‘Rally Round the Flag’ serves up Cold War satire

Reading Rally Round the Flag, Boys! (1957) was another blast from the past, as I remember reading this mid-20th century satire when I was much too young to really understand a lot of the humor, but enjoying the fact that I was reading something that felt “grown-up”.

Max Shulman (who also wrote The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which the classic TV show was based on), skewers the fictional Connecticut town of Putnam’s Landing, which in the post-World War II era is transitioning from flinty Yankee village to bedroom commuter for New York City commuters. He spares none of the groups that make up the social strata of the town: the old-money original residents and their variously sullen and perky offspring, the flood of Italian immigrants who make up the working and service class, and the hopelessly suburban commuters. The three groups come together in spectacular fashion to do battle at the annual Fourth of July festivities with a fourth set of interlopers: soldiers who populate a new missile base in town.

I liked least the sexist humor about husbands being helpless to resist their wives’ demands. The ethnic humor didn’t seem particularly offensive to me, since I grew up in an Italian family not far away either in distance or time that would have fit in perfectly among the Italians of Putnam’s Landing. Shulman is even-handed in his ridicule, with every group coming in for their fair share of digs, which keeps any of it from feeling like punching down.

I’m glad I re-read this as part of a shared read with another member of LibraryThing. While it didn’t seem quite as hilariously transgressive as I remember it from my childhood, there were still some laugh-out-loud bits that made it worth the time.

Ian Rutledge plays a deadly ‘Game of Fear’

In 1921 England, Scotland Yard sends Inspector Ian Rutledge to Essex to investigate an unusual murder: There is a witness to the crime, but no body has been found. And the witness, an eminently respectable middle-aged woman who lives in the local manor house after losing both her husband and her son to World War I, recognized the murderer — a soldier who died several years earlier during the war.

Readers of the series will instantly understand from that summary the potential this case has to be an emotional land mine for Rutledge: He came back from fighting in France with a severe case of shell shock and the voice of his dead sergeant, Hamish, constantly in his head. How will be cope with investigating a murder apparently committed by a ghost against an invisible victim?

This 24th entry in the series is excellent, skillfully weaving the actual murder investigation into an examination of WWI’s lingering effects on the home front and the people left to pick up the pieces in a world devoid of so many of their loved ones. There’s also a subplot involving a woman Rutledge carries an unacknowledged torch for, which hints that there may be some further development on that front in future books.

About those future books: The preface to this one is an homage from one-half of the writing team that makes up the Charles Todd pseudonym, to his mother, who was the other half and has recently died. The ending of the book is not a cliffhanger that would all but assure another entry, but it’s also not a neat tidying up of all the dangling plot lines, either. So I live in hope that come next February, I’ll be happily spending time again with Inspector Rutledge for the 25th time.

Heir inapparent in ‘Alington Inheritance’

A young woman grows up in an English village knowing that she is the illegitimate daughter of the heir to the wealthy Forbes family. Sadly he is killed in World War II before he can marry her (comparatively) lower-class mother. When the mother dies giving birth to Jenny, the child is brought up by her parent’s old governess, who cares for her with much love and affection. But when the governess is felled by a hit-and-run accident, she manages before she dies to whisper to Jenny that her mother and father really were married — making Jenny the heiress to the Forbes estate and not the poor relation who is condescendingly offered a job looking after the family’s young children. But Jenny has to wonder: Is it true about her parents? How can she prove it? And who else knows the truth — and what would they be willing to do to make sure it stays a secret?

I found myself thoroughly enjoying this entry, perhaps because it’s the penultimate book in a series I’ve been working my way through since 2017. It’s true that there really isn’t much of a mystery here; it’s quite clear early on who the villain is, and the victim sadly is not one of the patented Wentworth “they had it coming” variety. But Jenny is an appealing main character, and the obligatory romance is not as eye-rollingly silly as they sometimes are in this series. And who could fail to be charmed by young ruffian Dicky Pratt, who turns out to hold the key that Miss Silver, in concert with her willing acolyte, Detective Inspector Frank Abbott, needs to unlock the solution?

