Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Lonely Heiress

"There are times when a lawyer throws the rule book away, when he has to go by hunches." Oh, really? You don't say, Mr. Mason? Are  there actually any other times in your law practice, Mr. Mason? In any case, this isn't one of those other times. But you wouldn't want to read about those other times anyway.

The copyright in my reprint of Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Lonely Heiress says it first came out in February of 1948. Maybe it was Gardner's first novel of that year. I doubt it was his last.

The setup is pretty good in this one. Robert Caddo is the publisher of a somewhat sleazy lonely hearts magazine. Women post ads in his magazine. The back of the magazine has a mailing coupon to contact these lonely women c/o Robert Caddo's magazine office, which he then forwards on to an anonymous box for the woman posting a particular ad. That's all fine and mildly lucrative. Then a woman posts an ad saying she's a young, good-looking heiress (not someone middle-aged whose parent has just died) and it's a hit. Caddo's magazine is flying off the shelves. But it's a little too much of a hit for the local vice squad who thinks Caddo has just gotten that much closer to pimping.

Caddo goes to Mason to prove that this advertisement is legit since he's created a structure whereby he doesn't actually know the women involved. Perry, with Paul Drake's help, identifies the lonely heiress of the title advertising in Caddo's magazine. She really is looking for a man, though for what purpose isn't quite clear at the start.

Caddo is a bit of a sleaze bucket. This is before internet dating, though the process is kind of analogous, and it was inevitable I suppose that he had to be. Della says:
You can take a look at Bob Caddo and see what he is. One of those old wolves that run around pawing girls and trying to cut corners.
Timely!

After the setup, though, it deteriorates a bit. As you knew (unless you've never read a Perry Mason novel and you've never seen the television show) the lonely heiress, blonde and fur-coated on the cover of my copy, will go to Perry, engage him as her lawyer, and then promptly be suspected of murder. That's the convention, and conventions are useful. The real question is, who is the person who really did it, and how will Perry make a fool of Hamilton Burger?

Well. Hamilton Burger doesn't even show up in this one. The D.A. is James Hanover and he's not particularly confounded or interesting. The revelation of the actual murderer isn't especially surprising. And, while this is a short novel, it even feels a little padded. Remember how your fifth grade teacher taught you in writing an essay to first say what you were going to say, then say it, then remind your reader what it was you said? Yeah, me too. That may be good advice for making your essay clear and comprehensible, and it may also be good advice for padding out your word count. It's less good advice if you're writing a novel, but it's advice Gardner had in his head, I'm afraid. He may have needed the word count. Perry and Della decide what they're going to do when they break into a witness's apartment, then they do almost exactly that, and then the information shows up in the courtroom. Okay, we get it.

On the subject of rom com subplots, though, this one was a winner. I don't think of this as a usual item in my Perry Mason universe: there's merely the eternal question of when will Perry realize that Della is unspokenly pining for him. Here he takes her out for Chinese and dancing as a variant instead of a steak. But this one has another, more realized flirtation. The lonely heiress ends up with one of Paul Drake's detectives. Romance!

Summation: not the best, but if you like Perry Mason and are looking for a bit of fluff, you'll like this.

Golden Age. Blonde (and in a fur coat!) My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

John Dickson Carr's To Wake The Dead

To Wake The Dead is a Dr. Gideon Fell mystery by John Dickson Carr from 1938. It has an odd, and frankly pretty unnecessary, setup in which Christopher Kent discovers the body of his cousin-in-law Jenny Kent in the top floor of a luxury hotel. He's been incommunicado for six weeks so he doesn't know that his cousin Rodney, Jenny's husband, has also been murdered in the same brutal fashion: strangled and then beaten around the face.

While I wouldn't exactly call this a cozy, it is Golden Age, and the brutality isn't dwelt on. Thankfully.

The top floor where Jenny Kent was murdered is entirely taken up by a party associated with South African millionaire Dan Reaper. For various reasons no one else has access to the top floor, or so it seems, establishing a country house murder scenario, without the country house.

Rodney Kent's earlier murder occurs in an actual country house with the same limited set of suspects.

As a fair-play cluing mystery, this was a superb entry. Everything was there to point to the murderer, but for me at least the killer came as a complete surprise. Perhaps the killer's seeming alibi for Jenny Kent's murder was a little improbable, but there were enough hints that it didn't seem unfair. And as I say I had no idea who it would be. Quite often in a Golden Age mystery I know who will turn out the killer less by the clues than by how the author writes about the killer.

