Category: Book Review

Book Review: Morality for Beautiful Girls

In the third No. 1 Ladies Detective novel, Mma Ramotswe is planning to consoldiate the office space for her Detective agency with her fiance Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s garage. However, he’s ill and his sluggishness turns out to be depression. So quickly Mma. Ramotswe finds she has to manage the affairs of both the garage and detective agency. This is all complicated when a high-ranking government official hires her to take a case out in the country.

This third book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective series retains all the charm of the prior installments. Author Alexander McCall Smith seemlessly takes his readers to this place and captures the thoughts and feelings of a culture foreign to most of his readers.

Having Mr. Matekoni get depressed is a definite loss to the book as his presence and point of view were so great in the first two novels. However, this clears this way for Mma Makutsi to establsih herself as a main character. In the original book, she was really a side character. Smith tried to increase her role by making her Assistant Detective but the case she worked wasn’t all that compelling and the change felt forced.

Here, Smith does succeed in making Mma Makutsi a compelling character. At the start of the book, before he took ill, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni suggested getting rid of her as Mma Ramotswe’s agency wasn’t making a profit. However, she proves her worth by taking over and successfully managing the garage in Maktekoni’s absence and when Mma Ramotswe’s out of town she has to investigate a case that can bring money to the agency when a beauty pagent director hires the agency to investigate the contestants to make sure a morally strong woman wins the pageant. We also find out that Mma Makutsi has an ill brother who is staying with her and this adds to the character.

There are two mysteries in the book. Overall, they’re not bad cases as far as they go. Mma Ramotswe investigates a case of government bureaucrat who fears his brother’s wife is poisoning his brother while Mma Makutsi investigates the beauty contestants. The first case has a solid enough solution but her explanation to the government man is laden with a bit too much pop psychology. And Mma Makutsi’s looking into the beauty contestants’ character is fascinating and offers social commentary on these pagents everywhere, not just in Botswana, but in the end I thought the solution was a tad too pat.

I also thought there were some dropped threads from the previous book, but overall I enjoyed the story even if it wasn’t quite as good as the first two.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration


Raymond Chandler’s Philip MarloweA Centennial Celebration was published in 1988 on the 100th Anniversary of Chandler’s birth. The book collects more than twenty Marlowe short stories. While most of them are by newer authors, the book includes “The Pencil,” (1959) Raymond Chandler’s last completed Philip Marlowe story which (heretofore) has only been published in this collection.

To begin with, I’ll take a look at “The Pencil.” In it, a former mob figure asks Marlowe’s help in disappearing when threatened with being penciled out by mob hitmen. The story is good, astonishingly so. It was published in 1959 a year after Chandler wrote the awful Playback and it’s stunning to think the same author wrote both. The story isn’t quite the equal of, “Red Wind,” but stands up with the other Philip Marlowe stories published in Trouble is My Business.

“The Pencil” recaptures the feel of mean streets, fascinating characters, hard boiled dialogue, and a battle with the underworld that made Marlowe stories so good in the beginning. The story also brings back Anne Riordan from, Farewell, My Lovely who is a far more interesting character than Chandler’s insipid and vapid “love interests” of his 1950s novels. It even has Marlowe getting money out of the deal, so it’s a wonderful story and it’d be great if this story were added to future editions of Trouble is My Business so  a wider world of Marlowe fans could enjoy this story.

So that’s the last 30 pages of the book. What about the twenty plus stories and 339 pages that proceeded it? The writers were all admirers of Chandler and all competent as modern mystery writers. Many of them made a good try. For the most part, their stories weren’t on par with the originals but they were fairly enjoyable.

However, some stand out, both for good and ill.

