Rollicking Reads from 2016

It is the time of year for retrospectives.  And rather than recap celebrity deaths (Prince, Bowie, Mariah Carey’s career), I thought I’d pick a handful of materials I’ve checked out from the library that gave me hours of enjoyment this past year of 2016. They were not all published in 2016, but 2016 was the year I read them for the first time.

Overall, I’ve read 80 eBooks this past year, and about 20 additional books in print.  From those 100  I’ll select 10 things to recommend, all available from Fontana Regional Library or the NC Cardinal state system that FRL belongs to.

One explanation about my selections: I like science fiction and fantasy genres, but also like thriller and adventure novels, good comedies, and even some mysteries; when reading non-fiction I like histories, biographies, and memoirs.  So you will see “all of the above” in the ten titles/series I’ve chosen.  I’ll start with a memoir…about a movie, made about a book, that was written about a fictional book.

1.As you wish: inconceivable tales from the making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (2014)

A memoir by the actor who played Westley in the now-classic movie The Princess Bride.  Hilarious and heart-warming, behind the scenes stories of how the movie came together, from the screenwriter (who also wrote the original book) to Billy Crystal to Andre the giant.

2.The Brilliance series by Marcus Sakey

3 titles: Brilliance (2013),  A Better World (2014), Written in Fire (2016)

An edge of tomorrow science-fiction thriller-adventure, about the social problems that occur when a percentage of the world’s children start manifesting savant-style gifts (like lightning calculation, but also mind-reading, pattern recognition, fantastic reflexes, etc.). It’s the story (somewhat similar to the story line of Blade Runner), about a special agent who hunts down the “Brilliants” who have broken the law.  And he and his youngest daughter are also Brilliants…

3.The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman

3 titles: The Invisible Library (2016), The Masked City (2016), The Burning Page (2017)

This fantasy series contains the tales of an alternate reality wherein many alternate realities can be traveled to, and the Invisible Library where the librarians attempt to collect all the versions of various books by travelling to the multi-verses involved.  Each alternate has a varying degree of Law vs. Chaos – Law based realities are like ours, with science and technology, whereas Chaos realities have fairies, dragons, magic, etc.  The realities are on a spectrum, so many of them have a mix. One of the first places the first book goes is a steampunk world with a Sherlock Holmes surrogate vs. vampires.

4.Chronicles of St. Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor

8 novels, plus novellas: https://www.goodreads.com/series/109102-the-chronicles-of-st-mary-s

In this fast-paced science-fiction series, St. Mary’s is an historical institute where historians study history via time travel.  A secret to all but their sponsoring Thirsk University, these tales tell of a the madcap adventures of the historian Madeline Maxwell, as she bounces with her colleagues from the fall of Troy to the Gates of Thermopylae to encounters with Isaac Newton and dodo birds.

5.Night School by Lee Child (2016)

Like all the Jack Reacher books written by Child, this one can be read as a standalone work, and not in any particular order.  Some of the Reacher books are “contemporary” and others are set back in Reacher’s past, while he was still in the Army.  This is a “past” title detailing how Reacher and a select team of both FBI and CIA agents undertake a secret mission to stop terrorists before they strike.  The appeal of the Reacher novels lies in the Jack Reacher character himself, as his unique brain and his indomitable physical gifts combine to thwart evil wherever he encounters it. In total, there are 21 books as of Night School.

6.Six of Crows series by Leigh Bardugo

2 titles: Six of Crows (2015), Crooked Kingdom (2016)

This fantasy duology is set in a steampunk world with some magic, and is sort of a fantasy version of Ocean’s Eleven. A group of six misfit but highly competent mercenary/criminals set out to infiltrate an un-breachable fortress and liberate the prisoner held there. There are lots of plot twists, with the leader Kaz usually (but not always) one step ahead of his opponents.

7.Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley

8 published novels and one novella : https://www.goodreads.com/series/46160-flavia-de-luce

A mystery series set shortly after WW2, whose heroine Flavia is only 11 (in the first book), but possessed of a mind like Sherlock Holmes, a rather morbid interest in chemistry (specializing in poisons), and the youngest of a very interesting English noble family.  Most of the books are set in the environs of the decaying mansion and grounds of the de Luce estate, but one of the books sees Flavia off to Canada.  The series has ongoing themes, and is not really designed for standalone reading, but it can be done that way without undue difficulty.

8.The Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson

3 novels and one novella: https://www.goodreads.com/series/93010-reckoners

An Earth where there are no super-heroes, only super-villains (the Epics), opposed by an extraordinary band of non-superpowered human rebels known as the Reckoners. Their goal – somehow defeating the Epics and restoring their world. Their only hope is to exploit the secret weakness of each super-villain.

9.Ex-heroes series by Peter Clines

5 titles: https://www.goodreads.com/series/67447-ex-heroes

{from the author’s website} In the days after civilization fell to the zombie hordes, a small team of heroes—including St. George, Zzzap, Cerberus, and Stealth—does everything they can to protect human survivors. Each day is a desperate battle against overwhelming odds as the heroes fight to keep the undead at bay, provide enough food and supplies for the living, and lay down their lives for those they’ve sworn to protect. But the hungry ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Former allies, their powers and psyches hideously twisted, lurk in the shadows of the ruin that lies everywhere…and they may be the most terrifying threat of all.

10.The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2013)

[from the publishers webpage] “The art of love is never a science: Meet Don Tillman, a brilliant yet socially inept professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers.

Rosie Jarman possesses all these qualities. Don easily disqualifies her as a candidate for The Wife Project (even if she is “quite intelligent for a barmaid”). But Don is intrigued by Rosie’s own quest to identify her biological father. When an unlikely relationship develops as they collaborate on The Father Project, Don is forced to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie―and the realization that, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love, it finds you.”

