Category: Book Review

Book Review: Black Orchids

Note: This week, with a lot on my plate in terms and upcoming releases, we revisit a book review from 2012. 

Nero Wolfe had twice as many novels published as Sherlock Holmes before he ever broke into short fiction. However, author Rex Stout would create some of his most memorable stories in the Wolfe novellas. The first two of these are collected in Black Orchids. 

Black Orchids

The titular story for the collection was originally published as “Death Wears an Orchid.” Archie has found himself assigned to flower show duty to watch a new black orchid bred by Lewis Hewitt to see whether it wilts or not. Wolfe finally makes a trip down in person to see it. But then fate takes a hand. Archie picks up a stick, setting in motion a Rube Goldberg style murder, which is the least practical part of the story.

The stick that served as the trigger belonged to Hewitt. Wolfe offers to solve the case and protect Hewitt in exchange for all three of the black orchid plants, insisting on them in advance.

To hold on to his plants, Wolfe has to not only sift through blackmail and jealousies of orchid growers, but he has to endure not one, but two women living under his roof, all while keeping his client’s name out of the press. Wolfe has a clever and somewhat shocking way of doing this that makes for a great twist ending.

Rating: Satisfactory

Cordially Invited to Meet Death

New York’s Premier party planner, Beth Huddleston, engages Wolfe to stop malicious letters that are threatening to ruin her business.  Wolfe has her entire household under suspicion and sends Archie out to investigate. Archie finds a virtual madhouse with a chimp that blocks his way unless he plays tag with him as well as bears roaming around. Their investigation is cut short when Huddleston dies of a tetanus infection with Wolfe only having learned one key thing: the secret to preparing great corn beef hash.

However, Huddleston’s brother is convinced she was murdered. Archie finds proof that the death was no accident, however Wolfe has little reason to be investigate as he has no client. But when Cramer insults Wolfe by taking a dinner guest downtown for questioning, Wolfe resolves to solve the case and he plans to rub Cramer’s face in it.

Within the story, Archie offers a mystery as to why Wolfe sent some of the rare black orchids to Huddleston’s funeral. The question is left open though Archie offers readers their choice of potential theories. Archie confesses there may even have been some past association between Wolfe and Beth Huddleston, but that much of Wolfe’s past remains a mystery to him.  And the puzzle of the black orchids only adds to Wolfe’s mystery.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Collection Rating: Very Satisfactory

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Book Review: Doc Savage: The Wristling Wraith

In The Whistling Wraith, a visiting king disappears en route from Blair House to the White House and Doc Savage is called in to investigate in broad daylight with cameras watching. Doc Savage is sent to Washington to investigate and things only get more mysterious as there’s a mysterious woman, kidnapping, a plot involving currency, and most mysteriously the appearance of the whistling specter of a long-dead king.

For those  not familiar with Doc Savage,  the”Man of Bronze” is a pulp hero created by Lester Dent in 1933. He was raised by a group of scientists and experts in various disciplines to the peak of human mental and physical perfection.  He’s extremely wealthy and famous with a wide variety of adventures. He was created in 1933, so he pre-dated the superhero genre. To put him in a modern context, it’d be fair to say Doc was part Batman, part Sherlock Holmes, and part Indiana Jones. He’s surrounded himself with assistants, accomplished  men in their own fields, all with their own eccentricities such as the “homely chemist” Monk Mayfair and the “dapper lawyer” Ham Brooks.

This book was written by Will Murray in the 1993 based on an idea by Lester Dent and is one of the best Doc Savage stories I’ve encountered. This book does several things right.

First, it has an interesting way of treating Savage’s assistants. Usually novels either limit Savage to two or three of his five assistants or include all five but have them keep getting lost. This book took a different tact with the assistants split into two groups for most of the book, with two in one and three in another. As they rarely shared the same scene, everyone got a chance to shine.

Second, this novel gave Savage some challenges he usually doesn’t have. Savage is wealthy, brilliant,  physically near superhuman, and holds an honorary rank of Police Inspector in London and in New York as well as an honorary Federal Agent and can obtain the cooperation of any civilized police department on Earth, a favor Doc usually returns by telling the police nothing about his investigations.

