Monday, March 12, 2018

The Nursing Home Murder: Review

The Nursing Home Murder (1935) is the third Inspector Alleyn novel by Ngaio Marsh. The Bolshevik's have reared their ugly heads again (see A Man Lay Dead) and have been sending death threats to Sir Derek Callaghan, the Home Secretary. Sir Derek is due to present a very important bill before Parliament and there are those who would prefer that bill never see the light of day. He has also been experiencing bouts of extreme abdominal pain--refusing to see a doctor until he has launched his bill. But in the middle of his speech, the spasms are so great that he falls unconscious.

His colleagues are aware that his doctor is Sir John Phillips and he is rushed to Phillips' hospital where he will be in the most capable hands. But no one is aware of the serious argument the two men had just the night before or that Sir John has threatened the Home Secretary's life. Nor are they aware of Nurse Harden who will be in the operating room--a woman who has recently been cast aside as Sir Derek's mistress and is the reason for Sir John's animosity. But these aren't the only ones with cause to hate the incapacitated man. Nurse Banks is a member of the anarchist society who threatened Sir Derek's life. And though Dr. Roberts, the anesthesiologist, may not have a known hatred for the man on the table, he does have some odd and obsessive ideas about eugenics. And Dr. Thoms, also present for the operation, behaves a bit oddly as well. It doesn't help that Sir Derek's slightly loopy sister has been stuffing him with patent medicines that may have been provided by a chemist with Bolshevik leanings. Needless to say, after what seems to have been a successful operation on a perforated appendix, Sir Derek dies and his death is ascribed to heart failure.

Lady O'Callaghan isn't having it. She's quite certain that the anarchists have gotten to her husband somehow. That is...until she discovers the threatening letter that Nurse Jane Harden was foolish enough to write. Convinced that her husband has been murdered, she calls Scotland Yard and demands a postmortem. Inspector Alleyn interviews her and her butler, Nash--who reveals that he overheard Sir John threaten his employer as well--and reluctantly agrees that a postmortem is indicated. Lady O'Callaghan's fears are proved to be well-founded when the p.m. reveals that Sir Derek died from an overdose of hyoscine.

It doesn't take Alleyn and Inspector Fox long to ferret out all the motives, but they have difficulty pinpointing the opportunity. In the operating room it would be difficult for anyone to mess about with the injections without someone else noticing. Alleyn finally resorts to that standard of crime fiction--the reenactment. And it is during the performance that he is given the clue that leads him to the culprit.

This installment of the Alleyn stories again has Nigel Bathgate--but he has been relegated to the sidelines. Alleyn uses him (and his girlfriend) to help scope out a meeting of the anarchists, uses them as a sounding board for a synopsis of the case to date, and then as an audience for the final wrap-up and explanation scene. Honestly--roles that Inspector Fox could have filled more successfully (and will in later novels). Bathgate as a Watson-like character seems to be losing his charm. Fortunately, the same is not true of Alleyn and Fox and I thoroughly enjoyed their investigation--especially the reenactment scenes. ★★ and a half.

I also took the opportunity to rewatch this episode of the BBC series starring Patrick Malahide with William Simons as Inspector Fox. The story is kept intact save for two points--there is a second (wholly unnecessary) death (to add to the drama, I suppose) and the time period has been updated from the 1930s to the late 1940s/early 1950s so that the Bolshevik anarchists have become those who have strong feelings about the Palestine situation. Much as I like Belinda Lang as Agatha Troy, I was glad that she was not thrust into this episode as she was in "A Man Lay Dead." I do wish those who adapt mystery series would stick to the timelines established by the authors--and the first episode felt cluttered with both Troy and Nigel Bathgate running around as "outsiders" to the suspects. However, that quibble aside, the Alleyn series is quality mystery television and really quite well done.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Life on the Mississippi: Review

Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (1883) is a book of two parts. The first third or so is devoted to describing the years he spent on the river learning the trade of a riverboat pilot. We follow the young Samuel Clemens as he works his way up from a cub to steersman. He describes the "prodigious" amount of memory it took to be a riverboat pilot in those days--to memorize the landmarks and the various depths of the water along the way and "shape of the river" (how the river really runs in contrast to how it may appear to the casual eye). Each time the young Clemens thinks he's stuffed his head as full as can be and learned everything there is to learn, his mentor starts in on a whole new set of things that every pilot ought to know. He has just managed to get comfortable with his knowledge when the Civil War breaks out and changes riverboat life forever--forcing Clemens into other lines of work before finally beginning his career as Mark Twain the writer.

The remaining two-thirds of the book finds Clemens returning to the river after twenty-one years. He wants to see what riverboat life is like now and he plans to travel under an assumed name and gather stories for future writing endeavors. That doesn't last--a man who knew him on the river recognizes him pretty quick and it isn't long before Clemens tries his hand at piloting the great ship. He does a pretty good job considering that the shape of the river has changed greatly in many sections and various landmarks from his day are gone altogether. 

The first third of the book is highly entertaining. His stories of learning the ways of the river are interesting and told in true Twain fashion. We also learn a great deal about life before the war. The remainder of the book is so-so. He spends a great deal of time describing the changes that have overtaken the river and he intersperses these descriptions with various anecdotes and, quite frankly, tall tales. This portion is choppy and uneven and also contains commentary on everything from the mercenary tactics of undertakers (squeezing the most out everyone for the most expensive funerals) to the unscrupulous ways of businessmen pawning off oleomargarine as butter and cotton seed oil as olive oil. Not that this commentary couldn't be interesting and telling of the times, but it interrupts the travelogue in the most distracting way. I much preferred Twain's tales of the river and life that connected more directly to it. ★★

A random remark, connecting Irishmen and beer, brought this nugget of information out of him: 
  They don't drink it, sir. They can't drink it, sir. An Irishman is lined with copper, and the beer corrodes it. But whiskey polishes the copper and is the saving of him, sir. (p. 171)

Partialities often make people  see more than really exists. (p. 181)

But you decided and agreed to stick to this boat," etc.; as if, having determined to do an unwise thing, one is thereby bound to go ahead and make two unwise things out of it, by carrying out that determination. (p. 226)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Dog Will Have His Day: Review

Dog Will Have His Day (1996) by Fred Vargas is the second in her Three Evangelist books. Readers were introduced to Marc, Mathias, and Lucien, dubbed The Three Evangelists after St. Mark, St. Matthew, and St. Luke by Marc's godfather/uncle, in the book of the same name. In that story, the three historians help Armand Vandoosler (the godfather/uncle and an ex-cop) solve the mystery of a missing neighbor. This story features Marc and Mathias in supporting roles to one Louis Kehlweiler.

Louis Kehlweiler is quite a detective. The former French Ministry Agent is currently out of a job--but he can't help keeping his hand in and has set himself up at various locations around Paris, keeping an eye on suspicious characters he knows are up to no good. Lately, he's been keeping an eye on a certain politician's nephew. One morning as he's loitering on a bench, doing his best vagrant impression while watching the nephew's windows, he notices something odd in a bit of dog poo--somewhere, somehow a dog has come across a joint from a human toe, wolfed it down, and deposited under the tree beside his bench. Closer examination (ewwwww) reveals to Kehlweiler's expert eye that this toe belongs to a human who has been murdered. He takes his find to be thoroughly examined and discovers that it belonged to an elderly woman.

Somewhere in Paris--or possibly elsewhere in France--an elderly woman has been murdered and Kehlweiler determines to find out who she was and who murdered her. A daunting task. But he recruits Marc, one of The Three Evangelists to help him trace the dog. The dog leads them to Port-Nichols, a tiny fishing village, and, eventually, to Marie, an elderly busybody who knew too much about one too many people and was killed. The finger (or is it toe) of suspicion points to various villagers, but Kehlweiler is able to identify the culprit with the help of Marc and Mathias (a second Evangelist). He will also find the answer to another mystery that has haunted his family since the Second World War.

