Review: Who’s On First

Who's on First

Who’s On First (A Blackford Oakes Mystery), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published 1980).

Summary: Oakes becomes involved in a plot to abduct a Soviet scientist couple involved in the research to launch Sputnik.

CIA agent Blackford Oakes leaves Hungary with the memory of the execution of Theophilus Molnar during the quenched Hungarian uprising of 1956. Having provided access to a “safe” house, somehow his safety is betrayed, Molnar is arrested, and executed on the spot.

Vadim and Viktor sustained each other through eight years in the Gulag. Both were scientist arrested for “anti-Soviet” agitation. Viktor believes Vadim saved his life by giving him hope. Later Vadim defects, and becomes involved with the CIA as “Serge.”

The Soviet Union and the United States are in a mad race for space, to put the first satellite in orbit. Each has technical problems, which if solved would clear the way to launch. Each has the answers the other needs.

All these factors come together in Paris when Viktor and his wife Tamara are in Paris for a scientific conference. It is decided to abduct the couple, who are working on the critical research, using the friendship with Vadim to elicit their co-operation. Oakes is enlisted as a taxi driver to abduct them during a staged bus breakdown, with a cover plot of an Algerian radical group seeking an exchange of weapons for hostages.

Unbeknownst to Oakes, KGB agent Bolgin knows Oakes is in Paris. A mole in the French resistance develops a plot to seize and execute Oakes. Oakes, recognized in photos at the abduction scene, unknowingly betrays the kidnapping as a CIA operation. The attempt to obtain Russian secrets jeopardizes the lives of Oakes, and Viktor and Tamara. Along with the death of Theo, all of this raises questions for Oakes, questions that if he survives could end his career. Meanwhile, questions of a different sort at a higher level raise the question of whether winning the space race is worth it, even as a critical operation to sink a Russian freighter carrying a critical piece of technology is counting down to zero hour.

Buckley weaves a compact, fast paced espionage novel around these elements. He recalls the mood that existed in the Cold War era leading up to the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, an event that actuated a military and scientific effort in the United States anticipated in this novel. He exposes the moral dilemmas of what Cold War maneuvering meant for the individuals whose futures and even lives might be sacrificed in covert efforts to attain a benchmark of supremacy. Having missed this series when it first came out, I’m glad for the second chance afforded by the folks at Open Road Media.

 

Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

midnight at the bright ideas bookstore

Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMatthew Sullivan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: When Joey the Bookfrog commits suicide at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Lydia Smith’s ordered life is overturned as she discovers a connection between his death and buried memories from childhood that had marked her life ever since.

Lydia Smith seems to finally have found the haven she was looking for as a bookseller at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Surrounded by books, an interesting collection of fellow booksellers, and the “Bookfrogs,” street people who spend their days in the recesses of the store, life is pretty good. That is, until the night she finds Joey, one of the Bookfrogs with whom she had a special connection, dead by suicide in the store. In his pocket is a picture of Lydia blowing out candles at her tenth birthday with two friends, Raj and Carol. A picture she had not know existed. How could Joey have gotten it? A picture taken just before that terrible night.

Lydia had been brought up by her father, Tomas, a librarian. One night, she and Carol, the new friend who was crowding out Raj Patel, at whose parents’ gas and donut shop she used to go after school to talk with Raj, were to have a sleepover at Lydia’s. Tomas had totally forgotten about taking a bookmobile to a remote location outside Denver and his boss insisted he drive there that night, in a snowstorm. Carol’s parents, the O’Tooles, offer to host. That night, “The Hammerman” brutally murders all three O’Tooles. Lydia, hiding in a cupboard under a kitchen sink, is spared. The Hammerman is never found, though at least one detective, now retired continues to suspect Tomas, who was having an affair with Dottie O’Toole, and when he came for Lydia in the morning, had compromised the crime scene. Tomas and Lydia flee Denver for a small town, Rio Vista, changing their last name. He became a prison guard, and slowly he and Lydia grew estranged, resulting in her eventual return to Denver.