The Man in the Brown Suit

Anne Beddingfeld is a young woman trapped in the dull countryside of England with her anthropologist father. Her longing for bright lights and adventure is realized when her father dies, but her impulsive trip to London segues into an impulsive voyage on a steamship to Africa in pursuit of a man she thinks she saw commit a murder (the titular man in the brown suit). She’s caught up in a series of increasingly improbable events both on board the ship and later in South Africa, and survives more or less in spite of herself.

This is one of Dame Agatha’s earliest novels — I think it was her fourth — and it shows. The plot contains the twists and turns we came to expect from a typical Christie mystery, but it’s rough around the edges and doesn’t always hold together on close scrutiny. That the first problem. The second is not Christie’s fault, but mine. One of the main suspects in this adventure is a man I first encountered in a couple of Hercule Poirot mysteries, written much later. Because he was on the side of the angels (or rather the funny little Belgian with the mustaches) in those, I knew he couldn’t be a murderer here. That’s just the kind of thing that happens if you don’t stick to strict chronological order, kids.

I read this now to fulfill the first prompt (read a book inspired by Christie’s travel) in the 2022 reading challenge sponsored by Christie’s official website.

A Gentleman in Moscow

This book first landed on my radar when it seemed so many people on LibraryThing were raving about it, although there were some more measured reviews as well. My usual strategy when I think I’m likely to read a book is to avoid all reviews or even plot summaries until after I read it, so I knew hardly anything about this one other than it involved someone living in a hostel in Moscow.

If you’re a normal person who would like just a little more setup, though still without spoilers, here it is: Alexander (the former Count) Rostov was living in Paris when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsar in 1917. Against all logic, considering his fellow aristocrats were being shot right and left, Rostov returned to Russia and set up house in the Hotel Metropol while the authorities decided his fate. Because he had written some poetry before the revolution that could be interpreted as supportive of the Bolshevik cause, the revolutionaries decided he would be allowed to live. But if he ever tried to set foot outside the hotel, he would be immediately shot.

Well, that’s quite a setup. As soon as I realized that was the lay of the land, I was intrigued because I love books where people are confined in unusual places (see Stephen King’s The Mist novella for a very different example of this trope). I did wonder how on earth that setup could lead to a 400-plus page book, but I settled in for the ride.

The story arcs across the 1920s to the 1950s, as Count Rostov settles into the hotel and makes the acquaintance of some very interesting people. He thinks he will have little difficulty with his confinement, given that the Hotel is essentially a small city: There is a newsstand, florist, barbershop, restaurant, bar, and other small shops and businesses. Really, he has everything he needs. Except, it turns out, the freedom to choose to be somewhere else:

<em>For several days, in fact, he had been fending off a state of restlessness. On his regular descent to the lobby, he caught himself counting the steps. As he browsed the headlines in his favorite chair, he found he was lifting his hands to twirl the tips of the mustaches that were no longer there. He found he was walking through the door of the Piazza at 12:01 for lunch. And at 1:35, when he climbed the 110 steps to his room, he was already calculating the minutes until he could come back downstairs for a drink. If he continued along this course, it would not take long for the ceiling to edge downward, the walls to edge inward, and the floor to edge upward, until the entire hotel had been collapsed into the size of a biscuit tin.</em>

Fortunately for the Count (and for the reader) a new resident of the hotel appears to take his mind off himself and his confinement, setting off a chain of events that reverberate throughout the rest of the book.

I appreciated the way Towles sign-posted the passing of the years and decades, and I never lost track of when we were or how old various people were meant to be. And as someone who doesn’t know as much Russian history as I wish, it was fascinating to read the way the revolutionaries lost so much of the idealism that fueled their original actions. And I’d be remiss not to mention how much I loved the writing, with the quote above a good example.

