Friday, May 31, 2013

Get Out Your Secret Decoder Ring!

Review of Margalit Fox's Riddle of the Labyrinth

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, thought to be written in the eighth century B.C., are among the oldest written works of Western literature we know. Imagine the excitement, then, when hundreds of clay tablets were discovered on the island of Crete, and they were dated back to sometime between 1400 and 1450 B.C.; in other words, hundreds of years before Homer did his work and even before the battle of Troy he described.

During the Victorian era, the sun never set on the British Empire––as you may have heard––and Victorian gentlemen trampled all over the empire and the world digging up artifacts of ancient civilizations. In 1900, one of these gentlemen, Arthur Evans, discovered a huge, ruined palace on Crete, where the clay tablets were preserved by fire after the palace was apparently sacked and torched.

Some of the symbols on the tablets were pictograms, lovely little representations of horses, for example. Mostly, though, the characters were a mystery. Nobody knew what language was used on Crete at the time the tablets were written, and the symbols that weren't pictograms were just tantalizingly ornate hints of life in this long-ago civilization.

Margalit Fox tells the story of the three preeminent figures in the life of "Linear B," as Evans called the script found on the tablets. Evans, the archeologist whom Fox calls "The Digger"; Alice Kober, an assistant professor of Classics at Brooklyn College, who spent most of the 1940s sitting at her kitchen table painstakingly making note cards, charts and graphs to crack the code of Linear B; and Michael Ventris, the precocious English polymath with a prodigious systematic memory, who made the final breakthrough discoveries that allowed the mystery of Linear B to be solved.

Although most of the action in this book consists of these three sitting at tables, in solitary, obsessive pursuit of the key to a long-dead language and civilization, this is still a gripping adventure story. Anyone who has an interest in codes and cryptography will be riveted by Fox's descriptions of the methodology and thought processes that Kober and Ventris, in particular, used. With so much of the work taking place during World War II, paper rationing forced Kober to use cigarette cartons for file card holders and scraps of reused greeting cards and receipts as note cards. Ventris was a navigator on RAF bombers, and on trips back to England after bombing runs, he sometimes used his large map table in the the bomber to spread out his research cards and continue his work.

Each small step forward in the quest to solve Linear B is thrilling, though it's also sad to see how much of the rest of their lives Kober and Ventris sacrificed. Kober fell ill and died in 1950, when she might have been within a few more months or years of cracking the code. After being the one to make the final victory in 1952, Ventris seemed to feel his life had lost its meaning, and he died in a mysterious car wreck shortly thereafter.

Evans, Kober and Ventris never thought they were working on some great, recovered work of literature. They knew that the tablets were, essentially, municipal records. These were inventories of livestock and produce, and records of transactions. But no matter how prosaic their subject matter, as Fox notes, the tablets "disclose the day-to-day workings of a civilization three thousand years distant" and allow us to imagine these very real people so long ago, on that sunstruck rock in the Mediterranean.

Alice Kober's Linear B card files
Some of the media stories about The Riddle of the Labyrinth have focused on a narrative about
how Alice Kober, because of her sex, was never given her due for her groundbreaking work on Linear B, with claims that she was ignored in the 1940s and forgotten now. To be fair, Fox's own introduction to the book, as well as a couple of pages at the end, seem to take this tack. But the bulk of the book doesn't really bear this out. Fox describes in detail Kober's correspondence with the big names of her time who were active in the world of Linear B, her winning a Guggenheim Fellowship to further her work, her well-received academic publications, and Ventris's acknowledgment of the firm foundation Kober created that allowed him to reach his goal. If I hadn't read the introduction, the book would never have given me any idea that Kober was ignored or forgotten.

I suspect this whole notion that sexism caused Kober to be ignored and forgotten has been added on as a sort of marketing ploy––though with Fox's apparent acquiescence, given that introduction. My guess is that Kober would have dismissed that whole notion as a distraction. Judging from the correspondence quoted in this book, for her, it was always all about the work, not the personal. And in this case, the work of Kober and Ventris is what makes this book special. (I didn't find Evans's story, which takes up about one-quarter of the book, nearly as interesting as the rest of the story; possibly, because he didn't seem to have a clue about how to go about analyzing the script.) The descriptions of the methodology can be tough going at times, but this adventure in history, linguistics, cryptography and archeology is worth the effort.

* * *

Pop Quiz

I got a kick out of one small part of the book in which Margalit Fox uses a quiz to give us just a slight flavor of the process of figuring out what symbols might mean on a found language tablet. The job with figuring out Linear B was far, far more complex, of course. So just look at the following as a puzzle for entertainment.

