Thursday, January 18, 2018

WITHOUT A WORD – Carol Lea Benjamin

[Disclaimer: Without a Word is what's known in the mystery trade as a cozy. This as opposed to hard-boiled. I'll let you guess what differentiates these types, and while you're doing so I'll assert that I consider myself a manly man who ordinarily would rather risk hyperventilation than be seen crying over a movie scene, or while watching TV commercials or even animated cartoons with talking insects. As I understand the gender roles of Western men, we manly ones ordinarily do not read cozy mysteries, or at least we're supposed to pretend we don't. I'll say this in my defense: I did not cry at all while reading Without a Word, at least I do not recall doing so—or even struggling to keep from doing so, although I was alone and would have had no reason to pretend I wasn't moved to spasms of sentiment if in fact I had been. What I did do was enjoy the hell out of Without a Wordarrrrr—and hereby recommend it to anyone who likes an intelligent, well-charactered, cleverly-plotted mystery.] 

Maybe it was the too-big sunglasses the little girl wore that kept my eyes dry despite her forlorn air and the little turtle she carried in a transparent lunch pail and the father who seemed so distant. More likely it was the unmannered voice of the private investigator describing what she saw. Right from the start, without any other reason to, I trusted her, Rachel Alexander, the Greenwhich Village PI who worked her cases accompanied always by her trusty pit bull Dashiell.

Nor did Dashiell disappoint by adding a gravelly voice to the mix, spelling his boss now and then to give us the doggie view of what seemed to be going on. No anthropomorphizing him, despite his being a beautifully trained highly intelligent pooch who succeeded where Rachel Alexander failed in displacing the alienation that kept the little girl locked in her self-imposed shell.

Here's the PI introducing herself to Madison, who, while seeming much younger, is actually twelve:

“'Hi, Madison,' I said, 'I’m pleased to meet you.'

"She lifted her free hand but not to take mine. She was reaching for her sunglasses, taking hold of them, sliding them off. The eyelid over her right eye drooped badly. The other moved quickly from left to right a few times and then stopped. Standing in front of her, Madison just staring at me, I had the same experience I sometimes got before I became a private investigator, when I used to train dogs for a living. I was suddenly privy to information that seemed to come from another creature without benefit of words. Back then, and now, it always made me want to run for cover. Have a good look, Madison seemed to be telling me, at why my mother left in the first place."
 And here's Dashiell:

"Dashiell got to the door first. I thought showing off might pay off big in the near future, that it might help convince this kid I had something to offer, get her to trust me a bit, so I asked Dashiell to open the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Madison shoot a look at me, then quickly turn back to Dash. He took the doorknob in his mouth and twisted his head. I could hear the small click as the tongue of the unlocked door released. Then he let go of the knob, backed up one step and reared up, like a horse, hitting the door with his front paws and knocking it open. Madison was enthralled."

Carol Lea Benjamin

Here's the deal: Madison stopped speaking, to anyone, three days after her mother disappeared--five years ago. Now the girl's accused of murdering her therapist by plunging a hypodermic filled with Botox into his heart. Her father, Leon, has hired Rachel Alexander to find his missing wife in the hope if she returns Madison will break her silence and persuade investigators she didn't kill the therapist.

Rachel Alexander knows the odds of finding the mother are practically nil. The woman took the family dog walking one night, and never came back. And Leon’s not much help. Barely communicative himself, he makes his living as a photographer. He hides behind his camera rather than make eye contact during his first meeting with Rachel Alexander. He displays no affection for his daughter, and vice versa.

Spending a day at their home to try and win Madison’s trust she notices Leon doesn’t kiss his daughter goodbye when he leaves for work in the morning, and completely ignores her when he returns home. Other than her turtle, whom she’s named Emil/Emily for want of knowing its gender, the girl evidently is “pretty much on her own.”

Rachel Alexander’s so baffled at one point she finds herself walking down the street “shrugging my shoulders, talking out loud, like the rest of the crazies in New York.

“I needed to do something to get my sanity back.”

Leon hired her to find the missing mother, so she has to make the effort. At the same time, she knows the best way to clear Madison of suspicion in the murder is to find the murderer. Madison's reaction to her mother’s disappearance includes violent tantrums. The circumstantial evidence that she killed her doctor focuses on her rage over the failure of his Botox treatment to arrest the nervous tics that affect her eyelids. The first eyelid he injected overreacted to the muscle-paralyzing drug. It drooped uselessly. He’d assured her the drooping problem was only temporary, and was preparing to inject the other eyelid. Madison was his last patient of the day. No one else was in the clinic. The nurse had gone home. Supposedly an enraged Madison grabbed the needle and jammed it into the doctor’s heart. She walked home alone, something she’d been doing after her appointments, Leon said.

