Miss Pinkerton

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Mary Roberts Rinehart mysteries, but the little Dell paperback of Miss Pinkerton was the perfect size to slip in my purse. It was written back in 1932.

Miss Adams is a private nurse who secretly moonlights for Inspector Patton. He will call her in when a nurse is needed to stay in a suspicious household, and she will relay any relevant information to him. In this case the house in question is the gloomy old Mitchell mansion. The family, once a proud scion of the town, is now reduced to Miss Juliet, near her deathbed; her nephew Herbert; and two elderly servants. One night Herbert is found alone with a bullet through his head, but the evidence is questionable and will decide the fate of a large insurance policy. Is this suicide, murder, suicide meant to look like murder, or murder meant to look like suicide? As Miss Adams tends to the deaf Miss Juliet, she pokes around the house herself and strikes up an acquaintance with lovely Paula Brent, who has surprising connections to the case. Even a nurse needs to take care of her own safety, however, because when money’s involved the culprit won’t be scared to kill again to cover his tracks.

Miss Adams is a very likable and no-nonsense heroine. She has a threefold obligation that at times becomes hard for her to negotiate: her professional responsibilities as a nurse to Miss Juliet, her secret agreement with the police to help investigate, and her own feelings of justice in certain situations. The mystery itself is well-crafted. Though Mary Roberts Rinehart provides many twists and turns, especially in the question as to whether Herbert’s death is even a crime, the final outcome is plausible and based on a good interpretation of available evidence.

The book is not the first appearance of Miss Adams, and it feels like some backstory is missing. For example, Miss Pinkerton is the Inspector’s nickname for her but no reason is given. We never even learn her first name because no one uses it to address her. (According to Fantastic Fiction, it’s Hilda.) I really enjoyed this book, though, and am tempted now to seek out the other novels and short stories that feature her. Apparently some were also made into a series on B-movies. Maybe they’ll be on TCM at some point.

Nurse-as-sleuth seems a very realistic occupation to me, much more so than combinations in many cozy series. Off the top of my head I can also think of Cherry Ames (whom I adore), Nurse Sarah Keate (Mignon Eberhart), and the Nurses Three series. Are there any others?

Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 6:43 pm  Comments (4)  
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Murder on Munday

[So, this is a draft from 2010 that I’m finishing in 2013. Unfortunately, it consisted of little more than title and picture, and unlike others from that long ago, I really can’t recollect in the slightest what this book is about. I guess that tells you what kind of impression it made on me.]

Murder on Monday, by Ann Purser, is the first in a series that by this point has gone through the days of the week and is onto the hours of the day. It reminds me of the Magic Tree House titles. Mom gave me the first three a few Christmases ago, and I found two others at a used book store.

Since I don’t remember the plot much, I’m just going to quote right from Amazon: “A refreshingly working-class heroine, a devoted wife and mother of three, plays reluctant sleuth in this winning cozy from British author Purser (Pastures New), set in the quaint village of Long Farnden. When the village spinster, who lives in a thatched cottage reminiscent of a tea cozy, is strangled to death, the police are eager to seek information about the victim’s neighbors and friends. Who better to aid their investigation than Lois Meade, who as a house cleaner has ample access to what goes on behind her clients’ closed doors? Priding herself on her professional demeanor, Lois hesitates when asked by PC Keith Simpson if she’ll help, but curiosity and her recent need for personal fulfillment cause her to accept. In her quest for the killer, Lois ultimately uncovers some surprising secrets of some of Long Farnden’s most prominent citizens, shaking the foundations of this seemingly peaceful village, including those of her own house. Traditional and modern combine smoothly. The village men all own Barbour coats, while the vicar inhabits a poorly heated contemporary house overlooking the town’s sewage dump. A strong plot and believable characters, especially the honest, down-to-earth Lois, are certain to appeal to a wide range of readers.”

I like British mysteries, and I wanted to like this one, but to be honest, I didn’t really like Lois. I don’t even quite remember why I had that feeling. I think it was because the author focuses equally on Lois’s family life, especially the struggles with troubled rebellious teenage daughter Josie, and the occasional squabbles with her husband.

