Friday, September 17, 2021

57. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

This was the Edmund Crispin that came so highly recommend.  I think by Kenneth Hite, but I can't remember exactly.  I actually bought this new at one of the big bookstore chains.  I like but did not love the other Crispin I had read, so approached this with moderate hopes.  After having read it, I better understand his deal now.  These books are supposed to be funny, which I don't think I fully appreciated with The Case of the Gilded Fly.  The Moving Toyshop is not a masterpiece.  It goes on too long and the interesting part of the mystery is revealed early on.  I think it's main raison d'etre though, is not so much the mystery but to showcase the town of Oxford and the kinds of characters that live there.

The book starts with Cardogan, a poet (clearly of the upper classes because though he struggles with money he somehow has a home and a servant) who feels like he wants adventure in his life.  He also wants to avoid a poetry tour of America that his editor is pushing on him.  He goes to Oxford but has to hitch a ride and then walk in late at night.  Passing a toy store with a door ajar, he decides to go in.  Upstairs, he discovers the body of a woman and is then knocked out.  When he wakes up, he is in a closet at the back of the building, which no longer houses a toy store but a grocery shop and the proprietor and the cops think he may be suffering from delusions due to the concussion.

Enter Gervase Fen, literature professor and don.  This begins a madcap adventure of deduction and college hijinks, much of which is quite funny.  I will not seek out Crispons book, but I may well take the next one I stumble upon. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

56. The Q Document by James Hall Roberts

I found this book at the super cool Eyesore Cinema on Bloor in Toronto.  My nephew and I were tooling around the streets as we are wont to do when we get together and found it open.  We had come here a couple years ago and seen a backroom late-night screening of The Howling II so I had always wanted to stop by.  I was quite pleased to see they have a small bookshelf of paperbacks for sale. I first thought this was some bad non-fiction exposé that was some actual substantive origin of the nonsense behind those qanon fucks.  My nephew, in his teenage certainty was like "No, it's fiction." and he was right.

It is a bit hard to categorize this book.  It's sort of a thriller but not really thrilling.  The story is about, Cooper an academic living in Japan in the early 60s who has recently lost his wife and daughter in a fire.  He now translates ancient documents for a brothel owner with a side business in trafficked antiquities.  The brothel owner brings him a strange set of documents that were smuggled out of China and appear to be quite valuable.  As Cooper digs into them, he discovers that they seem to be proof that Jesus Christ was just a charismatic rebel who died and was never resurrected.  At the same time, he gets connected with an 11-year old girl who was sold into the brothel and then escaped.    

So the existential theme here is can Cooper take the responsibility of verifying the document that disproves Christ, thus destroying Christianity.  The more practical matter is protecting the girl.  The two become opposed.  

It's a very well-written book and I found myself absorbed in the narrative.  The descriptions of Japan, including lots of train scenes and a ski lodge, were enjoyable and seemed to be fairly accurate.  There is a lot of reflection by Cooper and the Pulitzer prize winning war journalist who has lost her mojo that he alllies with.  I usually don't go for that kind of wanking but for some reason it worked here.  Finally, the bad guy, the brothel owner is just a great character.  Always super polite and verbose, while being weirdly clean and yet also somehow kind of disgusting.

The big reveal that resolves all the conflict felt a bit cheap, as the author breaks some basic premises established earlier in the book so you couldn't have figured it out yourself. Despite that, I put it down satisfied.  Not a masterpiece or anything, but a nice obscure find and a good read.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

55. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf

A friend lent me this graphic novel (same person who lent me Trashed and possibly even the Dahmer one; an excellent resource).  I plowed through it overnight.  It is thoroughly researched and does an excellent job of capturing what life was like on campus and in the town of Kent in the days leading up to the murder of 4 students by the National Guard in 1970.  It's really infuriating to read. Both because of the ignorance and authoritarianism of the time but also to know that the same kinds of assholes still have power and voices in America today.

