. . . on the other hand, if you can't face these hastily scribbled notes, go here for yet one more example of Ann Coulter making a complete fool of herself. Apparently you can tell liberals a mile off because of their habit of raping hotel maids. Seriously.
Or maybe Coulter's nuts.
DeKok and the Corpse at the Church Wall (1978; trans 1994 by H.G. Smittenaar) by Baantjer
A couple of weeks ago I came across one of the movies based on Baantjer's work and realized that I'd never read anything by one of the world's bestselling mystery writers -- a situation I should obviously redress. I assumed there'd be a few of his novels in the local library; in the end I obtained this one through inter-library loan.
A man is found dead propped against, as you'll guess, a church wall in Amsterdam; at first it's thought he might have died naturally, but very soon it's realized this is a case of murder. Inspectors DeKok and his sidekick Vledder unravel what proves to be a fiendishly complicated tapestry of deceit, corruption, greed, false identification, further murders and premature assumptions before the mystery is solved and various killers brought to book. Everything rattles along at a jolly pace, even though the translation isn't marvelous and the copyediting and proofreading are execrable. I enjoyed the book enough on a good-for-a-bus-ride level but really it was the lightest of light reading: there was nothing to arouse the passions or the intellect.
In the Dutch originals the veteran detective is called De Cock, and a running joke is that, whenever introducing himself to someone, he spells it out -- C-O-C-K. Apparently this was regarded as unacceptably saucy for the anglophone world, and so the translations render his name DeKok and he spells it out K-O-K.
Ferney (1998) by James Long
I read Long's second novel, Silence and Shadows (2002), for review when it first came out, and liked it enough that I went out and bought myself a copy of its predecessor. Shamefully, it's taken all this while for Ferney to jump off the shelf and into my hands. More or less, the wait has been worth it.
Young couple Mike and Gally Martin are searching for a new house somewhere in the country to offer Gally a change of scenery so she can forget a miscarriage and the subsequent breakdown. They find a cottage in the English Southwest, in rural Somerset; it's a fixer-upper that's more fix than currently up, but Gally is instantly drawn to it As By An Arcane Force and insists that none other will do. Associated with the house is an elderly local called Ferney, who seems to recognize her; and soon Gally is drawn to him, too, as if she has known him for a long time . . . a very long time.
Reincarnation fantasies are comparatively scarce and good ones even more so, so Ferney is a fair treat. That said, there were occasional longueurs; I'd have been happier had the book been some 25% shorter. At the same time, the slow build does definitely add to the power of the later sequences, so who knows? The characters of Gally and to a lesser extent Ferney are pleasingly complex and real; I wish the same could be said of Mike's. (The book's essentially a three-hander; all other characters are peripheral, although their influence on the plot may not be.) Overall, then, the book's not a masterpiece -- and there are a few resoundingly Thog's Masterclassish lines -- but it certainly has enough by way of the very good to be worth the reader's time. A keeper.
The Canceled Czech (1966) by Lawrence Block
"Author of Eight Million Ways to Die" blares the cover of the Jove edition I read -- a 1980s reissue -- not mentioning that this isn't Block in the noirish mode that has made him so renowned but a relic of the years when he was apparently still trying to find his voice . . . and his commercial audience. The Canceled Czech is a piece of fluff -- a spy caper distinguished from so many others of its era solely through being far better written than most, and with a gimmick or two; it's as if Ian Fleming and Donald E. Westlake had collaborated in an attempt to write a Quiller novel, to an effect that's quite often fine but sometimes uncomfortable.
Evan Tanner suffered an injury while serving in Korea that eliminated his brain's "sleep centre" (yeah, right); he thus has 50% more time than the rest of us to have fun exploring the world of conspiracy theorists and crank causes. These are connections he puts to good use in his occasional assignments on behalf of a US Government agency so secret it doesn't have a name -- not even a name you'd have to be killed if anyone told you it. This time he's been sent to rescue a disgusting old Nazi from jail, trial and inevitable execution in Prague, because that old Nazi, Kotacek, is unknowingly of greater use to the US if kept alive rather than surrendered to the gallows. So off goes polyglot Evan (plenty of time to learn languages if you never sleep) and -- with the aid of a nymphomaniac neo-Nazi and a bunch of bumbling Stern Gangers -- springs Kotacek from the jug and spirits him out through the Iron Curtain. There's no spoiler there because it's obvious from the outset that this is going to be the outcome; the book's surprises come in the twists and wrinkles of the plot to achieve that outcome. I giggled a few times; I kept turning the pages happily enough; this time next year I may accidentally pick up the book without realizing I've read it before . . .
Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (2009) by James Hoggan with Richard Littlemore
In their excellent book Merchants of Doubt Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway expose the whole, horrendous corporate strategy of paying scientists to deny science that threatens corporate profits, from the tobacco companies hiring scientists to "doubt" the evidence through to our own time when degree-laden corporate shills -- often the very same individuals -- try to pretend the science of global warming is unproven or unsound or whatever dishonest description they choose to use this week toward the end of confusing an undereducated and often irresponsibly self-indulgent public. If you read the Oreskes/Conway book you'll reach the end of it horrified and dismayed; they offer the kind of evidence that would have any court of law rushing to a conviction.
Climate Cover-Up, by contrast, is not nearly such a weighty tome; yes, there are citations, but at the level where some chapters have only an essential one or two. Overall, it reads at the pace of a thriller. And, by the end of it, I was hopping mad . . . which is precisely what we all ought to be with those scientific charlatans and the corporate masters at whose teats they shamelessly suck, and precisely the aim of the the authors of this book. Yes, your library is incomplete if you don't have Oreskes/Conway on your shelf; but if you want a blazing polemic that covers much the same ground (and contains probably as much of the essential information) then you should choose this book also, and perhaps you should choose it even in preference to Oreskes/Conway.
For obvious reasons -- I was writing a book called Denying Science after all! -- I read a lot of good nonfiction books in 2010 (yes, I'm a bit late catching up in these notes), but this was one of the very best, and quite possibly the best: certainly among the most important. Please read it.
Johnny and the Dead (1993) by Terry Pratchett
Of course, I've read the Johnny Maxwell books in the wrong order, starting (correctly) with Only YOU Can Save Mankind (which I liked) but then going on to #3 in the series, Johnny and the Bomb (which I thought was absolutely splendid). My opinion of Johnny and the Dead falls roughly midway between. Johnny has developed the ability (as would the kid in M. Knight Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense a few years later) to "see dead people" -- notably those in the local cemetery which the council wants to sell off to developers. Johnny's pals are for the most part unimpressed, but they go along with him as he tries to save the cemetery from the bulldozers and thereby the ghosts from "eviction". As you'd expect from Pratchett there are plenty of laughs along the way; Johnny isn't far off a reincarnation of Richmal Crompton's William. Also as you'd expect from Pratchett, there are moments of more serious insight. And of course the book reads like a rocket.
The Good Thief (2008) by Hannah Tinti
I'm a fan of the old-fashioned picaresque novel -- the kind of tale in which, as in (say) most of Dickens's early stuff, the end doesn't depend too much on the beginning, even though the course from beginning to end is a logical or at least comprehensible one. (Most of our lives are picaresque in structure.) Recently a few authors seem to have rediscovered the picaresque mode, and one of these is Hannah Tinti.
Ren's stuck in a late-19th-century northeastern orphanage and unlikely ever to get out, because one of his arms ends not in a hand but in an unsightly stump. Yet the day comes when Benjamin Nab arrives to claim Ren as supposedly his long-lost brother. Of course, that's false; Benjamin's a thief and conman who thinks Ren's disability could be put to good use in gulling the gullible. Soon Benjamin, Ren and Benjamin's habitually drunken pal Tom are committing criminal acts, including graverobbing, all over the northeastern USA; one of the occupants of a grave they rob, the monstrous Dolly (a male Dolly), proves to be a hitman, and he too fits conformably into their gang. There's a lot of good humour and a fair amount of genuine physical and emotional pain in this rollicking tale.
The whole time I was reading this I kept thinking of F.E. Higgins's The Black Book of Secrets, which I loved and which was published the previous year and written in similar style (and with a couple of similar preoccupations, like the monetary value of stolen teeth). I think in the end I probably preferred the Higgins book, especially since it didn't, as does Tinti's (see p317, for example), suffer the occasional rash of outright sloppy writing. But this book too has its merits. Recommended.
Catalyst (2002) by Laurie Halse Anderson
Kate Malone -- who makes an attractive narrator -- is in her final year of high school and awaiting a reply from the only college to which she has replied, M.I.T.; her boyfriend has already been accepted for Harvard. Everything seems ti be going just fine until the Malones' ne'er-do-well neighbours' house burns down and the Malones take in the luckless family -- one of whom just happens to be the seemingly near-retarded girl whose main hobby is bullying Kate at school; won't the two girls have fun sharing a bedroom? the adults gush. Everything begins to fall apart fast for Kate . . . but when everything finally resolves itself she finds she's a far better, less self-absorbed person than she could ever have imagined. A highly engaging coming-of-age novel.
The Last Woman in his Life (1969) by Ellery Queen
According to Wikipedia, this Ellery novel was, despite its lateness in the canon, written by Dannay/Lee rather than being among the ghostwritten ones. It's also, I'd say, one of the weakest; I bought it on the basis it must be that rara avis, an Ellery novel I hadn't read, then halfway through realized I had read it, and not in fact all that many years ago. That's more or less a literary judgement in itself.
