Friday, June 17, 2022

The Bellamy Trial by Frances Noyes Hart (1927)

A murder involving two wealthy couples in suburban New York ends up at trial along with attorneys, witnesses, physical evidence, and a clamoring public.

Mystery Review: The Bellamy Trial had so many tricks and turns at the end I wondered if it was the Gone Girl (2012) of its day. Not a detective novel but a 1927 legal whodunnit, with each chapter being a day of the trial replete with witnesses, evidence, posturing attorneys, and a packed courtroom. Thus, the reader is enjoyably placed in the position of being a juror, making snap judgments of credibility and veracity day after day. The story is intricately put together and paced allowing the mystery to work well in this unusual setting. The various relationships between the wealthy wives and husbands and their admirers is almost Byzantine. The status differences between country club and laboring class provide a revelatory subtext. Along with the many characters presented from the stand there's a bit of silly romance between a seasoned reporter and a red-headed first-timer sitting in the gallery that gives a break between the days of trial (each a chapter) and subtly provides insights into various aspects of trial procedure and town history. Very much of its time, which only made it all the more interesting. The story is based on an actual 1922 scandal, which may have also inspired The Great Gatsby (1925). One warning: much like the aforementioned Gone Girl the ending results in an ethical dilemma that will leave some readers dissatisfied.  [3½★]

Death Claims by Joseph Hansen (1973)

The investigation of a body on a beach reveals depths murkier than the nearby ocean.

Mystery Review: Death Claims is the second installment in the series featuring insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter. Not quite as good as the first, perhaps suffering from the sophomore slump that happens when writers put a lifetime of experience into their first work and then have six months to write a follow-up. A few moments seemed familiar, almost like outtakes from the first Brandstetter episode Fadeout (1970). This one has rare books, drug addicts, blackmail, Christians, community theater, and more as the investigation chases a rapidly moving target: every chapter seems to bring a new suspect. Death Claims is a solid mystery story that, because it's Joseph Hansen (1923-2004), is sure to be well written. No complaints but a couple of quibbles. It may only be expected that a gay detective would encounter (or in 1973, recognize) more gay people than the norm, but I hope this series doesn't come to rely on the devious, gay murderer trope. Also there's a moral issue when our hero is responsible for an innocent man's death, but the ethical question is largely glossed over. Other than those two concerns, Death Claims is a good solid mystery, perfect for train or plane travel, with a bit more diversity than usual.  [3★]

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis (1980)

Far in the future, humanity has forgotten how to be human, reliant on robots as civilization crumbles around it.

SciFi Review: Mockingbird is an underrated novel that reminds of such classics as Brave New World (1932) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Just as with The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), in Mockingbird Tevis wants to alert us of what aspects of our society will become if taken to a logical but insane conclusion. It's very human, a warning of what may be happening, what we may be doing to ourselves, but also a promise about the possibilities of humanity, at the end providing a scrap of optimism. Along the way the story is an ode to culture, art, music, literature, the good that humankind has produced. We can't imagine what people may be like circa 2467, but the characters here are real enough in the multiple viewpoints presented by the three main characters: a 170-year-old android with emotions, a woman determined to cut through the societal haze around her, and a man slowly learning to become human through the allegory of learning to read. Dystopias fall into two categories, too much government or too little, but in Mockingbird it's both. There's too much government, but a government of distressing incompetence. Walter Tevis (1928-84) is first a storyteller, but a thoughtful one who gives us much to think about while telling an entertaining story. And although enjoyable, it's evident that this story was written by someone who spent much time alone. One oddity in the story is that the android is modeled on a black man, a distinction that eluded me unless it was an observation on involuntary servitude. Tevis wrote six novels, four became successful films, three were classified as science fiction, two were a continuing story. Best known for The Queen's Gambit (1983), Mockingbird is another well worth reading.  [4½★]

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs (1861)

A "slave narrative" by a young woman who hid in an attic for seven years to escape bondage.

Nonfiction Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl demonstrates the added burden of slavery on women. Not only did they face repeated rape by their owners and others, but their children would be sold away, often at an early age. Just the threat of selling children would be enough to keep women in line. Despite being in a better position than other slaves on the plantation (she learned to read and write as a child), Jacobs vividly describes the experience of being a prisoner without having committed a crime except being born black. In the grotesque system of slavery even free blacks could be pulled into slavery, a daunting thought in these times of slavery deniers and increased racism. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl does have a sense of the dramatic, but nothing here was unbelievable except the well-documented monstrosity of slavery. Scholars have confirmed the validity of the narrative. What is amazing is how the slaves continued to live as people, live ordinary lives of affection, culture, and tradition despite the ugly oppression and terrorism designed to turn them into automatons. To her credit Jacobs also rails against the discrimination that confronted her in the "free" north. I came to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl only after reading Kindred (1979) by Octavia E. Butler, as I felt it necessary to read non-fiction accounts of the times depicted in that novel.  We read these chronicles not for their style or technique, but as a sort of time machine to learn our history and so not repeat it.  [5★]

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989)

Chinese mothers and their American daughters try to negotiate family, culture, and country.

