Archive for the ‘Mysteries’ Category

Lethem’s latest

While on a trip to NYC, I was reading Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.  His sense of place, whether Brooklyn, Manhattan or even, incongruously, during a car chase up through Connecticut, Massachusetts and on into Maine, is flawless. I love how he describes Hartford’s “endearing little rush hour” or the laconic lobsterman he meets on the Maine coast.  It was an additional pleasure to be staying in Midtown east and reading about a stakeout further uptown on Park Ave. For this is a detective novel, but, in the tradition of the best of the genre, it is much more than that – it fairly brims with catchy characters, insights into human behavior, a dash of pathos, rich details and at the center, a hapless fellow named Lionel who happens to be suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome.  In the tradition of the flawed detective hero, Lionel ups the ante:  an orphan taken under the wing of a petty gangster, his syndrome effectively conceals his intelligence giving him the advantage of being always somewhat undercover. When his mentor is killed, Lionel sets out for vengence. While the plot gets a bit clunky at the end, and Julia is never fully believable, Lionel’s humanity and decency carry the day. I give it three cheers!


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I happened to pick up The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (another bad book title involving pie; how weird is that?) on a 1 week loan from the library and easily finished it in a day and a half.  This debut novel by Alan Bradley has garnered attention by winning a crime writing award, and, I think, for the winning character of his 11-year old sleuth, Flavia de Luce.  The plain green binding of the book, without a glossy plastic cover, adds to a certain timeless feel of the writing and helps bring you back to the setting of 1950’s Britain. It felt to me like a library book from my childhood (in the fifties as it happens), and I was surprised to find that this is not a reissue of a forgotten classic, but has a 2009 copyright. I was also surprised to find that Bradley is not British at all, but Canadian.  He certainly infuses his book with a striking sense of time and place – a small village in postwar Britain – and describes childhood as it used to be in the days of benign neglect, before the over involved, slightly-crazed parents of our generation (self included).  Flavia’s dysfunctional family is half the fun of the book: the distant father; the disparaging older sisters; the missing, apparently deceased, mother.  It reminds one a bit of Dodie Smith’s 1948 classic (also an entertaining film), I Capture the Castle. I was also reminded me not a little of Oliver Sach’s memoir of his childhood, Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.  In this engaging story, Sach’s shows us his own childhood, mostly during the war years, interwoven with the history of science and imbued throughout with his love of science, metals and chemistry.  He, like Flavia, had his own lab and experimented freely, sometimes causing explosions which, I seem to recall, caused very little disruption in the family routine (both of his parents were doctors).  They both make heroes of eminent chemists from the past; when in a tight spot, Flavia often asks herself what Madame Lavoisier would do in her place.  In short, Bradley captures that passion that was so moving in Sach’s memoir (I always loathed chemistry in school – the smells, the dry lectures, the incomprehensible symbols and stupid experiments – but Sach’s chapter on the Periodic Table is sheer poetry).  Flavia is always figuring out what chemical compounds lie behind smells, foods, causes of death – poison is, after all, her speciality. Speciality fascinates the generalist—those who dabble, who wander wide but shallow, envy the ones who dig deep – Glory be …to all trades, their gear, tackle and trim.  There is the genius of this book, not in the plot, which is clunky at best; even the characters are a little too, too; even the setting too quaint, but the love of chemistry elevates it all to a different level.  I certainly wouldn’t say as the book blurb declares, that “it is an enthralling mystery, a piercing depiction of class and society.”  No, not that, but something better, in its way, something true.  And, there is alos just an old fashioned enjoyment of telling a story replete with details of rooms, weather, towns, faces, all the stuff of a story that must be there.  I could wish for Bradley an editor to help with the plot – little things niggle such as Mary’s odd about-face in leading Flavia up to the room at the inn where she finds important clues, why did it take Flavia so long to remember the steps when at the bottom of the pit, etc. – however, the father, Flavia, the Inspector, Dogger are all wonderful characters, and I will be following Flavia’s further adventures with gusto.

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A good read

While discussing books with a friend, we discovered a shared love of mysteries.  He recommended an Irish author, Tana French, whose first book, In the Wood, he described as a psychological thriller.  I got hold of the book and couldn’t put it down.  The central crime is sad and disturbing, but it is well-handled and the range of characters, suspects and subplots are all superb.  Reading this book reminded me of my book-obsessed childhood, spending hours and hours absorbed in a story, emerging only for meals, no worries about tasks or responsibilities.  It’s a great feeling.  Of course, now I have to read  her second book, a teasing first chapter was included at the end of this one, with some of the same characters and an intriguing new mystery.  I’ll be looking for The Likeness as soon as I have a block of time to devote to it.

