Monthly Archives: May 2024

The Knife Slipped by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair

The Knife Slipped (Cool and Lam #1.5)The Knife Slipped by A.A. Fair
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I checked out this book as part of exploring the Hard Case Crime series since I’d read another one of those. I thought this would be a hard-boiled noir detective story like Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain used to write. The other Hard Case book I read was in that mold. Instead, it turned out this one is a spoof of that genre. It’s written by Erle Stanley Gardner under a pseudonym.

When I realized it was a satire, I was a tad miffed at first, but I found it silly enough to be mildly entertaining. There is a murder mystery buried in there, but 90% of the appeal is the completely ridiculous comic character of private eye Donald Lam and his boss Bertha Cool.

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The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries (Harbinder Kaur, #1)The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This combination murder mystery and horror story isn’t really very scary or even very gory, but it is quite clever. The main character Clare is a tall, beautiful, blonde teacher at a British high school. She keeps a diary. Her best friend Ella is a similar beautiful blonde English teacher at the school. Both have been hit on by their boss, a married man. Clare is a divorcee with a teenage daughter, Georgie, who is secretly into witchy type stuff with a bunch of her friends and who also keeps a diary. Soon Ella is killed, murdered with a knife. A detective sergeant named Harbinder Kaur leads the investigation. Then there’s another death. Throughout this we are fed excerpts from a short story called The Stranger (hence the title) by an author named Holland, who, coincidentally used to live in the house that is now one of the buildings of the high school. Clare teaches that short story in her class. Quotes from it begin to appear in odd places.

The setting is suitably spooky and the various characters are all just suspicious enough that any could be the killer. The violence isn’t yet over and all of it centers around Clare. There’s a student who had a crush on Ella, a weird woman leading a class with him and Georgie, Clare’s ex-husband, Georgie’s boyfriend, a Mr. Sweetman who is head of the school, a professor who has a thing for Clare. The author does a good job of making them all seem plausible as suspects, but they all seem to have alibis or lack of motive, or both.

As an American I had some fun and some frustration with all the Britishness of the story. The educational system seems so different with a 6th form college (?), GCSE’s (?). It seems quaint that the nation is so London-centric and people still travel by train. In the U.S. anywhere but the east coast, Washington, D.C. and New York are irrelevancies to most people, almost as esoteric as London and Paris. And we drive our cars everywhere. I thought I knew most British terms for things due to a lot of reading British mysteries and working the Guardian Cryptic Crossword every night, but I had to look up quite a few, including more than a few geographic locations. I enjoy that sort of thing, but where it got to be a pain is when cultural references were made such as product names or when television shows or radio stations were referenced. These were even important for establishing alibis, but I had no idea when they came on. Another British ambience thing I’m used to is the prevalence of Indian culture and frequent mention of getting curries over there. I’d never had curry until I studied in Japan and I grew to hate it. Here there are a growing number of Indians in the high-tech field and Indian restaurants are popping up, although it certainly isn’t treated as a fast food option the way it is there.

I liked Harbinder Kaur, a rather angry and dark bulldog of a character, largely for the contrast with the snooty school atmosphere. She had a partner who was irrelevant to everything. I have a quibble, though, in that the story switches from Clare’s first-person voice to Harbinder’s at several points (and to Georgie’s, too) for no purpose. I generally enjoy hearing the story told from two or three different perspectives, e.g. The Embezzler, but only when it it sheds a different light on things. Here, Harbinder mostly either repeats what Clare has already related, or just continues the story narrative in a way that could have been told equally by Clare or an anonymous narrator. The same is true for Georgie, although to a lesser extent. It almost felt like padding to get to 300 pages. I really enjoyed the original idea of teasing us with the short story throughout and then finishing it in the epilogue. It’s a great, creepy story. Much of it, like the main story, takes place on Halloween. Overall, the book kept me in perpetual suspense and eager to read the next chapter. The ending was somewhat predictable but hidden to very near the end and, importantly for a mystery, “fair.”

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An Honest Man by Michael Koryta

An Honest ManAn Honest Man by Michael Koryta
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book started rather normally for a murder mystery, introducing Israel, the main character, a convicted murderer in Maine now out on parole; he’s also serving as an informant or source for Jenn Salazar, a state police agent, but we are not clued in as to what she is investigating or how he’s helping. We meet his uncle, a corrupt local cop who hates him. It all went downhill from there. Israel finds a yacht floating with seven dead bodies in it, including rival U.S. Senate candidates. (Eye roll) I only made it halfway through, but if a book hasn’t garnered my attention by then, I rarely see fit to spend further time on it. The characters became both cliched and unbelievable. Israel is a trite overused unreliable narrator although he is supposedly the honest man of the title. Salazar seems out of her depth and on some sort of a vendetta. Worse of all, though, Israel’s father (the one he murdered years earlier) and his uncle are unspeakably evil and equally ridiculous, almost comic book villains. There is another character, Lyman, introduced early, who hides from his equally cruel, abusive father and is confronted by a hatchet-wielding girl. Apparently no one in the state of Maine is a decent human being. Halfway through the book we still don’t know how Lyman and all these characters relate to each other. I’m retired law enforcement and nothing in the police actions (or non-action) made sense. The murders were on a boat in navigable waters and the victims were candidates for national office; the FBI would have swarmed all over this case and pushed all the locals aside including Salazar and the uncle, but they’re nowhere to be seen. I got bored and found the subject matter borderline offensive so I stopped reading.

