Book Review: The Tuesday Club Murders by Agatha Christie
Author Raymond West has what he thinks is a smashing idea. A series of Tuesday night gatherings where the six people present discuss mysteries they’ve run across, particularly juicy murders. In addition to himself, there’s an artist, a lawyer, a clergyman, a retired Scotland Yard commissioner, oh, and his Aunt Jane. She’s a darling maiden aunt who has seldom left her home village, and is obsessed with knitting, but she might have an insight or two. But he needn’t have worried about her falling behind, for Miss Marple knows a thing or two about human nature.
Agatha Christie’s beloved elderly lady of detection first appeared in these short stories beginning in 1927. The collection of them in a book (originally titled The Thirteen Problems) didn’t happen until 1932, so The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is the first Miss Marple book. The format of the first six stories is the Tuesday night meetings, beginning with “The Tuesday Night Club” and ending with “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter.” Then Sir Henry Clithering, the retired Scotland Yard man, gets Miss Marple invited to a dinner party where six more mysteries are told, from “The Blue Geranium” to “The Affair at the Bungalow.”
The last story, “Death by Drowning” has Miss Marple ask Sir Henry to look into a young woman’s apparent suicide–she’s figured out what actually happened, but has no proof.
Miss Marple’s primary method is finding analogies. Although she has seldom left her largish village of St. Mary Mead, Aunt Jane has had a long life and a keen interest in the people around her (and an ear for gossip.) Thus she can almost always find something in her past that is reminiscent of the case at hand, and gives her the clues she needs.
Despite the title, not all of the stories involve a murder; “Ingots of Gold” for example is about a robbery. Some of the tales may be more difficult for a reader to unravel due to them becoming dated; one relies on older British slang, while another requires a knowledge of obsolete work practices. On the other hand, one of the tales has a trick ending of the type that made Ms. Christie’s work famous. There’s some period sexism and classism, and one story involves domestic abuse.
While not Agatha Christie’s best work, and Miss Marple would have some character development in later books, (she’s kind of smug here) these are fun short mysteries that are very much of a time and place.
This volume, written in the 1980s, is a survey of patterns of immigration into urban areas of the United States between 1830-1930 (approximately.) It covers those who came to stay, those who just came to get a nest egg to improve life in their home country, and those who intended to go back but just never got around to it. Mr. Bodnar was and still is a professor of history at Indiana University.
The general theme of this book seems to be “it’s complicated.” The immigrant experience was not uniform, with their reactions and outcomes varying considerably depending on their initial motivations for emigration, the areas they came from, their initial social class and starting capital, and what part of America they ended up in. Trying to fit the immigrants into a single narrative that fits a particular philosophy doesn’t really work, according to Professor Bodnar.
It’s pretty dry stuff, starting with a chapter on the countries immigrants came from and focusing on when various regions had their largest numbers go. This isn’t a book for the casual reader.
The most interesting chapter for me was on religion and how their faiths both influenced how immigrants adapted to American life, and were forced to adapt themselves. Often there were clashes between those who felt they were (ethnicity) first, (religion) second, and those (especially religious leaders) who felt the reverse. One example was Slovak immigrants who were suspicious of their priests and ministers who preached in favor of Hungarian rule of the homeland. (It was later confirmed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire did indeed pay off religious leaders to spout pro-Hungarian propaganda in the U.S.)
Another conflict that often came up was between the urge to embrace Americanization and blend into their new society, and the fear of losing the unique cultural elements of their homeland or religious beliefs. This often led to a preference for parochial or ethnicity-based schools rather than putting children into the public school system.
There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index, as well as a handful of black-and-white pictures.
Again, this isn’t a book for the casual reader, but is best suited for college students and up who are doing serious research on the subject of immigration. For most people, I’d recommend one of the many fine memoirs of immigrant families available at your local library.
