Thursday, March 29, 2012

Murder of the Bride, by C.S. Challinor

Murder of the Bride
by C.S. Challinor

Am I the only one who's growing weary of the term thriller? Or of reams of "mystery" fiction that seems more like thinly disguised chick-lit? If you're in the same boat as me then I invite you to check out the works of C.S. Challinor, who has written five books in her Rex Graves series thus far and who has managed to take the traditional mystery and give it a contemporary sheen, without sacrificing anything in the process.

Murder of the Bride is the fifth and latest in the series. I've read two others and have yet to find a dud. At some point soon I'll probably go back and take a look at the other two volumes. Which is pretty high praise for me. There are so many authors out there that I have yet to read that I'm not going to read too much of any one author unless they really ring my bell.

Which Challinoor has done again. This time around, as the title suggests, barrister Graves is in attendance at the wedding of one of his fiancee's friends. It's taking place in a manor house that's suitably ponderous and atmospheric for this sort of yarn, in spite of the fact that the setting is modern day.

As one might expect with an amateur detective on hand it's not long before all hell breaks loose. It probably wouldn't be a spoiler to at least let on as to what happens at this ill-fated wedding but I'm just going to say that Challinoor really piles it on and leave it at that.

Which doesn't leave much room for discussing how Graves, working in concert with the police (who treat him with a measure of respect, given his past track record) manages to sort it all out. I'll just say that Challinoor writes very solid, compact mysteries that whiz right by and that - for me, at least - rarely hit a false note.

I don't think there's probably much in here that you could call revolutionary but the author handles it all with such skill that it doesn't really matter. It is worth noting that the events of the entire novel take place in the course of one day, which is kind of a nifty trick.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

An Appreciation of Asimov's Black Widowers Stories

As I was writing a brief article about Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers tales a little while back it occurred to me that it was time to seek out another volume of said stories. There are six volumes in all of these mystery/puzzle short stories and I've only read two of them thus far. As I note in the article, which appeared recently at Criminal Element, they are something of an acquired taste, but they work just fine for me.

The late Dr. Isaac Asimov was nothing if not prolific. By most estimates he turned out more than 500 books on a wide variety of topics in a working lifetime that apparently spanned about a half century. Asimov became a household name with his popular works of science fiction, including the Foundation Series and numerous others. After his science fiction, Asimov was probably best known turning out a heap of non-fiction books that looked at various science-related topics written with a lay audience in mind.

What’s probably not quite so well-known is that Asimov also wrote a number of mysteries. They comprise a small percentage of his massive total output, but number just over a dozen books in all. Many were short stories, but Asimov also wrote several respected novels that successfully melded science fiction and whodunits (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun).


Monday, March 26, 2012

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
by Agatha Christie

After a few recent posts that were kind of out in left field in terms of traditional mystery content it's back to something that's about as traditional as you can get, the first novel by the master of this sort of thing - Agatha Christie. It's also the debut of Poirot, his sidekick Hastings, and police Inspector Japp.

I'll confess right at the outset that although I liked the book I found it to be tough going, which is admittedly more the fault of the reader than the writer. Although I prefer mysteries that are focused on a puzzle I tend to be kind of a dolt sometimes when it comes to keeping up with the intricacies of plot. To complicate things this time around, I read this book in a large number of very brief installments, which tended to exacerbate the problem. I suspect that if I'd sliced it up into a few large chunks I'd have found it much easier going (note to self...).

But enough about that. If you like your mysteries crammed full of old-school elements, then you should give this one a try. It's got the manor house setting and the once widowed and now remarried head of the household who's been bumped off (or so it would seem). It looks poison might be to blame and it looks like her last will and testament might provide a motive. Naturally there's the usual gang of family members and various other hangers on who had the means and motive to do the bumping, not the least of whom is the victim's second husband, who just happens to be one of those shifty foreigner types (shudder).

As the story goes, Christie wrote this book to win a bet that she could devise a mystery novel in which no reader could determine who the culprit was. Whether or not she succeeded in that is a matter that's up for grabs, but the intricate plot with its myriad twists and turns certainly do make for a challenge.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Movie: Get Low

Get Low
from a story by Chris Provenzano & Scott Seeke

I've been kicking around the idea of reviewing Get Low for a while and I finally decided to give it a whirl. It's not really a traditional mystery in any sense of the word but since there's a mystery, of sorts, at the heart of the whole thing I thought I might as well go for it.

The mystery concerns what might have caused Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) to take his leave of polite society and move into the Tennessee hills for four decades. The solution might have something to do with the brief scene that opens the movie or maybe it doesn't.

