Category Archives: Index of Authors

A pair by James Michener

by James Michener
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1974
Genre: historical fiction
Pages: 1105
ReRead?: No
Project: 2024 read my hoard

Written to commemorate the Bicentennial in 1976, James A. Michener’s magnificent saga of the West is an enthralling celebration of the frontier. Brimming with the glory of America’s past, the story of Colorado—the Centennial State—is manifested through its people: Lame Beaver, the Arapaho chieftain and warrior, and his Comanche and Pawnee enemies; Levi Zendt, fleeing with his child bride from the Amish country; the cowboy, Jim Lloyd, who falls in love with a wealthy and cultured Englishwoman, Charlotte Seccombe. In Centennial, trappers, traders, homesteaders, gold seekers, ranchers, and hunters are brought together in the dramatic conflicts that shape the destiny of the legendary West—and the entire country.

I love a doorstopper, a sweeping epic, a long, dramatic read – and especially if it was published in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Authors like James Clavell, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, M.M. Kaye, Colleen McCullough and, yes, James Michener. I read a lot of James Michener as a teen, because my dad loved them and they were always on our bookshelves. I definitely remember reading Chesapeake, which I haven’t yet revisited, but that’s the only one I am certain that I have read. I am fairly certain that I did read Centennial, but it’s four decades on, so I can’t be sure.

Anyway, now that The Dial Press has reprinted all of Michener in kindle as well as paperback formats, I’ve revisited a couple of them and plan to continue. As an aside, these are perfect to read on my lightweight kindle because they are so huge that reading them in paperback is physically difficult. In addition, although they are a little pricy for a 50 year old book, at over a thousand pages, it’s basically like getting 3 to 4 books for one price.

This is Michener’s Colorado/wild, wild west book, which follows several characters/families from Lame Beaver, an Arapahoe chief, through the present day (which was 1976). I found it be a great read, and especially enjoyed one of the chapters about a cattle drive that brings cattle to Colorado from Texas. This reminded me a lot of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, which is one of my favorite books of all time.

I really love this style of book, and wish that there were more modern writers who were writing this type of epic story in addition to Edward Rutherfurd. Since there aren’t, I’m just going to revisit the old authors.

The SourceThe Source
by James Michener
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1965
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 1080
ReRead?: Yes

In the grand storytelling style that is his signature, James Michener sweeps us back through time to the very beginnings of the Jewish faith, thousands of years ago. Through the predecessors of four modern men and women, we experience the entire colorful history of the Jews, including the life of the early Hebrews and their persecutions, the impact of Christianity, the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition, all the way to the founding of present-day Israel and the Middle-East conflict.
"A sweeping chronology filled with excitement."

I read this one last April and never got around to reviewing it. With the Israel/Palestine conflict, it’s even more timely than it was last year. And, for anyone who is interested, the kindle version is currently on sale for $1.99 in the U.S. kindle store.

I liked this one even more than I liked Centennial, probably because the subject matter was much further away from my own historical past. I do believe that I read this one as a young adult, because there were elements that felt extremely familiar to me.

I long ago left my Christian faith behind, but I did not lose my interest in Christian history, and this book is a riveting exploration of a place that is deeply consequential to the spread of Christianity across the world. In many ways, Jewish history is world history.

I haven’t decided yet which Michener I am going to read/revisit next. I do remember really enjoying Chesapeake, so that one is in the running, but I also bought Iberia in 2016 and it’s just been waiting for me. These really aren’t books that I want to check out of the library, because it often takes me more than the checkout time to finish the book, and, as well, I expect them to have strong rereading potential.

I did decide that it was time to reread Shogun, since there is a new, lush adaptation available through FX, so that is the next 1970’s “sweeping epic” on my reading list. While I was at it, I also bought Tai Pan, which I remember actually liking more than Shogun. So, I’m heading back to feudal Japan once I finish Our Mutual Friend.

Dean Street December: Book 2

Who Killed Dick WhittingtonWho Killed Dick Whittington
by E. & M.A. Radford
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Doctor Manson #6
Publication Date: January 1, 1947
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 226
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime, dean street december

“I think you had better telephone for the police,” he said. “This woman has been poisoned.”

Norma de Grey, the Principal in the Christmas pantomime Dick Whittington, was not popular with the rest of the Pavilion Theatre company. But was she hated enough to be killed by prussic acid, during the performance itself?

Suspicion immediately falls on the Cat, her fellow actor in the fatal scene. Until it transpires that the Cat too has been poisoned – and his understudy has a solid alibi. But someone must have donned the disguise and appeared on stage incognito. Detective-Inspector Harry Manson, analytical detective par excellence, is on the case.

I had been planning on alternating a Golden Age mystery with a Furrowed Middlebrow title, but when I saw the plot summary for this one, I had to go with it as my second DSP book of the month. This was my first by M.A. & E. Radford, and I was fairly impressed.

Technically, this is a Christmas mystery, although it is pretty sparse on the Christmas details & even sparser on Christmas cheer. It’s set in a third-rate theater company that is performing Who Killed Dick Whittington as a Christmas pantomime. I’m a U.S. reader, so the British tradition of “panto” was pretty much its own mystery for me. I had to go down a few internet rabbit trails to find out more about it, as well as about the pantomime itself. I was deeply confused when the “principal boy” was a girl.

