One thing you learn when becoming a readers’ advisor is,
you can’t be a book snob. Some people pride themselves on only reading “worthy” or “classic” or “literary” fiction. Others believe that while mainstream fiction is legitimate, anything that falls within a genre description is somehow less-than. When you read so as to address the interests of every type of reader, the fortunate outcome is that you discover there are “worthy” books—that is to say, engaging, well written, and with something to say—within every category of fiction.
I have wondered whether I should bother reviewing older books here, or whether I should just be addressing newly released works, to keep up with the ever-changing whims of contemporary readers. My conclusion so far has been that it’s all right to cover older reads, because no matter how long ago they were written, they will be new to someone.
Today, I just finished rereading Bloodhound (Beka Cooper #2), by Tamora Pierce. Pierce is much beloved by many fantasy readers, and has been incredibly prolific in the number of books and series she has written that are all set in the kingdom of Tortall. Tortall is a semi-feudal land populated by knights and ladies (and some knights who are also ladies), master craftspeople and master thieves, commoners both honest and corrupt, and the supernatural creatures who also make an appearance. The gods are definitely present (though mostly in subtle ways) in Tortall.
Rather than write one long series with a particular cast of characters, Pierce has broken down the Tortall legend into small “cycles” of three or four books each, that come at the world and its events from many different perspectives. While all these novels are immensely popular with a wide variety of people from 10-year-olds to the elderly, it does seem to me that the earlier books were specifically written to appeal to middle-school teens. Although many adults read them, there is a large percentage who do so out of nostalgia, because they read Pierce as a child and want to revisit the world of Tortall.
The first thing I like about the Beka Cooper series, therefore, is that while the books are completely teen-friendly and accessible (and are, indeed, marketed to teens), they are written from a much more adult viewpoint. While Beka, the narrator, is a young woman, she is more woman than girl, and the others with whom she interacts are likewise more mature. This is yet another in the growing list of teen fantasy series that could equally well (or perhaps more successfully) have been marketed to adult fantasy readers.
The second thing I like about the series is that it so fluidly combines medieval fantasy with mystery and police procedural, using a memoir format—basically, all my favorite genres rolled into one. The characters (and there are many) are engaging, the situations are surprisingly sophisticated (how many young adult novels expound on the effects of counterfeiting on a nation’s economy?), and the mysteries are well paced and satisfying. Beyond this, Pierce has exerted herself to provide a made-up language, reminiscent of the “thieves’ cant” you find in Regency romance novels, that give the books a particular flavor. The inclusion of this lingo also cleverly circumvents any criticisms she might get from parents who ban language and sexuality by expressing things that she couldn’t do in a teen book if she put them in contemporary English. Pierce has taken pains to spell out the differences in rank from that of the King in his palace down to the lowliest gixie picking pockets amongst the slums. There is no difference made in the characterizations between children, teens, and adults in terms of attention to detail, and while Beka remains firmly the main character, the people with whom she partners, the neighborhood from where she rose to the police force, and the “coves and mots” she encounters in the course of her work are all given a real existence. Finally, the books feature strong female heroines, a welcome departure from some fantasies.
Terrier, the first book (released in 2006), takes us away for the first time from the lords and ladies, knights and squires of the other series and introduces Beka Cooper, an orphaned 17-year-old with some special gifts that lead her from the Lower City (the worst neighborhood) of Tortall into a career as a “Dog,” or police officer, in the Provost’s Guard. She is assigned as a trainee (“puppy”) to two veterans, Tunstall and Goodwin, and proves herself as an officer who hangs onto a case like a terrier until it’s solved.
In Bloodhound (2009), her second year on the force is also documented in the pages of her journal, and it’s quite a ride. As a new Dog, she is matched up with four different partners who don’t work out, and she ends up instead working solo with Achoo, a scent hound she rescues from an abusive handler. She and Clary Goodwin, one of her former training partners, are then sent by the Provost General, Lord Gershom, down the river to Port Caynn, on a secret investigation to discover who is behind the spread of counterfeit silver coins that are destroying the economy. She falls in love, falls afoul of the Port Caynn Rogue (Queen of the thief caste), and earns her new nickname as she doggedly (pun intended) pursues the solution to the case.
