Sunday, April 7, 2013

Helen MacInnes' Above Suspicion

I just finished rereading the late Helen MacInnes' first novel, Above Suspicion, published in 1941 and strangely resonant in these modern unsettled times. In my youth, I was very partial to spy novels and read most of MacInnes and other writers of the genre. I remember liking hers for the strength of her female characters and enjoying the detailed depictions of Germany and Austria. I  still read spy novels in addition to mysteries. For example, I've read and re-read Len Deighton's terrific Berlin novels with Bernie Sampson, stuff by Alan Furst, most of Le Carre, and stuff like Francine Mathews' recent Jack 1939, that also deals with the same fraught eve of World War II period as Above Suspicion, with a twist. 

An Oxford professor and his pretty wife, Richard and Frances Myles, planning a mountain  climbing holiday in the summer of 1939, are asked by a an agent of the British Secret Service, one of their friends, to see about a missing agent somewhere in Europe.  While nonchalantly climbing mountains with just wool socks and good hiking shoes (I found this as amazing as the spying), they also put their fluent German and quick wits to good use. The story is really suspenseful as the Myleses are increasingly endangered as they follow a trail of agents through France, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Along the way, they convince an American newsman, who had planned to be neutral, and a fellow brit., an Oxford acquaintance, that war with the heinous Nazis is unavoidable. MacInnes paints a fascinating and ominous picture of a changed Europe bowing under the increasing weight of the Nazi fist.

The book was made into a Hollywood movie in 1943 with Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray where the Myleses are on their honeymoon and Americans. I don't remember seeing it but I am going to seek it out.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Archaeology Detectives

The Body in the Mound
John Bedell

Archaeology and mysteries have a strong affinity. Both are concerned with clues, solving puzzles based on limited facts, and getting at the truth. Archaeology usually lacks the pure and definitive satisfaction of the mystery novel ending. Despite, or perhaps  because, of this there have been a lot of archaeology mysteries.

Beginning with Agatha Christie classics like Murder in Mesopotamia, They Came to Bagdad, Man in the Brown Suit, Death Comes as the End and others. Christie was actually married to an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, and spent many years helping him with his digs. Supposedly Murder in Mesopotamia is based  on one of the digs they went on together, including a veiled description of the high strung wife of the head of the excavation and famous archaeologist, Leonard Woolley.

Recently there's been lots of  others: Elizabeth Peters' fabulous Amelia Peabody 19th century Egyptology mysteries,  Lyn Hamilton's Lara McClintoch, Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series, Kathy Reichs – Temperance Brennan, and the list goes on. There are a lot. Check out: Digging Death. for a list of a bunch of well known ones. I've read a lot of these. Some are very, very good. Some authors just do not understanding how archaeology works and it shows. Archaeology is collaborative, a group activity, not the work of a single genius, no matter how polymath he might be (Indy!).

Recently I've been reading about the work of acclaimed archaeologists like Sarah Wisseman of the University of Illinois, who writes mysteries. John Bedell, who is also a noted professional archaeologist working in the Middle Atlantic region published his first mystery, The Body in the Mound via Amazon e-books. It came to my attention  last spring and I had to get a copy (e-book) of it immediately. As sometimes happens, I could not put it down and read it in about a day but it has taken me some time to write about it.  I really enjoyed it. This story   falls into the category of accidental detective since the character is pulled into the case by circumstance.

Bedell's hard living and hard digging archaeologist Jack Gordon is running an archaeological survey for a gas pipeline near small Pennsylvania  town called Renovo in Clinton County. The survey is looking for archaeological sites in the path of the pipeline.This is, of course, one kind of work that many archaeologists do to pay the bills and to find cool sites and record them before they are destroyed by  construction. Jack profitably runs his own company (possibly the most fantastic part of the story). 

He is asked by the police to look at a murder victim found in a 2,000 year old  but looted Indian burial mound. The mound is of a type called Adena based on a culture centered in Ohio, who buried their dead with rich and unusual artifacts like copper beads, tubular pipes, exotic stone points, and other items. The body is completely modern but its presence in an ancient mound is unexplained. (Honestly, who hasn't thought of hiding a body in a burial mound?)

Jack doesn't understand what is going on but he needs to find out in a hurry as he  is threatened, shot at, and accused of being the murderer.  What ensues is a pretty gritty (literally) struggle to find the truth and the missing artifacts before he ends up in jail or dead. There's lots of local (Renovo) color and locals. This is a fast moving novel and a lot of fun to read. Local archaeologists can read it without worry! John Bedell does know what he's talking about and it holds up pretty well.   

Jack 1939

Francine Mathews
Jack 1939

As the author of  the Jane Austen mysteries (under the pseudonym Stephanie Barron), I am a huge fan of Francine Mathews. Her Jane Austen mysteries are dead on - using letters, known biography, dialogue from her novels and filling in the blanks left by all that is not known in a most entertaining way.

I also really, really liked her two non-Jane historical mysteries, Flaw in the Blood, which is about Queen Victoria, and The White Garden, about Virginia Woolf's suicide. Both are terrific fun, well researched. Because of Flaw I read up on Queen Victoria, actually an amazing woman;  check out Cecil Woodham-Smith's superb Queen Victoria biography.

