Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Book Review: The Dutch Shoe Mystery

The Dutch Shoe Mystery
Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee)
Mystery

All the early Ellery Queen books--those with titles following the The Nationality Object Mystery--are much of a muchness. The clues are placed fairly. The deductions are clever, if occasionally wafer-thin. The characterization is perfunctory. The dialogue is dated. And the detective, Ellery Queen himself, is insufferable.


Yes, insufferable. Dannay and Lee, as the intro to this volume points out, were imitating Philo Vance, whom Raymond Chandler called "the most asinine character in detective fiction". (Or, as Ogden Nash put it, "Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance.") Ellery Queen is less a character than a collection of mannerisms. What character he does have consists mainly of supercilious mannerisms and pretentious allusions.

Having said that, The Dutch Shoe Mystery is a workable puzzle. If you can stomach Ellery Queen (by regarding him as a plot device, is the way I did it), it's a decent enough read for those who like this sort of thing.

In justice, I should point out that:

  • Ellery Queen the character got a lot better over time.
  • "Ellery Queen" the authors were true giants of the 20th-century mystery scene; nobody in the U.S. did more for the genre.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Book Review: The Franchise Affair

The Franchise Affair
Josephine Tey
Mystery

[WARNING: Contrary to my usual practice, this review contains spoilers.]

Josephine Tey isn't as widely known as some other Golden-Age mystery writers, but her reputation among the cognoscenti is very high. The Daughter of Time and Brat Farrar and Miss Pym Disposes are all considered classics--and rightly so.

The Franchise Affair, regrettably, is nowhere near that quality. At best, it's aged poorly. Tey's virtues as a writer--characterization, in particular--are present, but they're eclipsed by a pervasive and quite nasty snobbery.

The story is a rather simple one. Robert Blair, a middle-aged lawyer with a settled life and no great passion, is called to assist one Marion Sharpe, who's been accused of kidnapping and beating a teenager named Betty Kane. In the process of finding out the truth, Blair accidentally falls in love with Marion, to his own mild confusion (this, by the way, is by far the best aspect of the book).

This being a mystery, it should surprise nobody that the heroine is innocent. What's rather disgusting is how Tey displays her class prejudices. Blair believes Marion at once because, basically, she's part of his social class--and according to Tey he's right to do so. In Tey's world, Our Sort of People are simply better than the common folk (who are all right as long as they Know Their Place). Our Sort of People can make pronouncements to the effect that you can always tell a criminal by the set of his eyes, or indeed that you can tell someone's character by the color of their eyes, and of course they're correct, because Our Sort of People just know these things. Old Colonel Whittaker pronounces Betty Kane a liar because she reminds him of this lance-corporal (not an officer, obviously!) he knew in India who was a Rank Bad Hat. Robert Blair knows that a certain witness is a liar because of, I kid you not, "the vulgar perfection of her teeth." Blair, indeed, expresses a repellent desire not merely to prove his client innocent, but to actually make Betty Kane suffer--because, I suppose, she's No Better Than She Should Be. It's all down to Breeding, you see, combined with mollycoddling the Criminal Elements among the lower classes. 

Frankly, by the middle of the book I was positively rooting for Marion Sharpe to be found guilty and sent to prison. Of course, that doesn't happen, nor is there any real suspense that it might happen (because Marion Sharp is Our Sort of People, while Betty Kane is ex hypothesi a Nasty Piece of Work). I could maybe forgive the unpleasant attitudes if the plot were a real corker, but in fact Robert Blair does absolutely nothing effective, there are no surprises or twists, and the conclusive evidence is delivered out of the blue by a random hotel owner who happened to see Betty Kane's picture in the newspaper.

Now, class prejudice in older fiction (and non-fiction) is hardly news. This particular iteration expresses the anxiety of the British upper-middle classes at losing of their privileges after World War II. That fear is perhaps the difference between forgivable and not. I'm strongly reminded of the frenzy of certain insecure males about the #MeToo movement, who are convinced that Conniving Women will be coming out of the woodwork to Threaten Their Masculinity with malicious and unfounded accusations. That's Tey's perspective the lower classes. 

By comparison, the snobbery found in Christie and (especially) Sayers is positively benign. Sayers certainly maintains the distinction between Our Sort of People and the rest, but the rest aren't considered to be inherently vicious and threatening and Other; indeed, when she's not being comic, she allows them their own kind of dignity, as with the Thodays in The Nine Tailors or the professional dancer Antoine in Have His Carcase.

Not recommended.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Book Review: The World of the Shining Prince

The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan
Ivan Morris
History, Sociology

An extraordinarily complete and encompassing view of something odd and beautiful. Heian-period Japan--c. AD 1000--developed a court society that was, in some ways, unique. For the tiny aristocratic elite, what counted was aesthetics (and lineage, but that's not the unique part). Not the warrior virtues, not competence, not money, not power, but beauty and culture were the currency. The nominal government didn't govern. The police and the army were largely ineffectual. Nobles spent their days in composing poems for one another, judging perfumes, conducting polygamous affairs (according to ritualized patterns), and honing their appreciation of the transitory nature of life. I find it hard to imagine that such a society could have survived long except on an island.

