Time out for lighter fare

After reading that somewhat grisly dystopian, I have been in the mood for less intensity; I picked up and started reading two separate fantasy books—one a continuation of a series I loved last year, the other a stand-alone quirky one that’s been on my TBR list for a while—and couldn’t get into either one. So I went instead for a combination of relationship reads and light mysteries.

First up was An Island Wedding, #5 in the series of books Jenny Colgan set on the island of Mure, in Scotland. It was lovely to be back with a cast of familiar characters in a magical (not literally, just in terms of pristine scenery) place where I have enjoyed previous stories so much. In this one, Flora and Joel are finally to be wed; but Joel, product of a violent childhood followed by a long line of foster homes, doesn’t seem to “get” what it means to Flora, only daughter of a large and affectionate family and member of an extended community to which she has belonged since birth, to have a traditional wedding. Unmeeting wishes become exacerbated when another “daughter” of the island, a glamorous trend-setter, decides to hold her wedding on Midsummer’s Eve (the same day as Flora’s) at the grand hotel Flora manages, and Flora has to put up with Olivia’s overboard plans while being distinctly underwhelmed by her own. Since it’s Jenny Colgan, you know that it will all work out, but it’s fun to experience it along with your favorites. There is also movement in a side story involving the island’s immigrant doctor and its favorite schoolmistress.

After listening to a student in my readers’ advisory seminar wax poetic about Beach Read, by Emily Henry, in last week’s book-talk for the class, I picked that up and read it one more time, and enjoyed it again by noticing different things this time through. I do have to agree with Taylor, though, that neither the title nor the book cover is appropriate, considering the beach in question is the shore of one of the Great Lakes in Michigan, and it’s mostly too cold to go there for more than 15 minutes! And if the title was meant to reference one of the books that the two author protagonists were writing, that was off base as well. Still a good read, though.

Then I jumped back to the mystery series I started at the recommendation of a librarian friend a few weeks back, and read the next two books in the Andy Carpenter legal thrillers by David Rosenfelt, First Degree and Bury the Lead. I am continuing to enjoy these, despite my initial reluctance to tackle a legal mystery series. As another person on Goodreads commented, Rosenfelt (i.e., his character, Andy) is “quick with a quip,” and I am enjoying the mix of humor, exasperation, frustration, bafflement, and creative thinking that seems to propel him towards the solution of these mysteries. I do wonder how many more books in this series Carpenter can sustain by presenting a defense of SODDIT (“some other dude did it,” acronym made famous by Dismas Hardy)—his clients can’t all be the victims of frame-ups…can they? But so far he has done it well…

Given my preoccupation with the last few weeks of my readers’ advisory class combined with some recent health challenges that make me tend to lose patience with long, intricate narratives, I may keep reading this kind of distracting, pleasurable fare for the rest of this year! We will see if the mood turns…but in the meantime Andy Carpenter #4 (Sudden Death—he’s fond of the sports metaphor) is next on my list.

Legal luck

I was talking, this past week, with my Readers’ Advisory students about the peculiarities of mystery fiction, one of them being the prevalence of the series. I’m sure some are saying to themselves, But, fantasy! and yes, other genres, notably fantasy and science fiction, are also heavy on series. The difference is, the series exists in those genres specifically to advance the story, while in mystery fiction that’s not true or, at least, true in a different way.

Mystery readers love their series because they get attached to the protagonist. If you think of some of the series out there that have not just been popular on the page but also on the television or the big screen, it is the character who is the prevalent element around which everything else circles. Harry Bosch, Kinsey Milhone, Walt Longmire, Stephanie Plum—in every case, readers keep reading (or watching) because they find the character compelling. It doesn’t seem to matter so much what the story is, as long as the dynamic and charismatic detective is at the center of it.

For this reason, mystery readers can be more forgiving than readers of some other genres. If the character is one they like and with whom they identify, and if more details are revealed about this character in each subsequent book in the series, mystery readers may go along a book or two or even three further even if the mysteries themselves—the plots—aren’t so great, just because they enjoy the familiarity of the character’s world and person.

This doesn’t mean that mystery readers can’t be hypercritical of a poorly plotted novel—a clumsy reveal, a red herring that doesn’t go anywhere, an epilogue for an ending instead of the direct action that they crave—but they will hang in, hoping for a renaissance of their writer’s story-telling skills, just to be with the character.

I have found myself being a perfect example of this with several mystery series over the years (Elly Griffiths, I’m looking at you), none more obvious than my abandonment of John Lescroart’s legal mysteries that all take place in the courtroom long after the (initial) crime was committed. The masters of this oeuvre are, of course, Grisham and Turow, but Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy definitely held his own until…he didn’t. The first two-thirds of the series was fresh and exciting, starting with #1, Dead Irish; I liked the protagonist, the side characters, and the setting (San Francisco). But after a while I could have written many of the scenes myself, because they were based on and exceedingly repetitive of similar scenes in every single volume. I think I finally gave up at about #17. To give him credit, Lescroart did try to shake things up by going with different characters from the same world (Abe Glitsky, Wyatt Hunt), but since they all worked in the same or adjacent venues that had already been exhaustively portrayed (and ate lunch in the same dismal hole that had been described at excessive length in each and every volume), it just didn’t work, and I gave up on Lescroart.

