Monday, November 30, 2009

Herta Müller: Hertztier/Hjärtdjur/The Land of Green Plums

I have had the great honour and pleasure of being invited to join a book discussion club. They've been reading together for a few years and recently decided to invite some more people, and I'm honoured to have been one of them. Hardly surprisingly the book of choice for the December meet was one by our latest Nobel Prize winner, so I interrupt the regular programming of crime fiction for a bit of Culture. I read the book in a Swedish translation, but I decided to write about it in English anyway. Y'know, for that international touch.

The novel seems to be largely autobiographical, echoing events in Müller's own life. It is a largely linear story, with some flashbacks or glimpses of the future here and there, but told in episodes rather than a straight line. I was reminded of P.O. Enquist and Jeanette Winterson.  The way I understand the linear story is as follows: the narrator, who grew up in a village, comes to the city to study, sharing a room with five other girls. One of them is a troubled soul, desperate to find a white-collar man. She joins the Party, which in combination with some selfish habits leads to tension in the shared room. After her apparent suicide the narrator becomes friends with three young men who oppose the regime, and collect unpermitted literature in a secret place. At one point they are all taken in for questioning. Later they find work, but it becomes difficult for them to work with their political views. They are fired. Three of them leave the country, and two of them end up killing themselves. Interspersed with this are short episodes from the narrators childhood, which are written in a slightly more fantastical fashion, leaving the reader more unsure of what is real and what is childish imagination.

Right, so did I like it? I'm not sure. I felt as though I was missing something. Some sort of background information. There was imagery I didn't fully get, such as the green plums referred to in the English title - when she is a child the narrator's father says that green plums will kill her, and as an adult she keeps pointing at this eating of green plums and how the guards of the totalitarian state eat green plums always. I don't really understand this. Why would anyone eat green plums at all, they're vile. I must be missing something. It's going to be really interesting discussing this tomorrow, and I'll probably update the post then. I'm wondering if it's a translation issue, but I don't think so, the translation seems good. Is it just that I'm unfamiliar with her work, and this is best read in conjunction with earlier books?

Update after just arriving home from club: it was indeed very interesting to read what the others thought about the book. Some opinions we shared, like that it was generally not easy to read, but in some we differed. Got some new ideas on the green plums issue that were interesting. Has made me determined to re-read book at later date. I had so much fun!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Now would you look at this!

I borrowed The Hanging at the Hotel the other day (by Simon Brett), but I think I've read it. Not that I'd know from the blog, because apparently I never wrote about it. Arse. Then how'll I ever keep up? And then I found this post and there's more I never wrote about. Damn damn damn.

Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders

I know I know, I'm not that keen on Christie. I borrowed this on whim because I recognized the title but hadn't read it, and I was desperate for some vintage.

As stories and plots go this one is actually quite good. A serial killer challenges Poirot before he starts murdering people in alphabetical order. He signs his letters ABC and leaves an ABC railway guide by the corpses. There are intriguingly modern discussions on the motivations of a serial killer - a well-known alienist is called in to do what we today would call a profile on the killer. Nothing new under the sun, eh? However, Poirot is such an annoying character and Hastings really doesn't improve things. Bleurgh. The end did surprise me a good bit though. If you're into this type of stuff I recommend it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

3 x P.D. James and a long ponder about coffee in crime fiction

Remember I  said that I wanted to read an old P.D. James to compare with the new ones? Well, I did, I went back to the library and borrowed the newest, The Private Patient from 2008 and Innocent Blood from 1980, and then I realised that Innocent Blood wasn't a Dalgliesh novel so thus not perfect for comparisons, so I went back again and borrowed Shroud for a Nightingale from 1971, which I at first had discarded because I had such a distinct memory of reading it - whereas I have a far more vague recollection of, say, Cover Her Face - but I took it in the end because all the others were taken.

So I dove into P.D. James-land, old and new, and tried desperately to pay attention to what I was thinking while I was reading, so I could relate those thoughts later. For what it's worth. I remember noticing how, in the older books, she often mentions the clothes using expressions like "made from good wool", whereas she seems to use less of these qualifiers in the newer ones, choosing instead to describe the clothes and perhaps say something about "from an expensive brand" or similar. Which I think is quite telling. We aren't as good at telling quality anymore, we just know brands. Expensive has become good in itself. But it's interesting how she uses clothes to describe people, to define them. In Shroud for a Nightingale of course the nurses' uniforms too say a lot about them - one chooses to wear a more old-fashioned cap, another sticks to the army nursing uniform she was trained in.

