Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen

I read Pride and Prejudice this month as a part of the Jane Austen Read All A-Long at James Reads Books. The readalong started with Sense and Sensibility in July and continues through Persuasion in December. I opted for Pride and Prejudice in August, Emma in October, and Northanger Abbey in November. However, I was so happy with my experience with P&P this month that I think I may try to do another book or two.

For anyone who hasn't either read the book or watched one of the numerous adaptations, I will give a brief overview.The story is set in the early 1800's and centers on the main character Elizabeth, the second of five daughters whose family lives in a small town in Hertfordshire, near London. Elizabeth is close to her elder sister Jane, although they are very different in temperament. Themes include marriage, morality, education and the choices women had at the time.

Much of the focus of the book is Mrs. Bennet's determination to get her five daughters betrothed to men with some ability to support them, since her husband's estate is entailed and will go to a surviving male heir once Mr. Bennet dies. That she has this desire is natural and loving, but the way she goes about it is disruptive and unappealing.

The story is told primarily from Elizabeth's viewpoint, and we know little about what is going on in anyone else's head. However, Austen also reveals that Mr. Darcy, a young man with whom Elizabeth is at odds, is gradually becoming attracted to her.


I read Pride and Prejudice somewhere back in my distant past. I am sure I liked it then, but I wasn't sure how I would feel about it now. Happily for me, it was a very pleasant experience. As soon as I started reading the book, I realized why it is such an enduring book. I thought the prose and the conversation would be too stilted, too old fashioned. Maybe so, but it never bothered me at all. I was entranced from the beginning. The book was much longer than I thought it would be, but I enjoyed every page. The edition I read is 475 pages, but it does have illustrations.

The only problem with a reread of this book after seeing the adaptations of the book over the years was knowing what to expect, what happens. It did not spoil my enjoyment, but I did wonder how I would react to each section if I did not know what happens next (and who the villains are).

This book has been analyzed to death. I will just share a few thoughts:

  • I enjoyed getting a picture of life at the time, or at least the life of persons of the Bennett's social status. They are not well to do, but neither were they hurting for some of the luxuries of life. I enjoyed the illustrations by Hugh Thomson in my edition because they reminded me of how people dressed for their daily activities. 
  • The book is entertaining whether you are looking for deeper meanings and symbolism (I was not) or just enjoying the romance and the humor in the book. 
  • One of the things I like about this book is that because it was published in 1813, you know the people depicted here are real types that existed. My point is that this is not historical fiction with a picture of how we might like it to be, but fiction that reflects the people of the time, or at least this author's vision of it.

The only criticism of the book that occurred to me in this reading was that Austen tends to be very wordy, both in endless conversations and descriptions of situations. Yet, I loved the writing and the story so much I did not care.

This reread confirmed my belief that you just can't get the same experience from an adaptation. I have seen two TV show adaptations and the 1940 film with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.  Our favorite is the 1980 BBC mini-series with  Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet. But no adaptation can convey the depth that comes through in Jane Austen's writing.


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Publisher:   Book of the Month Club, 1996 (orig. pub. 1813)
Length:      476 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Literary fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dead Skip: Joe Gores

The DKA Files series by Joe Gores features a group of investigators who work for Daniel Kearny Associates, a firm specializing in repossessions of vehicles whose owners have defaulted on their loan payments. On the surface that sounds boring, but really it is not. There are six novels (plus one book of short stories) in the series.


Dead Skip (1972) is the first book in the series; Bart Heslip, a private investigator working for Dan Kearny Associates, is in a coma following a car crash. The police think he totaled the car while joyriding. His friend and coworker, Larry Ballard, knows that behavior does not fit Bart's character. Dan Kearney, his boss, gives Ballard 72 hours to work through Heslip's open files, looking for a clue to connect one of them to Bart's “accident.”


MY THOUGHTS

Joe Gores tells a  fast-moving story, with believable characters. He based the stories in this series on his own experiences as a private investigator in San Francisco, working for a firm very much like DK Associates. He provides a realistic, non-glamorous view of private investigators and their daily activities. The search takes place primarily in San Francisco and some East Bay communities.

One of the most fun parts of this novel for me was the crossover to the Parker universe. In this novel, Dan Kearney gets involved in the investigation towards the end, and along the way he runs into an old acquaintance, who turns out to be Parker, a series character created by Donald E. Westlake (as Richard Stark). It is only a brief understated scene, but it was a kick to recognize who he was referring to since I just started reading the Parker novels this year. Parker's encounter with Kearny is told in more detail and from a different perspective in Plunder Squad, a Parker novel. Nick Jones goes into much more detail on that in his review (of both books) at Existential Ennui.

In his review in 1001 Midnights (1986), Bill Pronzini calls this book "an excellent private-eye procedural." He also says: "Even better are the other two novels in the series — Final Notice (1973) and Gone, No Forwarding (1978)." (At the time those were the only books published in the series.)

See Also reviews by TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time and Rick Robinson at The Broken Bullhorn (Rick now blogs at Tip the Wink).


  ----------------------------------
Publisher: Random House, 1972
Length:    184 pages
Format:    Hardback (book club edition)
Series:     DKA Files #1
Setting:    San Francisco
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2016.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Rainbird Pattern: Victor Canning


The Rainbird Pattern (1972) by Victor Canning is the 2nd book in a loose series called the Birdcage books. They all revolve around a covert security group in the UK, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. There is very little oversight of the Department's work and the agents are generally amoral, although they believe that their mission is important to the welfare of the country. The first book I read featuring this covert department was Firebird. The plot was complex and kept me guessing, but most of the characters were unlikeable.

