Friday, February 28, 2014

Not New and Improved

In Dorothy L. Sayers's Murder Must Advertise (1933), Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover at the advertising firm, Pym's Publicity, Ltd., to investigate a clever murder. Using the name Death [pronounced "Deeth"] Bredon, his actual middle names, Lord Peter has a tough adjustment to the workaday world's schedules and office rituals, but he turns out to have a knack for advertising.

Back in the 1930s, before television, print advertising was focused on product packaging and illustrations in newspapers and buses. Slogans were the big thing. Advertising and marketing have come a long way since the 1930s, but when it comes to book marketing, there are still similarities. Most people choose a book from a dust jacket, a website product page or a catalog, which makes it necessary to give a quick impression, almost as with an old-fashioned billboard or ads on the side of a bus. However, a big difference between advertising a book and deodorant, for example, is that book marketers seem to want to make the book sound as much as possible like something that's already been done. No "new and improved" here!

Remember back in 2003, when Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was a smash hit? For several years after that, every novel that had any element of conspiracy, suspense, religion, history or art was suddenly the "next Da Vinci Code." All I can say is that, thankfully, time has healed that particular wound.

I'm sure you know what phenomenon is coming next. Yes, it's the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. These books were a blessing and curse for Nordic crime fiction writers. On the plus side, Nordics were suddenly all the rage and writers were getting translated and sold like hot æbleskiver all over the world. The big negative, though, was that every Lars, Johan and even Karin had to see "the next Stieg Larsson" splashed in big letters over their books' dust jackets.

I've read that it annoyed Jo Nesbø no end (and rightfully so) to be called the next Stieg Larsson.  He was smart enough not to say it publicly, but he's a far better writer than Larsson ever was. Not only that, but three of his Harry Hole books were already available in English when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out. So that's marketing for you; don't let the facts get in the way.

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is another one of those books that every publicist wants to tell us has been duplicated in their publishing company's latest thriller. Random House says that Laura McHugh's The Weight of Blood, coming in March, is for fans of Gillian Flynn. Herman Koch's The Dinner is inexplicably described as a "European Gone Girl." At least A. S. A. Harrison's The Silent Wife, another marketer's doppelgänger for Gone Girl, has a plot involving a married couple, his-and-hers narratives and a murder.

That brings us to the latest marketing misdemeanor: Downton Abbey. Marketers for every book set within hound-sniffing distance of an English manor house are grabbing potential readers by the elbow to say that if they like Downton Abbey they'll just love this book here. I had this experience recently. I was looking around for an audiobook to accompany me on my long walks with the dog. I stumbled across Julianna Deering's Rules of Murder. The cover looked attractive, in a Golden-Age-of-Mystery way, and the reader was listed as being Simon Vance, one of the real gems of the profession.

The bold-type marketing for the book said "Downton Abbey Meets Agatha Christie in this This Sparkling Mystery." (Don't ask me why the initial letters of those last three words are capitalized. It must be more marketing magic. Or should I say More Marketing Magic?) I have more than a little bit of cynicism in my nature, so I wasn't at all surprised that there wasn't a peer of the realm to be found, nor any below-stairs intrigue, and that the book's only resemblance to Downton Abbey was that a butler does make the occasional appearance.

As for Agatha Christie, well, I think Dame Agatha would be unamused by the comparison to her work. True, Rules of Murder is set in the 1930s and has a touch of young romance mixed with its detective work. But that's where the comparison runs out of petrol. Deering is a pen name, and I suspect the real author is an American who wrote the book with an American-to-British English dictionary at her elbow. I wish someone had told her that throwing in frequent "I say, old man" and "that's deuced peculiar" comments do not an English novel make.

Here's the really crazy part, though. It turns out that the book is Christian fiction. Absolutely nowhere in the marketing is there the slightest mention of that fact. I was reading about the two young romantic leads chatting at a party when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the young woman starts talking about God and faith. I would have been completely taken aback, except for the fact that she'd just finished telling the male lead that adding champagne was a good way to ruin the taste of a perfectly good glass of orange juice. That was one clue that the "sparkling" part of the book's tag line was deceptive.

As far as I know, there are quite a few people interested in Christian fiction, so I'm puzzled why the marketers for this book would choose to keep that aspect of the book hidden. I think those marketers might be even more cynical than I am. They probably figured that these days a label of "Christian fiction," however accurate, wouldn't sell a book nearly as well as a false Downton Abbey blurb.

