|Posted by Gilbert Stack on June 13, 2022 at 7:10 AM|
Trouble in Triplicate by Rex Stout
Every once in a while, Stout treats Nero Wolfe fans to a group of novellae—stories that are a little bit simpler than his full-length novels but every bit as good. In Before I Die, Wolfe gets one of those problems that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to approach. A gangster has tried to protect his real daughter by hiring a woman to play the role and that woman is now blackmailing him. Wolfe has to call her off without endangering the real daughter. And then of course, everything is complicated by a violent death. (I don’t know why someone has to die in every Nero Wolfe story. The original problem was fascinating without the murder.)
In Help Wanted, Male, someone is out to kill Nero Wolfe and he, quite naturally, wants to prevent that from happening. This is a fun little novella and not only because I figured out the bad guy and his motivation. What’s really best about it is that Nero Wolfe makes an embarrassing mistake which is, as readers of the series know, highly unusual.
In Instead of Evidence, Wolfe is maneuvered into figuring out who is responsible for killing a man with an exploding cigar. Yes, you read that correctly. The murder weapon is a lethal version of a novelty prank item and the suspects all work for a company that designs such pranks. As one would expect from Stout, it’s another very clever mystery.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on June 12, 2022 at 7:45 AM|
Semper Fi by W.E.B. Griffin
I read several W.E.B. Griffin series back near the start of the millennia and loved them. Then I read a couple of isolated books of his fifteen or so years later and wasn’t so thrilled. So it was with mixed feelings that I returned to my favorite Griffin series to see if it still lived up to my memories. Thankfully, it is every bit as good as I remember.
Griffin writes a very strange kind of military fiction. For most authors, this genre is all about the battles, but for Griffin it is all about the behind the scenes work that leads to those battles. In Semper Fi we primarily follow Kenneth McCoy, an enlisted Marine stationed in China before the start of World War II. McCoy has the misfortune of being chosen by four Italian soldiers as their target for payback after several Italians got injured in a brawl with U.S. marines. In the purest form of self-defense, McCoy kills two of the Italians with a knife and the marine corps, wanting to appease the angry Italian authorities, plans to court martial him for surviving. It’s obviously not a good look for the marine corps but feels very plausible as events unfold.
After getting extricated from his court martial, McCoy falls into intelligence work, and Griffin does a fabulous job of taking this sort of activity out of James-Bond-land and making it highly plausible. At the same time, the reader’s respect for McCoy continues to grow in part because Griffin counterposes him with two inexperienced officers who have neither his brains nor his commonsense.
After “Killer McCoy” is forced to shoot a significant number of Chinese bandits to save two of his fellow marines, he gets recalled to the U.S. and put into an officer training program. World War II has begun in Europe but the U.S. is not yet involved. Again, we get to see how the Marine Corps functions as the cast of characters grows and young men try and figure out what it means to be an officer and a gentlemen as the country inches towards war.
The first novel ends with Pearl Harbor and the initiation of hostilities against the U.S. It’s an exciting page turner even though very little of the book actually depicts scenes of combat. For anyone who would like a behind the scenes look at how the military functioned in World War II, this is a great series.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on June 11, 2022 at 8:30 AM|
The Spider 5 Empire of Doom by Grant Stockbridge
Richard Wentworth gets outside of New York for the fifth Spider adventure in which the Green Claw has come into possession of a horrifying poisonous gas which eats human flesh like acid and is preparing to blackmail American cities into paying him billions not to kill their populations. To complicate matters, the Green Claw appears to be using a wealthy American industrialist as a catspaw, making him look like he is brilliantly saving American cities from the gas so that his popularity skyrockets and Americans demand he be made dictator of the country (something to which all elected politicians happily agree). Only the Spider stands between the claw and his coup to take over America.
As you can see from the above description, lots of this story goes well beyond even the broadest definition of plausibility, but then, these adventures have never been high on the credibility scale. There’s all the breathless action I’ve come to expect in the series and they continue to make a fun, quick, read.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on June 10, 2022 at 7:30 AM|
The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen
The second Ellery Queen mystery is very different from the first. Right from the start the reader is able to follow with Ellery and his father a large collection of clues that show not only that the murder was not committed where the body was found but that all of the clues point toward one suspect. Naturally, the reader immediately assumes that the suspect cannot be the guilty party because Ellery Queen solutions are never obvious—and there in lies part of the genius of this story. The crime has clearly been very carefully planned. So it’s only in a few dangling places where there is a piece of easily overlooked evidence that does not fit the other facts that the reader gets the chance to find the true murderer.
I didn’t come close to solving this case. I fell back on the “who do I least suspect?” method. I also tried taking a second look at the most obvious suspect. But nothing helped me. I certainly didn’t figure out the crime based on the clues in the story, but I should have. The authors played fair and they even told us how to go about solving the crime if I had paid enough attention to their hints. So despite my failure, this was a solid case that played true to the Ellery Queen challenge. It was possible to solve this mystery.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on June 9, 2022 at 7:00 AM|
In the Best Families by Rex Stout
In the Best Families opens as a traditional Nero Wolfe mystery with Wolfe being asked to investigate the secret source of money a wealthy woman’s husband has come into, but things take an unexpected twist when Stout’s Moriarity, Arnold Zeck, warns Wolfe off the case. Wolfe, of course, doesn’t listen and his client ends up dead the same night triggering the most bizarre of Nero Wolfe mysteries as Wolfe flees his home and goes underground to plot the downfall of Zeck—a criminal so influential that even Inspector Cramer says he is untouchable. No prosecutor will charge him, no court will convict him, and no prison will hold him.
