Award winning mystery writer Ann Cleeves creates a picturesque tour of the north Shetland islands in her book Thin Air, providing much atmosphere to the story of a ghostly little girl and a woman who goes missing. The plot centers around a group of “southerners” from London who arrive to celebrate the recent marriage of one of their university friends to a local fellow. The group of old friends are vastly diverse, ranging from an outgoing film producer to a neurotic, insecure librarian. Their first night on the island, Eleanor, a bold and sensual woman who is suffering from the recent loss of a baby, disappears and is later found dead along the water’s edge. Her death is complicated by the fact that she was researching the similar death of a 10-year old girl in 1930 whose ghostly sightings either presage pregnancy (or death). Hometown detective Jimmy Perez is brought on to the case along with lead investigator, Willow Reeves. This is problematic for those of us who have not read Ann Cleeves’ previous works featuring these characters, because she devotes a lot of attention to Perez’s grief over losing his lover and caring for her child. She also alludes to a budding attraction between Willow and Jimmy that never really gets off the ground. I found it hard to care about any of these characters and their internal sufferings since I did not know them well and felt all this background just dragged down the pace of the story. On the positive side, I enjoyed Cleeves’ descriptions of the countryside and the people, and found myself looking up a lot of words from the local lingo (peerie, hamefarin, and names of numerous shore birds). I liked the premise of the story–part historical ghost story, part murder mystery–but the plot did not deliver for me. After the first body is found (yes, there is always a second murder) the pace of the investigation was slow and wandered off course into the lives and angst of too many characters: all of the university chums, their spouses, some local innkeepers, parents of the home town boy and on and on. Some of these characters became significant to the story and some were perhaps included as red herrings, but on the whole it had the feel of a first draft in need of more stringent editing. A lot of the investigation was talking to people while other matters, such as the autopsy results, were brought up and then dropped. The ending (no spoilers) felt rushed and was merely dropped in the reader’s lap in the form of a big confession, tying up all the threads quickly with various explanations. It was too convenient, after dangling all these enticing tidbits and clues in front of the reader for over 300 slow pages. I understand Cleeves has an enormous following and that this was perhaps not the best book to start with, so I will have to give her mysteries another chance.
The Midwife’s Tale by Sam Thomas is the story of a seventeenth century gentlewoman, Bridget Hodgson, played out against the backdrop of York, England, during the siege in 1644. Even in a city under bombardment and swarming with hostile soldiers, she carries out her honor-bound duties as a midwife, helping the destitute as well as the wealthy to be delivered from their labor. The descriptions of the customs and medicine surrounding the then mysteries of childbirth were fascinating, but the story goes beyond this cultural history–it is wrapped around a mystery. Lady Hodgson’s friend is accused of murdering her husband with poison and is hastily sentenced to burn after a sham trial. Bridget, convinced of her friend’s innocence, sets out to find the real murderer. To this end, she joins up with a feisty servant girl, Martha Hawkins, who mysteriously turned up on her doorstep and also has a rather shady past. Along the way, we are treated to wonderful descriptions of that era’s taverns and prisons as well as the fine homes and luxuries. Author Thomas weaves in a good dose of the political backdrop of that time as well. Although the mystery was compelling and following Bridget through her investigations which led us from infanticide to drunken labor rooms, all full of interesting places and characters, the plot felt rushed at the end when it was all wrapped up with a long eleventh hour “confession” and re-cap. I also found the very casual relationship between a Lady and her newly acquired servant girl unbelievable at times, but they make a dynamic investigatory team. Would I read another historical mystery by Thomas? Yes. I also found it interesting that a university history professor would choose a woman confined to a female-dominated world by virtue of her profession to be his main character. I felt he provided an even-handed portrayal of women–weak and strong, evil and magnanimous, and everything in between.
I recently read A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch, his debut novel introducing Charles Lenox, an amateur detective, Victorian gentleman, and armchair explorer. The novel was described as “equal parts Sherlock Holmes…and P.G. Wodehouse” (flyleaf, St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2007). The plot revolved around the murder of a housemaid from an exotic, expensive poison. Based on this, the novel held great promise for me, but failed to deliver. Although Finch provided interesting historical details about early 19C London and lovingly described Victorian society, lavish balls, and multi-course dinners, the plot that was to hold it all together was thin and the resolution of the murder felt contrived and unconvincing. Much of the investigation and uncovering of clues comes in the form of a secondary character reporting his findings to Lenox so we do not see the action. When Lenox is on the case himself, most of his work entails accusing various suspects of the murder and questioning them. Although I am quite satisfied to read a mystery that is not all action packed but rather slowly unfolds based on various conversations as a means of uncovering the culprit, I want those talks to reveal a tense, psychological cat and mouse game. I also want the story to be to be tightly plotted with a “never saw it coming” ending to the investigation. None of this is evident in Blue Death. Although the mystery felt flat to me, I very much enjoyed the character of Charles Lenox with all his idiosyncrasies, and the constellation of friends and helpers. Finch has gone on to write several more adventures of Charles Lenox and is recognized as a successful historical mystery writer. Perhaps this was just not his best novel.