Lord Peter Wimsey, in his Death Bredon persona, observed that advertising's "essence is to tell plausible lies for money." In this case, the marketers should have focused a little more on the "plausible" part of that observation. Better yet, they might have marketed the book as what it actually is.

Here's to reading books that can't be––or at least aren't––marketed as being just like something else.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation

No, this isn't my husband, our dog and me.
My rating scale for books is based on the lengths to which I'll go in order to avoid putting the book down. The other night I was reading Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 4, 2014) when the dog needed to go out. My husband took him out after negotiating a steep price because I rate Annihilation very high.

You can see why I was riveted from the very first paragraph:
The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.
Before I talk about VanderMeer's skillful manipulation of the threat, let me tell you about the expedition, the twelfth sent by the Southern Reach, a clandestine government agency. The mission is simple: to continue the government’s investigation into the mysteries of Area X. While Area X is mysterious, so are the motives behind the Southern Reach's treatment of the expedition sent to explore it. Expedition members are not only forbidden to take cell phones and computers, they don't even have watches or compasses. On their belts hangs an odd measuring device that will glow red to indicate they have 30 minutes to find "a safe place," although they are not told what the device measures. They also carry guns and journals they're to write in without sharing entries with each other.

Members of previous expeditions did not fare well and it's not clear why. Area X exerts a strange influence over people who enter, and they kill themselves or each other or return, like the eleventh expedition, husks of themselves. The current team consists of four unnamed women: the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist and the biologist, who narrates. The psychologist is the team leader. She puts her team under hypnosis to keep their minds from tricking them as they cross the border, which is invisible to the naked eye. If the psychologist becomes incapacitated, the others are to return to the entry point and wait for an "extraction" whose methodology they don't know.

winter in Area X
Everyone on the team assumes the enigmatic psychologist knows more than the others. From very early on, we see that the biologist narrator isn't divulging everything she knows to the group. She tells us she's not sure what they've been told is the truth. We're unsure how credible and objective a witness she is, although it's impossible not to root for her. It's strange that she insists on calling the uncharted structure that disappears into the ground (mentioned in the first paragraph) a tower, while the others say that of course it's a tunnel. Whatever it is, it's a masterpiece at unnerving the reader.

As unsettling events in Area X mount and take their toll, the biologist becomes even more determined to understand what's going on. I rode a roller coaster of dread and paranoia as she continues her investigations and attempts to account for strange, surrealistic animal behavior and to reconcile physical evidence with what she thinks she knows. As she becomes aware that everything is not what it seems and Area X may not be her only source of danger, she begins interrupting the action to recount her childhood, marriage and career as "the queen of tide pools." These suspensions in the plot serve to heighten tension when action is resumed, but her portrait is as fascinating as her heart-stopping Area X exploration. An only child, she became an expert in the uses of solitude and an observer who melts into her surroundings. Her nature is critical to VanderMeer's brilliant plot.

I was engrossed watching the biologist, whose work is her life, tackle the secrets of the intriguing and dangerous Area X. While we learn her secrets, she discovers truths about herself. This uncommon book, with its strange images and courageous heroine, is so suspenseful in so many different ways, I confess I sneaked peeks ahead. What can I say? I was under the spell of Area X.

Luckily, I don't need to wait long to continue VanderMeer's thriller mash-up of horror, sci fi, and fantasy examining reality and perception. Authority, second in the Southern Reach Trilogy, will be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on May 6, 2014. The third book, Acceptance, will be out on September 2, 2014.

Map of Area X by Jeremy Zerfoss

Note: Images are from Jeff VanderMeer's page on

Monday, February 24, 2014

Oh, To Be Young Again

It's always fun to pull out those old photo albums and take a squinty-eyed gander at your younger self––un-Photoshopped, of course. It is easy to see, by comparing photos taken over the years, how you got from there to here.

Now we have the opportunity to watch some interpretations of how some of our iconic fictional sleuths got the face they earned. Several months ago I tuned into a new series on PBS about the early life and times of Endeavour Morse. This is a prequel to the long-running Inspector Morse program, which was derived from the Morse novels authored by Colin Dexter. In the series, Shaun Evans portrays young Morse as he begins his career as a Detective Constable with the Oxford City Police CID.

