Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Deadly Month

As part of a challenge for 4 Mystery Addicts, my online book discussion group, I concentrated this month on books that had "die, dead(ly) or death" in the title. What I found were some gems, including:

Mourn Not Your Dead by Deborah Crombie. Scotland Yard Supt. Duncan Kincaid and Sgt. Gemma James are called to investigate the death of Alastair Gilbert, a top-ranking police official who was widely disliked, both within the force and in his village. This, of course, makes for lots of suspects. Much of this series, so far, revolves around the growing relationship between Kincaid and James. Generally, I would recommend reading a series on its own, but this book could be read as a standalone. It's the fourth in the series, and much stronger than the three that came before.

Death of a Perfect Mother by Robert Barnard. Two sons are planning their mother's murder -- but she's killed the day before they
can put their plan into place. Again, we have a victim who is highly reviled in the village, so anyone could have done it. I expected this one to be light, knowing Barnard's touch with humor. However, the humor here is very dark. A good book, but not one I would recommend to those who haven't read Barnard before.

Dead as a Dodo by Jane Langton. After Barnard's dark, dark humor, I needed this. I had never heard of Langton; I had gotten her book for free and it might have stayed in storage if not for the October challenge. Now I must look for the rest in this series. Visiting Harvard Professor Homer Kelly and his wife are in Oxford, where they start to sleuth after a murder at a college museum of science. The plot involves some specimens of Darwin and the book throws in a dash of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (much of that book is said to be influenced by the author's days in Oxford). The book is full of whimsy, as well as serious scientific and theological debate. Somehow, Langton pulls it all together.

Dead Run by P.J. Tracy. Somehow the women of Monkeewrench and Wisconsin deputy Sharon Mueller end up in the ghost town of Four Corners, Wisconsin, where the entire town has been killed by nerve gas, set off by homegrown militiamen. More of a thriller, which I'm not usually into, but this book had me hooked.

Death Will Help You Leave Him by Elizabeth Zelvin (see review and interview below).

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Interview with Elizabeth Zelvin

Elizabeth Zelvin has written Death Will Get You Sober, followed by Death Will Help You Leave Him, out this month (see review below). She talks a bit about her latest book:

Q. First, thanks for agreeing to answer my questions. I want to start off with the protagonist, Bruce Kohler, who narrates the books. Many mystery writers have protagonists who struggle with alcoholism, but you have one who is a recovering alcoholic. Why did you approach the character from this point?

A. Apart from being a writer for my whole life and loving mysteries, my primary reason for writing these books was and is that I have something to say about recovery, which is a remarkable process of transformation that takes great courage and honesty on the part of those who recover. The first book, Death Will Get You Sober, is dedicated to them.

Q. You are a psychotherapist in addition to being a writer. How much do you draw upon your experiences for the books while still maintaining client confidences?

A. Besides being a psychotherapist, I spent fifteen years working in and then directing alcoholism treatment programs. My private practice, both in a conventional therapy office (more than fifteen years) and now as an online therapist (almost ten years), has included many clients who have been affected by addictions, codependency, and compulsive behaviors such as eating disorders and compulsive spending, either in themselves or people they love, as well as adult children of alcoholics, sexual abuse survivors, and survivors of other kinds of family dysfunction. My characters are fictional. I would never write about a real particular client. But a lot of recovering people have written to say how much they appreciate my getting it right. Recovery is my briar patch—if you remember Brer Rabbit, that’s the place where I feel most at home.

Q. In Death Will Help You Leave Him, you also write about co-dependency and bad relationships. Why write about these issues in a mystery book?

A. I have worked with a lot of couples—those who just need a little fine-tuning and those whose marriage or committed relationship is a war zone — as well as people whose capacity for intimacy has been damaged by domestic violence and sexual trauma. And they say that 96 percent of Americans are codependent. It’s not a genuine statistic, but it makes a point about how our culture encourages us to seek our identity and self-worth outside ourselves. Too often, codependents turn to abusive, addicted, or unavailable partners, the very people who can’t meet their needs. In fact, I’m more of an “expert” in codependency than in addictions: I’ve been writing and lecturing about it professionally for more than twenty years. Bad relationships are universal — almost everybody has had at least one, and I hope that draws them to Death Will Help You Leave Him. As for writing about relationships, isn’t that what novels are all about? And therapy, and poetry, and songs, my other creative areas. The mystery is the sturdy coathanger on which I hang my characters and their relationships. I love a character-driven mystery — my own or someone else’s — and to me, relationships are the most interesting thing in the world.

