Friday, November 29, 2013

Winter Preview 2013-2014: Part One

I just looked back at my Fall Preview post to see how I did with the books I was looking forward to back then. Not bad, it turns out. I had a dozen books on my list and, since then, I've had a chance to read six of them and I have five waiting. One of them is still not available in the US and, considering my dangerously towering TBR pile, I think I'll just wait until it is.

The fact that I've only got the job half done with my Fall Preview books in no way deters me from gazing longingly at publishers' catalogs and making notes of books I want to read from their winter lists. Here's a selection of titles that have me all a-twitter with anticipation.

We know the French are different. Remember Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog from 2008? A smash hit in France, it was a puzzle to a lot of American readers, including most members of my book club. But I liked it, so I'm optimistic about the latest quirky French best-seller, Katherine Pancol's The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles (translated from the French by William Rodarmor and Helen Dickinson) (Penguin Books, December 31, 2013).

Joséphine Cortès is a dowdy, middle-aged Frenchwoman who works for a pittance as a medieval history scholar. (Considering we're talking France, she's probably merely ordinary looking and, if this is made into a movie, she'll be played by somebody like Julia Ormond, but she'll uglify herself by going without eyeliner. But I digress.) When Joséphine's husband runs off to Kenya with his mistress, Madame Cortès is in a pickle (or should I say a cornichon?) because she doesn't make enough money to support herself and her two daughters.

Enter Joséphine's wealthy social-climbing sister, Iris. Iris just happens to have wangled herself a contract to write a medieval romance novel––despite the fact that Iris really doesn't know a thing about the subject. Iris makes a deal with Josephine: Joséphine will secretly ghostwrite the novel in exchange for the money the book makes. What's not to like about that? Iris will garner the notoriety she craves and Joséphine will pocket the money she so desperately needs. But when the novel becomes an unexpected runaway success, complications abound.

Some publicists know exactly how to reel me in. When I hear that Michele Zackheim's The Last Train to Paris (Europa Editions, January 7, 2014) should appeal to fans of Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, I perk up like a dog smelling dinner.

Here's the setup. Rosie Manon, a transplant from Nevada, is a newspaperwoman in New York City in 1935, when she's awarded the prize of a lifetime: an assignment as foreign correspondent, based in Paris. Things are tough for her, as the only woman in the office and, for a world not ready for female journalists, her byline is given as R. B. Manon.

Misogyny seems a relatively minor problem when Rosie, whose mother is Jewish, is sent to Berlin, at a time when the Nazi Party was strengthening its grip and implementing its violent anti-Semitic measures. A secret affair, a murder, and an increasingly perilous situation in Germany send Rosie on a desperate flight back to Paris.

Before I leave Paris, I definitely want to read Tilar J. Mazzeo's The Hotel on Place Vendôme: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris (Harper, March 11, 2014). The iconic Hotel Ritz was where everybody who was anybody went, either to stay or to hobnob at its glittering bar.

When the German conquerors overran France in 1940, the Ritz became home to many German high-ranking officers. That was convenient for designer Coco Chanel, who lived at the Ritz and carried on an affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage. But it was also handy for many plotting against the German occupiers, and even for some of the Germans involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

There is an old saying: "History is gossip well told." I'm hoping The Hotel on Place Vendôme will illustrate that quip.

I have a sense of mixed fear and anticipation about Julia Franck's Back to Back (translated from the German by Anthea Bell) (Grove Press, December 3, 2013). On the one hand, I'm fascinated by stories of life under East Germany's totalitarian surveillance state. On the other, this one looks like calling it bleak is a vast understatement.

Sculptor Käthe is a Jewish survivor of the Nazi era who has put all of her faith in the East German propaganda about the perfect workers' paradise, against all evidence to the contrary. While she is so blind to reality that she allows her daughter to be abused by their boarder, an agent of the Stasi spy agency, and insists that her son study geology and take a physically and mentally destructive quarry job despite his wish to be a writer, she lives in relative comfort by prostituting her art to the state. Only a catastrophe will force Käthe to face reality.