This soured me for quite a while on the subgenre of legal thrillers itself, but I’m happy to say I may have discovered a new one for which I can muster enthusiasm. I read the first book—Open and Shut—in David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series, and found it fresh, somewhat humorous, and possessed of a mystery both satisfying and entertaining, so now it’s only incumbent on me to keep reading and see how long it lasts—there appear to be at least 25 more books behind that one.

Open and Shut introduces Andy, a brash young defense attorney whose choice of profession pleases neither his father, a formidable former District Attorney for New Jersey, nor his financially and politically ambitious (and temporarily estranged) wife, Nicole. Then, after asking Andy to take on a seemingly unwinnable appeal for a man on death row who was convicted seven years previous, his father drops dead at a Yankees game, leaving Andy with two puzzles: Why would his dad, who was heavily involved in convicting the guy himself, put Andy in this position; and why did he hide the fact that when he died, his son would be inheriting 22 million dollars? It slowly becomes clear that these two seemingly unrelated facts are somehow tied together; but does Andy really want to know how his father acquired $2 mil almost 37 years ago, but never mentioned it or touched a dime of it for all this time?

Some things I liked about this book: The protagonist, a down-to-earth, pragmatic guy with his share of issues; his associates—sharp (though pessimistic) investigator and potential love interest Laurie; Kevin, who gave up the law to run a laundromat because he was too good to lose and felt guilty no matter who he prosecuted or defended; and of course Andy’s golden retriever, Tara, who is his best friend and tends to garner more attention than most of the humans in Andy’s vicinity.

I liked it well enough to keep reading the series; we’ll see how long it takes for Andy to wear out his welcome.

Innocent vs. not guilty

I just finished reading Michael Connelly’s latest, The Law of Innocence. This was a “Lincoln Lawyer” book featuring Mickey Haller, and the case he was attempting to defend was his own. A traffic stop turns into a fishing expedition when the cop sees something leaking from under Haller’s car, and when he pops the trunk it contains a dead body.

The body is that of a former client of Haller’s, and the evidence that he was killed in the trunk of the car while inside Mickey’s garage is pretty damning. Obviously (to the reader), Haller is being framed by someone, but by whom and for what purpose? Denied bail due to the machinations of a spiteful judge, Mickey has to muster his team and plan his defense while living in a cell inside Los Angeles’s Twin Towers Correctional Center, where he’s a potential target of inmates and jailers alike.

I enjoyed this mystery for a variety of reasons, including Connelly’s usual attention to detail as he presents the story from a Los Angeles resident’s viewpoint, including that of an inmate of Twin Towers. The distinction between a not-guilty verdict and proof of innocence was the quandary that drove the story, since Haller’s reputation and his future as a successful attorney is on the line if there is a shadow of a doubt about his culpability. He doesn’t just have to prove reasonable doubt—he needs everyone to know that someone else did this.

One reader commented that he liked the Haller novels better than the Bosch ones because the Haller ones were narrated in first person and therefore more compelling than the third-person Bosch. Weirdly, I usually have the opposite reaction to these. I don’t know whether it’s because I don’t identify with Haller as a person or if it’s just that I prefer police procedurals to legal drama, but I find the Bosch narratives much more involving. Also, whenever Bosch is featured as a character in the Haller books in his role as Mickey’s half-brother and an investigator on his behalf, it seems like Connelly suddenly doesn’t know how to write him—his presence is positively wooden. Maybe he’s attempting to show how Haller sees and reacts to him instead of putting him across with his usual personality? but it’s weird how unlike himself he is.

In general, this book is the usual entertaining crime thriller from Connelly. I have to say that I found it less than riveting until it gets to the trial, at which point the accelerating discoveries and the vituperative back-and-forth between prosecution and defense enliven things considerably. I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending, but I can see why Connelly went there. It will be interesting to read the next Lincoln Lawyer volume, whenever it comes along, to see how Mickey’s career is impacted, if at all, by the events of this one.

As for the “big controversy” over which people have declared they would never read Connelly again, I didn’t find it in the least unbelievable that someone who was trying to beat a murder rap would want to weed a Trump supporter from his jury. Since they seem unable to discern when he is lying to them, it seems logical that having someone on a jury who can’t distinguish lies from truth would be counter-productive. I didn’t view this as a huge political statement, but merely a way to point up the importance of honesty within our legal system. Of course, my politics apparently fall on the same side as Connelly’s….