Category: Book Review

Book Review: Deadly Image

Casey notices an old friend who manages his small investment getting uncharacteristically roaring drunk at a bar. The man’s wife asks for a ride home and Casey is asked to hold some film for another photographer, film that is going to be more than a bit dangerous for him. Before he knows it, the veteran crime photographer has a web of murder and blackmail to untangle.

This novel, featuring the character of Jack Casey, was published in 1962, well after the character’s heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet the writing of George Harmon Coxe, who’d written another photographer mystery series in the intervening years, remained exactly the same. In fact if you were to level a criticism of the book, it would be that it doesn’t feel like a book from 1962, with very few clues to its more recent vintage. The big one is that Casey has a small investment portfolio. It’s hard to imagine a hard boiled character in the 1930s investing in the stock market given how skittish people were after the Crash.

Beyond that, it’s a very well-written mystery with a lot of elements to it, more than you would expect for a book of its relatively short length. However, it’s easy to follow and the clues are all there if you’re paying attention. Casey remains the same honorable and decent guy he always was, and the story holds your attention throughout.

After reading three of his books, my opinion of Coxe as a writer is that he’s not one of those brilliant must-read writers of the classics of detective fiction like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. However, Coxe was talented and wrote diverting smart mysteries that are worth a look. I put him in the same category as Britt Halliday and plan on visiting some of his other works.

This was a fun book and it won’t be the last time, I read one of Coxe’s novels.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Book Review: The Glass Key

The Glass Key was a 1931 novel by Dashiell Hammett (best known for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.) The story follows Ned Beaumont, a gambler and the chief lieutenant and best friend of town’s corrupt political boss Paul Madvig. Madvig has been calling the shots in his town for many years but now is facing challenges. Madvig plans to endorse a Senator who had been previously been Independent of him but figures he can only survive with Madvig’s support. However, everything gets complicated when the Senator’s son is murdered and signs point to Madvig as the culprit.

The mystery in the story is one of the better plots from Hammett. The clues are well-placed. A fair play purist can go through the book and find everything laid out but not in a way that’s very obvious. It’s well-plot and well-paced, making for a solid reading experience.

As a protagonist, Beaumont is actually very interesting. He’s neither a policeman or a professional detective, but he thinks on his feet, is bright, and generally makes smart moves throughout the book. He is, at best, a morally gray character who works in the furtherance of a corrupt political machine. Yet, he has a couple of virtues that do make him appealing. Chief among them is his personal loyalty.

We”re told that Madvig had help Beaumont out of the gutter when he’d come to town and Beaumont has never forgotten that. He tries to help Madvig often in spite of the political bosses instinct.The Glass Key portrays Madvig as a political boss in decline. It’s not that Madvig doesn’t possess political capital, but rather that it’s dwindling. Beaumont spots mistakes and pitfalls of Madvig’s attempts to maintain his power and tries to warn him. When Madvig refuses to pay attention, Beaumont decides to clear out of town. However, he refuses to provide information to a rival political boss that could be used against Madvig even though it leads to Beaumont being beaten and hospitalized.

Beaumont decides to staon on to clear up the murder of the Senator’s son but finds Madvig as an impediment to resolving the issue. Is Madvig really behind the killing? The book really toys with us right until the last few chapters and a surprising reveal.

The book’s only weakness is that the characters are almost completely unremarkable beyond Beaumont and Madvig. There’s no Casper Gutman or Joel Cairo in this book. Just a pretty run-of-the-mill bunch of underworld characters, society people, and non-descript political figures.

Beyond that weakness, this book is a gem of a mystery and well worth reading for fans of hard boiled fiction.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

 

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Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

A version of this review was posted in 2012.

The Hound of the Baskervilles marked Sherlock Holmes return to literature after he was killed off by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “The Final Problem” eight years previously. Doyle had not yet brought Holmes back to life. This story was set prior to “The Final Problem.”

Sir Henry Baskerville is the heir of his late uncle Charle’s Estate. However, his uncle passed away under mysterious circumstances and one of Sir Charles’ friends, Dr. James Mortimer comes to Holmes to ask for assistance. Local legend is that Sir Charles was killed by a ghostly hound that haunts the moor to avenge the sins of one of the Baskerville ancestors. Mortimer confides to Holmes that he found a hound’s footprint at the scene of the death.

Intrigued, Holmes takes the case, and the case gets more interesting when Holmes spots a man following them in London and someone steals one of Sir Henry’s boots. Surprisingly, Holmes doesn’t go to Dartmoor, but sends Watson to investigate and report his finding to Holmes.

Watson finds strange goings-on: suspicious-acting servants, a dangerous convict on the moor, and of course, the legend of the hound.

This remains the most oft retold Holmes story and a pioneering mystery story that has been ripped off repeatedly over the years. While it’s a Holmes story, with Holmes absent from the main action for about half the book, it gives Watson a chance to shine and show his intelligence and resourcefulness.

