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Monday, June 27, 2016

Review: The Case of the One-Penny Orange by EV Cunningham (pseu. of Howard Fast)

Charming detective story. Howard Fast was a prolific writer across many genres. I had not realized that he also wrote a series of detective novels under the EV Cunningham pen name that have been recently re-issued under his real name by Open Road Media (bless them.) They feature a tenacious Nisei detective, Masao Matsui. For those who don’t know, Nisei was a term invented to describe those of Japanese heritage born in the United States. (Don’t get me started on the inherent xenophobia of these kinds of designations.)

As you might have guessed, the case involves a stamp and the murder of a stamp dealer. The murders escalate and the provenance of the stamp and its effect on a twelve-year-old become important, not to mention Buchenwald. Matsui, head of the Beverly Hills homicide squad, is a treat to watch as he interacts with his colleagues and boss employing the “kill ‘em with kindness” technique. Little action, well, except for the three chain-wielding motorcyclists, just good dialogue and intriguing plot.

For those who care about such things (I find them endlessly fascinating, including Lawrence Block’s creation Keller’s passion for stamps) the one-penny orange was first issued in 1847 in Mauritius and is one of the rarest of all stamps. The history is quite interesting. You can find more at

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: Natural Causes by James Oswald

Newly minted Inspector McLean is assigned a ridiculously difficult case. A girl, dead for at least fifty years, has been found walled up and ritually disemboweled in the basement of a house being renovated. Another case involves an important local man and some recent burglaries. And to top it off, McLean’s grandmother dies leaving him 5 million pounds.

It’s a moderately interesting story although some of the events, like the inheritance, seem superfluous unless intended to be relevant in future series title. Fortunately, the hint of supernatural involvement remained just that, but even the mere suggestion was a bit off-putting.

The author says in a note that the novel was fleshed out from a short-story and it does have a bloated feel sometimes. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable and I’ll continue with the series.

N.B. The publisher’s blurb is stupid.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The GOP Convention, or, I'm Renegging on a Prediction

A year ago, at the beginning of the primary season, I predicted, to the disdain and ridicule of my friends, that Donald Trump would be the GOP nominee. I collected on several bets. I could see the anger and disgust with Washington, hence my prediction. I am revising that prediction; I now think it will be an establishment candidate, not Mitt Romney, although he’s been angling for it with gusto the last couple of months, but probably Paul Ryan who doesn’t want to be the candidate as much as he didn’t want to be Speaker of the House.

My reasoning is simple. The Republican establishment, you know the Washington types who all live in the same bubble, are terrified that a Trump candidacy will bring about an election tsunami that will sweep away the GOP majority in the House and devastate their House majority. Establishment Republicans dominate the convention rules committee. I don’t think Trump understands the importance of the rules of the convention. He’s used to a corporate environment where the executive is really an executive and runs the show. Hah.

The Rules Committee will simply argue that the delegates can vote for whomever they please on the first ballot in order to bring some consistency to procedure since many states have as many different rules regarding delegate slates, etc. Then, behind the scenes they will convince enough delegates to vote for a favorite son or someone else on the first ballot, just enough to deny a first ballot victory to Trump. Then all bets are off, and Romney will try to ride in on a white charger to save the party, but he will be seen more as riding a mule. Now Paul Ryan, on the other hand, who has been cleverly saying how much he won’t take the nomination (we’ve heard that before, too) but will ultimately succumb. That’s why he did the about face on supporting Trump; he doesn’t want it to appear he’s angling for himself, which of course, he certainly is.

The Establishment will rightly argue that with Hillary’s negatives as high as they are, a Ryan nomination will easily prevent the tsunami and save the day by winning with a Ryan candidacy. Ryan has little negative baggage and would be a formidable candidate. Will that strategy piss off a lot of Trump’s supporters? Sure, but the Establishment doesn’t care because they want to win and they think most of them would rather vote for Ryan (who ostensibly supports Trump) than the devil Hillary. They see that as a path to victory and there’s nothing the political establishment likes better than that road.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review: Deadly Honeymoon

It’s wonderful that many books that would have disappeared into the ether never to be read again are being reissued as ebooks. Lawrence Block is resurrecting many of his early books, some written pseudonymously and now released under his true name. Pulp fiction and cheap paperbacks were often the best way for writers to break into the business and to support themselves early in their careers.