Magazine Review: The Saturday Evening Post 6/10/61 edited by Ben Hibbs
The Saturday Evening Post ran weekly from 1897-1963; after several format changes, it is now published six times a year. The Post was well known for its lavish illustrations and a combination of current event articles and short stories by popular writers. I got this issue from the month of my birth as an early birthday present. At the time, this magazine was printed in the broadsheet format, which is too large for my scanner–thus the truncated cover image showing only a part of Amos Spewell’s painting of tourists in Venice.
To entice potential customers at newsstands, the Post front-loaded the illustrations in spreads at the front of the magazine, and each of the articles and stories continued in the word-heavy back pages interspersed with a few cartoons. There were also many large illustrated advertisements–one for tampons is notable for not telling the reader what the product is, showing the product or saying what it’s used for exactly; if I didn’t know from the name of the product, I’d assume it’s some kind of skin cleanser or deodorant.
The Post was also known for having a staunchly conservative editorial stance, and this is on full display in an editorial expressing relief that leftist thought was vanishing from college campuses and conservatism was on the rise. “Of course, the battle isn’t over. Queer characters still appear on college campuses sponsored by ‘liberal’ groups.” Oh, if only they knew!
In the lively letters to the editor section, comments on an article about Bobby Darrin reveal changes in our pop culture, with people being shocked or pleased that he was willing to share personal opinions with the press even if they didn’t match the public’s desired stance. One letter writer asked why an article on “Presidents in Retirement” did not include FDR. The editor waggishly replies that the place that man retired to is not on the reporter’s regular beat. There’s also a couple of letters on segregation, responding negatively to a previous letter writer’s suggestion that since Southerners didn’t go to Northern states to demand segregation, Northerners should reciprocate about desegregation.
Let’s look at the contents.
“The White House Insiders” by Stewart Alsop is a look at President Kennedy’s political staffers (all men, all white-one had a black deputy) and how they helped him keep on top of what was happening in the country and the world. It goes into detail about JFK’s management style. The only top staff name most younger readers are likely to recognize is Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but Henry Kissinger is briefly mentioned as a second-stringer.
“Death of a Demon” by Rex Stout is part one of three of a Nero Wolfe mystery novella. The sedentary detective is briefly engaged by a woman who wants to show him the gun she will not use to shoot her husband. That’s…kind of suspicious, and when the husband turns up dead from a bullet wound, some questions are raised. Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s leg man, is pretty sure the woman didn’t do it, but there are gaping holes in her story. It’s certainly an intriguing beginning! Happily, this story was included in Homicide Trinity by Rex Stout, which you can probably get through interlibrary loan.
“How the Doctors Saved Chicago’s Burned Children” by Alice Lake is a look at how St. Anne’s Hospital dealt with the victims of a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in 1958. 95 people died immediately or in the aftermath, but this story concentrates on the survivors. Part of the credit for St. Anne’s quick and organized response goes to disaster preparedness they had undertaken after a fire some years before had caught the hospital unprepared for multiple victims. There are details of the treatment s used and updates on a couple of the survivors as of mid-1961. One of the treatments tried was using blood transfusions from recovering adult burn victims in the hope that their blood had antigens against “burn toxin.” (From the little I could find, research into this treatment has shown scant evidence of effectiveness.) For more on the fire, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Angels_School_fire
“Handsome Samaritan” by Phyllis Duganne is a story about an airline pilot driving to vacation in Florida when he stops to help some stranded motorists. One of them is a very pretty woman, but he’s supposed to be meeting his fiancee. The pilot comes to realize he is much more compatible with this new woman who is more interested in who he is than who she can make him become. I found this story uncomfortable, and skimmed to the end.
“The Poacher” by Gene Coghlan, set in Depression-era North Dakota, has two brothers growing up on an isolated farm, and using traps to earn a little pocket money. One brother is laid up with a broken leg, and the protagonist takes advantage of this to claim that a fur animal was caught in one of his traps, rather than his brother’s. Presumably he learned a valuable lesson about life, but the conclusion pages are missing from my copy. Unfortunately, Mr. Coghlan doesn’t seem to have any books in print.
