Monday, July 21, 2014

Hector Diaz Investigates a Death in Mexico

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Amanda Smallwood is a young, attractive and sensuous artists' model who leaves her home in Texas and eventually winds up in San Miguel de Allende, a backwater Mexican town that seems to attract a lot of foreign artists and drifters. She settles into the community, posing for a number of artists, sleeping around here and there, and developing a number of friends, acquaintances and lovers.

When Amanda's mutilated body is discovered just off the town square late one night, the job of tracking down her killer falls to the local police inspector, Hector Diaz. Diaz immediately understands that he will be under the gun to solve the murder ASAP. If the victim were a fellow Mexican, there would be much less pressure, but the brutal killing of an attractive American woman will be very bad for the tourist business which is central to the town's economy. To reinforce the point, the mayor is on the phone demanding a quick solution to the crime barely minutes after Diaz learns of it.

Such a solution will be difficult. Diaz must penetrate the American expat community to learn who Amanda Smallwood was, what she might have been up to, and who might have wanted to kill her. Was it simply a jealous lover? Was it a would-be lover that she had rejected? Could it have been a drifter or a serial killer who was simply passing through, or could it have been something much more sinister?

Diaz is determined to solve the crime, but his small police force is not very well trained or disciplined and most of the officers will not be of much help. For that matter, Diaz himself occasionally gets distracted by the promise of a drink or an attractive woman.

This is a very gritty, hard-boiled story that pulls very few punches. The reader is forced to get down and dirty with Diaz and a lot of other rather sleazy characters, and the end result is a lot of fun for readers like me who enjoy this sort of thing.

I confess to having two relatively minor complaints about the book: Hector Diaz is an intriguing protagonist and I liked him a lot. But he's also one of those characters who drinks his way through the book to a point where the reader can no longer suspend disbelief. The truth is that anyone who drinks as much as this character would be down for the count on any given day, long before he was able to do anything productive, let alone solve a complicated crime.

My other complaint has to do with the author's abuse of similes. Raymond Chandler was the master of this particular art form and while a lot of writers have attempted to imitate him, very few have managed to pull it off as well as he did. Woods is trying way too hard here and after a while some of his efforts just seem silly. At one point our intrepid hero comes under a hail of gunfire, and "too young to die, he hugged the earth like a lusty whore."

I have no idea how any whore, lusty or otherwise, might hug the earth, but by this point my patience with this sort of thing was really wearing thin. As I say, though, these are minor issues. On the whole, I really enjoyed the book and I expect that most other hard-boiled readers will as well.

Where Is Jeeves, Anyway?

How Right You Are, Jeeves (Jeeves, #12)How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jeeves was right, but that title is wrong!

The statement in title form, How Right You Are, Jeeves does two things. It tells you that Jeeves is going to offer up correct advice, as per usual. It also leads you to believe that Jeeves will play a large role in said title, and that is not the case. They should've stuck with the alternate title Jeeves in the Offing.

Jeeves is Bertie Wooster's manservant. Jeeves has extracted Bertie from many a mishap. When Bertie is without Jeeves, he often finds himself neck-deep in the soup. When a Jeeves & Wooster book is without Jeeves, the book often drowns.

How Right You Are, Jeeves is a perfectly adequate addition to the J & W series, but it's not one of P.G. Wodehouse's best. It lacks the wit and fun that fill the pages in spades when both Bertie and Jeeves are doling out the words. In this story, Bertie is left to fend for himself for the most part while his manservant is off on holiday. Jeeves briefly pops his head in to comment on the proceeds, but that's about it.

Drawn again to Brinkley Court to partake in his aunt's French chef par excellence Anatole's cooking, Bertie soon finds himself embroiled in one ridiculous scheme after another, where the bog standard love triangle looks more like an octagon. The plot is a tad muddier than usual, as I don't feel Bertie has any great impetus pushing him on as is the case in other books.

Another reason for this one feeling flat could be that it was written later in Wodehouse's life, being published in 1960 when he was 79. He would go on writing and publishing for another 15 years, but this is his twilight era stage and perhaps the old tried and true plots are getting a bit tired at this point.

Even so, any Wodehouse fan can find plenty to enjoy in How Right You Are, Jeeves, such as recurring characters Aunt Dahlia, Sir Roderick Glossop, Bobbie Wickham, and the 18th century cow creamer.


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Enjoyable Repetition In The Old Bailey

Rumpole MisbehavesRumpole Misbehaves by John Mortimer
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The song remains the same, but there's something so likable about Rumpole, that old curmudgeon of a London barrister, that it doesn't matter if each book feels a little like a repeat.

On the surface, this story is just another Rumpole petty crime court case with the Timsons in-tow, however, sex slave trafficking turns out to be the seedy underbelly.

On the home front, Rumpole's wife Hilda is intrigued by the advances of a judge into studying for the bar, as well as participating in her usual pastime of pushing Rumpole towards a silk robe, the garment of a judge. This time around even Rumpole himself seems interested in seeing that become a reality, but longtime readers know the likelihood of it happening is slim indeed.

Why? Well, look at it this way. Rumpole is very much like The Highlander in that he never ages. He is perpetually on the verge of retirement for decade upon decade. The series started in the late 1970s and ran for 30 years. Rumpole's age is hard to pinpoint exactly, but he always appears to be in his late 50s to early 60s irregardless of the hippies, discos, punks, Johnny Depp movies, iPods or the post 9/11 world whirling about him. Fashions came and went, events befell humanity, but Rumpole motored on, never changing right up to the end.

Rumpole Misbehaves was one of, if not, the last book in the series that John Mortimer published before his death (I only know of one collection of Christmas stories that came after this and that was published posthumously,) so I found myself actually investing some real hope that Rumpole might finally succeed in getting silk for himself and rising from lawyer to judge. I thought, heck, maybe Mortimer sensed the end was nigh and threw the old boy a bone. Not likely?

I don't feel I'm spoiling anything terribly important here. No, because the real moral of Mortimer's stories is morality. Rumpole maybe be rough around the edges, but what we like about him is his willingness to put right before wrong regardless of the consequences to himself. This fat, cigar-puffing grouch is as close as a white knight as you'll get these days.

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