Crime & Detection Mini Reviews

My life is still pretty chaotic so nothing long and detailed today, but here are some mini reviews of several crime and/or investigator stories I have read recently.

Related imageTitle: Kill the Boss Good-by
Author: Peter Rabe
Genre: Crime Noir
Pages: 124
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Tom Fell, A small-time crime boss, checks himself out of a mental institution (against doctor’s orders) and tries to re-assume leadership of his bookmaking/gambling racket. With Tom’s mental stability in question, a power struggle ensues. Plotwise it’s a fairly typical mob story with the added dimension of the protagonist becoming increasingly manic throughout. That dimension gave it some added interest but didn’t pull it up into the category of the great crime writers like Hammett or Cain.

Title: Standard Hollywood Depravity:
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 1.5)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Sci-fi Noir
Pages: 144
Rating: 4 of 5

This novella of earth’s last robot, originally a programmed as a private eye but now a hit man in alternate 1960’s LA, fits nicely between the first two books (reviews here and here). In this one, Ray’s violent, morally ambiguous hit man side is more on display than  previously. This made him a bit less sympathetic but no less interesting and entertaining. My copy also contained the very first Ray Electromatic short story Brisk Money, but it wasn’t very interesting if you’ve read the other three books since most of it has been recapped at some point.

Title: A Tale of Two Castles
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Genre: Children’s Fairy Tale
Pages: 352 [Audio – 8:27]
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Gail Carson Levine is one of those children’s authors whose works are worth reading as an adult. Her plots are either clever reworkings of classic fairy tales or highly original worlds that are all her own. In this book, a girl trying to apprentice herself to a mansioner (actor) instead finds herself assisting a dragon in investigative work, largely related to the noble, much despised, ogre who owns one of the two castles in Two Castles.  The dragon and the ogre are both outsiders with their own quirks and lore. I found the dragon particularly entertaining IT (that is how you must refer to dragons since they do not reveal their gender) is a commoner who makes most of ITs money toasting bread and cheese skewers in the market. IT is a bit capricious and vain but ultimately a good masteress (master + mistress). I listened to the audiobook narrated by Sarah Coomes and her voices (especially the dragon’s self-satisfied laugh) added to the enjoyment of the book.

Some Mini Reviews

It’s time to get caught up on the books that I’ve read that didn’t warrant a full scale review (which doesn’t necessarily mean that I didn’t enjoy them):

Title: Saga of the Jomsvikings
Translator: Lee Hollander
Genre: Norse Saga
Pages: 116
Rating: 3 of 5

I enjoy Norse mythology (especially in poetic form) but find the more historical prose sagas a bit “meh.” There is certainly historical, cultural, and poetic interest in this tale of a brotherhood of warriors and their participation in a major battle with Earl Hakon, but the Old Norse style is a bit dry.

Image result for the informer liam o'flahertyTitle: The Informer
Author: Liam O’Flaherty
Genre: Irish Crime/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This felt a lot like Crime & Punishment…if it were set in Ireland during “the troubles” and the protagonist was a brutish moron instead of a sensitive, philosophical type. We get to watch the mental torment of an oaf who betrays his friend as the vengeance-seeking revolutionary party plays a game of cat and mouse with him. The plot crawls through the seedy underbelly of Dublin and was surprisingly deeper/better than I expected.

Image result for Night Squad GoodisTitle: Night Squad
Author: David Goodis
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 200
Rating: 4 of 5

This is a good, solid noir tale, featuring an ex-cop, who unlike his “chump” father (an honest cop  killed in the line of duty), looks out for his own interests even if it means a bit of corruption. He eventually finds himself working for the local mobster and reinstated as a cop on the infamous Night Squad. This isn’t necessarily Goodis’ best work (Dark Passage is much better), but it’s well worth a read if you’re a fan of noir.

Image result for Right ho Jeeves book coverTitles: Right Ho, Jeeves / Thank You, Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 256 / 282
Ratings: 4.5 & 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and these are two of the best. Unlike the previous books in the series, these are each one continuous (though episodic) story rather than a collection of loosely related short stories. As usual, good-hearted but dim Bertie Wooster tries to help his friends and relations, gets himself in trouble (which usually means engaged to someone he doesn’t want to marry) and has to be rescued by his genius valet (which frequently seems to involve temporarily throwing Bertie under the bus, but it’s all good in the end).

