Brief looks at a stack of books

97450_shutterstock_74821612It may well be that I’ve been concealing my reading habits from my friends and blog followers. It’s true that I’m relatively lazy about writing blog posts about books I’ve been reading, at least compared to other bloggers; I’m always astonished that my fellow bloggers can come up with so many interesting things to say every 48 hours or so. And I thank them for it.

51QnFtRcB4LThat doesn’t mean, however, that I haven’t been reading. My actual reading rate is at least a book a day, every day, and quite a bit of it in areas that would be of little or no interest to my readers — heritage cookbooks, for instance. I’m currently going through a lot of self-published zombie apocalypse novels, pandemic stories, and others in the EOTWAWKI/SHTF genre; my interest in LitRPG novels is still with me; and I’m reading Gore Vidal‘s novels as I find them. (Julian is excellent.) A couple of months from now, I’ll be on to other things.

Last month I picked up a couple of boxes of paperbacks at an excellent used bookstore a few hours’ drive from my home; I’m still sorting through them looking for things to re-read. Here’s a handful that don’t offer me the opportunity to talk at greater length but I can still recommend or not, as the case may be.

51Hfc0nsaFL._SX281_BO1,204,203,200_Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Queenly Contestant (1967). The last few Perry Mason novels are the most difficult to lay your hands on in paperback, and if you’re interested in courtroom drama they may be the last titles you tick off your list. I buy them when I see them … this one is not all that gripping, and there’s elements of the story that seem to be recycled from ESG’s earlier books. Although, as I’ve noticed before, Gardner always has something to teach us. (This time it’s the apparent tendency of hotel-based cat burglars to strike while the hotel guests are in the bathtub, because nudity inhibits the desire to chase thieves.)

Cody_dupe_2Liza Cody, Dupe (1981). The very interesting Anna Lee is a British private investigator and all six of the books in the series are worth your time; this is the one that got the ball rolling. Anna is tough and yet vulnerable, and she was those things before it became a cliche of the female PI novel. Her debut case involves investigating a fatal car accident that proves to be connected to a ring of Hollywood film pirates. Beautifully written, a terse and intelligent writing style, and an interesting plot. If you like these, seek out Cody’s other series, three outstanding books about security guard (and amateur wrestler)  Eva Wylie.

2101483Sara Woods, Naked Villainy (1987). The final entry in the 48 books chronicling the adventures of British barrister Antony Maitland, this was published two years after the author’s death. I have often complained about the tendency about elderly authors to write lousy books near the end of their careers; this one is not as bad as all that, but there is rather a lack of tension and excitement. (I note that the author was exactly my age when she wrote this, so obviously it’s not senility LOL.) Woods is an engaging writer who focuses on character nearly as much as plot; the books usually contain an extended courtroom scene and that’s clearly the author’s major interest. This particular story is a rather muddled tale of witchcraft rituals in a wine cellar.

PrintKitty Curran and Larissa ZagerisMy Lady’s Choosing (2018). I picked up this e-book because it was such a peculiar idea; it’s a “Choose your own adventure” type of interactive novel, but with the storyline of a Regency romance. A distinctly modern Regency romance, frankly, because the heroine seems to spend a lot of time moaning with pleasure as the baronet presses his straining manhood against her crinoline, or something. The joke rather palls after a few minutes, I found, but then I don’t read Regency romances at all. This may be gentle mockery or bitter send-up, I can’t be sure.

35881952Ellery Adams, Murder in the Locked Library (2018). Honestly, I don’t know what to make of this one. Adams is by all accounts an extremely popular writer, at the level of the New York Times bestseller list; I’m willing to believe she writes something that the public wants to read. But this is way beyond the slight suspension of belief I associate with the modern cupcake cozy. This is out-and-out fantasy. There’s a mysterious semi-rural hotel that’s like a castle and spa designed to attract bibliophiles; a secret society that’s protected the hotel’s secrets for centuries; and every other aspect of a woman’s fantasy that you might expect, including wonderful gourmet food, a castle filled with dedicated servants, a village filled with charming shopkeepers and handsome attentive single males, and the protagonist’s delightful twin teenage boys. It’s actually leading me to think that there might be something going on within the cupcake cozy after all — this is on the level of the literary school of magical realism. So this is either really, really good or really, really bad. I do know that it’s not meant to appeal to me in the slightest since there is almost no logic or rigour to what’s going on here. The mystery plot is nonsensical and mercifully brief; almost there merely to serve as a carrier wave for lots of bumph about banquets and personal relationships and the love of books. I can’t say I think most of my readers will enjoy this; I certainly didn’t. If you happen to have enjoyed this, please feel free to comment below and tell me what I have apparently missed.

UnknownAnthony Berkeley, Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927). Amateur sleuth and well-known silly ass Roger Sheringham travels to Hampshire on behalf of the Daily Courier to investigate what looks like the accidental death of Mrs. Vane. Roger’s cousin Anthony follows along and promptly falls in love with the principal suspect; Inspector Moresby keeps his nose to the grindstone and solves the case. Berkeley is famous for his revisionist takes on the Golden Age traditions of the traditional puzzle mystery; this is yet another one of his exercises about the “most likely suspect” being the “least likely suspect” and therefore the “most likely suspect”. I love Berkeley in general for his brilliance, and his sense of intellectual humour, but some of his books are more for the scholar than the reader; this one is Berkeley arching his eyebrow at some mystery cliches and coming up with a surprise ending that you didn’t expect. Here’s the final lines of the book, which sums it up for me: [Inspector Moresby saying to Roger Sheringham] “Do you know what’s the matter with you, sir?” he said kindly. “You’ve been reading too many of those detective stories.” So, apparently, had Berkeley.

the-last-equation-of-isaac-severy-9781501175121_hrNova Jacobs, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy (2018). The subtitle is “A Novel in Clues” and I think that’s the signal that this is some sort of merging of the traditional detective novel with … I’m not sure. Post-modernism? Some sort of highfalutin’ literary movement with which I’m not familiar. It’s as though Raymond Chandler had been asked to write a story about a group of advanced theoretical mathematicians and physicists but not been given all the facts until too late. An elderly scientist dies and members of his family hunt for his final equation; the search takes them to many strange locations, including within themselves, I think. I really did want to find out what happened and persevered, but I’m not sure the ending was worth the effort. None of this could really have happened, which brings me back to the same idea of magical realism.

