Saturday, August 31, 2019

58. The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

I managed to finish this just under the wire to include it in my August count.  I picked it up at a very well-curated used bookstore on Shelter Island, Black Cat Books, which had a rich selection of first edition mystery hardbacks, though mainly secondary authors.  I didn't have time to really investigate so just grabbed this one, a Geoffrey Household and John D. MacDonald's first novel in paperback.

Having finished it, my primary appreciation of this book is its physical beauty.  The paper is thick, textured, reminds me of good oatmeal.  There even was a page with a wrinkle from the printing process where you can see that this was manufactured in some imperfect process in the past.  The entire book and all its materials seem to have been entirely manufactured in England, as evinced by this text on one of the inside pages:

Very appropriate too, as the mystery itself takes place in the town of Stoke-On-Trent, in a region of England where pottery is the dominant industry.  I was quite optimistic going in as this appeared to be what I have termed an industrial murder mystery, one that takes place in some job situation in which the author uses a lot of the pages to really describe how these places worked.  I have read ones about the shoe industry and another about processed food sales. I was pretty excited to learn about mid-century industrial pottery.  I was not disappointed.  There is some pretty neat history and regional culture in The Spoilt Kill (for instance, kill is the local pronunciation of kiln, which makes for a good play on words as the body is found inside a kiln).

Unfortunately, the story itself was not so pleasing.  It is very well-written and the descriptions of the locations and characters are also excellent.  The premise is great as well.  Somebody from the inside is selling their designs to competitors and the protagonist is hired to investigate, posing as a writer contracted to update the firm's brochures and history.  It is just so weighted down with British class anxiety and personal recriminations of the period.  People in post-war Britain were really, really down on themselves and super stressed about which class they were in and single and past tragedies.  I get it. They were recovering from a war and had gone from empire to second-world country in a few decades.  The Spoilt Kill just piles it on so thick that it becomes kind of exhausting after a while.  Worse, though, the mystery isn't all that compelling or interesting.  Instead of it being a complex puzzle involved with industrial espionage, it is all about whether or not the love interest is guilty so we can have endless hand-wringing and stunted, tense conversations.

One interesting thing was that right at the beginning, I misread the first sentence and for about 50 pages thought the protagonist was a woman.  I was finding it incredibly refreshing how she was being treated and thought the early connection with the love interest was a subtle lesbian sub-text. Once I realized my mistake, it made me see that the style here was quite different than I would have expected.  I hate to say it, but it was more feminine, with its self-conscious and anxious detective.  I continued to pretend in my mind that he was a woman and it made the book a thousand times more interesting.

Now my dillema is whether or not too keep it!

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

57. The Long-Legged Fly by James Sallis

There is a really good book store here in Montreal, Le Port de Tête, that opened in the last ten years on Avenue Mont-Royal and I believe is somewhat of a success story.  It is mostly french books with an excellent selection of bandes-dessinées and children's books, which is what I mostly patronize it for.  They had a bunch of english paperback for a while, lots of Jim Thompson's and Agatha Christie's which for some reason I never went in and investigated.  That was a few years ago and I think caught the leftovers in the sidewalk sale they had put out for the street fair.  I got this book, a James Hadley Chase and a Fredric Brown mystery as well as a pre-war British boys espionage/adventure book.

I grabbed this one because the protagonist PI was black and it had a look of one of those late 80s/early 90s paperbacks that can be pretty easy to read.  I found it a bit of a puzzler.  After reading it, I read up on Sallis.  He has a very good reputation and the Lew Griffin series, of which this is the first, is well regarded, even considered under-rated.  Maybe I have to read more of them, but this was an odd beginning.  It takes place over almost the detective's entire life starting in 1964 and following with sections in 1970, 1984 and 1990, each a stage in his life as well as a missing persons crime.  Griffin's detecting mainly seems to be calling people on the phone and then threatening people, because he is big and has a reputation for being crazy, though there is almost zero actual fighting.  A lot goes on in very few pages, with a lot of philosophizing about life, most of it dark.  There is lots of local New Orleans colour, also generally quite down and out.  Sallis is white and while Griffin's race is a big factor, the voice just did not feel black at all to me.  It felt like most semi-intellectual hard-boiled detectives.  Furthermore, by the end, he becomes a succesful writer and even suggests that he (the character) is the one writing the book.  Maybe too strong to call it problematic, but I think I would much rather read a book about an African-American detective in New Orleans written by an African-American. 

