February 26, 2009

Whose Body? ***

*** Whose Body?, Dorothy Sayers, 1995

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

When it comes right down to it, the British murder mystery is the staple for a good whodunit read. And of course everyone points to Agatha Christi as the grand dame of the genre. Outside of the realm of mystery fans, few people have heard of Dorothy Sayers. Which is too bad, because she rocks.

Dorothy Sayers was a contemporary of Christi, although less prolific, producing 17 books of detection as opposed to Christi’s 80. The limited catalog only makes the individual books that much more precious due to their scarcity.

The chronicle of Lord Peter Wimsey, the urbane dilettante in detection, begins with Whose Body? and continues through a dozen novels and three short-story collections. Wimsey is an interesting detective, a second son of British royalty with plenty of money, time, manners, insouciance and connections. And he has one last item lacking in many of his peers, brains. Sayers takes this good beginning and mixes it with a nice little puzzle.

Lord Peter is interrupted on his way to an ancient manuscript auction by a call from his mother, asking him to assist an acquaintance with an embarrassing problem: a corpse in the bathtub -- a well-manicured stranger utterly naked with the exception of a pair of gold pince-nez on his nose.

Wimsey dives into this welcome enigma and works his way through a cast of interesting characters on his way to the solution, including Suggs, the predictable bumbling policeman and Parker, a highly competent Scotland Yard detective, a close friend of Wimsey’s who studies theology in his spare time. Wimsey’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, a kindly woman with a stream-of-consciousness style of conversation, is also a regular in the Wimsey stories.

Like Christi’s Poirot and Marple, one of the primary attractions of Sayers’ stories is the development of the characters, particularly Wimsey. In each successive story, Wimsey grows from an interesting gentleman detective with expensive hobbies into a much more complex character. Even in this first novel, we get a glimpse of Wimsey’s frailties, as he succumbs to a relapse of WW I shell-shock.

Sayers achieves the delicate blend of manners and murder that characterizes the British murder mystery. It was a time when the quality of a whodunit was measured by the puzzle and the characters, not the degree of perversity and shock-value that seems to form the bulk of more modern mysteries. For those who prefer the PG-rated variety of murder (no sex, no profanity, no graphic violence or gore), the works of this era are perfect and Sayers' are among the best.

Whose Body? is a perfect example of the genre.

While the first Lord Peter mystery is not Sayers at her best, it is still a good read, and the proper starting point for those who like to begin at the beginning. At under 200 pages, it is a quick and entertaining read.

The entire Sayers catalog is required reading for all lovers of good whodunits.

Other works by Dorothy Sayers:

February 19, 2009

The Mysterious West ***

*** The Mysterious West, edited by Tony Hillerman, 1995

Note the edited by. Hillerman didn't write this one. But I figure I trust his taste. After the first few, I began to wonder, but then it picked up. There are some first rate stories in here, a few second rate stories and one or two third-rate stories.

The term West is used loosely, as the MidWest gets a few shots in there. I haven't read most of these writers. Just seeing Stuart Kaminsky in the list sealed the deal for me, since he's a great writer. I've never picked up a book of his I regretted reading. I have a few Holmes pastiche books by Carole Nelson Douglas on the TBR shelf. Her selection in here didn't particularly stand out for me, but I'll still give them a whirl sometime this year.

It's a good nightstand book, as you have bite-sized chunks you can read and then crash.

February 12, 2009

Guys and Dolls: The Short Stories of Damon Runyon ****

**** Guys and Dolls: The Short Stories of Damon Runyon, Damon Runyon, 1992

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

It is a 9 to 5 shot all week and twice on Sunday that the moniker Damon Runyon escapes your attention all these years. But it is even money that many citizens in this town have seen a show doped up from his stories.

I discovered Runyon as a teenager. (Also Robert Benchley, but that is another story.) It was a rainy afternoon and I was out of reading material. I scavenged through the bookshelves, hoping a treasure would suddenly appear. I didn’t have much hope, as I had combed through these shelves many times before. While my childhood home was not devoid of fiction, it certainly was not stocked with countless tomes awaiting the eager reader. It was quite unlike my own home in later years, where hundreds of novels and short story collections line the walls in practically every genre but romance. (And there are a few of those, but I will deny it and call you a liar if you repeat it to anyone.)

