Saturday, November 16, 2019

Defending Jacob by William Landay

William Landay’s 2012 novel, Defending Jacob, was on the reading list of my wife’s book club. The tastes of the club almost never coincide with mine. But this one was different.

Defending Jacob is the story of a suburban family torn apart when the 14-year-old son is accused of murdering a classmate.

First-person narrator, Andy Barber, is the dad and central character in the story. He is the prosecutor overseeing the investigation into the stabbing death of a local eighth-grade boy, Ben Rifkin.

Andy knows the dead boy and the Rifkin family. His son Jacob is the same age as Ben and they went to the same school.

Clues and even motivations start coming in and they point to Jacob. In one of the many twists of this book, Ben was a bully and his frequent target was Jacob.

Andy refuses to see any connection. His words are 100 percent in Jacob’s corner. His thoughts betray his suspicions.

Defending Jacob is a novel that snuck up on me. I was caught up in the father’s anguish. Could Jacob have actually killed the other boy?

There is a bit of weird science woven into the tale concerning bad genes which can be passed down. But overall, this is a solid suspense story.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Accused is a series to watch

In the 1990s, British writer Jimmy McGovern created the character Fitz Fitzgerald for television. Played by Robbie Coltrane, Fitz was a psychologist with loads of personal problems who worked with the police solving crimes. The show was Cracker, one of our favorites of that decade.

Looking for more shows by Jimmy McGovern, this month I came across Accused, an anthology series from 2010-2012.

Each of its 10 one-hour episodes is a different story with a different cast.

All were written or co-written by McGovern. All feature average folks in trouble, violence, danger. All involve crime and punishment.

Sometimes characters are done in by the system. Other times they are victims of their own corruption, obsession, criminality or stupidity. On rare occasion a character is exonerated.

Last night, we reached the half-way point in the series and every episode has been top-notch TV.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick

For Halloween, I read a novel whose story people may remember from a 1947 movie of the same title starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison.

The book was The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick, which was the pen name of writer Josephine Leslie.

Frankly, I was expecting a lot more from it. There is nothing scary or even chilling about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It is a genteel novel from 1945 written in a style better suited to the previous century.

Lucy Muir, a young widow with two small children, needs to find a less expensive place to live. She buys an English seaside house called Gull Cottage. The price is right because the place is said to be haunted by the original owner, Daniel Gregg, a ship’s captain who died in the house.

Instead of haunting Mrs. Muir, he is attracted to her, and she to him. He serves as her guide through life, helping her get rid of bossy relatives and unsuitable suitors.

The story is told in three parts: the young Lucy Muir, the middle-age Lucy, and the old Lucy who passes away and finally joins Captain Gregg on the other side, which is not a spoiler. Anyone could see that resolution coming from the earliest pages.

Gene Tierney & Rex Harrison
The author handles several things well: the appearances and disappearances of the captain, the visit by an overbearing woman, and the subtle death of Lucy Muir.

Although time is vague and the story is a fantasy, it was odd that in a book covering about 40 years of the main character’s life, from the early to the mid-20th century, no mention is made of any outside events, like World War I and World War II, which would have had an impact on Lucy Muir. But, I suppose I am being too literal and not playing the author’s game.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is short, easy to read, and not my kind of book.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Silver Street by E. Richard Johnson

The 1968 crime novel, Silver Street, is a simple story but it has a gritty reality and the smell of the city streets.

Tony Lonto grew up a tough kid from the slums of an unnamed American city. He went into the Army, fought in Korea, returned to the city, joined the police force, and found himself assigned to a beat in the very neighborhood he worked to get away from.

A dozen years later, he is now a detective. But when anything happens in his old neighborhood, known as “the Strip,” Lonto is sent in because he knows who’s who and what’s what down there.

This book begins with the murder of a pimp, described by Johnson in gruesome detail. Lonto is sent to the Strip to investigate, and even though he is a guy from the neighborhood, no one will talk to him because he is a cop.

Making Lonto’s life more difficult is the newly appointed, lazy but politically connected, detective assigned to work with him.

The investigation is just getting underway when a second pimp is killed.

The killer is known from the beginning of the story. He is a young solider who acquired a taste for killing in Vietnam, and feels justified in murdering pimps.

