Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Whiteout Volume Two: Melt by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber

OK, I feel more than a little guilty including a second graphic novel in the Antarctica category of the 2010 Global Reading Challenge. As I said in the last post, Whiteout Volume One, I was desperate to find mystery/crime/thrillers set on this continent.

U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko is back in what I think is the stronger of the two Whiteout stories. It is also much stronger as an action thriller. In fact, I would put it in the James Bond class.

The story opens with a brief history of human activity on Antartica and The Antarctic Treaty that declared that the continent was to be used for peaceful purposes only and anything of a  military nature is forbidden.

An unknown group has blown up the Russian research station of Tayshetskaya and killed the scientists. Tayshetskaya was the name of a Stalinist gulag which is an interesting name to choose for an Antartica base. Carrie, on vacation and enjoying the warmth and greenery around her, is bribed into investigating what happened at Tayshetskaya. She is the most experienced lawman handy and is offered a transfer off the Ice if she cooperates. Carrie has been in Antartica for five years and accepts.

On arriving in Tayshetskaya, Carrie stumbles upon evidence that the base was an arms depot that included nukes. Accompanied by a Russian investigator named Aleks, she takes off cross country to intercept the commandos responsible for blowing up Tayshetskaya and recovering the nukes.

As with Whiteout Vol. One, the illustrations are black and white which works well with most of the action taking place on the ice. It is fast paced, suspenseful,  with snappy dialog and good action sequences. Oh, and some hot igloo sex along the way. Lieber does a terrific job conveying the stark desolation of the interior of Antarctica.

Does Carrie get off the Ice? I'll just say that Rucka leaves the story open for another volume.

Whiteout Volume One by Greg Rucka & Steve Lieber

With time running out to complete the 2010 Global Reading Challenge and desperation setting in, I am turning to the graphic novel to meet the Antarctica component of the challenge.

I was happy to find that the writer/illustrator team of Rucka and Lieber had created two graphic novels with U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko exiled to McMurdo Station (Mactown) for a past transgression that could have put her in jail for a long time. Antartica might not be that bad. Carrie is also the only law and the only one authorized to carry a weapon on the continent.

As this action thriller opens, Carrie and the station doctor are looking at a body, frozen to the ice, the face obliterated. Five men were in the party, this is the only body. Who is he, where are the others, and why is the body surrounded by core sample holes. As Carrie launches her investigation, other people die and Carrie is attacked, several times. Something happened out on the ice that person or persons unknown do not want revealed.

Whiteout was nominated for several awards -- "Best Writer","Best Penciller/Inker or Penciller/Inker Team" and "Best Limited Series,Eisner Awards, and in 2000 it was nominated for the "Best Graphic Album" Eisner Award (Wikipedia). The 2009 movie, on the other hand, was panned. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 7% approval.

I thought the McGuffin -- what was found on the ice -- was implausible and the weakest part of the story. Despite that weakness (my perception), which only shows up at the end, it deserved all the award nominations. Rucka's lean writing and Lieber's stark illustrations blended to make an exciting read.

I do not read many graphic novels and am selective what I choose to purchase. What I admire about a good graphic novel, like Whiteout, is the ability to convey so much in so little space. Several panels in a graphic novel can represent a page or more of written text. The eye has to take in the illustrations, the words, and the way the words are lettered. The reader has to supply the description for what the eye sees in the illustration. The illustrator has to create a scene that matches what a writer is trying to describe, The letterer has to convey the emotion of the words. It is a remarkable collaborative achievement to create a good graphic novel.

Highly recommended IF you like graphic novels AND you like action thrillers.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The House Without a Key, Earl Derr Biggers

The House Without a Key, published in 1925, is the first novel by Biggers to feature Charlie Chan. I read the Kindle version.

I am interested in Yunte Hoang's book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendevous with American History but thought I should read some of the stories first. I was surprised to learn that Biggers only wrote six novels with Charlie Chan. My ignorance is forgivable when you find out that there have been over four dozen Charlie Chan movies (Wikipedia) which might lead one to conclude that there are more books..

Though now billed as a Charlie Chan novel, note that he isn't mentioned on the dust jacket of the 1925 edition (right).  Chan doesn't show up until nearly a quarter of the way through the story. Ah, but when he does ...

John Quincy Winterslip, of the Boston Winterslips, is on his way to Honolulu to retrieve his Aunt Minerva. The family back east fear that she has fallen under the sway of the semi-barbaric tropics which isn't at all proper. And proper certainly describes young John Quincy, a banker. Minerva is staying with her cousin, Dan Winterslip, the black sheep of the family. He has the "gypsy strain" which is even more cause for concern.

The story is about the temptations of John Quincy as he makes his way from Boston, to San Francisco, to Hawaii. The temptations begin in San Francisco when a relative offers him a position suggesting that it would be good for him to loosen up a bit. Later, he meets a beautiful and free-spirited young woman on the ferry. Her playful mocking prompts him to toss his silk top hat into the bay. A foreshadowing?

With John Quincy on the ship to Hawaii is his second cousin Barbara, Don Winterslips daughter and only child, and Don's lawyer, Harry Jennison. Barbara and Harry appear to be very close though Jennison is stiff and standoffish to Barbara's playfulness.

The ship arrives too late to disembark the passengers and they have one more night aboard ship. In the early morning hours before they pull into port, Dan is murdered by a knife to the chest.

Minerva decides that a Winterslip must participate in the investigation and nominates John Quincy though he is initially opposed. Oddly, the police do not have a problem with a civilian involved in the investigation. Enter Charlie Chan, "very fat ...His cheeks were as chubby as a baby's, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting." He is also the best detective on the force. John Quincy finds himself attached to Chan, a circumstance Chan embraces.

The story now becomes more of a detective procedural with the collection and analysis of evidence, seeking to identify links between Dan and suspects. When John Quincy discovers that the daughter of the chief suspect is the same young woman he met on the ferry in San Francisco he finds his feelings in conflict with the case.

Throughout it all, John Qunicy continues to be seduced by the Hawaiian lifestyle. From the lush descriptions that pepper the story, Biggers must have loved Hawaii. Several characters express sorrow at the changes they see happening around them (remember this is 1925) believing that 80s, before Hawaii was annexed by the U.S., were the best times to be in Hawaii. What would they think to see Honolulu today? Someone remarks:
I knew Honolulu in the glamourous days of its isolation, and I've watched it fade into an eighth carbon copy of Babbittville, U.S.A.
Charlie Chan was a late addition to the story. Biggers added him after reading about  Chang Apana and Lee Fook tow Honolulu chinese-American detectives. As a type, he has had mixed reception. Some see him as perpetuating stereotypes with hi bad grammer and subservient behavior. Others note that he is portrayed positively compared to other depictions of Chinese at the time. (Wikipedia). He might seem overly obsequious but he doesn't brook any nonsense. To Minerva he says:
Humbly asking pardon to mention it, I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility. Quench it, if you will be so kind. Friendly cooperation are essential between us."
I don't entirely agree about the charge of bad grammer. Chan does have elaborate and ornate speech patterns but in the story we learn that he perfects his English reading poetry. I also wouldn't put it past him to put on a show to disarm people he is questioning.

