White Corridor by Christopher Fowler


White Corridor

It’s always a gamble to pick up books by unknown authors. And I seem to do a bad job of it at Christmas every year. Each year we spend some time in the car, so we grab audio books. This year’s selection was a mixed bag of known authors and unknown authors. We listened to this title and it was definitely a mixed bag.

The story revolves around two older gentlemen who run a Peculiar Crimes Unit in London. They are quirky, cranky, and odd. Which of course makes them fun. They can get away saying and doing things that a younger detective would be fired over. In this story, the two detectives are stranded out in a snow storm miles from anywhere with a killer, the killer’s intended victim, and plenty of innocent people. A blizzard trapped many cars on a busy bypass through the English countryside in subzero temperatures. This situation becomes a race for personal survival in the cold and an effort to rescue the victim from killer.

Meanwhile, back at the PCU, their staff has a mystery on its hands that could eventually give their political enemies the leverage to shut them down. The two older detectives attempt to help solve that crime as well using their cell phones while stranded out in the cold.

All in all, it makes for a great setup. There are a few downsides to the book though. First, two of the characters have an affair. (I have no idea how descriptive it was as I skipped it.) The author uses this as a plot device as the girl believes she is now psychically bonded to the man.

Update: From the author’s comments below: “My romantic scenes are chaste; imagination is better.”

Second, there is profanity in the book. Third, the author is very anti-God and anti-religion. The lead spends much of his time supporting, encouraging, and getting assistance from witches, warlocks, and all sorts of cultic groups. (They were traveling to a cultist convention when they were stranded.)

I can ignore the cultist things. What I have less trouble accepting is the affair and the language.

I did find one other thing disturbing. Despite the modern setting, so much of the described English life could have been pulled right from an Agatha Christie novel that I found the modern technology jolting. It’s not the author’s fault; most of my experience with English detectives come from Christie and books set in the early to mid 20th century. So, I often dropped back into that mental picture until a cell phone appeared again. Whoops….

Have you ever had that experience?

The Society, by Micheal Palmer M.D.


The Society

Unraveling the Mystery section, part 2.

A gritty crime procedural set in Chicago, this book is all about a new character, Willard “Will” Grant. He’s nice, he’s caring, he’s the face of the anti-insurance-company movement in Chicago, and he’s the suspect in a serial killer case: a killer who targets head health executives. The plot is extremely complicated, to the point that even the back cover summary is somewhat misleading. The main point to remember: the author is out to make managed care look bad, in every way, so don’t expect any sympathy for the insurance bureaucracy that has to deal with all the laws and legal ramifications.

The good: from a writing perspective, this book is the best yet (and its #5 that I’ve *started* reading. The rest were put down before page 10, in case you were wondering where all those reviews are). The romantic relationship is at least acknowledged to be full of mistakes, and there are few major plot holes. The pacing and action are right one track, with enough humor and clues mixed in to make each scene worth its page space. The details are handled deftly but subtly, and even the gristly parts are toned down enough that you need a good imagination to get anywhere bad.

The Bad: I have a good imagination, for one thing. For another , Mr. Savage is a really liberal person, and the worldview gets annoying to hear about after awhile. The man can really write well, and its easy while reading to skip over these inappropriate parts at first, but as you will see, it really adds up. A sprinkle of foul language (largely contextually understandable), two torture scenes, six detailed deaths, three or so detailed planned deaths, countless ugly surgical procedures gone wrong, heart rending stories of death by bureaucracy, four extra martial affairs (not detailed but still), and seven instances of leering/harassment. By the end, the cumulative effect made me sit back in surprise at how much foul content I had just ingested.

Overall:
Skip Micheal Savage. Its a real let down at the end. Anyone know of a good medical/big city mystery writer? I’m coming up real short on this series….

Double Shot, by Diane Mott Davidson


Double Shot

Unraveling the Mystery section, part 1

Ever been to one of those bookstores with shelves all the way to the ceiling? The used ones, with so many kinds of books and so many authors, it makes your head spin? Well, I was in one last week, and got overwhelmed. So I grabbed five books off a shelf at random, and decided to unravel the mystery section. Good books will get the author on the seek list, bad ones on the skip list, and any other reveiwer’s are welcome to add to the series.

In the good news section, this book is all about good food. Most of the jokes involve food, and all the recipes mentioned are given in the back (very fun idea). The main character/female detective is a caterer, so amid investigating her ex-husband’s murder, she’s baking up all these food things that inspire you to try your own hand in the kitchen. The plot involves a lot of fun twists and turns, but mostly the main detective goes from food event to food event with inspiring ideas and collecting clues with her cop husband and gossip-queen girlfriend.

