The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon
by
Dashiell Hammett

Rating:

I wasn’t sure how I felt about reading a hardboiled detective novel from the 1930s, even though I remember liking the Humphrey Bogart movie years ago. But one page in and I understood why Dashiell Hammett is considered a master of this genre. It’s a tightly written story about detective Sam Spade, three murders, a valuable falcon statue and an assortment of shrewd characters on both sides of the law.

The story begins when a beautiful and mysterious Miss Wonderly hires Spade and his partner Miles Archer to keep an eye on man she claims has run off with her teenage sister. Spade and Archer might not believe their new client, but they take the assignment and her retainer. When Archer and the man he’s following turn up dead, the first person the police suspect is Spade. That begins the reader’s view into the long-standing antagonistic relationship between Spade and the police, specifically Detective Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy.

Written in the external third-person narrative, the reader gets no look into the characters’ thoughts and must decide their motives and truthfulness based entirely on their words and actions. There are plenty of shady characters to figure out, too. Spade quickly discovers Miss Wonderly is lying, that her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and that she’s deeply mixed up in a scheme to get the priceless falcon. But the truth is also muddled up by others who want the bird, a bejeweled and fashionable Joel Cairo, a slick-talking Caspar Gutman and his bodyguard Wilmer.

Spade’s character is a fascinating mix between calculating, cutthroat, self-serving and occasionally soft-hearted, particularly around beautiful women. That makes for plenty of romantic tension between him and O’Shaughnessy, who is just as slick to manage. She says she’s hired him to help her get the statue, which she’s promised to Gutman. Whether it’s a square deal is for the reader to discover in a twisted and fast-moving plot with plenty of red herrings.

The only woman who has Spade figured out is his loyal secretary Effie Perine, who is willing to put up with a lot of guff because she genuinely likes him. The fondness is mutual, but seemingly platonic, with some teasing affection, and maybe that’s why it works.

The big showdown at the end between all the bird’s players is a section worthy of several re-reads, first to get the facts and later to enjoy the smart and manipulative negotiations between Spade and the rest. It’s never clear, until the final page, who has the upper hand.

Every word counts in this terrific story which is just over 200 pages and both easy and fun to read. I recommend The Maltese Falcon to readers of crime fiction and to all readers who are looking for a great story.

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The safe world of political fiction

If you can’t watch the news, but you still like political stories, you can always pick up a novel. These three books will help you escape into the safe world of political fiction. One all-American story, a smart romance and a clever mystery.


America America by Ethan Canin

In 1971, Henry Bonwiller is near the front of the race to become the next Democratic nominee for president of the United States, and a young Corey Sifter is there to witness his rise and ultimate fall, as an aide to the money and power behind the campaign.


Candidate by Tracy Ewens

Politics are tough and public image is everything for United States Senator Patrick Malendar of California. He’s up for re-election and his young Republican opponent is giving him a run for his money. This modern romance is full of fun banter and romantic tension. But it also tackles many serious subjects, including the price of public life, family secrets and infidelity.


Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery by Andrew Shaffer

Why not write a mystery with Barack Obama and Joe Biden as amateur detectives? This pair has plenty of rapport to wrap around a good story line. Who better to solve a mystery than the former President and Vice President of the United States?


And if you really just want to escape from it all, try

Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse

Imagine a scenario in which ridiculous characters bumble through a series of hilarious coincidences and an equal number of snafus, all in the name of love, marriage and a big business deal. The first of three short novels included in Just Enough Jeeves, a fun introduction to P.G. Wodehouse’s famous characters: twenty-something Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves.


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What’s That Book? The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King

whats-that-book

TitleThe Murder of Mary Russell

Author:  Laurie R. King

Genre: Detective fiction

Rating:  4 stars

What’s it about?  The 14th book of King’s Mary Russell series in which the author incorporates characters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries into new detective stories. This one includes Sherlock Holmes and his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, as well as Mary Russell, Holmes’ wife, a new character created by King at the beginning of the series. The book is based on Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott,” a tale involving Mrs. Hudson’s father as a young man, as he is transported as a prisoner from England to Australia. A mutiny ensues, the ship explodes and Hudson finds himself adrift.

