Monday, February 28, 2011

Too much pressure

I don't know if anyone reads this blog, but if you do, I'm sorry I'm falling down on the job here. I tend to read in spurts. I wish I were more consistent, but what can ya do? 

I've been reading a little history, but did finish one mystery, a historical mystery: C.J. Sansom's Dissolution, the first in his series featuring Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer-investigator who sometimes works for Thomas Cromwell. In Dissolution, Shardlake travels to a monastery on behalf of Cromwell to solve the murder of another investigator who had been sent there to audit the monastery's books during a time when England, under Henry VIII, is beginning to dissolve the monasteries and take possession of their valuable lands. The monks, understandably, are ill at ease. Sansom adeptly walks a tightrope, telling a story set 500 years ago that both feels set in the time and believable today. Shardlake is the narrator and he is forward-thinking (for the time) without feeling like some New Age guru dropped into the 16th century to keep a modern reader entertained. I enjoyed it enough to get from the library the second in the series, Dark Fire, but Sansom's books are long and I got distracted and will likely have to return the book before I can finish it. 

Meanwhile, I've been reading James Thompson's Snow Angels. Thompson is an American living in Finland and the book is set there. It features a Finnish detective, Inspector Kari Vaara, and the grisly murder of a black actress reminiscent of Hollywood's still unsolved Black Dahlia murder. It is definitely classified as noir, and written in first person present tense, which adds to the noir aura, and took some getting used to. I'm about three quarters of the way through so can't say yet if it is totally satisfying, but it is well-written and a compelling read. Vaara is married to an American, which gives Thompson an opportunity to comment on Finnish culture as Vaara explains it to both his wife and the reader -- too much for my taste. The picture drawn of Finland is pretty depressing, and it may be accurate for all I know, but as a reader I often feel taken out of the story to be given a lesson on Finnish culture. I think a Finnish writer would just let the plot and characters speak for themselves, like Arnaldur Indriđason does in his great mystery series set in Iceland.  

I've also started watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the 1979 TV mini-series based on the John le Carré novel and starring Alec Guinness. The clothes and hairstyles are outdated and the pace slower than what viewers are accustomed to today, but once you adjust, it's a wonderful spy thriller. (Cerebrally thrilling, not action packed.) 

Finally, I changed to Chrome when my Firefox browser kept crashing. Chrome has a bunch of so-called applications (really Web sites), including one called YourNextRead, which gives you suggestions for books based on other books. So, maybe I want to read something like Sansom's Dissolution. I plug that book in and YourNextRead tells me I might also enjoy Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell's life. I've already heard of Wolf Hall and some of the choices are obvious, like more in the same Sansom series, but others, like Ariana Franklin's Grave Goods, are new to me. It's a fun tool. 

P.S. Sorry the font is small. Don't know what's up. It's the font and font size I always use, but is coming out small. And the next size is too big for my taste. In both Firefox and Chrome (and maybe other browsers as well) hitting control + will increase the font size. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Real-life mystery

There's no point in ignoring it. The biggest mystery story right now is: who wrote O, a Presidential Novel? (Great cover art.) If you haven't heard, O is a fictionalized account of the upcoming 2012 presidential election. According to those who have read it, the author has intimate knowledge of the campaign process and the relationship between politicians and the press, leading some to guess the author is a reporter or a campaign operative. Elsewhere I've read that the author's knowledge of Obama seems less intimate, leading some to point to an insider outside the Obama campaign, including Mark Salter, a close aide to and speechwriter for John McCain during the 2008 campaign.  

If the bad reviews are accurate, we may never know who penned the book and we may never care. O is available Tuesday.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

'Noir' series

I received the latest Stop, You're Killing Me! newsletter and in its list of new hardcovers was one that caught my eye: Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat. Turns out the book is the latest in a series of books of noir short stories, each set in a different city or specific geographic area. Haiti is the 43rd book in the series and the publisher, Akashic Books, is pumping out new books as fast as it can. Another book with stories set in Copenhagen is being published this month too. After that is Barcelona, to be published in May, and three more -- Cape Cod, Pittsburgh and San Diego -- expected in June. More are in the works, including one set in New Jersey and edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and others in Bogota, Jerusalem and Lagos among other locales. Other books have been edited by George Pelecanos (two in Washington, D.C.), Lawrence Block (two featuring Manhattan) and Dennis Lehane (Boston).

Haiti Noir includes stories by Danticat and Madison Smartt Bell, two writers I'm already familiar with, as well as many others I'll be happy to be introduced to, especially if Danticat had a say in choosing them.

The series sounds wonderful and will be a big help in my Crime Travel pursuit.

Also, saw a great documentary on PBS the other night, Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood, about the European directors, actors, writers and film craftsmen who fled Europe in the 1930s and came to the United States to work. I think I already knew that film noir was created by German refugees who used atmospheric lighting and had a dark view of the world, understandably, but it was interesting to be reminded of it. It was also fascinating to be taken  through the cast of Casablanca, from the leads such as Paul Henreid, an Austrian actor, and Peter Lorre, a Hungarian raised in Austria, to more than a dozen actors in smaller parts, all European refugees. I've never admired Casablanca as a film as much as some, but now that I know the history of the cast I admire it for other reasons.