So I knew that Ms. Mathews really does her research. Jack 1939 is full of unexpected historical facts and surmises about Jack Kennedy and his pre-war European travels. This includes Kennedy family color - stuff about sisters Kathleen and Rosemary, Bobby, Rose, the whole clan. In this sex-tinged spy thriller, future president Jack Kennedy, then a college student, is a spy for Roosevelt and in opposition to his own father, who some would suggest was a Nazi sympathizer before the war.  Young and sickly but incredibly attractive to all sorts of women, married as well as Radcliffe virgins, Jack fights Nazis funding out critical information about Nazi war plans. Really sympathetic to Kennedy, less so to his parents. A really fun read.

Note: this summer and fall, my mystery reading fell off a bit. I read all 5 books of the Game of Thrones series - anxiously waiting for the 6th! Will be catching up with some reviews in the coming days and weeks.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Big dog...

Hound of the Baskervilles

This seemed like an episode from the X-files. Dark rooms, foggy moors, frightened client - is he all he seems to be? Big scary dog, CIA plots, illicit drugs. The meaning of "hound." Sherlock admitting his own insecurities, his feelings (of friendship) for Watson. a bit of a mess, really. At least everyone kept his or her clothes on.

I've read and seen so much new Holmes in and out of canon, really got to get back to Conan. Doyle that is...

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Series reads

Just re-read the first in C.S. Harris' Regency St. Cyr mysteries, What Angels Fear. Holds up great! I really enjoy these, And reading the 2nd in the Flavia de Luce series, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag. And the latest in the Charles Todd Ian Rutledge series, A Lonely Death Three different Emglands ... Plus Sherlock and Game of Thrones...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wild Things

So sad about Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are was a book I loved to read to my daughter when she was small. And I know what it is to give up being king of all the wild things to go back to the place where someone loves me best of all.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Scandal in Belgravia -- last night's Sherlock

Watched last night's Sherlock, the first in Series 2, Scandal in Belgravia. This series, if you don't know, features Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson. These two are soon to be united in The Hobbit, where Freemen is Bilbo and Cumberbatch is Smaug. That should be fun.

Stephen Moffat, who also produces and writes the BBC's 11th Dr. Who, wrote this episode, and produces this new Sherlock series for the BBC. Anyway, last night's was fast paced and a bit hard to follow. I may have to watch it again.

A lot of women with crushes on Sherlock "smart is the new sexy" well duh!, a lot of cell phone and laptop finagling; Watson writes a blog that everyone reads including the Queen, I guess this is to show how much it's updated. Watson is just back from the modern war in Afghanistan, actually a sad commentary on 20th century geopolitics. Irene Adler is a very well-placed sex worker and dominatrix who teases and possibly is even smarter than Sherlock. She is a joy to watch, a lot of fun. Lots of twists and turns. A scandal that will bring down the British government or so Mycroft says. "Jim" Moriarity is genuinely scary. My husband and I enjoyed it. I need to go back and read the original. Before next week...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

What am I if not a "thinking woman?"

I just learned of this list. I have read and reviewed several of these authors (Barron, Bradley, Winspear, and King) but this list (and the comments that follow) seem like a good source for more reading inspiration. Always looking for a good read! And suggestions of Nancy Means Wright's Mary Wolstonnecraft series and Tana French's Irish mysteries sound appealing. To the library! To the e-downloads!

The lucidity of Flavia De Luce

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Alan Bradley

The first in this series about 11-year old accidental detective and genius Flavia de Luce is a whiff of carbon tetrachloride scented fresh air in 1950's England. Flavia is a lonely half-orphaned little girl with two awful older sisters and a grief-stricken father living in a stuffy Agatha-esque village. Flavia tools around on her ancient bicycle Gladys like Harriet the Spy (perhaps not coincidentally the name of her dead mother) or experiments in her sparkling heirloom chemistry lab in the De Luce ancestral pile. She specializes in poison. This book won the 2009 Agatha Award for Best First Novel but for some reason, it took me a while to read it.

It is original, kind of spare and maddening, a tale told (not by an idiot) by a meddling kid/genius. It is also very, very funny.

I am gratified there are now five more in the series!

# 9 Maisie -- Elegy for Eddie

Jacqueline Winspear
Elegy for Eddie

For fans of Maisie, the latest brings us just a little further toward World War II and further in the saga of Maisie, whose many virtues have been repaid by inheriting a fortune, running a successful business, and dating her former employer, a viscount no less. Although I enjoy this series, I can't bring myself to like the self-righteous but self-denying Maisie. Despite her outrageous good fortune, she can't bring herself to enjoy anything and bosses everyone around. It's a bit hard to take.

Other characters like her assistant Billy and his troubled wife Doreen, friend Priscilla, and her dad Frankie are more interesting.

I have to admit the recreation of the between the wars setting with England still reeling from WWI is fascinating. It makes it a little easier to understand those who would have appeased Hitler to keep the peace. Winspear does a great job of invoking the tensions of the class system and the vanishing rural fiefdoms during this time when the old world is being swept away. Her dad's world of horses is ending forever with the rise of the motorcar. Winspear does a great job of capturing the oughts (1900s) to 30s time of "lost forever" worlds and drastic social change.