Friday, January 31, 2014

For Your Dearest Reader on Valentine's Day

You can't say we didn't warn you. Valentine's Day is Friday, February 14th, exactly two weeks from today. This gives you some time to find a book and a little accompaniment for your dearest reader. Here are some suggestions:

Are you lucky enough to be shopping for a chocoholic crime fiction fan? Pair Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch (Little, Brown, 2013; see Sister Mary Murderous's review here) with a beautiful chocolate bird from Alma Handmade Chocolates in Portland, Oregon. Fran's Chocolates in Seattle has salted caramels and chocolate flavors that include Oolong Tea, Raspberry Truffle, and Milk Chocolate Espresso. Along with that candy, give Anthony Berkeley's charming 1929 classic, The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in which members of a detection club vie to solve a poisoning that has Scotland Yard baffled.

Another idea is a box of incredibly detailed anatomically correct human parts chocolates and a suitable book: Charles Stross's Neptune's Brood (Ace, 2013) is a space opera set in the year 7000, when a humanoid descended from robots, Krina Alizond-114, goes on a quest to find her sister Ana and is pursued by an assassin. This tale, involving futuristic macroeconomics, initially made my head spin, but after acclimation, I enjoyed it. There are two story threads that eventually tie up in Belinda Bauer's Rubbernecker (Bantam Books, 2013): one featuring Patrick Fort, an anatomy student with Asperger's syndrome, who discovers something odd about a cadaver he's studying; and another featuring a comatose patient. This highly original standalone, set in Cardiff, Wales, was a 2013 Gold Dagger finalist.

I'm a huge fan of bathtub reading, and perhaps your loved one is, too. Or, maybe he or she has yet to discover the joys of reading while lolling in the water, caressing the faucet with the toes, and hearing water lap against the tub sides. For Valentine's Day, present your mer- maid/man with a nice piece of lacquered wood sized to span the tub. Along with it, an appropriate book. One that contains a drowning is thoughtful (Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin) or you might want to encourage water play with some little boats and Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander, Book 1 in the wonderful Aubrey/Maturin naval series set in Napoleonic times, or Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Or, go for deadpan humor and a weird, slow-moving tale set in the New Mexico desert, featuring a comatose teenager and those who hold vigil for him: John Brandon's A Million Heavens (McSweeney's, 2012).

For a twosome in the tub, put a bottle of rum, two glasses, and Moby Dick, Or, The Card Game on the tub board between you. (If you're wearing an eye patch in the shape of a heart and have a parrot sitting on your shoulder, it will make things very festive.) For other Valentine's Day suggestions for a duo in the tub, consult your imagination.

Valentine's Day is a wonderful excuse for eating cookies. There are several ways to go with a cookies gift. One is sugar cookies rolled out and cut in the shape of individual letters from the alphabet, accompanied with a book full of wordplay, like a Jasper Fforde Thursday Next book or a P. G. Wodehouse novel. Another suitable book is Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea, in which letters are outlawed by the superstitious governing council—and disappear from the book accordingly—as they drop off a pangram (i.e., "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog") creator's statue.

An alternative to individual-letter cookies are cookies cut and decorated like addressed envelopes. Give these with a book that features a poison pen, such as Muriel Spark's A Far Cry from Kensington, Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger, Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night or Carter Dickson's Night at the Mocking Widow. Other great books with these envelope cookies would be Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation (Knopf, 2014), a portrait of marriage as seen in love letters between "the wife" and her husband while they were dating; and Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road, which contains correspondence between an American and Marks & Co. booksellers.

Of course, you can also write some heartfelt letters of your own and accompany them with any delicious cookies for Valentine's Day.

It's one thing to hold a book with one hand while shoveling soup into the mouth with the other; it's another thing to struggle to read while eating food that requires two hands, like a burrito the size of Rhode Island from Chili Peppers. This Page Boy bookholder is a nifty little gadget that frees up both hands. A good companion gift is a thriller such as Drew Chapman's The Ascendant (Simon & Schuster, 2014), with numbers savant Garrett Reilly trying like mad to save the world while the US and China wage surreptitious war against each other; or Pierre Lemaitre's Alex (translated from the French by Frank Wynne, Quercus/MacLehose, 2013), in which Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven races against a ticking clock to save a kidnapped woman. Gift wrap the book and Page Boy in a large, colorful cloth napkin.

