Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Only the Best Junque

Most people collect something, even if they think they don't. They may make a conscious choice or fall into it almost by accident, but you will know when their eyes suddenly light up and they begin to gleefully and minutely describe this or that treasure that you have discovered their passion. This nearly universal acquisitive instinct is fed by the surge in popularity of stories and shows about collecting and collectors.

In J.B. Stanley's A Fatal Appraisal, Molly Appleby, a writer for Collectors Weekly magazine, is on her way to Richmond to cover a shooting of Hidden Treasures, an Antiques Roadshow type of program. Having persuaded her boss to spring for a B&B instead of the usual strip motel, she is delighted with the antique-filled Traveler House, named for General Lee's horse. Several of the chief appraisers are also staying there, including one from the British version of the show.

When the famous furniture appraiser (who resembles neither of the irresistibly exuberant Keno brothers) fails to appear for the first day of shooting in the local Civil War museum hosting the show, Molly checks for his car in the parking lot only to find him, swollen and dead, still clutching the steering wheel. Traces of mold in the priceless Revolutionary War period desk that is the centerpiece of the show appear to have been the cause. Another appraiser is strangled after noting disdainfully that several valuable coins in the museum's collection are fakes. The shoot is in shambles, and the long lines of ticket holders clutching their treasures for evaluation must go home disappointed. The writing here was somewhat trite and cliche-filled, but it offered a good plot and a fascinating and unusual look behind the scenes of an Antiques Roadshow setting. I would love to read more mysteries set around the making of this show.

Jane Wheel is a Chicago-based collectible picker in Sharon Fiffer's Scary Stuff, the sixth in this cozy series. Like the American Pickers, she finds her treasures at yard sales, flea markets, and old barns and houses. She is visiting her brother and his family in California when a drunken man approaches Michael and threatens to sue him. Michael says, "Look at me closely," and the man apologizes and stumbles off after a close scrutiny of his face. Michael is disturbed; it is the third time he has been mistaken for "Honest Joe," a very dishonest online seller of fake collectibles. Since Honest Joe mails his packages from a town near Chicago, Jane takes it upon herself to investigate the man who is causing her brother so much trouble. When she learns that Honest Joe may be living with a cousin she never knew she had, and a woman whose inherited treasures she is valuing is murdered, things get strange very fast.

This story just didn't come together for me. Too many words spent on too many weird characters failed to compensate for the rather weak story line. Nonetheless, I appreciated the warning about the number and variety of frauds that can happen in online auctions.

Recently widowed antique print dealer Maggie Summer decides to participate as usual in the Rensselaer Spring Antiques Show in Lea Wait's Shadows at the Fair. She sets up her booth next to that of her friend Gussie, who is sporting a new motorized wheelchair. Gussie's nephew Ben, a young man with mild Down's Syndrome, is assisting his aunt.

When Ben knocks down a man who was threatening a woman that night, he asks Maggie for help making sure the man is not hurt. They find Harry dead, nowhere near where Ben thinks he knocked him down. Both the police and Ben think that he has killed Harry, and Ben is arrested.

When it is found that Harry died of poisoning, like a dealer at an earlier show, Harry's wife asks Maggie's help finding her husband's murderer. They have only three days before the fair is disbanded, and the dealers scattered. This solidly constructed first in a series was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Mystery, and I look forward to reading more of Maggie's adventures.

Arthur's Story, a short story by Kathleen Valentine, isn't exactly about collecting, nor is it a mystery, but it beautifully incorporates one of the enduring fantasies of my childhood. Young Arthur, orphaned and homeless shortly before WW1, discovers an unlocked window into the cluttered attic of an imposing old brownstone.

With winter coming on, he builds himself a cozy nest on a pile of carpets by a chimney and reads the winter away, only sneaking out every few days with a filched trinket or two to sell for provisions. Fortuitously, he finds almost everything he needs in the capacious attic, from clothing he can wear, to a chalkboard and chalk, to leftover staple provisions. New boxes of treasures are lugged up from time to time by a pair of gossipy footmen, who never suspect his presence. Arthur lives safely and secretly, like a mouse in the attic, for several years, until he is old enough to enlist. This heart-lifting little story, available as an ebook only, vastly improved my mood for the rest of a gloomy day.

