Friday, October 28, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: Skeleton Crew

This is a book of  Sayer short stories which I've probably read. At one time I know I read pretty much all of Dorothy Sayers' output. And just a few years ago I know I re-read all the short stories in one handy anthology (not this one). So in a vague sort of way, yes I recommend. Hey, listen, any Dorothy Sayers is better than no Dorothy Sayers. All except for STRONG POISON which I have no patience for because I never liked that Harriet Vane - the woman poor Sir Peter fell hook line and sinker for. I mean, really, what she put him through...

Another author (pseudonym for John Dickson Carr) whose work I read once upon a time when I was young and loved puzzles and locked room mysteries and such. But again I ask you not to ask me for details. (Hey, that's what google is for.)  All I can say with any equanimity is that I recommend John Dickson Carr and all his pseudonyms because once upon a time I was a big fan.

Don't know anything about Leslie Ford (though probably I've heard of him through John's blog, Pretty Sinister Books. But isn't this a lovely cover? Tried to find out who the artist is, but failed.

I'm a fan of the Lockridge's Mr. and Mrs. North books and have become a recent (well, last couple of years) fan of their Captain Heimrich books based on the one book I read. (Not this one.) Haven't read any others yet, but I certainly plan to. 

As I mentioned, I read all of John Dickson Carr when I was young and impressionable and always planned to read them all again. But somehow I haven't. Still, if you haven't - read them all, I mean - then you must. If you want to call yourself a vintage mystery maven, that is. The main difficulty with Carr (and his output under various pseudonyms) is that his main characters are not especially warm or cuddly or even people you'd want to know - that can be a problem with mystery series. It's not enough. in my view, to be a genius writer of puzzles. Puzzles are okay, but there has to be some likability quotient attached. 

Having said that: CASTLE SKULL is one Carr book I have recently reread and recommend highly. Especially for Halloween.

Don't know anything much about Edgar Wallace except that in times gone by his stuff was very popular and well-regarded. And I do love anything that has 'Crime Club' splashed across the cover.

Rufus King was new to me, a year or so ago, but now I'm a big fan. I've only read maybe three of his books, but plan on getting my hands on more. (Admittedly, I love the name 'Rufus' but that has nothing to do with my affection for his books. I promise.)  I love this cover because it shows two of my favorite things: skeletons and a big old house. I mean, what more could  you ask for?

I know I said I'd read all of Carr and his pseudonyms, but this one is not ringing ANY sort of bell so I will likely try to find a copy to read or re-read as the case may be. I love mysteries on boats. 

I've only ever read a couple of Helen Reilly books and I can't say I was unduly impressed. However, this cover intrigues me and how can I resist murder and a honeymoon combined? Plus, lots of people do like Reilly, so that means that there's probably something wrong with me.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books (and/or their covers), other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday Forgotten Book: THE WAY MEN ACT (1993) by Elinor Lipman

I'm not a big chick-lit fan, but even I can see that Elinor Lipman is not writing fluff. She's too talented for that. Her books are a witty barometric on, I suppose,  the day to day of millennials, pre-millennials and pre-pre millennials ( I forgot what the youngsters were called in the nineties) and how they live. Even if THE WAY MEN ACT was first published in 1993, it is very modern day in outlook or at least, that's how it seems to me looking backwards from an old lady's point of view. Truth to tell, 1993 doesn't really seem all that long ago.

Two of the Lipman books I read over the weekend actually feature characters in their late forties and early fifties, (THE FAMILY MAN and THE LADIES' MAN). But my official re-introduction to the author was THE WAY MEN ACT which features a younger cast of characters. I say 're-introduction' because I have read Lipman before. Years ago I read the well-reviewed THE INN AT LAKE DEVINE and liked it very much. But then I went to another book of hers and became disenchanted, hence my years long avoidance of her work.

But for whatever reason I recently declared myself ready to return to the fold and I'm glad I did. It may be that I am in a different place psychologically or whatnot, but I decided this past week or so to immerse myself in the world according to Elinor Lipman. Of the four books I brought home from the library, DEARLY DEPARTED, was the dud - in fact, I didn't finish it. But three out of four isn't bad at all.

Lipman has such a wry sense of humor and when it comes to modern day social behavior, her observational skills seem right on the money. She doesn't try to make her characters cute and fuzzy or even instantly likable. Her leading lady (ladies) are not faultless or perfect or innocent, they are complex modern women, warts and all. That threw me at first because I am very much of the 'once upon a time' school of boy/girl relationship story telling which generally features an engaging female waiting for a perfect ('perfect' being a relative term) man whom she will 'gentle' and settle down with.
I like that stuff when it's well done and I make no bones about it. (One of many reasons why I continue to read vintage books.) I'm very big on happily ever after. Sue me.

Anyway, in THE WAY MEN ACT, the main character, first and foremost, is the fictional small town of Harrow, Massachusetts. One of those perfectly picturesque New England towns full of eclectic shops catering to townies and tourists. There's a certain established 'look' to these sorts of towns, everyone on the street generally looks a certain way and everyone who lives there knows everyone else's business. But the truth is that these places, while lovely to look at in a picture postcard sort of way, can be intimidating to outsiders. To those that belong though, they can be a haven.

Melinda LeBlanc, at age 30, has (resentfully) come home to Harrow, tale between her legs. She is that rarity among contemporary heroines, a non-college grad with no real career path and no clue what to do next. At the moment she is a floral designer working in a shop owned by her cousin and his wife, a duo who have no sense of humor and no idea that Melinda's talents are the reason for their current success. Elinor Lipman is SO good at creating the sorts of people who are clueless about themselves.

The three main characters in THE WAY MEN ACT have all known each other since high school, though their lives have since then have gone in separate directions. Melinda, the once popular girl, shares a house with her mother, a widow who secretly has her eye on the local fish monger. Melinda's high school 'friend' Libby, a designer of unique (some would say, 'odd') women's fashions has also recently returned to Harrow to open a small boutique and pick-up the thread with a local guy with whom she believes she shared an unrequited passion back in the day. The guy in question is Dennis Vaughn, owner of Brookhoppers', a fly fisherman's paradise of a shop. Dennis was one of the few African American students back in high school and of the three or four major characters in the book, the most successfully content with his lot in life. Dennis' genius for creating fly fishing lures is well known and his shop, best-selling book and local radio gig attract fishermen from far and wide. Fly-fishing seems to be a sort of cult-like thing revered by those who indulge.

Anyway, turns out that Libby believes Dennis once ALMOST made a pass at her but she believes she rebuffed him because of his race. She now believes that she broke Dennis's heart and so has returned to Harrow to try and mend fences and give their budding once upon a time romance a fresh start. Unfortunately, Libby's beliefs are totally wrong. Dennis doesn't remember the so-called pass and/or subsequent rebuff and is hardly suffering from any broken heart.

His eye may be sort-of/kind-of on Melinda with whom he once shared a one night stand - the result of guesting at a wedding in which they both indulged in too much wine and surrendered to the general romantic vibe. At least that's the cowardly excuse Dennis uses (the old 'it's not you it's me' routine) for stepping back from any future entanglement. Naturally enough, Melinda is a bit displeased since she sensed that they might have been on the verge of 'something'.

