Friday, September 19, 2014

Independence Day, Scottish Style

So Scotland officially has said no to independence. It's not really a surprise, given the polling, but it's still a little fascinating how the process worked out.

Back when I had the time and resources for such a luxury, I used to subscribe to The Economist, a well-regarded current affairs publication that is based out of the UK. (It's also painfully expensive, even for print media.) It's nice to get a refreshing perspective from professionals who aren't based within the US, and yet aren't so globally blind as to become its unwavering critic. Anyway, while it offered plenty of US news, by default it focused a lot into European and especially UK/Commonwealth news, and the battle for Scottish Independence has been going on for a while.

Personally, I don't have any skin in the game, so the vote result itself didn't matter too much to be. From a broad historical perspective, I generally think regions should stick together. There's power in being part of a larger coalition, and a confederation (much like the Unites States and the European Union, or, more abstractly and inaccurately, the Commonwealth Nations in general) seems to be the best of both worlds. The big-picture stuff, like defense and treaties and broad economic policies, are handled on the federal level, while the details, such as tax policies, local issues, government structures and the like are handled closer to the ground. Obviously it's not as clear-cut as that (the North Sea Oil issue for the Scots is a testament to that) and there's a lot of stuff that gets warped in the process, but it seems as if the mood of the world is slowly swinigng this way.

Of course, who knows how that will change? The advent of technology and direct democracy becomes closer to reality. The case against direct voting on issues has been the logistical nightmare it posed, and that particular burden is effectively gone. You could literally wake up each day and vote on a few issues before your coffee. That may not necessarily be the best idea, for a variety of reasons, but the big objection of feasibility is closer to being eliminated. This may spark a philosophical discussion about the nature of democracy, but will probably boil down to petty arguments over broadband access.

That said--outside of the theoretical ramblings of anarcho-capitalists--it's still not very feasible if the world slowly breaks down into a series of microstates. Even today, there's probably a few dozen, even a hundred, different regions who wouldn't mind exploring a breakaway. While some may make sense, even more would find themselves doomed to mediocrity (and--to be a realist--a tempting target for conquerors) and the lure of self-governance may not be as strong as, say, the gains from collective defense.

Still, the fact that we've progressed to the point where breakaway nations are handling this through voting and not through violence is certainly a good sign, and the fact that a lot of the major questions (namely, Quebec and Scotland) have ended in defeat without much by way of repercussions is promising. Still, the poli sci major in me wants to play around with the world like a multicolor chess game. Perhaps that's a bit imperialistic for me, but I am alarmingly OK with that.

The Grandmaster

About a week or so ago, something amazing apparently happened in St. Louis, where the 2014 Sinquefield Cup was held. This is, of course, one of the title matches for chess.

Chess has always been a little weird to me. On one hand, it's an ancient game whose rules are reasonably simple but the board and situations open up multitudes of possibilities. On the other hand...well, it's been used from everything from a barometer of nerd martyrdom to an awkward Cold War proxy.

Oddly, for someone who is a board game hobbyist like myself, I was never really all that good at chess. Well, basically I had a plateau: I was a decent enough player up to a point. After that, though, it was either intellectual limitations or simply boredom where I really just couldn't master anything. Thinking two or even three moves ahead makes sense, but to somehow get seven or eight ahead just seems like a waste of time. And memorizing different openings and moves wasn't something I really enjoyed, so studying it like a science just seemed like a chore.

I've always found it weird that chess somehow got tagged as an "intellectual" game. I suppose it makes sense, since you have to conceptualize a lot of abstract movements in your head. But it always seemed like that kid in class who memorized all the facts in the book but couldn't order lunch without jacking it all up; on paper, he (or she) was smart, but actually applying that skill to anything in the real world revealed exactly how much of a disaster that person was. And just like similar games (like Scrabble), a lot of it is less about situational awareness and more memorizing stuff.

OK, maybe that's a little harsh. Every game plays out differently, and I'll admit that watching two skilled players play against each other is fascinating. (Well, watching edited footage of two players. I ain't watching that live because I am a normal human being.)

Add to that the very, very weird modern history of the sport--Bobby Fischer turned into a reclusive  batshit crazy anti-Semite; the current head of FIDE (arguably the most powerful international chess organization, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, insists that he was taken on a joyride with aliens that unlocked the mysteries of chess to him (or something like that, and, no, I'm not making that up); the rise of computer chess players and how that's a thing; and all the weird Cold War shenanigans that basically everyone went through for a few decades. It's just strange that we've taken this honored ancient game and turned it into some odd weirdness sink. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Netflix Series Review: BoJack Horseman

Netflix recently released yet another original series, a cartoon called BoJack Horseman.