Pretty clear that Christmas panto is not going to be allowed in Tennessee, where they have outlawed performances where individuals pretend to be other than their birth gender. Isn’t reactionary America just terrific? (No. The answer to this rhetorical question is no, it is not).

I thought that the writing in this one was quite good. One of the characteristics of the golden age mystery can be writing that is a bit turgid – this is one of the things that (in my mind at least) separates Agatha Christie from the pack. Her books are so readable. There are three interludes where the authors broke the fourth wall to address the reader directly, encouraging the reader to follow the clues. I generally don’t try to figure out whodunnit, but I if someone is looking for a fair play mystery, this one would qualify.

I also loved the fact that the sleuth, Dr. Mason is essentially forensic scientist working within a rudimentary crime lab. I had no idea that the technology for a mass spectrometer went all the way back to the 1940’s, when this was written. Science is heavily used in the solution for this mystery.

I think I may have one more Dr. Mason mystery on my kindle (Murder Jigsaw – the one with the fish). Not sure when I will get to it, but I will definitely get to it.

Next up is definitely something from the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint – Babbacombe’s by Susan Scarlett.

The month so far: NF November and #NovNov23

First of all, today was clock switching day for us in the U.S., which always discombobulates me a little bit. In the fall, when we “fall back,” the discombobulation is all positive. I get an extra hour! Yay!

So far, I’ve read two novellas and finished on non-fiction book:

Hell's Half Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America's First Serial Killer FamilyHell's Half Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
by Susan Jonusas
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: March 1, 2022
Genre: non-fiction
Pages: 345
ReRead?: No
Project: non-fiction november

A suspense filled tale of murder on the American frontier—shedding new light on a family of serial killers in Kansas, whose horrifying crimes gripped the attention of a nation still reeling from war.

In 1873 the people of Labette County, Kansas made a grisly discovery. Buried by a trailside cabin beneath an orchard of young apple trees were the remains of countless bodies. Below the cabin itself was a cellar stained with blood. The Benders, the family of four who once resided on the property were nowhere to be found. The discovery sent the local community and national newspapers into a frenzy that continued for decades, sparking an epic manhunt for the Benders.

The idea that a family of seemingly respectable homesteaders—one among the thousands relocating farther west in search of land and opportunity after the Civil War—were capable of operating "a human slaughter pen" appalled and fascinated the nation. But who the Benders really were, why they committed such a vicious killing spree and whether justice ever caught up to them is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Set against the backdrop of postbellum America, Hell’s Half-Acre explores the environment capable of allowing such horrors to take place. Drawing on extensive original archival material, Susan Jonusas introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters, many of whom have been previously missing from the story. Among them are the families of the victims, the hapless detectives who lost the trail, and the fugitives that helped the murderers escape.

Hell’s Half-Acre is a journey into the turbulent heart of nineteenth century America, a place where modernity stalks across the landscape, violently displacing existing populations and building new ones. It is a world where folklore can quickly become fact and an entire family of criminals can slip through a community’s fingers, only to reappear in the most unexpected of places.

I liked this one, but I didn’t love it because there was something missing for me. I think it’s probably just the basic reality that there weren’t a lot of sources available to the author, so some of it felt like speculation, and it felt incomplete. There wasn’t much meat on the bones; I don’t really feel like I know a lot more than I would have from reading a long form article in a magazine. It’s a fast read, though, and is entertaining enough to keep me turning pages.

In PatagoniaIn Patagonia
by Bruce Chatwin
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1977
Genre: travel and geography
Pages: 199
ReRead?: No
Project: non-fiction november

An exhilarating look at a place that still retains the exotic mystery of a far-off, unseen land, Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite account of his journey through Patagonia teems with evocative descriptions, remarkable bits of history, and unforgettable anecdotes. Fueled by an unmistakable lust for life and adventure and a singular gift for storytelling, Chatwin treks through “the uttermost part of the earth”— that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome—in search of almost forgotten legends, the descendants of Welsh immigrants, and the log cabin built by Butch Cassidy. An instant classic upon its publication in 1977, In Patagonia is a masterpiece that has cast a long shadow upon the literary world.

My second non-fiction this month is shelved on Goodreads under multiple categories: travel, non-fiction, history, adventure, memoir, biography, nature. All of them fit, and, really, none of them fit. A favorite – and overused – descriptor of book reviewers is “genre busting.” Yeah, it fits here. There’s also a fair amount of mythologizing happening in this book, I think. How much of the information about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is based in fact? No idea. I’m reminded, just a little bit, of A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, although I found Fermor quite a bit more charming than I found Chatwin.

Patagonia is an odd place, though, and the thing that I did like about this book is that I feel like it did justice to the oddness. It is a place that was repeatedly colonized, and Chatwin introduces the reader to many of the different cultures that are represented there, and the effect that the geography is having upon the individuals involved. I’m not sure that a book like this would be published today, in our era of sensitivity to colonialism. The indigenous people of Patagonia are not entirely absent, but a lot more time was spent with the settlers. I kept thinking about Agatha Christie’s character Arthur Hasting and his foray into “the Argentine” as a cattle rancher, and, as well, the former Nazis who fled to South America at the end of WWII.