The following 11 symbols are from the ideographic language Blissymbols, created by Charles K. Bliss and intended to be a universal written language that speakers of different languages could use to communicate with each other. Fox explains that at the 2010 International Olympiad of Linguistics, these symbols were used in a competitive quiz.

Top row: Symbols 1-6; bottom row: Symbols 7-11

Use your linguistics or cryptographic skills to match each of the symbols above with the appropriate word below:

waist, active, ill/sick, activity, to blow, western, merry, to weep, saliva, to breathe, lips.

It can be done with no further information. When I tried it, I admit I blew the answers to two of them, but I felt confident about the other nine as I worked them out.

Did you figure it out? Do you need a hint? If so, here's your hint (highlight the following text to read the hint):

group the words by parts of speech and see if there are visual cues in the symbols to indicate parts of speech.

If the hint's not enough, or you've finished your work on the quiz, here are the answers and an explanation.

The words are four nouns, four adjectives and three verbs. Four of the symbols have "v" carets on top and three have "tent" carets on top, so that's a clue that the three symbols with the tent carets are the verbs.

Your next clue is that "activity" and "active" are related words, so we look for two symbols in which one is the same as the other except for a caret. That's true of #10 and #4. We don't know which is which, though, so we need to figure out whether the "v" caret indicates a noun or an adjective.

Take a look at the symbols with "v" carets. Of the four possible nouns and four possible adjectives, doesn't it seem most likely that the last symbol, the one with the heart and the upward arrow, would stand for "merry"? If so, all the signs with "v" carets are adjectives and #4 would be "active," while #10 would be the noun, "activity." This also tells us that nouns are the symbols with no carets on top.

At this point, we have three still-unidentified nouns: waist, lips and saliva. The latter two have to do with the mouth, and two of the symbols have little circles: #2 and #8. So that likely means that the remaining noun symbol, #5, is "waist." Just from the look of the symbols, we can guess that #2 is "saliva" and #8 is "lips."

We have two still-unidentified adjectives: #3 and #7. Which is "sick" and which is "western"? (This is the one I had a hard time with and ultimately got wrong.) The big circle stands for the sun and the directional caret over the sun points west, so #3 is "western."

That leaves us with the three verbs; the symbols with the tent carets on top. Two of those verbs have to do with the mouth, and we already know that the mouth is symbolized by the small circle. Of the three symbols left, one has a small circle with a dot in the middle, and it has a downward arrow with it. So that one, #9, should be "to weep." Number 1 and #6 must be "to breathe" and "to blow," then, and since #6 looks like it's almost the same as #1, but with a directional arrow, it's logical to conclude that #1 is "to breathe" and #6 is "to blow."

In summary, then:

The first symbol is a verb, composed of the symbols for nose + mouth: to breathe.
The second symbol is a noun, composed of the symbols for water + mouth: saliva.
The third symbol is an adjective, composed of the symbols for sun + a pointer: western.
The fourth symbol is an adjective, composed of the symbol for activity, plus the indicator for an adjective: active.
The fifth symbol is a noun, composed of the symbols for body (torso) and two pointers: waist.
The sixth symbol is a verb, composed of the symbols for mouth + (air+outwards): to blow.
The seventh symbol is an adjective: ill/sick.
The eighth symbol is a noun, composed of the symbols for a mouth and two pointers: lips.
The ninth symbol is a verb, composed of the symbols for eye + (water+downwards): to weep.
The tenth symbol is a noun: activity.
The eleventh symbol is an adjective, composed of the symbols for heart + upwards: merry.

Note: Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bruno and the Satanic Murders

The Devil's Cave: A Bruno, Chief of Police, Novel by Martin Walker

Life is good for Bruno Courrèges, orphan and Chief of Police of St. Denis, in the beautiful Dordogne region of France. Easter is coming, the weather is pleasant, and this morning he has stopped by the 12th-century church to listen to the choir practice Bach's exquisite and ambitious St. Matthew Passion. When his phone vibrates, he reluctantly steps outside to take the call.

Young Julian Devenon, crossing the bridge to catch the train to his lycée, had been riveted by the sight of the beautiful naked woman lying face-up in a punt floating down the river. His father having confiscated his cell phone, the boy raced to the hotel to report the find, and opined that the woman might be dead.

Bruno races to the scene, then realizing he will need a waterman and boat to get the punt ashore, returns to the church. "You want my Jesus?" demands Father Sentout. Bruno and Antoine the Waterman race back to the river, the priest and entire choir trailing in their wake. The market and cafés empty as the townspeople realize something is afoot, so quite a procession follows Bruno through the streets to the riverbank.

