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11Apr/150

Book Review: Tears of the Giraffe

Tears of the Giraffe is the second installment of the No. 1 Ladies Detective series in which Mma Precious Ramotswe runs her No. 1 Detective Agency in Bostwana.

At the end of the first book,  mechanic Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni proposed to Ma Ramotswe, and the story dwells quite a bit on their engagement and giving us a slightly broader view of J.L.B. Matekoni. While at the detective agency, she takes the seemingly impossible task of solving the nine year old mystery of the disappearance of a young American man for his distraught and now widowed mother.

There's really so much to love about this book  "Tears of the Giraffe" really is a relaxing cozy mystery and in Ma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, writer Alexander McCall Smith creates two wonderful characters. Maketoni really comes into focus as a kind and compassionate man who helps out at the local orphan farm and even takes in two foster children (without telling Ma Ramotswe.)

The book's greatest success is in making readers who come from different cultures understand how these characters think and relate to them. It's done so beautifully and naturally and in a way that doesn't feel like the writer's wagging a finger and saying, "This is how everyone should think!" but rather you feel like you're seeing how they think.  They're interesting characters with a very different spin on the world than readers in the U.K. or in America, but it doesn't feel forced. One thing I found fascinating was when Ma Ramostwe thought poorly of a college professor who didn't hire  servants. While in America, we might think hiring servants is lazy or putting on airs, she thought that by hiring others to work for you, you weer helping to support the community.

The mystery itself has a great emotional core.  Ma Ramotswe's goal is to bring some peace and closure to this woman.  The mystery doesn't require any sort of great deduction, but it does require Ma Ramotswe's intuition and craftiness to solve the case.

While talking about positives, I should also praise audiobook narrator Lisette Lecat who does fantastic job reading the books. Her typical reading voice is a somewhat posh British voice but she manages to give each of the characters a life of their own. Her reading of the American widow was superb. I was blown by how natural her American accent sounded.

This entry was more focused than the first book.  In the original, Smith had Ma Ramotswe stop and have flashbacks that were almost essays and there were multiple cases running throughout the book. Here the book manages to focus mostly on Ma Ramostwe's and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's engagement and the related plots of the adoption of the children and Maketoni's jealous maid who wants to be rid of Ma Ramotswe for her own reasons.

The story does suffer a little when a second case is added to the mix. A butcher shows up asking for the Agency to investigate his wayward wife. While it leads to some interesting discussions, the case isn't all that interesting and slows down the book's momentum. The resolution occurs off-page and we're only told about it later. The story served as a first case for Mma Makutsi, Ma Ramotswe's secretary who is promoted to "assistant detective" in this book. While I didn't like the case, I concede it does open the door for more plot twists and stories in the future.

Overall, this is a delightful read and also an excellent audiobook. Smith masters what books can do at their best: transport you to another place and even into other minds.  This book is fun and thoughtful and a great read for fans of cozier mysteries.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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21Mar/150

Book Review: Playback


While the second to last Philip Marlowe novel was the longest, the last was the shortest, coming in at about 170 pages in its most recent reprint.

In it, Marlowe is hired by an attorney to follow a woman with very little explantion. He follows her to Esmerelda, a fictionalized version of LaJolla.

There Marlowe encounters blackmail and a corpse that disappears from the balcony of the woman he was hired to follow.

All things considered, this is a book that I wish Raymond Chandler hadn’t bothered to right. The beginning is promising, but 2/3 through the story begins to collapse.

Chandler, at his finest wrote involved and complex tales of mystery. There was always more than meets the eye to a Chandler mystery. Here, there is far less. I literally said out loud, "That's it!" and tossed the book aside until my determination to finish books I start compelled me to read on.

Chandler's characters are also far flatter than in previous works. You won't find any characters who approach the level of those in other novels. There's no one like General Sternwood, Moose Malloy, Bill Chess, or Terry Lennox in this entire novel.

While the dialogue isn't as good as in other books, there's still a few decent lines in this one and that's one saving grace.