Title: The Adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
(omnibus containing Swords & Deviltry, Swords Against Death, & Swords in the Mist)
Author: Fritz Leiber
Genre: Swords & Sorcery
Pages: 520
Rating: 3 of 5

There’s really not a whole lot to say about this one. It’s fairly standard antihero swords and sorcery featuring a northern barbarian (basically a less broody, less rapey Conan) and a thief/swordsman who dabbles in magic (though we seldom see him use any). It’s entertaining enough but nothing special.

Title: Immeasurable:
Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc.
Author: Skye Jethani
Genre: Practical Theology
Pages: 210
Rating: 4 of 5

This insightful little book offers bite-size reflections on what it looks like to biblically lead, serve in, and be the church in a day when many churches and Christians are all about counting attendance, perpetuating programs, offering the “full service church” experience, and honoring celebrity pastors. While I disagree with some of his views on preaching (e.g. that it should inspire rather than teach), it offers some thought-provoking insights that would be helpful for both pastors and church members.

Grifters & Fools

Image result for Grifters book coverTitle: The Grifters
Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Pulp Noir
Pages: 190
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Jim Thompson has a knack for writing sleazy characters who provide a glimpse into the thoughts and lives of the corrupt and criminal. In The Grifters we get to meet a con man who is skilled in the short con; his estranged, manipulative, criminal mother (only 14 years his senior); his trampy femme fatale mistress; and a sweet nurse with a dark, traumatizing past.

Some books and movies about con men present them as likable anti-heroes (The Music Man, Oceans 11, 12, 13). However, this book gives us a more believable look into the paranoid life of “grifters,” filled with loneliness, danger, and destruction (of self and others). By the end of the book the only likable character is Carol the nurse, though you may feel a touch of pity for some of the others.

The plot is a fairly standard downward slide into tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Overall, I’d say that this is well-written and perceptive in regard to human nature, but it’s the kind of pulp that leaves you feeling a bit gross at the end.

I am using this for my Classic Crime Story over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

Killer Robot Noir

Title: Killing Is My Business
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 2)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Sci-fi/Noir Mashup
Pages: 284
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Like the first book in the series (review here), this tale of a robot hit man in alternate 1960’s Los Angeles was a lot of fun. When it comes to escapist reading, I love both sci-fi and vintage noir, and this an entertaining fusion of the two. I still don’t quite buy that Ray can be the last/only functioning robot in the world and still remain inconspicuous while doing PI/hit man type work. However, it doesn’t pay to think too hard about plot details in Raymond Chandler-esque stories, so I’m willing to mostly ignore it (and a couple other “not quite sure that makes sense” moments).

There seems to be a glaring continuity problem in regard to Ray’s memory from the end of the first book to this one, but as the book goes along there are hints that this is intentional and part of an over-arching story that will be resolved in the next book (at least I really hope that’s what’s going on).  The main case is resolved by the end of the book, but we are left with a lot of questions regarding Ray’s relationship with Ada, his computer counterpart/boss. Personally, I like noir/detective stories to have a little tighter wrap-up rather than using unresolved plot points to string me along to the protagonist’s next story, but it was still a good read.

Rise & Fall of a NYC Mafioso

Image result for I mobster gold medal bookTitle: I, Mobster:
The Confession of a Crime Czar
Author: Anonymous (Joseph Hilton Smyth)
Genre: Crime/Noir, Historical Fiction
Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Mafia tropes, historical references, and self-justification abound in this fictional memoir. It’s all pretty straightforward; no high action or dramatic plot twists, just a matter-of-fact description of the rise and fall of a New York City mafioso in the 1930’s-40’s. Our protagonist/narrator, Tony (what other name would you give a fictional Italian mobster?), interacts with real-life mobsters like Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter during the events leading up to and following the formation of “The Commission” and Thomas E. Dewey’s time as prosecutor and DA of NYC.

Throughout the book we are treated to Tony’s view of the absolute corruption of “law and order,” justification for his own actions (and the existence of the mafia), pride in his cleverness and accomplishments, and feelings of being trapped and forced into this life. It reminded me a bit of a much less literary version of Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God (just with the mob instead of the Roman Empire). It’s worth a read if you’re into crime/noir.

Robot Noir

Title: Made to Kill
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 1)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Science Fiction Noir
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

First, a huge thank you to The BiblioSanctum for hosting the book giveaway where I won this (and its sequel)!

