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Moonlight Reader

Welcome to 2019! 

Next up: Postern of Fate

 

My Bantam Books copy arrived in my mailbox, so I'm ready to dive in. Well, maybe not ready, because I don't think that anyone I trust has ever told me that this book is good. But, my loins are girded, and I've got a huge bottle of alcohol at the ready.

 

 

Glug, glug, glug

One should not read all of Tommy and Tuppence in a row

By the Pricking of My Thumbs - Agatha Christie

I only have one more Tommy and Tuppence to read - Postern of Fate - and I have heard that it is on the shortlist of worst Christie books published. So, there's that.

 

Also, though, I've decided that it is best not to "binge read" T&T because, overall, they among her weakest books. The mysteries are just . . . not good. They're not horrible, they're just not good. 

 

I don't know what was going on with this book, but reading it felt like barely more than a novella. It isn't very long, it's true, but I read it in under an hour, which is rare for me. Even a reread of something like Peril at End House (which I read as a palate cleanser after reading T&T) takes me longer to read than this book. Which is odd, because while there is a lot happening (murder! mayhem! dead baby! robberies! crime ring! diamond thieves!) it's like trying to watch the landscape through a car window travelling at about 80 mph. I couldn't get a very good view of it as things flash by.

 

Bottom line for me is that I now understand better why these books didn't appeal to me. I still like Tuppence a whole lot, although her lack of an instinct for self-preservation stopped being charming when she hit her fifth decade. Now it's just dumb. Tommy is as dull a chap as has ever lived, his intellect having faded like his mop of red hair. T&T, at this point, would make a lovely couple to spend the weekend with, but their attempts at youthful rakishness are embarrassing to read.

 

I had initially rated this one 3 1/2 stars, but I'm downgrading the rating to 2 1/2 stars after further reflection. I don't think I will ever read it again.

 

 

A brief update on Jack

 

In the two weeks since we started Jack on the anti-seizure medication, there've been some pretty significant ups and downs. His initial dosage was too high, and it caused serious back-end weakness to the point that he wasn't able to go down our stairs unassisted, and was frequently unable to get up from laying down. We have laminate floors through our entire house, so his weakened limbs couldn't get the traction he needed to get up and down easily.

 

We cut his dose down from 100 mg x 2 per day to 75 mg x 2 per day and that really caused an improvement in his control and strength, while still controlling the seizures. He hasn't had a seizure since he started on the medication.

 

He was positively perky yesterday and today, jumped up on me with excitement, and went for car rides on both days. He's doing as well as we could've hoped and better than we could have expected at this point. We know that his days are still numbered, but every day is a gift from here on out.

 

My daughter is getting married in October - and if he makes it all the way to October, he will have a role in her wedding. I don't dare to hope for this, since it seems so impossible that he will still be with us then. I am hoping that he makes it to one more spring - my husband and I would love to be able to take him over to the coast and let him play in the surf one last time.

 

 

Here he is, young and strong.

Agatha Christie completion update

I'm catching up a few reading projects, so I thought I would go through and identify which of the very few full-length Christie mysteries I have left:

 

I am down to five of Christie's mysteries - everything else that I have left is either a Detection Club book or one of her books published under the Westmacott name. I am planning on getting Postern of Fate out of the way next. Glug glug glug - bring on the gin:

 

Destination Unknown

The Pale Horse

Partners in Crime

N or M

The Burden

By The Pricking of My Thumbs

Postern of Fate

Death Comes As The End

Nemesis

Sleeping Murder

Why Didn't They Ask Evans

Absent in the Spring

Giant's Bread

Unfinished Portrait

The Rose and the Yew Tree

A Daughter's A Daughter

The Floating Admiral

Ask a Policeman

Six Against the Yard

 

List of all Christie novels (strike-through are books that I've read, bold is currently reading): 

 

Hercule Poirot mysteries:

 

