Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Black Count: Review

Among the endless portraits and trinkets celebrating Napoleon, I discovered a framed sheet of miniature engravings of the other French generals of the Italian campaign. The portrait of Dumas leapt out from the rows of his lighter-skinned comrades, with their romantic pompadours and bushy sideburns. Dumas's hair was trimmed close and neat, his head turned in three-quarter view, an eyebrow cocked high. Most of the other generals looked off to the right or left or into the distance in a pose of destiny calling. Other presented themselves in full antique profile or looked straight at the artist with a self-satisfied air. But Dumas peered out with an open, almost quizzical expression, and I had the uncanny feeling that while the others were frozen in their lost worlds, he was alive within his oval--impatient, curious--staring back at me from the two-hundred-year-old paper. (p. 189)

So...somehow, to my great embarrassment, until The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss came out I missed all the memos that would have told me that Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo (one of my favorite books, by the way), came from a mixed-race heritage. 

It was amazing to read the remarkable story of General Alex Dumas who rose from life as the son of a slave in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to the highest ranks in Napoleon's army. A man who was a fearless one-man fighting machine who led his men into battle, often wounding more of the enemy than his (at-first) own small band of Dragoons numbered. He never held back and directed his troops from behind, but rather led them into the fray. He was courageous and did not hold his life more dear than those of his men. And--when he had conquered, he refused to allow the bullying and pillaging that most armies indulge in after the battle.

In all his adventures, the main thing that set Dumas apart was his refusal to countenance the bullying of the weak by the strong....Dumas was unrestrained when outnumbered and outgunned, just as he was unrestrained when he disagreed with his superiors. But towards anyone less powerful than he was, Alex Dumas showed nothing but self-restrant, and a kind of violent love. (p. 157)

This is the real life story of a man of mixed race who saw people of color begin as slaves and rise to equality through the revolution, only to have it all snatched away under Napoleon. He was a hero to his country...but then he was captured by Neapolitans and imprisoned in the dungeon at Taranto and when he was finally returned to France he found his rights had been taken away and that even his pension as a member of army was in danger. He died in reduced circumstance that did not reflect the honor that his fellow white soldiers received upon home-coming, but he also died a hero to his small son who would take the stories of his father and turn them into great literature. Stories that would outlast the memories of many of those white soldiers who got their dues immediately. A fascinating historical read. ★★★★

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Where Are You Reading?

Hosted at Book Dragon's Lair

This one is all about places. There's one about states but this one counts cities, counties, and fictional locations too. Read a book set in a location for each letter of the alphabet. West Virginia only counts for W, Bowling Green only counts for B, but the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey that is on a fictional planet counts as P ;-)

There is one hard rule, one just for general courtesy, and several guidelines. There are no levels, unless you want to do a second set of letters.

Hard Rules
The book in question must have an ISBN or equivalent. If you can buy it or borrow it, it counts -

General Courtesy
When you sign up in the linky, put the direct link to your post. That way we can find it.

  • You can list your books in advance or as you read them. You can also change your list.
  • Any format, any genre or length of book counts but it must be the complete book, individual books in a collection do not count separately
  • Anyone can join, you don’t need to be a blogger, just let me know in the comments.
  • Reviews are not necessary but a list of books you read is. There will be a link up for reviews if you wish to post them. You can make a list of books you want to read and change them if you'd like.
  • Crossovers for other challenges count
  • Books started before January 1st, 2017 don’t count - unless you start over ;-)

My List:
C: (Cannes) Murder at the Masque by Amy Myers (1/16/17)
E: (England) Death at Swaythling Court by J. J. Connington (1/4/17)
F: (France) The Black Count by Tom Reiss (1/21/17)
L: (London) The Snake on 99 by Stewart Farrar (1/11/17)
N: (New York City) The 24th Horse by Hugh Pentecost (1/13/17)
V: (Venus) Battle on Venus by William F. Temple (1/7/17)

Tuesday Night Bloggers: A Very Screwy Beginning

January is a rough month for me--so I'm either going to miss out on the Tuesday Night gatherings altogether or I am (as I am tonight) going to me late to the Tuesday Night Blogger's party each week. Most likely when I do pop in for a bit of tea and scones, it will be with an offering of a previous review. 

January is hosted by Kate over at Cross Examining Crime and as she says:

It is the start of a new year and with January being the first month, we at the Tuesday Night Bloggers (a group of eccentric eclectic crime fiction bloggers) decided to have firsts as this month’s theme. Such a theme is wide open to interpretation so over this month posts may be touching on first books by authors and first appearances of our favourite sleuths, as well as a host of other crime fiction firsts.

If you haven't already done so, you'll want to head over to Kate's and see what other "firsts" have been offered up this week and in the previous January gatherings.

