I have recently been making my way through the books of Sue Grafton, beginning with A is for Alibi. I had never read any of Grafton’s books because, by the time she appeared on my radar, she had written more than half of an alphabet’s worth, and starting a series of that length seemed overwhelming. On someone’s recommendation, though, I finally decided to read the first one last fall. I liked it, but it didn’t bowl me over, so I thought, Okay, did that, checked off, next? and moved on.
For some reason, though, I felt like I wanted to give her books another chance. I liked her protagonist a lot; in readers’ advisory terms, she would be some combination of “lone detective” and “hard-boiled.”
A “hard-boiled” detective is usually working-class, white, and male, relying on tough talk to get his way. (This is one element that makes Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone unusual, because she’s the female version.) The most frequent protagonist of a hard-boiled novel is a private investigator, with a license, hired to solve crimes (as opposed to the amateur sleuth from the cozy novel). The hard-boiled protagonist is generally American, quite often a loner (and taking pride in that), with a code of honor and justice that is not strictly legal but is moral (and perhaps a bit black and white—hard-boiled detectives are not compromisers). Hard-boiled investigators are fast thinkers, witty but in a down-beat, cynical way, and have the expectation that most people are liars. The detective is frequently the first-person narrator, and tells the story in a detached, objective manner.
A “lone” detective works outside the lines of bureaucracy, and often considers him- or herself superior to the police force because she has to work twice as hard since she has no access to the built-in benefits of the bureaucracy, such as access to forensics, past records or databases. These types of characters are usually examined for the complex motives, strengths, and weaknesses they exhibit, to give their stories more credibility and interest.
These two descriptions come together in Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. She’s an orphan in her early 30s, twice divorced, living alone in a one-room apartment converted from a garage. She went to the police academy and worked as a police officer for a few years, but rapidly discovered that the bureaucracy chafed her and decided she was better off on her own. She got her start by working for an insurance company, doing skip traces and research, and gradually built herself up into the type of investigator who would take on any assignment. She still has some contacts on the police force, but mostly gets where she wants to go by dogged persistence, extensive research, innate intelligence, and the occasional leap of canny intuition.
The way Grafton writes is not typical of the hard-boiled novel; although her protagonist exhibits all those characteristics, the writing style is more like literary fiction, with descriptions worthy of Tana French. She has an excellent command of language, and paints a complete visual picture of every town, street, building, car, and character, down to the color and make of his shoes and the number of lines in his face. This occasionally gets annoying, but is mostly an excellent backdrop for the precision with which Kinsey puts together her clues to solve her cases.
The other thing that keeps this series compelling is that in each book, Kinsey’s “assignment” is substantially different from that of the previous one—Grafton’s repetitive parts are made up for by the different situations in which Kinsey finds herself. I have, at this point, read A through J, and here is a quick summary of the variety of cases: a wrongful murder conviction; a missing persons case; a client with no memory; a simple delivery; a personal frame-up; an escaped killer whose father wants to prove his innocence; retrieval of a senior citizen from her desert home off the grid; a traffic accident insurance scam; a civil suit to protect an inheritance; and the presumed dead perpetrator of a ponzi scheme come back to life. Of course, since this is a mystery series, these mostly turn out to be murder stories, one way or another, but the clever way they are introduced and framed gives them a freshness not found in a police procedural.
Some readers find fault with the fact that, despite the number of books in the series, Grafton chose to keep Kinsey eternally in her 30s and the settings forever in the 1980s (think jumpsuits, shoulder pads, and radical hairdos), rather than letting the protagonist and the action grow into such technology as the internet, cell phones, etc. But I find it simultaneously nostalgic and refreshing that the people in these books still rely on such things as telephone books, pay phones, and reference librarians at the public library.
The one small caveat I have about these novels is the way Grafton chooses to end them all. One of the reasons it took me a few months to go beyond the first book in the series is detailed here, in my Goodreads review: “I enjoyed everything about this book up to the conclusion. I felt like she took us to a cliff, and then we turned a page and she had walked away from writing the penultimate scene and instead wrote a summary from a distant perspective. That was disappointing. ” Every book ends with an epilogue, some more abrupt than others. After reading a few of them I got used to the style, but it’s still occasionally jarring and I could wish that Grafton would have followed through in the present instead of summing up from the future, in each case.
EPILOGUE: A speech or piece of text added to the end of a play or book, often giving a short statement about what happens to the characters after the play or book finishes.
Despite having read as many of these as I have (and planning to read the rest, eventually), I couldn’t say that this is among my top five favorite mystery series. But there’s something sort of restful about it, if you can say that about a bunch of murder mysteries; Kinsey acts true to character, all the stories take place in an increasingly familiar environment as bits and pieces of description are added with each subsequent book, and I feel like I could pick up any one of these in a lull between other, more strenuous reads and find a satisfying occupation for a rainy afternoon.
I’m always happy when I see mysteries written for teens; for some reason, this is a genre that isn’t nearly as popular with YA authors as it is with adult writers. And many YA authors seem caught in the homage trap, as they continue to remake Sherlock Holmes to fit teenage readers, either by picturing him as a youth (Andy Lane), inventing a younger sibling with similar gifts for detection (Nancy Springer), or postulating how his descendants would carry on his legacy (Brittany Cavallaro).
