Friday, February 25, 2011

The White King by Gyorgy Dragoman

In some ways this is a story narrated by a young boy who engages in the typical pranks and activities of boys everywhere. However, Djata, who is eleven, lives in a Communist country—most probably Romania. At the beginning of the book Djata recounts how his father left with some men—“colleagues” according to his father. His father’s explanation for leaving home—a research project.

Later on Djata learns the truth. His father had been sent to a labor camp at the Danube Canal for his protest against the government. Because of his father’s outspoken stance, Djata is expelled from Communist Youth organizations and his mother is no longer employed as a teacher. Djata’s life continues and is framed against some of the anti-father figures he encounters including a sadistic coach.

His grandparents detest his mother because she is Jewish and offer the family no support. When Djata sees his grandfather once a year, it is a formal visit. His mother has forbid him from accepting and keeping any gift from his grandfather.

In the midst of this repressive society, Djata engages in some colorful escapades that indicate that even in the most closed societies boys will find adventures worthy of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Once Djata and his friend discover a cache of pornographic movies when they sneak into the backroom of a theater. When the two friends decide that a quarry has gold ore in its walls they climb over a chain link fence to enter the area. They stumble upon two ferocious dogs and the son of the old man who had lived there until his recent death. What follows is an escapade worthy of a picturesque novel.

But there are many difficult times for the boy who wants to believe that his father will return. Life in a totalitarian regime is rife with indignities and pressure and the adult world is filled with horror and sordid details.

The ending of the book is a painful awareness of the constrictions and abuse that await those who oppose the regime.

Read East Challenge

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Appleby's End by Michael Innes

Years ago I read Hamlet, Revenge by Michael Innes —replete with sundry literary quotations and allusions—as well as a murder committed during a production of the play. Actually the murder victim is on stage—behind the curtain when he is shot. At the time I recall being taken with the wit of the author.

In Appleby's End Michael Innes allows his considerable wit full rein and the result is pure delight.

Inspector Appleby of Scotland Yard finds himself in a train compartment with an assortment of rather odd individuals. Because of circumstances he is unable to debark at the station he anticipated and is invited by a Mr Everard Raven to spend the night at his home. Before getting off Appleby discovers that each person in the compartment is a member of the same family. Oddly—the name of the station that they pull into and where they all will all get off the train—is named Appleby's End. And that begins a series of coincidences.

The family is eccentric and in the middle of a series of odd happenings—all of which relate back to a stories penned by the Victorian novelist Ranulph Raven, a relation. It's almost as if his stories are being played out in real life.

I found myself laughing out loud when Innes describes the behavior of a milkmaid who thinks she's a cow. Incident after incident allows Innes to indulge his delicious wit in this delightful story.

Of great importance to all mysteries is the solution and explanation for all the happenings. The Inspector not only is able to piece together why all these happenings are occurring, but the why behind the pranks.

I must add that one of my delights was in the language— words and names. Villages named: Boxer's Bottom, Linger, Abbot's Yatter, Snarl. And characters: Gregory Grope, Hannah Hoobin.

—"...fleeting and hebdomadal mythology..." A weekly mythology. I'll have to find a use for the word.

"...without the otiose superaddition of novelty.." —such pointlessness

"...exiguous wooden scaffolding..."— don't put the window washer on a scanty scaffold

"...Judith shook her head darkly over this squirearchal sentiment..."


Michael Innes was a Professor and an extraordinary scholar —he delighted in dropping literary allusions into his stories. For those who are interested here's a site annotating the literary references in Appleby's End.

Where Does That Come From?
Vintage Mystery Challenge

Friday, February 11, 2011

City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley

Kelli Stanley introduces a hard-boiled, fast talking woman detective. This is the first book in her new series—a black noir novel. Miranda Corbie, the thirty-three year old PI knows her way around pre-war 1940 San Francisco. She knows the seedy parts from first hand experience.

The story opens when Miranda witnesses the last moments of a dying teenager—a young man dying in Chinatown. Because he’s Japanese and there’s blatant racism in the police department, the police are not interested in investigating and they want Miranda to back away.

Miranda is not going to be put of by the police even when their attacks on her are of a personal nature. Her investigation proceeds. Shortly after her initial contact with the police a woman whose husband was found dead in a hotel contacts her. The police are calling the case death by heart attack. His wife thinks he was murdered. Her stepdaughter is also missing. Miranda’s job—find out what happened and find the daughter.

