Sunday, September 27, 2015

Six and a Half Deadly Sins

Not only is Colin Cotterill pushing a punny envelope with the title Six and a Half Deadly Sins (2015, Soho Crime), he is also even more fantastical than usual in this story.  The difference between this and earlier entries in the delightful Dr. Siri series is that here the fantasy isn't grounded nearly as much in other-worldliness.  Rather, it is just normal, of-this-world, crazy coincidences that sometimes feel stretched.

Not that there isn't, as always, much to like in a Dr. Siri mystery.  The favorite characters are all back: Our Hero Laotian war hero and former national coroner now turned creaky retiree Siri Paiboun, his spirited but tragically-diminished-by-arthritis wife Daeng, and their sidekicks Civilai and Phosy.  There is less Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung this time around, and Teacher Ou makes just a cameo appearance.  One thing to consider is how all of Cotterill's female characters are strong, interesting, and above all else, smart as can be.  Even the evil ones.  It's nice, and another reminder that however these books turn out, they can never ever be accused of having stock characters.

The writing is also as charming as always.  An elder is described as a "ginseng root of a man" (75) and the combination of paranormal and rural Lao custom results in delightful dialogue such as this between Siri and a spiritual medium/weaver of pha sinh.  
  "'I make potions,' said Madam Voodoo.  'The ingredients come to me in dreams.  Some say they help with minor spiritual problems.  But you?  You need a complete spiritual enema.'
  'That sounds rather erotic.  Would it help?'
  'It might, but these things find a way to cancel each other out.'
  'How do you mean?'
  'Well, you might be cured of dipsomania, but you'd grow a tail.  Do you know what I mean?  You could be rid of a demon but lose the ability to speak your native language.  That sort of thing.'"  (140)

My favorite piece of humor here is the bit about the American doctors Bobby and Lola, from Physicians Eschewing Agendas.  They are fully equipped and trained, but have nothing to do because the Lao government can't decide what kind of aid they really need, and they don't want to completely cut ties with a wealthy organization.  So, the docs sit around making pancakes for the locals and drinking wine.  Colin Cotterill, how do you really feel about Doctors Without Borders?

The plots of Dr. Siri mysteries are always complicated, but this one feels more so than usual.  We start with Our Hero receiving a beautifully-made pha sinh with a gruesome little clue sewn inside.  Never one to pass up a good hunt, and perhaps just a bit bored in retirement, Siri is immediately determined to figure out what it means.  But to get started, Dr. S needs a travel permit for him and Daeng.  There is a distracting chapter or so devoted to his cleaning up a mess of his nemesis Judge Haeng, so that the Judge will give him the permit.

Siri and Daeng travel around the north, collecting more pha sinh with clues in them, and having all sorts of adventures.  Meanwhile, Inspector Phosy has been sent to "investigate" (read:  close with no prejudice against our friends the Chinese) a pair of homicides near the Chinese border.  It is pretty clear that these stories will intertwine at some point, but how?  Who set up the elaborate pha sinh hunt?  Who is the mysterious person out to get Dr. Siri in Vientiane?  What does the Chinese connection have to do with anything?

While all of this is happening, friends of Dr. Siri's in Vientiane are getting sick, as are the good dr. and his wife, and the Chinese are invading Vietnam through northern Laos.  And there is a lot of heroin floating around.  Finally, will Siri ever learn to talk with the spirits lodging in him?

(The last one doesn't have as big a role as in past stories, probably good because as you can tell there is already a lot going on.)

To keep all of these possibly disparate tracks moving forward and eventually have them meet, Six and a Half Deadly Sins relies too heavily on the obvious and coincidence.  Dr. Siri and Daeng need to travel around the north a bit but transportation is slow, unreliable, and hard to come by?  How convenient that the docs happen to have a vintage Willys in perfect condition in their barn.  They are running out of gas, and only government officials can get it?  Why look, there is Civilai with his ministry-petrol coupons, hanging out at a gas station hundreds of miles from home, but conveniently where Siri and Daeng stop.  Teacher Ou dies, leaving a volume on her desk conveniently open to a major clue.  The whole sinh bit turns on the involvement of Madame Chanta, of the Women's Union, who also pops up again toward the end of the story when much is revealed and then explained in long conversations between the regular characters because there is no other way the reader could figure it out.  And the illness?  There is a story behind it, and it does factor in the ending, but it is wildly undeveloped unless I missed a chapter or something.

Of course I kept reading - there are various fates that, if you follow this series, you will want to know about - but I found myself laughing incredulously at times as some plot twist felt clearly to be an effort to get to the next stage, rather than a natural evolution of the story.  How are these old people so charmed as to be able to get out of these difficult situations so often?

