Friday, February 27, 2015

Mount TBR #4

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.

Cecil B. De Mille: A Life in Art – Simon Louvish

This is a deeply researched and enjoyable biography of the king of hokum, Cecil B. DeMille. It is so highly detailed that casual fans of movie history may be overwhelmed by the plot synopses of movies she’ll probably never see but fans like me will revel in the detail.

De Mille’s work is hard to take seriously though Louvish builds a strong case in support of DeMille’s work in the silent era and his Biblical epics Samson & Delilah and The Ten Commandments. Louvish covers quickly the only film that won DeMille the Best Picture Oscar, The Greatest Show on Earth, a circus extravaganza. I’ve always had a soft spot for that good bad movie. Bad because of the soap opera melodrama and terrible script,

Gloria Graham - Angel: You are a sourpuss, aren't you?
Charlton Heston - Brad Braden: Yeah.
Angel: You want to bite somebody?
Brad Braden: Yeah.
Angel: Well, pick your spot.

But good because of circus animals, Jimmy Stewart always in clown make-up, over the top numbers like Lovely Luawana Lady and the famous train wreck caused by the psycho spurned boyfriend.

Anyway, back to the book. Louvish respects the body of work, less so the craftsman himself. DeMiille, for all his Cold War reactionary politics and pretentious droning about religion, was never a faithful husband. He also had a tendency to treat people as objects, as interchangeable parts, ever fungible. Louvish’s tone about these failings, mercifully, is not shrill and tells enough for us readers to draw our own inferences. Louvish also judiciously gives social history to put DeMille and his 50-year career in context.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Terra-Cotta Dog

The Terra-Cotta Dog - Andrea Camilleri, Stephen Sartarelli (translator),

This is the second of the Inspector Salvo Montalbano mysteries, which are set in 1990s Sicily.

300 pages may strike us time-pressed readers as too long for a police procedural, but the plot twists and brisk action justify the length. Bringing to mind Josephine Tey's A Daughter of Time (in which a convalescing cop exonerates Richard III through research), Montalbano, recovering from being shot during a meeting with an informer, works on a 50-year-old murder case.

Montalbano is hard to like: arbitrary and secretive with subordinates, abrupt with friends, thoughtless with his mistress Livia, and monstrous toward Anna who foolishly adores him. Half a dozen characters tell him what a jerk he is, but he can't help his behavior.

The translator Stephen Sartarelli has provided an excellent notes section at the end that explains background of Berlusconi-era Italian politics and society and Sicilian culture and phrases.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Classic #6

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

Volpone – Ben Jonson

For the title character, the having of riches is not nearly as much fun as fleecing people to separate them from their money, jewels, plate, bedding, curtain, salt-cellars and lovers. He and his favorite Mosca engage in espionage, corruption, insinuation, and treachery to make money and mischief.

The play opens as Volpone feigns illness to play on the greed of his proteges who, by bribery, expect to be made the sole heir in Volpone’s will.

Nobody is nice in this play except for the innocent Celia, who’s intentionally ignorant of the scheming ways of the world. Jonson deplores the effect of wealth on the wealthy. Near the end of the play, one dismayed character observes of the rich: “These possess wealth, as sick men possess fevers, Which trulier may be said to possess them.”

The comedy is rough to our modern ears but some scenes remain amusing. Volpone doing a turn as Scoto, a medicine show barker, extols the virtues of his unguents that will call to mind W.C. Fields – I had forgotten that the mountebank has a very long tradition. Also, Lady Politick Would-be is gabby and over-bearing in her faux-sympathetic attentions as Volpone suffers torments of dismay and boredom.

A long time ago, a prof I had emphasized that we should not confuse scripts with plays. I read the script on its own first, and frankly did not get much out of it. Then I read it as I listened to a production on Project Gutenberg. With the latter method, I got more out of the play, guided by the actors’ pace and intonation. The British English made a big difference in terms of both comprehension and enjoyment.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Cloak & Dagger #4

Grave Descend – Michael Crichton, writing as John Lange

Semi-broken down Marine combat veteran is hired to dive and salvage a sunken luxury yacht in waters off Jamaica. The yacht reportedly went down the day before due to unknown causes. The employer seems cagey about what exactly will be found on the yacht.

But ominous signs – like seeing the yacht deliberately blown up in front of his eyes – make our hero smell a rat. He realizes that he is being played for a fool, fall guy, or murder victim by very rich, very cunning villains.

All in all, this is an ordinary pulp thriller with rapid-fire action and violence. Plus, we have characters with bounteous curves, one of whom keeps two ocelots, named Fiona and Fido. Fido provides the only comic relief in the book, while they both feature in the climax.