 The Mysterious Affair at Styles 1920

 Murder on the Links 1923

 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 1926

 The Big Four 1927

 The Mystery of the Blue Train 1928 

 Peril at End House 1932

 Lord Edgware Dies 1933

 Murder on the Orient Express 1934

 Three Act Tragedy 1935

 Death in the Clouds 1935

 The ABC Murders 1936

 Murder in Mesopotamia 1936

 Cards on the Table 1936

Dumb Witness 1937

 Death on the Nile 1937

 Appointment with Death 1938

 Hercule Poirot's Christmas 1938

 Sad Cypress 1940

 One, Two Buckle My Shoe 1940

 Evil Under the Sun 1941

 Five Little Pigs 1943

 The Hollow 1946

 Taken at the Flood 1948

 Mrs McGinty's Dead 1952

 After the Funeral 1953

 Hickory Dickory Dock 1955

 Dead Man's Folly 1956

 Cat Among the Pigeons 1959

 The Clocks 1963

 Third Girl 1966

 Hallowe'en Party 1969

 Elephants Can Remember 1972

 Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case 1975

 

Marple Mysteries:

 

 Murder at the Vicarage 1930

 The Body in the Library 1942

 The Moving Finger 1943

 Sleeping Murder 1976

 A Murder is Announced 1950

 4.50 from Paddington 1957

 The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side 1962

 A Caribbean Mystery 1964

 At Bertram’s Hotel 1965

 They Do it with Mirrors 1952

 A Pocket Full of Rye 1953

 Nemesis 1971

 

Tommy & Tuppence Beresford

 

 The Secret Adversary 1922

 Partners in Crime 1929

N or M? 1941

By the Pricking of My Thumbs 1968

Postern of Fate 1973

 

Superintendent Battle

 

 The Secret of Chimneys 1925

 The Seven Dials Mystery 1929

 Cards on the Table 1936

 Murder is Easy 1939

 Towards Zero 1944

 

Colonel Race

 

 The Man in the Brown Suit 1924

 Cards on the Table 1936

 Death on the Nile 1937

 Sparkling Cyanide 1944

 

Ariadne Oliver

 

 Parker Pyne Investigates 1934

 Cards on the Table 1936

 Mrs. McGinty's Dead 1952

 Dead Man's Folly 1956

 The Pale Horse 1961

 Third Girl 1966

 Hallowe'en Party 1969

 Elephants Can Remember 1972

 

Other/standalone works

 

 The Sittaford Mystery 1931

 Why Didn't They Ask Evans 1933

 And Then There Were None 1939

 Death Comes As The End 1944

 Crooked House 1949

 They Came to Baghdad 1951

 Destination Unknown 1954

 Ordeal by Innocence 1958

 Endless Night 1967

 Passenger to Frankfurt 1970

 

Mary Westmacott

 

 The Giant's Bread 1930

 Unfinished Portrait 1933

 Absent in Spring 1944

 The Rose and the Yew Tree 1948

 A Daughter's A Daughter 1952

The Burden 1956

 

 Detection Club:

 

 The Floating Admiral

 Ask a Policeman

 Six Against the Yard

 

I've also created a page that can be accessed from the home page of my blog.

The Case of the Dinosaur Footprint

The Iron Clew - Alice Tilton, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

This book was passed on to me by Tigus, along with a Frederic Brown mystery called Madball, which I read for Halloween Bingo.

 

This was a delightfully funny and convoluted mystery. The MC, Leonidas Witherall, runs a boys school, writes mysteries in secret, and looks so much like Shakespeare that his nickname is Bill. When a package wrapped in brown paper goes missing from his office while he is in the home, hijinks ensue as he attempts to recover it.

 

There is mayhem. There are shenanigans. There is a dead body and a kidnapped secretary and a random meeting with a long-forgotten friend.

 

Lots and lots of fun. Thanks for sending it to me, Tigus!

Reading progress update: I've read 66 out of 240 pages.

The Iron Clew - Alice Tilton, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Oh, my, this book is funny! Tigus, I've lol'ed 3 times so far.

Reading progress update: I've read 10 out of 417 pages.

Mary Barton - MacDonald Daly, Elizabeth Gaskell

Shots fired 10 pages in!

 

“Thou never could abide the gentlefolk,” said Wilson, half amused at his friend’s vehemence.

