Category Archives: Reviews

‘The Innocent and the Dead,’ by Robert McNeill

There are two novels in the DI Jack Knox police procedural series to date. However, this first volume, The Innocent and the Dead, also includes a prequel novella, Labyrinth.

DI Jack Knox, the hero, is an Edinburgh, Scotland detective. He’s divorced, and his wife and daughter have emigrated to Australia. He is now dating a female subordinate, which is technically out of bounds but nobody seems very concerned about it.

The first story, Labyrinth, involves an attractive young woman found strangled near a tourist landmark. She is found to have been working as a prostitute, though she also seems to have been a practicing evangelical Christian. The investigation is complicated, but gets wrapped up relatively quickly.

In The Innocent and the Dead, a wealthy distiller’s college-age daughter has been kidnapped. After initially cooperating with the police, her father opts to follow the kidnapper’s instructions and keep the detectives in the dark about the ransom drop. This makes it hard for the cops, trying to keep tabs on the father as he attempts to avoid them – it appears at times they would have done better to let him alone. And when the payoff is missed, and a girl is found murdered, it all looks very bad….

This is a new mystery series, and the characters are still not entirely in focus. I found the stories competently written and entertaining, though not highly memorable. At a couple points, I thought the narrative was veering into church-bashing, but the author avoided that.

Moderately recommended. Cautions for mild adult stuff. I might read the second novel.

‘The Bitter Fields,’ by Matthew Iden

Marty Singer, retired cop and occasional private detective, is invited down to Virginia’s horse and wine country, along with his girlfriend Julie Atwater, by her friend Ruth Colvin, who runs a boarding stable. They’re expecting a relaxing vacation. But Ruth has a reason for asking them. Her farm is in trouble. Someone has been sabotaging her operation – knocking down fences so the horses can get loose. In the competitive world of horse people, only a little doubt about the safety of her facilities could ruin her. That’s how The Bitter Fields begins.

Then murder intervenes. One of Ruth’s employees, a charming polo player named Freddie Farrar, is shot to death. Marty can’t help but suspect there’s a connection between the crimes. Who could hate Ruth so much? There are suspects – a bigoted old lady who wants some of her land for a burial plot, a rich young woman who’d been having an affair with Freddie, and that woman’s husband – who has been arrested, but whose guilt Marty doubts.

All this is played out against the backdrop of the changing south, where history is a living presence, opinions are in transition, and people often cover up their real thoughts. One thing I liked about this book was that although it seemed at first to involve a lot of tired southern stereotypes, those characters were treated sympathetically and allowed to have their say – and to change. It all got kind of heart-warming in the end. Except for the killing, of course.

Recommended. Cautions for the usual, particularly sexual matters, but not bad.

‘Alter Ego,’ by Brian Freeman

After borrowing this book from the public library, I found that I’d already read and reviewed an earlier novel in the Jonathan Stride mystery series. I said I found it well written, but I didn’t love it. That’s pretty much my reaction to Alter Ego, Brian Freeman’s ninth in the series. But I read it free, so why complain?

Jonathan Stride is a police detective in Duluth, Minnesota. His two chief subordinates are an Asian-American woman and his wife. Both, needless to say, are gorgeous. As is also his teenaged adopted daughter, a former prostitute whom he and his wife more or less rescued, and who is beginning to reintegrate her life.

It’s big news when a Hollywood film company comes to Duluth to make a movie. Jonathan is less happy than most of the locals, because it’s a fictionalized dramatization of one of his own cases. He is being played by Dean Casperson, one of Hollywood’s major players, but the whole business makes him uncomfortable.

Then a man dies in a freak collision with a deer on a snow-covered highway. His ID turns out to be bogus, and a gun is found in the car. Shortly after that, a local college girl who hung around with the movie people is reported missing. Putting two and two together, the police start searching the area near the auto accident, and sure enough – the young woman’s body is found in the snow, a bullet in her head.

And then she turns out to have been using an assumed identity too.

