Characters


THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


CHARLOTTE MacLEOD – Vane Pursuit. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1989; paperback, 1990.

   Vane Pursuit is one of the better tales in Charlotte MacLeod’s series about Peter Shandy, professor of botany at Balaclava College in the nether regions of Massachusetts. Shandy’s wife Helen is here working on a book project involving the potentially famous weathervanes created by the nomenclaturally unforgettable Praxiteles Lumpkin.

   However, disaster seems to attend her photographic rounds: buildings burn and weathervanes are destroyed. Or mysteriously disappear. One of the casualties is the Lumpkin Soap Factory, the conflagration of which destroys the Lumpkinton employment base, returns one employee to his Maker, and signals the departure of a particularly stellar vane.

   These goings-on, plus the antics of a crew of rural survivalists and a fascinating cave dweller, fully engage the Shandys to the brinks of their lives. Vane Pursuit has a stronger plot than some in this series, with less reliance on the soon tiresome tactic of outrageous character names, and the dialog is sprightly.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


      The Professor Peter Shandy series –

Rest You Merry (1978)
The Luck Runs Out (1979)
Wrack and Rune (1981)
Something the Cat Dragged in (1983)
The Curse of the Giant Hogweed (1985)
The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond (1986)
Vane Pursuit (1989)
An Owl Too Many (1991)
Something in the Water (1994)
Exit the Milkman (1996)

IT’S ABOUT CRIME
by Marv Lachman

FRANK PARRISH – Death in the Rain. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1984. Perennial Library, paperback, 1986. First published in the UK as Face at the Window (Constable, hardcover, 1984).

   Fans of Dick Francis will enjoy that other master of the narrative, Frank Parrish, whose fifth book about Dan Mallett, Death in the Rain, is in paperback from Perennial Library. We identify with Francis’s heroes and feel every bit of pain inflicted by sadistic villains. With Parrish’s “professional” poacher, we observe nature as if we are also lying on the English ground, feeling the cold and dampness. He is marvelously knowledgeable about the Wessex countryside made famous by Thomas Hardy.

   Death in the Rain plays down the major weakness in prior Mallett books, his long-standing attempt to get money for the hip operation his mother won’t consider free, under British socialized medicine. Yet Mrs. Mallett plays a greater role in this book, and she is a delightful supporting character.

   She and Natasha Chapman, a very believable young actress, help compensate for a plot with some structural weaknesses. There are too many coincidences, too many blackmailers, and too many people simultaneously in (or watching) the murder flat.

   Those are the only flaws I can discuss without giving away too much plot, but suffice it to say that, warts and all, this is as much fun to read as Parrish’s prior novels about one of the more unusual series characters of the 1980s. The first four Mallett books are also available from Perennial and equally recommended.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Notes: Frank Parrish was the pen name of Roger Longrigg. (1929-2000). Under his own name he has two marginal entries in Hubin. Other pseudonyms are: Laura Black (four novels), Ivor Drummond (nine adventures of Jennifer Norrington, Alessandro di Ganzarello & Coleridge Tucker III) and Domini Taylor (nine novels).

       The Dan Mallett series –

Fire in the Barley. Constable, 1977.

Sting of the Honeybee. Constable, 1978.
Snare in the Dark. Constable, 1982.
Bait on the Hook. Constable, 1983.
Face at the Window. Constable, 1984. US: Death in the Rain.
Fly in the Cobweb. Constable, 1986.
Caught in the Birdlime. Constable, 1987. US: Caught in the Net.

Voices from the Dark. Constable, 1993. No US edition.

THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


GEOFFREY MARSH – The Fangs of the Hooded Demon. Tor, hardcover, 1988; reprint paperback, 1989.

   I’ve not before encountered Geoffrey Marsh and his Lincoln Blackthorne series, of which the present The Fangs of the Hooded Demon is the fourth. Blackthorne is a tailor in New Jersey, of all things, to whom incredible experiences accrue.

   If Demon is any guide, these tales are part mystery and crime, part unresolved fantasy and mysticism, with Blackthorne functioning more or less in the role of private investigator. Or maybe a land-bound Travis McGee.