 

“And what good have they ever done me that I should like them?” asked Barton, the latent fire lighting up his eye: and bursting forth, he continued, “If I am sick, do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life? If I am out of work for weeks in the bad times, and winter comes, with black frost, and keen east wind, and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed, and the thin bones are seen through the ragged clothes, does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion wasn’t a humbug? When I lie on my death-bed, and Mary (bless her) stands fretting, as I know she will fret,” and here his voice faltered a little, “will a rich lady come and take her to her own home if need be, till she can look round, and see what best to do? No, I tell you, it’s the poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor. Don’t think to come over me with th’ old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us: but I know who was best off then,” and he wound up his speech with a low chuckle that had no mirth in it.

 

 

 

The Domestic Delights of Fiction

Thinking through the Excellent Women read, and why I enjoyed it so much, solidified a realization that has been simmering under the surface of my reading for a while. I love fiction that focuses on the domestic details of the lives of the characters. I think that this is one of the reasons that I prefer books by women.

 

So, while I, sometimes, enjoy books that tackle weighty subjects of politics and public policy and very very important people doing very very important things, I generally prefer smaller tales - instead of focusing on big questions, I enjoy books that focus on small questions, but in the context of a culture that shows the big questions.

 

In the case of Excellent Women, Pym has given us a very tiny story about Mildred Lathbury, a completely unexceptional woman. There are hundreds of thousands of unexceptional Mildreds (both married and unmarried) alive at any given time. She isn't affecting policy, she isn't changing the world in remarkable ways - her impact is on a small circle of individuals. But, by focusing on Mildred, Barbara Pym is equally showing us a lot about the greater world. She has much to say about male entitlement, and majority privilege, and how the world treats unimportant, unexceptional women and, conversely, how even the most unimportant, unexceptional man is more important that pretty much all of the women.

 

And by doing that, she denies that Mildred is unimportant and unexceptional, and she makes the reader realize that small, domestic concerns are, really, the most important concerns there are. That making a cup of tea, using the nice tea pot, buying the better quality biscuits, are small things, but they really impact the character's life. And, she also conveys, that service to others, even where that service is nothing more than kindness and a willingness to allow them into your home for a few moments is what makes life seem real.

 

Allowing women to narrate their lives in fiction, even when their lives seem terribly circumscribed, is, in many ways, a revolutionary act. It lets the reader know that women are human beings, and that the aspects of their lives of which they are in charge are successful. That they have desires and dreams that can sometime be satisfied through domesticity, and sometimes not.

 

I'm not sure that I'm explaining this very well, but I think that this is also one of the reasons that I enjoy Agatha Christie's mysteries so much. We mostly use the phrase "world building" to refer to fantasy fiction, where the author is creating a world out of whole cloth. But Agatha Christie also "world-builds," only her world is a world where the unseen currents in a family or household are constantly erupting into murder. Her details of households, and roles, and relationships, and who pours the tea, and who made the paste sandwiches, and whether or not the roses by the doorstep have thorns are what makes her mysteries, to me, so satisfying to read.

 

Rarely do we have murders that have a broader impact on society in Christie's mysteries - and the ones that do are generally her less successful "thriller" style mysteries. She is at her best when she is focused on the small things, but this focus on the small things still leads us to larger conclusions about the society in which she was writing. Rather than telling us that patriarchs have all the power - she shows us how that aspect of British society erupts into patricide. Rather than tell us how disempowered wives were ignored and mistreated by their philandering husbands and the community that enabled his behavior, she shows us that same wife's emotional devolution into murder. Her puzzles not only give us clues to murder, they gives us clues to the way that society worked then, and still, in many cases, works now.

 

This goes back, I guess, to Jane Austen's quote, which in a sense dismisses the importance of her own work:

 

“the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”

 

And yet, we still read her, and her books, narrow and domestic though they are, are one of the time machines that we can use to understand the society in which she wrote, and particularly the lives of women. 

 

If you've made it this far in the post, thanks for sticking with my meanderings! 

