Dilettante's Diary

Myriad Mysteries 2009

Home
Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
Restaurants
NOVEMBER 3, 2017
Oct 5/17
Sept 21/17
Aug 3/17
June 16/17
Mar 21/17
Feb 26/17
Feb 9/17
Jan 30/17
Dec 19/16
Dec 11/16
Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
MIMC
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

It’s almost impossible to get a good new mystery from the Toronto libraries without a long sojourn on the waiting list. That’s why I clip reviews of promising mysteries and put them in a file. A few years later, they’re all available for the asking. So here are the fruits of my latest catching-up in the mystery department. All of these books or authors were highly recommended. There will be more reviews to come soon; the more recent ones will appear at the top of the page.

Disordered Minds by Minette Walters, 2003

We start in 1970, in Bournemouth, England, where a youngish teenage girl is gang-raped by some louts in the bushes at the edge of a park. That unsavoury scene takes a mere eight pages. Then we get excerpts from a book about some miscarriages of justice in murder trials. After some 30 pages of that, we’re in 2003 and the writer of the afore-mentioned book is coming to Bournemouth to investigate what he believes was the wrongful conviction of a supposed murderer. You might expect that there will be a link to the rape that opened the book but, before the two stories converge, you’re going to have serious doubts that they ever will.

I know that Minette Walters is a crime writer highly-regarded by many people. In spite of a few well-written passages in this book, I found it, for the most part, too complicated, too belaboured in its plotting and narration. People were impersonating other people and I lost track of who was who or why. Not to mention my recoiling from sentences like: "Hysteria rocketed round his gut, searching for an exit, before converting into painful tears behind his eyes." Long discursive tangents – about racism, about the Iraq war and about Prince Charles’ views on architecture – seem to have less to do with the story than with the author’s wish to give the book a literary sheen. Some scenes are preposterous – for instance, an encounter in a railway station where a supposed "Good Samaritan" is too obviously scamming the main character. That person's character, in fact, is too complex to come through clearly. He’s particularly unconvincing in his traumatic response, as a black man, to having been called a "dirty nigger". It’s scarcely credible that any intelligent person today would take such stupidity to heart.

About half way through, just at the point where I gave up on this one, comes the sentence: "There was too much information and Billy wasn’t practised enough to sort the wheat from the chaff". I feel your pain, Billy.

 

Persuader by Lee Child, 2003

Lee Child’s novel One Shot, starring "Jack Reacher", was one of the best mysteries in a long time (see Dilettante’s Diary "Summer Mysteries ‘07"), so I figured this earlier one would be a good bet. Clever me!

In the riveting opening scene we watching our hero thwart a kidnapping. By the end of the chapter, though, we find that there’s more going on than meets the eye. The rest of the book describes Reacher’s invasion of a secure bastion on a rugged sea coast in order to get the goods on the master criminal in residence.

Jack Reacher’s one of the best heroes in thrillers. What makes him so compelling is that, while he’s tough and smart, he operates within reasonable limits. Faced with a potential threat, he times and measures everything, with split-second calculations, to figure out just what he can or can’t do. When he’s escaping from a third-storey window by a drain pipe, he admits the challenges that such a manoeuver presents for a guy like him: "I’m not an agile person. Put me in the Olympics and I’d be a wrestler or a boxer or a weightlifter. Not a gymnast." He’ll give believable step-by-step accounts of procedures, whether he’s talking about sneaking past a metal detector, making love or fighting to the death. His phenomenal escape from a near-drowning includes just enough plausible detail to be convincing.

Another thing I like about him is his psychological insight. He’ll note, for instance, that somebody’s apparent embarrassment is real if it involves blushing: you can’t fake a blush. Same with somebody’s turning pale. He also explains that, if you ask a potential witness about some problematic issue and they blurt out that they don’t know anything about it, they’re lying. Normally a person will consider the question, possibly ask for clarification, before answering. An immediate "No!" usually means the answer was prepared.