As my synopsis above would indicate, this is really Louis Kehlweiler's book. He does the detecting with the able assistance of the two historians. And Kehlweiler is a very odd fellow--he is waltzing around with a toad named Bufo in his pocket, for crying out loud. And talks to it. And introduces Marc to it like they're going to be best buds. I spent most of the book feeling just slightly off-balance. Kehlweiler and his toad can do that to you. But the final third of the book makes the read worthwhile. I didn't mind our detective's bizarre way of talking (as if you'd come into a conversation half-way and he expected you to know what was going on) so much once he got down to cases and started following up clues in earnest.

I do wish that there had been more hints about his personal mystery. It was quite satisfying to watch him get the upper hand on a man who had been on the wrong side of the French Resistance in the war, but it would have been even more so if the confrontation hadn't come out of the blue. We were aware of the WWII connection to Kehlweiler--but there were no hints of his private quest.

Overall, an absorbing book. But one that demands a bit of patience from the reader. Fortunately, the conclusion of the story more than compensates for the demand. ★★and 1/4.
[Finished 3/4/18]

Marc smiled back. He wasn't going to be thrown by the sight of a toad. What would you look like if you were scared of a toad? A total idiot, that's what. Marc was scared stiff of touching a toad, yes, but he was also scared stiff of looking like a total idiot. (p. 68)

Perhaps that's the secret if you want to get elected. The best thing to do, if you want to be able to turn in any direction without seeming to, is to be smooth-edged, don't you agree? Well, Chevalier is like something round, slippery and glossy, like a conger eel, a masterpiece in some ways. He'll very rarely give you a straight answer, even if they seem straight to you. ~Darnas (p. 104)

Very noble to make promises, easily done, then you have to keep them, which is a pain in the backside. (p. 195)

February Wrap-Up & P.O.M. Award

I'm still running behind on tracking reading progress and statistics for all things bookish on the Block. I'm also one review behind....but at least I'm doing better than January! I've got February's stats ready to log and I'll be contributing to Kerrie's Crime Fiction Pick of the Month and handing out the coveted P.O.M. Award for the best mystery. So, here we go--let's take a look at February....

Total Books Read: 13
Total Pages: 2,829

Average Rating: 3.42 stars  
Top Rating: 5 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 85%

Percentage by US Authors: 69%

Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  8%
Percentage Mystery:  77% 

Percentage Fiction: 100%
Percentage written 2000+: 8%
Percentage of Rereads: 15%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% {It's eas
y to have every book count for a challenge when you sign up for as many as I do.}    
Number of Challenges fulfilled so far: 3--one final post coming (10%)

AND, as mentioned above,
Kerrie had us all set up for another year of Crime Fiction Favorites. What she was looking for is our Top Mystery Read for each month. February found me with ten mysteries. Here are the mysteries read:

Lament for a Lady Laird by Margot Arnold (3 stars)  
Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (3.5 stars) 
Avalanche by Kay Boyle (3 stars) 
Another Woman's House by Mignon G. Eberhart (3 stars) 
Beverly Gray's Secret by Clair Blank (3 stars)
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (5 stars)
The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird (5 stars) 
With Blood & Kisses by Richard Shattuck (4 stars) 
Odor of Violets by Baynard Kendrick (4 stars) 
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (3 stars)

This was a solid mystery-reading month with ten of my thirteen logged in the mystery field and all entries coming in at three stars or better. There were two five-star winners--both of them as rereads of books I first encountered over thirty years ago. It was nice to see that favorites from my early days of mystery-reading still came up to scratch when I revisited them.  The Daugher of Time by Josephine Tey and The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird were also my first introduction to each of these authors.