Imaginative attempts to capture the boat––a fisherman makes a masterful cast but loses his tackle, and an unknown young man in Gatsby-esque tennis whites leaps from his car into the channel and nearly swamps the leaky punt––are unsuccessful, so Bruno and Antoine drive to his camp for a canoe.

The unknown woman in the punt is indeed dead, with a curious pentagram drawn on her chest. Also in the boat are a beheaded cockerel, black candles, and other signs of satanic rituals. A fire had been set in the boat, but it fortunately was drowned in the leaky craft. Cause of death is not immediately apparent to the coroner, so determination must await the pathologist's report. When it is discovered that the Lady's Chapel in nearby Devil's Cave has been vandalized, apparently during black rites, hysterical rumors of Satanism immediately spread throughout the village, fomented by the priest and the local newspaper. Father Sentout, at least, should know better, Bruno fumes quietly, but the proposed exorcism of the cave will certainly swell church attendance for awhile.

Bruno is surprised to be introduced to Lionel Foucher, that Gatsby-esque diver, in the office of Mayor Gerard Mangin. A group of investors headed by Foucher has been negotiating to build a first-class vacation resort nearby, and the mayor is furious, fearing that the publicity surrounding the recent apparent black magic will scare the investors and potential vacationers away. Nothing could be further from the truth; tourism at the cave immediately doubles and the town is overrun with reporters and tourists.

When Isabelle, Bruno's sometime lover, emails him from Paris to say she will be in St. Denis for a few days, she warns him laughingly that there will be a new man in her bedroom, and that she has a present from her and her boss, the Brigadier, head of the Paris office of the National Police. Bruno has been mourning the loss of his beloved hound Gigi, who was brutally butchered in the course of a previous case he shared with the National Police. While he desperately misses Gigi, he has not yet been able to bring himself to get another dog. He is both intrigued and disappointed by Isabelle's purposely vague messages; has he been replaced by a new lover?

It turns out that the murdered woman was the estranged daughter of a reclusive Resistance heroine affectionately called the Red Countess. The countess, now suffering from Alzheimer's, is being cared for at her château by her sister, Madame Montespan, and nurse Eugénie, who is also Foucher's lover and partner in the resort project. The complex plots of Walker's Bruno books often center on obscure bits of history or French law, but even for a Bruno book, the plot of The Devil's Cave gets a little convoluted!

This is Walker's fifth novel in the Bruno series, and I have enjoyed them all, less for the mysteries than for the setting and characters. His meticulous and sometimes humorous details of village life may make these books seem at first like cozies to a new reader. They are not, but are more sophisticated and darker. The French passion for politics at all levels (see two Frenchmen in a heated discussion and you can be sure that at least three political parties are represented) infuses all of these books, while the growing cast of characters is carried from book to book, giving the reader a real sense of familiarity with the village and its residents.

Note: I received a free review copy of The Devil's Cave, which will be released by Alfred A. Knopf under its Borzoi Books imprint on July 12, 2013. Portions of this review may appear on various review sites under my user names there.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Honoring Fallen U.S. Soldiers on Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day, a federal holiday for honoring the men and women who have died while serving in the United States armed forces. When this holiday originated after the Civil War, it was called Decoration Day. People remembered Union and Confederate soldiers by placing flowers and flags on their graves. Cemetery services, parades, reunions and community projects are ways in which we remember fallen soldiers today.

I'll be attending a Memorial Day service later this afternoon. I'd also like to honor people who have sacrificed their lives for our country by listing some classic American novels. When you read any one of them, you learn something about being an American. I'd love to hear about books you'd add to this list.

Louisa May Alcott: Little Women (1868). If you combined the features of all four March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy), you'd have a close approximation of that era's ideal American girl.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953). This novel is set in a future dystopic America where books are outlawed and burned. Censorship and a refusal to listen to dissenting ideas goes against American ideals.

Willa Cather: My Ántonia (1918). Set in the Nebraska prairie, this book honors American pioneers, especially women.

E. L. Doctorow: Ragtime (1975). This historical fiction centers around a well-to-do white New Rochelle, New York family but as it proceeds through the decades, the family becomes the American melting pot.

Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man (1952). What the black American experience was like in the first half of the 20th century still has resonance as our country deals with inequality and equal rights.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (1925). Wealthy Long Island resident Jay Gatsby carries a torch for married Daisy Buchanan in this Jazz Age story about the American Dream.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter (1850). Hester Prynne conceives an illegitimate daughter and is ostracized. Today, Americans grapple with morality and women's reproduction issues.

