Friday, September 30, 2011

I Love Losers

"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." –– Vince Lombardi

"While you're saving your face, you're losing your ass." –– President Lyndon Baines Johnson

"It's a dog-eat-dog world and I'm wearing Milk Bone underwear." –– Norm from Cheers

Winning is very, very important to us. And not just in sports. Politicians are so in love with winning the game of partisan politics that they'll sacrifice the good of their constituents without a qualm if it puts them on the winning side of some political gamesmanship. When actor Charlie Sheen steered his personal life so far out of control that he was fired from the acting job that made him the highest-paid actor on television, he still insisted on Twitter that he was "#winning."

Among mystery protagonists, though, there are some losers who are irresistibly attractive. I don't mean the kind of protagonist who is a loser because he's a hopeless alcoholic, drug addict or otherwise self-destructive. I mean guys who are nerds, mopes, nebbishes or L'il Abner's Joe Btfsplk types, with black clouds always over their heads. Guys who would never dream of winning or even claiming to be winning.

Richard Yancey's Teddy Ruzak has loser written all over him. We're introduced to Teddy in The Highly Effective Detective. Inspired as a child by Sherlock Holmes and Encyclopedia Brown, Teddy always wanted to be a detective. He went straight to the police academy after graduating from high school, but he was booted from the academy after failing their running, driving, marksmanship and scenario training tests. You have to admit he was very good at losing. That's a perfect 100% failure rate.

Teddy followed the path of so many police washouts and became a security guard; in his case, at a bank in Knoxville, Tennessee. Years go by with Teddy working the midnight shift at the bank, putting on weight and getting insulted on a regular basis by Felicia, his favorite waitress at the Old City Diner. When Teddy's mother dies and leaves him some money, he decides to set up his own detective agency. After a few weeks of moping around, he finally gets a client. A wealthy citizen, Parker Hudson, witnessed an SUV mow down some goslings near his home and, after being laughed off by police, he hires Teddy to find the perpetrator.

The fact is, Teddy has no idea how to be a detective. It's even news to him that he has to be licensed by the state. After three weeks of failing to make any progress on Parker Hudson's case, Felicia, whom he's lured away from the diner to be his assistant, has the bright idea of getting newspaper publicity, which brings Teddy a couple of leads, visits from several whack jobs and more assignments. A man offers him a reward to find his daughter's murderer and offers him ever-increasing sums of money not to tell the police once Teddy's identified the culprit.  After Teddy refuses several times, the man gives a "final offer" of two million dollars.  The response:

"'I'm glad of that, because this sort of reminds me of a parlor game me and my buddies used to play in high school. Well, I call it a parlor game, but it wasn't played in a parlor. We usually played it in my parents' basement. You know, where you'd challenge each other to see how far you'd go for money, along the lines of the old saying that everybody has a price. Like, Would you eat a bowl of dog crap for five thousand dollars? I just grabbed that number out of the air, but usually the dog crap fetched a price closer to a million. I believe I said I'd do it for five hundred thousand. I was in high school, you understand, and when you're that age, you're pretty materialistic. I remember I was ready to give up a foot for two million. Some people never grow out of that state; otherwise we wouldn't have so much insurance fraud, like those people who stage car wrecks.'
He blinked several times, like he had something in his eye, or it may have been just the sting of the dry-cleaning fumes.
'Mr. Ruzak, you are either the most facetious man I have ever met or the most facile.'
'You mean you can't figure out if that was a yes or a no. One of my problems is that I've got a restless mind, probably as a result of spending most of my adult life sitting by myself in the dead of night listening to too much late-night talk radio. They didn't allow televisions, so that was really the only media outlet available to me.'
'I don't think your problem is too much talk radio,' he said."
Does this give you an idea of how frustrating it can be for people to talk to Teddy? He's like Columbo. He comes across as a blithering idiot; he knows it and it doesn't bother him. He won't stop asking questions. The person he's talking to has no respect for him and can't resist almost taunting him with what a loser he is. Suspects and witnesses somehow end up telling him much more than they'd intended. And the next thing you know, this loser has pieced everything together.

Yancey has followed up with three more Teddy Ruzak tales: The Highly Effective Detective Goes to the Dogs, in which Teddy is ordered to shut down his agency after failing his PI exam twice, but can't resist investigating the murder of a homeless man in the alley behind his office building; The Highly Effective Detective Plays the Fool, in which Teddy must elude his nemesis from the state, who is after him for working without a PI license, while Teddy investigates the disappearance of a client; and this year's The Highly Effective Detective Crosses the Line. A warning about that last book: it includes an incident of animal cruelty that will make even some fans of the series want to skip it.

Dennis Braintree, David Carkeet's protagonist in his delightful comic mystery From Away, is a Rodney Dangerfield character if there ever was one. He gets absolutely no respect. Dennis is a hapless writer for The Fearless Modeler, a magazine for model train enthusiasts. On a business trip to Vermont, he manages to crash his car and is taken into Montpelier to stay overnight. After a series of odd encounters with locals, he realizes they all think he is Homer Dumpling, a local farmer who has been in Florida for the last three years.