   Here he’s hired, or maybe forced, to track down the titular fangs, which are bejeweled false teeth with reputed powers of rejuvenation if the right ritual is used at the right time. Various aged and villainous Hollywood rejects want the fangs desperately, and the peril-around-every-corner chase leads to New York, then to Oklahoma, and finally to the oozing swamps of Georgia.

   Frantic and imaginative, and I suspect quite enjoyable if your tastes run to this sort of thing.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Note: It is now known that Geoffrey Marsh was one of several pen names used by Charles L. Grant (1942 – 2006), a noted horror and fantasy writer whose books sometimes verged into crime fiction territory, as did the Blackthorne novels.

      The Lincoln Blackthorne series (as by Geoffrey Marsh) –

1. The King of Satan’s Eyes (1984)
2. The Tail of the Arabian, Knight (1986)
3. The Patch of the Odin Soldier (1987)
4. The Fangs of the Hooded Demon (1988)

IT’S ABOUT CRIME
by Marv Lachman

WILLIAM L. DeANDREA – The HOG Murders. Avon, paperback orginal, 1979. International Polygonics, paperback, 1999.

   William L. DeAndrea has acknowledged his debt to Rex Stout, and it is especially apparent in this second novel, The HOG Murders, with its eccentric-genius detective, Professor Niccolo Benedetti. Even Benedetti’s Goodwin, Ron Gentry, will remind you of a subdued Archie. (Actually, Matt Cobb, DeAndrea’s series detective since his first novel, Killed in the Ratings [1978] has more of the Goodwin glibness, which he combines with Wolfe’s being a stickler on grammar.)

   When a mass murderer who signs himself “The Hog” goes on a killing spree in the fictional upstate New York city of Sparta in midwinter, panic sets in, and the world-famous Benedetti is summoned back from South Africa. To carry the Stout analogy a bit further, The HOG Murders suffers from “Too Many Detectives,” with at least five sleuths, professional and amateur.

   The background of wintery weather as an impediment to detection is well handled, especially in a scene in an Adirondack cabin with the wind-chill factor at fifty-five degrees below zero. DeAndrea has a nice surprise waiting at the ending, though it is weakened by the limited number of suspects he has presented and a couple of holes through which one can drive a medium-sized vehicle.

   Incidentally, DeAndrea won Edgars with both of his first two novels, the second in the paperback-original category. I don’t believe that has ever been done before or since; it’s the literary equivalent of Johnny Vandermeer’s consecutive no-hit games.

Editorial Notes:   The HOG Murders was previously reviewed on this blog by Bill Crider. Check out his comments here. At least one other source (Wikipedia) agrees with me on the spelling of HOG in the title of this book, which is how I have presented it in Marv’s review. That’s how I remember it, anyway!

       The Niccolo Benedetti series –

The HOG Murders. Avon, 1979.
The Werewolf Murders. Doubleday, 1992.
The Manx Murders. Penzler, 1994.

       William DeAndrea — Edgars won:

Killed in the Ratings, 1978. (Best First Novel, 1979)
The HOG Murders, 1979. (Best Paperback Original, 1980)
Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, 1994. (Best Critical/Biographical Work, 1995)

IT IS PURELY MY OPINION
Reviews by L. J. Roberts


  ANN CLEEVES – Silent Voices. Thomas Dunne/Minotaur Books, hardcover, May 2013. Trade paperback, July 2014. First published in the UK, 2011. Police procedural; Det. Inspector Vera Stanhope #1 [#4 in the UK]. Dramatized for TV as an episode of Vera, UK, ITV, with Brenda Blethyn in the title role [Series 2, Episode 2.]

First Sentence: Vera swam slowly.

   It’s not every day a police inspector finds a dead body sharing a sauna with her in a hotel health club, especially when that body is of a murder victim. Vera and her team work to find a killer in a village filled with people, and their secrets.

   From the very first paragraph, one is caught up in the author’s voice; her dry humor and the character. By the end of the first chapter, one is also caught up in the story.

   There is so much one could say about the characters, particularly Vera. How nice it is to have a female protagonist such as Vera. She’s a mature woman, overweight and unconcerned about her appearance — except, not totally unconcerned. She does care about being fair to her team, knows what motivates each of them, and is a very good leader; even though she drives them hard.

