Category: Books

by Charles Dickens


How do you write one of the most famous murder mysteries of all time? Here’s one way: You die before your novel is completed, leaving readers to speculate about whodunit to poor Edwin Drood, the titular character who goes missing and is presumed dead.

That was the case with Charles Dickens’ serialized last novel, which was just 50 percent complete when the celebrated author expired in 1870.

Actually, it seems fairly obvious who Drood’s killer is. Clues within the novel and from Dickens’s own notes and conversations with contemporaries point to one likely suspect. Or is the solution so obvious? Is it possible that the mystery of Edwin Drood is the fact that he wasn’t murdered, after all? Could Dickens have been about to pull off a Rod Serling-like twist?

Regardless, it’s a Charles Dickens story. That means most of a reader’s enjoyment derives from the colorful characters and the author’s amusing way with words.


© 2010-2023 (text only)


by Edith Wharton


Lord knows I’m no Edith Wharton scholar, but after reading her classic novel House of Mirth, I am certainly an admirer. Wharton, herself no stranger to the world of 1905 upper-class society, tells the tragic tale of Lily Bart, a young New Yorker who thrives on beauty and charm … until she doesn’t.

The bulk of the novel is a chronicle of Lily’s thoughts — about wealth, privilege, the lower classes and, in the end, what really matters in life. In other words, there is not a whole lot of conventional “action” in the story. But Lily’s observations are endlessly fascinating and, ultimately, moving.

Today’s readers (especially progressive feminists, I presume) may be horrified by the state of society in early 20th-century New York as depicted in this book. But despite all the progress of the ensuing years, Wharton’s final message is this: Some things never change.


© 2010-2023 (text only)


by Emile Gaboriau


I can hear it now: Monsieur Who?

Edgar Allan Poe is often cited as the father of the modern detective novel, and everyone is familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes. But I’m guessing that few readers are aware of the link between Poe and Doyle: French author Emile Gaboriau, who penned detective novels clearly influenced by Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and in turn a major inspiration for Doyle’s Holmes.

I suspect Gaboriau’s novels have slipped into relative obscurity because they lack Poe’s mastery of mood and Doyle’s strong characterizations. Monsieur Lecoq, a young, ambitious policeman whose chief attributes seem to be self-doubt and confusion, isn’t particularly memorable, and Gaboriau’s prose can be a bit wordy and dense.

Still, if you’re a fan of 19th-century crime fiction, Lecoq’s investigation of an enigmatic man accused of a triple murder is an entertaining read.


© 2010-2023 (text only)


by Robert Bloch


My apologies, Robert Bloch. I underestimated you.

When it comes to Psycho, the legendary horror film, I’ve always assumed it was a product of its director’s genius. I still believe that, but until I read Bloch’s novel, I had no idea that Alfred Hitchcock relied so heavily on Bloch’s written words and basically transferred the story, with just a few tweaks, onto the silver screen.

Or as the master of suspense put it himself, “Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book.”

Everything you love about the movie is here in the novel: Norman (and Norma) Bates, the shower scene, the old house on the hill, the detective’s murder and, oh yes, the creepiness. Reading the book is like reading Hitchcock’s screenplay.

Again, my apologies to Robert Bloch.


© 2010-2023 (text only)


by Fred Van Lente


Let’s face it: When you pick up a book like Ten Dead Comedians, you aren’t expecting Tolstoy or Hemingway. You are looking for escapism.

Van Lente’s high-concept plot is enticing: Based on And Then There Were None, the story has a gaggle of comedians picked off, one by one, on a secluded Caribbean island. Who’s doing it? Who cares?

The comics are clearly based on well-known personalities, including (I presume) Joan Rivers, Margaret Cho, Carrot Top, and Larry the Cable Guy. (I could be wrong — it might be Kathy Griffin, Jeff Foxworthy, Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, or composites of the above. You tell me.)

As in real life, some of the sparring, dying characters’ verbal zingers hit the mark, others fall flat. The book confirms what you probably already suspect: You want your favorite comedians on stage in a club; you do not want them living next door to you. They are often unpleasant people.

Aside from its ending, which doesn’t stretch credibility so much as demolish it, the book gits-r-done as an amusing time-killer.


© 2010-2023 (text only)


by Patricia Highsmith


If you’re not familiar with suspense novelist Highsmith (1921-95), there’s a good chance you are familiar with the movies adapted from her books. I’m thinking especially of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I’ve read just one of her novels, Ripley. This is what I wrote about it in 2004:


[Highsmith] draws us into the sociopathic mind of Tom Ripley, a small-time con artist who makes the leap into full-fledged murderer. As Ripley connives his way into the world of privileged Americans in Italy, Highsmith tells us what “Tom wanted,” and what “Tom felt” and, before long, we are so seduced by Ripley’s good fortune, charm, and cleverness that we nearly give him a pass when “Tom’s wants” include bludgeoning people with boat oars and glass ashtrays. Ripley then becomes sort of a cross between Dostoyevsky, with Tom’s cat-and-mouse games with the police and his (fleeting) sensations of guilt and paranoia, and Nabokov, with our protagonist justifying his actions to himself, and to the reader. Clever, clever stuff; and highly entertaining.