Tey's historical mystery
was just as entertaining this time around--even though I already knew what they found out and that it wasn't the big bombshell discovery that Carradine (and I) thought it was. I paid more attention to the research methods and the details than I did so many years ago. I enjoyed the little discoveries--the pieces found in letters and brief mentions in historical accounts that help them build their case for Richard's innocence. Not strictly speaking a straight detective novel, but it definitely helped get me interested in historical novels and in finding more Josephine Tey mysteries years ago. In February, I enjoyed listening to it in audio version from BBC Radio 4 Extra read by Paul Young because I can't figure out what I did with the hard copy I bought myself sometime after I read it from the library--younger Bev forgot to record the date bought on this one. The audio version was excellent.

 But--much as I enjoyed The Daughter of Time, Tey was edged out by our P.O.M. winner:

Aird has given us a mystery novel that is firmly rooted in the vintage works of the Golden Age. Though her book is set in the late 1960s, the detective work could have been done by Inspector Alleyn in 30s. The style of investigation is very much of an earlier era and she has made a definite effort to display her clues in a nod to the "fair play" school. That alone makes this an excellent novel, but she also entertains us by making fun of the very tropes she emulates. She plays on standard motifs and plot devices and serves up a denouement that should make classic crime buffs howl in dismay--but, it fits with the atmosphere she has skillfully employed. 

Reading Challenge Complete: Read It Again, Sam

I hadn't signed up for my Read It Again, Sam Challenge for a while--primarily because I'm trying to clear as many never read books off the TBR pile each year. BUT I did have a number of books to read for challenges that I read many moons ago (junior high & high school) that I later bought copies of for myself, so I jumped in a gain.

I signed up for the lowest level--Déjà vu: Reread 4 books and have now completed it. If I find myself doing more rereads, then I'll add them to the tally, but my challenge commitment has been met.

1. A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh (1/7/18)
2. Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (2/7/18)
3. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (2/14/18)
4. The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird (2/16/18)
Challenge Commitment Complete!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (2013) is the private eye mystery that J. K. Rowling tried to sneak past her fans--and the rest of the world--under the name of Robert Galbraith. That secret didn't stay under wraps long.... 

Here is where I make my confession--I have not read all of the Harry Potter books. I've read the first one--just to see what all the fuss was about and to acquaint myself with the writer and her world because my son was interested. I'm absolutely certain that I would have loved the books had they come out when I was young. But as a mother of a five year old (when the first book was published), I wasn't reading that genre at the time and it didn't grab hold of me as it has so many thousands (millions...) of readers.

Rowling does an exceptional job with the characters in The Cuckoo's Calling. I think characterization is one of her strongest points as an author. Despite only reading one of the HP books, the characters were so strong and individually interesting that they have stuck with me for twenty years. Her characters here are equally strong and interesting. Cormoran Strike is the usual damaged modern detective--Afghan war veteran, wounded, disastrous love life, and financial woes. But he is made interesting through his interactions with the people in the case and his new secretary.

As a long-time mystery reader, I have to say that the final twist is a well-worn one and isn't really a surprise. It was telegraphed quite obviously. I'd hoped for something more original from the author of the Harry Potter series. As a mystery, it doesn't earn high marks, though the way Strike and Robin investigate it does capture the interest. The best part of the book for me (and the biggest reason I've rated it 3 out of 5 stars) is the relationship between Strike and his secretary Robin. I liked how Robin--who's only supposed to be a temp--plunges herself into the investigation and makes herself more of a sidekick than a secretary.

[Finished 2/28/18]

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Odor of Violets: Review

Odor of Violets (1940) by Baynard Kendrick is the third in the Captain Duncan Maclain series. Maclain is a private detective who lost his sight due to gassing in the First World War. He has gone through extensive training to help him enhance his other senses--especially hearing and smell. He also depends on two German Shepherd dogs--one acting as his guide dog in unfamiliar settings and the other serving as protection, having been trained to attack at the sight of weapons or threatening movements on the part of others.

