Ellery Queen Strikes Again!

The short stories collected for the bimonthly editions of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are always entertaining and diverse. The current issue has some classics as well as brand spanking new ones, though I don’t recall any actual spanking. That must be some other magazine. Here are some of the stories I enjoyed best:

“Pink Squirrel” by Nick Mamatas – Stories with clever Lithuanian grandmas are always entertaining. “Welcome to America! Where you can drink ice cream and alcohol simultaneously!”

“Stray” by debut author Ken Lim – What if what you’re running from isn’t really after you?

“The Interpreter and the Killer” – There’s a big international drug-trafficking case that takes an unexpected courtroom twist for Jeff Soloway’s Spanish-language interpreter. The plot hinges on a single word.

“Boo Radley College Prep” – Karen Harrington’s heartfelt tale about how a young boy learns not to make assumptions about people. This one will stay with me a long time. Excellent characters.

“Curious Incidents” – Steve Hockensmith devised a clever girl who is a Sherlock Holmes devotee, of course, for his latest Holmes on the Range story about Big Red and Old Red and a disappearance out west. Funny and true to the master of detection.

Many of the authors in this issue write novels as well. You can get the flavor of the way they think and write in these short, pleasurable bites.

Rekindling a Love Affair with Television

Somebody Feed Phil

Thanks to quarantines and streaming services, I’ve been watched more television these last few months than I have in years. Here are series our family found especially entertaining, ICYMT:

Somebody Feed Phil – In each episode, comedy writer Phil Rosenthal (pictured) visits a city somewhere in the world and, accompanied by local restaurateurs and food critics, drops in on local markets and farms, seven or eight restaurants of multiple types and price points, and a few of the unique sights. Phil loves everything he tries (almost), and he tries everything. The humor is broad—OK, it’s corny. A foodie website dissed the show because Phil isn’t a “real” food expert, which shows the reviewer totally missed the point. What he’s demonstrating is that anyone can have a wonderful time when they have an open mind—and mouth. He has fun, and we do too! Plus, I’ll bet he knows a lot more about food than he lets on.(Netflix)

The Americans – about Soviet citizens embedded in American life and carrying out spy things. Based on a real-life Russian program (that was apparently remarkably unsuccessful), the series was every bit as good as all my spy/thriller writing friends have said. It was brilliant to set the series during the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was imploding. But I did wonder why Philip and Elizabeth never seemed to worry much about fingerprints. (Amazon Prime)

Call My Agent – Three seasons of this French comedy series are available, with subtitles, about a quartet of Parisian talent agents. Although they all work for the same firm, they are competitors, and their colleagues better not forget it! The strange deals they get involved in always misfire in some awkward, barely salvageable way. Adding to the fun is having real French movie stars play their clients. There they are, without their makeup or their game face on. Playing themselves, sort of. (Netflix)

The Crown – Now showing: The Diana Years. We especially like Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. O’Connor played author Lawrence Durrell in PBS’s The Durrells in Corfu, which was a charming series. If flint-hearted Margaret Thatcher (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) mentions her father one more time . . . (Netflix)

****Naked Came the Florida Man

By Tim Dorsey – “ʻDon’t shoot guns into the hurricane.’ Elsewhere this would go without saying, but Floridians need to be told,” this antic crime novel begins, as Dorsey takes the familiar Florida man premise to absurd heights (or is it depths?). His hero, the aptly named Serge A. Storms, who has no discernible occupation, has plotted a picaresque adventure for himself and his dim friend, Coleman. Serge will drive them around Florida in his 50-year-old gold Plymouth Satellite, visiting the graves of past Florida luminaries.

Enlightening Coleman along their route, Dorsey/Serge painlessly and idiosyncratically covers Florida’s history, sociology, meteorology, and biology. Before long, you know quite a bit more about this quirky state than you did on page one. Florida with its extreme weather, its swarms of insects, its snakes and gators, its cultural hodgepodge, its tony suburbs and ramshackle sugar cane towns lend themselves perfectly to Serge’s non-stop snarky commentary

Several other plot threads, past and present, weave throughout. First is the story of the deadly 1928 hurricane that created a massive storm surge—not in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, where you’d expect, but in Lake Okeechobee—that killed some 2500 people. Pertinent to Dorsey’s tale, a rich sugar baron’s fortune in gold coins was lost in the calamity. The fate of the gold is one of the riches of this tall tale.