It’s all confusing, and it’s not about to get simpler. On top of the murder mystery, there are questions about certain behaviors on the movie set, behaviors no one will talk to the police about. Stride and his co-workers (along with author Freeman’s other series character, Florida PI Cab Bolton, who shows up for his own reasons) will have to move fast and smart to prevent very ugly history from repeating itself, not on film but in real life.

As stipulated above, I find Brian Freeman a good writer, and I can find no fault with his storytelling. I’m not sure why his books leave me kind of cold, except for a certain political correctness I sense in their construction. Most of the cops in this story are women, and they’re all beautiful. I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager that is not a statistically accurate portrayal of the Duluth police department.

Ah, but I’m probably just jaundiced. I note that my review of the previous Jonathan Stride book complained about excessively explicit sex scenes. I’m happy to report he seems to have toned that down.

I might even read another book in the series – if I can borrow it from the library.

‘The Innocents Abroad,’ by Mark Twain

Syrian travel has its interesting features, like travel in any other part of the world, and yet to break your leg or have the cholera adds a welcome variety to it.

The organizers of the “Great Pleasure Excursion,” which sailed from New York on the steamer Quaker City in 1867, must have come to regret their decision. I mean their decision to include in their party the journalist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), who was traveling on assignment for a San Francisco newspaper. This was (I believe) one of the earliest international pleasure cruises in history – made possible by the capacity of a steam ship to travel on a more predictable schedule than a sailing ship. The notes Twain kept on that voyage would emerge as The Innocents Abroad, his most popular book during in his lifetime.

Although described as a pleasure excursion, the main purpose of the voyage was a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, then under Ottoman rule. Along the way, however, they would take in parts of North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and Constantinople (still called by that name). On the way home they would see the sights of Egypt. It was quite a journey, and physically demanding by the standards of travel in our own day.

Mark Twain, only then becoming a celebrity, was prepared to subject everything he beheld to a typically American scrutiny. It seemed to him that in a lot of cases, when his fellow travelers exclaimed over the beauty or wonder of some piece of art or scenic vista, they were only parroting the responses their guide books had provided them. When Twain found something a disappointment or a humbug he said so – and seems to have delighted in shocking his fellow travelers. Which is not to say he lacked appreciation. When something impresses him, he says it. At some points he grows almost reverent.

Twain divides his fellow travelers into two parties – the “sinners” and the “pilgrims.” That doesn’t mean they broke up into cliques. He has a group of friends he keeps company with, and some of them are pilgrims. He confesses to admiring them in some respects. But when they appear hypocritical to him (as when they lengthen their overland journeys on a couple of days in order avoid traveling on the Sabbath, in spite of inconvenience to fellow travelers and cruelty to their horses), he seems to take satisfaction in pointing it out. The man is clearly keeping score. (He is also frustrated – rightly – by members of the party who insist of chipping pieces off monuments as souvenirs.)

The Catholic Church comes in for a great deal of criticism – he is appalled by the display of wealth in cathedrals, contrasted with the miserable poverty he saw in European streets. However, when he observes real virtue displayed by churchmen, such as the Dominican monks who cared for the sick during a cholera epidemic, or the desert monks who gave his party hospitality in the Palestinian desert, he does it justice. It seems to me (and this is my take on him in general, though I’m not an expert) that he was a man who wrestled with God. He could not be an atheist (in part because he’d have no God to be angry at), but he considered himself too smart to be taken in by any revealed religion. A very American attitude, that, and one that would grow influential.

The humor of The Innocents Abroad arises partly from Twain’s characteristic style – flowery Victorian prose constantly stumbling into premeditated bathos – and his Missourian “show me” attitude. He is not much impressed, for instance, with the artistic works of the Old Masters, but grants that he may have simply been overwhelmed by the numbers of them in places like Rome and Florence. He loves to describe the filth of European cities and is positively scandalized by the tiny size of the Holy Land.

Almost any subject is interesting when described by an interesting man. An expedition like this one, full of material fascinating in itself, can hardly fail to engage the reader when a man like Mark Twain chronicles it. And that’s what we get with The Innocents Abroad.