There was a romantic comedy side plot in this one, but it felt like a bit of an afterthought. It involved Christopher Kent and one of the suspects. Now--of course--the mystery should be the main thing in a mystery novel, but I like a romantic comedy side plot, and Carr can and did do better. Oh, well.

I also thought about structure in this in a way I'm not really sure I should. But it brings up an interesting point.

In the beginning, there was Watson. (Well, not really, but go with me.) Our entry point into the story was not the genius detective, but the sidekick who was writing the story. Sidekicks can be first-person narrators or third-person focus characters. They can be useful and relatively competent (Watson of the books or Archie Goodwin) or amiable duffers (Nigel Bruce as Watson). Agatha Christie starts with Hastings as Poirot's regular sidekick before gradually letting him slip away.

The detective can be the focal point. This is certainly the case with the hard boiled style: the Continental Op, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe. But many of the Ellery Queen mysteries work this way, too, as do the Perry Mason novels. As a general rule, the focal point character is present in every scene. Scenes where that character wasn't present can only appear by report.

We can also have no single character through whose eyes we see events, but shift as needed. This is less used in mysteries, though standard in literary fiction, especially of an earlier era. Partly this is because then what do you do with the murderer's thoughts? In any case Msgr. Knox forbade that in his list of rules, though yes, it does happen.

And you can have a one-time sidekick. That's what Carr does in this one, and while I haven't by any means read all of Carr's novels, it seems a common approach for him and others. There are one-time sidekicks in Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen mysteries as well, for example. In this mystery it's Christopher Kent who is present in every scene. But Christopher Kent is or should be a suspect! He's given an alibi very early to make it seem somewhat acceptable he's invited into the room when Dr. Fell or Inspector Hadley interview suspects. I've swallowed this device in other mysteries, but this time it stuck out as unduly improbable. I understand why you might not want a regularly occurring dunce, but if your detective is professional or semi-professional, (Dr. Gideon Fell, though he doesn't seem to be paid, is regularly consulted) it just seems improbable that an amateur implicated in the case gets to be in the room all the time.

Ah, well. An observation. But still enjoyable anyway.

Tombstone. Golden Age. My Readers Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Classics Club Challenge

I recently came across the Classics Club--I'm not even really sure where I saw it anymore--and I thought the idea of selecting a list of classics to read and discuss was exactly what I needed. There are a whole bunch of books that easily qualify for classic status around here that I haven't read and should. And want to, too! But a little motivation, like a publicly announced declaration to do so, never hurts.

So here's my list. I've selected fifty books* and limited myself to books that 1.) I already had, and 2.) I had not yet read (were on my TBR pile). I went through the suggested list of classics at the Classics Club website, those old Modern Library lists of fiction and non-fiction, problematic as they were, plus a few others that seemed pretty clearly classics. (Romain Rolland, Henryk Sienkewicz, Hermann Broch.) I also decided to aim for a mix of fiction and non-fiction, English and works in translation. Some short works, but also some really long ones, just to keep me honest. There were easily more than fifty available by my criteria, but I'll re-up as needed. It is now the 22nd of November, 2017, so that means by this same day in 2022, I'll have finished them all. Really!

English Language Fiction

1.) Margaret Atwood/The Handmaid's Tale
2.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
3.) James Baldwin/Go Tell It On The Mountain
4.) Samuel Butler/The Way Of All Flesh
5.) Willa Cather/A Lost Lady
6.) Willa Cather/One Of Ours
7.) Daphne du Maurier/Rebecca
8.) George Eliot/Adam Bede
9.) George Eliot/Romola
10.) George Eliot/Scenes of Clerical Life
11.) George Eliot/Silas Marner
12.) William Faulkner/Light In August
13.) John Galsworthy/The Forsyte Saga
14.) Oliver Goldsmith/The Vicar of Wakefield
15.) Thomas Hardy/Wessex Tales
16.) Henry James/The American
17.) Henry James/Wings of the Dove
18.) Malcolm Lowry/Under the Volcano
19.) W. Somerset Maugham/The Razor's Edge
20.) Toni Morrison/Song of Solomon
21.) Sylvia Plath/The Bell Jar
22.) J. F. Powers/Morte D'Urban
23.) Sir Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris
24.) Robert Louis Stevenson/Black Arrow
25.) Bram Stoker/Dracula
26.) Edith Wharton/The Custom of the Country
27.) Edith Wharton/House of Mirth
28.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves

Fiction in Translation

29.) Anon/1001 Nights (Richard F. Burton translation)
30.) Honore de Balzac/Cousin Bette
31.) Giovanni Bocaccio/The Decameron
32.) Hermann Broch/The Death Of Virgil
33.) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe/Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
34.) Yasunari Kawabata/Snow Country
35.) Giuseppe di Lampedusa/The Leopard
36.) Romain Rolland/Jean-Christophe
37.) Henryk Sienkewicz/Quo Vadis
38.) Jules Verne/20000 Leagues Under The Sea
39.) Yevgeny Zamyatin/We

Non-Fiction

40.) James Baldwin/Notes of a Native Son
41.) Frederick Douglass/Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave
42.) Edmund Gibbon/The History of the Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire
43.) Plutarch/Lives
44.) Bertrand Russell/A History of Western Philosophy
45.) Barbara Tuchman/The Guns of August
46.) Mark Twain/A Tramp Abroad
47.) Edmund Wilson/Axel's Castle
48.) Edmund Wilson/Patriotic Gore
49.) Mary Wollstonecraft/The Vindication of the Rights of Women
50.) Virginia Woolf/A Room Of One's Own

Plays

51.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
52.) George Bernard Shaw/Pygmalion
53.) Richard Brinsley Sheridan/The School for Scandal

Poetry

54.) Thomas Hardy/Complete Poems
55.) Edmund Spenser/The Faerie Queene

*Whoops. I ended up with 55. I could trim it, but they're all such good books...


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear To Tread

Where Angels Fear To Tread was E. M. Forster's first published novel. It came out in 1905. I found the twists of the plot consistently surprising, and I'm reluctant to give much away. But the initial setup is this: Lilia Herriton, with Miss [Caroline] Abbott as her companion, set off for a year's journey to Italy. Lilia, aged 33, is the daughter-in-law of the formidable Mrs. Herriton. She had one child, a daughter, by her husband, Mrs. Herriton's elder son, before that son died. Lilia, not especially bright or wilful, is browbeaten into living according to Herriton family proprieties, and it is when she thinks of making a second marriage with a local curate that she is shipped off to Italy in the company of a companion. Problem solved.

Well, even worse happens there.

A letter arrives that Lilia is engaged to a member of the Italian nobility. Unsurprisingly, Gino's connection to any actual nobility is extremely tenuous; rather he's the son of a provincial dentist, much younger than Lilia, and he has just completed his mandatory military service. Panic ensues in the Herriton household.  Philip, the younger son, is dispatched to Italy to deal with the problem.

I found it a very funny novel, despite the fact that some tragic things happen. Also despite, though maybe also because, Mrs. Herriton and her daughter Harriet are so awful, so priggish in the manners, so self-righteous, and so clueless. Philip is occasionally, but only occasionally, better. As a reader, I wanted a very severe comeuppance for all of them; it's only partly granted, I'm afraid.

Two things struck me particularly about this. About halfway through--it's a short novel, 150 pages or so in my edition--I was finding everybody so objectionable, I was half-thinking about giving the novel up. But as I said, I was also finding it funny. Now I know that I'm not supposed to base my valuation of a novel on whether there are any likeable characters; I'm sure they taught me that in graduate school. But as an actual reader, I do. Books that have somebody that you like at least a little--a saint is not required--provide an entrance for the reader into the material; they are also, I think, more realistic: it's important to acknowledge that the world has at least the possibility of someone likeable or something good. A novel such as I remember Less Than Zero to be--it's been a while since I've read it--where everybody is a monster is both a bit tedious to read, but also, I think, ultimately false. Where Angels Fear To Tread flirted with that, but then there were the occasional, surprising, bits of good behaviour.

The other thing that interested me particularly was Forster's handling of an outsider. Nowadays, of course, the son of an Italian dentist would hardly qualify, but 1900 was a different time. Italians were seen as poor and grasping, barely civilized, even as they lived among the ruins of civilization. I recently read Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood and one of the important points in that novel is English society's view of two orphaned Eurasians. Eurasians were seen as treacherous and exotic and simply not like us in the Dickens novel, just as the Italians are in this one. Forster's handling of Gino is quite deft: we're given all the cliches about Italians, but in the person of Mrs. Herriton, so we discount them. But then maybe some of them are true: maybe Gino was interested in Lilia only for or primarily for her money. Forster's famed irony and ambiguity come into play here: when Philip and Gino sit down to discuss what Gino's price is, it's clear Gino understands what the topic of the discussion is from the start. No wounded innocence here. But what does he really think? Well, because Forster only looks at Gino from the outside, we don't entirely know, and that's fine, and an interesting way to go about it.