Further complicating Lonto’s life is his girlfriend, Anna, a woman with a secret who seems to be stringing him along while he has dreams of marrying her and settling into an orderly suburban life.

Silver Street won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Photo of Johnson found at Listverse credited to Babelio
There is not much information out there about Emil Richard Johnson (1937-1997). He served in the Army in the 1950s, held a variety of jobs, got involved in crime, killed someone during a robbery and was sentenced to a long stretch in the Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater. He wrote Silver Street and several other novels while serving his time. A short biography of him can be read here.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(Also, check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dunkirk, the 1958 movie

Two years ago, critics fell all over themselves praising director Christopher Nolan's film about one of the 20th century’s great stories of heroism – the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

But current audiences might not know that there is an earlier movie of this story.

The 1958 film, “Dunkirk,” is not one of the great war films, but it is a darn good one, and far more clear in its story telling than the 2017 version.

Three well-know English actors of the 1950s starred in three parallel stories which come together in the rescue operation.

John Mills plays a British sergeant leading a squad separated from the retreating army. He and his men fight their way through the countryside and back to the coast of France only to wind up on the beach at the town of Dunkirk with thousands of other soldiers and not enough ships to carry them away.

Richard Attenborough (who played the leader of the escape plan in 1964’s "The Great Escape") here is the meek owner of a company making military belt buckles. He also owns a small motor boat. When the boat is requisitioned by the Navy in an attempt to get everything that floats over to pick up the soldiers, he reluctantly and under a bit of peer-pressure agrees to pilot his own craft.

Bernard Lee (who was 007’s boss in the early James Bond films), plays a journalist frustrated by the lack of information coming from the military but suspecting the British troops were in trouble in France. He too owns a small power boat and willingly volunteers to sail it with the Navy.

The film is at its best when showing the size of the operation, the number of men on the beach, and the struggles of the Navy and the civilians to reach and help them.

In May 1940, British, French, and Belgian troops were pushed back to the shore of northern France by the advancing German army. The British Navy with the help of privately owned boats launched a rescue operation. Pleasure crafts, fishing boats, ferries and yachts accompanied Navy vessels from England to Dunkirk, picked up as many soldiers as they could, returned them to England, and then went back to rescue more. The operation continued from May 26 to June 4.

The 1958 version of “Dunkirk” was directed by Leslie Norman and produced by Michael Balcon,who was the head of England’s Ealing studio. Ealing is best known for its light comedies often starring Alec Guinness, but it also turned out war films, including 1953’s “The Cruel Sea,” which is one of the best pictures about World War II.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Darkest Hour by William P. McGivern

William P. McGivern’s 1955 crime novel, The Darkest Hour, is a version of “On The Waterfront,” but with a lot more action and a lot less angst.

The book fits squarely into the noir category as an urban crime novel set mostly at night on the cold, dark streets along New York City’s waterfront, with a damaged and angry main character.

Steve Retnick used to be a good guy and a good cop who was promoted to detective at a young age. But gangsters framed him for the killing of a dock worker and Retnick spent five years in Sing Sing prison.

When the book opens, Retnick is out of the can and back in the city, using his street-smarts and detective skills to find the real killer and administer a little of his own justice on the men who set him up.

Retnick inflicts some physical punishment on thugs who deserve it, but he also puts innocent people in harm’s way. He knows what he wants and he also knows he is doing wrong. He has been warned off by his former police supervisor, but he presses on. This kind of destructive obsession is real noir territory.

A man who can give him the proof he needs to nail the hitman and his boss, is killed just as Retnick returns to the old neighborhood. The boss is a local gangster who is muscling his way into a dock-workers’ union.

McGivern’s story, despite an authenticity in the location, the people and the way things work on the waterfront, has a few weak spots, mostly in the subplot concerning Steve Retnick’s bitterness toward his wife, who did him dirt while he was in the joint.

Overall, The Darkest Hour (also called Waterfront Cop), is another good yarn from an author who was on a hot streak in the 1950s. Some of the other books McGivern published in that decade were: Shield for Murder (1951); Blondes Die Young (1952); The Crooked Frame (1952); Margin for Terror (1953); The Big Heat (1953); Rogue Cop (1954); Night Extra (1957); Odds Against Tomorrow (1957); and Savage Streets (1959).