At any rate, Melinda continues to bemoans her un-wed (at least her un-relationship) state. She, who was once the belle of the ball, is now forced to earn her living designing weddings for girls who once envied her popularity in high school. How the tide has changed. Not that Melinda isn't getting any action, she does have a now and then 'arrangement' with a guy who plays in a wedding band. But that's more a physical thing than anything else. Friends with benefits I guess you'd call it. Though the 'friends' part hardly even enters into it. Not the best side of Melinda's character I'd say. Though I must learn not to be put off by this sort of thing - young women are different these days. Get over it, Yvette.

In truth, Elinor Lipman fashions an amusing tale with wit and intelligence, not to mention a keen understanding of human nature. It's a story in which nothing much happens except that it does. Know what I mean? Though at first Melinda may seem a bit off-putting, you will soon get caught up in her life and the lives of her friends. What happens next happens naturally enough and the bumps in the road seem to occur as they do in life - with little author interference in the outcome. I do like books in which the author is absent and the tale seems to resolve itself organically.

A good read for a calm Autumn evening, maybe while sitting in a comfy chair with your feet up, a glass of wine by your side.

And since this is Friday, you know the routine. Don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's website, Pattinase to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. (Just learned that Todd Mason will be hosting the links later on today at his blog, 
Sweet Freedom )

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SILENCE OBSERVED (1958) by Michael Innes

SILENCE OBSERVED (1958) is one of the more 'normal' of British writer Michael Innes' Appleby mysteries in that there's not a lot that you have to double-think about. On my first reading, I thought that maybe it was a bit dullsville. But on my second read, I realized that maybe I was the dullard.

This is a terrific whodunit art mystery and of course, we already know (or should know) that the erudite Inspector John Appleby has hidden depths of art expertise alongside his standard depths of esoteric literary knowledge. So no big surprise here when he recognizes all sorts of arcane bits and pieces and tucks them into conversation. If you insist on being off-put by this sort of thing, don't read Innes.

Otherwise you may be in danger of falling under the author's spell, as I was from the beginning and always shall be as those of you who regularly read my blog know. There's just something about a man who speaks as if having a fine brain is an unexceptionable thing. Of course there's always the danger of elitism, but that's not a deal breaker for me if I like the character - there are much worse character flaws. Besides there's very little of that in Sir John Appleby's make-up. (He was just plain John Appleby in the early books.) Wit and a true appreciation of art (especially the old masters) are very sexy character traits - at least to me. Of course it doesn't hurt that the aging Appleby retains his oh-so-dry sense of humor.

A sign stating SILENCE OBSERVED hangs imperially on a wall at the private London club where Appleby and a character named Charles Gribble, a collector of all sorts of things including acknowledged forgeries by well-known forgers (apparently that is 'a thing') not-so-silently get into a soon to be pertinent conversation. Gribble is showing off his latest find to an unenthusiastic Appleby, when he unexpectedly makes a humbling discovery.

I don't know about you, but I love the whole idea of these stuffy private clubs to which so many men retreated in so many books from the golden age of mysteries. Yes, we ladies were excluded, but the truth is I don't think in reality we'd actually want to be members.

The Diogenes Club (Mycroft Holmes' haunt) created by Arthur Conan Doyle was the first time I can remember hearing about such places and though I knew that the doors would always be closed to me, I couldn't help being fascinated from the first moment I learned about these dens of upper class male ritual. But as usual, I digress.

Back to the purpose: As with all of Innes' books one curious thing will very often lead to another even if at first the lead is tenuous and hairsbreadth thin and seems plucked out of thin air. Often it is a result of some heavy duty mental leap frog on Appleby's part and more often than not, the reader is not exactly privy to the step by step. SILENCE OBSERVED is no different.

'Simple persons, of unassuming colloquial speech, will sometimes be heard to remark that one damned thing leads to another. But policemen are only too happy when it does. A distinguishable sequence or concatenation between events is just what they are after.'

Those 'concatenations' will get you every time.

Later on the afternoon of the same event-filled day, Appleby has a conversation with another member of his club, Sir Gabriel Gulliver (Gulliver and Gribble, one can't help thinking that Innes has terrific fun with British names), a 'Director of an august national institution' who is also some sort of connection of Appleby's wife, Judith who, as it happens, is a sculptor.

"As a matter of fact," he said, [Gulliver] "it's about Rembrandt that I want to talk to you about."

Okay. Appleby is used to all sorts of esoteric ploys and gambits. And of course this conversation will also prove pertinent when a second murder occurs.

But it is the first murder most foul later that very same night when Appleby is called away from a small dinner party at his home - a dinner party where one of the guests has failed to show up - and urged to take a hand in the investigation (Appleby does little day to day police work anymore) by the same Sir Gulliver who had earlier been expounding a curious Rembrandt tale.

A reluctant Appleby shows up at the scene of the crime, a dark and dingy shop a few blocks from the British Museum. The murder victim is a collector and dealer of books, art and incunabula. Turns out that the murder is not only connected to information revealed by Sir Gabriel Gulliver, but also to Appleby's conversation much earlier in the day with Charles Gribble.

Appleby arrives at the moment when the body is still in situ and a frazzled police Inspector is trying to make heads or tails.

Appleby turned to Inspector Parker. "Just what is the situation, Parker, and what do we want to know?" 

"Well, sir, Mr. Heffer [young man found at the scene] has some story about an old woman."

Appleby frowned. He plainly thought poorly of this as the beginning of an expository speech.

"Some story, Parker?" I don't think we can have that. It carries an implication of prevarication which isn't at all proper at this stage. I can see that Mr. Heffer is an irritating person - or at least that he is behaving in an irritating manner now. But irritated is just what we musn't get. So let's start again. "

This is the sort of thing that endears Appleby to me.

There aren't that many characters in this tale of murder, kidnapping and high level forgery but somehow, Innes manages to make you not instantly know who the killer or killers are and that to me, is a great magicians trick. There's also not a lot of exposition (except in the preliminary set-up conversations at the club) and things move along briskly to a rather exciting end.

I do have one quibble though (just to prove that even Innes hits a bump in the road now and again) and here it is: later in the tale, Appleby asks his wife to carry out an errand - something which I think should have rightly been done by a member of his staff, thereby involving her in the case and unknowingly putting her in danger. This seems off kilter to me but maybe I'm nit-picking. And besides, I never said that Appleby was a perfect all-knowing human being.

Other than that, this is one of Innes' more down to earth murder plots, totally lacking in phantasmagoria and the flights of fancy (well, except for the young woman who looks like a Botticelli Venus) the author was sometimes inclined to indulge in. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

SILENCE OBSERVED is a thoroughly enjoyable tale which should please art lovers and those inclined to want a little erudition tossed in with their dead bodies.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: PICTURE MISS SEETON (1968) by Heron Carvic

I had vaguely heard about this series over the years, but nothing that hardened itself in memory and besides, I had never seen the books in a bookstore or even, at the library. So imagine my surprise when Miss Seeton suddenly showed up in e-book form over at Amazon and at fairly cheap prices. How could I resist? I like the idea of fumbling old lady detectives if cleverly written AND with a humorous bent. (On this particular cover, you'll note that Miss Seeton doesn't appear particularly old but use your imagination.)

My suspicion is that Miss Seeton is meant to be a satirical swipe at the Miss Marples and Miss Silvers of this world and that’s okay by me. If you have an interesting take on old lady detectives and their Scotland Yard cohorts and you have a wicked sense of humor and some writing skill, then go to it.

