Books and Book Reviews: February 2006 Archives

The Deep Blue Alibi--Paul Levine


In my constant search for mysteries that can hold a candle to the classics in either writing, plotting, or cleverness of story, I managed to pick this one up. Promising to be a combination of Hiaasen and Grisham, it looked like it would probably be a bust, but it was set in the Keys, so I had to give it a chance.

I was more or less pleasantly surprised. An Attorney team of Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord investigate unpleasant and illegal doings in the keys, each nearly getting him or herself killed several times.

So let's stop here for a moment. If you want a frothy, if somewhat salacious and more-foul-mouthed-than-I-care-for read--this book is for you. It has everything--shyster lawyers, ambulance chasers, explosions, death by spear-gun, death by vintage WWII torpedo glider explosion, etc. etc. However, I'm now going to complain (hopefully not at length) about a point I found distressing.

Paul Levine, the author, supposedly lives in Miami. If so, he has never ventured very far from his penthouse apartment on the beach. The main stuck-in-my-craw point centers around a scene in which Victoria encounters a deadly coral snake in the shower. Okay, to start with, coral snakes ARE deadly--they are not something for amateurs to fool around with, don't try this at home. Any way, Victoria sees this snake and then dispatches it, after python-like, it wraps around her arm and has to be loosened and snapped like a whip a couple of times to subdue it. After she does so, her mother comes in and declares she'll have a handbag made of the skin. Two other people both claim it for their projects--a pair of boots and a briefcase.

STOP--rewind! (1) A coral snake is about the size of a common garter snake. Its head is so small that it would have to chew through an adult human's skin to inject venom, and the little guy isn't hanging around to do that. Most bites occur in the webbing of fingers and toes, the only place the skin is thin enough for this to transpire. If you had half-a-brain as an assailant, you'd pick something with a little more zing--a pygmy rattler, for instance. (2) Being the size of a garter snake, you'd be hard-pressed to make the strap of a handbag from several skins, much less an entire handbag. (3)Later mom shows up with a pair of sandals covered in this snake's skin. How long does the author think it takes to prepare a skin for such use. Evidently, he's of the opinion that it should be no more than about three days--at least according to the chronology of the novel.

Okay, I went on far too long about that, but it was one major sticking point. I hate when research is so sloppy that these minor facts can't be put straight. However, be that as it may, it's a quick and mostly enjoyable romp through the keys. I wouldn't bother with it until you've gotten through your stock of Hiaasen, White, and Dorsey (and if you're inclined to nostalgia MacDonald). But if you like some courtroom stuff mixed with a wildish ride through the tropics, you might enjoy this book.

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The Colorado Kid Stephen King

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It looks like a noir. It's titled like a noir. But it sure ain't a noir, and in a sense that's what makes it so marvelous.

You all may be acquainted with the grand and glorious paperback/pulp tradition of the 1950s and 60s in which you have a lurid, or at least a suggestive cover on a piece of content that has nothing whatsoever suggestive about it. Evidentiary support The Colorado Kid--cover, a seductive picture of a young woman in black holding a microphone. The promise--"she'll get secrets out of a dead man." The actuality--nothing of the sort.

The story is the tale of two old-geezer newspaper reporters on an island off the coast of Maine (Moose-Lookit Island) who are relating to a young intern the story of a truly mysterious happening on the island--a never-solved mystery.

In that sense, the story is only just barely a mystery and it certainly doesn't qualify in any sense for a hard-boiled or noir mystery. However, that is the icing on the cake--the vast majority of hard-boiled or noir don't really qualify. Hard Case Crimes hit a home run with this little ruse. In addition they accomplished quite a little coup in getting a piece by Stephen King to bolster sales. It would seem to me that this one title alone would be likely to support the line for a year or more.

The story itself is well done. When Stephen King sets aside certain personal fetishes he can write like no one else. This story resembles in kind only "The Body," only without any hint of anything gross. In a sense, it is among the most mature, adult writing Mr. King has done. The story is captivating and carries you right along even though you sense that you might not be getting what you paid for. By the time you're done you're either happy or furious--(in fact, I was happy because the author broadcast the end long enough in advance for you to leave off if you hadn't any interest.)

A very fine entry in the series, and a very fine story all on its own. Highly recommended.

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Night Walker


An entry in the Hard-Case Crime series by Donald Hamilton, Night Walker suffers a bit in the plotting department, the noir department, and the writing department. It is adequate and light fluff, but hardly a heavy hitter, not even coming up to the standards of the Day Keene entry Home is the Sailor.

The story centers around a Navy Reserve Officer after WWII being called up to service again. Not keen about the idea he spends the travel money on a drunk and ends up hitchhiking his way to the hospital via a driver who picks him up and clubs him over the head. Add to that a reluctant murderer wife, some espionage, and a girl-fried who won't let go and you have a fairly typical noir mix. However, the atmosphere doesn't really have the menace necessary for a successful noir--nor is it steamy enough to move successfully into the hardboiled realm.

