Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Evil at the Root: Bill Crider


From the dust jacket:
In this latest Sheriff Dan Rhodes adventure, Bill Crider sends the small-town Texas lawman to investigate the apparent theft of a set of false teeth from one of the elderly residents of the Sunny Dale Nursing Home. The case, which begins as one merely embarrassing ("Ah ain't got no TEEF!") quickly turns serious when the owner of the missing dentures, one Lloyd Bobbit, is found suffocated with a plastic grocery bag.
The prime suspect is a fellow Sunny Daler, Maurice Kennedy, who was known to have had no love for the cantankerous Bobbit—a feud that originated way, way back in the youth of the two men. Now Kennedy is missing —but is he the killer or another victim?
A secondary plot line involves a lawsuit against the sheriff, Hack the dispatcher and Lawton the jailer regarding alleged bad conditions at the county jail. The suit accuses those three men of neglect and charges that the county does not provide prisoners with adequate area to exercise, heating, cooling, plumbing, and the roof leaks. The county does need better facilities, but the charge of neglect is obviously untrue.

I always enjoy returning to the world of Sheriff Dan Rhodes and his friends, family, and coworkers. In this book, Rhodes muses quite a bit about old age and nursing homes. He has to buy himself a pair of reading glasses, which he has been avoiding for too long. He worries about his weight. Rhodes is a widower with a 24-year-old daughter, and plans to marry Ivy Daniels, also widowed. As in the previous books, the relationship fits in nicely with the story.

Rhodes and Ivy plan to be married at the courthouse, but, at one week until the ceremony, Rhodes has not even decided on the time of day or given any thought to where they will go for a honeymoon. How Ivy puts up with him I do not know, but they are clearly meant for each other. There is a charming scene where they are looking up records related to his current case in the courthouse records and he brings her pimiento cheese sandwiches for dinner. "My favorite," she says, and it is hard to tell whether she is being sincere or not.

[A side note: Pimiento cheese is a Southern specialty, not widely appreciated elsewhere. I do not approve of Rhodes' recipe for pimiento cheese, as he specifies American cheese, not cheddar. However, I am sure I would be happy to have a pimiento cheese sandwich made by Dan Rhodes. On the internet you mostly find information about pimento cheese, but Bill Crider and I both spell it with the 2 second "i".  See this article.]

Hack and Lawton provide some comic moments when they tease Sheriff Rhodes by making him pull information out of them. Quite realistic, no doubt, but I find it more irritating than humorous. This is probably my only complaint about the series.

The Sheriff Dan Rhodes series is a cozyish version of the police procedural genre. Rhodes' detection is based more on intuition and knowledge of people than the use of forensics or databases. The fun is in following the sheriff's investigation and seeing what difficulties he runs into before the facts all fall together before the (usually) unexpected conclusion. He does tend to forget about his own safety and go out on his own too much, running into violent altercations quite often. In this case he gets beaten up pretty severely, twice, both times having to spend a night in the hospital.

Another thing I love about the series is the references to old movies and old (and new) mystery novels. Here, Rhodes falls asleep watching Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman, which we just watched in early October. His friend Clyde Ballinger, the funeral director, has a collection of old mystery paperbacks. In this book he mentions The Lady Kills (1951) by Bruno Fischer and Drive East on 66 (1961) by Richard Wormser, which I had recently read about at Col's Criminal Library. Bill Crider is an avid collector of paperbacks, mostly mystery fiction.

This is the fifth book in Bill Crider's longest running series; there are a total of 24 books, and the latest book was published this year. Evil at the Root was published in 1990, and although computers were certainly used in police investigations back then, they were not as prevalent. So I am interested in seeing how Rhodes gradually adapts to the use of technology as the books move forward.

This Friday, December 15th, will be Bill Crider Day at Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books at Pattinase this Friday. Please check out other posts there.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   St. Martin's Press, 1990
Length:      214 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Sheriff Dan Rhodes, #5
Setting:      Texas
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.
Dust jacket painting by Lars Hokanson.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge


I am joining the The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge!