Miss Seeton is an art teacher, semi-retired and recently moved to one of those small English villages full of crackpots…er, eccentrics. Her only weapons against the criminal element are her complete lack of street smarts, her obliviousness to what is actually happening and her trusty umbrella which she puts to good use when necessary.  She also has a bit of psychic ability (not overly pronounced) plus good visual memory and drawing ability, enough so that at some point in the series, she becomes a kind of unofficial sketch artist for the Yard. But again, I'm getting ahead of myself.

In this first book in the series, Miss Seeton has just inherited a small cottage out in the country and is looking forward to either selling it or retiring there. The story begins in London on the eve of her move as Miss Seeton wends her way home from the opera (‘Carmen’ by Bizet). Taking a wrong turn, she finds herself in a dark alley witness to a vicious murder she doesn’t recognize as murder until after she swats the killer with her umbrella and causes him to flee. Left behind is the body of a dead 'working' girl.

Since she glimpsed the killer's face and can sketch him, she becomes an invaluable witness for the police who immediately recognize the face in the drawing as a local bad guy. 

Scotland Yard Superintendent Alan Delphic (known as 'the Oracle') and his sidekick, Sgt. Ranger, are both bemused by Miss Seeton’s naivete, not to mention the quick way in which she used her umbrella. But they realize that she will be in some danger until the murderer is caught, something that has not occurred to Miss Seeton.

However, since the killer knows he was seen, he is soon after Miss Seeton, undeterred by her move to the small village of Plummergen (in Kent). A village which will soon become a hub of strange doings much to the speculative delight of its denizens.

It is apparent that the police cannot keep track of Miss Seeton in her various wanderings nor can they, also apparently, seem to keep her safe. The press too is keenly interested in the battling spinster able to rout a murderer with her trusty umbrella. To all this, Miss Seeton displays complete bewilderment - she can't seem to grasp how her backstreet escapade might interest anyone.

However, she keeps stumbling over strange people in the dark and is even kidnapped at one point (with a sack thrown over her head) to the amazement of her neighbors who take malicious delight in inventing various reasons for all the nighttime activity.

Eventually it turns out that someone in Plummergen is connected with a ‘gang’ which specializes in getting people hooked on some insidious new drug. There is also a reckless bunch of young locals intent on mischief and a would-be hero equally intent on keeping his childhood friend from falling deeper into the clutches of the wrong crowd. Not to mention, the local mystery woman who writes children's books and seems not to notice that her daughter is pretty much a juvenile delinquent.

 But is all this connected to the murder in London which Miss Seeton witnessed? Yes and no.

The cops know who the killer is but catching him is another story. In the meantime, said killer keeps trying and failing (through no fault of his own) to get his hands on Miss Seeton.

Which leads to the biggest laugh I’ve had in a very long while: somewhere along the middle of the book there is a nighttime escapade involving a supposed auto accident, the death of a young woman who should have known better, the near drowning of Miss Seeton, the disrobing of a large police constable, several cars zipping back and forth through the village – one of them a police car, lights flashing, one an open sports car in which a titled lady and her son are driving hell bent for leather, first one way then another – one of the cars containing the near naked constable holding what looks like a body – all while several busybody villagers watch the comings and goings and invent the most hilarious stories to account for the night’s events. I laughed so hard I almost fell off my bed.

In addition, the ending will come as no surprise if you've paid any attention to the particular peculiarities of a large closet (wardrobe?) in Miss Seeton's cottage. Very funny and much in keeping with the general understated tone of the book. There's no one in the world who can do understated hilarity like the Brits.

I do recommend Miss Seeton in this season of political wretchedness when a good laugh is balm for the soul. I’ve since ordered the second book in the series, just to see if the first one was, perhaps, a fluke. Stay tuned.

Since this is Friday, don’t forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's 'forgotten book' meme, this week being hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, Sweet Freedom. You will certainly want to see what other 'forgotten' or 'overlooked' books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: A POCKETFUL OF RYE (1953) by Agatha Christie

Of course I've read this Miss Marple book (7th in the series) many times over the years, but I'm enjoying it now in audible form for the first time, narrated by the wonderful actor Richard E. Grant.

Highly recommended, especially if you're (God forbid) not familiar with Miss Marple or Agatha Christie or even, Golden Age mysteries. A POCKETFUL OF RYE is as good a place to begin as any.

I don't know about you, but there's just something about Christie (no matter the mayhem involved) that I find soothing and comforting when I'm feeling agitated. And if this current election cycle hasn't agitated you then you haven't been paying attention. I also find English accents of a certain sort VERY soothing and comforting. Don't ask me to explain - it must be some kind of leftover childhood thing.

England, 1953. Living at Yewtree Lodge near London is a family which would, in Regency times, have been called 'Cits' - self-made rich folk of the slightly vulgar variety. The head of the family is shady business man Rex Fortescue, elderly and unscrupulous and altogether a bad lot. He has recently married a much younger woman, a manicurist whom he met in Brighton. (He and she are both types, certainly, but Christie was so good at categorizing with a few broad strokes.) One morning Fortescue goes off to work at the family firm, Consolidated Investments, and promptly suffers a very unpleasant death (well, strictly speaking, he dies later in the hospital, but he comes close enough in his office to call it a day).

It is wickedly amusing (if somewhat exasperating) to read how the frightened and bewildered office staff goes about prolonging Fortescue's death agony while they fumble about trying to figure out what to do for their boss who, in the meantime, is left writhing in his office. Christie could be wryly cruel when she wanted to be.

There's very little question that poor Rex has been poisoned and so Scotland Yard is on the case almost immediately. We meet the likable Inspector Neele whom I don't remember meeting before, though his name rings a bell. At any rate, the book belongs to Miss Marple even if she doesn't make her entrance until later in the story. The elderly sleuth becomes involved in the mystery in a very understated way, insinuating herself into the case in the cause of justice after the callous death of a gullible and not very bright young woman who'd once worked for her as a maid. But I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.

Let's back up. Rex Fortescue dies in hospital and during an examination of his clothing, a pocketful of rye seeds are discovered in his jacket. This perplexing clue will begin to make more sense after the second murder. But it is Miss Marple who first points out the nursery rhyme aspect. (Christie had a thing for nursery rhyme titles and tricks.)

The Fortescue family are not a nice bunch. (Their housekeeper calls them 'odious'.) So it is not an especially unhappy event when several of them are done away with. Even the unfortunate young parlor maid, ex-employee of Miss Marple, leaves a lot to be desired - her gullible stupidity offsets any sympathy one might have felt for her. There's hardly anyone to like here except for maybe one of the wives - an outsider named Patricia Fortescue, wife of Lancelot Fortescue, the black sheep of the family. And even she seems a bit drippy. Well, I mean, she's already buried two husbands, how cheerful could she be?

Rex Fortescue's young wife, Adele (30 years younger than hubby) is a blond babe with a roving eye. She is currently getting it on (when she's supposed to be out playing golf) with a gigolo (and boy did Christie know how to fashion gigolos - apparently once upon a time, this was practically a profession) named Vivien Edward DuBois. Don't have to describe him, you get it all from the name.

Second son and junior partner in absentia is Lancelot Fortescue (mentioned previously) who had until recently lived in Kenya, having gone off in a sulk to lick his wounds after a big dust-up years before with dear old dad. Left behind and still working for the family company is his older brother Percival (obviously the boys' mother had a thing for romantic literature), an unsavory sort with an eye on the main chance and not above skirting the law - so much so that Inland Revenue has their eye on him. He lives with his  unhappy wife of three years, Jennifer. There is also a Fortescue daughter named Elaine who wants to marry a man her father doesn't approve of (don't they always?) and a dizzy old aunt, Miss Ramsbottom (Aunt Effie), religous zealot and older sister of Rex Fortescue's first wife, who spends a lot of time bemoaning the morals of the younger generation.

