Thursday, August 26, 2010

CLASSIC REVIEW: Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie

I've been a bit slow in the review area lately.  I'm still reading, have no fear, but I am on vacation with limited internet access... and limited time!  It's lovely to unplug but I had to share a few words about this unlikely find. 
I finished the book I brought with me entirely too quickly and was on the lookout for something to amuse myself.  I visited my aunt & uncle's hardware store in the small town of Hidalgo.  I saw a stack of books, gathering dust and possibly holding up the cables for the computer.  I asked if I could borrow the Agatha Christie title, one I had not heard.  She gave me the whole stack.
The book opens with a retired couple moving into a nice country home in need of a bit of TLC.  Her nosey nature leads her to a room full of books, some of which have been made into a cipher.  She translates it - Mary Jordan did not die a natural death.  It was one of us.  She is convinced it was written by the young owner of the book, Alexander Parkinson, whose family owned the house generations ago.
Greenway, Christie's country home in Devon.
What begins out of innocent curiosity, becomes an intrigue of increasing dangerousness.  The list of clues grows as Tuppence and her husband Tommy try to casually gather information from neighbors.  Yet when accidents seem to be more than accidents, and a beloved old gardener dies in a suspicious manner, the couple slowly begins to realize someone doesn't want them to uncover the past of the house.
It's is a great little read.  Most of it is told in dialogue, which Christie uses to extend the narrative, drawing out the tension.  The main characters can be maddening because of their nattering on, but it's of course effective.  They are assisted by their Manchester terrier, Hannibal - rather like an older Nick and Nora with their Asta.  And the settings often remind one of a Daphne du Maurier novel.  Yet it smacks thoroughly of the dame of murder mysteries.

Monday, August 9, 2010

REVIEW: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago

This book is absolutely as much fun as you think it is.  But what isn't immediately obvious from the cover (and engrossing subtitle) is how very well-researched and detailed the tales of the recently liberated women of Chicago.  Perry delves into each murderess' past with the nose of a bloodhound.  Drawing on newspaper clippings, quotes, letters and interviews, he sketches a transitional moment in time -- a perfect storm of social upheaval.

Each woman is given equal treatment, and is a sympathetic character if not innocent.  He is more interested in illustrating the conditions that brought about their crime rather than placing judgement on them.  After all, judgement was passed 80 years ago.  

Maurine Waktins
The most compelling character may be the cub reporter Maurine Watkins, a shy, pretty young girl from small town Indiana.  Her staunch Christian values were constantly foiled in the tumultuous 1920s. In a press interview, Perry says of Watkins, "That Maurine Watkins willingly embraced this professional ethos is astonishing.  As I mentioned, she was cripplingly shy. Se had trouble looking a man in the eye... In Chicago, she became fascinated with gangsters.  She even developed a crush on one.  She said that the 'nicest man I men during the time I was doing newspaper work was supposed to be the toughest gunman in Chicago's West Side.  He was like something you read about, such a charming courteous man'." Watkins went on to pen the Broadway smash play Chicago (the Fosse musical would come years later, after her death) as well as William Powell / Myrna Loy films Libeled Lady and I Love You Again.

Much to his credit, Perry also writes in a prose style that makes the action, drama and wit immediate.  There is nothing staid or dusty about this historical study.  Perhaps, like Maurine, we too are at once entranced by the lifestyle, and surprised at our own entrancement. 

Book: Hardcover | 5.98 x 9.01in | 320 pages | ISBN 9780670021970 | 05 Aug 2010 | Viking Adult | 18 - AND UP  Viking Listing

Thanks to Meghan and Gabrielle for the advance copy.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

REVIEW: The Art Detective by Philip Mould

Fakes, Frauds and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures

I could not have enjoyed reading this book more.  It is fresh, fast, and furiously entertaining.  If you need a summer read with some substance, look no further. Part Indiana Jones, part London academia, Mould shares tales of his years in portrait dealing with elegant charm.

The Hampden Portrait of Elizabeth I, one of Mould's finds.

He leads off with a tale of a packrat who had amassed as many pieces of junk as he had treasures.  There is an aching sadness as both the narrator and reader realize how the collector's life was consumed.  Thankfully, the extensive collection was salvaged and donated to SCAD in Savannah.  

He also delves into the nail-biting world of research (yes, it is exciting), discovery and finally winning at auction.  Many hours are spent in dusty corners of libraries, scouring tidbits of information on the internet, and interogating other experts in the field -- all to determine who put brush to canvas, who made that little smear of paint.  The answer can cost a collector millions of dollars, in either direction.  (It reminds an old soul like myself of the wonderful episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show when they go to auction to get ideas for an episode of the Alan Brady Show.)

Dick Van Dyke & Mary Tyler Moore
This book is great fun, and educational but refreshingly not didactic.  And Mould is quick to give credit to others in his gallery and in the field who are constant sources of assistance and perspective.  It's rather like watching Antiques Roadshow UK (of which he is a appraisal member) -- it's more about the stories behind the art, and the people who love art, than the price tag associated with it.  

Thanks to Meghan at Viking/Penguin for the review copy!

Book: Hardcover | 5.51 x 8.26in | 272 pages | ISBN 9780670021857 | 10 Jun 2010 | Viking Adult | 18 - AND UP