Netflix has done a pretty good job of producing original content. I'm not sure if the business model works out--I don't know if having new exclusive shows like this is gaining or retaining many new subscribers after a certain point--but as consumers we certainly can't complain. While I haven't watched all of their material, I've watched most of it, and with the exception of Hemlock Grove they've all been high quality.

Anyway, BoJack Horseman is a series about a washed-up former sitcom star (who also happens to be a horse) and how he handles that life. BoJack was the lead in Horsin' Around, a clear parody of Full House, and has gotten immensely rich from it. (Unlike other stories of former celebrities, he appears to be managing his money well; we see him spend lots of it wastefully with little consequence.) The driving force behind the 12-episode arc is BoJack's memoirs--in order to get him back into the spotlight, he agrees to have a ghostwriter work with him to talk about his past. It's a clever framing device that not only lets us legitimately delve into his past, but also to contrast it with his current life.

And his current life is a mess. The main cast, besides Bojack, involves his roommate Todd, a complete burnout who just sort of hangs around; Princess Caroline, a cat who acts as his agent and occasional girlfriend; Mr. Peanutbutter, a golden retriever who, as another former sitcom star, is a friendly rival to BoJack; and finally Diane, BoJack's ghostwriter. There's also plenty of recurring characters as well, including Sarah Lynn, the now-grown-up co-star of Horsin' Around, and poor Pinky Penguin, the contact at the brink-of-failing book publisher.

I suppose I should point out, if it hasn't been obvious yet, that the world of BoJack Horseman is...well, different. Half of the characters are human, while half of them are anthropomorphic animals of some sort (retaining some sort of human elements). As you can see in the picture above, BoJack is clearly a horse, although he had hands and feet like a human. The same goes for a lot of other characters, both main, secondary, and background.

While the show is clearly a comedy, it deals with some startlingly heavy topics, such as depression. Everyone's life in the rich and fabulous world of Hollywoo is empty and angry.* While this certainly isn't a new insight into the world of celebrities, it does manage to handle it uniquely and with a surprising amount of sensitivity. This isn't Simpsons or Family Guy, full of non-sequiturs and cutaway gags, and there's little by way of shock humor. It plays out probably more like King of the Hill, where dialogue and character development are emphasized more than having a gag a minute. It also has a lot of the "callback" structure of other shows (notably Arrested Development)--there's rarely a reference that doesn't get brought back, to good effect, in a later episode.

The premise seems, well, different enough, but does it hold it together? For the most part, it does, but it's not perfect.

First off, let's look at what is good about it.

*The show manages to balance the writing, the subject matter, and the voice talent pretty well. It's refreshing that the show isn't just about getting away with as much profanity as possible and it's just a series of absurd quick cuts to a bunch of unrelated topics. While obviously it's a show about talking animals, it sometimes feels more real than, say, Family Guy or South Park. That's a little weird, and to its credit.
*While the whole "anthropomorphic animal" gimmick would seem like it would get old or be used as a crutch, the writers manage to get a lot of mileage out of it. Some of them are just throwaway visual gags (a beaver cutting wood like a circular saw with his teeth; Princess Caroline using a scratching post as part of her "workout"); some are a lot more subtle and clever. It takes an episode or two to realize that Mr. Peanutbutter isn't just a nice guy, he's kind of dim, likes everybody, and has a low attention span...just like a golden retriever.** When someone is about to get arrested by the cops, one of the cops is an electric eel--and you suddenly realize that someone's about to get tased. Neal McBeal is a seal, and it turns out he's in the armed forces as a (wait for it)--Navy SEAL. These all seem obvious, but when you watch (especially the background and secondary characters) you realize how much thought was put into each one.
*Some of the writing is just damn clever. A lot of it is well-crafted dialogue, but some of it is just some old-fashioned sketch humor that manages to pull it off. The scene with Dr. Hu and the confusion while shooting the movie (BoJack plays Mr. Peanutbutter and Wallace Shawn plays BoJack and...well, just watch it) are highlights. And even though it's just a stupid joke, I loved it any time Vincent Adultman showed up.
*A point should be made about the voice casting: it's fantastic. You already have Will Arnett as BoJack, who manages to convey the lonely despair with a heaping dose of feigned (and quite real) arrogance. But you also have Aaron Paul (from Breaking Bad) basically playing the same sort of character in Todd; Princess Caroline is voiced by the great Amy Sedaris (Strangers With Candy and various rabbit-related things); Alison Brie (Community and Mad Men) is cast as Diane; and Paul F. Tomkins (every cartoon ever) does Mr. Peanutbutter. Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, J.K. Simmons, and Kristen Shaal also have fairly large parts, and there's also a few cameos from celebrities.

