Friday, August 12, 2011

The Vices by Lawrence Douglas

Protagonist: Oliver Vice
Setting: New England
Rating: 4.0
On a trip aboard the Queen Mary 2 with his mother, Oliver Vice, 41, disappears. Did he jump overboard, was it an accident, or was it murder? An unnamed narrator who says he was Vice’s closest friend exams his life for clues. Outwardly, Vice, a philosophy professor at Harkness College in New England, was doing well, with a successful career and a string of girlfriends. Yet he had sent the narrator a two-word email from the ship: “Desperately depressed.”

The Vices is no conventional mystery, as the narrator unwinds Oliver’s life, and we are pulled deeper into his story and that of his eccentric, enigmatic family: Francizka Nagy, a former model who can be ruthless, who never quite tells the truth, and who wears her two sons’ Phi Beta Kappa keys on a necklace; Vice’s twin brother, Bartholomew, a gluttonous, slightly unhinged man; and his two fathers -- his “BF,” or biological father, and the Jewish stepfather who raised him. The Vices are well-off, a wealth that is tied to distant crimes, possibly having to do with stolen Nazi art.

Told through wry humor, The Vices is as much a philosophical look at identity. For the Vice family, not everything is as it seems. Oliver, inspired by the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein, almost mimics parts of his life. Meanwhile, the narrator has an unhealthy obsession with the Vices, to the point of dressing like Oliver; his life, too, comes to be shaped by this family. Ultimately, he does reveal many of the Vices’ secrets. And while not all our questions are answered, it almost doesn’t matter -- we’ve come to know the Vices, and that is enough.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Faithful Place by Tana French

Protagonist: Det. Sgt. Frank Mackey
Setting: Dublin
Rating: 5.0
Estranged from most of his family, Frank Mackey returns to his old neighborhood of Faithful Place after a suitcase is found in an abandoned flat -- a suitcase that belonged to his first sweetheart, Rosie Daly. Twenty-two years earlier, Frank and Rosie had secretly plotted to run away to England, but Rosie never showed at the meeting spot. Now, Frank tries to find out what happened, with an underlying fear that his family may be at the root of it.

As much as a mystery novel, Faithful Place is a novel about family -- a very dysfunctional one. Or as Frank describes them: “the bubbling cauldron of crazy that is the Mackeys at their finest.”

His abusive father, an alcoholic, is battling illness, and his mother is as abrasive as ever. His four siblings have never strayed far from their parents -- only Frank, who hasn’t even wanted to introduce his daughter to his family. With an unerring eye, the book also describes Frank’s relationship with his ex-wife and his 9-year-old daughter.

This book was so perfect, so captivating, that my only disappointment is that we might not see Frank Mackey again, since French uses a new protagonist in each book, usually someone who was a secondary character in a previous book (as Frank was in “The Likeness”). I’ll miss Frank, but I look forward to what French will bring us in her next book.

To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey

Protagonist: Alan Grant
Setting: London
Rating: 4.0
Taken from a Francis Bacon quote -- It is impossible to love and to be wise -- Tey spins a story about love and its consequences. Scotland Yard’s Insp. Grant is called in when American photographer Leslie Searle goes missing and is presumed drowned.

Grant is asked to quietly question those with whom Searle had been spending time in the English countryside, among them radio commentator Walter Whitmore, who had been on a camping/boating trip with Searle when he went missing. Searle also had been spending quite a lot of time with Whitmore’s fiancee, and the two were seen arguing just before Searle’s disappearance. Grant doesn’t think Whitmore capable of killing Searle, but he also finds it difficult to call it an accidental drowning.

This is not the strongest Tey book, but it was still very enjoyable, with a twist ending I liked.