Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mount TBR #13

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

The Case of the Negligent Nymph – Erle Stanley Gardner, 1959

This 1959 mystery starts with the usual working girl – beautiful, naturally; full of moxie, of course – encountering lawyer Perry Mason as she finds herself in a classic jam. Perry is in a canoe scoping out a millionaire’s island on behalf of another client in a real estate case. The naked nymph, pursued by a savage dobie, swims up to the canoe so Perry saves her and takes her to her own rickety yacht.

The next day Perry finds out that the game and canny hottie he rescued is wanted by the cops on suspicion of stealing $50K worth of gems from the millionaire’s island mansion. She is apprehended and bound over for trial for grand theft. Like the other books in which there is a smaller hearing, Perry sets off legal fireworks during a cross-examination and gets her bail whittled down to a manageable $2,500.00.

Things start looking up for the comely accused, but, self-sufficient to a fault, she makes errors in judgment, the worst of which are not following Perry’s legal advice and then lying to him. Perry ends up defending her on the inevitable murder charge. He finds his back up against the proverbial wall yet again since he faces as many legal woes as his client does if he doesn’t find out the truth. Perry kicks himself for letting impulse rule him and helping the lying brat in the first place, but he defends with all he’s got. Perry acknowledges his own fallibility and is thus compassionate about the frailties and foibles of others. 

Usual. Of course. Inevitable. Why return again and again to the Perry Mason stories that invariably feature damsels in distress, the powerful exploiting the vulnerable, and the cunning and resourceful hero who combines wise tactics and hot-headed action to make everything right in the end? Because these irresistible elements, the stuff of heroic myth, possess endless appeal. Sure, everybody wants an honest, loyal and efficient lawyer that will fight when the going gets rough. But even more, everybody wants a supporter, an advocate who knows their weaknesses and messed-up choices but pleads their case eloquently and shrewdly anyway.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Vintage Mystery #15

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 1963 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for L-3: Book with an Amateur Detective

Les rescapés du «Télémaque» aka The Survivors – Georges Simenon, 1938; tr. Stuart Gilbert, 1949

Twin brothers Pierre and Charles Canut are opposites. Pierre, a fishing boat captain, is trusted by his fellow ocean fishermen for his quiet strength and dependability. Charles, however, is a bit of a sop, introspective, diffident, enthralled at the age of 33 to a dim 18-year-old tavern-waitress. They were posthumous children, their father having been killed in a macabre incident at sea on the trawler Telemachus in 1908. It was such a weird happening that it drove their mother half-mad and cast a shadow over their childhood.

And their adulthood apparently. A murder occurs. Everyone in the fishing town of Fecamp knows the victim, Émile Février (February?), was a shipmate of their father during the grisly voyage. In fact, it’s a common street scene when Pierre and Charles’ eccentric mother threatens the soon-to-be victim of heaven’s vengeance being visited about his head. Holding Pierre in high esteem, nobody thinks he cut the throat of the victim nor do they dream the cerebral and soft Charles would do be capable of doing it. Pierre, a prototypical inarticulate male, can’t defend himself because he is so angry and disgusted at the law’s assumption that revenge was his motive and the circumstantial evidence is sufficient to get a conviction. He tells the cops, “Don’t talk about things you don’t understand.” Simenon, as usual, is incredibly persuasive when his characters come from closed societies – either small places or occupations like commercial fishing - with their own codes of deportment, conduct and silence.

With Pierre in custody for the murder, Charles becomes uncharacteristically determined to become an amateur investigator, identify the real killer or killers, and heroically save his brother from a criminal justice system that mindlessly and remorselessly puts innocent people through a buzz-saw. The reader has little hope for Charles, since he is a railway clerk with few skills to transfer to detecting. He ends up following his persons of interest around in both Fecamp and Harve. Simenon pulls rabbits out of hats, to interesting effect.

Simenon’s non-Maigret stories are known as roman durs – hard novels, mainly psychological thrillers that examine characters in a milieu. Although they often hinge on or climax in death, they are not often murder mysteries like this one. But the mystery plot is merely a peg on which to hang an examination of a character. Charles pushes himself to be more aggressive in ferreting out facts. He finds confidence that he can be more forceful, but accepts his introspective self as immutable.

Friday, July 25, 2014

2014 Classics #15

Three Soldiers – John Dos Passos, 1921

This protest novel profiles three soldiers of WWI. The focus is on their different strategies to deal with the tyranny of army discipline, dirt, stupidity, brutality, boredom, monotonous diet, repetitive labor, and utter lack of privacy. The three solidiers exemplify the strategies of moving toward authority (cringing servility), moving away (desertion), and moving against (murder).

Although city man Fusilli starts army life with enthusiasm, the army treats him and his puny aspirations with contempt. He ends up retreating into indifference and rutting with whores, keeping a low profile to the extent of altogether vanishing. Andrews, an intellectual from a wealthy family, rebels, taking as a hero John Brown. Andrews does not end up on the scaffold, but his final destination is no picnic either. The traditional country man Chrisfield suffers an affront at the hands of an officer. So, according to his pre-modern code he must seek revenge. This saves his self-respect, but at a cost.

Dos Passos seems to be saying that war is the instrument of the powerful against the vulnerable. The goal of the bosses in industrial capitalism is to demoralize people into conformity, make them hopeless and stoic and to kill off troublemakers who believe in art and honor. Dos Passos builds his anti-army case, how persuasive the individual reader will have to consider for herself. For me, the problem is that over the course of 450 pages the polemics begin to feel relentless, and the action so ironic as to be contrived. Dos Passos has characters speak in their own unique idiom, but characterization doesn’t go beyond stereotyping of conformist, artist, and brute.

