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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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6Sep/140

Book Review: Murder in E Minor

After the death of Nero Wolfe creator Rex Stout, Robert Goldsborough took up the task of continuing on the Nero Wolfe series with the blessing of Stout's estate.

It's two years after the cataclysmic events of A Family Affair and Nero Wolfe, the world's greatest private detective is no longer practicing. However, when the niece of a man who once saved his life in Montenegro turns to Wolfe because her uncle is being threatened, Wolfe goes into action, but too late as quickly the uncle is killed.

The book is most enjoyable if read for its own merits rather than hoping it to continue the Stout legacy. Goldsborough tries a number of things that are ultimately unsuccessful which were hallmarks of the Stout books. First, is Wolfe himself who is re-reading Jane Eyre in an early chapter and discusses why third parties don't succeed in Presidential elections at the dinner table. Wolfe's interests both literary and conversational were far more erudite with Stout writing. The third party thing is kind of dumb and obvious. There's a visit from Kramer where he has a sincere heart-to-heart with Archie pleading for him and Wolfe to get off the case. That the Police would try and pressure Wolfe off at this point was incredible, and the heart-to-heart thing had been tried in the last Wolfe book by Stout. Perhaps the most egregious thing to happen was when Archie went to get a taxi, pick up a cashier's check, and arrange a simple visit from some suspects and got a "very satisfactory" from Wolfe. First of all, Archie made a big deal of it when this was merely his job and he should be ashamed for making a big dea of it. Secondly, Wolfe only handed out "very satisfactories" when Archie did something truly remarkable, not just doing something any low level employee could manage.

However, Goldsborough did a fair number of things right. The book's plot offers a few teases of Wolfe's past in Montenegro and that itself is sure to tantalize fans. And the appearance of a mysterious woman from the past who Wolfe was glad to see also added to it. When the solution became obvious, Goldsborough worked out the denoument pretty well and it felt almost Stoutian except for Wolfe explaining everyone's motives which seemed more Poirotish.

And of course, the mystery was clever, as clever if not more so. than the average Wolfe story under Stout, and Goldsborough does a great job with characters like Lily Rowan. Overall, this is a solid first novel. Of course, having a first time novelist take over this series was a dubious call at best and what can make it a frustrating read is the author does seem unsure of himself, leading to some scenes that are awkward.

Still overall, I'll rate it "Satisfactory."

 

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23Aug/140

Audio Review: BBC Crimes: The Saint Overboard & The Saint Plays with Fire

In late Summer 1995, the BBC brough the Saint back to radio in a series of three radio plays starring Paul Rhys as Simon Templar: The Saint.

The first two of these plays are collected in a single audio release, “The Saint Overboard” and “The Saint Plays With Fire.”

“The Saint Overboard” has the Saint teaming up with a female insurance investigator who is trying to catch the culprit behind the looting of sunken vessels. She has a suspect but has to find out where he’s hidden the loot.

“The Saint Plays with Fire” on the surface level is about an arson and murder investigation but it has strong political overtones in a story that was originally written right before the outbreak of World War II.

Of the two, “The Saint Overboard” is the weaker story. It’s not a bad tale, but it does drag a bit in the middle and some of the side characters were a little tedious. The Saint also plays much more of an anti-hero in the story.

“The Saint Plays With a Fire” is a much more solid play. It’s a good mystery and the pre-war setting is pretty intriguing.

Overall, Paul Rhys is decent as the Saint. He’s definitely not going to make anyone forget George Sanders, Roger Moore, or Vincent Price, but he does a good job. He’s certainly not Val Kilmer and he’s a cut above Hugh Sinclair who replaced Sanders as the on-screen Saint in the 1940s.

The rest of the cast turns in exactly the type of solid performance you’d expect from the BBC. While it’s not a must-hear for fans of Leslie Charteris’ most famous creation, it’s still a well-done adaptation.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

This production is available from audible.com.

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16Aug/140

Book Review: Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories

This book collects all the short stories starring Agatha Christie’s famous elderly spinster detective Miss Marple.

