Characters


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)

JAMES E. MARTIN – The Flip Side of Life. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1990. Avon, paperback, 1991.

   Cleveland-based PI Gil Disbro’s second case involves a missing college professor and his son, who may be the victim of grandparental kidnapping. There are also three murders before the book is finished, so all in all, in spite of the price tag [$21.95], you do get your money’s worth.

   Martin writes with nice clean prose, nothing too elegant, but he keeps the story moving. Some introspective passages, mostly with his live-in lady, add a bit to his character. It’s pretty good as a detective story too, even without a big surprise at the end.

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

      The Gil Disbro series —

The Mercy Trap (1989)
The Flip Side of Life (1990)
And Then You Die (1992)
A Fine and Private Place (1994)

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


BURL BARER – The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Television and Film. 1928-1992. McFarland, hardcover, 1993.

   Here’s the Edgar winner for 1994 [in the Best Critical/Biographical category]. The Saint was one of my earliest heroes among “grown-up” fictional characters, and I still retain more than a little fondness for him.

   This is truly everything you wanted to know about the Saint but didn’t know enough to ask. It’s not about Leslie Charteris in a biographical sense, except as his life relates to the Saint. The book proper is a 240+ page chronological account of the creation and perpetuation of the Saint in all forms — books, magazines, comic books, newspapers, radio, movies, and television — in an order as nearly chronological as possible. It’s followed by another 160 pages of appendices (plus an excellent index) that include movie, tv and radio synopses and players, and a chronology of the Saint writings.

   Leaving aside for the moment how well Barer did what he set out to do, how “good” a book this is depends entirely (as us the case will all specialized reference books) in how interested you are in the subject. That said, I thought he did a damned good job.

   His prose style isn’t scintillating, but it’s also far from turgid. I thought he made excellent use of very extensive quotes from Charteris and many of the media people he dealt with. I hadn’t really realized how ubiquitous the character had been. I had no way of knowing either how complete or how accurate the hard data is, but I’m comfortable in saying that it’s the best available.

   All told, I thought this was an excellent book and well worth the money for any true Saint fan.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, August 1994 (very slightly revised).
REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


ROBERT CAMPBELL – The Wizard of La-La Land. Whistler #4. Pocket Books, hardcover, 1994. No paperback edition.

   This is the first Whistler since Sweet La-La Land in 1990. Campbell is best known for his Jimmy Flannery books, but my favorite series of his consisted of two books about railroad detective Jake Hatch, Plugged Nickel and Red Cent.

   Whistler, an ex-radio personality, a recovering alcoholic, and now a PI working the grungy streets of Hollywood, still remembers the unsolved murder of a cop friend’s young niece a decade ago. Now a young man dying of AIDS has whispered to a relative that he knows who did it, but hes murdered in his hospital bed before he names anyone. Old ghosts, new demons, and ever-present evil haunt Hollywood’s streets as Whistler tries to link past and present.

   The Whistler books are among the darker of PI stories, and as a matter of fact remind me to mood and sometimes subject matter of Andrew Vachss. They are rough, hard books that deal with unpleasant subjects, written in terse prose to match. Whistler has never really come alive as a character to me, though Campbell does a creditable job with some supporting players. The narration if shifting third person, and Campbell is adept at telling his stories in this way. These are for only the hardest of hardboiled fans.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #14, August 1994.

       The Whistler series —

1. In La-La Land We Trust (1986)
2. Alice in La-La Land (1987)
3. Sweet La-La Land (1990)
4. The Wizard of La-La Land (1995)

CARLETON CARPENTER – Deadhead. Curtis, paperback original; 1974. Paperback reprint: Black Walnut, 1985.

   If you were to do a search for Mr. Carpenter on the Internet, you’d find more in the movie and entertainment databases than you will regarding his writing career, which consisted of only a small handful of paperback originals. There’ll be a list of them soon, in case you’re interested.