TBR Thursday: January 31, 2019

What I read this week: The Pusher and Cop Hater by Ed McBain; Murder in the Sentier by Cara Black, At Bertram's HotelPeril at End House and The Burden by Agatha Christie, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor; Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

 

Again, these are STILL on the TBR. I will get to them soon!

 

The Franchise Affair - Josephine Tey    By the Pricking of My Thumbs - Agatha Christie  The Iron Clew - Phoebe Atwood Taylor,Alice Tilton

 

I have actually pulled The Iron Clew off the TBR cart, and it's sitting on my night stand.

 

On my kindle, I am reading:

 

Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy - Rachel Cusk,Olivia Manning Miss Silver Intervenes - Patricia Wentworth 

 

And, from the library, I have:

 

Some Luck: A novel - Jane Smiley  The Bookshop / The Gate of Angels / The Blue Flower - Penelope Fitzgerald  Seven Dead - J. Jefferson Farjeon  

 

I have mixed emotions about this memoir

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.E. Vance

I’ve been meaning to read Hillbilly Elegy for a while, but I didn’t want to spend the $11.99 that they were charging on amazon. If I had caught it on sale for $1.99 or so, I probably would’ve bought it, but that never happened. It bubbled back to the top of my consciousness after reading that Ron Howard had bought the rights to create a Netflix series based on the memoir, and then yesterday when I was in the library, they had two copies on the shelves, so I grabbed it on a whim.

 

Vance’s memoir is highly readable – so much so that I read it without stopping in about three hours. I felt like he was brutally honest about the failings of his family, in a way that was compelling. I also found his perspective on the attitudes of the other members of the community interesting – especially the sense of male privilege that comes across in his pages. This book is full of men who mostly don’t work, who drink way too much, and who largely fail their families. Hashtag not all men, of course. His biological father, it turns out, was a pretty decent guy, even if loyalty to the hillbilly side of his family demanded that Vance align with them, the maternal line, over his dad.

 

There were also, though, things in the memoir that didn’t make sense at all. There’s one point in the book where he is talking about his mother and her third husband, Bob, and he throws out that they make over $100,000 a year.

 

In Preble County, with Mamaw and Papaw over forty-five minutes away, the fights turned into screaming matches. Often, the subject was money, though it made little sense for a rural Ohio family with a combined income of over a hundred thousand dollars to struggle with money.

 

This frankly baffled me, and it made the rest of the memoir a struggle for me. I live in Portland, Oregon, a place with a much higher cost of living than rural Ohio, and while I don’t plan to share my household income, suffice it to say that in 1994, when J.D. Vance was in second grade, I was a newly married, new lawyer and my household income was significantly under six figures. I would’ve said that these people were legitimately wealthy. I had my first child two years later and lived a modest, but secure, lifestyle with a house, two cars, and enough to eat. This made his entire thesis – that he’d grown up in hardscrabble poverty, difficult for me to swallow.

 

As an aside, it is also clear that his mother is a nurse, which is hardly a job that is held by people who are backwoods & uneducated. She is also a heroin addict. So, maybe it was all the unvarnished truth, but the facts don’t fit the conclusions, at least not in my mind. There was, for example, an entire discussion about how he and Mamaw couldn’t figure out how to fill out the FAFSA, and therefore he joined the Marines. It is a fact that he joined the Marines, but as I said above, his mother was a nurse. She had obviously gone to college, and possibly even graduate school. There is a small chance that this was the first time Mamaw had seen a FAFSA, but, on the other hand, she had likely filled one out for her daughter to attend college.

 

I was frustrated because he grew up in what was basically an extremely abusive family, and was attempting to generalize his abuse as something that was cultural, not endemic to his fucked-up, character-challenged, self-indulgent, mother and the people with whom she associated. Based on his anecdotes, his family was obnoxious, abusive and flat-out mean to their neighbors, local business owners, and partners. I didn’t actually find Mamaw charming at all – she was mouthy, unpleasant, and violent. The author tells a story about his grandparents basically vandalizing a local toy store because they were angry that the owner had asked their unattended son to leave before he broke something (Vance’s uncle). Their response to this insult was so over the top that I struggled to believe it – and if it’s true, they should’ve been arrested. I understand his love for her, because she raised the author at the time that he needed her most. I get his perspective, but from the outside looking in, none of this is good for kids. With exceptions outside of his family, the behavior exhibited by the so-called adults in this memoir was childish, emotionally-dysregulated and often anti-social.

