BOOK REVIEW: Tom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer, DetectiveTom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn continue in this novella as the duo travels to visit Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas in Arkansas. On the riverboat, they meet an old acquaintance who they didn’t know was still alive, the twin of a man who still lives near Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas. He tells them how he’s in a bind because he conspired in a diamond theft with two partners, and subsequently swindled the two by making off with the diamonds. The reason he’s headed home is because he figures he can hide out there as long as he makes himself look like his twin, as long as no one sees the two twins together, he can play like he’s his brother. While Tom and Huck agree to be helpful, the last time they see this man, he’s jumped ship and is being followed by the two men, and Tom and Huck assume he’s a goner.

In time Tom and Huck arrive at Aunt Sally’s. Shortly thereafter a man goes missing, the twin of the diamond thief. Eventually, evidence mounts that the murderer is none other than Uncle Silas. Despite the fact that Silas has been a little off, Tom doesn’t believe his kind uncle, a pastor, is capable of such a feat. However, Silas confesses, having thwacked the man on the head, he believes that the man must have died from it. Testimony convinces Silas that he must have gone out to bury the man in an act of incredible somnambulism, and while he has no recollection of it, he believes it must be true.

When it comes to the trial, Tom sits in with the incompetent public defender, committed to proving Silas’s innocence — despite his Uncle’s vociferous admissions. At the last second, Tom does figure it out, and explains what really happened. He’s furthermore able to substantiate his claims using no more than the individuals in the courtroom. By the times he’s finished, even Uncle Silas acknowledges that he didn’t commit a murder.

This is a fine little mystery story, but what makes it really enjoyable is the first-person narration by Huck Finn. While Tom Sawyer does the brainwork to solve the crime, Huck offers a telling that is humorous and whimsical.

If you like “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huck Finn” don’t miss this follow-up.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes, #1)A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the first book of the Sherlock Holmes canon, and is also the first Holmes novel (most of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are short stories published in collections.) The book was first published in 1887.

There are actually two stories told in the novel. The first part of the novel describes a mysterious murder that happens in London and whose victim displays a gruesome death mask. Later a second murder is discovered. It’s not clear whether the two killings are connected but the two men were associates and so it’s a likely conclusion—though the victims’ manner of death is quite different. Because, it’s the first story, there’s also the meeting of Holmes and Dr. Watson–who becomes Holmes’s roommate and who soon becomes fascinated by the work of the world’s first consulting detective.

Part I is as one would expect of a Holmes’ story in setting and characters, the second part is out of the ordinary but none-the-less fascinating. Part II begins with a man and a little girl being rescued by a caravan of Mormons. The two are the sole survivors of a Donner Party-style ill-fated wagon train through the Rockies. The man and the girl go on to live with the Mormons, if uneasily. Eventually, the girl reaches age. While she falls for a non-Mormon hunter, the polygamous Mormon’s face a situation in which the demand for wives far outstrips supply. This sets up the intrigue of the story. That intrigue is eventually tied up by Holmes at the end of the second part.

It seems like it would be an odd way to tell such a story, in two disparate parts, but both parts of the story are well-told and gripping. Though, I found the adventure in Utah to be particularly edge-of-the-seat. There’s a reason Holmes was such a popular character. Arthur Conan Doyle wove fascinating tales.

I’d recommend this book for all fiction readers—unless you’re a Mormon with anger issues, then you might want to just pass.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #4)The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the second collection of short stories and the fourth book overall in the canon of Sherlock Holmes. It includes eleven adventures of the great detective as narrated by his partner, Dr. John Watson.

Below, I’ll describe the premise of each of the stories:


“Silver Blaze” A race horse goes missing and its trainer is found dead. The eponymous race horse is favored to win an upcoming race, so Holmes faces a race against time to see that the horse can compete.


“The Yellow Face” A man begins to suspect the wife that he’s never had cause to doubt before. Only he doesn’t know exactly what he suspects her of, but it seems to revolve around visits to a nearby cottage that has been recently occupied by an unknown and mysterious resident. Note: this is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories both because it displays the humanity of the character in that his initial guess proves wrong, and in it shows how the author was ahead of his time in his worldview.


“The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” When an out-of-work clerk, recently hired by prestigious firm, is given an offer of much more money but finds himself doing only busy work, he gets suspicious and calls on Sherlock Holmes.


“The ‘Gloria Scott’” Holmes is visiting a college friend when the friend’s father is visited by a gruff ex-sailor. When the family patriarch uncharacteristically bends over backwards to make the sailor happy, it’s unclear why. When the old man dies upon reading a letter, the mystery becomes all the more intriguing.