And then there are the other issues of Marlowe's encounters with two different women. Thankfully, there's nothing shown, which is the most artful thing about this portion of the book. The writing by Chandler is just embarrassing.  The dialogue is awful, and the set up is clumsy.   The relationship with Linda Loring in The Long Goodbye is elevated to some high exalted status of her being an old flame, when she just came over for an evening before leaving town.

Worse than that, Marlowe admits that sleeping with one of the women was unethical as an Investigator and then it does it anyway and it's not like there's some psychological reason for it or an internal struggle that Marlowe's better nature loses, there's no reason at all given.  At the end of the book, it appears that all that remains of the ethical core of Marlowe from The Big Sleep is an eccentric aversion to taking money for getting himself beaten up and inconvenienced.

The book is sad because it shows how much of a toll alcoholism and depression took on a great author. It's one of the worst books written about a classic detective by his actual creator. It's the one Marlowe book that's never been made into a movie and hopefully never will be. It's a forgettable or at least I hope it is as I'll certainly be doing my best to forget it.

Rating: 1.75 out of 5.00

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21Feb/150

Book Review: The Jade Ogre

In this 1992 Will Murray novel, the legendary adventure Doc Savage faces a deadly challenge when he battles the Jade Ogre, a strange being whose decapitated arms fly on their own and deal a horrible green death to the Ogre's enemies.

The Jade Ogre is unusual in that Murray adapted the idea from a story original Doc Savage writer Lester Dent had written about a private detective, so this story has a bit of a mystery element in it and some detective tropes that play a role such as Doc explaining the solution to his aides at the end. However, the mystery is much more a matter of how rather than who as Murray provides more than enough clues to figure out who is behind the Jade Ogre. Also this makes more sense understanding it was based on a serialized story as it does have a very strong serialized feel.

In addition to the mystery, the book delivered the usual things we expect from Doc Savage with plenty of action, adventure, gadgets, and some great interaction between Doc's assistants. Here, as in the other more recent books, the number of supporting players is kept down to a minimum with Ham, Monk, and Pat Savage appearing. Murray is even more careful about overusing assistants as for most of the book, only two are "on stage" at once with Pat and Ham together early and Monk and Ham late. This allows enough interaction between the Bronze Man's two most beloved assistants (Monk and Ham) without their carping on each other becoming monotonous.

As always, Murray achieves a great period feel and this book succeeds in transporting readers back to the 1930s.

The story has one major plot hole and that comes from the whodunit plot. We learn that when Doc gives the solution that several others had figured out who the guilty party was. This leads the question of why everyone followed a crazed murder blindly into a trap.

Beyond that, there are more things that could be nitpicked, but at the end of the day, this isn't great literature, it's Doc Savage. And this book lives up to the high standards set by other installments in this series. So if you have a love of 1930s Pulp fiction in your soul, this book is for you.

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31Jan/152

Book Review: The Long Goodbye


The Long Goodbye (1953) finds Marlowe living in a borrowed house in Los Angeles when he meets a down and out drunk and former war hero named Terry Lennox. Marlowe strikes up a friendship with the man and one morning Marlowe is awakened to find Lennox asking to be driven to Mexico. Marlowe does this and the finds out Lennox’s wealthy wife was murdered with Lennox the prime suspect. Lennox writes out a confession and kills himself in Mexico. The cops, organized crime, and the dead woman’s father want Marlowe to forget the case, yet Marlowe feels an obligation to Lennox.

To begin with, The Long Goodbye is the longest of all Chandler novels. The same publisher did the most recent reprint of the Marlowe books, and the first five novels range from 231-292 pages. This book weighs in at 379 pages.  At this point in his career, Chandler had come to realize what people looked to Marlowe books for: the characters and the dialogue, and Marlowe telling people off. So Chandler gave us this in spades.

