Tuesday, September 1, 2015

KISSING CHRISTMAS GOODBYE by M.C. Beaton






“It’s only October,” said the vicar’s wife plaintively, “No one should be allowed to mention Christmas before the first of December.”

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OK. So I broke the rules.

After a couple of hard reads, I was looking for something light. And lo-and-behold! Kindle offered a special on M.C. Beaton’s Kissing Christmas Goodbye.

Agatha Raisin receives a letter from a woman who expects to be murdered during the Christmas season. Christmas is about the only time her children come to visit her.

Her children hate her. She has bullied them and held them hostage using her wealth to keep them on the string. And now she plans to give her land and wealth away to build a technical school named for her late husband. She is about to change her will.

When Agatha and her new assistant Toni Gilmour go to the old woman’s mansion, they find a hateful old lady. Her murder (using Hemlock) seems appropriate though a daughter-in-law hires Agatha to find the murderer.

The people in the town hate the old lady. She owns everything, charges low rents, but bullies them too. They know that if she gives the land and village away, they will lose their homes, their very roles in life.

Many people have motives.

One thing is different about this Agatha Raisin. We see a side of Agatha we don’t often see. She takes the abused 17-year-old Toni under her wing.

Of course Agatha uses Toni’s talents as an intuitive detective. Toni solves an earlier murder.

Kissing Christmas Goodbye ends in a riotous, unbelievable Christmas party where Agatha learns she no longer cares for her ex-husband James Lacey. Agatha gives up on her illusions about having the perfect Christmas.

The story is unbelievable, but after all, that's what you expect from an Agatha Raisin. 

Kissing Christmas Goodbye has the expected characters. (I especially like Mrs. Bloxby.) It has the usual ditzy but determined Agatha. And it has occasional laugh-out-loud humor.

Christmas doesn’t usually come in September, but this time, for me at least, M.C. Beaton’s Kissing Christmas Goodbye filled the bill.

A SHORT STORY--"A Market Tale" by Martin Walker






Martin Walker’s “A Market Tale” is a heartwarming short story.

Kati, a Swiss tourist, finds the love of her life in the market at St. Denis, France.

The market is, as always, stalls filled with luscious food, crafts, and other items to sell to the villagers and tourists.

The problem is, the love of Kati’s life, a widower who lost his leg in the auto accident that killed his wife, has a hateful sister. His sister tries to short circuit the growing relationship, and Bruno, Chief of Police, intervenes.

I have always loved the St. Denis part of the Bruno stories. I like watching the market work, and I like Bruno’s sensitive approach to the people. These people are his friends and neighbors.

“A Market Tale” has no murder, just an attempt to sabotage a budding relationship and the way Bruno intervenes to make things better.

“A Market Tale” is a short story sold as a stand-alone in e-book format.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

THE NATURE OF THE BEAST by Louise Penny






Sometimes characters make the story. Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast seemed that way to me.

When someone kills Laurent Lepage after the boy tells another unbelievable story about a big gun in the woods, former Chief Inspector Gamache investigates.

He and his team find the weapon. It has a picture from Revelation’s Second Coming etched on it. They track its history and learn it has a reason to be connected to Three Pines.

So does the chilling serial murderer John Fleming. He ties in with the massive weapon too. He wrote a mysterious play. The director of the local playhouse attempts to conceal the author’s identity to try to get the play produced in Three Pines.

After another murder, Gamache and his team work through to a solution.

My problem was, I saw no convincing reason the facts had to lead to the solution they led too. Several people could have committed the murder. I couldn’t help but think of the Gamache story where Gamache nailed the wrong person. (Penny rectified Gamache’s mistake in a later book.)

I found the premise too fantastic. True, Penny says in her Afterword that such a weapon and plans for its larger prototype existed. That part of the story is one of those fictions loosely based on fact.

