Monday, November 28, 2005

Dorothy Gilman: The unexpected Mrs Pollifax

After reading Locked Rooms I read this book (TUMP), the first in the Mrs Pollifax series. I had previously read Mrs Pollifax Pursued (MPP), which is the eleventh book in the series, and now I decided to try the first one.

These books are by no means great, but quite enjoyable. TUMP is quite fascinating, steeped as it is in cold war terminology and ideas. Mrs Pollifax is widowed and slightly depressed. She gets the idea that offering her services as a spy would be a good idea, as she's not afraid of dying and might as well serve her country. Surprisingly enough she arrives at the CIA headquartes at an opportune moment and is chosen for a simple courier mission to Mexico. Naturally it goes wrong and Mrs Pollifax is abducted. Etc.

It is quite ludicrous to read all the praise the CIA gets for it's foreign policy in this novel, knowing as we do all about the terrible loss of human life that has followed the CIA's support of one regime over another (Pinochet anyone? Saddam?). As Mrs P tries to flee to Yugoslavia she thinks "Bless Tito and foreign aid". But I can't hate this novel, superficial though it may be. It hints at real pain and suffering in a way that makes me wonder why Gilman decided to keep it so bland and cheery. When Mrs Pollifax is abducted she is at first afraid to be killed, then she realises that she is most afraid to lose her dignity. If that isn't an excellent summing up of what torture does to a person, I don't know what is. She is then placed in a cell with a younger man, with no toilet facilities apart from night chambers under the beds. This is such a loss of privacy and dignity as she fears, but not much more is made of it. It's all very unsatisfactory.

At least there are no made-up countries, unlike in MPP, which features that obligatory small African nation so popular in novels. I don't know why they can't just use a real one.

Laurie R. King: Locked Rooms

Well, it was worth the wait! I remember feeling faintly disappointed after reading The Game, because it left off on a slightly unfinished note. In this novel some of those loose ends (the balcony that almost killed Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes is explained for example) are tied up, which is good. I was beginning to wonder if Laurie had gotten so popular her editor had stopped doing his/her job - always a danger.

The beauty of King's "Russell and Holmes" novels is that you, as reader, can completely buy into the underlying fiction that Sherlock Holmes was not a fictional character. The idea is, for those of my (probably less than five) readers who haven't read the books, that Ms King has had these manuscripts sent to her by an anonymous source, and that she's just putting them together for printing. I find myself sometimes having to shake myself into remembering that there is absolutely zero evidence that Holmes was ever real. I love that. It works especially well in this novel, because of the way she continues the storyline from the previous one, tying up loose ends. She has completely avoided the trap of writing in Arthur Conan Doyles' style. Instead she uses the best parts of the well-known characters and creates her own universe. It's lovely.
A.C. Doyle also finds his way into this story, and is labeled a lunatic by an enraged and exasperated Holmes. I like that. It's only a paragraph, but it's a nice touch.

In this novel Russell and Holmes, after the Indian adventures of The Game (where we, incidentally, discover that Kipling's Kim is also a real person), go to San Francisco. This is Russell's original home town, that she left at the age of 14 after her family was killed in a car accident. Russell is plagued with nightmares during the trip, and Holmes worries about her health. Once there, he forms the opinion that there is something odd in the Russell family history, something connected to the great earthquake in 1906. Russell is to wrapped up in the trauma of her past to want to hear it, and Holmes has to enlist the help of a tubercular detective/writer by the name of Dashiel Hammett (and how great is that? What a stroke of genius!) .

Using Hammett in the story makes for some good quotes.
"Hammett sat for a minute drumming the finger-tips of his right hand on the table while he studied the man across from him, weighing the fancy accent and clothes against the man's undeniable competence and the vein of toughness Hammett could feel in him. Toughness was a quality Hammett respected."
" 'Mr Hammett, you have a way with the American vernacular that bodes well for your future as a writer of popular fiction.' "

San Francisco is Ms King's home town, and this shows. She knows the history, has done her research. We get a good feel for the residual trauma left after the 1906 earthquake, we are introduced to different people of the time - the Chinese minority, the street urchins, the jazz flappers who smuggle Joyce's Ulysses and revel in Fitzgerald. My one problem might be that in general Holmes and Russell are always a bit too unbelievably open to everybody without prejudice. They never seem to feel out of place and uncomfortable talking to someone. This is not, IMO, 100% believable, but I don't really care, actually. I still love these books and harbour secret fantasies about being part of the stories.

