Where Have I Been?

It seems as if I fell off the planet. I took an unexpected break from my blog. I’ve been writing a mystery – two, in fact. (Not yet published) A health issue and two accidents had me focused on other things..

WordPress has gone through some changes while I was away, so please bear with me. It may take some time before I figure out how to do things I used to know how to do.

I’m trying to get back in the habit of posting and will start off with my latest contribution to the Sherlockian journal, Groans, Cries and Bleatings – The Mystery Corner. If you’d like to get a preview of my novels, the website is http://www.bakersomerset.com! Please come over and take a look.

The Mystery Corner

Fifth Column by Mike Hollow 

Inspector Jago is called out first thing in the morning because an unidentified body of a woman has been found in the ruins of a bombed out house. It’s 1940, England during the Blitz. The scene would make an onlooker believe she died during the bombing, but in fact, she was strangled. It’s an old-fashioned case of murder.

Detective Inspector Jago and his young Detective Constable Craddock are the cement of the book and the relationship between them was exceptionally well done. At one point, Craddock says of a witness ‘she hasn’t let herself go’. Jago responds, “You make it sound as though she’s some old dear about to kick the bucket. The poor woman can only be the same age as me, if that. You’ll be telling me next I’m looking a bit frail and ought to sit down.” “Oh no, sir, you’re still quite spritely.” “Spritely? You can’t tell a man who’s barely turned forty that he’s spritely. Sixty is spritely, not forty.” “Yes, sir. My mistake.”

Rita is another great character. She works at the cafe where Jago takes Dorothy and Craddock. Rita’s opinion of government efficiency is perfect. – “She led them to a table for four near what had once been the front window. “Still patched up with plywood, I see,” said Jago. “Yes.” Said Rita. “Can’t see much point putting glass back in just so it can get blown out again by the next bomb. Did you hear what the Home Secretary said?” She turned to Dorothy with an understanding look. “He’s a bloke in the government,” she said. “Apparently he told the House of Commons that little strips of brown paper aren’t much good at protecting your windows if a bomb drops outside.” Rita continued, “Fancy that. Not just a pretty face, is he. Blinking genius.”

However, I found his characterization of Dorothy, Jago’s romantic interest, rather flat. She is supposed to be an American journalist but the purpose of her presence seems to be to allow commentary about philosophical war issues that don’t really have anything to do with the mystery itself. Her journalistic endeavors seem one-dimensional and to my way of thinking, Jago spends far too much time thinking about her, for a police procedural.

All the historical details put you into the scene. You put the book down feeling you were there. The book was published in England, and some of the references while understandable there, may be confusing to American readers. A tiny bit of editing for a US edition would have fixed that. For example, Hollow begins the book with a description of Jago waking up in his Anderson Shelter. You understand immediately that this was a bomb shelter outside the house. Other references are sometimes more difficult.

Geography is no longer taught using a big paper map hung on a roller high above the blackboard. (If it’s taught at all, and do classrooms still have blackboards?) So how many readers will understand this reference? “Empire Office Services sounds like they sail off in pith helmets with vital supplies of carbon paper and typewriter ribbons to every last dot on the map that’s coloured pink…” Everyone who watched the movie “Hope & Glory” understands it, but how many others? Back in the 40’s (and I don’t know for how long afterwards) the countries on a map were all coloured and ‘the pink bits’ all belonged to the Empire.

An odd reference, especially for those under the age of 40 or 50, might be when Craddock, referring to a woman who showed no emotion at the bad news they had brought, says “Maybe she’s just a goldfish.” Jogo turned to face Craddock with what he hoped was a patient expression and says, “Cold fish, Peter.” Craddock replies, “Sir?” And Jogo explains, “A cold fish is a person who doesn’t betray their emotions. A goldfish is what the rag and bone man gives you for your mum’s old clothes.” In fact, the rag and bone man would give kids a goldfish (the kind that swims), or a balloon, a wooden clothes peg, or something for bringing him items. And who was ‘The Umbrella Man’? It was the nickname of the British Prime Minister at the start of WWII, Neville Chamberlain.

It turns out the murdered woman worked in a factory that made items for the War Office where there has been a theft, so there is the threat that the murder could be war related. There are lies, personal hatreds, bigamy, blackmail, and a lot of other good stuff. In spite of its few glitches, Fifth Column, the second book in the Blitz Detective series, is an enjoyable mystery in a WWII setting. It stands alone well. You needn’t have read the first in the series to enjoy it.

Fiddler’s Green by Ernest K. Gann

“Fiddler’s Green…the imagined Elysian Field of sailors and vagabond craftsmen—where credit is good…where there’s many a lass and many a glass…and never a storm at sea.”

I’m not sure you would consider Fiddler’s Green a mystery. You certainly know who the culprit is because the book opens with Bruno Felkin running through the fog in San Francisco, trying to put distance between him and the man he just killed. The killing was stupidity mixed with an accident, but Bruno is a two-time loser and he knows the police won’t take his word for what went down. The question is, will the police catch him.

Bruno’s sure his girlfriend will give him an alibi, if he can just get to her place fast enough. His luck turns sour; she’s gone to the movies. Bruno keeps running, wondering where he can hide. He takes refuge in the hold of Hamil Linder’s fishing boat, tied up at the dock, and the next morning finds himself heading out to sea.

The timeless story revolves around what happens to Bruno while he’s at sea. It also revolves around the policeman, who is searching for Bruno. Gann is a true storyteller. Every word in this 1950 novel is to be savored. His characters are so real, the setting so true, you can see into the heart of it all. His tale is of Bruno, the fishermen in the fleet, a man and his son, a fierce storm raging at sea, and a cop named Kelsey.

In the Best Families by Rex Stout

Wolfe leave the brownstone? Unfathomable. But when Mrs. Rackham hires Wolfe to find out where he’s getting his money, and Mr. X. sets of a tear gas bomb in Fritz’s kitchen, that’s what happens. In fact, he goes in the dead of night leaving notes for Theodore, his orchard keeper, Fritz and Archie. The orchards are to go to a man on Long Island, who will keep Theodore on. Fritz is to work at Marko’s wonderful restaurant, and Archie is ordered, “Do not look for me.” Then, to top things off, a notice appears in the Gazette that Nero Wolfe has retired. Did I forget to mention – Mrs. Rackham winds up dead.

In my copy, there is an introduction written by Patricia Sprinkle. She says that she fell in love with Nero Wolfe as a child of ten when she read the stories to her ill father. Since she was a child, she didn’t take notice of the author’s name. What she did notice was that Nero Wolfe was fat, he drank beer (something not done in the Sprinkle household), he insulted people and got away with it, he was a picky eater, and he didn’t do anything he didn’t want to do? In her eyes, he was the perfect grown-up. Years later, she was reintroduced to Wolfe and found he hadn’t changed.

Next to Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe is probably the most enduring of detectives. In the Best Families has Wolfe taking on the one criminal whom he cannot risk losing to. Marko tells Archie that Wolfe left an instruction for him. He must “act in the light of experience as guided by intelligence.” So it’s up to Archie to act. I think this is one of my favorite Wolfe books.

Shoot to Kill & Kiss the Dames – a fond look at hard-boiled detectives

The hard-boiled detective is America’s contribution to the mystery genre.  For a good hard-boiled detective story you need a sarcastic, licensed private eye, with a loyal secretary who often hasn’t been paid regularly due to lack of funds, a few gunshots, a dead body or two, at least one beautiful dame probably called ‘sweetheart’ and the gum-shoe getting fired from the case but sticking with it because of his/her own moral code. Get out your old books and enjoy!


Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer

Lew Archer goes mostly undescribed but in THE DOOMSTERS he is referred to as being 6’2″ with blue eyes. He drinks too much, is weary in his soul and thinks about his ex-wife a lot.

He did describe himself once:

“I tried smiling to encourage myself. I was a good Joe after all. Consorter with roughnecks, tarts, hard cases and easy marks; private eye at the keyhole of illicit bedrooms; informer to jealousy, rat behind the walls, hired gun to anybody with fifty dollars a day; but a good Joe after all. The wrinkles formed at the corner of my eyes, the wings of my nose; the lips drew back from the teeth, but there was no smile. All I got was a lean famished look like a coyote’s sneer. The face had seen too many bars, too many rundown hotels and crummy love nests, too many courtrooms and prisons, postmortems and police lineups, too many nerve endings showing like tortured worms. If I found the face on a stranger, I wouldn’t trust it.” (THE MOVING TARGET)


Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op

The Continental Op is unnamed but we do know he is short and fat. Tough as nails, he has no sentimentality and no sympathy. He is just trying to do his job in a very messed up world. The most feeling he shows was when he shot a woman: “I never shot a woman before. I felt queer about it.” (THE GUTTING OF GUFFIGNAL)

He was described thus in THE DAIN CURSE:

“You came in just now, and then I saw -”

She stopped.


