Dirty Snow is Georges Simenon’s noir masterpiece of one corner of Occupied Europe. And it is truly noir. As William Vollman notes in the Afterword, the noir tag has gotten a bit overused and applied to pretend noir, but Simenon delivers the real deal.The protagonist, Frank, is a youth of the urban slum, the Occupied urban slum (no country is specified). He lives with his mother – who runs a bordello. He hangs around in a shady bar and wants to kill someone just – just why? Just to do it, to be known to have killed, who knows? He picks a disgusting low-level German officer as his victim. He gets involved in the black market, committing some heinous offenses in the process; offenses that would seem even worse were his victims worthy of sympathy. He falls in love, as much as he can anyway, and betrays this naïve young girl. Inevitably, the Occupiers stick Frank in a nasty little school-turned-jail; not, however, for killing the German officer. Frank’s black-market work for a German general was well paid, but it turns out the general got the money to pay Frank by stealing it from his own HQ and that is very much a cause for concern. This details sounds quite important and so it may seem I give away too much of the story. You’ll have to take my word that it is just an insignificant part of Frank’s story. Because now, subjected to lengthy interrogations, Frank has moved into another world that no one from his old world could grasp, if they even suspected its existence. Simenon’s tale calls to mind other notably dark and simply notable works such as Victor Serge’s [[ASIN:1590170644 The Case of Comrade Tulayev (New York Review Books Classics)]], Arthur Koestler's [[ASIN:1416540261 Darkness at Noon: A Novel]], and Robert Littell’s [[ASIN:1416598650 The Stalin Epigram: A Novel]]. Brilliantly disturbing.
(Previously published under the title Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine.)Maigret delivers the bad news in person to an inmate that clemency has been denied. Before he leaves Maigret learns of a murder six years earlier that the condemned man and a pal had witnessed. The pair blackmailed the murderer until the pigeon flew the coop, the prisoner informers Inspector Maigret but then he clams up with only a vague hint of the location and none as to the identity of the killer. Maigret hangs about and figures out the location from some overheard words. He manages to ingratiate himself into an odd mix of city folk who take a weekly holiday at this village and its bar on the Seine. Inevitably Maigret puts it all together.This Maigret story needs a couple of implausible coincidences to make it get started, but then it flows. Why is James plying Maigret with Pernods every day in Paris? Mado, the alluring wife of one of the gang, sleeps around and her husband seems to know, but does that have anything to do with the murder(s)? The same cuckolded husband is in debt up to his eyeballs. Plausible suspects abound. This one kept me up late to get to the finish. Highly recommended.
A Conspiracy of Paper was David Liss's first work of historical fiction. The book is set in London during the early 1700's and centers around the South Sea Company or more precisely, the South Sea Company's stock and its struggle against the Bank of England. In it the reader first meets Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish thief-taker and former boxer. Weaver is the central character in this book as well as The Devil's Company: A Novel, The Coffee Trader: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle), and A Spectacle of Corruption: A Novel. Liss excels in the details of time and place, which allows him to achieve a realistic and factually accurate picture of London during the early stock-jobbing days, Exchange Alley, the Jewish `quarter', Newgate prison, and the most famous - or I should say infamous real-life thief-taker of them all, Jonathon Wild. Thief takers caught criminals and turned them over to the State earning a handsome fee in the process. Wild's imaginative business plan had him playing both sides of the street. He employed crooks and thieves and then `peached' them when their future value fell below the government's price offer. Liss sets Weaver to solve the murder of his estranged father and one of his father's business associates neither of whom appeared to have been murdered on the face of it (one died in an accident, the other by his own hand). Weaver soon finds himself caught between some of the most powerful forces in 18th century England: the Bank of England, the South Sea Company, and Wild. Liss spins an engaging tale with marvelously rich historical detail. Unfortunately, he has a taste for overly complex plotting. Liss drops heavy hints first that the bank was behind all Weaver's troubles and then that the South Sea Company was his nemesis. And then the bank, the company, the bank - you get the idea. Mix in a healthy dose of Wild and clues strongly suggesting his alliance with one or the other and the reader feels that the game isn't quite a fair one. Still, Liss's works are high quality historical fiction and I highly recommend his works.
