Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hand for a Hand

Yeeeeow, rip it, dude!*  The nonstop intensity of T. Frank Muir's Hand for a Hand (Soho Crime, 2012) was quite the antidote to the pokey pace of Murder at Cape Three Points.  This isn't one of those dreadful, each-chapter-ends-with-a-cliffhanger type of stories, just one that doesn't waste a lot of time getting to the point.

I'm clearly falling apart - here is yet another series that I failed to start at the beginning, although I was pretty sure I had it in hand, so to speak.  Our Hero is DCI Andy Gilchrist, of the St. Andrews, Scotland, police force.  Yes, that St. Andrews, of Wills-and-Kate-at-uni fame, also the birthplace of golf as we know it.  The latter figures prominently here, with female body parts showing up in features of the Old Course.  The tricky bit is that the clues are addressed to Gilchrist, and with each finding gruesomer than the last, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that some rather nasty types have it in for him personally.  It is not giving much away to reveal that the first victim is his son's girlfriend and the second may be his own daughter.  Gilchrist has the typical hard-working-detective lack of solid relationship with his children, upon which not too much time is wasted, fortunately.  I hate when emotions start to muck things up, although even hard-hearted me thinks the son got over his girlfriend pretty easily.  There's also Gilchrist's dying ex-wife, who, while giving him something to fret about, kind of drops out of the picture toward the end. We don't even know if she is still in the picture at the end of the book!

The first body part appears on p. 2, and by p. 5, we know that Gilchrist is the killer's target.  Part deux shows up on p. 26, and, well, there are a few more to come.  It's a wee bit of a leap of faith as to how Gilchrist starts to focus on his son's girlfriend as a possible victim, but the tale of the killer is spun out pretty well over the course of the next couple hundred pages, which is maybe a week or so?

This is not prose of the highest order but neither is it crap.  It's really writing that doesn't get in the way, which is to be commended when you've got a fast-moving tale - you don't want to take the time to savor it, really.  Although I'll always take my time with just about anything set in the UK.  Not surprisingly, whisky is involved, as well as plenty of pints in atmospheric pubs.  I couldn't really get a visual on St. Andrews beyond the golf parts, but it rains a lot in Scotland, in case you didn't know.  There is pretty much always a mist or a drizzle or damp, and always a wind blowing - we are by the sea, after all.

Don't be misled into thinking that this is a cheap thriller, because there is intelligence at work here.  I don't read a lot of cheap thrillers (I think), but I'm guessing most don't involve psychopaths who can quote deep tracks from Robert Burns. "To a Haggis" takes on a whole new meaning when the bad guy quotes "His knife see rustic Labour dight, an' cut you up wi ready slight, trenching your gushing entrails bright."  (210)  Burns aficionados might say that the haggis bit is like quoting from "Paul Revere's Ride" and thinking yourself quite the critic, but there's lots more where that comes from.  And, I learned a splendid new word:  HORRIPILATION, which is just what it sounds like - when the hairs on your arm stand up from fear (or cold, but coldipilation doesn't work as well, does it?)

Part of the challenge of reading international crime fiction is that sometimes it is published in in the home country first, then comes to the US - and not always in precisely the same order.  In any case, I look forward to going back (to the OK-I-get-it named Eye for an Eye) and forth with DCI Gilchrist in rainy, scotchy St. Andrews.

*See this entry on The Right People Travel for the story behind this cryptically tantalizing opening.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Murder at Cape Three Points

I wanted to like Kwei Quartey's Murder at Cape Three Points (2014, Soho Crime AGAIN) more than I did.  That is not to broadly condemn - I enjoyed it, just didn't sink into it like I wanted.

Part of my desire to like this was the very stylish cover:

(you can't look inside, I lifted this from Amazon.  Do you like having the cover image?  It's very Euro Crime.)