If they’re not playing a variation on Holmes, there are also the legacies of Agatha Christie (Gretchen McNeil) and James Bond (Charlie Higson) to mine for material. And then there are the take-offs on popular television icons, such as Tory Brennan, the great-niece of forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan of Bones (Kathy Reichs), or relatives of iconic series stars, such as Mickey Bolitar, nephew of sports agent and part-time sleuth Myron Bolitar (Harlan Coben).
I’m not saying any of these are bad; in fact some of them are quite good. But I do wonder sometimes why more YA authors don’t take off on their own when it comes to the mystery genre. Certainly the field is burgeoning with fertile imagination, but most of it seems to be expressed through fantasy, science fiction, or retold fairy tales.
Maureen Johnson’s first excellent mystery series, Shades of London, has a Jack the Ripper connection up its sleeve, and throws in paranormal features as well to keep the attention of fickle teens. But her new series, beginning with the book Truly Devious, shows she is an author who knows how to plot, how to build suspense, and how to introduce twists, without reliance on previous material.
When I first began reading the book, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, because it does make use of a familiar and somewhat over-used trope: the boarding school. How many young adult books begin by separating their odd, misfit protagonists from their drearily predictable parents and sending them off to a mansion steeped in mist and mystery? But if we didn’t love this trope before, we certainly embraced it post-Harry Potter, and Johnson makes a few sly references to that series in this one:
“Stevie had great hopes for the boarding school dining hall. She knew better than to hope for floating candlesticks and ghosts, but long wooden tables didn’t seem out of the question.”
The basic premise: Albert Ellingham, an early 20th-century tycoon, decides to create a boarding school “where learning is a game,” and populate it with a combination of rich and poor teens, all of whom have some special gift for learning. He also builds himself and his family an adjacent, ornate mansion filled with secret passageways and tunnels to gazebos and such on far parts of the property. In 1936, shortly after the school has opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter are kidnapped. There is one clue, a Dorothy Parker-esque riddle/poem signed “Truly, Devious.” Iris and Alice are never returned, although at least one of them is discovered to have met a tragic end, and the mystery of who took them and why has never been solved.
Stevie Bell has received an invitation to be a student at Ellingham Academy, and she couldn’t be more thrilled: Stevie is a true crime enthusiast, as well as possibly the world’s biggest aficionado and quite the authority on this particular mystery; and the chance to be on the property to expand her knowledge, search for more clues, and potentially even solve it is making her positively giddy. But when death revisits Ellingham, Stevie finds herself in an awkward position…
I really enjoyed this book. Stevie is a human, interesting main character, and the secondary characters are all just as quirky and well developed. The flashback scenes are gripping, and the present-day mystery is absorbing as well. But as I got down to the last 30 pages or so of the book, I began to realize that there were not enough words left in the book to reveal all the mysteries (past or present), and then…the cliffhanger. If it weren’t for the fact that I am behind on my YA reading and the sequel for this book just came out a few weeks ago, I would be howling with frustration about now! Instead, I ordered the second book and started reading as soon as it arrived.
The Vanishing Stair takes up only a few weeks after Truly Devious left off. Stevie’s parents insisted she leave the boarding school after all the drama that ensued, and she’s miserable back at home, once more subject to her parents’ oversight. But fate, in the person of politician Edward King (idolized by Stevie’s conservative parents and loathed by Stevie for everything he stands for), steps in: King’s son David, one of Stevie’s classmates at Ellingham, is acting out in a big way, and King’s theory is that returning Stevie to the school will act as a damper on David’s bad behavior and keep him there until he can graduate. Stevie has no such confidence, but the opportunity to go back is too amazing for her to quibble over the means by which she arrives—and thus begins the first of the secrets and lies…
This book introduces new characters, most notably Dr. Fenton, the author of some of the leading research into the Ellingham mystery, who hires Stevie to help her when she decides to release an updated volume, and soon begins to hint she knows more than she’s saying. She has an engaging nephew, worried for her mental and emotional state, who tries to enlist Stevie to help protect her. The familiar housemates and friends from the first book are also present and developed further, as is Stevie’s overall grasp of the mystery. But at the end of volume two, just as you are receiving some actual facts about the kidnapping from the horse’s mouth (Albert Ellingham), another cliffhanger ensues and the aforementioned howls of frustration are now truly aimed at Maureen Johnson’s head, because book three isn’t due out until sometime in 2020.
So…should you start this mystery series, knowing you will have to wait at least a year for its final outcome? Well, that depends: Are you a re-reader? Because there are so many tiny, important details about the mystery buried in both books to which the author later refers that I’m thinking I will be re-reading them to remind myself of those before assaying the third one, whenever the third one manifests. So if you don’t mind refreshing your memory, go ahead; but if you’re one of those who stubbornly refuses to read anything for a second time, then wait for #3 and have a long weekend of wallowing in the Ellingham mystery, start to finish!
If you are a Tana French fan, as I am, there is no question that you will read whatever book she has written next; you just put a check in the “want to read” box on Goodreads and wait for its publication. And if you don’t want to buy your own personal copy so as to read it the instant it is released (I do, but I’m trying to come to terms with a new, slimmer budget, now that I am semi-retired), you resignedly log onto your local library catalogue, place a hold, and wait.
That’s what I did about six weeks ago, opting for the e-book with the idea that it would take less time to get than it would a hardcover copy. Then I promptly forgot about it and went about my business, until my email notification popped up to tell me that the e-book was awaiting me on my Kindle.
