Monday, March 29, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Protagonist: Andrew Marlow
Setting: Washington, D.C.
Rating: 3.5

While the story revolves around painter Robert Oliver, his voice is mute during much of the book, and the story is told through three narrators -- principally, Marlow, his psychiatrist; Kate, his ex-wife; and Mary, his former girlfriend. Marlow is a detective of sorts: Oliver has tried to destroy a painting of Leda and the Swan in the National Gallery. Shortly after, he was taken to a psychiatric hospital, where, after a few words, he doesn't speak to Marlow again. In trying to find out why Oliver attacked the painting, Marlow learns Oliver is obsessed with a female painter from the Impressionism era -- Beatrice de Clerval (we learn more about Beatrice in old letters written between her and a relative, interspersed between the narratives).

Kostova, who wrote the bestseller The Historian, gives us a more subtle, and unfortunately less interesting, story. For hundreds of pages, we get the story of Kate and Robert (how they met, how they married, how the marriage dissolved). Then we get hundreds of pages about Mary and Robert and their romance. While the author is establishing Robert's pattern of obsession, we unfortunately get very little of the mystery. The real story is suspended until the last hundred pages.

While The Historian captivated me, The Swan Thieves suffers from the curse of the second book -- it just doesn't live up to its promise.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Finer End by Deborah Crombie

Protagonists: Det. Supt. Duncan Kincaid and Sgt. Gemma James
Setting: Glastonbury
Rating: 4.0
This seventh book in the series is quite a departure for Crombie, as it includes a lot of woo-woo. It opens with a different type of mystery -- why is Duncan's cousin, Jack Montfort, going into trance-like states during which he writes in Latin? Is the spirit of a dead Glastonbury monk possessing him? Is it related to a lost monks' chant? Monfort enlists the help of a group of people to solve this puzzle. But when one of them is attacked, he calls in Duncan, who travels to Glastonbury with Gemma.
Glastonbury is one of those places that attracts those who believe in everything from New Age to the old gods. This is true, in real life, as well. Glastonbury Abbey is where legend has it King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are buried. And Glastonbury Tor, which plays a big part in the book, is known for being home to the King of the Fairies. Crombie does paint a very vivid picture of Glastonbury, and uses those beliefs to give us characters connected to the paranormal -- a teenaged pregnant girl whose baby may be special, and a painter who is taken over by some sort of spirit when painting.

As far as Duncan and Gemma's personal lives, there is much going on, and it's always a pleasure to see where Crombie takes this storyline. I enjoyed that part of the book, but deducted points for all the use of woo-woo, which just became a bit too beyond belief after awhile.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Interview with Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton's latest book, The Lock Artist, just blew me away. Below, he answers my questions on what it was like writing this book:

Although you've written crime fiction before, including a 7-book series, The Lock Artist seems to have gained you a whole new set of fans. Did you expect this, and what drove you to step away from a series to write this standalone?

Well, I’d actually already taken a break from the series (with Night Work in 2007), so any normal and sane person would have gone back to the series for the next book. But I just had this other idea in my head that wouldn’t go away. And for me the only way to get past that was to dive right in and find out where the story would lead. If I had known it would be two solid years of really being lost, I might have thought twice about it! (But it all worked out, I guess!)

I know why I loved The Lock Artist – it was Michael’s voice, and the fact I really came to root for him, even while he was breaking into homes and safes. How did you come up with this character, a criminal that people would love?

All I knew about him at the beginning was that he had a trauma in his past, that he couldn’t speak, and that he had this special talent for opening locks. As I got into the story, though, I realized that he was really a lot more like a young me than I could have ever imagined. I mean, not with the muteness or the locks, but just the general feeling of being an alien who doesn’t even know why he was put on this earth. When he’s digging that hole and he’s looking up at Amelia, he can’t communicate with her. In Michael’s case, he literally can’t say the words, but believe me, I couldn’t have said the words either. Not when I was that age. So I hope I was able to make him feel like somebody you should root for, because he was just a kid trying to fit in.

Do you always write in first person, and why?

For fiction, it just seems to work out that way. I like to sort of pretend to be the main character and tell the story like I’m sitting down with you over a drink. Whenever I’ve tried third person, I just feel disconnected from it. On the few screenplays I’ve worked on, however, it feels totally natural to be outside everything, looking down on the characters. So that’s how it seems to break down for me now. Prose fiction is first person, screenplays are third person.

In The Lock Artist, you alternate chapters, going back and forth between the past and the present. Why did you use this device?

I did more rework on this book than maybe all the others combined, so it’s hard to go back and remember exactly what I was thinking, but I believe it was originally a worry I had that after finally becoming a safecracker, Michael would spend the rest of the book just going from one heist to another – and that that would become sort of repetitive. That’s why I split the timeline, but as it turned out, the heists were more about the different crews he was working with, and those were so different I really didn’t have to worry about the repetition. But by then I was seeing how the split timeline was working in other ways I had never anticipated – going from becoming a safecracker at home to being a safecracker out on the road, then back again. That back and forth leading to both the middle and the end… And it’s all sounding kind of complicated now, I know. But it’s really not! I mean, I hope it’s not. I hope you just pick up the book and start reading, and it just goes.

The character Michael makes it look easy to pick locks. Is it really that easy? And how much research did you do into lock-picking and safecracking while writing this book?

Cheap locks are easy to pick, good locks are very hard. I got to learn so much from a great lock guy, and then eventually I got to work with one of the best safecrackers in the world. He’s not a criminal, mind you. He’s a totally legal safecracker and that’s all he does. He keeps flying off to new places around the world to open up safes. He was so generous and he really helped me understand what it feels like to open up a safe with nothing but your sense of touch. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and only a few people in the world can even come close.

