges Simenon. My review is here.
16. Someone else has already read for the challenge: A Sad Song Singing - Thomas E. Dewey. My review is here.
17. Translated Work: Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses - Georges Simenon, 1959. My review is here.
18. Size in the title: Too Many Cousins - Douglas Browne, 1953. My review is here.
19. Locked Room mystery: The Case of the Crooked Candle - Erle Stanley Gardner, 1944. My review is here.
20. Author you’ve never read before: The Devil's Disciple - Hamao Shiro. My review is here
21. Man in the title: Bullets for the Bridegroom – David Dodge, 1948. My review is here.
22. A Professional detective: Murder Charge – Wade Miller, 1950. My review is here.
23. Short story collection: Pulp Fictions – editor, Peter Haining. Collection by Barnes and Noble Books, 1997. My review is here.
24; Medical mystery: The Case of the Fugitive Nurse - Erle Stanley Gardner, 1954. My review is here.
25. Academic mystery: A Question of Proof - Nicholas Blake. My review is here.
26. Method of murder in the title:
27. Country house murder:  The Hanging Captain – Henry Wade, 1933. My review is here.
28. Involves water:
29. Set in England:
30. pseudonym: Death before Bedtime – Gore Vidal writing as Edgar Box, 1953. My review is here.
31. Set in the entertainment world: The Case of the Restless Redhead - Erle Stanley Gardner, 1954. My review is here.
32; Woman in the title: The Case of the Hesitant Hostess – Erle Stanley Gardner, 1953. My review is here.
33:: Mode of transportation: The Passenger from Scotland Yard – H.E. Wood, 1888. My review is here.
34. Outside your comfort zone: The Sailcloth Shroud - Charles Williams, 1960. My review is here.
35: Have to borrow:
36. Set in the US:Playback - Raymond Chandler, 1958. My review is here.