Any of us who've suddenly experienced a sense of unreality while walking down a familiar street, or awakened in the middle of the night, not knowing who or where we are, would enjoy Familiar, a slim book by J. Robert Lennon, published in 2012, by Graywolf Press. When we meet Elisa Brown, she's in her car, returning to New York from her annual pilgrimage to Wisconsin, where she's visited the grave of her 15-year-old son, Silas. Suddenly, she and her car have morphed into something different. Elisa has fallen into a sort of parallel universe where she is—and isn't—herself, and others are both familiar and unfamiliar, too. With this book, give what Elisa could have used: a beautiful little mirror or a cup for a jolt of caffeine. Cuddle up the cup in a little sweater, and include some scrumptious biscotti for dunking.

A tin of unusual tea or cocoa, a bag of great coffee beans, or a bottle of Irish whiskey makes a good Valentine's Day gift. For a hardboiled fiction fan, add Gene Kerrigan's Dark Times in the City (Europa Editions/Penguin Group (USA), 2013), the story of Danny Callaghan, who falls afoul of a vicious drug gang after he saves the life of a petty criminal in a Dublin pub. Irish writer Gene Kerrigan's crime fiction is of the don't-miss variety; another choice is his 2012 book, The Rage; see my review here.

True lovers of ice cream recognize no season as inappropriate. If your favorite reader pines for pear Riesling sorbet or some other icy concoction, and you can't come up with a fantastic pint locally, there's mail order, but it's pricey. A good bet is Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams (at some other time, we will delve into ice cream in mind-numbing detail; I come from a long line of ice cream fanatics). To go with it, Ivy Pochoda's Visitation Street (Ecco/Dennis Lehane, 2013). The Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Red Hook is the main character in this story of what happens after 15-year-old best friends Val and June take an inflatable raft out on the water one summer night, and only one of them returns. Like books by Richard Price, it examines the neighborhood and family left behind.

We'd love to hear what you plan to give or what you'd love to receive on Valentine's Day. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Discovering Daniel Pennac

Ooh la la, translations of wonderful French books are popping up more and more and, as Sister Mary pointed out on Monday, they can't be published quickly enough! I can't even recall when or how it was that I recently sighted a series and author that piqued my interest. The author is ex-school teacher Daniel Pennac. When I checked him out and found that he was born in Casablanca, traveled extensively and had varied careers from cab driver to woodcutter, I was hooked. It took me a while to get a copy of his first book, The Scapegoat. On Amazon US, it costs a fortune ($83 new, $33 used!) but I finally prevailed. I am very glad I did.

It’s not that you won or lost-
But where you placed the blame
Misquote of Henry Grant, sportswriter

Benjamin Malaussène works at a retail giant emporium known as The Store. His official title is Quality Controller, but his daily grind consists of taking the flack for everything that goes wrong with any item purchased at the store. He has turned his work into the fine art of convincing irate customers that no matter how bad an experience a shopper may have had with their faulty purchases, there is always someone suffering even more. Usually, this is Benjamin himself and the disgruntled complainers often leave apologizing for any inconvenience they may have caused.

Although Benjamin detests his competence as official scapegoat, he needs the job because he is taking care of four of his siblings left behind by their fly-by-night mother, each of whom has very endearing qualities. But, while at work, he has had the misfortune of being close to where several apparent terrorist bombs have detonated, causing minimal damage but killing a series of old people who are an assortment of World War II survivors.

It is not long before the fickle finger of fate seems to be pointed directly at Benjamin, since he was in close proximity to all the explosions. However, there are other things of more importance on Benjamin's mind, since he and Julie, an investigative reporter, have begun to dig up an even deeper mystery that might be more sordid and foul than anyone expects.

Daniel Pennac
The Scapegoat (translated from the French by Ian Monk, Harvill Press, 1998) is the first of Daniel Pennac's Belleville Quartet, written around Benjamin Malaussène, the professional scapegoat. It takes place in a neighborhood in Paris that was once a working-class district. Today, Belleville is a colorful, multi-ethnic neighborhood that has not changed a great deal because Belleville was ignored, perhaps spared, during much of the architectural modernization efforts of the 60s and 70s. Belleville is as much a character in Pennac's stories as are the unusual personalities who populate his quartet. Pennac wrote these books in the late 1980s and it was a decade later that they were translated and published in the UK.

These books have acquired somewhat of a cult status in Europe. They seem to be surfacing so much later in the US perhaps because, as some critics suggest, Americans don't appreciate the very British tenor of the translations. I had no problems with them.

