Thursday, January 26, 2017

Fer de Lance by Rex Stout; Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers and The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

For Christmas, Josh and I bought ourselves a record player.  One of the indie bookstores we frequent in Shreveport sells vinyl records.  Because they had a buy-five-get-one-free sale among the used vinyls, we spent at least an hour going through and selecting Classical and Christmas records.  Josh and I each brought twenty records to the counter and paid around forty dollars for them.  I couldn't do the math, but Josh somehow arranged the records so we would get maximum value (since you have to pay for the most expensive and get the cheapest free) and it involved each of us bringing a pile to the cashier.

We got home with our prizes and soon found out that we should have checked the speed and material of the records.  Some were 78s, others were 33 and 1/2 and still others were made out of glass or something not vinyl.

But, most of them were entirely playable and therefore it was a profitable venture and also a lesson to make sure the records we buy are only vinyl 33s.  One of life's more harmless cautionary tales.

I am now listening to a selection of Gershwin, Gottschalk and Joplin.  Is it my imagination or does music sound better on vinyl?

 Fer de Lance by Rex Stout (published 1934)

 Because Detective Ollie Chandler listened to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe's stories in the murder mystery Deception by Randy Alcorn, I ordered a couple of Stout mysteries.

Fer-de-Lance (Nero Wolfe, #1)Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the very first Nero Wolf mystery and the second one I read.

A man goes with family and friends on a golfing outing but collapses of a heart attack after swinging his club. But is it a heart attack? Nero Wolfe, who never leaves his house, knows that it is murder.

I enjoyed how the plot developed and this book was wonderfully devoid of the overt sexism in the other Wolfe mystery I read. Wolfe has an almost god-like omniscience and we don't watch him discover how events transpire, rather he lets us know how he has solved the case long before anyone else has.

While its fun to watch the drama unfold and the facts slowly reveal themselves to allow us to attempt solving the case too, I must say, Wolfe is not a likeable character. He is eccentric and egotistical holding few others in respect, although surprising us with who he will treat respectfully.

The police and lawyers can take on a bullying attitude, but Archie Goodwin, the narrator and Wolfe's right hand man and leg man, holds his own. Wolfe at all times remains impeturbable.

This story took some surprising twists, which I always enjoy, but at the same time, Wolfe holds a certain callousness and a lack of value for human life. Solving murders is more like an algebraic equation for him and he takes as much pleasure out of his orchids. I find this off putting but I suppose we're supposed to consider it an interesting character attribute and take it in stride.

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 The above is my review on Goodreads below is what I add to this blog review:

Nero Wolfe is a character unto himself.  He is a large man who rarely leaves his brownstone in Manhatten.  He will not change his schedule for anyone, including when he rises (eleven A.M.) the hour he visits his precious Orchids, or when he will see people, usually at some late, inconvenient hour.

Who is Wolfe?  A detective that is able to solve the most baffling mysteries, usually murders, without stepping foot out of his house.  He has a foot man, Archie Goodwin that goes out and interviews, and researches and basically whatever he needs to do, to find out as many facts as he can from a crime and bring it all back, including dragging reluctant witnesses, lawyers, suspects and what have you, to Wolfe.

Sometimes this seems a waste of time because Wolfe already seems to know much of what is going on through his own sixth sense or from reading the papers.  Wolfe is more than an astute observer of humans, he seems to have a mathematical ability to synthesize apparently disparate events and arrive at improbable solutions that, in fact, lead to the guilty party.  

As in Fer de Lance:

An Italian woman, Maria Maffei seeks Wolfe's help in finding her missing brother, Carlo, who was supposed to have returned to Italy.  He never got on the ship and has been missing for a couple of weeks.

Likewise, a professor Barstow is on vacation, playing a round of golf with friends and family, when after swinging his club, collapses of a heart attack.

Or is it a heart attack?  Ah no!  Mr. Wolfe has already combined events to know that Barstow has been murdered and so has Carlo and furthermore there's a connection and that is all I'm going to write about that in case anyone wants to read the story.

There's nothing more to say other than Stout is an exceedingly witty writer and the read is a joyful hayride over facts and events that lead one to a believable and exciting conclusion.

 Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers (pub. 1926)
Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #2)Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I mention "believable" a lot when critiquing mysteries because it is an essential quality that a mystery must have. If the author breaks our belief in the story, the whole thing falls down like a house of cards and we, the reader, are left feeling dissatisfied and sometimes angry, maybe even betrayed ("I invested a week of reading to this story only to be cheated by a ridiculous conclusion?")

Therefore it is with a heavy heart that I must conclude that Clouds of Witness left me a little wanting. It simply is not Sayers' best mystery. It is not a total loss because Lord Wimsey is as charming and witty as ever and the dialogue alone is worth the read-especially Wimsey's repartee and his mother's who is every bit his match.

Wimsey is in Paris when he reads in the paper that his own brother has been arrested on suspicion of murder. The victim is their sister Margaret's fiancee.

Hardly being able to contain his excitement Peter starts ordering his valet, Bunter, to pack and book a train passage. He discovers that Bunter has already packed and booked a plane ticket since it's faster. Bunter is Wimsey's Jeeves, but Wimsey, being brilliant, is not Bunter's Wooster.

As with most of Sayer's mysteries, this one leads you on quite the trail of intrigue and adventure, not to mention misadventure so I cannot say the book was a disappointment.

No, I was only let down a little at the conclusion, but maybe that's not fair to say since others might find her solution entirely satisfactory. I'll say no more and let future readers decide for themselves.

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Finally, I am excited to introduce a new (for me) discovery:

  Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey (pub. 1929)

The Man in the Queue (Inspector Alan Grant, #1)The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book over the weekend. I have never read anything by Tey before and after reading this first novel of hers, consider her a gem of a find.

People are crowding each other in a line outside a theater to see a final performance of the wonderful Ray Marcable's "Swan" performance before she sails off to America. A fat woman (her description, now we would say a "woman of size") is trying to pay for her ticket while she is being pushed by the man and the crowd behind her.

She turns around to tell the man to back off (or she does, I don't remember) but the man sinks to his knees and keels over. In his back is a thin dagger. How did a man get to be murdered in a crowded line with no one noticing?

That is the job of Detective Grant of the Scotland Yard to find out. Giving nothing away I will give my subjective reaction to reading this story.

It was one of the best mysteries I've read. Tey is not like other mystery writers. She follows no formula. I was surprised at the different paths the story line took. Following a sluggish, beginning, the plot quickened its pace and maintained it through out. I was surprised and delighted at the solution and conclusion.

What I liked best about the story was the humanness of all the characters. No one was a propped up cardboard figure, which I sadly must accuse Rex Stout and sometimes my beloved Dorothy Sayers of doing.

Both Sayers and Stout have created heroes that are so much smarter than everyone else that they appear to possess an omniscient glow about them. Both Wimsey and Wolfe are forever befuddling and befooling (I made that word up) everyone else and especially the police.

And here I must shake a stern finger at both of them. They make the police out to be little more than idiots and even buffoons. This is neither fair nor believable.

I understand that maybe underdogs who have been bullied by police, detectives, lawyers, and powerful rich guys enjoy reading them dance to Wolfe and Archie's tune, but it is also a little one-dimensional.

The same is true for Lord Wimsey. Like Wolfe, he apparently has the entire mystery solved from the get go but just needs to play along until he gets irrefutable proof in order to convict the guilty party. I generalize, but it's basically true.

Probably that is why I liked Gaudy Night so much. We saw a tenderer, vulnerable side to Wimsey.

Tey's Inspector Grant is very smart and so are his fellow detectives but they are not know-alls. They struggle and are often wrong. That was an endearing attribute of Grant in Man in the Queu. He thinks he has things solved, then he doesn't. Then he does; no, he doesn't. Now he does! Rats, not yet, after all!

But he or the other police are still human and smart and likeable characters. Tey created people I would want to get to know. I doubt Lord Wimsey would look twice at me. Wolfe would simply eat me alive.

All the characters are pretty nice people and hospitable and very believable. I eagerly look forward to further Tey mysteries.