The first of two Sherlock Holmes pastiches authored by Nicholas Meyer, The Seven Percent Solution expands on the original works’ brief references to Holmes’ cocaine use and undertakes a full-blown examination of what turns out to have been his very severe addiction. Turns out Holmes didn’t really plunge over Reichenbach Falls in a deadly tussle with Professor Moriarty after all. That story was just Watson’s smoke screen to cover for Holmes’ addiction and cure. OK, interesting twist.Watson has to trick Holmes into going to Vienna to be treated by a controversial doctor with controversial ideas, Sigmund Freud, of course. Meyer does a nice job keeping the reader guessing whether Holmes is in a drug-induced paranoid state or is pulling the wool (again) over Watson’s eyes. That question is resolved once they arrive in Vienna. Of course, once in Vienna, Holmes and Watson become enmeshed in solving a heinous, but clever, set of crimes involving Viennese society. Along the way Meyer works in a number of answers to unsolved issues raised by the original works but left unanswered. Early in the book the references to these conundrums are so frequent that the book begins to take on a scholarly feel. [That is not a plus, in my view. If you want scholarly (if somewhat tongue-in-cheek) analyses, they are available.] As a confirmed addict of the originals and of numerous knockoffs, that sort of thing would seemingly appeal to me, but it struck me as a bit overly cute. And much of the story itself was decidedly unlike the Doyle tales – too much action for one thing. Meyer does not, I hasten to add, totally distort Holmes and Watson like the recent abomination of a movie. Most Holmes fans will enjoy this effort and may want to proceed to the [[ASIN:0393311538 The West End Horror: A Posthumous Memoir of John H. Watson, M.D.]].
After a couple of mediocre novels (Timeline), I had finally sworn off ever reading Michael Crichton again after his truly awful State of Fear, an anti-environmentalist polemic masquerading as a novel. Luckily for me I heard Alan Cheuse's review Pirate Latitudes on NPR; Cheuse was so effusive in his praise of this swashbuckling barrel of fun that I put aside my qualms and plotted a course for Port Royal.Anyway, Pirate Latitudes tells the rip-roaring story of privateering (mustn't call them pirates, my dear; piracy is treason) in the Caribbean in 1665. The Spanish control nearly every island and they've reached an uneasy peace with the English King Charles II. Diplomatic niceties won't stop the band of jolly rogues running the English Port Royal. Everyone is one the make from the royal governor on down.`Captain' Charles Hunter dreams up the unthinkable: take the Spanish island of Matanceros with its impregnable fortress and Spanish loaded down with gold in its harbor. He assembles an expert team and a small crew of 60 and sails away to waves of trouble for them and fun for us. They steal the gold, rescue the royal governor's niece, fight a broadside battle against ridiculous odds, get caught in a hurricane, beat down a kraken (yep, a sea monster) only to find they've been dirty double-crossed. Oh, will Hunter and his crew all be hung for piracy after all?Along the way, Crichton painlessly blends in a full ration of grog - err, information about sailing ships in the 17th century Caribbean islands. A boat load of fun.
Bertram’s Hotel is located in London’s fashionable West End; Mayfair to be precise. A stay at Bertram’s is like a visit to the past; Late Victorian England to be precise. Miss Marple arrives for a two-week visit and indulges (to a surprising degree) in nostalgic trips around London to the places of her girlhood (many of which are no longer extant). Bertram’s is pricey, clearly beyond Marple’s meager pocketbook, but her niece picks up the tab. When her niece initially suggests a stay at Bournemouth (an old resort town on the south coast), Marple characteristically rejects that sleepy destination and states her preference for a trip to the capital instead.Anyway, something isn’t quite right about Bertram’s. It’s too good to be true in its defiance of the march of time and progress. Of course, while Marple is thinking that something is fishy, the reader gets to indulge in Christie’s descriptions of a bygone time and place. And Christie populates her tale with charming stock characters, such as the forgetful cleric and the out-of-touch uncle. Marple is right about Bertram’s, of course, and in the end we find out what is really behind the place. Christie acknowledges that time marches on, while simultaneously juxtaposing the old values with the new much to the detriment of the new. The yearning for the past is no surprise and certainly no impediment to enjoying the story. The biggest problem I have with this story is the insufficient amounts of Marple. She resides in the periphery of the story until about the last fifth of the book when she helps the old chief inspector (known as ‘Father’) solve the crime. Jane and Father don’t like all the changes in society, but are flinty-eyed realists. Not bad, but not first rate Christie.