But that didn’t much matter to me. What mattered were the characters--Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie (who plays a large part in solving the crime), the poet Ruth, the bookstore owner, the grocery owner, the bistro owners, Laurent’s mother, and all the rest. They made the story for me.

And I had one other thought. I wondered about how art begets art, a major theme in the Gamache books. The Nature of the Beast seems to be built around William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.”

As with all the Gamache stories, creative people play a large part. Ruth took ten years off from writing poetry after writing a few lines about a horrific experience in her life. The great painter Clara struggles to paint a portrait of her husband after his horrific death (which showed who he really was). One suspect does skillful line drawings and writes great music with terrible lyrics.

At one point, Gamache says of John Fleming’s seemingly innocuous play, “It has everything to do with him. If John Fleming created it, it’s grotesque. It can’t help but be. Maybe not obviously so, but he’s in every word, every action of the characters. The creator and the created are one.”

When I talk about how I wish Louise Penny would write something lighter sometime, my wife says (paraphrase), "She won’t. That’s not how her mind works."

So be it. Though I didn’t think The Nature of the Beast was her best book, I still see Louise Penny as a particular blessing for mystery lovers.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES by F.H. Batacan






What happens when police procedures fall apart? A serial killer thrives.

In F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles, the year is 1997. Once each month, someone leaves the mutilated body of a pre-teen boy in Manila’s Quezon City dump.

The killer has stripped off the victim’s face, cut out the victim’s heart, and cut off the victim’s genitals.

The police don’t know the serial killings are happening. They have no central database. They keep inadequate reports. They make no effort to look for the common characteristics in recurring crimes.

The murdered boys are ragpickers, people who search the dumps for food and items to sell. The victims count for nothing. All the cops care about are high profile, easy-to-solve cases. And even with those, they don’t care if they get it right as long as they get good publicity.

Two Catholic priests, Father Gus Saenz (a highly trained forensic anthropologist), and his younger friend Father Jerome Lucero (a psychologist), set out to collect the data and solve the crimes.

The two priests are incensed at the Catholic church. The church has evidence against an influential clergyman who abuses young boys. The hierarchy moves the abuser from parish to parish leaving him in charge of an orphanage. He has access to an endless number of victims.

Smaller and Smaller Circles seethes with rage. Near the end of the book, one character says,

“You tell a few rich people that a priest is abusing children? They may care, but they’re unlikely to do anything about it. But you tell them that same priest is stealing their money? Sit back and watch how fast they move.”

At one point, a chapter heading quotes Mark 7:6-9-- “And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’” (I used the book's punctuation of this quotation.)

Fathers Saenz and Lucero have at least two allies, the interim director of the national police and a local TV reporter.

The two priests solve the crime by going back and reconstructing as much of the neglected police procedure as they can.

According to its Wikipedia entry, Smaller and Smaller Circles won the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English Novel in 1999, the Philippine National Book Award 2002, and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Award 2003.

I found the book to be excellently written, disturbing, and, in some places, so brutal that it was hard to read.

Monday, August 17, 2015

FOUR BOOKS FROM VACATION







Last week, I read four books. Here are quick summaries of the four--

I stand by what I wrote during my first reading of Jeffrey Siger’s Mykonos After Midnight.

The murder of a prominent Mykonian nightclub owner leads Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis to unearth seething corruption on the tourist island.

A prominent businessmen and his allies frame Kaldis, putting him in a situation like the one that caused his father to choose to commit suicide.

As always, Greece (and its different areas and islands) come off looking beautiful and corrupt.

The Andreas Kaldis books help me understand the recent meltdown in Greece. But more than that, Siger writes compelling stories I enjoy reading.

-----






Jeffrey Siger’s Sons of Sparta is Yiannis Kouros’ story.

Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis plays a supporting role, as do the other major characters (Maggie, Tassos, Kaldis’ wife Lila, and others).

Kouros returns to his home region, The Mani Peninsula in the southernmost part of Greece's Peloponnese. He listens to his uncle explain his plan to save their people. Then he returns later to investigate his uncle’s murder.

Kouros’ people (the Mani) are sons and daughters of Sparta, a fiercely loyal group willing to kill even family members who betray tradition. Kouros’s uncle had been trying to change that.

The question is: Was the murder family-oriented, was it caused by outsiders against the uncle’s plans for Mani, or did it happen for other reasons?

Sons of Sparta ends with a hair-raising attempt to rescue one of the major characters.

Again, I enjoy Jeffrey Siger’s books. They teach me about Greece and keep me reading.

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In Elly Griffiths' The Ghost Fields, a bulldozer uncovers a buried WWII airplane.

The body in the pilot’s seat could not have been the person flying the plan.

As things turn out, someone murdered the victim. He had a single bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. He is a member of the Blackstock family.

The Blackstocks have lived in their now rundown Norfolk castle for generations.

The pilot ran away to America, went into the armed services, and then ended up buried in the downed airplane in a recently sold part of the Blackstock estate.

How did that happen?

Chief Inspector Harry Nelson calls in forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway to find out.

Readers of previous books know that Nelson is the father of Ruth’s child. They had an affair in an earlier book.

Nelson’s family story continues. Nelson’s wife is dissatisfied with her marriage, on the verge of seeking a divorce to marry another man.

The Ghost Fields are plots of land laid out to look like airfields. English and American forces built them to draw fire away from their real landing areas.

As the story continues, we have a strange visitor at the airman’s funeral, an eccentric Blackstock son who is a local pig farmer, and another murder. The pigs ate the second murdered man.

As in another Ruth Galloway story, a TV crew is in town to film Ruth’s work.

For me, the story of the airfields was the interesting part.

I liked the previous Ruth Galloway stories better than this one, but I enjoyed the mixture of history, archeology, and unusual characters.

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In Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police, novel The Children Return, Bruno fights terrorists.

Bruno investigates a terrorist assassination. Three assassins tortured, burned, and knifed the man to kill him.

Bruno receives word that Sami Belloumi, an “autistic savant” from Bruno’s village of St. Denis is trying to return home from Afghanistan. (The book continually reminds us that words like “autistic savant” are vague descriptions. Every person is unique. Sami, who barely speaks, is a genius at electronics.)

Terrorists attempt to kidnap Sami’s father. Bruno saves the man, but the terrorists leave Bruno injured.

Sami knows too much for the terrorists to let him stay alive. He remembers the times, places, and people who forced him to build bombs. The terrorists need to kill him and his family at the very least. The terrorists endanger the whole village of St. Denis.

Sami gives officials important information on how the terrorists communicate.

In two other threads, Bruno’s friend Dr. Fabiola is struggling with the psychological scars of rape. She is faced again with her attacker, now a prominent psychologist.

And a wealthy elderly Jewish woman is coming to St. Denis to set up a memorial to the people who hid her and her brother from the Germans during the Holocaust.

All this comes together in a crashingly brutal battle. The battle ends with Bruno’s new love interest (maybe), wounded and on the edge of death.

So, a lot happens in this book.

As usual, Bruno cooks wonderful meals, and we see much of the life of St. Denis, France.

I prefer the Bruno books that center more on the small town, but aside from that, Walker tells the story in The Children Return as well as always.

The Children Return is current, exciting, and well worth reading.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

I HAVE BEEN AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER

I was away from the computer for a week. I am back now. I should have brief reports on the four books I read while I was gone. I look forward to getting back to this regularly now. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

LAZARUS by Morris West






Morris West’s Lazarus (1990) is the third of his Vatican novels.

Pope Leo XIV faces open heart surgery. He is a strong-headed old man. But he is changing.

He has begun to feel his ultra conservatism has not been best for the church. If he survives the surgery, he will lead in a different way.

When he does survive, Leo faces two obstacles. One is a radical group, the Sword of Islam. They want to assassinate him.

The other is the church itself.

In some ways, the church is the greater enemy. At one point, one of Leo’s enemies says, “Does the Church change when a pope changes his mind or his heart? The inertia is too great. The whole system is geared against swift movement. Besides--and this is the nub of the matter--the Church is so centralised now that every tremor is magnified to earthquake scale.”

Leo comes up against the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its affiliated bodies.

Along the way, many of Leo’s natural allies fall away. Some of them leave the priesthood.

Leo befriends his Zionist surgeon and the surgeon’s non-believing lover with her brilliant but handicapped daughter. Personal forces push Leo one way; church forces push him the other.

And then there is the Sword of Islam. Their intention is clear and violent. The issue is whether they will finally succeed in killing Leo.

Morris West was a best-selling writer, mostly of Catholic-oriented books, if I remember correctly.

I learned of this book from a friend who knows my interest in religious fiction which involves mystery or intrigue.

In Lazarus, West seems mostly interested in the structure of the church. He writes long sections describing the councils and politics of the church. At least to an ex-Catholic like me, his descriptions aren’t flattering.

My friend mentioned Pope Francis when he recommended the book.

Lazarus is a book for religious aficionados. West downplays the terrorist threat against Leo until the end.

Does Pope Francis have a chance with even the moderate reforms he seems to be embracing? This book (written in 1990) might make you wonder.

THE CASE OF THE LATE PIG by Margery Allingham






In Margery Allingham’s The Case of the Late Pig (1937), Pig dies twice. At least it seems that way.

“Pig” is the nickname of a man Albert Campion knew as a schoolyard bully. When Lugg, Campion’s butler, reads him Pig’s obituary, Campion decides to attend the funeral. He hadn’t seen the man since their school days.

From there Campion ends up investigating at least two murders including Pig’s second death.

The first-person story unfolds slowly. It is both macabre and humorous. Campion is interested in a young woman, but he is so incompetent at courting that he loses her.

Allingham fills The Case of the Late Pig with strange characters--a greedy uncle, an odd young woman who forces herself on Campion, an unexplained young male visitor, and the local doctor who pushes into the investigation.

One strong thing about the book is it concept of small towns. At one point, a local police official says,

“Don’t you see, my boy, a terrible thing is happening. It’s the strangers who are getting killed off. The field’s narrowing down to our own people. Good God! What’s to be done now?”

Allingham’s story is incredibly complex. It involves mixed identities, mania, and an interestingly difficult backstory.

Campion’s tragic mistake makes for a hair-raising ending.

According to what I read, The Case of the Late Pig is the only Albert Campion story Allingham wrote first person from Campion’s point of view.

I learned of this book from the Pattinase blog’s “Friday’s Forgotten Books.” On Fridays, Patti lists links to blogs which feature “forgotten” books of all kinds.

Others help Patti with the “Friday’s Forgotten Books,” sometimes taking over the listings to give her that day away.

In any case, I have found so many good books from this source. I recommend it highly.

This is my first Margery Allingham. I’ve heard a lot about her, but I had never read a book she wrote.

If you like complicated cozies (or semi-cozies), you might like the Albert Campion books.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A NOTE FROM JOE--I've been off line.

We had computer problems and have been off line for several days. I should have one or two new posts tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

GREEN HELL by Ken Bruen






Ken Bruen’s Green Hell has several psychopathic killers, and none of them is Jack Taylor.

Jack Taylor plans to kill a serial murderer, a well-known professor at the University of Galway.

The man lures young women students into his web. He rapes and kills them. Because the professor is influential, the Guards ignore the killings.

Jack takes a young American man, a Rhodes scholar Boru Kennedy, under his wing.

Kennedy writes the first half of Green Hell. Then Kennedy betrays Jack, becomes involved with a young woman, and ends up imprisoned for her murder.

The story goes from there. It involves Jack saving a puppy from a murderous beating, meeting a haunting young woman, and starting the process of avenging Boru Kennedy.

But Jack Taylor commits no avenging murders. They happen in another way.