 

I did enjoy his brief discussion of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and how toxic stress changes a child’s brain chemistry permanently. I do not dispute that J.D. Vance grew up in an abusive family, nor do I dispute that he is a remarkably resilient young man who very much overcame a difficult childhood. But I simply cannot believe that all of the “hillbillies” in Kentucky behave like this. Maybe they do, but seriously, these people were a modern incarnation of the Ewell family from To Kill A Mockingbird. They felt like caricatures created to fit a narrative. And if this is how they all act, then they universally need to grow the ever-loving-fuck up. And if they don’t behave like this, then trying to make this a “Memoir” of a culture, and not just a family, is both unfair and deeply misleading.

 

 

Especially given that Vance was two generations removed from Appalachian. His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, who feature so prominently in the book, fled Kentucky as teens, heading to the more industrial Ohio in order to find a better future. Vance’s mother, as I pointed out above, was a college graduate and a nurse. Vance himself visited family in Kentucky, but he did not live there and he did not attend school there. So, for him to write a book that purports to explain what is happening in Appalachia feels extremely arrogant, given that he is an outsider. Not as much of an outsider as a journalist from the New York Times or Washington Post would be, to be sure, but an outsider nonetheless.

 

So then, we come to the narrative – J.D. Vance is a conservative Republican. Hillbilly Elegy walked a contradictory line: he wanted, on the one hand, to present his family as sort of noble savages who were doomed by their community and their circumstances, forgotten and left behind by American progress (which is the preferred narrative to explain how Trump got elected), and, on the other hand, he wanted to support the premise that what the community really needs is less government help and more “up by their bootstraps” attitude (an attitude, which, btw, they seem to think that they alone already possess, given their attitude towards the social safety net being available to anyone who isn’t a rural white). These two positions seem difficult to reconcile at best and completely inconsistent at worst. It’s impossible to have it both ways – either this is a culture unmoored from ethics and productivity and they are responsible for their own shortcomings, or it is a culture that is suffering because of structural failures in our socio-economic system. It simply cannot be both, no matter how much conservative dogma aligned with rural whiteness wants to make it so.

 

TLDR: I enjoyed reading it, but it convinced me of nothing.

The next two Christies

 

Just arrived - the next two Christies are queued up.

SPOILER ALERT!

Love is like a white rabbit?

Excellent Women - Barbara Pym

" I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her."

 

And so we meet Mildred Lathbury, the first person narrator of Excellent Women, Barbara Pym's second novel, published in 1952. The book opens with the arrival of a new resident in Mildred's building - Helena Napier, whose husband, Rockingham, has not returned from Italy, where he was stationed with the Navy. Helena is a type of woman that is almost completely foreign to Mildred - an anthropologist with little interest in her marriage, and less interest in housekeeping, cooking or church, the things that Mildred understands the best.

 

I loved Mildred - she is a bit bewildered by her new neighbors, but is also unapologetically interested in the oddness of their lives. She is a sheltered gentlewoman who, over the course of Excellent Women, allows a talent for mild rebellion to emerge. Her attitude is generally one of rueful irony, and there are times that she is positively funny. She, rather than Helena, might have been the anthropologist, but the object of her study is the doings of post-war Brits, especially her neighbors.

 

In addition to the Napiers, Everard Bone, one of Helena's colleagues, ends up insinuating himself into Mildred's life. There is much scandal around Helena's relationship with Everard, and Mildred finds herself in the middle of it. One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when Everard, lurking about waiting for her to leave work, persuades her to go for a drink with him. 

 

"Women are quite impossible to understand sometimes."

I pondered over this remark for a while, asking myself what it was going to lead up to, and then wondered why had been so stupid as not to realise that he wanted to say something about Helena Napier...

