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. 

Monday, December 20, 2010


Finished Stuart Neville's Ghosts of Belfast. Enjoyed it very much. For those unfamiliar with it, the book follows Gerry Fegan, a former IRA hit man, who is drowning in alcohol and guilt, as he tries to appease the ghosts of his victims who haunt him day and night. That involves killing the men who ordered the hits. It all sounds a little crazy at first: a man tormented by hallucinations committing murder to make up for other murders, all with a sort of Jason Bourne invincibility. But Neville doesn't hit a false note, at least to this reader, who admittedly is hardly an expert on the IRA or Belfast. I look forward to the second in the series, Collusion, which sounds like it continues with several characters, although not Fegan. And now I want to read Ken Bruen, another Irish writer, starting with The Guards. Next, though, I am reading P.L Gaus's Blood of the Prodigal, set in Ohio Amish country.

Now for a handful of interviews: David Suchet talks about playing Poirot and Murder on the Orient Express, which already aired on Masterpiece Mystery here in the U.S.; Joseph Wambaugh discusses his Hollywood Hills series, which may be made into a TV series; and an interview with Brad Thor about his latest book, The Athena Project. 

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 6, 2010


Mystery writer Simon Brett talks about five of his favorite 'whodunits.' I'm adding Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square to my to-read list.

Another 'best books' list, this time from an Oregon bookseller. All sound good, especially Six Suspects and A Small Death in the Great Glen. You can support an independent bookseller by buying directly from Sunriver Books & Music.

New Zealand's inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel was awarded to a mysterious author, "Alix Bosco, the anonymous author of Cut & Run whose pseudonym has never been breached." The awards were created by Craig Sisterson, a local journalist who writes a blog focusing on New Zealand crime writers.  

Thrillers: 100 Must Reads offers essays on what the author considers to be the best thrillers for those who like to ruminate on the books they read.  It was published in July but I just fell upon it and it might make a good gift.

Finally, if you like criticism that pulls no punches then read David Thomson's review of Dennis Lehane's Moonlight Mile. If you don't know him, Thomson is the author of the much admired The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. For reasons that can only be ascertained by reading Thomson's critique, the review is as much about The Town, the Ben Affleck-directed movie released this summer, as it is about Lehane's new novel. I haven't read Moonlight Mile so can't comment on the criticism, although I have read other Lehane books and have a hard time calling any of it "feel good noir," as Thomson does. But I understand where he's coming from. As for The Town, I agree with a lot of what he says: the boy-meets-girl storyline is facile and the Ben Affleck character is romanticized, even glorified. Not sure why Thomson focuses on the sex, in both the movie and Lehane's novel. Sex is often used as shortcut for intimacy, nothing new here, and he has something much bigger to say about the portrayal of the down-and-out in America. I do agree that little of what goes on film reflects reality and that includes portraits of the poor.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

More 'best books'

The New York Times best books of the year lists now include 25 books chosen by Marilyn Stasio, the newspaper's crime fiction reviewer, and it's an eclectic mix. 

I haven't read any of the books and have heard of only a few. I'm glad to be reminded of Walter Mosley's The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey with its 91-year old protagonist. I'm really intrigued by her descriptions of two books: Colin Cotterill's Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, which features the national coroner of Laos, and Simon Lelic's A Thousand Cuts, in which, Stasio says, "a teacher goes berserk, shoots three students and kills himself — for reasons that will floor you."  I've already heard good things about Stuart Neville's Collusion set in Belfast during the Troubles. There are several other historical mysteries and what Stasio calls "weepers," including John Harvey's Far Cry. And Stasio includes the latest from my new favorite author.

Did you have any favorite books this year?

Monday, November 29, 2010

I can quit you

Have you ever decided to stop reading an author? I don't mean your interest in her lengthy series wanes, or you forget about a writer after going onto other authors, or even that his last book left a bad taste in your mouth. I think that's what happened with me and Patricia Cornwell, but I stopped reading her so long ago that I really can't remember why. 

I can remember only two authors I chose to stop reading. Elizabeth George, because her books are overwritten. I stopped long before she killed off one of her main characters, which wouldn't have bothered me but caused quite an uproar in her reading community. And Archer Mayor, because it seemed like every crime at the center of his books involved violence against women. 

I doubt I'll pick up Elizabeth George again, my patience for verbosity growing shorter with age, but I will read Archer Mayor. I love Vermont and I don't doubt that his mysteries are more diverse than I remember.