He gives ample time to develop the Marlowe-Lennox relationship at the start of the book and there are great Chandler characters spread throughout the book including author Roger Wade, who I can see as a self-insertion character by Chandler particularly after listening to the BBC Radio 4 play about Chandler and Hitchcock attempting to collaborate on Strangers on a Train. The book is full of rich characterization, settings, and dialogue.

The downside of the Long Goodbye is that in the midst of all that, Chandler loses the story several times. It’s hard to remember a detective novel where the detective took so little interest in solving the central mystery of the book. Marlowe literally goes weeks without doing anything and there are moments in the story where I wonder if we’re ever going to get back to the Terry Lennox case. It’s hard to care about the solution to a story when the main character doesn’t seem to.

In addition, this is a much more cynical and jaded Marlowe than prior books with his remarks that organized crime is just a cost of civilization in one of the later chapters. Marlowe seems at times to be almost exaggerated at a few times even explaining he was trying to be mysterious at one point.

I also feel the relationship between Marlowe and Linda Loring or the attempt thereof was weak and far less interesting than the flirting with romance in prior novels.

Overall, this is a still a good read and is better than The Little Sister and The High Window with so many interesting characters and settings, and some great dialogue. Still, it feels less organic and its pacing issues place it below the very best Marlowe novels in the series. For my part, I think the 1970s BBC radio adaptation with Ed Bishop is probably the best way to experience the story as it manages to preserve the heart of the story while leaving a lot of extraneous elements on the cutting room floor.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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20Dec/140

Book Review: Hang by the Neck


I picked up a copy of Hang by the Neck out of curiosity as I’d listened to the Crime and Peter Chambers golden age radio program and was curious what the books were like.

The answer is very much the same, only with a more complex plot.

In the book, Pete is hired by Johnny the Mick to go pick up a suitcase from Johnny’s apartment. However, Pete finds the body of a beautiful woman and then the police come up and haul Johnny and Pete off to jail. Chambers released only to come home and find the body of Johnny the Mick hanging from his window.

The police conclude that Johnny murdered the girl and committed suicide but Pete knows Johnny the Mick well enough to not buy the explanation.

What follows is Chambers’ questioning and conversing with a wide variety of shady characters to get to the truth. The suspects are pretty much stock characters for a hard boiled detective novel: the seductive performer, the charming model, the shady night club owner. The one exception to this is an ex-boxer turned painter which was a nice touch. There’s also a great speech from a cop about what private investigators are for and what they ought stick to investigating. Though later events in the book make the speech more than a tad ironic.

Radio programs were known for taking massive liberities when bringing detectives not named Sherlock Holmes to the microphone, so I was surprised to find that the characters in the book spoke exactly like the radio program with some very stylized dialogue. However, reading it, there were points were the style could be a tad wearying with a few too many pages filled with rapid fire one-liners between Chambers and someone he was questioning.

Rating the book is hard. Overall, Hang By Your Neck is average or perhaps a bit above average hard boiled detective novel. However, it doesn’t approach greatness and is by no means essential for fans of the genre. Certainly Peter Chambers isn’t in the class of Philip Marlowe, Archie Goodwin, or Nick Charles. However, if you want to read a 1950s Detective novels to pass the time, this isn’t a bad choice.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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29Nov/140

Book Review: Murder in the Ballpark


I'm sure Robert Goldsborough is a nice man and he's nobly tried to carry on the Nero Wolfe stories. I bare him no animus.

That said, this is the worst mystery novel I've read in my life. It's a bad novel as a Nero Wolfe book, and it's a horrible mystery.

It begins on the cover. The cover trim is nice (only one of two good things I can say about the book), but the picture looks like a cheap public domain picture and I'm not sure what era it's from.

This was important, as I was thrown by the timing of the novel. Goldsborough previous run of Wolfe novels updated Wolfe to the late 1980s and early '90s. His most recent, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Mysteries was set in the 1920s when Archie first met Nero Wolfe. This one was set in the 1950s for some reason.

