Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Silent Speaker by Rex Stout

With The Silent Speaker, we've returned to novels in our tour through the Corpus, the War is over and our heroes, like the rest of the country, are adjusting to that fact. In the U.S., part of that has to do with price regulation and battles between governmental agencies and private businesses. In this case we have the Bureau of Price Regulation (BPR) and the National Industrial Association (NIA).

Now, I'll be honest (and I realize this makes me a horrid person), this part of U.S. History makes my eyes glaze over, so I can't say for certain how much the relationships depicted between the two entities are accurate. But this feels real (names of agencies/groups/companies being changed, naturally), and a little bit of reading that I've done about The Silent Speaker seems to support that. In years to come, Stout will not tweak details like that (The Doorbell Rang), but it's more than understandable when he and other authors take that tack.

The head of the BPR (Cheney Boone) was scheduled to speak before a gathering of the NIA--a hostile audience, to be sure. And it does not appear that his address was going in anyway to endear him or the rest of his McCoys to the NIA Hatfields. But a funny thing happened on the way to the podium--well, not funny at all really, but that's the phrase. Someone took a monkey wrench to his cranium while he was backstage rehearsing. The BPR people and the Boones begin accusing someone--anyone--with ties to the NIA, the NIA are certain that it's all a front designed to bring public sentiment against him.

The police are soon stymied and have to deal with enough political pressure to prevent them from doing any real work. Wolfe's patience is tried (and then some) by the bickering between and within the various camps. In addition to the vitriol flying all over, there are enough red herrings to keep things too confusing for the case to progress much.

In this book, at last, our cast of regulars is completed with the introduction of newspaperman extraordinaire, Lon Cohen. He doesn't get a lot of space in this appearance, but that's remedied in the next couple of books (and many future ones).

This is really one of the gems in the series, and one I return to more often than many others. I can't put my finger on exactly why, but all cylinders are firing this time out, and not a false or ill-advised step is made (by the author anyway). This is a great novel to serve as an entry (or re-entry) point to the series for someone not sure where to start.

And now, for our regularly scheduled collection of witticisms and other notable quotes:

As usual, he didn't life an eye when I entered. Also as usual, I paid no attention to whether he was paying attention.

     "Satisfactory, Archie," [Wolfe] muttered.
     Frankly, I wish I could make my heart quit doing an extra thump when Wolfe says satisfactory, Archie. It's childish.

[Wolfe] pushed the button, savagely, for beer. He was as close to being in a panic as I remembered seeing him.

I looked at the wall clock. It said two minutes to four. I looked at my wrist watch. It said one minute to four. In spite of the discrepancy it seemed safe to conclude that it would soon be four o'clock.

     I had made a close and prolonged study of Wolfe's attitude toward women. The basic fact about a woman that seemed to irritate him was that she was a woman; the long record showed not a single exception; but form there on the documentation was cockeyed. If woman as woman grated on him you would suppose that the most womany details would be the worst for him, but time and again I have known him to have a chair placed for a female so that his desk would not obstruct his view of her legs, and the answer can't be that his interest is professional and he reads character from legs, because the older and dumpier she is the less he cares where she sits. It is a very complex question and some day I'm going to take a whole chapter for it. Another little detail: he is much more sensitive to women's noses than he is to men's. I have never been able to detect that extremes or unorthodoxies in men's noses have any effect on him, but in women's they do. Above all he doesn't like a pug, or in fact a pronounced incurve anywhere along the bridge.
     Mrs. Boone had a bug, and it was much too small for the surroundings. I saw him looking at it as he leaned back in his chair. So he told her in a gruff and inhospitable tone, barely not boorish...

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Images from My Back Window on Day 2 of Spring Break '10

and a bonus pic of the car:

Naturally, Chris Oates beat me to the punch with a better photo. Oh well, c'est la vie.

Revising Update

Just so I talk about something other than Wolfe for a minute or two...

As I mentioned last week, I'm trying to revise my NaNoWriMo 2008 project as the 2009 project melted in my hands, not in my mouth (and not just because of lousy metaphors like that one). While I've been thinking about various parts of the novel over the last year or so, I have lost track of a handful of details--been thinking about the forest far more than the trees. So this last week I scoped out some of the trees.