Jack’s short, trenchant sentences can seem a bit too clipped at first. After a while, though, his narrative style grows on you. You realize this guy is telling you only what you need to know. He’s not wasting time and space on descriptive or philosophical flourishes. Every sentence counts. Which means you can trust that he’s going to take you to the heart of the matter speedily and directly. Makes for a terrific ride.

 

The Interrogation by Thomas H. Cook, 2002

I get the impression this book is considered a classic of contemporary crime fiction. And with good reason.

Mainly because of the book’s narrative structure. Two cops are interrogating a drifter who, they’re quite sure, has murdered a child in a park. They have only twelve hours to break down his stubborn denial. If, by then, they haven’t come up with any grounds to detain him further, they’re obliged to let him go. The scenes in the interrogation room alternate with flashbacks to earlier incidents and with scenes that tell us what’s going on elsewhere while the interrogation is taking place. But it’s that tension in the interrogation room, the stand-off between the two cops and the taciturn drifter, that makes this such a gripping read.

Along the way, there’s some very powerful writing. The author has some thought-provoking things to say about various human issues, especially about how fathers feel for their offspring. A so-called "ugly" waitress comes across as warm and human in a cameo appearance.

Just a few quibbles. Some passages are decidedly over-written. Twice within eight pages, we get the sensation of walls "closing in" on somebody. At times, some of the low-life types border on cartoon caricatures. But then, the thought of some of their ilk in the Maigret mysteries by Georges Simenon convinces me that Thomas Cook’s baddies aren’t too corny. At the end of the book, I was a little confused about what had happened. A certain enigma about the accused drifter wasn’t entirely dispelled (as far as I could tell). Put it down to artistic effect.

But one artistic pretension that’s harder to forgive is the dividing of the book into four parts for no good reason. No marked difference in the material comprising each section justifies such a separation. It looks like an attempt to give the book a sophisticated mein. It’s just a waste of paper.

 

Blood Is The Sky by Steve Hamilton, 2003

Retired cop Alex McKnight lives in a cabin in the "thumb" district of Michigan. His Ojibwa friend Vinnie asks for help finding his brother, a guide, who has disappeared with a group of hunters in Northern Ontario. Much of the story takes place there.

A few snags impeded my reading in a minor way. Author Steve Hamilton overdoes the Canuck-speak with the repeated "eh?" (but he clearly knows this part of the world). At times the dialogue is slightly flat, the explanation of the crime that has taken place, when it finally comes, is a bit laboured, and the book has a structural problem, in that the most exciting action takes place about three-quarters of the way in.

But there’s a lot to like about the book – mainly a quiet, steady integrity in the writing. It’s all very clear, never pretentious or over-blown. The cross-cultural aspects of the white man’s friendships with the aboriginal people have a ring of truth. At one point, Alex waits in a kitchen with several of Vinnie’s relatives, none of whom speak to him. When he asks about that later, Vinnie tells him, "They don’t dislike you....They just don’t understand you." Vinnie says his mother thinks Alex walks around "carrying too much pain." I especially liked the humour in Vinnie’s comments about acting as a guide. At first, he says, it feels like the white guys expect you to be some cartoon character from television. "But then you realize, shit, they’re right. I am different. My ancestors, they did know all this stuff. And I’m still part of it."

 

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid, 2003

It’s 1978 in St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Four tipsy university students are returning to their digs one snowy night. They stumble over the body of a local barmaid, who has been stabbed. She dies promptly. Just as promptly, the four guys become the prime suspects.

As the investigation of the case whirls around and around, it begins to seem that maybe this novel isn’t so much about the solving of the crime as about the way the four students cope with the infamy. After about 200 pages, we jump ahead to 2003. Now the book begins to feel like one of those novels that Ruth Rendell writes under the name of "Barbara Vine": a study of how a crime from long-ago impacts on current affairs. Eventually, though, we do reach a solution to the murder mystery.

While I had some problems with the writing in this book, something kept me reading to the end (nearly 500 pages). Ms. McDermid tells a story very well. The mood and atmosphere of the small university town are conveyed without any extraneous description. There’s no literary artifice to get in the way. The coincidences and complications that crop up feel natural and believable, never contrived. Early on, some examples of fine writing earned my close attention. The scene where the cops break the tragic news to the parents of the murdered barmaid stood out as one example. Then the scene where her violent brother stormed into the cop shop demanding justice.