So far we're good. But there are some negative parts to it:

*The show can seem uneven at times. Even though above I said it was balanced, there's quite a few episodes where it's not. For example, the character of Charlotte (a romantic what-if scenario with BoJack) seems interesting, but it doesn't really go anywhere, and it's not particularly dramatic and the laughs come to a screeching halt when she shows up. Other times, the writing simply goes from amusing and whimsical to show-stoppingly awkward, and not in a good way.
*Some of the plot points don't seem to go anywhere, even though it seems clear that they should. Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd's creative adventures together seem like it's going to build up to something, but it really never gets resolved by the end of the series. The character of Wayne looked like it was going to cause some sexual tension with Diane, but it kind of just fizzled out into nothing.
*Speaking of, the character of Diane just seems to be...flat. And it's strange, because the writers go out of their way several times to delve into her background and her personal issues, but it's not written well enough for anyone to care. Her role seemed to matter so little that her biggest impact was creating tension between Bojack and Mr. Peanutbutter. Even when (spoiler alert, I suppose) BoJack looks to her for validation towards the end of the series, one has to wonder why any of us, or even BoJack, would care what she thought?

So, in the end, is BoJack Horseman worth it? I say yes. It can take a little while to get into the swing of things. But the animal-as-human concept was executed surprisingly well, and for an animated series it's very refreshing. However, it does get heavy-handed at times, and I know a lot of people watch a few episodes and just can't get into it, which I can understand. Still, I think it's worth giving it a shot, and at twelve half-hour episodes there isn't much to lose.

*No, that's not a typo.
**And Dave Coulier.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Three Doors to Death to Triple Jeopardy

This is the fourth installment of the Nero Wolfe Project, reviewing each of the books as they were published.

Let's take a look at Three Doors to Death, In The Best Families, Curtains For Three, Murder By The Book, and Triple Jeopardy.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, we're slowly moving into the time frame where Rex Stout is writing more short stories than novels; in this case, Three Doors to Death, Curtains For Three, and Triple Jeopardy are all compilations. (The "three" theme will continue for the remainder of the series, for better or worse.)

Three Doors To Death includes Man Alive, Omit Flowers, and Door To Death.

In Man Alive, A wealthy fashion designer suspects that her uncle--long assumed to have committed suicide--is still alive, and so she hires Wolfe to prove it if possible. When the uncle turns up dead, Wolfe gains a client. A decent mystery with a little bit too much repetition.

Omit Flowers involves Wolfe's old friend, Marko Vukcic, in clearing his chef of charges as a favor. Again, a solid mystery although ultimately forgettable; aside from the unusual setup (no fee involved), I had to look it up to get the plot.

In Door To Death, Theodore has to leave to stay with an ill relative, and in the meantime Wolfe is on the hunt for a replacement. Of course, the moment he shows up to get the new gardener, the gardener is accused of murdering his fiance, and Wolfe has to solve the case to get his replacement. As opposed to the other two mysteries in this collection, this one is fun and memorable, if for no other reason than it's enjoyable to have Wolfe occasionally out of his element.

This collection is notable in three respects. The foreword notes that Wolfe took no fee for two of the three, and Archie goes through pains to note how unusual this is. (Of course, Wolfe was doing a favor for Vukcic in one, getting some good meals in the process, and in the other he's getting a gardener, so it's not like he's altruistic all the way.) Two: In each of these cases, Wolfe at some point pulls the same tactic: he falsifies evidence to draw the murderer out. It's an effective and often enjoyable mechanic, but one feels that if it's done too often (especially in the short stories, since it's a quick and easy way to reach a resolution) it might get stale. And, finally, even though this book was published in 1950, the stories actually predate The Second Confession, so if you are reading these in order (as I am) you actually want to read these stories first. (It doesn't really matter, although some references in The Second Confession don't make much sense otherwise.)

