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4Jan/140

Book Review: Pattern of Wounds

The latest murder Houston homicide detective Roland March investigates seems awfully familiar. March believes that the killer staged the scene of a dead one in a pool based on pictures from the book on the first big murder he ever solved, the Kingwood Killings. While higher ups dismiss the idea, some people think there's a pattern to the book: that a serial killer was behind the latest killing, as well as several others, including March's signature case. Worst of all, the writer who lionized March becomes an adversary who believes that he and March blew the original case.

This book succeeded in upping the ante from the first book with March having to deal with the potential of his entire career being reduced to rubble by this new allegation. He has to struggle to find out who is friends are really. March is all too human character who makes enemies who are willing or even anxious to see him taken down a peg, and he struggles to find someone who he can rely on as an ally. March's big problem is that in the midst of a case, little niceties like gratitude are overlooked which only builds more resentment.

One of the more interesting character bits in this story was March's interaction with a New Orleans police officer who had officially gone dirty and begun to coerce confessions. It's scary for readers to realize that March is often just a step or two away from crossing the line, though March seems to think he's a little bit further away than he is. We also get some good back story on what had put him on the outs at the start of the previous book.

The mystery is better than in the previous book. No breaks seemed overly convenient, and Bertrand was very skilled with throwing suspect after suspect at the readers, leading to a realistic but explosive conclusion.

The only negatives I can find is that the inclusion of the Teresa, a major character from the first book felt pointless in this one and she didn't really do anything. Also, while the book description makes a point of describing March's marriage as troubled, there's very few hints of this in the actual story.

Still, a fascinating and engaging read for mystery fans that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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21Dec/130

Book Review: The Doorbell Rang

In The Doorbell Rang, Nero Wolfe is hired by a wealthy woman to get the FBI to stop annoying her. She apparently gained the attention of the FBI after purchasing and distributing 10,000 copies of Fred Cook’s expose of the FBI called, “The FBI Nobody Knows.”

Wolfe is reluctant to take on the case, and Archie is too. But Wolfe’s pride won’t allow him to refuse to take on a case for fear of the FBI. Wolfe’s decision leads to them coming under surveillance, and Archie learns from their nemesis Inspector Cramer that the FBI is trying to get their licenses lifted. However, Cramer resents the attempt and actually saves their licenses and tips Archie off to a murder where the FBI may be covering up.

Archie and Wolfe seek to solve convuluted murder and find how the FBI is involved.

The book is pretty solid and includes one of Wolfe’s greatest schemes and one of the most memorable moments when Wolfe refuses to speak to the unnamed but implied visitor at the door at the end of the book.

The Doorbell Rang  does drag a bit in the middle, with all of Wolfe and Archie’s efforts to dodge potential FBI surveillance of the house by not speaking or speaking in certain ways despite. The problem is that while I could understand how the FBI could tap their phones, I have no clue how they could get in the Brownstone to actually bug anything. For me, their paranoia goes quickly from being slightly humorous to somewhat tedious.

This does further the book’s propaganda ends with a clear message: Our (mostly) law abiding pals Wolfe and Archie shouldn’t have to live like they’re in a police state and neither should any other American as many did thanks to the FBI. It works as far as it goes, but I think the degree to which Stout played this hurt the narrative a bit.

Still, I give this a:

Rating: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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7Dec/130

Book Review: Stranger in Town

Brett Halliday knew how to catch a reader's attention from the get-go. The book begins with Michael Shayne stopping for a drink in a small Florida town. A beautiful young woman walks out to him and then two hoods drag him out of the bar, beat up and nearly run him down with their car.

Shayne gets thrown in jail after blowing his top in a confrontation with the local police force but hangs around town determined to find out who the woman was that fingered him and why she did it. Along the way, Shayne discovers that she was an amnesiac who stumbled into town and was supposed to have been taken back to her father in Orlando. Shayne discovers the story was a lie and to find the truth he has to untangle a web of crime and corruption.

