Nero and Archie are bullish on catching a murderer in ‘Some Buried Caesar’

It’s the late 1930s and the normally agoraphobic Wolfe has ventured out of his beloved New York City brownstone to upstate New York, where a feud with a fellow amateur orchid grower has provoked him to exhibit his prized albino hybrids at a county agricultural exhibition. He’s not looking for work, but when the scion of the local gentry is found dead in the pasture where a grand champion bull is penned, Wolfe finds himself trading his sleuthing skills for the opportunity to avoid an uncomfortable, dirty hotel room. Or, as Archie puts it, “this case you’ve dragged us into through your absolute frenzy to find an adequate chair to sit on.”

image of book cover, Some Buried Caesar by Rex StoutSome Buried Caesar (1939) is one of the earliest Wolfe novels but already all the essential elements are in place: Wolfe’s reluctance to leave home, his extreme dislike of riding in a car (see the quote below), the rat-a-tat-tat banter between him and Archie, his ability to solve mysteries well before anyone else, his reluctance to share the solution unless there’s something in it for him. Caesar is also notable for being the book in which Archie first meets Lily Rowan, the ultra-rich New York socialite who becomes his steady companion and partner in witty banter throughout the series.

The setting outside of New York City and the brownstone means Caesar can’t truly be considered an archetype of the series, but in every other element it is a more than worthy entry in the canon of Wolfe and Archie.

I presume you know, since I’ve told you, that my distrust and hatred of vehicles in motion is partly based on my plerophory that their apparent submission to control is illusory and that they may act at their pleasure, and sooner or later will, act on whim. Very well, this one has, and we are intact. Thank God the whim was not a deadlier one.”

— Nero Wolfe

Cold case heats up in ‘This Is How I Lied’

Eve Knox disappeared just before Christmas from her small town in Iowa. She was a high school sophomore, and her body was found later that night in a cave outside of town. Despite a number of suspects, including an abusive high-school boyfriend, the killer was never found. Now it’s 25 years later, and Eve’s best friend Maggie, who along with Eve’s sister found her body in the cave that long-ago night, is a police detective in their hometown. New evidence has been found, leading to a re-opening of the case. Can Maggie, seven months pregnant after years of trying to have a baby, find the killer without turning her own life upside down?

6d8ac4a96e516015976777078414345412f5945_v5I’m always drawn to Heather Gudenkauf’s novels, including This Is How I Lied (2020), because they have interesting premises and they are set in my part of Iowa, in towns that are somewhat disguised but recognizable to me. And I always come away disappointed with vaguely drawn characters, some ridiculous plot points, and a general sloppiness that I’m more inclined to blame on her editor than on her, to be honest. Whenever an author writes in one paragraph that her character had reached through a picket fence and undone the latch to enter a backyard, then inexplicably two paragraphs later writes the character as looking into the backyard through the fence from the outside, an editor has not earned their wings. And the first-person narration shifts from present to past tense within the same sentence, then back again. Pick a lane, people!

For all of that, this is not a bad book. I never felt tempted to Pearl-rule it, and I don’t regret reading it. Indeed, someone less neurotic about grammar may well enjoy this book. I myself have often overlooked inconsistencies when a book is otherwise engaging. There’s a reason I read so many of Martha Grimes’ Inspector Jury mysteries: Grimes created memorably quirky characters and had a gift for scenic description that made me feel I was right there. Who was I to quibble if I finished the book unsure exactly why the Who had Dun It? Alas, Ms. Gudenkauf has many of the faults and few of the assets of Ms. Grimes.

I have decided I’m no longer going to fall for the “but it’s Iowa” urge and let this author go. Of course, I said that the last time, too …

Greed turns deadly in ‘The Benevent Treasure’

Candida Sayle and Stephen Eversley “meet cute,” as the kids say, when Candida gets stranded on an English beach as the high tide rolls in and threatens to drown her. At that exact moment, Stephen happens to be out birdwatching in a rowboat, as one does, and finds his damsel in distress clinging to a cliff face. He rescues her, they exchange names and then part, presumably never to meet again.

