I haven’t read much by Dame Ngaio Marsh, the famous New Zealand mystery writer (and theater director) who was one of the Queens of Mystery during the golden age, and who wrote a fair number of books and stories featuring the well-mannered, but also slyly funny, Chief Inspector Alleyn of London’s Met police (later, Superintendent Alleyn, by the by). Not sure why I haven’t dug into her murderous oeuvre before, but hey, I make mistakes! Not too long ago, however, I came across a story by her featuring him, and liked it, and so picked up this here book, Death of a Fool. A dandy read, taking place in a small small British town, where there’s some pagen-ish annual ritual dancing, in which a dancer manages to lose their head! Literally! Which leads to the Inspector being called. Lots of fun for the mystery maven, but also the folklore lover. But be prepared for some dialect, as in the below wonderful quote.
“Fiddlededee. Let’s have some brandy. Where’s the grog-tray. Right the bell, Otters.”
The elderly parlour-maid answered the bell at once, like a servant in a fairy-tale, ready-armed with a tray, brandy-glasses and a bottle of fabulous Cognac.
“I ‘fer it at this stage,” Dame Alice said, “to havin’ it with the coffee. Papa used to say, ‘When dinner’s dead in yer and bed is still remote, ring for the brandy.’ Sound advice in my ‘pinion.”
Harold Q. Masur (also pubbed as Harold Masur, Hal Masur, Hal Q. Masur, and perhaps some other variations on his name) has made a fair number of appearances on the old Spiked Punch. Heck, just check out the past Harold Masur Cocktail Talks for evidence. Funny to mention evidence, as his protagonist (his only one as far as I’ve read) is a lawyer named Scott Jordan, who is on the straight and narrow when it comes to lawyering in court, but isn’t opposed to a little breaking and entering if needed, and especially isn’t opposed to the drinks and nightlife and ladies. And he solves murders and stuff, too. In The Mourning After, the affairs are around art, which adds a nice cultured touch – how many mysteries mention or revolve around lesser-known (at least in relation to Matisse) fauve-ist artist Maurice de Vlaminck? Not too many! It’s not all art, however, as Jordan finds times for drinks, too. And one of them is Campari! Seeing that in a mystery makes my day. And near the word “agog,” a word I love and one not used as much modernly? Amazing.
At the Carlyle, seated at a small table, sipping a Campari and soda, Angela was still agog at the thought of a one-man show at the Maxim Gallery for Carl Baum.
“Never heard of the chap,” I said. “Tell me about him.”
Thought I’d have another, another Cocktail Talk, that is, from this book by A.A. Fair, aka, Erle Stanley Gardner. I just can’t resist a good Benedictine quote! If you missed the Beware the Curves Cocktail Talk Part I, well, don’t miss it any longer (and you might as well catch all the A.A. Fair Cocktail Talks while you’re at it).
“I’m a hell cat,” she said.
She got up to pour more liquor. She was wearing some kind of a filmy white thing. The bottle was getting empty. She had another bottle in the kitchen. She opened the kitchen door to go get the bottle.
Bright lights were on in the kitchen. The lights flooded through the doorway and silhouetted every curve of her figure against the white gossamer.
Halfway through the doorway, she thought of something, turned, and said, “Would you prefer brandy and Benedictine to crème de menthe, Donald?”
I took a little time debating the matter. “You’ve got both?” I asked.
“Yes.” She shifted her position slightly.
The light behind her did its stuff.
“Brandy and Benedictine,” I said. “But just one, Stella.”
I’ve had a fair (hehe) number at A.A. Fair Cocktail Talks, that being a nom de plume of Erle Stanley Gardner. In those past posts, I go on about how I feel about the author vs. his other self (if that makes sense), and how I feel about various characters and books and all that stuff I know you are dying to go read about. So, do it! Then when back come read this quote from Beware the Curves, a Cool and Lam book (the two detectives that the A.A. Fair side of the personality writes about), and while not my favorite starring them, fun stuff. There’s a murder in the past reopened, lots of double-dealing and lying, ladies, a trial (I sorta wanted Perry Mason to show in the co-mingling of the universes, but alas, no), dirty politics, guns buried in the dirt, and cocktails.
We had a couple of cocktails. She went through the motions of counting calories when it came to ordering dinner, but she surrendered easily to the waiter, the menu, and my suggestions. She had a lobster cocktails, avocado-and-grapefruit salad, cream of tomato soup, filet mignon, a baked potato, and mince pie ala mode.
We went to her apartment, and she brought out a bottle of crème de menthe. She turned the lights down because her eyes hurt after a long day in the office.
A second Cocktail Talk from the Oxford Book of Ghost Stories (see “The Empty House” Cocktail Talk for a bit more background there), here from a story called “The Taipan,” by the legendary W. Somerset Maugham. An author who has many books I’ve liked, by the by, though this story wasn’t the strongest in the book by a ways, and might not even be a ghost story. Folks can quibble about that. What you can’t quibble about is that the main character can put down a lot, a whole lot, of booze with lunch. I had to include the below, just cause I was so impressed with his ability to walk after the liquid consumed below.