For lovers of film noir, Five Books interviews film writer Barry Forshaw about his favorite books on film noir. Me, I'd rather watch one than read about the genre, but I am certain the books are worthy in their own right.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

'Best Books' lists

The year-end 'Best Books' lists are coming out. I love these lists because I love books, and not because I want to rank them, but because the lists always introduce me to some new books and remind me of books I'm already aware of and have yet to read.

For instance, there seems to be consensus that Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration is a wonderful book. I was also happy to be reminded of Marlon James' The Book of Night Women. I kept noticing the arresting book cover at my local library and when I returned to take it out I learned something new: libraries often have new books that rotate out and are not part of their collection. I always assumed if you saw a book at the library it was part of the system's collection. The Guardian's list also introduced to me a fascinating-sounding book mentioned by several writers: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal.

Mysteries/thrillers/suspense don't often make it on such lists, but Janet Maslin, one of the New York Times book reviewers, gives kudos to two: A Faithful Place by Tana French and Lee Child's 61 Hours. I don't see a list by Marilyn Stasio, the newspaper's crime fiction reviewer, but other reviewers there list their books and there is the editors' 100 Notable Books of 2010 listing. The 10 best books of the year listing comes out later.

Geez, I love books.

PS New poll to the right. Thanks for voting!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Odds and ends

Here's another upcoming mystery movie release: All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst, based on a true story about a real estate tycoon in New York whose wife disappears. Release date is Dec. 3.

Here's a brief interview with Denise Mina, a Scottish crime writer who was honored at the recent Bouchercon mystery conference.

Here's another Scandinavian author -- actually, authors -- with an upcoming book. They sound a bit too grim for me (see any Girl with the Dragon Tattoo posts). I also shy away from books written by two authors. No reason, really, just that I can't imagine writing something with someone. I'm sure plenty of people have done it successfully. 

And, finally, here are a couple other authors I fell upon. Haven't read them, but their books sound interesting: French author Pierre Magnan and  P.L. Gaus, who writes mysteries set in the Amish country of Ohio.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Call me a wimp

Watched Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last night, the Swedish film of the first in the insanely popular Stieg Larsson trilogy. (An English-language version is reportedly being made with Daniel Craig set to play Mikael Blomkvist.) I had read the book and it is always difficult to judge a movie, at least for me, when I already know what's going to happen in it. That said, I thought it was a really effective adaptation. Anyone who has read the book knows it is thick and dense with detail about the main mystery, the disappearance of a young girl 40 years earlier. The movie eliminates all but the most important particulars of the story, but is totally faithful to the book at the same time.

Unfortunately, for me, it was too faithful to the most violent parts of the book. I don't think of myself as that squeamish. Martin Scorsese is one my favorite directors. I read George P. Pelecanos. I adore The Wire. But I find some of the violence in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo excessive and gratuitous. To be honest, I find the characters bordering on cartoonish, and the plot definitely takes a cartoonish turn at the end when Lisbeth Salander dresses up as a blonde to take some non-violent revenge.


Not being familiar with Icelandic names, I didn't realize Erlendur is the first name of the detective in the series by Arnaldur Indriđason. His full name is Erlendur Sveinsson, but apparently everyone refers to one another by first name in the books. The opening line of Voices, for instance, is "Elìnborg was waiting for them at the hotel." Her full name is never mentioned and Elìnborg is her first name. I don't think Erlendur's full name is ever mentioned either. Maybe it is in the first of the series, Jar City, which I may sit down and read today as snow has knocked out our satellite.

The former reporter in me just wanted to clear that up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Casting Erlendur

Finished Arnaldur Indriđason’s Voices. The book is really three mysteries, all revolving around children. The main story is about a doorman murdered at a popular Reykjavik hotel during Christmastime. Doubling as Santa for the hotel’s holiday parties, the doorman is found dead dressed in his red suit and in an, uh, awkward pose. The setting provides many suspects, including several hotel workers and a British guest. Little is known about the victim, although he’s worked at the hotel for 20 years, making the task of narrowing down the suspects difficult for the lead detective, Inspector Erlendur, and his crew. The case starts to open up when the police discover something about the doorman’s childhood. (It’s revealed early on, but I don’t want to spoil it for potential readers.)


A second mystery involves an ongoing case of suspected child abuse being conducted by another detective, Elìnborg. By the end of the book, the main mystery is solved and the second one is figured out if not entirely resolved, while the third is unsolvable. It involves Erlendur’s childhood and is not a mystery in a whodunit sense, but what happened will never be fully known.