I participated in 2013, 2014, and 2015, then Adam at Roof Beam Reader put the challenge on hiatus for two years while he was writing his doctoral dissertation. Now it is back.



The idea is:
1) Read 12 books that have been sitting on your TBR shelf for at least a year.
2) The books must be listed in advance and the post up by January 15, 2018. Two extra alternate titles are allowed in case you run into a title that you cannot read or finish for any reason.

I had sworn off challenges for 2018 because of doing so poorly at them in 2017, but the endless and growing TBR pile is my focus for this year. And I love to make lists.

So here is my list and we will see how well I do with it.

  • Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong [published 2000, on my shelf since 2012]
  • Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker [published 2011, on my shelf since 2014]
  • The Known Dead by Donald Harstadt [published 1999, on my shelf since 2014]
  • The Diggers Rest Hotel by Geoffrey McGeachin [published 2010, acquired 2014]
  • Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis [published 1955, on my shelf since 2014]
  • The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall [published 1965, on my shelf since 2014]
  • Brewing up a Storm by Emma Lathen [published 1996, on my shelf for a long time.]
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester [published 1951, on my shelf since 2013]
  • Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg  [published 1976, on my shelf since 2013]
  • Starting Out in the Evening  by Brian Morton [published 1998, on my shelf since 2015]
  • Night Rounds by Helene Tursten [published 1999, on my shelf since 2013]
  • A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle [published 1887, on my shelf since 2010]

Alternates:

  • Perfect Gallows by Peter Dickinson [published 1988, on my shelf since 2012.]
  • Love and Rubles by Stuart Kaminsky [published 1996, on my shelf for a long time.]


Friday, December 8, 2017

A Fatal Winter: G. M. Malliet

I read Wicked Autumn by G. M. Malliet in mid-September. Probably wishful thinking... I was hoping for some fallish weather at the time. And this is what I had to say about that book in my August - September reading summary:
Max Tudor is the vicar of the very small village of Nether Monkslip, and the star of this amateur sleuth mystery. However, he was previously an agent for MI5, so he has a bit of experience. He gets called on to help in a behind-the-scenes role when a prominent member of the Women's Institute dies during the Harvest Fayre. A bit too cozy for me, but I plan on reading more in the series.
So that is what I did. I found a copy of A Fatal Winter, book 2 in the series, because it is a traditional Christmas mystery.

Lord Footrustle is extremely wealthy but also lonely. None of his relatives, except for his twin sister, Lady Baynard, have any love for him. He lives in Chedrow Castle with his sister and her adopted granddaughter. He invites his relatives and heirs to visit at Christmas, and they show up because they want to ensure their inheritance and possibly negotiate for more. All, and I do mean all, of the family members are unlikable. Very rich, very entitled, not in touch with the real world at all. That is the setup.

On December 13th, Lord Footrustle is found in his bedroom, having suffered a violent death, which is clearly murder. Shortly after that on the same morning, Lady Baynard is also discovered dead, in her garden hothouse, but she appears to have died of natural causes. The death of Lord Footrustle and his sister so close together leads to questions of who inherits what. The visitors to Chedrow Castle are about equally divided between Lord Footrustle's heirs and Lady Baynard's heirs.


DCI Cotton of Monkslip-super-Mare is in charge of the case. And he in turn calls in his friend, Father Max Tudor, ex-MI5 operative, to help with the case. The contrived reasons to explain why the vicar's presence is acceptable are somewhat unconvincing, but this is fiction, so that did not really bother me. I liked the detectives in this book very much: DCI Cotton, Sergeant Essex and Max. There were two other fun characters, the butler and his wife, the cook. They provided suspects not in the family and an outside view of the victims and family members.

There were some niggles but they did not spoil the book overall for me. Max is almost too perfect and too hunky. Much is made of every woman being attracted to him. His love interest, who does intrude into the plot somewhat, is also perfect. The first book in the series was set in the village of Nether Monkslip and some readers missed that aspect of the series in this book. Not me; I preferred the castle and the closed circle of suspects.

