Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

How I love Flavia de Luce. I can see how she might be a difficult child, were she flesh and blood, but in Bradley’s novels she is a delight.

Ironically, perhaps, I read this while I was subbing in a 7th grade science class. At “almost twelve,” Flavia might be in the 7th grade (were she American), and, of course, she is obsessed with science. I looked in vain for a Flavia among all the students I saw that day. Needless to say, she wasn’t present.

The previous book, Speaking from Among the Bone, ended with a real cliff-hanger – Flavia’s mother had been found. Unfortunately, as we find out in the opening of this book, she was found dead. How is the family going to deal with this?

As Flavia de Luce gathers with her family at the railway station for the arrival of her mother’s casket, she is approached by a tall stranger who whispers a cryptic message into her ear. Moments later, he is dead, mysteriously pushed under the train by someone in the crowd. Who was this man and what did his words? To find answers, Flavia immediately swings into action. Following a trail of clues begun by the discovery of a reel of film stashed in the attic, she unravels the deepest secrets of the de Luce clan.

There were several points not clearly explained at the end of the book. I don’t want to spoil anything for readers, but I wasn’t sure how the police knew who the murderer was or how the discovery of Harriet’s will saves the house from being sold. If someone could clarify those issues for me, I would appreciate it.

At any rate, Flavia is off to a new phase of her life. What challenge will the next book pose for our indomitable Flavia? I can’t wait!


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Montalbano’s First Case by Andrea Camilleri

This novella (97 pages according to Amazon) is a prequel to the international bestselling Inspector Montalbano series. It was available on Net Galley, so I received my copy on my Kindle. Thank you, Net Galley!

According to the reviews on Amazon, “Salvo Montalbano is thirty-five years old and still a bit naive—and there are plenty of criminals ready to take advantage of his inexperience.” I didn’t detect any naivety in Montalbano at all, except, perhaps, he didn’t pay close enough attention to his father’s advice not to trust the girl. But then, Salvo is always susceptible to the ladies.

No one is killed in Montalbano’s First Case; in fact, Montalbano prevents a murder, solving other crimes. Montalbano receives his promotion to Inspector in the seaside town of Vigàta. He has been serving in a town in the mountains and is miserable away from the ocean. He can’t bear to even look at the mountains, and his boss is insightful enough to understand this. Salvo comes alive in Vigàta, renting the home we become familiar with in the series. He finds his favorite restaurant – some of the best scenes in Camilleri’s books describe Montalbano’s meals. He doesn’t have his housekeeper, Adelina, and Catarella, the policeman with Spooneritis, doesn’t appear. And Livia isn’t in the picture yet, instead his girlfriend is Mery.

Despite these absences, we have Salvo Montalbano in all his glory. With his characteristic mix of humor, cynicism, compassion, and love of good food, he breaks any laws he needs to in order to protect the weak, punish the bullies, and solve the case. This is a must for Montalbano followers.

I just wish some network would show the TV series that has been very popular in Europe and England. See Wikipedia for information about the series and a picture of Montalbano’s house. It is just as I imagined, although the actor playing Salvo is not what I had in mind. Well, I didn’t imagine Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander either, but I got used to him.

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Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. Edsel

This book was one of the selections I read for the Kimbell Museum’s book club. The group had a lively discussion; this is an important book and very dense. The discussion didn’t cover every issue I would have like it to do, but time is always a consideration.

I must confess that I was crying much of the time I was reading this book due to the intensity of the writing and the story Edsel was telling. I was fortunate enough to have been able to visit Florence and Siena a few years ago. If you have been to the Uffizzi Gallery, the Pitti Palace, the Santa Maria Novella Basilica, or any of the other notable sites in Florence or have been to Rome, Pisa, or Milan, you will appreciate the work the Monuments Men did during World War II to save the art and architecture so elemental to Western Civilization. If these men and women had not acted to save the paintings, sculptures, and buildings, the West – the world – would have been a very different, much culturally poorer place.

The “Monuments Men,” were a group of approximately 345 men and women from thirteen nations who comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies during World War II. Many were museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators. Together they worked to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II. In the last year of the war, they tracked, located, and in the years that followed returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. Their role in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent.

Saving Italy focuses on two Monuments Men, artist Deane Keller and scholar Fred Hartt, as they struggle to protect and save some of the world’s masterpieces, including Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Michelangelo’s David.

When Hitler’s armies occupied Italy in 1943, they also seized control of Western civilization’s greatest cultural treasures. As they had done throughout Europe, the Nazis plundered the masterpieces of the Renaissance, the treasures of the Vatican, and the antiquities of the Roman Empire.

On the eve of the Allied invasion, General Dwight Eisenhower created the Monuments Men to protect these historic riches. In May 1944, Keller and Hartt began the treasure hunt of a lifetime, tracking billions of dollars of missing art, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Titian, Caravaggio, and Botticelli.
Robert M. Edsel, who lives in Dallas and has praised the Kimbell Museum, has also written Rescuing Da Vinci and The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. He is the co-producer of the documentary film, The Rape of Europa, and Founder and President of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. Academy Award winner George Clooney will direct and star in a film based on The Monuments Men, which is set for theatrical release in December 2013.

Eisenhower is to be credited with establishing the Monuments Men. Their efforts to save such important cultural icons bring to mind the lack of foresight and planning to protect the art and artifacts that were looted and destroyed when we invaded Iraq. In my opinion, there was little thought involved at all when we began that war. Also, the conflict in Syria is jeopardizing that country’s cultural treasures. Similar situations exist in other parts of the world. Our collective history should be protected for future generations.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in art preservation, World War II, and the lessons we need to take from history.

Note: As of 10/23/13 –
‘The Monuments Men’ Delayed to 2014
George Clooney won’t have a chance to charm Oscar voters this year after all. His World War II drama The Monuments Men has been pushed back to 2014, the actor said Tuesday. Originally slated to be released on December 18, the move makes it ineligible for the 2014 Academy Awards. Clooney said the film’s visual effects could not be completed in time for the December release date. “If any of the effects looked cheesy, the whole movie would be cheesy,” Clooney told the Los Angeles Times. Clooney directed and stars in the film, which tells the story of artists, museum curators, and academics attempting to rescue paintings from the Nazis.
From the Los Angeles Times

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Hammett by Joe Gores

When I discovered this novel, I jumped on it. I don’t know how I missed it. I very much enjoy humorous mysteries; I have read 32 Cadillacs and a couple of Joe Gores’s other DKA novels. This book was no disappointment; Gores is a masterful novelist. If Hammett has any appeal to you, read this book.
Gores wrote that “I didn’t start out to be a mystery writer.”

It is lucky for us that that is what he became.

Joe Gores was a three-time Edgar Award winner, and only one of three authors (the other two being Donald E. Westlake and William L. DeAndrea) to receive Edgars in three separate categories. He was recognized for his novels Hammett, Spade & Archer (the 2009 prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon) and his Edgar Award-winning or -nominated works, such as A Time of Predators, 32 Cadillacs and Come Morning.

In his web posting, “Why I Write Mysteries,” he relates:
In 1955, Stanford University refused me a Master’s Degree in English Literature because my proposed Thesis was on the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. “Since these novels are not literature,” they said, “obviously graduate theses cannot be written about them.” That is, if fiction is fun to read, it is mere escapist fare.

[I] discovered that the mystery is the only fiction genre that lets you write anything you want while demanding a form that makes you tell a story people want to read.

So I write my mysteries for pleasure, mine and I hope yours, and for money.

I think that this prejudice against mysteries has declined, although not completely. In a teaching job interview not too long ago, I was asked what novel had I read recently that I had enjoyed. The title that popped into my mind, out of all the books I had read in the past few weeks, was a mystery. Interestingly, the interviewer knew the book, and we talked about it. Later, I thought that maybe I should have mentioned another book because, well, is mystery literature? It is, as far as I am concerned!

Gores explains much better than I can the appeal of the type of mystery I prefer:
The opening line of “Gone Girl” [a short story Ross Macdonald wrote, featuring an early incarnation of private eye Lew Archer. The piece was written in the 1950s.] was ‘I was tooling home from the Mexican border in a light blue convertible and a dark blue mood,’” Gores recalls. “And I thought ‘My God, that is the way I want to write! . . . That kind of tightness, that kind of directness, no nonsense, no navelgazing. You are in there to create vivid characters who are doing extremely interesting things and that’s it.”

I have little patience for the type of mystery that involves the detective’s personal life. As I mentioned in another blog, this refers to such writers as Sarah Paretsky, Rita Mae Brown, and Sue Grafton. Unfortunately, this seems to be a fault of women mystery writers. But I generalize…

Hammett is excellent. I could have been reading Dashiell himself. The setting, the plot, the dialogue, the prose – all tone-perfect. Hammett, when published in 1975, was well-received as a fictionalized version of the adventures of Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Wim Wenders directed the movie version in 1982, which I’ll have to try to find. Decades later, Gores still felt he had “unfinished business” with the author, so in 1999, he asked Hammett’s daughter, Jo Marshall, if the family would consider a new book based on The Maltese Falcon.

Although Marshall first said no, she had a change of heart. As her daughter Julie Rivett puts it, the family felt that Gores was the right guy to take up her grandfather’s story. “He’s walked the walk as well as talked the talk. He knows as well as anyone where those characters came from,” she said.

Gores released Spade & Archer, a prequel novel that explains how Spade came to seek the falcon statue that is perhaps the greatest MacGuffin in detective fiction. It is both a love letter to the original work and a satisfying read for Falcon fans that circles back to where Gores’s own hard-boiled history—and the genre’s—began: with an appreciation for the finely written line, and a nose for trouble. I haven’t read this book; I intend to. The reviews I read were very positive.

Gores, who had been working on a new DKA novel, died 50 years after Hammett’s death, to the day. RIP, Joe Gores, and thanks for all the books.

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Treasure Hunt by Andrea Camilleri

Treasure Hunt, Camilleri’s 16th mystery featuring Insp. Salvo Montalbano, begins at night, with the exploration of a nightmarish apartment, when two reclusive religious fanatics—brother and sister Gregorio and Caterina Palmisano—start firing guns at the “sinners” in the street below their apartment building in Vigàta, Sicily. Montalbano and his team lay siege to the Palmisanos’ house and eventually disarm the elderly couple without bloodshed. Among the unconventional and disconcerting items found in the apartment is a decaying life-size, inflatable doll. This doll will haunt Montalbano throughout the book, providing both comic relief and a symptom of a truly sick mind.
As a result of his feat at the snipers’ apartment, Montalbano is hailed as a hero after news cameras film his scaling the building–gun in hand–to capture the pair. Shortly after, the inspector begins to receive cryptic messages in verse from someone challenging him to go on a “treasure hunt.” Bored – not going on in his crime world – and intrigued, he accepts, treating the messages as amusing riddles, until they take a dangerous turn. His friend, Ingrid, suggests that Arturo Pennisi, a young man eager to witness the detective’s investigative skills first hand, assists him in tracking down clues in the treasure hunt. A number of bizarre incidents occur that puzzle Montalbano and eventually lead him, again at night, to another frightful interior, the lair of a maniac.

As in Seagull, Montalbano thinks of himself as old. Montalbano transforms his usual and often ironic disagreement with our times into the harsh underscoring of disorder and aberration (psychological, political, and social) that have become physiological and irreparable. At a certain point he finds himself walking down a country road, a road that he had walked down many years before as a boy: but instead of the ancient saracen olive grove that stood there in the past, there was only a mass of cement. This is not only an ecological comment, but a metaphorical observation of the passing of time and the decay of the body and the environment. I can sympathize with this. At my age, I am trying to understand the passing away of everyone and everything I knew growing up.

Montalbano continues to feel a deep loneliness. His usual secondary characters meaningfully remain in the background: Mimì, Fazio, Catarella, the Questore and Dr. Pasquano make their appearance without any substance, as if they were bit actors. Livia is only present in a few phone calls. Nicolò Zito, the Retelibera journalist who is a friend of Montalbano’s and an unrepentant Communist, is totally absent: the character who represented an attempt at bridging the gap between old politics and the new media.

Once again, Camilleri’s sardonic sense of humor distinguishes this crime novel and saves it from complete melancholy and despair. I know that there has been violence and blood and gore in the other Montalbano’s novels, but I was strongly reminded of Helene Tursten’s first few novels. Somehow I didn’t expect Camilleri to go this far. I look forward to see where the 17th novel takes us.

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