About the problems, though. I wasn’t sure that Ms. McDermid’s rendering of the students’ banter with each other was entirely convincing On the other hand, I wasn’t a Scottish university student in the 1970s, so how can I be sure what they sounded like? It struck me as a bit abrupt, though, when a major character was propelled to try to commit suicide, the build-up of his motivation having taken only about three pages. And the long discussion at the end of the book to tie up loose ends – all based on a character’s confession – struck me as not the cleverest handling of the mystery genre.

Strange to say, I spotted the likely murderer early on (and it turned out that I was right). This is said, not in a spirit of one-upmanship, but only to note it as a rather odd fact that I, who am not usually very good at the spot-the-killer-game, should happen to have pulled it off in a book that I enjoyed so much in most other respects.

Except one. Ms. McDermid relies too much on detailing her character’s autonomic responses as a way of showing us how they feel. This quirk was so striking that I started making a list of the instances. After a while, the number of them began to seem ridiculous. Within twenty-four pages, we got two mentions of somebody’s hair standing on end. Clammy skin was reported twice within about fifty pages. Sprinkled here and there, we got: excitement rising like bile in somebody’s throat, involuntary shivers, a buzz of adrenalin, a fizz of frustration in somebody’s head, somebody’s being flushed with sudden anger, sweat breaking out on an upper lip, sweat in the small of someone's back, inward shudders, tremors of emotion, dizziness from relief, quickening of a pulse, vibrating apprehension, a "chilly shock of fear" that "spasmed" in somebody’s chest, guilt washing over somebody....and so on.

So what’s my problem with all that? Well, apart from the fact that most of these expressions border on clich, the frequent repetition of this kind of detail begins to seem like an idiosyncrasy on the part of the writer. You begin to wonder what causes it. Is it just that she can’t think of any other way to convey her characters’ feelings? Or is she, as a person, particularly hung-up on these kinds of physical responses to situations? Such questions interfere with my focus on the story.

 

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassen, 2004

This one starts with a great premise. During a romantic idyll on a cruise ship near Florida, a guy tosses his wife overboard. Against all odds, she survives (it helps that she was a champion college swimmer). She now plots how to make his life miserable by her appearances from the beyond. She also wants to solve the mystery about why he wanted to get rid of her.

In some ways the writing is very effective, in some ways not. The author makes skillful use of what I call the "hesitation step" narration: he keeps teasing you with bits of information, not filling out the details until later. However, it’s not very plausible that people keep surviving murder attempts. Only one person actually dies, and that’s near the end of the book. Then the novel peters out in a tying-up of loose ends, with no further suspense.

Maybe it’s not supposed to be a real mystery, then, just a lot of fun?

Margaret Cannon, the Globe and Mail’s expert in mysteries, cites Carl Hiassen as a supremely funny author. I found a certain sardonic humour in this book but nothing laugh-inducing. Much of it was so exaggerated as to be ludicrous rather than amusing: for instance, an ape-like goon whose skin, we’re constantly told, is covered in a thick hairy pelt. And yet, this implausible character supposedly develops a poignant relationship with an elderly woman. A detective’s pet pythons escape and he makes only cursory attempts to find them. A neighbour of the detective’s is so bitchy as to be inhuman.

What bothered me most of all, though, was the character of the scumbag husband. Presumably, he was supposed to be so awful that all you could do was laugh at him. But I had the uneasy feeling that the author felt many readers would want to believe that the world really does produce such horrible people. Maybe, but I don’t want to read about them.

 

All the Flowers Are Dying by Lawrence Block, 2005

Lawrence Block’s "Matt Scudder" ranks up there with my favourite detectives. I like Scudder’s low-key way of proceeding, what he calls the school of GOYAKOD detection: get off your ass and knock on doors. His grounded, AA approach to life has an authentic feel. And he uses simple but clever tricks for getting what he wants from people.