It’s an “English-village” mystery updated for the twenty-first century, and it does have a gritty, more modern feel than St. Mary’s Meade. The best comparison I can make, I think, is to “Midsomer Murders,” though those of more of a procedural perspective instead of amateur sleuth. My parents watch them, but I gave up because none of the episode-specific characters ever seemed very happy. Even my mom pointed out that an extremely high percent of married people seemed driven to affairs.

I’m going to give the second book a try, mostly because I have it and it might get better, but the fact that I haven’t done so in three years, even when it’s in the front row on a shelf, pretty much sums up my feelings.

Published in: on August 29, 2010 at 10:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Lovely Bones

“We’re here, you know […]. You can talk to us and think about us. It doesn’t have to be sad or scary.”

I don’t read a lot of books hot off the presses so I tend to board most bandwagons late, if at all. Several girls I knew in school read and praised The Lovely Bones; I finally purchased my own used copy in 2007 and just now got around to reading it. The book is well-deserving of its reviews, but hard to speak of objectively due to its content.

Susie Salmon is fourteen years old when she is murdered. Her body is never recovered. This event stuns the quiet suburban community and forever alters the lives of her parents, siblings, and friends. All the while Susie watches from heaven, torn between desiring healing and fearing forgetfulness in herself and for those she loves.

I had not expected such an emotional reaction to this book, even though we know Susie’s death comes near the beginning of the novel. Without being gruesome, Alice Sebold paints a very powerful picture of the horror of the murder and it’s aftermath. It makes me realize how fortunate I am to have not experienced any real tragedy in my life; the only people I’ve known who have died are elderly relatives and a friend’s father. I also had forgotten than the book is set in Norristown, which is relatively close to where I live. This could happen to anyone, and not even necessarily murder. In any town you can find families broken by grief, unexpected or not: the drug overdose, the car accident, the slow decline of an illness.

All of the characters deal with their grief in different ways, though her father seems to take it the hardest. I cannot fathom how it feels to lose a child, and this might have been harder to read if I were a parent. Mr. Salmon loses the spark from his life, while trying to remain present for his other two children. He becomes obsessed with finding the killer of his little girl. (This is in no way a murder mystery; from Susie’s viewpoint we know the culprit all along.) Mrs. Salmon pulls away from her family and seeks meaning for her own life in various outlets. Susie’s sister Lindsey, only slightly younger, quickly becomes tougher and more mature.

Susie, meanwhile, finds herself in a heaven that appears as the manifestation of her wishes. She interacts with others whose heavens overlap, but spends much of her time observing Earth. In a way it reminded me of The Five People You Meet in Heaven crossed with Act III of Our Town, if only because of outward similarities. In reality this is a sort of purgatory until she can let go of her ties and regrets enough to move on. Though not necessarily happy, Susie’s narration maintains a peaceful quality, a balance between being withdrawn from the action and still emotionally connected.

My only real issue with the book was a questionable scene near the end, which didn’t seem to fit with the rest of it . Perhaps it’s hard to end a story about grief spanning several years, when the healing process never completely ends, though gradually they must move on with their life/afterlife.

I’m always curious to read Amazon reviews for popular books like this. There are always some who find the prose or plot stilted, the hype incomprehensible. They make some valid points. Nevertheless, The Lovely Bones is both powerful and memorable, a book that I won’t soon forget.

Published in: on August 29, 2010 at 10:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Regency Buck

“‘One of a guardian’s privileges is to be seen talking to his ward without occasioning remark,’ he said. ‘I assure you he has not many.'”

In honor of Georgette Heyer’s month-long birthday celebration at Austenprose I had to read at least one of her novels; luckily I received several this past Christmas. I chose Regency Buck because it had been the topic of a talk I went to last year.

Judith and Peregrine Taverner have spent their whole lives as children of a country gentleman, and upon his death travel to London for the first time to meet their appointed guardian. What they find is not to their expectation or liking. The Earl of Worth is a fashionable society man just as displeased with the assignment as they but unwilling to be lax in his control of their fortune and situation. As much as he might like to wash his hands of his new wards, their impetuous behavior has a knack for landing them in trouble of the highest degree…

image from georgette-heyer.com

How can I say this? I adore Georgette Heyer, I enjoyed many, many aspects of this book, and yet I just couldn’t like Lord Worth. To me he is arrogant and high-handed, and if he looks out for others’ interests it is with a smug sense of his own superiority in the matter. We are led to believe that Judith’s own stubborness and determination to aggravate him necessitate such an approach, but it seems to me his manner precipitated her reaction. I was never able to forgive him for his actions in the beginning of the novel.

