A belated word of thanks to Hennepin County Library and its adult readers advisory group for having me speak on mysteries at Ridgedale Library in October. Howard Block of Once Upon a Crime joined me. Then in February, I presented a much more expanded version for patrons and Friends of the Library at Stillwater. The talk kicked off their "It's Warm Between the Covers" winter reading program. Topics and discussion included: the role of mystery and crime, past and present, within fiction; status and trends in the genre; plus author and title recommendations with "what to read next". I was a bit hoarse when we closed down the joint. Quite a contrast, modern Ridgedale versus the old charm Stillwater Library.
The Mouse in the Mountain ($14.00), by Dime Detective pulp short story writer Norbert Davis, is another welcome reissue of a minor classic by The Rue Morgue Press. It's also aggravating. The title seems to have nothing to do with the story. The writing is good, the story short, character sketches succinct and inspired, and the plot full of incident though perhaps forgettable.
However, this short novel from l943 remains a unique and successful blend of the American hard-boiled P.I. and humor. It's a mix that avoids self-parody, evident in Bellem's Dan Fortune or Daly's Race Williams. It largely dodges romantic humor, as in P. G. Wodehouse or the frothy mysteries of Constance and Gwyneth Little. And it hasn't the heavy drinking hard-boiled humor of Jonathan Latimer or Craig Rice. Best of all, The Mouse in the Mountain features Doan and Carstairs, one of the most appealing investigator duos in detective fiction. Doan is a short and plump California private eye. His innocent face and appealing smile are deceptive --- for he's often quite unpleasant. Carstairs feels he should receive top billing since he's "Doan's superior in every way imaginable". Cartairs is a huge fawn-colored Great Dane, with various distinctive personality traits, and a pedigree ten miles long. He does his bit for the war effort by helping train the K-9 Corps. He earns extra cash for Doan (who won him in a crap game) by, well, accommodating receptive females. He inspires awe in whomever he meets. If Carstairs and The Hound of the Baskervilles were in a Celebrity Death Match --- Carstairs would be the odds-on favorite.
Doan and Cartairs have joined a small busload of turistas heading toward the arid Mexican mountain village of Los Altos. Working for shadowy clients, Doan is to convince an American fugitive that it's in his very best interests to stay put. Though a Mexican police captain suspects that Doan may be there to administer persuasion of a more lethal variety --- and he may be right. A violent earthquake really complicates matters, cutting off the tiny village from the rest of the world. The assorted, but manageable, cast of characters includes villains, victims, and suspects. But the focus is on Janet Martin, a petite and unworldly young teacher, who's discovered the diary of a Spanish adventurer and is following a trail that leads to a 400-year-old secret.
Great word of mouth, and high praise from key mystery specialty stores (like Uncle Edgar's), has prompted the quick reprinting of the sequel, Sally's in the Alley ($14.00). The feds persuade Doan to travel from Hollywood to the Mojave Desert town of Heliotrope; a sun-baked outpost so completely offensive that neither California nor Nevada will admit it lies within its borders. It's war time and Doan must wheedle the location of a valuable ore deposit out of Dust-Mouth Haggerty, an old desert rat who figures the government built Boulder Dam just to bug him --- so he's not talkin'. Again there's plenty of humor, fast paced action, bodies, and a cast of odd but colorful characters.
Dog and detective are in only three short novels, and two stories. Bert Davis committed suicide in 1949 at the age of forty. Facts that don't provoke laughs. But in a world where there just might be one too many Sherlock Holmes pastiches, seeing more of Doan and Carstairs would be welcome, amusing, and refreshing.
Another Dime Detective contributor, and even less known than Norbert Davis, is fellow Southern Californian John K. Butler. And Butler was one of the best of the hardboiled writers. He also had a relatively short career in pulp print, though with Butler it was because Republic Pictures lured him.
Uncle Edgar's carries several of the recent Adventure House trade reprints of select pulp detective stories, including; Secret Agent 6, G-8 and His Battle Aces, Wu Fang, and Secret Service Operator 5. But I most appreciated seeing At the Stroke of Midnight ($15.95).