In this book, we are confronted with two stories that, at first, don’t seem to have any connection. Scudder has been asked by a woman friend in AA to check on a mysterious man who's dating her. The other story involves a guy who’s sentenced to be executed, within a matter of days, for the sexual abuse and murder of three young boys. He claims he’s innocent. A sympathetic psychologist who’s doing a special research project comes to interview him on death row.

The stories, not unexpectedly, do connect eventually but I found this to be a very weak Matt Scudder outing. You begin to sense that something’s going wrong when you run into filler on subjects like science fiction and baseball. Scudder’s relationship with his wife Elaine, formerly a high-class call girl, feels tired. His sidekick, TJ, a former street kid who has turned out to be something of a genius in the stock market, gets really annoying with his pounding away at his hip-hop lingo. The conversations with the AA friends come across as fresh and original but the kibitzing with cronies in Manhattan bars sounds stale, particularly when a phony Irish accent comes to the fore. Plus, I found the emphasis on gore and explicit violence a falling-off in tone for a Scudder novel. (Could it be that author Block figures this is what the public demands now?)

What’s more troubling in a mystery, though, is that the major crime at issue relates to previous Scudder stories. If you don’t remember them, this one doesn’t have much resonance. I don’t know whether it’s a reflection Scudder’s age (mid 60s) or Lawrence Block’s writing skills, but there doesn’t seem to be much narrative energy left in the Scudder scenario. For me, this one ended with a "who-cares?" whimper.

 

River of Darkness by Rennie Airth, 1999

We’re in rural England, just after the First World War. Several members of one family of the local aristocracy have been slaughtered in their mansion on the hill. The common folk are all abuzz. Even more so, when similar atrocities start happening to grandees in other locales.

At first, I found this book appealing in its depiction of police investigations in the context of slow-moving English country life. The ambiance and the era are well conveyed. Mind you, a list of place names on one page almost sounds like a parody of the genre: Craydon, Godalming, Farnham, Guildford, Horsham, Dorking. But I was willing to go along with them. One particularly touching scene really impressed me: the sensitive way the detective befriended a little girl who had been mute since seeing her elders murdered. It was marvellous to watch how his gentleness and kindness brought her out of her nightmare.

Sad to say, though, this was a book that I had to abandon after about two hundred pages. It was shot-through with far too much clich, purple prose and hokey intellectuality.

To begin with, there’s the detective and his crowd. Not only is he carrying a cloud of gloom around with him because of what he experienced during the war, but his wife and little daughter have been carried off by the famous flu epidemic. Can we please, occasionally, have a detective who isn’t saddled with melodramatic baggage? Then there’s one of the detective’s superiors who keeps interfering in the case. In the five scenes where he appears (as far as I read), this sententious pooh-bah does nothing but strut and fume and pound his chest in attempts to undermine our hero’s confidence. You wonder how the author can think we might fall for such obvious contriving. And let’s not forget the eager young disciple who follows our hero around. The neophyte’s eagerness leads him to make mistakes, of course, but we know he has a good heart and he’ll turn out ok, thanks to the paternal vigilance of his boss.

Given that this is early in the 20th century, there’s a bit of a flurry about the new theories of Sigmund Freud. Some of the personnel are all agog. My problem is that the author himself seems fascinated in a ghoulish way with all this kinky stuff about what sex can cause people to do. Hence the title, referring to the springs of murky desire welling up in all human interaction.

Speaking of which, the author has chosen to describe some love-making in explicit, almost clinical detail. Not to be a prude, but I don’t think you can have that in a novel of Edwardian sensibilities. If you’re trying to convey the old-world feel of an amorous tryst, you’ve broken the spell entirely when you start referring to semen. Nor do I think you can have a female doctor in that era who is as liberated and relaxed about her sexuality as Germaine Greer.

Other irritations in the writing: Inevitably, you can’t write about such a place and time without acknowledging the deep-seated class consciousness but I wish an author would somehow distance himself from it, not give the impression that it’s the divinely-ordained order of things. Similarly with the militarism of the culture. The detective, without any sense of reproof from the writer, admits to a feeling of shame that his dad didn’t die in the war. Someone has a premonition of a child’s death two days before it happens. (We’re supposed to take that sort of thing seriously?) Thunder is conjured up to underline how angry someone is.

