Category: Book Review

Book Review: The Kennel Murder Case

In the Kennel Murder Case, a wealthy man is found dead upstairs in a locked room with signs that point to murder. His brother is thought to be the prime suspect until he’s found dead downstairs in a closet. A key clue to solving the case is a badly beaten Scottish terrier. Of course, it falls to Philo Vance to unravel the case.

This is the sixth Philo Vance and in my opinion, it’s much better than the first. Vance is far more likable for one. While in the first book, Vance had a thru line arguing physical evidence was so humbug and how he knows better, the smugness is dialed down considerably. And physical evidence is important to him as he investigates and formulates his theory.

It also helps that Vance is a dog-lover and passionate about the Scottish Terrier breed, giving a really impassioned speech on the breed’s virtues. It humanizes his character quite a bit. Although, it should be noted there are some key differences in the way dogs were treated in the 1930s and what we view as best practices today.

In addition, writer S.S. Van Dine also featured some cameos from real people he knew, which gives the book warmth.

The puzzle has a lot of clues, red herrings, and moving parts that boggle the mind and keep the reader engaged. I’m not a huge fan of the solution, due to ridiculous and improbable mistakes and miscues by so many people. If a re-enactment of the murders as portrayed in the book were done on film, it’d be appropriate to play the Benny Hill theme over it.

Another annoyance is that  Sergeant Heath formulates his theories based on racial stereotypes, although these never pan out.  Despite this, this is an enjoyable read. If you love a decent puzzle mystery or are curious about Philo Vance, this is a fun way to experience the character, if you can tolerate the offensive content and the absurd content..

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Book Review: The Benson Murder Case

The Benson Murder Case (1926) is the first Philo Vance novel written by S.S. Van Dine. The series was popular and spawned multiple film and radio versions into the 1950s. In this novel, a wealthy man about town is murdered. Philo Vance is a wealthy dabbler in a variety of topics and a friend of District Attorney Markham. Vance decides to apply his mind and unique theories of crime-solving to the murder case.

The best thing you can say about Philo Vance in this book is that he’s a man of his times. There was an appeal to many in the 1920s for a hero who was utterly cynical, flippant, was better and smarter than anyone else and was not afraid to say so and put down his inferiors. However, I found him rather insufferable through most of this book. This is hurt by author S.S. Van Dine who goes on and on about him and spends much of the first third of the book highlighting every aspect of the personality of what he seems convinced is the most fascinating person on Earth.

He also had a premise that he was seeking to prove: the importance of psychology in solving crime. This actually wasn’t all that uncommon of a notion among golden age literary detectives. This was a response to the way police forces had evolved. When Sherlock Holmes was introduced, the premise was that the police were dull when it came to observing and interpreting due to a lack of imagination and a lack of ability to apply scientific methods to the classification of evidence. The popularity of Holmes’ stories led to an increase in the use of scientific methods and forensic evidence.

In the world of many golden age detectives, the police were no longer dunderheads who couldn’t understand the importance of things like fingerprints and not traipsing through murder scenes, destroying valuable clues. Rather, according to the new theory, police relied too heavily on the physical evidence and would use it to build circumstantial cases against innocent people. Many golden age detectives would find the true guilty party, not through some elaborate or clever method of detection, but through an understanding of the human condition and human tendencies. This understanding often told the detective what happened and then with that knowledge they could find corroborating evidence to prove their theories. To an extent, this idea of using this sort of method was practiced by golden age detectives such as Father Brown and Hercule Poirot.

Whether this was true or not in real life, the masters of the genre made it believable enough that the reader bought it for the purposes of the story. In the case of Philo Vance, though, his advocacy for psychological evidence is made fatuous by his over-the-top argument against physical evidence having any significance at all. That makes watching him solve the case and be  (in some way) proven right a somewhat annoying experience. Reading this book is like watching the most annoying person you can imagine spending hours spouting rubbish and come up with the right answer.

