Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Caroline Minuscule by Andrew Taylor

Caroline Minuscule by Andrew Taylor
Protagonist: William Dougal
Setting: England
Rating: 4.5
I hate for a year to go by without having read a Taylor novel, so I went back to his first book, published in 1982. Dougal is a graduate student, the type of person who, upon finding his tutor murdered, walks away without alerting anyone; he doesn't want to spoil his dinner plans with girlfriend Amanda. But soon enough, he's enmeshed in the puzzle that killed his professor; it involves Caroline Minuscule (the name of a Medieval script). The payoff involves diamonds, but Dougal and Amanda have an adversary who will stop at nothing.

By the end of the book, Dougal has undergone quite a transformation. He’s also not the usual detective. As Taylor writes, “in a sense William Dougal is a modified Tom Ripley transposed into a British key.”

It's amazing what Taylor packed into a small novel (234 pages in paperback). This novel, in fact, won the John Creasey Award of the Crime Writers' Association and was shortlisted for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America. Taylor went on to write seven more novels in the Dougal series. So while I wait for Taylor’s next book in his Lydmouth series, I will continue to dip into the Dougal books. Taylor has written an interesting essay on his first book here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 Tops

This was a good year for books, with some favorite authors again providing solid books, as well as some new-to-me authors, at least one of whom surprised me (I didn’t expect to like his books that much!). Here were my favorites this year:

Two favorites delivered, as always – Ann Cleeves, with White Nights, the second in her Shetland quartet, and Louise Penny with The Cruelest Month, her third in a seasonal quartet. These two rank highest for me. Not surprisingly, there are similarities between the two – beautifully drawn descriptions of the land, the villages and the people. Also, Cleeves and Penny write very much in the vein of traditional mysteries. I will read anything in the crime fiction genre – thrillers, spy novels, noir – but these traditional whodunits satisfy me the most.

The Pure in Heart and The Risk of Darkness, by Susan Hill, both part of the Serrailler series. These two character-driven books barely touched on crime, instead focusing on Simon Serrailler and his family. Not traditional, yet that was fine with me.

Another character-driven series is the one by Scottish author Aline Templeton. Her first three books on DI Marjory Fleming – Cold in the Earth, The Darkness and the Deep, and Lying Dead – were all among my tops. Fleming’s family life, with all its heartbreaks, is a large part of the books, but they also are strong police procedurals. This was a new author, but now is a favorite.

Another series – the surprise one – was Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, set in Wyoming. A surprise because I thought it would be too cowboyish. But Johnson’s The Cold Dish, Death Without Company and Kindness Goes Unpunished has great characters (no stereotypes) and witty dialogue that reminds me of Robert Parker’s Spenser series. This is a series I now recommend without pause.

My other tops this year included:

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, set in Norway. This is a long, complex novel, but still a fast, gripping read.

Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina, the third in her Paddy Meehan series, which will run to five books. Paddy has grown up, and is a well-known Scottish journalist and a mom. The series deals with family relationships and justice. A series that definitely needs to be read in order (no. 1 and no. 2 are The Field of Blood and The Dead Hour).

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. There was a lot of buzz about this book, the first in a series in the Millennium trilogy (Larsson died after writing the third book). The buzz was on target, this time. This Swedish novel, which features the unlikely team of a magazine journalist and a young computer hacker, is long – yet you’ll want to read it in one sitting.

The Writing Class by Jincy Willette is a light, fast, fun read – with murder, to boot! Amy Gallup is a writing teacher at an extension course. For once, she has a great class. But there’s a fly in the ointment – a murderer in the class. Since the police aren’t investigating, the whole class decides to find out which one of them is the killer. A great read!

The Secret History by Donna Tartt was published in 1992, and has become a semi-classic in the genre. It’s another big book that I couldn’t put down, even though you know in the opening pages who the killers are. This is a whodunit in reverse, as the book unveils why and how the murder took place, and then the consequences.

I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming is the latest in her Millers Kill series. This is a series that must be read in order, as the relationship between the Rev. Clare Fergusson and Chief Russ Van Alstyne is pivotal in the books. I love the series, but it does have a romance aspect that not everyone likes.

Finally, two books in which I recommend the audiobook version, because the narrator does such a good job of bringing these characters alive:

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris has wonderful plotting that revolves around a boy’s school and an outsider that pretends to be a student (and later a teacher), hoping to exact revenge. Another teacher, though, stands in the way. The plot unfolds like a chess game, although it’s the author who is always a move ahead of you.

No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay takes an unlikely event – teenager Cynthia Bigge’s entire family disappears from her home overnight – and gives us a readable, likely plot. Twenty-five years, after a television show about the old mystery, strange events threaten Cynthia and her family. I’m not a huge fan of thrillers, but this one had me sitting in the car long after I had pulled into the driveway.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Pick of the Month: The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
Protagonist: Chief Insp. Armand Gamache
Setting: Three Pines, Canada
Rating: 5.0

If a book of crime fiction can be a comfort read, this is it. Despite the murder, and all the other small cruelties and jealousies in this story, I still want to live in Three Pines. There's a warmth that resides there, at Olivier's Bistro, where you can have cafe au lait and fresh-baked croissants. In the woods, the village green, the shops. At the homes, where books, beautiful art and food welcome visitors.

Well, most homes. Not at the old Hadley House, where the familiar group of Three Pines residents decides on a lark to hold a seance. One of the group, though, is literally scared to death. Gamache and his team move temporary headquarters into Three Pines. While investigating the murder, Gamache finds himself threatened by his enemies at the Sûreté, more than ever.

Throughout the book, Penny lays small clues along the way, much as the villagers in the opening scene carefully hid Easter eggs. When the murderer is revealed, in a traditional Poirot-like scene, everything clicks into place. Mysteries are puzzles, and Penny has beautifully laid out each piece, but we don't see the big picture until that final piece is in place.

