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review 2017-07-21 04:18
The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories
The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories - Michael Sims

Up front, I didn't read all the stories; there are 22 stories in this collection, and I didn't have time to read the whole thing, so this review only represents a small percentage of them. 

 

But, of the stories I read, none of them were bad.  In fact, they were all uniformly excellent and I'm looking forward to reading more of the collection at a later date.

 

Quick thoughts about each of the stories I read:

 

The Secret Cell by William E. Burton - The story itself is not only great, but so is its backstory:  Burton, the author, wrote it in 1837, before Poe wrote what is widely regarded to be the first detective story, Murders in the Rue Morgue. He wrote it for the magazine he himself founded, The Gentleman's Magazine, and the editor he hired was a certain Edgar Allan Poe (who published Rue in 1841.  While Dupin's standing as the first genius detective is safe, it's likely Poe read this story; whether or not it served as an inspiration can only be guessed at.  But it's a fun story with strong writing, lots of detective legwork, fisticuffs, disguises, abductions, nuns, asylums and hidden rooms.

 

On Duty with Inspector Field by Charles Dickens - Dickens and I are fair weather friends at best, but for downright vivid descriptions of poverty-stricken Victorian London, I'm not sure you could find better.  Not really much of a plot to this one at all - just a 'tour' through the dregs of London in the middle of the night as the police go about their rounds.  This story does not disprove my suspicions that Dickens was paid by the word.

 

The Diary of Anne Rodway by Wilkie Collins - As the title suggests, this story takes the form of diary entries, but the narrative is very smooth.  There's a real mystery here and it's engaging, but the solution felt somewhat abrupt and the coincidences verging on supernatural (a device, I'm guessing, Collins enjoyed using). 

 

You Are Not Human, Monsieur D'Artagnan by Alexandre Dumas, pere - This is an except from the final Three Musketeers book, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, but it feels fairly complete as it stands alone, even to a reader for whom the general story of the Three Musketeers comes strictly from the movies and popular culture.  In this short piece D'Artagnan plays the part of Sherlock Holmes as he uses sharp observations, empirical evidence and genius detecting to shed light on a shooting.

 

The Dead Witness; or, The Bush Waterhole by W.W. (Mary Fortune) - I didn't set out to read this one, but as I was flipping through, a mention of Australia caught my eye, so I stopped.  Turns out this is the first known detective story ever written by a woman.  Fortune was a prolific writer in Australia, although sexism being what it was, she was forced to write under a pseudonym kept so tight a secret that no one knew Mary Fortune was W.W. until decades after her death.  Her life was not a happy one, but it was not for want of talent if this story is any judge.  It's a short one, but it's vivid and well written and the end, while a bit fantastic, is also deliciously grotesque.

 

The Assassin's Natal Autograph by Mark Twain - Another except, this one from Puddin' Head Wilson.  This one is slightly harder to follow, as there are characters named that are obviously important, but missing any backstory at all, but in most aspects it works really well.  It's Twain, so the setting (a courtroom) is full of detail and suspense; the focus of the scene is the power of fingerprints and the denouement, even without the backstory is climatic.

 

The Stolen Cigar-Case by Bret Harte - Another one that caught my eye, this time because I saw "Sherlock Holmes" in the introduction.  This is a parody of the Greatest Detective of all time, as well as a parody of his long suffering Watson.  It started off hilarious - laugh out loud funny - but by midway, it felt a bit hateful.    Parodies are supposed to mock, but reading this one gets the impression that Harte really hated Watson and Holmes both.

 

An Intangible Clue by Anna Katherine Green - The author of the first known detective novel by a woman (Mary Fortune, above, wrote only short stories) and the author of The Leavenworth Case, this was my first introduction to her work and Miss Violet Strange.  I hope it won't be my last; Miss Strange has claims to Sherlockian abilities in her own right, and I found the story both intricate and slyly funny.  The mystery itself was complete enough, but I was left wanting more when it came to Miss Strange and her mysterious employer.

 

If you're a fan of the old-style detective stories, I don't think you can go wrong with this collection. They just don't write them like they used to.

 

I read this for BookLikes-opoly and completed a total of 202 pages.

 

 

 

 

 

Total pages read:  202

$$: $6.00

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review 2017-06-18 06:57
The Circular Staircase
The Circular Staircase - Mary Roberts Rinehart

My second read of this book and it's almost as good as the first.  

 

I continue to like Rachel; I'd like to think she comes closest to how I'd act in a parallel situation.  The humour held up too and I still marvel at Rinehart keeping all the plot points of her story straight.  I've read too many contemporary books that have half the plot complexity and holes you could drive a train through.

 

But the racism is still confronting enough to take me out of the story; Thomas might have been well respected by the characters, and the story a product of its time, but the descriptions and use of vernacular were the bruises on what would have been a perfect peach of a story in my time.  And on this second read, I marvelled at how anyone believed so pitiful a disguise could have worked so thoroughly for so long.

 

Still, this is a great story; a gem that shows some things transcend time (in this case almost 110 years): there have always been crafters of labyrinthine plots, there have always been strong women with resourceful intellects, and there is always a place for humour and wit, even in the most extraordinary circumstances. 

 

I'll continue to heartily recommend this book to lovers of a great mystery.