Deadly Honeymoon is just such an early Block and the first book of his to be optioned for movie rights. It follows David and Jill, newly weds (she’s still a virgin at 24 true to the morays of the fifties) and they are unfortunate enough to witness the mob hit on a man hiding from gangsters in the cabin next to them while on their honeymoon. They are seen and David is beaten while Jill is being raped. They mention none of this to the police who come to investigate the killing, but immediately plot their revenge and much of the book follows their search for the killers about which they know very little. Their investigation presages the detective work of Block’s later protagonists like Scudder.

My only complaint, and this is related more to the novella’s anachronistic content, was the prosaic and utterly predictable ending.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Review: Keller's Fedora by Lawrence Block

If this keeps up, I may have to take up stamp collecting. A new Keller novella is always worth celebrating and when I saw several for sale as Kindle singles on Amazon, I snapped them all up. This one does not disappoint and has the usual waggish dialogue, puns, and stamps including Keller's own unique way of handling a ticklish problem. Not to mention a fedora -- that's new.

So why do football teams put their logos and colors on baseball hats?

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Stanford rape case. How can we learn from it.

For those unfamiliar with the case the basic facts are that a 19 yr-old Stanford swimmer, at the end of a party, found a woman lying on the ground unconscious and proceeded to do something on top of her when he was discovered by two students bicycling by. They chased him and he was apprehended and initially charged with rape until DNA evidence revealed it didn’t meet the criteria for rape; i.e., she had been penetrated by a foreign object, in this case his finger (hence the sex offender label for the perpetrator.) Note that technically what the student did was not rape but sexual assault (there was no penile penetration which is required for rape under California law.)

Instead of rushing to judgment on this individual case, our society needs a serious and unemotional discussion of a wide assortment of issues and questions. I note some below.

What role should universities play in adjudicating issues between students and non-students. Isn’t rape far too serious a crime to be left to faculty who have no subpoena or investigatory powers. Are they consistent in their punishments? Is there another case of a student being banned for life from Stanford for a similar crime? Was it a pre-existing policy or one invented for the moment and because of public pressure?

We need to have a serious discussion and examination of why we put people in prison. Someone once said that in the United States we incarcerate those we don’t like rather than those we should be afraid of. How is society better served in this case by applying a ten year prison sentence as opposed to a six-month, or one-year, or whatever. What rationale is used to determine the best length of sentence? Do we accept as a societal value that people can change or do we assume that once a bad actor, always a bad actor.
What role did the wealth of the parents and their ability to hire a fancy lawyer have in the sentencing? If the fellow had been black would the outcome have been very different?

How can we design trials so that victims aren’t revictimized during the trial? On the other hand, the Supreme Court had prohibited the use of victim impact statements in capital cases as interfering with due process, a decision that was reversed in 1991. How do we balance the rights of the accused with those of the victim and remove emotion from what should be an impartial judicial proceeding?

Far too little has been said about the movement to remove the judge because of the perceived “injustice” of the sentence. Liberals for years have railed against conservatives trying to remove judges and justices (successfully in Iowa) for unpopular decisions. How is that different here? If the sentence was wrong, the California ethics commission should deal with it, not a bunch of pitchfork-laden petitioners.

Are we applying the “sex-offender” label too broadly thus removing important distinctions between youthful stupidity and serial child molesters (the Catholic Church has gotten off extremely lightly, for example.) Go to a sex offender map of your hometown and you will be astounded by their prevalence yet few details. Is punishment intended to be perpetual?

We all too often overlook the role of alcohol in crime. Apparently, both people involved were hammered. Would events have been different had either one or both had less to drink? I suspect so and two lives would have followed a very different course. It’s time for society to stop setting the example of having fun only when drunk.

Unfortunately, the case has been used by zealots of all variety to manipulate the facts of the case to their own advantage (to raise money among other things.) This serves neither the victim nor society. The judge's ruling was actually more severe that that imposed by a Utah judge on a man convicted of raping two fully conscious women. What role did the Internet have in creating the outrage over the Stanford case?