Morse, blessed with the unusual Quaker name of Endeavour, spent some time at Oxford University and some time in the army, where he worked with ciphers before joining the police. Young Morse is at first disillusioned by detective work, but he is quite the natural and seems bound to be a success, although he has quite a time satisfying his superiors. This form of constant disapproval I call the "McCloud Syndrome," because it always reminds me of the TV series McCloud, in which Dennis Weaver plays a marshal out of Taos, New Mexico, who could never please his boss. No matter how many cases he solved with wonderful deductive reasoning, his Chief always treated him as a bumbler.

The episodes I've seen so far do an intriguing job of fleshing out young Morse's character, giving the audience some hints about his background and family life. There is also a vintage red Jaguar in this new show. But it does not belong to Morse––not yet anyway. The series continues in 2014 and I look forward to it. My vote in this case is for the young Morse. He was much more likeable than old Morse, in my view.

A relatively new book series by James Henry introduced me to the younger Jack Frost, another well-known detective, both in the print series written by R. D. Wingfield, and its adaptation for television.

In the third book of Henry's Jack Frost prequel series, Morning Frost, Frost is a Detective Sergeant who has just struggled through one of the low points of his life. It is October of 1982, and Jack had just buried his wife Mary, who had suffered from cancer. There had been a point before her diagnosis when Jack had been planning to ask for a divorce because he had become attached to a female DC who worked out of his precinct. But despite Jack and Mary's many differences, he stayed with her to her death, ended all hope for personal happiness with the DC and sank himself into his work.

Several cases are dumped on Frost at once; very reminiscent of the way R. D. Wingfield treated Frost. There are body parts, female hit men, stolen artwork and the murder of a policeman, and Frost manages to shamble on his way through this to collect all the threads and knot them together. Superintendent Mullet of the Denton police has his usual mixed feelings about Jack. It has been made clear to him that Frost has been tapped for promotion to Detective Inspector for some time, and Mullet would do anything that would quash any recognition of Jack Frost.

Frost appears to be in his late thirties in the James Henry series and not that much older than that in the first of the Wingfield series books, Frost at Christmas. In the original stories, Frost is portrayed as a loveable rogue who is exceedingly sloppy and inefficient in his work habits, and with a personality that is at times sarcastic, insolent and conniving––which doesn’t affect the squad he works with, since they are incredibly loyal to him. This is not a total surprise, because readers tend to like Frost more than they expect to.

In the TV series, Touch of Frost, Frost is portrayed by David Jason, who appears a decade or two older than the fictional Frost, aging naturally over the course of a total of 15 years of the series. On TV, Superintendent Mullet is seen in a kinder, gentler light and Frost himself has more respect for women. The female characters in the books usually have little to recommend them. My vote in this case is ambiguous. I think both the printed series are excellent, but as a character I like the old Frost better. That may be because James Henry gets more into the personality of the man than Wingfield did. Ignorance is bliss.

Now on to the interesting battle of the Montalbanos. Salvo Montabano is the protagonist of the popular Andrea Camilleri novels based in the fictional town, Vigàta in Sicily. He is a Commissario in the police force, a rank comparable to a superintendent of a regional force. Montalbano has his own way of doing things, as he has to navigate without compromising himself through the murky politics of life in Italy, where the crime bosses sometimes have more power than the politicians, let alone the police. He has those rare characteristics of honesty, decency and loyalty.

Luca Zingaretti
These stories have depth because Camilleri makes it a point to "smuggle into a detective novel a critical commentary of my times." There has been a television show based on Camilleri's books for about 15 years. Acting the part of Montalbano is Luca Zingaretti, whose image is synonymous with Montalbano.

In 2012, Italian television aired a spin-off featuring a young Montalbano, who was to have somewhat of a Che Guevara appeal. Michele Riondino was cast in the role, and young Montalbano has all the fine characteristics that make the mature Montalbano the person that he is. He has an energy, mixed with his style and appeal, that is eminently watchable.

Michele Riondino
Before I can vote on which of these characters I prefer, I am going to have to bone up on my Italian because these shows are only available with English subtitles. In this case, at least the older and the younger Montalbano face off weekly in Italy so there is an abundance of opportunities to compare the different stages of Montalbano's life.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Where, Oh Where, Has My Series Gone?

The Material Witnesses welcome back our friend Lady Jane Digby's Ghost with another guest appearance.