“Do you dislike me as much as ever? It is a pity. Try not to let your prejudice lead you into mistrusting me.”

The talk I attended called this a classic Pride and Prejudice set-up, and in many ways those traits do define the two characters, but I never noticed any real change in them like we see with Darcy and Elizabeth. Bernard Taverner and Captain Audley presented manners much more towards my liking with their willingness to show emotions. Judith insinuates at one point, however, that when it comes to romance such flirtations speak to her rather of insincerity.

“You know, you have just the suspicion of a freckle, Judith. You will always be going out in the sun and win, and my dear, nothing is so destructive of female charms as contact with fresh air.”

Judith herself is a willful girl, determined to become the talk of town by setting trends rather than following them. She drives a phaeton in the park herself, and makes taking snuff appear ladylike. Both she and her brother have hot tempers, which Lord Worth does his fair share in causing to flare; in Perry, however, the trait is accompanied by immaturity. He has the desire and not the necessary grace for everything he pursues, from driving horses to dressing like a dandy.

Regency Buck portrays the highlights of Regency London high society more than any other Georgette Heyer I’ve read. The characters are good friends with the famous Beau Brummell, whom I found expectedly flamboyant and completely charming. They hobnob with the Prince Regent and royal dukes at his Pavilion in Brighton, with lavish descriptions of the interior. Half of Judith’s suitors are contained in Who’s Who. Two of the answers for the recent Sourcebooks questions come from this volume: Judith praises the newly-published Sense and Sensibility, and goes with her brother to see Kemble playing a tragedy at Covent Garden. Time and again Mrs. Heyer impresses me with the depth and breadth of her research.

“‘Look, there goes my cousin Gloucester. I daresay he envies me perched up here beside you. What do you say?’

Miss Taverner laughed. ‘Nothing, sir, how can I? If I agree, I must be odiously conceited, which I hope I am not; and if I demur you will think me to be asking for reassurance.'”

In addition to her trademark detail and wit, she throws in the usual suspense during the second half of the book. Even with my distaste for Worth I found the book enjoyable, and others without that reaction seem to have liked it even more. If that’s you, see if you can defend Lord Worth to me!

Published in: on August 25, 2010 at 10:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Emma Volume 7

I’ve been pacing myself with the Emma manga, but it’s been long enough since I read Volume 6. Finally, in Volume 7, Kaoru Mori finishes her story of the Victorian maid who dared to fall in love with an upper class eldest son. William must deal with the consequences of breaking his engagement to Eleanor and also track down Emma, who is convinced that she can never successfully be with him. With Mrs. Meredith’s help, however, she might be able to pass in society after all.

I love this series so much and been eagerly awaiting the whole time to see whether Emma and William have a chance to be together. Ms. Mori doesn’t sugarcoat the ending. As we’ve seen all along, breeding and behavior are paramount  in Victorian society, with repercussions for those who go against the grain. Not everyone ends up happy, making the end more realistic but a little less satisfying. It seems like the outcome is still somewhat open, especially in the amount of resolution for minor characters like William’s family. I’m glad she decided to continue for three more volumes in the “Emmaverse” to focus on the other characters.

Again, the art is just beautiful. Kaoru Mori draws with a cinematic eye, panning a landscape or showing emotion with a clenched fist. Many times a series of wordless panels reveal more than any dialogue could. The brilliance is still in the historically accurate details, like gorgeous ballroom dresses and lush sitting rooms.

A common plot device is fiction is to have a seemingly lower-class character pegged as secret aristocracy because of some innate characteristic (e.g. The Diamond Secret). While this sometimes seems implausible I completely believe it about Emma. Despite growing up as a flower girl she has a graceful manner and refined appearance, with cheekbones more pronounced than the other maids. Even the other characters feel that there is something different about her. She is reserved and demure, and ashamed to be stepping beyond her place, but love is powerful enough to give her confidence.

Luckily the library has the supplemental volumes, and I know at some point in the future I’ll be rereading this series. I’ve considered buying them but the paper quality isn’t that great, and some of them are out of print. Maybe they’ll turn up on eBay…

Published in: on August 25, 2010 at 9:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Diamond Secret

I’ve always liked fairy tales for their timeless quality, their role in a collective mythology perpetuating the morals of “happily ever after.” They give us themes and archetypes to be woven into other creative endeavors, everything from wicked stepparents to Cinderella transformations.

