The Real Cool Killers (1958) – Chester Himes

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on January 16, 2020 by cshmurak

Chester Himes was an angry man – and his mysteries are full of rage. Expelled from Ohio State University as a sophomore in 1928 for a fraternity prank that ended in a bar brawl, and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor (of which he served seven years) for armed robbery, Himes began to write short stories based on his prison experiences. The stories were published in African-American newspapers and in Esquire magazine, where they were signed with his name and prison ID number. In the 1940s, Himes moved to Los Angeles to find work in wartime industry, and found the racism and hypocrisy of Los Angeles worse than the “Jim Crow” South.  He left the United States in the mid-1950s to join other African-American expatriates living in Paris. It was here that a French publisher offered him a large advance to write a crime novel set in Harlem; within three weeks Himes produced For Love of Imabelle (later known as A Rage in Harlem), which was a great success and won the Grand Prix Policier, France’s major award for crime fiction. His two Harlem police detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, became the heroes (anti-heroes?) of a series of nine novels. The Real Cool Killers was the third in that series, and the easiest to obtain for my mystery group, as it was included in an anthology, American Noir of the 1950s (1997).

The Real Cool Killers is a whodunnit. A white man named Ulysses Galen is shot outside a bar in Harlem, and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed must find the murderer. But nothing is simple, no one knows who did it, and very few people care about the truth. Certainly not the police commissioner, who just wants to keep Harlem safe for the white people who visit there for entertainment and/or the exploitation of black women. In Himes’s Harlem, the police are as brutal as the criminals – and that’s just fine with the commissioner, as long as they keep things under control. Six people die in this short novel, some killed by the police, and in most cases, no one pays for their crimes. Yet there is a certain justice to the ending that’s satisfying. It’s easy to see the influence of Himes on later black detectives like Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins.

There’s an ironic tone to much of the writing, and some of the scenes are truly comic. (In two of the films made from Himes’s books, Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Come Back Charleston Blue (1972), Grave Digger was played by comedic actor Godfrey Cambridge with great effectiveness.) The action is fast-paced, and at only 150 pages in length, this is a quick read that manages to leave a lasting impression. Himes said of this series: “The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real. I just wanted to take it away from the white man, if only in my books.”  Though he had originally written them just for the money, Himes came to see his detective novels as a way to explore and express the black experience in America. This book certainly does that.

 

The Knowledge (2018) – Martha Grimes

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on January 5, 2020 by cshmurak

I’ve been reading Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury books since the 1980s. I remember, early on, loving her precocious child characters, like ten-year-old Lady Jessica of Help the Poor Struggler (1985). Since I started keeping “Top Ten” lists in 1999 in order to post them on the DorothyL mystery e-list, Grimes’s books have appeared several times: The Blue Last (2001), Winds of Change (2004), The Black Cat (2010). I’m fairly certain that The Knowledge (2018) will make my Top Ten for the coming year. So it was with great surprise that I found, upon looking up her books on the Stop You’re Killing Me website , that only one of her books, The Anodyne Necklace (1983) has ever won a major mystery award; in this case, the Nero Award. (Not even a finalist for the Agatha?! !) Yet, she has been named a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America. So occasionally it happens that an author is recognized for a body of work, rather than for a single title, as was true also for Ralph McInerny and his Father Dowling mysteries.

All of the titles in Grimes’s Richard Jury series are taken from the names of British pubs. “The Knowledge” is a London pub, known only to the legendary cabbies who have memorized every street and landmark in the city of London; not on any map, it is the favorite hangout of that elite group of drivers. Not even Detective Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard can find it, nor can he persuade any cabbie to take him there.

When cab driver Robbie Parsons becomes involved in the murder of a young couple outside the famous casino known as the Artemis Club, he and his fellow cabbies help track the murderer to Waterloo Station and Heathrow Airport. From there, the killer is trailed – all the way to Kenya! – by a ten year old girl, Patty Haigh, member of a group of crime-solving street urchins, and another of Grimes’s delightful too-wise-for-her-years characters.  And speaking of characters, the longtime reader of the Jury books will not be disappointed: both Melrose Plant of Ardry’s End and Marshall Trueblood, antiques dealer and denizen of the Jack and Hammer pub, play major roles in the solution of the mystery, with brief appearances by Vivian Rivington and Diane Demorney. Melrose develops a quirky relationship with Patty Haigh, and even gets to be a hero in her eyes.