Another thing: when reading Innocent Blood I was suddenly struck by the fact that people in P.D. James' world always drink such great coffee. And then I started noticing and remembering that this is true of lots of crime fiction I read (in English, Swedish is a whole other kettle of java folks) - they're forever taking beans out of the freezer and grinding them to make fresh, strong coffee. From John Grisham to Caroline Graham, not to mention the much older ones. It's EVERYWHERE. Once I started thinking about it I couldn't help but be really struck by it. Now, my experience of Anglo coffee culture is a jar of instant and the electric kettle beside it. I have no personal experience of American coffee, but all my reliable sources (i.e. friends who have been there) say that the stuff people in general drink is vile. So where does this love of bean-grinding come from? Is it an attempt to convert people? Is it just that crime writers somewhere somehow pick up excellent coffee habits and can't imagine their characters drinking anything else? Is it some sort of inside joke? Or is it a class thing - have the middle to upper middle classes (and above) always had good coffee? It just tickles me that there is no middle ground. It's either crap instant coffee OR freshly ground beans and the infusion method. To me there's an intermediate level, and that is buying coffee ready-ground and a drip-style coffee maker. Which is what we have, like, I'd wager, most Swedes. In fact, even though I have a few friends who have oh-la-la espresso makers, I doubt they grind their own beans to be honest. Anyway, P.D. James is a great one for good coffee. It honestly doesn't seem to cross her mind that anyone would make coffee any other way. Oh, I didn't bring the books now (am at work) so I can't check for sure. This is from memory. Possibly the odd jar of instant pops up, but then it's a Telling Thing, I'm sure, like the quality of their clothes. (No prize by the way for guessing what I want for Christmas now.)

I also realised what has bothered me a lot when reading P.D. James - I have time issues. I don't get a clear sense of the time, the when we are talking about. This is silly, because she states the "when" very clearly. Often the book is divided into sections that are dated, so we know where in the investigation we are (July or 10 Aug for example). And the year is the Now, it's not a distant past or anything, just think Now and you're there. But I'm still disoriented. I think it's partly because she creates characters that are not really contemporary. They seem vaguely timeless - if music is discussed it's always the classics, ditto for books, and somehow there is such an emphasis on class that I don't know when I am. And then there's the classic problem of the never-aging detective. In Shroud for a Nightingale Dalgliesh's obnoxious side-kick Masterson thinks of Dalgliesh as "the old man", and Masterson himself is 28 or so. So surely Dalgliesh should be at least 50? Or nearly so anyway. Nevertheless, he seems to be about 50 in The Private Patient too. Or alright, maybe 60. A little closer to retirement. Coupled with the slightly archaic feel to a lot of her characters I end up feeling decidedly lost. It wouldn't happen if she wasn't actually a very realistic writer, someone I take seriously. There are some writers were I don't even notice anachronisms if there are any, but with James I would.

So do I actually really and truly like P.D. James? I think I have to answer yes, because it's impossible to say no. Shes' still one fo the greatest. But I don't, or at least very seldom, feel a strong compulsion to read something she's written. It doesn't really warm the cockles of my heart. It's somewhere in between. Hm.

Innocent Blood
, first, is a stand-alone, one of those crime novels that are acclaimed for being "real literature" and not just detective stories. A young woman, Philippa Palfrey, has always known that she is adopted, and as soon as she legally can she finds out who her biological parents are. To her shock she discovers that she is the daughter of convicted murderers - her father raped a 12-year-old girl, and her mother strangled her. Her father died in prison and her mother is just up for release. Philippa decides to spend the summer with her mother in London. Meanwhile, the father of the murdered girl is looking for them, to take the revenge he promised his wife before she died. It's a novel about the repercussions of crime, and how people cope - and thankfully not so much about whether "bad blood will tell". A lot of commentary on the political tension of the times, and the shift to a gentler, sociological attitude towards criminals, and whether this is right. I can't really fault the book, but it's not a favourite of mine. I don't understand the way the characters behave (apart from the father of the murdered girl). None of them really touch me. I am more interested in the descriptions of a London that is now gone, how Philippa hunts for a flat and so on. One of my problems with P.D. James is clear in this book, and that is how people tend to speak the same way. Granted, she'll have a few of the lower classes talking slang, or with an accent, or what have you, but the middle class she writes about tends to all use the same language. It just annoys me a little that Philippas mother, who isn't supposed to be very educated, talks with much the same vocabulary as Philippa. Another thing which is interesting is that she doesn't really focus on the horror of a paedophile raping a young girl, not the same way as we'd do now. As a matter of fact I get the distinct feeling that the girl sort of has herself to blame? Unpleasant, but something is definitely off.

Shroud for a Nightingale
is also interesting for its historical value, as it describes a shift in nursing education and the general view on and attitude towards nurses and nursing. Not in great detail you understand, but there is information there. The nurses in the book still wear more elaborate uniforms and some of the older ones emphasise the ideals they were trained under - in retrospect the descriptions in McEwan's Atonement were useful to me; I didn't even write about the passages on Briony's nursing training at the time, but now I think I get it. Oddly, I started thinking about an old Ladybird book I had as a child - still have it somewhere. It was about nurses and very retro. Without having read that I don't think that I'd understand all the things she writes about uniforms, spinsterhood as a requirement, staff housing for nurses etc. Ladybird books... oh, I'm having an acute nostalgia attack. They just aren't the same anymore. I must give them a blog entry sometime. Anyway, storyline: in a private hospital with a nursing school attached, housed in an inappropriate old formerly private house, one of the nursing students is killed during a demonstration. Later another is found dead in her room, and then Dalgliesh is called in. The very unsympathetic officer Masterson functions as a contrast to Dalgliesh, the gentleman. This is good detective story, with no dead bits and a bit of a surprise at the end. I remember liking it last time too. I did get a bit overwhelmed by an abundance of names though, but I just went with it. It's not James, it's me, I'm easily distracted.