I don’t think I’ll be reading more by Chatwin, I didn’t enjoy this enough to make me seek out more of his books. I am reminded, though, that I want to read the other two books in Fermor’s trilogy of travel memoirs: Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road: from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos.

Maigret Defends HimselfMaigret Defends Himself
by Georges Simenon
Translated from: French
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Inspector Maigret #63
Publication Date: January 1, 1964
Genre: mystery: silver age (1950-1979)
Pages: 160
ReRead?: No
Project: inspector maigret

For the first time in his career Inspector Maigret receives written summons to the Prefect's office where he learns that he has been accused of assaulting a young woman. With his career and reputation on the line, Maigret must fight to prove his innocence.

Penguin is publishing the entire series of Maigret novels in new translations. This novel has been published in a previous translation as Maigret on the Defensive.

I have ready so many of Simenon’s Maigret mysteries over the last couple of years. This is a later Maigret (number 63, which really just seems nuts that someone could write 63 books using the same character), published in the 1960’s. Maigret is 3 years shy of the French mandatory retirement age of 55, which makes him 52 years old. It feels like Maigret was around 50 years old at the start of the series 33 years earlier, in 1931. Apparently, Simenon wasn’t particularly interested in character growth.

This is a bit of an odd one, although admittedly, I feel like I often close a Maigret and mutter to myself “well, this was a bit of an odd one.” This is probably a testament to Simenon’s skill as an author, that I don’t feel like his stories are formulaic. We are in Paris for the entirety of this book, and Maigret is investigating . . . himself. Someone is trying to set him up, and he has to figure out why. At a slender 160 pages, this was my first novella of #NovNov23.

by Claire Keegan
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 2007
Genre: fiction, novella
Pages: 128
ReRead?: No
Project: #novnov

Claire Keegan's piercing contemporary classic Foster is a heartbreaking story of childhood, loss, and love; now released as a standalone book for the first time ever in the US

It is a hot summer in rural Ireland. A child is taken by her father to live with relatives on a farm, not knowing when or if she will be brought home again. In the Kinsellas' house, she finds an affection and warmth she has not known and slowly, in their care, begins to blossom. But there is something unspoken in this new household--where everything is so well tended to--and this summer must soon come to an end.

This was definitely the standout book of the week for me. Keegan has two novellas that I’m planning to read this month – this one and Small Things Like These. She is a beautifully economical writer, and Foster was compelling, sad, and impactful. A perfect gem of a book, without a word out of place, it gave me all of the feels.

When I read a book by an Irish author, I always want to read more books by Irish authors.

A Pair of Dean Street Press titles

It’s old news at this point, but I was so sad to hear that DSP won’t be publishing anymore titles under their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. Fortunately, it does appear that the titles they already published are going to remain available.

Last year, Liz Dexter at Adventures in Reading spearheaded a Dean Street in December reading extravaganza, and I’m hoping that she does it again this year. I usually spend most of October reading scary books & mysteries, and this year was no different. However, for the fall Read-A-Thon, I decided to do something different and dip into my backlist of Furrowed Middlebrow titles. I was looking for some easy reading, and that seemed to be just the ticket.

I ended up finishing the first book, The Musgraves by D.E. Stevenson, and coming pretty close to finishing the second, The Snow-Woman by Stella Gibbons.

The MusgravesThe Musgraves
by D.E. Stevenson
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1960
Genre: fiction
Pages: 227
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

How old you can grow in three years! It is only a fraction of time but to Esther Musgrave it seemed longer than all the rest of her life put together. In three years she had become an entirely different person-or so she felt. Following the death of her beloved husband, Esther believes she will never be happy again. But soon, her "natural buoyancy" and the problems and adventures of her three daughters-difficult, unmarried Delia, cheerful and practical Margaret, and young Kate just out of school-bring her pleasure and purpose anew. The local Dramatic Club's troubled new production, the arrival of an attractive widow with a hint of scandal about her, the return of Esther's long-estranged stepson, and Kate's perilous rendezvous with a young ne'er-do-well whom Stevenson fans will recognize from her earlier bestseller The Tall Stranger -all provide drama, laughter, and joy to the reader as well as to Esther herself. First published in 1960 and set in the Cotswolds, The Musgraves is one of D.E. Stevenson's most lively and entertaining tales of family and village life. This new edition features an autobiographical sketch by the author.

D.E. Stevenson is classic comfort reading for me, which is one of the primary reasons I chose to read The Musgraves. There has never been a D.E. Stevenson book that I didn’t like, although none of them have quite lived up to the greatness of Miss Buncle’s Book for me. The Musgraves is a middling Stevenson for me, better than some, not so good as others.

I love the way that Stevenson will reintroduce characters from earlier books. This one, apparently, included a character who was a bit of a ne’er do well in The Tall Stranger, which I have not read. He is not redeemed in The Musgraves. I’m wondering if he ever gets the kick in the pants – leading to some positive character changes – in any of her later books. The Tall Stranger is available through the KU library, so I will probably pick it up at some point. I would read this one again.

The Snow-WomanThe Snow-Woman
by Stella Gibbons
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1969
Genre: fiction
Pages: 228
ReRead?: No

I suppose I was lonelier than I knew.

