Books

Bargain Bin Mystery #2: A Book So Bad It Makes Me Want to Cry

Dead Man’s Puzzle
A Puzzle Lady Mystery
Parnell Hall
Worldwide Mystery
2009

I tried.

I tried so hard.

I tried so hard to say something nice about this book.

But I couldn’t.

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“What the fluff is this?”–Sassy

It is one of the worst things I have subjected my reading eyes to.

One. Of. The. Worst.

Thank God I only bought it as part of a $5 bag of used paperbacks from Brookline Booksmith. (The Booksmith is awesome and in no way responsible for the poor quality of this book, by the way. Nor does the Booksmith in anyway sponsor or promote this blog).

I almost worry this review is going to get me sued.

I thought for sure this was a first-time novel of an artist whose work never again saw the light of day. I was surprised to learn the author has a wide following. The reasons for that escape me, but to each their own.

Let’s start with the premise of Dead Man’s Puzzle. A detective novel has to have a conceit, something quirky about its detective that makes him/her/them ‘unusual’ as a detective.

Cora Felton is a serial monogamist, recovering alcoholic, and sudoku expert who makes her living as the creator of a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle column.

As I am breaking into the series in the third book (and am breaking “out” of the series as soon as this review is done), I have no idea how this bizarre arrangement came about. I only know the fraud is perpetuated by Cora’s niece, the actual crossword constructor.

Needless to say, Cora is a spectacularly unsympathetic protagonist. I don’t need my heroes to be angels, but I do need some reason to like them. Cora’s relationships are poorly defined, even though numerous minor characters appear in useless subplots; her history and motivation are sketchy. Everything Mr. Hall does in describing her and presenting her internal monologues just makes me dislike her more.

The only time I had some sympathy for Cora was in a spare, brief paragraph describing her temptation to drink again, with the reasons for the urge (stress) and the reasons for her resistance (the shame she would feel in front of her niece) clearly outlined (246). It’s a very human moment for a character who otherwise comes across as a rather obnoxious wooden board.

The style of the writing is the thing that most makes me recoil from this book. The prose thinks it is so. darn. clever.

I know I’m not one to talk, but bear with me.

Consider the following, from an early chapter, which is right about where I stopped having hopes for the book. Notice the poor construction of that first sentence in particular. That medial comma is just bugging me.

Cora got out of the car, faced a rather exasperated-looking Chief Harper. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘you got me.’
‘Didn’t you see me behind you?’
‘That was you?’
‘Yes, that was me. Why didn’t you stop?’
‘Why didn’t you use your siren?’
‘I don’t use the siren unless I’m making an arrest.’
‘You’re not arresting me?’
‘For what?’
‘For whatever you’re not arresting me for.’
‘I’m not arresting you for anything.’
‘I guess that covers it.’ 
(14)”

Razor blades. Like razor blades to the mind’s eye, reading that. And it goes on like that for three-hundred pages.

It’s like a computer tried writing in the style of Jane Austen. While all the wordplay, all the sass that should make it funny is there, there is something dead about the execution that makes it fall more-than-flat. It also has very little to do in advancing the plot or readers’ understanding of the characters.

I had to force myself to pay the bare minimum of attention to each page. Even when I tried very hard to understand this book, I could not tell you what was going on.

The “story” (and I use that term loosely in describing the chain of events recorded on these cheaply printed pages) begins with Cora’s niece leaving on honeymoon, meaning Cora has to find other ways to perpetuate the fraud she commits on her devoted readers.And then a little old recluse gets murdered and leaves crossword puzzles of his own design as the only clues.And then all his poorly-characterized and largely unnamed relatives show up.

And then some…and….actually, I no longer care.

0/5 stars: Why is this even in print? I’ve read better fan fiction.
0/5 ‘fraidy cats: Fear and concern would presuppose emotional investment in this book, of which I have none.
1/5 ick-factor: Readers are subjected to superfluous descriptions of abysmal housekeeping. 

