Thursday, January 31, 2019


'Twasn't sin that tempted me from the glory of Christianity back in the day, when, at a tender age in Wisconsin, I began reading a Gideon bible I'd found in a room of the old hotel my lawyer dad bought to convert into offices. The hotel had a particular charm, that of having provided a bed one night for John Dillinger and Billie Frechette on their way north to Manitowish for a weekend getaway with fellow gang members at the Little Bohemia lodge--or so old timers who had lived at the hotel back then and were helping Grandpa with the conversion claimed. We believed them. I did, anyway...
Where was I? Oh yeah, I'd taken one of the bibles home, wondering if maybe Dillinger himself had glanced at it, or, more likely, cursed and waved his .45 at it. With this hint of cachet about the neglected old book I started at the beginning, and began reading the goosebumpy fascinating stuff of Genesis with the familiar names and events in and out of The Garden, and was feeling a new thrill of wonder and righteousness. This lasted a few pages until I hit the desert of the begots: To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad begot Mehujael, and Mehujael begot Methushael, and Methushael begot Lamech...and it went on for a while, pages and pages and pages. Names that had never confronted me before and that I was afraid to try to pronounce even in my head, and on and on until I began wondering if maybe I had pushed my barely pubescent sensibility into some dark forbidden territory and I was going mad and...well, I ran. Ran like hell, I suppose, in the contextual vernacular, ran as fast and as far as I could get from the Judeo-Christian history of our species. And I stayed hidden from it for a long while. A long long while. And this might explain the second take I took looking at the title of one of my favorite crime fiction author’s books: Murder Begets Murder. I’d be lying, of course, to say seeing the word begets on the cover of a book I was about to read come hell or high water gave me a frisson leap backward of thrilling memory, and I do try pretty hard not to lie any more, as I subsequently, many years later, read most of both Testaments, excepting the begots, and consider myself today what the late Walker Percy called of himself a “wayfaring Christian.” But just now it occurred to me as a different sort of lead-in to a review of yet another of Roderic Jeffries’s three dozen Mallorquin mysteries featuring the delightfully predictable, lazy, brandy-loving, wily old Detective Inspector Enrique Alvarez.

As with a couple of the other Alvarez mysteries I’ve read, the story begins with Alvarez making only a cameo appearance unrelated in any way, it would seem, with the murder he eventually must solve. In Murder Begets Murder he's attending the wedding of friends, all local Mallorquins, where he overhears gossip among the women and reflects on the changing morality of the younger generation.
Prosperity had eased people’s lives, but it had also destroyed some of their values,” he muses. “When there had been poverty, families had stayed together, neighbor had helped neighbor. Now, married children were no longer willing to have their elderly parents living with them and neighbor overcharged neighbor.” And at the next table “young men were flirting with young women and making them giggle and blush.
Years ago, men and women never tried to behave like that–and if they had, the women’s parents would soon have put a stop to such dangerous nonsense. An illegitimate child was a sin beyond understanding. But these days, even in the streets of Llueso, one saw slips of women wheeling prams in which lay their little bastards. They might act as if it were nothing, but surely in their secret minds they must wish times had not changed so that they had not been exposed to temptation.”
Back at his office, we find him in one of his frequent meditations on life in general. This scene made me laugh aloud as it endeared me all the more to this very believable character: “Alvarez, sitting behind his desk, stared at the shaft of sunshine coming through the window in which was a multitude of dancing flecks of dust. It was tiring to watch such ceaseless activity.
The internal phone buzzed. He ignored it and continued to stare at the dancing dust. Eventually, each single speck would end up on the floor, lifeless. Most of what a man did during his lifetime ended up forgotten...eyelids closed...his mind slipped into a delightful peace. The internal phone buzzed again, jerking him wide awake. Resentfully, he lifted the receiver.”
The call comes in Chapter Six with the narrative returning to Alvarez after having moved away from the wedding scene to concentrate on the supercilious and licentious concerns of the island’s transplanted English society. One of the English women has been found dead in her house, the detective’s unliked and unlikable captain tells him, and Alvarez leaves his study of dust and slowly hurries to the remote house to find the badly decomposed corpse. By now we know more about the woman than Alvarez, as she has been the favorite topic of gossip among the English expats. Unliked and unlikable herself, she’d been suspected of carrying on a secret affair while her purported lover lay abed upstairs apparently dying of some mysterious ailment. When he finally died, she gave the key to a lawyer with instructions to keep the house locked up, forbidding even the greedy, unlikable landlord to enter until the lease ran out in a month. The house was opened when the month was up, and there she was, dead on the kitchen floor.

