Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Side Trip on the SHRC: The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, Michael Chabon

Harpercollins, 2004. ISBN 0-06-076340-X. 131 pages.

I suppose one could say that there are spoilers ahead but nothing that should diminish reading enjoyment. This is the second time I've read this book and, if anything, I enjoyed it more this time.

It is 1944 and an old beekeeper stops a young boy from an act that might have been fatal. The boy, who cannot or will not talk, is accompanied by an African gray parrot. The old man is surprised when the parrot begins reciting a strings of numbers in German. The old man speaks German to the boy and determines that is his native language. The boy and his parrot walk away without satisfying the old man's curiosity.

We then learn that the boy lives in a boarding house run by Mrs. Panicker, an Anglo married to a high church Anglican vicar who is "a Malayalee from Kerala, black as a bootheel." The other residents include their son, Reggie, a larcenous layabout, Mr. shane, a traveling salesman, and Mr. Parkins, a researcher in architectural history. We get the impression that there might be more to Shane and Parkins than is apparent.

The old man is sitting outside his front door when Inspector Bellows and Detective Quint arrive to consult with the old man. Bellows has a problem and admits to the old man that "I'm new on the job, down here learning the ropes, as they say, and don't at all overrate my capabilities." The old man knew Bellows' grandfather who was also a policeman. "I have know a great many policeman" the old man says to Bellows and Quint.

A murder has occurred at the boarding house. Shane has been murdered by a savage blow from behind and Reggie has been arrested. The old man is not at all interested in getting involved until Bellows tells him that the parrot, Bruno, is missing. The old man finally agrees to look into the matter but only to find the parrot.

I was thinking about pastiches and homages to Sherlock Holmes when I remembered this little book and how much I enjoyed it. One feature that makes the book fun is that the name Sherlock Holmes never appears. Instead, we get clues from page one showing us that the 89 year old man is The Great Detective.

  • When we meet him he is reading The British Bee Journal.

  • We are told that "he had once made his fortune and his reputation through a long and brilliant series of extrapolations from unlikely groupings of facts."

  • He has a great beak of a nose.

  • He retired in 1914.

  • He has "a battered coal scuttle in which he had once kept his pipes."

  • His magnifying glass was a gift from the "sole great friend of his life."

Chabon wonderfully captures Holmes as an old man, toward the end of his life. It is both sad and affirming. Holmes' great intellect and deductive skills are diminished but what remains is enough to see the case through to a satisfying end.

Chabon's writing captures a nostalgia for Holmes in his prime and is quite evocative. I had to wipe my eyes several times as I read. Here is a passage from a page chosen at random:
Long life wore away everything that was not essential. Some old men finished their lives as little more than the sum total of their memories, others as nothing but a pair of grasping pincers, or a set of bitter axioms proved. It would please him well enough to amount to no more in the end than a single great organ of detection, reaching into the blackness for a clue.

This is an excellent story that Holmesians should enjoy. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Corduroy Mansions 2: The Dog Who Came In From The Cold, Alexander McCall Smith

I was asked if I would like to take part in an ‘Online Blogger Book Club’ for Alexander McCall Smith's second Corduroy Mansions novel, The Dog Who Came In from The Cold. It doesn't fall in one of the sub-genres of crime fiction I usually write about but, on occasion, I feel the need to pass something light and fun across my synapses to maintain a soupcon of balance.

As with the first Corduroy Mansions, it will appear in the Telegraph - Alexander McCall Smith - Corduroy Mansions and as a podcast, beginning Monday, 21 September.

I've received the first five chapters and, while I'm forbidden from quoting or providing details until the chapters are available online, I can say that if you enjoyed the first Corduroy Mansions you will be happy with the sequel. The appeal of the Corduroy Mansions stories for me is the same enjoyment I get from reading P. G. Wodehouse: gentle humor, quirky characters, and a slightly skewed look on life.

There is also a Corduroy Mansions Facebook page.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Humor in the SHRC: The Case of the Two Watsons

I stumbled upon Kate Beaton's web comic, Hark, a vagrant, today. She has a funny look at Sherlock Holmes -- The Case of the Two Watsons -- that seems appropriate considering the movie coming out in December. Think of Jude Law when you get to panel eight.

