Mini-Review Time!

The number of read-but-unreviewed books is piling up, so it’s time for some more mini reviews. No unifying theme here; just several books that I read about a month and a half ago:

The Only Good Indians: A Novel by [Stephen Graham Jones]

Title: The Only Good Indians
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Genre: Horror Trying to Be Literature
Pages: 336
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I like stories that plop you down in media res and slowly reveal what is going on. This is one of those stories, and it is masterfully executed. The plot (that reads like heavily interconnected novellas) follows four Blackfeet men as they are haunted by something that they did when they were younger…whether that’s literal or metaphorical haunting I leave you to find out. Along the way, the author also explores themes of tradition, culture, community, family, and the Native American experience in general.

Judging from reviews online, this books seems to be a bit love-it-or-hate-it. I think that for some readers it’s too literary and slow-burn to be good horror, and for others it was too tropey and requires too much suspension of disbelief to be good literature. Personally, I thought that it worked very well!

Her Royal Spyness (The Royal Spyness Series Book 1) by [Rhys Bowen]

Title: Her Royal Spyness
Author: Rhys Bowen
Genre: Witty Narration and Amusing Characters (in a Murder Mystery)
Pages: 324
Rating: 4 of 5

I needed something light and fluffy to counter the stress of trying to navigate a major covid outbreak in our community, and this was just the thing! The murder mystery was pretty secondary to character development and witty narration. Our intrepid (but awkward) heroine is a minor royal from a family with ancestral lands in Scotland (described in disparaging detail) and no money. In this introductory book to the series she narrates her escapades in pre-WW2 London, where she has tea with the queen (who wants her to keep an eye on someone), tries to get a job (a big no-no for a royal), spends time with assorted upper-class twits & rogues, and becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. I will definitely be continuing the series!

Every Little Crook and Nanny by Evan Hunter

Title: Every Little Crook and Nanny
Author: Evan Hunter
Genre: Comedic Mob Fiction
Pages: 229
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This tale of the kidnapping of a mobster’s son was not what I was expecting. It is told as a series of vignettes, each one focused on a different person connected to the story. Most of the characters demonstrate massive incompetence and/or eccentric behavior to the point of being caricatures. Each chapter begins with a black and white photo of the starring character, and at first I thought it was some sort of movie tie-in, but apparently these are just the author’s (or his publishers’) acquaintances who agreed to pose for him. There is a comedic movie loosely based on the book, but judging from a quick perusal on imdb, there have been major alterations to the plot. I didn’t find this laugh-out-loud funny, but I suppose it was mildly amusing.

She kills them one by one…

Title: The Bride Wore Black
Author: Cornell Woolrich
Genre: Pulp Mystery/Crime
Pages: 288
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future release date for this edition: 1/5/21 (Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I like reading Cornell Woolrich (in small doses). His plots are improbable, some of his metaphors are absurd, and his writing just isn’t up to the level of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but that man knew how to ratchet up the tension in his cheap noir potboilers.

The Bride Wore Black follows a fairly typical Woolrich plot of a group of seemingly unrelated people being killed off one by one while a police officer tries to discover and stop whatever is going on. The author’s usual steadily building suspense is definitely there, though not quite as much as in Rendezvous in Black or Night Has a Thousand Eyes. He varies how much he shows us of the planning and execution of each murder, which keeps things from becoming too repetitive (and he has a trick or two up his sleeve as well). The final explanation comes a bit out of left field (and if it weren’t for the book’s title it would be even more so), but it (mostly) makes sense and provides a satisfactory noir ending.

As far as this new edition from Otto Penzler, there’s not much to say. The only new material is a competent introduction by Eddie Muller who extolls Woolrich without getting too hero-worshippy and without major spoilers. It’s a nice uncluttered edition of a pulp classic.

Sulky Sam

Title: Preacher Sam
(Same Geisler, Murder Whisperer – Book 1)
Author: Cassondra Windwalker
Genre: Mystery / Christian Fiction
Pages: 284
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 9/17/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Preacher Sam is not your typical Christian/Religious fiction. It includes profanity (including “the F bomb”), it discusses sexual addiction and lustful thoughts frankly (and occasionally explicitly), there is no strategically placed “get saved” speech, and it falls into the mystery genre rather than historical romance.

Our protagonist is a disgraced, porn-addicted ex-pastor who is living with his atheist single-mom sister while trying to get his life and marriage back together. In the past he was instrumental in getting a murderer to confess. References to this abound, but the details remain so sketchy that it feels like we’ve missed out on book 1 of the series. When one of his former parishioners is jailed for murder and refuses to defend herself or speak to anyone but him or the victim’s husband, Sam must figure out what really happened.

Unfortunately, the story focuses far more on Sam whining and sulking about his life and family relationships than it does on the murder mystery. His pursuit of “what really happened?” proceeds in a desultory, mopey fashion, and the amazingly convenient item that finally helps him solve it is ill-explained and/or doesn’t quite make sense. Add a shoehorned-in romantic subplot for his sister, some preachy bits, and a final line that undercuts any apparent character growth, and this really didn’t work for me.

