Friday, July 31, 2015

Vintage Mystery #15

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 S-3 “Featuring a Crime other than Murder”

A homicide does occur in this novel but as it is at the end, the killing does not play a central role.

The Arena – William Haggard, 1961

In this novel, the merchant bank known as Bonavias is insensibly declining. However, a parvenu competitor approaches them, offering an amount 20% over Bonavias’ market value. Col. Russell must become interested when he learns that also part of the deal is a research start-up called Radarmic. There is suspicion that an unfriendly power wants access to the radar technology Radarmic is developing. The rep of the unfriendly power would certainly stoop to violent means to take over the bank and the start-up.

Haggard, an Englishman, was an intelligence officer in India during WWII and then worked in Whitehall after the war. So he has the knowledge and experience that we trust in a writer of highly intelligent crime and espionage stories. A Tory through and through, he understands the Establishment, despises most politicians, and sees anybody left of center as wooly, ineffective, and prone to be covetous of other people’s money and power. He’s also clear-headed about the hazards faced by middle-aged men, such as overrating the role of brains in career advancement and day to day life, and the snares of appetites for alcohol, women, honors, and property.

His series hero was Col. Charles Russell, head of the Security Executive. The department minds odd security issues that fall in the grey areas amongst other departments, in border regions where no clear authority to act exists. Anybody who has worked in a biggish bureaucracy, especially one that oversees numerous smaller units, will be able to relate to the amount and kind of information gathering (spying) and diplomatic interplay (persuading) with which Col. Russell and his trusty sidekick, Major Mortimer, must deal.

Russell is a cheerful stoic who maintains his cool in stressful situations. His attention is attracted when the ordinary patterns are disturbed. He thinks logically, but assumes logic will not be enough to explain or predict what people will eventually do. Russell doesn’t do much except think, assign and talk to people of interesting clubs and office. He spends much time being perplexed. I don’t know how Haggard makes this fascinating and un-put-downable. But he does.

Back in the day, Haggard’s novels were not popular in the US, though critics often praised his work as “James Bond for adults.” Haggard’s ability to take the reader into the closed worlds of research, government offices, criminal syndicates and spymasters is irresistible. At least to readers who like John le CarrĂ©, John Bingham, Emma Lathen, or Alan Furst.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cloak & Dagger #12

Murder at Shots Hall - Maureen Sarsfield, 1945

This golden age mystery is set in a rural village in England just after WWII. A fiend is poisoning the retainers of an old family. Evidence points to a 30-ish female artist, the last member of the family. Wagging tongues allege that the artist is knocking off retainers because they know too much about her wanton personal life. The local swine of a policeman wants to hang her and mopes because the Yard has been called in. The Yard inspector is smart and handsome and winning. Of course.

The murders hinge on the unvarying routines of the village people. The culprit must be a local; otherwise, how could anyone know how the victims took their tea and poison them in such a stealthy way? The murders unglue the locals, who have all they can put up with dealing with the pervasive fog the author endlessly refers to. Wind and rain, mud and wet contribute to the stifling gloom of the setting.

But the characters are not melancholy. Both the artist and her aunt are strong independent women. The police officers, but for the swine, are all well-drawn and convincing. The local doctor is an intense young crab. The locals are down-to-earth. The pacing and humor are appealing. This is a joker sergeant’s report:

Report from Sgt. Congreve.  All except the following, in and around Shotshall, had alibis for the night of December 1st between the hours of 19:45 and 21:00:  Capt. Belairs, who said he was in his house reading.  Miss Chattock, of Shots Hall, who said she was in her house doing nothing.  Mrs. Ashely who said what she was doing but it is not proven.  Mrs. Vale who said she was asleep in front of her fire which had gone out.  Harry Fewsey the butcher who was cutting up meat in his shop and said anyone ought to have been able to hear him doing it only no one did.  Winnie Marsh who said she had one round the corner, which one she would not say, to meet a boyfriend she won't say either as it is not her regular one Bill Ellison, and she said not to tell about it as Bill Ellison would be mad.

