Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Feast of Murder: Jane Haddam

Description from the back of the book:
Wall Street wizard Jonathan Edgewick Baird has some very good reasons for hauling friends, family and flunkies out for a Thanksgiving week cruise on his lovingly crafted duplicate of the good ship Mayflower, not the least of which are the fortuitous death of an embarrassing business associate and his own recent release from prison for insider trading. But why did Baird invite former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian, a noted murder specialist, along for the ride?
I had a sudden impulse to reread this book set at Thanksgiving, so this is my offering for Thanksgiving Day. The story doesn't have a lot of Thanksgiving spirit, but we get a good amount of background on the Mayflower and the conditions that its passengers had to endure in the trip to a new world.

Gregor Demarkian is a ex-FBI agent, a widower who has retired and is living in a community of Armenian-Americans in Philadelphia. After retirement, Gregor has been called in to consult with police departments, so he has a reputation in this new role. This year he and his friend Bennis Hannaford are heading to a Thanksgiving on a replica of the Mayflower, to avoid the traditional Thanksgiving in the neighborhood. Not because they don't enjoy being with their friends but because their friends are trying to nudge them into matrimony, and neither of them are ready to even think about that. Gregor is 56, Bennis is 20 years younger and an author of fantasy fiction.

However, if they had known how uncomfortable the Mayflower cruise would be, both in dealing with a second death, and the privations of living on a ship with few amenities, they might have stayed at home.

Each Gregor Demarkian book starts out with several brief chapters featuring the characters that the reader will be following in the story. In this book the particular set of characters are all rich and all connected with the company owned by Jon Baird. And almost all of them are unlikable. As the story opens, Baird is still in prison and looking forward to  getting out and getting on with the merger of his company with Europabanc. This prologue is unusual in that the section title is "The Death of Donald MacAdam." Often the death comes later in the book, after a good bit of set up.

I have read 24 of the 29 books in the Gregor Demarkian series. That pretty much indicates that I find Jane Haddam an author worth reading. The first book in the series, Not a Creature Was Stirring, is one of my favorite mystery novels. That one I highly recommend. The Gregor Demarkian books follow a format, but the series changes as it goes along. The earlier books were lighter, cozyish, and holiday-themed (to a certain extent) and the later books, maybe starting with Skeleton Key (#16), are darker, more serious, and less cozy. Also the later ones usually center on some social issue, although personally that doesn't pull me out of the plot. The books have well-defined characters and the stories have good pacing. The point of view switches from character to character, although not in a disorienting way, keeping the reader guessing.


Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1992 
Length:       306 pages
Format:      Paperback Original
Series:       Gregor Demarkian, #6
Setting:      Begins and ends in Pennsylvania
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey was the first book written by Jane Austen, but it was not published until after her death, along with Persuasion. This book was a total unknown to me. Of Jane Austen's six novels, I knew Pride and Prejudice very well, and had some familiarity with Emma and Sense and Sensibility. I had seen the film adaptation of Mansfield Park but just barely remembered it. I had no experience with Northanger Abbey or Persuasion. I am now aware that this novel is a parody of Gothic romance novels, but to be honest, I am not familiar enough with that genre to have noticed while reading the book.

The story is basically this:

Catherine Morland is one of ten children in a middle class family; her father is a country clergyman. A wealthy couple living nearby invite her to join them on a trip to Bath during the winter ball season. She meets a young woman who befriends her, Isabella Thorpe. Isabella's brother, John, a friend of Catherine's elder brother, becomes interested in Catherine. She, in turn, falls for Henry Tilney, and develops a friendship with his sister, Eleanor. Things become complicated when John Thorpe begins to force himself on Catherine and tries to thwart her friendship with the Tilneys. Then Catherine is invited to visit for several weeks with the Tilneys at Northanger Abbey, which she imagines as a dark and frightening but exciting place to live.

