Sunday, 16 August 2009
Sunday Salon - some short mystery reviews and it's HOT here
We have finally been having our summer. After breaking the all-time record for rain in a month in July, last week it finally warmed up. We have been in the upper 20's since last weekend, and currently are hitting 30 celsius every day. This would be all right, if our house didn't heat up at the same time. Inside the house, by sunset, is 31c. So what do we do? We sit in front of fans, and watch tv or read. Luckily, the English Premiership - soccer over here, footie over in England - started yesterday, and both my husband's club (Chelsea) and mine (fabulous wonderful Arsenal) were on, and we both won! So the morning was spent happily cheering for goals.
Today, I have picked Persuasion to spend the day with. It is already too hot to think of doing anything else. I'm not complaining! If we don't get a few hot days in the summer, then I barely make it through our long cold winters. So this has warmed me up. It did get me to thinking, though. Do you read different books when it is very hot outside, from when it is colder? Is there a reason, do you think, that we have a selection of books named "Beach reads"? We don't have any called 'snow reads' or 'blizzard books'. So, do you read certain kinds of books at different times of the year, to comfort you, or nourish you?
I used to read fantasy during the winter months, and mysteries the rest of the year, with classics and anything else read randomly. Now, I'm not so sure. It seems to be more balanced out, reading both fantasy and mystery year round, although I think I still read more mysteries as a whole during the warmer time of the year. Maybe fantasy is my great escape from winter! By February I am longing for signs of green, and fantasy worlds as a whole are happier than mysteries.
In honour of it being summer and so darned hot today - here are some mystery reviews - I've been sadly lacking in writing them up this summer!
Friend of the Devil - Peter Robinson. The latest Inspector Alan Banks mystery in paperback. I really enjoy this series, but for some reason, I kept getting the various suspects mixed up. Lately Robinson has been having multiple crimes in his books, mixing several years old ones with recent ones. It makes for dense layers and it's not something I think is completely successful in his books. I had the same problem with his previous mystery, Piece of My Heart. I had to keep flipping to sort out which decade the mystery/characters! While they end up being closely connected in the end, in Friend of the Devil I found I kept getting confused about who the victims were and why, and the perpetrators. It didn't help that the first victim had an assumed name, that there were two serial killers, and that the third crime (the recent one) wasn't connected, except in pursuit of that killer, it flushed out the killer of one of the other crimes. I normally like complex mysteries, in fact I prefer them, but this one left me flipping back and forth to sort out names and characters. Just a warning to perhaps not read this book while there is a heat wave on! Otherwise, this was very good, with Alan and Annie Cabot, who normally have a partnership, this time separated into different districts, so we get a wider range of police superintendents etc and a bigger canvas for Robinson to show how masterful he is at doing characters - he really is. Alan and Annie have private lives, and I enjoy this aspect of the mystery series too. I didn't like Annie's behaviour in this book, so I hope it shows in the next book or two that she comes to a bigger realization of what is wrong with her and why she is so defensive. There is character development and life progressions, which is a definite strength in this series, as well as excellent dialogue and among the best writing in mystery series today. The scene changes are seamless, and the crimes are horrific, and the characters are all note-perfect. This is really good writing, a very high-quality mystery series. I think the problem with the killers was they were kept vague for so long, and there were assumed identities, so unless you read the book in straight sittings, it will get confused. I also realize that I want a mystery that doesn't necessarily involve a serial killer - something that makes us look into the human heart, instead. 4/5 - possibly 4.5 if you read it in unbroken settings.