I’ve been intentionally vague about the details. I leave those for you.

This story is the equal of the other Jack Taylor books. It is brutal, well-written, and deceptively well-plotted. Events seem random, but they come together.

Some of the Taylor books stand out, but they are all excellent.

And one other comment. Ken Bruen uses many literary, music, TV, and other cultural references. At one point, Jack explains:
-----
“I read an author during Christmas you know, the critics crap him off because they say. . .”

Pause

“. . . Get this. He uses too many cultural references, pop music, crime writers in his books. Now, see, you know what I think of them? I might hazard . . . not complimentary?”

Big grin, then,

“Yeah, bollix to them. Because for me, it grounds the story in stuff I know, that I can relate to. One fuck said he was for people who don’t read. How fucking insulting is that to readers?”

The pint was good. I sank a quarter, said,

“Thing is, Sean, critics are God’s excuse for why shite happens.”

Friday, July 17, 2015

THE BONE IS POINTED by Arthur W. Upfield






Arthur W. Upfield’s The Bone is Pointed (1938) is the best Bony book so far.

Someone kills a troublemaker at Karwir station in the Australian outback. Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) travels there to solve the crime.

Early on, Bony knows what happened. His challenge is to survive to prove it.

The Kalchut tribe “bones” the detective, puts him under an aboriginal curse. Because Bony’s mother was aborigine, the curse takes hold, and Bony begins to waste away.

If Bony survives the curse and exposes the killer, he endangers the tribe, makes it so they will be forced into civilization and changed forever.

The tribe had cursed him, not for their own reasons, but to protect a settler who is helping them survive. All of this also involves the old man who owns Karwir station and his beautiful daughter.

What interested me about the book is Bony’s reaction to the curse. He knows it is happening. He knows it will kill him unless he gives up and leaves the area immediately. But he refuses to give up.

At one point, he explains himself to his ally Sergeant Blake--

“No, Sergeant, I couldn’t bear failure. Being what you are, you could never clearly understand what I am. You have no conception of what I am, what influences are ever at war within me. Once I failed to finish an investigation, I could no longer hold to the straw keeping me afloat on the sea of life, beneath the surface of which the sharks of my maternal ancestry are forever trying to destroy me...

“Don’t for one moment think that I despise my mother’s race. At a very early age I was offered a choice. I could choose to be an aboriginal or a white man. I chose to become the latter, and have become the latter with distinction in all but blood. To fail now would mean to lose everything for which I have worked, and the only thing which enables me to cling to what I have is my pride.

“You can’t know of the eternal battle I fight, to lose which means for me and mine what we should regard as degradation; my family and I should fall to that plane on which live the poor whites and the outcast aborigines. Failure! No. Surrender to the fear of death by boning! No. The white man might say, surrender. My wife, who understands, would say no. And so, Sergeant, I must go on. I must for the first time triumph over the absence of my greatest asset [his willingness to take however much time it takes to solve a case]. I must work against time as well as against the insidious mental poison now beginning to be administered.”

In other words, his record of never having failed in an investigation is important to his survival. It is more than an unbroken record. It is who he is and who he sees himself to be.

As always, Upfield’s descriptions are breathtaking (including a description of a massive rabbit migration).

The Bony books are almost impossible to describe. If you haven’t tried one, you might want to consider reading at least The Bone is Pointed.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

not a mystery--A THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION by Gustavo Gutiérrez






Pope Francis will visit the U.S. in September, 2015.

Many of us think of him as unique, presenting a radical vision for the Roman Catholic church and the world.

To remind myself this isn’t true, I decided to skim over Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation.

A warning to start: the book is so ponderously written it is almost unreadable. But it was the groundbreaking work in the most influential theology of the last half of the twentieth century, Liberation Theology.

Gustavo Gutiérrez is a Peruvian priest. He writes out of the context of the poverty of Latin America. It is no accident that his book came out after Vatican II.

