Friday, September 28, 2012

Meanwhile, Across the Pond . . .

You all know I read a lot of European crime novels. Mostly British mystery, but also Nordic crime fiction, along with some French and a smattering of other countries. I like to read Karen Meeks's Eurocrime blog to keep up on what's being published, but sometimes it's an exercise in frustration. Often, a book I'm anxious to read will be published in the UK many months before it's available in the US––and might not be published in the US at all.

I wish someone would explain to me why, in the supposed global economy, it takes so long for books (and TV series) to be shared between the UK and the US. The wildly popular Downton Abbey's third season is being broadcast in the UK now, but won't make its appearance here until next year. At least Foyle's War, beloved by so many mystery fans, looks like an exception. Filming has begun on a new arc of three two-hour episodes, with Foyle moving into Cold War intelligence at MI5 and Sam married to an MP. It will be broadcast at similar times in the US and UK. PBS has announced that it will be on US screens next summer.

But back to books. Here are some upcoming Eurocrime titles and their waiting times for US availability:

Peter Robinson: Watching the Dark (Inspector Banks #20)
UK: August 16, 2012
Canada: August 28, 2012
US: January 8, 2013

Ian Rankin: Standing in Another Man's Shoes (featuring Malcolm Fox and John Rebus)
UK: November 8, 2012
US: January 15, 2013

Arnaldur Indridason: Black Skies
UK: July 9, 2012
US: Unscheduled

Jo Nesbø: The Bat (#1 in the Harry Hole series, finally translated into English)
UK: October 11, 2012
US: Unscheduled

Fabrice Bourland: Dream Killer of Paris
UK: August 13, 2012
US: Unscheduled (This is #2 in the Singleton & Trelawney series, mysteries with supernatural elements, set in the 1930s. The Baker Street Phantom, the first book, was published in the UK in 2010 and still hasn't been published in the US.)

Marek Krajewski: The Minotaur's Head (Eberhard Mock #6)
UK: April 1, 2012
US: Unscheduled

Fred Vargas: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec (Commissaire Adamsberg #7)
UK: March 7, 2013
US: April 23, 2013

So what is an impatient reader (like me, for example) to do? There are some options. Buying the UK book is, of course, one of them. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Abebooks, Alibris and other US online booksellers often list UK editions for sale to US buyers. Often, the prices are high and so are the shipping costs. Still, this is always worth checking.

Buying from Amazon UK is just not an option for a skinflint like me. Their shipping prices are outrageous. I used to buy European titles quite often from the Book Depository in Gloucestershire. Their prices are converted to US dollars on their website and they offer free shipping anywhere in the world. Fantastic! But then they were acquired by Amazon and now, whenever I look for a book not yet published in the US, it's listed on the Book Depository site as "currently unavailable." I'm no tin-hat conspiracy theorist, but I can't help but think this has something to do with their new Amazon overlords. Especially when I find the book listed on Abebooks as being available for sale from––you guessed it, the Book Depository. In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I placed an order for the book from the Book Depository via Abebooks and we'll see what happens.

In many cases, books are published in Canada at about the same time as in the UK. But it turns out that doesn't mean it's a reasonable option to buy from Canada. Amazon Canada charges $7.99 (Canadian, but the US and Canadian dollars are very close right now) per shipment, plus $1.99 per item. Canada's independent bookstore chain, McNally Robinson, charges $10.99 (Canadian) for shipping. In addition, shipments to the US from Canada can be insanely slow, because of US customs. I ordered an item (not a book) from Canada recently and it languished in customs for nearly a month. So unless you're actually going to be in Canada, our neighbors to the north aren't a solution to the problem.

Like any good mystery fan, I couldn't let my quest stop here. I wanted to locate somebody who would send UK books to the US at a reasonable price and without outrageous shipping charges. My search led me to Kennys Bookshop in Galway, Ireland. Their website will display prices in US dollars and they have free worldwide shipping. I've only ordered a couple of books from there as yet (shortly after Amazon took over the Book Depository), but I received the books in a reasonable time and the prices were as advertised.

Just to figure out where to buy one of these books is a fair amount of work, what with having to look up different availability dates, prices, shipping fees and then, in some cases, convert foreign prices to US dollars. It just goes to show you how impatient I am that I am willing to do all this. To give you an idea of the full drill on the process, here's what I looked at for Peter Robinson's Watching the Dark. Note that all prices are expressed in US dollars, with any necessary currency conversions done on the foreign exchange website on September 23.