Tana French’s intriguing novel FAITHFUL PLACE is founded on the premise that you can never go home. But go home indeed is what Undercover Detective Frank Mackey is forced to do when something suspicious is uncovered in his old neighborhood. You see, back in 1985 on a cold winter eve, Frank made secret plans with his girlfriend, Rose Daly, to escape the dead-end life, poverty and dysfunctional family lives of their inner city Dublin neighborhood, Faithful Place. With a carefully planned out escape and elopement to London, Frank is uplifted by hope for once in his life. But when Rose fails to show up at the agreed upon hour and place, finding only a cryptic note, Frank assumes she has dumped him and gone on alone. Frank leaves that night, not to return for over twenty-two years. That is, until Rose’s suitcase, packed with her clothes and tickets, turns up in a derelict building in Faithful Place. Thus begins a psychological tale of mystery pitting the successful son who “escaped” against the family members who remained home and true to their duties. In addition to family tensions, Frank is shunned as an outsider and turncoat for having become a cop, constantly judged and found lacking by dozens of watching eyes and whispering lips, evaluating his every move in the neighborhood. The mystery of Rose’s fate keeps the pages turning, as well as the tense, poignant, and cruelly realistic family vignettes in this novel. The characters are so sharply portrayed, it is hard to believe they aren’t real. French has a fine ear for language as well. The dialogue and slang of the rough streets of Dublin in the mouths of these characters, although unfamiliar, is lyrical and feels right. The only weakness I could see in the story was perhaps Frank’s daughter, Holly, who at age nine seemed a bit too sophisticated and savvy for her years. Also, (no spoilers) a second body turns up and in the end, but I was not fully on board with the motivation for this murder was revealed. All told, however, French has spun another riveting tale of horrible violence, wrapped up and delivered in beautiful prose.
I recently picked up a copy of Erika Robuck’s novel FALLEN BEAUTY, featuring a fictionalized account of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s encounter with a local seamstress, while she was writing her sonnets at Steepletop. Author Robuck’s earlier novels HEMINGWAY’S GIRL and CALL ME ZELDA clearly point to her love of strong and intriguing women of the ’20’s and ’30’s. Who can blame her? Although I have not read her other novels, BEAUTY has at least prompted my interest enough to delve more deeply into the works and biography of Millay and finally read the definitive biography on her, SAVAGE BEAUTY by Nancy Milford.
Robuck’s imagined Millay is at times repulsive and at others endearing and sympathetic. She captures the capricious nature of the poet along with her extremes of passion. The Millay character, based on what I assume is exhaustive research, plays against the character of a local seamstress, Laura Kelley, who has been left to raise her illegitimate daughter alone, abandoned by a cowardly lover in a small-minded town. The story alternates between the lives and view points of these two different women, until circumstances push them together as Laura secretly creates sumptuous costumes for Millay’s readings.
The book description tells us each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman and what price she is willing to pay to live a full life. I see that in the character of Laura, but not so much with Millay. In fact, in the end, the Millay character rather falls off the stage of the novel for a while as Laura Kelley finds new love and confronts old enemies. Although I enjoyed the story, I felt that all of the women in it (Laura and her sister, Marie; Laura’s nemesis Agnes; Millay) were emotionally overwrought all of the time to the point that I found some scenes quite hard to believe and exhausting. The work also transformed from a fictionalized account and exploration of Millay to a sort of romance novel half way through and to the end.
Roebuck created a richly imagined small town populated with a variety of characters and a situation not dissimilar from The Scarlet Letter and then inserted the bohemian lifestyle of Millay as counterpoint. It is a worthy concept to explore, but I’m not sure it was fully developed.
I’m a fan of mystery writer Paul Doiron and feel as if I discovered him (after all, I was one of the first to read his Edgar Award finalist novel The Poacher’s Son and recommend it to my mystery loving friends.) His latest work, The Precipice, takes us to the Hundred Mile Wilderness area of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Two young women have gone missing, so heroic game warden Mike Bowditch is called in to help with Search and Rescue, interrupting a romantic vacation planned with his new girlfriend, wildlife biologist, Stacey Stevens. During the search, Bowditch is teamed up with a legendary AT hiker “Nonstop” Nissen, who is fit but misantrhopic volunteer with a shady past. When the girls fail to turn up, it looks more and more doubtful they will be found alive. Meanwhile, those who encountered the girls along the trail are telling stories with varying degrees of relation to the truth. Tensions mount when their bodies are found at the bottom of a precipice, torn apart by wild coyotes. The townspeople and hikers spin out of control in a witch hunt to eradicate the coyotes, but meanwhile, Bowditch has his hunch it was human, not canine, that caused their deaths. The book comes to an exciting man hunt conclusion, rife with backwoods violence.
