Sunday, January 31, 2010

Red Bones by Ann Cleeves

Protagonist: Jimmy Perez
Setting: Shetland Islands
Rating: 5.0

This has one of the best opening scenes ever (but to tell you more would be to spoil it). Insp. Jimmy Perez is back. This time his sidekick is Sandy Wilson, a young detective and not the sharpest knife in the block. But Sandy is instrumental, as much of the story revolves around his family. An archaeological dig in Whalsay, on land owned by his family, becomes the site of two deaths -- maybe murder? -- after a set of bones is uncovered by the archaeological team.

Cleeves writes a well-plotted mystery, but I like her books as much for the setting -- the Shetland islands, remote and beautiful -- and characters that feel like real people. This is the third in a quartet, and like the other books, it deals with long-hidden secrets and the insularity of the islands. One of the young archaeologists captures it well when she says: "Once the fog rolls in you feel as if the world outside doesn't matter at all. People here lose any sense of proportion. Tiny incidents that happened years ago fester and take over their lives."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

13 Steps Down by Ruth Rendell

Protagonist: Mix Cellini
Setting: Notting Hill, London
Rating: 4.8
In this psychological thriller, Rendell gives us Mix Cellini, a troubled young man who is obsessed with a beautiful model, Nerissa Nash, to the point of becoming a stalker. He's also obsessed with Reginald Christie, a serial killer from the 1940s and '50s. He reads all he can about the notorious doctor and, one late night, even believes he sees Christie's ghost outside his flat. Cellini is also deeply superstitious, especially when it comes to the number 13, which also happens to be the number of steps leading to his flat, the attic room of an old ramshackle Victorian. Cellini's landlady, Gwendolen Chawcer, is an elderly spinster who spends her days and nights immersed in books and who has her own obsession, a doctor she once had a "relationship" with -- even if it was 50 years ago and the relationship didn't extend beyond tea and cakes at her house. Then there is the beautiful Nerissa, who has fallen in love with her family's neighbor, a young man she doesn't even know that well and who doesn't seem to notice her. As the novel progresses, Cellini becomes even more and more unhinged. As a reader, you know it'll all end badly -- but we don't know how or why. It's a story that unwinds slowly, continuing to surprise us, even on the last page.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Devil's Trill by Gerald Elias

Protagonist: Daniel Jacobus
Setting: Berkshires and New York City
Rating: 3.7
At the Grimsley Competition for young violinists at Carnegie Hall, a rare and valuable Stradivarius violin is stolen, even though it had been in a locked room and guarded by two security guards. Daniel Jacobus, a blind, reclusive and crotchety former violinist who now teaches, is a suspect -- he dislikes the competition and the group that hosts it, the Musical Arts Project Group. As he tries to help solve the theft -- with Nathaniel Williams, the investigator for the company that had insured the violin, and Yumi Shinagawa, a 19-year-old student fresh from Japan -- a MAP member is murdered, and Jacobus is a suspect in the murder, as well. The story is written by someone who has been a violinist, composer, conductor and teacher -- so there's much insight into the world of music, and the fierce competition that is sometimes seen. And Jacobus, for unlikable as he can be, is a compelling protagonist. For a debut novel, Devil's Trill is good. But there are still some annoying quirks. For example, the author tries to be too cutesy with puns. It's not just one character who loves musical puns -- but just about every character. After awhile, it grates, and actually lowers the enjoyment of what otherwise is a good mystery.

Trivia: The Devil's Trill is indeed a real-life sonata, by Giuseppe Tartini. There are various versions on YouTube -- all the more enjoyable for having read the book. Here's one performed by Elias himself.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

P.D. James, one of the greats of modern mystery novels, give a concise history of the detective genre (mostly British) in this slim volume, and you can tell she knows her stuff, from Wilkie Collin's "The Moonstone" to contemporary crime fiction such as Ian Rankin's Rebus series. While others have written histories of mysteries, with James we get her viewpoint -- and she's certainly not shy about expressing her own opinions.

Of Agatha Christie, she writes that "perhaps her greatest strength was that she never overstepped the limits of her talent" -- but she's also generous to Christie, saying she produced mysteries of "extraordinarily imaginative cunning" and writing that Christie brilliantly broke the rules, as in "The Mousetrap" and "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd." Describing Golden Age mysteries, James writes that readers like them because "Whatever our secret terrors, we are not the body on the library floor. And in the end, by the grace of Poirot's little grey cells, all will be well -- except of course with the murderer, but he deserves all that's coming to him. All the mysteries will be explained, all the problems solved and peace and order will return to that mythical village which, despite its above-average homicide rate, never really loses its tranquillity or its innocence."

This is a fast read -- a couple of hours. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in British mysteries and definitely for fans of P.D. James.