10B0FDAD-0967-493D-BB96-372113292CE6Oh, but that wouldn’t be much of a book, would it — let alone a mystery. And so our two young people meet again, this time at a very creepy old country house (honestly, is there any other kind in England?) that is rumored to house The Benevent Treasure (1954), brought to England when its aristocratic Italian owner fled Italy centuries ago. Candida is the black sheep of the Benevent family, through no fault of her own — her mother married a man the family did not approve of and cut all ties. Now all the Benevents are dead, except for two strange old sisters, Olivia and Cara, two strange old women who are the sisters of Candida’s long-dead grandmother. They reach out to young Candida to effect a reunion and she goes to visit, although she’s not sure what they want with her.

She meets up again with Stephen, who just happens to be in the neighborhood doing some architecting work (he’s a prime one for being on the spot), and they get reacquainted. But something is amiss inside Benevent House, and Candida seems to be its focus. And if there’s a mystery to be solved, it’s a fair bet that Miss Silver, intrepid governess-cum-private enquiry agent, will root out the truth.

Wentworth returns to her habit from earlier in the series of having Miss Silver acquire her client whilst riding the train. In this case, she is coincidentally traveling to Retley, where Benevent House is, in the same train carriage as the uncle of a young man who had previously worked for the Benevent sisters and disappeared mysteriously, supposedly after stealing jewels from the rumored treasure. Miss Silver agrees to look into the subject, not realizing she will need to solve a current mystery before she can find the truth about the cold case.

There are a lot of gothic elements here, including the way Candida and Stephen are lovestruck at virtually first sight. You know Stephen has it bad when meets Candida in a café shortly after her arrival.

Stephen, waiting in the Primrose Café, saw her come in with a glowing colour and starry eyes. She made a brightness in the shaded place. He had a rush of feeling which surprised him. It was as if a light had sprung up to meet her, and when she came to him and they look at each other the brightness was round them both.

More deaths will occur before Miss Silver wraps up all the mysteries and solves the case, but does it really matter as long as young love wins out in the end?

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.

‘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 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.

Classic ‘Mother Night’ resonates all these years later

Vonnegut could not have known how his homegrown Nazi theme would play out in the 21st century

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Howard W. Campbell Jr., the narrator of Vonnegut’s brilliant 1966 novel Mother Night, is pretending to be a Nazi — or as he puts it at the outset of his so-called confessions, “I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.” In Campbell’s version of his life story, he became a writer and broadcaster of Nazi propaganda out of expediency — his father-in-law was the chief of police in Berlin; Campbell and his German wife wanted to remain in Germany even after the war began in 1939; joining the Nazi cause was the easiest way to do that. His broadcasts were notoriously vile, filled with hatred and venom toward Jewish people and anyone else who did not conform to the Aryan ideal.

And that for me was the most upsetting thing about this story — that someone could spew such hatred, knowing it would have the most terrible consequences for its targets, without actually feeling strongly one way or the other about the truth of what he said and wrote. The hateful propaganda was a writing exercise, a way for Campbell to keep his creative juices flowing for when the war would end and he could resume his playwriting career. To freely disperse such hate without believing in it — is that not more horrific than the mad ravings of the true believer?

I’ve seen a number of references to this book recently as a sort of foretelling of the current political situation in the United States. As I began reading I expected to find that Campbell represented the people who stormed the US Capitol and tried to overthrow the government, but after reading it I’ve changed my mind. Campbell is the spitting image of every politician, from the very top down to state and local levels, who cynically perpetuated lies and conspiracy theories that they knew to be false, in order to rile up that mob and incite the insurrection. In the end, which is worse?

That’s the question that’s going to keep me up nights.

I had hoped, as a (propaganda) broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.

Miss Silver dives in at the deep end in ‘The Silent Pool’

Who wants to kill Adriana Ford? And how many will die before the villain is found?

The first question to be answered in any Golden Age mystery featuring Miss Silver is simple: How will the retired governess-cum-detective acquire her client? Up to now in the series she has been hired by total strangers on trains, via word-of-mouth from satisfied clients, been called in by the police, and more or less stumbled into situations. In The Silent Pool (first published 1953), it’s much more straightforward — the client calls Miss Silver for an appointment. How quaint! But that’s where the humdrum aspects end.