Q. Your books have true laugh-out loud moments. Where does the humor come from, especially when dealing with issues of addiction?

A. The humor is built into recovery. There’s a lot of laughter in AA meetings. It comes from the perspective of people who look honestly and thoroughly at their past behavior and have a sense of humor about how royally they screwed up. I tried to show some of that in the fictional AA meetings in the books. I’m so glad you laughed out loud. I think my books are hilarious, myself. And Bruce’s wisecracking voice is one of those gifts from the Muse or a Higher Power or whatever you want to call it. I have nothing to do with it except to be a channel.

Q. The first things that one notices about your books are the titles, of course. They are longer than the norm and a bit off the wall, with a touch of humor. Can you tell me how you came up with the titles? Was it a marketing idea?

A. On the contrary. When I started, all I knew was that I wanted to write a mystery about recovery, and that the title was Death Will Get You Sober. In fact, I told so many people about it that it’s a miracle I ever wrote the book. Once Bruce gets sober, the first thing he has to deal with is relationships. And I wanted the murder to involve an abusive relationship, so Death Will Help You Leave Him was the right title. I didn’t even know it would be the boyfriend who got killed. I had some cases in mind where the codependent girlfriend minimized the danger and then got killed — but when I sat down to write it, it didn’t come out that way. Until the publisher accepted my title, I was very nervous, because by that time I had come up with a string of Death Will titles, each one with that twist of making what death does sound positive, and each associated with an addictive or compulsive disorder I could write about. I knew publishers often change titles, and I would have been sunk if they hadn’t gone for mine.

Q. It seems you’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction, beginning with your first book. Have you gotten any unexpected or strange reactions from your books?

A. A few people, including agents, editors, and reviewers as well as readers, have found my novels dark and depressing. I’m not exactly surprised, but I suspect they’re missing the humor — and even more important, the hope — because they bring their own experiences with alcoholism or addiction to what they read. For example, someone whose spouse or parent died of alcoholism without ever finding recovery — and who has not sought help for his or her own pain — might have trouble connecting with the tone, which is lighthearted in spite of the serious issues I write about.

Q. How has the experience of writing mysteries been different from your other writing: the nonfiction and the poetry?

A. I’ve written several mystery short stories in addition to the novels, and I’ve found writing novels very different from the shorter forms I’ve done: the stories, poetry, songs (which are quite different from the poems in language, meter, and tone, though they may cover the same subjects), and a variety of nonfiction pieces including my blog posts on Poe’s Deadly Daughters — which make me feel like a journalist and are great fun to do — and professional articles and chapters, which also use a very different language. Writing a novel is the hardest kind of writing for me. For every day when the words flow, there are several when I’m slogging along with grim determination, finding it hard to believe I’ll ever make my way to the end, no less be able to fix the bad parts and make the good parts hang together. Writing itself comes easy to me. Storytelling, especially the complex story a mystery novel tells, is a challenge.

Q. You have two strong books in the series. Can you tell us a bit about your next Kohler book?

A. In the next one, Bruce and his friends Barbara and Jimmy take shares in a lethal clean and sober group house in the Hamptons. I had a lot of fun doing the research: picking strawberries, fishing for blues from a small boat, and talking with the local cops — who told me group houses are illegal in the Hamptons.

Q. Are you going to continue with the Kohler series, or do you have ideas for other mystery books?

A. I hope I can keep the series going. If I can’t, the idea that’s knocking loudest on the inside of my brain is a young adult novel. The protagonist already exists, in a historical short story that will appear some time in 2010 in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. A couple of other characters and a story line are rattling around in my head. My protagonist is a young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage. He couldn’t be more different from Bruce, but he has his own distinctive voice. I think a strong voice is one of those gifts you can’t possibly refuse when it comes to you.

Q. Who are your favorite mystery authors, and what book are you reading now?

A. I love character-driven traditional mysteries with depth and complexity. Unlike Bruce, most of their protagonists are cops or PIs, often women, but they are my role models. Among my favorites are Margaret Maron, Marcia Muller, Nevada Barr, Dana Stabenow, Julie Smith, Reginald Hill, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and Janet Neel, whose first mystery, Death’s Bright Angel, is one of my all-time favorites. And if I can claim a couple of eminent foremothers, they’d be Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey.

Right now, I’m taking a break from mystery and rereading all of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, in anticipation of reading the new one that’s just come out. What brilliant books, and on so many levels. I’ve read them all several times before, but I’m going slowly this time—and bringing my added experiences as a writer — and I marvel at how she manages a huge canvas of time, place, memorable characters, accurate and minutely observed detail — from battles to sex to domestic concerns — and an immense sweep of satisfying plot, conflict, and action. She’s a great storyteller who’s also a marvelous writer.