I read The Innocents Abroad in the linked Kindle edition, which is not a particularly good one. Although it’s described as illustrated, the illustrations in this version are not the ones that properly go with the book. They are images of 19th Century paintings with no particular connection to the text, and even those only show up in the first section. Also there are no proper paragraph breaks.

‘Shattered,’ by Jason Richards

I reviewed the first book in Jason Richards’ Drew Patrick mystery series the other day. I told you I thought the book not well written, but that I appreciated the spirit of the thing. I liked the hero and his supporting cast, and the positive atmosphere.

So I invested in Shattered, the second book in the series. I hoped author Richards might have learned a little with the passage of time, or perhaps got an editor to help him.

Alas, there’s been no improvement on the writing front.

I like it that Drew has a traditional PI’s office above a Cambridge, Mass. city street. Such offices in hard-boiled mysteries always give me a warm, homey feeling – and it’s nice having Drew’s beagle mix, Dash, there to keep us company.

A couple named Jeffrey and Cynthia Holland are the clients who come to the office this time out. Their daughter Ashley has disappeared, and they’re concerned. They don’t want to go to the police, because they fear publicity.

Alas, Ashley is dead already. Her murder seems to be tied to the deaths of some other attractive young women – young women who, it turns out, had been working for a high class escort service, and had been involved with the same man – a high-powered Hollywood studio owner.

There’s not much mystery in this one; author Richards identifies the guilty party early on, making the plot a race against the clock to prevent the next murder.

It seemed to me a lot of opportunities to raise the dramatic tension were lost here. The guilty party could have been concealed, for one thing. And instead of the cops loving Drew and being happy to have him pitch in, they could have resented him and blocked his efforts, in the more plausible tradition of cops in the hard-boiled genre. There could have been conflict between Drew and his girlfriend Jessica.

Also, dramatic opportunities were lost. The character of Cynthia Holland, Ashley’s mother, is intriguing, but we don’t get to know her very well.

And there were lots of writing problems. Mistaken use of homonyms. Spelling errors. Overwriting – Drew tells us more than we need to know, and explains himself too much. A good editor would have cut this manuscript down by thousands of words.

So my verdict remains the same. I salute and appreciate the author’s effort. But he’s not writing very good books at this point. I hope he ups his game.

YouTube film: ‘The Silent Passenger’

The other night, on a sudden whim, I went to YouTube and watched a film I’d only read about. It’s a 1935 English mystery called The Silent Passenger. It has the distinction of being the first cinematic depiction of Dorothy Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Miss Sayers wrote the story especially for the film. Here it is, if you’re interested.

I’d heard bad things about this film, and it generally lived down to its reputation.

Actually, that’s kind of unfair. For its time and environment, it’s not a badly done film. It’s a clever, complicated story about blackmail and mixed-up luggage. It’s atmospheric, and the final showdown in the railroad repair facility is fairly exciting.

What’s wrong with it – and the reason Dorothy Sayers hated it – is the portrayal of Lord Peter. Peter Haddon, a well-respected actor of the day, seems appallingly miscast. He has a long nose – which is right – but otherwise he’s too tall and too dark – and kind of oily, like a gigolo. Instead of a monocle, he sports a repellant little mustache. And instead of playing Lord Peter as we love him – as an affected, amusing twit in the tradition of the Scarlet Pimpernel, he walks around with his mouth gaping open like the village idiot.

Still, it has its place in history. You might find it amusing.

‘Chasing Shadows,’ by Jason Richards

It isn’t often I like a book without considering it well written. But that’s the case with Jason Richards’ novel Chasing Shadows, first in his Drew Patrick private eye series.

Drew Patrick works in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He gets hired by a single mother named Bonnie Ross, who is concerned about her teenaged daughter Tina’s relationship with a young man named Aaron. Aaron is a college student and a promising football player, but Bonnie doesn’t trust him, and Tina has changed and grown distant since they started dating.