Well, there is the bit about Siri's carrier status, wherein he lives with the spirit of a Hmong shaman and hundreds of other dead people, many of whom have played roles in earlier stories.  And the tricky twist at the end that may, or may not have something to do with this.  I'm still trying to figure it out.

Overall, while I love this series, this one felt more disjointed than previous tales.  You have the sense that Cotterill had several good ideas, none of which he felt could carry a story on its own, so he decided to toss them all together and then write his character's way out the bag.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

Crooked Heart

As a rule, I avoid stories that involve children in distress.  Since becoming a parent, such stories cause irrational anxiety.  Having heard an interview with Lissa Evans, I guess I knew that such a child was at the center of Crooked Heart (HarperCollins, 2015) - it revolves around a boy evacuated from London during the Blitz - but somehow it came across as a little lighter.  And the story does, ultimately, delight and uplift and sadden.  It is a rare book that can hit that sweet spot.

A child's pain is a necessary part of the story in Crooked Heart.  After the death of his beloved godmother, Noel Bostock is evacuated to the countryside right before the bombing gets bad in London.  You wouldn't necessarily call Noel Our Hero, because he's not conventionally heroic, seeing as how he helps his evacuation host perfect a scheme to scam patriotic Britons into giving money to their various non-existent widows and orphans funds.  Yet he has a sharply defined moral code - that would be the Heart of the title - which pushes the story into more thoughtful territory.

We've all heard of the heroic Britons, who stood up to the Nazi threat with stiff upper lips, a sense of humor, and polite queues.  All that is here, but in addition . . . everyone is on the make, and it is OK!  Pretty much every character here has his or her little private method of bending the rules, getting ahead, making a bit on the side.  Everyone is able to justify their actions, at the same time that they might threaten to reveal those of others.  But where does it end?  There is a spectrum along which such activities fall and to a child, for that is what Noel is despite his preternatural intelligence (not necessarily mature, just wicked smaht), the place of all the various activities going on in this novel are crystal clear.  One action, perpetrated by an air raid warden, outrages Noel and is the cause of the more dramatic events of the last third of the novel.

Noel tries to explain to his teacher, Mr. Waring.

  "'There's been an injustice.  Someone took some things from someone else and the person who took the things ought to get punished and the person who lost the things ought to get them back again, but the only other grown-up who knows what happened won't actually do anything about it.'
  'Why not?'
  'Because she - because this other grown-up is afraid of getting into trouble for doing something else.  Something that isn't nearly as bad as the other thing.'
  'A venial as opposed to a mortal sin?'
  'Yes.  If "venial" means "not nearly as bad".'
  '"Pardonable" would be the definition.  Have the victims of this different sort of badness offered their pardon?'
  Noel paused.  'The victims don't actually know that they're victims,' he said.
  'They don't?'
  'Well now . . .' Mr Waring clasped his hands together and clicked the knuckles like press-studs.  'That would be what we'd call a moral dilemma.  Is a crime any less wicked because its victims are unaware of its perpetration?'
  'Yes,' said Noel, with certainty.  No one who had contributed to Vee and Noel's charity-box had ever been carted off to an asylum, screaming that they'd been robbed.  'So now something really bad - a mortal sin - isn't being rectified.  And it ought to be.  It ought to be.'"  (171-172)

Mr. Waring is more perceptive than Noel thinks.  In fact, he seems like a rather good teacher, shepherding a class of mostly numbskull 10 year-olds with some wit and insight.  Noel stands out from that pack as only the fiercely brilliant ones ever do:  ostracized for the most part, not really to their dismay, happy to wrap themselves in their superior intellect as a barrier against contact with lesser peers.  And yet - he is ten.  So his interactions with adults swing between a childish essentialism and a mature worldview.

  "'You all right, son?' asked a woman ticket collector.  'Had a bit of a fright, have you?'
  'I told that policeman about a crime' - his voice was loud and indignant - 'and he didn't do anything.  He didn't even ask me the name of the criminal.'
  'What sort of crime?'
  'Theft.  From people who've been bombed out.'
  She nodded glumly.  'There's a lot of it going on.'
  'But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be stopped.'
  There was a crash outside that jarred the whole floor.
  'You'd better get downstairs,' said the collector.
  'So you're saying that because it's common it's acceptable?'
  'I'm saying that unless you get underground you're liable to get blown up.'
  'You mean that collective safety's more important than collective morality?'
  'Go downstairs.'
  'Which makes us actually no better than the enemy that we purpose to despise.'
  'Gus!' - she was calling over his shoulder - 'Gus!  I need a hand.  Can you make this blinking little walking dictionary get into shelter?'"  (219-220)

 Noel's situation is ultimately heartbreaking.  You think of your own ten-year-old, and know she might not make it through his trials.  But maybe, maybe, children have that funny resilience that we experienced growns sometimes lack.  The war and circumstances break down his walls in a way, and in tandem with the dim (maybe not dim.  Unlucky?  Unable to take advantage?) but determined Vee, he not only survives but in a weird way, thrives.