Amazon UK: $16.98 for the book, $11.33 for shipping, for a total of $28.31.
Amazon Canada: $19.35 for the book, $10.22 for shipping, for a total of $29.57.
McNally Robinson: $21.50 for the book, $11.26 for shipping, for a total of $32.76
The Book Depository: $19.34 with free shipping shown on Abebooks, though the book is shown as currently unavailable on the website.
Kennys Bookshop: $16.28 with free shipping
Amazon US: $16.11, but you have to wait until this coming January

So why did I order it from the Book Depository (via Abebooks) instead of Kennys? Two reasons: I had a 10%-off coupon from Abebooks that made the prices very close, but the real reason is that I just have to know whether the Book Depository will send the book even though their website says it's unavailable.  [Update:  The book showed up 10 days after I ordered it. So now we know this is another way to get books from the UK.]

What I haven't mentioned in all of this is the option of buying the UK Kindle version of a book. As many of you probably know already, a UK Kindle title cannot be purchased from a US-registered device. If you're web browsing from the US and/or from a US-registered device, Amazon UK doesn't event display the UK Kindle information. A number of (non-Amazon) website discussions describe workarounds, but the steps and issues involved are beyond the scope of this post.

Does anybody else have some good intelligence on the different publication dates in the US and UK––and how to get UK publications in the US without paying outrageous prices? (Or do you all just think I'm nuts to care so much about a book I can just get the easy way by waiting few months?)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Agatha Christie as Nemesis

Charles Dickens
College students all over the world are probably deep into their studies of literature of all kinds. Back in the day, as they say, during my college years, what I learned about was the writings of DWM (Dead White Men). Popular reading may not have the cachet of the classics, but I must sometimes agree with the wimpy kid of diary fame who defines a classic as a story about a person or an animal with a tough life, either or both of whom die before the end.

So last week, September 15, was Dame Agatha Christie's birthday. I am glad to be reminded that she is the most-published novelist of all time, having written some 69 novels and 19 plays over a period of 56 years. I thought it would be interesting to talk a little about what she wrote when she was 30, then later on in her career.

In 1920, Christie's debut was The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She was working at a hospital dispensary at the time. In it, she introduced her most famous character, Hercule Poirot. Captain Arthur Hastings, a soldier who had been invalided out of the army during the Great War that was still ongoing, narrates this book. He has been invited to Styles, a country estate in the village of Styles St. Mary, as a guest of the eldest son of the family. There is a cast of many characters at Styles, so when the matriarch is murdered by strychnine shortly after changing her will, there are plenty of suspects.

Young Agatha
It just so happens that some Belgian refugees are living nearby, in a house by the gates of the estate. One of these is ex-policeman extraordinaire, Hercule Poirot. It is here, in this first Christie mystery, that this gentleman's peculiarities are delineated: a fanciful moustache, a pedantic manner, comments on little grey cells, as well as patience with Hastings, who is often quite slow to grasp what he is seeing. Christie's Sherlock and two-steps-behind Watson became very popular over the years, as they untwist the skeins of some truly complex murders.

It is interesting to speculate about whether Christie's occupation made her interested in pharmaceutical modes of murder. In her first story, she gave ample information about the ways strychnine was used in everyday medicines, which is what made it readily available.

In contrast to these classical detective types, Christie soon published three books with entirely different main protagonists. There was The Man in the Brown Suit, which takes place in 1920 but was published about four years later. The main character herein is a feisty young girl raised by a gentle, scholarly father who relied on her for everything. After her father dies, she has made no plans until she is present at the death of a man who falls on the third rail in the subway. A man in a brown suit, claiming to be a doctor, tries to resuscitate the man and then rushes off, dropping a mysterious piece of paper.

Our heroine, Anne Beddingfeld, grabs the piece of paper and starts on the adventure of a lifetime. It starts with seeing another murder victim, which eventually leads her on a fantastic voyage by sea to South Africa, and later to Rhodesia. Aside from learning how to surf, she runs from spies, revolutionaries and secret agents who seem to want to kill her. Naturally, the cause of all this trouble is a girl's best friend––diamonds.