The prose reminded me of Erle Stanley Gardner, since description and characterization were kept to a bare minimum.

In the distance, he could see blue water, with waves breaking across the inner reefs, and hotels lining the beachfront.

What more could a fan of bare-bone punch ask? Putting vapid characters through lots of twists and turns does have entertainment value, especially when we don’t feel up to reading something more challenging but perhaps less entertaining. Back in 1970, this novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, which must have tickled then-med student Crichton.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Vintage Mystery #1

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2015. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written between 1960 and 1989 inclusive and be from the mystery category.

I read this for S-1, aka Color in the title

The Girl with the Long Green Heart – Lawrence Block

I confess that I used to be sniffy about readers who dug whodunits just because it was set in a city or region that they knew. I mean, I like recognizing streets and landscapes, but for whodunnits it’s not the setting but the story and the characters. Lew Archer doesn’t have to be in LA for Ross Macdonald to have him go through lots of satisfying and universal twists and turns.
I’ve seen the light, I’m not condescending anymore. I really liked the Western New York touches in this novel; he even mentions now defunct Mohawk Airlines, a regional carrier back in the day. The other nostalgic point is that this is set in the long gone Sixties, before transportation pattern changed and oil and gas got expensive, when places like Jamestown and Olean could hold their own economically. 

Lawrence Block says,

I was living in Tonawanda, a suburb of Buffalo, when I began the book, and I went to Toronto, Canada, and Olean, New York, to research the scenes I set there. Year later a professor at Olean’s St. Bonaventure University booked me for a talk and reading. The book was a hot ticket in Olean, let me tell you, if nowhere else in the known universe.

He’s selling the book short. The 1965 novel, re-printed by Hard Case Crime in 2011, rocks as a caper novel. Two veteran con-artists and one greenhorn line up an Olean, New York real estate wheeler dealer on a phony “land in Canada” deal. Block gives the feeling that he has insider knowledge of con artistry. The swindler’s assumptions and concerns are narrated persuasively. Just so, because the narration is an interior monologue of a veteran con man.

The characterization of the Olean moneybags mark and the novice con artist are both excellent. The mark is so shrewd that the con artists play on his shrewdness. Illustrating W.C. Fields’ aphorism, “You can’t cheat an honest man,” they use the larceny in the heart of the mark against him.

The action moves steadily, without needless explication or cute complications. The climax has both minor and major surprises that make the ending more credible. I highly recommend this novel even to people not keen on caper stories. Years ago I stopped reading Block because the burglar and hit man hero didn’t appeal to me (I’m a prude), but his early ones, like this one, might be worth seeking out.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mount TBR #3

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.

The Unknown Weapon – Andrew Forrester

Forrester published mystery stories in the early 1860s. Critics say his best work was collected The Female Detective (1864). It starred his series heroine, Mrs. G. of the Metropolitan Police, possibly the first female detective in the history of the mystery genre. Against stereotype, she is relentlessly systematic and logical in her reasoning.

In this story, she periodically pauses to explain her analysis before she moves to the next interview or procedure. She even includes a list of 12 inferences that leads her to the inescapable conclusion that she must locate a box mentioned by an intellectually challenged maid. Near the end she makes an allusion to “Edgar Poe” and his character Dupin’s idea of hiding things in plain sight. Mrs. G., like Sherlock Holmes, is a thinking device, without a shred of, or belief in, feminine intuition, though she is not averse to sitting down for a good old gossip session with talkative housekeepers and village Nosey Parkers. Not much is known about the author Forrester so it makes one wonder if Andrew was really an Andrea.

Mrs. G.’s background history of the unhappy victim makes the reader really feel for the young man’s sorry situation under the thumb of a miser of a father.  Once Mrs. G. arrives on the scene, the dialogue, especially in the scenes of the inquest and Mrs. G.’s interrogations, reveals character.  Mrs. G. may be a short on personality, but she’s long on trenchant irony and keen observation. It’s almost as if she is saying that her sex, her background, her character are not nearly as important as her ability to ratiocinate. Her observations on police work feel very modern too, especially when she says basically the police cannot be plaster saints and protect society from evil-doers at the same time. In a climax that makes the reader ponder ethics, however, Mrs. G. makes a judgment not pursue the perp. 

I found this novella in a Dover Books collection from 1978, Three Victorian Detective Novels, which also included Wilkie Collins’ My Lady's Money and Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery. It is available for a cent plus postage and handling online. There are plenty of worse ways to spend four bux.