Book Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39 stepsThe Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan opens with thirty-seven-year-old Scotchman Richard Hannay bored with life in London in May of 1914. He had been a mining engineer in Rhodesia and came to England, but has no friends and nothing to do. He’s on the verge of finding something else to do with his life when he’s accosted at his door by an American from a neighboring flat pleading for his help.

He lets the man in, a Franklin Scudder, who tells him what seems a fantastic tale at first. Scudder has just faked his own death. He’s sort of a free-lance spy who had come upon a secret on international intrigue, a plot to kill the Greek premier, Karolides, when he comes to England, which will set off a series of negative political repercussions. When Hannay suggests Karolides can be warned not to come, Scudder objects that Karolides is needed for the meetings he is to attend. What Scudder wants to do is hide out in Hannay’s flat until June 15, when he can get to the appropriate authorities.

At first Hannay thinks Scudder must be insane, but the more he talks, especially when he brings up Karolides, whom Hannay had just been reading about, Hannay believes him and agrees to let him stay. Meanwhile Scudder changes disguises to look like a British officer.

Hannay enjoys having the company for several days and notices Scudder scribbling in a notebook from time to time. When Hannay has to go out for a meeting, he comes home to find Scudder stabbed to death in his flat.

And that’s just the first chapter.

Shocked and disconcerted, Hannay investigates his flat for clues and considers whether to call the police. No one knows him in London, and he knew little enough about Scudder to make the whole situation seem fishy, concluding that he would probably be suspected for the murder. It was three weeks until the June 15th meeting, and Hannay decides to take Scudder’s notebook and take on his task.When he leaves his flat he notices a face in a neighboring window watching him.

On the run both from the police and the men who were after Scudder, Hannay’s journey takes him into all sorts of places and situations.

I liked that Hannay is presented as a fairly ordinary man. He has a few talents that come in handy, but in general he’s just a “regular chap” trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. He says he is “no Sherlock Holmes,” but he uses his wits and powers of deduction a fair bit.

I am an ordinary sort of fellow, not braver than other people, but I hate to see a good man downed, and that long knife would not be the end of Scudder if I could play the game in his place.

All this was very loose guessing, and I don’t pretend it was ingenious or scientific. I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. I don’t know if I can explain myself, but I used to use my brains as far as they went, and after they came to a blank wall I guessed, and I usually found my guesses pretty right.

The writing grabbed me early on and held me throughout the book. Hannay got into various scrapes, building up the suspense of how he would get himself out of them, whether he’d make it to the authorities he needed to in time, whether he’d get in to see them, whether they’d believe him. The suspense lasted right up to the last page. After I finished the book I went back over some of the political stuff to get a better grasp of it,  but even without that I had picked up enough to follow and enjoy the story. I also loved the Britishness of it and Hannay’s way of expressing himself.

Buchan wrote this while he was recovering from an ulcer. One day while visiting him where he was convalescing, his daughter counted 39 steps in the building, and Buchan decided to use that as a vital clue in the book. He wanted to write a “‘shocker’…where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” It’s one of the first “man on the run” type stories. He went on to write four more Hannay novels. This book was made into several films, one of them by Alfred Hitchcock, which I planned to look up until I read that all the films varied greatly from the book.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Robert Powell and read a number of sections in the Kindle version. I’d gotten the Kindle version on sale some time ago, but Hope’s review encouraged me to move this up on my TBR list. I quite enjoyed the story!

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)



Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

HoundThe Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was written 8 years after The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in which Holmes supposedly died, but is set before that time. According to Wikipedia, its success prompted Doyle to write more Holmes novels, and it’s rated as one of his best Holmes stories.

It opens in typical fashion with Holmes wowing Watson with various deductions before they’re visited by a client. Dr James Mortimer has traveled to London to ask Holmes’ advice. It seems that the most recent baronet of Baskerville Hall in Devonshire (and Mortimer’s neighbor) , Sir Charles Baskerville, died of extreme fright apparently after being pursued by a large hound. A mysterious, monstrous hound killed one of his ancestors, and this and the ancestor’s evil deeds grew into a legend that the Baskervilles were cursed. Though the hound didn’t attack Sir Charles directly, its nearby footprints seem to give credence to the legend. Dr. Mortimer’s problem is that the new heir is supposed to arrive from Canada, and Mortimer doesn’t know whether it is safe to conduct him to Baskerville Hall. Holmes asks Mortimer to bring the new heir, Sir Henry, to him when he arrives. By the time they meet, though, Sir Henry has received an anonymous warning to avoid the moors at Devonshire, and one of his boots has been stolen. When they leave Holmes’s apartment, he discovers that Sir Henry is being followed. Henry wants to go to his estate despite the weird occurrences and warnings. Holmes is busy with another case but sends Watson to the Hall with Henry and Mortimer to observe, meet the staff and neighbors, and report back to Holmes.

