Blog Posts by David

  • "Sherlock Holmes: The American Years"
    edited by Michael Kurland
    Minotaur, 347 pp., $25.99
    Reviewed by David Marshall James

    Michael Kurland has assembled a smashing sampling of new short fiction, all based on the premise that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famed detective, Sherlock Holmes, visited the United States at least once during his illustrious fictional lifetime.

    All of these stories transpire during the 1870s and 1880s, placing Holmes as anywhere from a gawky teenager to a still-gawky man in his early twenties, practicing his nascent detecting skills while continuing to ponder his career path.

    Most of the pieces clarify that Holmes has had at least a bit of university training (Cambridge generally receives the honors), that he has studied chemistry and theorizes that a crime scene should be examined as scientifically as possible.

    Four selections herein find Holmes in the wild, wild west, addressing highway robberies in Rhys Bowen's "Cutting for Sign" and Linda Robertson's

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  • "Short Squeeze" by Chris Knopf: Book Review

    "Short Squeeze" by Chris Knopf
    Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, 274 pp., $24.99
    Reviewed by David Marshall James

    When "The Hamptons" and "attorney" are grouped in the same sentence, they conjure images of Oriental rugs, buttery leather furniture, and mahogany credenzas topped with sterling-silver-framed photographs and antique ship models.

    When the Hamptons attorney in question is Jackie Swaitkowski-- that's "Ms. Swaitkowski" to you, buster-- then picture a vintage Toyota pickup, random piles of takeout coffee cups, jumbled cardboard boxes in every room, and haphazard stacks of papers on every available surface, mahogany or otherwise (mostly otherwise).

    Let's not forget her ashtrays, brimming not only with cigarette stubs (to be relit in emergencies, which arrive frequently), but also with half-smoked roaches (ready for refiring as well).

    Ms. Swaitkowski's environs may be as unruly as her perpetually frizzed-out, strawberry blonde hair, but hand the lady a mysterious client who winds up

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  • "Death by the Book" by Lenny Bartulin: Book Review

    "Death by the Book" by Lenny Bartulin
    Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, 249 pp., $24.99
    Reviewed by David Marshall James

    The setting is Sydney, Australia, and the author is, unsurprisingly, Australian.

    Nevertheless, debut novelist Lenny Bartulin's mystery owes a deep, sweeping bow to American film noir-- to drippy winter weather reflective of the characters' moods;

    To bare trees, casting their skeleton-like branches into eerie shadows;

    To dead leaves shifting in the misty glow of a streetlight on a deserted street corner;

    To characters who are out of their respective elements, thereby attracting one another as never would happen under ordinary circumstances, then attempting to manipulate one another toward a twisted end.

    "Death by the Book" (first published in Australia as "A Deadly Business") involves a rare (read: used) books seller in a no-frills, walkdown shop in Sydney. He's not exactly rolling in dough, so when a megamillionaire summons Jack Susko to his manse, offering tempting

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  • "Gone 'Til November" by Wallace Stroby: Book Review

    "Gone 'Til November" by Wallace Stroby
    Minotaur, 294 pp., $24.99
    Reviewed by David Marshall James

    For those who favor a lean, tautly written police procedural-- with an accent on firearms and plenty of them-- then Wallace Stroby's third novel will come as something in which to revel.

    Actually, the "bad guys" are as much in evidence as "the good guys" herein, to employ the parlance of a recent vice-presidential candidate.

    Stroby's plot centers on a large cash transaction between a drug lord in Newark, New Jersey (the author resides in that state), and a drug-dealing group (this one Haitian) in Welst Palm Beach, Florida.

    That strand of story is wrapped around that of a suspicious shooting death involving a police officer in backwater St. Charles County, (mid-peninsula) Florida.

    Although the author introduces members of that county's Sheriff Office, as well as the head guy himself (a Vietnam vet originally from Mississippi), including a romance-gone-sour (yet lingering, like an

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  • "Nothing With Strings" by Bailey White: Book Review

    "Nothing With Strings"
    by Bailey White
    Scribner, 193 pp., $24
    Reviewed by David Marshall James

    Bailey White's short fiction-- its structure, style, and nuances-- is as Southern as a bank of azaleas under a stand of loblolly pines.

    There's something decidedly Southern about someone, especially a writer, who is still residing in the home in which she was raised. In White's for-instance, that home is located in Thomasville, Georgia, where she taught first grade for many years.

    Ten years have transpired since White, also a commentator for NPR (where these pieces were first presented), has produced the story collections "Mama Makes Up Her Mind" and "Sleeping at the Starlite Motel," so this new volume comes as a long-awaited event. Well, make that "a treasure."