That mystery haunts Erlendur, who lives in a sort of limbo. He literally moves into the hotel during the investigation, as much to be on top of the investigation as to escape his personal life. He’s followed there by another child, his grown daughter, with whom he has a tentative and tense relationship after ignoring her and her brother for many years. His inattentiveness to his children is another sort of mystery, at least to Erlendur and especially to his daughter.


All the storylines are about the complex relationship between children and their parents, the responsibility parents feel, or don’t feel, for their children and the often overwhelming responsibility children feel for their parents.


It’s a wonderful book.


Voices is the third Erlendur book. I bought the first in the Erlendur series, Jar City. It was made into a movie by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur. It’s available on DVD. I’m curious to see the actor playing Erlendur. I tried to imagine who I’d cast as Erlendur as I read Voices. He’s an odd character, compassionate but judgmental, an anti-authoritarian authoritarian. And he’s funny in a deadpan sort of way. He doesn’t like meaningless chit chat, but he never seems to censor himself.  I was thinking possibly Jeff Bridges, although I think there is another actor who would perfectly capture Erlendur and the name just hasn’t crossed my mind.


If you’ve read Indriđason, any suggestions for who could play Erlendur?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My love affair with cold-country mysteries continues

I’ve been slow to read Arnaldur Indriđason’s Voices and don’t want to write about it until I’m done, but I am very pleased to have discovered it. It’s my first but his third in a series of mysteries set in Reykjavik featuring Inspector Erlendur. I picked it up at a recent library book sale. My library – or Friends of the Library to be accurate – has half a dozen book sales a year. They divide the books into categories – history, politics, cookbooks, etc., and then they divide hardcover fiction by gender of writer. I’d never seen it done that way before and found it odd and mildly upsetting at first, as if women were only interested in reading other women and men just want to skip to the manly table. But if you’re looking for something specific it’s somewhat helpful. I wish they would separate mysteries out, and I really wish they did that on the library’s shelves. My library has a system of colored dots on the books’ spines, representing mystery, romance, etc., which is almost useless. I’ve been to other libraries that shelves mysteries separately. If you’re going to bother to label them why not just give them their own shelves? 


In the meantime, while I strive to finish Voices in the next couple days, maybe someone could solve the mystery of why Bristol Palin is still on Dancing with the Stars.  

Monday, November 8, 2010

Estleman interview, Turow's favorite legal novels

For Loren Estleman fans, a brief interview with the author

I want to read the book he mentions: Otto Penzer's The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Detective Stories. What a great cover. 

And notice to commenter KRK: Scott Turow discusses his favorite novels involving the law and one of them is Snow Falling on Cedars.

Also, new poll to the right.  

Amazon announced their 10 Best Books of 2010 last week and two mysteries are included: Tana French's A Faithful Place and Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. 

What were your favorite books this year?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Locale close to my heart

I'll have to pick up this mystery. I've had family near there all my life so it's one place, outside of where I've lived, that I have spent the most time and know well. 

Ever fall upon a book that's about something you know well? Did it enhance your reading or ruin it when you knew it wasn't accurate?  

For instance, the cover sure looks like an illustration of the famous lone pine in Pebble Beach - not Carmel. Picky, picky, I know. It is iconic and it's not like there aren't similar trees all over the area.

I'm looking forward to reading it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

I should love ...

Alan Furst. Noirish espionage set in wartime Europe. Perfect. Here's a typical blurb from the back of The Foreign Correspondent, Furst's book about antifascists in 1938 Paris: 
"No other espionage writer touches [Furst's] stylish forays into Budapest, Berlin, Moscow and Paris. No other writer today captures so well the terror and absurdity of the spy, the shabby tension and ennui of emigre communities at the time. His characters are hopeless, lethal, charming. His voice is, above all, knowing."
Yet I've never been able to get beyond the first chapter of any Furst book I've picked up. I think he's lousy at exposition and there's always a lot of that in the first chapter or two of any book. I'm sure he's great at plot, characterization, etc., all those things that make any book good, but I may never know because I can't get past the first 20 pages or so. 