While you're there, check out the archives, you'll be astonished at the range of topics in the previous comics.

Review: Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates has won a National Book award, been nominated for two Pulitzer's, and, according to Wikipedia, might have a shot at the Nobel Prize for Literature. When I heard that someone with those credentials had written a novel told from the viewpoint of a serial killer, I was curious and kept an eye out for a copy. Saturday I found one and Sunday I read it...just after finishing the latest Dexter book.

In an interview with Salon, Oates says that the N.Y. Times commissioned her to write an essay on the literature of serial killers and she read 35 books for her research. The Wikipedia article on Zombie says that it was based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer.

The format of the book is like a cross between a first person narrative and a journal. It jumps around in chronology as a narrator might do but it includes drawings like a journal.

Quentin P. is in his thirties and on probation for attempting to molest a young black boy. He is creepy but his mother and father support and defend him, he's good to his grandmother, his therapists think he's making progress, he has a job, and his parole officer doesn't see any problems. He is also a serial killer obsessed with the desire to create what he calls MY ZOMBIE by performing a transorbital lobotomy using an ice pick. Dahmer also thought he could create a zombie, though by different means. Quentin reasons that
A true ZOMBIE would be mine forever. He would obey every command & whim. Saying "Yes, Master" & "No, Master." He would kneel before me lifting his eyes to me saying, "I love you, Master. There is no one but you, Master."

& so it would come to pass, & so it would be. For a true ZOMBIE could not say a thing that was not, only a thing that was. His eyes would be open & clear but there would be nothing inside them seeing. & nothing behind them thinking. Nothing passing judgment.
This passage is representative of the style of writing in book: use of ampersands, capitalization,fragmented sentences, stream of consciousness flow of words. The book puts the reader inside the head of a sexual psychopath giving an all too real feeling that you are seeing what he sees and hear his thoughts.

I found Zombie to more disturbing and horrifying than Brett Ellis' American Psycho, a book I didn't think could be topped. Where American Psycho has a strong element of satire, Zombie is pure horror. In fact, it won the Bram Stoker Award given for superior achievement in horror writing.

You will find a very detailed description and analysis of Zombie at

It was an interesting contrast to follow my reading of Dexter By Design with Zombie. Quentin is the kind of person you would like for Dexter to target. But where Dexter is played for dark comedy, Quentin is a glimpse at what a real serial killer might be like and it works on the fear that such a person could be anywhere.

Zombie is an extraordinary piece writing and there are not many writers who could pull it off. However, I would only recommend it to someone who has a serious interest in the serial killer sub-genre of thrillers/crime fiction.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review: Dexter by Design, Jeff Lindsay

Dexter Morgan and his wife Rita are in Paris on their honeymoon as the book opens. Rita is enthralled with all things Parisian but Dexter and his Dark Passenger are impatient that they aren't in a place safe to exercise their homicidal proclivities. On leaving the Louvre they are handed a flyer advertising an exhibit of performance art called Jennifer's Leg. This does satisfy Dexter's inner dark needs.

Back at work in Miami, Dexter is sent to a crime scene where he finds the bodies of a man and woman - "pale, overweight, and hairy" - decoratively arranged in a theme guaranteed to send shudders through the tourism industry. Almost immediately, another body, also artfully arranged in a tourism themed pose, is discovered.

Soon Dexter finds his sister in the hospital and himself and his new family stalked and in danger of becoming part of an art project.

Dexter by Design is an entertaining read. Dexter is given some excellent sarcastic and sardonic commentary and the anti-tourism themed performance art is amusingly macabre.

As for me, while I enjoyed parts, I find it is time to part company with the book series. The previous book, Dexter in the Dark, really annoyed me when it revealed the Dexter's Dark Passenger is actually the spawn of an entity that has existed since earth's beginnings jumping from life form to life form until humans gained sentience. That aspect of Dexter isn't played up as much here but the presence of a giggling dark force that exists separately from but motivates Dexter is not what I want in crime fiction. It moves it out of any possibility of social commentary and into the realm of the supernatural. I'm not opposed to that sub-genre but it isn't what I want in a story.

Dexter in the Dark introduced a sub-plot involving Rita's children Cody and Aster and their relationship with Dexter. It is continued here and is one that I'm not comfortable with. I would have a serious problem with the books if that storyline progresses much further in the direction it seems to be going.

I would recommend Dexter by Design for readers who enjoyed all three of the previous books. They will find much to please them.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Side Trip on the SHRC: On the Wrong Track, Steve Hockensmith

First sentence: Few things dampen a man's appreciation for natural splendor more quickly than the sound of another man retching.

With that opening, Big Red (Otto) and Old Red (Gus) Amlingmeyer are off on another detectifying adventure in the West of 1893. The boys finally have the opportunity to be real detectives courtesy of a recommendation from a legendary, old-school Pinkerton agent named Burl Lockhart. They are hired by the Southern Pacific railroad and sent on the express train to San Francisco for training. The railroad has all the best men looking for the Give-'em Hell Boys who have been robbing trains and they need men not likely to be spies for the gang.

It doesn't take long for the first body to appear and Old Red gets to apply the analytical techniques of his hero, Sherlock Holmes. With murder, the threat of train robbers, passengers who may be more than they seem, no respect from the train crew, and a bad case of motion sickness, Gus finds his confidence challenged.

On the Wrong Track is the second adventure of Old Red and Big Red. I reviewed the first, Holmes on the Range, here. Like the first book in the series, it is a fun homage to Holmes and Watson. There is less direct reference to Holmes' techniques but there are numerous references to the stories that will amuse the fans of Sherlock Holmes.

There is a different flavor to the story since it is set on a train where Holmes on the Range took place on a ranch. Their fellow passengers are not the common cowboys Gus and Otto are used to dealing with which changes the dynamic considerably.

Gus does his deducifying with Otto, his reluctant Watson, backing him up. Along the way the author looks deeper into the relationship between the brothers, an aspect that I enjoyed and appreciated. It develops them as characters and tightens the relationship with the reader.

It is a good story, well told, with earthy humor and I recommend it (after you've read Holmes on the Range first).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Resisting A Day Without Cats

By way of Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine I visited URLesque where they called for 9.9.09 to be a day without cats on the Internet. While their motives are good (i.e. give the cats a rest) I believe it is possible that this will cause a rip in the fabric of reality so I am posting a photo to hold back disaster.

This is me holding Tyke, one of two feral cats that lived in the woods behind the library where I work. Owen the Grey (not pictured) is the other. I fed them regularly and they became used to me. I got word that someone was going to complain about the cats so I rescued them and found them a home as indoor cats. They adapted well to their new lives.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Review: Wake Up Dead, Roger Smith

This review is based on an ARC of Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith, (the author of Mixed Blood). Wake Up Dead will be published by Henry Holt & Co in February 2010. Roger lives in Cape Town, South Africa. His web site is Roger Smith Books. You can jump to a link of a video trailer for Wake Up Dead as well as links that show the environment in which Wake Up Dead is set here.

First Sentence: "The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore."

Roxy is an American ex-model married to a gunrunner and broker for mercenaries. The book opens with a business dinner where Joe and the elegantly dressed cannibal (he might only have eaten one heart for the cameras) are finalizing a deal.

Unknown to Joe and Roxy, when they leave the restaurant they are followed by two low-level thugs from Cape Flats -- Disco De Lilly and Godwynn MacIntosh. Joe and Roxy are hijacked at the gate to their house, Joe is wounded, and the gangsters leave in Joe's Benz. Roxy makes a decision that leaves her husband dead and her a not-so-grieving widow.

The point of view shifts to Billy Afrika, an ex-cop just back from Iraq where he worked for a contractor providing security services for the U.S. Billy's employment had been brokered by Joe Palmer and Billy would like to know why he hasn't been paid. Arriving back in Cape Town, Billy returns to the Flats needing a weapon. He meets people from his past who will have a part in the story including a detective with the unfortunate name of Ernie Maggott. Ernie remembers Billy from when he also was a Cape Town detective and doesn't remember Billy fondly. He also wants out of the Flats and is looking for the big case to get him promoted.