The only clue arousing the detective’s suspicion was evidence the woman had eaten some clams as her last meal. Alvarez found the shells in the garbage. He subsequently learned that the woman’s dead lover had lost his wife supposedly to accidental poisoning back in England. Bad clams the suspected culprit.
But murders in Mallorca are rarely what they seem, at least once Alvarez gets involved. This one’s no different. By now, four books into the series, I’ve given up trying to guess whodunnit, or why, or even how. Yet the solutions make perfect, satisfying sense once Alvarez unravels the mystery with his unrelenting pursuit of what seem to be the tiniest motes of quirky evidence. Alvarez acknowledges the oddness of these cases, putting the blame squarely on the English themselves.Sudden and unexpected death always raised questions,” he tells us, with a touch of humor, “but usually these were quickly answered: the English, though, forever ungraciously awkward, seemed unable to die straightforwardly.”
Meanwhile I remained fascinated by the unraveling of his character in matters uncommon to the stereotypical police personality. Girding himself to interview a woman who’s husband had just been killed in a suspicious car accident, he realizes he hates “himself, his job, and a world in which one person could be so terribly hurt…Alvarez had never been able dispassionately to observe another’s grief: he was far too emotional for that. So to an extent [the widow’s] tragedy became a tragedy for him.”
The interview does not go well, and at one point his questions push her too far. “‘God, I hope one day it happens to you,’ she said wildly.
“‘Señora,’ he answered sombrely, ‘many years ago just such a tragedy happened to me.’
She put her clenched hand to her mouth and began to cry. In between sobs, she whispered: ‘Sweet Mary, I’m sorry.’
He went over to her and held her against his side for a moment. ‘Señora, words are useless, or I would use a thousand. But gradually help will come through time.’”
I’m struggling to imagine Dirty Harry or Sgt. Friday in that scene.

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

Thursday, January 24, 2019


When Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone's booze problem cost him his wife and his job as a detective with the LAPD he went east, taking the job of police chief in a Massachusetts seaside town called Paradise. Canadian author Ted Wood's Reid Bennett went north and took a one-man cop job in the lakeside Ontario village of Murphy's Harbour after he lost his wife and police-detective job in Toronto. Bennett's screw-up was killing two bikers of three he caught in a would-be gang rape. He wasn't drunk, and he was unarmed. He killed them defending himself with his bare hands, something he'd learned to do as a U.S. Marine fighting in Vietnam.

"I was off duty. My gun was locked in the safe at the station and I'd changed into plain clothes, so they didn't even know I was a policeman. It wouldn't have mattered to the big one, anyway. He went six-four, maybe two-eighty. He figured he was Superman. Until I stuck two fingers into his throat."
While Bennett's fearless action possibly saved the girl's life, it certainly prevented two of the trio of human scum from raping her. Yet he was charged and tried for murder. "It's for your own good," his supervisor told him. "You'll be out on bail in an hour and you'll be acquitted. You have to understand, nobody likes a policeman who can kill people." Despite being found innocent in his trial, the media lambasted him "and the phone calls started. Then the garbage against the door of the house.
"I couldn't understand at first what made the public take sides with a bunch of bikies working on a gang rape. But I worked it out as the days passed. It was me they resented. I'd broken faith with the liberals who were slamming me now. When I'd volunteered for service in the States, gone to a war their own guys were running to Canada to avoid, I'd put myself on the other side of some fence. If I'd stayed in northern Ontario and rotted my lungs out in the smelter at the nickel mine, they would have treated me like a brother."
Dead in the Water is the first in a series of nine Reid Bennett novels. Though it received so-so reviews, it won the Scribner Crime Novel Award for 1983. I understand the tepid critical reception, yet went on and read the second in the series, Murder on Ice. Two blogging friends, Richard Robinson of Tip of the Wink, and Kevin Tipple of Kevin's Corner, had encouraged me to try the series, and I'm glad I did. To borrow the punchline of an awful old joke my dad loved to tell about the guy who couldn't help cheating on his gorgeous wife: "If you have steak every night at home, now and again you just feel like going out and getting a good ol' hamburger." There's no mistaking these first two Reid Bennett novels as anything but literary hamburgers, albeit rather tasty ones.