And, it is set in Ghana,  a really interesting country with a fascinating past, vibrant future, gorgeous natural resources, AND a Harvard Summer School Study Abroad Program.  Most other African-based mystery series are set in South Africa, although of course there is Alexander McCall Smith's wildly popular Precious Ramotswe series from Botswana, which yes, I know, I know, I really must read.  I don't know from Ghana, but Quartey's story certainly transports you to the varied layers of Ghanian life.

Have I mentioned the sharply named Hero, Detective Darko Dawson, family man, Malta enthusiast, and occasional toker (well, trying not to in this book)?  And the super-smooth but vaguely suspicious foreign oil interests?  And there are the really stunning-sounding beaches at Cape Three Points itself.

So it has to be fascinating, right?  This is Quartey's third entry in a series featuring Dawson, taking place in and around Ghana.  (Yes, breaking yet again with the read-series-in-order dictum.  Damn you Soho Crime Club!)  Dawson is brought in to jump-start the investigation into the murder of a local oil executive and his wife. The local police having gotten nowhere, Dawson retraces their steps, angering them and the same witnesses in the process.  Yet it wasn't really until the last few chapters that anything interesting happened.  Dawson and his deputy, Chikata, have a lot of conversations that tell them a great deal about the murdered man, his business, and his messy extended family.  Dawson  methodically rules out most of the suspects, or doesn't have anything to really move on until he picks up a thread that we all saw dangling dozens of chapters earlier.  The pokey pace just didn't draw me in.  Nor did the language.  It is pretty rare that I don't offer up at least one quote, isn't it?  The prose here isn't bad, just doesn't imprint on your consciousness.

Now, my sense is that Quartey's earlier stories in this series deal with different aspects of Ghanian life, including street crime in Accra and traditional village society.  Maybe these work better?  I suppose I'd check out another Darko Dawson story, but it's not at the top of the list.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Right People Travel

Flush with success (three followers!) I've started a new blog of sorts.  This is more a collection of my travel journals from the past few years than a strict blog.  And family members who are already on the email distribution list for these, carry on, nothing new to see here.  But the rest of you might find some of it mildly amusing.  Check it out at The Right People Travel.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

You may not think that as august a personage as the Dean of Harvard College is a fan of mysteries, but he is, and so we have him to thank for directing us to Allan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series.  The word quirky has been a bit over-used by student scribes this year with respect to the aforementioned Dean, but in this instance it is spot-on Bradley's first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Bantam, 2010).

The narrator, and Our Heroine, is a precocious 11 year old, living in a seen-better-days grand British country house.  Her father is predictably distant (being British, after all, and a widower), her older sisters are self-absorbed, and there are a couple of (also predictably) loyal retainers who keep the place and the family more or less going.  Left to her own devices, and with access to a big library and an unusually well-equipped private laboratory, Flavia has developed a particular interest in chemistry, and more specifically, the use of poisons.  When she finds a man dying in the cucumber patch, her imagination takes flight, but when her father is fingered for the crime, she now has a cause.  Riding a bicycle named Gladys and deploying an astonishing knowledge of the local landscape, Flavia charges around putting all sort of stories and clues and bits together and more or less solving both the murder and a few other problems on the way.

Our Flavia is a kind of a mid-century British Harriet the Spy. She even has a notebook, in which she records the results of experiments, etc.  Unlike Harriet, she doesn't get in trouble because of her observations, mostly because no one is paying attention.  But that's not to say that she doesn't, how shall we say, critique her fellow man:
  "'And how may I help you, dearie?'
  If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as 'dearie.'  When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poisons, and come to 'Cyanide,' I am going to put under 'Uses' the phrase 'Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one 'Dearie.'"  (62)
Ah, the British education system, that produces tweens who can properly use the word efficacious.   If Flavia de Luce is not careful she will grow up to be Arthur Bryant.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is definitely a book for Anglophiles although amazingly, the author had never visited England before he won an award there for this book!  (380)  He's Canadian, though, and apparently feels British.  "Eat your sandwiches, dear," says Mrs. Mullet, the housekeeper to Flavia.  "There's nothing like cold meats in June - they're as good as a picnic."  (78)  Cold meats - how marvelously Jane Austen.  And of course Buckshaw, the ancient family seat of the de Luces, had me at the broad stone staircase and the "pustulantly Victorian" east and west wings.  (7)  House envy has rescued many an otherwise dull story for me, but this time the story lives up to the promise offered by the pile, artificial lake, folly, and all.  The whole tale takes place in June, one of the best months in England, when the promise of summer is still unfulfilled.  "When I opened my eyes, an oyster-colored dawn was peeping in at my windows.  The hands of my brass alarm clock stood at 3:44.  On Summer Time, daylight came early, and less than a quarter of an hour, the sun should be up."  (26)  I don't know that you'd ever see an oyster-colored dawn anywhere but on that scepter'd isle.