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Review: Blind Mission by Avichai Schmidt

I really enjoyed this thriller that was marred only by a total breakdown of copy-editing. I mean really. Ultimately, the author has to take responsibility for not catching numerous word omissions, misspellings, and other egregious errors. That being said the story has everything else one could want: an intelligent protagonist who uses his brain for once rather than bashing, and an iniquitous, insidious, and ingenious plot.

Take your average joe, a salesman, who gets invited to visit a company for a possible large sale only to be driven blindfolded to a warehouse where he is offered a job with a terrorist operation. He declines and is driven back whence he came only to discover his entire life has been turned upside down. He has no job, his bank accounts have been canceled, supposedly he was killed in a car crash, and then he ostensibly commits a murder. Little does he know that all his actions are being foretold and manipulated by, well, just who is pulling the strings, cords that he realizes are being pulled, but which actions are what they want him to do and which are him taking the reins of his life to get out from under them. Very clever.

It’s a terrific read, four stars rather than five for the lousy proofing.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Why are Christians so Anxious to Have Atheist Deathbed Conversions?

Lawrence Krauss has nice essay on the rather fanatical insistence on the part of some Evangelicals that famous atheists have had deathbed conversions to Christianity (never Islam or whatever.) He, and others, have suggested that much like going to church on Sundays, it helps validate their faith, even more so if the "convertee" is someone famous and highly respected.

In the end, what evangelists don’t recognize is that atheism is not a belief system like Christianity, from which one might defect after hearing some arguments or having a few sombre conversations. It is, instead, simply a rational decision not to accept the existence of God without evidence. As wise thinkers, including Laplace, Hume, Sagan, and Hitchens, have often said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s hard to imagine a more extraordinary claim than that some hidden intelligence created a universe of more than a hundred billion galaxies, each containing more than a hundred billion stars, and then waited more than 13.7 billion years until a planet in a remote corner of a single galaxy evolved an atmosphere sufficiently oxygenated to support life, only to then reveal his existence to an assortment of violent tribal groups before disappearing again.

Review: Berlin Burning: A Weimar Republic Murder Mystery novella by Damien Seaman

This novella takes place in 1932 and highlights the tension between the political thuggery of the Brownshirts and the regular police forces as the Nazis came to power. It follows the investigation of Kriminalkommissar Trautman and his assistant Roth into the murder of a Brownshirt. The presumed murderer is the dead man’s girlfriend, daughter of a local mafia-type boss and because of the political implications the Schutzpolizei, Schupo for short, under Kessler want to wrest control away from Trautman.

The Kripo (Kriminalpolizei) were the investigative branch of the state who, similar to our detectives squads while the Schutzpolizei were the uniformed branch ostensibly charged with enforcing the more prosaic laws although the overlap and distinctions became quite nebulous as various groups sought power in the thirties in Germany. By 1936, the Kripo had become a national police force with the most power, as far as I can determine.

It’s an OK story that suffers from its brevity. In a full novel the conflict and tensions between the regular police forces and those being taken over by the Nazis to promote their insidious political goals could have been explored in more depth and with more clarity, something Philip Kerr does so well in his Bernie Gunther series.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Review: Making of a Submarine Officer by Alexander Fleming

I very much enjoyed this book, which will probably be of limited interest to most people not of a nautical bent. Fleming had never faced failure in his life having been a superior student and one that learned things easily, yet his first cruise on the nuclear submarine San Francisco was a difficult one as he was forced to learn how to function in a group where everyone had to rely on everyone else and contained a melange of personalities. It covers events from 2002-2005 and was certainly not uneventful having a underwater grounding that resulted in considerable damage to the hull.

Fleming had graduated from my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania with honors in physics and Russian, but after the first year he was close to a nervous breakdown (his words) and wondering if he would spend the last three years of his Naval commitment sitting at a desk.