Case Histories - Kate Atkinson. The first Jackson Brodie mystery. I picked this up in the UK, having heard it being referred to on book lists and by bloggers. I wasn't steered wrong! A child's disappearance 34 years ago, a girl murdered in a lawyer's office by an unknown assailant 10 years ago, and a woman who murders her husband 22 years ago, who has finished her sentence and is picking up the pieces of her life: these are the three cases that Jackson Brodie, ex-police officer turned private investigator, is hired to solve by those left behind. This is a mystery that is about life and loss, secrets, and has moments where it is hilariously funny, heartbreaking in turns, and all the way through holds a sense of anxiety - will Olivia be found? Why does Caroline want to find her younger sister (the answer will chill you completely)? and who killed Laura? they are all solved, and in the course of the book, Brodie loses and gets his daughter back, learns French, has his house blown up, car brake fluid drained, and makes friend with a real eccentric old lady with millions of cats. This is a mystery that looks at grief, and how people pick up their lives after tragedy - or don't, and how love is always arriving unexpected, unlooked-for, and wondrous. 5/5
The Butcher of Smithfield - Susanna Gregory. I hang my head in shame, I read this in January and I hadn't reviewed it yet! This is the first Thomas Chaloner Adventure in Restoration London - yes, between this and Samuel Pepys, I am seeing London before and after the Great Fire, and having just walked some of the streets of East London at Christmas, these books bring London as it was back to life for me. In other words, I am always slightly homesick for London!
Thomas Chaloner is a spy for the Earl of Clarendon, it is 1663, and he has just returned from Portugal, so we see the changes in London as he does, with a foreigner's eyes. Someone is poisoning people with cucumbers, and Chaloner is asked to investigate the death of one of the victims, while going against the wishes of his employer to investigate the death of his dear friend Maylord, a musician, who also died from one of the cucumbers. Meanwhile the Butcher of Smithfield is controlling much of that area with his thieves/bodyguards called Hectors, and Chaloner's friend Leybourn falls in love with a woman is who is obviously after his money, there are spies within the government and without, broadsheets put out by rival presses that seek to establish who is the most trustworthy in terms of news put out, music that makes no sense, and all in all, a grand romp through Restoration London. I very much enjoyed this series and promptly picked up the second book in the series. Chaloner himself is quite attractive! and he has to walk a tightrope of pleasing the Earl, discovering who is stealing or leaking the news from the government sanctioned official broadsheet press, who the killer with cucumbers is and why, and try not to starve in the meantime - his employer refuses to pay him until he solves the murder of Newburne (the other victim of the cucumbers), who worked for L'Estrange, the official goverment censor of the news. It sounds complex, but it's not - it's fun, witty, and fast-paced, and most of all Chaloner is intelligent and caring, so he feels real grief at the loss of his friend, worry for his other friend in the clutches of Mary, and figures out the various villains as we the reader do. All in all, an excellent mystery, well-plotted, and featuring London in all its hectic glory. 5/5
Turnstone (1st book); The Take (2nd book) - Graham Hurley, DI Joe Faraday series. I had been meaning to read some of this series since the author was written up in The Guardian over a year ago. I finally ordered a copy of book one, Turnstone, and read it as soon as I got it. I am really thrilled with this series. It is every bit as good as the article said. Set in Portsmouth, an city in England I have never been to, it features Joe Faraday, a detective Inspector snowed under by paper and superiors ever conscious of their public image. He is a detective who still retains his humanity, and when Emma Maloney comes to the police center to report her dad missing, he is the only one who takes her seriously. He has an arch-enemy within the police force, Detective Paul Winter, who is his polar opposite; it's refreshing to read about conflict within the police force, instead of it being just the detective versus the criminal. There is a fine line between police and criminals, and sometimes that line is crossed, and we see Paul come close to that line and not only betray Joe, but cause the death of one of Joe's young perpetrators he has hopes of saving. Whether Joe has too much hope and Paul is right, you the reader gets to choose; but from the beginning, Joe errs on the side of human goodness. In the end, Emma is right, her dad is missing, but what happens - how the case is solved - is thrilling in a quiet, dogged, persistent way. I really enjoyed book one. It also features a sail boat race that has a terrible outcome, that as we discover more about what happened on the boat, becomes more terrible. Joe balances the horrors of criminal investigation through his son, who is deaf, and bird-watching, thus the name of the book: Turnstone is the name of the sand bird outside his home near Portsmouth's beach. Joe is a thoughtful detective, and I promptly bought book 2 and read it right after.