I love both science fiction and detective/noir fiction (of the 1920’s-50’s variety – especially Raymond Chandler). This excellent book is a mashup of the two, and to make things even better it intentionally follows the style of Raymond Chandler. The author pictures it as the sci-fi novel Chandler never wrote and prefaces it with this quote from one of his letters: “Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this…”

Our first person narrator protagonist is the last robot on earth. He used to work as a PI, but now uses that as a cover for his new profession of hit man in an alternate 1960’s Los Angeles. His rechargeable battery and 24 hour memory limit are a challenge, so the room-size computer, Ada, is his boss and the real brains of the operation. The only part of the worldbuilding that felt a little “off” was that he didn’t get more attention from average people on the street, what with being the last robot on earth. I don’t want to say much about the case due to spoilers, but you can expect a lot of the kinds of elements you’d find in the pulps (of both the Amazing Stories and Black Mask varieties).

The narration is delightfully snarky like Chandler, though not rising to the level of cleverness found in his Philip Marlowe stories. The one narration things that got on my nerves after a while was how often he commented that when he smiled, raised an eyebrow, etc. it was only on the inside because his face is immobile. It got a bit repetitive (kind of like how Harry Dresden mentions his duster every few pages in the Dresden Files series). The ending was a little abrupt and some of the characters’ actions/motivations were a bit confusing, but that’s pretty par for the course for this kind of detective story (e.g. in Chandler’s The Big Sleep we’re never told who committed one of the murders). Overall: a fun mashup, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one (though I’m putting it off until I finish a couple other books I’m in the middle of so that I can make it last).

More Mini-Reviews

This week is Vacation Bible School at my church so between publicity and preparation last week and keeping control of a swarm of kids this week it’s been insanely busy.  Also, I’ve had kind of a run of “meh” books that I didn’t feel particularly motivated to review. However, I’m trying to give at least a short review of everything I read this year, so here are a few mini-reviews.

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hard-boiled Detective/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This is probably the best known of Hammett’s novels thanks to the excellent Humphrey Bogart movie adaptation. Rather than the usual Continental Op, it features shady-but-not-quite-as-dishonest-as-he-seems private eye Sam Spade. Murder, greed, and lies (so many lies) surround the quest for “the black bird,” but Spade sees through the murk enough to come to a satisfactory ending for himself. Personally, I prefer the Continental Op to the more womanizing Sam Spade, but this is still a great book in the morally ambiguous world of Dashiell Hammett.

Title: The Crucible
Author: Arthur Miller
Genre: Play/Historical Fiction
Pages: 147
Rating: 3 of 5

This classic play about the Salem witch trials is really an exploration of the attitudes/actions during the McCarthy era Red Scare. Sadly, most of those attitudes rear their heads now and then to this day (I hate church politics so much!). Even though the author is insightful at times, I’m not a fan of authors of historical fiction altering solid historical facts to make the narrative fit the point they are trying to make, and Miller does this quite a bit. Between that and the overall bleakness, I didn’t really care for the play.

Title: Lysistrata
Author: Aristophanes
Translator: Douglas Parker
Genre: Play
Pages: 123
Rating: 2 of 5

I read this mostly because I needed something short to blast through for my library’s reading contest (and I was already at the plays shelf to pick up The Crucible). The premise of this raunchy comedy is that the women of Greece refuse all sexual favors to their men until they agree to end the ongoing war. The translator’s introduction described it as Aristophanes’ “most phallic” play…it was disturbingly so. Proof that crass humor has always been with us. Blech.

Title: The Stranger
Author: Max Brand
Genre: Western
Pages: 206
Rating: 2.5 of 5

About once per year I read a Western and then decide I’ve had my fill of the genre for at least another year. This one was combination of Western and Mystery as two cowpunchers try to figure out who killed the man they were supposed to be protecting for ten days at $1,000 per day. Between the insta-love, fairly obvious whodunnit, and a plot hole or two I wasn’t terribly impressed.

Title: Woman in the Dark
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 87
Rating: 3

This short novel, originally serialized in Black Mask, isn’t Hammett’s best, but it’s still a decent pulp story. Rather than Hammett’s usual detective, the protagonist is a convict recently released from prison. When his landlord’s mistress puts him in the middle of a messy domestic situation his newly regained freedom is threatened. Overall, a pretty typical Black Mask story worth reading if you’re into noir.