The third book, Mastiff (2011), is equally compelling. Three years after their mission in Port Caynn, Clary Goodwin has finally opted to promote to a (stationary) command position, and Beka is now paired with Goodwin’s former partner (and her other former training officer), Tunstall. Beka has suffered a recent tragedy—her fiancé, a fellow Dog, has been killed while pursuing slavers—and she doesn’t know how to go on, mostly because she was on the verge of breaking up with him when he died, and now she’s feeling guilty for receiving unwanted attention as the grieving almost-widow. But an assignment abruptly pulls her away from her familiar surroundings and sends her, her partners both human and canine, and a strange mage assigned to their team on a hunt the outcome of which will determine the future of the Tortallan royal family and government. As with the second book, the pacing ramps up as the Dogs get closer to their quarry, and unexpected elements throw several wicked curves into the story before it ends.
There have been two things against this series when I talked it up to others: The first was the truly abysmal cover art on the original paperbacks, which was actively ugly and made it almost impossible to “sell” these books to anyone (especially teenagers). The photographic image chosen to represent Beka was both laughable and disrespectful. The recent re-release of this series with new covers may give it a chance; if you are a librarian reading this, please consider immediately replacing your originals with the new versions!
The second is the supernatural element, which I sometimes completely leave out of my descriptions. When you say that a book is about a girl who gets messages from the recently dead by listening to pigeons, and who also gathers clues by standing in the middle of dust devils and picking up bits of conversation the dust devil has been hoarding, people look at you like you’re crazy!
This fantasy series has so many facets and is so hard to adequately describe that I don’t often find myself promoting it to anyone—but after rereading #2 on impulse this weekend, I decided to make another pitch, because these books are a worthy, intriguing, and entertaining addition to the mainstream fantasy canon.
I’m usually more of a thriller or police procedural kind of mystery reader, with an occasional psychological plot thrown in to keep me thinking, but I couldn’t resist either the town setting or the engaging amateur sleuthing trio of Kate, Jack, and Sara in Jude Devereaux’s Medlar Mysteries, and decided to read #2.
The victim in A Justified Murder achieves the equivalent of being hung, drawn, and quartered; the nice little old lady Mrs. Beeson is discovered by her cleaning lady sitting at her dining room table, poisoned, shot, and stabbed! Who could hate this seemingly innocuous woman so much? And why does everyone in town seem determined to whitewash or downplay his or her own personal relationship with the victim?
After their last murder and some close calls with danger, Jack, Kate, and Sara decide they’re not going to go near this one, and stubbornly turn to their daily routines while trying to ignore what’s happening in town; but everyone else, from the sheriff to Sarah’s old nemesis (and Kate’s boss at the real estate office) to a strange man stalking them from afar, is determined that they will take it on and figure out who killed Janet Beeson.
The “triple murder” of one victim and the delving into her background for reasons was an intriguing beginning, but I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did A Willing Murder. I felt like Devereaux took the character development of her protagonists to a point in the first novel, and then in this one, when we should have deepened our knowledge of the three detectives, we just got more of the same. We didn’t find out, for instance, anything substantive about Kate’s father, which is the sole reason she initially went to Lachlan to meet her Aunt Sara; we got a lot of flirty behavior from Jack but likewise not much depth; and Sara just kept getting mad and either locking herself in her room or taking out her anger on a punching bag with her boxing gloves.
As far as the mystery was concerned, there was a whole lot about the three protagonists protesting too much while continuing to follow up every clue from beginning to end. I would have respected them more if, at some point about halfway through the book, they had said, “Hey, let’s get real, we’re doing this,” and quit pretending they weren’t. Also, there were so many peripheral story lines involved, not to mention a kidnapping subplot, that it became confusing more than once. Someone would show up at the front door at 2 a.m., crying, and I would have to page back three chapters to figure out who this person was and where they fit into the puzzle of the town’s many involved citizens.
The book wasn’t bad enough to discourage me from perhaps reading her third when it comes out (and I did like the surprise ending), but if that one likewise ignores the expansion of character knowledge, that’s it for me. Half the motivation for reading a cozy mystery series is finding out more about the inner workings of your sleuth(s). I hope Ms. Devereaux figures this out.
Because I’m not much of a romance reader, confining myself to anything by Georgette Heyer and most things by Jenny Colgan, I have never previously read anything by Jude Devereaux. I am, however, a big fan of mystery and, noticing that she had written her first, decided to check it out of the library and see whether there was a reason Devereaux is a best-selling author.
I did enjoy this mystery! It’s not the best plotted or most literary or twistiest I’ve ever read by a long shot, but Devereaux’s gift for creating engaging characters immediately drew me in. I’d definitely classify this as a “cozy” mystery; it’s set in a quirky small town and features a cold case solved by a trio of smart amateurs, so it fulfills the criteria.
