Characters


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


DAVID HOUSEWRIGHT – Darkness, Sing Me a Song. Holland Taylor #4. Minotaur Books, hardcover, January 2018. Setting: Twin Cities Minnesota.

First Sentence: She was tall, slender, impeccably tanned; strawberry hair fell in waves to her shoulders.

   Wealthy and socially important Eleanor Barrington has been arrested for the murder of her son Joel’s fiancée, Emily Denys. PI Holland Taylor has been hired to help the defending law firm by investigating Emily’s background, only to find she doesn’t have one.

   And that’s not the only mystery. Bigger questions revolve around the relationship between the mother and son, and where, if at all, does Joel’s sister Devon fit in to things and whether a controversial business deal is involved. This case is much more than Taylor, still recovering from the death of his wife and daughter, and the breakup of a recent relationship, expected.

   The best story is one which starts on page one, although I was amused by the typo on page 6 in the hardcover copy, and dives right it. It is a classic story for a reason. What also works is the reader being set up with one expectation and then story taking a twist within the first two paragraphs.

   Housewright weaves the backstory of the characters into the text and dialogue in a manner where it is intriguing rather than disruptive. While some of the characters are quite disturbing, Ogilvy the rabbit, Mandy Wedermeyer, the 14-year-old neighbor, her mom Claire, and Taylor’s parents add balance and made Taylor more real.

   Taylor is a great character and one that is fully-developed. He has a past that impacts the present. He is a person one would want to know, and there are some nice moments of realization— “I don’t think she was interested in me so much as she craved human contact, which seemed to prove that it isn’t how many people you meet, it’s how many you connect with that matters.”

   There is a very well-done inclusion of environmental issues related to fracking, water and land usage which bring contemporary relevance to the story. One minor criticism is that there are times when following a conversation can become confusing as to whom is speaking.

   Darkness, Sing Me a Song includes relationships which are uncomfortable, has very effective plot twists, and a powerful, rather sad, ending.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.


       The Holland Taylor series —

1. Penance (1995)

2. Practice to Deceive (1997)
3. Dearly Departed (1999)
4. Darkness, Sing Me a Song (2018)
5. First, Kill the Lawyers (2019)

RONALD TIERNEY – The Stone Veil. Deets Shanahan #1. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1990. Life Death & Fog Books, softcover, 2011.

   Is there room in Indianapolis for another PI? Move over, Albert Samson, and make room for Dietrich “Deets” Shanahan, pushing 70, nearly retired, but still man enough to take on both a missing husband case and a new lady friend whom he meets working in a massage parlor.

   He’s not really inept, trying to cope with new computer technology and so on, but he doesn’t really shine either. The problem with this, his second case in four years, is that over 70% of it concerns his personal life. But then, his personal life is interesting.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #21, April 1990.

The Deets Shanahan series —

1. The Stone Veil (1990)
2. The Steel Web (1991)

3. The Iron Glove (1992)
4. The Concrete Pillow (1995)
5. Nickel-Plated Soul (2004)
6. Platinum Canary (2005)

7. Glass Chameleon (2006)
8. Asphalt Moon (2007)
9. Bloody Palms (2008)

10. Bullet Beach (2010)
11. Killing Frost (2015)


Note: The Stone Veil was a finalist for both the St. Martin’s Press and Shamus awards for the best first mystery novel

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Kathleen L. Maio


SARAH CAUDWELL – Thus Was Adonis Murdered. Hilary Tamar #1. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1981. Penguin, paperback, 1982. First published in the UK: Collins, hardcover, 1981.

   In her first mystery novel, Sarah Caudwell provides proof that a Victorian epistolary novel, a mystery in the manner of the Golden Age, and a late-twentieth-century sex farce can all be harmoniously combined in one exceptional novel. But then, no less was expected from the child of British author Claud Cockburn and actress Jean Ross (who was Christopher Isherwood’s model for Sally Bowles).

   Caudwell is a barrister, so it is not surprising that the legal profession features prominently in her story. The central character is Julia Larwood, a gifted barrister who is hopeless with the simple details of daily life. She goes on an art lover’s tour of Venice to forget the dunning of the Inland Revenue (her archenemy) and to seduce a beautiful young man or two. Her sexual success (with a taxman, of course!) is quickly followed by disaster: Soon after Julia rises from the bed of her young swain, he is found stabbed to death. Julia, not surprisingly, is arrested.