In The Rainbird Pattern, there are two distinct plotlines. One deals with a kidnapping plot; the reader follows the agents of the Department as they investigate two previous kidnappings. The second plot involves an elderly woman's search for her sister's child, put up for adoption decades earlier. Although skeptical about spiritualists, she hires a medium to get in touch with her dead sister. Madame Blanche believes in her gift and her contact in the spiritual world, but also makes use of the detecting abilities of her boyfriend, George. The question, of course, is how will these two plots intersect?

This is a short book, under 200 pages, but the build up to the point where the two plots come together is handled well. The author provides just enough background for the participants; the ending is surprising and dark. The development of the characters is well done but, as in Firecrest, I could not really root for any of the characters. Some of them are either evil or amoral or both, but even those with basically good intentions are primarily self-serving.

This is reportedly Victor Canning's most well regarded book, and that does not surprise me. It won a Silver Dagger Award from the CWA. Firebird was thought-provoking with very good characterization, but The Rainbird Pattern is on a higher level, and moves faster, especially towards the end.

The book was adapted as a film, Family Plot, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, script by Ernest Lehman. The film treatment is very different from the book. The basic elements of the plot remain, but the story is turned into a comedy. The setting is also moved from the UK to Southern California. Initially I found the setting disappointing but in a way it made it easier for me to switch to a different mode. Although none of the actors were spectacular in this film, many of them are actors I enjoy watching: Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black. I liked Barbara Harris as Blanche, the medium; I was not familiar with her before seeing this film. Family Plot is clearly not among Hitchcock's best films, but I enjoyed it.

Other resources:



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Publisher:   Ostara, 2010 (orig. pub. 1972)
Length:       193 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Birdcage books #2
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.


Friday, August 4, 2017

Reading Summary for July 2017

July has been another good reading month. I read nine books, which is a lot for me.  I am making progress on my Twenty Books of Summer. Of the nine books I read this month, seven were from that list. The other two were read this month because I wanted to read the book before I watched the movie.

One of the books was not crime fiction: Their Finest by Lissa Evans, set in the the UK in 1940 and 1941. The story is about a young female copywriter who gets an assignment to the Ministry of Information, writing parts of scripts for a WWII propaganda film. That alone would be an interesting subject, but the story follows several other people associated with the filming. Each one provides a different view of the UK during the war. It is a lovely story, very humorous, and one of my favorite reads of the month. I much prefer the UK title: Their Finest Hour and a Half.

Now for my list of crime fiction books...

City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley (2010)
A story about a female private eye set in 1940 in San Francisco's Chinatown. I have posted my thoughts on this book HERE.
Red Bones by Ann Cleeves (2009)
Red Bones is the third book in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves; the books are all set on the Shetland Islands, which are part of Scotland. They feature Inspector Jimmy Perez. I read the first two books a few years ago; although I liked them a lot, I don't remember much beyond the basic plot. I read this book (at this time) because we wanted to start the Shetland TV series and Red Bones is the first book which was adapted. I liked the book just as well as the first two. (I just finished Blue Lightning on Thursday, and it is my favorite of the four.)

New Orleans Mourning by Julie Smith (1991)
During the Mardi Gras parade, the King of the Carnival is shot and killed by someone dressed as Dolly Parton. Skip Langdon is one of the cops working on crowd control for the event. She is a friend of the family,  and thus gets involved with the investigation. This book won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The setting was done well and it was interesting to see this view of New Orleans.
The Distant Echo by Val McDermid (2003)
This is the first book in the Karen Pirie series, but she only shows up after 200 pages into the story and even after that only plays a small role in the story. Regardless, this was a very good tale of the investigation of a cold case, with close to half of the book taking place at the time that the crime is committed. I have posted my thoughts on this book HERE.

Bodies are Where you Find Them by Brett Halliday (1941)
I have a good number of the Mike Shayne novels by Brett Halliday, but I started with this one because the film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was loosely based on this novel. I did not really expect there to be much similarity between the two, but the basic premise is the same in both. In the book,  a woman’s body shows up in Mike's bed but disappears; Mike and his friend, reporter Timothy Rourke, are searching for it. I enjoyed this book, but I am pretty sure I am going to enjoy my next Mike Shayne story even more now that I have a taste of the series.

Brothers Keepers by Donald Westlake (1975)
This is about a small, obscure Catholic order of monks who are in danger of being tossed out of their home. This summary from Goodreads is just perfect so I am going to use it.  
"When the order's lease on the Park Avenue monastery expires, sixteen monks face a greedy real-estate mogul, and Brother Benedict falls in love with the mogul's daughter."
I loved this book. Another of my favorite books of the month.

A Shock to the System by Simon Brett (1984)
This is a very different book by Simon Brett. Most of his books that I have read are humorous mysteries about Charles Paris, the actor. A Shock to the System is part dark comedy, and part thriller. Graham Marshall is an HR professional, a seemingly ordinary man, who kills a man in a fit of pique. Initially he is remorseful and fears retribution; when it does not come, he begins to see murder as a solution to his problems. (This was the 2nd book I read because we want to watch the movie again. It just came out in a new Blu-ray edition.)


The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham (1938)
The simplest description of this book is that Albert Campion’s sister, a fashion designer, is implicated in a murder, and Albert wants very much to find the culprit. The story is, of course, much more complicated than that. Amanda Fitton, from the earlier book Sweet Danger, shows up again and she and Albert stage a fake engagement. My thoughts on the book are HERE.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Fashion in Shrouds: Margery Allingham


I am rereading the Albert Campion books in order, aiming to get to Tiger in the Smoke (1952). The Fashion in Shrouds is the 10th book in the series, published in 1938. 

