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review 2018-06-03 02:46
The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange
The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange - Anna Katharine Green

I read one of the Violet Strange short stories last year as part of an anthology (I can't remember which one); it was my first introduction to Anna Katherine Green's work and I liked it enough that I wanted to read more.  In that story, (The Intangible Clew), Strange showed a distinctive Sherlock Holmes flair, and I was intrigued.  

 

I've found and read a couple of her books and loved them, but it took longer to find a copy of this book - the one I most wanted to read - that was available and affordable.  I'd heard it wasn't her best work, and sadly, I have to agree; the first story in fact was just down right rubbish, the second one only a little bit better: more coherent but absurdly plotted.

 

But Anna Katherine Green did two things - one of them something I've personally not seen before, which accounts for my slightly high rating.  The first is that every story got better than the one before it - the improvement in the writing and plotting is obvious, and one of these days I'll sit down and do the google-fu necessary to find out if these stories were early efforts, and therefore show a natural progression in her writing, or if there's some other reason.  But as the book goes on the stories get exponentially better.

 

The second thing that elevated the book for me was that each story was a complete stand-alone short story (except the very last one).  Any of them could be read cold and the reader would miss nothing.  But when read together, there's a thin plot that holds them all together, and, it turns out, a romance; one that's hardly hinted at in any of the stories until the second-last.  The last story isn't really a story at all, but Violet's coda in the form of a letter, explaining her motives for taking on the cases.

 

This subtle dichotomy made the uneven collection feel more finely crafted than it really was, and in spite of its flaws it feels clever and fresh.  The writing is a little more florid than the other AKG books I've read so far, and she breaks the fourth wall constantly; something I didn't mind but occasionally felt a little condescending-ish.

 

So - not brilliant, not her best work by far, but interesting and worth experiencing and definitely worth the effort I made to read it.

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review 2018-05-08 04:24
The Circular Study
The Circular Study - Anna Katharine Green

In my unofficial quest to read all of Anna Katherine Green's work, The Circular Study is my first Amelia Butterworth mystery.  Amelia Butterworth is credited as the prototype of the spinster amateur detective, a category that includes Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver, and Christie's infamous Miss Marple.  Green is also credited as the first to develop the series detective with her Ebenezer Gryce (of the New York Metropolitan Police Force) series of mysteries.  This book is also my first introduction to Gryce.

 

Compared to The Mayor's Wife (the only other full-length AKG book I've read so far, published 7 years after this one), the writing is far more florid, but the plot is ahead of its time.  This is a straight up murder mystery, with no romance, but there is a fair amount of romantic narrative, in the form of a character's statement.  This was really heavy handed; a reader could be forgiven for thinking the woman described was a contemporary Blessed Madonna (no, not the singer, the other one).  There were also a few scenes between Gryce and Butterworth that became a bit thick with mutual appreciation.  There was a lot of sunshine being blown up a lot of skirts in those scenes.

 

But the plotting makes up for a lot of it.  The eponymous Circular Study is a room full of secrets: a panel of buttons that controlled the color of the electric lighting (this was 1900, long before electric lighting became common, never mind coloured lighting), secret panels and ... bird cages.  There's a deaf-mute butler, and a talking starling too.  Behind it all is the mother of all schemes.  One that could be called diabolical.

 

In addition to the issues I had with the writing, as mentioned above, the book presents additional problems, but these issue primarily from the 118 years between publication and my reading.  Contemporary attitudes, social structures, and morays all struggle to translate to a modern sensibility, but though I liked The Mayor's Wife better overall, this is still a mystery well-worth reading, especially for those aficionados of the genre.  That she blazed the trail for mystery writers including Doyle, Christie and Sayers, but has since been languishing in obscurity is a tragedy in itself.  Luckily for those with e-readers, Project Gutenberg has most, if not all of her work available; those with a preference for print should be able to source copies of this amazing writer with be no problem, if my experience is any indication.  Highly recommended.

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review 2018-05-06 10:10
3 Thirds of a Ghost (Jupiter Jones, #2)
3 Thirds of a Ghost - Timothy Fuller

I think this is one of those books I just stumbled across somewhere (probably Mysterious Books)  that was inexpensive enough, and caught my attention with the title (spoiler alert: not a ghost story).  I'd never heard of Timothy Fuller and I just lost about 2 hours of my life trying to find out something about his career.  I finally found a standard biography on an Italian website (which has been added to the author's bio here on BookLikes, with full source credit), and the following, which I found by, in desperation, trolling images in hopes that I'd find a pic of the "About the author":

 

 

 

Those were the golden days, eh?  When you could be outwardly snarky and a tiny bit sexist in your back-of-the-cover bio and nobody thought anything of it?  Well, the story itself goes a bit further, as one of the main characters, and suspects is a ... wait for it...

 

Chinaman.

 

Yep, fellow golden age mystery lovers, Fuller was a rule breaker.  And maybe just a teensy bit racist, but I can't feel confident about that.  The book has a large satirical streak, is self-referential, and openly acknowledges the trope and stereotype of the Chinaman in mysteries.  So, while I flinch just seeing the word Chinaman, I suspect in the context of this book it's not bigotry on the part of the author, just part of the story's self-referentialism.

