Archive for November, 2008

Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980) – Robert B. Parker

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Mysteries, Robert B. Parker with tags , , on November 27, 2008 by cshmurak

rachelwallaceMost critics agree that the first five books in the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker are his best. Looking for Rachel Wallace is the sixth in the series, but it’s one of my favorite Spenser books, along with Early Autumn, which is number seven.

Rachel Wallace is a feminist, a lesbian, and an author whose publisher hires Spenser to act as her bodyguard after she receives a death threat. Rachel detests everything that Spenser stands for and eventually fires him. Yet when she is kidnapped, Spenser feels compelled to find her. Spenser follows a code of chivalry in which a damsel in distress must be rescued, even if she doesn’t want to be. (There are many references to Lancelot, Galahad and other Arthurian knights.) I enjoy the way Parker shows us Spenser’s discomfort with a woman who doesn’t find him or his macho ways attractive.

There is very little mystery here: it’s fairly obvious who has kidnapped Rachel. Nonetheless, it’s fun to follow Spenser on his quest. Spenser’s significant other, Susan Silverman is on hand to explain Rachel to Spenser and Spenser to Rachel, but Spenser’s sidekick Hawk is only mentioned once or twice and does not appear. (Hawk had only been introduced to the series two books earlier, so perhaps Parker had not yet figured out how valuable a character he was.)

For readers familiar with Boston, many of the place names will conjure up fondly remembered images, but a person who has never been to that city will find little sense of place here. There is, however, a witty rant about the new (in 1980) Boston Public Library facade, as well as a nice scene in which the city is shut down by a blizzard so that Spenser must go on foot for several miles to find Rachel.

There are also some painfully funny scenes with Rachel sitting impatiently through a poorly-attended booksigning and being interviewed by a talk show host who has obviously not read her book. Most authors will groan in sympathy with her even as they are forced to smile at Parker’s wit.

Looking for Rachel Wallace also reminds us how far both the feminist and the gay rights movements have come in the last thirty years. It’s a nice slice of the late 1970s as well as a good read.

Clouds of Witness (1926) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Mysteries with tags , , , on November 26, 2008 by cshmurak

clouds A renowned detective whose own brother, a Duke, is on trial for murdering his sister’s fiancé — that’s the position in which Lord Peter Wimsey finds himself in Clouds of Witness. This was the second Lord Peter mystery and the one that brought Sayers to the attention of the British public, largely because of its famous trial of the Duke of Denver in the House of Lords. (A British lord could only be tried by his peers.)

With almost too many clues, this book starts as a routine detective story, as Lord Peter and his friend Inspector Charles Parker spend their time tracing footprints and motorcycle tracks. But when Parker follows a clue to Paris and Peter begins to search the moors near the Duke’s hunting lodge, the mystery gains momentum and races to its climax in the House of Lords.

There is a lot of charm in Sayers’s writing. The friendship between Wimsey and Parker is nicely developed as is Parker’s growing attraction to Peter’s sister, Lady Mary. Sayers also depicts, with much humor, British attitudes of the times towards French manners and customs, as well as the upper class’s flirtation with Socialism (Lady Mary is member of the London Socialist Club). Some of the characters’ names are outright Dickensian, especially Mr. Grimethorpe of Griders Hole, and the trial lawyers Wrinching and Glibbery. And, as in many mysteries of the Golden Age, the echoes of World War I still reverberate. (The fiancé, Denis Cathcart, lost his fortune as a result of investments in France and Russia that disappeared during the war.)

Not the best of the Lord Peter mysteries, but a good introduction to Wimsey, his family (notably Lady Mary and the Dowager Duchess), and the usual cast of Sayers’s characters, with the unusual addition of two femme fatales.

A Shilling for Candles (1936) – Josephine Tey

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Josephine Tey, Mysteries with tags , , on November 20, 2008 by cshmurak

shillingA Shilling For Candles is the second of Josephine Tey’s mysteries about Alan Grant. Tey was not yet the great writer that she would become in the years after World War II, when she published Daughter of Time, Brat Farrar, and The Franchise Affair, among others, but there are some wonderful scenes and an intriguing mystery nonetheless.

The body of a famous actress, Christine Clay, is found on the beach near the cottage she has borrowed for a time from a friend. Her nobleman-husband is out of the country at the time, but she has been sharing the cottage with Robert Tisdall, a young man who has recently squandered a fortune. When Clay’s will names Tisdall as the beneficiary of her ranch in California, he becomes Grant’s number one suspect and then a fugitive from the law. The middle part of the book, which follows the sixteen year old Erica Burgoyne as she tries to prove Tisdall’s innocence, has the quirky charm that Tey’s admirers have come to expect; Erica is indeed an engaging heroine. It’s worth noting that when Alfred Hitchcock adapted A Shilling for Candles for the screen (as the film Young and Innocent in 1937), he chose to dramatize the Erica/Tisdall story and pretty much left out the rest of the book (including Alan Grant).

Grant’s solving of the mystery of Clay’s death is a bit more routine, with an ending that seems to come too abruptly. The actress Marta Hallard, who figures in so many of the Grant mysteries, appears for the first time in this book, and is, as usual, Grant’s entree to the world of the theatre; it’s interesting to see her introduced with little fanfare, as if Tey did not yet realize that Marta would become Grant’s longtime (but platonic) friend.

Readers who love Tey’s later books will find this early installment in the Grant series an interesting step on the author’s path to greatness.