That Julia Franck apparently based this story on her own grandmother is chilling.

Once I finish that book, I'm going to need a serious palate cleanser. For something completely different, I'm thinking a good choice might be Simon Brett's The Strangling on the Stage, the 15th in his Fethering series. In this series, Carole Seddon, a straight-laced divorcée living in retirement in an English coastal town, teams up with her free-spirit neighbor, Jude, whenever (which is every year in this series) somebody in the Fethering area gets bumped off.

There is a lot of wine drinking and laughing at human nature in this series, which is unabashedly lightweight and formulaic, but has a real affection for its characters and sympathy for their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

As long as we're on the subject of British mysteries, I should let you all know that one of my recent favorites, Christopher Fowler's The Invisible Code will finally, finally be published in the US by Bantam on December 17, 2013. For some odd reason, the audiobook was available here well over a year ago, and I enjoyed it very much. You can read my full review here.

I have other British mysteries on my winter wish list, which will come as no surprise to those of you who know me. She's Leaving Home by William Shaw (Mulholland, February 11, 2014) has an irresistible hook for the mystery-loving Baby Boomer. In 1968, a young woman is found strangled in St. John's Wood, close to the Abbey Road recording studios used by the Beatles. Is she one of the fans who often hang around, hoping for a glimpse of the Fab Four?

Solving the case might just rescue the career of Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen, who is in bad odor with his colleagues. At a time when women were allowed only to be auxiliaries in the police force, Breen is teamed with WPC Helen Tozer.

First-timer William Shaw promises to bring the swinging 60s to life, with all its color and liberation from the dreary postwar era, but also the rampant, casual sexism and racism within the police force.

What do you think about the revamped John Rebus series, with him uneasily back from retirement and clashing regularly with Malcolm Fox of the force's Complaints? I can't say I like it as much as the original, but I did enjoy last year's Standing in Another Man's Grave (see the review by Della Streetwise here) and I'm sure not going to pass up the next one, Saints of the Shadow Bible (Little, Brown and Co., January 14, 2014).

Rebus is back on the force, only now––in an amusing turn––he's the DS and Siobhan Clarke is his DI. They're working together on a suspicious car crash case, and even Malcolm Fox is helping out. Then Fox's attention is drawn away by being assigned to investigate a 30-year-old case in which Rebus (then a DC) and his team are suspected of having allowed a murderer to escape justice because he was their regular informant.

As always, author Ian Rankin makes his time and place an important part of the story. In this case, it's an upcoming referendum on Scottish independence.

In my personal pantheon of contemporary British police procedural writers, there are several other names that accompany Rankin's, and one of them is Peter Robinson's. I can hardly believe it, but his Alan Banks series, set in Yorkshire, hit the 25-year mark last year, and Children of the Revolution (William Morrow, March 25, 2014) will be the 21st book.

When lecturer Gavin Miller was dismissed from his academic job for sexual misconduct, he retreated from the world, jobless and living like a hermit by the railroad tracks. When he's found dead by the tracks four years later, having reached the ground the fast way from the overpass, DCI Alan Banks investigates. The first mystery is how Miller came to have £5,000 on him.

Banks begins to suspect that the reasons for Miller's death may lie in his distant past, when he was involved in bitter political battles at his university. Soon Banks has another mystery to solve; i.e., why is he being ordered to back off the case?

How about one last one set in the UK? This one promises to hit my sweet spot: it's a World War II alternative history. C. J. Sansom, best known for his Matthew Shardlake series, has turned his focus from Tudor England to imagining what might have happened if Prime Minister Lloyd George, a Hitler admirer, made the UK essentially a German lackey.

In Dominion (Mulholland Books, January 28, 2014), Sansom gives us the chilling tale of a British police state, much like Vichy France. Press and broadcasts are censored by the far-right government, Jews are under attack and all resistance is crushed by the state's violent militia. But the government is increasingly harassed by a loose coalition of opponents, led by Winston Churchill, and including scientists, civil servants and others. When the Gestapo sends its thugs to Britain, the stakes are raised for the members of the resistance and the nation as a whole.