All in all, I’m sorry it took me so long to get to this one, but I’m glad I finally did. I have a hardcover of Towles’ latest book, The Lincoln Highway, which seems very different from the limited information I’ve allowed myself to consume. Heaven only knows how long it will take me to get to that one!

Golden Girls Forever

I recently undertook a complete rewatch of all 7 seasons of The Golden Girls, the classic American sitcom starring four women “of a certain age” who refused to go gently into the dark night of old age irrelevancy. The show broke boundaries with its portrayal of a demographic that seldom gets much attention, either on television or in real life. It was a favorite of mine and my mom’s when I was growing up, and I was delighted to find the humor (though dated in some of its cultural references) was still genuinely funny.

With the series so fresh in my mind, I very much enjoyed Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai (HarperCollins, 2016) by Jim Colucci. The first part details the development of the show, and shooting of the pilot episode. It analyzes what made the show such a touchstone for so many people. Most of this was new information to me, and very interesting to someone who loves behind-the-scenes logistics.

The hefty middle section provides summaries of individual episodes, combined with photos and reminiscences from cast and crew members and guest stars. It’s not every episode, but it’s a lot of them. I think this part would have been much less enjoyable if I hadn’t just refreshed my memory with the rewatch, but I liked reading about what was happening offstage and what people involved with the show thought about each episode.

The last section delves into the actual production details, especially the set design. I was relieved to read that the layout of the Girls’ house doesn’t really make sense if you think too hard about it — I could never figure out how all the pieces fit together. That’s especially true for the kitchen, which was a last-minute addition and doesn’t fit with the rest of the set, and yet turned out to be maybe the most important set, given all the discussion over cheesecake that occurred there.

There’s also a section that details the ways that the show has inspired more modern television sitcoms, and includes short blurbs from all sorts of entertainment folks about what the show means to them and which Golden Girl they think best embodies their own persona. This was pretty meh, especially because I wasn’t familiar with the majority of the people being quoted.

Given my recent re-acquaintance with the show, I’m glad I was able to read this. I don’t think I’d recommend to anyone who either wasn’t a big fan of the show or who hasn’t watched it in the last decade or so. It isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s a nice read for what it is.

Miss Silver goes to Deeping in ‘The Fingerprint’

We are nearing the end of a chronological read of Wentworth’s Miss Silver mystery series, which started in the 1920s and now with The Fingerprint (Book 30 of 32) has progressed to the mid-1950s. The formula is familiar by now. There’s always at least one romantic subplot whose happy resolution can be seen coming a mile away, and there is usually a cooperative police detective (often the charming Inspector Frank Abbott, with whom Maud Silver has a warm relationship. Not that kind of warm — get your mind out of the gutter!

As is frequently the case in this series, Maud Silver is nowhere to be seen in the opening chapters. Instead, we get the lay of the land through the eyes of Frank Abbott, who as a friend of a guest staying at the country home of Jonathan Field is present when the seeds of Field’s eventual destruction are sown. The village of Deeping will be familiar to readers of the previous The Eternity Ring, and Miss Silver’s previous acquaintance with characters who originally appeared in that book makes her entry into the murder investigation here more believable. For an elderly former governess who never stops knitting as long as her eyes are open, Maudie gets around!

It seems at first the impetus for Field’s removal is an age-old one: He has recently re-written his will to leave the bulk of his considerable estate to Mirrie, a young woman who is a distant (poor) relative only recently discovered and brought to live at Field End. Her elevation in status has come at the expense of Field’s beloved niece Georgina. There are other suspects, including the stepson of another distant relative and any of the people who attended a dinner dance where Field told a provocative story about his peculiar hobby of collecting fingerprints. Field claimed he was trapped in a building collapse during the Blitz with a man who confessed to two murders, but then vanished when rescuers came. Did the mystery man find out about Field having his fingerprint and come to cover his tracks for good? Or is this just a case of good old-fashioned family greed?

