Amy, who is your father? Nero Wolfe is on the case

I recently picked this up in an ebook sale, and while I have read it before it happens to be one I did not own in paperback so I’ve probably only read it once, many years ago. It’s a fine later (1968) entry in the series.

9D4944E2-C393-451E-A7F0-6A643A7D49E2The client is a young woman whose mother died a few months ago in a hit-and-run car accident. After her mother’s death, Amy Denovo finds a box full of cash and a note from her mom that says, “This is from your father.” But she has no idea who her father is, and she suspects her mother was using an assumed name all these years so how can even the great Nero Wolfe and his trusty legman Archie Goodwin trace her into the past? Complicating matters, at least for Archie, is that Amy works as an editorial assistant for his paramour, Lily Rowan, but Amy insists that he not tell Lily that he and Wolfe are working for her, leading to some semi-comical misunderstanding about why Amy suddenly starts calling him Archie instead of Mr. Goodwin. It all gets sorted in the end, of course, and in a satisfactory fashion. Not many 1960s-era Wolfe novels favorites of mine, as Stout seemed determined to make up for decades of writing in a more prudish atmosphere when crafting plots that involve sex and other tawdry topics. Still, an afternoon spent with Archie Goodwin is never wasted.

Drowning in a ‘Long Bright River’ of addiction

Long Bright River by Liz Moore is an unflinching look at the opioid crisis through a dark lens. None of the characters conform to the usual stereotypes. Cops aren’t always heroes (or villains); addicts aren’t always dangerous or hopeless. Everyone has secrets and people are seldom what they appear to be at first glance. In that way, it’s one of the most realistic novels I’ve ever read, and one of the most moving.

60f3392ac585e1d5974485a76674345412f5945_v5.jpegMichaela (but everyone calls her Mickey) and Kacey are sisters who grew up in the kind of family that does not put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional’. Their young mother dies of a heroin overdose and their father disappears shortly after in the throes of his own addiction. They are raised by their maternal grandmother Gee, who provides them with the bare minimum of food, shelter and clothing but even less love and emotional support.

The two sisters, even while living in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, take different paths in adulthood. Mickey becomes a cop; Kacey becomes a junkie. Their paths cross occasionally, mostly when Mickey runs across Kacey working as a prostitute to support her drug habit. They seldom speak but the sporadic and distant contact serves as a cold comfort to Mickey, who still feels the responsibility of being the big sister and the one who turned out “okay”.

Just as it becomes apparent that a serial killer is targeting women, Mickey realizes she hasn’t seen Kacey lately on her usual street corner. She tries to find out what’s happened to her, even as she flinches every time another unidentified young woman’s body is found. Along the way a fuller picture of the sisters’ background is parceled out in flashback chapters, complicating what first appeared to be a tragic but common story.

Just like real life, there is no unambiguously happy ending here. Mysteries are solved, story lines are wrapped up, but all of the resolutions seem tentative, capable of being undone with a single slip. All the characters can do — all any of us can do — is just the best we can, one day at a time.

‘A Fatal Lie’ untangles a family puzzle

As A Fatal Lie (2021) opens, it’s three years after the end of World War I and Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge is again in the proverbial doghouse of his Superintendent, Markham. The antagonism between the two men once again sees Rutledge sent to a remote corner of the United Kingdom to investigate an unidentified body found floating in the River Dee in Wales. Through some good old-fashioned detective work (admittedly the only kind available in 1921) Rutledge is able to identify the man, although what he was doing in Wales and who killed him is still a mystery.