Despite its popularity, I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Sign of Four. However, this is a matter of taste. The Sign of Four was an action-packed thriller while Hound of the Baskervilles relied much more on a build-up of suspense. This one builds slowly and in a less skillful hand, it would have been easy for The Hound of the Baskervilles to become boring, but Doyle sensibly used Watson’s reports to Holmes and Watson’s diary entries to avoid bogging the story.

Overall, the Hound of the Baskervilles deserves its reputation as a true detective fiction classic.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.00

Book Review: Back on Murder

Editor’s Note: A version of this review was posted in 2013.

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 his career and life get back on track.

The writing is top notch. 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 others, 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.

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

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Mountains Bow Down

FBI Agent Raleigh Harmon is on an Atlanta Cruise, officially on-vacation but working as a consultant on a direct to DVD film  It stars a washed up Hollywood actor as an FBI agent. When the actor’s wife commits suicide, Raleigh investigates.

The mystery itself is a solid and well-thought out. The setting of an Alaskan cruise offers some great opportunities for atmosphere. The C-list Hollywood personalities likewise have good angst and conflicts . As usual, writer Sibella Giorello has done some great research that makes the mystery feel intriguing but grounded. There’s some superb misdirection and a solution that’s not immediately discernible.

The book is not without problems. I enjoyed the first three Raleigh Harmon mysteries, but I found this a frustrating read in the early going. Her internal mean girl monologues in the first section of the book seemed way off for Raleigh.

Raleigh did things that did not make sense. She got engaged to her old boyfriend and flew thousands of miles from home despite them having very little chemistry in the first books. In addition, Raleigh’s mother has had mental health problems and Raleigh fears if her mother ever finds out she’s an FBI agent she’ll have a mental breakdown. Thus, it must be kept from her at all costs. So Raleigh brings her on a cruise where she’s working on a project that’s based on her FBI agent. And she also brings along her mom’s sister and her sister’s flaky psychic friend who also know she’s with the FBI. What could go wrong?

Also, the story seems to be setting up a Seattle field agent as her ideal love interest under the theory, if you find someone utterly loathsome, they’re really the one for you. Her language and internal monologue about this agent are over the top. It feels like Giorello has things she wants to do with Raleigh and her supporting cast and is determined to do set these things up no matter what. It’s contrived in a way that I found annoying.

Once the book focuses on the mystery, the book is fine. It’s a good puzzle. However, a less contrived plot would have done it a world of good.
Rating 3.5 out of 5

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Book Review: DC Comics Greatest Detective Stories Ever Told

DC is known as one of the two big Superhero comic book companies in the United States. However, it’s easy to forget “DC” actually stands for “Detective Comics,” which is also the title of the company’s longest-running title. This book collects a selection of DC comics that center on some of the DC universe’s most noted detectives.

Most comic fans associate the title, Detective Comics with Batman. However, Batman didn’t appear in the series until Issue 27. The book opens with a story from Detective Comics #2, “Skyscraper Death” where two-fisted private eye Slam Bradley finds himself implicated in a murder. This 1937 story has a lot of action, compared to modern comics. The story is only 13 pages long but has a lot to it. It feels like a complete B-Movie in comic book form. The transfers on this story are not great, but they’re probably about as good as DC Comics could get given that it’s an obscure 75 year old story.

Next up is, “The Van Leew Emeralds” which finds the Sandman (Wesley Dodds) in a caper involving crooks and a game of getting them in the right place so the right people will be prosecuted by the police for them. It’s a fun bit of running around.  There’s a tough of Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar (aka: The Saint) mixed a bit with the Green Hornet in the Golden Age presentation of the Sandman.

Then there’s, “The Puzzle of the Purple Pony” featuring Elongated Man (Ralph Dibney.) Elongated Man was a private detective who got stretching superpowers. He fell in love and married a wealthy woman named Sue and they traveled around and he found and solved mysteries. There’s more than a little touch of the Thin Man in the Dibney’s crime-fighting escapades. In this particular story, while out West, Sue becomes curious why a cowboy’s horse is painted purple. While initially, Ralph thinks its none of their business, Sue plunges them headlong into the adventure. The result is a fun Silver Age mystery that doesn’t take itself too seriously and doesn’t go over the top into silliness.

“When it Rains, God is Crying” is a much more recent story. It’s a two-issue Lois Lane series mini-series from 1986 in which Lois does her own investigation into a child’s death  As Lois becomes personally involved and answers become scarce, she begins to alienate everyone in her life. This was a relatively long story, the length of many graphic novels of the era, but felt a bit short. The story becomes a more focused on Lois’ emotional state and her alienation from her friend than it does the investigation itself. There are plot details that are incongruous or don’t quite make sense. For example, her sister Luci appears and plans to write something that she’s afraid Lois will be angry about but that could fix things. We never find out what exactly Lucy did, but we kind of see an outcome. There’s a lot of potential, but this could have used more space to develop as a story. I will say that the art is very evocative for the era, and while the ending is unsatisfying, I think that was intentional to the crimes against children at the center of the story.