In addition to the photo, Joey has left her a collection of books, all of which have little windows cut out of them, and a sale label for a different book. When the books are matched up, page for page, they reveal messages that point Lydia to the reason Joey took his life. The messages and a picture taken of Lydia watching Joey’s body being carried out of the bookstore lead to connections back to her father, to Raj, and ultimately to the identity of the Hammerman.

This mystery is a bibliophile’s dream. Set in what sounds like a dream of a bookstore, with the main character a meticulous, quiet but caring bookseller working with a quirky cast of fellow booksellers, it is a story a bibliophile can find oneself within. As we follow the twists and turns as Lydia tries to unravel Joey’s messages, the mystery of his last days, and his connection to her, her father, and that terrible night, we feel with her the choice of both wanting to know, and not wanting to know; of wanting to know the truth of that night and what her father’s part was, or just wanting to get on with her life with him out of it.

The book is well-paced, getting each piece of the puzzle in place, and moving to the next, even while several pieces seem to remain hidden. While this is not an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller, I found my interest and curiosity building until the final pages where all the connections become clear including what happened on that terrible night.

 

Review: Fall of a Cosmonaut

fall of a cosmonaut.jpg

Fall of a Cosmonaut (Porfiry Rostnikov #13), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press, 2000.

Summary: Chief Inspector Rostnikov and his team are charged with investigating three cases, a missing cosmonaut, a stolen film, and a brutal murder in a Paranormal Research Institute, only the first of the murders in the course of the story.

My son often manages to find books I probably never would have noticed that end up as fascinating reads. This book was such a case. It is actually the thirteenth installment in Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series and the real find here is the character of Rostnikov who combines the savvy political instincts necessary to survive in a cutthroat Russian bureacracy with an intuition about human behavior that leads him to surround himself with shrewd associates, and solve crimes.

In this installment, there is not one, but three cases that his boss, the Yak, has assigned him, expecting results. One is a cosmonaut that has disappeared, along with secret knowledge of events on the Mir space station, knowledge that others have already died without revealing, the most recent by a swift injection from an umbrella-bearing man that is following Rostnikov and his son Iosef, as they travel to the village where Tsimion Vladovka grew up.

In the second case, a movie director, Yuri Kriskov has just completed what is adverted to be a great epic on the life of Leo Tolstoy. Then he receives word that the movie and its negatives have been stolen, and are being held for a ransom that if not paid will result both in the destruction of the movie and the death of Kriskov. It turns out that this is a plot of an assistant, Valery Grachev who is in love with Vera, Kriskov’s wife, and Vera, who wants to be rid of Yuri. Sasha Tkach and Elena Timofeyeva are assigned to this case, trying to find the manic genius who has stolen the film, and is seeking a way to kill Yuri.

The third case involves the gruesome death by claw hammer of a sleep and dream researcher at a Paranormal Studies Institute. Emil Karpo and his understudy Zelech are assigned this one. Zelech is sidetracked by a woman researcher who suspects him of special abilities. Karpo collects shoes, finds a suspect who is a reclusive researcher who claims he is framed, and homes in on a jealous fellow scientist good at covering tracks.

Rostnikov has the skill to adeptly counsel each both on the cases and their personal lives. Karpo needs a personal life. Tkach is estranged from his wife. Elena and his son Iosef are engaged. Zelech is single. They eventually unravel each case, but not before others die and their own lives in several instances are endangered. The cases also provide “information”  that “the Yak” can use to advance his own ambitions, and his ability to control and manipulate others.

I mention all the figures associated with the cases because, like any good Russian novel, keeping track of the names and who is doing what is more than half the battle! The narrative keeps moving back and forth between the cases briskly enough that we don’t lose the thread of any of them as we move to the climax and resolution of each.