Anne is an unusual girl for the era in some ways, because she is educated, fearless and intrepid. On the other hand, she longs for romance and all the things others girls of the time want. When she is asked about what frightens her, she responds that only wasps, sarcastic women, very young men, cockroaches and superior shop assistants make her scared. This story is the first of Christie's standalones.

In 1922, Christie began a series featuring Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, intelligence agents in England. A few years after that, she began a trilogy with The Secret of Chimneys featuring a Scotland Yard detective. It begins with the story of the adventure-loving Anthony Cade who, tiring of his job as a travel guide, leaves it to carry some important papers to London and then to the Chimneys estate. The papers are the memoirs of a Count who had his fingers in many political pies, and it is feared by different parties that these writings may reveal secrets dangerous to many in government circles. Anthony becomes a target of both governmental agents and villains of other sorts and the fun begins. This series pokes a bit of fun at the more serious spy thrillers of the era, as Christie portrays the aristocracy, the police as well as butlers in a stereotypical humorous fashion.

The main policeman in this series of three is Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard and he uses as his cohort Bundle Brent, a no-nonsense daughter of the Chimneys family.

Christie writes these Battle-and-Brent books with a light touch and quick pace, introducing us to amusing characters and a little bit of romance. These are very different from Christie's better-known Miss Jane Marple and Poirot series, but very likeable. When The Secret of Chimneys was translated to TV, however, Jane Marple was used as the central character. Jane Marple was introduced in 1930––10 years after Poirot and six years after Superintendent Battle.

The Murder at the Vicarage was the first of the series, in which Jane Marple was introduced as a knitting, grey-haired elderly woman who has a keen eye for the variations of human behavior and a nose for the evil that lurks behinds the facades of seemingly ordinary villagers. She is well portrayed on film, but the overwhelming feature that I noticed in some screen adaptations is that poor Jane is frequently given only one hat that she wears for gardening, visits to neighbors and even funerals. I have been tempted to take up a collection for a new one.

There is not much change in the Jane Marple character over her lifespan, except in the development of her nephew's progression in his writing career. She often bursts his balloon in the early days but, as he becomes more well known, he is able to send her on voyages (A Caribbean Mystery) and local trips (Nemesis). Nemesis was written in 1971, toward the end of her career and it was the penultimate Marple story.

Poirot also remains much the same, except that he has more aches and pains and takes more tisanes. But his little grey cells still work. Christie was reportedly very tired of this character (so was I), and she made his foibles a little over the top. Hastings, who was once much younger than Poirot, doesn't appear that way by series end. She also uses another frequent character in the Poirot stories, a writer of mysteries called Ariadne Oliver, who writes about a depressed Finn from a country she knows little about, in her books. Mrs. Oliver frequently bemoans the fact that her publisher won't let her kill Finn off. Is this a thinly-disguised version of Christie herself?

The non-series books are where I found the main changes in the Christie stories over the decades. By the end of World War II, Christie had seen much of the world, since she was married to Max Mallowan, her second husband, who was an archaeologist. She incorporated exotic locations in many of her books. But in Death Comes as the End, written at the midpoint of her career, the story is set in Ancient Egypt.

Valley of the Kings
It is about Renisenb, who has been recently widowed, and has returned to her father’s house. He is a wealthy landowner and priest who recently married Nofret, a young, manipulative concubine. Now, the home is not the peaceful oasis Renisenb remembers. Then, Nofret ends up dead at the foot of a cliff.

Evil from within, compared to evil from the outside, is the main theme. Christie used this theme more as the years passed. In Death Comes as the End, the characters are interesting, but not always consistent. The main Christie-like feature was that I thought I knew who the murderer was––until, one by one, my main suspects were murdered and the only one left standing had to be the guilty one.

Twenty years or so later, Christie wowed many with the psychological thriller Endless Night that builds slowly from a gypsy curse to a creepy non-traditional shocker. Just telling the story may give it away. Evil is personified once again.

So if you have read all the Marples and Poirots, take a chance on the other wonderful and different mysteries that Agatha Christie has dished up to us. Many are free on Kindle and there are new editions published all the time. William Morrow, a division of Harper Collins, is releasing most of these books in a very nice trade paperback edition that enticed me to pick up several of the non-series books and the Inspector Battle books.

