Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Clocks, by Agatha Christie

The Clocks
By Agatha Christie
1963

There are a few novels that I've read and reviewed recently that started with a premise that really dug its hooks in me. There's Christie's Cards on the Table, which I reviewed not so long ago and there's Boris Akunin's Murder on the Leviathan, which had one of the best hooks I've run across.

Christie's The Clocks ain't so shabby in this department either, mind you. A young woman from a secretarial pool is asked for by name and goes to the house of the person who hired her. She's told to let herself in if no one is there and does so, only to find a nasty old corpse in the living room. As the owner of the house comes home, Sheila realizes that she's blind as she runs screaming from the house and into the arms of one Colin Lamb.

Who happens to be a friend of one Inspector Hardcastle, who's assigned to sort this mess out. Another interesting feature of the case is that the blind woman's living room contains four clocks that don't belong to her. None of them have been wound and each is set to 4:13.

That's the good news and a rather spiffing premise, if you ask me. It might not be fair to say that things went downhill from there, but there were a few things that didn't exactly knock me out about this one. I've never been a fan of espionage and spy fiction and Christie seems to have set out to combine elements of that with the more traditional whodunits she was known for. Which didn't really do it for me but I guess by 1963 Christie had written so many outstanding traditional mysteries that one can hardly begrudge her for wanting to mix it up a little.

I also found it odd that although this is a Poirot novel he doesn't really figure into the proceedings in any significant way until relatively late in the book. Until then we are present with the alternating viewpoints of Lamb and Hardcastle. Naturally when Poirot does finally get cracking on the case he solves it with relative ease even though he hasn't deigned to visit the crime site or talk directly to any of the witnesses or suspects. It all seems a rather Herculean feat - if you'll pardon me saying so - and perhaps just a bit of a stretch.

Which is not to say that this didn't make for good reading and I certainly wouldn't say that I didn't like it but I also wouldn't rank it near the top of my list of Christie experiences.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, by Robert Goldsborough

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe
By Robert Goldsborough
2012

I've read a couple reviews of Archie Meets Nero Wolfe thus far. Wolfe fan Patrick liked it, with a few minor reservations. Puzzle Doctor has never read an entire Wolfe book and didn't like it. Which makes sense. With apologies to the author and his publisher, who surely want to sell as many truckloads of books as possible, this one is pretty much for the Wolfe fans.

I've read all but a few of the many Wolfe books by original author Rex Stout and most of the ones by Goldsborough, who took over writing them after Stout's death in 1975. I'm not normally keen on writers pinch-hitting for dead authors but I liked the Goldsborough books for the most part and thought he did a good job of capturing the ins and outs of life at the old brownstone.

But let's move on to Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. First, the plot. There is one and it's perfectly serviceable but in the tradition of most Wolfe fiction it's not really a dazzler. That's to be expected. Most people I know read Nero Wolfe for other reasons and turn to the likes of John Dickson Carr and whatnot for those dazzling plots, intricately worked out impossible crimes and all that sort of stuff.

While I too liked this book for the most part, I can't really complain too loudly about the things I didn't like, or more correctly the things that I felt were lacking. Since it's clearly marked as a prequel it's reasonable to assume that it's not going to be the standard Wolfe novel.

One of the things that's most lacking here, as Patrick noted in his review, is Archie Goodwin's voice. Given that he narrates all of the Wolfe books that's a major issue, but it's understandable. Since he's still a relative youngster and fresh off the train (bus?) from Ohio he has yet to develop into what will be one of the great wiseacres in mystery fiction.

Also lacking is that comfortable and highly structured routine at the brownstone, a routine that's shaken up to good effect from time to time in service of the latest yarn. Obviously since Archie is not yet in Wolfe's employ, we're not going to see any of that daily routine simply because it doesn't exist, at least not in the form we've come to know.

Along the same lines are the lack of interactions between key Wolfe characters. Most notable is that curious relationship between Archie and Wolfe, which finds the former goading the latter at nearly every turn and the latter putting up with it, simply because he knows he needs Archie or someone like him to do his leg work. Ditto for those mostly confrontational interactions between Archie and Wolfe with Inspector Cramer and the other guys at the police station. On the plus side of all this, the better part of the book involves many of the freelance operatives that Wolfe so often employs, including a few who rarely appeared in the Wolfe books proper.

Having re-read this review a few days after originally writing it I'm not sure what I think of it but I'll let it stand. I guess I can best summarize by saying that Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is a well-written and entertaining book and an interesting look at the early days of the Wolfe-Goodwin partnership but I much prefer to read about that partnership in the established form of the "later" books.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

An Unmourned Death, by Audrey Peterson

An Unmourned Death
By Audrey Peterson
2002

There are certain sub-genres of mystery that I can't pass up and country house mysteries are right at the top of the list. So when I ran across An Unmourned Death at my local library I snapped it right up.

This one is not exactly like the country mysteries most of us are probably used to. It takes place a bit earlier than one typically would expect, in the late nineteenth century, and the protagonist is one Jasmine Malloy, a young widow who works for a detective agency on cases that require a woman's touch.

In the latest such case Malloy is sent to Renstone Hall to investigate the disappearance of Lord and Lady Renstone's daughter, Phoebe. The Lord is not about to take home any awards for winning friends and influencing people and he makes it clear to Malloy from the outset that he wants nothing to do with her investigation. Fortunately the rest of the residents of the Hall are more helpful.