The Private Patient is also set in a hospital, but I didn't think of that when I was choosing the books.Rhoda Gradwyn, an investigative journalist, has decided to remove a very disfiguring scar. She opts for the surgeon George Chandler-Powell, and decided to go to his private clinic in the country instead of having the operation in London. During the night after the operation she is killed, and it's evident that someone connected to the clinic did it.

I really enjoyed this book, and I agree with all those who think that it's James's farewell novel. She wraps up all loose ends and lets everyone be happy (pretty much). It's one of the most hopeful of her novels. Maybe that's why I liked it, because even though the melancholy is there it's offset with love and dreams for the future. So read this if you haven't! It's a good-bye from one of crime fiction's best.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jeffery Deaver: The Broken Window

I haven't, according to the blog, read a novel by Jeffery Deaver since 2006. (I have also misspelled the label - "Jeffrey" -  so I may try to fix that now). I had a bit of a phase then and was quite taken with him. Now, the saying is that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in the case of revisiting formely pet writers this is not necessarily true. Reading The Broken Window I was more annoyed than I remember being before at how repetitive Deaver is when he fills the new readers in how background info, like that Rhymes is paralysed. And that he peppers the text with cliffhangers. It also felt obvious when he led us to red herring assumptions into who the killer really was - so obvious that I realised it must be someone else that we'd never thought of.

Nevertheless Deaver is a very skilled thriller writer who puts together an entertaining read. When I spotted this brand new paperback at the library (I was the first reader! The spine will never be the same) I was happy to pick it up. The theme of this book is that we, in our new computerized society, sprinkle small bits of information about ourselves all over the place, and that the people who can access all this information have, potentially, enormous power. In this case a serial killer uses the information to stalk victims and frame innocents as their murderers. He knows his victim's interests and can disarm them by liking the same things, he knows what brands the would-be murderer favours and can plant evidence at their house. I have to confess that I am ignorant and am  not sure if there really is a private company that collects ALL such information about us so they potentially can sell a complete dossier on us to anyone, but sure, there might be. It's a sobering thought. Although I can't help feeling a little incredulous about it, since my first reaction is "why would anyone bother?". Except perhaps (a plot in the plot) the government looking for terrorist affiliations. But on the whole I'm not into conspiracy theories - well, I mean I'd read about them as fiction, but I don't believe them to be true.

Perfect book to read when travelling. Just long and engrossing enough, but not too complex.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Alexander McCall Smith: The Miracle at Speedy Motors

I haven't read any of McCall Smith's books for ages, since I was a little tired of them to be honest. But I saw this at the library and thought "oh it's the newest one" and borrowed it, only it's not the newest one, is it, there are two more after this one if you count Mma Ramotswe's Cookbook. I'm clearly a little behind the times. This one is about Mma Ramotswe receiving threatening letters, and Mr J.L.B. Maketoni hearing of a doctor that might be able to help Motholeli, their foster daughter, who is lame. (As in: unable to walk. Stop sniggering at the back.)

Being not as enchanted with McCall Smith now - not the same way I was when he was new to me and I first read him -  I noticed his repetitiveness more, which is what gets annoying if you read a lot of his books in a row. But what the hell, I still like it. I like reading a book as friendly and positive as this; friendly and positive even though it deals with sorrow sometimes. I find it immensely hopeful.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Caroline Graham: Faithful Unto Death

All in all, Caroline Graham has written twelve books it seems, and our library has four (in English that is). Sad. Considering how immensely popular the Midsomer Murders is here too, you'd think there'd be more. With Faithful Unto Death I think I've read them all now. I have to say that I've enjoyed this one more than any of the others, and since it's been so long since I've read the others I can't be sure if this is due to some actual literary merit or just a case of Graham hitting the spot for me just now. I really revelled in her wittiness, even laughing out loud sometimes.

The storyline starts out fairly simple, with a woman disappearing, her husband acting increasingly odd, and then being found dead. On the face of it it seems to be an all too ordinary case of a jealous possessive man abusing his pretty, subdued and frail wife. There are twists to it though, some of which I guessed, but some I didn't. The plot hung together very well on this one I thought.

I started reading and before I'd come thirty pages even I'd found several bits I'd like to quote here, which stressed me as I didn't have a pen at the time to note them down with. Sadly this marred my experience somewhat, until I decided to let it go, I couldn't bloody well quote the whole book anyway. Allow me to laboriously type out one passage though. Mrs Molfrey (a former star of the stage, living out her last days in obscurity), visits Barnaby to report that her neighbour, Simone Hollingsworth, appears to have vanished:

'She vanished last Thursday. Into thin air, as the saying is, though I've never understood why. Surely if a person is to be concealed the air would have to be extremely thick. Rather like the old pea-soupers.'

'If you could - '

'Don't chip in, there's a good fellow. When I've finished I'll give some sort of signal. Wave my handkerchief. Or shout.'

Barnaby closed his eyes.

'I became suspicious the very first evening. I remember it precisely and I'll tell you why. The sunset, from which I usually derive considerable refreshment, was a great disappointment. A dreadful common colour, like tinned salmon. Cubby was feeding my onions - renowned, I might add, for their splendour - and I was rootling around with my little hoe anticipating a word or two with Simone. She would usually come out around that time to call her cat and we would exchange pleasantries, the latest bit of viillage gosspi from her side of the fence whereas I would discuss the progress of my plants, curse all winged and crawling predators and inveigh against the weather, the way all gardeners do.'