In my first guest post, I wrote about mystery series that I felt had "jumped the shark" and outlived their original promise. I gave some examples and readers submitted more series in the comments section. Now I'd like to write about mystery series that ended, but still had plenty of "oomph" in them. Again, the examples are mine and I do expect some disagreement.

I'll start with a series I enjoyed 10 or so years ago. Young author Rebecca Pawel came up with a marvelous series set in Franco's Spain, right after the bloody Civil War. The first in the four-book series is Death of a Nationalist. Pawel's lead character, Madrid policeman Carlos Tejada, is part of the Nationalist Guardia Civil who finds himself investigating a murder of a suspected Republican. (Republicans, also called Loyalists, were loyal to the Spanish Republic, while Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco, overthrew the Republic in favor of an authoritarian regime.)

Tejada's investigation reveals a case much more complicated than a plain murder, and political ambiguities begin to appear. Rebecca Pawel is very daring in her use of a Nationalist as the protagonist, rather than a more conventionally sympathetic Republican. She continued her strong writing in three more books, the final one published in 2006.

And then Pawel stopped; nothing more since then other than an "Amazon single" e-book. I check the Soho Press catalog yearly to see if anything else is on the horizon, but . . . nada. (There was also a Tejada "single" self-published, which was disappointing, perhaps because it wasn't long enough to make much sense.)

One of my favorite authors is Rita Mae Brown. Now, I am a cat lover and am owned by two cats, but I don't read Brown's cozy series starring the tabby cat Sneaky Pie. I tend to be cozy-averse, but I do read her heavier series, set in Virginia and starring “Sister” Jane Arnold of the Jefferson Hunt Club. Brown, who is a Master of her Virginia hunt club, fills her books with dog breeding, horsemanship, local politics, and . . . murder. Usually, the culprits are easily teased out before the book's end, but her Sister Jane books are great fun. As I wrote in my first post, I love returning with an author to accompany old friends on new adventures. And so it is with Sister Jane and her crew, both human and animal. However, there are no new books in the offing.

(Also, and regrettably, Brown wrote two books set in Nevada; mysteries starring Magdalene “Mags” Rogers and her dogs, which I consider two of the worst-written books ever. Real stinkeroos, completely lacking Brown's usual strong sense of place and colorful, interesting characters. Don't buy them; don't read them. I'd like to forget that I ever did read them.)

Another police procedural/mystery writer I'm waiting for a new book from is Joseph Wambaugh. One of the best and toughest writers I've read, his four-book Hollywood Station cop-shop books are some of my all-time favorites. There really are no plots, to speak of, but his characters are brilliantly written. I'd love to return to Hollywood Station . . . but nothing new is forthcoming.

British psychologist Frank Tallis has written six books set in Vienna in the early 1900s. Starring Max Liebermann as a young psychoanalyst, and Oscar Reinhardt as a police detective, they team up to solve crimes that have baffled the Viennese authorities. The two are occasionally aided by Dr Sigmund Freud, who is mentoring Max Liebermann.

This is one of those series where you have to watch out for books having different titles in the UK and US. My concern is that it’s been a couple of years since the last book in the series, and the author's website appears to have been deactivated. I miss the Liebermann and Reinhardt characters, who use psychological know-how to solve crimes. I wish I could do the same to figure out whether and when they’ll reappear.

But along the same lines of the Frank Tallis Max Liebermann books is the new book, also set in Vienna in the early 1900s, by Richard Lord, called The Strangler's Waltz. I'm adding it to this list because it is part of the "Vienna Noir Quartet," though only Waltz has been published to date.

I sure hope Lord does continue with the series, and the remaining three books are published . . . and soon. The Strangler’s Waltz (Monsoon Books, 2013) is available in print and in e-book form, which is how I read it.

Why does an author stop writing a series? I suppose the author may have gotten bored with his characters, or the publisher sees a trend of declining sales and asks the author to try his hand at new characters. I think the five authors I've listed are all alive and presumably still able to write. The most curious example is Rebecca Pawel. She was young––in her 20s––when she wrote the Tejada books, which I felt were brilliantly conceived and written. Where is she? She had as good a future as I've seen for a young writer.