The bigger story is about Clara Hudson, James Hudson’s daughter, and how she came to be Sherlock’s landlady and housekeeper, first at his Baker Street residence and now in Sussex. It begins in 1925 when Clara returns from the market to a bloody and upturned house. Sherlock is out and Mary is nowhere to be found and Clara fears the worst for a young woman she considers family. Who has been to their house and why are Clara’s personal belongings in disarray?

Clara has learned a few things about how to handle evidence and the process of deductive reasoning and has useful information for Sherlock when he returns. The book is partially narrated by Mary herself, with alternating chapters going back to 1850s when Clara is a young girl and later.

In the back story, James Hudson is not a great father, often drunk and hardly trustworthy, but father and daughter become partners in crime as they work the crowds in both Sydney and London, picking pockets and developing more elaborate schemes to steal people’s money. The stories come together at the finish to connect the Sussex visitor and Clara’s two lives.

How did you hear about it?  I learned about it from the mystery book club I run at my library job. We will be discussing it next week.        

Closing comments:  I enjoyed this story very much. Although I’m sure it’s best to read the series from the beginning, I was pleased to be able to jump in so late. The first of the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, is presented as a memoir and introduces Mary to Holmes. Most of the books are about their relationship. The Murder of Mary Russell is different because it is about Mrs. Hudson. I would recommend the series to devoted Sherlock Holmes fans as well as to readers who enjoy detective fiction.

Contributor:  Book Club Mom

For more information, please visit these recent posts:

On mystery writer Laurie R. King, Sherlock Holmes and fan fiction

When you have a Twitter conversation with a character from a book


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Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it?
Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

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Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery by Andrew Shaffer

Hope Never Dies
An Obama Biden Mystery
by
Andrew Shaffer

Rating:

Andrew Shaffer had a very funny idea. Why not write a mystery with Barack Obama and Joe Biden as amateur detectives? If you’ve ever seen some of the Obama-Biden “bromance” memes (click here for a few), you’ll know this pair has plenty of rapport to wrap around a good story line. Who better to solve a mystery than the former President and Vice President of the United States?

The story begins soon after the 2016 election. Obama has adjusted nicely to a new life filled with adventure. He’s windsurfing, kayaking and hanging out with celebrities. But Biden is at loose ends and is a little stung by Obama’s new life and friends. “Why doesn’t Barack ever call me, his best friend?” he wonders.

The pair reconnects when Biden’s favorite train conductor dies under suspicious circumstances. “Amtrak Joe” senses there is more to the story. Biden has been a regular on Amtrak for decades and he knows that Finn Donnelly was a good, family man. But questions arise when Obama shares what police know. Could there be a national security interest at stake? Is Donnelly’s death connected to opioid trafficking?

Biden takes the lead and jumps straight into the case in his full-force, pantser style. And before long, Obama and his cool and calm self are part of the team. As the pair bumbles through their undercover investigation, in caps and shades, it becomes clear that this case is big and that not everyone is on the same team. Can the Obama-Biden team sort it out?

I thoroughly enjoyed imagining Obama and Biden as they adjust to their new lives as regular citizens. And seeing them operate as amateur detectives makes for many hilarious scenarios. Shady characters and a few false leads make the mystery an enjoyable puzzle to solve and, while the crimes and consequences reflect grim problems, the story is light and great fun to read.

I recommend Hope Never Dies to all readers. It is pure entertainment, with a few political jabs and a lot of laughs.


I received a copy of Hope Never Dies from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


I read Hope Never Dies as part of my library’s Summer Reading Challenge to choose a book because I like its cover.

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Death in a Mudflat by N. A. Granger

Death in a Mudflat
by
N.A. Granger

Rating:

When a dead woman’s body emerges from a mudflat in Pequod, Maine, it doesn’t matter that part-time detective Rhe Brewster and the chief of police are at a wedding across the way. Rhe and her former brother-in-law (and new love interest), Sam Brewster, are more than willing to run over, don a set of hazmat suits and secure the scene.