   She’s respected by her colleagues, even when they frustrate her. The relationship she has with Joe, her sergeant, is an interesting one… “Sometimes Vera though he represented her feminine side. He had the empathy, she had the muscle. Well, the bulk.” Even with the suspects, she doesn’t just investigate clues, but motivations; what makes people do what they do, what drives them.

   Cleeves has a very interesting style. Although the story is told in third person, when she focuses on Vera, it switches somewhat to first person as we gain insight on her life and character through an internal monologue and her observations… “These days, people expected senior female officers to walk straight out of Prime Suspect.”

   There is a very strong sense of place and wonderful descriptions. Particularly appealing is the contrast between the town and the desolation of Vera’s home. It’s very much part of her character.

   Although the story is character driven, it certainly doesn’t lack for plot or suspense. We’re given plenty of characters with motives, nice red herrings and plot twists. Vera is currently a television series done by British ITV, and very well done it is. The only way I knew the villain in the book was having seen the episode. Otherwise, it really wasn’t obvious.

Rating: VG Plus.

      The Vera Stanhope series –

The Crow Trap (1999)
Telling Tales (2005)
Hidden Depths (2007)
Silent Voices (2011)
The Glass Room (2012)
Harbour Street (2014)

       Vera [TV series] –

Series 1 Episode 1: Hidden Depths
Series 1 Episode 2: Telling Tales
Series 1 Episode 3: The Crow Trap
Series 1 Episode 4: Little Lazarus

Series 2 Episode 1: The Ghost Position
Series 2 Episode 2: Silent Voices
Series 2 Episode 3: Sandancers
Series 2 Episode 4: A Certain Samaritan

Series 3, Episode 1: Castles in the Air
Series 3, Episode 2: Poster Child
Series 3, Episode 3: Young Gods
Series 3 Episode 4: Prodigal Son

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


JOHN FERGUSON – Death of Mr. Dodsley. Collins, UK, hardcover, 1937. White Circle Books, UK, paperback, 1939. No US edition.

   When I bought this novel, I was not aware that this was the John Ferguson who had written Death Comes to Perigord, which I found both dark and tedious. Belatedly making this discovery, I began the book with some reluctance, which I need not have since it turned out most enjoyable.

   What does M. G. Grafton’s fictional mystery novel “Death at the Desk,” have to do with the murder of Richard Dodsley, proprietor of a new- and rare-book store? Other, that is, than that Grafton is in love with Dodsley’s nephew, that the novel contains the sentence, “The prophet who was slain by a lion had a nobler end than Bishop Hatto who was eaten by rats,” and that certain aspects of the novel’s plot have been repeated in the book-store murder?

   And what is one to make of the apparently drunken young man who shortly before the murder saw a cat open and close the book shop’s door?

   Fortunately for the police, private detective MacNab had earlier unsatisfactorily investigated rare-book thefts from the shop and interests himself in the case, one that is somewhat less complicated than the police make it out to be.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1991.


       The Francis MacNab series –

A. Father, a policeman:

   The Dark Geraldine. Lane, 1921.

B. Son, a private detective:

   The Man in the Dark. Lane, 1928.
   Murder on the Marsh. Lane, 1930.
   Death Comes to Perigord. Collins, 1931.
   The Grouse Moor Mystery. Collins, 1934.
   Death of Mr. Dodsley. Collins, 1937.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


ANTHONY HOROWITZ – Scorpia Rising: The Final Mission. Philomel, hardcover, 2011. Puffin, softcover, March 2012.

    “Somehow you are going to persuade MI6 to send Alex Rider on a mission. You’re going to make sure the mission goes wrong and the boy gets killed … Then you’re going to blackmail them.”

   That sums up the plot of Scorpia Rising, the ninth and final book (a prequel of sorts was published earlier this year) in Anthony Horowitz’s series about fourteen year old reluctant British agent Alex Rider, who finds when his secret agent uncle dies in the first book, Stormbreaker, that he has been trained all his life a be a spy, and indeed his father was an agent as well.

