The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack




The Headmaster’s Cave by D.S. Allen

At its core, The Headmaster’s Cave is less a mystery and more of an adventure story about two children and their dog trying to get a friend out of trouble at the infamous Headmaster’s Cave. On this level, it’s an enjoyable tale. The friends have a series of adventures on their way to the cave and eventually find their friend and have even more adventures before they are able to get home again. Unfortunately, the mystery elements are not as strong as the adventure elements.

The Headmaster’s Cave is an infamous location because one hundred years ago the headmaster of a local school and seven students disappeared there. For ten decades the entire town has condemned the headmaster as a sick murderer on the basis that he and the students disappeared. The cave is now blocked off because other people going to the cave have been trapped by the rising tide and drowned, but apparently the idea that the headmaster and the students might also have been trapped and washed out to sea has never occurred to anyone. He must be a brutal murderer because…well there isn’t actually any reason to think this.

Now if only the schoolmates of our hero George (descended from the allegedly murderous headmaster) had believed this legend it wouldn’t in any way detract from the story. Kids can be cruel and they don’t always think things through. But all the adults also believe the accusation and despite the one hundred years that have passed, their anger is sufficient to still cause trouble for George’s family. Had it been thirty years ago, or even fifty years ago, I might have understood this, but one hundred years feels like ancient history.

The children are lured to the Headmaster’s Cave (which requires them to hike all day and camp out at night to reach) under the promise that they will learn the truth of what really happened there a century ago. I found it believable the kids would have tried to go, but wish that the story was not set in the modern day with cell phones so it would be a little more believable that their parents would buy their stories about staying at each others’ houses. In any event, reaching the proximity of the cave is when the story transforms from being an okay adventure to an exciting action-packed drama. The villain is wonderfully crazy and the kids have to be both very brave and very smart. In addition, elements dropped earlier in the story come back into play here in a most rewarding fashion. And of course, the mystery is resolved and it’s both moving and satisfying.

I think this series has a lot of potential. It’s difficult to write convincing stories about children and Allen has compiled an endearing cast here. I’d like to see more.

I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Wedding Woes by J.J. Chow

This delightful story charts the efforts of Winston Wong to marry the woman of his dreams while navigating a host of wedding-related crises and trying to discover whether or not a murderer is among his guests. Chow skillfully builds a sympathetic connection between Winston and the reader right in the first chapter of the story when Winston has his reception hall ripped away from him due to an unfortunate double booking. Things quickly go downhill from there. As he scrambles to make other arrangements, his best man loses the rings, decorations are destroyed, and well…lots of challenges confront him. The most significant of these challenges are the large Chan family who stumble upon the rehearsal shortly before their patriarch dies in a bizarre accident. Winston’s kind-hearted fiancé invites the bereaved family (and another suitor) to the rehearsal dinner where events suggest that perhaps the death of Mr. Chan was not as accidental as it first appeared.

The mystery is well-developed, but I must admit it was the personal interactions between Winston and the delightful cast that I most enjoyed in this tale. This book is filled with quirky but thoroughly likable individuals. And the ending has me wondering what new troubles await Winston and his bride.

Whip Hand by Dick Francis

One of the major themes in Dick Francis’ novels is that of courage. His heroes are quite often jockeys who risk falling off their horses on a daily basis. They break bones and suffer other mishaps, yet continue to race at breakneck speed to earn their livelihood. Whip Hand is also about courage, but Francis tackles it by focusing on the intense fear of his hero, Sid Halley.

Halley is a retired jockey—forced out of the racing business when he fell and had his hand trampled by another horse. His mangled limb had to be amputated and Haley now makes his living as a private investigator looking into problems around the racecourse. Whip Hand starts out with Halley being drawn into four separate investigations—two of which are clearly connected—and one of which gets him abducted and threatened with having his remaining hand blown off with a shotgun if he doesn’t back off.

To his great shame, Halley breaks—at least in the short term—but his sense of self will not allow him to leave the matter alone and he finds himself picking up the investigation again despite a nearly paralyzing fear of being totally crippled by the villain of the story. Francis doesn’t have to hit the reader over the head with this fear, it just continually resurfaces in Halley’s thoughts and yet, he keeps investigating.

