Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Age of Doubt

I like to read in situ, when possible, which means that if I am travelling to, say, England, I like to read books set there. So, being on an island for vacation, I brought along the latest Andrea Camilleri, The Age of Doubt (Penguin, 2012) because of course it takes place in Sicily, which is, yes, an island. But the other, far more in-situ book on my bedtable, Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing (Viking, 2011) called, since it takes place on the actual island that I am on, Martha's Vineyard (not to mention my hometown of Cambridge, MA). Actually, I started Caleb first but tossed it aside as too introspective for my mood - if I am not introspective, why would I waste my leisure-reading time on people who are? - which was a mistake because then, guilt-ridden, Camilleri didn't satisfy either. I'm glad I returned to Caleb, because that is a lovely novel that New Englanders, Vineyarders, Cantabrigians, and really anyone interested in 17th c. lives should read.

And as always, I am glad that I returned then to Camilleri's perpetually exasperated and hungry masterpiece of Salvo Montalbano. Our hero is aging, however, and we find him here contemplating death, doubting his abilities, hornswoggled a bit by younger women, and possibly newly in love (the long-time girlfriend Livia notwithstanding, she makes only a cameo appearance on the phone here, although she is forever in his thoughts since one of the principal bad guys is a sexual predator named Livia).  Like The Potter's Field, this is a return to the better Camilleri.  The actual crime - well, other than the unidentified corpse in the dinghy - is not revealed until pretty late in the tale, but we know something fishy is going on, and we're happy to join Salvo as he tries to figure it out.

There are certain set pieces in Montalbano novels, that please readers of series like me. It wouldn't be the same, if, say, Catarella didn't talk like he was straight out of a dumb side of Brooklyn, or Salvo didn't visit Enzo for a delicious meal, or take a contemplative walk on the jetty afterward, or a hot shower in his enticingly attractive seaside home in Marinella.  Where would he be without housekeeper Adelina to cook for him, devoted underling Fazio to figure everything out, wayward underling Augello to test his manhood by boasting of his own exploits? 

Another thing that I like about Camilleri's writing is how he reveals the plot in little vignettes, and doesn't spend a lot of time setting the scene or describing any backstory to us.  Salvo has to figure it out, and so we do along with him.  The comparatively ornate settings of, say, a Louise Penny or Charles Finch (part of the cozy mystery crowd) just don't happen here, we see the police station and Enzo's and the harbor just in outline.  And while Salvo engages in a continual internal dialogue (what detective does not?), it is not as explicative as that in say, a Martin Walker novel, where the dialogue between characters is a major tool for providing key backstory details. 

I thought at first that the translated aspect of these novels was what underpinned their spare literary style, since it is somewhat reminiscent of Henning Mankel, for example, another author we read in translation.  But of course, the translators (in this case, Stephen Sartarelli, who has done almost all of Camilleri's novels) are translating what was written by the author, they aren't adding or subtracting text, I don't think. 

The Age of Doubt has a more shocking ending than most of Salvo's adventures.  It really took my breath away here on this island, and I wonder, how will he recover from this one?  The way he always does:  spending time at home, eating at Enzo's (eventually) and perhaps a visit from Livia.  We'll just have to see because this is clearly not the end of Salvo Montalbano. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Still Life

I disliked Louise Penny's Still Life so much at first that I put it away after about 10 pages, convinced that it was too cute a village mystery for me. 

But a couple of weeks ago, I found myself craving the cozy rythyms of a village mystery, where eveyrone knows everyone, warts and all, and spends a certain amount of time thawing out from chill winds in front of crackling fires, possibly with some fresh-baked bread at hand.  So I picked up Still Life again, and am pleased to report that it a) provided cold rains and crackling fires in abundance, and b) offered a well-crafted murder mystery that ended with a satisfying revelation of a murderer whom we didn't quite see coming despite the clues that in retrospect were obvious. 

