Dilettante's Diary

Feb 9/17

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Western (Play); A Quiet Place (Play); Exposure (Novel); The Wonder (Novel); Stranger, Father, Beloved (Novel); Midnight Sun (Mystery); Make Me (Thriller); Home (Mystery); The Crossing (Mystery)

Western (A play with music) text by Matthew Gorman; music by Gordon Bolan; directed by Geoffrey Pounsett; starring Mairi Babb, Sam Kalileh, Brendan Murray and Caroline Toal; music performed by Gordon Bolan and Jocelyn Adema; Next Stage Theatre Festival; Factory Theatre, Toronto; January 2017

As in the case of any production involving a family member, I’m limited to a few remarks, just by way of keeping up to date on recent events in the cultural life of Dilettante’s Diary.

This offering in The Next Stage Theatre Festival, a winter event produced by the Toronto Fringe, might be described as a surrealistic mood piece, evoking themes of the classic western stories. What little I could make out of the plot involved an accidental shooting of a boy by another boy. The deceased boy’s mother hires a bounty-hunter to find her son’s killer. Meanwhile, a wily sherriff is running interference. We also hear some poignant testimony from the young sister of the boy who did the shooting.

Apart from that, it was difficult to figure out what was going on a lot of the time. That could be partly because I didn’t see enough westerns in my youth to be completely familiar with the tropes. People tended to launch into monologues that didn’t always help to clarify where this play was headed. But the effective ending pointed to meanings having to do with mortality and the longing for reunion with our lost loved ones.

The music provided by Gordon Bolan and Jocelyn Adema effectively enhanced the western atmosphere. There were some lovely directorial touches. One of the most touching moments was when the mother of the killed boy was sorting through his clothes. All the performers made worthwhile contributions to the show, but I thought the most accomplished and convincing work came from Brendan Murray as the lanky sherrif with the wicked smile.


[Note: The program for this year’s Next Stage Theatre Festival made a reference to A Quiet Place, one of the shows in the first NSTF, ten years ago. My review of that show somehow failed to get posted on Dilettante’s Diary. Here it is, for the record.]

A Quiet Place (Play) written by Brendan Gall; directed by Geoffrey Pounsett; starring James Cade, Christopher Stanton. Factory Lab, Toronto, January 13, 2008

This January, the Toronto Fringe produced "Next Stage" – a week of hit plays from the past, by way of launching some Fringe participants onto the next stage of their careers. On arriving at Factory Lab, where performances of different plays were taking place simultaneously in the main space and the studio, I was bucked up to see the enthusiastic crowds of Torontonians – of all ages – waiting in line for the sold out shows. Makes you feel a little more hopeful about Canadian theatre, at least more so than you feel when you see those "white-heads-only" audiences at some of the more established theatres.

At first, though, I was hating A Quiet Place. One man is tied to a chair, the other abusing him. The victim doesn’t know what’s going on or why he’s there. Unfortunately this scenario is almost an exact copy of the opening of The Pillowman, produced at Canadian Stage this season. But, after about fifteen mintues, A Quiet Place takes a surrealistic turn. (This review will contain some spoilers, but it shouldn’t matter because this was the last performance for this run. If the play is mounted again, you’ll have forgotten by then what is said here.) It turns out that the abuser doesn’t have a clue why they’re there or even who they are. Neither he nor the victim can remember much of their past lives. Realizing their mutual befuddlement, they start bonding, with the result that the victim’s literal bonds are untied.

The allusions to other plays abound. In fact, the playwright makes explicit reference to Samuel Beckett at times. And Sartre’s never far from mind (the room has no door). But there’s enough creative originality in "A Quiet Place" to make it well worthwhile. The ways that these two guys pass the time provide lots of fun. It helps a lot that the two actors play well off each other as a comic tag team. The victim, a businessman initially tied in the chair, has a pinkish, baby-faced look with big blue eyes, while his tormentor is a muscle-bound, much-tattooed, would-be thug. I’m not sure whether the ending of the play offers any clarity or resolution but what goes before offers some very theatrical entertainment.

Mind you, I can’t help noting that much of the enjoyment of the play had to do with relief on finding out that the violent beginning was a false start. I suppose that’s a valid theatrical trick – to set your audience up to expect one thing and then to turn the tables on them. The only problem is that you risk having audience members like me get up and leave before the turn happens.


