No, that wasn’t a misspell. Although…anything with ganache would go well with Gamache. I am referring to the latest book in the detective series by Louise Penny. As is usual every August, I anticipate the arrival of Gamache, and then spend two days reading it and I’m done for the year. I try to draw it out, but it’s simply not possible.
In A Better Man, the newest book featuring the Chief Inspector, catastrophic things arrive in the typical three: The spring floods in Québec are threatening to overwhelm the riverbanks and possibly the dams of the entire province; there is a vicious twitter campaign villifying Armand as he returns to the Sûreté du Québec as Chief Inspector; and in the middle of all this, Gamache’s protegé, Lysette Cloutier, implores the Sûreté’s help to locate a friend’s daughter, who’s gone missing.
This one is good…but not as good as some. The mystery—the missing woman, Vivienne—was a little overwrought, with some characters in hysterics for most of the book; while Penny throws in various red herrings to prolong the suspense, I had gotten an inkling early on of the possible solution, which was in fact true (though not for the reasons I had surmised), and I kept waiting for the characters to figure it out as well. I have great respect for both the intelligence and instincts of Gamache, his son-in-law and cohort, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and his colleague, Isabelle Lacoste; but in this case they personalized their feelings by picturing Gamache’s daughter and Jean-Guy’s wife, Annie, as the woman in peril, and missed key clues while obsessing on bringing someone to justice.
One part that I love about the Gamache novels—the eccentric community of Three Pines, where the Gamaches now reside—seemed subdued in this book. Apart from the disastrous reviews of Clara’s new art form (landscape miniatures), the references to the other residents were incidental, brief, and not particularly memorable, and I felt like the book suffered a little accordingly. Not much…but a little.
Equally bothersome is my observation that Penny’s prose has devolved in the course of this series. I remember a couple of books, towards the middle of the pack, over which I waxed lyrical about the poetic language, but that’s no longer the case. I find the short, partial, strung-together sentences with which she now expresses herself to be jarring. I’m not sure what happened, but once I noticed this, I went back to examine those previous works and recognized the differences. It’s sad to me, because the overwhelming mood of these books is determined by the subtlety, humor, pathos, and grace of the character of Armand Gamache, and yet those things are no longer expressed in the kind of language which one would expect Gamache himself to use. I am surprised no editor has brought this up to the author; or, if the editor has done so, that Penny has not taken note. Perhaps she prefers this newer, choppy, abrupt style. I do not.
So, while I enjoyed my annual visit to Three Pines, the Sûreté, and the world of Gamache, it wasn’t an unalloyed pleasure.
This is a series I frequently recommend to those looking for a combination of police procedural and character-driven complexity—somewhat akin to the Dublin Murder Squad novels of Tana French. I usually tell people that if they don’t thoroughly enjoy the first book, they should try one or two more, because the series improves exponentially with every volume. Although I no longer feel I can say that, exactly, it’s still true that it’s a strong series with a lot to offer. Don’t let my remarks about this latest volume deter you from checking out the others. There are 15 books so far in the series, and all but four have received five-star ratings from me!
And just for fun, here is a chocolate raspberry ganache cake worthy of being served up by the bistro in Three Pines. If you’re a “foodie,” be prepared to be constantly craving exotic hot drinks and French treats throughout the reading of this series.
The Stranger Diaries is an interesting mix. It is a contemporary version of a Victorian Gothic novel; there is also a story within the story, which brings the past into the present and makes it relevant again. It’s the only stand-alone novel (that I know of) by Elly Griffiths, who is best known for her Ruth Galloway archaeology mysteries set in the wilds of Norfolk (most of which I have enjoyed quite a bit), and a series called Stephens and Mephisto (which I haven’t read—yet).
The diaries mentioned in the title belong to Clare Cassidy, a divorced English teacher with a 15-year-old daughter named Georgia. Clare teaches at a local comprehensive, Talgarth High, on the coast of Sussex, which includes an old building that was formerly the home of a reclusive Victorian writer. R. M. Holland was most famous for a short story entitled “The Stranger,” a murder mystery with which Clare became fascinated, and which led her to decide to write a biography of its author. She also occasionally teaches the story in her upper-level English class, which means there is a fair degree of familiarity with it amongst both staff and students.