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Automatic Null cipher generator

A Null cipher, at least in American Cryptogram Association (ACA) usage, is a type of concealment cipher. The idea is to write normal sounding text but use a secret key or “rule” that tells the recipient how to extract the true message hidden inside. The rules used can be imaginative and, ironically, there are no real rules about what the rule can be. As a simple example, if the key is 123, the word ‘jog’ could be enciphered as ‘just too big” taking the first letter of just, second letter of too, etc. The key repeats throughout the length of the plaintext.

Just for fun I decided to try to write a program that would generate a null cipher given a plaintext and a numeric key like the example. My first attempt was to load in a large list of English words and then randomly choose words that fit the rule, followed by several rounds of substituting words that fit more naturally with its neighbors. When I tested it, the first step worked instantly, but it produced a meaningless jumble of words. It tended to choose long words simply because there are more long words than short, but in natural speech or writing we use many more short words. This method might produce ‘justification polemic signatory’ to encipher the above example. The subsequent rounds did tend to make it replace these words with shorter, more common, words, but it took forever because testing pairs of words for how frequent they are is a very time-consuming computing task. I never let it run to the end and the intermediate ciphertext was still not natural-sounding.

So I changed my strategy. Instead of using word lists, I sought a source that already had common words in a natural sounding order: literature. I had a large file of plaintext books, mostly classic novels downloaded from Project Gutenberg. This file had already been processed to have no punctuation, exactly one space between words, and be all lower case to facilitate computer searches and comparisons. This second version of my program reads a few dozen lines at a time and scan them to find N words in a row that met the criteria. I found that it was usually easy to find passages that would satisfy a four-word stretch at a time, and often a five-word stretch, but no more. Keys using smaller digits were more productive thanĀ  keys with eights or nines in them.

For example, when I enciphered ‘hail to the chief’ with the key 2141 my program produced, “What a delightful lazy stream of that history we could gather if we focused.” This is actually a patch of three 5-word outputs and I had to modify a couple of the words. It’s quite normal-sounding, but doesn’t make much sense. If I were to submit it, I’d be looking for better words, most likely for “lazy stream”. The program produced 13 passages for the first five letters ‘hailt’. I extended one of those to “The average individual likes stories of what he….” The program runs very fast and can be modified to fit other rules, not just numeric keys.

I don’t plan to submit any Null ciphers from this program, but I wanted to share it to show how ciphers in general and especially the ACA are a rich playground for recreational computing. I invite others to write a better null cipher generator and share their results here.

Five Decembers by James Kestrel

Five DecembersFive Decembers by James Kestrel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe is a detective for the Honolulu PD right before Pearl Harbor. He’s assigned to a double murder; the victims are a Japanese girl and an American man, the nephew of the local admiral, in fact. The trail of the murderer leads him on a chase through the Pacific until he reaches Hong Kong. Then December 7 happens. The story follows him through the war years and after. It’s replete with blood and romance and some very unlikely scenarios.

The book is published by Hard Case Crime and that tells you something. Expect fists, guns, and knives. I like the throwback noir style. The pacing is good, constantly tempting me to read a few more pages. It kept me hooked to the end, but I wasn’t entirely thrilled with it. The characters and events were so overdone that they were almost more like a superhero comic book than a novel. The bad guys aren’t just bad, they’re nazis of superhuman size or sadistic cruelty or both. Joe is inhumanly resourceful and intelligent, learning a foreign language fluently almost overnight and winning every gunfight. The women are all young and beautiful and Joe can have any of them – but will he? The final scene is both predictable and ridiculous. Still, it’s action-packed and a fun read.

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Praise for Residential Heating and A/C, Inc.

We all see plenty of complaints about various business we deal with. Today I’d like to cite one for excellent service and integrity. Residential Heating and A/C of Campbell deserves kudos. Here’s the story:

Residential replaced our aging gas furnace in December last year, right before the new emissions standards were to take effect. This saved us a lot of money since California’s new (2024) rules would have required a different furnace type that is more expensive to install and has high maintenance and repairs. I would not have known this unless they had pointed it out to me during a routine repair earlier in the year, a repair that was fast, efficient, and low cost. Unfortunately, when they did the replacement, which was in the attic, they cut or dislodged the wire to our doorbell. We did not notice this at first, but several days later someone pointed out our bell wasn’t working. I wasn’t sure it was related to the furnace replacement and I had some other work that needed to be done, so I hired a contractor to take care of all of it. He discovered what had happened during the furnace replacement; he had to saw up some of the base plywood the furnace was on and replace the wires and transformer for the doorbell. It wasn’t cheap to fix. I made a claim against Residential for the cost. I fully expected pushback because most contractors don’t admit fault in my experience. They sent out one of the workers who had done the install; he verified what the contractor had told me and took pictures. His manager approved the claim on the spot, although it took a few days to provide documentation, including checks, correspondence from the contractor, etc., but they sent a check for the full amount. Thank you for being honest. The furnace works perfectly; so does the doorbell now.