Holmes says early on that there are several strands to the case, and he has to try various ones to find out which will lead him to the truth. His investigation and Watson’s reports put some strands to rest easily, but others cause more excitement and concern. An escaped convict hiding out in the moor complicates the case. When Holmes does arrive in Devonshire he discerns who was responsible for Sir Charles’s death and realizes Sir Henry is in imminent danger himself, but he does not yet have enough concrete evidence to make a case. While he waits to close the net on the perpetrator, will he be too late to prevent yet another crime?

In my venture through the Holmes novels in publication order, I’ve been piecing together his character as a whole and comparing it to some of the modern characterizations and adaptations of him. Most modern portrayals present him as somewhat rude, but I haven’t found him to be so in the novels, as least not yet. He is pretty egotistical, though. In one amusing exchange, he and Watson are disagreeing about their deductions from a certain piece of evidence. Watson eventually concedes by saying, “You may be right.” Holmes responds, “The probability lies in that direction.” Another conversation is perhaps a little more snide:

“Really, Watson, you excel yourself,” said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”

He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods. I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval….

[After differing over the evidence in question] “I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. When I said that you stimulated me I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided towards the truth.”

Watson’s character continues to emerge as well. Some older film versions portray him as a dumpy old man whose only purpose is a foil for Holmes and a chronicler of his cases: thankfully more modern adaptations show more of his strengths. In this story he is described as “fleet of foot” in a chase scene, and though some of his conclusions are wrong, his observations are helpful. When Holmes sends him with Sir Henry, he says of Watson, “There is no man who is better worth having at your side when you are in a tight place. No one can say so more confidently than I.” Watson himself confesses, “The promise of adventure had always a fascination for me.”

I listened to the audiobook read very nicely by Derek Jacobi. He not only portrayed the different characters very well, but he incorporated the action into his voice, sounding like he was running when his characters were, etc. I also looked at some passages a little more closely at the Project Gutenberg online version of the text.

I do agree that this is the best Holmes novel I have read/heard so far. Doyle did an admirable job setting the scene for a Gothic-type mystery with the  depressing old house, the mysterious legend, and the dangerous moors, and the plot was adequately suspenseful.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

What’s On Your Nightstand: August 2014

 What's On Your NightstandThe folks at 5 Minutes For Books host What’s On Your Nightstand? the fourth Tuesday of each month in which we can share about the books we have been reading and/or plan to read.

Hard to believe we’re 2/3 through the year already and summer will be over before the next Nightstand. I’m glad to spend some of the passing time with good books.

Since last time I have completed:

Just Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen’s Life by Nancy Moser, reviewed here. Didn’t like this as much as I thought I would, but it is an interesting peek into her life.

Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay, reviewed here. Loved this!

On Stories and Other Essays on Literature by C. S. Lewis, reviewed here. Some excellent observations.

Gospel Meditations for the Hurting by Chris Anderson and Joe Tyrpak. Didn’t review this as it is just a 31-day devotional. The tone is not what I’d call warm and fuzzy, but the Biblical truths are right on target and helpful.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, audiobook, reviewed here.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, audiobook, reviewed here.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, audiobook. This was a re-listen as I read it in 2008 and listened to the audiobook in 2013. My previous review is here.

I’m currently reading:

Undetected by Dee Henderson. Loving it.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi. Excellent.

The Girl in the Gatehouse by Julie Klassen. Enjoyed the first part – not enjoying the middle so much. We’ll see how it ends up.

Next up:

Why We Are Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be by Kevin DeYoung, Ted Kluck, and David F. Wells. This will finish my TBR Challenge list. I need to get it read and off my every Nightstand TBR section, but I wanted to take a break from my reading challenges with some fiction.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald for Carrie’s  Reading to Know Classics Book Club. I have been wanting to try MacDonald for some time and this book in particular.

Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good, NEWEST book by Jan Karon! Can’t wait! It’s supposed to come out in early September and I have pre-ordered it.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Last Bride by Beverly Lewis

In Perfect Time by Sarah Sundin

I’ve got some good reading to look forward to! How about you?

Book Review: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

HolmesI’ve been going through the Sherlock Holmes books by publication date, but I was tempted to skip The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which is another collection of short stories, and go on ahead to The Hounds of the Baskervilles, which I really wanted to get to. Then I remembered that Memoirs was the book where Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, was introduced and where (slight spoiler here though it is well known and the title suggests it) the author seems to have killed off Holmes. According to Wikipedia he did so in order to spend more time on historical novels, but public pressure was evidently enough for him to bring Holmes back in a later book, saying that he had faked his death.