This book finds Maclain working for the US Secret Service in the early days of WWII prior to America's entry into the war. Germany isn't taking the American neutrality for granted and has spies at work preparing to sabotage vital cities. They just need to get their hands on vital information about vulnerable points (the location of the city's power shut-off points, for example)--information that has been delivered to Maclain in a coded Braille message. But that's not all! Nazi spies are also trying to get information on a brand-new bomb sight that has been developed by Gilbert Tredwell. Life gets interesting when an actor-turned Secret Serviceman is killed with a poker (a man who just happened to have been the ex-husband of Mrs. Tredwell); Barbara Tredwell (daughter of the house) disappears--possibly kidnapped; and Bella Slater, the Tredwell's upstairs maid who isn't exactly what she seems, is killed with a very sharp battle axe. Maclain will have to follow the scent of violets if he is going to find the spies responsible for the deaths and who are behind the plot against America's cities.
Loved this mystery thriller starring a blind private eye. His heightened abilities (other senses) are much more believable than those of Max Carrados (a blind detective who first appeared in 1914). Where Carrados's ability to smell spirit gum and to read newsprint by touch seem more like parlor tricks, Maclain's abilities are explained through careful training. The book is an interesting combination of spy thriller and classic mystery. There are definitely clues to be followed and the sharp reader will spot those that identify the killer. Unlike many classic detective stories, the motive is never an issue--the motive is simply spycraft. The spies are Nazis and out to do their worst. 

I definitely enjoyed Maclain as the hero and will be on the look-out for more in the series. ★★

[Finished on 2/27/18]

With Blood & Kisses

With Blood & Kisses (apa The Snark Was a Boojum; 1941) by Richard [Dora] Shattuck is a fun
romp. Golden "Sandy" Gate has traveled East to visit her father's people--against the advice of her mother who says, "Don't look up your father's people. They'll get you into trouble." But she can add nothing definite to this vague warning and Sandy winds up driving her Aunt Maud around the Massachusetts countryside on a nostalgic trip to visit all the places Maud and her husband Wilson Wilson (no, we didn't stutter) used to frequent. 

They wind up caught in a snow storm at house that seems to be just this side of a loony bin. It's filled to the brim with young pregnant women (and even the dog is pregnant) who all hope to produce the first heir in the Shilly family since good ol' Uncle Mortimer kicked the bucket. His will says that the first of his three nephews to produce a child with Shilly blood will inherit everything--leaving the others out in the cold. Everyone seems to have taken their frustration with this will out on the family lawyer, Ward McKay. And someone is especially put out and has been making attempts on the lawyer's life--even taking a potshot at him out the window when he, Aunt Maud, and Sandy try to leave the house in the car that's no longer there. It's been stolen by the youngest of the Shilly nephews (the only one young enough to definitely be out of the produce-an-heir stakes).

Then the news comes on the radio that a homicidal maniac has escaped and is roaming the countryside (just to add a little extra spice to the proceedings). Shortly thereafter Ward McKay is found dead--hanging from the ceiling in the front room. Sandy plays detective with Rodney Shilly--one of the nephews and the executor of Uncle Mortimer's estate--while Aunt Maud plays midwife to the expectant mothers. There's a suspicious butler named Daybreak, a superstitious cook, and a righteous veterinarian (who is only there to oversee the birthing of the Shilly puppies, not to take care of human babies, thank you) in the mix. There is much wandering around in the dark looking for clues and trying to hide evidence. And Aunt Maud talks a mile a minute and reminds me of the ladies in Arsenic & Old Lace. Rodney and Sandy do finally get the bottom of everything, manage to fall in love, and a good time is had by all--well except for the lawyer...and the murderer...and a few suspects who've been naughty in other ways.