The obvious solution to Wolfe’s problem is to assassinate the man. Wolfe is a genius. He undoubtedly could think of a way to do that, but that is far too simple an answer for Nero Wolfe. Instead, at his Machiavellian best, he gears up to go head-to-head with a criminal who may just be as smart as Wolfe is.
This is a great novel. I never liked the Arnold Zeck character, but I still say it’s a great novel because of the extremes Wolfe is willing to go to get Zeck out of his life and professional career.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on June 8, 2022 at 5:55 AM|
The Buried Book by David Damrosch
This book on the discovery of The Epic of Gilgamesh can easily be broken into four parts including a rather rambling epilogue. The first part details the lives and careers of two British Museum archaeologists—George Smith and Hormuzd Rassam. The second takes a look at the court life in ancient Babylon in roughly 2500 BCE. The third is a short summary of the Epic of Gilgamesh. And the fourth is a brief account of the epic’s influence in modern times. The result is not a book on the rediscovery of the first great epic poem, but a rather jumbled set of accounts on the above topics. To give Damrosch credit, he starts very well, but the whole account quickly loses steam as the book seems to veer off topic repeatedly. The little side routes are interesting, but they distract from the overall sense of unity that I expected the book to achieve. At many times I kept asking myself when the Epic of Gilgamesh was going to reappear in Damrosch’s account.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on June 7, 2022 at 7:45 AM|
The Prynne Viper by Bianca Marais
This is a short but powerful story about a dystopian future where society has been convinced that everything a person is worth can be calculated and predicated by studying their genes. When people dare to become pregnant without approval, the unborn child (called a viper) is put on trial by people that science predicts will be impacted (positively and negatively) by the child during his or her life. The trials are clearly for show trial spectators who get to watch but not hear the evidence. All participants have their memories wiped of the testimony. Even having the trial seems weird since in theory there is no free will and the outcome is known (one might even say rigged) in advance.
Now I enjoyed the story and I found the ending highly moving, but I still think the author missed the boat here. Very little information is given on how the child will impact most of the 13 jurors and we never had a scene in which the jurors try to convince each other to vote their way (after all, not all impacts are negative, but some could potentially be terribly so). That being said, it’s a nice quick read with a surprisingly strong ending.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on June 6, 2022 at 7:05 AM|
Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights by John E. Finn
These days it’s very difficult to talk about the Supreme Court without getting pulled into contentious political issues. For that reason, I felt a little bit leery regarding reading this book as I was interested in learning about the issues and different interpretations of the constitution and feared being preached at. Fortunately, my concerns proved baseless. John Finn does a brilliant job of keeping his own political opinions out of the issues and helping the reader to understand the tremendous complexities in just about every issue that comes before the Supreme Court. What results is an amazing collection of 36 lectures which cannot help but increase your appreciation for the Supreme Court and the tremendously important job its justices perform for the United States. That being said, there is way too much information to absorb in a single reading, especially if you listen straight though over only a few days. So plan to listen to it again someday.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on June 5, 2022 at 8:05 AM|
NPC by Jeremy Robinson
This is a book that plays with your sense of reality. A serial murderer is preying on the homeless trying to prove his theory that the world is actually a computer simulation and most of the population are not real (i.e. player characters) but NPCs (non-player characters) whose actions are directed by a computer. He has gone so far as to categorize the NPCs into 5 levels depending upon their sophistication. The serial murderer is trying to upset the system and free the real people from the simulation.
In alternating chapters, we get into the mind of a pastor who is trying to find out what’s happened to these missing homeless people. He’s a recent widower and is having a crisis of faith that the serial killer’s theory intersects nicely with. As he and the killer maneuver against each other, the mystery of the killer’s theory becomes increasingly intricate. There are a ton of surprises in this novel, but what makes it the best is the author’s success in making you alternate between believing in and doubting the killer’s theory. It’s totally gripping and utterly fascinating. You’ll be wondering whether or not the world really is a simulation right up to the very last page.
|Posted by Gilbert Stack on June 4, 2022 at 8:25 AM|
Critters from the Poo Lagoon by D.M. Guay
D.M. Guay is back with another crazy short novel from her 24/7 Demon Mart series (which apparently doesn’t count as part of the main series because it doesn’t happen in the actual demon mart). This time, Lloyd is helping his mother set up a Hawaiian-themed party at the country club to thank a bunch of volunteers for their hard work. They are permitted to do this by perennial thorn in the side, Caroline, the snooty rich woman who uses the volunteers but detests them. As the reader can guess before page one, everything is going to go wrong.
Lloyd has invited his love interest Dee Dee, who has told the rest of the Demon Mart staff about it so that their manager the cockroach and the loveable demon giant centipede come to the party as well. This complicates things as the rest of the world is not supposed to know about demons, but it’s not the real cause of concern. The real complication is that the party is about to be invaded by water creatures such as trailer park mermaids and a plant guy similar to the Swamp Thing from the comics. It’s a great set of villains who really threaten the party, but of course, they’re only the beginning of Lloyd’s problems.
As if all the supernatural troubles aren’t enough, Guay brings all the sorts of mundane problems one can find at a party in the real world. Lloyd’s grandmother brings extremely high octane moonshine to the party and over-the-top drunkenness quickly ensues. And of course, rich and snooty Caroline is constantly creating the wrong kind of waves for Lloyd and his friends.
All in all, this is another excellent edition to the Demon Mart series and anyone who has enjoyed the first book should hurry up and read it. If you haven’t read the first book (The Graveyard Shift), what are you waiting for?