William P. McGivern worked as a newspaper reporter and also wrote many short stories for the pulps. He served in the Army during World War II. After the war he turned to novel writing. In the 1960s and 1970s, he wrote for the movies and television, while continuing to turn out books. He died in 1982 at age 63.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(Also, check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Friday, September 20, 2019

Zero Avenue by Dietrich Kalteis

This post is what you might call, coming late to the party.

Most already know what a terrific writer Canadian Dietrich Kalteis is, but I’ve just got to heap on a little more praise.

My introduction to Mr. Kalteis was his 2017 novel, Zero Avenue.

Set in Vancouver’s punk rock scene of the late 1970s, the book is a kick-ass crime story.

A singer and guitarist, a punk-rock club manager, and a drug-dealing gangster all have great ambitions to get ahead.

Frankie, a young woman with an electric guitar, a decent voice, and a don’t-mess-with-me attitude, leads her own band. But the group struggles to get noticed and to get paying gigs. She makes ends meet by making deliveries for Marty, the local drug kingpin.

Marty’s business is expanding almost as fast as his own drug habit and he now allows his crazy right-hand man to handle things he used to take care of himself.

Johnny owns a grubby little club and is always in the red. His biggest headache is his landlord – Marty.

Part of Marty’s business is muscling farmers outside the city into allowing him to grow pot in the middle of their corn fields. He has a couple of dim guys with guns stationed at the farm to protect his crop.

The book’s title comes from the name of a street on the Canadian-U.S. border where the farm is located.

Frankie has a thing going with Marty until she catches him being serviced by a woman in the grungy, grotesque restroom of Johnny’s club. The woman takes issue with Frankie’s attitude only to have Frankie beat the crap out of her and leave her bloodied on the floor.

In need of money, Johnny hits on the insane idea of ripping off Marty to pay Marty.

Frankie and her band members wind up in the middle of the mess.

Kalteis remembers and recreates the era and has a ball naming the fictional bands and songs. But, readers do not have to be into punk to appreciate the rip-roaring story.

Zero Avenue is written in an edgy, staccato style that warns: Better keep up, ’cause this author ain’t waiting for you.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(And please check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Friday, August 30, 2019

Gumshoe Blues by Paul D. Brazill

Funny and noir are two words not frequently linked. But Paul D. Brazill, master of the comic crime novel and short story, pulls it off. His writing has you laughing while it leads you down a dark alley and punches you in the gut.

In his new book, Gumshoe Blues: The Peter Ord Yarns, Brazill tells four tales of his unlikely private detective. The stories are: “Gumshoe Blues,” “Mr. Kiss and Tell,” “Who Killed Skippy?” and “The Lady and the Gimp.”

The first, “Gumshoe Blues,” is long enough to qualify as a novella, or at least a novelette. At first it seems to be a rambling, episodic excursion through a “seen better days” English city.

Ord picks up odd jobs – very odd for a PI – then often gets sidetracked, drinks too much and has a tendency to screw things up. Anyone who has ever had a blistering hangover will get a charge out of Ord’s morning afters. The writing puts you in the head of Peter Ord. By the end, the loose threads are all neatly pulled together and tied into a satisfying knot.

The fun of a Brazill story is not only in the plot and the unique situations, but also the kaleidoscope of characters. Everyone of them is vivid and comes with a unique history. Brazill provides all this in a few seemingly simple strokes creating places and lives, while he cracks you up with his observations. He is a magician who diverts your attention with humor while he works his craft.

Gumshoe Blues: The Peter Ord Yarns was published today (August 30). Paul D. Brazill sent me a copy a few weeks ago. Other Brazill books are Last Year’s Man, Guns of Brixton, Too Many Crooks, A Case Of Noir, Kill Me Quick! His short stories have appeared in many anthologies.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

“Where'd You Go, Bernadette” is a Movie to See

Catch “Where'd You Go, Bernadette” before it disappears.

Films like this generally don’t last long in theaters. I was going to say, little films like this, but “Where'd You Go, Bernadette” is not so little. There are some amazing scenes filmed in Seattle and the Antarctic.

But the scenery is not what this movie is about.

It is about Cate Blanchett, one of our finest actresses, and the performance she turns in as Bernadette Fox.

