Wednesday, June 29, 2022

31. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I have for a long time had this vague memory about a book we read in late elementary school that involved a bunch of heirs coming to a mansion for a will reading and having it be a gigantic puzzle.  I stumbled upon The Westing Game at S.W. Welch and thought it might be it so I picked it up to read to my daughter.  It was an interesting book and an interesting read. She is 9 and I think that some of the book was a bit hard for her to get, more on the way that it was written than the content.  When it came to the actual puzzle, she was much more perceptive and retentive to the details then I was.  However, the narrative jumps from scene to scene without being explicit about it and there is a lot of narrative conveyed by things that are unsaid or in indirect ways, so she had some trouble figuring out what was going on.  I'm not sure if objectively that is bad or good but reading it aloud to a 9 year old made me aware of how indirect the language was and it was somewhat annoying.

The situation and the characters are all quite interesting and engaging.  It is a nice capture of a certain American progressive mentality that was in many ways more mainstream back in the 70s and 80s where labour was not demonized and there was a simplistic but positive acceptance of the concept of diversity.  It also has a nice confidence about the behaviour and thinking of the young characters.  The protagonist ultimately is the youngest, the financially savvy but socially neglected 12 year old girl.  My biggest issue was that the mystery didn't really resolve itself for me in a satisfying way.  It was all just so oblique and the clues so arbitrary that by the time it was revealed, I was kind of lost as to why any of it was being done.  The dead guy was supposedly getting revenge for the death of his daughter by suicide, but in the end there was no revenge and no real explanation of what the point of the complex puzzle will was.  Maybe I just missed it.

Still not sure if this was the book I was looking for.  It may be that I am conflating more than one book and this was part of it.  Let me know if any of you can remember a young adult book from the 70s and 80s about a group of people who come to a mansion for a will that is a puzzle.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

30. Partisans by Alistair Maclean

Don't judge a book by its cover
I really need to stop reading later Alistair Maclean's. Perhaps I should just stop reading him altogether, which was my previous policy for most of my reading life.  I got sucked into this one because of the awesome 80s Fontana wrap-around cover.  It was a tough read.

The main problem is that despite a great setting (Italy and Yugoslavia in the height of WWII), nothing really happens. Maclean puts a bunch of mainly uninteresting characters together and I guess thought that was enough to keep the reader interested.  Ostensibly, elite Yugoslavian soldier spy guy Peter Petersen gets the assignment to escort a spoiled and naive brother and sister radio operators and their equipment to some unkown place in the Yugoslav mountains.  It's not clear why and right from the beginning there is all this distrust and doubletalk which I think was supposed to be suspense and spycraft, but was just confusing and boring.  It's all made worse by having all the good guys act like British public school boys despite supposedly being Yugoslavian and the women all portrayed as righteous, erroneously moralistic spazzes.

The main character is particularly annoying as he seems to already know everything and we keep either getting him, the other characters or the author himself pointing out how smart and great he is (often to undercut the women's outrage that he has duped them once again).  I am fine with the elite male protagonist kicking ass, but in Partisans he doesn't actually do anything all that cool.  It's all tell and no show.  

In the end, there is some big reveal that we all saw coming a mile away (spoiler, the protagonists are not actually German-allied royalists but partisans!!!).  Just really not great. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

29. I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane

This was part of the great June paperback book find here in Montreal.  I have read at least one Mike Hammer but it was long in the past and it was high time that I properly educated myself.  I started with the first one, though I am not sure it is the best.  I hope not, because it was not great.  

I am aware that there is already a lot of infighting about Spillane's work both from the literary and political perspective.  I would say it is fair to critique the Mike Hammer books as fascistic, but I can handle a little fascism in my manly adventure books.  Unfortunately, as a mystery and detective thriller, I, the Jury is just not great.  Again, I want to be respectful and also remain mindful of how new this book was at the time it came out (and how I have a legacy of hardboiled detective and crime fiction in my own brain that owes much to Spillane while also skewing my perspective).  It's just that there are so many flaws that I was kind of rolling my eyes throughout and somewhat distanced.  

