Sunday, December 3, 2017

DANCERS IN MOURNING - Margery Allingham

























Jimmy Sutane, a talented dancer and the idol of musical revue,is the victim of a series of particularly vicious practical jokes.  This inane persecution attains such a degree that Mr Campion is invited to investigate.  Mr Campion visits White Walls, Sutane's country house, and on his first night there the first of  of a number of pointless, seemingly irresponsible murders is perpetuated. The victim is Chloe Pye, an intriguing unscrupulous woman, and her death could have been an accident or perhaps suicide, but in either case it was extremely convenient for quite a few people.

In an atmosphere of bewildering and increasing tension, and a situation not assisted by Mr Champion's emotional entanglements, the story is carried to an unexpected, exciting climax.

This is Allingham writing a country house murder mystery and it's dull as dishwater. The characters are all dull  and even for this type of story extremely one dimensional.

The only break in this dreary read is the appearance of Lugg, Campion's man, to add some humour and level headedness to the investigation.

All the usual police associates feature but are bit players, even Campion is off his game becoming very withdrawn after falling for one of the females involved. This isn't much fun and the ending while revealatory as is necessary in a murder mystery, is wrapped up by such a writers 'cheat' so as to be annoying.  Not one of her best by a mile.






















Thursday, November 30, 2017

HOLY DISORDERS - Edmund Crispin

























Holy Disorders takes Oxford don and part time detective Gervase Fen to the town of Tolnbridge, where he is happily bounding around with a butterfly net until the cathedral organist is murdered, giving Fen the chance to play sleuth.  The man didn't have an enemy in the world, and even his music was inoffensive: could he have fallen foul of a nest of German spies or of the coven of witches, ominously rumoured to have been practicing since the 17th century?

This is very very good, not as flippant as some of the other Crispin work still humorous but not too try hard for laughs.

The murder is the beginning of an adventure where no one is who they appear to be and the ending has several good surprises. 

This is the most entertaining murder mystery I have read for a while, it was first published in 1946 and stands up well today.  Recommended.

You can get these books through Mighty Ape in New Zealand

Crispin, real name Robert Bruce Montgomery, was an interesting chap who unfortunately had his life cut short by a fondness for the bottle.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Crispin

















Thursday, November 23, 2017

THE FEATHERED SERPENT - Edgar Wallace

























After Miss Ella Creed was knocked out by thieves outside her home, she was terrified.  She seemed to care little for her lost jewels - they were just imitation after all - but when she was unconscious a card had been toed around her neck.  On it was  a crude drawing of a feathered serpent.

Reporter Peter Derwin soon discovers that a wealthy artist, a boxing promoter and a nouveau riche stockbroker share her fear.  But why? And who is behind the crimes of the Feathered Serpent?

Published in 1932 this is a fun little adventure and reasonably complex for Wallace who churned the books out, 173 novels it is believed.  He liked a punt and was forever writing to pay the bills.

With these stories you suspend belief and enjoy some crime from simpler times when burglars actually said "fair cop, guv" and love was chaste.

This is a nifty little edition  published in 2007 by Hodder.  Its a facsimile of the original and they have even gone to the trouble of adding rubbing discolouration and  staining.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

HANGMAN'S HOLIDAY - Dorothy L Sayers

























In twelve ingenious and baffling tales Dorothy L. Sayers demonstrates her mastery of the short, sharp story.

This is a good short story collection, their are four stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, six featuring the travelling wine salesman Montague Egg and two standalone tales.

The Montegue Egg stories are the most enjoyable, the little salesman seems to stumble across  murder and murderers where ever he goes.  Egg is a good character and its a shame Sayers didn't write more featuring him.

As stated a good collection, ideal for a flight or the bathroom.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

DEAD MAN'S KNOCK - John Dickson Carr

























Rumbustious Dr Gideon Fell has been invited to inspect the material for a book by an early detective novelist.  He hardly expects that he will have to investigate a real death at the same time.  But an over-amorous woman is found killed in exactly the same way as the victim in the book.  So Dr fell leaves his literary pursuits and thunders into action.

This is a locked room murder mystery of which Carr is a fine exponent, except in this story.  Set in a small American college town it has too many red herrings that are left hanging and the entire cast of characters are all unlikeable.

Carr's detective, Fell, doesn't make an appearance until half way through the story and adds nothing to the story.  To cap it off there is silly last chapter, I have no idea why this was added as the story had been resolved prior.

Reading Carr is worthwhile but I'd leave this one way down the list  of his books to read first.

Friday, November 10, 2017

TREASURE ISLAND - Robert Louis Stevenson

























When young Jim Hawkins finds an old map showing the location of a hoard of buried treasure, he joins the crew of the Hispaniola who set sail to find it.  But they soon have a mutiny on their hands, led by the duplicitous pirate Long John Silver.  As the quest turns murderous, Jim's bravery is put to the test, and he discovers much about friendship, loyalty and betrayal on this daring voyage. 

This is one of, if not the greatest adventure stories ever written. The story was originally serialized in the children's magazine Young Folks before being published in 1883. 

Its intriguing and exciting from the outset when Billy Bones arrives at the Admiral Benbow Inn.  From here we are introduced to characters and language that have become part of our everyday life, Blind Pew, Ben Gunn ,Long John Silver and

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest-
Yo,ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!

There seems to have been several hundred film and television adaptations of this story of which I remember a few but none I've seen have done justice to this tale.  Wonderful

Sunday, November 5, 2017

BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON - Dorothy L Sayers

























At last...Lord Peter Wimsey and his Harriet- the woman he had saved from a wrongful conviction for murder- were married.  With the reception over and the reporters dodged, they only had to slip into the Daimler, which the suavely imperturbable Bunter had laden with provisions from Fortnum's and a tenderly wrapped crate of port, and cruise down to Paggleham for what should have been the most peaceful of honeymoons.

But this is 'a love story with detective interruptions'; the newly wedded lord and his lady were only allowed one night in their goose-feather marriage bed before a corpse presented itself.