The Knowledge is an intriguing mystery with some nice red herrings, and a surprising, intricate solution. The central premise, of a pub that only cabbies can find, is great fun. I thought there was a bit too much time spent in Kenya, however, and I found myself looking forward to the chapters set in Scotland Yard. But that’s not surprising: for me, Richard Jury is always the heart of Grimes’s stories.

Crime Beneath the Midnight Sun: Scandinavian Mysteries – Addendum

Posted in History of Mystery, Mysteries, Scandinavian mysteries with tags , on December 14, 2019 by cshmurak

As promised, here are my final thoughts about Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis: Like most of the members of my book group, I found the storyline of this book too complicated to be truly satisfying. It certainly was an intriguing mystery with many plot twists; several times it became obvious that events I thought I understood were instead something else entirely, and just when things seemed to be sorted out, everything suddenly changed. Very, very clever – but maybe too much so?

A series of bank robberies occur in Oslo, and the press begin to talk about the perpetrator as ‘The Expeditor.’ Nesbo’s protagonist, Harry Hole (pronounced “Hool-eh”), still reeling from the death of his former police partner, Ellen, is working on the case. His current lover, Rakel, is in Russia fighting for custody rights to her son, and so he accepts a dinner invitation from a former lover, Anna. Soon after, Harry suffers from an alcoholic blackout and Anna’s body is found – an apparent suicide. Harry suspects it was really murder, and so he begins secretly working on that case as well. And of course the reader wonders if there is a link between the bank jobs and Anna’s death.

Nesbo introduces some wonderful characters in this book. Beate Lonn, a new policewoman with an amazing innate ability to recognize and remember faces, is a great asset to Harry and to the book. Raskol, the gypsy mastermind who (perhaps) helps Harry identify the Expeditor, is another fascinating character. But while I’m on the subject of characters, was it really necessary to have characters named “Arne,” “Aune,” and “Anna?” Or “Raskol” and “Rakel?” Following the plot was made even more difficult by having to stop each time and think, “Oh yes, ‘Aune’ is Stanle Aune, the psychologist, not Arne Albu, the businessman.” And I’m not alone in this: almost everyone in the group had the same problem. Would it have been easier if we were Norwegian? I’m not sure.

The ending is satisfying – almost. That is, the reader does get some closure about Anna’s death and the identity of the Expeditor. Beate is much happier at the end, and even Harry is having a nice holiday. But a final very short chapter that refers back to an earlier book and that seems to lead into the next book leaves the reader up in the air once again.

Crime Beneath the Midnight Sun: Scandinavian Mysteries

Posted in History of Mystery, Mysteries, Scandinavian mysteries with tags , on September 30, 2019 by cshmurak

Way back in the late 1960’s-early 1970’s, I was an ardent fan of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and their ten Martin Beck mysteries – the first Scandinavian mystery authors to be popular in the United States. Their book The Laughing Policeman (1970), set in Stockholm, was made into an American film by the same name (1973), but moved to San Francisco. In it, Walter Matthau nicely captured both the dourness and the humor of Beck, though he was renamed ‘Jake Martin.’ Sadly, having just completed the tenth mystery – and it was always planned to be only ten – Per Wahloo died in 1975, though Maj Sjowall still works as a writer and translator. There is an excellent article about them, written in 2009, here.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, set in Copenhagen and Greenland, by Danish author Peter Hoeg was widely acclaimed in 1992, and filmed with an international cast in 1997.  About the same time, Henning Mankell’s books about Swedish detective Kurt Wallander made their first appearance in English translation.  The TV series, Wallander, both the Swedish version and the British version with Kenneth Branaugh, were quite popular on American TV. I read a few of the books and watched both series for a while, but I found the relentless gloom too dispiriting to continue.

It was the amazing success of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008) that led to the great demand for Scandinavian mysteries in English translation.  I read the first book in that series and saw both the Swedish and American film versions, but I wasn’t as enamored of the Larsson books as many people were. And since then, I’ve avoided Scandinavian mysteries, despite a delightful trip to Copenhagen and Stockholm in 2015.

So it was with some trepidation that I scheduled a series of book groups entitled “Crime Beneath the Midnight Sun” at one of my local libraries this fall. I was sure that by late fall, we would all be hopelessly depressed.