Of course, if Mr. Bush was to stay sequestered in his humble cabin in the hills for the entire movie that wouldn't make for much of a story. Since he's getting up in years he's apparently feeling his mortality and decides to throw a funeral party for himself - while he's still alive. In this he enlists the services of unscrupulous funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his rather more scrupulous assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black). Though the cantankerous Bush is way out of practice when it comes to dealing with people he and Buddy more or less take a liking to each other. You could almost kinda sorta say that Quinn and Buddy are the detectives in this piece, trying to figure what makes the old goat tick and what turned him into a hermit.

Which is nothing terribly special, when it comes right down to it, but that's kind of beside the point. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's a McGuffin, but the point of the story isn't really Bush's somewhat climactic reveal but everything that happens to get the story to that point.

What really makes the movie stand out are the performances. Black is great as an upstanding and somewhat naïve young guy who's both intimidated and fascinated by this crusty old coot and not at all enamored of his boss's moneygrubbing tactics. Murray brings a touch of his comic flair to the proceedings and manages to make the old moneygrubbing funeral director a reasonably likeable character and Sissy Spacek is also on hand in a rather key role.

Which leaves Robert Duvall, who drives the movie and for whom the role of Felix Bush seems tailor-made (and perhaps it was, for all I know). I can't think of a movie where I didn't like Duvall's performance quite a lot and this was certainly no exception to the rule.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Lone Wolf Article at Criminal Element

I confess. I still have yet to read any of the original adventures of The Lone Wolf, as penned by creator Louis Joseph Vance. But I've watched and reviewed a number of the many movies that were based on the character and have a few more queued up on DVR. Take a look at my reviews here. I recently wrote a brief introduction to/appreciation of The Lone Wolf, which appeared at the Criminal Element site.

Lately, I’ve become acquainted with a number of detectives of yesteryear, not through the fiction written about them, but rather from the filmed adaptations based on that fiction. There’s Hildegarde Withers, for instance, Stuart Palmer’s spinster detective, who worked hand in hand with a gruff police inspector named Oscar Piper. More recently I’ve started tuning in to the cinematic exploits of Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, who only appeared in one book, but who wound up on the big screen in six movies.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Movie: The Silk Express

The Silk Express
from a story by Houston Branch

When I set out to watch The Silk Express I had no idea that it contained a locked room murder, but lo and behold, there it was. Which didn't count for much before it was all said and done though I can't really elaborate much without introducing a semi-spoiler.

It's actually more of a locked train car mystery, to be precise. The victim is knocked on the head and tossed into the car just before the train departs. It's carrying a valuable load of silk across the country and there are a pair of thugs on board to see that it doesn't make it or is significant delayed. Which all has to do with a group of mill owners banding together to import their own silk, thereby sidestepping the unscrupulous practices of a gang of textile importers.

Turns out the victim died about ten hours after the train departed, in a car that had since been sealed. Which leaves it up to railroad detective McDuff to sort out exactly what happened. Unfortunately, the good detective doesn’t appear to possess any real knack for crime solving. Another murder follows, or at least it appears to be a murder, though the doctor who's aboard is not completely clear as to how the victim died.

Which is about all that I can say without throwing spoilers into the mix. What I will say is that even though this was not a very "good" whodunit it was nicely paced with a few wacky plot points tossed in for good measure and a small assortment of reasonably interesting characters. Like the archaeologist who's on board with his daughter and the aforementioned doctor and who's suffering from a rare "Oriental sleeping sickness." If he falls asleep he'll apparently turn to stone (gradually become paralyzed, to be a little less purple with the prose) but I guess it beats having to contend with the likes of Freddy Krueger.

Overall I'd recommend this as a nifty bit of somewhat lightweight entertainment but not so much as a whodunit. Here's a contemporary review from the New York Times.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Movie: Passport to Suez

Passport to Suez
Based on characters created
by Louis Joseph Vance

It's another one of those relatively rare installments of The Lone Wolf series that don't include the character's moniker in the title. This is also the last of the bunch to star Warren Williams in the title role. Gerald Mohr took over for the next three installments and then Ron Randell starred in the last one (The Lone Wolf and His Lady), in 1949.

This time around The Lone Wolf (Michael Lanyard) and Jameson are in Egypt. The plot hinges on Nazi spies trying to get their hands on top-secret military info and our heroes lending a hand to put a stop to it. In the course of the proceedings Jameson is kidnapped (several times, actually) and his son and the son's fiancé turn up, though the latter might not be all that she seems.

I have to admit, as I've said before, that spy/espionage type fiction and film has never done much for me. So this one was not among my favorites of The Lone Wolf movies. But Williams and Eric Blore, who plays Jameson, are a pretty good team and as is par for the course, this installment treats weighty topics with a lighthearted touch, managing to effectively alternate between serious and comical scenes. It's hard to imagine anyone else as The Lone Wolf but I've got a few of the Mohr/Randell installments queued up and will be giving them a look in the very near future.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Movie: Trail of the Pink Panther

Trail of the Pink Panther

I can think of few times when I've laughed harder than when watching Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies - especially the first and second installments (The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark) of the series. There were a total of six Pink Panther movies starring Sellers, although to call this one - the sixth of the series - a movie is a bit of a stretch.