Moving a lot closer to home, especially for a Mainer like me, is Peter Swanson's The Girl with a Clock For a Heart (William Morrow, February 4, 2014). We begin in a bar in Boston (ah, if only), where protagonist George Foss encounters his ex-girlfriend from 20 years ago. Liana Dector ripped out George's heart and disappeared, but now she says she needs his help. Boy, does she ever.

Liana is being pursued by bad guys who say she stole their money, and she needs to be protected from them. But is she a damsel in distress or is she just as dangerous and cold-blooded as her pursuers?
Billed as stylish noir, the book has already been optioned by Hollywood.

Last on my list, but much, much higher up in my reading plans is Adam Sternbergh's Shovel Ready (Crown, January 14, 2014). Our anti-hero, known as Spademan, used to be a garbage collector in Manhattan––but that was before the dirty bomb changed everything. Now he's a different kind of cleaner; a gun for hire.

Like a private dick from the 1930s, Spademan is a man of few words, each one with a sharp edge. If you have a job that needs to be done, Spademan says: "I don't want to know your reasons. . . . I don't care. I'm not your Father Confessor. Think of me more like a bullet. Just point."

After the holidays, I'll be so ready for that one.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving from the Material Witnesses!

We wish you the best on this national day of giving thanks. Tomorrow, we invite you to join us when Sister Mary Murderous launches our eight-part preview of winter books.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Dinner and other Disasters

If there is one thing I have learned after many years of preparing Thanksgiving meals it is this: Never, ever mess with the star of the show. I can get a little creative with vegetables and rolls, and even vary the stuffing recipe a bit, but there must be no variations when giving guests the bird.

Literally no one enjoyed the very expensive free-range turkey I ordered from an upscale purveyor one year. While the idea of fowl cavorting gaily about the fields eating whatever they like is heartwarming, this particular bird must have had very curious tastes indeed. It was so gamy that I should have soaked it in milk for a few days beforehand. Even the dog was suspicious of it. And need I mention that you should never brine a turkey that already has "x% of y solution" injected into it? Wish I'd realized that before I tried; everyone drank quite a bit that year, with very mixed results.

In Isis Crawford's A Catered Thanksgiving (A Mystery with Recipes), rich old Uncle Monty is that picky relative for whom nothing is ever quite right. When he officiously invades the kitchen and opens the oven to check on the turkey, it explodes violently, blowing off the top of his head. Libby fears her new drunken stuffing recipe might have been the culprit, but there are plenty of other suspects with very good motives at this memorable feast.

The most explosive Thanksgiving event I can remember (aside from politics and football) occurred one Black Friday. We kids always came down early and reprised Thanksgiving dinner with leftovers for breakfast. When we cleared up after our impromptu feast, no one realized that the big pot of gravy had been sitting out all night. Mom served her usual anticipated waffles with leftover turkey and gravy for dinner that night. They tasted just fine, but with eight people in the house and only two bathrooms, our house was Misery Manor all night as people did a quick two-step past each other down the hall to pound on bathroom doors.

Unless you live in a mansion, one of the perennially vexing issues at Thanksgiving is where to seat guests for dinner. Like Sleeping Beauty's mother, I carefully count out seating, flatware, and cutlery, but sometimes we are surprised by extra guests and I may wind up eating my turkey from a leftover Fourth of July paper plate with a seafood fork.

One year a young cousin blew in from the West Coast and appeared at our door with a strict vegan girlfriend and the biggest dog I've ever seen. I didn't even have any soy milk in the house to feed the poor girl cereal. She finally picked at a salad and some vegetables (we didn't mention the butter) and water crackers. The dog ate everything––including, I think, a damask napkin (we never found it)––and was perfectly capable of helping himself from the table, thank you.