Worst of all, when we start following the sex-crazed killer, we get "a tidal bore of emotion that throbbed at his nerve ends, making his skin prickle and burn as though lava flowed in his veins." A few pages later, the "beast stirring within him" makes its "insistent" demands, causing the man to shift, in order to ease "the pressure in his groin."

If you can sit through another 150 pages of this without some major shifting in the direction of the garbage pail, you’re a better man than I.

 

Cold Pursuit by T. Jefferson Parker, 2003

There’s something to be said for a straight-forward crime novel – nothing fancy or over-written or over-reaching about it. That’s what you get here.

Pete Braga, a rich old San Diego businessman, has been found bludgeoned to death in his den. Homicide cop Tom McMichael gets the case. Trouble is, there’s bad blood between the Braga and the McMichael clans, going back a couple of generations. Still, McMichael doggedly does his duty.

The writing is smooth and clear, making for easy reading. I found there was a bit too much back story about the family feud. Some of the data about the tuna fishing industry and the local airport authority, both of which the victim was involved in, felt like filler. But the story is good, with just enough suspense and intrigue to keep things bubbling along. Some particularly interesting insights into human nature crop up in a scene where McMichael is discussing life and stuff with a cop who’s gone bad.

Given the quality of the writing, one detail struck me as a surprising lapse: two guys in a prison yard are walking in circles, thinking they’re talking in secret, but a guard stationed in a window has supposedly been following their conversation by reading their lips. How could he do that? If they were walking in circles, they would, presumably have had their backs to him for about half of the conversation, wouldn’t they?

 

To The Power of Three by Laura Lippman, 2005

A shooting takes place in the girls’ bathroom of a high school in Baltimore County. It seems that just three girls are involved. One has been shot dead. The presumed shooter has shot herself in the face and is apparently dying. The least seriously injured girl has been shot in the foot.

This book scores high on the obsessive quality (which, after all, is one of the main ingredients of a good mystery). The investigation keeps circling around and around that bathroom incident, as the police and the school authorities try to determine exactly what happened. The girl who was shot in the foot has given her version of the incident but it doesn’t ring true. While that bathroom scene occupies the centre of attention, ripples of narrative extend out to include relevant information about the lives of other students, parents and the cops.

And yet, I almost discarded this book after the first few pages. There’s a quality to it that I can only describe as "girly". (Sorry about the apparent sexism but I can’t think of any other way to put it.) The first three pages discuss, with utmost seriousness, fashion choices of teenage girls in terms of tote bags and knapsacks, for godsakes! At several points, the narrative is interrupted for flashbacks to show how the three girls involved in the shooting were very close as children. I could only skim these passages, because they looked too cloying.

It’s not just the subject matter that put me off. The narrative style often falls into a lame-ass tone that sounds chatty, gossipy and catty. As if somebody’s just lying back and running off at the mouth. So we get sweeping generalizations like "Lots of people at school wanted to be on her good side..." and "If a boy was heard to remark...." and "All the drama students could see that...." and "They all assumed that...." You get the feeling that the writer is lazily sketching broad outlines rather than bothering to show us individuals and their specific responses.

One thing that kept me reading – apart from curiosity about the shooting – was that the writer occasionally comes up with fine insights. She talks about a family in which the members were so close and affectionate with each other that they needed outsiders around just to confirm how special the family was. A gay boy reflects on the fact that he used to bring all his problems to his mom, until he began to see that there were some problems she couldn’t fix for him. At another point, that same character emits a theatrical sigh and is surprised to find himself feeling genuine emotion behind it.

In the end, though, there weren’t enough of these flashes of brilliance. The solution to the mystery, when it finally came, didn’t offer much compensation for prowling through so much iffy writing.