I didn't go into this blindly, mind you. I know that it was a cobbled together mess that used outtakes featuring Sellers (who had been dead almost two years) and other footage to vainly attempt to construct a coherent story. I figured that it couldn't be that bad and oh, boy, was I ever wrong.

Early on the story, what there is of it, finds Clouseau (Sellers) once again trying to track down the purloined Pink Panther (a diamond). When the Sellers footage apparently runs low, the film switches gears. Clouseau disappears and a reporter goes around to people who knew him and constructs a profile, which allows the filmmakers to throw in some more warmed over Sellers footage.

All of which is about as dreadful as it sounds. Which is not to say that there aren't a few funny scenes, because there are several. Especially worthy of note are the opening scene which features Sellers and Harvey Korman and a surprisingly funny Sellers-free scene featuring Clouseau's father (Richard Mulligan), a doddering housekeeper and a sheep dog.

Which are scenes that are perfectly suited for YouTube or the bonus tracks of a DVD set, which is where I'd suggest that you watch them, if indeed they're even available. As for this sad excuse for a movie, well, either forsake it altogether or watch it with one hand on the fast forward button.

(To skip right to Siskel and Ebert's thoughts on the movie go to 2:03)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock Presents Article

What can you say about Alfred Hitchcock that hasn't already been said? Probably not much, but that didn't stop me from trying, in a recent article that appeared at the Criminal Element site. It's actually about the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show and more specifically about some of the more notable crime and mystery writers who contributed to the show, including Robert Bloch, Roald Dahl and Ed McBain.

I’ve watched a number of episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents over the years and given that it recently began airing on the Encore Suspense cable channel not long ago, I’m sure I’ll watch quite a few more. What I didn’t realize was what a formidable presence it was in its day. The show kicked off in 1955 and aired for a total of ten years and 363 episodes before it was all said and done, later garnering a vote as Time’s 18th best TV show of all time.


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Martin Hewitt, Investigator, by Arthur Morrison

Martin Hewitt, Investigator
by Arthur Morrison

I suspect that it's no coincidence that the first volume of Martin Hewitt stories appeared in 1894, at a time when there was a bit of a mania afoot for Sherlock Holmes. Morrison banged out two more volumes of Hewitt stories, which were released in 1895 and 1896, though he's apparently better known for his "realistic" fiction about London's lower classes.

After distinguishing himself working for a legal firm Hewitt sets up on his own as a private investigator. He comes across as a more amiable version of Holmes and his Watson is a journalist known as Brett, whose last name does is apparently not given in this volume. For a little more detail about Hewitt, refer to this profile.

The Lenton Croft Robberies
I thought this was the best of the bunch, with a fairly ingenious solution to the crime, albeit one that perhaps was not fairly clued, at least until late in the game. The crimes are a series of jewel robberies at the same house and in each case the thief has left behind a used match.

The Loss Of Sammy Crockett
A competitive runner disappears just before a big match. His footsteps are found approaching a fence and then they disappear. Not a bad one here, but it didn't grab me like the aforementioned.

The Case Of Mr. Foggatt
An almost locked room murder, in which the victim is shot in the head. A half-eaten apple is one of the clues. An interesting yarn with an ending that caught me a bit off guard. Not actually a twist, mind you, just kind of unusual.

The Case Of The Dixon Torpedo
A set of drawings for said torpedo has gone missing, in what is along the lines of an impossible crime, but not quite. Makes use of the innovative (for the time) crime-solving technique of photography.

The Quinton Jewel Affair
More jewelry goes missing here, as the title suggests. This time around Hewitt has to resort to a disguise to help get it all sorted out and shows that he's not averse to throwing a punch or two. One major drawback of this one was the heavy dialect some of the characters were saddled with but that's always been a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

The Stanway Cameo Mystery
Although this is the third of the stories to feature jewel robberies I actually found this to be a refreshing change from the ceaseless murders that are par for the course for so much mystery fiction. It's an intriguing tale that's perhaps not completely fair in the matter of cluing, but was one of the highlights for me even so.

The Affair Of The Tortoise
This was probably my least favorite of the bunch, though I can't completely put my finger on why. There is a murder, apparently the work of someone who feuded with the victim. Before you know it the stiff disappears and it's for good reason, as it turns out.

All in all, an entertaining collection, although perhaps a bit uneven. I'd be quite keen to check out another volume of Hewitt stories if there weren't so many other items in my To Be Read pile.