The strength of this first book lies more with Pennac's fantastic imagination than with the mystery. The plot and the conclusion are good, but most of the fun is in what happens around them. And this book is fun. Pennac is a master at wordplay and I always appreciate that.

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
Somehow this is all going to be my fault.
Misquote from Sir Walter Scott

In the next of the series, The Fairy Gunmother, Benjamin is now working in the capacity of official Literary Director (unofficial scapegoat) for Vendetta Press. He has taken a prolonged leave of absence because there have been changes in his life, as well as in Belleville. The neighborhood is in an uproar because more than a half-dozen elderly grannies have been found with their wrinkled throats slit. And then, on a cold winter's night when police Inspector Vanini is hanging out on a street corner looking for suspicious anti-ancients, he spies an elderly lady beginning to slip on a sheet of black ice:

Then the old dear's shawl suddenly spread out, like a bat taking off, and everything came to a standstill. She'd lost her balance. Then she got it back again. The disappointed blond [Vanini] cursed between his teeth. Watching people fall flat on their faces always made him laugh. That was one of the nasty things about this blond head. Though it looked as neat and clean as can be from the outside, with its dense, evenly barbered crewcut. But its owner didn't like oldsters much. He found them a bit disgusting.

But then the tables are turned and the old lady, suspecting a mugging as Vanini crept up on her, turned and fired on him point blank. She was a dead shot. Of course, there are no witnesses––or at least ones who will talk––so the situation in the streets becomes very tense. It seems that the grannies are arming themselves.

Into this edgy situation, along with a generous helping of suspects, full-fledged criminals, and heavy-handed cops, stumble Benjamin Malaussène and his journalist love, Julie. Julie has been working on a case involving a new spate of drug addictions. This time, the victims are all among the wrinklies. They are ideal targets for the dealers, because they are the most vulnerable. They are weak, feeble, tired, sick, lonely and, many times, alone. Add to this, they have some money from their pensions.

Julie has been rescuing some of these desperate oldsters and is hiding them at the Malaussène home because she fears they are in danger. Benjamin and his family of siblings and epileptic dog incorporate four old men as grandfathers and are nursing them back to health. Julie herself has not been seen for a while. She is hunting for the evil that lurks in the hearts of some powerful men, and Benjamin fears for her safety. The problem is Benjamin himself seems to be in the police's spotlight as an ideal murderer and drug dealer. Is he a saint or a sinner?

This story is filled with fascinating characters into whom Pennac breathes the spark of life. There is the Pastor, who is a policeman who can get anyone to confess his crimes with his secret technique. And there is Widow Ho, an elderly Vietnamese woman who tries and tries to get attacked and robbed, but she has more protectors that she can count. She is a lot more than any one thinks she is.

Benjamin's siblings are also fleshed out and seem very real. The underlying themes of renovation of aging neighborhoods, racism and the care of the elderly play a role in the plot, and while there are many episodes of absurdity, the story's message is deadly serious.

The story meanders a bit after the exciting beginning, but then my imagination was captured and I was on the edge of my seat for a very suspenseful dénouement. Nonetheless, I found a great deal of humor in the book which is always a plus.

Third in the series is Write to Kill, which I hope to read as soon as the postman can bring it. There are not any Pennac books in my local library. I hope this omission will be rectified.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Very French Cinderella Story: Review of Katherine Pancol's The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol

I took a break from mysteries with an entertaining book I think you might enjoy. I'll confess, it's probably classifiable as "chick lit," but since it's French, maybe we can think of it as chic lit.

The cheerful colors of the cover make it perfect for these cold days
Katherine Pancol's "Joséphine" trilogy sold like Paris street-vendor crèpes in France, and now the first of the three books has been translated into English. The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles introduces us to ugly duckling Joséphine Cortès, who has always been treated dismissively by her snobbish and stylish mother, Henriette, and by her sister, chic society wife, Iris.

Joséphine is a poorly-paid history researcher trying to support her family, including her two daughters, Zoé and Hortense. Her husband, Antoine, had been a high-flying executive until he was laid off after his company was acquired by an American firm. Now he's thinks he's too good to take a normal job, and after a year of unemployment, making ends meet is getting trés difficile. After Joséphine discovers Antoine's been having an affair with a hairdresser, she boots him out and he leaves with the mistress, Mylène, to manage an African crocodile farm.

