Category Archives: Books

Vintage Mysteries: Sinister teacups

Review: The Peacock Feather Murders
by Carter Dickson

A keeper? Yes – a sinister setup
and tight plot full of surprises

Now, this is a locked room mystery.

First, Scotland Yard receives a letter warning them about funny business to come, giving an address and date. It’s almost identical to a letter they received two years ago – and that time there was a very strange murder that hasn’t been solved yet. Back then, a famous antique collector was found shot to death in an empty house. Ten valuable majolica teacups – they look like they’re painted with peacock feathers – had been set out on a table nearby.

Chief Inspector Masters isn’t going to stand for a repeat, so he sets a watch on the house. No one lives there; it’s for sale. Young Sergeant Bob Pollard gets keys from the realtor and searches the building. After that, he knows for sure it’s empty except, maybe, for a locked room in the attic. Pollard hides and waits, while more policemen watch the front door from the house across the street. Late in the afternoon Vance Keating – an acquaintance of Pollard’s – comes to the house, climbs the stairs, and lets himself into the attic room.

Before long Pollard hears a scream and two shots. He rushes in and finds Keating dying from a shot in the back of his head and another shot from behind that broke his spine. An old-fashioned six-shooter lies on the floor nearby. There are powder burns around both wounds, so Keating must have been shot from a short distance.

And there’s nobody in the room except Keating and Pollard. Nothing there at all except a table covered by a cloth worked with gold thread in a peacock feather design, and ten black teacups arranged around the edge of the table. Keating was murdered, and the police themselves can testify that nobody was in the room to kill him.

That’s only the start, of course. But from the very beginning, Chief Inspector Masters is not a happy man. He never approves of impossible murders, and he’s haunted by them. Still, where you find Masters and an impossible crime, you know Sir Henry Merrivale will turn up to figure out exactly what really happened. H.M. grumbles his way through the investigation while Masters nearly gets arrested for – apparently – assaulting an uncooperative witness; more mysterious notes arrive; and one of the suspects gets entangled with a truly gruesome piece of furniture.

And the end? Was there any doubt? Sir Henry explains everything, Masters arrests the guilty parties, and the world makes sense once more, except for the mysteries of human motives – which are too much for even H.M. to unravel.

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Vintage Mysteries: Switchbacks

Review: The Case of the One-Eyed Witness
by Erle Stanley Gardner

A keeper? Yes – this one’s confusing fun

We lived in California for two years when I was a child, and one thing I remember was switchbacks. Driving up into the mountains, the road would climb steadily up the side of a cliff for what seemed like a long time, then suddenly it would turn almost 180 degrees and continue climbing, but going the opposite direction.

Perry Mason seldom leaves California, so I guess it’s appropriate that this story is full of switchbacks. It starts when Mason’s dinner with his girlfriend / secretary Della Street is interrupted twice. First, he gets a phone call from a terrified woman who tells him she’s sending him money, then hangs up before telling him any of the important details except for a name and address. Soon afterwards, a girl whose job is to wander from table to table selling cigarettes bursts into tears at him and tells Perry and Della a pitiful story. It seems that her ex-husband stole her baby and sold it for adoption, and she doesn’t dare try to get the child back because she’s part Japanese. (This book was published in 1950, only five years after World War II. Was prejudice against the Japanese that strong back then? I suppose so, since the story had to sound plausible to the original readers. Fortunately, this is only a small part of the setup.)

Anyway, Perry’s got a paid-up but nameless client and a bit of contact information to use to unravel the situation – but his only contact is killed when the man’s house burns down later that night. Now what? Well, Paul Drake, Perry’s private detective, manages to trace the woman who phoned. Oops – she’s vanished and her husband is very evasive; is she still alive?

Well, of course she is. Her husband’s the one who gets murdered. So Perry digs in getting ready to defend her. The only little problem is that she insists she never phoned Perry or sent him money. She seems obsessed with protecting her son – well, her adopted son. Hmm. Turns out she was being blackmailed – the blackmailers claim her son’s birth mother is part Japanese, and they’ll tell the world if she doesn’t pay up.

Oh yes, and one member of the blackmail ring was – of all people – her husband. (Boy, has she got motive.) And remember the man whose body was found in his burned-out house? Well, he’s alive, alive enough to try to pull a gun on Perry Mason.

It’s a twisty, turny story, and somehow by the end Erle Stanley Gardner manages to connect all the strange bits and pieces of the plot – even the weepy cigarette girl back at the very beginning of the story – so that Mason can hand them over to Lieutenant Tragg with a nice big bow on the top, and the reader can close the book feeling dizzy but satisfied.

