Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Spy Who Read Latin, and Other Stories (1990/2013) by Edward D Hoch

You know, I’ve had this collection and others on my Kindle for years. I should really actually bother
to use it.
Edward D. Hoch has been mentioned here before, many moons ago, but almost always in the context of his Dr. Sam Hawthorne series. Considering his large output, it should surprise no one that Hoch also had many other series characters, dabbling in other genres. Such as Westerns with Ben Snow, capers with Nick Velvet, and the target of this review, espionage with C. Jeffrey Rand.
(Notice how TomCat has reviewed the former two but not the latter. I’m catching up.)
The Spy Who Read Latin, and Other Stories is a short collection of Rand stories, with the common thread being the clashes between Rand, of Concealed Communications under the British government, and his Russian counterpart, Taz. The Rand stories are a mix of spy story and mystery story, with the spy aspect sometimes having a firmer grip on the story, but I personally didn’t mind, because Hoch did a good job at balancing the two.
The first story, "The Spy Who Came to the Brink" is more of a spy story. Rand is tipped off that a two-bit actor was witnessed making a wax copy of a lock to a room containing British codebooks. A quick investigation confirms that he’s a suspected Commie, so Rand goes to intercept...but is beaten to the punch by an assassin, who guns the would-be thief down. All well and good, but the issue arrives when the assassin is found to have Russian connections. Why would the Russians kill a freelancer offering them access to British codebooks? As I stated, this is more of a spy story than a flat-out mystery. You’ll either grasp the solution or you won’t, but it’s a clever solution that can be reached with a fair bit of thinking.
It should be noted that Taz doesn’t show up in person in this story, but is mentioned.
“The Spy Who Read Latin” has the first true meeting between Taz and Rand, but it’s as reluctant allies. A missionary priest has composed a document detailing the inner workings of China’s Communist Party, which is of great interest to Britain and Russia alike. However, the priest was murdered and now his manuscript is in the possession of an associate who’s willing to sell it to the highest bidder. Rand accepts, but can he trust Taz?
This is more of a mystery than the previous entry, with a hit-and-run thrown in near the end, and with a few good plot twists. The risk of trusting Taz is well-done, and it works as an espionage story.
“The Spy Who Travelled with a Coffin” is the most densely plotted story in the collection. Rand is being brought in to negotiate the release of an American who has found himself in Russian custody under suspicion of espionage. The man's wife insists that he’s been out of the Army for some time, but he confesses to trying to transmit information about a missile to Russian enemies. But that’s not the only plot thread.
The story opens with a Turkish assassin gunning down a Japanese reporter, but by dumb luck another man took the fatal bullet. Said reporter becomes part of an entourage of Rand, the wife of the captive man, a CIA man, and a woman and her companion...who are travelling with a coffin. And it doesn’t contain what you think it does. There is a corpse involved, as the reporter is shot to death in mid-flight!
I admit, this story feels a tad crowded. The plot threads are all resolved in a bit of a jumble at the conclusion, with Taz’s agenda thrown in for good measure. But in fairness everything is clear, it’s just all delivered at once. The explanation for the espionage is fair, and even those who don’t know the needed information can at least guess at the broad picture of what happened. The murder of the week is also well-done, with a clever double bluff, as well as a good motive for murder. But those are some of the worst Japanese names I’ve ever heard/read.
Interesting note: Rand mentions two previous meetings with Taz, one in East Berlin, another in Paris. When did that first one happen?
“The Spy Who Collected Lapel Pins” is a hard story to summarize, because it’s almost a pure espionage story. A retired Taz is semi-forcibly recruited by government agents to help deal with an author who has defected from the Soviet Union. Their method involves pretending to have Taz offer microdots in a collection of lapel pins that contain the author’s manuscripts...but of course, there’s more to it than that, and I shall not spoil it. Hoch isn’t the best at wringing pathos out of his stories, but this is a good effort, with an excellent finale.
The collection wraps up with “The Spy Who Came Back From the Dead”. Taz has been MIA after the events of the previous story, and Rand has assumed that the two would never meet again...but it seems that Taz has resurfaced for Taz II: The Revenge.
Members of the “Tsar Network," a group of Russian spies whose code names were based on the Tsars of Russia, are being systematically murdered one by one, their throats slit. The first victim left the dying message “Taz,” and since Rand is the man who knew Taz best, he’s dragged in to stop the murders.
This is a straight murder mystery story, with little espionage elements. It’s good, and the dying message is clever and simple, but Hoch is a little too obvious with the meaning. It’s not a thud, but it is a bit of thump. But a poor Hoch is still worth your time, if just to observe the construction of his stories.
This isn’t a poor Hoch however. My main complaint is that it’s a tad short, the five stories are good, but some might not think it worth it. However, I do think that it’s a solid collection, and if you’re a fan of Hoch it’s Recommended. Even if you’re not, I’d still say it’s a good way to get into Hoch.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) by Alice Arisugawa