Title: The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories
Author: Alexander Pushkin
Translator: Natalie Duddington
Genre: Classic/Short Story Anthology
Pages: 288
Rating: 3.5

I have never read anything by Pushkin before and was curious how he compared to other Russian authors, so I picked up this collection. There was quite a bit of variety from outlaw and soldier stories (reminiscent of Gogol’s Taras Bulba or Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad) to a slightly supernatural tale (The Queen of Spades – probably my favorite in the collection) to one with a nice twist at the end worthy of O Henry. Pushkin has a lot of the bleakness that I associate with Russian authors, but to a lesser degree. I’ll probably pick up more by him in the future.

More Mini-Reviews

I’m still on vacation with the brain only half-engaged, so here are a few more mini-reviews. Most of these are books that I read earlier this year and didn’t have the leisure or inclination to review at the time.

Title: The Inimitable Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 240
Rating: 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and this one is no exception. The adventures of good-hearted-but-a-bit-dim Bertie Wooster who navigates the “trials” of post WWI English high society with the help of Jeeves, his genius valet, always provide a chuckle. This book (the second in the series) collects a number of loosely connected short stories which mostly feature Bertie trying to help the frequently-love-smitten “Bingo” Little (and then having to be extricated from difficulty by Jeeves).

Image result for Dracula book coverTitle: Dracula
Author: Bram Stoker
Genre: Classic Gothic/Horror
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

This book that originally popularized the “sexy vampire”  doesn’t have as much to offer thematically as the equally classic Frankenstein, but I found it creepier and a lot more fun to read. Stoker was definitely sexist (and shows flashes of other common prejudices of his day), and there’s the usual Gothic ramblings and melodrama, but if you can just roll your eyes at the worst of it, it’s well worth a read.

Title: The Thin Man
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Pages: 201
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If Oscar Wilde had written  hardboiled/noir fiction this is how it would have turned out. The interplay between perpetually-tipsy ex-detective Nick Charles and his young wife, Norah is reminiscent of Wilde’s characters who say “wicked” things just to get a rise out of people…all this while solving the usual Hammett-style case. I didn’t care for this the first time I read it because I didn’t catch Nick’s slightly tongue-in-cheek tone, but after seeing William Powell’s portrayal of Nick Charles in the 1934 Thin Man movie, it made more sense and I really enjoyed it.

Title: Poems of Heaven & Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia
Translator: N. K. Sandars
Genre: Ancient Religious/Narrative Poetry
Pages: 192
Rating: 4 of 5

A large part of the page count for this book is commentary by the translator, much of which is helpful even if it does necessarily include a bit of speculation. For me, the poetry itself (the longest one is the Enuma Elish / Babylonian creation account) provides interesting background for what various people in the Old Testament would have believed (e.g. Abraham and his family when they lived in “Ur of the Chaldees”).

Black Wings Has My AngelTitle: Black Wings Has My Angel
Author: Eliot Chaze
Genre: Crime Noir
Pages: 154
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is a fairly typical crime-spiral-of-self-destruction novel on the same order as The Postman Always Rings Twice or Thieves Like Us (or the real life Bonnie and Clyde). There’s not a lot to say about it other than it’s a competently executed example of the genre.

Ten Days in a Mad-House by [Bly, Nellie]Title: Ten Days in a Madhouse
Author: Nellie Bly
Genre: Exposé
Pages: 110
Rating: 4 of 5

In the late 19th century, journalist Nellie Bly deliberately got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. Her report of the callous treatment of the women there (many of whom she believed to be perfectly sane) is deeply disturbing. Apparently the publication of her observations resulted in NYC earmarking an additional $1 million for helping these women, but I don’t know if there were any lasting reforms.

Title: The Great God Pan
Author: Arthur Machen
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 84
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This story deeply influenced other horror writers, especially in the field of cosmic horror (that “something incomprehensible/evil/wholly other is ‘out there'” themed sub-genre). As with some genre-defining stories I didn’t find it as enjoyable as the works of authors who refined the formula (e.g. H. P. Lovecraft), but it was still interesting, if rather predictable and verbose.

Title: Othello
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play
Pages: 180 (about half was commentary)
Rating: 4 of 5

I wasn’t going to review this because I kind of did so when I reviewed New Boy, but for the sake of being able to say I reviewed everything I read this year I’ll include it. A lot of people see this as being primarily about race since Othello is a Moor, but it is much more about jealousy and ambition (fueled only partly by racism). The despicable, manipulative Iago just might be one of the nastiest villains in Shakespeare. A great tragedy (though I prefer Hamlet and “The Scottish Play”).