A Willing Murder opens with a prologue that sets up the crime from back in the ’90s, and then turns to the present-day to acquaint us with Kate Medlar, a young woman burdened with a sensitive and overly dramatic mother. Kate has always wanted to know more about her father, but beyond idealizing him and never ceasing to mourn him, her mother isn’t generous with the details. Then, Kate’s mom lets slip that her father has an older sister still living, and this mobilizes Kate. It turns out that her Aunt Sara is a successful and wealthy novelist living in a small town in Florida. Kate researches the town, discovers that she can make good use of her real estate license there, finagles a job, and then writes to ask her aunt if she can stay with her until she gets her own place.
Sara is rattling around alone in her palatial house in Lachlan, and has just invited Jack Wyatt, the man who renovated the house for her and also the grandson of her childhood sweetheart, to move in while recuperating from an auto accident. But there’s plenty of room, so she says yes to Kate. Before the aunt and niece can get to know each other very well, they go with Jack to look at one of the properties he’s just bought to remodel and sell, and come upon a gruesome discovery. On the property was a beautiful royal poinciana tree riddled with termites, and it has been taken down in order to avoid its falling over more destructively in the next hurricane. While Sara and Kate are photographing the prone tree, Kate slips into the muddy hole and discovers that 20 years earlier, someone planted it over the freshly dug grave of two murder victims. And Jack thinks he knows, to his shock and dismay, who they are.
The sheriff, a long-time townie, is afraid to open the cold case, because he thinks he knows who murdered the two: Jack’s father. Sara, Jack, and Kate don’t believe this to be true, and decide they will confirm this (and possibly find the murderer) for themselves. But someone is one step ahead of them, throwing out suspicion and committing mayhem to conceal the truth.
While there were a few things in this debut mystery that were a bit obvious, it has amusing and witty moments to go along with the tragedies that occur, and the veil of secrecy kept up by the long-time residents of a small town is perfectly portrayed. The way the reader arrives at the conclusion is sufficiently (though not overly) intricate, and the conversations amongst the trio of amateur sleuths make the story vibrant and personal. Over all, it was a sturdy and entertaining book, and I plan to read the next of the Medlar mysteries to reunite with Sara, Jack, and Kate.
I just picked up Michael Connelly’s latest, Dark Sacred Night, which is a combo novel featuring both Harry Bosch (his 21st outing) and Renee Ballard (#2 for her) in the Bosch “universe” of 31 books. I have been nervous, for the past few volumes, that with Harry truly getting beyond the age of a comeback, Connelly’s franchise would dwindle. 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, and I wasn’t quite sure, with the first Renee Ballard book, that Connelly wasn’t going to go the same way, even though Renee’s character sketch was intriguing. (She has no permanent home but that of her Gran’s up in Ventura, and sleeps between shifts in a tent on the beach in Venice, with her dog to guard her, and her surfboard and a casual relationship with a lifeguard to keep her entertained.)
Fortunately, with his choice to bring the two detectives together for Renee’s next adventure, Connelly both solidified her character further and gave us something to compare and contrast between the way the old veteran and the young fanatic go after their cases. Harry recognizes by the end of this joint endeavor that Renee has that same certain something—the gleam in the eye, the doggedness of the pursuit, the dedication of the purist—that has kept Harry going through multiple separations from the LAPD, private consulting, and now as a part-time temporary guy at San Fernando’s tiny police department…and so do we, the readers. So while I had my doubts, this book made me much more confident that Connelly can pull off this changing of the guard, particularly by using these transitional novels.
After Ballard’s run-in with a superior officer (a sexual harassment incident in which she was the target) in her book #1, she was shunted off to “the late show” (the graveyard shift) at Hollywood’s detective bureau. And although it’s not been great for her career, she has decided that there are many advantages to this shift, including greater autonomy both at work and in her free time, and the opportunity (in the occasional downtime of the wee hours) to pursue cold cases. One night she returns to the deserted detectives’ bureau after having rolled out on a case that might have been homicide but turned out to be accidental death, only to find a stranger going through filing cabinets that she would have sworn were locked when she left the office. After interrupting him and essentially kicking him out, she becomes curious about who this guy is and why and how he got access, and goes on a fact-finding enquiry about Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch.
When she finds out that he’s pursuing a cold case and herself becomes intrigued by it, she offers to work with him, in her spare time, to solve it. Harry’s not sure he needs the help or wants a partner (when has he ever?), but since having an in-house buddy at the LAPD ensures him access to stuff he couldn’t get at on his own, he agrees.
