I recently had the good fortune to read two new collections of mystery short stories. This is my idea of perfect armchair or bedtime summer reading, as the stories are focused on character and setting, but not so much on a detailed plot.
Bruno’s Challenge and Other Stories of the French Countryside by Martin Walker
If you’d like to read about Bruno, Chief of Police visiting the weekly market in St. Denis France, and then cooking or enjoying the local food and drink with a collection of villagers, then look no further. Berries from a local French or farmer’s market make an excellent accompaniment to the stories. Occasional trips around the southwest region of France, horseback riding, and a cave in Lascaux add to the ambience. The mysteries are slight and easily solved by Bruno and company. The other 14 books begin with Bruno, Chief of Police. Some of these get rather dark in tone, though the writing and setting are always top notch.
The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood
If you’d rather visit Melbourne, Australia in 1928 or 1929, the delightful Miss Phryne Fisher will be your guide. Elegant, witty, and streetwise, Phryne is delightful and extremely well-dressed company, who occasionally takes justice into her own hands. Raised poor and currently rich and generous, Phryne shines in a wide variety of settings and mysteries. Sometimes the mystery is simply to discover if there’s actually been a crime, or just an accident. Another story features an eloping couple and no crime at all. Four of these stories are brand new; some older stories have been recently revised. Phryne is popular for the television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and has delighted mystery readers in 21 other books, beginning with Cocaine Blues and (so far) ending with Death in Daylesford.
The summer of 1927 in America was a momentous one, wonderfully recounted by Bill Bryson. Readers will be amazed, informed, and entertained. The most exciting event was the successful flight of Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in May. Many others attempted to fly across the Atlantic; most failed. Lindbergh, 25, became an instant celebrity; the last thing he wanted. His visit to New York City of his return to receive a medal was broadcast on radio nationwide.
In the most catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River in history, over 700,000 American were displaced, but no federal funds were provided. Herbert Hoover was sent to oversee relief efforts, helping him get elected President the next year. “Silent Cal” Coolidge spent three month in the Black Hills of South Dakota, fishing and wearing a cowboy outfit, and declined to run for re-election as President. The carving of Mt. Rushmore began.
Sports and theater captured America’s attention in 1927. Large and elaborate movie and Broadway theaters were built, hundreds of silent movies were filmed and Broadway shows with huge casts were popular. Al Jolson spoke on screen in the first “talkie”. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig led the New York Yankees in a record-breaking season. The Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney boxing match was a huge event.
In 1927, crime also fascinated America. Anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were put on trial, Al Capone’s Chicago outfit brought in more than $100 million, and the Snyder-Gray murder trial got more publicity than the Mississippi River flood. All told, the summer of 1927 was quite memorable.
The audiobook is narrated by Bryson, an excellent narrator.
This is the latest book in the the Australian mystery series set in and around Melbourne in the 1920s. The first book is the unfortunately named Cocaine Blues. Phryne grew up poor in Melbourne before her father inherited an aristocratic title, drove an ambulance in World War I, and was an artist’s model in Paris. Now she’s single and wealthy in Melbourne, and a fearless private detective. She has lots of adventures, and has a lover, as well as two adopted daughters. In the latest outing, pregnant women who had been living (and working) at a convent have gone missing from their maternity house, along with Polly, a reporter who was searching for them. Phryne also acquires a new member of the household, 14-year-old Tinker. For more about Phryne and her friends, visit the author’s website. Greenwood also write the Corinna Chapman series, set in modern day Melbourne. Read my review of Earthly Delights here.
Before the space race, before the sound barrier, the conquest of Mount Everest was the final frontier, or so the British public thought after the disaster of World War I. The two poles had already been visited, and the British Raj were engaged in a tremendous effort to map India and the surrounding areas. In their endeavors they discovered the highest mountain in the world. Many veterans were terribly disenchanted with the war and its aftermath. Britain’s honor, dragged through the mud and gore at the Battle of the Somme, must be restored, but how? Everest was the answer. The British must conquer it or die trying.
Into the Silence chronicles three British expeditions launched in the early 1920s to attempt to climb Everest. There were numerous factors working against them. First was the woefully inadequate equipment. Clothing, climbing gear, tents, stoves, and oxygen tanks (if they had them), were not made to withstand the rigors of the extraordinary altitude. It would be like sending a man into space without a spaceship or spacesuit. Second was the non-cooperation of the local people. The Buddhist monks held that Everest, or Chomolungma as they knew it, was a sacred place guarded by demons, who would cast out anyone trying to climb its rarified slopes. Sherpas, who really are the unsung heroes in any Everest climb, before or since, were not in the business of climbing at that time. They all thought the British were mad. Why go to all the trouble of climbing the mountain? Of course we know why, “because it is there”, as Mallory famously stated. Thirdly, Nepal was closed to foreigners, and the expedition had to take an indirect route from their base in Darjeeling, India, adding about 150 miles to the route. In the end, the expeditions met with failure. On the second try, ten porters were swept to their deaths. On the third try, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared while attempting to summit Everest.
At 655 pages, this book was a bit of a challenge, with some sections bogged down in detailed descriptions of the expeditions and their privations, but the author gives the reader a great feel for what the people in the expeditions experienced.