Thursday, November 27, 2014


When a shimmering star- past or present - in the Broadway firmament dies, theaters dim their lights to honor that individual's passing.  Consider Crime Pays dimmed in honor of the late, great, P.D. James.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Pile (s)

This is the ultimate in procrastination:  blogging about the books you are supposed to be blogging about but haven't finished reading.  Perhaps it is the turn of seasons, or sturm und drang at work, or thinking about a year ago when I was mostly laid up with a broken ankle, but for whatever reason I am having a terribly hard settling with books lately.  It makes everything feel a little off, not having My Book at hand, the one for which I can't wait to get a free moment at the gym or ballet, or best of all, in the tub or before sleep.

Why have none of these really stuck?  They are not all terrible.  In fact, I think some are pretty good (some are actual Great Works in American Literature).  But at that moment, when I started them, I found them either a) slow, or b) dull, or c) poorly-written, or d) depressing (that could have a whole range of triggers), or e) oddly paced, or f) trite, or e) having little discernible atmosphere or g) some unfortunate combination of these factors.

That said, in making this list, I'm reminded again why I started some of these, so you know, I might just finish them.  I'm bolding the likely contenders

Here's what's going on in the Crime Pays bookshelf.

Next to my bed (on the floor):
Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between the Woods and the Water.  Second in his walk-across-Europe before WW2.  Loved the first one, but got bogged down on the Great Hungarian Plain here.

Ruth Rendell, Not in the Flesh.  Everyone - everyone - thinks she is one of the greatest living crime writers.  I'm finding this dull, but maybe I need to try one of the 70+ other novels she's written.

Fuminori Nakamura, Last Winter We Parted.  From the Soho Crime Club.  Differing perspectives, wildly noir-ish, are making this hard to cotton to.  I should try again, though, it is certainly distinct from many of their other offerings lately.

Michael Dobbs, House of Cards.  Watched the Brit version, haven't watched the US one.  Sticking with this for the moment, the Parliamentary atmosphere is compelling, but the undercurrent of amorality is depressing.

Next to my bed (nightstand):
John Steinbeck, East of Eden.  I know, it is a classic, but it was a real downer so I put it down.

Matthew Pearl,  The Last Dickens.  After The Dante Club, which I liked in spite of its probably being Pearl's senior thesis, I tried The Poe Shadow (didn't get far) and this, in which I have not gotten far.  Don't know why, they have magnificent historical accuracy and atmosphere.  I really must give him another go.

Raphael Jerusalmy, Saving Mozart.  This is about a Jewish music critic in Austria who in his dying days tries to keep the Nazis from turning a Mozart festival into a propaganda extravaganza.  Something about the timing of this very short novel put me off.  It's written as a journal, maybe that is it, no setting.

And a bunch of sudoku books.

There are another two forgotten piles on top of a bureau under the eaves but since many of these are Bill's books I'm not going to count them.

Then there are the four separate piles next to the tub.  I don't even know what is in the far one near the candles except for Manhunt which is about the search for the assassins of Abraham Lincoln (Busman's holiday.  Actually not really anymore but still have a visceral reaction to CW books.)

The smallest pile isn't even a pile because it is usually only one book, which I've actually started and right now is Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.  This is weirder than I expected, but I'm slogging through, since it promises a worthy response to the discussions of Allied and Axis bombing raids in The Rest is Silence. 

Then there are two giant piles, made up of many books I haven't started like two more from the Soho Crime Club:  Stuart Neville, The Final Silence and Timothy Halliman, For the Dead.  I didn't love Stuart Neville the way everyone else seems to, and Halliman is one of a series that takes place in Bangkok and I think I'm scarred from Behind the Night Bazaar.  There is also one more on the Corrections from Ian Rankin, The Impossible Dead and one more John Rebus from him, Standing in Another Man's Grave, courtesy of Cathy Pfister, former First Lady of Harvard College.  Got tired of Rebus, and while the Corrections were ok, it felt like not enough depth for so much book, so I haven't started these.

In the two big piles are Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 which I had to put down because it seemed to involve children in extreme and/or violent situations, yet another Henning Mankel (did this come from Cathy Pf too?), Conor Fitzgerald's Dogs of Rome (It takes place in Rome!  Why didn't I like it?  I think the protagonist is an American, who wants to read about them?), the aforementioned Stuart Neville's Ghosts of Belfast (violence felt gratuitous but what do I really know from The Troubles?), A. D. Scott's Death in a Great Glen which I have tried about four times but couldn't get past the triteness AND there was violence against children.  Then there are a couple of books by James Hamilton Paterson which were loaned by someone whom I can't remember and I haven't started because they have the air of cutesy about them.  Finally there are of course some history books - Zinn's People's History of the United States, a book about the Cape and the Islands, and something about Empire and naval buildup in Germany I think.  And let's not forget Hell Bent which is a gentle expose of the world of Bikram Yoga, with which I have a passing familiarity.


Someone is reading!

The ACTUAL AUTHOR commented on my review of The Rest is Silence!  Holy cow, that was exciting.  Considering that I have exactly four followers (and two of them are related to me), it is nice to know that someone else reads these musings.

In other news, I'll explain the pile and my reading ennui shortly, but for now, I want to read just about every book featured in the Mysterious Bookshop's latest post.  Intrigue in Tudor England, life and death in the Hapsburg Empire, and a pulp fiction writer in a concentration camp?  Sign me up!

Finally, I really hope that The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries appears in my house, perhaps as a Saint Nicholas Day gift so that I can enjoy it all month.  But maybe Black Peter can stay at home.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Rest is Silence

James R. Benn's The Rest is Silence (A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery) (2014, Soho Crime) had several major strikes against it.

First, it came as an offering from the Soho Crime Club.  While I love the idea of the Crime Club, I don't like reading series out of order, and since what they send you are their latest publications, you get a lot of that.  Also, several of the Club's books haven't been great, so I have a growing pile of ones I haven't even started or got a few pages into and put down.  More on that next time.

I also generally dislike the appearance of Famous Real People in the story.  That's not to say that a realistic or even non-fiction backdrop to a story isn't a good thing.  You can learn something anywhere, right?  And if your learning comes from the background or setting to a novel, well, that is better than nothing.  But the lapsed historian in me balks at the putting-of-words-into-mouths that is necessary when FRP are introduced into the plot.

And the whole British country house setting for one plot thread in Benn's story felt a little too Downton Abbey, right down to loyal retainers with complicated pasts and an acerbically entertaining matriarch.

Finally, Yanks in WW2, how cliched can you get?  Our Hero Capt. Billy Boyle, a peacetime cop straight outta Southie, is no exception.

So why did this particular story, out of all the barely-started books piled next to the tub and my bed, stick, to the point where I found myself toting it along to the gym and ballet class, just to keep up with the story?

I am a bit of an Anglophile, so there's that.  And we've got tea, and country houses, and atmospheric coastline, and colorful locals, so if you are too, there's the whole package.

But wait, there's more.  The plot development is terrific:  meandering, but not slow, and it has more coves and inlets than the Devon coastline in which the story is set.  The twists built on one another in such a natural fashion that it (almost) never felt forced.  When I found myself at the end wondering what had happened to the body that started it all, but able to reconstruct the whole tale, I realized I was in the presence of some very careful planning.

Our Hero, the aforementioned Boyle (hard to take seriously if you are a fan of Brooklyn Nine Nine), is a Captain in the US Army, working for an intelligence branch of SHAEF.  His job, as detailed in eight previous novels, is to investigate crimes that might have an impact on the US' activities in the European theater during the Second World War.  I've read the first in this series, and enjoyed it more or less, but apparently quite a lot has happened to Our Hero, as is regularly alluded to by cryptic references to difficult times in North Africa and German POW camps.  (This is why I don't like reading series out of order, dammit, I don't like to not know!)

A body has washed up on a beach in Devon, where, as it happens, the Allies are engaged in top secret (well, as secret as anything involving thousands of soldiers and ships and air support can be) activities preparing for the invasion of Fortress Europe.  It is late April, 1944.  Boyle and his sidekick Kaz (a war-damaged but still urbane and lethal Polish count) are asked to find out where the body came from, because if, as feared, it is a German spy, then the entire Normandy (oops - nobody is supposed to know that) landing is potentially compromised.  While in the area, they stay with an old pal of Kaz' from Oxford, David Martindale, as his family's country estate, Ashcroft.

Upon arrival at Ashcroft, the plot veers into British country house murder territory.  No one is dead yet, but you can tell by the strained conversation, heavy drinking, and dagger-like glances that someone will be, soon.  Do I even have to mention that inheritance is at stake?  Needless to say, Billy and Kaz get drawn into these dramas, as well, not particularly reluctantly.

In yet another Brit mystery cliche, a possible illegitimate son turns up as a long-lost heir to Ashcroft, and somehow manages to knit the two plot skeins together.  This is made plausible by that historical backdrop:  the Allies really did practice their Normandy landings here, with grave consequences that you can read about at the end (or skip ahead and read the Author's Note on pp. 324-325 - it won't ruin the plot).  US Army staff really did billet all around the countryside, and famous people like Mrs. Mallowan really did give up their houses for the war effort.  And the ghastly tragedy that puts the story on fast-forward really did take place and is deeply sobering to contemplate.  There is a not-particularly-subtle subplot on the personal cost of war - physical, psychological, social - which is always interesting to consider with respect to this Good War and all of our other apparently not-so-good ones.  Some of the characters get through, others don't, and the one cliche we are spared is that of fighting for the greater good, to keep the world safe for democracy, etc.  Boyle can hide his wounds, but others cannot, and at times it feels as if only the momentum of the war - the next action must turn the tide, or the next, or the next - keeps them from sinking.