*****

As you can see, I discovered some wonderful series last year, as well as individual books, that kept me up too late, made me laugh out loud, and grabbed my imagination.  I hope you find something here that you will likewise enjoy!

[disclaimer: with series I am just linking to the first title in the series for you to get started, but I either list the existing books in the series or provide a link so they can be read in order]

My Favorite Mystery Writers 2

When I’m not reading history or biography I tend to read mysteries, suspense novels,  and / or thrillers.  I have written in this blog before about some of my favorite mystery authors.  Here goes with some more!   I love British police procedurals, series that have a strong woman as the main character, mysteries with a touch of humor to them,  thrillers with an international twist, the noir genre,  and mysteries that are set in the near past (19th and 20th centuries).  Over the years, I’ve come to realize that some authors mean to have their books read in the order in which they are published, so I read them thusly.

Some authors are content to let their characters live in a particular time and others stretch their lives out to encompass long periods of time.  Here are some examples.   Jacqueline Winspear enters Maisie Dobbs’ life when Maisie is a young teenager in the first decade of the 20th century.  In her twelfth book,  an adult Maisie travels to Berlin in 1938.   Contrast that with Sue Graftons Kinsey Millhone, who appears to be stuck in the 1980s and  ages  one year every two and half books.    Anne Perry‘s character Thomas Pitt has been combating criminals and traitors in London for the last twenty years of the nineteenth century through thirty-one volumes in the series.  He and his wife, whom he met in his first case, married at the end of the first book and now have two teen-aged children.   Elizabeth George‘s Inspector Lynley mysteries seem to follow chronologically one right after another.

Although I prefer British mysteries written by British authors, I have found there are American writers who write mysteries set in the British Isles almost as good as the natives.  Elizabeth George is one of these.   Inspector  Thomas Lynley is a peer who likes to downplay his title, but dates a woman who is also an aristocrat.  His creator has paired him with a duo of detectives, Barbara Havers and Winston Nkata from totally different cultures:  Havers is from a lower middle class background who lives with aging parents  in council (public) housing;  Nkata is a black man who came from a violent, troubled youth.

Martha Grimes is another American author whose main character is a Scotland Yard detective.   Grimes is unique because all her mysteries have titles that are the names of real pubs in Great Britain.   Her main characters are Richard Jury, and Melrose Plant, a friend who helps Jury with some of his cases.   Plant is a hereditary peer who has given up his titles to the dismay of his American born aunt.  Jury and Plant’s worlds go from Islington, the area of London where Jury lives, to New Scotland Yard where he works, to Long Piddleton, where Plant’s ancestral home is located.   Secondary characters inhabit these locales and other places where Jury has to go for his cases.

An author’s success with a series of books inhabited by the same characters, such as Grimes’,   depends on similar characteristics that make for hit series on television.  First, of course, there has to be good writing.   The main characters have to be believable and supported by an entertaining secondary cast of characters.  A good example of this is one of my favorite authors whom I haven’t mentioned yet, Daniel Silva, who writes thrillers that could mirror tomorrow’s headlines.  The main character of Silva’s books is Gabriel Allon, an Israeli art restorer who doubles as a spy/assassin.  Among Allon’s supporting cast is his second  wife, Chiara, also an agent for the Office, the Israeli intelligence agency they both work for.  In addition to her, he has a team who supports him in whatever op they are running.  Various agents from MI6, CIA, etc. also populate these books, along with villains from a number of Arab organizations, both real and fictional.

To close, I’d like to remember one of my favorite writers, Ruth Rendell.   She died in May 2015 at the age of 85.  She was honored by the Queen as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1996 and as a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, in 1997.  As such she was an active Labourite member of the House of Lords until she had a stroke four months before she died.  “The last words of Ruth Rendell’s 66th novel, which can be revealed without a spoiler, consists of someone declaring: “Now it’s all over. ” May she rest in peace!

You’ll like this one!

 

If you get a reputation as a “reader,” it won’t be long before folks you know start asking you about books.  “Read any good books lately?”  “What are you reading now?” “I need a good book recommendation – what do you suggest?”

You’ll hear that even more often if you happen to be a librarian or work in a library. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that, I’d have more money than you.

People like all sorts of books.  As discussed earlier, the most popular books in libraries usually fall into the genre fiction areas.  (Mysteries, thrillers, romances, etc.)  When asked the question about a good book to recommend, I could ask “What types of books do you usually enjoy?”  If the questioner was someone like my friend Stephen, and I knew he liked history, I could say, “Have you read 1491?”

If it was someone like Chris, I might say, “Try Ghostman – it’s a quirky, well-written thriller.”

But I do have a “go-to” title, that so far has been remarkably well-received by almost everyone I’ve ever recommended it to.  Like mysteries?  Like romance?  Like history? Like books that have a story within a story? Or for my library colleagues, “Do you like stories featuring libraries?”

sotw

There are some other things to like about this book.  The first thing is that it was originally written in Spanish. Not too many people (besides Westley Roberts) have known many Spaniards, but Carlos Ruiz Zafón is one worth getting to know. Besides the author, the translator is also outstanding, and her work on translating this title to English is amazing. Her name is Lucia Graves, and she is the daughter of Robert Graves.

This book, written in 2001 and translated to English in 2004, is a worldwide international bestseller titled The shadow of the wind.  At the heart of this story is the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books. A young boy named Daniel Sempere, whose mother has died, is taken there by his bookshop owner father shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War, but pre-WWII.  The Cemetery is a huge library of old and forgotten titles.  A few secret librarians guard the library.  Traditionally, anyone once admitted is allowed to choose one book, which can be taken from the Cemetery, but which must then become the responsibility of the initiate and guarded for their lifetime.  Daniel chooses a book by Julian Carax called The Shadow of the Wind, and becomes its guardian.

