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Search tags: mystery-or-supsense
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review 2017-01-26 09:48
Death Was the Other Woman by Linda L. Richards
Death Was the Other Woman - Linda L. Richards

So, what were the plucky secretaries of rye-guzzling PIs doing while their employers moped about gorgeous women and betrayal? They did the actual detective work around the office, apparently.

 

DEATH WAS THE OTHER WOMAN is a feminine take on the hard life of a struggling P. I. and his assistant during the harsh years of the beginning of the Depression before the Prohibition repeal. Both the investigator and the crime are pure throwbacks to classic hard boiled crime: a glamorous woman walks into a P.I.’s office and pays the investigator for some simple work, which inevitably leads to dead bodies and danger. What makes the story stands out is that it is told from the perspective of said investigator’s secretary, a young woman named Katherine “Kitty” Pangborn.

 

I freely admit that I’m a snob when it comes to neo-noir and hardboiled crime. It’s not uncommon to see writers capitalize on the style without an inkling of how the dark themes of classic hard boiled crime related to the American world at large. What might be portrayal as “tough” or “cool” in another book is shown in a harsh light, especially alcoholism and the cultural despair created by the Great Depression. Huge swathes of the book are spent with Kitty’s inner thoughts on the economic devastation underlying the glamorous veneer of Los Angeles. As Kitty herself went from the ideal American heiress to a penniless working girl after the stock market crash, she adds unique commentary that isn’t often found in a genre dominated by male/middle class attitudes.

 

The mystery itself is underwhelming. The setup is cliché as hell, and the book does little to make it stand out against the grain. Much of the detective work is buried underneath Kitty’s day-to-day social life, and there are only a handful of moments where Kitty’s ingenuity shines. Too many of the plot twists are saved for the last couple chapters, leading the book to feel unbalanced in consequence. The ending likewise feels too abrupt, as if watching a movie that ends with the second act. None of the characters are given substantial arcs, and we don’t even see any aftermath in the office after the whodunit is revealed.

 

Whether the reader likes DEATH WAS THE OTHER WOMAN depends entirely on if the Depression Era setting of Los Angeles appeals to them. To that end, it’s a solid read. Noir buffs might get a kick out of the story, otherwise, there are better books for mystery lovers out there.

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review 2016-11-23 00:36
The Postman Always Rings Twice
The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain

It’s difficult to not make a review of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE into a comparison the author’s most acclaimed noir novels, DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Both involve a couple who attempt to commit the perfect murder, both focus on how the main characters’ flaws manifest post-murder, and both have insurance fraud playing a major part of the proceedings. However, they both handle the subject matter in different fashions.

 

This “long short story,” which Penguin Random House claims was banned in Boston upon release, is story of a drifter who falls in love with a married woman who, naturally, has no interest in staying married for long. The story follows both the legal and psychological aftermath to committing murder, as depicted through the peaks and crashes of their illicit affair. The sex is explicit, the action is violent, and corruption reigns over all—Cain leaves nothing to the imagination, and the book can still shock readers to this day. The hard-boiled narrative has a raw quality to it that few authors ever manage to pull off, and makes the grit feel more like realistic than stylistic in turn.

 

Despite the interesting premise, the book doesn’t quite deliver in execution. While it’s hard to ignore Cain’s unique voice, it’s also very, very apparent that this was a first novel. It skims past some of the best plot twists and character development, while lingering too long on boring diversions and shallow introspection. History hasn’t been kind to THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE either, since the story feels generic in the sea of noir fiction that developed in the eighty-two years following the book’s original publication.

 

While I’m not one to be put off by the poor representation of ladies in early 20th century man-oriented literature, the main character’s attitude towards women becomes irritating after a while. The only two ladies in the entire book seem to exist to fall for his uncharismatic attitude within five minutes or be straight up ogled by the narration. It’s especially frustrating in the terms of Cora, the femme fatale of the story. Cain would rather describe the exact size and perkiness of her breasts instead of her personality, despite having all the tools to make a dynamic character out of her. At least she had a satisfying arc in between the descriptions of her figure.

 

In the end, it’s surprisingly mediocre for such a landmark piece of roman noir. Readers would be better off with DOUBLE INDEMNITY, as it’s better written and tackles the subject matter with greater finesse.

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review 2016-11-18 12:54
361 by Donald E. Westlake
361 (Hard Case Crime ) - Donald E Westlake

After Raymond Kelley, a recently discharged Air Force soldier, witnesses the murder of his father and is horrifically maimed in the aftermath, he decides it’s time for paycheck. With only one word and a vague description of the murderer’s car to go on, Raymond and his brother quickly find themselves waist-deep in a web of danger, deceit, and mobsters. Little do the brothers know that they’re being hunted, too…

 

361 is, without a shadow of a doubt, the quintessential hard boiled crime novel. Westlake’s writing exemplifies the stylized grit and action-packed drama of the genre, almost to a fault. Between the endless comma splicing and endless descriptions of everything Raymond finds remotely interesting, it’s clear that the meat of the book lies in its style more so than its story. Yet even so, Westlake’s narrative never loses its quick pace nor does it ever delve into pointless sleaze like many other pulpy crime stories of the time. The greatest strength of his writing, however, is the characters. Westlake is a master at throwing flawed individuals into an impossible situation without sacrificing their likability. Everyone feels realistic at the end of the day, which is a rare find in an otherwise pulpy outing.