That said, once you plow through the first third of the book, the mystery itself isn’t all that bad. It’s pretty clever and well-plotted once we get past all the preliminaries. But again, there are mysteries just as good with protagonists who are not nearly as aggravating.

This is a book I can only recommend if you’re curious about the origins of a detective that ended up featured in numerous films and radio programs and\or if you’re into unlikable golden-age detectives. It’s worth checking out from the library, but I can’t recommend a buying it. The book enters the public domain in the United States in January and will be free to download from sites such as Project Gutenberg soon thereafter. If you’re curious about the book, there’s really not a good reason to not wait for it to become freely available.

Rating: 2.75 out of.5

Book Review: Pat Savage: Six Scarlet Scorpions

Doc Savage’s cousin Pat travels to Oklahoma along with one of Doc’s lieutenant’s, Monk Mayfair, in order to try her luck in oil speculation. Before she can even get to the field, she has to deal with a ruthless competitor. But that’s nothing compared to the mess she and Monk find themselves in when they stumble into a conspiracy involving a paralyzing poison, an offshot of the Ossage Indian tribes led by the sinister Chief Standing Scorpion, and murder. Pat and Monk find themselves framed for murder, and on the run from the law while pursuing the real culprits. How will they cope with Doc Savage out of the picture at his Fortress of Solitude?

As a bit of pulp fiction potboiler, this a fun read. The adventure itself has a lot of opportunities for derring-do as well as having quite a few mysteries that really keep the reader curious from start to finish, particular the question of who Standing Scorpion is. Admitted a villainous plot that’s essentially, “First Oklahoma…and then the world,” seems a bit unlikely and maybe even silly. But, it definitely works in the context of a pulp adventure set in the 1930s.

While Doc Savage novels tend to have a big cast, often involving many of Doc’s men, Pat and Monk are the sole protagonists of the book, with Monk’s best frenemy Ham being the only other member of Doc’s team to make an appearance. Monk is my favorite character in the Doc Savage world and this book shows how well he can carry the book and he plays very well off of Pat. They make a superb duo. If there’s a downside to this, it’s that Monk plays such a big role in this story that it’s hard to see how an ongoing series with Pat would like, although several sites have labeled this book 1 in the Wild Adventures of Pat Savage. Even though, there’s not  been a second book in five years. Pat does hint towards the end of the book that if she does go on another adventure, she’ll go alone. Six Scarlet Scorpions does enough to make me intrigued to find out what that would like.

The other characters in this story are mostly forgettable, compromising a group of toughs, evil overlords, a damsel and few other supporting characters. However, this is typically true of Doc Savage stories, where the persoanlities of the lead characters really do carry the book.

The book also suffers from the malady that most of the Wild Adventures of Doc Savage tend to. There’s a lot of our heroes being caught and released repeatedly. It’s the biggest source of padding in these books and this novel is no exception.

Still, this is an interesting book that does a great job recreating the world of Doc Savage and giving a couple characters from that world a chance to really shine on their own. It suceeds and if you enjoyed the original Doc Savages books or the other Wild Adventures, this is worth checking out.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Silent are the Dead

Silent are the Dead is an original Flash Casey novel by George Herman Coxe. It 1941, it was originally serialized in Black Mask Magazine (where Casey made his debut in 1934) in three parts, and published as a standalone novel in 1942.

In it, ace photographer Flash Casey has to get pictures of a disgraced lawyer after his camera case is stolen and his film exposed. When he goes up to the lawyer’s apartment, he finds the lawyer dead and himself in a case that grows ever more complex.

Flash Casey is an interesting character. He bares little resemblance to the character who’d arrive on radio the next year and less to the hotheaded goofball of the film Here’s Flash Casey. Casey is a decent sort. He’s got a nose for news but he’s neither heartless, nor unethical. He’s got a hard boiled edge to him, but this never goes over the top. He also takes a great deal of pride not just in his own work, but in the profession and its status, which motivates his actions in the final act of the novel.