The author is from the US but has spent some time living in the UK. Although I did not notice anything myself, I am pretty sure there were some cases where incorrect words and terms are used.  The author also pulls in too many references to real events and people of the times for me; I find that distracting.

But all in all this was an engrossing read. I kept wondering who did it, and that was the kind of ride I was looking for. The resolution was well done and interesting. I felt like I should have seen it coming, but I did not. The story did not have a lot of depth but was entertaining. I enjoy reading this kind of book sometimes but I would not want a steady diet of it. I will be reading the third book, Pagan Spring, because I found a copy at the book sale this year.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2013 (orig. pub. 2012)
Length:       364 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Max Tudor, #2
Setting:      England
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased this book.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Landed Gently: Alan Hunter

I read some of the George Gently books years ago, but all I remember is that the protagonist is a police inspector. Landed Gently is the fourth book in the series  and the only one that I have read recently. In this story, Chief Inspector Gently travels to Northshire to visit with Sir Daynes Broke, the Chief Constable, and enjoy some pike fishing over Christmas. Thus this book may not be entirely representative of the series.

Gently is visiting Sir Daynes for a vacation but of course he gets involved in a murder investigation. The second evening of his visit, Gently, Sir Daynes, and Lady Broke are invited to an informal party at Lord Somerhayes' home, Merely Hall. The next morning, one of Lord Somerhayes' guests is found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Gently cannot officially investigate the crime, but as a guest of the Chief Constable, he tags along for a visit to the crime scene and takes part in some interviews with witnesses and suspects. Sir Daynes actually does not want to admit that it is a crime but Gently is sure that the death was not accidental.

This mystery novel had a large cast that confused me, with a lot of red herrings. But I found the hero, Inspector Gently, very charming and I liked that Gently is an outsider in this investigation. The author's writing pulled me into the story and I was very entertained. And it was set at Christmas.

The book is prefaced by an "EDUCATIONAL NOTE"
Those readers familiar with the glories of Holkham will be in no doubt as to the source of a number of architectural details distributed about this novel. Those who are not so familiar are recommended to close this book immediately and to hasten to repair an education so gravely defective. It should not be necessary to add, but I do so out of courtesy, that the characters in the book, unlike the architecture, are wholly fictitious, and have existed nowhere except in the mind of 
Sincerely yours, Alan Hunter
And this description of the start of Gently's trip. Sergeant Dutt takes Chief Inspector Gently to the station. He is initially reluctant to go away at Christmas, but it is hard to refuse the invitation of a Chief Constable...
In spite of himself, Gently couldn't help feeling a mild thrill of excitement as he and Dutt, laden with luggage and the precious pike-rod, plunged into the icy pandemonium of Liverpool Street Station. So many people going home – going home for Christmas! There were queues at every platform and every ticket window, surging crowds of people, burdened, like himself, with suitcases, parcels, Christmas trees, everything under the sun. How could one fail to catch the spirit?
Here is some information about Alan Hunter and this series from Unbound -- UEA Archives Blog:
Written between 1955-1999, Hunter completed 46 novels across 45 years with punning titles like Gently Does It, Gently by the Shore, Gently Down the Stream, Gently Continental, Gently with the Ladies and so on. The popular BBC One television series George Gently and later Inspector George Gently were loosely based on Hunter’s novels.
...  ...
From Diss to Dunwich, Bury St Edmunds to the Broads, Gently found himself in locations across East Anglia and sometimes in London, Scotland and even Wiltshire. This is in contrast to the televised series which places Gently in Northumberland and Durham.
See Katrina's review at Pining for the West.

 -----------------------------

Publisher: Dell, 1982 (first publ. 1957)
Length:    224 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     George Gently
Setting:    UK 
Genre:     Police procedural



Sunday, December 3, 2017

Reading in November 2017


In November I read nine books; only six of them were crime fiction. In the non-crime related group, we have:

The 13 Clocks (1950) by James Thurber

This book is sort of a fairy tale, but not really. I don't think it was written for children specifically but I am sure that it has been read to many children. I am also sure I will be reading this again a couple of times before I try to write about it.