   Stormbreaker was a clever entertaining semi send up of the genre much in the Ian Fleming tradition of tongue definitely in cheek, what with Alex’s souped up bike and a lethal yoyo and chewing gum, but what Horowitz also took from Fleming was the knowledge that you must always play it straight, and the hero is everything. The series works because of Alex Rider, because ridiculous as the idea sounds, Horowitz makes it work. This is no Cody Banks. Alex is not only a character you cheer for, but he is one you learn to understand a bit more each book.

   The books grew darker as Alex was drawn deeper into the world of spies and secret agents. All nine books take place in a single crowded year, but it becomes at least plausible as long as the novels compel you along with relentless action and one twist after another, revealing the secrets behind Alex Rider.

   Alex lives with Jack Starbright, a young American woman hired as a sort of babysitter, who ends up as his guardian. Other regulars include Mr. Blunt, the cold blooded head of MI6 Special Operations; Mrs. Jones, who has a jaundiced eye to the exploitation of Alex; Smithers, the head of Covert Weapons, Q to Alex’s 007; and Sabina Pleasure (Fleming would love it), a classmate involved in his first adventure and Alex’s girlfriend.

   In Scorpia Rising Alex is drawn into a trap, and faces an old enemy, Julius Grief, a clone given plastic surgery to be Alex’s twin and dark doppelganger being used by Scorpia, SPECTRE to Alex’s Bond, a ruthless terrorist organization that has been at the heart of Alex problems from the beginning.

    “I will not agree to take on this child one more time. Twice was enough. I will not risk a third humiliation.”

   But of course they do. There wouldn’t be a book if they didn’t. I suppose that must be very limiting for master criminals and super villains. You can imagine Moriarty complaining that once in a while it couldn’t be Martin Hewitt or Dr. Thorndyke instead of Holmes.

   Scorpia Rising is the longest of the books to that point, and a fine climax for a series that turned out to be a dark look at the excesses of intelligence, and far more accessible than any of John Le Carre’s adult novels. Horowitz (of Poirot, Foyle’s War fame, and author of numerous other young adult novels — notably here the Diamond Brothers and their best known case, The Falcon’s Malteser) is clever, inventive, playful as his model Fleming was, but unlike Fleming there is a more serious theme underlying the Alex Rider books (more serious than Fleming’s ennui anyway), and the effects of his ordeal show on what is, after all, a fourteen year old. That he keeps Alex a believable fourteen year old and not an angst-ridden mini-adult is no mean feat.

   There is a stunner at the end of this one, and Alex graduates to what he has been on the way to becoming all along. At the end he escapes Scorpia and Mr. Blunt, but at a price he was not willing to pay. Despite the upbeat ending, Horowitz never suggests Alex is going to simply forget what he has seen and done, or that the can go back and be a normal teenage boy now, not entirely. Everything is nicely sewed up and closed, but you won’t buy it for a moment. Alex’s new happy life in San Francisco with Sabina’s family is presented as the finale to his adventures, but you know heroes like Alex Rider stumble on massive criminal conspiracies the way the rest of us find pennies on the ground.

   You leave the series fairly certain that Alex’s days with MI6 Special Operations are only suspended until he is older.

   If you like spy thrillers or James Bond, this series will be hugely entertaining. The villains are properly larger than life, the action beautifully choreographed, and the set pieces big and well drawn. Above all, without ever imitating Fleming, Horowitz manages to mine what was properly called the Fleming Effect, that ineffable voice no one has been able to echo since. Like Fleming, the writing is deceptively simple, full of short sentences and with a page-turning rhythm that easily explains why young audiences devoured these.

   Alex Rider inspired graphic novels, audiobooks, and a somewhat disappointing movie, Stormbreaker, that was none the less perfectly cast. If you haven’t read these, find a young adult you can buy them for, and then read them yourself before giving them to him or her. Though you may have to buy a second set because you are reluctant to let them go. They really are intelligent and playful novels with a dark and serious message hidden among the lightning action.

      The Alex Rider series –

1. Stormbreaker (2000)
2. Point Blanc (2001)
3. Skeleton Key (2002)
4. Eagle Strike (2003)
5. Scorpia (2004)
6. Ark Angel (2005)
7. Snakehead (2007)
8. Crocodile Tears (2009)
9. Scorpia Rising (2011)
10. Russian Roulette (2013)

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