One thing is for certain: the villains in all of Christie's books, plays and short stories meet their nemesis when they encounter any one of Christie's poking, prying protagonists. Nemesis, in Greek mythology, is the avenger of crime and the punisher of hubris. Christie's plotting, intricate and delightful, stands the test of time. If I have to pick a favorite character it would be Miss Jane Marple, but there are several non-series books that I have yet to read. Lucky me.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Review of Michael Kardos's The Three-Day Affair

The Three-Day Affair by
Michael Kardos

If you're lucky, you have no personal experience with the proverb "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" You can count on your friends to cheer your successes, help you mop up your messes, and forgive you for liking bad movies. If they catch you careening off the rails, they yank you back on. Before the weekend events of Michael Kardos's The Three-Day Affair, narrator Will Walker would probably have agreed.

Will and three other young men became very close friends at Princeton University. Every year since they graduated nine years ago, these best buddies reunite for a weekend of golf and conversation. This year, rather than meeting at a luxurious resort, Will asks them to come to his home in suburban New Jersey. He's a sound engineer at a third-rate recording studio, and he's trying to save money to start his own small record company. He feels a little bad requesting this, because his friends are past scrimping and saving. Jeffrey Hocks, married to Sara, the most beautiful woman of their Princeton class, earned $30 million in a dot-com company's stock before he was age 25; Nolan Albright is a wealthy Missouri farmer's son who's now running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives; Evan Wolff is overloaded with work, but he'll make partner at his high-powered Manhattan law firm. Despite his embarrassment, Will is confident Jeff, Nolan, and Evan will not only understand, but they'll also be happy to invest in his new company. They're that kind of friends.

After college graduation, Will became the drummer in a New York City band. He and his wife Cynthia, who's in public relations, fled to New Jersey after the band's bassist was killed by a stray bullet while she stood near Will outside the Cobra Club, where they'd just finished a gig. Cynthia and Will have lived in a rental house on a quiet street for three years. They're now expecting their first baby and, surprisingly to Will, are content with their lives.

Cynthia heads off to stay with her sister for the weekend as Nolan arrives. Jeff is due in a few hours; Evan's job has detained him in the city, but he'll come as soon as he can. The forecast is for a pleasant, laid-back weekend with friends. As Will explains in the prologue, "By then, violent crime was about the furthest thing from my mind, until the night when I helped one of my best friends kidnap a young woman."

Ordinary man Richard Hannay in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps
With an impulsive act so dumb it transcends understanding, Will is drafted into the club of ordinary men placed in extraordinary situations, where he joins characters such as Fredric Brown's newspaperman Doc Stoeger (Night of the Jabberwock) and the civilians pressed into service against the Nazis by espionage writers Alan Furst (Dark Voyage) and Helen MacInnes (The Double Image). These ordinary folks surprise themselves, and so does Will. Of course, Will isn't exactly extraordinarily ordinary, since he did make it through Princeton. Part of the pleasure of reading this book is the mental trip Will takes back to his college days in an attempt to recognize the friends with whom he explored literature, life's meaning, and what it's like to fall in love. These are the friends with whom he now shares a nightmare, and he's no longer sure of what they, or he, will do. They're as unfamiliar as when they first met: the Princeton legacy from Los Angeles whose baby clothes had little tigers stitched onto them, the ambitious and jaw-droppingly hard-working Missourian, and the nice guy from New Jersey with a deep love of music.

The high IQ and sophistication of these men make their weekend behavior surprising, and the tale isn't absolutely airtight in its logic. But then again, who's to say what I'd do on such a weekend with college friends in Newfield, New Jersey? After all, isn't this a story about smart people doing stupid things; a crisis of conflicting needs that create a moral dilemma; a situation in which everyone defers to everyone else to solve a problem? Man, oh man, The Three-Day Affair is the sort of book you read with one eye closed because you can hardly stand to see what will happen, but there's no way you can put it down. Author Kardos created characters you can't help but care about. Will is wonderfully human. Great use of settings, clear writing, and a plot gratifying in its complexity and surprises. It would make a terrific book for a group to read and discuss. Pandora's box was opened, but by whom and when?

Michael Kardos
Like his protagonist, Will, the author grew up in New Jersey, received a degree in music from Princeton, and played the drums professionally. Kardos currently lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where he is an assistant professor of English and co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His previous publications include short stories and a collection in One Last Good Time. I'm happy to say he's working on another novel now.

