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Friday, March 30, 2012

Mary Roberts Rinehart - The Man in Lower Ten

From my sampling of four of her novels, it seems like Rinehart either has hapless, bumbling male narrators or (overly) self-confident, supposedly competent female narrators.  I couldn't get through the fourth book I tried, The Buckled Bag, whose narrator fit into the latter category.

I really liked The Man in Lower Ten (with one of the bumbling male narrators), which I just finished.

The Man in Lower Ten is narrated by Lawrence "Lollie" Blakeley, a 30 year old attorney, who's interested in sports and little else; he has a well-deserved and self-described reputation for being indifferent to women, in particular.  He's charged with transporting some important material evidence in a legal case, some forged papers, by train.  There's a murder on the very same train he's traveling on, and he becomes implicated.  To top it off, the papers he's carrying, along with his other possessions, are stolen.  Just when it couldn't get any worse, the train is struck by another train; there's a horrible smash-up, and a number of people are killed.  He's one of the few survivors.  He spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out the complex strands involving the stolen papers, the murdered man, and a number of mysterious characters who figure into the case, and at the same time escape being arrested for the murder, himself.  He falls in love for the first time while he's at it.

I thought The Man in Lower Ten was very well-crafted, with a number of quirky, interesting characters who really added to the story.  The love story was probably the least "realistic" of the various plotlines.

Of the three Rineholt mysteries I've read (the others being The Circular Staircase and The Window at the White Cat), I thought this one the best.  Like the others, it's not so much designed to solve the mystery along with some savvy investigator; rather, critical evidence - particularly confessionals - don't pull it together until the final chapters.  The bulk of the story is involved in running down blind alleys, back-tracking, and starting again, and the suspense and humor that accompanies the process.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mary Roberts Rinehart - The Circular Staircase

Before I began The Circular Staircase, I happened to see the Publisher's Note on the copyright page of the edition I'm reading (The Best Mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 2002): "The books... were written in the early twentieth century and carry language and attitudes typical of the time.  This edition... does not reflect the attitudes of the editors or publishers..."  After beginning the story I quickly saw the reason for the disclaimer; there are a number of racial and class stereotypes that figure in the story, which to current sensibilities are really unpalatable.  It took away some from my enjoyment of it, though, much to my relief, Rinehart eased off on all the quaking, cowardly servants as the story progressed.

The Circular Staircase is narrated by a well-to-do "middle-aged spinster", Rachel Innes, who encounters murder and mystery when she rents a country estate for the summer. It is the no-good Arnold Armstrong, son of the absent owners of the estate, who is found murdered in the house.  The fiance of the Rachel's niece, John "Jack" Baily, is implicated in the murder.  He works as a broker for the bank owned by Armstrong's father, and was on poor terms with Armstrong.  Things look even more bleak for Jack when he is also accused of embezzling and absconding with bank funds.  Almost everyone else around Rachel seems to be entangled in the murder and harboring secrets that may be the key to solving the mounting mysteries.  But the ultimate solution to the murder and the bank's troubles all seem to lie at the Armstrong estate, itself.  Our intrepid narrator is determined to solve the mystery with or without anyone's cooperation.

Overall, I enjoyed the read, especially once I was reconciled to its datedness and figured out that Rinehart may not necessarily mean the reader to solve the mystery until the end (when there's a confession), and that the point is to enjoy the suspense, thrills and chills.

Of note, the narrator is supposedly intelligent and brave (according to herself and the police imspector, who compliments her), though how she handles a number of situations and her tendency to faint away when confronted with dangerous situations made me wonder otherwise.  I guess heroines in the early 1900s are supposed to faint, at least as long as it's genuine (unlike the servants with their fake swooning).  But the narrator comes off, to me, at least, as a tad pompous and not as smart as she thinks she is.  I wasn't sure if Rinehart meant to be straight about the reliability of the narrator or was being somewhat ironic.  On the other hand, it's a fine line between trying to keep the mystery up without making the characters seem stupid; also, since Rinehart was writing over a hundred years ago, some conventions may have changed.

I did end up posting other versions of this on Powells.com and Amazon.com.

Monday, March 19, 2012

book review - The Improper Governess by Carola Dunn

The Improper Governess is the first book I've read by Carola Dunn.  It was originally published in 1998, but I just discovered it in ebook format; Carola Dunn in her blog notes that a number of her Regency romance novels, all published quite a number of years ago, are being re-released as ebooks; in the last decade she's gone away from Regency novels and has been writing"cozy" period mysteries.