For those of us who haven't read the McKnight series, can you tell us a bit about that series and those characters?

Alex McKnight is a retired Detroit police officer, living in a cabin in a town called Paradise, Michigan. It’s way up at the top of the Upper Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior, one of loneliest places I’ve ever seen. He’s a very solitary character, but he’s also a very loyal friend and total sucker for somebody in need, so he’s constantly finding himself right in the middle of other people’s troubles.

You’ve said that you plan to continue the McKnight series, but will you continue to write more standalones? And do you have a working idea right now for one?

I’m working on the next McKnight book now – I think I’ll always want to go back and see what he’s up to next. But at the same time I know I’ll want to keep trying new things, too. It’s all about that next thing that comes into your head. You’ve got to find out where it goes because it won’t leave you alone until you do.

Finally, what authors do you like to read?

I’ve always loved crime fiction and there are so many great authors in the field right now. I can name a few dozen of the usual suspects (Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, Harlan Coben, please stop me), but some other authors who don’t get the recognition they deserve would include Ken Bruen, Denise Mina, Steven Sidor, and Tom Piccirilli. It’s amazing to me how you can do work that’s so different and so original and still be on the same crime fiction shelf!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Shroud for a Nightingale by P.D. James

Protagonist: Chief Supt. Adam Dalgliesh
Setting: Heatheringfield, England
Rating: 4.1
Scotland Yard is called in after two nurses are horribly poisoned at Nightingale House, a nursing school. There are lots of motives and several suspects, although not much to connect the two deaths. Then Dalgliesh learns that one of their patients also recently died, and his instinct tells him that this death, too, is connected. In this fourth book in the series, we see James begin to flesh out her characters (including Dalgliesh, finally!) and we see a plotline that ties back to something in the past, a device we are to see James use over and over in subsequent novels.

This story also takes place in a hospital setting, something James knew very well as a hospital administrator for years. In fact, some of the hospital descriptions can get a bit tedious. But then there are other great descriptions like this that make you appreciate James so much: "On another wall was a smaller shelf holding an assortment of china cats of different sizes and breeds. There was one particularly repulsive specimen in spotted blue, bulging of eye and adorned with a bow of blue ribbon; and propped beside it was a greetings card. It showed a female robin, the sex donated by a frilly apron and flowered bonnet, perched on a twig. At her feet, a male robin was spelling out the words 'Good luck' in worms. Dalgliesh hastily averted his eyes from this abomination and continued his tactful examination of the room."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

Protagonist: Michael
Setting: Michigan, New York and Los Angeles
Rating: 5.0
Teenager Michael is a good kid basically, with a few quirks -- he hasn't talked since a childhood incident left him traumatized (and we don't find out what that is until the last 50 pages of the book) and he has two special skills. First, he's a very good artist. Second, he can pick any lock, a self-taught skill. This second skill lands him in trouble when he agrees to help high school buddies with a prank -- and that one bad decision leads him further and further into a life of crime, as he becomes an invaluable "boxman," someone who can open any safe. But even as his options narrow, Michael hopes for an escape from his life of crime. Although Michael doesn't speak, it's his voice that tells the story, in a compelling first-person narration. If you read this book, give yourself a few hours. You won't want to put it down.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Kissed a Sad Goodbye by Deborah Crombie

Protagonist: Gemma James and Duncaid Kincaid
Setting: Isle of Dogs, East End of London
Rating: 4.6
The body of Annabelle Hammond, director of an old family firm of tea merchants, is found on the Isle of Dogs in the Docklands area. Aggressive in business and in her personal life, she had, as one character says of her, "a talent for getting what she wanted, sometimes ruthlessly so." Engaged, Annabelle nevertheless had an intimate affair with street musician Gordon Finch, and she may also have had a relationship with his father, Lewis, a well-known developer. In turn, Lewis Finch and Annabelle's father, William, were once childhood friends, but no longer speak to each other.

Amid this web, Crombie also interweaves the history of the Docklands, and flashbacks to when William Hammond and Lewis Finch were evacuated during World War II as children. At the heart of these books is the continuing relationship between Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. In this one, Gemma finds herself attracted to another man, as Duncan comes to terms with being a father to 11-year-old Kit. This is the sixth in the series, and my favorite so far (although I do have another seven in the series to read).

Magic City by James W. Hall

Protagonist: Thorn
Setting: Miami, Fla.
Rating: 4.0
The reclusive Thorn leaves his home in Key Largo to visit Miami for a few days in this novel. He's prepared to show his commitment to girlfriend Alexandra, taking care of her father Lawton, who has dementia, while she's in police training for a few days. But on the first day, two men try to break into Lawton's house, looking for a photo taken in 1964, during the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight. The photo is important enough for several people to lose their lives, and Thorn is caught in the middle as he tries to find out why.

Hall can write evocatively, especially when depicting Miami, both 1960s and present-day. Every once in a while, he throws in a description of a neighborhood, and not the ubiquitous South Beach we get in every TV depiction of South Florida, but the real neighborhoods in which people live. Writing about the mostly Hispanic Hialeah, he says: "The farther north they traveled, the more congested the neighborhoods grew. Every store sign and billboard was in Spanish, tobacco shops and Latin supermarkets and cafeterias with serving windows that opened onto the sidewalks, drawing groups of leathery men in guayaberas with their paper cups of cafe cubano. Thorn recalled that Hialeah was a Seminole phrase meaning "high prairie." Though as far as he could see, the only spaces that might qualify as prairies were the vast asphalt parking lots."

But where Hall falls short is in his over-the-top plotting and even more over-the-top characters. In the end, these were drawbacks for me, especially when one of those OTT characters is the main protagonist. A shame, because I really liked spending time in Hall's South Florida.