Sunday, April 30, 2017

Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of al-Rassan

Kay's The Lions of al-Rassan is a high fantasy novel set in a place something like Spain around the the period of the First Crusade. The peninsula (al-Rassan) is ruled by a number of warring kingdoms, half of which arise from the desert and worship the stars; these are in the south and have the cultural markers of the Islamic kingdoms of Spain of the time. For example, they were loose white clothing and have a religious prohibition against alcohol, not always honored. The kingdoms of the north of the peninsula worship the sun, favor armored horsemen, and make a sign with the hands as a religious gesture.

But the wars are not just wars of religion, or at least not initially; the three northern kingdoms fight among themselves, and the southern kingdoms are descendants of a unified kingdom after assassinations and civil wars tore it apart.

Our three main figures are: Ammar ibn Khairan, poet, soldier, and assassin of the last khalif of the unified southern kingdom; Rodrigo Belmonte, leader of the best band of horseman, and formerly constable of one of the northern kingdoms until he was ousted in a power play, and Jehane, the daughter of the most famous doctor of the peninsula, and an important doctor in her own right. Kay despises zealotry and religious intolerance, and all three of these figures long for a peninsula where the more tolerant elements rule.

But the First Crusade means that zealotry and religious tolerance is on the rise. Kay's previous novel A Song For Arbonne has a similar conflict; it takes place in a France analogue at the time of the Albigensian crusade. That novel has all the zealots on one side, and the side of intolerance, unlike in the actual historical event of its model, loses. Here the zealots are on both sides, and our heroes and their allies feel the squeeze, especially since none of the three should get along. There is war all across the peninsula.

There is also romance. I thought Kay in the previous novel was very good at integrating the personal and the political, and I think he's very successful here as well. With so many more threads the exposition felt a little more cumbersome, and there were times it felt a bit static: one set piece after another.  So I thought it was not quite as good as A Song For Arbonne, but I still thought it was very good.

This entered the house late last summer; I've read it (other than for its own very good sake) for the My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge. But by my standards eight months is hardly time to collect dust. I think my next book will have to come from somewhat deeper in the TBR pile...

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

John Dickson Carr's The Case Of The Constant Suicides


Bradley at ahsweetmysteryblog has a post about Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries in which he observed that one's sense of an author can be thrown entirely off by starting with the wrong book. There are very few authors (Sarah Caudwell comes to mind) whose works are all equally good and (as in the case of Sarah Caudwell) if that's true, it's usually because there just aren't very many.

I think I've been a victim of this with regard to John Dickson Carr.

There are a lot of John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson novels out there and before this I'd read only three. I'm not surprised they're not all equally good. But based on the three I'd read, I'd decided that despite all the good things I'd heard, John Dickson Carr wasn't really for me. But there were a few more on my shelf--this one's been here since 2000, I'm sorry to report--and since it would do double duty for both the Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt and the Mount TBR Challenge, I thought, well, I could try another.

As I said: wow. I've clearly been denying myself a considerable pleasure.

I wasn't very far into this volume and I knew mistakes had been made. I typed 'best john dickson carr' into my Google search bar and this post appeared at the top of the list. It turned out two of the three I'd read were down at the bottom among those the post's author said would appear in nobody's best Carr list, and the other certainly wasn't in the top five. And this one was in that top five.

Where was the wisdom of the Internet when I was last reading Carr? Still in the future, I'm afraid.

This one starts out with two Doctors Campbell summoned to Scotland for a Campbell family conference; they're both assigned the same sleeper on the overnight from Euston station to Glasgow. One is a male Doctor Campbell (Alan) and the other is a female Doctor Campbell (Kitty-Kat, among other names) who have never met, and know nothing about each other, but have been conducting a feud in the letters section about the Duchess of Cleveland. They would be played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in the movie version and we know how that will turn out. That's fine. I completely approve of RomCom subplots in my mysteries:
Colin's eyes opened wide.
"Do you mean," he bellowed delightedly, "there's going to be a wedding?"
"Can I print that?"
"Yes to both questions," replied Alan.
There is also the Doom of the Campbells, and despite the one dead Campbell, the Doom is actually a whiskey:

"You must remember," said Alan, not without reason on his side, "that I spent three years in the United States during Prohibition days. Anybody who can survive that experience has nothing to fear from any liquor that ever came out of a still--or didn't."
"You think so, eh?" mused Colin. "Do you now? Well, well, well! Elspat, this calls for heroic measures. Bring out the Doom of the Campbells."
With all this the mystery might even be secondary, and who would mind? But it isn't. The plot is strong, the room is locked, and Dr. Gideon Fell is summoned to investigate. There are only two clues: a disappeared and eventually reappeared diary, and a dog carrier or suitcase that somehow appears inside the locked room. Eventually a second body is found with an accompanying suicide note that indicates the suicidee is the perpetrator of the first crime. The fact that the suicide note is typed tells us all we need to know about that.