It’s a bit longer than I like a mystery due to usual romance angle and the main suspect sitting on information due to her mistaken assumptions about how the world works. There’s also an Allinghamesque tendency to go on about the heroine’s lovely looks. On the other hand, she deploys less frequently used verbs aptly.

Overall this is an excellent mystery that I recommend without reservation.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Mount TBR #23

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.

Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong – Gary Giddens

Any music lover or entertainment buff will get much out of this short biography of the seminal jazz vocalist and trumpeter. In readable prose, Giddens goes over the life chronologically and touches on the times only as needed. He also emphasizes the great influence the subject’s singing style had on other singers. I agree with Gidden’s assertion that as a singer Armstrong could make any song his own and rise above commonplace lyrics and hokey arrangements. See on Youtube his covers of Disney stand-bys such as “When You Wish upon a Star” and, believe it or not, “ChimChim Cher-ee.” To be honest, I find myself listening more often to his vocals from the Forties onward than his seminal instrumentals from the late Twenties.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Vintage Mystery #14

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-6, “Something spooky in the title.”

I think this qualifies because “death” is pretty spooky.

Blue Death – Michael Collins, 1975

This is #7 of 19 mysteries featuring one-armed, Polish-Lithuanian PI Dan Fortune (Fortunowski) of New York City. Dan is asked by an old friend, an Armenian-American belly dancer, for assistance. Her husband wants to renew a lease with a huge corporation but he can’t find anyone in the company to handle the routine paperwork. Dan agrees to intervene in the runaround and find the elusive executive who theoretically handles that procedure. While on the hunt, Dan runs around Manhattan, the industrial wastelands of New Jersey, and pristine spots of SoCal like Ventura. Four murders occur, some for understandable reasons, some senselessly hinging on bad luck.

Dan ends up interacting with bosses and employees of International Metals and Refining Corporation (IMG). One of their lines is the manufacture of pure titanium. Collins had a degree in chemistry and was a technical/writer editor for chem-e journals. So, the technical side of the story feels real. I like credentials in an author

The mystery will feel real to readers of certain age, who were young adults forty years ago. Old-fashioned ideas pop up, such as the irresistible urge all women feel to have babies and the implacable will to power, property, and success in all men. As ecologically-minded as Ross Macdonald, Collins holds up Jersey as an environmental nightmare that was devastated by amoral corporations. The execs of big business smugly feel themselves beyond the reach of the law. But, middle-aged men, vulnerable to the rhetoric of assertive self-empowerment of the era, wonder about the impossibility of balancing real freedom with homey security, cozy benefits with clear and exciting risks. Like a Simenon character at the end of his tether, a 40-ish research scientist bemoans his fate: “When there’s nothing left to dream, you’re dead.  A blue death, oxygen-starved.  My life is over.”

The plot is ingenious, the characters persuasive, the tone matter-of-fact, the nostalgia disarming. Dan is an absolutist and idealist, looking for a perfect world in which human beings can run as free as dogs. Corporate robotoids are all moral relativists. Well-worth reading, and not just as an artifact of a bygone era.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Victorian #5

I read this book for the A Victorian Celebration 2015 hosted over at A Literary Odyssey in June and July, 2015.

London in Dickens’ Day – Jacob Korg, editor

This is a 1960 collection of first-hand essays and reports about life and culture in London from 1835 to 1872. It opens with selections from Dickens' own Sketches by Boz and his magazine Household Words.  Then, the selections from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor make us want to read the whole book, famous as a pioneering work in anthropology, sociology, and investigative journalism. It also has essays from foreigners’ point of view by Max Schlesinger (German), Ralph Waldo Emerson (American), and Hippolyte Taine (French). These are interesting too in that we can identify the writers’ cultural blind spots and preconceptions. It’s strange how the most talented people turn into know-alls when they talk about other cultures. The anthology was designed to give students practice is writing research papers and has a tantalizing bibliography for further readings from scholars from the Forties and Fifties.