Bernadette, a once rising star and award winning architect of modern structures, quit the designing of buildings and has lived in near seclusion in Seattle for two decades with her husband, a wildly successful computer game creator whose company was bought by Microsoft, and her teenage daughter.

Why did Bernadette quit? Why is she so anti-social? Why is she becoming a problem to her family and neighbors? That is the story, and to add any spoilers to this post would be to spoil the joy of watching Bernadette work through it all.


“Where'd You Go, Bernadette” was directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, someone whose films I will always go out of my way to see. The movie is based on a 2012 book of the same title by Maria Semple. Billy Crudup plays Bernadette’s husband, and Emma Nelson plays her daughter. Also in the cast are Laurence Fishburne as a former colleague, and Kristen Wiig as her neighbor.

The beautiful cinematography was by Shane F. Kelly (who also photographed one of my all-time favorite documentaries, “Tim’s Vermeer”).

Friday, August 23, 2019

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Beautiful Beggar, a Perry Mason mystery

On a folding table at a book fair sat an old, but never read, hard cover collection of three Perry Mason novels from late in the series.

It didn’t take a Perry Mason to figure out the book had never been read. The pages were too clean and some of them were stuck together at the edges the way they will in some brand new books.

The collection was marked $1 – a deal too good to pass up.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s simple, direct writing style, his twisty plots and his fictional lawyer’s quick thinking and sometimes questionable actions are always a pleasure to read.

The last novel in this Perry Mason collection was The Case of the Beautiful Beggar, from 1965.

In it, a 22-year-old woman returning to Los Angeles after a three-month trip abroad, finds the wealthy and elderly uncle she lived with all her life has been forced into a sanitarium by relatives. The uncle’s greedy half-brother is now the conservator of the uncle’s estate by order of a local court.

The woman turns to Perry Mason for help. She knows her uncle is not senile or violent, as the relatives claim. The relatives are out for his money.

Having a person committed against his will to a prison-like hospital is a plot device I seem to recall Gardner using before, and the Perry Mason television show of the 1950s and ’60s used it several times. In fact, the plot of this story is nearly identical to one of those episodes. Gardner’s original stories were often adapted for the series.

Although all the Perry Mason novels are breezy and light, this one seemed even lighter than usual, and a little thin. There were fewer characters – fewer suspects – involved than in earlier Mason books. The author also padded the page count by repeating himself unnecessarily, going over the same elements of the story several times, when the events were not that complicated or hard to remember.

This story could have been set in one of the previous decades – which is part of the charm of the Mason novels. But the character of a young woman in 1965 was out of step with the times. She did not have to be a hipster from Haight-Ashbury or Carnaby Street, but even the most strait-laced girl of that era would not be as square and old-fashioned as this character.

Still, the Gardner style was on display and the crafty maneuvering of Perry Mason was fun to read and exciting to anticipate, especially in the early chapters – like the lawyer’s moves to have a large check cashed for his client.

All the usual characters appear in the book: Della Street, Mason’s confidential secretary, Paul Drake, the head of a private investigation company, Detective Lieutenant Arthur Tragg of the Los Angeles Police Department, and L.A. District Attorney Hamilton Burger, who Gardner (and the TV show) were always careful to refer to by the character’s full name, in order to avoid the comical nick-name, Ham Burger.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(Also, please check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)



Friday, August 16, 2019

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

Don’t read anything about it. Don’t talk to anyone about it. Just go see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Let the movie surprise you.

Before catching it this week, I heard it was Quentin Tarantino’s ninth and latest film. I heard it starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. I heard it was about a fading TV star and a stuntman in 1960s Hollywood.

That was enough for me.

I am not a huge Tarantino fan. But the subject and the era of this new one made me want to see it.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” is Tarantino’s best movie and I expect it to be up for Oscars in the next round of Academy Award nominations.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Kitten with a Whip by Wade Miller

The 1959 crime novel, Kitten with a Whip, is a noir set in the sunshine of Southern California.

Average guy, David Patton, a San Diego engineer and family man is on his own while his wife and child visit family in San Francisco.

He wakes one morning to find a slinky teenage girl in a nightgown in his house.

She tells him of her escape from a harsh juvenile detention center and begs him to help her.

