Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book Review: The Red Thumb Mark

The Red Thumb Mark
R. Austin Freeman

Another old-school classic, of sorts, found at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. The Red Thumb Mark (1907) is the first of Freeman's "Dr. Thorndyke" series. Freeman was very well-known and well-regarded back in the Golden Age of Mystery; he has a fair claim to have invented the scientific-legal thriller, in which the detective uses genuine scientific or technical knowledge to identify the criminal.

On that level I have no quarrels with The Red Thumb Mark. The science is detailed, well-explained, and (as far as I can judge) sound. The expository dialog is a little stiff, but it's not bad for all that. The trial scenes are entertaining, too.

When Freeman is writing about anything other than science or law, though, his prose takes on a distinctly mauve shade. It's not quite purple, but . . . well, just look.
I glanced from time to time at my companion, and noted that her cheek still bore a rosy flush, and when she looked at me, there was a sparkle in her eye, and a smiling softness in her glance, that stirred my heart until I trembled with the intensity of the passion that I must needs conceal. And while I was feeling that I must tell her all, and have done with it, tell her that I was her abject slave, and she my goddess, my queen; that in the face of such a love as mine, no man could have any claim upon her; even then, there arose the still, small voice that began to call me an unfaithful steward and to remind me of a duty and trust that were sacred even beyond love.
The actual dialogue I will spare you. On his worst day, Conan Doyle (to take one instance) could not possibly have written this stuff.

It must also be said that Jervis, the narrator, is phenomenally dim-witted, while Dr. Thorndyke himself is colorless and one-dimensional. O tempora! O mores! The prose of 1907 is not the prose of 2017. I fear that, unlike such distinguished contemporaries as The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), The Red Thumb Mark must now be regarded mainly as a period piece.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: The Dispatcher

The Dispatcher
John Scalzi
Science fiction

A novella rather than a novel, The Dispatcher is an intriguing concept executed with a kind of minimalism. There are some cool ideas here, but they're outlined rather than developed. It's heavy on dialogue, and the dialogue is somewhat less flagrantly Scalzi-esque than usual. I liked it. It's very much in the old-school SF mode. I kind of hope Scalzi develops the idea further, though.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: The Crash Detectives

The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World's Most Mysterious Air Disasters
Christine Negroni
Engineering, transportation

This book was a disappointment. In the first place, it's not about any actual crash detectives. Mainly it's a jumpy, incomplete, and speculative smorgasbord of miscellaneous air disaster stories, some of which don't even conclude. Furthermore, it's glib, it's shallow, and it indulges in after-the-fact finger-pointing. Finally, it spends way too much time expounding Christine Negroni's theory about Malaysia Airlines flight 370. (The theory itself--hypoxia--is reasonable enough.) Avoid, and avoid the author unless she gets a competent editor.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Book Review: Iron Horses

Iron Horses: America's Race to Bring the Railroads West
Walter R. Borneman
History, trains

Imagine reading a play-by-play recount of a sporting event--one of Roger Angell's classic baseball essays, for example. If you're totally uninterested in baseball, then even a really good account isn't going to flutter the cockles of your heart. If you're a fan, that's a different story.

So it is with Iron Horses. There's a brief introduction to the time and the place (the American Southwest, 1850 and after) and to some of the main characters. Then we're off. Here's Cyrus K. Holliday coming up for the plucky underdog Santa Fe ... and he's secured his federal grants! He's setting out for the state line, building track. And here comes the Kansas Pacific, pushing him from the north! Those grants come with a deadline! It's an epic race, folks, and let's not forget "General" Palmer and his Rio Grande system stirring around near Denver--

I liked Iron Horses a lot. It's fast-paced, lively, quite well-written, and does a fairly good job at handling a large cast of both men and railroads. It's got scope. It's got engineering and local color and finance and tycoons and a couple of actual, honest-to-god gunfights. It even has, just barely, enough maps.

But, then, to continue the sporting analogy, I'm already a fan. I have model trains in my basement and train pictures on my walls and a ton of history books upstairs. I'm not convinced that Iron Horses--good though it is!--would translate to the non-fan community. Borneman's writing for readers who have some idea of the geography and railroads of the West, who already know the difference between a 4-4-0 and a 2-8-0.

