Monday, June 30, 2014

Mount TBR #11

I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.

The Case of the Angry Mourner – Erle Stanley Gardner

One of the upsides of reading Perry Mason novels is that they can be read in only about three or four hours. So even if the plot is far-fetched, any reader who likes Perry, Della, and Paul stories can put up with unlikely happenings for a couple of hours.

Another plus is despite the fact that Gardner doesn’t develop characters beyond a bare minimum, even minor figures are easy to keep track of because, like in mystery plays or Pilgrim’s Progress, a character is associated with a memorable trait. Distinctive retro names aid memory: independent Carlotta, callow Harvey, haughty Dexter, and preening Darwin.

Another standby in the Mason novels is that clients lie to Perry. When a rich wolf, Arthur Cushing, is murdered, Belle Adrian fears her daughter Carlotta, a pretty baa-lamb, resisted the wolf’s advances with too much force. Carlotta, in turn, suspects her dear old ma as the defender of her daughter’s honor, interfering and yet endearing. Belle fails to help her own cause when she not only tries to destroy all evidence of her daughter's potential involvement in the crime but she also lies to Perry about doing so. 

All in all, worth reading, with the caution that hard-core Perry, Della, and Paul may be more patient with this one than novices who have not had a chance to adjust their expectations.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Vintage Mystery #19

I read this book 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.

I read this for G-4: Locked Room Mystery. Okay, the crime occurs on a boat, good enough, I hope!!

The Case of the Crooked Candle -  Erle Stanley Gardner, 1944

Very light on characterization and the wartime atmosphere of 1944 but heavy on the absorbing puzzle. Lawyer Perry Mason has reconcile the position of the murder victim, the action of tides, the crook of a candle, and the stories of his clients. Intellectually engaging without being dismayingly complicated.

At roughly 25% of the book, Chapter 16, day one of the preliminary hearing, could very well be Gardner's longest courtroom chapter. In Chapter 18, Perry falls asleep with his head in his secretary Della Street's lap, which creates a relaxed moment of tenderness between familiar characters. In Chapter 19, Gardner somewhat humanizes homicide detective Lt. Tragg by having him offer an olive branch to Mason.

Written during WWII, Gardner hints about butter rationing, a period touch, along with jump seats in taxis, whatever those might have been. I'm not sure I'd suggest this one to a Mason newbie but aficionados will like it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

2014 Classics #12

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard - Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle is remembered in our day for his Sherlock Holmes stories. Maybe a handful of hardcore readers have enjoyed The Lost World. However, he wanted to be remembered for his historical fiction, an example of which is a series of comic adventure stories about Brigadier Etienne Gerard.

Brigadier Gerard a boastful Hussar officer in Napoleon's Grand Army who claims his renown is deservedly based on his bravery and decisiveness in the field and his romantic success with women. Gerard often vainly touches on the injustice that his talents were seldom recognized with due regard, medals, and promotions. But we readers never tire of the running joke coming out of his narcissistic blind spots, his thick-headedness, and his overweening self-regard over his own great adventures.  Like this:

It has sometimes struck me that some of you, when you have heard me tell these little adventures of mine, may have gone away with the impression that I was conceited. There could not be a greater mistake than this, for I have always observed that really fine soldiers are free from this failing. It is true that I have had to depict myself sometimes as brave, sometimes as full of resource, always as interesting; but, then, it really was so, and I had to take the facts as I found them. It would be an unworthy affectation if I were to pretend that my career has been anything but a fine one. The incident which I will tell you tonight, however, is one which you will understand that only a modest man would describe. After all, when one has attained such a position as mine, one can afford to speak of what an ordinary man might be tempted to conceal.

I think the best story is "How the Brigadier Won His Medal" because it has the most action. The Emperor Napoleon orders Gerard to carry a crucial message by crossing territory infested with Russian and Prussian troops.

"How the Brigadier Held the King" is a good example of how Spanish partisans were portrayed a blood-thirsty savages. Gerard is captured and faces torture.

In "How the King Held the Brigadier" POW Gerard escapes from Dartmoor Prison. The overland run is well-done and hilarious to boot.

"How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio" is another example of Southern European – this time, Italians – savagery. Gerard assists his Emperor as his Corsican chickens come home to roost.

"How the Brigadier Came to the Castle of Gloom" is an excellent example of gothic adventure story. I’d say this was the second best story on account of the atmosphere and stock situation of being locked up in a dungeon-like room.

"How the Brigadier Took the Field Against the Marshal Millefleurs" features a portrayal of a perfect villain, this time an Englishman.

"How the Brigadier Was Tempted by the Devil" Gerard and Napoleon team up to secure the latter’s evidence that he and his family are eligible to rule, just in case the Emperor can stage a comeback.

"How the Brigadier Played for a Kingdom" finds Gerard in the thick of German nationalists and a deceiving woman.

Very enjoyable stories. They were first published in the Strand Magazine, in the late 1890s. Readers interested in vintage genre fiction will like these stories. They can be had for free at Project Gutenberg.

Monday, June 23, 2014

War Challenge #11

I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations

The Cruel Sea – Nicholas Monsarrat

This 500-page fictionalized WWII memoir deals with the Lieutenant Commander Nicholas Monsarrat’s experience with his crew of a corvette escort ship, The Compass Rose, and later the frigate Saltash. The 30-something hero, Lockhart, drifts into the Royal Navy after working in journalism. He serves under a grave but teacher-like captain, Ericson, who instills qualities of leadership and a sense of duty to carry through on the job. Their mission is to protect convoys of merchant vessels from the predation of German submarines.

The main villains, indeed objects of debasing hatred, are the U-boat packs, “taking people by surprise, stalking them, giving them no chance.” There are also blunt evaluations of oafish officers and lazy shipyard workers who sabotage the war effort with slow slipshod work. Monsarrat is not adept with his female characters because they are either paragons of virtue like Mrs. Ericson and the Wren Julie or ruthlessly unfaithful wives like Mrs. Morrel. However, he is quite good at capturing the quotidian nuances of being married. The true bad guy is not only the titular sea, but the war itself, which leeches people of their humanity after years of deprivation, lack of rest, an excess of stress, the emotional toll of watching helplessly while people die, and too many decisions that cost people their lives.

Monserrat has created stereotyped characters that are as satisfying as Sherlock Holmes or Kate Nickleby and appropriate to the genres of fictionalized war memoir or adventure fiction. He handles with plausibility and English restraint the bond between Lockhart and Ericson. Monserrat’s main strength is his ability to tell a story. The macabre episodes “The Dead Helmsman,” “The Burnt Man,” “The Skeletons," “The Burning Tanker" and other set pieces make almost unbearable reading. The novel has no underlying themes save the passage of time and the tendency of war to always to turn out worse than anybody expected at the beginning. However, Monserrat weaves the narrative magic that makes us eager to find out what happens next.

This novel was a huge best-seller when it was released in the Fifties. It was made in a popular movie starring Jack Hawkins, the absolute personification of undaunted English bravery in roles such as The Bridge over the River Kwai. Though it’s not on the literary level of The Things They Carried or The Naked and The Dead, I’d still strongly recommend this fictionalized war memoir.