I still blame Ellery Queen for starting the trend of self-insertion in mysteries.

After more or less being French Locked Room International for quite some time, LRI has been branching out to include impossibilities from the wider globe from Swedish to Chinese to Japanese--the latter of which is the target of this review. Alice Arisugawa’s The Moai Island Puzzle was translated by blogger Ho-Ling, who did an excellent job of bringing this classic-styled mystery over for the enjoyment of us lesser beings.

Narrator Alice is part of a five member mystery club that includes him; senior Jirou Egami, a brilliant man who’s still on his fourth year; and Maria Arima, the girl of the group. It’s the latter that kickstarts the plot, inviting Alice and Egami to a family reunion on an isolated, horseshoe-shaped island. Maria’s grandfather was a lover of puzzles who left behind a fortune in diamonds, and like all rich puzzle lovers in mysteries, willed that whoever could solve the puzzle could keep the diamonds. Maria’s cousin Hideo tried but ended up drowning, and she’s hoping that her friends will succeed.

Of course, Alice is nervous. After all, once they get on the island, the boat won’t be coming back for six days, and communication with the outside world will be limited. The mystery fan senses are tingling. Everyone assures him that nothing will go wrong. And indeed, it doesn’t.

Until the 80 page mark or so.
With most of the cast lying in a drunken stupor and distracted by the constant bangs of a loose door in a storm, no one hears the twin shots the leave a father and daughter dead behind the rusty-locked door of a bedroom. The blurb boasts of this locked room being worthy of Carr himself, but it’s not. It’s a small portion of the plot, and Egami’s attitude towards it will insult locked room purists, but his conclusions about what happened behind the door are plausible and unique.

Obviously, there’s more death to come, and we’re promised that we can deduce everything logically. I would argue that this is true; while there’s only one real clue, once you have that and realize what it means, it’s possible to follow the chain of deduction to see what the killer must have done, why they did it, and even to follow it back to who the killer must have been, thought this last part requires a small leap. I didn’t solve it (well, I correctly guessed the culprit, but that was a guess), but I didn’t feel like I had been bested because I didn’t have enough information, or because the author was writing something you’d need to be a genius to solve. I felt like that if I’d thought about it a tad more, I could have solved it. This mainly applies to the actual murders; the treasure hunt is nice and complex, and I'm sure it's quite solvable with enough effort, but most readers won't be able to puzzle it all out without some level of getting out a sheet of paper and writing it all out. It's not needed to solve the mystery per se, so the more intellectually lazy among us can consider it a bonus challenge.

Where the mystery suffers is in the cast. While Arisugawa is kind enough to bump a good chunk of them off over the course of the story, you’ll need the dramatis persona at the beginning to tell one name from another. I also have to gripe about the blurb on another point, as it commits the dread sin of “I know the summary is bad/cliché,” which is something that even fanfiction writers know/are warned to stay away from. It also makes mention of a dying message on par with Ellery Queen, but this too, means nothing. There is a dying message, but it has little impact on the plot.

But in the end, any complaints are minor. While it’s not as exciting and super fast as, say, Death Invites You, it’s more competent, more thoroughly thought out, and even manages to reach a bit of melodramatic pathos at the finale. Recommended.