But he smiled, for he felt in an excellent humour. He was walking back to his office from a capital luncheon at the Hong-Kong and Shanghai Bank. They did you very well there. The food was first-rate and there was plenty of liquor. He had started with a couple of cocktails, then he had some excellent Sauterne, and he had finished up with two glasses of port and some fine old brandy. He felt good. And when he left he did a thing that was rare with him; he walked.
I’ve been reading some classic-y ghost stories recently (though spring doesn’t seem the season, my fairly-recent-in-the-scheme-of-things love for M. R. James has driven it) especially those written by English writers – meaning, from England, not writing in English. Not that I haven’t read a few U.S. writers of yore, too (especially Manly Wade Wellman, who is not always, but often, groovy), but leaning British. A lean which led me to picking up the Oxford Book of Ghost Stories. Not a bad collection, in the whole. A few stories that weren’t to my thought ghost stories at all, and a few stories not to my taste, but anthologies are tricky things to put together! Anywho, one of the stories read was “The Empty House,” by Algernon Blackwood, who did all kinds of things, though perhaps is known more for his ghost stories than anything else, today at least. And this was a good story, perhaps one of his best known so I won’t prattle on about it, except to say that the below Cocktail Talk contains a phrase I was – and remain – instantly fond of, “stiff enough to help anybody over anything.” Sometimes, ghosts or not, that’s exactly what’s needed.
He took the brandy flask and poured out a glass of neat spirit, stiff enough to help anybody over anything. She swallowed it with a little shiver. His only idea now was to get out of the house before her collapse became inevitable.
Here’s one more Bleak House Cocktail Talk for you, before we back away for now (cause there might be more in the future) from one of the finest books of all time, a big ol’ masterpiece by one of the masters themselves, Charles Dickens. Don’t miss the Bleak House Cocktail Talks Part I and Part II either, if you find yourself behind on your reading, so you can score a few more quotes and learn a bit more about the book (though who am I kidding – you probably know it well yourself already, cause you’re cool like that). This last quote features Mr. Bucket, one of the first detectives in literature. He’s an interesting character (duh! It is Dickens), and detective, as at the beginning when he shows up, you might think “hmm, not so sure about him – tool of the man? Not on the side of right and justice?” but then as he unfolds and becomes more realized and more spotlighted you think “yeah, Mr. Bucket! He’s the stuff!” There have been many created detectives that take some Bucketian characteristics since he made the scene, but none exactly like him. For one, how many detectives drink sherry? Not enough.
Having put the letters in his book of fate and girdled it up again, he unlocks the door just in time to admit his dinner, which is brought upon a goodly tray with a decanter of sherry. Mr. Bucket frequently observes, in friendly circles where there is no restraint, that he likes a toothful of your fine old brown East Inder sherry better than anything you can offer him. Consequently, he fills and empties his glass with a smack of his lips and is proceeding with his refreshment when an idea enters his mind.
Our second Cocktail Talk from the all-time classic (is that a strange turn of phrase? “All-time” should be inferred in “classic” I suppose) and amazing book of amazingness Bleak House has arrived right here! Be sure you read the Bleak House Part I Cocktail Talk, too, so you feel all caught up and can laugh at my silliness even more. In this here Cocktail Talk below, we are fully-focused on Mr. Tulkinghorn, who is both one of the villains, (there are layers of villainous behavior, but I’d call him the top layer) and then part of one of literature’s first mystery plots. That’s all I’m saying! Read the book. While Mr. T isn’t someone you like, like, his love of old port in the below is for me a tiny redeeming factor in his Dickens-driven makeup. And his name is great, too, like most Dickens names.
In his lowering magazine of dust, the universal article into which his papers and himself, and all his clients, and all things of earth, animate and inanimate, are resolving, Mr. Tulkinghorn sits at one of the open windows enjoying a bottle of old port. Though a hard-grained man, close, dry, and silent, he can enjoy old wine with the best. He has a priceless bin of port in some artful cellar under the Fields, which is one of his many secrets. When he dines alone in chambers, as he has dined to-day, and has his bit of fish and his steak or chicken brought in from the coffee-house, he descends with a candle to the echoing regions below the deserted mansion, and heralded by a remote reverberation of thundering doors, comes gravely back encircled by an earthy atmosphere and carrying a bottle from which he pours a radiant nectar, two score and ten years old, that blushes in the glass to find itself so famous and fills the whole room with the fragrance of southern grapes.
The Man Behind the Evening's PlansA.J. Rathbun is a freelance food and entertainment writer, poet and author, a frequent guest on the Everyday Food program (Martha Stewart Living/Sirius satellite radio), and is a contributor to culinary & entertainment magazines such as Every Day with Rachael Ray, The Food Network Magazine, Real Simple, Wine Enthusiast, and many others. Of course, there's so much more to it than that...Read More