What I’ve Been Reading Lately: December/2019

Monday, December 16th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Oden_MenBronzeEDITED“What have I been reading lately, you ask?” Oh. You didn’t say that. Well, I’m going to tell you anyways.  When I ‘get into’ something, I jump in full-bore for a short time: up way past my elbows. That’s how most of my series’ here at Black Gate start. Fortunately, I can be reading a couple different books simultaneously, and I also listen to audiobooks to help cover more ground (though I ALWAYS prefer reading to listening).

SCOTT ODEN

And I recently went on a short Sword and Sandals kick. Scott Oden and I have become friends through our mutual love of Robert E. Howard: he did the “Devil in Iron” entry for Hither Came Conan. I grabbed the digital version of Men of Bronze (a STEAL at $3.99!). It’s historical fiction (non-fantasy) set in 529 BC in ancient Egypt. It’s near the end of the time of the Pharaohs and Egypt is trying to hold off the encroaching Persian Empire. As is often the case with faltering empires, it is relying heavily on mercenaries to keep order.

Hasdrabal Barca is the protagonist; the deadliest mercenary of them all, leading the fight to stop the betrayal of Greek mercenaries, and the ambitious Persians. I had trouble keeping the various names straight, but I very much liked this book. It’s got a grand sweep, and I love Scott’s depiction of Egypt. There’s a rough scene early on, but fortunately, that not the norm for the rest of the book. Much recommended. I also bought his Greek historical novel, Memnon, at the same time (same price). It’s on my massive To Read list.

HOWARD ANDREW JONES

Of course, I couldn’t just read one book of a type, and move on. That’s not me! Howard Andrew Jones was Black Gate’s first Managing Editor (a post recently assumed by Seth Lindberg) and is currently receiving rave reviews for his epic fantasy, The Ring-Sworn Trilogy. I had not yet read his two fantasy Sword and Sorcery novels, featuring the wise and learned scholar Dabir and the brave man of action, Asim (I was not totally unfamiliar with them – more on that below).

So, I got the audiobook for Desert of Souls, the first novel. The adventures take place in a fantasy-real version of Arabia, with sorcery and monsters. And there’s a Robert E. Howard Easter Egg near the end. I like the main characters, and their world, so I have started on the audio book of Bones of the Old Ones.

I had already read The Waters of Eternity; a collection of six short stories featuring the two men. I re-read it, and I actually prefer it to the novels. They are really mysteries, set in that fantasy Arabia. I like the mix of fantasy and detective work, and also the shorter length. You should check them out.

NORBERT DAVIS

For months, I have been listening repeatedly, to an audiobook of the five Max Latin short stories. I simply never get tired of them. The woefully under-appreciated Davis, who I wrote about last week, as well as last year, is on my Harboiled Mt. Rushmore. And the stories about the not-as-crooked-as-he-pretends Latin are the best of the bunch. I listen and read them throughout the year.

I also picked up volumes one and two of The Complete Cases of Bail Bond Dodd, the first series character that Davis created for Dime Detective Magazine. The Dodd and Latin collections are from Steeger Books. You should be reading some Davis.

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Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: 3 Good Reasons – Murder is Corny

Monday, October 21st, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Nero WolfeAlas – the home front is a bit…chaotic, with my wife halfway around the world on a mission and trip and the eleven-year old still needing school transportation – among other things. I didn’t get to finish editing this week’s A (Black) Gat in the Hand post – so, here’s the second entry in a feature which I hope will be part of a Nero Wolfe column next year. You can read my first try, covering “Not Quite Dead Enough.”

With a goal of eventually tackling every tale of the Corpus, I’ll give three reasons why the particular story at hand is the best Nero Wolfe of them all. Since I’m writing over seventy ‘Best Story’ essays, the point isn’t actually to pick one – just to point out some of what is good in every adventure featuring Wolfe and Archie (BTW – I got the idea from Hither Came Conan from this Wolfe series!). And I’ll toss in one reason it’s not the best story. Now – These essays will contain SPOILERS. You have been warned!

The Story

Today’s story is “Murder is Corny,” from Trio for Blunt Instruments. Nero Wolfe is upset because the weekly delivery of fresh corn is late. It finally arrives in the hands of Inspector Cramer, who got it from the scene of the murder of the delivery man. Archie had had a few dates with Susan McLeod, the farmer’s daughter, and she has unintentionally framed him for murder. Cramer arrests Archie, and to preserve his comfort level, Wolfe takes on the case, with Archie as his client.

 

3 GOOD REASONS

ONE – The Corn

This story contains one of my favorite openings. Every Tuesday, from July 20 to October 5, sixteen ears of just-picked corn are delivered to the brownstone from the farm of Duncan McLeod. Wolfe, of course, is very particular about the corn, including the requirements that it must be picked not more than three hours before he receives it, and that it must arrive between 5:30 and 6:30. Fritz prepares all of it for that evening’s dinner. But on this September Tuesday, the corn never arrives and Fritz has to make do with stuffed eggplant. Oh, the horror!

Wolfe is out of sorts and doesn’t engage Archie in their usual post-dinner conversation, over coffee in the office. He is standing at the giant globe, whirling it and scowling at it. This is unwarranted physical exertion on Wolfe’s part!

Inspector Cramer rings the doorbell and is admitted, carrying a carton with Wolfe’s name on it. He marches down the hall, deposits it on Wolfe’s desk and cuts the cord around the box. As Wolfe comes over to his desk, Cramer opens the flaps, holds up an ear of corn and says, “If you were going to have this for dinner, I guess it’s too late.”