Later Roman Catholic popes tried to tone down what Gutiérrez wrote seeing it as Communist or at least anti-capitalist.

This edition of A Theology of Liberation has two introductions in which Gutiérrez defends Liberation Theology from its critics.

Here are a few quotations from the book (most, but not all, from the introductions)--
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Quotes from A Theology of Liberation

According to the Bible, faith is the total response to God, who saves us through love.
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The entire Bible, beginning with the story of Cain and Abel, mirrors God’s predilection for the weak and abused of human history. This preference brings out the gratuitous or unmerited character of God’s love. The same revelation is given in the evangelical Beatitudes, for they tell us with the utmost simplicity that God’s predilection for the poor, the hungry, and the suffering is based on God’s unmerited goodness to us.
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Poverty is not caused by fate; it is caused by the actions of those whom the prophet (Amos) condemns: “These are the words of the Lord: For crime after crime of Israel I will grant them no reprieve because they sell the innocent for silver and the destitute for a pair of shoes. They grind the heads of the poor into the earth and thurst the humble out of their way. (Amost 2:6-7).
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[The bishop’s council at Puebla said] “the poor merit preferential attention, whatever may be the moral or personal situation in which they find themselves (no. 1142)." In other words, the poor deserve preference not because they are morally or religiously better than others, but because God is God, in whose eyes “the last are first.” This statement clashes with our narrow understanding of justice; this very preference reminds us, therefore, that God’s ways are not our ways (see Isa. 55:8).
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To paraphrase a well-known text of Pascal, we can say that all the political theologies, the theologies of hope, of revolution, and of liberation, are not worth one act of genuine solidarity with exploited social classes. They are not worth one act of faith, love, and hope, committed--in one way or another--in active participation to liberate humankind from everything that dehumanizes it and prevents it from living according to the will of the Father.
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The commitment to the poor is not “optional” in the sense that a Christian is free to make or not make this option, or commitment, to the poor, just as the love we owe to all human beings without exception is not “optional.”
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...we will have an authentic theology of liberation only when the oppressed themselves can freely raise their voice and express themselves directly and creatively in society and in the heart of the People of God, when they themselves “account for the hope,” which they bear, when they are the protagonists of their own liberation.
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 [One more recent addition to the concept of Liberation Theology is] the new presence of women, whom Puebla described as “doubly oppressed and marginalized” (1134, note) among the poor of Latin America.
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If there is no friendship with them and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals. Any talk of liberation necessarily refers to a comprehensive process, one that embraces everyone.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

INSPECTOR SINGH INVESTIGATES: A CALAMITOUS CHINESE KILLING by Shamini Flint






Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Calamitous Chinese Killing portrays modern China as brutally corrupt.

Singapore officials send Sikh Inspector Singh to China to investigate the murder of the son of a Singaporean envoy there.

Singh is the same as always. He is bearded and turbaned. He is fat and somewhat slovenly. He wears white tennis shoes. And he is an oddly brilliant outsider, someone authorities will do anything possible to ship off to another country.

As it turns out, the book has three main murders, one of them as bone-chilling as any murder I’ve read about lately.

Singh finds himself immersed in Chinese governmental corruption and brutality.

Chinese authorities are taking over Beijing neighborhoods, moving out the neighbors to build western-style malls. (Does this sound familiar to what sometimes happens in our U.S. cities?)

But in China things are different. The government’s tactics involve murder and intrigue. They also involve the Singaporean envoy’s family.

Along the way, Singh hooks up with an interesting sidekick. But Singh makes mistakes and almost ends up being killed.

Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh books are traditional police procedurals set in unusual places.

I’ve only read a few of these books, but this was one of the best so far.

Thanks to the blog Kittling:Books for leading me to Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Calamitous Chinese Killing.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

INNOCENCE or MURDER ON STEEP STREET by Heda Margolius






Heda Margolius' Innocence or Murder on Steep Street is a noir mystery set in an irrational world.

