Wednesday, February 20th, 2008
10:08 pm - Fiction and Nonfiction  
The Silent Speaker — Rex Stout

After two novellas in the Army, Archie returns to civilian life in Speaker. Wartime price regulations are still in effect though, leading to friction between the Bureau of Price Regulation (BPR) and the National Industrial Association (NIA). When the head of the BPR turns up bludgeoned to death at a meeting of the NIA, Wolfe is brought in to figure things out. Later another BPR employee turns up dead, and political pressure over the lack of progress on the case gets Cramer canned. Fortunately, Wolfe not only figures things out, but gets Cramer his job back in the process. Along the way, Lon Cohen makes his first appearance, finally completing the main cast of characters.

The underlying mystery is one of the better ones in the series. That said, there are things that bug me about the book. The main one is how Wolfe ends up admiring the female lead in much the same way that Holmes admired Irene Adler. The problem is that I can't figure out why.

I had made a close and prolonged study of Wolfe's attitude toward women. The basic fact about a woman that seemed to irritate him was that she was a woman; the long record showed not a single exception; but from there on the documentation was cockeyed. If woman as woman grated on him you would suppose that the most womany details would be the worst for him, but time and again I have known him to have a chair placed for a female so that his desk would not obstruct his view of her legs, and the answer can’t be that his interest is professional and he reads character from legs, because the older and dumpier she is the less he cares where she sits.

To Archie's analysis I'm also going to add that unlike Lou Grant, Wolfe seems to like women with spunk. It's the only thing I can think of beyond her looks that explains his admiration of a woman who not only withholds the identity of the murderer to further her own aims, but then tells the murderer that once she's milked the uncertainty over the murder for all its worth she's going to turn him in. All while living in an apartment the murderer owns. Is it any wonder she turns up dead halfway through the book? Had it been a man, I suspect Wolfe would've berated him for being dangerously stupid.

A Question of Honor—The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II — Lynne Olson & Stanley Cloud

This one was pointed out to me by my fellow fighter ace fan hecubot, and it tells the story of some the Polish fighter pilots who escaped the Nazi invasion in 1939 for England, and eventually formed the highest scoring squadron in the RAF during the Battle of Britain. The Kosciuszko Squadron was originally formed in post-WWI Poland by some American pilots who went there to train pilots for the new nation's air force during its 1920 border war with the Soviet Union. The Americans saw it as returning the favor that Kosciuszko had granted the Continental Army during the Revolution. (One of the American pilots was Merion C. Cooper, who would later write and direct the original King Kong, as well as producing many of John Ford's films.)

The squadron became the elite of the Polish Air Force, but when the Nazis invaded they found themselves outnumbered and outgunned. Many managed to escape first to France, then to England, where they offered their services to the undermanned RAF. As the Battle of Britain approached, the RAF was fast becoming a truly international force, with squadrons of Poles, Czechs, and even Americans (the Eagle Squadron), as well as Commonwealth pilots. The Kosciuszko Squadron turned out to be the best of all of them. The book chronicles all this quite well for the first third of the book or so.

Then, somewhat ironically given the book's subtitle, the book pretty much abandons the story of the pilots from the end of the Battle of Britain through the end of the war, focusing instead on the atrocities being perpetrated on the Poles at home (by both the Germans and the Soviets), and chapter after chapter on the behind the scenes political scheming going on amongst Churchill, FDR, and Stalin that would end with Poland being handed over to Stalin at the end of the war. The pilots finally reappear after the war when they have to decide whether to go home, or to stay in the west. There's a final chapter describing what ultimately happened to both groups. It's a shame the authors structured the book as they did, because although the story of how the US and Britain sold out Poland is important, it's not nearly as interesting as the stories of the pilots, and I really wanted more of that.

Utrillo and the Painters of Montmartre — Lamplight Collection of Modern Art

Growing up, we had a large print on canvas of Maurice Utrillo's "Eglise de Strins" hanging in our living room, along with some smaller prints of his work. I've always had an affection for those paintings, so I borrowed this from the library to look at some of his other stuff. To a certain extent if you've seen a couple of his paintings, you pretty much seen them all. He did lots of street scenes of Paris, most using the same palette of colors, lots of churches, and lots of street scenes with churches in them. The scenes are often empty, possibly because he was really lousy at doing figures, even for an impressionist. Still, I like his stuff a lot. I recently saw the same print that had hung in our living room on eBay, but was outbid for it. I did pick up a much smaller print of it which I'll have to frame at some point.

The High Window — Raymond Chandler

It may rely just a bit too much on coincidence, but otherwise this was terrific. You can't go wrong with Marlowe.