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Bargain Bin Mystery #1: “Wish You Were Here” Delivers Brutal Hits with Wit

Wish You Were Here
Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown
Illustrations by Wendy Wray
Bantam Books
1990

Welcome to Bargain Bin Mysteries! In this new feature, I review paperback books that I have bought on the cheap to find you the best in bargain reading.

Today’s contestant is one I have meant to read for a while, and one I am glad to finally share with you. “Wish You Were Here” is the first of the “Mrs. Murphy Mystery” series, written by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie, her tabby.

Sassy is very pleased that I am representing other feline writers on this blog.

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“Took you long enough. Hmph. Hemingway never credited his cats…”

It has cats and it has postcards–two of my favorite things, as anyone who has been subjected to my onslaughts of cat pictures and paper correspondence knows.

Set near Charlottesville, Virginia, in the town of Crozet, the novel opens with postmistress Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen negotiating a divorce from Fair, the town’s veterinarian. Of course, this being a small town, it’s not only friends and family picking sides, but all of Harry’s customers as well.

Accompanied by Mrs. Murphy, a “gray tiger cat, who bears an uncanny resemblance to authoress Sneaky Pie and who is wonderfully intelligent!” (as reported in the cast of characters) and Tee Tucker, a Welsh corgi, Harry spends her days sorting mail and reading other people’s postcards on the sly.

This is how she first notices two of the town’s recently (and brutally) deceased residents received postcards with pictures of tombstones and the typewritten message “Wish You Were Here.” Harry goes on the hunt for murder, with Mrs. Murphy and Tucker running a simultaneous investigation and trying their best to protect their human.

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The cover art is whimsical and gives away just enough of the book.

Does your cat bring in brutally mangled mice? She may just be trying to show you where the murderer left the body.

While at first I thought the novel was a little slow–the first few chapters introduce half the town by having them walk into Harry’s postoffice–I grew to love it. There is a great deal of wit, delivered both by bipeds and quadrupeds. The chapters in which the animals talk amongst themselves, and try to make themselves understood to the clueless humans, are particularly delightful.

The plot quickens and is not overly complicated. Ms. Brown presents readers with a rare accomplishment: a mystery that they can solve, but only a few chapters before the heroine. The resolution is satisfying and surprising, but not forced.

Wish You Were Here is a loving, but not particularly thorough, critique of life in the South. A major subplot involves the wedding of the white mayor’s daughter, who has been banned by her parents from inviting her older brother because he is now married to a black woman. Brown admits that life is not peachy in Crozet, not for all of its residents, at least, but she does not set out to be Upton Sinclair. Commentary in the novel is not particularly preachy and always comes through the lens of a character’s mind.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wish You Were Here. When I found it in the used book cellar at Brookline Booksmith, I was able to also buy the third entry in the series. The second was not on the shelf last I checked, however.

must find the second book, and fast.

4/5 stars: Charming, well-paced, and engaging. Great way to spend an afternoon.

1/5 ‘fraidy cats: Fairly tame, except for a scene of cruelty to a minor animal character that hurts more than any of the humans’ murders.

2/5 ick-factor: Brown leaves just enough to the imagination when describing her brutal murders. Think: cement grinder.

“Bullied to Death”: Brutal Topic, Respectful Narrative

Bullied to Death: A Story of Bullying, Social Media, and the Suicide of Sherokee Harriman
Judith Yates
WildBlue Press
Released 10 April 2018

This is a hard one to read, folks.

Ms. Yates is not to blame, except in that her gaze is unsparing, the scope of her research unafraid. Ms. Yates tells the story well, but it is the story of a child’s miserable life and rending death.

In September 2015, fourteen-year-old Sherokee (pronounced like “Cherokee”) Harriman stabbed herself to death in a public park, in view of a group of teenagers who had been tormenting her earlier that day.

(more…)

Millionaire Hunting Club Kills Thousands

The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known
David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 1968
268 pages of narrative, 302 with apparatus

Having read Isaac’s Storm just before this, I am pleased to announce:

The Great American Flood Book Face-Off

Spoiler alert: Isaac’s Storm wins, hands-down.

