Monday, March 30, 2015

Classic #8

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

My Lady’s Money – Wilkie Collins

First published in 1878, this romantic mystery fell into obscurity because it was too long for inclusion in short story collections and too short for release as a stand-alone novel. Collins wrote it for a magazine’s Christmas issue in his late career – when he was having health and laudanum- abuse problems.

Stolen is a £500 bank note intended by  Lady Lydiard to aid a distressed family. It was stolen out of an unsealed envelope, during the household upheaval of taking care of an ailing pet dog.  At the time of the theft, our characters in the household are Isabel Miller, her noble adopted daughter; Felix Sweetsir, her lazy spendthrift nephew; Robert Moody, the self-effacing steward; and Alfred Hardyman, a horse breeder who has come to treat Tommie, the sickly Scotch Terrier.  Suspicion logically rests on Isabel who feels she must go stay with her snobbish Aunt Pink in the country until her name is cleared.  Moody, in love with Isabel, engages an eccentric slob of a detective, Old Sharon, to find the perp.  In the country at South Mordern, Isabel by an unlucky chance meets Hardyman who proposes marriage.  She accepts only if Hardyman's family and friends signal their acceptance her by attending a garden party for Isabel. On the day of the soiree we witness an enjoyable climax and the unmasking of the true thief.

On the downside, the schmaltzy love triangle overshadows the mystery side of the story.  On the upside, more than many Victorian authors (I’m looking at you, Chuck), Collins created vital and believable female characters, such as  Lady L., Isabel and Miss Pink. Collins had to include a supernatural  or mystery element in a story for a Christmas number, but the mystery, at least, does not feel tacked on. Old Sharon is a funny character, with his unwashed face, frowsy coat, disgusting pipe, and impudent manner. He is an eccentric PI that predates Sherlock Holmes. His dictum is “Suspect, in this case, the very last person on whom suspicion could possibly fall.”

I found this novella in a Dover Books collection from 1978, Three Victorian Detective Novels, which also included Andrew Forrester’s The Unknown Weapon  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.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Vintage Mystery #2

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 the category “Book with a Detective Team.”

Traps Need Fresh Bait – Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A. A. Fair, 1967

Gardner wrote the Perry Mason courtroom mysteries under his own name. Under the pen-name A. A. Fair, he wrote the novels starring the PI team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Gardner employed the third-person in the Mason novels, but sometimes used the first-person, using Lam’s point of view, in the PI stories. However, Lam sits on important findings, keeping information from his partner Bertha, his starry-eyed secretary Elsie Brand, his clients, the cops, and us readers. While his female clients say he’s a born gentleman and Bertha says he’s a brainy little bastard, we readers can't help but feel - cordially, of course - he is too sneaky and reticent by half.

The story starts with a supposed insurance investigator hiring them to identify who placed an ad that comes close to suborning perjury. That is, the ad solicited witnesses to an auto accident but only if they saw the accident in a way that would support their side of the story. In fact, the placer of the ad was looking to identify somebody down on their luck enough to consider committing perjury for a $300 reward. Lam finds in this affair a deep conspiracy.

This was the 28th of the 29 novels. On one hand, it is nearly free of violence (not counting an off-stage murder), but on the other not much action occurs beyond Lam shaking a tail and Bertha subduing a recalcitrant witness. The repartee between wary Bertha and freewheeling Lam is always a treat as in Elsie Brand’s devotion to Lam. Lam. We readers know, too, that though Bertha often threatens to feed Lam to the cops, she’ll stick by him through fire if need be. Gardner liked inventions and gadgets so Lam uses a phone dialing decoder to catch the numbers of a rotary phone being dialed and a bad guy uses an early version of the copy machine toward his nefarious ends.