And with that I’ve reviewed all the books I have read so far this year (63 of them)!

5 Mini-Reviews

I’m on vacation…I have two whole weeks off from having to prepare for Bible studies, sermons, counseling sessions, etc., so my brain has gone into “idle” and refuses to write any full reviews (to say nothing of Grandma’s slow/unreliable internet connection). However, I’ve been reading some interesting stuff so here are five mini-reviews:

Image result for book cover miseryTitle: Misery
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Psychological Horror
Pages: 339
Rating: 4 of 5

Author Paul Sheldon is “rescued” from a car accident by his “number one fan,” and held captive while he is forced to write a sequel to his most recent potboiler. The spectacularly unstable Annie Wilkes demonstrates that psychotic human behavior can be more terrifying than anything supernatural. As is usual with Stephen King, I’m not a fan of the profanity (though Annie uses silly/cutesy faux-curses), but that man can write!

Title: Inferno
Authors: Larry Niven & Jerry Pournell
Genre: Horror / Retelling
Pages: 237
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Allen Carpentier, a sci-fi writer (who is an agnostic), dies in a stupid drunken accident and awakes in what appears to be hell as described by Danté. There, he meets Benito who conducts him through the “nine circles of hell” in an effort to leave the same way Danté did. Along the way, Carpentier tries to figure out “what’s really going on,” sees some clever modern updates to “classic sins,” and explores a theology that is equal parts atheistic “God is a moral monster” argument, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and Rob Bell’s Love Wins. B+ for creativity, D- for theology.

Title: Gwendy’s Button Box
Author: Stephen King & Richard Chizmar
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 180 (with a lot of blank space & illustrations)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This short book falls more into the “weird” category than actual horror. It could be seen as a sort of twist on the story of Pandora’s Box…only this box comes with sinister buttons (especially the big black one) and a couple nice levers. This isn’t high action and doesn’t provide nice neat answers at the end, but it’s an excellent example of “the weird.”

Title: Wayne of Gotham
Author: Tracy Hickman
Genre: Superhero
Pages: 304
Rating: 2 of 5

This story digs into the background of Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father) and dirties him up a bit. I’m only a casual Batman fan so I don’t know how well it fits with “canon” (poorly, I suspect). Continuity/canonicity issues aside, it just wasn’t a very good book; the author obsessively describes Batman’s tech (even in the middle of action scenes), mentions Batman’s advancing age and slowing reflexes every few pages, and somehow manages to make Batman boring.

Title: Trouble Is My Business
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I love noir/hardboiled detective stories, and Chandler is one of the best (only Hammett is on the same level). The four (longish) short stories in this volume all feature his iconic detective, Philip Marlowe. Marlowe doesn’t seem to be as well developed in these stories as in his full length novels (he seems a little less snarky and well-read here), but this is still well worth reading.

Meet the Continental Op

Title: Red Harvest
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Noir/Detective Fiction
Pages: 215
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I first read this book five or six years ago, and I was hooked. Since then Noir / Hardboiled Detective pulp fiction from the 20’s-50’s has been my go-to escapist genre. With the possible exception of Raymond Chandler, nobody writes this kind of story better than Dashiell Hammet.

This first novel-length adventure of the Continental Op (whose name we never discover) has everything you would expect from the genre: bootleggers, gamblers, blazing guns, widespread corruption, murder, mayhem, moral ambiguity, 1920’s gangster slang, and a femme fatale or two. The unnamed Continental Op (basically a Pinkerton detective) is tasked with cleaning up the corrupt town of Personville/Poisonville and, well, the book’s title pretty much says it all.

This book serves as a good introduction to the Continental Op, who also appears in The Dain Curse and a slew of short stories. He is short, stout, and incredibly stubborn. His modus operandi for solving cases consists mostly of verbally poking at suspects and piecing things together from their (often violent) reactions. By the end he has a working theory of how everything fits together and everyone guilty is dead, under arrest, or otherwise out of the picture. Dashiell Hammett seldom reveals whether the Op’s reconstruction of events is entirely accurate, but it’s good enough to get things done and in Hammett’s murky world that’s good enough.