The subtitle accurately reflects Liddell Hart’s opinion of Scipio Africanus. Liddell Hart was a leading British military historian and strategist between the two world wars of the 20th century. But in 1926 at age 31, he wrote this brilliant concise history of the third century BCE Roman general. Publius Scipio Africanus led the Romans to victory over the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War. He defeated the better known Hannibal in the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE.After a brief introduction and the story of Hannibal’s defeat of Scipio’s father in 211 BCE, Liddell Hart takes the reader through Scipio’s victorious campaign against the Carthaginians in the Iberian Peninsula. Liddell Hart is unstinting in his praise of the Scipio’s willingness and ability to innovate and break free from stale military strategies and tactics. He also lauds Scipio’s generous treatment of the native tribes and even his defeated foes. Scipio returns home to election as consul and appointment as general for Sicily and Africa. Liddell Hart portrays Scipio as beset by conservative and jealous senators more anxious to drag him down than to further Roman interests. Scipio narrowly prevails over his political enemies, but is granted a very small force in Sicily. Scipio overcomes all odds, takes his army to Africa and defeats the legendary and much more experienced Hannibal. He returns to Rome and an increasingly unhappy struggle against his political foes led by Cato the Elder.Liddell Hart’s writing is clear and concise (the Da Capo Press version is just 280 pages). He makes military strategy and tactics accessible to the general reader. From both the context and numerous comments, it is clear that Liddell Hart’s high opinion of Scipio Africanus was against the grain of accepted scholarship at the time. He is especially dismissive of the opinions of the academic historians with no military background. I will leave it to others to argue the relative merits of Liddell Hart’s view of the Roman general, but his book is well worth reading.
J. Robert Janes is a Canadian author who has managed to create one of the more interesting detective duos among the many such pairs available in popular detective literature: a detective in the Paris police or sureté, Jean-Louis St. Cyr and a former Munich detective now in the Gestapo, Hermann Kolher. The two work as homicide detectives - after all even during the Occupation there were murders to be solved. Kaleidoscope is the third book in Janes' series and while not essential, I recommend starting with Mayhem, the first book in the series that provides much of the back story about the protagonists and their developing relationship. St. Cyr is attempting to hold on to his dignity and his patriotism and is quite wary of Kohler. Fortunately, Kohler is a detective first and a Gestapo only several steps distant and not a Nazi at any step however far removed. The relationship between St. Cyr and Kohler is evolving; the relationships between them and their bosses and between those bosses and the competing German and French security forces is, to say the very least, complicated. Lines of authority are constantly blurred as these forces vie for superiority. Among the goals of the leaders are the accumulation of loot and the exercise of brutal power. This complexity is a primary strength of Janes' writing that gives him a voice of vérité. The clarity of his writing, however, suffers from this penchant for complexity. On the other hand, Janes' writing gets better as the series goes on, so if you don't feel the need to know all the background, feel free to dive in anywhere. Kaleidoscope is set in the rural Provence in southern France. A woman is murdered by crossbow. Turns out she was engaged in the black-market, but was she doing `more', i.e. was she helping the resistance smuggle pilots, escapees, and insurgents, into Spain? And fi so, who killed her and why? Janes keeps getting better. Recommended.