My questions were similar to Rachel Alexander’s as, trying to keep her sanity, she plowed ahead in what at first seemed a thoroughly daunting case. I’ll give you a few answers, now that I know them, so you won’t risk your own sanity should you decide to read this fascinating cozy mystery. Do we find out what happened to Madison’s mother? Yes. Do we find out who murdered the doctor? Yes. Do we learn the complications that led to his murder? Of course we do. Does Madison speak?


CAROL LEA BENJAMIN is a noted author about, and trainer of, dogs. Her award-winning books on dog behavior and training include Mother Knows Best: The Natural Way to Train Your Dog, Second-Hand Dog, and Dog Training in Ten Minutes. A former detective, Benjamin blends her knowledge of dogs with her real life experiences to create the Rachel Alexander Mystery series. Recently honored by the International Association of Canine Professionals with election to their Hall of Fame, she lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and three dogs, Dexter, Flash, and Peep.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

THE FEVER TREE – Richard Mason

"There's a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad..." The further I read in The Fever Tree the louder my inner ear fed me Morrison's dire chanting over The Doors' funereal chords. The toad in this instance squirmed inside the skull of Maj. Ronald Birkett, secret agent assigned by a shadowy Communist group to arrange the assassination of the newly enthroned King of Nepal.

Birkett comes across initially as a caricature, a laughable cartoonish spoof of the James Bond/Matt Helm secret agent types that brought vicarious thrills to adolescent males of all ages and genders. "He abruptly switched away his gaze and found himself confronted by a lean sunburnt face with trim moustache," we learn early in the first chapter, "and the stare of two steely ice-blue eyes: his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He noted the spare erect shoulders, the disciplined bearing.

"Spare and trim, he thought. Forty-eight, but not an ounce of unwanted flesh, not a single capitulation to age."


Soon thereafter we have "spare and trim-waisted, self-sufficient, and serenely alone, the strongest and swiftest animal on the plain. The perfect animal-machine . . ." And finally, "He was on the job again. The cheetah was off on a new prowl."

At this point, still in the first chapter, It was my brain that was squirming, trying to decide whether I'd goofed in downloading this 1962 novel and maybe should delete it from my Kindle. But I was trying it on the recommendation of my blogging friend Neer, and so pushed ahead to give it a better chance. And my reward was a humdinger of a read!

Back to the squirming toad, which makes its appearance early, as well—chapter two. Our cheetah, our "perfect animal-machine," hits a bump, literally, on its way to the nighttime rendezvous with another secret agent. The hairline crack from this bump gives us a peek at the man within the cheetah's skull: "'Another jackal,' he thought. 'Must have been somewhere down in that scrub. And my God, I jumped. There’s no getting out of it,' he thought. 'I jumped. That little beggar made me jump.'

"It had not been much of a jump, and most people under the circumstances would have jumped out of their skins—but most people were not in this game. And in this game you had no right to jump at all. You trained yourself against jumping—against all outward manifestations of surprise. And normally nothing could make him jump. Even if Beelzebub had appeared at his elbow in a sulphurous flash, he wouldn’t have batted an eyelid..." His mind squirms frantically, worrying, on and on as he heads toward the rendezvous, stablizing by the time he gets there by persuading himself he could rely on his "nerves of steel" when they were needed.

With that peek of squirming toad I gained enough respect for the author to keep me reading. Now I could see Birkett was likely something more human than a cartoon character with delusions of feline prowess. And my faith in Richard Mason and his character grew steadily with the novel's advancing complexity—or, more accurately, the complexity revealing itself in Birkett's head. His "nerves of steel" are constantly under siege as he moves closer to assassination day, pressured by conflicting feelings for the naive young Indian Embassy bureacrat he must persuade to kill the king and then himself, by conflicting feelings for Lakshmi, the beautiful young Indian he coldly seduces and reluctantly finds himself falling in love with, and by suspicion that a British Embassy official is in fact a secret agent who's onto the assassination plot.

Birkett feels his self-perceived steely nerves gradually giving way under these pressures despite Herculean efforts to remain stoic. We see two episodes of his ashram-trained yoga exercises. In the first, he spends the better part of a day seated on the floor in his hotel room, practicing until sheer concentration enabled unwilled movements of his arms to a painful position. In the second effort, desperate to regain the self-confidence he found himself losing as his feelings evolved, his concentration fails. He tries to call off his young assassin, whom he's come to think of as his son, telling him he'd found someone else to shoot the king. He confesses all to Lakshmi, trying to justify his outlook by explaining the cheetah comparison: “Once I came across a cheetah in Africa— sitting by itself under a fever tree on the Serengeti. Struck me it was a lone sort of chappie like me, that’s all.”

This outlook eventually breaks down completely after he accidentally hits a goat with his jeep and then, despite striking it repeatedly with a wrench, with Lakshmi watching, horrified, fails to put the screaming animal out of its misery. He remains stoic as they drive back to the hotel, where, alone in his room, he cries for two hours.