So I embarked on this collection of stories and was delighted to find that in addition to the above, this set introduced Holmes’ brother Mycroft (portrayed as smarter than Holmes but less energetic), shows Holmes as completely depleted physically due to one case, and shared one case where he totally missed the mark. Of the last, he told Watson, “If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.” Holmes also shared with Watson the case that got him started investigating crime (I had wondered, with Watson, how a mind such as Holmes’ had gotten started on this particular career path.)

Holmes’ statement about having only one friend in college seems to conform his introversion: “I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year. Bar fencing and boxing I had few athletic tastes, and then my line of study was quite distinct from that of the other fellows, so that we had no points of contact at all.”

There is a story titled “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” which was originally published in the American version of this book but later removed because two characters in it were adulterous. It was not in the version I listened to.

Overall I enjoyed this collection of stories. Doyle continued to avoid a formulaic approach, with each story and case showcasing Holmes’ skills without becoming repetitive. One of the best of any of his stories that I have read so far is “The Final Problem,” the last story in the book which introduces Moriarty and deals with Holmes’ apparent death. There is an intensity about it that is different from the others. I thought at first perhaps that was just my impression because I knew what the end would be, but then I read this is one of Doyle’s favorite stories as well.

I listened to the audiobook read by Simon Prebble. I had avoided his narrations up until now because I am used to his voice in the Jeeves books by P. D. Wodehouse, which are a completely different tone and feel than Holmes’ stories. But he adapted to the tone very well and soon I had completely forgotten that this was also the voice in my head for Jeeves and Wooster.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)


Book Review: The Sign of Four

sign of fourThe Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle is the second Sherlock Homes novel. It was originally published in a magazine as The Sign of the Four and later published as a novel. Later publications shortened the name to The Sign of Four.

Sherlock and Watson are visited by a Miss Mary Morstan. Her father had disappeared ten years earlier and she began receiving a valuable pearl from an anonymous source every year for the last six years. She’s just received a note saying she is a wronged woman and requesting a meeting. She can bring two friends as long as they are not police. Sherlock and Watson agree to go. Mary shows them an odd paper found among her father’s things that appears to be a map with four crosses and four names, three of them English and one Indian.

When they arrive at their destination they are greeted by one of two twin brothers who were sons of an associate of Mary’s father. I’ll leave what he told them and what they found there for you to discover if you read the book. 🙂

Hearing that Holmes engaged in drug usage caused me to hold his stories at arm’s length at first, but Wikipedia explains that the drugs he uses are not illegal at the time. He uses them when he is extremely bored or when he feels his brain needs the stimulation. This book introduces the habit and Watson’s disapproval, which he finally works up the nerve to express to Holmes. According to Wikipedia, in later stories Watson is eventually able to “wean” Holmes off of them. The drug use doesn’t play a major role in this book, but it’s there, mainly at the beginning.

This book also delves more into Holmes’s pysche and personality, which I found as interesting as the mysteries. We saw in the first book that Holmes had a brilliant intellect and developed his skills for deductive reasoning and crime solving almost to the exclusion of others, even to the point of not knowing that the earth revolved around the sun or caring since it didn’t affect his work. Some years ago I saw an documentary on Einstein which showed him to have a horrible relationship with his wife. I almost wondered then whether becoming a genius in one area required one to be out of balance in other areas. I don’t know – I’ll have to explore that idea further if I read about any more geniuses. 🙂 But it appears to be true in Holmes’ case: if he is not solving a crime or developing a skill which will help in the future, he’s utterly bored and doesn’t know what to do with himself. This book humanizes him a bit and we see him as more than just a brilliant intellect.

Part of my interest in reading Holmes’ stories is spurred by some modern adaptions of them, mainly the BBC television production of Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which depicts Holmes as a modern London city-dweller and adapts the stories in the current culture and technology.  I’ve only seen the first three episodes and have been advised that the fourth (or actually the first episode in the second season, concerning Irene Adler) is best avoided. But I’ve enjoyed the three I’ve seen and thought they were quite well done. They don’t follow the original stories exactly but there are enough similarities to make the modern Sherlock as much like the original as possible within a modern framework.

But even though the TV series touched off my reading of the Holmes books, they are interesting enough that I want to continue to read them for themselves. For this book I listened to the audiobook ably narrated by David Timson. The text of the story can be found online here.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

The Tenth Plague: Book Review and Author Interview

The-Tenth-PlagueIn The Tenth Plague by Adam Blumer, Marc and Jillian Thayer have just adopted a new baby boy, and a friend has invited them to  a Christian-themed resort for some rest and time together as a new family.

When they arrive, however, the retreat is in upheaval. A company planning a new Bible translation is having meetings at the resort, and a throng has arrived to protest. Someone rigged the water system to dispense what appears to be blood from the faucets. What seems an odd prank is soon discovered to be the first in a series of events based on the Biblical ten plagues of Egypt, some of them resulting in fatalities. Marc calls on a friend, a retired homicide detective, to help with the investigation as the plagues escalate.