Joséphine is really in the soup now. Not just financially, but with the girls. Zoé is a sweetheart, but the barely-into-her-teens Hortense is your worst nightmare of a daughter. She's spiteful and dismissive to her mother, dresses in revealing clothes and, now that puberty has hit, she uses her looks to entice grown men––the kind with fast cars and money to spend on her––into her web.

The answer––at least to the financial problems––comes out of left field. Iris, a sharp-elbowed competitor among Parisian ladies who lunch, has been feeling like the spotlight isn't highlighting her enough, so she announces to her set that she's writing a historical novel. The spotlight swivels to her, alright, but it's all little too hot with expectation when a publisher acquaintance expresses keen interest. Iris's brainstorm solution is for Joséphine to use her 12th-century historical knowledge to write the novel, which will be credited to Iris, and Iris will slip the proceeds to Joséphine.

It's a workable plan until the novel becomes a runaway success and word of the book's real provenance starts to leak out. This description makes it sound like a straightforward story, but there is a huge cast of supporting characters who provide their own subplots, like Joséphine's stepfather, Marcel, who runs a successful home goods business and takes refuge from his ice queen wife, Henriette, with his voluptuous and warm-hearted secretary; Joséphine's neighbor and friend Shirley, who has a mysterious past in England; Hortense and her cold-blooded tactics; Antoine and Mylène's adventures on the crocodile farm; and nearly a dozen others. Even Joséphine's novel's heroine, Florine, is a character in this book––and one with a life that would put any soap opera to shame.

When I picked up this book, I was a little nervous about Joséphine's character, because downtrodden characters in books are often so passive that I want to shake them and tell them to grow a backbone. But Joséphine isn't like that. She does stands up for herself, at least verbally, and has some very choice words for both Antoine and her mother. I cheered for her all through the book, and looked forward to seeing the meanies get their comeuppance.

This is a fast-paced, funny and poignant story and, as with the best stories, I couldn't wait to find out what happens next. There were a couple of weak points, like young contemporary children being interested in Marlon Brando and John Lennon, and one subplot that strains credulity, but these were easy to forgive.

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles (translated from the French by William Rodarmor and Helen Dickinson, Penguin, 2013) is perfect for a movie. The Cinderella-ish plot is tailor-made for the screen. Of course, if Hollywood gets to it, Joséphine will be played by somebody like Julia Ormond and you'll only know she's an ugly duckling because she won't be wearing eyeliner or Hermès scarves. But I can live with that.

I wonder how long it will take before we see English translations of the other two books in the trilogy. The second is called La Valse Lente des Tortues (The Slow Waltz of Turtles) and involves a serial killer striking Joséphine's neighborhood, while the third, Les Écureuils de Central Park Sont Tristes le Lundi (Central Park's Squirrels Are Sad on Mondays), has Joséphine battling writer's block until she finds a 1960s diary about a young man who is mesmerized by Cary Grant when Grant is in Paris filming Charade with Audrey Hepburn. I'll look forward to reading these, which have also been huge bestsellers in France. Not to mention that they sound almost like crime fiction, not just chick/chic lit.

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

Friday, January 24, 2014

Strange Partners

Lady Jane Digby's Ghost's post last week and the ensuing lively discussion about series got me thinking about a few I have enjoyed from emerging authors. Some are still a little rough-edged, and several are still available only as ebooks, but all have some unusual elements, characters, or settings that have caught my fancy and kept me watching for sequels. Several of the most amusing feature detectives with very strange partners.
"Anthony Hetheridge, ninth Baron of Wellegrave, Chief Superintendent of Scotland Yard, never married, no children, no pets, no hobbies, and not even an interesting vice, would turn sixty in three weeks."
What a crashing bore, right? Well yes, but CS Hetheridge's life is about to shift dramatically off course in Ice Blue, the first in Emma Jameson's Lord Hetheridge series. The dignified Hetheridge arrives at New Scotland Yard one morning to find a pair of his officers engaged in a very public, very vulgar shouting match. Newly promoted Superintendent Vic Jackson and Detective Sergeant Kate Wakefield are putting on quite a show. Apparently Jackson had, er, invited Wakefield, his DS, to celebrate his promotion in ways she found offensive. Since she had declined, she must certainly be a "dyke" and he had so announced at the top of his lungs in the lobby. Hetheridge asks both for written explanations of the situation. Jackson's consists of a diatribe and insistence on firing the insubordinate Kate. Hers, left on Hetheridge's desk at the end of the day, consists of one word. Largely to protect her from Jackson's vengeance, Hetheridge takes her into his already strange unit.