Hamilton is better known as the creator of Matt Helm, a detective/spy played with variable success in a series of films starring Dean Martin (heck, it was the Zeitgeist, you have Bond, Flynn, Helm, on television The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Saint, and The Avengers.

Anyway, if you haven't anything else to fill an idle hour-and-a-half, this can be entertaining enough. But I'd probably suggest you try the Day Keene or, so far at least, the Stephen King entry in the series The Colorado Kid.

Next up after The Colorado Kid--Paul Levine's The Deep Blue Alibi (more Florida Mystery), Michael Innes Sheiks and Adders and From London Far (lent me by a friend) and about two dozen Perry Mason. Found a stash that includes the first ten and I have about fourteen of my own. Yes, when the heat is on at work, the brain goes on vacation away.

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The Case of the Sulky Girl


(As if you care).

One of the attractions of any novel by Erle Stanley Gardner is the cleverness of the title. Although not exhibited particularly well in this second Perry Mason novel, the first The Case of the Velvet Claws and the third The Case of the Lucky Legs, along with the A. A. Fair titles (Fish or Cut Bait, Fools Die on Friday, You Can Die Laughing) are all nice uses of cliché phrases to new effect. Enough about titles, were his ability to stop there, there would be no point in encouraging people to pick up these classics.

Gardner's ability extends to plotting and construction of the essential mystery. I would not class him with the other classic Golden Age Mystery writers for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, in the Perry Mason series, he does not have a detective as such. Perry Mason, much like Nero Wolfe, is essential a fixture. The investigation is done by others and we see Perry thinking and interviewing and doing lawyerly stuff, but rarely actively investigating. (I'm reporting on this novel, I'm sure others may show different behaviors.) But more importantly, Gardner took steps, either consciously or unconsciously to divorce himself from the whole Golden Age school. For one thing, his setting is relentlessly realistic. So much so that I would put him in a class by himself as a California Mystery Novelist. There are no others in this unique set. Although others write mysteries set in California, the sensibility of these novels is unique. Chandler wrote about Los Angeles and other California settings, but his novel aren't anchored to the state, they are anchored to the state of hard-boiled noir. Gardner walks a thin line between the classical school and the hard-boiled, but the atmosphere is rarely noir, and it certainly wasn't for Perry Mason in this novel.

This is the second in the series. I'll have to go back and catch the first. Thanks to the provisions of our marvelous copyright laws, the books, which under any reasonable circumstances would have entered public domain some time ago, are locked away most likely permanently. And publishers, in their great push to have more knitting, candle-making, bed-and-breakfast, tea, and scrapbooking mysteries have set aside some of the great works of the past. Should the trend continue, these works could be lost to future generations--I think particularly of Gardner, Carr, Queen, and a few others--very fine mystery writers whose recent publication records are dismal. I'd venture to guess that among the three perhaps twenty percent of the collected opus is available for purchase to readers today. Back to my point--thanks to copyright provisions, The Case of the Velvet Claws and approximately 60 other Perry Mason novels do not appear to be in print at present. Or perhaps Velvet Claws was and it was just back-ordered--I forget--either way the main point stands.

In this second Perry Mason novel we experience (I am told) the first time Mason is involved in a trial. For those who recall the television show, the trial is much the same, although there's a whole lot more commentary from the peanut gallery about how Mason is really botching it up. The denouement occurs within the trial sequence and provides a satisfactory, if only faintly sketched solution to the mystery. As Gardner gets better control of his material, I expect this aspect of the novels to improve.

What is interesting here are the large number of illegal and suspect things Mason does in the course of this single case. He hides his client away from the police, he mails stole money to himself to avoid being in possession of it, he attempts to steal evidence--and so forth. He is so dicey that at one point he acknowledges that if things go poorly, he would certainly be in danger of an accessory-after-the-fact charge.

I've gone on long enough. I enjoyed the book for what it was and am sorry that I have come so late to this particular table. The field was never a specialty of mine and I was much more interested in the British School--which, curiously, includes one major American author (John Dickson Carr) and could be argued to be the predominant influence in another (Ellery Queen). In fact, of the writers of the Golden Age, it seems there is only one prolific American standout--Rex Stout. He defied the conventions and the lure of the British School and forged a unique American voice and a Detective who has no parallel in the mystery field. Perhaps I'll take up writing about him in the near future. But for the time being, to round out the review, I would say that Sulky Girl is recommended light reading, and required reading for those who wish to acquaint themselves with certain milestones in the history of the mystery field. After all, Perry Mason's first recorded trial is a landmark occasion of sorts.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from February 2006.

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