If you're looking for a mystery where the clues are there for the taking and you can come to a nice, tidy conclusion right along with the detectives, then this isn't exactly what you're looking for. If you're looking for something along the lines of a screwball mystery movie plot of the 1930s or 40s, then have we got something for you! This is great fun. Aunt Maud steals the show and Sandy and Rodney have several romantic misunderstandings on their way to true love and a mystery well-solved. I did guess the culprit--but I definitely was going more by a hunch than by any evidence strewn about. A delightful, quick read. ★★

[Finished on 2/23/18]

You mean about the buggy tipping over? Well, Wilson thought I was hurt...and he put his arm around me and then of course he felt we must marry....I was dying to marry somebody; you know how young girls are. It was really very sweet, the whole thing. Just like some women's magazine; I'm sure you youngsters aren't half so romantic. ~Aunt Maud (p. 6)

AM: I had him cremated, we were in Naples at the time. and I brought the ashes home and had the briefcase made especially; we've never been separated since. Why, Sandy I thought you knew....Haven't you heard me talking to him all day?
SG: Well, yes, but--"
AM: Mercy, you didn't think I was talking to myself, did you? What an odd sort of person you must have thought me. ~Aunt Maud; Sand Gate (p. 7)

WM: It might interest you to know, Rodney, that another attempt has been made on my life
....he held out his hat for inspection, Sandy expected to hear him request that it be labeled "Exhibit A, for the people"
RS: If you ask me Ward, you've got a persecution complex.
...It took McKay a moment or two to recover his power of speech. "Persecution complex!" he yelled, then. "Persecution complex!" Dashing his hat to the floor, he danced up and down beside it, gibbering. ~Ward McKay; Rodney Shilly (p. 13)

Oh, well, you're a little weird yourself when it comes right down to it, running around looking for your uncle's ashes in a briefcase. What a cozy bunch of lunatics we are, to be sure. ~Rodney Shilly (p. 17)

Sandy thought, this is as much like the Mad Hatter's tea party as anything; at any moment the signal will be given and we'll all move one place to the right. (p. 18)

Mrs. Wilson, Miss Gate, will you excuse me? It seems McKay has been poisoned. Just keep right on with your dinner. ~Rodney Shilly (p. 19)

[Re: the escaped convict]
That would be Ruben Hubb. I'm just sure of it. They've kept him shut up at home for years, ever since he strangled the mailman; Rose wrote me about it. They had enough influence to keep him out of a public institution; they couldn't bear to have put away, of course. He used to be a strangler rather than a beheader, but I'm sure it's the same man. Under the circumstances, I think we had better stay the night, don't you, Golden dear? ~Aunt Maude (p. 21)

SG: Well, if the storm keeps up at least the maniac won't get here, will he?
RS: I don't suppose so, but then I don't know about maniacs. They're probably brimming with super-human strength. ~Sandy Gate; Rodney Shilly (p. 23)

Well might she be nervous about her hairpins, Sandy thought; you got the feeling that if they fell out, Maybelle would fall apart and dissolve into pink soapsuds before your eyes. (p. 26)

D: I was just clearing my throat, Sir. Begging your pardon, of course.
RS: Of course, well, next time you feel one of those hyena laughs in your throat, swallow it, don't clear it. ~Daybreak; Rodney Shilly (p. 31)

snow wasn't like rain, making a friendly tapping sound. Snow fell silently, it blanketed the world in silence; snowflakes were like the ghosts of raindrops, sadly haunting the air they remembered from a warmer incarnation. (p. 35)

Sleep in this house? Oh, no; it would be dangerous to expose the unconscious soul to the baleful influences at work here. Hatred the soul's black lover--the house was steeped in it. (p. 35)

Descending the hall stair, Sandy thought, I'm just like one of those nitwit heroines who go creeping around empty houses at night for no good reason and get strangled by homicidal maniacs. I ought to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my curly head and go to sleep. (p. 37)

Buttering bread, Sandy thought, I'm in love. If only I can get away before he finds out. Her normal self seemed to hover somewhere just above her left shoulder, watching with derision the changling Sandy who had fallen so idiotically in love under circumstances far from romantic. (p. 48)

What's the fun of having your virtue if you can't fight for it now and then? ~Sandy (78)