Death in the Water's Kirkus review, which I understand comes with a fee, found Wood's talent distinctly "modest...for wry, hard-boiled delivery--despite a plot that's hectic rather than genuinely mysterious or clever...solid action, a few charming touches, sturdy shoestring-procedure: a serviceable debut, with promise, perhaps, of better things to come." I can't disagree, and the same applies for Murder on Ice.
What I liked best about both novels was the voice. The first-person narrative by Bennett is matter-of-fact without the macho sneer I hear in most characters of this type. He's respectful of women, and while painting photographer Carl Simmonds, "the town's only obvious homosexual," with stereotypical clothes and flamboyance, calls him "a good man."
I liked Sam, Bennett's amazingly well-trained German Shepherd, essentially his only crime-fighting partner. Reviewers have suggested Sam's a tad too good to be true—and he is—but so is Bennett. These books are intended as entertainment, after all, not highbrow literature.
I agree with reviewers who find the stories' mystery aspect somewhat less than brilliant. Well, you who've been reading my reviews know clever, complex mysteries can annoy me as cutesy. I'm more keen on character, suspense, and the procedural apects of crime-solving—just enough of a sense of authenticity to allow suspension of disbelief. These two novels pretty much lived up to those expectations. Wood might have toned down the crowd-hysteria scenes without hurting the stories. Several scenes like this reminded me of those old silent movies where a couple of guys in a bar start fighting, and instantly everyone in the place is involved, smashing each other with chairs and throwing people through windows. I enjoy scenes like that in movies, but as comedy. In Wood's novels they detracted from a sense of reality I was otherwise buying into.

I'm sure some of you are wondering what these two books are about. Their plots. Every review I've read does that, and I hate to reinvent perfectly good wheels. You can link to Kevin's and Richard's reviews if plot particulars are what you want. You can guess from the titles that the first one took place in summer, while the second one in winter. Without risking spoilers, this tells you right away that chase scenes in Dead in the Water take place with boats, and in Murder on Ice the vehicles are snowmobiles. And there are chase scenes—breathtaking ones. There are fights, handled by an author who knows whereof he writes. One of his many jobs, listed in the author bio, was beat cop. He also was an airplane pilot, a pinboy, soda-jerk, freight porter, and "advertising hot-shot." Before Dead in the Water, his debut novel, he'd written "dozens of short stories, hundreds of magazine articles including two long-running humour columns, television plays and one musical comedy."
I could add, tongue in cheek: and maker of pretty damned good hamburgers.

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


Thursday, January 17, 2019

MAYHEM – J. Robert Janes

Almost immediately the two well-seasoned cops staring at the young man 's bludgeoned corpse on a little-traveled road some forty miles from Paris know they're likely in something over their heads. Else why were they rousted out of bed in the wee hours to investigate "a nothing body. A kid, for Christ’s sake! Murders like this, who cared??"

"Mein Gott," grumbles one of the cops when they recognize their predicament. "Ah, Mon Dieu," the other whispers.

Schultz from Hogan's Heroes, and Casablanca's Louis? Start of a beautiful friendship? Well, it's a partnership, and beautiful in the sense that they're damned good detectives working together in Nazi-occupied France to solve serious civilian crimes while World War II rages around them. Hence their switch into caution mode finding what seems to be perhaps the end of a not-so-beautiful friendship, in particular a romance broken not with harsh words to the heart but, less rhetorically, with a boulder to the head. The next obvious possibility is that the French Resistance murdered the victim for collaborating with the enemy. But they find no evidence of this.

"...why the goddamned interest?" Hermann Kohler muses. "Why set the Gestapo and the Sûreté on to something that wasn’t even in their turf and could just as well have been left to the local flics and the Préfet of Paris whose beat it was? Ah yes.

"Why, unless those local flics weren’t any good and von Richthausen, being a von like the rest, had got his back up?" He and his French partner soon learn the Nazi interest goes all the way to Berlin, that the Führer himself has his eye on them. But why? No one will say.

More interesting to me than the who and the why that occupy these two cops is the who of the cops and how they've come to be working together. First of all Hermann Kohler is no Schultz, despite a stereotypical physical resemblance: " A giant of a man with the heart and mind of a small-time hustler... At fifty-five years of age he understood only too well the vagaries of life. He’d cock an eye at something new but beyond that, no surprise, only a stolid acceptance of human frailties. He frowned at his superiors, remaining remote from them. The bulldog jowls, sad, puffy eyelids that bagged and drooped to well-rasped cheeks and shrapnel scars, served only to emphasize the hidden thoughts behind the faded blue and often expressionless eyes. The nose was pugnacious, the lower jaw that of a storm-trooper. Hermann had come up through the ranks."