Innocence and guilt make little difference.

Set in 1950's Prague, Czechoslovakia, the story opens with a quickly solved murder. Someone abuses and kills a child in the projection room of the Horizon Cinema.

Among the women ushers at the theater is Helena Novakova. Her husband Karel was a Communist official unjustly accused of espionage and imprisoned. The deteriorating Communist government has set officials against one another.

Helena is under surveillance for no good reason because her husband is an accused spy. The other ushers all have something to hide.

Then Helena acts to try to help her husband. Her actions bring about a terrible tragedy. And someone murders the policeman investigating the first murder. He is stabbed to death in his car parked on Steep Street outside the theater.

One of the blurbs promoting the book quotes a critic who calls the book Kafkaesque.

The insanity grows. Virtually none of the actions bring about the expected reaction. The book's points of view veer wildly.

Innocence ends with the introduction of several characters we've not seen (or seen fleetingly).

The insanity of the structure of the book reflects the insanity of the world in which Heda Margolius had lived. She was a Holocaust survivor whose own husband was swallowed up in Czechoslovakia's deteriorating Communist chaos.

She remarried and became a translator. Among the books she translated were books by Raymond Chandler whom she admired. Innocence or Murder on Steep Street is her attempt to write a Chandleresque noir novel.

And she succeeds admirably. To me reading Incocence or Murder on Steep Street was like watching the play Waiting for Godot.

If these comments make this book seem like a hard read, that is what I intended. Even the foreign names expressed in several different ways, make the reading hard going.

But the reading is well worth it. Innocence reminded me that the world is not as rational, as cause-and-effect, as I like to think it is. Irrational terror rests behind much of what we do. Innocence or Murder on Steep Street is a scary book.

I highly recommend Incocence or Murder on Steep Street.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

WINDS OF EVIL by Arthur W. Upfield






In Arthur W. Upfield’s 1937 mystery Winds of Evil, the setting is part of the motive.

Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) sets out to solve two murders. Both murders occurred during massive sand storms at Wirragatta Station in the Australian outback.

While Bony investigates, the murderer attacks three more people including Bony. All the attacks occur during sandstorms.

At one point, Upfield writes, “To those having the eyes to see and the soul to feel, the great plains of inland Australia present countless facets of beauty: these same plains offer to the man with good eyesight, but a shrivelled soul, nothing other than arid desert.”

Upfield fills Winds of Evil with beautiful and terrifying descriptions. The sandstorms themselves help create a murderer. And Bony uncovers the heart-wrenching backstory of how that happened.

As always, Bony’s mixed race makes him a better detective. And again as always, Bony sees himself, not as a policeman, but as one of the greatest detectives ever to have lived.

When you couple the unique (probably now much-changed) setting and the not-so-humble Bony, you have wonderful stories.

Winds of Evil is the fifth in what (if I counted correctly) is a 28-book series.

Upfield’s Bony books are now readily available in electronic editions.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

SWEET, SAVAGE DEATH by Jane Haddam






Some books you read out of curiosity.

That’s the way it was with Orania Papazoglou’s Sweet, Savage Death (1984).

Mysterious Press has reprinted Sweet, Savage Death using Papazoglou’s more well known pen name Jane Haddam. I’m a fan of Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian series, so I decided to try to something else she wrote.

Sweet, Savage Death was humorous and confusing. Romance writer Patience McKenna and her newly found kitten attend the American Writers of Romance convention.

After three murders, a botched crowning of the year’s queen of romance writing, and the bare beginnings of a new love interest for Patience, Patience solves the crimes.

The book portrays publishing as cut throat and not totally honest. Egos abound at the convention. Not all the writers’ apparent successes are real. Intrigue and manipulation are part of the game.

I found it hard to keep the characters straight. 

Sweet, Savage Death seemed like an insider’s book to me, a book written by someone involved in publishing.

Back in the day, Sweet, Savage Death was a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award nominee.