The solution is very satisfactory, though I admit to doubts about the science of it. But that doesn't matter. Superb. A real discovery for me.

And it does double duty. While I'd definitely call that a dog carrier on the cover, it's also called a suitcase in the novel, and the fact that it is, is important to the plot, so:

Golden Age. Suitcase/Briefcase. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

And it's been aging on the shelf for years, like the fine wine (or whiskey) it is: Mount TBR Challenge.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Chester Himes' All Shot Up

If Wikipedia is to be believed, Chester Himes' All Shot Up (1960) is the fourth out of nine novels that involve his Harlem police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. It is also the fourth novel of the series I've read, though my reading has been haphazard and not in order. But that's my loss: they're great.

In this one the first two chapters (ten pages in my edition) go down before Coffin Ed and Gravedigger appear; in those ten pages a gold Cadillac runs over a woman and kills her, but she gets up just in time for a black Buick to run her over again. A black sailor, Roman Hill, is driving that newly-bought Cadillac of his; his girlfriend Sassafras, and the dealer who sold him the car, Mister Baron, are in the car with him. The Buick, it seems, is chasing after them, and pulls them over; in it are three cops, two black and their leader white; they witnessed the hit and run, and they have suspicions about the purchase of the Cadillac. They're open to bribery, but in the end they simply attack Mr. Baron, take the cash paid for the Cadillac, which he's holding, and everything else he has, too, and then they take the Cadillac. After Roman Hill recognizes the cops are simply stealing his car, he takes their Buick and starts off in pursuit. The whole scene is witnessed by a black man stealing tires off some other car on the street. As a mystery reader, you figure he's the witness our heroes are going to have to find.

By the end of the novel, we learn that everything we've just seen can't be trusted. The Cadillac isn't really gold; the cops aren't really cops; Mister Baron isn't even a Mister. The woman who was run over once or twice wasn't a woman. And Coffin Ed and Gravedigger never talk to that tire-thief: instead he has his head chopped off in a traffic accident.

Is it any wonder I don't trust even Wikipedia anymore?

Coffin Ed and Gravedigger are the sort of cops who operate half outside the law while making sure that the right outcome occurs in the end, albeit with a little over-the-top violence along the way.

The main events circle around Caspar Holmes, an important, but corrupt, leader in black Harlem, and when the precinct lieutenant hears that Caspar Holmes has been found unconscious on the sidewalk in the company of two dead men, he calls in Coffin Ed and Gravedigger. The story moves along swiftly to a mostly surprising ending.

As you might guess from the men dressed as women and women dressed as men, the events of the novel take place around Harlem's gay subculture. The tone of the novel was surprisingly tolerant for 1960. But since I'd read Chester Himes' sex parody Pinktoes some years ago, that wasn't entirely surprising. But still, it was pleasantly, a little bit.

All in all, this was pretty good. I would start with an earlier one, if I was new to Himes. This one felt just a little like he'd fallen into too comfortable a groove. But not to be missed if you're a fan.

There's a dead body, a hat, a couple of broken objects (building, sidewalk) in the picture. But I think for now I'll go with the car/truck category, both of which appear on this Harlem street.

Silver Age. Car/Truck. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

Also this book has been on the shelves here since 2012, so it also qualifies for my other challenge: the Mount TBR Challenge.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Rex Stout's Black Orchids

Black Orchids contains two novellas; the first, "Black Orchids," came out in 1941; the second, "Cordially Invited to Death," in 1942. The volume with both was originally issued in May of 1942.

Though the war was on in Europe, and while Rex Stout had previously engaged with it in his Nero Wolfe mysteries, in these two, there's no sign of trouble abroad. Instead, the world might well be at peace: the first centers around a flower show, and the second starts when a famous and successful arranger of parties shows up to hire Wolfe.

The flower show features as one of its wonders black orchids (featured on the cover of my edition) and, of course, Wolfe has to have them. He starts by sending Archie to the flower show to investigate. Are the real? Are they really black? And have they been pollinated so that there might be more? Archie goes three days in a row, but is more interested in the girl on display than the flowers, though that interest doesn't stop from making an accurate and nuanced report on the black orchids.

Of course, in the end, Wolfe (who never leaves his house) leaves his house to see the black orchids. They're both at the flower show when the murder occurs; a gardener is murdered in the middle of the most popular exhibit in the entire show, popular precisely because of that girl that Archie had been admiring. Wolfe wants nothing but to go back home, but it's Archie who recognizes that the body is a dead body, and has a couple of other tricks to play. It's the opportunity Wolfe was looking for. A job, and the fee will just somehow happen to be those black orchids. Which in the end he earns. But it's Inspector Cramer, the homicide detective, who has the last word:

"'They're pretty,' Cramer said politely, turning to go. 'Kind of drab, though. Not much color. I like geraniums better.'"

