Category: Book Review

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

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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