There’s nothing criminal about that, but Drew agrees to check the boy out. Turns out Bonnie’s concerns are justified. Aaron has been working as a collector for a loan shark, and is being pressured to commit murder. But Drew, assisted by his girlfriend Jessica (also a PI), a couple friendly sheriff’s detectives, and his faithful beagle mix, Dash, will do his best to get between the kids and disaster.

Okay, about this book. It’s not very well written. There are proofreading and spelling problems. The dialogue is often turgid – a lot more contractions could have been employed, for one thing. The author’s attempts at wit are hit and miss – more often than not he presses his jokes where a lighter touch would have been more effective.

But I appreciated what he seems to be doing here. He seems to be trying to recreate the magic of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books – Spenser worked not far away in Boston. The Spenser books were refreshing in their time. Unlike past hard-boiled shamuses, Spenser was optimistic in attitude and took care of his health. He also had healthy relationships with women, and eventually connected with a regular girlfriend. I really liked those books until Parker allowed Spenser to become totally whipped.

Similarly, Drew Patrick is a positive guy with a healthy attitude. He is devoted to his girlfriend, cheerfully rejecting all passes from other women. He even has a dog – something often useful in breaking the ice with people, and (for most of us) a sign of good character. Also, perhaps, a nod to the Thin Man.

But he isn’t entirely believable. He doesn’t seem to care much about paying the bills, and pursues “justice” even when not being paid. And the regular cops seem happy to have him meddle in their investigations (something I find hard to believe).

So I can’t give Chasing Shadows my highest recommendation. But I won’t deny I kind of enjoyed the book. You might too. Only mild cautions for adult content.

‘The Night Fire,’ by Michael Connelly

I’ve cut out buying the pricey books for the time being. But it turns out I’d pre-ordered Michael Connelly’s new Harry Bosch/Renee Ballard book, The Night Fire. So I read it, and now I’ll review it.

As you may recall if you’re following the books (not the Amazon Plus TV show), Harry Bosch is pretty old now (about my age), and is retired as an LAPD detective. But his old motto, “Everybody matters or nobody matters,” still drives him, so he finds ways to keep involved. Mostly by providing help (off the books) to the young detective Renee Ballard. Renee works the night shift, which she likes, because it allows her to work alone. (She can generally call on Harry if she needs backup.)

One night Renee gets called to a scene of death by fire. A homeless man has burned to death in his tent. It looks like an accident, but investigators say no. However, the case is assigned to Robbery-Homicide, and Renee gets shut out. But she doesn’t forget about it.

Then Harry Bosch receives a surprising legacy. An old cop, once his own mentor, died recently, and he left something behind for Harry. It’s a “murder book” – a ring binder containing all the case notes for an old homicide investigation. The thing was police property, and should not have left police custody. The case involves the murder of a drug addict in his car in an alley. For the life of him, Harry can’t figure why his old friend stole this book, or kept it. There’s no sign he ever investigated it on his own.

What follows for both Renee and Harry is a case of what I call “retro-telescoping prioritization,” a situation where you set out to do one thing, but can’t do that until you do another thing, but there’s something else you have to do before you can do that. The plot of The Night Fire gets fairly complicated, and I lost track of a few threads now and then. But it all comes together in the end, and there’s a suitably suspenseful payoff.

The Night Fire was not the best book in the Harry Bosch saga, but it wasn’t bad. Cautions for language and adult situations, and a brief public service announcement about gay rights. Connelly fans will enjoy this new installment in the series.

I am concerned about Renee Ballard, though. She’s surviving on a diet of coffee and surfing. If she doesn’t resolve some of her personal issues, she’s gonna crash hard.

‘The Last Gig,’ by Norman Green

Having now become a pretty confirmed fan of Norman Green’s novels, I figured I’d try out his series character, Alessandra “Al” Martillo. As you know, I’m no big fan of hard-boiled female detectives, but I took a flyer on The Last Gig, the first book in the series.

I’ll give author Green credit for facing honestly some of the inherent problems of the female action protagonist. “Al,” he informs us along the way, is a sort of genetic anomaly – a throwback to more ancient humanity. She’s stronger than most women and a lot of men, and she heals at an astonishing rate.