All of the major characters in this short romantic procedural are vivid and amusing, as is Hetheridge's eye-opening introduction to Kate's rackety East End circumstances and language. Despite her temper and disrespect for authority, Kate turns out to be quite a good detective, and the sparks they strike off each other throughout this messy investigation kept me laughing. If you can handle some mildly crude language (funny how British vulgarity is less offensive than its American counterpart, isn't it?), Ice Blue is well worth a look.

There are several current mystery series featuring ghosts, but Marshall Ezekiel Drummond in Sharon Pape's Sketch Me If You Can is a real character. He had tracked a serial rapist and murderer of young girls from the far west to a town on Long Island in New York in 1879. He caught up with Shane just as he was about to rape another young girl. As Zeke held his gun on the rapist, someone shot him (Zeke) in the back, killing him instantly. Zeke has no idea who, but doesn't plan on "moving on" anywhere until he finds out who and why. PI Max was helping him with this and Zeke, in return, helped Max with his cases.Only problem is, Zeke can't leave the house where he died––the house the unsuspecting Rory is about to move into.

Rory McCain is a police detective and sketch artist. When her beloved Uncle Max dies––apparently of a heart attack––he leaves her both his prosperous PI business and his charming Victorian house. He also leaves her a sealed letter that she forgets about in the confusion.

She at first decides to close his business, notifying clients and returning their deposits. One client, however, won't accept that; he wants her to continue Uncle Max's investigation into the death of his sister, Gail. The police ruled the death accidental, but Jeremy doesn't believe it. Rory, having a hard time believing that her uncle had a massive fatal heart attack, takes on the case. As a police officer, she can't accept payment, but will look into both Gail's death and Uncle Max's as she can. That night, Zeke introduces himself to her, offering her the same terms. The contrast between the stubborn, sexist Zeke and the very contemporary Rory makes for a lively and funny story. The mystery element of this could have been stronger––I figured it out before Rory did––but the mystery of who killed Zeke remains unsolved.

Juliet Van Allen is having a very bad day in Jacqueline T. Lynch's Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red. Associate Director of Marketing at a prestigious museum in Hartford, Juliet has it all; a wealthy and prestigious family, a great job, and a handsome talented husband, artist Kurt McLeod. She leaves work early on this beautiful spring day in 1949 to spend some quality time with her husband. She finds Kurt at home, but he is not alone, and the naked woman on the living room floor is not buying a painting. Kurt and the woman are so engrossed in each other that they never hear her as she flees the house.

Needing time to think, she goes back to her office. She is still sitting at her desk hours later, staring blankly into space, and never hears the panel above her head being moved. The pair of legs swinging down in front of her, though, she notices. The legs belong to Elmer Vartanian, recently released from prison. He was trying to go straight, but a group of thieves had taken and hidden his daughter. They will not tell him where she is unless he uses his Houdini-like skills to find them a way into the museum, which houses a priceless exhibit of Aztec gold. Elmer persuades Juliet that it is his intention to report the intended heist to the police, as soon as he learns the whereabouts of his daughter. Even better, he will tell her, and she can report it. The bemused Julia agrees, and they walk out together, wishing the guard at the door a goodnight. When she arrives home, she finds Kurt lying in a pool of blood, bludgeoned to death. When the coroner examines the body, she realizes that Elmer is her only alibi. There are three mysteries so far in the series featuring this most unlikely duo, and I am looking forward to watching this unlikely relationship develop.

So don't despair, series lovers. As favorite characters and settings go stale, peter out, or are abandoned by their authors, new ones are constantly bubbling up to fill the void.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review of Walter Mosley's Little Green

Little Green by Walter Mosley

On Monday, our country celebrated the life and achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader assassinated on April 4, 1968. Were Dr. King alive today, I think he'd share my enjoyment of some novels about the struggle for equality: Attica Locke's Black Water Rising (Harper, 2009), which delves into the campus protest movement past of a young black lawyer who is placed in jeopardy later, when he and his wife witness a murder. James McBride's The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead Books/Penguin Group USA, 2013), about abolitionist John Brown, was reviewed here.