Altogether, there are sixteen numbers in Kaminsky’s Rostnikov series. I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading all of them, but I did pick up another one as a result of reading this. I think one of the most intriguing thing about mysteries is the distinctive character of the detectives–Holmes, Poirot, J. B. Fletcher, Kay Scarpetta, Robicheaux, Maigret, and Rostnikov–each seems a world different from the others and the delight is as much in the depths of these characters as in the resolution of these cases. I think I’m going to have to modify the bibliophile’s complaint and say, “So many series and so little time!”

Review: Surprised by Paradox

surprised by paradox

Surprised by ParadoxJen Pollock Michel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: In a world where things are often defined in either-or terms and a quest for certainty, Michel proposes there are many things, beginning with basic biblical realities that are both-and, inviting our continuing curiosity.

Whether it is schism in the church, political divides, or just a good old marital conflict, the parties often have defined things sharply in either-or terms, one way or another. Jen Pollock Michel explains how she began to look for a third way, and to write this book. A family member had been lying to her, repeatedly. She described her dilemma to her counselor.

“…I needed light for groping my way out of this tunnel with two exits: should I suffer lying or sever the relationship?

‘What if there’s a third way?’ she asked gently. Her language sounded like a struck bell, especially because ‘third way’ language was something my spiritual director often used with me. It was as if here was yet another invitation to find a sure-footed way on some undiscovered path–to find and where I had previously imagined only either and or. Here was an invitation to ‘lean not on my own understanding’ and find wisdom in the way of paradox” (pp. 22-23).

She discovered that paradox ran through the pages of scripture, that Christian orthodoxy is full of and, beginning with the incarnation, this idea that the Son of God came to earth, fully God, and also fully human. If paradox is at the heart of the nature of the Lord we trust and follow, might we look for God in the and, rather than insisting on answers to either-or questions. This paradox also suggests that we find the spiritual in the material, the living God in the stuff of everyday life. It also suggests that to conform to God’s ideal for our lives, is to live fully the “one wild and precious life” that is ours, expressing in our own uniqueness, the image of God in our lives.

She goes on to explore three other paradoxes. There is the paradox of the kingdom, which is already here and not fully come, where the least are the greatest, where we both give lavishly and enjoy lavishly what we are given, and where strength takes the form of vulnerability whose crowning hour is the cross. Grace confronts us with other paradoxes. Treasured, yet not for any personal excellency. Finding favor when the wrath we deserved falls upon his favored Son. Michel writes, “We don’t get grace because we change our lives–but our lives are indelibly changed because we get grace. Finally there is lament, the raw, unvarnished plea to God of people in pain that God has not shielded them from, that is a paradoxical kind of faith. It takes God seriously enough to become angry, to speak with blunt honesty rather than pretty pieties when what has happened in one’s life doesn’t square with our understanding of who God is.

Michel is a compelling author, one who can relate the depths of theology to teaching her daughter to drive, and her need for grace. She weaves scripture, teaching of the theological “greats,” contemporary realities, images, and personal stories into a narrative that sings and helps us examine with fresh eyes what we thought we knew down pat, helping us by asking, “did you notice this and this?”

A friend once observed that when we try to get rid of the tensions in our faith, or our lives by getting rid of one side of the tension to focus on the other, we make life simpler, but also smaller and more confined. Jen Pollock Michel invites us to live with paradoxes, and to celebrate the ands of God. She proposes that this opens us up to mystery, to surprise, and to the depth of the riches of knowing our God and what it means to live in the and of his purposes, to experience how grace transforms our work, and how our laments in all their perplexity may be among the most robust acts of faith. What might this “third way” mean as Christians are present to a world mired in “either-or?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table (Hercule Poirot #15), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011 (originally published 1936).

Summary: Mr. Shaitana, who throws great parties, but seems to be feared by many, throws a party for the entertainment of Poirot, with four guests who he claims have gotten away with murder, and ends up murdered himself, but with no clue as to who the murderer was.