Daniel becomes enraptured reading the book, and soon sets out to find other works by Carax.  He tries to find out all he can about the author.  In his investigations, he unleashes the dark forces that have tried to bury Julian and destroy his works, including every copy of The Shadow of the Wind.

This book is full of fascinating characters and a lot of history as well.  The writing is exceptional, and the descriptions make the story come alive in your mind. The story captures the sweetness of youth and adventure, as well as the darkness humanity is capable of.  Some characters are models of loyalty and integrity, while others are monstrous and implacable.

So with some trepidation but also some confidence, I recommend The shadow of the wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  Let me know what you think!

P.S. – if you like the book, the author has written two others in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle.

Keep moving forward

Heya folks,

As both Cornelius Robinson and Walt Disney said, one  must “Keep Moving Forward!”  I’ve not done a blog before, but YOLO, to quote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. So, I’m going to give it a shot.

I like to read, and I read a lot. So hopefully I’ll have enough subject material to share.  I don’t have any great themes ready yet, but I’m reminded of how Bill Gates and Paul Allen got their big break.  They had launched Microsoft, but I believe they were a bit unready when IBM came calling and asked the young software company to provide the operating system for their Personal Computer.  Microsoft had acquired an operating system called QDOS for Quick and Dirty Operating System, and that ended up being MS-DOS (the PC’s operating system) and the rest is history.  So this will start out as a QD blog, and hopefully move forward from that.

Many folks have heard of or seen True Blood, an HBO series that ran seven seasons and garnered both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.  Not me, never saw an episode.  But the creator of the books behind the series, Charlaine Harris, spoke at a conference I went to last year, so I decided to read some of her titles. Although she’s written SIX series including the one “True Blood” was based on, I picked her most recent series on which to cut my teeth (no vampire pun intended).

It started with Midnight Crossroad,Product Details

 

continued with Day ShiftProduct Details

 

and just concluded with Night Shift.Product Details

 

So what’s it about?

Characters: a friendly witch, a “good” vampire, a female assassin for hire, an internet psychic who is also the real deal, and other perhaps even more strange residents of an extremely small rural town.

Setting: Midnight, Texas – a middle of nowhere, “wide spot in the road,” “sneeze and you’ll miss it” town.  By the end of the trilogy it will become as much of a character as the macabre inhabitants.

Audience: mystery readers, supernatural aficionados, and/or folks who grew up or spent time in miniscule rural communities.

Essentially, the residents of Midnight do what they can to keep their town and themselves “off the map” despite forces almost, but not quite, beyond their control.

I’d recommend all three books of the trilogy, as there really was not a drop off in quality in my opinion.  It wraps up fairly neatly, with the multitude of mysteries and questions raised in book one almost all answered by the conclusion of the third and final title.

Check out the first book (in print, Large Print, or in eBook format) from FRL and let me know what you think!

BOOKS AND MORE BOOKS

This, I believe, is the 50th blog in this series, so I thought I would review, to the best of my memory, some of books I have read over my lifetime.  I have always had books at home.  Being I was a history major in undergraduate and graduate school (not counting MSLS degree) and history is a reading intensive subject, my education brought me in contact with even more books.
Like me, Emily Dickinson loved books and even wrote a poem about them:

There is no Frigate like a Book

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
                                        EMILY DICKINSON
 I do not recall what my parents read to me before I could read.  Babar is the first character in book I can remember.  Enid Blyton, who was a famous author of children’s adventure stories in Great Britain, had published six of the “Famous Five” series by the time I left Scotland in 1948. I think I had read them all.
When we moved to Memphis in 1949, one the first things my mother did was to visit the old Cossitt Library downtown to get us both a library card.     There I discovered Joseph Altsheler, who wrote a number of series of historical novels for what we now call middle school boys. (I was delighted to discover Altsheler’s books are still available in either paperback or Kindle editions from Amazon.)  As a sixth grader and on into junior high I read his books and a series of biographies of famous baseball players and managers and other sports figures.   In fiction my choice was also sports including John Tunis, who wrote about all sports, not  just basketball, baseball, and football.
In high school and college I had little time for pleasure reading, but when I did, I read Leon Uris, James Jones, and James Michener each of whom wrote historical novels, some based on their experiences in World War II.  Meantime, in classes, I was introduced to a number books I still have in my personal library:  The Tennessee: the Old River by Donald Davidson, which I had to read for class in Tennessee History;  and  Mont Saint Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams, which was required reading for Medieval History.  A graduate reading course in Southern history made me familiar with William Faulkner’s  Absalom, Absalom!, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and Eugene Genovese’s powerful study of the world slaves lived in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.    For other classes I read Nixon Agonistes by Gary Wills and The Quiet American by Graham Greene.
In the mid-1970s a colleague introduced me to a genre of fiction that has given me pleasure ever since:  the mystery.  In this vein, I just learned that one of favourite mystery writers, Ruth Rendell, died last May.   She was equally at home with psychological mysteries or police procedural  novels.  In fact, her Inspector Wexford series was adapted for television.   Anne PerryTess Gerritsen, Rhys  Bowen, Jacqueline Winspear, and, of course Agatha Christie, are a just a few of my favourite mystery authors.
Mysteries are my habitual fiction reading tastes.  In non-fiction I tend to read military (mainly Civil War, WWI and WWII) history and biography.  Such interests have seeped through onto this blog.  See, for example, previous  blogs on Shelby Foote, Winston Churchill, and John Keegan.  During the last few years, when I’ve evidently have had more time,  I have read and am reading multi-volume works such as Foote’s The Civil War, Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants: a Study in Command, Rick Atkinson’s The Liberation Trilogy,  about the American army in North Africa and Europe, Volumes 1 and 2 of Ian W, Toll’s in progress Pacific War Trilogyand Carl Sandburg’s massive biography of Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years and The War Years.
About fifteen years ago, I decided to keep a log showing what I had read and the date I finished the book.   Beginning in 2002, I have, on my computer, a complete list of books I have read each year.  I also keep a record of the number of pages in each volume so I can see how many pages I have read.  (BWT: I don’t tell my wife because she thinks I read too much already!)  That came in handy a few years ago when a friend accused me of reading nothing but boring history books, I could tell that person that over the past few years I had read fiction and non-fiction equally.   And I plan on doing that as long I can read!

