Monday, April 28, 2014

The Envelope, Please: Forecasting the 2014 Best Novel Edgar

I can't resist making some predictions for the Edgar Awards, presented each spring by the Mystery Writers of America, even though my forecasting abilities are nil. I've been wrong in my Super Bowl betting for years and that's when I've had a 50-50 shot at picking right. D'oh! For the Edgars, I might as well roll the dice or pick a name out of a hat. In fact, I'll do that too.

I invite you to make predictions any way you choose and to share them with us in the comments section beneath this post. As we all know, opinions about books and ranking them are subjective enterprises and the Edgars judging panels are as human as we are. (As far as I can tell, Edgar-nominee Matt Haig has planted no extraterrestrials on the Edgar panel.) We'll find out how well we agreed with the judges this Thursday, May 1, when the winners are announced at the MWA banquet.

Without further ado, I'll show you the nominees for Best Novel and tell you what they're about:

Sandrine's Case by Thomas H. Cook (Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press)
The Humans by Matt Haig (Simon & Schuster)
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books)
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books)
Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin (Hachette/Reagan Arthur Books)
Until She Comes Home by Lori Roy (Penguin Group (USA)/Dutton Books)

When Sandrine's Case opens, Sam Madison, an unlikable Coburn College professor, is on trial for murdering his enigmatic wife, Sandrine. Between chapters of trial proceedings, Sam, who narrates, mulls over their relationship.

The Humans, by Matt Haig, details a visit to Earth by an extraterrestrial from Vonnadoria after Cambridge mathematician Andrew Martin scared that planet's extra-intelligent inhabitants by solving the Riemann hypothesis. The Vonnadorian's undercover mission is to take Martin's place and get rid of any evidence the hypothesis was solved.

In Kent Krueger's standalone, Ordinary Grace, its middle-aged narrator, Frank Drum, looks back at 1961 in New Bremen, Minnesota, when he was the 13-year-old son of a Methodist minister. That summer, a series of deaths rocked the community and his family and ushered Frank into the world of adults.

How the Light Gets In, featuring Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, is the ninth in Louise Penny's popular series. It finds Gamache investigating a Three Pines disappearance against the backdrop of Sûreté infighting and corruption. Sister Mary Murderous reviewed it here.

Retired Edinburgh cop John Rebus is working as a civilian in the Serious Crime Review Unit of the Lothian and Borders Police in Ian Rankin's Standing in Another Man's Grave. After he fields a call from a mother convinced that her missing teenage daughter is one of a series of disappearances, Rebus dusts himself off and muscles his way into an active Edinburgh CID investigation. (See my review here.)

It's 1958 in Lori Roy's gothic-tinged suspense Until She Comes Home and Alder Avenue, a working-class Detroit neighborhood, is undergoing steady decline. Residents are frightened when a black prostitute is murdered near the local factory but the police ignore the death. It's the later disappearance of Elizabeth, a mentally disabled white girl, that galvanizes Alder Avenue.


I'll try to give you my thinking without divulging book spoilers.

Matt Haig
There were moments in reading Haig's The Humans when I laughed aloud at the Vonnadorian's confusion over customs we take for granted. At other times, my heart swelled with his joyful discoveries. Despite the book's lapse near the end into something akin to Hallmark card philosophizing I enjoyed its amusing and sentimental look at what makes us human. I think the Edgars are much like the Oscars, though. It's rare for a humorous nominee to win the big enchilada and I don't see an exception for The Humans looming on the horizon.

Ian Rankin
When Rankin retired Rebus in 2007's Exit Music, I was afraid we'd lost him forever. I read Standing in Another Man's Grave with a sense of relief and excitement. Rankin puts ol' Rebus under the searchlight here and we see anew how this man is a poor fit for the modern metropolitan police force. The force has changed since his retirement, but Rebus hasn't. He can't stick to assigned duties or stop smoking and drinking and he has no interest in learning how to use high tech investigation tools. He'll always have the fattest file in the Complaints department. Thank God. I don't think I could take a reformed Rebus. Rankin's plotting purred along as usual without any signs of rust. This is a good book and deserves its nomination. Because it's not Rankin's best, I don't pick it for the Edgar.