Book Review: The Joy Luck Club is both universal and intensely personal. The book encompasses, inter alia, intergenerational conflict, disintegrating tradition, immigrant collision with a dominant culture, and mother-daughter rivalry. For me the biggest issue here is (isn't it always?) a failure to communicate. Constructed along the lines of a mah jong game, the story consists of four sections of four chapters told by mothers born in China and daughters born in the U.S. There was some confusion while reading in matching specific mothers and daughters, but in the end it didn't really matter as the family tensions and stresses came through clearly. I'm unfamiliar with the issues, but Amy Tan and her first novel The Joy Luck Club have been denounced for being disloyal to the Chinese and Chinese-American communities (just as early in his career Philip Roth was criticized for being unfaithful to the Jewish community -- at what point does the immigrant rebel against old cultural strictures?). I can't speak to the validity of these challenges, but the substance of every criticism seems rooted in Amy Tan's own immigrant experience. I can't condemn her for the life that made her and her choices. Every immigrant must individually balance the urge to assimilate with the desire to retain culture. Many are the stories of Mexican parents forbidding their American children from speaking Spanish. My mother played "Mah Jongg" and I've always been enamored with the little, brightly-colored tiles with their exotic smell. Although I never learned to play, I wish more of The Joy Luck Club had involved the game itself. As it is, the examination of parents from one country and children from another makes this groundbreaking book worthwhile and valuable.  [4★]

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Dead Letter by Seeley Regester (1866)

When a young woman's fiancé is found dead, the other man who loves her swears to catch the murderer.

Mystery Review: The Dead Letter, purported to be the first full-length American detective novel, was written by Metta Fuller Victor (1831-85) under a pseudonym in 1864 or '66. She made a living as an author writing over 100 books while having nine children. Her best known work was an Abolitionist novel that was said to rival Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Dead Letter is a wonderful example of the novel as time machine, giving a strong sense of New York City in 1866, though oddly no mention is made of the American Civil War. To me, The Dead Letter is more interesting and enjoyable than a historical novel written today about that period, this being living history. Being of its time, foreigners, especially the Irish, come in for some disparagement (the Famine (1845-49) and the great emigration was still recent). This is not a top-notch example of mystery story-telling by today's lights. The concept of the red herring was apparently undeveloped, coincidence was overdeveloped, and the detective depends on supernatural elements to solve the crime. I can't tell if Victor (as S. Regester) truly believed or if the hocus pocus was simply a convenient device, though she also touts the healing powers of electricity. Ghosts, at any rate, are pooh-poohed. Much like Sherlock Holmes (twenty years later!), our doughty detective has made extensive scientific study (such as taking handwriting analysis to a magical degree) to aid in his deductive abilities. The book has been compared to Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868) and other sensation novels. The writing is hyper emotional and melodramatic, but that very intensity and commitment succeeds in sucking the reader into the story. The Dead Letter is as interesting as a historical artifact as a mystery, Victor having created a strong,  individual, and incredible (in both senses of the word) detective to carry the tale. Another entry in the Library of Congress Crime Classics series.  [3½★]

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1893)

The second collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories.

Classics Review: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is the fourth outing for the famed detective, a great installment with definite high points, but for me just not quite as irresistible as the classics in the preceding The Adventures of. The legend of Holmes grows, however, as we meet his smarter, older brother Mycroft (with a definite physical resemblance to Nero Wolfe), and we encounter Holmes' archenemy, Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime. But disappointing in that the Baker Street Irregulars fail to appear and Mrs. Hudson makes but a single entrance in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Still we learn more about Holmes as a person and he is still the center of it all, even acknowledging his mistakes and flaws and more human than at first. Conan Doyle's writing has grown since the earlier books and he's added more variety to his formula. Of course it doesn't really matter, at this point I have to read everything featuring Mr. Holmes. It's well known that Doyle had tired of his crowning creation (as did Agatha Christie with hers). The final story of this collection is the crucial confrontation of Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes was followed some eight years later by The Hound of the Baskervilles.  [4½★]