Exposure (Novel) by Helen Dunmore, 2016

Sometimes you can say that a novel isn’t amazing, that it doesn’t attempt anything spectacular, that it’s just a good story well told. That may sound like condemning with faint praise but I don’t mean it that way in the case of Helen Dunmore’s Exposure. Ms. Dunmore has, in a non-ostentatious and graceful way, accomplished any writer’s most important objective: to provide an enjoyable read.

The setting of Exposure is 1960s London, England. Two friends, Simon and Giles, are working in the Admiralty. Giles has, unbeknownst to Simon, been doing a bit of spying. That involves taking photographs of certain documents to be handed on to Russian contacts. Having been so indiscreet as to take one of the files home, he then has a serious accident that keeps him in hospital. So he asks Simon to retrieve the incriminating file from his flat. Thus, Simon is unwittingly drawn into the spying. It’s not long before he’s charged with conspiring to commit breaches of the Official Secrets Act. It seems that his home life with his wife, Lily, and their three kids will fall apart.

Ms. Dunmore conveys the setting and the era convincingly. We feel the coziness of Simon’s domestic life and the agony of its possible dissolution. (I wasn’t sure, though, that we ever get clear pictures of the appearances of the characters.) One scene where an official is interrogating Simon’s wife seems a bit forced but maybe it’s believable that the authorities would be high-handed with her, given her German background. In fact, the descriptions of her emigration from Germany are some of the most interesting parts of the novel. Perhaps that’s because they provide such a contrast to the British milieu that we know so well.

When Ms. Dunmore delves into a hospital setting, I was afraid at first that we were getting that tiresome clich of the British medical system that thinks it has to be more stern and disciplined than the military. However, Ms. Dunmore gradually lightens the picture by showing us a supervising "Sister" who, in spite of her customary demeanour as a would-be Sergeant Major, ultimately shows herself to be a wise, compassionate and understanding human being.

If there were one aspect of the book that I didn’t find completely satisfying, it would be the portrayal of Simon’s three kids. In my reading experience, it turns out that few writers can convey children in a life-like way. For that reason, many authors choose to keep children out of their novels. But these three children are necessary to this story. At times, they show flashes of originality and believability but, at other times, I wasn’t sure that they were much more than storybook children.

Still, there’s much to appreciate about Ms. Dunmore’s fine writing. I particularly admire passages like the following, where Simon’s mother-in-law is talking to her daughter in a coffee shop:

I suppose that when you are young, you believe that all the things in the world have been put there for you. The sunlight, the shops. The whole fabric of it. It’s all there for you and you are equal to it. But then, later on, you see it differently. The post office or the library – this coffee shop – will exist for much longer than me, let alone those trees. Even a piece of paper in the gutter may be here for longer.

And the following insight into human nature captures the sadness of Lily’s plight after Simon has been jailed. She has been showing their home to a man who may rent it:

Now her marital status will be the subject of cold enquiry rather than the nod of recognition that says: Yes, you are one of us. This man probably thinks that she’s separated from her husband, or, at best, a widow. She finds herself saying ‘we’ with emphasis, as she would never have done before.

One of the higher-ups in the spy network, the man who seems to be controlling the nefarious operations in the Admiralty, pays a visit to Lily that’s clearly meant to threaten her. I wasn’t sure what that was about. Was he trying to persuade her that Simon should plead guilty so that everybody else involved could escape notice? Maybe I don’t read enough spy novels to get all the implications of the situation. One thing that this Machiavellian character had up his sleeve, a way of applying pressure on Lily, was a collection of love letters that Simon had once written to Giles in student days when they were gay boyfriends. We readers knew about this through flashbacks, but the implication now seems to be that Lily will be forced to leave Simon if that relationship should become public knowledge. Simon himself, languishing in jail, is afraid that that might happen. Would it? Would a wife necessarily leave her loyal, devoted husband if she found out about a gay affair decades ago? Maybe you have to put yourself back in the cultural ambiance of the 1960s to see that as a serious possibility.


The Wonder (Novel) by Emma Donoghue, 2016

Once again, Emma Donoghue has taken a strange story and turned it into a beautiful, fascinating novel.