Lori Roy
Lori Roy is interested in the pain that accompanies social change. I liked her Bent Road, which won the 2012 Best First Novel by an American, and I liked Until She Comes Home, too. Roy does a great job of capturing 1950s Detroit, the lives of housewives and their working husbands, the shuttering factories, open and hidden racism and fear of what the future will bring. She looks at what motivates a person to commit a crime and how that crime drops like a rock into a neighborhood pond, sending mud and trash to the surface and creating ever-growing ripples of irrevocable change. Her writing is lyrical and she made me think. Yet, I don't think this is her year.

Thomas H. Cook
Thomas H. Cook dazzled me with Sandrine's Case. It's an intricate and unpredictable courtroom thriller with Sam facing the death penalty and I found myself going back and forth about whether he actually murdered Sandrine. His arrogant self-centeredness made me recall that awful Teddy Bickleigh from Francis Iles's Malice Aforethought, and we know how guilty he was. In addition to the legal jousting, Sandrine's Case is a gripping examination of a marriage, à la A.S.A. Harrison's The Silent Wife. I didn't care whether this exact marriage exists in the real world. What Cook captures very well is the growing awareness and animosity between a long-married couple when they can't figure each other out, they can't get through to each other and they no longer remember what motivated them to marry in the first place. During the trial, Sam slowly strips off his skin for us and we can see his heart and brain. He begins to understand his much more talented and attractive wife, Sandrine. It's amazing how a dead woman comes to vivid life. We ultimately cotton on to each of them, their marriage and Sandrine's death.

Louise Penny
I won't start a Louise Penny book unless I'm in a comfy chair with some milk and cookies handy because it's all part of the guaranteed-to-be-good Three Pines experience. There's such a sense of coming home while reading this series, with each book building seamlessly from the last, with a continuing cast of characters and themes of corruption and threats of reorganization interweaving with threads of the current investigation. How the Light Gets In is one of Sister Mary's favorites in the Three Pines series and it's one of mine too, a joy to read.

William Kent Krueger
William Kent Krueger is best known for his excellent Cork O'Connor series and he stretched for the powerful look at faith and redemption in Ordinary Grace, a nonseries book. It's obvious he knows the '60s, his Minnesota setting and the sort of people who lived there very well. His plot is deliberately paced and straightforward, even though it rolls out through the memories of a man looking back at his youth; interesting in this Edgars competition because another nominee, Thomas H. Cook, has used this device to good effect in some of his books, such as The Chatham School Affair and Breakheart Hill. Krueger's plot didn't surprise me but there are paragraphs of such strength and beauty that I had to stop so I could read them again.

I won't be surprised by the Edgar going to Cook for his clever and surprising courtroom drama, although if I were an Edgar judge I'd vote for Penny. She has written one excellent book after another leading to the fix her protagonist finds himself in in How the Light Gets In, but I think it will go to Krueger. Ordinary Grace seems like a Best Novel Edgar winner, the literary equivalent of Oscar-winning movies such as Ordinary People and Chariots of Fire.

Title drawn out of a hat: Lori Roy's Until She Comes Home. I'll laugh if this title wins the Edgar because I'll be able to claim I picked it to win.

I'll be back later this week to pick the Edgar winner for Best First Novel by an American.

Note: The nominees for Edgar Awards were all published in 2013. Other categories for the 2014 Awards are Best Paperback Original; Mary Higgins Clark Award, for the book most closely written in the Mary Higgins Clark Tradition according to guidelines set forth by Mary Higgins Clark; Best Fact Crime; Best Critical/Biographical; Best Short Story; Best Juvenile; Best Young Adult; and Best TV Episode. Special Edgars this year include the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award, for the best first mystery or suspense short story; the Grand Master Award; and the Raven, for non-writers who contribute to the mystery genre. For a complete list of 2014 nominees and the data base of previous years' nominees and winners, see the Edgars website here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Luck Comes in Threes

I've had a spate of bad luck this week. Rushing to work, I dropped my keys, and instead of landing on the sidewalk, they dropped down a storm drain. Then, when I stood up to address my colleagues, I suddenly remembered I hadn't combed my hair or changed the mismatched socks I pulled on to fetch the morning paper. Back home and locked out of my house, I wriggled in head first through a tiny window, to the great excitement of my dogs, and bloodied my lip when my face hit the floor.