Growing up in a large family with a relentlessly decluttering mother, I had no opportunity to collect anything. Everything was recycled through younger sibs and finally discarded. So I'm not much of a collector, except for the books, which somehow multiply like rabbits. Oh, and a bureau full of lovely antique table linens, mostly mismatched, acquired over many years. I had some exquisite lace ones, but quickly learned that lace and cats don't mix. The frogs were an accident. My husband once brought me a charming signed cartoon print of a frog flying a Sopwith Camel that had caught his eye. The word went out, and I was given at least one frog every Christmas for years. I finally drew the line after my husband and a friend hauled this jovial forty pound fellow crafted by a New England artisan several blocks to our waiting van. He still makes visitors smile, and his hat is a handy place to drop keys and wallets. Intentionally or accidentally, nearly everyone collects something. So what lights up your eyes and makes your fingers twitch?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Crime Fiction on the Couch

You're lying on a psychiatrist's couch, and there's plenty to talk about. Unshakable bad habits, haunting dreams, wacky family and friends.

You meet a psychiatrist at a party. You can't stand there stripping your psyche naked. What can you talk about? The DSM-V. That's the latest, due out in May 2013, in a series called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. Believe me, after your new friend stops sputtering, you'll have yourself a conversation.

Since 1840, when the U.S. Census asked about "idiocy/insanity," Americans have struggled to identify and categorize what isn't "normal." The DSM and its equivalent, the ICD (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems), attempt to standardize the classification of mental disorders for clinical, research, and educational purposes by using specific diagnostic criteria. The DSM-V committees are still laboring under a deluge of help and a hailstorm of criticism––including fierce friendly fire––tinkering with current diagnostic categories, debating issues such as extended grief, working on new diagnoses (including one called "sluggish cognitive tempo"), and vetoing others because they sweep in too many of us or exclude too many of us already diagnosed. They have a Herculean task.

I'll be curious to see the DSM-V. In the meantime, I enjoy browsing through my husband's DSM-IV-TR and meeting complex fictional characters who'd be candidates for various mental health diagnoses. Here are a few books I've enjoyed:

Camilla Läckberg must have had the ICD handy when she wrote The Stonecutter, the third book in her series with cop Patrik Hedström and writer Erica Falck and set in Fjällbacka, Sweden. I've rarely met so many troubled fictional characters outside of a psychiatric setting, such as the one in Oregon described in Ken Kesey's terrific One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. A few possible diagnoses for some of Läckberg's characters include Asperger's disorder, pedophilia, narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

The victim is a young girl who has been diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and DAMP (deficits in attention, motor control and perception––a classification used only in Sweden). A fisherman finds her drowned, tangled in the line of his lobster pot. Patrik goes to the scene. The death of a child is always terrible, but this one is particularly bad for Patrik, father of a new baby daughter with Erica, because he recognizes her as Sara, the daughter of one of Erica's friends. The postmortem discovers bath water, rather than seawater, in Sara's lungs, so a murder investigation begins.

Photo of Fjällbacka by Frank Heuer
This thriller is one of those books that jump to a different location and set of characters every few pages. There are two story lines, one of which begins in 1923, that connect near the end. Although I had no difficulty following Läckberg's plot or keeping her characters straight, after 489 pages of constantly leapfrogging about, I felt as if I had artifically-induced ADHD. I wasn't thrilled by how the crime is finally solved, but watching how several monstrous characters are created and how dysfunctional families struggle to cope make this a very interesting read.

One of my favorite fictional psychopaths is Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, who meets DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder. Ripley is a complex person who takes advantage of others' naïvité and moves from one illegal activity to another. His conscience isn't completely missing; Ripley is capable of some empathy and feeling a degree of remorse, but these traits aren't strong enough to prevent him from defrauding or murdering people. Ripley isn't sadistic; he doesn't take pleasure in killing for killing's sake. The murderous methods Ripley chooses are fairly civilized: a clunk on the head with a bottle, a quick garroting or a gunshot. Despite his crimes, Ripley is strangely likable, and a reader roots for him to succeed.

Highsmith's series involves books of psychological observation that study the subject of guilt. Because Ripley's life changes over the course of the series, the books are best read in order. Begin with The Talented Mr. Ripley, written in 1955. Ripley goes to Italy at the request of Dickie Greenleaf's rich father to find Dickie and talk him into returning home. One thing happens after another, and before long Dickie is dead, and Tom's life is forever changed. This book was made into a 1999 movie starring Matt Damon as Ripley and Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf. It's an okay movie, but not as good as Highsmith's book.