It's the 1960s, and Maude Barrington, now in her seventies, has kept life firmly at bay since the deaths of her three brothers in World War I. But when an unexpected visitor convinces Maude to visit old friends in France (and an old nemesis, who persistently calls her "the snow-woman"), she is brought face to face with the long-suppressed emotions, sorrows, and misunderstandings of the past. Upon her return to London, she finds her frozen life invaded by a young mother and her son (born on great aunt Dorothea's sofa, no less) who have been more or less adopted by her long-time maid Millie. And Maude finds the snow of years of bitterness beginning to melt away.

In The Snow-Woman, first published in 1969 and out of print for decades, Stella Gibbons has created one of her most complex and poignant, yet still very funny, tales-of aging, coming to terms, and rediscovering life. This new edition features an introduction by twentieth-century women's historian Elizabeth Crawford.

I have read several Stella Gibbon books, including The Woods in Winter, which I read last year during DSP December.

This is a very late Gibbons, published in 1968, but it feels like it is set much earlier than that – more in the 1940’s. This is probably because the main character has never really recovered from the death of her 3 brothers in WWI. Her life pretty much stopped in 1920, with the end of the war, and never really picked up again. She is now quite an elderly woman, having outlived most of the people she knew as a girl and a young woman.

The title is a propos, because she has been frozen in place for decades. This book is about a quite unexpected thaw, half a century later. I enjoyed it, although not quite so much as The Woods in Winter.

2023 Fall Read-a-Thon

It has been a long time since I posted anything here, but I’ve had a busy few months. There will be time to enlarge on that further, but for right now, I’m here for the fall read-a-thon. I’m in the U.S. – on the west coast – so my start time is 5:00 a.m., which means I’ve been going for almost 8 hours. I haven’t read for 8 hours, though – my general read-a-thon goal is typically to read for about 12 out of the 24 hours.

So far, I’ve finished one rather short mystery and I listened to a short story while I made lunch.

The Case of the Baited HookThe Case of the Baited Hook
by Erle Stanley Gardner
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Perry Mason #16
Publication Date: January 1, 1940
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 248
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

The bait is half of a $10,000 bill, delivered to Perry Mason by a man who promises the second half of the note should his companion, a silent masked woman, ever require the lawyer’s services. When a dead body is discovered soon after, Mason feels the hook—but how can one prove the innocence of a person whose identity is unknown?

It’s hard to believe that I’ve never picked up a Perry Mason mystery before, so I decided it was time to rectify the oversight. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and ended up quite enjoying the book. It’s very convoluted, and has echoes of a mid-century noir, but with less grit. I grabbed three others from my library when I checked this one out, and I enjoyed it enough to read at least one more, although not today.

I also read (well, listened to) The Plymouth Express, a short story that has been collected in Midwinter Murder: Fireside Tales from the Queen of Mystery.

Midwinter Murder: Fireside Tales from the Queen of MysteryMidwinter Murder: Fireside Tales from the Queen of Mystery
by Agatha Christie
Publication Date: October 20, 2020
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949), short stories
Pages: 320
ReRead?: No
Project: appointment with agatha

An all-new collection of winter-themed stories from the Queen of Mystery, just in time for the holidays—including the original version of Christmas Adventure, never before released in the United States!

There's a chill in the air and the days are growing shorter . . . It's the perfect time to curl up in front of a crackling fire with these wintry whodunits from the legendary Agatha Christie. But beware of deadly snowdrifts and dangerous gifts, poisoned meals and mysterious guests. This chilling compendium of short stories—some featuring beloved detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple—is an essential omnibus for Christie fans and the perfect holiday gift for mystery lovers.

- Three Blind Mice
- The Chocolate Box
- A Christmas Tragedy
- The Coming of Mr Quin
- The Clergyman's Daughter/Red House
- The Plymouth Express
- Problem at Pollensa Bay
- Sanctuary
- The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge
- The World's End
- The Manhood of Edward Robinson
- Christmas Adventure

I am not sure if I’ve read this particular story, because it is basically a shorter version of The Mystery of the Blue Train, and I’ve definitely read that one. Mystery of the Blue Train was published in 1928, and The Plymouth Express wasn’t published until 1939, so, although Mystery of the Blue Train was somehow published first, the notes on the Agatha Christie website indicate that the full-length novel was lengthened from the short story, which is a little bit confusing.

So far, I’ve read for 4 out of 8 hours. Time to start a new book!

Fortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War: The Levant TrilogyFortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy
by Olivia Manning
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: Fortunes of War #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1981
Genre: fiction
Pages: 548
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

It’s the spring of 1941 and the German army’s eastward march appears unstoppable. In the Egyptian desert, the young officer Simon Boulderstone, twenty years old and wet behind the ears, waits in dreadful anticipation of his first experience of combat. The people of Cairo are waiting, too. In crowded apartments, refugees from Europe wait; in palm-shaded mansions, Anglo-Egyptians wait. At night they are joined in the city’s bars and cabarets by soldiers on leave, looking for a last dance before going off to the front lines.

Into this mix enter Guy and Harriet Pringle, whose story began in Olivia Manning’s magisterial Balkan Trilogy. They have successfully escaped Nazi-occupied Greece but are dogged by uncertainties about their marriage. And, as Simon discovers that the realities of war are both more prosaic and more terrible than he had imagined, Harriet is forced to confront her precarious health and her place beside her husband.

