Aug 282014
Deadlier Than The Male, by Jim Conaway No month stated, 1977  Belmont-Tower Books J.C. Conaway returns as “Jim” for the first of a two-volume series that comes off like a female-fronted equivalent of Conaway’s earlier Shannon series. Our hero is Jana Blake, a hotstuff blonde (despite the brunette on the cover – and Jana doesn’t wear a trenchcoat or carry a gun, by the way) who lives in
Aug 042014
The Hook #1: The Gilded Canary, by Brad Latham September, 1981  Warner Books Part of Warner’s short-lived Men Of Action line, The Hook ran for five volumes, and was unlike the other series in the line (ie Ninja Master) in that it was a period piece about an insurance investigator. If this first volume is any indication, The Hook has more in common with the hardboiled pulp of the 1930s, only
Jun 302014
Folk singers and private eyes. Not exactly a combination you'd expect to turn up in a crime fiction novel. What's so criminal about the 1960s coffeehouse scene and long haired guitar strumming entertainers singing ancient songs of doomed love? The closest you get to danger is if someone decides to sing a song with an strong anti-government theme or a pacifist's paean to the end of the Viet Nam war. But Thomas Dewy manages to tell a story of a missing folk singer, his grief stricken girlfriend, and the mysterious contents of a suitcase she's been entrusted with, and come up with a fast moving, action-packed tale that is basically a pursuit thriller.

A Sad Song Singing (1963) is fairly straightforward. Cresentia Fanio seeks out the help of Mac, Dewey's world weary private eye based in Chicago, and asks him to locate her missing boyfriend, singer Richie Darden. She claims she's been followed, has managed to lose the men on her tail, and needs Mac's help to hide the suitcase and find Richie soon. He's skeptical about the whole thing, especially about the suitcase Richie has given Cress to watch over. She refuses to open it as she promised Richie she wouldn't. When some thugs burst into his office and Mac manages to beat them off and escape with Cress and her suitcase his mind is pretty much made up. He'll do his best to find Richie and get to the bottom of the mystery of why the thugs want the suitcase so badly.

The detective novel elements are at a minimum here. It's the story of Cress and her complete immersion in the folk singing scene that makes for a fascinating read. Dewey creates a variety of coffeehouse locations from swank carpeted establishments that serve meals and alcohol to the dingiest dive serving only regular coffee and apologies for the broken espresso machine from a leotard wearing waitress while college boys play chess and turtleneck attired beatniks strum their guitars on a wobbly wooden stage. The atmosphere feels oddly old-fashioned, almost cliche and yet wholly authentic. Dewey even dreams up a few folk songs with haunting lyrics. You can practically hear the music wafting off the pages. Mac can't help but succumb to the lure of the music and discovers that Cress herself has an unmined talent for singing just waiting to be unleashed on a welcome audience.

At each new singing gig Mac gathers up bits of vital information about the missing singer and begins to wonder if Darden may have been involved in a robbery. When he gets a chance to handle the mysterious suitcase and feels it to be suspiciously lightweight he begins to suspect the worst and fears that Cress is being exploited as a decoy while Darden makes his escape.

Mac is not your typical private eye. Sure he's great in a fistfight and though he carries a gun with a legal license he's reluctant to pull the trigger. This case that forces him on a road trip through the folk singing world with a teenage girl also puts him in the role of surrogate father. We see a tender side to him as he comes to care for her not only as his client but as a lost girl too much in love with a fantasy. At one point he seems utterly lost himself. No longer able to reach her with his compassionate talk, yet knowing he needs to convince her that Darden's disappearance may have very dangerous consequences for he dissolves into frustrated silence. His lament is summed up in a simple painful sentence: "If only I could sing, I thought."

I read this book at part of Rich Westwood's challenge mentioned earlier this month on his blog Past Offences to read a mystery published in 1963. It also fulfills one more book in my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Silver Age edition.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Bingo card, space V4 - "Book with a professional detective"
 Posted by at 12:39 am
May 072014

Long before Kinsey Millhone, long before V. I. Warshawski, long before all of today's top-rated - and top-read - female P.I.s, there was Miriam Lea.

Miriam who?