Margery Allingham described this book as "a satirical comedy contrasting the characters of two young career women who have fallen in love with the same man" in her remarks in Mr. Campion's Lady, an omnibus of three books which involve both Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton. The two young women are Georgia Wells and Val Ferris, Campion's sister. Amanda Fitton was introduced in Sweet Danger; Campion's sister shows up first in The Fashion in Shrouds

This may be my favorite Albert Campion book yet; it is almost perfect. Allingham's writing just gets better and better. The plot is very complex. As the story begins, Campion has found the body of a man, who had died over a year before. The man was the lover of Georgia Wells at the time he died. Georgia, a very well known and popular actress, is now married to Raymond Ramillies, the governor of a British colony in Africa. But not satisfied with one man at a time, she soon becomes attracted to the man that Val is in love with. Val is a famous couturier designing Georgia's costumes for the play she is in. 

But let's not forget Amanda Fitton, now an aircraft engineer employed by Alan Dell. Campion and Amanda meet again for the first time in six years. She enlists his help in finding out why her boss is neglecting his airplane business. The answer: Georgia has him under her spell. And that is just the setup. So you can see it is a complicated story.  

When the second death occurs, Val and all the people in her circle are suspects, an awkward situation for Campion. He works with his old friend Inspector Stanislaus Oates of Scotland Yard and assures him that he can be impartial because he wants to discover the murderer as much as anyone. In the most recent Allingham books I have read, the investigations tend to go on and on and I get tired of that. So maybe this book was a little overlong, but still so beautifully told I did not mind.

Allingham creates many interesting characters. Albert Campion is a wonderful character, of course, but there is also Albert's manservant, Lugg, who provides humor. The focus on the women and their relationships in this novel is very different. There are also many eccentric characters in the theater and the fashion industry.

Much as I loved this story, there were places where I winced at racist and sexist statements and ideas. As far as the attitudes towards women at the time, I can only say that I was born early enough to be raised to consider that a woman's place is in the home, and it was only by chance that I went to college and did have (still have) a career. And this story was written in much earlier times with much more pervasive attitudes about women.

Note: Belatedly I am adding a link to Moira's post on The Fashion in Shrouds at Clothes in Books. And don't miss the link in that post to a previous post on the book.

-----------------------------

Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2008 (orig. pub. 1938)
Length:      340 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Albert Campion #10
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

City of Dragons: Kelli Stanley

Summary from the publisher:
February, 1940. In San Francisco's Chinatown, fireworks explode as the city celebrates Chinese New Year with a Rice Bowl Party, a three day-and-night carnival designed to raise money and support for China war relief. Miranda Corbie is a 33-year-old private investigator who stumbles upon the fatally shot body of Eddie Takahashi. The Chamber of Commerce wants it covered up. The cops acquiesce. All Miranda wants is justice--whatever it costs. From Chinatown tenements, to a tattered tailor's shop in Little Osaka, to a high-class bordello draped in Southern Gothic, she shakes down the city–her city–seeking the truth.

Miranda Corbie chooses to investigate Eddie Takahashi's death. She does pick up a second, paying case investigating the suspicious death of Lester Winters, and the disappearance of his daughter, Phyllis.

The handling of the setting in time and place is fantastic. Kelli Stanley makes San Francisco of the 1940's come alive, and she describes the tensions within Chinatown due to the war in Asia and Europe very well. I learned much about Chinatown and the US attitude toward the war at that time. I always enjoy a story set in Chinatown (of any city) but I don't think I have ever read one that was set before World War II.

Due to the writing style we are privy to Miranda's thoughts at times, and get glimpses of her background as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, and the loss of her boyfriend in that war. She is clearly still suffering from these experiences, and seems to take out her pain on friends and foes alike.

Although the story is told from Miranda's point of view it is not in first person. Sometimes her thinking and reactions read like a stream of consciousness, with short sentences and choppy delivery. At other times, the writing is very beautiful, lovely descriptions and straightforward prose.

I will not pretend that this was the perfect reading experience for me. We are reminded too often about the unhappiness and confusion that Miranda is experiencing. Many readers complained about the many, many references to smoking, which did not bother me. And I should warn readers that there is a lot of profanity, although I felt it fit the context.

Nevertheless, I was involved with the story and admired the heroine. I want to follow her in her story and I plan to read the next book in the series. My husband has read all three books in the series and will be purchasing book 4 when it comes out.


  ----------------------------------
Publisher: Minotaur Books, 2010
Length:    335 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Miranda Corbie #1
Setting:    Chinatown, San Francisco, 1940's
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    I borrowed this book from my husband.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Man with the Getaway Face: Richard Stark



Under the pseudonym of Richard Stark, Donald E. Westlake wrote a 24-book series featuring Parker, a thief and hardened criminal. Almost all of the books center around a heist.

In the first Parker novel, The Hunter, the focus is on revenge. Parker's wife and his partner betrayed him; after a heist, he was shot and left for dead. Parker goes after them, trying to get his share of the money back. Thus the second novel, The Man with the Getaway Face, is the first real heist novel in the series.

This book gives the reader a picture of the mechanics of setting up a heist, in this case, an armored car robbery. There is a "finger" who finds the opportunity for the heist. There is a person who provides the bank roll, the money to carry out the heist. Obviously there is the planning.