As an aside: Only the women in this tale seem to have what you might call 'normal' names.

But my favorite name has to be, Crump, the butler. A n'er do well who is tolerated only because Mrs. Crump is such a good cook. You see, the butler drinks. But good cooks are hard to find.

There is also an unlikely housekeeper named Miss Dove who has her own unvarnished take on the family and her own secrets to hide, so she fits right in. Lots of secrets in this house and when they all begin to unravel, it's like, 'Whew!' didn't see that one coming. That's part of the fun of this book, the mind-bending revelations and also the fact that there are quite a few murders. Lots of corpses usually mean a rip-roaring Christie tale.

As to how the nursery rhyme aspects rounds the thing up, you'll have to wait and see. There is a very satisfying amount of obfuscation in this tale of greed and family madness and if the ending is not exactly what one might have wished, it is satisfying enough.

The denouement is brought about by Miss Marple's knowledge of human character - character and pattern are the major clues here, so much so that if we pay close enough attention we too will know who is behind the killings almost from the beginning. Christie was a master of the sleight of hand and she often passed the card right in front of your nose while you were busy looking elsewhere.

Preordained destiny is the key here as well as in several other Christie tales. 'In my character is my fate' - something Shakespeare and others knew quite a bit about and is something Christie obviously believed as well.  But this sort of thing seems to have gone out of fashion. Though I can't help but think that Christie and the others had it right. People will behave in recognizable patterns. They can't seem to help themselves.

This sort of character reading is probably the main reason Miss Marple was such an astute detective to begin with. Here, she is practically omniscient.

Read this book if you're in the mood for an excellent cozy mystery with plenty of clues, red herrings and Miss Marple at her sharpest. This is a book, by the way, that could also have been named, NEMESIS. For that is exactly the role Miss Marple plays, yet again.

P.S. It is interesting to note (at least to me) that the BBC or Granada or whatnot version of this particular story (done many years ago with Joan Hickson, the one and only Miss Marple as far as I'm concerned) is amazingly true to the book and very well worth watching - if you can find it.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE FOLD by Peter Clines

This book is from 2015 so it hasn't really had a chance to be forgotten or even overlooked, but what the heck I only discovered it by sheer circumstance so for me, it is an overlooked find.

You know, as much as I claim not to read science fiction hardly at all, I see that this year I've read a few and enjoyed them. So maybe I ought to stop disclaiming and shut up. Or maybe it's just that I only like a certain type of sci-fi (I know, I know, not in use anymore, indulge me) and when I stumble across an example, I enjoy all heck out of it.

THE FOLD by Peter Clines has a kind of a wild west rock'em/sock'em High Concept story-line with an intriguing main character of the sort I adore. So you not only get a seat of your pants story-line but a remarkable leading character with incredible talents essential to the plot. In other words, only he could have steered through to the eventual denouement. (Though I could have done without the love story. More about that later.)

Not that this is any sort of western, no. (Though it does take place out California way.) But it does have the vigor and color, the excitement of venturing into unknown frontiers. Even if the book begins quietly enough with a dinner invitation which almost immediately turns into a mysterious job offer impossible to refuse.

Well, actually, the book begins with one of those off-putting (at least for me) segue entries (clumsy in execution) in which we meet people who are not the main characters and something ominous happens which doesn't make any sense until later in the book. I don't like when an author does this because it is distracting and can often stop a story before it begins. But maybe that's just me. However, do not let this prevent you from reading further. Because if you do, you will have missed an exciting yarn which if it isn't turned into a movie really soon then I don't know what High Concept means.

Our hero is Leland Erikson (aka Mike) who is, at the moment, a high school teacher in Maine intent on staying below the radar. You might say that he is currently in a holding pattern, luxuriating - if you will - in day to day non-distracting routine while teaching early American Lit.

But the times they are a'changing.

Mike's friend Reggie Magnus runs a hush-hush government agency called DARPA (forgot what that stands for but is it important in a book of this kind? Nope.). He is in charge of funding various and sundry high level experimental projects. In that capacity (and because they are close friends) he shows up at the high school one day and invites Mike to have dinner with him.

During that dinner, Mike is offered yet another job of the sort uniquely suited to his special abilities. Though these offers have been turned down in the past, this time out the head of the specific project Reggie is dangling is Arthur Cross, a brilliant physicist and author of the best selling book, THE HISTORY OF WHAT WE KNOW.  Mike is coolly fascinated when he learns that Cross and his team have fashioned a kind of teleportation mechanism called 'a fold' which is, in effect, a distance hopping thing - a doorway. (Don't ask me to explain, except that it sort of makes sense when you read about it.)

At any rate, something is apparently not quite right with a project which has already cost millions and Reggie can't put his finger on what exactly is amiss. But before he hands Cross anymore money he intends to find out. To that end, he wants his friend Mike on the scene.

Long story short: Mike accepts the job and shows up at the lab in San Diego to observe and theorize. There he meets Arthur Cross who, naturally enough, questions the need for an 'outside consultant' on his very hush/hush project. He wants to know the 'why' of Leland Erikson.

'Mike took a deep breath and weighed his words. "I have some abilities that make me a worthwhile observer and theorist. Reggie's been trying to get me on the payroll for almost a decade. Your project's been the only thing he's ever told me about that interested me."

"He said something similar at the budget meeting. Could you be more specific?"

"Do I have to be?"


He sighed again. "I maxed out the only IQ test I ever took. I was given a few extra problems by the tester and she ballparked my IQ at over 180. Granted, I was under the recommended age, and it was the old Stanford-Binet, not the Titan Test or the Mega, so it isn't terribly accurate at that scale, but I confirmed the general range myself. On top of that, I've got an eidetic memory. Complete, instantaneous recall of anything I've ever seen or heard."

"You're joking."


"I thought eidetic memory was something made up for science fiction stories."

"There are a few confirmed cases, although it's tough to prove someone remembers everything without having them remember everything for you."

As you might imagine, Mike's sort of 'gifts' are double-edged swords. One of the reasons he had preferred to stay an 'under the radar' high school teacher.

However, once his observational talents are engaged at project center in San Diego, he begins to note that things are, indeed, a bit 'off' and everyone at the site is behaving oddly. Not 'oddly' as in OMG! but just oddly enough to seem, well, odd. Nothing you can put your finger on at first, but as Mike continues to interact and observe he can't help (literally) but note that things are definitely not as Arthur Cross and his colleagues would have us think.

My main affection for this book arises from watching (reading) how Mike uses his skills and intelligence in ways that a 'normal' person might envy. In this situation it is just as well that his gifts are other-worldly seeming, since a 'normal' man would probably have been engulfed by the plot and the world as we know it would have come to an untimely end.

Okay, that's all I'm going to say. Except that there are some horrifically mind-bending things going on and even when all is explained I still had questions. Well, hey, I'm no physicist. There are monsters of course. They come in later in the book at just about the time we've come to realize that a big 'uh-oh' moment is upon us. There is death and destruction and all that sort of thing. There are even bugs. There are mutants. There is general ghoulishness and hair-raising escapes. And just when you think you know what's going on, turns out that it wasn't what you thought but something else.

There is also a love story that needn't have been except that it was one way to note the one character had changed in a certain way. I can say no more since it is a defining moment.