I also wrote that the book wasn’t perfect:


Highsmith uses a plot device that Agatha Christie sometimes employs, and which never fails to annoy me. She has Ripley interrogated twice — once as himself, and once posing as one of his victims — by the same Italian policemen. At close quarters. We are asked to believe that the police are foolish enough to believe that Ripley is two different people merely through his use of hair coloring, and eyebrow pencil, and changing his pattern of speech. I don’t buy this when Christie does it, and I don’t buy it here.


To her credit, in Plotting Highsmith acknowledges struggles with the police-procedure aspects of her books. She cites the danger of portraying cops as unrealistically stupid.


But mostly, the book is an enlightening description of the writer’s lot: the plot snags, “writer’s block,” and the hassles of everyday life that threaten to undermine a good book. (Stephen King also deals with these “mundane” obstacles in his On Writing, which is also quite good.)



© 2010-2023 (text only)


by Oscar Wilde


“We should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality.” — Irish writer Oscar Wilde on his most famous, and enduring, stage play, The Importance of Being Earnest.


That sums it up. If you’re looking for something with plot, look elsewhere. If you’re seeking something with a “deep” message, ditto. On the other hand, if you want a social satire with some of the wittiest dialogue ever put to the page, here you go.

There are just five main characters in the play, two men and three women, most of them hamstrung by strict social conventions of the late 19th century, and all of them doing their best to subvert or undermine those restrictions. Their true feelings are exposed by Wilde’s dialogue, which features an endless series of contradictions, hypocrisies, and, frankly, nonsense.

It’s delightful.


© 2010-2023 (text only)


by Ethel Lina White


Alfred Hitchcock came to Hollywood’s attention when, two years after the publication of this book (originally titled The Wheel Spins), he helmed a 1938 film adaptation called The Lady Vanishes. Hitchcock’s movie was a hit, and it’s easy to see why he was attracted to White’s story: Its young heroine becomes aware of a crime, yet she can’t seem to convince anyone else; most of the action takes place aboard a train, and Hitchcock devotees are aware of his fondness for that venue (Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, etc.). It’s a romantic thriller with humor. Need I say more?

The plot: A young British woman meets a kindly spinster named “Miss Froy” while they are both traveling home to England. But when the nondescript Froy goes missing, no one else on the train seems to recall her. Is our heroine hallucinating? Is villainy afoot?


© 2010-2023 (text only)


by Mary Roberts Rinehart


I’ve compared Rinehart to Agatha Christie in previous reviews of her books. Rinehart was essentially America’s answer to the British crime novelist, but who employed a more light-hearted ambiance. Her characters, befitting early-20th-century, upstart America, are far removed from the stuffy snobs who populate most Christie stories.

But in reading Rinehart’s 1909 novel (her second, after The Circular Staircase), The Man in Lower Ten, I was put in mind of another Brit — Alfred Hitchcock. Rinehart’s plot involves romance, murder aboard a train, and police hunting an innocent man. Can anyone say, The 39 Steps? Or, The Lady Vanishes? *

I confess that Rinehart’s heavy use of century-old American colloquialisms and parlance often defeats me, but her jaunty tone and colorful characters override any linguistic obstacles.


* Rinehart’s book predates the written and film versions of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes — and everything published by Christie.


© 2010-2023 (text only)


by Edgar Rice Burroughs


I’m guessing that, like most casual readers, my knowledge of author Edgar Rice Burroughs can be summed up like this: Oh yeah, the guy who wrote Tarzan books.

Turns out Burroughs was a bit more ambitious than that. Turns out he was quite political. But I digress.

The Moon Maid is part one of a trilogy that Burroughs published in the 1920s. On the surface (pun intended), the story depicts a spaceship crew of five landing on Earth’s satellite and discovering a hidden world of warring creatures living in the moon’s interior. There are good guys and bad guys, and our hero finds love with the titular moon maid, a beautiful princess. Pretty standard stuff, what they used to call “boys’ adventure tales.” At least, that was my impression.

But because I was — and still am, really — ignorant about Burroughs’s political leanings, I’m going to conclude this brief review with a Moon Maid summation lifted from a Web site dedicated to Burroughs’s work:


The Moon Maid trilogy, which even the fans of Burroughs must admit is rather crude, blunt, or unpolished compared to his other works, has a larger soul and message: Be Prepared! Beware the Politicians! Do Not Disarm! Avoid Communists! Avoid authoritarian rule! Honor and Love Thy Wife! Struggle Against Dictators! Honor Family and Friends! Love Thy Country! Be Free and Independent! Be willing to Fight for One’s Beliefs!

Burroughs made no bones about his political leanings or his fear for the future — not only for America but the world at large. Or, as others might say, perhaps I’m reading too much into The Moon Maid — after all it might be as simple as ERB [Burroughs] the working man artfully figuring out a way to sell a story which had been rejected.


© 2010-2023 (text only)