Does he toss her out and call the cops? No. Remember, this is noir.

He decides to help her. He buys her clothes. He drives her to the edge of town where she can catch a bus. He gives her money.

After making a few stops before going home, he walks into his house and there she is again.

Now Patton is giving himself acid reflux worrying about what the neighbors will think, and how to get rid of her in broad daylight.

She tries to seduce him. She threatens to tell the police he raped her. She threatens him with violence. And on and on.

At times, Patton’s bad decisions pile up so high that the book almost read like a dark comic novel.

Wade Miller was the pen name of the writing team of Bob Wade (1920-2012) and Bill Miller (1920-1961) who together wrote more than 30 novels, including Badge of Evil, which was the basis for Orson Welles’ film, “Touch of Evil.” There is more about them at Thrilling Detective.

The recent Stark House publication of Kitten with a Whip comes with a second Wade Miller novel, Kiss Her Goodbye from 1956.

And let’s hear it for Stark House, for their work in making these Wade Miller novels and many other hard-to-find books available.

(Also, please check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

JFK, 007, and Favorite Books

Last week, I posted a piece about Ian Fleming’s 1957 James Bond novel, From Russia With Love. Reading it brought something to mind – something I heard as a kid:

President John F. Kennedy was a Fleming fan.

It is the kind of thing you hear and remember, but don’t know if it was really true.

It was true.

Kennedy not only liked From Russia With Love, he included it on a short list of favorite books.

On Sunday, April 14, 1963, newspapers around the country ran a story from the Associated Press with headlines like, “Spy Thriller On Kennedy Reading List.”

A Long Island woman, the head of her local public library’s board, wrote to the president, “asking him to name two books he considered to have played a part in shaping his life.”

She received a reply from Mr. Kennedy through a presidential aid that included a list of books JFK called, “his particular favorites.” This was the list:

The Emergence of Lincoln by Allen Nevins;

The Price of Union by Herbert Agar;

John C. Calhoun, American Portrait by Margaret L. Coit;

Byron In Italy by Peter Quennell;

Talleyrand by Duff Cooper;

Marlborough by Sir Winston Churchill;

Lord Melbourne by Lord David Cecil;

Montrose by John Buchan;

The Red and the Black by Stendhal; and

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming.

Some publications featured 11 books, and others made it an even dozen by including:

John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy by Samuel Flagg Bemis; and

Pilgrim's Way by John Buchan

Editors must have found it intriguing that the president placed Ian Fleming’s novel among the histories and biographies and they usually listed the James Bond book last, almost as a punch line.

JFK was a voracious reader. “He was always reading,” Jackie Kennedy once said.

Asked in a July 1963 interview, how it felt to have written one of President Kennedy’s favorite books, Ian Fleming said, “It’s quite flattering.”

Fleming said he had met the president and Mrs. Kennedy and had sent JFK autographed copies of his James Bond novels. He said, “It’s the least I can do.”

(Also, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, July 12, 2019

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

A lot of years have gone by since I last read anything by Ian Fleming. The last was Thrilling Cities, a non-fiction collection of travel essays. I found a paperback copy in a used-book store in the 1990s. But I could not tell you the last time or title of one of Fleming’s James Bond stories.

Something on-line triggered an urge to dig out my paperback copy of From Russia With Love.

Fleming’s 1957 book featuring British agent “Double-O-Seven” was far better than I remembered the series. Of course, when I first read his novels I was interested only in the adventure and the hot parts.

From Russia With Love is still a damn good adventure, but by today’s standards, the hot parts are pretty tame.

Interestingly, in his fifth Bond story, Fleming does not bring his main character on stage until about one-third of the way into the book.

The opening chapters describe Red Grant, or Granitisky, as the Russians call him, the immensely strong, murderous psychopath who defected to the U.S.S.R. in the 1940s and whom the Soviets use as an assassin.

The scene then switches to the Kremlin where the heads of intelligence, the secret police and other agencies hatch a scheme to upset the British Secret Service and to throw a scare into their own people to keep them in line. Fleming obviously knew his stuff when laying out the functions of the agencies inside the walls of the Kremlin. Another reason for the plotted attack on the British was the Soviets' embarrassment over recent defections to the West. Fleming has the Russians fuming over the defections of Tokaev, a real-life rocket scientist, and Khokhlov, an actual KGB officer.