Mr. Shaitana was an enticing host of great dinner parties. Yet people feared him. “Mephistophelian” is a word that describes him,  after the elegant demon who deceived Faust. A seemingly chance meeting with Hercule Poirot leads to a boast of knowing murderers who had gotten away with their crimes and what proves an unwise idea of hosting a party at which Poirot, Scotland Yard Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist are invited to join four guests presumably guilty of murder. The four other guests are Dr. Roberts, daring in bridge and perhaps in life, Mrs. Lorrimer, an intelligent and proper widow, Major Despard, an adventurer, and young and seemingly vulnerable Anne Meredith.

After dinner the four guests adjourn to play bridge. The four sleuths play in one room. The four “murderers” play in the other. Shaitana joins them by the fire. At the conclusion of play Shaitana appears asleep, but has been stabbed in the heart with a sharp implement from his collection. No one but the four bridge players, the four who had gotten away with murderer had been in the room. None says they saw anything amiss.

And so begins the sleuthing. Interviews with each of the guests. An investigation to learn if they could have committed a previous murder they would cover up. Battle, shrewd but stolid pursue conventional police methods. Race pursues inquiries on Major Despard. Mrs. Oliver focuses on young Anne and her roommate Rhoda Dawes. Poirot focuses on the bridge scores and what each remembers of the play, and the details of the room. Each has been connected with a murder. Things get more exciting yet with one more murder and another murder attempt. When we think the murderer of Shaitana is arrested, there is one more twist before the real murderer is exposed. In the end, the scores and play at bridge yield the critical clue.

Many consider this among Christie’s best novels. She pokes fun at herself in the character of novelist Ariadne Oliver.

” ‘I can always think of things,’ said Mrs. Oliver happily. ‘What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve written only thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then, I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It’s all very boring.’ “

It is enjoyable to see the character and interactions of the sleuths, the subtlety of the clues, and the surprise at the end when we think we have the murderer, caught in the act of attempted murder. This is a great summer read, or for any time one needs an engaging diversion.

Review: Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide, Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2002 (first published 1944).

Summary: Six table guests meet a year after the apparent suicide death of Rosemary Barton, and when her husband dies by the same means, it is apparent there is a murderer in their midst.

“Six people were thinking of Rosemary Barton who had died nearly a year ago…”

So begins the mystery. The six will be gathered at the same table at the Luxembourg where nearly a year ago Rosemary Barton, recently ill from the flu and possibly depressed, died of cyanide in her champagne, apparently from her own hand, from the evidence found in her purse.

The six are introduced one by one.

Iris Marle is the younger sister of Rosemary. The poor younger sister, since Rosemary had received a great inheritance from her Uncle Paul, which Iris would only receive if Rosemary died childless.

Ruth Lessing is the super-efficient secretary of Rosemary’s husband George, who secretly harbors an unreciprocated love for him, and hatred for Rosemary. He relies on her to handle tough situations in work and personal life, including dispatching the devious Victor Drake, whose singular accomplishment is wheedling money from his mother Lucilla, Iris’s aunt and chaperone. She apparently succeeds, but not before Victor insinuates himself into her thoughts and arouses her hatred for Rosemary.

Anthony Browne is an American of whom little is known. He tries and strikes out in having an affair with Rosemary, and then surreptitiously wins the heart of Iris who he wants to secret away to marry, flouting her guardian, George Barton.

Stephen Farraday is an ambitious young Member of Parliament who has married into the powerful Kidderminster clan through Sandra, the shyest, but also perhaps the most politically savvy or even ruthless of the sisters. Stephen, despite his love for and appreciation of his partner, has an affair with Rosemary, realizes there is little of substance to her, and much to his wife, and painfully breaks it off, against the wishes of Rosemary who has threatened to make the affair public.

Sandra Farraday genuinely loves her husband, perhaps more than he does her, at first. He thinks she doesn’t know about the affair, but in fact she does, and despises Rosemary, reconciles with Stephen and makes common cause with him.

Finally there is George Barton. He believes the account of Rosemary’s suicide until he receives letters intimating it was murder, which leads him to move close to the Farradays, and to devise a dinner at the same table of the same restaurant nearly a year later, to expose the murderer. They arrive to find an extra place, supposedly for his friend, Colonel Race, an ex-Army Colonel and MI-5 agent who tried to warn him off this dangerous game. The empty place is set with a spray of rosemary.