"Once Lakshmi came in, and he did not even mind that she should see him lying there sobbing like a child.

"She asked if there was anything she could do. But he shook his head, and she went away.

"Later the sobs began to subside. At last they stopped altogether. He lay still on the damp rumpled bed. He was drained of all thought and feeling.

"Presently he got up and went over to the dressing-table. He stared in the mirror, at the bedraggled unfamiliar figure with the rumpled trousers and rucked-up vest, the blotched tear stained face, the moustache with damp crushed bristles like an old disreputable toothbrush. He had never seen a sadder bit of human wreckage.

"'Well, there you are,' he thought. 'There’s the cheetah for you. Spare and trim and dedicated— the perfect animal-machine. The King of the Plain. Well, that’s the end of that little game. No more playing at cheetahs. No more fever trees. My fever’s over. My temperature’s down.' His head was clear now and he saw quite plainly what he must do."

By now he knows the English agent is on his tail and means to turn him over to local authorities, who would mete out the death penalty. Birkett and Lakshmi decide to flee Nepal, hoping to make it to Tibet, and eventually to China. Crossing the Himalayas Birkett is stabbed by a border guard, forcing the couple to continue on foot. Feeling he is nearing death, Birkett reflects on his conversion from a cold, lethal "lone ranger" to a man ready to die in peace. He'd at last learned to live.

"For forty-eight years he had not lived, but had been a prisoner chained in darkness behind locked doors. And then he had met Lakshmi and she had touched some springs in him that had caused the doors to fly open one after another, letting in sunlight and fresh air. And he had begun to live— to experience for the first time the sheer joy of being alive.

"He would have bitterly regretted dying before this had happened. But now it had happened, and he could die with a sense of fulfilment. He could accept death with equanimity because he had learnt the value of life."

He persuades Lakshmi to head back to the border post to save herself. Now alone, he befriends a bird that's pecking futilely on the frozen ground for something to eat. Nearly frozen himself he's unable to move to keep the bird from eating the suicide capsule he had tossed away rather than take his own life. He watches "birdie boy" swallow the pill, convulse and die. The former cold-blooded Communist killer feels anguish. He recognizes the irony: "He had come to Nepal to take the life of a king, and now his heart was breaking because he had accidentally taken the life of a bird."

The Fever Tree was Mason's final novel, which followed his best known, The World of Suzie Wong.

Richard Mason

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


A little over a year ago, moved by a Kitty Boots poem to consider braving the nearly 8,000-foot killer Andes altitude of Machu Picchu, I almost put Machu Picchu on my bucket list. But being a tad chickenhearted and a habitual procrastinator, I neglected doing so. In fact, truth be told, I had yet to do a bucket list at all. Months later a friend who'd been to Machu Picchu described the breathlessness of her experience, literally, from the arduous climb to its summit and, at the summit, her figurative gasp at the momentous vista she beheld. This New Year's morning, with no warning, Machu Picchu invaded my imagination urging that I should no longer delay starting a bucket list, if only for the sake of adding Machu Picchu to it. This I did forthwith, putting Machu Picchu right under the first item on the list: to write and sell a marketable novel that can enable me to afford a trip to Machu Picchu.

Once committed, I immediately entered the planning stage, and went to Amazon (not the Amazon, doofus!) to see what books, if any, there might be about the sixteenth-century Inca citadel. There were so many I gave up counting. Yet, understanding the need for due diligence in launching a project this challenging, I meticulously narrowed my choice to two books. Both happened to be the top two listed. I eventually downloaded the one at the very top, which I learned later was quite the better of the two. The next one down, I learned, the one I’d rejected--although written by Hiram Bingham III, the Yale professor/explorer who on July 24, 1911, first photographed Machu Picchu and who was the inspiration for the fictional character Indiana Jones--was nowhere near so useful as the one I chose: Turn Right at Machu Picchu. This became more and more obvious, as Turn Right at Machu Picchu embraced the story of Bingham’s “discovery” of what he thought was the fabled Lost City of the Incas, as well as a history of the Incas and a trudging reenactment of Bingham’s trek through Peru’s jungles and over its mountains a century later by Turn Right’s author, Mark Adams.

And if the Indiana Jones link is art imitating life, Adams’s Australian guide, John Leivers, was, in the author’s eyes, the reverse, the spitting image of another fictional character, Crocodile Dundee (which, in a double reverse, was based on another real Australian Outback guide).

As he approached forty-one, Adams found himself feeling something of a midlife crisis. In his job as a New York editor with adventure magazines, sending writers off on assignments to exotic places, he was getting an itch to have an adventure of his own. “On paper, I was an adventure expert,” he writes. “My actual boots-on-the-ground experience was somewhat limited. I had never hunted or fished, didn’t own a mountain bike and couldn’t start a fire without matches if ordered to do so at gunpoint."

