Thursday, December 8, 2016

Dark Lady: Review

Gilbert "Gib" Fowler heads to a cozy cottage for some peace and quiet so he can finish his graduate thesis in American Literature and then get ready to marry the love of his life. Except the cozy cottage was the scene of a ghastly murder about 80 years ago. It's not haunted exactly, but he can't avoid references to it and it does haunt him in a way. He soon discovers that he's much more interested in what happened to the beautiful, blonde Leslie Saxby after her brother-in-law Deane Saxby was tried and convicted of the bloody death of his wife than the portrait of rural American life found in the works of the turn of the century. 

Deane Saxby was a great literary light of the time period which interests Fowler. That light was extinguished when he was tried and convicted of the murder of his wife. At the time, Saxby was overheard having a terrible row with his wife. Later that afternoon, she is found stabbed to death and Deane Saxby is nowhere to be found. When he is found at the train station, he appears to be shocked at the news of his wife's murder and when charged and brought to trial his first plea is "Not Guilty." But something happened to change his plea and he eventually pleaded guilty to second degree murder. He died of a prolonged illness while serving his life sentence in prison and everyone at the time thought justice had been served. But various bits of evidence just don't seem to add up. Fowler begins reconstructing the events of 1884 through conversations with old timers, newspaper clippings, photographs, and scrapbooks. He examines the murder, the suicide of Deane's brother, the inescapable influence of Leslie Saxby, and Deane's literary stories about the mysterious "Dark Lady" to come up with a different solution to the old crime.

This reminds me of Josephine Tey's A Daughter of Time. Inspector Grant, confined to his bed as he recovers from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with the portrait of Richard III and determines to get to the bottom of the murders of the princes in the tower. Starting with his faith in his ability to read faces, he doesn't believe that Richard was a killer. He uses an American researcher to investigate what records can be found. In Doris Miles Disney's Dark Lady (1960), Fowler becomes transfixed by the portrait of Leslie Saxby. Despite the fact that Deane Saxby was an American writer whose work Fowler admired, it is Leslie Saxby's portrait that draws the young scholar into the story. Fowler is a researcher in his own right, so he is the one who follows the clues laid in the newspaper reports and other materials.

Disney writes an excellent investigative story. It doesn't matter that the murder happened over 80 years prior to the book's present day. The story is fresh and the reader is very interested in what Fowler will discover as he delves into the past. The only thing lacking--from my perspective--was sufficient red herrings and suspects to make the mystery truly mystifying. If you begin with the premise that Deane was innocent, it isn't difficult to figure out the solution given all the events of that day and those which followed. As it is, Disney gives us a good solid ★★ story.

This counts for the "Full Skeleton" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card and it is my first entry in the 1960 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1960 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Cloak & Dagger Reading Challenge

CDChallengebadge2016Stormi at Books, Movies & Reviews! Oh My! is a mystery and crime novel fan (like yours truly), so she wanted to do a challenge that incorporated all the different types of mystery and crime type novels. When the blog that use to do Cloak and Dagger Challenge gave it up, she decided to take it on and tweak it a bit to make it her own and she also asked Barb from Booker T’s Farm to help cohost it. They've given it another little tweak this year--changed the levels up a bit. I'm all about mystery books, so I'm definitely in for another year of criminal capers. There are several levels to choose from and some basic rules to check out. If you'd like to join the fun, click on the challenge name link above.

I'll be going for the Sherlock Holmes level and reading 56+ books in the mystery and crime field.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

December Read It Again, Sam Reviews

December Vintage Scavenger Hunt Reviews


December Mount TBR Reviews

TNB Foreign Mysteries: My Reader's Block Goes to Japan

This month the Tuesday Night Bloggers will be taking a look at Foreign Mysteries (non-US and non-UK)--either set in a foreign locale, translated works from authors outside, or, for the more adventurous, a comparison of books written by someone NOT from the locale in question to a work by someone from that country. We will also include stories from foreign authors who set their mysteries in familiar spots. This is another fairly wide-open topic, so feel free to stop by every Tuesday, have a cup of tea & a scone or two, and share your thoughts on foreign crime. Both Golden Age and more modern mysteries are welcome.

Here are this week's foreign correspondents:
Brad @ Ah Sweet Mystery Blog: "The English Village, in Translation"
Moira @ Clothes in Books: "Tuesday Night Bloggers: Foreign Mysteries (Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie)"
Kate @ Cross Examining Crime: "Pack your bags, we're off somewhere warmer..."
JJ @ The Invisible Event: "In Media Res: Case Closed vols. 1-5 (1994) by Gosho Aoyama"

Neeru @ A Cup of Hot Pleasure: "Initial Impressions: Malice by Keigo Higashino"

And for my contribution, I shall take us to Japan via Yukito Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders. The book is a daring homage to the Golden Age detective novel and, most particularly, to Agatha Christie's classic impossible crime novel, And Then There Were None. It also represents a resurgence of the classic crime novel in Japan. As is stated in the notes at the end of the 2015 English translation by Ho-Ling Wong:

The publication of The Decagon House Murders in 1987 was seen as a mile stone in detective fiction and the start of the shin honkaku movement. The symbolises the rebirth of the classic puzzle-plot novel with a new twist, audacity: pushing the bounds of the puzzle-plot novel while adhering to its fair-play rule.

Ayatsuji takes the familiar trope of a group of people stuck on an island with no escape from a murderer, transports it to Japan, and gives it a twist. This time, unlike the Christie novel, the people aren't strangers brought together by an unknown host--they are a group of students who are all members of a mystery club at a local university. They are so immersed in their hobby that they have each taken names from classic detective fiction: Agatha, Orczy, Van Dine, Leroux, Ellery, Carr, and Poe. The island and Decagon House was the site of a ghastly murder (possibly murder-suicide) just six months before and it appeals to their sense of mystery. When the uncle of one of the club members buys the property, the club takes advantage of their connections to plan a week's excursion. They explicitly tell the fisherman who runs them out to the island on is boat not to come back for a week.*

"So I really don't have to check up on ya even once?" the fisherman asked the six as they set foot on the dangerously creaking pier. "Don' think phones work here."

Van Dine meets the six--he had come ahead to bring the supplies and prepare the lodgings and they settle down for their stay. Initially, they enjoy exploring the grounds and wondering about the details of the crime six months before. But it isn't long before they are involved in a very personal murder mystery of their own. Someone begins killing the club members--one by one. Has one of their own gone mad or is there someone unknown hidden on the island? Clues begin to point to someone connected to the previous murders. Did that killer manage to hide on the island all this time? Ayatsuji manages to produce an unexpected answer that is at once surprising and highly satisfying.

This is a highly enjoyable puzzle-plot mystery which plays out well in its foreign (to me) setting. There are details of Japanese culture and custom that are integral to the plot and which give it a different feel from the Christie classic. Since it is focused on the puzzle aspect, the characterization suffers a bit, but not enough to keep mystery fans from enjoying themselves. The solution to the mystery is quite audacious and, while I kept wondering if perhaps X might be the killer, I couldn't figure out how it would be possible. The clues are there if you just know how to interpret them. The motive isn't quite as clearly given, but there are subtle hints.

*I made this note to self after finishing the book: If I'm ever invited to a secluded island for an extended stay--even by people I think I know well--make sure somebody will be checking up on us regularly (like--every. single. day.). AND make sure I bring along an emergency pack that contains an easily portable, inflatable boat for getting off the island ASAP if a madman starts knocking off the guests. 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

2017 Sci-Fi Experience

Once again Carl V over at Stainless Droppings is starting his Sci-Fi Experience reading event in December & January.  So...I'm going to be looking over my TBR stacks and lining up some SF reads for the rest of this month and into the new year.  I'm going to take a wild guess and say that I'll finish at least five by January 31st. Since the event ends in January, this will count towards my 2017 Challenges.

The goal? Just to read, discuss, and enjoy some science fiction.  No required reading levels.  Low pressure and fun!  So go on and join us!

Reviews not required, but if you'd like to share them then the Review Site can be found HERE.


Pick Your Genre Challenge

This challenge is about diving into specific genres/sub genres you love or just want to check out in 2017

You get to pick your genre. For example...
Sue might pick contemporary romance, Joan might pick urban fantasy, etc.
The book just needs to fit your chosen genre.
Any book over 80 pages
Any format is fine.
Re-reads count!
You pick the number of books above that you'd like to read. 12 book minimum.
I will be starting at 12 books (possibly leveling up later) in the Golden Vintage Mystery genre (pre-1960).


Friday, December 2, 2016

Monthly Keyword Reading Challenge

Claudia over at My Soul Called Life is hosting the 2017 Monthly Keyword Challenge. It begins on January 1, 2017 and runs through December 31, 2017. You can join at any time, the goal is to read a book with one of the keywords for the challenge. 

2017 Keywords 
JAN- Court, Fall, Of, Way, Deep, Thousand
FEB- And, Rose, Promise, Every, Deception, Blazing
MAR- Shall, Go, By, Silence, Her, Saga
APR- From, Trigger, Tale, His, CrownMist
MAY- Four, Wind, All, Fury, Days, Shade
JUN- Without, Know, Good, Watch, One, Have
JUL- Before, Final, All, Freedom, Life, Dream
AUG- Sun, Infinite, Big, My, Wherever, Most
SEP- Sand, From, Between, Ever, Reasons, Clash
OCT- Darker, You, Ashes, Out, House, Sea
NOV- Place, War, Heart, Why, Give, Meet
DEC- Forget, Twilight, Only, Crystal, On, Will

Books Read For the Challenge  
January - Death at Swaythling Court by J. J. Connington OR The Wrong Way Down by Elizabeth Daly OR Deep Lay the Dead by Frederick C. Davis
February - The Rose & the Yew Tree by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie) OR The Art of Deception by Elizabeth Ironside OR Deception Island by M. K. Lorens
March - Death Shall Overcome by Emma Lathen OR Silence Observed by Michael Innes
April - Murder by the Tale by Dell Shannon OR They Tell No Tales Manning Coles OR The House in the Mist by Anna Katharine Green
May - The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason OR Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace OR The Fourth Postman by Craig Rice
June - Deed Without a Name by Dorothy Bowers OR The Ship Without a Crew by Howard Pease
July - Depart This Life by E. X. Ferrars OR The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny
August - The Deadly Sunshade by Phoebe Atwood Taylor OR The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing OR The Big Midget Murders by Craig Rice
September - The Sands of Windee by Arthur W. Upfield
October - Thank You, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand OR You Can't Keep the Change by Peter Cheyney OR Golden Ashes by Freeman Wills Crofts
November - The Hiding Place by Carlton Keith OR Death of a Warrior Queen by S. T. Haymon OR Penelope Passes or Why Did She Die? by Joan Coggin
December -  Only the Good by Mary Collins OR Fire Will Freeze by Margaret Millar OR Dog Will Have His Day by Fred Vargas OR A Will to Kill by John Penn

November Wrap-Up & P.O.M. Award

It's time to put together my wrap-up post for October. I also have a contribution for Kerrie's Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. This year is rapidly heading to the finish line. Will I finish off the 20-ish more books needed to defeat all my reading challenges? We'll have to see. Meanwhile, here's what happened here on the Block last month.... 
Total Books Read: 10

Total Pages:  1,984 [thank goodness for the Jekyll book at 477 pages or this would have been a much lower number]
Average Rating: 3.42 stars
Top Rating: 5 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 40%
Percentage by US Authors: 60%
Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  0%
Percentage Mystery:  80%
Percentage Fiction: 190%
Percentage written 2000+: 10%
Percentage of Rereads: 20%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% {It's easy to have every book count for a challenge when you sign up for as many as I do.}  
Number of Challenges fulfilled so far: 23 (66%)

Well....took a bit of a hit in the reading pace this month--holiday season is upon us and it's cutting into my reading time. It still looks like I might just finish 160 books over all, but there are still way too many books that need reading for challenges and although, I've made my basic goal of Mt. Everest for the Mount TBR Challenge, I'm not sure I'm going to get to the top of Olympus as hoped. And now for the P.O.M. Award in Mysteries.

As mentioned above, Kerrie had us all set up for another year of Crime Fiction Favorites. What she was looking for is our Top Mystery Read for each month. Of the ten books read in November, eight were were mysteries (or near-cousins), one was a mystery-related non-fiction book, and one was a SF Choose Your Own Adventure. Here are the mystery-related books read:

Black Widower by Patricia Moyes (2.75 stars) 
The Life & Times of Miss Jane Marple by Anne Hart (4 stars)
The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie (4.5 stars) 
The Mystery of Chimney Rock by Edward Packard (5 stars) 
The Jekyll Revelation by Robert Massello (3 stars) 
The Dream-Detective by Sax Rohmer (3 stars) 
Beverly Gray's Mystery by Clair Blank 3.5 stars) 
Cocktails & the Killer by Peter Cheyney (2 stars) 
Do Not Murder Before Christmas by Jack Iams (4 stars)
And now it's time to look for our P.O.M. Award Winner. The only book to grab a five-star rating this month was The Mystery of Chimney Rock by Edward Packard. This Choose Your Own Adventure story was a favorite when I was young and upon re-reading it I could definitely still see the appeal. But I'm going to pass over it for the P.O.M. Next in line is Dame Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library, another favorite and another re-read. Dame Agatha has been honored with a P.O.M. before, so we're going to move on to the four-star winners. Only one of the two is a true mystery, so our November Pick of the Month is....