In the next book, Ripley under Ground, Ripley is living with his charming heiress wife Héloïse in Belle Ombre, a chateau near the French village of Villeperce. He has organized a lucrative scheme with some London friends that involves forging Derwatt paintings. All is going well until Thomas Murchison, an American Derwatt collector, decides one of his paintings is a forgery. Ripley pulls out the stops to convince him otherwise.

There are three more Ripley books, and they see him becoming more comfortable with his wife and more concerned about his reputation. Ripley's life is going well in Ripley's Game until one of his criminal acquaintances, Reeves Minot, asks him to commit a murder for him. Ripley refuses, but he suggests that Minot hire a poor picture framer for the job. This idea doesn't pan out well. In The Boy Who Followed Ripley, a 16-year-old American boy who has just killed his wealthy father looks up Ripley in France. American David Pritchard arrives in Ripley under Water. Pritchard is obsessed with the rumors swirling around Ripley's past, and he digs into the disappearance of Thomas Murchison from Ripley under Ground. These five books form a portrait of a man who doesn't feel the guilt from his actions that he should.

With Forty Words for Sorrow, Giles Blunt introduces his John Cardinal police procedural series, set in the fictional town of Algonquin Bay in northern Ontario, Canada. Cardinal's wife Catherine has bipolar disorder, and, over the series, Blunt does a great job of describing the effect of this illness on Catherine and her family. In this book, he also presents an unsettling picture of a pair of psychopaths who have none of Ripley's charm.

Like Forty Words for Sorrow, the second book, The Delicate Storm, was inspired by a real-life crime. Some of us might remember the crimes perpetrated by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) in October 1970, while Pierre Trudeau was prime minister of Canada.

The ever-escalating tension and dread of the first book is absent in The Delicate Storm. It is beautifully crafted with vivid characterizations and stunningly described settings you'll never forget. As usual with this series, the cruel winter far north in Ontario is one of the main characters. As the book opens, it is three weeks into January, and the temperature is doing what it never does in January in Algonquin Bay––rising above freezing. The streets are shiny with melted snow, thick fog is sidling up against the buildings in town, and the bears are coming out of hibernation early. They're hungry, and this isn't happy news for Ivan Bergeron, who has a raging hangover. It does his head no good when he hears his dog barking frantically in the woods. By the time Bergeron makes it outside, Shep is back in the yard, whining and clawing at something he has retrieved for his master. The something "lay there, fishbelly white, hair curling along one side. Toward the wrist end, the flesh still bore the zigzag impression of a watch with an expandable bracelet. Even though there was no hand attached, there was no doubt that the thing lying in Ivan Bergeron's backyard was a human arm." While Bergeron is making his grisly discovery, homicide detectives John Cardinal and his French-Canadian colleague, Lise Delorme, are tracking down one of the area's most incompetent criminals, who has just ineptly robbed a bank. These two disparate events lead Cardinal and Delorme into an investigation of crimes that took place 30 years earlier, involving the Mounties and the FLQ.

This book should be read after Forty Words for Sorrow because what happened in that book is discussed, characters grow and change, and relationships between characters are explored in more depth. Cardinal's relationships with his father, his wife, and Delorme are very well done––this decent man could be someone we know and like. He's far from perfect, but he's not the same troubled/alcoholic cop one often finds in police procedurals these days. The inter-agency squabbles go on a bit long, and at some point I could see where things were heading, but I still enjoyed the getting there. This book does a terrific job of evoking the cultural and political atmosphere of the late 1960s/early 1970s––what the radicals were doing and the government was doing in response.

When Black Fly Season begins, it's that horrible time of the year when black flies are biting anything that moves. As Blunt says, "The black fly may be less than a quarter inch long, but up close it resembles an attack helicopter, fitted with a sucker at one end and a nasty little hook on the other. Even one of these creatures can be a misery. Caught in a swarm, a person can very rapidly go mad."

A red-haired woman draws attention from the regulars who have taken refuge from the flies to drink in an Algonquin Bay bar. She is beautiful, but covered with black fly bites; she also presents an oddly flat affect and says she doesn't know anything about herself or her present condition. Fortunately, a cop takes her to a hospital emergency room where doctors discover that she has a bullet in her brain.

Cardinal and Delorme begin an inquiry into her shooting that leads them to a mutilated corpse and into a drug dealers' turf war between the Viking Riders motorcycle gang and some small-time criminals led by a charismatic leader named Red Bear. Blunt's readers zig zag between the drug dealers' shenanigans, Cardinal and Delorme's investigation, and "Red" as she regains her memory. While the story unfolds, the cops (and the reader) become more and more anxious to see the perpetrators brought to justice.