Joseph Heller: Catch-22 (1961). We follow U.S. Air Force Captain John Yossarian on a Mediterranean island during WWII as he and his comrades try to stay sane during the insanity of war. Any American of my generation would be able to describe the inherent contradiction of a catch-22.

Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Janie Crawford, three times married and in her 40s, looks back and talks about growing up as a black female in Florida in the early 20th century. Writer Hurston and her character, Janie, don't let conventions of the time dictate to them.

Jack Kerouac: On the Road (1957). Beat writer Kerouac and his friends travel across America, looking for meaning.

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). A coming-of-age story for Jem and Scout Finch, and their friend Dill, in Depression-era Maycomb, Alabama, as they befriend neighborhood recluse Boo Radley, and Jem and Scout's lawyer father Atticus defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The courage and compassion of these characters make it many Americans' favorite novel.

Jack London: The Call of the Wild (1903). The story of the dog Buck in the Yukon. Not only do we love our dogs (and underdogs), this novel's themes of nature vs. nurture, survival of the fittest, loyalty and redemption are subjects discussed at American dinner tables.

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian (1985). "The kid" and the Glanton gang massacre Indians and others in the American Southwest for bounty and fun in the mid-1800s. This novel, based on historical events, is a reminder of our nation's ugly western history.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick (1851). To read the book is to know the romantic American struggle between good and evil, man and nature, captain and crew, reason and unreason.

Margaret Mitchell: Gone with the Wind (1936). Scarlett O'Hara, the beautiful and spoiled daughter of a Georgia plantation owner, goes from southern belle to sharp businesswoman in this historical novel set before, during and after the Civil War. Many Americans recognize characters Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler and know bits of the dialogue between them.

Tim O'Brien: The Things They Carried (1990). Metafiction about a platoon of American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Thomas Pynchon: Mason & Dixon (1997). Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon do their survey of the Mason-Dixon line, separating the North and the South, as the American Revolutionary War looms in this historical fiction about Colonial America.

Philip Roth: American Pastoral (1997). The lives of Jewish-American businessman Seymour "Swede" Levov and his family change during the turbulent 1960s. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, hippies, Vietnam, political and social upheaval.

J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Holden Caulfield is the angst-ridden and rebellious American teenager.

Upton Sinclair: The Jungle (1906). The plight of immigrants in the United States. Today, our nation bickers over illegal immigrants and our immigration laws.

Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose (1971). Retired history professor Lyman Ward is confined to a wheelchair. His divorce leaves him with no relationship with his living family members, so he reestablishes a family connection by researching his grandparents' lives on the American frontier.

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The dirt-poor Joads leave the Oklahoma dust bowl for what they hope is a better life in California. Read the book to see if they find it. "Go West, young man" is an enduring American theme.

Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Mark Twain is an American treasure. This sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is narrated by "Huck" Finn and is a coming-of-age story and an examination of race.

Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). A satirical novel that follows the experiences of Billy Pilgrim, an American who becomes untethered from the orderliness of time. This book, with its themes of fate and free will, is debated in American classrooms.

Robert Penn Warren: All the King's Men (1946). Narrator Jack Burden chronicles cynical politician Willie Stark's rise to power in the South. Politics American style.

Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road (1961). How Connecticut suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler live out the American Dream in the 1950s.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Bringing Up the Rear

I got a kick out of Maltese Condor's post on Wednesday, with its horse-racing theme. When I apply horse racing to my recent mystery reading, the books are far from front-runners. Actually, that's not quite right. The books are front-runners. But I'm reading from the back of the pack.

John Gardner and The Nostradamus Traitor

I don't think I'd ever heard of author John Gardner until a couple of weeks ago. My eye was caught by what I thought was a new book, called The Nostradamus Traitor. It turns out, though, that this is a republication, and a very nicely-produced one, of a 1979 original publication that was a finalist for the Gold Dagger that year. The Mysterious Press and Open Road Integrated Media are publishing the book this month in quality paperback and ebook formats.

Of course, I checked out Gardner on and I was flabbergasted to see how prolific Gardner was in his life (1926-2007). I was intrigued and had to do more research. Gardner began his writing career with a series featuring Boysie Oakes. The Oakes series is set in the swinging 1960s, but it's more of a spoof of James Bond, with Oakes being a professional assassin who doesn't like killing people.

The Liquidator, the first book in the eight-volume Oakes series, was a finalist for the 1964 Gold Dagger. Gardner went on to write several other series and a number of standalone crime fiction books. Probably the best fun fact about Gardner's career is that a few years after his last Boysie Oakes book, he was tapped by Ian Fleming's estate to write James Bond novels. He was so good at it (apparently) that he ended up writing 16 of them, including License to Kill and Goldeneye.

How in the world did I completely miss this guy? I know there are gaps in my crime fiction reading, but this is one the entire Kentucky Derby field could run through.

The Nostradamus Traitor begins in London in 1978, when what appears to be an old lady tourist from Germany approaches a Beefeater at the Tower of London. Instead of the usual touristy question, though, Frau Fenderman is looking for information about her long-dead husband, Claus Fenderman, who she says was a spy for Germany in World War II and was hanged at the Tower.

This hot potato (that's heiße Kartoffel for you German speakers) lands in the lap of British Intelligence veteran Herbie Kruger. It's only fair, really, since Herbie speaks German, having been born in Berlin. Herbie was a young boy during World War II, living in Berlin with the mother who lost her husband to a battle with an RAF pilot.  Herbie'd lost his father, but he also lost his friends, Jewish friends, and he knew what the Nazis had done to them, so when the Allies arrived, he immediately made himself useful to them. He's spent decades running agents for Britain in the Cold War, and now he's nearing the end of his career.

But shouldn't that say "hanged," not "hung"?
Frau Fenderman's story seems plausible to Herbie and he even wonders if she might be a possible contact for his espionage group when she returns to Germany. But then things start to smell funny. There is no record of a spy named Claus Fenderman having been hanged at the Tower––or anywhere else in Britain, for that matter. Frau Fenderman also seems to be more familiar with London's streets than she should be. The suspicious smell becomes overwhelming when somebody takes a shot at the lady outside her London hotel.

What little history Herbie can winkle out of the old files hints that Claus Fenderman had something to do with a British wartime intelligence con game called Operation Nostradamus. Herbie sits down with an old acquaintance in the Foreign Office, George Thomas, to find out about Operation Nostradamus, which attempted to distract and discombobulate some of the top Nazis with a mix of real and fake prophecies from Nostradamus's famed 16th-century mystical book. (If you've watched The History Channel––or even Raiders of the Lost Ark––you know that several of the top men in the Third Reich, including Josef Goebbels and Hitler himself, were a little looney on the subject of the occult and were always ready to believe any psychic, soothsayer or mythologist who said––or seemed to say––encouraging things about the Third Reich's glorious destiny.)

Operation Nostradamus was George Thomas's first mission for the Special Operations Executive. He was dropped into France and instructed to contact a deep undercover agent, Michel Downay, who had cozied up to a couple of SS officers and was advising them about Nostradamus. George's job was to impersonate an academic specializing in Nostradamus, an ostensible colleague of Downay, and then get in with those selfsame SS officers and feed them Nostradamian misinformation. George had the heebie-jeebies about going behind enemy lines, period, but having to spend so much time with the SS really didn't help. And could he really count on Downay's being on the side of the Allies? How about Angelle, the alluring refugee living in Downay's apartment? Was she just a trap waiting to be sprung?

In The Nostradamus Traitor, Gardner takes us back and forth between Herbie's 1978 investigation of Frau Fenderman and the attempt on her life, and George Thomas's account of his espionage work in 1941. As Herbie's dogged sleuthing and George Thomas's story progress, Herbie sees that Operation Nostradamus in 1941 and Frau Fenderman in 1978 are more connected than he'd thought––and the connection presents tremendous danger in the current day.

If you're not familiar with The Mysterious Press, founded by the famed Otto Penzler in 1975, check out its website here. In addition to new fiction releases, The Mysterious Press republishes crime fiction classics and hidden gems in high-quality paperbacks. These aren't sloppily OCR'd reprints, either. All are newly typeset, formatted and proofread, printed on quality paper and given attractive covers. For those of you who don't do paper anymore, The Mysterious Press has teamed with Open Road Integrated Media, and offers its books in digital formats.

I'm excited that there are still four more books in the Herbie Kruger series for me to read, all available from The Mysterious Press/Open Road. Then, I can't forget Gardner's 29 books in the other series and standalones, as well as the 16 James Bond books. What with my World War II obsession, I've got my eye on Gardner's Suzie Montford series, about a police constable in London during the war. It begins with Bottled Spider, which they just happen to have at my library. I may be very, very late to the John Gardner stakes, but I intend to earn a spot in the running among his readers.

The Return of John Rebus

Way back in February, Della Streetwise told us here about her two recent "redonkulus reads": Jonas Jonasson's The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and Ian Rankin's Standing in Another Man's Grave. I rushed out and listened to the former and it really lightened a week of deep winter.

Somehow, though, despite Della's terrific review, I didn't get around to Standing in Another Man's Grave until this week. I always read all the John Rebus books right away in the past, but when Ian Rankin retired Rebus at the end of Exit Music in 2007, I eventually made the emotional adjustment to his leaving my reading life. (Though not well enough to read Rankin's Malcolm Fox books, The Complaints and The Impossible Dead.)

I think I was a little afraid to read Standing in Another Man's Grave. Would it be my old favorite Rebus? Now I'm wondering what I was worried about. He's the same guy, alright; the guy who drives everybody around him absolutely crazy because he breaks all the rules. The gravitational force of Planet Rebus is like a tractor beam that drags anybody who helps him into the disciplinary crapstorm that usually results from his misdeeds.

As night falls at the end of Standing in Another Man's Grave, Rebus must decide whether to fill out that application to be reinstated to CID. I wonder if he'll do it or if he'll decide that operating outside CID's rules is more to his liking. I'm looking forward to finding out. Next time, I'll be the first out of the gate.

Note: I received a publisher's review copy of The Nostradamus Traitor.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

No, no, I'm not delving into what the heck Hamlet was thinking in his famous soliloquy. We'll question the philosophical meaning of life and the mysteries of death some other time. Right now, I'm talking about the pleasures of bedtime, and it's not sleeping, dreaming or sex that's foremost on my mind. I don't know about you, but the bed is one of my favorite places for reading.

There's just something so very luxurious about shedding the day as well as my clothes, slipping into bed, and picking up a great book to be whisked away to a world outside my own. My husband may or may not be by my side, but my two dogs are definitely on the bed somewhere. On the bedside table, there's something to eat and drink, a heavy-duty flashlight (for under-the-covers use, and it doubles as a club if my reading conjures up a wild-eyed ax murderer lurking behind the closet door), and a bookmark for when I submit to "Nature's soft nurse," sleep.

But first, some books:

A warm bed is the best vantage spot for pondering Jim Kelly's version of a locked-room murder in the snow of West Norfolk, England. Death Wore White (2009) opens as Sarah Baker-Sibley, driving her Alfa Romeo, obeys a detour sign on the main coast road and follows tail lights onto the Siberia Belt, a narrow unpaved road. Half a mile away, Det. Inspector Peter Shaw and Det. Sgt. George Valentine are checking a report of toxic waste on frigid Ingol Beach when they discover a dead man on an inflatable raft floating into shore. The man's bloody mouth and a corresponding mark show that he has bitten his own arm to the bone.

When the two policemen make their way to the Siberia Belt, they find a line of eight vehicles stuck in the snow behind a pine tree that has fallen across the road. There is only one set of footprints leading to the pick-up that's first in line. The second vehicle's driver, Ms. Baker-Sibley, insists that the third vehicle's driver, who walked up to the pick-up's window for a brief conversation, kept his hands in his pockets the entire time. So who stabbed the pick-up's driver in the eye with a chisel? More forensic evidence makes this murder even more difficult to comprehend. Is it related to the corpse on the raft, and a body that's discovered in the sands later? As well as investigating these three murders, Peter looks into a cold case involving the murder of the Tessier boy. At that time, Peter's father, now dead, was George's partner, and the two cops made a mess out of the investigation. The senior Shaw retired, and George was demoted.

The less-than-warm relationship between current partners Peter and George is nothing new for experienced crime fiction readers, but the ingenious plot, the interpretation of the forensic evidence, and the vivid Norfolk setting and its hard-scrabbling inhabitants make this police procedural, first in the Shaw/Valentine series, worth losing sleep.

Oh man, there are no sweet dreams when the disillusionment of Vietnam comes home to America. In Newton Thornburg's Cutter and Bone (1976), Alex Cutter is a paranoid, scarred, and disabled Vietnam vet, and Richard Bone is a hedonistic dude, fond of drink and getting high, who abandons his family and advertising career to scrape by as a gigolo. (In the 1981 movie based on the book, Cutter's Way, John Heard is Cutter and Jeff Bridges is Bone.)

One night when Bone is drunk, he thinks he sees a man dumping a bag of golf clubs into an alley trash can; however, the next day he realizes that what he saw was the disposal of a high school girl's dead body. Although it was dark, and Bone saw the distant man only in silhouette, when he sees a newspaper photo of Missouri corporate tycoon J. J. Wolfe, Bone exclaims, "It's him!" This electrifies Cutter, and, although Bone tries to backpedal, Cutter will have none of that. Cutter seeks justice for the girl, sure, but bringing revenge on Wolfe will somehow fix what happened to Cutter in Vietnam and what's wrong with the country he returned to. Bone allows himself to be overruled, and he and Cutter head to the Ozarks to investigate.

Cutter and Bone is haunting. It's not so much about redemption, as the conflict between alienated prodigal sons and corrupt authority figures. It takes place mostly in Santa Barbara, California, the same lushly beautiful beach town that provides an incongruous setting for Margaret Millar's novels about society's misfits. (It's also the model for Sue Grafton's fictional Santa Teresa, home of private eye Kinsey Millhone.) Thornburg's dialogue is pitch perfect, and you won't forget his two young men.

Noirish thrillers are perfect for night-time reading. But let's say your car needs a new muffler, your dog chewed one of your favorite shoes, or your spouse's spaghetti gave you indigestion. For whatever reason, you don't have the heart for noir, no matter how wonderful. Fix yourself a cup of tea and have one of these almond biscotti. What to read? Perhaps a little something before turning off the lights. Karen Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove, George Saunders's Tenth of December, and Jess Walter's We Live in Water are all enchanting 2013 short-story collections.

Maybe you want something more substantial than a short story. Outstanding British humor? Try the 1889 masterpiece by Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), about the holiday boating trip on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford taken by friends Harris and George and their dog Montmorency. Others: Henry Howarth Bashford's Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man. The Diary of a Nobody (1892), which details 15 months in the life of Mr. Charles Pooter, was written by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Cold Comfort Farm (1932), by Stella Gibbons. Stephen Potter's The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or the Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating) (1947). Gerald Durrell's autobiographical My Family and Other Animals (1956).

Or, snuggle back into your pillow and roll your eyes at Dornford Yates's "Berry" Pleydell, his family, and close friends—British aristocrats who find themselves fish out of water, as England experiences social and financial upheaval between the World Wars. In the seventh series book, The House that Berry Built (1945), the Pleydells sell their ancestral pile in Hampshire, England, and flee to the cheaper South of France, where they believe aristocrats are still appreciated. There, Berry builds Gracedieu, a mountainside château, patterned after Cockade, the author's own French residence. The joy of this comic novel is in the very detailed description of Gracedieu's construction process. As World War II approaches, the Pleydells are forced to skedaddle once more.

I could go on forever, talking about books for bed, because, really, what books aren't suitable there? It's eminently satisfying to lie flat on my back between the sheets, book raised above my face, and read about, say, corpses who can't lie still and must lurch around like zombies. Or corpses lying as quietly as I am. For example, Lee Child's Without Fail involves Jack Reacher's attempts to stop assassins targeting the new American vice president. In The Crossing Places, by Ellie Griffiths, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called when a child's bones are found on a Norfolk, England beach. Or people who might be rolled up in sheets to lie quietly. You may be familiar with Oregon psychiatric patient, Randle McMurphy, in Ken Kesey's 1962 classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (made into a movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture); and hospital patients in Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island (2003) (Martin Scorcese directed the movie). But have you met the man who wakes up with no memories in a mental institution and pulls himself back together in Virginia Perdue's excellent suspense Alarum and Excursion (1944)?

More sheets find their way onto mummies; for example, in books by Elizabeth Peters, featuring feminist Amelia Peabody, a Victorian Egyptologist. In Dermot Morrah's 1933 charmer, The Mummy Case Mystery, the police are satisfied that the charred body in Oxford Professor Benchley's room is the professor and not the newly acquired mummy of  Pepy I. Professors Sargent and Considine aren't so sure. There should be two bodies, not one. Their investigation is full of Oxford ambience, wit, and red herrings.

Now, I'm getting sleepy. I'll have to finish Gerald Seymour's fine book of espionage, 2000's A Line in the Sand, tomorrow night. I love reading in bed. If you haven't already, I strongly suggest you give it a try.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Horse Race

As I watched Oxbow run away with the Preakness Stakes on Saturday afternoon, I mused how my reading resembles a horse race. I pick up several books at once and rank them on their pedigree, which includes past novels by the same author, recommendations from online friends, and finally what they look like. I often put my money on a flashy outsider and occasionally regret my choice. I read a bit from each of them and then pick one to settle into and the race is on. If my attention wanders, I fall on one of the others in the pack.

Oxbow at the Preakness
Sometimes the first one grabs me and it is a leader from start to finish just like Oxbow in Baltimore.

One such winner was Chris Grabenstein's latest, Free Fall, which was first out of the gate. The story opens in early June at a beach resort on the coast of New Jersey, which is getting itself together after superstorm Sandy. Sea Haven, home to its police department's dynamic duo John Ceepak and his partner Danny Boyle, has taken eight months to pull back from the brink.

Danny, who once thought of Sandy only as one of his favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, has had a few other things torn asunder. After a mayoral election, Danny found himself gifted with a new partner, Sal Santucci, who thinks of nothing but food, and Danny has found himself the "Keeper of The Code" of police conduct.

