Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Fatal Grace

Louise Penny's second Inspector Armande Gamache-not-ganache, A Fatal Grace, is an approporate read for the holidays, taking place as it does over Christmas in the hopelessly picturesque Quebec village of Three Pines.  It's cold in Quebec in December, skin-burning, oxygen-depriving, life-threatening cold.  But the snow is charming, the bistro cozy, and the tea and hot toddys steam merrily.  And the murder is fiendish!

While there is a slowly-revealed backstory involving some deeply controversial case on which Gamache did the right thing to the dismay of his colleagues, most of A Fatal Grace focuses on the ingenious murder-by-electrocution of CC de Poitiers, a self-centered, cold, and almost universally loathed self-styled lifestyle guru.  CC is killed in the middle of a crowd at the annual Boxing Day curling match, but no one seems to know anything about what happened other than that this was no accident.  There is no shortage of suspects, including a new set of Three Pines denizens known as the Three Graces, three doyennes of the town who are universally respected and adored.  There is also a sullen lover, a weak husband, and an emotionally abused daughter.  Could be any of them, right?  And did I mention the missing mother? 

Penny does like to get her little crowd of Three Pines citizens together - Peter and Clara, Gabri and Olivier, Myrna, and Ruth - and have them chat wittily over cozy dinners.  You may find that a bit cloying.  Can there really be a such a cohesive group of slightly eccentric but charming, intelligent, warm individuals in any town?  What happens in summer when there are no fires to crackle cozily as backdrop?  But despite this nod to small-town perfection, the mystery here is compelling and there is enough uncertainty about the new folks in the story, and the other threads that Gamache is trying to keep together, to keep you quite engaged. 

And if the story doesn't do it, Gamache himself is so darn likable that you keep reading to see how he'll resolve whatever new tangle is revealed.  Smart, thoughtful, and eminently positive about the future of the human race in spite of the horrors he sees regularly as a homicide detective, Gamache infuses his scenes with grace and intelligence.  How can you not like a man who thinks that two of the greatest inventions of the late 20th c. are the remote starter and heated seats for cars? 

I guess that this is it for 2012.  I got lots of books for Christmas, not all mysteries (most not, actually), so more reading head.  Happy new year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Death on the Marais

I really wanted to like Adrian Magson's Death on the Marais (Allison & Busby, 2010).  Takes place in France, in a time not too far (but far enough) removed from our own.  Written by that Magson chap whose Harry Tate series (well, the first one anyway) I found entertaining.  Lauded by mystery bloggers here and there. 

But it just didn't happen for me.  It's not a bad story - two threads, one fairly obvious, the other the murder bit.  In the first, Our Hero, Lucas Rocco has been more or less rusticated , sent away from Paris in an administrative shakeup, to Picardie (a map would help).  It's not a punitive move, but he apparently regularly pisses off his superiors with his tough guy approach to policing so it is convenient.  We're told this multiple times, esp. via the irritating little chapter sub-headers that appear for the first half of the book. 
"Lucas Rocco?  Insubordinate bastard.  And insolent.  A good cop, though.  Capt Michel Santer - Clichy-Nanterre district." (10)
"Sgt. Rocco?  Solid  . . . professional.  Pity he hates officers.  But hey, who doesn't?  Capt Antoine Caspard - Gang Task Force - Paris Central."  (79)
"Rocco?  A gentleman.  A cop, too, unfortunately, but he always treated us like ladies.  Mme Viviane Bernard - escort services provider - Etoile"  (141)
These subheaders mysteriously disappear after Chapter 18.  But by then we get the point, good cop, rough around the edges.  Do I even need to mention he's divorced, no kids?  And saw combat in Indochina, suffering from a mild case of PTSD with respect to his experience at Dien Bien Phu?  Rocco also suffers from some very mild PTSD in his case caused by his experience at Dien Bien Phu.  This means flashbacks in the swamp, and while I don't mean to belittle the experience of PTSD or the humiliating French denouement in Vietnam, in Rocco's case it just feels a little shallowly written.  Why did he join the army in the first place?  There's an interesting side story with his then and now commanding officer in the new region, involving their shared past in Indochina. 

 I should also note that as with Harry Tate, Magson employs that most irritating of thriller fiction methods, the cliff-hanger chapter.
"'Because whatever took his hand off wasn't just a dodgy grenade. It was part of a detonator. The kind used with plastic explosives.'" (168, Ch. 21 ends)
(169, Ch. 22 begins) "Claude stared at him. 'He was using plastique? That's madness.'"
Irritating, too.
Anyway, surprise!, a body is found in a wartime cemetery, a young woman dressed in a rented Gestapo costume.  She turns out to be someone of substance, financial anyway, and how she ended up in a WW2 cemetery is the story. 

Despite the Indochina references, and the close connections to WW2 resistance, the story did not feel as deeply set in the mid-1960s as I'd have liked.  Other than references to old models of Citroën, and the relative paucity of telephone lines (land lines, natch), it just didn't transport me temporally.  Maybe I'm spoiled by Benjamin Black's extreme attention to period detail that drops you into the 1950s before you turn the first page.  Even the wartime promises, heroics, and betrayals that form the heart of the story just felt like they could have been 50 years ago instead of 20.  Consider this stock-ly sterile scene: 
"There were few other people about and no traffic.  A paper bag blew across in front of him, cathcing on a telegraph pole and fluttering in the breeze.  It felt like a scene from a western movie, where the white hat walks towards certain death and dubious glory against the black hats at the other end of town.
Cue a cowboy's lament."  (227-228)
Or a reader's.  There must be a better way to embed the sense of menace in a rural French town, than dipping into American film stereotypes? 

