Category: Book Review

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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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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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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