In The Best Families: The third (and final) book of the Zeck Trilogy, this novel starts out normally enough: a mother wants Wolfe to investigate the source of income from her daughter's husband, who has no job yet still lives lavishly. The source, of course, is soon discovered--Zeck sends a warning to Wolfe to back off the investigation. Wolfe, of course, refuses, sending Archie to the estate to do some investigating. Upon his return, Wolfe is gone--he's relieved Fritz and Theodore of their duties, and gives explicit instructions not to be found. After waiting a while, Archie sets up shop on his own, until events resolve themselves.

By far one of the more interesting stories--this is one of the few novels that delves into the personal lives of Archie and Wolfe, and the "formula" is knocked on its head halfway through the book. Equal parts sad and amazing--Archie, Fritz, and Theodore standing outside the brownstone lamenting the turn of events reads very clinically and yet one can tell is emotionally draining on all of them. I would have preferred this book happened later in the series, if for no other reason than to have the impact a little more, but the novel as a standalone is fairly amazing. While there are nitpicks about the resolution (I won't go into it) overall it's one of the top books so far.

Curtains For Three has The Gun With Wings, Bullet For One, and Disguise For Murder.

In The Gun With Wings, a complicated suicide-turned-murder of an opera singer merits investigation by Wolfe. The victim, who had been punched maliciously in the throat by a rival singer, also managed to irritate a whole host of suspects. An interesting double-reverse whammy of a plot--the gun keeps "moving" due to the motives of various suspects.

In Bullet For One, an industrialist is shot while on horseback, and yet all the suspects have solid alibis. A decent, if overly simple, mystery.

In Disguise For Murder, Wolfe hosts a flower show...only to have one of the garden club members killed in Wolfe's own office. The victim, who had confessed to being a confidence woman but swore to go straight, advised that she had seen a previous "client" at the show and he had recognized her, but before Archie could get the details she was killed. Wolfe's office was thus sealed as a crime scene--in what Wolfe could only surmise was a deliberate act of malice against him by the police department, and solving the murder would be the best way to not only get his office back but also embarrass the cops.

All are good mysteries; The Gun With Wings has an interesting premise, although it sort of peters out at the end; Bullet For One is actually pretty entertaining even if the mystery is incredibly simple; and Digsuise for Murder has a lackluster mystery but is absolutely hilarious.

Murder By The Book: It seems like everyone who has come in contact with a specific book--Put Not Your Trust--meets an untimely end. It's up to Wolfe to link the murders together and find out why the manuscript is so deadly.

OK, that's a short description, but it's actually a very good novel--it's just easy to give too much away. (The whole notion that it's the manuscript connecting a bunch of seemingly random murders takes up the first half of the book.) The highlight of this novel is Archie's entertaining of a roomful of women, including getting them drunk enough to start spilling secrets.

Triple Jeopardy includes Home To Roost, Cop-Killer, and The Squirt And The Monkey. It also has what has to be the single ugliest cover of any book ever.

In Home To Roost, a man claiming to be an FBI informant in the Communist Party is poisoned at a dinner, and all those present there are suspects. Neither the FBI or the local cops are opening up as to whether he was a commie or an FBI agent, and it's up to Wolfe to crack that first.

In Cop-Killer, Archie admits two foreigners--one of which works at his barber shop--to help them evade deportation. He hides them in the brownstone while he investigates (and against Wolfe's initial objections). Unbeknownst to him, a murder--of a cop, no less!--has happened at the stop. Turns out the cop was investigating a murder, not deportation, but now that the foreigners have fled they are the prime suspect. Knowing that they are innocent but unable to tell the cops without revealing how he knows, both Wolfe and Archie hole up at the barbershop to solve the crime.

In The Squirt And The Monkey, Archie is unwittingly framed by a famous cartoonist for murder--well, someone framed him, anyway. This is a monkey mystery, but thankfully the monkey plays only a bit part. (Oh, spoiler alert: the monkey didn't do it.)

None of these short stories are memorable. They certainly aren't bad and have their share of amusement, but none of them are particularly well-crafted.

