Friday, September 19, 2014

The Pusher by Ed McBain: A review

The Pusher: An 87th Precinct NovelThe Pusher: An 87th Precinct Novel by Ed McBain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now this is more like it! It seems for years I've been reading about the 87th Precinct series - what a groundbreaker it was and how Ed McBain has been such an influence on writers of mysteries since the 1950s when this series started.  But after reading the first two entries in the series, I confess I was disappointed. As far as I could see they were mostly just interesting for their historical value, but I didn't find them particularly entertaining.

Then I picked up The Pusher, third in the series. He had me with the first sentence. And with the first couple of pages of that wonderfully evocative description of the city in winter, I was hooked. I could have read the book in one sitting, except I had to stop and do other things for a while. I rushed back to it as quickly as I could.

It seemed to me that McBain really hit his stride with this book. The 87th Precinct and the city began to come to life for me. I began to care about the characters.

The story starts with a patrolman walking a beat a few days before Christmas. It is bone-numbingly cold. He sees a light that shouldn't be there and goes to investigate and finds a young Hispanic man's body in a tenement basement. There is a rope around his neck and a syringe on the cot beside him. At first, it appears to be a suicide, but an autopsy reveals he had a massive dose of heroin which actually killed him and the rope around his neck was not tied in a way that the victim could have done it. It was murder.

Detective Steve Carella and newly minted detective Bert Kling catch the initial assignment. Carella has a lot of questions about the scene of the crime. Why was it set up as an obviously phony hanging? There are fingerprints all over the syringe that was found but whose are they? There is no record of them in police files. The victim was a penny ante pusher of heroin. Who was his supplier?

As Carella and the other detectives pursue answers to those questions and others, another murder occurs. This time it is a young Hispanic woman, a known prostitute. She was savagely slashed. Much of her blood had drained away before she was discovered and taken to the hospital, but she did not survive and was not able to speak. Turns out that she was the sister of the first victim - which only raises more questions.

Carella hits the streets in search of the dead pusher's possible supplier - a punk who goes by the name of Gonzo. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Byrnes of the Precinct is receiving phone calls implicating his teenage son in the crimes. He must make the decision of whether or not to reveal this to Carella as he struggles to save his drug-addicted son.

As the painfully slow step-by-step process of sorting evidence and following up clues continues, there will be even more drama for the 87th Precinct when another dead body turns up and then one of their own in shot. This is engrossing stuff. I didn't want to put the book down until all the issues were resolved.

Interestingly, in an afterword, McBain reveals that the ending of the story was not the one that he originally wrote. His publisher argued against that ending and convinced him to change it. Good decision.

The writing here is just sparkling. I found myself rereading descriptive passages time and again, just for the pure pleasure of the way the words were strung together. Okay, I do begin to see why so many writers of mysteries revere Ed McBain.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7)The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jacqueline Winspear still mines the trenches of World War I in this seventh entry in the Maisie Dobbs series. It is 1932, more than a decade past the end of hostilities and yet the war continues to have repercussions in Dobbs' life and the lives of her clients.

Her clients this time are an elderly American couple searching for their son's past. Mr. and Mrs. Clifton have recently been informed that their son's remains - he had been listed as missing in the war - have been found in France. Among their son's belongings were found some letters from an English nurse whom he had met and had apparently had an affair with. The parents hire Maisie to find the woman, who must now be in her thirties.

The son, Michael, had been a gifted cartographer and it was in that capacity that he served the British Army. In August 1914, he had been mapping the land he had just purchased in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, believing that there was oil beneath it, when he heard that war had been declared in Europe. He felt a responsibility to go to England, the land of his father's birth, and join the fight.

The value of the land that Michael had been surveying is considerable and, as part of his estate, certain parties are now anxious to have its ownership resolved, but the plot thickens when a postmortem exam of Michael's remains indicate that he was not killed by shelling as originally thought but that he had actually been murdered before the shelling.

The plot thickens even further when Michael's parents are attacked and almost killed in their hotel room. Could this attack have anything to do with the fact that they have hired Maisie Dobbs? Was the attacker trying to recover Michael's belongings, the letters perhaps? Did it have something to do with the fact that their son was murdered? Maisie's famous intuition tells her that everything is related and to solve one crime may be the key to solving the other.

While Maisie and her assistant Billy Beale pursue their inquiries, they must also deal with upheaval in their personal lives. Maisie's beloved mentor, Maurice Blanche, is very ill and it seems that he may not survive for much longer. She wants nothing more than to spend all of her time with him and yet she must meet her responsibilities to clients. Maurice would expect that.