The set-up for the book includes the typical Gothic trappings: Holland’s wife, Alice, was rumored to have fallen to her death from the staircase of the house that descends from Holland’s study on the top floor, and is said to haunt the school; the legend is that if Alice’s ghost is seen, the incident foreshadows a death. The atmosphere is amped up by the location of the book in moody Sussex, with dense sea mists, lonely downs, and abandoned factories.
Clare’s friend and colleague Ella Elphick is found murdered, accompanied by a note that is a quote from “The Stranger.” The police investigation is led by Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur (herself an alumnus of Talgarth High), who initially suspects Clare, until other events take place that seem rather to target than to implicate her.
The book is alternately narrated by Clare, DS Kaur, and Clare’s daughter, Georgia, and the story grows quite complex, due both to the variety of narrators with their markedly different points of view and insider knowledge, and to the proliferation of interesting and potentially sinister secondary characters. It also grows wilder and more strange as it incorporates echoes of the Victorian past. I never guessed the murderer, but greatly enjoyed trying to figure out who it could be, as my potential suspects kept meeting an untimely end!
DS Harbinder Kaur was a great character (she and Georgia both introduce some humorous notes that are a nice contrast to Clare’s slightly hysterical tone), and I’m hoping perhaps Griffiths will bring her back in subsequent books, now that she has established such a thorough back story for her.
I hesitated to review this book right now, because it would be so much more effective if you were to read it in October, just when Hallowe’en is approaching! Perhaps you should put it on your list and revisit it then for maximum creepiness.
I am a big fan of the books of Sharon J. Bolton. A mystery-reading friend turned me on to her and (being a little obsessive in my reading methodology) I decided to start with her debut, Sacrifice, written in 2008, and work my way forward. Her protagonists are women in unusual professions and offbeat settings, and the books cross that line from mystery to thriller, almost to gothic. They are definitely dark, but also compelling enough that I have been undeterred by subject matter that might make me stop reading another writer’s book.
I like both her series, featuring Detective Constable Lacey Flint (yes, British), and her stand-alone novels, which encompass a far wider array of characters and situations, with settings from Dorset to the Scottish border to the Falkland Islands, and plots that range from mistaken identity to serial killers to something eerily reminiscent of Children of the Corn. They are uniformly well written, well plotted, and harrowing to various degrees.
After having read her latest,
The Craftsman, I concluded that the name of the book should rather be reserved for its author. Bolton is truly a craftsman of storytelling, and her latest is even creepier than some of her former offerings, which I wasn’t sure was possible.
The central modus operandi of the killer in this one is something I wasn’t sure I could persist in reading about, it horrifies me so much. If it’s not your worst nightmare, it will be after you read this.
The character of WPC Florence Lovelady, a green but smart and enterprising 22 years old in 1969, immediately engaged me, particularly her trials with smoothing it over and dumbing it down in order to operate as a policewoman in those misogynistic times (not that things are leaps and bounds better today…). The setting—
the bleak beauty of northern England—was likewise captivating.
And the mystery was topnotch, wandering as it did from past to present and infecting the reader with certainties and doubts in almost equal measure.
In 1969, three teenagers have gone missing (one at a time, over a period of months) from the small town of Sabden. There is speculation each time one disappears that they could be runaways, out there in the world somewhere doing just fine; but after the third disappearance, the police (and particularly newbie Lovelady) are starting to think otherwise. Detailed to follow up on the claims of some children who swear they heard a voice coming from a recent grave, Florence makes a horrifying discovery that starts her on a chase that will make her career…and change her forever.
In 1999, the death of the imprisoned serial killer brings Assistant Commissioner Lovelady back to town, in company with her son, to attend the funeral. But subsequent events suggest that what she thought was buried in 1969 with the confession of Larry Glassbrook may just emerge from the grave to haunt her.
This is apparently the first of a trilogy, with the next book not due out until October of 2020. I don’t know if I can wait…
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.