Anyway, an impressive novel and a funny one, even if with considerable darkness.



Sunday, November 5, 2017

Leslie Charteris' The Last Hero

The Last Hero is a novel length adventure of the Saint that came out in 1930. In the usual way, the Saint has troubles with both the law, in the form of the police and the British secret service, and the bad guys, but more trouble with the bad guys. The bad guys also have more trouble with him.

It is definitely a novel of the period between the wars, and is concerned with the horrors of the last war, and preventing a new one. There's a middleman who hopes to make money on armaments when the shooting starts--a similar theme to Graham Greene's A Gun For Sale of 1936. There's also a bomb-throwing anarchist which the Saint stops in the very first scene.

Professor Vargan invents an electronic doomsday weapon which the Saint discovers by accident. Vargan, who is British, but disaffected, is willing to sell his weapon to anybody, but offers it first to the Brits, who are happy to take it. But the Crown Prince of an unspecified country is also after it. And Dr. Rayt Marius, tall and ugly, is just hoping to start a war as a way to make money. The Saint has to punch and shoot his way through to keep the secret out of everybody's hands, and to keep the next war from starting.

There were more bodies and more deliberate violence on the part of the Saint and his allies in this one. Though the Saint proclaims he's a warrior of sorts, quite frequently when the bad guys die it's through some excess of their own devising. This time less so.

On the whole I found this one less good than some. It was a little long, and felt bloated. At one point, the Saint and one of his allies make a mistake that allows Rayt Marius to escape so he can be present for the finale. It's always a bit disappointing in one's thrillers when somebody has to do something stupid to set up the tension, and Charteris doesn't improve the situation by writing in the Saint's defence that he was especially angry. On the other hand the Saint estimates that Chief Inspector Teal, his nemesis and occasional ally with Scotland Yard, who is tracking him in this one, is a day and a half behind him. Teal does better than that, showing twenty-four hours earlier than the Saint expected him to, and saving the Saint's bacon in the process. That's a much better way to have one's hero be less than perfect.

Anyway, good, but not great.

That's the caricature of the Saint on the cover, about to drop a bomb on the street below. But it was actually the anarchist who was about to throw the bomb and the Saint stopped him. Oh, well, reading the book never seems to be required of cover designers. In any case it is:

Any Other Weapon. Golden Age. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

Vintage Mystery Challenge 2018 Signup

Bev at MyReadersBlock has changed her vintage mystery challenge to a new format this year, titled Just the Facts, Ma'am and it looks like a fun one.

I've been having a good time reading along for this year's Vintage Mystery challenge, and I'm definitely up for another year.

Since I typically read more Golden Age mysteries than Silver Age (or contemporary for that matter) I'm going to go for the Detective Sergeant level, 12 or 2 in each category in  the Golden Age and the Constable level of 6 or 1 in each category for the Silver Age.

Here are the category cards. I'm already enjoying thinking about what mysteries I might slot in against each type.



Gold:

Who

1.) E. R. Punshon's Music Tells All. Crime-solving duo.
2.) Rex Stout's Not Quite Dead Enough. In the armed services.

What

1.) Michael Innes' The Secret Vanguard. Pseudonymous Author.

When

1.) Michael Innes' Lament For A Maker. During A Recognized Holiday.
2.) Nicholas Blake's The Corpse In The Snowman. During a Weather Event. (Snowstorm)

Where

1.) Patricia Wentworth's Eternity Ring. In A Small Village.
2.) Michael Innes' Operation Pax. In a hospital/nursing home.

How

2.) Georgette Heyer's Footsteps In The Dark. Death by Strangulation

Why

1.) E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case. 'Best of' List.

Silver:

Who


What

1.) Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings. Means of Murder In The Title.

When


Where

1.) Peter Robinson's The Hanging Valley. Set In A Small Village.

How

1.) Ross Macdonald's The Blue Hammer. At Least Two Deaths By Different Means.
2.) L. R. Wright's The Suspect. Death by Blunt Instrument.

