Friday, January 30, 2015

Cloak & Dagger RC #2

Kill Now, Pay Later – Robert Terrall

Written in 1960, this is very much a guy’s PI mystery, given the drinking, hard-boiled dialogue and young women throwing themselves at the series hero Ben Gates. He is sent by an insurance company to guard the wedding presents at the swanky nuptials hosted by the president of a big pharma firm. Problem is, somebody drugs Ben’s coffee. He wakes up to find that his fellow PI has killed a robber who scared the matron of the house so badly that she dropped dead of a heart attack. Although nothing has gone missing, Gates’ professional reputation and livelihood are on the line.

The cops mock Gates’ claim about the drugged coffee. So he gets the rich papa as a client and starts an investigation into who was the insider that aided the robber. The story moves along at a brisk pace, with sometimes little breathers to give seductresses and hussies a try at handsome Gates. Buttons pop. Arms are extended. Duds are doffed. Also featured is standard material on the greed and amorality of the rich. One can tell hard-boiled pulpy stories originated in the anti-rich days of the Great Depression – and so did authors born in the Twenties whose families were adversely affected by the economic slump.

This private eye tale was reissued in 2007 by the publisher Hard Case Crime. Their mode of operation seems to be to choose the better or best of Fifties and Sixties writers such as Day Keene and Charles Williams. These books have first-person narration, hard-boiled dialogue, surprising twists, fast pacing, a minimum of violence, scantily-clad women, and rocking finales. Not great, not especially memorable, but enjoyable.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

European RC #2

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2015.

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia - Orlando Figes

The author is probably best-known for his prize-winning narrative history A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891 – 1924. He takes the title of this intellectual history from a scene in War and Peace. Princess Natasha tosses her French-influenced ways aside as she dances a Russian peasant dance. Nobody taught her the steps, hand motions, or stillness of her head. In short, not needing instruction, she just has the knack, through genetics, or inherited characteristics, what Lafcadio Hearn would call “the race ghost.”

Without bugging us general readers with the jargon of Theory, Figes argues that the Russian sense of identity has been socially constructed over the course of time. Russian thinkers rejected the automatic Westerner-worship of Peter the Great to create their own sense of identity, literary language, and canon of literature, often coming up with ideas as dubious as “the race ghost.” Figes persuasively argues Russian culture has borrowed from many traditions such as Mongol, Persian, Kazakh, and ethnic Russian, besides the usual Western European traditions.

This is a serious book, but it is readable. As he proved in A People’s Tragedy, he has an eye for the telling anecdote, which is often quite funny or forceful or both. This on the effect of sheer numbers of serfs available for tasks:

At Kuskovo, there was a horn band in which, to save time on the training of the players, each musician was taught to play just one note. The number of players depended on the number of different notes in a tune; their sole skill lay in playing their note at the appropriate moment.

I highly recommend this brilliant work to readers into things and people Russian.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Classic #2

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.

Magic and Mystery in Tibet - Alexandra David-Neel

The French journalist wrote travel books about Africa, India, and Japan, but her best-known works were about Sikkim and Tibet. Educated at the Sorbonne in Eastern languages, she became a Buddhist and a lama in fact, and thus uniquely qualified to provide a traveler's impressions of the Lamas and their mystic theories.

Since its release in 1931, this book has been in print and a favorite of the popular public interested in anecdotes about experiences and seeking with the "Short Path" or yogic practices of Tibetan Buddhism. People find interesting her observations on the mystic practitioners' techniques and efficacy in controlling "little-known laws and forces." To her credit, David-Neel in fact lived for several years various regions in and near Tibet. She gives her picture of monastery and hermitage life.

She goes deeper into the mysticism and philosophy of complex systems of thought. She also describes mystic banquet rites in cemeteries, psychic play, occult and supernatural beliefs, and also the spiritual training of the Tibetan religious disciples. She argues that scientists should systematically investigate the psychic phenomena of Tibet, such as sending curses or remote viewing.

Readers with an interest in early linguistics, ethnography, and comparative religion may find this interesting but the material on occult and magic may be hard going for skeptics.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Mount TBR #1

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Bones of Contention – Edward Candy

The Director of London’s Museum of Pathological Conditions in Childhood, a Mr. Murivance, is dumb-founded by the unexpected arrival of a female skeleton in a steamer trunk. A few days later, he is found dead, apparently of natural causes but the exact cause of death cannot be solidly determined.

Some days after that one of his colleagues, Miles Latimer, is shoved through a rickety balustrade. He wakes up to find himself trapped in a private nursing home run by his would-be murderer.  The attempted killer is keeping him doped up to stave off his remembering what really happened.

This inverted mystery could be counted as either an academic mystery or a mystery involving doctors and nurses. Adding suspense are the trusty standbys of “doctor gone off the rails” and “kept prisoner in a hospital” not to mention both “old-school deference to authority” and “experienced nurse smells something fishy.” Not to mention, “concerned friends and allies” and “loyal fiancĂ©e.”

I highly recommend this one. Like Edmund Crispin but not as silly, more like a lighter Michael Innes, if that can be imagined. This 1954 novel is like early P.D. James, given the medical settings too. I didn’t get some of the differences in medical customs, such as why surgeons are “Mr.,” not “Dr.” But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the highly literate and witty prose.

Edward Candy is the pseudonym of Barbara Alison Neville (1925-1993). She was born in London and educated in Hampstead and University College, and later earned a medical degree. She practiced medicine and had a family of five children while writing about a dozen books, three of which are medical mysteries, this one, Which Doctor and Words for Murder, Perhaps.