Friday, May 29, 2015

Cloak & Dagger #8

I read this for the 2015 Cloak and Dagger Mystery Reading Challenge

And Be a Villain – Rex Stout, 1948

Madeline Fraser, with her silver voice and charming manner, became a radio favorite in late 1940s Manhattan. On air one early April day, however, her guests toasted each other with a glass of Hi-Spot, “the soft drink you dream of.” Then, suddenly to everybody’s shock and horror, one of the guests gagged and keeled over dead. The smell of bitter almonds said “cyanide” to the doctors. And “murder” to Lt. Cramer of the Homicide Bureau.

But for a week the cops have gotten nowhere.

Private eye Nero Wolfe, whose curiosity in the case was piqued by the papers, decides to take the case. The more compelling reason, his assistant Archie Goodwin points out in his witty narration, lies in the grim necessity of paying Wolfe’s tax bill of $20,000 (in today’s money, about $197K) to the IRS.

While Wolfe tricks the Police Department into doing most of the legwork, he sends Archie out on assignments related to both the business side and detecting side of the agency. The slow progress of the case tries Archie’s patience. So he needles Wolfe in his subtle way.

"I have to talk with that girl. Go and bring her."
I had known it was coming. "Conscious?" I asked casually.
"I said with her, not to her. She must be able to talk. You could revive her after you get her here. I should have sent you in the first place, knowing how you are with young women."
"Thank you very much. She's not a young woman, she's a minor. She wears socks."
"Yes, sir."
"Get her."

The young woman turns out to be a quintessential bobby-soxer, dazzled by celebrity and tossing out slang that the word-loving Stout obviously enjoys parodying. “Mellow greetings, yookie dookie!” All of the characters, in fact, are well drawn.

To my mind, the post-WWII Wolfe novels are among the best, neither too long nor too convoluted or far-fetched. Unlike the first half-dozen or so Wolfe novels, there are no slow spots. Mystery critics Barzun and Taylor selected this one as one of four best Wolfe novels.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Mount TBR #16

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 Warden – Anthony Trollope

Avid readers of the blogging type have been huzza-ing 2015 as the Trollope Bicentennial so much that I took up this one, which I had not read since I was a university student about 40 years ago. It was Trollope’s breakthrough novel, first published in 1855. It was the initial novel in a series of six novels known as The Barchester Chronicles.

The Reverend Septimus Harding, the earnest if not hard-working warden of a charitable retirement home for a dozen old geezers, has a crisis of conscience. Should he resign his sinecure after being accused by the public prints of profiting at the expense of the poor and vulnerable? Harding sincerely wrestles with his conscience as does the instigator of the scandal, John Bold. This young idealist doctor, who does not have enough to do, also wants to marry Harding’s lovely daughter Eleanor. Archdeacon Grantly, Harding’s truculent son-in-law, wants to use the courts to fight reformers like John Bold.

The character of Harding is pleasingly drawn, with graceful sureness of touch. Equally vibrant are Harding friend but feeble ally, the old Bishop (who is Grantly’s father) and the codgers who live on the mismanaged funds of the charity. Grantly’s wife tartly reminds him that if he had not interfered Eleanor and Bold might now have been married, in which case the reformers never would have known about and almshouse sinecure.

“The fact is, you've brought this young man down upon papa by huffing him as you have done.”

“But, my love—”

“And all because you didn't like John Bold for a brother-in-law. How is she ever to do better? Papa hasn't got a shilling, and I'm sure I don't know how she is ever to do better than marry John Bold, or as well, indeed.”

Trollope assumed that women’s place was at home, but he didn’t ignore their insights into worldly affairs.

The conclusion is unsatisfactory because it seems rushed and a character acts uncharacteristically. Trollope is infamous for his asides to us readers, but those are tolerable enough, as is the satire on Dickens’ reforming ways. Like conservatives then and now, Trollope takes a mocking tone toward social reform and the earnestness of reformers. Trollope is so very amused that anybody would get his knickers in twist reforming child labor, nursing, funerals, debtor’s prisons, workhouses, or the Court of Chancery. Do-gooders – such easy targets.