I've been skimming the draft taking notes on the characters and locations I used--reacquainting myself with who's who, and where's where. Been a fairly interesting exercise, I have to admit.

Especially looking at the goofs. For example,

  • My protagonist has 2 different last names
  • I have far too many characters whose first names start with "T". Would have to be confusing to my theoretical readers, pretty darn confusing to me.
  • I have a supporting character conveniently away for a couple of weeks so I don't have to deal with him too much, and then I have him minding the home-front two pages (and a day and a half) later. Not sure which one of those I'll end up using, but it's fairly embarrassing.
Over all, I liked the characters better than I thought, remembered some of them better than I'd have expected, and, not that I was paying attention to the plot on this run through, what I glanced at I felt much better about than I figured I would've (particularly following the aforementioned disintegration).

This is gonna be fun!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

I am Clearly Not Smart Enough to be a Lawyer

Okay, just thinking about this is giving me a headache...

Beyonce's YouTube channel has been shut down for copyright infringement by her record company, Sony Entertainment.
(read here, and here).
This is just as trippy as one of those pictures of a hand drawing a hand which is drawing that first hand.

Chagall Guevara had it right, we are living in Escher's World.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Not Quite Dead Enough by Rex Stout

The ninth installment in the series always leaves me It's not like I don't enjoy parts of it, but it's not Stout at his best. A lot of it feels forced actually, as if Stout felt compelled to write something in support World War II and just couldn't find a way to work it into the series naturally.

Let me say upfront, I don't blame Stout for falling a little flat here--while he wrote this he was working a lot to support FDR and the war effort through various means. If you haven't read McAleer's biography of Stout, I'd highly recommend it, particularly over this period. It makes sense that he wasn't at his best here.

Like Black Orchid, Not Quite Dead Enough is made up of two novellas. In the first, we are introduced to Major Archie Goodwin, of Army intelligence. He's sent to NYC to recruit his once and future boss to the effort. Wolfe's far more interested in joining the infantry (see the quote below), and has given up the detective business and his assorted comforts and indulgences in order to train. The description of his training and his appearance at this time are worth the effort alone.

Archie uses a case that his long-time friend, Lily Rowan, was trying to get him involved with to rekindle Wolfe's dormant detective skills as a way to move him from his focus on the infantry to intelligence. The case isn't that interesting, really, but there are some fun characters.

The second novella, Booby Trap shows us the Major acting as Wolfe's handler while he acts as a civilian consultant to the intelligence service. In this particular instance, Wolfe gets to play to his strength, dealing with a couple of murders of Intelligence officers investigating some fraudulent arms sales. I find it disappointing, really, but I do read it occasionally.

My lukewarm feeling toward these stories carries over to the quotes I jotted down:

Not Quite Dead Enough
[Wolfe speaking] "I am going to kill some Germans. I didn't kill enough in 1918."

Wolfe pronounced a word. It was the first time I had ever heard him pronounce an unprintable word, and it stopped me short.

Booby Trap
"Indeed," I said. That was Nero Wolfe's word, and I never used it except in moments of stress, and it severely annoyed me when I caught myself using it, because when I look in a mirror I prefer to see me as is, with no skin grafted from anybody else's hide, even Nero Wolfe's.

[Wolfe speaking] "Archie. I submit to circumstances. So should you."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I demand a recount

According to some people, armed with such spurious things as "basic math" (or calculators), birth certificates, and calendars, Daddy's Little Princess turns 8 today. I, armed with paternal near-omniscience, know that it's impossible she's growing up that fast.

Nevertheless, Happy Birthday Sweetie.

Black Orchids by Rex Stout

Black Orchids is the ninth installment in the Wolfe/Goodwin series, and the first to not be a novel. Instead, it's a collection of two novellas, one that shares it's name with the book and Cordially Invited to Meet Death. For whatever reason, I kept putting this one off for years--until 2 years ago, I think. What a stupid, stupid move. These are not Stout's best work--in character, complexity, theme or whatever--but they are just about the most entertaining entries in the corpus. I literally LOL'ed more than once the first time I read them, and a couple of times on this second read as well.

It's no mistake that the book shares the title with the first novella--it's the superior entry, a funny, light romp until it stops and becomes one of the grimmer entries in the corpus. Wolfe throughout is childish, peevish, calculating and, eventually, ruthless. Archie is, well, Archie.

Lewis Hewitt, a fellow orchid fanatic and sometimes ally of Wolfe's has produced a new hybrid that Wolfe is very jealous of--some black orchids (not the most subtle of titles), and is showing them at New York's annual flower show. Naturally disinclined to attend himself, Wolfe sends Archie down to view them, take notes on them, etc. Archie indulges him in this, fully expecting Wolfe to try something to get them.

Another exhibit at the show features a couple acting out a summer picnic, the man is okay, and the woman is so striking that Archie immediately starts calling her his fiance. Judging by the crowd that assembles at the time each day where the man naps and she washes her feet, Archie's not the only one smitten.

Now is the time where I mention that as this is a Wolfe story, someone gets killed. Hewitt is tangentially associated with killing, enough to scare him into being open to some pressure from Wolfe regarding the hybrids.

Things remain lighter for a little while, but then as I said they get dark and morally murky. Even so, a rollicking good read that ends too soon.

The second story, has it's moments, too. Bess Huddleston, a party planner for the obscenely rich, is being blackmailed and comes to Wolfe for help. Years before, Huddleston had insulted Wolfe's dignity by trying to hire him to play detective at a party (she ended up settling for Inspector Cramer), nevertheless, Wolfe takes the case and sends Archie to her home to investigate.

Huddleston's home and the inhabitants thereof are some of the strangest a reader will encounter anywhere--as is the method of murder and attempted murder that Archie stumbles into.

Unlike Black Orchids, this one was just short enough to remain entertaining. Oh, I should mention that both Fritz and Wolfe end up taking guidance in the kitchen from a (female!!) suspect--that alone makes this worth the time.

Lines that struck me as insightful/funny/revealing/whatever

from Black Orchids
I do not deny that flowers are pretty, but a million flowers are not a million times prettier than one flower. Oysters are good to eat, but who wants to eat a carload?

[Archie speaking to Wolfe] Will you kindly tell me," I requested, "why the females you see at a flower show are the kind of females who go to a flower show? Ninety per cent of them? Especially their legs? Does it have to be like that? Is it because, never having any flowers sent to them, they have to go there in order to see any?"

[Rose Lasher speaking of Archie] "That ten-cent Clark Gable there that thinks he's so slick he can slide uphill"

And Archie's reaction: ...her cheap crack about me being a ten-cent Clark Gable, which was ridiculous. He simpers, to begin with, and to end with no once can say I resemble a movie actor, and fi they did it would be more apt to be Gary Cooper than Clark Gable.

from Cordially Invited to Meet Death
[Wolfe speaking] There is nothing in the world, as indestructible as human dignity."

For a cop to move persons from the house, any person whatever, with or without a charge or a warrant, except at Wolfe's instigation, was an intolerable insult to his pride, his vanity and his sense of the fitness of things. So as was to be expected, he acted with a burst of energy amounting to violence. he sat up straight in his chair. [I cannot read that last sentence w/o chuckling]

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Where There's a Will by Rex Stout - Updated

Wow, it's been exactly one month since I started this post. When I get behind (on these write-ups, not the reading) I get beeeehind.

So I can't be certain, since it was twenty some years ago, but I think this was the first I ever read--and while I don't remember being hooked right away, I did beat it to the library to grab another one. As I recall, the copy of the book my aunt loaned me had a balloon-y cartoonish drawing of Wolfe shoving his face into an orchid under some 70's era kitchen green and orange stripes. Never judge a book by its cover indeed.

We are introduced right away to the remarkable Hawthorne sisters--April, May and June; a writer (married to the Secretary of State), a college president and one of Broadway's brightest stars. Their wealthy brother has just died in a hunting accident and left behind a most curious will. His sister's didn't get the inheritance they'd been promised, instead they'd each been left a piece of fruit. That didn't bother them too much--except for appearance's sake (although May, the college prez, is distraught that her school didn't get what it'd been promised); what bother's the sisters is the way his wife wasn't taken care of, and that his mistress (a poorly kept secret at best) received the overwhelming bulk of the estate. The sisters want Wolfe to prevail upon the mistress to return much of her inheritance to the more "rightful" heirs. Wolfe, for reasons I can't understand, takes the case. Naturally, it's not too long into the case before someone's killed, and that's when things really start to get interesting.

On the whole, the male characters (other than the regulars) in this novel are pretty dull, but most of the female characters rate a novel all their own. The three Hawthorne sisters have all striking personalities and a realistic dynamic between the three. There's an interesting detail or two about the widow that I'll save for those who want to read it. The daughter of the writer and the Secretary of State, Sara Hawthorne, grabs my attention each time I read it. Even if I can rarely remember how much peril she will be in by the end of the book--I always care a bit more about her welfare than I do similar Stout characters. As the sole female descendant of the legendary sisters, she feels the weight of expectation to do something as remarkable to the world at large, while being convinced that she's not of the same caliber as her mother and aunts. To make up for that, she tries harder to be unique, to make her mark, to distinguish herself than the others probably had to--and in doing so endears herself to readers as well as to Wolfe and Archie.

A staple of P.I. fiction involves interactions between police and the private dicks--usually (after the first novel or three), there's some sort of grudging mutual respect and assistance. Yet typically, there's a mixture of trust and distrust--the P.I.'s withhold information and or straight-out lie to the cops and vice versa--teeter-tottering between the two extremes. Sometimes this feels forced, or even obligatory--even from skilled authors. Stout almost always pulls it off successfully (I can't think of an exception), and generally entertainingly (thanks to Archie's narration if nothing else). Wolfe has laid all his cards on the table and Inspector Cramer is convinced Wolfe's up to something and makes more than one biting comment in that regard, leading Archie to observe: "It's a funny and sad thing, the purer our motives are, the worse insults we get." A sign of Stout's ability is that he can keep something this tried and true fresh.

You've got a very wide and colorful cast of characters, a dash of political intrigue, and Wolfe out of the office on a case. What's not to like?

A line or two that made me grin, both revealing a good deal about all involved.

Wolfe frowned at her. He hated fights about wills, having once gone so far as to tell a prospective client that he refused to engage in a tug of war with a dead man's guts for a rope.

[After Archie is informed by Fritz that Wolfe has left on business] I hung up and went back out to the car and told Fred:
"A new era has begun. The earth has turned around and started the other way. Mr. Wolfe has left home in a taxicab to work on a case."
"Huh? Nuts."
"Nope. As Fritz says, honest for God. He really has. So if you'll--"
"But [expletive], Archie. He'll get killed or something."
"Don't I know it?"

Update: Found the cover image I remembered. I was off on the colors (tho' there could be another version, I guess), but there's that nasty cartoon....

Reading, 'Riting, but no 'Rithmetic

What do you expect from an English major? I avoid the latter like a real vampire avoids the glittery vegetarians from Forks, WA.

Guess it's time to dust this thing off, eh? Beyond time, if I'm to judge by the IM's and emails. I have no explanation for the sudden rash of nothingness around here. I've been trying and trying to write. Mostly it's a matter of time, somehow I've just run out of it--I end each afternoon or each work shift (the best times for me to get anything done) clinging to the hope that I can put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard and knock something out. On the rare occasions that I've been able to find the time, I haven't been able to justify blogging or revising the novels--instead, I feel compelled to pour effort into fruitless letters to congressmen, state legislators, and other public officials. The cruel twist to contemporary American government is that we all feel that we need to put our $.02 in--and honestly feel like we're doing our duty and making a difference--when it's practically impossible to believe that our representativesrulers give a rip about what we think.

Frankly, I think there's a new version of Daylight Savings at work--where we actually get less time in each day. Don't ask my why Congress would want something like that, but I bet it makes as much sense as Daylight Savings in the 21st Century does.

Anyway, what's been going on with me in the meantime?

It's pretty easy to see from the nature of the posts 'round here lately that I'm reading more than usual (which most people who know me would think is pretty near impossible). I wouldn't have thought so myself, truth be told, mostly seems like I'm just going like normal, but I'm continuing last year's experiment in tracking my books and I'm about 20 books ahead of where I was at this time last year. I have been reading more detective/mystery or urban fantasy novels than typical for me (which is really saying something), I've tried to branch out and read some "non-genre" stuff which has been so uniformly dreadful that I almost want to devote myself exclusively to hardboiled novels until Jonathan Tropper's next publication date.

While my reading has spiked, I am 10 movies behind last year--been watching a lot more TV on DVD, tho. I actually think I'm spending more time watching stuff than I did last year (which is probably not good for my gray matter long term) and yet my reading and writing (these last two weeks notwithstanding) have gone up. Go figure.

I have had hit a brick wall on the novel revision front--the NaNoWriMo 2009 novel has been tossed into a dark corner to probably never be looked at again. The small problems I knew existed in the idea/manuscript kept getting larger and worse the more I worked on them or thought them through to the extent that I'm pretty sure if I spent more time working on it I'd be left with nothing. Which is a real shame, even if I'm totally disenchanted with the story now, the central cast of characters has really endeared themselves to me, I just have to find a more suitable home for them.

Not that any of you can tell, but I've also been hard at work at getting myself into a shape slightly less like a blob. Between better (not great) eating habits and exercise (the culprit behind a lot of the no time for writing), I've dropped 20 lbs. so far this year. If only there was a way to translate similar effort and willpower into filling in the thinning hair...

so that's that, will try to keep things regular for awhile--at least until my next dry spell.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Unbearable Hardship for Voters

According to the Idaho Press-Tribune

A bill that would require voters to show identification could slow the election process in Canyon County or force the county to hire more poll workers.
No one wants to hear this, we all lead busy lives and having to put up with a new delay to slow our busy lives is a heckuva drag. As that's the lead to a story drawing attention to a significant problem with a bill working its way through the State Legislature, surely we're talking about a major delay, right? So exactly how much longer is it going to take to vote if this thing becomes a law?
Checking voters' identification would take each voter about 20 seconds longer to vote, Canyon County Deputy Clerk Brad Jackson said.
20 seconds? Twenty whole seconds? Intolerable!! Why, I can type 27 words in that time! Who wants to wait that long? It's like a whole third of the time it should take to get a Whopper. And those crazy people we elected (some of us anyway) would put us through such adversity?

Personally, I've always found it impossible to believe that you don't have to do more to prove who you are to vote--I have a harder time getting Chicago Connection to take a check than I do getting a ballot.

How many of our countrymen have died so that we could vote? How much blood, sweat and tears have been spilt to preserve, to protect, and to make use of that right? And we're gonna complain about a lousy 20 seconds?

To get on a plane anymore we stand like sheep waiting to be shorn and slip off our shoes and let them measure our conditioner and shampoo. Before long, without much more than a murmur, we'll subject ourselves to virtual strip searches--and who knows what other indignities are coming next? We roll over for whatever impingement the Federal Government wants to put on our civil liberties in the name of "safety", "security" or the "war on drugs." But something that will slow things down for us at the polls by less than a minute? That's what gets the exclamation points? Really?

Sure, we could end up having to hire more workers to help out, so there's an economic side to this, and today, that's a legitimate concern. But then helping out with 20 seconds worth that?
Jackson said voter fraud is not a problem in Canyon County and he questions whether the voter identification bill passed by the Idaho House Monday is needed. . . .

But Jackson said voter fraud is so rare in Canyon County that requiring identification to vote like the bill does would be unnecessary.

"If voter fraud was a big issue I would say that checking IDs would make a significant difference," Jackson said. "I just don't see voter fraud as being a sufficient issue."
Now I get that he's speaking from his perspective as a Canyon County worker, but is the lack of a problem in our one county enough to call into question the necessity of a law for the whole state? (and that's granting that it isn't a problem here) Who does he think he works for, Ada County?
"There's a lot more concern about fraud then the reality of the situation," he said.
Thank the Lord for that, Mr. Jackson--isn't that the way it's supposed to be? Are you really suggesting we should be blase about voter fraud until the populace of Kohlerlawn vote Tom Dale in for yet another term?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Happy Birthday, Buddy

Happy Birthday, Arnold
This ol' ball of dirt has circled the big fiery thing in the sky 6 event-filled times since you first made your appearance. Thanks to you, very little bit of that time has been dull. Frequently funnier, always kinder and sweeter. I have no idea what the next several rotations have in store for you, but trust that you'll meet them with your typical aplomb and cheer.

Looking forward to it.