“A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and – What’s the matter? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”


Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade:

Hammett described Spade: “…he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been … a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.” Spade was also good with the one-liners as these from THE MALTESE FALCON show:

Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation ready.
Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”

O’Shaughnessy: “I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.”
Spade: “You know, that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.”  

“Listen, Dundy, it’s been a long time since I burst into tears because a policeman didn’t like me.”

“Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be”


Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe

Marlowe was great with the wise cracks, drank whisky, played chess, and didn’t have a secretary. He describes himself:

“There’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade.” (THE BIG SLEEP)

“Okay, Marlowe,” I said between my teeth. “You’re a tough guy. Six feet of iron man. One hundred and ninety pounds stripped and with your face washed. Hard muscles and no glass jaw. You can take it.” (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY)

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and left the room.” (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY)

Marlowe has reappeared in THE BLACK EYED BLONDE by Benjamin Black. Honest, you wouldn’t know that Chandler didn’t write it unless I told you, it’s that good.


Leigh Brackett’s Ed Clive

At a time when the field was dominated by male writers, Leigh Brackett, a science fiction writer of short stories, created a hard-boiled detective named Ed Clive in her first novel, NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE. The novel was so good that film director Howard Hawks told his people to “get that guy Brackett”. She wrote the screenplay for THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE among other big flicks.

Clive is a tough, tough-guy. He gets hit over the head so many times you wonder if he has a steel plate up there:

“Did it hurt much, getting hit like that?”

Clive laughed. “I hardly notice those things any more. You get hardened to it.

She studied his face intently. “I guess a detective has to be tough. Are you tough, Mr. Clive?”

“How do I look?”

“Tough. Awfully tough.”  (NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE)


 Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker

The things Walker doesn’t like would make a book – gun control, non-smokers, liberals, and feminists just to give you an idea. He’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking thorn in the side of the authorities. He’s the guy for whom the term “tough guy” was invented.

“If it weren’t for concussions I wouldn’t get any sleep at all.”
— Amos responds to a suggestion that he see a doctor after he’s slugged (again). (THE LEFT-HANDED DOLLAR)


Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

Spillane never claimed to be a “good” writer. He wrote to sell books, and sell they did. His 13 Mike Hammer books sold over 225 million copies. Clad in the private eye’s traditional trench-coat with his hat brim pulled down low, Mike Hammer was a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, private detective who carried a .45 Colt.

He wasn’t interested in catching the killers. He figured the legal system would mess it up. He cared about justice and he was more than willing to shoot to kill a killer. In the first five books of the Hammer series, Hammer dispatches 34 dirty, low-down killers.

Hammer’s saving grace may be that two good people were his friends and cared about him, Velda, his secretary, and Pat Chambers, Homicide Captain of the NYPD.

Spillane describes him thus: “Imagine this guys hits Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger [sic] and knocks him out. You hit Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger [sic]; he’ll beat the crap out of you.”

There are some very modern lady detectives that are hard-boiled as well, and they are for another time.

The Klondike Era Mysteries

I feel like I have found a gold mine myself!  This historical mystery series by Canadian writer Sharon Rowse shows great development.  While I am eagerly awaiting the third book in the series, I am also wishing I hadn’t found the series so early on – then I could sit down and devour them one after another.

The first book, The Silk Train Murder, came out in 2012 and has the best of all possible lines for a series set in the Klondike ~ “Shut the door!  It’s bleedin’ cold out there.”  This historical mystery is set in the late 1800s in Vancouver, BC, Canada. John Lansdowne Granville undertakes to clear his friend, Scott, of murder; gets a client who will pay for him to do so (making him a private detective even though detectives probably weren’t licensed at that time); gets beaten up as private detectives are prone to do and at the end forms a private detective agency.

This book’s strongest feature is not historical atmosphere, but this is Rowse’s first book and as such it was quite strong.  Strong enough to be a nominee for the Arthur Ellis award.  The book is notable for its interesting characters that make you want to know more about them.

The second book, The Lost Mine Murders (2013), was much stronger.  Granville and Scott formed their detective agency in The Silk Train Murder and are now in need of a client. In walks Cole, with a map to a gold mine and a cache of gold, and hires them to help him get to the mine and bring out the gold. It’s the middle of winter and not a good time to take to the mountains.

Rowse’s characters are still strong, the historical atmosphere and the plot is better than her first.   This is a series to enjoy.  Bring on the third one, Ms. Rowse!