Some rather dark and disturbing things are afoot here and as Malloy begins to make some progress on the missing persons case, murder breaks out, as it so often does in these books. With a little help from a few interested parties Malloy proceeds in a rather methodical fashion to get to the bottom of things. Though I thought I had this one all sorted out, the culprit in this case actually came pretty much from way out in left field, though not so much so that you could accuse the author of not playing fair.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Psycho Article at Criminal Element

Is there such a thing as too much Psycho? With all of the various sequels, remakes and various other re-imaginings over the years I got to thinking so. I put forth my arguments in an article for Criminal Element.

(Please Let) Norman Bates, Rest in Peace
By William I. Lengeman III

I liked Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as much (and perhaps even a bit more) than the next person. When I watched it again a few years back I found that it didn’t pack quite as much of a punch as it had all those years earlier when I first saw it, but it was still worth watching to admire Hitchcock’s skill in creating it.

As I recall I didn’t find the idea of Psycho II (1983) particularly appealing but I watched...

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Full Dark House, by Christopher Fowler

Full Dark House
by Christopher Fowler
2003

But where to start? We have yet to discover the lair of the Leicester Square Vampire. He's still got my shoes, you know. (Arthur Bryant)

After reading two of the later books in Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May series I decided to go back to the beginning - Full Dark House. In writing it Fowler also went back to the beginning of the sixty-some year relationship between these two detectives. It's a story that jumps back and forth from the present day, where the offices of the Peculiar Crimes Unit have been leveled by a bomb, and the first case that Arthur Bryant and John May worked on together, not long after the latter joined the unit.

That part of the story takes place in war-torn London, which is being decimated almost nightly by Nazi bombers. The author does a great job of capturing the oppressive feeling of a city where blackouts, air raids and sudden death have almost become normal. In the midst of all this Bryant and May are called upon to investigate the murder of a dancer in a city theatre who died after having her feet severed by an elevator.

Which is pretty gruesome stuff, to be sure, but that's not the end of it. More gruesome and possibly symbolic murders take place at the theater and then one of the actors disappears and a number of people report seeing some sort of a phantom creeping around in the bowels of this vast, creaky and labyrinthine place. If it all sounds like something out of a grand old horror movie then consider that Fowler has also pressed his pen into the service of writing horror in the past.

As it turns out the two separate threads of narrative may have something to do with each other and Fowler manages to tie things up pretty neatly. It's also interesting to note that his two main characters have apparently not changed all that significantly over the course of sixty-some years. Quirky Arthur Bryant seems just as much an oddball in his early twenties as he does later on. It's not long before down-to-Earth John May steps into the role of minder, of sorts, for a partner who's more comfortable living in an odd alternate reality inside his head than in the real world.

For my other Bryant and May reviews look here.

Image: christopherfowler.co.uk

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Movie Review: Murder on Approval

Murder on Approval
Starring Tom Conway
1956

It's suggested here but not explicitly stated that detective Tom "Duke" Martin (Tom Conway) has something of a checkered past, as does his comic relief sidekick, Barney Wilson. Which leads me to believe the producers of this British flick (released there as Barbados Quest) were going for something like a Lone Wolf feel but I could be wrong on that count. The same pair turned up in one other film, Breakaway, which was released in the same year.

Rare stamps and murder are the special of the day this time around. Regardless of what might have happened in his past, Martin is on the side of good here and is called in to sort things out. Before long he finds out that there are a few more copies of a certain rare stamp in circulation than there should be. Needless to say he gets to the bottom of things in a sequence of events that are relatively uninspired. Though I will say that this one managed to hold my attention, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies.

Here's a 1956 review that appeared in the New York Times.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Movie Review - Fast Company

Fast Company
Based on a novel by Harry Kurnitz
1938

I wasn't knocked out by Melvyn Douglas's performance in the Thin Man knockoff, There's Always a Woman, which I reviewed recently. But I forged on and watched Fast Company nonetheless, in which Douglas co-stars with Florence Rice as a husband and wife crime-solving duo named Garda and Joel Sloane. That's two Thin Man knockoffs in one year for Douglas, if you're scoring at home, and a pretty impressive record, if I do say so myself. And a pretty impressive performance by Douglas, I might add.

Until I actually watched this one I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I'd seen it already, even though I had no record of it. Then I remembered that it was the first of a series of three "Fast" movies, each of which starred different actors in the main roles. See my review of Fast and Loose here. Screenwriter Kurnitz adopted his novel in this installment and ended up with quite a list of credits in Hollywood. Among these were an adaptation of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, which he co-wrote with Billy Wilder, and some of the later Thin Man movies. Kurnitz's play A Shot in the Dark was also made into the outstanding comic mystery starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

I suppose it's natural to hold William Powell as the gold standard for these screwball mysteries, given that he made things look so effortless. But even though I wasn't so impressed with Douglas the last time around I'd say that he gives Powell a good run for his money here. It probably didn't hurt that he had some great material to work with. As with Powell in the Thin Man movies it seems that Douglas is the source of much of the mirth here and at times the wisecracks are flying fast and furious (which is the name of the final installment of this series, by the way).

As for the mystery portion of our show, it's fairly standard stuff, as tends to be the case with this kind of movie. I guess I didn't mention yet that the Sloanes are rare book dealers and in this installment of their adventures one of their fellow book dealers is sent packing from this mortal coil with a blunt object applied to his skull with great vigor. All fingers point to a recently released ex-con whom the Sloanes have championed but they're convinced he didn't do it and set out to prove otherwise.

I'm not sure if there's anything the in the way of screwball mysteries that can top the first few Thin Man movies but this one came rather close by my reckoning. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who likes this sort of thing.