The great thing about going to book conferences is that there you are, penned up with a bunch of other people who all love books. This time it was the Poisoned Pen Con in Phoenix, a small, intimate gathering with single-track paneling where you have time to visit with other readers and hobnob with your favorite authors.

One of my favorite authors is Francine Matthews (aka Stephanie Barron) and she and I and Barbara Peters were talking about our favorite Golden Age mysteries. They were as one in declaring The Tiger in the Smoke to be one of their favorites.

I'd read a couple of the Albert Campion novels way back when, didn't like them much and moved on, but if Francine and Barbara say it it must be so, I picked up a copy.

London, 1950. Beautiful couturier Meg Elginbrodde lost her husband in World War II and after mourning him for five years has become engaged to Geoffrey Levett. Unfortunately, as soon as they announce their wedding photos of her previously deceased husband begin appearing in the society journals, and she calls in Campion for help.

There is some lovely description here, especially of the oppressive London fog, "a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water" and "[the fog] oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside" and "greasy drapery." Yeesh.

But what I love most about this book is the character descriptions. Take Campion's associate, Divisional Detective Chief Inspector Charles Luke:

Charlie Luke in his spiv civilians looked at best like a heavyweight champion in training...His pile-driver personality...It made him an alarming enemy for someone.

When he is detailing a subordinate to accompany an unwilling Canon Avril, Luke says, "He's my senior assistant, a quiet, discreet sort of man," he added firmly, eying the sergeant with open menace." You'd develop quiet discretion, too, if Luke looked at you that way.

Of Canon Avril, Meg's father, Allingham writes:

He believed in miracles and frequently observed them, and nothing astonished him. His imagination was as wild as a small boy's and his faith ultimate. In ordinary life he was, quite frankly, hardly safe out.

(As is made manifestly obvious when he nearly gets his daughter killed, for which Allingham never brings him to judgement, the only thing that irritates me here.)

There are lots of fun throwaway lines and phrases everywhere. Of one of the minor characters Allingham writes, "Her voice was gentle, placatory, and never-ending." At one point Levett says, "Values are so relative...Hitler wanted the modern world. Well, I mean to say, Campion, look at the modern world!"

Francine and Barbara recommended the next two books in the Campion series, too, The Beckoning Lady, which I've already started, and Hide My Eyes, which is on my to-read shelf.

# Permanent link to Time Traveling Back to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction

Hazard to Navigation

[from the vaults, 2007] March 29 We came upon a floating refrigerator. (It seems to be a trend, as this is the second floating refrigerator of the patrol.) This naturally constitutes a hazard to navigation which must be removed. In this case we remove it with 9-mm handguns, shotguns and M-16s. Not an organization…

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What if FDR sent a twenty-one year old JFK to Europe on the very eve of World War II itself in order to find out if and how Hitler was smuggling money into the US to influence the next election?

"I've been turning it over in my mind, Jack--this trip of yours," the President was saying. "To the Nazis, you're just the American ambassador's son. But to me, you're a perfect spy. My independent thinker. Arriving in London with a fresh outlook and an unclouded mind. As far as the Nazis are concerned, you're clean as the driven snow. They know your dad and I don't always agree. They'll never expect you to be my man in Europe."

Jack, who is as ill with some undiagnosable disease as he can be and not be dead, finds this proposal flattering and irresistible. If he's going to die at any moment any way, why not die being FDR's man in Europe?

So in Jack 1939 he boards the Queen Mary for England and nearly all the European capitals, closely pursued by the White Spider, a Nazi SS agent who is very quick with a very sharp knife, closely cultivated by German intelligence agent Willi Dobler, and intensely damned by every American ambassador in every European capital for the trouble he causes them, not excluding his own father. There is a beautiful older woman, Diana Playfair, another amateur spy with whom Jack has a passionate affair, whose ending will break your heart as painfully as it breaks Jack's.

One of the most enjoyable things in this book are all the walk-on parts by real people, beginning with Jack's family (Joes Sr. and Jr. don't come off all that well, and Rose, my god, Jack would have been better off with Dracula's bride as his mother) and including just about everyone else in the World War II Almanac.

Oh yes, J. Edgar Hoover is here, too, and up to his usual Machiavellian shennanigans. Fear not, FDR's got his number, and unbeknownst to Hoover, he's got Jack, too. A fun read.

# Permanent link to JFK, Spy

Port Call

[from the vaults, 2007] March 28 Recently we made a Brief Stop for Fuel/Brief Stop for Logistics (BSF/BSL). CWO Tony Parker, our supply officer or Suppo, bought a bunch of $5 phone cards from our Husbanding Agent (HA) on shore and sold them to the crew at cost so they could call home from…

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I tend to read in subjects, and lately it’s been Shakespeare, specifically A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro, The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff and Shakespeare:The World as Stage by Bill Bryson.

yearShapiro’s book takes 1599 as his text, the year William Shakespeare wrote Henry the Fifth, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and the rough draft of Hamlet. It was the year, Shapiro says, that Shakespeare, at age thirty-five, “went from being an exceptionally talented writer to one of the greatest who ever lived.” This book is a word picture of Elizabethan London so vivid that you’ll smell the Thames at low tide as you read.

riotsThree centuries later across the pond, New Yorkers rioted over the relative merits of Macbeth as played by a British actor and an American one. The National Guard was called out, people actually died, and the British actor had to be hustled out of the country for his own safety. America had embraced Shakespeare as one of their own, and he was read so extensively and so intensively that audiences from rural Kentucky to California gold mines could shout out the correct line when an actor in performance stumbled over it. Author Cliff concludes, “Once a voice carried a people across a continent and helped forge a brave new world. No other writer has been so powerful, and no one ever will be again.” This book includes a survey of 19th century American history, a history of Western theatre, is peopled with great characters and you-are-there settings, and has a quotable phrase on nearly every page.

brysonBill Bryson brings his trademark witty style to his biography of the bard, but my absolute favorite chapter is the last one, wherein Bryson annihilates the notion that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. From eccentric Delia Bacon, a Francis Bacon adherent and wannabe relation, to the trio of alleged scholars rejoicing in the names of Looney, Silliman, and Battey arguing for the Earl of Oxford, to the theory that Christopher Marlowe was the real author of the plays (“He was the right age,” Bryson writes, “had the requisite talent, and would certainly have had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn’t too dead to work.”), Bryson really enjoys himself, and, believe me, so will you.

# Permanent link to Shakespeare, explained. Again.

Box Ops

[from the vaults, 2007] March 27 Box ops. I feel like I’m back on the Bering. Only warmer. We’re the cop on the beat today. I see PO Timothy Myers and SN Chris Susalis on the bridge often. They’re both bosun’s mates, working for Chief Guilmartin at navigation. Tim was previously on a 21…

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Drill Card 4

[from the vaults, 2007] March 26 Holiday routine today, and after the last two days they needed it. Steel beach and fish call on the fan tail, comfort food on the menu, mac and cheese, wings and pizza, and I think a lot of people just stayed in their racks if they didn’t absolutely…

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Excerpted from a handout given me by an Anchorage librarian a while back.

No one ever had to check into the Betty Ford Clinic for reading too much.

Nobody ever read too many books and then jumped off a building, walked through a plate-glass window, or mooned a cop.

You don't have to flush all your books down the toilet when there's an unexpected knock at the door.

It is extremely rare that anyone gets gunned to death in a book dispute.

Your friends won't desert you when you run out of books.

You can read all you want it won't show up on a urine test.

If you miss reading one day, you won't go into painful withdrawal. [Dana sez: "Sez you."]

No matter how many books you have, you can't be charged with 'intent to distribute.'

# Permanent link to Why Books Are Better Than Drugs