The subtitle to Black Fly Season could be "Life as Hell." Many of Blunt's characters lead lives that can turn nightmarish on a dime: Cardinal must deal not only with his anxiety-provoking investigation, but with his estranged daughter and wife Catherine, who has been in and out of mental hospitals due to her bipolar disorder. It has been two years since her last hospitalization for depression, and she is now preparing to leave on a professional trip to Toronto. Catherine resents Cardinal's worries about her emotional state; when she's joyous or full of energy, he sees mania looming. It's a miracle neither of them has an ulcer. One of Red Bear's men, Kevin, is a failure as a poet but a resounding success as a heroin addict. Red Bear and his partner Leon scare Kevin with their propensity for violence and obsession with bizarre rituals, but he pushes these thoughts aside in favor of more comfortable fantasies about kicking his addiction and being interviewed about his poetry by David Letterman or Martin Amis.

Black Fly Season contains fascinating information (at least to me!) about various fly species and beetles that feast on corpses in various states of decay and how this information is analyzed for forensic evidence. The reasons for the ritualistic murders are interesting, but they are also disturbing. This book contains some very unsettling images of animal and human torture and gore. This is the third Cardinal/Delorme book that I've read, but Delorme is still not well fleshed out. In contrast, Blunt's characterization of the bad guys in this book is dazzling. He is insightful about bipolar disorder and addiction. The setting buzzes, whirs, and hums with insects. Life during black fly season in Algonquin Bay, Ontario, is full of pain for everybody.

By the Time You Read This describes the death of Catherine Cardinal. The book deals with depression, suicide, child sexual abuse, bipolar disorder, and pornography. Blunt handles these difficult subjects with skill, and he is very insightful when his characters deal with grief and feelings of guilt. As usual, his characterization is mostly excellent. In a few lines, Blunt can describe a very minor character so well you'll never forget him. I hope we learn more about Delorme in the next book, Crime Machine, which I haven't yet read.

For further reading, I suggest the DSM. Reading any of the above books in bed may not aid your sleep, and I offer no guarantee that you'll stay off a psychiatrist's couch. You will, however, meet some characters who should spend some time there.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day: A Day of Remembrance

Today is Memorial Day, when we remember those who have died serving our country. We'll be back tomorrow.

Friday, May 25, 2012

That Reminds Me

Lately, it seems like every book I read reminds me of one or two others. I don't mean that the book I'm reading seems derivative, but it has tended to have a similar setting or theme that makes me feel like it should be read together with the book it brings to mind. Since I've been on a World War II-era book binge, I suppose this phenomenon shouldn't be surprising.

As soon as I heard about Simon Mawer's Trapeze, I had to read it. The book tells the story of Marian Sutro, a young Englishwoman who is recruited into Britain's Special Operations Executive as an agent. Winston Churchill's mandate to the SOE was to "set Europe ablaze" by working with local resistance forces to fight Germans in occupied countries, especially France. Marian comes to the SOE's attention because she has a French mother and grew up in Geneva, speaking French.

Marian jumps at the chance to join the SOE, even though it's not at all clear to her what the agency is, or what, exactly, they want from her. She's just looking forward to be doing something exciting for the war effort. In the first part of the book, Marian is recruited and sent off to her training, which includes coding and decoding messages, armed and unarmed combat, stealth killing and explosives. Oh, yes, and a parachuting course, so that the agents can be dropped by moonlight into occupied France. We meet Marian's upper-crusty superiors and her more down-to-earth trainers and fellow agents. Other trainees include the charming and lively Benoit, with whom she begins a relationship, and Yvette, a nervy widow and mother of a young child, who constantly worries she will wash out of the SOE without having a chance to return to her native France.

The second part of the book covers Marian's drop into a village near Toulouse, and her meeting with members of the underground network there. The big action takes place in the third part, in which Marian is sent to Paris on a mission to bring supplies and messages to Parisian agents. The Paris network has been compromised, leaving Marian with few resources and not knowing who can be trusted. This part of the book was nail-bitingly tense, with a frightening and violent climax.

Noor Inayat Khan, SOE agent
Trapeze immediately brought to mind one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, Leo Marks's Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945. Marks was a very young codes officer at the SOE. He supervised a team of women who used brute-force methods to decode messages that had become garbled, and he taught coding techniques to field agents. The men and women who went into the field had only about a 50/50 chance of survival––and they knew it. They just went on with the job; even those who had young children. Many were captured by the Germans, tortured, sent to concentration camps and killed. Marks tells their stories and breaks our hearts. Simon Mawer has had a long fascination with the female agents of the SOE and pays homage to them through this book.