A Cheap Dupin Knockoff

The Old Man in the Corner: The Teahouse Detective: Volume 1 (Pushkin Vertigo) by [Orczy]Title: The Old Man in the Corner:
The Teahouse Detective, Volume 1
Author: Baroness Orczy
Genre: Armchair Detective Mystery
Pages: 224
Rating: 2.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the contents of this review in any way)

In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle  stole  borrowed Edgar Allan Poe’s eccentric detective C. Auguste Dupin, and transformed him into the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes is arguably more entertaining than Dupin, the host of imitations created by other authors trying to cash in on the “genius detective” craze were seldom more than pale imitations. Such is Baroness Orczy’s unnamed Old Man in the Corner.

This collection of short stories features conversations between a young reporter and an “odd scarecrow” of a man who sits in the corner of a teahouse tying complex knots in a piece of string while quietly (but arrogantly) expounding to her the answers to unsolved crimes. His deductions are based almost exclusively on attending inquests and reading the stories as they appear in the newspaper. The old man has no desire to bring the criminals to justice and offers no concrete evidence that could do so. He is content with working out to his satisfaction (and his listener’s amazement) what must have happened.

For me, everything about the book was very bland. The characterization was shallow, relying on the same few stock descriptions (“scarecrow” “sarcastic” “tying and untying complex knots”). The subject matter of the stories was the usual assortment of blackmail, gambling debts, unhappy marriages, inheritance disputes, etc, with nothing terribly unexpected, exotic, or spine-tingling, and the solutions to the mysteries became tediously similar after the first two or three. The eARC Pushkin Vertigo edition that I read provided nothing in the way of background, commentary, or any other added interest.

Overall, if you’re really into classic armchair detectives, you will probably enjoy this, but if you’re just dipping into the “genius detective” genre go with Holmes or Dupin.

“Success to Crime”

Today I will be giving a couple of quick reviews of story collections featuring successful criminals…sort of.

Title: Sleep No More
Author: P. D. James
Genre: Murder Mystery Short Stories
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 of 5

Sleep No More collects six short stories that defy standard expectations for “cozy” mysteries. The settings are what you would expect: manor houses, small English villages, etc. However, in each story the point of view is not that of the primary investigator, and the murderer is not necessarily brought to justice (which does not always mean truly “getting away with it” in the sense of avoiding all consequences). The stories provide a quick, entertaining read as long as you don’t mind your fiction a touch dark and morally ambiguous.

My one criticism would be that the stories are so similar in subject matter that after the first two or three it’s pretty easy to guess where the last three or four are going very early on in the story. It seems a shame to lessen the impact of cleverly out-of-the-ordinary stories by packing them all into one collection rather than interspersing them with more standard fare.

This was my first P. D. James, and I was impressed enough that I’ll definitely have to try one of her full-length books in the future. Any suggestions?

Title: The Saint: Five Complete Novels
(The Man Who Was Clever, The Lawless Lady, The Saint Closes the Case, The Avenging Saint, The Saint vs. Scotland Yard)
Author: Leslie Charteris
Genre: Pulp Vigilante Fiction
Pages: 663
Rating:  2.5 of 5

My previous exposure to the character of Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was the 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer (my wife’s distant cousin). This book stars the original, and there’s very little resemblance to the movie version. Charteris’s Saint is a suave vigilante whose goal is to bring seemingly untouchable criminals to justice, usually also relieving them of a significant amount of money which he donates to charity …after taking his 10% cut, of course.

Simon is reckless and debonaire. He trades snarky quips with criminals who have the drop on him, laughs in the face of death, and uses his agility and physical prowess to save the day, though not always without personal loss. He seems to be the author’s conception of the ideal manly man in a world full of sad sacks, moral cowards, and sensitive snowflakes. It was definitely a mistake to read all five novels close together as his charmingly contemptuous man-boy act wore thin pretty quick (and some casual racism in one book and plot-centric antisemitism in another didn’t help matters). I generally enjoy snarky pulp heroes, but I’ll probably give the Saint a miss from now on.

Kafkaesque Police Procedural

Image result for the city and the cityTitle: The City & the City
Author: China Miéville
Genre: Surreal Police Procedural
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In the Surreal world of The City & The City, two antagonistic city states locked in a Cold War-like relationship share the same geographic location. The citizens of each city employ doublethink worthy of Orwell’s 1984 to unsee, unhear, etc. anything that is not in their city. Violations are an unthinkable crime and are summarily dealt with by the shadowy agents of Breech.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation with “international” complications. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the more run-down, Eastern-European-flavored city of Beszel must cooperate with Detective Qussim Dhatt of the more prosperous Middle-East-flavored Ul Qoma. The murder mystery plot wraps up in a satisfactory manner after plenty of twists, turns, and conspiracy theories. Along the way we learn quite a bit about how the politics and culture of the two cities and Breech operate. However, we never really receive solid answers as to why the cities exist as they do and why Breech does what they do.

The lack of solid “why are things like this?” answers didn’t really bother me since that was not the main plot. If the author wants to leave his setting unexplained, I’m okay with that…especially in a book this surreal. What did detract from my personal enjoyment of the book (knocking it down from a 4.5 to 3.5) was the pervasive profanity. Call me a prude, but I’m not a fan of F-bomb-strewn dialogue. Overall: if you’re a fan of fantastic world-building and don’t mind profanity or non-answers to some questions, this might be a good book for you.