In the second novella, Bess Huddleston, the party arranger, attempts to hire Wolfe because she's receiving threatening letters. He turns down the job. Later she's murdered, and Wolfe claims not to care, but after Inspector Cramer badgers him, he decides to do something. But not leave the house: "A man crossing a street is extremely likely to get run over. That's why I never undertake it." Except when there are flowers or meals involved...

I found this one a little less successful. One of the charms of the Nero Wolfe series is the final scene where he assembles everyone and winkles the solution from the assembled suspects. Here he simply demands that people tell him things and they don't, so he tells them what they were supposed to tell him. Perhaps the novella length meant that Stout had to make it happen a little faster. There's often a romance on the side in these mysteries; the one in "Black Orchids" was more amusing than the one in "Cordially Invited To Death." Still both were quite enjoyable; it was definitely a strong Wolfe outing.

And it comes with flowers, those three black orchids right there on the cover. Pity I didn't read it a week ago, since flowers was one of the winning categories. But since the random number generator favored me for the Mount TBR challenge, I have nothing to complain about...

Golden Age. Flowers. My Readers' Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Mount TBR Checkpoint #1 (Mt. Vancouver)

Uh, oh. Here we are a quarter of the way through the year, and I've only read six of my pledged thirty-six. I've been spending way too much time reading something new and fun that I just saw at the library and not reducing that way too large pile of unread books I already own.

The list is at the original post and though I read the sixth (Where There's Love, There's Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo) at the end of March, I didn't post about it until this weekend in April.

Definitely the most pleasant surprise was Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song For Arbonne. I'm more a mystery reader than a fantasy reader generally, but I really liked this one. I have another one on the TBR pile, which will have to get read and soon.

How about a CHART of book titles for a Scrabble entry:

The Case of The Deadly Toy
Happy Are The Meek
A Song For Arbonne
Rogue Male
The Rings Of Saturn

I'll need to read some more books that start with vowels, not to mention an X or a K to improve my score...

I'm doing much better on my Vintage Mysteries Cover Scavenger Hunt, especially Golden Age, but hadn't posted the right items. With those Nero Wolfe mysteries, I could have had a flower, too. Durn...

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Bioy Casares and Ocampo's Where There's Love, There's Hate

This mystery novella is narrated by Professor Huberman, an amusingly pompous doctor. "I belong, I must admit, to the brotherhood of Hippocrates." The doctor has literary pretensions as well, and is, at the beginning, retreating to the seaside in order to work on a screenplay of Petronius' Satyricon, which he has been commissioned to write.

Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo were husband and wife, both writers; this novella of 1946 is their only collaborative effort. They were part of an Argentine literary circle that also included Jorge Luis Borges. They were all, it seems, fond of detective fiction; Bioy Casares and Borges collaborated as well on a series of detective stories called Six Problems For Don Isidro Parodi, which I've previously read, but must admit to not really remembering.

Professor Huberman heads off to a seaside resort named Bosque del Mar in order to achieve the quiet he needs to work on his Petronius screenplay. The resort is ridiculously difficult to arrive at: it's miles and miles down a single-lane plank road; drive off the road (and Huberman is arriving in the dark) and the car will be buried in sand. And a storm is arriving to complete the isolation. It's a perfect setup for a country house murder.

Not that Huberman knows anything about that. (Wink, wink.) He carries his Petronius with him and uses it to disparage detective novels:
When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality? When will we return to the path of salubrious picaresque and pleasant local color?
Of course, while the Satyricon might possibly be said to be known for its picaresque-ness, there's certainly nothing salubrious about it, salacious rather; and I would not say the Satyricon involves pleasant local color, unless your idea of pleasant local color involves drunken and debauched ancient Romans. But since Huberman has also just alluded to the Moonstone, perhaps we can't take him entirely seriously.

As is suitable for a country house murder, everyone who is trapped at the end of this road is at one point or another a suspect, though most of the suspicion falls on the sister of the victim and her intended. There are several red herrings and the resolution is good, though not spectacular.

All in all I would say it was fairly amusing, but for me the book doesn't quite have a successful tone: Bioy Casares and Ocampo can't quite resolve how sincerely they're adhering to the conventions of the genre. It's OK to have a certain knowingness about the field: it's not possible to write as if Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie hadn't existed. But this neither takes the genre entirely seriously nor does it have the broad comedy of something like Murder By Death.

I can't really say what the cover has to do with the book, but since the figure there has his hat pulled low and his collar turned up, I'm going to call him shadowy.

Golden Age. Shadowy (or Ghostly) Figure. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger's Hunt.

This book has also been on my shelves for two years, so it is one more in the My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge.