21 Dec 2017
My reading and watching agenda for December 2017 includes books by Ellen Crosby, Ernest Hemingway, and Rex Stout, and a children’s movie “Despicable Me 3”
The Vineyard Victims / The Champagne Conspiracy by Ellen Crosby
The Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop had asked me to interview Ellen Crosby at an event promoting the new book in her Virginia wine country series, “The Vineyard Victims.” Being the publicity whore that I am, I of course said yes, and as part of my preparation read her latest two books.
To my joy, I discovers another mystery series to love. Crosby’s series touches all the things I love to read about: wine and winemaking, historical events that affect the present-day, Virginia, and characters worth spending time with. Her Lucie Montgomery is an appealing heroine with a stubborn sense of right and wrong, capable (and yet fearful, sometimes justified) trying to chart her own course, and supported by her friends and winery employees. I enjoyed the hell out of these books, and look forward to chatting with her about them at the MMB on March 17.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway / Reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises by H.R. Stoneback
Hemingway is one of those authors who has stuck with me since college, and now that I have far more life experience since those days I’m rereading his work with a greater appreciation since discovering Stoneback’s book.
If you read Hem, you also probably were taught about his iceberg method of narration, where a lot of the details in the story doesn’t fully appear on the page. Stoneback fills in those gaps, writing a book that’s longer than “Sun” that describes what’s going on under the waterline of the iceberg.
Stoneback does for Hemingway what I did for Sayers and Christie in my annotated books. He goes into detail about the historical references, the streets and cafes of Paris, Catholic theology and practice, bullfighting, and the landscapes of France and Spain. Many of these facts would have been familiar with readers of the time. Some of them were obscure, but can be gleaned from the way Hem referred to them.
What’s especially fascinating is watching Stoneback take apart much of the critical apparatus about “Sun” and Hemingway that were based on the critics misreading the text and being blinded by their biases (against bullfighting and expressions of religious belief, in particular). It’s so easy to read the book, then later read a bio by Carlos Baker or Michael Reynolds, and absorb their appraisals. It’s another to read a chapter of “Sun,” followed by a discussion of that same chapter out of Stoneback, and realize just how misguided were Hemingway’s critics. I followed these books with a reread of the sections of the bios dealing with “Sun,” as well as Baker’s “Hemingway: The Writer as Artist” to see what they got right and wrong.
In the end, I came away with a greater appreciation of Hemingway as a reporter, a writers, and a craftsman. He was still an awful person in many ways, but he was an equally brilliant writer.
Too Many Clients / Before Midnight by Rex Stout
Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The majority of mystery readers will simply nod their heads and move on, so this graf is for the rest of you. I supposed nowadays you’d classify these as the male version of cozies. Or you could follow the path Stout took and take traits of Mycroft Holmes (home-bound, brilliant, eccentric) with a Chandleresque version of Watson (a detective capable with his fists with an infallible memory), and set it in New York City for an American flavor. Add narration that’s taut, witty, and intelligent and plots reminiscent of Agatha Christie, and you have a series that bears rereading.
Best of all, it’s easy to see if you’re hookable. Here’s the opening to “Too Many Clients.” If you don’t want to read more, then the series isn’t for you (note, the prices quoted are from 1960):
When he had got deposited in the red leather chair I went to my desk, whirled my chair to face him, sat, and regarded him politely but without enthusiasm. It was only partly that his $39.95 suit didn’t fit and needed pressing and his $3.00 shirt was on its second or third day; it was more him than his clothes. There was nothing wrong with his long bony face and broad forehead, but he simply didn’t have the air of a man who might make a sizable contribution to Nero Wolfe’s bank balance.
Which at that moment, that Monday afternoon in early May, was down to $14,194.62, after deducting the checks I had just drawn and put on Wolfe’s desk for him to sign. That may look fairly respectable, but. What with the weekly wages of Theodore Horstmann, the orchid valet, Fritz Brenner, chef and house steward, and me, the handy man; and with grocery bills, including such items as the fresh caviar which Wolfe sometimes stirred into his coddled eggs at breakfast; and with the various needs of the orchids in the plant rooms up on the roof of the old brownstone, not to mention new additions to the collection; and with this and that and these and those, the minimum monthly outgo of that establishment averaged more than five grand. Also, the June 15 income-tax installment would be due in five weeks. So, with no prospect of a fat fee in sight, it was beginning to look as if a trip to the safe-deposit box might be called for before the Fourth of July.
Of course, the visitor’s presence, and his unusual reason for being there, will keep Archie from dipping into savings. Stout’s opener gives you a compact introduction to the series for new readers, keeps the attention of the old fans, and within four pages the story’s off and running.
I also want to point out that a major attraction of the series is watching Wolfe and Goodwin parse the line between independence and subservience, attending the needs of their clients, and keeping within the law to achieve their goals. Sometimes, that requires, if the use of the lie direct, but careful phrasing of the truth. It’s this duel of wits with various authorities, including the police, FBI, and gangsters, that makes these books rereadable.
I won’t go into the rest of the movie. But if you remember the ‘80s fondly, check this out.