So, what series ended too abruptly for you? Give us some names.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Springtime with Bruno: A Review of Martin Walker's The Resistance Man

The Resistance Man by Martin Walker

Ahhh, Dordogne on a spring morning, and Bruno Courrèges, Chief of Police in the picturesque village of St. Denis, is trying to teach his basset hound puppy that the chickens and ducks on his modest farm are neither food nor toys. While Balzac may be the most intelligent dog Bruno has ever known and can already sniff out truffles, his prey-seeking behavior still needs a lot of work.

Bruno's morning is interrupted by a phone call from Father Sentout, who has spent the night at the bedside of a dying man, a hero of the Resistance. Loic Murcoing had died clutching a beautiful antique banknote. Bruno has never seen its like, but the priest immediately recognized it as one from the daring train robbery at nearby Neuvic during World War II, when the men of the Resistance relieved their German occupiers of hundreds of millions of francs. To this day, it remains the greatest unsolved train robbery in history.

In Neuvic, according to the London Telegraph:
"No plaque recalls that right here, on July 26 1944, about 100 Resistance men pulled off the train heist of the 20th century, bagging the equivalent of £230 million [about $750 million in today's money] ... The train was ambushed at Neuvic at 7.38pm. By 8.15, two trucks carrying 150 sacks of money were making for a Resistance HQ in the forest near Cendrieux, 30 miles away. Official reports claimed the money was used legitimately. Historians and locals know better. Perhaps £50 million, perhaps more, evaporated. Political parties took handfuls and so did individuals."
(If you have ever thought, as I have, that some of the murders in the Bruno books seem unnecessarily violent, you might want to click on that link to the complete Telegraph article. There are some extremely tough people in this sleepy bucolic region, and they have very long memories––and knives.)

While Bruno is making arrangements for the appropriate funeral of a Resistance hero, he is notified of the break-in and theft of many valuable antiques in the chateau of a retired Englishman. This is the third such crime this month, but so far the police have no clue to the obviously professional criminals. This time, though, they have misjudged their target. Jack Crimson, the owner, is only recently retired from one of Her British Majesty's secret services. When another Englishman, an international antiques dealer, is found dead with his head battered almost beyond recognition, Bruno calls in the Police Nationale in the persons of Isabelle, Bruno's onetime lover, and her boss, J. J. Things are a little awkward for Bruno when Pamela, his current lover, returns from Scotland to find that Isabelle has returned, even temporarily.

While most of the Bruno mysteries include obscure bits of history and current politics, this one has a larger than usual and slightly bewildering number of characters and sub-plots. Bruno solves his current crimes and a long-ago one handily, but the true mystery of the train robbery and the missing millions remains, hélas, unsolved.

Of at least equal importance to the crimes and their resolutions in this series are the author's exquisite descriptions of the food and the meals, the quirky cantankerous residents and the evocative scents of fine cheeses and flowers that infuse all of these books. They keep me first in line, thrilled to read each new one as it comes out and sorry to have it end. It is a perfect way to enjoy a wonderful imaginary vacation in this seemingly endless winter as snow and sleet storms chase each other across the country.

Note: I received a free review copy of The Resistance Man, which will be released by Knopf on February 25, 2014.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Dazed and Confused on Presidents' Day

It's a state and federal holiday, but who knows exactly what we're celebrating today? It's Presidents, President's, or Presidents' Day. Here in California, we're honoring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; if you live in Alabama, you might be saluting George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Some parts of our country are generously honoring everyone who's ever held the office of United States President.

At Read Me Deadly, we'll focus on George Washington; however, we'll observe the confusion that's become traditional to the day. In other words, don't expect me to make perfect sense.

To honor Washington's military leadership during the American Revolution, you could read David McCullough's nonfiction book, 1776. Alternatively, you could strip off your clothes, close your eyes, and visualize Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's 1851 painting of Washington's Delaware River crossing on Christmas night, 1776, before the Americans surprised the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton. Now, sing Yankee Doodle while you fill the bathtub with cold water and ice cubes. Clamp your teeth to stifle shrieks that would alarm your dog, and slip into the water with a mug of hot-buttered rum in one hand and the book of suspense perfect for today, Elisabeth Elo's North of Boston (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, 2014), in the other hand. In the book, Boston perfume company heiress Pirio Kasparov does what few people could do: she survives four hours floating on a piece of wood in the frigid Atlantic after her friend Ned Rizzo's new lobster boat is sliced in half by an unidentified freighter. Pirio is rescued by the Coast Guard, but Ned is never found. As her father says, Sam Spade wouldn't let his friend go unavenged, and neither should Pirio. And, how can Pirio look Ned's young son, Noah, in the eye if she doesn't find out who killed his father?

