Saturday, November 18, 2017

THE TREASURE OF ALPHEUS WINTERBORN by John Bellairs

And we're back to Bellairs! This time we'll take on his shortest series, the Anthony Monday novels.

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn is set in the 1950s in the fictional town of Hoosac, MN, along the Mississippi River. Anthony is a more-or-less "normal" teen (a rarity for Bellairs) who comes from a lower-middle-class family. His father operates a saloon (euphemistically called a "cigar store"). Despite not being particularly bookish, Anthony's best friend is elderly librarian Myra Eels, who gets him a part-time job at the library assisting her.

The Hoosac library is the unacknowledged star of the novel; it's a quaint, curious building donated by the Alpheus Winterborn of the title, an eccentric millionaire and world traveler who supposedly hid a treasure somewhere, possibly in the library itself, before dying himself.

When Anthony stumbles on a clue that the treasure is real and hidden somewhere in town, he quickly comes to view it as the possible cure to his family's money troubles. Miss Eels warns him that Winterborn was also a notorious practical joker, and this all may be a sham, but he is eager to find a solution.

His efforts catch the eye of Hugo Philpotts, a vice-president of the local bank and a relative of Winterborn; Philpotts, of course, wants the treasure for himself. And as Anthony and Miss Eels stumble on one clue after another, Philpotts becomes more and more dangerous to them. Eventually, the treasure is found....in the library.

Wait, I hear you cry. Where's the supernatural? Well, there is none. That's right, this is all a mundane mystery. It's kind of a disappointment, and many Bellairs fans rank this near the bottom. It has its strengths; the milieu is well-depicted, and apparently this was Bellairs' biggest effort at recapturing his own youth in Michigan. However, the villain is a bit over-the-top, the plot sometimes drags, the villain sometimes seems to always be in the right place at the right time, and some events that he should have been responsible for are brushed off as mere accidents. But the nature of the treasure is intriguing and a macabre story could have been built around it. It's unfortunate that Bellairs chose differently.

When first published in 1978, it was illustrated, and had a cover, by Judith Gwyn Brown, but when it was issued in paperback in 1980, it was given a one-off Edward Gorey cover that has stuck with it. Future Monday volumes would feature Gorey art.

Never fear, the rest of the Monday series features supernatural thrills, so there's more to come!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

November in the Phantom Recital Hall

Tonight we're off in the cold evening air to a recital by a talented pianist, on a tour through the country. The venue is a new one, an addition at the university, so we're getting a gander at the new facility and enjoying some good music.

And appropriate for the season, one piece is Bolcom's "The Poltergeist."



I love this playful piece, with sinister hints; it's a good representation of the concept it's named after. It's one of Bolcom's three "Ghost Rags", written after the death of his father and in his studio overlooking a cemetery.

And speaking of cemeteries, we have to pass one on the way home....

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween 2017!

Hope everyone is having a great Halloween! Be safe, but be crazy! At least a little crazy. Or be as low-key as you want. Just honor the day!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

DOWN BY THE OLD BLOODSTREAM, "edited" by Alfred Hitchcock

In the 1960s and '70s, Alfred Hitchcock's name was attached to countless anthologies. I doubt he truly edited them; he worked hand-in-glove with former radio writer Robert Arthur who I suspect is probably responsible. Arthur also wrote a good number of the "Three Investigators" boys' series that featured Hitch as a sort of "M" to a trio of teen sleuths.

Down by the Old Bloodstream, published in 1971, is sadly unremarkable as an anthology. There's no real luminaries among the authors, with two exceptions....one a "Hal Ellison", likely our old friend Harlan, but his story "The Good Thief" is a bore. The other is TV cop Jack Webb, and his story, "A Miracle is Arranged," is slightly better, a tale of attempted insurance fraud undone by a Twilight Zone-ish twist of fate.

Some of them write checks they can't cash. "Kurdistan Payload," for instance, sounds like a tale of international intrigue, but instead it's a noir-ish tale involving a moving company and a valuable Oriental rug. "The Monster Brain" sounds like a pulp horror tale, but the title refers to a computer that's only peripherally involved. In fact, that story is part of the one thing that makes this collection interesting...there are three stories in sequence, "The Still Small Voice," "Haunted Hill," and "The Monster Brain," that function as what I can best term "Hillbilly Noir." All three involve crime and conniving in a backwoods setting, with rustic characters. "The Monster Brain" is an exception as it's narrated by an insurance investigator, but the setting and the remainder of the characters put it in that mini-genre I just invented. It's an interesting view of a time when the world was less connected and it wasn't unusual to drive from a major city for less than a day and be in an area with no telephones or very little electricity.

Aside from that, not much to recommend it, really. Another story, "A Fair Warning to Mystery Writers," is amusing in its depiction of an author who rents a quiet place to do some writing but is constantly hassled by neighbors. Otherwise, this is forgettable stuff.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

An October Night at the Cinema!

In October it's nice to take a break from all the Halloween festivities and just relax. We're doing that right now, having a nice time chatting over dinner. It's a blessing to have a chance to breathe and not worry about planning parties and costumes and the like. Next year, we promise, there'll be a more relaxed holiday...

After dinner is over, we head up the street to our favorite old theater. They don't bother to decorate; as the ticket-taker jokes, it's always Halloween there, one way or another, It's true; we've seen so many horror films there that another just seems par for the course.

Tonight's film is a goofy thriller, The 13th Man.



The show over, we depart, making one last joke with the ticket-taker, and then wander up the street for a drink at the usual cafe....

Sunday, October 15, 2017

GOLD BY GEMINI by Jonathan Gash

Lovejoy, the antiques-dealing detective, is back in his second mystery!

I had a slight sense that Gash wasn't sure about if a series would take off, so the first, The Judas Pair, may have been intended as a one-off with room for expansion. And, well, it seems to have expanded.

Lovejoy's world is a bit more fleshed out, with more friends, girlfriends, and an apprentice we never heard about the first time. This time around, he comes across a very obviously faked painting, but there's something about it that intrigues him....the faker took great care and could have gotten away with it, except he used a very obvious modern pigment that could be spotted a mile away.

Something's up, and as Lovejoy finds out the identity of the faker, and comes across more items from the same person, he suspects there are clues being laid. But to what? The faker is dead, and his daughters compete for his effects. What's going on?

With the help of his friends, Lovejoy pieces together that the faker had discovered a cache of Roman gold on the Isle of Man. However, there's a very determined villain out for it, willing to kill any man or beast that gets in their way...

As with any Lovejoy mystery, there's lots of good information about the antiques trade, how things are faked, how to spot the genuine, and the tricks of the trade. The story and the mystery are pretty well done.

What didn't I like? There's little sense of continuity with The Judas Pair. Lovejoy's cottage, burned down in the first book, is perfectly fine in this one. (Yes, he could have moved, but there's no mention of a previous house burning down, and both have a hidden chamber in the cellar.) Is this meant to be a prequel? Or was The Judas Pair a rough draft, and this the start of a "real" continuity? Leslie Charteris did the same with The Saint. Also, Lovejoy has a pair of pet budgies in this story, never referred to before.

Still, I enjoyed it, and that's the important thing.

Gold by Gemini is out of print, but is likely available at libraries and may be cheaply purchased at your local friendly used-book emporium.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

October at the Phantom Jazz Club

It's about time we got out of the concert halls and did something different! This month we're checking out a club that we've walked by a dozen times before, but never ventured inside. That is being changed, and we're glad for it.

So of course, the band plays something appropriate for the season....



Hope everyone has a magical October! Mine so far....well, it's been a hot damp one here in Baltimore so far, but hopefully that will change before long.