If you are a Tana French fan, then you know that all her books to date (six previous to this one) are part of a loose series called the Dublin Murder Squad, and each deals with a murder mystery to be solved by a Dublin detective. Each book has a different protagonist, although the others crop up in big, small, or completely incidental ways in the background of the books in which they don’t play lead. So while there is a familiarity about each book (a murder to be solved, a member of Dublin’s finest to do so), there is also a certain variety. You don’t know exactly what to expect, as you do with series in which the lead detective is always the same person. It’s kind of a genius way to write, if you can pull it off. Although I am a fan, for instance, of John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy series, I have been vocal about my disappointment in those books in which he chooses one of his other characters as the lead. But so far, in her six books, French’s choices have never disappointed me, and I haven’t wavered in my slavering desire for the next one.
So, as I mentioned, The Witch Elm popped up on my Kindle a couple of days ago, and when I finished Michael Koryta’s book, I started to read. Imagine my confusion when, not having looked at a physical copy of the book for a flap synopsis or author blurb, I slowly realized that the Dublin Murder Squad was nowhere to be found? I kept reading as Toby, the average guy with a good job, friends, and a lovely girlfriend, went about his life, until one night he was mugged by burglars in his own home, and lay in the hospital recovering. Finally, two detectives showed up to take his statement, and I thought “Ah! here we go.”
Nope. The detectives came and went, and we stuck with Toby.
For her fans, this is a huge departure for French, and reactions will be mixed. Mystery readers and procedural fans may be disappointed. As with many procedurals, the crimes in French’s books, while clever, are the incidental vehicle, but the detectives’ engaging personal histories are what draw readers in and tempt them to return.
There is, eventually, a murder in this book, and there are some Dublin detectives taking an active part in its investigation; but the story continues to be told by the victims and, later, the perpetrators. Rather than featuring as the leads, the detectives maintain the persona that they represent to most people in real life: initially friendly and helpful, but also a looming source of panic and dread as their attention falls on you and you wonder, Do they really think I did this?
The book is a slow and intricate read, and takes almost 100 pages to build up to the discovery of the murder. Although some may believe that French’s editors were simply too afraid at this point to curtail the prose of such a successful writer, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Yes, I was initially somewhat frustrated to sit through the transformation of Toby from a basically happy-go-lucky guy to a man who didn’t know how or when he would ever recover from what’s been done to him. He’s pathetic, but he’s not the most sympathetic of characters, and my impatience grew with the narrative. But when the story transitions to the search for a murderer among Toby’s family, and so many questions are raised, you begin to realize that this book isn’t a whodunnit, it’s a psychological character study that, because of the unreliable nature of the characters, ramps up the tension exponentially with every page. In hindsight you see that all (okay, most) of that angst and drama you sat through with Toby was in service of everything that comes after, and you grow to appreciate your insider’s view as things continue to swing out of control. Although I had to make a little effort to get through the first part of this novel, I whipped through the last 30 percent of it between midnight and 3:00 a.m., and I don’t regret staying up one bit.
It’s hard, when you love unreservedly the kind of book that an author has reliably delivered as many times as has Tana French, and then she changes her focus. But I would call The Witch Elm a successful step in her career. If I’m honest, I still hope she returns to the Dublin Murder Squad, but I won’t be sad if, as well, we get a few one-offs like this one along the way.
Last week, I was checking for a book on bookoutlet.com, a discount site that provided me with many budget-saving deals during my 10 years as a teen librarian running three book clubs on a budget. If you have never been there, then beware; you can spend an awful lot of money while “saving” it. Only books that have been remaindered appear for sale, but that includes a surprising number of mainstream authors and excellent reads, and you can buy most of them for between $2.79 and $6.49 apiece. They do have a “remaindered” dot or slash on the bottom or top of their pages, but if you aren’t one of those fussy people whose personally owned books have to be absolutely pristine, then you can greatly expand your collection for not a lot of money. The only tricky part is that shipping is high, so in order to get it for free, you have to spend $35 or more. But if you regularly go on Amazon to buy new fiction at $25 for one hardcover, then you won’t find that difficult; and if you’re buying in bulk for a book club, this is a website you need!
Anyway, I was shopping there, and attempting to buy everything I wanted or “needed” at once so as to obtain the free shipping, so I ended up adding in a book by Michael Koryta. I had never read him before, but he is “blurbed” by the likes of Michael Connelly, so I decided he was worth a try. I settled on the particular book I bought—The Prophet—because it was a stand-alone, and because it sounded more straight-up mystery/thriller than the others, which apparently harbor some horror tendencies. Since I am squeamish about horror, I turned away from those, although I have subsequently discovered from other reviewers on Goodreads that his supernatural twists are “suspenseful without being gory enough or scary enough to fall into the horror category.”
The Prophet is about two brothers whose lives have been shaped by the murder of their sister. When all three were in high school, the eldest, Marie, walked home alone one twilight, and was kidnapped and killed. Either of the brothers could have escorted her home, but one was wrapped up in football while the other had recently fallen in love, and both shirked the responsibility to pursue their own goals, reasoning that not much could happen in five blocks. Both spent their lives regretting that decision.
It’s 10 years later, and although Kent has moved on, becoming the town’s beloved head coach of the competitive high school football team, Adam continues to live in the family home with an untouched bedroom shrine to his sister. Adam is a bail bondsman, and is a hard-drinking risk-taker who is haunted by that one lapse of judgment. The brothers became alienated over the family tragedy, and haven’t spoken in years despite continuing to live in this small, depressed Ohio steel town.