   It is up to her colleagues back at Lincoln’s Inn, notably law professor Hillary Tamar, to find the real killer. Narrative and clues are provided by Tamar and supplemented by various letters, especially those of Julia to her barrister friend Selena. The tone is quasi-Victorian, very British, and highly amusing. The plot is improbable but skillfully handled. The characters are a delight. All in all, Thus Was Adonis Murdered marks a highly impressive debut.

     ———
   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

       The Hilary Tamar series —

1. Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981)
2. The Shortest Way To Hades (1984)

        

3. The Sirens Sang Of Murder (1989)
4. The Sibyl In Her Grave (2000)

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


RODERIC JEFFRIES writing as RODERICK GRAEME – Blackshirt Wins the Trick. Blackshirt #3, second series. Hutchinson, UK, hardcover, 1953/ No US edition. Independently published, paperback, 02 November 2017.

   If Richard Verrell had not been taken in by an old, old trick, he would not have seen Janet again. And if he had not seen Janet…

   Blackshirt lives!

   In fact, it is almost impossible to kill him. Not that he’s the same man he was when Bruce Graeme, a literary agent, dreamed him up out of Raffles by way of Jimmy Dale, Michael Lanyard, and Charles Dickens back in 1922, or the way he was in the 1940’s when his son briefly took over for him, or even who he ended up being when he came roaring back in 1951 for a run all the way to 1969.

   But, as William Vivian Butler said in his study of gentleman adventures and cracksmen, The Durable Desperadoes, Richard Verrill has a good claim on being the most durable desperado of them all.

   Created in 1922, and after ten stories finally seeing print in hardcovers in 1925, Richard Verrill is a successful mystery writer who steals for the fun of it, for the challenge, the chase, and the adrenaline. Like Michael Lanyard, the Lone Wolf, he has a Dickensian backstory, though more the Artful Dodger than Oliver Twist, and like Jimmy Dale, the Gray Seal, he has a mysterious female voice on the phone who blackmails him into using his skills to help the downtrodden and grease the hinges of justice. Eventually Verrill and the voice of his conscience meet and marry.

   As for that name, Blackshirt, it has nothing to do with politics. Verrill came before Mussolini’s Brown Shirts, and well before Oswald Mosely’s Blackshirts. Graeme’s Blackshirt takes his name from the fact he performs his crimes in dinner dress wearing a black dress shirt and a black hood.

   Meanwhile writing as David Graeme Bruce got a little bored with his creation and penned Monsieur Blackshirt, about the adventures of Verrill’s ancestor in sixteenth centiury France.

   Come 1939 it occurred to Graeme, that Blackshirt was getting a bit long in the tooth. By then Graeme had two popular series aside from Blackshirt, so he decided to retire his hero and instead unveiled Anthony Verrill, The Son ofBlackshirt. By that time England was in the war, and Graeme felt gentleman adventuring was a bit out of tune with the times, so Anthony’s adventures, written during the war, take place after the war ended, and to confuse things even more RAF ace Anthony discovers his father was in reality an Earl (with a Dickensian childhood), so Anthony is Lord Blackshirt.

   Confused yet?

   Believe me, it is just getting started.

   And so things rested until 1950, when Graeme’s publisher decided that with a little updating the public might enjoy Blackshirt knocking around again. They did, and in early 1951 approached Graeme about bringing Blackshirt back in a more modern form.

   Graeme had even less interest in the character than he had in 1939, but he did have a 25 year old son, Roderic, who could write and thus Richard Verrill is once again prowling the night in black dress shirt and hood.

   You would be hard put to see him as a continuation though. Roderic, an even better writer than his successful father, picks up about three pages into Blackshirt’s first adventure, before the mysterious lady on the phone. She never makes an appearance and Blackshirt never reforms. He’s a cracksman, more of a professional than before, still wired for action, but not immune to profit either.

   Now he is a highly successful mystery writer as well, and having never met his mother, there is no son and no Earldom.

   There it is, a popular and well written series, that runs until 1969 and only really ends because writing as Roderic Jeffries, Roderic Graeme had bigger fish to fry, namely the popular Inspector Alvarez mysteries (which unlike Blackshirt, did see publication here).

   And we are at last where we began, with Richard Verrill about to become reacquainted with a woman named Janet in the third of the new series. And what a re-acquaintance it proves to be.

   Verrill is on holiday in St. Tropez before heading back to England for a friend’s wedding when he decides to try his hand at the casino, where he meets an attractive lady. In her company he wins big, and walking back with her to her hotel she and her accomplices mug him.

      The French police are not sympathetic:

   “I was not going home with her, I was escorting her to her hotel. I had every intention of coming away at once.”

   “You had?” murmured the inspector incredulously. He turned and regarded his subordinate. Then, “Pierre, call the doctor at once.”

   He misses the wedding, and shortly, still in St. Tropez, runs into an old friend who asks him to join him and his sister as they are a man short for a party they are invited to. Verrill is happy to be the fourth with his friend because they are invited to a ball being given by the very wealthy, very indiscriminate, and jewel-laden Mrs. Varnes, and Verrill is after all:

   “Blackshirt, who stole for the joy of stealing; whose code of behaviour had convinced the police that, at least, he was a sport. The man who would steal a sixpenny tiepin in preference to a valuable diamond, if the tiepin could offer the greater thrills.”

   And there is where the complications set in, because also after the Varne’s jewels is the lady who mugged him, who he now recognizes as a ruthless rival from his past and a pleasant diversion Janet Dove (“Richard dear, if I hadn’t done it first, you’d have double-crossed me, wouldn’t you?”), and as if that wasn’t enough he also finds himself pitted against the even more dangerous and more ruthless Peebles, the Jackdaw (“When their respective interests did not conflict, there was a strange bond between the two men.”), another past rival, so Blackshirt is up to his neck in twists and turns as the three criminals compete, not always in gentlemanly or ladylike fashion, to win the trick as the title says.

   Throw into the mix a suspicious reporter with blackmail on his mind who recognizes Verrill’s valet Roberts as a former felon and wonders why a successful writer would employ such a man, the legendary Darthweight pearls, and a vicious millionaire plotting a trap for Blackshirt and Janet …

   Things move fast, but then they always do when Blackshirt is around.

   The style is clipped, terse, always moving, the characters are believable, if only just, and the mood is light and playful with just enough of an edge to keep pages turning well into the night.

   If you have never met the audacious Mr. Verrill, or at least this incarnation of him, you owe it to yourself to do so, with the twists coming right down to the last line of the final page.

   Here is charm, wit, and breathless action served well chilled, a brut rather than a vintage perhaps, but there is nothing to be ashamed of in a delightful dessert wine.

   Cheers.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


RICHARD ROSEN – World of Hurt. Harvey Blissberg #4. Walker, hardcover, 1994. No paperback edition.

   Rosen is currently a writer/producer for Eye to Eye with Connie Chung, has appeared on netwrork TV and National Public Radio, and is credited with inventing the word “psychobabble.” This is the first Harvey Blissberg from him since 1988, and he’s switched from Viking Penguin to Walker. Have you noticed how many male writers are moving down the publishing scale, or losing their contracts entirely? Is it time for Dudes in Crime (DiC, acronymically speaking) to become a reality?

   Harvey Blissberg, an ex-major league baseball player now a PI, gets a call from his brother in a Chicago suburb. A casual friend who played picjup basketball with him regularly has been murdered, and the local police seem to have come to a dead end.

   The brother wants Harvey to come out from Cambridge and see what he can find out. Harvey, going through a bad patch with his long-time lover, more or less reluctantly accedes and soon finds himself trying to put together pieces of the life of a man nobody really seemed to know.

   I had forgotten how competent Rosen is. I don’t think he’s at the top of his group, but he’s a smoothly professional writer, and has created a very likeable character in Harvey Bloomberg. His prose is clean and straightforward, and he tells his story will through third-person narration.

   I think his strong point is characterization, and Blissberg and his lover have considerable depth. There were a couple of spots in the book that bothered me; one turned out to be fleeting and inconsequential, but the other was an unlikely coincidence on which the story hinged.

    Overall, though, it was a good solid PI novel — and I haven’t read too damned many of those, lately.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #15, September 1994.


      The Harvey Blissberg series

Strike Three You’re Dead (1984)     [Edgar-winner for Best First Novel.]

Fadeaway (1986)
Saturday Night Dead (1988)
World Of Hurt (1994)
Dead Ball (2001)

ROBERT RAY – Dial “M” for Murdock. Matt Murdock #3. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1988. Dell, paperback, May 1990. Camel Press, softcover, 2018.

   Robert Ray is an English professor, so who am I to argue, but he likes prologues in books, and I still don’t, especially when they’re as useless as the one in this book, the third in his PI Matt Murdock series. Actually it’s worse than useless, and I tell you about it after I tell you what the book’s about.