9780008280260.jpgJ. V. Turner, Below the Clock (1936); the edition shown contains an informative and useful introduction by David Brawn (whose acumen gets more impressive each time I encounter it). Before I say anything about this novel, I learned from the introduction that Turner also wrote as David Hume, and was as such the king of the British hardboiled thriller for decades; all of a sudden, much more interesting. Here, solicitor-detective Amos Petrie takes on a case of murder within the British House of Commons, where the Chancellor of the Exchequer is poisoned with the exotic substance strophanthin. You don’t need to know much more than that — a traditional detective story populated with men in high places who are not as honest as they should be. There’s a fine ending where the murderer poisons himself on the floor of the House rather than be arrested. All in all this is a rather antiquely-flavoured mystery but it’s logical and smart, with a fascinating background and somewhat exciting plot. Well done, David Brawn and the Detective Story Club at Collins, for unearthing this from obscurity and bringing it back for our enjoyment.

pile-of-booksI find to my surprise that I have recently acquired enough books by Michael Gilbert as both e-books and paperbacks to devote an entire post to this excellent writer, even in this brief format, and so I’ll save that pleasure for a later time. The more I read of Gilbert the more I come to think that he rarely, if ever, put his literary foot wrong; I’ve enjoyed everything of his large output that I’ve read, and I hope to recommend some of the better ones to you.




10 thoughts on “Brief looks at a stack of books

  1. Christophe says:

    I look forward to your post(s) on Michael Gilbert!

  2. JJ says:

    I had recently glommed onto the existence of that Ellery Adams book as part of my ongoing search for modern locked room mysteries, and as soon as I read the synopsis I thought of your posts on cozy, carrier wave mysteryes and was sorely tempted to give it a go just to experience that style of mystery (and not, I hasten to add, because it struck me as an excellent prospect). I shall, perhaps, side-step it and spend my money on something else instead… 🙂

    • Noah Stewart says:

      As I said, I think there is something going on with these books that is not meant for me to understand, not being female. I’ve just read the new Aurora Teagarden novel by Charlaine Harris and the mystery is very nearly an afterthought; she’s doubled down on lack of content. But these books sell in huge numbers!! What have we been missing? Is this a new genre emerging from the ashes of the puzzle mystery? I’m already calling them to myself the “accretive cozy”, because all that seems to happen is the piling up of wads of information about the protagonist and her friends and family.
      But, yes, save your money. If you liked that sort of thing, you’d already be there reading these, one or two a week.

      • JJ says:

        I wonder if this is another sub-sub-genre to add to the cozy mystery: perhaps the Aspiration Mystery or the Idealisation Mystery. It’s not a genre associated too closely with social realism to begin with — when that happens, you’re veering into crime novel territory — but your point about Magical Realism (a fine genre, in which much excellent work has been done) feels very valid indeed, the point where something deliberately diverts from reality so that the reality in which we’re asked to believe it exists is clearly some sort of fantasy (small f) world. Hmmm, the more I think about this, the more I’m almost convincing myself I’d like to read it…

  3. Christine Poulson says:

    As far as I know I have read everything that Michael Gilbert wrote – at least once – including the short stories, and I agree that he rarely put a foot wrong. I’m looking forward to your post on him.

  4. Ronald Smyth says:

    It is not clear from your review if you are aware that J V Turner also wrote the series about Ebenezer Buckle (published under the name of Nicholas Brady) that J F Norris so enjoyed. See here:

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I was, but only because David Brawn included that information in his introduction to the edition I saw. I’ll always take John Norris’s word, he’s very insightful — I hope all this writer’s books come back at least in e-editions so we can read them without breaking the bank!

  5. nickfuller says:

    I really enjoyed “Julian” – a sympathetic look at the last Hellenist emperor. If you’re interested in the waning of the Classical world and the rise of Christianity, let me suggest Catherine Nixey’s “Darkening Age”.

    Vidal’s “Creation” is also great – told by a fifth century BC Persian nobleman (grandson of Zoroaster) who travels around Greece, India, and China, meeting people like Xerxes, the Buddha, and Confucius. Fascinating!

    I’ve read “The City and the Pillars”, and the Myra Breckenridge books; haven’t read the US history novels, though.

    Otherwise, the only mystery I can comment on is The Vane Mystery, which I found underwhelming. It felt schematic, in a way, without much characterisation or plot complexity – or, as you say, academic. Still, it’s his third novel, he didn’t really hit his stride until either The Silk Stocking Murders (anti-Semitism aside) or the double whammy of The Poisoned Chocolates Case (which is academic, but also funny and clever) and The Piccadilly Murder.

    A mystery by Ellery, and there’s no logic? What’s the world coming to?

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I came to Vidal through the Edgar Box mysteries, frankly, and started from there. He’s much different than I was expecting.
      For me, The Vane Mystery felt like a sterile exercise with much the same type of ending as Top Storey Murder — he thought of the ending and wrote the book around it. Poisoned Chocolates is academic but it comes alive with the characterization and humour, as you say.

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