This time Parker is partnered with a guy called Skimm. A quote from the book describes the differences between them:
Skimm, like most men on the bum, lived from job to job; he spent more in one year than most make in five and was always broke, dressing and looking like a bum. How he did it, where it all went, Parker didn’t know. 
He [Parker] worked it differently, spending the money and time between jobs living at the best resort hotels and dressing himself in the best clothes. There was no overlap between people he knew on and off the job. He owned a couple of parking lots and gas stations around the country to satisfy the curiosity of the Internal Revenue beagles, but never went near them. He let the managers siphon off the profits in return for not asking him to take an active part in the business.
One of the givens in a heist story is there will be hitches in the plan. In this one, there are two hitches (at least) and one of them Parker is expecting. The other is a surprise to Parker and to the reader. The entertaining part is seeing how the story plays out when Parker runs into the problems.

In this book, even though Parker sees the problems early on, he is committed to the heist because he needs money dearly. He just paid a small fortune to have his face restructured, because people in the Outfit (the organization that is his nemesis) know what he looks like. So now he needs to build up his capital.

My thoughts:

In my review of The Hunter, I described Parker as having no redeeming qualities, and I said that there was "nothing admirable or likable about him." That is not far from the truth, but if so, what does pique my interest in these books? I do find Parker fascinating as a character study and I am sure that is due to Westlake's writing, which is very plain and unadorned. Parker is a professional. He is pragmatic; he makes his decisions related to completing a job in an intelligent way. He does not kill unnecessarily although this is mostly because he realizes that this is not in his best interests.

This book is like "the anatomy of a crime" (or in this case, a robbery or heist). It does not glorify the crime or the criminal, but treats it more like a job. There is no back story for Parker, no discussion of how or why did he come to this point in his life. We learn that he did care for his wife and misses his relationship with her, but that seems to be the only thing in his life that he has any emotional thoughts about. And even that is only a one-paragraph digression. The book is a non-emotional, straightforward story about a crime and the fallout from the crime.

I also see comparisons here with some spy novels I read. It seems like espionage appeals to the type of person who is good at thieving and killing, but in that case they get to do it for a cause. Sometimes they enjoy it, sometimes they are conflicted. In Parker's case, he is never conflicted about his job. This isn't everyone's type of book, but I am continuing on through the series for a while.

Some other resources:



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Publisher:  Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008 (orig. publ. 1963)
Length:     213 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Series:      Parker #2
Setting:     New Jersey, mainly
Genre:      Hard-boiled
Source:     I purchased my copy




Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Distant Echo: Val McDermid

In 1978, four young men, students at St. Andrews University, walk home from a party in the early morning hours. They are very drunk, loud and rambunctious. They happen upon a woman's body; it is clear she has been stabbed and is near death. One of them goes for help. By the time he has returned with a policeman, the woman has died, although one of the students tried to save her.

The victim, who was raped before she was stabbed, is Rosie Duff, a barmaid at a pub that the students frequented. Immediately they become the chief suspects in the crime. When no other viable suspects turn up, and the crime is not solved, they continue to be under a cloud of suspicion.

Twenty five years later, the case is reopened by a newly commissioned cold case squad. Assistant Chief Constable James Lawson, who was a police constable at the time of the crime, heads the squad, and DC Karen Pirie is investigating the Rosie Duff murder.


The first 160 pages (of 400) of The Distant Echo cover the discovery of the crime and the first few days of the investigation. The rest of the book is about the investigation of the crime 25 years later, and the impact that the unsolved crime has had on the four men over time.

The story focuses on the four young men throughout the first part of the book and they continue to feature prominently in the second half. Whether one or more of them is actually the murderer is left open for most of the book, and I got very involved with their stories. I guessed the resolution of the mystery early on but there was enough doubt to keep it interesting.

What else did I like about this book:

  • The use of the setting in Scotland is marvelous, especially in the first half of the book.
  • The perfect balance of / blending of the story about the four young men who find the body and and the police investigation.
  • The story in 1978 vs the story in 2003 is handled well. With the book split into two parts, there is less confusion than when the book goes back and forth.
  • Good character development. There are three main police officers, the four suspects, Rosie Duff's family and the families of the suspects. That is a lot of characters, but even with the jump to 25 years later in their lives, it did not get confusing and they were all well defined.

This is billed as the first book in the Karen Pirie series, but she only shows up after 200 pages into the story and even after that only plays a small role in the story. ACC Lawson plays a much more prominent role. This is not a problem for me, I just thought I should mention it. However, as far as the series go, I would read this one first because based on other reviews, this one is unavoidably spoiled if you read the second one first. This novel read much more like a standalone book, and it was a very enjoyable one.

See reviews at Goodreads by K. A. Laity and John Grant.


  ----------------------------------
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur, 2003
Length:    404 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Karen Pirie #1
Setting:    Scotland
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book in 2005.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Passing: Nella Larsen

Passing by Nella Larsen was published in 1929 and was one of only two books by this American author. It is the story of two childhood friends who meet up again by chance in Chicago. Both are light-skinned African-American women who can pass for white. Clare Kendry continues to live in Chicago and has married a white man who does not know that she has Negro blood. The couple have a daughter. Irene Redfield is married to a black doctor; they live in Harlem with their two young boys. Later, Clare wants to continue her friendship with Irene, and Irene resists.

The story is told primarily from Clare's point of view and focuses on her home life, her reactions to Clare, and how the continuation of their friendship affects both of their lives. For me it was an eye-opening picture of the black community in Harlem in the 1920's.