Miriam Lea, one of the very first woman detectives in fiction. In the Victorian era, when a female detective was pretty well unheard of, Miriam Lea applied for, and accepted, a job with a Mr. Bazalgette, the proprietor of a London-based private detective agency. Her story is told in Mr. Bazalgette's Agent, an 1888 book by Leonard Merrick, and that book is the subject of today's  audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

1888 was just one year after Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in print, so we are going back quite far in the history of the detective story. Mr. Bazalgette's Agent tells the story of Miriam Lea, a young woman looking for some way to earn a living without having to become, say, a shopkeeper's assistant. She answers an advertisement placed by Mr. Bazalgette, whose detective agency is seeking a woman to act as a private investigator. She is sent out in search of a young man who seems to have absconded with a good deal of the bank's money. Mr. Bazalgette's Agent is the story of her search for that man, a search which takes her first through Europe and, eventually, all the way to South Africa in pursuit of her man. There are a fair number of surprises along the way. It is, I must say, a fairly gentle mystery - no violence, really, and a certain Victorian sensibility. But it is a very enjoyable story, quite worth reading. The British Library has republished this rarity, and they provided a review copy to me.

I am submitting this review as another entry in the My Reader's Block blog Vintage Mystery Bingo Challenge, filling another square on my Golden bingo card that calls for "a book by an author you've never read before."

Apr 132014
On the inside of the DJ front flap Murder in Black Letter (1960) is billed as "A New Trygve Yamamura mystery." Yamamura, a Norwegian-Japanese-American private eye, is a unique character in crime fiction. He has a splendid collection of samurai swords (the main interest in his award winning debut Perish by the Sword, 1959), he enjoys fencing and judo, and spends much of his time engaging in intellectual conversations with his mostly academically employed friends. But here’s the thing. Yamamura is hardly in the book at all. In fact, he doesn’t even solve the case. He's the most minor of characters in his second book, but he's billed as the lead on the dust jacket. If you’re going to create a series character at least do him the service of having him solve the case even if he’s only going to have a limited amount of stage time. Anderson seems to have grown tired of Yamamura in only his second appearance. Too strange.

That’s strike one.

The story has a great plot element about a missing manuscript dating back to the Italian Renaissance. The murder victim, Bruce Lombardi, had been working on translating the text and had discovered all sorts of ties to witchcraft and black magic and the death cult of the Borgias. Does the motive behind the murder have anything to do with this intriguing, possibly dangerous manuscript? No. It’s all incidental background.

That’s strike two.

The book is narrated by Robert Kintyre, professor of Renaissance history and expert on Machiavelli. When his graduate student/teaching assistant is found brutally murdered and bearing wounds that indicate gruesome torture Kintyre turns sleuth and does his best to get to the bottom of the puzzling crime. But in his amateurish imitation of a badass crimefighter he endangers the lives of others and is directly responsible for a second murder that seems gratuitous and senseless even within the confines of this insular academic community. Kintyre keeps thinking he should tell the police what he knows but suffers from the Hamlet syndrome of deliberating and meditating too much on his thoughts and never acting on them. I have no problem telling you that the villains turn out to be involved in a drug operation and the real culprit had hired a bunch of thugs to do all his dirty work. Shades of pulp fiction master criminals? No, instead it’s wholly contrived for the sake of a twist in the final pages.

And speaking of the final pages. The ending is rushed and absurdly over the top with a fight in a rocky seacoast. Hero and villain plunging from a cliff into the turbulent ocean and grappling with a revolver while trying not to drown. Kintyre manages to judo chop the gun out of the villain’s hands and subdue the bad guy. All of this in the ocean! The final sentence in the book is a single word. “Enough.” I’ll say!

That’s strike three. And strike four, five and six, too. You’re out, Anderson. Really out.

The book has a protracted storyline with a few tangential subplots that are dropped almost as quickly as they are introduced, preposterous motivations from nearly everyone involved, and plenty of action scenes featuring judo (chop, chop) for martial arts freaks. But it’s all a bore. All too reminiscent of too many books and TV shows of this era. It’s all been done before with more excitement and vigor by veteran crime fiction writers more skilled than Poul Anderson, primarily a science fiction writer. His attempt to capitalize on popular crime fiction themes (drug lords and sadistic professional criminals as villains) is ineptly handled. The intersection of a primarily academic setting populated with professors, their office and research assistants, and graduate students with a seedy underworld of professional criminals just doesn’t work. I can usually allow for wild leaps in my suspension of disbelief. This time I didn’t believe it for a minute.

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card, space G5: "Academic Mystery"
 Posted by at 3:30 am
Mar 292014
"My name is James Hazell and I'm the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell button."

