Friday, November 20, 2020

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie (1932)

A collection of short mysteries all impeccably solved by village sleuth Miss Marple.

Mystery Review: The Thirteen Problems, the second Miss Marple book, was (unusually) a collection of thirteen short stories demonstrating how ideally that format fit her method of detection. It's also been published under a different title, as The Tuesday Club Murders. Here the riddles are stripped to the essentials without added red herrings and layers of misdirection. At times the answers turn on the simplest and most shameless of tricks, which a reader might not accept gently after laboring for 250 pages, but makes for a perfectly fine ending when one has only invested a portion of an hour. I can envision Christie turning a few of the stories in The Thirteen Problems into full length novels by expanding the cast of characters, creating additional possibilities, throwing in subplots and detours. But by sticking to the basics she not only saved herself a great deal of time and effort, but gave us these neat and gem-like puzzles all tidily and efficiently reconciled. The only drawback to reading all thirteen stories in one go was that it revealed how formulaic Christie could be. Miss Marple often smiles "benignly," she always recalls some "village parallel," and consistently observes that human nature is much the same everywhere. Much "twinkling" occurs. That accident aside, The Thirteen Problems was a near-perfectly enjoyable reading experience.  [4★]

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)

A member of the New York aristocracy marries one woman but loves another.

Classics Review: The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1921 for Edith Wharton (1862-1937), which seems odd as somehow I don't think of classics as winning literary prizes. Set in the 1870s (Middlemarch is a new book), I also realized that I know little of American history and society between 1870 and 1920. The Age of Innocence reminded me of one of those science fiction novels in which the author creates and describes an alien civilization, its customs and lifestyle, in a way that is credible and comprehensible. Wharton's New York City aristocracy is strange but believable and intricately described. The society is conformist to an extreme degree. "He had long given up trying to disengage her real self from the shape into which tradition and training had molded her." One is allowed to see art but not to live it for fear of embarrassing or shaming the family. Where one does what everyone else believes to be correct. "There were moments when he felt as if he were being buried alive under his future." The story of someone who can appreciate poetry but cannot write it. Wharton presents a host of intriguing and sometimes diabolical characters. All is told with a gentle humor that can still bite, ironic and sardonic, but with heart above all. The author realizes that selfishly hurting someone kind or innocent is no virtue, and she still finds romance in a world where love doesn't come first. Wharton lets us see this complex, foreign society clearly. We understand it even as it seems frightening. She manages to build the tension unbearably, making us fear any act that will shatter this alien world, making us care about something that we don't believe should even exist. The Age of Innocence is a rich, immediate and propulsive book. A tale of the insular, blueblood wealthy, precisely the book that any democrat should abhor, but somehow Wharton makes us see that they're still people despite their pedigree of flaws. Written immediately after the First World War there are underton

es of the changes from that time -- which might make a good college thesis. At one point a male character says, "Women ought to be as free as we are." Although set shortly after the American Civil War, that conflict is never mentioned. Also a 1993 film with Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder, directed by Martin Scorsese.  [5★]

Monday, November 16, 2020

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers (1932)

A young Russian dancer's body is found at the edge of the sea; is it murder or suicide?

Mystery Review: Have His Carcase is the unfortunately-named second adventure of Harriet Vane with her admirer Lord Peter Wimsey after she was introduced in Strong Poison (1930). Although I've never quite warmed up to the much beloved Lord Peter I'm intrigued how Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) employed her mystery-writer alter ego. Once again the practical Miss Vane is (vaguely) suspected of murder but charms everyone she meets. Have His Carcase is a rather lengthy book for a mystery but Sayers keeps the reader moving briskly along as she adds detail upon detail, suspect upon suspect. Her stories are engaging for somewhat more well-rounded characters than certain other authors while Vane and Wimsey (and the inimitable but indispensable Bunter) work well together (and separately). Wimsey seems to become less twittish with every book, while still retaining his ability to be occasionally be annoyingly enthusiastic. Nothing about his book collecting mania here, sadly. The mystery itself seems unnecessarily and perhaps incredibly complex and the cipher-breaking went on a little too long, but the solution to the book's riddle is elegant and believable. The characters are interesting and Sayers is always willing to put a little flesh on the bones of her story. Who knew that "lounge-lizard" was a common term in 1932? Have His Carcase was not quite as riveting as Strong Poison, but no less of an enjoyable read. I'm looking forward to the next Vane and Wimsey pairing, Gaudy Night.  [4★]

Friday, November 13, 2020

Ivory Pearl by Jean-Patrick Manchette (1996)

A feral child adopted by troops during World War II later becomes an international war photographer who then adopts another feral child exposed to violence.