Jean-Louis St-Cyr, the team's French half, "was inclined to be plump, to let the dust settle on things, but to be very careful when blowing it off. Somewhat shabby, somewhat diffident, he had the broad, bland brow, the brown ox-eyes of the French, a moustache that was thicker and wider than the Führer’s and grown long before the war and thus left in defiance of it. The distant air of a muse, the heart of a poet and the hands of a … what? stormed Kohler. A fisherman, a gardener, a reader of books in winter. A chief inspector of the Sûreté Nationale, the Criminal Investigation Branch at number 11 rue de Saussaies."

One problem I had, and others have mentioned, is with author J. Robert Janes's narrative style. In two words, it's not smooth. The point of view continually jerks back and forth between Hermann and Louis often with no cues as to whose mind we are reading. Mayhem, appearing in 1992, is the inaugural novel of what has grown to a series of sixteen cases involving the odd detective partnership. The most recent, Clandestine, came out in 2015. I may read more of them, as I grew to like the two characters—fully developed as individuals and as reluctant partners getting to know and respect each other. There's even a cautious affection between them, which both know is temporary and may end in disaster depending on the course of the war. Here's St-Cyr's take on that likely outcome:

So far they had avoided the inevitable. Each day, however, had brought them closer and closer to that final moment of decision. To kill or not to kill Hermann. He’d hate to have to fire the shots. The Resistance would hunt him down in any case. They’d never listen. Not to him. I live on the edge of a chasm, he said to himself.

Other characters, though less intimately drawn, are memorable in supporting roles. There's Gabrielle Arcuri—oh, be still my squirming libido—who is, St-Cyr tells us, "at once every man’s dream of a lover and the heart’s dream of home." Sure, the guy's a poet,
but I wholeheartedly agree with his take on this mesmerizing, possible femme fatale. Then there's the bemedaled Nazi SS general, dangerous as an enraged scorpion. His taking center stage as the novel's apparent villain-in-chief summoned forth memories of Hans Hellmut Kirst’s WWII novel Night of the Generals, with its film version starring that Lawrence of Arabia sterling duo Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.

As Mayhem is twice as long as the average crime novel, I had to buckle down and take time off from my chaotic social life to finish the damned thing in time to write this review for my Friday’s Forgotten Books deadline. The read, with its speed bumps and hairpin turns, took twice as long as I’d hoped, and my fingers at this very moment are trembling with haste—similar, I suspect, to the anxiety that drove Hermann and Louis to solve their mysterious assignment in time to keep from being...oh, I’ll keep that card face down. Just for the hell of it. Mein Gott, you say? Ach, Mon Dieu to you! 
J. Robert Janes

For those of you who on the off-chance hated this review or simply want some substance, more informative ones by friend Tracy can be found by clicking on the link to her blog Bitter Tea & Mystery. Good day or night, then, to you and all the ships at sea.

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

Thursday, January 10, 2019


I was in West Germany in 1964 wearing a headset and listening to Morse code day and night when Jane Langton's first Homer Kelly crime novel hit the streets in the U.S. of A. Had I learned of it somehow, I couldn't have cared less. I was reading Norman Mailer for recreation back then. Had I been prescient, of course, I might have known somehow that fifty-five years and seventeen more Homer Kelly novels hence I would fall in love with the novel Ms. Langton had written for me, unwittingly, of course, unless she was prescient. As I am too skeptical of the idea of prescience to feel comfortable with that explanation I must resort to crediting pure happenstance if not its loftier cousin cosmic convergence for the blessed union of me and The Transcendental Murderwith a celestial introduction, I am delighted to add, by friend Tracy at her blog Bitter Tea & Mystery.
Lest my enthusiasm seem a tad extravagant, let me emphasize with some detail. Let's see, ah, it has a glorious murder, one I myself would have loved to commit, as would many of the other characters who knew the malevalent, hateful victim and thus had righteous motive, which, with ample opportunity and the obvious means, could have performed the deed. There’s a second murder, presumably executed by the first murderer, which trims the list of usual suspects and paints the murderer with a hue nearly as heinous as that of the first victim, having the effect of switching sentiments from congratulating the perpetrator of the first murder to wishing him/her extreme punishment for the second.