Into both their lives comes a girl looking for a reunion with her father, a paroled criminal. She is connected tangentially to both brothers—she has hired Adam to get her an address for her dad, and it turns out she’s also the girlfriend of Kent’s wide receiver. So when she goes missing and then turns up dead, it throws both of them directly back into their mindset after Marie’s death. When the crime turns out to be further connected with the brothers, they must put their differences aside and work together to find the killer.
In some ways this was a beautifully balanced thriller: I liked the juxtaposition of the two brothers, the one hardly distinguishable from the criminals and outlaws with whom he does business as a bail bondsman, the other an upstanding member of the community, deeply, overtly religious, and the town’s best hope for a football championship that would brighten the lives of the many unemployed steel workers whose children play for his team. When a psychopath turns up in their town and begins to manipulate the both of them, their varied reactions are fascinating to watch. I enjoyed the way the mystery played out, and never guessed its resolution, being as shocked at various circumstances as were Kent and Adam (and the police).
This is also a book full of football, and I appreciated that much less. I have never been a fan of the sport, and a large percentage of the book is spent following both the team itself and the machinations in its head coach’s head as he tries to reconcile his belief that the game is merely a means to an end—a way to help these young people develop skills and opportunities—with his deep-down raging desire to win the state championship, just once in his career. Although the psychological aspects of the game to some extent mirrored the psychological aspects of the other things going on in town, I found myself becoming impatient with the minute details of practices, plays, and strategy.
So for those wondering whether to read The Prophet, I would say it’s a good thriller with a solid plot and some well-developed characters, but if you really love football, then that is what will carry you over the top to victory in your search for a good book.
I believe I will try one more of Koryta’s, not burdened by football, and see what I think.
This is the time of year when I look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and ponder which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads, where I record my reading, conveniently keeps track of statistics for those who set a reading goal, so before I get to the specifics, here are some of mine:
I read 41,346 pages across 113 books.
My shortest book was an e-book-only novella (71 pages) by Sharon Bolton, while my longest was a reread of a Diana Gabaldon book (928 pages) in preparation for the next season of Outlander on TV. The average length of book I read was 365 pages.
The most popular book I read this year was (surprisingly) The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (which I read for high school book club), while the least popular (though one of the most useful to me) was the “textbook” (Reading Still Matters, by Catherine Sheldrick Ross) that I assigned to my readers’ advisory students in the masters program at UCLA. And the highest rated book that I read, according to Goodreads, was The Empty Grave, a young adult horror novel that is the final chapter of the Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud, a wonderfully entertaining series for 8th grade and up.
One of my favorite books of the year, but not one I would consider a “best book,” would be Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. It was a favorite for a couple of reasons: It was a long-anticipated fifth in her beloved Queen’s Thief series (beloved by me, though apparently unknown to far too many people); and it had her typical intricate yet understated plotting and humor that made me appreciate it throughout and also at the end. But for most people, it would probably be far too subtle to consider as a “best book,” and it needs to be viewed within its setting as part of a series to give the full effect. If you are, however, looking for a good and also untypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief (the first book) and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and finally, Thick as Thieves. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.
Tess is a slow, compelling, character-driven fantasy, so if you are impatient for breathless action, it may not be for you. But I found the writing, the characters, and the story all to be completely gripping. Tess’s transformation throughout the book was a fabulous coming-of-age story for resentful and impetuous young women everywhere. I identified with her repression by a rigid, religious mother, was dismayed by the ways she tried to disengage from her life, and was delighted by her choices, though some of them seemed idiotic in the moment.
Defy the Stars was entertaining from start to finish. I loved the characters—Noemi is so idealistic, stern, determined, and committed, but with a squishy interior that occasionally surfaces. Abel is, well, a ROBOT—this is my favorite robot book since the Lije Bailey/Daneel Olivaw pair-up in Isaac Asimov’s old mystery series. As with Daneel, Abel turns out to be so much more, mostly because his creator, Burton Mansfield, gave him enough agency to continue developing on his own. But Noemi is really the catalyst who brings him to his ultimate personhood. What I especially liked about this book is that it gave you a glimpse into possible worlds that could have been colonized from Earth, and how they evolved differently depending on the expectations and ideals of their colonizers. This isn’t just space opera; it also goes into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and is thought-provoking in all areas.
One of my faves that I would also consider a “best book” was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Her quirky character Eleanor is, in many ways, profoundly broken, and Eleanor’s metamorphosis depends on courage that she wouldn’t have found without making some human connections, but it is not a romantic book, for which I was grateful. Her story is told in a tender, sweet, and humorous way that isn’t manipulative and never descends into mawkishness, that pulls both Eleanor and the reader out of melancholy into hopefulness. I was impressed that this was the author’s debut novel: The language, the characters, and the world in which she places them are smart and engaging, and she writes with confidence. I have always believed re-reading potential is the true test of a good book, and as soon as I finished this one, I wanted to go back and read it again to feel the emotions brought forth in me by the story.
In the mystery category, I thoroughly enjoyed the reliable offerings from among my list of favorites: Louise Penny, Elly Griffiths, Robert Crais, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Sharon Bolton, and Craig Johnson; but the most anticipated and most enjoyed one had to be Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. I was completely enthralled by everything about the book: The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosted up the energy exponentially. I was thrilled that the book picked up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin married the detestable Matthew Cunliffe. When she returns to work as Cormoran’s partner, he labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, giving the reader a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation as we find out where their personal choices will lead them.