Note: For review purposes, I received a free advance reading copy of The Three-Day Affair, published earlier this month by Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic. It has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly, which also named it one of fall's best books.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Book Review of Sinclair McKay's The Secret Life of Codebreakers

The Secret Life of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

Imagine being a member of a team whose work was said to have shortened World War II by at least two years––and not being able to tell anybody about it for decades. Your friends, neighbors and family may even have thought you were a coward who failed to join up and fight for your country. That's exactly the position of the 10,000-plus men and women who worked at England's Bletchley Park to crack the codes used by the Axis powers during the war. They were summoned to Buckinghamshire with no disclosure of the reason for the summons and were required to sign the Official Secrets Act almost as they arrived.

It wasn't until over 30 years later that the requirement of silence was lifted. During all those years, unlike other wartime groups, Bletchley Park's personnel had no reunions and were deprived of the chance to sit and reminisce with old colleagues. By the time they could share their stories with their families, most of their parents had died.

Much has been written about how Germany's Enigma code was broken at Bletchley Park––or BP, as it was often called––but Sinclair McKay's principal focus in this insightful book is the people there; who they were, their working and living conditions, and the social environment in this hothouse atmosphere. And what a grab-bag of personnel BP was. University dons, debutantes and inner-circle graduates of Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge worked alongside the working class––mostly young women––with little of the social stratification that normally typified British life. Because of their long working hours and strict secrecy, they had to entertain themselves in their off hours. And they did, with amateur theatricals, singing groups, dancing, films, tennis, hiking and chess and bridge games.

The work at BP was performed in trying conditions. The manor house was used, but most personnel worked in hastily-built, long buildings they called huts, which were hot in summer and frigid in winter. The secrecy at BP was not just applicable to the outside world, but to other personnel outside the hut. That made each hut like its own cloistered community, intense with shared purpose and long hours. One veteran tells of having to phone in reports, not knowing until decades later that she was speaking with someone in the next-door hut.

BP is best known as the place where Alan Turing and others developed the precursors of modern computers. Germany's Enigma encryption machine performed its encoding mechanically, and Turing's conviction was that decryption should be possible by using a machine. The "bombes," as they were called, that the BP team eventually developed were massive machines straight out of science fiction of the era, with electrical connections snaking all over, long strips of paper feeding through, and loud, rackety clacking noise as the bombes ran through thousands and thousands of possible decrypts.

But before Turing's machines came online––and even afterward––hard work and ingenuity cracked codes, even Enigma codes. The BP boffins were able to study some early Enigma machines, so they knew how they worked. They used that knowledge, together with insights about human nature, to come up with starting places for decryption.

The "Herivel Tip" was a way to increase the odds of figuring out that day's cipher key from an Enigma machine. The cipher key was a three- or four-letter combination on a rotor with multiple rings of letters, a little like a luggage lock. The cipher key was used to encrypt the plaintext message, and anyone who knew the cipher key could decrypt the encrypted message. Hut 6's John Herivel imagined that a hurried or lazy Enigma operator might not bother to lift the rotor out of the machine to spin the rings and reset the cipher key for the day. If the operator took the shortcut of changing the setting by just sticking a finger inside the machine and pushing the rings, that would limit how far a ring could rotate from the previous day's setting. Since the starting position of the rings before the reset was typed––unencrypted––in the first message sent for the day, this greatly narrowed down the possibilities for the current day's key and allowed the analyst to run through them all first.

Hervel's Tip wasn't the only insight into human nature that allowed codes to be cracked. Other BP personnel remembered to see the Enigma operators as humans with ordinary frailties too. The Abwehr's Enigma machine used a four-letter cipher key, so BP's personnel would start by trying out common four-letter curse words and names.

I got a particular kick out of reading about how Operation Double Cross helped in decryption. I recently read Ben Macintyre's excellent Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, which describes the double agents used by British intelligence. Because British intelligence knew what these agents' reports to their German contacts said, when the reports reappeared in German encrypts, they were readily decrypted, thus revealing that day's cipher key.

McKay is at his best when describing how BP's personnel applied their brain power and quirky styles of thinking to their formidable task. BP just gathered a group of academics, bright people from the various armed services, and civilians with language and other skills (like being particularly good at the Times cryptic crossword puzzle) and told them to get on with it. Despite the many privations, most recall it as the time of their lives, and nothing afterward ever quite touched the level of the experience. McKay isn't quite as good at bringing to life the BP personnel in their off hours, but reading about the human context of the work at BP makes this book a valuable reading experience for anyone who enjoys World War II social history.