However, since that wasn't clear from the get go, I didn't think at the time that it was odd for Archie to be asking for and receiving an info dump from Saul Panzer. However, given that this is the 1950s Archie Goodwin, the same one who has read  both the Gazette and Times every day, having Saul suddenly give all the back story on a prominent State Senator for Archie's benefit was inexplicable.

Archie and Saul are in the park and they see the selfsame Senator murdered in the state and make a bee-line for the exit. The fact that they were at the stadium to see the murder doesn't serve any purpose for the plot, and nearly all the information that Saul Panzer dumped in Chapter 1 for some reason is later repeated by other characters throughout the book meaning the entire first Chapter was completely pointless.

From Chapters 2-26, there are key two points to address:

First of all, Archie Goodwin as written by Rex Stout is one of the most fun to read narrators in any language. Unfortunately, Goldsborough appears to have completely lost that in this book. All the rough edges and the humor that makes Archie so fun to read is gone leading to a very flat narrative that lacks personality.

This brings me to the second big complaint with the bulk of this book, it is boring. The questioning is repetitive and irrelevant, the dialogue is dull, the the characters are uninteresting and shallow, the settings aren't interesting. The progress of the case is mostly uninteresting. There were two exceptions to this. There was a so-so scene with Archie, Saul, and some gangsters that's okay. The sister of a veteran who committed suicide is a decent character though histrionics in the last act kind of weaken her power. But other than that, it's a tedious tale.

We get to see totally unnecessary details. For example, Archie wants to talk to a suspect who is a candidate to replace the State Senator and so instead of making an appointment or arranging to see her when she's not busy, Archie goes down to a long press conference about a proposed state highway that goes on for four pages.

Worst of all, nothing in the interaction between the long-standing characters sizzles. Two visits by Cramer are dull beyond belief, and there are no good moments for Archie or Wolfe.

Chapter 27 stands out as the one entertaining chapter in the book where Goldsborough did something Stout never did. He showed us in detail how Archie managed to gather all the suspects for the denouement and how he manages to get everyone including the murderer there. It was a fun chapter as Archie plays everyone. If the rest of the book where this good, this would have been a five star book.

Unfortunately, the final showdown doesn't go well and that is a shame because in the three prior Goldsborough books I'd read, he usually finished the book strong with a good final scene for Wolfe. In this case, the drama is minor and the interruptions Wolfe allows really detract from the scene particularly after Wolfe threatens to (but doesn't) eject the offending parties.

The solution has two problems. First, it's far fetched particularly given that the murder weapon was a high powered rifle where the bullet traveled to its target in about a third of as second.

Not only that, but it basically means that most of the line of inquiry in the book was a waste of our time. The nature of the solution and the whole story behind the murder made it the type of story that Rex Stout might have told, but it would have been in a novella rather than a novel. The effort to stretch this story out for more tan 220 pages led to it being padded beyond reason.

I also have to comment that Goldsborough's Wolfe was weaker than in other stories, particularly his very stilted dialogue at the end of the book. This is a shame because Goldsborough has usually had a decent grasp of Wolfe, but not so in this story.

Rating: Flummery

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8Nov/142

Book Review: Trouble Is My Business


Trouble is My Business collects four Philip Marlowe novellas written by Raymond Chandler. The stories were originally published in magazines such as the Black Mask with other detective heroes but were rewritten with Marlowe as the hero after the character became popular. However, other than that, the stories remained essentially the same. While Chandler thought he could improve on his Black Mask stories, he found that trying to do so destroyed them, so essentially we had the stories in their original form.

The titular story for the collection, "Trouble Is My Business" is pretty much a typical hard boiled private eye story and the one that felt most like several elements had already been incorporated in other Marlowe novels. A rich man hires Marlowe to prevent his son from marrying a designing woman and a series of violent incidents follow.

"Finger Man" is a much more intriguing story. Marlowe is the only witness against a mob boss' henchman and at the same time, an old friend asks Marlowe to help watch him as he goes to do some high stakes gambling and before you know it Marlowe finds himself framed for murder.