Most of the novel is devoted to Serge and Coleman’s adventures and clearly channels Serge’s manic psyche. His mind is like a rambunctious puppy, dashing here and there, nibbling this and that. At times the two men launch into a jag of childishness, racing and chasing each other, finger-painting murals for their motel walls, dressing as clowns, and generally acting up.

It’s hard to reconcile that light-hearted Serge with the man who plans (elaborately, of course) and carries out four diabolical murders. His victims aren’t blameless, but the gruesome methods by which they die almost put me off the book. But I hung in there, and I’m glad. Dorsey was a reporter and editor for the Tampa Tribune for twelve years and has twenty-two previous novels. The Boston Globe calls him “compulsively irreverent and shockingly funny.” A trip with his man Serge is most definitely a wild ride.

Order from Amazon here.

Goodnight Nobody

McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., presents a stunning new play by Rachel Bonds, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, that opened January 18 and runs through February 9. The play’s five characters have fifteen relationships among them, relationships with the power to sneak up on you and knock you out of your seat.

The play takes place in a “lovingly restored” upstate New York farmhouse, surrounded by trees—a nice metaphor for the quest for comfort in a wilderness of emotion. Its first scene reveals the inauspicious love affair between a young painter, Nan (Saamer Usmani), and a successful older sculptor, Mara (Dana Delany) who owns the farmhouse. He’s made her breakfast, and the scent of bacon wafts over the audience.

You don’t know whether this secret relationship will or can survive, when the second scene begins at some later point. Mara’s son Reggie (Nate Miller) has brought his two closest friends to the farmhouse for a getaway weekend. They are K (Ariel Woodiwiss) and, again, Nan. Nan is having some artistic success; Reggie is a comedian just coming off of a brutal national tour; and K needs a break from the demands of her infant son and recently widowed mother. They have a pretty good time of it. Nan is a fantastic cook, there’s plenty of booze and beer and a freezing lake to swim in, though Nan is the only one to take the plunge (a recurring tendency).

Unexpectedly, Mara appears with the current man in her life, the age-appropriate Bo (Ken Marks). Everyone—Mara and Nan, especially—puts on a game face, but the undercurrents the newcomers set in motion are practically visible. When the group decamps outdoors to enjoy an evening bonfire, several relationships go up in smoke. To enable this scene, Kimie Nishikawa has created a spectacular set that opens like a birthday present.

Bonds writes realistic, witty, endearing dialog. The laughs—and there are plenty of them—are a pleasing surface, though pain and disappointment gradually float into view. Though you may feel you know these characters well, Bonds has the power to surprise you.

The combination of Bonds’s writing, Rafaeli’s inspired direction, and the excellent performances of the entire company make this multi-layered, complex drama a compelling experience. Its title comes from the children’s classic, Goodnight Moon, and as K riffs on the story’s tedium, wonders aloud about its sorrowful line, “Goodnight nobody,” the line that transports a simple story from the realm of the predictable into the unknown.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s arts district, as well as two innovative restaurants in the buildings of the old train station. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Spies X 3

spy, espionage, reading

****Spy’s Fate

Overhearing someone talking about you can be both unsettling and revealing. Arnaldo Correa’s novel, full of observations about the US and its spycraft, from the point of view of a Cuban intelligence operative, is another such revelation. While there’s plenty of ineptitude and bureaucratic blindness on one side or the other, the main character, Carlos Manuel, is an expert at exposing and outwitting it. For a book about a Cuban spy stranded in Miami with a vindictive CIA agent on his trail, there’s quite a bit of humor and a heartwarming romance too. I really enjoyed this book. First published in 2002, it was Correa’s first novel translated into English. Available here from Amazon.

