Category: Book Review

Book Review: Inka Dinka Doo

In Inka Dinka Doo, Jhan Robbins writes a biography of Jimmy Durante, beginning with his birth to a large immigrant family in the family’s kitchen to his early days playing dives in New York as a ragtime piano players to vaudeville success and motion picture hits and misses all the way to his death in 1980.

To Robbins, its a mystery. In the introduction, he lays out well what the mystery is, “Durante wasn’t a singer like Sinatra any more than he was a comic technician like Bob Hope. He lacked the polish of Johnny Carson, the bluntness of Humphrey Bogart.  When malapropisms and errors were deliberately inserted into his scripts he would mispronounce the mispronunciations. Other entertainers squeezed laughs out of vulgarity but not he. What was his secret?”

Robbins had gotten to know Durante over more than 20 years. The book is chock full of stories that tell the tale of Durante’s uncommon decency and kindness. Robbins’ book could seem one-sided but as Robbins stated, he looked desperately to find Durante detractors but couldn’t find any. The secret to Durante’s success was his genuine warmth and heart which spills out over the nearly 200 pages in Inka Dinka Doo. 

We learn of Durante’s closest and deepest friendships with his longtime partners Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson as well as Eddie Cantor. His rocky career during Prohibition and his even bumpier landing at MGM in the 1930s where he continually drew forgettable roles even after getting a high dollar star contract.  We learn of his career on radio and triumphant entry into the new age of television.

The book is littered with anecdotes that show Durante’s heart and spirit. Durante was an extremely friendly person. In fact, Hollywood tour buses made a point to stop by his house knowing that he would run out and greet the bus, sometimes with a pitcher of lemonade to sell. It was Durante’s friendliness that got him out of the speakeasy business as an undercover prohibition agent came to the door and asked for him. Durante came down and the agent greeted him by name and Durante responded warmly. Then the agent complained of not being admitted and Durante let the guy in and the agent gathered evidence and the The Club Durant was shuttered the next evening.

Robbins also wrote of Durante’s loyalty and concern for others. When a fading Buster Keaton was released by MGM, Durante pleaded with Louie B Mayer on Keaton’s behalf and won Keaton’s reinstatement. When attending  a Dodgers’ game, Durante silenced a heckler who was mocking young future Hall of Fame Catcher Roy Campanella because he was black. Durante was kind and considerate even though he pronounced Campanella’s name as “Cantorbella.”

The book is full of such stories and makes for a light and engaging read with chapters slice up perfectly in digestible chunks.

I’d offer two criticisms of the book. First, I think Robbins did a bit of an injustice to both Durante’s first wife (who left Durante a widower in 1943) in the degree of his negative portrayal of her. Much of the source material for this information appears to be Durante’s longtime friend Eddie Jackson who the first Mrs. Durante didn’t get along with. What Robbins ended up with was a somewhat one side portrayal of Jeanne Durante. In addition, as Robbins stated, Durante never criticized or spoke negatively of Jeanne and so Robbins’ portrayal of Jeanne wasn’t quite in the spirit of Schnozolla.

In addition, the book has a somewhat uneven quality to it. For example, Robbins writes in painstaking detail about the one flop after another that MGM put Durante into. He then tells us that Durante’s pictures from the mid-1940s were better, but mentions no film by name between In the Army Now (1941) and The Last Judgment (1961). The book also tells us little about Durante’s latter day career as a ballad singer, a remarkable new direction for his that occurred at age 66.  Of course, Inka Dinka Doo was released before Sleepless in Seattle which created new interest in Durante’s ballads with Durante’s performance of “As Time   Goes By” and “Make Someone Happy” featuring prominently in the film.

Overall, there’s more to Durante’s life and career than this 200-page volume provides, however Robbins wrote with obvious affection for his subject and this book is not a bad place to start if you’re interested in learning about one of America’s best-loved entertainers. The book is out of print but may be available at your library (or through an interlibrary loan) or also as a used book through Amazon.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0 stars.