That's the great opening sentence to Hazell Plays Solomon (1974). The narrative voice of James Hazell only gets better as the story progresses in his debut appearance. True, at first he seems to be one more cookie cutter cynical private eye. He’s an ex-cop, he’s a callous S.O.B., he’s a recovering alcoholic who has to duck into a movie matinee and stuff junk food in his mouth in order to overcome the D.T.s and an urge to down a bottle of whiskey, and he has no qualms about shagging his client if she has a great body, sexy legs, and a couple of choice kneecaps. (Yes, I said kneecaps. For some reason this private eye is obsessed with feminine patellae.) He seems to be the consummate 1970s asshole private eye for much of the book. Yet you can’t help but read on. And the payoff is worth it. For this ultimate jerk undergoes quite a transformation by the final page.

This private eye is way out of his league in his first case. It involves the ultimate horror of all mothers – the careless mix-up of two babies in a maternity ward. The lawyer Hazell is working for has a wealthy client who wants proof that her baby is being raised by a couple living in a council flat (that’s a housing project for us Americans) in one of London’s worst poverty ridden neighborhoods.

The self-deprecating sardonic tone is sometimes witty sometimes crass but never boring. You learn an awful lot of Cockney rhyming slang. So much so that I longed for a glossary at the rear of the book to help me decode much of what was being said by the characters. However, the real success of the book is in the unexpectedly complex women characters. They have a lot to teach Hazell.

From Georgina Gunning , the desperate ex-pat mother yearning for the return of her real daughter to Toni Abrey the self-confessed failure of a mother who sees in Hazell an opportunity for extramarital excitement. Hazell gets an education in what it means to be a mother and, to him, the inexplicable bond between parent and child. Furthermore he gets more lecturing from his mother who sees the baby switching as a nightmare come true and his boss at the fly by night detective e agency Dot Wilmington even calls him a moral imbecile for not seeing how traumatic the difficult resolution will be both mothers. Hazell can only make half-assed jokes about ripping the six year-old girl in half just as Solomon threatened to do when he was confronted with two mothers fighting over a child in the Old Testament parable.

The key woman in the plot, however, is Kathleen Drummond. She is remembered by Mrs. Gunning as a cantankerous and drunken maternity nurse in charge of the two mothers six years ago at St. Margaret’s Hospital. When Hazell tracks down Drummond to her hovel of an apartment he finds the former nurse has become a paranoid, delusional wronged woman. In his interview he learns the secret of her supposed alcoholism and her nasty mood swings. Ironically, it is this interview of a broken pathetic woman who could easily have become yet another target for his sardonic humor who first elicits genuine emotion from Hazell. Despite all her pain and all her shame he observes in Kathleen Drummond a powerful presence. “There was something almost ominous about the grim way she held onto her dignity.” He goes on to wonder about how she had been treated all her life, how she had been misunderstood and unfairly labeled by her patients, co-workers, and neighbors and comes to a startling realization. “There in that strange dark room I felt more about another human being than I have ever done, before or since.” This scene redeemed the private eye and makes the book near brilliant.

I will be on the lookout for the other two books in this very brief series. There's no greater reward when a book surprises the reader on multiple levels; there are plenty in store here -- in plot, character, and humor with the ultimate being the metamorphosis of James Hazell from callous wiseguy to fully realized human being. This book comes highly recommended.

James Hazell Private Eye Series
Hazell Plays Solomon (1974)
Hazell and the Three-Card Trick (1975)
Hazell and the Menacing Jester (1976)
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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age bingo card – L4: “Book with a Man in the Title”
 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Feb 032014

The young woman standing on the cold stone step had no idea who she was, or where she was. The other young woman, the one at the bottom of the stairs, was dead - murdered. And the young woman on the stairs was trapped in a nightmare world of amnesia. She needed help, and she needed it badly. Fortunately for her...there was Miss Silver.

That 's the situation we face at the very start of Patricia Wentworth's last novel, The Girl in the Cellar, which is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, which you can hear in its entirety by clicking here

The Girl in the Cellar was published in 1961, the year Patricia Wentworth died, and it is the last of some 32 books to feature Miss Maud Silver, the private enquiry agent whose little-old-lady appearance can be dangerously deceptive to evildoers. Miss Silver began life as a governess, bringing up other people's children. When she retired and became a private investigator, she brought her no-nonsense attitude with her.