I have already mentioned, in a recent post, my favorite fantasy of this year, Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor; if you have, in your past, been prejudiced against books because they were given a “young adult” categorization, please let go of that long enough to pick up and read Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares. You won’t be sorry. I will add to the best fantasy category another, completely different offering: Vengeful, the long-awaited sequel to Vicious by V. E. Schwab.
As usual, being the bibliophile that I am, I managed to find a few new novels based on reading and bookstores to add to my list, including The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan, and The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland. I think the last would be my favorite of these.
Please feel free to respond with your comments on any of my favorites, and share your own—if I receive enough responses, I will publish an end-of-the-year book bonanza from readers, full of ideas for January catch-up!
I was emailing with a former co-worker from the library the other day. She shares my love of a good mystery, and we were doing the usual “Have you read…” conversation, wherein I discovered that she had not yet read any of Louise Penny’s series set in the mythical Three Pines, somewhere in the snowdrifts below Montréal, Canada, and starring the inimitable Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec.
I immediately encouraged her to drop everything and start reading with the first book, Still Life, and then…I paused. I love this series almost unreservedly, and yet it is not a series that you can recommend to just anyone. It has quirks.
The first quirk is that the development of the characters is far more instrumental to the reader’s love of this series than are the individual mysteries/murders/cases pursued in each volume. With a few standout exceptions, I have released from my memory the specifics of the cases, and yet I retain every detail about the inhabitants of Three Pines and the officers of the Sûreté who make recurring appearances or simply loom as brooding, somewhat intangible threats over Gamache’s future.
The second quirk is that the mysteries themselves are weird. Victims are shot by arrows, electrocuted in the middle of a village fair, die of fright in the midst of a séance. Penny seems determined to come up with deaths so out of the ordinary that the reader must struggle a bit with “the willing suspension of disbelief” in order to continue with the book or the series.
The third quirk is more a matter of degree or intensity than it is anything unusual, and that is the level of psychological and personal involvement one develops with the character of Armand Gamache with each subsequent book. I phrased that last sentence purposefully, because the character of the man is what draws me to these books and keeps me reading. He is the hero you could wish for as the head of any police department, and yet because of his high standards and philosophical rigor, his expectations are hard to meet, and in fact many of the officers of the Sûreté not only don’t try to meet them, but purposely flout them. Those within his magic circle realize that he is as deeply flawed as they are, and that his flaws are what drew them to him as a mentor and eventually as a friend. But even those who claim friendship have never plumbed the depths of Armand Gamache, and this is what makes him forever fascinating.
I began this intending to give a review of the latest book, Kingdom of the Blind, number 14 in the series. It is true to form, in that the initial mystery is puzzling and offbeat—Gamache, Three Pines bookstore owner Myrna, and Benedict, a young builder unknown to either of them, have been summoned by a notary to discover that they have been designated liquidators (executors) of a will, but for a woman none of the three has ever met. Becoming somewhat reluctantly involved with this duty ends up leading them to a murder, and to the puzzling facts of the will itself, which bequeaths possessions not actually owned by the deceased. Running alongside this new conundrum is the leftover entanglements from the last book, in which a powerful new drug was released onto the black market, partially as a result of controversial actions by Superintendent Gamache, with the consequence that he has been suspended from his position at the Sûreté, temporarily replaced by his close associate and son-in-law, Jean-Guy de Beauvoir.
A few commenters on Goodreads expressed the feeling that the familiar characters in Three Pines are becoming redundant, and that Penny should start fresh with a new project. Although I can’t agree with this, I do think that this was not one of the 40 percent of standout books in the series. I wasn’t a big fan of the story line with the will and the historical puzzle contained within it; but I did breathlessly follow the events in this book that played out the contentious actions from the last, and watched with intrigue Gamache’s desperate attempts to remedy his daring ploy that put a dangerous drug on the streets. And an exceedingly surprising plot twist at the end may do something significant for those readers bored with the inhabitants of Three Pines….
In her afterword to this book, Penny confessed that she thought she had already written the last Armand Gamache book, and had expected to confess as much and default on her commitment of another to her publisher. Penny’s beloved husband, Michael, passed away in 2017, and she had believed that his embodiment of Gamache and his constant participation in all aspects of her writing life would keep her from going further once he was gone. But one morning, she woke up with an opening sentence in her head, and realized that, far from being unable to go on, the continuation of this series kept her husband’s integrity, courage, and good humor present in her life and in her writing.
I ended up reiterating my recommendation to my friend about the series, with the caveat that the mysteries are weird and not always satisfying, but that it is the community in which you live while you read them that will keep drawing you back. I plan to check in with her after she’s read a few, and see if she has invested in them as I have. The series is about kindness, humor, wit, love, and affection. The fact that it’s sometimes also a window into despair and inhumanity simply points up the contrasts.
I recently caught up with the Bill Slider mysteries by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles; I had inadvertently read numbers 20 and 21 in the series without having read 18 and 19, so I bought them for my Kindle and settled down for a rainy day’s read.
The first book, One Under, has a chilling plot. The opening scene is of a middle-aged man inexplicably throwing himself under a tube train at Shepherd’s Bush station, an obvious suicide. Soon after, a report comes in of a hit-and-run incident that has killed a teenage girl in a country lane far away from where she lives on the White City estate.
Normally, Bill Slider and his homicide team wouldn’t concern themselves with either of these sad but obvious deaths; but during a slack period, they are assigned to double-check that the hit-and-run was just that, and Bill Slider’s discovery that it might not be leads to all the rest.
