Between company, medical appointments, stressful moments in our city, and not feeling all that well in our winter weather, I didn't think I'd have much time to read. I was wrong.
This month's books include two recent mysteries, a British Library Crime Classic, two "real" biographies and a biographical-fiction novel. Every one was worth my time.
"The Button Man" by Mark Pryor
Fans of Pryor's "Hugo Marston" series may enjoy "The Button Man," a prequel to the series. While most of the series takes place in Paris, "The Button Man" finds Hugo in an earlier post, as security for the American ambassador in London. He is assigned to guard an American film star and his actress wife who killed the daughter of a British farmer in an auto accident. But before he connects with them, he finds a body hanging from a tree in a Whitechapel-area cemetery.
When Hugo finally connects with the actor, all is well until Dayton Harper escapes and Hugo and a MP Pendrith, a former MI5 agent, go on an exhaustive search to find him. They are followed by an aggressive reporter, out for a scoop and a young hotel concierge who holds a number of part time jobs and direct them to another of Harper's boltholes. Eventually, the chase takes them into the countryside and into a seedy world where more murders await.
Pryor's writing is engaging, the mystery solid. For those familiar with the Paris series, it's fun to see a few clues about why Marston might end up in the City of Light in future books, but if it is your first read, it is satisfying knowing nothing more about him than what is presented. A fun way to start the month.
"The Queen: Her Life" by Andrew Morton
Andrew Morton may be best known as the journalist who conspired with Diana to present her side of the Diana/Charles/Camilla triangle, which played a key role in the drama of the monarchy back in the 1980s. A longtime royal correspondent, he turns his attention to Queen Elizabeth II in this engaging but shallow biography.
Morton's style is accessible, not overly academic and that makes for an enjoyable and easy read. That said, it is far from the most in-depth or insightful biography of the late Queen. Those who followed her life more closely, may not find many revelations in the book but it does provide another look at an enduring figure of our time, whose 70-year reign came to an end last year with her death. I would describe it as a "gateway book" into the life of the Queen -- good information, but not deep.
What's missing? I'm not sure I read the word "Brexit" in the book. If I did, it was a passing reference and that was a significant event in the lives of those in Great Britain. Also getting a couple of passing references was the Commonwealth, which the Queen considered one of the most important components in her life and reign and one deserving a little more ink.
The book was published following the death of Price Philip and there is some information about Prince Harry and Meghan's departure to America but prior to the 70th Jubilee. Morton's sources seem largely secondary -- there is an extensive bibliography of books and articles used and referred to but that always bears the question, how reliable are those sources?
I'm not sorry I spent the time with it (it does read fast) but would advise anyone seriously interested in the life of Queen Elizabeth II to dig a little deeper with a more comprehensive book.
"Bruno: Chief of Police" by Martin Walker
Admittedly, I'm late to the party when it comes to reading Martin Walker's series about Bruno Correges, chief of police in the French village of St. Denis (though I have read some of the other "Bruno" books -- just out of sequence.)
Oh dear. Now I have another series with many books to put on the list!
Bruno is an affable police chief in the village who has a relaxed relationship with its citizens, willing to look the other way in less significant shenanigans but smart, clever and dedicated. He's also a fabulous cook -- but more on that in a minute.
St. Denis is a gentle place so when a war hero (WWII) of Muslim heritage is brutally murdered, a murder that carries all the markings of a White Nationalist hate crime, the town is on edge and Bruno is on the case. As the story evolves, Bruno and his fellow police associates begin to unravel something even more complex and potentially damaging to the normally peaceful little town.
Since this is the first "Bruno" book, we learn how he came to his post, built his house (pretty much from scratch) and has built a series of warm relationships with the villagers, many of whom I expect to see in future books. We discover his love of his garden and cooking -- food plays a big role in his life. (Walker has also written a Bruno cookbook.) All these elements add to the character of both its protagonist but also the villagers, whom I expect to appear in future stories.
And yes -- Walker is expert at food writing. When he described a picnic on which he took his colleague Isabelle, I was ready to tear out the pages for Rick as a suggestion for the future! (And Rick is pretty good at pulling things like that together with no suggestion from me!)
I will definitely be reading more of these!
"Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm" by Gil North
Despite the coroner's verdict, Cluff (accompanied by his faithful dog, Clive) decides to investigate independently, learning of an unhappy marriage and lonely woman whom, it is presumed, simply turned on the gas in despair. He begins by stalking her widower, even taking leave from the force to do so. That quest leads him to new discoveries and a thrilling conclusion.
This is a short book, only 167 pages, and (as Martin Edwards points out in an excellent introduction) has the style of Georges Simenon's "Maigret" mysteries. A fan of the author, North had tall shoulders upon which to stand. He has managed admirably.
"The Woman Before Wallis" by Bryn Turnbull
I'm not usually into bio-fiction but when Suzanne passed "The Woman Before Wallis" on to me, I couldn't resist. The novel chronicles the story of Thelma Morgan Furness, who was King Edward VIII's mistress before Thelma introduced him to her friend, Wallis Simpon. Thelma was also the twin of Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, mother of the designer of the same name, who was part of a renowned custody battle for Little Gloria in the 1930s.
After a divorce and while visiting Gloria in Paris, Thelma meets Lord Marmaduke Furness and eventually they happily wed. But Duke's affairs are upsetting and eventually she begins one of her own, with the Prince of Wales. It isn't until Thelma goes to New York to be with her twin during her custody trial for Little Gloria that Thelma asks her friend, Wallis Simpson, to "look after" the prince. And the rest is history.
This is a first novel for Turnbull and I'd say she pulls it off pretty well for this kind of book. While she does adjust some of the "real life" dates, she notes that in her end notes. She also includes a short bibliography, including books by Vanderbilt and Furness as well as several well-regarded biographies of Edward VIII.
It's a dishy look into the world of the highest levels of the British aristocracy in the 1920s and 30s, in those carefree days before World War II. If this is your kind of thing, I don't think you'll be disappointed.
"Waiting for Home" by John Schneider
In our community, John Schneider is known as the retired human interest columnist in the Lansing State Journal. Following his retirement, Schneider is also a daily blogger with "John Schneider Has a Few Things to Say." In "Waiting for Home" he tells the true story of Richard Prangley, a man who was institutionalized unjustly from the age of six for fifteen years. Yet it was Prangley who was responsible, in large part, for advocating significant changes in how we view mental health in Michigan and beyond.
After fifteen years of abuse, maltreatment, and dismal conditions, Prangley -- who had been diagnosed as an imbecile and mentally retarded several years after his traumatic birth -- sought to build and independent life. It wasn't always easy -- anything but. But with a tenacious will and a loving spirit, he somehow managed to achieve great things and inspire significant changes in the Michigan mental health system, holding down a full time job, despite his continued illiteracy. He was the guy in the mail room who could walk into the office of the Governor -- several governors -- for a chat, unannounced. The guy who advocated for deinstitutionalization. The guy who went to the White House and was featured on CBS Sunday Morning and Good Morning America.
Armed with records from Prangley's commitment to the "warehouse," conversations with Prangley himself and interviews with many who worked with him, John Schneider reveals an often frightening and ultimately inspiring story of a man who simply wouldn't give up, despite any limitations or perceptions he may have faced.
(The book was written in 1998. Prangley, now retired, is still living in our community. He and Schneider have maintained a long friendship and you can read more about him by searching his name on Schneider's blog.)