The Second Midnight by Andrew Taylor

Protagonists: Hugh Kendall and Michael Stanhope-Smith
Setting: London and Prague, WW II
Rating: 5.0

This is a spy, yet not a spy, story. In 1939, before the war, a minor spy is killed in Prague. Agent Michael Stanhope-Smith sends businessman Alfred Kendall as a courier, but the situation becomes more complicated, and Kendall ends up leaving his young son, Hugh, in Prague, as a promise that he'll return. But he never does, as Prague is taken over by the Nazis. Hugh does what he needs to survive, ending up, finally, as a gardener for a good-hearted German officer and his family. He lives above the stables where, every night, he experiences two midnights -- there are two clocks that chime the midnight hour, but one is slower than the other. Hugh falls in love with the German's daughter, Magda, but is hated by the son, Heinz. As the war ends, he must try to make his way back to England as the family flees. The books spans from 1939 to 1963, and in a way is an epic, the story of the Kendalls, as well as Stanhope-Smith, whose life becomes intertwined with the family.

This is very loosely part of the Blaines trilogy, but Blaines himself only has a very small part (a few pages) in this book. As Andrew Taylor says on his website: "This is a trilogy only in an informal and retrospective sense. The links between the books are unobtrusive and developed almost without my noticing. These are espionage novels, but with a difference - the private lives of the spies and their families are more important than their public actions. Indeed, the former tend to influence the latter, often in unexpected ways."

As always in Taylor's books, the characterization is excellent and the book is well worth reading.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Protagonist: Joan Anglicus
Setting: Ingelheim, Frankland, and Vatican City, Dark Ages
Rating: 4.4
The author takes the sketchiest of legends -- that for two years a woman disguised as a man sat on the papal throne -- and fleshes out a full novel of what it would have been like to have lived such a life. Born in A.D. 814 to an English canon and a Saxon woman, Joan grows up with a desire to study, fueled by an older brother. Although only her brothers are allowed to study, her father grudging consents to letting her brother's tutor also teach Joan. Impressed by her bright mind, the tutor arranges for her to continue at a palace school -- the only girl there. As Joan grows into womanhood, she falls in love with the knight Gerold. But she is soon parted from him after a Viking attack kills most of the villagers. She escapes, disguised as a man, and enters a monastery, where she learns the art of healing. Forced to flee there, as well, before her gender is uncovered, she ends up at the Vatican as the pope's personal physician. It's here that her life intersects again with Gerold -- at the moment that she's offered the papacy herself.

While Cross makes a good argument that a female pope could have existed, she also notes that the work is entirely fictional. In a conversation with our book club, Cross said she wrote Joan not as a woman of great faith, but as a woman who had only one option to fulfill her desire to learn -- to live her life as a man. The book has now been made into a movie, although it is still waiting for a U.S. distributor to pick it up. Whether one believes that a female pope existed or not, this book vividly portrays what life must have been like in the Dark Ages, especially for a woman like Joan.

Dorothy Sayers and a January challenge

As part of a reading challenge for January (read books with numbers in the title), I picked up two Dorothy L. Sayers books I've been meaning to read for several years now. My favorite Sayers books are those with Harriet Vane in them, but I still enjoyed these two. One of the Golden Age era dames, Sayers is till much loved, for the wit and humanity her novels bring. These two, for the most part, are very much in the vein of puzzle books:

Five Red Herrings
Protagonist: Lord Peter Wimsey
Setting: Galloway, Scotland
Rating: 4.2
An unlikable painter is killed, and his murder made to look like an accident. But Wimsey detects right away it is murder. There are six fellow painters who had reason to kill him -- and most of them don't have a good alibi. Working with local police, Wimsey figures out who the five red herrings are -- and who the killer is. There were many names to keep track of (I had to keep a cheat sheet) and much of the plot revolved around train schedules (I didn't even try to keep track of those!). In the end, the vital clue is a pretty simple one, although Wimsey's solution also needs to make sense of those train tables.

The Nine Tailors
Protagonist: Lord Peter Wimsey
Setting: East Anglia, England
Rating: 5.0
One of Sayers' most renowned works, The Nine Tailors is not about nine people who mend clothes, but about church bells -- the title signifying the nine teller strokes that mark the passing of a man. Wimsey, in addition to solving crimes, has practiced change-ringing. So a few months after enjoying the hospitality of the Rev. Venables, rector of Fenchurch St. Paul, and helping with an all-night bell toiling, Wimsey receives a call for help from the minister -- someone has buried the body of a stranger in the parish graveyard. An emerald necklace stolen years ago and never recovered also comes into play. Sayers draws a beautiful portrait of a country church in the fens with her descriptions of bell toiling (See here for a quick YouTube explanation) and of a country life that revolves around the church: "The congregation streamed out from the porch, their lanterns and torches flitting away into the whirling storm like sparks tossed from a bonfire." This is one of Sayers' best regarded novels, and for good reason: the ending is still one of the best written in crime fiction.