Also, several of the missing person's vignettes just seemed implausible.  The civil rights leader who disappears to become a white prostitute and then ends up in an insane asylum, the good christian runaway who gets in brutal porn movies but the director is also in love with her?  It just didn't really add up and none of it was really connected.  I don't know, this didn't work for me.

Monday, August 26, 2019

56. The Kif Strike Back by C.J. Cherryh

Argh, I thought this, the third in the Chanur series, was the final!  I cry out in half-joking terms because while the Chanur series has not so far been the easiest of reads, I am starting to really get into it.  Cherryh herself even writes an explanatory and appreciative afterword about her publisher allowing her to write a long, complex non-trilogy where each book doesn't end neatly (and with an interesting explanation as to why there are so many trilogies in sci-fi and fantasy).  I realize that this "series" should really be written as a single massive book, like Cyteen.  Also, like Cyteen, while the Chanur series has a decent star map, it would have really helped to also have a list of the various players and which species they were attached to and maybe even the various factions of the Hani (the lion species of whom the Chanur house are the main protagonists).  There is a summary at the beginning of what went on in the first two books that really helped a lot.  I actually learned stuff there that I hadn't gleaned while reading the actual books!

What makes this series challenging is that Cherryh doesn't spell it out for you.  Much of what actually happens is expressed in dialogue or thought by the various characters and the characters themselves often don't know everything or are alien and express themselves in ambiguous ways.  The most extreme case of this is the knnn who communicate in grids of words that can be read with meaning horizontally and vertically because they each seem to have multiple consciousnesses, at least from what the rest of the galaxy understands of them, which is not much (except they breathe methane, have super bad ass ships and just kind of come in and wreck shit from time to time).  So it require careful reading and memory, two of my weaker areas.

Like in Cyteen, the attention does bear rewards.  The politics are complex and made more so by the differences in the competing species (and as we learn more complex by their internal conflicts).  This is the kind of stuff I love and by making it hard to parse, Cherryh makes it all the more realistic.  Also, there is a new threat to captain Pyanfar Chanur and her crew, coming from home-grown bureaucratic conservatives in the form of a kind of police ship that keeps fucking with them.  They really piss me off and I now must get the next book to see how they are dealt with.

I suspect that with most of Cherryh's books, you need to be prepared to invest some time and patience and attention but the end result will be quite satisfying.  I went with these Chanur books after Cyteen because I thought they would be more easily digestible, which was not the case.  Now I know and will prep myself accordingly.  Any suggestions on what would be a good next long read by Cherryh?

Saturday, August 17, 2019

55. Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

Whew, I finally made it through the entire Dark Is Rising sequence.  This was the fifth book and unfortunately, other than a few bright spots, I found my critique to be the same here as it was of the previous books.  The setting is well done and probably the best part of the book, with vivid descriptions of Wales in present and in the past.  There is some neat historical moments as well that though not totally my bag I do recognize as being quite compelling for people who enjoy the notion of a character finding themselves in key moments in Arthurian history.  Finally, there is one scene at the beginning, in the present day, when the hero kids encounter some bullies picking on an immigrant kid.  Later, the bullies' dad comes up to speak to the kids dad, revealing his racism (and that he is part of man that the Dark can influence).  It is disturbing and filled with the same hateful bullshit that is becoming so prevalent again today. 

Unfortunately, nothing is made of this and the rest of the book is again the children being given arbitrary quests where they have little agency beyond remembering some clue from the previous arbitrary quest.  Furthermore, there is not much character development nor interaction between the children.  You never get a sense of why they are chosen and what is in them that helps them along in their journey.  It was all a bit of a slog for me by the end.  I am disappointed.  It is possible that it is just me and where I am in my age that this kind of fantasy doesn't appeal to me, so please be your own judge.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

54. Gat Heat by Richard S. Prather

I chose this one after Homicide, simply because it was short.  Too be honest, I was not looking forward to reading it.  The last Shell Scott book I read, The Meandering Corpse, was just too goofy.  I knew this was going to be easy to read and I soldiered on.  Happily, I ended up actually quite enjoying it.  This one was possibly more goofy and that pushed it over into being actually funny.  Scott is also extremely self-deprecating in this one, making himself look bad in front of other cops and witnesses in moments that were absolutely slapstick.  At times, there was the prepatory monologue that I found so off-putting in The Meandering Corpse, but it was scaled way down here and the payoffs were funnier. 