The grownups in this story, like the questionable activities, fall along a continuum of good to bad, but all with a flaw or some damage.  One of the most interesting is Noel's godmother Mattie, who dies early - so early in the story that this is not a spoiler.  It is clearly Mattie who honed Noel's formidable intelligence and finely honed sense of right and wrong.  She may or may not have approved of his and Vee's activities, but you know that she would have stood up and applauded his efforts to right the wrong referred to above.  You wish you could spend a little more time with her, a game old gal if ever there was one.

There are lots of characters here, each picking his or her way through the moral minefield of the homefront.  Mattie and Noel and Vee are the most interesting, but you can consider many ways people survived this war in reading the various experiences.  And to be sure, there is a certain amount of predictability to the story:  Vee and Noel come to depend on each other, and to care.  She matures and he softens.

But so what.  Crooked Heart is one of those books that you think about when you are not reading it, and that you continue to think about long after you are done.  For a light story, it offers an unexpected and compelling depth of perception.  It is a wonderful story that you should read as soon as possible.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Down Among the Dead Men

Sometimes I wonder what it is about crime fiction that I find so enjoyable.  Certainly the escape factor - you can't fret about section allocation or committee staffing when murder is at hand!  And my focus on non-US, non-contemporary means that whatever I read gets me out of myself.

But a key piece for me is character development.  If you've spent any time with Crime Pays, you'll know that I particularly enjoy a well-developed character.  Whether funny - a la Bryant and May - or wicked smaht like Flavia de Luce or Quirke, or conflicted like Martin Limon's MPs or any le Carre character, the more complex Our Hero is, the better the story is.

This is why I was underwhelmed with the first Peter Diamond investigation I read.  Just didn't get it about this vaguely grumpy, slightly cynical cop.  Not that I mind grumpy or cynical, but there didn't seem to be a strong reason for him to be so.  So when a new book by Peter Lovesey showed up in my monthly Soho shipment - now several months ago, I am sadly behind - I did not jump on it.  The Soho club readings have been uneven, and I added this to the pile.

Then I read a capsule review in the always-helpful Crime column in the New York Times Book Review.  Marilyn Stasio is a good indicator, and I think the word stylish may even have been used.  I wouldn't go that far, but it intrigued me enough to pick up Down Among the Dead Men (Soho Press, 2015) and see what I'd missed.

Plenty!  I still think Our Hero Peter Diamond is not a particularly complex character.   He falls into the DCI Banks model of good cop/irrascible man, a model which you see just a little too often and which seems to be deployed as a form of complexity.  I'm still not sure why he is a bit cynical or slightly lazy.  But in this story, Diamond and his commanding officer, Georgina Dallymore, are sent off to Sussex to investigate a possible case of internal misconduct.  The misconduct piece almost becomes secondary to the clever characterization of Georgina, who is by turns overconfident, insecure, misguided, shrewd, and ultimately supportive of Diamond's approach.

  "Satisfied, she rubbed her hands.  She almost clapped.  'We're a team that gets things done, Peter.  Two intereviews already, Henrietta Mallin and her brother, and both went rather well, with me setting the agenda, so to speak, and you following up on the detail.  If people see us as Miss Nice and Mr. Nasty, so be it.  That's a well-tried method of interrogation.'
  She meant good cop bad cop.  Miss Nice and Mr. Nasty was another nugget to tuck away."  (147-8)

Our Hero finds himself a bit conflicted with respect to his deeply annoying but ultimately fairly effective boss.

  "'I don't know how you stand it, Peter.  I lost my cool with her, as you saw.'
  'Practice.  Georgina and I understand each other.  In fact, I've got to know her a lot better since we came on this trip.  I dicsovered she has a soft underbelly.'
  The crossed swords of the Victory Arch in Baghdad were no higher than Hen's eyebrows.  'The mind boggles.'"  (194)

Lovesey has fun drawing Georgina as a foil to Diamond but doesn't make her a complete joke.  And Diamond himself is funnier than many Brit cops, not veering too far into the sardonic.