1d51ffa7ce40bf0596f2b2b78414345412f5945_v5.jpegIn the course of retracing the man’s footsteps, Rutledge is forced to break the news to his wife, on whom this new load of grief weighs heavily atop the still-fresh loss of her young daughter. Could the two crimes be related? And where does the dead man’s possibly mentally unstable sister come into the picture? The Inspector travels hither and yon where northwest England and northeast Wales meet. All the while, he’s got the voice of long-dead Hamish providing a running commentary in his head, as he has ever since the wretched day during the war when the Scotsman died while serving under Rutledge in the Army. Rutledge knows Hamish isn’t really there, but it doesn’t make the ghostly voice any easier to bear …

This is the 23rd entry in the Ian Rutledge series and it’s a rare series that gets that far along and still produces satisfying mysteries to solve. The mother-son duo writing as Charles Todd manage to come up with unique twists to make each plot unique, even as the characters themselves don’t seem to change overmuch. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll enjoy this one. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, start with the first (A Test of Wills) for the full rewarding experience.

‘The Marrow Thieves’ explores a dystopian indigenous world

What happens when we stop dreaming? And what if we could steal the dreams of someone else and take them for our own? Would we do it, even if it meant the destruction of the people we’re stealing from? That question is at the heart of The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline (2017). This Young Adult novel (which even adult readers will find compelling) won a slew of awards and rightfully so. It centers the historical experience of indigenous nations in an imagined future where, sadly, not much has changed from the racist past and present.

921890811545925596d793178414345412f5945_v5In that not-so-distant future, rampant climate change has wreaked havoc on the Earth. Coastal regions of North America have fallen prey to the rising seas, and the seismic shifts have ruptured pipelines and sent pollution spilling across the landscape. The resulting hordes of refugees have strained resources in the habitable areas that remain and sparked wars and societal disruption.

All of the chaos has also caused a less obvious problem: People have lost the ability to dream, causing emotional and physical stress to build. It seems only one group has escaped the dreamless void: Indigenous people, perhaps because of their ancestral ties to and respect for the land, continue to experience normal dreaming. But what at first seems like a blessing quickly becomes a nightmare, as white scientists develop a way to extract dreams from indigenous individuals and implant them in the dreamless people. No one seems to care that the restoration of health to whites means the death of the expendable indigenous people.

The stars began to rip through the hard skin of dark like the sharp points of silver needles through velvet. I watched them appear and wink and fade, and I smiled. This wasn’t going to be so bad. Maybe the end is just a dream. That made me feel sorry for a minute for the others, the dreamless ones. What happened when they died? I imagined them just shutting off like factory machines at the end of a shift: functioning, purposeful, and then just out.

Frenchie is a 15-year-old indigenous boy when The Marrow Thieves starts. He and his brother Mitch have lost both their parents and are on the run, in hiding from the Recruiters who round up indigenous people and take them to facilities modeled on the 19th century residential boarding schools where native children in both the US and Canada were sent to “cure” them of their native culture. The new versions dispense with the re-education and simply “harvest” dreams from their captives, consigning them to a death sentence. The two brothers are separated, and just when things look most dire for Frenchie he meets up with another group of indigenous people who are also fleeing the white Recruiters. Together this ragtag band of strangers makes its way north, where they hope to find safety in a place where few or no white people, the land is less polluted and they will be able to once again pass on their ancient cultural traditions to their children.

Dimaline doles out the backstory for Frenchie and his companions sparingly, alternating flashbacks into each one’s past life with the perilous day-to-day existence they are sharing in the present. The flashbacks aren’t intrusive and they bring the characters to life in a way that simply expositing their backgrounds would not. By the end, readers will celebrate and mourn alongside the characters we’ve come to know.

Really, the only flaw I could find won’t necessarily be a dealbreaker for everyone (or even anyone) else. Because this is a YA novel, narrated by a teenage (though appealing) character, there’s a bit too much self-absorption and time spent on a secondary romance that distracts from the tension of the main plot line. But even those elements are fairly muted compared to some YA I’ve read, and I have no reservations (no pun intended) about recommending this book to readers of all ages. It’s a wonderful book that shines a welcome spotlight on indigenous culture and people.