I wasn't happy with the love angle because I felt it didn't belong and slowed the action down. I was perfectly content just going along with Mike's mental cogitations (it involves ants), getting in groove with the fanciful way he went about his cerebral business. I would almost say that the emotional entanglement didn't fit in with the character, but maybe I would be wrong. (Note:Though Mike's name is really Leland, his nickname comes from a derivation of Mycroft, i.e. Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's smarter brother. So that gives you an idea why maybe the love story seemed forced.)

Some reviewers online have noted that the ending seems like something brought in from another book but I didn't find it too bothersome other than to note that yes, certain aspects of it were almost overwhelming. And of course, this sort of over-the-top monster fest comes off as less than cerebral. But since this book is first and foremost a thriller, I shrugged off the incomprehensible.

(Having said that and just to be contrary, would someone explain to me how a Victorian physicist's fanciful equations on the likelihood of alternate realities results in the kind of monstrosity conjured up by the plot? That part of it, I admit, made little sense. But maybe it was chaos theory and that as we know can lead to all kinds of mischief.)

Believe me when I tell you that these are not major stumbling blocks. They certainly didn't keep me from continuing to read and note how much I was enjoying the improbabilities while thinking to myself - what if? Needless to say, I love a story that features a well-adjusted genius (not one given to  sturm und drang and bouts of self-doubt and obnoxiousness) - my kind of hero.

In conclusion: THE FOLD is a terrific sci-fi thriller even for those of us who might not think we are fans of the genre. It is that rarity in thrillers: a story where the main character is not a gun toting behemoth righting wrongs using heft and belligerence. (Unless you want to think of intelligence as 'heft' and I often do.) I think you will also be impressed with the author's dexterity and gift for naturalistic dialogue in the midst of chaos.

 And lest you forget, the main character is a keeper.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's website, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS (1939) by Eric Ambler

This is a slight re-working of a review I wrote and posted in 2001 and thought apropos to re-post now. Someone was very recently talking about A COFFIN FOR DEMETRIOS (Tracy, was it you?) and I thought I'd dredge this up to see what I'd thought of the novel. I'm thinking it's time for me to reread Ambler. Especially JOURNEY INTO FEAR which remains one of my other favorites of his.

I liked the first line of DIMITRIOS though apparently it is the comment of an omniscient narrator whom we, somehow, lose along the way. But no matter:

A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that chance was a nickname for Providence.

The book takes a few beats to get going and that's my only quibble, -other than that it's a pretty perfect sort of spy story - revealed layer upon layer, picking up speed as it goes along. I haven't seen the film (I think it stars Zachary Scott one of the wierdest actors - in my view - that Hollywood has ever produced), but I think I just might watch it after this.

(Note: Never did get to watch the film.)

Here's the basic story:

Mystery writer Charles Latimer (I've always been fond of the name Latimer) is exhausted; after writing a string of relatively successful books, he goes on holiday to Turkey, hoping that taking it easy for awhile might refresh him. It is an uneasy time, war is fermenting in Europe and without doubt exotic travel will soon be curtailed.

Latimer is a noticing sort of man as most writers are. He is also a curious man and it is this inchoate curiosity which gets him into trouble once he arrives in Turkey and, typically, gets invited here and there for drinks and other sophisitcated social niceties. At one of these social events, he meets the oddly voluble Colonel Haki, head of Turkish secret police and lover of British thrillers. He casually draws Latimer into a mystery telling him of the dead body dredged that very night from the river.

The murder victim has been identified as Dimitrios Makropoulos - a known criminal type whom no one will mourn. On an impulse, Latimer asks to see the body, reasoning that it wouldn't do a mystery writer any harm to see an actual victim of violence. 

Once he's viewed the body, Latimer, usually a reserved English gentleman, decides then and there to try and fine out more about the victim. What caused this particular man to be stabbed to death and thrown in a river? What were the vicissitudes of fate that wound up costing Dimitrios his life in such a brutal manner? Bit by bit, the more Latimer finds out, the more intrigued he becomes, the more he wants to know about Dimitrios Makropoulos who was not, obviously, just a petty sort of criminal but a mastermind, an international gangster of the most vile sort.

One of the things I like most about the story is how Dimitrios is shown from various perspectives, as Latimer searches out and interviews past acquaintances. There is no softening of his criminality, except a mention that Dimitrios' early life was hard - but not everyone with a hard life turns to crime with such ease. No, Dimitrios appears to have had an enormous affinity for it.

And of course, this being a novel of sinister machinations and dark doings, there will be a not too surprising revelation which will confront Latimer in his quest to get at the truth, a revelation which will almost cost him his life and teach him a hard-earned lesson about indulging curiosity.

This is all revealed in a kind of non-theatrical, pragmatic sort of way. There's not much unnecessary explanation of the criminal mind, and evil is discussed with a kind of rational resignation:

Three human beings had died horribly and countless others had lived horribly that Dimitrios might take his ease. If there were such a thing as Evil, then this man...

But it was useless to try and explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than Baroque abstractions. Good business and Bad business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo's David, Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange...and Hitler's Mein Kampf.

Good writing, that. It brings to mind the current view of and rationale for the most hideous acts in a supposedly even more enlightened age. Don't we view evil in the same way even now? Business is still all, it seems to me - what with corporate America's hold on government actions stronger than ever and the widening dominion of social  media and a seemingly smitten, indulgent press which more and more abdicates its charge to ferret out the truth unless it means higher ratings.

 New theology, indeed. Look at the upcoming election and the charlatan running for office. Trump's vile exploits are explained away as 'business' as if that, in and of itself, is explanation enough. 

At any rate, if you care to read one of the true masters of the spy genre, pick up Eric Ambler and indulge in his very well written, often prescient, novels. These guys from the past are called great for a reason.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: MISTRESS OF MELLYN (1960) by Victoria Holt

"There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances," my Aunt Adelaide had said. "One is to marry, and the other is to find a post in keeping with her gentility."

I know, I know, similar in cadence to the beginning paragraph of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, but nicely done just the same. For it tells you right away (in case you hadn't noticed the cover of a woman in her nighty running away from a mysterious castle/house) that you are in for a specific sort of book. And that is exactly the delight I take in gothic romances - that they are, indeed, a specific sort of book.

Even though I rarely read them anymore (except as rereads) I still have very fond memories of discovering the genre for myself many MANY years ago after finishing JANE EYRE and looking around for something in a similar vein. Oh yes, JANE EYRE was the first and remains the finest example of the style. Had she but known she was formulating a genre or, at least, a style of story telling, I wonder how Charlotte Bronte would have felt about it all. There's lots of the 'had she but known' thing going on in gothic story-telling, so who knows.

But Bronte owns the responsibility of having created the two essentials of the gothic romance: the penurious, strong-willed but shy and soft spoken plain-jane heroine forced to earn a living and the tall, willful, craggy-handsome hero with regrets and a bad first marriage.

I feel comfortable in saying that MISTRESS OF MELLYN will turn you into a gothic romance reader (if you aren't one already) especially if you happen to stumble across it at just the right time in your life. Of course it helps if you have already read JANE EYRE and are willing to be further enticed by romantic gloom and doom - not that Holt is the writer Bronte was, of course. But she knows how to create the necessary sinister ambience and has the knack for making her heroines likable and her heroes enigmatic.