I don't doubt King would appreciate Ezekiel Porterhouse Rawlins, the black Walter Mosley character who fought in World War II and moved from Houston, Texas, to Los Angeles, where he opens an office with a sign on the door that says "EASY RAWLINS—RESEARCH AND DELIVERY." Years later, the sign stays the same, but Easy obtains a valid PI license after he's earned the grudging respect of the Los Angeles chief of police, who sees him as a bridge to L.A.'s black community.

I thought we had seen the last of Easy when he takes an intentional, drunken drive off a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway in 2007's Blonde Faith. When Easy tells us, "I came half-awake, dead and dreaming" to begin Mosley's twelfth series book, Little Green (Doubleday, 2013), it's two months later in 1967. Easy has no sooner staggered out of his coma when one of the most feared men in Los Angeles, his best friend, Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, asks for a favor. Nineteen-year-old Evander "Little Green" Noon had gone to the Sunset Strip, where he called his mother, Timbale, to tell her he'd met a hippie woman and would come home after they'd gone to a club to listen to music. Evander never reappeared and Ray, who feels responsible for the boy since killing his father, asks Easy to find him.

Fortified by swigs of healer Mama Jo's elixir, Gator's Blood (read about how it affects Easy's body and soul and then tell me you wouldn't kill to get your hands on some), Easy tracks Evander's path through Los Angeles's Summer of Love. Easy is aided by a young female hippie, Ray and other friends such as Martin Martins, Jackson Blue and Frenchman Jean-Paul Villard. While the missing-person hunt and the extortion case Easy handles at the request of Blue are interesting, what makes Little Green and the entire Easy Rawlins series unique is its narrator, a good and tough black man, who shares his existential thinking, guides us through his black community and shows us how a black man in 1950s and '60s Los Angeles handles interactions with whites.

There is one white cop Easy trusts: Detective Melvin Suggs––but most white Los Angeles cops can't be trusted by blacks on sight. As Easy shows Evander's picture to people on the Strip, he's reminded of black towns in Mississippi and Louisiana, where workers gathered to drink homemade liquor, dance, laugh and cry because they were under the thumb of racism. He says the hippies on the Strip feel under the gun, too. They are outraged by Vietnam and ostracized because of their clothes and habits. Unlike people in older times, they feel they can change the world that tries to hold them down. After some whites come to intervene when cops hassle him and another black man on a street corner, and another white sticks up for him during a dispute in a diner, Easy feels hopeful:

When the Watts Riots had ended I saw the divisions form among the nonwhite races of L.A. I'd also seen a split in our own community, where brother turned against brother and corrupt city officials stepped in to take their revenge. But in that hippie diner there was the hint of something hopeful. There were white people realizing for the first time what it was like to be shunned and segregated, fired for no reason and arrested because of the way they looked.

It's an insightful trip back to 1967 with Easy. He might have driven off a cliff in one world, only to wake up in the beginning of a new world.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Jumping the Shark

Lady Jane Digby, painted by
Joseph Karl Stieler
Today we welcome a guest writer, who calls herself Lady Jane Digby's Ghost. Read a little about her inspiration, 19th-century Lady Jane Digby, here.

Lady Jane Digby's Ghost: I'm a history jock and a voracious reader, which combine to make me a prodigious consumer of European and American mysteries. I don't like cozies, but appreciate that others less hard-boiled than I do. I often consult Wikipedia while reading to get the 411 on people and places referred to in the text. After retiring––honorably––from several careers, I live in Santa Fe where I review books for Amazon, participate in our local adult education group,, and hang out with my cats. I was born in 1951–you do the math.

I like series books. I really do. I like returning to old friends and accompanying them on their new adventures. And I particularly like mystery series. Give me a new volume in British author Susan Hill's masterful series starring Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler and I'm a happy clam.

But all too many authors have hung on to their once-interesting characters for one or two books too many, and it's the reader who pays the price. Literally "pays the price," as in money spent and time wasted on a book in a series that, once upon a time, was good reading but has degenerated into a mishmash.

When the author loses interest, the reader does, too. But all too often, the author doesn't realize he's lost both the series and the readers until the books stop selling.

So, who's still "got it" and who should hang the characters out to dry? These are my picks, based on years and years and years of reading.

Daniel Silva has been writing his Gabriel Allon books since 2003. They feature an Israeli spy/assassin who wants to leave Israeli intelligence and make his avocation, art restoration, his trade. But, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather III, just when he thinks he's out, they pull him back in. In Silva's case, this happens annually, as a new series book appears every summer, like clockwork.