I decided that this week I would take us back to the beginnings our featured authors's detective career (in January's TNB logo at left) and give you all a peek at the very first Mr. and Mr North book by Frances and Richard Lockridge--The Norths Meet Murder (1940). It is a lovely beginning to Frances & Richard Lockridge's series which features (to varying degrees) Pam and Jerry North as the slightly "screwy," yet classy amateur sleuth husband and wife team and the sharp Lieutenant (later Captain) Bill Weigand and his faithful, often confused sidekick Detective Aloysius Mullins. This first outing is a bit more police procedural than later installments and we spend a great deal of time following Weigand and Mullins around as they hunt down clues and interview suspects. Pam and Jerry appear at the beginning and well as popping up now and again throughout, but this is really Weigand's book.

Nobody is going to that much trouble to get murdered. But if you're going to murder somebody, you expect to go to a lot of trouble. I would. [Pam North]

The story opens with Jerry returning home from work in a rather grumpy mood to find that Pam has decided that they need to throw a party. And the empty apartment on the top floor of their building will be the perfect location "because there was so much room and she had just thought of it." She had already gone up earlier that day and checked out the space (just to be sure) and had cleared the idea with their landlady, Mrs. Buano. All she needs now is for Jerry to tell her what a fine idea it is and to go upstairs with her so she explain all the important details (like where they'll place the bar, for instance). Once he has downed enough cocktails, he is persuaded to go upstairs. But instead of visualizing the party arrangements and the expected guests, he and Pam find an unexpected guest already lounging in the bathtub. Naked. And very dead.

This brings the cops. Lots of cops

"Six cars, every which way," Mrs. North called, excitedly. "They don't pay any attention to one-way streets. Seven cars, and there's going to be a crowd."

It also brings Lieutenant Bill Weigand and Sergeant Mullins. It isn't long before the body is identified and it is discovered that the man moved within some of the same social circles as the Norths. Which gives them a bit of a motive--albeit tenuous. Weigand will sift the clues to find those that point to the true villain of the piece.

It was a great delight to read this once again back in spring of 2016. I first read it about twenty years ago or so--from the library. And have since gotten my very own copy. When a reading challenge called for a book that involved a party, I decided it was time to revisit my friends, the Norths. The book is a lot of fun. The dialogue and the descriptions are breezy and delightful. Pam's apparent  non sequiturs keep Jerry, Weigand, and Mullins on their toes. This time around, I was struck by how much I love Mullins and his distrust of screwy murders and even screwier witnesses. I was also struck by the racism in Mullins's treatment of a Japanese servant. I hadn't remembered that from the first reading. I'm convinced that it had a great deal to do with the fact that this book came out during World War II and I hope I'm remembering correctly that there is little of it in later books.

The police procedural nature of the book is decent--although the clues are not quite fair play. There is an interesting alibi involved and the wrap-up has a medium-sized dose of female in jeopardy when Pam realizes who the murderer must be and s/he realizes that Pam has had a "light bulb" moment. Overall, great fun and light entertainment at its best. I originally gave this five stars. This time round, I'm giving it
★★★★ and a half--with a small deduction for the small amount of racism.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Metamorphosis: Review

Metamorphosis (ST Fotonovel #5) by Gene L. Coon is the last of the Star Trek fotonovels sitting on my TBR pile. In the 1970s, long before VCRs were a standard thing in most homes, Bantam Books in conjunction with Mandala Productions gave Star Trek fans the chance to relive some of the shows episodes through series of twelve fotonovels. These books were essentially proto-types of the graphic novels so prevalent today that re-tell classic stories and these used actual film stills from the show with word  bubbles and explanatory text to accompany the photos. I found my first few in the early days of book-collecting and was finally able to complete the collection in 2012 when my husband and I came across a treasure trove at my now favorite used book store in Illinois. Last fall, I decided to catch up on reading those that I had never gotten to and managed to leave this one out. I've now rectified that error.

"Metamorphosis," a second season episode, finds Kirk, Spock, and McCoy accompanying Commissioner Nancy Hedford in the shuttlecraft Galileo. Hedford has been in the midst of negotiating peace between warring factions on Epsilon Canaris III, but has contracted a rare, potentially fatal condition, Sakuro's Disease. She requires treatment on the Enterprise before she can continue her mission. [Don't ask me why the starship couldn't just go pick her up. I don't know--other than we'd obviously have no plot. :-) ]

The shuttlecraft is just under five hours from the rendezvous with the Enterprise when Spock loses control of the ship and it is pulled off-course to a small planet (or piece of a planet). Surprisingly, the atmosphere is breathable and the men get out to investigate. They find more surprises in store--a shimmering, cloud-like entity and Zefram Cochrane, inventor of the warp drive and a man who disappeared over 150 years ago. The Enterprise crew are going to need the help of Cochrane and the Companion (Cochrane's name for the entity) if they are going to get off the planet. But the Companion has brought them there to prevent Cochrane from being lonely and has no intention of letting them go. It takes an unusual set of events to convince it... ★★★★

Murder at the Masque: Review

When he forgets to add the truffles to the Chicken Bayonnaise, master chef and sometime amateur detective Auguste Didier decides he really needs to take a holiday from cooking at Plum's Club for Gentlemen. He heads for home in Cannes--ready for sun, real provencale dishes, and, above all, no murders. For lately, it has seemed that murders follow him wherever he goes, from Stockbury Towers to the Galaxy Theatre restaurant to Plum's itself. Surely the threat of murder belongs in London and not in his delightful home town.