The Sweetness was a fun and quick read, and I'll definitely continue through this series.  Although I confess I'd not have picked up this book on my own.  Seriously, who reads books with pre-teen protagonists?  The Dean of Harvard College, apparently!  I guess they are pretty smart there, after all.    

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Fire Dance

I mentioned last time that I really dislike reading series out of order.  In the case of Helene Tursten's Inspector Huss series, jumping from the beginning to the most recent as I have with The Fire Dance (2005; Soho Press in translation 2014) has been a benefit.  Missing the middle six books has kept me from reading the at-times cringe-inducingly banal prose that is the major flaw of this otherwise perfectly pleasant series.

The Irene Huss books can clearly stand alone, as I didn't feel particularly out of the loop on any plot elements that might have been pulled forward from earlier books.  In fact, the few references that stood out were to the very first book, reviewed here.  In The Fire Dance our appealing Heroine, Irene, is investigating the disappearance and obvious murder of a young woman named Sophie Malmborg, who had been a central, if enigmatic, figure in a case Irene had been involved with 15 years earlier.  The earlier situation had involved a death in a fire, and much suspicion was leveled at Sophie, although nothing was ever proved.  Her death now in a fire raises all kinds of question about her and her family's involvement in the earlier affair.  Sophie is a complicated case - a dancer, with a pretty dysfunctional family, and some behavioral issues of her own.  Unlike in the first book I read, Irene mostly investigates this situation on her own, with just support from a few of her colleagues.

Is the point of the great boom in Nordic crime that we're supposed to feel happily horrified that such crimes and behavioral exist in otherwise placid, healthy Scandinavia?  Delighted that those otherwise competent and practical and above all unemotional Norsemen and women in fact have some pretty nasty stuff going on inside?  So, okay, but I never feel entirely sucked in to these stories like I do with some others.  I do wonder if it is the aspect of reading in translation.  One feels here, and in Henning Mankel's works as well, at some slight remove from everything, like you are watching the story unfold through a tidy window.  And then there is the depression, the endless soul-sucking depression, which is of course central to Mankel's Hero Kurt Wallander and even shows up here with Irene.  She's not as morose as Wallander, but her constant questioning of her efforts at work at home tempers my engagement with the story.  Not that I want a superwoman or jolly-hockey-sticks Heroine, but I can't help thinking that everyone here has a case of SAD and just needs a good vacation.  Which is entirely possible, given how dark in can get in the winter in these parts, and then of course everyone knows how they all go crazy around midsummer.

But I digress.  In terms of plot, I'd had the key aspect figured out pretty quickly - it is kind of obviously presented - so the final bit in which all is revealed is actually just more explanatory than revelatory.  Some other crimes factor in here, and Irene's teenage twins figure engagingly if ultimately peripherally in the plot.  Their participation does add a frisson of tension - will Katarina get caught up in something?  But the whole bit about the overworked Krister (her husband) and his breakdown, just feels tacked on and unnecessary.  Maybe it is supposed to mirror the thread about mental illness but I didn't see it.