 

And, he does want to say something about Helena Napier, who has been behaving most indiscreetly, indeed. The two of them have been seen by their colleagues, at a time when they should not have been together.

 

"I suppose you would not want to marry Helena even if she were free. I mean, divorced would be against your principles."

"Naturally", he said stiffly. And I don't love her anyway."

Oh, poor Helena. I think she may love you," I said rashly.

"I'm sure she does," said Everard in what seemed to be a satisfied tone. "She has told me so,"

"Oh, no! Not without encouragement! Do women declare themselves like that?"

"Oh, yes. It is not so very unusual."

"But what did you tell her?"

"I told her that it was quite impossible that I should love her."

"You must have been rather startled,"I said, "Unless you had expected it, and perhaps you had if it can happen. But it must have been like having something like a large white rabbit thrust into your arms and not knowing what to do with it."

 

So, on the one hand, we have the Napiers, whose relationship and marital breakdown causes much upset in her home, and then on the other hand, we have Allegra Gray, who moves in with her vicar, Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, and immediately makes a play for Julian. Mildred, as a single woman, is accepted as the person who is going to deal with the fall out from this arrangement: is Allegra going to marry Julian? Is Winifred going to have to move out?

 

I loved Mildred's reaction when Winifred shows up at her house, hair disarranged and somewhat wild, wearing no hat or coat and sodden bedroom slippers, and asks if she can move in - poor Mildred sees all of her independence disappearing before her very eyes as Winifred explains that she has disliked Allegra since Lady Farmer's lilies ended up on the floor. 

 

"Oh, but, Mildred, I hoped I could come and live with you," said Winifred with appalling simplicity.

For a moment I was too taken aback to say anything and I knew that I must think carefully before I answered."

 

Reading Excellent Women, I was reminded of Jane Austen, and especially of Anne Elliott after she turned down Captain Wentworth. Mildred is fighting against a culture that wants to deny her value because she is an unmarried gentlewoman - and therefore her emotional and physical labor are available to her community with or without her consent. Contrast Mildred with school headmistress Sarah Burton from South Riding, published decades earlier in 1936, who says of herself:

 

“No chance of a love-affair here in the South Riding and a good thing too. I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.

 

But although Mildred is a much gentler person, must more quiescent and willing to accept societal boundaries, she's not a pushover.  It's frustrating to her that everyone believes that she is crushed by Julian getting engaged to Allegra Gray, because they assume she wanted him for herself. But she doesn't and she didn't, and she can't protest because they will assume she is lying for self-protection. And her relationship with Everard, it seems, is to be one of friendship, once Rockingham and Helena Napier make up their silly quarrel and reunite. He has asked her to help him in his work, and she has acquiesced - this may lead to marriage or it may not.

 

I just don't get the feeling, at the end of the book, that she wants to marry anyone - and she's decided that on her own. 

 

She says of herself:

 

And then another picture came into my mind. Julian Malory, standing by the electric fire, wearing his speckled mackintosh, holding a couple of ping-pong bats and quoting a not very appropriate bit of Keats. He might need to be protected from the women who were going to live in his house. So, what with my duty there and the work I was going to do for Everard, it seemed as if I might be going to have what Helena called "a full life" after all.

 

I hope so, Mildred. I hope you got everything you wanted, and then some. Not every woman needs to be married to find purpose. Not even in 1952.

The Dark Waters of Doom

The Case of Jennie Brice - Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Case of Jennie Brice was first published in 1913 - my MMP edition issued in 1969 by Dell. Cover by Garridos. The image is appealing but has quite literally nothing in common with the contents of the book. I bought my copy at a UBS for $2.00.

 

The plot summary for this book was a bit misleading which seems to be a theme with older MMPs - they amp up the drama and intrigue to advertise the book. This one sounded like a Gothic/romantic suspense type book based on the cover/back matter.

 

There was really very little romance, although there was a slight romantic subplot between a couple of the side characters. It was really more intriguing for that - the basic premise is that the narrator, a semi-impoverished woman named Mrs. Pittman in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, owns a large boarding house. Jennie Brice, a local and not particularly successful actress, and her husband, Mr. Ladley, an even less successful playwright, are residents of the boarding house. At the beginning of the book, the Allegheny river overflows its banks and floods the area, including the boarding house - the early pages of the book follow the narrator as she pulls up carpets and everyone retreats to the upper rooms of the house.