But perhaps this mocking stance is only irony – Tony will be subtle. After all, it is ironic of Trollope have Harding to through agonies over public and private morality while the other characters assume fretting about ethics and reputation is the least of his worries – especially when he is facing a cut in income of about £600 and move from a pretty house to lodgings above an apothecary.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mount TBR #15

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.

Charles Dickens – G. K. Chesterton, 1906

In 1906, novelist and man of letters Chesterton rehabbed Dickens’ fallen stock with this biography and overview of literary works.  So much so that a publisher asked Chesterton to write prefaces for each of the 24 volumes to be published. So, don’t confuse this book, the literary biography, with the collection of prefaces, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens.

I enjoyed Chesterton’s insights into Dickens’ writing. He said interesting things about Dickens in the United States and the so-called optimism of Dickens. He’s spot on, for example, when he says we readers remember characters and episodes rather than plots, Like many conservatives such as Trollope and Logan Clendening, Chesterton prefers the earlier funny novels to the more serious and socially mined later novels. The only drawback to this book is the style. It relies heavily on paradox. The word play makes the reader imagine sometimes, Is he kidding? For instance:  “It must have been genuinely entertaining to be married to Mr. Quilp.”

And, of course, we have the pleasure of  post-moderns looking down on writers of the past. He makes of list of writers that will survive: Dickens, Bulwer Lytton, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot. And says:

Forty years or more have passed and some of them have slipped to a lower place. Some would now say that the highest platform is left to Thackeray and Dickens; some to Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot; some to Dickens, Thackeray, and Charlotte Brontë. I venture to offer the proposition that when more years have passed and more weeding has been effected, Dickens will dominate the whole England of the nineteenth century; he will be left on that platform alone.

Goodness, the dangers of prediction. Bulwer Lytton is now known as the writer of

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

And where is Tony Trollope in his bicentennial year? Being read more than Thackeray (but does anybody ready anything other than Vanity Fair?).

Readers into both Dickens and Chesterton should read this work of appreciation.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mount TBR #14

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.

Jazz in American Culture – Burton W. Peretti, 1997

Peretti obtained a Ph.D. in History from UC Berkeley in 1989 with specialties in politics, culture and music so he’s qualified to write an overview like this. In Jazz in American Culture he argues that jazz has been “central to the development of American culture since 1900” and that its story “tells us a great deal about the ideas, feelings, and activities of Americans in the century.”  It’s such a broad thesis that we rather expect a hodge-podge of a book, but he knows his audience (undergraduates) so the decade by decade order seems appropriate and so does the journalistic prose.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Vintage Mystery #12

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 I-1, “TBR First Lines.”

First Line: Like tombstones of forgotten graves, the decayed apartment buildings in the Friedrichstrasse pooled haphazard shadows in the approaching dusk and both men expertly used the cover, walking close to the walls.

Charlie M - Brian Freemantle, 1977

Published in 1977, this is a classic cold war thriller. A top Russian spymaster signals that he is willing to defect. The directors of the British and American secret services ruthlessly jockey for the best positions to take the prize. And while the elephants fight, it is the ant Charlie Muffin, seasoned operative, that finds himself at the highest risk of being stomped. Born in the working class north of England, Charlie offers his betters as much upward contempt as he can deliver by dressing badly – Hush Puppies, for pete’s sake – and banging a daughter of the land-owning elite.

In the 1970s, spy writers often used a derisive tone when describing people in power. In this novel, the head of the British spies, an ex-Army man, plans the operation with different colored push pins decorated with little flags. During his off hours, the Russian general that planning to defect replays the Battle of Kursk with toy tanks on his living room floor. The head of the CIA is a power-hungry psycho. Since he gives leaders such a resounding Bronx Cheer, Freemantle is clearly an ex-journalist.

This novel was the first of 16 Charlie M novels. The tradecraft seems plausible and, in contrast to many thriller novels, people suffer adverse effects from drinking too much alcohol. Those into a lite John LeCarre would probably enjoy them as would readers who like Ross Thomas. Charlie M is the US title, Charlie Muffin the UK title.