Barnaby nodded. He, too, was a keen gardener and had been known to inveigh againt the weather in his time in a  manner so robust it caused his wife to slam the French windows with such vigour the panes rattled.

Oh, that'll do. It's a very funny book in many places. As I've said, she writes miles better than the TV series, which is not at all as cynical and wicked, but instead rather bland and boring. It's a really clever blend of the modern and the old-fashioned, in that she is writing these village whodunits basically, but she is contemporary. Like, as we say on Facebook.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ellery Queen's Book of Mystery Stories by 25 Famous Writers

I found this secondhand aaaaages ago - in the summer? BEFORE the summer? Long ago, anyway. Like it says on the tin, it's a collection of stories by authors normally not associated with crime fiction. I decided when I bought it (for a pittance, by the way) that it would be fun to jot down a few notes after reading each story, and then posting everything on the blog. Ha ha. What followed was that I read 3/4 of the book and then got tired of taking notes, so left the book "to rest" for a good few months. Also, I suspect that the notes are not that thrilling to read. But it has the bonus of me listing ALL the authors and ALL the stories, and that may be of some historical interest. Perhaps there's a desperate Googler out there just waiting for this blog entry, who knows. In my recent determination to have a crime fiction spree I've finished this now, so here goes.

Sinclair Lewis: The Post-Mortem Murder
Pearl Buck: Ransom
Nobel Prize? First one rather dull. Overly dramatic delivery of lines. Buck better, but v. fanciful - Grey Squad from FBI etc. Strong silent men etc. Wtf? [I later happened to see a TV-programme on Hoover, and learned all about how he promoted the educated FBI agent that popularly became known as a G-man, and that became an almost super-hero figure, including comic books. So that explains the Grey Squad in the short story and the hero-worshipping.]

Somerset Maugham: Before the Party
V. good.

Edna St. Vincent Millay: The Murder in the Fishing Cat
From a time when Americans could write in French and assume they'd be understood.

John Galsworthy: The Juryman
Depth, moving, well described. Man more involved with status and material comfort learns that empathy and understanding more important, and that his marriage is empty if they cannot talk really talk about such things. He feels admiration for her but they are not close.

John Steinbeck: The Murder
Most impressed by Jelka Stepiz - those where the days when an American author could write diacritic signs and get them printed. Now US gets special edition of Harry Potter so US kids don't have to wonder what a jumper is.

William Faulkner: Monk
Quote the bit in §1! [I have no idea what I wanted to quote now. Introduction to story mentions several books I have to read though.] Monk name of criminal - is the tv series a joke?

Rudyard Kipling: The Limitations of Pambé Serang
True to imperialist form, but he is a great story-teller.

Louis Bromfield: Prime of Life
"Really American story" [according to introduction] - maybe so, v. good story-telling.

Ernest Hemingway: The Killers
Terse and hard-boiled.

Charles Dickens: Hunted Down
Curiously disappointing. Starts off well, but finishes bla bla bla all the tension gone from story.

Willa Cather: Paul's Case
Pulitzer prize winner deservedly. Example of American writing. Little gem. Imaginative boy unable to accept ordinariness, ultimate escapist - perhaps all criminals are?

Mark Twain: The Stolen White Elephant
Stolen elephant. Humorous but not really my thing.

Aldous Huxley: The Gioconda Smile
Flirty ladies' man accused of poisoning wife. Mostly about his inner workings, crime by the bye. Not bad.

Guy de Maupassant: The Hand
Funny how an Englishman plays pivotal role in French detective story - set in Corsica, no less. After all typically English genre. Almost Poe-ish.

C.S. Forester: The Letters in Evidence
Wife abuse. A little chilling at first but the endearments start to feel silly. Letters. Clever.

Ring Lardner: Haircut
Friend of Fitzgerald. Barber tells customer the tale. Interesting.

Walter de la Mare: An Ideal Craftsman
A bit too long and too intent on conveying in minute detail some sort of gothic feel. Less is more. Doesn't describe the boy's reasoning terribly well?

James Thurber: The Catbird Seat
Nice! English in flavour, mildly humorous.

R.L. Stevenson: Markheim
Moralistic. Reminds me of Poe, but less goffik.

H.G. Wells: Mr Brisher's Treasure
What's a taproom?

Damon Runyon: Sense of Humour
Cute funny mob story - must have inspired lots of people. Twisted macabre ending.

Frank Swinnerton: The Verdict
3 women discuss a friend's death. Liked! But odd ending? Good but not sure I get it.

James Gould Cozzens: Clerical Error
V short story on blackmail. Ok.

Fannie Hurst: Guilty
Another writer v popular in her day. About heredity of mental illness. In bits excellent, but author has annoying mannerisms like writing . . .  at end of sentence. Super descriptions of way of life. [Read the short Wikipedia article! What a woman. And now all but forgotten.]

I can't tag the post with all the authors' names, which irks me, but there you are. Hopefully all my hard work will benefit some curious soul some day...

Each short story has an introduction of the author at the beginning, and often those introductions are the bits I find most interestingin this type of book, since they praise authors now forgotten and mention in passing those that have now become cult classics. I wish I had the energy to type in lots of examples, but I don't because a) I don't, and b) I'm writing from work (have Internet access of sorts!!!) and haven't got the actual book here now. But I reoommend this heartily for any crime aficionado!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Janwillem van de Wetering

Another random library choice. I think I was struck by the author's name, that is its similarity to the name of the policeman hero, van Veeteren, in Håkan Nesser's books. (Remind me to give those books a proper try some day. Have read the odd one that's all.) Looking the cover over I saw it was full of superlative quotes, the most memorable being from someone called John Leonard:

He's doing what Simenon might have done if Albert Camus had sublet his skull.

Now, with an endorsement like that i just had to read it, obviously.

This is a part of a series, the Grijpstra-de Gier series, but our library only has this one book, and I don't think it's the first one either. I don't know if the book would have been more immediately appealing if I'd read the series from the beginning, but as it was I had a hard time getting into it. About half-way through I started to quite like it, and now I feel like I might at some point read more of van de Wetering's. Perhaps not actively hunt for them, but if something fell into my lap, like, I wouldn't shy away from it. My initial reaction was that here was someone trying too hard to be quirky and original, leaving his characters more like caricatures than people. I was proven wrong towards the end, as I said. There's definitely more feeling in his writing than I first thought. I think van de Wetering might be quite a Big Deal, but I'd never heard of him before. Apparently he wrote in Dutch and English, and this book was previously published in a Dutch version - I just love that, that he wrote different versions of the books instead of translating them!
de Gier has moved to a small town in Maine and rented a house in an attempt to find himself after he and Grijpstra quit the police. Now he rings Grijpstra in a panic because his lover is dead and it looks like de Gier murdered her. Nobody knows yet, and can private detective Grijpstra please come and help him? So his old partner does, and discovers a more complicated town and situation than what he'd expected.

My favourite bit is that the man who comes to pick Grijpstra up at the airport in a small aeroplane is called Ishmael. And that Ishmael has an old warehouse in which he has a collection of What. It's worth reading the whole book just for Ishmael's theories on owning, losing, having and not having, and what is worth collecting. I'm not going to explain what a collection of What is, that would spoil it if you want to read it, and it's too wonderful to spoil.

I didn't think I'd recommend it, but I do. I don't LOVE it, but it's appealing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

3 x Charlaine Harris

In one of those wonderful coincidences that make up life, I came across Charlaine Harris for the first time about a month (or is it two?) ago when I went shopping with my sister. Shopping means thrift store hopping in our case, and it was in Myrorna that I browsed the paperbacks and saw a book from the "Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries". I was turning it in my hands when my sister noticed what I was doing and commented on the book, and that's how I found out that this is the basis of True Blood. I've been meaning to watch True Blood, especially since SVT started airing it from the start this autumn, but I missed the first episode and yada yada yada, I didn't. Anyway, I opted to not buy this paperback because I decided it wasn't worth 15 kr to me - not at that time anyway. (I'd found this pair of trousers, y'see.) I asked mys sister if they were any good these books, she hadn't read them so didn't know (I think) but had heard that they were "cute", so I thought about it but no.

Then the other week I was in the library and just by chance noticed a book lying in the wrong spot, and lo, it's another Charlaine Harris. Not that I remembered the author's name, I was just checking out the cover when I noticed. However this one was not a Sookie Stackhouse book, but a Harper Connelly. Also in the science fiction/fantasy realm though. Harper was struck by lightning in her youth, and got the ability to sense where dead people are, and also how they died. She now does this for a living. Grave Surprise is about how Harper participates in an experiment to see if she's a fraud, and finds a new dead body in an old grave. The body is that of a child that Harper and her brother Tolliver (!? that's some name folks) tried to find 18 months earlier and failed. So why has the child turned up now, in a different town and over a 200 year old coffin?

I started reading it and was pleasantly surprised first at how good the writing was, but another chapter or so in I had to amend that. It's not that good, really. It's a standard writing effort, nothing terribly exciting. You don't exactly lose yourself in the prose here. The thing that stuck with me most is that Harris writes you-all instead of y'all, something I've never seen before. Does this reflect some local dialect? However, there is a sudden bite sometimes in the story itself which I suspect is the root of Harris's success and the reason for True Blood's existence. Something darker, something real. In the Harper Connelly case it's hinted at in her and her brother's past, when they grew up with parents who used drugs - I'm thinking of a mention that her mother tried to sell Harper to a drug dealer. In the next series I've tried, the Lily Bard series, it's again a traumatic event in Lily's past that provides it, and some other things that I forget right now. I had it two hours ago. Sigh. Anyway, it's not much, but it's there. While the books themselves are formulaic to say the least (she has a fondness for men with long hair, I see), and her heroines are Mary Sues (God I love that expression), there is a definite undertone of an author who wants to SAY something. I just hope she gets better at it. Churning out books at the rate she is I don't reckon she gives herself time to - the woman is ludicrously productive. I mean, in the days of Patricia Wentworth you'd have to write a book by hand, send it off to be typed, re-read the proofs etc etc. Nowadays it must all be done in one go what with computers and all, so a productive writer can really be just that.