Still Life is the first Inspector Armand Gamache (that's with a m, not a n, no he is not a creamy chocolate filling) novel, and Gamache himself is a terrifically appealing character.  First, he's a francophone Canadian, which of course lends a certain je ne sais quoi to all that he does.  Second, he's smart, happily married, and succesfull at his work as a Chief Inspector for the Sûreté du Québec.   He appreciates a good meal, but isn't above throwing his authority around to get answers.  Gamache enjoys mentoring young people, and they (mostly) respond well to his attentions.  He's a listener, and doesn't appear to let pride get in his way.  Like many a fictional inspector before him (I'm thinking of P.D. James' Adam Dalgleish, Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge, and I think even Salvo Montalbano knows his Italian, or at least his Sicilian literature) he quotes poetry with ease, something that always mystifies and impresses me since about the only poems I can remember is "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and the end of that ultra-depressing Wilfred Owen one about WW1, "Dulce et Decorum Est."  Are there poetry-spouting homicide investigators in real life?  There is not a lot of poetry on Law and Order, for example. 

The action takes place in Three Pines, a charming wee village in southern Quebec, near the US border.  A much beloved elderly lady is killed by an arrow, and while most assume this to be a tragic hunting accident, Gamache and his team are not so sure.  As with any solid village mystery, the locals reveal themselves to be a mixed and mixed-up bunch, with plenty of skeletons in their charming antique closets and motives fly like the arrows.  Obviously it is NOT an accident for that would make for a supremely unsatisfying denouement, and who would ever read that book?  The tale wends through the area in a rather satisfying manner among the locals, and everyone is touched by suspicion sooner or later. 

The atmosphere in Three Pines is one of rural affluence, although several of the characters are revealed to be living on the edge of poverty.   Still, it has to be that New England preppy world of silvery pageboys (check out the pics of author Penny on her webpage and you'll see what I mean) and well-worn hunting clothes, steaming mugs sipped in definingly picturesque settings, and if not cocktails then regular gatherings for any event large or small, replete with wine and in-joke hilarity. It is kind of the lumberjack version of Martha's Vineyard.

In retrospect, there are some threads that I'm not sure were tied up - whatever happened to the physical evidence linking the Crofts to the murder, and the oddly antagonistic Agent Nichol, did she ever get on that bus back to Montreal?  I may have been reading too fast, anxious to get back to the fire, and missed a bit of this. 

But this story did NOT introduce some random character at the end to be revealed as the killer.  Nor did Inspector Gamache have a quiet word with anyone and then arrange the trap.  We might have figured it out if we'd been paying attention, although there were a few character traits revealed at the end, on which I'd have like a bit more foreshadowing.  Still, it is surprisingly satisfying to read this kind of mystery and still have an a-ha moment that doesn't cause an eye roll.

I didn't realize until reading Penny's webpage that pretty much ALL of these stories, or at least a lot of the first ones, continue to take place in Three Pines.  When I did learn this I was skeptical that it would work.  How much plaid flannel can one series take?  But I think I will return.  At the time I picked this book up again, I needed to imagine that there was such a place where you could live an involved life, develop deep friendships, retain some sophistication, but still take a walk in the woods or burrow deep under the bedclothes if you needed to. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Another Good Mama

I think I've noted before that I actually only follow about three of these crime fiction blogs, and there are about a billion of them out there.  Still, the two to which I do subscribe offered up the following tasty bits this week.

The Rap Sheet's daily digest alerted me to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which competitors vie to write the worst-ever opening line to a novel.  B-L having been the scribbler who penned the immortal words "It was a dark and stormy night."  If you want a chuckle, check it out.  Almost as giggly funny as that Irish guy talking about sailing.

Looking for a lakefront getaway?  Mystery Fanfare offers a likely place, site of the longest shootout in FBI history, and the demise of the infamous (according to some) Ma Barker.  We were thrilled to discover the connection with our California trip, as Ma Barker was in tangentially in ca-hoots with Creepy Karpiss, denizen of Alcatraz.  Ma Barker:  good mom or criminal mastermind?  You be the judge.