In addition to the investigative storyline, Francis gives a powerful subplot in which Halley is asked by his ex-father-in-law to investigate some trouble Halley’s ex-wife has gotten into. The ex-wife divorced Halley because she could not handle the risks involved in his profession as a jockey and could not stand the choice he made to move into another dangerous field after he lost his hand. Her anger often veers into hate and her interactions with Halley—her tremendous resentment of him and need for him to fail—make for a moving and disturbing subplot. She helps us see quite clearly the “defects” in Halley’s character that have made him so successful as both a jockey and now an investigator.

This is one of Francis’ more memorable stories and characters. It’s easy to see why he decided to write multiple adventures about Sid Halley.

Bonecrack by Dick Francis

There are two stories at work in Dick Francis’ mystery, Bonecrack. On the surface this is a contest between two men—a wealthy criminal trying to force Neil Griffon into putting his amateur eighteen-year-old son onto champion horse, Archangel, for the Derby. It’s a totally unrealistic and impossible demand, but that only makes the insane lengths to which the villain is willing to go to make it happen all the more frightening.

The real story, however, is about two young men and their dysfunctional relationships with their fathers. Both fathers are absolutely determined to control their sons and neither can ultimately handle their inability to do so. There is a lot of pain in this book—but worst of it is the emotional damage these two fathers keep inflicting on their boys.

The heart of this novel is watching Griffon slowly cultivate the feelings of competence and independence in Alessandro that helps to break him free of his criminal father’s control. It’s extremely well done and highly believable. It also creates a very human core for the book—especially when you realize Dick Francis’ true vision of a father-son relationship is the mentoring Griffon gives Alessandro and the mutual respect this generates between them.

Bonecrack also has one of the most dramatic endings of any Dick Francis novels as Alessandro’s father goes to horrifically insane lengths to get his way. This is one of those books that sticks with you years after you first read it.

Dead Cert by Dick Francis

Dick Francis knows how to start a novel with a bang—in this case the murder of Alan York’s best friend in the middle of a steeplechase. It didn’t look like murder, but York sees more than he’s supposed to and sets himself on a path to find out who killed his friend—a decision that almost results in his own death.

The mystery is a good one and there are several tense actions scenes both on and off the track, but for me the standout element of the book was Alan York. I would have liked to have learned a lot more about him—his past growing up in Africa and the teacher who helped form so much of his character. The love interest in this one never worked for me, but they are rarely the strong point of Dick Francis novels. In this case, he did a little more poorly than usual with what I thought was a wholly unbelievable ending to that particular subplot. Fortunately, that’s not enough to derail this story of murder at the races.

Enquiry by Dick Francis

One of the things that sure to get me to the edge of my seat in a good mystery is the false accusation when the hero is framed for a crime. It’s just such a situation that forms the heart of Enquiry and like any good hero, jockey Kelley Hughes is not going to stand by and allow his reputation to be ruined. What I liked most about this mystery is the way in which Hughes goes about trying to solve the mystery. He starts with direct confrontations of the men who lied about him and forged up fake evidence. This, quite naturally, doesn’t help him any. So he has to get increasingly sophisticated in his efforts to figure out who is behind the injustice—and all the while the unknown villain is taking steps to permanently stop Hughes from proving his innocence. This is a good quick read that left me totally satisfied.

Knock Down by Dick Francis

This is an uncommonly aggressive novel for Dick Francis. His books always have a mystery which his hero reluctantly discovers he must solve in order to come through the problems confronting him intact. But in Knock Down, Jonah Dereham fights back in an atypical way for Dick Francis. Jonah is a bloodstock agent who has the disadvantage of being honest. He refuses to engage in a scheme to force owners to give major kickbacks to the bloodstock agents and the ringleaders of the scheme decide to try and terrorize him into cooperating with their plans. Much to their shock, he pushes back and it makes for a very exciting novel. This is a different kind of conflict than Francis usually gives us and that difference really ups the level of excitement.

Rat Race by Dick Francis

This is one of the more complicated Dick Francis mysteries. Matt Shore is a pilot for a small airline service that makes most of its money ferrying owners, trainers and jockeys to and from horse races. Matt’s a very capable pilot who’s had a run of bad luck which is just about to get much worse. His plane blows up right after he and his passengers have disembarked. No one is killed but when the investigation shows that a bomb caused the explosion, it certainly raises the question of whom someone wanted dead.