It's instructive to compare Iron Horses with Cattle Kingdom. They overlap in space and time. They're both nicely readable. They both have a major story arc with various offshoots. They both work well at the macro scale: politics, finance, rich guys, trends, and so forth. Cattle Kingdom does a better job in shifting to the micro scale, though--the scale of individuals working on the ground--and that gives it an extra measure of appeal. Iron Horses has, if anything, more in the way of conflict and competition; and yet, ultimately, its stars are railroads more than people.

There are two good books about the building of the first transcontinental railroad: Nothing Like It in the World (Stephen Ambrose) and Empire Express (David Haward Bain). Ambrose's book is very readable, but has been criticized on accuracy grounds.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: Appleby and the Ospreys

Appleby and the Ospreys
Michael Innes

Like Black Land, White Land, this is an older book that I picked up at the very fine Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Unlike Black Land, White Land, it was a pleasure to read. Michael Innes, in private life, was the Cambridge don J.I.M. Stewart (and as a youth studied under J. R. R. Tolkien), and he wrote with donnish wit and donnish elegance about donnish murders. Appleby and the Ospreys is, I believe, the very last of his Sir John Appleby mysteries (1986). It's not a major work, and the mystery is not extremely mystifying, but there's one quite clever bit--involving hidden treasure, forsooth!--and the writing is quite up to snuff. Overall, a quick and enjoyable diversion.

Innes wrote several well-regarded novels; Hamlet, Revenge! is perhaps the best-known.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
David Grann
Crime, History

David Grann's previous book, The Lost City of Z, is an extraordinary saga of Amazon exploration, lost civilizations, and mystery--one that wouldn't be out of place in a pulp adventure, except that it really happened. Killers of the Flower Moon is likewise almost too good to be true, but it's a darker and harder story: not adventure, but noir.

At first blush, the two books might seem wildly disparate. What do lost pre-Columbian jungle cities have to do with Oklahoma in the 1920s? At a closer look, though, there are things that unite them. Like its predecessor, Killers of the Flower Moon has an iconic, little-remembered central figure (the lawman Thomas White). It has some searching detective work and follow-up by David Grann himself. Most crucially, it shares a theme--the theme of Euro-Americans' blind persistence, and persistent blindness, in trying to force this continent's natives into a particular narrative mold.

I don't want to go into more detail, because I don't want to spoil the book. David Grann is a terrifically kinetic writer; like The Lost City of Z, Killers of the Flower Moon goes from zero to unstoppable within a chapter. He also has a gift for describing highly colorful events without resorting to highly colorful prose, while still bringing out their full dramatic--and, in this case, genuinely shocking--resonance. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is not a cheerful read, but it's a good one. It's a real-life detective story. It's a sad but illuminating look at an almost-forgotten episode. It's hard to put down. It's harder to ignore.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Review: Black Land, White Land

Black Land, White Land
H. C. Bailey

There's a well-known Agatha Christie work, Partners in Crime, in which each chapter riffs on one (or more) fictional detectives of the 1920s. Some of the riff-ees are still famous; many are now forgotten. Among the latter group is Mr. Reginald Fortune. Even I had never spotted him in the wild--until now.

I'd love to be able to report that this literary oblivion was undeserved, a wrong in need of righting, a deuced shame, and an all-around blot on the old escutcheon. I can't do it--not, at any rate, on the basis of Black Land, White Land. The writing is distinctly period, with the word "arch" nudging irresistibly to mind. There's no attempt at characterization. The detection is somewhat confusing to follow and not all that surprising.

In short, this is a book whose interest is mainly historical. I'm glad to have found it on that basis. I might prowl around for some of the Mr. Fortune short story collections, which are reputed to be more characteristic. For the general run of mystery reader, though, this is at best a curio.

A genuinely unjustly-neglected writer, of a slightly later period, is the clever and understated Cyril Hare. Try Tragedy at Law or Suicide Excepted.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Book Review: Abbadon's Gate

Abaddon's Gate
James S. A. Corey (pen name)
Science fiction

Short version: same as the first.

Long version: same as the second, except no space zombies.

Series summary: Firefly meets Aliens.