June Reads

Saturday, June 29, 2019

A couple of mysteries and a look back into the pulp fiction age.

Maids of Misfortune - M. Louisa Locke

An amateur sleuth mystery set in Victorian San Francisco.
Annie Fuller is a widow who owns a boarding house and makes extra money as Sibyl, a fortuneteller. She uses her expertise in things financial (learned from her deceased father) to counsel Sibyl’s clients.
Matthew Voss is a client who has profited handsomely from Sibyl’s advice. When Matthew doesn’t arrive for an appointment, Annie learns that he’s dead, an apparent suicide. Surprisingly, Nate Dawson, the Voss family lawyer, informs Annie that she was left a substantial amount of money in Matthew’s will. There’s only one problem: all of Matthew’s assets have disappeared.
At the same time, she learns that her father left an unpaid debt behind. As his heir, one of his creditors is now seeking restitution in an amount that will cause her to lose the boarding house.
Annie can’t believe Matthew would have killed himself and left his family destitute. She takes a job as a maid in the household to attempt to discover who poisoned him.
A good mystery, although the middle has a bit too much of Annie’s work as a maid for my taste. I’m not sure I care how much she smells of blueing from doing the laundry or how spotted her clothes are when she meets up with Nate, the romantic interest.
I was disappointed in how the crime was solved. A convenient accidental event, which should have occurred several times earlier in the story, provides the clue that solves the mystery. Fortuitously, she’s holding a key object a while later when she needs to solve a problem. I don’t want to say any more for fear of giving away the ending.
The penultimate scene has a ridiculous fight between three women, including Annie, and the killer. He has a knife with which he cuts Annie several times, but he can’t seem to make up his mind whether he wants to rape her or kill her. I didn’t buy it.
I wish the reveal would have been done more adeptly, but that’s always the hardest part of writing a murder mystery. You have to solve the crime in a realistic manner with clues that are already known to the reader, but only put them together in the climactic scene. Still, I enjoyed this book enough to consider reading the next in the series.

The Fiction Factory - William Wallace Cook

A phenomenal book showing how pulp writers made a living. This memoir is about John Milton Edwards, a pulp writer in the golden age of pulps, who created serials, short stories, novels, and sketches in prodigious amounts.
I see a lot of whining about writers who “write too fast” on Facebook. There’s an element that claims it has to take time to write a good book, something like a year or more. They cite George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” and other series made up of large books as examples. Obviously, those authors (mostly indie) publishing a new book every month must be hacks, and their writing must be awful.
But there was a time when other writers were publishing much more fiction than today’s authors are. America had a voracious appetite for tales filled with plenty of action. John Milton Edwards (who was also William Wallace Cook) in 1908 produced 45 Nickel Novels (that’s what they sold for) and seven longer novels. The Nickel Novels were his bread and butter, but he also wrote short stories and serials for $25 - $40 a piece.
He didn’t agonize over writer’s block or need to rest after completing a piece. He immediately started the next story.
And, lest you think his work was poor, he was praised for the accuracy in his books. He spent lots of time researching settings and reading books for background for his stories. He also learned to write clean copy, at most retyping a story once after the first draft.
I found most of this book very inspiring. The narration of how one writer went to work each day determined to make a living from his writing showed the dedication the old pulp writers had. Unfortunately, economics put most of the pulp fiction magazines out of business. It just cost too much to produce print magazines for mass consumption.
Ebooks have brought back a resurgence in short, fun reads. Apparently, the readers of these tales didn’t go away just because the magazines did. And a lot of authors are filling that need and, incidentally, making a quite nice living doing it.

The Case of the Amorous Aunt - Erle Stanley Gardner

Taking a cue from The Fiction Factory, I decided to read one of the better known pulp writers. I think everyone knows Perry Mason from the old television show. Fewer people have read the eighty books written about this iconic character, myself included.
What great fun this book is!
A young woman comes to see Perry Mason because her elderly aunt has fallen for a grifter, a man who is only after her money. She’s afraid he’s going to kill her. This sets in motion a chase to track down the couple, with Perry Mason chartering planes to fly from California to Arizona, detectives Paul Drake and colleagues following various people all over the state, and revelations about other women who have been duped by this man.
Never mind that the original client doesn’t have a whole lot of money, only enough to pay for Mason’s services for two days. No, Perry is off on the adventure, apparently at his own expense, bringing Paul Drake and Della Street along with him.
There are some things that make this novel dated, but they really don’t interfere with the story. For instance, Perry never seems to dial a phone himself. He asks Della to place calls for him. Oftentimes, Della asks Gertie, the never-seen receptionist and switchboard operator, to make the connection first. But despite that, the story is still a good yarn.

Reading the Perry Mason book finally got me to sign up for a trial of Kindle Unlimited. These short mysteries sell for $5.99 in ebook form and most (not all) of them are in KU. I figure if I read only two of these a month, I’m saving money. I think I can probably read more than two with not a lot of effort. This also opens up a bunch of other books that I’d like to read, but haven’t because of the price, including the last two books in Craig Martelle’s “End Times Alaska” series.

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A Clash of Kings
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