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Holmes on the Range

Monday, September 2nd, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hockensmith_HoRCoverEDITEDThat’s right: The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes is back! Well, for one week, anyways. A (Black) Gat in the Hand will resume next Monday. There were quite a few topics I never got around to covering during TPLoSH’ 156-ish week run. (Wow!) And one was Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range series. I recently got around to finishing the short story collection that I bought for my Nook back in 2011 (I’ve got a bit of a reading backlog, ok?!), and I decided I needed to finally write a post about it, before it got buried in the To Write list again. So, here we go!

There are a lot of ways to go about writing a Sherlock Holmes story. Some folks attempt to very carefully emulate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own style, and turn out a tale that feels as if it might have been done by the creator of the great detective himself. Of course, success varies greatly. Hugh Ashton and Denis O. Smith are the best I’ve found in this regard. You can find stories ranging from pretty good to not suitable for (digital) toilet paper. I’ve had three of my own stories published with ‘meh’ results.

Some folks write whatever the heck they want, often with the name of Holmes being the only similarity to the famed detective. It is possible to find good Holmes stories that sound nothing like Dr. Watson’s narrative style, of course. And Holmes has been placed in different eras, and even worlds.

There have been Holmes parodies around for over a hundred years. I’ve written a couple myself, and they were fun!

There are Holmes-like successors out there, of whom August Derleth’s Solar Pons is the best. Yes, I’m aware that’s a subjective judgement, but it’s mine, and I’m the one writing this essay, so it stands. I’ve written about Pons more than once (here’s a good overview), and even contributed introductions and pastiches to anthologies.

But today I’m going to talk about one of Sherlock Holmes’ contemporaries; albeit, quite different and far away. Steve Hockensmith had been writing short stories for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Christmas issue, and wanted to sell more to the venerably magazine. EQMM does an annual Sherlock Holmes issue, so he figured that was the way to go. But he wanted to write more than just another Holmes story.

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Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Play Ball – The Mets in ‘Please Pass the Guilt’

Thursday, March 28th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Koosman_Jerry

Archie Goodwin was a fan of America’s national pastime, and the Wolfe Corpus is full of baseball references. One story is even shades of the 1919 Black Sox scandal! In 2020, you’re going to see a lot of Nero Wolfe Wolfe here at Black Gate (assuming I don’t get canned before then). Since today is Opening Day, here’s a little Archie and baseball. Play ball!

Since the Nero Wolfe tales were all essentially set in the year that Rex Stout wrote them, we can answer the question I’m about to posit simply by looking at the publication date. Except, as I’ll show, it couldn’t have been 1973. So that approach is out.

Baseball references can be found throughout the Corpus. Archie was a Giants fan – at least he was until Horace Stoneham abandoned Coogan’s Bluff for sunny San Francisco — while Saul preferred his games at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. There’s no indication of who Saul rooted for after Dem Bums relocated to Los Angeles, though it’s reasonable to assume that he, like Archie, followed the Mets, who played at the Polo Grounds until Shea Stadium was ready.

“This Won’t Kill You” took place at game seven of the World Series, with the Giants playing the Red Sox. All players were fictitious, however. In “Please Pass the Guilt” we get the real deal. Archie goes to visit a prospective client as the Mets are hosting the Pirates. Fortunately, she has the game on television, with Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner calling the action.

Over the course of a couple innings, Archie mentions the actions of several Met players. From his comments, we’re going to reconstruct the two missing pieces of the lineup that day. Which of course first requires us to identify the year. Which poses a few questions but is no problem for a seasoned baseball investigator.

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Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone – 3 Good Reasons: Not Quite Dead Enough

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

NotDeadEnoughPBjpgI have written a LOT about Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons — some of it here at Black Gate. I even write newsletters about each one. And I had a pretty neat hardboiled/pulp column here. But my favorite mystery series, bar none, is Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. I’ve read and re-read each story multiple times and never tire of them. I even adapted one of the old Sidney Greenstreet radio shows into a pastiche (more of those are coming).

The genesis of Hither Came Conan (which I’m sure you’re following here at Black Gate) was actually an essay I wrote for my first (and so far only) Nero Wolfe Newsletter: 3 Good Things. Since I have far more writing projects (including a similar Robert E. Howard Newsletter) planned than, you know, actually written, issue two of The Brownstone of Nero Wolfe isn’t in the immediate future. So, as time allows, I’m going to write up some new 3 Good Reasons entries and post them here under the Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone moniker. I’d read and write REH and Wolfe just about all day, if I could. So, here we go…

Welcome to the first installment of 3 Reasons. With a goal of eventually tackling every tale of the Corpus, I’ll give three reasons why the particular story at hand is the best Nero Wolfe of them all. Since I’m writing over seventy ‘Best Story’ essays, the point isn’t actually to pick one – just to point out some of what is good in every adventure featuring Wolfe and Archie. And I’ll toss in one reason it’s not the best story. Now — These essays will contain SPOILERS. You have been warned!

The Story

It’s World War II and Archie is ‘Major Goodwin’, working for military intelligence. The Army wants Nero Wolfe to help with a particularly tricky issue, and the corpulent detective won’t talk to anyone. Archie is assigned back to the Brownstone to talk some sense into Wolfe. He finds the world’s most ordered household routine turned upside down and is dragged into a case brought to his attention by Lily Rowan.

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