My thoughts on this book:

I enjoyed Catherine's character as a naive young woman with little experience. I did not find her laughable as some readers do. Not many teenagers today would be quite as naive as she is, but I certainly was very inexperienced at her age, very concerned about what people thought of me, and just as much interested in attracting a boyfriend. I was impressionable and emotional at that age.

Another interesting character is General Tilney, James and Eleanor's father. He is overbearing and controlling with his children, yet befriends Catherine and invites her to their home. And then there is the contrast of Catherine's two new friends, Isabella and Eleanor, one self-serving, one genuinely a friend.

I have said it in other reviews, but I love that Jane Austen was writing from her experience as a woman in the late 1700s into the early 1800s, and that she was putting the focus on issues that affected her, but most important, that the themes she discussed then are still relevant. Sure, both women and men have a very different life now and many more options, but love and marriage and finances (or the lack of those things) still affects a person's life and happiness.

This book features reading and books a lot, and I enjoyed that. The heroine reads Gothic novels, and various books are discussed by the characters throughout the book. Catherine's reading choices have influenced her outlook on the world, and she believes (or wants to believe?) that life is much like a Gothic novel.

So far, Pride and Prejudice tops my list of novels by Jane Austen. Emma and Mansfield Park are running neck and neck right behind P&P. I haven't decided where Northanger Abbey fits. It is shorter and thus moves much faster than the longer novels by Austen. It is divided into two halves: the trip to Bath and learning to navigate the social scene there, followed by Catherine's visit to Northanger Abbey, each half interesting in its own way. Overall, I like the characters in this book better than those in Emma and Mansfield Park. They act more like normal people, and even the self-centered and manipulative characters are more interesting.

I would like to recommend the edition of Northanger Abbey that I read. It includes Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sandition, which I may never read, but are nice to have. It was the few pages of Explanatory Notes at the end that I especially appreciated. I don't find reading Austen difficult, but there were many terms that I would not have understood fully without the notes.

I read Northanger Abbey this month as a part of the Jane Austen Read All A-Long at James Reads Books. I read Pride and Prejudice in August, Mansfield Park in September and Emma in October. I will be reading Persuasion in December. 


Publisher:   Oxford University Press, 1990 (Northanger Abbey orig. pub. 1818)
Length:      205 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Literary fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy at this year's Planned Parenthood book sale.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Murder on the Blackboard: Stuart Palmer

Hildegarde Withers, a third-grade teacher in New York City, finds the dead body of an attractive young music teacher, Anise Halloran, in the Teacher's Cloakroom. Miss Withers calls in her friend Inspector Piper, but by the time he arrives, the body has disappeared. And then, when he goes looking for the body, he gets cracked on the head and ends up recuperating in the hospital.

This is the third book in Stuart Palmer's series featuring Hildegarde Withers and Inspector Oscar Piper. Quite by accident they worked together to solve a murder in their first case, The Penguin Pool Murder. And this time, the crime takes place in the school where Miss Withers teaches.

Although Inspector Piper does not feature as prominently in this mystery, here is the introduction we get to that character before he is bashed over the head and banished to a hospital bed:
Let me explain to those of my readers who are having their first introduction to Oscar Piper, Inspector of Detectives, that he is a leanish, grayish man of somewhat indeterminate age, with a pugnacious lower lip and a pair of very chilly bluegray eyes. A badly-lighted cigar usually hangs from one corner of his mouth, and his speech, perhaps because he has risen from the ranks and is proud of it, smacks a little of Broadway, West Broadway. 
Even with Inspector Piper incapacitated, Miss Withers wastes no time in investigating the mystery. As the author tells us:
She had little respect for the intelligence of the police when Oscar Piper was in charge of a case, and none at all now that he lay on the operating table in the emergency ward at Bellevue.
Although Miss Withers initially gets involved in crime investigation accidentally, by this point she has a reputation for being helpful to the police. In fact, the principal of her school asks her to act on behalf of the school in her investigation, at least initially.