Not only does the reader get a look at San Francisco’s Chinatown at the time of the New Year’s celebration, but Stanley also writes about the relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese. She writes of the blatant racism of the era, the drug trade, police brutality, trafficking in the exploitation of foreign women, and the gangs.

Miranda—drinks too much , smokes too much, is no slouch when it comes to colorful language and has a difficult time with intimacy. Early on we find out that she was in love with a man named Johnny who lost his life during wartime. That experience colors her life.

Stanley does introduce a policeman, Gonzales, who may appear as a romantic interest in later books.

I rarely read mysteries that are called hard-boiled so I found myself a bit dissatisfied with all the machinations of the noir novel. Miranda ties all the pieces together, acts as the person who allows the two people in love—one Chinese and the other Japanese—to marry, move away and I assume live happily ever after.

In a “harrowing scene” perfect for an action movie, bullets fly, dead and wounded are splayed out all over the room and Miranda must fire her Baby Browning, which had been secreted in a trick cigarette case. Even with that gun she is able to kill one of the gang members. I never doubted that she’d emerge victorious.. Yes, she did need to replenish her body with sleep and rest.

One other point—she’s the well-educated daughter of an alcoholic professor of Classics who shows up inebriated and when in need of money. Even in that state he’s able to quote poetry.

After having said all that I did find Miranda rather interesting. Perhaps she’ll go on the wagon, cut down on the smokes, refine her language—but then she wouldn’t be Miranda.

Mystery Challenge

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The snow was falling, adding on to the bush high depths outside. I selected The Daughter of Tey to accompany my large cup of Green Tea and decided that when the snow stopped I'd venture beyond the warmth of my house. They'd be ample time to shovel.

I recalled being totally confused when once studying the War of Roses and hoped that Tey didn't dwell on that particular period. My plans, cancelled because of the icy conditions, gave me the luxury of settling into the book.

As Bacon wrote: "Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority." With these words as the ballast—the story unfolds. Inspector Grant, of Scotland Yard, had the misfortune of falling through a trap door and thus finds himself flat on his back in a hospital bed. He amuses himself by staring at the ceiling patterns and growing increasingly grumpy. His actress friend, Marta, knowing that Grant is considered somewhat of an expert when it comes to faces, brings him a stack of portraits.

At first he can find no single portrait of interest, but when he sees a portrait of Richard III his interest is piqued. Richard has been vilified by history and is depicted as an evil man who murdered his two nephews in order to assure his ascent to the throne.

When Grant reads the portrait he sees in the artist's likeness of Richard III quite a different character. Instead of the evil qualities usually attributed to him, Grant imagines him as a much maligned character in history. Even the physical description of Richard as a hunchback has no validity.

Since he is confined to lying on his back on a hospital bed he must do all the research through books. He even solicits the opinion of two of his nurses—what did they think of Richard III?. They parrot what they have read in their "normal" school texts. They assert that the nephews were smothered with a pillow by someone who took orders from Richard. One nurse had kept all of her school books and he borrows her history text where the same story appears as "truth".

He asks Marta to bring him two heavy tomes—one was written by Sir Thomas More. Later on he realizes that More is a contemporary of Henry VIII and whatever he wrote was not a first hand account.

The story really gets into gear when Marta introduces him to Carradine, an American researcher for the British Museum. Carradine is immediately fascinated with Grant's hypothesis — Richard III never murdered his nephews —nor anyone else. While Grant remains prone on his bed he directs the investigation. Carradine becomes his legs and researcher.

All of the stories are simply Tudor propaganda—but this must be proved. When all the names were thrown out on the page, like laying down the gauntlet, I found myself putting the book down and doing my own research. I forgot about the snow as I looked up the women who were mentioned, the regal lines, Bill of Attainder, and even a bit about that War of Roses.

Grant builds up his case for proving the innocence of Richard III. The hunt for evidence so fascinates Carradine that he plans to write a book about their findings. Along the way there is a discussion about how the veracity of historical events may be a distance from the reality. Once a story gains momentum it is often difficult to present another version. The story becomes accepted as truth and to pry it away from its moorings is difficult.

Someone conversant with the research pointed out that Tey doesn't use all the research relevant to the case—but the facts she does employ certainly suggest that the case is far more complex and there's a good possibility that the boys were alive when HenryVII ascended the throne.

By the end of the novel Grant is able to leave the hospital—but still must remain in a reclining position for a half a day.

A number of other writers have used the framework of Richard's reign and the story of the nephews disappearance as the plot line for their own novels.

Even when shoveling my mind was wrapped around the machinations of royalty.

Vintage Mystery Challenge