After the uneasy party returns from dancing, George proposes a toast to Rosemary, and promptly collapses, also poisoned by cyanide in his champagne. It is clear this is no suicide, and that Rosemary’s death was not either. There is a murderer in their midst. But there are troubling questions. Who sent the letters? And who poisoned the champagne, when none of those at the table had an opportunity. These are the questions that stymie Race, and Chief Inspector Kemp, until an unlikely ally helps them figure it out, and thwarts a third murder in the nick of time.

The story is developed with economy and it is intriguing to see how many motives Christie contrives to make each of the parties a plausible suspect. Not unlike other Christies, it pays to attend to details, and to question your assumptions. And enjoy!

Review: In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead

electric mist

In the Electric Mist With Confederate DeadJames Lee Burke. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011 (my Avon edition, 1994).

Summary: Investigation of multiple rapes and murders, and a murder from 1957 confront Robicheaux with dark figures from his past, and pose a threat to all he holds dear.

If Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote crime fiction about rural Louisiana, he might have produced this book. I didn’t expect to encounter magical realism in this, the sixth of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux stories. It was strange, but for me it worked better than some of the Marquez I have read. The magical realism part has to do with dreams or waking visions of the Confederate dead (hence the title), appearing first to an oft-drunk movie actor, Elrod Sykes, and then to Robicheaux, who is now stone-cold sober. Robicheaux even has conversations with General John Bell Hood, who seems to be his version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, speaking in metaphors and riddles that offer clues and sometimes warnings.

The story begins with a gruesome kidnapping-rape-murder of a young woman. While investigating the murder, Robicheaux pulls over a drunken Elrod Sykes, who subsequently proceeds to tell him a story of seeing Confederate soldiers in the Atchafalaya swamp where he is being filmed by a movie company that has more or less taken over Robicheaux’s New Iberia (in more ways than one). He also tells him of finding a dead body in chains. It turns out this is no drunken illusion. The body is near a location where Robicheaux had witnessed a murder of a black prisoner in chains — in 1957 — reported but dismissed by the authorities.

He’s joined in the investigation by an F.B.I investigator, Rosie Gomez, partly because of the kidnapping element (and evidence of more murders), but also because of the presence of Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni, an investor in the film, who has returned from the New Orleans underworld to New Iberia, where his family once controlled organized crime. He and Robicheaux were also once classmates, and baseball team mates. He has a group of “associates” including his consigliere, Chollo, the movie security guy, Murphy Doucet, a former cop, and Twinky LeMoyne, Doucet’s partner.

In an unlikely turn of events, Sykes ends up living with Robicheaux after his girlfriend, Kelly is shot. He quickly becomes a favorite with Bootsie, Dave’s wife, and his daughter Alafair, and manages to discover a new-found sobriety. Robicheaux, however, as he investigates Balboni and his connections falls out of favor with the townsfolk, and then is set up taking the fall for a murder of an unarmed prostitute. Evidence exonerates him but then another murder of an old detective friend comes closer to home. Throughout, he continues to see Hood and his soldiers at key turning points. The closer he gets to the killer he seeks, and the solution to the 1957 murder he witnessed, the closer danger comes to him until an exciting conclusion.

One of the qualities of Burke’s work is his descriptive power to create an atmosphere, in which you feel the humidity, smell the trees, the ozone of the lightning, the fetid smells of the swamps. I’ve never been to that part of the country but I felt like I was there as I read. Robicheaux is a fascinating character–a Vietnam vet with troubled memories, a reformed alcoholic, someone who carries troubled memories and lives in an uneasy truce with them, who has a strong sense of rectitude, and yet will bend the rules of evidence and interrogation in pursuit of his ends.

This was my first Robicheaux novel, picked because of a recommendation of a bookseller, and the intriguing title as much as anything. Burke’s writing, and Robicheaux’s character were good enough that I am ready to come back for more.

