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Summer Mysteries '07

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Reviewed here: Last Car to Elysian Fields, Flight of Aquavit, One Shot, Bangkok 8, School Days, Thirteen Steps Down, Maigret and the Fortuneteller, One Step Behind, Acqua Alta, The Murder of My Aunt.

Last Car to Elysian Fields by James Lee Burke, 2003

I love the ambiance of these Dave Robicheaux novels set in Louisiana. You’ve got your motor boats puttering back and forth on the bayou, your mist rising from the water, your `moss dripping from the trees, moody sunsets, lots of rain. Then there are the marvellous characters, starting with Robicheaux , a homicide detective with the Iberia sheriff’s department. A sad, recovering alcoholic, he goes to morning mass, then visits the grave of his wife, where he prays the rosary. To this hypercritical reader, the Catholic stuff sounds authentic for the most part, if a bit superficial. When author James Lee Burke tries to get into some deeper soul stuff regarding a young priest committed to social justice, the results aren’t quite so convincing. Mr. Burke does better with low-life characters. They fling around a very entertaining and colourfully crass slang. One of the most engaging of them, in this book, is an Irish hit man whose religious scruples get in the way of his getting the job done.

And yet, and yet.....there’s so damn much violence and evil on display. Robicheaux and his side-kick Clete Purcel indulge in some pretty outrageous blow-ups at times. (Is the author thinking in terms of sales to the film industry?) The main story concerns Robicheaux’s attempt to discover what happened to a black man, a legendary blues perfomer, who disappeared in the fiendish penitentiary system years ago. He does find out and, believe me, it ain’t a pretty story. Heaven forbid that I should ever lose my taste for crime and corruption, but there are times when you wish the world didn’t look quite so bad.

Another problem with this book is the complex web of relationships among the characters – so complex, in fact, that I had to go back to the beginning and write out a list to try to keep them straight, something that I haven’t done since grade eleven. In just the first 25 pages, you meet thirteen important characters. For most of the book, I was able to keep track of the inter-connections but, by the end, they were again eluding my grasp. One person ended up murdered and I didn’t know why or by whom. The various twists in the plot weren't necessarily too tricky for a person of my limited intelligence to follow. I think it’s more a question of the writer taking short cuts, almost as if he was getting tired, at this point in his career, of the work of writing. I just needed a bit more detail, a bit more context to stitch things together into a comprehensible pattern.

 

Flight of Aquavit by Anthony Bidulka, 2004

You could say that this book had the misfortune to arrive along with some masterpieces by better-known authors. It certainly suffers from comparison. In Anthony Bidulka’s second Russell Quant mystery, Saskatoon’s gay detective has been hired by a married man to find out who is blackmailing him. Seems hubby had sex with another man and somebody is threatening to "out" him, with potentially disastrous consequences to his career and social standing. The story itself is good enough and the solution, when it comes, is clever and surprising.

But I have trouble with the ways Russell gets there. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing around Saskatoon in an amateurish way. Some of the subterfuges Russell resorts to seem highly implausible or inappropriate. He lets himself be lured into dangerous situations that no sensible adult, let alone a detective, would fall for. Also, there’s a lot of the monotonous "then-I-did-this-and-then-I-did-that" which dogs many first-person detective narratives. Russell has the habit, every time he meets a new person, of listing in detail what he or she is wearing. Maybe this is supposed to be a humorous comment on a gay man’s obsession with clothes but, somehow, the humour doesn’t come through to me.

And yet, I kept reading. There’s something likeable about Russell. He seems a pleasant chap to spend time with. He has a self-deprecating attitude and a wry take on Saskatoon’s gay scene, such as it is. Maybe the point is that he’s a fairly ordinary guy, if not a stellar detective. Which would be fine, except for something unfocused and diffuse about the writing. About a third of the book involves Russell’s friends and his kooky mother who has come to stay for the holidays – all of which is mildly entertaining but tends to detract from the mystery. It almost seems that Mr. Bidulka can’t decide whether he wants to write a mystery or a novel about gay life in Saskatoon. As for the mystery, it may seem crass of me to say this, but one of the problems could be that we don’t start out with a dead body. Most mysteries nowadays need a killing early on to galvanize the detective – and the reader.

 

One Shot by Lee Child, 2005

To give you some idea of how intriguing this book is, we have to talk a bit about the plot. A sniper, shooting from a public parking garage, takes out five people in a downtown plaza. This happens somewhere in an un-named town in the Midwest US. Loads of physical evidence – fingerprints, bullet casings, clothing fragments – point conclusively to one James Barr as the shooter. When he’s arrested, he insists that they’ve got the wrong guy and says, "Get Jack Reacher." But when you find out what connects the two men, you’d think Reacher was the last person on earth that the accused would call for. By then, the accused is in a coma so we’re left to figure out – along with Reacher – why the accused might have sent for him.

That’s just the first few pages. From there on, the plotting gets more and more complicated – but never unbelievably so. I’m simply bowled over; I bow to Lee Child: I do not know how he constructs such a clever, intricate plots. (Apparently, this is his ninth Jack Reacher novel.) Reacher is a fascinating character. Like the Lone Ranger, he appears more or less out of nowhere, does what he has to do, then vanishes back into nowheresville. Laconic and self-contained in the extreme, Reacher's always just a bit taller, a bit tougher and a whole lot smarter than everybody he meets. Not exactly a realistic premise but the marvel is that Lee Child makes you want to believe in Jack’s superiority. You begin to rely on his ability to get out of trouble with tricks that seem just almost plausible. My only quibble would be that Mr. Child too often intersperses conversations with sentences like, "Reacher remained silent," or "Reacher said nothing," or "Reacher didn’t respond." Let’s face it, we all fantasize about being the strong, silent type of guy but nobody could get away with being that rude.

One of the measures of good thriller writing is that it forces me to use a card or a folded piece of paper to obscure the rest of the page, so that my eye won’t be tempted to jump ahead to see what’s coming. My "blinder" was ever at hand in this reading. In fact, it was in constant use during the terrific climax that keeps up an amazing tension for at least fifty pages.

 

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett, 2003

This one must have appeared on my list at some point when I was looking for something different. That’s certainly what I got. Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a Bangkok cop and he’s investigating the grisly murder (cobras) of a US Marine. Trouble is, Sonchai’s partner cop – whom he loved dearly – was also killed in the same encounter with the reptiles and Sonchai’s thoroughly pissed. But he has to somehow reconcile his need for revenge with his Buddhist beliefs. See, Sonchai is a good cop. By way of repentence for some shit that went down in the past, Sonchai intends to mend his karma by never taking bribes or getting sucked into any kind of wrong doing. Which is rather difficult, given that all of his colleagues, apart from his murdered partner are on the take. Not to mention the fact that Sonchai’s investigations take him into the teeming bar and brothel scene of Bangkok, an area that he knows very well, his mother being a retired prostitute.

I’ve seldom – maybe never – read a book in which every page is loaded with fascinating information about a world and a way of life very different from mine. Sonchai lives in an eight-by-ten-foot windowless hovel, with a pipe for air and a hole in the corner for a toilet. To get around town, he mostly takes motorcycle taxis driven by reckless drug dealers. The world that he uncovers is not exactly uplifting. Let’s put it this way: you won’t want to read this book if you cling to the belief that governments and authorities are wise and good, that institutions do not exist to cheat everybody and that hypocrisy is not what’s behind any appearance of good intentions on the part of the powers-that-be. There’s a lot more detail about the sex trade than some readers might want but I never found it salacious; to me, it’s all conveyed in a spirit of bemused anthropology. And, for me, there’s no little appeal in Sonchai’s Buddhist take on things. Although dedicated and sincere, he’s by no means a prig. He’s well aware of the compromises he makes and he seems to have a sense of humour about it all.

With a book so good, you feel compelled to look for some flaw. In this case, one comes to light before very long. Dialogue is not John Burdett’s strong point. It often happens, where two people are speaking, that you have trouble figuring out who is giving a particular speech. That could be fixed by some very simple writing mechanics. A somewhat more problematic issue is the writer’s tendency to give people very long speeches, going on for several paragraphs, when they have to explain some background or some technical detail. God forbid that writers should not be allowed to give their characters long speeches – going on for pages, if necessary – but I think they should sound like speech, i.e. lots of sentence fragments, spontaneous exclamations and distractions – that sort of thing, rather than a succession of perfectly formed and logically linked sentences such that a person in real life would never utter.

Another possible flaw could be the denouement of the book. It’s convoluted and preposterous, almost to the point of stretching credulity. But Mr. Burdett disarms your critical apparatus by keeping an undercurrent of black comedy running through the proceedings. You end up shaking your head more in amusement and wonderment than in disbelief.

 

School Days by Robert B. Parker, 2005

This was my first encounter with Robert B. Parker, author of over fifty books. On the basis of this one, it looks like there's a feast of reading waiting for me. His "Spenser" is one of the most engaging narrator detectives I’ve ever met. The writing is swift and economical (it took me about three hours to read the 300 pages), the plotting neat and the dialogue witty. I particularly like Spenser’s self-deprecating humour. His droll commentary nicely side-steps the monotonous "And-then-I-did-this-and-then-I-did-that" recital that many detective narrators fall into. Also, the insistent but understated way he keeps asserting his sexuality. For instance, he’s watching women passing in their summer dresses below his second-storey office window: "Summer dresses are good." Only the most militant feminist could be annoyed, I would think. I even enjoyed the way his girlfriend’s dog helped to fill in the Watson role: i.e. the confidant to whom the detective tells his thoughts. Spenser isn’t above dishing a bit of violence when he thinks some punk needs sorting out but, on the other hand, he manages to score some nice points about justice and fairness.

In this outing, Spenser has been asked by a rich dowager to try to clear her grandson who is accused of a mass killing in his high school in a small town near Boston. Given all the evidence – including a confession – it looks like a no-brainer, but Spenser is intrigued. And so are we. The resolution is interesting and plausible without being far-fetched and overly complicated like so many of the solutions in mysteries these days.

 

Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell, 2004

It surprised me to find a relatively recent Ruth Rendell on the library shelves. Usually, anything but her older books are out on loan. The main story in this one concerns a creepy guy who has an obsession with a 1950s serial killer. Said creep also happens to be stalking a famous London model. For a while, the book didn’t seem to be working for me. Strange to say for a Ruth Rendell novel, there wasn’t much of a narrative hook. Also, I was finding the creep’s elderly landlady more interesting and more credible than him. But then, around page 100, somebody got clobbered to death and the book started to be more fun. Let me re-phrase that: the suspense element kicked in.

There’s a lot of good reading on offer. As in all of Ms. Rendell’s books, she creates a vivid world by building up an enormous amount of detail involving several story lines. But the book doesn’t grab me the way some of her great ones do. That may be because the central character – the creep – is so unlikeable. Maybe that’s the old problem many British writers have: not being able to write "down" about lower class characters without making them yuckky. And towards the end, you start noticing too many coincidences and implausibilities, something that doesn’t often happen in a Rendell book. Which might explain why this one was waiting on the shelves?

 

Maigret and the Fortuneteller by Georges Simenon, 1944 (English translation by Geoffrey Sainsbury, 1989)

My recent visit to Paris put me in the mood for the ambiance of a Georges Simenon mystery – the Quai des Orfvres, the cafs and boulevards, the brasseries and the bistros, the glasses of cold beer. As usual, Monsieur Simenon provides a good story in a straight-forward, no-nonsense way. Inspector Maigret is investigating the knifing murder of a middle-aged fortune teller. In a typical Simenon-twist, a bewildered old man was found locked in the murdered woman’s kitchen. Maigret unravels it all with a great instinct for the evil machinations that people are capable of. But I must admit that I didn’t find it easy to follow the final explanation involving many complicated connections between dastardly characters.

It was interesting, though, to re-visit this simpler era in detective fiction when cops bossed people around more or less with impunity and a chief inspector would take it for granted that a pretty female witness would accept his offer to lunch. I hadn’t remembered from my previous reading of Simenon that Maigret had a somewhat disgruntled attitude to his job. I’d remembered him more in the mold of the high-minded, prissy sleuths like Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey. In this book, though, Maigret is often more concerned about his next glass of beer  than about the person talking to him. Could Maigret be the fore-runner of the jaded, boozy detective we know so well in crime fiction today?

 

One Step Behind by Henning Mankell, 1997

Although this Swedish writer came highly recommended, I kept wondering what was keeping me reading. The book opens strongly: the murder of some young people frolicking in period costumes in a park. From then on, though, there’s not much action. No humour at all, as far as I could see. Not even much character to speak of, apart from detective Kurt Wallander and the perpetrator (when discovered). Most of the cops Wallander works with are interchangeable names. And what difficult names at that! All  impossible Swedish conglomerations of consonants. Nobody with sensible names like Smith and Jones and McGillicuddy.