I'm going to write about the Bard series even though I haven't finished the books (because to be honest it doesn't matter that I haven't): I'm reading Shakespeare's Trollop and have also borrowed Shakespeare's Counselor. I just took 'em because they were there, and about five pages into ST I didn't think I'd even finish it - writing's a bit dull, like I said. But looks like I might after all. Lily Bard is a cleaning lady in a small Arkansas town called Shakespeare (Bard, Shakespeare - get it? Get it? YES WE DO) and also a bit of a karate expert (in my idea of a small town there is no room for a dojo, frankly, but there you go, and there's two, a taekwondo one too). Karate because of her past - kidnapped, raped and savagely knifed: never again, I take it. ST is about when Lily finds the town's bad girl, who is also one of her employers, dead in her car in the forest. SC is about Lily going into group therapy to face her past, until one of the group's members is murdered. I'm half skimming them, and if I ever come across one of her Sookie books I'll skim that too. Oh, bonus point for Charlaine - it's nice when writers stick to places they know, in this case the South. She is consistent, all the books are set in the South. I quite like that. Not that I like the reality of the South she is portraying, mind. But it's realistic, I suppose. It's clear from her books that the South is still a segregated society. There are few black people in the books, when they're there it's pointed out that they are black (not in a racist fashion at all, but still), and in ST the victim's stepfather makes it clear that he didn't like her sleeping around indiscreetly with "people of colour". But see that's what I like, it's not glossed over. It's not an overt social commentary either, but in the aside it says a lot.

Right, now off to bed for me. And I haven't linked so much in a blog post EVER.

Edited the next day: naturally the racist issue was more openly discussed in the book I hadn't read when I wrote the above. Just to punish me for my haste. SC tried a little more to touch on controversial subjects too. I'm also regretting calling all Harris's heroines Mary Sues. They have tendencies sure, but whereas a Mary Sue has an imaginary flaw Harris's ladies to have real ones, in my opinion. Now.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Ngaoi Marsh: The Nursing Home Murder

This novel comes from the Diamond Anniversary Collection from HarperCollins, which means the novels come in sets of threes. I'd already read the first two, A Man Lay Dead and Enter A Murderer, which naturally meant that I was a little annoyed at having to lug around all those extra pages. (Especially since I actually own the first two.) Makes the book harder to hold with one hand, don't you know. On the upside though, the volume includes a great introduction by Ngaio Marsh herself on Roderick Alleyn (pronounced ALLEN thanks be to God for clearing that up for me!), and her first published short story (not crime). Very interesting! Ngaoi writes that when she created Alleyn she wanted to create an ordinary man, not one of these affected detectives that abound(ed) in crime fiction, the ones that are defined by their mannerisms and habits - but she admits that she failed a bit, at least at first. She ironed out those rough edges later. On the whole these Diamond editions seem like they might be worth collecting really, at least if they all contain freebies.

Oh, and unrelated but not, look at this blog, devoted solely to New Zealand crime fiction!

When I read The Nursing Home Murder I was first struck by how bad it was. I mean, considering. I was quite taken aback. The writing feels much more stilted and has less flow then the Marsh I'm used to. There were some odd things, like references, like footnotes, to the two earlier books - has this been added by teh publisher for this edition or was it like that all along? It's lame. And it has a theme that is very current for a book from 1935, namely forced sterilization and the "weeding out" of people with "undesirable genetic traits". Ring a bell? But at first this is mentioned as a matter of course, and I'm going oh sweet mother of God, Ngaio babe, are you PRO? But it sort of resolves towards the end. I mean, I'd be able to put this book in the contra faction. I don't remember the other two (which are from just before and just after this one) as being THAT poor, but possibly I was just starved for Marsh at the time.

The story is that a minister, responsible for a controversial new Bill (on sterilization, probably, but I don't think it's actually said outright), ignores a stomach ache and ends up in emergency surgery. He dies on the operating table, and the widow is convinced it was murder. Turns out that, actually, everyone present might have done it. Carrying on a theme from the previous two books we have the Communists lurking about in a revolutionary rage, and Nigel the journo as Alleyn's sidekick. Oh how glad I am that he was axed. Poor book, but readable if you're loyal and interested.

4 x Patricia Wentworth

Patricia Wentworth is an author that I have (hithertooooooo) completely overlooked. I'm not sure why I've never spotted her - possibly her name reminds me of another author that I don't care for, possibly it's just another example of my scatty approach to enjoying detective stories. Anyway, she's one of the golden oldies of vintage crime, and I was put on to her by a tip on a forum I frequent. Also, I'd just come across the name at the back of a Cyril Hare book, I think, because it rang a bell as soon as I'd read it. Another example of coincidence being all over this thing we call life. So I skedaddled over to the library and borrowed everything they had to offer - not much, sadly - because as I said, I need to indulge in a bit of crime fiction for a bit.

A novel by Wentworth is easily read in one night's work (if you work nights as I do). They are heavily tinged with the author's other literary bent, namely that as penner of romance novels. There is always a young couple in it, who are in love but don't at first realise it, or are thwarted by one of them being suspects in the murder, or something to that effect. At the end they of course fall happily into an embrace for ever after - it's really rather Austen-esque. One of the novels I read now, The Gazebo, even has a Persuasion theme - years ago, the unfeeling relations forced the young couple apart, but now they meet again etc. Sweet!