Vintage Mysteries: Too many eyes

Review: The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
by Erle Stanley Gardner

A keeper? A little out of focus, but yes

Where to start? Maybe I should tell you about Perry Mason’s new client, Pete Brunold, a one-eyed man who’s so concerned about how he looks that he has a whole wardrobe of custom-made artificial eyes. Now somebody has stolen his “hangover” eye and replaced it with a cheap fake…

But this story really starts twenty-odd years earlier, around 1910, with a traveling salesman (our friend Pete) and an innocent country girl. When he gets word about their coming baby, he grabs the next train to hurry back and marry her. After the train wreck, he spends months in the hospital, and by the time he’s able to try again to reach her, she has vanished. In other Perry Mason mysteries, this background would influence everything that happens in the story…not this one, though.

But let’s get back to the present day of 1935. Mason’s new client is worried that someone will use the stolen eye to frame him for a crime, but never mind that. Mason has yet another new client; this one’s a spoiled brat of an embezzler, but Perry feels sorry for his big sister and takes the case. Next thing you know, Hartley Basset (the embezzler’s boss) is found dead, clutching a glass eye. And the boss’s stepson’s wife – yes, the relationships are getting confusing, aren’t they – was knocked down by a masked, one-eyed man running out of the room where her, um, stepfather-in-law lies dead. (In a few more pages, she’ll disappear from the story.)

When Mason first sees the body, there’s no gun in sight – but soon afterwards, when the police arrive, there’s a gun lying near Hartley Basset’s empty hand, the one that’s not full of glass eye. And he’s lying on another gun. Oh, and he has a third gun in a shoulder holster…

Not long after that, Pete Brunold and Sylvia Basset (Hartley’s widow, and Pete’s girlfriend of twenty years ago) are both on trial for murdering Hartley. Since they’re Mason’s clients, we know they aren’t guilty. But that’s about all we can be sure of as the story twists and lurches from one situation to another. By the end, there are too many glass eyes, too many guns, and way too many criminals of various sorts for me to keep track of exactly what did happen.

But if you want to know the technical ins and outs of making artificial eyes using 1930’s technology, this is an excellent introduction.

Classics Reading Challenge: The first blogger?

Review: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
(translated and edited by Ivan Morris)

(A keeper? Yes, yes, yes.)

Such a strange book. About a thousand years ago, the woman we remember as “Sei Shonagon” (Sei was her family name; Shonagon was a rank or job title – so it’s a little bit like knowing her only as “Assistant Director Johnson”) worked as a lady in waiting to the Empress – well, one of the Empresses – of Japan. (Emperors of the time routinely had several wives, plus various ladies of lower status.) “Her” empress gave Sei Shonagon a supply of blank paper, and she used it to record her experiences and opinions, things she saw and did and thought and said.

Notice all the parenthetical explanations I had to stick into that first paragraph? Well, let’s get the most annoying flaw of this book out of the way right now: Sei Shonagon lived in an alien world. Many of the details of her daily life make no sense at all to us, without explanations. And, in the Ivan Morris edition, we certainly get explanations. Footnote after footnote…many of them are interesting in themselves, all of them are informative, but there are So. Many. Of. Them – a total of 584 footnotes for 264 pages.

Actually, if you don’t already know something about Heian Japan, you should probably start by reading through the Appendices, which will introduce you to the basics of Sei’s world. The drawings of houses and clothes – so important to her, and so different from what we’re familiar with – are particularly useful.

By this time, you’re probably wondering if it’s worth your time to bother with the Pillow Book. Yes, it is. Not every writer can make you care about ancient gossip and scandals; Sei Shonagon can. (Maybe it helps that, to her, all of this involved cutting edge fashion and life-or-death politics.)

More than anything, reading the Pillow Book is like reading a really good blog, one where you never know what the next post will focus on. There are lists – often funny – of things she finds offensive or beautiful or embarrassing.  There are odd little incidents involving people she knows and likes or dislikes. She gives us vivid short stories, probably fictional, about the adventures of young men at court, or tells us how the court ladies built a snow mountain and made bets about when it would melt away – and then tried to manipulate the results.

And, just when we’re overcome by the strangeness of her world, she gives us something universal: “Adorable Things:….One picks up a pretty baby and holds him for a while…he clings to one’s neck and then falls asleep.”

Third Sentence Thursday: Affording to be human

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
by Richard Wrangham

p. 101: “For a mother with a small infant, the gymnastic challenges of making a nest would have been particularly difficult given her need to cradle while she swayed in the tree.”

What in the world is that sentence talking about? Well, most apes (except for enormous male gorillas) spend the night up in trees, sleeping in “nests” made by bending branches into a secure platform. It’s safer up there. But what did early humans do, once our ancestors had long legs and flat non-gripping feet like ours? How on earth could they have kept their balance every single night to make a nest, and if they slept on the ground, how did they keep from being eaten?