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Recent reading

I’ve just learned a lesson:  never recommend a book you haven’t read.  I just read the latest Peter Temple, The Broken Shore, which is getting great reviews, and which, based on that and the fact that I loved his earlier books, caused me to recommend it to my sister’s book group. I like his writing which like Hemingway’s, has lot going on under the surface.  This might be annoying for some people (my CE put it down almost immediately, but he also hates Hemingway).  I think you have to like figuring out what is not stated outright.  As I’ve said before, I wish it were easier to get hold of his earlier “Jack Irish” novels.  I read the first two, Bad Debts and Black Tide and loved them, (see previous post), but wasn’t able to go any further.  This latest novel has the typical Temple style, but at least includes a glossary of Aussie slang; the books are dense with slang, another thing that takes getting used to.  The new character is another beaten-down crime fighter type, troubles with women, money and the job, and the minor characters are all deftly-drawn and compelling, especially the ‘swaggie’, Villiani, cousin Bern and the hero’s mother, “Syb”.  The descriptions of the weather, dogs, landscape, moments of daily life are all spare yet beautiful with an underlying elegiac quality.  The dialogues take some working out what with the slang and the verbal ellipses, but they are as funny and revealing of character as something by Jane Austen.  I’m trying to find a bit of dialogue to show the style, but this is a family blog! I admit, some of the language is coarse, and certain words that we would never use here are used quite freely. It reminds me of something I just learned while listening to Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue.  A word like ‘bloody’ is still considered vulgar in the UK; other words that were once beyond the pale gradually achieve common usage. I am thinking of several words that are now heard on TV or seen in The New Yorker (but NOT The New York Times!) that I still find off-putting.  But, that’s another topic.  I stand by my opinion of the book, but I wish I had given a caveat about the language. Even worse, the criminal investigation (never the most interesting thing about a mystery in my opinion) revolves around a particularly sordid story with gruesome murders involving (deserved) torture.  Finally, there are so many loose ends that the story cannot even be said to conclude, it just ends.  I feel like the publishers did the same thing they did with Angela’s Ashes, splitting one book into two for money-making purposes, so that the much-inferior Tis was foisted off on those who liked the first book.  Well, I don’t mind the loose ends in this case since for me the plotting is secondary to writing and characters; however, I do object to not even understanding what happened at the end.  I feel rather dense but I don’t even know how he escaped death at the hands of the killer! I was finishing it late at night, then I went back and skimmed the last chapters again a few times – still no clue. It’s a mystery all right!

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Sheep solve crime

I have a weakness for mysteries, maybe because the essential plot element, a crime, provides some pressure under which characters must reveal themselves.  It gives a context for writing that can be insightful, amusing, philosophical and more, writing that escapes the vacuusness that seems to be a part of much postmodern writing.  (I keep talking about postmodern writers, and I’m not sure what I mean by that, except that they seem to be writing in a backwater of the culture.  Novel writing just doesn’t seem to carry the burden of our collective dreams and despairs anymore, but a mystery operates on a very different level.  The essential crime can usually engage the reader, giving a cathartic experience of fear and uncertainty and providing a backdrop for whatever else the writer feels like exploring.) 

Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann, translated from German by Anthea Bell, features a flock of sheep who discover the body of their shepherd one morning and struggle to solve the mystery, (one sheep, at least, is very clever and several have unique talents).  I urge the reader to have a little patience with the plot, which is thick with details and can be a bit clunky at times.  The reader at times feels like one of the sheep, struggling to make sense of the events (which may actually be intentional!) and just wishing to give up and return to grazing.   The best thing about this book is the really clever and amusing way the sheep react to human actions and the consistent ‘sheepish’ viewpoint of the world.  The sheep jump to conclusions in some cases, simply because they can’t imagine a non-sheep view of the world, where grass and grazing and being one of a flock aren’t the most important things.  At one point, I was actually reminded of The Iliad, as the sheep are running around, acting on their limited knowledge, resembled the men battling in front of the walls of Troy, with no idea of the intentions or motivations of the Olympians who controlled their fates.  While light in tone and possessing some rather bizarre plot elements, this book has a philosophical core, believable characters (both human and ovine) and radiant good humor.  Perfect for a summer read.

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