As Clare continues to force her way into Irene's life, it is strange how strongly Irene reacts. At first Irene's husband is disapproving of Clare, then he begins to accept her and enjoy her presence. Clare's husband is very antagonistic towards Negroes, so Clare's visits with the Redfields are in secret. Clare seems to be running away from her life in white society when she visits New York. She is risking her marriage and the loss of her child if her husband becomes aware of her background, but she seems to want that to happen. Irene finds her irritating but irresistible.

Irene meanwhile seems to ignore the fact that racism exists and doesn't want her children to have to deal with that. Her husband is unhappy with their life in New York and wants to move to Brazil where he hopes they would have a better life. Their relationship is very conflicted. Clare's entry into their life, even on an occasional basis, begins to bring Irene's marital problems to the forefront.

The reader can sympathize with Clare's desire to live a different life where she is treated as an equal, but we can also see that the subterfuge takes a great toll on her. It is also interesting that both of these women are married to well-to-do men and have servants. They have attained a dream of wealth and a family, but both are unhappy.

For such a short novel (in my copy less than a hundred pages), this is a very complex story. Some readers were dissatisfied with the ending. I found it surprising but felt that it fit in with the story, leaving some things up in the air. The themes in this book go beyond racism, to the role of women, identity, and the difficulty of relationships. In addition, it is extremely well written.

My first introduction to this book was at Clothes in Books in a post by guest blogger Colm Redmond. I urge you to check out his insights in that post.

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Publisher:  BN Publishing, 2012 (orig. publ. 1929).
Length:      94 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Harlem, New York (mainly)
Genre:        Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Track of the Cat: Nevada Barr

Each book in the Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr is set in a different national park in the US. If this book is any indication, the reader is immersed in nature and the environment while reading each story.

Anna is a park ranger, and in this novel, she has a posting at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. As the book starts, she is hiking a transect in the park looking for mountain lion scat. (A transect is a path along which one counts and records occurrences of the species of study.) As she nears the end of her trek, she finds the body of another park ranger. Apparently the ranger, Sheila Drury, was mauled by a mountain lion, but Anna questions whether this is true. Against the wishes of her superiors, she pursues an investigation to find out more about the death.


For some reason, I have never thought of National Park Rangers as law enforcement officers; this may not be the largest part of their jobs at most times, but they can be trained in law enforcement, and if so, they do carry guns. Although this book is a thriller, Anna's experiences were believable. Nevada Barr was a park ranger and worked in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, so she clearly is writing from experience and is invested in the theme of protecting animals in the park and the environment.

I found this a very good read, although to be honest, the portions where she is out on trails hiking were not my favorite parts. I suspect I am in the minority here, and I recommend this highly for readers interested in this immersion in the environment. Anna is a very interesting character, strong-willed, sometimes irritable and cranky, and for the most part a loner. The fact that Anna is not always likable makes her more interesting to me; she is not your usual type of heroine. The secondary characters were not so well developed, however.

Here is a quote from the first chapter of the book:
Anna sat down on a smooth boulder, the top hollowed into a natural seat. The red peeling arms of a Texas madrone held a veil of dusty shade over her eyes. This was the third day of this transect. By evening she would reach civilization: people. A contradiction in terms, she thought even as the words trickled through her mind. Electric lights, television, human companionship, held no allure. But she wanted a bath and she wanted a drink. Mostly she wanted a drink.
As mentioned before,  each book is set in a different National Park area and this is a bonus. I have several more books in the series: Endangered Species (1997) and Deep South (2000) and a couple of the later books. I would especially like to read Deep South because the area she is assigned to is the Natchez Trace Parkway. (My grandfather used to call me Natchez Trace.) It could be fun to read about that area.

See other reviews at Crimepieces and Petrona, and Margot's Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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Publisher:  Avon Books, 1994. Orig. pub. 1993.
Length:     311 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Anna Pigeon, #1
Setting:     Texas
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy a long time ago.

Monday, July 3, 2017

A 4th of July Mystery: A Fountain Filled with Blood

This is the second mystery in the Reverend Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Clare Fergusson has left her job in the military as a helicopter pilot to become an Episcopal priest in the small town of Miller's Kill, New York. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief and they seem to run into each other a lot.

As the citizens of Miller's Kill, New York head into the July 4th weekend, two gay men are severely beaten in separate incidents. Clare urges the police to notify the public; Russ feels like this could lead to copycat incidents. When another man, also homosexual, is killed, Russ must figure out if the crimes are connected. Mixed in with this are conflicts within the town over development of a luxury spa and environmental issues.


Having read the first book in this series, In the Bleak Midwinter, I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy the 2nd book in the series as much. I was not entirely  comfortable with the attraction that develops between the two major characters in the book, Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne. It seemed out of character for both of them and nowhere for it to go realistically. That does continue to be an underlying theme in the books from what I have read.

If I was being picky, I would have other complaints. Clare is an intelligent person with strength of character; in view of that, some of the situations she gets herself into don't make sense. Yet, even with my reservations in that area, I found this book so compelling and involving that I could hardly put it down. I started it one evening and finished it the next day. Granted, that was on a weekend but that rarely happens to me.

Although I do not participate in organized religious activities, I do enjoy reading mysteries with a clerical theme. I like to learn about other religions (I grew up in a Methodist church in Alabama). Although the plot in A Fountain Filled with Blood does not center around the church, Clare's behavior and choices are informed by the expectations inherent in her role in the church.  And I was surprised at what I learned about the Episcopal church, or at least the one in Miller's Kill, New York.

