John Hart came highly recommended as a great writer of mysteries with plot twists, angst filled characters, and plenty of page-turning thrills. I chose King of Lies–a tale that revolves around an unhappy lawyer, Jackson Workman Pickens–trapped in a miserable marriage who let the love of his life get away. His world becomes truly unglued, however, when his father–a hate-mongering, abusive, but very rich man–is found dead with two bullets in his head. When the will is revealed and Jackson has only a shaky alibi at best, he becomes a prime suspect. But he has even bigger worries and that is how to protect his troubled sister who he believes is the real murderer. Author John Hart gets full marks for creating the small world of the southern town which quickly turns on Jackson with only the slightest hint of suspicion to go on. He draw the complex relations between Jackson and his wife, his father, his sister, and his lover in rich detail and does put one in mind of Pat Conroy in that regard. Although I liked the story overall, I felt the first half was very slow as Hart draws the relationships and shows us Jackson’s obsession with protecting his sister who he believes with very little to go on that she had the motivation and means to kill their father. I thought that plot line was weak since there would be any number of other business partners or disgruntled clients who would have had means and opportunity to do the deed. The story takes off when the legal/court room scenes take center stage and Hart shows his mastery of legal loopholes and slight of hand. Once Jackson launches his own investigation to find the murder, it becomes much more of a who-done-it and less of a psychological family drama. Would I read another by this author–yes. Many of his main characters are deeply flawed and frankly not very likable at all, but he makes them fully real and human.
Jodi Picoult’s novel Leaving Time tells the story of teenager Jenna Metcalfe’s decades long search for her mother who disappeared–a dedicated scientist who was studying grief in elephants. When Jenna was a baby, something horrible happened one night at the elephant sanctuary where her family lived. A caretaker was found trampled to death and Jenna’s mother was taken to the hospital, only to disappear hours later and never return. If she was still alive, why hadn’t she returned for Jenna? The daughter’s search for her mother and the search for the truth about what happened that night leads her to accept help from two unlikely characters. The first is Serenity Jones–a famous psychic specializing in lost children who has lost her powers and knows she’s a fraud–the second, an out-of-work private eye, Virgil Stanhope, a former detective who investigated the case years ago and ignored critical evidence. All Jenna has to go by is a pile of her mother’s journals wherein she makes observations about the nature of grief in elephants and tracks their behavior. It isn’t long, however, before the mother’s writings and the events playing out start to dovetail. Eventually, hard questions the characters ask of themselves arrive with difficult questions they have to face.
Picoult draws some quirky and intriguing characters in this work and tells the story in the point of view of four main ones: Jenna, Serenity, Virgil, and Alice (through her journals.) I think this approach works, although other readers have found it jarring and disruptive to the flow of the story. I particularly enjoyed the amount of description about elephant behavior via the character of the mother, although, again, other readers criticized the level of detail, claiming it slowed the pace of the story. I did not, however, connect with the “main” character, Jenna, and felt she was too precocious, too smart and confident for her age and circumstances, and lacking certain dimension. More important, I was very let down with the ending. I felt as if the author had not prepared us for the twist at all and it had the feeling of being forced and very contrived. When an author holds back critical information from the reader to execute a big reveal, it always runs the risk of making the reader feel cheated–as if the author held back information just to trick you. The ending did not satisfy, as I said, and short of going back and re-reading the story, I’m convinced there were some continuity problems that would have made the events impossible. ((Hard to describe without spoilers)).
On the positive side, Picoult’s prose as always is luscious and rich, her dialog sharp. As mentioned, I drank in the scenes describing the elephants and wanted to research more about them. Ultimately, however, I would describe the book as “The Secret Life of Bees” meets “The Sixth Sense.”
There are millions of books out there on writing. They range from the technical how-to type to inspirational tomes aimed at increasing your productivity. Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Eat Pray Love) work, Big Magic, is something entirely different. In a conversational tone which makes you feel as if Gilbert is a good friend or wise older sister imparting her experience, she spins out her observations about Creativity and the life of being a creative person (not just writers!) The subtitle of the book, Creative Living Beyond Fear, says it all. She offers her perspective on the creative experience in anecdotes which lead to pragmatic conclusions. And her advice is not just a dismissive “don’t worry,” but rather she takes the reader by the hand and lets you see how to avoid needless suffering. The topics are addressed in sections entitled: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity. In each, she encourages us to shake off the seriousness, perfectionism, self-loathing, and other destructive tendencies of the martyr-artist in order to invite creativity and inspiration into one’s life. Indeed, Gilbert maintains that art, creativity or whatever you want to call it, seeks a home in us in order to find expression. That’s the Big Magic. It will find the right person through whom it can accomplish this, or it will move on, our choice. So it is our job to keep the channels open and inviting to unearth the “jewels” which lie within us. I have to confess, all that spiritualism aside, I felt I’d been given a “get-out-of-jail-free” card while reading this work. It gives one permission to not take art so seriously, to let go of failures and move on, and to use curiosity to seek out and attract fresh ideas. In the end, she points out the mysterious contradiction that is creativity: “What we make matters and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.” I may have to buy my own copy of this book so I can go back, re-read, and highlight certain passages when necessary–to keep it all in perspective. Oh, and by the way, Creativity if you’re out there–I’m ready to invite you in any time.
It’s comforting to settle in with a book featuring a character you’ve come to know and love. That’s the case with R. Lanier Clemons’ second title, Gone Missing, featuring novice detective Jonelle Sweet. In this second book, Sweet is assigned not one but two quirky cases. One involves a widow who claims her dead husband visits at night to steal her jewels and the other a missing transgender actress who has left a trail of broken hearts and suspicious characters in her wake.
Intrepid Jonelle Sweet is not only dedicated to her work in solving the case, but also to helping the victims and clients. She becomes emotionally invested in the cases and brings all to bear–to include facing her claustrophobia or going into dangerous places or crashing walking into clubs where she is strikingly out of place. In this new tale, we are re-acquainted with a few characters from the first novel, but Clemons introduces some new ones. One such new character is the fluff but wise homeless man, Luther, which I suspect we will see more of in subsequent works.
The plot of Gone Missing is more complex than Clemons’ first work, providing more twists and turns to the keep the reader guessing. As always, the author’s voice is fresh, brash and funny, the setting is gritty, and the plot engaging. Clemons’ Jonelle Sweet is a sweet new treat on the mystery reader’s plate.
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.