The book buzzes along and is a fast paced story filled with plenty of suspense and great plot twists and action throughout most of it. The only flaw in the pacing is that the book does slow down about 3/4 of the way through before wrapping up strong with the last chapter and a half.

The book also gives some keen insights into social attitudes of the mid-1950s and deals with a hot topic of today. Even though Shayne is no huge moralist, he reflected the values of his time in a way that's intriguing or sad depending on your point of view.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

The copy I read plus another Michael Shayne mystery are available on request with the first donation received of $50 or more for listeners in the US or Canada.  See details here.

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16Nov/131

Book Review: The High Window

Philip Marlowe is hired to recover a lost coin for a crotchety widow. She suspects her daughter-in-law and wants Marlowe to arrange for her daughter-in-law to divorce her son.

Marlowe, of course, encounters a ton of obstacles and a mounting body count. In addition, to the official side of the business, he suspects something is really wrong with the old woman's secretary, who is being mistreated.

The case is somewhat average fare. It's by no means a bad story but it's also not The Big Sleep and it's not Farewell, My Lovely. It has its moments such as when Marlowe is justifying non-cooperation with the police on the basis of a case they mishandled through corruption, and then later he admits the story was made up and later on, says maybe it wasn't. However, the characters aren't as good and the dialogue isn't either. In addition to this, there are few less threads that are left hanging and there are a few more, we really don't care about.

On the positive side Marlowe's noble actions towards the secretary and the purity of his motives really live up to his Knight in Tarnished Armor Rep. In the end, it's a great story but not a classic.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

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2Nov/130

Book Review: The Golden Spiders

The Golden Spiders finds Wolfe and Archie in ill-temper. Archie decides to admit a neighborhood boy who comes to Wolfe because of Wolfe’s antipathy to police and the fact that he saw a woman in a car apparently in trouble. Wolfe handles the boy well and agrees to help by tracing the plate of the car.

However, the boy is murdered the next day and the case goes to another level. The boy’s mother asks Wolfe to find out why he was killed and offers her son’s savings which amounts to $4.30 to find the killer. They begin the process by placing an ad, and get a response that’s followed by another murder.

This sets Archie and the teers on an investigation that leads them to the high and low end of society and on to the trail of an extortion ring that’s the key to the whole plot.

This is really a mixed bag in terms of quality. It has more action than any other Wolfe story, including a torture scene that’s somewhat uncomfortable. To be fair about that, the bad guys started it by torturing Orrie Cather before Archie and friends turned the tables on them.

There’s also a very strong scene with Inspector Cramer that’s probably his best scene as a detective in any of the books he’s featured in. There are some good bits between Wolfe and Archie, and a pretty good final denouement.

The book’s weak point comes with Wolfe proposing a ruse for Archie that’s so transparent, it doesn’t fool anyone. It’s really pathetic and beneath the standard of fun ruses that characterize the Wolfe books.

The Golden Spiders was the basis of the pilot movie for A Nero Wolfe Mystery, and I have to say this is one case where the movie beat the book. And the biggest difference was emotional impact. The book deals with the death of a child, but it doesn't seem to impact the characters correctly. Stout could do this and often did with tragic adult deaths which Archie or Wolfe inadvertently played a role in books like in Prisoner’s Base, but just doesn't seem to deliver here. It’s worth noting that Pete Drossos is the only child to play a major role in any of the Wolfe stories, so writing children may not have been Stout’s forte.

There’s enough good stuff to keep this interesting, but overall I can only give the book a:

Rating: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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19Oct/132

Book Review: Back on Murder

For Roland March, it's pretty simple, either he's going back (to being homicide detective) or he's going out (as in completely out of the Houston PD) March made headlines seven years before when he solved a sensational murder, but the high expectations caused by the publicity of the case combined with a personal tragedy led to a decline in his work where he's on one dead end assignment after another, most regularly working a sting where police capture stupid wanted felons lured into the open with the promise of winning a free car contest.