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Book Review: Three Doors to Death

Three Doors to Death is a Nero Wolfe short story published in 1950 featuring three novellas published from 1947-49 in American Magazine.

It begins with a classic introduction from Archie Goodwin as he wants to avoid any confusion by strangers to the Wolfe genre who might think because Wolfe didn’t get paid in two of the cases that Wolfe makes a practice of solving murder cases pro bono. He also explains the symmetry of the stories. It does a great job setting the tone for what follows:

“Man Alive”

A fashion designer hires Wolfe because she believes she’s seen her Uncle at a fashion show. The problem? Her uncle committed suicide in spectacular fashion jumping into Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park a few months before his partner does himself in. It turns out she was right about him being alive but not for long. Her uncle is murdered in her office and she becomes a suspect even though the police have no idea who the victim is. Wolfe has to find out who did it.  This one is solved with a clever deduction based on the behavior of one of the heirs.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

“Omit Flowers”

As a personal favor to Marko Vukcic, Wolfe undertakes to clear a former great chef of the murder of the boss’ husband and his heir apparent as head of a large chain of restaurants.  Wolfe has no lead, but  Archie makes a lucky guess that leads to startling information that the widow has been stabbed but she won’t reveal the identity of the perpetrator.

This is a very well-balanced story that shows Archie’s  intuitive reasoning in action. That allows him to uncover information another detective would have missed and that Wolfe absolutely needed.  The mystery is engaging and the identity of the actual perpetrator provided a solid surprise ending.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

“Door to Death”

Door to Death may be the crown jewel of this collection. When Theodore has to take care of his ailing mother and take an indefinite leave as orchid nurse for Wolfe, Wolfe is left with the full time job taking care of them. This because so intolerable that Wolfe not only leaves the brownstone, but gets in a car and travels to hire away Andy, the gardener of a wealthy family to tend the orchids. However, before Wolfe can get away with the replacement orchid tender, a dead body is discovered and Andy is the prime suspect.

Wolfe’s determination to find an acceptable replacement for Andy was enough to interest him in solving the case. However, when a young woman has the impertinence to call him Nero, Wolfe becomes determined to solve the case even as he’s being ordered out by the local police. Wolfe goes to extreme measures to get back into the house and obtain an opportunity to investigate it.

This was a very satisfying story that showed both Wolfe’s genius and self-awareness as Wolfe insists on staying away from home knowing that if he goes home, he’ll be impossible to get back out. And this is a case Wolfe wants to solve.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

You really can’t go wrong with any of the stories.  The whole collection is Rex Stout at his best and the best novella collection I’ve read so far.

Overall Rating: very satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

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

This remains perhaps the most oft retold Holmes story and a pioneering mystery story that has been ripped off repeatedly over the years. While its 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. 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

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Book Review: Curtains for Three

Curtains for Three was published in 1951 and featured three Nero Wolve novellas published from 1948-50. As usual, we’ll review the individual story and then include an overall rating for the book:

“The Gun with Wings”: The title sounds similar to a Father Brown story (”The Dagger with Wings”) but the story has an unrelated plot. The police have included that an opera star committed suicide. However, his wife and her lover aren’t satisfied because they found the body and when they found the gun, it was across the room. When they returned and the police arrived, the gun had moved to the floor by his body. Wolfe has to find out how the gun was moved and he knows his clients are lying.

The story is perhaps the most claustrophobic Wolfe case I’ve ready. Archie only leaves the house in one scene. Other than that one scene, all the on-stage action is confined to the office.  This means that the vast majority of the story is composed of Wolfe questioning people. 2/3s of the way through, I was convinced this was going to be the first Wolfe story I gave a Pfui rating to. However, Wolfe recovers when he plays Inspector Cramer off of his lying clients in a hilarious way. Once the lies are cleared up, Wolfe provides a flawless sage solution. It’s not quite Before I Die or Help Wanted Male, but I’ll give it a

Rating: Satisfactory

“Bullet for One”: An industrial designer is shot to death and his daughter and associates hire Wolfe to solve the case. One big problem for Wolfe is that the man his clients believe did it has an airtight alibi.