The Improper Governess is more in the tradition of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, relying on romantic tension rather than steamy romantic scenes, an initial attraction that's thwarted, with various obstacles and opportunities to move the plot along to the happy ending.  The heroine is pretty, sweet, virtuous, intelligent, and brave.  The hero appears at first to "just" be a handsome, dangerous rake, but shows that he can be sweet in a manly way, virtuous once he falls for the heroine, intelligent, and brave. They both gradually begin to esteem and like the other, in addition to finding that they're also falling in love.

Like Georgette Heyer, Dunn clearly has clearly done her research into Regency England.  I wonder if she had originally been inspired by Heyer.

Set in Regency London, Lissa Findlay, the heroine, has been forced by circumstances to work as an opera dancer, barely supporting her two little brothers and herself.  She catches the attention of Lord Robert Ashe, who is looking for a new paramour.  Much to his surprise and chagrin, Lissa spurns his advances.  He, though, finds himself intrigued by her unusual circumstances and her bravery.  He ends up taking her and her two brothers into his household, where she serves as governess to his sickly, spoiled nephew.  Lissa does wonders for the nephew, who befriends her two brothers, as well.  She also finds herself hopelessly falling for Lord Ashe.  It seems to be a mutual thing, unbeknownst to the other.  It becomes a question whether love can overcome disapproving relatives and seemingly insurmountable extenuating circumstances.  The answer isn't too hard to guess (well, that and I already gave it away, didn't I?).

This was a delightful, light read, with amusing characters and situations, as well as some gentle angst.  I recommend it to anyone who enjoys Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer's Regency novels.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mary Roberts Rinehart; book review - The Window at the White Cat

The Window at the White Cat is the first novel I've read by Mary Roberts Rinehart.  I plan to read some of her others now.

I only stumbled upon Rinehart after listening to a recorded lecture series on detective fiction (Modern Scholar - Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present, given by M. Lee Alexander).  Rinehart was just briefly mentioned in the lecture series.  Apparently, though, she was quite a sensation in her time.  She wrote from 1908 all the way till 1953, and was read by Presidents and literary luminaries in addition to everyone else.  Some of her books were also adapted into plays and films.  The edition I'm reading, The Best Mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart, includes four of her novels and an Introduction on the life and writing career of Rinehart; the Introduction is the primary source of my information regarding Rinehart, in addition to Wikipedia.

I find it rather interesting that Rinehart, renowned in her time and apparently something of a public figure, should now be relatively obscure, a brief mention in a lecture series on detective fiction and no one I'd heard of before.

Also of note, per the Introduction, it turns out that it's Rinehart's first four that are considered her "best" by "critics"(I'm not sure who, though), "more carefully crafted" than later works.

The Window at the White Cat is narrated by the rather hapless but earnest Jack Knox, an attorney, who is drawn into some mysterious disappearances and ultimately political corruption, suicide, and murder.  Our purported hero bumbles his way through, trying to find clues and make sense of them, and naturally loses his heart in the process.

The young and beautiful Margery Fleming, daughter of the corrupt State Treasurer, Allan Fleming, seeks Knox's assistance after her father disappears.  Her father, we learn, is a "successful politician of the criminal type," so it's no surprise that the trail of his disappearance should lead to more shady political characters and criminal doings.  It eventually leads to murder at the rough and tumble club, The White Cat.  What's a surprise, though, is the disappearance of Margery's sweet and timid aunt, Jane, around the same time.  Can all these mysterious and sordid events be connected?

Following Knox as he fumbles around does cause the plot to drag at times.  This is made up for, though, by the fun cast of characters and their interactions with each other. Ultimately, the characters carry the book more than the unraveling of the mystery, which is done in a rush in the end and only truly made clear by a tell-all confession. There's an interesting, almost incongruous mix between rather sweet scenes and others that are almost hard boiled.  Still, I found it to be a charming, enjoyable read.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

book review - The Chinese Shawl

Yup, I've written a book review of Patricia Wentworth's The Chinese Shawl.  I posted it on Amazon.com and Powell's Books' website and of course, to be utterly repetitious, I'm posting it here, too.  In the very least, I thought it would be good practice to try and summarize the plot (for query synopses) and my accompanying commentary.