“The Musgrave Ritual” A butler is fired for digging around in the family papers, despite the fact that the document he’s discovered with is nothing more than a series of cute questions constituting an old family ritual.


“The Reigate Puzzle” Burglaries in the countryside culminate in the murder of a coachman. The family that employed the coachman is neighbor to a close friend of Watson.


“The Crooked Man” A couple who’ve been married for thirty years without any known incidents of domestic unrest get in a raucous fight, and the man–a career military officer–ends up dead. The wife is the only suspect.


“The Resident Patient” A benefactor agrees to fully fund a new doctor’s practice provided that he is allowed to live on-site as a resident patient. The mystery begins when the resident patient begins to be inexplicably nervous.


“The Greek Interpreter” An interpreter is kidnapped and forced to translate a mysterious conversation between his kidnappers and a disheveled Greek man. Despite handsome compensation and threats of what will happen if he should tell anyone of the job, the interpreter feels obliged to get to the bottom of the imprisoned Greek man’s case by hiring Holmes.


“The Naval Treaty” A member of the Foreign Service has a crucial treaty stolen while he goes to check on the service of his tardy coffee. The loss of the treaty spells professional death for the young man unless Holmes can solve the case. The commissionaire and his wife are initially the sole suspects.


“The Final Problem” Perhaps the best known story of the collection, it was intended to be the end of Sherlock Holmes. The story involves an uncharacteristically shaken Holmes, his arch-nemesis, and a trip to Reichenbach Falls.


This collection includes some essential Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as some classic Holmsian cases and quotes. For 19th century literature, it’s highly readable. Definitely a must read for fans of Sherlock Holmes.

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BOOK REVIEW: Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

Make Room! Make Room!Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Knowing that this book was the basis of the movie Soylent Green, I expected a very different book. While I haven’t seen the movie Soylent Green, I–like everybody not living under a rock–knew that the movie’s big twist was that “Soylent green is people!” Meaning, society has unwittingly been led into cannibalism.

I wouldn’t so much categorize Make Room! Make Room! as dystopian science fiction as I would a detective story that happens to take place in a Malthusian dystopia. (For those unfamiliar with the work of Thomas Malthus, he predicted a massive crash resulting from the fact that human population in his day [18-19th century] was growing much faster than food production and resource discovery. Some dismiss Malthus as a doom-and-gloomer who was unable to foresee that great technological breakthroughs would make it possible for humanity to support its growing numbers. Others, like Harry Harrison, have maintained that it’s merely a matter of time before humanity outstrips its resources and Malthus’s prediction is vindicated.)

While the story is about a detective investigating the death of a wealthy businessman/criminal and said officer’s love affair with the deceased man’s girl, Malthus’s idea sets the tone of this novel. Written in 1966, Make Room! Make Room! describes the world of 1999 as one in which food and drinking water are in scarce supply. Harrison predicted the population would then be 7 billion. He was off a bit. The population in 1999 was closer to 6 billion. While we have presently reached 7+billion, we aren’t surviving off SOYbeans and LENTils (SOY-LENT, get it) for protein.

It’s probably good that the story is about crime and romance, because when it becomes too focused on the Malthusian dystopia—rather than letting it play in the background and give the story a visceral edge—the book can be a bit preachy. This is best exemplified by the brief diatribes of Sol, the protagonist’s roommate and the character that occasionally drags us out of this fictional story and into a lecture on the dangers of unchecked population growth. Such brief lectures might have been well worthwhile if the author (and Malthus) had been correct, but they read a bit alarmist in the wake of both men’s overreaction (or incorrect timelines?) Readers with strong feelings on the subject of birth control may find that issue positively or negatively impacts one’s perception of the book depending upon one’s stance on the issue, but most will find it to be just an another issue that dates the work.

If this had just been about the 1999 Malthusian dystopia, it might be so dated as to be unreadable today. However, the story is more timeless than that—if with an inescapable retro feel.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

The Coroner's Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1)The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Coroner’s Lunch uses a popular and intriguing technique of setting a crime novel in an unconventional landscape. Like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels (most famously Gorky Park), James Church’s Inspector O novels (e.g. A Corpse in the Koryo), or Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichirō samurai detective novels, Cotterill’s book places a protagonist staunchly devoted to the truth into a sea of ideologues who value appearances more than facts and who will do anything to maintain their precarious grasp on power.

This approach appeals for a couple of reasons. First, it maintains a line of tension in terms of the world against the protagonist on top of whatever other plot conflicts may exist (criminal against investigator.) It also allows us to recognize the virtues that we find appealing amid a people that we think are a world apart.