First, he finds a case of another teenager who was found in the river but who didn’t drown; and then, as his team pursues small bits of information about these two girls, strange linkages begin to appear between them and some extremely unlikely people. Slider ultimately discovers a scene of widespread corruption amongst the upper level of British government, including the police department, and finds himself both out of his depth and persona non grata as he doggedly pursues the evidence.
Contrary to her usual practice of one mystery to one volume, Old Bones begins a new mystery while still dealing with the dangling strings of the old one. A young couple moves into a new house and, doing some renovations, discovers a skeleton buried at the bottom of the garden. The medical examiner determines that it must have been there for at least two decades; Slider’s boss, Detective Superintendent Porson, leaps upon this opportunity to keep Slider and his team simultaneously occupied and out of trouble. After all, it’s a very cold case; the likelihood of them even solving it is negligible, and the passions surrounding a missing person from that long ago are probably spent. But he reckons without the single-minded persistence of his best but most exasperating DCI.
I don’t know exactly why I find police procedurals such as these so appealing. Perhaps it is because, of all kinds of mystery or crime fiction, the police procedural is the most realistic. After all, when a murder occurs in real life, it is most likely that the police, rather than your local personal trainer or some other amateur sleuth, will be the ones to respond to the call and attempt to solve the crime.
I also enjoy the variations present when you have a team of criminal investigators, rather than one lone guy, cooperating to find the killer. A good procedural may include uniformed cops, police detectives, medical examiners, forensics experts, psychologists, sketch artists, and so on. It’s an ensemble piece, and although certain protagonists will necessarily take the lead as the more developed and therefore more interesting people, the methodology of detection is based on real police work. I enjoy the gradual ferreting out of each tiny detail that, added to a big pile of other tiny details, mounts up into irrefutable evidence.
Part of it, of course, is admiration for the character and ethics shown by the lead detective, Bill Slider. Harrod-Eagles has created a complex man with a complicated back story, and these personal details give humanity and depth not just to him but to all her characters to a lesser degree. I love the “team” the way Harrod-Eagles has written and continues to write them. And speaking of the writing, it’s clever, literate, and deliberate. Last but not least, DS Porson’s nonsensical malapropisms make me laugh out loud at least a few times per book, and I have a feeling that if I had a more comprehensive understanding of British humor, that would increase significantly.
The first book in this series is Orchestrated Death, in which the set-up for the series gives the reader a satisfying amount of detail into the back story of this obscure policeman; I have read all 21 subsequent volumes, and can only think of one that wasn’t quite up to the standard of the rest. It’s a consistent and immersive collection.
Before teaching this class, I never had to differentiate between the sub-genres of mystery to such a fine point. Yes, I knew the difference between a “cozy” and a police procedural, but the distinctions between hard-boiled and noir escaped me, and I didn’t really worry about them, since people who like one bleed over into people who like the other. But now, after reading up on it and then re-examining an example of noir, I get the difference.
Although both are dark, stark, and unsentimental, the hard-boiled mystery stars a detective, bent on solving a crime, defending the innocent and righting wrongs, while noir fiction has a different kind of protagonist—a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Although both sub-genres may feature a particular villain, often in the person of an evil femme fatale, in the hard-boiled book the detective is fighting against the corruption perpetrated by the villain or the system, while in the noir, the protagonist is just trying to survive. What they have in common is inevitability.
In Fun & Games, by Duane Swierczynski, former contractor to the Philly P.D. Charlie Hardie’s latest job is house-sitting an isolated mansion in L.A.’s Hollywood Hills. But when he arrives to start the gig (his description of the specifications of the job include making sure the house doesn’t burn down, while drinking bourbon and watching old movies on DVD), he is surprised to discover an unwanted guest hiding out in the house—a B-movie actress who says she’s being hunted by professional hitmen.
Charlie thinks she’s just high and paranoid. But he’s wrong.
The killers are real. They’ve tracked her to the house. And they’re not letting anyone out alive—including Charlie.
I decided on a re-read, since Mr. Swierczynski is going to be a guest speaker in my class at UCLA next week. This is classic noir: The protagonist, Charlie Hardie, is a self-destructive, hapless victim, caught in a situation he doesn’t understand and didn’t seek out. He just wants to be left alone, to drink and try to forget about the disaster he made of his former life. He’s relateable, but not particularly likeable. His co-victim, B-movie actress Lane Madden, is likewise set up for failure, driven by guilt but with a visceral need to survive. The “bad guy” is a femme fatale, and boy, is she conscienceless and mean! The only way in which it isn’t so noir is that Charlie is turned, willy nilly, into a hero, simply because there is no one else. I’m curious to find out whether “noir” is how Duane characterizes his own book. I also now want to read the two sequels, Hell & Gone, and Point & Shoot!
This coming Monday will be the fourth class out of 10 of the Readers’ Advisory course I am teaching for the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSE&IS) at UCLA. To translate that last, I’m teaching the course for graduate students getting their masters in library information studies, to become librarians, and I’m teaching them how to match up readers and books, which sounds simple but isn’t.
We have spent the past three classes talking about the mysteries of readers: how they read, why they read, and what kind of readers they are; and then we have discussed two powerful methods to connect these readers with “their” books. The first is the readers’ advisory interview, which ascertains what books readers have enjoyed and specifically why they have enjoyed them, and attempts then to find other books that will please their reading tastes, based on “appeal factors.” The second is the art of book-talking, which is to find an array of books that might appeal to a particular audience and talk about them as a storyteller would, so persuasively that the listeners’ first question when one is done is to ask “But what happens next?” and be moved to read the book to find out.