One thing that has become abundently clear at this point is Archie's status as a ladies' man.At this point, every mystery involves Wolfe stating to Archie, in effect, that since Archie is so good with women he should use his (um) abilities to persuade them to part with information. The aforementioned meal in Murder By The Book is a prime example: Archie literally woos about a half dozen women to the office with orchids, has Fritz feed them and get them drunk, and then takes them each out dancing, one at a time over the next few weeks, until enough information is dropped. It's fantastically funny, but it can get a little tedious, as if Archie's sexiness is enough to melt half the population into confession. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pay It Forward: Free Coffee Edition

In case you haven't heard yet, there's a heartwarming tale of a chain of "pay it forward" customers as a Florida Starbucks late last week.

In summary, in case you don't know (or don't even know what "pay it forward" means): Paying it forward generally means doing a kind favor to someone else for no reason other than kindness; ideally, if someone has done an act of kindness to you, you do the same to a different person. Often, this is done by paying for the person's meal behind you at a place like, say, Starbucks. There are plenty of other ways of doing so, but this is the easiest and most common.*

As such, last week there was a 450+ chain of customers, all of whom "paid it forward." For over two days, anyone going to that particular line got their order paid for, and then they in turn paid for the next person in line--a long, unbroken succession of kindness and charity.  It was finally and abruptly stopped when one customer went there with the deliberate act of stopping this chain, refusing to pay for the next person's order.

Most of the stories you'll read about this incident, like the one I linked above, are focusing on the man who broke the chain--referring to him (indirectly, of course, because this is an unbiased news source) as a Grinch and a curmudgeon. And--horror of horrors--a crank.

The thing is--he's not wrong.

The entire point of the concept of "paying it forward" is to do a kind thing for someone else. Sure, maybe some day in the future it will come back to you, but maybe not. Getting rewarded is not the point or the main reason one should be doing this in the first place--it should simply be an inherent kindness, a reflection of one's good character.

Participating in one of these chains, of course, eliminates the entire point of the thing. If 1) you are socially pressured to pay it forward, rather than doing it from your own sense of kindness (supposedly, the Starbucks baristas were proactively asking people if they wanted to "pay it forward", and 2) you know you're going to be immediately rewarded, it's not an act of kindness or charity at all. Every single person who showed up at that Starbucks last week knew that their drink was going to be paid for, even if they did then pay for someone else's drink. That's not how it is supposed to work. Everyone involved paid for their order, and got their order paid for, roughly making a net gain or loss of not very much. It's a completely empty gesture that accomplishes nothing except free advertising for Starbucks and a feeling of self-satisfaction by the participants. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but the one thing it's not is kindness.

So, you say, what's the harm in participating in such things? While there's nothing directly wrong with it, empty acts like this crowd out actual, necessary acts of charity and kindness. How many people went to sleep that night feeling good about themselves, even though they did absolutely nothing of value? Did they feel as if they did their "good deed" for the day and didn't do anything else? Maybe, maybe not, but there's a good chance that at least some of the people in that line didn't do something else because they figured they had done their due diligence for the day.

I'm passionate about many things, but I'm also reasonably open-minded about most stuff. But one thing I can't stand is the empty gesture. A lot of people do a lot of meaningless things in this world, then use said things as "proof" that they are good and kind people. That's not how it should work--your actions should speak for themselves. There's also nothing wrong with doing things to make yourself feel better--everyone needs a self-esteem boost now and then, so long as it doesn't become your dominant personality trait. But if you're doing such things, do something meaningful and worthwhile. Sure, go ahead and dump ice on your head, but make sure you can still sign the check afterwards.

The Pledge: We're not living in a better world because you did something that made you feel good about yourself. This world is already full of empty gestures and meaningless actions all in the name of self-gratification. Don't just be kind; do something meaningfully kind.

*Of course, the biggest "pay it forward" charity decision of all time is calling this a "good movie."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Back In The Classroom: Some Helpful Tips

It's almost time for school to start--and for some ridiculous reason, has already started for some districts--and that means there are millions of students entering a new grade, encountering new experiences, and making it possible to go shopping during the midday without feeling like a scene out of World War Z.