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review 2017-05-12 06:31
At Bertram's Hotel
At Bertram's Hotel - Agatha Christie

I grew up with Agatha Christie the way some people grew up with the Bible; she was a constant presence in our house.  Being a contrary child, that means I'd read everything except Christie.  Mild guilt about this while I was in my 20's had me picking up the Miss Marple short stories (minimal commitment, you see).

 

I gotta say, while I could understand the attraction, I didn't understand the devotion.  Miss Marple was smart and the mysteries were great, but the abuse of village parallels was too much.  Towards the end,  I was just yelling "just say what you mean you old bat!"

 

Which is why it's now very many years later and, with few exceptions, I still haven't read most of Christie's work, even though I've been slowly accumulating them.  When my current booklikes-opoly square required a book set between 1945 and 1965, At Bertram's Hotel was just about the only book I had that fit the bill.  

 

So, here I am, finally reading my first full-length Miss Marple.  I'm happy to report only one village parallel!  And Miss Marple does more than just sit on a bench and knit; she's actively eavesdropping and inventing mishaps to get closer to people who are up to no good.  She felt like an active participant in the mystery, even if she wasn't really sleuthing and had no idea about what exactly was going on until the end.

 

But the book was generally a bit odd.  At 192 pages I should have had it read in a few hours; instead I kept falling asleep every time I picked it up so that it took me 3 days instead.  It wasn't boring; Christie is a master at pulling you into whatever setting she's cooked up and I quite enjoyed Bertram's Hotel, but the momentum was very slow to build and ultimately, what should have been a tidal wave of a story was more of a small surge: I felt the pull, but nothing so strong as to suck me in completely.

 

I also got the impression that Christie was rather fed up with Miss Marple when she wrote this, or maybe just feeling wistful herself about the way the world seemed to be changing rapidly around her.  I kept imagining Christie as Miss Marple; longing for a time when England, and by extension, her mysteries, were more elegant, well-mannered, and gracious.  Even though there would be at least 10 more books after this one, At Bertram's Hotel feels like a nostalgic look back by an author who's feeling her age.

 

So, not her best, but I'm betting it's nowhere near her worst; definitely more likeable than reading the Marple short stories back-to-back.

 

 

 

 

 

Total pages: 192

$$:  $2.00

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review 2017-05-06 10:20
Jasper Jones
Jasper Jones - Craig Silvey

A few months ago, I accidentally joined a book club (long story).  

 

The first book chosen was Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.  Immediately, at least a couple of objections sprung to my mind:

1. Australian fiction and I don't have a harmonious track record.

2. Generally, literary fiction is not my jam.

3. No way could I read this 3 months before the club meeting and have any hope of remembering it, especially since I totally planned on skimming it (see 1 & 2, above).

 

So, I procrastinated.  I procrastinated BIG. TIME. I didn't buy the book until Wednesday, and as I was in the midst of finishing up my Dewey bonus rolls, I refused to start this one until they were all done.  (I was also hoping I could use this for a monopoly space - kid on cover, woot!) 

 

Which means I started it last night at 10pm.  Bookclub met today at 2.  Now, this wasn't going to be a problem, because I was totally going to skim read it. Then I read the first page.  Boy did that first page suck me in.  So did the second, and the third, and the fourth and OMG IT'S 2AM!!!

 

I woke up at 8 and plowed through the entire thing by 1pm (taking a "break", and I use that term loosely, to ferry all three cats to the vet for annual appointments - something I cannot recommend).

 

It was good.  Seriously, it was really damn good.  The Australian fiction I've been subjected to so far have all had one thing in common: a thread of cruelty that wove subtlety or not so subtley through the narrative.  Jasper Jones is not an exception, which is why I'd hesitate to call it a YA read.  There are some very confronting scenes and descriptions of abuse, violence, and racial hate crimes.  It might be a good fit for some, but not all, teens. 

 

This common thread is what turns me off trying new Aussie fiction, but here it's offset by the humour and genuine innocence of Charlie, and his banter with his best friend, Jeffry Lu, who often steals the scenes from Charlie by dint of his sheer equanimity.  Some of the banter gets tedious, but only because it's exactly the tedious banter of just about any two 13-year-old boys.

 

There's a mystery plot beneath all the other issues facing Charlie and it was tragic; its final solution even more so.  There's not a lot of winning for the good guys here, but the story does end on a note of hope, if not complete happiness.  

 

Most of all, the writing was just incredibly engaging, with a minimum of Aussie slang and/or vernacular.  If you can find this one, read the first couple of pages - you might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

 

 

 

 

 

Total pages: 397

$ earned: 3.00

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review 2017-04-05 11:45
Fast Women
Fast Women - Jennifer Crusie

I've been talking up Agnes and the Hitman lately, and it got me in the mood for a re-read.  I wanted something slightly less madcap than Agnes though, so I went with Fast Women.

 

I've read this book at least half a dozen times - it's one of my favourite Jennifer Crusie books - and it never gets old for me.  Its three female leads are all extraordinarily three-dimensional; their marriages extraordinarily realistic; their coping strategies extraordinarily commonplace.  I love the interaction between the women, and between the women and their men.  What keeps this book from becoming a dreary, depressing drama is the humor that is constant throughout; these people are struggling, but they keep it in perspective.

 

Add to all of this a delicious murder mystery and for me it was, and still is, love.  The mystery is so well plotted, that even when you know how it's going to end, Crusie leaves you surprised at the end.

 

Chick-lit isn't for everyone, but if you enjoy some dramedy with strong female characters, tossed in with a murder mystery, I don't think you can go wrong giving this a try.  

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