Mr. McCullough’s 1968 book is an account of the 1889 flood that killed at least 2,000 in and around Johnstown, Pennsylvania. While the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was an act of God colliding with the hubris of Man, the Johnstown flood was the result of only the hubris (and stupidity) of Man.

High above the steel-mill town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a number of Gilded Age millionaires (among them Andrew Carnegie) founded a hunting club for “the better sort”. This mountain retreat included an artificial lake, stocked with bass that wardens zealously guarded from locals, that had been formed by building an earthen dam across a stream.

It turns out the dam was a rather amateurish construction, poorly maintained.

On 31 May 1889, it burst, unleashing tons upon tons of water into the valley below. Several smaller communities vanished entirely, while the larger Johnstown became a scene of apocalyptic devastation that haunted a generation.

One of the most famous photos to come out of the disaster. All six people in the house survived…somehow. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Johnstown is one of David McCullough’s earlier works. While it has been almost a decade since I read John Adams (2001) and 1776 (2005), I remember them being both richly detailed and fun to read. Johnstown is also thoroughly detailed, but the prose is rather dry.

There are some touching vignettes of families, and plenty of the social and political context of the disaster, but they come across rather flatly.

The hunting club and its members were never charged for the disaster; suits against them were dismissed. While McCullough does allude to the absolute injustice of this, and the survivors’ realization that larger forces had caused their suffering, he does not dwell on this. I am one to prefer a more polemical tone, a fault though that may be.

McCullough does do an excellent job illumining a rather forgotten brand of American bigotry: persecution of Hungarians (and anyone who vaguely looked Hungarian). Like the Irish and the Italians, Hungarians were accused of taking away good jobs for lower pay, being vulgar, and otherwise failing to assimilate and become WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).

In the aftermath of the Johnstown flood, the yellow press accused Hungarian laborers of cutting fingers off the dead to steal wedding rings, among numerous other crimes. Artistic representations, featuring very swarthy, poorly dressed “Hungarians” accompanied the screaming articles.

Of course, these stories had no basis in fact. Very little looting followed the flood, done by Hungarians or otherwise.

The stories of Hungarian persecution particularly resonated with me because, a generation after the flood, my Hungarian ancestors arrived in the industrial towns of Western Pennsylvania. They too were called “bohunks.”

Writing in the 1960s, perhaps the theme of racial/ethnic discrimination struck McCullough as particularly important to bring to the fore of his book, while, writing today, in this New Gilded Age, another author might address issues of wealth and power more thoroughly.

If you are interested in the Johnstown Flood, you will find this book useful. If you could use entertainment, you will likely not be interested.

2/5 stars: I wanted to like it more…but it’s a little boring.
3/5 ‘fraidy catsDo you know who’s inspecting your local dam?
2/5 ick-factor: Lots of dead bodies, not much description.

 

“Isaac’s Storm” A Far-Too-Timely Masterpiece

Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Erik Larson
Crown Publishers 1999
273 pages of text, 323 with notes

As wind shook my apartment on Thursday, as the cyclone passed overhead, I forgot for a moment if I was in Boston, with snow pelting against the windowpanes, or in Houston, with rain, trees, and shingles threatening to break through the plywood covering our windows.

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View of my neighborhood. Likely thoughts of driver: “Screw this.” 

Watching footage of dumpsters and ice floes streaming through downtown, and hearing news that parts of New Hampshire will be colder than Mars tonight, I decided it was time to delve into a disaster book.

“And in a single day and night of misfortune…
the island of Atlantis sank beneath the sea”
-Plato, Timaeus

I grew up on the flat, hot, humid coastal plains of Texas. A favorite summer destination for my family was Galveston, the barrier island about an hour south from Houston on I-45. When rain threatened our day on the beach, or we were already too sunburned for our own good, one of our indoor activities was a locally produced documentary film about the Great Storm of 1900. As a child, I was fascinated and horrified by the story of how an unanticipated September hurricane killed at least 8,000 and knocked Galveston from its position as Queen City of the South. It remains the deadliest disaster in U.S. history in terms of human lives.