A pause here to note that the first murder is by 60-caliber flintlock-propelled lead ball, while the second is by marble bust of Louisa May Alcott hurled from a balcony unto the victim's head.
Louisa May Alcott

With that I've given you another detail! History, both military and literary, joined in present day lethal mischief in—yet another detail—Concord, Mass., during a span of several cruel mid-April days commemorating the grand inception two centuries prior of our country's glorious, painful birth. And there's romance! Undeclared for most of the book but understood by everyone else, between two tall people: the literary cop who scoffs at Concord as “a polite little suburban pest-hole, living on its picayune history,” but is enchanted by the riveting eyes of the town’s assistant librarian whose infatuation—nay, deep, abiding love—is reserved for the long-deceased Concordian favorite son Henry David Thoreau.

And there are yuks. One that almost took the wind out of me was undoubtedly the consequence of a mischievous auto-correct feature in preparing the novel for this Mysterious Press revival, unless the culprit is the typist who no doubt is still in the stocks in some proper New England town enduring well-deserved public shame. Should you happen to be reading this in a public place, you’re advised to restrain yourself when reading the following, copied directly (I’m leaving sic off the questionable word to obviate confusion as to who might have wrought the sic-warranted noun) from the Kindle text:

The lanyard men stuck their long pricks in the touchholes to free loose powder from the powder bags inside...”

Picks, I presume. Else I’d have to say those artillery reenactors were better men than I, in perhaps more ways than one (I always make a point of approaching touchholes prudently).
Blazing touchholes at Concord Bridge

Good Lord, where were we? Ah yes, the plot—or plawt as I imagine “Old Concords” might say. Anyway, the plot--as we shall spell it--bursts into cacophonous lethality when Ernest Goss, the primary victim-to-be, reads a series of titillating love letters between members of historic Concord’s august society, including Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mrs. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Fuller, which he claims to have obtained mysteriously and intends to publish. The setting is a meeting of the Committee on Public Ceremonies and Celebrations Relative to the 19th of April Ceremony (a celebration called Patriot’s Day involving a parade, speeches, and reenactions complete with the firing of Colonial era cannons and muskets).

Goss ignites vastly more than powdery touchholes when his pompous voice lets fly with the first letter:

My dear Waldo,

Oh, thou, other half of my thought, other chamber of my heart! Thou the castle’s King, I the Queen! Long have I waited in the dust to behold thy golden litter! At first I feared thou wert cold, but now thou hast raised me to reign in full-orbed glory beside thy infinite majesty! That thou shouldst have worshipped poor Mignon’s body as well as her soul transports her humanity to heaven’s height. O, what rapture in Mrs. O’Flannigan’s back sitting-room! O, divine divan! I am chosen among women! And thou, O sage, hast a Queen for thy Soul-wife!

Lilacs perfume the air with ecstasy.

But what of Lidian, who shares thy earthly home? Would a more transcendent honesty veil from her the dazzling light of Truth, lest it bring pain upon her lower nature?


Oh, the horror, the horror, the Old Concords responded, with their gasps, their voices, and their shocked, jerking body language and glaring visages. There are more letters, more shocks, more hoots, cries, and raging faces. Enough enmity to get Goss got right there in Orchard House, home of the Alcotts.
Suspects in his shooting death following the Patriot’s Day festivities also include his family. He’d laughingly shot one of his two sons in the leg with a musket ball, and deeply humiliated one of his daughters at a reception in his home, and there was a sense of estrangement with his wife—I would have thought because metaphorically his general conduct suggested the personality of a hemorrhoid, but we are told the head librarian, Alice Herpitude, knows a deep, dark Goss family secret. [one of the things I especially love about The Transcendental Murder is a listing of the
Lidian Emerson
principal characters at the beginning, each with a little hint of their persona and role in the story. With Mary Morgan, the assistant librarian, for example, we have “Concord? Mary would never have said as much out loud, but she felt herself walking on holy ground. (Looking at her, Homer found himself mumbling a phrase by Thoreau, ‘The eye is the jewel of the body.’) Homer? This would be Homer Kelly, the cop/history buff and namesake of Langton’s eighteen-book mystery series.]

Jane Langton
Jane Langton? You would have to ask. Wikipedia tells us she was born in Boston, had a couple of master’s degrees, and lived in Lincoln, Mass., near Concord, joining her ancestors last Dec. 22. I mourn her loss, and intend to read more Homer Kelly mysteries, for the history, the romance, the cleverly executed mysteries, and the humor—hers. The typist’s in this book was a bonus.

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