This is a solidly written mystery novel. The plot is complex and intriguing with twists around every corner. The story is well-plotted, and well-paced. My interest never lagged from start to finish. I appreciated how photography was used in the novel to make this story distinct from the countless tales of private eyes, lawyers, and mystery men that dominated the fiction shelfs of the day. I’ve experienced a few stories from the old Black Mask magazine and compared to them, this book is above average. 

The characterization is not a huge strength. With one exception, the other characters feel mostly functional. They’re not unrealistic, over the top, or badly written, but as individuals, they’re surface level and blend quickly into a sea of newspaper employees, gangsters, damsels/potential femme fatales, and cops without much personality to distinguish them. Still, with Casey being well-written, he’s an anchor that keeps the story interesting.

In terms of quality, I’d consider it similar to the best Michael Shayne books.  It’s not a genre classic by any means, but it is a good example of a pre-War detective novel with hard-boiled flavor. In addition, its photographer hero makes it stand out from most of its mystery peers. It’s also a nice read for those who enjoy the Casey, Crime Photographer radio series and are curious about the hero’s literary origins. 

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Court of Last Resort


The Court of Last Resort tells the story of how Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner established a team of experts who investigated cases of people sent to prison where evidence indicates justice wasn’t done and some of the cases where their investigations helped correct the injustice.

The story begins after Gardner helped to address the case of a wrongful conviction in California. He then formed his team of men who didn’t need either fame or money and the project began as a regular column in the magazine Argosy. 

The secret of the Court of Last Resort’s success was that while the column and the organization of experts were known as the Court of Last Resort, Gardner believed the real court was the average citizen. Through the articles in Argosy, pressure was brought to bare on politicians and parole boards to take a look at the case of individuals that society had forgotten.

The first 70% of the book is dedicated to examining the various cases the court took on, but it’s more than just a rehearsal of cases. Gardner goes into some detail on the challenges this group faced, ranging from the rather mundane (how to make this work in a magazine), to how and why they faced opposition and occasionally  support from local officials.

Gardner is a skilled writer and manages to keep a sensible tone, and a great ability to empathize with his subjects including those who weren’t fans of the Court of Last Resort, and see things from his perspective. He avoids broad-brush allegations of corruption or prejudice, only calling those out when the evidence warrants it. Otherwise to help the readers understand why things go wrong due to challenges faced by everyone from the cops on the beat to prosecutors and prison wardens. He eschewed turning human beings to caricatures.

The book then takes a turn. As Gardner has discussed different problems in criminal law, he turns to prescribing solutions for the last thirty percent of the book. To be fair, he remains honest, even-handed, and examines issues from a variety of perspectives. The problem for modern readers is that this portion of the book is a sixty-eight year-old public policy treatise.

Unless you’re an expert on the minutiae of modern criminal procedure, it can be hard to figure out which, if any, of Gardner’s proposals were ever implemented. Several, I knew for sure, haven’t been. If you think he makes a good case for a particular reform, you may think America made a mistake by not following his advice. While some of his ideas are interesting, I wasn’t expecting this to turn into a policy reform book, so I could probably have done without that section.

Still, the cases that are chronicled are pretty interesting and Gardner is an entertaining writer to read. It’s also fun to learn of the Perry Mason writer’s real passion for justice. Overall, this may be a book you’ll enjoy.if you found the Court of Last Resort TV interesting or you’re a fan of Gardner or of the history of real-life efforts to clear the wrongfully convicted.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Book Review: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe

The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe is an anthology of parodies, pastiches, and a few other things that are hard to categorize, all inspired by Rex Stout’s greatest literary creation. I’m going to give a detailed look at everything in the book.