She’s also – of course – gorgeous. But she’s as emotionally maladjusted as she’s physically exceptional. Raised by an indifferent aunt after her mother’s suicide, and then taken in by a sympathetic gay uncle, she keeps to herself and pushes off every man who shows interest. She’s got a chip on her shoulder for the whole world – especially her distant father, whose only contribution to her upbringing was to teach her to fight.

She works for peanuts for a sleazy private eye, who keeps trying to get into her pants. She can handle him, and she needs the work.

Then her boss gets approached by “Mickey” Caughlan, an Irish-American gangster who has (he claims) gone straight. Somebody has been smuggling drug components in Caughlan’s trucks, and he wants to find out who.

As Al investigates, she grows curious about a part of Caughlan’s story that may or may not be related to the crime. Caughlan had a son who was murdered, and he seems oddly unconcerned about it. Supposedly it’s because the boy wanted to be a musician, a career choice Caughlan opposed. But Al thinks there’s more to it.

So she jumps into the case with both feet. She will deliver beat-downs and receive them, and be challenged to move outside her personal comfort zone. Very dangerous people will threaten her, but Al is the most dangerous character in the city.

I didn’t love this book as much as the previous Green books I read. It wasn’t a bad book, but I didn’t identify with Al as I did with other Green protagonists, and I didn’t find here the fine passages of writing I’ve so enjoyed in the other books. A small public service announcement for gay marriage was included in the plot, but there was nothing really unfair there.

I’d probably go on with the series, if the later books were cheaper, but for now I’ll hold off. Moderately recommended, with cautions for language, sexual situations, and mature themes.

‘Way Past Legal,’ by Norman Green

I could easily have gone my entire life without really noticing the night sky at all, let alone wondering if it had anything to tell me. We’re so smart now, we know at least something about everything, but still, nobody can tell you which of those pieces of information are important.

Mohammed “Manny” Williams, the main character of Way Past Legal, is not a Muslim, in spite of his name. He doesn’t know what he is. Abandoned in a garbage bag as an infant, he grew up in the foster care system and became a successful thief. He’s always been looking for that big score, but is not prepared when he and his partner Rosario knock a place over and find themselves with a cool two million on their hands. Then Rosey tries to cheat Manny out of his half, and Manny feels no compunction about stealing it all back from him.

One thing is certain – this kind of money will bring a lot of heat. So Manny has to get out of New York. But he makes one stop on his way out – he picks up his little boy Nicky, who’s been languishing in a group home like his dad before him. Nicky adores his father, and is just happy to be with him.

Manny knows everyone will expect him to run south, to someplace warm. So he heads north. He’s near the northern tip of Maine when their car breaks down. A kindly local farmer gives them a ride to a garage, and he and his wife put them up while they’re waiting for repairs.

This town is like no place Manny has ever known. He’s never met friendly, generous people like these before. He helps them and is helped by them, and grows fond of them. Nicky loves it there, and the weight of paternal responsibility begins to bear down on Manny – how can he give his son a secure future when he’s on the run? How can he help him to grow up when he’s immature himself?

And when outsiders start showing up in the area, hunting for the money, Manny will have to take big risks and make hard decisions, because it’s not just him now – and not just him and Nicky – but it’s him and a whole lot of people he’s started to care about.

Beautifully written, exciting, suspenseful, and wholly engaging, Way Past Legal is now one of my favorite crime novels . It’s as good as Shadow of a Thief, which I reviewed yesterday, and lacks the occult element. The main Christian character in Way Past Legal is a very sympathetic fellow. I need to caution you about a lot of obscene language, and there’s violence, of course, but no explicit sex. Highly recommended for adults.

‘A Terrifyingly Ordinary Man’

I picked up Ray Bradbury’s The October Country at the library some days ago. Originally published in 1955, “the Dubliners of American Gothic” is a story collection that leans into twilight subjects, potentially unsettling tales touching on darker matters. At least that’s how the book is billed, but I want to talk about a light-hearted story that might should be on all the college reading lists.