This is a 'locked room' mystery but there's a massive cheat in that there is no way the reader can solve the problem because we are not told half the story.

What redeems this is the Harriet Vane character, she is as good as you get in detective fiction, clever funny and interesting.  Its a shame Sayers didn't do more with her but explains why 'Gaudy Night' is my favourite book in this series.

More serious than early books with some character development going back into how Wimsey and Bunter paired up.  Not the best of this series I've read but still better than most.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

THE PONSON CASE - Freeman Wills Crofts

























When the body of Sir William Ponson is found in the Cranshaw River near his home of Luce manor, it is assumed to be an accident- until the evidence points to murder.  Inspector Tanner of Scotland Yard discovers that those that would benefit most from his death seem to have unbreakable alibis, and a mysterious fifth man whose footprints were found at the scene is nowhere to be found.

Published in 1921 this is more police procedural that the normal murder mystery that was published around this time.

The reader is taken through the investigation step by step and is given all the information and is privy to all conversations that the police have and undertake so if you have a heart beat you should be able to figure out the end result.

Being taken painstakingly through the investigation process could be terribly dull but Crofts writing style keeps the reader engaged and builds tension nicely making for a very satisfying read.

This edition is a re-published hardback by the Collins Crime Club from 2016 with the original dust jacket reproduced.

I'm loving the fact that more of these 'golden age' crime books are becoming available as the earlier editions are becoming harder to locate. This is especially true for the likes of Crofts whose profile has not been maintained like that of  Sayers, Allingham or Christie.

Friday, October 27, 2017

THE MOVING TOYSHOP - Edmund Crispen

























Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires.  Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toy shop and is coshed on the head.  When he comes to he finds the toy shop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store.  The police are understandably sceptical of his tale but Richard's former schoolmate, Gervase Fen ( Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger then fiction.

So begins a brilliant locked room mystery first published in 1946.  Gervase Fen runs around Oxford at a frenetic pace with his friend trying to solve the murder.

The story is peopled with wonderful characters, students, dons and villains.  Crispen continually throws in literary references, i.e to pass the time when locked in a cupboard he has our heroes play,
Unreadable Books, making them list books they have been unable to finish.

Fen is a terrible driver, a lover of a drink and a very good amateur detective.  You read this and it is understandable why this features on 'best of' lists.

Enormous fun, preposterous fun, but so enjoyable.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

BLACK PLUMES - Margery Allingham

























Lucar was an unpleasant being, intolerably so at times.  It was hardly surprising that nobody like him, even though he had saved Robert Madigrals life and was his right hand man at The Gallery, the ancient and reputed Art centre of the West End whilst the owner and director, who was incidently Madigrals father in law, was abroad.  Naturally, when Madigral was found murdered and Lucar was discovered to have left the country, everyone jumped to the conclusion that it was only a question of tracking down Lucar and the murderer was found.

This is a standalone story from Allingham and as such was a disappointment, I missed Albert Campion and Lugg sorting things out.

The disappointment is not the plot, just the style, and the characters,who in this locked roomed tale are all very unlikable, there is no humour just nastiness.  This is a credit to Allingham who had great ability mix up her styles and still be very readable but I did not enjoy the book.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

DR NO - Ian Fleming

























Crab Key island is desolate and remote.  So why is Dr No defending it so ruthlessly? Only Bond can uncover the truth.

Its been many moons since I read this and it has not aged well, certainly not like From Russia With Love or Goldfinger , still a fun afternoons read but not in the top echelon and I love Bond books.

The best part of re-reading this was the Introduction by Jonathan Freedland who explains the Bond phenomenon better than most, especially their initial popularity.

For Fleming never forgets that a thriller has to thrill; that, what ever else it does, it must entertain.  Central to such fiction's magic is the promise of escape.  When Casino Royale the first Bond novel, appeared, rationing still had a year to run in Britain.  To a readership still trudging through a drab, grey country exhausted by war and austerity, Dr No offered the prospect of azure skies, powder-white beaches, gorgous women and handsome men.  When jet travel was still a novelty, when foreign tourism was still off limits to all but the wealthiest, how exotically enticing must have sounded Jamaica's North Coast, Blue Mountain and even Crab Key.

To the Brits back home , heads down against the rain, their legs whipped by the wet hems of their macintoshes', a Bond novel was a ticket to distant joys.

If you've never read these books, invest a few weekends, the trick is they were written contemporarily, views, expressions and attitudes were not as they are today.

I say to anyone who wants to alter older books to censor or change, sell a few million of your own before you start touching up those that have gone before you.




Sunday, October 15, 2017

CORONER'S PIDGIN - Margery Allingham

























Albert Campion is home on his first leave from the war for three years.  He is in his bath when he hears a ruckus in his lounge.  He goes out to find his man Lugg and a lady "of unmistakable aristocratic bearing" carrying a corpse.

So begins this very dark mystery first published in 1945.  This is much darker without any of the flippancy that were a feature of Allingham's pre-WWII Campion novels.

This story is set over a week and involves some very nasty people dealing in stolen property that the war has enabled them to profit from.

Very dark, very entertaining, very recommended.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

THE TIGER IN THE SMOKE - Margery Allingham

























A young war widow begins receiving photographs of her presumed dead husband.  The husband was supposedly killed during the D Day landings but these photographs have him walking around London within the last week.

She goes to Albert Campion to have him attempt to locate what is almost certainly her husband.

From this the story explodes into dealing with a stone cold killer, professional burglars and a decent mystery.

This is great fun, an adventure with the usual witty dialogue from Allinghams wonderful characters.  She has the City of London as one of the main characters in this book with the heavy fogs adding atmosphere throughout the story.

Faultless.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

FIVE RED HERRINGS - Dorothy L.Sayers

























Lord Peter Wimsey could imagine the artist stepping back, the stagger, the fall, down to where the pointed rocks grinned like teeth.

But was it an accident- or murder?  Six member of the close knit Galloway artists' colony do not regret Campbell's death.

Five of them are red herrings.

This is a proper mystery story, all the information is laid out for the reader to follow the logic in solving the crime (to a pedantic extent sometimes) , you will need to take notes but if you do you should arrive at the correct conclusion the same time as the books characters.

The book has been deliberately written in this fashion and as such can be repetitive and lags.  There is also this supremely annoying inclusion on page 21.

(Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details himself, they are omitted from this page).

The direct appeal to the vanity of the reader is , I think ,a bit unnecessary.

So this is a bit slow with Wimsey is a lot more serious in this book than others in the series but if you like jigsaw puzzles it will have an appeal.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

THE DAUGHTER OF TIME - Josephine Tey

























Alan Grant, Scotland Yard Inspector is feeling bored while confined in hospital with a broken leg.  Marta Halland, an actress friend of his, suggests he should amuse himself by researching a historical mystery.  She brings him some pictures of historical characters, aware of Grants interest in human faces.  he becomes intrigued by a portrait of King Richard III.  He prides himself on being able to read a persons character from his appearance, and King Richard seems to him a gentle and kind and wise man.  Why is everyone so sure that he was a cruel murderer?

With the help of  other friends and acquaintances, Grant investigates Richard's life and the case of the Princes in the Tower, testing out his theories on the doctor and nurses who attend to him.  Grant spends the weeks pondering historical information and documents with the help of  Brent Carradine, a likable young American researcher working at the British Museum.  Using his detectives logic, he comes to the conclusion that the claim of Richard being a murderer is a fabrication of Tudor propaganda, as is the popular image of the King as a monstrous hunchback.
Wikipedia.

This is very clever, the mystery is solved by research using contemporary documents available to Grant working on the case 400 years after the event.
It never falters , potentially it could with the entire novel being set in one room in a hospital, but the flow of information is so constant and interesting you get to the end of the book without realizing.  It is very easy to understand that this is rated one of the best mystery stories.
The bad news is Tey only wrote seven novels before her premature death and there is only one remaining for me to read.



Sunday, September 17, 2017

MYSTERY MILE - Margery Allingham

























Judge Crowdy Lobbett is a man of justice, an upstanding pillar of American society.  And now he is in deadly peril, tailed across the Atlantic by the ruthless Simister gang.

Luckily for Judge Lobbett, however, he makes the acquaintance of one Albert Campion during his voyage to England.  The enigmatic amateur sleuth bundles the Judge off to the country house of Mystery Mile, where its a race against time...

This is more of a caper than a mystery, which was originally published in 1929.  It has lots of action and humour, a light John Buchan or very similar to a 'Bulldog Drummond'.  Either way its great entertainment.

Allingham manages to write different books in different styles while keeping her same core characters.  This is a light adventure but others in the her Campion series are very dark  mysteries.  Again, either way she is in my top three or four mystery writers.  Never disappointing and comes highly recommended.

These English country houses are just dangerous places, never a quiet moment.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

NO CLOAK, NO DAGGER - Benjamin Cowburn

























First published in 1960, No Cloak, No Dagger tells the story of four missions undertaken by Cowburn in France between September 1941 and July 1944 for the Special Operations Executive. The purpose of that organization was to encourage and facilitate espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines, to ' set Europe ablaze' as Churchill ordered on its formation.  It was a clandestine group of whose existence very few were aware.  Some of the books action takes place in Vichy France, somewhere very much the subject of Cowburn's spleen - "truly the comic opera setting of officialdom wallowing in mediocrity" with the rest in the Occupied Zone and. briefly, Spain and Portugal.

What amazes me reading this is the understatement of Cowburn  , "jumped out of airplane at 500 feet and got on with it."  Even though Cowburn grew up in France the risks taken were unbelievable, while the attrition rate of his fellow agents was approximately 50%.  Attrition here means captured and executed.

The biggest risk to the networks set up was infiltration by collaborators who then betrayed everyone.

This is not a James Bond book, its all very matter of fact.  This however does not detract from the tension the author and his fellow agents lived under.

Amazing stuff.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

TO LOVE AND BE WISE - Josephine Tey

























It was rumoured that Hollywood stars would go to any lengths for the privilege of being photographed by the good looking . brilliantly talented and ultra-fashionable portrait photographer Leslie Searle.

But what was this gifted creature doing in such an English village backwater as Salcott St Mary's And why - and how- did he disappear?  If a crime had been committed , was it murder... or fraud.. or simply some macabre p[practical joke?

This mystery features Tey's detective, Alan Grant attempting to solve the disappearance of Searle.

This is very good, with the reader able to solve the riddle as all the information is available but close attention has to be paid.  Tey only got to write seven novels prior to her untimely death which was a shame as she gets better and better with each outing.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A HERO IN FRANCE - Alan Furst

























Spring, 1941.  Britain is losing the war.

Paris is occupied by the Nazi's, dark and silent at night.  But when the clouds part, and moonlight floods the city,a Resistance leader called Mathieu steps out to begin work.

The fighters of the French Resistance are determined not to give up.  These courageous men and women- young and old, aristocrats and night club owners, teachers and students - help downed British airmen reach the border with Spain.

But as the military police heightens surveillance, Mathieu and his team face a new threat, dispatched from the Reich to destroy them all.

This is the fourth book of Furst's I've read out of  fourteen.  These books are that good I am rationing them because it would be a shame to race through them.

Furst has the ability to ratchet up the tension from the start while writing of the extraordinary courage that so many displayed during the time of the German atrocities in Europe.

The writing is minimalist, the story goes from event to event detailing success's and failures. Unfortunately the failures are catastrophic with no second chances.

Sensational and can't be recommended highly enough.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB - Dorothy L. Sayers

























Lord Peter Wimsey bent down over General Fentiman and drew the "Morning Post"  gently away from the gnarled old hands. Then, with a quick jerk, he lifted the quiet figure.  It came up all of a piece, stiff as a wooden doll...

But who killed the general?

