Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

cover of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Even though I'm a huge fan of mysteries, I've managed to miss some of the classics. For example, I've never read anything by Dashiell Hammett. Yes, I did watch The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart, which is a very good movie. When I think of Sam Spade, I think of Bogart. Imagine my surprise when I read the book! It seems that Spade is tall. Now that's not something that I associate with Bogart. Except for the height and size issue, whenever Spade would talk, I could hear Bogart's voice. Bogart definitely captured the character of Sam Spade.

So what is the book like? It is very much like the movie. The plot is a tad convoluted. A woman shows up at Spade's and Miles Archer's detective agency, asking for them to follow someone for her, Floyd Thursby. The woman, calling herself Miss Wonderly, claims that her sister left with Thursby, and the woman wants to get her sister to come back home. When Archer turns up shot dead, and Thursby is found dead, Spade finds himself in it thick. The police wonder if Spade had something to do with Archer's murder because Spade has been having an affair with Archer's wife, Iva. Spade tracks down Miss Wonderly, who Spade finds out is really Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Spade can't get a straight story out of O'Shaughnessy, and finds himself getting threatened by Joe Cairo, a partner of O'Shaughnessy, and then Casper Gutman and Gutman's henchman, Wilmer Cook. There are lots of twists and turns while Spade tries to track down the Maltese Falcon, and in the end, all becomes clear. The only thing I was left wondering about is whether the Maltese Falcon might have been real, or if it was always a piece of lead. The Maltese Falcon could be anything that people become obsessed with.

I really enjoyed reading the book. Even with limited evening hours to read, I quickly finished the book. I've only seen the movie two times at the most, and that was a while ago. I couldn't remember much to spoil the story. Although now that I've finished the book, I want to re-watch the movie to see if it really matches up as much as I think it does. I loved Hammett's writing style so much that I've put The Thin Man on hold at the library, and I think I need to read the Continental Op stories too. I can understand how The Maltese Falcon ranked number 56 in the Modern Library 100 best novels.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Search the Shadows by Barbara Michaels

It was back to Barbara Michaels’ books for me over the weekend. This time it was Search the Shadows, which is about Haskell Maloney looking for her father. Haskell’s mom died when she was a baby, and Haskell was raised by her aunt Jessie. For most of her life, Haskell thought that she knew who her father was: Kevin Maloney, who died in Vietnam. When Haskell goes for a blood test before marrying her lawyer fiancee, Jon, she finds out that she is a carrier of Tays-Sachs. Since that is something that would come from an Eastern European Ashkenazi or someone from Nova Scotia, Haskell realizes that her “father” wasn’t her father. Of course, Haskell has a breakdown, breaks off her engagement until she can “find herself,” and fights with Aunt Jessie, who should have known and didn’t tell Haskell. Jessie, however, is just as shocked, and Haskell decided that she has to go in search of her father. Haskell decides to go to the Oriental Institute in Chicago, where her mother went to school and met her father. Haskell decides that one of the guys in her mother’s photo album must be the father. One of them is Stephen Nazarian, who blew himself up in with a group of Vietnam War revolutionaries. Stephen’s father, Victor Nazarian, is a wealthy, powerful, elderly man, and Haskell determines to volunteer to work for his museum organization, because who can turn away a volunteer. The next thing we know, Haskell is on the Nazarian grounds and in danger.
This book has no woo-woo elements. There are no ghosts or spirits haunting Haskell, well, except for the spirit of her mother. I have to admit that Search the Shadows is one of those Barbara Michaels books that I’m not very fond of. Yes, I read through the book quickly, and I enjoyed it to a degree. I love Michaels’ writing. The Egyptology bit struck a chord with me. Haskell was plain annoying though. I mean, really! So you find out that you are a carrier of Tays-Sachs, and the first thing you do is dump the guy you are going to marry? That just didn’t make sense to me. It’s as if Haskell (or maybe Michaels) was looking for a way out from the beginning. The romance part of it was shallow. Haskell winds up with a guy at the end, but it’s really not the guy that you would think. We really don’t get a build up of the romance. I figured out who the dad was, but it’s really not that obvious. So what did I think? Enjoyable, but flawed, book. I think that if you love Michaels, you’ll think this one is okay. Not the best, but by far, not the worst.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Clairvoyant Countess by Dorothy Gilman

I just finished reading my second stand-alone Dorothy Gilman, The Clairvoyant Countess. This book was really a collection of stories about Madame Karitska and her policeman friend, Detective-Lieutenant Pruden. Madame Karitska meets Pruden when he comes calling to find out why her address was in a murdered girl’s house. The girl has come to visit Madame Karitska earlier in the week and left in a huff when Karitska told the girl not to trust the person the girl trusted the most. As a spoiler, that “trusted” person wound up murdering the girl, and Karitska helped out Pruden by giving him information on what she picked up about the girl. Other cases include robberies at a boarding school, a man dying of a voodoo curse, a woman accused of being a witch, and a missing girl, who was first believed to be dead. The stories are quick, and the same characters weave in and out of the stories. The book is a short one, but a very enjoyable read. I found myself rooting for Madame Karitska. I think that Dorothy Gilman must have had some interesting experiences with spiritualism because both this and A Nun in the Closet have elements that encourage the characters, and the reader, to investigate how the brain and the soul work. Madame Karistka uses psychometry, touching objects owned or worn by someone, to get information about the person’s past and future. There was a later sequel, published in 2002, calledKaleidoscope. I’ll give that one a try too, but I’ve read that it is not up to par withThe Clairvoyant Countess. I wonder if Ms. Gilman was already experiencing some Alzheimer problems, which crept into her work. The disease is a sad one because it robs the person of himself/herself.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman

February 2nd was a sad day for Mrs. Pollifax fans. Dorothy Gilman died at 88 years of age from Alzheimer’s disease complications. I’ve read most, if not all, of the Mrs. Pollifax books. However, I never read any of the standalone books that Ms. Gilman wrote. I decided in her honor that I would rectify that lapse, and finally got around to A Nun in the Closet. The nun in the closet isn’t a real nun. It’s “Sister Ursula,” a seriously injured man found by two Benedictine nuns in a house the abbey inherited. Sister Ursula wasn’t the only things that Sisters John and Hyacinthe found on the property. They also found a suitcase with over $400,000 hidden in a well and 50 pounds of cocaine hidden in sugar jars. Since the book was published in 1975, Gilman sprinkled in some hippies, and Sister John had a militant awakening. Before the book ended, the Mafia and the FBI made appearances.

The book reminded me of the Pollifax books. Good won out in the end, and no likable character died. Sister John was the most interesting of the bunch because she had an awakening from her cloistered existence. The book was a nice, light, enjoyable read. Nothing substantial, but that’s not what I expect from some books. A Nun in the Closet is a book that should be read on a nice spring day, while you sit outside on a swing, sipping a cold drink, and nibbling on cookies.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Someone in the House by Barbara Michaels

I just finished another of Barbara Michaels’ books. Someone in the House has all the woo-woo elements that anyone would want: a huge mansion, eerie noses in the night, and ghostly visions. This time, Anne goes to Grayhaven Manor in Pennsylvania. The plan is for her and her buddy, Kevin, to spend the summer writing an English textbook. Anne’s boyfriend, Joe, is off to on a research project in Europe, and Anne is left on her own. The problem is the house. First, Bea, Kevin’s aunt, comments on noises coming from Kevin’s room. Bea assumes that is it Kevin and Anne making out. Of course, Bea is somewhat offended. The book was written in 1980/1981, and older folks weren’t as accommodating to unmarried sex. However, it isn’t Anne, but a ghostly visitor that Kevin is getting busy with. Bea, Bea’s new paramour, Roger, and Anne try to figure out what the cause is behind the ghostly visits. Father Steven, the local priest is also called into action.

This book was quite eerie, and it didn’t follow the usual Michaels formula. As a spoiler, Anne and Kevin do notfind romantic happiness in the end. In fact, there really isn’t a good resolution to the mystery of the ghostly visits at all, other than Anne’s thesis that the house wants to make all of its inhabitants happy. The following book, Black Rainbow tells the earlier story of the Mandevilles in the house, but that book doesn’t have anything more than some vague comments about Megan feeling very content in the house. Anyway, Someone in the House was a great page-turner, and I found myself enjoying it. Even though there wasn’t romance at the end, I rooted for Anne and her decision. I can’t wait to read more of Michaels’ books in the near future.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Black Rainbow by Barbara Michaels

My recent Barbara Michaels read is Black Rainbow. This book is more typical of a traditional gothic. In fact, the very beginning of it has a strong feeling of Jane Eyre. Megan O’Neill goes to Grayhaven Manor to act as a governess for little Lina. Edmund Mandeville hired her to look after his ward. Forgetting to tell his sister, Jane, Megan and Jane scared each other when they came upon each other walking on the way to Mandeville. Both had seen a black rainbow. A black rainbow is a rainbow that forms at nighttime from the light of the moon. Both thing they have had a visitation by some mythical, perhaps evil, character, and both are relieved that the other is a person. Jane is not typical of people in the 1850s England. Jane believes that people should be judged by their qualities instead of their sex or position. Brother Edmund is a different character. Edmund fought and was wounded in the Crimea War. Now he is on his way back to the ancestral home Both Megan and Jane see him through eyes tinted with love: Jane for a worshipped younger brother, Megan for an infatuation.
The reader picks up hints that Edmund isn’t as good as others think. The first thing he does when he comes home is to take over the fabrics mill that Jane has been running with efficiency and concern for the workers. Edmund is only concerned with making money. Jane disagrees with Edmund and finds herself totally removed from the mill. Things start to get worse for the villagers because of the things Edmund does. What do they do though? They blame Megan because they associate her arrival with all the bad things. An old woman doesn’t help matters by spreading the rumor that Megan is a witch who will bring destruction unless something happens to her. As the story continues, Sam, a former manager at the mill tries to protect Megan. Megan continues her infatuation with Edmund, and finally manages to marry him. When the villages storm Grayhaven, Jane and Megan run off with the help of Sam. Megan, who was unable to get pregnant, finally finds herself with child after the escape with Sam; and there are plenty of suggestions that Megan and Sam made love. After the birth of baby Eddie, Edmund really seems to take a turn to the dark side. Megan starts to have lots of accidents; Jane is temporarily imprisoned when she tries to rescue Sam from an abduction charge leveled by Edmund. The ending is shocking and unexpected.
I really enjoyed reading this book. Edmund is not your typical gothic hero. Even Megan is not typical. Yes, she has some strength of character, but her motives aren’t always honorable. Megan wants Edmund, and she will do whatever it takes to get him. Is Edmund worthy of the pedestal that Megan and Jane put him on? Nope! Edmund is not likable, and I wondered at times how the women could be so blind to his flaws. There really isn’t much of a mystery; the book is just an enjoyable gothic read. The book is a prequel to the earlier published book, Someone in the House (1981). I have it up next in my rotation. Black Rainbow was published in 1982. Should you read Black Rainbow? If you want an enjoyable revisit of the gothic style, you should!