Marian's training description in Trapeze reminded me of similar scenes in William Boyd's Restless, with its Eva/Sally character. Their training experiences were remarkably similar, and both had a tough-minded determination to get on with the job.

As the summer Olympics in London approach, it seemed like a good time to read David John's Flight from Berlin, which revolves around the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Let me just start by saying this is a formulaic book––but in a good way. It won't improve your mind or make you think deep and important thoughts. John is just a good storyteller, who has a talent for characterization and can make an outlandish plot filled with cartoonish Nazis, numerous chase scenes and zeppelin stowaways seem believable enough to keep your eyes from rolling around too much.

Jesse Owens
First-time author John's heroine is Eleanor Emerson, a 1932 Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer who is married to a bandleader and likes to drink, smoke and spend her evenings in nightclubs, sometimes singing with the band. She immediately clashes with delegation chief Avery Brundage over her shenanigans on board the ship taking the team to Europe, and ends up being booted from the team. But she's made herself popular with the press and gets a special correspondent assignment. Once in Berlin, she meets British reporter Richard Denham. In classic Hollywood-movie style, they clash and then come together. They become involved in the story of Hannah Liebermann, a world-class fencer who is the sole Jewish member of the German Olympic delegation and, separately, in the pursuit of a mysterious dossier that the Nazis are desperate to acquire.

The action of the plot moves from the Olympic Games (including a description of Jesse Owens's spectacular long jump win and his surprisingly warm reception by the largely German stadium crowd) to the streets and nightclubs of Berlin, a party at the home of notorious Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, the famed Tiergarten and, most spectacularly, the zeppelin Hindenburg.

Eleanor Holm
David John based his Eleanor Emerson character on real-life Olympian Eleanor Holm, who really was a hard-partying girl married to a bandleader, and whose wild behavior on the cross-Atlantic trip practically provoked Avery Brundage to change his last name to Umbrage and definitely did get him to kick Holm off the team. Like Emerson, Holm used her press popularity to get a correspondent job for the Games. John also based the Hannah Liebermann fencer character on Helene Meyer, the only Jewish member of the German Olympic team. John spices the story with many other characters who existed in real life, most notably Brundage, who infamously pulled two Jewish athletes off the US relay team, and Martha Dodd, the social butterfly daughter of the then-US ambassador to Germany, who (Martha, that is) had lovers who were members of the Nazi SS and another who was in the USSR's diplomatic corps and intelligence service.

Flight from Berlin put me in mind of those guilty-pleasure film thrillers from the 1930s and 1940s, with sneering Nazis played by emigrés who had usually fled the Nazis themselves. It reminded me slightly of Rebecca Cantrell's 2011 Game of Lies, third book in the Hannah Vogel series, in which Hannah is a reporter at the 1936 Olympics too. Although Cantrell's book is painstakingly researched, she doesn't tell nearly as exciting a story, and her Hannah Vogel is a mope, especially compared to Eleanor Emerson. A non-mystery novel that Flight From Berlin brought to mind was Frank Deford's Bliss, Remembered, about a US Olympic swimmer who goes to the 1936 Olympics. Eleanor Holm must have been some kind of inspirational! Deford's book had its moments, but much of its dialog was awkward and the story forgettable. More than Game of Lies or Bliss, Remembered, Flight from Berlin reminded me of Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. Larson's story heavily features Martha Dodd, and wonderfully evokes the mixture of excitement, fear and dread that prevailed in Berlin under the Nazis in the 1930s.

I also recently read Alan Furst's Mission to Paris. In 1938, France walks on a high-tension wire. Germany has re-armed and is on the march. Austria has become part of the glorious Reich, the Sudetenland and Danzig are being vociferously claimed, and the French wait to see what Hitler plans next.

Some of the French have already succumbed, willingly, to what they see as inevitable. Businessmen openly admire the new Germany and use their connections with certain newspapers to propagandize in favor of authoritarianism, falsely positing that anything to the left of that is equivalent to the menace of bolshevism. Too many politicians and bureaucrats are also ready to accept Germany's domination of Europe.

Many of France's refugees, on the other hand, are too well acquainted with the Third Reich to be anything but frightened for the future of Europe and themselves. Embassy and intelligence personnel from other countries, stationed in Paris, anxiously monitor developments and prepare for the worst.

Coco Chanel collaborated with the Nazi occupiers
Into this seething atmosphere comes Frederic Stahl, an American movie star who has arrived in Paris to make a movie. Stahl was born in Austria under the name Franz Stalka, then lived in Paris for several years. No admirer of the Nazis, Stahl is surprised to find many Germans and German-friendly French in Paris's high society––and just as surprised to find himself assiduously courted by them.

When courting is followed by pressure and threats by Germany's agents to get Stahl to act, essentially, as a celebrity supporter of the Reich, Stahl decides to become a player on the other side of the intelligence and influence war being waged.

Though I read a lot of World War II-era fiction, I have not been a fan of Alan Furst in the past, largely because I haven't been engaged by his characters. But I'm very much an admirer of this book––even if I'd still say characterization isn't Furst's strong suit. You might think that a pre-war espionage story can't be compelling, but Furst masterfully evokes feelings of tension and frustration, as we see the inevitable cataclysm building, and Stahl's efforts to hold back the storm. He also seems effortlessly to put the reader into the scenes he's created, so that we are there on the Paris streets, at the glittering parties, in the cafés, on the movie set.

In some ways, this book also reminded me of William Boyd's Restless. Not, as with Trapeze, in the part about the agent's training, but in the story of an agent engaged in pre-war intelligence; in Restless, a female agent working in the US for Britain, trying to move the US away from isolationism. I recommend both books for fascinating views of how war works before the shots are fired.

Note: I was given advance reading copies of Flight from Berlin (available July 10) and Mission to Paris (available June 10) for review. Parts of my review here appear under my Amazon user name on the Amazon product pages.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hello and Goodbye! Aloha!

There is one magazine crossing my desk that opens up the world to me in fascinating ways. It is the monthly Smithsonian. An article about Hawaii was my latest find. Paul Theroux has travelled the world for 50 years, and he has visited more than 100 countries during his journeys. He has shared his travel experiences with the world through his best sellers. Throughout his travels, he says that he has relied on the kindness of strangers to take him in and share their stories. He admits to having an obsession with islands because his belief is that islands are small contained worlds that can help us understand larger ones. One of the traits Theroux has found in many island cultures is deep suspicion of outsiders. This has been most evident in Hawaii, where he has lived for 22 years––the longest he has resided in any one place. Despite this, he is still considered an outsider and has found it difficult to get any one to talk to him and explain Hawaiian traditions and culture in any significant way.

He explains this pattern in the recent May edition of the Smithsonian. He clarifies this by pointing out that what looks like hostility in Hawaii is justifiable wariness with an intention to keep the peace. He concludes that he is still trying to make sense of it all, but the longer he lives in this archipelago of seven islands, the more the mystery deepens.

As the years pass it becomes more evident to me that my experiences with Hawaii will be of the traveling-by-armchair variety, mostly through books like these.

My favorite Hawaiian experience comes from Charlie Chan, who is introduced in Earl Derr Biggers's The House Without a Key. The title refers to Honolulu as it was in the early 1920s, for these were the days in Hawaii when there was no need to lock a door. It was a land for the lotus-eaters; a paradise, but then there are always snakes in the grass, as Barbara Winterslip sees when she returns home from school on the mainland to find her father murdered. The culprit will be found because Charlie Chan, the best detective of the Honolulu PD, is given the case. Biggers models Chan upon a real-life Honolulu policeman, Chang Apana, whose exploits were newsworthy. Charlie's way of solving a crime lies not so much with the physical evidence at the scene, but in figuring out the personalities and the lives of the people involved.

It is a fair-play, golden-age type of mystery. I enjoyed this book thoroughly. I slipped easily into the era, to the place taunted by kona winds and eased by the trades, and into the story because the people were real and the plot plausible. I felt a touch of nostalgia for a place I have never been and a time that never really existed.

Chan's personality and his history come into better focus in The Black Camel. "Death is the black camel that kneels unbidden at every gate." This is the quotation used by Charlie Chan minutes after he is called to investigate the murder of Shelah Fane, a Hollywood actress who has just arrived in the Hawaiian Islands to wrap up a movie that had been begun in Tahiti.

Most of Charlie Chan's approach relates to a basic philosophy of what will be will be. Life is predestined, and so there is no use worrying about things not easily controlled, such as the weather, one's weight, and other facts of life. But he has no intention of behaving like the crane, which waited for the sea to disappear and leave him dry fish to eat, and which then starves to death. Thus, he proceeds and in his quiet, intuitive way knows he can find the murderer.