It's an exciting time for a lot of reasons, but with the new experiences comes a lot of trepidation--whether it be in grade school, a high school class, or a college course. So here are some helpful hints to help you navigate your way through your educational journey!
  • Just like prison, you need to establish your reputation immediately. In your very first class, find a cafeteria tray and pound the instructor in the face repeatedly, then urinate on their prone body. Teabagging optional but preferred. After that, no one will mess with you.
  • Get all your supplies ready! You need the basics like notebooks, folders, and pencils, but also things like the phone number for the family lawyer and name-brand Ritalin.
  • Cell phone management is a must! Since you often can't use phones in class, you'll have to find new and inventive ways to secretly play with SnapChat or message that cute girl during class, which are both much more important than learning about the agricultural revolution. The best way to do so is to repeatedly and deliberately get caught looking at your crotch in frustration or adoration without your cell phone, creating enough false alarms that no one will bother you after a while and you can text to your heart's content.
  • Make sure you eat right. Build up a tolerance of sugars and saturated fats by eating garbage all year long, so when the end of the year rolls around and all the procrastinated projects are due, your body won't feel so horrible when you start eating Zingers by the boxful and drinking Code Red Mountain Dew to pull an all-nighter.
  • Make friends! It's easy to get caught up in academics, but not only is socialization part of the educational process, you need to establish a good friendship with someone who is willing to take notes when you inevitably skip class after a wicked hangover at a party that you deliberately failed to invite them to so they could take notes for you.
  • Establish a rapport with your teacher. For grade school kids, the traditional apple always works; for high school, talking casually about the football team or solving the world's problems; and in college it's hooking the professor up with a good and reliable dealer that won't narc on them for grades.
  • Don't exclude social activities. Study is important, but so is playing sports, being creative, and doing something to get you out of your parents' house so they can have some damn peace and quiet for once in their lives.
  • Learn good study habits. You can get away with rote memorization in grade school, but once you hit high school you have to use your study skills wisely--time management and selective subject focus being two main ones. Once in college, you must be able to concentrate when your roommate is trying to learn Wonderwall on his shitty acoustic guitar while microwaving a burrito that was sired by (apparently) dead skunks.
  • Double-check your schedule. Nothing is more embarrassing than sitting in Advanced Calculus and thinking you're in Home Economics, fork and knife in hand. (The lack of sinks and the multitude of differential equations on the chalkboard might be your first clue.)
  • If you are in high school, keep up with the latest fashions. You don't want to be That Guy, wearing last year's wardrobe. That's a one-way ticket to becoming a pariah. In elementary school, it doesn't matter because everyone is wearing something that's easy to get juice stains out of, which I primarily assume is a lot of red Teflon. In college, you could literally wear a hollowed-out chest of drawers with a boar's head overcoat and no one would bat an eye.
  • Keep yourself motivated! It can often be difficult to stay positive; education involves a lot of stress, projects, and a constant portent of abject failure. Everyone has different methods to keep their spirits up; some people enjoy posters involving cats hanging from tree branches, or perhaps Ziggy dispensing some sage life advice. Some people like to listen to uplifting music, or perhaps an insightful podcast. Other people like vodka.
  • Always be thinking about your future. For elementary kids, the pressure's off; the only thing you have to plan for your future is to not end up in an assembly immediately after you pissed your pants, which is presumably (but sadly not always) a low bar to aim for. High school kids, on the other hand, should make sure they figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives in between dealing with acne and watching superhero movies. In college, make sure you have internships or contacts lined up so when you graduation, the fight for millions of other people who now have the exact same qualifications as you and are trying to get jobs all at the same time will be slightly more in your favor. Good luck!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Paul Muad'Dib Does Some Charity Work

Edit: I realize that "ice water of life" probably would have been more clever, but I'm assuming that barely anyone is going to get this as is, let alone using a more obscure term.

The Nero Wolfe Project: The SIlent Speaker to The Second Confession

This is the third installment of the Nero Wolfe Project, reviewing each of the books as they were published.

This time, we're going to look at The Silent Speaker, Too Many Women, And Be A Villain, Trouble in Triplicate, and The Second Confession

By this point in the series, Stout has everything down to a reasonable formula. Not that the series is formulaic--far from it--but the characters have all established their traits, the reputations of all the major and minor characters are set, and readers more or less know what to expect.

The Silent Speaker: When a representative from the government is killed right before a major speech to a hostile, industrial association, it's up to Wolfe to find out who the murderer is. The search for a missing dictaphone cylinder which likely holds the key evidence starts a race between Wolfe and the police.

An average mystery is made exceptional with the injection of a few points: the "race" to find the evidence is a nice deviation from previous books, the dismissal of Inspector Cramer (and Wolfe's genuinely compassionate opposition to this action) and Wolfe's politics inject some needed amusement, especially after the fact.