As is often the case, while I meant to read this second omnibus on the immediate heels of finishing the first, I didn’t. I needed a bit of a break from Harriet and, especially, Guy Pringle. It took me several months to pull this chunkster off my NYRB shelf.

I am so glad I did. When I last left Harriet and Guy, they had managed to publicly shame a quartet (or so) of deeply self-centered jerks into allowing a much larger group of refugees to board their ships for Egypt. This set of three books begins with Harriet and Guy in Cairo. Guy is still bound to employment with The Institute, but there is no one there to oversee him.

The three books in this omnibus are The Danger Tree, published in 1977, The Battle Lost and Won, published in 1978, and The Sum of Things, published in 1981. Harriet and her marriage remain a narrative focus, but Manning adds a second POV character, Simon Boulderstone, a young English soldier who arrives in Egypt at the beginning of The Danger Tree. I really loved his contribution to the story, which brought verisimilitude as well as an emotional anchor to the trilogy.

The title of the first book is a reference to the mango tree which grows outside of the room where Harriet and Guy are living in Cairo. I struggled with Guy in The Balkan Trilogy. That did not change throughout these three books. I know that the entire six book cycle is based, at least in part, on the author’s experience as a young married woman during the war. How she did not punch her husband in the face will remain a mystery for all eternity.

Because Guy is worse, here. He is self-centered and pompous, barely giving his wife a thought from time to time. He has a grotesquely overblown sense of his own importance. When Harriet tries to make him understand that he shouldn’t treat her like shit, his response is basically that she is “a part of him” and he can treat himself like shit if he wants. He constantly puts her last. She should have shoved him out of a window and gone home. There were a few times that I had to rage quit and walk away.

But, even for all of this, I loved this book. It was a journey that I won’t soon forget, and I am already planning to reread it in a few years or so.

I want to close this with the Coda that Manning put at the end of the final book:

Two more years were to pass before the war ended. Then, at last, peace, precarious peace, came down upon the world and the survivors could go home. Like the stray figures left on the stage at the end of a great tragedy, they had now to tidy up the ruins of war and in their hearts bury the noble dead.

I wonder what happened to Simon and Harriet and Guy. Did they return to England and find work in peacetime? Did the Pringle’s marriage survive peace as it survived war? Did Guy ever pull his head out of his ass and figure out how to be a decent human being?

These are questions that will never be answered.

2023 Reading Journal: Books 1, 5, 9, & 12

The next round of quick updates is the golden age mysteries I’ve read so far this year: The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr; One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie; Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard and Coroner’s Pidgin by Margery Allingham.

The Mad Hatter MysteryThe Mad Hatter Mystery
by John Dickson Carr
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Gideon Fell #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1933
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 304
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

At the hand of an outrageous prankster, top hats are going missing all over London, snatched from the heads of some of the city’s most powerful people—but is the hat thief the same as the person responsible for stealing a lost story by Edgar Allan Poe, the manuscript of which has just disappeared from the collection of Sir William Bitton? Unlike the manuscript, the hats don’t stay stolen for long, each one reappearing in unexpected and conspicuous places shortly after being taken: on the top of a Trafalgar Square statue, hanging from a Scotland Yard lamppost, and now, in the foggy depths of the Tower of London, on the head of a corpse with a crossbow bolt through the heart. Amateur detective and lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell is on the case, and when the dead man is identified as the nephew of the collector, he discovers that the connections underlying the bizarre and puzzling crimes may be more intimate than initially expected.

This was my first book of the year. I’ve read several others by John Dickson Carr, and I pretty much always enjoy them. This was not a “locked room” mystery, which is his specialty, and wasn’t as good as The Hollow Man, which seems to be the acknowledged masterpiece, and which I rated a full five stars. The Mad Hatter Mystery is set in London, and is the second in his Gideon Fell series; Gideon Fell, for some reason that I can’t really explain, sort of reminds me of Nero Wolfe, although he is modeled on G.K. Chesterton. This one has quite a twist at the end, that I wasn’t expecting. I read the American Mystery Classics edition, published by Otto Penzler’s press.

One, Two, Buckle My ShoeOne, Two, Buckle My Shoe
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Hercule Poirot #20
Publication Date: November 1, 1940
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 224
ReRead?: Yes
Project: appointment with agatha

Even the great Poirot harbours a deep and abiding fear of the dentist, so it is with trepidation that he arrives at the celebrated Dr Morley’s surgery for an examination.
Yet even Poirot couldn’t have guessed that only hours later he would be examining the dentist, dead in his surgery – an apparent suicide.

Why would a successful dentist choose to kill himself on such a busy day? Poirot turns to the other patients for answers – but only finds other, darker questions.

This one of those Christie mysteries that gets better every time I read it. It’s not her strongest work, and the first time I read it, I was actually not that impressed. It has improved on reread. I enjoyed the political element, and thought that Christie did a good job of portraying privileged individuals who believe – and are treated as though – they are above the law. Given the political realities in both my home country of the U.S., and in the British government, this seems to be a depressingly accurate depiction of power and the people who wield it.

