Category: Book Review

Book Review: The Rivers Run Dry


FBI Agent Raleigh Harmon has been re-assigned to the bureau’s Seattle office as punishment for almost getting herself killed while not following orders on the case she solved in Stones Cry Out.

She finds herself a constant target for work no one else wants, including performing the unpleasant task of informing the well-connected family of a missing woman that the FBI can do nothing about the disappearance of her daughter and that the case belongs in the hands of local police until it’s clear a kidnapping has occurred. As new evidence emerges, Raleigh begins an investigation to find the missing young woman and rescue her from the hands of a dangerous kidnapper.

After a strong story, in Stones Cry Out, Sibell Giorello’s second Raleigh Harmon book is if anything, stronger than the first. Sibella is effective at capturing the quirkiness of Seattle and the beauty of Eastern Washington in this story, as she was at conjuring up the rich history and atmosphere of Richmond.

The characters are well-written and believable. Raleigh’s personal life takes a turn as her mother follows her to Seattle, with Raleigh still trying to hide the fact she works for the FBI from her mom. Both move in with Raleigh’s new agey Aunt Charlotte who tries to help Raleigh keep her secret while creating complications like trying to enlist a psychic to help Raleigh with her case.

The mystery is solidly structured, with a realistic procedural feel to most of the story. Raleigh’s background in geology and soil analysis is used frequently without becoming dry. There’s a good suspense throughout and a lot of different suspects as well as a few red herrings. If I had any complaint, it was about how the identity of the kidnapper was uncovered as it’s a bit weak as Raleigh does not get to catch him.

Still, I enjoyed this second book and will definitely read the third.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Book Review: Except the Dying

Except the Dying is the first of Maureen Jennings’ novels featuring Detectives William Murdoch, a Victorian-era Toronto police detective. Three of Jennings’ novels would be adapted as made-for-TV movies and a TV series would be filmed based on characters from the book.

Except the Dying is quite different from the popular TV series. It’s a straightforward procedural mystery without the bells, whistles, and flaws that define the TV series such as guest appearances from historical personages, new (to the Victoria era) investigative techniques and gadgets being deployed to solve cases and characters with cultural attitudes that no one living at that time had.

Acting Detective William Murdoch is called to investigate the case of a woman found dead and stripped nude. The post-mortem examination reveals she was pregnant and died of exposure after taking a large amount of opium. Murdoch has to discover who killed her and why.

This is is a well-crafted procedural mystery. Murdoch is given lots of suspects and a few red herrings to sift through. Jennings does a great job capturing a sense of life in Toronto in the late Nineteenth Century. It captures all the religious and economic complexities that Toronto had to offer. The story has a grounded and realistic feel to it.

As a character, Murdoch is written in a three dimensional way. He’s intelligent, a Catholic, and learning to dance in hopes of getting an opportunity to meet women again after the recent death of his fiancée. He’s a good cop, but he’s no genius. The rest of the characters are not deep, but they do feel authentic and believable for the era.

Readers looking for a cozy mystery should not expect this book to have a family-friendly feeling. Crimes and vice are described realistically with some violent scenes and harsh words and the case leads Murdoch into contact with ladies of the night. However, while the book is realistic, it’s neither gory or salacious.

Overall, Except the Dying is a solid first novel, a good procedural, and a fine introduction to Jennings’ famous detective.

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Book Review: Three for the Chair

This review was originally published August 27, 2011.

While shopping in the thrift store, I found a 1968 Bantam Paperback copy of Three for the Chair, a 1957 compilation of three Nero Wolfe novellas. While the book was not my planned next Nero Wolfe read, I decided to grab it cheap and enjoy the book.

Each story in this book will be reviewed in its own right.

A Window for Death

A man left his family under a cloud of suspicion and then made a fortune in mining. He returns home and apparently dies of natural causes. Members of the family aren’t so sure, and are suspicious of the man’s partner who inherited the entire mining interest. Wolfe is hired to determine whether there is enough to call the police in.

This story is very workmanlike. There’s little action. The majority of the story involves Wolfe questioning witnesses in the Brownstone and the rest involves Archie doing so outside. No added deaths occur and there are no real plot twists. Inspector Cramer does not appear in the story. A Window for Death ends with Wolfe composing a note to him. Still, the actual solution is pretty clever.

Rating: Satisfactory

Immune to Murder

At the request of an Assistant Secretary of State, Wolfe leaves the comfort of the Brownstone for a rustic fishing resort to help with sensitive oil negotiations by cooking fish for the ambassador who had specifically requested Wolfe. Wolfe hates the locale and plans to leave after lunch. Wolfe’s plans are upset when Archie discovers the Assistant Secretary of State lying dead in stream.

The potential suspects include members of a diplomatic delegation who are immune to prosecution and two rich oil magnates. The District Attorney suggests absurdly that Archie was there as a hired assassin. The truth doesn’t come out until the murderer does something that insults Wolfe’s vanity.

This story was adapted for television on a Nero Wolfe Mystery as the last episode and was panned by fans. In my opinion, there was nothing wrong with either the episode or the story. It was, however unfortunate to make this the last episode. We had none of the familiar supporting characters that fans loved, plus in the context of a final episode, the solution was unsatisfying. However, in the context of a Nero Wolfe reading binge, the story represents a nice change of pace.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Too Many Detectives

Thanks to Archie’s interest in learning about wiretapping, Wolfe agrees to help a man tap his own phone. Later, Wolfe learns he was duped and the man who hired him didn’t own the phone being tapped.

Wolfe’s embarrassment is deepened when he’s summoned to Albany and forced to endure a long car ride to discuss the matter. Wolfe and Archie find several other detectives waiting.