In The Wonder, we’re dealing with a British nurse, Lib (Elizabeth) Wright, who is sent to Ireland on an assignment she doesn’t know much about. It turns out that she’s meant to watch over a pious girl, Anna O’Donnell, who has apparently been surviving for several months without food. The villagers see this as a miracle. Pilgrims are flocking to the O’Donnells’s door. But the local authorities, including the priest, feel that Anna must be kept under constant scrutiny for two weeks, to make sure that her extraordinary situation isn’t a fraud. Lib will share twelve hour shifts in the girl’s room with a nun who is also a trained nurse. When Lib finds out what’s expected of her, she’s inclined to dismiss the whole scene as utter rubbish and to flee back to England. She finds that she can’t do that, though, as she becomes more attached to Anna and determined to try to find out the truth of what’s happening.

All this is taking place in 1850 and Ms. Donoghue’s story draws on historical accounts of similar situations in which religious young women were reportedly able to survive without food. One of the great virtues of the book is that it re-creates that time period so faithfully. When Lib’s glancing at a newspaper, we get references to current events – the union of Moldavia and Wallachia, the beseiging of Veracruz, the ongoing volcanic eruprtion in Hawaii. Some of the characters remember the potato famine. Surprising aspects of the British repression of the Irish come to light. For instance, Catholics were not allowed to have their own cemeteries to bury their deceased. A priest is referred to as "Mr." rather than "Father" and is apparently required to dress in secular garb most of the time. Some especially interesting aspects of the story are the reflections on Lib’s training under Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. Lib frequently finds herself drawing on the great woman’s training for inspiration and courage.

I also loved the fact that Ms. Donoghue re-creates the village life so well. It helps, of course, that we’re seeing it all through the eyes of Lib, the outsider. You live along with Lib in her interactions with the locals. Whether she’s chatting with the maid in her hotel or fending off the drinkers in the bar, you’re in the room with her. And the religiosity of the people is conveyed without judgement. Yes, they are extremely devout and pietistic, but Ms. Donoghue does not heap contumely on them, even though Lib finds their devotion hard to stomach.

Another attribute of the book is that Lib’s attitude goes through several important changes. Even though she’s first inclined to dismiss the nonsense about the child’s fasting out of hand, she’s a thoughtful, intelligent woman and her concern about what’s going on takes several important turns. At one point, she even anticipates what might be seen as the spirit of quantum mechanics. In a discussion with the nun who’s her partner in overseeing Anna, Lib says:

Yet to study something can mean interfering with it. If one puts a fish in a tank or a plant in a pot for purposes of observation, one changes its conditions. However it is that Anna’s been living over the past four months – everything’s different now, wouldn’t you agree?

When the nun won’t respond, Lib says: "The watch has altered the situation that’s being watched."

Given that the nun is slavishly devoted to her vigil in its most limited sense, and utterly averse to asking any questions about what’s happening, it’s fortunate that Lib finds an ally in the person of William Byrne, a reporter for The Irish Times, who’s trying to pen a sympathetic but objective report on Anna’s case. He becomes the "Watson" character with whom Lib can explore her worries. The two of them take the story to its action-packed conclusion. Along the way, a bit of melodrama creeps in with regard to Lib’s past: some facts that we assumed about her turn out to be untrue.

That, to my regret, is the harbinger of a change of tone for the rest of the book. Towards the end, it becomes more "plotty" as Ms. Donoghue wraps things up in the way of a mystery cum adventure story. I might have been happy to let Anna’s tale peter out in a more inconclusive, existentialist mood. But maybe Ms. Donoghue’s readers expect resounding endings to her books. That’s certainly what they’re getting here.


Stranger, Father, Beloved (Novel) by Taylor Larsen, 2016

This is one of those books that you pick up, knowing nothing about it or the author, and the first page catches your interest.

We find Michael and Nancy, a married couple, preparing for a party in their house. The author tells us that, although Nancy and Michael don’t know it, this is going to be their last party together. Before long, we find out why. Michael spots Nancy talking to a man named John, a guest they hadn’t met before. (Another guest brought him.) Nancy looks radiant in this tete-a-tete. The rapport between her and John is so obvious that Michael decides that this is the man Nancy should have married. From that point on, Michael does everything he can to throw Nancy and John together.

You must admit, that’s an unusual premise for a story. I can’t remember ever encountering it in print, on stage, or on the screen. My wanting to find out whether or not Michael could pull off this scheme and my curiosity about why he was doing it kept me reading to the end of the novel. But getting there took almost as much determination from me as it did from Michael.