“Red Orchids” by French Author Thomas Narcejac finds Wolfe out from the Brownstone to investigate a case with the promise of a rare, red orchid. This translation by Narcejac does a fair job capturing the Wolfe-Archie relationship, but there’s too much emphasis on Wolfe firing Archie, which wasn’t nearly as much of a thing in the novels. It’s not a bad read at all.

Next, we get an excerpt from Marion Mainwaring’s book Murder by Pastiche. The book contains several pastiches of detective characters solving mysteries. Here we get a flavor for how the Wolfe pastiche works and the author does a great job capturing both Archie and Wolfe. It was well-written and made me want to read the whole book.

I should not like “Archie Hunters” as much as I do as it’s a bit ham-fisted. It involves a parody of Mike Hammer meeting up with Nero Wolfe. Writer Jon L. Breen states he was not a fan of Mike Hammer. This is hardly a necessary statement when he named the parody Mack Himmler. In addition, Breen (through Wolfe) gives us the moral of the story. I think makes it work is the degree to which Mr. Breen commits to it. While he’s having Wolfe make a broadly political (not partisan) point, it’s so in keeping with Wolfe’s voice and something I could actually imagine Wolfe saying.

“The Frightened Man” is a pastiche that uses different character names but is inspired by Wolfe. It’s a solid entry, though a bit short for my tastes.

As to the first Chapter of Murder in E Minor by Robert Goldsborough, I’ve had my issues with Goldsborough’s Wolfe books, but this is the one is good. It does a solid job capturing the feel of Stout’s work. The first chapter is well-written and I wouldn’t mind reading the book again.

“The Purloined Platypus” finds Wolfe and Archie solving the mystery of a museum theft in the present day. It’s a good story, but the mystery is more okay, and the author is fine but not brilliant at capturing the voices and transferring the main characters to the 21st Century. However, I’m a bit prejudiced as its hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of Archie taking pictures with his phone and finding information on the Internet.

“The House on 35th Street” and “The Sidekick Case” are two of the parodies that were run by the Saturday Review. Both are short, but I think this is a case where brevity is the soul of wit. “The House on 35th Street” pokes fun at the conventions of Stout novels, while “The Sidekick Paper” takes on bad word usage in a way that you could believe Wolfe actually would.

“The Case of the Disposable Jalopy” is a parody with Wolfe and Archie in a futuristic world where both have aged (contrary to Stout’s general practice.) Archie no longer has his photographic memory and Wolfe’s mental powers have gone downhill. In addition, due to automation, most jobs have been eliminated with people living on a negative income tax and Fritz forced to buy lower class food on a budget. This is very much a sort of a Saturday Night Live sort of take on Nero Wolfe (from when Saturday Night Live was actually funny) and it’s a solid piece of humor. It’s committed to its premise, and the humor is far more hit than miss, although one of the jokes feels a bit tasteless. Overall, it’s a fairly solid parody.

 “As Dark as Christmas Gets” finds a Nero Wolfe fan who believes Nero Wolfe is real and hopes to gain his favor. Leo Haig is brought in to solve the mystery of a Cornell Woolrich manuscript that disappeared at the Christmas Party. This was a good story with some intelligent dialogue and fairly drawn characters. Haig’s Archie Goodwin character Chip is more vulgar than Archie, but not so much it got in my way of enjoying this short.

Next up is, “Who’s Afraid of Nero Wolfe” and the lead detective Claudius Lyon is the answer to the question. Lyon, like Haig, believes Wolfe is real, but is afraid of getting sued by him, so his detective work is strictly amateur which also avoids the requirement of a license. This is a fun story about a search for a missing poetry contest winner from several years back. It revolves around word play and as far as a mystery goes, it works. I enjoyed all the little twists that Loren Estleman took on the Nero Wolfe world, starting with Lyon being located in Flatbush.

