Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

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.