Lest this review become a barrage of petty complaints, I’ll try to focus on a few of my main problems with this book. The big one is Taylor Larsen’s style of narrative. I find it too authorial. You hardly ever get the feeling that you’re encountering the characters directly. They’re always filtered through the mind of the author, so much so that at times it seems you’re reading a social worker’s report on a family.

We often get page after page filled with the author’s analysis and explanation but no dialogue. Instead of showing us the characters and letting us decide for ourselves what they’re like, the author insists on telling us all about them, effectively keeping us at arm’s length from them.

  • "As Michael watched his wife with their son, he would be reminded of and amazed at her genius for knowing and addressing human needs. That quality had always defined her, as some quality always defines a person in the eyes of another."
  • "At such moments he felt proud to have chosen someone as stoic and dignified as Nancy."
  • "She had long since resigned herself to the fact that...."
  • "It seemed that Dari produced delight after delight, for not only was she wonderful company, but her family, whom Ryan had come to know shortly after they met, was the shining example of what a family should be."
  • "It seemed more and more that Michael was comfortable only in the presence of John, whom he had befriended."

Through all of this prose, it feels like we’re in the author’s mind, rather than where I’d prefer to be – in the characters’ minds.

Although Michael’s plan provides the central thrust of the novel, it can be hard to understand him. There are references to his mental problems, for which he takes pills. We’re told he’s been diagnosed with "neurotic paranoia." I’ve never heard of that diagnosis and, in any case, paranoia doesn’t seem to apply to Michael’s attitude. His problem seems (to me) to be something like a weak or unstable sense of self. At times, when the author describes Michael’s impressions of women, it seems that, in spite of his attempts to appear to be a nice man, he despises the female sex Still, he is capable of some moments of self-knowledge. Here, he’s looking at a photo of Nancy and himself with their two kids:

Yes, he knew he was a clich. Look how he even stood a foot away from Nancy just as she had tried to stand closer together, he mused. He thought about how happy he could have made her if he had just put his arm around her for the photo. How easy it would have been for him to make her happy!

The author has also captured an uncomfortable truth in the character of Nancy. Unfortunately, there are women, like her, who seem to feel nothing but slavish devotion to their husbands, no matter how badly they, the women, are treated. In her subservience, Nancy can be a character that a reader might dismiss as a cipher, yet, she does have moments that make her a real person. In the following passage, Nancy’s reflecting on a situation where her young son, who is handled carefully because of his severe asthma, has asked if he can go to his older sister’s lacrosse game:

He had looked into his mother’s eyes, pleadingly. It always bothered Nancy that Max expected her to say no to things, or to be unreasonable, when she never was. As if she would withhold the thing that he wanted. She always let him do whatever he wanted. And he always expected her to punish him when he made a mistake, and she never did. Where had this come from? To flinch when there was no danger present – none of it made any sense.

Regardless of what you may think of Nancy’s parenting style, the pain caused by her son's attitude makes you feel for her.

Another spot where Nancy’s self comes through is this reflection on her conversation with John at that party where they first met:

She could hardly remember the conversation, only that she had felt wild from too many drinks and her old self, the part of her that could charm, had made an appearance. Without alcohol it vanished, and as hard as she tried to find it, it was too stubbornly slippery to stay put for long.

Among other annoyances in this book, there’s the fact that the author doesn’t seem to care much about certain realities outside the world of her mind. She speaks of yeast in pie dough. (I think the author should check her Betty Crocker.) She describes a yard where flowers bloomed "white, fuschia, bright yellow and violet." I would so have loved to know what flowers they were! In another place, there’s a reference to the smell of hydrangeas. Really? In a memory of a family incident, a dad tells about two little girls who were carrying umbrellas in a hurricane which supposedly lifted them up in the air a couple of feet. Could that happen? Wouldn’t the umbrellas be more likely to turn inside out or to be torn out of the children’s hands?

Another thing that bothers me about the novel is the character of Ryan, Michael and Nancy’s teenage daughter. Are teenage girls really so odious or is this just a literary clich? At one point, Ryan is self-righteously disapproving of a friend’s chippy relationship with her (the friend’s) mother. Meanwhile, Ryan is completely obnoxious towards her own parents. Granted, Ms. Larsen does ultimately show us that Ryan has been working through some tricky identification issues and she does occasionally show some kindness to her ailing young brother, but that doesn’t make her any more tolerable to me.

When Ms. Larsen does try to step out of her authorial mode and present a scene directly, the results can be cringe-making. A bar fight, for instance, plays as stagey and contrived. And yet, the intrigue of the novel’s premise did engage my attention. It’s interesting to watch John and Nancy being set up. We get meetings where romance is kindling without either person realizing that that’s supposed to be happening. But the novel is so bogged down in the author’s deliberations, that I began to wish for an outrageous twist, an outcome that would seem wildly implausible. Lo and behold, that’s more or less the conclusion that Ms. Larsen gives the novel. To her credit, though, she brings it on gradually, with occasional hints, in terms of character development, that this is what's going to happen. This author does understand people. I just wish she’d present them more directly, with less of her commentary.


Midnight Sun (Mystery) by Jo Nesbo, 2015 (English translation from the Norwegian by Neil Smith)

I loved Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow. Not so much his Cockroaches, one of his Harry Hole novels. Another of his novels, The Son, was better than that, although rather complex and weird. Midnight Sun, in its neat, concise style is more like Blood on Snow, although not quite as good in my opinion.

Midnight Sun opens with Jon stepping off the bus in a remote area of nothern Norway, close to the border with Russia. On the spur of the moment, he has decided to drop anchor in a tiny village. Only in bits and pieces do we find out what has brought him here. Turns out he was a small time drug dealer down south who got in trouble with the big guns of the business. Now he’s trying to disappear from their radar. That means finding an isolated cabin where he can hole up.

To help us to get to know Jon better, Mr. Nesbo skillfully weaves fragments of Jon’s past into the account of his day-to-day dealings with the people of the village. They, belonging to the Laestidian branch of the Lutheran religion, are pledged to a strict and conservative way of life that makes them look askance at this irreligious interloper. But Jon does form friendships with some of them, most notably a nine-year-old boy who keeps showing up at Jon’s cabin. The boy’s mother, in the absence of her fisherman husband, looks like she might be a support to Jon.

The scenario of a soldier of fortune arriving alone in an unknown place and deciding to stay there for a while raises the inevitable comparison to the Jack Reacher character created by Lee Child. At least half of Reacher’s adventures begin that way (although he’s not usually on the lam). But Jon is a more sensitive person than Reacher. Jon is more brooding in his thoughts and he notices fine details about people that Reacher would be completely oblivious to.

In another sense, though, the comparison to Reacher is disadvantageous to Jon. In spite of the constant threat of Jon’s being found by his pursuers, there isn’t much action in this book. About halfway through, I began to get bored with Jon’s involvement with the Laestidians. No offence to those devout people intended, but their hard-nosed religiosity doesn’t hold my interest for very long.

However, Mr. Lesbo does give the book a satisfying conclusion, bringing together several strands of the story with drama and tension. Along the way, he pulls off an impressive writing feat in a scene where a character is close to committing suicide. But that character himself is narrating the scene. So you’re thinking: Suicide can’t be very likely in the case of a first person narrator; otherwise there’d be no scene, right? Even so, Mr. Lesbo manages to fill the incident with suspense that makes for compelling reading.


Make Me (Mystery) by Lee Child, 2015

Once again, Jack Reacher finds himself in a lonely, forsaken spot where some trouble needs him to fix it. What draws him into it this time is that a private detective named Michelle Chang encounters Reacher around the train station. She’s looking for the guy who’s her partner in an investigation and who seems to have disappeared. Naturally, Reacher has to step in to find out what’s going on.

What he and Chang eventually discover – after arduous trips up and down the west coast of the US – is a truly fiendish operation, well worthy of Lee Child’s skill for dreaming up diabolical schemes. The only slight flaw in the book, from my point of view, is the repeated emphasis on Reacher’s finding that, contrary to popular opinion, sex with a new partner keeps getting better and better after the first time. At one point, Mr. Child says of Reacher and his woman, as they emerge from a motel room "the afterglow was coming off them in waves, like nuclear radiation." Not that I have anything against sex to spice up a good mystery, but laying it on with such exaggeration strikes me as a bit sophomoric on the part of an author.