“The Case of the Comical Banker” by Harold H. Martin, profiles Mills Bee Lane, Jr., then president of the Citizens & Southern National Bank in Atlanta, Georgia. Known for a jovial style (unlike the stuffy conservatism usually associated with bankers of the period), his business acumen turned the C&S into the largest bank in the South. You may be more familiar with his nephew, Mills Bee Lane III, who became a famous boxing referee and TV judge. Lane, Jr. was credited in the article for jumpstarting tobacco farming in the Atlanta area when cotton took a dive in the market.
“The Meaning of the Eichmann Trial” by T.S. Matthews was published about halfway through the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann. (He was found guilty and hanged.) The article talks a lot about the trial conditions and the thoroughness of the Israeli court system. “Israel means to show the world that, in the British phrase, ‘justice is not only done but seen to have been done.” It also talks about the character of Israel as a country, and its people. The trial took place in a newly built suburb of Jerusalem, because at that time the Old City was in the hands of Jordan. This is a very moving article, and I think the best in the issue.
“Cop with Camera Eyes” by Thomas Walsh features a police detective with “photographic memory”, if he sees something, and it’s important to him at a later time, he will remember it clearly. It triggers when he notices the same person in the crowd three times during a date he’s having with his new neighbor. After safely returning his date home, The cop ambushes this tail. Surprise! It’s a federal agent! Seems the attractive foreign lady is suspected of being a Communist spy. Reluctantly, the cop agrees to keep an eye on the girl he has come to adore, but then she vanishes–and for the first time, the cop’s memory fails him at a critical moment. Can he crack the case before innocents are killed? It’s a pretty good story; I don’t know if it’s ever been reprinted, but Mr. Walsh’s Nightmare in Manhattan is considered a superior mystery novel and that you can find.
“Is Nature Getting Neurotic?” by Corey Ford is a humor piece about how over-complicated gardening and landscaping have become, requiring the homeowner to employ multiple specialists and expensive treatments just to keep the lawn alive.
“In the Best Interest of the Service” by Walt Grove takes us inside an Air Force base. A major must make a difficult decision because of the need for unit cohesiveness. A rescue chopper pilot is being accused of cowardice by one of his crew members. This is complicated by the officer being a Negro, and the crew member being a white man from the Deep South and the type of person who nowadays would be decrying “political correctness.” He doesn’t mean any harm by the N-word, he claims, so why shouldn’t he use it? But that does raise the stink of possible racism. Oh, and the chopper pilot is the major’s best friend on the base, so there may be the question of favoritism. Who will be getting transferred out? The resolution to the situation may be a little too convenient, but is satisfying, and inspires the major to take some steps in his personal life he’s put off too long. Mr. Grove wrote several action books about pilots, but it doesn’t appear any are currently in print.
“Comeback of the Giant Turtle” by Bern Keating is about efforts to increase the population of the green sea turtle (so called because of its distinctive green fat deposits inside the shell) in the Caribbean. Despite these and other preservation efforts, the green sea turtle remains an endangered species.
And finally, “The Big Swindle” by Clarence Budington Kelland is part 5 of 6. Twins Pet and Pete Du Chillon have finally come of age, and are attempting to make sense of what their guardian, Mortimer Norton, has done with the family company. It seems all sorts of shady shenanigans have been going on! The twins have some sort of scheme to expose the truth, involving a phony foreign prince and double-bluffing the man who runs security for Du Chillon Industries. This installment suffers from coming in the middle of the story, but I think it’s also a pretty bad story. Pet and Pete, as well as their beloved grandmother, are the sort of people who the author tries hard to convince us are very witty, but come off snide instead. The funniest bit for me was one of the supporting characters denying the possibility of a “twins threesome” in such a way as to make me think he’s thought waay too much about the topic (and also never mentioning sex because this is a family magazine.) Mr. Kelland is largely forgotten, but once was popular enough that Harlan Ellison called him out by name for lowering the tastes of the American public.
There’s also short poems (amusing but forgettable), jokes and cartoons.