I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw its synopsis, but I wasn't expecting the story-telling talent of first-time writer Elo. Pirio, who narrates, spent her rebellious childhood enduring punishment at boarding school. Now, she has complex relationships with people who seem real: her beautiful, enigmatic mother, dead since Pirio was 10; her self-absorbed Russian immigrant father and his second wife, whom he doesn't love; geeky Noah and his irresponsible, alcoholic mother, Thomasina, whom Pirio has known since boarding school; and her ex-lover, John Oster, a fisherman friend of Ned. This is a book that combines a quest with the examination of childhood memories, the compromises of growing old, and oceanic environmental issues. Pirio could have hired a private eye to look for Ned's killer, but that would have been a whole lot less fun. She's tough, smart, and tenacious—I hope we see more of her.

At first glance, the reason for reading Martha Grimes's satire, The Way of All Fish (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2014), to commemorate Washington may not be apparent. Trust me. Fish (you do remember the Delaware River, right?), the British (Washington fought 'em for our independence, and Grimes, an American, is famous for her series books named after English pubs, although this book is set in New York), hit men (think guns and the death of war), the world of publishing (Washington chopped down that cherry tree when he was a kid, and we all know trees turn into paper and books), and convoluted plots and lies (Washington didn't tell a lie when he confessed to felling that tree, but the truth is, he probably didn't chop down anything). We'll skip further sketchy evidence that Grimes's book is suitable for Presidents' Day and go directly to its first paragraph:

They came in, hidden in coats, hats pulled over their eyes, two stubby hoods like refugees from a George Raft film, icy-eyed and tight-lipped. From under their overcoats, they swung up Uzis hanging from shoulder holsters and sprayed the room back and forth in watery arcs. There were twenty or so customers—several couples, two business-men in pinstripes, a few solo diners who had been sitting, some now standing, some screaming, some crawling crablike beneath their tables.

Nobody got shot; it was the Clownfish Café's aquarium that exploded. Candy and Karl, contract killers whom we met in 2003's Foul Matter, had tailed literary agent L. Bass Hess into the café (Candy and Karl insist on getting to know a mark before they decide whether he deserves killing), and exchanged gunfire with the fleeing shooters. When they re-holstered their guns, they followed the lead of a blonde woman who had been reading and eating spaghetti alone. She tossed the wine out of her glass, filled it with water, and saved a fish. Pretty soon all the aquarium's fish were swimming in glasses and water pitchers, and Candy and Karl had a new interest: clown fish.

They are further interested when they discover the beautiful blond is the target of an outrageous lawsuit by Hess, who says she owes him money for a book written two years after she fired him. Candy and Karl decide to kill two birds with one stone: they'll neutralize (but not kill) Hess and rescue poor, innocent Cindy, who's been suffering from writer's block and victimized by lawyers, who may not be working entirely on her behalf. This involves recruiting Foul Matter's publishing titan Bobby Mackenzie and best-selling thriller writer Paul Giverney, and a host of other characters, such as a weed smoker who wrestles alligators in Florida during tourist season and a brainy Malaysian femme fatale so interested in the scheme that she's almost willing to work for free. If you haven't read Foul Matter, the references to that book's plot are a little confusing, but you're all smart people, capable of figuring it out, and, if you can't, well, President's, Presidents', or Presidents Day is a little confusing, too, and we're not talking about how you absolutely must understand this to the letter—we're not building a nuclear bomb here. Writer Grimes obviously had fun writing it, and I had fun reading this entertaining satire.

Happy holiday, no matter how you spell it or whom you're celebrating.

Friday, February 14, 2014

I See Dead People: The Fiona Griffiths Series

Awhile back, I complained that there weren't enough strong, smart, sassy female protagonists in crime fiction. Scratch that! I've definitely found one: Harry Bingham's young Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, part of the Cardiff, Wales police force.

The series begins with Talking to the Dead (Delacorte, 2012), and the second, Love Story, with Murders, hits the shelves on February 18, 2014, from Delacorte. Because the books are first-person narratives, we experience the plot from inside Fiona's head, which is a weird and wonderful place.