Back in London, Didier's friend, Inspector Egbert Rose, is immersed in a case--not of murder--but of daring jewel robberies. These are no ordinary thefts. The cat burglar has been running off with beautiful Faberge eggs with priceless rubies inside. Six missing eggs which belonged to former mistresses of Russia's Grand Duke Igor. The eggs were his parting gift to each lady when flame of love had gone out. Rose is having little luck tracking down the eggs. None of his contacts among the fences have heard a word about them. But then he does learn one thing...there is a seventh egg which has yet to be stolen and it just happens to belong to a woman in Cannes.

Rose isn't the only one headed to Cannes. The Grand Duke, the Duchess and their entourage are there, as well as all the ladies whose eggs have been stolen and their husbands and current amours. The gentlemen are all set to play a prestigious game of cricket with the Gentlemen (the English, under the captaincy of the Prince of Wales) being challenged by the Players (led by the Grand Duke and others from various European states. Some on the Players side are taking the game much too seriously. And someone will use the game as a cover to steal a jeweled dagger and use it to commit murder. 

I remember liking the other Chef Didier book (Murder at Plum's) quite a lot. That was before blogging--so I don't have a real review to tell me exactly why, but I do recall enjoying the atmosphere of the murder at a gentleman's club...vaguely reminiscent of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Sayers. This outing, Didier's fourth encounter with murder, is far less satisfying. Primarily because it feels like Amy Myers had a bad case of ADD. She can't possibly focus on one character in the vast array of high society, cooks, and policeman for more than a couple pages. We bounce back and forth from Didier to Rose and their encounters with various people, as well as focusing now on the Grand Duke and now on the Prince of Wales and now on the famous ballerina and now.... Well, you get the idea. It's all too exhausting. I don't remember this being such a problem at Plum's. Perhaps it's the difference between Didier in London and Didier in Cannes.

Which, speaking of Didier, he's not quite on the top of his game here. Of course, he is mighty distracted between dallying with the ballerina and discovering that his one true love, a Russian princess who could never marry a mere cook...even if that cook is a MaĆ®tre. Didier concocts solution after solution but he never does get it quite right. And I must say, I wasn't altogether satisfied with the final answer. It seemed a bit of a cop-out to me. The penultimate solution (which Rose allows Didier to believe is the right one) strikes me as a much more fitting one. The plot itself is a decent one and there are some humorous episodes sprinkled throughout that do give the book its redeeming qualities. However, overall, a less than stellar performance from our master chef at ★★ and 1/2. It hasn't put me off the series altogether, but if I do come across another entry I hope it is more in line with my memory of Plum's.

Deal Me In Week #3: "Death Draws a Triangle"

This is my first year participating in Jay's Deal Me In Challenge . In a nutshell--we line up 52 short stories for the year, we match those stories up to a card in a regular deck of card, and each week we shuffle our deck (of real cards) and draw a card from whatever remains in the deck. My third shuffle and draw gives me the Jack of Hearts which matches up to "Death Draws a Triangle" by Edward Hale Bierstadt.

image credit

"Death Draws a Triangle" appears in Murder by Experts edited by Ellery Queen and is, rather than a fictional short story, an account of a true crime from Victorian-era New York. The triangle in question is that between Daniel McFarland, his wife Abby, and her friend Albert D. Richardson. But the case is rather more than a simple love triangle--Tammany Hall politics and its dislike for the Tribune and editor Horace Greeley play a part as well. The facts of the case were never in question. McFarland, an abusive and drunken husband who saw slights where there weren't any and built up the friendship between his wife and Richardson into a sordid affair, walked into the Tribune offices, sat calmly down to wait, and, when Richardson made an appearance in the outer rooms, just as calmly shot his perceived rival. 

When Tammany Hall discovered that Richardson was a Tribune man, they promptly put all their machinery behind the "poor, betrayed husband." The trial which followed presented McFarland as a saint of a man who was driven insane by his wife's behavior and Richardson's perversion of her affections. Of course adultery (or assumed adultery, as in this case) was often considered the more heinous of the crimes because "it is so much more enjoyable. The point of view of the public on adultery is, generally, 'I want to commit adultery, but I don't dare; and, by heaven, if I can't I'm not going to let you!'" The trial was a travesty of justice--the killer was declared "Not Guilty" and Abby's reputation was permanently blackened. Bierstadt's account attempts to right the historical record.