I figure I'm due for good luck now. Have you noticed luck—both good and bad—likes threesomes? That's why I've gathered some reading sets of threes.

Sometimes I let my appetite for food dictate my reading. This weekend, I have a hankering for hearty pasta and red wine, so Gianrico Carofiglio's The Silence of the Wave (trans. from the Italian by Howard Curtis, Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2013) sounds good. It's a moving, character-driven novel featuring Roberto Marias, a depressed, former undercover cop, and Emma, a young mother, who meet because they share the same psychiatrist.  

At the End of a Dull Day, by Massimo Carlotto (trans. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar, Europa, 2013), has been described as a "brutal noir thriller," but fun to read. A terrorist and criminal, Giorgio Pellegrino, attempts to turn over a new leaf. When his efforts lead to his betrayal, Pellegrino decides to double down and go bad in a Very Big Way.

Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Salvo Montalbano is always a delightful accompaniment to a plate of spaghetti. Treasure Hunt (trans. from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli, Penguin, 2013) marks Montalbano's 16th appearance. In this book, Montalbano is challenged by a series of entertaining and bizarre riddles after Gregorio and Caterina Palmisano attempt to make the citizens of Vigata repent of their sins.  Bravo.

I have an unlimited appetite for satire, droll narration, and books that make my head spin. Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August: An Indian Story involves slacker/stoner Agastya Sen's training as a District Collector (a type of borough manager) in the village of Madna, which is, of course, hilariously mismanaged and hotter than Hades. Since nobody there knows Agastya, he is free to make up all sorts of nonsense about himself. This novel is for people who loved J. P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, and it sounds like perfect bathtub fare for those who like to splash while reading. Or, for those who like to splash Oreos into milk while reading.

How is it I haven't yet read the eccentric classic All About H. Hatterr by G. V. Desani? It's an examination of colonial India, the British Empire, and philosophy wrapped up in a very nutty extravaganza of wordplay and adventures as H. Hatterr travels to seven Indian cities, absorbing seven lessons on Life from seven sages. Or something.

Last year, I enjoyed Wolf Haas's The Bone Man (see review here), and now Melville International Crime has published the first Simon Brenner series book, Resurrection (trans. from the German by Annie Janusch). This time, private eye Brenner travels to Zell, the capital city of Pinzgau, at the request of an insurance company, to tackle the supposedly accidental deaths of a rich American couple in their 80s, who froze to death on the ski lift operated by their son-in-law. (If this is murder, this son-in-law is a cold-hearted, low-down hound.) I'm pleased to report that The Bone Man's sardonic, omniscient narrator tells us about this investigation, too.

Don't you like poking around in your family's junk drawer? This is a joy perhaps unknown to super-organized people. Ours houses a dizzying array of junk, including a duck call, a collar that fit our 9-year-old dog when she was a puppy, and a wonderfully smooth stone from the ocean. This trio of books is similarly a catch-all.

Complex family dynamics may have led to murder in Linn Ullmann's The Cold Song (trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland, Other Press, April 4, 2014). Siri Brodal, a chef; her novelist husband Jon Dreyer; their two daughters; and their 19-year-old nanny are staying with Siri's mother at her seaside house in rural Norway, when boys digging for buried treasure find more than they bargained for.

Darragh McKeon's All That Is Solid Melts into Air (Perennial/HarperCollins, April 29, 2014) is set in 1986 against the backdrop of the disaster at the Chernobyl power plant. Moscow physician Grigory Ivanovich Brovkin treats survivors, and he is not left unscathed. This book is drawing comparisons to Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for the beauty of its writing.