The Secret Life of Codebreakers will be published by Plume (a division of Penguin Group USA) on September 25, 2012. It was published in the UK last year under the title The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There.

Note: I received a free advance reading copy of this book for review. Versions of this review appear (or may appear in the future) on Amazon and under my usernames there.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Book Review of A Fatal Winter: A Max Tudor Novel

A Fatal Winter by G.M. Malliet

After her clever and charming update to the classic village cozy murder in Wicked Autumn, the first Max Tudor mystery, author G.M. Malliet moves on to modernize, not the Manor House, but the Manor House murder in A Fatal Winter.

When Nether Monkslip's studly (and single!) vicar Max Tudor, formerly of MI5, meets Lady Leticia Bayard on a train returning from London, he finds her an anachronistic, autocratic bore. But when he learns that evening that she has died, apparently of a heart attack after hearing of her twin brother's murder, he regrets his lack of charity. His slightly guilty conscience and the expressed wish of both brother and sister to be buried from St. Eowald, Max's church, play right into the hands of his friend DCI Cotton, who wants Max on the scene to pick up information about the murder for the police.

Chedrow Castle is a stone medieval manor house built high on a bluff overlooking the sea. It was later walled and fortified on the land side to make it impregnable from all directions. Spy holes built into both exterior and internal walls enabled the lord of the manor to keep an eye out for invasion from without or treachery from within. It was occupied in this generation by Oscar, Lord Footrustle, his twin sister Leticia with her granddaughter Lamorna, and a cook and butler couple. But this year, the manipulative, tight-fisted Oscar had uncharacteristically decided to invite his disparate and far-flung relatives for Christmas. That proved a fatal mistake for both the elderly millionaire and his snobbish sister.

Oscar's daughter by his first wife, Jocasta, is getting a little long in the tooth for the ingenue movie roles that earned her modest success in Hollywood. Her younger husband, Simon, hopes to keep her sober and sane enough not to blow the lid off the festivities when she encounters her father's detested second wife Gwynyth and Jocasta's adolescent half-siblings, the "terrible twyns." After the divorce, that dreadful commoner Gwynyth got to keep the title, and her son Alec will be Lord Footrustle after Oscar. But while the title is entailed, Oscar's substantial personal fortune is not.

Like her twin, Lady Bayard also had three children. Her daughter had been killed in an accident, leaving an adopted daughter in her grandmother's care. After trying unsuccessfully to make a "proper" lady of the unattractive and fanatically religious Lamorna, Leticia prudently made use of the twice-orphaned girl as an unpaid lady's maid. Blood will tell, she thought, and Lamorna obviously didn't have the right sort. Randolph, Leticia's plummy oldest (a photographer of the rich and famous) came with his assistant, Cilla Petrie. They had a shoot in the area, and Cilla's makeup skills would certainly be required. Her younger son Lester flew in from Australia with his wife Felberta for the festive family reunion. Lester and Fester, as they are not-so-fondly known in the family, spend many hours surreptitiously assessing and photographing the treasures the castle has accumulated over the generations.

The "twyns," Alec and Amanda, may be the most wholesome characters in this toxic family brew. Cynical and sophisticated beyond their years, they treat their narcissistic mother and grasping relatives alike with even-handed adolescent contempt. They are impressed, however, by Max's MI5 background, and Amanda even offers him a full tour of the castle. While showing him around, she confides that someone might have tried to kill her father earlier, when an ancient piece of stone coping fell, narrowly missing him. Then Oscar alone got an apparent case of food poisoning, much to the careful cook's outrage.

The author offered enough red herrings in this book for a full dinner course, and I obligingly hared off after several of them. There were so many nasty characters that it was hard to pick just one for the murderer. The pieces finally came together for Max in a way reminiscent of Agatha Christie at her best, and a final clever and unanticipated twist kept me guessing right up to the Poirot-esque grand denoument in the library.

Like many second books in a series, A Fatal Winter was not quite as charming as the first. Perhaps it was the collection of Lord Footrustle's relatives who ranged from merely unlikable to outright detestable, or the claustrophobic setting that failed to hold my attention. While this was a quite decent spoof on the classic English Country House murder, with many flashes of the author's trademark sly humor, I missed the colorful and slightly dotty denizens of Nether Monkslip, and hope the author returns to the village for Max's next adventure.

Note: A Fatal Winter was published by Minotaur Books and will be released on October 16. I received a free copy in exchange for this review. Parts of this review appear on Amazon and Goodreads, under my user names there.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book Review of Noah Hawley's The Good Father: A Novel

The Good Father: A Novel by Noah Hawley

If you live in the USA and have eyes or ears, it's impossible not to know we're preparing to elect a president. So were the people in Noah Hawley's The Good Father, narrated by Paul Allen, M.D. But the big question is not who will be elected. Jay Seagram, the charismatic Democratic senator from Montana and the presidential front-runner, has just been shot dead during a campaign speech at UCLA. Apparently by Daniel, Paul's 20-year-old son. The question is, how can this be?

Paul was finishing his medical residency in Los Angeles when he met green-eyed Ellen, a young photographer who "had the body of a girl who knows how to get into trouble." She was a flake, a dreamer and not a doer. Before long, the very quality that Paul found attractive had turned maddening. If she hadn't become pregnant, their relationship probably wouldn't have lasted a year. Paul loved their son, Daniel, but by the time Danny was seven, Paul couldn't take it anymore. He and Ellen divorced. Though Paul planned to stay on the West Coast to help raise their son, a lucrative job offer sent him to New York City. There, he became chief of rheumatology at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and remarried.

Danny shuttled back and forth between Los Angeles and New York at holidays and during the summer. At age 15, he came to stay with Paul, his second wife Fran, and their young twin boys. All seemed well, but it wasn't long before Daniel left. He dropped out of his first year of college at Vassar without telling Paul. When the book opens, it's June, less than two years later. Daniel's been drifting around the country, working here and there. Paul hasn't spoken to him since the previous fall. When the Secret Service shows up at Paul's door with the news that Daniel has been arrested for Senator Seagram's assassination, his father can't believe it. His smart, likable and gentle kid? There is no way! Paul, whose specialty has made him a medical detective, the doctor other doctors call when a diagnosis remains elusive, resolves to stay calm and remain objective. He'll see Daniel, review the evidence and get to the bottom of it. As Paul says, "This was the case I'd been training for my entire life." It will be months before Paul knows the whole story.

Daniel isn't talking and the evidence leaves room for doubt of his guilt. It also suggests a conspiracy. Paul, a meticulous researcher, collects stacks of research on the places and people Daniel visited during the time he was on the road. As case studies, Paul reads about other political assassinations and mass murders. Proving Daniel's innocence becomes an obsession and an addiction. It's rare that Paul, the skilled diagnostician, can't find the answers. Meanwhile, his wife reminds him that she and his other sons need him too.

This is a harrowing and moving tale, not only of an alienated young man's quest to find himself and to understand where he fits into society, but of an older man's attempt to make sense of his own life that has been suddenly turned upside down. A once-respected physician is now a pariah, the father of the kid charged with killing the hope of an entire country. How did Daniel slip away from Paul and grow into a stranger? What could Paul have done differently? Other children of divorce grow up to be responsible citizens. How much of what a person becomes in life is nature and what is due to nurture? How can a man make peace with the past and sense out of something so senseless?

The Good Father, published by Doubleday, is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Books of Literary Fiction for Spring 2012. It's an examination of every sort of human relationship, between parents and their children, spouses, lovers, friends and one's self. Gripping and heart wrenching. I strongly recommend it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review of Ruth Rendell's The St. Zita Society

The St. Zita Society by Ruth Rendell

In this, her sixty-second book, Ruth Rendell channels ethologist Jane Goodall. The population under study, however, isn't lowland gorillas, but the residents of Hexam Place, a swanky street of white-painted stucco or golden brick Georgian houses in Knightsbridge, London.

Living in these houses is a diverse group in class, character, and ethnicity. Lord and Lady Studley, their two servants, and their driver, Henry Copley, reside at the large, detached Number 11. Gay men Damian Philemon and Roland Albert, Thea, who teaches information technology classes, and 92-year-old Miss Grieves all have flats in Number 8. Rabia Siddiqui, a widowed Muslim woman who's wonderfully warm and honest, is the nanny for Preston and Lucy Still's youngest child at Number 7. Monserrat Tresser, 23-year-old daughter of one of Preston's friends, is their live-in au pair. Her Serene Highness the Princess Susan Hapsburg has lived at Number 6 with her lady's maid, June Caldwell, since the Princess left her husband, an iffy Italian prince, 60 years earlier. The Princess's cleaner was born in Antigua and also cleans several other Hexam Place homes. The Kleins, a pair of Americans, celebrate Thanksgiving at Number 14. At Number 3 is an easy-going pediatrician, Dr. Simon Jefferson, and his handsome driver Jimmy, who has a bedroom downstairs. Dr. Jefferson's gardener, Dex Flitch, also tends Ivor Neville-Smith's garden at Number 5.

Of all the characters we meet, Dex shows us most openly that The St. Zita Society is a Rendell creation. Dex is a former patient of Dr. Jefferson's friend Dr. Mettage. After trying to kill his mother, Dex has been declared sane. He has seen no evil spirits since coming to work for the kindly Dr. Jefferson in Hexam Place, but sometimes it takes weeks of observing and following them before Dex can be sure. To Dex, people appear as if they wear featureless masks. His smiles scare Jimmy. He never told Dr. Mettage or Dr. Jefferson that women feel like a threat to him, although he did tell Peach, his god. Peach resides in his cell phone and communicates with Dex in enigmatic ways. Then again, what are a god's ways––stopping the rain, making the sun shine, getting Dex a job––if not mysterious?

Like the rest of England, Hexam Place is not a classless society, but the upper and lower classes intertwine, as well as interact in the roles of employer and employee. Monserrat, a not-so-nice woman, doesn't do much for anyone unless it's to her advantage; socialite Lucy Still makes use of this trait when she wants to see her lover. Preston Still, a wealthy insurance baron, loves his children, but expresses it only in his concern for their health. Seemingly more than both of them put together, Rabia loves their baby, Thomas. Dr. Jefferson came from a working-class family and wouldn't hear of Jimmy, his driver, calling him "sir" and would walk half a mile without complaint to where the car is parked. Jimmy, rather than despising Dr. Jefferson for this, rather likes him. On the other hand, Lord Studley thinks nothing of making Henry wait in the car outside Number 11 for two hours. And this is the reason some of the Hexam Place household help meet at the neighborhood pub, the Dugong, to form the St. Zita Society.

St. Zita
St. Zita, June informs them, is the patron saint of domestic servants. ("If you see a picture of her, she'll be holding a bag and a bunch of keys.") Although Thea isn't a servant, she does many unpaid tasks for Damian, Roland, and Miss Grieves, and is part of the Society. They tackle such problems as dog walkers who don't clean up satisfactorily, noise, pigeons, and cats. They do not tackle the problem of Lord Studley's rudeness to Henry, because Henry has a fit at the very idea. Henry, who has a "marked resemblance to Michelangelo's David," had a difficult time finding this job, and his flat at Number 11 is very pleasant. Its one drawback is that it doesn't have a lock, and Lady Studley, with whom Henry believes he has no choice but to have an affair if he wants to keep his job, has the habit of simply walking in. This makes Henry feel as if he's living by the skin of his teeth, because he's also having an affair with the Studleys' beautiful college-age daughter, who is crazy about him and wants to tell her father. Henry thinks this is crazy.

Hexam Place is united, more or less, by the tradition of candles in the windows at Christmas time. The neighbors share the visits of an urban fox that slinks from house to house, but prefers the garbage of Miss Grieves. Miss Grieves can't get up the stairs fast enough to chase the fox, but she keeps a gimlet eye out for it and on her fellow citizens. The fox can be excused for its manners; after all, it is a wild animal. What about Hexam Place's human residents? How does one account for their immoral behavior and their deliciously unexpected deaths?

photo by Jerry Bauer
Ruth Rendell has received the Diamond Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers Association and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. She writes the wonderful series featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford set in Sussex, England, and nonseries books. Her most complex and disturbing psychological suspense is written under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine. The St. Zita Society, a nonseries book published in August 2012 by Scribner, isn't that type of unsettling story; rather, it's an insightful and amusing sociological study of upstairs, downstairs and down-the-street relationships enlivened by death. It's for people who enjoy a very character-driven plot and perfect for an autumn evening.

Note: It's easy to learn the characters' names and their relationships if you photocopy the street map, which shows the houses and their occupants, on the inside cover of the book.