I’ve read a lot of nautical memoirs but this is the first that really makes you feel part of the ship and feel his pain as he navigates his way through the labyrinth of naval etiquette and responsibility, usually exhausted from the strain of studying to qualify for different jobs on board a ship suffering from constant material failures and being sent to Guam which had just been hit by a major typhoon and had never serviced a nuclear sub. The paperwork alone seemed enough to sink any vessel. Much of that paperwork stems from an effort to make everything perfect (a system that must have totally broken down during their overhaul.) The Naval Sea Systems Command, which controls everything concerning materials and design of ships, created a new standard of material and work control for all the things that make up a submarine. Every bolt, valve, o-ring, and lubricant that goes into a submarine must be perfect, certified, and able to be traced to its origin. If any discrepancies exist, then the piece will not be allowed, and someone has to have locked positive control of it for its entire ‘life.’ The Navy intentionally staffs QA jobs with the most uncompromising and disciplined people that it can find. These people can stop any boat in its tracks if they find even the smallest documentation problem.

Space is at a premium, especially as the junior most officer. After he first steps on board he “immediately discover[s] the first problem of being on a submarine: you are always in the way, no matter where you stand. Submarine passageways are only wide enough for one set of shoulders; if two people pass each other they have to turn sideways, and their chests still touch with both backs on the wall. At the bottom of the ladder, I immediately cause a road-block because I do not know which way to go. Several people give me nasty looks as I finally follow Brown down the steep ladder one more level. We walk aft past an endless stream of people staring at me since I am apparently the fresh meat for the grinder. The hallways are crowded with equipment affixed everywhere. There are lockers and boxes hanging in every space, and I feel surrounded on all sides. There is no wasted space.”

Mistakes happen when many in the crew are newbies. The one that sprayed 700 gallons of raw sewage over the galley area because a junior mechanic misaligned a valve was one of the most disgusting. Cuts and small injuries heal much slower on board because the oxygen mixture is reduced to only 18-20 percent. (Normal outside would be about 21 percent.) This reduces the chances of fire. Some captains would reward the crew by increasing the oxygen content by a percentage point.

The San Francisco had been bedeviled by a loud noise all during her transit to Guam and thereafter. Finally the Navy decided something needed to be done since a loud submarine is probably worse than no submarine and she was sent to San Diego into drydock where they discovered that during her overhaul, the San Francisco had been fitted with the wrong screw by the Norfolk yard, probably to save money. The fix cost millions for repairs not to mention the negative consequences on her mission readiness.

The repairs to the bow following the collision with the sea mountain while running at flank speed at a depth of 525 feet were fascinating. (That they survived is testimony to the hard work of the crew.) They cut the bow off the soon to be decommissioned USS Honolulu and welded it on the San Francisco at a cost of $79 million. Still in service it is expected to retire in 2017.

Fleming conclude the Guam experiment was an expensive failure, but it seems to me only because of problems with the San Francisco, a ship seemingly bedeviled by numerous material failures culminating in the underwater collision that very nearly sank the boat. Fleming’s coming of age, learning hard lessons from several captains, is painfully revealed, but I suspect much of his difficulty stemmed from being coddled in expensive and privileged boarding schools.

Nevertheless, I had difficulty putting this book down.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Review: The Crossing by Michael Connelly

Audiobook: The title has multiple meanings in the context of the story: it refers to looking for connections in an investigation, i.e. where the paths of suspects or witnesses might meet; and when a former cop jumps sides and starts working for the defense.

Bosch agrees to work for his half-brother, Mickey Haller, in defense of a man accused of a particularly heinous rape and murder. Haller is convinced the man is innocent even though the evidence against him, including his DNA found in the victim, seems overwhelming.

One of the better Bosch books, which are all quite good. What makes this one particularly interesting is that Bosch gets to see the justice system from the point of view of the defense and Connelly does a very nice job portraying the conflicts within Bosch as he works through the investigation, one in which a missing watch holds the key.

Read excellently by Titus Welliver who plays Bosch in the TV series (also excellent.)

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Favor (Stanley Hastings No. 3) by Parnell Hall

Review: Poor Stanley Hastings. While attempting to do a favor for his old antagonist/friend Sgt. MacAuliffe who is worried about his daughter, Hastings gets himself charged with two murders and grand larceny. Needless to say he has a way of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stanley’s main job is working for an ambulance-chasing attorney by signing up clients in wrongful injury suits. I’ve read several of the Hastings series as well as Hall’s Puzzle Lady books, and they never fail to entertain. Each has a comic flair in the dialogue and endearing characters. Leave your literary criticism at home as well as the rational part of your brain and just enjoy them for what they are: just good light, entertainments.