So, on many levels, I enjoyed this book and I will be reading the next one to see where Clare goes from here.

Other resources:


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Publisher:  St. Mattin's Paperbacks, 2004. Orig. pub. 2003.
Length:     371 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne, #2
Setting:     Upstate New York
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy in 2006.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Crime Fiction Reading in June 2017

In June I began reading from my 20 Books of  Summer list (my list is HERE). Only five of my seven books read this month were from that list. The Big Killing was a carryover from my reading in May, and I purchased Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective in June so that I could read it prior to watching the TV series. So I am a bit behind on the list, but still doing well. I read three books from the 1990s and only one vintage mystery, published in 1937.

These are the seven books I read in June:

The Big Killing (1989) by Annette Meyers
Xenia Smith and Leslie Wetzon are executive headhunters located on Wall Street. This is the first of the mysteries featuring this team. Wetzon meets Barry Stark, a potential client, at the Four Seasons for lunch. He excuses himself for a moment; shortly after that, Leslie Wetzon finds his dead body in a telephone booth at the restaurant. Both Smith and Wetzon are very interested in the homicide cop, Silvestri, who is assigned to the murder. The main protagonist, Wetzon, was formerly a dancer on Broadway, and that side story lends the most interest to the story for me. 
Vanishing Act (1995) by Thomas Perry
I have only read two books by Thomas Perry, and I feel like I have found a new favorite author. The first was The Butcher's Boy, about a man who murders for hire, and a brilliant young analyst, Elizabeth Waring, who notices a pattern related to his crimes. Vanishing Act is the first in a series about Jane Whitefield, a Native American guide, who helps people in trouble find new identities and disappear. I will be reading more books by Thomas Perry later in the year.
Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective (1976) by Leslie Thomas
Dangerous Davies is a hapless detective with serious flaws who through patience and determination manages to solve the cases that he takes an interest in. The book was published in 1976 and Davies takes up the cold case of a teenage girl who disappeared in 1951. My review is HERE. I will continue reading the series (only 4 books) and watching the TV series.
The Man with the Getaway Face (1963) by Richard Stark
This is the 2nd book in the Parker series by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake). Parker is an amoral crook; Westlake wrote 24 books about him between 1962 and 2008. I find it hard to describe these books, so I am borrowing a paragraph from The University of Chicago Press, the publisher of the reprint edition: 
"Parker goes under the knife in The Man with the Getaway Face, changing his face to escape the mob and a contract on his life. Along the way he scores his biggest heist yet: an armored car in New Jersey, stuffed with cash."
Track of the Cat (1993) by Nevada Barr
Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr is a fine debut novel, the first in a series about Park Ranger Anna Pigeon. In this novel, Anna has a posting in Texas (the Guadalupe Mountains National Park). The book is a nature lover's delight, and Nevada spends a lot of time hiking in the park. Nevada is a loner, cranky, not much for socializing; a different kind of heroine. 
The Black Ice (1993) by Michael Connelly
The second novel in the Harry Bosch series starts on Christmas day; Harry is eating his Christmas dinner alone and is on call. That same night, he ends up in a motel room where the dead body of Narcotics detective Calexico Moore has been discovered; or so they assume, since the body has been in the room for weeks and is in bad shape. The investigation into how Moore died takes Harry to Mexico.


Busman's Honeymoon (1937) by Dorothy Sayers
This is the last novel in Dorothy Sayers' series about Lord Peter Wimsey. After five years of being wooed by Peter, Harriet Vane has finally said yes, and we get a peek at the wedding planning, the nuptials, but most of all their first few days of marriage at Talboys, where a dead body is discovered.





Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective by Leslie Thomas


This is a strange book about a strange policeman, but in the end I liked it very much. I was motivated to read the book because I was about to begin watching the TV series based on the Dangerous Davies books. Serendipitously,  I ran into the book at my local independent bookstore at just the right time.

This is the first chapter of the book:
This is the story of a man who became deeply concerned with the unsolved murder of a young girl, committed twenty-five years before. 
He was a drunk, lost, laughed at and frequently baffled; poor attributes for a detective. But he was patient too, and dogged. He was called Dangerous Davies (because he was said to be harmless) and was known in the London police as “The Last Detective” since he was never dispatched on any assignment unless it was very risky or there was no one else to send.

Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective was published in 1976 and set at that time. Davies is assigned the case of finding Cecil Ramscar, a criminal who had escaped the country, living in Australia and America at times, but is now back in his old stomping grounds. It isn't a big case, they just want to find Ramscar and keep an eye on him, so Davies does not take the assignment too seriously. But he discovers an unsolved case from twenty five years earlier that is mentioned in the file on Ramscar and he gets very serious about tracking down the truth behind the disappearance of a 17-year-old girl, Celia Norris

Davies is an alcoholic, and a real bumbling detective. He pursues the cold case doggedly, but a lot of what gets done happens accidentally. I was wary of reading a book about a detective who succeeds in spite of himself, but overall it worked for me. I think the key is that Davies is a genuinely kind and generous person. People may laugh at him, but he gains trust from people easily, which helps in gathering information. It is very believable in the end that with his determination, persistence, and decency, he does solve the case.