   What it is that’s going on is an elaborate scam being pulled on various life insurance companies. Murdock is drawn in, falls in love with one of the “widows,” and along the way does very little detective work himself. (It’s nice to have friends who are computer whizzes.)

   [WARNING: Plot Alert!] Murdock tells his own story in this book, all but for the prologue, and that’s where we learn all we really need to know for about 90% of the plot yet to come. Not so for Murdock, who is left completely in the dark about what happened before he came along.

   This makes first half of the book is pretty much wasted, whiel we (the reader) watch him as he pieces together everything we knew ever since the book started.

   There is a lot of action in this book, but as I mentioned up above, there is very little in the way of brainwork going on. What is somewhat unusual and worth pointing out, is that there is a vein of crime so deep here that the masterminds behind it are hardly even annoyed by the local police department, much less rugged individualist PI’s. Ants under their feet, no more.

   And so what chance does Murdock have? None, and that’s what the epilogue tells is as well. (Yes, one of those, too, and it’s about as interesting as someone breathing heavily in a sandstorm.)

   There is a unique aspect of the ending, however, something I don’t believe either Spenser or Marlowe had to deal with, and while you’ll have to read the story yourself to know what it is I’m talking about — and this I won’t tell you — if it has any precedent in PI fiction over the years, I wish you’d let me know right away.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #22, June 1990.


      The PI Matt Murdock series —

Bloody Murdock (1986)

Murdock for Hire (1987)
Dial “M” for Murdock (1988)
Merry Christmas, Murdock (1989)
Murdock Cracks Ice (1992)
Murdock Tackles Taos (2013)
Murdock Rocks Sedona (2015)

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


AMY STEWART – Girl Waits with Gun. Constance Kopp #1. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, September 2015. Mariner, trade paperback, May 2016. Setting: New Jersey, 1914.

First Sentence:   Our troubles began in the summer of 1914, the year I turned thirty-five.

   Constance Kopp and her two sisters live on a farm in New Jersey. While in town, their buggy is rammed by an automobile driven by Henry Kaufman, head of the Kaufman Silk Dying Company. The harder Constance tries to collect the money due them for damages, the more intense and violent become the threats and attacks on the sisters, causing Constance to seek help from the police and Sheriff Heath. But refusing to pay damages is not only crime of which Kaufman and his gang are guilty.

   It’s always a pleasure to come across a book based on real people and cases, and Constance Kopp is someone one can’t help but like from the outset. She is capable and doesn’t allow herself to be intimidated. In fact, all the characters are intriguing. How can one not enjoy Fleurette’s sass, or Norm’s ingenuity?

   Stewart paints a painfully accurate picture of life for unmarried women of this time, and of life for workers in mill towns. However, it is also important to remember that Constance’s experience is not atypical for women today as well.

   The plot is very well done. Constance’s past is very skillfully woven in revealing layers and details of her life as the story evolves. The way in which Constance receives her training from everyone, at every step along the way is fascinating. There is also a thought-provoking lesson on people’s sense of duty— “I couldn’t understand how anyone would take hold of a stranger and pout out their troubles. But now I realized that people did it all the time. They called for help. And some people would answer, out of a sense of duty, and a sense of belonging to the world around them.”

   The newspaper articles interspersed within the story are an excellent insight into journalism of the time. The fact that they are real, as were the letters included, makes them even better.

   Girl Waits with Gun is a well-done and fascinating story. It’s a perfect blend of fact as a basis for fiction.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.


      The Kopp Sisters series —

1. Girl Waits With Gun (2015)
2. Lady Cop Makes Trouble (2016)

3. Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions (2017)
4. Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit (2018)

MARGARET YORKE – Cast for Death. Dr. Patrick Grant #5. Walker, US, hardcover, 1976. Bantam, US, paperback, October 1982. First published in the UK by Hutchinson, hardcover, 1976.

   Author Margaret Yorke was the author of close to 40 works of crime fiction, but only five of them seem to have been detective stories, all featuring Oxford don Patrick Grant as their leading protagonist. The rest appear to to be novels of suspense — whether romantic or psychological, I hesitate to say.

   But on the basis of this, the first of her books that I’ve read, I’d have to say that detective fiction was not among her strong points. (I’m speaking here of the traditional kind, with clues, alibis and all kinds of red herrings.)

   The general background is fine — that of the then-current Shakespearean season in the small cities and towns near Oxford. Dead, found floating in a river — presumably a suicide — is an actor who never showed up for his final performance. But as a work of detective fiction, the resulting case is a shambles. An observant man, Grant seems to have a special ability to jump to (correct) conclusions by instinct only.