What was keeping me reading, I eventually realized, was the obsessive quality of the writing as reflected in Wallander’s personality. His somewhat morose way of mulling things over really does pull you in: could it be this? could it be that? He’s always going back and re-tracing his steps. Each time you get just a little bit more information to carry you forward. In this book (one of a series of  nine), Wallander is also dealing with some personal health problems that add to his worries. No extraneous details or incidents interfere with your sense of living in the skin of a very real guy.

Towards the end, though, I began to find his character wobbly. For most of the book, he seems like one of the more decent specimens of his breed but suddenly he’ll intimidate somebody or threaten a witness with an outright lie. When the crunch comes, he does stupid things like forgetting his cell phone and his gun. His handling of the final crisis is more boy scout than hard-boiled detective. Maybe this is just a reflection of a European sensibility in murder mysteries rather than the rather more brutal genre that I’m accustomed to. Or maybe it’s about Wallander being a real person rather than a super hero? Not to say that I’m one, but I managed to guess one of the main plot elements that eluded him for a couple of hundred pages.

When the solution finally came, I didn’t find the perpetrator’s psychological motivation entirely convincing. The elaborate attempt by the cops to anticipate the final murder struck me as amateurish. And the writer too often resorts to lame prose like "He thought he was on the brink of something" or "It was back to square one." All of which is to say that, if Henning Mankell truly is a great mystery writer – and I grant that he may be – this must not be one of his greatest mysteries.

 

Acqua Alta by Donna Leon, 1996

A New Yorker overview of mysteries some time in the past year raved about this writer and this book in particular. So it was at the top of my reading list for this summer. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so disappointed in a mystery. In fact, there really isn’t much mystery to it. An American woman in Venice is beaten up and a museum director is killed in a scheme that seems to have something to do with fake antiquities. Detective Guido Brunetti figures everything out in a plodding way and the bad guys turn out to be who we’re expecting them to be. Although the book, published in 1998, contains some references to computers, the casual, laid-back style of sleuthing feels out-of-date and barely professional -- which is not an impression you get from really good mysteries that are set even further back in history: e.g. George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series.

So maybe this is a novel of character and atmosphere rather than mystery? Trouble is, I couldn’t see that Brunetti or anyone else in the book has any distinguishable character. A few incidents are inserted to make Brunetti seem like a caring family man but they are extraneous, contrived and unconvincing. Similarly, a secretary in the cop shop is meant to be interesting by virtue of the fact that she has different bouquets of flowers on her desk every day – which didn’t do it for me. There’s an opera singer on hand and you might think that would get my attention but she’s a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill diva. Atmosphere? Well, there are some interesting details about the architecture and the climatology of Venice. (The title translates as "High Water" – referring to the flooding in Venice due to winter rains and high tides.) And some of the information about the identifying of antiquities is enlightening.

Then maybe the main point is the writing? For my money, it includes too much irrelevant filler along the lines of : "He went and opened the window while he waited for them to arrive." As for the arrival of two young female Americans at a bar where Brunetti is sitting, the only purpose of their presence is to give the author a chance to show how superior she is to young American tourists. A final confrontation with the bad guys, lasting several chapters, is well staged, but then we get a sentimental coda that the book hasn’t really earned.

 

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull, 1934

Martin Levin, the books editor of The Globe and Mail once mentioned this book in a list of all-time favourite mysteries. I was glad to have it brought to my attention. It took a while, though, to get used to the fact that it isn’t a mystery so much as a comedy. A young man named Edward is trying to dispatch the domineering aunt who has controlled his life ever since his parents died. The main pleasures of the book are the guy’s outrageous attitude and his way with the English language. He’s a combination of a P.G. Wodehouse character and one of Oscar Wilde’s. Surely it must be a direct reference to Lady Bracknell’s interview with Jack (The Importance of Being Earnest) when we’re told that Edward "knew absolutely nothing." He’s passionate about his clothes and loathes anything resembling work. One of my favourite quotes from him, "I do hate being taken at my word." Not to say that his aunt Mildred is any slouch in the character department. If ever young man had a formidable opponent as a relative, it’s Aunt Mildred.

Although mystery isn't the main point of the book, really, underneath it all, there is a kind of suspense, because you keep wondering how the hell it’s going to end. Most of the book purports to be Edward's diary, outlining his malign intentions towards Aunt Mildred, but a postscript shows us that what was going on was quite different from what we thought. It comes as something of a surprise to realize that there was some fairly clever detective work going on all along.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com