Iams is a brand-new author for me and I'm glad I have two more of his titles sitting on my TBR stacks. I plan to savor them. This is an extraordinarily fun American mystery from the 40s. I caught on quickly to the motive behind the murder and the culprit, but Iams does such a good job with his characters and the narration that it doesn't matter so much. This is a perfect mystery for the holiday season--set at the right time and a quick, fun read that fits nicely between all the seasonal activities--present-buying, card-writing, decorating, etc. Highly recommended for those looking for an interesting, light mystery for the holidays.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Do Not Murder Before Christmas: Review

In Do Not Murder Before Christmas (1949) by Jack Iams somebody doesn't heed that advice. Toymaker Piet Van Der Vant, known as Uncle Poot to children who have grown up in Shady Hollow's underprivileged neighborhood, is killed on Christmas Eve--apparently for the wads of cash he has trustingly kept stuffed in the drawers of his toy shop. Uncle Poot's toy shop is a favorite of all the kids--because his store is the first place their parents take them and because each year on Christmas Day he opens his shop for a Christmas party and lets the kids from the town's poorest families pick out any toy that is left in the shop after the Christmas buying rush.

Uncle Poot has a quaint ritual for the kids when they come to visit--they either sign their name in his registry books or leave some other mark if they can't write (fingerprints and sometimes even sweet little kiss marks from tiny lips). And upon each visit the kids make he records in those books whether the children have been good or not (for Santa). But when Uncle Poot is found dead in his shop late Christmas Eve, it becomes apparent that he must have known a little too much about somebody. There is a hint of a connection to a wealthy family, but these are the days where money could buy anything, including a quick hushing up of inconvenient stories...and, of course, it helps that a pipe with the fingerprints of a dim-witted young man is found to be the murder weapon. A quick, easy solution that will permanently hush up the wagging tongues.

Enter Stanley "Rocky" Rockwell, crusading newspaperman with a permanent grudge against the wealthy, but corrupt Malloys. Originally, sent to Shady Hollow to interview the new social worker at the Malloys' "generously" gifted community center--given to the poor section of town, he remembers stopping by to see Uncle Poot and the old toy maker's comments about a mysterious visitor to whom he may have said too much. Rocky starts digging and with the help of Lt. Bill Hammer, the only policeman who's not in the Malloys' pockets, he manages to find evidence that Loppy (the poor, dim-witted young man) has been framed. But with pressures on Hammer from above and a street brawl between Rocky and Marty Malloy threatens both Hammer's badge and Rocky's freedom. Will they be able to catch the real killer before Hammer is out of job and Rocky finds a temporary home in the local jail?

There is also a nice little love interest (and romantic triangle--Rocky-->Jane Hewes-->Marty) to distract our crusading hero and add a bit of suspense. At one point Jane disappears, apparently held captive. But it isn't Rocky who comes to her rescue--it's Debbie Mayfair, the society columnist (also known as Mrs. Pickett, 40-something and not nearly as staid as people might think). Mrs. Picket hides in a rumble seat and beards lions in the den of iniquity (a local hot-spot with nearly naked show girls) in order to rescue our damsel in distress. It's worth the price of admission just to hear Mrs. Pickett's story of her adventures.

Jack Iams is a brand-new author for me and I'm glad I have two more of his titles sitting on my TBR stacks. I plan to savor them. This is an extraordinarily fun American mystery from the 40s. I caught on quickly to the motive behind the murder and the culprit, but Iams does such a good job with his characters and the narration that it doesn't matter so much. This is a perfect mystery for the holiday season--set at the right time and a quick, fun read that fits nicely between all the seasonal activities--present-buying, card-writing, decorating, etc. Highly recommended for those looking for an interesting, light mystery for the holidays. ★★★★

This counts for the "Christmas Decoration" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card. The book has also been reviewed by Curtis over at The Passing Tramp. Stop by and take a look at what he has to say.

Wild Goose Chase Challenge

Bruce @ The Bookshelf Gargoyle (he of the "Title Fight Reading Challenge of 2016) is offering up another "wild and crazy" reading challenge for 2017. As he says: "If running around like a headless chook trying to find your next read isn’t really your style, then why not try the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017? This is a category-based challenge and is designed to be fun, frivolous and filled with feathers. Well, maybe not that last one."