At the same time, she begins to have romantic feelings for the son of her patroness who has sponsored and nurtured her through the years. That these feelings are obviously returned does not assuage her concern that the man's rich and powerful family may consider this a match that is beneath him.

As for Billy, his wife has recently been released from the mental hospital where she was being treated for depression following her inability to cope with the death of their daughter and now the family is trying to get back to normal, but it is not clear that that will ever happen.

And so Maisie must deal with The Mapping of Love and Death both as it pertains to her clients and to her own personal situation. It is a quandary, but Maisie Dobbs, as always, is up to the task.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Jerusalem Inn by Martha Grimes: A review

Jerusalem InnJerusalem Inn by Martha Grimes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard seems to constantly be meeting beautiful women to whom he is instantly attracted, but the attraction never goes anywhere. The women never stick. That's true again in Jerusalem Inn, but at least this time the beautiful woman has a good reason for not pursuing a relationship. She's dead.

Jury meets the lovely Helen Minton in a snow-covered graveyard in the Newcastle village of Washington at Christmastime. He has taken days off to spend Christmas with his cousin's family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and, delaying the inevitability of their company on a afternoon, is taking a walk in the graveyard when he comes upon Helen. She seems unwell and he walks her back to her home and makes a date to have dinner with her. But, on the appointed day, when he goes to collect her at the Old Hall museum where she works, he finds the local police already there. Helen Minton has been discovered dead.

She had a heart condition and at first it appears that her death may have been due to natural causes, but a postmortem confirms that she was poisoned.

Jury sets off through the snowbound countryside to find her only known relative, a cousin who is in a nearby village. Meanwhile, his aristocratic frequent sidekick, Melrose Plant, is already headed for that same village, along with Aunt Agatha and Vivian Rivington, one of Jury's previous "beautiful women who didn't stick." Melrose, Agatha, and Vivian are going to a Christmas house party at a famous critic's house, along with a number of writers and artists.

Tensions are apparent from the beginning among the various house partiers, but who would ever guess that those tensions would end in murder? Well, only someone reading a Martha Grimes cozy mystery perhaps.

Soon, a thoroughly disliked member of the party is found dead in the snow, having been shot, and Jury and the local constabulary, as well as Melrose Plant, seek the murderer. But was this murder somehow related to the murder of Helen Minton and why does the critic's wife seem to be fading fast? Another case of poisoning perhaps?

Well, we can be sure, of course, that Superintendent Jury will make all the necessary connections and that murder will out and justice be served. In a manner of speaking anyway.

This series is a fun and light read, not at all taxing for a hot summer day. All problems are solved and inconvenient facts are swept under the rug by the ending.

And the handsome Richard Jury who is always very attractive to the women and young girls in his cases still hasn't found a woman who'll stick.  

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September 2014

Welcome to Bloom Day in my September garden. Thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting this monthly tour of gardens around the world once again.

Here in Southeast Texas, for the last two days we have been enjoying our first really cool and pleasant weather since spring. The official beginning of autumn is still a week in the future and yet one might almost believe that it has arrived early.

My mid-September garden does not have an abundance of blooms. We are in transition here. The summer bloomers are slowly shutting down and fall bloomers are just beginning. Still, there are some colors to be found in addition to the falling leaves.

Some of the color is provided not by blossoms but by berries. Beautyberries, in this case. This shrub with the white berries still remains mostly untouched by the birds, while the shrubs with purple fruits have already been pretty much stripped of their berries.
 Lantana is in its glory at this time of year.

Here is the cream and gold.

The purple trailing lantana.

And 'Dallas Red.'

Autumn clematis lives up to its name.
 The esperanzas, too, enjoy the late summer/early fall weather.

The mahogany esperanza.

And the traditional yellow, known familiarly as "Yellow Bells."

All of the basils look forward to autumn. None more than African blue basil, a favorite with bees. 

The butterfly gingers continue their bloom.

Turk's Cap - a favorite with the migrating hummingbirds. 

The weird little purple blossoms of porterweed.

Blue plumbago is one of my most dependable summer and autumn bloomers.

Crossvine is covered in these trumpet-shaped blossoms in spring but continues to send out a few of them right through the summer and fall months.

The salvia named 'Coral Nymph.'

The datura sends out a quantity of these creamy blossoms every night. By midday the next day, they have closed. 

Finally, the pineapple sage also is blooming, another boon to passing hummingbirds.
It may be that we have seen the last of our mid-90s F. weather with triple digit heat indices for this year and we look forward to mild days ahead. If those mild days can provide us with occasional rains - well, indeed, my gardener's cup will runneth over!

Happy Bloom Day!