Other than that, the book’s replete with the many pleasures of Mr. Child’s writing. Most notably, Reacher’s inimitable quotes. Some of my favourites include the one where he’s proposing to a guy that the guy can either walk down the stairs of an outdoor fire escape or get thrown over the railing by Reacher: "Either method works for me." He tells another guy: "We’re going to beat you so hard your kids will be born dizzy." But this quote from Reacher, a guy who’s renowned for his pugilistic prowess, strikes an unexpectedly wise note: "The only fights you truly win are the ones you don’t have." As usual, Mr. Child treats us to examples of Reacher’s great skill in figuring out beforehand how things are going to go down. His amazing ability to make instantaneous calculations on matters of speed, force, timing and such, help to make his prodigious feats just barely plausible.

Through Reacher, Mr. Child manages to slip in some interesting ideas, as when Reacher explains why he relies on what he calls "radio chatter," otherwise known as gut feelings. "We were wild animals for seven million years. We learned a lot of lessons. We should be careful not to lose them." On the same topic, he says later: "It’s an instinct thing. It’s why I’m still here, after seven million years. Darwinism in action."

Mr. Child also treats us to some striking treatment of other characters, as in the case of an elderly lady who turns out to be a technical nerd who can instruct Reacher on some of the finer points of the Internet. At times, the writing even reaches levels of literary distinction. For example:

The plane turned onto the runway, amid noisy billows of dry brown air, and it accelerated slowly, complacently, as if fully aware the myseries of flight had been worked out long ago, and it lifted off calmly, and glinted in the sun, and sideslipped in the haze, and curved upward on trails of soot, setting a dark but graceful course north and east.

And this, the book’s ending:

She put the lever in gear, and turned the wheel, and they drove away from the diner, and the dry goods store, to the old wagon train trail, where they turned left and headed west, with the road running straight on ahead of them through the wheat, forever, until it disappeared in the golden haze on the far horizon, at that pont as narrow as a needle.

Only one of Mr. Child’s literary flourishes troubles me slightly. On page 290, he says: "In the tall tales told by firelight there was always a brief and laconic conversation. Because the bad guy had to be told why he had to die...." I like that postmodern effect of the writer’s stepping outside the narrative frame and pointing out that he’s creating fiction. It seems like a subtle joke about the whole process. But then on page 397 we get: "In the tall tales told by firelight there was always a brief conversation. Because the bad guy had to be told why he had to die." Is the repetition a case of underlining the joke? Or is it merely an editorial slip-up?


Home (Mystery) by Harlan Coben, 2016

In Home, Harlan Coben dishes up another excellent mystery. Possibly one of the best of his that I’ve read.

The gist of the story is that, ten years ago, two boys, about six years old, were kidnapped. Their wealthy families received ransom requests but have heard nothing from the kidnappers since. Now, one of the boys – a sixteen year old – has been spotted in London, England. Myron Bolitar and his friend, Win, decide to set out to retrieve the boys from what looks like a depraved world that they’re trapped in. Win’s special reason for taking on this mission is that he’s the cousin of the mother of one of the boys.

In addition to an intriguing mystery, with constant twists and startling revelations, we get many of the fascinating insights into humanity and the literary fringe benefits that invariably come in Mr. Coben’s writing. In one instance, Myron is having a profound discussion with a friend about shattered dreams: is it better to have your dream come crashing down all at once or have it fade slowly? Tension between the two sets of parents of the missing boys is convincing and plausible. We’re told that a doctor wearing a denim shirt tucked into faded jeans "had an emcee-at-an-outdoor-folk-festival vibe."

This heart-warming passage describes the rapport between father and son in the old days of tv watching:

Prime time was eight to eleven P.M., and back then, before everyone watched on demand or via streaming, a father and son would sit and laugh at a stupid sitcom or discuss the clichs in a detective series. You’d watch and be together, in the same room, and that meant, whatever else you want to say about it, some concept of bonding.

On the subject of sex, a man gives an eloquent and reasonble defence of his practice of employing prostitutes, followed by an even more impressive explanation of his reasons for discontinuing the practice when he became aware of human rights issues involved. In a droll aside, Mr. Coben has this advice for women:

Men, for better or worse, aren’t that complicated. Here are two short articles on how to seduce your man: "Ask him if he wants to have sex." And: "Say, ‘Yes, that would be nice.’"

We get several samples of Myron’s self-deprecating humour. And when it comes to the art of detection, I especially agree with his observation that the emphasis on body language and attitude as signs of guilt or innocence is vastly over-rated.