In August 1917, near Verdun and later in Italy in 1918, Dos Passos worked as an ambulance driver near the front. Like Hemingway and Cummings, writing was a way to tell others about harsh experience and army rigidities. He poured his anti-war rage and anti-authority bitterness into this book – as well as his artistic vision of literature, painting and music:

He hurried along the road, splashing now and then in a shining puddle, until he came to a landing place. The road was very wide, silvery, streaked with pale green and violet, and straw-color from the evening sky. Opposite were bare poplars and behind them clusters of buff-colored houses climbing up a green hill to a church, all repeated upside down in the color-streaked river. The river was very full, and welled up above its banks, the way the water stands up above the rim of a glass filled too full. From the water came an indefinable rustling, flowing sound that rose and fell with quiet rhythm in Andrews's ears.

Andrews forgot everything in the great wave of music that rose impetuously through him, poured with the hot blood through his veins, with the streaked colors of the river and the sky through his eyes, with the rhythm of the flowing river through his ears.

When this book was first published in 1921 it caused a sensation. As we would expect, the right denounced the book as radical, socialistic, anti-American, and anti-army. The left defended it as a portrayal of how some men – not all – dealt with the stern demands of army life and organized butchery. This book has never been out of print. One of the few books by Dos Passos still read in our time, it is probably the most famous American anti-war novel to come out of WWI.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Mount TBR #12

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

The Missing Man – Hillary Waugh, 1964

Critics credit Hillary Waugh as a pioneer in the mystery genre that is described as “police procedural set in a small town.” The series hero Police Chief Fred Fellows and his sidekick Detective Sergeant Sidney Wilks starred in nine novels, with the initial one, Last Seen Wearing, ending up on many lists of best mysteries of all time.

In The Missing Man Fellows and Wilks piece together clues to determine the identity of and find the killer of a young woman whose body was found on a Connecticut beach. They use good old-fashioned police work as they unleash operatives to do the tedious review of hundreds of documents and lists. They also use their experience, imagination, and reasoning to reach conclusions. Fellows is an every-man type of character, subject to slips and goofs but creative and compassionate to the victims’ families as well. Waugh himself grew up in small town Connecticut so the setting of Stockdale feels authentic. A Yale man, he gets in some digs at posing Yale men.

Waugh passed away in 1988 at the age of 88. His obituary in the New York Times ends with Waugh’s advice to mystery writers: “Authenticity is the key to good mystery writing. Not only must you be able to write well, but you must also possess the instincts of a good reporter who has witnessed firsthand the darker side of human nature.”

Monday, July 21, 2014

War Challenge #14

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

Broken Soldiers – Raymond B. Lech, 2000

It’s painful to read about the crimes and atrocities committed against US prisoners of war during the Korean War. Of 7,140 captured and interned, 2,701 died in captivity of starvation and murder. Almost 40%  is the highest percentage POWs lost in of any of our wars. I can’t describe the cruelty of the Korean and Chinese Communists against our soldiers without feelings of disbelief, outrage, and revulsion.

21 POWs, confused young men generally, refused repatriation, though all eventually made their way back to the US. Lech found evidence that 66 additional prisoners and civilian captives were forcibly withheld by the Chinese during the repatriation process and were never returned to UN control.4,418 men were returned to US military control. 

This book focuses on the POW and post-POW experience of 14 repatriated prisoners who were then court-martialed for several forms of collaboration with enemy. The prosecutions of POWs for alleged disloyalty were decidedly ironic considering the protracted time and patient effort it took in negotiating their release. At that time, military criminal prosecutions were rather inconsistent, as some of the accused walked free, others jailed, and yet other had their careers ruined. All their reputations suffered.

The prosecutions also revealed the anxiety that characterized American politics and culture in the mid-1950s . Politically speaking, people were generally worried about Reds under the bed and the heavy burdens of being a superpower in a new globalized world full of trouble. Prisoners of war returned the US from Korea to fretful questions if their patriotism had weathered communist brainwashing. Hollywood stoked that dread with terrifying movies about the POW experience such as like Prisoner of War (1954), The Bamboo Prison (1954), The Rack (1956), Time Limit (1957), and the one we remember today The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Thus began a misperception that dogs us still today, that there was large scale collaboration with the enemy in Korean prison camps. That’s unfair and inaccurate.

Moreover, culturally speaking, in the middle Fifties many Americans were worried about the perceived decline of American manhood, stamina, and willpower. The poster boy for this unease was the absurd father in an apron in Rebel Without A Cause. Serious intellectuals had somber discussions about how individualism and conformism contributed to collaborationism.

Lech points out that the recruiting standards of the Army after WWII were not ideally high. They allowed in men with little or no education and were thus illiterate or barely literate. Those were also the days when judges gave convicted thugs and dummies the choice of going to jail or joining the army. Many soldiers could not find Korea on the map much less defend America’s war aims or argue that the enemy ought to abide by the rules of the Geneva Convention. Such men had little chance of resisting Communist indoctrination once they had seen the brutality of their captors on the way to the prison camps.

Hopelessness resulted from the Korean POW experience largely because the illnesses and difficulties the prisoners faced were viewed as out of the control of their captors. Prisoners knew that their guards had the same problems of lack of nutritious food, warm housing, and medical care as well as the crushing boredom with nothing to do except feel cold and sick and alone.

The Army brass was shocked that some prisoners failed to stay in cohesive units and understand the advantages of rank in such a brutal situation. That is, cohesion through mutual moral support and respect for rank would contribute to the retention of their identity as American servicemen. Learning from the Korean experience, the Army started to give soldiers training in survival, evasion skills and methods to survive the ugly possibility of becoming a POW.