“I met the most astounding bore. You simply must see him! At Bill Timmins’ apartment house last night, a note said he’d return in an hour. In the hall this Garvey chap asked if I’d like to wait in his apartment. There we sat, Garvey, his wife, myself! Incredible! He’s a monstrous Ennui, produced by our material society. He knows a billion ways to paralyze you! Absolutely rococo with the talent to induce stupor, deep slumber, or stoppage of the heart! What a case study. Let’s all go visit!”

“The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” is a tale for a new generation. The in-crowd discovers Garvey, whom the narrator describes as “a terrifyingly ordinary man” who had lived alone with his wife for twenty years. Though she was a delightful woman, he was so boring no one would accompany them to anything. This group of seven would-be elitists think he’s a gas, and after a few weeks he comes to enjoy their attention. Their subtle mockery turns to genuine admiration, and Garvey takes steps to keep them enthralled.

The prejudices of the in-crowd are remarkably dated, but their attitude is contemporary. They see through everything; they love to be unimpressed as their tastes flit from fad to fad. They embrace common entertainment only ironically, unless they can spin it into a superior, sophisticated pleasure. “Beer’s intellectual. What a shame so many idiots drink it.”

Would Garvey or his wife be better off with or without the attention of this self-righteous crowd? Let the reader judge for himself and decide whether he has in-crowd attitudes that should look just a foolish today as the Garvey fan club does decades after their story was written.

‘Shadow of a Thief,’ by Norman Green

So like a man who has settled for order instead of law, eventually I gave up on peace and contented myself with what moments of quiet I could find.

If you told me about a mystery story containing a supernatural element which is essentially syncretistic, and in which the main character is possibly demon-possessed during the climax, I’d probably tell you “Not my style. I’ll pass.”

But I got Norman Green’s Shadow of a Thief through an Amazon Prime deal, and I’m hoarding my pennies these days, and the writing was extremely good. So I stayed with it. And you know what? I’m a fan now.

Saul Fowler used to be a burglar, both free-lance and under contract to one of those shadowy US government agencies that so heavily populate fiction. But he succumbed to drugs and alcohol. Then he got clean through Narcotics Anonymous and fled to the northern tip of Maine, where he replaced his old addictions with a new one, to fishing. For his future he has no plans.

Then he’s approached by a man from his past – Reverend McClendon, who was his stepfather, and possibly his natural father. McClendon was the closest thing to a father figure Saul ever had, and he taught him his trade – the confidence game. But he’s a TV preacher now and – he claims – he’s turned his life around. He genuinely believes, he says, in Christianity (though his theology appears pretty pathetic).

He had (he says) a daughter, who might have been Saul’s half-sister. She has been cruelly murdered, and McClendon thinks Saul has the skills to look more deeply into the mystery than the cops have. They blame it on gang warfare (the girl was Chinese-American).

Saul agrees, not entirely sure why. But he has nothing better to do, and maybe he owes McClendon something.

His investigation will take him back home to New York, into the worlds of gangs, prostitution, the NYPD, and urban voodoo.

Theologically, I could criticize this book quite a lot (though I noticed there was no Christian-bashing). But as a story, it worked magnificently. Norman Green is as good a writer as I’ve come across in years – I’m amazed I’d never heard of him before. His prose is elegant, his characters fascinating, his dialogue snappy, his plotting riveting. My interest never once flagged as I read.

I highly recommend Shadow of a Thief, if you can handle some heterodoxy in a fictional setting. Cautions for language and violence.

‘Hardcastle’s Runaway,’ by Graham Ison

Divisional Detective Inspector Hardcastle of the Whitehall Division of the Metropolitan Police is summoned to the office of the head of CID himself at the beginning of Hardcastle’s Runaway. He’s never met the Commissioner before, so he knows the matter at hand must be important.