   Before concentrating on the books, though, perhaps it suffices to say that Carleton Carpenter was a both a composer and an actor, in both the movies, on television and in Broadway musicals. One of the top musical hits of 1951 was “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” sung by Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter (from the film Two Weeks in Love). His career in the movies and on TV is summed up neatly at imdb.com (with some 42 credits as an actor).

   Here’s a list of Mr. Carpenter’s mystery fiction. As previously mentioned all of these are paperback originals. * = Chester Long mysteries. ** = billed as a Jasper Wild mystery.

Games Murderers Play. Curtis 07271, 1973; Black Walnut, 1985.
Cat Got Your Tongue? Curtis 07272, 1973; Black Walnut, 1985.
* Only Her Hairdresser Knew… Curtis 07299, 1973; Black Walnut, 1985.
Pinecastle. Curtis 09187, 1973, as by Ivy Manchester; Black Walnut, as Stumped, as by Carleton Carpenter.
* Deadhead. Curtis 09263, 1974; Black Walnut, 1985.
** Sleight of Hand. Popular Library 00661, 1975; Black Walnut, as Sleight of Deadly Hand.
The Peabody Experience. Black Walnut, 1985.

Short story: “Second Banana.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, October 1976.

   Little is known about Black Walnut Books, but they seem to have been in business only to print Mr. Carpenter’s books.

   Whether Jasper Wild appeared in any of the earlier books or was intended to be another continuing character is also unknown. It would also be interesting to learn whether the AHMM short story has either Chester Long or Jasper Wild as characters, leading or incidental. Someone with access to that issue will have to let us know.

   As you can see from the cover, Pinecastle (aka Stumped) was marketed and sold by Curtis as a gothic romance, but a quick scan through my copy indicates that the people who are in it all have a very strong theatrical background, which is not surprising.

   Chester Long is a hairdresser (straight). Jasper Wild’s occupation is unknown. Someone who has a copy of Sleight of Hand will have to let us know. If by chance he’s a magician as well as a detective, that would be worth knowing.

   As for the book at hand, Deadhead, when Chester is offered a position on the side as the head of the hairdresser crew for a musical bound for Broadway, he jumps at it. For the rest of the book he’s a fascinated observer behind the scenes, giving the reader an equally vicarious (and authentic) look at a world largely foreign to us mere mortals. Even so, as Chester admits on page 81:

   In my heart I knew I was nothing more than a voyeur who was being overpaid for the opportunity to peep.

   The going is as light and breezy as this for over 100 pages, chatty and gossipy in trunk loads. The murder of the show’s bizarrely flamboyant producer does not occur until page 104, which gives Chester the opportunity to show his flair as a sleuth. (Not that there’s any inkling of a previous criminous adventure. Until I checked out the bibliography, I was working under the impression that this was Chester’s first encounter with detective work.)

   With the entire company on the road and snowed in as a mammoth snowstorm hits Boston, the effect is that of an isolated country house, which means, of course, besides clues and motives, means and opportunities galore.

   And until the end, when things seem to fall apart plotwise, there would be much in the reading to recommend. While Carleton Carpenter is a story teller’s story teller, he unaccountably allows Chester’s previously mentioned flair as a sleuth to fizzle out well before the finale, all of his theories disappearing into smoke. On page 189, after the killer has been nabbed, and the case is being rehashed, Chester says:

   This has been hindsight babbling on. I was just as surprised as anyone else.

   In any case, all I can offer for a recommendation is hemi-semi-demi-positive one. The book is worth reading for the show business element – that part is simply Grade A all the way – but as a mystery, while it has its moments, the answer, if that’s what you’re asking, is, reluctantly, no. The cast and choreography are excellent, but the book itself? Good, but not up to par. It needs some work.

— April 2005

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


CHRISTOPHER FOWLER – Bryant & May: Wild Chamber. Bryant & May #14. Bantam, US, hardcover, December 2017.

First Sentence: On a desolate rain-battered London midnight, the members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit went looking for a killer.