The best way to introduce this book is with a quote from the beginning paragraph:
Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn't go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart.
I am grateful to Joan at Planet Joan for sending me her copy of this book after she read it.

Northanger Abbey (1818) by Jane Austen

This was my fifth book by Jane Austen this year, which I read as a part of the Jane Austen Read All A-Long at James Reads Books. My thoughts on the book are HERE.


Doomsday Book (1992)  by Connie Willis

The first novel in the Oxford Time Travel series. I have been wanting to read this book for a while and was determined to read it before I get to Black Out and All Clear by the same author. Now that I have read this book, I will read To Say Nothing of the Dog before the other two books.

The events are set at Christmas; thus I read it in preparation for the Christmas season. I loved it.




And these are the crime fiction books I read in November, which spanned the years from 1944 to 2017.

A Patient Fury (2017) by Sarah Ward
This is the third DC Childs mystery, written by Sarah Ward.  The series is set in the Derbyshire Peak District where the author lives. I have been a fan of the series since it started and this book did not disappoint. One of my favorite reads this year. My thoughts are HERE.
Death Wears Pink Shoes (1952) by Robert James
This book is difficult to describe and I hope to do better in a later post. The events center around a motley group of tenants at No. 17 Crane Street in New York. The story and the way it is told reminds me of the Inspector Schmidt books by George Bagby. It was a very fun read.
Moira at Clothes in Books generously sent this book to me, since she knows my love for books with skeletons on the cover.
Banking on Death (1961) by Emma Lathen
This is the first in a series starring John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president of Sloan Guaranty Trust. I have been rereading books from this series of 24 books and have enjoyed each one. This one is covered in my most recent post.
Feast of Murder (1992) by Jane Haddam
The cover of this book says this is a Gregor Demarkian Holiday Mystery. The story is set around Thanksgiving and involves a holiday cruise on a replica of the Mayflower. Later the series (now 29 books long) moves away from the holiday themes and takes on darker topics. I enjoyed this book, another reread. My thoughts on this book and the series are HERE.

The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944) by Patricia Wentworth
The 7th book in the Miss Maud Silver series. James Paradine, the patriarch of the Paradine family, announces at a family dinner on New Year's Eve that he knows that one of his guests has betrayed the interests of the family. He also states that he will wait in his office until midnight to meet with the guilty person and discuss terms for handling the betrayal. Of course, by 12 o'clock he is dead. Just about everyone in the family is considered a suspect, some more than others, and one of the heirs brings in Miss Silver to clear things up.
This was the first Miss Silver book I had read in years and I think it was a very good book to get back into the series with. I found it very entertaining.


These Bones Were Made for Dancin' (1995) by Annette Meyers
This was the second book by Annette Meyers I read this year, and I like this one much more than the first one. Previously I read The Big Killing, the 1st book in the Smith and Wetzon series  This month I skipped ahead to the 6th book in the series. Leslie Smith and Xenia Wetzon are headhunters on Wall Street. Smith was a dancer on Broadway many years back, and she and a friend are producing a revival of a show for charity. The skeleton of a woman is discovered in the basement of a brownstone, and it may be the remains of one of the dancers from the original show.



Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Banking on Death: Emma Lathen

Why did I reread this book? Because the John Putnam Thatcher series by Emma Lathen is one of my favorite series of mystery novels. And why now? Because the story is set around Christmas. Very little of the story relates to Christmas, but I did enjoy all the references to Christmas, some of which I will share here.

John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president and director of the trust department of Sloan Guaranty Trust, is the protagonist of this series totaling 24 books. Most of the books are focused on one type of business that is using the services of the Sloan, and the story shares many facts about the running of the specific types of businesses. But in this first book, the focus is on the business of the Sloan, the third largest bank in the world. And the issue that starts the story is a query into the status of a small trust that the Sloan has been managing for close to thirty years.