However in The Whistling Wraith, Doc and friends find the NYPD has revoked Doc’s honorary commission. When the police are called by Doc’s foes (who have conveniently planted a body on the premises), Inspector “Push ’em Down” Samson of the NYPD shows up trying to collect, its up to Doc to put him off until he can solve the case. While in other stories, having a police foil is clichéd. Here it provides Doc some needed tension and it’s a nice change of pace.

Also, Doc and his assistants have to dodge the press and public, who are far more aware of him than he’d like after a story appeared in a true crime magazine. Their being hounded by photographers and autograph seekers on the street is an interesting element and something you’d expect given how these characters are and it was brilliant of Murray to put that in.

Third, this is a really complicated mystery that borders on being convoluted, but I don’t think crosses that line. At first glance, it appears to be a simple mystery disappearance with a bit of a ghost mystery thrown in. However, the Whistling Wraith is a story of not just strange disappearances and murders but currency manipulation, political intrigue, and science fiction shenanigans. I guessed part of the solution before the end, but there was a lot I didn’t know and the reveal was really good.

As to negatives, two things stand out. First is the portrayal of political stuff in Congress. It was completely unrealistic as described, even for the 1930s era the story was set in.  While this story was in the style of pulps, it wouldn’t have hurt the story to tell the political stuff realistically rather than making processes up.  As it was, the unbelievable political scenes took me out of the story.

I also have to admit I didn’t like Doc’s treatment of Patricia “Pat” Savage in this story. Pat is Doc’s only living relative and wants to take part in his adventures. Sometimes he lets her, often he insists she stays out of it and she persists anyway. In this story, his efforts to keep her out are  rude, abrupt, and way too pushy, even as she shows herself more competent than ever, rescuing three of Doc’s men after overcoming a kidnapper. I felt sorry for Pat and infuriated with Doc for the way he kept treating her.

Still, despite these flaws, this is a solid pulp story. Yeah, it has the normal flaws you associate with a Doc Savage novel (and accept if you’re a fan of the Man of Bronze), but it’s also got a great plot and some really fascinating turns.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Black Eyed Blonde

In Black-Eyed Blonde, mystery writer John Banville writing under the pen name of Benjamin Black takes on the task of writing a new Philip Marlowe novel more than a half century after the passing of Marlowe’s legendary creator Raymond Chandler.

The plot is a well-done but typical hard-boiled story line. A strikingly beautiful woman walks into Marlowe’s office and hires him to find her boyfriend.  Marlowe finds out the boyfriend was killed, but the woman claims to have seen him in San Francisco after that.

Banville doesn’t come close to matching Chandler’s powerful prose and snappy dialogue. In many ways, while this Marlowe isn’t a pushover, he’s far more polite and measured than Chandler’s Marlowe ever was, certainly far softer than he was in The Long Goodbye which this book is set after. To be fair, I don’t think that’s entirely a bad point, given Marlowe was almost over the top in that.

However, what Banville does get right are the Chandleresque characters, these sort of quirky and engaging side characters that hold not only Marlowe’s attention but ours. The plot is a  solid and engaging piece of classic hard-boiled detective fiction until the last couple chapters,  which isn’t common in pastiches. I’ve read some of Robert Goldsborough’s Nero Wolfe novels and spent most of the books unable to get into the unsubstantial plots and have stewed over how unlike Nero Wolfe the story is.  In Black-Eyed Blonde, there were a couple minutes where I thought, “This isn’t really Philip Marlowe but whatever it is, it’s very good.”

However, the ending was a bit of a letdown. Without going into details, the book becomes, in many ways, a sequel to The Long Goodbye.  There’s no need for a sequel to The Long  Goodbye, and the ending of this book doesn’t add luster to that classic tale.  Too often pastiche writers assume we want sequels and follow ups to previous stories. With Marlowe, what I want are new standalone mysteries that measure up to what’s come before.  Unlike Nero Wolfe, Marlowe was never a character whose existence depended on a regular cast or continuity.  And to be fair, this element  only looms in the end of the book. Still, I would have preferred a conclusion that made the book standalone rather than on the shoulder’s of a predecessor.

Overall, if you like classic hard-boiled novels, you’ll enjoy this book provided you’re not turned off by it’s attempt to make itself a sequel to one of the most beloved hard-boiled novels.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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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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