The book opens with Scott responding to a call from a potential client, whom he finds dead in his own home while what he finds out later is a swingers party is winding down.  Scott ends up investigating the murder for the wife (who fails to tell him about the swinging).  The plot and mystery were semi-interesting and the ultimate badguys, an attractive couple whose scam was to get groups of swingers going, take their pictures and blackmail them, were interesting.  There is a lot of violence with a bunch of gangsters in between and two very funny setpieces: Scott breaking into a couple's home fearing an ambush where there is none and destroying their curtains and Scott showing a home movie to a bunch of cops that was going to be evidence but ends up making a goat of him.

I guess the series had its ups and downs.  I was totally down on the Shell Scott series at the last book, but now I am back up again.  I won't be hunting them down, but will do a bit of investigation if another one falls into my lap to see if it is one of the good ones.

Monday, August 12, 2019

53. Homicide: a Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

After having finished Homicide, my feeling was that it is essential reading if you are a fan of detective fiction.  As lauded by the many reviews quoted on the cover of this 2006 re-edition, it is also essential reading for an understanding of America in the 20th century and who just likes great journalism.  Simon took a year-long leave of absence in 1988 from his job as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and instilled himself as a "police intern" in the Baltimore Homicide division.  You don't really learn of his role until the afterword.  The author's presence is absent from the book and as he writes in the afterword, he mostly succeeded.

I had already read The Corner and of course seen The Wire, the latter of which strongly informed my approach to Homicide.  I was surprised to find that actually only small bits of Homicide are in The Wire.  This book is much more positive than I expected.  The detectives are poorly paid, the politics and hierarchy above them is annoying and the streets are brutal.  However, they love their job and they are really good at it.  The bulk of the book is just case after case, revealing the various detectives' methods, their interplay with the citizens, the other workers and especially with each other.  They don't all make it through but the good ones just keep plugging away, solving murders.  During the year the book was written, over 70% of the cases are solved, which was at the national average.

The hacking away at public institutions that defines the start of the 21st century (and the theme in Simon' later work) was just beginning to manifest itself in the late 80s.  In another afterword, we read about how the closure rate on the murders goes down in the following years (and the number of murders goes up). 

It took me a second try to get going on this book.  The first time, I was too distracted it seemed too long.  This time, I couldn't put it down and was kind of sad when it ended.  The detectives are such great characters (some of whom do show up in The Wire) and the cases each one so interesting.  Simon is a great writer, keeping it fast-moving and straightforward with a cynical and humorous edge that reflects the dark humour of the detectives themselves.  There were several laugh out loud moments.  And while the cases are all "realistic" and do not fit any neat narratives, they certainly were interesting and compelling, making me want to find out what happens as much as the best fictional cases.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

52. Miasma by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

It's an Elisabeth Sanxay Holding double rock block!  The main reason I went back to back is that they are in the same physical book (part of the way Stark house has done their reprints) and my on-deck shelf is so full that I am stacking books on top so I have to make room.  Also, though, the first one was just so much fun I thought I would keep going.  I was not disappointed.