***Spies

This Fiction River special edition, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, includes 15 short spy stories by a range of authors. If you think the short story form doesn’t provide enough space to explore the long con of espionage, these tales may change your mind. Rusch says that what links them, besides their topic, is “their willingness to look at the world in all its messiness,” without flinching from the corrosive effects of secrets on everyone involved. My favorites included two historicals—the clever and very British “Our Man in Basingstoke” by Sabrina Chase, set during World War II, and “The Message” by CA Rowland, set during the Civil War—and Ron Collins’s “The Spy Who Walked into the Cold,” set in racially divided Chicago a few decades back. Get it here.

****From the Shadows

Spies needn’t be government agents or involved with great sociopolitical questions. Spanish author Juan José Millás’s novel (translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn) barely escapes the bedroom. Damián Lobo, a youngish man down on his luck and out of work, entertains himself by carrying on pretend conversations with a famous talk show host. This fantasy so preoccupies him that, in a rash moment, he steals a tie pin he believes the tv star would like. The police chase him through an outdoor market and he ducks inside an old wardrobe on display. Before it seems safe to emerge, the wardrobe is trundled away, loaded onto a truck, and delivered to its new owners’ bedroom, with Lobo still inside. As it turns out, there’s never a good moment to climb out, and through an elaborate ruse, Lobo makes his home there, listening in on all the family’s intimate secrets. An amusing tale that Kirkus Reviews calls “spectacularly bizarre.” Millás has won numerous literary prizes; this short novel is his first published in North America. Loved it! Available from Amazon.

Photo: David Lytle, creative commons license

The Farewell

This lovely new film written and directed by Lulu Wang starts with that staple of family dramas, assembling the clan (trailer). In this case, a woman’s sons and their wives and children are returning to Changchun, China, from Japan and America on the pretext of a family wedding, but in reality because the family matriarch, Nai Nai, is dying. Though widely dispersed, they are united in a conspiracy to keep that truth from her as long as possible.

All except Billi (Awkwafina). She immigrated to America with her parents at age four and has adopted this country’s attitudes toward personal autonomy. This secret is too big, too consequential, too awful to keep. So, when her young poleaxed-looking cousin moves up his wedding to a Japanese woman as a ploy to get the family together, Billi is discouraged from attending. She doesn’t have the poker face necessary to maintain the deception. She goes anyway.

And what do families do when they get together? They eat! Over a series of meals, including the eerily familiar wedding reception, the food serves as a distraction when discussions become too intense and personal. Grandma Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is lively and charming, and the mutual love between her and a devastated Billi is beautifully portrayed. They tell her she isn’t sick, and that’s the attitude she adopts. And, really, she manages the family and the wedding minutiae with energy. The family keeps trying to take on various tasks, but she’ll have none of it.

I especially liked the portrayal of Billi’s parents, her stunned father (Tzi Ma) and chilly, no-nonsense mother (Diana Lin), as well as the poor Japanese bride (Aoi Mizuhara), gamely participating in everything without understanding a word.

The movie delves deeply into cultural differences and, by exploring them in such vivid detail, establishes bona fide universals. Given the subject matter, you would not expect this film to have a nice dose of comedy, but it does. Families closely examined almost always do, in the midst of whatever chaos surrounds them—painful wedding toasts eliciting surefire groans.

Christy Lemire for RogerEbert.com, nails it when she says Wang has “made a film about death that’s light on its feet and never mawkish. She’s told a story about cultural clashes without ever leaning on wacky stereotypes or lazy clichés.” See it!, then go out for Chinese food. You will be in the mood.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 99%; audiences 88%.

The Rainmaker

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s new production of the N. Richard Nash hit The Rainmaker is an apt thematic fit for a summer this hot, where land and spirits are parched. STNJ’s artistic director Bonnie J. Monte directs the show, preserving all its comedy and charm, which opened August 3 and runs through August 18.