The most important thing to know about them is that in three out of four short stories, nothing is really at stake. There is no murderer to be caught or punished because the murderer has already been caught and punished. In the majority of the stories, Miss Marple is sitting around in a group of friends who are telling each other about murder cases they’ve encountered for which they know the solution and are challenging their friends to solve it.

The format of these stories hearkens back to the armchair detectives of the 1910s and 1920s such as Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner. While the stories don’t have much suspense, the puzzles are interesting and Christie gives Miss Marple’s friends enough characterization to keep them interesting while also working a nice dose of charm and humor into the discussion of the case.

In many of the early armchair stories, Miss Marple is somewhat reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown in his earliest stories. She sits back and leaves most of the conversation to the younger people only to contribute the actual solution at the end. In many ways, she seems like anyone'stereotypical grandmother or elderly aunt, though perhaps more honest as Miss Marple not only admits to gossiping but defends the practice. However, she has an amazing mind that has taken in all she has experienced while living in a small village and used it as a frame of reference for understanding human behavior, including the criminal crime.

Of course, there are some stories that deviate from the armchair format and and are more traditional detective stories. I enjoyed these more. My favorite was, “The Case of the Perfect Maid” which has Miss Marple investigating a case of a maid whose career is in trouble after leaving the employee of two strange sisters under a cloud of suspicion. I also found “Sanctuary,” which has Miss Marple assisting in the investigation of man who died in a church to be very enjoyable.

Overall, while I’m not a huge fan of pure puzzle mysteries, I found myself thoroughly entertained by this volume. It’s a testament to the genius of Agatha Christie that these stories are so entertaining. Also for 20 Miss Marple short stories, the book is very economically priced either in paperback or as an ebook.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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19Jul/140

Graphic Novel Review: Johnny Dollar


Yours Truly Johnny Dollar was a radio series than ran from 1949-62 with a total of six actors playing the role of the man with the action packed expense account. This short graphic novel succeeds in bringing Johnny Dollar to a visual medium. The story is set in 1957 (based on a gravestone seen in the story.) Artist Eric Thierault doesn't, however, draw Dollar as Bob Bailey (the best beloved of the Dollar actors who played the role from 1955-60) but rather in a way that  most would imagine Johnny Dollar looking based on the series.

The story itself features Johnny investigating a troubled production of Macbeth that his company has insured. The only somewhat odd thing about the story is Johnny pretending to be a potential investor rather than an investigator, which was not a usual tactic for Johnny Dollar in that era, though certainly it wasn't unprecedented for Johnny Dollar to go undercover.

What makes the "Brief Candle Matter" work for me is that it plays out like a radio episode. The dialogue, plot, and solution to the crime could very well have been told on the radio show. The black and white artwork gives it a 1950s feel. The story made me think of what a Johnny Dollar television show would have been like.

Compared to radio programs of this era, this stands up as an above average story. It doesn't hit the dramatic high notes of the best Dollar stories like "the Rasmussen Matter" or many of the great five parters, "the Brief Candle Matter" is definitely an accessible and engaging read for people who may never have even listened to the radio show. While its out of print, this is definitely worthy buying used when it's available on Amazon or checking ebay and online comic shops for.

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12Jul/140

Book Review: Nothing to Hide


Nothing to Hide begins with Roland March investigating a murder where the victim was beheaded and skinned. An FBI Agent gives him the name of the victim but then he sees the supposed victim at the same spot where his partner is gunned down, Marsh knows he's on to something bigger.

On Administrative leave while the police investigates his shooting of the man who killed his partner, March continues a quiet investigation into a dark world of ex-CIA men, and drug and gun running, where no one is quite what they seem and no one can be trusted.

The book is a major departure from previous books with its emphasis on clandestine intelligence and Mexican gun running, it reads more like a spy novel at points rather than a police procedural.

Unlike in previous books where Marsh's personal life with supporting characters is a subplot, here it feels more like background or characterization. The book spends less time on his current relationships and more time on his past when he was a Marine lieutenant who encountered a mysterious man who offered him an entirely different path.