First, the tone is very inconsistent.  It starts out with a super intense anger as Hammer stands over the gutshot body of his war buddy as he fantasizes about revenge.  I'm a big fan of righteous revenge. I suspected that the white-hot intensity of the opening could not be sustained and the book loses much of its driving energy as the investigation gets underway and maintains a more mechanical pace with no solution to the mystery, nothing to generate emotion in the reader.  We get further removed with a bizarre falling in love with the hot psychiatrist.  There are also several three stooges level goofy asides, where Hammer bonks two wiseguys heads together at a bar for saying "hey hey" to his girl and dumps a pitcher of water from his upper story bedroom window on a couple of hair pulling "faeries".  These moments are actually kind of funny and suggest that Spillane wasn't entirely taking himself too seriously.  He just doesn't manage to balance these tone shifts in a way that kept me engaged.


Finally, the biggest flaw is that the plot itself has no real mystery or suspense because it was immediately obvious who the killer would be about a third of the way through the book.  And not because of any easy clue since there is no actual way for the reader to put anything together.  It's just you can guess by the stupid, simplistic mores of the book and the bizarre way sex and love are handled that it just had to be the femme fatale.  I guess in 1947 it was the peak of this misogynist trope or maybe Spillane took it to the next level, I don't know but it reeks to me of laziness and pandering to the readers at the time.  The finale where he finally gets his revenge is so rich with sex and woman fear that it must have been analyzed thousands of times by literary types.

Despite my negativity, the book was not unenjoyable.  I like the locations, characters and some of the crime backgrounds, though fantastic were imaginative (the procurer for brothels who enrolled at a different university each semester to seduce, impregnate and then drive these sinning women to vice was kind of a wacky twist on the pimp).  It's pretty fast moving and has some fun writing.  I hope that Spillane honed his craft in later books and I will try to find out which is considered his best.


Sunday, June 12, 2022

28. Hammett: A Life on the Edge by William F. Nolan

Took this ex-library hardcover on a whim from the free shelf in the middle of Esplanade (it is a half-block after the big free closet shelf thing outside Latina so I make both stops on my way back from the Y).  I am not particularily interested in Hammett's life but this looked readable, I just made that big paperback haul and am listening to the old-time radio series Sam Spade right now, so it seemed thematically appropriate.

On the positive side, this was a well-researched and easily readable, thorough walkthrough of Hammett's life and work.  He had a really interesting life and it was enjoyable and sometimes moving to read about it.  I hadn't known that he was hounded by McCarthy and his fuckstick anti-communist dicks in the 50s nor how resistant he was to their bullshit. I also didn't realize the full extent of his fame while he was still alive.  I knew he partied pretty hard but didn't realize how much of it was as part of the Hollywood elite.  Damn, they drank!

Unfortunately, this biography is also once again a hagiography and it really harms the material.  Nolan is just too keen to reinforce and remind us how Hammett was both a superior writer and a superior person,  even though at times for the latter his actual behaviour actively contradicts such a characterization.  He did do a lot of good and did seem to have a very strong will and idealism that is impressive and respectable.  But he also was a terrible drunk who did a lot of damage to himself and at times to the people around him.

There is a nerdy trope in  the crime fiction world that bugged me the first time I encountered it and still bugs me today, though I sort of agree with it more than I did initially: the Hammett is a real hard-boiled writer while Chandler is a flowery romantic.  Nolan just has to throw that one in this book and it's just nerdy and lame.  He also does a drive-by against the guy who is considered the first hard-boiled detective writer (now totally forgotten), simply it seems to ensure that though this guy's stories were there first, Hammett's are the real ones.  It's annoying as hell.

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

27. The Drowning Pool by John Ross MacDonald (and major paperback haul!)

Hoo boy the beginning of this novel is just scathing.  Archer gets hired by a woman to follow up on a blackmail letter.  She is hesitant and will tell him almost nothing and he sort of forces her to let him come to her small coastal town outside of LA.  There, he spies on her little scene of local bourgeois.  He first watches her husband rehearse his lead performance at the local theatre (and also witnesses a kerfluffle between his daughter and their chauffeur). Later, he goes to a small dinner party the husband hosts.  MacDonald is at is nastiest, best here with Archer barely able to contain his contempt for this lost, pretentious group.

The story gets complicated quickly, involving a controlling mother, the wayward daughter, potential oil wells and the neighbouring oil boom town (very nicely described).  There is some good tailing and detecting and quite a lot of action including a nasty hijacking.  I got a bit lost at one point where Archer seemed to teleport from the small town back to LA but maybe they weren't as far apart as I had thought.  The narrative got a bit crazy and somewhat lost me near the end, with a crazy yet very enjoyable scene in a water-based sanitorium run by the nasty "Doctor" Melliotes (hydrotherapy; where Archer floods the room in which he is imprisoned).  However, when the full backstory gets revealed, it is rich and interesting enough to redeem the rest of the narrative. Not my favourite Lew Archer, but solid.