In this fourth class, we will be proceeding into an in-depth study of individual genres of popular reading. We’ll be examining one genre each week, and this week is mystery. I have asked my students to read one or more book each week, selecting from the genre we intend to discuss so that they will have read at least one representative example before we break down that genre for discussion. I decided, this week, that I would join them by reading a mystery in preparation for class on Monday, and perhaps discuss it here, and so I have done; I have actually indulged myself in two.
I didn’t feel like making a second trek to the library this week, so I cast about within my own collection for something to read, and decided to indulge nostalgia by re-reading a couple of Dick Francis novels. Both I and my father were horse lovers and mystery readers. Dad always said he’d like to move to Montana and have a horse ranch (although if you knew my mother, you knew that would never happen), and I was a typical horse-mad pre-teen who had to deal with a particularly horrible birthday one year when my grandfather, a Central Valley farmer equipped with fondness but little sense, bought me an unbroken yearling stallion at auction as my gift and then had to return it when my parents, who lived with me in SoCal suburbia, flatly refused to let me accept him. (It took me a while to forgive them.) Dad and I greatly enjoyed all of Dick Francis’s books; in fact, over the course of many birthdays and Father’s Days and Christmases, I managed to gift Dad with the entire collection, start to finish, some as tattered old paperbacks and others as pristine first editions. He read them over and over again, as do I; and it was that fact that made me pick them up this week.
Often, someone who is gifted in one career will be significantly less so in another; but Dick Francis seems to have had an impressive career as a “jump jockey” (a steeplechase rider), his ultimate achievements becoming champion jockey in the National Hunt 1953-54 season, and then jockey to Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s stable. Then, after his retirement at age 36 (a typical age for jockeys to cease practicing this dangerous and exceedingly taxing pursuit), he became a journalist and began writing horse-racing novels, becoming an explosive success as a mystery writer of sport-related books. He wrote one book a year thereafter, from 1962 to 2010, the year he died. On many of the early books, he collaborated with his wife, Mary Margaret Brenchley, who did quite extensive research surrounding the plots (including teaching herself photography and how to fly a plane), and after Mary’s death in 2000, his son Felix collaborated with him on his last four.
I am giving all this background information because I am attempting to puzzle out exactly why these books retain their appeal through several re-reads for so many people. Although I am definitely a reader who re-reads favorites, there are few authors—Georgette Heyer, Margaret Whalen Turner, and Dick Francis—whose works hold up for me again and again, even when either vaguely or completely familiar. But these same authors must hold a similar appeal for others, since they are among those considered worthy of a re-release of their novels, with new covers, in trade paperback form.
The interesting thing I find about Francis’s books is that, while they are all solidly oriented in the world of horse racing, not all, or even most, of his protagonists are jockeys. He has done an extraordinary job of exploring with his characters not just every facet of horse racing life by casting jockeys, trainers, breeders, and owners as his protagonists, but also by bringing in other only tangentially related careers, such as an air taxi service pilot, ferrying horsey people to distant races; an artist who paints portraits of winning jockeys and horses; a Jockey Club investigator; an adventure book writer; a wine merchant; a banker; a jewel merchant; and more. But all of them preserve that tie to the sport that allows Francis to include the sure-fire fast-paced scene of the breathless progression of man and horse over daunting jumps and along the flat to victory at the tapes.
Francis could definitely be characterized as a “formula” writer; while he seldom repeated the same protagonist (he wrote four books starring Sid Halley and the two I just re-read featuring Kit Fielding, out of more than 40), all of his protagonists were similar: Men between 28 and 40, with a certain kind of smart, intrepid, ethical, persistent personality combined with a light-hearted charm; a love interest usually between 19 and 28, often becoming important to the protagonist within first or second meeting; and a situation that has to be figured out, confronted and overcome, usually featuring one or more villains intent on having their own way at everyone else’s expense. But although they are formula, Francis writes them as complete individuals, with personal quirks that make them stand-out characters, and most of his plot lines are clever, convoluted, and engaging.
The two books I read this week were Break In and Bolt, a duo starring the same protagonist, jump jockey Kit Fielding. What makes Kit so interesting is his associations: First of all, he is the end product of a long line of Fielding horse trainers, with a twin sister, Holly, who is married to the last scion of a competing family of horse trainers named Allardeck who, up until this marriage, were bitter enemies of his family. And while the youngest members—Kit, Holly, and her husband, Bobby—have mostly resolved their feud, other members of the family are still hotly opposed to any association between the two clans, who have been undercutting one another for multiple generations. The second thing that makes Kit’s life interesting is that he is chief jockey to a European princess-in-exile, Princess Casilia de Brescou, and this connection forms a considerable amount of the plot of both books.
In the first, Break In, someone is targeting Bobby and Holly’s horse training business, to the point where they may lose it if they don’t find out who and why. Malicious bits of gossip about them have been published in the local paper, and someone has taken the trouble to circle the gossip in red and hand deliver it to all the merchants to whom they owe money and to all their owners who have horses in their training lot. Kit comes to the rescue and begins to believe after a while that his sister and her husband are suffering the unfortunate fallout of a plot that is actually aimed at discrediting Bobby’s father, Maynard Allardeck. Once this theory occurs to him and he goes looking, all sorts of skeletons fall out of closets, and Maynard, who maintains the vicious attitude of “death to all Fieldings” as a loyal Allardeck should, proves to be a formidable opponent. But he is not the only villain involved…
The love interest in this book is the Princess Casilia’s husband’s niece, Danielle de Brescou, an American working in London as a programmer at a major news outlet. Kit meets her when she comes to the races with her aunt, and although there aren’t immediate sparks, there is definitely interest on both sides that may progress as the book unfolds.