In many previous searches I had passed over The Best of Runyon. It was an old, slim volume from the 40s with yellowed pages in a dark blue binding stuck between an almanac and Hebrew dictionary and didn’t look like it could possibly be interesting. (Yes, yes, I know about the judging a book by its cover rule, but one can’t always follow every rule, can one?)

One day in desperation, all other options exhausted, I pulled it out and gave it a wheeze. And discovered the magical world of Broadway gangsters during Prohibition.

Runyon’s stories are narrated by a character that doesn’t figure much into the action. He’s the guy who is always there to hear or see the story, but is not a player. In his own words “Nobody pays any attention to me, because I am known to one and all as a guy who is just around . . .” (Blood Pressure). His low profile is intentional. “. . . I do not ask any questions, because when a guy goes around asking questions in this town people may get the idea he is such a guy as wishes to find things out.” (The Lily of St. Pierre)

But he is the confidant of many a rough character who figures into the action plenty, and then some. These characters include mob hit men, bootleggers, cardsharps, pool sharps, drama critics, safe crackers, bookies, horse players, touts, crap shooters, drunks, chorus girls, strippers, bubble dancers and Salvation Army officers to name a few. And occasionally he finds himself dragged along into the thick of the action, sometimes to avoid offending a character such as might take offense if he refuses the invitation, sometimes because he has been partaking of a few hot Tom and Jerrys or some needled beer and his curiosity overcomes his better judgment.

It took me a while to get hip to all the slang. A gun can be a heater, a piece, a rod, a Betsy or a John Roscoe. Scalpers sell duckets to the football games. And deciphering the money poses its own challenge. Some things are obvious. Two G’s is $2,000 and 5 C’s is $500. A deuce is $2 and a finnif is $5, but what is a sawbuck? Luckily a clue is buried in Hold ‘Em, Yale! It’s $10. When the narrator and Solly borrow a pound note in All Horse Players Die Broke, using a Betsy as collateral, and are left with a deuce each after spending the odd dollar on breakfast, some math reveals that they borrowed $5. And when he takes his deuce and runs it up to 22 slugs on a 10-to-1 shot, it is easy to see a slug is a dollar.

Which brings us to one of the charms of Runyon’s work, the dialect. As the editor of this book, William Kennedy, notes, “This Runyon merriment was, and is, chiefly an achievement of language – the language of gamblers, hoodlums, chorus girls, and cops, that he acquired by listening, then used in his stories and is therefore credited with inventing. It is a nonesuch argot, and he uses it like no other writer who came before or after him.”

The dialog is priceless; the narratives never drag. It’s a mistake to skip even a single sentence. Even physical descriptions of characters are entertaining. Here are a few examples:

This cat I am going to tell you about is a very small cat, and in fact it is only a few weeks old, consequently it is really nothing but an infant cat. To tell the truth, it is just a kitten. – Johnny One-Eye
He is a very big guy with several chins and very funny feet, which is why he is called Feet. These feet are extra large feet, even for a big guy, and Dave the Dude says Feet wears violin cases for shoes. Of course this is not true, because Feet cannot get either of his feet into a violin case, unless it is a case for a very large violin, such as a cello. – Tight Shoes
Knowing Nicely-Nicely Jones, I am prepared to wager all the money I can possibly raise that he can outeat anything that walks on two legs. In fact, I will take a chance on Nicely-Nicely against anything on four legs, except maybe an elephant, and at that he may give the elephant a photo finish. . . . This Nicely-Nicely Jones is a character who is maybe five feet eight inches tall, and about five feet nine inches wide, and when he is in good shape he will weigh upward of two hundred and eighty pounds. He is a horse player by trade, and eating is really just a hobby, but he is undoubtedly a wonderful eater even when he is not hungry. – A Piece of Pie

There are many collections of Runyon stories, from the original books to latter-day compilations such as Guys and Dolls, not to be confused with the Broadway show and movie of the same name, based on the story The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown. This collection of 30 stories has some of my favorites, including A Piece of Pie and Lonely Hearts, although it does omit others of my favorites, such as The Snatching of Bookie Bob and Tight Shoes. The first paragraph in the introduction describes the selection process for this book:

“There’s really only one question to ask about Damon Runyon: Is he, or isn’t he, back in town? We all know he’s back on Broadway, ever since the spring of 1992, when the remarkable revival of Guys and Dolls opened. But there is also something else going on. I have been approached twice in the past month about writing a movie about his private life, something in which I have a minus-twenty-seven-percent interest; and now here comes Al Silverman (Viking out of Penguin) saying he has snatched up the rights to 125 of Runyon’s short stories that have been lying doggo for a number of years and is looking for somebody to handicap two and a half dozen of them and see if there is enough left in the old guy to justify a wager that he can still wow them not only on Broadway but also in Albany.”

