Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Banquets of the Black Widowers, by Isaac Asimov


Banquets of the Black Widowers
by Isaac Asimov
1984


The exceedingly prolific Isaac Asimov wrote hundreds of books in his lifetime (and you thought you were an overachiever) and is probably best known for his science fiction and popularizations of various science-related topics. He also wrote a handful of mysteries, including the Black Widowers series of short stories, which were eventually collected into six volumes. Banquets of the Black Widowers is the fourth of these six.

The Black Widowers stories all have the same premise - a group of six men gather for a banquet, sometimes with a guest in attendance. After the dinner is over a puzzle or mystery is presented and everyone takes a crack at it. As it turns out, their waiter Henry, who's pretty much considered to be the group's seventh member, is most often the one who comes up with the answer.

I've always had a fondness for drawing room type stories and these are no exception. With that in mind I don't have a problem with some of the mysteries and puzzles being a bit convoluted and sometimes even farfetched. It's all in good fun and if you like this sort of thing...well, then, you'll like this sort of thing.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Criminal Element: Overlooked Cozies



Ever get to thinking that maybe specialty mysteries might be getting just a bit too specialized? Me too. This week at the Criminal Element site they'll be featuring some of my synopses of a few highly specialized and slightly fanciful books. Check them out here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Movie: The Mad Miss Manton



The Mad Miss Manton
Screenplay by Philip G. Epstein
1938


There's undeniably a strong element of mystery in The Mad Miss Manton, but if you were to suggest that it exists merely as a framework to hang the hilarity on you might be onto something.

When she happens upon a murder victim late one night, high society dame Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) decides to enlist a bunch of her friends to crack the case and in the process she crosses paths with newspaper editor Peter Ames (Henry Fonda). Sparks fly between the two, in more ways than one, but not before a few more stiffs turn up. The plot thickens and the proceedings are fraught with zaniness throughout. Not surprising, given that the screenplay is by Philip G. Epstein, who went on to co-write Arsenic and Old Lace.

As for the mechanics of the plot, well, I have to admit that my attention waned after while and I pretty much lost the thread of the thing. But that's just me and it's something that I find happening with a lot of mystery movies. In the majority of cases I tend to zone out at some point and reach for a book.

For a more in-depth review of this one be sure to head over to the Mystery File site and see what Michael Shonk had to say.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Bloodied Ivy, by Robert Goldsborough


The Bloodied Ivy
by Robert Goldsborough
1988


I've liked all of the four Goldsborough Nero Wolfe books I've read thus far and I'd venture to say I like The Bloodied Ivy best, though the race is a close one. I can't quite put a finger on why this one stood out but it just felt like it was a cut above the others.

The Bloodied Ivy takes place at a college not too far from New York City, where a controversial professor has recently passed on following a plunge into a ravine. It's obviously an accident - or is it?

Naturally, Nero Wolfe is called upon to look into things, a number of suspects are rounded up and, as a special bonus, the great man actually leaves the comfy environs of the brownstone on a mission to rescue Archie from the clutches of some overzealous police officers.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Three Strikes You're Dead, by Robert Goldsborough


Three Strikes You're Dead
by Robert Goldsborough
2005


Robert Goldsborough is probably best known for the Nero Wolfe mysteries he wrote following Rex Stout's death. I've read four of these seven volumes and found then all to be worthy successors to the originals. When I picked up Three Strikes You're Dead at the local library, the Wolfe-like title led me to believe it was another installment in the adventures of Archie and the fat man, but it's not.

Three Strikes is the first in a series of Goldsborough's non-Wolfe novels. His web site indicates that the series currently numbers five volumes. The setting is the rough and tumble environs of Chicago shortly after Al Capone has been sent off to the big house. A local anti-crime activist who was planning to run for mayor is bumped off and the assumption is that the mob made it happen. Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Malek starts fishing around and finds that it might not be a mob hit after all. And the plot thickens.

I confess that once I found out that this wasn't a Nero Wolfe novel I wasn't as keen on reading it. But I forged on and found myself caught up in Goldsborough's tale, which borders on hardboiled but is not quite there. While I probably won't go back to the Malek series any time soon my time spent with this one was not wasted.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Now You See It, by Stuart Kaminsky


Now You See It
By Stuart Kaminsky

2004

By Wikipedia's count, Kaminsky wrote 24 Toby Peters mysteries. They're apparently set mostly in Los Angeles in the Forties and each one includes one or more real-life celebs of the day. The first one I read (Catch A Falling Clown) took place in a circus and "starred" Emmett Kelly. This one takes stage magic as its theme and the great magician Harry Blackstone is the focal point.