A series of unfortunate events, many precipitated by Dennis's propensity to leap to incorrect conclusions and say and do the wrong thing, makes Dennis decide it's best for him to stay in town and allow everyone to continue to think he's actually Homer, not Dennis. He moves into Homer's country farm and finds it less of a quiet retreat than a handy place for everybody in town to phone him and stop, unannounced, for a visit. It's a challenge for Dennis to figure out who's who and answer questions appropriately, but he soon finds he has a sort of talent for it.

Most people in town seem to like Homer/Dennis, but some people are mysteriously hostile: Sarah, Homer's supposed girlfriend; neighbor Warren Boren, who keeps leaving threatening phone messages; and Lance, a local police detective and health nut, whose animosity and evident disgust at Homer's/Dennis's fat makes him perversely consume large quantities of food whenever Lance is around. Sarah is outrageously nasty to Homer/Dennis, ridiculing him and ordering him to do a laundry list of home-improvement chores that are far outside his competence.

When Dennis, as Dennis, becomes a murder suspect, it's up to Homer/Dennis to keep one step ahead of the law and try to solve the case himself–along with the mysteries of Sarah, Lance and Warren and their animosity toward Homer/Dennis. The book is entertaining as a mystery and a farce, but it also examines the nature of identity, personality and socialization. Dennis is a great creation: funny, wistful, clever and unforgettable.

Is there a moral to all this? I don't know. Maybe we shouldn't be afraid to embarrass ourselves sometimes. Go ahead and ask a stupid question, let your goofball side come out in the open, and don't worry about what other people might think of you. You never know where it might get you.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Search and Annotate

I was so excited yesterday when Amazon announced the new "X-Ray search feature" in its new touch screen 3G reader. Loving fair-play mysteries, I am often flipping back in books to try to find something half-remembered that might be a clue. This is much clunkier and less intuitive on e-readers. So I spent several hours trying to find out just what X-Ray is and how it works and if it would justify buying a new reader when my old one (a cast-off from my husband) still works perfectly. Amazon says:
For Kindle Touch, Amazon invented X-Ray–a new feature that lets customers explore the "bones of the book." With a single tap, readers can see all the passages across a book that mention ideas, fictional characters, historical figures, places or topics that interest them, as well as more detailed descriptions from Wikipedia and Shelfari, Amazon’s community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers.

Amazon built X-Ray using its expertise in language processing and machine learning, access to significant storage and computing resources with Amazon S3 and EC2, and a deep library of book and character information. The vision is to have every important phrase in every book.
Hmm, OK, tapping a word is a bit easier than typing on the tiny keyboard. "Descriptions from Wiki and Shelfari"; how would that work? I know S3 and EC2 refer to the online information cloud; does that mean every search would automatically access the internet? Even if I only want to know who had lunch with the victim last Monday in this specific book? That could be a bit overwhelming.

On my Kindle 2, annotating text is a major hassle and to save the note it only wants to tweet it. Huh? Couldn't we just save it? On the Touch 3G the description says:
Add annotations to text, just like you might write in the margins of a book, with a virtual keyboard that appears just when you need it. And because it is digital, you can edit, delete, and export your notes.
With memories of Sister MM thundering "Defacing a book, are we, Miss?" and wielding her yardstick I have always felt constrained from making marginal notes, even in books I own. Sadly, with paper books, only Post-its have been available for the purpose (or very light pencil). This feature is very clunky on my present e-reader. If they have managed to streamline it, I'd be thrilled, but haven't found a video or good description of of that feature yet. I'll keep watching.

Let's see if they have done anything with page numbering. Discussing a book with someone who is reading a paper copy when I have the e-book can be a real challenge. Aha, found it!
Easily reference and cite passages or read alongside others in a book club or class with real page numbers. Using the computing fabric of Amazon Web Services, we've created algorithms that match specific text in a Kindle book to the corresponding text in a print book, to identify the correct, "real" page number to display. Available on tens of thousands of our most popular Kindle books, including the top 100 bestselling books in the Kindle Store that have matching print editions. Page numbers are displayed when you touch the top of the screen.
Oh frabjous day, that did it. Someone was listening when we moaned and complained on the fora and to Customer Service. So I'm in line now, with an expected ship date just before Thanksgiving. But I'll be keeping a weather eye on the fora to see how these new features are working out. When did simple reading get so complex?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

There Is No Place Like Home

There are places in this world whose names are almost synonymous with misery. Places you would rather not experience, like Outer Mongolia, the Black Hole of Calcutta, the wilds of Borneo, and Siberia. To some, because there isn’t a hope in hell that there would be a Starbucks, the place to avoid is the Back of Beyond. But that is in real life; travelling to these areas by way of fiction is another story altogether.

Chinggis Khan Hotel
When I first picked up Michael Walters' book The Shadow Walker, I was immediately transported to Ulan Bator and my first reaction was to flip to Google Earth to see where this was and what a city located on these steppes would look like. This is one of the least populated areas of the world. This mystery was a gripping tale that was as much about the far reaches of Mongolia as it was about the story. An unusual protagonist, Nergui, who, along with the head of the Serious Crime Squad, Doripalam, solves the case of the murder of a British geologist whose body was found in the city's best hotel, the Chinggis Khan.

In the second in the series, The Adversary, Nergui's case takes him further out into the steppes as he tries to find connections between the disappearance of a young nomad boy and the death of his mother, and the country's most powerful crime lord, whom Nergui has been after for years. Aside from the setting, the characters themselves are so intriguing that they are memorable. It is not the 87th Precinct. Instead, you have a police crew that is trying to help Mongolia into the 21st century. The land is free of Soviet influences, but unable to master freedom without pervasive corruption. Nergui sometimes feels like he is operating with one hand tied behind his back. He can do all that is possible for ordinary crimes, but organized crime is off limits.

I have not come across a murder mystery written about Borneo, but Graeme Kent has a new book that transports the reader to the nearby Solomon Islands. This is a new series featuring Sergeant Ben Kella, a touring government police officer who was also the aofia of his tribe, a man chosen by the spirits to keep the peace. He joins forces with a young newcomer to the Islands, Sister Conchita, who has just been appointed to help the priest at the mission. The islands are a British territory and Kent enlarges on the ambiance and the history of the progress of the area towards independence. Sergeant Kella has been educated both in Sydney and London, where he took a Master's degree. He even did a little police training in Manhattan.

Some of the locals still feel the yoke of colonialism and the feeling is that the British would prefer to restrict the education of the islanders so that the better jobs can be saved for non-islanders. In Devil-Devil, an elderly man has been killed and Kella must investigate and solve the crime without causing bad feelings and enmity among the different generations and the different tribes. On this island where the crime took place, there lived 13 different clans, each speaking its own language. It was a powder keg. Kella and Sister Conchita walk a fine line inexorably to the solution and I can't wait to read more about this pair.

I have heard about the Black Hole of Calcutta most of my life without realizing where it was exactly. The Black Hole of Calcutta is a cell in the jail of a British fort in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata. In the middle of the 18th century, British and Indian troops fought at this fort. A reported 146 defenders of the fort were driven into the small cell and many had suffocated by the next morning.

I have encountered only one writer of mysteries that take place in this city, now becoming better known as Kolkata. Are we becoming more politically correct, as we now speak of Mumbai and Kolkata, or did they change their names from Bombay and Calcutta? Satyajit Ray, better known as a filmmaker, wrote a series of stories that were collected in The Complete Adventures of Feluda. These are short stories about a young amateur detective who is really a renaissance man who can do almost anything. He is well-versed in the martial arts and is a marksman. He reads about photography, geometry and anything that can help him solve crimes. He gets more adept at crime solving as the stories progress. In the Royal Bengal Mystery, you see some elements of a Sherlock Holmes influence.

Being banished to Siberia reminds me of the nightmarish tension of the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s. The name "Siberia" means "sleeping land," and for a thousand years, while Europe and Asia developed, Siberia slept. It was five million square miles and could swallow all of Western Europe and two USAs. It is covered by taiga (forests) and animals, vast deposits of minerals and more. It is a land of perpetual winter, where the temperature on a good day is forty below. In A Cold Red Sunrise, Stuart Kaminsky's Russian detective, Porfiry Rostnikov, a dogged, intense Moscow police Inspector who occasionally gets on the wrong side of the KGB, is sent on a case to this area of tundra and snow.

Tumsk, the town where Rostnikov and his partner are sent, was built around a weather station. This place had not resisted change; it had not even been threatened by it. It was a collection of a few houses and government buildings. A Commissar from Moscow had been murdered while investigating the death of the daughter of a Russian dissident who had been exiled to Siberia. The exile in question was a brilliant doctor whose situation had gained some press in the West and the authorities want a quick resolution to the problem.  And, of course, Rostnikov obliges as always.

We might differ in our opinion about what constitutes the Back of Beyond. I have felt at times that it is where I live, because we have no bookstore, but there are more backward places. In Steven Havill's Scavengers, the story takes place in the New Mexico desert near a town called Maria. Ex-Sheriff, now livestock inspector, Bill Gastner describes it as having lain comatose since the day Coronado walked through.

This story is the first one in the series that features Estelle Reyes-Guzman as the new Undersheriff. She is called to the isolated desert area because first one body, then another, is found dumped in this desolate area. Reyes-Guzman is as sharp as a tack. She sees small discrepancies and details that help her solve these mysteries in a relatively short time. These stories have an excellent pace as well as a good sense of place. Havill makes me want to visit this area. Even though it is bleak, he makes it sound out of the ordinary.

When I close this kind of book, I am really happy to be where I am, having enjoyed a glimpse of life in places of nightmares for some, while I am either warm and cozy or cool and content in my own chair.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Where's My Tuesday Georgette?

Due to pressure of work, Georgette Spelvin will be MIA for awhile.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Goldilocks Principle

My Photo
You probably remember the fairy tale about Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I recently read in Wikipedia about the original 1837 tale by British poet Robert Southey:
"In Southey's tale, three anthropomorphic male bears – 'a Little, Small, Wee Bear, a Middle-sized Bear, and a Great, Huge Bear' – live together in a house in the woods. Southey describes them as very good-natured, trusting, harmless, tidy, and hospitable. Each bear has his own porridge bowl, chair, and bed. One day they take a walk in the woods while their porridge cools. An old woman (who is described at various points in the story as impudent, bad, foul-mouthed, ugly, dirty and a vagrant deserving of a stint in the House of Correction) discovers the bears' dwelling. She looks through a window, peeps through the keyhole, and lifts the latch. Assured that no one is home, she walks in. The old woman eats the Wee Bear's porridge, then settles into his chair and breaks it. Prowling about, she finds the bear's beds and falls asleep in Wee Bear's bed. The climax of the tale is reached when the bears return. Wee Bear finds the old woman in his bed and cries, 'Somebody has been lying in my bed, – and here she is!' The old woman starts up, jumps from the window, and runs away never to be seen again."