First of all, she is just such a good writer.  In the first 3 or 4 pages, you get the entire set-up and the stage is set for suspense.  Alex Dennison is a young man right out of medical school hoping to start his practice in a small town.  He has a young fiancee back home that he hopes to marry when he has established himself.  There is pressure there, as her family is well-to-do.  He is a dour, Calvinist from a poor background with a grim outlook on life, but hard-working and honest.  He struggles to get patients and is soon desperate enough to try to get a job on a passenger ship (which does not please his fiancee) when he receives an offer out of the blue from the more established town doctor. It is an offer that seems almost too good to be true.  Dr. Leatherby is urbane, accommodating and supportive.  His  house is beautiful, dripping with class.  He has too many patients and wants Alex to be his assistant at an excellent wage, room & board, including a beautiful nurse.   The offer is a godsend, but Dennison is reluctant as he wants to go on his own.  However, the pressure of his fiancee is always there:
Then, as was natural, his thoughts drifted toward Evelyn.  He took a little snapshot out of his pocket, and looked at it. Such a pretty little face, such a gay and innocent smile! She looked at him out of the picture, as she looked at him in life, making unconscious enormous demands upon him, upon his patience, his energy, asking of him protection against the brutalities of life.  Very well, he meant to meet her demands; he meant to take care of her.  He would save his money, and secure a home for her, where, behind frilled curtains, her innocence and gaiety would be safe.
As it turns out, Evelyn has a bit more mettle than Dennison perceives.  Sanxay Holding beautifully nails his perception of her and the anxieties her potential creates in him.  I love the direct exposure of his psychological punctuated by that perfect little image of suburban properness and safety, the closed frilled curtains.  So good!

And soon things start to happen that confirm Dennison's reluctance.  The sunshiney nurse tells him that he should leave.  Dr. Leatherby's sister does the same, though both seem to like him.  Dr. Leatherby has private appointments with patients at odd hours, one who dies in his sleep the following night and bequeathes 100k on the good doctor.  Dennison's strong sense of right and wrong won't allow him to continue the job without finding out what is going on.

In many ways, the setup here is very similar to Lady Killer (written 20 years later).  An inexperienced protagonist out of their element is the only who finds something wrong is going on.  In Lady Killer, she is on a passenger ship for the first time, out of her depth with the educated classes and a woman. Here, though a man, he also lacks the class and upbringing of the others around him.  In both cases, they are headstrong.  Their determination is commendable and makes them likable but they also are not very smart or subtle about how they go about trying to figure the situation out.  Things get messy.

Miasma was not a total home run.  The ending got a bit convoluted and then required a lot of explanation to clear everything up.  Getting there was a lot of fun, like an excellent old-time radio play with much more depth and nuance than you could fit into a half-hour.

I leave with you another great line, when Dr. Leatherby's chauffeur is first introduced:  "They found Ames in the garage; a very self-possessed young man, with the independent air of one who can always find a job."

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

51. Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Not the copy I have, sadly.
This was a lot of fun!  Young and beautiful (and was we learn quite strong-willed and practical) Honey Stapleton is taking her first ocean passage to the Caribbean with her old and uptight and very wealthy husband, Weaver.  Right from the beginning you can see the marriage is not doing well.  He is a total pill, worried about everything and super conscious about being proper.  He locks himself in the bathroom to change.  Honey, on the other hand, though aware that she doesn't love him, really does want to make a go of it.  She is realistic about her situation yet inherently positive.  She soon meets the couple in the cabin, Hilary and Alma Leshafer, next door and right away things seem suspicious.  They are a couple on their honeymoon but the wife's luggage never arrived and she almost missed the boat because she got a call that the departure was going to be delayed.

Though at first I thought it was going to be about the travails of Honey as a naive, out of her element young wife amongst the educated upper class set, right away you see that she is a pretty cool character.  She immediately recognizes that Hilary is super suspicious and Alma is way too in love to see it.  The book is fun because almost all the men are either jerks or deliberately oblivious while the women are more or less trying to work around their stupidity or evil.  The twist that comes at the end makes this even more fun.

Monday, August 05, 2019

50. Death on the Broadlands by Alan Hunter

I bought this at the excellent Dark Carnival simply based on the cover and the back blurb saying it was in the "classic John Buchan tradition".  This latter is wildly erroneous, though it is indeed British.  I learned after reading it that this is one of over 50 George Gently novels, which are quite highly regarded (and inspired several TV series) and which I will keep an eye out for.  In this one, though, Gently is a secondary character, whose true identity is not revealed to the protagonist until almost the very end.

The protagonist is Stella Rushton, semi-succesful novelist who was recently quite badly jilted by a somewhat public figure whose biography she had written.  She receives an invitation to stay in a lovely cottage in the Broadlands which I guess was a somewhat well-known vacation spot in Norfolk.  Though a wreck at first, Stella soon reveals that she truly has a writer's observation, a strong spirit and an independent sexuality.  She wants to stay alone to write but soon gets sucked into the social life at the larger house of the cottage's owner, a very successful play-write.  They are a catty and somewhat unpleasant crew, except perhaps young Keith, morose heir to an engineering firm who falls into puppy love with Stella.