Sayers is the master from the 'golden age' of crime writing.  This is another thoroughly enjoyable murder mystery with the trade mark humour and  great banter between the characters.

This was published in 1928 and many of the characters here are suffering scars from the Great War which Sayers handles with great sympathy.

This is an excellent read and like all her books is recommended.













Wednesday, August 30, 2017

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE - Ian Fleming

























Its been 4 years since I've read this and its still in my opinion the second best of the Bond books. Goldfinger is far and away the best but this is a good entertainment.

If you've read this book you'll know that the film adaptation is taken straight from it and makes the film my favourite in the series.

This isn't literature but pure escapism perfect for a flight, and there's nothing wrong with pure escapism at anytime.

I love most of the Bond books which these days tend to suffer from tiresome revisionism by tiresome individuals who want everything and everyone to agree to their tiresome world view.  But as I don't have anytime for tiresome people I will continue to enjoy these stories again and again.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

MISS PYM DISPOSES - Josephine Tey

























Leys' Physical Training College was famous for its excellent discipline, and Miss Lucy Pym was pleased and flattered to be invited to give a psychology lecture there.  But she had to admit that the health and vibrant beauty of the students made her feel just a little inadequate.

Then there was a nasty accident.....

Another high quality mystery from Josephine Tey published in 1946. Her humour and ear for conversation is outstanding and make this is very pleasant read.

This isn't a story of multiple corpses laying about the country house but a tale of friendship taken to the nth degree.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

CORONATION EVEREST - Jan Morris

























In 1953, acclaimed travel essayist Jan Morris was in a singular place: scaling the previously-unclimbed Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and the other members of what would become one of history's most celebrated mountaineering expeditions.

From the new 1999 Introduction by the author:

The book , which I wrote in the 1950's, needs to be read with a strong dose of historical sympathy, for everything has changed since then.  I have changed myself- I was living and working as James Morris in those days- but Britain and the world have changed hardly less. Few such moments             (Climbing Everest) now could be accepted around the globe with such generous and uncomplicated pleasure.

The book gets its title from the fact that the announcement of the successful climb reached London on the Queens coronation day in 1953.

The narrative relates more to the logistics of keeping dispatches and announcement in regards to the expedition secret from newspaper rivals than the technical aspects of the climb, although Morris went over 20,000 feet. Dispatches to London were taken from Everest  by runners who managed to get them to the nearest radio generally within 8 days.

To enable the announcement of the expeditions success to reach London on coronation day the runners made it in about 6 days helped by a large wage increase.

A great story of great daring- there were no "safe rooms" if someone said something nasty in these days- it was 'iron men, wooden ships" stuff.

Morris has never written a bad paragraph and all the writing in this as usual,is beautifully understated; a is a wonderful read.


Monday, August 14, 2017

IF THIS IS A MAN - Primo Levi

























It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life span of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals...............

It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented.

The above is from the authors preface.  This like the book itself is so understated its chilling.  The preface further states that he does not go into numbers to any great extent as him doing it would add nothing to to atrocities recounted many times.   The one set of numbers he does recount is there were approximately 640 humans in his train to Auschwitz, within 24 hours 500 of these humans no longer existed.

This book like ...Ivan Denisovich is about the will to survive for some humans.  Many did horrible things to enable their survival, Levi recounts some of these events stating what these people did, he admires them in a way but does not ever wish to see these people again.

This was a death camp, the ever present view of the chimneys smoking was a constant reminder what eventually awaited them all.  The "selections", when a new shipment of humans was due, camp authorities went through the barracks and selected 7% of the camp population, generally because they were failing physically sometimes just on a whim for death to make room.  This was 7% of 12,000 humans; twenty four hours later this 7% no longer existed.

Again, this terror is recounted in such an understated way it makes it doubly chilling.

This is one of those books like Denisovich that should be required reading in schools.  It was initially published in 1947 but did not find an audience until the early 50's.  Even at the time of original publication the denial machine was attempting to re-write events, sadly the denial machine is still trying to deny the monstrosity that was Nazi Germany.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

HIGHLAND FLING - Nancy Mitford

























When the "Bright Young Things" meet the "Old Regime" on a Scottish grouse Moor, the real sport begins...

Jane Dacre felt that Scotland was a thoroughly respectable place- but that was before she encountered Albert Gates at Dalloch Castle.  Though of impeccable family, Albert is a surrealist painter and greatly given to outrageous pranks.

This is Mitford's first novel which was published in 1931.

Its very funny in parts with some acute observations in others.  She writes a couple of pages regarding why the men who fought in WWI should not be mocked for their post war attitudes, this was after one of the young people got a bit smart trying to impress the party. Poignant is the word to describe what she has written.

It is a first book and its  disjointed, Jane our hero doesn't even make an appearance until chapter five. However, this was the start of a learning curve which resulted in "Love in a Cold Climate" , one of the funniest books I've ever read.

Worth the effort, and again I do love this between the wars period.    It is said today many young people are layabout but if you came from money in the times of this book you really had to do nothing for ever.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

MANSFIELD PARK- Jane Austen

























Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, a principled heroine caught between two worlds: one 'mercenary and ambitious'  the other' entirely deficient in self knowledge, generosity and humility.'

Raised since the age of nine at Mansfield Park, the grand home of her uncle  Sit Thomas Bertram and his family, Fanny quickly become vital to the happiness of the house-hold.  But when she and her four cousins- Ton, maria, Julia and Edmund- reach the age of marriage, Fanny is forced to confront the artifice and insincerity of her upbringing as she wards off a serious rival.

I don't know whether I enjoyed this or not, there is amazing detail of family life as there has to be as the book is almost a one scene setting.  I suppose life was like this at the time . There were very few entertainment options, only the wealthy could travel even the shortest distance's, so the smallest things took on importance that would not even be noticed in our enlightened times.

There is humour throughout this book, little asides by Austen that are clearly digs at attitudes of the times.

Our hero Fanny Price has nasty things happen to her, but Austen never goes full Dickensian and has her sent off to a gulag in Siberia by her nasty aunt Mrs Norris.  Its more Mrs Norris is an old bitch and life moves around her.