As far as Chan's methods, he has a little of The Great Detective:
Begging most humble pardon, he said, that are wrong attitude completely. Detective business made up of unsignificant trifles. One after other our clues go burst in our countenance. Wise to pursue matter of Mr. Saladine.
But more like Father Brown Chan also says:
Finger-prints and other mechanics good in books, in real life not so much so. My experience tell me to think deep about human people. Human passions. Back of murder what, always? Hate, revenge, need to make silent the slain one. Greed for money, maybe. Study human people at all times.
The House Without a Key is a fun, uncomplicated, witty read. You should be able to figure out who did it and who will end up with whom easily but I don't think a complicated mystery was the aim. Biggers writes lovingly about Hawaii enjoys poking fun at starchy uptight Easterners, but not maliciously. John Quincy reads a comment left in a guest book that might be a valuable clue with an amusing reaction:
"in Hawaii all things are perfect , none more so than the hospitality I have enjoyed in this house ..."
John Quincy turned away, shocked. No wonder that page had been ripped out! Evidently Mr. Gleason had not enjoyed the privilege of studying A. S. Hill's book on the principles of rhetoric. How could one thing be more perfect than another.
I look forward to reading the next book, The Chinese Parrot, when Chan has the main role. Unfortunately, it isn't available on the Kindle so it is off to Book Depository or Abe Books or Alibris I go.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

TBR Growth Spurt

So I wanted to get to the class room early Monday to make sure it was set up for a student group presentation (Miss Marple in the movies, 4:50 From Paddington) and the English department was setting up for a book sale. $12 poorer I walked away with this stack but could have spent more. I did have to haul them across campus and thus was punished for my extravagance. I got all the Rankins but there were a few more Leonards. If the sale is still going on tomorrow...well, I do have a bit more cash available.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Box 21 by Anders Röslund & Borge Hellström

Picador, ISBN: 978-0-312-65534-1, ISBN10: 0-312-65534-2010.
Category: Scandinavian crime thriller.
Series: Second of five novels featuring Det. Superintendent Ewert Grens and Det. Sven Sundkvist.
Authors website:
Roslund & Hellstrom.
My rating: 5/5.

Box 21 arrived Friday from Picador. I was deep into The Blood of an Englishman by James McClure and I almost put it on the TBR stack but decided to give it a quick look to get a feel for the story, style, characters. The "I'll just the read first couple of pages" extended to 25 then 50 then a day later I finished it.

Two stories run through Box 21. The main plot deals with the sex trade and human trafficking in Sweden. Lydia and Alena were lured to Sweden from Lithuania with the promise of high wages. Three years later the police find them living as sex slaves in Stockholm. Lydia has been badly beaten and is sent to hospital. Alena slips away in the confusion. Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens and his assistant Sven Sundkvist are called to investigate.

The parallel story is personal for Grens. Jochum Lang, career criminal and hitman, is getting out of prison after two years. The authorities have been unable to nail Lang on any major crime that would put him away for a long time. Years ago Lang was responsible for an accident that left Grens' lover brain damaged and in a nursing home. Gren is determined to nail him whatever the cost.

As a crime thriller, Box 21 is engrossing but it isn't an easy read. The descriptions of the sexual exploitation and degradation of Lydia and Alena are brutal and horrific. The National Police Board in Sweden estimates that between 400 to 600 women are forced to work in the sex industry each year according to a 2007 article in Sweden SE (Sweden battles human trafficking by Kajsa Claude). What happens to Lydia and Alena is not exaggerated. The National Police Board in Sweden estimates that between 400 to 600 women are forced to work in the sex industry each year according to a 2007 article in Sweden SE (Sweden battles human trafficking by Kajsa Claude)

Box 21 is as dark and bleak as any crime story I've ever read. It reminds you that life doesn't have nice tidy endings where good is rewarded and evil punished. At the end, I felt sad, sad for two women victims of sex slavery seeking justice and sad for the lapses in character of the two detectives. I don't say this to put anyone off from reading Box 21. It is well written with a believable plot and some characters that you will despise and others you feel for. It takes turns I didn't expect and did not end as I thought it would. And the authors weave the parallel stories smoothly. It is so good that I need to get the first, The Beast, to see where Grens and Sundkvist came from and the next three to see where they go.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Store Hat Trick

We were in New York City earlier this week and I visited three of my favorite bookstores -- The Strand Book Store, Partners & Crime, and The Mysterious Bookshop. The Strand and Partners & Crime are about 15 minutes apart (walking). The Mysterious Bookshop is only one subway stop away meaning you can hit all three without much effort.

As I browsed, I noticed that I had Kindle availability in mind when assessing whether or not to purchase an item. I put one book back because there is a Kindle edition only to discover later that it isn't available to U.S. Kindle users. As a criterion, this has its limitations.

The Strand
The crime and thriller section is small but I grabbed several desirable titles.

Nunn, Malla -- A Beautiful Place to Die and Let the Dead Lie. South Africa. I grabbed these for my Africa shelf. Malla's Emmanuel Cooper books are set in South Africa shortly after apartheid went into effect.

Upfield, Arthur W. -- Man of Two Tribes. Australia. Upfield's Napoleon Bonaparte books are difficult to find much less in hardback.

Partners & Crime
This is a wonderful book store, nicely organized for browsing, with a friendly and knowledgeable staff.

Harvey, John -- Rough Treatment. Britain.This is the second in the Detective Inspector Resnick series. I already had the first, Lonely Hearts, and like to have more than one in hand before I start a series.

Izzo, Jean-Claude --  Total Chaos. France. Translated. This was an impulse buy and recommended by the staff. It is set in Marseilles. The cover says it is book one in the Marseilles Trilogy. Hardboiled.

Kirino, Natsuo -- Out. Japan. Translated. I haven't read any Japanese novels and this came highly recommended by the staff and another shopper

Raymond, Derek (real name Robin Cook) -- He Died with His Eyes Open, The Devil's Home on Leave, and How the Dead Live. Britain. These are the first three books in Raymond's Factory series narrated in first person by an unnamed detective in the Department of Unexplained Deaths. Raymond is one of the earliest British writers of hardboiled/noir stories. I read the fourth book, I Was Dora Suarez, first, I knew I had to have them for my British hardboiled section.

Simenon, Georges -- The Yellow Dog. Belgium. Translated. I've never read any Inspector Maigret stories and thought it is high time I did.

The Mysterious Bookshop
It helps to know what you are looking for when visiting this store since the shelves must tower at least twenty feet above the floor. Not conducive to scanning. The legendary Otto Penzler is the owner. The entire back wall is devoted to Sherlockiana which caused me no end of pain because of what I couldn't buy.

Baring-Gould, William S. -- Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: The Life of The World's First Consulting Detective. This is a "biography" of Sherlock Holmes incorporating the authenticated facts about the life of the Great Detective.

Dahlinger, S.E. and Leslie S. Klinger -- Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle & The Bookman. US. The Bookman was an illustrated literary journal published between 1895 and 1933. I have access to the originals but this volume collects everything about Doyle and Holmes. I became interested in The Bookman when I learned that they advanced the theory that Doyle might not have written The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is an interesting look at how Doyle and his creations were viewed through articles, commentaries, parodies, pastiches, and letters.

Daly, Carroll John -- The Snarl of the Beast. US. Daly may be the first author to use the term hardboiled (1927).  The story is OK and I picked it up for historical reasons since the history of the hardboiled detective interests me.

McClure, James -- The Gooseberry Fool. South Africa. This is the third of McClure's Kramer and Zondi stories set in apartheid South Africa. Soho Press is reintroducing the series but I couldn't wait.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Interview: Gary M. Dobbs, Part 3, The Wrap Up - Gary Talks About Ebooks, Social Media & Book Promotion, Acting

Part 1 of the interview.
Part 2 of the interview.
A Policeman's Lot is reviewed here.

This concludes my interview with Gary and I would like to thank him for making my first blog interview such a pleasant experience. His openness is much appreciated and it let us see the man behind the books.

10) A Policeman's Lot was published in ebook format. What do you think about ebooks and their effect on publishing.

Gary - I think that eBooks will change the way we read. And I also see that as the market stabilises they provide a great way to bring long out of print mid-range fiction back into print. More and more libraries over here in the UK are starting to offer eBooks and even the Luddites out there are having to admit that there is a great sea change coming. I'm pleased that A Policeman's Lot can be read on so many different devices - it looks great on an iPhone for instance. And although it is still early days for the medium I think it is about to explode into the mainstream and sooner rather than later.

