Category: Books

by Ethel Lina White

 

Possibly because this was White’s first published mystery novel, Put Out the Light isn’t quite on par with her later, more-polished works like The Lady Vanishes and The Spiral Staircase (my reviews of them here and here).

But White does create one truly memorable villain in “Anthea Vine.” Vain, scornful, and sharp as a tack, the wealthy spinster (White’s word, not mine) personifies a 1930s career woman who evokes either empathy or disdain — depending on your perspective, I suppose.

The plot: Anthea rules stately Jamaica Court, where cohabitating relatives and visiting sycophants all kiss her butt in hopes of finding favor in her will.

But someone doesn’t want to wait for Anthea to die of natural causes. And then … whodunit?

 

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by Lucy Foley

 

Foley sets up her murder mystery in classic style: A group of suspects gathers on an isolated, stormy island off the coast of Ireland, each of them harboring dark secrets and motives for murder.

 

What works:

Using the first-person, present tense, Foley immerses us in the innermost thoughts and feelings of her collection of (mostly) wealthy, privileged characters. They are all very flawed and, well, suspicious.

The setting — a wedding at an ancient castle on the cliffs of a barren island — is suitably atmospheric.

The narrative flow, hopping back and forth in time, adds to the tension rather than being a distraction.

 

What doesn’t work:

With one exception (the “best man”), Foley’s male characters are more one-dimensional than are the females. They say it’s difficult for male writers to create believable females. Apparently, it is also true that female writers struggle with the psychology of male characters.

The killer reveal is not exactly shocking. When everyone in the story has the means and motive for murder, the person whodunit should probably come as more of a surprise.

 

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by Michael Kimmel

 

Synopsis — Liberal sociologist Kimmel analyzes the phenomenon of America’s “angry white men.” He attributes most of this troublesome development to the decline of their privilege and the emergence of what he calls “aggrieved entitlement.”

It’s a tall order to write a short review of a book dealing with such a complex issue, so I’m summarizing my impressions:

 

The Bad

 

The book, published in 2013, is badly outdated. Not Kimmel’s fault, of course. But it was written before the election of Trump, before the emergence of workplace “equity,” before transgender women dominating women’s sports, etcetera. Some of Kimmel’s 2013 conclusions suffer when viewed from the perspective of today’s political climate.

The author tries to have it both ways. Kimmel insists that he can empathize with so-called angry white men because he himself shared — in some cases still does — many of their views. He then spends the rest of his book debunking (almost) all those views.

The lumping-together effect. There isn’t much of an attempt to distinguish the typical, disgruntled conservative male from far-right extremists. My impression is that Kimmel considers them all a “problem” to be solved.

Tens of millions of white men voted for Donald Trump. Does anyone believe that they are all Ku Klux Klan wannabes? Much of this book deals with fringe-group animosity; not enough with regular men. What many ordinary men crave isn’t entitlement; it’s respect.

Language tricks. In a discussion of domestic violence, Kimmel criticizes a researcher who is “careful even to put the word [battered] in quotations when discussing men but not when discussing women.” That’s a grammatical trick that Kimmel himself is not above using. Often.

Also, in his “explanations” of angry males’ complaints (see what I did there?), he invalidates those complaints by using words like “claim,” or “allege.” For example, men don’t simply “say” they suffer discrimination in family courts; they “allege” or “claim” discrimination. In other words, what they are saying is questionable — at best.

To give the appearance of fairness, concede a point or two, generally minor, to the angry white men. But immediately follow up with your contention that any possible legitimate complaint is vastly outweighed by the societal privilege that white men enjoy (or enjoyed).

 

The Good

 

A funny thing happens about two-thirds into the book, in a chapter titled “Mad Men.”  Kimmel briefly suspends his use of the annoying term “aggrieved entitlement” (i.e., so many societal ills could be remedied if these spoiled men would simply eat some humble pie and adjust to their new reality) and acknowledges that many of their complaints are (gasp!), in fact justified. In short, Kimmel appears to finally “get it.”

The book’s final chapters. Rather than tribes fighting each other over economic crumbs, the “angry white men” need to join forces with women and minorities to demand change. They share a common enemy: the economic elite. Angry White Men would have been a more convincing book if Kimmel had stuck with this theme.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.)

 

 

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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.

 

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