An intelligent heroine is a given, but the key is the hero: he must never come off as a dark-browed jerk who poses in riding pants and cracks a whip. And he must always, ALWAYS be nursing a broken heart that is aching to be mended by the right sort of woman. AND most importantly, he must not be a brute. AND even if he once was, he must have gotten over it by the time the heroine comes into his life.

Gothic Romance is a phase many of us go through - mine lasted for many years and I'm happy enough now and then to revisit my favorites. I actually own a paperback copy of MISTRESS OF MELLYN as well as the hardcover (though not the first edition). It's one of those books that sort of refuses to go away.

The heroine is Martha Leigh (aka Marty to friends and family), a brave, intelligent, stalwart, plain-spoken spinster who has given up on ever having a husband. Truth is she is just too outspoken and, of course, not beautiful enough to attract a 19th century male. (Little does she know.) We first meet her as she travels to Mellyn, an eerie mansion on the Cornish coast of England. There she will be taking on the job of governess to a young headstrong girl named Alvean (she has vanquished three other governesses), at a lonely estate full of secrets. Her brooding employer, Con TreMellyn, is a handsome but stiff-necked country gentleman who has never gotten over the fact that his first wife ran off and left him and their daughter. He is not a happy man and has the money to indulge his unhappiness.

Enter Miss Leigh, the diffident red-haired governess. She almost immediately piques TreMellyn's interest, of course. That is a requisite for this sort of tale. But this interest manifests itself as annoyance, even anger.

Unaware (she's not worldly), Miss Leigh settles into her routine and begins making headway with the difficult young girl. Almost from the beginning though, she can't help but sense menace lurking within the walls of the huge house. There is something about the place that disturbs her and as she grows to like her charge and even to admire her employer, she realizes that unless the family's secrets are vanquished, Alvean's happiness (much less her father's) can never be realized.

That's always the way of course and what else is a poor inquisitive governess to do but get involved, risking life, limb and sanity.

In the end, there is a horrifying revelation as the truth finally dawns on all concerned but not before poor Miss Leigh almost pays for it with her life.

Motivation for the truly dark deeds is a bit thin, but other than that, this is a wonderful story told exceedingly well by a terrific writer who truly understands the name of the game. Holt (a pseudonym for Eleanor Hibbert) went on to write dozens of books in this genre, several of them quite memorable. Another off the top of my head: KIRKLAND REVELS.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in on author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE STAR MACHINE (2007) by Jeanine Basinger

"It's a crackpot business that sets out to manufacture a product it can't even define, but that was old Hollywood."

The luminous machine that was the movie studio system of the 1930's, 40's and 50's is gone forever. That incredible movie-making era is now the stuff of legends. But while it lasted, the system gave us stars, stars and 'more stars than there are in the heavens!'  - at least according to MGM, one of the more prolific star-making studios of the time and home to the dazzling extravaganzas that still enchant us today.

But if you had asked anyone then and now to define what exactly made a 'movie star' they would be hard-pressed to respond except to note various examples and say, now 'that person is a star' or 'that person' but just HOW that particular person personified stardom remains (to this day) almost impossible to define.

THE STAR MACHINE is not meant, I think, to be full of surprises (though there are a few), instead the book evolves in rather calm fashion as more of a biography of the extraordinary American star machine shops of the day. Shops which, with a clockwork regularity, turned out star after star, movie after movie over the span of many years. Films we consider classics today were part of this movie-making factory efficiency, evidence of the richness of talent and genius working in Hollywood at the time.

Jeanine Basinger's engaging compendium of behind the scenes stories and back-stage machinations has moments of 'who knew?' and misty 'what ifs', not to mention, bios of stars such as Tyrone Power, Lana Turner, Loretta Young, Eleanor Powell, Mickey Rooney, Abbott and Costello, William Powell, Jean Arthur, Wallace Beery and Loretta Young, among many others. (A lot of this stuff the real movie maven will have picked up along the way watching and reading about their favorite movies, but probably not all of it.)

The stars Jeanine Basinger concentrates on are purposely NOT the absolute tip-top tier of Hollywood stardom, but most of them were - at least - well known household names. The author assumes that if you want to read about first tier stars in more detail, i.e. Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe and their ilk (though they are not overlooked in the book), it is easy enough to find sources. Instead THE STAR MACHINE concentrates more on the 'how-to' of the studio process - which is fascinating. Stars that worked their way up through the system are a more interesting study, I think, than stars who were 'instant' hits. After all, it is difficult if not impossible to explain why one person shines on the big screen and another person has no glow at all.

I especially enjoyed reading the author's take on William Powell and THE THIN MAN series of movies:

'The Thin Man series is unique in movie history...At the heart of the original movie was an ultramodern married relationship. (The screenwriters were married to each other, and not enough credit has gone to them for creating the witty, sparring, modern couple whose marriage worked.) In the depth of the Depression, Nick and Nora had clothes, money, cars, and plenty of pizzazz. Watching Powell swan around nonchalantly in the Thin Man movies explains why no one can make screwball comedies today. It's not, as everyone supposes, that they can't write them; it's that there's no one to play in them. Powell fills the frame, but without seeming even to care that he's in it. While players all around him are chewing up the scenery, their entire performances coming out of their mouths, Powell cocks an ear, leans casually forward, stuffs his hands in his pockets, raises an eyebrow and steals the show.

There is no actor today who can pull off Powell's elegant thumbing of the nose at society while maintaining the sense of a man who can be counted on, a loyal, loving husband and father, but, still, a dude, an outsider. And no one can toss off a line like Powell. After Nick and Nora have a son, Charles is asked, "What's the big idea of the kid?" He replies, "We have a dog...and he was lonesome." He turns to Loy. "That was the big idea, wasn't it Mommy?" His cadence is perfect. His emphasis impeccable.,,"

Basinger is one hundred percent right, there is no actor today who can do what Powell did seemingly without effort. Actually, there is no actor today who can do what dozens of stars did then. Hollywood has evolved, and not for the better. The screwball comedy has come and gone. But thankfully we have the films online or in DVD form for us to swoon over. Of course to my mind, there are other sorts of movies that cannot be done today precisely because the necessary actors with the necessary talents no longer exist. For instance: the swashbuckler or the musical with original music (or even with borrowed music), or the goofy mystery, etc. Yes, they occasionally are duplicated or worse, 'brought up to date', but they rarely work well; precisely because the actors are imitating a style. There is nothing original going on. It's all poser-y and fakery. And of course it doesn't help that most  young actors today look alike.

But enough about my own prejudices, let's get back to the book:

One of many things I enjoyed about THE STAR MACHINE was learning how the studios selected actors in (often misguided) attempts to 'manufacture' stardom; these lucky few were 'tested' in early two-bit roles to gauge audience reaction. The audience was polled and whomever they were most excited about in the movie (sometimes NOT the actor or actress, the studio was pushing) got a nod for the next slightly larger part and so on and so forth. In a way it was almost like school. Though sometimes, as with Errol Flynn, lightning could strike and did. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, Flynn - a relative unknown - was cast as the lead in CAPTAIN BLOOD (his previous film roles had been tiny with little or no dialogue), and that was all it took. Sometimes an actor only has to find the right role (often by chance) and the rest is movie history.

But that didn't happen often and most of the time, as a matter of course, stars had to be fashioned, built from the ground up. Author Jeanine Basinger takes you behind those scenes: make-up trials and tribulations (freckles were considered a scourge, unless they weren't), costume debacles, hair-dos and don'ts and other fascinating stuff of legends. Imagine if Rita Hayworth's low hairline hadn't been lifted (electrolysis) and her hair not dyed red. She would probably have remained Margarita Cansino, type cast as a B-movie Spanish dancer till the end of her days.