In the early 1950s, somewhere Out West, the Curry family ranch is in trouble. A severe drought imperils the cattle herd, and tempers are frayed. Father H.C. Curry (Mark Elliot Wilson), older son Noah (Benjamin Eakeley), and younger son Jim (Isaac Hickox-Young) are preoccupied not only with the lack of rain but with their clumsy attempts to interest someone—anyone?—in marrying their sister Lizzie (Monette Magrath). A visit to the office of Sheriff Thomas (Nick Plakias) to inveigle his deputy, File (Corey Sorenson), to come to dinner—a fix-up ploy File sees through immediately—fails miserably. Noah counsels Lizzie to act more like the mincing, flattering kind of woman who, though vapid and undignified in Lizzie’s view, gets her man nonetheless. His and her imitation of how she should behave provides a number of hearty audience laughs.

Just when the family’s situation seems bleakest, with their prospects as empty as the sky is empty of clouds, flamboyant Billy Starbuck (Anthony Marble) appears at their door, claiming to be a rainmaker. All he needs is $100. As ranch manager, Noah wants to run him off the property; Lizzie calls him a con man and a liar. Only Jim, naïve enough to see the world through the lens of hope and H.C., desperate enough to try anything and astute enough to see something in Starbuck that might broaden Lizzie’s horizons, want him to stay. What can be the outcome of such a reckless and costly venture?

All the Currys are well portrayed, with Magrath especially poignant and frustrated as Lizzie, facing what Noah claims is certain spinsterhood. Hickox-Young is delightful as the credulous, mercurial Jim, quick to take offense and as quick to forgive. Eakeley plays the over-practical Noah with a hard edge, while secretly yearning for relief from the burdens of the ranch and the family. And Wilson as H.C. manages to be simultaneously indulgent and strong.

In a sense it is Marble’s show when he is on stage, because his showman character is so unpredictably over-the-top, yet the actor conveys heart-warming tenderness when dealing with Lizzie, and Magrath is equally engaging in their scenes together.

The script holds up some 65 years after being written and retains its comedic as well as romantic luster. It’s easy to see why this strong and moving story has been revived on stage, made into a movie, and repackaged as a musical (110 in the Shade).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

*****Blood

scissors, blood, editing

By Maggie Gee — Far from the ordinary crime story, literary author Maggie Gee’s Blood is a comic excursion into the rough-and-tumble mind of narrator Monica Ludd. She’s 38, over six feet tall, outspoken and awkward, far from tiny with, as she is fond of pointing out, an enormous bosom. When Monica squeezes you into the rollercoaster seat beside her on page one, you’re in for a wild ride.

Monica claims to be a respectable citizen of East Kent. Doubtful. Much of the story plays out near the seacoast there and on the peninsula of Thanet. The little community, the seashore, the shops—come to life nicely. Even such a remote area has its dose of violence, terrorism, and, well, blood.

Monica has a job. She’s the deputy head in a school, loathes her new boss, and takes no pains to hide it. She thinks he’d like to be rid of her, and who could blame him?, but he rarely stands up to her.

Monica has a family. She calls them “artistes of awfulness.” She landed in the middle of a congeries of three boys and three girls, all grown up now. Ma’s in a care home, forgetting everything or choosing not to remember, it’s hard to say which. It’s Dad who drives the family disaster train. He’s a dentist who has sex with his patients in the chair. He’s a serial philanderer whose current girlfriend is two decades younger than Monica. When his children were young, he beat them. He mocks them yet. His bullying drove his youngest son Fred into the Army, and the siblings blame him for Fred’s death.

The final insult—and the inciting incident of the novel—occurs when the siblings organize an elaborate party in Fred’s memory, and Dad doesn’t show up. Monica is so angry, she says she’s going to kill him. Alas, a lot of people hear this threat, and the next morning when Monica finds Dad’s brutally beaten, blood-soaked body, even her siblings think she’s a murderer. That attack launches her impulsive and lengthy campaign of lies and misdirection. There’s truth in the old saying, blood is thicker than water, and you see it here. Her siblings’ loyalty to her through this whole saga says volumes about the sides of Monica that she tries to hide with her bluster.

In Monica, Gee has created an unforgettable character. Not only large, but larger than life. Profane and resourceful. She speaks her mind, loudly (rarely a good thing). And she is a genius at self-justification. All of which I found highly entertaining, even on the not-infrequent occasions that I was embarrassed for her.