Murder's a SwineMurder's a Swine
by Nap Lombard
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1943
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 280
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

“I should imagine this was murder, too, because it would be very difficult to build yourself into a heap of sandbags and then die…”

In the blackout conditions of a wintry London night, amateur sleuth Agnes Kinghof and a young air-raid warden have stumbled upon a corpse stowed in the walls of their street’s bomb shelter. As the police begin their investigation, the night is interrupted once again when Agnes’s upstairs neighbor Mrs Sibley is terrorized by the sight of a grisly pig’s head at her fourth-floor window. With the discovery of more sinister threats mysteriously signed ‘Pig-sticker’, Agnes and her husband Andrew – unable to resist a good mystery – begin their investigation to deduce the identity of a villain living amongst the tenants of their block of flats.

A witty and light-hearted mystery full of intriguing period detail, this rare gem of Golden Age crime returns to print for the first time since its publication in 1943.

This book was so much fun – one of the best BLCC reissues that I’ve read. It is set in 1943, in London during the earliest part of the war, with the victim found in an air raid shelter among the sandbags. The main “sleuths” are a married couple, Agnes and Andrew Kinghof, with some of the same sparkle as Tommy and Tuppence or Nick and Nora (note the name alliteration, which seems to be a requirement). The killer taunts and scares his/her victims before murdering them by wearing a pig’s mask and appearing in windows before the murders; it’s a bit disturbing. There are motives aplenty. Overall, I really enjoyed this golden age mystery.

Coroner's PigeonCoroner's Pigeon
by Margery Allingham
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Albert Campion #12
Publication Date: October 1, 1945
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 241
ReRead?: No

World War II is limping to a close and private detective Albert Campion has just returned from years abroad on a secret mission. Relaxing in his bath before rushing back to the country, and to the arms of his wife, Amanda, Campion is disturbed when his servant, Lugg, and a lady of unmistakably aristocratic bearing appear in his flat carrying the corpse of a woman.

The reluctant Campion is forced to put his powers of detection to work as he is drawn deeper into the case, and into the eccentric Caradocs household, dealing with murder, treason, grand larceny, and the mysterious disappearance of some very valuable art.

I always want to like the Campion mysteries more than I actually like the Campion mysteries. I find Allingham’s plots to be convoluted and sometimes difficult to follow, although I do like her characters. I think that if I can just get a handle on the series, I will enjoy it more. I’ve been reading them out of order, and I’m wondering if it might be better to back up and start at the beginning – this was 12th in the series, and maybe that’s why I tend to struggle a bit. I have read The Crime at Black Dudley, which is nominally first in series, but barely includes Campion. When I dive back into this series, it will be with Book 2, Mystery Mile, and I’ll see if I make any headway.

Marple: Twelve New Mysteries by Various Authors

Marple: Twelve New MysteriesMarple: Twelve New Mysteries
by Alyssa Cole, Dreda Say Mitchell, Elly Griffiths, Jean Kwok, Karen McManus, Kate Mosse, Leigh Bardugo, Lucy Foley, Naomi Alderman, Natalie Haynes, Ruth Ware, Val McDermid
Rating: ★★
Publication Date: September 13, 2022
Genre: short stories
Pages: 384
ReRead?: No

A brand-new collection of short stories featuring the Queen of Mystery’s legendary detective Jane Marple, penned by twelve remarkable bestselling and acclaimed authors.

This collection of a dozen original short stories, all featuring Jane Marple, will introduce the character to a whole new generation. Each author reimagines Agatha Christie’s Marple through their own unique perspective while staying true to the hallmarks of a traditional mystery.

Miss Marple was first introduced to readers in a story Agatha Christie wrote for The Royal Magazine in 1927 and made her first appearance in a full-length novel in 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage. It has been 45 years since Agatha Christie’s last Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, was published posthumously in 1976, and this collection of ingenious new stories by twelve Christie devotees will be a timely reminder why Jane Marple remains the most famous fictional female detective of all time.

Whew. I am not going to lie – this was a slog.

Let me explain.

I’m an Agatha Christie fan – I’ve read all of her full-length mysteries at least once, and most more than once. I’ve read much of her short fiction; I’ve read The Mysterious Mr. Quin and Parker Pyne Investigates; I read, and loved, the linked Poirot anthology, The Labours of Hercules, and the linked Marple Anthology, The Thirteen Problems, and the Tommy & Tuppence short stories collected in Partners in Crime. I haven’t read every single Poirot or Marple story, but there are only a handful left that remain unread.

So, I feel like I know Agatha. She’s a friend of mine.

Half of the stories in this book are not worthy of publication in any way associated with her name. From best to worst: The Mystery of the Acid Soil by Kate Mosse was excellent. It was a believable Marple story. It actually made me want to read more by Kate Mosse, as she was unknown to me.

Val McDermid’s The Second Murder at the Vicarage and Elly Griffith’s The Villa Rosa were both well done. I felt like McDermid, in particular, really accepted the challenge of writing a Marple story with an appropriate amount of respect and love for the source material. In addition, the Vicar – Len – and his wife – Griselda – are two of my favorite characters from the Christieverse, and she did right by them. Griffith’s story was set at a luxury resort on the Amalfi Coast and I thought it was really fun and well done.

The third tier stories were the contributions by Natalie Haynes, Jean Kwok and Dreda Say Mitchell. Each of them had elements worked. They were fine. There was a lot of hauling an aged Marple around continents in this anthology – and the Kwok story had her on a cruise to Hong Kong. It also had two of the best placed Marple-ish clues in the entire anthology.