"Which of you guys is the hacker they call Steve Midnight --- on account of he's always in a jam when the cuckoo chirps twelve?" --- from "The Hearse from Red Owl"
Steven Middleton Knight was a young playboy-about-town until he blew all of his dad's money. Now he's a veteran Pacific Park (suburban LA) cab driver. His world is driving cab at odd hours for odd and often dangerous people. (I was reminded for a moment of Donald Westlake's early novel Somebody Here Owes Me Money). Steve's tough, but essentially sentimental. He doesn't have mystic powers, a bizarre disguise, or the miraculous escape capabilities of fellow and contemporary pulp heroes. But he can take a punch and come back throwing his own. One constant is the harassment he gets from his tyrannical and heartless dispatcher Pat Regan. Steve Midnight is an early and classic "chump in a jam".
This is the first appearance in book form for these nine long stories, with an added and extended introduction by editor John Wooley. The stories are reprinted directly from the magazine (1940-l942), and so are in column form and include various ads and illustrations. In all they clearly demonstrate John Butler's talent for pace and plotting, atmospheric details, and skill with characters and dialogue. I'm convinced it was his knack for dialogue that attracted the eyes of Hollywood.
There are several cab driver customers at Uncle Edgar's. I may not know them by name, but will recognize them and point out At the Stroke of Midnight. It would be perfect.
Since fans of mystery and detective fiction are without exception book and literature lovers, it's no surprise that the biblio-mystery forms a large sub-genre. There are books within books, books as bones of contention, enigmatic manuscripts, mysterious authors and jealous ghostwriters. There are amateur detectives in and out of print who are writers, book collectors, publishers, and book dealers. Even detective/poets like P.D. James' Adam Dalgliesh --- and he's got a badge.
But Welsh first novelist Jasper Fforde (one of those effs must be silent) literally takes the biblio/literary mystery a quantum leap further with The Eyre Affair (Viking $23.95). The leap in this hard-to-describe and uncatagorizable fantasy crossover is less a matter of distance, time and direction than a jump into another dimension.
In this alternate universe it's 1985 and Great Britain is a police state run by the Goliath Corporation. Poetry and Literature are strangely infused in the very structure of society. For instance, when the manuscript of a classic is destroyed it's as if the work never existed. Fictional characters have been known to jump out of and back into books. A man in the street can put a coin in a vending machine and get a few minutes of recorded poetry. And Great Britain is at war with Russia in the Crimea.
Hero Thursday Next is a Special Operations Literary Detective (SO-27). She has demons old and new (all spec ops who are ex-military and ex-police are slightly unbalanced). Jack Schitt is a Goliath agent and antagonist. Thursday's Aunt Polly is married to her mad inventor uncle Mycroft. Her father is a rogue time traveler, a former colonel in the Chrono Guard, who distinctly "pops" in and out of her life. Arch-villain Acheron Hades (thought dead), master of the impossible crime, commits loathsome acts purely for their own sake.
The novel's action plot and off-the-wall humor comes to a head when Mycroft uses bookworms to develop the Prose Portal. This enables an individual to bend reality and actually enter a fictional world and story. Acheron Hades jumps at the chance to enter the Regency world of Bronte's Jane Eyre and kidnaps Jane. If the world doesn't pay up he'll destroy the novel from within. Thursday chases the villain into the book and the narrative is disrupted. The Lit Tec must save Jane, but will she also fix (tamper with) the novel's somewhat unsatisfactory ending?
The invention, the skewed humor, odd characters, and unconventional --- everything means The Eyre Affair isn't for everyone. Uncle Hugo's patrons who have read alternate universe fantasy could take it in stride. In fact, I'm sure they'd love it --- but I don't know where they would hear about it, since I don't expect they will read the newsletter this far. I've been promised that author Jasper Fforde will be stopping by in a few days to autograph copies. By the time you read this they will be available. The novel was first published in England, and I look forward to the sequel Lost in a Good Book.
by Gerri Balter
It's tough enough giving up smoking when things are calm. In The House on Bloodhound Lane ($5.99) by Virginia Lanier, Jo Beth Siddens tries to give up smoking and fails. There is too much stress in her life. First of all, her violent ex-husband is out on parole. Then six law enforcement officers are coming for a week to take a course with the bloodhounds that Jo Beth and her trainers have trained. One of the officers is attracted to Jo Beth. She wonders if maybe this time she has found someone who shares her interests and isn't afraid of a strong woman. Then she is asked to find a man who has been missing for several days. The longer someone is gone the harder it is for a bloodhound to pick up the scent. While she searches for him, the reader shares his anguish as he realizes who has kidnapped him, why, and that there is a good chance he may not survive. Can she find the missing man before it's too late?