The Take - Not quite as good as Turnstone, I think because it doesn't have the thoughtful quality quite so paramount. That being said, it is still very good; the crime committed is one all women everywhere would instinctively understand, a gynecologist is accused of intercourse with his patients, and has disappeared. What he actually did, revealed near the end, is horrifying - deeply invasive of a woman's privacy, and I have to say that even though he was only in a characer in a book, I was glad at what happened to the gynecologist! That's how good the writing and characterization is in this series. It may be that this book isn't quite so melancholic as the first one. We also see the true nature of Paul Winter when faced with the loss of someone dear to him. And again, at every turn, he tries to thwart Joe Faraday, who he can't forgive for thwarting his own plans for promotion. Definitely a must-read, and a series for mystery fans. I need to find Book 3 soon!
Turnstone: 5/5. The Take: 4.5/5
Last but not least, the mystery many of you have been waiting for me to review:
In the Woods, by Tana French. Firstly, this is excellent writing and characterization. It is superb. From the prologue, to the opening paragraphs of Chapter one, which I remembered all through the book :"I crave truth. And I lie." to the final revelation of who did it (in the crime investigated) and how horrifyingly evil and manipulative he/she is, this book is almost unputdownable.
It is agonising to read this book, because the central character can't remember what happened twenty years ago in the woods, when his two friends disappeared and he was found shaking near a tree. He was never able to tell what happened. Years later, he has slightly changed his name, and is now a detective, and the book opens with him being assigned to investigate a murder close to the very site where he was discovered as a child. He had not been back since the events as a child, his family had moved away, so no one recognizes him, and he is seeing the area again through adult eyes for the first time. What I found most disturbing was that he doesn't tell his supervisor right away who he is, and when he is found out, what happens. This made me pull away from the story for a bit, until it is resolved, thankfully!
There is a current trend it seems in mysteries to conduct investigations into old serial killer crimes or child disappearances, with current investigations that eventually link up. I can't decide if this is a good trend or not. I do wonder if we - the white world, from whom many of these types of crime books are coming - are working through the enormous loss of all the missing children and teens that has been prevalent in our culture for the past 30 years. Do you remember the milk cartons and posters with the pictures of missing children on them? I do. I think this is one way we are trying to come to terms with, to understand why, and what happened. I think I am interested in how crimes affect those left behind. In the Woods shows this in many ways. Rob Ryan's family, the families of the original two children, the current victim's family: some of the many the ways that the disappearances and murder affects the ones left behind, are shown. It was particularly affecting about the two missing children, and how time is different for the parents. As in Case Histories, sometimes the ones left behind can move on, sometimes they can't, but always, they are altered.
I am of two minds about the main character - I know I ended up not trusting him at all, even though I see how whatever happened that day long ago has affected him (something even he can't see yet). I still think one possibility is he might have killed his friends, and yet I don't want him to have, such is the skill of French in showing Ryan's character and perhaps-faulty memory. This is a very good mystery, deserving of all the acclaim it has received. I really liked Cassie, the detective Ryan is paired with, and am happy to see she is the main character in the next book out by French, The Likeness. I don't have it yet, but I will be getting it shortly!
All in all, another excellent mystery. 4.7/5
Have you read any of these books? Please let me know, and I'll link to them.
I'm off to read Persuasion now. It's too hot to do housework, hurray!! I do also admit, in this slightly rambling Sunday Salon (it is really hot now, almost 40 c with the humidity), that I am beginning to look ahead to RIP 3 (or is it 4?) which should start soon. I already have some books lined up: I was thinking of Duma Key by Stephen King, and Drood by Dan Simmons. Have you started planning for Carl's challenge? Are you in the mood for some ghost stories soon, too?