March makes some keen observations at scene of the murder of an inner city drug dealer. March believes that the murder is tied into a nationally covered disappearance of a teenage girl. He goes against orders to look into the angle and gets yanked off the case and on to the task force looking into the disappearance, another dead end. Can March somehow parlay his hunches, uncover the secrets of a group of crooked cops, and stay alive so that the get his career and life back on track.

The book is remarkably well-written and has high quality throughout most of it. March is a fantastic character with his own set of inner demons. March's narration varies from hard boiled wry cop sarcasm to poignancy, to vivid and powerful word images that paint as clear a picture of 21st Century Houston as Raymond Chandler's Marlowe's stories did of 1940s Los Angeles. The character does change as the story goes on. He becomes more of a team player. At the beginning of the book, his focus is really on him: The quest to get back into Homicide. As his focus shifts to the case at hand, actually getting his man leads to real cooperation.

The mystery is a clever tangled web of intrigue that intersects with crooked cops, with honest efforts to help other, and an old rival of March's that won't go away. Really, everything ties together in the end and the clues are solidly laid out.

The last quarter, and the last sixth of the book in particular do suffer a bit of a slowdown with more fizzle than sizzle. Bertrand made the dubious decision to fill in a bunch of back story details towards the end of the book as we were closing in on the killers and a hurricane kills not one by two birds for our hero. These are minor issues given how good the rest of the book was.

The book is from a Christian company, but has little Christian material. March is a moral man but not a believer. The best Christians get from the book is a murder mystery that doesn't make a Christian look like a psycho. The book is a clean read as far as profanity goes and doesn't go for overly graphic

Overall, I enjoyed the book immensely and will be watching for the next book in the series.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

Note: The Kindle version of this book is available for free.

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5Oct/130

Book Review: Champagne for One

In Champagne for One, while attending a dinner party held for unwed mother at the home of a prominent socialite, Archie witnesses the death of one of the mother's attending the party, one who had been known to be carrying vile of poison. Archie had been made aware of this and was watching the girl and swore she didn't put anything in her glass, making it a murder.

Wolfe ends up hired by one of the attendees to protect him from exposure as the father of the dead woman's child by exposing the murderer first. The mystery itself actually quite satisfied. There are plenty of secrets to be uncovered and a lot of layers to make this mystery.

Socially, it's interesting because it was written on the cusp of the sexual revolution. Archie is at one point scandalized by a woman who has had two children out of wedlock and at another things a 31-year old man who expects to marry a virgin an old fogey before his time.

Overall, this a good solid story, not one of my favorites but still easily merits a rating of:

Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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22Sep/130

Book Review: Murder by Proxy (Brett Halliday)

Note: I picked up several Michael Shayne novels as a give away for our listener support campaign.  Shayne was popular in other medias including radio version starring Wally Maher and Jeff Chandler,  film version with Lloyd Nolan and Hugh Beaumont, and a television version featuring Richard Denning. I decided to give the books a whirl while flying from San Francisco to St. Louis so that I'd know of what I speak when we begin doing Michael Shayne on our program. Below is my review.

A gorgeous woman checks into a Miami hotel room and then vanishes. Her husband arrives five days later for a surprise visit and finds her missing and is outraged the hotel didn't do anything about it until now. He turns to Michael Shayne to find her.

Murder by Proxy (1962) is a short engaging book that does what its supposed to. It's been out of print for years and no one's likely to bring it back, nor unlike a Philip Marlowe book is anyone going to be told to read it. Social commentary is limited. What were left with a good solid hard boiled mystery novel that uses just the right of description to paints meaningful and evocative word pictures that powerfully tell oft the  missing "stacked" woman.

The mystery is cleverly written and is a true puzzle on both a physical and psychological level. The obvious explanation adopted by the police is that the woman simply stepped out, but she seemed to really be in love with her husband. The husband may have had some motive for killing her, but why would he step out on such a beautiful wife plus Shayne thought his concern for his wife is sincere. The puzzle and the chase are satisfying with just enough red herrings along the way.