Now we come to the fourth tier: Lucy Foley and Ruth Ware. Ruth Ware’s story, Miss Marple’s Christmas, shamelessly stole its plot from a Dorothy Sayers/Peter Wimsey short story. She acknowledged it, but still. Lucy Foley’s story, on the other hand, has Marple acting like an idiot with a non-functioning sense of self-preservation, which is not how Jane Marple would ever act.

But, it gets worse from there. The only resemblance that the final four stories bore to a Marple mystery was that they included the word “Marple” and there was a mystery. They were irredeemably bad. I don’t have an issue with YA, and I have enjoyed books by both Karen McManus and Leigh Bardugo, but their stories were horrid. McManus’s story might not have been bad, if it hadn’t involved Jane Marple and if it had been in a YA mystery anthology. Bardugo’s story was the worst piece of fiction in the book, and that’s saying something, because Alyssa Cole’s Miss Marple Takes Manhattan was truly terrible. And Naomi Alderman’s story was better written than some of the others, but it had a plot hole the size of Greenland.

So, overall, if you are actually a fan of Miss Marple, I would give this anthology a miss. It’s a publisher’s money grab and I’m surprised that the estate of Agatha Christie approved publication.

My Vintage Mystery Series: Volume 2

Inspector Henry Tibbet by Patricia Moyes

Why I read it: I first started reading this series years ago, when I picked one up at the UBS. Which one is lost to the sands of time. The first book was published in 1959.

C.I.D. Inspector Henry Tibbets, with his famous “nose” for crime, and his wife Emmy are a delightful pair. The series makes use of their travels – so far, I’ve accompanied them to a posh ski resort in the Italian Alps, a rustic resort on a Caribbean island, an international drug conference in Switzerland, and Emmy’s 20th WAAF reunion. I’ve been collecting the paperbacks as I find them, and I’m up to book 7, Murder Fantastical, which is sitting on my shelf waiting for me.

The Inspector Luke Thanet series by Dorothy Simpson.

Why I read it: I don’t remember how I found this series. I may have picked up an old paperback at the UBS and then, after reading it, found the series was available as some kindle reissues at my local library. The first book was published in 1980, when I was in the 9th grade, but I didn’t read it until the last few years.

The main character is Luke Thanet, a British police inspector. It’s set in Kent, England, and has a total of 15 entries, the last having been published in 1999. Thanet has a sidekick, Sgt. Lineham, who helps him with his investigations. In addition, Luke’s wife, Joan, and his two children feature prominently in the books and they provide an interesting sociological review of changing marriages and mores during a time when women were more actively entering the full-time workforce. Joan is hired as a probation officer in the third book, and Luke occasionally ruminates on how much his internal male compass struggles with having a wife who has interests beyond home and family (i.e., beyond him).

Inspector Banks by Peter Robinson

Why I read it: It might be a little bit of an overstatement to say that I “read” this series, when I’ve actually only read the first book, and that only a few weeks ago. But, Inspector Banks has been on my radar for a while, and I enjoyed the first book enough to check out the next two. Gallows View was published in 1987, and there are a total of 27 books, with a 28th to be published in April. In fact, it’s probably a bit of a misnomer to even call this “vintage” at this point. Although, 1987 was a looong time ago, and it therefore feels pretty vintage to me.


The Richard Jury series by Martha Grimes

Why I read it: I started reading Richard Jury in high school – my mom read the mass market paperback editions, and I would read them after she finished with them. I read them through high school (the first several), college (the next few) and law school (through maybe book 11 or so). There are 25 of them, reaching all the way into the end of the twenty-teens. I quit reading them at some unidentified time in the past, but have been picking them up and rereading over the past few years.

These books are, honestly, a little strange. Richard Jury is a recognizably normal Chief Inspector, but the side characters can be quirky to the point of bizarre. Melrose Plant, Earl of something or another and his not-even-remotely-likeable Aunt Agatha, Jury’s gorgeous neighbor, whose name I have forgotten but it might be Carolanne – it’s all very over the top. It’s sort of like Northern Exposure, but in book form, and in England. I am also fairly sure that Grimes (an American, but who writes books set in England) titled all of her mysteries after fictional pubs, and they have some of the greatest titles in the history of mystery fiction.

Pollard and Toye by Elizabeth LeMarchand

Why I read it: This is sort of a “village murder” series, also set in England. I obviously have a thing for mystery series set in England, and I’m not even a little bit guilty about this. The first of the Pollard & Toye murders was published in 1967, and there are 17 of them. The last, The Glade Manor Murder, was published in 1989. I’ve read more than half of these – the last one I read was (according to Goodreads) Unhappy Returns, and I finished it in March 2020.

I recall that one being a bit of a disappointment, which may explain why there has been a delay in continuing with the series. They are all available through the Kindle Unlimited Library, though, so I’m sure I will continue on at some point.

2023 Reading Journal: Books 3, 4, 6 & 11

Every year I make a (very quiet, very private) resolution to post about every book that I read. I promptly (sometimes within hours) abandon this notion, because I read so much that a full blown post for each book is a completely unattainable goal. This also presupposes that I have enough to say about every book I read that I could even write a full-blown review. This is simply not the case – I enjoy most of the books I read, but just because I enjoy a book doesn’t mean I have a lot to say about it.