The ambiguities of race resonate in ‘Passing’

I wanted to read a classic of African-American literature during February and the solution was found when the New York Times Style Magazine’s T Book Club chose Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen as its monthly selection. The slim novel — really more of a novella — is set in the 1920s and explores the practical and emotional ramifications when a pair of black women meet by chance after many years and one discovers that the other has been passing as white ever since she disappeared from the neighborhood where they grew up.

a17ba507f2637395967557178414345412f5945_v5For Irene, who narrates the story, her childhood friend Clare’s choice to pretend to be white raises complicated feelings within her. On the one hand, she herself has been known to occasionally present as white in situations where she would not be welcome as a black woman — certain restaurants or businesses, for example. On the other hand, she is proud to be black, and having married a black doctor and living a comfortable life in the Harlem Renaissance community in New York City, spends much of her time working to raise money to help disadvantaged fellow black Americans. She can’t help viewing Clare’s passing as a repudiation of the pride ‘Rene feels about being black.

Despite Irene’s disapproval of Clare’s life (and the fact that Clare’s husband is an unrepentant racist who has no idea his wife is not white) she can’t help feeling a begrudging admiration and liking for Clare. There are hints that there may even be some sexual tension between them, although this 1929 book does not explore the topic beyond slight hints and suggestions that may be my 21st century brain imposing current cultural norms on the past.

The briefness of the book was a source of some frustration to me. It felt that we never got to the real heart of how and why Clare chose to live her life the way she did. That feeling was compounded by the ambiguous and somewhat abrupt-seeming ending, which I am still unsure of even now. None of that should deter a reader who is interested in exploring the realities of race in 1920s America, though. Short as it is, Passing packs a punch and is well worth spending time with, however brief.

Mina Baites plays a bittersweet tune in ‘The Silver Music Box’

Johann Blumenthal is a German silversmith, a talented silversmith who counts both Gentiles and his fellow Jews among his regular customers in The Silver Music Box (2017) by Mina Baites. Filled with love for a homeland that doesn’t always love him back, he enlists in the German Army to fight in World War I. Before he leaves, he crafts an exquisite silver music box for his young son, Paul, to remember him by.  When Johann doesn’t return from the front, Paul and his mother, Lotte, are left to pick up the pieces with the help of Uncle Max, also a talented jeweler. 

a88fee53ca69b69596d345675774345412f5945_v5Fast-forward to the 1930s. Paul, now a young adult, is still captivated by his father’s music box. He’s also captivated by Clara, a doctor’s daughter who longs to be teacher, an occupation closed to those of her religion. So she determines to convert to Christianity in order to fulfill her dreams. Paul does the same in order to be with the love of his life, and for a while all is well. Of course, we know that things don’t stay that way. As life in Germany gets increasingly more difficult and dangerous for Jews, the Blumenthals looks for ways to protect themselves from the coming storm. Each of them — Lotte, Uncle Max, Aunt Martha, and Paul and Clara — seek different paths to safety.

I wasn’t in the best head space to read historical fiction about the run-up to the Holocaust, to be honest, but I was invested enough in the characters and story to keep reading, and I’m glad I did. The narrative takes a big leap in time from 1939 to 1963, content to fill in the tragic details in the form of a later descendant of the family searching for her roots. This lightened the tension, which I appreciated. 

It’s a good story, perhaps a bit simplistically told, but captures well the growing fear of the German Jewish community as the Nazis grow in strength and power during the lead up to World War II.