The version of the fairy tale I'm familiar with, and I'd bet you are, too, features a little girl instead of an old woman who visits the house. The little girl, in addition to being very curious, is very fussy and she tests three bowls of porridge, three chairs and three beds before deciding in each case that the Wee Bear's is just right.

The Goldilocks Principle (the condition of being just right) applies to my reading, too. This can create some real problems, trying to find a book that feels like the perfect fit for my mood. A few weeks ago, Georgette suggested using fortune cookie fortunes to find that book and I enjoyed trying that method. Usually, however, I employ the same method Goldilocks used, trying some on for size until I find the right one. Given one situation, here is a book that was just right for me.

I had a draining day at work. After dinner, my two boys backtalked when I told them it was time for homework. I wanted to respond with a little impudence of my own but instead I picked up a book by George V. Higgins, Penance for Jerry Kennedy, and vicariously enjoyed all the adult sass.

Higgins was an assistant U. S. Attorney for Massachusetts and dealt with organized crime. He later worked as a criminal defense lawyer, defending clients such as Eldridge Cleaver and G. Gordon Liddy. As a writer, he is most famous for his books about Boston's lowlife, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (which I'll tell you about on Saturday), The Digger's Game and Cogan's Trade.

He also wrote a series about a nice guy named Jerry Kennedy, whose criminal-defense practice after 20 years is repetitive. Kennedy says, "Half of what it repeats, from my clients' mouths and mine, can be reduced to those two short words: 'Big money, Mister Kennedy, he promised me big money.' The other half, or roughly that, is people who have created their own troubles with some kind of intoxicants, either because they did not get their big money or because they in fact did.... For me, in my middle age, child molesters and wife-beaters are a welcome change, people who did evil things because of warped passions that did not involve money. And, of course, I meet them all because I'm out for their money."

In the second book of the series, Penance for Jerry Kennedy, Kennedy's client, personal accountant and good friend Lou Schwartz, has been convicted for his income-tax preparation for mobster Nunzio Dinapola. Schwartz refused to cooperate with the prosecutor's scheme to nail Dinapola, so Schwartz was prosecuted instead. Kennedy admits he is not at his best when he puts on a show that he wouldn't believe were he the one watching it and therefore he couldn't convince the jury that Schwartz didn't lie when he signed Dinapola's 1040 form claiming that as the tax preparer, he believed the numbers and sources of income to be true and accurate. (As Schwartz tells Kennedy, "You think Nunzio is going to tell me to put down the barbut games? You think I would ask him where he got the money? You think I would like him to have me killed? Of course it is lies.") Schwartz is going to jail for two years and Kennedy is miserable about it. To add to his unhappiness, the IRS is now turning its attention to him because he's Schwartz's attorney; his wife Mack is arguing with him about money; his secretary is procrastinating; and his mentor, big-shot lawyer Frank McDonald, isn't eager to help him. Kennedy, in his search for a new accountant, falls into the hands of Bertram Magazu, which may not be a good thing.

Higgins's ear for dialogue, ability to create an entertaining courtroom setting and skill at characterization are remarkable. He can define characters in just a line"David is the sort of guy that you jab every chance that you get, just because he deserves so many more shots than he'll ever get in this world that God would punish you for wasting one." His plots are sometimes filtered through a torrential digression of dialogue and the narrator's internal musings but then one doesn't read Higgins's books for plot alone. If you appreciate a quick-witted, insightful, somewhat world-weary but Mr. Nice Guy narrator, these Jerry Kennedy books are for you. They're not for readers who can't tolerate X-rated talk. For readers who can, they will make you laugh out loud. You don't have to be a legal mysteries fan to enjoy them. I particularly recommend them to people who like Michael Connelly's sleazy lawyer Mickey Haller. Start with the entertaining first book in the series, Kennedy for the Defense.

I'd love to hear about an experience that prompted your attempt to nail down that just-right book. What did you end up reading?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Review of S. J. Bolton's Now You See Me

Now You See Me, by S. J. Bolton
Review by guest writer Jane

Jane is a retired accountant and bookstore owner who enjoys reading and collecting Irish crime novels, talking about her favorites on several mystery discussion forums and writing book reviews. This summer, she returned to her girlhood passion for reading Gothic thrillers.

My first reading passion was for the tales of mystery and suspense called "modern Gothic thrillers." From the time I was old enough to peruse the adult section of the public library in the small southern town where I grew up, I hunted down the novels of Daphne du Maurier, Anya Seton, Mary Stewart, and fell in love with the prolific Barbara Mertz, writing as Barbara Michaels, who eventually published 30 wonderful novels of suspense.

The City University of New York's Lilia Melani teaches a course called "The Gothic Experience." In her course introduction, she identifies Ann Radcliffe, the most popular and best-paid novelist of 18th-century England, as the first great Gothic novelist: "She added suspense, painted evocative landscapes and moods or atmosphere, portrayed increasingly complex, fascinatingly horrifying, evil villains, and focused on the heroine and her struggle with him." Her best works, Professor Melani continues, are A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797).

Although Professor Melani does not include popular Gothic fiction in her course readings, she speaks of these modern Gothic or Gothic romance novels and opines that Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) is the quintessential modern Gothic thriller. Melani is far less excited by the mass-market novels written in the 1960s: "They were particularly written for women by women and started when some novels were published by Ace Books written by Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney. These novels follow a pattern: an innocent, inexperienced, young heroine suspects her superior suitor or husband, who is usually older, often wealthy, and worldly-wise, of a crime; she may have to compete with an older woman for his affections, a competition she wins. The book covers are typically stereotyped with a young woman fleeing a mansion or castle looming in the background."

I wonder what Professor Melani would think of British mystery writer S. J. Bolton? Based on her first three novels, Sacrifice, Awakening and Blood Harvest, she has been hailed as "the high priestess of rural gothic crime." The title is apt; these books are "lush with creepy British atmosphere," with Sacrifice set on one of the Shetland Islands and the other two in isolated villages. True to Gothic tradition, the narrators, or main characters, are women, and the books include a hint of romance and dark family secrets. But Bolton's women are strong, professional women; specifically, an obstetrician, a veterinarian and a psychiatrist. And one female in her books is often deformed or disabled.

Reviewers have called S. J. Bolton the "new queen of suspense," so when I read the plot description on the dust-cover flap of her new book, Now You See Me, and noticed the urban setting, I wondered if I were about to read some sort of Mary-Higgins-Clark-goes-to-London novel. Well, so much for flap reading! Now You See Me is not only a fine example of a modern Gothic thriller, it's a police procedural.

The protagonist is Detective Constable Lacey Flint of the London Metropolitan Police's Sapphire unit, which specializes in crimes against women. Lacey has been on the force for four years. After interviewing a victim of gang rape in a seedy part of London, Lacey returns to her car to find a woman with a slashed throat and partial disembowelment. The date is August 31—the date when Polly Nichols, the first victim of Jack the Ripper, was found dead in Victorian London some 11 decades earlier. And before long, other apparent copycat cases follow.

Lacey is herself a longtime Ripperologist. That's right, an expert in the five undisputed Jack the Ripper cases in London's East End in 1888 and 1889. For the first part of Now You See Me, we are smothered in Ripper lore, gory description and lectures. (Bolton has well researched the subject. She lists, among other references, Patricia Cornwell's Anatomy of a Killer.) If you have a low tolerance for this kind of thing, you can skim the first half of the book. With a third of the book to go, Bolton adds a major twist. A suspect has been found through DNA left on the third victim. The Major Investigation Team is celebrating the close of the case. Then, into the squad room, with solicitors in tow, walk several men who provide information that will turn the case upside down. Get ready for a five-star finish!

Gothic suspense lovers, don't dismay. Most of the elements of Bolton's earlier thrillers are present. Lacey is befriended by a freelance journalist named Emma Boston who has a missing right ear and burn marks on her neck. There's a hint of romance: Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury becomes both romantically interested in Lacey and suspicious about her past. The dark family secrets are there, but I can't reveal them. Revelation of the secrets, however, explains Lacey's rather enigmatic behavior, her fascination for serial killers and propensity for slipping down to Camden late at night for sexual adventure. And it also explains why Julie Andrews sings My Favourite Things in Lacey's head throughout the book.

I believe Professor Melani would approve of Bolton's modern Gothic thrillers!

Friday, September 23, 2011

There Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens

On Monday, my good friend Della posted "Last Night I Went to Bed With a Murderer" about her propensity for reading murder mysteries in bed. Excellent stuff; you should go read it if you haven't already. Della's post got me to thinking about reading in bed and especially about reading spinetinglers in bed. The fact is, though, I can't. First of all, my record for staying awake while reading in a horizontal position is somewhere around 11 minutes. But, more importantly, I don't like my spine tingled at any time, especially not when it's dark and who knows what might be lurking outside. When you live in the sticks, there are enough creepy noises in the night. I don't need some author prompting me to imagine even more.

I admit it: as a reader and viewer, I'm a complete coward when it comes to violence, horror and sometimes  even suspense. I was the kid who had to leave the room when The Twilight Zone came on. Just hearing the theme's dee-dee-dee-dee dee-dee-dee-dee would have me rocketing out of my chair. The first movie I ever went to was Pinocchio, and when he got swallowed by the whale well, let's just say that's 50 cents my mother regretted spending.

I haven't gotten a lot more sanguine with age. I've never seen Jaws or The Exorcist. And don't even think about trying to persuade me to see them now. It would just confirm what I already know–and make me bitterly resent you on top of it. We don't want that, do we?

I'm only slightly better when it comes to books. My preferred mysteries are those in which the violence occurs off scene. It isn't that I've never read suspense or thrillers. I've read some of Val McDermid's Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, for example. I can't say they weren't excellent, but when I got to one with the title The Torment of Others, I took that as a none-too-subtle hint that it would be beyond the horizon of my tolerance. I mean, seriously: the torment of others? I won't watch America's Funniest Home Videos because it torments others too much. I gave up Stuart MacBride's Logan MacRae series when I read Flesh House (a major mistake for me) and the titles alone of his subsequent books make it clear to me that I got out in the nick of time: Blind Eye, Dark Blood and Shatter the Bones.

I've been a big fan of Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series, set in Oslo, but his most recently translated book, The Leopard, features a serial killer whose work is spectacularly creepy and repulsively gruesome. This from a guy who has written a children's book called Doctor Procter's Fart Powder? But he's hardly the first author who has decided, for some reason inexplicable to me, that a serial-killer plot is just the ticket. Well, not only are those books too scary for me, the last thing I want is to be taken into the twisted psyche of the killer, which seems to be part and parcel of serial-killer books. The book becomes a cat-and-mouse game in which the reader is invited to feel at least a tug of sympathy for the killer. I prefer my murderer to have a particular animus toward one person (I might stretch it to a small group of people), and I like him or her to have a reason for murder that I can relate to, even if I wouldn't find it sufficient to drive me to shoot, stab, poison, electrocute, cosh or otherwise dispatch the victim.

So, is it clear to everyone that when it comes to violence, horror and serial killers, I'm way off the bandwagon? What appeals to me about crime fiction is the puzzle solving and the characters. I want to read books that tell the truth about the characters in it and how they came to do whatever it is they do. True, in one case, that character will have committed the ultimate sin. But I don't need to have that sin described to me in graphic detail or have the victim's terror and pain played out in the text.

In light of this confession of my lily-livered nature, some might think it's strange that I read a lot of World War II history in which, of course, there is enough horror for even the most intrepid reader. But somehow, I feel that because there can be such real horror in the world, I don't want it in my fiction reading. I know there are many other readers who feel just the opposite: they will read novels with violence and horror, but don't want that in their nonfiction reading.

But back to mystery. In traditional mysteries, the reader need never see into the full depravity of the murderer's mind because, for one thing, the murderer is exposed at the close of the book. But just because a book isn't filled with teeth-clenching suspense or harrowingly graphic descriptions of violence doesn't mean that it's mild or dull. The discovery of the victim's body can be a moment of shock and horror; all the more so because the reader hasn't been subjected to a literally blow-by-blow account of how the corpse came to be. The examination of motives and the revelation of the murderer's identity are often emotionally intense.

In Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night, there isn't even a murder, but when Lord Peter Wimsey takes center stage in the Senior Common Room of an Oxford women's college and reveals the identity of the person who has been leaving poison pen notes and playing increasingly nasty tricks on its faculty and students, it's one of the most emotionally raw and intense moments in crime fiction. I recently re-read Ngaio Marsh's A Clutch of Constables (or, rather, listened to the audiobook), and Agatha Troy's horror when, while admiring the river and countryside while on a barge cruise, she discovers a murder victim, is arresting:
"Troy leant on the starboard taffrail and watched their entry into this frothy region. She remembered how she and Doctor Natouche and Caley Bard and Hazel Rickerby-Carrick had discussed reality and beauty. Fragments of conversation drifted across her recollection. She could almost re-hear the voices.
'–in the eye of the beholder–'
'–a fish tin with a red label. Was it the less beautiful–'
 '–if a dead something popped up through that foam–'
'–a dead something–'
'–a dead something–'
'–through that foam–'
'–a dead something–'
Hazel Rickerby-Carrick's face, idiotically bloated, looked up; not at Troy, not at anything. Her mouth, drawn into an outlandish rictus, grinned through discoloured froth. She bobbed and bumped against the starboard side. And what terrible disaster had corrupted her river-weed hair and distended her blown cheeks?"
I was out walking on a warm, sunny day when I reached this point in the audiobook, but I felt a chill upon hearing these words and visualizing the scene so vividly portrayed. I had a real feeling of the disorientation and shock Troy felt when making this nightmarish discovery. And that's what works for me. Horror once removed. (At least once; after all, I am a chicken.)

My state of mind puts me on the sidelines when people rave about authors like Mo Hayder, Thomas Harris and Jeffery Deaver, but I know there are plenty of other people who can't wait to read their books. Some of my best friends enjoy a good nightmare-inducing plot, an evisceration or two and witnessing a gruesome autopsy alongside a medical examiner who is expert in the arcane ways of establishing time of death. Who knows, some of the Material Witnesses may be in that group. If so, we'll be hearing from them very, very soon.

So are you in the chicken coop with me or are you prowling around the pen, just waiting to pounce? If you're in with me, you're probably already familiar with classic authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Have you tried modern authors like Louise Penny, Reginald Hill and Fred Vargas? These are authors who don't sneak up behind you and yell Boo! but who also don't shy away from examining the feelings that compel a murder and describing the emotional impact of the crime on witnesses and those connected to the victim.

Now if you're not a chicken, my recommendation is um, uh . . . Can I get some help here? 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sandilands in India

Stories that take place at the interface of cultures have always fascinated me. Not in the drama of big desperate events like wars, but in the curious frictions of everyday living where very different lifestyles and values collide. Barbara Cleverly has set the first four mysteries of her series in post-World War I India during the last hectic days of the Raj, when the British lived with increasing unease and prewar formality in little enclaves like blisters on the seething subcontinent.

In The Last Kashmiri Rose, Commander Joe Sandilands of the Yard, gentleman and war hero, has been seconded to Calcutta for six months to teach a course in the new science of forensic detection. He frankly can’t wait to get home to the fog and chill of London. But on the morning he is to take ship, the Governor-General asks him to investigate a curious series of apparently unrelated deaths–all of memsahibs, all in March, all on the same small station over a number of years. An oppressively lush tropical setting, plucky (if terrified) wives, suave and impenetrable natives, and damned and doomed romances enliven this very well crafted fair-play mystery, which manages a few twists right to the very end. Has Joe left anything of himself in this remote place? He–and we–may never know.

Ragtime in Simla finds Joe traveling to the resort city and summer capital of the British Raj in the cool foothills of the Himalayas, as the guest of Governor-General George Jardine, for a well-earned vacation.

When the genial opera singer with whom Joe shares the Governor’s open limousine is moved by a particularly lovely view he asks the driver to stop, stands up, and sings a beautiful aria. In mid-note, he is shot dead by a bullet from a high-powered rifle! Joe later learns that another victim, brother of a fascinating and powerful Simla businesswoman, had been shot in the same location the previous year. Once again, Cleverly has set a twisted story and vivid characters in a complex environment, this time of the rich commerce that funded the Raj and the sumptuous depravity of its death throes.

Joe is visiting an old friend, commander of a remote hill fort on the Afghan border in The Damascened Blade when the Governor-General snags his services again, this time to babysit a spoiled and bored American heiress who wants to see "the real India." Impatient as I am with both unjustifiably arrogant and TSTL (too stupid to live) characters, I was prepared to detest Lily Coblenz.

Joe's friend Jamie hosts a vivid set of characters at a welcoming dinner: his newly arrived pregnant wife, Betsy; Joe and Lily; Grace, a British woman doctor so respected by the Afghans that she is being escorted by a Pashan prince Zeman and his aide Iskandar to treat the Amir of all Afghanistan; a brash British lord eager to make trade agreements; and two officials with conflicting opinions on what is needed in the region.

Both Betsy and Zeman, the Afghan Prince, become ill in the night. Betsy is treated by Grace and recovers, but Zeman, possibly on his way to get help, is found dead at the bottom of the marble staircase with a large dent in his head. He and Betsy had been the only people to eat from a particular dish, a bird that might have eaten poisoned bait. Was his death murder or mishap?

Mayhem, kidnapping and the real threat of war on the border ensue in this story of revenge served cold, Pashan style. Lily, very far from TSTL, is caught up in the kidnapping, and proves of invaluable help to Joe in both the recovery of the kidnapped lord and the solution to the puzzle.

The last Sandilands mystery set in India, The Palace Tiger, takes place while Joe accompanies a grand hunt for a man-eating tiger that has been terrorizing the protectorate of Rainipur.

The maharajah is dying and his oldest son and heir has recently died in curious circumstances. His second son greets the visitors with a display of aerial acrobatics that ends in fiery tragedy. Only the third son, an illegitimate 12-year-old boy, is left. In this book Cleverly includes not just one, but three strong women: an Indian maharini, an American wing-walker married to the maharajah's second son, and the wife of a British official, all with conflicting interests and the drive to make things happen.

Cleverly has a preference for strong women, which is carried into subsequent books to the point of becoming formulaic. I would have preferred to see more development of the sexy and slightly mysterious Joe, but the combination of memorable women, exotic locales, and strong plots make these first books outstanding.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What’s Amiss With the Amish?

As I go through my day, I have the pleasure of seeing what different sorts of books people are reading. Along the way, I get hints about what’s hot and what’s trendy. One of the recent trends that I have been noticing in the past year is the upsurge in the sub-genre of novels about the Amish. Much of what I see being read are stories about plucky heroines living through some sort of life-affirming change. Hmmm. Naturally, my interests being somewhat murkier, I have plenty of questions for these readers.

None of the subjects of my third degrees actually want to be Amish; they just admire what they think they know about that way of life. Mainly, they are interested in books they can rely on not to be filled with gore or blue language. They usually can expect not to run into graphic violence or sexual behavior in the Amish books they're reading. The Amish culture is tantalizingly unknown to most of the readers as well. They are intrigued by the culture of a people that sets itself apart from the mainstream in dress, language and lifestyle. This type of novel is known as "bonnet fiction." I wondered if there were murder mysteries in this category. There were.

One of the series that I looked into, read and liked was P. L. Gaus's Michael Branden series. It begins with Blood of the Prodigal, which takes place in Ohio, where many of the Amish-flavored books are centered. The Amish (or “plain people") and the English (or "vain ones") share a county. Most of the time the Amish keep to themselves and solve their own problems, but when a 10-year-old boy is missing, the local police are called in at the behest of Bishop Eli Miller. A local pastor, Caleb Troyer, and college professor Michael Branden help the Sheriff investigate.

In Broken English, the next in the series, the violence escalates a little as felon Jesse Sands, after serving a sentence of 25 years in a New Jersey prison, is released and quickly heads across Pennsylvania and West Virginia towards Ohio. Behind him he leaves a wide swath of murder and destruction as he exacts a harsh measure of revenge on every innocent who helps him. On a rainy night in Millersburg, he looks for shelter and for something to steal, for he is running out of money. He is surprised by a young woman who has time to dial 911 before she is shot and killed by Sands. Sands is accosted outside the house as he leaves and is arrested.

Later the girl’s father, David Hawkins, asks to see the prisoner and his wish is granted. He has come to forgive Sands in the Amish way. After Hawkins tells Sands that he forgives him, Sands whispers something that makes Hawkins go berserk and nearly throttle the murderer before he is restrained. Hawkins manages to take down the deputy who restrained him and then he leaves. Now no one can find him.

David Hawkins was once a soldier who was trained to kill by the U.S. military. In order to gain some measure of tranquility he contacted an Amish friend of his and did what was necessary to join the Amish community. He had been among the "plain people" for seven years when the tragedy of his daughter's murder struck him. A basic part of the Amish belief is that vengeance belongs to God and He will deal with it in time. Everybody is afraid that David has cracked and reverted to his old way of life, but David’s closest friends have grim faith that he is still abiding by the Amish pacifist ways.

A few days later, another murder takes place and a reporter who had been looking into David Hawkins’s background is found shot in the head. Now the sheriff is confident that David Hawkins has reverted to the military killer that he once was. Professor Michael Branden of the local college and Pastor Caleb Troyer are usually the sheriff’s allies, but now they feel there is more to this story and they begin to build a very different case.

Paul Louis Gaus lives in Wooster, Ohio, a few miles north of Holmes County, where the world’s largest and most varied settlement of Amish and Mennonite people reside. His knowledge of the "plain people" comes from exploring narrow blacktop roads and gravel lanes of the communities whose members live close to the "English" non -Amish people. There are seven books in this series so far.

Now, I have suggested that in Amish-themed stories there is likely to be less graphic violence. Well, that is definitely not the case in Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo.

While also taking place in bucolic areas of Ohio, the story begins with a flashback a description of the actions of a madman known as "The Slaughterhouse Killer" so graphic that is best read with your eyes averted. Unfortunately, what you miss on the first go-round is bound to pop up again and again for your edification. The lone survivor of that years-earlier series of brutal murders was Kate Burkholder, then a young Amish girl who left the faith and her home after the killings. Kate went into law enforcement in the city before returning to her home town of Painter’s Mill as Chief of Police. One snowy day, another body is found with all the hallmarks of a maniacal killing dealt by the Slaughterhouse Killer. Kate has to reconnect with her Amish family in order to solve this case before more girls are killed. In this novel, there is no respite from violence, four-letter words and the only sex is criminal. There are three novels in the Silence series; the next is Pray for Silence and new this year is Breaking Silence.

In a somewhat feminine homage to the movie Witness, Karen Harper has written a story that takes place in, where else, Ohio. Dark Harvest is about an Amish community under siege from an unknown foe. At first, they were targeted by mean-spirited pranks such as the spray painting of quilts hanging on clotheslines. The leaders of the community do not report these things to the authorities because they believe that they are under God’s protection. But when some of the pranks become more dangerous and the lives of children may be at stake, Luke Brand, the son of the ailing current bishop asks the local authorities for help. Into the community comes Kat Lindley, masquerading as Luke’s fiancée. Kat is a policewoman recuperating from an injury and now she is on hand to observe whether the pranksters are local militia who are anti-everything, local carpenters who dislike the Amish carpenters or, even worse, ostensible friends to the Amish. The deaths of two bishops escalate the fears in the community and Kat finds herself in some dangerous situations before she is able to hone in on the culprits. The excellent cooking of her Amish hosts is one perk of the job that is changing the way she looks at herself–but not in a mirror of course, since that is forbidden vanity. This story is the second in a trilogy, bookended by Dark Road Home and Dark Angel, and Harper has started a second Amish series featuring an artist who paints murals on barns in her Amish community.

Most of the stories I have read include a good dollop of Amish culture, but some of them really gloss over the hard parts, or parts you may not agree with, such as the limited education allowed. Still, there is usually a good look at some realities we among the "English" would find hard to adjust to. Hardships from my point of view would be the underwear, or lack thereof (no bras), the eighth-grade end to school, and outhouses. Worst-case scenario would be little light to read by and no time or need to read in any case. No, I would not make it in this life.

The Amish do have groups with varying strictness about certain aspects of their culture; no two sects are exactly the same, except in the basic religious beliefs. But, as one character puts it, we are human too. This aspect is dealt with by the Rumspringa, which allows adolescents a period of time to cut loose without condemnation, so that they can then make a decision to leave the community or choose a life commitment to the faith (as most do).

We all know from current events that despite the efforts a community makes to preserve a way of life, evil people and evil deeds break down the walls. So murder mysteries and crime stories revolving around a reclusive pacifist sect or culture are bound to be written, read and enjoyed for many different reasons. Human frailty spares no one and that is the grist of fiction writing. I avoided reading that nonfiction book about the true crime murders in the Amish schoolhouse. Fiction I can handle; reality, not so much.