Death Will Help You Leave Him by Elizabeth Zelvin

Protagonist: Bruce Kohler
Setting: New York City
Rating: 4.5

There’s always been a long tradition of detectives with alcohol and other substance abuse issues (even Sherlock Holmes!), but Zelvin serves up something completely different: an amateur sleuth who is a recovering alcoholic.

In her second Kohler book (the first was Death Will Get You Sober), Bruce Kohler gets swept up in a murder investigation, pulled in by friends Jimmy (also a recovering alcoholic) and Jimmy’s girlfriend Barbara, an addictions counselor. One of Barbara’s clients, Luz, is suspected by police of killing her boyfriend, the married Frankie, a one-time drug dealer. The foursome team up to find the real killer. Their first stop: the wake at the funeral home, a scene so funny it’s worth the price of the book alone. From there, it’s subways and taxis across Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a few other escapades.

The book does have its dark side. While the first book dealt with alcoholism, this one turns the focus on unhealthy relationships. Even Kohler struggles with this, yo-yoing back and forth whenever he gets a call from his ex-wife, who is bipolar, unmedicated and in an abusive relationship. Some scenes are so wrenching you want to reach out and slap the ex – or Bruce himself.

Zelvin is a psychotherapist, so she knows what she writes about. But her ability to bring us both tragedy and humor, sometimes in the same sentence, shows she’s a talented writer as well. Zelvin already has a third book in the works. Will I be reading it? Oh yes, you can say I’ve become a bit addicted to the series.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Protagonist: Chief Insp. Armand Gamache
Setting: Three Pines, Canada
Rating: 4.7

Three Pines must be the most pleasant place to live – with its cozy bistro, its bakery and used book store, tight-knit friends and wonderful views. Perfect, except for the murders. After yet another one in Three Pines, even the residents notice, joking: “Every Quebec village has a vocation. Some make cheese, some wine, some pots. We produce bodies.”

With that out of the way early in the book, we readers suspend disbelief and continue on with the story: a man who lived as a hermit deep in the woods has been murdered. Even stranger, his body has been found in the bistro owned by Gabri and Olivier. And even stranger than that, the hermit’s log cabin was filled with treasures: tapestries, first edition books, a priceless violin.

Who would want to kill this man? Could it have been the new owners of the Hadley House, who have turned the old, haunted house into a beautiful new hotel and spa (and whose property holds the log cabin)? Could it have been someone in the Czech community, since the hermit was thought to be Czech? Or even someone closer to home?

While all of Penny’s books are beautifully written and take us to this heart-wrenchingly lovely town, this book also has an undercurrent of fear and suspicion running through it. And it is heart-wrenching in a way not expected. As usual in a Penny book, we still have questions unanswered in the end. And maybe even a seed of doubt.

This is the fifth in the Gamache series. Up to now, I’ve rated all her books near-perfect. This one slips a few points for two reasons: her previous book (A Rule Against Murder) was perfection. Comparing the two, this one falls short. Second, much of the book is repetitive – series readers already know a lot about the village and the characters. While the characters have always made the books come alive, here they detract from the mysteries – because much of what we’re told has already been revealed in earlier books. But those are small quibbles in a series that has become my favorite.

This is a series that needs to be read in order, and it is:
Still Life
A Fatal Grace
The Cruelest Month
A Rule Against Murder
The Brutal Telling

Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason

Protagonist: Insp. Erlendur
Setting: Reykjavik, Iceland
Rating: 4.5

The fifth in the Erlendur series to be translated into English, this book opens with the murder of a young Thai boy – stabbed and left to die in the snow. His half-brother, meanwhile, is missing. A straight police procedural, the novel delves into anti-immigrant feelings in Iceland. Indridason also introduces another case into the novel: a missing woman, newly married. And the boy’s death also unveils part of Erlendur’s past: as a boy, he and brother were stuck in his blizzard. While Erlendur was saved, his brother was never found. While his brother's death is always close to his thoughts during this investigation, Erlendur is loath to speak about it to his children – who are very interested in their father’s past.

Scandinavian novels have a reputation of being bleak. Arctic Chill doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The prose, stripped down and spare, adds to this – there is no sense of warmth, even when the cases are solved. Arctic Chill isn’t the best book in the series – Jar City and Silence of the Grave were far better – but this is still a very good book.