 

The Two Minute Rule by Robert Crais, 2006

Max Holman, a famous bank robber, gets out of prison after serving his ten-year sentence. He has been estranged from his son for many years and doesn’t know his son has become a cop. But, on the very day of the dad’s release from prison, he learns that his son has just been gunned down and killed in an ambush, along with three other cops. Dad’s long-dormant paternal feelings come to the fore and he’s bent on revenge.

This terrific set-up means that you watch Holman’s every step, wondering whether he’s going to cross the line back into criminal territory. He’s trying very hard to live right and stay sober, he’s following the advice of his well-meaning mentors, but most of his contacts are in the criminal world and his default mode is to act outside the law. Author Robert Crais has created a very sympathetic character in Holman and his renewed relationship with the FBI agent who put him in jail years ago is fascinating. The writing is so good that some examples of prosaic "telling" leapt out at me: "Holman felt better now that he had spoken with Pollard" and "Holman had a plan. He thought he could pull it off...." But these flaws were so few that they didn’t spoil the overall effect. The climactic scene roils with confusion and excitement and you learn that the "two minute rule" as applied to bank robberies means a hell of a lot more than you imagined.

 

Portobello by Ruth Rendell, 2008 [This relatively recent one happened to be available on the "quick read" shelf]

This one’s not so much a whodunnit as a who’s-gonna-do-what? The various candidates for the "who" include: a toff who owns an art gallery cum antique shop in the Portobello area of London; his 40-year-old girlfriend who is a medical doctor; a weird young man whose estranged father pays for the son's upkeep; a shiftless layabout; the layabout’s uncle with whom he lives; the layabout’s ex and her current boyfriend; not to mention various other hangers-on. Given that Ruth Rendell’s such an accomplished story-teller, it’s entertaining to watch how she intertwines the affairs of these disparate characters.

But it’s in the development of the characters that Ms. Rendell’s writing is somewhat less satisfying. Mind you, she handles the layabout well, as always with such characters. To the casual observer, he would be an out-and-out sleaze, but Ms. Rendell gives him an inner life that shows a surprisingly decent streak, one that wins our sympathy. Some of the upper class characters don’t fare so well. The weird young guy who’s estranged from his father has an interesting moment when we realize that, although he’s going insane, he quite calculatingly feigns schizophrenia. When his character completely loses touch with reality, though, he loses my attention.

The most problematic character is the owner of the art gallery. We’re told that he’s an addictive type – he’s been through booze and drugs – and now he’s hooked on sugar-less lozenges. This is supposed to be such a big deal that his obsession takes up pages and pages of the book. At one point, I wondered if the effect was meant to be comical. But no, this addiction has serious repercussions. The odd thing is, I can imagine that some such apparently trivial quirk could, indeed, have dire consequences in a person’s life. Unfortunately, Ms. Rendell doesn’t make this guys situation believable. It comes off as trite.

Normally, we at Dilettante’s Diary don’t nitpick about editing errors in books, but there are examples here of what might be a new syndrome in publishing. We all know that books aren’t getting the careful editing that they used to. But one expects that certain writers have achieved such distinction that they would want to make damn sure that their books are free of typos and such. Problem is, some of them may have reached the advanced state of maturity that they don’t have the mental acuity any longer to oversee the sloppy work of the editors of a more carefree generation.

I’m not talking her about a slip such as the reference to "a suger-free sweet" [sic] in Portobello. That kind of thing happens in any book. What puzzles me more are the inconsistencies and illogicalities. At one point, the doctor is attending a drinks party at her boyfriend Eugene’s house. The festivities are interrupted by a call from one of her patients. She fobs the patient off, telling him to phone later if he isn’t feeling better. The episode concludes with: "She gave him Eugene’s number." Why? The patient had called her at Eugene’s. He must, then, already have the number, mustn’t he? Unless, he had called her on her cell phone but there was no such indication.

In another episode, we have the layabout’s uncle leaving his house to go to the meeting point where a coach is going to pick him up for an outing with his church group. A few pages later, though, we have the layabout lying upstairs in the uncle’s house, listening to the diesel throb of the coach’s engine.

It scares me to think that one of our best mystery writers can’t keep enough control over her material to prevent such slips.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com