Tag Archives: murder mystery

A Visit to Shetland Without Leaving Home

ThinAirAward 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.

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Sunny or Melancholy?

melancholyJust finished Robert B Parker’s novel featuring private investigator Sunny Randall called “Melancholy Baby.”  I wanted a fast-paced and engaging read without much heavy intellectual input on my part, and I got just that.  The story opens with Sunny Randall, and attractive and young PI, mourning the fact that her ex-husband is marrying again.  To help put aside her personal problems, she takes on the case of a college student, Sarah Markham, who is convinced that her parents are lying to her and are not her birth parents.  Once Sunny starts looking into her case, thugs attack Sarah to scare her off and the bodies start piling up.  Although the main attraction of this novel, like all Parker’s works, is the witty and razor sharp banter between characters (think Gilmore Girls with an R rating), the more subtle strength of the story was some real insights into the human condition.  Alternating chapters deal with Sunny’s visit to her shrink to discover why she is having such a difficult time with her ex’s re-marriage, and not surprisingly, these visits reveal a complicated relationship with her own parents.  It isn’t Freud, but the characterization of the therapist was engaging and the way the layers of her memory and self-realizations were unfolded were quite skillful.  As a murder-mystery, cop procedural, thriller or whatever, it is a little weak.  As a story about the relationships between parents and children, it is much more interesting.

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“The Writing Class” Provides Real Instruction

writingclasscoverThe Writing Class” by Jincy Willett is an eye-opening instruction on the world of writing and publishing, as told through a sort of locked room mystery” framework. The writing class instructor and main character, Amy Gallup, is a jaded, reclusive, borderline agoraphobic writer who peaked early in her career and has not been able to write much in the the many years preceding the story.   Faced with a class of the usual adult education students, some with talent, others not, she imparts her wisdom about the world of writing with a caustic wit and laser-focused approach to criticism.  The problems begin when someone in her class starts to make threatening phone calls to her home at night, writes vicious paradies and criticisms of the students’ writing assignments, and eventually ups the ante to murder.  The author, Willett, is brilliant at providing the various students’ voices in the excerpts of their writing, as well as the amusing blog entries that the teacher posts throughout the class session.  Her insight into the whole writing and submission process is illuminating and very satisfyingly acerbic.  I can totally understand why the poor aspiring writer, the villain in the story,  goes insane from years of insensitive, negative or no responses to submissions.  Although the voice of the main character, Amy, is unique and engaging, but I found that the overall pace of the story was off, and I got a bit bogged down in it.  The narrative had a strong start, but then there was too much back and forth and speculation over who was “The Sniper” (as the class dubbed the unknown disturbed student), before things came to a crescendo with the first murder. As in many mysteries featuring a host of characters right from the start, I had trouble keeping straight the various students, because they were introduced all at once and many did not have enough distinguishing characteristics to make them fully formed in the reader’s mind.  I also had a hard time believing that the local police would be so dis-interested in the case, and that Amy and the rest of the class would take such a cavalier attitude towards the danger, and continue to meet and pursue their amateur investigation into the murder.  The end, although it featured a tense scene when the culprit is revealed, is generally unsatisfying and felt as if the author lost interest in her characters and just needed to finally wrap the whole thing up.  Overall, read it for the writing advice, the clever use of language, and not for the mystery plot.

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