While not a classic, this is good solid mystery mystery writing at its finest.

Note: We have a small supply of Michael Shayne novels available through our listener support page

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7Sep/130

Book Review: Prisoner’s Base

In Prisoner's Base, a missing heiress shows up at Wolfe's house asking for help while giving no details including her name. She wants Wolfe to hide her, but Wolfe isn't in to taking boarders except for an extravagant $10,000 a month fee. He has Archie throw the woman out and gives her a head start before Wolfe accepts a commission from her attorney to locate her. The heiress leaves and the next day, news of her murder hits.

Archie leaves the Brownstone takes a leave of absence and sets out to solve the case himself as he feels responsible for the woman's death. He quickly finds himself in hot water with the police. While initially remains disinterested, when Lt. Rowcliff hamhandedly drags Wolfe down to headquarters, Wolfe delivers one of his most blistering speeches and declares that he's working for Archie. With no fee in sight and plenty of suspects, Wolfe and Archie have a job on their hands.

If Over My Dead Body represents Wolfe at his most human than certainly Prisoner's Base does the same for Archie. Archie has some great moments in the story as he has to navigate a world of corporate jealousies in order to uncover the truth and bring the killer to justice. Archie deals with the death of not only the heiress, but another woman who died because he followed his advice. The story also gives keen insight into the Archie-Wolfe relationship with Wolfe at his most paternal and wise.

Add in a decent mystery plot and Prisoner's Base is a true classic and one of the best of the Wolfe series.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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25Aug/130

Book Review: Farewell, My Lovely

Raymond Chandler's  second novel begins on two seemingly unrelated tracks. A man named Moose Malloy walks into a Black establishment and kills the owner because he's looking for his girl Velma who used to sing at the place when it was a white club. Marlowe does a favor for a police detective because he doesn't have anything else to do and because it can be handy in his line of work for a police detective to owe you a favor. Then when he hits a dead end, he takes a job for a man named Marriott to help him deliver ransom money for a stolen jade necklace and Marriott ends up murdered.

Marlowe goes on a wild ride, gets beat up, knocked out a couple times, drugged all leading to the conclusion of the case. If anything, the book is more cynical than The Big Sleep with crooked cops abounding and a de facto 1940s open marriage. The attitude portrayed towards blacks in the book was sadly stereotypical and if not hostile, was at least indifferent to their plight. In addition, while the dialogue was good, I don't think it was quite as good as the The Big Sleep.

However, even with its faults, it's one of the best detective stories ever written.  If it didn't have a a clever mystery, if it didn't have Marlowe on a scary trip while drugged as a sleazy sanitarium, it would be a great book because of  its characters. They're on every page.  They had depth and nuance, even corrupt Bay City cops, a gambling magnate, a drunk widow, and of course Moose Malloy. You add all the elements together and you have a masterpiece.  Whether it's as good as the Big Sleep, we can argue about, but its a masterpiece none the less.

And of course, Philip Marlowe remains the honest man, the knight who's courage and incorruptibility  make the book work.  In this book, he doesn't do anything near as dramatic as ripping apart his bed when he rebuffed Carmen Sternwood. Here, it's more subtle. In a classic scene, Marlowe is being questioned by a police lieutenant and helps a fly out of the police office and lets it go. At the end of the book, he asks the Lieutenant about the fly and he doesn't know what he's talking about.

It subtly paints a picture of a Marlowe who doesn't quite see the world the same way his contemporaries (even good men) do as they accept corruption as just a matter of course. While Marlowe isn't a crusader, his sense of honor compels him to challenge the corruption that's in front of him.

Except for some offensive racial language, the book really stands the test of time. While Philip Marlowe books are not recommended for kids or very sensitive adult readers, for fans of hard boiled fiction, the book is a must.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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