Meanwhile, Disco De Lilly is consumed by the fear of a psychopath named Piper. Piper is still in Pollsmoor Prison but that doesn't lessen Disco's fear. While in prison himself, Disco was Piper's "wife" and the crude tattoos carved into his body reflect Piper's obsession. Billy and Piper also have a history.

The hijacking, Roxy's actions, the obsession of an imprisoned psychopath, and the return of Billy Afrika start a chain of events that will leave a bloody trail through the Cape Flats and culminate on a Cape Town beach.


Why are there photographs of a knife at the top of this review? It is the Okapi 907E and it has a significant role in the story as the weapon of choice of Piper. Roger Smith wrote me that "the Okapi of choice is the 907 E. It has put many brown men into bodybags. Quite a pretty knife, too." The Okapi has a distinctive shape and knowing what the knife looks like made the story more immediate for me. There is a link to a store selling Okapis at the end of the post.

Wake Up Dead is a crime thriller and there are elements I want to be present if the story is to appeal. Obviously, plot is important. Also, with thrillers you expect a faster pace and more intense action. I also look for a strong sense of place, sharp writing, and well developed characters. If I feel that the story and actions of the characters are plausible, all the better. Books like this are not disposable reads and make me think about them long after I've turned the last page. Wake Up Dead nails everything I want in a thriller.

Thrillers often have complicated and conspiratorial stories. Wake Up Dead is complex with regard to the interaction of the characters but it deals with basic human weaknesses like greed, lust, ambition, and revenge. For me this is a positive, it keeps the story grounded.

The lead up to the scenes of action and violence is very well done. Sometimes you know something is about to happen, other times it's "huh, I wasn't expecting that." Roger's thrillers are very violent but I've never thought that the violence was gratuitous. Brutally honest, yes. He writes about a segment of society where sudden and senseless violence is the norm and he has met the people capable of those acts.

A strong sense of place is something I enjoy in a story. After reading Wake Up Dead, I did some Internet searching, looking at Pollsmoor Prison, photos of former gang members, scenes of Cape Flats. I felt like I already knew those places and people from the descriptions in the book.

Wake Up Dead is written from multiple points of view. These points of view gradually build up a composite image of the people and events and their relationships. In some cases you can see that event A will probably lead to consequence B but other times I found myself sitting there thinking about what I just read.

Roger also has an interesting way with descriptions about people and events, often involving dark humor.
The whore had yellow braids, the dark roots cross-hatching her skull like sutures on a cadaver.

I don't think anyone will have a problem building a mental image from that description.

The cannibal is described as having an elegant French accent leading to this scene
Then Joe gave her the look, invisible to anyone else, and she knew that the men needed a few minutes to talk business. Weapons or mercenaries. Or both.
Roxy stood. "Let's go to the bathroom."
"I don't need," the whore said, clearly new to this part of the game.
The cannibal elbowed her beneath her plastic tits. "Go and piss." Coming from his mouth it sounded almost like a benediction: Go in peace.

In Mixed Blood and now Wake Up Dead I've admired the way Roger builds his characters. He does evil really well though he says the characters write themselves. Piper, for example, is about as scary and real a character a as I have encountered in fiction. Billy you want to root for but he isn't an agent for good. Disco you feel sorry for, his life on a course for destruction, but you wouldn't want to be his buddy. Roxy is a basically good person who does bad things but isn't someone you can consider sympathetic. You know who the characters are and where they came from.

Wake Up Dead is a well done and exciting crime thriller that I recommend highly. It is available for preorder. If you haven't read Roger's first book, Mixed Blood, pick up a copy at the same time. It also is set in Cape flats, has everything I like in a thriller (see above), and a wonderfully nasty detective named Gatsby.

Links to give you insights into the story, the setting, and the characters.

Roger's video trailer for Wake Up Dead.

The Okapi in the photographs came from World Knives where you can buy one for yourself. You can also use it to slice fruit and carve decorative items.

Slide show of Cape Flats and Cape Town on Roger's web site.

Slide show of prison body art with voices of former prisoners.

Photographs of South African prisons by Micheal Subotzky.