The books are getting a bit repetitive, but they could be improved by further character development. Give Allon a kid––one who is not killed in a terrorist attack. Let Chiara, Allon's younger Italian wife, age a little, and become a little less gorgeous. Give her a haircut. Finally, kill off Shomron, who seems to be a pain in everyone's side in Israeli intelligence. Silva needs to move forward to keep me reading.

Jacqueline Winspear is the author of the "Maisie Dobbs" series. While the series started off well, Ms. Winspear seems to be losing interest in her character and the plots are becoming rote. It's difficult to explain, but Maisie was originally a nuanced creation. She was mentored by Dr. Maurice Blanche, a noted psychologist. After serving in World War I as a nurse in France, she returned to London to set up a detective agency, where she used psychological insight to solve cases. The cases in the succeeding books were well thought out. The past few books seem slapdash, though, without the careful writing Winspear is noted for. She seems to be going through the motions.

Winspear is publishing a new book in April, The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War, that does not seem to be part of the Maisie Dobbs series. I think it's time she created another leading character and series. She's a really good writer.

"Charles Todd" is the mother/son writing team who have two World War I series, one featuring Inspector Rutledge, and the other Bess Crawford. Rutledge has been keeping my interest, but the Bess Crawford character seems to be stuck in time. She needs a major shake-up––maybe marrying her father's adjunct, who's been in love with her forever. Maybe as the Great War draws to a close, so should the Bess Crawford character. Or, as the two series are placed in two slightly different times, maybe the final book should be Bess meeting Rutledge. They do seem to have a common friend, Melinda Crawford, who is Bess's cousin and a friend of Rutledge's family, and who appears in both Todd series.

British author David Downing has run out of Berlin train stations with which to title his John Russell series. Masaryk Station, in Prague, was his last book in the series. His main characters, journalist/spy John Russell and actress Effi Koenen, have reached a natural end to the World War II and post-war period, and Downing has gracefully tied up his loose ends in a good final book. He has a new series set in World War I, with the first book, Jack of Spies, published last year. I thought it was a bit overwritten, but otherwise a good start to a new series.

Philip Kerr, with his Bernie Gunther series, keeps his character interesting by not writing the series in timely order. The books are set everywhere from 1930s Berlin, to Cuba in the 1950s, to the Russian front during World War II, and more. The reader never knows where––or when––Bernie will turn up next. That keeps me buying and reading the books. I think that his first three books, now combined in one large volume, Berlin Noir, are his best; some of the best writing about 1930s Berlin available.

Alan Furst will continue writing as long as he wants. He has built up such a following that his books sell well to readers who love everything he puts in front of them. Because he also alternates time and place and characters, his books stay fresh––though look out for his standard scene in a French bar in every book, no matter where otherwise set.

I'm a big fan of British author John Lawton, who writes the Troy series, set in London. Like Philip Kerr, he ranges his books throughout a vast period of time and there are enough characters in the Troy family that the storylines are kept fresh. (Note to American readers who also read British books: Beware when ordering Troy books from the UK. For some odd and unknown reason, Lawton's books sometimes have different titles in the UK and the US. You might see a book on a British seller's site, think you haven't read it, order it, and then be disappointed when it arrives because it is a book you've read, under a different title.)

Many readers have not yet discovered the Billy Boyle series, set in World War II, by author James R. Benn. There are eight titles in the series––like Daniel Silva, Benn publishes a book every summer––and are beginning to get a bit tired. Billy is a former Boston police detective who is a sort of enforcer for his uncle, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.  As befits Billy's background, he "looks into things" for "Uncle Ike" in the European theater.

Benn has improved greatly as a writer, but he's beginning to lose me as a reader due to the repetitious plot lines. Benn also tries to write Billy a love interest, which seems to be spurious at best. He doesn't need one, and her presence drags down the story. (This is a major pet peeve of mine; love interests in books where they're not needed, but are there because the publisher feels they should be, to juice up sales.) Still, every September, I'll look to see if Benn has a new Billy Boyle title. If you haven't heard of James R. Benn, look him up; you might like his wartime mysteries.

There are many other series of mysteries and police procedurals set in England, Canada and the United States that I'd like to cover in future guest posts.

So, what authors and series will you continue to buy and read? And which ones just seem to have petered out, but the author doesn't know it? Let us know.