While crime fiction is plot driven, this particular variant requires strong character development. We must have a lead character that stands out against the bleak landscape of the authoritarian regime that employs him. However, at the same time, the character mustn’t stand out by being bold and defiant in the manner we might expect of a crime novel set in New York City. Such a character is unbelievable amid totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, North Korea, feudal Japan, or—in Cotterill’s case—Laos, circa 1975. We can’t believe such a character wouldn’t be killed by leaders who have people summarily executed on a regular basis. So the character must be clever, adroit at manipulating the system, and a quiet anti-ideologue.

Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun largely fits the mold, but is a little more irreverent than usual. The old doctor is drafted into being Laos’ national coroner because most of the educated class has fled the country–this despite the fact that Paiboun’s medical expertise is not in forensics. The ultimate source of his bold demeanor is that he is an old man, and he figures that there’s not much that they can do to him. If he were to be executed he wouldn’t lose much longevity over his natural lifespan, and if they sent him to camp, it wouldn’t be as foreboding as the places he has once been. Additionally, he has a highly placed friend, and—beyond that–they can’t replace him in short order. Making Paiboun disappear as Communist regimes were known to do is not an option. Still Siri is clever and does know how to ride the line without tipping across it.

The plot revolves around two crimes. The first is the death of the wife of a high-ranking Party official. The second is the discovery of three Vietnamese government agents in a lake in rural Laos. Both of these cases are high-profile and create incentives to keep truth from coming out.

One element of Cotterill’s novel that is outside the mold for this type of book involves supernatural activities. It seems that–like The Sixth Sense’s Macualay Culkin—Dr. Paiboun sees dead people. Perhaps this device was added to set the novel apart from others in the aforementioned class. For me, this approach seemed superfluous and disadvantageous. Siri’s “gift” kind of detracts from his strength of character because it’s not so much his brilliant mind that is solving murders as the victims giving him hints.

I will say that this supernatural element is introduced in a great way and that it could have been used throughout the novel to a much better effect. When the dead people first visit him, it’s in the form of a dream. At first we don’t know whether his subconscious worked out the solution or whether there is something supernatural going on. However, the author adds a manipulation of the material world so that we know this is supposed to have really happened and later this becomes abundantly clear. I think it would have been better to maintain the ambiguity. People reach solutions to difficult problems through sleep all the time, but we don’t live in a world in which the physical is manipulated supernaturally. Not that there is anything wrong with supernatural fiction (I read a lot of it.) However, crime fiction works best in a realistic world, as does historical fiction. This novel straddles those two genres, and throwing in supernatural events muddles the setting a bit.

Overall, I thought the book was well-written and the main character was humorous and intriguing. If you liked the kind of books I mentioned in the first paragraph, I believe you’ll like adding this to the mix.

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BOOK REVIEW: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is about the perils of adopting a false face when dating. At first Nick and Amy seem like the perfect couple, but that’s because Amy is donning the guise of “Cool Girl” and Nick is playing the part of the romantic. When the facades crack apart, so does their marriage. Then Amy goes missing under mysterious circumstances.

This isn’t the type of book that would normally call to me, but I read it because I kept seeing references to it and had to see what the hullaballoo was about. I must say, however, the book did not disappoint. I found Gone Girl hard to put down. Flynn does an outstanding job of carefully revealing information—and sometimes planting false flags—so that one is kept thinking throughout the book. To the characters in the book—besides Nick–it increasingly looks like Nick killed his wife, but to the reader it’s more of a roller coaster ride. At first we can’t believe he’s responsible, then we discover he’s not who he appears, then we learn who Amy really is, and so on.

The organization is alternating chapters from the point of view of the two leads, Amy and Nick. This is why we can’t believe Nick is a murderer at first, because we are seeing his point of view, but then we realize that it’s a limited point of view, and Nick isn’t particularly forthcoming about his peccadilloes and vices. In fact, Nick’s penchant for lying is a major factor in his deepening crisis. Nick’s problem is that he can’t stand to not be liked, particularly by women. Amy’s problem stems from having parents who wrote a book series called Amazing Amy that portrays a character that is a thinly veiled version of her—except perfect in every way. This leads to a condition in which Amy needs to appear perfect, even if she realizes that perfection is illusory.

If the reader has a point of dissatisfaction with this book, I believe it will be with the ending. I, myself, have mixed feelings on the subject. On one hand, the ending seems unbelievable and maybe a little flat. On the other hand, it’s an unexpected ending, and I think any ending that wasn’t completely unexpected would come across as a letdown after all the twists, turns, and reveals of the book.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes a good story. As I said, it’s highly engaging and readable.

FYI – there is a movie version coming out on October 3, 2014.

Here’s the trailer:

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