Category Archives: Books

Mystery and Suspense Challenge: An honest man in an evil world

Review: Graveyard Dust by Barbara Hambly

A keeper? Yes.

New Orleans, 1834. A fine city, if you’re rich, white, and ruthless. Otherwise, not so much.

Benjamin January is almost broke (being a musician doesn’t pay very well, especially in summer when all the rich people leave the city), very black, and compassionate. He has only a few things going for him: Freedom, as long as he can prove it (he carries several carefully hidden sets of papers documenting his status as a free man with him wherever he goes). A good education that qualified him as both a classical musician and a doctor, thanks to the man who bought January’s mother to be his mistress and freed her and her children. Several good friends (though how much can January trust the white ones, his colleague the consumptive violinist Hannibal Sefton or the “Kaintuck” (Kentuckian) policeman Shaw?). His family, especially his married sister Olympe and her husband.

Now Olympe has been arrested and charged with selling poison to kill young Isaak Jumon. There’s no body, but Isaak’s brother Antoine swears that he was taken on a long midnight carriage ride to a mysterious house where he was left with his dying brother for several hours, then taken home just as strangely. (But Antoine takes opium; how much of his story was a drugged dream?) Meanwhile, Isaak’s mother Genevieve – who, like January’s mother, was a “placee”, an ex-slave mistress of a rich white man – is trying to get control of the money Isaak inherited from his father by claiming that Isaak is her slave!

But January lives in a world full of greedy, unscrupulous people – Genevieve Jumon is far from the worst. There are rivalries between the old French upper class of the city and the newly arrived Americans. There are many humiliating laws and customs that “people of color”, slave and free, ignore at their peril. There’s a city government determined to insist that, no matter how many people die in the prison, no yellow fever and certainly no cholera has reached New Orleans. There are prostitutes of all ages. There are hired assassins – one is after January. There’s an uncounted number of voodoo practioners (including Olympe), headed by the notorious Marie Laveau, who winds up as one of January’s allies in finding out what happened to Isaak Jumon.

And there’s Isaak’s grandmother Cordelia, once a beauty of the French court before the Revolution, a truly evil woman noted for unusual cruelty to her slaves and her sons alike. But Cordelia is very old now; does she have enough strength left to be the killer in this case? Maybe not. Even so, if you read this story prepare to be genuinely shocked at the crimes of one of the characters; they go far beyond the usual greed and revenge motives of mystery stories.

And Benjamin January? An honest man doing his best to keep his head above water in a harsh world, an intelligent man trying to understand the people around him, a strong, brave, and determined man struggling to protect the people he loves, a man who can coax information out of people at almost every level of his society and keep his own thoughts to himself. If he can’t save Olympe from the hangman and the yellow fever that’s killing one prisoner after another, nobody can.

Third Sentence Thursday – Does anybody know where the money is??

(Third Sentence Thursday: Open the book you’re reading to any old page. Copy the third complete sentence. Write a little bit about the book.)

Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

p. 163: “Do you have any idea how much money we’re talking about?”

What would you do if you found a murdered stranger in your boyfriend’s basement?

Well, if you’re Stephanie Plum, Trenton’s most determined incompetent bounty hunter, once the dead man has been identified you go to check out his house. (By this point, Stephanie also knows that the dead man’s a suspect in a ten-year-old bank robbery.)

Steph finds several people ransacking the house. They turn out to be the victim’s sister and his two brothers, looking for clues to lead them to the missing stolen money. She’s a bit shocked, and asks the sister “Doesn’t it bother you that Allan was probably killed over the money and you could get killed too?” And the Third Sentence above is the sister’s answer.

(How much money are we talking about? Nine million dollars. That’s “million”. $9,000,000. And nobody knows where it is, which leads to 350 pages of complications for everyone.)

Vintage mysteries – Wouldn’t it work better to fake a new identity?

Review: The Three Coffins
by John Dickson Carr

A keeper? Meh. Maybe.

In its favor: It’s very short (so it doesn’t take much shelf space). If you don’t let yourself think about plausibility, it’s got a nicely eerie atmosphere. Against it – well, let’s continue with the review.

It’s the early 1930s in London. Professor Grimaud and his friends are gathered at their usual pub when a gaunt stranger pushes into the group and starts talking about “three coffins” and tells Grimaud that “my brother” wants the Professor’s life. Does Grimaud call the police? No. He tells his friends that he’ll deal with this by…buying a painting!