Dogs figure prominently in author Debbie Viguié's I Shall Not Want, the second in her series of Psalm 23 cozy mysteries set around major holidays. It's the week before Thanksgiving, and Cindy Preston, secretary of First Shepherd Church, is helping her wealthy friend, Joseph, with his new charitable project. Joseph proposes matching homeless dogs with homeless people, in the hope that both will benefit. Joseph's charity will pay for the dog food and veterinary care, and help to find jobs and pet-friendly housing for his clients.

While the kickoff of the event is marred by the murder of Joseph's secretary, over 50 dogs are matched with indigents. But within a few days, the recipients of the charity are being murdered and their dogs stolen. The police are baffled. It is up to Cindy and her rabbi friend Jeremiah to solve the murders in this very light cozy.

This year, Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, starts on November 27, the day before Thanksgiving in the U.S. Usually it occurs closer to Christmas. Does this mean that latkes (yum!) will replace mashed potatoes at many Thanksgiving meals?

With very good luck, the kids will remember in December that they received their holiday gifts in November. If not, this could turn out to be a very expensive holiday season for many parents!

The Mezzo Wore Mink is the sixth in author Mark Schweizer's hilarious series of liturgical mysteries. Police Chief Hayden Konig doubles as the choir director of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in the small North Carolina town of St. Germaine. While Hayden enjoys both of his jobs, what he really wants is to write a successful noir mystery like his idol, Raymond Chandler.

Thanksgiving is coming and St. Barnabas has yet another new preacher––the previous few having been murdered, imprisoned, or fled the state in sheer terror. This one wants to hold a Harvest Festival at the church, complete with pilgrims, Indians, live turkeys, and original music. The Living Gobbler Festival is born.

What could possibly go wrong with live turkeys and children with hatchets performing together? Add a skit featuring members of the nearby Christian Nudist Camp, a couple of murders, and several hundred escaped vicious cross-bred farm animals, and stir. No additional seasoning is required. Hayden has kept me laughing throughout this pungent slapstick series.

In the spirit of Thanks-giving, many supermarkets participate this time of year in local Food Bank Check-Out Hunger drives by offering either in-store collection boxes for food donations or these handy coupons available at checkout. It couldn't be easier––rip off a coupon and hand it to the cashier or scan it. The amount of your donation is added to your bill and sent automatically to the sponsoring charity. Or give through your place of worship or social organization, wherever works for you. Whatever form of seasonal scrimmage you participate in, your own turkey and abundance of trimmings will taste just a little better if you have helped ease the hunger of others. Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review of James McBride's The Good Lord Bird

Abolitionist John Brown
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The mistake central to McBride's The Good Lord Bird (August 2013, Riverhead) happens like this: It's 1856, and white abolitionist John Brown has his rifle trained on angry Pro Slavers (people who are pro-slavery) inside Dutch Henry's Tavern in Kansas Territory. All the blacks have hauled ass home, except for our narrator, then 10-year-old mulatto Henry Shackleford, and his pa, both slaves. Henry, like other black boys his age, wears a potato sack. "You and your daughter is now free," Brown says. Pa only manages, "Henry ain't a," before he is killed accidentally. Brown grabs Henry and runs, and thus begins Henry's—or Henrietta's—17 years as a black woman and the story of how he came to be the only black survivor of Brown's ill-fated raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.

Missouri, a slave state, shares a border with Kansas Territory

Before continuing with Henry's story, a little history is in order. When Kansas Territory was created by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the question of slavery in Kansas was left up to popular sovereignty. Unfortunately, pro-slavery Border Ruffians from the neighboring slave state of Missouri took this as an invitation to force the acceptance of slavery onto Kansans through terrorism and fraud. Most whites in Missouri were too poor to own slaves, but they hated Yankees and abolitionists and feared more free blacks living nearby. In addition, they knew that if Kansas were admitted to the Union as a free state, the balance of anti- and pro-slavery representation in the U.S. Senate would be disrupted.

Between 1854 and 1861, when free-state Kansas gained admission to the Union, there were so many violent confrontations in Kansas Territory that spilled over into western Missouri, the Territory was called "Bleeding Kansas." Most Kansas Free Staters weren't abolitionists, but they were forced to fight back against Pro Slavers.