There is nothing worse for policemen in small towns than to be called to a scene of a fight to hear an old friend disclaim, "I didn’t do anything!" On this particular occasion, the friend, Christine, was a close friend of Danny's late, greatly-lamented love. This turns out to be a she-said/she-said situation, but before long, Christine is embroiled in a worst-case scenario involving murder.

After this battered seaside vacationland reclaimed some of its amusement rides from the surf, one of the rides has been transformed with new lights, sound effects, paint job and a new operator: Joe Ceepak, John's father, who has ridden into town to harass his son and former wife. The ride's name is the Free Fall. Freefall rides have three distinct parts: a ride to the top of a tall tower, a momentary suspension and then a downward plunge.

The ride is actually a metaphor for the mystery. The story gathers momentum, as John Ceepak and Boyle are reunited to investigate the murder, while simultaneously try to keep the reins on old Joe Ceepak. Joe's ex-wife has come into some money. Joe feels he is entitled to some of this legacy and is willing to go to extreme lengths to accomplish this––even kill someone, if he can stay off the sauce long enough. Ceepak the younger has his hands full.

But nothing is going to stop the inevitable free fall, because events are moving along like a force of nature and Danny is called upon to use all his skills to prevent disaster. The story crosses the finish line with intensity.

Sometimes, one of my reading choices tends to get stuck in the middle of the pack and gets a lot of dirt on its face. Somewhat like Orb actually. Orb came to the Preakness with a great track record, having won the Run for the Roses a few weeks ago. Similarly, Charlaine Harris has a tremendous record with several very successful series under her belt. Dead Ever After is the last of the Sookie Stackhouse series and, as such, came with tremendous expectations. Some fans also follow the TV series, True Blood, and they have their own set of expectations.

In Dead Ever After, Sookie is coming off a great battle involving many supernatural forces, at the end of which she had to make a crucial decision about whom to protect. Her final choice is not a popular one; many think she backed the wrong horse, and the story begins with Sookie down in the dumps because she seems to have alienated her vampire husband Eric, her partner Sam, and her witch friend Amelia.

When an ex-friend Arlene comes around to Sookie's workplace, Merlotte's, asking for a job, she gets turned down flat, but before the next day dawns Arlene is dead and Sookie is suspected of murder. In this finale, all of the people and creatures Sookie has helped in the past are spurred on to help her clear her name.

One of the main themes of the series is the jockeying for position in the race for Sookie's heart by several suitors. Eric, Sam, Alcide, Quinn and Bill have all been in the running at one time or another and if my odds-on favorite seems to lag behind, I can't use that as a criticism of the work. The main hurdle for me was a dark-horse evil power that has entered the field to keep Sookie from going the distance. I am not sure why I could swallow the vampire idea and then cavil at other influences, but I did. Go figure.

At the wire, all the loose ends were reined in but I was saddled with a bit of sorrow over the demise of a great series.

Then there are those books that seem to start slowly, like Secretariat used to do, and I go back to them several times before they get into their stride and surpass all others in the pack. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin was like this.

Slow out of the starting gate, the story ambles along as two men are introduced. One is Larry, the son of a white small landowner in rural Chabot, Mississippi, who spends his childhood trying to be a help to his father. Larry's father rejects him most of the time, so Larry loses himself in books and horror stories. As an adult, he is a shunned outcast because he is presumed to be responsible for the disappearance of a girl he had his only date with.

Secretariat at Belmont
Silas is a transplant from Chicago, coming back to this small southern town with his African-American mother to a place that was familiar to her. They are dirt poor, but Silas finds a way to be successful in school because of his athletic ability. Later on, he returns to Chabot as a constable and he is remembered fondly by his sobriquet "32." Silas has not seen Larry in years, and makes no attempt to meet him until now, when he calls in a professional capacity. Now, another girl is missing.

"Scary" Larry is slowly atrophying from lack of human interaction, so when an intruder shoots him he is ready to die. Silas doesn't want to come a cropper in this case, because he wonders if he had been unfair to Larry when he was too busy to answer urgent phone calls.

Once, though, these boys were friends, albeit secretly. In this time and in this place, comradeship between the races was verboten. Silas was the one boy who really knew Larry, but now he lives with decisions he made long ago.

This is a story that does not have a predictable outcome. It is filled with flawed characters who seem to be surrounded with sadness. But then the plot picks up speed and once Franklin delves into this duo's shared history and shared secrets, the novel catches fire and down the stretch it goes. Filled with lyrical prose that is almost poetic made reading this book a memorable experience.

Note: I could not have written these reviews without the help of sports metaphors.