“The Doomsday Book” is a giant-sized Issue of Detective Comics put out for the book’s 50th Anniversary. It starts with a visit to the office of the aging private eye Slam Bradley that goes wrong and requires help from Batman. The very involved mystery brings in not only Bradley, Batman, and Robin, but even involves an old case of Sherlock Holmes. Detective team-ups are tricky because generally one detective looks far brighter than the other. Here though, every detective is given their due, and it’s just a really fun yarn.

“The Mikado” is a story from the 1980s Question comic series that finds Victor Sage investigated of murders and mutilations by a man who follows the famous line from the Miakdo, “My object all sublime I shall achieve in time— let the punishment fit the crime.’ It’s actually an effective story that is contained within one issue. It’s gritty, but very well-written.

“The Origin of Detective Chimp” is a 1989 story that provides an origin story for Detective Chimp, a super detective introduced in 1952, and then popping up here and there throughout DC history. The story involves aliens, an incident in a jungle, and just weird things happening but also manages to work in a little bit of mystery for our newly minted detective to solve. I’m not the biggest fan of the artwork, but the story is a fun little jaunt.

The book concludes with an excerpt from the “Parallel Lines” part of the “A Lonely Place for Dying” story. Tim Drake shows up wanting to take on the mantle of Robin. He explains to Dick Grayson and Alfred Pennyworth how he figured out Bruce Wayne was Batman and Dick Grayson was the original Robin. It was based on a personal encounter and some information in the newspapers. While this excerpt’s only 11-pages, it’s an incredibly effective bit of storytelling. Drake’s discovery goes a long way towards making him a plausible Robin. His understanding that Batman needs someone to balance him out and bring a bit of lightness to his dark world would be another. This was a very effective and beautifully drawn excerpt.

Overall, while I had issues with the Lois Lane story, this was a really good collection. If you enjoyed detective-themed Comics, this will be a fun read.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

Book Review: The Fortress of Solitude/The Devil Genghis

I’m reviewing a (sadly out of print) copy of Nostalgia Ventures’ /Sanctum Doc Savage novel reprint featuring two Doc Savage Novels, “The Fortress of Solitude” and “The Devil Genghis.” However, for early readers of this review, you might be able to get a copy for something approaching a reasonable price.

While most people associate the “Fortress of Solitude” with Superman. Doc Savage had a Fortress long before the Man of Steel graced the cover of Action Comics #1. Savage’s fortress was also in the Arctic. It was an isolated spot where Doc carried out his experiments and also where he stored all the death machines he found in his adventures.

The Fortress of Solitude was published in October 1938 and Doc Savage had been around for nearly seven years and at that point could use a shake up. And boy did Fortress of Solitude provide it. The unthinkable happened. A mad genius named John Sunlight stumbled upon Doc’s fortress took command of its arsenal and unleashed it upon the world, offering Doc’s unused discoveries as well as his confiscated cache of weapons.

As a plot, this is a real corker. This is tops for telling a different sort of story and pushing the character in a different direction against a foe that has to be Doc’s most menacing. John Sunlight is brilliant, ruthless, and yet enigmatic and strange enough to be Doc’s Moriarty. He’s also the only Doc Savage villain to return for a second encounter, which comes in the Devil Genghis.

The Devil Genghis was published in December 1938 and features a more complex and refined plan for world domination as key people around the world are being driven mad. The plan begins with an effort to kidnap Doc, who is set to use one of his lesser known (and less useful) talents and play a violin recital at Carnegie Hall for charity. The Devil Genghis is another globe trotting adventure but with a wider variety of settings. It also offers a key surprise in what John Sunrise’s endgame

As a collection, this is smashing, and the volume is enriched with some commentary by Will Murray. The one thought I had as I finished The Devil Genghis is that if they’d wanted to have Doc Savage end on a strong note, this would have been a great finale because there’s just no topping it. In addition, the next year, the World would be at war and the World of Doc’s Golden Age would disappear forever while comic books and superheroes would replace him in popular culture. However, magazine publishing was a business and they decided to keep milking the character until he ran dry.

However, this book is Doc near the height of his popularity in a story that takes him to places no other Doc Savage story before or since ever took him. If you’ve enjoyed any Doc Savage story, this one is a must-read. While its out of print, interlibrary loans are a great option to enjoy these stories. They are classics of the pulp adventure genre.

 

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

MyComicshop.com has copies of this reprint available at their website (even though this isn’t a comic book) at a reasonable price. The book is #1 in the Doc Savage Reprints collection from Sanctum. Once it’s gone, ownership of the book will be for collectors only as the cost on most marketplaces I’ve seen is around $30-50