Our detective hero is Miss Maud Silver, who used to be a governess but now runs a private enquiry agency. I love this old-fashioned term for private eye by the way. It's very quaint. Miss Silver is one of those old ladies who finds out a load of things simply by always knitting and looking old and harmless - a bit like Miss Marple, but not as draconian. As a recall Miss Marple, she can be quite hard-core: a staunch supporter of the death penalty for example. Wouldn't surprise me if she in one book or other advocates the rod as the best aid in child-rearing - Miss Silver however in The Watersplash clearly says that if you beat a child you've failed at raising it. I find myself a little untaken with Miss Silver though despite all this, mostly due to Wentworth giving her an annoying cough, that she uses to punctuate her speech at The Important Moments. Dreadfully irritating. Other than that she's rather grand. A random thing I really like is that Miss Silver is in at least three of the books I think is knitting baby vests in pink wool. She does this regardless of the sex of the child - in two cases she doesn't know it as it's not yet born. Wonderful. I choose to see this as proof of the somewhat controversial statement that pink was a colour for boys up until the 50s or so (Miss Silver is knitting unisex pink during that decade).

I've read, in this order, Spotlight (1949), The Gazebo (1955), The Key (1946) and The Watersplash (1954). All four as you can see set in the war and post-war era, with references to rationing, egg substitute, bombings and happiness at pink wool finally being available again after so many years of khaki. The Key is set smack in the middle of the war and has a spy theme, even. Spotlight is the oldest edition, from 1952, and has this great romantic retro cover that seems to have been the norm for Wentworth novels for a while, since The Key and The Gazebo are re-prints from 2005 and have the same style artwork on the front. Cute but a little embarrassing to read in public, if you are a little vain, as I am. Whatever did people who saw me think? The Watersplash has a horribly lurid MURDER!!! cover photo though, printed in -88 that one is. The first and last of the books listed are old enough to be dotted through with comments by the crime aficionado/proof reader who haunts the pages of all older crime novels the library possesses, at least in the English section. Haven't come across her (I think it's a her) for ages! I wonder why she stopped commenting? Is she dead? Or did she just move? Or stop reading? Check the link and you'll see that I asked myself these questions before.

Spotlight: the only one where the murder takes place in a country house in manner of a classic whodunnit. A young woman, Dorinda, takes a job as private secretary to a rather indolent wife of a wealthy man. They are all invited to visit a business accquaintance of the husband's. All the guests are oddly ill-matched and make up an awkward house party. When their host is found murdered it transpires that he was blackmailing them all. Fascinating little thing: Dorinda is supposed to have unusual colouring with hair and eyes the same shade of gold, and her cousin fervently hopes that she'll not start tinting her eyelashes, they are so beautiful as they are. Imagine that these days when mascara is such a norm. Sigh.

The Gazebo: See above. The evil relation (mother) is found strangled. Did the thwarted fiancé do it? Or has it got something to do with the fact that two people seem oddly keen on buying the young lady's house, no matter the cost?

The Key: an inventor and refugee from a concentration camp has finally finished the explosive he's been working on for so long. Immediately after announcing this fact he is murdered. Warum?

The Watersplash: a young man returns after being missing for five years. Everyone thought he was dead, including the rich uncle who made a new will and left everything to his own brother. But was that really the end of it all? A local drunk who claims to have witnessed an even newer will is found dead in the local watersplash (whatever that is, I have to look this up when I get home - is it a glorified word for puddle?). Somebody is killing those few who might have an inkling that there is something odd with the wills…

I can't say I have a favourite, because to be honest they are all pretty much the same. The plot is fair - good workmanship throughout. They're not proper whodunnits I'd say, as evidence keeps falling in all through the book. I liked them though and will definitely keep a look-out for more! - the library has none so it'll have to be careful second-hand browsing and possibly a bit of an E-bay spree. But not for a while, I must be good now. I've been too liberal lately.

Oh, final note: what I especially like about vintage crime is that you do learn something, honest, while enjoying yourself. I've learned during this recent spree that the expression originally was "to make up" and not "to apply make-up" or "put make-up on". Very educational.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

P.D. James: The Murder Room

I have a feeling I may have read this before - I often get that feeling with these British crime authors, both because I may actually have read them, but also because they are so often televised. It is impossible to imagine the face of Adam Dalgliesh as anything other than that of "his" actor now, of course. Anyway, I took it on a whim and if I've read it it must have been long enough ago for me to forget most of it, so all is well. I see that I have never blogged about a P.D. James book since this one - not surprising since I think my last P.D. James craze was in my teens sometime.

It's one of the newer Jameses, and I believe I said in the previous post that I'm not as fond of them. I somehow feel that they become so centred around Dalgliesh's "new" staff. We've got Inspector Kate Miskin here, who has gone from low class and delapidated housing estate to middle-class, but who can't always let go of the past despite wanting to belong to her new status. She's the most important side-kick in this book, with Tarrant and Benton-Smith as seconds. I'm not sure why I disapprove so much of the new kids on the block. I think I feel it's a bit strained, like James is trying to update the concept but her heart is still with the more classic lone detective genius solving the country house crime? Not that James has ever been that predictable, but she does write sort of in that genre - but well. I think I may just have to re-read a bunch of Jameses and see what the difference is between the books from say the 70s and the ones written now. This one is from 2003. Part of it is probably that she for the sake of realism inserts people that she doesn't (probably) know that much about - homeless people or what have you. I might be unfair, we'll know if I have a binge.