Although I enjoy all the Seneca Falls historical mysteries written by Miriam Grace Monfredo, my favorite character is Glynis Tryon. I am happy to see that in Must the Maiden Die ($6.99), Glynis is the main character. The time is 1861. The Civil War has begun. In Seneca Falls, no one is thinking much about war. One niece, Emma, who is about to be married, is having second thoughts. Her other niece, Bronwen, who arrives in a hot air balloon, has other things on her mind that have nothing to do with the wedding. Instead of helping either of her nieces, Glynis is helping Cullen Stuart, the Seneca Falls constable, investigate the murder of Roland Brant. The main suspect is an indentured servant, Tamar Jager, a young girl who is too frightened to speak. Tamar's father sold her to a Roland Brant who physically abused her. Tamar's mother is an actress who lives in the Oneida commune where people "indulge in unrestrained sexual activity" because they believe "godliness prevails in sexual activity." Tamar has found refuge with a man named Gerard who has a good reason to want to kill Roland Brant. Roland was responsible for ruining his father's life. Roland's wife also has a good motive. He took all her money and spent it frivolously and molested the young women she brought in as servants. Neither of Roland's sons was fond of their father either. Glynis is positive Tamar is innocent. Can she find the real killer before Tamar is found guilty of murder?
How would you feel if someone was murdered while driving your car? That's what Father John has to deal with in The Lost Bird ($6.50) by Margaret Coel. Another priest, Father Keenan, borrowed Father John's car and was murdered. Father John believes that he was the intended victim. While he has to deal with his feelings, his niece comes to visit him. She believes that he, not his brother, is her father. When she is attacked, he is positive the killer wants him. Meanwhile Vicky Holden is trying to help him in spite of the fact that he doesn't want help from her. While she tries to find out the truth about the death of Father Keenan, a famous movie star, Sharon David, comes to Vicki. Sharon believes she is Arapaho and that her parents put her up for adoption. Now she wants to find them. But Arapaho don't give up their children for adoption. That's what everyone tells Vicki. Then she finds out that Father Keenan had served on the reservation earlier during the time when many Arapaho children died and Sharon David was born. Is it all connected somehow? That's what Vicki and Father John have to find out.
Melanie Travis is happy when Hush Puppy ( $5.99) by Laurien Berenson begins. She is engaged to a wonderful man, Sam Driver. She has a job she loves as a teacher at Connecticut's elite Howard Academy. Everything is perfect. Until she finds out that Sam has an ex-wife who wants him back. While she tries to come to terms with her jealousy, a caretaker at Howard Academy is murdered. Even though both teachers and students don't think much of the dead man, it doesn't seem that anyone has a motive to kill him. Melanie doesn't want to become involved in finding the killer. She has plenty to do. Besides learning to deal with Sam's ex-wife, she befriends a young girl named Jane who hides out at the academy. Jane found the caretaker before his death and heard his last words. Melanie is also trying to find information that can be used to put on a Spring Pageant to honor the school's fiftieth anniversary. She begins to read a diary that belonged to one of the children of the founding members of the Academy. In the diary she finds the reason for the murder and the killer goes after her and Jane. It will take both of them, Melanie's Aunt Peg, and the poodles to outwit the killer.
In So Sure of Death by Dana Stabenow ($6.99), Liam Campbell has two sets of murders to investigate. One is the death of an entire family and their hired hands on a fishing boat. The other has to do with a young man killed at an archeology dig. In each case he has suspects in custody. The problem is that in both cases, he isn't sure he has the right suspect. If that weren't enough, he has to deal with his father who is visiting under strange circumstances and has to come to terms with his feelings for Wyanet Chouinard.
The relationship between Liam and Wy and Liam and his father are as fascinating as solving the murders. One of the most interesting things about this series besides the murders is how the reader learns more about Liam's and Wyanet's past with each novel. I can't wait for the next one.