John Benedict invites his three ex-wives to a weekend at his country retreat, where he breaks it to them that in future they're not going to enjoy the same financial benefits from him as heretofore; not surprisingly, he gets bumped off before too many hours have passed. Luckily he'd also invited Ellery and the Inspector to join the party, and so we know the solution to the mystery can't be too very far away. The trouble is that the first of the mystery's two solutions is a rebarbative piece of contrivance (it depends on how a combination of the three women's names could be misheard) and the second -- genuine -- solution relies on a piece of social prejudice that happily most of us regard as history . . . as would the majority of enlightened readers in 1969, I'd have thought. So, while the writing has the trademark zip of the Ellery novels, whoever wrote them, the setup seems artificial and the mystery more-or-less likewise. Not the Queens' finest hour.
The Tenth Man (1985) by Graham Greene
In 1944 Greene was desperate for money and unsure of his future as a writer, so when MGM commissioned a novella from him to use as the basis for a movie he was only too happy to oblige: it put food on the family table and walls around them for a couple of years. The movie was never made and he more or less forgot the project until in the early 1980s MGM decided to auction the manuscript to publishers for what proved a healthy chunk of money -- of which none went to Greene. Reading his long-forgotten text, he was both pleased and chagrined to find that he thought it was a ripping yarn of which he could be proud; hence his willingness to write an introduction setting the text in context. (Or maybe this was a way devised by publishers Anthony Blond and the Bodley Head to give Greene some financial reward for the publication of this work.)
The trouble is that, despite the glowing review quotes on the cover, this is really only something for Greene completists; it's the first of his fictions I've read that hasn't gripped me. During the war a bunch of imprisoned Resistance fighters are given the option by their Nazi captors of choosing by lot who among their number will go before the firing squad the next day. One of the unlucky ones cheats, so that another man dies in his place. After the war is over, the cheat is a hunted man; yet with bureaucracy in shambles, identity is something relatively easy to fake. So who among our cast of characters is the guilty man; and, more interestingly, does his crime matter any longer now that years have passed? It's a premise that just about sustained my interest for 30,000 words . . . but only just about. Paradoxically, had it been longer -- had Greene been writing it as a full-length novel rather than as a movie outline -- perhaps it would have worked better, in that he'd have had the space to deploy typical Greene prose mastery. This, though, reads more like a detailed synopsis than a completed work.
The Case of the Duplicate Daughter (1960) by Erle Stanley Gardner
To a child reared on the Perry Mason TV series it came as something of a shock to discover the novels upon which it was based, in which Perry isn't nice respectable Raymond Burr but a flamboyant figure, more P.I. than lawyer, who spends much of his time on the fringes of legality, not infrequently straying beyond them. Likewise, Della seems to be a bit of a vibrant gal rather than the almost demure Barbara Hale. I've lost count of the number of the novels I've read since that discovery; these days I regard them as an entirely different entity than the TV series and later movies.
They're also all fairly interchangeable; I don't know how often I've been partway through a Mason novel and realized I've read it before. But, and this is the great thing about my enjoyment of Mason novels: it hasn't mattered. Assuming sufficient time has elapsed, I won't remember how the crime was achieved or who did it any more than I might remember a two-year-old cricket result: I had great fun at the time, and that's all that's needed.
So, even though it's been just a few weeks or months since I read this book (I'm catching up on a lot of unwritten book notes), all I can remember is that (obviously, from the title) a confusion of identity plays a part and that the setup is genuinely puzzling -- a father disappears into thin air while his daughter is briefly in the room next door cooking the breakfast second helping he's asked for -- and that the solution, for once in a Mason book, is likewise. So back on my shelf it goes to wait for that precious moment when I spot it there, read the blurb, flip through the pages, and think, How come I haven't read this one before . . .?
One Across, Two Down (1971) by Ruth Rendell
Layabout Stanley is good for nothing except solving and even composing crossword puzzles; certainly he's not good at holding down a job. He's stuck in a small house in London with his colourless wife Vera and his truly ghastly mother-in-law Maud, praying for the day when Maud will shuffle off this mortal coil and he and Vera -- which, in Stanley's mind, means just he -- can get their hands on Maud's money. On the day that Maud's if anything even ghastlier friend Ethel arrives to stay there starts a chapter of accidents that seems, suitably manipulated by a guileful Stanley, to be set to bring about his fondest wish. And for a while everything goes according to his fetid little plan. But then his house of cards collapses: fate takes a vengeance upon him that's disproportionate to his undoubted crimes.
This is an early Rendell work, and hasn't yet the power and the sure touch her psychological thrillers would soon come to have. On the other hand, it's often very funny, which most of her later novels haven't been; Stanley is such a frightful apology for a human being that his attitudes frequently had me chuckling -- not just because they're reprehensible, which they undoubtedly are, but because they're understandable. There's enough validity in them that I found myself reluctantly beginning to root for him: who wouldn't, after a few years in the company of Maud, become fixated on the anticipated inheritance?
Far from Rendell's best -- it doesn't convey that brooding awareness of imminent malevolence she would become so skilled at conjuring -- but an enjoyable piece.