Murder Mysteries Set on Trains

Before the advent of automobile and air travel, railroads were the way travel long distances.  As early as the mid-1860s, both coasts in the United States were joined by rail.  By the 1930s, railway travel brought cities closer together both in America and Europe and had a certain romance to it.  At the same time motion pictures were gaining in popularity, so it did not take long for trains to find their way to the big screen and attract the attention of movie directors such as Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock directed two motion pictures set at on trains:  The Lady Vanishes and Strangers on a Train.  In the first movie, based on Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins (Not available on Cardinal*), the plot centers around a elderly English lady disappearing off a train in Central Europe in the time leading up to World War II.   The setting is in a small fictional country in Central or Eastern Europe with a dictatorial government.   A British agent on the train must get a message back to London.

The idea of switching murders with a complete stranger is the plot twist behind Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel Strangers on a Train, made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock.  Imagine meeting a stranger on a train, or anywhere else for that matter; having a conversation about people you know you would like to see dead.  Then the other person suggest you murder his person and he kill yours.  That’s what happens to Guy Haines when he meets  up with Charles  Anthony Bruno in Patricia Highsmith’s story and Alfred Hitchcock’s film. (spoilers ahead)  As usual, there are differences when a book is brought to the screen.  For example, Bruno (Robert Walker) murders Guy’s estranged wife on page 81, while in the movie that happens near the end.  Another example is Guy(Farley Granger)’s occupation; in the book, he is an architect and the movie, a professional tennis player.  Additionally, in the movie,  to get past the censors of the 1950s, Guy has to double-cross Bruno and not kill Bruno’s father, like he does the book.  In the book and the movie, Bruno eventually dies.   In the former, guilt overtakes Guy and he turns himself in.

Agatha Christie wrote three mysteries set on trains, two featuring her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot,  the most famous of which is Murder on the Orient Express.   Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express from Istanbul back to England, when the train gets stuck in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia.   An American passenger is murdered and as there are no police on the train Poirot is charged with solving the case.  What he discovers is the victim was traveling using an assumed name and is wanted for a ghastly crime back in the States.  The other passengers in the coach, despite their varied nationalities all seem to have a connection that crime.   The story was made into a movie in 1974, starring Albert Finney as Poirot and an all-star cast.   Masterpiece Mystery had a better version (in my opinion) as a part of a tv series, with David Suchet as the Belgian detective.

The 4:50 from Paddington, which was filmed as Murder She Said, has Jane Marple doing the sleuthing.    In the  book a friend of Miss Jane Marple witnesses a murder on a passing train, but when she reports crime to the authorities, she is not believed.   The two women figure out the body must have been dumped off the train at some point.  Miss Marple figures out where and hires a young woman to take a position at a nearby estate to search for the body.  (In the movie version, Miss Marple sees the murder and does the investigation herself.)  The body is discovered and New Scotland Yard is called in and the investigation broadens geographically.  Needless to say, Miss Marple helps the police find the murderer.  As usual with Christie stories, red herrings abound!

A favorite plot of mystery  and screen writers is to combine murder mysteries set on trains with stolen jewels.  Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes movie, Terror in the Night, is one of these; Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train is another. In the former, based on parts of number Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories,  Holmes is hired to protect a valuable jewel while he, the owner and her son ride the train overnight in England.  The son is murdered and the jewel stolen.  The murderer has a number of tricks up his (gender neutral)  sleeve to throw the famous detective of the scent, but in the end Holmes prevails.

The Blue Train, or the train Bleu, ran from Calais on French coast of  the English Channel to Nice on the Riviera.  It was the train very wealthy traveled on to winter on the Riviera.  In this story, Poirot faces a radically different puzzle that he tried find the solution to on the Orient Express.  The basic plot concerns Rufus Van Aldin, who gives his daughter, Ruth Kettering,  an expensive jewel.  As she travels on the Blue Train, she is found murdered and the jewel is missing.  As usual in Christie’s stories, people are not always who or what they first appear to be.

In Paula Hawkins recent best-selling novel Girl on a Train, the chief character commutes to London on a train that goes past the house where she used to live with her ex-husband.  The train always has to stop behind one of the neighboring houses and one day she notices the woman who lives there with a different man.  A few days later, reads in a newspaper that woman has disappeared and she goes to the police.  When they don’t believe her, she gets more involved in the case, bringing her ex and his current spouse into the plot.    Without giving the plot away, let’s say the chief character has issues.  I’ll bet this one makes to it to the big screen as well.

*Available from Amazon in the Kindle format

 

 

 

Georgiana, Maisie, and Amory: Detectives All

Most of my blogs in this series have been about non-fiction books, but occasionally I write about fiction, most often mysteries. I have lately discovered a mystery sub-genre that is set in 1920s or 1930s Great Britain and features  lone female detectives.   Two different examples of this genre are Rhys  Bowen’s series of “Royal Spyness” novels and   Jacqueline Winspear’s “Maisie Dobbs” series.  The heroines in these two series come from opposite  ends of the British social spectrum with one series featuring humor while the other is more serious.  Joining these two authors,  Ashley Weaver, a Louisiana librarian, has published Murder at the Brightwell, the first book in a new series in this type of mystery.