Here he is in the first chapter of The Foreign Correspondent, describing the book's protagonist, Carlo Weisz:
Weisz knelt by his knapsack, found a small bag of tobacco and a packet of papers - he'd run out of Gitanes a week ago - and began to roll a cigarette. Age forty for another few months, he was of medium height, lean and compact, with long dark hair, not quite black, that he combed back with fingers when it fell down on his forehead. He came from Trieste, and, like the city, was half-Italian, on his mother's side, and half-Slovenian - long ago Austrian, thus the name - on his father's. From his mother, a Florentine face, slightly hawkish, strongly made, with inquisitive eyes, a soft, striking gray - a face descended from nobility, perhaps, a face found in Renaissance portraits. But not quite. Spoiled by curiosity, and sympathy, it was not a face lit by prince's greed or a cardinal's power. Weisz twisted the ends of the cigarette, held it between his lips, and flicked a military lighter, a steel cylinder that worked in the wind, until it a produced a flame.
Okay, where to start. Lots of details, too many details, and they don't tell me much. He smokes, he's sort of a European mutt, which may be the most revealing part of the paragraph, he pushes his hair off his forehead, which tells me what?  I have a rich visual of the guy - 40, graying, patrician-looking - but that's all physical and tells me nothing about the character of the man. And the other details are either cliche - "inquisitive eyes" - or overwrought - "... it was not a face lit by a prince's greed or a cardinal's power." Plus it's all presented like a dutiful laundry list of physical attributes, like Furst is filling out an online dating profile. And he stops the narrative to tell the reader all this. To really nitpick, all those parenthetical phrases, which Furst uses a lot, are jarring.

I remember reading Joseph Kanon's most recent novel, Stardust, and marveling at his ability to tell me so much in the first chapter. If you're not familiar with Kanon, he's similar in subject matter and setting to Furst. He wrote The Good German, set in Berlin immediately after WWII and made into an unsuccessful movie by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett.

Stardust is set in post-war Hollywood where the lead character, Ben Collier, is working to figure out who murdered his brother, a Hollywood writer whose death was assumed a suicide. The story revolves around a community of Communist sympathizers, mostly Jews, working in the movie industry and being threatened by politicians on a witch hunt in the state's capitol.

Here's the book's opening paragraphs: 
     As it happened, Sol Lasner was also on the train. Ben spied him first on the red carpet at Grand Central posing for photographers, like one of his stars. Shorter than Ben remembered, his barrel chest wobbling on thin legs, storklike, but with the same tailored look, natty. He gave a quick, obligatory smile to the flashbulbs, then herded a group of men in suits onto the train, back to business. At Croton, where they switched over to the steam engine, most of the suits got off for the ride back to the city, but two stayed on through dinner, so Ben didn't have a chance to talk to him until they were past Albany, when the landscape had already turned dark and there was nothing to observe from the observation car but blurs of streetlamps and platform lights streaking past.
     He'd been sitting near the rounded back of the car, smoking and staring out at nothing, when Lasner came in, holding a cigar. He nodded to Ben, not recognizing him, and for a moment Ben was tempted top let it wait, talk later on the Army's time. The next few days were supposed to be his, little shrouds of time to wrap himself up in, prepare for the funeral, stare out windows, get used to it.
There's loads of telling detail - barrel chest wobbling on thin legs, well-dressed, herding other well-dressed men, perfunctory grins for photographers, "like one of his stars." The reader knows Lasner is a powerful man in the movie industry, probably older, and the focus of press attention, whether due to his fame or something newsworthy that has happened. Ben, the book's protagonist, knows him, but not too well as Lasner doesn't recognize Ben or rush to greet him. But Ben, a military man, has business with Lasner. "... talk later on the Army's time." After he "prepare(s) for the funeral." In two paragraphs, the reader learns so much about the characters and what's ahead. The story moves, breathes.

In the end, I didn't love Stardust, but I do recommend it. And if you only get a chance to read the rest of the first chapter, do.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Guess I'm not a mystery lover

Vulture, which looks to be New York magazine's pop culture blog, interviewed author Dennis Lehane. Here's one question and answer:  
You're mostly thought of as a literary fiction writer who works in genre. Do you agree?
There's a new shattering of the old straitjackets of genre and now suddenly is it literary or is it genre? At the end of the day I don't really care which you call me. I'm super-comfortable with either. If you want to call me a crime writer I'm okay with it. The only thing I say I'm not — call me a crime fiction novelist, call me a noirist or an urban writer — but I'm not a mystery writer. Those are whodunnits and I've only written two of those and it's very clear while reading them that I don't give a shit who did it. 
I am definitely in Lehane's camp: I don't care either whodunit, which is why I posted the poll to the right. I don't know what that means, or if it matters. It seems to matter to Lehane, who may not want to be lumped in with Agatha Christie and P.D. James, although both, especially James, are admirable writers.

Coincidentally, Lehane's latest book, Moonlight Mile, was released today.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

November books and movies

November hardcover releases include new books by Dennis Lehane, a non-series book by Henning Mankell set in the late 19th century, Patricia Cornwell's 18th Kay Scarpetta novel, and more by popular authors such as Stephen King, Brad Thor and Walter Mosley. New mystery paperbacks include books by J.B. Stanley and Joseph Wambaugh.

November movies with a mystery/thriller/suspense bent include the Valerie Plame storyFair Game starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn; Red Hill; Unstoppable, the runaway train thriller starring Denzel Washington and The Next Three Days, directed by Paul Haggis and starring Russell Crowe.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

I'm still here!

I've been on a three-week road trip and thought I'd read and post from the road. I didn't do either. I didn't even watch the end of Rubicon or any of Masterpiece Mystery. So I got nothing. I saw The Town, which I liked. I did read some; started Rick Pearlstein's Before the Storm, about the Goldwater campaign and 1964 election. I highly recommend it.

I'll get back on track this week. In the meantime, take the new poll to the right. Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 11, 2010

From book to screen

Masterpiece Mystery's version of Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled, which aired last night on PBS, was quite different than the book. The basic structure was there, and the essential mystery was the same, but many of the details were different. Understandably, the screenwriters streamlined the plot some, but also added some plot devices that don't exist in the book, which I think better explained the criminal activity at the center of the plot. Anyway, it was not one of my favorite Wallander books or one my favorite Masterpiece Mystery adaptations. 

I am liking The Fifth Woman much more. I am nearly halfway through the book now and it's dense and only going to get denser, I imagine. It's the next and last film in the Masterpiece Mystery's Wallander II series  and it will be interesting to see how the screenwriters condense it. There's a little less Wallander angst and a lot more complex crime story. The Man Who Smiled is essentially a simple mystery that plays second fiddle to the drama of Wallander's personal struggles. In The Fifth Woman, there is the usual commentary on society and a personal tragedy for Wallander, but the mystery is front and center. The episode airs next Sunday on PBS.

After I finish The Fifth Woman, I'm going for something a bit lighter. Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story perhaps. I need the break.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Showing my age

I finished Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled just in time to watch it this Sunday on Masterpiece Mystery. It should make for a good screen adaptation: a few murders, a landmine and car explosion, a castle at the center of the mystery. The aging Wallander goes a little gung-ho at the end. Never thought of him as an action hero, but should be fun to watch Kenneth Branagh, who does a great job, struggle through. Rupert Graves plays the castle owner. Saw him most recently as an aging bad boy artist in an episode of Masterpiece Mystery's Inspector Lewis series so a little jarring to see him again so soon in another role. In the last one, though, he was a mess and in this one he should have commanding control of a vast and nefarious business empire.

Minor quibble with the book: Wallander has a lapse in ethical judgment, I think, employing a non-cop in a possibly dangerous subterfuge. Not that Wallander can't have his flaws, he has plenty. Just didn't seem true to character to have him put an innocent bystander in jeopardy.

Speaking of aging: I wrote that I like Blue Bloods, CBS' new Friday night cop show. Apparently, it has the oldest audience in TV-dom. Not sure how significant that is since the audience for all TV is getting older and older.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mystery convention, etc.

The annual Bouchercon world mystery convention is next weekend in San Francisco. The four-and-a-half day event includes loads of panels on such subjects as science fiction and mystery, political mysteries, and many on writing mysteries, featuring tons of authors, including the event's guests of honor Lee Child, Denise Mina, Laurie R. King, Eddie Muller and Maddy Van Hertbruggen. The site says registration is closed, but if you're already in the San Francisco area you can show up and purchase a $75 day pass. Visit the site to get all the info and see an incredible list of events and authors.

In my post on new TV shows, I forgot to mention AMC's Rubicon. The slow-moving show requires lots of patience, but that patience is beginning to pay off. Sunday's episode was chock full of action -- Will escapes getting killed after Spangler puts out a hit on him; Kale cleans up the debris from it; Katherine discovers a letter left by her dead husband; Will tells Katherine what he thinks the conspiracy is all about; and the API team, led by the ambitious Grant, who is cozying up to Spangler, cracks a major clue in their al-Qaeda case. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you're late to the game and will have to watch or read up on previous episodes at the AMC site. But beware: the plot moves at near-glacial speed for the first, uh, 10 episodes, but is picking up steam at the end.

I'm still slogging through Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled. It's a little slow-going too, but my mind may be wandering for reasons other than the book. I'll talk about it more when I'm done.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

FYI: DVD sale

Barnes & Noble is having a 40-50% off sale on mystery DVDs online.

Foyle's War, the Masterpiece Mystery series that I mentioned in an earlier post, is there. 

So is Notorious, one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. 

I don't usually buy DVDs but I may have to splurge for George Gently, starring Martin Shaw. I've never even heard of it and it looks perfect for me, and probably not something I'll find at my local library. Ah, stupid me: I'll check Netflix first. Sorry, B&N.  Anyone else seen it who can give it a yea or a nay?

Scandinavian writers

Fellow blogger and Balloon Juice reader Linkmeister told me about Detectives Beyond Borders, an exemplary blog on non-American mysteries, which features a lengthy blog roll that includes Scandinavian Crime Fiction. (Linkmeister also solved my ‘small footer’ problem for which I am forever grateful.)

It never occurred to me to create a blog on such a specific subject, but if I did it might have been Scandinavian crime fiction. Good thing I didn’t because I am a near neophyte, having read only four (well, five) authors:  Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell and Stieg Larrson. 

I have a definite order of preference among those, starting with the Martin Beck series by Sjöwall and Wahlöö. It’s hard to explain why these books are great. The writing is spare and plain -- adjectives are hard to find -- and no detail is too mundane for these authors, who often recount scenes like a court reporter.

Yet I’ve never read anything as suspenseful as the stake-out of the suspect in the series' first book, Roseanna. The police are investigating a crime in which catching the killer is like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack. They have zeroed in on someone, but he has done nothing yet to justify their suspicions so they employ a woman detective to entice him into making a move. In the meantime, they watch him day and night while he follows an ordinary, boring routine. The capture was a bit predictable, probably because the scene has been done to death since the book was written in the 1960s, but it’s the mind-numbingly dull stakeout scene that I love. For the cops, it sounds like it must be like watching paint dry, but for the reader it is ultimate suspense. 

The books are not whodunits in the typical sense; you’re not presented with a cast of likely suspects. The crimes are central to the books, but the criminals make only cameo appearances, usually with little to no dialogue, and only when they are in the sights of the police or at the end when they are apprehended.  (I should say I know this to be true only of the first three books in the series.) 

All that is because the books are about the police. The reader stands side-by-side with the police, not the victims or the victims’ families or the suspects or the criminals.  And, as others have pointed out, the books are about Swedish society. 

As I’ve already written, I like Henning Mankell very much. He follows in the same unsentimental, realistic style of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and Kurt Wallander is as essential to Mankell’s books as Martin Beck is to the Sjöwall and Wahlöö series. But Mankell adds more convoluted plots, some usual suspects and commentary on the world. Wallader is gloomy and emotional while Beck tends to be more inured. 

I shouldn’t really comment on Nesbø. I’ve only read Nemesis and I don’t remember it, but I have a vague recollection of feeling like the plot went off in too many directions. But that may be unfair. 

As for Larsson, I’ve only read the first of his insanely popular trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I put that book down after about 200 pages, picked it up a month later and finished it in a day or two of near-constant reading. It was compelling reading, but, gotta say, I didn’t love it like apparently most of the rest world did. A thorough, page-turning plot, but I find the characters a bit cartoonish, especially Lisbeth Salander. The big crime at the center of the book feels almost incidental to the plot and I find some stuff involving Salander gratuitous. I do find the corporate intrigue interesting. Maybe in one of the later books that becomes a focus. 

I like to find people who confirm my feelings, not to dump on Larsson but just so I know I’m not alone. I know there have been some mediocre to bad reviews of the books, and now the World Socialists organization has weighed in.  The critique is much more academic than mine, but echoes some of my problems with the book. (He also takes the Martin Beck series to task which I will not sign on with.) 

I found the link at the above mentioned Scandinavian Crime Fiction, where I hope to continue to find more Scandinavian authors like Leif G. W. Persson, Camilla Lackberg, Ake Edwardson and others to add to my to-read list. 

Do you like to read authors from a specific part of the world?