"Goldfish" finds Marlowe following a clue from an old policewoman in search of missing pearls and a pardoned criminal who keeps Goldfish. This is a great story that takes Marlowe out of LA for once and with some great hard boiled characters thrown in.

"Red Wind" is a Marlowe story that's been oft adapted to radio and television with both of the Golden Age Philip Marlowe radio series taking a turn at it, as well as for the 1980s Philip Marlowe TV series and the 1990s Series, "Fallen Angels." While out at a bar, Marlowe stumbles on a murder and then finds a woman who, though innocent in the crime, has nonetheless been caught up in a web of blackmail and deceit through no fault of her own. This is nearly a perfect hard boiled story. More than any other story or even novel, it highlight Marlowe as the knight in tarnished armor with his sense of honor guiding his actions through a very sketchy situation. It also is a great hardboiled story with some great characters and solid action. Given that this is only a short story, Red Wind delivers a lot.

Overall, this is a great collection of hard boiled fiction that really stands the test of time with each short story topping itself in quality.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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18Oct/140

Book Review: The Little Sister

The Little Sister shows some features of some of the best Marlowe stories, but the fifth book in this series just doesn't stand up to its predecessors.

In The Little Sister it starts simply enough when a bored Marlowe is hired by the little sister of a man who moved to LA from Manhattan, Kansas and has stopped writing.

As is usual, Marlowe plunges into a case that gets him into the midst of a shady underworld, of Hollywood, and of course puts him on the bad side of police.

The story is worth reading once and has some classic Marlowe moments. Towards the end of the book, a couple of cops who've had to put up with Marlowe playing fast and loose with murders and bodies tell Marlowe off and it's a beautiful moment when the characters come to life.

It is a rare moment in this story. In 250 pages, I lost track of how many bodies were dropped and who killed them all. So many characters come and go, we really get no impression of them. There's no character in this book I really connected with in the same way I did with characters in, "Lady in the Lake," and "The Big Sleep."

Another thing that hurts the book is the focus. In the first four novels, Marlowe's scorn is directed at big city crime, crooked Los Angeles (and nearby communities) police forces. Marlowe's bile is justified because he knows of what he speaks. In the Little Sister, he uses a combination of a dirty mind and experience with two kids from Manhattan, Kansas as the basis for all sorts of psychological deductions about what a small town is like. It feels less like Marlowe's making street wise observations on life and more like he's expressing poorly informed prejudices.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a bad book, but it doesn't measure up to Chandler's other works.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

 

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4Oct/140

Book Review: Death on a Deadline

Robert Goldsborough's 2nd Nero Wolfe novel began poorly but improved to mediocrity by the end.

Wolfe is concerned that a Scottish newspaper baron with a reputation for sensationalism will purchase the Gazette, Wolfe's long time ally and source of information. Wolfe sets out to prevent it. However, when one of the principals in the Gazette is killed and everyone else thinks its suicide, Wolfe concludes that it's actually murder and sets out to prove it.

The first third to half of the book is carnival of flummery. To start with, Goldsborough brings partisanship into the book. Notice, I send partisanship, not politics. In finding out about the misdeeds of the news tycoon, Wolfe learns from Lon Cohen that McLaren's papers have consistently endorsed Republicans and Wolfe  expresses his disapproval of endorsing Republicans and includes this as a talking point in his full page New York Times ad. (more on that in a bit.)

Politics is nothing new to Wolfe's world. Wolfe books include anti-Communism, anti-McCarthyism, concern about civil liberties, and civil rights. Even individual political figures such as J Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and Richard Nixon. However, in each of those cases, he was upset about their specific action. Wolfe never expressed loathing of an entire political party in Stout's work.