After that, things get stranger. About 10 o’clock one snowy evening, a looming figure arrives at Grimaud’s house; soon after he enters the Professor’s office people hear what sounds like a gunshot. They break down the locked door and find the professor dying – but what became of the intruder? He seems to have disappeared. Stranger yet, he left no footmarks in the snow either coming or going!

The police, of course, want to talk to the man, known as Pierre Fley, who threatened Grimaud in the pub. And they succeed in finding out where he lives, not far from Grimaud. But when they get to his street, Fley is dead too. At 10:25 by the clock in a jeweler’s window, witnesses saw him walking alone down the middle of the street; they heard a gunshot and saw Fley collapse, all alone. But when a doctor examines him, there are powder burns on his coat – so whoever shot him must have been within arms’ length!

There’s more weirdness. Various witnesses tell us that the afternoon before he was shot, Fley quit his job (he was a stage magician) and told the theater manager “I am going back to my grave.” The – figure – who was last seen going into Grimaud’s office was wearing a full-face mask, so nobody can say what he looked like. Grimaud’s oldest friend tells a strange story of how, thirty years ago, he rescued the Professor from being buried alive near a Hungarian prison.

Alas, this is a John Dickson Carr story, so everything has to be untangled with a matter-of-fact real world explanation in the end. It all turns out to be a sad tale of blackmail and betrayal and revenge, with one impossible murder carefully planned and the other accidental. And yet, it’s the murder that was thought out in detail ahead of time that I don’t believe in.

I’ve read that Carr liked to set up models to demonstrate that his impossible situations could really happen. I can easily picture him chuckling over this Rube Goldberg setup with his cronies, utterly satisfied that It Could Be Done and never stopping to ask if it would be done. I just don’t believe that a man in danger of his life would take a chance that nothing would go wrong (and in fact, things do go horribly wrong). Not when he could do the same thing he had already done once to escape danger: disappear and restart his life someplace else. (If this is confusing, I apologize. I can’t go into more details without giving away the whole mystery. *If you want an explanation, go to the bottom of this post and follow instructions.)

There are other odds and ends that annoy me about the story, especially Carr’s dismissive attitude toward the young women in his books. Is this just a typical thirties attitude, or a typical male attitude? No, I think it’s Carr. Authors like Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner, writing at the same time, don’t come up with anything half as hostile as this remark (it’s said by a young woman talking to her husband about Grimaud’s daughter): “If I had ever treated you the way she treats Boyd Mangan, and you hadn’t landed me a sock under the jaw, I’d never have spoken to either of us again.”

But there’s one sentence that I truly love. Doctor Fell – Carr’s great detective – announces at one point that he is now going to discuss locked-room mystery stories. The other characters protest, and one asks him why. Says Doctor Fell:

“Because we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not.”

Unfortunately, the rest of his lecture doesn’t live up to that sentence, but it’s still a wonderful line.

* Hmmm – maybe I’ll rot13 a complete explanation of what Carr says happened. (Copy the rest of the post, go to www.rot13.com, paste the gibberish into the box and decipher it by clicking the “Cypher” button.) Tevznhq naq Syrl ner oebguref. Lrnef ntb, jvgu gurve guveq oebgure, gurl gevrq gb rfpncr sebz wnvy ol snxvat gurve qrnguf – Tevznhq, gur fgebatrfg, jnf fhccbfrq gb oernx bhg bs uvf syvzfl pbssva naq qvt hc gur bgure gjb. Vafgrnq ur nonaqbarq gurz. Gur guveq oebgure fhssbpngrq orsber ur naq Syrl jrer sbhaq. Syrl vf oynpxznvyvat Tevznhq, naq Tevznhq qrpvqrf gb xvyy uvf oebgure. (Ntnva.)

Tevznhq tbrf gb Syrl’f ebbzf naq fubbgf uvz, gura ehaf sbe vg. Syrl vf sngnyyl jbhaqrq ohg abg dhvgr qrnq; ur’f gelvat gb trg gb n qbpgbe jura ur frrf Tevznhq ng n qvfgnapr naq fubbgf uvz. Tevznhq fgvpxf gb uvf bevtvany cyna – ur znl abg or irel onqyl uheg ng guvf cbvag – naq znxrf uvf jnl ubzr. Gur ubhfrxrrcre vf uvf nppbzcyvpr. (Gurl jrer ybiref bapr.)

Tevznhq unf yrsg n ovt zveebe cebccrq hc vafvqr gur qbbe bs uvf ebbz fb gung jura gur ubhfrxrrcre bcraf gur qbbe, Tevznhq’f frpergnel frrf Tevznhq’f (ersyrpgrq) snpr nccebnpuvat gur “vagehqre’f” onpx – gur frpergnel oryvrirf Tevznhq unf yrg gur fgenatre vagb gur ebbz, ohg bs pbhefr gurer arire jnf n frpbaq zna – bayl Tevznhq. Tevznhq urnirf gur rabezbhf zveebe hc vagb gur svercynpr puvzarl bhg bs fvtug, ohg guvf pnhfrf gur urzbeeuntr gung xvyyf uvz.

Naq jul qvq gur jvgarffrf fnl gung Syrl jnf xvyyrq nsgre Tevznhq? Orpnhfr gur wrjryre’f pybpx jnf jebat! 😉

Third sentence Thursday: Nothing’s simple

(What’s Third Sentence Thursday? Open the book you’re currently reading to a random page and copy the third complete sentence. Add a brief teaser about the book. There. You’ve finished another post.)

Graveyard Dust by Barbara Hambly

p. 129: “If, thought January, Olympe were not a voodoo.”

In New Orleans of 1834, voodoo matters. So do race and money and yellow fever and many other things; but voodoo is important, a source of solace and power and fear to various people.

Benjamin January – or Janvier, depending on what language he’s using – would tell you that he’s a good Catholic, who doesn’t believe in magic or in voodoo. January is also a physician, a classically trained pianist, a widower, and a free man of color, who has returned to his home city and country from Paris, after his wife died of cholera. New Orleans is more dangerous than Paris; but all the family he has left is here.

And now his sister Olympe, who supports her family partly with her earnings as a voodooienne, has been accused of murdering a young man by magic, or poison – does anyone really care which? – and January is struggling to save her from hanging. And to get her out of jail fast, before the yellow fever that’s killing prisoners – even though the city government insists it doesn’t exist – can catch up with her.

186 Cookbooks: Maybe too authentic?

Mediterranean Grains and Greens by Paula Wolfert

A keeper? Not this one

Several years ago, I had lots of money and a fascination with “Mediterranean cuisine”. As a result, I bought a number of good cookbooks that I haven’t mentioned yet in this series – the old classic The Mediterranean Diet of course, and Mediterranean Street Food, and Trattoria, and A Taste of Ancient Rome.

And also I bought Mediterranean Grains and Greens. In fairness, the title gives you a pretty good idea of what most of the recipes emphasize. In additional fairness, Paula Wolfert typically focuses on painstakingly authentic and somewhat obscure recipes – and she stays true to herself in this cookbook.

So what’s the problem?

Well, I gave this one two chances. First, I tried Black and White Risotto – mostly because my store had some Tuscan kale (the “black” part – the rice, of course, is the “white”), and I wanted to branch out from spinach.

Later, I found out that the second half of the bunch of kale worked fine, sliced and stir-fried with the meat (or tofu) of your choice plus some soy sauce, as an Italian-Chinese vegetable. But in risotto? Well, no. It just didn’t taste very good. (And not that it matters, but the dish wasn’t really black and white – more of a dark pine green and cream.)

But Wolfert always sounds so sure of herself, so certain that her recipes are delicious! So I tried again. This time it was radicchio pasticcio – a sort of vegetarian lasagna (at least, it used lasagna noodles).

You slice the radicchio and fry it for a couple of minutes, make a plain old white sauce with flour, butter, and milk, add some grated parmesan and the radicchio, and layer the sauce mixture with lasagna noodles, then bake.

 

It wasn’t horrible, but it was duller than I expected – radicchio is bitter in salads, but cooking seems to tame the bitterness. Maybe too much. After the first bite or two, it needed more grated cheese to give it some flavor.

I may try one more of her ideas – a salad for which you slice various types of lettuce and greens very very thin and let them wilt a bit before adding a vinegar-and-oil dressing. But even if that turns out to be delicious, do I really need a whole cookbook to tell me how to make a salad? Not when I’m this short of shelf space, I don’t.