We began with Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked (1999), winner of the 2001 Gold Dagger Award – and indeed it was gloomy. But it was also a well-plotted police procedural about a serial killer who is an axe murderer. The reader knows more about the identity of the killer than the police do for much of the novel; the connection between the victims, however, is not readily apparent, so it becomes more a whydunit than a whodunit.  Wallander seems to spend a lot of time trying to remember things that are just out of his memory’s reach, a rather tedious way of providing clues, and at times the detailed description is a bit too much. In the end, some of Wallander’s messy personal life takes a turn for the better though. Nonetheless, I didn’t feel much like reading any more of Mankell’s books.

So it was with a loud groan that I opened the next book – Borkmann’s Point (2006) by Hakan Nesser – to find it was about a serial killer called “The Axman.” How had I chosen two books about axe murderers??!! But this book was quite different in tone from the Mankell book: for one thing, there were multiple points of view, a lighter tone, and a sense of humor.  Though Nesser is Swedish and wrote the book in that language, it is set in a country that might be Sweden, but is never actually identified as such. The names of the characters are mostly Dutch. The main character is DCI Van Veeteren (no first name is given), and he has a lively assistant named Inspector Munster, whose wife and children appear briefly but happily in the story. (Van Veeteren himself is divorced and has an incarcerated son named Erich.) This is definitely a whodunit, with clues and red herrings (I confess to being misled by one of them), and a few interesting plot twists. My only complaint: too many similar names in the female characters – Beate, Beatrice, Bitte, Brigitte! Though “Borkmann’s Point” sounds like a place, it’s actually an interesting concept: the moment in the investigation when enough evidence has been gathered to solve the case. (This reminded me of the old Ellery Queen mysteries, which frequently reached a point when the author challenged the reader to add up all the clues and find the solution.) Unlike my slog through the Mankell book, Borkmann’s Point went quickly and was thoroughly enjoyable.

Next up was Karin Fossum’s The Indian Bride (2007), set in a small village in Norway. Her detectives are Inspector Konrad Sejer, a 50ish widower, and his younger (and handsome) assistant, Jacob Skarre.  Sejer has a live-in partner Sara, who is a psychiatrist, and an aging dog named Kohlberg, so he is less of a loner than either Wallander or Van Veeteren. Though Sejer is clearly in charge, the two men share equally in the attempt to solve the case. But what sets this book apart is the nature of the crime and the reader’s involvement in the characters. For this is no serial killer mercilessly disposing of mostly reprehensible men. The victim is Poona Bai, an innocent Indian woman who has come to Norway to live with the Norwegian man, Gunder Jomann, whom she has recently met and married in Mumbai. We follow Gunder from the start: his decision to go to India to find a wife, his courtship of Poona, his plans for their life together. And then we watch as his whole world falls to pieces, so the emotional investment in the solving of the crime is so much stronger than in the other books. Despite the somewhat ambiguous ending, I thought this was a masterful piece of writing.

I have one more to go: Nemesis (2008) by Jo Nesbo. I hope it’s as good as these last two. (I’ll write an addendum to this post when I finish it.) Meanwhile, I’ve found two more authors whose books I hope to continue.

 

 

 

 

 

Gaudy Night (1935) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on February 28, 2019 by cshmurak

In 2000, Anthony Award voters selected the best mysteries of the 20th Century; the 5 finalists were The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Rebecca, and Gaudy Night, with Rebecca taking the top prize. I have to wonder how Gaudy Night made that list. Not that it’s not a good mystery, but it’s a difficult read compared to the others. Filled with long speeches, hundreds of quotations, and untranslated Latin phrases (plus one in untranslated Greek!), Gaudy Night is certainly not a page-turner.

It is, however, a fascinating look at women’s roles in the 1930s. Set at the fictitious Shrewsbury College of Oxford University (modelled on Somerville College, the women’s college that Sayers herself attended), Gaudy Night examines the life choices made by the dons and the students who reside there. Oxford University first began giving degrees to women in 1920, and it’s clear that the women of Shrewsbury are still insecure about the status of women’s education fifteen years later. When a series of poison pen letters and vicious attacks on manuscripts occur, the Dean and the “Warden” (the president of the college) don’t want to bring in the police because they fear the effects of a public scandal on the standing of the college. Instead, they ask Shrewsbury alumna Harriet Vane, renowned mystery novelist, to investigate. Harriet has recently attended a “gaudy” (a celebration much like a college reunion) there, and is persuaded to come for an extended visit.