Some of the best Nero Wolfe novellas featuring a very memorable distinctive and it’s no different with Bullet for One and this one will always stand out as the one where everyone got arrested. One by one, Wolfe’s clients as well as their favorite suspect are arrested (most for issues not stemming from the murder investigation.) The story’s chocked full of humor and a solid conclusion typical of the best Wolfe stories.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Disguise for Murder

This one was adapted for A Nero Wolfe Mystery and it was also done for CBC’s Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. So, it’s a stand out whenever anyone looks at adapting the Wolfe canon, and for good reason.

Wolfe has been talked into opening the Brownstone to a flower club. At the event, a woman takes Archie aside to confide him that she recognized a murderer at the party, but she’ll only confide it to Wolfe. It goes without saying that before Archie can get Wolfe back to the office, the woman is killed in Wolfe’s office.

This is not only unfortunate, but very inconvenient for Wolfe as Inspector Cramer peevishly orders the office sealed and Wolfe just as peevishly refuses to divulge a key observation to Cramer. He uses Wolfe’s dining room to interrogate the witnesses and Wolfe orders Fritz to make sandwiches for everyone but the police. The novella is far more subtle than the Television version for A&E, as it quietly shows the tension between Wolfe and the official police.

The story than features one of the most memorable climaxes in the Wolfe canon with Archie facing more physical danger than ever and a truly surprising solution. I’ve not read all the Wolfe novellas yet, but this one was the best so far. It makes the whole collection well worth reading.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Overall Rating: very satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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Book Review: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Continuing on the success of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs offers up some more fantastic classic mysteries but also a few signs of Doyle burning out on the Holmes series.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is available for free download on Amazon and other sites.

The American version of the Memoirs includes eleven stories:

“Silver Blaze”
“The Adventure of the Yellow Face”
“The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk”
“The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”
“The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”
“The Adventure of the Reigate Squire”
“The Adventure of the Crooked Man”
“The Adventure of the Resident Patient”
“The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”
“The Adventure of the Naval Treaty”
“The Final Problem”

On the positive side there’s “The Silver Blaze” which was one of G.K. Chesterton’s favorite Holmes stories which is perfectly constructed.  “The Reigate Squire” shows Holmes at his craftiest as he has to solve the murder of a country while ailing. The “Resident Patient” allowed Holmes to show his cleverness even if a freak storm was called in to actually take care of justice. “The Navel Treaty” is the longest story in the collection and a completely satisfying story as we’re presented with a fascinating whodunit and a startling conclusion. “The Crooked Man” is a classic case of a false charge brought about by confusion and reminded me a little bit of “The Sign of Four.”

On the down side, I had to admit some disappointment with the end to “The Greek Interpreter.” Of course, this may have been because I saw the Grenada TV version first which “fixed” the ending. The “Yellow Face” was a somewhat slow story that’s been rarely adapted.

Beyond that, there s also a sense that Doyle was beginning to tire of the character.  “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” would have been a fine story had it not been a basic rehashing of “The Red Headed League.” Two stories were told to Watson by Holmes entirely without any actual action occurring in both “The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual.” While both stories were good, I missed Watson in them.

Of course, the styling of these entries with fits with the title and it brought home to me one of the appeals of Sherlock Holmes.  The story was not written in traditional fiction style but as Memoirs of Doctor Watson. It’s a point that can be missed because this device has been used so many times since and often not very well, but Watson’s writings sounded so true to life that we really don’t treat Holmes as a fictional character at all, if you see the way Holmes is quoted, it is rarely quoted as coming from a novel. No wonder that 58% of Britons believe Sherlock Holmes was a real historical character.