These were my favorite aspects of this story:

  • The Hildegarde Withers stories are humorous, but they are not written exclusively for laughs. There is a serious story and Miss Withers is serious about her investigation.
  • I enjoyed the depiction of life in the 1930s. The book was published in 1932 and Prohibition ended in 1933, and bootleg liquor figures into the story. Also, the workings of a big city elementary school at that time was interesting.
  • Miss Withers is bossy, opinionated, and not afraid to speak her mind. She is a prime example of the spinster sleuth, although she isn't really that old (in her forties).

We also watched the film adaptation of this book starring Edna May Oliver and James Gleason. They are both perfect in their roles as Withers and Piper. Although the story in the film is very close to the plot of the book, Piper's role does change. In the movie, one of Piper's subordinates is the one knocked on the head and injured severely so Miss Withers and Inspector Piper do work together more than in the book. Miss Withers does take the initiative to go off on her own a bit. As usual, I prefer the book, but the movie is a lot of fun too.

There were six films based on Hildegarde Withers novels, and Edna May Oliver starred in the first three. Later she was replaced by Helen Broderick and Zazu Pitts.

See Also...

This post is submitted for Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog


Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1988 (orig. pub. 1932)
Length:      185 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       A Hildegarde Withers Mystery #3
Setting:      New York City
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Patient Fury: Sarah Ward

Detective Inspector Francis Sadler gets a call to come to the site of a burning house, which indicates that there is a suspicious death related to the fire. He calls Detective Constable Connie Childs, recently back from extended sick leave, to join him. Later it is determined that there are three dead bodies, a father, mother, and young son; the evidence indicates that the mother killed her husband and son, and then herself.

This is the third DC Childs mystery, written by Sarah Ward.  The series is set in the Derbyshire Peak District where the author lives. I have been a fan of the series since it started and this book did not disappoint.

Connie has a history of disagreeing with the general consensus of how a crime investigation should be handled, and she doesn't mind striking out on her own to investigate. This has put her at odds with her boss and coworkers before (and, as a reader, irritates me a bit).

In this case, Connie really breaks with the group. She doesn't follow orders, she doesn't follow up on leads she has been assigned, and she does investigate areas that she has been told are off limits. It was hard to understand why she went to these lengths, but also hard to understand why others in the group were not interested in following up all avenues. This book explores the psychological burdens that police officers of all ranks bear and how it affects their work.

Other members of the police and support staff are present again in this book: Superintendent Llewellyn, pathologist Bill Shields and his assistant Scott. Detective Sergeant Damian Palmer has a lesser role in this book, and DS Carole Mathews is added to the team.

Sarah Ward's books all concentrate to some extent on families and their bonds and relationships. This book delves into the secrets and pains of Julia and George Winson, the adult children of the man who was murdered in the fire. Complicating the situation is a past incident in their family; their mother disappeared 40 years earlier. There are brief flashbacks to events in the family's past throughout the book.

The characterization is superb and the story is riveting; I stayed up way later than I should have to finish the book. The book was a bit darker than I expected, and I was very unprepared for the ending. Yet I think this could be the best book in the series so far.

Can this be read as a standalone? I would say yes. Having read the previous books, In Bitter Chill and A Deadly Thaw, I was familiar with the continuing characters up to a point, but having to wait a year to read the next book, a lot has been forgotten. The author provides enough background to keep the reader informed without reading the earlier books and there is definitely nothing spoiled in previous books if you read this one first. However, this is a great series to read in order to see the development and the motivations of the characters.


Publisher:   Faber & Faber, 2017
Length:       392 pages
Series:        DC Childs #3
Format:       Hardcover
Setting:       Derbyshire, UK
Genre:        Police procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Brothers Keepers: Donald E. Westlake

I loved this book, and I only hope I can convey exactly why I enjoyed it so much. At this point in the year, I can say for sure it is one of my favorite books of the year. Although it's author, Donald E. Westlake, is primarily known for his crime fiction, this is not a crime story. It is somewhat of a caper novel, and there is some detecting, so I did not really notice the absence of a real crime as I was reading it.