Years ago I read a few volumes in the SimonPulse Once Upon A Time series and was impressed with the offerings. These volumes take familiar tales and retell them with a new twist, often by providing some sort of historical context. For example, Spirited plays off Beauty and the Beast with a girl captured by Native Americans, and Scarlet Moon has a strange wolf pack beleaguering a village during the Crusades.

image from Simon and Schuster

I saw The Diamond Secret on a cart at the library and had to check it out, at least for old times sake. This volume is a “retelling” of Anastasia, in which a lonely amnesiac tavern maid named Nadya is pegged by schemers Ivan and Sergei as a look-alike for the Grand Duchess. After life in a mental asylum all she wants is a chance to be loved and accepted by others, but aristocracy may not be the key to everything she desires.

To me, the story of Anastasia is similar to that of the Titanic, tragic yet fascinating. I can’t help but feel sorry for the Russian royal family, and can understand the hope that such devastation might not have been complete. I’ve seen both the Fox animated version (a favorite) and the one with Ingrid Bergman.

To be honest, it feels kind of cheap to have a strict “retelling” of a historical event. Suzanne Weyn stays in 1918 Russia, so that anyone with a passing knowledge of the animated movie has a pretty good idea of the book’s whole plot. She has added a few interesting elements of her own, though, and is a little more historically accurate. The biggest strength for me was that Ivan and Sergei are fully fleshed-out characters with motive and backstory.

Ms. Weyn also slightly expands on the idea of wealth vs. worker that played such a large role in the Revolution. I would have liked to see more, but I guess that’s probably not the focus in a young adult book. Other interesting ideas mentioned and dropped too soon were the politial impact that restoring a princess could have, and what it would be like to finally remember a family but know that they are dead.

The romance felt somewhat unbelievable and rushed, especially from Nadya’s side..  Once Ivan claimed to have known her before, she was immediately chummy and playful, with true love not far behind. Again, I should know what to expect from YA, but a little part of me still cringed. The villain conflict was somewhat underwhelming as well and disappointing in its resolution (though what can compare favorably with Fox’s undead Rasputin?)

The Diamond Secret was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, and a reminder of why I love Anastasia. On the other hand, it doesn’t bode well for the future of the series if they’re reduced to relying on animated films. One of the other recent titles is apparently a Mulan retelling; I suppose Pocahontas is next?

Published in: on August 25, 2010 at 12:53 am  Comments (1)  
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The Sound and the Fury

So, long time no post? I think I drowned in The Sound and the Fury. I’m actually fairly disciplined if necessary when it comes to reading (thanks to the age-old school vs. pleasure reading conflict), and refused to let myself get caught up in any fiction other than Faulkner. Unfortunately, he didn’t tempt me too often.

[They] say a drowned man’s shadow was watching for him in the water all the time. It twinkled and glinted, like breathing, the float slow like breathing too, and debris half submerged, healing out to the sea and the caverns and the grottoes of the sea. The displacement of water is equal to the something of something. Reducto absurdum of all human experience, and two six-pound flat-irons weigh more than one tailor’s goose. What a sinful waste Dilsey would say. Benjy knew it when Damuddy died. He cried. He smell hit, He smell hit.

image from coverbrowser.com

Normally I love reading classics because they make me think, with larger-than-life characters and universal themes, elements that speak to every reader. The Sound and the Fury is less like speaking and more like multiple one-sided phone conversations overheard on a train, a barrage of thoughts with little context.

We learn about plot mostly secondhand, through character hints and reactions; instead the novel focuses on the Compson family: mentally retarded Benjy, intellectually troubled Quentin (the male one), Jason the “brutal cynic,” and tempestuous Caddy, a influential force on the lives of all her brothers. Their “long-suffering” mother is a burden mostly because she believes herself to be, while their servant Dilsey seems the sole calming presence.

Honestly, not one of the characters is really that likable. I didn’t really care what happened to them, especially because, with the exception of Benjy and Dilsey, they mostly brought it upon themselves. When Mr. and Mrs. Compson complain of each other’s bad blood it’s somewhat true, because the family has a talent for both self-pity and self-destruction.