Abolitionist John Brown had several adult sons living in Kansas Territory, and he left his wife and other children (of 22 children, 12 were still living) in upstate New York to join them. Several events in 1856 helped persuade Brown that he "couldn't have a sit-down committee meeting with the Pro Slavers and nag and commingle and jingle with 'em over punch and lemonade and go bobbing for apples with 'em" to eradicate slavery: Pro Slavers sacked Lawrence, Kansas, and South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks was proclaimed a hero in the South after he caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner for delivering a U.S. Senate speech in which he likened Border Ruffian violence in Kansas Territory to the rape of virgins.

Enough background history. The Good Lord Bird is rollicking tragicomedy/historical fiction that follows Old John Brown, narrator Henry (AKA "the Onion" after "she" unthinkingly ingests Brown's lucky onion and becomes Brown's walking good luck charm), and Brown's ragtag band of sons and assorted followers from their murderous attack on a Pro Slaver's homestead to battles at Black Jack and Osawatomie before the Onion is left at a Pikesville, Missouri whorehouse while Brown heads back East to fundraise, and his men disperse. After surviving several years working for whorehouse madam/businesswoman Miss Abby and the budding of understandable adolescent boy yearnings for a beautiful prostitute named Pie, Onion is back on the trail with Brown.

They head to Boston, where Brown introduces fundraising speeches with "I'm John Brown from Kansas, and I's fighting slavery." Onion hates speechifying without "joy juice," but she tells stories about how hungry and miserable she was as a slave, which are lies, since the only starving she's ever done has been in the company of Brown, who never seems to eat, and his dozen men, who sometimes dine on one measly squirrel while listening to Brown bark and pray and howl at his Holy Redeemer for hours until his son Owen, the only one who dares, stops him with a "Pa! The Pro Slavers posse (or U.S. cavalry) is coming!" Raising funds is very difficult for Brown, because white Northerners sympathetic to his anti-slavery cause want to know exactly what he plans to do with their money, and Brown, fearing U.S. government spies, refuses to divulge his plans.

Old John Brown was feared and hated by Pro Slavers
and revered by blacks and fellow abolitionists
From Boston, Onion and Brown head to Rochester, New York, for a stay with famous ex-slave and speaker Frederick Douglass, with whom Onion is hardly impressed. After that, there's a convention for black people in Canada (where they meet Harriet Tubman and Brown attempts to pick up recruits for his war against slavery), before they're back in Iowa with Brown's men, making plans for the fiasco at Harpers Ferry.

Author James McBride
As Onion relates it,  Brown's seemingly lunatic plan to capture the nation's largest arsenal of weapons and to arm an insurrection against slavery isn't surprising, given Brown's character and the bad luck that seems to follow him around (I don't mean to insinuate that Onion, his good luck charm, has a bad twin). Writer McBride's Brown is an incredibly complex man, a loving father who leaves his young ones back East while risking his own life and those of his sons in a war against slavery that he believes is ordained by God. He suffers from believing what he wants to believe. Brown never really understands many slaves would rather run from slavery than take up arms against it —although there are some tragically brave black people in this story—and his supreme confidence in God's protection no matter what the odds make him a compelling and heartbreaking figure. It's no wonder Onion can't bring herself (or himself, oh, you know what I mean) to leave him, despite several half-hearted attempts. As a boy with dark skin, Onion feels passing as a girl is only doing what all black people do in front of whites—creating a disguise in order to survive.

Given McBride's entertaining and insightful portraits of fictional blacks like Onion, Pie, and a slave named Sibonia; and the real-life Brown, his sons, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, I wasn't surprised when The Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award this year. I strongly suggest it to people who enjoy historical fiction like John Barth's romp, The Sot-Weed Factor, in which failed English poet Ebeneezer Cooke, his sister, and their tutor travel to Maryland in the 1700s; E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, in which we meet historical figures such as Harry Houdini in turn-of-the-century New York City; and Dennis Lehane's atmospheric The Given Day, which centers around a Boston cop's family in early 20th-century Boston.