The Soviets' plan is to lure a top British agent into a trap and kill him. This agent must be a top man, one with a double-O rating. The one they choose is 007, James Bond. The two lures they use are a portable decoding device and a beautiful young Russian woman working as a government clerk.

When Fleming brings Bond into the story, the agent is between assignments and bored. His days are a dull routine of going to the office, doing paperwork and attending meetings. He is itching for action.

Bond gets his wish when his boss, M, tells him about a Russian woman assigned to a Soviet office in Istanbul who wishes to defect to the West and will bring with her one of the decoding machines. Bond and M know it is a trap, but they want the device, so Bond goes to Turkey.

In Istanbul, he meets Darko Kerim, head of the British secret service branch in Istanbul, and a lovable, middle-age, bon-vivant and ladies' man.

A local organization working with the Russians has targeted Karim for assassination and tried to blow up his office. Luckily, Karim was not sitting at his desk at the time, but was over on the couch engaged in a nooner and the blast only heightened the climax.

Some of the absurdities Fleming put into the book, like the submarine periscope installed to peek into the Soviet headquarters in Istanbul, are fun without knocking the story off track. Fleming tempered the joke of the periscope with Bond’s and Karim’s journey too it through a rat-infested tunnel.

Quite a bit of the book found Bond in grubby environs and eating unappetizing foods. When Bond arrives in Istanbul, he checks into a once grand hotel with a great view but which fell into decline and now is a dump. After his first night there, Bond wakes with bed-bug bites. The book is not nearly as glossy as the movie made from it.

A bit of Bond trivia: From my reading, Bond is older than might be assumed. Fleming says Bond came to work for the secret service in 1938. Others speculate Bond was born around 1920. That would make him 18 when he joined. Fleming also notes that he went to college in Switzerland. Bond may have been recruited into the service as a student, but I saw him as older. From Russia With Love takes place in 1955. I pictured Bond in his late 30s or even 40, which made his encounter with Red Grant all the more dangerous.

Revisiting the Bond books today, made the Cold War seem like ancient history. It has been 30 years since the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union started coming apart. Fleming wrote his series of spy novels about 30 years prior to that. So, it is pretty old stuff. But the writing is still crisp and the From Russia With Love is still a page-turner.

(And, if you enjoy fast-paced stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, July 4, 2019

3 Questions for the 4th

Here is a short quiz for this Fourth of July :

How many words are in the Declaration of Independence?

How many words are in the U.S. Constitution?

How long would it take to read both documents?

Exact numbers are not necessary. Close estimates will count.

Arriving at the exact number of words can be a little tricky. Some count only the body of the texts. Others include the signatures on the documents. With the Constitution, some count all the original passages, including those later amended. Others do not.

So, instead of exact numbers, I will give you some easy to remember estimates:

There are about 1,450 words in the Declaration of Independence, including the signatures.

There are about 8,500 words in the Constitution, including the amendments.

Together, they would take an hour or so to read.

To see a 2009 video of celebrities reading the Declaration, click here.

Happy Fourth everyone!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

At age 80, Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios is still a spry and effective thriller, if a puzzling one. More on that later.

The novel is the story of Charles Latimer, an English writer of detective stories, who while visiting Istanbul, meets Colonel Haki of the secret police. Haki tells Latimer about a murdered criminal called Dimitrios found floating in the sea. This man, who went by many names, was himself a murderer with a sketchy, shadowy past that intrigues Latimer.

Curious about the missing parts of Dimitrios’ life, and wanting a taste of actual detective work, Latimer sets off to trace the movements of the dead criminal.

The trail begins in Smyrna (the old name of the Turkish city of Izmir), then on to Athens, Sofia, Geneva, and Paris, revealing Dimitrios’ involvement in international espionage, attempted assassinations, the slave trade and drug trafficking. It also puts Latimer in contact with, and in the crosshairs of, some unsavory characters.

About four-fifths of the way through the book, after digging up a lot dirt on Dimitrios, Latimer worries he may have put his own life in danger. On that score, readers will be way ahead of Latimer.