In “Julius Katz and the Case of the Exploding Wine” writer David Zeltserman takes a few of the ideas from the Wolfe story and adds a whole lot to it. Katz has an Archie, but Archie in this case is an AI in a tie clip that advises Katz who is a wine-drinking gambler with a fifth degree black belt. However, like Wolfe, Katz is lazy and needs prodded to go to work. I enjoyed this and all of the twists and turns. There were characters who had very definitive counterparts in the Wolfe stories (ex: Detective Cramer), but others you have to guess at.

“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberius Dingo” is an original short story for this collection that finds a Wolfe-like detective in a state of semi-retirement but tempted to take on one final case. The writer isn’t as immersed in the Wolfe canon as other contributors and it shows but not too much. The story is still an entertaining read with some clever twists. I found the ending uncomfortable, but other than that, this was fine.

The book has a section entitled potpourri, which is a bunch of miscellaneous bits and bobs about Wolfe.

“The Woman Who Read Nero Wolfe” is a delightful short about an intelligent 500 pound circus woman who takes to reading Nero Wolfe and then has to solve the murder of a young woman she’d taken under her wing. Pithy, fun, and has a superb twist. 

“Sam Buried Caesar” is from a series of short stories about a police inspector who named his children after famous detectives. This is the story of ten-year-old Nero Wolfe and the detective agency he founded with his friend and assistant Artie. This originally appeared in Ellery Queen Magazine and a story like this poses a unique challenge because it’s got to be true to being a story about kids, without boring the adults. This story nails it and was just a lot of fun to read.

The book includes Chapter 24 from Rasputin’s Revenge. Writer John Lescroat posited that Nero Wolfe was the illegitimate son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler and born under the name Auguste Lupa. This chapter appears to be from the end of the mystery where Holmes, Watson, and Lupa are talking. This is fine and features interesting interactions. 

Joseph Goodrich adapted a couple of Nero Wolfe stories to the stage and the first scene of Might as Well Be Dead is included. This is probably as close to seeing the play as most of us are going to get as these haven’t been widely distributed or performed. The play appears to have some good ideas like having Archie as an on the on-stage narrator and really seems to condense the initial client interview from the book so the action can get moving. Other choices I’m less sure of, but they might make sense in the context of the full play. Its hard to evaluate it based on one scene.

The final short story by Robert Lopestri is amusing tale of two grandparents telling their granddaughter what it was like to live next to Nero Wolfe and why they eventually decided to move away. It’s an amusing and clever take.

While I have criticisms of many pieces in this book, I liked them all. If you’re a Wolfe fan, this book is for you. Taken together, the book is a fantastic tribute to Nero Wolfe and shows a bit of how Rex Stout’s work has been inspiring authors with the amazing characters and world he created.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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Graphic Novel Review: Dick Tracy: Dead or Alive

Dick Tracy made a big arrest and got fired for it. However, the City by the Lake desperately needs cleaning up, so the City by the Lake calls him and he gets to work, and it’s not too long before he’s framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and hunted by dishonest cops, and needs new allies to clear his name and bust the rackets.

Dick Tracy: Dead or Alive can be a bit jarring. Dick Tracy looks and acts like he always did. Only in a city that despite its retro designs, is chocked full of modern technology. Of course, this may come off as less surprising to fans of the strip which has had to find a way to keep current while maintaining the timeless qualities of Tracy. This book doesn’t do a pretty decent job of it.

The book does a decent job re-imagining some Dick Tracy characters  without going too far or making them unrecognizable. When Tracy is on the run, he’s given his watch, which is introduced as a specially designed device that gets around spying technology.’

If I had a complaint about changes, it’d be with Tess Trueheart. Tess has always been a tough character to do and an easy one to turn into a two dimensional damsel in distress trope. However, this book turns into a more modern trope, that’s just as two dimensional.

The art is fun and very fitting for a Dick Tracy book. The story’s not a masterpiece. But at just over 100 pages, it’s a breezy, fun read that manages to capture the Spirit of Dick Tracy and provide a lot of great, two-fisted action and a few surprises along the way.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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