J. Robert Janes is a Canadian author who has managed to create one of the more interesting detective duos among the many such pairs available in popular detective literature: a detective in the Paris police or sureté, Jean-Louis St. Cyr and a former Munich detective now in the Gestapo, Hermann Kolher. The two work as homicide detectives – after all even during the Occupation there were murders to be solved. Mayhem is the first book in the series. As a persistent consumer of detective fiction, perhaps the most instructive things I can offer is to reveal that I am presently reading my third book in the series (Kaleidoscope after Carousel). Mayhem provides much of the back story you need to understand the protagonists and their developing relationship. St. Cyr is attempting to hold on to his dignity and his patriotism and is quite wary of Kohler. Fortunately, Kohler is a detective first and a Gestapo only several steps distant and not a Nazi at any step however far removed. The relationship between St. Cyr and Kohler is evolving; the relationships between them and their bosses and between those bosses and the competing German and French security forces is, to say the very least, complicated. Lines of authority are constantly blurred as theses forces vie for superiority. Among the goals of the leaders are the accumulation of loot and the exercise of brutal power. This complexity is a primary strength of Janes’ writing that gives him a voice of vérité. The clarity of his writing also suffers from this penchant for complexity. His stories are difficult to follow and are perhaps best appreciated like a Monet painting for the total picture they reveal. I was thrilled to come across two more volumes (Sandman and Mannequin) in my favorite used bookstore, the Chequamegon Books in Washburn, Wisconsin. The Sandman attained recognition as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1997. I do recommend reading Mayhem first as it provides much of the background for the protagonists.
Lytton Strachey is credited with reinventing the art of writing biographies in his brilliant Eminent Victorians. Strachey published the book in 1918, not long after the end of the Victorian Era. Rather than attempt a comprehensive history of the Victorian Era, which he viewed as impossible, Strachey instead wrote short biographies of four truly eminent Victorians that punctured the moral pretensions and historical myths of that famous era. Strachey's subjects are barely remembered today. I suppose Florence Nightingale's name has some small current familiarity because of its association with selflessly nursing injured soldiers. I found her biography to be the flattest of them all. She came from a privileged background, stubbornly resisted her parents' efforts to marry her off, and exerted remarkable energy, persistence, and fortitude to accomplish significant changes in military medicine (which previously languished in a horrific state). Strachey's Dr. Arnold is a cautious educational reformer at best, rather than the revered innovator who established the English Public School system. The education provided at Arnold's Rugby School was quite limited with a dreary focus on religion and the classics. The sciences were entirely neglected. He did establish the prefectorial system whereby the old boys terrorized the younger boys who in their turn got to terrorize the next batch. Readers of Flashman will recognize Dr. Arnold as the head of the school that produced Tom Brown (and kicked Flashman out for drunkenness). Strachey's treatment of the life of Cardinal Manning is fascinating although the subject is arcane. Even in 1918 when Strachey wrote his book he said that few remembered Manning. The Pope's recent visit to the UK highlighted one Manning's archrivals, Cardinal Newman. Both Manning and Newman had risen high in the Anglican hierarchy when the Oxford Movement gradually led them to doubt that Henry VIII had been divinely inspired when he founded that church. Both converted to Catholicism, but the politically astute Manning managed a meteoric rise to Cardinal (with the connivance of the Pope's top assistant) while Newman languished in obscurity. Newman had ideas and ideas were threatening and indeed essentially heretical to Pio Nono, Pius IX (the pope who formally decreed papal infallibility). Only in his dotage was Newman gifted the red hat when the Duke of Norfolk intervened with the Pope on his behalf. Strachey's life of Cardinal Manning is simply a treat of wonderful writing, wit, with a thorough skewering of papal pomposity. The highlight of Eminent Victorians, for me, was the final biography of General Gordon, in which Strachey blows apart the mythology surrounding Gordon and indeed the Empire. Gordon had been hired by the leaders of Shanghai during the Taiping Rebellion to lead the Ever Victorious Army, which as Strachey notes had been seldom victorious prior to Gordon's ascendancy. Gordon famously dispatched the rebels. Gordon later served as British governor-general of the Sudan, but more often worked as a mercenary. He had returned to England and relative obscurity when the Mahdi Revolt broke out in the Sudan (see Mahdi Revolt). Gladstone wanted nothing more than to exit the Sudan, but he needed someone self-effacing with diplomatic skill for the job. Conservative elements in Gladstone's own government hit upon Gordon as the ideal man for the job. It is difficult to imagine any person less suited for the task of withdrawing than the strong-willed, idiosyncratic, and mercurial Gordon. With the appointment made, the die was cast: Gordon arrived in Khartoum, decided he could not abandon those fine people, and ended up a martyr when the city was predictably overrun (refusing numerous opportunities to leave for safety). The Gordon biography is simply high art. Bertrand Russell described Eminent Victorians as "brilliant, delicious, exquisitely civilized". I agree completely. Read it.