 Bowen’s heroine,  Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, the sister of the impoverished Duke of Atholl and Rannoch,  a penniless Scottish family, is a second cousin to George V and is  34th in the line for the throne. Using her, the Rannoch family,  and her friends, Bowen pokes fun at the British aristocracy.  At the outset of the series, Georgiana moves into the family town house in London to get away from the Rannoch’s   drafty Scottish castle and her sister-in-law, whom she detests.  Through most of the series, Georgiana lives in London with no servants and little money, thanks to her father gambling  away his fortune in the French Riviera casinos and then committing suicide, leaving Georgiana’s brother with expensive death duties to pay.   On the other side of her family, Lady Georgiana’s mother is an actress, the daughter of a retired Cockney policeman.  The series is populated with real people including King George V and Queen  Mary, their eldest son David (who became Edward VIII) and the love of his life, Wallis Simpson.   In fact, Queen Mary encourages Georgiana to spy on David and his  inappropriate American lover.  Her adventures include showing London to a German princess, whose knowledge of English comes from American gangster movies,  helping her sister-in-law entertain a castle full of obnoxious guests, including the Prince of Wales’ favorite American, Wallis Simpson, representing the Royal Family at a wedding in Transylvania, retrieving a snuff box belonging to Queen Mary from a shady British earl, etc.  In the latest episode, she accompanies her mother to Reno, Nevada to get a quickie divorce from her Texas millionaire step-father.  Georgiana has a habit of showing up where murders are taking place, so not surprisingly, she becomes a suspect, especially when she is abroad.

Maisie Dobbs comes from a similar background to Georgiana’s mother.  Maisie’s mother dies when Maisie is thirteen, so her father, a cockney costermonger, persuades one of his rich customers to take Maisie into service as a maid.  When the lady of the house discovers Maisie reading in their library early one morning, she recognises her young  servant has above average intelligence and decides to see to her education.  Eventually Maisie is accepted into the women’s college at Oxford, but World War I interrupts her education. She enlists as a nurse and is sent to France, where she meets a doctor and falls in love.  Tragedy strikes when their aide station is hit by an artillery shell, seriously injuring Maisie and the doctor. Returning to England, Maisie continues her education and then fulfills her ambition to be a private detective.    Although the war is long since over, Maisie carries external and internal scars that influence her life and the cases she investigates.  The series is full of characters, like Maisie, who have to deal with physical and psychological effects from their experiences in the war.   Her assistant, Billy Beale, is one of these.   The doctor she served with in the war is another.   In the latest episode, Maisie finds herself in Gibraltar, on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula,  with the Spanish Civil War raging close by on the other side of the border.  She is drawn into intrigue that puts her life in danger.

Set in England in the same time period as the other two series, Ashley Weaver’s Murder at the Brightwell falls between the satire of the “Spyness” novels and serious themes of the “Maisie Dobbs” stories.  The main character, Amory Ame,s is a wealthy young woman married to a playboy who would rather travel the globe than stay home with his wife.  Amory lets a former fiancee talk her into going to a ritzy hotel on England’s south coast to help talk  his  sister out of a bad marriage.  Of course, murder rears its ugly head.  Amory finds herself a suspect, but then her wandering husband shows up and they solve the case together.     Amory will appear in the second book in the series, Death Wears a Mask, due to be published in October this year.

CRIME NOIR

By Stephen

 A while ago, I read a  mystery, The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black, featuring Philip Marlowe  Raymond Chandler’s favorite private eye.  Black is not the first contemporary author to use Chandler’s character.  Before his death, Robert B. Parker, wrote a sequel to The Big Sleep.  Parker also finished Chandler’s “Poodle Springs.” Private detectives, who wander between the law and the underworld, accepted by neither, are generally the main characters in noir mystery novels and films.  “Oh, I wish I had a pencil-thin mustache, the Boston Blackie kind, then I could solve some mysteries too.,” sings Jimmy Buffett.

Boston Blackie, Sam Spade, Thin Man (AKA Nick Charles) are just few of the heroes, or anti-heroes if you prefer.   But noir books and film didn’t all had private detectives as the main characters.  James M. Cain’s short story “Double Indemnity,” featuring an insurance salesman who helps a woman, a ‘femme fatale,’ murder her husband by making appear an accident so she can cash in on the double indemnity clause on his insurance policy.  Likewise, “The Postman Always Rings Twice, ” features a woman who wants get rid of her husband and cons a man into helping her commit the crime.

Early noir short stories, novellas, and novels was originally written for publishing in the pulp magazines as “Phantom Detective.”   Noir authors who wrote for pulp magazines included Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett among others.

Dave Robicheaux, a modern creation of James Lee Burke, is a retired policemen who makes his home in the bayous of Louisiana, where crime is  around every slough, and eventually leads Dave back to New Orleans, where he used to enforce the law.   Burke’s Robicheaux novels have an atmosphere as dark as the 1930s and 1940s noir tales.  I suppose one could argue the Louisiana swamps have a greater sense of evil  than sunny California.

New Orleans was also the location of Ezlia Kazan’s picture, “Panic in the Streets,” a 1950  release. Richard Widmark stars as U. S. Public Health Officer charged finding a fugitive stricken with bubonic plague before he infects the city. The plot adds a new dimension to noir genre.   The film was filmed on location, making New Orleans a character in the film in its own right.