 

While the short standalone novel sometimes flirts with interesting themes, such as regret and old age, it never does deeper than the occasional subtext. Westlake’s ideas on what the post-Prohibition mob scene was like is also quaint in hindsight, as history has since shown us that the real-world Mafia didn’t simply fall apart after the legalization of booze. The problem's not on Westlake, though—it’s not his fault the book was published a year before Joseph Valachi’s tell-all testimony as the first mob informant for the FBI. Considering how badly most stories from the 60s age, inaccurate gangster representation is far from the worst sin such a book can commit.

 

On a side note, the Kindle port is lazy. The first 3% of the kindle edition contains an excerpt from the beginning of the book, so the reader might end up reading it twice if they don’t realize what they’re looking at.

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review 2016-09-17 23:06
Welcome to Night Vale
Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel - Jeffrey Cranor,Joseph Fink

WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE is about two residents of the titular strange town of Night Vale wind up in the middle of a city-wide mystery. Jackie is a perpetually nineteen-year-old pawnshop owner whose life is turned upside down by a piece of paper, while Diane is a single mother dealing with her teenage shapeshifting son’s father reappearing in her life. At first, these events seem completely unrelated to one another, but nothing is ever as it seems in the town where aliens, angels, Secret Police, and mad scientists all peacefully co-exist under a Glow Cloud.

 

The book’s biggest problem is that it’s too much like the podcast it’s based on. The podcast often takes a disinterested tone as the narrator describes a series of horrific or humorous local events of Night Vale, a clear parody of old community radio newscasts. When transplanted into printed media, much of its charm is lost because the interesting premise turns into a series of annoying tangents. Similarly, the narrative prefers to tell rather than show most of the action—a necessity for a podcast, yes, but a huge detriment for a book. There’s very little to invest the reader into the story early on, to the point that the book lives and dies on strengths of its two leads instead.

 

The pacing of the first half of the book is slower than molasses. The podcast usually avoids this problem by not having a strict plotline, instead placing little snippets and reoccurring characters of a particular arc being spread out over dozens of episodes at a time. The book, on the other hand, is limited to a linear narrative, meaning that the constant tangents interrupt the flow and characters themselves take forever to do anything of significance. Any attempts to build suspense, such as the terror of the library, are wrecked they literally take hundreds of pages to deliver to the payoff. It isn’t helped by transcripts of Night Vale Radio broadcasts randomly inserted into the narrative to minimal effect, and the book frequently recaps the same scene over and over again from a different character’s perspective.

 

On the plus side, the second half of the book is much better in both tone and delivery. Most of the plot twists are well foreshadowed without being completely obvious, and many of the earlier tangents are tied together in a satisfactory matter. While it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, I did find myself chuckling every few pages, too. A little humor goes a long way to rectify an otherwise miserably slow read.  

 

If it weren’t for the two leads, however, I would not have finished WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE. The difference between age, time, and maturity is one of the strongest themes of the book, and the characters’ circumstances lend to it well. I may not have given two shits about the mystery surrounding King City, but I certainly cared about whether or not Jackie—at this point, a centuries-old teenager—would finally let herself grow up a little and accept change. The bizarre nature of Night Vale itself presents creative, but still relatable, intergeneration conflicts for both women to overcome. The show’s younger fanbase may find the message a bit patronizing, though. 

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review 2016-09-08 04:06
The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
The Victorian Chaise-Longue - Marghanita Laski,P.D. James

“The Victorian Chaise-Longue” is a short gothic horror about a 1950s bedridden housewife who falls asleep on an old chaise-longue and awakens eighty years in the past. The main character, Melanie, takes on the life of a deathly ill Victorian woman named Millie Baines. Little does she know that secrets lurk in Milly’s rotting Victorian past…

 

Laski’s writing style is manic, jumping between lavish descriptions and clunky exposition with no room to breathe in between. As Melanie is restricted to her bed for the duration of the short story, the focus is mostly on theological and philosophical subjects, such as death, passion, religion, and the like. The writing captures Melanie’s terror at her situation flawlessly, and there are certainly several poignant moments that hit the classic gothic sweet spot. At the same time, I frequently lost my place or missed scene transitions entirely, hampering the book's excellent foreshadowing. 

 

“The Victorian Chaise-Longue” could hit a bunch of Halloween bingo squares, as it’s a classic gothic horror/mystery written by a woman. Certainly something for my followers to look into if you’re missing one of those squares, as it’s short and only about $10 on a Kindle. Non-bingo readers may find it an interesting, if unsettling, read to fill an evening.

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