Too Many Women: Wolfe and Archie are starting to get on each other's nerves. A large company had one of its employees killed by an accident; but in the course of filing the paperwork, a manager declares it an "unresolved murder" instead Internal strife (and huge egos with lots of money) lead one of the managers to hire Wolfe to get to the bottom of it; as a result, it gives Archie a good opportunity to be "hired" by the company undercover (and away from Wolfe for a while). When the manager who initially approached them is killed in the same manner as the original victim, it's clear that it was murder...and Wolfe tries to see it to the end.

Again, this breaks from the formula in a refreshing way--we, through Archie, get away from the brownstone for a while. Most of the tactics rely on injecting false gossip into the steno pool (the "Too Many Women" of the title) and watching the dominoes play out. (To be fair to Stout, the men are seen as just as much gossips as the women; it's just the concentration of them in the steno pool that enhances it.) It also solidifies Archie's luck with the ladeeeeez...and the tacit acceptance of those skills by Wolfe in pursuit of the investigation.

And Be A Villain: When the guest on a popular radio show is killed on air from drinking the sponsor's product, the hosts, producers, and sponsors of the show approach Wolfe to find out who did it...since the police haven't figured it out and Wolfe can be discreet (and, incidentally, protect the sponsor's name). Just gathering all of the suspects is a trial in and of itself--one, a minor, ran away with her mother to get away from the publicity and required trickery to bring back--but when the attention focuses on the victim himself, things get much more interesting than lousy-flavored soda.

This is the first book in what is known as the "Zeck Trilogy," one of the few multi-book plot lines in the entire series. To be fair, this merely introduces Zeck as a character--a shady criminal overlord who warns Wolfe not to dig too deep. While it's not a major plot point, it's clear that it's set up for future stories. Otherwise, this is a good mystery with a lot of bright, engaging characters.

Trouble In Triplicate:This book has three short stories: Before I Die, Help Wanted, Male and Instead of Evidence.

In Before I Die, a notorious gangster approaches Wolfe with an unusual problem: he has a daughter who doesn't know who he is, and her existence was found out by rival gangsters. So to divert their attention, he hired someone to pretend to be his daughter, who was starting to extort him for the work. Normally Wolfe wouldn't take the case from such a high-profile criminal, but there is a meat shortage and the allure of black-market meat makes him take the case.

In Help Wanted, Male, a client who receives a death threat turns to Wolfe for protection; advising he doesn't really do that sort of work, declines. Of course, he ends up murdered--and since Wolfe had previously done work for him in the past, the investigation involves Wolfe. Wolfe then receives a similar death threat, and undertakes a body double to suss out the murder.

Instead of Evidence: A client, a wealthy novelty manufacturer who believes he is going to be murdered by his partner, comes to Wolfe, pre-paying the investigation into his murder. When he, of course, ends up dead, Wolfe had to take on the case posthumously.

Before I Die is an interesting mystery, but both Help Wanted, Male and Instead of Evidence capitalize off of the formula of the series. Both are hilarious in parts--watching an imposter have to act like Wolfe in character is something to behold, and the novelty-maker who attempts to sway Wolfe with the ridiculous notion of a talking flower ("Orchids to you!") which prompts him to leave his own office in disgust--show humorous writing that loyal readers can truly appreciate.

The Second Confession: A client arrives to hire Wolfe to investigate his daughter's boyfriend, who he suspects is a communist. Archie, clandestinely, spends a weekend at the family estate, only to be immediately identified by a scrapbook-keeping fan ("I was seventeen. I had a crush on you for nearly a month.") After some failed attempts to identify him as a commie, Goodwin has to resort to more violent measures--which ultimately end up seeing Wolfe's car used as a weapon (and the unhappy eye of the local DA). When Wolfe gets a phone call from Zeck telling him to back off the suspect, Wolfe does not comply, and Zeck retaliates through violent means of his own. Still, the resolution ends up not interfering with Zeck's affairs, and is then duly compensated. An awkward alliance with the local communist party, the police force, and

This is one of the best novels yet; even though the secondary story of Zeck is fascinating in and of itself, the main mystery is full of interesting characters, innovative plot points, solid action scenes, and some grand characterization.

Of these five books, none of them are bad--in fact, this is where everything just sort of comes together. We now know all the characters, so when they are out of their comfort zone it's all the more enjoyable. Stout has also improved his humor and writing skills; the mysteries themselves are plotted well, and nearly all of these are at least somewhat believable.

Thursday, August 14, 2014