(By the way, if you want to see Rita BEFORE electrolysis, catch her in a bit part as, naturally enough, a dancer, in CHARLIE CHAN IN EGYPT.)

The author also covers the lives of several actors. (you can hop, skip or jump through those depending on your mood - I simply have no interest in Loretta Young or, really, for that matter, Eleanor Powell. Though I liked Powell more than Young.) The studios then had thriving public relations units which concentrated on keeping stars and their personal idiosyncrasies looking neat and clean and appealing - occasionally failing spectacularly, as in the case of Lana Turner whose messy personal life (grimly laughable in its extremes) was a trial and tribulation to all involved. But this isn't a book about gossip. So there aren't very many juicy revelations and there is little or no mention of certain stars' sexual preferences. Though of course it doesn't stop us from wondering.

These people worked feverishly day to day, making believe, pretending emotions, having little free time to develop their own personalities and or live a 'normal' sort of life, it's no wonder some of them crashed and burned. Very few of these actors were able to break free from the prevailing system (though Deanna Durbin was one who did so successfully), hence the excess drinking, drugs and sloppy love lives I suppose. Though those excesses don't seem to have changed much, judging by the personal lives of today's actors.

In comparison to the one or two films a year working schedule of most major actors today, the old routine of movies churned out every few months is startling. Actors signed on for seven year stints then and as employees of the studio (glamorous employees, yes, but employees none the less) did what they were told. (Well, most of them did, at any rate. It was later when some of them balked that the system began to fall apart.) In the 30's through the 50's, studios churned out films on a regularly scheduled basis. These huge operations had the necessary mechanisms in place to shoot movies concurrently, lot to lot, soundstage to soundstage, shuffling actors back and forth. It is amazing to me, how many of these movies went on to become classics, considering how quickly some of them came together. But I suppose when you have a concentration of genius, talent, artistic intelligence and artistry all toiling away in a concentrated hothouse atmosphere, there were bound to be some spectacular results.

On the whole, this is a very engaging book about a time in movie making history that will never come again. I recommend THE STAR MACHINE for those of us who are nutty about old movies and consider too much information never enough. If you know what I mean.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books: THE EYE OF THE ABYSS (2003) and THE IRON HEART (2009) by Marshall Browne

I've written about these two books before, in fact, these are the links to my full reviews: here and here.

But I'm currently rereading (for the third time) THE IRON HEART, the second Franz Schmidt book and enjoying it as much as I did the first two times and so I've decided to quickly write about Browne's books yet again, this time in brief. Wouldn't want you to think I'm over-zealous or anything.

Suffice to say, I love Marshall Browne's thrillers.

What these two books are about:

It is 1939, Berlin seethes with Nazi fervor and virulence. The gloom-filled city appears as if dressed for a funeral. Down these mean streets walks Franz Schmidt, the the slightly handicapped (one eye lost to a band of brown shirted hooligans) bank auditor and hero of our tale. Small in stature, but comely of feature and blessed with luck and a natural cunning, he is the perfect double agent. Although that's certainly not what he started out to be.

(When was the last time an accountant (okay, auditor) was the hero of a book?)

After the radical life altering events in THE EYE OF THE ABYSS, Schmidt now finds himself under the shadowy protection of a Nazi higher-up, Martin Von Streck. Von Streck is a man working to foil Hitler from inside the Fuhrer's upper echelons. 'Trust no one.' is the operating motto and if one or two of the good guys are slaughtered by the wayside, then whoever is left continues the fight. (These are men who sew capsules of cyanide into the cuffs of their suits and uniforms - just in case.) Though their tactics are sometimes hard to define as 'good' - they are necessary. There appears to be no clean way to fight Nazis. Schmidt has learned that readily enough, though he is still attempting to hold true to a heroic vision of his knightly ancestors and oh, by the way, save his own hide.

Both these books would make for nail-bitingly exciting movies and, happy to say, both of them have a couple of strong roles for women. THE IRON HEART has an especially good villainess (do we use that word anymore?), a tall Teutonic bank executive (!) who salivates over Hitler and spouts things like, 'The Fuhrer wants peace!' and means it. Not to mention, she has a gusto for sex with her nasty boyfriend, a Gestapo guy named Sack who likes to dress up and slink around as his hero, Goebbels.

As slimy a duo of dangerous villains as you will ever meet.

Marshall Browne, again, manages to combine poignancy and a pulse pounding race against time not only to save a young woman from certain doom, but also to save an important Big Mission (Schmidt must take photos of certain secret plans!), and afterwards save Schmidt himself from the Gestapo. In the end there is retribution and a daring escape to Switzerland (not by Schmidt who must stay behind and continue to undermine the Reich in whatever way Von Streck sees fit.) which is so visual it's almost as if you're watching it unfold.

If you enjoy, as I do, reading books set during the years just before or during WWII, if you enjoy well created characters and suspenseful plots not to mention dark intrigue and consummate evil villains (the Gestapo! The SS!), then these books are definitely for you.

But though THE EYE OF THE ABYSS is slightly easier to find in this country, good luck with THE IRON HEART. For reasons that I cannot figure out, it is still not readily available here. Browne is an Australian writer and unfortunately not all his books are sitting in wait at local bookstores, online or in libraries. The reasoning continues to eludes me.

Really a shame, because if you can get your hands on Browne's books you'll discover a wonderful writer with an inventive mind, a knack for telling exciting stories and a gift for creating memorable characters. Grab whichever book you can find. This is one time when it isn't necessary to read them in order.

While I keep hoping for a third installment in the Franz Schmidt saga that will be available in this country, I'm not holding my breath. A while back I exchanged some emails with Marshall Browne and he hinted that a third book might be in the offing. So we'll just have to wait and see.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to head on over to author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Forgotten Film: THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1948) starring Gene Kelly, Lana Turner, June Allyson, Vincent Price, Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury

I don't do forgotten films much anymore primarily because most of the movies I wanted to write about I've already written about (or forgotten), if you know what I mean. Plus I don't have a television anymore so it seems that TCM movies are, for me, a dream of the past. Still, now and then I remember a movie that somehow I'd overlooked and so here I am today, writing about an old favorite of mine.

Lana Turner, Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, June Allyson and Angela Lansbury. La Turner looks as if she was added to the shot at some later time.

Haven't seen THE THREE MUSKETEERS in a while but it's one of those films that stays vividly in memory even for those of us whose memory is, shall we say, not exactly sparkling fresh.

When MGM (and Technicolor) was in its heyday no one could touch it for sheer over-the-top 'artistic' exuberance. Colorful extravaganzas were the studio's meat and potatoes. Even in memory, the brightness of the color stands out almost like a separate entity. Not to mention the costumes, the California scenery (mostly greenery filled studio backlots), the lively sound effects and music. And oh, yes, the actors.

You might not think so, but Gene Kelly makes a splendid D'Artagnan. Not my idea of a Frenchman, but hey, nobody's perfect. And he doesn't even have to dance in this one, except that he's so gracefully athletic and so energetic (willing to sling and swirl his body around the screen as no other actor I've ever seen then or since) that it's almost as if he's dancing anyway - just watching him move is a joy, not to mention his fencing, dueling, riding or whatever. Just a sheer manly delight.

Celebrated director George Sidney doesn't tamp down the flash since obviously he was of a mind that the more frenetic activity the better.