Mickey Spillane introduced his character, Mike Hammer in “I the Jury,” in 1947.  I seem to remember the paperback version being passed around when I was in the the eighth or ninth grade.    I remember it had a salacious cover that would interest junior high boys.   Spillane would go on to write over a dozen Hammer novels, including some finished by a friend after Spillane died in 2006.

“Spenser for Hire” was the tv version of Robert B. Parker‘s Spenser novels.  Spenser, private detective who has frequent run-ins with the Boston underworld on the one hand and the Boston police on the other.   Spenser’s sidekick Hawk, played menacingly by Avery Brooks on the tv series, is there when he needs extra muscle.  Some readers think Spenser is a direct descendant of  Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade.

Walter Mosley is another modern writer whose main character is of the hard-boiled variety.  Easy Rawlins is a black veteran, living in Watts section of Los Angeles.  Mosley’s hero is a novice detective, who lives his life from the forties into the mid-sixties.    In the later books he has the respect of the LAPD, who turns to him to solve some politically charged cases.

Kinsey Millhone, a creation of Sue Grafton, is another California based private detective.  The  main character of Grafton’s alphabet novels, is a female version of the hard-boiled detective.   Kinsey’s stories are set in the late seventies and eighties, so she doesn’t have access to more modern crime solving techniques such the internet or cell phones.   Like the private detectives of the forties and fifties, she brushes shoulders with people who live on the edge of polite society.

Dan Simmons reaches back to  the time of Charles Dickens in his novel, “Drood.”   Dickens’  friend Wilkie  Collins narratives his fellow writer’s search to find a mysterious man he encountered after the train he was riding in wrecked. The two men’s search takes them to the dark demi world of London’s slums, including the infamous  opium dens.  The reader slowly realizes that Collins and Dickens are drug addicts and begins to doubt the reliability of the former’s narrative.

In 1997, The Library of America published a two volume set of American noir writing  entitled  “Crime Novels:  American Noir of the 1930s & 4os”  and “Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s.”   These two volumes are a good place to start if you are not familiar with the genre.   NovelList+ on NCLive is another resource to explore the noir genre.

Sources:

 http://www.thrillingdetective.com/eyes.html

An Enigma Inside a Question Inside a Book

Some events capture the imagination and become legends, with fanciful (and often incorrect) anecdotes. Unsolved mysteries, disappearances, murders…society loves a good story, and there’s something about an unsolved case that seems to keep us hooked.

Mysteries are so beloved that some events considered “unsolved” are actually…solved. Or maybe sort of solved. such as the case with the Missing Roanoke colony or the Marie Celeste.  The truth can be stranger than fiction, and facts won’t keep us away from a good story.  Is that contradictory?  Perhaps, but it seems fitting for this collection of real life mysteries.

Jack The Ripper

Chris:  It has been 125 years and the Jack the Ripper killings still fascinate so many of us.  The murders themselves were brutal and gruesome enough to bring notoriety to the case, but with the added features of letters from the killer sent to the papers and a high profile investigation featuring early criminal profiling, this became the first example of media frenzy over a crime.

An unsavory letter
An unsavory letter

And now so many years later Jack the Ripper still draws interest.  The case remains unsolved, and likely will remain unsolved, though not for lack of trying by a wide assortment of people.  Even Sherlock Holmes gave it a shot.  The murders have inspired and/or been referenced by over a dozen films, as well as books, songs, video games, comics, and about anything else you can think of.

From hell : being a melodrama in sixteen parts

Portrait of a killer : Jack the Ripper– case closed 

Ripper Street

 

JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory

Christina:  Catastrophic, tragic events will inevitably make people quite emotional, especially if questions remain unanswered years after the fact. The JFK assassination (which we mentioned in a previous blog) is still raw for those who lived through it, and it has served as a point of interest to conspiracy theorists and probably always will.

749px-JFK_limousine

So much has been discussed about the possibility of a government cover-up and the potential use of multiple assassins that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all. Luckily, there are tons of books written about the subject (and of the Kennedy family itself), so anyone interested in learning more has quite a bit of material to go through.

Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Case closed : Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of JFK

Who killed John F. Kennedy : a parody for grownups

The killing of a president : the complete photographic record of the JFK Assassination, the conspiracy and the cover-up

 

Roanoke

Chris: The Lost Colony of Roanoke was one of the first mysteries that engaged me as a child.  In the 1580s an English colony was founded on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina.  The colony experienced a variety of problems.  Governor White returned to England for supplies, leaving behind 115 colonists, including baby Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.

Various delays meant White was not able to return until three years later.  When he got back to Roanoke he found it deserted, with the only viable clue the word “Croatoan” carved into a fence post.  He was unable to conduct a search of nearby Croatoan Island at the time, and the English never managed to mount a true search expedition.

Where are Sam and Dean when you need them?
Where are Sam and Dean when you need them?

The ultimate fate of the colonists is unknown.  There are many theories, the most plausible being that the colonists integrated into the native population.  Research continues into the disappearance to this day, including a DNA project that is attempting to prove the integration theory.

Explorations, descriptions, and attempted settlements of Carolina, 1584-1590

A kingdom strange : the brief and tragic history of the lost colony of Roanoke

Roanoke : the lost colony

 

Judge Crater

Christina:  On August 6, 1930, Judge Crater stepped out of a restaurant, went into a taxi, and was never seen or heard from again. His mistress, wife, and friends had no idea what had happened to him, and while shady business deals certainly led to speculation that he was murdered, no one has ever truly cracked the case. Crater had moved money around and destroyed business documents before he disappeared, but according to friends and witnesses, he was in a good mood on the night he went missing and he had plans for the future. He’s been dubbed “the missingest man in New York” and his disappearance made for fodder in popular culture for decades. In fact, Stephen King lends an explanation for the judge’s disappearance in the short story “The Reaper’s Image”, but of course it’s a rather…bizarre one.