Maybe someone else will find these recipes delightful.

Third Sentence Thursday – The murderer who wasn’t there

The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr

p. 67 – “It’s much easier to believe that a man walked on snow without leaving a footprint than to believe he knew precisely when he would have it to walk on.”

When the threatening stranger came to visit Professor Grimaud, Grimaud’s secretary saw the professor open the door of his room and saw the visitor go in. Soon afterward, several people heard the sound of a shot from inside Grimaud’s room. When they broke down the locked door, they found the professor shot and dying – but nobody else was in the room!

The visitor couldn’t have climbed up the narrow chimney. He didn’t leave by the door, because Grimaud’s secretary was watching. He didn’t go out the window, because the sill was covered by several inches of fresh snow.

Then again, just how did he get into the house – since the front steps were also covered by unmarked snow? It must be some sort of trick, with an alibi timed to line up with the snow.

Oh. Wait a minute. It’s one thing to work out a detailed alibi and time it to the second. But how can anybody plan the timing of a snowstorm?

Mixing up years and characters…

Review: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

A keeper? I’m afraid not

Not a bad book, exactly – but it should be either longer or shorter. The initial situations are intriguing: in 1913 London, a very little girl is settled in a hiding place on the deck of a passenger liner – but the woman who told her to hide there never comes back for her. And in 1976 Brisbane, Cassandra’s mother drives the two of them to her mother’s house and leaves Cassandra there. For keeps. So we start with what looks like two parallel stories of abandoned little girls. Very promising.

Unfortunately, it almost seems as if Kate Morton really wanted to tell a story about the turn of the twentieth century but didn’t trust her readers to care unless she included characters from the present day, or close to it. She gives us a lot of detail about young (and adult) Eliza’s experiences between 1900 and 1913; she makes us mourn when Eliza’s twin brother dies and fear what might happen to Eliza in the slums of London – and fear the worse things that might happen to her among her wealthy relatives in Cornwall. We enjoy Eliza’s talents for storytelling and evasiveness, and we worry about her sickly rich cousin Rose, and we hate her aunt Adeline. I’d have been perfectly happy to read three or four hundred pages about all these late nineteenth century and early twentieth century people.

On the other hand, Morton could have put more detail into the stories of Cassandra and her grandmother Nell (who probably didn’t start life as Nell; but after a head injury on the ship bound from London to Australia back in 1913, she can’t remember what she used to be called). True, this would have made the book at least six or seven hundred pages long – but it’s already 549 pages. What’s a few hundred more, if it makes the story better?

A sentence or two here and there suggests that Nell spent her married life in the United States, but we never see her there or find out why she lived there. As for Cassandra, there are (I think) just two brief hints that she has some great personal loss – aside from Nell’s recent death – by the time we meet her in 2005, before we find out on page 200 exactly what happened. Now, if Morton told us that Cassandra refused to think about her loss, this delay would work. But on p. 200 we’re told her tragedy (the deaths of her husband and toddler; this isn’t a spoiler, because it’s not really important to the rest of the story) was “never far from her mind”, and I don’t believe it. Not when I’ve spent so much time in her mind by that point in the story without being able to figure out what was wrong other than Nell’s death. Not when she rarely thinks about them again for the next 350 pages.

Basically, Morton uses Nell and Cassandra to sub for the reader and investigate the story of Eliza. If we had spent time hearing their own stories in emotionally involving detail and had a chance to find parallels or contrasts to Eliza’s life, this could have been a wonderful book. If we stayed with Eliza and her friends and enemies, it would be a good book. As it is, it’s a book that keeps yanking us away from each piece of the story as soon as we plunge into it. 😦

Vintage mysteries – When did the General die?

Review – The Unpleasantness at the
Bellona Club, by Dorothy Sayers

A keeper? Yes

Harrumph. The Bellona Club is no place for unseemly, inappropriate, unpleasant events, don’t yer know. It’s one of the stuffiest gentleman’s clubs in London, catering to retired army officers – mostly grumpy old men annoyed by a handful of younger fellows, veterans of the Great War (not yet called World War I) that ended less than ten years ago, mostly with varying degrees of what they call shell shock and we would call PTSD.