In fairness, I have to say that what irritated me about the writing in the first book, and on my initial foray into this latest one, did seem to drop away as I picked the book up for a second go-round.  I think it is just that there is too much too carefully explained.  Example:
"They'd deviated from the line of questioning Irene had intended to follow before the meeting and she was now improvising.  The whole idea had been to get Sophie to talk.  Still, Irene felt that there were many other questions in this investigation that still needed answers.  With each response, a whole new bevy sprang up.  Perhaps Irene would still get a few pieces of the puzzle from the mother."  (25)
Bevy of questions, pieces of the puzzle - the vocabulary is trite, and we've heard several times in the preceding pages that the point of the interview was to get the silent Sophie to talk and to get info from the mother as well.  Does the author really write this way, or is the translator just hyper-conscientious?  Either way, it doesn't serve the story well, and makes one read a bit fast and on the surface.  All of this said, I like Irene, despite her endless debates about whether she's serving her work and her family and herself well enough.  I like reading about Goteborg, and trying to pronounce the Swedish place names.  This series isn't bad, far from it, but it hasn't put down roots on my bookshelf.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Ways of Evil Men

You have to work a bit to stay ahead of the Soho Crime Club offerings.  I finally got around to two of them while on vacation a week ago.  The at times-banal prose in Helene Tursten's The Fire Dance frustrated me as much as it did in Detective Inspector Huss did (the latest and first, respectively, in the Irene Huss series).  I tossed the book aside in a fit of irritation with the writing - or maybe just the translator, or even the publisher for letting such dreck through.

Next up was The Ways of Evil Men (Soho Crime, 2014), much touted by the good folks at Soho Crime, and accompanied by a sad letter noting the death of author Leighton Gage late last year.  This is the eighth book in his series featuring a Brazilian police inspector named Mario Silva who, as far as I can tell, is the Salvo Montalbano of Brazil.  Silva, Salvo, you know.  But he is, so they say, as complex as his Sicilian counterpart, and surrounded by a group of supporting detectives and forensics experts and coroners just as Salvo is, although they're not nearly as sharply and wonderfully satirically drawn.  I'm getting a lot of this from conjecture - as noted, this is the eighth and last in this series, and I generally dislike going out of order.  But you know, new year, new approach, say yes, all of that, so in I jumped.

Gage gets high marks on the Escape-O-Meter for immediately setting you down in the Amazon rainforest, with some Indians (which is what they are called in Brazil).  There are snakes here, and all manner of biting insects.  A father and son out hunting discover the rest of their tribe dead from poisoning.  The local do-gooder, Jade Calmon, who works for the Brazilian equivalent of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs finds the survivors, and is determined to get justice for this tribe which has so clearly been executed.  But this frontier town - hours from anywhere on dirt roads or via rustbucket planes - is under the thumb of a few local wealthy ranchers and loggers who despise the Indians, apparently not an uncommon sentiment in Brazil per the Author's Note at the end.  It is said that Gage writes with a strong social conscience, and certainly the residents of Azevedo symbolize some profound racism in Brazilian society.  Early on in the story, one of the landowners is found murdered, one of the surviving Indians is fingered for it, and things go downhill for the latter.  Jade calls in some favors and gets Silva and his team flown up from Brasilia to "Brazil's modern-day equivalent of the Wild West.  Life was cheap; violence, rife; ignorance and poverty, endemic."  (33)  No one is happy that the cops-from-away are there, least of all the locals, who have negative sympathy for the Indians, and designs on their valuable land.  It's all kind of sordid, there is even a corrupt and drunken priest involved, not to mention the requisite dirty cop and smooth lawyer.

The Ways of Evil Men is not high literature.  The writing is not the point, and the story here moves rapidly -  action, talk, more action, more talk.  There isn't much room for rumination or finely-wrought description. Few characters are developed very precisely, although they make their mark.  (Gage does provide a useful dramatis personae at the beginning, which is helpful in keeping the names straight.)  Yet in the course of all this activity, Gage makes a strong point about the lawlessness of such places, and the damage that modern society's relentless pursuit of progress does to the world, and to people.  This story is not just one of of environmental frontiers, but also about clashing cultures and even the bedroom battleground of of personal relationships as well.  Here is no Turnerian-democracy-creating frontier, rather it is an ugly and brutal decimation of people,  land, resources, and lives.