This was a fun look back at a moment in time just before I was born. Copies of the Post in bad condition can be found relatively cheaply; issues in excellent condition, or with stories by top authors, will set you back considerably more money. Also, you can visit the website of the current magazine: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/
In a manor on the shores of Lake Nasu, an old man lies dying, surrounded by his kin. But there is no sorrow for the passing of Sahei Inugami in their eyes, only greed for the vast fortune he will be leaving to his clan. It seems that the relatives will have to wait to see how much money they get, as the will cannot be opened until the missing grandson, Kiyo, returns from Burma, where he was stranded after the war.
Famous detective Kosuke Kindaichi is called in by an assistant of the family lawyer. It seems that assistant made a terrible mistake and now realizes that murder will follow unless Kindaichi can prevent it–but the assistant is murdered in Kindaichi’s hotel room before the detective even meets him! This is only a prelude to the terrible things that will happen once the blood-colored will is read….
Kosuke Kindaichi was the most successful series character created by famous Japanese mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo, appearing in over seventy stories. (While the back of book blurb claims The Inugami Clan is the first book in the series, it’s actually at least the fifth. It is, however, the most popular volume and the only one to be translated into English.) He’s a fairly standard quirky detective–dressing in cheap, outdated clothing, stammering at emotional moments, and scratching his scalp furiously while thinking. Apparently, Kindaichi has independent means, as he’s able to lounge around in a hotel room far from his Tokyo home for a couple of months without a paying client.
The case itself is an old-fashioned puzzle box, and it takes several deaths before Kindaichi finally figures it out. All of the Inugami clan are suspicious characters, especially Kiyo, who wears a mask at all times, claiming to have been disfigured in the war. Even the lovely Tamayo, who would in other stories seem to be a innocent target, shows a cold cunning from time to time. But all the characters seem to have alibis for at least one of the murders, and the bizarre pun-based staging makes it probable the same person is behind all the events.
The setting of immediate post-World War Two Japan greatly shapes the story. The will that’s central to setting off the murders would be invalid under American law, and the slowly returning soldiers are an important plot point. (However, no mention at all is made of the American Occupation, or Americans in general.)
There are some gory corpses, an attempted rape, a torture scene told in flashback, and Sahei’s…unusual…sex life is important to several characters’ backstories. This and the older-fashioned writing style makes this book less than suitable to young readers; I would rate it for senior high-school and up.
The translation appears to be out of print in the U.S. Try inter-library loan for a mystery that will go well for fans of Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie-type stories.
Here’s the trailer for the 1976 movie version–NSFW!
Book Review: A Miscarriage of Justice by Nicholas Carter
The quiet village of Tarrytown, New York (not far from Sleepy Hollow) is rocked by scandal when Bert and Adele Denore cut their honeymoon in Cuba short. It seems someone sent poison pen letters to the hotels and casinos they had planned to visit, alleging unspeakable things about Mrs. Denore’s background. (And you know it’s unspeakable when a Cuban casino feels obliged to ban you to protect its reputation!)
Due to the unusual stationery the anonymous letters were written on, suspicion falls on Marjorie Ellsworth, a minister’s daughter that Bert had unsuccessfully wooed some time before. More evidence piles up, and postal inspector Fraser thinks he’s made his case. But Marjorie’s fiance Frank Dean is sure she’s innocent, and engages the famous detective Nick Carter. Nick soon convinces himself that Marjorie indeed is not the author of the poison pen letters..but there’s not enough evidence to convince a jury of that–and seemingly no motive for anyone to frame her!
As mentioned in my previous Nick Carter pulp reviews, he also had a stunning career as a dime novel character, with over 1000 volumes of his adventures printed. This one, originally published in 1914 a brought out in a “paperbound” edition in 1919, is one of them. My copy is barely holding together, with the covers and some of the spine missing, but all the story pages are there, so I thought I’d better read it now before it disintegrates.