Note: McBride's Good Lord bird, whose feathers John Brown's son Frederick claims bring good luck and "understanding all your life," might be the ivory-billed woodpecker, although Kansas Territory might have been a bit northwest for one. People lucky enough to spot this large woodpecker reportedly cried, "Lord God!," and that gave it its nickname, the Lord God bird.

Hunting and overlogging drove this species near extinction in the late 1930s. For sixty years, it was feared extinct. In 2004, a sighting and sounds (characteristic tin-horn cries and double-knock pounding) were reported in the Big Woods of Arkansas, but extensive searching by ornithologists has produced no definitive evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists in America. That's very unlucky for us.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Everything Old Is New Again

A few days ago, I finally reached the finish line on Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries––848 pages in print and over 29 hours on audio. Reviewers are worshipful, and I'm . . . mystified.

After that slog, I was delighted to get an email from HarperCollins about a "lost" Agatha Christie novella called Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly. It clocks in at a crisp 70 pages and made for a very pleasant evening's reading. If you notice it's a lot like the Poirot novel Dead Man's Folly, it's no coincidence. That's because Christie wrote the novella as a fund-raiser for her church, not for publication, but then decided to expand the story into the full-length novel and use a different story (a Miss Marple tale) for the fundraiser. Still, there are some differences between Dead Man's Folly and Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly, and any serious Poirot fan should enjoy the novella.

HarperCollins is using the publication of this novella to launch its new Witness Impulse imprint, which will publish new books in mystery, thriller and suspense, but will also republish classics and bring international books to American readers.

I'm excited about Witness's publications, like a couple of my favorite British authors, Frances Fyfield and Stephen Booth. I also notice some other British authors I'm less familiar with, whose books hadn't previously been published in the US or are hard to find here, like Aline Templeton, who writes a police procedural series set in the Scottish countryside and featuring Detective Inspector Marjory Fleming, also known as Big Marge; Alison Bruce, with her DC Gary Goodhew series, set in Cambridge; and Rory Clements, who writes a series starring William Shakespeare's brother, John.

Even though I love grabbing books as soon as they're published, and discovering new authors, this trend of republishing lesser-known international titles and out-of-print mysteries is a welcome one. In addition to the Witness titles, which you can find here, check out some of these:

Felony & Mayhem is one of my real favorites. Their books have a nice, comfortable feel in the hand,
high-quality paper and type fonts, and attractive cover art. Visit F&M if you're looking for republished classics from authors like Margery Allingham, Robert Barnard, Edmund Crispin, Elizabeth Daly, Peter Dickinson, Caroline Graham, Reginald Hill, Elizabeth Ironside and Ngaio Marsh.

Felony & Mayhem doesn't restrict the booklist to the oldies, though. They are home to Londoner Laura Wilson's 1940s Ted Stratton series and L.C. Tyler's delightfully quirky "Herring" series, just for two quick examples. You could easily find a couple of hours slipping by while you peruse their online catalog.

Rue Morgue Press specializes in republications of Golden Age mysteries. You can find some wonderful old favorites on their catalog, like Catherine Aird, Delano Ames, Nicholas Blake (one of my favorites when I first started reading mysteries), Manning Coles, Michael Gilbert, Gladys Mitchell, Colin Watson (his Flaxborough series is just a hoot) and a lot more.

It's amazing how quickly some relatively recent mystery novels can go out of print. And that's where Poisoned Pen Press might just come to the rescue. Looking for back titles in Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak series? Poisoned Pen's your source. You'll also find some Robert Barnard titles, Libby Fischer Hellmann's Ellie Foreman mysteries, Kerry Greenwood's Australian Phryne Fisher and Corinna Chapman books, Steven F. Havill's Posadas County mysteries and page after page of others.