The book starts off with a coincidence - Dalglish is taken to a private museum on the inter-war years, the Dupayne, by a friend. A week later a murder takes place on the premises, and owing to one of the employees having a connection with MI5 it is considered best if Dalgliesh and his special team handles the investigation. We have a narrow set of suspects from the beginning. True to James's style we delve into the minds of all involved, and get just enough hints from the suspects' thoughts to keep us guessing. I wasn't too surprised at who the murderer was, but felt like I had missed some things when she mentions her motive - maybe I wasn't paying attention somewhere, but as it was it felt like loose ends. On the other hand, that's what life is, a bunch of loose ends.

By a coincidence of my own I read this at just about the same time of year as when everything happens in the book. I started reading on Nov. 3 and finished on Nov. 4, and the first victim dies on Nov. 1 in the book. This amused me. Also, in the fictional Murder Room at the museum are displayed real cases from the inter-war years, and snippets of facts from these cases are mentioned, such as that one of the murderers got off largely thanks to a very well-spoken lawyer with a sonorous voice. I think the murder took place in -34. Now, when reading Hare's Tragedy at Law (from 1946) I remember that one of the lawyers is said to have just such a beautiful voice, seducing juries into letting his clients off the hook. I'm thinking that Hare's fictional lawyer is modelled on a very real lawyer then, y'see.

I did like the book, and like I said I might go on a bit of a PD James kick now. She is worth it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Ariana Franklin: The Serpent's Tale

My sister brought to my attention that although I borrowed and read the second book in the Mistress of the Art of Death series I never blogged about it. The shame. It's been MONTHS. And it's sort of faded on me now, so I'll just do my best. It's set a while after the first one ended, and while Adelia and Rowley were lovers for a bit and have had a daughter, they are now estranged. He has become a bishop and seems to have truly found a calling too, she lives modestly (poorly) in the Fens with her friends.

The king's mistress is murdered with poisonous mushrooms, and Adelia is called in by the king to investigate. The plot turns out to be more convoluted than expected, with a coup staged by the jealous queen imprisoning them in a convent, and their lives being threatened by an assassin. I liked how the mistress lives in a tower surrounded by a maze of thorny bushes - it's a nice little hint at an origin of the Sleeping Beauty story. This may just be embellishing a legend, but I liked it.

I had, frankly, expected to like it less, being a sequel, but it's quite okay. The plot was a little much though, with things happening all over the place. It bothered me, don't know why… I think I got that cynical feeling that the author thought it would look good on film, maybe. I hate that feeling. However, it's great that it's not at all all lovey-dovey between Adelia and Rowley, because that would have been too simple and too obviously some sort of sponge-off Ellis Peters' and her optimistic view of the world. If my sister gets the third one I'll read that too.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Ngaoi Marsh: Tied Up In Tinsel

Fed up with "real literature" I have decided to wallow in crime fiction for a while. Specifically as much vintage as I can get my hands on - I may even re-read some. I was pleased to find a Ngaoi Marsh at the library that I hadn't read, although to be honest I think I must have - the story seems a little familiar. But there were huge chunks that were not, so maybe I haven't? Haven't blogged about it anyway. Although the book is old (written in -72, reprinted -76 by Aeonian Press, a company that seems to have taken pride in a hit-and-miss approach to inking their typewhatsits, the little metal letters like, that you print with. The print is sometimes very blurry) so I should in all fairness have seen it when I had my MASSIVE detective story craze a few years ago, before I started the blog. Although I did just find a new Marsh, a collection of three novels (two of which I've read I might add, typical), so maybe someone has donated some books or something. Not important. Moving on.

Being a late Marsh it has moved with the times - somewhat. We have here a murder in a country house, with a limited number of suspects. But, since this is the seventies, the country house is a delapidated new accquisition by an excentric rich man, who has made his fortune in antiques, and who staffs it cheaply with criminals - murderers - from the nearby prison. Troy is here painting his portrait, and when Alleyn unexpectedly is home for Christmas he arrives just in time for the murder.

Favourite bits:  Marsh has once again inserted a homosexual character, subtly. We even get a little sad taste of the times, possibly it's even social criticism? One of the staff of murderers is descriped like this:

"He actually trained as a chef. He is not," Hilary had told Troy, "one hundred per cent he-man. He was imprisoned under that heading but while serving his sentence attacked a warder who approached him when he was not in the mood."

It's actually very sordid and sad in many ways, but so lightly dealt with. You can't say that this type of literature doesn't teach you loads about the times in which they were written. Our gay chef is later referred to as "that queen in the kitchen" I might add.

I also liked the description of how the rich man's girlfriend behaves and talks. I can't find the spot now, but she makes a "dead set" at Alleyn, much to Troy's amusement, and says something to her along the lines of "Darling! Your husband? The mostest! You know?" which is hilarious.

Not my favourite, but not bad.