The stream-of-consciousness writing is my other issue with the book; it’s just not a technique that appeals to me, and here Faulkner seems to delight in being obscure. For example, after the narrator change for the second section it takes quite a while to learn that the new voice is Quentin (and the brother, not the niece). I honestly might not have figured it out without having read the back cover. In addition, the narrative slips back and forth between present and flashback with little indication other than strategically placed italics. Expecting the reader to do that much detective work in the constant confusion seems somewhat conceited, and I don’t even know if the conclusions I drew are correct.

I’ll concede that writing in this manner requires skill, for the the author must really become the character. What are his memories and fears, what small detail will spark a train of thought? My friends and I used to love the word association game, and comes across at times as a similar exercise. In this attempt at verisimilitude, however, most of the text was relatively tangential or mundane, again prompting the reaction of why I should care. John Irving did it much better with first person narration in A Prayer for Owen Meany (which I still owe a review for).

Jason’s section was easier to read than his brothers’, perhaps because his perspective on life was less hazy. In the fourth and final section, focusing mostly on Dilsey, I was surprised to see Faulker switch to a third person omniscient narration. Was this because he needed a wider viewpoint for some of the events, or because he didn’t want to write in constant dialect (not pretty, but a product of the times, I guess)? Either way the story seemed to have little resolution.

I’m glad I read Faulkner and I do think the book is an interesting example of stream-of-consciousness, but I probably won’t be checking out the rest of his catalog of classics. I never thought I’d say that I preferred More Die of Heartbreak. His short stories are supposedly very good, however, so later on I might see if my anthologies have any. In the meantime, perhaps a trip to Cliff’s Notes might clear things up.
This hard-fought accomplishment is my first for the Classics Challenge 2010. It’s also on the 1001 Books and Guardian lists (family and self category for the latter).

Update: Also, I wish I had remembered this Pearls Before Swine strip. Yet another reason why Stephan Pastis is my hero: “You could pour words out of a bucket and end up with a more comprehensible book than that.”

Published in: on August 24, 2010 at 11:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Case of the Crooked Candle

(This is an old draft finally finished up.)

“Tell me something I don’t know–start talking–try telling the truth for a change.”

“I’m afraid to.”

“Damn it,” Mason said, “I’m your lawyer. Whatever you say to me is confidential.”

“If I tell you you’ll quit representing us.”

“Don’t be silly,” Mason snapped. “I can’t quit. We’ve dragged Della into it. I’ve got to see her through. Give me the whole business right from the beginning.”

I try to read at least one Perry Mason mystery a year, just because there are so many and they are so much fun. Erle Stanley Gardner’s actual novels are a little less polished than in the TV show, but the grit makes it great. I absolutely love Della Street’s attitude, willing to do anything to see the case through.

This case begins when Mason smells a rat in a car-accident settlement and begins investigating an undercover oil firm. Soon the major players in the firm are embroiled in a murder trial when the money behind the operation, Fred Milfield, is found dead on his yacht. Young Carol Burbank quickly schemes up an alibi to protect her father, but in trying to shield her father she may end up exposing herself to arrest.

For as many books as Gardner wrote, they are consistently well-researched and dense with a tangle of time-tables and herrings. You can’t blink during his plots! Here, because the crime scene is located on a yacht, the tides produce an abundance of conflicting circumstantial evidence that only Perry Mason is astute enough to puzzle out.

He is a fascinating character, driven by curiosity and justice, and instinct often leads him to the scene before the police. Here he has the upper hand, to have been investigating the Karakul Company on a hunch even before an actual murder was committed. With his reputation, I’m always surprised that his clients still prefer to keep information from him, but I suppose that that’s human nature. Of course, because of his unconventional methods the police don’t always trust him either!

Tragg puffed at his cigar. “You’re a tough customer, Mason.”

“I’m not naturally tough. I’ve learned to be tough through rubbing elbows with the police. I don’t know why I should give you anything, Tragg. You’re always trying to hit back at me, and this time you tried to hit back through Della.”

“Because you led with Della,” Tragg replied. “You and I are on opposite sides of the fence, Mason. Your methods are brilliant enough, but they aren’t regular. As long as you play the game the way you do, I’m going to crack down on you every chance I get.”

Published in: on August 11, 2010 at 11:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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