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.

Bosch is back to solve a pair of cold cases in ‘The Wrong Side of Goodbye’

How do you find someone who might not exist? That’s the task set before cop-turned-private-detective Harry Bosch by a dying billionaire businessman in The Wrong Side of Goodbye (2016). Whitney Vance has been haunted his whole life by the Mexican girl whom he got pregnant as a teenager, only to have his father send her away. All these decades later, Vance wants Harry to find the woman if he can, and especially the child (and heir) she may have borne him.

Other people in Vance’s life would prefer that not to happen, since as things stand all those lovely billions of dollars will go to them if no heir is found. That leads to some menacing action as Vance’s associates try to find out what Harry knows and stop him from revealing all and eliminating their financial windfall.

That would seem to be enough to be going on with, but Harry is simultaneously working pro bono for the San Fernando Police Department to solve their coldest cases, including a particularly grim serial rapist. There’s nothing wrong with the plotting of this secondary case, but it feels like it’s only there to facilitate Harry’s continued access to police resources (which is, of course, against those pesky rules that Harry never follows if he doesn’t feel like it). Real-life events over the past year or so have altered my attitude toward rule-breaking cops. As much as I’ve always enjoyed Harry as a character, it didn’t feel good this time around to be rooting for someone whose personal motto seems to be “The end always justifies the means.”

Connelly excels at detailing the sometimes-plodding work that is necessary to solve criminal cases, and I’m a total nerd for that kind of logistical stuff. It was also nice to read a mystery where technology or science doesn’t swoop in to save the day. After 19 books in this series, I’m impressed with Connelly’s ability to keep coming up with clever and intricate plot lines. It’s a minor pity that his writing has never risen above the somewhat plodding prose of a newspaper police beat reporter (which I believe he used to be many years ago). I’m by no means ready to throw in the towel on this series, however, even though it’s not one I’m likely to binge-read. Spacing them out is the best approach, at least for me.

Archaeology and murder mix again in Griffiths’ ‘The Night Hawks’

The Night Hawks (2021) is the latest entry in Elly Griffiths’ series about forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway. (If you’re new to the series, there’s no better place to start than at the beginning, with The Crossing Places.) It’s the 13th outing for Ruth & Company, and one of my favorites for the deft combination of interesting plotting and appealing, believable characters. Griffiths deserves praise for maintaining a generally high quality through the series, continuing to advance her characters’ lives without resorting to cliché or outlandishness.

As the Night Hawks opens, Ruth has returned to Norfolk from a stint at Cambridge. Her return isn’t entirely like putting on a comfortable old pair of shoes: she has a new job with a new colleague and is still working through the personal decisions she made at the end of The Lantern Men (2020). But when some amateur archaeologists using metal detectors (or treasure hunters as I would call them here in the U.S.) unearth some Bronze Age artifacts, they also find a decidedly non-Bronze Age body. This brings Ruth back into the orbit of DCI Harry Nelson, her frequent colleague through the series and, incidentally, the father of her daughter, Katie. But after all that’s happened between them, personally and professionally, can they really fall back into old habits so easily?

I always enjoy the archaeology scenes, and this time there’s a spooky subplot involving a Norfolk legend about the ghostly Black Shuck, a giant dog whose appearance spells doom for anyone who sees him. This time around, he’s seen in and around the location of an apparent murder-suicide. Nelson is suspicious that some of the same amateur metal detectorists who found the body at the Bronze Age site were also witnesses of a sort to these deaths as well. Of course, his police colleague Judy and her husband, the druid Cathbad, once again their individual expertise to the situation.

I like the way Griffiths handles the complex personal relationships that result from Ruth and Harry’s entanglement, which encompasses not only Katie but Harry’s wife and two grown daughters and baby son. I know some readers get impatient with the incremental progress in this plot line from book to book, but for me, it seems appropriate given that such situations are seldom tidily resolved in real life. Still, by the end of The Night Hawks, we get hints of more monumental changes on the horizon.

But that will be for next year’s Book 14 to reveal. Until then, we can only speculate about where everyone will end up when the merry-go-round takes its final turn.

There’s no room for romance in ‘The Bookish Life of Nina Hill’

Nina Hill loves her life. She loves her studio apartment in a quiet neighborhood of Los Angeles, and she loves her cat, Phil, who shares it with her. She loves making lists and planning her days down to the hour. She loves her job at a nearby independent bookstore, and she loves the book clubs she leads at the bookstore, especially the one for kids. When she isn’t leading a book club in the evening, she loves spending time with friends at weekly movie nights and pub trivia games. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, but frankly, she doesn’t have time for one, anyway.

At least, that’s what she thinks at the start of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (2019) by Abbi Waxman. There is that cute guy on the trivia team that is the fiercest rival for Nina and her friends, but c’mon. He mostly answers the science questions and never the literature questions, so clearly they have nothing in common — no matter what her friends and his friends think. Or do they? She also doesn’t have time for the extended family she suddenly discovers she has, when the father she never knew dies and names her in his will. Trying to incorporate complicated family relationships into a life that is already planned down to the hour was very much not in her plans.

I enjoyed this novel for what it is, a light-hearted romance with appealing characters and just enough conflict to keep it from being boring. Nina is described early on as someone who was diagnosed with ADD as a child, and the only person who could calm her down was the school librarian, who “simply clicked her tongue and told her she was imaginative and creative and couldn’t be expected to wait for everyone else to catch up.” The librarian let Nina check out extra books above her grade level, instilling a love of reading and the belief that books are “medication and sanctuary and the source of all good things. Nothing had yet proven her wrong.”

The only fault to pick with the book is the way the narrative too often veers off into long digressive mental soliloquies or dialogues that do little to advance the story or provide further insight into Nina’s character. On the other hand, the inventive team names for the various pub quiz contestants were a delight, from Menace to Sobriety to You’re a Quizzard, Harry to Olivia Neutron Bomb and Spanish In-quiz-ition. Any veteran of pub quiz nights knows having the right name is the key to having a winning team.

Thanks to my friend Katie for putting this one on my radar. I’m encouraged to seek out other books by Waxman.