That is my only complaint about the book I am about to review. For historical accuracy, the subtitle should conclude “the Deadliest Hurricane in American History.” I understand that the publisher had to sell copies, however.

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Sassy-approved. 

Isaac’s Storm is a work of nonfiction that centers on Isaac Cline, the chief weatherman of Galveston in September 1900, husband, father, scientist, and upstanding citizen. While nonfiction, Isaac’s Storm rises to narrative and descriptive heights that most fiction authors only dream of reaching. Without burdening readers with cumbersome and slow backstory, Erik Larson recreates Isaac, his family, his fellow-citizens, and his time with a historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and novelist’s gift for characterization and conjecture.

For anyone who has visited Galveston, or lived on the Gulf Coast, you will be transported by descriptions of “the susurrus of curtains luffed by the breeze” and “the thudding…caused by great deep-ocean swells falling upon the beach” (8).

The Galveston of 1900, so vividly resurrected by Larson, is a cosmopolitan city, the Ellis Island of the South, home to large communities of German and Jewish immigrants, as well as a (relatively) respected and protected African-American community. Among the most memorable characters Larson introduces is Rabbi Henry Cohen. This pillar of Galveston’s community, revered by his congregation and Gentiles alike, was marital counselor, expeditionary to Southern Africa, and single-handed rescuer of maidens from captivity in a local bordello.

Seriously, he went in swinging and carried the kidnapped woman out on his shoulder to freedom. Someone needs to make a movie about him.

Larson interlaces these human, variable, lively accounts of daily life with brutally objective descriptions of the storm as it forms off the coast of Africa and moves inexorably (and yet inexplicably) towards Galveston. These sections are set apart by black borders along the page; one is tempted to think of Victorian mourning borders on stationery.

Consider Larson’s ecstatic, almost pornographic descriptions of cloud formation:

“It began, as all things must, with an awakening of molecules. The sun rose over the African highlands east of Cameroon and warmed grasslands, forests, lakes, and rivers, and the men and creatures that moved and breathed among them; it warmed their exhalations and caused these to rise upward as a great plume of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, the earth’s soul The air contained water: haze, steam, vapor; the stench of day-old kill and the greetings of men glad to awaken from the cool mystery of night. There was cordite, ether, urine, dung. Coffee. Bacon. Sweat. An invisible paisley of plumes and counterplumes formed above the earth, the pattern as ephemeral as the copper and bronze veils that appear when water enters whiskey” (19)

Poetry. Absolute poetry.

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The binding is beautiful, too. 

Isaac’s Storm is, above all, a tale of hubris. A naive confidence that Galveston would never fall victim to a hurricane, bolstered by Cline’s per-order report to local businessmen that the city was safe; an imperialist belief that brown-skinned Cuban forecasters could not possibly know more about hurricanes than the newly-formed Weather Service’s Washington office; a last-ditch hope perhaps this house would survive the sixteen-foot storm surge when hundreds like it had not been spared.

The most salient forensic aspect of the book comes in the aftermath of the storm. Without refrigeration, electricity, DNA, dental records, or fingerprints, the people of Galveston attempt to identify and bury their dead with dignity.

Those attempts, for the most part, end rather ghoulishly.

Isaac’s Storm closes with its original 1999 conclusion, which raises the specter of global warming and its impacts on hurricane formation. Larson ponders how “a curious quirk in the New York-New Jersey coastline…[could allow] even a moderate hurricane on just the right track to drown commuters in the subway tunnels under Lower Manhattan” (273).