From a crime fiction point of view, Blood is refreshingly unconventional and a reminder that violence and retribution, jealousy and fear, have been important literary themes forever. Literary novelist Maggie Gee, OBE, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was its first female chair.

Photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If ever a play lent itself to creative interpretation, Shakespeare’s lighthearted classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is that play. The Princeton Summer Theater production, which opened July 25 and plays Thursday to Sunday through August 4, takes full advantage of that opportunity to innovate.

The plot of confused lovers, a night in the forest, and mischievous fairies is so familiar director Maeli Goren safely pared it down to run in 75 minutes without intermission. She’s added seats to the sides and rear of the stage so that every member of the 200-person audience feels they have ringside seats. This compresses the time and space available to the cast and magnifies the production’s intensity. You aren’t watching the performance; you are in it.

Most of the action takes place within the skeleton of what might be a greenhouse. I especially liked Oberon and Titania’s crowns made of twigs, the feather capelets, and a jacket made of hundreds of translucent white vinyl gloves that mimicked feathers. Small lanterns filled with, naturally, fairy lights looked like they held captured fireflies. There’s a little cast-created music, a bit of singing—and this may be a theatrical first—Puck occasionally plays an accordion. There are even puppets, which refract the shifting relationships among the lovers in new ways. In other words, there is no shortage of things to watch and delight in.

The cast comprises current Princeton students and recent graduates, and their lack of experience with Shakespeare and his rhythms is apparent, with the result that some of the speeches are hard to follow. But every actor enters the fray with enthusiasm, and the familiarity of the story backstops them. Standouts in the eight-member cast include Michael Rosas as Theseus and Oberon, Maeve Brady as Hyppolyta and Titania, Justin Ramos as Lysander, and Allison Spann as Puck. Rosas is notable for his range of gestures and Brady for her ability to convey a sense of wonder. Ramos and Spann display remarkably entertaining athleticism.

It’s a tribute to the dedication of the participants that so much effort and attention to detail goes into a show that will run for so few performances. Though “The course of true love never did run smooth,” this production gets great joy out of the lovers’ journey!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

Deathtrap

A good many regular theater goers at some point will have seen Deathtrap, Ira Levin’s supremely popular comedy thriller, which premiered on Broadway in 1978, ran for almost 1800 performances, and was nominated for four Tony awards, including best play. Princeton Summer Theater’s production, directed by Annika Bennett, premiered July 4 (perfect choice for making a bang) and will be on stage at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater Thursdays through Sundays until July 21.

It’s been so long since I last saw Deathtrap, I’d forgotten the story’s twists and turns and appreciated anew its delicious surprises. This isn’t a play where you want to reveal overmuch about plot except to say Sidney Bruhl (played by C. Luke Soucy) is a formerly successful playwright specializing in murder mysteries. His wife Myra (Kathryn Anne Marie) is increasingly worried about the lack of money coming in and the diminishing prospects for more.

When a cleverly conceived play titled “Deathtrap” arrives unexpectedly from one of Bruhl’s former students, Clifford Anderson, it’s almost too tempting. It would be Bruhl’s perfect comeback vehicle, if only he’d written it! Levin’s dialog is full of jibes at the theater world and its vicissitudes, such as when Myra asks Bruhl “Is [Anderson’s play] really that good?” and he says, “I’ll tell you how good it is. Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.”

“Deathtrap’s” author Anderson appears (Dylan Blau Edelstein), a babe who’s wandered into some rather devious woods, as does a famous Dutch psychic (Abby Melick) living nearby, and Bruhl’s attorney (Justin Ramos). The Deathtrap you’re watching, just like Anderson’s “Deathtrap,” conforms to Bruhl’s favorite formula: two acts and a cast of five. All are fine in their parts, with special mention of Marie and Melick.

The play takes to heart Chekhov’s famous admonition that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Guns, maces, swords, a crossbow, knives—Bruhl’s study décor is a catalog of mayhem, with even a pair of trick handcuffs devised by Houdini. The set design is particularly strong, though the costumes were puzzling. (What era?)

When viewing a play forty years on, it’s fair to ask, does it hold up? In this case, the answer is a definite yes. Consider Deathtrap a solid choice for your summer entertainment!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.