Ivan Morris's prose isn't brilliant, but it's serviceable. He does an amazing job bringing the Heian court to life in all of its details; you can open to any random page and find something worth knowing. Page 137: "One of the most important and active offices in the Ministry of Central Affairs was the Bureau of Divination". Page 80: "Emperor Ichijo's pet cat was awarded the theoretical privilege of wearing the head-dress (koburi) reserved for members of the Fifth Rank and above." Page 235: "The official concubine may be chosen in various ways." Morris is also pretty good at pointing out parallels from more familiar Western examples, as well as pointing out where the parallels are misleading or nonexistent.

I read The World of the Shining Prince because I was going to see an exhibition on The Tale of Genji (he's the Shining Prince, for those of you keeping score at home). It didn't make my must-recommend list, but for anyone trying to understand Heian Japan it's indispensable.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Book Review: For the Sake of the Game

For the Sake of the Game: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon
Laurie R. King, Leslie S. Klinger (editors)
Mystery

Meh.

I wanted to make that the whole review. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't also point out that several of these stories appear to be dross that the authors had lying around, with a few Sherlock Holmes references hastily stuffed in after the fact.

Oh, and it's been done (ahem) better.

Other than that: meh.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Book Review: A Revolution in Color

A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley
Biography
Jane Kamensky

Maybe it's the title. I wanted A Revolution in Color to do something, well, revolutionary--or, at least, revelatory. Something about Copley's painting, perhaps, comparable to the outstanding Eye of the Beholder. Or something about his life, or his times, or politics, or art, or . . . something about something, anyway.

Instead, A Revolution in Color is a basic standard biography. If Copley had kept a diary, and Kamensky had written a book based on it, this is more or less what you'd get. Date, event, painting, reaction, marriage, interaction, repeat. It's mildly interesting to read about Revolutionary-era Boston through a comparatively conservative lens--although I think Kamensky overstates the latter--but that doesn't particularly require, or shed light on, Copley's art.

Every so often it looks like Kamensky is trying to establish a theme around African-Americans (and African-Britons). She makes repeated references to black people's experiences, their presence in Copley's life, their presentation in art, and so forth. To the extent that this rescues the black experience from enforced anonymity, that's great. But in the context of A Revolution in Color, none of it adds up to anything. Kamensky never sustains the subject, nor does she bring to it a coherent story of what it meant to Copley. Yes, he would have known black people. Yes, he sometimes depicted them. Yes, they were unjustly enslaved and erased from history. And . . . ?

Also, Kamensky's writing is not flawless. Late in the book she shifts repeatedly between the past tense and the presence, to no very good effect. She also needs to learn the use of "would" rather than "will" to indicate that an event is in the reader's past but in the future of the moment she's describing. (Example: "In 1905 Einstein published a paper on the photoelectric effect; he would win the Nobel Prize for it in 1922.")

This isn't to say A Revolution in Color is valueless. It's an OK resource for learning about Copley and about his artistic milieu. As anything more than that, it doesn't live up to the title.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Book Review: Death in Captivity

Death in Captivity
Michael Gilbert
Mystery, adventure

This is something of a minor gem. It's both a murder mystery and a prison-camp escape adventure, and both sides are treated quite well. The setting is reminiscent of the classics The Great Escape and Von Ryan's Express. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone seeking a dose of literary greatness, but any aficionado of classic mystery should give it a whirl. 

This is another entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, by the way, which--although not all of the books have aged well--is an invaluable and highly laudable endeavor.


If you haven't read Von Ryan's Express, go do it now. (There's also a movie version, which is somewhat better-known but not nearly as good.)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book Review: Bibliomysteries, Volume 2

Bibliomysteries, Volume Two: Stories of Crime in the World of Books and Bookstores
Otto Penzler (editor)
Mystery

It'd take a concerted effort to get me to actively dislike a collection such as this one. Thankfully, Bibliomysteries is pretty good--much better than the usual mixed bag of minor stories by major writers, unsold shorts by minor writers, and whatnot. There's only one real stinker (by a writer whom I once advised on Amazon to switch to writing romances; nothing has changed since then). Of the rest:


  • "Mystery, Inc.", a slightly predictable but very effective Poe-esque offering from Joyce Carol Oates, is probably the best. 
  • Thomas Perry’s "The Book of the Lion" is an enjoyable take on a familiar setup. 
  • Stephen Hunter's "Citadel" is not very believable, but the pacing is excellent and the characters nicely cinematic.
The range of sub-genres is very impressive and the writing standard surprisingly high. Recommended for book-loving mystery fans.