The internal affairs case turns out to be part of something larger and more sinister (no surprise there, else where would be the story?) and there are several plot lines that actually all pull together more or less in an ending that does not strain credulity (that is a compliment).  Art, plants, and diving - it is something of a feat to tie those up!  More interesting characters pop up along the way.  There is a girls school with some well-drawn students and are-they-or-aren't-they evil teachers, some artists who are more than they appear, parents with pasts, and a quite excellent vignette in a trailer with the parents of a missing girl.

  "Diamond had been watching Barry Mallin for any sign of what was really going on in his head.  Here was a controlling man who had raised a daughter who haad rebelled, sold just about everyting he owned to rescure her and pull her back into line.  Now he was faced with another huge family crisis.  How had he dealt with it.  Was he responsible for hte disappearance of Joss?"  (138)

I like how Lovesey gets a little bit into the head of the unpleasant Mallin and there is more of this.

Don't mistake any of this for the witty and kooky folks you might find in a Dr. Siri mystery, or the deeply conflictedly convoluted characters of The Secret Agent.  But Lovesey does find the balance, and a touch of humor never hurts.  You might just go pick and give ol' Diamond another try.

A Monumental Mystery

If you actually follow both of my blogs, you'll know that we recently took an awesome trip to Belgium and France, where we spent about half our time exploring World War One-related sites.  You can read all the gory details over on The Right People Travel.

Along the way, my two areas of interest merged and I started to develop a rather brilliant mystery idea.  Here goes.

A body is found (mutilated?  mysteriously dead with no markings?  just a torso?  with ink?) in an American military cemetery in France, or maybe at one of those grand American monuments.  Perhaps the body was tossed from high atop the monument, or arranged among the graves, or pieces line the path, or it was placed in a praying posture in the little chapel.  At any rate, there has been . . . a MURDER.  Of course, the body is probably discovered by a local walking his dog, or a maintenance person, early in the morning, with very French details like the person is smoking, or bringing a bottle of local wine somewhere or something.  (I'm getting a little Martin Walker/Inspector Bruno vibe here.)

Meanwhile Our Hero (probably male, about which I am, yes, conflicted) is a staffer with the American Battle Monuments Commission, and is stuck in dull talks in France during a hot August, when everything is closed and only the tourists are out.  The Yanks are considering pulling back on some of their commitments to local staffing of these places (it is expensive, no one from the States comes anymore, esp. to the WW1 sites), which of course doesn't thrill the French.  Our Hero has been sent as the "expert" on the sites to accompany the Senator (Congressperson?) at these talks.  But the pol is really just on a junket and interested in making a publicity splash, so deals in soundbites and uninformed commentary.  Our Hero privately disagrees with the idea of reducing US involvement, but it's not his show and he tunes a lot out, and tours around a bit on his own.  Until the body shows up, and there will be some connection - not sure what but of course that is the point of the whole mystery - to the site itself.

Will it be a historical connection?  German person dead, descendant of a soldier or commanding officer, killed by a vengeful French person?  You could substitute several nationalities for the killer here:  Belgian, English, American.  You could go the other way.  It could be a decades-old crime of passion.  Or maybe it will be a modern terrorist event, and the victim will be Israeli or Palestinian or a citizen from some former colonial territory of the warring powers, making a statement about how these conflicts just gave birth to modern problems.  Maybe the crime will turn out to have nothing to do with WW1 but instead reveal a human trafficking network that operates through France.  So many possibilities!

The character development piece - which as you might know is key for me - comes as the crime is investigated and the question of jurisdiction comes into play.  Has this crime taken place on French or American territory?  Who should investigate and who will get to prosecute?  Our Hero is no cop, but must work with French authorities - a smart and sympathetic but maybe a little cynical or hard to read or has-a-past French cop - because Our Hero has the expertise on the site itself which may hold the key to solving the crime.  The Frenchie isn't happy about it, but they'll sort it out.  (Note:  there will be NO ROMANCE.  I hate that in crime fiction.)  Maybe there are also some MPs who seem doltish and brutal but are really kind of cool.  Our Hero has a PhD, maybe a family at home, and doesn't stick his nose in but because he knows more about this site than anyone else, he has to be part of the investigation.  He's a good eater.  Or maybe just learning about it, and his French counterpart can't believe he knows so little about cheese.  There will be meals.

That's about as far as I got.  There could be a whole series, taking place at different monuments and cemetaries (WW2 at Normandy or the Philipines!).  But it is hard to keep them from becoming formulaic, so maybe this is a standalone.

By now you surely realize the chief benefit of this project:  much research time will have to be spent in France.  Do I have any takers as assistant?