In Bleeding Heart by Mary Freeman ($5.99), Rachel O'Connor has landed a prestigious job, restoring the grounds that belong to a famous botanist named Eloise. Eloise is in poor health. She plans to turn her grounds into a nature conservancy. Eloise has given Rachel a large check to make sure she has enough to do the job right. Before Rachel can start, Eloise is found dead under mysterious circumstances. The main suspect is April, a young woman with a past record, who lives with Eloise. Rachel is sure April is innocent and hires a lawyer to help April. Although Rachel has no intention of becoming involved in the case, someone has other ideas especially since the newspaper reports that she is working on the case. She becomes a target of someone who thinks she knows more than she does and is willing to do anything possible to keep her from talking.
All Korine McFaile wants when she goes to Savannah for the Small Landscapers Convention is to learn more about landscaping and visit her son. The last thing she wants is to be involved in a murder where she's a suspect. However, that's exactly what happens to her in Three Dirty Women and the Bitter Brew by Julie Wray Herman ($13.95). Although she goes to the convention with Janey Bascom and Janey's husband, J.J., she's not about to room with them. She is paired with Dodie Halloran who seems to take an instant dislike to her and everything at the convention. Dodie's attitude doesn't improve when Leo Gilcrest, a man Dodie is interested in, seems more interested in Korine. Leo looks familiar to Korine although she can't place where she's seen him before. When Dodie is found murdered, and her blood is found on both Korine's and Leo's clothes, they are considered suspects. Janey and J.J., a police officer, can't stay out of the investigation. They feel duty bound to prove that Korine didn't commit the murder. Not only does Korine feel that she has to prove her innocence, she also has to deal with her son who has a problem he can't or won't talk to her about. Korine has to face some serious truths about her past and her son's future in this wonderfully crafted mystery. This is the second book in the series and I am looking forward to reading the next one.
In The Twisted Root ($6.99) by Anne Perry, William Monk and Hester Latterly have returned from their honeymoon. While Monk tries to earn a living as a private investigator, Hester does volunteer work in a hospital. When Lucius Stourbridge asks Monk to find his fiancée, Miriam Gardiner, who disappeared for no apparent reason, Monk takes the case even though he feels there is little hope of finding her alive. His hope grows dimmer when he finds the body of the coachman who drove her away. The man had been murdered. When he does find Miriam alive, she refuses to tell him anything even after she is arrested for the coachman's murder. Meanwhile someone has been stealing medicine from the hospital where Hester works. One of the suspects lives near where the coachman was murdered. Could the person who had been stealing the drugs be the same person who killed the coachman? It's up to Hester and Monk to find out the truth.
V.I. Warshawski certainly goes through hard times in Hard Time by Sara Paretsky ($6.99). All she does is drive home from a party when she swerves to keep from hitting a woman who later dies from her injuries. All of a sudden V.I. is accused of killing the woman even though there is no proof. Drugs are planted in her home. V.I. refuses to let this go. She is going to investigate and find out the truth no matter what. Friends turn away. Her life is in danger. She refuses to back away even though this time it may mean her life.
Coming from the Midwest, I enjoy reading mysteries that take place in the south because the lifestyle is so different from my own. In Death by Darjeeling ($5.99) by Laura Childs, I feel as though I am actually there experiencing life in the south. The novel takes place in Charleston, South Carolina. The main character is Theodosia Browning who owns the Indigo Tea Shop. She gave up the hectic life of an ad agency vice president to run the tea shop. Reading this book gives the reader a feeling of the more laid back life she lives. When Hughes Barron is found dead, a cup of tea beside him and one of Theodosia's employees, Bethany, is the prime suspect, Theodosia's business falls off. Theodosia realizes she has to find the real killer or she might lose her business and Bethany might be convicted of a crime she didn't commit. The problem is that there are plenty of suspects, all with good motives. While getting ready for the holiday season at the Tea Shop, she investigates the crime determined not to let the killer ruin her business as well.
In Frogskin and Muttonfat ($5.95) by Carol Caverly, Thea Barlow, editor for Western True Adventures, goes to Rawhide, Wyoming to interview Kid Corcoran, last of the old time bandits. She stays in a B&B called Racy Old Ladies where each room is named after a lady of the evening who once worked there. Thea was also there to meet a man who once met a great deal to her. She needs to know if there's any hope for a future with him. Before she could meet him, another reporter was killed in her room. Did it have to do with Kid Corcoran and the lost jade that someone had stolen? That's what Thea had to find out.