The one thing that does give a bit of a shiver is the omnipresence of UXBs from both of the wars fought in France.  WW1 artillery makes a wood a deathtrap, and WW2 shells open the first scene.  You are reminded of how profound was the impact of these wars on this civilian population. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Elegy for April

The "crime" in Benjamin Black's Elegy for April (Picador, 2010) is not particularly heinous, although its precipitating events, which we only learn about at the end, are hard to read.  In fact, we really don't know that there has been any sort of criminal activity at all for most of the book.  We know only that Phoebe Griffin's friend April Latimer, has gone missing.  Phoebe turns to her father, the recently dried-out one-named Quirke, for help.  And in his big old way, Quirke rather bulldozes his way to a conclusion. 

Quirke's and Phoebe's relationship is the center of the story here.  Since Christine Falls, we've learned how strained, how close, and how constantly tested it is.  I'll simply say that it's not entirely clear that things are improving here, despite everyone's half-hearted efforts.  Quirke can't stay dry, and Phoebe can't get past her past (not surprisingly, given the events in Christine Falls and The Silver Swan).   But Black's gorgeous prose and elegant atmospherics will keep us coming back for more.  What a master at setting up a depressing scene.  The story here takes place in winter, so Dublin is apparently permanently shrouded in fog and mist (until the end of the story, when things CLEAR UP).  But for much of the story, we get scenes like this:  "The sun somewhere was trying to shine, its weak glow making a sallow, urinous stain on the fog."  (38)  Others might just say that the sun was trying to break through the fog, but not Black - his sun is urinous.  This sums up Black's Quirke novels.  Life is just not that great, and sometimes downright awful.  But it is what we have, and like democracy, beats the alternative.

And of course, Black employs his (to me) almost-trademark of setting the scene by smell.  Consider:
"She went out to the kitchen.  Night smells, she had often noticed, were different from day ones, were mustier, fainter, more insidious.  She drew open the lapels of her silk gown and put her face into the hollow there and sniffed.  Yes, her smell too was different, a babyish, secret staleness."  (150)  There's an eroticism, a sense of menace, and a truth, all here.  Later, "The house had a stuffy, morning smell of bedclothes and bath soap and milky tea and bread that had been toasted under a gas flame."  (264)  Of course there is.  You know just what he's talking about.

There are two more Quirke novels, but I have to spread them out.  They really are kind of depressing to read, but so rich and compelling that they satisfy in spite of themselves.  Despite Quirke's efforts to obliterate his mind through drink, he keeps on keeping on, and you do too.

Red Station

You might feel a little guilty reading Adrian Magson's Red Station (Severn House, 2010) the first in his Harry Tate series.  There's no fine writing here, a la Benjamin Black.  What atmosphere there is, is oppressive and uninviting.  And Our Hero, Harry, is pretty straight-up:  no hidden psychological backstory for him.  Sure, Harry is angry that he's been relegated to a remote, off-the-grid posting in Georgia (as in Back in the USSR not peaches).  He oversaw a drug bust that went bad, not his fault, but he's in charge, so he takes the fall.  And that fall is to be sent to this unknown little remote post, staffed by a few others who misbehaved somewhere along the line.  It feels like a dead-end, career-wise, except no one told Harry that no one actually returns to active service from Red Station.  And now that the Russians are coming (really!), there is a bit of a problem for the UK to what to do with all these apparently misguided operatives who are directly in the line of fire.  It's not the fire that worries them, rather that even bad agents know more than we want the Russkies to find out.  So, who is after them, who knows about them, and how do they get out. 

I can't figure out why I enjoyed this so much.  The prose is serviceable, but poorly edited (do we need the word tits twice in one paragraph?).  And Magson employs one of my most-disliked mechanisms, the cliff-hanger chapter end.  I've never understood the point of ending a chapter in mid-conversation.  I'm not going to stop reading just because someone has put in some sort of artificial break like a chapter number.  The story even has that set-piece of spy thrillers, the desperate trip to the airport.  Finally, what is the point of the cover photo of snow-covered roofs?  We're not in Siberia for chrissakes.

But Red Station is a good yarn, moves fast, and like what I THOUGHT it was, MI-5 the telly series, is totally believeable in a cheerfully paranoid sort of way.  Harry's lack of psychological baggage is a refreshing change from so many of Our Heroes (up next:  Quirke, the master baggage handler, who offers quite a contrast).  We know that Government is behind all sort of nefarious schemes.  And, great to see the Russians as the bad guys still.  So I think I'll pick up another Harry Tate tale.  As it happens, I have another book next to the tub by the same author, this a completely different series, featuring a French detective in the 1960s.  I've given it a couple of starts, and see that Magson's inability to vary his prose strikes again. But the tale seems to involve some of la Resistance, so WW2, here we come!