Poetry Sunday: September

Saturday was the first cool day we've had since spring. The temperature never got above 80 degrees F. and a cool breeze ruffled the leaves all day, making them fall even faster. One could actually begin to believe that autumn is almost here, playing hide and seek with us, peeking from behind that tree, winking at us from scudding gray clouds.

Autumn is a season loved by poets. And by me.

Looking at poetry of the season this week, I came across this description of September, written by an early 20th century poet, Hilaire Belloc. It paints a vivid picture of these days "with summer's best of weather, and autumn's best of cheer" and reminds us in the last stanza of why September is so special for many of us.


by Hilaire Belloc

 The golden-rod is yellow; 
 The corn is turning brown;
 The trees in apple orchards
 With fruit are bending down.

 The gentian's bluest fringes
 Are curling in the sun;
 In dusty pods the milkweed
 Its hidden silk has spun.

The sedges flaunt their harvest,
In every meadow nook;
And asters by the brook-side
Make asters in the brook,

From dewy lanes at morning
The grapes' sweet odors rise;
At noon the roads all flutter
With yellow butterflies.

By all these lovely tokens 
September days are here,
With summer's best of weather,
And autumn's best of cheer.

But none of all this beauty
Which floods the earth and air
Is unto me the secret
Which makes September fair.

'T is a thing which I remember;
To name it thrills me yet:
One day of one September
I never can forget.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

This week in birds - #125

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

House Finches are among my favorite visitors to my feeders at all seasons of the year.

The female...

And her mate.
Finches frequently visit in family groups, so if you see one, there's a good chance you might see four or five at least but you can be pretty well assured of seeing a pair. They are inseparable.


The big news in the world of North American birds this week was the report by the Audubon Society which detailed the anticipated effects of climate change on the species that make their homes here. The prospects are grim. A study, the results of which were announced on Monday, found that climate change is likely to so alter the bird population of North America that about half of the approximately 650 species will be driven to smaller spaces or forced to find new places to live, feed and breed over the next 65 years. If they do not or cannot, they could become extinct.


The annual State of the Birds report, compiled and sponsored by a number of conservation groups, was also released this week. It gives us a snapshot of what bird life on the continent is like in 2014, 100 years after the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon


In an article published online by Science magazine on Thursday, scientists described the discovery of a bizarre-looking predatory dinosaur that was larger than Tyrannosaurus rex and that swam and dined on fish.  


In a report that buoys the spirits of those of us of a certain age, scientists say that elderly seabirds are able to dive every bit as well as their younger counterparts.


A decade of research on Common Loons in the Adirondacks has identified threats to the birds in that area and has provided suggestions on how best to protect them.


Rhinoceros beetles are so named because of the impressive horns on their heads and their fighting styles make full use of those weapons.


A new report shows that concentrations of nearly all the major greenhouse gases reached historic highs in 2013. Levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose at a record-shattering pace, surprising scientists and spurring fears of an accelerated warming of the planet in the coming decades.


Old World vultures have learned to use social cues from birds of prey, like eagles, to help them find food. They watch the raptors to learn where there might be a carcass on which they can feed.


In more bad news from the climate change front, a new report states that iconic pine and aspen forests in the Rocky Mountains are dying off at an alarming rate because of the warming climate.


Ring-billed Gulls along the southern shores of Lake Michigan have learned to hunt migrating songbirds as a part of their diet.


If you are a person with an insect phobia, you need to get over yourself! In fact, most insects are either beneficial or at least harmless and, of course, many of them are beautiful and quite fascinating. Without them, life as we know it would not exist, because that life depends on pollination, and pollination, to a very large degree, depends on insects.  


Rails are a fascinating family of birds. Once scattered over the islands of the Pacific, at least two of their species became extinct as a result of World War II. But these days, rails are making a comeback on the islands. A new wave of different species of the birds is successfully colonizing there.


Finally, in some very good news, a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, found that dangerous pesticide levels have dropped dramatically in U. S. rivers and streams since 1992 due to the development of safer pesticides and stricter legal restrictions on their use. At the beginning of the study, virtually all streams nationwide contained toxic levels of pesticides, but in the most recent decade of the study, only one stream was found with such concentrations. 


Around the backyard:

Hummingbird activity in the yard has become frantic this week as more and more migrants come through.

Most of the visitors this week have been female Ruby-throats, like this one photographed at one of my feeders today, along with some juveniles. I also saw at least one adult male RTH.

But I'm also seeing more Rufous Hummers, like this female feeding at one of my hamelia shrubs today. I think this one may actually be one of the birds that has wintered with us for the last couple of years, because whenever she finishes feeding, she heads straight for the exact perch that has been favored by one of those birds.

And here she is - surveying her domain.