Sam and Rhe can only initially guess at the whys and hows, but their expert team’s careful attention to detail and Rhe’s nose for making connections take the reader on an investigation that is both cozy and challenging and in which Rhe places herself in many dangerous situations. Is she reckless or is she just an ace detective? Now that they’re a couple, Sam may have trouble working this out.

Death in a Mudflat is Granger’s fourth Rhe Brewster mystery, a fun series set in the fictional coastal town of Pequod. In this small-town setting, Granger has developed a cast of characters and community that reflect New England values and personalities. But just like other small towns and larger communities across the country, Pequod struggles with modern problems, including the east coast’s growing heroin crisis.

As the investigation continues, Rhe and Sam discover possible connections to other deaths, casting doubt on several shady characters. And when a student from Pequod College turns up dead, they must consider an even larger case. Granger does a great job introducing the second case into the story and readers won’t know if they are connected until the story’s exciting end.

These investigations consume a lot of time, while Rhe continues to work as an Emergency Room nurse at Sturtevant Hospital and also raise her son, Jack, an active eight-year-old. But Rhe, Sam and their friends manage to keep the fun going in their own lives. A little romance and a couple fights over Rhe’s risk-taking make the story both realistic and entertaining. In addition, Rhe’s close friendship with Paulette McGillivray adds another dimension to the story when Paulette joins a mystery group dedicated to solving cold cases.

Granger’s extensive medical knowledge shows, as Rhe’s hospital and police life forever overlap. The author also includes details about modern police procedures and technology which greatly enhance the story. Readers will also enjoy how Granger incorporates hot coffee and many tasty foods into her characters’ days, often from the Pie and Pickle, Pequod’s local café.

Themes about love, friendship, helping others and justice over the bad guys make Death in a Mudflat and the whole series great reads and I recommend these stories to mystery readers who like a good puzzle as well as others who enjoy reading about modern life in a small town.

Also by N. A. Granger:

Death in a Red Canvas Chair
Death in a Dacron Sail
Death by Pumpkin
Death at the Asylum (coming 2020)


I read Death in a Mudflat as part of my library’s Summer Reading Challenge to read a book set within the past 20 years.

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The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry
by
Jane Harper

Genre: Mystery

Rating:

Federal Agent Aaron Falk left his home town of Kiewarra in Victoria, Australia, twenty years ago, right after Ellie Deacon died in the river. Now another of Falk’s childhood friends, Luke Hadler and his family, are dead. Despite the friendship, Falk would rather stay in Melbourne, but when he receives a letter from Luke’s father, he knows he must go back. Gerry Hadler’s words are unsettling: “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.”

Falk dreads returning to a town that chased him and his father away years ago, all because of an alibi that no one believed. Since then, lies and secrets have crippled the small farming town and a two-year drought has made everyone desperate. Falk wants to get in for the funeral and get out as soon as he can, but at the service, a chilling picture rotates through the slide show. Luke, Falk, Ellie and Gretchen Schoner, a tight teenage foursome and now only two are left. Is there a connection between Ellie’s death and the Hadler murders?

When Luke’s parents ask him to look into the murders, Falk reluctantly agrees. Headed by Kiewarra’s new Sergeant Raco, Falk and Raco follow leads and suspicions as hostility against Falk grows. Nothing is at it seems, however, and Falk will have to dig to the raw core to understand, if he survives the process.

The Dry is a terrific atmospheric thriller in which Kiewarra’s setting on the edge of the bushland and the drought’s devastating effects weigh heavy on the characters. False leads, unclear motives and complex relationships make this story both an entertaining read and a more serious study of human behavior. Why do people keep secrets and what could have been different if the truth were told? Harper may not have the answer, but she shows how lies and secrets can crush.

I recommend The Dry to readers who enjoy mysteries and to anyone who is interested in human behavior. I’m looking forward to reading Harper’s next book, Force of Nature.