I've marked May 13th on my calendar, because that's when Bird Box, by Josh Malerman (Ecco/HarperCollins), is available. Publishers Weekly states that it is comparable to Hitchcock's The Birds, "as well as the finer efforts of Stephen King and cult sci-fi fantasist Jonathan Carroll." The book is about a small Michigan community that faces the apocalypse in the form of strange creatures, who, when seen, inspire people to go mad and kill themselves. Holy moley.

I think I'm very lucky to have a chance to read some of these.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Killer Music

What is it that first brings to mind the sense that that there is much more time behind you than ahead of you? It's not the first silver amongst the gold, or the arms growing shorter overnight; no it's the fact that one of the first bits of mail you get on your 50th birthday is an invitation from the AARP to join the over-the-hill club. Forget about the fact that it might be 20 years until you can retire; in some circles you are officially a senior.

Get your motor runnin'

Expecting this invitation in Nathan Walpow's One Last Hit makes Joe Portugal decide he needs to shake up his life. Just the other night during a heady Aerosmith concert, Joe was taking advantage of a different application for a plant, while enjoying Steven Tyler’s antics with the microphone, and he got the idea that it was time to shake off 30 years of a somewhat unexciting life, dust off his Gibson SG guitar and try one last time to be what he once wanted to be when he grew up––a rock star.

Nathan Walpow introduced Joe Portugal in a gem of a small series, which begins with The Cactus Club Killings. Joe is an actor who lives and works in Los Angeles and keeps busy with mostly commercial work. He also happens to be a cactus aficionado, but enjoys working with plants of all kinds. When he finds himself a person of interest in the killing of the president of the Culver City Cactus Club, he finds that he also has a green thumb for investigating murder.

Head out on the highway

After practicing for a few months, Joe begins to feel that he can call himself a guitar player once again and that maybe he can start looking for some of the members of his old group. There were five of them altogether: Lenny on keyboards, Wozniak on bass, Washington on drums, and Toby Bonner on lead guitar and vocals, with Joe himself on rhythm guitar. A singer, Bonnie Morgenlender, rounded out the quintet. They called themselves The Platypuses. Ah, the summer of '68.

Yet somehow, before Portugal makes a move, he finds Lenny and Wozniak looking for him with some of the same motives on their minds. Coincidence? Joe would like to think so, but something is out of tune. Back in the days of the summer of love, the group took off well but, like many small groups, it was the vocal duo of Toby and Bonnie that claimed the limelight and garnered the praise, the contract and the one-hit wonder. Before Portugal can begin the big search, members of the group are being shot at and they haven't even started singing yet.

Lookin' for adventure

The last person from the group still missing is the lead singer, Toby, and most people think he is still isolated at his secret desert hideaway. Portugal is one of the few people who has been there, but his memory of the area is vague, somewhat like 8-tracks in the sand.

Sometimes there are good reasons why Sam shouldn't play it again. Joe can't think of any that apply to his group, but after he himself has been in the crosshairs he has a mission.

Portugal keeps one step ahead of whoever would rather kill the band than see them perform again, and takes the reader on a not-exactly-magical mystery tour of old bands and esoteric music. This story has a background melody about the girl who got away, grilled cheese sandwiches, skipping the light fandango, one VW Beetle after another, cookie tins full of photographs, a hideaway in the desert, midlife crises, eclectic after-hours clubs, dreams, high-speed chases and voicemail hell. I think there is one more in this series and I have it safe in my possession.

And whatever comes our way

Walpow has a rapid, breezy, conversational-type delivery that is so comfortable it makes you right at home. I found a scattering of nicely upbeat humor. The book is also fun for fans of The Who, because it is filled with references to the group. Each chapter is titled after a Who song.

Note: Headings are lyrics from Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild."

Friday, April 18, 2014

When Bad Guys Are Heroes

Our good friend Lady Jane Digby's Ghost is back with another guest post.