Open Road Integrated Media may be a dull name, but their mission and imagination are anything but. Open Road republishes (in ebook form) celebrated and lesser-known finds in all genres, not just mystery. Thomas Berger, whose classic Little Big Man was made into a movie starring Dustin Hoffmann, is represented with 10 titles, including one I've been meaning to buy, Crazy In Berlin, about a Army medic stationed in Berlin at the end of World War II, and Arthur Rex, a cheeky retelling of the King Arthur legend. Mary Wesley, best known for The Camomile Lawn, also has 10 titles in the catalog.

But if you insist on mysteries (and we all do sometimes), Open Road can deliver a lot of them to your e-reader, including Dorothy L. Sayers's first three Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Pieter Aspe's Inspector Van In series, set in Bruges, is up to 24 books, but has only just now started to be translated from Flemish to English. You can find the first two titles, The Square of Revenge and The Midas Murders, on Open Road.

Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press has been bringing back out-of-print mysteries for decades. Now, is putting these books in digital form, and teaming with Open Road for distribution and marketing. The catalog includes hundreds of titles, and here's just the tip of the iceberg: Charlotte Armstrong, James M. Cain, Mignon Eberhart, James Ellroy, John Harvey, Jane Langton, Charles McCarry, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Joseph Wambaugh and Donald E. Westlake.

I don't want to mislead, though. Mysterious Press isn't only about ebooks. You can also find some paperbacks there, including one of my recent favorites, Janice Law's Francis Bacon series, whose first two titles are Fires of London and The Prisoner of the Riviera.

Crippen and Landru's niche is republishing mystery short story collections. Perusing their current list, I see story collections by John Dickson Carr, Michael Gilbert, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson, Ross Macdonald, Lawrence Block, Craig Rice, Christianna Brand, Erle Stanley Gardner and dozens more.

A lot of my collection of old mystery titles came from rummaging through used bookshops and library book sales. I love every one of those finds, but it's nice to know that when I want to read an old title, I don't necessarily have to go on a dusty hunt.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review of Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo's Where There's Love, There's Hate

Where There's Love, There's Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

If travel is on your holiday agenda, the perfect take-along may be Where There's Love, There's Hate. Originally published in 1946, the novella was translated from Spanish into English by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell and published in May, 2013 by Melville House.

The novella's married authors, Casares and Ocampo, were famous Argentine writers and friends of Jorge Luis Borges. They've combined a sophisticated spoof of a detective story with a romantic satire. It's very vivid writing, jam-packed with eccentric characters, sly literary references and nods to Golden Age mystery writers, such as Michael Innes, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie.

The story is narrated by Argentine physician Humberto Huberman, an arrogant pseudo-intellectual who looks like a pocket-sized Goethe and has a "perfect" appetite. In addition to treating patients, Huberman writes screenplays. He's working on an adaptation of Petronius and seeks solitude at his cousin Esteban's seaside hotel in Bosque del Mar, "the literati's paradise."

To reach the Central Hotel, one makes a dangerous journey over planks set across crab bogs and sinkholes that claimed the physician's horse. The hotel is like a foundered submarine, sinking in swirling sandstorms, and opening windows is impossible. The air inside is foul and full of buzzing flies that drown out dinner conversation. An elderly typist ("Muscarius"), armed with a flyswatter, hunts them when she isn't gently swaying her head in time to the dinner bell or foretelling trouble in the hours ahead. Also living at the hotel are Esteban's sister, Andrea, who cooks, and her 11-year-old son, Miguel, who's into exploring a grounded ship and embalming. Miguel's facial expression, which combines innocence and maturity, makes Huberman uneasy.

Besides Huberman, guests include a young blonde woman named Emilia Gutiérrez, and her sister, Mary. Mary translates and edits detective novels and it's her habit to travel with everything she has ever translated. She works for a prestigious publishing house, but Huberman, who considers the detective novel unrealistic and childish, isn't impressed. Accompanying Emilia and Mary is Emilia's fiancé, Enrique Atuel, who reminds Huberman of a overly debonair tango crooner. Doctor Cornejo is middle-aged and knowledgeable about meteorology and the ocean. Pipe-smoking Doctor Manning plays game after game of solitaire.