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 The rain falling outside my window.  You can see my giant oak, the reason I bought the house, a guinea pig pen and the ugly tin barriers we had to attach to the fence to keep my dogs from chewing through the wooden slats in their efforts to get at and mutilate the  miniature Schnauzers who live on the other side.  In my dogs' defense, the Schnauzers started it.


  1. i've read these with a lot of enjoyment; sometimes there's a subliminal level of satiric humor running along with the plot; RS's books have that... he's trying to communicate a certain flavor that is not supposed to be realistic, but plays with the images as they are understood by certain elements of society: chiefly from the 1930's... most mysteries are like this, i think; if they weren't, they would be so boring nobody would read them... but i understand what you're saying and it's a legitimate criticism... it's just that a lot of the time it's hard to realize exactly where the author is pointing toward... or coming from.... interesting posts.... tx....

    1. Thanks Mudpuddle. I appreciate your input. I think that sometimes I can be a little concrete and also quick to make snap judgments.

      Thanks for giving me another angle to by which to look at it.

  2. I'm so glad to hear that The Man in the Queue was so good! I almost purchased it the other day but held off because I wasn't sure.

    Ah, Peter Wimsey! I have these books on my TBR but I never seem to get to them. It's at least fun to read your reviews, which I think is as close as I'll get to him for awhile.

    1. Hi Cleopatra! I didn't mean to sound so negative about Wimsey either. I really enjoy Sayers mysteries as well, but it is good fun to find someone new as well. I hope you can eventually get around to reading Lord Wimsey.

  3. Vinyl is so popular again. It is so popular with young people. As someone who grew up with records, I find this strangely heartening.

    I have not read the Nero Wolfe mysteries. An attribute of many detectives is that they posses quirky and at times unlikable characteristics. I can see how such characteristics can become overwhelming in some cases.

    Have a great weekend. I hope that the weather clears up for you.

    1. Hi Brian! Josh says that vinyl has come back because of the hipsters. I'm no hipster but I do enjoy our record player.

      I guess I need to overlook the unlikable traits of some of the characters I read and just enjoy the story for what its worth.

      Thanks, it has cleared up. It is now a balmy 55 degrees. Hope you enjoy your weekend as well.

  4. You've got me in the mood to read a good mystery; it's been a while as I usually choose other genres. And yes, I agree music sounds extra special on vinyl. I still have my record collection from back in the day. Fun post!

    1. Hi Marcia! I think weekends are perfect for good mysteries, all the better if it's cold and snowing or just rainy. Put an old vinyl on, brew a hot cup tea and curl up! Have a great weekend.

  5. Sharon, even though I do not always leave a comment, I often visit and very much enjoy your postings. I will try to find a copy of the Nero Wolfe book. Thanks!
    And here is something else: I have changed my blog address, and I have begun again with a fresh start (for too many reasons worth mentioning); I have always enjoyed your past visits, and I hope you will continue to visit and comment often. Here is the link:

    1. I just read the Frost poem and left a comment. :)

  6. My 19 yr old was given a record player by his siblings for Christmas. He's an apprentice plumber so I don't think the word 'hipster' would describe him, but he & I had a fun outing to a couple of op shops and picked up a whole stack of records for $1 each - he chose Winnie the Pooh(!!)The Seekers, Simon & Garfunkel & an eclectic mix of others. I've only read Fer de Lance & I must say I favoured Archie over Wolfe. Gaudy Night & Strong Poison were my favourite Sayers. Must read some more Tey. I've only read 'The Daughter of Time' but one of my daughters has read just about everything she can get her hands on. I think Brat Farrar was one of her favourites.

    1. Hi Carol! Oh, I think you can be a hipster plumber. I suppose you could be a hipster middle-aged person but I still don't think I qualify.

      When I visited my parents' house in Florida I brought back a bunch of old records that I had from when I was a teenager. Your son getting Winnie the Pooh made me think of all the Disney Records I still had: Mickey and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and also Winnie and others.

      I have not read Strong Poison, but have it and I think I have Daughter of Time as well. Those are definitely on my TBR list.

      And I agree; Archie is more likable than Wolfe. Wolfe is just a little unreal for me.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.