Miss Silver and Inspector Abbott get to the bottom of the case, as always, but this isn’t one of those mysteries where the culprit is revealed in a dramatically staged scene. Instead, we follow along as Abbott and Maud figure out who done it and then work to gather enough evidence to enable his arrest. But someone desperate enough to kill won’t go down without a fight …

Poirot toils to solve the 12 ‘Labors of Hercules’

Agatha Christie wrote 38 books featuring her most famous detective, the funny little Belgian named Hercule Poirot. Most of them are full-length novels, but she also published several collections of short stories, and The Labors of Hercules is one of them. It revolves around a conceit: Hercule has determined to solve 12 final cases before retiring, each of them related in some way to one of the tasks accomplished by the ancient Greek hero Hercules.

(A brief look at the series listing at LibraryThing shows us that these were far from the last cases that Poirot would solve, but I don’t know if Dame Agatha intended to be done with her greatest creation at this point and was pressured to continue writing about him because of publisher pressure, or if it was a minor fib that made the construction of the collection work.)

I appreciated that Christie took care to make the connection to each of the 12 Labors within the individual stories — a huge help to a reader largely unfamiliar with Greek mythology. And while some of the connections are tenuous, I think they are all fairly played. One of the pleasant surprises for me was the whimsical tone with which many of the stories unfold. It’s not all dastardly villains and bloody murders. Ultimately, though, I find that I prefer Christie’s full-length mysteries; I don’t think the short format is well-suited to her usual twisty plotting. Indeed, the ultimate solution to each mystery here was easily detected, even by a reader who is terrible at figuring out whodunit.

The full lineup:

  1. The Nemean Lion — Poirot is called upon to solve a series of dognappings demanding ransom from wealthy women to return their beloved Pekingese unscathed.
  2. The Lernean Hydra — A doctor whose wife died a year ago is beset by village rumors that he poisoned her. He asks Poirot to clear his name once and for all.
  3. The Arcadian Deer — A young mechanic enlists Poirot’s help to find the beautiful young woman whom he fell in love with and who subsequently seems to have vanished off the face of the earth.
  4. The Erymanthian Boar — Poirot finds himself on the trail of a French murderer who is rumored to have holed up in a nearly inaccessible village in the Swiss Alps.
  5. The Augean Stables — The British Prime Minister needs Poirot to help him manage a tawdry blackmail scheme that threatens to topple his government.
  6. The Stymphalean Birds — A young undersecretary in the British government is on holiday in “Herzoslovakia” when he gets embroiled in an apparent domestic abuse and murder case.
  7. The Cretan Bull — A young woman beseeches Poirot to convince her erstwhile fiancé that he is not doomed to insanity by a genetic condition.
  8. The Horses of Diomedes — A young doctor of his acquaintance wants Poirot to help him save a young girl from scandal related to a party where alcohol and cocaine led to a combustible situation.
  9. The Girdle of Hyppolita — Poirot must recover an original Rubens painting, which was stolen in broad daylight from a London gallery.
  10. The Flock of Geryon — A woman wants Poirot’s help to uncover a dangerous cult that lures in wealthy women, who die of apparent natural causes after leaving everything to the cult leader in their wills.
  11. The Apples of the Hesperides — A goblet ostensibly used by Pope Alexander VI to poison his enemies has been stolen, and the American who bought it just before its disappearance wants Poirot to get it back.
  12. The Capture of Cerberus — Poirot has a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, Countess Vera Rossakoff, who is mixed up in a drug-smuggling scheme connected to London’s hottest new nightclub, Hell.

Library lovers will revel in the historical fiction of ‘The Lions of Fifth Avenue’

I could write a whole blog post about how much I love libraries, and all the ways libraries have been great friends all my life. But this is a book review, so I’ll just say that library love was the main reason I picked up The Lions of Fifth Avenue (2020) by Fiona Davis. And just like the actual libraries, this book did not disappoint me.