    Think of a tale you have heard a relative repeat until it is worn as smooth as a creek pebble, and you have something on the order of "MIss Wigglesworth's Bull," the story of a spinster schoolteacher of yore that feels as if

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  • "You Can't Drink All Day If You Don't Start in the Morning"
    by Celia Rivenbark
    St. Martin's, 243 pp., $24.99
    Reviewed by David Marshall James


    She's back and sassier than ever, dripping sarcasm like peach juice runnin' down yo' face on a hot July afternoon.

    In this fifth collection of (truly) humorous pieces by syndicated columnist Celia Rivenbark, of Wilmington, N.C., she's cussin' and carryin' on about assorted matters pop-cultural (BTW: great take on Sin-ator Edwards), about how the South has changed since we were young-uns-- when "convenience" stores (read: country stores) had wooden floors worn smooth as satin, and nothin' beat a col' Co' Cola and a bag of salty peanuts.

    And, Gladys Kravitz was a cultural touchstone (LOVE the piece on Gladys, Facebook, and the new neighbors).

    Yes, our worlds may not have lined up perfectly back in the day, but they DID line up, like the square of cobbler due north of the Salisbury steak on the TV dinner trays (foil, of course--

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  • "The Lock Artist" by Steve Hamilton: Book Review

    "The Lock Artist" by Steve Hamilton
    Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, 304 pp., $24.99
    Reviewed by David Marshall James

    The suspense winds up, time and again, in Edgar- and Shamus-Award-winning author Steve Hamilton's portrait of a seventeen-year-old safecracker and lock picker.

    Add "talented artist" to that list. One may ponder why the youthful Michael of Milford, Michigan (a bedroom town for Detroit commuters) doesn't apply himself in the direction of art school, while supporting himself as a locksmith.

    First strike against that scenario: He survived a gruesome family trauma at age eight, an event that left him inexplicably (at least in the minds of experts and specialists) speechless.

    Thus immersed in a brave new, private world, Michael has naturally submerged himself in introspection, in "alone" pursuits in further isolating, dreary environs, fiddling around with old locks being one of those.

    Hamilton doesn't unveil the details of Michael's life-altering trauma until late in the story,

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  • "Death of a Valentine" by M.C. Beaton: Book Review

    "Death of a Valentine" by M.C. Beaton
    Grand Central, 246 pp., $23.99
    Reviewed by David Marshall James

    Prolific British mystery writer M.C. Beaton has tallied up a twenty-fifth serving of Scottish village police constable Hamish Macbeth, he of the Highlands-red hair and hazel eyes, who's quite content in his rustic office/dwelling, with its peat-burning fires.

    He keeps sheep and hens out back, and his pet "beasties" inside: dog Lugs, and an unusual cat name Sonsie.

    Yet only a fool would think less of Hamish's abilities and detective skills, given a glimpse of the trappings of his village idylls. He's solved many a murder case that has been presumed closed or left for cold.

    Nevertheless, he is not seeking promotion, being that rara avis who's happy just (or "chust," in the Highlands brogue) where he is.

    By and large, the residents of Lochdub, a fishing village on the west coast, are pleased with him. Och, they could easily have someone instead who's a wee numptie! The vicar's

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  • "Bette Davis: Larger Than Life"
    by Richard Schickel and George Perry
    Running Press, 264 pp., $35 (oversize)
    Reviewed by David Marshall James

    No cinema actress has ever topped Bette Davis, who became an international sensation with her performance in "Of Human Bondage" (1934).

    She won her first Academy Award the following year, for "Dangerous," although most film historians concur that it was a bit of a consolation prize for not even being nominated for her unsympathetic role in "Of Human Bondage."

    In any event, the die was cast, and Davis was poised to commence an incredible run of brilliant performances in many films that have since become classics.

    From 1938 to 1942, she received Best Actress nominations every year, winning at the outset for "Jezebel." She ought to have won again at least once during those golden years, particularly for "Now, Voyager" (1942).

    However, she had earned a reputation in Hollywood for being "difficult" (an adjective she wore as a badge of honor),

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  • "The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer": Book Review

    "The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer"
    Edited by Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger, and Eric Davis
    Alfred A. Knopf, 462 pp., $65 (oversize)
    Reviewed by David Marshall James

    Johnny Mercer's career trajectory took a different path from those of such other top lyricists of The Great American Songbook as Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart, and from those of the composer/lyricists Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.

    While those gifted gentlemen wrote chiefly for Broadway (and their songs were thus ineligible for Academy Awards when the shows were made into films), Mercer received eighteen Academy Award nominations for Best Song, garnering four wins.

    Mercer also collaborated with a vast array of composers, from Hoagy Carmichael to Henry Mancini, and even with such surprising partners as Fred Astaire and Barry Manilow. He even composed some of his own melodies, although close friend and singer Margaret Whiting states that he was not an accomplished pianist.

    He did have some modest

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