Oh, and I have one more "wtf" moment, to be honest: there is a car chase. A car chase in San Francisco. No no no no no! Laurie, say it ain't so!? I can't endorse the filming of these books now (which I heartily did before, picturing perhaps Alan Rickman as Holmes). The car chase scene might work in a book, but in a film... Done To Death. I'm very preoccupied with how that can be done originally now.

However, all in all a great read. I can't believe these books are not shatteringly popular. We should be hearing about them all the time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Sue Grafton: L is for Lawless

Sue Grafton is another favourite of mine. Her heroine, P.I. Kinsey Millhone, is so damn cool. Oneliners abound - Kinsey doesn't take crap from anybody. The kind of person one would like to know, even though she seems abrasive as hell. Grafton's alphabet series has also taught me that California is a lot bigger than we think here in Sweden, and a lot more varied. I like that, when you by-the-by get to know a place through reading a detective story.

Often (almost always) when I read I try to imagine what the book would be like as a film or tv series. I do this especially with crime fiction, for obvious treasons (a lot of it has been filmed). The L book is a novel that sometimes seems like it's been written with film rights in mind. Since Kinsey works alone there is often not a lot of dialogue in the books - or rather, we might have a bit of dialogue, and then Kinsey's thoughts on the conversation and what she's learnt from it. It's stuff that can be quite hard to translate to screenplay, I suspect. A lot of driving and looking tough and eating cheeseburgers while thinking. In this book however Kinsey teams up with an ex-con and his daughter, which gives plenty of opportunity for conversation - always a good way to explain the plot in a film. And we also get these clues: Kinsey hitches a ride with a limo driver who claims to have come up with the original story for Terms of Endearment, only to have it stolen from him. "That's the way Hollywood works. Real incestuous." He later parts with Kinsey saying: "You have any ideas for a female-type Sam Spade film, we could maybe collaborate. Chicks kickin' shit and stff like that."

Hello? Does it sound like Grafton is dropping hints or what? *giggles* And later, there is a fantastic scene which honestly made me laugh out loud (I then had to try to explain it to my youngest daughter, who didn't have a clue what I was on about), featuring a stubborn grandmother wielding a gun. Sounds "done" and trite, but it was actually quite surprising and well executed. Kudos, Ms. Grafton! In the hands of the right director this could, indeed, make a very enjoyable film. It is a very enjoyable book.

My biggest problem with Grafton's Millhone series is usually that they are so difficult to get a good grasp on, time-wise. She started writing them in the 80s, and they are still set in that era, even though time has moved on IRL (L is for Lawless was published in -95). However, not being American I think I don't always pick up on the subtle clues as to the decade we're in, because I often find myself going "whoa, how can he have been in WW2 and still be alive and kicking?" etc. Thanks to some definite information in LIFL it can be dated to 1985. I don't think it's just me being dense though, because I often have the same problem in figuring out what time of day it is and so on during the actual story.

Okay, so I'm being dense. But I could use a few more sentences that help me remember whether it's morning or night, especially since Kinsey keeps napping at all hours.

My second biggest problem is that sometimes the conclusion is a bit of a reach, IMO. People suddenly are exposed as bad guys, and I really wasn't following the argument, and there might be an unexpected shootout. These really aren't violent crime stories you see, so it's always a bit of an "oh?" moment when shots get fired. On the other hand, maybe this is a lot like real life - what do I know? Grafton does her research, and has based her stories on real cases sometimes. I definitely wasn't disappointed this time - I remember feeling a little cheated in the one where she meets a guy who turns out to be psycho, together with his brother. (Can't remember which letter - again, this is why I started this blog. It was long overdue.)

Anyway, I love this series. If people are wondering what to get me for Christmas, the library doesn't have all the books, so I haven't read A, B, C, D and E. In the same vein, you can also check which books my Marcia Muller the library has, and get me the other ones. Sharon McCone's another cool Sam Spade-type detective, that I'm fond of. Except Sharon has friends. Oh, and don't forget Alexander McCall Smith, while you're shopping.

Righty-oh, then. Below is the link to Sue Grafton's website, and also Marcia Muller's, since I mentioned her.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

B.M. Gill: Dying To Meet You

A pianist has been forced to abandon his career after getting arthritis. He inherits a relatively isolated cottage from a distant relation, and despite his wife's hatred of the place he becomes obsessed with it, and with the photograph of a Victorian girl he finds behind the damaged piano. Turns out the girl had a violent history and has a contemporary doppelganger.

Not too enamoured with this one: is it a ghost story, is it not... doesn't seem quite sure of which leg it should stand on. Not badly written really. I think it could make a good film. If you play up the ghost/psychology bit a bit more - like in The Shining.

ETA: just remembered - the library CA/PR has been all over this one too... One has to laugh. Fondly.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Ngaoi Marsh: Black As He's Painted

I wanted to write a longer entry about this novel, but I'm finding it hard to concentrate. :-/ So I'll just write something then, because I'm already half-way through the next book and I have to remember to blog, or I can't keep track of what I read...

This is a novel from -74, and full of drug references, hippiesque characters, racial tension and loss of empire. Interesting to note is that the censorship must have lightened up, since Marsh can state openly that someone is a homosexual. I'm confused as to her attitude against homosexuals - the character in BAHP is evil and ridiculous, the steward in SITS was camp and sort of pathetic, in previous books I've noted that they are often theatrical and OTT... being, as she was, involved in the theatrical world (a recurring theme) she must have met many gay men. It seems as though she accepts their existence quite matter-of-factly, but they are still Not Normal. Like I said, it would be interesting to read a study on gay characters in her novels.

Storyline - Alleyn's old school chum is now President of his home country, Ng'ombwana. Yes, yes, Marsh commits the terrible sin of making up a country for the story. *sigh* She pulls it off quite well and has obviously done some research, but nevertheless... Me no likee. Anyway, he's coming to London, and his Ambassador and the Secret Service are all a-fluster over security, as the President has many enemies, tends not to respect security advice and has already survived two murder attempts.

The novel centres around racism, I'd say. Troy and Alleyn are "black-friendly". Remember, Troy made a black friend in Clutch of Constables (q.v., I'd link to it if I understood how to do so...). Nevertheless, they don't seem to be outraged at the blatant racism they encounter from other people. Stiff upper lip and all that, the black people simply have to accept that they are disliked by some. At one point in the novel a man says that he knows his assailant was black, even though it was pitch dark, because of the smell. Alleyn replies, or rebukes him, saying that apparently black people feel the same about us white people. However, Alleyn cheerily refers to black people as "woolly-headed" for example, and wonders how much resentment his old chum still nurses in his "sooty bosom". And Marsh writes that "nobody can look as bored as a Negro" - although the other n-word is banned and only used by blatant racists.

I guess times have changed... This is another area for academic study, probably.

Favourite witticism: Alleyn's and Fox' way of referring to the secret society that use a pottery fish as their symbol - they are the "Ku-Klux-Fish".

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ngaio Marsh: Singing In The Shrouds

Footnote for starters: I got a first edition of this novel, printed in 1958, and unfortunately there are a number of printing errors in it. Big ones, like substituting January with February. However, the book has been read by Uppsala Town Library's own private crime aficionado/proofreader, who's handwriting can be spotted in as good as every crime novel I've borrowed - making corrections, questioning deductions, commenting on storyline etc. Sometimes the PCA/PR makes mistakes in her (most likely it's her. I deduce this from the handwriting, my dear Watson) proofing, and, for example, misunderstands a colloquialism for a spelling error. I wonder if the PCA/PR is still alive. The remarks are, come to think of it, probably only found in the older books. Hm. RIP if you're dead, anonymous crime fiction fan!

This is the one in which a serial killer, moments after his third murder, sails off on a ship bound for South Africa. Roderick Alleyn joins the ship incognito and attempts to prevent a fourth victim. Features the usual Marsh stuff - letters from Alleyn home to Troy, a young couple falling in love, a theatrical character (this time someone who works in television! Must be the first TV celebrity she featured?) and a gay, flamboyant drama queen (a ship steward wannabe dancer). Marsh's homosexual characters are a subject wholly unto themselves, and I'd love to see someone do an academic study of it. Correct me if I'm wrong, but in those days there were "decency laws" in Britain that would prevent her from being too open about the matter. All she could therefore do was drop a hint that every reader would understand, such as:

" 'To make a vulgar practical joke out of what may have been the wretched little creature's tragedy - his own private, inexorable weakness - his devil!' " (Spoken by the conservative spinster.)