The Sloan has been approached because a trust will soon be dispersed due to the expected death of the last living child of the man who set up the trust. The grandchildren who will benefit from the trust are trying to locate one of the heirs, who has not been heard of for many years. When the lost heir, Robert Schneider, is located, he has been dead for two weeks. There are many suspects, some in the business that the heir worked for, others among the family members who will get his portion of the trust. Why does the Sloan get involved? Because Robert Schneider has children and the institution has a responsibility to protect the rights of all the potential beneficiaries. And because Thatcher enjoys a puzzle and can't let it go.


The story starts a few weeks before Christmas but really gets moving on Christmas eve, at a lunch with Tom Robichaux, where Thatcher makes the connection between two firms that produce industrial textiles, one of which employs the missing heir.
Neither sentiment nor business prompted Thatcher and Robichaux to eat a protracted lunch at the Harvard Club each December twenty-fourth. They were merely avoiding the dislocations that the preparation of inevitable Christmas festivities at their respective institutions entailed. And, if possible, parts of the festivities themselves; Robichaux because he preferred to conduct a strenuous social life in more appropriate surroundings, Thatcher because he found office parties embarrassing and somehow pathetic.
Later there is a brief description of the Christmas holiday that each continuing character at the Sloan experienced. My favorite is Miss Corsa's holiday.
For example, Rose Theresa Corsa was forced to sandwich into thirty hours an incredible number of activities. She participated in an office party, every detail of which had to be recounted to two younger sisters; she attended midnight Mass; she rendered prodigious culinary assistance to her mother; she sat down with a large group of relatives to a high holiday feast which stubbornly combined all the elements of classical Neapolitan cookery with those of a traditional American Christmas Day dinner; and she reviewed the day's events with her closest friend, Maria Angelus. The result of this hilarious round of activity was that she failed to prepare her wardrobe for the following day and arrived at her office one hour late for the first time in four years.
I don't usually care for mystery plots featuring amateur sleuths, and finally I have discovered why this series works for me. In Whodunit?: A Who's Who in Crime & Mystery Writing by Rosemary Herbert, John Putnam Thatcher is described as a prime example of the surrogate detective.
The term “surrogate detective” is applied to characters who solve crimes yet who are neither amateur nor professional detectives. Like the accidental sleuth, the surrogate sleuth may simply have stumbled upon the crime scene, but whereas the accidental sleuth acts out of pluckiness or sometimes self-defense in order to prove who committed the crime, the surrogate sleuth feels compelled to act by applying expertise that he or she brings to the situation.
Thatcher fits this definition by virtue of his financial expertise, and he can often connect motives and behavior to business practices. Other examples are sleuths with a related knowledge of science, and journalists who can gain access to characters.

Emma Lathen's novels are often described as "dated" and this one is especially so, since it was published in 1961. When Thatcher wants to find out information about a death in another city, he sends someone on his staff to the Library to borrow all the papers for that city over the requested time frame. Certainly the world is much different now. Instead of typewriters we have computers and the internet makes information much more readily available. Secretaries have now been replaced by Administrative Assistants, acknowledging the importance of the service they provide. I would not say I want to go back to these times at all. But I like to read books, and especially mystery novels, written in earlier times. Offices, living conditions, and attitudes of the 60s, 70s and 80s are interesting. The John Putnam Thatcher series span several decades, starting in 1961 and ending in 1997, showing a progression.

I loved this book. It had been years since I had read it, and I was surprised that this first book in the series was so good. Like the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe series, all the main characters are well-defined from the beginning of the series. This book had all of the wonderful qualities that I remember, and introduces many continuing characters (Tom Robichaux, Charlie Trinkham, Ken Nicolls, Miss Corsa).  Although it is Thatcher that holds the story together in each book, the viewpoint moves from character to character, giving the reader a broad picture of the plot. Even minor characters are vividly described. To top it off, this book had a very satisfactory ending.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Pocket Books, 1975 (orig. pub. 1961)
Length:      193 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       John Putnam Thatcher, #1
Setting:      New York
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.