For full details and to sign up, click on the link above. Here are the basics:

* The Challenge will run from January 1st to December 31, 2017.
* Challengees must read at least one book from each category (listed below).  Challengees must read a DIFFERENT book for each category – even if your book title might fit a number of categories, it will only count towards a single category.  Challengees are free to choose which category best suits.

Here are the categories and my proposed titles. Will update with actual reads, review links, and dates finished as I go:

1. A book with a word of phrase relating to wildness in the title – any interpretation of the word “wild” is acceptable (eg: The Call of the Wild, Angry Aztecs, Crazy for You; An Untamed State)
A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hanson
2. A book with a species of bird (or the word “bird”) in the title: (eg: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Thorn Birds, Turkey: A Modern History)
The Thursday Turkey Murders by Craig Rice OR The Penguin Pool Murders by Stuart Palmer
3. A book with an exotic or far-flung location in the title – fantasy and mythical locations are acceptable (eg: Paradise Lost, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Atlantis Rising)
The Matter of Paradise by Meggs Brown OR The Hidden Planet: Science Fiction Adventures on Venus by Donald A Wollheim, ed. 

4.  A book with an object you might hunt for in the title (eg: Treasure Island, One for the Money, The History of Love, Dreams from my Father, A Monster Calls, All the Answers)
Zadok's Treasure by Margot Arnold OR Up the Ladder of Gold by E. Phillips Oppenheim OR The Golden Ball & Other Stories by Agatha Christie
5. A book with a synonym for chase in the title (or its derivatives: chasing, chased, etc) (eg: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Follow the River, Man’s Search for Meaning, The Night Stalker)
 In Search of the Great Dead by Richard Cecil OR Search for a Scientist by Charles Leonard OR The Father Hunt by Rex Stout

6.  A book with a means of transport in the title (eg: If I Built a CarWalk Two Moons, The Girl on the Train)
Death of a Train by Freeman Wills Crofts OR The Body Missed the Boat by Jack Iams OR The Ship Without a Crew by Howard Pease
7.  A book with an object you might take on a search or hunt in the title (eg: The Golden Compass, The Map to Everywhere, Water for Elephants, Team of Rivals )
The Quest of the Missing Map by Carolyn Keene OR Dread & Water by Douglas Clark OR Death in Shallow Water by Miles Burton

Cocktails & the Killer

Cocktails and the Killer (aka Ladies Won't Wait; 1951) by Peter Cheyney is purportedly (according to the back cover blurb) "an intoxicating trail of intrigue, murder and deadly romance through the bistros and boudoirs of the world's worst underground!" Michal Kells is a British secret agent hanging out in France and waiting for his next assignment when he comes across a beautiful woman--almost too beautiful to be true--who seems extraordinarily interested in him. Lucky fellow! When he finally has a chance to sidle up beside her, he's a bit surprised when she works the current code phrase into her conversation. "Ladies won't wait." They arrange a less public rendezvous, but Kells arrives to find his fellow agent dead. 

Following up what few leads he has, he discovers links to the disappearance of another agent, a possible German defector who has been working for the Russians, a highly-sought scientist, and a deadly female agent who will stop at nothing to get what the Russians want and keep the German with thoughts of the West where he belongs. Kells talks to everyone (and I do mean everyone) who might be able to assist him as he unravels the international threads. He will have to outwit the Russian lady if he's to keep the remaining players alive in this most dangerous of games.

This is a spy story that doesn't even come close to the thrills of James Bond. A LOT of talk--very little action. Kells is an agent who, quite frankly, doesn't seem to be trying to hide the fact that he's an espionage agent in Her Majesty's Secret Service. He tells at least three or four people over the course of the book what he does for a living. Shouldn't that be a bad thing? Of course, I suppose when you talk as much as Kells does in this book it isn't surprising that he spills this information. I was pretty under-whelmed by the whole thing and it should have been a dandy plot. By the time we get to the grand finale--explosion and all--it was hard to muster much enthusiasm. Especially when the big bang got so little air time. 

The odd thing is, Kells is an interesting character who is vastly under-used as an agent. The man should be having WAY more adventures with action in them. The various women that he interacts with are also interesting and could help make a great plot. If everybody would just shut up for a while and DO things instead of talking about things that have been done, are being done, or will be done.  ★★--all for characterization.