Wrangham argues that people – or not-yet-exactly-people – learned to control fire a very long time ago, going on two million years in the past. (Not all anthropologists would agree.) His argument leans on several observations. First, he collects data from a number of sources to insist that modern humans, living with primitive technology, couldn’t possibly get enough calories from a completely raw diet. (For example, he says modern raw-food eaters (who shop in supermarkets and use blenders and other advanced equipment to process their seeds and raw vegetables and fruits) are all very lean, and there’s evidence that many of the women would not be fertile. Stone-age people would have had to work much harder to provide the same diet; they probably wouldn’t have survived.) He also argues that there’s no evidence any primitive group lived without cooked food, and presents data to show that cooking makes food not just easier to chew but less work to digest – all of which means that cooked food provides more calories. That’s not what most of us want today, but for many thousands of years people lived a lot closer to the edge of survival and needed all the food energy they could get!

Then he compares human anatomy to ape anatomy. In addition to huge jaw muscles that go all the way up to the tops of their skulls, apes have enormous digestive systems – reflected in their flared rib cages. From the time of homo erectus (a human ancestor living from about 1.8 million years ago to about 800,000 years ago) onward, surviving skeletons have narrowed rib cages like ours, as well as legs and feet that wouldn’t work well in trees. Wrangham believes that this means very early humans were cooking their food and spending the night around campfires that would let them see predators and drive them off – maybe with burning sticks.

And after all that, he goes on to speculate about what cooking meant to human family life and social structures. Catching Fire is solidly packed with ideas. It’s a short book, only about two hundred pages plus another fifty pages of notes, and I can’t do justice here to all of Wrangham’s argument. Read it for yourself!

Time moves on, even on the Discworld

Review: Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

A keeper? Definitely

Of course, sometimes time on the Discworld moves backwards. Or sideways. Or does a loop-the-loop.

We first met Sam Vimes, back in Guards! Guards!, when he was in charge of the last guttering remnant of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch. By the end of that story, the usual shreds of order had been restored, and Sam had met his Sybil, otherwise known as Lady Rankin.

It’s been a few years. Watchmen of all shapes and sizes, from Buggy Squires the gnome to Detritus the troll who uses a siege crossbow as a hand weapon, patrol the streets. Lord Vetinari, who could give Machiavelli a few helpful tips, rules by keeping all the city’s factions thisfar from one another’s throats. And Sybil Vimes is the Duchess of Ankh-Morpork; that goes with being married to the very reluctant Duke.

Vimes is still a cop, though – first, last, and all the time – and he’s not about to miss chasing a crazed mass murderer across the rooftops just because he’s got a pile of administrative paperwork. He almost has Carcer the monster in his grip when they both plummet through a skylight into the dangerously magical Library. And time skids.

Once upon a time, Sam Vimes was a wet-behind-the-ears rookie. Once upon a time, Vetinari was a dangerously devious teenager. Once upon a time, Mrs. Rosie Palm, the well-known employer of, er, seamstresses (hem, hem) was young and pretty. Once upon a time, everything was on the brink of going disastrously wrong. Can the grown-up version of Vimes cajole, bully, and inspire history into going the way it ought to turn out, and get back to his Sybil before their son is born? Does the lilac bloom in spring?

Third Sentence Thursday again: How would YOU invent squash?

After the Ice  by Steven Mithen

p. 285: “Not only do their social lives seem to have been based more around sharing than competition, but it seems unlikely that a rival would have been impressed, let alone humbled, by no more than a handful of squash seeds, however large they may have been.”

Archaeologists argue a lot. This quote has to do with two theories of how people about ten thousand years ago in Oaxaca (Mexico) managed to develop corn and domesticate squash and beans.

Theory 1: Over the centuries, people spent more and more time tending wild plants, weeding out sickly ones and planting healthy ones in good locations. They did this to improve their food supply in dry years. Little by little, the plants became more nutritious and appetizing, and more dependent on humans.

Theory 2: Leaders – “big men” – directed the selective breeding of plants so they could use improved varieties to humiliate their rivals, whose crops would be less awe-inspiring. (On the whole, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Mithen prefers Theory 1.)

But what’s this book really about? The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “A Global Human History, 20,000 – 5000 B.C.” Mithen starts with the end of the latest ice age and gives us 52 short chapters, about ten pages each, describing what we know and guess about life in various parts of the world up to the beginning of civilization. To liven up the stories, he invents an invisible time traveler who visits a representative group of people in each chapter and sees how they live.

This is a book to read in chunks, a few chapters at a time. Try to read it all at once and you’ll feel like you’re being rolled head over heels in an avalanche of information. Take it in smaller bites, and it’s a fascinating story of how climate shifts and human inventiveness changed the world.