" Why the hell did the D-B have to dress up a queer steward [ ... ] " (Alleyn.)

Like I said, an academic study would be interesting. How widespread was the use of "queer" for "homosexual" in 1958? It does come across as ambigious.

Right, some typical Marsh quotes to finish off:

"They settled down to talk Anglo-Catholic shop.
Mrs. Cuddy, overhearing them, smelt Popery."

"She looked so dazzling that she sounded brilliant."

The woman's ace I tell you, ace.

Monday, November 14, 2005


I just got a newsletter from Laurie R. King's (what's with Americans and their middle initials anyway?) website, and she's got a new Kate Martinelli novel coming out in June, that is going to tie together the Russell/Holmes series with the Martinelli one. Am very excited about this.

Also noticed (I haven't been on the website much) that Laurie has a blog. I hope it's boring, so I don't get hooked. :-P Hey, it's a blogspot too! Great minds think alike, it would seem.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Laurie R. King

God, she's great. I just put in a reservation for Locked Rooms at the library. I hope whoever has borrowed it reads it quickly.

And discovered that they have two Ngaio Marsh in the cellar, so am going in today to get them. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

just remembered

By the way: that Rankin novel is almost worth reading only for the joke contained therein: "I feel like Gulliver on a Lilliputian toilet. I don't have a lot to go on."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Lagging so so far behind

I made this blog to keep up with my reading. I'm already forgetting. Stupid stupid stupid.

Anyway, in brief then:

Dead Souls, by Ian Rankin. My first Rankin novel, I think. Not completely my cup of tea - I have an aversion to morose over-drinking grumpy male detectives. Might try a few more though (Rankin novels, not detectives, obviously, ha ha). Wasn't too keen on the story either - this is the one where a police friend of the hero (Rebus) commits suicide, the son of Rebus' first girlfriend goes missing, a serial killer come home to Edinburgh from the US. On the whole a bit meh.

Angel of Darkness, by Caleb Carr. This novel is written from the perspective of Stevie, Dr. Kreizler's young ward. I found "his way" of relating the events more interesting to read than the first book, The Alienist, and that in itself is amusing. That I should find the story-telling skills of the fictional Stevie character more entertaining than those of the equally fictional John Moore is a writing accomplishment in itself - I hope Carr keeps this up! The basket-case of this novel is a woman, cue much discussion of the sanctity of motherhood - real or imagined? Etc. Very enjoyable, although the ending is a tad too much. It appears to be written with the screenplay in mind - never a good idea. Shootouts on rooftops? Please, no. Although those were violent times...

The Fifth Rapunzel, by B.M. Gill. A serial killer has murdered four long-haired prostitutes, and Britain's best forensic pathologist has pinned a fifth murder on him, despite his protestations. Now the pathologist and his wife are dead, and their 18-year-old son is left alone in the world. Turns out that his father may have had his own reasons to lie about his findings in the 5th Rapunzel case.

Not a half bad book at all. No whodunnit, the ending is slightly unexpected as it features the sudden transformation of a minor character into a major one. Name of police hero: Maybridge - but he isn't a dominant part of the story, IMO. I'll try to find some more of Gill's work.

Marjaneh Bakthari: Kalla det vad fan du vill. Den här boken ska läsas om så bara för de lysande dialekt- och brytningsbeskrivningarna. Har man bara hört iranier prata kan man läsa mamma och pappa Irandousts repliker högt för sig själv och vips - man låter som en iranier! Råkul. Och malmöitiskan också - hur bra som helst. Som bok är den väl egentligen lite fragmenterad och hoppig att läsa. Däremot skulle det här kunna bli en riktigt bra film tror jag, om manuset lyfte fram historien om pappa Irandousts kompis, vars syster flytt, fastnat i Turkiet och tvingats prostituera sig. Den berättelsen, som jag gärna sett vara mer framträdande, ger hela boken en melankolisk klang.

Am currently reading a Dorothy Gilman book I bought for 5 kr at Myrornas. This is one of those rather no-name detective writers that exist in abundance and are never heard of. Not so bad though, so far. Better than Dan Brown... may his money turn to ashes. Although HUGE minus points for inventing an African nation. HUGE.