Brother Benedict is a member of the Crispinite order, numbering only 16 monks, which has occupied a building in midtown Manhattan, built by the original monks on leased land.  Brother Benedict discovers in the newspaper that the building that they are housed in will be demolished along with the rest of the block they live on. This order has a prohibition against travel unless absolutely necessary; thus the brothers are disturbed that they will have to leave the home they love. They believe that they have a legal right to stay, based on their lease, but the lease is missing. This is highly suspicious. They search for ways to prevent the demolition of the block, but they are thwarted everywhere they turn. In the midst of the effort to keep their home, Brother Benedict visits the landlord, traveling all the way to Puerto Rico, and falls in love with his daughter.

Even though this story is about a fictional order, I enjoyed reading about the details of life in the Crispinite order and the quirky members of the order. Brother Benedict treasures his life in the order and knows he is blessed to have found the perfect fit for him. And then he falls in love with a rich, self-centered divorcee who also falls for him, and Westlake makes this believable.

This is a charming, light, comic novel with a happy ending, even though it seems that there is no way it could end well.

This story is covered in depth at Clerical Detectives.


Publisher:  Mysterious Press, 1993. Orig. pub. 1975.
Length:      261 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     New York, Puerto Rico
Genre:      Comic caper
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Reading Summary for October 2017

It felt like I read fewer books in October, but it wasn't that bad, it just took me 18 days to finish two of the books, Emma and Strangers on a Train. Whiteout was also read during that time but it doesn't really count because even at 128 pages, a graphic novel doesn't take that long to read.

My project through December of this year is to read one book a month by Jane Austen, as a part of the Jane Austen Read All A-Long at James Reads Books.  In August I read Pride and Prejudice (a re-read)  and in September I read Mansfield Park. October's Austen book was Emma, and as I said, it took me a while. I did enjoy the book but it was slow going. My thoughts on the book are HERE.

I did not realize until I had listed all the books I read this month that four of my five crime fiction books were written prior to 1960. That surprised me because lately I have been reading a higher percentage of contemporary novels.

And these are the five crime fiction books I read in October:

Whiteout (1991), a graphic novel written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by Steve Lieber
This is a mystery / thriller set in Antarctica featuring Carrie Stetko, U.S. Marshal. The story has been adapted into a movie of the same title, which I have yet to see.
Strangers on a Train (1950) by Patricia Highsmith
This is a fairly well-known novel, and also has a movie adaptation, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The basic story is that two men meet on a train, and one of them suggests a murder pact. If they each murder a person that the other wants to get rid of, then they can get away with the perfect crime. A very good novel, but a disturbing read. Peggy at Peggy's Porch very kindly sent me this book, which I have been planning to read for years. 

Murder on the Blackboard (1932) by Stuart Palmer
Another book that has been adapted into a film. Oh no, a trend. It was not exactly deliberate, but I have had the Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection from Warner Archives for quite a while, and wanted to read the book first.
Hildegarde Withers, a third-grade teacher in New York City, finds the dead body of an attractive young music teacher, Anise Halloran, in the cloakroom. Miss Withers calls in her friend Inspector Piper, but by the time he arrives, the body has disappeared. This is a complex mystery with a large cast, which also was a lot of fun to read.

Landed Gently (1957) by Alan Hunter
Another mystery novel with a large cast that confused me, and a lot of red herrings. But that was OK, because I found the hero, Inspector Gently, very charming and I liked that there were multiple investigators. Gently is visiting with the Chief Constable, Sir Daynes Broke, to get a chance at some pike fishing over Christmas, when a visitor at nearby Merely Hall is murdered. Being a guest of the Chief Constable, Gently cannot officially investigate the crime.

Envious Casca (1941) by Georgette Heyer
A country house mystery, with a corpse in a locked room, and a smallish set of residents and guests who are almost all suspects. I read a few of Georgette Heyer's mystery novels decades ago, and liked them well enough, but I was very surprised that I enjoyed this book so much. In a month of very good reading, this was easily my favorite read. Another one set at Christmas.