I have read a fair number of the Miss Sliver mysteries, and I think The Girl in the Cellar is one of the better ones. Its dramatic opening is remarkably powerful: we are introduced to this young woman standing on the basement steps in a house that may or may not be deserted. She is suffering from amnesia - she cannot even remember her own name, or where she is, or what she is doing there. She only knows that there is the dead body of another woman at the bottom of the steps.

She manages to get out of the house, and she gets onto the first bus passing by. And that's where her luck begins to change, because she runs into Miss Silver, who sees that the young woman obviously is suffering from shock and needs help. 

It will take quite a while before the young woman is able to remember who she is and start to make sense out of the things going on around her. And, as that knowledge comes back to her, she will also realize that knowledge can be a very dangerous thing...

A lot of the Miss Silver books strike me as being fairly formulaic - you have the same character-types in book after book. There is usually a Damsel in Distress, there's a Misunderstood Young Man, there are Friends/Relatives Who Should Know Better, and so forth. In this case, however, the peril facing the heroine is pretty unique, and Wentworth really does a fine job in showing us the helpless terror that burdens the amnesia victim. It's not so much a whodunit - it's pretty clear most of the way through the book who the villain is - but the true relationships among the characters, and the identity of the girl in the cellar - of both girls in the cellar - are well concealed and allowed to play out suspensefully. And Miss Silver is a delight, as always.

The Girl in the Cellar is another entry in the Vintage Mystery Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog. As it was published after 1960, I am intering in in the Silver category, "a book by an author you've read before." 

Jan 272014

Someone has murdered the master - the master chess player, that is. Paul Jerin was playing a dozen games of chess blindfolded, against twelve different opponents simultaneously, when someone gave him a cup of hot chocolate quite liberally laced with poison. As far as the police were concerned, it was a simple case - the only person who could have done it was Matthew Blount, the man who gave Jerin the hot chocolate and who immediately washed out the cup afterwards. Blount's daughter wasn't buying it - and she came to Nero Wolfe to persuade him to find the evidence that would clear her father.

In a nutshell, that's what you'll find in Gambit, by Rex Stout. The 1962 mystery featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

The word "gambit" is a technical term in chess, referring to an opening move by a player in which a pawn or other chess piece is sacrificed to gain a strategic advantage. It becomes a central image in the book, as Nero Wolve and his right-hand assistant, Archie Goodwin, try to determine who killed Paul Jerin and why. They must, of course, come up with an answer that satisfies the police - and they quickly discover that they are working on a case in which they simply haven't a shred of evidence, even after they answer the questions of who and why.

That's all I'll say about the plot - but I will also recommend this story because it has what I think is probably the finest opening scene of any of the Nero Wolfe novels. We are treated to the spectacle of Nero Wolfe, sitting in his office, tearing pages out of the then-new, third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged. The book outraged Wolfe's sense of what he considered to be proper English usage, by, for instance, using "imply" and "infer" interchangeably, and his response is quite visceral. It's a marvelous scene. The book also ends with what Archie calls "one of the best charades Wolfe has ever staged," as he sets up a gambit of his own to catch the killer.

Gambit, unfortunately, appears to be out of print again, although the link above will take you to a version for the Kindle; I also see that Amazon's web of used book dealers seem to have a number of reasonably priced copies. It's worth going to the trouble to get it - it's a clever plot, and if you find yourself arriving, along with Wolfe and Archie, at the correct identity of the killer, you will still face...but why spoil it? I do think you'll enjoy it.

One more thing: Gambit will be my first entry this year in Bev Hankins's newest vintage mystery reading challenge over at the My Reader's Block blog - you can read all about it at the link, but it's a challenge involving matching books to categories. Players can choose "Golden" (pre-1960) or "Silver" (1960-1980) bingo cards. Gambit fits nicely on the Silver card as "a book with a detective team." It's going to be an interesting year.


UPDATED to fix broken link

Jan 222014

I have written here about the new mystery featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, written by Robert Goldsborough, called "Murder in the Ball Park," which will be published officially next week.

Over at The Rap Sheet blog, Jeff Pierce has published an interview which he conducted via email with Goldsborough, talking about the new book and also about some of Goldsborough's books which are not continuations of the Nero Wolfe series, featuring a Chicago police reporter named Snap Malek. It's an interesting interview, and I think you'll enjoy reading it. Among other points, Goldsborough says that his favorite among the original Nero Wolfe books is The League of Frightened Men, a book which is also among my favorites - I think it's one of the best of the very early books in the series.