I'm burying the lead, though!  This beat-up and beautiful paperback was one of an incredible find.  I was walking to the park with some friends of my daughter's and passed this record store that I have been meaning to check out as I had noticed a bookshelf previously. From the window, it looked to be mainly music-themed books and indeed it was, but on the ground there were three boxes.  I took the liberty of opening them up (could be a no-no in some stores).  The first box was typical liberal arts classics (though some nice editions) with that nice Bowie biography being a minor gem.  The next two boxes though were like opening up a treasure chest!  More good stuff just kept coming out.  I appreciated the theme of 50s youth anxiety.  A few real classics here, including this great copy of The Amboy Dukes (I wonder if it is edited at all?) and another edition to the Amboy Dukes universe that I am looking for.

There was some brief sweating when the books weren't priced and we had to wait for the owner to show up. He ended up giving me a decent deal (he divided them into 3 piles of $3, $4 and $5).  I am not a huge Mike Hammer fan so hope to be able to pass these on to somebody with more of an appreciation.  The rest are mostly keepers.  The owner also said that he had gotten these from an older fellow who had moved into a nursing home and that there were more boxes to come.  I hope the gentleman is in relatively good health and spirits.  I hope to find some more of his books to give a good home.

Monday, June 06, 2022

26. Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

Shall we read a Nero Wolfe, how about two?!  I was so into the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin world after The League of Frightened Men that I felt like going back and reading the first one in this same double volume (with the bonus of being able to get this thick book off my on-deck shelf, freeing up much needed space).

This is the first Nero Wolfe book, though you wouldn't know it without the helpful introduction.  It refers to past cases and mentions that Archie Goodwin has been living with Wolfe for the past 8 years.  The interplay between the two seems as rich and ripe as ever, which is kind of amazing.  Stout was a good writer.  I enjoyed the mystery in this one a lot more than in The League of Frightened Men.  We start out with a banal case, that Wolfe almost rejects.  A woman's brother has disappeared.  Then it gets connected to the heart attack death of a wealthy college president on a golf course and things get interesting.  Unfortunately for the mystery it gets solved almost halfway through the book and when it should have ended we get another brain-off between Wolfe and a superior criminal.  The ending wasn't super satisfying either, but quite dark (Wolfe has some questionable ethics which I enjoyed).  Still, the lead-up was good enough that I was happy to keep reading.  

My Rex Stout goal has been achieved.  I am now happy to have his other books ahead of me to grab when desperate.

Friday, June 03, 2022

25. The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout

I've been on the hunt for an easy find of some classic Nero Wolfe and alighted upon this two-fer (which I later realized was in large print format) of the first two, with some nice introductions and afterwords (including a map of Wolfe and Goodwin's digs).  Because I am perverse, I went with the second one first (actually I just preferred the title and only realized afterwards that this was indeed the first two Nero Wolfe books chronologically).

It did not disappoint.  I get why this series is considered classic.  I have listened to many of the Old Time Radio plays of Nero Wolfe and enjoyed the banter, but the language and interplay between Wolfe and Archie Goodwin in the books is a richer and more pure delight.  There is something about two men of extremely different personalities, united and perhaps trapped by work, who can be wittily candid about each other's perceived failings that is enjoyable to read.  It helps that Stout really is great with character and language.  Furthermore, the dressing around their relationship (Fritz, the elite french chef; the various helper detectives that Goodwin bosses around, New York City and environs) contribute to make this book a true escapist fantasy for a certain kind of reader.

My interest in the mystery itself waxed and waned, though the conclusion was quite satisfying.  A group of Harvard graduates come to Wolfe because two of their number have been murdered and they are receiving threatening letters from the person they know did it.  In their college days, a hazing prank went wrong and they crippled a freshmen. They had tried their best to make it up to him, paying for his care, supporting him to the point that he became a successful writer and befriending him but they all suspected that he still secretly hates them and, without incriminating himself, he makes it clear that he does.  As a group of clients, they are challenging as some of them still feel guilt for what they did and don't want him punished.  He comes off as twisted psychologically (perhaps even before the accident), kind of a psychotic mastermind against which Wolfe must pit his own genius.

Lots of fun. I am looking forward to reading the first one.