Why


Mount TBR 2018 Signup

I'm on schedule for my 2017 TBR challenge: I'm currently at 32 out of the 36 pledged, so I'm doing OK on that front.

But there's still trouble in those mountains, and book avalanches remain altogether too possible. So far (and the year's not over!) 97 books have entered the house, and I've read only 12 of those new arrivals. The TBR pile grows rather than shrinks. I did some culling earlier in the year, even of unread books, so it's not all bad news, but my personal statistical measure is that the percentage of unread books in the house should go down each year. (The idea that the absolute number of unread books in the house go down is a merely aspirational goal.) Currently even my percentage goal is in danger.

So since I will successfully manage 36 books this year, and still it wasn't enough, it's time to up my game. We're going up from Mount Vancouver to Mount Ararat, and I'm going to read 48 TBR books in the new year. I have more confidence in achieving that than I do in buying fewer, alas...

Again my reading habits are definitely as the spirit moves me. There are a lot (number better left unspecified) of books to choose from.

1.) Arthur Schnitzler's Casanova's Return To Venice
2.) Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings
3.) Amélie Nothomb's Pétronille
4.) Martin Amis' Money
5.) Poem of the Cid
6.) Matt Cohen's The Bookseller
7.) Patricia Wentworth's Eternity Ring
8.) J. F. Powers' Morte D'Urban
9.) Michael Innes' Lament For A Maker
10.) Miguel de Unamuno's Tragic Sense Of Life
11.) Virgil's Aeneid (tr. Robert Fagles)
12.) Michael Innes' The Secret Vanguard
13.) Teju Cole's Open City
14.) Lawrence Durrell's Quinx
15.) Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard
16.) Ellis Peters' Black Is The Colour Of My True Love's Heart
17.) E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case
18.) Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Haunted Husband
19.) Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye
20.) Yevgeny Zemyatin's We
21.) Herta Müller's The Land Of Green Plums
22.) Mary McCarthy's The Group
23.) Elizabeth Taylor's A Game Of Hide And Seek
24.) Peter Robinson's The Hanging Valley
25.) Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Spurious Spinster
26.) E. M. Cioran's The Temptation To Exist
27.) Michael Innes' Operation Pax
28.) Michael Innes' The New Sonia Wayward
29.) Carol Shields' Jane Austen
30.) Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
31.) Ismail Kadare's Broken April
32.) George Eliot's Adam Bede
33.) Muriel Barbery's The Elegance Of The Hedgehog
34.) Mark Athitakis' The New Midwest
35.) George Eliot's Romola
36.) Jennifer Uglow's George Eliot
37.) L. R. Wright's The Suspect
38.) Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death
39.) Bram Stoker's Dracula
40.) Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe
41.) John Hersey's A Bell For Adano
42.) Karl Shapiro's V-Letter
43.) Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca
44.) George Seferis' Collected Poems (tr. Keeley and Sherrard)
45.) Hermann Hesse's If The War Goes On...
46.) Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
47.) Nicholas Blake's The Corpse In The Snowman
48.) Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party

Bonus!

49.) Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad

Read It Again, Sam 2018 Sign Up

Challenge sign up season has started, and while I'm not going to be getting to the addict level, I think I will try a few additional ones this year. And the first of the additional challenges I'm going to try this year is My Reader's Block's challenge to reread books, Read It Again, Sam.

Part of the reason I hang on to all these books after I've read them (other than sheer pack-rattery) is because I tell myself I'm going to reread them. And sometimes I even do! But this will help keep me honest.

I'm going full on with this one, committing to the Living In The Past, 16+ level. On my list of books read this year, so far I've got 14 rereads so that may not be much of a stretch, but I'm for it. It will definitely be as the spirit moves me for this, and the list is blank for now until it gets filled in:

1.) Ross Macdonald's The Blue Hammer
2.) Italo Calvino's The Baron In The Trees
3.) Duc de la Rochefoucauld's Maxims
4.) Lawrence Durrell's Justine
5.) Lawrence Durrell's Balthazar
6.) Lawrence Durrell's Mountolive
7.) Lawrence Durrell's Clea
8.) David Shields' Reality Hunger
9.) Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood
10.) Shakepeare's Romeo and Juliet
11.) Rex Stout's Not Quite Dead Enough
12.) Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray
13.) George Seferis' A Poet's Journal
14.) Rollo May's The Courage To Create
15.) Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery
16.) Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower
17.) George Seferis' Poems (tr. Rex Warner)