The case is nine years cold, the murder of 15-year-old runaway Daisy Clayton, brutalized and left in a dumpster, and Harry has a personal interest in the case; he has met and befriended Daisy’s mother, Elizabeth, and helped her to get clean from an opioid addiction she fell into after her daughter died. Harry has promised Elizabeth that he won’t let go of Daisy’s case until he solves it and gives her at least that much closure. Renee Ballard, being generally inclined towards solving cases involving victimized women, is immediately intrigued by the details of Daisy’s story, and she and Harry trade off on tracking down leads, sources, and suspects before and after Ballard’s late-night shifts and Harry’s part-time day job, sometimes working together and sometimes tag-teaming one another. Being true to actual police work, this case isn’t the only thing keeping the two detectives busy, and the book is an action-packed amalgam of multiple story lines.
The book is told in the third person, but from two viewpoints, following each character individually and also when they work together, and it’s an effective back-and-forth reflecting all the fascinating details of police procedurals at which Connelly excels.
At the end of the book, a tentative suggestion is made by one detective to the other that perhaps they could work together again in the future; I have a feeling that offer will be taken up in Bosch 22, Ballard 3, and Universe 32! (Or maybe it will simply be called
As has been previously noted, I’m a sucker for books about books—a book featuring a bookstore, a library, a bookmobile, a librarian, a writer, a reader—if it’s book-centered, I usually end up reading it. After my post about a variety of these a few days ago, I decided to track down some more, but before I could do so, two serendipitously popped up, one of them a bargain book for my Kindle and the other “trending” on my Goodreads feed.
The first one I read was By the Book, by Julia Sonneborn, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I should have taken the title literally, because this book is written “by the book” without necessarily being “about” books. Let me clarify.
It’s supposedly a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (so, yet another author for Jane Austen’s lawyer to sue in the afterlife), and while the basic elements are there—the woman and her former suitor, working their way gradually back into a relationship—there were so many other things to distract that the original material didn’t resonate for me as I read the story.
Anne Corey is teaching English at a small liberal arts college in the foothills outside San Bernardino. She’s quite happy in her work, but trouble looms: In order to gain tenure (and avoid being fired!), she has to get a book deal for her literary tome on women writers. She goes into the new fall semester thinking this will be her biggest challenge, but then discovers, somewhat to her dismay, that the newly hired president of her college is none other than her first love and former fiancé, Adam Martinez, the man she jilted in favor of college and career.
The “publish or perish” push to get tenure was an interesting story element; but some of the others (Anne’s gay friend Larry’s obsession with a closeted actor, Anne’s own romance with a questionable Lothario, and dealing with the needs of her aging father) seemed to distract from the main thesis quite a bit.
I’m not saying I didn’t like the book; I did. But it reads as much more of a light, “cozy” romance than it does as a book that is engaged with books and literature. We hear a lot about the writing of books without getting many details of what is written; and the rest is a mish-mash of confusing and contradictory human relationships, including the secondary love interest, who turns out to be something of a caricature.
I also felt that the author let the source material down by improperly characterizing “Captain Wentworth.” In Persuasion, Wentworth is dead set against Anne at the beginning, and a lot of the book is about how he gradually changes his mind and returns to his original feelings for her. But in By the Book, despite some red herring relationships for him, it’s pretty clear that Adam Martinez is still carrying the torch, which made the tension between them feel too flimsy to carry the story. It’s not a bad book, but I don’t think it will go into my “canon” of bibliophilia-related reading.
The second book I read, the one that kept popping up on Goodreads, was Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan, and it was a lot closer to being what I have in mind when I want a book about books.
First of all, I loved the description and provenance of the bookstore; it’s in a previously dodgy but now up-and-coming neighborhood, built into a former lightbulb factory, which is what contributed the name and logo (a lit-up bulb) for the store. While being a smart emporium for new books, it employs a variety of quirky book people, nicely described, and also serves as a haven for a group of book-loving ne’er-do-wells, from the homeless to the merely eccentric, with whom the main character, Lydia, is involved, due both to her empathetic nature and to her desire to share her love of books with all and sundry.
The gist of the story, however, is a mystery based on tragedy, both present-day and in the past, and both connected to Lydia. In the present, it’s the suicide of a boy who frequents the store (one of the customers the clerks call “Book Frogs”). This event contains an unexpected element that carries Lydia (and the reader) back to a traumatic incident in her childhood, and brings her into contact with people and incidents she had banished to her subconscious for a couple of decades. The suicide, a boy named Joey, leaves her ingenious clues contained within books he stole from the bookstore, and in piecing them together Lydia discovers connections about which she never dreamed.
I didn’t expect the book to be so dark or so mystery-oriented, but I loved the writing, the set-up of the atmosphere surrounding the events, and the protagonist’s gentle yet inexorable qualities. (I also loved the cover!)
I would definitely read something else by this author, and will probably read this one again someday.
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.