Overall an uncomplicated read best reserved for times when a reader doesn’t feel up to something more cognitively or emotionally challenging.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

European RC #4

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2015.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite – Gregor von Rezzori (tr. By Joachim Neusgroschel)

This novel is made up of five long stories. The narrator is Sicilian by ancestry, Austrian by education, German culturally and linguistically, and Romanian only by a treaty that came of out of World War I. The narrator is anti-Semitic – his kind of people simply don’t like Jewish people and wish they would stay in their place. His disposition doesn’t stop him from being drawn to Jewish people. He basks in the noisy, supportive environment of a Jewish boarding house (“Lowinger’s Rooming House”) and carries on affairs with vulnerable Jewish women (“Troth,”  “Pravda”).

Set between the wars, each story recounts his deep relationship with a Jewish person that he treats unkindly. In boyhood, he befriends a Jewish boy but becomes jealous of him because he turns out to be a musical prodigy. Working a ridiculous dead-end job. In Vienna, he has an affair with a maternal widow who calls him “Baby.” In the rooming house, he is infatuated with a Jewish teacher, who is far ahead of him in maturity, integrity and modernity. Later the narrator marries an affectionate Jewish woman. They have a sickly son but break up due to his prejudiced racial feelings. The narrator is fascinated and disturbed by what he perceives to be Jewish otherness, Jewish distinctiveness. Ultimately, for him, Jewish people can do no right. He can’t stand them when they flee Germany for their lives and make the other cities crowded. Nor does he like it when German cities, empty of Jewish people, seem deserted because “there’s nobody left to hate.”

Readers with an interest in the social and psychological nature of prejudice will find this an interesting book. As will readers who are looking for a portrait of Europe between the wars, similar to the atmospherics Alan Furst goes after. Some parts are over-written, overdoing the tragic sense of life. But the character sketches are brilliant. Well worth reading.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mount TBR #9

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 Painswick Line – Henry Cecil

A bookmaker employs Lucy Meeson-Smith as a clerk taking bets in the London of the early Fifties. She not only sets up a false account to place bets, which is obviously against the rules, but she also always backs winners. The winning too often and too much arouses the suspicions of her employers who sue her for fraud.

At her trial her defense brings out that her papa, a vicar in a remote country town, has made a life’s study of breeding and form and has become a brilliant tipster though he eschews betting himself as not becoming for a parson. The judge in the case, Mr Justice Painswick, has a swindler and con-man for son who is deeply in debt. The judge feels forced to pump the vicar for tips that he can win on and get his son out of dutch with his creditors and possibly the authorities.

Cecil doesn’t spend time on the etiology of criminal behavior, though he does weave together the theme of the influence of breeding on behavior. It seems both good and bad, whether “good in the stretch” or  “liable to defraud” is apt to skip generations, that is, grandchildren and grandparents sharing more traits than parents and their kids.

Touching on the British court system, the track and sporting life, and the milieu of people who spend a third of their adult life in prison, this episodic novel is intelligent, witty, and high-spirited. Cecil provides interesting information on frauds such as check kiting and bogus claims for commissions. He also tweaks lawyerdom with an exchange of acrimonious letters, which is a hoot. Readers of According to the Evidence (1954) will be pleased to find probably the first appearance of recurring comic character, Col Brain, dimwit and twit.
This was Cecil’s second book, written in 1951. One would never know it was written shortly after his wife's death, taken up to take his mind off grieving. Cecil was a barrister and judge so this legal fiction bears the stamp of authenticity.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Unsung Heroes of Pop Music

From the end of WWII to Elvis, American pop music was hard to classify. The music below are mixes of pop, pap, rockabilly, country, etc. Nutty.

Jesse Stone: Runaway

Ella Mae Morse: The Cow-Cow Boogie

Roy Hall: Mule Boogie

Hardrock Gunter: Gonna Rock and Roll

Merrill Moore: Rock, Rockola

Skeets McDonald: The Tattooed Lady

The Clovers: Blue Velvet

Jackie Brenston & Ike Tuner’s Kings of Rhythm – What Can It Be?

Screamin' Jay Hawkins: Little Demon

Wanda Jackson: Tongue Tied

Johnny Ace: The Clock