Greene Murder Case Decent Potboiler

The Green Murder Case presents Philo Vance one of his most perplexing mysteries. Two women are shot, one fatally, in a New York mansion where four adult children and one adopted daughter live with their invalid mother, according to the terms of the father’s will.

The police think it was a robbery gone wrong. A brother of the murdered woman doesn’t believe that theory. Neither does Philo Vance, wealthy New York aristocrat and amateur sleuth.

Before long the brother is murdered, then a second brother.

By then, Vance and his friend the DA know the murders are being committed by someone in the household — and everyone seems to have a motive.

Could the “paralyzed” mother be the culprit? Or perhaps the doctor, who is treated almost as a member of the family? The butler? The cook?

S.S. Van Dine sprinkles clues and red herrings throughout the novel so readers can make some headway toward solving the mystery.

Despite its age, the novel doesn’t appear terribly dated. Van Dine translates any essential foreign quotations for the benefit of those whose Latin and German is rusty.

Vance is less obnoxious than usual in this case, making the novel a pleasant read.

The Greene Murder Case
By S.S. Van Dine
Grosset & Dunlap, 1928
388 pages
1928 bestseller #4
My Grade: C+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Mortal Storm Has Gale-Force Power

In The Moral Storm, Phyllis Bottome rejuvenates the tired brother-against-brother theme by putting it into the setting of Nazi Germany.

The story concerns a young medical student, Freya Roth. With her first year exams over, she begins to notice that her parents aren’t thrilled with her two half-brothers’ infatuation with Hitler. Freya thinks, “What do politics matter?”

Olaf and Emil warn their parents that Freya’s friendship with a Communist peasant lad could have serious consequences since Dr. Roth is Jewish. As a matter of principle, Dr. and Mrs. Roth refuse to close the door to Hans because of his politics.

By the time Freya begins to see how serious the German situation is, her lover has been shot dead by a Nazi patrol lead by her favorite bother, her father is in a concentration camp, and Freya is pregnant.

Freya has to get out of Germany. She also has to decide what to do with her baby and what to do about her 12-year-old brother who is part Jewish.

The novel derives its power from the contrast between the loving concern the Nazi boys show to their Jewish stepfather and the self-absorption of their Jewish half-sister. The family is divided by politics, but united by love.

The Mortal Storm
By Phyllis Bottome
Little, Brown, 1938
357 pages
1938 bestseller # 9
My Grade: B+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Naked and the Dead Battlefield Hell within Bookcovers

The Naked and the Dead follows an army platoon through the terror and boredom of war.

Norman Mailer weaves stories of each man’s background into the story of their part in the victory over the Japanese on Anopopei Island.

The men in the Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon are losers. Some are pleasant losers, some vicious losers. Their interests are broads, booze, protecting their egos, and staying alive. They hate their two-timing wives, their officers, their fathers, Jews, Mexicans, Asians, and themselves. They are incapable of the unbiased, intelligent judgment I&R requires.

Sent to assess the possibility of attacking the enemy from the rear, the men perform incredible feats of endurance.

Those that survive the patrol learn their efforts were totally pointless. While they were gone, the battle was won by the blunder of an inept, pencil-pushing major.

Mailer uses gelid every couple hundred pages to elevate his tone, but if you edited out the f-word and discussions of women and liquor, you’d have a novella.

Mailer is a good story-teller. This isn’t just a story, however; it’s Mailer’s soapbox. He’s going to prove environment makes the man if it takes him 800 pages to do it.

The effect is stultifying as jungle heat.

The Naked and the Dead
By Norman Mailer
Rinehart, 1948
721 pages
1948 bestseller # 2
My Grade: C
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Anatomy of a Murder Is a Keeper

Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder is courtroom drama at its best.

Lieutenant Frederic Manion shot Barney Quill to death in front of a room full of witnesses in Quill’s hotel bar before turning himself in. Manion says Quill had raped his wife.

Paul “Polly” Biegler dislikes Manion on sight, but since he lost his bid for re-election as county prosecutor, he needs income, and Manion needs a lawyer. Polly gets his secretary and an aging, alcoholic lawyer to help him defend Manion.

The only legal defense open to Manion is insanity.

At the trial, the novice prosecuting attorney is “assisted” by a savvy lawyer from the Attorney General’s office. It’s a fight to the finish—with the real excitement coming after the verdict.

Polly is an unlikely hero. Gentle, middle-aged, and funny, he pursues wily trout instead of luscious babes and remembers (sometimes) to water his mother’s plants while she’s away.

Anatomy of a Murder has mystery, courtroom drama, humor, a sprinkle of romance, and a generous helping of memorable personalities. Despite the passage of a half century, the story still rings true except for one thing: it’s impossible to imagine a murder case going to trial today in less than three months.

Anatomy of a Murder
by Robert Traver
St. Martin’s 1958
437 pages
Bestseller #2 for 1958
My grade: B+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

We Are Not Alone Quirky Novella with Cinematic Appeal

James Hilton’s We Are Not Alone is so British and so visual that reading it is like watching Masterpiece Theatre in your mind.