Have you seen this man?
Have you seen this man?

Vanishing point : the disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York he left behind 

The man who never returned

 

The Bermuda Triangle

Chris:  In 1974 Charles Berlitz’s book The Bermuda Triangle was released.  He didn’t coin the term, but he brought into the mainstream.  I got this book from the library as a child and was instantly smitten by the mystery of disappearing ships and planes.

Yup, that is a triangle alright!
Yup, that’s a triangle alright!

The largest non-combat loss of life in the US Navy occurred when the USS Cyclops vanished in 1918.  Flight 19, a Navy training flight in 1945 in which five torpedo bombers vanished is one of the more famous cases.  One of the search planes disappeared looking for them.  There are many other accounts of disappearances.

So what is happening?  Aliens?  Atlantis?  Something else?  Or maybe nothing at all?  Well, things are clearly happening.  Boats and planes have and do still disappear, and we get confirmation bias.  But they don’t disappear at a rate higher than anywhere else in the world.  In other words, there are some neat (and tragic) stories, but they are just stories.  Nothing to see here, folks.

The fog : a never before published theory of the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon 

Without a trace

The Triangle

 

Jimmy Hoffa

Christina:  “Where’s Jimmy Hoffa buried?” is one of the biggest mysteries of the twentieth century. Growing up in New Jersey, I’d hear a lot of jokes about where he might be buried (Giants stadium was a popular guess). Officially, no one knows what happened to Jimmy Hoffa or where his remains are, although it’s safe to assume that the Mob got to him. The notorious Mafia assassin Richard Kuklinski (aka “The Iceman”) confessed in an autobiography that he was behind Hoffa’s murder and handling of his remains. With no evidence, however, people still speculate and probably always will.

The search continues.
The search continues.

The Ice man : confessions of a mafia contract killer

Hoffa : the real story 

“I heard you paint houses” : Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran and the inside story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the last ride of Jimmy Hoffa

 

The Voynich Manuscript

Chris:  The Voynich Manuscript is a mystery that I only heard about a few years back.  Dated to the early 15th century, it came to modern attention in 1912 when Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer, purchased it.  Voynich uncovered evidence that points towards Roger Bacon once owning the book.

The manuscript is about 240 vellum pages, containing text and a variety of illustrations.  What makes this interesting is that it is written in an unknown language.  Additionally, many of the illustrations are of unidentified plants.

Many professionals (and amateurs) have taken a crack at deciphering the tome, including military code breakers and modern cryptographers with sophisticated computer programs.  To date no one has come close to translating it.  The “word” patterns don’t seem to fit that of a constructed language.

I think it says to give all your money to the nice librarians.
I think it says to give all your money to the nice librarians.

The first thought that comes to mind then is hoax.  If so it would be a hoax of astounding complexity, especially for the time that is believed to have been written.  Perhaps a cipher is needed to translate it, or it is a code.  A recent theory is that it is a long dead Mexican dialect, and that the plants drawn within are not European, leading to confusion.  This theory hasn’t proven to be any more viable than the rest, and at this point the best answer to the Voynich Manuscript is: we haven’t got a clue what it is.

The friar and the cipher : Roger Bacon and the unsolved mystery of the most unusual manuscript in the world 

The book of God and physics : a novel of the Voynich 

 

The Zodiac Killer

Christina:  What makes it so terrifying to know that a serial killer hasn’t been identified in decades is the idea that he will strike again. The public is safe from Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, and countless others, but what about the Zodiac Killer? To this day, the murderer remains unidentified.

Like the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer sent letters to the police, taunting them with confessions and threats of further violence. What makes the case fascinating, however, is the killer’s use of a cipher and his manipulation of the media as well as the police department.

Not quite as sophisticated as the Voynich manuscript.
Not quite as sophisticated as the Voynich manuscript.

Recently Gary L. Stewart released a book titled “The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father… and finding the Zodiac Killer” claiming that he has evidence that his biological father was the notorious serial killer. The police are looking into it, and maybe we’ll finally see this case solved soon.

The most dangerous animal of all : searching for my father … and finding the Zodiac Killer 

Zodiac unmasked : the identity of America’s most elusive serial killer revealed

Zodiac 

 

Marie Celeste

Chris:  Ah, ghost ships!  From the Flying Dutchman to the Black Pearl, literature and film is filled with them.  But there are many, many examples of real life ghost ships, abandoned vessels found with their crews gone missing.  Perhaps the most famous of these is the Mary Celeste (fictionally called the Marie Celeste by Arthur Conan Doyle and others).

They were in for more than a three hour cruise.
They were in for more than a three hour cruise.

The Mary Celeste departed Staten Island in 1872, bound for Genoa, Italy.  Almost a month later she was discovered some 600 miles off the coast of Portugal.  All ten people on board (including the captain’s wife and young daughter) were missing.  She was still perfectly seaworthy.  Her lifeboat was missing, as were most of the ship’s papers and navigational equipment.  Food supplies were still abundant, and many of the crew’s valuables were still on board.

An inquiry failed to discover what had befallen the crew.  There were no signs of piracy or foul play, and no trace of the crew was ever found.  The ship herself was put back into service, and lived an unhappy life before finally burning and sinking in 1885 in a failed insurance fraud scheme.