Of course, a progressive could argue that the Republican Party of Stout's age was more diverse and the modern version was more uniformly wrong by Wolfe's standards. However, this case is never made. Rather, Wolfe is presented as a partisan with unexplained animus against an entire political party. And this animus was never actually raised again and had no relevance to the plot. Indeed, had Goldsborough merely had Wolfe object to shotty journalism, the story would have lost nothing and he wouldn't have violated the Wolfe character.

Beyond partisanship, Wolfe's scheme of putting a full page ad in the New York Times was dumb. Doubtless, Goldsborough remembered the countless times Wolfe placed display ads in the paper, but never a full page ad for something that really didn't need it. The point of the full page ad was to get public attention so Wolfe could meet with people involved with the Gazette and the attempt to sell it to prevent the sale to McLaren. However, Wolfe could have run a smaller ad, or given his notoriety sent in an op-ed and saved the money. In addition, we get to read the ad and it's dull and sounds nothing like anything Stout's Wolfe would have said.

Archie is even more vapid when he bets Wolfe $10 that the Times won't publish the ad. Given that Archie has read The Times for years, this was just a stupid bet and it's unbelievable Archie would have proposed it. Like most attempts to reconstruct the Wolfe-Archie magic in this book, this one fails.

Goldsborough also has mixed success at updating Archie and Wolfe to the 1980s. On one hand, it's reasonable to imagine that Archie would want a personal computer and Wolfe not wanting to do it. Stout's Wolfe objected to buying newer cars and buying Archie a new typewriter. However, in one lazily written scene where Wolfe shows respect to a woman, Archie wished he had a VCR so he could record the moment. However, as he was not watching this on TV, he really meant he wished he had a video camera.

The mystery itself was decent but forgettable. There was no suspect, client, or interview in this story that was memorable. Wolfe performs no stunning act of showmanship. There was no big surprise twist in the investigation. It was bland and the solution we were presented strained credulity.

The best thing about this novel for the person who has read Stout's Wolfe is that it truly makes you appreciate all the little touches Stout put in that make reading his Nero Wolfe stories so memorable. One thing this book made me notice was the way that Stout chose dinner conversations. Stout's Wolfe talked about a wide variety of topics from agriculture to histories of the ancient world, to obscure scientific questions, and anthropology. I never knew what exactly Wolfe was talking about, but I felt like this was the type of thing a well-read genius would discuss. Unfortunately, Mr. Goldsborough's line of conversation for Wolfe seems far more limited with him mostly talking politics, political books, American history, and sports. Yes, Nero Wolfe discusses whether College athletes should be paid at the dinner table in this book.

While dinner conversation is prosaic, I do give Goldsborough credit for one thing: Compared to the last book, Goldsborough's Wolfe reads in a more Wolfian manner based on the titles of the books of Wolfe mentioned.

Still, I admit being eager to see Wolfe hold a confab and name a murderer when I got to that part of the book. Goldsborough's book allows you a chance to see Wolfe and Archie in action. If you can get past all the flummery and just think about better Nero Wolfe stories, you may enjoy this book more than I did.

Rating: PFui!

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20Sep/140

Book Review: The Greek Coffin Mystery

This book while not the first Ellery Queen book ever published is chronologically the earliest Queen novel. The thing to understand about Ellery Queen is that unlike Nero Wolfe, Philip Marlowe, or Father Brown, there's not a whole lot of characters or wisdom to be garnered beyond the mystery, but when the mystery is good, it carries the rest of the book.

Such is the case here. A  man dies and the latest version of his will is missing. A murder soon follows The book proceeds according to typical plan as Ellery ever the know it all detective and sets out to solve the case. This is Ellery's first case chronologically even though there'd been other Ellery Queen books. Ellery had some good guesses particularly figuring out that the new will was located in the coffin of the testator. However, then Ellery delivers a brilliant summation of who the murderer is that is irrefutable--only for him to be shown wrong. At the point, I was definitely hooked.

Of course, this is one of three false solutions in the case and not all are proffered by Ellery. This is a book that keeps your mind engaged all the way through and has a quite shocking conclusion. Overall, this is a superb puzzle mystery.

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