But in fact it’s not. The Commissioner wants him to look for a missing girl, the daughter of a friend who’s a member of Parliament. It’s 1919, the Great War is newly over, and many young women like this one have bobbed their hair (and their skirts) and become what’s known as “flappers.” Inspector Hardcastle puts men on the job to find her, but after a few days she pops up of her own accord. That seems to be the end of the matter.

But the girl disappears again. Inquiries among her gentlemen friends, veteran military officers all, reveal that she was present at a party at a country house, and nobody has seen her since.

There are many influential men who do not wish their relationships with this young girl revealed. But Hardcastle has the Commisioner’s support, and he proceeds with his customary bluntness and tactlessness. In the end, a tragic secret will come to light.

The DDI Hardcastle novels were recommended to me as well-researched books, providing an accurate and realistic picture of London life around World War I. And this book provided that. A lot of research has been done, and it shows. Hardcastle’s Runaway was excellent as a time excursion.

What did not delight me was the main character. I like curmudgeonly heroes just fine (I flatter myself that I’m a curmudgeon myself). But Hardcastle seems to have nothing underneath the crust. He’s crust all through – bullheaded, opinionated, thoughtless of others. He seems to be a type rather than a character. I finally decided all this rudeness was meant to be comic. But it didn’t make me laugh. Maybe it’ll be more to your taste.

I recommend this book from an educational perspective, but as a work of fiction I found it wanting.

‘The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains,’ by Owen Wister

“Is it too far to drive there to-night?” I inquired.

He looked at me in a puzzled manner.

“For this valise,” I explained, “contains all that I immediately need; in fact, I could do without my trunk for a day or two, if it is not convenient to send. So if we could arrive there not too late by starting at once—” I paused.

“It’s two hundred and sixty-three miles,” said the Virginian.

The scene above, (involving lost luggage) near the beginning of Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian, seems to me to foreshadow a major theme of the novel. This is a panorama painted on a canvas a thousand miles wide. The landscape itself is a character in it. It’s a slow book, episodic and discursive, but that’s because everyplace is a long way from everyplace else, and travel takes time. There’s plenty of space in the intervals for serious thought or deep conversation. You get a real sense of the vastness of the Old West.

Built on a series of previously published short stories, some narrated by a character (unnamed, like the archetypal hero) who comes on stage only when needed, The Virginian has traditionally been regarded as the first serious Western novel (though recent critics have advanced the claims of some book nobody ever heard of, written – of course – by a woman).

I read it in high school, but my memories of it were vague. I was mostly surprised at how different it was from the TV show, which was being broadcast in those days (they made Trampas a good guy, for some reason). What I didn’t remember – or was too young to appreciate then – was what a beautiful novel it is (in spite of its antiquated style), nor did I imagine how it would move me.

The Virginian is a young Wyoming cowboy, tall and athletic and handsome. He works for Judge Henry’s ranch out on Sunk Creek. He’s a man of few words (setting the style for cowboy heroes ever since, from Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood). He is a natural man of principle. He has a sly sense of humor, and delights, with his rowdy friends, in practical jokes and taking people in with tall tales. (The tall tales are an interesting plot element. They serve as a nonviolent means of asserting rank in cowboy society – though they might lead to violence in any case.)

When an eastern schoolmarm from a respectable but impoverished family arrives in the area, the Virginian decides from the moment he sees her that he will marry her. She resists, attracted by his appearance and rough chivalry, but repelled by his low birth. His courtship takes years, and is resolved in an unexpected (and somewhat deus ex machina) manner. But win her he does.

The plot conflict centers on the struggle between the ranchers and the rustlers, whose leader is the scoundrel Trampas, who hates the Virginian mostly because he’s the better man, and they both know it. (Historically, the book was inspired by the Johnson County War of the 1880s and ‘90s. In those terms it’s remarkably biased and unjust. The “rustlers” the Virginian despises were actually often small ranchers fighting the high-handed tactics of the big operations. For a fictional treatment from the other side of the fight, check out Shane, by Jack Schaefer).

The final confrontation with the evil Trampas takes place (anticipating High Noon) on the Virginian’s wedding day.