Based on the Alexander Dumas book (this time with screenplay by Robert Ardrey), THE THREE MUSKETEERS has been filmed many times over many years with many different actors in the cast, all with varying degrees of success. (Even the Ritz Brothers got into the mix at one point, not to mention cartoon duo Tom and Jerry.) However, this MGM version remains my favorite. Simply because it doesn't try in the least little bit to be realistic - even if there is a cruel murder in a castle prison. (And that particular scene, when it happens, seems to be happening in a different film.) Still, it works somehow because Lana Turner is really quite superb in her evilness. So evil that she is even photographed without make-up. Well, as 'without make-up' as MGM got, at any rate. Even then, she is exquisitely beautiful - especially when praying.

Oh yeah and there's a matter of the chopping off of a certain head near the end - but not to worry you don't see anything gory - just a very VERY chilling scene vibrating with portentous drama and nice costumes as two figures walk away into the sunset - one to return, one not.

Ah, the costumes (this time by Walter Plunkett). They take your breath away. Lana Turner, especially, as the villainous Lady De Winter who is in cahoots with the equally villainous Cardinal Richelieu (Vincent Price) and  struts around in gorgeous satins and feathery overkill (She, not he. Though he looks pretty spiffy in red satin robes.).

Frank Morgan as the nincompoop King Louis XIII, Angela Lansbury as his intelligent but none too heart-wise Queen and Vincent Price as the always disagreeable Cardinal Richelieu.

And Angela Lansbury as the Queen looks every bit the way a queen should look - regal and majestic even when cheating on her hubby, the King. (The plot hinges on those pesky diamond studs given her by the king and passed on by her to her special 'friend', the Duke of Buckingham (played elegantly by John Sutton).

Lana the glamorous and Vincent the vile, plotting their evil deeds.

Said diamonds must then (to save the Queen's reputation) be returned and just in the very nick of time delivered to the Queen to wear in time for the King to see them being worn at a grand court event. Phew! Lots of running back and forth between England and France.

The studs! Those damn troublesome diamond studs!

And lots of attempts by the bad guys to stop the good guys from carrying out their appointed task. I know, makes little sense, but what the heck - the Musketeers to the rescue. A QUEEN'S REPUTATION IS AT STAKE!! Remember when reputations meant something? Ah, the good old days.

The very swoony Gene Kelly sans dancing shoes.

In the beginning, D'Artagnan (Gene Kelly) shows up as a country bumpkin (complete with beret) set on making his way in the world, namely joining the Crown's musketeers and cutting a swash and buckle swath in Paris. (I believe his father had been a musketeer but not sure). By chance he meets up with Athos (Van Heflin), Porthos (Gig Young) and Aramis (Robert Coote) and before you can say, 'All for one and one for all!', he's proven himself with some well-timed rough and tumble swordplay.

Soon he's hanging out with the three musketeers (of the title), getting the lay of the land, learning the ins and outs of court life, the difference between friend and foe, the tricks of giving and/or not giving offense, and meeting and falling for the sugary sweet Lady Constance (June Allyson), the Queen's lady in waiting. And let's not forget, that he later gets embroiled in a plot to rid the King of the Queen's steadying influence and garner even more power for Richelieu.

Phew! Lots for an ambitious country boy to take in. But he's willing and able and off we go.

Of the regulation musketeers, Van Heflin as Portos is the anguished one. Well, that's because he carries heavy baggage and a cruelly broken heart. Athos (Gig Young) is the twinkly-eyed one, a dandy for the ladies. And Aramis (Robert Coote) is the older, boisterous one who's seen it all and probably done it too.

They take to D'Artagnan like ducks to water, and soon they're Three Musketeers + One, in search of a lark worthy of their talents.

Lots of fun to be had with this version, lots of visual firecrackers (you know what MGM was in those days) and lots of stars at the height of their allure. Though Price was older by this time, he was still, in a vile and evil way, alluring.

Good movie. It's a wonder to me that Neflix hasn't bought the MGM vault. But that's probably because somebody else has. Maybe Turner? I wish TCM had a streaming service. Surprised no one's thought of it.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SLEEPING GIANTS by Sylvain Neuvel

Actually this isn't a forgotten or overlooked book since it was just published this year to some nice reviews, but I'd never heard of it until I stumbled across it online somewhere - 'Forgotten (or Overlooked)' is just a loose interpretation anyway.

This is the first book in a planned trilogy, (trilogies are big now) but far as I'm concerned this can be read quite nicely on its own even if tagged with an ending that surprises and sets us up for the next chapter. Not exactly rocket science, but I am eagerly looking forward to see what happens next. (Yes, yes, I know some of you don't like this sort of story-telling, but I say, pretend it's a very thick book and you are, for some reason, only allowed to read it in thirds.)

The plot:

When 11 year old Rose goes riding her birthday bike across the landscape near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota she (and her bike) fall down a deep hole in the ground. When finally found by searchers, the girl is alive and sitting in the palm of a gigantic hand.

Many years later, the perplexing riddle of the hand has still not been solved. How old is it?What do the glowing symbols? Who built it? What is it made of? What is its function? Is it merely an ancient work of art? Are there any other parts or is the hand a singular creation?

Naturally enough, after the hand gives up a few of its unsettling secrets, the government gets involved.

Rose Franklin grows up to be a physicist in charge of the riddle. Because her childhood accident seems predestined, she is deemed the perfect person to get to the bottom of the mystery. The hand is thought to be thousands of years old and actually seems to have some sort of functionality. Soon, other parts of a colossal metallic warrior woman are found buried underground at various sites around the world.

To try and figure out the why and the what and the how, Rose is aided by three other people. Two pilots (a woman and a man) and a language expert (a man). Why pilots? Well, you'll have to read the thing to find out. I can't give you everything. Same answer for the language guy.

This seems a small band. But the metallic figure apparently has an eerie propensity for only specific humans. The whole thing is supposed to be a secret, so the less who know the better. I can say no more.

Best of all, the story is revealed bit by bit from journal excerpts, mission logs, official reports, news articles and interviews with a 'Mr. Big' - a kind of all-knowing honcho behind the scenes who may or may not be a government mucky-muck. I am a major fan of this type of story-telling and I was won over almost right away.

Canadian author Sylvain Neuvel is quick with dialogue and plot twists and turns, so that just when you think you know the what of something, it quickly becomes something else. Though there is a bit of an unexpected bog down in the middle (emotional personal baggage shenanigans), this deftly forces the plot to turn down another unexpected avenue. And yet again, another major surprise comes about two thirds of the way through and here we go again, down yet another avenue.

(And of course, where would we be without government conspiracy and behind the scenes chicanery?)

As most science fiction stories do, this one asks itself (and us) to think about The Big Picture, about things greater than ourselves, about the universe and our place in it and this time out, about the accepted history of our world. But nothing very heavy-weight, Neuvel is too bent on telling a fabulous tale.

A delightfully jam-packed thriller (remember those?), with an odd element of creep, SLEEPING GIANTS should immediately be added to your TBR list, if you haven't read it already. Even if you're not a regular science fiction fan, this fast-moving tale has just enough thriller aspects to make up for any implausibilities of plot. And the stuff you're asked to believe is not all THAT preposterous. Well, maybe just a little.

Next book in the trilogy is titled, WAKING GODS. Can't wait.

This Friday, Todd Mason is doing substitute hosting duties for FFB at his blog, Sweet Freedom.