Harriet is no stranger to scandal, having been tried for the murder of her ex-lover five years earlier (in Strong Poison) and she has successfully investigated one other mystery (Have His Carcase), which brought her further public attention. She is also the object of affection of the famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter had been responsible for her acquittal at the murder trial and has been asking her to marry him ever since.  And Harriet has been refusing – owing him her life, she cannot marry on such unequal terms.

Harriet spends much of the book thinking about women who marry and those who choose a career instead. She sees examples among her own former classmates of those who have lost themselves in service to their husbands and those who managed to maintain careers in partnership with their husbands. She also sees the havoc that romance wreaks in the lives of the young Shrewsbury students. (It’s not just the female students at Oxford whose love lives are problematic; there are some very funny encounters with male undergraduates.)  And of course she sees the dons, many of whom she greatly admires, who have chosen scholarly careers over marriage.  So it’s with great reluctance that she asks Lord Peter to, once again, help her solve the mystery.

Sayers made it no secret that she created the character of Harriet Vane in order to marry Lord Peter off and thus end the mystery series she had started twelve years earlier. How she moves their courtship along in this book is as interesting as the solution to the mystery.

The Thin Man (1934) – Dashiell Hammett

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dashiell Hammett, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries on January 22, 2019 by cshmurak

Most people hearing the title, The Thin Man, think of a classic film with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Perhaps they know that there were a series of films starring Powell and Loy with “Thin Man” in the title. Many fewer recognize it as the title of a book by the author of The Maltese Falcon.  The Thin Man was the last novel that Dashiell Hammett wrote; after 1934, the only published works by Hammett were previously written short stories.  Sadly, it’s not one of his better books.

Nick and Nora Charles, with their adorable dog Asta, are the protagonists as they are in the films, but in the book, Nora doesn’t do much. She shops at Saks, she pours a lot of drinks, she engages in cute verbal play with Nick. Nick is a former private eye, and he is the one who solves this case, though he claims he doesn’t want to get involved. Nora is a young heiress, and Nick has quit the detective business to manage his wife’s finances.  When Nora does try to put together the ‘clues’ – some of the odd things she has noticed – Nick says he’s sleepy and goes to bed.

Aside from this couple, there are few likable characters in the book. In fact, The Thin Man has some of the most unlikable women in detective fiction. Mimi Jorgenson is a lying, hysterical woman who beats her daughter, Dorothy Wynant. Dorothy is a whiny, immature 20-year-old with a hopeless crush on Nick. Then there’s the volatile redhead, Miriam, who throws a skillet at the man with whom she shares an apartment. The men include Gilbert Wynant, Dorothy’s brother, an insecure 18-year-old with intellectual pretensions, and Chris Jorgenson, the gigolo whom Mimi has recently married, and a few gangsters from Nick’s former life.

Most people assume that the “Thin Man” is Nick himself, but that’s a misconception caused by the titles of the six movies featuring Nick and Nora. It’s Clyde Wynant, Mimi’s ex-husband and the father of Dorothy and Gilbert, who is “the thinnest man” Nick ever met. Clyde is a somewhat loopy inventor, and he communicates with his lawyer Macaulay and with Nick via telegram, letter and phone messages. No one seems to know exactly where he is. When his secretary Julia is murdered, Clyde becomes the number one suspect for the police, though Nick is not so sure that Clyde is guilty. The rest of the plot involves Nick’s helping the police sort out the alibis and uncover the secrets behind the lies that just about everyone tells.

The setting is New York City during the Prohibition era. Nick and Nora, who are visiting from San Francisco, live in a spacious apartment at the Normandie Hotel for weeks at a time; the Jorgenson/Wynant household live at the Courtland Hotel. Most of the action takes place in one of these apartments and in various speakeasies. Nick and Nora stay out till 5 a.m. and think nothing of dropping in on Mimi and her children at 2 a.m. And everyone drinks an enormous quantity of alcohol. (Hammett himself struggled with alcoholism for much of his life.) The dialogue is breezy, and the story is told in Nick’s first person narrative.