11) I learned about A Policeman's Lot through your blog, The Tainted Archive. You are also on Facebook and Twitter. Do you think that social media is changing how books are publicized and the author's role in publicity? If so, how do the demands to promote your books affect your writing?

Gary - These days I do believe the author's own publicity is paramount and social networking and blogs are a great way of doing this. Of course The Tainted Archive exists largely to publicise my own books but if I simply wrote about my own stuff readers would turn away, which is why I try and make the Archive into an interesting online magazine that people will want to read and keep reading. I put a lot of work into maintaining the site - themed weekends, special initiative etc and posting whatever news I think will interest my readers. I enjoy the Archive and am proud of its standing in the blogosphere. I will, of course, continue to push my own books but others too. And as for the demand of the Archive affecting my writing - I think it does but in a good way. I look at the Archive as a work in progress and I sometimes rush posts to get them out there, not worrying too much about the odd mistake. A blog does not have to be perfectly grammatical - it's a great way though to develop discipline. For instance today I've just returned from twelve hours on set and I intend to place up a few posts later and that's besides the other work I have to do - I guess I'm a workaholic and am never happier than when grafting. Something that me and Frank Parade have in common.

11) I can't leave this interview without asking about your acting. I'm a bit of a Whovian and am envious that you were in the presence of the Doctor, Martha Jones, the Darleks, and you had your photo taken in the Tardis! Tell us about you as a performer.

Gary - I've always been interested in acting and any kind of performing - I've done a good amount of stand up comedy and that led to appearing as an extra in TV and film in order to raise some extra cash which is always handy. And I'm always going for any auditions I hear about - often I'm just a bit of the background but sometimes I get the odd line or a piece of action. Doctor Who was great - this was the two part Daleks in Manhattan episode with David Tennant as the timelord. Can't praise him enough - in terms of performance or as a person. It was also great facing off against the iconic monsters. Torchwood was a bizarre experience - I actually did three episodes of that series and enjoyed every minute of it, well apart from filming in the freezing cold and rain all night.  The SF/Fantasy shows are great fun to work on but it is hard work, long days and much discomfort. 

12). Is there anything you would like to tell us about yourself, personal or how you go about writing?

Gary - I grew up in the seventies and had no schooling to talk about - everything I learned I learned form reading. Incidentally my mother taught me to read, I think the school gave up on me. And ever since I started reading I have also been writing, it's something I have to do. I was a solitary child and lived much of my life within my imagination - it's not something I can switch off. I write simply because I have to write. And besides the fact that I write at all is quite remarkable given that my teachers were morons and too busy trying to ram algebra down my throat instead of encouraging creative growth.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Interview: Gary M. Dobbs, Part 2, The Ripper and the Wild West Show

Read Part 1 of my interview with Gary Dobbs first.
Read my review of A Policeman's Lot.

4) A Policeman's Lot has three themes: The life of a policeman in South Wales around the turn of the century; Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show; and the Jack the Ripper solution. Was one of them the starting point?

Gary - Buffalo Bill was but initially Jack the Ripper wasn't a factor and the novel was concerned with a more run of the mill series of murders, but shortly after starting the book I dreamt the entire Ripper plot. I woke up one morning and it was fully formed in my head and when I started checking the facts I found that the theory in the book made perfect sense.

5) Related to question 4, and without revealing any spoilers, how did you happen upon the Jack the Ripper connection?

Gary - There are many people who have devoted their lives to the Ripper case - Ripperologists they call themselves, and no doubt many will rubbish my book. But I say prove otherwise. The case had always interested me and I've always felt the key is in the last murder. In fact I find it hard to understand why that murder was even considered a Ripper killing. The M-O was different to the other killings and the mutilation was horrendous, almost as if someone was trying to hide the identity of the victim. Who and why, I asked myself and found that this new theory of mine, which as far as I know is quite unique, makes perfect sense. Have I come up with an answer to the crimes? Well it makes more sense than the popular Royal Family theory which can be so easily disproven. I mean when you consider the fact that there were actually sightings of the final so called victim after she was dead, then the premise of the novel doesn't seem so fantastic.

6) Are there western and mystery/crime writers that influenced you?

Gary - Louis L'amour is a massive influence, as is Elmer Kelton and Elmore Leonard. I also idolise British western writer George Gilman, AKA Terry Harknet who wrote the hugely popular Edge series. Many of the writers publishing with the UK's Black Horse house, a publisher who also carry my Jack Martin westerns, are superb and are keeping the genre alive over here in the UK. I can't name any of these guys for fear of leaving anyone out. I think the perfect western would have the characterisation of Elmer Kelton, the feel of Louis L'amour and the pace of George G. Gilman - I hope to one day write that book.

Crime is another favourite genre and I love the old American hardboiled stuff - Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane may seem widely differing writers but I love them both. And I recently read The Postman always rings twice by James Cain for the first time and was blown away. Richard Stark is another writer I love for his tough prose style and I think Parker is an awesome creation. Of the Brit crime writers - Ruth Rendell is someone who I love for her plotting and characters, and Ian Rankin created a modern classic with his Rebus series. Peter Robinson's excellent Banks series is also a huge influence. But overall I think I prefer American crime writing and would love to master the art of writing UK crime with the pace and style of American novels. But I think that I am influenced in some small way by everything I read, maybe all writers are. Which proves the adage that the most important thing one needs to become a writer is a voracious appetite for reading.

7) Will we see more of Frank Parade? This is a direct solicitation by the way, he's an excellent character who can be taken far.

Gary - Parade will return - at the moment I am working on a second Arkansas Smith novel and together with the forthcoming Ballad of Delta Rose I will be two westerns in hand. So I plan to take a good year over the next Parade book as the plot is pretty complex. They will all be back, though - Davies, Oakdale and Sweaty Betty. I can't promise Buffalo Bill or Jack the Ripper next time out, though.

8) You write historical fiction and A Policeman's Lot excels in giving the reader a feel for what the time and place would have been like. How do you go about researching your books?

Gary - I thank you for that - making Ponty, as we locals call it, seem real was very important to me. I wanted in some way to recreate the town as it once was as a kind of tribute to the hard-working people who lived and died there. Much of the research was done at the local library but Ponty has a great museum, the staff of which were very helpful. And if you look hard enough the history is still there to be seen. I'm always talking to older people and they are great at providing information and little snippets of colour about a way of life that is sadly gone.

9) The spelling and some phrasing have been Americanized, or as you would have written, Americanised. Do you think this makes the A Policeman's Lot more accessible to Americans?

Gary - Personally I think the book should have stuck with the British version, it is after all a Brit set crime novel. However I understand and respect my publisher's decison - we are after all two cultures divided by a common language. And besides I think American spelling is more logical, it's certainly more phonetic. I mean jail and gaol. But the English language is a beautiful living thing that is always adapting. On the differences between UK and US punctuation - this is a pain in the butt and I don't understand why it is so. We should adopt a common system.

The interview concludes tomorrow when Gary talks about ebooks, social media, and his connection with Doctor Who.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Interview: Gary M. Dobbs, Part 1

Gary Martin Dobbs is a Welshman living in Pontypridd, Wales, who writes novels set in the American west, who has appeared in Doctor Who, and who has just published an ebook that links Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and Jack the Ripper. Tell me this isn't someone you would like to know a bit more about. Gary graciously responded to my questions which appeared in his inbox whenever a thought struck me.

On the Internet, Gary can be found at:
The Tainted Archive: the digital home for Jack Martin/Gary Dobbs
Jack Martin's Westerns
Gary Martin Dobbs on Facebook

My interview questions focus primarily on Gary's ebook, A Policeman's Lot, which I reviewed here.

1) Your first two books are westerns (The Tarnished Star and Arkansas Smith. A Policeman's Lot has a western feel with Buffalo Bill's Wild Show figuring prominently. How does a Welsh boy like yourself come to be interested in the American west?