Earlier, I said The Mask of Dimitrios is a puzzling thriller. While it is a fascinating page turner, most of those pages have other people telling Latimer stories about the many misdeeds of Dimitrios. Little action actually happens in the present, but the stories are fascinating. By the final pages, there is plenty of action, and the ending is gripping.

The Mask of Dimitrios (which was published as A Coffin for Dimitrios in the U.S.) is a fine book and Ambler (1909-1998), through Latimer’s investigation and internal musings, provides a good deal of history and insight into Europe during the years between the world wars.

(If you enjoy crime stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Friday, June 7, 2019

Zero Day by David Baldacci

May was a month of driving. It wasn’t 24-7, but it sure felt like it. The monotony of some of the trips was alleviated by audio books. Usually, I listen to non-fiction on long hauls, but for two long days behind the wheel, David Baldacci kept me amused with the first book in his John Puller series, Zero Day.

The book starts out with a sucker punch as a bored letter carrier delivering mail to homes in a quiet village in West Virginia’s coal country, gets the shock of his life when he discovers a family – father, mother, and two teenagers – brutally murdered.

The father was an Army colonel attached to the Pentagon and privy to top secret information.

Warrant officer, John Puller, an Army criminal investigator is ordered to West Virginia to find out what this officer and his family were doing there and who killed them.

Puller, a large, highly trained, highly decorated combat veteran and an astute detective, puzzles the assignment and why he is being sent out alone. Surely the case deserves a full team of investigators. But, a good soldier, Puller heads out with his kit and his Sig Sauer M-11 in a holster at the small of his back.

Baldacci piles up the questions, the suspects, and the danger as Puller with the help of a female officer from the small local police department delve into the mystery.

David Baldacci is a master at building tension and then releasing all that pent up energy in the final chapters. His action sequences can go over the top, and his ending after all that suspense was a bit of a let down, but the journey to the final showdown was entertaining.

Too often, in books like this, the personal story of the hero can be a drag, but David Baldacci gives Puller some interesting problems. John Puller is the son of an Army general in the mold of George Patton. The old man, while still demanding and exasperating, is now in a Veteran’s Administration hospital with dementia. Most of the time he believes he is still a commanding officer in the field firing off orders at Puller who he thinks is one of his subordinates. Puller also has a brilliant older brother in a federal penitentiary, falsely convicted of treason.

While Baldacci’s Puller has been unfavorably compared to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, I found Zero Day to be exciting and fun. Contributing to the fun were the readers of the audio book, actors Ron McLarty and Orla Cassidy who take on the male and female dialog respectively, with McLarty also reading the descriptions. They are two of the best talents in audio books, and that counts for a lot.

(If you enjoy crime stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Monday, May 27, 2019

James Cagney in "The Gallant Hours"

Cagney as Halsey
Here's a film for Memorial Day: "The Gallant Hours," starring James Cagney.

In it, Cagney plays World War II Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, who was put in charge of operations in the South Pacific when U.S. troops were fighting to hold off the Japanese sweep through the region.

For a war story, this 1960 movie has almost no action in it. All the action, drama and tension takes place in the admiral’s office on board his flagship. And, like the films “Command Decision," and “Twelve O’clock High,” the drama is the burden of command – the responsibility of one person to send others into confrontations where he knows they will be out numbered.

Cagney gives a great, highly restrained performance as Halsey. He even looks like Halsey. Cagney co-produced the picture with actor Robert Montgomery, who directed.

Admiral Halsey
“The Gallant Hours” is a strange movie and it takes a while to get used to its style. The picture moves at a deliberate pace, and it has a good deal of narration in it, delivered by Montgomery. At times, it feels like a documentary as he fills in the background of various characters and incidents. It also has just about the strangest musical track of any film, provided by a men’s chorus singing a cappella.

But it is one of the best depictions of command, of how to take on an impossible assignment, assess it, weigh the risks, and take action.

Cagney is in nearly every scene and he is supported by an excellent cast that includes Dennis Weaver.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

R.I.P. Doris Day

Film, TV, and recording star Doris Day died Monday at age 97.

She was a big-band singer in the 1940s, starred in movies beginning in 1948, and was a top box office draw in the 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1960, she was nominated for an Academy Award for the comedy, “Pillow Talk” (1959). She also should have been nominated for the 1955 drama “Love Me Or Leave Me,” and for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

Doris Day starred in her own television series for five seasons (1968-1973), then retired from show business and devoted her time to her animal welfare foundation.

