Tag Archives: mystery

Nothing Ordinary About It

Ordinary

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.

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The Twist Feels More Like a Trick

LeavingTimeJodi 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.”

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The Hidden World of Women as Told by a Man

MidwifeCoverThe 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.

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Historical Mystery Satisfies on Only One Front

BluedeathI 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.

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You Can’t Go Home

Murder and Mystery in Dublin's poor inner city

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.

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A Mind to Murder

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. PDJames

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Too Much Left in the Mist

MistThe gothic tale The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill, author of The Woman is Black, starts out promising but leaves the reader stranded. It is the tale of an Englishman, Sir James Monmouth, who has travelled the globe in the footsteps of his hero–an adventurer named Conrad Vane.  The author trots out the usual satisfying tropes of the genre–the barren English countryside, the haunted boys’ school, the gilded manor house at Christmastide–which is richly described and a satisfying backdrop as Monmouth journeys to uncover the truth about Vane.  Along the way, he encounters a ghostlike boy, crying in the night, disappearing doorways, a gypsy woman and misty images in the mirror–not to mention everyone he meets tells him to abandon his pursuit, but will not say why.  After all the 200 plus pages of build-up, Sir James finally uncovers an aged relative living in the ancestral home, which has some connection with Vane.  But despite all the warnings, the ghosts, the mysterious hallucinations, author Susan Hill just ends the story without much of an explanation for any of them (don’t want to spoil it for readers).  Hill certainly has the voice down perfectly for this genre and ability to transport the reader back to another time, but the plot was weak and inconsistent.

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Cuckoo’s Calling Character- Not Plot-driven Mystery

cuckooRobert 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.

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Maise Dobbs to the Rescue!

MaisePosterI have joined the “Maisie Dobbs” fanclub.  Yes, that simple, hard-working and wildly intelligent girl sleuth of the 1920’s has captured my heart.  Author Jacqueline Winspear has created a unique tale–a combination mystery, history, romance and psychological study of human nature.  The story begins when Maisie, just having hung out her shingle as a private investigator, is hired by a client to find out where his wife is sneaking off to.  This launches her into an investigation much broader than a straying spouse, and something much more sinister.  She soon uncovers a “Retreat,” ostensibly set up as a refuge for soldiers who were hideously scarred during The Great War, but when some inmates start disappearing, it launches Maisie into an investigation that forces her to revisit the horrors she personally experienced and face up to her past.  The interesting thing about the structure of the book is that it flies in the face of all “good story writing” advice.  Just as we as readers are getting sucked into the mystery, the author digresses and fills the whole middle of the book with the story of Maisie–how she came to be an educated Cambridge gal from her humble beginnings as a house maid. We return to the mystery at the end of the book, and the background story is such a satisfying tale that we forgive the interruption.  The novel is full of rich characters, from her inscrutable mentor, Maurice Blanche, to her working-class side kick, Billy Beale–some of which are a bit “over the top.” But we forgive and love them for it.  Just so, Maisie herself is sometimes just too good, smart, and pretty to be true, but somehow Winspear makes it work.  I’m delighted to see that this is just the first in a series of Maisie adventures.  She’s just the cure for a long, dreary winter.  (One minor note: I was dismayed to see how poorly my copy of the book was edited.  Some helpful previous reader penciled in a lot of corrections.  A shame!)

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Too Many Cooks?

inheritInherit the Dead” is a serial crime fiction novel meaning it was written by a series of famous crime writers, each one contributing one chapter.  It was billed as “Twenty thrilling writers.  One chilling mystery.”  It is an interesting book, but not for the obvious reasons.  First, it is great that this group of highly successful and in-demand writers contributed their time and talents, because the proceeds of the book go to Safe Horizon (www.SafeHorizon.org) a victim assistance group.  Second, the book was a fascinating read from the technical standpoint.  As a reader, you can tell the very different style and voice of the various writers, even though they are working with the same characters, setting, and plot. Still, I could guess the female from the male writers before checking on their names based on the amount of emphasis on describing the luscious heroine.  Some were so different, you could tell by a glance, meaning a quick look at the chapter revealed a lot of short, snappy dialogue versus other writer’s long, descriptive prose paragraphs.  In fact, many of the writers I have never read before, but two or three stood out as such remarkable talents in just one chapter that I intend to check out some of their novels. Others, I did not care for at all, and noted their names as well.  Even though the main character was given to each writer in a general outline, everyone put their own stamp on him.  Sometimes, however, this made for some tedious reading as each writer in each chapter spent time just describing some bit of background about him or some other descriptive detail.  Since the writers were given an assignment for the their chapter and a description of the characters and setting, there was a good deal of repetition overall, but in a unique way.  Also, the plot for a murder mystery was a bit thin and the pace was slow, but that is to be forgiven considering the editor managed to somehow weave it all into some sort of comprehensive whole, without any major inconsistencies. Give it a read…better yet, buy the book, for a good cause.  The contributing authors included: Mark Billingham, Lawrence Block, C.J.Box, Ken Bruen, Alafair Burke, Stephen L. Carter, Lee Child, Marcia Clark, Mary Higgins Clark, Max Allan Collins, John Connolly, James Grady, Heather Graham, Bryan Gruley, Charlaine Harris, Val McDermid, S. J. Rozan, Jonathan Santlofer, Dana Stabenow, Lisa Unger, and Sarah Weinman,

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