Andy Weir’s Madcap Misadventures and Math on Mars

The Martian (2012) is the story of an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars who gets left for dead when his crewmates evacuate in a crisis. It has a lot of the elements that made me think I didn’t like science fiction for so long. Primarily, it has techno-babble. Lots and lots of techno-babble. And chemistry. And math (“I’ll spare you the math,” narrator Mark Watney says at one point, after having already devoted three long paragraphs to math, and just before devoting the rest of the chapter to … you guessed it, math ). And acronyms galore, from MDV and MAV to EVA and AREC.

f6182b0a5f02e09596a496469514345412f5945_v5So of course I hated it, right? Wrong! The Martian is one of the best books I’ve read this year, with a protagonist who is witty and smart and arctic chill under pressure. And he gets lots of practice being cool and unflappable, as crisis after crisis threaten to end his Mars castaway gig quicker than a barefoot jackrabbit on a hot greasy griddle in August. Even after Watney is able to make contact with NASA to let them know he isn’t dead yet, he faces a real puzzle: how can he survive four years until the rescue mission can reach him, with food that will only last for about a year?

How Watney and NASA tackle that problem, and the other half-dozen that threaten to fulfill Watney’s missed destiny as the late great Martian, kept me turning pages right to the end. Andy Weir tells the story with breezy blasts of profane humor that will almost have you believing that being stranded on Mars wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Currently Reading, 8 March 2021

I generally stick to reading one book at a time, but this week I’ve got a couple on the go.

60f3392ac585e1d5974485a76674345412f5945_v5One of them, Long Bright River by Liz Moore, is a 2020 novel exploring the ravages of addiction in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, from the perspective of female police officer Michaela Fitzpatrick. Mickey, as she is usually called, is consumed with trying to find her younger sister Kacey, who has struggled with addiction since her early teen years and recently dropped out of sight entirely.

And for filling in the gaps during periods when I only have a short amount of time to read, I’ve been dipping into Wright Thompson’s The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business (2019). I was familiar with Thompson’s work from ESPN The Magazine, in particular an in-depth portrait of college and Olympic wrestling legend Dan Gable, who coached my alma mater to nine straight NCAA Championships in the 1980s and 15 overall. That profile is included in c7e72ebed55d87859676f7178414345412f5945_v5The Weight of These Dreams, as is his equally incisive look at Michael Jordan as he turned 50 a few years ago. But it’s the articles I hadn’t already read that have been hitting the hardest, including an examination of the ways football and segregation fed each other at the University of Mississippi in 1962, as the team was fighting for a national al championship and James Meredith was fighting to be allowed to enroll as the first African-American student at Ole Miss. Compelling stuff.

The Three Investigators get their start in this children’s classic

With a reluctant helping hand from film director Alfred Hitchcock, no less

The Secret of Terror Castle is the first case for the Three Investigators — aka Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews, teenage boys living in Southern California circa 1964. Mastermind Jupiter has recently won a contest that earned him 30 days of access to a Rolls Royce and chauffeur, convenient since none of the boys are old enough to drive yet.

Somehow Jupiter finagles Alfred Hitchcock into hiring them to find a haunted house for him where he can film his next picture. Even more conveniently, there’s a likely location nearby, the former home of a silent film star whose career was ruined when talking movies revealed he spoke in a high-pitched lisp. No one has been able to stay for more than an hour inside the house since the disgraced movie star’s mysterious disappearance, as spooky sounds of a phantom organ and uncontrollable feelings of terror cause them to flee. The boys need to make sure it’s really haunted and plan their own visit to the “Terror Castle.” Is it really haunted, and if so by what — or whom?

I loved these books growing up, ranking them just below Trixie Belden and ahead of Nancy Drew. This debut was first published in 1964, so the series and I were born at the same time (no need to speculate on who has aged better, thank you very much). Reading it as an adult, there is nothing scary or spooky about the story, but I still loved the Three Investigators’ Rube Goldberg-esque “office” arrangements in the junkyard of Jupiter’s Uncle Titus. There are lots of those little details that really spoke to children growing up in an era without CGI or fancy special effects to create realistic paranormal atmospheres. We did it with our own brains, kids!

I probably gave this one a half-star extra just for nostalgia, as the ending was easy to figure out at my advanced age. But now that I’ve located a source for the whole series, I will keep reading and hope the magic never dims so much that they are no longer appealing.