Monday, January 3, 2011

An interesting look at the Larsson phenomena

I enjoyed this examination of the popularity of Stieg Larsson's novels by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker. I enjoyed it not only because Acocella shares my assessment of the books, but more because I love this kind of behind the scenes journalism. Most stories cover the books as publishing phenomena and personal tragedy -- Larsson died at 50 of a heart attack, before the books were published. But that's about all you really learn. Acocella gives us much more background about Larsson and the books, including the name of his real-life magazine, the publisher he first sent the manuscript to who never read it, his brother and father who inherited what became his massive estate and who may or may not have been estranged from the author, his longtime companion who did not inherit anything and who may or may not have been the books' co-author and an interesting anecdote about Larsson's preoccupation with violence against women. I'm not sure she ever really answers what the article's deck head asks: Why do people love Stieg Larsson's novels? She concludes he could spin a good yarn, his books fall into the popular "revenge tale" genre and the book's sexual violence appeals to both people who condemn such acts and those who fantasize about them. I would add that sometimes books and movies take on a life of their own and people buy and/or read or see them because everyone else is buying/reading/seeing them. I'm curious about the moment the books took off. Was Larsson already well-known as a journalist in Sweden and people flocked to read the books, especially in light of his untimely death? Or did the first book get a stellar review somewhere? Or was it a word-of-mouth success? 

I'm reading Private Patient by P.D. James. It's been on my bookshelf for awhile now, and I wanted something familiar during the holidays, like comfort food. So far so good, although I am sort of analyzing it as I read to see what makes her a good writer. For one, she gives every character a real story of their own. She also recounts the same scene from different points of view, which makes it seem more real. Nothing is ever as a single character (or person) sees it.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Crime Travel: Scotland

I will return to Scotland with another author because it is unfair to review A. D. Scott's A Small Death in the Great Glen as I read half of it and skimmed the rest. But it would also be wrong to pretend I didn't read it and not critique it because it's too hard to write about a book that didn't enthrall me. So here goes. 

A Small Death in the Great Glen takes place in the 1950s, soon after World War II, in a small town in the Scottish Highlands. A wee boy is found dead in what at first looks like an accident, but is soon discovered to be a molestation followed by murder. An easy target for the police to pin the crime on is a Polish man who has gone missing from a Russian ship docked nearby and who can be placed in the proximity of the crime. The suspect has been protected by a local Polish man who is engaged to a local Italian girl and by a group of Tinkerers -- all in their own way outsiders to the insular world of the small town. But in the end the crime hits much closer to home. 

The real investigators of the book are not the local police but the staff of the town's weekly newspaper. Halfway through the book, these people are well-established. Joanne, the newspaper's typist who is an abused wife and whose children are the last to see the small murdered boy alive. The editor McAllister who figures out the crime. Reporters Don and Rob who play a part in unraveling the mystery. The history is interesting: emigres from war-torn countries who are welcomed into the community but are mistrusted and easy scapegoats. And all the things that are unusual to an American reader: the Tinkerers and their chaotic way of life, and words like bairn and hoodie crow. 

So, why didn't I like the book? Or why did I skim half of it? I've been trying to figure that out, but here's my best guess. For one, there is not a central character. Joanne's life is the most explored, but it's McAllister who figures it all out. The book is not really from any one person's point of view. In the same way, the crime isn't really the focus of the book. The Tinkerer's and the local emigre community storyline tie in nicely to the crime plot, but a large portion of the book focuses on Joanne's domestic life, which has nothing to do with the crime except that her children provide an important clue. Then her husband's work brings in another plot, which it would be unfair of me to judge as I skimmed most of that, although from what I could glean it had nothing to do with the main crime. 

Finally, the book straddles a fence between cozy and crime that I found discordant. The crime and the background to the crime is gruesome, as is Joanne's battering and some other social mores of the times, such as the treatment of unwed mothers. But it's all told in sort of a cozy style, with flowery language and leisurely scenes and slow-moving plot lines. I sometimes felt trapped inside a wrapped package trying to rip my way out. I started skimming after the tenth reference to hoodie crows still had not resolved anything. 

Anyway, I hate giving a bad review to a book which shines a light on interesting history and is populated by mostly likable and believable characters. And readers of this review should take it all with a grain of salt since, as I've mentioned several times, I read half the book and skimmed the rest. But there you have it. 

I'm off to the library, hopefully to find another mystery set in a far-flung land.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Starring Ciarán Hinds

There is an ITV show based on Lynda LaPlante's Above Suspicion series starring Ciarán Hinds. The third season starts in January and may or may not be available online. (When I click on the ITV Player I get nothing. That may be because it's only available to British or Eurpopean IP addresses, or may just be that I'm not savvy or tenacious enough to figure it out.) Anyone see Hinds in Persuasion? Loved it, loved him. And the inimitable Prime Suspect series starring Helen Mirren is enough to recommend LaPlante

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Crime Travel*

I love mysteries set in foreign lands. And I love to travel. So to give this blog a new focus for the new year, I am going to attempt to travel the globe by reading mysteries from every country for which I can find a book. Some will be easy; I am now reading a book set in Scotland. I'll write a brief review when I'm done. It will be easy to complete the British Isles with Wales and Britain. But other countries might be impossible. Mongolia? Chad? Who knows. I hope to find out and be pleasantly surprised. 

My first priority will be to find a book written by a native of the country where it is set. If I can't find such a book, then I'll settle for a mystery set in the country written by a non-native.

One of the advantages of armchair traveling is you can jump from one side of the globe to the other. Who knows, after my Scottish mystery I may travel to Peru. Or Botswana. Or Poland. 

So, if you know of a good mystery set outside the United States, especially in countries like Trinidad or Tajikistan, please let me know. Leave the suggestion in comments or drop me an e-mail.

I'm calling the series Crime Travel* and may or may not change the name and design of the blog to reflect that. 

Happy New Year! And safe travels! 

* I originally planned to call this Crime Traveler, but after I posted that I discovered there is a sci-fi detective show produced by the BBC of the same name.