Here it is:

4/5 stars
An enjoyable, nostalgic read.

Set in WWII England, young heiress, Laura Fane, meets her ambitious femme fatale cousin, Tanis, and finds herself tangled in a web of Tanis' intrigues as well as old family grievances.  When Tanis is found murdered, the list of possible suspects is long, for Tanis has left a long list of jilted and jealous enemies, perhaps Laura among them.  But there's more to her murder than meets the eye.  Luckily, Miss Silver, our knitting, Tennyson-quoting private enquiry agent, is there to untangle the mystery and save the day.

I've tended to consider Wentworth's detective fiction as enjoyable but second tier in the British Golden Age detective fiction genre.  Her characters are more stereotypic and the plots fairly predictable.  The novels are definitely "dated" (The Chinese Shawl was originally published in 1943).  The Chinese Shawl is true to this form, but a solid work for Wentworth.  Overlooking its shortcomings, it's a fun read with a charming bit of romance complicated by dastardly characters and murder.  I'd recommend it to readers who enjoy Golden Age mysteries who've exhausted their supply of Christie and Sayers.

Patricia Wentworth

Despite the predictability and dated stereotypes, or perhaps because of them, I've enjoyed reading Patricia Wentworth's mysteries, but, then again, I love a lot of the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction.  I just finished re-reading The Chinese Shawl (published in 1943).

For any reader of this blog who isn't familiar with Patricia Wentworth (however unlikely it is that anyone but me is reading this), she was a British novelist writing primarily detective fiction during what is now considered the British Golden Age of Detective Fiction (a discussion in its own right).  Her first mystery novel, Grey Mask, was published in 1928, and her final novel, The Girl in the Cellar, was published in 1961.  She published a slew of books, mostly featuring her constantly knitting "spinster" "private inquiry agent", Maud Silver, a.k.a. Miss Silver.

Her books would now be classified as "cozy mysteries", typically set in English country manors.  The murdered individual tends to be an unpleasant sort, and the murderer also tends to be really unlikeable (and typically easy to predict).  Wentworth usually focuses on a young (early 20s), pretty heroine and a young (mid 20s) handsome, often brooding hero, both of whom at some point are suspected of the dastardly crime, but then are happily exonerated by the wise and observant Miss Silver.  The police and Scotland Yard, particularly the good-looking, suave Inspector Frank Abbott (later promoted), are astounded and amazed.

Wentworth typically has the murder occur a third or halfway into the novel rather than at the beginning, then sends Miss Silver in to rehash events, collect clues, and interview evasive suspects.  There's a dramatic showdown of some sort near the end.  Wentworth ends the book with the young couple, who ride off into the sunset of a marriage plot ending.

At her best, Wentworth successfully sets up a tense, uncomfortable scenario with dastardly characters attempting to thwart the heroine and hero as well as the path of justice. The bit of romance Wentworth throws in is always very charming.  It's nice to sit back as a reader and enjoy the ride.

I always find it interesting and fun what characteristics are considered befitting to hero, heroine, and villains in works written in a different time.  The characteristics aren't exactly the same as in contemporary times, especially the female characters.

Ironically, it's Miss Silver, who is more in line with a "contemporary" heroine, ironic because she's also "old-fashioned", with "Victorian" sensibilities.  She's also level-headed, brave, independent (both financially and emotionally), and, I would say, mildly contemptuous and amused by blustering, superior-acting men.

By contrast, Wentworth's damsel in distress isn't assertive, career-minded, or worldly in any sense of the world, as contemporary heroines might be.  She ultimately defers to the superiority of the hero.  The heroine doesn't take the gun or poker stick or other implement of destruction into her own hand and take down the baddie by herself (Miss Silver doesn't, either); she lets the capable hero do the grunt work.  The heroine is prone to be frightened, at times incapacitated by the horrors of the murder or when she is almost murdered; she might show pluck, but it's the hero (and Miss Silver) who keeps the cool head and saves the day.

I must admit that the portrayal of the heroine and other female characters as emotionally less stable and, frankly, sometimes more stupid than the men (with the notable exception of Miss Silver) can be a bit trying, but, as I mentioned in the opening of this ramble, the datedness is part of the overall charm. 

I find reading books written in a different time, for a different time, is like dabbling in nostalgia, leaving me a bit wistful but warm and fuzzy.