 

This was really interesting - the descriptions of the icy water swirling throughout the house, the boat tied to the stair railing, and the way that the residents of the flood district simply coped with the reality that they were being flooded again was riveting.

 

During the flood, Jennie Brice goes missing. Mrs.Pittman finds several clues that point to murder: the rope tying the boat to the stairs is bloody, there's a broken knife in the kitchen, and Jennie's dog is found trapped in a place he shouldn't have been. In addition, her neighbor ends up with Jennie's striped fur coat, when Mr. Ladley has told everyone that she left town wearing the coat. And Mrs. Pittman's treasured onxy clock - the only thing left of her youthful gentility - has gone inexplicably missing.

 

There are a couple of curve balls related to the mystery. A headless body is dredged up after the flood, but it has a distinctive scar and no one can identify it as being Jennie. Witnesses have been discovered that claim that Jennie spent the days after her appearance with them, hiding from her husband. Mr. Ladley goes on trial for the murder. Ultimately, one of the local residents - not the police, but a man who is interested in crimes, figures the whole thing out.

 

The solution was fairly well-done, especially considering that this book was published in 1913, a full 7 years before Christie published The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Stylistically, it has significant weaknesses, but this is the genre in its infancy, and it reads better than a lot of early detective fiction. I liked it more than The Circular Staircase, which I remember finding disjointed and confusing, although I might give it another read since I've become much more familiar with the early genre conventions and quirks. I have a few other Rineharts on my shelves and I will continue to pick them up at my local UBS as they appear.

 

As an aside, Mary Roberts Rinehart's sons went into publishing, which caused her to break her contract with Doubleday to go with their new publishing house, Farrar and Rinehart. After Farrar left, they merged with Henry Holt to become Holt, Rinehart and Winston, This publishing company later merged with MacMillan, and still operates as Henry Holt and Co. And here we are, in 2019.

Let's all have some tea and muffins

At Bertram's Hotel - Agatha Christie

At Bertram's Hotel is the 11th Miss Marple, published in 1944, and Jane is winding down her career - there are only two more Miss Marple mysteries after this one: Nemesis, published in 1971 and The Sleeping Murder, published in 1976 (but apparently written much earlier).

 

Bertram's Hotel is an old-fashioned hotel in London, with an impeccable reputation and an equally impeccable tea tray. One can get *real* muffins here, slathered in butter, to go with one's tea. As an American, I have no idea what these real muffins look like - I'm concluding from the discussion that they are not our blueberry studded, cake-like confections, and are, perhaps, something more like what I would call an English muffin.

 

Anyway, the whole book had me wanting to have tea. Because these people drank a lot of tea, and ate a lot of tea pastries.

 

 

Five minutes later breakfast came. A comfortable tray with a big potbellied teapot, creamy-looking milk, a silver hot water jug. Two beautifully poached eggs on toast, poached the proper way, not little round hard bullets shaped in tin cups, a good-sized round of butter stamped with a thistle. Marmalade, honey and strawberry jam. Delicious-looking rolls, not the hard kind with papery interiors—they smelt of fresh bread (the most delicious smell in the world!). There was also an apple, a pear and a banana.

 

This was a fun mystery for other reasons as well - there were three separate subplots here: the robberies that Scotland Yard was trying to solve, the mystery of the missing Canon Pennyfather, and then the murder of the Commissaire (sort of a doorman, I think) which occurred very late in the book.

 

Bess Sedgewick was a wonderful side-character. She was an adventurous sort of a woman, who was staying at the hotel during the time that Miss Marple was spending her holiday there. This is one of those Christie books where she puts a whole bunch of people in the same place to watch the fireworks ensure - Bess is there, her daughter Elvira, who was raised by an elderly retainer after her father died and after Bess sailed into the great unknown to have adventures, is there, an ethically challenged, but extremely handsome, Italian race-car driver is hanging about, and then we have the ridiculously absent-minded Canon Pennyfather who disappears midway through the book and turns up miles away from where he should have been.