The first magical thing to know is that part of the premise is absolutely true: From 1910 to 1940, the superintendent of the New York Public Library’s newly built Fifth Avenue main building lived with his family inside the library in a seven-room apartment. Can you imagine?! Of course, his job to keep the library’s technical systems and physical plant running was a 24/7 job, so I’m sure it was not nearly as glamorous as it seems from this distance. On the other hand, what fun for his children, one of whom went on to be the library’s chief engineer, though he did not live inside the library as an adult.

But now I’ve gotten totally off track, which is just what happens when a book captures your imagination so thoroughly. The family in Davis’ book, Jack and Laura Lyons and their children, Harry and Pearl, bear little or no resemblance to the true story that inspired the novel. Our story opens in 1913, shortly after Jack and his family move into the brand-new library. While Jack is handy with tools and knows a lot about keeping the library running, his not-so-secret ambition is to be a writer and have his own books catalogued and shelved inside his new home. Laura wants to do whatever she can to help him realize his dreams. She presses Jack to let her attend Columbia University to earn a journalism degree that can help her get a job so Jack can write full-time. Gender attitudes being what they were at the time, Jack is dubious about this plan but gives his tentative approval. Laura hadn’t counted on all the new people and experiences to which she would be exposed at university, and she finds herself changing in profound ways that affect her family.

That storyline alone would have been enough to keep me interested, but Davis also works in a contemporary timeline, featuring Jack and Laura’s granddaughter Sadie. Sadie never met her grandparents and her mother refused to talk about growing up in the library, but Sadie has nevertheless found her own employment at the NYPL, as the curator of a special collection. As she helps to plan a fundraising gala to spotlight the collection, a series of events bears an uncanny resemblance to things that happened while her grandparents lived in the library. But can she figure out the connections in time to save the reputation of her family — and herself?

The dual timelines aren’t hard to keep straight, and I found myself almost equally interested in both (with a slight preference for Jack and Laura in the 1910s). But they come together in a satisfying ending that neatly wraps up pretty much every dangling storyline. I think lovers of libraries and historical fiction will find a lot to like here.

A deaf woman lip-reads her way into danger in ‘The Listening Eye’

The landlady of a London boarding house finds herself reluctantly visiting an art exhibition at the urging of a young relation (whose very modern art is incomprehensible to her) and one of her boarders (whose portrait of her is part of the show). Apart from having to think up something nice to say about her nephew’s work, the evening is pretty uneventful until Paulina happens to eavesdrop on a conversation between two men who are apparently planning a crime. At first, the men aren’t aware that Paulina knows what they were talking about because she’s clear across the gallery. But when the manager lets slip to one of the men that she’s deaf and a remarkably proficient lipreader, Paulina fears she may be in danger. Who better to consult than Miss Silver?

That’s the setup for The Listening Eye (1955), the 28th entry in Patricia Wentworth’s series about governess-turned-private-eye Maud Silver. In the course of her investigation, Miss Silver winds up undercover as a social secretary to Lucas Bellingdon, a wealthy businessman who was one of the victims of the original crime that Paulina heard being planned. In fact, everyone living or visiting the Bellingdon country home for a long weekend seems to have a motive for being involved. As always, there are only two questions that need to be answered in a Miss Silver novel: Who done it, and which young couple will end up in the happily-ever-after romantic spotlight?

I was intrigued at first that Maudie was going undercover in a working role rather than being a visiting friend of the family or some other transparent dodge. But given that she does absolutely no work while she’s there, all the while busily interrogating everyone in the house, it’s hard to see how her cover doesn’t get blown sooner than it does. Nonetheless, Wentworth put together a fine cast of characters, including some really nasty pieces of work and some humorously inept figures to provide some levity. This wasn’t my favorite of the Miss Silver series, but it’s still perfectly fine. I’m already looking forward to the next.