I read The Dry as part of my library’s Summer Reading
Challenge to “read a book set in a place you’d like to visit.”


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Tell No One by Harlan Coben

Tell No One
by
Harlan Coben

Rating:

Dr. David Beck’s life fell apart eight years ago when his wife Elizabeth was taken by strangers. Even though a serial killer sits in prison, Beck can’t move on. He trudges through life and work as a pediatrician in a low-income New York neighborhood. The years have passed, but how can he let go of his best friend and sweetheart?

When Beck receives a computer message, he’s certain it’s from Elizabeth because it’s about something only she would know. But there’s a warning: “Tell no one.”

Readers are in for a wild ride as Beck tries to make sense of this message and later instructions. Set in New Jersey, New York and parts of Pennsylvania, the story revolves around Beck, his sister Linda and her partner, plus-size supermodel Shauna, as well as Elizabeth’s cop family. Added to the mix is the powerful billionaire, Griffin Scope, a third-generation rich guy. Scope is consumed by avenging the death of his golden-boy son Brandon and by preserving Brandon’s good-works charitable foundation, headed, coincidently, by Linda.

Several messages later, Beck is certain Elizabeth is still alive. He needs help and turns to Shauna. Shauna keeps him grounded, but events get out of hand when Beck becomes a wanted man for murder.

Coben leads the reader through the preliminaries, then adds a great variety of side characters, including my favorite, the conflicted Tyrese Barton and the unknowable bad guy Eric Wu, someone you don’t want to meet in an alley. Other characters with questionable morality, but a sliver of conscience make this story more than just a thriller, but an interesting character study.

In addition to an exciting plot, Coben’s writing style is full of dry humor as well as many laugh-out-loud moments, as Beck somehow escapes certain death, more than once.

Just as in an action movie, Tell No One is a terrific, fast-moving suspense, with twists and turns to the final page. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy reading about the battle between good and evil in a highly entertaining story.

And if you like watching action movies, Tell No One was adapted to the screen in the French film of the same name. Read all about it here.

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Book Talk – The Rooster Bar by John Grisham

Image: Pixabay

Welcome to a new and occasional feature on Book Club Mom called Book Talk, home to quick previews of new books that catch my eye.

Every Christmas my dad gives the women in our family a book. We each receive a different title, chosen specifically for us. I like this tradition. It reminds me of years ago when he used to pick out books for me and my siblings. This year I received The Rooster Bar by John Grisham.

Back in the 1990s, I tore through The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client. I wonder if he remembers this? These were excellent stories and the movies were also very entertaining. A few years ago I read The Racketeer and remembered why I liked John Grisham books.

So The Rooster Bar is waiting for me and I’ll get to it soon. Meantime, here’s a quick blurb from Amazon:

Mark, Todd, and Zola came to law school to change the world, to make it a better place. But now, as third-year students, these close friends realize they have been duped. They all borrowed heavily to attend a third-tier, for-profit law school so mediocre that its graduates rarely pass the bar exam, let alone get good jobs. And when they learn that their school is one of a chain owned by a shady New York hedge-fund operator who also happens to own a bank specializing in student loans, the three know they have been caught up in The Great Law School Scam.

But maybe there’s a way out. Maybe there’s a way to escape their crushing debt, expose the bank and the scam, and make a few bucks in the process. But to do so, they would first have to quit school. And leaving law school a few short months before graduation would be completely crazy, right?  Well, yes and no . . .

Pull up a stool, grab a cold one, and get ready to spend some time at The Rooster Bar.

John Grisham has written thirty-one novels, one nonfiction book, a story collection, and six novels for young readers. You can learn more about him at jgrisham.com.

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The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves

The Moth Catcher
by
Ann Cleeves

Rating:

Genre:  English murder mystery

Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope and her team have little to go on when a house sitter with a PhD and a former teacher are murdered near the English Northumberland village of Gilswick. Are the murders connected and how?