Anyway, old General Fentiman has spent nearly every day at the Bellona Club for years and years, and no one is very surprised when he’s found dead sitting in his favorite chair. After all, he’s about ninety years old, and his heart was bad. Still, it’s unpleasant to have a member’s corpse unnoticed for so long that the body is completely stiff except for one knee.

Even so, there wouldn’t have been much fuss if the General’s rich sister hadn’t made such an inconvenient will. If she dies first, the General inherits almost everything she has – and he’s left all his property to his two grandsons. But if she outlives him, nearly all her money goes to the sort-of-niece who lives with her, and the General’s grandsons will have to make do with the few thousand pounds he had to leave. She died the evening of November 10, and the General’s body was found during the Armistice day celebrations on November 11 – but when exactly did he die?

It’s not a police matter; there’s no crime here. (Or is there?) But Lord Peter Wimsey was on the spot when the General’s body was discovered, and he’s investigated a number of mysteries. If only he can be discreet, maybe he can clear things up without too much unpleasantness. The trouble is, once Lord Peter sticks his long nose into a situation, you never know where he’ll wind up.

There’s actually a lot to be suspicious about, it seems. General Fentiman’s grandson Robert says the General spent his last night visiting the mysterious Mr. Oliver, but who is he and where does he live? And why did Ann Dorland – who will inherit everything if she can prove that the General died before her “aunt” did – give up trying to paint and start studying chemistry and medicine? Will George Fentiman – Robert’s brother – run amuck yet again? Why did Dr. Penberthy fudge some of the details in his initial examination of the body? And will Lord Peter be kicked out of the Bellona for persistently bringing up unpleasantness?

In the end, justice and Lord Peter triumph, life improves for all the suspects who turn out to be innocent, and the murderer – yes, there’s a murderer, did you think there wouldn’t be? – gets what he, or she, deserves. On the way we get glimpses of a variety of colorful characters in London of the late 1920’s, while being hustled rapidly through a maze of things that might have happened but didn’t and things that seem unlikely to have happened but did. Not great literature (though better than average for a twenties mystery), but thoroughly entertaining.

Third Sentence Thursday, three times

Because I’m in one of those moods when I try to read more books than I have eyes, all at the same time, more or less.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

p. 87 – “I don’t have the time or the bed space for this.”

Ships’ sick bays are small, even when they’re not coping with an outbreak of something contagious and dangerous. One little girl who bumped her head, however badly, is one more patient than the doctor can cope with. She’ll just have to go back to her own cabin and her family.

Except that she doesn’t have either of them. Who would take a child on board a ship in 1913 London and abandon her there, to make her way to Australia all alone? And why?

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

p. 95 – “But he never comes there now.”

Why doesn’t Robert Fentiman seem interested in finding the mysterious Mr. Oliver? After all, Mr. Oliver can help prove when his grandfather, old General Fentiman, died – and with any luck, that evidence will make Robert a rich man. And yet, he’s doing everything he can to discourage people from tracing Oliver. Why?

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler

p. 35 – “Well, is the ship plant or animal?”

Does that sound like an odd question? Yes? Then you’re luckier than Lilith Iyapo. She’s lost her whole family, and then her whole world come the nuclear war that everyone dreaded, and been kidnapped – or rescued? – by hideously grotesque aliens. After a very long time completely alone in one room, she’s met one of the aliens and is being taken on her first tour of their ship. And the ship seems to be a forest, a forest where the plants can move on their own initiative.

Third Sentence Thursday – Be careful what you wish for

(What’s Third Sentence Thursday? Open the book you’re reading to a random page. Post the third complete sentence on the page, with a few comments about the book.)

Emma by Jane Austen

p. 341 – “He was wishing to confide in her – perhaps to consult her; cost her what it would, she would listen.”

Poor Emma. She’s spent most of the book – and at this point we’re very near the end – trying to pair up all the unmarried people she knows, and they’ve been very uncooperative. But a girl has to do something with her time, after all.

Just recently, it’s occurred to her that she really, really cares about one particular man – but her best friend Harriet is in love with him, too. And now he wants to talk to Emma about the girl he loves. Oh, no! Is he in love with Harriet? All Emma can think of to do is to pretend that possibility doesn’t upset her. Not at all. Not the least little bit.