Speaking of Mrs. M, I won't say more other than to say that this was the most forced scene in the story, and if I hadn't been so deep into the plot by that point, I'd have tossed that book across the room.  Same with Ike (who, to be fair, is Billy's uncle, and so appears in many of these books) and Yogi Berra, no kidding.  But again - look it up!  The past ain't what it used to be, if you know what I mean.  (187-188)

The story is told in first-person, from Billy's perspective, and while he claims to just be a kid from Southie, he's obviously no idiot.  A Wahlberger would play him in the movie, of course.  Billy Boyle is one series I might go back to, to fill in the gaps.  But he's going to have to wait his turn because there are a lot of other books in the pile.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

"I have never much cared for flippant remarks, especially when others make them, and in particular, I don't give a frog's fundament for them when they come from an adult.  It has been my experience that facetiousness in the mouth of someone old enough to know better is often no more than camouflage for something far, far worse."  (17)

Frog's wha'?  Well, technically it means foundation or basis of something (fundamental, right?), but if you look not very hard you can find that it refers to an anatomical foundation.  So to be precise, Our Heroine in Alan Bradley's The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag (2010, this edition Bantam, 2011) is saying, rawther Britishly, that she doesn't give a rat's ass for grown-up double-speak.

That's Flavia de Luce for you:  well-spoken, unfailingly polite, insatiably curious, yet with an underlying wariness born of a lonely existence in a upper-crust British family.  If you read the first installment in this charming series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the opening scene here, wherein Flavia magnificently imagines her death and the ensuing ceremony and grief, will come as no surprise.  It is the bitter yet funny imagining of a precocious child whose closest confident is the groundsman-cum-butler and whose refuge is an antique chemistry lab in an unused wing of the crumbling family manse.  Flave, as she refers to herself at times, roams the countryside and local village on her trusty bicycle steed, Gladys, a constant reminder of her dimly remembered but nonetheless worshipped deceased mother.  An excess of intelligence and fertile imagination mean that she is always wherever interesting things happen, especially if murder or other nefarious activities are involved.

A suspect-in-the-way-that-itinerant-artists-are, yet enormously entertaining travelling puppet show has come to the charming willage of Bishop's Lacey.  It has the requisite suspicious characters - the talented yet deformed maestro who literally pulls the strings, his charming but maybe troubled assistant - and beautifully carved if disturbingly real puppets.  Someone ends up dead, and some locals with troubled pasts might be involved, and it might just be connected to the tragic death of a child some years earlier.  There are some weak red herrings, especially the dashing former German POW and his backstory which seems to take up several pages in the middle of the story and serves no purpose as far as I can tell other than to provide Flavia's sister Ophelia with someone to moon over.

That doesn't really matter, however, as I find that I don't particularly care about who killed whom.  It's the central plot element of course but what I really like about this series is the very Britishness of it all - and the gentle skewering thereof.  We have hopelessly stratified society, from Flavia's fake "prunes-and-prisms" voice that she puts on when necessary (194) to "the Spurlings [one named Bunny, natch] of Nautilus Old Hall, who, as Father once remarked, had gone to the dogs by way of the horses."  (181)  And the redoubtable Aunt Felicity*, down from London for a visit.
  "'London?' Aunt Felicity said.  'London is always the same, all soot and pigeons and Clement Atlee.  Just one damnable deprivation after another.  They ought to have men with nets to capture those children one sees in Kensington and train them to run the power plants at Battersea and Bankside.  With a better class of people at the switches mightn't go off so frequently."  (102)

We also queue, of course, especially to say good morning to the vicar after church on Sunday, as did Dogger and Aunt Felicity, "penned up somewhere in the vestibule, queueing like crewmen on a sunken submarine, waiting for their turn at the escape hatch." (181) And, we have creaky old houses that make one pause and ponder.  "At Buckshaw, time does not pass as it does in other places.  At Buckshaw, time seems to be controlled not by those frantic, scurrying little cogs in the hall clock that spin like hamsters in their shuttered cages, but rather by the solemn great gears that manage to creep through just one complete turn each year."  Here you see Flavia's marvelous imagination, her underlying desperation at her lonely situation, and yet I think also a certain devotion to it.  She is a de Luce, and de Luces live in slow houses like Buckshaw, that is how it is.

Finally we have noble family retainers (Dogger) and blissfully unaware ones like housekeeper-cook Mrs. Mullet.  The de Luces, for all their ancient lineage, have actually fallen on hard times financially - this story in particular includes vague references to some financial disaster that Father may have brought upon the household - so they are limited in the resources they can devote to high living.  Mrs. Mullet will have to do.  And does she ever, as this lengthy excerpt delightfully demonstrates.
  "'The Whiffler,' as we called it, was a dessert of Mrs. Mullet's own devising, which, so far as we could make out, consisted of a sort of clotted green jelly in sausage casings, topped with double Devon cream, and garnished with sprigs of mint and other assorted vegetable refuse.  It sat there, quivering obscenely now and then, like some great beastly garden slug."  (45)

British girls always use the word beastly at some point.

*I was quite pleased to see Aunt Felicity throw Flavia a lifeline in a brief but important conversation about her mother, her inspirations, and her aspirations.  Will she be something of a mentor in future installments?