In the bad news department, Davidson has a very appalling sense of place and timing. Several scenes take place in all-too-detailed backgrounds, like a gross-out kitchen or sleazy “men’s club,” all peopled by completely unacceptably described shlubs. While a lot of food comments and quips take some sting out of it, the fact is, a good five pages need to be ripped out of this copy before its acceptable reading. I skimmed a lot of the detecting parts because of these locational problems, about 100 pages worth.

Overall, Davidson goes on my skip-list. Anyone disagree? In the mystery world, are nasty locations fair play, and if so, are there limits on how they should be handled? Or should the author be able to describe what happened, without setting the book in places where offensive material is a given?

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters aka Barbara Mertz


Crocodile on the Sandbank

Plot: This book is the first in the Amelia Peabody Mystery Adventures written under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters. Our heroine, Amelia Peabody is an uptight victorian feminist who discovers the wonders of Egyptian Archeology. The book begins with Amelia inheriting a fortune from her father. This financial freedom allows her to see places which she has only read about, leading her to Egypt. There she encounters the rest of the players in this mystery, Evelyn Forbes, brothers Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, and Lucas (Evelyn’s distant cousins). Evelyn becomes Amelia’s travel companion as they navigate through Egypt. Upon reaching their first stop in Cairo, Amelia and Evelyn meet the Emerson brothers, who are a pair of archeologist. Quickly a romantic love-interest blooms between Walter and Evelyn, but just as quickly Amelia and Radcliffe loathe each other. Amelia and Evelyn eventually join the Emerson at their archeological site. Although Amelia and Radcliffe do not get along, they each have a mutual respect for the others love for archeology. However, things get complicated when Evelyn’s distant cousin, Lucas, shows up unexpectedly and propose marriage to her. As the romantic entanglements develop, a mummy suddenly begins nocturnal visitations, frighting the workers and halting the excavations. Amelia is called upon to support her friend and to solve the mystery of mummy harassing the camp.

Pros: The author takes a humorous and fun tone more then scary or mysterious. She takes each of the characters to the extreme, making them humorous and silly. There is really nothing objectionable found in this book, with possibly one exception. There are references to Evelyn’s soiled reputation and a brief question about what it was like having it soiled. But I expect that unless you know what is being discussed, a young reader may miss it completely.

Cons: Its not a serious book. so if you are looking for serious book on archeology and its adventures, you have come to the wrong place. Some readers may find, particularly male readers, Amelia’s feminism to be offensive or at least distasteful. Throughout the book you will find Amelia bullying other men and making references to how women are treated as second class. I personally find this feminist trait to be a character enhancement of Amelia, but you may not.

Overall: Its a fun story and well worth the read.

101 Years’ Entertainment, Edited by Ellery Queen (Part 6 of 6)


101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories of Over A Century

Part 6 of 6

I’m not big on short stories, mysteries excepted. After reading this book, my horizons have been broadened, and I’m going to go find some more fun short stories to check out. Unfortunately, this anthology includes a selection of “mystery” stories that are more like horror, or fairy-tales gone amok; so I can’t recommend the whole batch of 50. That said, there are too many stories for one review: this is review 6 of 6, the (more than ten) short stories which are clearly NOT mysteries; with few exceptions, horror stories.
• The Clock, by A.E.W. Mason
• The Silver Mask, by High Walpole
• Suspicion, by Dorothy L. Sayers
• Treasure Trove, by F. Tennyson Jesse
• Philomel Cottage, by Agatha Christie, p. 2
• The Mad Tea Party, by Ellery Queen, p. 4
• The S. S., M.P. Shiel, Prince Zaleski.
• The Two Bottles of Relish, by Lord Dunsay, Mr. Linely
• The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell
• Faith, Hope, and Charity, by Irvin S. Cobb

I’m not bothering to recap these, because they are, by and large, that type of horror story that makes you shiver but is so stupid that, the second your brain kicks in, you start shaking with uncontrollable laughter. Three were reviewed in other sections anyway. And with that we wrap up a review of 101 Year’s Entertainment. I didn’t like it overall, but there were some good things to recommend, and an interesting lesson in history to be drawn.

The volume as a whole has several strengths. First, the historical aspect of each story is mentioned in some way, either in the story itself (set during 1800s England or what have you) or the editorial comments. The different genres within detective stories and mysteries are all given their turn, and the eras of each are evident by the context. Also, the different writing styles create a genre-within-a genre effect; the colorful language of the 1920s contrasting vividly with the refined philosophy of the 1840s. Most interesting of all, variety. There are all kinds of stories here, from the philosophical (The Problem of Cell 13) to the probing (The Criminologists’ Club) and the downright problematic (The Mad Tea Party).