From the guests' first day, when Mary comes close to drowning (although she denies it), scenes hint of the Grand Guignol. Emilia disappears before turning up at dinner with red and teary eyes. After dinner, she freezes when Mary asks her to play Liszt's Forgotten Waltz on the piano. The dogs howl and the wind, "as if grieving all the world's sorrow," whips the sand into a frenzy. By the next morning, someone is dead, a victim of suicide or murder.

The Central Hotel, in the middle of a sandstorm, was almost as closed to outsiders as Christie's island in And Then There Were None. Arriving to investigate are Commissioner Raimundo Aubry, who can't discuss crime without referencing Victor Hugo, and police physician Doctor Cecilio Montes, whose appearance is that of an escapee from a Russian novel. One might expect Huberman to be standoffish, since he says complicated crimes are the province of literature, while reality is more banal. But Huberman jumps to argue about the criminal using examples from literature. He becomes a detective, as does almost everyone––other than the corpse.

One after another, revelations are produced, accusations are made, suspects are cleared and Golden Age mystery conventions are skewered. After reality is confused with a book, it's a miracle that the case is solved.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Review of Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano’s First Case

Montalbano's First Case by Andrea Camilleri

Salvo Montalbano and the sea go together like spaghetti and squid ink. It may not work as a combination here, but in Sicily it is a match made in heaven. But Montalbano began his career as a policeman in Mascalippa, an area of meadows carpeted with grass, polka-dotted with livestock, mountains in the distance but not a breath of salty air and it was killing him. He thought it was akin to being in jail.

When he heard a rumor that he was to get his promotion to Chief Inspector, he was not sure whether that was good news or bad news. Fortunately for him, his boss had been able to read his hangdog expressions over the past years and had recommended that he get his promotion, but in a different location: Vigàta, on the coast.

He took a trip to visit his home-to-be and, just as he got out of the car, he was assailed by an exquisite perfume, a mixture of stagnant seawater, rotten seaweed, decaying fish, ancient ropes and sardines. He knew he could be happy here.

The first thing he did was to find a trattoria on the main drag where, after he had eaten enough for four or five people, he still felt light as a feather. Salvo felt absolutely certain that the move to Vigàta was preordained. The only fly in the ointment was in the guise of an almost insignificant traffic accident that occurred right in front of Montalbano, who had yet to identify himself to anyone in the town as a policeman, much less their new chief Inspector.

As Montalbano was waiting outside the restaurant, a sports car came speeding out of nowhere. It swerved slightly and sideswiped a slower car. The driver of this slower car was an elderly gentleman wearing glasses. The elderly man stopped his vehicle and got out to inspect it. The speeder in the roadster got out of his car and approached the old man and smashed him in the face before the speeder was forced back into his own car by a passenger and then tore off.

Montalbano took charge, but there was a traffic cop there as well, and it would be some time before Montalbano settled into his job in Vigàta. By the time he did, this little case began to develop twists and turns, with strings pulling at Salvo this way and that. He actually began to feel that thin, invisible wires were moving him forward like a puppet.

Who wrote that? "Ah, Pirandello," thought Montalbano, but this thought segued into the plot of the Argentine author Borges, who narrated the plot of a mystery in which everything could be traced back to the random encounter between two chess players on a train who had never met before. The two players planned a murder, executed it and managed to avoid raising any suspicion. This first case is like many of Montalbano's cases. He has to be more wily than the crooks and the mafia, and slyer than the politicians, if he wants to keep landing on his feet. Particularly if he wants to do it with his honor and integrity intact.

Carmine Fazio, who becomes Montalbano's deputy, wants to understand what kind of boss he is going to be working under. Salvo explains. His philosophy is comparable to homemade sweaters made of wool.

But that's a pattern I can't divulge without giving away too much. This ebook novella is a prequel that is as enjoyable as the entire Camilleri series.

Note: Montalbano's First Case was translated from the Italian by Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa and published by Mondadori/Open Road Integrated Media in October 2013. I received a free e-galley from NetGalley for purposes of review.