 

Chief-Inspector Davies, nicknamed "Father," is the one that puts it all together after Scotland Yard is brought in to figure out what has happened to Canon Pennyfather. He and Miss Marple are perfect together, and I wish that he had shown up in some of the other Marple books. Christie missed an opportunity here. He says to his subordinate:

 

"I just think I'd like to have a good deal more information about this place. I'd like to know who is behind it, what its financial status is. All that sort of thing."

 

Campbell shook his head. "I should have said if there was one place in London that was absolutely above suspicion--"

 

"I know, I know," said Father. "And what a useful thing it is to have that reputation!"

 

The resolution to the book is a bit of a let-down, unfortunately, with the murderer being seemingly free due to a lack of evidence. I don't want to say too much and spoil the end, though, because Christie's puzzles are always so much fun to try to solve. I had read this one before, and remembered the identity of the murderer, but the other two subplots were just as mysterious this time as they were the first time I read it! This is one of the reasons that I love Christie so much - between the mouthwatering descriptions of tea and the complicated plotlines, I always find something to enjoy!

The streets of Isola are a cold, bleak place

The Pusher (An 87th Precinct Novel) - Ed McBain

This is not the first 87th Precinct mystery that I've read - I bought a whole bunch of them when the kindle editions went on sale for .99 back in 2012. This one wasn't available at the time, so I skipped it. The first one, Cop Hater, also wasn't available at that time, a fact which I just realized sitting down to write this review. 

 

So, I've read The Mugger, #2, and The Con Man #4, and now this one. I will go back and pick up Cop Hater next, since it is available for the Kindle Unlimited library, which is how I read this one. I haven't really checked, but I think that all of the books are available through KU at this point. 

 

Having gotten that organizational explanation out of the way, let's talk about The Pusher, which was published in 1956. The fictional city of Isola is the setting for the series of police procedurals, which is a stand-in, apparently, for New York City, although I mentally put the books in Baltimore, probably because they remind me so much Homicide, Life on the Streets, and the work of David Simon generally. In my mind, at least, it's a straight line, and a five decades, between Steve Carella and Frank Pembleton (and let me just say right now that I live for the day that Homicide is available for streaming).

 

I've read that it's not necessary to read the books in order, since they do not always share characters. I'm just guessing here, though, when I say that with a series that is this long running, it will benefit the reader to read them as close to in order as possible, both because of the character arcs and also because McBain is writing about work that went through extraordinary changes between 1954, when the series began, and 2005, when the 55th and final book was published. This is a series that lasted for 49 years, and saw the development of forensic techniques that Steve Carella could only have dreamed of when he was trying to solve the murders that occurred in 1956. 

 

This is very much a book of its time. The few women who exist between its pages are either wives or sex workers - and McBain uses a much less value neutral word than sex workers to describe them. The writing itself is journalistic in tone, without frills or lyricism, but it works for a series that feels very real. Isola in the 1950's is a grungy, high crime place, where drug users are called junkies and drug dealers are called pushers, and there is little empathy for either. 

 

I expect that it will take me years to complete the series (and I need ANOTHER reading project like I need a hole in my head, lol), if I ever do, but I am interested to see how McBain handles the advancements in criminology, women entering the workforce and other background elements in the series almost more than I am interested in the series itself. It strikes me that this series is very nearly a time capsule of American law enforcement in the mid-twentieth century to early twenty-first century, and this idea fascinates me.

Reading progress update: I've read 139 out of 270 pages.

At Bertram's Hotel - Agatha Christie

After immersing myself in 1950's London, I'm back to 1965, At Bertram's Hotel!

 

"I just think I'd like to have a good deal more information about this place. I'd ike to know who is behind it, what its financial status is. All that sort of thing."

 

Campbell shook his head. "I should have said if there was one place in London that was absolutely above suspicion--"

 

"I know, I know," said Father. "And what a useful thing it is to have that reputation!"

 

I've read this one before, but I've completely forgotten two of the three subplots!