This is the third in the series, and there is some resolution regarding Gamache and his future at the Sûreté. But there are some threads left hanging at the end of the book, and so we look forward to book 4 (A Rule Against Murder, being published Jan. 20th in the U.S.). I suspect some of those threads will begin to unravel.

December Reads

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black (audio)
Protagonist: Gannet Quirke
Setting: Dublin, 1950s
Rating: 4.5
This is the second in the series by Black (author John Banville, who uses a pseudonym for his crime fiction) about a pathologist investigator. Quirke is asked by former school acquaintance Billy Hunt to forego a postmortem on his wife, the attractive Deirdre Hunt, owner of The Silver Swan beauty parlor. Of course, Quirke is now curious, and a look at the body reveals a needle mark. Deirdre, pulled from a river, was thought to have been a suicide. The scenes of Quirke’s investigation are interwoven with flashbacks of Deirdre’s life. Quirke’s daughter also becomes entangled in the investigation when she starts a relationship with Deirdre’s lover. In this series, it really pays to have read the first book, since the second has more resonance if you know the history. While I liked Black’s first book, Christine Falls, for its lush prose, I found The Silver Swan an even better book. In addition to that wonderful prose, there is a very good mystery here.

A Christmas Beginning by Anne Perry
Protatonist: Superintendent Runcorn
Setting: Island of Anglesey off the north coast of Wales
Rating: 4.0
Superintendent Runcorn of Scotland Yard is on vacation in Wales when he comes across a young woman’s body in the village churchyard. Although a chief constable is called in from the mainland, it soon becomes clear that someone more experienced is needed, and so Runcorn steps in. Runcorn, a lifelong bachelor at 50, also finds himself falling in love. Runcorn is also a central character in the William Monk series, but nonreaders of the series (such as I) can still enjoy this novella.

Legally Dead by Edna Buchanan
Protagonist: Michael Venturi
Setting: South Florida
Rating: 3.5
This is the first in a new series in which Venturi, a deputy U.S. marshal in the Federal Witness Protection Program, takes matters into his own hands when he finds out that a mobster they’ve been protecting has been sexually assaulting and killing young girls. This, of course, gets him fired. Venturi moves to Florida, where he (with some help from friends) start staging fake deaths for people they feel are deserving – who’ve been falsely accused of something, for instance, but still are villified. Declared “legally dead,” they can begin their new lives in another country under new names. One after another, “clients” start appearing. The number of clients is a bit of a stretch, but I did like these individual stories. But soon, something goes wrong. Someone is killing those whom Venturi protected as a U.S. marshal -– and then someone kills one of his innocent clients. While the book has some faults, such as some thinly-drawn characters and a plot that goes overboard at times –- it was a fun, fast read for me.

Strange Affair by Peter Robinson (audio)
Protagonist: Insp. Alan Banks
Setting: London
Rating: 4.0
This is the 15th in the series, but this is not a problem if you haven't read the rest (or just read one other, like myself). Banks is on a leave of absence, dealing already with personal problems, when his somewhat estranged brother leaves a message on his answering machine, asking for help. Unable to reach him, Banks drives to London, only to find his brother's door unlocked -- and no sign of his brother. Meanwhile, a woman driver is killed on the highway. And Banks' address is in her back pocket. As partner Annie Cabbot investigates the death, it soon becomes clear that there's a link between the two incidents. A police procedural, this is also a heart-wrenching novel. It makes me want to go back and start the series in order.

Caught Out in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho
Protagonist: Rose Trevelyan
Setting: Penzance, Cornwall, England
Rating: 3.5
Rose Trevelyan almost always seems to be in the right place (or maybe the wrong place) at the right time. Here, she witnesses a man scoop up a little girl at the beach, and minutes later realizes she's seen a kidnapping, when a little girl goes missing. Rose, who is dating Det. Insp. Jack Pearce, is soon nosing around. This was not a book that grabbed me and made me want to read more in the series, but it was still pleasurable enough. The characters were barely sketched and the mystery was easily solved beforehand, but Bolitho's descriptions of Cornwall made up for that. This is the seventh in the series, and the last, as Bolitho has passed away.

The Church of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns
Setting: Town of Aurelius, upstate New York
Rating: 4.3
This is not a crime novel in the usual sense, although several crimes are committed. It's about how a small town reacts when three girls, one after another, are abducted. The three girls are never found alive -- but we know that from the opening pages -- so this is really not about them. It's about the rest of the town. Residents begin to turn on each other, suspect each other, and even attack each other. Although Dobyns has written a mystery series, this falls more into the category of psychological thriller.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
Rating: 3.3
This is a slim children's book (can be read in an hour or less), and I'd only recommend it for the die-hard Potter fan. These fairy tales, especially the last one ("The Tale of the Three Brothers") plays a part in the last Potter book. As such, it's a nice edition to the Potter folklore.

Rating system:
5.0: Wow!
4.0: A book I'd recommend
3.0: Mediocre to good
2.0: Pretty Bad

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The best of the year

It's that time of the year. Lists of best crime fiction books of the year are appearing all over (my own top 10 pick will come in a few weeks; I still need to mull, and maybe read a book or two).

At The New York Times, Marilyn Stasio’s picks make me realize that I’m far behind in all the books I wanted to read this year; she names several on my list. Sarah Weinman, writing for the Los Angeles Times, has an entirely different list of top books.

NPR’s Maureen Corrigan picks five (only five!) crime fiction books for her list. From the Brits, Marcel Berlins at The Times offers a list, as well.

And, finally, if you like your holidays with a little crime, then Tom Nolan at The Wall Street Journal offers Christmas-themed mysteries.