You learn all sorts of odd things when you use the Google.  Who knew that there was an Alcatraz Alumni Association

Siren of the Waters

Life in a Soviet satellite nation just sucked, no matter how you lived it.  It was especially tricky if you were an honest cop, just trying to do your job and maybe get ahead.  Michael Genelin's Siren of the Waters (Soho Press, 2008) is reminiscent of Olen Steinhauer's unnamed-Easter-bloc series in how it so effectively displays this totalitarian bleakness.  Our hero in in Siren, the tough Commander (anyone with the rank of Commander has to be tough) Jana Matinova, has had any shred of hope or empathy crushed out of her by the last nasty throes of the Communist regime in then-Czechoslovakia.  Genelin's description of what the system did to her relationships is disturbingly believable in its intimacy and inevitability.  While I generally am not a fan of a lot of background story in my crime fiction, in this instance, this was one of the better plotlines in the book.  Given the author's background - describes himself as a "writer, lawyer, and international consultant in government reform" - one has the sense that he knows from what he speaks. 
Jana is called in to investigate a car crash that may be a murder, and may be connected to some really bad guys who traffick in humans around Europe.  To do this, she has to go to Ukraine, and France, and work with a couple of nice Eastern cops and some other EU types who may or may not be bad guys.  That plot line is not outrageously original, and even in France, with a really fine meal (in the Alsace, bien sur!) the whiff of autocracy accompanies Jana. 

And she is the quintessential post-Communist tough cookie.  Early on, questioning a dispirited street performer, Jana decides that the conversation isn't getting anywhere. 
"Jana held up the passport she had taken from Seges, opening it to the photograph of the dead man, holding it up in front the clown's face.
'Who is this man?'
He looked at the photograph, trying to decide what to disclose.  'Are you putting me in danger if I tell you?'
'Clown, your daughter is dead.  Who is the man?'" (12)

It is good to have more girls in the lead roles in crime fiction, but I wonder if it is hard to write them well.  Jana's hard shell is the predictable result of her brutal State-engineered personal experiences, and we learn this as her backstory is woven throughout most of the novel.   Jana is deeply ambitious, pretty much humorless, and adept at distancing everyone, intentionally or not.  You think it is hard balancing motherhood and a career here!  Yet I'm not particularly drawn to her. 

The backstory thread plays a tangential role to the main plot, by introducing characters who are the bridge between the two stories.  I dislike the back-and-forth style of incorporating the backstory, it is distracting.  And there was a certain jumpiness to this plot - now we're with Jana (in the present or the past), now with the bad guy(s), that made for a more thriller-like read than I generally like.  That said, the opening scene, Jana arriving to investigate a terrible car crash on a bitterly cold, snowy night, is terrific - a cold and clinical crime scene grabber. 

Ultimately, Jana's story a bit like a prelude, as if we must know all of this to really understand Jana, and now that we are acquainted, we can get back to letting her solve crimes.  But having read the pilot, will we be back for the next installment?  Yes, I think so. Soho Crime almost always delivers. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Memory of Blood, finis

Yeah, yeah, I'll get to the book in a sec, but in the meantime, if you watch any sailing during the Olympics, you might enjoy this parody.

I stand by my earlier assessment of The Memory of Blood (Bantam Books, 2011), the latest installment in the Bryant and May series.  It is the weakest one in an otherwise strongly entertaining oeuvre.  The play's the thing again, as it was in the very first novel, Full Dark House.  There the theme mesmerized with dark arcana, but here it is just a half-baked plot scaffold.  I think this is because in addition to the classic locked-door-murder-at-a-party-full-of-kooky-theater-people, there is the subplot of what happens to Arthur's memoir manuscript, which feels completely unrelated to the main theater-murder tale.  In fact, it is!  This second plot is the vague continuation of a thread involving the fiendish Oskar Kasavian, which will apparently be revisited in the next, maybe final? episode.  It almost feels as if this bit was edited out of the next book because it made the whole thing too long and complex. 