It takes a while for the crime to actually happen but the idyllic surroundings gradually become tainted by the human foibles of the theatre crew and others.  I was quite enjoying the book for the first half, especially the wonderful descriptions of the locations and the somewhat nasty characters.  The book fails a bit in that the crime itself is not that interesting and the solution less so.  I will spoil the book somewhat to say that the murder victim being young Keith was an interesting gender reversal of the all too common oversexed young girl victim.  Stella's ultimate callousness to his death seemed to underline this.  Interesting for a book written in the early '80s.  I will check out some of the earlier Gently books if they pass my way.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

49. Recursion by Blake Crouch

I can basically quote most of my review of the first book by Blake Crouch that I read "Dark Matter" and use it again here, minus the plot details.  And happily minus my major criticisms of the book (the consumer brand/status-focused narration and lame character).  I won't be that lazy, though.

Once again, meezly brought this book home from a work colleague.  She devoured it in a week and after Davy I really needed something easy to consume.  Recursion was clearly it.  It is the story of a woman who while working on a machine to capture and retrieve memories (as a way to if not cure Alzheimer's at least to alleviate its symptoms; her mother suffers from it) accidentally discovers what is in effect time travel.  By going back to old captured memories and dying, you actually go back in time to the point of that memory and can live again making new choices.  However, there are also some pretty nasty side effects, as the people's lives who have gone on to different paths will suddenly begin to remember their previous lives on the day that the original person went back in time.  Anyhow, things get really messy.  Like globally destructively messy.  It's a lot of fun and both a bit of a mindbender and kind of moving.  Ultimately, like Dark Matter, it ultimately is about a love affair.

I am curious if Crouch has read Replay, because there is a lot in Recursion that borrows from that book.  In some ways, Replay is more emotionally satisfying, as it explores deeply what would happen if you could go back and start again.  Recursion is much more of an action thriller and while fun doesn't quite leave you as emotionally satisfied.  Still, an excellent summer read.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

48. Davy by Edgar Pangborn

I cannot remember how Davy was recommended to me.  Once again, it was a book on my list for quite a while.  I am trying to figure out what the hype was.  I have to be honest, this was a tough slog.  It felt self-indulgent to me, with very little story and really not a whole lot to say, at least in today's context.  Perhaps in the mid-60s themes critiquing religious dogma, the folly of human conflict and frank sexuality seemed refreshing.  If so, they needed to be at least in a package that had something else going on besides a lot of reminiscing using folksy language and a sort-of bildungsroman about a young man coming of age.

I have gotten ahead of myself.  The story is about Davy brought up in post-WWIII upstate New York which is now several countries in somewhat of a medieval state, with a few larger towns and many small villages protected from the wilds by stockades.  There is a more rigid social hierarchy, with slaves and indentured servants and most people practice a kind of post-apocalyptic "Murcan" Christianity, which has all kinds of dogma, particularly around childbirth to prevent the proliferation of "mues".  Davy is an orphaned indentured servant with an adventurous spirit who runs away, joins a trio of wanderers and then the Ramblers, a performing/snake-oil selling caravan.  It is narrated from a present where he eventually became part of a larger political reformist movement that go overthrown.  All that stuff is interesting, but it actually makes up very few of the pages.  Most of the time we get philosophizing between the characters that was just not very interesting.  There are little incidents in between that are not unentertaining but when you have neither clear narrative nor thematic drive, one wonders what it is all in aid of. 

The world itself was also not uninteresting, but there was something so one-sided about the way it was presented.  It felt like a campaign where the Dungeon Master spends the whole time telling you what the world is like and does endless conversations between NPCs to show you all his brilliant little nuances.  I get that mainsplaining was sort of the default for science fiction from this period, but somehow Davy felt particularly egocentric to my reading. 

One bright spot was that the back of the book has lists of other books for sale by Ballantine including this gem:

Now that is the kind of book I want to read!

[A tip of the hat to Mporcius who wrote a much better review with a similar opinion and who must have had the exact same copy and spotted the gem above near the bottom of the non-fiction titles, where I had petered out.  I also stole his picture above, so go read his blog!]