   And by sheer coincidence. A dog he accidentally runs over on a highway belongs to a woman who also has just died, also assumed to be a suicide, but her life — would you believe — is somehow connected with the first one. Grant puts two and two together by noting a canister of Earl Grey tea in both their lodgings.

   More interesting is Grant’s off-and-on lukewarm romance with his long-time acquaintance Liz. He sees her on occasion only, but a chance kiss turns into a longer one than either one of them expects, and they both step back and tacitly decide not to say anything about it. But when a visiting policeman from Crete begins to show interest in Liz, feelings of what? could it be jealousy? shakes Grant to his core.

    Not that by book’s end does he do anything about it, and to the frustration of this reader, at least, this was the last book in the series. From here, though, we are allowed our imagination.

      The Patrick Grant series

1. Dead in the Morning (1970)

2. Silent Witness (1972)
3. Grave Matters (1973)
4. Mortal Remains (1974)
5. Cast for Death (1976)

RICHARD STARNES – Another Mug for the Bier. J. P. Lippincott, hardcover, 1950. Pocket #858, paperback; 1st printing, January 1952.

   This is a real peachy detective story. No, really. It is ace newspaperman Barney Forge who tells the story, but it is actually Dr. St. George Peachy, assistant medical examiner in Alexandria, Virginia, who solved this case of the murdered gossip columnist.

   As you could probably deduce from the title, this is a tale told in a breezy, fast-moving style, in a wacky sort of way, but with more than a hint of the grotesque. (And with all of that, it still turns out to be a solidly constructed detective story.)

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #22, June 1990.

       
The Dr. St. George Peachy / Barney Forge series —

And When She Was Bad She Was Murdered. Lippincott, 1950. Pocket #779, 1951.

Another Mug for the Bier. Lippincott, 1950. Pocket #858, 1952.
The Other Body in Grant’s Tomb. Lippincott, 1951. Pocket #917, 1953.

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


M. J. TROW – The Island. Grand & Batchelor #4. Crème de la Crimem hardcover, January 2018. First published in the UK, 2017. Setting: Maine, 1873.

First Sentence:   The quarter-moon did little to light Summer Street that night in Boston.

   Investigators Matthew Grand and James Batchelor have travelled from England to Grand’s extensive family home on the coast of Maine for the wedding of Grand’s sister, Martha. Friends and family gather, including the surprise appearance of a cousin who hasn’t been seen for fourteen years. A greater surprise is the dead body found in an upstairs bedroom which leads to the question of what the tie is to the family.

   An interesting beginning informs one as to where the story is going; or does it? What is does, however, is provide introductions to the protagonists and their profession. One thing which is a bit rare, but is refreshing, is to show the vulnerable side of one of the men. The transition from Batchelor and Grand to their housekeeper, Mrs. Rackstraw, is also nicely done. She is such a delightful character.

   Trow’s style is subtle and often humorous. He slides in information, from location descriptions— “The docks at Southampton had not been conducive to chatting and Batchelor didn’t get a change to share something the Grand until they were in their laughingly called stateroom, in which a cat would be totally safe from being swung.” —to family structures— “My mother comes from a family of eight girls, thought I doubt they’ll all come to the wedding. Four of them are dead anyway, and one is in Wisconsin, so as good as. Auntie Mimi is as mad as a rattler and doesn’t travel.” The inclusion of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) as a character is a wonderful touch.

   It’s also a nice touch that, despite having been introduced to a myriad of characters, the murder victim is unexpected. Which also means the motive is as much a mystery as is the killer

   The truest sign of an author with an exceptional voice is that one has a desire to quote nearly every page. Trow is one of the few authors who can write parallel conversations—conversation held by two sets of characters at the same time in different places, without any confusion as to the speakers — and get away with it.

   He has a wonderful way of evoking the senses— “He had never known it before, not in London, but it really was possible, he realized to smell the spring. There was a green smell in the air, the smell of sap on the rise, alongside the sound of buds creaking with the effort of bursting. He felt he could almost smell the warmth of the sun …”

The Island is filled with humor, and excellent characters, plus there are murders; violent ones. It is a rare instance when one can call a mystery a delightful read.

— For more of LJ’s reviews, check out her blog at : https://booksaremagic.blogspot.com/.


       The Grand & Batchelor series —

1. The Blue and the Grey (2014)

2. The Circle (2016)
3. The Angel (2016)
4. The Island (2017)

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