From a character standpoint, this is a fascinating story. The flashbacks tie into the main storyline. It also gives us a picture of who Roland March is and why he does what he does. This is an important question. March's beloved Captain is forced out by politics and replaced by his old boss, a woman whose leadership style is to make a cult of personality around her. His administrative leave is drug out by the Internal Affairs division despite evidence that he did nothing wrong. I found myself wandering whether March would ride off into the sunset to spend more time with his oft-traveling wife.

By the end of the book, I realized that wasn't going to happen and this book revealed why. Nothing to Hide paints a portrait of a man whose dedication to justice sometimes borders on fanaticism. He walks a fine line between tenacity and vigilante madness. Arguably he goes slightly over the line in this book before coming back.

March is the type of guy that George Orwell had mind when he said, "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." Nothing to Hide is a book that left me admiring Roland March and slightly scared for him at the same time.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

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14Jun/140

Book Review: Family Affair

This is the very last Wolfe novel written by Rex Stout. The book begins with a literal bang as a favorite waiter of Wolfe's comes seeking Wolfe's advice in the middle of the night. Archie puts him up in the South Room for safety, only for the man to be blown up by a bomb that rocks Archie and Wolfe's world.

This case is personal for Wolfe who is determined to catch the killer himself. It's an unprecedented case where we get a whiff of Watergate, Wolfe turns down a one hundred thousand dollar fee, and ends up going to jail all leading up to a conclusion that was shocking at the time and still is if you don't search the Internet too much before reading.

Written while Stout was 85, the book was clearly intended to bring the series to an end. I lost count of the number of times Archie said something happened for the first time. In one scene, Archie gives one person a thousand to one odds on something and he ends up being wrong. Cramer shows a softer side even while Wolfe abandons all pretense of anything but perfunctory cooperation with the police.

This is a book that you should ideally read at the end of the other Stout books, or at least after reading a couple dozen. You can't appreciate how deeply ingrained the rules that get broken in this book are unless you understand the world these characters inhabit.

Family Affair doesn't give us new insights into Wolfe's past but it does tell us a lot about what matters most to him and his closest associates: honor. There is an honor in being the greatest detective in the world and someone people can turn to, and there's honor in working for him and woe to the person who puts that at risk.

The book is a perfect finale and it leaves me a little bit hesitant to pick up Robert Goldsborough's Wolfe novels, because I can't imagine anything doing a good enough job to follow up this story.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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31May/140

Book Review: The Saint v. Scotland Yard

The Saint, a character who remained popular for decades and has been portrayed by everyone from George Sanders and Vincent Price to Roger Moore and Val Kilmer, got his start in literature.

The Saint v. Scotland Yard  is a book published in 1932 and it collects three novellas, each featuring the Saint working outside or even against Scotland Yard, near the start of the character’s literary career . . “The Inland Revenue” sees Simon trying to shut down a blackmailer. “The Million Pound Day” pits the Saint against a ruthless gang of kidnappers who have a plan to force the printing of a million pounds in fake Italian currency. The final story, “The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal” finds the Saint trying to steal a jewel thief’s loot before the thief's caught by Scotland Yard.

Overall, the stories are decent for the period. They’re much more adventures than they are mysteries. The cases are well-written and fun to read.

Those who know the Saint from golden age mediums like radio or the Sanders movies may not recognize much about this early version. While the Saint’s billed as the “Robin Hood” of modern crime, the Saint robs from the rich but seems more self-centered. Of course, as this was the 1930s, many people resented the rich and believed the police were corrupt or incompetent, so there was some catharsis in his antics for the common man of the day.

The brilliance of Charteris is that despite the Saint’s less than sterling conduct, he makes it really hard not to like him. The Robin Hood analogy seems inapt. The Saint in this book is really reminiscent of a romantic pirate. The Saint is a swashbuckler who laughs in the face of danger and death, and writes poetry in perilous situations. He and his girlfriend Pat are pure adrenaline junkies who get their kicks out of exposing themselves to danger which is kind of fun for people who live more tame lives.

While the Saint is no paragon in this book, he doesn’t hurt innocent people. Indeed, the book works because whoever the Saint crosses, we have a sense that they somehow deserve it.

The only other negative to this book are some unfortunate racial language which may make the book less accessible to some readers. Overall though, this was a decent early Saint novella collection.

Book Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

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