That brings us to “The Final Problem” a story that has never adapted well to other media without serious tweaks.  Even Grenada Television’s version looked absolutely silly when Holmes and Moriarty fought over the falls. A production may borrow from parts of Final Problem particularly as it relates to Moriarty, but the plot itself has serious problems not the least of which is the difficulty of making the fight look convincing.

Holmes flees London and then across the Continent to get away from Moriarty. The story rubs me as  simply wrong as you have a detective fleeing a criminal. While Holmes’ justification for the chase the first three days was to avoid messing up the prosecution of Moriarty’s gang. After the gang was apprehended and Holmes remained free, continuing to run from Moriarty into the heart of Switzerland was unnecessary.

Of course, this was Doyle’s attempt to free himself from demands for more Holmes’ stories by killing the character off.  What surprised me was that Doyle manages a remarkably poignant ending to the story with Watson, in effect, eulogizing Holmes,  and bringing out aspects of his character that are often overlooked. It was actually quite beautiful writing with which Watson bid farewell to his dear friend.

Overall, while it’s not quite as good as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Memoirs holds its own as a great classic short story collection.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Hand in the Glove

Hand in the Glove features Dol Bonner, a young woman who has started her detective agency with the financial help of wealthy heiress Sylvia Raffray, who is on the cusp of taking over her family fortune. Her Guardian, P.L. Storrs, objects to Sylvia’s involvement in the detective business as it’s created some bad publicity. He persuades Sylvia to agree to quit the agency and her professional association with Dol which will essentially put Dol into a far less plush and favorable position. 

However, Dol gets her first solo job when P.L. hires her to rid his family of a cult leader who is draining his wife financially. She heads to P.L.’s home in Connecticut with this goal, but everything changes when she finds P.L. strangled and hung up by a wire. Dol sets out to solve the murder of her friend’s ward and prove herself as a detective.

Nero Wolfe doesn’t appear in this story, but Inspector Cramer does make a cameo.

Bonner actually shares one key feature with Nero Wolfe: a contempt for the opposite sex, though her’s is not so severe as to prevent her from having men work for her or from being a caring sister. She also has a verbal feature in common with Wolfe: how she tells subordinates to take notes. When I read her saying to a male detective, “Your notebook…” I got deja vu. I wonder if this was intentional or if Stout couldn’t think any other way a detective might tell someone to take notes.

In other ways, they are mirror images. Wolfe an experienced late middle aged man and Bonner a young pretty woman feeling her way in the art of detection. While Wolfe remains reticent about his past and we only get tiny glimpses throughout the Corpus, Bonner tells straight up her backstory and why she thinks so little of men: she was jilted by one.

Bonner’s efforts to solve the case are met with sarcasm, annoyance, and amusement. A police officer smirks when he sees Bonner getting her detection kit out of the car and Sylvia tells her to put it away.  Even Bonner’s not so sure of herself.   She  puts forth a strong front of absolute confidence, but she’s riddled with self-doubt. Is she really a detective or is she “just playing.” Thus Bonner mission is to prove herself to herself.

The story is weakened by a forgettable cast of 1930s stereotypes, the occult huckster,  the heavy-drinking newsman, the dutiful butler, and the aloof bohemian poet daughter. Only the psychologist who is in need of a psychologist provides any spark and not enough of that.  Sylvia Raffray fills the part of  spoiled rich kid and is completely useless to Dol. While everyone seems to like her, it’s a mystery to me why they do.

Even with a stronger cast of supporting characters, it’s doubtful Bonner would have ever made it in a series. Her disrespect for men was unlike to make her popular with men or women. Plus, her uncertainty in the face of challenge is unlikely to connect with modern women in the age of girl power. Hand in the Glove is a serviceable 1930s mystery. What sets it apart from other 1930s mystery that are gathering dust in libraries across America is that it was written by one of America’s most talented mystery writers and featured a character who  would go on to appear as a supporting character in one of the the greatest detective series ever.