Emotions aside, a graphic novel was an excellent way to enrich and remind me of the details of what went down.  It also really captures the horror of what it must have like to first have your campus taken over by redneck soldiers led by armchair fascists and then to have them actually open fire and gun down fellow Americans.  It is a period from which I have absorbed a lot of cultural and historical material, but now that we are living in a similar time of rupture, I realize that I had always treated it with some distance.  It's very scary to see your society fall apart and this comic captures that well.  

Monday, September 06, 2021

54. The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald

I think I haven't been fair in my own mind about Ross Macdonald.  It's not his fault that his name remains as a pillar of the detective genre while his wife, whom I consider a better writer, is only remembered by a minority of genre fans.  I am also tainted by the last book of his that I read that I found to be overly melancholic.  I found The Galton Case at Valu Village in Toronto for a buck so had to take it, especially with this cool cover.  This is a paperback on its last legs, with pages ready to fall out, but it got one more read out of me and my friend wants it afterwards.

And I am glad I did read pick it up because it was really good and reminded me why Macdonald has his reputation.  There is a lot of detecting in The Galton Case!  Macdonald is hired by a lawyer to find the long lost son of the elderly matron of a vast fortune.  The investigation takes him up and down California, from hipster jazz bars and seedy hotels in San Francisco to new housing developments in mid-coast towns.  The first half of the book is a very enjoyable hunt for this missing man.  Once he is sort of found and a rough narrative of what happened to him becomes clear, we then move into another mystery of what did actually happen to him and if the newly discovered grandson is indeed who he says he is. There is even a strong Canadian connection, with Macdonald maybe even making a brief detour back to his own personal background.

This is pretty much a classic P.I. book, with the obligatory beatdown and unconsciousness (Archer actually gets knocked out 3 times in succession, which really can't be healthy), multiple twists that of course bring it all back home and just a lot of great dialogue.  The way that he talks to people to get information from them is particularly well done here.  Great stuff, I am glad to have re-opened my reading to Ross Macdonald.

Friday, September 03, 2021

53. StreetLethal by Steven Barnes

I found this in the very pleasant Zoinks Music and Books on west Bloor street in Toronto.  I liked this store because it was small and open but the shelves were stocked with a nice selection of used paperbacks in sci-fi, fantasy and crime.  It wasn't trying to be anything fancy while remaining easy browse with a good selection.  I grabbed StreetLethal because of the trashy 80s cyberpunk cover. 

It was the kind of read I was looking for, a gritty urban dystopic sci-fi with lots of action.  Unfortunately, it is kind of a mess.  The story contains too much so that much is left poorly explained and narratives die off.  It starts off with Aubry Knight, a weightless boxer, who I thought was just a contender, getting  betrayed and sent to a maximum security prison underground in Death Valley.  This was all really cool, the scenes of future LA and the idea of the prison itself.  But even early on there is a lot of time spent on Aubry's psychology, which is really unclear.  Somehow he is a total badass, yet also a rube and underling in the criminal organization that betrayed him.  He escapes, which was also cool, and meets a prostitute with a plastiskin implant that also makes her somehow unique, yet she too is sort of on the skids.  

He goes for payback against the gang and they end up in an underground society of scavengers and a much grander plotline involving a new drug that works with couples.  This is where the story really started to drag for me as there is a lot of time spent on their relationship most of which was neither compelling nor convincing.  They are both supposed to be damaged and need to learn to love themselves, each other, the Scavenger society but they are fighting and then not.  Then the drug is introduced and turns them into total junkies in about two pages.  It all got quite tiresome.  The bigger problem was that I never really felt a foundation of either of their personalities or backgrounds, so their struggles which were already somewhat incoherent, held no weight for me.

There was some cool ideas here and the cyberpunk ideas and locations were quite interesting at times.  One really impressive thing was that the future tech rarely felt dated, which is tough to pull off. It also had some decent fight writing.  It's too bad some of the major elements were not well thought out, especially the drug, which was either socially devastating and yet also going to bring love into the world.  The acknowledgements section suggests that Barnes was quite connected, perhaps in LA, as he drops some big martial arts names (Danny Inosanto for one) and sci-fi authors.