   London has many private gardens, accessible only to the residents who live around them. The gardener also has a key but doesn’t expect to find the body of a woman who’d taken her dog for a walk. She has been strangled and neatly laid out on the path, her dog missing, and the garden locked before the gardener’s arrival. A second such body is found in a public park. At risk are more murders, the city’s parks being closed to the public, and the PUC disbanded. The clock is ticking.

   An aerial chase, a traffic jam, a boy’s death and a man whose life implodes. This is an opening which catches one’s attention.

   That Fowler uses a memo to provide a cast of characters is both helpful and clever. That the list includes “Crippen, staff cat,” and the subsequent memo brings readers up to date on the situation at the aptly-named Peculiar Crimes Unit truly sets the tone for what follows. Fowler’s books are not one’s normal police procedural, as the characters, particularly those of Arthur Bryant and John May, are anything but what one would normally find. Fowler gives us something unique with present day crimes overlain with an education into obscure historical facts and writing which increases one’s vocabulary. But never fear; this book is anything but dry or boring.

   Fowler is skilled at juxtaposing historic London over that of the present day in a way that contributes to the plot. Part of that is an explanation as to how Bryant became a detective. Fowler creates evocative descriptions— “The wind was high in the trees, breathing secrets through the branches.” —and observations— “Looking down on King’s Cross you’d have noticed an odd phenomenon: Every other roof was covered in white frost, forming a patchwork quilt, an indicator of which properties were owned by overseas investors and which had warm families inside.” But yes, unfortunately, there are also quite a few completely unnecessarily portents.

   It is hard to say which is more enjoyable; the cast of strange and fascinating characters of Bryant’s acquaintance, the vast abundance of arcane and historical information — who knew it was Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote the music to “Onward Christian Soldiers”? — the members of the PUC itself, of the plot which brings all these facets together into a perfect gem of a book with a well-done plot twist. We are even given a definition as to what is a murder mystery— “’A murder mystery,’ she told Bryant, ‘is an intellectual exercise, a game between reader and writer in which a problem is precisely stated, elaborately described, and surprisingly solved.’” —and Fowler does just that.

   Bryant & May: Wild Chamber is a murder mystery in the best sense. All the clues are given, if we but see them. The best part of the book is the very last line, but that everyone will have to read for themselves.

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


       The Bryant and May series —

1. Full Dark House (2003)

2. The Water Room (2004)
3. Seventy-Seven Clocks (2005)
4. Ten Second Staircase (2006)
5. White Corridor (2007)

6. The Victoria Vanishes (2008)
7. On the Loose (2009)
8. Off the Rails (2010)
9. The Memory of Blood (2011)
10. The Invisible Code (2012)
11. The Bleeding Heart (2012)
12. The Burning Man (2015)

13. Strange Tide (2016)
14. Wild Chamber (2017)
15. Hall of Mirrors (2018)

JANE DENTINGER – First Hit of the Season. Jocelyn O’Rourke #2. Doubleday, hardcover, 1984. Dell, paperback, October 1985.

   Jocelyn O’Rourke is a young actress and acting coach who knows her way around the Broadway theater thoroughly , both on- and off-, and her insight into the people involved — producers, directors, other actors, even critics — gives her boy friend, homicide detective Phillip Gerrard, plenty of additional meat to chew on while solving a case.

   Which in this case involves the death by poisoning of a Broadway critic with a vicious pen — a little too vicious for one of his victims, perhaps.

   Author Jane Dentinger, who herself at the time was in much the same profession as her leading lady, is very, very good when it comes to characters, personal relationships between them, backstage gossip and witty repartee. In this book, though, she is not as good when it comes down to clues and describing actual detective work. She knows the setting of this flavorful Broadway concoction like the palm of her hand, however, and while your opinion may vary, this goes a long way toward mitigating any weaknesses you also may find in the crime solving that’s involved.

      The Jocelyn O’Roarke series —

1. Murder on Cue (1983)
2. First Hit of the Season (1984)
3. Death Mask (1988)
4. Dead Pan (1992)
5. The Queen is Dead (1994)
6. Who Dropped Peter Pan? (1995)

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