Gary - It all stems from my grandfather who was actually named Jack Martin - I think most men of his generation were weaned on stories of the Wild West, much of which was still there when he was born. I spent my childhood watching every western that was on television and reading my grandfather's western novels once he had finished with them. But I'm also very much an outdoors person and am not comfortable in big cities - give me the wide open spaces anyday and the western genre provides all that. I also don't much like the modern world and I think the western hero is someone who survives by his own skill and doesn't look to the state for support. Freedom and liberty are also very important to me and those values form the backbone of the western genre. It's just a pity they are being eroded in the modern world.

2) A Policeman's Lot is set in 1904 and Pontypridd, Wales is developing into an urban center but to me it still had a frontier feel about it. Was that a characteristic of Pontypridd at that the time? And how is Prontypridd pronounced?

Gary - Firstly I knew I would have to write about a historical police officer - before the days of DNA testing and offender profiling. I think the modern police have lost the respect we once held for them and that's mostly their own fault, over here in the UK they are harvesting DNA for the flimsiest of reasons and hoping the tests will turn up past crimes. Of course for the most part they don't and they end up with another innocent person on their database but that doesn't matter to them. The modern police are creating a culture of "us and them" and they will regret this in the end. In the UK we have a large number of civilian police officers, as far as I can see these are folk with a uniform fetish, and this gives the impression that there are more police about than there actually are. A couple of years ago two of these plastic bobbies, as we call them, failed to intervene when a child was drowning because they hadn't been trained to go into the water. No I could never write about modern policing.

Which leads me to Parade - the era interests me greatly and of course having Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show visiting was a major part of the plot so that fact along dictated the time. And Pontypridd was very much a frontier town in those days - situated beneath two valleys, the Rhondda and Cynon it was a busy town with a thriving and changing population. I love this town and aimed for it to almost become another character in A Policeman's Lot - I would love to do for Pontypridd what Colin Dexter did for Oxford and Raymond Chandler did for LA.

And Pontypridd is pronounced - Ponty - pri - th.

3) Frank Parade is a police inspector in his mid-thirties. Would that have been young for that position?

Gary - By modern stands Parade would probably be too young for the rank, an inspector would also not be in uniform. But in 1904 the regional forces were very much in their infancy and Parade's army service would have seem him easily attain that rank at such a young age.

Continued tomorrow where we learn origin of the the Jack the Ripper link. Read Part 2 here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Policeman's Lot by Gary M. Dobbs

Solstice Publishing, 3 June 2010.
A Policeman's Lot from Solstice Press, PDF format
A Policeman's Lot from Amazon, Kindle format
Smashwords, multiple Ebook and text formats

Location: Pontypridd, Wales, 1904.

Police Inspector Frank Parade prepares for duty after the last good night's rest he will enjoy for a while. For Parade, the policeman's lot is to maintain order in a six mile area with a handful of constables. But today is going to be more hectic than usual: several hundred cattle have to be moved through town on market day and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show has just pitched camp. This is just the beginning of Parade's problems which will include deaths, robberies, fights, an escaped convict, illicit tavern activity, an overly attentive landlady, and a revelation in the Jack the Ripper case.

The hook that gets readers' attention is the connection to Jack the Ripper and a satisfying and well set hook it is. But A Policeman's Lot is, at its core, a police procedural. Pontypridd in 1904 was cosmopolitan in many respects but still retained a frontier flavor: ...the streets were often lawless -- river traders, gypsies, pickpockets, drifters, even escaped convicts had to be contended with. The story follows Inspector Frank Parade as he puts in long hours monitoring the activities in town, investigating crimes, and schooling a likable but inexperienced young constable. At the time and place the book is set, the police were still developing as a professional organization and didn't have a widespread trust among the public, telephones were not widely available making communication over distances a problem, and forensic analysis was limited. In this environment, the police had to rely on techniques still used today: collect evidence, interview everyone, observe, find patterns.

Frank Parade makes for a quite interesting character. I see him as the kind of man that made the British empire -- brave, honorable, and dedicated to service. As a soldier, he saw action in the Second Boer War then traded Army khaki for the blue of a policeman. He is unwavering in his defense of the law, sets high standards for himself and his men but is not a martinet. Watching the sober Frank deal with the freewheeling Wild West Show made for a fun study in contrasts.

About the Ripper connection I'll only say that it fits nicely into the story and has enough fact to make it a credible plot line. It also lets us see Parade performing good, solid police investigation. I checked some of the Ripper forums after I finished the book and was astonished at the passion with which the case is studied.

A Policeman's Lot is an entertaining story that brings together one of the last icons of the American West, a look at British police work while the force was still in its infancy, and one of the most widely known murder cases in history. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy historical crime fiction and police procedurals.

My next post will be an interview with the author.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Film: A Face in the Crowd

125 minutes, B&W, 1957
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa

Andy Griffith. What do you think when you hear that name: Mayberry, Opie, Barnie, and Aunt Bea?; Matlock? If you're my age you might remember that he wrote and performed humorous monologues (What it Was, Was Football) and played Will Stockdale in No time for Sergeants. But between the confused country preacher watching a football game and the country bumpkin drafted into the Army, and the kindhearted, folksy, good humored, Andy Taylor and the folksy and cantankerous lawyer Matlock, Griffith demonstrated that he was also a serious actor.

In 1957, he delivered an outstanding dramatic performance as Lonesome Rhodes, a drifter whose rapid rise and fall in chronicled in A Face in the Crowd. Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, is discovered in a small town jail in Arkansas by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neil) who routinely visits the jail for personalities to feature on her radio program, A Face in the Crowd. His folksy talking and guitar playing make him an instant hit with the listeners who relate to him as one of their own and he gets a show. He speaks their language.

But underneath the "shucks, I'm just a country boy" demeanor is something darker. The article in The Encyclopedia of Arkansas (link below) describes Lonesome as feral and you see that in the wild animal reaction when Marcia wakes him up in the jail cell. His open mouthed braying laugh (see the image on the poster) takes on a sinister, animalistic tone as the film progresses.

Lonesome has an innate ability to manipulate people's emotions and actions. He is charismatic with an animal magnetism that makes him a powerful force. This gets him recognized and offered a television show in Memphis, Tennessee. From there he moves to New York to rejuvenate a bogus energy supplement and he gets a network television show, Lonsome Rhodes' Cracker Barrel.

Now in the big time, Lonesome's ambitions come to the surface. He is going to be a kingmaker, he's going to have the rich and famous coming to him, his endorsement is going to get candidates elected, no one will be willing to cross him. A banner in his penthouse reads There's nothing as trustworthy as the ordinary mind-of-the ordinary man. We the viewers know that Lonesome is anything but trustworthy or an ordinary man. Marcia knows he as to be stopped and exposes him to his listening audience. We last see him screaming her name from his penthouse, asking her to come back to him.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas makes several interesting points:
  • It (A Face in the Crowd) is significant for its prophetic theme of the cult of celebrity, the power of television, and the merging of entertainment and politics.
  • [It shows] the new medium of television's power to make or break a performer of politician.
  • It depicts] 1950s America as television replaces radio as the most powerful form of mass communication.

A Face in the Crowd has a scary significance today where the "merging of entertainment and politics" is very real and has become a substitute for genuine discourse and information.

Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and culture: A Face in the Crowd.
Senses of Cinema: a face in the Crowd by Thomas Beltzer
Wikipedia article on A Face in the Crowd

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The White Gallows by Rob Kitchen

IndePenPress, 2010. 322 pages.

Author web site, The View from the Blue House
Promo trailer for The White Gallows

This review is based on a ARC of the book which will be available 12 June 2010.

Detective Superintendent Colm McEvoy returns in The White Gallows, a traditional detective/police procedural. It's been six months since the events described in the The Rule Book and the hunt for the serial killer, The Raven, is stalled. Unfortunately for McEvoy, there is no relaxing and, if anything, he is more beleaguered than during the Raven case. The economic downturn has reduced the ranks of guarda, straining McEvoy's capability to effectively manage investigations
People are being killed faster than we can investigate them. We're at full stretch McEvoy says to the chief pathologist, Elaine Jones.