About this time, he says, articles about Hiram Bingham and Machu Picchu began turning up in the news. “As piles of Bingham-related material accumulated on my computer’s desktop, I noticed that one crucial piece of information seemed to be missing. No one could say with confidence exactly why this extraordinary complex of stone buildings had been constructed in the first place. Was it a fortress? A sun temple? A really elaborate granary? A spiritual portal to the fourth dimension, constructed by extraterrestrial stonemasons? All of these ideas had been floated, but only one person seemed to have definitive answers: Bingham.”

Adams's interest gradually grew into an obsession. Over the hundred years since Bingham’s archaeological coup, countless experts have argued over the significance of Machu Picchu. Most modern theories discounted as "ridiculous" Bingham’s claim that he’d found the Lost City.The latest hypothesis that seemed to be generally accepted, Adams says, was that of a couple of Yale scholars “who’d spent years going over the artifacts that Bingham had excavated.” The students concluded that Machu Picchu had been the country estate of an Inca emperor.

I thought: That’s it? The lost summer home of the Incas? There had to be more to the story.”

On a sudden inspiration he called his wife at her veterinarian job. What would you say,” he asked her, “if I told you I wanted to quit my job and go follow in the footsteps of the guy who found Machu Picchu?”

“‘I guess...’ She paused. Somewhere in the background an angry kitten meowed. ‘I guess I’d say, What took you so long?'"

Hiram Bingham III
Adams had gotten somewhat familiar with Peru periodically visiting his wife’s kin and friends in Lima. He’d even been to Machu Picchu, but as a typical tourist, the kind known to John Leivers and other professional guides as “martini explorers.”

“‘People used to be travelers, Mark,’ Leivers told him as they prepared to head into the jungle.’Now they’re tourists. People want hotels, cafés, the Internet. They won’t even camp!’

“‘You’re kidding!’ I said, a little too loudly. I had already checked my e-mail at an Internet café twice that morning. The last time I’d slept in a tent was in 1978, when my father brought an imitation teepee home from Sears and set it up in our backyard.”

While there are three preferred ways to get to the Machu Picchu citadel, ranging from over a week taking the Inca Trail to about an hour by train from the nearest city, Cusco, and a little longer “the back way” on foot along the tracks of a railroad spur, Adams opted for a fourth: to follow Bingham’s meandering hundred-mile trek of about a month. This meant packing supplies on mules and walking through topography that can shift from mountain frigid to tropical torrid in an instant. One simple mistake can cost a life or serious misery. Adams experienced the latter when he forgot to wear two pair of socks in his boots. His toes got so blistered he had to wrap electrical tape around them and walk with splayed feet, like a duck, to keep up with his guide and the mule team. A whip-back bush branch Leivers had chopped carelessly with his machete cut one of his eyeballs forcing him to wear an eye patch, thus limiting his three-dimensional vision, a danger in itself in such treacherous conditions.

Australian guide John Leivers on the ancient Inca Trail

Now that I’ve concluded my preliminary research it’s obvious to me I will be using one of the lesser three ways to reach the citadel. I’d prefer to walk the stone-paved Inca Trail, but at the very end there’s a long set of white stairs reaching a summit, a set of tall stone pillars guides call “the gringo killer.” Not that I’m afraid or anything, but...going in “the back way” might be fun! Depending on weather, though, I just might end up sheepishly riding the damned train.

Then there’s the question of uniqueness, the idea of doing something out of the ordinary. I picture myself standing alone among the geometric landscaping and puzzling buildings of the citadel itself, gazing up at Huayna Picchu, the peak to the north, or down from Machu Picchu (the mountain) in the south. But such is most likely impossible, considering Machu Picchu (citadel and namesake mountain) comprise the most popular tourist attraction in South America.

Adams says the number of annual visitors to the site had doubled in the ten years since 2000 from about four hundred thousand to more than eight hundred thousand, This, despite the price of entry tickets more than quadrupling during that time.

“A person can easily spend two hundred dollars a night on accommodations,” he says.”Rooms up at the site-adjacent Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, which is like an Embassy Suites with no pool or parking lot but a great location, start at eight hundred dollars.”

With this in mind, and knowing I won’t be climbing to “the gringo killer” or probably even scuttling along the spur railroad tracks, neither shall I be a “martini explorer” at Machu Picchu. I might be able to find an affordable room in Cusco, but the train ride from there to Machu Picchu cost Adams and his teenage son some $400 when they did the earlier tourist visit.

I guess now I’d best get cracking on that novel.

[Although this is no forgotten book, nor is it likely to be forgotten for a long long time,--if ever--I nonetheless submit it for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books blog list. After all, there might be someone out there who hasn’t yet considered a trip to Machu Picchu before they kick the bucket. Patti’s list can be found here.]