Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hooked By the Title

Fickle fate and fortunes are a great way to choose what to read next but sometimes you have to decide what to read first. If best seller lists send the wrong message and you are not the type to read whatever hand-me-downs that are left on your doorstep in a brown paper bag, one way to pick a book is to feel the vibes coming from the books themselves. A good title is one thing that gets my interest up.

I am invariably curious about the title when I encounter someone reading a book. The time is passing when I can surreptitiously find it out for myself since I am running into more and more electronic readers. Today I encountered a young man who was reading his textbook on his phone while he was waiting for awhile. That seemed like a efficient use of time. Have you seen the ad for the Kindle? It's on the back of some magazines and it is very tantalizing because it shows this opening line:
“Though I had often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.”
How many of you saw the ad and had to Google the words to find out the title of the book like I did? That is the power of a title. There have been many books I chose on the strength of the title alone. Most of those times, I am amply rewarded; very occasionally the title is the best part of the book.

One of my best choices was Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg. In Copenhagen one day during a cold December Smilla Jaspersen was on her way home. She comes upon the scene of the death of her young neighbor and friend, six-year-old Isaiah. Like herself, this young boy is of mixed heritage, a combination of Dane and Greenlander. Isaiah’s mother is an alcoholic who leaves Isaiah to fend for himself most of the time, so he has struck up some friendships in his apartment building and had become close to Smilla.

Apparently, Isaiah was on the roof of a nearby warehouse and fell to his death. But Smilla knows that the boy was afraid of heights. She inspects the roof, which has no footprints other than Isaiah’s, which at one point lead from the center straight over the edge. Smilla, who can read snow, knows from those footprints that Isaiah was so frightened he ran off of the roof. She asks for a investigation and sets in motion a series of events that will take her to the edge of the world and to her own near extinction.

Smilla begins to get some intimations of the complexities involved when she finds out that a deep muscle biopsy was done on Isaiah’s thigh at autopsy and that Isaiah was being tracked by lawyers and other high-powered men. This seems to be related to the death of the boy’s father several years before during a northern exploration for a large company.

Smilla lost her mother to the sea when she was young and she began to feel an alienation toward nature. In an attempt to recapture what she had lost, she subsequently learned all there was to know about snow and ice. When Smilla tries to explain what she sees on the roof—those seemingly self-explanatory footprints—to the authorities, they look at her skeptically. Her father tells her: reading the snow is like listening to music; to describe what you have read is like explaining music in writing.

The mystery is: why was the death of one small boy so crucial to important people whose tentacles reach back into Greenland’s exploration of the past 60 years? Smilla faces death every day in order to figure this out. When she succeeds, she has to think about what her role will then be.

This book is suspenseful and beautifully written, poetic, musical and arousing the emotions of anger, despair and fatalistic resignation. It is a book with passages to underline after you collect yourself when you turn the last page, then double-check to be sure it is the last one.

How could I not be intrigued by this next title? Did he store secret things in it? No, but it was much better than I imagined.

Inspector D. P. Anders, protagonist of Marshall Browne's The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders, had been retired from the Rome police for several years when they asked him to return to the force to help clear up some cold cases. He was a decorated national hero who had been instrumental in bringing down an anarchist group 10 years before. It was during this effort that he lost his leg—as well as his desire to be a policeman.

Now Inspector Anders has been sent from the ministry in Rome to a southern city (unnamed in the book) because a few months earlier, the Ministry’s agent, Investigating Magistrate Fabri, and his two bodyguards were blown to pieces while sitting in a piazza café. Fabri was sent to investigate the assassination of Judge de Angelis, who was presiding over a case of local corruption that involved many powerful locals.

The Commissioner of Police in this southern city cannot understand why he has been sent an aging policeman of no particular rank and who, additionally, is disabled. Anders himself is not sure why he was chosen for this commission. But locally, the ripples are already being felt and almost immediately another undercover cop from Rome is killed.

These recent deaths of public figures in the city have been ascribed to anarchists. This is the story that the powers that be have agreed upon. Anders is well aware that most, if not all, of the groups of anarchists that terrorized Italy at one time were either disbanded or deep underground. He knows that the real people involved in these crimes are involved with a different criminal society, one that has been the power behind the scenes for decades in southern cities. The governing factor that keeps the criminals in charge of the city is fear.

Anders wonders bitterly if truth and justice will ever be stronger than the mafia and the politicians and bureaucrats in their pockets. In this excellent novel, you will find a beautiful recounting of the classic paradox: an irresistible force meets an immovable object. One realizes that if there is such a thing as an immovable object, there cannot be an unstoppable force. Both cannot be true at once. In this particular story, one is given hope that evil cannot triumph forever; perhaps good will prevail. Browne tells the tale with a rapid pace, the suspense building to the point that I find myself gripping the book with both hands. Everything that happens has such a sense of reality that my sense of disbelief is completely shut down. I have an intense feeling of despair for the characters in this city, but where there is life there is hope.

I was drawn to the title The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes, by K. C. Constantine, because I grew up in an area where all vegetables came from elsewhere and the only ones I felt were fit to eat were small, green and came in a can that said Le Sueur on the front. The idea that tomatoes had speed fascinated me.

Mario Balzic is the half-Serb, half-Italian police chief in Rocksburg, one of those small, ethnic, coal-mining towns in Pennsylvania where the mines have all but closed and the people are leading hardscrabble lives in a changed economy. This is a tale for any time. Balzic feels he knows the people on his turf like the back of his hand. So he is a little surprised when Frances Romanelli, whom he's known since childhood, begins to repeatedly call the police station because her husband Jimmy is missing. He also feels a little guilty because he has not seen her for so long, or seen her father, who was Mario's father's best friend.

Jimmy has been murdered and this case turns out to be something like one of Balzic’s Pittsburgh Pirates' baseball games: sometimes you do everything you are supposed to do and things still go against you. Mario understands subtlety and suspects immediately who Jimmy's killer is, but knows that unless this case is handled with delicacy it will blow up in his face like TNT at the coalface. Mario Balzic is a low-key but astute sleuth who loves his family, his wine and his town. There are 17 titles in the Mario Balzic series, starting with the 1972 title The Rocksburg Railroad Murders.

In All My Sad Dreaming, by John Caulfield, doesn’t sound like a murder mystery; it sounds like a book of poetry. But it succeeds in its way as both. The tourist brochures show Cape Town in the summer, when the sky is a radiant blue. They do not show the city in the grey winter. They never show the Cape of Storms.

Cape Town, South Africa
It is winter when this story takes place. This is a mystery set in Cape Town, South Africa during a violent modern era; a time when most houses have burglar bars on the windows and security gates on the front doors. Captain James Blake is a member of the Police Service and part of the serious violence unit. He is just leaving the hospital after having been there for a considerable time, suffering from two gunshot wounds. Blake is still hoping to understand what has happened to him when he is called to the scene of a murder that his partner thinks he should see, despite his ill health.

The victim is a wealthy lawyer who was once a member of a rock band of four young men who had moderate success years before but who had gone on to other endeavors and had not seen much of each other. There was an attempted reunion the year before, but it was stopped in its tracks when one of the men died in a freak skydiving accident. The most suspicious circumstance in the dead lawyer’s life centers on his young and beautiful Thai mail-order bride, who seemingly hates him and who has already one dead husband to her credit.

Blake is getting some weird vibes and Blake’s partner, Sgt. Mkhize even wants to consult his witch doctor. There are two other members of the musical group whom Blake has yet to track down, but in a country where you can be killed for your shoes or for a cigarette, the dead lawyer's six million dollars certainly make a good motive for murder.

Somehow Blake can’t seem to get a grip on things. This case, his life. He tells himself that he seriously wants to escape this violent decaying country. But a part of him will always regard the city of dreams as his home. So on he goes, attempting to solve this murder. The story is filled with musical references that go back to the ‘70s, when the rock band was in its heyday. The prose itself is musical in many ways and there is a tone of foreboding overlying it all.
"'Tis fifty long years since I saw the moon beaming
On strong manly forms, on eyes with hope gleaming
I see them again, sure, in all my sad dreaming...."
—Peadar Kearney (Irish rebel song "Down By the Glenside")
Not the the least of my choices is The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley. I might just as easily have picked this one for the interesting cover. This is the first of the Cecil Younger stories. Cecil is a young man in his mid-thirties who lives in Sitka, Alaska. He grew up in Juneau and traveled a bit, trying out several careers before realizing that what drives him is his curiosity and a sense of justice that requires him to find out what has happened in any given situation. There is a difference between the facts and the truth according to Cecil.

Sitka, Alaska
In his quest to find himself, please his father, accept the fact that the woman who loved him has left him, and just for the flat-out fun of it, Cecil prefers to spend most of his time in an altered state. He has grown quite accustomed to finding himself face down somewhere after a night of hitting the low spots. But he does work as a private detective and when he gets a call to look into a cold case a few years old with the purported murderer already incarcerated, he jumps at the chance to do something besides look into rapes and robberies. Before 24 hours have passed, he is on somebody’s hit list and he has to solve this case or die in the process.

All of the books in this Straley series have entertaining titles. The next is The Curious Eat Themselves and Cecil Younger is well worth getting to know.

There are several other books that leapt off the shelf into my hands when I was hooked by the title. If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him by Sharyn McCrumb is the eighth book in her Elizabeth MacPherson series and it tells the tale of women looking for revenge. Slow Dancing With The Angel of Death by Helen Chappell takes place on the eastern shore of Maryland and introduces Hollis Ball, who is visited by the ghost of her dead husband asking her to find his murderer. One of my all-time favorites is The Man Who Understood Cats by Michael Allen Dymmoch. This is also a debut novel which takes us to Chicago and a partnership between a police detective and a psychiatrist. I highly recommend this series although it is very hard to find. Lastly, in Mad Dog & Englishman, by author J. M. Hayes, a small-town Kansas sheriff named English and known as Englishman has to try and solve the town's first murder with the help of his half-brother Mad Dog.

Sometimes you can indeed judge a book by its cover.

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  1. I agree, Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg is a beautiful book. Høeg is an interesting guy; his The Quiet Girl is very different from Smilla. The Quiet Girl is suspenseful, but it is much more experimental in nature, with a nonlinear plot, digressions, and music references. I'm still grateful for your remarks in another book discussion that led me to read it, Maltese.

    I share your appreciation for K. C. Constantine's Mario Balzic. These books aren't to be read so much for the plot as for the characters, dialogue, and setting. Constantine must know that part of Pennsylvania well. He writes knowledgeably about the history and culture and very empathetically about the precarious economy since the closing of the mines. You'd swear you were in the room, listening to his characters speak. When they talk about food or wine, I have to head to the kitchen.

  2. Smilla's Sense of Snow was one that caught my eye as well. I enjoyed that one quite a bit -- Hoeg was one of my earlier translated reads and I was really excited when The Quiet Girl was released, but actually have not yet read it.

    Kate Atkinson's latest, Started Early, Took My Dog has a fun title. I'm anxious to get to it to see what it means.

  3. Thanks for the interesting topic.

    I like Walter Mosley's title coming in November, All I Did Was Shoot My Man. Makes me wonder about the story behind that.

    I had to read When Red Is Black by Qiu Xiaolong because of the title. I like Inspector Chen. The mystery takes a back seat to the picture of Chinese society but what a picture. I also read Pamuk's My Name is Red (murder in Istanbul in the 16th century) and The Red and the black by Stendahl (19th century france). I'm having good luck with those colors. THese are all good books.


  4. Qiu Xiaolong is one of my favorite authors. I just finished Red Mandarin Dress and I hope to blog about it some time. Peter May and Lisa See both have excellent series that take place in the world of Chinese policing.

    Lisa See has a short series subtitled A Red Princess Mystery which have an entirely perspective. The detective in this case is Liu Hulan, a female of important background who would rather be a policeman than a member of the inner circle of descendants of highly placed wealthy party officials. Have anyone read these?