Things get more mysterious as Matt tries to figure out who could have planted the bomb and who was the intended target. Even when he thinks he’s figured out the identity of the assassin he can’t figure out the motive and in this case motive is absolutely key to proving guilt. This is a good mystery with some of Francis’ better personal relationships. A fine novel all around.

High Stakes by Dick Francis

The thing that makes Dick Francis novels stand out from the pack of run-of-the-mill mysteries is his keen insight into the horse racing industry and in this book he takes a look at a special kind of fraud that unscrupulous trainers can put over on their absentee owners. To the untrained eye, many horses look alike, so what do you do when a trainer swaps your prize-winning horse with one that looks similar but doesn’t have the racing magic? It’s an interesting problem, especially when the trainer is well liked, and it’s especially painful when Steven Scott, are hero, is vilified by the press and other race goers for trying to extricate himself from a man who has been cheating him. There’s never any doubt who the villain is in this novel, but there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding how our hero will get justice in the end. The solution to one of Francis’ most ingenius.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

There is something about this mystery that is just fun. Forget for a moment that this novel transformed the mystery genre by mixing the hardboiled detective with romance and a little comedy. And forget that it is one of the all-time greats of detective fiction. Nick and Nora are two of the most enjoyable protagonists in any detective novel. He’s a retired private investigator who has seen a little bit of everything and was very happy to leave it behind. She’s his young, very wealthy, wife who wants excitement in her life and finds Nick’s past as a detective to be glamorous and enthralling. When a mystery starts to develop near them, Nick tries his best to stay out of its way while Nora tries to drag the two of them directly into the center of the mess.

The supporting cast centers on an eccentric inventor, his murdered secretary, his ex-wife, their two children and her new husband. All of these people are brilliantly brought to life in totally believable detail. But most of all they are fun to encounter as they swirl around Nick and Nora, each trying to use them to get something they want from the eccentric inventor—the Thin Man of the title. Throw in the police, mobsters, a lawyer and a cast of hard drinking socialites and you have all the ingredients to give Nora all the excitement she could want while keeping Nick from escaping his old profession.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I find it strange that the first word I think of to describe this hardboiled detective novel is “beautiful”. The heroes of these sorts of novels are rough and ready and I expect the prose to be the same. Yet that isn’t the case in The Big Sleep. From the very first page, Chandler’s writing is elegant, smooth and even breath-taking. His novel is so superbly crafted that when the movie starring Bogart and Bacall was made in 1946 they lifted much of the movie dialogue directly from the pages of Chandler’s book. It’s that good.

His characters are also superb from Marlowe himself with his tough exterior and uncompromising sense of honor, to General Sternwood who becomes sympathetic only because he’s dying, to his two daughters who are both a mess but in such fascinatingly distinctive ways, to Joe Brodie who wants to be tough but proves he isn’t whenever he’s pushed. I could go on, but I’ll settle for adding one more—Harry Jones, a man who is physically small and slight of build but proves to have more backbone and loyalty than anyone else in the novel but Marlowe himself.

I also loved the movie. I saw it several times with my roommates in college, but there were several small problems with it that do not exist in the novel. The biggest of those problems is that at the end of the movie we never really understood how Eddie Mars got the goods on the Sternwood family or how Marlowe figured out who murdered Regan. I think that might have been due to the movie standards of the time because the pivotal scene in the novel only halfway happens in the movie. Marlowe comes home in the book to find Carmen Sternwood naked in his bed (she kept her clothes on in the movie) and when he throws her out she loses all of her cuteness and much of her appearance of humanity and begins hissing at him. (Again, in the movie she just gets thrown out.) Chandler builds this scene with extraordinary care. It shows us there is a lot more going on in Carmen’s head than the doped up sweet and giggly mess that she shows the world most of the time. Without this scene the ending of the book makes no sense whatsoever—which may in part explain why the movie created its own ending rather than stick with Chandler’s better (but less romantic) one.

If you’re ever wondering why Raymond Chandler is held in such high esteem as an author of detective novels, The Big Sleep is a great place to start.