This year, I thought to myself “there is no rule that you have to do a full-blown review for every single book you read.” So, I’m giving myself permission to knock off several books in a post, with a few quick words about each book.

The Bullet that MissedThe Bullet that Missed
by Richard Osman
Rating: ★★★★
Series: The Thursday Murder Club #3
Publication Date: September 15, 2022
Genre: mystery: modern (1980-present)
Pages: 413
ReRead?: No

It is an ordinary Thursday, and things should finally be returning to normal.

Except trouble is never far away where the Thursday Murder Club are concerned. A local news legend is on the hunt for a sensational headline, and soon the gang are hot on the trail of two murders, ten years apart.

To make matters worse, a new nemesis pays Elizabeth a visit, presenting her with a deadly mission: kill or be killed...

While Elizabeth grapples with her conscience (and a gun), the gang and their unlikely new friends (including TV stars, money launderers and ex-KGB colonels) unravel a new mystery. But can they catch the culprit and save Elizabeth before the murderer strikes again?

It’s always fun to spend some time with Joyce and the Thursday Murder Club gang, and this third book in the series was no exception. I’d had the book on hold since before it was released, and it finally came up for me so I read it right away. The circle keeps widening and the hi-jinks (and danger) never end.  This is basically Scooby Doo with old people (I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling pensioners!) and I will read this series forever.

Lavender HouseLavender House
by Lev AC Rosen
Rating: ★★★★½
Series: Andy Mills #1
Publication Date: October 18, 2022
Genre: mystery: modern (1980-present)
Pages: 274
ReRead?: No

Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it's not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they've needed to keep others out. And now they're worried they're keeping a murderer in.

Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.

Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He's seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn't extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.

When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

Lavender House got all kinds of buzz when it was released. I would describe it as a queer historical noir set in 1950’s San Francisco. If that appeals to you, well, come sit next to me, because my immediate response was “yes, please,” and it didn’t disappoint. I really enjoyed this book – and it was my favorite of the year (so far) until I read:

The ScholarThe Scholar
by Dervla McTiernan
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: Cormac Reilly #2
Publication Date: May 14, 2019
Genre: mystery: modern (1980-present)
Pages: 400
ReRead?: No

From the author of The Ruin comes a compulsive new crime thriller set in the fiercely competitive, cutthroat world of research and academia, where the brightest minds will stop at nothing to succeed.

When Dr. Emma Sweeney stumbles across the victim of a hit-and-run outside Galway University early one morning, she calls her boyfriend, Detective Cormac Reilly, bringing him first to the scene of a murder that would otherwise never have been assigned to him. The dead girl is carrying an ID that will put this crime at the center of a scandal--her card identifies her as Carline Darcy, heir apparent to Darcy Therapeutics, Ireland's most successful pharmaceutical company. Darcy Therapeutics has a finger in every pie, from sponsoring university research facilities to funding political parties to philanthropy--it has even funded Emma's own ground-breaking research.

As the murder investigation twists in unexpected ways and Cormac's running of the case comes under scrutiny from the department and his colleagues, he is forced to question himself and the beliefs that he has long held as truths. Who really is Emma? And who is Carline Darcy?

I don’t think I’ve been this enthusiastic about a series since I read The Blackhouse, book one in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, set on the Isle of Lewis off Scotland. This is the second in McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series, set in Galway, Ireland. I read the first in series last year, The Ruin, and liked it a lot, but The Scholar blew me away. I’ve already put all of her other available books on hold at my library. Great characters, great setting and a dynamite plot.

The Madness of CrowdsThe Madness of Crowds
by Louise Penny
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #17
Publication Date: August 24, 2021
Genre: mystery: modern (1980-present)
Pages: 436
ReRead?: No

Time and again, as the New Year approaches, that charge is leveled against Armand Gamache.

It starts innocently enough.

While the residents of the Québec village of Three Pines take advantage of the deep snow to ski and toboggan, to drink hot chocolate in the bistro and share meals together, the Chief Inspector finds his holiday with his family interrupted by a simple request.

He’s asked to provide security for what promises to be a non-event. A visiting Professor of Statistics will be giving a lecture at the nearby university.

While he is perplexed as to why the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec would be assigned this task, it sounds easy enough. That is until Gamache starts looking into Professor Abigail Robinson and discovers an agenda so repulsive he begs the university to cancel the lecture.

They refuse, citing academic freedom, and accuse Gamache of censorship and intellectual cowardice. Before long, Professor Robinson’s views start seeping into conversations. Spreading and infecting. So that truth and fact, reality and delusion are so confused it’s near impossible to tell them apart.

Discussions become debates, debates become arguments, which turn into fights. As sides are declared, a madness takes hold.

Abigail Robinson promises that, if they follow her, ça va bien aller. All will be well. But not, Gamache and his team know, for everyone.

When a murder is committed it falls to Armand Gamache, his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and their team to investigate the crime as well as this extraordinary popular delusion.

And the madness of crowds.

I’m a huge fan of the Chief Inspector Gamache series, but I have to admit that this installment left me cold, and not because the whole thing is set during a snowstorm. I didn’t like the basis of the plot and I thought that the investigation itself was sort of plodding. Not Penny’s best work, but finishing it means that I’m only one behind and will be caught up once I read 2022’s A World of Curiosities.