It’s the problematic variety (mainly the stories above) that get to you after a couple hundred pages. Yes, there are some fine stories, and they are interesting to read in comparison to the other stories. Really, though, what is entertaining about justified mass murder (The S.S.), or torturous deaths (The Silver Mask and, more variously but still equally gruesome, Faith, Hope, and Charity)? Can’t we have variety and quality? The editor obviously thought so, but then, the editor’s taste leans toward the macabre (note, his own story gets into the “Criminals Win” and “Non-Mystery” categories); and therein lies the biggest problem with an anthology like this. Its totally up to the editor’s tastes as to what does and does not get included. And this editor, sadly, falls into his own category of “Doyle-imitators”; a mystery writer wannabe whose style is not entirely without merit, yet also without talent (and often without even that first qualifier, “mystery.”)

I don’t recommend the book, though if variety is the spice you want in your reading life, some of the short stories mentioned hereto would be a good place to start (I suggest parts 2, 3, or 5 of this review for a list: the stories above are, as I mentioned, more in the realm of terrifying stupidity than of stupefying mystery). Overall, however, the idea behind the book has led me to broaden my horizons in the short story realm. That bit of wisdom, however, can be easily shared without having to trudge through (all) the above. 🙂

101 Years’ Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories of Over A Century Edited by Ellery Queen (Part 4 of 6: Criminals Win)


101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories of Over A Century

Part 4 of 6: Criminals Win

I’m not big on short stories, mysteries excepted. Unfortunately, this anthology includes a selection of “mystery” stories that are more like horror, or fairy-tales gone amok; so I can’t recommend the whole batch of 50. That said, there are too many stories for one review: this is review 4 of 6, the ten short stories in which the thief is our hero and/or is not brought to justice. Some of these I enjoyed to one degree or another, and where I recommend them, it is so noted. I object in principle to the whole idea of the thief as hero, so unless its circumstantially explained away, I vote no to the whole genre.
• The Red Silk Scarf, by Maurice LeBlanc, Arsene Lupin. A well-known crook gives a police detective all the clues he needs except one. Said crucial clue threatens to unravel all the hard work of the police, because said crook won’t give it up until the other half (of this red silk scarf) is found. Very clever, if unacceptably and overwhelmingly bumbling policemen weren’t the main feature of the story. The resolution, also, uses a bit of dues-ex-machina that’s not set up well and therefore unbelievable.
• The Cyprian Bees, by Anthony Wayne, Dr. Hailey. Average writing, stellar if rather scary mystery. So well wrapped is the plot hat explaining any of it requires SPOILERs; a doctor/beekeeper wants an inheritance and if he doesn’t get it, no one else in the family will either. END SPOILER Not A Night Read.
• Arsene Lupin in Prison, by Maurice LeBlanc, Arsene Lupin. For all the faults of this one, it was one of the genuinely humorous mysteries in the book (despite having a chapter by that title, there were very few that made me laugh out loud. This one succeeded). The whole thing is so clever one can almost forgive the thief for being a protagonist; almost.
• Blind Man’s Bluff, by Fredrick Irving Anderson, The Infallible Godahl. Another genuinely funny one. Godahl is a member of an elite social club that plays mean pranks for laughs on its stage. (Our thief, being also the hero, naturally, is disgusted with his clubmates and doesn’t like them.) This round it’s a blind black magician who happens to be a fellow thief of our hero. When the magician shows up for a show, our hero isn’t among the crowd, and soon, neither are everyone’s wallets. The ending line needs to be read twice for full appreciation; recommended.
• The Stolen Romney, by Edgar Wallace, Four Square Jane. Clever, if somewhat contrived story of a female thief who uses the stolen goods to make donations to charity, and the police are baffled by her most recent heist: a painting, stolen in broad daylight, that could not possibly have left the museum.
• Paris Adventure, by Leslie Charteris, The Saint. Interesting story along the lines of Edgar Allen Poe in that it’s a character study more than a mystery (which makes it worth recommending despite the “hero”); a famous thief is on the lam when he meets a lady in a bar (further details would spoil the story, but trust me, its really complex and fun). Recommended
• The Eleventh Juror, by Vincent Starrett. A man is about to be convicted of murder and the jury must convince our narrator to vote him guilty or else he’ll escape the electric chair (and may I say, this one also qualifies for “Most Poorly Executed”; the author wrote himself into a hole and then just pulls the plug on realism).
• A Chess Problem, by Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot. A chess genius dies two minutes into a tournament, his partner having just returned from iron-curtain Russia; who is the real victim, and why? Its Hercule Poirot’s job to find out, and I have to say, SPOILER if he’s such a great detective as he keeps telling us he is, why does the murderer get away with a fortune? END SPOILER not recommended; anyone know of a good Agatha Christie short story?
• The Sweet Shot, by E.C. Bentley, Philip Trent. This last is a truly ingenious mystery, with sublte turns of plot unraveled in true British style, over a tea at a golf club. A quietly nasty member of the community has no enemies but winds up dead, struck by lightening on a cloudless day, which blew him up but left his golf club untouched.
• The Criminologist’s Club, by Raffles A well known thief is invited to a dinner by London’s most distinguished detectives, to discuss the most recent criminal affairs of the city. Will they entrap him into confession, or will current criminal activity overtake them?