I should also note that a TV adaptation of Hand in the Glove was produced by NBC in 1992 called Lady Against the Odds that featured Crystal Bernard (Wings) as Dol Bonner and is available on Netflix. The TV movie made a number of departures. The time period was changed to World War II (which is far more exciting to most viewers than 1937),  rather than having the case confined to the estate as the book does, Dol travel back and forth questioning witnesses. It also changed the character of Dol Bonner and removed the man-hating elements. While there was a bit of melodrama and some things that didn’t ring true to the period, after reading the book, I think they probably did the best they could with it.

Rating: 2.75 out of 5.0.

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Book Review: Please Pass the Guilt

Reading Please Pass the Guilt right after The Silent Speaker provided quite an interesting contrast. Both cases involve Archie and Wolfe drumming up business, but the times have changed in 25 years.

In the first place, technoligically things are quite different. In, The Silent Speaker, recording cylinders were a cumbersome  yet important part of the case that Wolfe and Archie didn’t really understand. By the time of Please Pass the Guilt, Wolfe and Archie are recording nearly every conversation to occur in the office. (Them and Richard Nixon both.)

Perhaps, more striking is the cultural change. Archie has to compete with a television when trying to pitch the widow of a murder victim on hiring Wolfe. Wolfe for his part remains the same iconoclastic figures as always. When asked if he watches television, Wolfe responds curtly, “I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion of it.”

Stout was clear that Nero and Archie had not changed in their basic temperment and behavior in the past thirty-eight years of the series while the world around them has transformed and that tension manifests itself. Stout even brushes with the more modern times and approaches (but back away from) edgier profanity when a women’s libber obsessed with the supposed sexism of language asked. “What is one of men’s favorite four-letter colloquial words that begins with f?” Archie demurred, claiming not to know what she was getting at. Acceptance of the use of that language may have been growing in the late 1960s and early 1970s but not in Rex Stout novels.

In a key moment, Archie expressed exasperation when unable to convince a female suspect go on a date as is his usual practice. Archie declared, “I’m done. Washed up. I’ve lost my touch, I’m a has-been. You knew me when.”

Fritz provides a rare moment of sagacity. “Then she is washed up, not you. You are looking at the wrong side. Just turn it over, that’s all you ever have to do, just turn it over” Perhaps, this served as a metaphor for the book and for Nero Wolfe and Archie’s place in a rapidly changing world. If 1970s American readers reached the point where they could no longer appreciate these characters, then readers were washed up, not them.

As one reviewer pointed out on Amazon, this is as much a period piece as the Wolfe stories from the 1940s. For most of Wolfe’s long-time fans, it’s just not a period they like as well. The case begins when Doc Volmer asks Wolfe to do a favor for a friend of his. A young man has shown up at a local psychological clinic and states he has blood on his hands, but he won’t even give his right name. He suggests Wolfe apply his skills to the problem to help unearth the truth. When the young man shows up, the most Wolfe is able to do is to connive to find out his real name. Wolfe discovers he’s one of the figures in the murder of an executive who went into another executive’s room and opened a drawer he kept whiskey in.

With the bank balance low and Wolfe having worked even less than usual the first five months of 1969, Archie goes on his own initiative to the widow of the executive to lobby her to hire Wolfe. She does so and answers a key question: What was her husband doing in another executive’s private office? Simple, he was spiking his whiskey with LSD so his would blow his interview with the board to become the next president of the company. Welcome to the 1960s, man.

From there, Wolfe embarks on an investigation to find the truth. Along the way, he runs into a steady stream of lies: from employees of the firm, complete strangers who respond to an ad for information, and even from his client. Wolfe has never treated a client with such contempt as he does in Please Pass the Guilt. However, the contempt was well-earned. What’s perhaps most astounding is that a truth embedded in one of the lies Wolfe’s told leads him to the true solution of the case.

So, while it’s not vintage 1940s Wolfe, Please Pass the Guilt shows the timeless power of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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