In Bolt, the focus is more on Roland and Casilia de Brescou. Henri Navarre, the son of Roland’s long-time business partner in France, petitions Roland to sign papers that will allow their company to manufacture plastic guns. Roland, former royalty and an old-fashioned aristocrat, is horrified at the idea of having his family name associated with weapons manufacture, and refuses. Navarre, who is a brash, greedy bully determined to have his way, proceeds to threaten everyone in Roland’s household. Roland is elderly, frail, and disabled, so Princess Casilia reaches out to Kit for support. Roland’s obnoxious sister, Beatrix, who wishes Roland to sign so that she can live yet more comfortably from the family fortune than she already does on her quarterly allowance from Roland, comes to stay with the family and acts as a rat, giving away vital details about where and when everyone will be, and Navarre carries out his threats to the point where Kit and others in the family must unite to figure out how to outwit Navarre and get rid of the threat. The book is punctuated by Kit’s exciting rides in various races on the princess’s horses, and the saga of the continuing up-and-down relationship between Kit and Danielle, which is being influenced by the presence of the suave, mature and cultured Prince Litsi, a nephew of Casilia’s. And the menacing form of Maynard Allardeck still hovers in the background, intending to do Kit harm…
I feel like one of the charms of Francis’s books is their “old-fashioned” standard of upright ethical behavior. The profession of horse-racing itself is fraught with opportunities for cheating, from drugging horses to bribing jockeys or trainers to fixing things somehow at the bookies’. But Francis, while taking all that into account, pictures his protagonists as people with a genuine, innocent relationship to the center of the sport—the horses—and a pure love for their job that keeps them going despite bad weather, bad luck, and injury. When he describes the union of horse and rider up on the Downs while the horses are being exercised or schooled, there’s an idyllic quality to the whole scene that pulls in the reader, as does his narration of the exciting points of each race in which the protagonist rides. Further, the main characters possess a dedication to logic and justice that is satisfying in its resolution against the badly behaved villains of each book. And although some of the early love interests were misogynistic in their details, as he continued to write, the women in his books made progress and became individuals in their own right, which you can’t say for some writers of mystery series. The dialogue is clear and simple, touched with humor, and the plots are in many cases labyrinthine and clever. Being myself horse mad, I can’t say for sure that someone who had no affinity for horses would enjoy these books the way that I have. But Dick Francis certainly had the aptitude to make you care what happens to his characters, and that, I feel, is the one thing that makes these books so re-readable.
Because I read so many authors and follow so many series, I don’t always pay too close attention to how long it takes between books; but even I had noticed that it had been a really long time since the last Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. When the book finally arrived, I realized that although the first three in the series had been published just one year apart (2013, 2014, 2015), book #4, Lethal White, took three long years to produce! Rowling says in her acknowledgements to the book that she wrote it during the same time period she was writing a play and two screenplays, so that is a partial explanation. The other, of course, is that the book is just shy of 650 pages long, which is almost exactly 200 pages longer than any of the other three.
Several people on Goodreads expressed their hope that this series wouldn’t follow the lead of the Harry Potter books, in which each book became longer than the previous one; and while I agree with that sentiment as regards that series, I can’t really fault her for going a bit longer here. While there were probably areas that could have been edited out or tightened up without damage to the book, the truth is that the elements of this story were so complex, involving at least three separate mystery story lines as well as requiring its characters to confront the extreme messiness of their personal lives, that I doubt she could have come in under 600 pages. Still, I will hope with the other readers that the next book doesn’t run to 800!
I was completely enthralled by everything about this book, and there were few passages I rushed through to get to the next good bit. The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosts up the energy exponentially, particularly when they all seem to have certain elements tying them together.
Speaking of ties that bind, the book picks up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin (against most of her better judgement) tied the knot with the conventional and whiny Matthew Cunliffe. The description of what happens next in her relationship is satisfyingly detailed, and the reader spends most of the rest of the book wondering just when she’s going to wise up for good and ditch this guy. Of course, being in equal parts embarrassed that she went through with the wedding and guilty for not being truly committed to making it work, Robin keeps all of this to herself, and suffers both Matthew’s complaints and her own panic attacks (generated by her close call in the last book) to herself. Meanwhile, Cormoran has taken the fact of the marriage ceremony as a sign that Robin is permanently off limits to him, and although he has invited her back to work as his partner, he also labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, and seeks distraction with several other women to keep from thinking of Robin in “that way.” It gives a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation to have all of this happening as back story during the complex work the two are doing, and definitely amps up the reading experience.
All in all, I’m a bigger fan than ever after Lethal White, and hope that the next one (back to 455 pages but still just as riveting) arrives in a lot less than three more years!
One question I have never heard answered and would like to know is, why Robert Galbraith? The tradition of the pseudonym for famous authors who are trying their hand at another age group or genre is well established; but I have to say I am disappointed, given the history of women subsuming their gender for the sake of credibility, that the woman who has perhaps the best credibility of anyone as an author didn’t pick a woman’s identity as her nom de plume. I did see in an interview that Rowling commented that she was “channeling her inner bloke” when writing this series, so maybe it’s as simple as that. Still, there are so many successful male writers out there; we could have used another female one to represent.