Mysteries & Mayhem

The Man Who Lived By Night is David Handler’s second mystery featuring ghost writer Stewart (”call me Hoagy”) Hoag and his basset hound Lulu. Hoagy’s celebrity assignment The Man Who Lived By Nightthis time around is faded rock star Tristam Scarr, now living in isolated grandeur on his estate in the English countryside. Originally published in 1989 (most of the series was republished in ebook format by Open Road Press in 2012), the book is a travelogue through the music scene of the 60s and 70s, British and American, peppered with real people. Handler tells chunks of the story through tapes of Hoagy’s interviews with Scarr and his associates, peeling away the past until the motives for current murders are revealed.

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Somehow I missed this series completely when it was first published, but I’m enjoying it now: I identify with both writers and basset hound owners.

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I haven’t missed one of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries since the first one came out in the 1970s. The latest, The Breakers, follows Sharon’s search for a missing friend. We first met Chelle Curley in earlier books as an enterprising teenager who often pet sat for Sharon’s cats. Now she’s in her early twenties and has had some success The Breakersrehabbing old buildings in run down sections of San Francisco. When her parents call Sharon from Costa Rica because they haven’t been able to get in touch with Chelle for days, Sharon takes up the search.

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The investigation leads to an assortment of characters, friends and/or possible suspects, and to other crimes. Sharon’s husband Hy and her various employees work mostly in the background on this one, which is primarily Sharon’s story. The Breakers, the one-time hotel, now a deteriorating and nearly empty apartment house that Chelle is living in while rehabbing it, holds a number of clues, if only Sharon can puzzle them out in time. A little slower and less complex than some previous entries (and fairly short at 260 pages), The Breakers is still a solid addition to the series.

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Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate the advertising business in Robert Goldsborough’s Fade To Black. I read all of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series back in the day (when I apparently had more time for reading), and I enjoy Goldsborough’s continuation of the series just as much, as he brings Wolfe and Archie into the computer age (without aging them a day). In this one Archie and Wolfe work to discover who’s passing ideas about the ad campaigns for one cherry soda (yuck) to the ad agency for another. Lots of familiar characters, and the routine at the brownstone never changes.

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In their next adventure, they become reluctantly involved with murder at a megachurch in Silver Spire, but only because long-time associate Fred Durkin is accused of the killing.

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In The Missing Chapter, Goldsborough has a little fun with his own career, as Wolfe and Archie investigate the possible murder (or was it really suicide?) of a “continuator,” an author who has taken up the pen of a well-loved mystery writer, producing new cases for the homespun Sergeant Barnstable and making lots of enemies, including his editor and agent, a fellow writer who borrows his “word processor” (this one was published in 1993), a missing cousin, and even his fiancee. Needless to say, Wolfe and Archie winnow out the truth.

 

The Influence of Books, part 4

Yes, I still have my little slip of note paper by the computer, with my off-the-top-of-my-head notes on authors I read long ago.  Next up: mystery novels.

I love mysteries, always have.  Both my parents were avid mystery readers, and my mother introduced me to her favorites early on.  I’ve belonged to the Doubleday Mystery Guild since I lived in Louisiana, far from any book store, in the late 1960s.  Today I have a whole list of must-buy mystery authors.  On the humorous end, I love Elaine Viets, Janet Evanovich, Joan Hess, and Spencer Quinn.  On the more serious side, I’ve followed Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller since their debuts.  I’ve read everything from Ed McBain’s hard core procedurals, set in Isola, McBain’s version of mid-twentieth century New York City, to Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries, based on 18th century Chinese detective stories.

The three mystery authors on my notepad list are Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Rex Stout.  They weren’t the only classic detective novelists I read–Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, and Ellery Queen come to mind–but they were prolific and addictive.

Agatha Christie (1890-1976) was my mother’s favorite.  For years Mom carried a list of Christie’s countless titles, so that she could check the copyright page for alternate titles before she bought a paperback.  Christie was British, and her American publishers often changed her titles.  Whether that was an effort to sell more books to careless buyers or because they thought American readers wouldn’t understand the original British titles, I don’t know.  I spent a couple of long hot summers in New Orleans when I was in grad school at Tulane reading Christie in a hammock on my apartment porch, now and then riding my bicycle or taking the St. Charles Avenue trolley to a book store for more paperbacks.  I’m pretty sure I read every mystery Dame Agatha wrote.

Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) was a New Zealander, but she spent much of her time, and set most of her novels, in England.  Her sophisticated and intellectual detective hero, Roderick Alleyn, was an aristocrat who chose to make a career in the police.  His romance with (and eventual marriage to) a rather Bohemian artist named Agatha Troy ran through the series, written between 1934 and 1982.  I read every one of Marsh’s novels, too.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) recorded the cases of eccentric detective Nero Wolfe from 1934 to 1975.  The novels were narrated by Archie Godwin, Wolfe’s assistant and leg man; Wolfe himself rarely left his New York brownstone, preferring to solve mysteries while meditating in his office or nurturing the orchids in his greenhouse.  I never missed one of Wolfe’s adventures (and I have on my DVD shelf a boxed set of the excellent TV adaptations featuring Timothy Hutton as Archie and Maury Chaykin as Wolfe).

All of those old classics have slipped out of my library over the years, replaced by more modern tastes and contemporary authors.  I’ll probably never get the urge to track them down again–there are just too many new mysteries to read, including several that I ordered from the Mystery Guild a few days ago.  But I cut my mystery-lover’s teeth on decades of novels from Christie, Marsh, and Stout.