Review: The Law and the Lady

The Law and the Lady

The Law and the LadyWilkie Collins (edited with an Introduction and Notes by Jenny Bourne Taylor). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Summary: Valeria Woodville discovers her new husband has a past that is under the cloud of a “not proven” murder accusation, and pursues an investigation to fully vindicate his innocence.

Wilkie Collins is one of the early writers of detective fiction, most famous for his The Woman in White and The Moonstone, two works that established his reputation among the reading public of his time who eagerly awaited the serialized releases of each of his stories. The Law and the Lady is a later work (1875) with probably the first female sleuth in the genre.

Valeria Woodville’s marriage to Eustace Woodville begins with an ill omen when she signs the wedding register with her married rather than maiden name. On her honeymoon she discovers the Eustace’s real surname was Macallan after a chance encounter with her mother-in-law, who had disapproved of the marriage. Valeria recognized her from a photograph she had found among her husband’s effects. She is discouraged by her husband from inquiring further into the circumstances that led to their marriage under an assumed name.

Instead she persists, returns to London, and tracks down Major Fitz-David, a ladies’ man who, while refusing to divulge her husband’s secret, permits her to discover it in his study. She finds a picture of her husband with another woman, Sarah Macallan, and after further searching finds a book with a narrative of the trial of Eustace Macallan for the murder of Sarah by arsenic poisoning. The trial ended with neither a “guilty” nor a “not guilty” verdict but a third allowed in Scottish law, “not proven.” Such a verdict left Eustace under a cloud of suspicion, a permanent blot upon his reputation.

Valeria determines to remove that blot, even though Eustace, and her old family friend, Benjamin, urge her to leave it alone. When she refuses, Eustace leaves her to fight in a distant war in Spain, where he is later seriously wounded. Assisted by Benjamin, and Eustace’s attorney, Mr. Playmore, who is eventually won over to her cause, she pursues an investigation to uncover the real murderer. Much of the inquiry centers around Misserimus Dexter, a friend of Eustace born without legs, an eccentric bordering on madness, whose testimony on behalf of Eustace may have saved him from a guilty verdict, and suggested suspicion of a female guest. In the course of the novel, Dexter descends into insanity, but one of his last, raving statements, taken down by Benjamin, leads Mr. Playmore to the discovery of the truth.

One of the distinctive features of the novel is that it is written as the first person narrative of Valeria. Combined with the fact that she is one of the first female detectives, the novel gives us one of the more memorable character portrayals in detective fiction that paved the way for other women detectives. Valeria’s determination to read the trial accounts, to familiarize herself with the law, and to mount an investigation (helped by the fact that she was a woman of independent means), in defiance of all the urgings that she content herself in her husband’s love, makes her a strong female character pushing the boundaries of Victorian role expectations.

At the same time, most critics do not consider this among Collins’ best, and I would have to agree. Given Valeria’s strength of character, at least this reader thought that Eustace wasn’t worthy of her, and I wondered what she saw in him. But, the heart has its reasons! I wondered why Eustace, if innocent, did not himself pursue the efforts Valeria pursued to find his former wife’s murderer but acquiesced in the “not proven” verdict.  He chose instead to marry under an assumed name, and false pretenses. Even his mother, also a strong character, considers this unworthy of him. Also, there is a studied avoidance of the one possibility that turned out to be the truth, one that occurred to me early in the narrative. I can even think of some red herrings Collins might have used to put the reader off the track.

What redeemed it for me was the strong character of Valeria, who is the good wife in the best sense, and yet refuses to be “the good wife.” Her persistence despite setbacks and apparent dead ends, and the bizarre character of Dexter and his household, her ability both to take counsel and make up and assert her own mind (even while expressing her inner misgivings in the narrative) offers us not merely a female detective but a woman of refreshing and unusual strength who must have appealed to Collins’ female readers. Her strength combined with her loyalty suggests possibilities for a richer, yet unconventional, marriage with Eustace, possibilities it appears he only begins to grasp in his convalescence from his wounds. How interesting it would have been if Collins had made Valeria into a recurring character!