Mystery Review: Ivory Pearl remained unfinished when Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942-1995) died. I rarely read uncompleted novels because they're ultimately unsatisfying, for a variety of reasons. Translator Donald Nicholson-Smith calls this "an unrevised manuscript." There was, however, much to be gleaned from Ivory Pearl. The reader gets to see Manchette constructing his novel, writing the basic structure and leaving spaces to be realized later with phrases such as "and other things." Some chapters are truncated suggesting that they would've been expanded with more description or action. This novel was intended to be the first in a series assessing the political world stage post-WWII, including both notable events such as Castro's revolution in Cuba and lesser known actions such as CIA involvement in opium. Looking back on history was a way for Manchette to present a social critique and explore his socio-political-economic worldview, his thoughts on various economic and political movements. Which view here acts as a parallel to the "thriller" storyline of  a munitions-dealing family and the collateral damage of their actions. Manchette always injected politics into his novels, but left the reader with the feeling that there was much more he would've discussed but for fear of weakening the story. Manchette writes women well, especially women of action with fearsome agency. Here our war photographer (think Robert Capa, namechecked herein) nicknamed "Ivory Pearl" (rhymes with "girl") is intriguing and challenging, and if tragically unable to have been fully developed is as compelling as his female protagonists in The Mad and the Bad and Fatale. The ending is a series of paragraphs apparently taken from the author's notes, but it's unclear just how he would've wrapped up the story and if anyone would've lived happily ever after. Ivory Pearl is interesting in its insights into how authors work, but is worthwhile only for someone determined to read everything the French neo-noir author wrote.  [3★]

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes (1943)

A European refugee enters the country illegally and flees across America.

Mystery Review: The Blackbirder is as much a spy-thriller as a mystery, and exhibits much of what Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-93) did so well in her crime stories. Slowly but constantly building suspense, creating tension till the reader wants to put the book in the icebox. A cinematic style that is watched as much as read. Written during and about the Second World War, the war years milieu is essential and inescapable. The Blackbirder gives a vivid sense of what life was like on the home front in America. The fear and abhorrence of the Nazis is visceral (an odd commentary on current events): "There was hatred to feed her mind. Hatred of the evil that had been loosed by a beast in an iniquitous land. Hatred of war." The story is in almost constant motion as our fearful protagonist travels from New York to Santa Fe with flashbacks to Havana and Paris. She's tough as nails though she doesn't know it, she's never sure she can make it through but is never afraid to try (similar to Hughes' slightly less-able heroine in The So Blue Marble). She perseveres. She persists. Somewhat hardboiled, a little noir, plenty of paranoia -- menace is anywhere and everywhere and no one can be trusted. The Blackbirder is not my favorite nor her best, but then again she's set the bar unfairly high in writing several of my favorites. It's good entertainment and a worthy testament to Hughes' talents. Unfortunately, the book is so full of typos (due to format copying?) that occasionally the reader doesn't know if a line contains an adventuresome turn of phrase or it's merely that some letters are missing.  [3½★]

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie (1942)

Poison pen letters disrupt a bucolic English town, that may not be quite so pleasant after all.

Mystery Review: The Moving Finger, the third Miss Marple novel, uses the tantalizing plot device of poison pen letters (later used in varying forms by Muriel Spark and Gabriel García Márquez). Told in the first person by a young man recently moved to the village of Lymstock from London with his sister. Miss Marple doesn't appear until she's rather awkwardly introduced on page 135. The Moving Finger is only my third Marple read, but it seems Agatha Christie chooses not to make (the always charming) Miss Marple the center of her own stories. She has found, however, a way to make the reader feel silly for not having solved the mystery sooner. Teasing with red herrings seems to make her day. As well as inserting gruesome murders in with the quaint and quirky countryside. Although Christie doesn't plumb the depths of her characters, I do enjoy how she sketches their qualities with just a few deft strokes, as a sort of sketch artist, perhaps reminding the reader of someone just like that. Just as Miss Marple is always reminded of someone she knows while working out the riddle. The Moving Finger is a solid Christie mystery, just as it should be: not a masterpiece, but certainly not a disappointment.  [3★]

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie (1942)

The body of a pretty, blonde dancer is found in a traditional, English country pile.

Mystery Review: The Body in the Library is the second novel featuring the delightful Miss Marple and is vaguely reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers' Whose Body? (1923), in which an anonymous corpse appears where no body should be. Unlike the first Marple novel, Murder at the Vicarage, written in the first person (of the vicar), The Body in the Library is presented by an omniscient narrator. The story is plot heavy more than character driven, Christie's people being described and expressed in a few words, often an identifiable quirk or trait. For instance one character is described as being "shrewd without being intellectual" by two different people. My only complaint is that Miss Marple appears far too little, as Christie is skilled at leaving us wanting more. One bit of fun is that a character who's an avid fan of mystery novels has read "Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H.C. Bailey." The Body in the Library is an enjoyable mystery that doesn't make the reader work too hard, without being too much more than that.  [3★]