Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Likeness by Tana French

Protagonist: Cassie Maddox
Setting: Glenskehy, a village on the outskirts of Dublin
Rating: 5.0

From the opening line (“Some nights, if I’m sleeping on my own, I still dream about Whitethorn House”) reminiscent of du Maurier’s Rebecca ("Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again"), I was enthralled with this book, part gothic, part psychological thriller and part police procedural.

Four years after Det. Cassie Maddox has left undercover work -- and her role as college student Lexie Madison -- a woman is murdered. Not only is she Cassie's exact double, but her I.D. says she is Lexie Madison. And so easily is Cassie swept into a twisted, deadly mystery -- who killed the new Lexie? Was it someone tied to an old undercover case? Or someone in the new Lexie's life? Cassie's old boss in undercover, Frank Mackey, talks her into becoming Lexie one more time -- going into Whitethorn House, a crumbling old manor where Lexie lived with four other college students.

Cassie knows it won't be easy, and it may even irreparably harm her relationship with boyfriend Sam. But the pull is strong. As Cassie says: “I don’t tell people this, it’s nobody’s business, but the job is the nearest thing I’ve got to a religion. The detective’s god is the truth, and you don’t get much higher or much more ruthless than that. The sacrifice, at least in Murder and Undercover -- and those were always the ones I wanted, why go chasing diluted versions when you could have the breathtaking full-on thing? -- is anything or everything you’ve got, your time, your dreams, your marriage, your sanity, your life. Those are the coldest and most capricious gods of the lot, and if they accept you into their service they take not what you want to offer but what they choose.”

Once entrenched as Lexie, Cassie finds that the villagers of Glenskehy have a longstanding dislike, even hatred, of Whitethorn House and its inhabitants. The house has been inherited by one of the students, and their outsider status doesn't endear them to the village. French interweaves the history of Ireland's landlord and tenant system into the plot.

French has hit all the right notes in this book: taut pacing, complicated characters and wonderful writing. Her debut novel, In the Woods, won the 2007 Edgar award for first best novel (although it had a controversial ending that I, for one, didn't like). The Likeness is far better.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present

Narrated by Prof. M. Lee Alexander of the College of William and Mary
Produced by The Modern Scholar (2010)
Rating: 4.5

In a series of lectures, Alexander presents a history of detective fiction, covering all the subgenres, from amateur (Simon Brett, Diane Mott Davidson) to hard-boiled (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler), and from espionage (Eric Ambler, John LeCarre, Tom Clancy) and legal (John Mortimer, John Grisham) to medical and forensic (Robin Cook, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs). She also talks about historical detective fiction (Josephine Tey, Bruce Alexander), women detectives (P.D. James, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky), police procedurals (Ed McBain, Elizabeth George), as well as international and ethnic detectives.

In addition to all these and more authors, Alexander discusses the role detective fiction plays, as it provides commentary and criticism on the society, times and culture it reflects. A scholar who has talked about this subject before, she makes the connections between Sherlock Holmes and one of her favorite programs, House, M.D. We also get a look at current trends: detectives with disabilities (such as TV’s Monk), ecomysteries and irresolution (not only is the resolution unclear, but there’s confusion as to what justice might be in the case).

In short, Alexander covers a lot of territory. If you want an in-depth look at one genre, this is not it -- this is an overall, somewhat quick, look at detective fiction. But for an overview, it is very good, both entertaining and instructional.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Red Star Rising by Brian Freemantle

Protagonist: Charlie Muffin
Setting: Russia
Rating: 4.0
Charlie Muffin, an MI5 agent, is sent to the British embassy in Russia when a dead Russian is found murdered on the grounds. The dead man’s fingertips have been scorched with acid, so there’s no easy way of learning his identity. And the Russian government is insisting they retain control of the investigation. Once there, Muffin finds the British investigation has been slipshod, with the Russians taking away the body before much forensic work could be done. He also discovers that the embassy has been bugged. To complicate matters, the last time Charlie was in Russia (this is the 14th book in a series) he secretly married a KGB agent, Natalia. Together, they had a daughter, Sasha. Now, years later, Charlie tries to salvage that relationship and convince Natalia to return with him to England.

Although billed on the cover as a thriller, this is not the usual spy novel filled with car chases and dangerous undercover missions. Much of the spycraft involves a war of words and subtle techniques such as press conferences (and who attends). While the Cold War has ended, there is still much mistrust and dissembling among the Brits, Americans and Russians. Freeman has been compared to John le CarrĂ©, and this novel is very much like le CarrĂ©’s classic works, more intellectual intrigue than action -- and that’s just fine with me.

Damnation Falls by Edward Wright

Protagonist: Randall Wilkes
Setting: Pilgrim’s Rest, Tennessee
Rating: 4.5

Randall Wilkes has returned to his small hometown of Pilgrim's Rest after journalistic disgrace in Chicago. With no job, he agrees to write a biography for his friend, the former Gov. Sonny McMahan. But those plans soon go awry after Sonny's mother, Faye, and her caretaker are found dead by Randall -- Faye at Damnation Falls.

Before her death, Faye, who had dementia, had uttered what seemed gibberish to Sonny about her husband, Blue, who disappeared years ago, and the bones of Civil War soldiers recently found nearby. But when the gibberish starts to make some sense, Randall abandons the book project for his own investigation.

Wright's novel falls into the "Southern gothic" heading, with plenty of family secrets, damaged father-son relationships and a small town with a local legend that may or may not be true. It's a well-told tale about the nature of truth, trust and redemption. As my first read of 2011, it's set a high standard. I hope all my other books this year are as compelling.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Private Patient by P.D James

Protagonist: Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh
Setting: London and Dorset
Rating: 4.5
The first line says it all: "On November the twenty-first, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon, and there in a consulting room designed, so it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death."

With that beautifully-crafted sentence, P.D. James takes us to Cheverell Manor, a private clinic in Dorset where Gradwyn, a well-known investigative journalist, checks in to have a lifelong facial scar removed. As we know, she's murdered. In typical Jamesian manner, that's followed by another murder at the clinic.

I could never be totally dissatisfied with a James novel -- she is one of my favorite novelists, after all -- but I expected more of a wrap-up in this final novel, the 14th in the series. James, now 90, has said this will likely be her last Dalgliesh novel. And while Dalgliesh, of New Scotland Yard, does finally marry Emma Lavenham, it comes at the very end of the novel and is dealt with almost as an afterthought (three pages). James always kept Dalgliesh an enigma, and he remains so at the end of this series. While James fleshed out some of his underlings -- Det. Insp. Kate Miskin especially -- Dalgliesh always remained somewhat at a distance. And maybe that's for the best -- it's always good for some mystery to remain.