Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

Protagonist: Insp. Alan Grant
Setting: London
Rating: 4.1

When a friend sent me a box full of books late last year, I knew what my series read would be this year: Josephine Tey, who many consider one of the best crime novelists, although her books are not as popular as others Golden Age writers, such as Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers.

To that end, I started with The Man in the Queue, her first, published in 1929. In the novel, a man is stabbed and killed in a line of people waiting to get into a popular show. No one saw him stabbed and, at first, no one claims to have even noticed the man waiting in line. Scotland Yard's Alan Grant painstakingly puts together a case, going from London to Scotland in pursuit of his suspect. But this not the usual whodunnit, or even a police procedural (although it reads like one). In fact, Tey disregarded the mystery conventions, according to mystery novelist Robert Barnard. "They all have crime at their heart," he notes, "but they are as far as possible from the 'body in the library' formula." That's so with this book, which gives us a nice surprise at the end.

This is Tey's first book, but the writing is already magnificent, such as this description of late-night London: “The midnight streets of London -- always so much more beautiful than the choppy crowded ones of the daytime -- fascinated him. At noon London made you a present of an entertainment, rich and varied and amusing. But at midnight she made you a present of herself; at midnight you could hear her breathe.” Or there's this phrase describing a waiter: “A new arrival took the table opposite, and Marcel, the geniality gone from his face like snowflakes on a wet pavement, went to listen to his needs with that mixture of tolerant superciliousness and godlike abstraction which he used to all but his five favourites.”

With writing like this, I can't wait to dip back into my Tey stash!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Protagonist:: Eilis Lacey
Setting: Enniscorthy, Ireland, and Brooklyn, N.Y.
Rating: 4.0
This is one of those novels that sneak up on you. Eilis Lacey, a young girl from Ireland, is sent to the United States by her mom and older sister. After suffering a long, hard ship journey, and homesickness in Brooklyn, she begins to adapt and finds some happiness, working at a department store, going to night classes for accounting and finding a beau. But when a relative dies and she’s called back to Ireland, she has a choice to make: does she stay in her hometown, or return to Brooklyn. The novel is slow at first, but by the end, you are struggling along with Eilis as she tries to make a decision.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Under the Dome by Stephen King (audio)

Protagonist: Dale Barbara (and others)
Setting: Chester’s Mill, Maine
Rating: 4.3
At 11:44 a.m. on a beautiful Autumn day, an invisible dome clamps down over the town of Chester’s Mill, cutting it off from the rest of the country. Law and order in the small town rapidly deteriorates, with police and town officials being the first lawbreakers. And we know something -- just not what -- is going to happen on or near Halloween. Diner chef Dale Barbara, who has a shadowy past with the military, is put in charge by the “outside” -- the president and military officials. But town officials aren’t going to give up control that easily, and Dale’s very life is in danger.

This is vintage King, with great characters, including the out-of-his-mind killer and children with premonitions. In essence, it's a novel about good versus evil. And the things that spring from King’s mind -- well, no one else can write like him. It is a massive piece of work (30 audio CDs), and I do think this could have been cut down -- very much so. But King keeps us hooked, as we wonder who will survive and who won’t. On audiobook, Raul Esparza narrates wonderfully, really creeping us out at times. A tip for audiobook users: there’s a map in the print book; you can get it online at

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Protagonist: Poirot
Setting: Village of Styles St. Mary, Essex, England
Rating: 4.5

This is the first book written by Agatha Christie (published 1920). Hastings is visiting an old friend, John Inglethorpe, at their home in Styles when his stepmother, who has recently remarried a man 20 years younger than herself, is found murdered, in her locked bedroom. While suspicion immediately falls on the new husband, Poirot believes otherwise.

I was surprised by several things: first, how Poirot is already so well-developed in this first book, as is Hastings (our narrator) and Insp. Japp. Second, although published 90 years ago, this book was written in a way that is still accessible to today’s readers. Let’s be truthful: some of the classics are not exactly pleasure reads. But Christie’s books still are. While critics might put her down for her simple characterization, these are still popular, well-loved books with enduring characters. And The Mysterious Affair at Styles was filled with enough red herrings and plot twists to leave us unsure of the killer. A good start to the challenge.