Vera is a shrewd investigator, but the case is a puzzle. Why would Patrick Randle, fresh out of university, defer a research position and sign on as a house sitter? Who was Martin Benton and what happened when the two met? Detectives Joe Ashworth and Holly Clarke are at Vera’s command and they soon discover a possible connection: moth catching. This strange interest, shared by both men, may be the link.

There is much to understand, however, including the relationships between three retired couples who live down the lane. They call themselves the “retired hedonists” and seem to be good friends, but Vera senses an undercurrent. Other characters with shady or unknown histories make the mystery a challenge for readers who like to crack a case before the last page.

This is my first Ann Cleeves mystery, but fans will know the Vera Stanhope character well and may have watched Vera, the British television series, starring Brenda Blethyn. Cleeves has created a unique personality—Vera is middle-aged, overweight, controlling, a little obsessed, with a few regrets and buried insecurities. But she’s a genius detective who knows how to dig. She is often bossy with Joe and Holly, who have their own talents and a little personal baggage. Both Joe and Holly silently crave Vera’s respect and confidence, and hope for one of Vera’s rare nuggets of praise. I enjoyed this work dynamic and think it’s one of the book’s strongest elements.

I also enjoyed the author’s descriptions of homes, their interiors, and a sort of running commentary on what the gardens were like and whether or not they were weeded. Food and caffeine sources also get frequent mention, keeping the reader amused.

Cleeves’ characters struggle with many issues. For Vera, Joe and Holly, they question their career choices. The hedonists secretly wonder if retiring out in the country has given them enough to do with their days. Other themes include family, money, relationships and women’s roles.

Although Cleeves includes many interesting personalities and scenery, I was disappointed by the plot. I’m a “go along for the ride” mystery reader, so it didn’t bother me that the finish was difficult to predict, but the moth catching angle fell flat, especially the author’s reference to global warming. Moths became a small and irrelevant connection and I felt misled by the title.

Despite this gripe, I enjoyed The Moth Catcher and would recommend it to mystery readers who like strong personalities and entertaining commentary.

Are you a mystery reader? What do you like best about this genre?

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The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders

The Secrets of Wishtide
by
Kate Saunders

Rating:

When Laetitia Rodd’s lawyer brother summons her for a meeting, she knows he has some work for her. It’s 1850 and the 50-something widow has made a name for herself in the Hampstead section of London. With an eye for detail and a nose for the truth, Lettie is a lady detective way ahead of her time.

The task seems straightforward enough: uncover the past of Helen Orme and thwart Charles Calderstone’s efforts to marry her. The wealthy and powerful Sir James Calderstone is behind this request. He’s pushing his son to marry Esther Grahames, a cousin and childhood playmate.

Posing as a governess for Charles’ younger sisters, Lettie moves in with the Calderstones at their Wishtide estate. And it isn’t long before a murder puts Charles in jail and presents Lettie with a much meatier case. Lettie and her brother are convinced Charles is innocent and to save him from the gallows, they know it’s a race to find a mysterious killer known as “Prince.”

The Secrets of Wishtide is the first book in the Laetitia Rodd mysteries. A huge fan of Charles Dickens, Saunders based her story on David Copperfield and uses her characters to develop themes of love, marriage, women’s rights, and class distinction, all in equal measure. In addition, several of her characters must live with their reputations as fallen women as they watch men pursue relationships outside marriage.

The story moves quickly, despite a long list of characters. While some expert mystery readers may be able to figure out who Prince is, key details reveal themselves only as the plot develops, making it an entertaining read.  I also liked reading about the creature comforts of the times – warm fires, hot tea, spirits and ale, good food and good humor. It seems as if the author is suggesting that, despite the hardships of the times, and the big trouble in which many of her characters find themselves, they seem to know how to make their own happiness.

The book finishes with a satisfying conclusion and hints of the future help the reader imagine what might happen in the next book. No doubt the side characters in this book will make appearances in the next and I look forward to seeing how Lettie’s character develops. I recommend The Secrets of Wishtide to readers who like entertaining mysteries on top of more serious themes.

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