Jack’s Books: Sowing The Teeth of the Dragon

It was the title, “The Dragon’s Teeth” by Ellery Queen (1939), that made me look up and refresh my memory on the reference to “dragon’s teeth”.

The legendary Phoenician, Cadmus slayed a dragon and planted its teeth, from which “grew” warriors and the founders of the great families of Thebes. Later, “dragon’s teeth” was a nickname for anti-tank fortifications, pioneered by the Germans in WW2. See, you never stop learning, even when reading fiction.

Here’s what I’ve been into lately:

“Straight” by Dick Francis (1989) Really loved this one in the Francis series of mysteries built and based around horse-racing. Here, a jockey suddenly inherits the business, fortunes and mistress of his only (and distant) brother. There are murders, missing diamonds and many other secrets, and the book is a wild ride.

“The Wanderers” by Richard Price (1974) Set in the early ’60s Bronx, and later made into a passable movie starring Ken Wahl and Karen Allen, this is one of the first books by the great novelist Richard Price. It’s very raw, coming of age, and slangy—reminded me of the way James Ellroy writes his L.A.- based books, but on the opposite coast. Did I mention RAW? Price got better as the books kept churning out, but this is an unforgettable cast of young, tragic characters.

“Faith and Politics” by Pope Benedict XVI (2018) Some of the late Pope Emeritus’ speeches and essays are collected here, and they are a reminder that he was one of the greatest minds and philosophers of our time.  Speaking to the British Parliament in September 2010, about the recent Great Recession, he says “Every economic decision has a moral consequence…lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to [recent troubles]…” and of course, he could be speaking of today’s debt and banking crises. I highly recommend this book, and next time I read it, it’ll be in shorter, bite-sized segments.

“Counterplot” (1968) and “Legend” (1978) by Edward Jay Epstein. Beginning when he was a masters student in the mid ’60s, Epstein has applied his meticulous scholarship to the JFK assassination and its myriad conspiracy theories. I read these together since they were bound together in a single volume, along with his seminal work, “Inquest” (the volume is called “The Assassination Chronicles”, if you can’t locate all three books separately) In “Counterplot”, Epstein deals with the sensational and flawed Jim Garrison prosecution of a New Orleans-based plot to kill Kennedy. In “Legend”, his focus is on Lee Harvey Oswald, his biography and the various, conficting theories on who and what he was. Epstein is very careful, so these books are not suggestive of a solution to the crime, but I think he’s an indispensable companion to whoever else you’re reading or listening to when it comes to the assassination.

“The Dragon’s Teeth” by Ellery Queen (1939) A whole lotta of people are not who they claim to be, here, including Queen himself. You know how you sometimes chew on the end of a pen or pencil? Remember that as you try to solve this murder and inheritance mystery before you get to the end. One of his best.

“River of Death” by Alistair MacLean (1980) Murder, intrigue and deceit set in the South American rainforest, by the author of the legendary “Guns of Navarone”. As I’ve mentioned before, MacLean is one of the all-time best-selling novelists and led a fascinating life, including Royal Navy service in WW2. He deserves to be remembered for more than “Navarone”, and I highly recommend his novels. Some are better than others, but he more than delivers here.

“Robicheaux” by James Lee Burke (2018) I’ve grown up with Burke’s long series of Louisiana-based mysteries starring New Iberia Detective Dave Robicheaux and his P.I. best friend, Clete Purcel. These men and their sundry associates have felt like family to me for such a long time. Now, I have to admit, as Dave and I get older, the stories get darker and more philosophical. Or is that me getting that way? Maybe both of us are moving into the winter of our years. In this, one of the most recent, Dave has just lost his wife Molly, is seeing Civil War ghosts, and may have committed the murder he’s investigating. I’m sometimes asked if you need to read an author’s mystery series in order. I almost always do anyway, but I strongly urge you to do so with the Robicheaux series. You might find these are people you feel you know.

Always love hearing what you think, or getting a recommendation from you! [email protected]

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