Damn, I just realized after reading some reviews that the cover art depicts a white guy but Aubry in the book is black.  White supremacy, indeed.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

51. Shoedog by George Pelecanos

Found in one of the many free little libraries in the residential stretches that grid Toronto.  While I love living in a bilingual world, it is nice to have only english books to choose from. On the street I was staying there were three free book boxes alone (although it was the longest block in Toronto).I've read quite a few of George pelecanos novels and always enjoy him. However I feel I have a pretty good sense of his style and I'm not always interested in checking any of his newer books out. I am not sure what compelled me to take this one but I'm glad that I did.

This is a standalone crime novel about a young drifter who gets picked up by an older drifter slash criminal. At first it seems like they're just going to ride together to the South but then the older guy has to stop off to pick up some money. The place they stop at it's a big well secured house in the middle of nowhere outside of Washington DC with a big doberman in acage. Instead of the money the two of them get caught up in a double heist of liquor stores in Washington.

There is a secondary character, an African American shoe salesman in DC who also participates in the heist. The Narrative goes back and forth between the initial Drifter and the shoe salesman (who has the nickname Shoedog, thus the title).  What was cool about this book is that it really was a self-contained heist novel.  There are even parts that felt a lot like a Richard Stark book and I wonder if Pelecanos' had that in mind when he wrote it. However there's a lot more introspection and feelings about the characters than would ever occur in a Parker novel.

The drifter character felt very much like a young white male fantasy of the criminal life. He comes from a lower middle-class background with a mother dead of alchoholism and a disciplinarian, unfeeling father..   instead of going to a good college as his father had hoped he joins the military where he learns how to kick ass and shoot guns and then spends much of his life travelling all over America and the world working in restaurant and having sex and sometimes cool conflicts. Where the novel begins he is as aimless as ever and maybe looking for something but all that really seems to get him off is that buzz when he starts to do something Criminal. So the job is very appealing to him.

The shoe dog character on the other hand is more grounded. He's a Black guy who is one of the best salesmen at the shoe store and augments his income by doing heist jobs on the side and other crimes. He's basically an honourable fellow and you want him to succeed.

It's a fast-paced easily digestible crime novel with some cliches that were well portrayed and wrapped up in a unique enough exterior that they were never annoying. I would also add that if you are a car person there are several a detailed descriptions of very specific old style hot rods that you might find enjoyable. This is a great read for the summer.

Friday, August 06, 2021

50. Double for Death by Rex Stout

I have been looking for a Rex stout book for quite awhile as I am a fan of the Nero Wolfe old time radio shows. So I was quite happy to discover this book in the free box in my neighborhood. However when I got it open and started reading it I discovered it wasn't actually a Nero Wolfe book. I was mildly disappointed but soldiered on. 

The protagonist here is Tecumseh fox and his setup was equally as cool as that of Nero Wolfe. Tecumseh fox lives in a beautiful old estate in upstate New York with a diverse mix of querelous servants and helpers. His driver and dogsbody for instance has the title of vice president of his company and he also has a housekeeper and cook with whom they seem to have a slightly tense relationship. He also has various guests who stay with him in times of need. He just seems to be the gentleman detective who has enough money to lead a very pleasant lifestyle not far from New York City and indulge in exciting investigations in and around New York City with a panoply of resources both financial and social.

I later read that this was the best of the Tecumseh fox stories the other ones were not quite as interesting and I think were even considered sort of boring but I may be wrong about that I just went read one review. The setup itself ended up being more entertaining than the mystery which involved a wealthy man who was murdered in his secret cabin that nobody but his manservant knew about. Well almost nobody has the uncle of a young woman in distress who's come to Tecumseh had happened to sneak up to the cabin at night to try and beg the man to give him his job back. There is a switched identity and a lot of procedure around trying to find a missing man which was somewhat interesting and gave you lots of looks into New York City during this time. It's a decent novel but won't blow you out of the park I liked it mainly for Tecumseh Fox's world. I will continue to look for Nero Wolfe books.

I am not sure how the publisher convinced Bob Newhart to do this cover photo; maybe they were old friends or maybe Bob needed the money at this stage in his career.