In the years since the publication of Isaac’s Storm, Galveston and the United States as a whole have seen numerous tropical storms and hurricanes, among them: Allison (Galveston/Houston, 2001); Charlie (Florida, 2004); the deadly Katrina (New Orleans, 2005); Rita (East Texas, 2005), which proved that you cannot evacuate 2 million+ people from Houston in an orderly fashion; Ike (Galveston/Houston 2008), which I remembered as the winds whipped my apartment last night; Sandy (NJ/NY 2012), which did flood the tunnels of Manhattan; and this damned most recent hurricane season of 2017, with Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, which have devastated Puerto Rico, Florida, and the City of Houston.

If Mr. Larson were to provide a new foreword to his masterpiece, it should be one sentence:

“You were warned.”

5/5 stars: a nonfiction masterpiece, vivid, cinematic, and brutally timely
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: as other critics, quoted on the dust jacket, have noted, you will fear the sky for days afterwards
4/5 ick-factor: 8,000 bodies in the Texas summer heat. Use your imagination; Larson will leave nothing to it. 

Mini-review: I bought this book at the Galveston Bookshop, one of my favorite places in Texas and, consequently, the world. Stop by to enjoy their great selection of used books and new local-interest/local-author titles, as well as their fair and convenient pricing and credit system for selling your own books. I was able to redeem credit, stored in their system, from two years or more ago when I visited over my Christmas break. Isaac’s Storm is available there for $19.95 USD.

(This promotion was done freely and at my own instigation. Seriously, I just love the Galveston Bookshop)

“Zodiac” Audiobook A Roadtrip Staple

Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Nation’s Most Bizarre Mass Murderer
Robert Graysmith
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
Blackstone Audio
Approximately 10 hours, 40 minutes of listening time

Back in July, before I was hit in the face by this thing called “grad school,” I took a road trip to D.C. On that same drive, I listened to Ann Rule’s Small Sacrifices and, having finished that, turned to Robert Graysmith’s heavy 1976 Zodiac. This recording, available on Audible, is narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, whose low voice and grave cadence suit the subject matter without becoming overly dramatic.

Graysmith was a political cartoonist at one of the San Francisco papers that received the Zodiac killer’s cryptic letters, often finding himself in the room when the editors opened the missives. Admitting as much, he became obsessed with the case. Considering the gravity and mystique posed by a masked madman with a love of Gilbert & Sullivan shows, I’d have to say the obsession is understandable. The personal element shines through not only as Graysmith enters the narrative as a sleuth on the killer’s trail, but also in his deft and sensitive portrayals of the victims.

In addition to this book on the Zodiac killer, he also wrote the 2002 Zodiac Unmasked. The 2007 movie Zodiac is based on Graysmith’s earlier book, with Jake Gyllenhaal playing the author as a young man.

Graysmith’s book is masterfully, even overwhelmingly, researched. I have to conclude I held off on reviewing it for so long because it would be impossible to provide anything more than surface-level analysis in a short-form post. Without the text of the book, I was still able to enjoy the story and learn a lot about the case, like the Zodiac’s aforementioned love of classic operettas.

Why he thought quoting the Lord High Executioner’s comic aria at length would make him more intimidating, I don’t know. I laughed down the Washington Parkway, thinking of my eighth grade class’s abbreviated production of Pirates of Penzance, as I listened to Rudnicki dutifully read the killer’s most bizarre letter in meter. 

If you are looking to learn more about the case, I would definitely recommend purchasing a hardcopy of the book in case you want to take notes.

As for entertainment value, the audiobook drags at a few points, most notably in Graysmith’s intensive focus on victim Darlene Ferrin’s personal life and murder, which occurs early in the book and interrupts its forward momentum. Then again, I was lost in New Jersey during that part, so maybe I was projecting my frustration with the state onto the book.

Graysmith later uses the Ferrin connections of one suspect  to argue he is the killer. This suspect goes unnamed in the book for legal reasons, but is likely Arthur Lee Allen. Allen, who is since deceased, has seemingly been excluded as a suspect based on comparison of his DNA with a partial profile extracted from the Zodiac letters.

In the end, do give Zodiac a listen or a read to experience one of the stalwarts of the true crime genre. Given the killer’s fondness for murdering motorists at night, listening to it in the car as twilight fell, as I did, is sure to scare the living daylights out of you.