So, the story is a bit too static for me and it is a formula tale, so the outcome is fairly obvious but I can see why Austen has survived, reading the book time slips away which for me is the sign of quality.

The thing that really disturbs me is this cousins marrying.  This practice may explain a lot of the undershot jaws you see these days.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

THE FOUR JUST MEN - Edgar Wallace

























Manfred, Gonsalez, Poiccart and Thery.

Four men wanted by the police throughout the world- four men dedicated to prevent injustice, and to punish those whom justice could not touch.

Originally published in 1905 this is a short 150 page book detailing the plan to kill a British politician who is to introduce a bill into Parliament which would cause the death of many.

The whole thing is a set up for a locked room murder. Its short, two decent baths sees it read and its fun.  The murder weapon is very subtle and the clues are there if you pay attention.  A decent Sunday diversion.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

DEATH IN ECSTASY - Ngaio Marsh

























The poison was cyanide, slipped into the sacred wine of ecstasy just before it was presented to Miss Cara Quayne at the House of the Sacred Flame.

This is a very ordinary detective story. It is set almost entirely in a  single room.

For this story Marsh has given Alleyn, her detective, a "Watson" in the form of a journalist who continually feeds Alleyn questions like "How in the world did you discover this?' which gives Alleyn the excuse to give an explanation which is the only way of progressing the story.

When the killer is unmasked we find the entire lead up has nothing to do with the solution. Disappointing, one of Marsh's weaker efforts.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

THE TROUBLED MAN - Henning Mankell

























Every morning Hakan von Enke takes a walk in the forest near his apartment in Stockholm. However, one day winter's day he fails to come home.  It seems the retired naval officer has vanished without trace.

Detective Kurt Wallander is not officially involved in the investigation but he has a personal interest in the case as Hakan's son is engaged to his daughter Linda.

This is the last in the Wallander series and like  the entire series for me its more about the journey than the destination. There is no great mystery here, its very solvable but its a joy to read . I like the ruminations on life and the quiet depressive personality of Wallander as he doggedly solves the mystery.

Mankell tends to be a bit preachy with his left wing thinking, but the stories are so good it doesn't detract from any enjoyment.  You have to ration  these books as Mankell died in 2015 so there's no more.

Friday, July 28, 2017

ROOM 40 - Patrick Beesly

























Room 40 was the unofficial name of the British Admiralty's World War I code breaking organisation. Its mastery of the German Navy and Diplomatic codes had as profound an effect on the outcome of the First World War as Bletchly Park's penetration of Axis codes did on the Second.  But for the work of Room 40, there would have been no Battle of Jutland, the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 might have succeeded, the United States would not have joined the Allies in April 1917.

These were the code breakers who broke the Zimmerman Telegram that brought the US into WWI.

When I bought this I thought it would be more about the individuals involved in the code breaking, instead I found that the author had used each instant of code breaking to explain the military action that resulted or did not result because of this.  There are biographical details of the main organizers but this is more regarding the military out come.

Not that there is not a goldmine of information it was just not what I expected.  There were 248 vessels involved in the Battle of Jutland, two fleets hammering each other. Battle on a massive scale.

The most interesting part of the book for me was the sinking of the Lusitania, it appears she was a legitimate military target and the one torpedo happened to hit armaments meant for the Allies. A massive loss of life followed, 1195 civilians, including 94 children, all of whom were unaware that they were travelling atop high explosives.

So, not the book I thought it would be but very interesting all the same.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

THE ZIMMERMANN TELEGRAM - Barbara Tuchman

























In January 1917 the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a cable to his Ambassador in Washington for transmission to the German Ambassador in Mexico.  In it, Zimmermann announced that Germany was going to start unrestricted submarine warfare on all shipping,Allied and neutral, in the Atlantic.  he then made a startling and audacious proposal: the German Ambassador was to offer the Mexican government an alliance directed against the United States and, furthermore, to ask the Mexicans to contact the Japanese to see if they could be persuaded to switch sides ( Japan was on the Allied side in the First World War).  British Intelligence decoded the telegram and passed it onto the Americans, with momentous consequences.

From the introduction by Margaret MacMillan

The momentous consequence was that this was the final catalyst that brought the United States into the First World War at a time when Britain was broke and was only months away from having to reach a settlement with the Germans.

This book backgrounds the German efforts to start a war between Mexico and the United States. Their thinking was if the US was tied up at home they would not have the inclination to fight in Europe even if the submarines were sinking tonnage of neutral shipping.

The US President, Woodrow Wilson , is shown to be so intellectually arrogant that all he could see was his vision for the world, not the reality of what was happening about him and he would not have come into the war without the translation of the telegram being supplied to him.

There is all the details of how the British with Russian assistance managed to obtain all the German codes which with some work enabled them to read all the German transmissions for the years of the war.

The British had one huge advantage which the Germans did not appreciate.  British cable ships had cut all the German transatlantic cables at the start of the war ( day two actually).  The Germans had to use British controlled cables or wireless but they were not duly alarmed because they were convinced that their codes could not be broken.
  
From the introduction by Margaret MacMillan.

This is fascinating from start to finish, its a short read ,170 pages, but reads like a thriller.  Great stuff.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES - Sapper

























Hugh Drummond's wife, Phyllis, is kidnapped by one of the nastiest villains  to have gone around, Irma Petersen.  Petersen has done this to entrap Drummond and his cronies to avenge the death of her husband Carl.

Rather than kill Phyllis outright Irma makes a treasure hunt out of her setting clues for Drummond to locate his wife.

This story is totally over the top as a precursor to the Bond books should be, with "daring do" that makes Bond look like a wimp.

Published in 1928 this is great fun like all this series.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

ANTHONY BLUNT his lives - Miranda Carter

























Miranda Carter traces Blunt's transformations, from young member of the Bloomsbury circle, to left wing intellectual, to camouflaged member of the establishment.  Until his treachery was made public, Blunt was celebrated for his ground breaking work on Poussin, Italian art, and Old Master drawings; at the Courtauld Institute he trained a whole generation of academics and curators.  And yet even  as he ascended from rebellion into outward conformity, he was homosexual when homosexuality was a crime, and a traitor when the penalty was death.

The last part of the above paragraph is a bit melodramatic seeing as he confessed to being a spy in 1964  but this wasn't made public until 1979.

This is an excellent read which the author has set it up in headings School boy, Undergraduate Recruit, Talent Spotter, Spy, Writer etc and has detailed his achievements and  treachery in each part of his life.

He spyed for the Russians and although I've seen written previously that he did not do too much damage and that his spying did not result in any deaths, unlike Philby, the truth is he worked hard for the Russians getting them as much intelligence as he could lay his hands on.

The underlying  story in this as it is in all the "Cambridge Spy Ring" books is Guy Burgess.  Burgess may have been a drunk but he was the true believer and he drew the others around him, especially Blunt it seems, they were true friends, and they always gravitated back to each other.

The second underlying story in this and in all the other books is the sheer incompetence of the British Intelligence Services. These people were all member of the communist party at one stage when Russia really was intent on world domination but they all got work with UK intelligence services or highly sensitive positions within government.  They were all 'establishment' except Cairncross, so they were just taken on.

Blunt worked for the Queen and did a great job as Surveyor of the Queens Pictures getting things is order when things were in total disarray and had a full life as an academic, not always popular but it was work of note and he was highly regarded by many.

What made me smile throughout is human nature, many of his life long friends suddenly could hardly remember meeting him once he was publicly named as a spy.

The author asks several times why Blunt was a spy.just as he was himself after he was disclosed publicly, she has no answer just as Blunt himself didn't, publicly anyway, but this is a interesting book about an interesting man who mastered compartmentalizing his life.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A RIGHT TO DIE - Rex Stout

























Susan was bright, petite, beautiful and white.  When she was murdered, all the clues pointed straight to her dapper, well educated fiance who was black.  The Homicide Bureau thought they had the case sewn up.  Until Nero Wolfe uncovered a new kind of motive for murder.

These are always a good read, the mystery is easily solved but I don't read them for the riddle more for the excellent dialogue and the humour that Stout brought to his novels.

This is of the usual high standard, a short read, perfect for a cold Sunday on the couch.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

THE DAYS TRILOGY- H.L. Mencken

























In 1936 at the age of  55, H. L. Mencken published s reminiscence of his Baltimore boyhood in The New Yorker.  With this modest beginning, Mencken embarked on what would become the Days Trilogy, a long and magnificent adventure in autobiography by America's greatest journalist.

This is actually three books in one binding an edition by  The Library of America.  It is a great social history.  Mencken starts writing about his boyhood from 1880 right through to when he is famous and travels the world.

As a Managing Editor he wasn't about inventing news to get the circulation ticking over so what is happening today has all been done before.  He admits that he has "gilded the lily'in these memoirs as well but that doesn't matter because what we get is several hundred pages of fascinating writing that at times makes you laugh out loud at times and shake your head in disbelief at others.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

THE BACHELORS OF BROKEN HILL - Arthur Upfield.

























Among the inhabitants of a properous mining town in New South Wales stalks a killer.  two elderly bachelors have already died from cyanide poisoning.

When Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, the half-aboriginal detective, arrives on the scene two months later he is faced with a cold trail- no motive, no clues- only vague descriptions of a woman who was on the scene at the time.

So Bony sits down to wait for what he feels must be the inevitable- a third killing...

This has excellent dialogue , very clever banter between the characters but if you hope to solve the mystery good luck as the solution comes completely out of the blue with no hint in the lead up.

This doesn't make it a dud book, just frustrating for the mystery reader who likes chance to have  a guess at the solution.

Unlike the earlier books in the series (published 1958) there is not the accent on Bony's mixed race which is not mentioned.

Worth the read but like a lot of Christie the cheat by the author is massive.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

WALL OF EYES - Margaret Millar

























Since the accident that left her blind, Kelsey has become more difficult than ever.  At least tis is what Alice told the psychiatrist.

Languishing in a house full of servants and unloving family, Kelsey has become bitter.  She was driving the car that night.  Geraldine did die, and Kelsey will never see again.  but that was two long years ago.  Time enough to heal.  So why wold Kelsey now want to end her life with a grain of morphine.

This is the first Margaret Millar book I have read and it is very, very dark, full of repulsive characters which makes for a fantastic read.

Even the Detective Inspector is next level strange when compared to the British versions of Marsh, Tey etc ( this is set in Toronto).

There is murder, there is a mystery and the solution keeps you guessing until the last few pages.

This is one of the best of this genre I've read in a long time.

Plus I discovered after buying the book that Ms. Millar was the wife of  Kenneth Millar, who under the pseudonym Ross MacDonald wrote the superb Lew Archer series, which is one of the best.

Margaret Millar is on the " must find" list.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Millar

THE CASE OF THE LATE PIG - Margery Allingham

























You go to a mans funeral in January and then he goes and dies again in June.

This is the mystery that Albert Campion and his irreverent man servant Lugg have to solve in this very funny wee book.  Its only 128 pages.

Not a great technical murder mystery but Allingham's stories generally aren't, its very character driven and makes for great reading.  It very nearly goes Wodehousian which is never  bad thing,.

I can highly recommend anything Allingham wrote and she is still in print which says a lot for her quality.  This was written in 1937.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

























Solzhenitsyn's devastating picture of one day in the life of a prisoner in a remote Siberian labour camp has been hailed by the world's critics as an undisputed masterpiece.  This moving novel is a powerful expose of the corrupt conditions that Solzhenitsyn suffered in a concentration camp under Stalin and is a scathing indictment of Soviet bureaucracy.

I first read this many years ago and the idea of a crust of bread being the height of luxury stayed with me and was just as moving with this second reading.