Of the many, many songs she recorded, this version of “Again” is my favorite:

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Thirty-Nine Steps vs. The 39 Steps

John Buchan’s 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, is one of the grand old spy adventures of yesteryear and is still a pretty great read.

Most people will know the plot thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie version, “The 39 Steps.”

A spy with information vital to the British government is killed in Richard Hannay’s apartment. The police think Hannay did it and hunt him down. The real culprits - enemy spies – think Hannay knows their secret plans, and set out to kill him.

Richard Hannay, with only a partial idea of their plans and a couple of clues, takes off for the Scottish Highlands to track down a man and get to the bottom of this mystery. He cleverly eludes both the cops and the killers while putting the story together. When he figures out enough of it, he makes his way back to London to inform the British military chiefs.

The novel, written and published during World War I, is set in the pre-war years but features German agents as the bad guys. The spies’ secret mission is to assassinate a foreign diplomat visiting England and stir up a lot of trouble for the British and to steal Naval secrets. John Buchan devotes a lot of ink to explaining the convoluted plans.

Hitchcock wisely collapsed the spy plot into a brief description, believing the audience did not need to know too much about it, other than that it is the thing Hannay needs to find out and the spies need to conceal.



While condensing the spy plot, Alfred Hitchcock expanded the cat and mouse game between Hannay (played by Robert Donat) and the spies by adding an attractive young woman to the plot, Pamela (played by Madeleine Carroll), who does not appear in the book. John Buchan’s Hannay travels alone. Alfred Hitchcock’s Hannay has a lovely, if reluctant companion who, for a while, is literally handcuffed to him. Hitch has a lot of fun with this situation.

Alfred Hitchcock also gave the head spy a better physical trait for Hannay to discover and unmask the villain. But while eliminating some of the far-fetched aspects of the book, Hitchcock also added a bizarre element in the person of “Mister Memory,” a music hall entertainer with a photographic memory who the spies use to convey secret military plans. Mister Memory is not in the book.

The book keeps the action going with Hannay bursting in on a meeting of British military chiefs to tell them of the spies’ plans. That Hannay could arrive where the brass is meeting, be allowed in, and have those men listen to him, seems absurd now, a century later. Maybe it was absurd then, too. Perhaps the book’s Richard Hannay could do it because he is a wealthy, educated man who by his mid-30s had made a fortune in Rhodesia and settled in London to live a life of leisure – and boredom – until this all happened.

Informing the officials of what he has learned is not the end of the book. Hannay has to catch the spies before they slip out of the country.

The Thirty-Nine Steps creaks a bit, but it remains an entertaining, fast-paced read.

(And, if you enjoy fast-paced stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Bogart, Lupino, and a dog in High Sierra

Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino.
The 1941 Warner Bros. movie, “High Sierra,” is a film I have seen many times and never get tired of watching.

The movie of "High Sierra" was based on W.R. Burnett’s 1940 novel of the same name. (A post about the book is here.)

It is the story of paroled gangster Roy Earle who travels west to lead some young wannabe bad guys in the robbery of an upscale California resort.

The movie, which closely follows the plot of the book, was written by Burnett and John Huston. Raoul Walsh, an expert with action pictures, directed.

Humphrey Bogart got the role of Roy Earle and it was perfect casting. The rest of the players are likable, but not too convincing in their parts, with two exceptions.

Ida Lupino, is nothing like the tough, dime-a-dance girl described in the book. But she is such a fine actress it doesn’t matter. Her scenes with Bogart are the best in the picture.
Bogart’s dog Zero does tricks 
on the set of “High Sierra.”

The other exception is the well trained actor who played Pard, a little dog who takes a liking to Roy Earle and follows him around.

The last time I watched the movie, I noticed how fond Bogart seemed to be of the dog. Then I learned it was Bogart’s own pet, a dog named Zero. Bogey could hardly stop smiling every time he had a scene with Zero.


The dog was quite a performer, too, and could do any number of tricks on command, including escaping from a locked room through a partially open window.

“High Sierra” delivers on many levels and is well worth watching, and watching again.