Friday, May 25, 2012

Hide and Seek

A rebus is one of those puzzles where pictures or symbols are used to represent words or parts of words.  There is always one in the Boston Globe, and my aforementiond son (he of Holmes fascination) is pretty good at figuring them out.  I'm still trying to figure out the puzzle of Edinburgh-based Inspector John Rebus, the creation of writer Ian Rankin.  Is he dark and disturbed, which he seemed to be in the first, Knots and Crosses?  Just jaded, which the liberal use of the word "son" when talking withe junior officers would suggest, in Hide and Seek?  Or falling into the crusty-but-decent fellow trap, which is indicated by his kindly treatment of the problematic Tracy, also in Hide and Seek? 

In this second of Rankin's Rebus novels, our "hero" is quickly convinced that the seemingly-routine death of a junkie is more than just your garden-variety overdose, esp. when it appears that there may have been some dabbling in the occult at the scene of the crime.  But since no one else thinks this case is worth pursuing, he's having to do it on his own time, while serving reluctantly on his boss' anti-drugs committee, which just happens to be stocked with the top male representatives of Edinburgh's ruling caste.  I'm not giving anything away to say that these threads tie up into a moderately ripping detective story.  Still there is one of those Ian Rutledge-like quiet conversations that moves the plot forward, and the abrupt resolution makes sense with the plot but isn't completely satisfying.  There is something slightly thin about these stories, a bit meager in development and detail.  Maybe it is a Scottish thing. 

I think the jury of me is out on Rebus, but I'll give him another go. 

The Next Generation

I wish I'd thought to DVR the first two episodes of this second showing of Sherlock on PBS.  I'm watching my son watch "The Reichenbach Fall" and delighting in his complete and utter absorption as the master detective takes on the criminal mastermind known as Moriarty.  I'll have to find them to rent.  Peter has read most of the Holmes canon, and so is enjoying picking up on all the themes in this stylishly modern interpretation.

Conan Doyle's Holmes stories are perhaps the ultimate expression of genre fiction, and as it happens there is an interesting article in this week's New Yorker on the idea of genre vs. literary fiction, "Easy Writers" by Arthur Krystal.  The points of the essay seem to be: 

a) Genre fiction - crime in particular also I should think that sci fi or westerns might fit here, too - really is a guilty pleasure, because it is escapist and easy;
b) But individual writers in genre fiction can be elevated in status by endorsements from writers of literary fiction, such as W. H. Auden's adoration of Raymond Chandler, and so forth;
c) So is crime fiction literary, and therefore somehow more approved?  Not particularly, because its success depends on its conventions, which are decidedly not literary.
d) Literary fiction can be pretty hard going, so the sum up seems to be that guilty pleasures remain that, but maybe are just pleasurable. 

It's a rather tortuous argument but there is an interesting comparison between the opening lines of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express and Ford Maddox Ford's Parade's End.  The minute parsing of language suggests that one should be prepared to work a lot harder when reading the latter.

Well.  Is it a crime to not want to work so hard when looking for diversion? 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What's For Dinner?

When I started this blog, I thought that I'd spend a little more time writing about what I was cooking as well as what I was reading.  That obviously hasn't happened, although if you go to my facebook page you can usually see what we had for dinner.  Other than the gallons of tea that I drink regularly, I am not finding that my reading is particularly influencing my cooking.   But who knows . . . there may be another Inspector Bruno that I haven't read, and I've got an Aurelio Zen on deck.  Even if written by Yanks and Brits, those French and Italian settings usually jump-start things in the kitchen.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Confession

Little pleases me more than a new Charles Todd/Ian Rutledge mystery, and that's just what I have in hand now, The Confession.  Any anglophile would enjoy these stories.  There is the British tendency toward cozy, but tempered with the backstory of WW1 and the damage it inflicted on British society as a whole, along with Scotland Yard Inspector Rutledge's vaguely stern demeanor and his ha'nt, Hamish.  The really brilliant thing about this series is the authors' (yes, that is a plural, Charles Todd is in fact a mother-and-son writing team from North Carolina.  How they manage to do THAT is another mystery) ability to keep the stories from falling into the supernatural pit.  Hamish is a ghost, this we know, but his genesis in WW1 makes such horrific sense that one can accept his presence without having to really suspend disbelief at all. 

The period is good, too -  Rutledge might call it fine, the Todd's have an excellent command of language.  It is not yet our technology-driven society, nor even the blunt force and fast pace of WW2 or Cold War spy v. spy drama.  Rather, it is still a time when Rutledge can say of another inspector whom he's never met "I've heard of him.  A good man.  Very thorough."  (32) - and invest a world of social commentary in those three words, a good man.  Does anyone every use that phrase today?  It is not one that many women in these stories would use, either.  Gender lines, about to blur like so much else, are still quite strictly drawn in the England of 1920. 

The Todds also have a pleasant conceit of setting each story in a different part of the UK - the Lake District, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Sussex, etc. - which is carefully researched and used almost as a character in the story.  The setting informs the story typically with features of landscape, weather, and local character, all layered together to deepen one's immersion in the story.

So, there is a lot to love in a Charles Todd/Ian Rutledge mystery.

But . . .

I have consistently complained about the twisty plots that leaves the reader completely clueless until Rutledge, after a "quiet conversation" here or there, manage to solve the mystery in some dramatic last-minute resolution.  The same is true here in The Confession.  I'm about 3/4 through, and pretty much as clueless as when I started, and I've been looking pretty hard! 

Overall, this is not the strongest of the Todds' efforts with Rutledge.  Hamish is less of a presence - although that may also mean that Rutledge is healing, which is good for him, of course.  More irritatingly, there is a VERY annoying development of cliffhanger chapters.  What is this, The DaVinvi Code?  And they are the worst kind of cliffhanger, where the action resumes in the same scene on the next page!  Gosh I hate that.  Finally, the professional tension that underlies many of the stories - Rutledge's poor relationship with his stupid boss Bowles - is largely missing here as Bowles is in hospital with a heart attack.  I'm just guessing Rutledge gets his job in the end, and while nobody like Old Bowels, the lack of Yard-generated drama emphasizes the oddly flat nature of this story.  Is it because it takes place in a marshy area, Essex, where are few hills?  Hard to say, but at p. 236 I guess I must just have another cup of tea and wait patiently for it all to be revealed. 

One has the sense that the authors may be looking to wrap up the Rutledge series.  All good things must come to an end, I guess.