  • “Saving Grace” by Joyce Harrington is one of the closest stories to Chandler stylistically. However, I  don’t like the end. It brings in the idea of sex crimes against children and a Jerry Springeresque final confrontation that leaves a bad taste.
  • “Malibu Tag Team” by Jonathan Valin captures a lot of the spirit of Farewell, My Lovely.
  • “Sad Eyed Blonde” by Dick Lochte  is a great take on Marlowe and the only pastiche that’s a sequel to a previous Chandler story. This story reintroduces characters from, “The Gold Fish” in a different sort of mystery. The end is pure hard boiled detective and is a great set-up.
  • “Dealer’s Choice” by Sara Paretsky, creator of V I Warshawski, takes a superb turn that really captures Chandler’s cadences in a tale that deals with the Japanese internment.
  • “Consultation in the Dark” by Frances Nevins, Jr. may not capture all of Chandler’s feel but it’s probably the second best story in the book behind, “The Pencil.” It’s a suspenseful tale when Marlowe is out of town, and a man comes to Marlowe asking for help. Marlowe’s reluctant but the man’s got a bomb tied to his chest.
  • “In the Jungle of the Cities,” by Roger Simon is a dull tale that rejects private eye tales to talk about the House Un-American Activities Committee. This was written back when Simon was on the left, and he’s since moved right. Whether he’d write something more interesting and less political now that his politics have changed or write something that’s as dull only with a right wing slant is an interesting question, and indeed far more interesting than this story.
  • “Star Bright” by John Lutz sees Marlowe involved in a search for and protection of a potential Hollywood starlet. It’s a compelling story that captures the essence of the character, and post-war Hollywood is a superb location for a Marlowe story.
  • “Locker 246” by Robert Randisi is an interesting tale where Marlowe is manipulated into a trip to New York. Marlowe’s sense of honor is reliable, in fact it’s predictable which works to someone’s advantage in a tale of Marlowe’s brief but action-packed trip to the Big Apple.
  • “Bitter Lemons” by Stuart Kaminsky creates a great Chandleresque character in Warren Hluska, a man who swore he’d never win a beauty contest but he actually did.
  • “The Man Who Knew Dick Bong” by Robert Crais is one of those stories that left me with mixed feelings. It works fine as a private eye tale, just not as a Marlowe tale. It’s also the story in the book that uses the most swearing. To be fair, Chandler did include a dash of swearing in the rich, sweet language of his novels. Emphasis on “a dash.” Crais uses more in his twenty-two page short story than Chandler used in some novels and generally more severe. Given how creative Chandler was with language, Crais’s story was jarring for its repetitiveness. Still, the plot was interesting.
  • “In the Line of Duty” by Jeremiah Healey is a story where I don’t think the author quite gets Marlowe’s sense of justice. Marlowe might go against established rules, but there’s always a reason. This story doesn’t capture how Marlowe thinks.
  • “The Alibi” by Ed Gorman captures the tone of Marlowe from The Long Goodbye. The dour, world-weary shamus gets a request for help from one of his few friends on the force. Anyone expecting a happy ending hasn’t been paying attention.
  • “Asia” finds Marlowe at a personal low in his life in 1958. However, an Asian woman gives him a chance to be a hero again. This is a great look at the Knight in Tarnished Armor. The actual case Marlowe gets into isn’t solved this story. In fact, it barely begins, but it’s a great character journey.

Each story is prefaced by a stylistic illustration and many of them are quite evocative of the era.

While this book is out of print, it is available cheaply (1 cent plus shipping on Amazon at the time of this writing.) That makes it a no-brainer for any fan of Marlowe or hard boiled detectives in general to pick up. “The Pencil” is a superb Chandler story and at least some of the rest of the stories in the book should catch the reader’s eye.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon is rightly considered one of the landmark books in detective fiction. The tale was also immortalized on the screen in one of the greatest films of all time.

The book works so well because of its characters. Joel Cairo, Wilmer, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy are incredibly rich and fascinating characters who would be copied and recreated by lesser writers. Spade himself is perhaps the most fascinating character of them all.

As a person, he has many detestable qualities. At times, he’s coldly sociopathic, he uses people, and his own moral code is far more questionable than Philip Marlowe’s is. Yet, this allows the reader to wonder where exactly Spade stands. That question is probably the most intriguing mystery in the book.

The language of the book is fascinating. Hammett uses so many rich, active words. For example, Spade doesn’t light a cigarette. He ignites it or he sets it on fire.

Probably one of the big differences (although relatively minor) between the movie and the novel is the movie doesn’t include Guttman’s daughter. It’s understandable why the film didn’t include her as there would have been issues with the production code and it also would have overcrowded the film. However, she does serve two purposes in the book. We do get a clearer picture of Spade’s humane side, as well as an idea of how ruthless Guttman could be.

The book does deal with some adult themes, but in a tasteful way, as was required by the times.

Overall, the book is a classic and worth reading as an example of great writing and characterization, even if you don’t care for the type of protagonist Spade represents or the type of protagonists that the book has inspired.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Case of the Courteous Killer

In 1958, Dragnet had been with America for nearly a decade, with 318 Radio performances coupled with more than 200 TV episodes, and a movie. It’s in this atmosphere that Richard Deming wrote his tie-in Dragnet novel, the Case of the Courteous Killer.

It begins with an unassuming man holding up couples in lover’s lane, eventually killing a man who thought the unassuming robber would be easy to handle in the first of a series of murders. Joe Friday and Frank Smith are called in to locate and apprehend the suspect.

Adapting television shows to novels is tricky business, but the late Mr. Deming does a superb job capturing the spirit of the 1950s TV show while producing a story that was more gripping and involved than half hour television would allow.

Deming nails the voices of Joe Friday and Frank Smith. Friday was particularly important as the story is told in typical Dragnet first person. There were a couple moments I didn’t quite buy, though. For example, I found the idea Joe Friday watched the Boston Blackie TV show to be a little unbelievable. There are also funny moments with Frank Smith providing comic relief as he talks about his brother-in-law and various goings on. Truly, I could imagine this on TV as I read it.

The mystery was far beyond typical Dragnet cases, which were resolved in half an hour, but it was in that same matter of fact style. There are many twists as this criminal changes methods, the police stumble upon an almost unbelievable coincidence that’s too strange for Dragnet’s genre, and the courteous killer twice attempts to exact some not-so-courteous revenge on Joe Friday.

The story lost a bit of momentum and dragged in the last little bit with some repetitive moments before finishing up strong at the end.

Still, if you love 1950s Dragnet, or are a fan of clean early police procedural, this is a really good and engaging read.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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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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