The characters even feel like shadows of themselves.  We barely see any boiled sweeties on Arthur's part, John's interest in a fair maiden is quickly (and sensibly) diverted, Longbright's fashion sense barely registers (except for coral lipstick ca. 1970), and our secondary players - Giles, Colin, Meera, Jack, Dan, Raymondo - argue about the same thing that they do in earlier books, except that they all seem kind of tired of the same old.  The story is lacking in the quirky details that are usually employed to reveal some new facet of these supporting characters' existence. 

That said, we do have an all-too-brief visit to one of my favorite fringe characters in the series, Maggie Armitage, Grand Order Grade IV White Witch of the Coven of St. James the Elder, Kentish Town.  Visits to Maggie are always comic interludes, but nevertheless advance the plot with some wacky insight.  When Bryant stops by in this story, she's dealing with an infestation of sprites.  Mice?  asks Bryant, thinking he's not hearing correctly.

"No, these are white and made of discarded ectoplasm, but they have little legs and can really shift.  They appeared after a seance and now we can't get rid of them.  I can't see them but Daphne swears she can [is Daphne a roommate?  A spectre?  who knows, we never see her but Maggie serves her faithfully], ever since her accident.  She says they moved into the back of the television, but something has repelled them.  The poor quality of the programmes, I imagine.  Perhaps they don't like Simon Cowell.  It's nice to see you, give me a kiss."  (262)

Bryant needs to be hypnotized by Maggie, in order to try and recall what in his memoir manuscript may be of interest to nefarious types.  She obliges of course, preparing her client. 

"'Take a couple of these first.  They'll help you to relax'.
'What are they?' Bryant peeked under a tea towel.
'Custard creams.  They always work for me.'" (264)

It's this mix of weird and silly and actually quite deep erudition on the topics of London and theater and spiritualist? history that makes the books work. 

"May peered around the door of his partner's office and watched Bryant knocking the contents of his pipe into the brainpan of the Tibetan skull on his desk.  Half of the bookcase had been emptied, and two immense stacks towered on either side of the desk, framing the old man with playscripts, manuals, comics, art books, histories, encylopedias, miscellanies, and a number of surprisingly sleazy pulp thrillers. 
'I knew it,' May said with a sigh.  'You've been thinking again.'" (113)

Bryant and May are old - they can't last forever, no matter how much we might wish they did.  But keep thinking, gents.  I for one am willing to wait for what I hope will be a spectacularly idiosyncratic and enormously entertaining finale, if indeed that is what is coming.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Still distracted - gloriously so - by the Olympics. 

Isn't it nice to take a cool break from this rhetorically  and climatologically overheated summer by watching (mostly) pure competition that is for no other reward than to be the first, or the fastest, or the farthest?  How refreshing to stop caring - or pretending to care - about whether Mitt Romney will release his tax returns or if Barack Obama really tried hard enough.  How much nicer to be captivated by the exuberantly competitive Misty and Kerry, the Italian fencers screaming so fiercely in victory, those gorgeous (male and female) sprinters, or the dentally-challenged Andy Murray finally vanquishing his Centre Court nemesis. 

This year we've been subjected to an increasingly insistent drumbeat of despair about the Dire State of Our Nation, and lectured by what The American People Want, or Need, or Deserve.  I know we're supposed to take it seriously but the apocalyptic rhetoric is just exhausting.  Wouldn't it be nice if it all mattered as much - or really, as little - as the outcome of this great Japan-USA women's soccer match?  Sure I want the USA to win, but what I really like is watching them run their guts out and leave it all on the field for nothing more than a medal and some glory. In one sense, it doesn't matter who wins, as long as the effort and the match are worth it. 

I have to stop and watch this match now.