What happens when you, as a reader, find yourself rooting for the "bad guy"? That's the case in the first book of Richard Lord's quartet, The Strangler's Waltz.

Vienna homicide detectives Julian Stebbel and Karl-Heinz Dorfner are investigating a series of strangling murders, helped by Dr. Sigmund Freud, who was the psychiatrist of the first victim, and a young street artist who witnessed the first murder and draws a picture of the strangler that helps the police identify the killer.

Okay, here's the possible problem with the book. That street artist just happens to be Adolf Hitler. The "ick" factor of having Adolf Hitler as the character in a work of fiction as anything short of a mass-murderer is fairly strong. But is it a problem . . . or is it a sign of daring on the part of the author? I can't really decide, but I'm leaning toward interesting plot point.

The Strangler's Waltz is only one of many mysteries and police procedurals where the "good guy" is actually almost as reprehensible as the criminal he is seeking. I stress "almost" because, in some cases, there's very little difference between perpetrator and cop. One good example of this is the policeman in the Inspector Mock/Breslau series by Polish writer Marek Krajewski.

Eberhard Mock is a completely reprehensible man. "Wife beater," "prostitute habitué," "hard drinker" and "brawler" may be some of the kinder words to describe Mock, but he rises through the ranks of the Breslau police force despite, or maybe because of, his character flaws. Krajewski is such a good writer that the reader can put aside his qualms about Eberhard Mock to follow his pursuit of criminals who are even worse than the cop pursuing them. (Breslau, a large city in the region of Silesia, is now the Polish city of Wrocław.)

Another character who could be considered unsympathetic as a "good guy" is Spanish policeman Carlos Tejada in Rebecca Pawel's four-book series set in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s. (I wrote about this series earlier, here.) Tejada is a Nationalist––a police officer in the Franco government––and most readers would have been with the Republicans, on the other side of the Spanish Civil War. Rebecca Pawel writes with so much nuance that she makes Tejada a sympathetic character.

The question the reader may ask is why such an upright man is working for an evil regime, but that just makes the books all the more interesting. Tejada is a man who firmly believes in the Nationalist cause, and I think the reader can respect his beliefs, even if not agreeing with them.

And yet another example (of the bad good guy, or is it the good bad guy?) would be Wehrmacht officer Baron Martin von Bora, in British author Ben Pastor's three-book series. I am reading the third one, A Dark Song of Blood now, and am a bit uneasy about
wanting Bora to succeed in his duties. The big problem in any Nazi-as-possible-good-guy book is the difference in Gestapo duty and Wehrmacht army duty. The former were certifiable bad guys, while the latter were sometimes seen as regular soldiers. Believe me, the distinction is difficult to make, and the line between the two is sometimes razor thin. But Pastor gives her character just enough ambiguous qualities to make it acceptable to this reader to want to read on. (By the way, yes, Ben Pastor is female.)

There are other protagonists in crime fiction who may not be good, but their characters make––sometimes, anyway––more interesting books. What books/authors can you think of?

Note: Portions of this blog post appear in my book reviews on Amazon, which appear under my username there.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bits 'n' Bobs

 Well, it's finally here. After two years of looking and six months of schlepping ourselves back and forth several times a month, we are actually moving next week. Forty years of our own stuff, as well as boxes and boxes of family memorabilia, some never examined and sorted, will be wending their way to a little town in south-central Pennsylvania. Amish and Mennonite farm country, but not quite as rural as you might think, although the nearest Trader Joe's grocery store is 65 long miles away.

I've been thinking recently of a news story from years ago. Relations with China had loosened a bit, and a pair of Chinese women doctors had come to deliver a series of lectures in the US. A reporter accompanied them to a mall to get their impressions of the bounteous choices America had to offer. After wandering bewildered from store to store for a couple of hours one of them, proud of her mastery of English vernacular, asked wonderingly "Why would anyone need so much stuff?" I've been asking myself the same question quite urgently, but actually already know the answer. In every family some member, intentionally or accidentally, becomes the keeper of the stuff and the stories. In our families, both my husband and I are those members. I'm too busy and distracted right now to actually sit down to read and review a novel, but here are a few snippets I hope may amuse you.