These men are forced out to work in -27 degrees, their wildest fantasy is that the temperature will drop to -41 degrees meaning they don't have to go to work.

They have to build in these temperatures but have great difficulty because the mortar often freezes before it can be laid .

An incredible read, its very short, only 156 pages but it should be read by all generations.

The " great Soviet experiment" to be mocked for eternity







Monday, June 26, 2017

THE FABULOUS SHOWMAN - Irving Wallace

























He hoaxed, humbugged, dazzled and delighted the whole world with his magnificent ballyhoo of the unique and the wonderful!

Inventor of modern high pressure advertising, the man who discovered General Ton Thumb, the twenty-five inch man, P. T Barnum founded the famous circus that bore his name, made two fortunes and died worth a million pounds.

And as he died in  1891 so, a million pounds was a million pounds not a one bedroom apartment.

If there was ever a man who encapsulates the American drive for success it was Barnum.  He had vision, he had a mainline into the taste of the people and he had an enormous work ethic.

His first real success was the American Museum, then General Tom Thumb, then Chang and Eng , the Siamese twins then his big punt and huge earner the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.  This run of success lead to his first fortune.  Then he lost it. But he went at it again made another fortune and then finally the circus.

This book debunks the well known expression attributed to him  -"There's a sucker born every minute"- Wallace states that this slang "sucker" was not in use at the time Barnum was meant to have used it.  What he did say was - "the American people love to be hoaxed".

Barnum was friends with royalty, presidents and the wealthy.  Reading this he was generally fair to his performers and realized if people aren't compensated well, they won';t work well.

He was a very interesting man.  Wallace's writing leaves a bit to be desired, I found it full of fact but a dull read.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

FINAL CURTAIN - Ngaio Marsh

























Agatha Troy, world famous painter, is inveigled into accepting a commission to paint the 70 - year- old Sir Henry Acred, the Grand Old Man of the stage.  But just as she has completed her portrait, the old actor dies.

The dramatic circumstances of his death are such the Scotland Yard is called in- in the person of Troy's long absent husband, Chief-Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

This is an excellent story involving an exceptionally dysfunctional family.  The story of the family and Troy's involvement with them while completing her commission is more entertaining than the solving of the mystery.

As always Marsh is outstanding.

Monday, June 19, 2017

GONEVILLE - Nick Bollinger

























This is a 'memoir' not a history and for me it is a aide memoire.  The book is set mostly in the 1970's telling of Bollinger's growing up in Wellington, joining a band and travelling the country insistently for meals and love, it wasn't for wealth.

The aide memoire for me is I moved to Wellington in 1977 as a 17 year old and this brings back many many memories of how raw and  fun Wellington was for a young chap from Timaru.

As well an outline of Nick Bollinger's life it is part social history of New Zealand and a history of New Zealand bands at the time.  If you tried to explain today  to a 25 year old how in the late 70's early 80's you could not go to the bar in a nightclub and get a drink, it was waitress service only, they would think you're mad. Or just ignore you as really really tedious but it was true.

The band he traveled with for two years "Rough Justice' rubbed shoulders with all the muso's travelling the brewery circuit and there are delightful little tidbits , Ricky Ball's band history before Hello Sailor for example. There are great little pieces like this that are news to me.

Rough Justice was a Rick Bryant Band.  I never saw them I don't think but I saw the Jive Bombers lots and I can say Rick Bryant has never taken anything of himself home, he leaves it all for the audience.

There are many Auckland memories for me as well  as I move there as a 19 year old in late 1979. There is a lot of detail regarding the un-licenced clubs that tried to do the right thing for music but could not survive without a liquor licence which was impossible to obtain.  This was a real shame and was the brewery lobby that prevented these entrepreneurs from making a dollar.

I spent hundreds of hours at the Gluepot and all the city pubs that had music.  I had the best nicest piss taking of me in Queen Street by the Topp Twins when I was a young Police Constable.  This book brought all these memories back and I can thank Nick Bollinger for this.

Last but not least Bollinger saw 'Little Feat' play at the Wellington Town Hall, bastard, there will not be many New Zealanders who can say they have seen that outfit.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

THE ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING - Bill Bryson

























Twenty years after Notes From A Small Island was published it was suggested by Bill Bryson's publisher that a follow up be written.  I am very glad that it has been.  I love Bryson's easy rambling style, full of humour and information that you won't find probably anywhere else.

In this book he re-visits some places from his original book but this mostly contains places that he hasn't written about before.

He starts in Bognor Regis and ends at Cape Wrath.  A line is drawn between these two locations and is referred to as the Bryson line.  He works his trip east and west of this  entirely self created geometrical divide.

Bill Bryson is the teacher I never had, full of information with a sense of humour that never stops, read and enjoy.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

CLOUDS OF WITNESS - Dorothy L. Sayers

























The victim was engaged to marry Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter's sister.  The man accused of murdering him is the Duke of Denver, Lord Peters brother.  And his trial - in the House of Lords- is about to begin.  The the Duke refuses to help his defence in anyway.

Published in 1926 this story involves the entire Wimsey clan.  This is one of the first stories by Sayers and she introduces characters that remain until her last Wimsey book.

When it comes to 'golden age' detective writing Sayers is on a totally different level than most and this was at a time when there are many superb authors writing the genre.

This as normal has great language, the usual strong and interesting female leads and Wimsey doesn't go 'full Bertie Wooster " too often.

This is a very good multi-layered story; you can not go wrong reading anything Dorothy Sayers has ever written.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

WHY SHOOT A BUTLER? - Georgette Heyer

























It is a complete mystery why anyone would choose to murder the trusted old butler of Norton Manor. Barrister turned amateur detective, Frank Amberly, has reason to believe the shooting involves the nervy young lady discovered at the scene of the crime, a snooping gentleman in the halls of Greythorne and then a second dead body.

Published in 1933 this is a run of the mill whodunnit and the first I've read by Ms Heyer, who was better known at the time for her historical novels.