Charlie Chan has 11 children and, in this book, we are introduced to his oldest son, Henry, his oldest daughter, Rose, and the next in line, Evelyn. We also meet little Barry, who was born while he was helping the SFPD during his recent adventures in California in Behind That Curtain.

Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl sets her mysteries in post-Depression Hawai‘i. In Murder Casts A Shadow, it is 1935 in Honolulu and, even though the Depression has hit these tropical islands along with the rest of the world, the sugar industry has cushioned the effects of unemployment somewhat.

London playwright Ned Manusia has come to put his latest play on in Honolulu, and he feels quite at home here because he is of Polynesian extraction himself. He was born in Samoa. Ned has a second reason for finding himself in Honolulu: he has escorted three important portraits of the Hawai‘ian Royal Family from the British Museum back to their home.

Shortly after the portraits are delivered, the main one of the King Kalākaua is stolen and a main functionary of the museum, Abe Halpern, is murdered. Mina Beckwith, a reporter for the local paper, is onsite for this case and runs with it. She pairs up with Ned to dig into the background of the murder victim. Abel Halpern was a grandson of one of the original outsiders on the island. There are many rumors about his dirty dealings, so his murder comes as no surprise to many.

The Hawai‘ian Islands are the crossroads of the Pacific and people from all over had settled there over the centuries. Kings have ruled Hawai‘i for a few hundred years. The last, King Kalākaua, traveled to San Francisco for a visit. It was while he was there that the portraits were painted; then he mysteriously sickened and died. It is most likely that people wanting power in the islands had something to do with his death, although history books prefer the story that he died from kidney disease. Ned and Mina feel sure the past and the present are coming together and they are risking their lives to prove it.

This book is the first in a series and it was very appealing.

Hawaii's postwar era is the setting for Juanita Sheridan’s sleuthing duo, Janice Cameron and Lily Wu. In The Kahuna Killer, Janice, originally from the islands, has returned to write a book and clean up some papers her father left.

Before these gals have gotten settled, there is the murder of a hula dancer to shake them up again. There are whispers that a Kahuna, a kind of high priest, was seen performing old rites on a nearby beach. An old friend warns Janice that she is no longer welcome in his village. It is up to Lily to see things clearly and find the culprit in this vintage mystery. There are four mysteries in this series reprinted by the Rue Morgue Press, and at least in this one the mystery takes a backseat to the history––and I don't mind that.

A more contemporary view of murder in Hawai‘i is seen in Neil S. Plakcy's Mahu. Kimo Kanapa‘aka is a Honolulu homicide detective who has been in the closet for years. When Kimo sees a body dropped near a gay bar he doesn't report it right away, because he was in that bar. He gets caught up in the investigation of the murder while trying to keep his private life a secret. In this case, the truth comes out in more ways than one and Kimo has his hands full. Kanapa‘aka is featured in five books in this series. I found book one very enjoyable.

Another series set in Hawai‘i is by Victoria Heckman and it features a young cop, Katrina Ogden, who works in the records department of the HPD. Despite her assignment, she gets involved in a murder investigation. KO'd in Honolulu is the only one I have read so far in the series. Deborah Turell Atkinson has a series featuring Storm Kayana, an attorney, which is next on my TBR list. If anyone knows of a good mystery set in Hawai‘i, leave a comment, I would appreciate it.

You might have noticed the appearance of something like apostrophe marks that pop up here and there. The more recently published books use the appropriate mark, called okina, which is used at glottal stops in Polynesian languages. This is a pause like when you say oh-oh. It is really an apostrophe upside down and backwards like this (see left and below). As many of you probably know, in the Hawaiian language, there is an okina like this in the name of the state: Hawai‘i.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Chivalry: Not Just for Knights

Picture of praying mantis by Igor Siwanowicz
Don't you love that praying mantis? She looks like a boogying creature from outer space.

Look at her face in closeup below. Now that's a veiled expression if I've ever seen one. Who'd ever guess the murderous thoughts lurking behind those goggling green eyes. Not her mate, apparently. Or maybe he does guess and he's too sex-starved to care. Or maybe he's too much of a gentleman not to become his mate's dinner.

Arthur, Earl of St. Merryn, is a very wealthy gentleman in Regency England. He takes chivalry seriously, but he wouldn't go that far. He doesn't have a wife, for one thing. Arthur's betrothed climbed out of her window in the middle of the night to elope with another man. His fellow club members were astonished when Arthur didn't give chase. Next time, he said, he'd find a fiancée by interviewing women at an agency that furnishes paid companions. She'd be unlikely to run away, "unlike sheltered, romantic young ladies whose views of love have been sadly warped by Byron and the novels of the Minerva Press." The ton (Britain's high society) considers Arthur eccentric ("St. Merryn's blood runs cold"), and this announcement does nothing to dispel his reputation.

At the Goodhew & Willis Agency, Arthur is almost ready to give up when he meets Miss Elenora Lodge, whose unfashionable clothes can't disguise her intelligence and beauty. Elenora seeks employment as a lady's companion after her stepfather's catastrophic business investment costs her her home, possessions and fiancé. She hopes to make enough money as a companion to open her own shop.

Arthur thinks she'll do fine. He tells Elenora he'll pay her to pose as his fiancée for a few weeks while he is in town to take care of business. Unless he is engaged, the debutantes' mothers will make his life impossible. There is a suitable chaperon available so Elenora can stay at his home. She agrees.

Elenora arrives at Arthur's Rain Street mansion to find an odd household, and she quickly learns that Arthur's business in town isn't what she expected. Arthur learns that Elenora isn't the woman he expected. Intrigue, murder, alchemy, and a mad scientist ("the second Newton") are in store.

Amanda Quick's The Paid Companion isn't my usual read. I chose it after learning about my friend Periphera's romance reading by flashlight when she was a kid. Author Quick, a best-selling romance writer, isn't Austen and this book isn't a comedy of manners. It's a Regency romance with a mystery story line. The writing is polished and the plot is amusing. The period detail is well done. Best of all are the charming characters and their dialogue. Whether the bedroom scenes are historically accurate in behavior and speech, I can't say but I was surprised at how fun they are. I was glad that Arthur's gentlemanhood doesn't keep him from prancing and that Elenora isn't a praying mantis. I'll look for another Amanda Quick book and I'll read it correctly, by flashlight.

No flashlight needed for this next one. That's not to say there are no heaving bosoms or clothes flung to the floor in passion. Unlike Quick's chivalrous Arthur, Lovejoy is no gentleman. He's an antiques dealer and forger who lives in East Anglia, England. I picked up Jade Woman, a book in the Lovejoy series by Jonathan Gash, after reading Maltese Condor's reviews of Asian mysteries. It's set in Hong Kong.

Lovejoy loves antiques, women and survival, in that order. He will sometimes clock a woman if she pushes the wrong buttons or kill a man whom he feels needs killing, but Lovejoy is generous and loyal to his friends.

Dire straits result when Janie, a married woman who loves him, tries to do him a favor and Lovejoy loses his house and possessions because of it. Worst of all, Lovejoy had just finished faking a painting for Big John Sheehan and it was taken away too. Lovejoy will die if he doesn't get out of the country immediately, so Janie gives him the money for a ticket to Macao, where his ex-apprentice Algernon plans to race cars. To get to Macao, Lovejoy must fly to Hong Kong.

Lovejoy is exhausted by the time he arrives at the Hong Kong airport and the stultifying heat puts him to sleep. When he awakens, his bag and money are gone. This bad luck begins a gloriously hellish stay in Hong Kong where the poor man is swamped by crime and women. Since it's a Lovejoy book, it's full of talk about antiques, real and fake. Lovejoy is a divvy, which means he can instantly recognize a valuable antique, and this ability catches the eye of a Hong Kong triad (criminal underground group).

Lovejoy's irreverent narration is something else. He and his fellow characters are memorable, and this statement goes double for Hong Kong. The author is a British pathologist who lived in Hong Kong for years. Here's how Lovejoy describes his first sight of the city:
First imagine all the colors of the spectrum. Then motion, everything on the kinetic boil, teeming and hurtling on the go. Then noise at such a level of din you simply can't hear the bloody stuff. Then daylight so blindingly sunny that it pries your eyelids apart to flash searing pain into your poor inexperienced eyes. Add heat so sapping that you feel crushed. Then imagine pandemonium, bedlam, swirling you into bewilderment. Now quadruple all superlatives and the whole thunderous melee is still miles off the real thing. Every visible inch is turmoil, marvelous with life.

I had a wonderful time seeing Hong Kong through this book. I quailed at some brief descriptions involving food preparation but otherwise found it fascinating. Lovejoy's passion for antiques is interesting and endearing and I could listen to him natter on for hours. He isn't much of a gentleman, but he sure does know how to entertain his readers.