Overall, the thief stories were not my favorite. If you must find a guilty pleasure in criminal success, read the Artemis Fowl series, The Saint (mentioned above), or The Infallible Godahl (also mentioned above) for a more morally acceptable version of a good steal.

101 Years’ Entertainment, Edited by Ellery Queen (Part 3 of 6: the blah club)


101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories of Over A Century

Part 3 of 6: the blah club

This is the interesting part about an anthology of so many different authors: some are great, others just don’t stand out in the crowd. Not bad, not exceptional, here are is the mediocre of the crop of mysteries…
• The Puzzle lock, by R. Austin Freeman, Dr. Thorndyke. A big gang bust is in the air for the police, but first, they must find the criminals, who have mysteriously disappeared. The whole city ahse been searched, except the room behind one particular locked door…
• The Secret Garden, by Bilbert K. Chesterton, Father Brown. A gathering at the constable’s house turns deadly, and even the victim is not all he seems. Father Brown is a very boring person to listen to, full of half ideas that only come to fruition after the murderer has accomplished all his ends.
• The Man Who Spoke Latin, by Samuel Hopkins, Average Jones. A truly average mystery, with some fun twists and several missing plot points (and, for those of you who know Latin, even more plot holes). A new man in town cozies up to an eccentric professor and claims to have woken from a Coma speaking only Latin.
• The Long Dinner, by H.C. Bailey, Mr. Fortune. A disappearing artist, a orphan’s boarding school, and two dead children are connected across the English Cahnnel. The idea is interesting, but the red herrings prove gruesome, and the eternal yaking between the two protagonists is futile as regards enlightenment or entertainment.
• The Tragedy At Brookbend Cottage, by Enerst Bramah, Max Carrados. A woman’s isster is caught in a loveless marriage to a… you know the story. Our author tries to add a twist of tragedy to cliché, but its really quite insulting to feminity (and therefore not in the “Great” section).
• The Borderline Case, by Maragary Allingham. A man is shot from a window at a club he wasn’t near, with no apparent witnesses. The mafia rule the town on this one, as is made clear at the beginning, and we end with the same murkiness that borders on stupidity but just manages to be above it somewhere in the realm of annoying.
• The Mystery of Mrs. Dickenson, by Nicholas Carter, Nick Carter. The editorial comments on this one (to the effect that Nick Carter is infamous) seem unfounded, but whatever his reputation, it’s a rather mediocere storyline. A con is being pulled, in a rich
• The Doomdorf Mystery, by Melville Davisson Post, Uncle Abner. The twists and turns in the story are clever, as is the (also clever but very much impossible) climax. It’s the blathering boredom of Abner and his sidekick talking the whole story long that leaves you sleepy.
• Introducing Susan Dare, by Mignon Eberhart, Susan Dare. Another whodunit where all but the crucial clues are withheld, and the reader is, in the end, left thoroughly confused as to why the who and how the dun it.
• The Tea Leaf, by Edgar Jepson, Ruth Kelstern. A by now very cliché story of a murder without a weapon, a lover without an alibi, and a controlling father who can’t let go even in death.
• The Mackenzie Case, by Viola Brothers Shore, Gwynn Leith. Written in classic format, our heroine must navigate a series of differing clues on her cruise ships’ most interesting personalities: a millionaire and his companion, washed overboard one at a time in Cuba’s warm waters.

Overall, an unprepossessing group. I must say, in writing this review, I was struck by how unfun it is to write a lukewarm review. The truly pathetic are rife with sarcastic availability, while the great rise above in praiseworthy verbage; but there just isn’t much to say when its lukewarm middle-of-the-roadness all around. It brought to mind that scripture about being more desireable to God as hot or cold water (lukewarm being just no use : the Supreme writer of His Story would know that feeling.