With two murders, a scam artist who drove a man to suicide on the loose, and a major case coming to trial, the last thing McEvoy needs is another case, especially one involving the death of elderly German billionaire, Albert Koch. The family and his personal physician are anxious to have a ruling of death by natural causes but an observant local sergeant thinks something isn't right. With his superior pressuring him to wrap the case up right away and the family of Koch stonewalling his efforts, McEvoy persists in his thorough investigation. He begins to uncover anomalies in the victims past that, unfortunately, increases his pool of suspects.

I enjoy a good police procedural. The interviews, the research, sifting evidence, spotting inconsistencies, making connections, the false leads, all make for a satisfying read. The story is also realistic in that detectives are seldom handling only one case and here we experience the frustration of McEvoy to allocate already stretched resources and monitor and advise his detectives assigned to other cases. When McEvoy makes a mistake he is still following a logical line of inquiry; I had no "What! No police officer would do that" moments.

The story moves at a good pace though perhaps too good. I found myself, late at night, setting up elaborate conditions under which I would stop reading, e.g. I will read until there is a section break that occurs on an even page number unless I am within 5 pages of the end of the chapter. You'd be surprised how long you can prolong a reading session this way.

Rob's two books are populated with good solid characters, even the ones you dislike, and I can see at least one being developed more fully and taking on a different role in Rob's next book. I appreciate the depth given to McEvoy. Here is a man trying to do good police work with superiors who have no love for him and at the same time trying to deal with the memories of his late wife and not doing very good at providing a stable home life for his daughter. The level of tension hits 11 at times. I hope that the next books sees McEvoy getting a good meal and a good night's sleep.

The White Gallows is another excellent contribution to crime fiction from Rob Kitchen. Highly recommended if you like police procedurals and traditional detective stories.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Alone in the Crowd by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Picador/Macmillan, 2010, 225 pages.
Alone in the Crowd will be available from Picador 25 May 2010. This review is based on a copy of the book I received from the publisher.
It was copyrighted by the author in 2007.
Translated by Benjamin Moser

This book is one of my entries in the 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

UPDATE: Jose Ignacio Escribano has a link on his blog, The Game is afoot, to an interview with Garcia-Roza. While you are there, add Jose's excellent blog to your feed reader.

I'm always looking for a new author or series in the crime fiction genre that will capture my loyalty to the point where I want to read everything the author writes. That's how I felt shortly after starting Garcia-Roza's Alone in the Crowd. This is the seventh in the Chief Inspector Espinosa series set in the Copacabana Rio borough of Rio de Janeiro. Brazil. I normally want to read a series from the beginning for continuity but I don't feel that the previous six books were needed to follow the story.

Alone in the Crowd is a police procedural. Laureta Sales Ribeiro, an elderly, widowed pensioner, is struck and killed by a bus near Chief Espinosa's Twelfth Precinct in Copacabana. If she hadn't been to the station seeking to speak to the chief half an hour before her death it might have been written off as an accident but there is a vague suggestion from those standing on the corner with her that she had been pushed. Vague or not, that plus her visit to the precinct house is enough for Espinosa and his detectives to open an investigation.

Part of the pleasure of procedurals is watching the detectives collect facts, build time-lines, look for linkages, and connect the dots. When one person emerges as a common element their investigations shifts direction to one of finding proof. As they get closer to their person of interest, Hugo Breno, the story takes a psychological turn with the suspect subtly playing the detectives and Espinosa playing the suspect. The contest between the two men takes a sinister aspect when Esponisa discovers that there is a connection between him an Breno, one that takes him back to his boyhood. This is my favorite aspect of the story because of what it reveals about the way Esponisa thinks, how he interprets behavior, how he analyzes motivations. There is a parallel story involving Espinosa, his lover Irene, and her friend and possible lover, Vânia that further shows that Espinosa has an acute understanding of they way people think and act.

The setting of the book also contributed to my enjoyment. It is a pleasure when an author is able to convey a feeling of place. I know they have been successful when I find myself Googling the place names and pulling up Google maps. I'm embarrassed to say that if I thought about Copacabana or Ipanema at all it was probably the songs that came to mind. Now I actually have a sense of where they are when the author has characters walking down the Rua Barata Ribeiro or the Avenida Copacabana.

I highly recommend Alone in the Crowd to readers who enjoy police procedurals that focus on psychological maneuvering and understanding of character. The story flows easily and the characters are well formed and Garcia-Roza brings in their personal lives in a way that makes you want to learn more about them.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Old Dogs by Donna Moore

MaxCrime, 2010. UK ed. ISBN 978-1-84454-922-1. 282 pages. Cover with cake.
Busted Flush Press, 2010. U.S. ed. ISBN 978-1935415244. 250 pages. Cover with Lette and Dora.

The old dogs of the title are two jewel-encrusted gold Shih Tzu dogs on loan to the West End Park Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. These statues, originally from Tibet but now in a private collection, are worth around £15 million. An odd assortment of people are "interested" in these objets d'art but at the centre are La Contessa Letizia di Ponzio and her sister, Signora Teodora Grisiola, otherwise known as Letty and Dora, ex-prostitutes who have turned to grifting in their old age. They are in town running a long con involving horses when they read about the exhibit. Let's say that the intrinsic beauty of the statues is not what is drawing them to the museum. I'm not going to say any more about the plot; watching the different parties work their angles is part of the enjoyment of reading the story and I don't want to give anything away.

I was going to put Old Dogs in the screwball noir genre but then noticed that the blurb on the UK cover calls it a screwball caper. The two terms mesh well in this book and give you a pretty good idea what to expect: there are screwball characters, there is a caper, and there is a bit of dark nastiness. It all adds up to a fun read.

Donna introduced Letty and Dora in the short story anthology, Damn Near Dead: Old, Bold, Uncontrolled An Anthology of Geezer Noir. Donna's contribution, Pros and Cons, features the "Contessa" and the "Signora." It's published by Busted Flush Press and available from the Amazons and Book Depository.

Besides a fine story well told, non-Scottish readers will feel that they are learning a foreign language, Glaswegian. If I make it to Glasgow and someone calls me a mad rocket or a fannybaws I'm well prepared to respond.

In Old Dogs I also learned about a carbonated soft drink called Irn-Bru which the two neds in the story say is good for hangovers. I found a couple of bottles in a local supermarket. In spite of the blinding florescent orange color that earned me a skeptical look from my wife ("You're going to drink that!?") it's OK. The advertisements are quite funny so check out their web site.

I knew that Donna could tell a good story from her blog, Big Beat From Badsville. So to supplement your reading of Old Dogs, I recommend On Being Mugged and Half Mugged where you will learn about neds and boiler suits. Other fun reads are her Tales From the 62 Bus which gets a nod in the story.

Despite being a librarian, I don't often engage in "If you liked this..." recommendations (I think it's something we are supposed to do). In this case, however, if you enjoy Old Dogs then read Declan Burke's The Big O and its sequel Crime Always Pays. Likewise, if you've read Dec's books then get Old Dogs immediately.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Get Carter, the film

Get Carter (1971) is the film adaptation of Ted Lewis' noir gangster thriller, Jack's Return Home and is #16 on the British Film Institute's list of the 100 best British films of the 20th century. It is available through Amazon (UK and US) and Netflix.

Works referenced:
Chibnall Steve. British Crime Cinema. Florence, KY, USA: Rutledge, 1999.
Chibnall, Steve. Get Carter : A British Film Guide 6. London, GBR: I. B. Tauris & Company, Limited, 2003.

Warning, there are spoilers.

Get Carter is number 16 on the British Film Institute's Top 100 British films of the 20th century.

Plot Summary: Jack Carter, an enforcer for a couple of London mobsters, returns to his home town (Newcastle) to bury his brother Frank who apparently died in an alcohol fueled automobile accident. Frank left behind a daughter, Darleen, his wife having left him some years back. Jack doesn't believe the official account and wants to find out who did his brother. No one wants Jack in town, not the local mobsters, not his own London bosses. His investigation is bad for business all around. "Sorry for your loss mate but let it go, it's not like you really cared anyway" is the sentiment of everyone but Jack. His investigation is pure hardboiled -- pain and intimidation -- and gets results but his actions have made him a liability. He is alone against powerful enemies.

Chibnall says that Ted Lewis wanted to help write the script but that director Mike Hodges
...wanted to write his own adaptation. He claims that his script 'ultimately bore very little relation to the book' despite the fact that all the major characters and most of the dialogue comes from Lewis' novel.
Having read the book and seen the film, I find it an odd claim to make. It is true that there are notable differences between the two works but Hodges is true to Lewis' gritty, noir, revenge thriller. In several instances he adds to our understanding of Jack's character though additional scenes.

Michael Caine is brilliant as Jack Carter. Really brilliant. When we first see him, his bosses are watching a porno film but Jack, in his sharp grey suit and tasteful cuff links, is aloof. Later, on a train, he could be a business executive, reading (Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely), fussily polishing the silverware in the dining car. But this is just a skin. Underneath, Jack is cold, violent, devoid of feeling toward others, and implacable in his focus to take out those who killed his brother: owner of the boarding house needs placating, sleep with her; need to find out who's looking for him, set up Frank's friend to get a beating and see who it flushes out; porn actress might have information, sleep with her; find out that the porn actress was in a movie with your niece, drag her out of the bath and stuff her in the trunk of her car; the car with the porn actress in the trunk gets pushed into the harbor, watch it sink without expression; want to set up one of the local gang bosses, inject a woman with heroin and dump her in a pond to drown. Several of Jack's more cold-blooded actions are not in the book but they develop our understanding of the kind of man he is.

Jack does show a bit of concern for his niece Darleen but it rather perfunctory -- want to go with me when I leave, no, OK, here's some money. It's pretty obvious the kind of life Darleen is destined for but Jack is indifferent.

The film would have been strengthened and made more coherent for those who hadn't read the book had some back story been provided in flashbacks. From the film we don't see why Jack and Frank were alienated: Jack didn't respect Frank because he wouldn't stand up to a local thug who pushed him around; Jack had sex with Frank's fiancee just before the wedding and Darleen might be his daughter and not his niece. The film shows that there is a history between Jack and Eric Paice but not its cause which is that Jack forced Eric to back down and let his girlfriend be tortured. Perhaps Hodges wanted to keep the film moving forward and flashbacks would have interrupted that flow.

There is violence in the film but by today's standards it is rather mild and often occurs off-stage. The female characters (except Darleen) don't fare well in the film and all are on the receiving end of much the violence which gives the film a misogynistic tone.

In his film guide to Get Carter, Chibnall says:
Get Carter (1971) is the finest British crime film ever made. Hold on: some truths take longer than others to become self-evident. It took almost twenty-five years for the critical orthodoxy to accept that the cult followers of Mike Hodges’ dark and downbeat tale of fear and loathing in Newcastle had some justification for their reverence. Clearly, the film had not changed, but something in the culture of its reception most certainly had.
It is at the top of my list of crime films. I recommend it highly to students of film noir and gangster films. You do have to have a high tolerance for a depiction of a dark and degraded life with no way out.

Get Carter was remade in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone in the role of Jack Carter, this time a Las Vegas thug. It is one of the worst remakes of all time and should be avoided. Stallone spends most of the movie with the corners of his goateed mouth turned down so tightly he can barely speak. Instead of a gritty industrial town the action is moved to Seattle, Washington, completely destroying the atmosphere of the original. Think fern bars. It even gets an upbeat ending: Stallone shaves off his goatee, takes off his tie and jacket, and drives off in a convertible. Ghastly.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis

Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970. 206 pages.

Jack's Return Home was also published as Get Carter.

Jack Carter is an enforcer for two London mobsters. He returns to his home town to attend the funeral of his brother Frank from whom he was estranged. He also wants to see to his niece Darleen, his only remaining family. The police say Frank was drunk on Scotch when he drove his car into an abandoned quarry but Jack doesn't believe it. Frank didn't drink Scotch and the explanation that he was upset over a relationship ending doesn't wash; drinking was not Frank's way of dealing with emotional issues. Jack's bosses don't want him there because they think he will upset business ties and the local mobsters have good reason not to want Jack stirring things up.

I learned of this book when I posted a question in the FriendFeed Crime and Mystery Fiction room. I wanted to know about early British hardboiled writers. One poster said that "Ted Lewis was the first truly British hardboiled writer, without a doubt." His books are out of print but my library was able to get me a copy. Besides adding to my knowledge of the history of hardboiled crime fiction, it was a very good read.

Jack's Return Home fits into the noir subset of hardboiled crime fiction in the same way as the writings of Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman, etc) are considered noir. Librarian George Tuttle's essay on noir describe noir as
... as a sub-genre of the Hardboiled School. In this sub-genre, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics of this sub-genre are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters. This type of fiction also has the lean, direct writing style and the gritty realism commonly associated with hardboiled fiction.

There is nothing to like or redeeming about Jack. He is a gangster, capable of sudden and extreme violence, who uses people for his own ends without any evidence of having a conscience. His main reason for avenging Frank seems to boil down to he's family, it's what you do. Revenge is the natural course of action for a man like Jack. The same with his nice Darleen who might be his daughter. She's sixteen but Jack doesn't have a problem with her making her own way though he will make sure she gets some money.

The town is unnamed but is generally accepted to be Scunthorpe, the site of a large ironworks. Scunthorpe has the iron and sandstone deposits described in the book and is near Doncaster where Jack stops briefly on his way home. I don't know what the real city of Scunthorpe is like, but Lewis' description of a gritty industrial town where the bar life consists of "singing til ten, fighting til eleven" or "waltzing til ten, fighting til one" makes it the perfect urban setting for a hardboiled story.

Lewis' writing style is lean but carries a punch. Here is the first paragraph:
The rain rained.
It hadn't stopped since Euston. Inside the train it was close, the kind of closeness that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you're doing is sitting there looking out of the blurring windows. Watching the dirty backs of houses scudding along under the half-light clouds. Just sitting and looking and not even fidgeting.

And later, describing the town:
On the surface it was a dead town. the kind place not to be in on a Sunday afternoon. But it had its levels. choose a level, present the right credentials, and the town was just as good as anywhere else. Or as bad.

Here is one of the local mob bosses:
Cyril Kinnear was very, very fat. He was the kind of man that fat men like to stand next to.

The story takes place in 1968 and he uses comparisons that were probably easily recognized when the book was published but which may send a modern reader to Google. For example, several times he describes men by their hair styles:
"Open-necked shirts and Everly Brothers' haircuts."
"His hair style was Irish Tony Curtis."
"His Walker Brothers' hair style flopped over his face..."
Very descriptive once you see a photo of who he is referring to.

One of my favorites is this:
"The girl called Joy brought me my drink. She was strictly Harrison Marks."
Here you need to know that Harrison Marks was a British glamour photographer active when the book came out. In addition to nude photography, he also produced short, 8mm porn movies. Those five words, "She was strictly Harrison Marks", conveys a distinct mental image if you have seen Marks' work. You can get to the official Harrison Marks web site from Wikipedia.

I've read some complaints that the story is too slow and not enough happens. Lewis does spend four pages describing a poker game where Jack is only an observer and the several pages he spends on a porn movie are tame by today's standards. But I didn't feel slowness but a building tension and establishing the dark mood of the characters and setting.

Though fifty years old, the writing and story are excellent and it should be read by anyone who appreciates noir stories where character development is important.

A movie starring Michael Caine as Jack Carter came out under the title Get Carter. It is an excellent noir film and ranked number 16 on the BFI top 100 British films on the 20th Century.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Needle's first issue is Out

My Spring 2010 issue of Needle arrived yesterday. Since it is the Spring Issue, here I am in the back yard amongst the Columbines reading "On Pike Street" by Nathan Singer. The stories are first-rate and Steve Weddle and his gang deserve much praise for their venture.

Needle is having a contest where all you have to do to enter is post a photo of someone reading the first issue hence my "hard-boiled among the flowers" photo above. Take a look at the contest and their website here.

More about this publication later.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Murchison Murders by Arthur W. Upfield

In 1929, Upfield (photo left) was a government boundary rider on the Number One Rabbit Fence in Western Australia, based at the Camel Station. He was working on his next Napoleon Bonaparte mystery, The Sands of Windee and stuck on how to completely dispose of a body to commit the perfect crime. One night over a game of poker, Upfield asked George Ritchie, who lived at the station, how he would go about it. Ritchie gave Upfield a method without hesitation. Upfield thought the plan brilliant and decided to incorporate into the story. This was Ritchie's plan:

1. Burn the body, including clothing.
2. Shift through the ashes, remove any bone fragments, metal (like shoe eyelets), etc.
3. Crush remaining bone to powder, dispose of the other items down a well.
3. Burn the carcase of a couple of kangaroos on the same site to disguise the purpose of the fire.

Burning kangaroo carcases would not have been unusual in Australia at the time. Besides the problem of pollution, it was important to avoid fly infestations that would affect the sheep.

The topic was much discussed and a likable fellow by the name of Snowy Rowles (photo above right) was present at the discussions. Later, after Snowy had left the area, three men disappeared -- James Ryan, George Lloyd, and Lois Carron -- and Snowy became the lead suspect since all three were last seen in his company. Snowy tried to follow the Upfield's plot device but failed to follow the plan completely and left evidence behind.

The word Murchison in the title refers to the area in Western Australia where the crimes occurred.

The Murchison Murders is a true crime that should be of interest to devoted crime fiction readers. First, here is a case where life attempts to imitate fiction. An author has the perfect crime for his novel and someone tries to make it work. Upfield was one of the witnesses at Snowy's trial, testifying that Snowy was present when the perfect crime was discussed.

Second, the description of the investigation itself is fascinating as an example of police procedures in a challenging setting. While the methods are the same, the investigation is a testament to the thoroughness of Detective-Sergeant Harry Manning who put the case together. Consider that this is Australia in 1930s, communications are limited, distances are great. Adding to the challenges, one of the victims, Louis Carron, came from New Zeland which figured into the investigation.

To put together a time-line, Manning traveled to every place the three men were supposed to have been before they disappeared and interviewed everyone who might have come in contact with them. He reviewed hotel registers and store ledgers.

Rowles made several mistakes: he changed his story several times arousing suspicion; he kept some of the belongings of the murdered men; and he failed to remove incriminating items from the site where he burned Louis Carron. Among the items found at the site were parts of a skull, a tooth with a cavity, a wedding ring, some odd wire stitching, and gold clips from a dental plate.

Writing to Carron's wife in New Zeland, Manning was able to find his dentist and the jeweler where the wedding ring was inexpertly repaired. As the repair involved using two different grades of gold, he was able to identify the ring as having belonged to Carron. The dentist was also able to identify the tooth and plate clips as being consistent with the work he did on Carron.

When Rowles was apprehended Manning found the truck owned by one of the missing men, Ryan,and two watches. With the marks on the watches, he found the Perth jewelers who had repaired the watches and returned them to Carron in boxes with the odd stitching found in the ashes. More damning, Rowles himself sent the watches for repair and those repairs were performed by the same jewelers.

The case against Rowles was tight and he was found guilty and hanged. Despite pleas to tell what happened to James Ryan and George Lloyd, Rowles never admitted to any crime, even when his death was assured, and went to the noose claiming innocence.

This small book includes three additional chapters: "Patrolling the World's Longest Fence"; "An Australian Camel Station"; and "Trapping for Fur". These chapters do not relate directly to the murders but are interesting to a modern reader because the help give a picture of what the Australian bush and outback were like when Upfield was writing his Napoleon Bonaparte stories.

Upfield writes non-fiction with his usual florid and awkward sentence constructions. He was fond of starting a sentence with a prepositional phrase:
At the Camel Station lived George Ritchie. To the Camel Station once every month came two Government boundary riders.
Upfield is an entertaining writer, style notwithstanding, and is interesting to me for the way of life he captures in his works.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Colt Is My Passport, a film by Takashi Nomura

1967, 85 minutes, black & white, in Japanese with English Subtitles

The is part of the Nikkatsu Noir series made available by Criterion Films.

A Colt Is My Passport is the story of a hit-man and his partner who take a contract from a gang leader against his main rival. The contract is completed and the plan is for the two assassins, Shuji Kamimura and Shun Shiozaki, to immediately leave the country. Alliances change quickly in their world and Shuji and Shun soon find themselves on the run, their employer finding it more expedient to give them the the gang whose leader they assassinated to cement a new partnership.

The copy on the DVD case calls this film "One of Japanese cinema's supreme emulations of American noir." I agree with and and call one of the best noir films I've seen. Joe Shishido is perfect as the gloomy countenanced professional. In the U.S., Charles Bronson could have played the role.

The cinematography is outstanding. The cover copy says that it is "brimming with format experimentation" which is where my lack of knowledge about film making lets me down; I not sure what that means. What I did see was excellent framing of scenes, the placement of characters within a scene. There is a sequence where earlier scenes are repeated but with a key element removed which heightened the anticipation that something was about to happen.

There are some odd elements. The soundtrack is pure spaghetti western. If I had closed my eyes when the film started I would have thought a Sergio Leone movie was in the DVD player. In fact, the ending is reminiscent of the big showdown scenes in spaghetti western.

A Colt Is My Passport has excellent actors, a classic story line that I never tire of, and gorgeous photography. If you are a fan of noir films you should see this one. It is available through Netflix.

The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin

Year: 1840
Locations: Istanbul, Turkey; Venice, Italy

The very young new sultan -- he assumed the title at the end of The Snake Stone when his father died -- learns that a Bellini portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror may have surfaced in Venice. He dispatches Yashim the eunuch detective to acquire the portrait. Palace politics intervene and it is "suggested" that it might be beneficial to his health to ignore the request. Heeding the suggestion, Yashim instead asks his friend, Palewski, the Polish ambassador without a country, to go to Venice disguised as an American art collector. Palewski quickly discovers this is not a simple assignment but lethally dangerous.

I enjoyed the previous books, The Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone, but this one looks to be my favorite. Oddly, aspects of the book I most enjoyed others found less appealing. Palewski takes the lead for the first two thirds and he is strong enough to carry the action. I liked the way his personality and background came out. I find him a much more interesting character for having carried a good part of the book.

Yashim does have an active role in the story. The author continues to work Yashim's skill at cooking into the story and has almost convinced me that I can learn to like aubergines (eggplant). Godwin has great fun describing how Yashim cooks and the modern reader will appreciate what he can do with one or two pots and a knife. Yashim is also seen to be a man of action when the circumstances demand. We normally see him negotiating the byzantine politics of Istanbul but is shown quite capable of handling himself in a dicey situation.

Most of the action takes place in Venice and the author is as skilled portraying this city as he is Istanbul. Venice was once the Republic of Venice and an imperial power with a noted navy. Having passed alternately through French and Austrian hands, Venice is part of Austria's Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia at the time of this story. Goodwin describes Venice as a decaying remnant of its former glory, the canals little more than open sewers, its nobility now destitute and dissolute.

The story does not move quickly because the author is giving us a comprehensive look at the history and culture of the time in which the story is set as well as the mystery itself. The story itself takes many twists and turns until Yashim finally reveals what has been at stake.

Highly recommended if you enjoy historical mysteries where the setting is nearly as important as the story.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Needle: A Magazine of Noir

With everything going digital, it is nice to see a real ink on paper publication coming out and today is Needle magazine's debut. It is available on a pay-per-issue purchase from Lulu for $7.00 + s&h.

Someone looking for a magazine about needlework will be shocked unless they are hardboiled needle workers. Hmmm, I just got a mental image of Mike Hammer and Velda doing counted cross stitch together while waiting for a case. Anyway, here is the way the publisher, Steve Weddle, describes it:
Needle Magazine is hardboiled, lean and mean. No silly reviews. No poetry. No advertising. Nothing but hard hitting stories. In your face and busting up your kiss-maker. Kapow.
On his blog Chatterrific, Gerald So has a good interview with Steve Weddle about the magazine.

Hard-boiled/noir is a subgenre of crime fiction that appeals to me and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on this first issue. The cover alone would compel me to buy it.

More later.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Random Violence by Jassy Mackenzie

Soho Crime, 2010, 336 pages. ISBN 978-1-56947-629-1. This is Jassy Mackenzie's first U.S. publication and the first in the Jade de Jong investigations series.
Visit Jassy's Web Site and read an interview with her at Scene of the Crime.

Private investigator Jade de Jong left South Africa immediately after the funeral of her father, the police commissioner in Johannesburg. Something made her leave and something brought her back, ten years later. What those somethings are form a parallel story that helps fill in Jade's background.

When Jade arrives back in Jo'burg from her latest job in the UK, Superintendent David Patel, a friend and secret crush who worked for her father, asks her to assist in the investigation of a woman who was shot and killed outside the gates to her house. As Jade begins collecting details about the dead woman, she finds that there are missing pieces and some that some pieces don't seem to fit, but Jade is good at finding patterns.

Jade de Jong is a welcome addition to the P.I. genre. She's hard-boiled, exercising a moral flexibility when the situation demands it but not so hard-boiled that she is without human feelings. Readers who like a strong sense of location in their crime fiction (and I'm one) won't be disappointed with the setting or the way Mackenzie weaves in post-apartheid social and cultural adjustments as well as South Africa's extraordinarily violent crime problem. Random Violence has an excellent plot with two story lines that are compelling and a pacing that made me keep reading. My only disappointment is that the next book in the series isn't immediately available. This author reinforces my opinion that South Africa produces first-rate crime writers.

I started reading Random Violence just after I finished Antony Altbeker's study of crime in South Africa, A Country at War with Itself: South Africa's Crises of Crime (Discussed in detail by Jameson Maluleke and Nick van der Leek). I was struck by how well Mackenzie captured the problems still facing South Africa sixteen years after the end of apartheid and the start of majority rule. For example, Altbeker discusses how the drive for security by those who can afford it drives wedges between people, between affluent and those living a marginal existence. Jassy makes frequent mention of private armed response companies providing security for walled, fortified, and electrified communities springing up around Johannesburg.

Also, the Valjoen brothers, characters in the story, are patterned after Eugene Terreblanche, the leader of the white supremacist leader of the AWB (Afrikaner Resistence Movement) who was recently murdered touching off a serious political crises. See this article in the TimesOnline.

Random Violence is an excellent crime/PI/thriller that gives an outsider a look into a different culture. If any South Africans happen to read this review I hope you leave comments. I'd love some first-hand perspective.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Awakening by S. J. Bolton

Bernadette's review (see below) reminded me that I read this book last year but didn't review it, a lack of action that fills me with guilt since the author was kind enough to send me an inscribed copy after I correctly answered a quiz on her web site. I'm prone to slumps in writing especially when I can't figure out where to start but that's no excuse.

In partial atonement, let me start by saying that I enjoyed this book immensely and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a crime/mystery/gothic thriller. Please read the four excellent reviews to which I have linked below and I hope will steer you toward this author and this book.

Some Thoughts of my Own on Awakening

In her review, Bernadette says how she picked up Awakening thinking she would have a 10 minute read then finding herself on page 162 and staying up way too late. The exact thing happened to me. The author hooked me and I kept telling myself, "just one more chapter." Her first person narration keeps the story moving and since we only know what Clair Benning knows we want to find out what she will learn next.

Clair is a veterinary surgeon in charge of a wildlife hospital in an English village. The way she describes the creatures she works with, ecological issues, people's reactions to wildlife, and the countryside had a strong effect on me. And she does it very well.

Nearly all reviewers describe the character Sean North, a world famous herpetologist who travels the world with a camera crew, as Steve Irwin-like. That was my first reaction as well but I saw him more of a blend of Irwin's showmanship and a serious scientist like Joesph Slowinski, a scientist-adventurer who died after being bitten by a krait in Burma. There is an interesting book about Slowinski, The Snake Charmer. I like books that make me want to research a topic and Awakening did that.

Bolton works a bit of the Gothic into the story: a ruined church, an abandoned house, a charismatic cult leader, dark family secrets. Apparently, the English village is a lethal place to live, something I should have thought of as my wife and I drove around the U.K. last fall. I should have been on guard. The Gothic aspects contribute to the thriller aspect of the story and personally, I like a touch of the dark and mysterious.

S. J. Bolton can be found at at Her first book was Sacrifice and her latest is Blood Harvest, currently available in trade paperback as part of Waterstones three-for-two promotion.

Now, go read these reviews:
Bernadette's Review at Reactions to Reading
Dorte's Review at DJs Krimiblog
Lesa's Review at Lesa's Book Critiques
Corey Wilde's Review at The Drowning Machine

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Sands of Windee by Arthur W. Upfield

This is a Australian selection for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

Date & Location: October, 1924 - December 1924; Windee Station in western part of New South Wales. Broken Hill is south of Windee and within a day's drive.

While in Sidney finishing up a case, Bony (Napoleon Bonaparte), the half-caste detective inspector, happens to see a photograph of an abandoned automobile. The investigating officer believes that the driver, who had just left Windee Station slightly drunk, ran off the road, became disoriented, and wandered off into the bush. Bony sees something in the photograph that only an Aborigine would recognize and determines that a murder took place. This is the kind of case Bony craves, no body, little evidence and an apparently unsolvable mystery. He convinces the Chief Commissioner of N.S.W. to let him investigate. With only Sergeant Morris, the local police officer knowing his real identity, Bony heads to Windee to work undercover.

This is the second of Upfield's Bony novels. The first is The Barrakee Mystery which I discussed here. Like the first, The Sands of Windee has a touch of the melodrama, events of the past coming back to haunt the station owner, a young woman at the station seeking her true love.

Where The Barrakee Mystery does give us a detailed description of Bony's methods (keen observation and inductive reasoning), the mystery and the investigation are more tightly presented here. The chain of events flows better.

The reader won't have much difficulty figuring out the driver's disappearance but the solution does have an interesting twist. Someone who worked with Upfield while working on the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence tried to apply Upfield's method for disposing of a body. Upfield had to testify at the trial. The prosecution seemed surprised that Upfield spent time thinking of ways to dispose of bodies. Upfield later wrote about this event in The Murchison Murders. The Murchison is an area of Western Australia noted for mining.

The Sands of Windee is also interesting in that particular emphasis is placed on Bony's inner turmoil with the two sides of his nature, the Aborigine and the white. While the whites at Windee accept Bony without much consideration of his half-cast status, Bony develops a relationship with the station owner's daughter that has a significant impact on the conclusion of the case and threatens to compromise Bony's need to maintain his reputation for never failing to solve a crime.

Upfield manages to infuse his Bony stories with a visual sense of place, of the environment. You see how a station is run, the economics, how tenuous the existence can be. Upfield worked on the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence I was interested in how he describes the threat that rabbits represent to the station. Upfield also works in some good action when lightening touches off a range fire and everyone (including the local Catholic priest) mobilize to halt the fire and save the sheep.

Modern readers might have a problem with the overly elaborate language and racism but these books are a fascinating look at a world that is alien to most of us.