A description in the book:
Davies, a long man, thirty-three years old, inhabited his tall brown overcoat for the entire London winter and well into the spring. By the first frosts he was resident again. 
He was to be seen at the wheel of his 1937 Lagonda Tourer, forever open and exposed to the weather, the hood having been jammed like a fixed backward grin since 1940.
This is a humorous novel with some very colorful characters; Davies lives in a boarding house, where his best friend Mod also has a room. His wife also lives there but they are in different rooms. As far as I can remember this is never explained and there seems to be little affection between them. Davies' dog is large, old and cranky, and lives in the back seat of his car. But the best characterizations are those of Celia Norris's family and the various witnesses from the cold case who are interviewed by Davies.

After reading the book, I did watch the pilot for The Last Detective, the TV series starring Peter Davison as Dangerous Davies. The TV series was first run in 2003,  and it brings Dangerous Davies into the 21st century. The detective is still bumbling and not very competent as a policeman, but his flaws are not so evident as in the book. And the dog doesn't live in the car. The pilot episode is based on this book. The plot is very similar, although with some changes to the solution (which I approve of because it makes it more interesting to watch).  I plan to continue watching the series.

Please see Sergio's excellent post on both the book and the TV series at Tipping My Fedora.

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Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2011 (orig. pub. 1976)
Length:      272 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Dangerous Davies #1
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Police procedural (loosely)
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Janus Stone: Elly Griffiths

This is the second book in the series featuring forensics archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives in Norfolk in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh. She is called in as an expert when the bones of a young child are found on a building site where an old Victorian home is being torn down to be replaced by luxury apartments.

The two main characters in this series are Ruth and Harry Nelson. Harry is a policeman, a Detective Chief Inspector in the Norwich police force. They are thrown together working on cases when Ruth is called in to consult or give evidence when human bones are discovered. Harry and Ruth experience a connection almost immediately, but Harry is married with two teenage girls, and the relationship is awkward because of that. This is a major part of the stories (at least so far).


The archaeological background in this story is interesting; at first the age of the skeleton is not known. The building site was previously a children's home, run by the Catholic church. Prior to that it was a family home. The bones could be from either time period, or much earlier.

I have a few quibbles with this book, but none of them are serious. Ruth is a believable amateur sleuth, in my opinion, as her job puts her in situations where she will get involved with murder, but she ends up in threatening or dangerous situations too much (for me).

The other complaint is that the book is written in present tense, and that just isn't comfortable reading for me. In this book, the present tense style seems even more pervasive than in other books I have read that were written in that style. Because I wanted to read this book and I did not want to hate the experience, I tried a new approach. I decided to read it in a meditative way, reading each sentence slowly and paying attention. (This is not my usual style; I read fast and often miss details.) The meditative approach worked for me. I would find myself getting lost in the story and then whenever the present tense pulled me out again, I would move back to the slower, more attentive mode of reading.

On the positive side, the characters are interesting and funny at times. Ruth's parents and her co-workers are portrayed in very realistic ways and her relationships with all of them are very believable. The reader is privy to both Ruth and Harry's thoughts and opinions and that works really well for me. The unfolding story of their lives is told with humor and wit.

The series is very popular and I definitely recommend it, but I feel it is important to start with the first book. Because this book revolves so much around the personal lives of the main characters, I don't see getting much enjoyment from the books without knowing the backstory. I definitely want to know what is coming next in the lives of the characters and I will continue the series.

These are my husband's comments when he reviewed the book at Goodreads:
I enjoy mysteries that involve events in the past impacting the present and this compelling (and complicated) plot delivers. The personal issues of the main character are a bit too melodramatic this time though.
Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... has an excellent overview of The Crossing Places, the first book in the series. Also see my review of that book.

 -----------------------------

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Length:    327 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Ruth Galloway #2
Setting:    Norfolk, UK
Genre:     Mystery
Source:   Originally my husband's book; he passed it on to me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Murder in Jerusalem: Batya Gur

This is the final book in the Michael Ohayon series by Batya Gur, and was published posthumously. There are six books in the series and each book takes place in a particular environment; in this book it is a TV station in Jerusalem, and a woman's body in found in the wardrobe and prop warehouse. The dead woman is a set-designer; she and many of the staff at Israel Television have worked together for years, and the relationships are complex. Chief Superintendent Ohayon works with his staff to determine who the murderer is, as more deaths occur.


The main attractions of this series of mysteries are the setting in Israel and Michael Ohayon's complex character. In this book we get a lot of information about various issues in Israel, but Ohayon is a less prominent and interesting character in this one. Some may enjoy this book for the setting in a television studio. There are a lot of characters, both at the TV station and working on the police investigation, which can get confusing.

This is definitely more of a psychological mystery than a fast-paced thriller, which is true with all of the books in the series. I enjoyed the first books in the series, but the latter books were less compelling, for varied reasons. Having said that, I am glad I had this last visit with Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon and his coworkers as they solve the mystery.

I would recommend this book to those who like slowly-paced, thoughtful literary mysteries, and those who want to learn more about Israel (and in particular in this book, various views on Zionism) or those who are interested in the TV studio setting. But mainly, my goal here is to suggest that you try some of the other mysteries by Batya Gur first.

I loved the first three books in the series. Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case (1992) begins with a death at the Jerusalem Psychoanalytic Institute. In Literary Murder: A Critical Case (1993), the background is the academic setting of Hebrew University and the victim is a professor of literature and a poet. Murder on a Kibbutz: A Communal Case (1994) is set on a kibbutz and it is a toss up between this one and Literary Murder as to which is my favorite. I still have a copy of Literary Murder and I plan to re-read it someday.