The story is…of its time. Nick is easily able to discern good people from bad by their facial features (he’s a trained expert at this) and plays fast and loose with the laws of evidence. (Some dodgy legality at a court hearing is handwaved by the judge declaring it “informal.”) Marjorie is a “damsel in distress” who is pure and innocent as well as beautiful, and seems to have no skill set beyond being of good character. Adele, being French, is a conniving woman of dubious character, but a much more dynamic person with considerable spine.
There’s a small amount of violence, surprisingly none of it by the hands of the hot-tempered Frank, but this is decidedly not a murder case and the villains have no wish to make it so. There’s an unfortunate cameo by a black bellboy who speaks in heavy dialect.
Nick could probably have solved the case much faster if he hadn’t stuck to some cultural assumptions, but evidence would still have been hard to find.
Overall, this book is a disposable, quick and enjoyable read for fans of light detective fiction. It’s mostly valuable as a curiosity, but people who love old books should keep an eye out for other Nick Carter volumes.
Book Review: The Cavaliers of Death by Rosita Forbes
Lois Gilmour is a pretty nineteen-year-old and ready to be a bit independent, so she is less than thrilled when her father Charles, a wealthy importer, has arranged her marriage to middle-aged Philip Wingate, a man with a sinister reputation. It’s especially irksome, as the year is 1930, not 1830. Time to blow off some steam at a masked ball.
At the ball, Lois meets a mysterious grey-eyed man in concealing robes, who promises that she will never marry Wingate, and may be a member of the “Cavaliers of Death” who operate in Syria. He may also be responsible for a murder at the party of a man no one claims to recognize.
Soon, Lois is enmeshed in the clashing schemes of Jim Rattiker (the grey-eyed man), Wingate, the Cavaliers, a devil-worshipping cult, and the true mastermind behind all the events.
Ms. Forbes was a travel writer who specialized in the Middle East, and there are some vivid passages of description once the action in this romantic adventure reaches Syria.
There’s also plenty of action, and a guest appearance by the last of the Romanovs. Naturally, Lois and Jim quickly fall in love, but his vow of celibacy and secretive nature keep them apart for most of the story.
Lois is a damsel in distress, somewhat improved by being the viewpoint character, but a little too prone to running directly towards danger rather than away from it due to her innocence. She’s often frustrated with the men in her life refusing to explain what’s going on, even when it directly affects her. (Most of them do so in an effort to “protect” her, yes, even the antagonists.) Especially the last third of the book’s danger to Lois could have been avoided if anyone had been straight with her earlier.
The biggest fault of the book to a modern reader is its outright libel of the Yazidi people, who have never had the habit of sacrificing white women to the Peacock Angel every full moon.
There are some fun twists, but a major character dies off-stage in an anticlimatic fashion, and the suspense must be made up in other ways.
Still, if you like romantic adventure and can look past the horribly untrue depiction of minority people, this is a rarity to seek out.
Izuku Midoriya’s dream is to become a superhero, like his idol All Might. The problem with that idea is that Midoriya belongs to the minority of people on his world who were born without a Quirk, a superpower of some kind. His former friend Katsuki Bakugo, who has a powerful Quirk and is naturally gifted, rubs this in at every opportunity, calling Midoriya “Deku” (no good qualities.) Midoriya has been training hard, but even when he meets his idol, he’s told that there’s no way he can become a superhero if he doesn’t have any powers.
But then Midoriya proves he has the heart of a hero, attempting to rescue Bakugo from a powerful villain despite not having a chance of doing so. All Might reveals that there is a way Midoriya can earn a Quirk, and go to U.A. High, the magnet school for aspiring superheroes. Izuku Midoriya can turn around the “Deku” nickname, and make it mean “never gives up.”
This shounen manga homage to American superhero comics was something of a sleeper hit; Mr. Horikoshi’s previous two efforts had a lukewarm reception, and the immediately preceding series, Barrage, tanked. So the online edition of Shonen Jump didn’t even bother running a preview when it debuted. But this time Horikoshi is firing on all cylinders.