 

Now that I've done such a good job of selling it, I do have to say it's worth reading.  It's fun, it's well written, and it's sprinkled with surprising moments of social commentary.  For example:

 

We've just been discussing the public reaction to a murder of this kind. There's bound to be more excitement than sorrow. Quite usual, perhaps, but is it the result of the popularity of mystery fiction? Which came first? Was the public educated to its interest by the mystery story or was the mystery story the result of a public demand for more mysteries?

 

or this rather profound, yet short-sighted view of one of the characters:

 

There won't be a new type of crime and therefore the mystery story is on the way out. There've been three stages of its development. Novelty, a believable realism, and lastly the fad of the puzzle. The novelty couldn't last, realism went out with their mass production, and a mere puzzle can't stand up for long in book form.

 

 

And this take-no-prisoners observation:

 

Obviously Burton and Day had exhausted their talk about Newbury's murder during the course of the evening and until something new developed Jupiter was ready to forget it himself. The ease with which he could put it out of his mind was not surprising to him. If the human ability to forget could cause a second World War it was no trick to abandon a couple of murders.

 

There's a bit of an Edmund Crispin vibe to the writing and setting (albeit in Boston rather than Oxford) although it's not as tongue-in-cheek as Crispin.  It's a slim tome, only 127 pages, but it's a full mystery; any longer, and frankly, I think there'd be problems with pacing.

 

The plotting was superb; not precisely fair-play, but close enough that the reader doesn't feel cheated.  I had not. a. clue.  The ending was fantastic but not unique (although in 1932 it might have been).

 

It turns out that this is the 2nd book in a series centered on Jupiter Jones, the protagonist.  The books are out of print, which is a shame - they're definitely worthy of being amongst the reprinted classics in my opinion (at least, this one is).  Luckily, they seem to be easily and affordably available online as used hardcovers and paperbacks.  I'll be seeking out the rest of the books in the series.  Definitely recommended for the Golden Agers out there.

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review 2018-04-24 06:39
the Awkward Squad
The Awkward Squad - Sam Gordon,Sophie Hénaff

I can't remember where I heard about this book (best bet is here on BL) but it was described as a new mystery series similar to the old tv show Leverage*.  The premise of the show was a group of misfits coming together to right the wrongs big business perpetrated against the people.  The Awkward Squad's misfits are police officers unfit for regular duty but can't be fired, banded together and stuffed away in a remote location with the ostensible task of investigating cold cases.  I loved Leverage, so bought this directly after it came out.

 

It's not quite Leverage - the misfits here aren't conmen, toughs or savants; these misfits are all broken by their jobs in one way or another, but it's close enough.  For a first novel, I thought the story was excellent and well plotted too, although with definite room for improvement.  It was written well enough that I only had vague suspicions about the solution, but not done so well that the author was able to lead me down the blind alley she'd constructed.  The characters were the kind you cheer on, even if some of them aren't always likeable.

 

I didn't know when I bought the book that it was originally published in France a few years ago, under the name Poulets grillés.  This leaves me with a lingering suspicion that it might have been an even better book in the original French.  Not that the translation is bad - as far as I can tell it's flawless - but some of the marketing I've seen raves about the book humor. I can see how it's meant to be amusing, and one scene was definitely shooting for hilarity, but either something was lost in translation or it's a cultural difference of what defines funny.  

 

Either way, I didn't like it less because I suspect I'm missing something, I just wonder if, had those 2.5 years of French lessons stuck at all, and I were able to read it in the original, I'd have liked it even more.  Ce n'est pas grave, if Hēnaff writes another one, I'll happily be on board for reading it (in translation). 

 

* - Has also been compared to Jussi Adler-Olsen’s tales about Copenhagen’s equally marginal Department Q.  I cannot comment on how accurate this is, as I've not read Adler-Olsen.  Yet?

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-04-23 09:37
Murder Off Miami
Murder Off Miami - J.G. Links,Dennis Wheatley

Well, after a day preparing for having friends around for dinner yesterday, I wasn't able to get back to this until today.  

 

(Full disclosure: I'm not all that concerned about spoilers here, given the unique nature of the tome and the knowledge that the only other person I know to have a copy of it has already read it - and taken way better notes.)

 

The good news is I was right - I guessed the killer.  The not as good news is that I did it almost immediately.  The entire thing hinged on a false assumption made at the start, around page 15 or so.  If the reader picks up on that false assumption, the rest of the file is really rather extraneous.  In fact, I was more than a little nervous about looking at the solution because I felt like I had to be missing something.  It turns out I was, but only a handful of smaller clues that supported the answer.  I'd have really liked having to rely on those clues; solving the mystery would have been a lot more fun if I'd had to search them out.  As it was, I was so certain about the twist, I didn't look very hard at the evidence.

 

There's one caveat to my gripes though; if I'm being objective (and I try to be), I have to say that this mystery file probably suffers to a greater degree because I've read another - one written later and by another author - first.  That one, File on Fenton and Farr, was far more intricately plotted, and strung the actual clues out far longer, than Murder Off Miami, leaving me tossing theories around until almost the very end.  I got that one right too, but I had to really work for it, and if anything, that's what disappointed me about this one.

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