I have to share with you these thoughts from a review on Murder on a Kibbutz, at Eric Pallant's blog:
Great mysteries also teach you something about a time or location you otherwise couldn’t know about, and very few mystery writers are better than Israel’s Batya Gur. In Murder on a Kibbutz her detective Michael Ohayan is called upon to investigate the murder of a kibbutznik, which in Israel is exceptionally rare. Gur peels away the layers of the onion that make up a family-like group of 300 people who care about one another, share everything, and despise one another as only family members can. What I can say, having lived on an Israeli kibbutz, is that every page of description is microscopically accurate, the characters are almost too real to be fictional, and the mystery is hard to solve.
The only book in the series that I did not care for was Murder Duet: A Musical Case (1999). I am sure many readers would love the setting in the world of classical music, but I was bothered by the fact that Ohayon was personally involved in the case and continued to work on it. The fifth book, Bethlehem Road Murder (2004), concerns a murder in an insular neighborhood in Jerusalem, and explores sociological and political issues in Israel more than previous books in the series.

A review of this book at Mystery Tribune includes this biography of the author:
Batya Gur (January 1947 – May 2005) was an Israeli writer with the specialty in detective fiction, obviously set in Israel. She was born in Tel Aviv in 1947 to parents who survived the Holocaust. She earned a master’s degree in Hebrew literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Before writing her first detective novel at the age of 39, she taught literature in high school. Gur was also a literary critic for Haaretz newspaper. She died of cancer at the age of 57.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   HarperCollins, 2006
Length:       388 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Michael Ohayon, #4
Translated by:  Evan Fallenberg
Setting:       Jerusalem
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:       Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2009.




Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Tag

A week ago I saw a Book Tag at two blogs I read, NancyElin and Brona's Books. I am not usually successful at answering these types of questions, but I gave it a shot this time. I started with the ten questions that Nancy and Brona had used.

I added one last question that was from the longer lists at On Bookes and Howling Frog Books.


1. What book has been on your shelf the longest?
I am guessing that would be one of my Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout. I have had copies of some of those since I was in college (or before?) although I am sure I originally read them in library editions. 
2. What is your current read, last read and the book you plan to read next?
Current Read: Black Ice by Michael Connelly 
Last Read: Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr 
Next Read: I don't usually decide in advance but this month I have been cycling between lighter mysteries and the more gritty, violent mysteries. So I might opt for one of the vintage mysteries in my list of 20 Books for Summer.

3. What book do you tell yourself you’ll read, but probably won't?
Two books by Connie Willis:  Black Out and All Clear. From what I read at TOR.com, they are essentially "one book, conveniently bound in two volumes." Together, in the editions my husband owns, the books total 1100 pages. Quite a commitment. But look at the covers, aren't they gorgeous?


4. What book are you saving for retirement?
My husband has a lot of non-fiction books that I would love to read but just don't have the time or the patience now. In a few years, I may actually read Austerity Britain by David Kynaston (692 pages).
5. Which book character would you switch places with?
This may show a lack of imagination, but I really don't want to trade places with anyone. 
But, I would love to visit the Nero Wolfe / Archie Goodwin household for a while, so maybe I would do a temporary swap with Lily Rowan (although I don't know that she ever visits the brownstone) or maybe Lon Cohen (a journalist working for the fictional New York Gazette) when he is invited over for dinner. Or try being Theodore for a week or so and take care of the orchids.

6. What book reminds you a specific place/time/person?
Any of the books in the Nameless Detective series by Bill Pronzini remind me of when I suggested this author to my husband. He bought several of the books and he did enjoy his writing. He now has copies of all of the books in the Nameless series. 
It was decades ago in a used book store in Santa Barbara, now long out of business. I cannot remember if we were visiting Santa Barbara before we moved here, or if it was early in our marriage. Whichever, it is a very fond memory. The bookstore and the owner were both very nice.





7. Which book has been with you most places?
Same answer as for #1. I started reading the Nero Wolfe series when I was in my teens. I remember when I bought my first hardback book by Rex Stout when I had my first job. (That dates me.)   
I have reread them over and over through the years. I have multiple copies (paperback of course) of many of the books in the series.
8. Which book have you reread the most?
Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout. Do you see a theme here? 



9. What book outside your comfort zone did you end up loving?
Under the Dome by Stephen King. I have not read a book by Stephen King in 30 years, probably longer. Most of his writing is too horrific for me. For some reason I got interested in Under the Dome but was dismayed to see that it was over 1000 pages. But I read it and enjoyed it a lot. Very dark in the end though.

10. Three bookish confessions?
I will buy books only for the covers and sometimes not even read them. 
I have over 1000 books in my TBR piles, shelves, boxes, etc. (physical hard copy books, not including those on the Kindle).
And I keep buying books anyway. 

11. Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?
This was a hard one to answer. Mostly, the answer is no. Often the book and the movie differ but still both have wonderful qualities. But I did come up with two. In both cases I had seen the movie before reading the book, which might have made a difference.
Vertigo, which was based on a book originally published in France in 1954 as D'entre les morts, by Boileau-Narcejac. The book was very, very good, but the film has been a favorite for a long time. The film is set in San Francisco, the book is set in France, but the stories are very similar. (My post is here.)
The Ice Harvest: The book, written by Scott Phillips, is the most noir story I have every read. It is unrelentingly bleak and grim. It is very good but I can't say I enjoyed reading it. The film follows the same story for the most part, but it is not quite so bleak, and I loved all the actors. John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, Billy Bob Thornton is his partner in crime; Connie Nielsen plays the gorgeous femme fatale. Oliver Platt plays a friend who is now married to Charlie's ex-wife. (My post is here.)