The setting is an alternate Earth where superpowers began appearing about five generations ago–it’s not clear if it’s the present day with huge changes, or a future where fashion and technology stagnated. Eighty percent of the population was born with some sort of power, called Quirks. Most Quirks are pretty minor (has tail, can attract small objects to hand from a foot away) but others are very impressive (Bakugo can create firey explosions from his sweat, Mount Woman can become a giant.) There are many criminals who use their Quirks for evil, so there are professional superheroes who stop them.
There’s a lot to like about this series. Deku (as everyone winds up calling him) is not the idiot hero so common in shounen, but a thinker who wins battles and solves problems with observation and planning. Even when he earns the powerful Quirk “One For All” the power is difficult to use, so his brain is his greatest weapon. And yet he still possesses the compassion and courage of a true hero.
There’s also a good supporting cast. Bakugo makes a strong contrast as the kid who has had all the advantages handed to him by birth, and takes it as his rightful due. His arrogance and sense of entitlement make him an ass, and he doesn’t lose much of that even after learning that no one at U.A. is going to put up with his crap. He does, however, quit with the bullying after events in Volume Two.
Other classmates include nice (but dangerous) girl Ochako and the overly serious Iida, who get the most focus in this volume. Unlike other school-based series, where we only follow the hero and a handful of his friends, every classmate is a distinctive person and many will get spotlights in future volumes. There’s also an assortment of teachers with varying personalities.
The tone is closest to Bronze Age DC Comics; some bad things happen, but the general tone is optimistic, never overdosing on grimdark or angst.
As mentioned, there’s some bullying in the early chapters, and superheroic violence. There’s also fanservice in the form of female superheroes wearing skin-tight costumes (but not every female character chooses to do so.) Nothing a junior high or up reader can’t handle.
Highly recommended to fans of teen superheroes and those who like their comics light-hearted.
Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew by Phillip Levy
Full Disclosure: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway, on the premise that I would review it.
This is something a little different for me, a geographical “biography” that traces the history of a particular place. In this case, the piece of land that became known as Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his boyhood years. The title alludes to the infamous Parson Weems story in which young George takes a hatchet to his father’s favorite cherry tree and owns up to it.
The history begins with the first written accounts of the area, back when the Rappahannock was a wild river, where the West began. It mentions the first person to put a house on this particular tract, Maurice Clark, and a bit about his structure (traces of which were found by the author’s archaeological team.)
There’s a fair bit on the Washington years, some from actual records and other pieces extrapolated from what was dug up there. At the time, the Washingtons were an unremarkable family, planters and slaveowners like most of the local gentry. Some difficulty over the land (which George inherited, but not without strings) meant that young George Washington had to make his own way in the world, with the results most readers will be familiar with.
One notable thing here is that the original Washington house vanished bit by bit over the years–when Washington surveyed the land shortly before selling it off, he didn’t mention its location at all. And at the time, the people of Fredericksburg weren’t much interested in memorializing Washington, even after he became president of the United States.
Interest in the farm perked up, however, after it was visited by Parson Weems, who claimed that he had interviewed many of the older locals and learned of George Washington’s childhood. It is evident now that many of his stories were made up, though at one time there had been cherry trees on the property.
After Weems came a string of promoters and farmers who tried to make something out of Ferry Farm’s connection to the first president, interrupted by the Civil War and the near destruction of Fredericksburg and everything in the vicinity. Even the Washington Bicentennial (1932) failed to get Ferry Farm off the ground as a viable historic site. Only the threat of Wal-Mart paving the whole place over as a parking lot finally got enough money and interest flowing.
Chapter Nine is an abrupt shift from third person to first person, as it details the author’s archaeological dig and how they finally found the foundations of the Washington house. i found the shift offputting, and it might have been better left in third person.
The book wraps up with a meditation on what Ferry Farm meant to Washington, and what the cherry tree story, however fabulous, has to teach us today. There are black and white photographs in the center of the book, copious footnotes, and a complete index.
I’d recommend this book to the Washington completist, American history buffs, and the geography student looking for something different to read.