4/5 stars: Good research, solid storytelling. A classic, but somewhat dated.
4/5 ‘fraidy cats: A serial killer who dresses up as an executioner and was never caught. Then again, Gilbert & Sullivan can never be made terrifying.
2/5 ick-factor: The crimes are bloody, the murders are heinous, but Graysmith does not relish the details.

Ackerman’s “Trotsky” Enjoyable…Except for the Errors

Preface

It’s been a hard few weeks for me, hard for me to face the blank page and (in my own mind, at least) provide some wit or wisdom to anyone who might read this blog.

Me? I, myself, am fine. The news has been deplorable, even more than usual. People in my social circles, including close friends, have been suffering terribly.

But, I remember I promised reviews of my summer reading, and remember that writing for you always makes me feel better.

With that said, let’s talk about violence.

Since Monday was the anniversary of Trotsky’s death (by ice ax, not by ice pick, see Fig. 1) he gets to go to the front of the review backlog line.

The story of his murder is one for the ages. I should feature it some time.

Fig. 1–Know your weapons. This will be on the quiz.


Ice ax. Similar to weapon used to kill Trotsky. (Wikipedia)


Ice pick. Still deadly, but not used on Trotsky. (Wikipedia)

The Book

Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution
Kenneth D. Ackerman
Counterpoint Press
2016

Even before the book begins, you can tell Ackerman is not a historian or political scientist.

And, for the most part, it works well.

Ackerman is a New York lawyer who has set his hand to retelling that great city’s history. Trotsky is his second work, chronicling the ten weeks the Russian radical, expelled from war-torn Europe for anti-war writings, lived in the Bronx with his common-law wife and their two children.

I sort this as relevant to true-crime fans because 90% of what Trotsky and his comrades had done in their lives up to this point was illegal. There is also plenty of spy intrigue and conspiracy going on separate from their plan to overthrow the capitalist order.

For “serious” historians of the Russian Revolution, (and trust me, I’ve read them) this period of time gets maybe two pages in a 900-page book. To see so much effort put into a generally-ignored period is like seeing your favorite canon characters in a spin-off movie of the best kind.

For anyone not familiar with Trotsky, Ackerman’s book is a gentle introduction in a novelistic tone.

For anyone not partial to Trotsky, the book is still enjoyable for its portrait of Gilded-Age New York, a time of optimism and social ferment. As the Russian Marxist exiles write and argue, separated from the horrors of WWI by an ocean, oblivious to the wars they will soon begin, even the most cynical reader has to admit there is at least a slight charm to their idealism.

Ackerman’s passion for the project shows even from the dedication, which is to his grandparents, who “fled Poland for America as a result of the 1920 Soviet Russian invasion…led by the then Soviet people’s commissar for military and naval affairs, Leon Trotsky.”

Yeah, spoiler alert: the Bolsheviks win. Next spoiler: Trotsky still ends up losing (see Fig. 1 above).

But passion does not save Ackerman from some egregious factual, or editing, mistakes. One of these, which still makes my eye twitch thinking about it, comes early in the book. Introducing Lenin to readers on page seventeen, Ackerman includes a quote from a contemporary…a quote about Trotsky.

A quote about Trotsky that is a fairly well-known quote about Trotsky.

(For clarity’s sake, this quote is the one that describes Trotsky as stalking around the speakers’ dais like “a bird of prey.”)

I forgive Ackerman these few…infuriating…slips because of his genuine commitment to the book, which shows forth in a novelistic, bubbly style.

3/5 stars: a nice popular history…the errors in which make this thesis survivor histrionic.
1/5 ‘fraidy cats: This is the
Downton Abbey of my summer reading.
1/5 ick-factor: I suppose it depends on your political leanings.

Update: Mr. Ackerman reached out to me in the comments to very graciously thank me for catching the error with the quote. He says it will be corrected in the next edition of the book. I thought his thoroughness deserved recognition immediately after my initial critique.