Review: The Gods of Gotham

Gods of Gotham

The Gods of Gotham, Lindsay Faye. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012.

Summary: The first in the author’s Timothy Wilde series, in which Wilde, a newly installed New York Policeman in 1845, encounters a blood-covered girl, whose story leads to the discovery of twenty dead children and an assignment to find the killer before anti-Irish rage consumes the city.

Timothy Wilde and his older brother Val were orphaned when their parents died in a fire. The brothers survived by their wits, especially Val’s, who nevertheless became a New York City fireman, while dousing his pain in opiates. Timothy struggled with the life Val had chosen, and pursued a different path, tending bar on the lower end of Manhatten.

Until the fire. Until the bar was destroyed, he was burned in an explosion, and rescued by his brother. The fortune he’d accumulated was lost in the fire–a fortune with which he hoped to marry Mercy Underhill, a Protestant minister’s daughter who he had admired since childhood for both her looks and her charitable work among New York’s poor.

Val, ensconced in politics, gets both himself and Timothy a job on the newly formed New York City Police Department, the “copper stars” or “coppers.” Maintaining order in the city has become much more difficult with a mass influx of Irish immigrants driven to seek a new life by the Irish Potato Famine. Timothy is not crazy about the work, particularly after he arrests a poor woman not in her right mind who had killed her infant son and takes her to the Tombs, the New York City jail.

Returning home to his apartment above Mrs. Boehme’s bakery one night, a young girl covered in blood collides with him at his door. Gradually, he gets the story out of her, not only of little Liam’s gruesome death by the dark hooded man at Silkie Marsh’s brothel, but the other children who died similarly and were buried in a mass grave on the north edge of town. Subsequent investigation reveals that the girl, Bird Daly, is telling the truth for once, each child being cut open brutally in the shape of a cross. Chief Matsell tasks Wilde with finding the murderer before the news breaks and anti-Irish sentiment reaches a flash point.

The story takes many twists and turns from there as several letters are received, including one to the New York papers, and one to Dr. Palsgrave, the some-time coroner who determined the cause of the deaths. There is another murder, a child hung on the door of the Catholic Church, seemingly incriminating Fr. Sheehy. Timothy is warned off the investigation, and faces death several times as well as riots as feelings reach a boiling point. His relation with his brother is strained, as he thinks the brother has taken away Bird Daly, or may even be the murderer.

The novel reveals a seamy side of New York involving brothels, child prostitution and Protestant-Catholic hatreds and racial prejudice. We witness a police department that is an organ of party patronage. Yet in the end, Wilde solves the crime with the help of some butcher paper on which he works out all the evidence until he finally realizes where it points. For his troubles, Chief Matsell assigns him to solve crimes rather than prevent them. And so a new series is born!

Much of the dialogue is in “flash,” a secret language that derived from the British criminal underground and used among the working classes of the day. Chief Matsell is a historical figure and actually compiled a lexicon of the language, which he is seen doing during the story. The author provides an abbreviated glossary at the beginning with a number of terms.

Tensions between brothers, a possible serial killer of child prostitutes, the grit and bustle of mid-nineteenth century New York, and characters who are not always what they seem all make for a gripping read. I’m glad for the Barnes and Noble bookseller who recommended this book. Don’t be surprised if you see subsequent numbers of this series (now up to three) reviewed here.

Review: The Haunted Bookshop

The Haunted Bookshop

The Haunted BookshopChristopher Morley. New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2015 (first published 1919).

Summary: A mystery in a bookshop, involving a book that keeps disappearing, a wealthy businessman’s daughter, a young advertising salesman, a gregarious bookseller, and a German pharmacist.

What could be better for a bibliophile than a mystery in a bookshop? This classic by Christopher Morley begins with a young advertising salesman, Aubrey Gilbert, trying to sell advertising to the eccentric and voluble New York bookseller, Roger Mifflin, proprietor of Parnassus at Home a.k.a The Haunted Bookshop. In an explanation posted in the store, it is explained that “THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts of all great literature.” Gilbert fails to sell advertising, but stays for dinner, listening to Mifflin share the first of several discourses on the mystique of books and bookselling that run through the book. Here is a small part:

“My business, you see, is different from most. I only deal in second-hand books; I only buy books that I consider have some honest reason for existence. In so far as human judgment can discern, I try to keep trash out of my shelves. A doctor doesn’t traffic in quack remedies. I don’t traffic in bogus books.”

The bookshop seems to be haunted by more than ghosts of great literature. A book requested by a bearded customer written by Thomas Carlyle on Oliver Cromwell is missing. Throughout the story, the book, a favorite of Woodrow Wilson, will reappear and disappear several times in the course of the story. When Gilbert returns with a lost and found ad for the book placed, not by Mifflin, but by a chef at a nearby hotel, a chef Gilbert had run into, holding the book he had advertised as lost, the mystery deepens as they puzzle over what could be going on. While mystery is deepening, love is blossoming. Mifflin has agreed to allow young Titania Chapman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman with whom Gilbert has an account, to get experience working in the shop, at the request of her father. The moment Gilbert meets her he is smitten.

He is also caught up with the puzzle of the missing book, which only deepens when he finds the cover, minus the book, sandwiched in some books in Weintraub’s drugstore, Weintraub being the bearded gentleman who had called that first night when Gilbert and Mifflin met. Before he can make it home, he is nearly thrown off a bridge into the river, suffering a blow to his head before onlookers come to his rescue. Worried about Titania, he takes a room opposite the bookshop. When he sees Weintraub go into the store after hours, using a key of his own, he assumes that Mifflin is in on the plot, perhaps to kidnap young Titania for ransom, or worse, the book being a way of communicating.

The real truth is far more sinister. Until Gilbert and Mifflin tussle on a Philadelphia street, Mifflin is blissfully unaware of what is swirling about him, lost in the wonders of books, and Gilbert woefully mistaken. Back in New York, Weintraub has left a suitcase of books with Titania for a caller. Both suspect that they were lured to Philadelphia to set up something far more serious and that the suitcase is dangerous. Will they get back in time? And what is in the suitcase? And how does it all relate to the mysteriously disappearing volume of Carlyle?

This was a delightful good time, with diverting soliloquies by Mifflin on books and scenes of domestic bliss with his wife and little dog Bock. One of the most amusing chapters was the Corn Cob Club, a gathering of booksellers discussing the trade. In this instance they debate whether booksellers have an obligation to steer customers to quality works, or simply sell what they want. As you might guess, Mifflin was in the former group. In another soliloquy, he declaims:

“You see what I’m driving at. I want to give people an entirely new idea about bookshops. The grain of glory that I hope will cure both my fever and my lethargicness is my conception of the bookstore as a power-house, a radiating place for truth and beauty. I insist books are not absolutely dead things: they are as lively as those fabulous dragons’ teeth, and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.”

He dreams of stocking a fleet of traveling Parnassus stores that will scatter through the country. Although Mifflin appears to be a bookstore version of Don Quixote with dreams of grandeur, how many of us have felt some of the same things as we prowled the aisle of a wonderful old bookstore? Yet he bests younger Gilbert, and awakens to the real world dangers facing young Titania. But will he make it in time?

For those familiar with the real world of books, you may know of author Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books in Nashville. As far as I can tell, Morley’s story was not the inspiration for the store’s name. Rather, as best as I can tell, they go back to a common source, the significance of Mount Parnassus in mythology as the home of the muses, or in the words of the real Parnassus Books, “In Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was the home of literature, learning, and music. We are Nashville’s Parnassus, providing a refuge for Nashvillians of all ages who share in our love of the written word.” It seems that Parnassus at Home was Roger Mifflin’s (and Christopher Morley’s) realization of the same dream.