Without a doubt, this is one of the best books I have read recently. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger is a masterpiece on character study and development. Krueger is known for his award-winning Cork O’Connor mystery series (which I have not as yet read), but I suspect this book is something different. Although a mystery–a suspicious death–is the framework that holds the plot together, it is actually the compelling characters that move the story forward. It is told in the eyes of a man looking back on his 12-year-old self and childhood memories with the sophistication of an adult, but at the same time with the innocence and wonder of a child (not unlike that old t.v. show, The Wonder Years or the familiar A Christmas Story). The author does a masterful job of bringing to life the atmosphere of his 1960’s small town in Minnesota, including the food (fried bologna sandwiches and Kool-aide), barber shops, and kids who could roam free without parental supervision. Although the heart of the story is a potential murder, the real mystery is how the main character’s family will cope with the tragedy. As it turns out, the weak become surprisingly strong and family threads unravel and are woven back together again in a unique way. The boy’s father, Nathan, a Methodist minister, his wife, an atheist, struggling with her husband’s career path and faith, a town drunk, a brutal policeman, a priviledged favorite son, and a reclusive, damaged artist all come together as their lives cross, some surviving and others falling away. Krueger’s prose is rich, evocative, emotionally draining, and always spot on. I’ll be reading more of his work in the future.
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.
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.
Murder and Mystery in Dublin’s poor inner city
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.
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.
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.
The new novel by Julia Dahl, Invisible City, refers to the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community within New York. The story opens when Rebekah Roberts, stringer to the New York Tribune, is assigned to cover the story of a body found in a scrap heap by the river. Things get complicated when it is revealed that the body is a young mother of the Hasidic community, whose husband owns the scrap yard. Despite these damning coincidences, the body is quietly taken away by members of the Orthodox community’s private police force and buried without police involvement–neither the collection of evidence, autopsy, nor questioning of the woman’s husband and family– all pointing to a suspected NYPD cover-up for the sake of political ambitions and financial donations from the wealthy and powerful Jewish community. Roberts, refusing to let the truth behind the murder of this woman be buried with her, attempts to get answers from a silent Hasidic community, distrustful of outsiders. But Roberts, haunted by her own crippling past in which her Orthodox Jewish mother abandoned her, probes deeper into the murder in an attempt to get answers not just for the victim’s sake, but also for herself. The story is written in the first person and in present tense, lending a breathless immediacy to the action, which takes place over the course of only one week. The story is a well plotted page turner and the characters are well drawn. The author’s own experience as a reporter shines through in the authenticity of the character’s experiences. My only objection is the over-use of profanity and at one point an awkwardly phrased apology to the Orthodox community in the mouth of one of the characters. Overall, an interesting read.
Who doesn’t love a tale of secret identities, impersonators of kings or heiresses, or body-doubles. Mary Miley in her “First Crime Novel” award winning story, The Impersonator, gives us just that. It is the tale of a down-and-out vaudeville actress who is approached by an unscrupulous uncle to take on the identity of his niece, the heiress Jessie Carr, who mysteriously disappeared seven years ago. If actress Leah Randall can convince Jessie Carr’s family that it is she, Jessie, who has returned, she stands to inherit a fortune on her upcoming twenty-first birthday. Leah/Jessie wins over the family–all but cousin Henry–who is the one who knows Jessie’s true fate. The tale is told through Leah’s eyes as she likens the challenge to the greatest acting role of her life, but with life-and-death stakes if she fails. The backdrop of events is early 1920’s Oregon in a world of Prohibition, bootleggers, jazz age costumes, and larger than life stars of vaudeville. It’s a good tale despite seeing some of the twists and turns coming down the road beforehand, and will keep a reader engaged to the end in order to see if Leah/Jessie pulls it off. The narrative voice of Leah is fun, if somewhat unbelievable. The story sometimes drags a bit when the author puts all she’s learned about the era into the mouth of a character for a long exposition on a topic, but it is forgivable. Miley has done her homework on the vaudeville era of the early ’20’s (but I did catch a few phrases that were not likely used at that time.) The ending is very dramatic (no spoilers) and reads more like a romantic thriller perhaps, than a murder mystery. Miley has followed up with a second novel out this year which continues this character’s story called “Silent Murders,” focusing on the silent movie era.
Robert Galbraith’s (aka J. K. Rowlings) mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling opens with the apparent suicide of a troubled super-model who falls to her death from her posh apartment balcony. Only her half-brother believes it was not suicide and hires down-on-his luck private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate. Cormoran has no shortage of troubles of his own–just tossed out of his home by his fiancé, his business failing and in debt, and health in crisis, he takes on the case not quite believing it wasn’t indeed a suicide. He soon starts to have his doubts. Cormoran’s investigation is aided by a “temp agency” gal who shows up and stays long after her contract, drawn by the excitement of the detective work and maybe just a bit by Cormoran himself. The novel’s plot is very slow and consists mostly of the investigator interviewing various family members and friends in an attempt to piece together the model’s last day alive before her death. It is full of wonderful prose and vivid descriptions from the worlds of high-fashion to that of drug rehab programs. Galbraith has a talent for painting a vivid picture of these people (most of whom were quite unlikeable) and surroundings, for example, she described the mouth of a wrinkled, aged woman sucking on a cigarette to the anus of a cat. Try to forget that image. For what it lacks in compelling plot twists it makes up for in interesting heros. Cormoran Strike, the bastard son of an aging rock star, Iraq war veteran, amputee, and large hairy man comes to life as a sympathetic and believable character. His temp gal, Robin Ellacott, plays well off his character and we soon suspect that she is attracted to the big lug (even though she’s engaged), which lends the novel a bit of romantic tension. After all, who wouldn’t fall for a homeless, one-legged, big hairy failure of a private eye? Galbraith makes it work. All in all I would say that I finished the impressive 456 pages of the story not so much for the solution to the mystery, but just to see how Cormoran makes out.