Wednesday, September 20, 2017

     A. A. Fair. Fools Die on Friday (1947) One of Erle Stanley Gardner’s pseudonymous soft-boiled PI tales featuring and narrated by Donald Lam, partner with Bertha Cool in a detective agnecy. Snappy dialogue, adequate characterisation, a nicely twisted plot, well-done ambience, and hints of noir make for a fast-moving entertainment. It’s set in the immediate post-war period with its housing shortages, and women used to independence and no longer entirely happy with remarks about good legs. The cops are disdainful of Donald Lam, but not hostile, and happy to get whatever help he gives them. Bertha Cool is irritatingly one-dimensional. The other women range from barely articulate scenery to people that matter to Lam. Ditto for the men. Even Lam, the most fully realised character of all, is a cardboard cut out with a Technicolor front and a grey back.
     Pulp fiction, but a cut or two above average. Gardner’s Perry Mason series differs only in more carefully imagined characters. **½

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Det. Chief Inspector Banks First Case

     Peter Robinson. Gallows View (1987) The first Inspector Banks novel. A number of break-ins victimising elderly ladies, a murder, a peeping tom, and eventually more violent aggro add up to almost more crime than Banks, recently moved north from London, can handle. Assorted personal and professional complications round out the story. Robinson shows us all the criminals before Banks can suss them, making the police procedure more believable. It’s clear that a combination of slogging, sifting of details, and sheer luck solve crimes and bring the perps to whatever justice can be wrung out of the tangle of motives, cross-purposes, and twisted psychology.
     Robinson’s strengths are character and setting. I’ve read a couple of other Banks novels, so I know that his private life becomes rather messy. I intend to read the remaining books in order. Recommended. I’ve also seen some of the TV series episodes. Also recommended. ***

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Cooperman investigates a scam, discovers Murder

     Howard Engel. A City Called July (1986) A crooked lawyer disappears with $2.6 million worth of his clients’ savings. The rabbi and the president of the congregation ask Benny Cooperman to look into it. The case becomes complicated when the lawyer’s younger brother dies of a stab wound to his belly. Then a homeless man who knew something dies by the same method. Finally, the lawyer’s body is discovered. Who done all this evil, and why? Cooperman tells the story as it unfolds, complete with his wry asides and random observations of his world. Family secrets, corruption in high places, and cops that either tolerate or like Cooperman make up the tasty mix we’ve come to expect in hard-boiled PI fiction. Except that Cooperman is a soft-boiled egg. You like mysteries? This one’s well crafted, but you will probably unravel; the know the knot before Cooperman does. You like well-written stories that give you vivid characters and a well-detailed world? Engel delivers. Recommended. ***

Saturday, September 02, 2017

How the other animals live

     Pat Senson. Nasty, Brutish and Short (2010) A compilation of oddball facts about animals as recounted on Quirks and Quarks, CBC radio’s science news show. It demonstrates that no matter how sure we are that we know what’s natural and what isn’t, Nature has a habit of confounding our prejudices. What’s refreshing, compared to TV, is the willingness to admit that just why animals do some of the weird things they do isn’t understood. There are a few attempts at just-so stories, mostly in terms of probable odds of survival, but without more data, most of these remain merely interesting speculation.
     I learned a lot, but very little of it has stuck. A random dive into the book reveals that alligators can move their internal airbag around, which shifts the centre of gravity, and so enables silent, almost ripple-free diving and surfacing. Which is why alligators are more dangerous than crocodiles, who have to use their feet and tails to do that, and so tend to announce their presence in the water. Or maybe alligators’ sneakiness just makes them seem more dangerous.
     A nice potato chip book which should please anybody who wants to know weird stuff about critters. Senson finishes off every mini-essay with a lame joke, which I found somewhat irritating, and costs the book ½ a star. You can find Quirks abnd Quarks podcasts here.**½

Friday, September 01, 2017

Suicide? No, murder!

     Howard Engel. The Suicide Murders (1980) The first Benny Cooperman story, and a very good one. Engel tries his hand at the hard-boiled PI style, and does pretty good job. Cooperman however is not the confident swaggerer Sam Spade, nor the ruminative Philip Marlowe, so his tone as often as not is one of wry irony. Still, the style works. We get not only an in-the-skin sense of Cooperman’s life, but also a vivid visual and tactile sense of the city. Cooperman has an eye for the telling detail that reveals character and suggests clues.
     The plot is a well done murder-staged-as-suicide. Cooperman doesn’t buy the suicide because the victim bought a ten-speed bike a couple of hours before he allegedly fired a bullet into his brain. The murderer’s motivation goes back to a decades-old murder successfully covered up as suicide. The misleading clues abound, some of the cops detest Cooperman, a couple are grateful for his leads, and Benny’s family causes him grief. A good beginning to the series, most of which I’ve read, but which I enjoy rereading. Recommended. ***

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Murder of a Chemistry prof

     Ada Madison (Camille Minichino). The Square Root of Murder (2011) We are in summer school at Henley College, one of the last remaining universities for women, which is facing momentous changes when co-education begins with the Fall semester. The most detested professor on campus, Dr Appleton of the Chemistry Department, is murdered. Dr Sophie Knowles of the Mathematics Department solves the case, mostly by handing useful clues to the cops after sussing out their relevance and thereby figuring out what other clues she needs and perhaps where to find them. The puzzle is quite good, the resolution involves the now-mandatory near-death experience of a last-ditch attack on the sleuth by the perpetrator, and a several of the red herrings lead to resolutions of sub-plots. There is the fey but practical friend of the sleuth, the macho but sensitive boyfriend, the students who should know better, the cop who’s a buddy and the one who isn’t, and so on.
      So, given a pretty good concept for setting and a plot, and the usual cast of genre-characters, how does Madison handle it? Merely average. A beach-book, you can read it with half your attention on something else. The academic setting is merely sketched, the ambience is suggested by scattered brand references, adjectives appear where they aren’t needed, the characters are vague and nebulous. Knowles is a puzzle-setter by avocation, but we don’t see any of them (it would have added a nice layer of diversion). Back when pulp fiction came in magazines, this would have been ruthlessly edited down to novella length. As it is, it’s a lazy read. Not unpleasant, but not exactly an attention grabber. *½

Thursday, August 17, 2017

George Johnston, underrated.

In 1959, George Johnston published a collection of poems titled The Cruising Auk. It went through five impression by 1964, when I bought our copy after hearing Johnston read his poems. He was charming and diffident, and so were his poems. They have been underrated, I think. The last 5 lines of “War on the Periphery” may show why. He’s watching his children grow up:

They eat my heart and grow to men.

I watch their tenderness with fear
While on the battlements I hear
The violent, obedient ones
Guarding my peaceful life with guns.

Wikipedia has a good article about him. The book is out of print. If you find one, buy it, and cherish it.