So what happened to the crew?  No one knows for sure, and again there are many theories, but the leading one is that alcohol is to blame.  A drunken revelry gone awry?  Hardly.  There were 1701 barrels of alcohol in the cargo hold of the Mary Celeste.  Nine of those were found to be empty, and those nine were made of red oak, which is more porous than the white oak normally used.  The thought here is that those barrels leaked, and the resultant fumes caused the crew, fearing an explosion, to evacuate to the lifeboat while the ship was aired out.  Something went wrong and the line connecting the lifeboat to the Mary Celeste failed, and the crew was unable to regain the ship, condemned to a slow death on the high seas.  We’ll never know for sure, and there are some flaws in this theory, but it seems it is the best answer we will ever get.

Ghost ship : the mysterious true story of the Mary Celeste and her missing crew 

The ghost of the Mary Celeste

 

The Lindbergh Baby

Christina:  You’d be hard-pressed to find a story quite as tragic as the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the Lindbergh Baby in 1932. While his parents and their friends had a party downstairs, someone abducted 18-month old Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. using a ladder to get to his nursery on the second floor. A frantic search ensued, but tragically, the baby’s body was found two months later.

Lindbergh_baby_poster

While Bruno Richard Hauptmann was found guilty and was subsequently executed for the crime, some doubts still linger as to whether he was truly the culprit. Another strange aspect of the case is that various people have claimed to be the deceased toddler, insisting that the body found was not in fact that of the Lindbergh baby.

The trial

Kidnap : the story of the Lindbergh case

The airman and the carpenter : the Lindbergh kidnapping and the framing of Richard Hauptmann

Lindbergh : the crime

The Lindbergh baby kidnapping in American history

 

Ten mysteries from the pages of history.  We only gave you a brief glimpse into them.  You’ll have to do your own investigating to find out more.  Tell us what you uncover, and let us know what other mysteries you would like us to explore!

 

See all of the books and DVDs mentioned in this blog in our library ctalog here:  https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=26674;page=0;locg=155;depth=0

(Edited 12/5/14 to fix/replace broken links and to correct typos.)

Anne Perry

By Stephen

Besides history, some of my favorite reading materials are mysteries.  I just read the latest Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel by Anne Perry.  Perry is noted for her mysteries set in Victorian London.  That city in the late nineteenth century was the largest metropolis in world.  The gap between the richest and poorest was vast and, as a result, London had a problem with crime.  Charles Dickens’ books tended to reflect life in the poorer sections of the city, while Anne Perry’s mysteries are mostly set  in the wealthiest neighborhoods.

Viewers of “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs” will find themselves in familiar territory in the world of the Pitts.  Thomas and Charlotte meet in the first volume, “The Cater Street  Hangman,”* while he investigates her older sister’s murder.   By the second book in the series Thomas and Charlotte are married and set up housekeeping in their own place.  Perry makes it clear that Charlotte has married beneath her station and can no longer take part in society events.   You  see, Thomas, as  a policeman, is considered on the same level as a tradesman.  When he goes to investigate a crime at an upper class mansion, the servants expect him to go to the tradesman’s entrance, not the front door, which is what Pitt is prone to do.

The Pitts haven’t been married long when Charlotte begins to help her husband with solving crimes.   She is familiar with the mores of British high society and besides her younger sister, Emily, is married to a nobleman.  Charlotte, in the company of  Emily, wearing gowns borrowed from her sibling, attends balls and society events, where she will observe the persons involved Pitt’s cases,  in the company of  Emily, wearing gowns borrowed from her sibling.

One my favorite recurring characters in this series is Emily’s great aunt by marriage Vespasia Cumming-Gould.  Aunt Vespasia is an elderly woman who has aged gracefully and has friends and acquaintances in the upper levels of society and even in the nobility.  These connections, on occasion, help Thomas as he solves murders.

Another character who takes part in Thomas’ detecting is Gracie, the Pitts’ diminutive maid.  Barely a teenager when she comes to work for the Pitts, Charlotte teaches her to read so she can keep up with current events in the paper.  Gracie eventually gets married and leaves service, but she helps pick her successor.

In one of the later books, Pitt is forced out of the Metropolitan Police, where he was Commander of the Bow Street Street Station.  Instead he moves to the Special Branch, an unit that sees to the security of the country as a whole.  Instead of solving murders in the homes of the powerful and wealthy, Pitt has to deal  with anarchists who want to disrupt British society.   In this job, he often has to be away from home for extended periods; one time, for example, he find himself in France, while Charlotte is helping a friend in Ireland.   However, when a friend of the Prince of Wales is murdered in Buckingham Palace, Pitt is summoned to solve the crime.  Later, when the head of the Special Branch resigns, Pitt is appointed in his place.

In the background of these novels looms the continent of Africa.  Britain was competing with other European nations for control the “Dark Continent.”   Cecil Rhodes in South Africa was making plans for a Cairo to Cape Town railway.  Leander Starr Jameson was leading a ineffective raid into the Transvaal Republic that led to the Boer War.  In the latest book in the series, “Midnight at Marble Arch,” the trial of Jameson plays a vital part.

In her personal life, Anne Perry (nee Juliet Hulme) has had a close association with murder herself. At age 15, she and a friend were convicted of murdering the friend’s mother in New Zealand.    Being too young for the death penalty, they were detained for five years and released.

Her first novel was published in 1979.  Since then she has published 27 books in the Pitt series (28th is due in 2014), 18 in the William Monk series, 5 books in the World War I series, 12 Christmas novellas, 2 fantasy novels aimed at young adults, and 4 stand alone volumes.

For reader who are interested in the society portrayed in Perry’s books, there are two non-fiction works  that provide background  information.  Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder, describes how crimes were portrayed in the press of the period and how the crime novel industry evolved.   Shooting Victoria, by Paul Thomas Murphy, recounts assassination attempts on the queen, but also gives some insight to nineteenth century English police work.

*If possible, it is better to read these books in order.   See AnnePerry.com.uk for a complete list.