For one thing, the retired stage actress visits Miss Silver in disguise (seen right through by our sharp-eyed sleuth, of course). Adriana Ford thinks someone in her ragtag extended family may be trying to kill her for her money — there’s been a fall on the stairs, a possibly poisoned soup, and a suspicious medicine tablet. After spilling all this to Miss Silver, the actress decides she’s being overly dramatic and declines Miss Silver’s help. But after the first body shows up, she puts in a call to our Maudie to come sort things out.

Throughout this series (we’re on Book 25 here) I’d gotten used to Miss Silver not showing up until perhaps the middle of a book or even later, so it was a surprise to see her right there in the first sentence this time. That fact, combined with a rather lengthy bit of exposition in the first chapter that brings readers up to speed on Miss Silver’s backstory, makes me think this book was seen as a chance to hook some new readers into the Tribe of Maudie. If you’re one of those people who don’t feel the need to start a series at the beginning, this could be a good one to begin with. But surely you wouldn’t do that, would you?

Anyway, the story is a good one. There’s a satisfying surfeit of suspects (though some clearly preposterous red herrings) and some pleasant characters to root for although not, interestingly enough, the client. In other books Miss Silver forms a bit of an attachment to her client that goes beyond a business relationship, but that’s not the case here. The rest of the cast confirms my theory that Wentworth had much more fun writing terrible people than she did nice ones. Her villains are always just so delightfully villainous.

I’m feeling a little melancholy as we approach the end of the series (just seven more left), but I’m pleased that each outing remains remarkably strong even this far along in the series.

Read it before you see it

Long before it was a movie, ‘The Goldfinch’ cast a spell on its readers

With the recent release of a major motion picture based on Donna Tartt’s runaway bestseller, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit my initial review of the book. This review was originally written in 2014.

Wow, what a sprawling, magnificent, compelling story Donna Tartt tells in The Goldfinch (2013, Little, Brown) that is about so much more than the painting referred to in the title. It’s about art, beauty, fear, abandonment, carelessness, remorse, redemption, sorrow and joy. It’s about the value of friendship, the pain of loss, the holes that life leaves in all of us and the ways we choose to fill them up.

Theo Decker is 13 years old when a tragedy leaves him without parents. He is taken in by the family of a school friend, and just when it seems his life has begun to stabilize he is uprooted and set on a path that leads him from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back again. He bounces around between various sets of parents, surrogate and otherwise, some of whom are loving but all of whom seem incapable of giving him the sort of focused attention that could help anchor him in the world around him. Instead, he is forced to use an inanimate object — that painting pictured on the cover — to be his touchstone. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t enough to keep him safe in a world filled with so many easy ways to flirt with danger.

The story that Theo tells is long, involved, intricate, densely layered with events that seem loaded with meaning beyond what they or he can bear. The further into the story I ventured, the stronger was my feeling of constant low-level anxiety for what would become of Theo. It seemed impossible from the very beginning that he would live happily ever after — that anyone in his world would — and every page I turned ratcheted up the tension.

I didn’t always like Theo. Often I disapproved of the choices he made and the things he did, but that didn’t stop me from desperately wanting him to find the sanctuary that he seemed to spend his whole life looking for. I didn’t always like the people he surrounded himself with. Or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t always like the things he did with and to the people who surrounded him, and I didn’t always like how even the most sympathetic of them still failed utterly at providing a safe harbor for a lost soul. And yet I still hoped, right up until the end, that each of them would be redeemed, that everything would work out, that everyone would — finally! — do the right thing for themselves and for Theo.

The Goldfinch isn’t a perfect book. It’s long, almost unbearably long, made bearable for me only by the fact of its being an ebook and thus not an intimidating physical chunk to remind me of just how much story was left to tell. There are sections that go on and on and don’t seem to do much to advance either the plot or the characters’ development. There are a few too many supporting characters who are sketchily drawn and serve mainly as a placeholder for a group stereotype. But always, there was some redeeming action or insight waiting on the other side, rewarding me for pushing on.

I finished reading The Goldfinch yesterday, and even as I’ve moved on to my next book I find myself thinking about Theo at random times during the day, as if he were someone I know. I recall particular passages or scenes and think about how often Tartt chooses to work against the expected tropes. The chilly upper-class woman whose family takes young Theo in turns out to genuinely like him and treat him as part of the family even long after he’s grown up. None of the most important characters are purely saints or sinners; just as in real life people turn out to be more complicated than that. Just as this book is more complicated than a story about a painting.