Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

Protagonist: Insp. Alan Grant
Setting: London
Rating: 4.6
When actress Christine Clay is found dead on the beach, suspicion immediately falls on the young man whom she had been hosting at her house in the English countryside -- Robin Tisdall. Insp. Grant and the police force have enough evidence, and even a motive -- the actress had recently written a codicil to her will, leaving her California house to Tisdall, whom she had just met. But no investigation -- at least, fictional investigation -- is ever that easy. And just what did Clay mean by leaving “a shilling for candles” to her brother?

Tey’s novels have a lot of wit and charm in them. In one passage, a police sergeant assesses Tisdall, emotional one moment, composed the next: “Light-weights, these moderns. No real emotion about anything. Just hysteria. What they called love was just a barn-yard exercise; they thought anything else “sentimental.” No discipline. No putting up with things. Every time something got difficult, they ran away. Not slapped enough in their youth. All this modern idea about giving children their own way. Look what it led to. Howling on the beach one minute and then cool as cucumber the next.”

Tey doesn't exactly play fair with the reader -- we can't figure out the killer because a vital clue is withheld from us -- but I'm OK with that. When reading Tey, it's more about the journey than the arrival.

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker

Protagonist: Bruno Courrèges
Setting: St. Denis, Dordogne region, France
Rating: 4.4
An old man, who is a war hero and an Algerian immigrant, is killed, a swastika cut into this chest. His war medal is missing and, inexplicably, a photo from his youth, when he was on a soccer team. The death sparks racial tensions in the quiet French village of St. Denis, where Bruno Courrèges is police chief. The national police are called in to investigate, but Bruno plays a large part in the investigation.

Walker, who has lived in France, draws an idyllic French setting -- with its farmers market, its famous caves with centuries-old drawings, and patriotic parades. Bruno whips up wonderful meals, whether for a picnic or a dinner at home. But there's also a dark underside in St. Denis, and Walker brings this to life. The resolution bothered me a bit, but this was still an enjoyable book.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

Protagonist: Dr. Stratham Younger
Setting: New York City, 1909
Rating: 4.6
In the book’s beginning, the author tells us the story is loosely based on Sigmund Freud’s real-life visit to the United States, where he was invited to speak at Clark University. The author says something traumatic happened to Freud during his visit; afterward, he referred to Americans as savages and blamed them for his lifelong ailments, many of which he had before his trip. Using that, the author spins a fictional murder case.

A young heiress is found bound and strangled in a New York City penthouse; the next day, a 17-year-old girl from another well-to-do family survives a similar attempt on her life. The girl, Nora Acton, has lost her ability to speak and doesn’t remember what happened to her. Dr. Younger, a fictional psychoanalyst, is asked to work with Nora to retrieve her memories. He’s also been shepherding Freud around New York City, and seeks advice from the famed psychoanalyst. Younger’s involvement deepens from the initial therapy sessions, and he joins Detective Jimmy Littlemore in unraveling the many threads of this complicated case.

Overall, I liked this book, especially the vibrant scenes portraying New York City in the early 1900s, and the historical detail. But the book had some major flaws: the story switches from third person to first person, sometimes abruptly. It was so jarring that it cut into my enjoyment of the book. Also, we’re given to believe in the beginning that Freud is a major character in the book. But as the story progresses, he’s seen less and less often. Lastly, the early parts of the book read at times like a thesis on Freud and Jung; there’s so much detail on the psychoanalysts (some of it interesting, granted) that it bogs down the main mystery.

And yet, I did like this book. And I will probably pick up Rubenfeld’s second book, the recently released The Death Instinct, which has some characters returning. I’m interested in seeing where the author takes them.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Frozen Sun by Stan Jones

Protagonist: Nathan Active
Setting: Anchorage and Chukchi, Alaska
Rating: 4.5
Alaska State Trooper Nathan Jones is asked by the Chukchi high school principal, Jason Palmer, to find his missing daughter, Grace, who left home 10 years ago and was last seen on The Junction, a seedy strip of bars in Anchorage. A former Miss North World, the photos of Grace show a stunning teenager. So Nathan, although not officially on the case, begins to do some digging when he's sent to Anchorage for a computer class. This causes a rift between Nathan and his girlfriend Lucy, who is jealous of Grace. But can there be something behind Lucy's jealousy? Is there another reason Nathan is going beyond the obligations of his job? In this, the third book, Jones has hit his stride. His descriptions of Alaska and the culture made books one and two very readable, but here he complements that with a strong, compelling storyline and well-drawn characters. If you like Dana Stabenow's books, I'd recommend Stan Jones.

Below are descriptions of books one and two:

White Sky, Black Ice
Nathan Active has been posted to Chukchi, not Anchorage, where he’d like to be, but he makes the best of it. In this small town, with its persistent harsh west wind, despair sometimes takes hold; suicides are not uncommon. But when two men, George Clinton and Aaron Stone, who both worked at the Gray Wolf Mine, commit what seems like suicide, Active believes that they were killed -- even though one of them, Clinton, is under a family curse, city residents say. Two other Clinton sons have committed suicide. This, the first in a series, is a nice study of small-town Alaska.

Shaman Pass
First, “Uncle Frosty” -- a native mummy that the Smithsonian has returned to the Inupiat museum in Chukchi -- is stolen, along with a harpoon and an owl amulet that had been with the body. Then a tribal elder is found dead, the harpoon impaled in his chest and the amulet in his mouth. As Nathan investigates, he finds that the death, as well as the theft, has roots in events that occurred generations ago. More than the plot, I loved this book, the second in the series, for its descriptions of the Inupiat and of Alaska, especially the isolated hunting and whaling camps and a remote mountain pass (where Jones writes a seat-gripping plane scene).