The motive isn't hard to figure out and the the killer isn't either, its just a wait to see what some part minor characters play in the whole thing.  The detective Amberly isn't particularly likable either being a bit of a smart arse without any humour.

Not a great tale but the dialogue was sharp enough to warrant reading more of Heyers crime books.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

THE WAR BEHIND THE WIRE - John Lewis-Stempel

























On capture, British officers and men were routinely told by the Germans: ' For you the war is over'. Nothing could be further from the truth.  British prisoners of war merely exchanged one barbed-wire battleground for another.....

It was a war with heart breaking consequences; more than 12,000 PoWs died, many of them murdered, to be buried in shallow unmarked graves.

This books is based on contemporary journals and memoirs of the prisoners that survived and were eventually returned to Britain.

The book is broken down in , "being captured", "being a prisoner", 'the camp world", surviving in the camps", "escaping" and "returning home".  No matter what chapter you read, the suffering is heart breaking.  Large parts of the book are direct quotes taken from diaries etc, stories told without exaggeration, just facts.  Individual Germans showed kindness and some humanity but the regime was almost inhumanly cruel until it was apparent that the war was lost and then back tracking became the norm.

Conditions varied from camp to camp, but in general British PoWs were made to suffer and who without the Red Cross and private care packages many more would have starved to death. Prisoners were put to work in salt mine, coal mines and multi digit sub-zero temperatures, much of which was denied by the German authorities.

Reading how the PoWs were treated is sickening as a whole but as a document it is enlightening.  I've read that the terms of the Versailles Treaty sowed the seeds for the Second World War but this does not explain  the cruelty of the German nation as a whole toward opposing combatants in their custody during the Great War.











Monday, June 5, 2017

TRAIN - Tom Zoellner

























Tom Zoellner travels the globe to tell the story of the innovation and sociological impact of the railway technology that transformed the world- anbd could well change it again.  From the frigid trans-Siberian railroad to the antiquated Indian railways to the Japanese- style bullet trains.

This is more a series of essays that have then been bound into a book.  It starts strongly with a rail journey from the north of Scotland to Lands End with interesting history on development of the steam engine and observations of the passing Scottish and English countrysides.

The second is essay is about the Indian rail system, a system with truly staggering numbers- passengers carried, freight carried, number of schedules trains, staff employed and on and on.  A fact I found that most fascinating is - the steel rails in India, particularly those nearest to urban stations, must be frequently replaced because poor people have the habit of defecating on them..... The uric acid in human feces gradually eats through the steel fasteners... that hold the rails onto their ties.

The third chapter is New York to Los Angels and runs nearly a third of the book.  The Russian section is disappointing, the author gets bitten by a rabid dog and has to abandon the trip half way through it.

There are chapters that follow on China into Tibet, South America and the final chapter supposedly about the AVE rapid trains in Spain but it segues off into Americas plan for rapid rail.

Potentially this could have been much better than its turned out.  There is a standalone book on the Indian rail system, instead we get these essays that have a rushed feeling about them.  There is nothing wrong with the writing or facts but it feels like a series of New Yorker pieces.

As mentioned, I was disappointed the Russian journey was shortened, I was looking forward to comparing it to Eric Newby's The Big Red Train Ride - but I'm assuming the author didn't get bitten deliberately just to annoy me.

This makes the perfect bathroom book, you can dip into into without having to retain any thread.








Sunday, June 4, 2017

SWEET DANGER - Margery Allingham

























Driving home from Italy, Guffy Randall passed by the Hotel Beauregard at Mentone, where ... he saw a small man, armed with pistol, climbing out of a ground floor window.  Guffy, who knew the manager well, stopped to tell him about the incident, and learnt that several other suspicious characters were also in the hotel.  After inquiries these turned out to be Albert Campion and two friends engaged in in a fantastic and fateful pursuit of  a European Crown.

What transpires is a very good espionage tale set in the British countryside . The search for a European Crown is actually British Intelligence Services attempting to locate a deed to a European state that would give them access to a port and oil (sounds familiar).

This an adventure in the style of Buchan, but with lots of humour. Allingham writes great characters; my favourite is Campions man servant Magersfontein Lugg, known simply as Lugg retired burglar, and as usual she has good strong female characters with sundry weird ones thrown into the mix.

Published in 1933 this is great fun






Sunday, May 28, 2017

BREAD - Ed McBain

























Elizabeth screamed again, a long blood curdling scream that echoed through the squad room.  the horror of it gut-wrenched even the detectives of the 87th Precinct;..

Yet they played the tapes of the mass assault again and again.  It could be th best clue yet to a mess of arson, dope, homicide and porn.

The above blurb makes this run of the mill police procedural sound much more interesting that it turns out to be.

McBain is solid but this is one of his lesser efforts and without the outrageously bigoted  and smelly Detective Ollie Weekes it would be totally forgettable.  I'd recommend giving this a miss unless you are a McBain completist.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

CASTLE GAY - John Buchan

























Jaikie and Dougal, two  past members of the Glasgow Street gang, The Gorbals Die Hards adopted by Mr Dickson McCunn visit McCunn at his country retirement home in a novel is set six years after the first book that introduced these characters, 'Huntingtower".

From there the two young men take off tramping. At the first nights accommodation they find a newspaper magnate who has recently escaped from a kidnapping where he was mistaken for a local politician.
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They are asked to go to the country estate Castle Gay, of the newspaper owner, Mr Craw and arrange for him to be uplifted by his staff.  On arrival at the castle it is found that this is not possible due to citizens of a European country wanting Mr Craw for their own purposes , to legitimize there control of the country and by another group wanting to re-install the legitimate ruler through the use of his newspaper empire.

This is a 'thriller'' but its all boys own stuff, where doing the right thing and being a decent person will see the good guys win in the end.  There is great descriptions of the Scottish countryside, great dialogue and its just 'nice'.  There's nothing wrong with doing the right thing and decency winning, in fact its something I admire.

This isn't in the league of the Hannay books, certainly not as serious but a very pleasant read.