The Unusual Investigations of Dr. Yao has been on my e-reader for ages, and browsing through the titles one day I opened it. What a treat! It is a most charmingly mistranslated (accidentally, I thought at first, but am not so sure now) collection of short stories about a Ming Dynasty Chinese doctor who solves crimes through his keen powers of observation and logic. The book was apparently translated first from Mandarin Chinese to German, then from German to English by Ludger Gausepohl. The slightly clumsy language might be exasperating for some readers, but if you are as delighted as I am with word play of all sorts, you may find yourself enchanted with these well-traveled tales.

Yao's first assignment was as court physician to the ladies of the royal household. He "visited several times a week in the morning, the royal ladies. Those led often a rather monotonous life, and very rarely had the favor to be together with his heavenly majesty or to perform other obligations."  When one of the ladies, who is pregnant––presumably by the emperor––is poisoned, she loses the child. Shortly after, she is poisoned again, this time fatally. If you can tolerate or even enjoy awkward passages like this one, these stories are decent puzzles and a lot of fun.

There is some interesting news for Louise Penny fans drumming their fingernails impatiently waiting for her latest release. Her publisher is sponsoring a community re-read of the series in virtual Three Pines, the setting of most of the stories in her prize-winning novels, starting on April 21st. The author will sometimes be present, and there will be discussions, giveaways, and guest posts; all in preparation for the release of her latest mystery, The Long Way Home (Macmillan, August 26, 2014.) Two weeks will be devoted to each of the nine already-released books in the series, culminating in a discussion of the new release. After each session, participants will be invited to adjourn to Oliver's Bistro (Alas, also virtual, so BYOB) for drinks and croissants by the crackling fire. If interested, you can sign up here: Re-read Gamache Sign Up. My paper copies of the books are all packed up in the 1800 pounds of boxes already shipped (OK, I'm officially embarrassed; bibliophiles should never move.) But isn't that just a perfect excuse to buy them for my e-reader? Now if they would only get cracking on that television series based on the Gamache books, I'd really be happy!

Most modern inks contain high levels of volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, making them very unfriendly to the environment. Typographer Collin Willems has designed a typeface he calls Ecofont, which can significantly reduce the amount of ink used in the printing industry and make it more sustainable as well as more eco-friendly. I find the larger typefaces a bit Broadway, but don't even notice it in the smaller sizes. What do you think?

I hope to find time to read something new to share over the next couple of weeks, if I can unearth my To Be Read pile quickly enough. Meanwhile, enjoy this lovely spring that has finally made an appearance––and here are a few moving tips I've gleaned from the pros.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Today We Celebrate Our Ex-Spouses

No, I am not making this up. Today, April 14, is Ex-Spouse Day, when we're supposed to acknowledge our ex-spouses. I'm not sure whether this special day was created by Congress––always working hard to be seen as improving Americans' lives––or the Hallmark card company. I'm also not clear about how we're to celebrate, although getting out the old voodoo doll and poking fresh holes or offering fervent prayers of thanks that the marriage is over are no doubt appropriate in some cases. In other cases, maybe dinner is on the menu, so you can raise a glass to being friends instead of partners.

Given that I don't have an ex-husband, I thought I'd celebrate the day by telling you about a pair of exes I've encountered in my reading.

Wade Chesterfield isn't a monster, but the ex-minor league baseball player is so irresponsible that his ex-wife had him sign papers relinquishing parental rights to their daughters Easter and Ruby, now 12 and 6. When their mother dies, the girls are placed in a foster care home in Gastonia, North Carolina. This isn't okay with Wade, who does love his daughters. He pulls the kids out of their beds in the middle of the night and they set off for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It soon becomes clear to Wade and the girls that the police and Brady Weller, a former cop who's now the girls' court-appointed guardian, aren't the only ones interested in finding them. Also on their trail is a scary ex-felon, Robert Pruitt, hired by a local crime boss who believes Wade stole a fortune from him. Pruitt is a very enthusiastic hunter, because he nurses a personal grudge against Wade from the days they played pro ball together.

Wiley Cash's This Dark Road to Mercy (William Morrow, 2014) is set during the race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to topple Roger Maris's home runs record in 1998. This thrilling competition we know now was tainted by Big Mac's and Slammin' Sammy's illegal use of steroids, and it's a fitting backdrop for this book of country noir. There's always a suggestion of menace lurking just around the corner. No matter how hard these people run or chase, they're still dogged by their pasts and at the mercy of fate. Twelve-year-old Easter, who is both heartbreakingly naive and cynical beyond her years, takes a turn narrating, along with Pruitt and Weller. Unlike a lot of hardboiled books, most of the violence in this one happens off stage. This isn't to say I didn't close my eyes when Pruitt slips on his gloves because I didn't have to be clairvoyant to see what's coming. I was pleased that Wade goes to bat for his girls, and his ex would be proud of him.

Mrs. T. Lawrence Lamb has long considered her husband an unimaginative plodder and money grubber. She sees him as cramping her artistic and intellectual style; an unsatisfactory husband any way she looks at him. But Thorne Smith makes it clear from the beginning of The Stray Lamb (originally published in 1929) that Mr. Lamb is no ordinary man. On his commuter train, he gazes at a "perky shred of an ear ... ornamenting a small sleek head" and wonders what it would feel like to tentatively, delicately bite it. On the outside, Mr. Lamb is one of the more sober of his community's citizens. On the inside, he contains "a reservoir of good healthy depravity that was constantly threatening to overflow and spill all sorts of trouble about his feet." This depravity is tapped after a chance meeting with a man in the woods, and Mr. Lamb wakes up to discover he's a black stallion. And this isn't all. He's soon experiencing the world through the eyes of a succession of animals. As we all know, when you do this you can't help but create havoc. Soon, Mrs. Lamb has had more than enough.

James Thorne Smith, Jr. died at age 42 in 1934. Under the name Thorne Smith, he wrote the Topper books and other charming and hilarious books about booze, sex and fantastical transformations. They deserve a spot on your shelf next to books by P. G. Wodehouse, Tom Sharp, Spike Milligan and Jerome K. Jerome.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Is she seriously writing about Veronica Mars again?

Yes, yes I am. It was a year ago when I wrote here about my love for the Veronica Mars TV series, which ran from 2004-2007, and the Kickstarter campaign to fund a Veronica Mars movie.

You probably heard that the Kickstarter campaign was wildly successful, raising $5.7 million ($3.7 million in excess of its goal). Veronica Mars fans––who call themselves Marshmallows––have been anxiously awaiting the movie since the campaign ended. Producer/director/writer Rob Thomas and team posted twice-weekly progress updates to Kickstarter backers and sent out tchotchkes like stickers and teeshirts.

After the world premiere at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, on March 8, 2014, the big release day arrived; March 14, 2014. Warner Brothers had agreed to produce the movie if Rob Thomas could raise at least $2 million on Kickstarter, which put the movie in the unusual position of being financed by both the general public and a major studio. As a result, the movie opened in movie theaters and, on the same day, became available for on-demand streaming; a first for a major studio production.

I'll bet the green-eyeshade types at WB were biting their nails about the returns at the theaters, but they needn't have worried. The movie did very well and was an event almost like a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening. Marshmallows thronged the theaters in their Veronica Mars tees, talked back to the screen and sang along to the theme song, the Dandy Warhols' We Used To Be Friends.

The movie picks up nine years after the TV series ended, when Veronica was in college in that Raymond Chandler-esque sun-drenched Southern California Babylon called Neptune. Now she's in New York, a new graduate of Columbia Law School interviewing with a high-powered Manhattan law firm. (Look, it's Jamie Lee Curtis playing the firm's managing partner!) She lives with a nice-guy boyfriend who is a radio DJ. (Look, there he is at the radio studio talking with Ira Glass from This American Life!)

We're in New York for the approximately five minutes it takes for Veronica to give us a voiceover précis of her life and get a call from her bad-boy ex, Logan Echolls, who asks for her help. He's in a spot of bother, being suspected of killing his self-destructive pop star girlfriend Bonnie DeVille, who also happens to have been a high school classmate of Veronica and Logan. Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather III, just when Veronica thought she was out, they pull her back in.

So, not only does Veronica drop everything to jet back to Neptune and help out Logan, it also happens to be the weekend of her 10-year high school reunion. She is absolutely, positively, no way going to go to that horror show, but her best friends, Wallace and Mac, virtually abduct her to get her there. The reunion scenes are a gift to Marshmallows, since they get to see so many of the characters from the series, but fun for others too. After all, who wouldn't get vicarious enjoyment out of seeing somebody like Veronica cold-cock the high school mean-girl-in-chief?

Though the original plan was for Veronica to just help Logan hire a criminal lawyer, you know this Philip Marlowe in a petite blonde body can't just leave it there. Soon, she's deep into an investigation of Bonnie DeVille's murder, uncovering tantalizing facts from a long-ago disappearance, dealing with the present-day intrusions of the 24-hour celebrity "news" cycle (look, there are those creeps from TMZ, and there's a very odd cameo of James Franco!), and tangling with Neptune's venal new sheriff (look, there's Jerry O'Connell!).

The murder mystery is satisfying, with a yelp-inducing climax and a couple of other rapid-fire surprises that had me levitating from my chair. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that Veronica decides her real mission in life is to stick around, renew her PI license and work on cleaning up Neptune, rather than be just another suit in New York. As a scarred veteran of law firm life, it was easy for me to applaud that part of the plot, even if it made Veronica's father, Keith Mars, want to bang his head with frustration.

Even if you're not a Veronica Mars series veteran, you might enjoy the film. I know some people who said they did, and it made them seek out the old series. The film review site, Rotten Tomatoes, says: "It might be a more entertaining watch for diehard fans of the show, but Veronica Mars offers enough sharp writing and solid performances to entertain viewers in the mood for a character-driven thriller."

If you'd like to see the film, it's possible that it's still at an AMC theater near you––as long as you live in a major metropolitan area. But you can watch it from the comfort of your couch, which seems like the right place to watch Veronica Mars, by streaming it from iTunes, Flixster, Amazon Instant Video, Xbox Video, Vudu and more. The DVD goes on sale on May 6.

The movie only made me want more Veronica Mars, and that clever Rob Thomas knew that would be the result for Marshmallows. So he launched a Veronica Mars book series on March 25, 2014, with the first book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line (Random House), picking up a couple of months from where the movie left off.

There are nothing but crickets for Veronica at Mars Investigations, and the chances of her ever paying off her school loans look slim, until the Chamber of Commerce hires her to investigate the spring break disappearance of a college girl. The disappearance has become a national cause celèbre, bad for Neptune's businesses, and Sheriff Lamb is clearly not competent to do the job.

Just as in the series and the movie, Veronica dives in, calling on her cadre of friends, like Mac and Wallace, to help out with legwork and the high-level technical stuff. The mystery is on a par with what Marshmallows are used to from the TV series, with the added benefit of a major plot twist that Veronica runs into during the investigation and that rocks her back on her heels.

As a book, of course this was somewhat less heavy on the dialog than a film/TV script. That makes sense, but it did mean there wasn't quite as much of that snarky patter that typifies the onscreen versions. What made up for that for me was to listen to the audiobook version, read by Kristen Bell, who plays Veronica Mars on the screen. Naturally, she's excellent reading Veronica, but she's surprisingly good at giving voices to all the other characters.

I don't think the book would be of much interest to anyone who hasn't seen the series or the movie, but if you have, it's well worth reading and will pass the time while we're waiting to see if there will be a movie sequel.