Sometime in her childhood, Fiona suffered a deeply traumatic event, but exactly what happened is buried deep in her subconscious. Like a virus, though, it flares up from time to time, and in an unusual way. Fiona's post-traumatic stress flare-ups take the form of Cotard's syndrome, a condition in which dissociation and depression combine to make her lose touch with her physical and emotional feelings, turn the world into shades of gray and, at its worst stages, make her believe she is literally dead.

When I first heard about this new series featuring a lead with such an bizarre condition, I was dubious. I thought this sounded like too much of a gimmick. But author Harry Bingham doesn't fall into that trap. Fiona's condition isn't something that her co-workers even know about. They definitely think she's odd, but that's because she's a Cambridge University graduate, often seems to be in never-never land while she's thinking, has a contrary and smartarse personality, and a real knack for pushing other people's buttons––even people a lot higher up in the police hierarchy.

Readers only know about Fiona's condition because we hear her thoughts. Even though she's doing her best to be at resident of "Planet Normal," as she calls it, she knows that other detectives don't relate to, and even commune with the dead, as she does. She can sit with a murder victim's corpse (or even parts of one––yikes!) and feel the energy. Surprisingly, it's not usually a dark energy.

The way Fiona sees it––though she doesn't share her philosophy with her colleagues––the murder investigation isn't "only about finding the killers, but about giving peace to the dead. It's not primarily a question of justice. The dead don't care about that. The murder investigation, arrest, and conviction are just part of the funeral rite, the final acts of completion. Gifts I bring to the dead in exchange for the peace they bring me. The peace of the dead, which passeth all understanding."

Fiona is quite a bit nicer to the murder victims than to many of the living she encounters. While on a house-to-house search: "We do gardens. We're asked seven times if we want tea, and are told six times to be careful of various tedious-looking plants, which I make a point of standing on when no one's looking."

She's not a fan of profiling: "[P]sych briefing[s] . . . are normally mind-numbingly stupid, amounting to little more than 'I think your killer may not be quite right in the head.'"

You won't be surprised that she can be a handful for those on the wrong side of the law. She has an Israeli friend who taught her hand-to-hand combat methods and she doesn't hesitate to treat any threatening bad buys to broken noses and jaws, cracked kneecaps and severe damage to their nether regions.

Fiona is also a refreshing contrast to your all-too-common unsocial detective protagonist with a laundry list of bad habits. She has a loving family, a boyfriend (Detective Sergeant Buzz Brydon) she's getting serious with, and the only beverage she abuses is peppermint tea. True, her father has an inches-thick police file detailing all the organized crime activities he's suspected of having presided over for the last few decades. But at least he has no convictions and he's always happy to help the police with their inquiries.

Alright, enough about Fiona for a little bit. Let's talk about plots. In Talking to the Dead, Fiona is slogging through accounting records as she prepares for the trial of a former cop, Brian Penry, for financial fraud. That gets put on the back burner when the call comes in reporting the bodies of a young woman and her child found murdered in an abandoned house. Why was the ATM card of a very wealthy man, Brendan Rattigan, found in the house? Was the young woman a prostitute? Is her death related to Rattigan's spectacular death many months before?

In Love Story, with Murders, Fiona is on a team investigating a sensational case. A young woman's leg has been found in the garage freezer of an old lady who recently died. Next thing you know, more bits and pieces are found scattered all around the neighborhood, in the oddest places. Things get even stranger when another dismembered corpse is discovered. Are the two murders connected?

When Fiona's not putting in overtime hours on the murder/dismemberment case (which the team, with macabre humor, privately calls Stirfry), she has two other cases occupying her time––and a whole room in her house. Since her parents don't want to talk about the past, she's decided to investigate herself and find out just what happened to her as a child that left her so traumatized. She's also still pursuing the case that was officially wrapped up in Talking to the Dead. In her view, there were a lot of people on the periphery of that crime who need to be held responsible, and she's going to find out exactly who they are.

Though these books are strongly character-driven, both are also satisfying police procedurals with big splashes of heart-thumping action. Without falling too deeply into the too-stupid-to-live trap, Fiona manages to get herself into some life-threatening jams that had me re-thinking giving up biting my nails. I was taken with Fiona's James Bond-ian ingenuity in extricating herself from peril.

Although the crimes in these books are violent and quite often against women, Harry Bingham doesn't shove gore and brutality in the reader's face. He takes these crimes seriously, but he respects the victims and the reader too much to wallow in detailed descriptions of that grimness.

One final pleasure of this new series is the setting; principally Cardiff, but also quite often in its suburbs and in the Wales countryside. It's a treat to read about these settings and those wild Welsh names, like Cyncoed, Capel-y-ffin, Pen-y-Cwm, Brian ap Penri. I'm ready for another visit to Cardiff, and Fiona, whenever Harry Bingham can deliver.

Note: I received a free review copy of Love Story, with Murders. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, goodreads and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review of Peter May's Entry Island

Entry Island by Peter May

As I watch the intrepid athletes compete in the Sochi Olympics, I know that some would give anything for a "do over." It is a fantastic concept, but it is one that is only acceptable in children's games––and then only when played among forgiving friends. Real life is not forgiving. On the other hand, in fiction the rules can be bent and sometimes downright broken! Peter May teases us with this notion in his latest book Entry Island (Quercus, 2013).

"There has been a murder on the Magdalen Islands, out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence," are the first words that Sime Mackenzie hears after another tortuous night of twisting-and-turning insomnia. He is to be part of the investigation team sent from the Montreal police. This was the first murder in these islands since living memory. It took place on l'Île d'Entrée, better known to its inhabitants as Entry Island.

The Madelinots are French-speaking for the most part, but on Entry Island they speak only English. This explained Sime's inclusion on the team, because he was equally at home with French or English. Entry Island is about 900 miles from Montreal, although it is still part of the province of Québec. The police team must make the final leg of the trip by boat.

The victim, James Cowell, was a native of the Islands (called the Magdalens by the French speakers and the Madeleines by the English speakers) and a wealthy businessman who, among other things, ran half the lobster boats in the Madeleines. His wife Kirsty claimed there was an intruder in a mask who attacked her and, when Cowell came to help her, he was stabbed several times.  Most of the team thinks this will be an open-and-shut case, but Sime is unsure because, for one thing, Kirsty looks very familiar to him and she does look as if she has been beaten up.

Sime (pronounced Sheem) is not at the top of his game, because his personal problems are overwhelming him in his sleepless state, and when he does sleep, he is disturbed by vivid recollections of stories read to him by his grandmother, triggered by meeting Kirsty. His grandmother read these stories from an old family journal written by a Simon Mackenzie, written in the mid-1800s when the lands in the Outer Hebrides were being cleared of the starving, poverty-stricken Scottish sharecroppers by the English lords so they could raise sheep. What was it about this remote location that was triggering these memories of the Highland clearances?

There wasn't much on Entry Island except a dwindling population of about one hundred people, a few stores, a church, a school and a post office. So when Kirsty claims she has not left the island for 10 years, and says she never wants to leave, no one believes her. And since the area is so hard to get to, the police doubt the talk about an intruder.  The spotlight is focused solely on Kirsty, particularly when there is another disappearance and possible death of another of the island's inhabitants.

Remnants of a hurricane are barreling down on the islands, and the weather becomes a character in itself as it wreaks havoc, with mighty and furious winds and burning, spitting rain. Entry Island is temporarily cut off from the world as it hunkers down in the storm. I myself felt cold, damp and miserable as I was caught up in the descriptions of the tempest.

Peter May has written several very successful series. His first featured Li Yan, a detective in the Beijing police who has partnered with an American pathologist, Margaret Campbell, to solve some very unusual cases. Then May moved onto France, where Enzo Macleod, a Scottish biologist, took on several amazing cold cases. My favorite series has been the Lewis trilogy, in which Fin Macleod, a Detective Inspector in Edinburgh, returns to his birthplace on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

Entry Island is somewhat of a departure for Peter May, because the murder mystery takes a back seat to the history of the settlement of some of the Madeleine Islands. There is a focus on the very bad old days of the times between the forced dispersal of the Scots to the New World and the difficulties the immigrants faced when their welcome was not to be counted on. The story moves on at a slow pace, as Sime has repeated flashbacks to the days of his ancestors. I believe May's descriptions of the injustices and the inhumanity of the past kept my blood on the boil. It was due to the same Scot in me that makes me shiver when I hear the bagpipes.

Despite an exotic location and the distinctive individuals involved in the crime, the motives for murder are not that unusual. Sime Mackenzie faces a conflict between his professional duty and his personal desires and he is led down a path he could never have foreseen. If you enjoy your crime novels with connections to another time this book would be a great addition to a TBR pile.