I've never been much of a fan of the hardboiled stuff but that’s okay since Toby Peters is not quite a hardboiled detective. Close call, but he's just too much of a hapless schlub to really pull it off. Lending assistance in solving the three murders that take place in this book are the usual colorful cast of characters - Toby's hot-tempered, ex-cop brother; a wrestler with a penchant for poetry; a dopey dentist with visions of grandeur; and an erudite and cultured "little person."

Good stuff.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Going Concern, by Catherine Aird


A Going Concern
By Catherine Aird
1993


You could say that there are some similarities between Catherine Aird and E.X. Ferrars. Both are Englishwomen of a certain age - though Ferrars is no longer with us. They both write, for the most part, slim, deliberately paced mysteries in which there's not a whole lot of action. So why did I find the two Ferrars books that I've read lately to be a bit of slog, while I zipped right through Aird's A Going Concern?

Simple one - Aird managed to create a mystery that was sufficiently intriguing to make me keep turning the pages. And kept dribbling out bits and pieces of the puzzle in measured doses until it was finally all tied up. Which, I suppose, is the whole point of this mystery business, but I found this to be an especially skillful exercise.

The mystery, by the by, is why an elderly lady who knew she was soon to die would appoint a great-niece whom she barely knew as her executrix. And why did she specify that her body be examined closely after her death and ask that the police attend her funeral? Now, it that's not enough to keep you reading you're made of stronger stuff than I.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Unquiet Spirit, by Derek Wilson


Unquiet Spirit
by Derek Wilson
2006


A professor at St. Thomas's College, Cambridge, dies during a paranormal investigation and Dr. Nathaniel Gye, another paranormal investigator, is called in to sort things out. The plot thickens as he begins to look into a death by drug overdose of a student some ten years earlier.

Wilson has written several volumes now chronicling the adventures of Gye. I found this one interesting enough, aside from a sub-plot dealing with marital strife that didn't do much for me. I'm not familiar with any of the other books in this series and this may be a mild spoiler but anyone looking for actual paranormal occurrences is not going to find any here. If that's not a deal breaker for you then this one might be worth a look.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Flying Too High, by Kerry Greenwood



Flying Too High
By Kerry Greenwood
1990


I was not acquainted with Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series when I ran across this volume, the second of what appears to be a total of 18 books. Fisher, like author Greenwood, hangs her hat in Melbourne, Australia. The series is set in the Twenties and Fisher is a decidedly liberated woman, given the era in which she dwells. As the author's web site puts it, she is an "unflappable, unconventional and uninhibited heroine," not to mention a pilot.

It's this latter skill that's put to good use in this slim volume, in which Fisher is called upon to solve two crimes, the kidnapping of a young girl and the apparent murder of a man who wasn't exactly in the running for any popularity contests.

As I was wrapping up this book I noticed that Fisher's adventures are due to be adapted for Australian TV in the near future. More about that here.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Movie: Fast And Loose



Fast And Loose
Screenplay by Harry Kurnitz
1939


A husband and wife team who crack a variety of cases while frequently cracking wise? Why that's got to be...Garda and Joel Sloane. Hmm. Well, rest assured that the resemblance to the popular Thin Man series was not accidental. The second of three of the "Fast" series, Fast and Loose starred Rosalind Russell and Robert Montgomery and joined Fast Company, from the year before, and was followed by Fast and Furious, later in 1939.

I've found lately that mystery movies don't hold my attention so well. I tend to watch for a while and then my attention starts to wander and I give up and go read a book. Fast and Loose was a rare exception. The plot is nothing too memorable - the Sloanes are rare book dealers who are drawn into a case involving a missing Shakespeare manuscript and a few murders - but the light, witty approach made it pretty smooth going.

If this is the sort of thing that appeals to you it's worth a look. Interesting to note that writer Kurnitz later wrote the play A Shot in the Dark, which he based on a French play and which was later turned into one of the most madcap crime movies of them all, featuring a gut-busting performance by Peter Sellers.

For more on Fast and Loose, take a look at this article at the TCM web site.