The story revolves around a harmless eccentric, David Newcome, “the little doctor” of Calderbury. Newcome is a brilliant surgeon with a childlike humility, honesty (he actually admits to now knowing everything!), and genuine concern for people. Newcome and his wife, Jessica, have little in common, except their son, Gerald, a timid boy who, depending on your point of view, has a vivid imagination or is an inveterate liar.

The doctor is called to treat a young German dancer who attempts suicide after a broken wrist prevents her from making her living. Newcome discovers Leni likes children and suggests his wife hire her to look after Gerald.

Jessica learns Leni had attempted suicide and starts wondering what else her husband hasn’t mentioned. She fires Leni just as war breaks out between England and Germany. Germans are no longer welcome in England. Newcome tries to get Leni back to Germany, but while they are on the way to the coast, Jessica is found poisoned.

Newcome and Leni die for the murder, but did they do it?

We Are Not Alone is quirky and intriguing. Its novella-length makes it a comfortable evening’s entertainment.

We Are Not Alone
By James Hilton
Little, Brown, 1937
231 pages
# 10 on 1937 bestseller list
grade B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nothing So-So About And So—Victoria

In And So—Victoria, Vaughan Wilkins packs more “I’ll go to bed after the next chapter” between two covers than a half dozen Gone with the Winds.

The story centers on Christopher Harnish whose disgust with the depravity of the Hanoverian kings of England helps put a woman—Queen Victoria—on the throne.

Before Christopher is 11, the gentle lad has twice been accused of murder—and once sentenced to hang for it. After that excitement, he lives a relatively uneventful life until he turns 19. Then he’s goes to Germany to learn soldiering in small state whose duchess is a daughter of the English King George III.

Christopher picks up enough hints to know there’s something odd about his parentage. When he learns that his mother had married the son of her illegitimate half brother, Christopher renounces his English connections and assumes a German name. While trying to escape his past, he smashes into it headlong. This time, however, he fights back—and wins.

Wilkins weaves together history, mystery, romance, murder, thrills, and suspense—and he handles each thread deftly. A genealogical chart helps readers unfamiliar with English history to keep the historical characters straight. Wilkins makes the invented characters sufficiently distinctive you’d know them anywhere.

And So—Victoria
By Vaughan Wilkins
Macmillan, 1937
618 pages
#4 on the 1937 bestseller list
My grade: A
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Moneyman Gives Good Value

The Moneyman, Thomas B. Costain’s novel of 15th century French intrigue and counter-intrigue. is a much better novel than the tales of the Christian era for which Costain is famous.

“The Moneyman” is Jacques Coeur, semi-official financier for Charles VII. For years, Coeur manipulated French policy through the king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel. When Agnes becomes ill, Coeur must find a replacement so the king won’t turn to other advisers after Agnes dies.

Coeur finds and trains Valerie, a poor girl who looks like Agnes. When Agnes dies shortly after Coeur and Valerie visit her, the pair is charged with her murder. Coeur’s worst enemies are to be the judges at the trial; Coeur is not allowed to examine witnesses or call witnesses.

Right to the end I couldn’t figure out how Coeur and Valerie were going to get out of their predicament—and it mattered to me that they did.

Oddly enough, neither the plot nor the characters of  The Moneyman are unusual. In The Moneyman, however, Costain has woven them so well into the historical account of battles to evict the English from France that the plot and characters seem alive.

Rediscover The Moneyman. It’s still a great read.

The Moneyman
By Thomas B. Costain
Doubleday, 1947
434 pages
#2 Bestseller for 1947
My Grade: B+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni

On The Beach is so good, it’s terrifying

On the Beach is a gripping novel of suspense and horror by a master storyteller.

I burst into tears after I finished it.

Nevil Shute (a pen name; his real name is Norway) writes quietly, warmly about people who seem familiar. There’s no blood and gore in this novel:  just the raw horror of seeing the personal effects of world events.

The book opens Dec. 27 in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear war that wiped out life in the northern hemisphere.

Radioactive particles in the atmosphere are slowly making their way south. Scientists predict they will have reached Australia by September.

Australian naval officer Peter Holmes, assigned as liaison officer on an American nuclear submarine—one of two remaining American vessels in the world—invites American Captain Dwight Towers home for the weekend.

Peter’s wife gives a party, inviting Moria Davidson to amuse the captain. Moria falls hard for the captain; he likes her, too, but he loves his wife and kids back home in Connecticut.

Besides, he has a job to do.

Radio signals have been coming intermittently from Puget Sound. Mostly the signals have been gibberish, but there have been occasional decipherable words. Captain Towers is sent to investigate.

What happens after that will terrify anyone who keeps up with world news.

On the Beach
by Nevil Shute
William Morrow,  1957.  320 pages.
#8 on the 1957 bestseller list.
My grade: A+
©2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni