Oct 272014
 

Philip Marlowe is not the sort of private eye to flinch or shy away from troublesome clients. When he gets a phone call from a young woman who thinks she wants to hire him - although she doesn't approve of his drinking or smoking and doesn't think he's a gentleman - he hangs up the phone on her. That, he muses, was a mistake: "It was a step in the right direction, but it didn't go far enogh. I ought to have locked the door and hid under the desk." Instead, he finds himself drawn into a dark and violent search through the glitz of Hollywood in the late 1940s. You'll find the story in Raymond Chandler's 1949 novel, The Little Sister, and believe me, Marlowe should have followed his instincts. The Little Sister is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

The woman who telephoned Marlowe about hiring him turns up at his office and does, in fact, hire him. Her name is Orfamay Quest, she has come to Los Angeles from her home in Manhattan, Kansas, and she wants Marlowe to find her younger brother, who left home to take a job in Los Angeles but who has failed to communicate with his family. The trail leads Marlowe to Hollywood and the definitely tarnished glamor of the movie industry.

Sound pretty straightforward? Well, no. This is Raymond Chandler, after all, and it isn't long before the bodies are piling up, Marlowe is finding that just about everyone has secrets to hide and is lying to him, and his client is turning out to be...well, let's just say, difficult. The plot is complex, with a fair number of twists and turns, violent and very dark indeed.

All of that is redeemed, for me, by Chandler's clever writing; he can come up with one-line descriptions that make any writer jealous. Of one Hollywood actress, for example, he says, “She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.” Or consider this description of a night-time drive through Los Angeles and Studio City:

"I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad."

My edition of The Little Sister quotes a New Yorker magazine review that says Chandler wrote as if pain hurt and life mattered. Readers looking for a happily-ever-after ending won’t find it here; in this world, everyone and everything is damaged. But they will find an intense but ultimately pleasurable reading experience.

The Challenge

As part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for one book with a size in the title. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.

Sep 192014
 
Act of Fear (1966) is the first book in a series of private eye novels featuring Dan Fortune, the one-armed detective created by Dennis Lynds under his "Michael Collins" pseudonym. This is the first I've read of Fortune and so I can't speak for the other novels but his origin of how he lost his arm when he was a teenage hooligan and why he's reluctant to tell the truth about it provides a fascinating basis for who Dan Fortune becomes in his adult years. The setting for the most part is 1960s Chelsea in lower west side Manhattan and Lynds paints an eye-opening portrait of that neighborhood long before it was turned into a gentrified haven for well-to-do New Yorkers.

Fortune's client in this story is not the typical client any private eye is used to. He's Pete Vitanza, a young man hooked on fancy sports cars and devoted to his best friend Jo-Jo Olson who has disappeared. Vitanza is worried it might have something to do with some tough guys who were in the neighborhood a few days ago. Pete doesn't have a lot of money but he's willing to pay Fortune and he pleads his case giving some hazy reasons why he's avoiding the police. It's enough to convince Fortune to take the case, albeit begrudgingly. Soon Dan Fortune finds that Jo-Jo's skipping town is tied to the mugging of a cop and the murder of a showgirl. And that Pete has a lot more on his mind than seeming loyalty for a missing friend. The engaging plot takes Fortune to some seedy night clubs sporting names like Monte's Kat Klub and The Blue Cellar, a mechanic's garage, and finally to Flamingo, Florida where he confronts his quarry only to learn he's been followed by some New York heavies.

Dan Fortune is one of the new breed of private eye that started to appear in the late 1950s. He's not an out an out tough guy. He's got a lot of humanity and he genuinely cares about people. The book is filled with his philosophical musings about the effect of crime on a neighborhood, how growing up in tough unsympathetic Chelsea can harden a person. We learn of his own teen age life as a juvenile delinquent, the consequences of his actions, and the loss of his arm that is a constant reminder of his past. Even with all the thuggery and villainy from the bad guys Fortune still takes to the time to understand why they became such rotten apples.

I especially liked this observation:
Maybe under pressure we all revert to what is easy, to what we have rejected in our lives. The way a gentle man will often become the most violent when violence is forced on him. As if the thing rejected has been lurking all the time and waiting for its chance to burst out when our painfully constructed rational defenses are down.
Lynds has said in an interview with Ed Lynskey: "I did not set out to write a detective series, but I decided I wanted to write books that probed into the society we live in. We all must relate to others and how we do that determines the kind of society, country, world and universe we will have." Act of Fear gives you a lot to think about and I'm eager to revisit Dan Fortune and get a few more wise words from this world-weary but wholly likeable private eye with a soul.

For more about Dennis Lynds and his writing career see this website and be sure to visit the Dan Fortune page at Thrilling Detective website for the full list of books and more insight into this great fictional detective.

*     *     *

This fulfills the "Book written by a writer using a pseudonym" for the Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge (space R5). I haven't  forgotten my pledge to fill both cards! I'm just slowing down a bit in my posts.

 Posted by at 4:04 pm
Sep 152014
 
Dark Angel #2: The Emerald Oil Caper, by James D. Lawrence March, 1975  Pyramid Books If you’ve ever been reading The Baroness and thought to yourself, “This is good and all, but what if, instead of a spy, the Baroness was a private investigator? And what if she was black??”, then you are in luck, because the four-volume Dark Angel series answers those very questions. Like The Baroness,
Sep 072014
 

As any regular reader of Rex Stout's novels about Nero Wolfe can assure you, it takes a great deal to move the sedentary gourmand out of his brownstone house on West 35th Street in New York City. The prospect of a great meal, however, may do the trick. That is why, in Too Many Cooks, we are treated to the spectacle of Wolfe, assisted by Archie Goodwin, traveling by train - horrors! - to West Virginia, for a banquet prepared by some of the world's finest chefs, Les Quinze Maitres - the fifteen masters.

But Wolfe's dinner plans are interrupted when somebody sticks a knife into one of the chefs, right in the middle of a sort of taste-testing contest. The police believe the culprit is one of Wolfe's friends. So it is partly to clear his friend's name - and also from some ulterior motives of his own - that Wolfe and Goodwin must solve this murder.

First published in 1938, Too Many Cooks was the fifth book to feature Wolfe and Goodwin, and it is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here. Nero Wolfe, taken outside his comfort zone (quite literally), is fascinating as he grumbles his way to a surprising solution. I think this is one of the best of the early Wolfe books, and I recommend it highly.

The Challenge

As part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for one book that features food/cooks in some way. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.

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.

*     *     *

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.

* * *
 

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)
* * *
 

Reading Challenge update: Silver Age bingo card – L4: “Book with a Man in the Title”
 Posted by at 5:14 pm