Myron had so often heard of people wrongly convicted (or wrongly exonerated) because jurors felt that they could "read" the perpetrators, that they didn’t show enough (or showed too much) remorse, that their reactions were not in what the jurors considered the range of normal. As though humans came in one size and shape. As though we all react the same way to a horrible or stressful situation.

We all think we can spot the tell in everyone else, but ironically, no one can spot it in us.

I love it when writers of mysteries trash some of the clichs of the genre in this way. Given the many such merits of the book, I find it virtually flawless. Mind you, it’s a bit startling when the narrative suddenly switches from third person to first person, as Win takes over as narrator, but the device is effective, once you get used to it. I do think a blooper appears in one such passage though. The text says that someone made a remark, "turning to Win." But Win is the narrator who refers to himself throughout the section in the first person.

To my taste, some of Win’s and Myron’s associates are a bit over-the-top: a couple of lesbian wrestlers and a hirsute, macho, male transvestite. Maybe the author feels that some readers require a few touches of such blazing novelty. But there’s only one thing that irked me throughout the novel: the relationship betwen Win and Myron. Many references are made to their previous association. There’s even mention of their having somehow saved Myron’s brother from some predicament. It feels as though the reader is supposed to know all this backstory. I don’t. Is it from another book?


The Crossing (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2015

Michael Connelly gives our beloved Harry Bosch a change of role this time. Retired from the LAPD, Bosch now finds himself working for the defence instead of the prosecution. How does that come about? Well, Bosch’s half brother, the notorious defence lawer, Mickey Haller, is convinced that his client isn’t guilty of the murder that he’s being framed for. Haller therefore needs to find out who’s really guilty. And who better for that job than Bosch?

With considerable misgivings about crossing to the other side of the street, Bosch takes it on. In addition to Mr. Connelly’s ususal skill in the weaving of a complex mystery, he has some fun making our heads spin by blurring the borders between fiction and reality. For instance, in describing Haller’s celebrity, Mr. Connelly goes so far as to say that he has "received the ultimate imprimatur of L.A. acceptance – a movie about one of his cases starring no less than Mathew McConaughey." How often is it that an author inserts into a work of fiction a reference to a real movie made by real people about one of his fictional characters?

While Harry’s trepidation about working for the defence is understandable, I found the resentment of his former colleagues among the cops exaggerated. Granted, their anger at his consorting with the enemy helps to heighten the drama in the book, but it seems to go beyond reasonable limits. Same for the attitude of Bosch’s daughter, Maddie. Admittedly, she’s only a teenager, so maybe it’s difficult for her to accept some of the hard realities of her dad’s work, but I thought her spitefulness about this case was played up in a way that didn’t seem consistent with her character. Otherwise, her relationship with her dad comes off as believable and interesting. In one particularly effective scene, Bosch is telling Maddie about breaking up with his recent girlfriend and Maddie shows that a teen sometimes understands these things better than a dad does.

In terms of the details of Mr. Connelly’s writing, I’m happy to report that there are almost no incidents of those autonomic responses that used to be sprinkled so liberally through his writings as a way of trying to emphasize emotional states. (Is it possible that he’s heeding the complaints from me and other readers?) I do feel that this is the kind of book that may be more enjoyable to people who are familiar with the geography of the setting. Making sense of Bosch’s to-ing and fro-ing around Los Angeles can be taxing for someone who doesn’t know the area. It strikes me that this book is slow-moving, perhaps more so than others of Mr. Connelly’s, but that’s not necessarily a defect. There’s something reassurring about the steady, plodding style of Bosch’s investigations. Mr. Connelly injects terrific tension into some of Bosch’s clashes with other characters. And I like the fact that Bosch gives that issue of psychological profiling – a tactic that seems a bit dubious to me – a value that’s credible and understated.

Maybe this isn’t a major flaw in a mystery – perhaps it’s an inevitable element in almost all of them – but the emphasis on Bosch’s pursuit of the "truth" comes across as a bit corny. Oddly, one other element of the book strikes a note that’s reminiscent of mystery writing of a much lower quality: the frequent reference to a watch, belonging to the murdered woman, that may or may not have been stolen. The watch turned out to be one link to various aspects of the mystery but, after three or four mentions of it, it almost seemed to me that I could be reading a Nancy Drew mystery entitled "The Secret of the Missing Watch."

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com