The Thin Man is supposedly a “love letter” to Hammett’s longtime partner, the playwright Lillian Hellman; the book is indeed dedicated to her. (Hellmann admits that Hammett told her that the devious Mimi and manipulative Dorothy were also based on her.)  Nick is always commenting on Nora’s beauty, and the repartee between Nick and Nora is clearly a reflection of the Hammett/Hellman relationship.  I find it useful to think about this book, and the subsequent films based on it, in terms of four couples. There are the fictional Nick and Nora Charles  – he is 41 years old and she is 26. Then there are Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman; at the time the book was published, he was 40 and she was 29. Close enough.  But the people who brought the book to life were the actors, William Powell and Myrna Loy, and the screenwriters, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. When the first of the Thin Man films appeared, Powell was 44 and Loy was 29, and their portrayals of Nick and Nora Charles are witty and endearing.  Hackett and Goodrich were also a couple, married five years when the first film came out and married till her death at age 94. (For Hackett and Goodrich, the age difference was reversed, she being 41 and he 31 at the time of their marriage.) Together they wrote the screenplays for many classic films (It’s a Wonderful Life, Father of the Bride, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers etc.), and I think it’s their vision of a happily married couple that shines through the Thin Man films that so many of us love.

 

 

The Father Dowling mysteries (1977-2011) – Ralph McInerny

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on October 30, 2018 by cshmurak

The Father Dowling mysteries by Ralph McInerny must have been quite popular because McInerny’s publisher (St. Martin’s from the ’80s on) kept them in print for so many years. Yet the only major mystery award that McInerny seems to have won is a Bouchercon Life Achievement award in 1993; no single title was even nominated for an Agatha or an Anthony.

I’ve now read three of them: the first, Her Death of Cold (1977), and two later ones, Prodigal Father (2002) and Ash Wednesday (2008). I found the debut novel a little slow, but greatly enjoyed the other two; perhaps this is a series that grew better over time. McInerny was certainly a prolific author. A professor of philosophy and medieval studies at Notre Dame University for over 50 years, he wrote two other mystery series (one that was set at Notre Dame), several standalone mysteries, and many books on philosophy and the Catholic Church.

Father Roger Dowling, an expert on canon law and a former member of the Archdiocesan Marriage Court, is a recovering alcoholic who had become disillusioned with his vocation. As part of his recovery, he became the parish priest at St. Hilary’s church in Fox River, a suburb of Chicago. His close friend, Phil Keegan, is captain of detectives in the Fox River police department, and together they solve mysteries. This partnership, much like that of Rabbi Small and police chief Hugh Lanigan in Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series, allows the author to contrast the issues of mercy vs. justice and reason vs. faith. (In some of the later books, Keegan’s role is reduced and much of the police work is carried out by Keegan’s former partner, Lieutenant Cy Horvath.)

The stories are traditional mysteries, with multiple suspects, red herrings, and subtle clues. Her Death of Cold deals with the suspicious death of a wealthy widow who has left a generous gift to St. Hilary’s; Prodigal Father tells the story of a man who has left the priesthood but wishes to return to religious life as a monk in the Order of St. Athanasius, a monastery near Fox River; and Ash Wednesday describes the feud between two parishioners, one of whom takes revenge upon the other for supposedly causing a death in their family.

A few things set this series apart from most traditional mysteries: most notably, the perpetrator of the crime is not always brought to justice. As sometimes happens in the Rabbi Small series, the guilty person’s punishment is having to live with the knowledge of what a terrible thing he/she has done. A number of people in my book groups found this unsatisfying. McInerny’s use of Latin and classical references can make things difficult for readers with less knowledge than the author (and that’s most of us).  His feelings about Vatican II and the problems it has caused in the Catholic Church come across quite strongly too.

McInerny’s gentle humor pervades much of the books. The actions of the recurring characters of Tuttle, an inept lawyer, and Tetzel, a Pulitzer-seeking reporter – no first names were given for either man in the books that I read – are often hilarious.  And Dowling’s housekeeper, Marie Murkin, often lends a wry twist to the goings-on at St. Hilary’s. There are also puns: “fight friar with friar,” for example, and a major character named Agnes Lamb (!).

I haven’t seen the Father Dowling mysteries on TV, though I know that Tom Bosley, who plays the priest/detective in the series, looks nothing like the tall, slightly stooped Dowling of the books. I have to wonder if the humor and plotting of the McInerny novels were retained.