By the way, The Rap Sheet ought to be on your regular checklist for staying up with news from the broader world of mystery fiction. 

Dec 132013
 Michel Garfin is the man to go to in Montreal if you have a particularly nasty family secret you need to keep quiet. But call him Mike.  Only the Chief of Police calls him Michel and only because he doesn't speak any English.  Oh, and while we're talking about his name its GAR-fin, pronounced just like its spelled, not Gar-FAN as if it were French. He's Irish/French Canadian and though he's bilingual and lived in Montreal most his life where he was once on the Royal Mounted Police Force he could have stepped out of an office in Hammet's San Francisco or Chandler's L.A.  Hot Freeze (1954) marks Mike Garfin's first appearance out of three crime novels.

Montreal is a frigid violent world of illegal casinos luring gamblers to the barbotte and fan tan tables, brothels where the prostitutes serve as both companions and informers, and home to a wealthy dysfunctional family that would be all too familiar to Lew Archer or Philip Marlowe. The sexual imbroglio in the Astley/Remington household may call to mind the tawdriness of The Big Sleep or the family secrets that dominate Ross Macdonald's novels. But its the omnipresent near paranormal influence of the wintry weather in Montreal becoming a formidable additional character almost as brutal as the human villains that reminds the reader he this is far from the mean streets of California.

Mike is hired by Mrs. Remington to find out how her son Gerald is obtaining such a large amount of money.  he receives an allowance but he's becoming ostentatious in his spending and she is suspicious of how Gerald is getting the money. Mike soon learns that there are actually two families in the Remington home and that Mrs. Remington was previously married. Gerald and his sister Geraldine provide us the earliest examples of the unbridled sexuality that pervades the book.

Gerald is yet another of the handsome indiscriminate gay men, always flirting, always alluding, that one finds in 1950s private eye novels. Its his sex life that triggers the blackmail flag in Mike's mind as the possible source of the extra money. Geraldine is clearly a Carmen Sternwood  knock-off but her insatiable taste for men will eventually unearth a surprising facet to her character that will all but erase any reminders of Chandler's teenage nympho. Then there's Marian, Mrs Remington's stepdaughter, who makes all too clear that she despises all of the Astleys and resents them living in her home.

Originally Mike plans to tail Gerald, find out his habits and bring the case to a quick close. Mike is sure that Gerald is blackmailing some wealthy influential man who can't risk having his sexual predilections uncovered. But Gerald surprises Mike by inviting him along to a barbotte casino and all thoughts of blackmail are almost entirely put out of Mike's mind when he sees how incredibly lucky Gerald is at the gaming tables.

Enter Tom Littleton, Mike's one time partner in the Mounties when they were both cops back in Winnipeg.  Littleton is undercover as part of a narcotics investigation and he urges Mike to keep him that way but not mentioning his name. Mike in order to save his hide however, lies about working with the RCMP and lets Littleton's name. When he returns later that night to find Littleton dead in the courtyard of his apartment building he is devastated. Up to this point Mike was all tough guy like many of the eyes of his day, but now we see a new side. A crowd of gawkers gather round the fence when Littleton''s body is being taken away and Mike overhears them gossiping about another dead drunk who froze himself to death.
I kept my mouth shut, not answering any questions. I climbed into the back of the wagon when they were ready to go and sat near the bunched up thing that had been Tom. Grown men, they say, don't have such emotions. Grown men do. I sat with the tips of my fingers touching his frozen head and vowed to do slow murder to avenge this one.
The addition of this fraternal love between former police partners at times is heartbreaking.  Mike is overcome with emotion several times during the novel. He suspects an insidious murder method and when it is confirmed that drugs are involved it only fuels his vengeful drive.

Brett toys with Chandleresque prose but makes it all his own as Montreal and Canadian culture dominate the proceedings. Hot Freeze is one of the better examples of a private eye novel that will appeal to a variety of crime fiction tastes. Enough tough guy manner and sex to satisfy the hardboiled crowd, real crimes committed for believable reasons for those who crave documentary style realism, quirky characters of truly original molds (including an acrobat dwarf with a sadistic side!), and good investigating with a few examples of well placed clues for the detective novel fans. Above all there is an humanizing emotional undercurrent that controls every behavior in the violent and corrupt world of a bitter and savage Montreal.
 Posted by at 3:35 pm