With all the attention The Sopranos is getting, the time is ripe for a Damon Runyon comeback. If you’ve never read Damon Runyon, this book is a good place to start. If you have read Damon Runyon, then you know it’s worth going back and reading the classics in this book.

Some Runyon short story collections:

Some movies based on Damon Runyon stories:

February 5, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle ****

**** The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski, 2008

First Novel

It seems I'm the go-to guy when somebody can't seem to get going on a book. "Here," The Woman, says, "Read this and tell me if it's worth reading. They say it's good, but I can't get past page 30."

I ask you, how did I get this job? First Pessl and now Wroblewski. Well, at least it's breaking in some new blood and giving me some fodder for my new First Novel series. We'll see how it holds up.

This book is Hamlet meets Peace Like a River. This guy can write. Check out this passage about Ida Paine, "the hawk-nosed, farsighted proprietor of the store" in Popcorn Corners.

The locals were inured to all this, but strangers sometimes lost their wits. "That it?" she would ask when she'd totaled their items, cocking her head and fixing them with a stare. "Anything else?" The veiny digits of her left hand punched the keys of the adding machine and leapt onto the lever. Thump! The thump really startled them. Or maybe it was the head-cock. You could see people stop to think, was that really it? The question began to reverberate in their minds, a metaphysical conundrum. Wasn't there something else? They began to wonder if this could possibly be their Final Purchase: four cans of beans and franks, a bag of Old Dutch potato chips, and half a dozen bobbers. Was that it? Wasn't there anything else they ought to get? And for that matter, had they ever accomplished anything of significance in their entire lives? "No," they'd gulp, peering into Ida's depthless black pupils, "that's all," or sometimes, "Um, pack of Luckies?" This last was issued as a question, as if they had begun to suspect that an incorrect answer would get them flung into a chasm. Cigarettes often came to their minds, partly because Ida herself smoked like a fiend, a white curl aways streaming from her mouth to rise and merge with the great galaxy of smoke wreathing over her head. But mainly, when the uninitiated stood before Ida Paine, they found themselves thinking that the future was preordained. So why not take up cigarettes?

And that's a minor, though pivotal, character who only shows up 2 or 3 times in 562 pages. This is a rich, deep story with rich, deep characters. With an ending that's more Hamlet that Peace. Let's just say it's not a Hollywood ending. I get the feeling the ending is probably typical of an Oprah book, but maybe not.

Let's see. What other Oprah books have I read? The Poisonwood Bible, Cry The Beloved Country, The Sound and the Fury, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I heard White Oleander on tape. A mixed bag, at best, when it comes to endings.

Well, the four stars pretty much say it. Read this one. Your mileage may vary.

February 2, 2009

Randy Newman - Feels Like Home

If you're from my generation, you probably first heard Randy Newman's work from the hits he wrote for other folks, like I've Never Been to Spain, Mama Told Me Not To Come, I Think It's Going To Rain Today, and You Can Leave Your Hat On. And then for his own hits, Short People and I Love L.A. Younger generations may know him from the soundtrack of Toy Story (You've Got a Friend In Me), James and the Giant Peach, A Bug's Life, Cars, and Monsters, Inc.

Back in the 90s, Newmna wrote a musical adaptation of Faust. Feels Like Home was written for Bonnie Raitt to sing. (Sorry, the only Bonnie version I could find was this General Hospital fan video. But you don't have to watch it. Just listen.) It was also covered by Linda Rhonstadt and Chantal Kreviazuk and appears on the How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days soundtrack.

The female covers are great, but there's something irrevocably poignant in Newman's plaintive, mush-mouth voice expressing such transparent vulnerability.

And, as a bonus, here's a live recording of a lesser known but equally powerful Newman song, I Miss You.