What I particularly enjoy in all of Doiron’s novels is the wild and terrible beauty of backwoods Maine. He paints a realistic scene of both the poverty, ignorance and squalor along with the natural landscape and breathtaking wilderness. The beauty of nature is often juxtaposed with the ugliness of life. In this story, his description of the life and culture of the Appalachian Trial day and thru-hikers is fascinating and a colorful backdrop. His treatment of the life of a game warden is handled well, especially when describing the frustration of working with FBI, local police and sheriff’s office during an investigation, illustrating the limitations of his powers. This story kept me guessing to the end (and not wanting to reveal any spoilers, I won’t elaborate.) I did not, however, feel as if the motivation for the perp was sufficiently explored. Also, Doiron has his fun with several misguided preachers in the story, casting them in a very poor light. Some of the tale hinges on the possible motive of a hate crime, when it is revealed that the “Bible student” girls were secretly lesbians. This part of the story feels a bit artificial and forced in order to play against the moral certitudes of these two-dimensional self righteous preachers. Another thing I felt was missing from the end of the story was the reaction of the parents. The girls both have powerful parents who fly into Maine to oversee the search efforts. We get a glimpse of them with the impression they will continue to cause problems for law enforcement, especially when it is revealed that the girls were a couple, but then they drop from the picture. Lastly, I did not enjoy the character of Stacey, Bowditch’s new love interest. I felt she was unnecessarily erratic, cold to the point of being cruel at times, and generally unloveable. It was hard to believe he would see anything in her.
Overall, as always, Doiron delivered a great story sprinkled through with beautiful descriptions of the Maine landscape.
Thrilled to have been interviewed for Layered Pages!
P. D. James is the undisputed mistress of murder. She set the bar for the detective murder mystery genre, so why did I have such a hard time getting involved in the novel “A Mind to Murder”? It is a mystery featuring her enigmatic detective Adam Dalgliesh and is set in an exclusive psychological treatment hospital. Promising indeed. The victim is discovered early in the story–a much disliked administrative official–stabbed with a chisel in the basement records room. From there, the story sags as the detective interviews all the doctors and staff on the minute details of their movements prior to the murder. I admire James’ attention to detail, but as a reader this was a bit tedious because the same information was repeated and it was extremely difficult for me to keep track of a dozen new characters who were introduced all at once with little to distinguish them from each other. The mystery picked up when we are given a glimpse into the more private lives of these characters from a different POV, usually their own. The ending was satisfying with a little last minute twist at the end. As always, James is masterful in creating realistic people and describing them with just the right touches of detail. Dalgliesh is an intriguing detective and well-rounded creation full of his own insecurities and unexpected talents, like poetry writing. Once I became engaged with the characters I enjoyed the book and you can’t beat James for layered plots and unexpected turns.
Just finished The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Although you cannot fault her prose, I can’t help feeling as if the story would have been much better if it had been cut down by a hundred pages. The novel tracks the intersecting lives of two mythological creatures–the Golem of Hebrew lore and the Jinni from the Arabian tradition–but takes 484 pages to tell the story of these two main characters, their struggles, their saviors, their enemies, and friends along with the backstory of each and every one of these secondary characters. There is a lot going on here. I felt as if the plot did not really get going until page 300 when a crisis erupts which sets everything spinning. What kept me hanging on through the story up until this point was the beauty of Wecker’s descriptions of turn of the century New York and the magical worlds she creates. Her descriptions employ all the senses so that a reader feels she has travelled the desserts with the caravans, meandered along the streets of The Bowry at night, and worked alongside the Golem, Chava, at the bakery. Unfortunately for this reader, I somehow felt let down at the end of this tome, as if the conclusion did not live up to the build-up of almost 500 pages. Still, I would read another of Wecker’s works.
William G. Tapply’s novel Gray Ghost is a quiet meditation on the art of living simply, wrapped in a very simple mystery package. The Stoney Calhoun character is a fellow who just wants to live in his cabin in the woods with only his dog as company (with the exception of an occasional visit from his lady friend) and guide fishing trips in the waters around his home in Maine. The funny thing is, Calhoun knows how to do things like examine a witness or thwart an attacker–skills he has no idea how he came by because he lost all memory after a lightening attack several years ago. Someone else in very keen to find out what he knows–a mysterious visitor known only as The Man in the Suit. He probes and grills Calhoun to determine if he has remembered anything significant. Against this backdrop, the charred remains of a mutilated man is discovered on Quarantine Island–a small smudge of land with a haunted past. Calhoun, against his will, is dragged into the investigation. Eventually, the danger lands on his doorstep, literally. The murder mystery plot is not overly complicated because the beauty of this book is the description of Calhoun’s simple life and struggle to keep it that way amidst modern demands and complicated relationships. The description of nature and the author’s deep understanding of fly fishing adds interest and atmosphere. It is a quiet read with some disturbing twists and turns. The Gray Ghost of the title refers to both a fly fishing lure and a reference to the nuns who haunt Quarantine Island.