When it’s their turn to testify, they learn the man who fooled them claimed they knew the wiretap was illegal. When it was time for the phony client to testify, he’s found dead, and Wolfe and Archie are arrested as material witnesses.

While Archie and Wolfe are released on bail, they can’t leave the jurisdiction, a situation Wolfe can’t tolerate. The only way out is for Wolfe to find the killer.

Wolfe compares notes with the other detectives and finds all but one of them was taken in by the same scheme as Wolfe. Wolfe then gets all six detectives to share every available operative back in New York City to solve the case, leading to a surprising and satisfying solution.

This story is notable for featuring Dol Bonner. Ms. Bonner had appeared in her own novel in 1937 and also appeared in a Tecumseh Fox novel. She and Wolfe got along well which had Archie nervous. He figured Bonner was that rare woman Wolfe could actually fall for. Archie even imagines a situation where Archie, Wolfe, Bonner, and Bonner’s assistant Sally Colt are all in the Brownstone solving cases together. Thus, even great authors have intriguing ideas occur to them which, if tried, would wreck their franchise.

As an aside, the story makes me curious to read Stout’s Dol Bonner novel.

As for Too Many Detectives, it was truly a good use of an hour and deserving of a:

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Overall rating for the Collection: Very Satisfactory

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Book Review: Tracer of Lost Persons

So lost, I'm fading

photo credit: Greyframe So lost, I’m fading viaphotopin (license)

Tracer of Lost Persons by Robert W. Chambers is a 1906 book that was oft-sighted in the show’s introduction as a bit of a masterwork of detective fiction in the introduction to the 1937-55 radio series Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons and as a basis for the series.

The book does provide some basic foundation for the character in the radio series. Its hero is Mister Keen and he does run a bureau that finds lost persons. The character exudes the type of warmth and kindness that defined Mister Keen in his early years.

However, there are many differences. Unlike in the radio series, Mister Keen does have a first name in the book(Westrel.) Mister Keen does charge fees in the book, although those are occasionally foregone. Like his radio counterpart, he has become quite wealthy through his efforts.

The cases Mister Keen takes in books are different. According to Jim Cox’s book on Mister Keen, the radio version of Mister Keen began by taking on cases of legitimately lost persons from his earliest days before moving on to investigating cold-blooded killings in his later years. While there are indications Mr. Keen does take more typical missing person cases, all of the cases in this book involve helping his clients finding love.

The book is a braided novel, telling connected stories about Mister Keen’s investigations. Truth be told, at least two of these cases don’t involve a search for an actual missing person, but rather a male client presents his ideal woman and expects Mister Keen to find her. In the first story, the client does so without telling Mister Keen what he’s doing and in the final story, the client does so explicitly.

Keen is resourceful and a retired Egyptologist (because it was convenient for the plot) who cracks ciphers when he gets into actual mysteries.

The plots are light and occasionally take turns for the absurd. For example, one story ends with a body that’s been in suspended animation for thousands of years being revived so she can be Keen’s client’s wife. In another story, a female doctor dedicates her life to the study of a disease where only one person has been diagnosed with it, which turns into a plot point because the disease is actually a hoax.

Yet, this is some forgivable as Tracer of Lost Persons doesn’t take itself all that seriously. It’s a light and fluffy read featuring a kindly investigator with the romantic soul who plays Cupid. It’s the type of book you want to read if you’re in a mood to not think much. It’s an interesting curiosity that features a few fun moments and provides a little insight into the origin of one of radio’s longest-running characters.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Tracer of Lost Persons is in the public domain and can be read for free at Project Gutenberg.

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Audiobook Review: Brand of the Black Bat


Introduced at the same time as Batman, the Black Bat was a pulp fiction vigilante appearing in sixty-five short novels between 1939-1955.

Brand of the Black Bat provides the character’s origin. DA Tony Quinn’s eyes are splashed with acid leading to disfigurement and blindness. However, a mysterious woman helps him get an operation that restores his sight. He sets out to punish evildoers and fight crime outside the law as the Black Bat.

The Black Bat in his first appearance is given a pretty solid origin story which was unusual for the time. We get to see the events that changed his life, how he met his associates, and his first case as the Black Bat. As a pulp crime story, Brand of the Black Bat is fairly good. It’s no Maltese Falcon, but it has some good villains, a decent mystery, and a satisfying conclusion.

The story does feature a lot of oddities and eccentricities that reflect the silly publishing practices of the time. There’s the case of Silky, a burglar who breaks into Quinn’s house on the night before he’s blinded. It’s the same night another person is breaking into Quinn’s house to kill him. Silky wakes Quinn which allows Quinn to thwart the killer. In turn, Quinn makes Silky his valet and has him following into court the next day.  Silky immediately becomes his loyal servant and lifetime confidante. Quinn keeps pretending to be blind. To avoid suspicion of not being blind, he constantly finds new ways to appear klutzy and totally helpless. In real life, most people who’ve been blind a long time don’t have such foibles. And then there’s the over the top dialogue.

The audiobook is read by Michael McConnohie, who also reads the Doc Savage audiobooks. His powerful, resonant voice makes this book a delight to listen to. The exciting and epic moments of the book sound even better with McConnohie’s powerful reading voice. For the same reason, those parts that are unintentionally funny are even funnier.

If you like pulp fiction, the Brand of the Black Bat is worth a read or a listen. It gives a good, detailed origin story for its protagonist and supporting characters. It’s the type of story that can be seen as a potential inspiration for modern heroes like Marvel’s Daredevil. Despite its flaws and the parts that haven’t aged well, it’s well worth checking out.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

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