Gillian, meanwhile, runs into someone who has hurt her deeply in the past. She thought she had put it all behind her, but the old anger and hurt rush back in like a flood,  and she wrestles with the need to extend forgiveness.

The Tenth Plague is a sequel to Fatal Illusions, Adam’s first book (which I reviewed here), but you don’t have to have read the first book to understand and enjoy the second. Both books are tremendously suspenseful and feature realistic, everyday Christian people trying to discern and apply God’s will in their circumstances. I enjoyed them both very much!

Here is an interview with Adam:


What was your inspiration behind The Tenth Plague?

 One day I was reading the book of Revelation and came across 22:18–19. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (ESV). My mind began playing the “what if” game. Would God really bring a biblical plague on someone who tampered with His Word? I chatted with a few theologian friends, and the plot emerged from there.

How does this novel compare with your first novel, Fatal Illusions?

Though the plot, of course, is different, the two novels share a number of similarities. Both are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I live. I like to write about average folks like Marc and Gillian Thayer, a pastor and his wife who face unexpected, even threatening, events. Of course, there’s another really bad killer who wants to do them harm, and their retired homicide detective friend, Chuck Riley, once again comes out of retirement to help them. I also like to weave in a historical event that somehow relates to the present day. In Fatal Illusions, it was the killer’s obsession with Houdini; in The Tenth Plague, an old mine disaster plays an important role. The past always plays an important role in the present—a running theme in my novels. Overall, I like to write about redemption: how biblical truth offers the answers to the complicated issues of life. Stories, like parables, present some of the best ways to illustrate biblical truths.

 What was one of the most important lessons you learned during the writing of this novel?

The power of the collaborative process. I had a fairly strong first draft, but I was stuck. A novel editor provided a creative springboard and helped me see where my true story lay. Without her help, I doubt this story would have seen the light of day.

 What part of writing this novel took the most work?

 This novel required a ton of research. From an old mining tragedy to autism, from adoption law to anthrax, from pheromones to the Oklahoma City bombing, the research for this one required much more than I ever expected. I’m so thankful for technology and ease of access, thanks to the Internet. Without Google and so many resources at my fingertips, I’d probably still be researching this story.

 So far, what has been your favorite work experience in life?

 During one summer between years in high school, I worked at a library, a book lover’s paradise. Granted, a lot of the work involved stocking shelves, but being surrounded by so many fascinating books and interesting authors was pure heaven. I was born a die-hard book lover, and I’ll probably die one too.

Consider the qualities that make you unique. How do these qualities come out in your writing?

 I love suspense fiction and history, so a blending of the two always seems to come out in my writing. In high school, I won awards in calligraphy; Gillian Thayer, my female lead, is into calligraphy in a big way (it’s her job). I’ve always been intrigued with how one’s past impacts his or her present and future. This is a recurring theme in my novels because it’s part of who I am. Now that I think about it, what I write is inseparable to some degree from who I am.

 Introduce your plot summary and main characters. What is your favorite part of the story?

Water turns to blood. Flies and gnats attack the innocent. Marc and Gillian Thayer’s vacation resort becomes a grisly murder scene, with a killer using the ten plagues of Egypt as his playbook for revenge.

When their friend turns up dead, Marc and Gillian put their vacation on hold, enlist the help of a retired homicide detective, and take a closer look at the bizarre plagues as they escalate in intensity. Meanwhile, a stranger is after the Thayers’ newly adopted baby. Will they uncover the truth behind the bitter agenda before the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn son?

 My favorite part is when the firstborn son is revealed and the novel culminates in the tenth plague. This is the most suspenseful and action-packed part of the story, with several key characters in jeopardy. I had a blast writing it.

 One of the main themes of The Tenth Plague is confronting and dealing with your past. What can readers take away from this theme, especially in a novel that deals with religion and death?

 Both the villain and my heroine, Gillian Thayer, grapple with heartbreaking real-life issues from their past. But how they respond shows two very different paths. My hope is that readers will see the stark contrast in the context of biblical truth presented in the story. The bottom line is that God is enough, and He offers the solution to every problem of life. This is another repeated theme in my stories. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my latest project.

Some content used by permission of Kirkdale Press

Tenth Plague Forgiveness

The Tenth Plague is available in e-book format only from Amazon and Vyrso. You can read an excerpt here.

Thanks to Adam for sending me a copy in exchange for my honest review.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Giveaways

Author Adam Blumer writes edge-of-your-seat suspense infused with Biblical principles. His new book, The Tenth Plague, will be released as an e-book on January 29. I’ll have more to say about it then, but meanwhile, if you’d like to have a chance to win a copy of The Tenth Plague or a physical copy of his first book, Fatal Illusions (linked to my review), go here or click on the graphic.

10th Plague Giveaway

Adam discusses the book here, and you can read an excerpt of The Tenth Plague here.