Once that’s out of the way, movie treatments of this book tend to wrap the story up pretty quickly. But Owen Wister (once again) takes his time, bringing the reader along on the Virginian’s and his wife’s honeymoon (discreetly, of course). That section, which could have been anticlimactic, instead consummates (if I can be excused for using that word) the main theme of the whole book, it seems to me.

Because the Virginian and his bride become Adam and Eve in a new Eden – or perhaps Wister (whose opinions on religion, judging by the book, were not very orthodox) had Rousseau’s Noble Savage and the State of Nature in mind. I think he was expounding a vision for America’s future – that the New Man being formed in our wilderness would transform the earth through siring a new, wiser, more natural race of mankind.

Or so it seemed to me.

In any case, I found it deeply moving, even if I didn’t believe it for a minute.

The Virginian is a challenging book for modern readers, accustomed to fast-paced narratives, to tackle. But if you give it a chance, it’s worth it. I rate it very high.

‘Return of the Thin Man,’ by Dashiell Hammett

If you’re one of those underprivileged citizens who’s never enjoyed the Thin Man movie series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, you really owe it to yourself to watch them. The first two, at least, are almost perfect of their kind – a hybrid of hard-boiled crime story and screwball comedy, centering on a sophisticated, charming couple who adore each other and excel at repartee.

The Thin Man was Dashiell Hammet’s last and most successful novel, and was adapted (mostly by lightening its darker elements and cutting some stuff the censors wouldn’t approve) into a classic movie by film writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, themselves a married couple. It was so successful that the studio wanted a sequel, and offered Hammett a nice payday to come up with a story. Though delayed by drinking and blackouts, he delivered on time. The “story” he produced – basically a paragraph outline – became the movie After the Thin Man. Hammett’s story, combined with Hackett’s and Goodrich’s initial adjustments, constitute the first half of Return of the Thin Man. The second half is a similar story for the third film, Another Thin Man. At the end, Hammett’s proposal for a third sequel is included – it’s incoherent, inconsistent with the previous stories, and appears to show signs of Hammett’s advancing alcoholism.

The original Thin Man movie ends with our heroes, Nick and Nora Charles, in a Pullman car headed home from New York to San Francisco. After the Thin Man opens with them getting off the train (fans have chuckled for years over the fact that the trip took two years, so that clothing and car styles have changed). Arriving at their home, they find the place packed with Nick’s low-life friends from his days as a private eye – it’s a welcome home party, but nobody even notices their arrival for a while. The party is dampened by the appearance of a dead man on the doorstep, but Nick and Nora are summoned away to her grandmother’s grand mansion on Nob Hill. Her cousin’s dubious husband has disappeared, and she’s suspected of murdering him. Nora’s family strongly disapproves of Nick, but since he’s around, he must make himself useful by locating the errant husband and keeping the police off the premises. There is a murder, and the mystery that follows will involve a shady night club owner and multiple confidence games, before Nick can gather the suspects for the “payoff” scene, revealing the true culprit.

In Another Thin Man, Nick and Nora head back to New York state at the request of Nora’s father’s old business associate. He’s been threatened, and demands that Nick chase off the disgruntled former employee behind the threats. Nick also takes this opportunity to try to learn more about Nora’s family business – something he soon regrets (just out of boredom). Again, murder happens in spite of Nick’s efforts, but he will beat the police to the true solution.

I had looked forward to reading a couple of Thin Man novellas – which is what the publisher’s description calls these works. But that’s not what they are. “Stories” for movies are meant to be brief and spare and devoid of sparkle. Just the facts, ma’am. As such, these stories make rather dull reading.

I was surprised that I have no memory of Another Thin Man. It’s possible I’ve never seen it – or that it’s been so long I’ve forgotten it. Must remedy that.

I didn’t waste any money on Return of the Thin Man, since I got it free from Amazon Prime. But I can’t really recommend it, except to the hard-core Nick and Nora fan, who’ll be interested in the minor ways in which the narratives changed in the transition from story to screen.